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glass-spun dream

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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.

 

Gold .

 

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. 

 

“What?” 

 

“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.

Chapter Text

There had always been a part of Regina that had known that she would go back to the Proeliate. It’s the sort of thing that is impossible to shake, an awareness that this is something she will do again. After Daniel had died, when Regina had birthed Henry on her own at a hospital in Hyperion Heights, she’d stared at that wrinkled baby face and had been grimly determined to protect him from the harsh, angry world that had surrounded the fight.

 

How could she leave him for practices and matches? How could she bring him into the limelight and have him grow up a media darling? She had kept them secreted away in Hyperion Heights, where the ragtag team had never once qualified for the Proeliate, and she had pushed thoughts of fighting from her conscious mind.

 

She had dreamed about it instead, had yearned and yearned until Lucy’s ambition had forced her right back into the hub of the Proeliate. No . She hadn’t been required to move back here with Jacinda and Sabine. No one had forced this move, except for Henry, who idolizes the Storybrooke team and loves the Proeliate like every child in the United Realms. And, deep down, Regina had known that this move would happen some day.

 

There are some who are born fighters– people like Emma, like Zelena, who call forth magic effortlessly and live and breathe it. Regina is not one of them. Magic hadn’t come instantly for her, had taken years of training and discipline before she could wield it. Mother had hammered it into her from a young age, had taught her unceasingly how to pull magic from her core as a matter of survival. 

 

She’d never been allowed a wand– a crutch , Mother had called it with disdain– but had instead been taught through desperation. For a week when she had been four, her food had been served only in a little treehouse ten feet up from the ground. She’d been hungry, anguished, and it had taken two days before she’d finally managed to levitate to it. Every morning after she’d turned six, Mother had locked her door every morning and forced her to use magic to manipulate the lock pieces and open it. Gold had been worse, had pushed her even further, but it had worked . By the time she’d hit fifteen, she’d been better than most pros, grimly determined to win every battle.

 

And then she’d met Emma, and the fight had changed . For the first time in a lifetime of fighting, battles had been fun , had become something to laugh during and to enjoy. Emma’s exhilaration had been catchy. Fighting beside Emma had made each battle a wild rush, and Regina had grown in leaps and bounds, had become a star and a champion.

 

She craves that rush even now, had passed it on to her son and then regretted it– and not only when he’d tried putting up a poster of Emma Swan(– Emma, her hands raised like she’s swinging a baseball bat instead of hurling out magic, crackling with white fire and with that fierce smirk on her face that still sends a thrill of something through Regina. Regina had snapped something about bad influences and refused to let him hang it in their apartment). Henry isn’t going anywhere near an arena, not until he’s much older. She will not be the mother who forces her child into an arena young, who cultivates a talent and sees only the talent and not the boy. She will not be Mother.

 

But Mother had done what she’d done– created a woman whose entire life had been the Proeliate– and even after her death, Regina still yearns for it. 

 

Zelena had sensed that about her when she’d found her last year to pass on the news of their mother’s death, both of them discovering that the old sibling rivalry had passed with the woman who had pitted them against each other. This isn’t a place for a fighter , she’d said. Come with me. I have a place for you. An angry place. 

 

She’d refused until Lucy had run in one day, breathless and bright-cheeked, to tell her that she’d gotten scouted and Storybrooke wants her and can you believe that Captain Emma freaking Swan would give me a chance? And then, caught between Henry’s desperate desire to go to Storybrooke and Zelena’s sly hinting that there is a future for her there, too, she had had no choice but to return.

 

And Emma is still here. Emma has never left the realm that had taken her in, has never left the team where Emma’s mother controls every step she takes. Regina had expected it, has followed the sport through Henry for long enough to know that Emma is still on Team Storybrooke. God . She hadn’t wanted to be here. She wants to be here more than anything. 

 

“It’s going to be incredible ,” Zelena says, jabbing her side. “This weekend is the drawing for our placement in the bracket. Imagine Swan’s reaction when she walks into the arena and sees you.” She cackles. “I hope we fight Storybrooke first.” 

 

“I hope you don’t get anywhere near Lucy during the Proeliate,” Regina says severely. “That’s her team .” 

 

“We could take her,” Zelena says thoughtfully. “Kick out Gothel and get the cute kid instead of the weird plant lady–” 

 

“Strong words from the lady who turns green in the arena–” 

 

“When are you going to break the news to the tykes, anyway?” Zelena asks, stretching out on the couch. Henry is due home from school any minute, and that question has been weighing heavily on Regina’s mind. 

 

She’s trained Lucy. Jacinda had known who she was for years before Regina had admitted it to her, and she had asked, finally, once the latter had occurred. Lucy is focused and determined to fight, and Regina had taught her everything she could. And Henry…

 

Henry idolizes the Storybrooke team. Regina knows it, sees the action figures and the breathless way he watches every match. She doesn’t know how he’ll take Regina joining Misthaven, especially since she’s been so vehemently opposed to the Proeliate for so many years. She’d pushed off telling him about Zelena’s offer, had pushed off taking the offer, too, but she’s finally signed a contract and she has just days left before the world knows. 

 

“Today,” Regina promises, more to herself than Zelena. “I’ll tell them today.” 

 


 

There are a few local arenas for casual fighters, but Regina shies away from them, reluctant to mix with other fighters. Instead, they hop a portal back to Hyperion Heights some afternoons and practice there. “Emma is talking about putting me in Duos more,” Lucy says, worrying her lip. “I want to do some extra practice with Henry.” 

 

There remains something about hearing the name Emma that prickles at Regina’s skin, makes her hurt and anger over something that has been lost for what feels like an eternity. She musters up a smile. “Well, then, let’s get to it.” 

 

The arena is empty today, and Regina breathes in the cool air of the arena, the sharp smell of the aftereffects of a dozen different varieties of magic that never quite leave the space. The arena is big, nearly double the size of her house and grounds in Storybrooke, and it has an open roof instead of the professional high roofs. But it’s got the magic-dampening fields that make sure that no one can get permanently hurt, and there are the timer and blow counter up on a big screen on the far side of the arena.

 

There are a number of circles on the ground on each side of the arena, and Lucy and Henry take their spots in two of them. Regina debates taking a circle directly between them, but decides better of it in a friendly fight. Instead, she heads to the far side of the arena and waits there. 

 

Lucy says, “Arena Timer, begin!”

 

The timer flashes and the floor turns blue, then red, then yellow. Another moment, and the buzzer rings a clear clarion, and the battle begins. 

 

Lucy is a genius of the game, even just at the cusp of her potential, and she can fight Regina nearly as an equal. She lifts a hand and the dust in the arena rises with it, turns hard and sharp and clear like glass, and she sends it whirling at Regina on all sides.

 

Regina flicks a wrist and the room lights up with fire around her, protecting her from the glass shards as she gathers her power for an offensive attack. She doesn’t hesitate or get lost in defense– Lucy is a vicious fighter who can take advantage of every weakness– and she hurls a fireball at Lucy.

 

Lucy dodges it, twists around and pushes her hands together. This is a new move– Regina hasn’t seen it before, but there is something to it that feels familiar, the brute force and the smug little motion of her hand– and the shards of glass whirl toward each other in a hard, spiked ball. She lifts it, spins it on her finger without leaving her own skin bloody, and hurls it at Regina.

 

Regina steps aside, easily avoiding it, and it explodes beside her. She feels the scrapes against her face, hears Lucy’s whoop, and puts her finger on why it is that this feels so familiar. It’s an Emma-style feint, the kind she’d been so good at when they used to fight together. Lucy is practicing with Emma, too, naturally, but it has never felt so infuriating as it does right now. 

 

Regina slides across the floor, leaving a trail of fire in her wake. Lucy dodges it but can only move away for so long, and soon she’s cornered in a loop of fire, her glass useless against the sides of it. Regina is a versatile fighter by necessity, but she sticks to the fire today, wary of showing Lucy anything that she will pass on to the Storybrooke team.

 

It stings, imagining Lucy as her opponent. It will sting even more for Lucy, who sees Regina as family. Gold is plotting something for the Storybrooke team, and Regina hates to think of Lucy being affected by it. They are more than their Proeliate affiliations, and–

 

She raises her hands to end the match, to trap Lucy so effectively that she can’t fight back and laughingly surrenders, and nothing happens. Her hands don’t move. She tries to shift her head to see what Lucy’s done now, but her head doesn’t seem to move, either. Only her eyes move, and she spots Lucy grinning beneath the firestorm, smug, and–

 

Henry . She’d forgotten about Henry in her rush to take on the greater threat, and he’d slipped out of sight as soon as the timer had started ticking. Lucy has been carefully pulling Regina’s attention in a 360-degree angle, Regina realizes suddenly, distracting her from what Henry’s doing. And Henry might not be at pro level, but he draws a mean spell. When Regina peers at the floor of the arena, she can see the scrawl of Henry’s magic against the ground, writing out a spell to immobilize her. It holds her in place, and Henry says from behind Lucy, “Try breaking out of this .” 

 

Regina closes her eyes. She can feel her fire beginning to sputter out, a sheet of glass rising around her as Lucy takes the upper hand, but she ignores it all. Instead, she reaches deep within herself, finds the core of her magic where Mother had once taught her to find it, and she lets the energy surge from her in a burst of light. It flows in purple streams all around the room, and Regina is determined to win. 

 

Usually, they play to a stalemate, until one of them is done and it’s easy to see who will win. A professional Proeliate game is played differently, of course. Technically, the battle goes on until a heart is fully seized from the opponent’s chest– or either opponent, in a Duo match. Today, Regina immobile, she refuses to give in. Instead, she fashions her explosive magic into a hand, and she thrusts it forward at Lucy’s chest.

 

Lucy says, “Oh, cool ,” and dodges from it, but Regina isn’t aiming for her. Her magical hand slams into Henry’s chest, and she plucks out his heart and holds it in her shimmering embrace until the buzzer sounds and they are restored. The heart fades away with her magic, the fire disappearing and the cuts of glass on Regina’s face are gone in an instant. The arena is clean, and Lucy is bouncing in place, eyes bright like they always are when Regina does something unexpected in the arena. “That was incredible,” she sighs, eyes bright. “You should be in the Proeliate, you know?” 

 

It’s something Lucy has said dozens of times before. Today, Regina siezes it as an uncomfortable opportunity. “Actually,” she says, and she sits down in the rickety bleachers of the arena, Henry and Lucy on either side of her. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you both about.”

 

“I knew it!” Henry says, straightening. “You’re going to be the new player on Team Storybrooke– I kept thinking that you’d be perfect for it if you’d only play professionally–”

 

“No,” Regina says swiftly, swallowing back revulsion at the thought of being on Snow’s team.

 

She doesn’t explain it how Zelena does– we are the ones that the world has forgotten, we are the ones who will strike back against the fools that never saw us as people – but she says it in simpler terms, focusing instead on her love of the game. She doesn’t let herself think about Snow White’s smug face when her team wins matches and the surge of loathing that comes from it. 

 

Here, she is a mother and an aunt, and she might just break two hearts if she doesn’t do this carefully. “I know that this might seem like we’re bound to be enemies,” she begins. “But–” 

 

“Are you kidding?” Lucy says, her eyes bright. “We’re going to get to fight . In the League . We’re gonna be opponents .” She jumps up. “I’ve gotta train a lot harder if I’m going to beat you, Tía Regina. And it’s going to have to be secret training.” She grins, and Regina can already see the new plans working through her mind, the reinvigoration that follows them. “I’ve been waiting for years for you to go pro so we could fight each other.” 

 

She jogs down to the arena again, executing a dozen perfect cartwheels and summoning magic. There are marks on the wall for practicing precision, and Lucy takes a position opposite the smallest circle and hurls magic at it, over and over. Regina watches her, then watches Henry, who has been silent through her pronouncement. “I know this puts you in a…confusing position,” she says. “You love the Storybrooke team.” 

 

Henry shakes his head. “I can root for both,” he declares. “Either way, one of my teams is going to go to the championships.” He turns, bursting with questions. “Are we going to have to move out of Storybrooke? Will I get to go to all the games? Are you going to get an action figure?” He eyes her suddenly. “Will I get to put your poster on my wall?”

 

Regina laughs, a little helplessly. “I think that might be a little strange for both of us,” she says, and she thinks about what might come out in interviews, what details are going to hit Henry unawares. “There’s something else you should know,” she says reluctantly, and the words are slow to emerge. “This isn’t the first time I’ve fought professionally.” 

 

Henry blinks at her. “Yeah, Mom, I know.” 

 

Regina is stopped in her tracks. “You know ?”

 

Henry rolls his eyes. “Of course I know, Mom. I’m, like, obsessed with the Proeliate. You think I can’t list every top player in the past century? And even if I didn’t, you were number one . It’s not the kind of thing that everyone’s going to forget.” He grins at her. Regina offers him a wan smile. “I just figured you’d tell me someday. Maybe when I join a team and you pass down some secret techniques–”

 

No ,” Regina says firmly. Henry pouts, and Regina lowers her voice. “My mother pushed me to fight, and it took decades before I realized that I loved it. We can talk again when you’re an adult. But right now, I want you to focus on being a kid. Deal?”

 

“Deal,” Henry says grudgingly, and then, tentative, “What about…?” His voice trails off, and she waits until he puts together what he wants to say. “Are you going to tell Emma Swan that you’re fighting again? It just seems like such a waste,” he says hastily. “To have someone you can fight with so perfectly and to be on the opposite team–”

 

“I don’t think we would ever fight perfectly now,” Regina says, and now she is beginning to feel the exhaustion from the fight, adrenaline seeping away and replaced with the dull emptiness that comes with thoughts of Emma. Emma , who had once been her entire world, who had fought alongside her and made her soul sing. Emma , whom she can never forgive for what had happened next. 

 

Snow’s betrayal, she had expected. Snow is nothing if not consistently intrusive. But Emma’s– Emma had traded away Regina’s life for her own selfish desires, and Regina will never forget that.

 


 

Emma dreams of the Proeliate an alarming number of nights. The regional counselor, Dr. Hopper, has added the alarming on the few times that Snow has required Emma to go to him over the years. He talks about hyperfixation and life outside the Proeliate and Emma has just nodded and smiled and thought silently that there is nothing worth living outside of the fight. 

 

Over the week, though, the dreams are unbearable. In every one, Regina is fighting by her side, and in every one, Emma can feel the exhilaration like it’s real, wakes up with adrenaline still racing through her and has to process the loss that follows, breathing hard. 

 

“Down, Em,” Lily says sleepily one early morning, tugging Emma back into bed. “You’re so stressed that it’s starting to get to me.”

 

Emma lies next to her, but she doesn’t go back to sleep. It’s Saturday, and the regional drawing is today. Sixteen teams compete in the regionals for the Enchanted Forest, and this year, only one will advance to the Proeliate championship matches. Normally, Storybrooke can make it to the regional quarterfinals pretty easily. There are only a few good teams in the Enchanted Forest, and Storybrooke is seeded to avoid the top three. Until the quarterfinals, at least.

 

But this year, there’s a dark horse, and Emma doesn’t know where they’ll wind up. This year, Emma has lost her best Duo pair and hasn’t found a replacement. She takes a breath, the weight of a dozen competing factors pressing onto her, and she thinks again of Zelena’s smug face outside of her mother’s old house.

 

She’ll go to the drawing today. She doesn’t need to– Storybrooke is already positioned in the bracket– but she’ll go, and she’ll see what kind of person Regina Mills has become. Better to see her here than encountering her for the first time in the arena. 

 

She gets out of Lily’s bed, incapable of lying still anymore, and pulls on her clothes to go for a run. She runs every morning and works out every night beyond the magical drills that they do during the day. Technically, the Proeliate favors magical assaults over hand-to-hand combat, but Emma likes to be prepared. She’s scrappy , according to a feature that the United Press had done on her last year. But it takes cerebral magic-only fighters by surprise.

 

She winds through her favorite path– up near the mountains that lock Storybrooke in beside the Enchanted Forest and then down alongside the beach– and she slows when she sees someone else jogging in the opposite direction, a slight figure coming into focus. 

 

She recognizes her this time. Marian again, hair tied back and a bow and a quiver on her back. She nods to Emma, and Emma says, “Hey. Marian, right? I didn’t recognize you last time.” 

 

“I recognized you,” Marian says cheerfully. “Your Duo pair pummeled mine two years ago. That Mulan is something with a sword.” She keeps running. 

 

Emma says, “Wait.” Marian doesn’t wait. “Wait!” Emma says again, turning on her heel and jogging after her. “Marian, come on. You have to at least consider it. We’re a family-friendly team–” 

 

“I’m not fighting anymore,” Marian says, and she picks up her pace. She’s fast , and Emma accelerates and feels it in her chest. Quickly, she takes out her phone and sends a text, though she has no idea if the recipient is awake to receive it. “Look, you’ve done Duos,” she says, thankfully slowing her pace as she turns to Emma. “You know what it can do to someone when a good Duo pair falls apart.” 

 

“Yeah.” There’s a name for it, like it’s a real psychological condition. Duo Codependency . Duo pairs can be so deeply in sync that there have been cases where their minds link up and they can read each other. Some of them wind up inseparable out of the arena, too, and many of them fall in love and marry.

 

When a Duo pair is broken, it can be catastrophic. Emma knows that Ruby and Mulan had been careful, had eased away from each other and are still in the process of separating, but even with that, Mulan has been down all week and uncharacteristically on edge. The intensity of a long term Duo pair is frightening, and Emma would never subject herself to that again. “I bet you could kill at Solos, though,” she says, her mind already working at restructuring the lineup. “We could use someone like you. And we might not pay Camelot salaries, but…” She lets her voice drift off, watching the flicker of uncertainty on Marian’s face. It’s never just a job for most fighters, but it’s a job , and that alone–

 

Marian’s face firms. “I’m not a Solo fighter,” she says flatly. “I fight defensively. I don’t win battles when I’m on my own.” 

 

“Okay. Fine.” Emma takes off after her. Marian is speeding up again, and Emma can’t keep up. She does her best to keep Marian in her line of sight, trailing behind her as they run up a mountain path along a waterfall and then back down toward the far end of Storybrooke, through the woods.

 

And right on time, Mulan comes around the bend, crashing into Marian in the middle of the woods. “Oh, god,” she says, chagrined. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” She wrings her hands, her voice too high, and she bends down to help Marian up.

 

And Emma sees it– the moment that their eyes meet, the way that Mulan’s eyes widen and she breathes, “Hi.” 

 

Marian stares back at her, and she sounds, for the first time since Emma had run into her (not literally, on her part), a little breathless. “Mulan, right? Swan put you up to this?” 

 

“Doesn’t she always,” Mulan says ruefully. Her hand is on Marian’s elbow, the two of them staring at each other, and Emma is at once sure that this is going to be much, much easier from here on out. “I didn’t know you were in Storybrooke.” 

 

Marian nods, then shakes her head. “Uh,” she says. “I’m just…I mean, I’m here for a while.” Emma watches them, arms folded, deeply amused. They keep glancing up at each other, quick little darted looks, and Mulan is flushing. “It’s good to see you again.” 

 

“You, too,” Mulan says, her voice soft, and Emma turns away from them, jogging off again. 

 

Two Duos fighters mourning their partners. A perfect pair.

 

And the strange little twinge it leaves in Emma– the way that she has to swallow back a sob as she jogs back home– that’s just the baggage that she drags along with her everywhere she goes, the reality of a life where she will fight, and fight, and always do it alone.

 


 

The drawing is scheduled for two in the afternoon and is attended by various media personnel. Full teams are discouraged from going inside the main building for the regional battles, though there are a few arenas to practice in outside. Emma leaves Mulan and Marian in the audience, carefully unobtrusive. “Let Lucy and Lily do the flashy bits,” she says. “You’re my secret weapon.” 

 

Only the captains and the managers go to the drawing itself, but Emma heads to the arenas first, ready to surreptitiously scope out the opposition. She is buzzing with energy, with the dreaded anticipation of what’s coming next.

 

Captain Mills , Zelena had said. There’s no chance that Regina will blend into the crowd at the drawing. Emma’s going to have to see her today.

 

The rumors are already beginning to fly about Regina’s triumphant return to the Proeliate. There are fluff pieces and self-important reporters posting about it on Flitter, which is the embarrassingly obvious knockoff of Twitter that some former Land Without Magic native had introduced to the United Realms and made millions. Emma can hardly take a step outside of Storybrooke without it being seen and going viral on Flitter. And, now that she knows where to find it, she sees more and more references to Regina.

 

She brushes that aside, forcing herself to watch a fight in the arena below. Little Abu from Agrabah is fighting another girl, as small as Lucy, and the girl is holding her own. In the second arena, a Duos fight is unfolding.

 

No– a Duos bloodbath . Emma recognizes the split black-and-white hair first, then those damned tentacles. Ursula and Cruella are here, and they circle the arena, taunting the audience. “Well then, darlings,” Cruella calls. A Duo pair that Emma recognizes from last year’s Wishverse is sprawled on the floor, not yet recovered from their defeat. Cruella watches them, eyes glittering, and says, “Who’s next?” 

 

“We’ll go.” Ivy and Ana, sisters from the Magical Forest. They’d given Ruby and Mulan a run for their money last year. Ivy glides down through the bleachers, Ana behind her, and her hands spark with magic. 

 

It’s over in minutes. Cruella unleashes her hounds, phantom dogs that circle their opponents and snap at their heels, and Ursula’s tentacles are everywhere . Ivy and Ana are overwhelmed, and Ana collapses only a few minutes into the battle. Cruella strolls to her, a hand in her chest as she squeezes Ana’s heart, and Ana gasps, tremoring as the hounds leap upon her–

 

“Enough!” Ivy snarls, and she storms at Cruella. Ursula’s tentacles strangle her, tightening around her neck, and Ivy is left immobile.

 

Cruella sidesteps her easily, a drawl in her voice. “Calm down, darling. You signed up for this.” She pulls the heart out at last. The timer dings, and the hounds and tentacles fade. Cruella smiles, her eyes dangerous, and Emma is swept up in a wave of protectiveness. The Forest girls aren’t her favorite opponents, but this isn’t how it’s done , not when you’ve already won. The crowd is subdued, the cheering replaced by whispers, and Cruella whirls around. “Well? Who’s next?” she repeats her earlier invitation.

 

“Sounds like a party.” Emma is calling it out before she can think about what she’s doing. “Two on one?” She strides down the steps of the bleachers, into the arena, and she takes her place on one of the circles on the ground. “I can take you both.” She tilts her head, raises her eyebrows, is the picture of cockiness that she feels surging through her. “The weird hentai puppy bit is all smoke and mirrors.” 

 

The murmuring in the crowd has gotten louder. A few reporters have cameras trained on the arena, and Emma winks at them and turns back to Cruella and Ursula.

 

Ursula jabs a finger at a sign on the wall. “We follow the rules here,” she says, her face straight. The sign says NO SOLO-ON-DUO FIGHTS IN THIS ARENA . “I’m afraid it’s a no-go.” 

 

“Bummer.” Emma eyes them both, thrumming with nervous energy. “So? Which one of you is going to fight me first?”

 

“Sounds like a party,” someone drawls from the steps. Emma knows the voice in an instant, feels the awareness of her brush her mind like the past eleven years had never happened. It’s still that rich, ringing voice, the one that could win over an entire audience and is, solely, Regina’s performance voice. 

 

She looks up. She is careful to place the expression on her face before she does, lets herself look bored and unimpressed. “You volunteering, Molinero?” The Molinero sets off another wave of chatter in the audience from the fighters and fans who are involved enough in the Proeliate to know the name.

 

And there she is.

 

Regina stands in front of her, and the first thing that strikes Emma is exactly how much like Lily she looks. They have the same light brown skin, the same dark and shiny eyes, the same strong jaw, and the fuck kind of game has Emma’s subconscious been playing–?

 

But she is nothing like Lily, not in the way that she carries herself nor the way that her eyes glitter with malice. Not in her strong, stiff posture, and in the way that she is still somehow so heartstoppingly beautiful even when Emma is furious with her. No, that’s all Regina, and Emma’s heart slams into her chest like a drum, over and over until she has to strain just to breathe. 

 

Regina blinks twice. It’s the only sign that she is anything but composed. Her tone gives nothing away. “Swan,” she says, and her voice is cold. “Shall we?” 

 

She waves a hand and Cruella and Ursula make a hasty exit from the arena. Emma can hear reporters in the front row gibbering, the words coming out in a rush. “It looks like the rumors are true! Regina Mills, captain of Team Misthaven, is the same Regina Molinero who once fought in Duos with Emma Swan. There’s no love lost between them now, if this frosty meeting is any indication–” 

 

Emma tunes them out. “Oh, absolutely,” she says, and she falls into a stance as Regina saunters to another circle across the arena. She can feel Regina’s presence like she used to be able to, back when they were so entwined as a Duos pair that their minds themselves were one. It’s been eleven years, and the brush of Regina’s mind is like an electric shock to Emma’s. Emma shoves it away. “You still drop your shoulder right before you’re about to throw a fireball?” 

 

Regina’s lip curls, her hand drawing a fireball that isn’t a fireball, that has purple flames growing around it. The arena timer hasn’t begun yet, and Emma summons her own magic, lets white energy spark wildly from her palm as Regina sneers at her. “Do you still do a victory dance every time you get in a blow?” 

 

It’s not every time, but Emma can feel the hostility that settles over them like a cloak, making her fury rise to dangerous levels. She channels it, magic sparking at her hands, and she says, “Do you still do everything that Gold tells you to?” 

 

And then, of course , as though he’s summoned, Gold is standing at the entrance to the arena. “Absolutely not,” he says, his voice smooth. “Regina, we have work to do. No time to waste on has-beens who’ve never won the regionals alone.” His cool eyes sweep over Emma as she glares at him.

 

Regina’s eyes flicker to Gold, then back to Emma, and her hands clench to extinguish her fire. Emma feels immeasurably smug. “As I was saying,” she says, drawing out each vowel. “Planning to surrender before we even start?” 

 

Regina tilts her head, eyes flashing. “I have a responsibility to my team,” she says haughtily. “Part of that is not getting roped into a fight with a bit player when we have work to do.”

 

“Roped in?” Emma echoes, her voice low and dangerous. “You came here to fight me.” She remembers, for a moment, the first few weeks when she’d arrived in Storybrooke, when Regina had been suspicious of her and of Cora’s interest in her. This is the Regina who pushes all of her buttons, and who can easily set her off. “And I might be a bit player, but you’re an amateur trying to fight in the big leagues. You don’t have a chance.” 

 

Regina takes a step forward, and Emma is struck, at the exact wrong time, at how attractive she is. She’d had a rounder face in her teenage years, a kind of baby face that had made her look younger than she’d been. She’d been cute . Right now, the word to describe Regina isn’t cute . It’s somewhere between feline and terrifying and sexy , and Emma’s throat goes dry as Regina prowls toward her. 

 

“Let me make something very clear,” Regina hisses, and her mind is still pushing against Emma’s, that instinctive bonding that they never quite cut, that still has their minds drawn to each other. “Every fighter on my team is stronger than your ragtag, pathetic little gaggle of incompetents. Except the little one, who is phenomenal,” she says, almost as an afterthought, and then turns her glare back at Emma. “I hope we meet you in the first match and push you deep into irrelevance.” She straightens, her smile now more like a shark’s than a cat’s. “I’ll be waiting for you in the final Solo fight. If you make it that far.” 

 

Emma snorts. “If the rest of your team is anything like your Duo pair over there–” She points at Ursula and Cruella, arm-in-arm at the bottom of the bleachers. “Then you’ve just collected a bunch of sociopaths. They’ll cannibalize you soon enough.” She yawns, exudes a deliberate aura of carelessness. “And I’ll enjoy every minute of it.”

 

“Still a brash idiot,” Regina says, and there is almost a hint of fondness in it before her voice goes hard. She moves in close, still the hunting predator, her voice low so the reporters can’t hear. Emma feels a shiver rock through her, mind and body, and she forces herself to stand steady as Regina purrs, “I’m looking forward to setting you on fire.” 

 

There is no humor in her voice. It’s baffling to Emma, when she thinks about it, that Regina hates her so much. Emma has her reasons, of course. But Regina had been the one who’d been left . Regina owes her apologies, not threats– but isn’t this typical Regina, finding a reason to blame everyone but herself? Of course Regina would figure out how to paint Emma the villain when she’d been the one to… 

 

Emma says, loudly enough for the reporters to hear, “Well, I can’t say I’m not flattered, but I’m seeing someone.” The reporters lean forward, perking up as they speculate what Regina had whispered. Emma strolls back to the bleachers, feeling Regina’s rage wrap around her like a scalding roll of metal on a sunny day, and she waves to the reporters. “Fun little reunion!” she announces, keeping her voice breezy as she returns to Lucy and Lily in the audience. Regina stalks off with Gold, her eyes still fixed on Emma.

 

Lucy’s mouth is gaping open, but her eyes turn shifty when Emma glances at her. Lily says, her scowl deep on her face, “You are not seeing someone,” poking Emma hard in the chest. “I saw her. Your old Duos partner? You don’t have a type. You have a weird clone fetish–”

 

“Lily,” Emma says, a low whine to her voice, and Lily rolls her eyes again.

 

“You are so lucky that I love our team more than I hate you right now,” she says, and she dips her head and lets Emma kiss her. It’s nice, the kind of thing they don’t usually do, and Emma can feel the last bits of Regina’s mind recoil from where they’d lingered on her. 

 

When she turns, it’s to see Regina at the other end of the arena, watching her from the bleachers with fire-hot eyes. Emma leans back against Lily, and Lily mutters again, “Trying my patience, Em,” and holds her anyway.

 

Regina disappears from the arena. Lily says reflectively, “This seems like a good time to admit that my mom joined the Misthaven team, right?” and Emma twists around, setting aside her thoughts of Regina. 

 

What ?” 

 

“She breathes fire,” Lily says. “And she can turn into a dragon, too. Should be fun!” She leans forward, setting her chin on Emma’s shoulder, and says, “Probably less scary than the idea that your ex–”

 

“–Duos partner–” Emma puts in swiftly.

 

“–Could be my sister.” Lily looks suddenly alarmed. “Does that mean she looks like my dad? Because my mom really likes dating younger–” 

 

“Please stop,” Emma says weakly. She’s met Maleficent once, after a match a few years ago that had been Lily’s debut, and had been appropriately intimidated. “Let’s just…go to that drawing. Where’s Snow?” 

 

Snow, as it turns out, is speaking to reporters outside the main building, doing damage control. “No, I’m not concerned at all,” she says, a smile fixed onto her face. “Emma is a professional. Whatever you witnessed in the arena was a casual reunion between old partners. Hardly anything worth worrying about.” She catches sight of Emma. “Here she is–” 

 

The reporter is a young woman, a tiara on her head that marks her as bit royalty. “Emma, were you and Regina Molinero– Mills– romantically involved?” she asks eagerly. 

 

Emma stares at her, taken aback. “Uh,” she says.

 

“Are the old sparks still there?” the woman asks, not waiting for a response. “Do you still have feelings for her? What did she whisper to you in the arena?” 

 

Snow says, “I really think that’s enough,” cutting off the reporter and steering Emma toward the big double doors at the front of the building. “I don’t know what you did down there, but do not do it again,” she mutters. “Regina Mills is a snake.” 

 

“At least she’s not a dragon,” Emma mutters back, unfazed. 

 

Snow gives her a pained look. “ Emma . Please take this seriously.” Her disappointment is like a blanket that settles over Emma, muffling away adrenaline and leaving Emma helplessly, hopelessly lost. “This is the regionals we’re talking about. It’s not a time to let Regina get to you.” 

 

“Yeah.” Emma sobers up, following Snow into the building. “I know. I’ve got this, okay? I always do.” She’d spent eighteen years of her life without a mother, had persuaded herself that she’d be fine on her own. When the new Storybrooke manager had wound up being a woman who’d gaped at her and burst into tears, she’d never imagined that this could be how daughterhood is– the exultation of a mother’s smile when she wins, and the sadness in her eyes when Emma doesn’t. Snow is the most dedicated coach in the league, is fiercely attached to Emma’s successes and failures, and Emma supposes that this is how love works, sort of. 

 

And she can’t let Snow down. The image of it is enough to remind Emma of why she does this, more than anything. She is going to win this for Storybrooke, and she is going to win this for them– their patchwork family, long separated and reattached. 

 

The drawing has already begun, and a few of the smaller teams have already taken their place in the bracket. Storybrooke’s first opponent is going to be Andalasia, a minor team that they’d beaten last year and a few times before then. 

 

At the front of the room right now is a man Emma doesn’t recognize from other years. He stands in front of the contraption for the drawing, which is another steampunk invention from the Land of Untold Stories. It has dozens of gears and strange knobs on it, and when the man twists one, a little ball with a number falls out of a tube and into a cup.

 

His team has the 16 on it, and his face goes pale. Jasmine, the captain of regionals champions Agrabah and the man’s next opponent, smiles brightly at him. He shudders and stumbles off the stage. 

 

“Next we have…” The facilitator fumbles with his paper. “Has Team Misthaven arrived yet?” 

 

Emma glances around, though she’s already sure that Regina isn’t here. She doesn’t think that their minds would keep trying to bond again outside of the arena, but she’s still certain that she would sense Regina’s presence. She’d always known when Regina had been around, back when they’d been a Duos pair, and she can’t imagine that that skill has disappeared now.

 

Plus, well , Regina does like to make an entrance, Emma reflects, watching as the doors to the hall slam open and Regina is framed in the doorway. “Sorry I’m late,” she says in that rich baritone. 

 

Every head in the hall is turned to watch her. Regina strides forward with the grace and confidence of royalty– or someone who came very close to it, twice. Emma swallows back that bitterness and turns away, staring at the contraption at the front of the room. 

 

Regina reaches it, and Emma sees Gold trailing behind her, waiting at the bottom of the steps to the stage. There are still a few more slots in Storybrooke’s bracket, and Emma tenses, watching the numbered balls still bouncing in the contraption.

 

The one that pops out puts Misthaven squarely on the other side of the bracket. Emma exhales. Misthaven is due to meet Agrabah in their second match, and they won’t stand a chance. At least now, she can avoid meeting Regina in the arena. 

 

Regina stalks back down the middle of the hall, head high as cameras flash around her. Emma can hear reporters updating their audiences excitedly– Misthaven – Molinero – Regina Mills – and she ignores them, this time watching Regina as the other woman heads for the door.

 

She pauses at Emma’s row, her narrowed eyes unfriendly but a smile slick across her face in a terrifying counterpoint. Emma says, “You’ll be gone at your second match.” Agrabah is good . Agrabah had won the entire Proeliate a few years ago.


Regina says, “I’ll see you at the regionals championship. And I will destroy you.” She doesn’t pause for Emma to respond, and she’s gone from the room in a moment, leaving behind hushed whispers and a chill still wafting through the hall behind her.

Chapter Text

The interviews are endless. Regina has only vague memories of these, last time around. She’d done Duos interviews with Emma throughout, the two of them seated in front of various backgrounds and herded from room to room to answer the same questions from every reporter. By the third or fourth, Emma had been exhausted, and she’d curled up against Regina on a bench while Regina had repeated their answers again and again.

 

The interviews had been even worse after they’d won the regionals that year, a big moment for Storybrooke. Regina’s strongest memory of those beyond monotony is sneaking out with Emma after the fifth, eating vending machine ice cream sandwiches under the bleachers while the team captain had called their names in the arena with a rising note of irritation. 

 

Today, she is on her own. The media blitz pre-regionals is smaller than the ones that happen once the field is narrowed, but it’s still too long in the Enchanted Forest proper, where air conditioning is still a curiosity and the indoor plumbing hasn’t caught up with Storybrooke just yet. Regina can smell the privies outside from here, and she struggles to control her fixed smile as she answers a reporter. “I think it’s easy to look at our background and make assumptions about who we are. But Misthaven is so much more than that.” 

 

The reporter raises her eyebrows. “Cruella and Ursula were suspended from their prior team following an incident after hours–” 

 

“They made a mistake,” Regina says vehemently. She’s rehearsed these responses, knows exactly what to say, but she surprises herself with the force of the feeling behind them. “One mistake. And they were suspended indefinitely for it. Maleficent’s team replaced her because of bad press for something that they’d known hadn’t been her responsibility. Gothel couldn’t join a team because her entire people had been wiped out. And Zelena never made it onto a team in the first place because powerful people intimidated every EF team into rejecting her. These are women who have been rejected and swept under the rug because people are afraid of what they can do. No more.” 

 

She clears her throat. “We were drawn to this team because it isn’t a squeaky-clean group who get picked because they’ll look good on endorsement deals. We’re here to fight for ourselves. Because no one else will.” 

 

The reporter nods her head, and she looks satisfied with Regina’s answer. But she isn’t done. “Squeaky-clean groups like Team Storybrooke?” she says, gently probing.

 

Regina has definitely practiced this response. She laughs lightly. “I think I’ll break some little hearts if I say what I think about Team Storybrooke.” Good . Casual, and it’ll make Lucy and Henry laugh instead of upsetting them.

 

“And their captain.” The reporter leans in. “There must be some emotion about the fact that you’re back in the arena again after so many years away. And that there’s a possibility you’ll face Emma Swan in the arena.” 

 

“If Storybrooke can make it to the regional finals,” Regina reminds her. “I have my doubts about that.” 

 

“And about yours?”

 

Agrabah is good. Misthaven is better. “None.”

 

“Your team won the regionals ten years ago,” the reporter reminds her. “They were on track to win the entire Proeliate when you disappeared on the morning of the championship game. Is there any guilt about what happened to–” 

 

Regina has rehearsed this, too, but she loses the script as quickly as the line is fed to her. She cuts the reporter off, done with the coy hinting and the attempts to build a narrative . Like hell. “No, I don’t feel guilty about the championship game,” she says sharply. “Emma Swan ruined my life. And I would appreciate it if you would stop bringing her up.” 

 

The reporter looks unabashed, but she turns reluctantly to the next topic. Regina answers tersely until the interview is over. She knows that she’s lost a sympathetic audience, but she doesn’t care. She does believe what she’d said. Misthaven will win whether or not they’re inspirational or photogenic. They will win because they’re good , and she will stand behind them until then.

 

She finishes her own interviews soon after. There are other players around, eyeing her and murmuring to each other as they do. The rest of Team Misthaven has made a quick exit from the interviews. As always, they have little interest in playing nice or making friends.

 

Still, Regina lingers. It’s because she has a responsibility to the group, and it’s helpful to know what they’re dealing with. If they’re going to win, nothing will take them by surprise. 

 

There are screens on in the prep rooms, and Regina hears a familiar voice from one of them and tenses. It’s Emma, of course, with the reporter with whom Regina had lost her temper. Emma is laughing at something, her face lighting up the screen, and Regina swallows back a wave of bitterness and, lurking beneath it, the pervasive shadow of memory. 

 

“Yeah,” Emma is saying, grinning. “Interviews are only required for three players per team. I gave you August and Lily, didn’t I?” 

 

“There are rumors that you’ve snagged one of Camelot’s finest,” the reporter says, leaning in. “Some footage has become available of Mulan dining with Marian Locksley at a restaurant in Storybrooke.” 

 

Emma blinks, her eyes wide like she’s lying. “Hey, good for her. Marian Locksley is a catch . Smart and cool. Me, I’m just cool.” She winks at the reporter, effortless. 

 

It hadn’t been effortless when she’d been eighteen. Regina remembers that, Emma stumbling over practiced responses and snapping at too many reporters. They’d both been impulsive, but they’d gotten good at calming each other down over time, hands tight in each other’s grip over chair arms. Mother had loved the image of it, a Duos pair joined even out of the arena. Emma had said whatever gets her off Daniel’s case, huh? and if there had been any bitterness in it, Regina hadn’t detected it.

 

Regina grits her teeth. The reporter says, “On that note–” 

 

“Of our love lives?” Emma says.

 

“Of Duos pairs,” the reporter corrects her, and she smiles, moving in for the kill. “I just had Regina Mills in here.” Emma’s face goes still like stone. “She said something that took me by surprise.” 

 

Emma chews on her lip. “If it was that she thinks she’s beating Agrabah, color me surprised, too.” 

 

Regina watches with hard eyes. The reporter doesn’t budge. “She said that you ruined her life,” she says, and Emma stares at her. She looks baffled. The nerve of her, to look so confused, when–

 

Emma laughs, and she still sounds bewildered but amused. “That’s Molinero for you. So dramatic . Almost on par with Jefferson.” She changes the topic to Jefferson, shrugging off Regina’s accusation, and Regina seethes in silence in the prep room, glaring at the screen until a wave of electricity envelops it and makes it short out. 

 

How dare she. How can she laugh off what she’s done to Regina as though it’s– as though it’s a joke , a cute little aside about Regina instead of everything Regina has lost? A thought, terrible and impossible, occurs to Regina: that the Emma she’d known is gone; that in her place is a woman who has never once looked back at the decisions she’d made with regrets. That Emma has never even considered the consequences of her actions.

 

Regina whirls around and storms out of the prep room. There are four of them, and Misthaven had shared this one with its quarter of the bracket. A few players watch her leave, looking alarmed, but she makes no apologies. Let this be another gossip item for the reporters, another proof of how unpleasant Team Misthaven is. Let the media tear apart Team Misthaven in commentary while Team Misthaven tears apart their opponents. 

 

The Enchanted Forest complex is set up for the matches themselves, and it boasts several arenas so matches can be fought at the same time. There are also practice arenas, shaped long and rectangular like bowling alleys instead of the round main arena. The media castle is at the center of the complex, rigged with an apparatus on top that channels the electricity absent in the rest of the forest. On the far side, near the gift shops, are the portals that will take Regina home. 

 

She doesn’t go to them. Instead, still irritable and desperate to fight someone , she heads to the arenas.

 

They’re built differently here. These aren’t the boxy stadiums from home. Instead, they are round and open to the skies, turrets surrounding the arena and rows and rows of bleachers around them. These are the arenas where Mother once vowed to fight, and where Mother would never again compete after Regina’s birth. These are the arenas of Regina’s youth, and she lets out a cry of fury and throws a blast of magic at a circular mark on the opposite wall of a practice arena alley. 

 

And then another. And another. Regina prides herself on her accuracy, and she steels herself and opens her palms, letting violet electricity fly from her hands into a single spot on the wall. Over and over, she hits that same point, an inch in diameter and a perfect circle, and she gasps for breath, her power exhausted, and doesn’t dare stop.

 

She becomes aware of the passage of time only when she feels that slam of a mind against hers, painfully present and impossible to ignore. Emma is here at the practice arena– and for a moment, Regina is certain that Emma is here to speak to her. That somehow, Emma thinks that Regina wants to talk about–

 

But no, of course not, and Emma lets out a strangled curse and sends her own magic flying toward the wall in the alley beside Regina’s. Emma is loud, lets out little cries every time she hurls her magic, but it hits with nearly the same accuracy as Regina’s.

 

They’d had the same teachers, after all, Mother glaring down at them while Gold had breathed down their necks. Zelena has not an ounce of accuracy, is all raw power and wildness unleashed, but Emma hits the same one-inch circle, and neither of them wavers.

 

For a long time, Regina is only aware of the two of them– magic lighting her entire body on fire, Emma’s mind like an anvil banging against the side of her own, that glowing dot at the end of her magic and the one in the alley beside her. It feels familiar, training beside Emma. It feels like poison.

 

Emma moves like she always has. She’s always been shockingly graceful in the arena and clumsy everywhere else, just as likely to trip over her own feet as she is to wield a sword of light and disarm an opponent in solid strokes. Regina is a fighter who can stand rooted to the ground and take on an opponent without moving at all; Emma throws her entire body into every blow. Regina still knows her body like only a Duos partner can, and it sends a chill through her to watch Emma’s movements. 

 

She turns away, grits her teeth, and throws new magic at that spot against the wall. For the first time, she notices that they’re being watched. The media has followed them out here, and they’re recording every bit of practice, reporters jabbering behind them as Regina and Emma fight. Of course . Haven’t they gotten enough from them?

 

Emma lets out a huff of annoyance, which means she’s just caught sight of what Regina has. Wait . Regina’s eyes are on the wall, which means that she hasn’t caught sight of anything– it’s Emma who’s looking at the reporters–

 

Has Regina slipped into Emma’s mind without noticing? Let’s teach them a lesson , she says silently, and she can feel Emma’s agreement, the way that they speak in sensations instead of in words. Three, two, one and they’re turning together, their magic flying out in a rush of energy instead of the targeted laser-point that had been their practice.

 

Their combined magic flies directly toward the reporters and splits, slamming into all the video cameras instantaneously and shattering a few. Emma lets out a little yelp of surprise that sounds utterly feigned. “Whoops! Didn’t see you there!” she says, running fingers through her hair. “What are you all doing out here so late?” 

 

The reporters blink at her and scatter with mumbled apologies. Regina tilts her head and looks up, noticing with startlement that the sun is already low in the sky. Interviews are long over, then. The arena is empty except for the fleeing reporters and Emma, who stands defiantly in front of them with her face tight and her eyes hard. Regina is left with a sensation of overwhelming protectiveness–

 

No . She pulls her mind from Emma’s with effort, rebuilding walls around it to keep Emma away. Emma lets out a scoff without looking at her, and Regina strides off to the door marked LOCKER ROOM and refuses to look back. Their temporary alliance is over.

 

When she checks her phone, there are a number of missed messages on Molividrio , the group chat she keeps with Jacinda and Sabine and the kids. Henry has had plenty of commentary on her interviews. Lucy says my fragile little heart is broken, by the way , and Regina rolls her eyes. We’re going to the Storybrooke arena to practice , Henry had informed her an hour ago. Then, just a few minutes ago, I can’t figure out if I’m supposed to be embarrassed or proud of what you and Emma just did to those reporters.

 

PROUD , Lucy retorts, and Regina smiles at her phone as she wrings out her hair and checks on the enchanted cleaner opposite the showers. Her clothes are laid out, fresh and neat, the magic still sparkling off of them. She gets dressed again and heads out across the complex, back to the portals.

 

They are dynamic portals, not static. There are only two, and they cycle through various locations. The trip back to Storybrooke is at the :30, and it’ll be another twenty minutes before the next one comes. This is a hub, still fairly crowded with travelers from the interviews and from other events at the complex, and there are more than a few curious glances at her from people who recognize her face.

 

Regina sighs and sits down on an empty bench. Almost immediately, someone else sits down beside her.

 

She doesn’t have to look up to recognize the rhythm of the other woman’s breathing.

 


 

Regina used to complain that Emma had no concept of silence. It had always been with a note of amusement and affection behind it, and Emma would laughingly make excuses and then remind her that she’s the strong and silent one and Regina is the conversationalist , but Regina had been right. Emma doesn’t like the quiet. It makes her uneasy, is too much like being alone for Emma to be comfortable with it.

 

And as much as she’d rather not speak to Regina at all– Regina, who had inhabited Emma’s mind with no more than a gentle movement today, and Emma hadn’t noticed until they’d been communicating – she finds herself speaking, anyway. She’s still furious with Regina, but she’s also incapable of staying quiet. “How’s Daniel doing?” Emma forces out. 

 

When they’d been seventeen and eighteen, joined at the hip and the closest of friends, knowing about Daniel had been a point of pride before it had become a point of despair. Today…Emma doesn’t know why she asks, except to remind herself that she hates Regina.

 

Regina stares straight ahead. “Keep your damned mouth shut about Daniel,” she says through clenched teeth.

 

Emma snorts. Figures. Regina disappears across the world without warning for a guy she’s probably divorced by now. Typical.

 

She should feel smug, but instead, she is frustrated. What are they doing here? Why did Regina come back? This is Emma’s territory– Emma’s safe place, her entire life’s work and meaning– and Regina is here, invading it as though she’d never left. Regina is here, slipped into place as easily as she’d slipped into Emma’s mind.  

 

And she says that Emma ruined her life. Why? By trying to help ? By reaching out? By being one-half of the best Duos pair in the realms? How dare she?

 

How dare she?  

 

Regina stands abruptly, heading for a sign that is marked RESTROOMS . Emma finds herself following her, overwhelmed with annoyance. “You want to talk about ruining lives?” she demands, and Regina turns to stare at her with empty eyes. “You left . We were about to win the Proeliate, and you couldn’t stay one more day?” 

 

“You know why I left,” Regina says, her voice sharp. She has pulled herself up to her full height– an inch below Emma’s, thank you very much – and stands in place, glowering at Emma. 

 

“You could have waited. And forget the Proeliate. Forget Team Storybrooke, which you clearly don’t care about at all,” Emma says, clenching her fists. “You left right after we got the offer for the all-star Arendelle team. You and me. Duos pair.” She remembers the agonized confusion, the certainty that Regina was staying and it was going to be okay and then–

 

And then morning had come, and the bed next to Emma had been empty. There had only been a little swan charm lying there, the one that Emma had given to Regina at the start of the season. It had been a goodbye, and it had been one that had nearly broken Emma. “I lost that spot,” Emma says savagely, and Regina looks startled for the first time. “They wanted the package deal. Not me. So let’s talk about ruined lives .” 

 

Regina scoffs, smoothing down her dress in what had once been a nervous habit from her. Today, she doesn’t look nervous at all. “Please. The Proeliate isn’t life .” 

 

“It’s mine!” Emma can feel the fury like a cloud around her, enfolding her until she can hardly breathe through her anger. “I get that you decided to run off and leave me with the fallout, but this is all I have . You knew that because I trusted you with it! And you took the only chance I ever had to…”

 

She can’t finish the sentence. Regina would mercilessly ridicule it, and it exposes far more than she ever will to Regina Mills again. It comes down to Snow, Snow, her round face struggling to hide her disappointment in Emma as her team loses, again and again. Emma has spent a decade trying to make her mother proud, which you’d think that Regina might understand , but– 

 

No. Regina never will, because Regina’s view of her own mother is something far simpler. “You know why I ran off ,” Regina says, her voice scathing. She strides back across the room, heels clipping against the tiled floor of the bathroom. 

 

Emma’s heart gives an abrupt lurch, an old break fissuring again. “You didn’t have to.” She didn’t , and that’s what makes Emma so furious. Because Regina had had a choice. Emma had trusted her, had been willing to give her the world, and Regina had betrayed her instead. 

 

Regina’s lip curls. “Go to hell,” she says sharply. “You think you have some special insight into my life because we fought a few battles together when we were teenagers?” Emma takes a step back, her stomach turning at the description of what had been transcendent for her. Regina doesn’t look nearly as shaken. “You don’t understand a thing about me.” 

 

“I understand plenty,” Emma bites out. “I understand that you were a pampered little brat who never knew what it meant to be hungry.” Cora had been awful , but Regina had been safe, had been fed and housed in her home. Her treatment had been contingent on her performance in the Proeliate, but that had been more than Emma had ever gotten. Regina had never quite understood that Emma had come from absolutely nothing, had been living on benches and eating scraps to survive. If not for Snow, Regina’s disappearance would have ended Emma. Cora nearly had, to start. 

 

Regina’s eyes flash, and she’s shaking. Emma knows– immediately knows, as a fighter knows– when her hand flies up, and she catches Regina’s wrist before Regina can strike her. “I can’t believe I ever let you in my mind,” Regina grits out, and she nearly bursts with energy, with that pent-up magic that had nearly consumed Emma earlier before they’d disconnected–

 

The angular bent to her jaw is razor-sharp, the fire in her eyes like a furnace on the tundra. Emma’s entire body is covered in goosebumps, and her throat is clogged so all she can manage is a tight, “Ditto.”

 

When she’d been younger, she remembers how easily her attention would stray to thoughts of Regina’s body against hers, to daydreams of how Regina might feel beneath her fingers. They’d shared a bed often enough, the intimacy that comes with fighting in Duos together, but Emma had been careful never to overstep. Today, those stray thoughts return, and she can feel the heat thrumming in the room, the way her hands itch to seize Regina– even this Regina she despises, especially this Regina– and pull her to Emma–

 

Emma is breathing hard. They both are, and Emma’s hand is still around Regina’s wrist. Emma sucks in a breath– imagines for a moment the way that Regina might shudder as Emma backs her against the wall of the bathroom, the briefest cry that Emma might silence with her lips, Regina’s fingers digging into Emma’s shoulderblades as Emma supports her and ravages her thoroughly–

 

Regina trembles, and Emma nearly runs a finger along the side of her neck to watch her shake. She swallows, and the undercurrent is no longer just fury but something else entirely. The room is thick with it, and Emma is aflame with need, with desperation–

 

“I’m outta here,” she says in a rush, and she flees the bathroom before she can do something she’ll regret.

 


 

Emma manages to control herself until she makes it through the portal, at which point she makes a mad dash to the locker rooms in the Storybrooke Arena for a second shower and a moment to breathe. She slams her hands against the wall, breathing hard, and curses Regina Molinero Mills for coming back here again, now, when she finally has a team that can win this thing. 

 

August has been with Team Storybrooke since before Emma, a cocky twenty-something who has grown into a cocky thirty-something. Mulan has been their star for the past few years, and Emma had scooped up Lily as soon as she had wandered into Storybrooke, bemused at the wide, wide world outside of the Land Without Magic. Jefferson, Emma had poached last year after Wonderland had been disqualified. The four of them are good , and Marian and Lucy are their perfect complements, the last two pieces to the improved Team Storybrooke that might have a chance to win the regionals this year. Maybe even the Proeliate, if Emma plays her cards right. 

 

They’re no Arendelle or even Agrabah, but they’re scrappy and powerful in their own right. Regina isn’t going to be the one to take that from Emma, ten years after she’d taken Emma’s last championship from her. 

 

Emma takes a breath to collect herself again and heads out into the arena. Someone is already in it. She can hear the giggles and the loud shouts of children, and she grins, pushing away thoughts of Regina, and goes to find Lucy and Henry. 

 

Lucy is doing something new with her glass, winding it into trails of stardust around Henry, and Henry is scrawling onto the ground. Emma raises an eyebrow, interested. August also likes to write his magic into the arena, but she’s never seen that kind of discipline on someone as young as Henry. 

 

Henry moves methodically, ignoring the whirl of glass and wind around him. He’s battered with it– this isn’t sustainable , Emma notices, empathizing a surprising amount with the mother who doesn’t want him fighting. Henry will be covered in cuts and scrapes by the end of this, and even Lucy looks uncertain as she sends her winding helix of glass Henry’s way. 

 

But Henry doesn’t seem to notice it at all. Instead, he scrawls onto the ground with one of the few acceptable weapons that a fighter can bring to the arena– an enchanted pen, sleek and long– and a wave of magic shoots up around him and sweeps around the room. It looks alive to Emma’s eyes, like it has empty hollows for eyes and vicious fangs, and it careens through the arena as though it’s hunting. Lucy squeals and ducks it, and Henry straightens, triumphant.

 

He doesn’t have a scratch on him. 

 

The written demon careens into Lucy, and Lucy throws up a shield of glass to slow it. The glass cracks and digs into the demonic magic, but it doesn’t do a thing, is carried around the room with the magical wave and circles back toward Lucy. 

 

Emma watches, eyes narrowed. Lucy says, “Your move, Henry,” and clenches her fist. 

 

The glass in the demon surges outward, but it doesn’t fly from the magic. Instead, it builds around it and melds together again, hard glass around the demon that holds it in place. Lucy captures the demon and piles on more glass, transforming more and more dust until the glass prison is thick and Henry is laughing and says, “Okay, okay, I surrender!” 

 

Lucy throws her hands up in the air like Emma always does, and Emma watches them both with her heart warm and her hands clapping frantically. “Bravo,” she calls. “Bravo! Lucy, that was badass! Henry–“ He turns to her, expectant, and she says, “You’re really something, you know that?” 

 

“My mom says that, too,” Henry says smugly.

 

Lucy snorts. “She doesn’t mean it like that, though.” She beams at Emma. “We saw you practicing on TV!” 

 

Emma winces. So the cameramen had managed to escape with some of the footage, if it hadn’t been live. “I really don’t have a single moment of privacy anymore, huh?” It’s a little overwhelming. She’s used to the press hovering before and after games, but not like this. Not this hunger for Emma even outside the court. “The Enchanted Forest isn’t exactly the Mythologies bracket. They don’t usually pay attention to our regionals until the finals.” 

 

“This year they’re following because of Misthaven,” Henry says, and there’s a trace of admiration in his voice that has Emma looking at him askance. If she’s already lost a fan to Misthaven – “And Regina Mills,” he adds, exchanging a glance with Lucy.

 

They look distinctly shifty-eyed. Emma peers at them suspiciously. Regina had always had her cadre of dedicated fans, back in the day. She inspires loyalty, which is ridiculous , considering… “Yeah,” Lucy says suddenly. “And that makes you news, too.” 

 

They grin at Emma with matching smiles. Emma says, “ Fabulous .”

 

Lucy holds something up. “Look what Henry got on Main Street.” 

 

“Hey!” Henry makes a swipe for it. “That’s mine! She’s going to–“ 

 

Emma snatches it instead. “What– Is this a Regina action figure ?” She stares at it in disgust. It’s a terrible reproduction, the face weirdly exaggerated into a heart shape and the eyes just little dots that make Regina look emotionless. And Regina’s wearing a jumpsuit that’s green with gold trim and looks suspiciously like– “This is Team Storybrooke’s jumpsuit! The nerve !” 

 

Henry shrugs, unbothered. “They probably didn’t have time to make new action figures yet. This must be, like, super old.” Emma yanks the action figure up to inspect it better, and Henry looks worried. “Please don’t break it. It’s for my mom.” 

 

“Your mom likes Regina Mills?” Emma’s empathy for her is gone. 

 

“Not as much as she should,” Henry says wryly, exchanging a glance laden with unspoken meaning with Lucy. “But she’ll hate this. I have to show it to her.” He bounces, gleeful, and tries to snatch the action figure from Emma. 

 

Emma makes a face. “Oh, no,” she says. “You’ll have to write this from me.” She dances away from Henry’s outstretched fingers. “I’m going to stick toothpicks through this figurine and cast spells–” 

 

Abruptly, the action figure is no longer in Emma’s hand. Henry is examining it worriedly, oblivious to the way that Emma stares at him. “What?” she says to no one in particular. 

 

“You’re okay,” Henry says, patting the figure. “I’ll save you from Mom’s scary nemesis.” Lucy jabs him. 

 

Emma watches him, bemused. “How did you get that out of my hand? You didn’t write anything.” 

 

Henry shrugs. “I don’t know. I was just sure I could get it, and then I did.” 

 

“Henry always does stuff like that in the arena,” Lucy volunteers. “Once he imagined an ogre into being. It was not fun. The whole arena was wrecked.” She laughs. “Good thing it doesn’t work outside of the arena or he would have wrecked our school a bunch of times.” 

 

It finally registers, and Emma gapes at Henry. “You’re a True Believer!” It’s a rare ability, the capacity to believe things into being. In combat, it is never all that effective, but Mulan and Ruby had played one a few years ago who’d done well in Duos. That one had managed to avoid being injured, too, as long as she’d kept her eyes closed. “Henry, that’s awesome !” 

 

Henry shrugs, looking a little flushed. “It’s okay.” 

 

Emma points at him. “ We are going to practice with this on off days,” she decides. “You’re going to learn how to use it. I have to learn how to use it,” she says, an aside. It’s a strange irony, to have found someone like Henry, when she’s as cynical as they come. “A True Believer. We’ll have to get you into Duos with Lucy next year. I’m going to have a team full of kids.” She winces, imagining the press junket with that . “You’re going to be good. Really good. Maybe even as good as Lucy.”

 

“Please,” Lucy says scornfully. “He’ll be passable.” She dodges Henry’s poke, then looks up at Emma with dubious eyes. “You’re gonna have to convince his mom, though.” 

 

“Just practice for now,” Emma says firmly. “Learn how to use that skill. We’ll go from there.” The arena door is opening, and Emma turns, noting how late it is. “I bet I can charm your mom in five minutes flat,” she says, winking at Henry, and is mildly offended when Henry turns what is clearly a laugh into a cough. “You think I couldn’t?” 

 

She turns on the charm, ready to utterly win over Henry’s mother with her seductive smile alone. Jacinda says, “Whoa, Emma, I’m taken.” 

 

Oh . Emma deflates. Not Henry’s mother at all. “You here for the kids?” 

 

Jacinda nods. “Henry, your mom’s home,” she calls across the arena. “Time to go. It’s a school night.” 

 

Henry pouts. “It’s the night before the first fights of the Proeliate. That’s not a school night .” 

 

“Last I heard, you were absolutely going to school tomorrow,” Jacinda says with raised eyebrows. “The fights are in the afternoon, so Lucy will be there, too, as long as possible until practice.” Lucy gives her a pout of her own. “Come on. Your mom’s already on her way here to get you, Henry.” She gives them a significant look. “Do you really want her to come all the way here and find you…doing this?” 

 

“Hey,” Emma says suddenly, still stuck on Henry’s unexpected ability. “Introduce me to Henry’s mom sometime, okay?” Jacinda blinks at Emma with wary surprise, and Emma decides a little too late that she doesn’t want to spread Henry’s secret ability too far. “I want to get to know the lady who raised this little hellion,” she says fondly, and Jacinda gives Henry and Lucy a rather reproachful look, which Emma thinks is uncalled for.

 

“I’m sure you’ll bump into each other sometime,” Jacinda says, frowning at Lucy and Henry again. “Let’s go.” The kids follow her out, and Emma lingers in the arena, tracing absentminded fingers along its walls.

 

Tomorrow is the first fight. She isn’t worried about it– Andalasia is a team that won’t be hard to beat– but the Proeliate officially begins tomorrow, and it’ll be an uphill battle until the end, whenever it comes. And Misthaven…

 

It doesn’t matter. Jasmine and Agrabah will finish them off in their second match. Which kind of sucks, when Emma thinks about it too much. A part of her desperately wants to fight Regina in the arena. 

 

Another part of her isn’t entirely sure that she would win, and so she knows she’s better off not facing Regina at all. 

 

And yet.

 

She replays the exchange in the bathroom, the harsh words and the way that their breathing had gone ragged, and she shudders. She’s reading too much into it. She’s always read too much into their interactions. It had been her fatal flaw, once upon a time.

 

She walks in silence around the arena for a little longer, hesitating only when the double doors at the floor of the arena open again and two women step inside. She doesn’t know them, but their eyes fall on her like they know her. Warily, she watches their approach.

 

“Emma Swan,” one of the women says. “Savior of Storybrooke.” There is something familiar in the way they stand, the confidence in their eyes. It’s discomfiting, like figures from a dream instead of real people.

 

The arena is technically closed to the public in the evenings, and Emma finds her voice. “You can’t be here right now.” 

 

The women don’t move, only watch her with those glittering eyes. Both are white, though the blonde one has a tinge of green to her skin and her hair. The brunette is very pale, and she watches Emma as a cat to its prey. 

 

Journalists , Emma decides with a twinge of unease. She raises her voice with a surge of bravado, striding forward. “If you haven’t seen what I do to reporters who don’t understand boundaries, then consider yourself warned.” The women only watch her. Emma has the uneasy sense that they’re laughing silently at her. 

 

She summons her magic in a smooth motion, and she lets it erupt at the women.

 

Something flies from the ground, bullet-quick, and wraps around Emma’s energy until it’s muffled. It’s– ivy , she realizes a moment later, a heap of it that winds around and around, strangling Emma’s magic, and then it’s all around her arm, too. Then her body, tighter and tighter until Emma can’t move or breathe or call her magic. 

 

The greenish woman watches her, a slight smile on her face the only sign that she’s the one doing this. Emma chokes, kicking at the vines with no success, and she is suspended in midair for what feels like an hour, her vision fading in and out and those women still standing with those damned smiles on their faces.

 

Enough , Gothel.” The voice is sharp, and Emma recognizes it as well as she recognizes the sensation that comes with it, the gentle brush of a mind accustomed to being locked with hers. “We don’t execute other fighters on the night before the matches.” 

 

The vines wither and die, and Emma is dropped in a heap on the arena floor in front of them. Gothel– the blonde– is still smiling. “But this is so much more entertaining,” she says. Her voice is low and slow, an accent to it that emerges almost as a drawl.

 

Emma struggles back to her feet, patting down her clothes in a fruitless attempt to look unaffected. She slams one hand out– catches both of her attackers by surprise, throwing them against the back of the wall of the bleachers– and turns to the woman who had come to save her. “This is my arena,” she says through her teeth. “Not Misthaven’s. If you can’t get your team under control–” Because they must be her teammates, though Emma doesn’t know these two– “Then I’ll file an official complaint.” 

 

The other woman stares at her, lips pursed. Then, methodically, she turns back to Gothel and the brunette, ignoring Emma completely. “Let’s go,” Regina says, and she turns on her heel and walks from the arena, the women trailing behind her. 

 

Emma watches them go, the barest wisps of Regina’s mind still dancing around her own, and she hurls another ball of pure, furious energy at all three of them. 

 

It hits the doors of the arena as they close behind Regina, exploding into fireworks around the bleachers instead.

Chapter Text

The image of Emma Swan crumpled on the floor, dead vines strewn around her, lingers in Regina’s mind for longer than she deems appropriate. Maybe she just really likes watching Emma defeated, she reflects, and is satisfied until her heart does a traitorous little twinge in response. 

 

It must only be that there is a piece of her that has never left the arena. Emma on the arena floor activates something within her, a teammate’s despair for a woman who is miles from being her teammate anymore. The thought of caring about Emma now is anathema, and Regina rages in silence at the breakfast table the next morning as she shakes sugar into Henry’s oatmeal. “I want you all in in school today,” she says, catching the look on Henry’s face. “Jacinda will come and pick you up–” 

 

“The second school is over,” Henry says, bouncing in his seat with nervous energy. She looks fondly at him, thoughts of Emma Swan fading from her mind.

 

“The second school is over,” she agrees. “Three o’clock end of the school day and five o’clock matches. You’ll have plenty of time.” 

 

Henry bobs his head. Regina says, mostly to watch him squirm, “What colors are you wearing to the match?” 

 

“Ha,” Henry jabs a thumb at his purple shirt. “This shirt with that green sweatshirt you got me. So I can represent Lucy’s team and yours.” He grins. “I’ll keep wearing this right up until you face each other. Think we could have a Hyperion Heights showdown then?” 

 

“Maybe,” Regina suggests. Absolutely not . She’s going to win at all costs, and she refuses to make Lucy collateral damage for her victory. If Emma isn’t a fool, she’ll keep Lucy far from Regina’s team. 

 

They aren’t neophytes, even though they aren’t household names. Sometimes, when she watches them fight, she isn’t entirely sure that she could beat some of them. There is a desperation to their fights, a determination to win at all costs, and they have the skill to back it. 

 

It’s enough to make Regina just as determined. It’s enough to take the entire Proeliate.

 

Emma might be the one who feels most wounded by what had happened ten years ago, but Regina has never forgotten her one chance to win the entire Proeliate, either. Team Storybrooke had been a legend that year, a shining star among mediocre competition, and they’d had four players good enough to ascertain victory. Mother had glowed with that certainty, even as she’d used Regina’s high profile to propel them even higher. And for once in her life, Regina had felt as though the years of training had been worth something.

 

This year, she is going to make it worth something again, and she’s going to do it on her own terms. Not on Mother’s, and certainly not on Emma Swan’s. She’s doing this because, if Henry is going to have heroes, she would like very much to be one of them. She’s doing this because it has been many, many years of hiding, of disappointment, of loss, and it’s time for her to claim a victory.

 

She walks Henry to the bus stop and then takes a portal to Misthaven, the place where her mother had grown up. The arena there is in even worse shape than the one in Hyperion Heights, but it’s all their team has got, and they are already assembled. 

 

They watch her with eyes just as hungry to prove themselves, and she clears her throat. “We’ve gotten the order of battles this morning,” she says. “Solo, Duo, Solo, Duo, Solo. We’re playing against Avalor, which is a joke of a team. I don’t plan for us to get to those last two battles at all. We take the first three and win the whole thing.” 

 

“Who’s playing, boss?” Zelena calls out.

 

“Don’t call me boss.” 

 

Zelena bows deeply. “Yes, Your Majesty.” Regina flinches at that, barely noticeable, and forces herself not to read anything into it. Zelena doesn’t know what Mother had planned for her. Zelena had been all but out of the house when Regina had run away, and she’d only come back when Mother had beckoned for her remaining daughter.

 

Gold, who knows exactly how that title might affect her, says sleekly, “I’m sorry. I believe that I’m the team manager. I’ll decide on the fighting order.” 

 

Regina says, “We’re best off putting our weaker fighters in first so no one can get a feel of what we’re capable of–” 

 

“Regina will fight in the first Solo match. Then Zelena and Maleficent in the first Duos.” Regina stares at him dubiously. Zelena and Mal haven’t so much as practiced together before, and they’re both powerhouses who can fight anyone in Solo matches and win. “Then Fiona in the next Solo match. I suppose the rest sorts itself out,” he says dismissively. 

 

Regina stares at him. “I don’t think that’s our ideal–” 

 

“I don’t care,” Gold says, and there’s that arrogance that had followed Regina through childhood, the way he’s absolutely sure that he’s the only one who knows best. Regina grits her teeth. Gold smirks a cold smirk. “Problem, Regina?” 

 

Regina turns away, her face stiff. “We win,” she says. “We do it fast. Any questions?” Her team watches her. They don’t all like her, but they respect her, and that’s all she needs to keep them going. “Let’s get practicing.”

 

They do drills for most of the morning and then fight battles against each other throughout the afternoon. Regina keeps an eye on the screen they have set up on the far side of the arena, where the morning battles are being broadcast. Agrabah wins handily, of course, and Regina keeps a sharp eye on the other favorite in their side of the bracket, the Magical Forest.

 

There are other battles happening this afternoon outside of the Enchanted Forest bracket, and they bring in many more viewers. Regina knows the Enchanted Forest’s reputation and she doesn’t care for it– that they’re weak, that they deal in soft magic with little real power, that only Agrabah is worth fighting and that it’s only in the Enchanted Forest bracket as a technicality. Off in the Mythologies bracket, Team Olympus has crushed its rivals in only three battles, and Team Arendelle’s match is about to begin. 

 

They’re playing Weselton, an unseeded team without any memorable players, but Regina watches anyway. Arendelle has won six of the last ten Proeliates, including the one eleven years ago that had been against Storybrooke. They’d extended Regina and Emma an offer to fight in Duos, but they seem to have found a handy replacement in their new Duos pair. The two men move easily around the arena, and Regina sees the connection between them like a palpable thing, their minds connected.

 

They win before Weselton gets in a single blow. “Kristoff and Sven,” Zelena says grimly from behind her. “They’ve never lost a fight in anything earlier than the semifinals. And they’re far from the best on the team.” 

 

“Yes.” Honeymaren is a natural star, and Olaf is such a hit that they sell plushies of him to toddlers throughout the United Realms. Yelana has been winning Proeliates for fifty years, and even their top substitute, Ryder, fights in early matches without difficulty. The real threat, though, is in the top-ranked Duos pair in the League, second in history. 

 

Today, they are fighting in Solo battles. Anna had fought before Kristoff and Sven, and she’d played with her opponent, letting him get in a few blows before she’d obliterated him. And then, the top-ranked Solo fighter in the United Realms, emerging early to thundering cheers.

 

The rest of Regina’s team has stopped practicing by now, and they flock to the screen, just like Regina expects every evening team is doing right now across the Realms. Elsa of Team Arendelle steps out into the arena, smiling up at the crowd around her, and she turns her attention t/o her opponent.

 

He clearly hadn’t been expecting to face Elsa herself in his battle. He’s trembling before a single ice-laden blow hits, and he flinches away from her when she holds out one gloved hand to shake his. She shrugs.

 

The timer sounds, and Elsa removes her glove. It’s over in an instant. Snow whirls through the arena, ice hardening into something vicious and sharp around the Weselton man, and Elsa moves like lightning. She has her hand in his chest a moment later, and she extracts the heart and raises it as the timer sounds again. It’s been under a minute, and Arendelle has won their first match.

 

“Damn,” Cruella says. “I’d like my hounds to sink their teeth into her.” 

 

Zelena snorts. “You’re not fighting her. We’re throwing that battle, obviously. We’ll just have to win the rest.” They nod at each other in grim agreement.

 

Regina gives them a sharp look. “Don’t you have battles to fight? You’re not making it to the championships without practice.” She snaps the screen off and throws a fireball at Ursula, who smacks it away with wet tentacles. “Let’s go .” 

 

They return to practice reluctantly, and then they take an hour off to get washed up and eat before they head out to the Enchanted Forest complex where their battles are scheduled for five PM. Regina pushes thoughts of Arendelle determinedly from her mind. She’ll worry about them when it’s time to fight them. 

 

Gold meets them at the portal. “There’s been a problem with the portal from Avalor,” he says briskly. “Our match is being pushed off an hour until it can be sorted out. Don’t waste that time.” 

 

Maybe he means to practice, but Regina has other plans.

 

“We’re not wasting our energy on drills now,” she informs the others. “Let’s get a feel of Agrabah. We’ll be fighting them next.”

 

“Endurance fighters,” Zelena reminds them. Zelena is the one who has followed the Proeliate over all the years, who had spent years planning for a Proeliate debut that had never been permitted to happen. “They get stronger when they fight for longer. We don’t want to get roped into a long battle.” 

 

“Jafar’s the one to look out for,” Ursula warns them. “I’ve fought him before, back when I was on Team Undersea–” 

 

“We don’t talk about Team Undersea, darling,” Cruella sniffs, a hand at Ursula’s back. One of Ursula’s tentacles pats Cruella’s shoulder soothingly. Regina looks away delicately. 

 

“It’s Jasmine and Aladdin to keep an eye out for,” Gothel objects. “And that Genie.” 

 

“So, basically, we have to watch out for everyone,” Regina says. “Helpful.” But she can’t help the smile that creeps onto her face as they stride through the complex, the rush that shoots through her when she thinks about fighting the strongest teams in the League. This is what she loves about the Proeliate. The fight , the energy that comes with taking down the best. Deep down, she’s spent ten years just craving to be challenged again. 

 

And the challenge she craves most…

 

She sees them from a distance, a far more ragtag team than the sleek, tall women who follow Regina’s (slightly less sleek, certainly less tall) lead. They inspire none of the admiration that comes with Arendelle or Camelot or Agrabah, but Regina still feels her vision narrow to them, this crowd of seven amidst the sea of passersby. 

 

Team Storybrooke approaches, and Emma walks at the front of their gang. Regina feels it the instant that Emma catches sight of her– she looks up– their eyes lock, and something crackles like electricity between them. It’s as though the world has slowed, as though it all stutters around this single moment, Emma walking past her in the same old Storybrooke jumpsuit with a team behind her that doesn’t– that will never include– Regina. 

 

Storybrooke continues on into the arena, and Mal says in a low voice, “Or we could watch Storybrooke’s match.” 

 

“Or we could do that,” Regina agrees, her voice a little breathless, and she ignores Zelena’s sharp look and turns, abruptly, toward the Arena C, where Storybrooke is about to fight.

 


 

Lucy loses her Duos fight. It hadn’t been her fault, Regina reflects. Andalasia had realized from the start that they didn’t have a chance against Storybrooke. They’re following a Duo, Solo, Duo, Solo, Solo formate, and they’d ostensibly decided to start off strong. Their two best fighters are in the first Duos match, and one of them sings her way into victory, controlling the entire arena with her voice alone. Regina’s skin is buzzing by the end of it, too, and she has to force her eyes away from the singing princess to watch Lucy. 

 

It had been Lucy’s teammate whose heart had been taken, and he shakes the hand of the singing princess with a sheepish smile. Lucy doesn’t shake the hand of the other princess, only stands there, her eyes downcast, until Emma hops over the little wall that separates the team from the fighters and retrieves Lucy. 

 

Regina watches Emma with narrowed eyes. But Emma is gentle with Lucy, hand on her shoulders and her murmuring close to Lucy’s ear, and Lucy nods shakily. Her eyes flicker up to the stands as the next fighters descend to the arena, and she seeks out Regina’s eyes and then slips into the prep room beneath the bleachers.

 

The next fighter for Storybrooke is Lily Page, whom Emma had introduced at the drawing as her girlfriend . Regina watches Lily with narrowed eyes. The Emma she remembers hadn’t been interested in girls at all, save for her noble instinct when things had gotten dire, and this new twist where Emma is gay is quite…something. An unexpected twist. 

 

It explains the heat in the bathrooms yesterday– 

 

No . Regina pushes that thought out of her mind.

 

Mal says, “Look at her go,” her voice appreciative. Lily is swift as she circles her opponent, and there’s something vaguely familiar about her. “She’s outdone herself this time.” 

 

“You could sound a little less admiring of our sworn rivals,” Zelena says dryly, sipping at her coffee. 

 

Mal raises her eyebrows. “That’s my little girl.” Zelena nearly spits out her coffee. Regina eyes Mal dubiously. “What? Do I not seem like a loving mother?” Mal asks, and Regina senses that there is no right answer to that question.

 

In the arena, Lily is transforming into a dragon. In the bleachers, Regina flicks her eyes behind her and spots a little girl in the shadow of the stairs and slips out to her. “Lucy,” she says, and Lucy buries her face in Regina’s stomach and doesn’t look up for a few minutes.

 

“I can’t find my moms and Henry,” she says at last. “They’re supposed to be in the audience–” 

 

“They’re down there. See? Right across from your box.” Regina points vaguely to where she’d spotted Henry before. Lucy shudders against her. Regina sits down on the stairs, shutting out the shouts and the cheering as Lily-the-dragon routs her opponent. “You did a great job against a tough opponent.” 

 

“I lost my first real fight of the Proeliate,” Lucy says glumly. 

 

Regina slides an arm around Lucy’s shoulder. “Hey,” she says, and she searches for the right words to comfort Lucy and draws a blank until she settles on the clear, sad truth. “Did I ever tell you that I didn’t win a single fight until I switched into Duos?” Lucy looks at her in surprise. Regina winces. “It wasn’t pretty.” 

 

Mother had wanted her strong, but had never missed an opportunity to prove that she’d been stronger. Gold had enjoyed playing games with her, letting her think that victory was near before crushing her absolutely. Even Zelena had fought circles around her when she’d been young, and Mother had been all too ready to pit them against each other. 

 

Fighting with Emma had awakened something inside of Regina, something fierce and dominating that had transformed her. “Losing made me strong,” she says now to Lucy. “What reason do you have to get better if you never lose?” Lucy watches her keenly. The announcer calls out Lily’s victory, and then the next Duos fight, and Regina squeezes Lucy’s hand. “You’re on a good team,” she says grudgingly. “It means that, sometimes, you can afford to lose. They’ll back you up.”

 

They stand together at the top of the stairs, peering out at the arena below them. Andalasia has sent in two men, both of them bristling with magical energy, and Storybrooke has sent in Mulan, one of their strongest, and…

 

Regina squints. Marian , she thinks. She remembers Marian from old practice fights, back when she’d been a teen and Mother had brought her to an arena near Nottingham to fight other children her age. Before Emma. Marian had always given Mother a wide berth, though she’d spoken with Regina in the rare moments that they’d been alone together. She’s been a star in Camelot for years, a top fighter on a perennial Top Five team.

 

How had Emma managed to woo her over to Storybrooke? The Duo pair’s movements are shaky at first, and Mulan gets whacked over the head by a prince who looks startled at his own success. Mulan is grim-faced, and Marian ducks her head and murmurs something to Mulan. 

 

Lucy says, “They’re really good together. I think they just need a little more time.” 

 

Sure enough, Mulan gets in a good blow and finally manages to create her signature energy sword, swinging it around deftly as Marian draws a glowing arrow from her bow. There are restrictions on weapons in the arena, but Proeliate fighters are experienced at creating their own, and Mulan and Marian are two of the best fighters in their styles.

 

It’s over in minutes. The bond rises between them, strong enough that it sends a wave of wind through the arena, and Regina shivers at the feeling of it. Marian and Mulan move like well-oiled machines now, have found a sync between them that works, and the audience cheers wildly. When it comes down to it, all the audience ever really wants is a good show, and this Duos pair gives it to them.

 

“Not bad,” Cruella says critically from her seat. “Not fantastic, but there’s potential there.” She rubs her hands together, gleeful. “I’m going to crush their will to live.”

 

Lucy looks alarmed. Regina casts her a worried glance. “Lucy, why don’t you go find your mothers?” Her team isn’t exactly child-friendly, and she suspects that some of them will pounce if they make the connection between the little girl in the audience and the little girl who’d just been in the bleachers. 

 

Lucy slips away as Mulan and Marian win their fight, and Storybrooke is now only one fight away from entering the next round. Regina watches, tense, as a woman emerges from one side. “Andalasia’s Narissa faces Storybrooke’s Emma Swan,” the announcer calls out, and there is a whoop through the audience. Emma steps out into the arena, grinning up at the crowd, and Regina holds her breath.

 

She’s never going to stop despising Emma for what Emma had done to her, but she’d forgotten what it had been like to sit in an arena while Emma fights. Emma’s energy is all-encompassing, her reach so immense that the entire arena seems flush with energy. Mal is leaning forward, Zelena bumping up and down in her seat, and Fiona’s eyes are bright and hungry as she watches Emma take her circle. 

 

Emma’s opponent looks irritated at the way the crowd rumbles, but Emma just laughs, grinning up at the audience until the moment the buzzer sounds. Regina watches, breathless with anticipation, her heart thumping hard and her gaze fixed on Emma. She can feel the magic pulsing through her, goosebumps raised on her skin and her fists clenched as she watches.

 

And Emma moves. That’s the other thing that Regina had forgotten– Emma is a physical fighter, despite the magic that clings to her like a halo. Regina used to laugh at her over it, the way she’d swing her fists and forget her power altogether. Such a waste of all that magic , she’d say, and Emma would retort, Still won you the fight . Because she does win. Narissa sends a burst of magic at Emma, and Emma absentmindedly dodges it instead of deflecting it. It’s uncouth , really, but Regina digs her fingers into her thigh, watching breathlessly. Narissa sends another burst, and another, and Emma darts around her, circling her in tighter and tighter spirals until she is right in front of Narissa, her eyes gleaming. 

 

The crowd shouts Emma’s name. Emma thrusts her hand into Narissa’s chest and emerges with her heart, lifts it high in the air, and she laughs joyfully as the announcer calls, “And that’s the match to Storybrooke! 3-1, and they will continue on to the second round.” He’s drowned out by the roar of the crowd, and Emma grins fiercely as the heart fades from her hand and the magic begins to dissipate in the crowd. 

 

“Wonderland is close to a victory in their bracket, too,” Zelena observes, and there’s a note in her voice that has Regina nodding, an old-seated dread that they share when it comes to Wonderland. “They’ll go up against Storybrooke next.”

 

Wonderland . The team that Mother had built from the roots before they’d been born. Lucy is going to face them. Emma is going to… 

 

Regina can’t tear her eyes away from Emma, from the energy that flows around her like a gravity well that Regina will never escape. Emma is waving up at someone in the crowd, is accepting an embrace from Snow, and then her eyes, abruptly, find Regina’s.

 

Regina doesn’t school her face in time. She stares at her, mouth parted and still stunned at the battle, and Emma’s eyes narrow. She shakes her head slowly, severing the locked gaze between them, and she turns back to her team and doesn’t look up again.

 


 

Regina had been there during Emma’s fight. Emma had fought, and Regina had sat in the audience and watched. It’s unreasonable how invasive that fact feels, but Emma can’t shake the sensation that something had happened against her will. The Proeliate is something so intimately tied to her identity, and she would share it with half the realms before she shared it with Regina, who has no hold on Emma’s identity anymore. 

 

It rankles at her enough that, instead of going straight to Granny’s to celebrate, Emma makes an excuse and slips away from her team. “I’ll be back soon,” she promises. “I’m just going to scope out the competition.” 

 

“Wonderland is going to be tough,” Jefferson agrees. They’d poached him from Wonderland a few years ago, and that’s about as far as Emma’s experience with Wonderland goes. For all these years in the same regionals competition, they’ve never met directly. Wonderland has had the misfortune of being in the same bracket as Agrabah six separate times in the past decade, and no one goes far after facing Agrabah. 

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, but she doesn’t go to Arena B to watch the Wonderland fight wrap up. Instead, she wanders the complex, fiddles with figurines in the gift shop and ignores calls from Snow, who probably wants to lecture her on team morale and what she’s doing wrong by missing the party. 

 

And when she’s done lingering, she heads back to Arena C, where Avalor is scheduled to fight Misthaven. 

 

This is research, too, even if it isn’t immediate research and it doesn’t matter , because Misthaven is going to lose to Agrabah. It’s important to know all your enemies, and Emma in particular would like to know the enemy who had attacked her in Storybrooke and the one who’d stopped the attack. So this is a reasonable visit, and Emma assures herself of that as she sits down in the bleachers.

 

The bleachers are packed with Avalor’s fans, all of them shouting down names and chants and jeering at Misthaven. There is a decent amount of press around– a lot of interest for a team that can’t beat Agrabah, but Emma isn’t surprised. The media will build up Misthaven, stoke interest into their next battle, and use it to display Agrabah’s power. Agrabah might even take down Arendelle this year, if they play their cards right.

 

And Misthaven is… 

 

…sending out Regina right away, it seems. She stands in a circle, her face set, and her opponent– Emma hadn’t been paying attention to catch his name– watches her warily as the buzzer sounds. 

 

Regina strikes.

 

Emma remembers her as being controlled in the arena, sheer dominance and power and little time to breathe when she’s on the prowl. Today, she is different. She stands strong, the entire arena in flames, and her opponent flees her fireballs and has no space to even begin to mount a counterattack. Regina flicks lazy fire at him, twists her wrist and plays with the wind to throw him against the walls of the arena, and then, when he is so weary that he can’t track where Regina is, coaxes him closer to her and plucks out his heart in a single motion. 

 

She still hasn’t moved from her circle. 

 

The crowd is stunned to silence. Emma runs through what she knows of Avalor– small team, only sometimes makes it to the regionals, big and popular realm– and wonders what they’d expected against a first-time team. Not this , Regina standing unruffled in the middle of the arena, looking bored. There are scattered boos and a few shouts of frustration, and then, a new cheer. “Four fights to victory! Three more wins! Three more wins!” 

 

Emma watches Regina. She walks back to her team, a muttered comment to Maleficent before she sits again, and she leans back against the wall behind her bench and glances up through the audience. Her face shifts– a warmth falling across it as though a shade has been pulled up to reveal the sunshine behind it– and she winks at someone down below Emma.

 

Emma squints, but she can’t make out anyone down there through the sea of Avalor fans. And by the time she gives up, the first Duo fight is over. Zelena hadn’t even fought. Maleficent had pulled out a heart without a second thought, had strode over to a cowering opponent and won in a moments. “You don’t understand,” one of their opponents is sobbing. “You won’t understand unless you’re in the arena with them–” 

 

The Avalor cheers are faltering. They’re on the verge of defeat, and they know it. Their last chance is if they can take the second Solo fight, and Emma is dubious. She watches as Misthaven’s next fighter emerges, and she leans forward. 

 

It’s the second woman who’d come with Gothel, the brunette who’d watched without a word. “They call her the Black Fairy,” someone is saying in the bleachers below Emma. “She plays all kinds of mind games–” 

 

Fiona , the announcer calls her, and she glides forward with a hungry smile on her face. Her magic seems to drift around her, like little wisps of dandelion floating in a light wind. Emma breathes in and catches a little bit of it, like a haze against her mind. 

 

The audience has fallen silent. There is a dreamy movement to how they shift in their seats, heads drifting back and eyes lidded. Emma tries to see what’s happening in the arena, but Fiona is only standing still, watching her opponent’s eyes glaze over. 

 

Emma closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, there is, in front of her, a girl in the woods with her hands outstretched. She’s so pretty , she thinks, lost in another time, and the girl shrieks at her and scolds her as Emma gapes at her. It’s the first time Emma has ever entered a pocket of magic, and her first exposure to magic altogether.

 

This isn’t real , she tells herself, and the scene in front of her changes. She is fighting in an arena, and Regina is fighting beside her. Their minds are locked, their hearts nearly joined, and they move like the wind. No , she thinks again, and now she is standing outside a bar in Hyperion Heights, staring in desolation as a very pregnant Regina is escorted outside by Daniel. He spots Emma first– points to her and then takes a step back, and Regina’s eyes flash as they settle on Emma.

 

Stop , she thinks firmly, and then– a confused-sounding announcer says drowsily, “The fight and the match go to Misthaven. Three fights to none.” 

 

The Avalor fans aren’t alert enough to boo. Emma blinks away the haze that Fiona’s magic had left the audience in. Everyone is shifting, yawning, as though they’d only just awakened. Fiona’s opponent looks bewildered, her heart in Fiona’s hand, and as the arena returns to normal, the haze only minutely disappears.

 

Emma looks down– sees Regina, still perfectly alert, as though she’d expected this somehow. She’s smiling grimly, and she’s already speaking to a reporter. “Emma! That was so trippy,” a cheerful voice says from in front of her, and Emma blinks at the boy who had just climbed the stairs toward her. Henry is beaming. “I had the weirdest visions just now. Fiona’s kind of creepy, but she does the coolest magic.” 

 

“I didn’t like it,” Emma says honestly. “What was that? Some kind of memory…thing?” 

 

Henry shrugs. “I don’t know. But it was awesome!” He bounds off, back down to the arena.

 

Emma thinks to call out, “You’re not here alone, are you?” But Henry’s already gone, and Emma makes a quick getaway before Regina notices that she’s here.

 

Regina’s team is exactly as strong as the rumors claim. And they’re unpredictable. A part of Emma wants to face them, to force a battle that her team might not win. But she’s mostly grateful that she won’t be facing them at all. 

 

She’ll leave that challenge to Agrabah, and worry about Agrabah when the time comes. Emma isn’t going to gamble Storybrooke’s future on ego, and this year– this Storybrooke– they’re going all the way.

 

She’s sure of it.

Chapter Text

“Emma, you were spotted at the Misthaven-Avalor game earlier this week. What do you think of Regina Mills’s fighting these days?” The reporter has caught up to her on her jog down Main Street. They’re hitting the point of the Proeliate when they’re actually newsworthy, a few human interest stories before attention turns to the top teams only. Emma plans to be one of those top teams this year, even if the media doesn’t know it yet. 

 

She schools her face to look careless. “Misthaven’s a new team,” she says dismissively, speeding up. “It’s important to familiarize ourselves with any opponents.” 

 

“And do you think Misthaven has what it takes to beat Agrabah?” the reporter wheezes, struggling to keep up with Emma.

 

Emma laughs. “I think Jasmine’s going to send them back to where they came from before they get in a blow.” Jasmine will like that blurb. Emma had fought her twice and been soundly trounced after a lengthy battle the first time. The second had been quicker and Emma had managed a win. “Maybe they can put up a fight against the others.” 

 

The reporter leans in. “Have you considered bringing Regina Mills to your team? You have that little girl who couldn’t beat Avalor–” 

 

“Lucy Vidrio could fight circles around Molinero,” Emma says sharply. “She’s one of the best we have. Top three on the team for sure.” She accelerates, leaving the reporter behind, and she fumes in silence.

 

She’d been seventeen when she’d started fighting professionally, old enough that it hadn’t been unheard of but young enough that the same murmurs had begun about her. Lucy is a child , but she’s a child with talent, and Emma thinks of what she might be at seventeen with awestruck wonder. 

 

If that reporter says one word about Lucy, Emma’s going to–

 

She takes a breath and stops outside Granny’s, leaning against the wall for a moment to cool off before she heads inside for some iced coffee. It’s early morning, and they’ve still got a few more days before they fight Wonderland. Battles are once a week before the championship rounds, at which point they’re twice as often. It allows for audience and media coverage for various regions on different days. 

 

Today, Emma recalls, Camelot is due to fight its first match without Marian. She doesn’t care for Camelot. Last year, Storybrooke had fought them in a showcase for charity, and they’d won the first one fight and lost the rest. They’ll be in the championship rounds, Emma’s sure of it. Camelot, Arendelle, and some of the other top teams. Maybe Olympus. Definitely Untold Stories. Storybrooke will have to take them all.

 

She drinks her coffee and feels her determination rise. Storybrooke can do it. But first, regionals. They might not be the flashiest of teams, but they’re solid and motivated, and Emma believes in them. 

 

First, Wonderland. Wonderland hadn’t even fought in the regionals last year. They’d been disqualified after an incident that Emma had heard vague facts about. A few injuries in the qualifying match? Accusations of fighting dirty? Something like that. Storybrooke has the power to handle a few underhanded attacks. 

 

“Emma!” She’s jolted from her brooding by Snow, who has emerged from the diner to join Emma in the outdoor seating area. She has a drink of her own, and she looks cheerful. “Did you see the feature on Mulan and Marian on the Web?” 

 

“Just say Internet, it’s less agonizing,” Emma says dryly. The Realm Wide Web . Because what is the United Realms if not a number of people from the Land Without Magic sneaking in old innovations to profit off of them? “Which site?” 

 

“Proeliate Today. They think that Marian is stronger than Ruby but the Duo pair has some work to do before they can fight well enough to compete.” Snow shrugs off that criticism. “I thought we could do a little more public practice and bring in the media to showcase what they can do–” 

 

Emma shakes her head. “They’re getting there,” she concedes. “But the media would be a distraction. Let them do their thing with Wonderland.” 

 

“Wonderland might be too late,” Snow says, and Emma looks at her sharply.

 

“What do you mean?” 

 

Snow shrugs unhappily. “You’ve always counted on Misthaven sponsors,” she says reluctantly. “A lot of the people in my kingdom have thought of the Storybrooke team as theirs. Until now.” 

 

Emma looks sidelong at her. “You’re kidding. They think Team Misthaven represents them? Misthaven has been pretty clear that they’re only doing this for themselves. They’re only Team Misthaven because Gold owns the rights to it–” 

 

“Regardless,” Snow says, drumming her fingers against the table. “We’ve lost a few sponsors since they beat Avalor. More are threatening to follow.” 

 

Emma shrugs. “We’ll get more when we start winning. Misthaven is out next week, anyway.” 

 

“I don’t know.” Snow looks troubled. “They performed above expectations against Avalor. And if they beat Agrabah, then we won’t stand a chance with the sponsors.” This is Snow’s job, to chase after sponsors and promotions, but Emma always feels as though she’s being held personally responsible when they lose someone. There is something about the furrow in Snow’s brow when she looks at Emma, the uncertainty to her delicate words.

 

Snow hadn’t always been their manager. She’s a queen , after all, and even passive monarchies like Misthaven’s usually have something to do. She’d joined Team Storybrooke eleven years ago, “On the wild notion,” as she likes to tell reporters, “That their new star Duo fighter looked just like my husband.”

 

Their story had unraveled from there, and Emma had discovered that yes , like every little girl dreams, she’d been a secret princess. A series of miscommunications and a malicious plot by a villain who no longer exists had meant that Emma had grown up for fifteen years in the Land Without Magic as an orphan, and another three years in Storybrooke before she’d been discovered by Snow. 

 

Snow makes the occasional overture to Emma, inviting her to be the princess that she’d been born to become. Emma politely declines. She’d tried it for a few months early on, Regina arriving at balls with her with the grace of a queen and muttering quiet commentary in her ears. Regina had been much better at it than Emma had, and she’d been mistaken as Princess Emma most of the time. 

 

That had been where they’d met Leopold, too.

 

Emma swallows back a brief wave of nausea, Thankfully, Snow misses it. “There is an opportunity,” she says slowly. “We’re throwing a ball in the palace next weekend. It’ll be just after the Wonderland match–” 

 

“I don’t do balls, Snow,” Emma says, her voice strained. 

 

“You could bring the team,” Snow goes on. “There will be a number of potential sponsors there. Let them see you in Misthaven and get to know you. You’re much more personable as a team than Gold’s group. I’m sure you can gain some sponsors– or at least retain the ones you’re hemorrhaging.” She looks expectant, and Emma sighs internally. 

 

“I’ll talk to them about it,” she concedes, though she has no intention of doing so. Team Storybrooke has always gotten by with their sponsors– enough to live on, if not enough for them to buy mansions on Mifflin or go on monthly cruises through Atlantis like some other teams. Emma has seen footage of the castle arena that Arendelle has built or those grand blimps in Untold Stories. Those are teams that win enough for Realms-wide sponsorships. Storybrooke is just trying to stay afloat.

 

Snow smiles widely. “Good,” she says. “I have a few dresses that I’ve found that might suit you, but you’ll have to get properly fitted for them. Maybe we can set up a time before practice this week–” 

 

“Yeah, maybe,” Emma says vaguely, forcing a smile. “Look, I’m all sweaty and gross from my run. I’m going to head out to the arena to take a shower before a camera finds me and I lose some more sponsors.” 

 

She makes a hasty retreat before Snow can object, hurrying to the safety of the arena. 

 

It’s not that she doesn’t want to make Snow happy. It’s just that Snow’s happiness is so contingent on Emma being the girl Snow had dreamed of, and Emma falls far too short of that. The only place where she has a chance of living up to Snow’s expectations is in the arena, and she’d prefer to focus on that.

 

Mulan and Marian are already practicing in the arena when Emma enters, Mulan with a sword made of pure energy that looks suspiciously like a lightsaber and Marian with a glowing crossbow instead of her typical bow and arrow. They’re fighting each other, though they’re hilariously poorly matched as opponents. Marian specializes in distance battles; Mulan in direct combat. They keep missing each other and then backing up again, laughing helplessly.

 

Emma watches them, keeping back so as to not intrude. The laughing, she thinks, is more important than the training. They both know how to fight. Now, they have to learn how to be friends.

 

When she’d fought in Duos, it had been a question of tolerating her partner at first. Regina hadn’t liked her at first– had found her exasperating, and then resented her when Cora had forced them to train together. Emma had called Regina a rich snob a dozen times a day, and Regina had just smirked, I can still beat you, though , and then unleashed an attack on her. 

 

They’d disliked each other right up until the day that Regina had shown up after skipping practice, disheveled and clutching her throat, in Emma’s room. She had never explained why– who had hurt her, Cora or Gold– but Emma had brought her inside silently and held Regina in her arms. Regina had been snippier in the morning, more resentful than before after showing Emma a moment of weakness, but Emma’s insults had stopped, and Regina had come back the next time and the next.

 

They’d taken to sleeping in a bed together, Regina wrapped in Emma’s arms. It had been a quiet sort of struggle for Emma, who’d been terrified of telling Regina what it had done to her each night. But one day, Emma had thought about it and couldn’t remember the last time that they’d fought, and that had been it. 

 

She shivers as she remembers it, the certainty that had come with a partner in the arena. Mulan and Marian aren’t there yet, but they will be someday. And Emma will be…

 

She brushes aside the thought, gritting her teeth, and goes off to freshen up.

 

By the time she’s done, the rest of the team is there. They’re gathered around August’s laptop, Lucy perched up in front and the others behind her, and the Camelot fights are ongoing. “There’s Arthur,” Emma says, recognizing the Solo player up now. “I punched him in the face once last year and he crumpled.” 

 

“I remember,” Marian says, grinning. “He deserved it.” He’s doing much better against Nottingham, a team Emma doesn’t know at all. Next up is the first Duos, handily won by Lancelot and Guinevere, and then the second Solo fight.

 

“Oh, hey, there’s the girl who made August cry,” Lily says suddenly, jabbing a finger at a tall girl on the Camelot bench. “Violet, right?” 

 

August gives Lily a dirty look. “Okay, first of all, she didn’t make me cry . I was exhausted, but I wasn’t crying . And she wasn’t a girl . She was at least–” 

 

“Thirteen last year, I think,” Lily says brightly. “I checked. You got your ass kicked by a thirteen-year-old, and we’ll never forget it.” August sputters.

 

“Never underestimate magical girls,” Emma says, slinging an arm around Lucy. Lucy beams at her. “Is she fighting next?” 

 

But the girl doesn’t get up. Instead, the man who appears from Camelot’s side has them all grimacing and glancing at Marian. “It’s fine,” she says, eyes glued to the screen. “Don’t get uncomfortable on my account. I left him.” 

 

Robin Hood, Emma remembers the name. He fumbles a few of the early blows but does decently well. Mulan says, “I didn’t think anyone would leave you ,” and Marian smiles suddenly at her. 

 

“The team was furious,” she says, shaking her head. “They have enough power in Camelot that I barely got out with joint custody of Roland. I didn’t get a coin of our earnings that year because they insisted that I sabotaged my contract by wanting a divorce.” 

 

“Nice.” Jefferson rolls his eyes. “Wonderland tried something like that with me. I fought them until I got a fraction of what I should have.” 

 

“I didn’t want to fight,” Marian says, shaking her head. “I just wanted out. I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if Emma hadn’t dragged me, kicking and screaming, onto Team Storybrooke,” she says wryly. “Probably in the woods somewhere, trying to build a house by myself.” 

 

“That’s how I lived before Team Storybrooke,” August says, rolling his eyes. “Though I did have the motorcycle.” 

 

“You guys had houses?” Lily asks, mock-envious. Emma glances around at her team, it registering for the first time how many of them had arrived off the streets. Lily and August she’d known about, orphan wanderers just like her. But Jefferson had lived in that little hut with his daughter before he’d joined Team Wonderland, hadn’t he? 

 

She wonders uncomfortably how much of a toll there might be on her teammates if they lose their sponsors. Emma does decently well for herself as the face of the team– has personal sponsorships and fights in tournaments for prize money. But the others aren’t all so fortunate. 

 

She clears her throat. “Actually, how do you guys feel about a castle? Snow wants us to attend a ball–” 

 

“A ball ?” Lily echoes, her voice singsong. “Will I find a handsome prince there?” 

 

“You will find some wealthy sponsors there,” Emma corrects her, and Lily watches her with knowing eyes. She gets it, even if the others don’t. “Look, I know it sucks to do, like…the bureaucracy bits of the Proeliate, but a ball might be fun, right?” 

 

Lucy bobs her head. August looks skeptical. Marian, who must have gotten it, too, says firmly, “Of course it will be. And it’s the perfect way to celebrate after we beat Wonderland.” 

 

Jefferson sighs. “Wonderland,” he echoes grimly. “We can take them,” he says hastily. “It’s just not going to be as easy as Andalasia.” 

 

“Better than fighting Agrabah next round,” Lily points out. “So we’ll get rough and tumble with Wonderland. No big deal.”

 

“I fought with them for a year,” Jefferson remembers. “I didn’t even know myself by the end of it.” He shakes his head, a dark shadow passing across his face. “We’ll be careful,” he says, and Lily laughs.

 

“We’ll win ,” she corrects him, and shuts the laptop before the mood gets too tense. “Come on. Let’s go practice before you all doom-and-gloom yourselves into losing.” 

 


 

Wonderland . The baggage that comes with that name is from before Regina had existed, from years of her childhood and Zelena’s. Strange, how these things refuse to flee the mind, how they lurk like ghosts in the shadows until the moment they return to focus.

 

Mother had fought for Wonderland, back before they’d been born.

 

Zelena had been born out of wedlock, a scandal that might have interfered with Mother’s fighting if Mother hadn’t left her behind, dropped her at a doorstep of a family in town and didn’t return for her until Zelena herself had figured out what had happened to her. Regina had been the nail on the coffin of Mother’s career. 

 

Few associate Cora Mills with Regina, particularly because Cora Mills had never been well known. She had gone by the name Queen of Hearts in the arena, a vicious fighter who would stop at nothing to win. She had taken the Wonderland team apart and rebuilt it into something dangerous; and when she’d been on the verge of completion, she’d been dismissed from the team. 

 

Mother had never been able to prove that it had been her pregnancy that had been the cause. None of her teammates had known, though Mother had always blamed Eva of Misthaven for passing on the information. But when she’d returned to Wonderland, it had been only in a management capacity, and she had left her impact on them again. 

 

It doesn’t matter to Regina– not for Emma’s sake, who doesn’t deserve Regina’s concern– but she worries about what Lucy might find there. They’d had a younger girl on the team when Mother had been managing them, a sweet eleven-year-old named Alice who’d been destroyed by Mother’s tactics. Lucy will not be hurt like Alice was. Lucy has to escape this intact.

 

Regina grits her teeth and returns to her practice. “Look alive, sis,” Zelena calls, unleashing a wave of emerald electricity her way. Regina deflects it, hurling a force of wind at Zelena in response. “We should do Duos next round,” Zelena says. “If they put Jasmine in Duos–” 

 

“They won’t,” Ursula says. Cruella is hurling ping-pong balls at Ursula to hone her accuracy, and Ursula’s glowing tentacles swipe away every one. “She only fights in Duos with Aladdin, and that kid he fights with isn’t strong enough on his own to do Solo fights. Who would they pair him with?”

 

“I’m more worried about Jafar in Solos,” Regina says grimly. “This isn’t a match to mix things up for.” 

 

Gold eyes them both. “Duos,” he decides. “Both of you. We take no chances.” Regina looks sharply at him– she’d said she wouldn’t fight in Duos, that it would be one of her conditions for joining the team– but he only stands there, a slight smile on his face as though he knows exactly what she’s thinking. 

 

She considers fighting him on it, but the others are watching her, all of them taking their cues from her. There is no one she can force into Duos instead, and she has long ago learned that there is nothing beneficial to fighting Gold. “Very well,” she says, nails carving half moons into her hands. 

 

She practices with Zelena for another hour before she’s exhausted– not physically, but at the air in the arena, at the crackling of the fights and the way the others taunt each other. There is something about bending to Gold that drains everything out of her, but she sees no other options.

 

She glances at the time and notices, to her relief, that it’s already five. “I’ve got to go get Henry,” she says, stepping out of her circle. “Look, can you keep going without me?” 

 

She digs her phone out of her bag, which had been on the bench behind her and looks suspiciously singed, and winces at the blackened sides of it. Zelena must have fried it. But the screen still seems to be working, and she calls Henry.

 

The phone crackles when it rings, and Henry’s voice sounds oddly distorted through it. “Mom!” he says, and there is an element of something to his voice that puts Regina on guard. “I’m still out with Lucy. I thought you’d be practicing late?” 

 

“I wouldn’t miss dinner with you, sweetheart,” she says, listening through the static.

 

“I can barely hear you,” Henry says.

 

Regina grimaces. “It’s my phone. Your aunt fried it. I’ll meet you at home in ten for dinner?” She likes that Storybrooke is a safe, secure town, mostly free of unsavory types and demons. Still, there is a part of her that worries every time Henry is out unsupervised. 

 

Henry hesitates. “I’m kind of…doing a thing,” he says, and now he sounds distinctly shifty. 

 

“What kind of thing?”

 

“It’s…uh…” She hears another voice in the background, familiar even through the static, and then, to her surprise, Emma speaks into the phone.

 

“You must be Henry’s mother,” she says cheerfully. “He’s told me all about you. Only good things,” she says with a little laugh. “Or, at least, I’ve taken them as positives,” and Regina squints at her phone. Through the static, it sounds almost like Emma is flirting with her.

 

She clears her throat. “Ms. Swan,” she says formally. 

 

Maybe it’s the static, but Emma doesn’t seem to register that it’s Regina on the other line. “You know me!” she says, sounding delighted. “From what I hear, you have impeccable taste and a mean right hand in the arena,” she says. “Just my kind of woman.” And that flirting is definitely not Regina’s imagination. “I’ve been practicing with Henry for the past few days. Why don’t you come down here and see what he can do?” 

 

Henry hasn’t mentioned a word about Emma. He’s been with Lucy, so Regina had known that he might meet her, but not some kind of personal practice. Not forging any special connection to her. 

 

This is a disaster. She would never have allowed it. Does Jacinda know? Lucy and Henry, she expects this from, and Emma seems oblivious, but…

 

She takes a breath. “I think I will,” she says shortly. 

 

“I’m looking forward to it,” Emma says, her voice deep and inviting. It sends a little flush of warmth through Regina, and she shakes it off, annoyed with herself. 

 

She shuts off her phone and says shortly to Gold, “I’m leaving.” 

 

He isn’t fazed. “I can see that.” That’s the thing with Gold. He knows when he’s on the verge of pushing her too far, and he never quite gets there. Regina is left frustrated and annoyed, ready to take out her irritation on him but with no outlet. 

 

She jumps in a portal and hurries to the Storybrooke arena, ready for a fight, and she shoves the doors open and finds, to her surprise, that Henry is standing in the center of the arena. “Good,” Emma says, her back to the door. “Try this.” She claps her hands, and a glowing, massive beach ball appears over Henry’s head, dropping down to him. 

 

He looks up at it, his face scrunched up like it always does when he’s thinking hard, and the beach ball vanishes as though it had never been there. “Good!” Emma says. “This is great defensive work. You’ll be the kind of fighter who can’t do Solo fights, I think. It’s harder to seal the deal when you can only really do environmental changes. But no one’s ever going to want to fight your Duo pair.” She claps a hand on his back. 

 

Henry smiles up at her, then sees Regina and beams. “Mom!” he says, not without a tic in his eye that might be guilty. 

 

Emma says, turning grandly, “The woman of the hour! Is this the famous– Regina.” The sentence ends flat, and Emma’s eyes are very wide. Regina can see the way that she does the mental calculations, puts together Henry’s age and the baby bump that she’d seen in Hyperion Heights ten years ago. “You’re Henry’s mother,” she says, her voice flat.

 

Lucy, on the other side of the arena, says, “Wow! I had no idea!” They both give her dark looks, then they notice the other’s and glower at each other instead. Regina feels a headache coming on. This is exactly the last thing that she’d needed today. 

 

“What have you been doing with him?” she demands.

 

Emma glances back at Henry, who shoots Regina a pleading look. Please , she knows he’s thinking. Please don’t take this away from me . He loves the Proeliate, dreams of being a part of it someday, and Emma is one of his idols. Regina wavers. Emma says, “He has this ability…you know he’s a True Believer, yeah?”

 

“I had an inkling,” Regina concedes. Henry looks at her, betrayed. “It doesn’t matter ,” she says. “You’re not fighting in the Proeliate anytime soon.” 

 

“It matters!” Henry says hotly. “I did some research and I know that the ability can fade after childhood if it isn’t caught early! Who knows how much longer I’d have it?”

 

“Henry,” Regina says tiredly. “I know you. You were never going to lose it.” True Believers tend younger because the youngest children have the idealism that older ones lack. But with Henry, it’s bundled into his identity. He’s a dreamer, and he is so deep in his mind that this is who he will always be. “I don’t want this for you. You know that.” 

 

“I just want to understand it,” Henry says, pleading again. “Emma’s been helping me. Just like you helped her, see? When you were kids.” 

 

Regina gives Emma a sharp look. Emma spreads her hands. “I have no idea how he knows about that. I didn’t even know he was your kid until now.” 

 

“We know lots of stuff,” Lucy says, straightening. Emma looks at her, alarmed. Lucy grins.

 

“Look,” Emma says, and she glances at Henry again. Something visible within her softens at the sight of him, standing all alone in front of Regina, and she offers Regina an uncertain smile. “Whatever these two did, we’re both here now. And Henry wants to learn. It doesn’t mean he’ll be starting in the Proeliate next year–” 

 

“But you said–” Henry protests. Regina turns sharp eyes on Emma.

 

Emma says, louder, “It just means that if he does fight in the future, he’ll be good enough to take on anyone. Right?” 

 

Regina sucks in a breath, then releases it. “Right,” she agrees.

 

Emma’s smile blooms, and Regina’s heart pounds a little faster in her ears. When she’d been young, she’d thrived on Emma’s smiles, on the look on her face when she’d seen Regina. Emma had always been capable of calming Regina, of making her feel safe. Her body remembers it all, and the resentment is hard to find. “Why don’t you see what Henry can do?” Emma says. “I think you’ll be impressed.” 

 

She jabs a button on the side of the arena that starts a fight, and Regina takes her place in a circle. When the buzzer sounds, she flicks her wrist and sets every circle in the arena on fire. 

 

Henry closes his eyes, and the fire disappears. Regina flicks her wrist again, but the fire is gone before it rises more than a foot. Emma says, “Watch this.” She swings a fist around like she’s about to punch someone, and light erupts from her fist and fades into nothing before it can touch Henry. 

 

“He’d be no match for you,” Regina points out. “You rarely actually use your magic.” 

 

Emma inclines her neck, conceding the point. “You used to get so annoyed by that,” she says, and she turns to Lucy and Henry, her voice turning conspiratorial. “ Do you even want your magic? Or do you want to brawl in some imaginary Fight Club? ” she mimics Regina, right down to the cadence of her voice.

 

Regina glowers at her, then rolls her eyes for the kids’ sake. “As you can guess, the answer was the latter,” she says. “Ms. Swan has always just wanted to punch people.” 

 

“I punched Gold once,” Emma says, sounding very nostalgic. “It was the best thing I’d ever done.” 

 

“You did not.” Regina would have remembered that. Mother wouldn’t have taken it from Emma, whom she’d always tolerated for the sake of Regina’s success and nothing more. “When was that?” 

 

Emma blinks, her face firming. “The day we fought Arendelle,” she says stiffly. “He had called you…something. I didn’t like it. Snow fought for me to be allowed to fight anyway, but it didn’t matter in the end.” 

 

Regina doesn’t like to think about that day, and particularly not what had happened to her team without her. But she freezes at this new admission, that Emma had defended her after she’d disappeared and left them in the lurch. “You always did pick the wrong battles,” she says, and she’s horrified at the note of fondness in her voice. 

 

It seems to warm Emma up. “Strong words from someone who picked them all,” she says. “Was there anyone you didn’t want to fight when you were seventeen?” 

 

“You fought a lot in the Proeliate?” Lucy asks. She’s hopped off her bench to join Henry. Both children are leaning forward, enthralled by hints of a history they know from everyone but the people involved.

 

Emma laughs aloud. “I didn’t mean in the Proeliate,” she says. “Remember that guy who wouldn’t leave me alone? Used to hang out in the diner every morning to harass me?” She turns back to Henry and Lucy. “Henry’s mom set his butt on fire when he tried to sit down next to me one day. Then she dragged him outside. I don’t know what she said to him, but I never saw him again.” 

 

Regina shrugs, raising her eyebrows at the children. “I just explained to him that I thought he would do better in a hell realm than here. Politely. With a brief tour included.”

 

“How brief?” Henry asks, eyes wide.

 

Regina considers. “Well, it’s been twelve years, so definitely not more than that. So far.” She can feel the sharp points of the smile she offers them. “I don’t like it when adults harass children.” 

 

“I want to make it clear that I’m the one being harassed here,” Emma says swiftly, and Regina is the recipient of another Emma smile. Her heart aches, and she feels the sudden desire to escape. Or to stay , which is so much worse. “Henry and Lucy are the ones chasing me .” 

 

“You seem very choked up about it,” Regina says dryly.

 

Emma pouts. “They wanted me to hold off on dinner to fight with them! Have you ever known me to willingly miss dinner?” 

 

“I’ve never known you to willingly miss a crumb,” Regina says, and this is– too comfortable. Too casual and familiar, as though eleven years haven’t passed since they’d been friends, and her stomach churns at the reminder. They aren’t friends now. Regina is bearing a grudge the size of the past ten years toward Emma, and she can’t thaw now over a few smiles and memories. 

 

She takes a breath. “I need to take Henry,” she says. “It’s dinnertime. Lucy, are you coming?” 

 

“Can Emma come, too?” Lucy asks, her face extremely and suspiciously innocent as she asks. “I bet she’d love your chicken enchiladas.” 

 

Regina shoots Lucy a disbelieving look. Emma snorts. “I think she’d love it more if I choked on one and dropped dead.” She puts up a hand. “Know when to give up, kid. No one’s been set on fire yet today, and that’s a victory.” 

 

“Night’s still young,” Regina points out, and she feels unreasonably disappointed when Emma rolls her eyes instead of grinning. Stop , she tells herself. Stop . Don’t forget what Emma Swan took from you .

 

Lucy and Henry take their time packing up, and Regina steps out of the arena to avoid being alone with Emma too long. She takes long breaths, staring up at the sky where the sun is dropping low behind the trees. This is a new wrench in the works, Emma with Henry. She contemplates banning Henry from seeing Emma.

 

That would just encourage him. Regina winces. 

 

“I really didn’t know he was yours,” Emma says. She’s slipped out behind Regina, apparently much less wary of being alone with Regina. In the orange sunlight, the stray hairs that hover a little above the rest are a deep gold, and Emma’s eyes are more blue than green. “I guess I should have realized. You have the same eyes.” 

 

Regina turns, and Emma says, “But it’s good to know that we can be civil, huh, Molinero?” 

 

If she smiles again, Regina might just lose herself. Instead, she blurts out something else, the shadow that’s been hovering over her all day. “Be careful with Wonderland,” she says suddenly. “They’re going to try to hurt you.” 

 

Emma scoffs. “That’s the point of the Proeliate,” she says, unimpressed.

 

“No. Not like that.” Regina doesn’t know how to describe it, the fear that had rippled over her around Wonderland. “Nothing that fades away when the buzzer sounds. They’re–” She wrings her hands, distressed at Emma’s disinterest and at her own chagrin. “It’s–” 

 

“I can handle myself,” Emma says coolly. “I’ve had eleven years on my own, thanks for that. I don’t need your help.” 

 

“I’m not trying to help you,” Regina snaps, annoyed. “I couldn’t care less about what happens to you. I’m just letting you know–” She stops at the stubborn set of Emma’s brow. “You know what? Forget it. I hope Wonderland bleeds you dry.” 

 

“I hope Jasmine crushes you under her foot,” Emma shoots back. “If you even make it to the third Solo fight.” 

 

Regina curls her lip. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not in Solos next match,” she says, and that knowledge only feels good in this moment, when Emma’s face turns hard and hurt. “I’m fighting in Duos.” 

 

They’ve never– let’s never fight with a different partner, Regina had once vowed, hand tight in Emma’s after they’d fought their first official battle. And they never had, not as partners and never even since then. Emma hasn’t fought a single Duos fight since Regina had left. The media has always speculated about it, about what commitment she’d had to her long-lost Duos partner. Regina has watched interviews and been angry at nothingness.

 

“Great,” Emma says, and Regina can hear the pitch of her voice, the way the hurt makes it high and a little rough. “Fine. Enjoy it. Maybe I will, too. Lily’s been hounding me for years.” 

 

That staggering hurt goes both ways, it seems, and Regina feels every muscle in her body stiffen at once. “You should,” she says. “What are you waiting for, anyway?”

 

Emma looks at her, her face sharp and pale and angular, and she says, “None of your business, Molinero.” She says Regina’s old fighting name like a curse, and Regina takes a step back. “Enjoy your dinner.” 

 

She spits out the words, harsh and agitated, and she turns and storms away while Regina watches, slow fire boiling up in her belly and her heart clenched into a tight, immovable fist.

Chapter Text

After all the drama and the breathless excitement from the media, there is no competition. Regina is nearly as surprised as everyone else. 

 

The format of the matches this round is Duos first, Solos second. Cruella and Ursula have been itching for a chance to prove themselves in the Proeliate, and they stand defiantly in their chosen circles, on opposite sides of the arena, and await their opponents. 

 

Tiny Abu is a child, but not quite human. There are magical protohumans all over the place, if you know where to look– Ursula is one as well– but Abu hardly looks human. He perches in the same circle as Aladdin, atop his shoulder, and Cruella says dubiously, “Is that permitted?” 

 

“Since when do you care what’s permitted?” Ursula says, bored. 

 

Aladdin eyes them warily. Good . At the postgame interviews last week, Regina had instructed them all to be blase about their potential defeat by Agrabah, unimpressed with the reigning regionals champions. They haven’t upped their training regime, have showed no sign of intimidation, and it seems to have done what she’d hoped that it would do. Emma Swan might announce that she’s sure Misthaven will lose, but even she must know that Misthaven isn’t wisely ignored.

 

The buzzer sounds. The preliminary matches don’t have much fanfare, but this is already the second round, and there’s an announcer. “From the start, we have four star players in the arena. Aladdin and Abu were ranked in the top ten Duo pairs in the League last year, and they begin with a strong defense. Watch their movements– they’re known to be tricksters, and they often have an underlying strategy– oh, there it is…” 

 

Aladdin and Abu have moved quickly, faster than Regina can track them. One second, they’re in front of Cruella; the next, behind Ursula. Ursula has unleashed her tentacles, whipping them around to catch Abu, but he jumps onto them and leaps from one to the other, swinging across them as though they’re vines on a tree.

 

Cruella’s dogs have encountered a very different problem. “We can all see here that Aladdin and Abu have the perfect skill set for their opponents,” the announcer says, and Regina lets out an internal sigh.

 

Zelena leans forward. “Has anyone mentioned to the announcer that he isn’t working for Agrabah?” 

 

“Ignore him,” Regina says, watching as Aladdin scratches one of the dogs behind his ears. They’re made of magic, meant to be Cruella’s attackers, but they seem nearly fond of Aladdin. This is always the problem with Cruella’s hounds. He winks at one of the dogs and then leaps up, running up the nearly vertical slope of the walls of the arena and then dropping directly onto Cruella, feet-first. 

 

“Amazing footwork by Aladdin!” the announcer says. Regina catches sight of Henry in the crowd, clutching an action figure worriedly from beside Sabine. Lucy is squeezed in next to him– this time, Storybrooke is in the second shift– but that must mean that–

 

Regina’s eyes flicker away from the arena floor just as Ursula slams a tentacle into Abu and the announcer gasps. “Ooh! That’s got to hurt! Is this our first injury of the season? No?” He pauses, and then says, “Second, actually. I’m told that Jekyll of Untold Stories was removed from a fight with a concussion just ten minutes ago.” There’s a murmur through the crowd. Untold Stories is one of the better teams in the Proeliate, and Jekyll one of their top fighters. If this ends well, he’ll be gone in–

 

Thoughts of Untold Stories fade from Regina’s mind as she catches sight of them . Up near the middle of the arena, a dozen rows behind Henry and Lucy, are the rest of the Storybrooke fighters. And in the center of them, her girlfriend pulled in close beside her, is Emma, eyes boring into Regina. 

 

The girlfriend– Lily , Maleficent’s daughter– nudges Emma and points at something in the arena. Regina doesn’t see what. Instead, her eyes are locked with Emma’s, the two of them glaring at each other as they stare. The announcer says, “Aladdin’s going to have a hard time coming back from that attack,” and Regina doesn’t budge. She can still feel Emma’s presence in the room, that magical signature that still tries instinctively to bond with Regina’s, and Regina shoves it back , away

 

“Why is it always about Aladdin? Why not talk about Ursula’s incredible maneuver there?” Zelena is complaining, but Regina doesn’t budge. Zelena pokes her hard. “Henry is trying to catch your eye,” she says, and Regina shakes her head, turns abruptly to find Henry again.

 

Henry is talking to Lucy and pointing wildly to the arena floor, oblivious to Regina’s stare. Regina glowers at Zelena. “He is not.” 

 

“No,” Zelena concedes, “But if you’re going to spend our entire fight looking up at your ex up there, we don’t stand a chance.” She makes a face as Regina stares at her. “Ugh. Emma Swan always ruins everything.” 

 

“You’re telling me,” Regina says dryly. The announcer is growing agitated– the narrative he’d expected is unraveling, Cruella’s dogs turned at last on Abu and Ursula’s tentacles wrapped around Aladdin. The tide has turned, and Misthaven is in control. “And she isn’t my ex,” Regina remembers to add. “Never was.” 

 

“Oh, please,” Zelena scoffs. “I was there the night before the championship, remember? I know what she offered you. No one does that without some feelings.” 

 

Regina blinks at Zelena. Zelena shrugs. “I suppose they weren’t mutual.” 

 

“Emma would have,” Regina feels obligated to point out. “Made that offer, I mean. Without feelings. She wanted to win , and she thought it was the only way to keep me in the championship.” In the end, it hadn’t mattered. Regina wouldn’t have done that to Emma, and she’d only ever had one real option. “Winning was everything to Emma. She thought it was the only way that Snow would ever be proud of her.” She grimaces. That had been more thought on Emma Swan than she likes to spare.

 

“Lucky for her, she gets a few more rounds before we wipe Storybrooke out in the finals,” Zelena says cheerily. “If Wonderland doesn’t destroy her first. Or…” She glances down at her phone. “No news from the other side of the bracket yet, but Wishverse is favored in their match. Storybrooke can probably take them, but they like to bring in new players to match their opponents.” She scrolls through something on her phone. “Ooh, do you think they’ll find a Wished Regina to fight Emma?”

 

“I’d rather save that for when it matters,” Regina says grimly. The announcer, shouting over them, is stymied. Ursula has been casually strangling Aladdin while Cruella’s dogs chase Abu, and he’s outraged at the poor sportsmanship that comes with a drawn out battle right now. Aladdin tosses something at Ursula’s tentacles and it explodes in a burst of energy, drawing cheers from the crowd.

 

“Do it now,” Regina mutters, lifting a finger in warning at Ursula. 

 

She nods. Unfortunately, the announcer catches it. “Team captain Regina Mills has given a signal to her teammates, which means– oh, there we go–” Cruella traps Abu in a circle of slavering dogs, and Ursula retrieves Aladdin before any more tentacles can be severed. They both draw out both hearts– unnecessary but appropriately flashy– and the buzzer sounds to end the game, both women raising their hearts high until they fade.

 

The crowd cheers, but it’s slow and confused, eager to applaud a good battle but at a loss at how handily Agrabah had dropped a fight.

 

“Oh, just wait,” Regina murmurs under her breath, and she steps out as the announcer declares it time for the second Duo. Zelena trails after her, and Regina feels Emma’s energy around her again, harsh and betrayed. She brushes it away, waiting until their opponents have emerged from their bench before she picks her circle. She hadn’t wanted to be here, and she wants to luxuriate in Emma’s heartbreak. But instead, it falls flat on her, her heart cold and unhappy.

 

“Bold move from Misthaven’s Mills,” the announcer says. “She takes the circle directly in front of Iago’s. Jafar, meanwhile, has taken a circle across the arena, in keeping with his skill as a distance fighter.” They’re all distance fighters. Except for Zelena, who can be unpredictable, all four of them tend to fight from afar. Regina is counting on it. “The Mills sisters have never fought in Duos together before, but they’re both formidable fighters. The question today is if Jafar and Iago can overwhelm them with their top-notch mag–” 

 

The buzzer sounds while the announcer goes on, and Regina springs to action. She swings her hands, lighting the arena on fire, and the crowd shouts as she catches a blow from Jafar’s energy staff and returns it. The air is full of magic– fireballs, lightning, surges of crackling energy and the birdlike screeching from Iago as he hurtles toward them– and Regina loses herself in it, a battle finally worthy of her. 

 

Zelena is on a broomstick she’s conjured, fighting an aerial battle with Iago for the audiences above, and Jafar turns his attention on Regina. “You’re mine,” he growls, and red energy seems to tear itself from his staff, hypnotic, as Regina sways to it. 

 

This is what he does, Regina remembers. She’d done the research before the match, and it had been in nearly every fight Jafar had ever fought. The red energy, the frozen opponent. Zelena had discussed it with her. They’re supposed to jolt each other out of it, watch out for the energy and stop Jafar before he could immobilize the other, but Zelena is absorbed in her fight with Iago, close to victory. Regina struggles to move, to break out of this trance, but her legs won’t lift up. Her heart is moving so slowly that it feels as though it might stop.

 

CUT IT OUT . The thought is sharp as a knife in her head, slicing through the haze of red that has her frozen. Regina hears the voice behind it, Emma seemingly more irritated with the idea of Regina being defeated by Jafar than of Regina winning her fight, and it throws the red energy out of her mind in an instant.

 

Jafar hasn’t noticed. He stalks closer to her, his face twisted into a sneer, and Regina struggles to keep the same blank, dazed expression on her face as he approaches. She doesn’t move until he’s in her circle, a hand outstretched, and then she snaps into action, throws up a shield around her chest, and slams her hand into his chest to seize Jafar’s heart.

 

She holds it high as the buzzer sounds, fury enveloping her, and she doesn’t smile at the crowd. She can’t even bear to smile at Henry. She only stands with a heart in her hand until it fades away into nothing, and she doesn’t turn to look at Zelena or murmur anything to Gothel before she strides from their bench and into the bleachers. 

 

She takes the outer staircases, the area behind them crowded with people grabbing refreshments or running to the bathrooms. Out here, she gets a few glances at her jumpsuit– they recognize her now, and a few people even venture her name, as though they might ask for her autograph.

 

She doesn’t respond. Instead, she hurries to the fourth floor, just outside where Emma had been sitting, and pushes open the doors that lead back to the arena bleachers. 

 

Emma is standing there, one eye on the arena– Jasmine is flying on a magic carpet, Gothel on a beanstalk that rises nearly as tall as Jasmine’s carpet but still clearly with the lower hand– and the other waiting for Regina. She says, “I didn’t do it on purpose.” 

 

Regina lowers her voice, cold and furious. “Don’t come to my fights again. Don’t you dare interfere with another–” If the referee hadn’t sensed the energy between them, he wouldn’t have known that it hadn’t been a fair victory. But it’s enough to leave a bad taste in Regina’s mouth. “Stay away from me.” 

 

“I was hoping you’d lose,” Emma snaps. “I didn’t mean to help you.” She’s in her Storybrooke jumpsuit already, her hair tied back in anticipation for her own fight, and she looks like she’s still eighteen. It sends a curious little wave of frustration and wanting through Regina, and she shoves both away.

 

“I’ll report you next time,” Regina hisses. “Get us both disqualified.” 

 

Emma scoffs. “No one would believe that I was able to get into your head after eleven years. I don’t even believe it.” She takes a step back. “Go enjoy your Duos wins,” she says coolly. “Jasmine’s going to take you down in Solos.” 

 

She’s right, of course. Jasmine defeats Gothel in a drawn-out battle, but it’s still over for Agrabah. Their Duos are their strongest fighters, and Mal goes up against Agrabah’s Genie and flies circles around him before he can transform his way out of her grasp. There is no question that Misthaven had crushed the regional champions, and Regina hates Emma a little more than usual for making the victory feel so sour.

 

The crowd is in shock. The announcer keeps saying, “ Impossible . It’s… impossible . Agrabah has lost its Top Four seed for the first time in decades. This is the team that won the Proeliate itself four years ago, beating out Arendelle for the championship. And Misthaven’s brand new team has…” 

 

Regina forces a smile through the cold fury that has suffused her and prepares for interviews. There are many to come, and they are all incredulous. For the first time, all eyes are on Misthaven.    

 

“It’s just unprecedented,” chatters one interviewer while they sit, bored, in the interview rooms. “Between Agrabah and Untold Stories, the landscape of the Proeliate is going to look drastically different this year. Do you see any other challenges coming up in the regional semifinals and finals?”

 

“No one’s on our level,” Zelena drawls. “What? Am I supposed to be intimidated by a ten-year-old girl?” 

 

Regina kicks her ankle hard. It doesn’t escape the notice of the interviewer. “Is that a soft spot for the region’s youngest fighter that I see?” she prompts.

 

Regina, faced with the possibility of Lucy’s disappointment, caves. “I’m very impressed with Lucy Vidrio,” she says. “I can’t say much for the rest of her team.” 

 

“No love lost between you and Emma Swan.” The interviewer seizes on it, leaning forward. “I have to say, it was a surprise how readily you fought Duos with your sister. Swan hasn’t fought a single Duo fight since your last fight together.” 

 

Regina laughs lightly. “Was I supposed to check in with her before I put together my team’s lineup?” It’s beginning to grate, the media’s obsession with an old team that had never done anything of note. She hadn’t returned to the Proeliate to have Emma Swan destroy something else she’d cared about, and she is done with Emma Swan altogether.

 

Never mind their brief truce a few days ago. Never mind whatever magic still lingers between them.

 

Let Wonderland take Storybrooke, for all she cares.

 


 

It’s not like she’d meant to help Regina. Emma is pretty sure that it wouldn’t count as cheating, even if it did get reported. There are plenty of telepathic fighters out there who can’t shut it off when they’re fighting, and they must borrow ideas from the audience all the time. Besides, Jafar wouldn’t have gotten to Regina’s heart before Zelena had gotten to Iago. That had been Misthaven’s victory, no matter what, and Emma had just accidentally helped it along. 

 

Which sucks in its own way, because now Misthaven is the biggest news in the Proeliate. “Team to beat,” Lily says, rolling her eyes. “Get ready for a billion more questions about your favorite topic. Did you know that I got one the other day? A reporter who wanted to talk about your relationship .” She makes a face. “I told her we were married in a secret ceremony in an outer space realm before we were beset by evil masked stormtroopers. Very grim, but we jumped into an escape pod and landed on a desert planet–” 

 

Emma squints at Lily. “Lily, did you cast us as the droids in Star Wars?” 

 

Lily winks at her. “I love this realm,” she says. “Absolutely no culture, so I have to introduce it to everyone. Eventually, the reporter realized that I was pulling her leg and gave up, but I hope she passes on my story to some bigwig who makes a movie out of it. I bet we get better special effects here.” 

 

“Emma.” It’s Mulan, seizing her arm with her eyes serious. “Can we talk?” Emma lets her pull her away. Mulan has been on the team for six years now, and has always been her most reliable fighter. That had been Emma’s first year as captain, and Mulan had been her rock throughout it. She’s still the one Emma counts on most for guidance. “It’s about your mental bond with Mills.” 

 

Never mind. Mulan doesn’t know shit . “I don’t have a mental bond with her,” Emma says, attempting to return to the team. They’re supposed to be heading down to their arena now, and the others are already on the stairs.

 

Mulan just stares at her. Emma squirms. “I don’t want to,” she amends. “It’s stupid. It’s been eleven years–” 

 

“It’s unusual, but it isn’t unheard of,” Mulan says, her eyes fixed on Emma. “And I saw– I know what I saw in the arena. That red energy had Mills, and someone jolted her out of it. I don’t see who else it could have been. She’s never even fought with her sister before.” She takes a breath. “Those bonds go away. Maybe not right away, but with disuse, especially if you spend enough time around each other without using them. Sometimes I can still feel Ruby, but it’s faint now.”

 

“Yeah. I know the basics.” She’d been the one to caution Mulan and Ruby, over and over. Don’t use the bond. It’s never going to die if you do . “I didn’t mean to do it today, either. And I won’t again.” She twitches, uncomfortable. “Are we done now?” 

 

Mulan watches her still, sees too much and breathes barely a word of what she knows. “They linger for longer when there are…well, I’ve heard…” She clears her throat, decides that it isn’t her business, and wins Emma’s affection again. “Never mind. Let’s go.” 

 

When there are feelings involved . Emma grimaces. Maybe there had been, eleven years ago. Maybe she’d been hopelessly done for. But that shouldn’t matter anymore. It’s been many, many years. 

 

She leads the way to Arena A, where they’re slated for the match with Wonderland. It always begins with a formal handshake, each fighter standing opposite their opponents-to-be. Emma, who’d mulled over the lineup for a long time last night, slips into the third spot on the Storybrooke line, right between Lucy and Marian.

 

The Wonderland fighters are an older group, save for the blonde girl opposite Emma who must be in her early twenties at most. She shifts in place, eyes flickering over them each, and she pauses on Emma. “She taught you, too,” she says, her voice low, and Emma stares at her, uncomprehending. 

 

“Who?” But then she understands, her body going cold. Regina’s anxiousness about Wonderland and the she mentioned– hadn’t Cora Mills fought for Wonderland in her youth? And she’d coached them for years, right up until Regina had made Team Storybrooke and for years after she’d left. 

 

The girl with the frightened, wild eyes must have been one of Cora’s pets, and Emma shudders. “My condolences,” she says wryly, but the girl only stares at her. 

 

The man beside her says, “Alice,” sharply. He’s to be her Duos partner, a middle-aged man with a face that is distinctively feline. Emma wonders if he’d fought with Cora, years ago, and decides that she’d rather not know. 

 

Alice shudders and bobs her head, smiling a nervous smile at Emma, and Emma shakes her hand firmly and puts a hand on Lucy’s back as they retreat to their bench.

 

Mulan and Marian take the first fight. Emma can already feel the energy between them, pulsing as the audience cheers. This time, they have the edge in supporters. Wonderland isn’t a popular team, even within its realm. There is something faintly menacing about them all, except the frightened girl. Alice .

 

Mulan and Marian’s opponents– Emma had missed the names, but she’d grown up in the Land Without Magic. She knows perfectly well who they must be. The March Hare and the White Rabbit. They move as though they’re drunk, rising and falling to a beat that no one else can hear, and Mulan stumbles, slips on nothing and shakes her head as though she’s trapped in an illusion.

 

Marian presses her fingers to her temples and lets out a moan. Mulan looks dizzy. “Marian?” she says suddenly. “Marian, where are you?” 

 

Marian doesn’t respond. Mulan sways in place and promptly vomits on the floor. The Hare laughs, a high, looping laugh, and Marian turns in a circle and stares at nothing. 

 

“This is creepy,” Lucy says under her breath, and Emma is suddenly glad that she’s been taunted into Duos. She doesn’t want Lucy in the arena without her protection. 

 

She’d debated pairing up with Lily, but it had filled her with the dread that every commitment does. Lily is great , is her best friend, is funny and stubborn and someone Emma loves entirely. A proper betrayal would be pairing with Lily, a proper way to try to hurt Regina like Regina had Emma, fighting alongside someone else in the arena. But the intimacy of Duos is one step too far with Lily. With Lucy, it doesn’t have to be that. And Lucy needs a win.

 

Mulan’s face is twitching, a look of terror upon it. Whatever she’s seeing, it isn’t good, and Lily shouts, “Snap out of it!” from their bench. Mulan doesn’t seem to hear it. Marian shakes, and the Rabbit darts forward, quick as a flash, a hand outstretched toward her heart.

 

Marian shuts her eyes. Somehow, it’s enough for her to regain control of her senses, and she ducks away at the last possible moment, landing a blow on the Rabbit that sends him sliding across the floor at the far wall. “Mulan,” Marian says, and she moves blindly through the arena until she finds Mulan. Carefully, almost tenderly, she slips her hands over Mulan’s eyes, and Mulan lets out a shuddering breath. Marian murmurs to her, and Mulan nods, eyes screwed shut. 

 

They move better now, and when August begins to say something, Jefferson elbows him. “Quiet. They need to hear.” But it’s hard in the arena, and there is much stumbling as the Hare and Rabbit lurk at the edges of the arena, watching Mulan and Marian with smirks. 

 

And then– finally, lightning-quick– Marian nods, a glowing bow and arrow in her hands in an instant. She fires, an arrow straight through the Hare’s throat, and Mulan moves with the arrow, drawing out the heart as the Hare gasps for breath.

 

It’s a messy win. The audience doesn’t like death wins, but they cheer gamely, scattered clapping as the buzzer sounds. Mulan and Marian open their eyes, the arrow disappears as the Hare sits up, and the announcer says, “And the victory goes to Storybrooke! Well done!” 

 

Mulan puts a hand out to Marian, guiding her to the bench, and they both sit there, still shivering, eyes haunted. Jefferson murmurs to Mulan, and she leans against his side, breathing hard. Emma says, “Good job, guys. Go for a walk. Get out of here.” 

 

Marian shakes her head. “I’m staying until we’re all out of here,” she says grimly, hand in Mulan’s. Lucy bites her lip, and Emma puts a steadying hand on her back.

 

“I’m going to take care of you,” she whispers. “I promise.” Not for the first time, she thinks about how obscene it is that the League allows ten-year-olds to fight alongside adults. This is a different world than the one she’d grown up in, yes, but children are children . She’d been reluctant to offer Lucy the spot on the team at all before Snow had talked her into it, if we don’t take her, you don’t know who might , and Emma had seen no other option. 

 

She sends Lucy to a far circle, as close to the back of the arena as she can find, and sets herself up in the middle. Their opponents step up second, and Alice takes another middle circle while the other– Cheshire , she knows instinctively, catching that catlike movement– takes a circle directly beside Lucy.

 

“Like hell,” she mutters, and when the buzzer sounds, she flies across the arena to Lucy. She tosses blows out as she does, white bursts of energy that Cheshire dodges, and she can feel Alice’s own magic striking her in the back. By the time she makes it to Lucy, Lucy’s eyes are hazy, and Cheshire is smiling. 

 

Lucy moans, and Emma slips between them, throwing up a shield that is battered by Alice in moments. “Hey,” she whispers, holding Lucy’s face in her hands and directing her eyes to Emma’s. “Hey, you okay in there?” 

 

“It’s so dark,” Lucy whimpers. “It’s so dark. He’s coming.” 

 

“Shh,” Emma murmurs. “I’m here. I’ve got you.” She feels Cheshire lounging back comfortably against the arena wall, out of Emma’s range, and she doesn’t dare glare at him yet. She glances over in his direction and stares instead at a loose nail on the wall, keeping him in peripheral vision instead. “Can you see?” 

 

Lucy’s eyes find Emma’s, finally, and she exhales. “Yeah,” she says. A thousand tiny specks of dust are transformed into a hundred tiny glass knives, and they burst from around Lucy at top speed, hurtling toward their opponents. 

 

Emma keeps Lucy behind her, calculating her chances. Alice is a straightforward fighter, though there might be something more there, and she has the reserves of magic to keep her distance. Cheshire, though, is worth staying away from. How are they going to snatch anyone’s heart if Emma can’t leave Lucy for a direct attack?

 

“I’m okay now,” Lucy pants, and another sheet of glass appears in front of them, distorting the view beyond it. “See? Let’s go. We can win this.” 

 

“Okay.” Emma starts forward slowly, reluctant to leave Lucy on her own. Beside her, Lucy’s fists are clenched and her eyes determined.

 

“This is Emma Swan’s first Duo match in eleven years,” the announcer confides in the audience. “She hasn’t told us what has changed, but it’s an improbable coincidence that her former Duos partner, Regina Mills, also fought in Duos today.” Emma grits her teeth. It doesn’t feel like Duos, what they’re doing today. Emma is here to protect Lucy, not to get some kind of twisted revenge on Regina. Regina probably isn’t even–

 

No . She’s just walked in, fresh from her post-game interviews. Emma can feel her presence, the sharp way it seems to fill the arena, and she shoves it back so forcefully that Mulan would be proud. She starts forward, still covering Lucy, and eyes Cheshire.

 

He isn’t worth the attack. He’s lethal in close combat, and Alice is the more conventional fighter. Still, she doesn’t want to leave him alone. She vacillates, moving between them both, and then turns to Lucy. “Let’s go after Alice.” They leave Lucy’s shield behind, moving individually in Alice’s direction.

 

But Alice is fighting Duos, not two Solo fighters. Her movements are quick, and she deflects Lucy’s glass and dodges Emma’s kicks, bringing them around the arena in what Emma realizes too late is directed movement. Lucy starts forward–

 

Alice smiles sadly. “I’m sorry,” she says, and she steps aside to reveal Cheshire behind her. 

 

He begins to smile at Lucy, and Emma throws herself between them without a second thought.

 

First, she sees his smile, wide and white and oddly angled. Then, she sees nothing else but the smile. The world has abruptly gone black, and she is alone in the darkness, only that looming smile nearby.

 

She does not like the dark. She never has, not since a childhood in unstable group homes, and she hates being alone in the dark more than anything.

 

Anything except… 

 

Is she alone?

 

She sits down, knees up and arms around them, shivering as that smile shines down menacingly on her. She can hear footsteps in the distance, careful on creaking stairs, and she feels sick and very, very small. Help me , she thinks, but no one will come. Help me! It’s desperate now, and she can’t remember any of it anymore– the United Realms, the parents she’s found, the Proeliate– she is only a frightened girl, alone as the footsteps near, and she doesn’t know what might happen next. There is a man here, and he is smiling, smiling, always smiling–

 

HELP , she cries out silently.

 

Swift footsteps approach, and they are not the slow, heavy ones she’d expected. No. Instead, a glowing woman approaches wordlessly, and Emma lifts her face and reaches for her trustingly. She’d known her once, she thinks, though everything is hazy now. She will save Emma. 

 

She is… Regina

 

Regina kneels down opposite Emma, her eyes wary and her face beautiful, and she clasps Emma’s face in her hands. Are you really here? Emma thinks, but it doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is that Emma isn’t looking at that smile anymore or listening to those heavy footsteps, and the blackness around her isn’t as all-consuming anymore.

 

She has to get out of it. She tries to focus, stares at Regina’s glowing face, and imagines the arena in her mind. Maybe if she smashes her head against a wall, she might come to. Or if she puts up a smoky shield over her eyes like Lucy had tried to with her glass. Or if–

 

There . She remembers, near the far side of the arena where Cheshire had been lurking, a loose nail in the wall. It should have been removed beforehand, but those things tend to be overlooked. And now, if she can just stumble to it…

 

Regina’s glowing face looks concerned, but Emma forces her feet to move through the blackness, slowly and unsteadily. She reaches out blindly, dragging her hand against what she hopes is the wall, and finds the nail.

 

She wrenches it free with magical force and slams the sharp point into her left arm.

 

It hurts with blinding pain, and she gasps with it, jolted from Cheshire’s illusion by the force of her own agony. Blood is slick down her arm, and she stumbles forward, running with her right hand still clutched over her left. Lucy shouts, “Emma!” sounding frightened, and Cheshire takes off, fleeing from Emma. 

 

Emma doesn’t stop. “Lucy,” she calls hoarsely, teeth gritted from the pain. “Throw up a wall.” It pops up, thick and clear, directly in Cheshire’s way. He slams into it, dazed, and Emma lifts her impaled hand and sticks it into his chest. 

 

She draws out his heart, waits for the buzzer, and then sinks to the ground. There is no permanent damage from magic in the arena, but this isn’t magic. This is probably tetanus if she hadn’t been innoculated, and she squeezes her eyes shut and sits on her knees, teeth still clamped together.

 

There is so much blood.

 

“Get the medic,” Lily orders loudly, coming up beside her. “Now!” She bends down beside Emma. “You did it. Go get help. We’ll win this one for you, I promise.” A quick kiss to her hair, and Emma raises her eyes in agony, sees only a hazy face in front of her and then, behind it, Henry in one of the lower rows of the bleachers and his mother standing behind him, a hand to her mouth.

Chapter Text

Regina doesn’t come to visit Emma after she’s patched up, which is absolutely fine and even preferred, really. Would Emma like to know if it had actually been Regina in that black space? Yeah. Does Emma want to ask Regina, who had thrown an entire tantrum over Emma’s excursion in Regina’s mind? Not really.

 

Henry visits, though, which is great. “You were so cool back there,” he says, his eyes wide. “Like at first you were just kind of standing there and shaking, but then you just slammed that nail in! I thought you were gonna die at first!” He holds onto her non-bandaged arm for a moment. “It was so much blood!” 

 

“It wasn’t that bad,” she promises him. She’d avoided any danger points, and she heals quickly. “Just a little cut in the end.” 

 

“Right.” He doesn’t look convinced. “Lucy says that Cheshire puts you in some kind of black room. He used to fight Duos with my grandma, did you know that? It’s in some of the old stats books. Three of the fighters they fought never fought again.” 

 

Emma coughs hard, leaning back against her hospital bed. She’s been promised that she’ll be discharged later today, but she isn’t too choked up about missing postgame interviews. “Yep. Sounds like Cora.” 

 

“Ah, Cora. I used to hide in the bleachers when she’d come to our practices,” August says in a stage whisper from where he’s sitting on the windowsill of the hospital room. Henry blinks up at him, eyes wide. “I was a twenty-five year old man hiding under chairs from this little old woman, and I don’t regret it for a second.” 

 

“Scary lady,” Emma agrees. “You ever meet her?” 

 

Henry shakes his head. “Mom says that’s a good thing.” 

 

“Mom is right .” August says with a mock shudder.

 

Emma gives him a look. “Don’t you have interviews to be at?” 

 

“Too late,” Marian says, wandering into the room. “He ducked out three interviews ago and never came back. We’re finally done.” She shudders. “Now I can go right back to forgetting today ever happened.” 

 

“Scary team,” Emma agrees. “Glad we won’t have to fight them again.” 

 

“Maybe next year,” Lily points out, arriving behind Marian. “They aren’t going to be seeded.” She heaves a sigh. “I can’t believe Agrabah isn’t, either. My mom’s team is out of control.” 

 

“We’ll beat them,” Emma says firmly. “We can take them. First, we’ll just have to take down Wishverse.” She’s fought Wishverse before. It’s a strange realm, the kind that mirrors theirs but is just slightly off. “Two years ago, Wishverse pulled out a second team with Ruby and Mulan on them for Ruby and Mulan to fight, remember that? And a Snow for me. Wonder who they’ll find this time.” 

 

“Magical Forest won in the other bracket, as expected,” August says. “They’re good, but I don’t think they’re good enough to beat a team that took down Agrabah 3-1. It’s going to be us and Misthaven in the regionals. And only one team goes forward.” 

 

“Us,” Marian says decisively. Henry’s eyes are flying from one of them to the next, his wide gaze anxious.

 

“Us,” Emma agrees, and she reaches out to squeeze his hand. “Then you get to cheer for Team Storybrooke all the way to the championships. No more conflict of interest.” 

 

“Conflict of interest?” August repeats, then stares hard at Henry. “Wait a second. Cora was your grandmother— You’re Regina’s kid?” Henry bobs his head, looking suddenly nervous. “Huh.” August had been on the team, back when Regina had been, too. He’s the only member who’s been here longer than Emma. He hadn’t had much to do with Regina, back then, but Emma remembers how much Regina had disliked him. August and Emma had had the Land Without Magic in common, and Regina had resented every conversation they’d had that she’d been excluded from.

 

Emma remembers feeling guilty about it, then stubborn, then vindicated when Regina had disappeared. August might not be nursing the same grudges as Emma, but he must feel some of the same distrust toward Regina.

 

“Oh,” Marian says, a gentle hand on Henry’s shoulder. “No wonder you love the Proeliate so much.” Henry relaxes, and Marian adds, “I think your mom’s here to pick you up. She was outside when I came in.” 

 

“Nah,” August says. “She’s been loitering in the hallway this whole time. I saw her when I got here, too.” He eyes Emma. “I just figured she was mustering up some courage to come in and check on you.” 

 

Emma snorts. “You mean to finish the job.” Henry looks alarmed. Lily laughs. 

 

Marian says delicately, “I’ll be right back,” and disappears into the hall. 

 

She doesn’t return for a few minutes, but the rest of the team piles in while she’s gone, Snow eyeing something down the hall with grave suspicion on her face until she catches sight of Emma. “Emma! How are you doing?” She throws her arms around Emma, and Emma squirms in them and forces a smile.

 

“I’m okay. It’s really not a big deal. They’re just running a few tests. Good thing I was brought to Storybrooke.” Modern medicine has taken longer to make its way through the United Realms, notably because there are a number of realms with mad scientists and magical healers who scoff at things like blood tests and bacteria and bathing . She’s pretty sure that she’d have lockjaw already if a healer had patched up her skin and ignored the need for a tetanus booster. 

 

“I was so worried.” Snow tightens her grip on Emma, and then adds, suddenly distracted, “Is Regina trying to recruit Marian out there?” 

 

“I think Marian is just chatting her up.” Emma tries for levity. “They’re two single women. It’ll add some drama to regionals if they’re seeing each other.” The twinge in response to her joke is ridiculous and she refuses to acknowledge it.

 

“First Wishverse,” Snow frets. “I don’t like them.” 

 

“I thought the alternate Snow was pretty cool,” Lily says cheerfully. “Even with that terrible haircut. And the granny clothes. She had that whole bit about a curse and Emma being the savior. Fun!”

 

“Ugh.” Emma is fortunately distracted from thinking about the alternate Snow by another arrival in her increasingly crowded room. Marian has reappeared, this time with Regina trailing behind her, and Regina shifts and glares at Snow, then August, then Emma in rapid succession.

 

Henry says, “A few more minutes. Please?” 

 

“Your mom came to visit,” Marian says, smiling warmly at Regina. Regina gives a very uncomfortable smile in return. “She had so many questions about how Emma was doing that I thought she might as well come in and see for herself.”

 

Emma holds up her bandaged arm, a flush heating her neck. “I’m fine,” she says. “Got a shot already. Just waiting on test results.” 

 

“I don’t care,” Regina says stiffly, and Emma yearns to ask her– had it been her in the blackness? But it couldn’t have been. The Regina in the blackness had been tender and affectionate, had been her protector instead of her antagonist. Emma’s mind had conjured her up, a vision of the past, and that had kept her safe. Regina had been adamant about Emma staying out of her mind, so…

 

“I’ll be out of here soon,” Emma says, turning to her mother, who still hovers over her. “Right on time for practice.” 

 

“And the ball,” Snow reminds her, and Emma winces. Had that been why Snow is so concerned about her? “It’s on Wednesday.” 

 

Regina perks up, her face politely mocking. “Emma goes to balls regularly now?” she says. Emma remembers abruptly the balls that they’d been to, back when she’d tried so hard to be the daughter that Snow and David had wanted badly. Regina had walked her through them, always dressed in something stunning that had been the only good part about those balls. That and the food, which they’d smuggle out on full plates before they’d find a quiet place to sit and talk. 

 

Lily laughs aloud. “No way,” she says, and she eyes Regina in a way that isn’t quite hostile. Is curious, maybe, which is so much worse. “Snow is making us do this one to–” 

 

Snow falls back from smothering Emma to interject, “Lily, don’t tell her– !” 

 

“Win over some sponsors,” Lily finishes, and then laughs. “Or get Emma into a big puffy dress. Definitely one of those is the main point here.” 

 

“Personally, I’m in it for the puffy dresses,” Jefferson says cheerfully.

 

“I’m in it for the castle.” Lucy sighs dreamily. “A real one, with knights and horses and secret passages. Not an arena shaped like a castle. I’ve never been.” 

 

“It sounds really cool,” Henry says, envious. “Not the dancing part–” 

 

“Yes, the dancing part!” Lucy glowers at him. “You have terrible taste.” 

 

Regina leans forward, close enough that Emma can feel Regina’s breath against her skin. “Oh, have you noticed that your sponsors have been dropping like flies?” She sounds smug and a little vindictive, and Emma turns to shoot her a bruising glare.

 

But they are standing too close now, and Emma’s heart begins to thunder instead at their proximity. There are some old sensations that she can’t shut off entirely, leftover emotions that have been on hold for ten years. She swallows, her throat dry, and she says, “You’ll lose them soon enough. They want a winning team.” 

 

“You don’t stand a chance against us, dear,” Regina hisses, and then she straightens. “Well, I can’t allow you seven to charm away all the sponsors without putting up a fight, can I?” She smiles coolly. “I do appreciate the invite, Snow. It’s the least you could do after ruining my life.” 

 

Emma grimaces. Ruining my life . Regina just throws that at everyone, doesn’t she?

 

Snow sputters, and Emma says, articulately cutting through the moral dilemma of balancing Snow’s possible debts to Regina with Regina’s clear expression of malice, “Fuck you, Molinero.” 

 

Henry gives Emma a reproachful look. “Emma! That’s my mother you’re talking to.” 

 

“And you shouldn’t be talking like that at all around adolescents,” Lucy says reprovingly. “We’re very susceptible to all kinds of negative influences.” 

 

Henry is still stern-faced, and Emma shifts meekly under his gaze. “Sorry, Henry.” 

 

Henry’s gaze turns pointed. “Sorry, Regina,” Emma mutters. “What I meant to say is…” She tries to find other words that will express what she means a little better, and draws a blank. Regina’s smirk is almost painfully wide.

 

The worst , Emma decides, and shuts her eyes in the vain hope that Regina might leave. Instead, she can feel Regina’s mental energy pulsing around her, like a barrier around her that Regina has unconsciously thrown up. It is like a reassuring blanket over a child at night, and Emma says it silently this time. Fuck you, Molinero .

 

Regina’s mind twitches like she might have heard it, but she doesn’t budge.

 


 

Somehow, Regina has roped herself into attending a ball. She hadn’t meant to, except that Henry had looked interested, and she’ll do anything for Henry. Oh, and it had really aggravated Emma. That’s always a perk.

 

It’s the least that Emma deserves after what she’d done. Regina hadn’t returned to the Proeliate to be a thorn in Emma’s side– she had returned to win , and crushing Emma’s team and her Proeliate dreams would be a bonus. But there is something enticing about petty vengeance, small wins in between the small losses. 

 

Regina counts it as a loss every time she helps Emma, and she intends to do the opposite on Wednesday evening.

 

Henry, of course, is enthusiastic about something else entirely. “Do you think anyone there will let me ride the horses?” he asks, not for the first time. “Or try using a sword ? I’m not going to have to dance, am I?” 

 

“You can spend the entire ball at the buffet,” Regina assures him. “And I think I can get you on a horse.” She’d ridden through her late teen years, right up until she’d fled to Hyperion Heights. “It might be Snow and David’s castle, but they’re both afraid of me.” 

 

They’d been nothing but welcoming when she’d been younger, Snow bursting with enthusiasm about her daughter’s partner and David just glad that Regina hadn’t been like Mother. That, she expects, has soured since, but she feels no trepidation walking into their party and making demands. She has dressed in sleek black, a delicate purple lacing along the sleeves and the cleavage to properly represent Misthaven’s colors. She wouldn’t be caught dead in puffy, had dug through her old dresses and done some magical modifications to make it perfect.

 

Henry wears a durable suit that Jacinda had found for him, and he holds her hand as they head to the portal where the Vidrios are waiting for them. Jacinda is in light blue, Sabine in the green and gold of Storybrooke’s colors, and Lucy is between them in an adorable gold gown. “You’re crashing a ball?” Sabine says, looking her up and down. “Like a living fairytale.” 

 

“Aren’t we all,” Regina says dryly. “Just call me the Evil Queen.” Heir to the Queen of Hearts . That had been the headline of an article a few days ago that had gotten some traction. Misthaven has captured the people’s attention, for better or for worse, as a team to beat instead of a team to root for. “I don’t see the difference between a ball and a company party. Except that I’ve never been to a company party.” She’d run a bar in Hyperion Heights. It had been Daniel’s idea, not hers, but she’d gamely stuck with it until they’d moved. “Lots of people to talk up and connections to make.” 

 

“But with pretty dresses,” Jacinda says cheerfully, curtsying. “You know Sabine is technically royalty. Her mother is a queen in the Magical Forest. We’ve done a few balls in our time.” 

 

“She’s very concerned that Lucy is going to face her team in the regionals,” Sabine says, shaking her head. “I haven’t broken the news to her that you’re going to demolish them. She wouldn’t listen, anyway.” She shrugs. “She’ll get over it. Magical Forest hasn’t won the regionals in eight years, and they didn’t make it past the first round of the championships back then. We’re just not good enough.” 

 

Lucy says, “Gramma will have someone to root for in the championships.” She makes a fist. “Storybrooke is going all the way to the finals.” 

 

“We’ll see about that,” Regina says, her voice light. Lucy grins at her and takes her hand when they walk through the portal, no tension between them. 

 

Snow’s castle is exactly as Regina remembers it, picturesque and elegant and dripping with wealth. They walk past delegations with grand carriages and an honest-to-goodness elephant that Lucy and Henry both attempt to ask to ride, and they make their way into a bedecked ballroom packed with people and food. Emma is already there– Regina feels her instantly, magic stretching across the room to meet hers– and Lucy finds Marian and Mulan at the buffet and pulls them all over to her teammates. 

 

“Regina,” Marian says, smiling. Regina can’t help but smile back. She’d liked Marian when they’d been children, and she’d still liked her when they’d met again at the hospital. Most of Emma’s team strikes Regina as a little too much like Emma– brash, irritating, and loud– but Marian hasn’t been there long enough for that to stick. “Here to steal our sponsors?” 

 

“By now, I think it’s you who’s stealing mine.” They’ve been getting plenty of offers. Gold is practically salivating over them. “Haven’t you heard? We’re the team to beat.” 

 

“Without Agrabah in the running, Storybrooke is favored to win the regionals,” Marian says, smile still on her face. “I’m sure Misthaven will give us a hard time, but I don’t see your fighters as on par with our top fighters.” She raises a lazy hand. “All we need is three.” 

 

“Four,” Mulan reminds her. She is unsmiling as she takes in Regina. “We’ll win ours.” 

 

“Maybe,” Regina concedes. “Or maybe Cru and Ursula will give you a run for your money.” She tilts her head, challenging.

 

Jacinda snorts. “Regina’s just grandstanding. Put Lucy in your top Solo spot,” she says in a stage whisper. “She’ll never let Lucy lose.” 

 

Regina shoots her a glare. “I could ,” she lies, “But I’m not fighting Lucy. Lucy will hold her own against Misthaven without any help from me.” 

 

“That’s right,” Lucy says, straightening. “And if you’re all done talking about stuff that doesn’t matter now, Henry and I would like to get some food and then find the secret passageway on the second floor. Emma told us all about it,” she says in a stage whisper. “There’s a door behind a big picture.” She’s gone a moment later with Henry trailing behind her, a plate full of food and their smiles blinding, and Regina is taken back to a simpler time, being young and ready to enjoy good food and company instead of the agonizing reality of a ball.

 

And, always, with Emma.

 

She shouldn’t be surprised to see Emma hovering around the buffet, but she is startled when she sees the dress that she’s wearing. It’s unlike the old flouncy dresses that Snow had favored for her when Emma had been young and desperate for approval. Instead, it’s Storybrooke’s rich green, long and narrow and silky, with a slit up the side to her thigh. When they’d been teens, Emma had always looked out of place in her dresses, as though she’d been forced into something incongruous. Today, the dress suits her, curves to her curves and displays the carved muscles of her arms and one leg. 

 

Regina gapes at her for a moment too long before Jacinda elbows her, and she manages an abrupt, “You,” as Emma stares back. 

 

“You really came.” Emma shakes her head. “I didn’t think you’d actually have the nerve.” She takes a step forward, moving slowly in her dress. Regina remains wordless. She’d never quite thought of Emma as beautiful , exactly, when they’d been young. She’d always been attractive and there had definitely been a brief time when Regina would wake up beside her and wonder what it would be like to kiss her, but that had been short-lived. Regina had had Daniel, had loved him wholeheartedly, and Emma had always been the complication that had come with something as intimate as Duos. 

 

Daniel has been gone for a long time, and Regina has hated Emma for equally as long, but both of those things fade away in a horrific moment as Emma approaches. Regina shakes her head at that realization, aghast, and turns to flee to the other side of the room. 

 

She breathes hard, bumps into a magnate from a sneaker company (“We’re so impressed with Misthaven’s success! We want to show that our shoes are the stuff of champions.”) and unsuccessfully attempts to dodge a pet food producer (“Cruella has such a charm, don’t you think?”) before she finally makes it outside to fresh air and twinkling starlight. 

 

It’s cold, the autumn wind sharp against her face, and she shivers and watches the sky. She doesn’t want to think about why she’d been so discomfited by Emma with her toned body and those soft, golden curls, but it’s all she can dwell on as she looks up, wrapping her arms around herself as though to protect her from her own thoughts.

 

She feels Emma’s presence before she sees her, the careful footsteps and then the wry, “If you’re going to steal all the sponsors, you might want to try coming inside.” 

 

Regina turns slowly. “I’ve made plenty of progress. Victoria Shoes already made a play for me tonight.” 

 

Emma makes a face. “Good. I hate them. No one here does anything original. Just Try It as a slogan? You couldn’t be more Nike if you tried.” Regina blinks at her, puzzled, and Emma sighs. “Whatever. Enjoy your free shoes. You’ll despise them.” 

 

She leans against a statue, her slit parting to display a perfectly sculpted leg, and Regina has to tear her eyes away from it. “Misthaven has been cast as the villains of the story,” she says, keeping her voice cool and mocking. “But Storybrooke are hardly the heroes. You’re just the last stop in the regionals before we take on the championship bracket.” 

 

Emma watches her, contemplative, and Regina pushes harder. “Really, Ms. Swan . You’ve seen us fight. You know that your team doesn’t stand a chance. What’s the point in grandstanding against us?”

 

Emma doesn’t respond at first. When she does, it’s careful, as though she is struggling not to sink to Regina’s level of taunting. Regina hates her a little bit for it. “I’m not grandstanding. I know we don’t have the presence that Arendelle or Camelot or even Misthaven does. But we fight hard and we don’t give up, and sometimes I think that that’s enough to win.” 

 

It’s so simple and earnest, so much like the Emma that Regina had once known and cared desperately about, and Regina takes a step forward and nearly forgets herself. As she moves, she hears Emma’s sharp intake of breath, feels the way that the energy around her seems to reel back from Regina’s magic. 

 

And in that moment, Regina realizes something else. Emma is attracted to her . Her eyes are dilated, her chest rising and falling rapidly, and Regina has absolutely no idea what to do about this. Emma’s gaze drags its way up Regina’s body, and Regina is still moving toward Emma, caught in a magnetic pull that is more than she can resist– 

 

“You’re so naive,” Regina breathes, and she reaches out, instinctively, to touch Emma’s bare arm. She’s done this before– she’d learned easily, from a young age, how to manipulate people’s attraction to her. Mother had taught her and she’d had ample time to use it in conflict management at the bar as well. Emma is like putty in her hands, and Regina luxuriates in the power that comes with that knowledge, the way Emma shudders under her touch. “You want an underdog story? Those are stories . This is real.” 

 

Emma takes in a breath, her eyes locked on Regina’s. “Is it?” she whispers, and she seems…young, almost. Like the child she’d been a decade ago, made vulnerable by Regina’s touch. Regina runs her fingers down Emma’s arm, and Emma doesn’t pull away. 

 

Carefully, experimentally, Regina lets her hand drift down the back of Emma’s hand, over her fingers and to the little fold of fabric where the gown’s slit begins. She doesn’t know what she’s trying to accomplish– if this is to seduce Emma or to silence her, if this is about manipulation or domination– but she imagines, for a moment, sliding a hand under that thigh and lifting it to her, wrapping it around her waist and losing herself entirely in Emma Swan.

 

It could be vengeance. It could be healing. But as she moves ever forward, pinning Emma against the statue, it feels like it is something raw and necessary instead, something that will transform her instead of keeping her the person she’s become. 

 

She moves her other hand to Emma’s hair. It is soft, and it shifts as Emma raises her eyes to meet Regina’s. Emma’s hands move, gentle, and they land on Regina’s waist. Regina aches suddenly, like a burning need in her core, and this painful slowness is making it worse and worse.

 

Emma’s eyes are unequivocally green today, reflecting her outfit, and Regina gazes into them and then remembers that she is repulsed. That this is manipulation, and there is no need to speak of. This isn’t about her , this isn’t about attraction or anything other than breaking Emma Swan in the way that she deserves, and Regina recoils, her hand leaving Emma’s thigh.

 

Emma stands there, eyes wide and lips parted as though she is shell-shocked, and Regina stumbles back from her. “What the hell ,” Emma says, quivering. “Was that .” 

 

Regina stiffens. “I don’t know what you mean.” She says it with authority and a little disdain, glaring at Emma when she’s mostly furious with herself. “And I am above the quota of time I can spend around you without getting queasy, so–” She turns on her heels, the conversation finished.

 

Emma doesn’t agree on that point. “Here’s what I don’t get,” she calls after Regina, and her voice goes from shaky to strong in just a few words. That’s Emma’s skill. She always lands upright, no matter how bad the blow. “I know why I hate you . You left me alone for eleven years . You abandoned me on the day that was going to change us forever.” She pauses, and Regina hesitates, incapable of fleeing before she hears the rest of Emma’s diatribe. “But what I don’t understand is why you stormed back into Storybrooke with a chip on your shoulder as if I’m the villain here. You should be apologizing , not snapping at me and trying to interfere with my life.”

 

She sounds as though she believes that, which is the most infuriating part of this. A strangled, inhuman sort of laugh wrenches itself from Regina’s throat, and Regina whirls around, very glad that they’re alone. “Apologizing?” she demands incredulously. “You want me to apologize to you ?”

 

And Regina understands then. Emma’s strange question about Daniel, back when they’d first seen each other again. Emma’s bewilderment at Regina’s anger. Emma’s fury now.

 

Emma doesn’t know what she’d done . Regina is still laughing, is still thrown by this impossibility. “You don’t know,” she says. “You don’t know what you did.” 

 

“What I did?” Emma echoes, and her eyes are flashing. She is a vision like this, stunning and furious and enchanting. “I covered for you. I let the championship go. Cora nearly killed me and I kept your secrets for you. You know where I spent the week after we lost? Half dead in this castle with a complement of guards around me. They said I’d never fight again after what Cora did to me. And I did it for you! I’d have done it again if it meant you’d be safe!” Emma takes a harsh, angry breath. “And once the worst had passed and Leopold had gone off and married someone else– once it was finally safe– I came back for you.”

 

“It was never safe,” Regina snarls, and here is where the story diverges, where Emma’s selfishness had been Regina’s undoing. “You didn’t come back for me. You came back for you. You wanted to fight Duos and you wanted to win, so you tracked me down– I told you not to, I told you never to try to find me–” 

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, her fists clenched. “I found you to tell you that it was safe, and you told me to leave.” 

 

“It was never safe,” Regina says coldly. She has to take a shuddering breath, the air too chilly and her heart clenched in a fist in her chest. For the first time in their argument, Emma stops cold, stares. “I warned you. I told you she’d never stop. And you just had to come anyway, didn’t you? You had to bring me back into the Proeliate.” 

 

Emma is silent. Regina should feel victorious, but she only feels numb. “Mother was following you. She came to me that night to warn me that I’d pay for humiliating her. And the next morning, Daniel never woke up.” She remembers the terror of that morning, of Daniel in bed and Regina laughingly letting him sleep, of the moment when she’d realized that he wasn’t waking up. Of the horror, the despair, the agony that had come with the understanding that he never would again. “You killed him,” she says, and she can only see the crystal-clear truth now, the only outcome to what had shaped her adult years. “You were selfish and you didn’t listen, and you killed my husband.” 

 

She turns– it is as unsteady as a stutter, the way she walks away, with none of the power and fury that she struggles to exude– and Emma doesn’t follow.

 


 

Ten years ago, Emma had spent months tracking Regina down. She’d learned how to track people because of it– had made connections in the Land Without Magic with August’s help and searched databases and followed leads, slowly eliminating various realms from her speculation and then beginning the search in pocket realms in the Land Without Magic. 

 

She had found Regina listed as Roni Molinero on a document in Hyperion Heights, and she’d tracked down her apartment from there. When she’d healed enough from Cora’s wrath, she’d booked a flight to Seattle with the prize money she’d gotten from Storybrooke being second place and had flown to the Hyperion Heights pocket realm.

 

She’d been careful not to use portals, not to leave any kind of trail that a reporter from the United Realms might be able to track. She’d never thought that Cora would follow her. After all, Cora had finally been talked down. Snow had been unequivocal about the Proeliate carrying through with the consequences, and Cora had only dodged time in prison in Misthaven because she’d agreed to stay away from Emma. She had shaken Emma’s hand before she’d gone and looked almost regretful as she’d said, it’s a shame you were so mixed up in all of this. Forgive a grieving mother . Emma hadn’t trusted her, but she’d thought that it had been over, and it would take ten years for her to discover that Cora hadn’t conceded.

 

She’d made it to Hyperion Heights. The stitching on her thigh had come out on the plane, and she’d limped to public transit, had found her way to Regina’s apartment and stood in front of it, her heart singing, so sure that this would be it , that Regina would come back to Storybrooke and live freely. 

 

And then she’d seen them, a man and a woman walking slowly out the door of the storefront beneath the apartment. Daniel had had his hand on Regina’s back, and Regina had been pregnant , the bump proudly displayed. She’d leaned against Daniel’s side, and Daniel had spotted Emma and murmured something to Regina. He’d taken a step back, and Regina had started forward.

 

And Emma had expected…a smile, at least, from the person she’d loved most in the universe. Maybe a hug, their minds brushing and their hearts warm. A hushed explanation about why Regina had had to leave abruptly, rather than taking Emma’s offer or staying another few days. 

 

Instead, she’d gotten Regina, eyes flashing and her magical energy retreating from Emma. “What the hell are you doing here?” Regina had demanded. “I told you not to come after me.” 

 

“It’s been almost a year,” Emma had said weakly, taken aback. “I thought–” 

 

Regina had cut her off sharply. “I don’t want to hear what you thought. You need to go. I’m…” She’d gestured at herself, suddenly helpless. “I built something here. Let me be .” There had been no apologies, no explanations. “Go away ,” Regina had said, her voice hard, and Emma had only stared, wordless and unimaginably hurt by the rejection.

 

Regina had disappeared inside, and Daniel had remained, walking with Emma back to the bus stop. “Are you going to be okay?” he’d asked, always solicitous, always kind. Emma had wondered, once, if that had been Daniel’s draw. In a world of sharp edges and strong personalities, Daniel had been the only person Regina had known who had been soft and muted. “You’re limping–” 

 

Emma had shaken her head. “It’s not a big deal,” she’d promised him, and then, because there had been a part of her that had been seething, furious and hurt, she’d muttered, “Cora didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t know what Regina had been planning. I’m mostly healed now,” she’d added, not wanting to sound too whiny. “It’s been a while.” 

 

Daniel had stared at her, alarmed. “It’s been ten months,” he’d said. “What about the Proeliate this year?” 

 

“It’ll keep,” Emma had said, and then, to her alarm, the tears had begun to fall. Missing the Proeliate hadn’t seemed like nearly as big a deal when she’d had the search for Regina on her plate. Now, with that mission scrapped and rejected, it’s beginning to hit her exactly how much she’s lost this year. 

 

And Daniel– always solicitous, always kind– had held her as she’d sobbed, her leg aching and her heart raw. “I’m sorry,” he’d murmured. “You’ve given up so much for Regina and me.” He’d cleared his throat. “She isn’t…she’s just still very afraid of her mother. It’s a difficult thing to shake when it’s been her whole life. She saw you and it was all she could think about.” 

 

“It’s fine.” Emma had pulled away, had sat down heavily at the bus stop and refused to look at Daniel. 

 

Daniel had said, “She still loves you very much.” He’d given her a smile, the one that is always on the verge of apologetic. Regina might not know what Emma had been careful never to express, but Daniel hadn’t missed it. “She talks about you often. About coming back to Storybrooke one day. She misses you. It’s like a part of her is…” He’d waved his hands helplessly. “She just needs some time.” 

 

“Cora left,” Emma had said, her voice turning mechanical. “She went to some other realm to train their team. If she ever comes back to Misthaven or Storybrooke, she’ll be arrested. It was the agreement we made. It’s safe now. I just–” Her voice had broken, and she’d struggled to sound steady. “I just wanted Regina to know that.” 

 

“I’ll tell her,” Daniel had promised. “I’ll give her tonight to cool down, and then I’ll let her know in the morning.” He’d given Emma that sad, apologetic smile again. “You’ve been a very good friend to her.” 

 

The bus had come, and Daniel had helped Emma up the steps onto it and paid for her fare. She’d left, defeated, but also hopeful. Regina would be back. She’d still be in love with someone else, but she’d be home , where she belonged, and Emma would put up with the pain that would come with Regina’s presence if it had meant that Regina would be happy.

 

And she would have her partner back, and all would be well.

Chapter Text

There are only two fights in the regionals this week, the final battle on each side of the bracket. Magical Forest against Misthaven, and Wishverse against Storybrooke. “There’s still a chance that the regionals end differently than expected,” one announcer says at the start of the first fight. “Misthaven certainly has the upper hand against Magical Forest, but Wishverse and Storybrooke isn’t a done deal. Still, the fans are rooting for a showdown between former Duo partners in Misthaven and Storybrooke, and today will decide if that happens.” 

 

“Shut up,” Emma mutters, staring up at the audience. Regina must be here, even if Emma can’t sense her. They’re fighting back-to-back, with interviews after the teams fighting in regionals are decided. She glimpses Zelena’s orange hair first, then the jumpsuits around her, but Regina isn’t sitting with her team.

 

Maybe she isn’t watching. Emma takes a breath, abruptly nauseous. There’s no reason for Regina to skip a chance to scope out her opponents, unless she genuinely can’t bear to be in a room with Emma’s mind brushing against hers. And Emma wouldn’t blame her.

 

Regina isn’t right. That, Emma clings to. Emma hadn’t gone to Hyperion Heights out of selfishness; she’d gone because she’d wanted Regina to have choices , to spend her life as something other than a fugitive. Except…

 

Maybe she had gone because she’d been selfish. Or because she couldn’t bear to be without Regina, in the Proeliate and out of it. Emma isn’t one to lose herself in introspection and doubts, but she finds herself drowning in them since the ball, replaying every moment of that trip to Hyperion Heights ten years ago. She hadn’t killed Daniel, but she’d led his killer right to him. She hadn’t meant to hurt Regina, but she’d let her life be ruined in a single instant.

 

“I think I’m going to be sick,” she mutters to August, who rummages through one of the first aid kits behind the players’ bench and produces a paper bag. “Thanks.” 

 

She doesn’t vomit. The announcer would have a field day with that, especially going into a battle with Wishverse. 

 

Wishverse’s manager is Rumplestiltskin, an alternate version of Gold, which really tells them everything they need to know. It’s a realm of possibilities, of different versions of different people, and it excels in psychological warfare. Rather than training top fighters and letting them do their thing, Rumple likes to find the single most jarring amateurs from the realm and have them battle their projected opponents.

 

In order to thwart this, Emma and Snow had sat down and put together a lineup that they’d been sure he wouldn’t expect. Marian and Mulan have been moved to Solo fights. Lucy and Lily are fighting together, and Jefferson is taking the final Solo fight. Emma had been put into Duos with August, because you don’t mind doing Duos anymore, right? This is our best shot , and Emma’s nausea had begun right around then. There’s no way that Rumple would have predicted that, is there? 

 

They don’t know yet. Only Rumple is sitting on the bench, smirking at them as though he’s already anticipated the fights.

 

“Fighters, please line up,” the announcer orders, and they get into their positions. Today’s matches are following a modified standard alternating sequence, Duo then Solo then Duo then two Solos. Emma has put herself in the third fight on the off chance that Wishverse takes the first two. 

 

She stands between August and Mulan, watching the door by their opponent’s bench, and she takes in a breath as she watches their opponents file out. First, someone she vaguely recognizes from Nottingham who makes Marian grit her teeth. Then, a girl, willowy and small and hardly more than ten. She takes her spot at the final Solo slot, opposite Jefferson, and Emma grimaces as she recognizes a slightly younger Grace. His daughter ? They can’t win that one. 

 

Lucy and Lily are faced with another Sabine and a man Emma doesn’t know but Lily seems to, and there are only three fighters remaining, trailing out behind Sabine. Mulan lets out a quiet curse at the first. Ruby , looking bemused at the audience’s sudden cheers, and then…

 

She might have guessed. Rumple had predicted correctly for every one of them, his lineup matching them perfectly. And he had eschewed an opponent for August altogether– they had thought August’s father or his old friend, Tamara– and targeted only Emma.

 

And why not? His chosen pair could easily defeat them both. They walk out together to the audience’s roar, the other Emma murmuring something in the other Regina’s ear that has the other Regina snorting to herself. Their eyes fall on Emma at once, perfectly in sync, and the other Emma lifts a hand and waves. “This is so fucked up,” the other Emma says, fascinated.

 

Emma stares at her. They don’t look too different, though the Wishverse Emma hasn’t tied back her hair and she’s squinting around the arena like she’s never seen one before. The Wishverse Regina, though…

 

She looks lighter, happier, with much less of the restraint that keeps Emma’s Regina tense and angry. Her hair is long like Regina’s had been when she’d been younger, and it falls around her shoulders in loose waves. She doesn’t carry herself like a fighter but like a leader, someone accustomed to being obeyed. 

 

When she holds out her hand to Emma, she is smiling, and that is enough to make Emma unclench her left hand to open the white paper bag and vomit her lunch into it. 

 

Wish Emma laughs aloud at that. “That’s exactly what Regina deserves,” she says, teasing. Wish Regina gives her a dark look, and Wish Emma says cheerfully, “Please. You love me.” 

 

“I’ll never understand why,” Wish Regina mutters, and then, almost gently, “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have agreed to this.” She looks sympathetic, and Emma can’t stand it. 

 

“Rumple tried dragging Regina into the Proeliate a couple of years ago, too,” Wish Emma says, frowning. “He implied that this year we’d get to fight both our doubles, which is the only reason we agreed. I thought it might be fun. This seems just…kind of overkill,” Wish Emma admits, glancing over at August. “No offense, August.” 

 

“We should get to the bench,” Emma says abruptly. “First Duo is about to start.” Wish Regina murmurs something inaudible to Wish Emma, and Wish Emma puts a hand on her back to guide her to the bench. Emma is sick again.

 

It gets worse when she feels, finally, Regina’s presence in the arena. She’s up and to the left, near where Jacinda and Sabine are sitting, and Henry is holding her hand, chattering as they find their seats. Emma watches– sees and feels the exact instant that Regina realizes who Emma will be fighting. Her mind jerks back, and her face tightens with a fury like nothing Emma has ever seen on her face before.

 

Wish Emma nudges Wish Regina and points up at Regina and Henry, and both their faces seem to light up. Mothers , Emma understands suddenly. She doesn’t know if there’s a Daniel in the Wishverse, but she is absolutely certain in this moment that Wish Emma and Wish Regina are both Henry’s mothers in their realm. 

 

“Gonna be sick again,” she mumbles, and August grabs another paper bag. Emma shakes her head. “No. Need…drink.” She finds her water, swallows as much as she can, and struggles to watch the first battle.

 

Lily and Lucy manage to get past their opponents quickly. Of course. Lucy’s been fighting Regina for years, and she takes Wish Sabine as an entertaining new opponent. “When it comes down to it, Wishverse’s weakness is that their fighters just aren’t equipped for the Proeliate,” the announcer observes. “Psychological warfare will only get you so far when the other team is ready for you.” Lucy is the one to pluck out Wish Sabine’s heart, and when the buzzer ends the fight and the heart disappears, she happily gives the woman a hug and skips off to the bench.

 

“Fantastic job,” Emma says, patting the spot next to her. “Our first win of the semifinals.” 

 

Regional semifinals,” Lucy reminds her. “We’re almost in the championship rounds.” She bounces in her seat, eternally confident, and Emma takes a breath and tries to share her optimism.

 

Her eyes drift back to the Wishverse bench as Mulan stands, her gait shaky. Marian is the one to take her hand, and Emma listens to the quiet reassurances as she stares at Wish Emma and Wish Regina. “That is a werewolf who looks like Ruby. It isn’t Ruby. But you know how she fights, and you know how we do.” The we is calculated, and it seems to offer Mulan courage. She stands straight in her circle, looking back only to smile at Marian.

 

Wish Emma is watching Mulan, but Wish Regina has disappeared. She returns when Wish Ruby has already transformed into a wolf, and Mulan is swinging her sword to take her down. Wish Regina has a container of fries and a danish, and she passes the danish to Wish Emma. 

 

Wish Emma says something that Emma easily reads as you are the perfect woman and presses a kiss to Wish Regina’s lips, stealing a handful of fries in the process. Wish Regina’s hand sparks, and Wish Emma lets out a little yelp and drops the fries.

 

It’s like a horrific, perfect fantasy, unrolling in real time, and Emma forgets the battle entirely to gape at them. They huddle together on the bench, eating their food and watching the fight like they’re part of the audience, and Emma watches helplessly.

 

She feels the sharp touch of Regina’s mind, and then, abrupt, somewhere between an impression and actual words, Get your act together. You’re making a fool of yourself. It’s the first time they’ve spoken since the ball, and Emma feels sick again. The specter of Daniel’s death won’t leave her, and she wants to curl up and surrender to grief and regrets, not fight a battle against some utopian version of herself.

 

She pushes Regina from her mind, and when she looks up, Regina isn’t sitting with Henry anymore. 

 

“You’re pathetic.” It’s her voice, cold and angry, at the bottom of the bleachers near Emma’s bench. “Those things aren’t us. They’re pale imitations meant to slow you down. And you’re going to let them.”

 

Emma is abruptly reminded, past her guilt, that Regina happens to be kind of an asshole. “Shut up,” she says, turning around to watch the fight instead. Mulan has gained the upper hand, and Wish Ruby is dodging her, running circles around the arena as Mulan swings her sword threateningly. 

 

Regina just scoffs and vanishes back to her seat to glare down at Emma forebodingly. August makes a face. “Why are you letting her walk all over you? You’re usually a little feistier.” 

 

Lucy says, “You know what? I think I’m going to go sit with Marian.” She shifts over to the other side of the bench, eyes flickering between Emma and Regina.

 

Emma sighs. It occurs to her, abruptly, that August is the only one who might get this. He’d been on the team with them. He’d known Regina, back when she’d been someone else entirely. And he’d been the one to help Emma find Regina. “I found out on Wednesday that when I found Regina ten years ago…you know, after the championships…I led Cora there, too. And she did something to Daniel. Regina’s husband. He never woke up the next morning.” She stares blankly into the arena. “I was so stupid. She told me not to come after her. I was just so sure that it was what Regina wanted. Maybe it was just what I wanted.” 

 

August blinks at her. In the arena, Mulan and Ruby are wrestling, Mulan holding her own against the wolf. “Okay,” he says. “So I get that we’re all very mad about what Regina’s evil mom did to that middle-aged guy she was dating–” 

 

“He was twenty-six,” Emma corrects him, but she can’t stop the spiteful little glimmer at it. Daniel had been much too old for Regina, even if Regina had found it comforting. He’d been an adult when they’d been stumbling through eighteen and nineteen.

 

August rolls his eyes. “Whatever. I care a whole lot more about what Regina’s mom did to the kid on my team.” He pats Emma’s back, a big brotherly gesture from someone who hadn’t been far off from twenty-six ten years ago, either. “And I’m not impressed with Regina taking it out on you just because she can’t take it out on her dead mother.” 

 

“Very frank, August. You’re a gem.” But he’s not wrong , exactly, though Emma isn’t ready to absolve herself of everything.

 

“Listen,” August says, squinting at the arena. Someone has a heart, though it’s hard to tell who with the whirl of fur and sword. “Regina has an issue with you? She can do what everyone else in the world does and take it up with you in the arena. So let’s go win this thing so we can let you two squabble where it counts.”

 

Emma laughs, and not just because it’s Mulan who emerges, heart held high and flushed with victory. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that was kind of inspirational.” She lowers her voice. “I think I might suck at Duos, though.” Twice feels dangerously like a habit, but she remembers how it had felt with Lucy. It had been like fighting alone, someone behind her to protect, and she doesn’t know how she’ll do anything like that with August.

 

Fighting Duos with Regina had been as natural as breathing, every movement in perfect sync. Fighting Duos without her just feels like playacting, lumbering in the opposite direction of synchrony with an ill-suited partner. There is no joy to fighting Duos without Regina.

 

“That’s fine.” August waves a hand, dismissive. “Those two have never fought a single Proeliate battle. They don’t know a thing about Duos. You keep them busy. I’ll do the rest.” 

 

“Great.” It feels so clinical, fighting Duos like that, but August is right, at least, about them having no Proeliate experience. Wish Emma and Wish Regina take circles beside each other, a tactical no-no, and they look bewildered until the buzzer sounds.

 

Emma keeps her distance, a dozen feet between them, and then, as if by silent agreement, both of her opponents attack. Wish Emma fires white energy from her palms while Wish Regina feeds fire into them, a red explosion tearing into the spot where Emma had just been. Emma propels her own magic into a jump, leaping in the air above them and somersaulting in midair to fire her own magic at the tops of their heads. 

 

“Whoa!” Wish Emma slams onto the ground. Wish Regina hurls a fireball at Emma, but Emma is already running, moving at top speed around them. She’s never been one to rely on magic more than her own body, and it serves her well here, a blur of a moving target for the Wishverse ladies to struggle to catch. Wish Emma takes off after her, but she’s running at a human pace, no magic behind it. 

 

And there . Maybe Emma won’t need August at all. Wish Regina is craning her neck, struggling to track the two Emmas, and Emma flies into her and throws her back against the wall. She’s pinned into place a second later, and Emma has this, is going to take out her heart–

 

Wish Regina murmurs, her eyes glinting as though she knows exactly what she’s doing, “And this takes me back to last night.” 

 

Emma stumbles back, the words slamming into her like a fist to her diaphragm. Wish Regina laughs, flicking her wrist to send a wave of energy at Emma that throws her to the floor, and Emma lets out a gritted curse and stumbles back to her feet. She isn’t done. Wish Regina can’t set her that off guard. 

 

Wish Emma says suddenly, “Hey! What’s Aug–” Emma is on her in an instant, cutting her off before she can finish the sentence. She yanks at Wish Emma’s hair, scrabbling for her chest, and another surge of magic hits her. 

 

Wish Regina snarls, “Hands off my wife,” and Emma is so startled that she doesn’t get back up right away. She makes the mistake of looking up at the arena for an instant–

 

–And, of course, her eyes move straight to Regina’s. Regina is watching the fight with her lips tight and hard and her eyes boring holes into the arena, and Henry beside her is shouting Emma’s name. Emma has no idea if Regina can hear what Wish Regina is saying over the crowd and the announcer’s monologue, but she seems to have seen enough to infuriate her. 

 

Emma grits her teeth and unleashes a wave of magic, the kind she usually doesn’t bother with. It’s quick and harsh, and she knows that it must feel like burning. Wish Regina cries out and Wish Emma runs to her, and Emma spares a split-second glance at the far side of the arena before she unleashes another wave of magic.

 

Wish Emma’s magic meets hers midway, and Emma slides beneath it, feet-first, and rises again to punch Wish Emma in the chest. 

 

And then, finally, August finishes the spell that he’s been methodically writing into the border of the arena.

 

Emma’s fist is still raised, her knees bent and her elbow out, but she finds that she can’t move it at all. Good. This is a standard August maneuver, one she’s familiar with, and she relaxes and allows herself to stand, frozen in place, and watch the alarm rise in her opponents’ eyes. 

 

August strolls through the arena, calm and amused. “This is Duos,” he reminds them. “Did you forget about me?” He considers Wish Regina, sees the murder on her face, and opts to pluck out Wish Emma’s heart instead. 

 

The buzzer sounds, and Emma’s arm falls. “Not the sort of gambit that usually works in the arena, but Storybrooke took advantage of their opponents’ inexperience. With that careful teamwork, Storybrooke has made its way into the Enchanted Forest regionals final! Only one team from this region will qualify for the championship round. This is the first time in several years that Storybrooke has made it to the regionals, and they haven’t won one in six years. It certainly looks like it might be their year.” 

 

The crowd is cheering. Emma grins up at them, unable to stop herself from doing a little victory dance, and it falters when she catches Regina still glowering down at her. Defiant, she continues, dragging August into the dance.

 

When she’s done, their opponents are still standing opposite them, very bemused and not very choked up about their loss. Wish Emma says, following Emma’s gaze. “Your Regina really hates you, huh?” She sighs. “That’s so sexy.” 

 

Wish Regina snorts. “It was ,” she admits grudgingly, taking Wish Emma’s hand.

 

Wish Emma casts the glowering Regina in the audience a longing glance. “I wish my Regina still hated me,” she says, and August lets out a strangled noise. Emma can only stare at them, her heart twisting uncomfortably.

 

Wish Regina says, “Cut it out,” poking Wish Emma’s side. “You’re going to make the woman cry.” She tugs Wish Emma with her, back to their bench, and they disappear in a puff of purple smoke that seems to make Rumplestiltskin very unhappy. 

 

They’re definitely slipping out on their postgame interviews, Emma reflects, and allows herself a moment of envy and a moment of yearning before she’s mobbed by her shouting team.

 


 

Regina doesn’t get to compete in the quarterfinals. She’s been slotted into the final Solo slot, and Maleficent finishes the match in the fight before hers, taking out a young witch with some talent in just a few minutes. “I hear the format will be standard for the finals,” Gold warns them. “Two Duos, then three Solos. If our Duos fight like they did today, we’ll be on the brink of losing from the start. Do better.” 

 

It had been one loss, Gothel and Zelena outflanked by the strongest fighters on the other team, but Regina doesn’t argue with him. It isn’t worth it, when it comes to Gold, and she slips a hand in Zelena’s as they escape the postgame interviews and head back to the arena. Henry has disappeared, off with Lucy to Storybrooke’s celebration, and Regina thinks with a wince that she’s going to have to, at some point this week, figure out how to protect Lucy from her team. 

 

Lucy won’t want that protection, but Lucy is ten , and hardly figures into this reasoning. Emma had better put her in Duos, at the very least. And not the one where Cruella and Ursula will be waiting. There might be a protective spell around the arena to stop any magical injuries from sticking, but a physical punch in the face will still give you a bloody nose after the buzzer sounds, spell or not.

 

“Night off from practice,” Regina announces abruptly. “Let’s go out. Celebrate. Relax. Next week, we take on Storybrooke, and then the championships. You can take the day.”

 

They wind up at the Rabbit Hole together, a seedy bar in Storybrooke where a few people clap them on the back and a good number give them a wide berth. “How am I supposed to relax if all the men here are afraid of me?” Zelena complains. Gothel mutters something, and Zelena says, “ Well. I suppose,” in a voice that makes it clear exactly where they’re going.

 

They disappear minutes later, and Cruella and Ursula are next to go. “There’s just…something I need to take care of,” Ursula lies blatantly. 

 

“It’s standing right next to you,” Fiona points out, amused. Ursula gives her a haughty look before Cruella pulls her from the bar, and Fiona says, “I think I can find someone just fine,” and floats off into the dark corners of the bar. 

 

Only Mal and Regina are left at the table, which suits Regina just fine. “Exhausting, every one of them,” she sighs. 

 

“Mm,” Mal agrees, and puts her hand on Regina’s thigh. Regina stares up at her, alarmed and contemplative at once. Mal is extremely attractive, it’s true, and Regina would be lying if she’d said it had never occurred to her before. There’s a significant age gap, but that’s not a consideration for Regina. And Mal doesn’t strike Regina as someone who would attach strings to a one-night stand. 

 

Regina slides her hand over Mal’s and carefully removes it from her thigh. Mal arches an eyebrow, but only says, “Are you going to the Storybrooke diner now to get your son?” 

 

“That was the plan,” Regina manages, uncertain if she’s making a mistake.

 

Mal only nods. “I’ll pay at the bar and then join you. I’d like to check in with Lily.” She smiles suddenly. “I did hope that our teams would face each other.” Mal-the-mom doesn’t often occur to Regina, but when it does, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. 

 

She disappears to the bar, and Regina drums her fingers against the table and tries to think as little as possible about the thing that’s been haunting her all week: Emma Swan, dressed to the nines and intoxicatingly beautiful, her face wide and horrified as Regina had told her exactly what she’d wrought. 

 

It should have felt satisfying. It should have been Regina’s moment of unadulterated fury, transforming petty resentment into real, justified vengeance. Instead, Regina feels even unhappier than she had before. 

 

Cora nearly killed me and I kept your secrets for you , Emma had snapped, and it is what Regina can’t seem to shake. She’s summoned up the pictures on her phone, still open in her browser now when she picks it up. An article from eleven years ago, MOLINERO STILL MISSING; SWAN IN CRITICAL CONDITION . The article doesn’t seem to know why Emma is injured, only that there is doubt that she’ll ever fight in the Proeliate again. They have always just been bodies to the media.

 

And then, a single picture, snapped by a photographer three months after the championships. Emma leaving the Storybrooke Hospital, Snow and David and a number of guards arrayed around her. She still has one bandaged arm, but it’s the only damage that Regina can see. Still, there is a grimace to her face that makes it clear that her movements are wobbly and painful, and Regina stares at them and then shuts her phone again hastily. 

 

Mal is back at the table, expectant, and Regina rises. “Sorry,” she says. “I was just…checking up on something.” 

 

Mal just lifts her eyebrows. When they make it outside, she says, “I wouldn’t worry too much about that interview. Fighters tend to grandstand before battles.” 

 

“Interview?” Regina echoes warily. 

 

Mal gives a politely befuddled look. “Oh,” she says. “I thought you’d seen it. It was just…well, I’m sure you know how belligerent the Storybrooke captain gets when she’s asked about you. She called you a few names. It wasn’t classy.” 

 

“Emma Swan has never been classy a day in her life,” Regina mutters, keeping pace with Mal. “It won’t matter soon, anyway. Once they’re out of the Proeliate, our interviews will finally be a little less repetitive.” 

 

Mal lets out a wry laugh. “Let’s hope,” she says. “If one more postgame session lasts as long as my fight does, I might just quit the team.” Regina shoots her a look, never certain if Mal is serious or not. There is no edification now, either. 

 

“Are you sure you want to walk in with me?” Mal says suddenly. “I don’t know where Lily will be.” 

 

“It’s not a very large diner,” Regina points out.

 

“I mean…” Mal seems to choose her words carefully. “Lily is close with your…Emma Swan. Do you really need a confrontation with her right now?” 

 

Regina scoffs, ignoring the question entirely. “She’s not my Emma.”

 

“I can’t imagine who else’s she would be,” Mal points out as they turn the corner to Main Street. The diner is the first building on their left, the outdoor seating area all but empty.

 

Nearly. They’ve found both of the women in question, standing in the shadows of the stairs down to the seating area and locked in an embrace. Lily is against the staircase, her hands up Emma’s shirt, and Emma has her pinned to it, kissing her passionately. Lily shifts to kiss Emma’s neck, and Emma’s face is abruptly exposed, her parted lips and lidded eyes and the way she is utterly lost in another woman’s touch–

 

Regina can only stare, her heart pounding and her entire body suddenly numb. Emma lets out a groan that jolts something deep in Regina’s core, and Regina is quivering suddenly, is overstimulated and desperately regretting her decision at the bar earlier. She needs this– something– Emma’s hips are moving, Lily’s hand baring an expanse of skin at Emma’s back–

 

Mal clears her throat and Lily says, “Go away. We’re busy,” and attacks Emma’s throat again. But Regina feels the sudden warmth of Emma’s magic as it senses her, the energy close enough to touch, and Emma stumbles away from Lily, pushing her back. 

 

Lily straightens out her shirt and says, “Oh, fuck. Hey, Mom.” Beside her, Emma’s eyes burn through Regina’s, her flushed face and rumpled clothes painting a picture that makes Regina sick and wanting at once.

 

Mal says, “I thought we could do dinner together,” and Lily bobs her head. 

 

“Yeah, of course. Catch you later, Em,” Lily promises, and she tosses Emma a wink and Regina a cautious look before she departs. 

 

Emma wipes her hands off on her jumpsuit, glancing up at Regina. Regina can only stand there, frozen, images from a moment ago playing and replaying. Emma closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says abruptly.

 

Regina blinks at her, defensive. “You don’t have to apologize for that,” she says shortly. “You’re allowed to have a relationship with whoever you want– it’s not as though we did anything at the ball, and I– I almost went home with someone tonight, too,” she adds hastily, desperate to seem equally taken.

 

“I’m not apologizing for making out with Lily,” Emma says, her brow creasing. “Why would I apologize for that?” Is there a hint of challenge in her tone, or is Regina only imagining things that don’t exist, driven to some level of delusion by the everpresent Emma Swan? 

 

Emma clears her throat. “I’m sorry about Daniel,” she clarifies, and she scuffs her shoes against the ground and looks up at Regina again. Regina finds it suddenly difficult to breathe. “I wish I’d…” She stops herself. 

 

“I wish you hadn’t,” Regina says sharply. Even now, Emma hesitates at a full apology, at taking responsibility for her actions. Regina had told her not to come. Regina had known . Emma should have known, not least after what Mother had done to her. “I wish you’d have just stayed away instead of dooming Henry to grow up without a father.” 

 

Emma looks at her, grief in her eyes, and Regina should feel satisfied at the blow she’d gotten in. Emma had been celebrating, and now she is aware of how much she’s taken from Regina and Henry. This should be justice. 

 

It feels like thorns tearing them both apart instead. 

 

“He was a good guy,” Emma says stiltedly. “Daniel, I mean. He didn’t deserve whatever Cora did to him.” Regina waits, waits for this to start feeling right and for satisfaction, at least, to set in. 

 

Instead, Emma straightens and walks past her without looking back, leaving the party early with her shoulders down and no more words to offer. And Regina feels nothing but hollow.

 

She wants to scream, scream like she had when Daniel had first been taken from her, sobbing in her apartment until her neighbor had rushed in. The pregnant junior officer they’d been subletting a room to– because Daniel had insisted when Jacinda had appeared at the bar, looking for a part-time job, because Daniel was all that was good and kind in the world– had held her until the ambulance had come, until it had been clear that there was nothing that she could do.

 

There is nothing she can do now, either. She can’t bear to go inside to bright lights and celebration, to return to a world that feels distant today. Instead, she stands in silence, and it feels only fitting when a light rain begins to hammer against her. 

 

She is startled when a woman appears in the entrance, blond and dressed in a white and sapphire jumpsuit that is as unmistakable as her face. “Excuse me,” the woman says. “Emma Swan isn’t in there, is she?” 

 

“She left,” Regina says curtly. This isn’t a woman she wants to speak to. Emma, she decides, has far too many women in her orbit.

 

The woman looks disappointed. “I wanted to congratulate her,” she says, frowning. “I’m really looking forward to seeing her in the championship rounds.” She fiddles with the blue gloves on her hands, glancing around the seating area as though Emma might materialize, and then she stares hard at Regina. “You’re Regina Molinero,” she says, surprised. “I had heard you were back.” 

 

“You’re Elsa of Arendelle,” Regina echoes in nearly the same tone. “I had heard you were still around.” 

 

Elsa fiddles with her gloves some more. She seems to have detected the hostility that Regina has been half-heartedly tamping down, and she offers Regina a tight, uncertain smile. “I wouldn’t mind facing you in the championship rounds, too. I feel as though we’re owed a fight together.” 

 

Regina refuses to answer. Elsa raises one hand and turns, glowing faintly in the rain as it turns to an icy halo around her, and disappears into the night.

Chapter Text

“The thing about our team,” Emma says, circling said team, “Is that we don’t give up. Right?” There is a straggle of nods, and Emma says again, “ Right ?” 

 

“Right,” they chorus. Snow and Blue are on the bleachers, watching them with eyebrows raised, and there is a reporter lingering on the far side of the arena. Emma feels the need to up the ante.

 

“We don’t ,” she reminds them. “We don’t look at a team and decide that they’re too strong for us. We take each match as it comes and we fight like hell until a heart is in our hands. And that’s what we’ll do for Misthaven, too. They’ve got a strong roster, but they’re overconfident and we are…” She pauses, closes her hands over Lucy’s ears, and says, “ Stubborn as fuck. ” 

 

Lily hoots. August says, “ Yeah we are.” 

 

“Let’s go!” Emma orders, and they scatter to practice. They’re sparring today with energy swords, each fighter for themselves, and Emma watches Lily swing at Marian and contemplates the lineup. 

 

Snow comes to join her. “What are you thinking?” 

 

“Mulan and Marian have to be in second Duos,” Emma says grimly. “Second fight, too. The regionals are always Duos first, Solos second. So first Solo could seal it. We need someone strong there.” 

 

Snow eyes her. “Do you want the slot?” 

 

“No.” Emma says it too quickly, and she swallows, considers again. “Any of the Solo matches could be our last. But we need a victory in first Solo, no matter what. It’s non-negotiable. I’ve been thinking about moving Jefferson there. August is a defensive fighter. And Lily is best in second Solo. So we don’t really have any other options. August and Lucy have fought together, haven’t they?” 

 

“I’m not sure,” Snow says, brow wrinkling. “What about Lucy in the first Solo fight?” 

 

Emma kicks at the bottom of the bleacher, her head already shaking from side to side. “Can’t. Lucy can’t fight in Solos against Misthaven.” Lucy has been safely kept in Duos until now, well-protected with strong partners. “Have you seen those women?” 

 

“I have.” Emma looks up. To her chagrin, Lucy is standing in front of her, arms folded and face stubborn. “I’ve been watching them since the start of the Proeliate. And I can take them. I’m strong , Emma. It’s why you picked me for your team. I can fight in Solos.” 

 

“I know you can,” Emma says, and she notes with dismay that her voice has gotten gentle and a tiny bit condescending. She swallows it back. “It’s not that you aren’t capable of it. But you’re great in Duos–” 

 

“I’d be better in Solos.” Lucy says, her jaw tight. “I’m not afraid of going one-on-one with Misthaven. Why am I here, if I can’t even fight? What’s the point of being on the team?” 

 

She turns around without waiting for an answer, and she strides toward the rest of the team. She speaks in a low voice to the others, and Emma watches, eyes narrowed, as everyone but Jefferson heads to the bleachers on the far side of the arena. 

 

Jefferson stays, and the buzzer sounds a moment later. Lucy is fierce and uncompromising, is moving with new determination, and Emma watches, her heart beating rapidly. 

 

She wants to let Lucy fight in Solos. She does. Lucy has worked hard to get here and has the kind of natural talent that few can match. But she’s a child . There is something terrifying about sending Lucy out there to face an adult, her fragile heart out for the taking, and Emma can’t bear the thought of putting Lucy into a fight that might harm her, even if only while the arena is active. 

 

Jefferson tips his hat, and the illusions begin. Emma watches them, strange little whirling shapes and that signature Wonderland disorientation following, but Lucy doesn’t budge. She stares only at Jefferson, sending tiny blades of glass at his face and his clothes. His hat is torn to shreds.

 

When Lucy moves, she’s fast, quick and angry and determined. Jefferson’s heart is in her hand a moment later, and the buzzer chimes her victory. “Next!” she shouts.

 

She takes down August and then Lily, and when the three of them are all defeated, she turns to Emma. “Try me,” she says, hands out. There is a wall of glass around her, tilted to frame her perfectly. “Fight me.” 

 

“No,” Emma says, her heart twisting. “I’ve seen enough.” Lucy waits, her eyes probing Emma’s, and then she sees the concession in Emma’s eyes and exhales.

 


 

There are a dozen regional championships this week before the Proeliate championship begins. Two are fought every day, deciding the final sixteen teams who will fight in the major rounds. In four of them, both teams will move on, though none of those are the Enchanted Forest.

 

In the Enchanted Forest regionals, only one team will progress. They’ve gotten this far, Emma reflects, without too much drama. But defeating Misthaven feels like an entirely new challenge. Misthaven doesn’t have a gimmick or a flashy technique to beat. Misthaven has Regina and Gold and seven players who are all better than nearly everyone Storybrooke has already fought. 

 

All the teams fighting in the regionals have been given free tickets to the other teams’ matches, but Storybrooke is only planning to attend a few matches. They have practice daily now, only Lucy ducking in and out so she doesn’t miss too much school. In the afternoons, she sits with her math textbooks and August edits her essays for her. Today, she has taken the day off. 

 

Two of the top teams in the League are fighting in their regionals today– the regionals for the Underworld and the Northlands. They’ve picked the Northlands out of practicality and out of a preference to snow over red fog. Emma has brought a thick coat to wear over her jacket, remembering the weather, and she has made sure that Lucy is well-bundled, too. Normally, the portal from Storybrooke to the Northlands is only active once a week; today, there’s a special portal running all morning and a large crowd milling around in front of it. “Everyone likes to watch the champs,” August observes when they meet up in front. “They like us, but they like winning more.” 

 

Still, they get a few clamors. A little girl hurries over to Lucy and, twisting hair around her finger, asks her for her autograph. Emma signs a few pictures– some of which, she notices, are actually pictures of Team Arendelle. 

 

“It’s for your championship game,” one man says cheerfully. “I’ll have you and Elsa up there.” 

 

She gives him a thumbs up. “Don’t doubt that we’re going to be at that game,” she promises him, and she signs it with a flourish. 

 

More people crowd them in over time, all with their own opinions and advice to share. “Misthaven is all smoke and mirrors,” one woman says scornfully. “Let them try to get past you.” 

 

“I don’t know,” someone else says dubiously. “I can’t imagine them losing.” There is another crowd on the other side of the portal station, and Emma’s fingers tighten against her sides as she realizes who must be there. 

 

The mob of people slowly moves toward the portal, and Emma is relieved to step into it and emerge in the bitter cold of the Northlands. The complex here is huge, ostentatiously decorated, and built entirely of ice and snow. The snowbanks tower around the paths, guiding people in specific directions, and Emma leads her team to a large cafe on the far side of the arenas. “We have another hour until the fight starts,” she notes, checking her phone. There is a single cell tower here, one that works only in the arena, and she has perfect service. “I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get here so I figured we could eat brunch first.” 

 

“Perfect,” Lily says, her voice teasing. “Now, if only the rest of the world hadn’t planned the same.” The cafe is packed, and a harried waitress looks at the seven of them (Snow had shuddered at the idea of coming and mumbled something about puns) and grimaces.

 

“We can split into two tables,” Jefferson offers.

 

The waitress shakes her head. “No space. I can squeeze all of you into a ten,” she says, eyeing someone behind them. “Come on.” She smiles suddenly. “We can get you some Enchanted Forest specialties.”

 

Emma feels the beginnings of a headache coming on. “We’re not together,” she says weakly, suddenly sure of who’s behind them. But it’s too late. Misthaven and Storybrooke are shown to a round table, sleek and clear, in a back corner of the cafe. 

 

“It’s glass,” Lucy announces, rapping on the table. “Not ice.” She’s the first to sit, and the others follow suit. They cluster together, Storybrooke with Storybrooke and Misthaven with Misthaven, all of them dressed in team jumpsuits and squashed around the table. 

 

Emma is still standing, watching with dread as the seats fill up. Only two are left, side by side at the end of the round table, and she knows exactly how this ends. 

 

“Last spot for you, sis,” Zelena says, giving the chair beside her a pat. “Unless you’d rather stand uncomfortably and glare at Emma for the next forty-five minutes.” 

 

“She would,” Lucy says cheerfully. Regina scoffs, taking her seat, and Emma is forced to follow. They are pressed against each other in the tight space, Regina’s thigh against Emma’s, and Emma gulps in a breath and does her best to ignore Regina. 

 

But when she glances down, she sees Regina’s hands folded on her lap, and the tension running through her is nearly palpable. Emma’s mind brushes against Regina’s, almost casually, and Regina flinches in her seat.

 

It just pushes her a little closer to Emma. Emma takes another breath, shivering in the cold. “It’s freezing here,” she says.

 

To her surprise, Regina is the one to nod. “I didn’t expect it to be this bad,” she says. “I knew it was cold in the Northlands, but I thought– well, I thought they’d have the sense to warm the complex.” 

 

“It’d melt all the ice,” Zelena drawls, squinting around the cafe. “They’d lose all the tourists.” 

 

Emma watches Regina, sees the faint blue at her lips and feels the shuddering against her, and she can’t help herself. “Here,” she says, tugging off her big coat. “I’ve got a jacket under it, you can have this–”

 

Regina just stares at her. Someone on the other side of the table snickers, and August whistles. “I’m fine,” Regina says, but the shivering has gotten worse, and Emma mumbles, “Don’t be an idiot, take it –” until Regina pulls her coat on.

 

Emma is freezing. Emma is hot. Emma is being eyeballed by everyone at the table, and Lily catches her eye and mouths Emma’s got a crush and looks so amused by it that Emma has to look down, face burning. “Wasn’t that interesting,” Cruella says thoughtfully. Ursula nudges her. Regina refuses to look at any of them, and Emma stares fixedly at her plate.

 

Thankfully, they order food soon after, and the conversation turns more animated on the other side of the table. “I mean, really,” Fiona is saying. “How do you leave a team like Camelot to fight with Storybrooke? It’s like quitting the champions to fight in the kiddie league.” 

 

Marian’s expression is pleasant but guarded. “You might be surprised at who the champions are,” she says, and Emma loves her a little bit for it. 

 

Cruella laughs. “Darling, you don’t need to pretend with us. Camelot is top tier, nearly on par with Olympus. And we both know that husband of yours was the one carrying your Duos.” She reaches out, over Mulan, to touch Marian’s arm. “You’re a bit, well–” 

 

Mulan catches her hand before she can reach Marian, her eyes like steel. Cruella laughs. “Don’t hate me for giving you the truth, ladies. You might as well be prepared.” 

 

“Cruella doesn’t have an ounce of tact,” Ursula says, but she doesn’t look apologetic. “But come on. Let’s be realistic. You’re not the kind of team that makes it to the championships. I’ve fought championships.” 

 

“So have I,” August says, his voice a little too loud. “And I didn’t have to rough any referees up after a game–” 

 

Cruella says, “That was a misunderstanding .” She has an ugly sneer on her face. “I thought he was the announcer.” 

 

“Emma beat Camelot last year,” Lucy reminds the table. “In one move.” Her arms are folded, squeezed between Emma and Lily and ready for a fight. 

 

“Beginner’s luck,” Zelena says, yawning. “Hardly a coup.”

 

“Didn’t seem like beginner’s luck,” Emma says, and she feels the way that Regina tenses beside her when she speaks, that sharp edge of energy against Emma’s. “Seemed like a pushover. If those are your champions, Cruella, you might just not be very good.” She clears her throat. “And Marian could fight circles around her ex.” 

 

Cruella snorts. “Well. We’ll see about that.” 

 

“Maybe you’ll fight the little one,” Gothel says, eyeing Lucy. Emma grips the table, her teeth gritting. “I always find them so…entertaining. Little brats, overly confident, and by the end they’re in tears.” 

 

Lucy’s eyes narrow. “I could take you,” she says, and before Emma can stop her, “Second Solo fight. Come and get me.”

 

Lucía ,” Regina says sharply, and Lucy’s face hardens even more. Regina twists to face Emma. “You’re not putting her in Solos.” 

 

“You’re not her mother,” Emma retorts, feeling very defensive of a decision she’d made only reluctantly. “I’ll put her where she’s best. And she’s earned her Solo slot.” 

 

Regina’s jaw works under her skin. “She’s ten ,” she says in a hiss. “Do you think this is a game? That you can just throw a child into whichever spot suits you and then stick her into an arena? Have you lost your moral compass entirely?” She’s getting louder, and the rest of the teams are watching them both, and Emma doesn’t want to hear Regina berate her anymore.

 

“You’ve already made it clear what you think of me,” she says, getting up stiffly. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t want to hear it again.” 

 

She pushes her seat back and escapes the table, leaving a few coins on it to pay for the toast that she’d ordered that hasn’t arrived yet. Regina follows behind her, buzzing in her ear like an angry bee. “You don’t get to walk away from this,” she snarls. “The harm it could do to Lucy–” 

 

“She wants to fight in Solos,” Emma snaps. “She begged for that position. And I don’t know what you think that shaming her for it is going to do.” Lucy worships Regina, speaks about her with those bright and proud eyes, and Regina is only reiterating the line of thinking that gets Lucy most upset. 

 

Regina scoffs as they flee the cafe, too many curious eyes on them. “Jacinda asked me, you know,” she says, her feet tapping an impatient beat against the ridged ice path. “When this all started. When you watched the junior Enchanted Forest fight-offs and scouted Lucy. She asked me if she could trust Lucy with you.” 

 

“I’m glad she ignored you,” Emma retorts, steering them toward an open seating area between the media building and the arenas. It’s big enough that she might be able to find some other fighter, someone familiar to chat with instead of Regina, or at least to watch the screens that are displaying the opening to the Underworld regionals.

 

Regina lets out an annoyed noise. “She didn’t,” she says, and Emma stops moving. “I told her you’d protect Lucy from the worst of the Proeliate. I told her that if Storybrooke didn’t take Lucy, someone less principled would. That Storybrooke was Lucy’s best shot.” 

 

Emma stares at her, eyes wide. Regina hates her, blames her for ruining her life– and Emma still doesn’t know how she feels about that, except that it kills her to dwell on it too deeply– and yet, she’d said…

 

She takes a breath. Regina says irritably, “Anyway, I guess I was wrong. What?” she demands, and Emma notices suddenly that her breath is shaky. She’s overwhelmed with emotion, and she doesn’t know why , except… 

 

Except that Regina might hate her, Regina might blame her for everything, but Regina had trusted her with Lucy. With Henry, too, now that Emma is thinking about it. And that, somehow, means more than snide glares and cutting comments, and fuck , she’s never really gotten over Regina, has she?

 

Regina’s magic is digging into Emma’s, her query like a sharp question in Emma’s mind. Emma manages to say, her throat hoarse, “You know, every time we use that bond, it’s going to get stronger.” 

 

Regina’s magic pulls back. Emma shivers. Regina snaps, “I don’t do it on purpose .”

 

“Yeah.” Emma lifts her shoulders and presses them close to her neck, feeling very sick. “I know. Me neither. But three years is…a lot to unlearn.” Regina is so angry– so desperately angry with her, the kind of anger that will never settle. Regina is going to hate Emma forever because her grief will never let her feel otherwise, and Emma is still helplessly in love with her. It’s miserable. It’s a nightmare.

 

It’s her new reality. 

 

She wants to apologize for Daniel again, to bring the conversation back there as though this time might the one that makes it right. She wants to say something , just to hear Regina respond. She wants to run away and never speak to Regina again, to begin the bitter process of moving on from something she’s supposed to have moved on from years ago.

 

Instead, she stands very still and Regina says, her voice less sharp, “It is.” And Emma doesn’t know how to cope with a Regina who hates her and then is kind, who is cruel then understanding. “Emma,” Regina says, and she sounds almost hesitant. “I wish we’d–” 

 

She stops, her gaze falling on the screen behind Emma, and her eyes turn blank with horror.

 


 

Regina is empty. A shell, broken to pieces, and no one in the world knows it except for Emma Swan. It’s a twisted kind of justice, she decides, that she can project calm and confidence to everyone except the person who had thrown her into this in the first place. It’s what she deserves, if she deserves anything at all. 

 

And yet, despite being made of nothing but grief and fury, she has space in her heart for thumping, terrified agony. A tentative hand lands on hers and she pays it no mind, absorbed in horror.

 

Emma’s hand tightens in hers. “Underworld,” she reminds Regina, staring up at the screen with her, the one displaying the Underworld regional finals. “Anyone with unfinished business winds up in those. Or someone really, really evil.” 

 

“Yes.” Regina’s voice sounds strangled to her ears, a child again instead of the adult she is meant to be. She hangs onto Emma’s hand with all her might, an anchor in the storm.

 

Emma’s voice is light, the slightest hint of hardness behind the humor. “If I had to pick someone to coach a team from hell, my first choice would absolutely be Cora Mills,” she says, and Regina leans against her, spent. “Kind of feel like hell was already the first nineteen years of your life.” 

 

“Sixteen,” Regina croaks, which is so much more information than she’d intended to give Emma. Emma cracks a small smile turning back to the screen where Regina had first seen Mother’s face.

 

It’s almost impossible to hear the audio in the crowded square, but Regina can read the words on the screen. CORA MILLS, MANAGER, Broken Kingdom . Of course. Why would Mother let a little thing like dying get in the way of the Proeliate? She’d taken some unknown team, one Regina has never heard of, and elevated them to the regionals, and then she will win the regionals. She will win every match until Regina is forced to fight her team, and there will be no escape from Mother.

 

“Hell realms are tricky,” Emma reminds her. “Their matches are always fought in the hell realm because they can’t leave them. At least until the Proeliate championships. So no way you’ll have to see her.” She brightens. “Another reason for Storybrooke to win on Friday.” 

 

“Emma,” Regina says, and she realizes that she’s shaking under Emma’s cozy, warm coat. She pulls it tighter around her, but she doesn’t let go of Emma’s hand. 

 

Emma’s voice is gentle. It takes Regina back to being a girl, afraid and helpless, and fleeing to Emma’s room because Emma had been her only safe space. Daniel had tried, but he’d been as ineffectual as Daddy, standing on the outskirts of Mother’s ambition and unable to stop it. Emma had been the only one right there in the middle of it, the eye of a hurricane and Regina’s comfort. “Regina,” she murmurs now. “Do you want me to get…should I get Zelena?” She sounds uncertain.

 

“No.” Regina is gripped with horror at the suggestion. Zelena has always wanted nothing but Mother’s love. If she sees Mother again– if there’s a chance that Mother might always be there, lurking at the end of the Proeliate– “No, I have to…” She clears her throat. “Tell my team I had to go back home. They can enjoy the match.” 

 

Emma says, “Are you kidding? I’m going with you. You’re not heading out to the Underworld alone.”  

 

Regina should refuse her. The last thing she wants to do is owe Emma Swan when she’s trying to hate her in peace. She opens her mouth to tell Emma to stay out of her life and says, “Okay.” 

 

Fuck . Emma sends a few texts on her phone, then tugs Regina’s from her hand and puts in the passcode. It’s been eleven years and Emma still remembers Regina’s go-to passcode. “I’ll tell them you’d rather practice,” she says. “Whoa. What is the Molividrio chat and why is Lucy forwarding my messages on it–?” 

 

She stops abruptly, and Regina has the presence of mind to seize her phone and glance down at the message that Henry has sent. An emoji of two women kissing. Fabulous. Even her own son has betrayed her in her time of need.

 

“Okay,” Emma says, and she straightens, turning away from the phone with a hint of pink on her cheeks. Regina follows her numbly, through the ice and the snow to the portal station at the far end of the complex. The portal to the Underworld arena is running all day, and they wait on line to enter it with Regina’s hand still gripped in Emma’s. 

 

Regina takes a breath, and Emma says, “Whichever of us wins, there’s no way Broken Kingdom makes it that far. Cora’s good, but she isn’t that good.” 

 

“She trained us,” Regina points out. Her hands are shaking, and she tries to steady them, releasing Emma’s hand at last. “And we’re…I mean, have you ever felt challenged in the arena?” 

 

Emma snorts. “I’ve lost , Regina. I almost lost to our Wishverse selves last week, if not for August.” 

 

Regina scowls, remembering at least that she hates that Emma had been in Duos with someone else. Lucy is one thing. August is one step closer to… 

 

She clears her throat and says abruptly. “The other us. The ones you fought. Were they…were they married?” She had seen a ring on each one’s finger, had seen the casual kisses and the comfortable way they’d sat. It had made her seethe with fury and hatred, and she’d only wanted them gone.

 

Emma’s back has gone rigid, her knuckles white, and she says, “Yes. They were.”

 

“Ironic,” Regina says without thinking, and then regrets it. 

 

Emma’s voice is cool. “I don’t see how it is.” 

 

She doesn’t look at Regina, and Regina, never one to meekly follow, says sharply, “If you think that this is some kind of penance for what you did to Daniel–” 

 

“I didn’t do anything to Daniel,” Emma snaps, and Regina notices that her hands are trembling now, too. “I know I fucked up by trying to find you, but I’m not Daniel’s murderer. Cora is.” She doesn’t give Regina a chance to respond, to say all the things that Regina knows absolutely are true about Emma and her motivations, to point out that Emma’s ambition had brought Cora to Daniel. “Let’s go. The line’s moving.” 

 

Regina follows her– not meekly , she tells herself, but in a state of agonized fear when she thinks of what awaits them. Mother is managing a team in a hell realm. Mother is never, ever going to be gone, and this is another reminder of that. Some people will never die, while others–

 

She tries to imagine finding Daniel in a realm– not a hell realm, but maybe a safe, comfortable afterlife one where they could visit him and be with him before he slips away. It’s incomprehensible. She can’t imagine Daniel in her life at all anymore, like a piece to the wrong puzzle. And that just fills her with renewed grief, and she wants to sink to the ground and mourn instead of being carried through a portal with a wave of chattering people, her worst nightmares looming ahead of her and beside her with fingers around her wrist. 

 

The Underworld complex is hazy and red-tinted like all the hell realms. Regina’s heard that special cameras have to be used to filter the setting in order to air the Proeliate live. It’s hot here and dark and foggy, and it feels remarkably like death must be. The complex itself is built into the ground, and they trek through underground passages and follow the signs to the arena.

 

They fish out their Proeliate Fighter passes to be allowed into the arena. “The fights were scheduled for an hour earlier than Northlands,” Emma murmurs, squinting around until they find the box in the bleachers where they’re supposed to be sitting. There are a scattering of fighters in the box, much fewer than Regina had spotted just walking around the Northlands. There isn’t nearly as much interest in this match, which isn’t expected to produce any champions. 

 

Regina sits beside a man in Camelot’s colors, Emma on the other side of her. “Hello,” the man says, smiling genially at her. “I don’t think I know your colors.” 

 

“Misthaven,” Regina says shortly. “We’re new in the Proeliate this year.” 

 

“Ah, an underdog team! I love watching these matches.” He gestures at the arena. One of the Broken Kingdom fighters has a whip made of pure energy, and he’s swinging it at his opponent with glee on his face. “There’s something so right about humbling the established stars. Misthaven! You’re the team who beat Agrabah,” he says suddenly, and he looks at her with new interest. “Dangerous and beautiful.” 

 

It’s Emma who speaks, her voice icy. “Back away from her.” 

 

The man raises his eyebrows, taking in Emma and the jumpsuit under her red jacket. “I know those colors,” he says, and he isn’t smiling. “I don’t think this is any of your concern, is it?” 

 

Emma glowers back at him. “You hitting on Regina is definitely my concern,” she says coolly, and Regina is annoyed. Emma doesn’t own her, and she certainly doesn’t get to choose who Regina speaks to.

 

She turns to the man and says, “Storybrooke really is unbearable. I’m glad I won’t have to fight in their bracket after the regionals.” 

 

The man laughs. “In Camelot, we like to do things differently,” he says conspiratorially. “When we defeat a team, if there’s someone who impresses us, we draft them into our team. We’re all one region, after all, and the best of the region should fight on the best team. It’s how I wound up on Team Camelot years ago. And we won the championship seven years ago for it.” 

 

“Very impressive.” Emma is seething beside her, which is Regina’s cue to continue speaking to the man. She can’t see Mother on the Broken Kingdom bench, and she wonders suddenly if they’d imagined her there. It had been a dual illusion, perhaps, because their minds are still too easily penetrated. “It’s not a bad idea,” Regina offers. “Leaves you with the cream of the crop and no real competition until after regionals. Do you find it lulls you into a false sense of security, though? How do you sharpen your skills?”

 

She continues chatting with the man, growing more and more confident that she’d imagined it as Mother doesn’t appear. Team Broken Kingdom is brutal, toying with their opponents before they defeat them, and Regina feels a little spark of distaste. Emma, beside her, has her fists clenched and her eyes fixed on the arena, still unhappy with her.

 

Good . Whatever idiocy had taken over Regina, it has passed. She hadn’t invited Emma on this trip with her. Emma had decided , as she always does, and Regina had been too dazed to object. Let her be angry that Regina is making a new friend.

 

She still hasn’t caught the man’s name, but she learns that he has a son, too, younger than Henry but equally fascinated by the Proeliate. “My son begged to come to today’s matches,” she tells him. “But I reminded him that there are plenty of matches to come. There’s only so much school he can miss in a year.” 

 

The man laughs, but it’s a little uncomfortable. Regina asks curiously, “Is there– do you have schools in Camelot?” 

 

“Sherwood, actually,” the man corrects her. “And…not as such, though my son is enrolled in a school where his mother lives.” He shifts, glancing over at Emma with wary eyes before he returns to Regina.

 

Regina chooses to ignore whatever Emma is doing. “You should bring him over to Misthaven’s arena, one of these days. Let the boys fight it out.”

 

“I think we’d all enjoy that,” the man says, laying a hand on Regina’s, and Regina gives him a slow smile. It’s been a long time since she’s been with anyone, but this man is a nice distraction, pleasant enough and very distinctly not–

 

Emma reaches her limit. Regina feels it first from her mind, which snaps at Regina like a rubber band, and then from the way she bites out, “Might as well invite Marian along, too,” and the truth dawns very suddenly. 

 

Regina springs away from the man, abruptly disgusted. “This is Marian’s ex?” Marian had caught her in the hospital hallway and chatted with her, and Regina had still liked her as much as she had when they were children, much more than she’d ever thought she’d like any of the adults on Team Storybrooke. They’d made plans to take their boys out for ice cream together after regionals–

 

Their boys. Of course.

 

Emma scowls at her. “I tried to tell you, but you were too busy flirting with him to listen.” She gives the man a scathing look. “The divorce isn’t even finalized yet. Haven’t you taken enough from Marian already?”

 

The man mumbles something and gets up, shuffling to the edge of the box and sitting there. Regina watches him go, eyes narrowed, and then turns back to Emma. “You could have just mentioned it. Maybe a quick comment before I started speaking to him.”

 

“Oh, because I’m supposed to know when your moral compass switches on and off?” Emma’s fingers tap an impatient rhythm against her knees, her mind jerking against Regina’s. “Maybe that would have encouraged you. I don’t know.” 

 

Regina sneers at her, feeling bitterly humiliated. “I like Marian.” Marian might not like her very much anymore, if Emma gets to tell this story to her. “A lot more than I like you.” 

 

Emma snorts. “Is that supposed to hurt my feelings?” she demands, but there’s a shadow across her face, a hint that it does do exactly that. Regina feels an uncomfortable twinge of guilt. “You never liked me. You hated me when I started training with you and you hate me now.”

 

“I didn’t hate you then,” Regina murmurs, and she is taken back again to those perfect years, to a life of being surrounded by the fierce love that had been Duos partnership. “You were the best thing about my miserable existence.” She feels sick when she thinks about it, loving Emma as much as she had. Emma as her other half, as the girl she’d trusted more than anyone in all the realms. Emma as her savior and her best friend. Emma as hers .

 

Emma, who laughs harshly and says, “And you sabotaged me, just like you did Team Storybrooke and your whole old life. Sounds about right.”

 

Regina refuses to entertain that accusation. This is a waste of time. “This is a waste of time,” she says aloud. “Why do I– why am I even here? Mother isn’t – I should be with my team.” She gets up. “I shouldn’t be here, and I shouldn’t be here with you.”

 

“Fine,” Emma snaps. “Go. I don’t care.” She sits in place, her arms folded, and Regina has had enough. She marches out of the bleachers as the crowd erupts and the announcer says, “And with Zoso’s fine maneuvering, the Broken Kingdom has won the Underworld regionals! A first-time victory for the freshman team–” 

 

Regina makes a quick retreat, back through the complex and to the portals. There is something about Emma Swan that makes Regina stupid, she decides, and this is no exception. What had she thought would happen here? Did she really believe that Mother had been here, or had she just lost control of all her faculties and followed Emma’s lead? 

 

She makes it nearly to the portal. There are a few screens up around it, showing the early interview videos and the live stream from the arena floor, and Regina glances up at them and then freezes. 

 

There– again– is Mother, but this time, Regina is certain that she isn’t imagining her. She stands on the far end of the arena, her team celebrating at the center of the floor, and the malice on her face is unmistakable, as is the woman she’s speaking to. 

 

Emma has gone to confront Mother, and Regina is gripped suddenly with horrified awareness– she’s seen the pictures of Emma, bruised and battered after Regina had left. Cora nearly killed me and I kept your secrets for you . What is Mother going to do to Emma now? Emma is backed against a wall, her shoulders up and tense as though she’s afraid, and Regina twists away from the screen and hurries, as quickly as she can, through the throngs leaving the arena and toward the spot where she’d just seen Emma. 

 

Mother is going to hurt Emma. There’s no one to protect her here, no one to save her, and Mother has held grudges for far longer than eleven years. Emma is in danger, and Regina has left her alone–

 

She flashes her Proeliate Fighter pass at a security guard who says, “You can’t go in there.” She moves anyway in a flash of energy, glad for the latent magic she has that is strong even outside the arena. An alarm is tripped, but Regina ignores it, hurrying toward the arena floor at top speed.

 

She makes it to the floor in time to see Mother, a hand spread across Emma’s chest. “Do you know what happens when a heart is plucked out outside the arena?” Mother is saying, conversational. “The unimaginable pain that comes with it? The control I will have over you?” She smiles, her eyes flashing. “Though I do wonder what I could do with you in a hell realm, little Swan. What kind of fighter would you become?” 

 

There is a flicker of fear in Emma’s eyes, through the stubbornness, the kind of learned terror that comes with being hurt by Mother before. Regina’s heart twists. “Let go of her,” she says through her teeth. Emma’s eyes widen, and they flicker to Regina with such quiet relief that it suffuses Regina with calm instead of the fear she’d expected. “Let her go ,” Regina repeats.

 

Mother turns, her smile broadening across her face. “Ah, and there she is. Done hiding at last, I see.” Her eyes narrow. “Don’t tell me that it was my untimely passing that brought you back to the Proeliate.” 

 

Regina can feel her own fear like a palpable thing in the air, a twisted trauma that she’ll never escape. But she pushes through it, keeps her voice even. “A security guard is on his way. You’re on camera. You will not touch Emma Swan.”

 

Mother laughs, light and amused. “She used to do this all the time, you know,” she says, her voice casual as she turns back to Emma. “I’d want to punish you for insolence or for a loss, and Regina would throw herself to me instead. Very noble. Stupid,” she says, the distaste clear in her voice. It sears at Regina. “I thought it would make you hard, but you stayed so soft. An embarrassment to my name.” 

 

Emma speaks, her voice rough but strong. “She didn’t use your name.” 

 

Mother slaps her just as the security guard, panting, finally catches up to Regina. “Hey!” he says, eyeing Mother instead. “Watch it. No fighting out of the arena.” 

 

Mother shifts, turning away from Emma to Regina. She holds a hand up to Regina’s cheek, and Regina steels herself not to recoil. But she only clasps it, gentle and maternal, and it is so much worse. “Darling,” she says, her voice soft. “I only did what I could to make you the best. And look at you. Look how strong you are now.”

 

Regina can feel the tears threatening to fall, and she blinks them away, made into nothing but a little girl at her mother’s affection. Emma says, “Everything Regina is now is in spite of you, not because of you.” Her mind dips into Regina’s, so fierce and warm that it takes Regina by surprise. She stumbles back from Mother, reaching for Emma’s hand.

 

“I will see you at the championships,” Mother says, her smile implacable. “And we will see how much you’ve grown.” 

 

She lifts a hand again, beckoning Regina, but Emma’s mind is still in Regina’s, still keeping her upright. Regina dwells in it, forcing a plastic, condescending smile, and says, “I don’t expect to see you, actually,” before she turns on her heel and leads Emma out.

 

They walk in silence to the portal, their minds still linked, and Regina thinks of Emma’s warning earlier about their bond. It’s only going to get stronger if they keep using it.

 

“I don’t care,” Emma says suddenly, a response to a thought that Regina hadn’t verbalized. “It had to be done.” And then, quietly, “Thanks for coming back for me.” Emma is all bravado, but there is something about Mother that still shakes her, years after Mother’s attack on her. Regina can feel it as though it’s her own thought.

 

“Thanks for coming with me in the first place,” Regina says grudgingly. There’s a portal directly to Storybrooke, and they walk to it together, still lost in each other’s thoughts. “You didn’t have to.”

 

“I did,” Emma murmurs, and for a moment, Regina can almost forget how much they despise each other. There is a glimmer of a smile on Emma’s face, a gentle touch to her mind, and Regina takes a breath and can breathe , can imagine a world where vengeance and grief and fury are not all she is. Can imagine a world where this is easy, where she can stare into Emma’s eyes and feel her heart as though it beats alongside Regina’s.

 

And then she steps out of the hazy redness of the Underworld and into the harsh light of day in Storybrooke, and their minds spring apart. Regina shoves that gentle longing away from herself, is horrified at her own willingness to forgive, and says abruptly, “I will never forgive you.” 

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, and she is too recently in Regina’s mind not to understand where Regina’s assertion is coming from. Her eyes flash with old pain, and she says tightly, “Me, too.” 

 

And they are back to where they had begun.


Good , Regina thinks, and she feels sick.

Chapter Text

“It’s the morning of the regionals and you must be feeling something,” a reporter says, sticking a microphone in Emma’s face. “Anxious? Confident?” 

 

“Confident,” Emma says firmly. “My team has trained for this and we’re ready for anything. This is just the last step to the championships.” 

 

The reporter leans forward. “Are you hoping to face Regina Mills in the arena, or would you prefer to avoid that confrontation?” 

 

Emma’s voice tightens. “I don’t really care,” she says, but she can’t make her tone imply that, in fact, she doesn’t care. August elbows her, and Lucy lets out a little giggle. 

 

The reporter raises a politely dubious eyebrow and turns on Lucy. “And how are you feeling about this competition?” she says, her voice significantly kinder. “Who are you fighting Duos with today?” 

 

Lucy grins. “I’m in Solos,” she informs the reporter, who looks taken aback at that revelation. “I can take anyone .” Emma is grimly amused and stressed at that. She still doesn’t want Lucy in Solos, contrary to everyone’s assumptions, and she has done everything in her power to avoid it. 

 

Jacinda has been nearly as stressed, but Sabine, to Emma’s surprise, is all for it. “Lucy has the talent,” she reminds them. “She has the skill. And there’s no lasting harm in the arena, they’re all enchanted for it. I have a cousin who started at ten. The kids in those arenas are more resilient and adaptable than the adults.” Lucy had promptly named her favorite mother and gone off to breakfast without an ounce of concern. 

 

Now, though, Emma can feel the weight of her own concern still upon her. “I want you to be careful,” she warns Lucy. “Fight a defensive fight. Hopefully, we don’t even go to second Solos.” 

 

They’re in the complex already, making their way to the prep rooms outside Arena B. Arena B is the oldest of the arenas, but it’s also the largest, and the crowd today is enormous even an hour before the match. They’re recognized as they walk, are asked to sign merchandise and jackets and jumpsuits, and Lucy glows with it. 

 

Lily says in an undertone, “Last chance to move to Duos.” 

 

Emma shakes her head. “She won’t agree to it. She worked hard for that slot–”

 

“I didn’t mean Lucy,” Lily says, rolling her eyes. “C’mon, Em. Do you really want to wind up in a catfight with Regina?” 

 

Mulan says reasonably, “Personal issues aside, she’s also the best on their team. We might be better off trying to end the match before anyone faces her.” 

 

“I can take her,” Emma says grimly. “I can .” 

 

Lily whistles. “You almost sounded like you believed that,” she says, poking Emma’s side. “Just nearly.” 

 

Emma sighs. “Let’s just check in,” she says, starting forward to lead the team toward the walkway up to Arena B. 

 

“Wait,” Marian says suddenly, and they pause, turning to look where she’s watching.

 

Emma recognizes the distinctive sapphire-and-white jumpsuits at once, the fluid movements through the crowd. There they are: champions of the Proeliate, the undisputed top fighters in the entire United Realms. Arendelle , fresh from their own regional victory earlier ths week.

 

They’re walking toward the entrance, and it’s impossible not to feel some awe as they move, perfectly in sync and with their heads high. People nearby gawk and stare, whispering frantically to each other and pointing at the team, and a little girl wearing a fake blonde braid escapes from her mother to run to Elsa.

 

She wraps her arms around Elsa’s leg, and Elsa crouches to smile at her. In the process, she catches sight of Emma, and her face lights up. She lifts a hand to Emma, and Emma is, startlingly, flattered at the attention. She hadn’t even known that Elsa remembered her. She raises her own hand in greeting as Elsa returns to the little girl. 

 

Emma had fought Elsa twice. The first had been on the day of the championship, eleven years before, when Emma had been thrust into the arena with a substitute player who’d been knocked out three minutes in. Elsa and Anna had been too much for Emma on her own, and she’d lost miserably and embarrassingly. 

 

Then, five years later, they had met in the first round of the championships. It had been Emma’s first year as captain. Emma had been determined to fight her best that time, to win for her team when she’d lost before, and she’d held off Elsa for nearly two hours before they’d both been incapable of moving, exhausted and on the floor for the full minute it takes before a referee declared a match a draw. It has been Elsa’s only non-win in her twelve years in the Proeliate, but Emma had still been bitterly disappointed at her loss.

 

This time , she vows, turning away from Elsa, and they duck through the security gate and into the prep rooms. 

 

One of the Proeliate managers is waiting for them inside, along with an impatient Snow and Blue. “There you are,” Snow says, eyeing them with weary disappointment. “You’re late. We only had another ten minutes before you’d be disqualified.” 

 

“Lot of foot traffic out there,” Emma says, refusing to let Snow’s frustration get to her. “We’re all here.” 

 

“Great.” The manager sticks out a uPad. The so-called creator of the uPad had made billions off of his invention. Emma sometimes contemplates ducking out into the Land Without Magic and bringing back the newest gadget. It’d be a more lucrative business than talking up sponsors, for sure. “Each of you sign in with your positions, please.” 

 

Emma takes the screen and squints at it. “Hang on,” she says, frowning at the roster. “You have the order listed as Solo, Duo, Solo, Duo, Solo. I thought we were going to have Duos first.” That’s a high-pressure position for Lucy, the opposite of what she’d wanted.

 

The manager sighs. “It’s this damned malfunctioning arena,” he says, sounding annoyed. “It needs to be updated, but why would the Proeliate bother with a minor region like the Enchanted Forest –” He scowls. “Someone punched in the wrong order and it won’t budge now. So we’re stuck with this order.”

 

“Great.” Emma glances at the team, sees Lucy’s stubborn face, and tries anyway. “Hey, Lucy, what do you think about starting off the match?” 

 

Lucy marches up, elbows Emma out of her way, and signs her name beside second Solo. Emma winces.

 

Marian and Mulan sign by second Duos, and August is the one to say, “Last chance, Emma.” He and Lily both watch her warily, and Emma feels very much like Lucy as she takes the uPad. 

 

“If I even fight,” she says, and she signs her name next to third Solo with a flourish.

 


 

Arena B is the least-used arena for a reason, Regina reflects, eyeing the dank prep room. There’s an updated screen on the wall, but that’s the only good thing about it. “This feels like one of those arenas from the old days,” Mal says, running her fingers along the wall. “When every match could end in sudden death.” 

 

“Better make sure the enchantments are updated, too,” Cruella says, smirking. “Imagine that sweet woman with the sword bleeding from my hounds’ bites.” 

 

Regina gives her a dark look. “We aren’t trying to kill our opponents,” she reminds them. “We’ll win, and we’ll do it with panache.” 

 

“Like hell,” Zelena mutters. She’s been paired into Duos with Fiona, as per Gold’s demands, which leaves Gothel in Solos. Regina doesn’t like that , either. “I’m going to wipe the smug look off that writer man’s face.” 

 

“Let’s win quickly,” Regina says, frowning at the roster on the screen. Both teams are up there, their faces and prior footage flashing on as the announcer talks through the competition. “Mal, I don’t care if she’s your daughter. You get her and you get her quickly.” Mal tilts her head in acquiescence. “Fiona, your visions can overpower Jefferson’s in an instant. Zelena, watch out for the writer. He’s good at dodging attention and laying a trap. Gothel–” Gothel looks at her, eyes gleaming, and Regina feels nauseous.

 

She takes a step forward, her eyes flashing and the protective fury suffusing her body. “If you do anything to Lucy that I don’t like, I will make your life very difficult from here on out. Do you understand?” 

 

Gold says mildly, “I would like her to win, actually.” 

 

Regina whirls on him, just sick enough at the thought of Lucy against a woman with no detectable conscience to find her strength. The arena will protect Lucy from any visible injuries, but there are some unseeable wounds that can be earned in the arena. “If Lucy is out, I’m out. I want to make that clear. I won’t fight alongside someone who–” 

 

“Relax, Regina,” Ursula says, looking very bored at the discussion. “The kid’s strong. Gothel will fight fair.” 

 

“Don’t I always?” Gothel says, her smile fixed and serene. 

 

Regina tears her glare from Gothel and directs it at Ursula and Cruella. “You two. Win. Don’t underestimate Marian and Mulan. I’ve gone back over all their fights, and the thing to keep in mind is that they grow exponentially every time. They’re going to be stronger today than we’ve ever seen them.” Cruella inspects her nails. Ursula shrugs. 

 

“Fine.” Regina stares at the screen. It’s showing the final Solo opponents for the day, but the announcer has decided that it would be more interesting to share footage of Regina and Emma fighting together as teenagers. In the footage onscreen, they’re standing back-to-back, a wave of pure white magic around them that stuns their opponents. They pause their onslaught for a moment for Emma to lean back against Regina’s shoulder and whisper something in her ear, and Regina murmurs something in response.

 

Regina doesn’t remember what Emma had said. It had probably been something stupid– Emma would eat these terrible taffies from the Land Without Magic in the prep room, and they had equally terrible puns on the wrapper that she would whisper to Regina during their matches. It might have been a response to something flickering through their minds. But she remembers the sensation of Emma's head on Regina’s shoulder like a ghostly phantom that she can’t shake, and she exhales and turns away from the screen.

 

Today. Today, she’s going to fight Emma and finish her off, and finally gain some measure of vengeance against her. The Proeliate is Emma’s life? Then Regina will take it from Emma, just as Emma has taken Regina’s life from her. 

 

They’re called into the arena a few minutes later– twice, because the speakers in the prep room are malfunctioning. In the arena proper, at least, there’s no sign of any of the wear and tear that they’ve seen in the prep area. The arena is sleek and large, and the crowd is deafening.

 

Storybrooke is already lining up for the handshake at the start, and Regina lets the others go ahead of her. Cruella saunters to stand opposite Marian, who watches her warily, and Gothel just sneers down at Lucy. Lucy glares up at her, defiant and so very young. Lily and Mal are speaking in quiet voices to each other, their eyes glittering with excitement. 

 

Regina walks slowly across the arena, and she hears the announcer say, “And this is the fight that has brought in the largest crowd for an Enchanted Forest regionals in history! Emma Swan and Regina Mills, once the top Duos pair in the United Realms, now meeting as opponents in the arena. It’ll be a disappointment to everyone here if the fight ends early!” 

 

Emma sticks her hand out, her eyes narrowed. Regina takes it, squeezes it, feels the comfort of Emma’s hand in hers. Their minds lock with their hands, and Regina shakes her head and struggles to push Emma out. It is harder than usual, both of them standing so close and so uncompromising. “I think this is the part where we say something like ‘may the best fighter win,’” Emma offers, smiling sardonically.

 

Regina nods, and she can feel Emma’s mind go harsh. “I’m gonna kick your ass back to Hyperion Heights,” Emma says fiercely. “This is my house. You gave it up eleven years ago. And I won’t let you take it away from me.” She drops Regina’s hand, a sharp enough motion that the crowd sees it and gasps, and she turns around and stalks to the bench.

 

“Eleven years as a fighter,” Regina calls after her, and she knows that it’s loud enough to carry, for the audience to hear and for Emma to, too. “And nothing to show for it. What the hell can you do against me?” 

 

The announcer says, “And the bitterness in the room is palpable. I don’t think those two will be fighting Duos again anytime soon!” He laughs, and then turns his attention to the rest of the team. “We’re starting with a mother-daughter battle today between two dragon fighters, Storybrooke’s Lily Page and Misthaven’s Maleficent.”

 

Regina sits on the bench. Mal steps forward, her eyes gleaming, and she takes a circle on the far side of the arena. Lily takes one on the opposite side, and Regina feels a flash of trepidation for her.

 

What? No. It’s not her own trepidation at all, but Emma’s, who watches Lily with sharp eyes. Regina shoves at Emma’s mind again, pushes it away for good. Emma doesn’t look at Regina, eyes still on Lily, and Regina is reminded of Emma and Lily in a passionate embrace outside the diner, lost in each other. 

 

Emma’s head jerks up to stare at Regina, her face unreadable. Maybe Regina hadn’t quite pushed Emma’s mind away for good, because she can feel the echoing sensation of you saw that? Emma feels chagrined, and there is another emotion there, a shift that Emma tugs back away from her.

 

Regina turns and fixedly stares at the arena floor instead.

 

Lily opens her mouth and breathes fire, hot and purplish in color, directly at her mother. There’s a wafting smoke along with it that has Regina look askance at it. Mal has mastered that cruel poison fire, but Lily is younger– that sort of thing comes in time, and if Mal doesn’t transform quickly–

 

But Mal’s face is already lengthening, her wings springing from her jumpsuit, and she leaps into the air and flies up, breathing in the fumes of the other dragon as though they’re air. Perhaps, if she’d transform back before the end of the battle, there might be an effect on her, but for now, she is unstoppable. She breathes, hot and angry, and Lily has to run in a circle around the far sides of the arena to avoid her mother’s wrath.

 

When she transforms, the announcer can hardly restrain his enthusiasm. “It’s a dragon-on-dragon battle!” he says gleefully. “Ohh, that must hurt –” Lily has raked her claws across Mal’s chest, and Mal screams a dragon’s roar, hurtling back out of Lily’s reach. 

 

“She’s not bad,” Zelena comments. “Emma’s girlfriend, I mean. I wouldn’t want to get in her way in an airborne battle.” 

 

Regina scoffs and Zelena lays a hand on her shoulder. “Relax, Reggie. I’m sure Emma still loves you the most,” she coos, glancing over at their opponents’ bench. “I can tell from the way she looks like she wants to murder you right now.” 

 

Regina shrugs off Zelena’s hand. “I don’t care who Emma’s dating,” she snaps. “I don’t care about Emma at all.” 

 

“Like you didn’t care when you two were fighting together?” Zelena snorts. “I remember the obsession with August you had. The two of them would go off jabbering about their precious little Land Without Magic and you’d just sit and fume and ride that horse of yours until Emma would come back. I could have told you back then that she was a lesbian,” she says, an aside. “Just from the way she looked at my legs.” 

 

“No,” Regina says, only half listening now.

 

“All right, fine.” Zelena concedes. “They were your legs.” 

 

“No, I mean…that’s not why I…” She’d gone to ride because Daniel had been at the stables, because he’d been her solace from her mother and the Proeliate. But she’d met him at the stables, too, hadn’t she? She remembers that pouty certainty that Emma had a boyfriend , that Emma had gone off somewhere where Regina couldn’t follow. It had grated at her more than she’d admitted. Zelena, an expert at things that grate at Regina, had of course noticed. 

 

She doesn’t finish her sentence, only stares up at the sky where the two dragons are now wrestling with each other in midair, one with its jaw clamped over the other’s shoulder and neck. Even the announcer sounds confused. “Hard to tell the difference between them, isn’t it?” he says helplessly. “But the larger dragon seems to have the upper hand now. The other is trapped in its grasp.” 

 

The smaller dragon slashes at the underside of the bigger one’s body, and the bigger one slams its head into the smaller one’s jaw, screeching an earsplitting noise. The smaller one finally drops, stunned, and the larger takes off after it. “No way to tell which team is winning!” the announcer calls, delighted. “Is the bigger the mother?” 

 

Good , Regina thinks, leaning forward. The bigger dragon swoops down, its clawed hand going for the other’s chest. There’s a jagged cut on it just over where the heart must be, and the dragon reaches for it–

 

The smaller dragon, not stunned at all, breathes greenish fire into its face. It burns even the bigger dragon, blistering its skin and blinding it, and the bigger dragon cries out a horrible, shrieking noise. The smaller dragon’s clawed hand moves quickly, deep into the bigger dragon’s chest, and the buzzer sounds. “Who won?” the announcer asks eagerly. “Which is which?” 

 

And as they shrink and change, still bruised and blistered and cut up, blonde hair and a purple-and-black jumpsuit emerge from the smaller dragon. “Yes!” Zelena says, clenching a fist. 

 

The announcer says, “Ah! The victory is Misthaven’s with that well-orchestrated feint! What a battle!” He sounds relieved and delighted. Lily stumbles as she stands over her mother, and Mal reaches for her and steadies her, murmuring something to her. “Both dragon women still look injured,” the announcer notes. “It seems as though the arena can’t protect from physical wounds when you can transform naturally.” 

 

Lily still hasn’t moved. Mal is beginning to look concerned. She waves off a medic and slips an arm under her shoulder, leading her to the Storybrooke bench and speaking quietly to Emma and Snow. Emma nods, touching Lily’s hand, and follows them from the arena.

 


 

Lily has been blinded. Maleficent is injured, too, a limp in her step and blood darkening her already-dark jumpsuit, but Lily can’t see, her eyes blistered shut and blood pooling everywhere. “I don’t understand,” Maleficent says grimly as Emma helps her carry Lily out. “I’ve never injured an opponent past the arena. There shouldn’t have been any lasting effects.” 

 

“You don’t seem okay, either. And the poison hasn’t even spread through us yet,” Lily says hoarsely, wincing as her blistered skin moves with her words. “Emma, you have to go back to the arena. Everyone else needs you.” She gestures at her mother. “We’ll keep wandering back here until a medic finds us.” 

 

“You should have waited for them,” Emma says, shaking her head. “They come onto the arena usually–” 

 

“I don’t want a dollar store medic,” Lily croaks. “There’s a woman who specializes in dragons– Mom says she’s here today. We’ll wait on her.” She’s shivering, her body overwhelmed by the pain, and Emma’s heart wrenches. Lily smiles, her blank eyes focusing on a space to the left of Emma. “Don’t worry. I’ll watch the match from my hospital bed. Or…not watch, I guess. You’d better take back the fight.” 

 

“You know we will,” Emma says forcefully, helping them both sit in the Storybrooke prep room before she retreats to the arena. One battle down, and one she’d been counting on them winning. This fight is about to get harder. 

 

And it doesn’t make sense . Maybe dragon attacks are considered physical instead of magical, something that the arena won’t catch, but Emma’s fought Lily plenty of times before with no injury. Emma’s seen Lily’s opponents recover the instant the buzzer sounds. Something about the two dragons must have made the magical attack physical.

 

She shudders, returning to her bench in time to see Zelena on a broomstick, dangling August high above the ground as she flies. “Can’t do much without your pen,” Zelena is taunting. August scrabbles to throw her from the broom, but she only laughs, tossing him around like a rag doll. 

 

On the ground, Jefferson isn’t doing much better. His hat is fully off, which usually spells immediate defeat for an opponent. A tipped hat releases a host of illusions, animals that prance at the opponent and leave them dizzy and disoriented. The entire hat off means predators, lions and dragons and snakes, and even Emma has struggled against them. 

 

Fiona waves them into dust as they launch themselves at her, her eyes shining with malice. She procures a wand from her jumpsuit, twisting it idly between her fingers, and she lounges against the wall and waits. 

 

Careful , Emma thinks, her stomach twisting. She’d never imagined that the men would be so outmatched by Misthaven, but they’re struggling. “Zelena is the worst possible match for August,” Mulan notes, head craned to watch. “That broomstick she conjures will keep him from writing a thing.” 

 

“And Fiona is obviously the worst for Jefferson,” Emma says dully. She can feel a shot of triumph running through her, and she knows immediately that it isn’t her own. 

 

Another thing that doesn’t make sense: how the bond seems to be strengthening over time instead of diminishing. It’s all this time in the arena, watching each other as the arena’s magical amplification settles upon them. Emma has pushed Regina out of her mind a dozen times today, and she’s still there, as much Emma as Emma herself.

 

This time, she knows that the trepidation is her own. At this rate, she might not fight Regina today at all. If Jefferson and August don’t turn the tide…

 

And then, Zelena’s broomstick dissolves abruptly and she hurtles to the floor, August with her. “Yes! Yes! That’s our guy!” Lucy shouts, pointing wildly at the wall above them. Emma follows her gesture to familiar writing, a spell on the wall. Zelena had been holding August too close to a surface, and he’d taken advantage. Now, he pulls her down before he slams into the floor, and he reaches for her heart. His fingers dip into her chest before he’s thrown back by a tornado of air, slamming against the wall but ready to go again. 

 

Yes ,” Emma breathes, and squeezes her hands shut, daring to stare across the arena at the other bench. Regina is glowering up at the wall, too.

 

In the arena, bolstered by August’s success, Jefferson throws his hat to the floor and it begins to spin, purple light flying from it to envelop the arena. Zelena coughs it in and bends over on all fours, convulsing from whatever Jefferson’s trick has done.

 

The announcer is having a field day. “What a comeback from Team Storybrooke!” he says, his voice thundering over them. “They might be outmatched, but they aren’t giving up yet. Storybrooke has come close to winning their regionals before, but this would be the first time in five years if they can take the lead. And, oh– the counter-counter-attack–” 

 

His voice trails off. Absently, Emma sees through eyes that aren’t her own, spots Fiona standing casually at the far side of the room with her wand outstretched. It’s coming , she thinks, and Regina thinks, stay with me .

 

“Stay with me,” Regina says, staring at her from the other side of the bed. She is younger, and they are lying on either side of the bed, their eyes locked. “I know you’re going to go soon–” 

 

“Go?” Emma asks, wrinkling her nose. Regina reaches out to touch it, smoothing it down with her pinky finger. “Where exactly am I going?” 

 

“To your castle, Princess ,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. “Snow wants you to come home now that she’s found you. You’re going to rule Misthaven. You don’t need the Proeliate anymore. You don’t even need Storybrooke.” 

 

Emma laughs, the bond between them tremoring with it until Regina is smiling, too. “Shut up. I’m not leaving . Can you imagine me in a ballgown?” 

 

“You’d look gorgeous until you tripped,” Regina says, slipping her fingers into Emma’s hair to toy with it. “Then you’d be a laughingstock.” 

 

Emma, whose heart had skipped a beat at the you’d look gorgeous , only makes a face in response. She’s getting good at hiding her reactions to Regina, locking them away in a safe place that the bond never quite gets into. She wonders if Regina would recognize them even if she felt them. “So I’ll be a fighting princess,” she says. “Lots of people do that. The top team in the League has a queen as its best fighter.” 

 

Regina’s hand cups Emma’s cheek. “You’ll stay?” she asks, and her eyes are so bright. Emma is helpless within them, and she smiles a tremoring smile–

 

And then, the bed begins to shake. I don’t remember this , Emma thinks distantly, and the woman on the bed is no longer Regina but someone older and more dangerous, someone Emma knows instinctively to recoil from, someone who says, oh, how interesting and–

 

A man strides into the room, and the woman on the bed rises. No one’s going to take me down with an illusion, he snarls. I’m the one who makes them. He slashes a hand down and the world around them shifts– Emma glimpses an arena, and another Regina sitting across it on a bench– and then, the woman turns around. 

 

“This is Duos,” she says, her voice strong, and Regina’s bedroom disappears from around Emma. She gasps for breath, finds Jefferson in the arena with his hat still spinning and his eyes defiant, and Fiona sees him, too, and smiles. “I’m afraid it’s already over.”

 

She turns her gaze to August. August, who had been caught in the illusion just like most of the crowd, and who had written, in his illusion, a spell around himself. He is frozen in place on the arena floor, and Jefferson runs to him– Zelena sweeps into him, sending both of them crashing to the floor– and Fiona kneels and pulls August’s heart cleanly from his chest.

 

The buzzer chimes. “Team Misthaven wins its second fight,” the announcer says, sounding woozy. “That’s two-nothing for Misthaven. The next fight is make or break for Storybrooke.” 

 

Emma sits there, stunned. They’ve been routed. Two fights, no victories. Misthaven is leagues above them, and it’s never been so apparent. Just one more loss, and their chances for the Proeliate are gone.

 

This might be the end. August is still on the ground, and he has to be removed from the circle he’d written around himself. The adrenaline gone, he tries to stand but can’t make it up. “His leg is broken,” Marian says, eyeing it critically from her seat. “Look at that angle of the bend.” 

 

“Must have happened in the fall,” Emma says, frowning. “The arena floor is usually better about injuries like that. I guess it’s still a physical wound.” She isn’t superstitious, but it still doesn’t bode well to her that two of her fighters are already being carried off. It’s never a good fight that ends in injuries.

 

Jefferson crouches beside him while the medics help August onto a stretcher, and Snow is the one who stands. “I’ll go with him,” she says briskly. “Emma, stay with the team. The next fight is…” She glances over at the bench, her eyes somber, and Emma swallows.

 

“Yeah.” 

 

They have to win the next one. It’s crucial, the only way they’ll stay in the competition. And their next combatant is sitting silently on the bench, her face set and her little fists clenched. “Lucy,” Emma begins hesitantly. 

 

Lucy stares straight ahead. “Don’t tell me it’s okay if I don’t win,” she says, her voice fierce. “I’m going to win. And it’s not okay if I don’t.” 

 

She springs up and runs, a blur of motion as she circles the arena once, and she settles finally in a circle directly in front of the Misthaven bench. The Misthaven fighters stare at her. “Well?” she says loudly. “Are you coming or not?” 

 

Gothel rises. Emma remembers the way Gothel had struck her in the Storybrooke arena, the vines that had risen around Emma and trapped her. She wants to pull Lucy back already, to forfeit the match and surrender the Proeliate, but it’s too late. Lucy would never forgive her.

 

Lucy will be fine , she tells herself as the buzzer sounds, and she leans forward, feels the building panic from the mind that won’t leave hers, and watches with her fingernails digging crescents into her knees. 

 

Lucy is fast. She’s been practicing her speed between matches, has been running with Emma in the mornings and putting magic behind it in the afternoons. Gothel’s vines can’t keep up with her, and Lucy runs in circles around the arena, dodging the vines as they erupt on either side of her.

 

And as she runs, she leaves behind hovering glass stars, small and sharp and twinkling like real stars in the lights of the arena. The arena is sparkling with danger, and Gothel stands in the middle of it, vines snaking out from her fingers like veins across the floor of the arena. 

 

Lucy runs at Gothel, and her glass stars begin rotating rapidly as they all, at once, careen toward Gothel. “This is incredible,” the announcer says, and Emma can hear the wonder in his voice. “Ten-year-old Lucía Vidrio has been kept in Duos until now as Storybrooke’s secret weapon. Look at that control!” A thousand tiny spinning shards converge on the middle of the room, Lucy whirling out of the way. 

 

Gothel raises a hand and a tree grows high around her, brown bark high and thick. Lucy’s glass rips into the tree, shreds it, and Gothel lets out a cry of pain. When she looks down again, she’s brimming with hatred, and Lucy skips back and puts up a wall of glass in front of her. 

 

Lucy , Emma thinks, fingers still digging into her knees. Lucy, you’ve been wasted in Duos . Never has she seen Lucy this fierce. Gothel snarls, “We’re not done,” a streak of blood oozing from the side of her face, and she raises her hands. 

 

Not over yet , thinks Regina, and they are, for the first time this match, aligned. Regina lifts her chin to gesture, and Emma sees what she’s missed. While Lucy has been attacking Gothel, Gothel has been laying a trap. 

 

The vines laid across the ground have blossomed. Ivy has crept up the sides of the arena walls, coating them in green, and Gothel lets out a sharp sound and throws her hand out. A tree erupts from the ground as though it had been lurking there all along, surrounding Lucy in a tomb of wood. 

 

Lucy moves quickly, leaps into the air as the top of the tree seals itself, but she can’t get out of its way. It’s too high, rising like a tower above the arena, and Lucy lands back on it and clings to the top as it grows and grows and grows. The ivy detaches from the walls as though it has a mind of its own, throwing itself at the tree and clinging to it, and this time, Lucy can’t escape.

 

Emma can hardly see her. She relies on the announcer, who says, “Vidrio throws up a glass wall to protect her from the ivy. One of our expert commentators informs me that the purplish tint to the ivy implies that it is highly poisonous. Gothel isn’t holding back against her much younger opponent.” 

 

Gothel is on the ground, staring up at the girl in the tower she’s built. Emma stands, leaning out over the half-wall in front of their bench to squint up at Lucy. A branch from the tree swings out to hammer at Lucy’s glass, shattering layer after layer as Lucy throws up new ones. 

 

Marian, Mulan, and Jefferson all join her. “If she can make the glass float, she can have it carry her down,” Marian says, but she sounds worried.

 

“How’s she going to get past the ivy?” Jefferson points out. “She can’t risk being poisoned this early in–” He stops. 

 

Emma doesn’t turn to look at him, her eyes still on Lucy, until Marian says, “Emma. Emma ,” her voice urgent. 

 

Emma glances away from Lucy and gapes. Jefferson is convulsing beside them, his eyes blank with horror, and he’s choking for breath. “What’s– medic! We need a medic!” she says, bewildered and terrified. “Something’s wrong–” 

 

A medic hurries over and beckons for a second. “Looks like some residual effects of the illusions that were cast on him during the fight,” he says grimly. Jefferson claws at his throat, letting out moaning noises, and Emma’s phone rings.

 

It’s Snow, and she picks up. “I’m a little busy here,” she says brusquely, and she only pauses when she hears Snow’s intake of breath.

 

“Jefferson, too?” Snow whispers, and Emma hangs up on her, dread rising in her throat. Jefferson is still convulsing on the stretcher, and the medics strap him down. 

 

“We’ll bring him to the hospital,” one of them promises Emma. “I’m sure it’s just a minor side effect.” 

 

“Don’t be so sure,” Emma says, her heart pounding. “August has it, too.” She can feel Regina’s confusion and curiosity from across the arena, the surety that this isn’t something Fiona had planned. 

 

There shouldn’t be a side effect in an arena. The wards are in place in every arena. But this arena is old, and maybe– maybe the wards are, too. Between Lily and Mal and August and Jefferson, something clearly isn’t working. 

 

And right now… 

 

Emma looks up at Lucy, surrounded by poison and trapped at a deadly height, and the sick nausea she feels is magnified by Regina’s, the dawning horror like none they’ve ever felt before.

Chapter Text

“Stop the fight. Stop the fight .” They move as though they’ve coordinated it, springing up and racing to the referee at the exact same time. Regina is sick with terror, Lucy scrabbling for her life up atop the tower and not knowing what every risk might do to her. Emma, beside her, is glittering with horror. “Stop the fight. The arena wards aren’t working,” Regina snaps. “Do it now.” 

 

The referee blinks at them. “Excuse me?” 

 

Emma jabs a thumb at herself and then Regina. “We’re the captains of the teams. We’ll both vouch for it. There’s something very wrong with the arena–” 

 

The referee turns away from them. “Not the time, ladies,” he says. “If something is wrong, then the arena staff will let me know.” 

 

“But–” 

 

Emma puts a hand on Regina’s arm, and Regina twists around to follow her gaze up. Lucy is still fighting, oblivious to the panic at the edges of the arena. The tree branches have shattered her glass shield, and she’s dodging the ivy, climbing down the tree with the agility that only a child has. 

 

The ivy whips around Lucy, ties her into its embrace, and Regina hisses, furious and with no one to take it out on, “If a single hair on Lucy’s head is hurt by this, I will kill you.” She shakes with despair, and Emma stands rigidly beside her, staring up at the arena. 

 

“I’m going in,” she says abruptly, and she starts forward, shoving her hands against the invisible field that closes in the arena. Magic bursts against them, and Regina knows at the back of her mind– this is the end for Storybrooke, if Emma goes in then they forfeit the fight and Misthaven wins–

 

She pulls Emma back, her eyes on Lucy. “Wait,” she whispers, and she thinks she might sob with relief. Lucy has coated the ivy with thin, tough glass, hanging onto it like droplets of dew. She scrambles past it, avoiding the poison.

 

“Can’t take me down so easily,” she calls down to Gothel, who only sneers and whips her hand around in a quick motion to call the ivy back to her. It throws Lucy, and Regina lets out a quiet curse. Gothel is done . Regina won’t fight with her anymore, not when Lucy is–

 

Lucy catches her own fall on a platform of glass, forming rapidly beneath her. “Not done yet,” she says, breathless, and the platform grows four walls under her, stretching to the ground and capturing Gothel within them. Gothel scowls at her, twisting her hand to call on another attack, and Lucy hops from the platform, grabs onto a branch still stretching out nearby her, and squeezes her hand into a fist.

 

The glass implodes. The four walls converge on Gothel at once, crushing her in place, and Gothel lets out an agonized scream. Lucy swings down to the floor and races forward in a blur as the crowd cheers, and Regina’s mind seeks out the warmth of Emma’s as they both stare helplessly out at Lucy. Lucy moves quickly, hand in and heart out, and she grips Gothel’s heart and holds it high.

 

The buzzer sounds. The crowd cheers. Emma falls to her knees beside Regina, and Regina hurtles into the arena, dodging the tree to stand beside Lucy.

 

The heart fades from Lucy’s hand, but the tree still stands, and Gothel remains trapped under a sheet of glass. The medics rush forward. Lucy says, shaken, “I don’t understand. Why is it still…?” 

 

Regina whirls around to the referee, her voice sharp as she holds onto Lucy. “ Now do you believe me?” she demands, and the referee stops gaping.

 

It’s Emma who carries Lucy to her bench, the full import of what she’d survived just dawning on the girl. Lucy is wrapped around Emma, and Emma holds her tightly, glaring out at the arena as the staff conference in low voices and the announcer tries to play it off. “Looks like we’ve got some complications with the arena wards,” he says as Gothel is carried off in a stretcher. “Now is the perfect time to get some snacks at one of the concession stands arrayed around the arena! Get your popcorn, pretzels, or Glo-Cones on each level!”

 

Regina feels a flicker of annoyance from Emma, replaced by another emotion altogether when the announcer reminds them, “Vidrio has now given Team Storybrooke a much-needed victory. But the next fight now becomes the one that might end them. Ursula and De Vil are a top-ranked Duos pair realmswide, and they fight at champion caliber. Maybe Storybrooke would have had a slim chance with the Hua-Lucas Duo, but Hua-Locksley has yet to show that they can compete.” 

 

Cruella snorts. “This won’t be their battle,” she says, yawning. “They’re cute, but they’re no…well, us .” She links an arm over Ursula’s shoulders. “We’ll make them wish they’d never tried.” 

 

“If the arena is ever working again,” Ursula says, raising her eyebrows at the arena staff now inspecting the walls of the room.

 

Cruella scoffs. “I think I prefer it this way, actually.” She earns a disapproving look from one of the medics, who has made his way to their bench.

 

“I need Fiona to come with me,” he says tersely. Fiona blinks and looks at Gold, then Regina. Regina shrugs. 

 

Gold says, “She’d be happy to help,” sleek as always. Regina wonders how August and the other one are doing, and then pushes that aside. None of that matters to her. Winning matters, no matter the cost. And they aren’t drawing on this match because of technical difficulties.

 

Admit it , comes the wry thought, drifting into her mind. You just want to fight me. Regina’s glare snaps to Emma, who is speaking to Lucy and doesn’t look up at her. 

 

Yes , she thinks silently, and she infuses it with years of pent-up fury and hatred. And you will regret it.

 


 

The arena staff are finally satisfied with the reinforced wards, and the announcer sounds enthused as he says, “We’re finally ready to resume the match! As it stands, Team Misthaven has the advantage, but Team Storybrooke has saved some of its strongest fighters for last.” 

 

Emma keeps an arm around Lucy as she turns to Marian and Mulan. “Don’t listen to any of what he’s saying,” she says in a low voice. “He’s going to build up Cruella and Ursula and downplay what you’ve done until now. But Mulan, you’re a Top Five Duos fighter. Marian, you’re a pro from one of the top teams in the League. You know who you are. You’ve been preparing for this.” They might not be as flashy as Ursula and Cruella, might not delight as much in the media. They look wary now, and Mulan has her hands on the bench as though she’s holding herself up along with the weight of the world. Everything is riding on this battle, but Emma feels oddly serene, oddly certain. 

 

Mulan and Marian have this. She’s sure of it.

 

And then, it’ll all be on her. 

 

Can she beat Regina? Maybe. When they’d been kids, Regina had been the better fighter. Emma had had more of that sheer power that had made Cora take her under her wing, but Regina had always had more control. Emma had rarely won when they’d fought properly, but that had been a long time ago. She’s been fighting professionally for over twelve years. She isn’t the awkward teenager she’d been back then. 

 

But Regina isn’t the careful, anxious girl she’d been back then, either. She thrums with rage and despair now, is always on the verge of being overwhelmed by it and then backing down again. Emma doesn’t know how she’s going to fight a Regina who wants to hurt her, and she swallows back a nasty taste in her mouth.

 

When she glances over at the other bench, Regina is staring straight at her, and Emma has no idea if she’s heard Emma’s thoughts or not. 

 

Emma turns back to the arena. Marian and Mulan walk out carefully, their eyes on Cruella and Ursula. Cruella swaggers, and Ursula keeps a hand on Cruella’s back, a sardonic smile on her face as she takes in their opponents. Circle pick is Storybrooke’s, this time, and Marian and Mulan take circles on the far sides of the arena. Cruella and Ursula take two at the center, and the buzzer chimes. 

 

From the start, it’s clear that Cruella and Ursula have the upper hand. The announcer can hardly keep up with them. “De Vil’s hounds are everywhere– nearly snap off Hua’s ankle– Ursula is on the offensive– Hua and Locksley are trapped in defensive maneuvers–” Cruella’s hounds bark incessantly, loud and angry, and Emma longs for earplugs. Marian has yet to nock an arrow in her bow, too busy fleeing Ursula’s tentacles, and Mulan has moved to stand in front of Marian and defend her. 

 

Both Ursula and Cruella shift their attention to Mulan as one, perfectly synchronized, and Mulan swings her sword in invitation. Emma watches her, gripped with anxiety. Ursula’s tentacles slam into Mulan with enough force to throw her against the wall, but Mulan flips at the last moment, kicking off the wall with her feet and landing perfectly. 

 

“And there’s the reason why Hua is considered one of the best fighters in the mid-tier of League teams,” the announcer says. “Ursula and De Vil seem to be focusing solely on Hua. But that’s a lot of running,” he points out. “It’s bound to exhaust her.” Mulan is jogging easily from side to side, and Cruella’s hounds pursue her with vicious determination, racing behind her and nipping at her heels. Mulan dodges them, gets a faceful of tentacle, and swings her sword uselessly. Marian, still with her bow, seems frozen with indecision as Ursula’s tentacles batter the ground around her.

 

It’s beginning to occur to Emma that they’re going to lose. Right here, on the verge of winning the regionals, they’re about to be stopped by a freshman team organized by Gold, of all people. They’re so close . They’re a thousand miles from victory. Ursula and Cruella are just too strong, and this is the end for Storybrooke.

 

One of Cruella’s hounds has finally caught up to Mulan, and it leaps onto her and knocks her to the floor, slamming her head against the hard surface. Mulan is limp, unmoving, and Emma squeezes her hands into fists as Lucy lets out a ragged sob. It’s just the two of them on the bench now, all alone to watch their team’s defeat, and Emma shifts to Lucy as they watch in horror.

 

Cruella says, “Well, that was easier than anticipated,” and wanders lazily toward Mulan. Marian shouts Mulan’s name and starts forward, but Ursula’s tentacles slide around her, trapping her in place. Cruella kneels down to reach for Mulan’s heart.

 

And a hand shoots up and seizes Cruella’s wrist. “Sorry,” Mulan says, her knees bending and her feet flying up to hurl Cruella back. She stands up, wiping her hands against her jumpsuit, and she reaches out to pet one of the hounds. It makes a puzzled, whining noise, and then settles down at her feet. “I don’t think I’m ready for that,” Mulan says, and she twists around, to Emma’s surprise, and finds Marian.

 

Marian is no longer in Ursula’s grasp. Instead, a glowing arrow has impaled one of Ursula’s tentacles, and it is on fire at the fletching. Ursula screams, slamming the tentacle repeatedly against the wall to put out the fire, and Marian watches with serene eyes before she turns to Mulan.

 

Mulan says, “Did you get it?” 

 

Marian nods. “All set,” she says, and Emma nearly laughs with relief. They’d planned this, had been doing more than just practicing when she’d spotted them training together with heads pressed together. They’d known who their opponents would be, and they’d come up with their own strategy in the way that Marian and Mulan seem to do everything– quietly and efficiently.

 

It’s Marian who moves now, angling herself at a position behind Ursula and firing. Ursula’s tentacles don’t hit her, and Marian moves slightly as Ursula does, firing again. Every arrow she shoots lights on fire as it flies through the air, and every arrow she shoots somehow avoids Ursula’s tentacles.

 

“Amazing,” the announcer exclaims, his voice rising. “It looks as though Locksley has found a blind spot. Hua served as a diversion while Locksley watched Ursula’s movements, and oh –” Marian has pinned one of Ursula’s tentacles to the wall, and Ursula lets out a cry of pain.

 

Cruella abandons her hounds and races to Ursula, the first shred of concern on her face that Emma’s ever seen. Emma’s always kind of figured that she was a coldblooded sadist, but she seems to actually care about Ursula– and, simultaneously, they’re up to something.

 

This must be an illusion, but it looks suspiciously close to Lily’s transformations. Emma blinks, squinting at Ursula and Cruella as they seem to melt together, the hounds disappearing from where they’re crouched around Mulan and the tentacles lengthening and thickening. There are no longer two women present but a massive creature, two-headed and many-armed, and it seems to take up the bulk of the arena. 

 

Mulan produces a second sword made of pure energy, crossing both in front of her as she stands in front of the creature. Marian stays back, her bow transforming into the crossbow that Emma has seen her practice with before. “Now this is Duos!” the announcer says, barely audible over the wildly cheering crowd. “De Vil and Ursula seem to have transformed into a monstrous creature, and Hua and Locksley keep them at bay with some impressive skill. They’ll be on the defensive again, though– there’s no way they’ll find the heart on that thing–” 

 

Mulan runs halfway up the side of a wall and leaps from it onto a tentacle. The monster swings the tentacle, slamming it against the floor, but Mulan hangs on tightly as Marian fires bolt after bolt at the monster. This might be some kind of final gambit for Cruella and Ursula, but Emma can already see the flaw in the design. For Duo fighters, it’s just become two against one.

 

Marian gets in a good hit and the monster thrashes, forgetting Mulan. Mulan takes advantage of its distraction to wait until her tentacle is above the monster and leap onto it. The monster only roars, struggling to shake Mulan off of it, and Marian shouts, “ Now , Mulan!” 

 

Mulan seizes both swords and thrusts them into the monster’s body. It howls, the sound reverberating through the arena and cracking plastic walls, and it moves more wildly. Mulan is thrown from it– Emma holds her breath– but the damage is done. In a flash of magic, Ursula and Cruella are parted again, only two women unconscious on the floor. 

 

The crowd cheers. The announcer says, “Incredible! Hua takes De Vil’s heart and the battle ends. The score is now tied, two wins for each team, and I think it’s safe to say that the caliber of talent in the Enchanted Forest this year is leagues above their usual–” 

 

Emma tunes him out. The buzzer has sounded, but she isn’t relieved. Instead, she can only stare at the heart in Mulan’s hand, still glowing and pulsing and still very much there. Cruella and Ursula aren’t moving, and one of Marian’s bolts is still embedded in the wall, a fire burning from it.

 

Lucy says, her voice small, “The wards still aren’t working, are they?” 

 


 

The medics and the arena staff have to reactivate the battle just to get Cruella’s heart back in. Mulan looks shaken by the experience, scrubbing at her hands with a wet-wipe that Snow had brought for her when she’d returned to the Storybrooke bench a few minutes ago. Regina looks away from them, far more worried about Ursula. 

 

“The sword girl just chopped a few tentacles off,” she says dismissively. “And some are burnt. They’ll grow back out.” Belying her words, she’s still on her back in a stretcher, incapable of getting up. Whatever that last stabbing had done to their combined selves, it had left no mark but punctured something internally. Cruella is in the stretcher beside her, and she links their hands briefly before they’re carried off.

 

The arena manager turns to Regina and Gold, and then beckons Snow and Emma from their bench. “I think it’s safe to say that the wards still aren’t working,” she says grimly. “There are the other two arenas, but they won’t house this audience, and this crowd will riot if we rescind ticket sales. Our best option is to hold off on the final battle for another day or two while we sort this out.” 

 

Snow bobs her head. But the manager is speaking loudly enough that a few people in the audience behind them can hear, and Regina can already hear them complaining. The news spreads, and the audience is alive with shouts and protests, boos and cries at the unfairness of it.

 

Of course. This is the battle they’d arrived for, and it’s about to happen, against all odds. Regina hadn’t expected Storybrooke to hold off Misthaven for nearly as long as they had, but she finds that she isn’t exactly heartbroken about it. This fight has been a long time coming. And she’ll be damned if they hold off because of technical difficulties.

 

“I’ll fight without wards,” Regina says, her voice even. “I’ve signed a waiver, haven’t I? You hold no responsibility if I get injured.” 

 

Emma’s eyes are hard as she turns to look at Regina. “Ditto,” she says. Regina can feel her mind, determined and hurt and nearly as angry as Regina, and she pushes back against it with a harsh movement. Emma doesn’t recoil or show any sign that she’d felt it, only says, “We’ll fight now.” 

 

Gold smiles. Snow says, “Emma, you can’t–” 

 

“I can, actually,” Emma says, her eyes trained on Regina. “I’m doing this.” 

 

Snow lowers her voice and pulls Emma away from them, but not far enough that Regina can’t hear her. “She’ll kill you,” she says, wringing her hands.

 

Emma shrugs. “I appreciate your faith in me, Snow,” she says dryly. “I think I’ll be just fine.” She steps forward, away from the managers and into the arena. Regina follows suit, selecting a circle, and the crowd roars in response. 

 

The announcer recovers quickly from his surprise. “Looks like the much-anticipated showdown between Swan and Mills is still on! The fighters are taking their positions. Interesting choice of Swan, who has second pick, choosing a circle so close to Mills. Mills, for those keeping track, has yet to leave her ring during a Proeliate fight.”

 

You’re going to move this time . Emma’s voice is puggish in Regina’s mind, and Regina tilts her head and smirks. Emma is close, just a few feet away, and she already has her fists raised. When the buzzer sounds, she springs forward, and Regina lights the arena on fire. 

 

Emma dodges the flames and throws back her head and laughs. “Come on, Molinero,” she taunts. “I learned how to move through your fire a dozen years ago. Give me something new.” She winds through the fire as though it isn’t there, and flames lick at her boots and do nothing. Regina’s lip curls.

 

Fine . She’d expected this much, at least. She lifts a hand, curls it upward, and then splays it out again. In the five places where her fingers point, purplish lightning erupts from the air and nearly strikes Emma. It branches out, electric energy all around her, and Emma throws out a hand and summons white energy to her to repel it.

 

Regina tenses, preparing for Emma’s offense. It must be close, but Emma is too absorbed in dodging the lightning. She hurtles through it, throwing out her own energy at the same time, and then she disappears.

 

Regina squints at the cloud of white and purple and gleaming orange around her. It’s almost impossible to see– had it been a trick of the light? She can still feel Emma’s mind around her, buzzing with adrenaline, and she twists around in her circle, searching the arena–

 

Emma reappears in a puff of smoke, directly in front of her. “Surprise,” she says, and she punches Regina hard in the gut.

 

Regina doubles over for a split second, stumbling back. “If you think that’s enough to take me down,” she grits out, but Emma is still smiling at her, smug as she rests a hand on her hip. 

 

A moment later, Regina understands why. The announcer’s voice, oddly distant on the actual arena floor, says, “A half-hearted attack, but it did do what has seemed impossible until now. Mills is out of her circle–” 

 

Regina lets out a frustrated snarl. Emma swans in the center of Regina’s circle, smirking at her, and Regina hurls a fireball at her. Emma catches it in her hand, eyes it curiously, and then shrugs and hurls it back. 

 

It’s been eleven years, and Regina had forgotten the double-edged sword of fighting with Emma. Emma fills her with adrenaline, makes her fight like she’s never fought before and love every moment of it. Emma is also an expert at neutralizing every attack Regina has, dodging them and returning them and a star defender when it comes to Regina. But Regina hasn’t spent the past eleven years hiding from the arena altogether, and she isn’t ready to surrender this. 

 

She lights a new fire, sharp and white, and she does it in a loose arc of her hands. The sky is dark above them, even though the arena is roofed, and thunder sounds as lightning flashes. The audience screams. The announcer says, “Looks like we’re about to get a taste of what Mills is capable of–” 

 

When the rain falls in a downpour, it isn’t rain at all. It’s fiery hail, burning with white flames as it hurtles down at them. Regina conjures up a cheerful yellow umbrella and watches as Emma ducks, pelted by the hail. 

 

They bruise her face, leaving blistering marks behind, and Regina remembers in one horrified, instinctive moment that every injury today is going to last. Emma laughs, and she throws her arms in the air as her mind slips into Regina’s, nice and easy, and the hail turns to simple rain instead. 

 

“My turn,” she says, and she moves as quickly as Lucy had, a blur around the arena that Regina has to twist around to watch. She speeds up, fast enough that it’s a wonder she isn’t slipping on the rain that still pours down onto them, and she moves closer and closer to Regina with every circling motion. 

 

“We’re about to see why it is that Emma Swan is ranked top fighter in the region, above even Agrabah’s Jasmine,” the announcer says, and Emma moves as swiftly as the wind, blows into Regina and backs her against a wall. Regina is taken by surprise, her umbrella vanishing and her heart racing, and Emma reaches out to splay a hand between them, over Regina’s chest. “Swan looks like she might end this quickly–” 

 

Regina breathes hard, Emma panting inches away, her forearm at Regina’s neck and her knee nearly between Regina’s legs. Regina has to shake away an irrational flush of heat, Emma’s glittering eyes and firm touch enough for Regina to nearly forget where they are, and Emma’s other hand moves almost tenderly to dip into Regina’s chest.

 

Before she gets very far in, Regina screams. It’s a shrill, magical scream, and it comes with a rush of fire, hurtling Emma back. Emma staggers in place and then charges forward again, but this time, Regina is ready for her. She adjusts her stance, bends her knees, and throws Emma flat on the floor when Emma attacks. 

 

“Whoa!” the announcer shouts with the crowd. “That’s a signature Swan maneuver that Mills just used against her–” 

 

“What?” Regina says, breathing hard. “You think I didn’t prepare for you?” And she closes her eyes and does the second attack she’d practiced, the one that had Ursula dubious but supportive. She touches Emma’s startled mind, feels her surprise and a hint of admiration, and then she surrounds her mind and squeezes it in a vise. Her mind is formed into knives, sharp and deadly, and they dig into Emma’s mind until Emma falls to the ground, eyes squeezed shut and hands clamped to her head.

 

The announcer says, puzzled, “Looks like Mills has done something to Swan, but there’s no physical evidence of an illusion or…” And then, in utter shock, “ Do they still have a mental bond ?”  

 

The audience is murmuring and shouting, but Regina struggles to keep her focus. Emma’s mind is fighting back, is turning slippery and maneuvering around Regina’s knives, and there is nothing but raw hurt between them. How could you? Emma thinks, over and over, and Regina struggles to keep herself steady, to stop herself from caving to that endless wave of betrayal.

 

Everything is fair game in the arena, and Emma deserves nothing but Regina’s most vicious. It’s that simple.

 

Emma breaks free, throws Regina forcibly out of her mind and then across the room. She procures a sword out of nowhere, a gleaming one similar to the one that Mulan uses, and Regina’s lips set in a grim line. She draws a sword of her own. Emma can switch fluidly from technique to technique, favoring everything from physical to magical to weaponry attacks and excelling at each. Regina counters Emma’s blows, a weaker swordfighter but by no means unpracticed, and Emma disarms her in less than a minute. 

 

Regina curses, then lets out, amazed despite herself, “I can’t believe no one’s tried to poach you.” Lucy had been good. Mulan is good. Emma is beyond their caliber, sharply honed and versatile, and she fights with every last bit of her unleashed potential.

 

Emma scoffs. “They try to poach me all the time,” she snaps. “I’m loyal to Storybrooke.” A cheer rises from the lower bleachers, where they can hear what Emma’s saying, and Emma throws out one last, angry comment as she approaches Regina. “Which is more than I can say for you, Molinero.”

 

Every Molinero feels like an attack. Regina seizes Emma’s sword by the blade, magic surging up it to attack Emma. Emma leaps back cleanly, and Regina takes the upper hand, mending her slitted palm with some slapdash magic. “Please,” she snarls. “You know why I left.” 

 

“You know,” Emma says, cocking her head. Her voice takes on a mocking tone, acerbic and angry and still very hurt. “I don’t really, actually. You keep saying that, but I saw plenty of ways that you could have stayed.” 

 

Regina draws more magic to her hands, letting them sizzle with violet electricity. “You know what my mother was going to do to me,” she says sharply. “You know I was going to be forced to marry King Leopold–” 

 

“Revelations in the arena!” the announcer says, but Regina can hardly hear him. All she can hear is the buzzing of her own magic, and the white arc Emma has pulled in front of her fist, dispelling Regina’s magic.

 

“I would have stayed,” Regina says, and it suddenly feels very important that Emma knows this. “I would have given it another day. I wanted to be there for the championship. But your mother decided that she was going to play peacemaker and intercede with Mother. She told her everything.” She turns one hateful glare at Snow, who looks stunned. “And I was out of time. Daniel and I ran because we had no choice–” 

 

“You had a choice!” Emma shoots back furiously, undeterred by the blame placed squarely on her mother’s shoulder. “I gave you another choice!” Regina’s magic is building, is getting strong enough that it overpowers Emma’s shield. Another hard blow and Regina can slam her magic into Emma’s chest. 

 

She could stop her heart, she realizes suddenly. Could thrust with enough electricity that it’ll overload Emma’s entire pulmonary system and kill her. Emma is already bruised and blistered, but none of that will last. None of that is vengeance. 

 

She thinks of Daniel, dead in her arms, and thinks of Emma the night before. Regina had felt nothing but terror and anger when she’d seen Emma, but after Emma had left, she’d thought of her bright, hopeful face and had ached, had missed her so dearly that she’d nearly chased down Emma and Daniel and told them that she was ready to come home. 

 

The next morning had rid her of that hope. Now, she laughs derisively. “Please,” she says, because she has nothing else to say to that , Emma’s last-ditch attempt to keep Regina in the championship match. “You asked me–” 

 

“I asked you to marry me,” Emma says, her voice strong and painful over the sound of their magic, and this time, Regina can hear the gasps from the audience. “I was a princess , Regina, and Cora would have been satisfied– and you said yes. You were going to stay before Daniel decided to do the same thing. So don’t tell me that you didn’t have a choice.” 

 

She sounds hard, but her hand is trembling, her magic faltering. Regina is taken back for a moment to eleven years ago, to the two of them huddled together in a bed in that cabin in the Proeliate realm, in the village where fighters stay during the championships. The moonlight had shone into their room as they’d planned for the next attack and avoided discussion of Regina’s impending engagement. The only way for Regina to escape it had been to run away, and they’d both known it. And then Emma had said you could marry me and Regina had laughed until she’d seen how serious Emma had looked, how earnest about it.

 

It had been Regina’s ticket out, but she’d gone with the better one, one that wouldn’t take away Emma’s entire future. Emma had been– is always– striking, a star in the Proeliate who’d turned heads already, and she had deserved better than a lifetime under Mother’s thumb, forced to play a role she’d hated just to save Regina. Emma would have had to become queen, and Regina couldn’t have done that to her just to save herself. “You didn’t mean it,” she says now, and her magic finally breaks past Emma’s, electricity sizzling dangerously close to Emma’s chest. Emma had been kind and noble, and she’d offered the gift of herself to Regina for the sake of Storybrooke and Regina’s future.

 

Emma laughs, a little wild, her mind falling against Regina’s as though it has always belonged there. “Yeah,” she says, and Regina’s hand stops at Emma’s chest. “I did.” A locked little piece of Emma’s mind opens up, and Regina stumbles in place, staggered. 

 

She sees for an instant– it’s just a flash, hidden memories that Emma hasn’t meant to reveal– herself, the two of them curled together, standing back-to-back in the arena. And every memory is infused with what can’t possibly be love, because Emma hadn’t – because Regina would have known

 

Emma still stands in front of her, defiant, and she must know that Regina can kill her. But she doesn’t move, and Regina thinks in an instant of absurd regret– she used to love me? – and pulls her hand back slowly. Her taste for vengeance has faded, replaced with helpless, uncertain fury at both of them. “You idiot,” she snarls. “You liar . You didn’t mean a thing. You can’t just– just go back and rewrite what we were–” 

 

“My gods,” the announcer says, still muted in the background. Regina lifts her head at the sky and screams, screams until fire rains down around them and the sky roars with thunder with her. She throws her hands open and abandons all control and strategy, unleashes vicious fire and doesn’t care where it hits. This has to end. She has to leave this arena before it breaks her. She is already broken, already shattered, and Emma is about to step on all those shards and stomp them to shreds. 

 

And then, through the torrent of fire and rain and thunderous clouds, a figure appears. Emma breaks through it as easily as she’d once broken through the worst of Regina’s moods, the way that Henry does now–

 

oh, god, Henry must have heard every word

 

–and then, lithe and quick, Emma murmurs in her ear, the words almost tender against the backdrop of thunder, her lips grazing Regina’s skin, “You owe me this one.” And her hand slips into Regina’s chest.

 

When her heart has been taken before, it has always felt like it’s being sucked out, like she’s been robbed of something precious. This is gentle, a sensation akin to a caress, and Emma cradles Regina’s heart in her hands, staring down at it instead of at Regina. The rain and fire stop, and the buzzer sounds. The announcer now sounds much closer as he says, “And that’s it! Swan takes the victory for Team Storybrooke, regional champions! We’ll look forward to seeing Team Storybrooke in the Proeliate championships against such stars as Arendelle and Olympus–” 

 

Regina tunes him out. Emma eases Regina’s heart back into her chest at a medic’s guidance, avoiding her gaze, and Regina notices suddenly that she’s in incredible pain. She touches her face and feels bruises and blistered skin, and when she looks down, she notices that her palm is still dripping blood. She teeters in place, unsteady, and she protests only weakly when the medics ease her onto a stretcher. 

 

She turns her head to see Emma on an identical stretcher, her gaze straight up and her beautiful face marred with injuries, and then she sees nothing at all.

 


 

“We’re legally required to have fifteen beds available at every arena hospital, but realistically, we usually have the equipment for only about three.” The medic speaking goes by Dr. Whale, and Emma eyes the certificate of medicine on the wall– from the Land Without Color, where they resurrect the dead – with some trepidation.

 

Still, she feels much better. “Just surface wounds,” Whale says when she touches her face in surprise. “Some mild bruising, but you should be good to go long before championships start in two weeks.” He follows her gaze across the room, where Regina is lying in the bed next to August’s, and misreads it. “Mr. Booth’s broken leg will need more time, as will what that Fiona woman did to him.” He looks very disapproving. “She wasn’t much help, but she did concede that the visions will keep coming for weeks, if not months. They will be further and further apart, but I can’t guarantee that they won’t attack him while he’s fighting– or worse, driving.” He frowns at Jefferson and August. “I can’t give either of them a clean bill of health until the visions are gone.” 

 

Emma sits up straight, her eyes wide. “Wait. What ?” 

 

“Same for Ms. Page,” Whale says, gesturing at Lily. Lily’s bed is two down from Emma’s, and she is shaking and sweating, her body fighting the poison and her injuries with all it can. “Raya has taken charge of her care, but she assures me that this isn’t an easy fix. We’re talking months until she’s at full strength.” He blinks, as though suddenly remembering in the face of Emma’s horror. “Congratulations on your team’s victory, though.” 

 

It’s good that no one’s dead , considering, Emma reminds herself, but it’s hard to smile right now at Whale’s revelations. She’s just lost three fighters. She’s in the Proeliate, but they’re a team of four, and the others won’t be back in the arena in time. What the hell are they supposed to do–?


“Perhaps,” says Gold. Emma startles violently, her fist flashing out before pain catches it. She rolls over, away from Whale, and sees Gold sitting on the cot beside hers. He has a hand propping up his chin as though in contemplation, and his eyes gleam with that same thing that had always made Emma so wary of him: opportunity . “Perhaps,” he says again, a crocodile smile spreading across his face, “It is time for us to discuss a merger.”

Chapter Text

Storybrooke Arena is Emma’s. It’s been hers for thirteen years, since she’d first begun practicing under Cora’s tutelage and had joined the team a year and a half later. In this arena, she’s built a life for herself and a team, has found the world where she belongs and the place where she excels. Storybrooke Arena is her sole safe place in this world. 

 

Right now, she’s never felt so threatened. She aches all over, though that’s her own fault– she’d insisted that she’s well enough to escape her hospital bed early and it had probably been a mistake. Her team is cut in half, only three fighters behind her. And their worst rivals stand in front of her, eyeing the four of them as though they’re an obstacle instead of potential partners. 

 

At the front of the gaggle of Misthaven’s women is Regina, and Emma turns her attention to her instead of Gold beside her. “I won’t take Fiona,” she says, turning her glare onto the woman standing tall behind Regina. August and Jefferson are still having fits, shocks of delirium right when Emma is sure that they’re lucid. “Not on my team.”

 

“You don’t want a weapon like that on yours?” Gold says, cocking his head.

 

“I don’t want that magic anywhere around my team ever again,” Emma says flatly. The others might be a handful, but she can handle them. Fiona’s attacks are too long-lasting for her to tolerate. 

 

Regina’s eyes flash. “Coward,” she says darkly.

 

It stings, more than it should. This is the first time they’re seeing each other since a few brief hours in the hospital, and Regina looks unmarred except for the stitches stretching across the palm of her hand where she’d grabbed the sword. She glowers at Emma from her spot, and Emma can feel her mind burning against Emma’s. “I’m a coward?” she demands incredulously. “You want to see what that woman does against Lucy?” 

 

 Regina’s eyes flash again, but she doesn’t pick up that thread. Instead, she inspects her nails and says, “Ursula should make a full recovery within a day or two, and she can rejoin Cruella as second Duos–” 

 

“First.” It’s Marian who speaks, eyeing Cruella warily. Cruella winks at her. “I think we’ve made it clear who belongs in the second Duos slot.” Marian, Emma remembers suddenly, has already gone through something like this. She’d been snatched up from Nottingham, the way that all top fighters are, and claimed for Camelot.

 

Emma turns to Marian. “You know how this is done best,” she says. “What do you recommend?”

 

Marian looks startled at the position she’s been put into, but she straightens and considers. “You, me, Lucy, Mulan. Regina, Cruella, Ursula, Zelena. You have two Solo fighters and six Duos,” she says. “I think our best shot is not to seal anyone into any position.”

 

“That’s how we did it with Solos beforehand–” Emma pauses as Marian’s words catch up to her. “ Six Duo fighters?” 

 

“It does seem like a blasted waste not to use the best Duos pair in history,” Zelena drawls, and Regina twists around to stare at her in horrified betrayal. Zelena shrugs. “What? Are we pretending that never happened? How droll.” 

 

Emma says through her teeth, “I’m not fighting in Duos with her.” She still remembers the exhilaration and the pain of being on the arena floor with Regina again. There had been a moment when she’d been sure that she wouldn’t leave it alive. There had been many moments when she’d been close to breakdown. And she’d felt more energized than she has in years, but it isn’t an energy she’d asked for or wanted. 

 

“I fight Solos,” Regina says coolly. “I won’t be forced into another Duo fight.” She gives Gold a cold look, and Emma follows it, suddenly distracted. Regina hadn’t chosen to fight with Zelena against Agrabah? Forced into another Duo . She takes a step back, her traitorous heart pounding. 

 

Regina’s eyes flicker to Emma, and Emma wishes at once that they weren’t surrounded by teammates and the center of attention. She wishes that she were processing this revelation alone, and dwelling on what it means in a quiet corner somewhere with only Regina there to answer her questions. Instead, she thinks, You could have said something.

 

She gets the distinct sensation of exasperation, followed by Regina’s response, in impressions instead of words. It wasn’t your business shines clearly through it, and Emma scowls at her. 

 

When they’re linked like this, it’s harder to hold back her thoughts. It’s why she’d exerted so much effort into hiding away her feelings during every match they’d fought as partners. And now, a thought slips through, one she hadn’t meant to let free. A thought of a promise, of one she’s kept faithfully for years, and one that is shattered now.

 

It doesn’t matter anymore, she reminds herself. 

 

Yes , Regina agrees, and Emma schools her face to stare evenly at Regina as though she isn’t bothered at all. 

 

She fails to persuade anyone, least of all the group of fighters arrayed around them and staring at the two of them. “Absolutely,” Zelena says dryly. “Two Solo fighters. No Duo behavior here.” 

 

“I miss Ursula,” Cruella says mournfully. Lucy is watching Regina and Emma, her eyes round. 

 

Snow clears her throat. “It sounds like we’ve put together a team. Maybe Fiona can stay on as an alternate?” she says, glancing at Fiona where the other woman is still standing with Misthaven.

 

“No,” Emma says.

 

Snow heaves a sigh. “All right,” she says, turning away from Fiona. Fiona still hasn’t moved, is still smiling at Emma with that uncomfortably smug look, and Emma finds it deeply disconcerting. “Why don’t you all get to know each other a little better?” Snow suggests. “Maybe go out for drinks or watch a movie together or–” 

 

“Sudden death match,” Cruella says. “Every woman for herself. Your heart gets snatched, you sit out.”

 

Snow says helplessly, “Does that really seem like a productive way to make friends?” 

 

“I’m in,” says Lucy, grinning a dangerous smile. 

 

Emma winces. “Then I’m in, too.” 

 

“Positions,” Regina barks out. “Find a circle.” 

 

“Wait–” Snow looks to Gold for support. 

 

Gold spreads his hands carelessly. “May the best lady win,” he says, turning to the doors that lead to the backstage of the arena. “I’m going to issue a press release.” 

 

“Wait! We should do that together–” Snow hurries after them, leaving the team behind. Fiona has vanished without a trace, and only the seven of them are left in the arena. Emma eyes the Misthaven women with distrust, and they stare right back at Storybrooke. No one is looking at anyone here like a teammate.

 

Emma heaves a sigh. They have their work cut out for them if they’re going to have a chance at the Proeliate.

 


 

Emma is staring around the arena as though she’s been personally attacked by every member of Misthaven. Regina glowers back, unwilling to be intimidated by Emma Swan. Her hand aches where it’s been stitched up, a constant reminder of the battle they’d fought, and she does her best to ignore it. Emma doesn’t need to know how weak she feels right now.

 

She’s back in the arena against the wishes of Dr. Whale, who had insisted that she’d need to heal before she fights again. But she feels enough of a responsibility to whoever is left of her team to be here for this introduction, to stand up for them and make sure that they aren’t steamrollered by the Storybrooke team.

 

Not that there’s ever been too much of a chance of that for Zelena and Cruella. They lounge in their spots like two tall bodyguards on either side of Regina, expressions of matching dangerous delight on their faces.

 

Zelena says, “Well? Let’s go. Death match, now.” She raises her chin to call out the start of the match.

 

Cruella says, “Am I the only one here with severe trauma from the last arena? I want this one tested first.” She raises her voice. “Arena Timer, begin!” A buzzer sounds, and they all stand uncertainly and wait as Cruella strides over to where Marian and Mulan are standing. “I think I owe you this one,” she purrs, and Regina is suddenly afraid of what Cruella might do.

 

“There’s a simpler way to test this,” she says swiftly, and she lights a fireball on her palm. It burns at the stitches on her hand, a pain like nothing she’s felt before, and she struggles to keep her face straight.

 

She can’t hide the flash of agony that she feels, though, and Emma’s eyes snap up to hers. “Arena Timer, end ,” she says sharply. The buzzer sounds, and the fire dissipates. Cruella looks satisfied. Emma looks angry. “What the hell?” she says, stalking forward. Abruptly, Regina’s hand is in Emma’s. Emma inspects the stitches, her thumb brushing against Regina’s palm– Regina shivers despite her best efforts, Emma’s touch overloading her senses just by being there– and shakes her head. “No,” she says. “We are not going to do this. You’re still injured.”

 

“And you’re still covered in bruises,” Regina points out, and she reaches out to touch a purple mark on Emma’s forehead. Emma winces, and Regina gentles her touch, stroking the skin around it instead. Emma closes her eyes for a moment too long, and Regina watches her face, incapable of moving away.

 

Emma says, her voice hardly more than a whisper, “It’s irresponsible. I wouldn’t let my team go into the arena with a wound like that–”

 

“Good thing you’re not my captain.” They’d done this to each other. It hits Regina more than she’d like to think about it. Those bruises are from her attacks. The cut on her hand is from a sword that Emma had tried to swing at her. They’ve hurt each other, and whether or not it was in the arena, it feels crushing to dwell upon.

 

Emma senses her pain and misunderstands it. “You’re not ready to fight.” 

 

“Watch me,” Regina says grimly, and she stalks to a circle on the other side of the arena. 

 

Emma follows her, equally grim, and takes a circle opposite hers. “I plan to,” she grits out, and Lucy is the one to call, “Arena Timer, begin sudden death match.” 

 

The timer usually counts up, tracking length of the fight and the number of blows on either side. For a sudden death match, it tracks nothing but number of people still in the running. There’s a 7 on the board, and Regina whirls around, prepared to cut it down to six. 

 

Emma is already dancing back, dodging Regina’s fireballs, and Regina turns away in frustration. Emma can’t be her first target. She has to stay aware– Cruella’s hounds are already yipping, snarling at Zelena’s ankles. Lucy is speaking rapidly to Marian. Mulan swings her sword easily and wards off an attack from Emma. There is too much going on, and Regina has to fight an offensive battle. 

 

She hurtles a painful fireball at Marian and Lucy where they’re plotting together. Lucy throws up a glass barrier, and Regina keeps the fire going, gradually melting the glass. Marian says something, and then– something crashes into Regina and leaves her on the ground–

 

Zelena , soaring back above her on her broomstick. Her skin has already turned that deep green that it does when she’s serious about a fight, and she dives now toward Regina, misses when Regina dodges, and goes back up into the sky. 

 

Lucy says suddenly, “Hey! Zelena!” Zelena turns, and Regina sees what Marian hadn’t. Lucy has left glass beneath her feet, and it piles higher in a flash of magic, lifting Marian high into the air where only Zelena can get her. Marian draws her bow, nonplussed at Lucy’s betrayal, and fires at everyone below her. 

 

She impales Emma through the arm, and Emma looks stunned. Regina is seized by the sudden impulse, instinctive as Duos, to run to protect her. She strides to her before she remembers herself, and Emma says, “I can still take you down with an arrow in my arm.” 

 

Regina lights another fireball, grimacing for an instant at what it does to her stitches, and she can feel the frustration and the sympathy in Emma’s mind, halfway inside hers. “Oh, stop it ,” she grits out. 

 

“This seems a really stupid way to irritate your hand even more,” Emma shoots back. “I’m not going to just stand by and let it happen.” 

 

Regina gets closer. Emma isn’t moving away, isn’t fighting back, and Regina feels a surge of irritation at it. “Are you fighting or not?” she demands. Emma only stares at her, her face stiff, and Regina reaches into her chest and takes her heart.

 

She cradles it in her hands for a moment, holds it close and feels Emma’s shuddering breath at her touch. The hearts pulled out during fights aren’t the actual pulmonary muscle but something metaphysical. Officially, they shouldn’t affect the fighter when they’re removed. But plenty of fighters swear that they can feel something when the heart is taken and touched, something more than a swooping sensation in their chests. Regina’s thumb runs along the bumps of Emma’s heart, and Emma closes her eyes and exhales. Regina eases her heart back in, feeling very much as though she is doing something far more precious than routine, and Emma opens those green eyes and stares at her.

 

Regina is struck, again, by Emma’s revelation during their fight. Yeah. I did . What does that mean, that Emma had meant it when she’d asked Regina to marry her? She remembers Emma shuddering under her touch at the ball, the desire in her eyes, the way that Emma wouldn’t fight her today if it had meant more injury to Regina, and she is left with more questions than answers. 

 

A hound bites Regina’s calf, and Regina is jerked back to the present of the battle. The counter on the scoreboard now says 5 , and she flees the hound and scans the arena to see who else is out. 

 

Zelena is lying on the ground, impaled through by an arrow, and Lucy is holding her heart. “Sorry,” she says easily, grinning down at Zelena. “All’s fair in the arena.” She puts the heart back and then whirls around, letting her glass crash down beneath Marian. Marian is on the floor a moment later, and Lucy goes for her next, hand in her chest before Marian can get back up.

 

The board now says 4. Lucy twists around to see Regina in front of her, and she says, “Tía Regina! How about an alliance?” 

 

Regina nods readily, smiling at Lucy with warm eyes. “That,” she says lightly, moving to stand beside her, “Sounds like a terrible idea.” She thrusts, seizes Lucy’s heart, and Lucy pouts up at her as Regina pulls it out. “If only you were even the tiniest bit trustworthy in the arena,” Regina says, patting Lucy’s heart, and she puts it back gently and turns around to find her next target.

 

Cruella’s hounds are gone, but she still stands there, frozen on the other side of the arena without a weapon in hand. “You really are lost without Ursula,” Regina muses aloud. The others cluster together on the far side of the arena, watching this next showdown. “I can see that you’ll be hopeless if we ever have to move you to Solos.” 

 

“That might be true,” Marian calls from the far side of the room. She still has a considerable amount of glass on her side, stuck there until the whole fight ends. “But in this case, Cruella is already out.” 

 

Regina twists around to stare at the scoreboard, which now reads 2 . “What–?” Who is–? 

 

And then, swift and silent, a sword slams into her head hard enough that she stumbles back. Mulan, unassuming and hardly a blip in the battle, stands in front of her, and she has her hand in Regina’s chest before Regina can think to fight back. The buzzer chimes, the heart in Mulan’s hand disappears, and, thankfully, the additional pain in Regina’s palm fades– though the stitched cut remains.

 

“Don’t underestimate my girl,” Marian says smugly, and Mulan gives her a glowing smile and shrugs.

 

“Sudden death matches are just about staying in the shadows,” she says modestly. “I got lucky.” 

 

“I don’t think so,” Regina says, and Mulan shoots her an appreciative look. So there had been a second member of Team Storybrooke who isn’t all bravado. There may be hope for them yet. “There’s a reason you two could take down Ursula and Cruella, and it isn’t luck .” 

 

Cruella gives Regina a dirty look. “Don’t tell me you’ve already gone all-in on Storybrooke,” she says. “I saw you making eyes at Swan earlier, too.”

 

Regina feels obligated to defend herself. “I was pulling out her heart.” 

 

“She didn’t put up much of a fight, did she?” Cruella gets crabby at losses, and she reaches out for Zelena, overly dramatic. “Take me out of this place. I’m surrounded by enemies and traitors.” 

 

Zelena rolls her eyes, but she extends an arm. “We’re done practicing for the day, Captain ,” she says, and she looks at Regina, not Emma. “Just let me know if you need us back.” 

 

Regina, uncertain, says nothing at all. Emma says, her voice sharp, “I will.” 

 

“Ignore them,” Marian murmurs as they depart. “They know that they’re here by your grace and Regina’s. They’re just…snippy.” She looks to Regina, expectant, and Regina is forced to offer her grudging support. 

 

“I’ll remind them to play nice,” she says. “I can’t promise that they’ll listen to me.” 

 

Lucy says, “When are matchups for the championship rounds announced?” 

 

“Next week,” Marian offers. “The sixteen teams in the bracket are already decided, but the only ones that are seeded are usually the top four from last year.”

 

Regina nods sharply. “And Untold Stories is out. So they’ll pick the teams with the best records and shuffle them around. Storybrooke doesn’t have much championship experience, so we might wind up anywhere.”

 

“We aren’t the bottom of the list,” Mulan points out. “There’s one team that’s never made it to the championship rounds at all.” 

 

Regina knows which one immediately. It’s been nearly a week, and she’s let thoughts of that ordeal fade in favor of the urgency of the Misthaven-Storybrooke match. “Broken Kingdom,” she says grimly.

 

“That’s the one,” Mulan says, and she eyes Regina with curiosity but doesn’t ask. “The shuffle means that they might not be up against Arendelle first, but probably not against us, either. If we’re lucky, we wind up somewhere far away from the greats, but more likely, we go up against one first. Olympus and Camelot will both be in the same bracket, and Arendelle won’t face any other top seeds until the championship.” 

 

Lucy is trying to track the conversation, her eyes moving back and forth from Marian to Mulan to Regina. Emma hangs back, and Regina can sense the way that her mind is closing in on itself. The others don’t notice, too absorbed in their calculations.

 

“No,” Marian corrects Mulan. “Arendelle either meets us somewhere along the way, or they meet us in the finals. No top seeds.” 

 

“Yeah,” Lucy says, grinning. She turns to beam at Regina. “I can’t believe that I get to go there with you, after all.” 

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Regina sees the arena doors opening, Jacinda poking her head inside to retrieve Lucy. “We’ll get back to it tomorrow,” she says, nudging Lucy in the direction of her mother. “You go rest.” 

 

With Lucy’s departure, Mulan goes to pack up for the day, and Regina sits down heavily on the bleachers. Marian sits down beside her. “Not exactly how I imagined getting to the championships,” she says wryly. “But I’m glad you’re here. We might have a chance–” 

 

Regina holds up a finger. “Don’t start,” she says warningly. “I don’t want to hear about what I can do in Duos.”

 

“Right.” Marian leans back against the bench, eyeing Regina. “I remember when we used to practice together as kids,” she says. “You with your terrifying mother. I always thought you fought like…like a machine.”

 

“I’m sensing that isn’t a compliment,” Regina says, deadpan.

 

Marian laughs. “I could tell that you didn’t love the Proeliate. That you weren’t all that interested in anything but winning. And sometimes you still fight like that,” she says. “You dominate, but there’s nothing behind your power.” She clears her throat. “But when you fought Emma…”

 

“Stop,” Regina says weakly.

 

Marian looks at her, eyes bright. “It was the most exhilarating experience of my life, and I wasn’t even in the arena. I’ve never watched a fight like that. I couldn’t have imagined one like that. I’ve always thought it was a bit of a cop-out that the top-ranked Duos Pair in the Proeliate were only in the Proeliate for two years– it’s easy to be the best for two years. Harder to do it for five years. Ten years. Twenty. But I get it now.” She puts a hand on Regina’s arm. “Just think about it,” she says in a murmur, and she gets up and heads to the shower.

 

Regina watches her go, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She doesn’t want to hear that, and she doesn’t want to know what Emma must have thought about their conversation.

 

But when she searches the arena for Emma, she discovers that Emma has left.

 


 

Somewhere around when Zelena had deferred to Regina and Marian and Regina had sat down together in a cozy conversation, Emma had realized exactly how alone she is. Her two closest friends are in the hospital, recovering, and they’ve been replaced with members of a team that hates her. Mulan goes where Marian goes, and Marian and Regina seem to have hit it off. Even Lucy has grown up with Regina, Emma reduced to a farce of a captain with Regina’s presence.

 

This is what the team needs– this is what she’d offered them, when she’d promised that they would get to the finals this year. This is what she owes them. But she can’t help but feel as though she doesn’t belong in her own arena right now, and she slips outside in a mess of emotion and exhaustion. 

 

There are reporters outside. There are always reporters outside now, and there’s little Emma can do to get rid of them. “Emma! Emma, is it true that Misthaven is teaming up with Team Storybrooke?” 

 

“Emma, did you really ask Regina to marry you?”

 

“Emma, how are your injured teammates doing?” 

 

“Emma, are you in love with Regina Mills?” 

 

Emma keeps her head high, ignores the media snapping pictures of her and makes it to her car with only a few more flashes of cameras. She drives out to Storybrooke General Hospital, where she’s inundated with a new crowd of reporters.

 

“Emma! Emma, over here!” 

 

“Emma, look this way!” 

 

“Emma, is Lily Page in critical condition?” At that question, she gives the reporter a dark enough look that he recoils. Good . No one needs to ask questions like that about Lily. 

 

Lily has been set up in her own room, Maleficent in the next one over. She looks up when Emma walks in, her eyebrows raised. “You picked the lady from 101 Dalmatians to replace me?” 

 

It’s a game they play, mocking the absurdity of the world they’d entered too late to fully adjust to. Emma laughs, settling down on the bed next to Lily. “I really wish I could say no,” she confesses. “But I think we’ll need her in Duos. How are you doing?” 

 

She leans in to give Lily a hug, and Lily bats her away. “Oh, no way ,” she says. “My eyesight came back and I finally got to watch that last fight you had with Regina. I got the…latent sexual attraction thing, sure. She’s hot and terrifying. But you proposed to her.” She makes a face. “I don’t hook up with girls who are in love with other people.” 

 

Emma stares at her. “I was going to hug you,” she says, feeling unaccountably offended. “ I don’t hook up with girls in hospital beds.”

 

Lily snorts. “You mean I’m not irresistible like this?” She coughs suddenly, hacking at something in her throat, and Emma puts an arm around her and holds her tightly while she chokes. “It’s fine,” she says hoarsely. “I’m not dying anymore. I’m just…sick. And I can’t move anything below my navel, so I’d be off-limits even if you weren’t in love with Regina.” 

 

Again, the same accusation, tossed out casually, and Emma can’t address it. “You can move your navel? What are you supposed to do with that? Take up belly dancing?” she says lightly.

 

Lily groans. “Ugh. You’re the worst.” She rolls her eyes. “Anyway, before she comes back again , someone is here to see you. I think she’s trying to avoid the arena, so she just lurks in the hallway and the cafe and looks for you.”

 

“She?” Emma repeats, but Lily just groans again and closes her eyes, refusing to answer any more questions. Contrary to her assurances of good health, her breathing is labored, and Emma touches her cheek and makes a slow departure from the room.

 

She makes it into the hallway before she nearly bangs into a nurse. “I’m sorry, I was just–” she starts, and then she realizes that the woman in front of her isn’t a nurse at all. 

 

Elsa of Arendelle fidgets, offering her a quick smile. “I was hoping we could go somewhere and chat,” she says.

 

There’s a cafe off Main Street that’s only a block away from the back entrance to the hospital, safely out of view of the reporters who still hover and wait for news. Elsa leads the way, looking back at Emma once or twice with that same timid smile. It’s strange, Emma reflects, that someone so confident in the arena can be so uncertain outside of it.

 

They sit at a small table in the back corner, and Emma goes to order coffee for them. On an impulse, she grabs a muffin for herself and a giant chocolate-chip cookie for Elsa, bringing them back to the table. Elsa’s eyes round when she sees the cookie, and she grins. “How did you know I love chocolate?” 

 

“It was in…one interview or another. I don’t remember. It stuck with me,” Emma admits.

 

Elsa brightens. “You read my interviews?” She says it like it’s something meaningful instead of the Proeliate magazines that they keep in the arena restrooms, and Emma offers her an uncomfortable smile. “That’s really…I’ve read all of yours,” she says quickly. “For years. Since we tied.” 

 

“Oh,” Emma says, taken aback. “Those are easier to find,” she says, self-deprecating. “The media isn’t usually banging down my door for interviews.” 

 

Elsa scoffs. “They should be,” she says, and then she drinks in silence. She also picks chocolate chunks out of her cookie, delicately, and eats each one with a happy sigh. It’s kind of cute, Emma acknowledges, and her traitorous brain responds with a mental image of Regina doing the same thing. 

 

“I’m not really star material,” Emma says wryly. “I haven’t fought enough matches in the championship rounds to even qualify for the rankings.” She’s top ranked in the regional rankings, but that’s like being a big fish in a very small pond. 

 

Elsa shakes her head. “You’re being neglected out here,” she says, and she looks suddenly disturbed. “It’s…I see your fights in Team Storybrooke and I think about what you could do in the finals. What you could do with a team that has the power to support you.” She looks fierce for a moment, as dangerous as she is in the arena. “I would never have let you get injured in a competition.” 

 

Emma says weakly, “It wasn’t really like that. I insisted on fighting.” 

 

“I love that fire,” Elsa says, brightening. “I already lodged a formal complaint with the Board about the Enchanted Forest arenas. It isn’t reasonable that they’re in such shoddy condition. I hope you’ve lodged one, too.” 

 

“Uh. Yeah. I think Snow did.” Emma still isn’t quite sure what’s going on. There is a flush to her cheeks, but she thinks it’s just…star power, really. Elsa is the hero of the Proeliate, and she’s concerned about Emma ? It’s staggering in its own way. 

 

She falls silent, out of words to breach the awkwardness between them, and it’s Elsa who fills that void. “Ingrid is the best manager in the League,” she says suddenly. “I’ll stand behind that, and I think most people would agree. She makes the right decision every time. Except once.” 

 

Emma blinks, startled. Elsa gives her a sad smile. “I’ve always thought that letting you go eleven years ago was her greatest mistake. With or without Molinero.” 

 

“Oh.” Emma breathes it, rather than saying it aloud. Her muffin is stuck somewhere in her dry throat. 

 

Once upon a time, Arendelle had been her dream . Storybrooke hadn’t been the kind of team that would go far, but Arendelle had been the elites, the pinnacle of perfection, the pride of the Northlands. When Emma and Regina had gotten the offer to join them, it had been the stuff of fairytales. It hadn’t been the actual team, of course– it had been an all-star team of the best of the Proeliate that year, and the best of the best would have gotten a slot on the actual Arendelle team. It had been a chance to get away from Cora, to forge a new start on a team where they’d be able to fight at their greatest potential. And when Regina had gone, it had slipped away from Emma. 

 

But that had been eleven years ago. Team Storybrooke isn’t just the team where Cora had put her to gain some recognition for Regina. Team Storybrooke is hers now, and she has turned down dozens of offers to join other teams over the past eleven years.

 

Never has an offer come from Arendelle before, though.

 

“Yelana is retiring this year,” Elsa says. “She says she’s getting too old to fight competitively. I think she’s just ready to make space for someone new.” She rests an elbow on the table. “And it has to be you. It has to be .” She says it with the ferocity of someone who won’t accept no for an answer.

 

Emma, however, can’t possibly say yes. “Storybrooke is my team,” she says, lacing her fingers together. “I’m the captain . I’ve spent years putting it together– and even now, we’re trying to make it work. I’ve promised them my best. I can’t just run off to Arendelle,” she says helplessly. 

 

Elsa shakes her head. “Not run off ,” she says. “You’ve brought your team to the championships. Maybe you’ll even make it to the finals. Those Misthaven women are strong .” She leans forward, chin on her wrist, and fixes Emma with an intense look. “But you’ve spent twelve years putting your team first. When does the time come that you start to think about yourself?” Her voice is pleading, and she reaches out with her other hand to take Emma’s. 

 

Her skin is silky-soft and warm, and her touch is gentle. Emma is frozen, somewhere between creeping hero-worship and the need to flee this conversation. “You’re one of the two strongest fighters in the Proeliate,” she says quietly. “And you’re doing the world a great disservice by hiding that talent away. You owe yourself your own best chance, don’t you?” 

 

There is an odd chill to Emma’s thoughts suddenly, making it hard to think. Emma clears her throat, looks past Elsa in an attempt to avoid her eyes, and then freezes. Regina is standing at the counter, a coffee in hand, and her eyes are burning into Emma. Emma flushes, caught out, and says shortly, “I really can’t talk about this right now.” 

 

Elsa turns to follow Emma’s gaze, and her eyebrows shoot up when she spots Regina’s simmering rage. “Of course,” she says, and she stands gracefully. “We can revisit this after you’ve had some time to think. Maybe we can do dinner sometime next week.” 

 

“Maybe,” Emma manages. It’s impossible to focus with Regina’s fury like a fire in her mind. “I’ll…I’ll think on it–” 

 

“I understand,” Elsa says, and she turns, astoundingly fearless, and says, “Hello again, Regina,” and floats from the cafe with her cookie still in hand. 

 

Emma stares after her, momentarily disoriented by her disappearance, and Regina sits down at the table opposite her and says, “ So .”  

 

Her anger is like a flame turning everything around them to ash, and Emma feels sick at it. Had she just betrayed the team by listening what Elsa had had to say? Is Elsa right?

 

Regina bites out, “Your girlfriend spends a few days in the hospital and you’ve already found a new one?” She sounds scathing, and Emma blinks up at her, bewildered. “How flighty of you. All that celebrity is getting to your head.” 

 

Emma shakes her head, attempting to clear it. “I’m not– I’m not dating anyone ,” she says, and then thinks to ask, incredulous, “ That’s what you worry about when you see me sitting next to the top-ranked fighter in the Proeliate? That she’s my girlfriend ?” 

 

She can feel the way that Regina’s mind retreats, the flash of dismay at Emma’s words, and she doesn’t know what to think about that. “This might come as a shock to you,” she says in a low voice, somewhere between humiliation and defensiveness, “But me…asking you to marry me eleven years ago doesn’t mean that I can’t have any other relationships.” 

 

Regina straightens, and Emma can feel her struggle for composure and then the way that her mind snaps to attention, cool and closed off, as she placidly sips her coffee and then sets it down. “I don’t care about your relationships unless they affect my team,” she says coolly. “Go sleep with half of Arendelle, for all I care.” 

 

“Maybe I will.” Emma glares at Regina. Her heart twitches, helpless and lost, and she buries the emotion down deep. “And I’d still win, because I’m not the one who let a relationship affect my team.” It’s a low blow, bringing up Daniel now, especially when Emma is still flooded with guilt whenever she thinks of him. But it strikes true, and Regina recoils.

 

“How dare you,” she says through gritted teeth. She leans forward. It has none of the charm that Elsa had possessed when she’d leaned in, all wide eyes and earnestness. Regina is like a snake about to strike, looming over Emma as though she isn’t an inch shorter than her when they’re standing. “Let me make something very clear. We aren’t friends . We’re hardly allies. I’m fighting for Storybrooke because of one reason, and one reason only– because it will make Henry and Lucy happy. And I don’t give a damn what you do outside of the arena. You’re nothing to me.”

 

The words would be crushing, if not for the fact that Regina isn’t nearly as good at packaging away her mind as she wants to be, and Emma can feel the hurt and bewilderment leaking through the anger. “You sure care a lot for me being nothing to you,” she says in a low voice, and she watches with satisfaction as Regina sits up straight, her hands trembling around her cup. 

 

Somehow, Regina being so affected by her words gives Emma new strength, and she stands, reaching out to touch Regina’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t have said that before,” she says in a low voice. “I know that you ran off with Daniel when you were a kid. We were both kids. But what we do now is for the team, and I need to know that you’re all in, no matter how much you hate me.”

 

A little part of her shrivels up and dies when Regina has no reaction to that statement, but she refuses to let herself show it. “I’ll see you at the arena tomorrow,” she says, keeping her voice even. Regina’s mind pulses, terrifying and intoxicating and a mass of whirling emotion. “Time to put aside old grudges and win .” 

 

Her hand slips from Regina’s shoulder, and she strides off swiftly from the cafe before Regina can see the devastation that Emma can’t quite conceal on her face.

Chapter Text

THE CURIOUS WORKINGS OF TEAM STORYBROOKE

 

By Sidney Glass

 

THE SEVEN members of the new and improved Team Storybrooke file into the room in clusters. Hua Mulan and Marian Locksley, the Duo pair that had helped clinch Storybrooke’s victory in the Enchanted Forest regionals are rarely apart, moving through the room together and sharing a loveseat. Lucy Vidrio has a hand in Regina Mills’s, and Zelena Mills keeps close to them. Cruella de Vil lurks to the side, lacking her usual panache while her partner remains in the hospital. Emma Swan keeps her distance from the others as well, perching on the edge of a padded chair as though she can’t bear to relax. 

 

I offer them food from the spread on the table, but they all decline. Perhaps it’s because they’re athletes, though I do spot Swan and Vidrio sneaking plates of food out at the end of the interview. More likely, I determine, it’s because they aren’t accustomed to breaking bread together. This is a slapdash group, created after a crisis in the arena had shaved away half of each team. 

 

The fighters perk up when I ask about their missing teammates. Ursula, I learn, is expected to make a full recovery and rejoin Cruella in time for their next match. Lily Page has been temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, while Maleficent has lost use of her arms. “They’re in adjoining rooms,” Regina offers. “They’ve gotten a lot of time together.” 

 

The mood turns uneasy when the conversation turns to Eloise “Gothel” Gardener, who has been in critical condition since her battle with young Vidrio. Only de Vil is happy to update her status. Gothel is in an artificial coma while medics and doctors work together to heal the damage done to her. Vidrio, had trapped Gothel in a class cage and then compressed it into her; there are still glass shards in her skin even now.

 

There is a sense of protectiveness around the room toward Vidrio, who looks alarmed at Cruella’s vivid descriptions of Gothel’s condition. “You did what you had to do,” Locksley says swiftly, moving to put an arm around Vidrio’s shoulder. “You didn’t know.”

 

The others offer the same reassurances, and Swan swiftly changes the subject to the final two members of the former Team Storybrooke. “Jefferson and August will be fine by the time next season comes along,” she assures me. When I ask about Fiona, the Misthaven Duo fighter who had incapacitated them, I get only grim silence. She’s left , I’m told. She just wasn’t a good fit . Eyes flicker toward the team captain with every dismissive comment, and I can put together the pieces to understand why Fiona hadn’t been allowed to join Team Storybrooke.

 

EMMA SWAN has always been a peculiar sort of fighter. She ranks top in her region, though she hasn’t made it to the League rankings because of a dearth of matches in the championship rounds. However, it’s easy to pinpoint her skill. In her region, she outranks Agrabah’s Jasmine, who is fourth in the League. Despite her skill, Swan claims that she has never considered transferring to another team.

 

“Storybrooke is my home,” she says simply. “This is where I belong.” Perhaps it is only a reporter’s instinct, but I wonder at the way her eyes shift to the side when she says it. There are whispers of openings in some of the top teams in the Proeliate this year, and Swan is indubitably being courted. 

 

Swan is a princess of Misthaven, daughter to manager and queen Snow White. But she didn’t grow up in a castle, learning to fight with the best tutors available. Instead, a curse and a villain had left her lost in the Land Without Magic for fifteen years. “I didn’t inherit my magic from my parents,” she says with a laugh. “Off the record, Snow is a disaster in the arena.” 

 

Then how did she become a fighter in the Proeliate? “Sheer dumb luck,” she says, fiddling with her jumpsuit. “I wound up in Storybrooke after I ran away from a foster home and I found a girl practicing in the woods. The rest was history.”

 

And this is the mystery that comes along with Emma Swan, who speaks freely and smiles often. She is an open book, as long as it is on her own terms. When she is asked a question she’d rather not respond to, she shuts down and gives me nothing.

 

The question, as it were: Was the girl in the woods Regina Mills?

 

ZELENA MILLS is who I turn to next, if only because she begins cackling when I ask Swan my question. “She’s an idiot,” Zelena informs me. “I could tell you stories from the old Team Storybrooke.”

 

Zelena hadn’t fought on Team Storybrooke back then, though she’s certain that she’d been good enough for it. “I was blocked every step of the way,” she confides in me. Confides may be a bit of an exaggeration, as her teammates are sitting around her, and she knows exactly how public this interview will be. 

 

When I ask for details, she is more reticent. It’s her sister who inserts them. “Our mother has a lot of influence in the Proeliate,” Regina tells me. “She played her own games with us, pitting us against each other and taking away Zelena’s chances in the League.” Zelena, I have discovered in my research, had spent a number of years with Team Oz (another regional winner), managing and training the team. Never had she been permitted to fight for them.

 

Regina’s usage of has instead of had , regarding her deceased mother, raises some eyebrows in the room. Swan, however, looks unsurprised. Perhaps the former Duo partners have compared notes on Team Broken Kingdom and are aware that Cora Mills serves as the manager for the hell realm’s team. Perhaps Regina has only misspoke. But what I know for sure is that, in that moment, Swan rises to get a drink from the table, and she returns with a cup for Regina as well. They don’t make eye contact, and Regina doesn’t thank her, but she takes the cup.

 

Forgive me for my fascination with Emma Swan and Regina Mills’s relationship. But I suspect already that it is the lifeblood behind this team of would-be champions.

 

I WAS a junior reporter for the Proeliate Monthly twelve years ago, when the news broke of a stunning new Duo pair in the Enchanted Forest, of all places. The Enchanted Forest has never been known for strong fighters. Agrabah is the exception to the rule in a place so old-fashioned and reliant on magical gimmicks and trinkets instead of power. But Swan and Molinero were different, and I knew it from the first time I covered them. Their team lost the regionals that first year, but they’d been a shock to the system of the League, a pair who’d taken the League by storm. 

 

By the next year, they’d made it to the championship finals. There had been an energy between them that had been unparalleled at the time, and debatably ever. (Elsa and Anna of Arendelle might take offense at that statement, and rightfully so; if there were ever a Duo pair that could match Swan and Molinero, it would be them.) I interviewed Swan and Molinero after every match, struggling to understand what it had been that had made them so strong.

 

I never got my answer. I don’t get it today, either, when I ask Regina Mills (once Molinero) if she plans to fight in Duos during the championship rounds. “No,” she says flatly, and she glowers at me throughout my next few conversations.

 

MARIAN LOCKSLEY is one of the only fighters in the room who seems comfortable around the others. She is quick to answer my questions, and she is unbothered when I mention her surname. “I kept it because it makes things more streamlined for my son,” she says dismissively. “I would have dropped it entirely otherwise.” Name recognition means very little to her. “I don’t fight to be in the spotlight,” she tells me, resting a hand on Hua’s knee. “I fight because I’m good at it, and because my team needs me.” 

 

Locksley’s last year on Team Camelot had been a tumultuous one. When she’d filed for divorce and expressed a desire to leave the team, many of Camelot’s fans had taken it as a personal affront. Locksley alleges harassment and stalking, as well as abuse in the streets. “I had to leave Nottingham and move out to Storybrooke just to escape the worst of it,” Locksley admits. “And since I joined Team Storybrooke, the hate mail has gotten worse.” 

 

Next to her, Hua looks concerned. Locksley shrugs it off. “I’m better here,” she says. “Camelot is a hyper-competitive team where the in-team rankings are brutal, and there’s no sense of community. Here, with these women, I’m actually happy.” 

 

Does she have any concerns about facing Camelot next round? At my question, the serenity on her face fades. She hasn’t heard that Storybrooke will be facing Camelot. I offer her the data I have, slipped to me from a source at the League, that indicates that Storybrooke’s first match will be against second seed Camelot. Does she think that she has a chance? 

 

Locksley’s rank within Camelot had dipped in her final year, down to sixth from where she’d once been second, and she had ranked far behind her husband. Robin Locksley has thrived in training this year, rising up to take his onetime wife’s onetime second rank. Is she concerned that the team will be too strong for her? 

 

It’s now that Hua speaks for the first time, angling herself on the loveseat between me and Locksley. “There is no one on Camelot who can do a thing against Marian.” She says it with the faith of a zealous convert.

 

HUA MULAN is, like Marian Locksley, not a native daughter of Storybrooke. Instead, she’d found her way there after rising to the top of Shenmo region. “I had to pretend to be a man in order to be accepted for a team,” she says, pressing her hands together on her lap. “It just wasn’t feasible in the long term. I hear it’s gotten better. Someday, I would like to go back.” 

 

She’s in no hurry to return right now. “Emma took me under her wing when I got to Storybrooke,” she says, offering a smile at Swan. “And she wouldn’t let me give up after Ruby left. She found Marian for me.” 

 

“For all of us,” Swan says ruefully, and even a few of the Misthaven fighters smile at that. 

 

I ask Hua how fighting varies from Lucas to Locksley, and she hesitates. “It doesn’t really compare. They’re completely different fighters. With Ruby, I was always backup. I fought defensively while she’d transform and attack. Marian is a distance fighter, so I’m the one who gets to go on the offense.” It’s a diplomatic answer, but I do get her to admit a certain joy when she gets to initiate the fights. 

 

Hua is the secondary star of Team Storybrooke, though she prefers to remain under the radar. As the third-ranked fighter in her region, she has turned down a number of sponsors. “I only want to work with causes that I believe in,” she says earnestly. “It’s why I do a lot of sponsorships with non-profits. I just can’t advertise shoes and pretend that it matters .” 

 

Across from her, de Vil scoffs. “Do-gooders,” she says, and Hua looks uneasy. “Not a genuine bone in your body.”

 

FOR DE VIL , her genuine self is everything. “There are people on this team who will pretend that they have risen above. That they’re fighting in the Proeliate for noble reasons. The way that Regina tells it,” she drawls, and all of our eyes go to Regina, who is still glaring at me, “She does it all for her son. Really? Of course she doesn’t. What does her son get out of it? Free tickets? She’s in the Proeliate for the rush.” 

 

Regina speaks at last, if only to say, “Not all of us get a rush out of yanking out a heart, Cru.” 

 

De Vil is amused by this. “Oh, please,” she says. “You’re telling me that you didn’t feel anything when you took out Emma’s heart during practice?” She turns to me, conspiratorial. “There’s something almost sensual about it, when you hold a lover’s heart,” she says. 

 

Swan and Regina both begin coughing on their water. Swan is quick to lay down facts, on the record. “We aren’t lovers,” she says. Regina has finally stopped glowering at me in favor of glowering at Swan instead. “We were never lovers. Just partners.” She has a pained look on her face, which I think intriguing until she says, “And if I have to say the word lovers again–”

 

De Vil is displeased when the spotlight turns away from her. She has a storied history of flashy entrances and dramatic incidents, culminating with a dodged arrest for fraud in the Land Without Magic. I ask her about it and about her stint on The Real Housewives of the Land of Twenties , which she laughs off. “Oh, that was just a gig while Ursula and I were honing our craft,” she tells me. “I didn’t mean to become a breakout star, but you know how it is.” 

 

When I ask about Ursula, she actually shows some real emotion. “It’s not as though she doesn’t have other tentacles,” she says, a glimmer of empathy in her eyes. “But she’s in a lot of pain right now. The regrowth process is a bitch.” 

 

During their last match, Ursula and de Vil had melded into a monstrous creature that had nearly taken down Marian and Mulan. De Vil doesn’t think that they’ll do it again. “It was just a bit of a spur of the moment thing,” she says dismissively. “I prefer to fight on the go.” 

 

De Vil and Ursula are dynamic and ever-changing, the sort of Duo pair that is bound to rank in the Proeliate. But that’s if Ursula is recovered enough to compete. “She’ll be ready,” Regina tells me forcefully, glaring at me as though I’ve personally offended her. “She’ll do it.” 

 

Beside her, Vidrio stares up at her with absolute faith.

 

LUCÍA VIDRIO is the youngest fighter to compete in the Proeliate this year, and is only the sixth youngest of all time. She’s a child of a pocket realm, one of many small areas dotted around the Land Without Magic that allow the use of magic within them. Hyperion Heights is a quiet neighborhood within a city called Seattle, and it is also– to Vidrio’s good fortune– the place where Regina Molinero disappeared to after her missed championship. 

 

“We grew up in the same apartment,” Vidrio says about Regina, whom she calls Tía Regina. “Henry and I were best friends as soon as we stopped stealing each other’s sippy cups. And Tía Regina taught me everything that I know about fighting.” 

 

Hyperion Heights has an official spot in the Enchanted Forest qualifying matches, but there are few fighters there and no team to speak of. Many residents with potential will travel to Magical Forest to fight, while others participate in minor competitions and hope to make a name for themselves. Vidrio did the latter, coming in first in the junior level Enchanted Forest competition last year.

 

“I wasn’t thrilled about taking her onto the team,” Swan says with an apologetic glance at Vidrio. “She was just so young . She had turned ten days before. But I didn’t want to give her up to another team, either.” 

 

Vidrio’s Solo debut was in the regionals championship, where she displayed sheer power and turned the tide for Team Storybrooke. But she isn’t satisfied. “I guess I just really want to be the best,” she admits, and she looks up at Regina again. “I want to keep fighting until I can beat everyone .” Is she afraid of being branded too ambitious, as many young fighters are? “Many girls ,” Vidrio corrects me. “I don’t care what they say about me.”

 

In her words, I can hear faint echoes of another young fighter whom I once interviewed, now thirty and sitting beside her.

 

REGINA MILLS has been transformed over the past eleven years. As a girl, she was uneasy in interviews and anxious, her mother hovering over her to ensure that her words would go over well. She spoke with caution and rarely opened up, save for when she would do Duo interviews alongside Swan.

 

Today, she is confident and exudes power, and her stance on the couch is combative. She answers my questions about her mental space right now by speaking about the team itself, and I am given a quelling look when I try to put her back on track. “It’s a solid team,” she says, and she casts a quick glance around the room. I notice that she is still holding the cup that Swan had given her, her thumb running along its rim. “I would like to say that Misthaven was stronger, but…” She spreads her arms in surrender. “Next year, we’ll take the regionals.” 

 

This startles Vidrio. “You’re going back to Misthaven next year?” 

 

Regina says, “Maybe I’ll poach you,” with fondness that is undeniable. As hostile as Regina is toward me, she reserves soft affection for her pseudo-niece. 

 

I ask Regina about her son, and she warms up a little. She tells me that he’s precocious and very talented in the arena, though she doesn’t plan to let him fight until he’s much older. I ask her about his father, and she clams up. “He’s no longer with us,” she says, a vague answer. I have done my research, though. Henry’s father is a man named Daniel Colter, who had died before he was born. His place of death is listed as Hyperion Heights; however, until ten months before then, he had been employed in the Storybrooke Stables.

 

Regina is not a woman worth pushing, though, so I don’t bring that up. Instead, I turn to the question that has overtaken the Proeliate since the regionals. In the much-anticipated battle between Swan and Regina, Swan had come out the victor. But there had been a number of revelations in the arena about their relationship. Cora Mills had intended to broker a match between Regina and King Leopold, a minor ruler from the Enchanted Forest. Instead, Regina had fled with Colter to Hyperion Heights, missing the championship final.

 

But it is what had happened in between that has captured fans’ attention. I ask Regina if it’s true that Swan had proposed to her. It’s Zelena who answers. “I was there,” she says, looking wickedly amused. “It was very sweet. They used to sleep in the same bed, did you know? Curled up together like two little kittens. I would nap in the sitting room while the fighters took the cabin bedrooms, but the walls were thin–” 

 

“You were eavesdropping,” Regina says with the exasperation of a sister. “I know you stole my magic mirror.” 

 

“All right, fine, I was eavesdropping.” Zelena admits to it with no shame. “But I saw them joking about marriage, and then Emma just slid out of that bed to get onto her knees and Regina stared at her as though she’d gone mad , which obviously she had, because everyone but Mother knew that Regina was absolutely gone for the stable boy–” 

 

“Don’t.” It’s Swan who speaks, and she is uncharacteristically sharp. She speaks with authority, but I am a reporter, and I have to ask. Did she know that Regina was in love with Colter?

 

Swan shrugs. “It didn’t matter to me,” she mutters. “I knew. But I was…I was trying to help. I figured Regina could marry me and still sneak around with him when the media wasn’t around.” 

 

Regina looks startled by this admission. I push harder. Is it true what we’d all heard implied in the arena? Had Swan been in love with Regina?

 

Swan says, “I really don’t think this has anything to do with Team Storybrooke.” I note that Regina is watching her for the first time since the interview had begun, and she is squeezing her cup so hard that it is bending inward with unconscious magic. 

 

This is the sort of opportunity that comes only rarely, and I’m determined not to squander it. I ask Swan if she’s still in love with Regina. Swan falls silent. When she finally says, incredulously, “Do we seem like two people who are in love?” it is after a lengthy pause.

 

I note the pause and the tension in the room. Swan grows belligerent. She didn’t sign up to talk about her nonexistent relationship with Regina, she tells me. She didn’t sign up for an interview at all. This is Snow White’s idea of a team-building exercise, and it’s a load of crap , she informs me. Nothing she has said persuades me that my hunch is wrong, but I have no confirmation of it, either.

 

At this point in the interview, something odd happens. Swan stops moving, and she looks as though she’s listening very carefully to something she doesn’t like. I turn to watch Regina, remembering her mental attack on Swan in the regionals, and I see that her mouth is in a tight line and her eyes are unfocused, staring at a wall behind me. 

 

I can’t say if they were communicating mentally, because neither one will admit it later. But both of them looked as though they were in the middle of an argument that no one else could hear, and eventually, Swan sits back down and says evenly, “No. I’m not in love with her. I can barely stand her.” 

 

This time, she sounds like she means it. 

 

I can’t say that this interview gave me great insight into Team Storybrooke, Team Misthaven, or the relationship between their captains. No bombshells were dropped, and no new admissions were made. But I suspect that very little of what exists between Swan and Regina is ever admitted. It exists in the long silences and the quick glances, in a cup of water handed to Regina at the mention of her oppressive mother and in the silent argument that had calmed Swan. The girls who had once sat in front of me, flushed from victory and holding hands, have grown into distant, driven women who no longer call each other partner. But a partnership like theirs is difficult to shake, even years later.

 

I do sincerely hope that they fight in Duos together again.

 


 

The article is out by the next morning. Regina reads it in the team room at the back of Storybrooke Arena, curled on a couch there. Practice isn’t due to begin for another hour, until Lucy has finished the requisite number of in-person classes for the day, but she’d dropped in early rather than reading the article around Zelena at home. It’s atrocious, the sort of character piece that Regina had never expected from Sidney back when he’d been their most faithful interviewer. The implications of it are uncomfortable and his conclusions are ill-thought-out, and she contemplates calling his magazine and demanding that it be taken down. 

 

He’d probably write another article about that

 

He’d left out plenty, typically, though he probably hadn’t noticed most of it. A large portion of it had been in silent communication, the two of them sniping at each other with every comment made. That’s who they are now– petty, sniping children.

 

A week and a half ago, Emma had held Regina’s heart in her hand. They had been on the arena floor again, and Regina had never felt more exhilarated. Since then, there’s been ample time in the arena, and it has instead drained Regina, has left her avoiding sparring with Emma and snapping at her when they have a quiet moment. 

 

She thinks, over and over again, of what she’d seen at that cafe. Emma with Elsa of Arendelle, eyes locked and hands together. It had been intimate, and it rankles at Regina more and more as she reimagines it. Their heads get a little closer each time, the tone of their voices a little quieter. They smile as though they share a secret. As though they’re together , or moving toward it. 

 

Regina knows by now that Lily and Emma had never formally dated, but she’d thought– what? Why does it bother her so much that Emma might be interested in someone else? So what if Emma had been in love with her eleven years ago? Sidney had gotten that right, at least. They’re different people now. None of that matters anymore.

 

But she’s been consumed, since Emma’s revelation, with playing and replaying old memories like she’s studying them, remembering them with this new insight on Emma. The two of them curled in bed together, snug and comfortable, and the way that Emma had burrowed into Regina’s arms and held them against her. The way that Regina had once been briefly stunned during a match and Emma had dropped her attack, just like that, to sling Regina over her shoulders and fight both their opponents in that position. The time that they’d gone to one of Snow’s balls and found a pathway up to a balcony on the second floor, and they’d slow-danced in each other’s arms, Regina laid against Emma’s shoulder and more content than she’d ever been.

 

There had been one time when Emma had done her little victory dance, right after the championship semi-finals, and she’d swung Regina into it and dipped her like they’d been at a ball. The crowd had cheered, Emma had pulled Regina back up with their eyes and minds still locked with exhilaration, and Regina had been so overcome that she’d felt a burning, all-encompassing desire to kiss Emma–

 

She’d always been appalled at her own desire, as she had the creeping desire at times to touch Emma, to feel her skin beneath Regina’s hands and her body against Regina’s. She’d had Daniel , who had been good to her and so kind and wonderful that he would never imagine that Regina’s attention might have wandered. There had been one night after which she’d felt guilty for days. Emma had emerged from the shower one evening in only her towel, shamefaced– she’d ignored Regina’s billionth reminder to close the shower curtain and had gotten her pajamas soaking wet– and she’d gone to change on the other side of the room while Regina had stared at the wall, eyes averted. And then she’d caught sight of Emma’s reflection and heat had surged through their connection, growing in intensity as it had echoed through Emma, and Regina had gotten up and walked to Emma.

 

Emma hadn’t moved, had only stared at Regina, and Regina had touched her bare shoulder with a fascination that she’d refused to explore. She had slid her hand down Emma’s bare skin, had dragged her fingers along the arch of Emma’s spine, and Emma had only stood there, breath hitching. 

 

Regina had been like a woman possessed, her heart churning with need and her body aching for Emma’s. She had slid her fingers around to cup Emma’s breasts, had held her breath as Emma had leaned back against her, and she’d stood there, frozen, feeling the weight of Emma’s breasts in her hands. The room had felt too hot, suffused with minds and bodies in desperate desire, and then Emma had whispered, “You don’t want this.” 

 

Regina had let go as though she’d been burned, had fled to her bed and buried her face in her pillow. Emma had gotten dressed and crept into bed beside her, arms around Regina as tightly as ever, and Regina had felt her shaking as Regina had pretended badly to be asleep and had cried silent tears of remorse into her pillow– Daniel, sweet Daniel, what had she done? Emma, sweet Emma, what would they be tomorrow? They had never spoken about it again.

 

With this new insight into exactly how Emma must have been feeling that night, Regina feels a rush of despair. Not for Emma now, who is brusque and unpleasant and oversteps too often. Not for the Emma who had found her in Hyperion Heights– the Emma who almost died to try to protect you , she reminds herself, and shakes that off, too– but for the girl she’d once known, the one who had held her every night and loved her freely, the one who had so deeply cared for Regina that she’d been ready to spend the rest of her life supporting Regina’s relationship with someone else.

 

That Emma is hers , and she can never hate her. 

 

She finds a picture online. There are always pictures online, but Regina searches through Boogle with specific keywords until she finds one that isn’t from promotional content or a sponsorship, a picture of Emma that had been snapped by a fan when she’d been only seventeen. She’s standing in front of Storybrooke Arena, and she’s beaming, still baby-faced and with those glasses that she’d worn for a year because she’d decided they made her look smarter. She looks like the Emma that Regina remembers, and she blinks back tears, longing suddenly for a simpler, perfect time, when even this team room in the arena had been their shelter together. 

 

She doesn’t hear the footsteps or sense the magic until there’s a voice across the room, low and worried. “Regina? Are you okay?” It’s Emma, and Regina clicks off her phone and schools her face, forcing away the melancholy. 

 

She scoffs instead, and Emma’s jaw works under her skin as she opens the fridge and retrieves a bottle of Crocoade. “Ugh. Red.” She drinks it anyway, and Regina’s eyes flicker to her neck, watching the movement of Emma’s throat with unnecessary fascination. 

 

She tears her eyes away just as Emma sets the bottle down. “Got some bad news,” she says, sitting on a couch opposite Regina. She fiddles with her jumpsuit, zipping and unzipping one of the knee pockets absently. “Ursula isn’t going to be ready for Camelot.”

 

Regina stares at her. “You’re joking.” 

 

“Wish I were.” Emma scuffs her heel into the carpet. “I kept Whale for a half hour to discuss possibilities. He was adamant. You can try to talk to Ursula– every time I do, she stares at me like I’m an intruder– but I don’t think we should push her into it.” She clears her throat. “How would Cruella do with Zelena?” 

 

Regina shakes her head. “She wouldn’t,” she says. It’s been a possibility in the back of her mind, the chance that Ursula might not be ready. It’s already been a week and a half, and their match is on Monday, in just four days. Ursula has been improving, but it’s slow going. “She really is lost without Ursula. You can put her in Solos and probably throw the match, or you can put her in as the alternate.” 

 

“Right.” This is businesslike, matter-of-fact, and they can communicate like this. Emma finds a clipboard and starts writing. “Would you fight with Lucy?” 

 

“I’d rather not.” The words emerge before Regina can control them, but there it is again– the memory of another Emma, young and vulnerable and shining beside Regina. Let’s never fight with a different partner , and they’ve both broken that promise now. But still. Still, Regina doesn’t want to break the promise she’d made to that Emma. 

 

Emma looks at her in gratified surprise, and then nods. “Okay. Lucy could carry a Duo battle on her own, if we pair her with Cruella. She won’t love it, but they can do some practicing, get to know each other a little. We let her know that it’s okay if we lose. Then we stack the Solo fights. It’s Solo, Duo, Solo, Duo, Solo. If we put Marian and Mulan in the first Duo, it might not even come to Lucy. You and I can take the first two Solos.” She chews on her lip. “That is, if Marian doesn’t…” Her voice trails off, and she looks perturbed. 

 

Regina nods, and the door opens again. This time, it’s Marian. Regina glances at the clock and sees that it’s still another half hour until practice is supposed to start. Either Team Storybrooke is unusually punctual, or something is afoot.

 

And suddenly, between the sense she’s getting from Emma’s mind and the way Marian looks very pained, Regina knows exactly what it is. “You don’t want to fight in Duos on Monday, do you?” 

 

Marian says, “I will fight where I’m needed.” But she still stands there, watching them both and pressing her hands together. She straightens. “It’s just…” 

 

“I’m friends with Jasmine,” Emma says simply. “She’s friends with Guinevere. I heard, too.” She turns to Regina, her expression giving nothing away. “Robin Locksley is being put into second Solos.”

 

“Ah.” Marian has been the subject of dozens of reporters and fighters, since this year had begun, all intimating again and again that she is the inferior Locksley. That she’d been the supporting player in their Duo pair. Regina has even heard it from her own team. She can’t blame Marian for wanting to lay that to rest– Marian might be exceedingly tolerant, but she deserves a ego-driven fight like this one. They can’t take that away from her.

 

Marian shifts in place. “I know it puts you in a pinch, but you’d have Cruella and Ursula–” 

 

“No,” Emma says regretfully. “Ursula isn’t ready yet.” 

 

“Oh. Damn.” 

 

Regina can see the shift in Marian’s face, the way she steels herself to do what’s best for the team, and she cuts her off before Marian can speak. “I think we’ll be fine with Marian in Solos,” she says, sending a wave of stubbornness Emma’s way. 

 

Emma quirks a smile. “You don’t need to fight me into agreeing,” she says wryly. “I’m not going to say no to Marian.” She fixes Marian with a smile, fierce and strong, and Regina’s heart skips a beat as Emma says, “Don’t lose. We’ll try to make it the fight that matters most.” 

 

It’s a bold statement against last year’s second place– that second Solos will be their victory, that they can win every fight against Camelot– but there is a magic to Emma’s words, too, that nearly makes Regina believe them. Marian looks relieved as she slips out again, and Emma leans heavily against the couch, her confidence gone. 

 

“No Duos,” she says, shaking her head. “What the hell am I supposed to do with that ?” 

 

They stare at each other, and this is the other curse of the bond– that even now, the thought that they both try to push away at once comes to the forefront. “If you don’t pick a lineup, Gold will,” Regina says quietly. “And he’ll put us in Duos together.” 

 

She feels a little ripple of excitement at the idea, then absolute dread. It startles her to realize that the dread is coming from Emma, not her. “I won’t fight in Duos with you, either,” Emma says, and it is without bite. It only sounds very sad.

 

Regina looks askance at her. “If it wins the match–” She doesn’t want to, either, she’s sure of that. Whatever instinctive enthusiasm for it that she feels is from years of slumbering, and the temptation of returning to their arena together. But if this can win, then should it matter? If they’re unstoppable, then isn’t that much more vital than their conflict?

 

Emma shrugs. “Look,” she says. “I want to win. I think we have a chance to make it back to the championships. But not like that.” She stares at the ground, kicks her feet back against the couch. “The bond is already too strong.” Now she looks at Regina, as Regina gapes at her in understanding. “What happens if we fight together?” she says unhappily. “Are we ever going to be free of it? Or are we going to fight and then– then we’ll still be in each other’s heads when you go back to Misthaven and I–” 

 

She stops, but not quickly enough. Her mind reveals too much of her thoughts to Regina, more than Regina had anticipated, and Regina’s heart pounds. “And you go to Arendelle ?” she finishes, horrorstruck. “That’s what that meeting with Elsa was about. You’re being poached .” 

 

Emma shrugs helplessly while Regina stares. It’s what Emma had always dreamed of. Once, they’d dreamed it together. And now it’s Emma’s big chance. Fighting in Arendelle. Fighting in Duos with Elsa, the two of them entwined in the arena and in practice. Laughing together, those matching flushes on their faces again that Regina had seen in the cafe. Falling in love, most likely, because what else can two beautiful women, equally powerful, do?

 

“Stop it,” Emma says weakly, and Regina knows that Emma is hearing everything she’s projecting. “ Stop ,” she says again. “I don’t– I haven’t even thought about it yet. I’ve been busy. I love my team.” She scrubs her face with her hands. “I just want this bond to go away, okay? And I won’t fight with you.” 

 

Regina thinks to close herself off a bit before she wonders exactly how debilitating their Duo must have been for Emma, back when they’d been fighting together. If Emma had really been in love with her– if she’d been hiding that every time they’d been bonded, every moment they’d spent together– yes, she can see why Emma would have less than fond memories of their partnership.

 

And yet.

 

“What else can we do?” Regina asks, and Emma has no answer to that question.

Chapter Text

 

Emma takes the coward’s way out. Mulan pairs with Lucy in first Duo, and Cruella and Zelena are unhappily in the second. “We won’t have to go until the second,” Emma promises them. “And if we do, Regina will finish it.” Regina will fight in the third Solo match, their final chance if they don’t make it before then. Emma is confident that no one in Camelot can take on Regina. Emma had once taken down their top fighter, Arthur, in a single blow. 

 

They have a new top fighter now, a man named Merlin who has quite a flurry of publicity around him, but Emma is sure that Regina can take him. Camelot is strong, but Storybrooke is unstoppable. They have to be.

 

They’re in the Proeliate.

 

The real Proeliate, not the prelude to it, playoffs and qualifications and regionals. This is the place where stars fight to the end, where the entire United Realms throngs to watch their representatives show their power. There isn’t a single team in the Proeliate that isn’t full of star fighters, and every fight is going to be a struggle from now on. 

 

It’s winter break, timed each year for the dozen or so school-aged children and the parents who fight in the Proeliate, and Henry and Roland have joined them at the Proeliate Realm. This is a realm built from scratch for one thing and one thing only, and months of the year are spent only on preparing it for the tens of thousands of people who will come to watch the teams compete. 

 

Emma has been here before. The occasional exhibition matches are held here, so she’s been in the arena, but there’s far more to the realm than the arena itself. Six years ago, she had been here with August, Mulan, and their old team, and she has since forgotten exactly how impressive it is.

 

Behind the arenas is a complex designed only for Proeliate fighters. There are sixteen state-of-the-art practice arenas around the edges, one for each team, and nestled on their other sides, a sprawling village of cabins for the fighters. “We’re very proud of our Proeliate team accommodations,” says Nova, the fairy assigned to show around the Enchanted Forest representatives. “Technically, we could give you each your own personal cabin, but we favor ease of access over space. That means you’ll be doubling up.”

 

They’d known this already. Two beds in a room. Marian is planning to keep Roland in her bed, but they’d needed an extra one for Henry. Snow and Gold are in a ritzy hotel for the managers of each team, situated at the edge of the village, so it’s just the eight fighters and the kids who are taking the cabin. There are five rooms, and they’ll all have to share– except Zelena, who’d drawn the short straw through what she’d sworn wasn’t magic. Emma had already snagged Lucy as a roommate. Jacinda and Sabine are staying with the managers, close enough for Lucy to visit whenever she wants, but there hadn’t been space for them in the cabin.

 

“Down here in the common house, you’ll be able to get whatever you need,” Nova says, pointing to a large building near the center of the cabins. It’s been landscaped with a large garden and a little pond in the front, and there is a porch winding around it with doors on every side. “You’ll have a kitchen in your cabin, but there’s also a fully stocked cafeteria in the common house that we recommend you use to get to know your opponents. There’s also a gym in the basement and a hospital on the second floor. You can also pick up supplies and clothes in the common house if there’s anything you need.” 

 

She gestures to the arena, looming beyond the practice arenas and the cabins. “Of course, you can also head beyond the village and shop in the stores there or eat at those restaurants, but we don’t recommend it. Everything you need is here.” 

 

She walks them up the path to the cabins, and Regina drawls, “Don’t tell me. The one painted green and gold is ours.” 

 

“Got it in one.” Nova beams at her. Regina doesn’t smile back. “I’m excited to show you what we’ve done. We wanted to accommodate everyone to the best of our abilities,” she says, unlocking the door by holding her hand to it. It slides open, revealing a large sitting room and a kitchen. There are a few doors arrayed around the sitting room and a hallway beyond it, and they follow Nova down the hallway to a large room in the back. “Here we go!” she says, beaming, and she pushes the door open.

 

Emma is near the front of the line of fighters, and she blinks at the room in confusion. “It’s…a bunk bed.” 

 

Nova nods enthusiastically. “And a toddler bed! With toys and books that were specially picked to be age appropriate. We put together a kids’ room for all the children. The Proeliate staff prides itself in being family-friendly.” She smiles at Marian. “And I expect you’ll want to be close by, so I thought this room was perfect. There’s a double room right across the hall for you and your roommate.” 

 

Marian grins at Nova. “And here I was wondering how I was going to fight with Roland kicking me out of a good night’s sleep,” she says ruefully. “You’re a lifesaver.” She turns to take the room opposite theirs, and Lucy and Henry wriggle past Emma to scope out their room, already arguing over the top bunk. Emma stands, rooted in the hallway, doing the math.

 

She knows this cabin. She’s stayed in it on two prior occasions. Five rooms . Two down the hall, one to the east of the sitting room and one south, where she’d shared with Mulan six years ago. A final room behind the kitchen, looking out onto the patio behind it. Cruella takes the east room, sitting on the bed to blow up a kiddie pool for Ursula when she arrives. Zelena has already set up camp in the south room, her bag upturned and all her belongings on the spare bed. There is only one room remaining for the women who’d been meant to share with Henry and Lucy.

 

She doesn’t turn back, afraid of what expression might be on Regina’s face, and she heaves her bag over her shoulder and heads into the last room. The beds are exactly how she remembers them, the room the same as it had been the last time she’d slept here, eleven years ago. She ducks her head into the closet, shining her phone flashlight into the bottom corner beneath a shelf, where she finds what she’s looking for.

 

Scrawled into the wall in black marker is ES + RM in Emma’s boxy letters. Beneath it, in Regina’s fine script, is we’ll be back!! A promise they’d made when they’d first gotten here eleven years ago, flushed with their victory in the regionals and sure that this wouldn’t be the last time.

 

Regina says, “It’s still there?” Her face is devoid of color, her lips in a thin line. Emma shifts out of the way so that Regina can see it, sitting back against the closet door as Regina crawls in to peer beneath the shelf.

 

Regina pulls back abruptly, and Emma, who isn’t expecting it, catches her without thinking. Regina twists, half on Emma’s lap, and she takes a breath. “Well,” she says, her breath very warm on Emma’s lips. “I was right, wasn’t I?” 

 

They stare at each other for a frozen moment, and Emma can feel the whisper of Regina’s mind against hers, the shiver of their touch. She wonders what would happen if she leans forward in this moment, if they kissed instead of falling into an inevitable argument. Her trembling hands are still on Regina’s arms where she’d caught her, and she wonders– she wonders–

 

There’s a knock at the patio door, and they both jump a little, Regina scooting off of Emma to stumble to her feet. “If that’s Elsa of Arendelle ,” she says, her tone scathing as she pulls the long curtain aside, and Emma hopes desperately that it is not.

 

She gets her wish, unfortunately. Elsa would have been a better choice. Camelot is outside her door– Robin Locksley is outside her door, two other fighters behind him in the same gold and purple jumpsuits. One is an alternate she thinks might be called Little John, and the other is one of the Duo fighters, Lancelot. They’re both enormous, and they look like bodyguards next to Robin.

 

He smiles warmly at Regina and looks apprehensively at Emma. Emma doesn’t smile at him. Nor does Regina. She shuts the curtain again and sits down on a bed, carefully unpacking her clothes into the dresser opposite it.

 

Emma takes the other bed. There are no memories to contend with in either bed, at least, she thinks with a pang. The beds are narrow, and they’d pushed both together when they’d gotten to the village last time and slept in the same bed, as they always had. This is new, sharing a room and sleeping apart.

 

There’s a banging on the front door, Camelot deciding not to try Regina’s patience any longer. Zelena pulls the door open, and Emma hears as far as, “Well, aren’t you a charming muffin of a man,” before she leaps up and hurries to the main room. 

 

Robin looks bewildered at being called a baked good, but he regains his bearings in time to smile– again – at Regina. “I saw your fight in the regionals,” he says. “You were a sight to behold.” 

 

“He tried to convince me to invite you to join Camelot the moment Misthaven lost,” says another voice Emma knows. Arthur emerges from behind Lancelot and Little John, sparing a cool look for Emma. Emma stares back, equally grim. “Swan,” Arthur says, his lip curling. “First Solo, I hope.” 

 

Emma tilts her head. “You are a masochist,” she drawls, delighted at the way that his eyes narrow. “I don’t think I can beat my record last time, but I can probably tie it.” 

 

Arthur takes a step forward, and Emma is sure that, as gallant and noble the Camelot team always looks in their ads, he wouldn’t think twice about smashing her head against the wall. Regina, whose mind twitches with the same awareness, clears her throat to do some conflict resolution. “She took you out with one blow, didn’t she?” she says, and why the fuck had Emma ever thought for an instant that Regina might turn to conflict resolution? “And you’re supposed to be one of Camelot’s best ?” Her tone is scathing. Arthur’s eyes are flashing, and Emma does some quick math on how quickly she can grab her phone and call Nova to return to the cabin.

 

It’s Robin who puts a hand on Arthur’s arm, laughing mildly. “They’re quite the firebrands, eh?” he says, and he winks at Regina, whose mind gives a violent lurch in response. “Well, that was an exhibition match. Quite different than the Proeliate.” 

 

Arthur says, his voice still cold, “I didn’t expect a minor fighter from a dung-heap team to be a match for me. I’ll be ready for her this time.” 

 

“What did you just call us?” Regina demands, still ready for a fight.

 

Thankfully, she’s cut off by a cry of “Papa!” Roland hurtles down the hallway, beaming, and Robin lifts him into the air and whirls him around.

 

“There’s my little boy,” he says, and Roland giggles and stretches his little arms down to his father. “I hope your mama is taking good care of you.” Robin’s voice sounds less exuberant now, and he looks apprehensive as Marian emerges from her room.

 

“You didn’t waste any time,” she says dryly, and Emma has to suppress the urge to stand between them as Marian’s backup. The four Camelot fighters are watching Marian with hostile faces, and Marian stares evenly at them. “Arthur. Lance. John. Robin,” she says, one by one, and only Lancelot nods abruptly in response. “I suppose we’ll see you in the arena on Wednesday.” 

 

There are eight battles in the first week for Round One, two a day beginning Tuesday. Next week, if Storybrooke continues its winning streak, there will be two more for them, and the final is the week after that. If they lose, they’ll have two weeks to watch other fights and enjoy the amenities with no pressure. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty of free time to drop by after that,” Emma offers. Marian coughs in an unsuccessful attempt to hide a laugh. The men glower at her. “If you’ll excuse us, we have practice to get to.”

 

They have no practice planned until later, but their cozy little cabin is beginning to feel claustrophobic.

 


 

Henry is ecstatic to be in the arena that evening, riding Zelena’s magic broom and imagining away Lucy’s glass every time she tries to use it. Regina lets him spar with the others, watching the way that Emma delights in Henry’s best attacks and urges him on with gusto. She’s wonderful with him, and he adores her. There had been a time, early on, when she’d been newly pregnant and still terrified to even search for the word Storybrooke on her phone, and all she could think about had been Emma around her baby. Emma had always had that charm when it had come to children, and Regina had still dreamed then about returning to her, the two of them practically raising Henry together. 

 

With Daniel, of course.

 

She feels a hot spike of resentment. Emma is here, and Daniel is not. Henry has only one parent, and no amount of sparring will ever change that for him now. She is struck with the irrational desire to pick a fight, though it feels petty and useless now.

 

Zelena sits down beside Regina, her eyes on the arena. “So if you’d gotten married, she would have been the fun mother,” she says brightly.

 

Regina gives her an unamused look. “If we’d gotten married, Henry wouldn’t have existed ,” she reminds Zelena. 

 

Zelena scoffs. “Please. You would have sneaked off with Daniel daily, breaking Emma’s delicate little heart.” She pauses, and Regina thinks she’s done until she makes it worse. “Then again, if Emma had ever made a move, Daniel wouldn’t have stood a chance. Poor man.” 

 

“Stop,” Regina says weakly. It’s not true. She loved Daniel, more than anything. There’s no way that she would have lost interest in him, even if it had meant hurting Emma. 

 

A jolt runs through her at the thought of breaking Emma’s heart– not this Emma, but the girl who’d once been hers. It makes her chest tighten even now.

 

Zelena snorts. “Poor me ,” she says, her lips twisting into a grimace. “Imagine having to sit through the Regina-Emma Drama for thirteen years . Just go fuck each other already and get it out of your system. And if you aren’t going to, then can we go ?” She taps a foot impatiently on the floor, glancing at her phone. “It’s getting late.” 

 

Regina exhales. “Yes,” she says, her stomach bottoming out. She knows where Zelena wants to go, even though she’s sure that there won’t be anyone there. “It doesn’t work like that, you know. No one can leave a hell realm–” 

 

“Doesn’t matter in the Proeliate realm,” Zelena reminds her, and Regina’s heart sinks. The Proeliate is outside of the natural realms, specially designed so that hell realms can fight in the arena. And if they can fight in the arena, then why not stay in the fighters’ village? “I’m surprised she isn’t already here,” Zelena says, glancing around. “She wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see you again.” 

 

She watches Regina sharply, and Regina admits what Zelena already knows. “I saw Mother at the Broken Kingdom finals,” she mumbles. “It went…badly. She tried to take Emma’s heart.” She wonders sometimes if that is what Mother had done to Daniel, if Emma had been about to suffer unimaginable pain when Regina had arrived. “Let’s…I want to go back to the cabin first,” she says, finding a reason to prolong the time before their confrontation. “I have to change into something else.” 

 

She doesn’t want to stand in front of Mother in a Storybrooke jumpsuit, as though a picture of her former self. Zelena shrugs, defiant instead in hers, and they slip away with a murmured excuse to Cruella, who won’t read anything into it. 

 

Zelena leads the way to the cabin, her stride quick. “She’ll be with her team, training,” she says. “You know how she works her teams. They’ll be sleep-deprived and terrifying when we meet them.” 

 

“I was hoping they’d meet Arendelle first,” Regina says grimly. “Even Mother can’t coach a team to victory there .”

 

“Wrong side of the bracket for Arendelle.” Zelena scowls, pushing the door to their cabin open. “Arendelle will be fighting Oz first, though. Glinda will give them a run for their–” She stops short.

 

Regina nearly bangs into her, looks past her, and feels her blood freeze in that familiar way. Mother is on a chair in the Storybrooke sitting room, her legs folded one over the other and her head tilted. “Regina,” she says, categorically ignoring Zelena. Zelena’s back stiffens. Regina’s jaw tightens. “I was hoping to meet my grandson here.”

 

Regina freezes. How long would it take for Mother to assess Henry’s skills and discover his latent talent as a True Believer? What would Mother do to take him under her wing? “You’re not going anywhere near him,” she says through her teeth.

 

“It’s a small village,” Mother says, and Regina remembers what it had been, to be strong. To stand in a room and command respect instead of shivering in front of her mother as though she’s only a frightened child. “I’m sure I can track him down. There’s a lovely park out by the common house that would be perfect for a little boy to play–” 

 

“I’ll kill you if you touch him.” The words erupt from her throat, heedless of tact, and she can feel the tremors that overtake her at the image of Mother near Henry.

 

Mother spreads her hands. She is still sitting on the chair, Zelena and Regina standing over her, but Regina feels as though her presence is larger than them, hovering over them and encompassing them. “My dear girl,” she says. “You cannot kill what is already dead.”

 

“Actually, you can.” Zelena is the one who speaks, and her voice is bright and hurt, staccato little beats of resentment. “I did some research when I found out you’d be here. Turns out, there are a number of little trinkets that can affect hell realm inhabitants.” She digs into the pocket of her knee and pulls out a little metallic square that makes Mother recoil. “That ringing noise you’re hearing can deafen you, if you’re not careful,” she says pleasantly, her back rigid again. “I suggest you leave our cabin and don’t return. I have far worse than this.” 

 

Regina stares at her, then back at Mother, who laughs darkly. “I look forward to seeing it,” she says. “My own daughters, turned against me with no appreciation for all I’ve done for you–” She shakes her head. “Very well. I see that I’ve come at a bad time.” With a wave of her hand, she fades into nothingness, Regina breathing hard as though she’s just fought a dozen battles.

 

Regina stumbles to the couch and sits heavily, her heart pounding. Zelena sits beside her. “I have to go get Henry,” she says. “If she’s in the practice arena–” 

 

“There are spells around them to keep other teams out. Even managers. No one wants a spy around,” Zelena reminds her. “Emma will bring him back.” 

 

“Right.” Regina blinks hard. “I thought– I thought you were obsessed with Mother’s approval,” she says.

 

“Oh, I am,” Zelena says, toying with the metal square. “I’ll be damned if the same thing happens to my favorite nephew.” 

 

“Your only nephew.” 

 

“Until you and Emma start having babies.” Zelena wrinkles her nose in distaste. “Don’t let her get too involved. She’ll wind up naming the baby something twee like Hope .” 

 

Regina laughs despite herself. “I’m not…we hate each other,” she reminds Zelena helplessly. 

 

Zelena offers her a lopsided smirk. “Oh, yes. I particularly enjoy the part of hating each other where she told the entire realm that she was in love with you. Or the part where you watch her with your son like she’s a treasure.” She leans back against the couch. “If I had to choose someone from that team, I would have picked Jefferson. He’s very handsome.” 

 

“He’s very gay, too,” Regina says dryly.

 

“Mulan, then,” Zelena says thoughtfully. “She’s on the quieter side, but that works for me. And she has those long, nimble fingers–” 

 

Regina says, “You know what? I think I will go get Henry from the arena.” But she doesn’t move, spent by only a few moments with Mother. Mother awakens the worst of Regina’s dread, and she feels defeated already, close to despair. Mother is the monster of Regina’s life, sucking away everything good that she’s built, and even in her death, she remains.

 

She remembers the moment when Mother had cupped her face after the hell realm regionals, the way that it had awakened a yearning within Regina. She hates her mother. She longs for her mother, and it is the most complicated emotion she’s ever had to grapple with. Mother should be gone , but she still haunts Regina, and Regina despairs of it. Mother had killed Daniel, and she has the temerity to try to meet his son.

 

Mother had tracked Emma to Daniel, and Regina had destroyed a relationship over it. The most important relationship she’d ever had, right up until Henry had been born. She rests her head against the side of the couch and thinks, for a moment, of the woman who had grown from the girl she’d loved. Of Emma angling herself in front of Regina earlier today, of her laughing with Henry and Lucy, of the moment when she’d clasped Regina’s heart inside her chest and whispered you owe me this one. 

 

Emma is…she’s exactly as Regina might have imagined her becoming, eleven years ago, and she’s perfect. And Regina is so tired of hating her when it is the hardest thing she’s ever done.

 

She blinks away tears, and Zelena puts up her hands and says, “All right, all right, you can have Mulan!” and Regina laughs into her tears, buries her face in the couch and feels the tentative arm of her sister around her.

 

The rest of the team traipses back in a half hour later, after Regina’s tears have dried and Zelena has gone to scope out the cafeteria. Henry is the first in the door, and he drops into the chair opposite her and talks about some move that Lucy has mastered with breakneck pace. Next is Lucy, Jacinda behind her, and then Mulan and Marian with Roland again and then Cruella. Emma brings up the rear, and Regina feels her energy dip toward Regina and doesn’t pull away.

 

Emma sits down across the room, in a seat next to Roland and Marian, and she tickles Roland’s chin until he giggles madly and climbs onto her lap. “We should probably go get dinner,” she says, yawning. “I don’t want to get up, though. Or socialize. Think Arthur would try to poison my food?” 

 

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Marian says dryly. “Gwen really does deserve better.” She runs an absentminded hand over Roland’s back. “Where’s Zelena?” 

 

Zelena chooses that exact moment to return from the common house, arms laden with food. “It’s so boring there. Just Queen Elsa holding court over a crowd of admirers. They aren’t going to learn how to defeat Arendelle by watching her eat ,” she says, rolling her eyes. Regina’s eyes flick toward Emma. Emma is chewing her lip, staring down at Roland, and Regina feels a surge of nausea at the thought of Elsa’s offer.

 

They eat together on the couches, everyone on edge but enthusiastic about the next day. There are interviews in the morning, and then the first two matches of the Proeliate. Their match is the day after tomorrow, and they’ll have to practice between matches. Lucy is excited– “There’s a kid on their team, too–” and Marian passes on little tidbits, coaching them through every opponent they might face on Camelot. Henry listens to all of it, wide-eyed.

 

At ten o’clock, Sabine arrives straight from work with beignets for everyone and a few bottles of wine, and Henry and Lucy are sent to bed. Regina barely drinks with the others, still shaken by her run-in with Mother and the revelations that had followed. They wander off to sleep, one by one, until it’s only Cruella and Zelena in the sitting room, drinking and talking about Ursula’s tentacles. 

 

Regina slips away into her room, a room that still feels as though it holds echoes of the past, and she changes in the bedroom while Emma is in the bathroom. When she emerges from her turn in the bathroom, Emma is curled up on her bed in the way that she always sleeps, that tight little ball that Regina had loved to slide into or around. 

 

Her eyes are still open, and Regina stares at her, her heart thumping in her chest. Their eyes are locked, and Regina shivers as she slides into bed, gathering too much of the blanket in her arms as she does. Fight Duos with me , she thinks suddenly, and she wants it so much that it hurts, that it takes over her chest like a wave across the sea. 

 

And, their minds eternally linked, Emma whispers, “What did you say?” Her eyes glimmer in the dark, and Regina is afraid. They are long gone, and they can’t recapture a magic that has been dormant for eleven long years. Emma has her foot halfway out the door already.

 

Regina says, “Nothing,” and she rolls over, away from Emma, and dreams of simpler times.

Chapter Text

Breakfast on Wednesday morning is a strange, tense affair. More and more of the fighters have begun to flock to the common house, though the teams that had lost on Tuesday cluster together, watching the others balefully. Storybrooke sits together, though a familiar face appears, grinning, and makes her way to Mulan. “Hey, partner,” Ruby says, leaning against Mulan. 

 

Regina watches carefully, sees the way that Marian winces and shifts slightly over, away from Mulan. Interesting.

 

Less interesting is when Elsa stops by the table to offer Emma a muffin with a secret smile, and Emma grins uneasily at her and looks very guilty. Regina takes a breath, and Snow says with a frown, “Why is she here?” 

 

For the first time in eleven years, Regina actually likes Snow. “I’m sure she’s secretly hoping Emma might switch teams,” she says, and she raises her eyebrows at Emma’s tight-lipped glare at her. 

 

Snow scoffs. “Well, that’ll never happen. Emma is ours, through and through.” She puts an arm around Emma’s shoulders, and Emma gives her a tremulous smile. Regina reflects that, in the end, they aren’t all that different, are they? Emma is as desperate for her mother’s love as Regina, and the Proeliate is that vehicle for them both. Particularly after they’ve both rejected royalty wholesale. 

 

Emma catches some of those musings, and she stares at Regina with hard eyes. Is it just her, or is Emma more irritated with her than usual? Hastily, Regina turns to focus on Camelot instead. 

 

There are more than seven of them. They have four alternates with them, men who wear swords to breakfast and eat triple what Regina is eating. The youngest member of the Camelot team looks about fourteen, a girl who sits between the two women on the team and speaks to them in low voices. 

 

“Violet,” Lucy says, following Regina’s glance. “I can’t wait to fight her.” 

 

“Nimue beside her,” Marian says in a low voice. “She’s new, too. Came with Merlin. I don’t know how she fights, but she must be good to have replaced Mordred in the main team.” 

 

They watch Camelot for a few more minutes before Gold arrives at the table, his eyes sweeping over all of them critically. Regina sees, standing in the doorway, Mother and her team, and Regina stands before Gold says, “It’s time to go.” 

 

They file out behind him, and Regina keeps a tight grip on Henry’s shoulder as they walk toward the door. All eyes are on them, the first team of the day, off to fight the second seed, and Regina faces forward, determined not to let on anything to Mother or their audience.

 

Emma falls into place in front of her, walking between Mother and Zelena, and Regina feels a quiet wave of gratitude toward her for it. I’m not doing it for you, Emma thinks tersely at her. I’m doing it for the team .

 

There are no official interviews before the match, but reporters throng the area outside the arena, microphones shoved into their faces. “Regina!” one calls. “How does it feel to be back at the Proeliate after eleven years away?” 

 

She puts a practiced smile on her face. “Feels like I have some unfinished business here,” she says, and she sidesteps the next question and leads Henry inside. 

 

This arena is like nothing she’s fought in before, not in eleven years, and she doesn’t remember it being this big. The arena floor is standard sized, of course, but the bleachers seem to go on forever, stretching out and up to impossible heights. They are already filling up, packed with people wearing distinctive colors and shouting out names already, and there is a sound like a roar when Team Storybrooke walks into the arena.

 

“They’re cheering for us ,” Lucy says, dazed. “Look at them. They’re cheering for Storybrooke.” 

 

“Not all of them,” Emma tells her, but she smiles fiercely. “But enough.” She lifts her hands and waves at the crowd, and the roar is louder, the air vibrating around them. Enormous screens display Emma to the upper end of the bleachers, and then pan out to the rest of them. Lucy waves wildly, and Mulan follows, smiling a grin that Regina’s never seen on her face before. Even Zelena follows suit with a grand curtsy, pulling Cruella into one, too. Henry waves, Marian waves, even Snow and Gold wave, and Regina takes a breath and lifts her arms, just as Emma had.

 

The crowd sounds louder and louder, and Regina breathes it in, feels the exhilaration and the adrenaline that rush through the arena. Magic is heightened in here by the sheer depth of emotion that runs through all these people, and anything feels possible. The roof high above her head seems to glow, the circles of the arena like stars in the night, and she doesn’t know how she’d experienced this once and thought that she could run away from it forever.

 

And then, they are rushed to a prep room to sign in, Nova beaming at them as they sign their names next to their positions. Here, there are no last-minute team changes except in extenuating circumstances, and then, only an alternate is allowed to be swapped in. It’s why Emma hadn’t been allowed to fight a Solo fight when Regina had disappeared, Regina remembers with unease. It also means that the fights have already been telegraphed, guesses have been made, and Zelena can Boogle a betting website and announce their odds.

 

“They’re predicting a Camelot win,” she announces. “Big surprise. They give Emma a win and then call it all losses from then on.” She taps a fingernail against her phone, and then announces, “Anyway, I’m about to be very rich as long as none of you fuck this up.” 

 

Lucy says, “ Excuse me .”  

 

Zelena says absently, “No, I don’t think you’re the one who will fuck it up, love.” 

 

“She said ‘flub this up,’” Emma says hastily, and they break into nervous laughter. She clears her throat. “Uh,” she says. “Listen. We’re going to win this. This is the best damn team I’ve ever fought on, and Camelot is a bunch of overconfident men who think we’re a pushover. We’re going to go in fast, and we’re going to win this fast. Let them underestimate us. It’ll just make us dominate.” 

 

“Very inspiring, Ms. Swan,” Gold says dryly. “If I may–” He turns to Marian and Mulan, talking quietly off to the side. “I’d like you two to throw your matches,” he says. “Give the audience a bit of scare, let us continue to be the underdogs. We come back stronger after that.” 

 

Mulan stares at him. Marian’s lip curls. Emma lets out a nervous little laugh, and she covers Lucy’s ears– Regina hurries to do the same to Henry– and says, “Excuse me, what the fuck ? No one is throwing any matches. Did you throw any matches against us ?” She shakes her head, dismissing Gold altogether with an ease that Regina envies, and leading the way out of the room. They trail after her, and Emma says in an undertone, “You’d better not have thrown any matches–” 

 

“Trust me,” Regina says, “This is new. We fought like desperate soldiers against Storybrooke.” 

 

“Good.” Emma is breathing heavily. “I don’t play games,” she says suddenly. “I don’t do this…this thing that Misthaven does where you don’t know what’s real and what’s for the sponsors. I hate that. I just want to fight, and I want to do it right.” 

 

“Of course,” Regina says stiffly. This feels personal, and she isn’t sure what she’s done to deserve this attack.

 

Emma grits her teeth. “You say that now,” she says, “But I know what you said last night.” She lowers her voice. “About us fighting in Duos again.” 

 

Regina winces. “You must have heard wrong–” 

 

Stop it ,” Emma snaps. “I don’t want to do this. I hate this bit where you do whatever Gold tells you to. He’s out to exploit you, you know, and if you take the one thing that mattered between us– if you take our Duo and manipulate me, and twist it to another of Gold’s schemes to win sponsors– then I’ll never forgive you. I’m never fighting Duos with you again. I don’t care if the whole championship hinges on it. I don’t –” She takes a breath. “Anyway, I have to fight now,” she says, and she speeds up, makes her way to the doorway and squeezes in next to Marian.

 

Regina stares after her, stunned. Is that why Emma is so annoyed with her this morning? Had she thought that Regina had been playing games with her?

 

I’m never fighting Duos with you again . It’s a strong statement, but Regina had always assumed that they’d been grandstanding, snapping at each other to hurt each other or at least make their hatred a little more public. Fighting Duos with Emma had been addictive, the best moments of Regina’s life. How can Emma mean it?

 

She stares at Emma’s back, stymied, and waits at the doorway with Lucy beside her. “Stand here until you’re announced and then you’ll walk up and stand behind the center left circle,” Nova says in a whisper. “They’ll do it according to lineup– there we go–” 

 

The announcer’s voice is familiar, one of the Proeliate regulars, and it booms out through the noise of the crowds. “It’s time for the third match of Round One, where our second-seeded time is about to fight one of the most promising of the year. Announcing: Team Storybrooke!” 

 

There is a screen in the small hallway leading to the arena, and Regina watches as it bursts into green and gold, a promotional photo that they’d taken yesterday displayed in the center of it. The announcer says, “First, Storybrooke’s crowning jewel, Emma Swan!” 

 

If Regina had thought the audience had roared before, it’s deafening now. The cheering is like a wave that sweeps across the arena, carrying them away, and Emma stumbles a little as she walks to stand behind the circle. 

 

“Storybrooke’s hidden star, Hua Mulan!” Mulan steps out, looking equally stunned by the cheering. “Storybrooke’s tiny weapon, Lucía Vidrio!” They are each announced, each cheered as they walk out, and then, at last, “Storybrooke’s prodigal daughter, Regina Mills!” and it is Regina’s time to step out into the arena.

 

It is packed, thirty thousand people in the bleachers, and Regina stares up at them, feels the awe of the moment even through her most stoic attempts to be unruffled. Somewhere up there, Henry is sitting with Jacinda, cheering for them all. Somewhere up there, Mother is watching. 

 

She takes a breath and claps mechanically as each of the Camelot fighters are announced. Arthur takes his spot opposite Emma, and there is something ugly about the way that he looks at her that has Regina on edge. Next, the girl Regina had noticed earlier and the second woman, whom the announcer names respectively as Violet and Nimue. Marian’s ex-husband looks stiff and irritable opposite her, and Lancelot and Guinevere converse in quiet tones as they glance at Cruella and Zelena. Regina turns to her own opponent, Merlin, one of the new additions this year. 

 

“Nimue and I actually fought for Camelot long ago,” Merlin says, smiling at her. “We were called back when a replacement for Marian Locksley wasn’t found in time. I hear that you’re an old hand, too.” 

 

Regina nods cautiously. Snow gestures to them, calling them back to the bench, and Regina sits on one end with Zelena and Cruella. 

 

“Storybrooke has had a very Camelot-esque shakeup this season,” the announcer informs the audience, “In that it absorbed the strongest team it fought. You can see the tension between both sides just in how they split up to sit on their bench.” Lucy stands deliberately and moves to sit between Zelena and Regina.

 

“Good girl,” Regina whispers.

 

The announcer has already moved on, however. “Team captain Emma Swan appears to be making a statement with her lineup, which puts all original Storybrooke fighters in the first three pivotal fights.” He drones on, but Regina glances around quickly and realizes that he’s right. Had that been intentional? Hadn’t it just been a byproduct of how they’d been forced to organize Duos?

 

Still, she wonders if she can put it past Emma. This new, older Emma is a leader, has gained the confidence of her team and will always prioritize them. If she’s arranged the fights this way, then it might have been as a statement. 

 

The first fight is announced. “Notably, this is a rematch,” the announcer says. “Swan took Pendragon down in a single move at an exhibition match last year, and sources say that Pendragon is ready to avenge his humiliating defeat. Swan, however, seems set on recreating it.” Emma takes the circle beside Arthur’s, clasping her left hand against her right arm and stretching it in what is clearly a taunt. Arthur’s eyes narrow.

 

The buzzer sounds. Arthur goes on the offensive– and already, Regina can see that he’s stronger this year. She’d watched the footage from the exhibition match, had seen him as overconfident and taken off guard, and he is neither of those things today. He throws punches and moves with careful footwork, and Emma doesn’t attack immediately. Instead, she turns her feet and moves only slightly, still in her circle, and Regina’s eyes widen.

 

Emma is mimicking Regina’s fighting style, drawing her opponent closer without leaving her circle, and Arthur has no idea. He swings at Emma, moves toward her, and Emma finally throws a punch. 

 

“Is she going to do it again– ohh ,” the announcer says as the crowd roars. “Not this time. Pendragon has prepared for this.” Arthur catches Emma’s wrist and twists it, and Emma shrugs and punches him in the face. “There she goes!” the announcer says. “Pendragon is down–” 

 

But he isn’t down. His fist is clenched where he’s sprawled on the floor, and Emma doesn’t see it. Regina struggles to press her mind to Emma’s, to force her to notice, but Emma’s mind shoves her away, still as hostile as she’s been earlier. Instead, she crouches down, reaching for Arthur’s chest, and Arthur opens his fist.

 

“Looks like Pendragon has a trick up his sleeve,” the announcer says. Tiny magic shaped like particles of sand fly from his fist, and Emma gets a faceful of them. She jumps back, dodging them, and she does a flip in the air and throws a wave of magic at Arthur as she runs out of his range. 

 

Arthur looks unworried. “It won’t take much,” he calls out to Emma. “Just a few specks–” 

 

Lucy shifts from beside Regina. “Did he get any on her?” she says, squinting out at Emma. Emma is still moving quickly, firing white-hot magic at Arthur as she keeps her distance, and Regina struggles to see. How would she know if Arthur had landed his mark? What are they looking for?

 

And then, she notices. Emma is slowing down, her movements clumsier, and Regina sits back heavily. “I think he did,” she whispers, and Emma stops entirely. 

 

It must be some kind of paralytic, but Regina doesn’t like the malice on Arthur’s face. “How humiliating for you,” he says, striding up to sneer at Emma. “Frozen in place by a speck of dust.” He tilts his head. “Slam your head against the wall,” he orders, and Emma stands, turn, and slams her head against the wall near the Storybrooke bench. “Harder.” 

 

Emma slams it harder. Regina’s fists clench, and Snow leaps up. “Ref!” she shouts. “This is unnecessary–” 

 

“Just checking to see if my magic’s working,” Arthur says casually. The referee nods, appeased. Arthur returns to Emma, who is still banging her head against the wall, and he stands close to her and breathes, “I’m going to have you take out your own heart.” 

 

No . Regina tenses, fury building. Arthur says, “Stop banging. Let’s try something else.” He contemplates her for a moment, and then says, “Scratch yourself bloody, Swan.” 

 

He’s going for physical attacks, the ones that won’t be negated by the arena magic. Regina wants to kill him, to leave him bruised and bloody and screaming on the floor. Regina is going to– she has to– 

 

She closes her eyes and reaches out to Emma, desperate to touch her mind and awaken her. But before their magic can touch, a hand on her arm breaks her out of her mind. “Don’t.” It’s Mulan behind her, her voice low. “Don’t do it.” 

 

“He’s torturing her,” Regina snarls. “This is sadism–” 

 

“And it’s her fight.” Mulan shakes her head. “Aside from the questionable ethics of it–” 

 

“Don’t lecture me about questionable ethics when Arthur is–” Emma is clawing at her arms now, leaving long streaks of reddened skin behind. Regina’s mind lurches forward again.

 

“She won’t want you to fight her battle for her,” Mulan says, standing steady. “Have some faith in Emma. She can do this.” 

 

Arthur bounces back on the balls of his feet, impatient, and says, “That’s enough. Time to take out that heart of yours and give me the victory.” He smiles, blowing another sparkling wind of magic sand at Emma, and she inhales it all, her hand moving slowly toward her heart. 

 

“Wait,” Mulan whispers. “Just wait.” 

 

Regina’s knuckles are white, her arms rigid and trembling, and she watches with narrowed eyes as Emma’s fingers dip into her chest. Her movements are slow– surprisingly slow, considering how quickly she’d moved to bang her head– and Regina allows herself a moment of hope. Emma’s energy is still muted, usually enough to brighten up the crowd, and there are disapproving murmurs, angry and uncertain as the people weigh what kind of victory they want to see.

 

Emma’s hand stops moving. Arthur says, shaking his head, “I see you’ll need some assistance.” He strides forward, closing his hand against Emma’s and pressing them both into her chest.

 

And something white and hot surges from Emma’s chest, blasting Arthur across the room as Emma’s energy flows back, free and wild, through the arena. “I’ve got it under control, actually,” Emma says, blinking as though she’d only just awakened from a dream. “But that’s for the offer.”

 

Arthur screams, his body red and angry and burned. Emma walks forward, striding quickly, the picture of confidence as the audience cheers for her. But Regina can see the unsteadiness as she moves, her haunted eyes that hint at exactly how shaken she’d been by Arthur’s attack. She takes his heart without hesitation or fanfare, lifts it high with bloody arms soaking into her jumpsuit, and the crowd roars in approval as the heart fades away. Arthur is still sprawled on the floor when the buzzer sounds, his burns gone, and Emma says, “Ouch,” and drops to the floor in a heap.

 

Regina is moving before Mulan can grab her arm again. She shoots across the arena floor to the far side, running at top speed as the announcer says, “And here’s a blast from the past! Former star Duo partner Regina Mills has left the bench to go to Swan–” 

 

Regina tunes him out, dropping down beside Emma to lift her up into her arms. Emma is a mess, her skin mottled and red where she’s raked it raw, and a medic is already bringing out a stretcher. “No,” Emma says faintly. “I am not leaving this arena–” 

 

“Ma’am, you need treatment–” 

 

“I don’t care–” Emma looks up at Regina pleadingly. “Tell them I’m staying,” she croaks. “Just need…a little bit of magic.” 

 

“You heard her,” Regina says curtly. “I’ll take care of her injuries.”

 

The medic looks unconvinced. “She might have a concussion. And aren’t you scheduled to fight today? You’ll use all your magic on this.” 

 

“Our manager is a skilled healer,” Regina says, and she ducks down, helps Emma sling her arm around her shoulder, and walks her back to the bench without a look back.

 

Emma mutters, “Gold is not touching me.” 

 

“Do you want to die of blood loss?” Regina demands, annoyed, and Emma huffs out a little smile, the first she’s offered to Regina all day. “I’m going to kill Arthur,” Regina grits out. “That absolute shit . He just wants you out of commission.” 

 

“You’re just mad that he got to me first,” Emma says, woozy. Regina sits her down, glancing absentmindedly at the arena. Lucy and Mulan have been called forward, and their fight is about to begin. 

 

“Absolutely,” Regina says, deadpan. “That’s my right as your official nemesis.” She feels a pang, and she does her best to conceal it. Emma won’t take it well.

 

Emma squints at her. “Are you going soft on me?” she says. “Hey. Stop that.” Regina ignores her and continues what she’s doing, a steady ebb of magic against the scrapes on Emma’s arms. They begin to heal, smooth against her skin, and Emma shakes her head. “Come on. The medic was right. You have a fight coming up.” 

 

Regina scoffs. “I won’t be fighting.” In the arena, Violet has jumped onto a glowing horse, swinging a sword to clash against Mulan’s. Mulan fights from the ground ably. “I notice that you made sure that the world would know that Misthaven had no hand in this victory.” 

 

“Ugh,” Emma says, leaning back against the bench. “You’re such a conspiracy theorist. Contrary to what you might believe, the world is not out to get you.” She closes her eyes for a moment, and Regina slaps her cheek hard. “Ow. That’s why you’re helping.” She rubs her cheek. “I’m pretty sure that whole not-sleeping-after-a-concussion thing is a myth.”

 

Regina lifts her eyebrows, struggling to retain her composure. “I’m pretty sure that if you have a concussion, you have to go to the hospital,” she points out. She darts another glance at the arena. Nimue is crackling with energy, the room darkening around her. Mulan moves in front of Lucy protectively, and Violet and her horse gallop toward them. “On the plus side, you’d miss the post-game interviews.” 

 

“Tempting,” Emma murmurs, and she looks up at Regina through her eyelashes. Even with her forehead purpling, there is something about her that is captivating, and Regina swallows hard and closes her mind off even tighter. What is she doing ? It is one thing to make the decision to stop holding Emma responsible for Mother’s crimes. It’s another to trace the curve of Emma’s jaw with her eyes, to hurt when she hurts, to feel her heart stop when Emma looks at her like that. 

 

She turns away, letting her hand rest on Emma’s forehead, and she sends it healing energy while she watches Lucy move. Lucy has created a glowing halo of glass around her, jagged pieces moving in concert with her leaps and rolls, and she throws herself at Violet and manages to hit the horse. It screams, rears up, and Violet slides off of it and lets it disappear. Nimue, meanwhile, has Mulan in her sights, blasting electric energy at Mulan as Mulan holds her sword up to deflect it. 

 

“They’re going to win,” Emma murmurs, peacefully sure.

 

Regina glances at her. “How do you know?” 

 

“Look at them,” Emma says, waving vaguely at the arena. “They’re barely fighting. They know they’ve got this.” 

 

And she’s right. Lucy’s moves are halfhearted, and she still has Violet on the defensive. Mulan holds back Nimue’s attacks with ease and– Regina notices suddenly– she’s watching Violet, too. At the perfect moment, Mulan drops down, her sword dissipating, and Nimue’s energy strikes Violet hard. 

 

“Nimue and Merlin probably fight Duos together, usually. If they were there to replace the Locksley Duo,” Regina says slowly, putting together the extant pieces. “But they had a shortage of strong Solo fighters with us coming in, and they knew that they’d need two for you and me. We aren’t quiet about where we planned on fighting. So they put Merlin in Solos and pushed Violet with Nimue, and now they have an inexperienced Duo in a prime position.” 

 

“Yeah,” Emma says. “I mean, I was just gonna say that their teamwork sucks, but we make the same point.” Regina’s hand shifts to another bruise, and Emma says, “Marian had really better win this one, because you’re not going to be in any shape to fight if you keep healing me.” 

 

“She will,” Regina says grimly. In the arena, Mulan has taken Violet’s heart and ended the fight, and she spins Lucy in a hug as the audience goes wild above her. 

 

“That’s an unexpected victory for Storybrooke!” the announcer says. “Not the win that was predicted, but Vidrio in particular has been showing incredible strength for her age in the League this year. There have already been discussions about nominating her for the junior MVP award.” 

 

“I won that,” Emma says, and Regina looks sharply at her. “When I was eighteen.” 

 

“The year we– when we went to the finals?” Regina says, dancing around several tons of baggage that come with that reminder. 

 

Emma shrugs. “Yeah. I wasn’t around to get the award, so Snow brought it over to my hosp–” She stops short. “To my room,” she says, chewing on her lip. “She brought a cupcake. I think it’s the proudest she’s ever been of me.” 

 

To my hospital bed . Regina hears what Emma hasn’t said, and she feels a tired, sad pang of regret. “Well,” Regina says, and she modulates her voice, keeps it casual. “Congratulations.” 

 

“You’re late,” Emma says, unsmiling. She shrugs. “I only got it because you left. You were the favorite.”

 

It is strange, the sudden impulse to apologize. She has spent over ten years certain that there is nothing to apologize for, that she has done what she must and had no better options. It’s frightening to imagine that she is in the wrong, she concedes, and that so much of what she’s done has been unjustified–

 

But she isn’t in the wrong, exactly, just like Emma isn’t in the wrong, exactly. Theirs is a messy story with no hero or villain, and it feels oddly healing just to acknowledge that. “You’re welcome,” she says, when she wants to say I’m sorry , and she wishes for nothing more than for Emma to laugh now, to look at her with the warmth that they’d once shared.

 

But Emma just rolls her eyes and watches Marian as she picks her circle. 

 

“This is a fight to watch, and second-seed Camelot’s chances in the Proeliate hinge on it,” the announcer says, and Regina deems Emma healed enough and sits stiffly beside her, hands on her lap. “Locksley versus Locksley, and just after a very public divorce that took Marian Locksley from Camelot and gifted her to Storybrooke. Robin is favored today. He’s become a notable Solo fighter on Team Camelot since Marian’s departure, and the odds are strong for him.” 

 

Marian lifts her head, listens to the announcer and then smiles. It’s a satisfied, careless grin, fierce and unafraid, and Robin watches her with narrowed eyes. “She’s going to destroy him,” Regina says, awed.

 

“Damn right she is,” Emma agrees, and they share one look, strong and proud, before they remember themselves and turn back.

 

The buzzer sounds. Marian lifts her arms, builds her magic bow and draws it in a single sloping movement of her hands. She fires before Robin has managed to create his own bow. “Quick handwork by Marian, but she misses,” the announcer says, a touch of condescension in his voice. Oh, he’s going to hate himself, Regina thinks grimly. 

 

The arrow impales in the wall, far behind Robin, and Marian fires another, then another, each in quick succession. By now, Robin is beginning to look nervous, eyes flickering around the arena as he tracks what Marian is doing. The announcer might underestimate her, but Robin knows exactly what Marian is capable of. 

 

A few more quick movements, a few more fired arrows, and eight arrows hover, quivering, stuck in the wall in equal partitions around the arena. Marian lifts her hand, and Regina sees clearly what she’d suspected before: magic trailing back from the arrows to Marian’s bow.

 

She whirls the bow around, maneuvers the ropy strands of magic like a puppet’s strings, and wraps Robin in it, trapping his arms in place. She strides forward, the arrows springing free, and she throws out a hand and lets them all lift Robin, pin him to the wall, and leave him open for her next attack.

 

Marian is mature enough not to do what Regina would, in her situation. She simply reaches into his chest and removes his heart, and Regina satisfies herself by watching Arthur’s face grow paler and paler as Marian approaches Robin. “Second seed down in Round One,” the announcer says, and he sounds subdued, as shocked as the rest of the audience. “The final victory is Marian Locksley’s, a rebuke to her former team for giving her up. Storybrooke will go on to the quarterfinals, where they will face either Dickensia or Olympus. Their opponent will be decided at 4:00 this afternoon. Thank you, folks!”

 

And the audience erupts at last. The crowd is screaming , and if anyone is booing, Regina can’t hear it. Marian looks up in surprise, then grins, hurtling over to the Storybrooke bench and kissing Mulan soundly on the lips, and they spin around, dancing in a circle around the arena. And there is only exhilaration as Cruella calls, “Ursula, darling!” and waves at the cameras, as Lucy jumps up and down on the bench, as Emma throws her arms around Mulan and Marian, as Zelena says, “Oh, my god, I’m rich. I think I’ll buy a yacht ,” as Snow laughs and wraps her arms around the huddle of Team Storybrooke and Lucy climbs down to join her, as Gold looks satisfied from his corner, as Regina stands back, lost in the rush of cheers and victory and Emma’s magic flowing all around her own like a drug she can’t give up. 

 

They’ve won, and Regina exults in it, gets pulled into the huddle and then falls out as they separate into smaller groups, as Lucy throws her arms around Regina and Zelena hugs her and Emma–

 

She comes face-to-face with Emma, Emma’s smile fading from her face as she sees the look on Regina’s, and Regina understands the pulsing desire to connect that comes with victory. The need to get closer, to feel something as real and vibrant as the win coursing through them. Her magic lurches forward, crashes into Emma’s, explodes into color in her mind, and she moves with her magic. 

 

She is almost there when Emma says wonderingly, “Oh, look at all that color ,” and drops to the ground again.

 

The celebrations stop, and they stare at Emma, nonplussed. Regina is on the ground, holding her. She isn’t quite sure how she’d gotten there.

 

“Concussion,” Snow says grimly. 

 

Zelena scoffs. “Please. We all know she did it to get out of postgame interviews.” But the medics are already hurrying over, and they pull Emma onto a stretcher, grumbling to each other about carelessness and we warned you in voices that they absolutely mean for Regina to hear. 

 

Regina glowers at them, and she starts after Emma. Gold says, “Ah-ah. Interviews.” He points at the hallway where they’d entered the arena. 

 

Snow is kinder, which only makes Regina resent her more. “She has on her chart that she only wants to be seen in Storybrooke,” she says. “We’ll pick her up when we go check on Ursula.”

 

Still, this means interminable interviews, all six of them sitting with false smiles as reporters ask them intrusive questions. “Regina, you seemed shaken by Emma’s injuries. Do you think that’s because of guilt from your fight against each other? Or perhaps shared trauma after the arena malfunction?”

 

Regina stares at the interviewer until she starts to squirm. “I think I’ll leave the speculation on my emotional state to my therapist, thanks,” she says dryly. 

 

The interviewer sits back, defeated. “So you do discuss Emma Swan with someone , at least,” she mutters, and at least half of Regina’s team, her teammates, the people she’s supposed to trust with her entire future in the Proeliate, laugh at her.

 

She doesn’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that she hates every one of them. 

 

There are countless questions about Emma, and more than a few directed specifically at Regina. Is Emma going to be fit to fight next week? Yes, it’s just a mild concussion. Do you still plan on fighting Solos through the Proeliate? That is the plan. Do you still blame Emma Swan for ruining your life? 

 

At that one, she hesitates, and she says, “No. That was hyperbole, and I’ve come to terms with our…history.” 

 

Have you ,” Zelena says as soon as that final interview is done. “You’ve been so sure of it until now.” 

 

Regina shrugs helplessly. Seeing Mother here, in a cabin where they’d been meant to be safe, had finally triggered something within her. Emma doesn’t deserve to be punished for her carelessness, not for this long and not from Regina. She’s suffered enough for Regina.

 

They still have a few hours before Olympus fights Dickensia, and they slip away to a portal back to Storybrooke. The others have already made it to Emma’s hospital room, Lily in a wheelchair suspiciously close to Emma’s bed, and Regina stares hard at them in an attempt to figure that out.

 

Lily sees her glaring and looks alarmed, wheeling back from Emma. “Okay,” she says. “Just being friendly. Call off your keeper, Emma.” 

 

“What?” Emma looks confused. She’s sitting up in her bed, August at the foot of it, and she looks perfectly fine. She waves at them, holding her arms out for Lucy and Henry to run to her. “Hey, guys! We won!” 

 

“Next match will be harder,” Marian warns them. “Camelot was second seed because it beat Untold Stories last year. Olympus went down to Arendelle and only Arendelle. They’re solid . Camelot’s lost to them, too, especially in the past few years. I don’t think they have a single weak fighter.” 

 

“I don’t think we do, either,” Emma says, grinning at them all. 

 

August high-fives her. “Storybrooke dominates ,” he says. “It’s our year. Or…your year, I guess. I still want a trophy at the end.” 

 

“You’ll get mine,” Emma promises. August winks at her, and then frowns, abruptly convulsing. “Damn,” Emma says, and she hits the button to call the nurse. “We had a good run.” The nurses rush in as though they’re accustomed to this, and they guide August from the room as he begins to shriek.

 

Regina clears her throat, and regrets it when Emma turns to her, wary and expectant. This would be easier if Zelena were here, making snide comments, but Zelena has gone with Cruella to Ursula’s tentacular therapy session. “Are you…” She keeps her voice steady, makes it sharper with a strong edge. “Are you good to fight?” 

 

Emma’s expression cools. “I’m fine,” she says. “The doctors don’t think it was serious. I just need to take it easy for a few days.”

 

“You should go back to the Proeliate,” Regina says, looking with disdain at the crowded hospital room. “Stay in our room for a few days–” 

 

Lily interjects, “Are you two sharing a room ?” She looks amused at the thought, and Regina doesn’t miss the glare that Emma shoots her way. 

 

“Zelena cheated,” Regina says, and she refuses to explain any more. Lily, she decides, is not Emma’s girlfriend, just as Emma had insisted. Emma would have run away screaming a long time ago if someone this intrusive were dating her. 

 

But Emma still watches Regina with that cool face, her eyes and her mind giving nothing away, and Regina thinks, again, to Emma’s earlier statement. I’m never fighting Duos with you again . If not because of Lily, then why? What has Emma so sure that she’ll never fight with Regina again?

 

She makes an excuse to escape the room, and she slips out into the hall. She breathes for what feels like the first time in hours, closing her eyes and longing for real solitude. Not this strange tension with Emma, worse than before– because before, Emma hadn’t been hostile toward her, not like Regina had been hostile. Perhaps it’s just payback, now that Regina has finally cleared her head and let herself move on from her resentment. Perhaps it’s what she deserves.

 

I’m never fighting Duos with you again . She leans back against the wall, feels the statement like a weight pulling her into the sea, and she gulps in a breath and hates how miserable she feels. This is how Emma must have felt when Regina had disappeared, and Regina is stricken with a wave of empathy. 

 

And then, a voice. “Are you just going to stand out there and pine?” It’s August from the room across the hall, recovered from his fit and eyeing her dubiously. Regina silently curses the fact that Storybrooke General Hospital is so small. “Just go back in. She’s too nice to you, anyway.” 

 

“She won’t fight Duos with me again,” Regina says. Her throat feels scratchy and raw. “She told me today.”

 

August snorts. “You asked her to fight Duos with you? Wow.” He shakes his head. “I’ve had my tone-deaf moments over the years, but never that bad.” Regina glowers at him, but he just laughs. “Is that supposed to intimidate me? It just takes me back to when you were a kid. You get the same little scrunch to your nose.” 

 

Regina seethes. August sighs. “Look,” he says. “You abandoned Emma when she needed you most. Duos is about trust. How’s she supposed to trust you after that?” He puts up a finger before she can say what she wants to. “You’ve spent the entire Proeliate season punishing her for something your mother did. And you’ve been kind of an ass about it. I get that you were grieving for your guy, but it’s been ten years. Emma’s been punished enough.” His eyes flash, and Regina is silent. It’s not his place to say any of this, but it’s what’s been going through her head, too, and she has nothing to say in her defense.

 

And August seems to understand that from her silence, because his voice softens. “I watched the recording of the rest of regionals. Not that I really needed to to know, but…” He shakes his head. “Last time you two fought together, she fell in love with you. Do you really think she wants to make herself that vulnerable again? To you ?” 

 

He wanders back to Emma’s room, leaving Regina behind in the hallway with no company but her roiling thoughts.

Chapter Text

“There’s been much to look forward to with the eight teams remaining,” the anchor on the screen says. Emma has found the best couch in the cabin, the one with the mildly broken bottom that makes it easy to sink into, and she watches from there with Henry curled up next to her. The others are still out, eating dinner in the common house, but Emma had wanted some quiet time. Henry had tagged along, and he’s been content to sit next to her, watching replays of the last matches on their TV. 

 

Currently, they’re watching the third-ranked fighter in the Proeliate as she absolutely destroys Ruby. Poor, poor Ruby. Arendelle’s Anna seems to delight in her victory, laughs as the tune she sings incapacitates Ruby, and she wrestles with the wolf as though Ruby is just a particularly large stuffed animal. “As expected, Arendelle dominates,” the anchor says, and the video shifts to the final moment of Arendelle’s victory, Elsa shaking Glinda’s hand. “There are some competitive teams in their bracket, including Undersea and the Sunken Land, but without Untold Stories, they have a clear path to the finals. The other bracket is far more interesting.”

 

The video changes. Now it shows a woman Emma recognizes from a battle yesterday, her eyes filmy and her smile hungry. A moment later, her footage is juxtaposed with that of Marian’s magical spiderweb from her fight with Robin. “Audiences have been talking about the two upstart teams making a name for themselves in the Proeliate. This is Broken Kingdom’s first year, and Storybrooke has only gotten to the quarterfinals once in the past thirty years. But both teams show strength and promise.” 

 

Another shift, this one to Olympus’s battle. Their star fighter is on the screen, pummeling a boy with a wave of magic. “Storybrooke, however, might meet its match next round. Olympus has won two of the past five Proeliates, a record rivaled only by Arendelle. Four of its fighters are ranked in the top ten.” 

 

Three faces flash onto the screen. Aphrodite #9 below the first, then Ares #6 and Artemis #5 . “Olympus isn’t worried about Storybrooke,” the anchor says, and the video shifts to a postgame interview, the woman on the screen gleaming with the bronzed-brown glowing skin of the Olympus pantheon. Below her face, the caption reads Athena #2

 

She shakes her head. “We’re not concerned. I appreciate a good fight, and they’ve battled their way here. It should be commended. But Olympus is on another tier. I won’t even be fighting in the match,” she says, a little carelessly. “I’ll be an alternate. This is no Arendelle.” 

 

“Isn’t she supposed to be the goddess of wisdom?” Henry says, forehead crinkling. “She’s making some pretty stupid decisions right now.”

 

Emma pats his shoulder. “You’re a good kid.” Henry leans against her, smiling up at her, and her heart skips a beat at how much he looks like Regina in this moment. He has her hair and eyes– though not her coloring– but it’s more in the way he smiles, the tilt of his head, learned behavior from his mother. “Trust me, by the time you wind up in the Proeliate, no one is going to think of an Enchanted Forest team as anything but a threat.”

 

Henry grins. “You bet.” They sit in contented silence for a few more moments, and then Henry says abruptly, “Why won’t you fight Duos with my mom?” 

 

Emma stares at him. For a second, she entertains the thought that Regina or Gold had put him up to it, but she shrugs that off. Henry isn’t a pawn to move around the board, and Gold might try, but Regina would stop him. “It’s complicated,” she says. “I just…I don’t think we’d be very good at it anymore. It’s been a long time.” 

 

Henry looks unconvinced. “Are you still in love with my mom?” he presses, and Emma’s eyebrows shoot up. Well . She’d made that everyone’s business after the regionals, apparently, and she can’t blame Henry for asking what a dozen interviewers have tried to dance around. 

 

She chooses her words carefully. “It’s been a really long time,” she says again. “I was very young then. I think I’m always going to care about your mother, but I…” She swallows and tries for humor. “It’s kind of hard to love someone who hates you,” she says with a chuckle that masks the sad truth of her current reality.

 

Henry considers her. “I don’t think she hates you,” he says thoughtfully. “I think she was going to cry when you got hurt last match. Anyway, I decided that you’d fit in fine with our family,” he says abruptly, that nine-year-old mind spinning from one topic to the next without warning. “You could have the middle seat on movie nights when you move in.” 

 

“Henry– what ?” There is nothing else she can say to that, and she just stares at him, her mouth gaping open. 

 

Henry shrugs. “Just putting that out there.” He brightens. “Hey, is there any more of that ice cream Tía Zele bought in the freezer?” He jumps up, the conversation forgotten, and Emma stares after him in frozen bemusement. Well . That’s settled, then.

 

She dozes off a while later, full of ice cream and tired of staring at the screen, and when she wakes up, Henry is asleep against her and Regina is staring at them from the other side of Henry. The others are back now, arrayed around the sitting room, and there is an unexpected guest beside Cruella.

 

Emma sits up, jolting Henry in her haste to make sure she isn’t dreaming. “Ursula,” she says, and she feels a wave of relief. 

 

Ursula spreads her hands. “Cleared for battle, ready to fight alongside the girl who chopped off my tentacles, I guess.” She casts a dubious look at Mulan, who gives her a deadpan wave. Ursula shudders. Cruella pulls her a little closer, pressing a kiss to the back of her ear and a glare to Mulan’s nonplussed stare.

 

Emma says, “We’re glad to have you. We’ll need a strong Duos game for the next match.”

 

“Ugh,” Marian says, making a face. “Olympus. Camelot beat them once that I can remember, seven years ago. They knocked us out of the finals three times since. They’re not the kind of team you can beat one-two-three.” 

 

Henry stirs, and Regina says, “I’m just going to put Henry down.” She gets up, trying to lift Henry off of Emma, but he’s in an awkward position, and it’s a struggle. 

 

Emma says, “Hang on. I’ll do it.” She slides out from under Henry, slings him over her shoulder, and carries him down the hallway. Unbidden, Henry’s earlier words flash through her mind, and she winces and pushes them away.

 

Regina follows her into the hallway, her voice low. “He was sleeping so peacefully. I didn’t want to wake either of you up.”

 

“It’s been a long day,” Emma agrees. There is something about casual conversation with Regina that feels wrong, like playacting at inauthenticity. They’d have never managed it as teenagers, but this must be adulthood: chatting with the woman who broke your heart as though you are distant acquaintances. “At least we’ll have the weekend to unwind. Quarterfinals don’t start until Monday.”

 

Lucy and Roland are long asleep, and Emma lifts Henry carefully into the top bunk, running an affectionate hand through his hair. Regina covers him with a blanket and presses a kiss to his temple, and they back out of the room in silence and shut the door.

 

When Emma turns around, Regina is watching her. Regina has been watching her a lot lately, little moments where she isn’t glaring anymore. Emma has noticed it during the matches they’ve been at all week, at meals, and even once or twice when she’s awakened in the morning. It must be about Duos– it had started when Regina had proposed that awful , manipulative suggestion– and it leaves Emma stressed and aggressive. “What?” she demands.

 

Regina shakes her head. “Nothing,” she says abruptly.

 

She turns to walk away, and Emma sticks a hand in front of her, against the wall above her shoulder. It’s a narrow hallway, and they’re standing opposite each other but still close enough that Emma can catch the scent of sweat and jasmine, enough to take her back to eleven years ago. She inhales sharply. 

 

Regina watches her evenly, and Emma wants to demand– how could she suggest Duos, how could she play these mind games with Emma, how is she still trying so badly to hurt Emma–

 

Regina recoils, which means she’s sensed too much of what Emma’s thinking. Emma glares at her in defiance, wishes that every bit of this was different , summons up resentment and then crumples. Her hand drops, and she stumbles back against the wall. “I need a drink,” she announces, and she strides back to the sitting room.

 

“Oh, what a coincidence,” Zelena says, producing a bottle out of nowhere. “I have six of these. Glinda smuggled them in. They’re Oz’s finest ale.” The ale has a greenish tint to it, and Emma eyes it suspiciously, then shrugs. 

 

“Gimme.” She takes the bottle from Zelena and uncorks it with a tap of magic to the top, and then she closes her lips around the top and swigs it straight. Almost immediately, she begins to feel fuzzy– her own fault for taking anything from Zelena, she acknowledges woozily– and someone hoots. More bottles emerge, a few glasses, and Emma is on the couch with the bottle half-finished and Regina somewhere next to her.

 

“My question is– my question is,” Marian repeats, “Who isn’t going to fight this match? Now that we’re eight–” 

 

“Storybrooke took all the good spots last time,” Zelena says, pouting. “Our turn.” 

 

“You lost!” Mulan says, a little too loud. She’s gotten Zelena’s ale, too, Emma decides. “You don’t get our spots!” 

 

Emma jabs a finger at them. “We’re a team ,” she says, and she prides herself in slurring only one of the words. “Act like it.” It had been…what? Two sips? How is she already this gone? “Zelena,” she says, rubbing her head. “What’s in this stuff?” 

 

Zelena shrugs. “No idea. Last time I had some I turned half the Oz team support staff into flying monkeys.”  

 

“They’ve been through enough,” Marian says reprovingly. “Arendelle crushed all their dreams.” She yawns. She’s sharing a bottle of ale with Mulan, but it seems mostly to have just made her sleepy.

 

The ale has done something else entirely to Cruella and Ursula, who are now stretched out across one of the couches, Ursula on top of Cruella and kissing her enthusiastically. It’s enough to simultaneously kill Emma’s libido and make it skyrocket. 

 

She reaches blindly around her, finds Regina’s hands, and sighs happily, squirming into Regina’s arms and pulling them around her. “This is my place,” she says aloud, wriggling back into Regina’s embrace.

 

Regina says, “You know what? I will have some of that ale.” She seizes Emma’s bottle and drinks from it, and Emma feels a cheerful little wave of pleasure at sharing her drink with Regina and nuzzles her neck. “Oh,” Regina says, sounding distant. “Zelena…is this…legal?” 

 

“You’re so stuffy,” Zelena says, shaking her head vigorously. “Who cares?” 

 

Mulan laughs madly at that. Marian curls into her, and it only makes Emma want Regina closer to her. She twists around, sliding her arms around Regina, and Regina says, “Oh, this is bad,” and tightens her grasp on Emma.

 

Somehow, they make it to their room, stumbling the whole way there. The lights in the kitchen are too bright, and Emma shuts the door tightly to keep the lights out. Regina is just a shadow near her bed, watching Emma with blazing eyes, and Emma says, “I bet that there isn’t a single reporter in here.” 

 

“Too dark,” Regina agrees. “Bad lighting. Reporters hate bad lighting. They’re afraid of it.” 

 

This strikes Emma as hilariously funny, and she bends over laughing, then falls on the floor. She stretches out on the floor, and Regina snaps her fingers and puts Emma in Regina’s bed in a burst of violet light. Emma squints up at her. “Wrong bed,” she remembers.

 

“Right.” Regina doesn’t move her, though, only stands with her hands behind her back, regarding Emma steadily. She gives off the appearance of sobriety, though Emma has her doubts. Between them, the bond is swirling madly.

 

She swallows. “I used to sleep in your bed,” she says groggily. Those had been good times.

 

Regina nods her head. “I wanted you in there,” she says, and then, almost dreamily, “And in the shower. Also the wall. The floor. On my desk–”

 

It’s beginning to occur to Emma that Regina isn’t talking about sleeping. There had been once, years ago, when Emma had been changing and Regina had come up behind her, her eyes burning like Emma had never seen them before, and she had touched Emma as though–

 

But no , that had been a strange little blip, a day with too many charged emotions and adrenaline coursing through them. It hadn’t been a real… 

 

“In the shower?” she says faintly. 

 

Regina smiles. “After practice,” she breathes, and she sounds perfectly sober. “I would throw you back against the wall, and we’d turn on the shower so no one would hear…” She drops to her knees in front of the bed, and Emma feels goosebumps emerge across her skin. “Would lick you up and down until you cried,” she whispers, and she climbs onto the bed, her mind settling comfortably into Emma’s as she settles between Emma’s legs. 

 

Emma’s hips move of their own accord, and Regina runs her hands over Emma’s jumpsuit, holding them still at her breasts. “Love these,” she sighs, dipping her face against them, and Emma lets out a little noise. Her body feels alive, desperate for something she can’t have, and she has the presence of mind to remember that they’re– drunk, or high, or something – and this is a bad idea. A bad, bad idea.

 

She pushes Regina off of her and says, “Bad idea. Bad, bad idea,” aloud, sliding out and making a quick dash to the bathroom. She shuts the door and locks it, and is then met with the frightening reality of the shower inside the room. 

 

She turns it on, peels off her jumpsuit once she’s already inside, and is inundated with the images that Regina had just gifted her. Regina’s hands against her hips, pressing them to the wall. Emma’s legs hooked over Regina’s shoulders, Regina’s tongue inside her–

 

She slips her own fingers into herself, panting with need as she imagines Regina’s tongue where Emma’s fingers are. She slides a hand over her hips, pictures it as Regina’s. She is desperate, is hot and flush with desire, and Regina– Regina is beneath her, has to be, is an image from her most secret fantasies–

 

She comes in a rush, not yet satisfied, her mind burning with the need for more. Regina is in the next room. Regina is on her bed, the bed next to Emma’s– fuck , she’s wanted her for so long–

 

She comes again on the image of Regina fighting her in the regionals, then again, uncontrolled, at the thought of Regina touching her eleven years ago. It’s too much. This is too much, and she staggers from the shower–

 

She opens the bathroom door and finds Regina half dressed, stretched out on the bed where Emma had left her while she rides her own fingers. She sees Emma staring at her and lets out a moan of whooshing relief, and their minds are supercharged with lust, are enough to set Emma off again.

 

She slams the door closed, her mind on fire, and she hopes desperately that she won’t remember any of this in the morning.

 


 

In the morning, Emma has no recollection at all of what had happened the night before. She has faint impressions that seem more like a dream than anything real, and she lets out a groan and pushes her sweat-soaked blanket off of her.

 

Beneath it, she is naked, and Regina stares at her from the next bed with startled disbelief. “Sorry,” Emma mutters, yanking the blanket back over her. “Last night is kind of fuzzy. The last thing I remember is Zelena giving me alcohol. I think.”

 

“I had some, too,” Regina says grimly, which only makes Emma sure that Regina remembers quite a bit more than her.

 

She is left with the terrifying possibility that she’d done something she can’t walk back. “I didn’t…did I do anything…embarrassing?” she finally manages.

 

Regina shakes her head swiftly. “I did,” she says curtly. “Not you.” She is half dressed beneath her blanket, and she grabs her robe off the hook on the wall and walks to the bathroom with slow steps. 

 

“Great. Sorry I missed it,” Emma mumbles, undecided whether or not she might trust Regina. “Good start to our weekend off, huh?”

 

But it’s a terrible start. The adults are all bleary-eyed and hung over, and no one wants to go to practice this early. Mulan falls back asleep on the couch, and Lucy says with exasperation, “Why does everyone lecture me about a good night’s sleep?” 

 

They finally make it to the practice arena close to noon, and Ursula and Cruella practice on one side of the arena, testing out Ursula’s reflexes. Marian coaches them, pointing out blind spots, and Lucy and Mulan spar with swords. Zelena rides high on her broom, laughing down at all of them, and Emma tries to be a good example, gives up, and stretches out on the bleachers to take a nap.

 

Regina and Henry are fighting somewhere to her left, and she listens to Henry’s shouts and Regina’s laughter, both music to her ears. She does some halfhearted practice later in the day, but by evening, they’re all worn out. They sprawl out on the couches, and they call Lily’s room on speaker to check in on their injured teammates and update them on Olympus.

 

“Their best fighter isn’t even competing,” Maleficent says, sounding dismissive. “You can take them. All you need is one Solo match. Who are their Duo pairs?”

 

“Zeus and Poseidon are one,” Ursula says swiftly, and she looks defensive when they all stare at her in surprise. “What?” 

 

Cruella puts a hand on her shoulder. “We’re keeping appraised of our opponents,” she says. “We certainly don’t have any reason to follow them otherwise.” She laughs a very false laugh. “Imagine if that was someone’s estranged father. That would be absurd.” Ursula’s tentacles whip against Cruella, and she gives Ursula an aggrieved look and slouches back against the couch.

 

Emma stares at Ursula. “ What ?” She remembers that, back when Cruella and Ursula had been fighting Duos and well decorated for it, they’d been referred to as the felon and the child of god . She’d just assumed it was dramatic. It’s not like The Little Mermaid , her only vector for understanding Ursula, has been helpful.

 

Ursula and Cruella stare blank-faced at her. Emma decides to move on. “We have to work through the lineup,” she remembers. “Two days until the quarterfinals.”

 

She glances at Regina, more by instinct than by any recognition that she’d been Misthaven’s captain. This is Team Storybrooke, and Regina has no right to dictate its lineup. But being on a team with Regina again means that Emma has no choice but to return to partnership, to the muscle memory of fighting alongside Regina in whatever way possible. 

 

Regina says, “Artemis and Apollo fight together. The Olympus alternate is Hermes. So we can expect an aerial battle.”

 

“Bet you miss me now,” Lily says from the phone. Emma does miss her, misses having a friend and an ally beside her while she struggles through this alone. Not alone . While she struggles through this with Regina, which makes everything so much more complicated and confusing. 

 

Zelena puts up a hand. “Does this put me in first Solo?” 

 

“Yeah.” Emma says it quickly, sees Lucy’s wary glance in response, and takes another breath. “Aphrodite will be second Solo. I’ve looked over Olympus’s lineup for other matches, and they follow the rankings most of the time. So Aphrodite in second, Ares in third. Aphrodite fights dirty, but she’s…um…” They all watch her expectantly. Someone that sounds suspiciously like August is snickering over the phone. Emma winces. “She’s most effective against adults,” she says finally.

 

She turns to Lucy, who is watching her hopefully. “You ever been in love?” she says brusquely. “Ever had a crush on anyone?” Lucy blinks at her. Emma cringes at her own question. “I think you might be immune to Aphrodite’s bit,” she says, chewing on her lip. “I looked at the fights she’s lost over the years, and she’s only lost to kids like Arendelle’s Olaf and once to this asexual guy from Untold Stories. And Elsa, of course.”

 

“Of course,” Regina echoes snidely. Emma gives her a dark look. Regina has been on her best behavior today, but she can’t help herself sometimes. 

 

Zelena cackles. “I saw that fight. Call me old-fashioned, but I didn’t think that fights usually ended with that much kissing.”

 

Lucy says, “ Ew ,” which seals her position perfectly.

 

“So that’s all settled,” Emma says briskly. “Cruella and Ursula in the first Duo, Marian and Mulan in the second. Zelena will finish it off, and if we slip up, Lucy will be there in second Solo.” 

 

She earns a few sidelong glances, and Lucy says, “What about third Solo?” 

 

“It won’t matter who’s there,” Emma says, shrugging it off. “We’ll be done by then.” No one responds, waiting silently, and Emma sighs and says, “Regina can take it. I fought last match.” 

 

She hates backing down to Regina. Even more than that, she hates not fighting. It feels like her responsibility to win victories for her team, to be the absolute best fighter that they have and to keep them going. Sitting out the quarterfinals is going to be a frustrating, miserable experience. 

 

But it’s fair, and she knows it. She’d brought in Misthaven, had agreed to treat them as her team. That includes Regina, and old grudges and confusing emotions can’t get in the way of that. 

 

She twists her hair around her fingers, toying with it as the others, satisfied, talk strategy. There is very little that they can predict beforehand, but the Olympus fighters are consistent in their own tactics, and that might be to Storybrooke’s benefit. “We know how they fight. They aren’t versatile,” Marian points out. “They’re strong , but a fighter who improvises can get past them.” 

 

“You fight with a bow,” Mulan points out. “So do they. How are we improvising?” 

 

“I need to master a new weapon,” Marian says grimly, and they launch into discussions of methodology that Emma listens to with only half an ear. Ursula and Cruella are speaking in hushed tones, and Lucy and Henry have joined them on their couch to listen, wide-eyed, to whatever they’re saying. Zelena is getting along famously with Lily on the phone, which is a frightening discovery. 

 

Emma should probably let Snow and Gold know their lineup, but she lingers in her chair, doing her best to look pleased with it. The only other person in the room who isn’t chatting with the others is Regina, and Emma can feel the steady touch of her mind on Emma’s, the connection between them stronger now than it had been a few days ago.

 

Ridiculous , she vows. After this is over– if they win or not, if Emma leaves or not– Emma is going to start dating again. Not just hanging out with Lily to scratch an itch, but genuine dating, trying to meet someone new and let herself fall in love. She’s been clinging to the past for eleven years, and it has done nothing but wear away at her, but solidify its grip on her. She refuses to believe that she’s incapable of moving on, and this is the only way to do it.

 

Abruptly, she gets up. Eyes flicker to her, and she says, “I need some air.” She avoids Regina’s eyes, and she slips out of the cabin.

 

She walks through the cool night, the wind a gentle breeze against her face. The Proeliate realm is temperature-controlled, never too hot or cold or rainy, and it makes for a pleasant walk. Lost in thought, she winds through the maze of cabins, avoiding other walkers and the odd team out on their patio.

 

She doesn’t realize that she’s passed the Arendelle cabin until she hears her name in the quiet dark, and a silvery flash of movement as Elsa hurries to catch up to her. “Emma,” she says, and her eyes are shining. “Are you ready for the quarterfinals?” 

 

“We’re getting there,” Emma says, only halfway certain that they are. “Olympus is a tough team.”

 

“Your team is much better than I expected,” Elsa says. It isn’t arrogant as much as a simple statement from a champion, and Emma takes it as a compliment instead. “Camelot has been tough for us in the past, and you blew right through the team.” 

 

“We didn’t have to fight some of their best,” Emma points out. “They put most of their strongest fighters higher in the lineup.” 

 

Elsa laughs, her smile sparkling in the moonlight. “I’ll remember not to make that mistake.” She falls into step beside Emma, keeping pace with her. “Did you…have you thought about my question any more?” 

 

“A little.” Emma watches the moon instead of Elsa, abruptly uncertain. “It’s just…my team is counting on me.” But they’ll win on Monday without her, and she’s sure of that. If this strange combined team lasts, there will be no need for Emma at all. But they won’t– not when Misthaven is still meant to leave after this season. “Arendelle has always been my dream,” she says, almost to herself. “But…”

 

Elsa shakes her head. “I spent years denying my dreams,” she says quietly. “I thought I was too dangerous. That I’d never be able to control my magic. And I never dreamed that the Proeliate could be mine. But I stepped out of my comfort zone, and I’ve been happier since.”

 

Emma stops walking and looks at Elsa uncertainly. She knows Elsa’s story, her journey to becoming queen and her journey to the Proeliate shortly after. Everyone in the United Realms knows it. But she’d never expected the fierce regret that she can hear in Elsa’s voice. “I don’t think this is the same.” 

 

Elsa leans forward. She is standing very close, Emma notices suddenly, and remembers her vow from just before she’d left for her walk. “Let yourself be happy, Emma,” she murmurs. “Let yourself be who you know you can be.” Her words are a whisper against Emma’s lips, and Emma lets their lips drift together, tastes Elsa for a single moment.

 

With it comes the blinding certainty that this isn’t what she wants, the need to recoil that makes no sense – “I’m sorry,” she whispers, backing away. “I don’t think…” 

 

Elsa looks a little dazed, then resigned. “You’re in love with Regina, aren’t you?” She says it with a little sigh, disappointment crossing her face.

 

“I wish I weren’t,” Emma mutters. “It’d be so much easier if I–” But it hurts to think about, loving Regina and not loving Regina. Regina has been merciless toward her all Proeliate– except when she hasn’t been, when she’s been something else instead. Regina is the last person Emma wants to be around, but Emma can’t seem to stay away. 

 

She stands there, miserable, as a pretty girl pulls away from her and smiles sadly. “You two have quite a bit to work through,” Elsa says, gracious to the last. “But I don’t doubt that you will.” She laughs suddenly. “I had such a crush on both of you when you started in the Proeliate, did you know?” 

 

“Both of us?” Emma repeats, a little dazed. 

 

Elsa bobs her head. “There you were: two gorgeous , talented girls right around my age– and the way you fought! Like you weren’t just connected, you were inside each other’s minds so deeply…” She laughs a little, wry at her own breathlessness. Emma watches her, bemused. “You were this sweet, approachable neophyte. And Regina …” She lets out a breath. “I was so intimidated. There was something so beautiful and sad about her.” 

 

“Yeah.” Emma shifts, uncomfortable when she thinks about it.

 

Elsa reaches out to touch Emma’s arm. “She still has that same face when she looks at you. Like you’re her anchor.” She sounds wistful. “I’ve never…I fight with my sister, and I love her more than anything in the universe, but I always wondered what it might be like to have the kind of love that you and Regina had had.” 

 

Emma laughs sharply. “I guess you didn’t hear the part during regionals where the whole world found out it was one-sided. Regina had a boyfriend.”

 

Elsa shrugs slim shoulders. “You had something transcendent. No boyfriend was ever going to withstand that.” Her fingers linger on Emma’s arm for a moment, then release her. “I hope you’ll…I hope we’ll be in touch,” she says. “Ingrid has given me until the end of the closing ceremony to talk you into joining us.”

 

“Okay.” Emma musters up a smile, Elsa’s words still lingering in her mind as they part. It’s a nice sentiment, that Regina might have moved on from Daniel one day, but Emma isn’t quite as sure of herself as Elsa is of her. Regina had loved Daniel so much, had married him, has spent the years since his death letting bitterness build up to avenge him. That isn’t something that fades away because of good Duos. Regina still resents her for Daniel’s death, and if Elsa thinks… 

 

She’s wrong. There is no path forward for Emma and Regina. And if joining Arendelle means that Emma won’t see Regina again– won’t fight against her unless they both reach the Proeliate– then maybe this is the way to move on.

 

She has until the ceremony that marks the end of the Proeliate to make her decision.

 

Carefully, she walks back toward the Storybrooke cabin, reluctant to bump into anyone else when her feelings are so tumultuous. She slips around the back, glad to have taken the bedroom with patio access, and she is about to step up onto it when she sees a movement near the ground.

 

She freezes, assesses the shapes, and then relaxes. It’s just Henry and Regina, lying on their backs on the patio as they look up at the stars. “That’s where Orion is supposed to be right now,” Regina is saying, pointing up at the sky. “But here, the stars are different.” 

 

It’s like a scene from the past, like watching a story unfold that had once included her. Regina and Emma had laid on this patio eleven years ago and watched the stars, marveling at how many of them had been visible. They’d roasted marshmallows in the fire pit they’d built behind the patio and eaten far too many, and Emma had used her marshmallow branch to point up at the shapes in the sky and name them. That one is Regina. See the red star at the hand? There’s Emma, with two fists. There’s your horse . Regina had laughed through it and fallen asleep near the end, and Emma had lifted her up and brought her to their shared beds.

 

“I think we should name these constellations,” Henry says now. “Those two stars, with the other three below them– they look a little like a jaguar, don’t you think? See the spots?” 

 

Regina laughs, then falters in it. Emma feels, at the moment that Regina’s laugh falters, the brush of their minds. She has just become aware that Emma is watching them. “I think it’s definitely time for bed,” she murmurs, and she holds Henry tightly after they both sit up, kissing his forehead with her eyes squeezed shut and whispering I love you against his skin. Henry smiles at her and then disappears inside, returning to his room.

 

Emma walks up the steps to the patio, her heart aching. Regina lies back down on the towel she’d laid out, and Emma hesitates, then lies down beside her. “Look,” Regina murmurs. “There’s Emma.” She points up to the familiar stars, the cluster at one fist. 

 

Behind it is the red star that had been Regina’s fire. “There’s Regina,” Emma says softly, and she aches for a simpler time.

 

Regina laughs softly. “Henry thought it was a lighthouse. I was very offended.” 

 

Despite herself, Emma laughs, too. They lapse into silence, staring up and breathing in tandem, and Regina says suddenly, “I’m not fighting Olympus.” 

 

Emma blinks. “Is that, like, a lifestyle choice, or…?” 

 

“This is your team, Emma,” Regina says, and her voice is, again, free of any bite. Something has gotten into her lately, and Emma doesn’t understand it, doesn’t understand this Regina who rolls over and stares at her with dark eyes that hold no hatred within them. “You won the regionals. Not me.” Her voice is clear, and Emma can only stare at her, longs to understand but is terrified to let her mind launch into Regina’s again.

 

Regina swallows. “Eleven years ago, I sabotaged your spot on a Proeliate team. I don’t want to do that again. Please, take the last Solo slot.” A touch of snark trails into her voice, the first sign that this is actually Regina who is speaking. “Please don’t do the gracious bit where you try to turn me down. We both know this is what you want.” 

 

“Because you know what I want,” Emma says, incapable of accepting kindness from Regina right now. She understands the Regina who had been her partner and the Regina who had loathed her. She doesn’t understand this Regina.

 

“I do,” Regina whispers, and Emma turns away, stares up at the stars, and feels Regina’s eyes on her until she drifts off to sleep.

 

She dreams beneath the stars in the perfect weather of the Proeliate realm, Regina wrapped around her, and she sleeps better than she has in years.

Chapter Text

 

Monday comes too quickly, but the team is upbeat in the morning. Emma is positively cheery as she brushes her teeth, tossing a tennis ball at the wall next to Regina’s bed and catching it again with one hand. Regina, who had been attempting to sleep in her bed, lights it on fire and snarls, “Go away.” 

 

“Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty, we have a match to win.” Emma laughs, unafraid of Regina, and Regina contemplates homicide. They’d been doing so well, too, but this is justified. 

 

Yesterday had been nearly peaceful. Regina had awakened on the patio at sunrise with Emma in her arms, had panicked and extricated herself, and then had found Emma’s blanket inside and wrapped it around Emma. As far as she knows, Emma doesn’t realize that they’d slept like… that …on Saturday night. And it’s for the best. Emma wants nothing to do with Regina right now, and she’d panic if she knew…

 

Regina, successfully distracting herself from murdering Emma, instead entertains herself with the image of Emma yelping as she tries to put out the fire that the tennis ball is now setting across the room as it bounces around. “Regina! Help – we’re never going to be allowed back–”

 

Regina waves a hand, puts out the fire, and yawns as she sits up. She sees Emma’s eyes sweep over her and then flicker away, and she feels a traitorous little whisper of pleasure at Emma’s appreciation. “I only did that because I’m the only one who doesn’t need to conserve my power,” she says carelessly, wandering to the bathroom. “You’re on your own next time.” 

 

“Semifinals next ,” Emma announces as she throws the door to the room open, and a cheer rises up from the kitchen. “Let’s just get today over with!” 

 

They make it to the common house intact, and even Gold and Snow are there to eat with them. Snow is speaking excitedly about the match. “We haven’t made it to the final eight since Emma’s second year on the team! Everyone back home is thrilled. They’re planning balls and parades for you all–”

 

Gold is less enthusiastic, but he sits across from Regina and says, “We’re making headway in sponsors. Some interrealm brands are watching you. They like your energy.”

 

“Nice. Maybe we’ll all be as rich as Zelena by the end of this,” Emma says from where she’s sitting beside Gold, eyeing him with raised eyebrows.

 

Gold says, his eyes glinting, “For someone who consistently leaves my fighters out of matches, I’m beginning to sense that you aren’t as appreciative of your sponsors as you could be.” 

 

“I’m appreciative of coffee,” Emma says flippantly, ignoring the rest, and she reaches past Gold for her hot cup. She squints at it. “Is this mine?” The table has gotten crowded. A few other teams, now out of the running, have joined their group. Regina supposes that there’s something about the teams with a real chance that attracts those who don’t get past the first round, and Storybrooke does have a certain character. 

 

They’re also a mostly unknown team, now in the running, and only one other team can boast that. 

 

“It’s yours,” Regina confirms, eyeing the bite marks on the edge where Emma always chews her cups, and Emma downs her drink while Regina looks to the other side of the room. There’s another cluster of fighters around a team that Regina can’t quite see, though she’s begun to learn their names. Griselda, whom the team calls the Blind Witch. Milah, a pirate captain. Hades, a god of an underworld. Megara, called demon of the underworld. Zoso, known as the Dark One. And two others, though Regina hasn’t found out anything about them yet. There are two clear placeholders on the screen when the team’s lineup is introduced. They’ve never had so much as a single battle to fight, and Regina has never seen the placeholders on the bench– only one changing fighter, sitting beside Mother. Today, too, there is no sign of the last fighter. 

 

Mother catches Regina watching her and smiles as a predator smiles upon catching sight of prey. Regina watches her emotionlessly, her heart clenching, and she puts a hand on Henry’s knee as though he can somehow be protected from Mother’s eyes on him.

 

Emma mutters, loud enough for Regina to hear, “Why do they need to be here, anyway? Do they even eat? They’re dead .” 

 

Henry eyes Mother curiously. Mother crooks a finger. Regina says, “Do not go near her.” 

 

Henry frowns. “I know, I know,” he says. “I was just curious–” 

 

No ,” Regina says again. “She’s dangerous. She’ll…” She hesitates, uncertain of what she can say to dissuade Henry. He’s so bright, wonders so much about the world, and a grandmother he’s never met is the perfect temptation. Mother will use him, will get a foot in the door and never let him go. Regina can’t let Henry fall into Mother’s trap–

 

She looks to Emma for help, as natural as it had once been for the two of them, and Emma leans forward. “Kid,” she says, her voice hushed. “Your mom isn’t kidding. That lady put me out of commission for nearly a year.” She jerks a thumb at her leg. “Shredded.” Touches her face. “Broke my nose and my jaw.” Clasps her chest. “Poisoned my heart until every second alive was just…constant pain for months.” Henry stares at her, his eyes very wide. Emma clears her throat. “She’s just not a very good person,” she says. “She doesn’t care about anything except power, and if she thinks that you might give her power over your mom…” 

 

She lets the sentence dangle. Regina, next to Henry, must be a mirror of his face. She’d seen pictures, but long after the fact. She hadn’t known that Mother had poisoned Emma’s heart . That’s the kind of deep, enduring pain that doesn’t fade, that must have been constant agony for so long–

 

She stands abruptly, finds Zelena and gets the nod of reassurance, the arm around Henry’s shoulders, and she heads out of the cafeteria. Emma follows, calling her name. “Regina. Regina ,” she says, and Regina finally stops once they’re in the gardens, surrounded by trees and bushes and no more people. “I’m sorry, okay? I shouldn’t have been so graphic– I was just trying to–” 

 

“She poisoned your heart,” Regina says, stricken by it. “Because of me? Because I left?”

 

Emma looks at her, at a loss. “We’ve discussed this,” she says. “You knew what she did to me–” 

 

“I don’t think I realized.” It’s like breathing through molasses, understanding the depth of what Emma had suffered for Regina. Not a sleeping curse or something quick that would have put her out of commission without any ongoing pain. Not a coma. Enduring, constant pain. “Emma–” Her voice cracks. “I did that to you.” She had run, so sure that she’d been Mother’s only target. That if she’d go, and Daniel would go, the nightmare would be over. 

 

And she’d left Mother with only Emma, spread out and helpless before her fury. 

 

Emma shakes her head, takes a step forward, and her face is still guarded. “No,” she says. “You didn’t. I have resented you for a hell of a lot of things, but never that. I know who to blame for what happened to me.” 

 

I know who to blame . Regina hadn’t, not until recently, and she is stricken again with this new knowledge. “You’re a better person than I ever was,” she whispers, and she stumbles, shudders in her place in the garden.

 

Emma takes a few quick steps forward, steadies Regina in place. “Yeah, well, I had better role models in my family,” she says wryly. 

 

Regina blinks at her. “You grew up an orphan.” 

 

Emma raises her eyebrows. “My point stands.” She touches her chest. “It’s all better now,” she promises Regina. “You’ve seen it, haven’t you? All mended.” 

 

Regina reaches out without thinking, slips her fingers into Emma’s chest. They move as easily as a knife through butter, and Emma takes a shuddering breath as Regina closes her hand around Emma’s heart. It feels warm, and Emma quivers around it, around Regina’s touch. “Sorry,” Regina whispers.

 

Emma closes her eyes. Regina eases her heart from her chest, stares down at it with the eyes of someone who has seen many, many hearts. It’s a bright red, the healthy color of someone who is good and noble and full of conviction, but there is scarring along it, spidery lines that encase the entire heart. Old, old poison. 

 

Regina traces one line, and Emma twitches, then exhales. There is no way to safely heal a heart, not without treating the person, but Regina runs her fingers along the lines of Emma’s heart and imagines healing every one, restoring it to perfect, pristine condition. Emma rocks in place, her hands tight against her side and her eyes still closed, and she lets out breathy little noises as her mind falls against Regina’s.

 

Regina slides Emma’s heart back into her chest, and Emma slumps against her for a moment, and then straightens, her face flushed. “We should go,” she says quickly. “Everyone’s…everyone must be waiting for us.” She doesn’t turn back to Regina, just leads the way inside, and Regina follows her silently.

 


 

They’d predicted the lineup perfectly. The aerial battle between Zelena and Hermes is a go. Ursula and Cruella will fight Zeus and Poseidon, which is– well , Emma hadn’t been all that interested in Greek mythology as a teenager, but she knows that Zeus is supposed to be the guy in charge. Apparently, he isn’t in charge here. The captain of the team is Ares, sixth-ranked in the League and the war god that Emma is supposed to be facing. Beside him are the twin gods, Apollo and Artemis, and Marian and Mulan make polite conversation as they shake their hands.

 

“I hear you’re a skilled huntress,” Artemis says, her eyes dragging up and down Marian’s torso. Marian smiles, giving nothing away. 

 

Ares is less polite. He only glowers at Emma, and she offers a thin-lipped smile in response and is relieved to return to her spot beside Regina. “Not a pleasant guy,” she mutters, leaning back against the bench. “Maybe I’ll make him cry.” 

 

Regina lets out a breath like a laugh, and Emma feels her body warm in response. It’s irrational, how much lighter she feels at this new thawing of their relationship. At Regina’s hands on her heart, at the despair on her face as she understands how Emma has suffered. It feels suspiciously like they’re approaching reconciliation, and Emma is terrified and so relieved by it. 

 

Truthfully, though, Regina might just have something else on her mind. As Hermes and Zelena step into their circles, Regina looks away from the arena and toward the audience. Emma knows the instant that Regina sees Cora; she always does, because Regina’s mind changes. It goes alert and on edge, a klaxon call of Mother Mother MotherMotherMother accompanied by severe panic, and it has Emma feeling on edge, too. 

 

It had been like this when they’d been younger, too, but never quite as much panic as there had been resignation. This level of terror comes with having something to lose, and Emma’s heart hurts for Regina. She shares some of Regina’s fear– there is something about being nearly murdered by a woman that awakens something primal within her– but not this level of panic. But their minds are blurring together, and Emma’s pulse quickens.

 

An arm lands around her shoulder. It isn’t Regina’s. Snow has seen what they’ve seen in the bleachers, and she looks grim and determined. “I tried to get her thrown out,” she murmurs, and Regina stares at Snow with sudden gratification. “My request was dismissed because Broken Kingdom is still in the running. I’m so sorry.” Emma leans against her, feeling suddenly like a child longing for her mother, and Snow squeezes her shoulder and holds her tightly. 

 

Beside her, Regina sits alone, shoulders stiff and eyes raised to the skies.

 

Emma is pleased to see that Hermes is not as skilled in flight as Zelena. His winged shoes let him walk through the sky as though it’s solid ground below him, but Zelena swings around him on her broomstick with ease, cackling as she throws attacks at him. She has the upper hand, and Emma wonders how irritated Athena must be with herself right now for stepping back during this fight.

 

She peers at the other bench. Athena is watching, rigid and stoic, and she doesn’t look worried yet.

 

She turns to Regina, who is sitting in a similar position. Only someone with a mind tied to hers would be able to sense the roiling of her thoughts. Emma turns to her, feeling abruptly self-conscious about her mother’s embrace when Regina’s is so… Cora. “It’s kind of weird that your sister turns green in the arena, isn’t it?” Zelena has made a play for Hermes’s heart already, speeding at him with a hand outstretched. He vanishes in midair, whirring back into view across the arena like a TV coming into focus. Zelena twists around in a circle, trying to track him. 

 

Regina shrugs. “It didn’t happen when we were younger,” she says. “She must have picked it up in Oz.” 

 

Wait ,” Emma says, thunderstruck. “ Zelena is the Wicked Witch of the West ?” She’ll never stop marveling at the worlds beyond the Land Without Magic and the way that they all come together. To be fair, as much as interlopers have borrowed and repurposed from the Land Without Magic, the Land Without Magic has borrowed all of the United Realms’ stories for their purposes.

 

Regina looks puzzled, and Emma shakes her head. “I don’t believe it. We’re watching The Wizard of Oz tonight after the match. Wait…does she know Dorothy? Ruby’s fiancée?” A thought hits her and she twists around. “ Is Ruby Toto? ” 

 

“You’re making even less sense than usual,” Regina says, and if there’s a note of wry affection in her voice, it’s as unbelievable as Zelena’s secret identity. “Watch the fight. I don’t like this.” 

 

Hermes has disappeared and reappeared again, and Zelena dives to find him at once, spinning in circles around him. “Zelena has it under control,” Emma says, unworried. Regina is antsy whenever someone isn’t being injured. “It’s just a cat-and-mouse chase.”

 

“Who is the cat in this scenario?” Regina says, staring up, and Emma blinks through a bit of early-morning haze and finally sees what Regina is seeing. Hermes’s teleportation is strategic. He moves to one side of the arena, then the far side opposite, and Emma would assume that he’s just fleeing Zelena except that he goes slightly lower each time, slightly more inward. Zelena might not be consciously aware of it– the announcer certainly isn’t, and keeps talking about Zelena’s artistry in the air– but she’s unconsciously following Hermes’s pattern, twisting and flying exactly where she thinks he’ll be next.

 

“He’s setting a trap for her,” Regina says quietly. “But she’s going to fly herself into it without realizing.” She is tense, her fingers tight against her knees, and Emma can feel the worry that permeates her. For all that they’re over what happened at regionals, there is something instinctual that remains, a fear of the arena that none of them have shaken.

 

Emma watches Zelena, waits for her to look down so she can signal to her. But Zelena isn’t a fighter accustomed to consulting with a captain, and an aerial battle means that she has little time to look down. She soars above them, dives after Hermes, and is already spinning around to find his new location before he’s fully gone.

 

The announcer says, “Watch her go! Mills can predict Hermes’s movements before he makes them now. This is the new skill that Storybrooke brings to the table, sorely needed in the years of Proeliate dominance of the same few teams.” Zelena drops, dives, and Hermes blurs away again. Zelena rises, dives–

 

And this time, Hermes is closer, too close. He appears nearly in front of Zelena, and Zelena twists around and then back, shaky on her broom. “She’s fallen into his routine,” Emma whispers. “She’s all turned around.” 

 

He appears again unexpectedly, this time directly below Zelena, then above. With dizzying speed, he is everywhere, and Zelena twists too hard and swivels like a top, turning in circles so fast that Emma knows, suddenly, that it’s over. 

 

When Zelena falls from her broom, Regina’s mind lights on fire, desperate to get to her. Emma grabs her arm, holds her back, sending her steadying thoughts. “It looks like Mills’s sister is being forcibly kept from entering the arena and forfeiting the fight,” the announcer says. In the audience, Cora is smiling coldly.

 

Zelena hits the ground. It’s made of an adaptive material, springy beneath the surface but firm for ground fights, and nothing looks broken. Emma thinks. But Zelena is dazed, and Hermes is in front of her before she can get up. He plucks out her heart and holds it high, and the audience bursts into cheers.

 

Now, Emma releases Regina, both of them hurrying to Zelena. She struggles to sit up, and Regina helps her, cradling her face worriedly. “Zelena,” she whispers.

 

Zelena looks woozy. “I fell,” she says mournfully. 

 

“Yes.” Regina doesn’t let go of her, leans forward and wraps her in an embrace. The medics approach, and Emma nods to them to come. “You were great. Don’t worry.”

 

“I took your spot,” Zelena says dully. “And I lost.” 

 

“You won’t next time.” Regina presses a kiss to the top of Zelena’s head. “Go. Get checked out. We’ll win this for you.” It’s tender, a surprising peace between the Mills sisters, and Emma keeps a light hand on Regina’s back as they return to the bench. 

 

The announcer says, “Looks like Swan is comforting Regina Mills,” and sounds delighted about it. Emma lets go, sits, nods to Ursula and Cruella.

 

“Win this,” she says tightly, and she wishes that she’d taken Ursula’s seat, next to Marian, instead of the one beside Regina. There are bits of their partnership that are leaking back, and this one where they gravitate toward each other is…a mistake.

 

Arendelle next year , she vows, though it’s a little too halfhearted for her liking.

 

Regina hears it anyway and turns sharply. “You’ve decided?” 

 

“No,” Emma says quickly. “Maybe. I don’t know.” 

 

“Decided what?” Snow asks curiously. Emma’s heart hammers against her ribs. God . She hasn’t considered the ramifications of going to Arendelle when this is the team that Snow has cultivated for her, the team that Snow loves–

 

Regina answers for Emma. “What we’re getting for our celebratory dinner,” she lies blatantly. “Emma wants pizza when we’re in the most impressive restaurant district in the United Realms. It’s an embarrassment.” 

 

Regina is a ridiculously good liar. But Snow perks up, her eyes shining. “Have you two– are you two going on a date?” 

 

Emma barks out a strangled laugh and stares at the arena instead of answering Snow. Ursula and Cruella’s battle has begun with a rapidly flooding arena, containment barriers creating the impression of a large aquarium. Ursula snaps something to Poseidon, who says something curt in response. 

 

Snow persists. She never knows when to stop, which is both her best and worst trait. “It’s been such a relief to see the two of you getting along again. You were so good for each other when you were younger–” 

 

“Please stop,” Emma says, holding up a hand and feeling very muddled. Regina’s eyes are narrowed like she might be considering murder, and Emma says quickly, “It’s a team dinner. There is no dating happening. There will never be dating happening.” She says it with conviction, enough that Regina’s mind flickers in response and becomes unreadable.

 

Great. Now she’s scared Regina off with something that she doesn’t even want . “Can we just focus on the fight?” she says helplessly. It’s an impressive fight, too. Poseidon hurtles through the sea that he’s created while Ursula swings tentacles at him, throwing him back and trapping him for brief moments. Cruella is floating near the top of the sea, a glowing bubble of air around her, and she calls modified versions of her hounds, seal-like, to snap at Zeus’s heels where he hovers above the water. 

 

And then, Zeus unleashes a storm. 

 

The waters grow choppy and rough, and rain pours down from storm clouds that appear at the top of the arena. Cruella is swept up in it, but Ursula doesn’t seem to notice, making a sharp move toward Poseidon. She grabs him at last, wrapping tentacles around him, and Zeus sees– his eyes glint dangerously–

 

He lifts a lightning bolt from nowhere and hurls it into the water–

 

“It’s going to electrocute them,” Snow says suddenly, and Emma leans forward, their argument forgotten. Ursula is far enough from the lightning that she might be safe, but Cruella is close to the surface, dangerously close. She’ll be out of commission if Zeus gets her, and the pain she’ll feel, even if it’s only for the duration of the battle, will be agonizing.

 

“Take his heart,” Regina is muttering. “Take Poseidon’s heart, don’t get distracted –” 

 

But Ursula has already released Poseidon with a cry of “ Cru! ” that is loud enough to carry through the water and to the audience. She hurtles toward Cruella as Cruella dives, the lightning sparking at the water and carrying downward, and she catches her and takes her lower in a flash, out of Zeus’s range.

 

Zeus hurls another bolt, this one lower, then another. He’s refining his aim, making his strikes lower and lower, and Ursula and Cruella back against the wall of water near the bench, conferencing quickly. “We can transform,” Ursula is saying frantically. “We’ll go in together. You can’t ward off lightning and keep that magic bubble up simultaneously, but if we can breathe underwater joined…”

 

“It won’t work.” Cruella sounds dismissive. “Imagine how quickly our muscles will contract when we’re that big. It’s a death sentence–” 

 

“I’m not leaving you,” Ursula insists.

 

Cruella shakes her head. “I’m a liability right now,” she says, almost careless. “We don’t have time to squabble about this. You win this for us.” 

 

Ursula glares at her. “I thought you were a diagnosed sociopath. You’re not supposed to be noble .” 

 

Cruella darts forward in the water and pecks Ursula on the cheek. “Only for you, darling,” she says, and she lets herself float up, away from Ursula. 

 

The next bolt of lightning hits Cruella directly. She is charred beyond recognition in an instant, the water around her charged with electricity, and Ursula lets out a scream of rage and dives through it, a sheen of magic protecting her from the charged water. She goes for Poseidon, who dodges her and then sends forward a bevy of sea animals to fight her.

 

Ursula hardly seems to notice them. She swings her tentacles and shoves sharks aside, throws aside nipping fish and kicks away a giant squid in a whirling fury of energy. She is unrecognizable like this, as grand a goddess of the sea as her father, and Emma watches with quiet awe. 

 

“They really do love each other,” Regina murmurs. “Ursula told me once that her mind is never her own. That they inhabit each other at all times.” She shakes her head. “I never thought that it would be Cruella’s mind that calms Ursula’s.” But it does seem that way. Ursula is uncontained rage, is a power unmatched against the Olympians, and Poseidon and Zeus both flee before her, rising up through the water to escape her onslaught.

 

She rises behind them, catches them with her tentacles in a swift movement, and pulls out both hearts at once. “End, damn you,” she snaps at the buzzer, and it chimes in response, the hearts fading from her hands. The water level dissipates slowly, letting them fall back to the ground, and Ursula stands at the center of the room with her body shaking and her eyes still flashing.

 

Cruella’s skin, before their eyes, turns pale and unblemished, and she stirs and sits up. Ursula runs to her, lifts her into the air and kisses her soundly, and even the announcer sounds a little touched by it. “A happy reunion for the Storybrooke Duo pair after their stunning– no pun intended– win. And we’re now tied, with one victory for each team.” 

 

They stumble back toward the bench, but Poseidon calls Ursula’s name. He looks uncertain, but there’s a tentative smile on his face, and Emma is glad when Ursula and Cruella follow him to the hallway behind the arena. Whatever happens next, she suspects that it is well earned.

 

“And this brings us to our second Solo!” the announcer says brightly. “Always a delight to welcome Olympus’s Aphrodite into the arena, and we have Storybrooke’s little charmer, Lucía Vidrio, facing her. This must be a gambit on Storybrooke’s side– Aphrodite is far less effective against children– but she is still a formidable opponent.” 

 

Aphrodite strides forward. Emma blinks, a little overwhelmed. She’d known that Aphrodite was beautiful– had seen her in the common house and in the village, always with fighters hovering around her– but there is something to her movements now that makes her even more arresting. She’s tall, brown-skinned and with perfectly sculpted features, and Emma’s mouth is dry as she watches her move.

 

She takes her circle first. Lucy, eyes narrowed, grips Emma’s hand and takes her own, surprisingly close to Aphrodite. Emma can’t imagine getting that close to Aphrodite and not being swept away by her beauty, but that’s a good sign. It means that Lucy is immune.

 

The battle begins, and the air seems to change. It gets thicker, sweeter, and Emma feels it to her core. She is suddenly breathless, and she can feel heat rising within her. Aphrodite’s magic is strong, leaking out to the benches and to the first rows of the bleachers, and Emma can spot a few couples near the front kissing. Marian and Mulan are entwined on the bench, and even the announcer sounds distracted as she dictates the battle. It’s all hazy, and Emma swallows and turns.

 

Big mistake . Regina is sitting next to her on that side, her eyes dilated and hungry, and Emma reaches for her without thinking. She strokes the soft skin of her cheek, traces the curve of her lip and leaves her finger on the swollen lower lip with her heart racing. “You’re so beautiful,” she whispers.

 

“You shine,” Regina breathes in response, and she shakes her head, struggling to snap out of it. “No,” she says in a normal voice, then, weakly, “It’s Aphrodite–” 

 

“Beautiful and smart,” Emma croons, slipping a hand into Regina’s hair. Regina trembles against her. Emma loves the feeling of it, watches the way that goosebumps erupt on Regina’s skin wherever she touches her. “Definitely Aphrodite,” she agrees, and Regina shifts closer to her, their thighs touching. “Whoa. I read that she– she enhances what’s already there, but we aren’t–” 

 

“We are just two attractive women,” Regina agrees breathlessly, and she takes Emma’s hand and presses it to her lips, “Who aren’t blind. That’s all. Oh.” It emerges almost like a moan, and she flips Emma’s hand around, kissing her wrist. 

 

Emma hadn’t been aware of how erogenous her wrist is until this instant, when it’s all she can think of. Her nerves are lit on fire and she needs– a shower, right now, or some privacy – she is woozy, and she still hasn’t fought– “Ohh,” she groans, and Regina sucks on her pulse at her wrist and nearly makes her come on the spot. 

 

She needs to leave– she can’t be doing this, her inhibitions half gone and the attraction unbearable– and she sends a silent apology Lucy’s way– not that she’s been watching the fight, anyway – and flees into the hallway.

 

Cruella and Ursula have been caught in Aphrodite’s spell, too, and are half-undressed in the hallway with Poseidon thankfully gone, and Emma moves in a little deeper, out of sight of them, still trembling with desire. She feels Regina behind her, approaching, and she says, “Why are you here, are you stupid –” 

 

“Needed out,” Regina says, gasping, and she crashes nearly into Emma. Emma catches her, their foreheads locked, and they sway in place, lips nearly brushing, noses rubbing against each other. “This is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Think of…something else,” Regina chants, almost to herself. “Vomit. Public toilets. Scabs. Cows.” 

 

“What’s wrong with cows?” Emma thinks to ask, indignant on their behalf, and Regina laughs and then frowns and says, “Oh, no. Don’t be so…” She squeezes her eyes shut, but her mind is alive with want, Emma’s charging with the same desire, and it heightens everything they do. They tremble against each other, and it takes all Emma has not to kiss Regina now, to surge to her and–

 

No . If she ever kisses Regina, it won’t be like this, a side effect of a literal aphrodisiac in the arena. This isn’t the way, and she regains some of her self-control with that acknowledgment. “I’ve got to go,” she says, pushing Regina back, and she makes a mad dash to the showers in the Storybrooke prep room, leaving Regina behind.

 

She knows she doesn’t have much time. There’s still a haze over her thoughts, even this far from Aphrodite, and while her libido seems to relax, that dizziness doesn’t fade. Lucy favors shorter fights, but Marian and Mulan favor longer ones, and that means that she has barely enough time to shower and cool down before her own fight. 

 

She laughs at herself in the shower, trying to reclaim her prior confidence. Marian and Mulan haven’t lost yet. Lucy is a star in Solos. She won’t be returning to fight, she’ll be returning to celebrate. She closes her eyes, lets the spray run over her, and she thinks about Regina instead. Regina, who must hold some attraction toward her, unless that had all been Emma’s mind setting them both off. It’s so hard to figure out who is who and what is what when their minds get like this , on the verge of overtaking each other, and lust is one of those mental states that can be overpowering.

 

She wonders for a gripped moment if she’d taken something from Regina, had given her urges that hadn’t been her own. No . She’ll never forgive herself if that’s true, if it’s just her mind leaking into Regina’s–

 

The door to the showers bangs open, and Emma has never been more relieved to be released from her thoughts. “Emma? Are you in here?” It’s Snow, her voice strident. “Emma!” 

 

Emma shuts off the water and wraps a towel around herself before she exits her shower stall. “What’s up?” One look at Snow’s grim face is enough. “Lucy lost?” she asks, her heart stuttering in her chest. Lucy won’t take it well, will blame herself for being anything less than perfect–

 

Snow shakes her head slowly. “Lucy won,” she says, but she still looks pale, and Emma stares at her in confusion until she says, “And Mulan and Marian lost.”

 

What ?” It’s been…fifteen minutes? How had they–

 

She dresses in a hurry, pulls on her spare jumpsuit and tries to shake off her foggy brain. Snow walks beside her, her words rapid. “I don’t know how it happened so quickly. Marian had this incredible axe, and Mulan’s swordwork was impeccable– but it wasn’t enough. The Olympians overwhelmed them so quickly that they barely had a chance to fight. Artemis is fifth in the League, you know, and Apollo is eleventh– it all happened so fast,” she says again, and she sounds shaken. “We’d better hurry.” 

 

Two wins. Two losses. This is the final battle, and it all hinges on Emma, who is still fighting against the haze in her mind. She breaks into a run, hurrying down the hall to the arena, and she emerges to cheers and clapping. On their bench, Mulan has her knees up and her face buried in them, and Marian’s arm is wrapped around her. “It’s okay,” Emma says to them, and she feels a buzzing within her, an awareness that this isn’t over yet. “It happens. We’re all kind of woozy from Aphrodite, anyway.”

 

“No, we’re not,” Marian says, stubborn in her desire to take responsibility, and Emma has to turn and go to her circle. If they lose this– if Emma can’t take them forward– then let it be Emma’s fault and no one else’s.

 

Ares takes the first circle, right in the center of the room, and Emma takes one on a far side. She isn’t going to take chances today, with everything hinging on her. She darts one more glance back at the bench, spies Regina sitting with Lucy, and then the buzzer sounds.

 

And Ares smiles. 

 

It’s a frightening smile, the bloodlust apparent in his eyes, and he lifts his hands and produces, out of pure energy, a sword. It’s nothing like Mulan’s blade, long but nimble and easily wielded. It’s a sword built like a cleaver, wide and sharp and violent, and Ares is all wrought muscle and ferocity as he lifts it. “I’m going to destroy you,” he snarls, and he swings his sword and brings it crashing down to the floor. 

 

The ground shakes from the force of it, and Emma leaps, flips through the air and slides below it. She isn’t fighting her best, still hasn’t shaken off the haze, but she knows how to do this from a hundred battles, a thousand practices. She kicks Ares from below, punches him in the chin– 

 

And breaks her fist on pure muscle. At least, it feels like it. She shakes her hand, cringing at how much it hurts, and Ares seizes her by the neck and chin and smiles coldly. “The end for you, little warrior,” he says, and he lifts his sword. 

 

It is becoming clear that Emma doesn’t stand a chance against Ares physically, and she musters her thoughts as well as she can– damn Aphrodite and whatever she’d done to Emma’s mind–

 

–but, she remembers suddenly, hadn’t she been nearly as hazy before Aphrodite had struck? This isn’t the aftereffects of Aphrodite’s attack, which would have ended with the battle– 

 

She has to fight back with magic. She throws out her palms, reaching for her magic, and… 

 

Nothing. Nothing comes forth, no familiar surge of magic runs through her. Emma tries to gather her magic again, desperate now, and there is nothing there. It’s as though she’s stepped out of the Proeliate Realm and landed in the Land Without Magic, and there is nothing there when she calls it. “What’s going on?” she gasps, but Ares’s face is blank.

 

He lifts his terrifying sword over Emma’s head, preparing to bring it crashing down onto her, and Emma panics and does the only thing left to do. 

 

She bites his finger as hard as she can, and Ares roars, releasing her. Emma rolls to her feet and runs across the arena, now utterly panicked. Maybe this is a symptom of stress, of the quarterfinals resting on her shoulders? It’s been a harrowing week, preparing for this match, and it’s gotten too much for her. She’s having a nervous breakdown and isn’t self-aware enough to recognize it.

 

But she isn’t . She is in full control of herself, except for that dangerous haze, and there is no explanation for why her magic has just disappeared. She has nothing to defend herself, and she is alone in the arena with a man who has triple the power that she does.

 

And then, a warming sensation, a trickle of confidence from the bench. One last bit of magic open to her, the only one that she can feel. Regina doesn’t send her any thoughts, none of the snippy comments from their early days in the arena. She sends her courage, warm and unfiltered, and Emma takes a breath and lets herself assess the situation coolly.

 

Ares has a weapon and he’s stronger than her. Emma has no weapon, no magic, and nothing to defend herself but one functioning fist. She doesn’t have a shot. 

 

But she isn’t ready to give up. Storybrooke’s future is up to her, and they deserve a captain who will fight for them. Emma still has some weapons in her arsenal. She’s fast, faster than Ares. And she’s pretty sure that she has better endurance, too. 

 

If she can exhaust Ares to weakness, she might stand a chance. 

 

She darts across the arena floor, and Ares comes for her. His sword is stained with blood, his eyes hungry for more, and he moves like the villain in a horror movie. Emma backs away, just out of reach, as he swings his sword, and she moves like a blur away from him. He roars, racing after her, and Emma feels a quivering of hope in her heart.

 

Abruptly, Ares’s free hand now carries a spear. He hurls it at Emma as she runs, and she barely dodges out of his way in time. The haze in her mind is beginning to clear up at last, and she realizes with confusion that it’s been there for hours, maybe all day. It doesn’t matter right now, while she’s fighting for her team’s life. She can’t think about that or her disappearing magic until later. 

 

Another spear is hurled at her, and Emma ducks under it and starts in the opposite direction, letting a taunting laugh filter back to Ares. It makes him even angrier, and he shouts a curse and hurtles at her again, faster and faster. 

 

“Looks like this is going to be a battle of endurance,” the announcer says, her voice very faint. Emma dodges Ares, runs at him and has him twist around to try to get at her. She notes with satisfaction that it’s a sharper, sloppier twist than his last. 

 

He’s on the offensive, but it’s a strange offensive, one where Emma is certain that she is controlling every movement of this fight. Ares swings his sword and misses, and Emma jumps over it with ease and slams her feet into his side before she runs again. She’s tired, but she isn’t done.

 

Over and over, again and again, Ares attacks and Emma dodges. Ares throws spears that nick Emma, but his accuracy is getting worse and worse. Ares’s sword hits Emma’s arm once, slicing through the sleeve of her jumpsuit, but he doesn’t get closer than that. Emma runs on automatic, moves with the wind and thinks of nothing but survival, and, for now, she endures. 

 

Ares lumbers toward her. He is getting slower, his eyes filmy and red with exhaustion, and he can barely swing his sword now. It’s been a long time– over an hour, Emma notes when she squints up at the board– and they are both making mistakes, both too worn out from the fight. Emma runs again, but she can feel every time her feet bang against the floor, every step a struggle. Without magic to bolster her movements, she is bone-tired. 

 

She keeps going. She can’t stop. Ares isn’t running anymore, is walking with the air of someone frustrated by his own inaction, and Emma takes a moment to breathe as he approaches, and decides, finally, that it’s time. She has more energy than he does, and if she wants to take him down–

 

She hurtles forward with the last of her power, left fist outstretched, just as Ares throws one last spear. But this time, she doesn’t dodge it in time.

 

She feels it pierce her stomach with a pain so sharp that it takes a moment to register, and the force of it throws her against the wall. “No,” she gasps, and she is– disemboweled. There’s a spear pinning her to the wall, and her organs are on fire, are in pain like she’s never felt before. She’s going to die before the buzzer sounds, she’s lost a pivotal match for her team, she’s let everyone down– this wouldn’t have happened if Regina had fought–

 

She slumps. Her arms and legs have stopped working, perhaps just from the pain. Ares walks toward her, his steps slow and stumbling, and the announcer says, “And it looks like this victory is going to be Olympus’s, their next on the journey to their third championship in six years. Swan tried a war of attrition, but it wasn’t…” The announcer’s voice trails off.

 

Emma blinks through bleary eyes and sees Ares, nearly in front of her, his hand outstretched to her heart. For an instant, she wants nothing more than for him to pull it out and end her pain, to surrender the victory to him.

 

But she can’t. She can’t . Not for Storybrooke. She kicks outward weakly with a leg she can’t feel, sending a new wave of pain through her, and she barely nicks Ares with it. Pathetic , she thinks, and then Ares crashes to the ground in a heap, his eyes blank.

 

“Or was it?” the announcer says, and her voice is loud. “Ares has collapsed. If neither opponent can move for a full minute, then the referee will declare a draw. Ares still has forty-eight seconds–” She pauses. “Thirty seconds…twenty…” 

 

Emma watches him on the ground, exhausted and nearly blind with agony. “Five,” says the announcer. “Three. And…” 

 

“Draw!” the referee calls, and the buzzer sounds. The spear holding Emma in place disappears, and Emma falls to the ground, her body intact. Ares must have had something magical in place, protecting his chin, because even her bruised fist is intact.

 

She stays slumped on the ground, too tired to move, and when she blinks, her entire team is crouched around her. “I couldn’t win,” she croaks. 

 

It’s Zelena, already back from the medics, who grins at her. “You were stunning ,” she says, and the others chorus their agreement. Snow has tears flowing down her face, Lucy is yelling, and Mulan holds onto Emma’s hand and squeezes it. Marian beams, Ursula grins, and Cruella claps Emma on the back and says, “It’s a rush, dying in the arena, eh?”

 

Behind them all is Regina, her eyes red and her smile tremulous, and Emma reaches for her. She crouches beside Emma as Marian and Zelena try to lift her, and she says in a whisper, “I am going to destroy Olympus.” 

 

And she steps into a circle and waits, defiant, for the tiebreaker battle that will follow.

 


 

Emma is on the bench, drinking magic-infused Crocoade and looking less pale by the second. Regina has to remind herself of that, see her sitting there and not impaled against the wall of the arena, and it’s all she can do to turn and focus on her own opponent. “With both teams at two wins and the standard lineup exhausted, we move on to their alternates,” the announcer says. “These aren’t exactly substitute fighters this round. The second-ranked fighter in the League is here, as is Storybrooke’s most formidable. Athena will now fight Regina Mills.” 

 

Regina doesn’t know what had happened to Emma’s magic and why it had failed her, but she does know this : Emma’s destructive battle will not be in vain. Athena cannot win.

 

Athena steps into the arena, and she nods with satisfaction at Regina. “Good,” she says. “If I am going to fight, then let it be a worthy battle.” She chooses a cautious circle, a safe distance from Regina, and waits.

 

The buzzer sounds. Immediately, Regina sets the arena on fire. A helmet has appeared on Athena’s head, a lance in one hand and a shield in the other, and Athena raised her lance and lets magic flow from it. Regina glances toward the bench, sees Emma sitting there, still white-faced and thrumming with desperate faith in her, and she sends Emma a surge of strength and deflects every last bit of magic that Athena aims at her. Into her defense, she infuses an attack, sharp and multipronged, and her magic presses Athena’s back and then surrounds Athena. 

 

Athena sweeps a hand out in a quick motion and throws Regina’s magic back. For the first time, Regina contemplates what it might mean to fight one of the top-ranked in the League. How many have they fought so far? Jasmine is fourth, and she’d beaten Gothel easily. Artemis is fifth, and she’d had their strongest Duo gone in minutes. Ares is sixth, but it’s impossible to know how Emma would have done against him with her magic. First and third, seventh and eighth– all await them in Arendelle. 

 

Athena is second, and the sheer power she exudes is like little Regina has ever felt before, save for her fight in the regionals final. She ignores Regina’s fire, throws more power at her, and Regina is taken back to childhood, utterly outmatched and losing every fight against her mother.

 

She pours more energy toward Athena, feels the ground begin to shake beneath them, and repositions within her circle. The audience is just a blur of faces, the benches of Storybrooke and Olympus the same. The only face she can make out in the smear of brown and bronze and white is Emma’s, her eyes locked on Regina, and Regina takes a breath and unleashes another attack.

 

It’s one she models after Zelena’s best move, a twisting wind of pure energy that whirls around Athena, picking up speed. Athena lifts a hand and says, “Interesting,” but it is swallowed up by the wind, and so is the magic that she levels into the twister. Faster and faster it moves, vicious and violent, and it sucks in power and grows only stronger from it. Regina flicks her wrist and it lifts Athena off the ground, into the twister, and when she presses outward, it’s to compress the twister into a tiny, dizzying ball around Athena.

 

And then, Athena strikes back. Her lance emerges from the twister– it shouldn’t be possible, nothing can escape it, but Regina knows not to underestimate Athena– and slams to the ground, and the land quakes as the twister hardens into a shell and then shatters. The wind spikes outward, slams into Regina with so much force that it nearly breaks her neck, and Regina is thrown from her circle and against the wall as Athena rises, breathing hard.

 

“You fight well,” Athena says, tipping her chin in acknowledgement. Regina senses that that’s high praise from her, but far from a surrender. She can’t let her guard down. Still, she sneaks a glance at the bench, a quick look to where Emma is watching, and then she straightens and throws a fireball at Athena.

 

Athena lifts her lance and buries it into the floor. And, abruptly, fifty pieces of the discarded, hardened shell grow into men, helmeted as Athena is and armed with swords and lances. Athena presides over them, abnormally tall and with her own lance raised, and the men shout war cries and move on Regina. 

 

Regina has seen this maneuver once in Athena’s footage, at the semifinals last year when Elsa and Athena had fought for the role of top-ranked fighter in the League. It had looked dizzying in the video, but she’d had no idea how bad it could be. She is ducking, dodging, throwing fireballs and forging an energy sword for herself– but there are so many men, and in the arena that had once felt enormous, she is claustrophobic with their presence. She stabs a man and watches him disappear in a puff of smoke, then another, and Athena calls, “Go, my men! Fight for my glory!”

 

And then, an idea. Regina stabs one and fireballs a second at the same instant, and in the moment it takes for the smoke to clear, she puts on a glamour. It’s the kind of complex one that she might have struggled with outside of the arena; but inside, it’s as easy as closing her eyes and imagining it. There’s a helmet on her head now, concealing her face, and armor strapped tightly to her. She carries a sword, and she pauses with the same bewilderment as the men around her as the Regina they’d been attacking seems to disappear.

 

Regina’s heart burns. She can hear the announcer, low from inside the arena, say, “Mills has disappeared! There are no rules against invisibility in the arena, though it’s very difficult to maintain– Yelana of Arendelle is a rare fighter who can do it effectively– but she seems to have achieved it in response to Athena’s army.”

 

Athena is less convinced. “Find her!” she snaps. “Follow where Swan watches–” Regina twists around with the army, sees Emma’s eyes instantly flick away from her, and the surge of plaintive desperation that Emma sends her way. Please , Emma says silently. Please… 

 

I will , Regina promises, and she moves through the legion of men, silent as they roar around her and swing their swords at nothingness. Her chest hurts, and it is getting difficult to breathe as she contemplates her next move. Athena is at the center of the fracas, and she turns warily, watching the corners of the arena. Goddess of war, Regina reminds herself. Goddess of wisdom. What are the odds that a goddess of war and wisdom wouldn’t think of Regina’s exact plan?

 

A man behind her moves sharply to the left, and Regina turns, casting an eye around as though to search for their opponent. It puts her directly in front of Athena, and she lifts her hand cautiously, the pain beneath her armor slowing her– 

 

Athena says, “Very clever. I do like you.” She swats Regina’s hand away as though it is nothing at all and plunges her own into Regina’s chest. And then she cries out, a sound of pure pain, as the fire Regina had lit inside her own chest scorches her.

 

Regina doesn’t pause this time, merely digs through Athena’s armor and pulls her heart out in a jerky, quick motion. “Knew you would figure me out,” she gasps, her chest still burning. “Just needed a second of hesitation.” 

 

The buzzer sounds, and the announcer says, “Storybrooke wins their quarterfinals! They are the first of four teams that will continue on to the semifinals–” 

 

Regina stops listening. The actual fire in her chest is gone with the end of the battle, but a new fire (thankfully metaphorical) is rising through her, building into a crescendo. She’s won. She’s done it, and Emma’s mind is like the wind rushing through her, spreading flames between them. They’d beaten their most difficult opponent yet–

 

Emma is running across the arena to her, and Regina doesn’t think, feeds off of their joined exhilaration and relief, and it is as though they’re teenagers again, as though they’ve done this together, every step of the way. She reaches for Emma, pulls her to her in an embrace of pure ecstasy, and their lips meet. The kiss is quick, is a shot of pure adrenaline that joins their minds into one, and Emma is laughing and crying and Regina might be, too, overwhelmed in their moment in front of thirty thousand people.

 

It is maybe an instant, scorched in time forever, and then there are others on her, sobbing and laughing teammates wrapped around them, and even most of the crowd has missed that split second of a kiss before the rush. The others are cheering hoarsely, are ragged embraces and a huddle around them, but Regina and Emma hold on tightly to each other in the center of it. 

 

And Regina feels sure, for the first time all Proeliate, that this is the place where she wants to be, forever.

Chapter Text

“Regina, what were you thinking about during that final battle?” one of the interviewers asks, and Regina smiles tightly. There have already been a dozen questions in the postgame– Regina, was that a kiss we saw? Regina, are you and Emma ready to fight Duos again? – and she suspects that this is another one. 

 

“I was thinking about my responsibility to my team,” she says, and she turns deliberately to smile at Lucy, who has been a safe buffer zone between her and Emma throughout the interviews. She had laughed off the kiss question, had talked about their team’s exhilaration after their victory, and had satisfied no one. “I didn’t think that I would fight today, and it took a few minutes to get into the right headspace for it. But I didn’t want to let my team down.” 

 

Emma interjects, “You wouldn’t have regardless. You fought…” Her mind is like a warm blanket, wrapping around Regina’s, and Regina has no idea what they’re doing anymore, but she doesn’t push it away. “You fought better than anyone I’ve ever seen.” 

 

“You logged a loss for Athena,” the interviewer says, looking delighted with Emma’s interruption. “Your ranking is going to be exceptionally high at the end of the season.” 

 

“Not high enough,” Regina says ruefully. “I logged a loss in the regionals, too.” She doesn’t feel the need to obsess over rankings– they’re a headache to sort through, and they take into account things like battle length and number of blows– but she’s pretty sure that between her regionals loss and Emma’s draw today, neither of them are going to be at the top of the rankings.

 

“Not true,” Emma points out as they emerge from the postgame interviews into the fighters’ village. Their battle had gone long, and they only have an hour or so to grab lunch before the second battle of the day begins. Broken Kingdom is fighting Pridelands today, and the winner will fight Storybrooke Thursday. Tomorrow, the other bracket is going to fight, but they only plan to attend Arendelle’s match. There’s no point in watching the other. “You might not top the rankings, but if one of us can beat Elsa in a Solo match in the finals, then I only have a draw. I’ll be number one.” She winks at Lucy, who makes a face at her. “The star of the Proeliate.”

 

“Elsa will probably grow to hate you,” Regina says, struggling to sound playful instead of resentful. By silent agreement, they’re not going to talk about that kiss– it had been a burst of joy and adrenaline, nothing more– but they’re getting along, and Regina finds that she’s reluctant to ruin that. 

 

She lowers her voice as they enter the common house, earning some scattered cheers and clapping from other fighters. Not many teams can beat Olympus, and the others eye them with admiration. It feels nice in a way that Regina hadn’t expected, kind of like it feels unexpectedly nice to take an extra apple from the servers and plunk it onto Emma’s plate. “Can you feel your magic now?” 

 

Emma shakes her head. “Still nothing,” she mutters back. “It’s like…something is muffling it. It’s just out of reach, though. Earlier, it was a void. I think it’ll come back.” 

 

It doesn’t make sense. The connection between them has stayed steady, but Emma has always had other natural magic. It had been what had brought her to the Proeliate in the first place. Something has stolen it away from her. “Your magic was working fine in the arena the day before,” Regina says, running through her memory. “Something must have happened in the meantime.” 

 

“I don’t know,” Emma says, yawning. “I’ve been so hazy today. Maybe I’m just worn out. I need another coffee.” She pauses at the coffee machine, and Regina stops short.

 

“Your coffee this morning,” she says suddenly.

 

Emma eyes her dubiously. “You think it was decaf?” 

 

“I think it was sitting in front of the only person on this team who wants you gone.” Regina remembers it clearly. There had been a lot of people at the table, but it shouldn’t have affected where Emma’s cup had been. Emma hadn’t moved. But if Gold had tampered with Emma’s drink, then…

 

Emma’s jaw tightens. “Okay,” she says, and a trickle of hurt leaks through their link. “But I don’t think you knocked out my magic with, like, bad vibes.” She balances the coffee and turns her back to Regina, hurrying to the table. 

 

Regina hurries after her, chagrined. “ Emma ,” she says, and Emma hesitates. “I meant Gold .” 

 

Emma sets her plate and cup down and turns back, their minds awash in relief. “Oh,” she says, staring at Regina. 

 

“You laughed him off when he tried manipulating the outcome of the first round,” Regina reminds her. “And last round, he was cranky about you benching me. We don’t know if he’s still working with my mother to orchestrate…whatever she’s up to. Crushing me in the semifinals, probably,” she concedes with a twinge of dread. “But it’s possible he wanted you out of commission– what?” she says. Emma is still staring at her.

 

Emma shrugs. “Nothing.” A tiny smile cracks onto her face. “I just didn’t think you didn’t want me gone.” 

 

Regina feels suddenly flustered. “I don’t know what you– well, I do ,” she tries, though it sounds weak to her ears, and Emma’s smile is widening.

 

“Careful,” she says lightly, and she slips into a seat beside Henry and offers him her apple. His plate, already made for him by Regina, already features one. “If you keep being nice to me, I might start taking it personally.” She eyes her coffee suspiciously. “You think it’ll be back?” she says. She doesn’t have to specify.

 

“I don’t think a minor potion can take away something like that,” Regina says, earning a few curious looks from their teammates. “But if it doesn’t come back–”

 

“I can still fight,” Emma says, face set. “Maybe not in a top-level fight, but first Solo–” 

 

“No,” Regina says, and her stomach churns. She sees it again– Emma pinned to the wall of the arena, bleeding out, that monstrous man approaching. It makes her sick to remember, and she jerks her head to stare at Emma’s abdomen as though to reassure herself that Emma is fine.

 

Emma scoffs. “Good thing I’m the captain,” she says, and she turns to Mulan and doesn’t look back at Regina for the duration of their lunch. 

 

After they’re done, they follow Henry to the space reserved for them in the audience. They have a box near the lower part of the arena this week. The original sixteen teams don’t get them, but the eight that had made it to the semifinals do, and someone has decorated theirs in green and gold. Emma slips into a chair, automatically letting her hand drag into the one beside her– a motion Regina knows from their teenage years, and she slips into it. Henry takes the next one, and Zelena takes the last in their row.

 

This is their defense against Mother, weak as it might be, and Regina notes absently that Snow has taken the spot beside Emma. 

 

There are more of them here than on the bench. Oz’s Ruby and Dorothy have squeezed into the box in search of a better view, and both Jacinda and Sabine have taken today off for the Storybrooke match. Gold stands on the far side of the box, away from them, and Roland is perched on Marian’s lap. The biggest surprise, though, are the two people whom Ursula brings in: Mal and Lily, looking worn down but cheerful as they take the last two seats.

 

“I still need crutches,” Lily admits, “And Mom isn’t there yet, either. But we can come here to get box seats .” She winks at Emma, who clambers over her seat to give Lily a hug, and Regina tenses and is annoyed at herself for it.

 

Emma returns, sliding into her seat, and she says in a low voice, “Time to figure out who their last fighters are. Pridelands isn’t going to give up without a fight.” The same fighters still sit on the bench, the five that Regina recognizes and then Mother and a new one. It’s bold of Mother. Regina hopes dearly that they’ll be routed.

 

Mother is close enough to her, in this box, that she can raise her eyes to the audience and offer Regina a cold smile. Regina returns it with an equally cold one, and then she turns to Henry instead, fussing over his shirt for no reason but to keep him from watching Mother. 

 

The buzzer sounds, and Regina is able to watch the match instead of Mother. Zoso fights first, then Hades and Megara. The Blind Witch takes the second Solo, but she struggles against Pridelands’s Nala, faltering where the others hadn’t. Broken Kingdom is strong , stronger than Regina had expected– though they would have to be strong to have gotten this far. And are these their strongest fighters? Or are they–

 

For the first time, Regina remembers the screens above them, the ones that would tell her exactly who is due to fight next. They are so far from the box that it’s easier to watch without them, but now she raises her eyes to them to squint at the names there. They’re too small, and she gives up and watches the match instead.

 

The battle ends, and the announcer says, “Pridelands ekes out a victory, but can they make a comeback? The next match will be second Duos: Pridelands’s Kovu and Kiara against Broken Kingdom’s Siren of Nostos and Milah.” 

 

Milah, Regina knows. The other is the woman beside Mother, who stands gracefully and shifts, at once, into someone else. “A shapeshifter,” Emma says, exhaling. “That’s why she keeps– what’s she going to be for us?” 

 

They watch the match in silence, gripped with the urgency that Pridelands seems to feel as they fight back against the Siren and Milah. The Siren changes fluidly, moves from body to body to dodge the attacks against her, and they nearly win the battle before Kovu turns the tide. The win goes to the Pridelands, and Regina inhales sharply. Time to see what’s next. If Mother only has six fighters– if her final fighter is a placeholder, a neophyte who isn’t meant to fight– then maybe, just maybe, they won’t have the confrontation that Regina dreads.

 

“The deciding battle for Pridelands and Broken Kingdom!” the announcer says, and then, wryly, “Unless it goes the way of last match, I guess. From Pridelands, we have Mufasa. From Broken Kingdom, Cora Mills.” 

 

Of course . “Of course,” Emma says in a low voice beside her, and she puts her hand on Regina’s wrist.

 

How had they missed that? Mother had managed teams once Regina had been born, but she is hardly concerned with Regina’s future anymore. She has no reason to be distracted from the fight now. And Mother strides down to the arena with easy confidence now, that sly smirk on her face.

 

Zelena watches Mother, frozen in her seat, and Regina reaches over Henry to nudge her. “We can take her,” she says, though she doesn’t believe it. “We can take all of them.” 

 

They will have to. Mother will win this battle, just as she’s won every other that she’s fought. And in three days, Mother will face, undoubtedly, her greatest creation, forged from the flames with which Mother had turned her to ash.

 


 

They do go out to celebrate the next evening, though Emma feels a little muted. Not because of her magic, which emerges in fits and starts during the day, but because of the match that now hangs over them. “The truth is, we’re better than nearly everyone on that team,” Cruella points out. “They’re good, but they aren’t as good as we are.” 

 

“That’s what we thought about Olympus,” Marian says grimly. “And we won that one by the skin of our teeth.” 

 

“We won it because of Regina,” Emma says, and she darts a quick, heartbeat-quickening glance behind her. Regina is walking with Lucy and Henry, each with a hand in hers, engrossed in conversation. “I don’t know if we can win against Cora herself. We have to end it before she fights.” 

 

“What’s the lineup?” 

 

“Standard. Solo, duo, solo, duo, solo.” 

 

“Just once, I’d like Duos to get all the glory of the final battle,” Cruella muses. “Why do they always start with the Duos? Let the Solos compete first.” 

 

“That would mean that half the battles would end with only three fighters in the mix,” Mulan points out. “And Duos wouldn’t even fight.” She shrugs, leading the way to the portal. “I’ll take this.” There’s an unobtrusive portal from the fighters’ village to the restaurant district, designed so that they can come and go without having to make the walk all the way to the arena and beyond it. 

 

Tonight, they are undercover, out of their jumpsuits and in more formal clothing. Emma, who hadn’t packed anything but her jumpsuits, had had to run out with Lily after practice and take a portal to Storybrooke. You aren’t going to get the girl with anything in your closet, Lily had lectured her before leading her down Main Street. 

 

Emma had said what girl am I trying to get? and Lily had slapped her arm and maneuvered her crutches down the block. Now, Emma feels very uncertain in the blouse and slacks that she’s wearing. She has no idea if the slacks do, in fact, show off her ass– as Lily had said, approvingly, with the air of someone a little too comfortable with Emma’s ass– but when she twists around, Regina is staring at it, and she swallows and walks on.

 

Regina might actually, to her utter disbelief, be attracted to Emma. Maybe it hadn’t all been Aphrodite’s charm, after all. And that had been– she hesitates, as she always does when she remembers it– had Regina kissed her, or had she dreamed it up in the rush of victory, in how desperately she’d wanted it? It had been an instant, a moment of perfect exultation before everyone else had caught up, and Emma turns it over and over again in her head. 

 

She also sneaks more glances back at Regina, who is wearing a red dress today that does wonders for her legs. Something has shifted in their relationship, bit by bit, and Emma finds that it has opened something raw and longing inside of her. Every moment spent away from Regina feels like one wasted, like a moment she’ll regret. Every moment with her feels like being on the verge of something that she hasn’t managed, like something she’ll regret, too. Regina had held Emma’s heart in her hands this morning, and it still sends shuddering emotion down her spine when she remembers that tender touch.

 

She slows so she can walk alongside Lucy, scolding herself internally for it. “Magic is almost totally back,” she announces, and she wiggles her finger in the air and lets little sparks emerge.

 

Lucy beams at her. Regina smiles warmly, and Emma’s heart races. “Good,” Regina says. Then, obliquely, “He was slippery. I don’t think we’ll have any evidence.” 

 

“I figured.” While Emma had been shopping, Regina had gone on a fishing expedition to Gold. “We’ll just have to keep an eye out. It won’t matter after Thursday, anyway.” 

 

“Finals,” Lucy breathes. “I can’t believe we got this far.” She dances a little as they walk through the street, pausing only to admire a storefront with a stunning Elsa costume in the window. “Even if we don’t win–” 

 

“We will win,” Emma says, squeezing her hand. Across the street, there’s a poster on a portal station wall– an ad for cereal that features Lucy and Emma. There have been others, signs and advertisements that bear their faces. Snow must be ecstatic. Fortunately, without their jumpsuits and all dressed up, they aren’t nearly as recognizable. Most passersby don’t look twice at them, although a few point and whisper. Cruella and Zelena, their most distinctive members, are hard to miss.

 

Just as long as the reporters stay away. Emma doesn’t need more speculation on her poor, hopeless crush , or whatever the last article she’d read had been. She’s sure that this excursion will somehow make to the tabloids, but as long as no one bothers them when they’re out to dinner, she doesn’t care.

 

They deserve a celebration. “Table for nine,” Cruella says at the door, nodding back to the rest of them. “I don’t know about the little ones. Do they need high chairs?” 

 

“I’m ten ,” Lucy says, scowling at Cruella. Roland is with his father tonight, which makes Henry the youngest present, and equally unamused.

 

Cruella shrugs. “That means nothing to me.” She follows the maître d' into the restaurant, which is even more formal than Emma had expected. She’s glad for the slacks, suddenly, and she feels eyes on them from around the room. 

 

Someone claps, then another person from another table, and then a few more tables begin to clap. A few people stand up to applaud, and Emma smiles uncomfortably and says, “Thanks. We’re just…um, eating dinner…” Is this what life is like in Arendelle all the time? She’s used to being another member of Team Storybrooke, a few extra treats on the house at Granny’s during Proeliate season but otherwise little interest. Here, she is suddenly a household name. 

 

Zelena bows, enjoying the attention, and Marian yanks her to the table. “Sit down, honey,” she says. “Don’t forget that you fell off a broomstick today. All those people haven’t.” Zelena sulks, and Marian glides into her seat and elbows Mulan. “It’ll keep us humble,” she says cheerfully. “A good loss every now and then, you know?” 

 

“You’ve bounced back,” Emma says, eyeing her. Regina has sat down next to Henry, and Lucy looks about to take the other side when Henry pats the seat next to him instead, casting his eyes significantly at Emma. Emma rolls her eyes at him but still takes the seat that Lucy had nearly gotten.

 

Regina says, “There’s no use in recriminations after a loss. Get over it and get better.” She unfolds her napkin and places it on her lap. Emma attempts to do the same and drops it instead.

 

She ducks under the table to retrieve it and comes face-to-leg with Regina’s calves. For a moment, she imagines tracing a finger down the back of one–

 

Regina’s legs jerk and snap together, and Emma winces and remembers exactly how close their minds are right now. Sorry , she thinks, and retreats to her seat. She senses a whiff of disappointment, and spends the entire soup course wondering if she’s projecting. 

 

The food is good, the portions too small, and Emma is still hungry by the time dessert comes around. “If you didn’t eat all your food in the first thirty seconds after it’s served to you, you might actually digest something,” Regina says reprovingly. 

 

“I was in foster care!” Emma protests. “If you didn’t eat quickly, you didn’t eat .” 

 

Regina raises her eyebrows. “And you’ve been out of foster care for…what, fifteen years? Plenty of time to slow down .” Emma considers pointing out that Regina has been out of her mother’s house for eleven years, and she still eats tiny pieces and leaves over too much, but she chooses decency instead. Which means that she’s growing as a person, and Regina should respect that.

 

“I really do,” Regina says wryly, and she grabs Emma’s fork from her plate and dips it into her slice of cheesecake, offering Emma a piece. Emma opens her mouth to take it, letting out a little moan of pleasure as she eats it. It’s so much better than Emma’s first slice had been. Maybe Regina’s onto something. She licks the fork before she lets it go, and she looks up to tell Regina so–

 

And stops. Regina is staring at her, eyes wide and face flushed, and Emma processes the last thirty seconds and sinks into her seat, feeling her face redden. 

 

Mulan says casually, “I think that guy in the far table might be a pap. I’ve seen his face on Flitter.” 

 

“I am buying whatever picture he just got and framing it,” Zelena says gleefully. “So nauseatingly sweet .” 

 

“Yeah, mine, too,” Henry says, making a face and completely missing the point. “Does anyone want it?” He holds it out to Emma, who seizes the plate and eats her second slice in a sullen huff. She can sense the laughter from her teammates, barely constrained, and it’s all she can do not to lick off the fork when she’s done. 

 

Jacinda and Sabine are due to meet Lucy and Henry after dinner to take them to a laser tag place that they’ve found on the far end of the restaurant district, and the others wander off after dinner, too. Cruella and Ursula are gone before the check arrives, unsurprisingly. Mulan and Marian are going on what looks suspiciously like a date, and Zelena disappears into the portal back to the fighters’ village. “Glinda has more ale,” she says cheerfully. 

 

Only Emma and Regina are left wandering outside the restaurant in what is a suspiciously quick amount of time. They shift, the silence not quite comfortable but not uncomfortable, too. “That was good food,” Emma finally offers. “Your recommendation, right? You come out to the Proeliate realm a lot?” 

 

Regina shakes her head. “Once in a while. Hyperion Heights has the basics, but there isn’t much in the way of fine dining. We’d come here for special occasions. Birthdays, milestones, that sort of thing.” 

 

“We?” Emma echoes. There’s no way that this restaurant has been here since Daniel, which means that there had been others. Others Regina had dated for long enough to have milestones .

 

Regina raises her eyebrows. “Yes,” she says slowly. “My significant other and I.” Emma stares at her. Regina sighs deeply. “It’s been a long and fulfilling relationship, though he hasn’t shared my bed in years–” 

 

“Henry,” Emma says, and the relief that suffuses her is ridiculous and humiliating.

 

Yes , Henry,” Regina huffs out a little laugh. “Did you think that I was steadily dating men in Hyperion Heights? I spent nine years living like a nun, mourning my husband.” Her voice is wistful, but in that muted way that comes with nostalgia, none of the bite that has accompanied it until now.

 

Emma swallows, venturing, “So there was no one ?” It’s absurd to imagine it, Regina living such a solitary life. Maybe it’s only because she’s always seen Regina as so vital , so desperate for human connection, and she can’t picture a Regina who eschews it all. “All that time?”

 

“An occasional date or two that Jacinda would talk me into,” Regina concedes. “Nothing that lasted.” She hears the too many dry spells in Regina’s mind, and then, abruptly, a sense of intense sexual frustration that Regina locks away a moment after it bursts into Emma’s mind. Emma gapes at her. Regina says stiffly, “Well, we don’t all have steady girlfriends for…what, four years?” 

 

“Stop it. Lily isn’t my…” Emma sighs. “I met Lily when we were kids. I was running away, and then she was. At different times. It was a year or two before I met you.” She shrugs. “It was fate, like everything else,” she says, and she tries not to sound too bitter about destiny , the thing that had taken her away from her family in the first place. “We both belonged here. We weren’t dating at any point. We’re just friends who…who weren’t interested in falling in love with anyone. That was all. It worked for a while.”

 

Regina studies her. “And it doesn’t now?”

 

Emma shrugs uncomfortably. “We aren’t doing it anymore. I wouldn’t call it a breakup because we weren’t dating in the first place. I just…I think it’s about time that I start looking for a real relationship,” she says, and she reaches out to feel Regina’s mind and finds a firmly shut door in front of it. 

 

Regina says, her voice tight, “That’s…good. I’m happy for you.” She clears her throat. “I’ve been thinking about the same thing. Henry’s getting older, you know. I think he’s always wanted to have a…well, some kind of– paternal– or parental– figure–” Her words are coming out in odd little bursts, but Emma gets the gist of it. Henry needs a father, Regina thinks, even if she isn’t thinking that through the bond .   

 

Well, fine . “Elsa kissed me,” Emma blurts out. It is very important, suddenly, for Regina to know that Emma isn’t alone, either. That there is something in her future that isn’t pining over Regina for an eternity. “A few nights ago.”

 

“Oh.” Regina stares at Emma, and Emma catches something magical through their bond, slipped through the locked door of Regina’s mind and gifted to Emma. It lingers in the air, a breathless kind of wanting, and Emma reframes everything Regina’s just said to her and is left uncertain but warm. “Was it…was it all right?” she says finally, a strain to her voice. 

 

Emma longs to understand, to know if this is– if they are– “It was okay,” she says, and then, daringly, “Not the best kiss I’ve had in the past few days.” She heaves her shoulders, a peace offering. “Then she told me that she had a crush on you when we were here last.” 

 

Regina laughs aloud, the sound as unexpected to Emma as it seems to be to Regina. “ Did she,” she says, amused. “I barely noticed her. I was besotted with the manager of the team, though.” 

 

“Ingrid?” Emma says, eyes narrowing. She remembers Ingrid from the common house back then, the way she’d worn those low-cut dresses that had looked like ice as she’d floated through the room. “I’ll bet you were besotted with one part of her. Or…two.” Abruptly, the memory returns of that strange, foggy night when Regina had felt her up, when they’d almost– 

 

She’d never thought that Regina had been straight after that, though she’d been sure that Regina and Daniel would last forever. It had added a whole new layer of yearning, naturally. 

 

Regina scowls at her. “Don’t be crass,” she says. “I just liked the way she walked. And those dresses.” Her eyes grow distant, and Emma snorts.

 

“The dresses . Right.” They’re approaching the portal, and Emma slows, suddenly reluctant to return to the village. Snow wants to conference about the lineup, and she has no excuse to stay out for longer, except that Regina is here and they’re having fun , a conversation that is teasing but not hostile, a chat about the old days that isn’t drenched in bitterness. “I bet you’d love my blouse if I unbuttoned another button.” 

 

“I do love your blouse,” Regina says, and she reaches out to touch the satin material. “It’s very unlike you.” 

 

“Maybe I dress like this all the time now,” Emma challenges, which is deeply dishonest. “You don’t know.” 

 

Regina is silent for a moment. When she speaks, her voice and mind are unreadable. “I suppose I don’t.” 

 

They step through the portal and emerge outside the common house, right near the garden. Silently, they walk to the Storybrooke cabin, and Emma keeps her mind as tightly to her as Regina is doing to her own. 

 

But she can’t end tonight like this, not when it’s been perfect until now. “Tonight was…kind of great. Even after everyone abandoned us.” 

 

“I think that was by design,” Regina says ruefully.

 

Emma cracks a smile. “Seems like,” she says. “But still. I think this was the most tolerant we’ve been of each other in the past eleven years. Not a single squabble.” She licks her lips, suddenly afraid that she’d made the wrong move by acknowledging it. 

 

Regina’s eyes track her lips and then shift back upward. “I wish I hadn’t been so harsh with you when you’d come to find me in Hyperion Heights,” she says, and her voice is quiet. Emma stays very still, afraid to move. Regina is lost in thought. “I think back to then and…maybe you were selfish. I was selfish, too.” Her eyes go to Emma’s chest, to her heart, and Emma shakes her head, ready to deny it, before Regina speaks again. “But I think about you then and you were so young. We both were. You must have searched for me for so long.” Her voice is unsteady, and Emma can feel the pain in it. Pain for her , an intense empathy that shakes Emma to her core.

 

Emma feels very young again, brought back to the vulnerability of visiting a strange new land, her body still not quite healed and the only thing that had mattered being the girl who’d turned her away. “It was okay,” she says, and her voice is small instead of stronger. “I was okay.”

 

“Emma,” Regina whispers, and the warmth that comes with her words is almost maternal, the warmth of someone who has learned for nearly ten years to take care of the vulnerable. When she pulls Emma close– when Emma is enfolded in her arms– it feels, for the first time in an unbelievable eleven years, as though Emma isn’t alone. As though she finally has the partner she’s forgotten she could, and here she is, wrapped in her embrace.

 

When she separates from Regina, it’s only because there is someone behind them, calling her name. “Emma? Is that– oh,” says Snow, looking between them. “Am I…interrupting something?” 

 

“No,” Emma says quickly, exactly as swiftly as Regina says, “Not at all.” Regina’s hands clasp at her abdomen, an old nervous gesture that Emma recognizes, and Emma rubs her hands against her slacks. “Lineup, right? Let’s do this.” She takes a reluctant step away from Regina, who lifts her hand to unlock the cabin door and slips inside. 

 

Snow says, “I’m sorry I interrupted that. It looked like you were having a moment.” She eyes Emma, speculative, and Emma averts her eyes. 

 

“A little, yeah. Nothing really…earth-shattering or anything. Just some reminiscing.” She clears her throat. “So I’ve been doing some quick glances through past battles, and it looks like Broken Kingdom favors Hades and Megara in first Duos. Zoso also fights early on, and the Blind Witch is their weakest fighter. Milah is probably their strongest, after Cora, obviously. It’s going to be hard to figure out who fights who, but I think that our best bet is just to come in strong and hope for the best.”

 

She walks away from the cabin, and it already feels like a mistake to leave Regina behind during this reasoning, especially when they’re discussing Cora’s team. “I don’t want Regina or Zelena facing Cora. Let me do it,” she says in a low voice.

 

“Absolutely not.” Snow’s voice is uncompromising. “I don’t want you anywhere near her. Besides–” And now it’s sharp. “She’s going to face who she wants to face. We both know that. And she’ll want to face–” 

 

“Regina.” They share grim looks. “I don’t care. I want it stopped.” 

 

Snow sighs. “Good luck fighting Cora. Do you know why she never came after you again? I don’t think it was the restraining orders. I think she just didn’t care to try. Nothing stops that woman.” She looks suddenly weary. “I thought that we were finally free of her, and then I saw her in the regionals.”

 

“Yeah.” They walk on in silence for a few minutes, Emma weighing possible lineups and rejecting each one. “I almost want to tell everyone to take a day off. Skip practice, go do something that has a better chance of emotional stability, because Cora is about to screw that up.” She still feels that irrational– or maybe totally rational– fear around her, that desire to hide from Cora’s wrath.

 

She can’t hide anymore. Someone approaches them, and Emma half expects it to be Cora herself, as though they’d called her by using her name. Instead, it’s another woman who had come up tonight, floating down the path with a glittering white, low-cut dress. Ingrid nods to Snow curtly, then glances at Emma with a raised eyebrow. “Emma Swan,” she says. “I hope we’ll hear back from you soon.” 

 

Emma cringes. Ingrid walks on, and Snow says, “What did she mean? Hear back about what?”  

 

Emma takes a breath. She’d been hoping to make sure that Snow wouldn’t hear about this at all– unless Emma takes the offer, obviously– and Ingrid had just made that impossible. Were Emma a cynic, she might have thought that Ingrid had done that walk past them solely to force the issue.

 

Emma is, in fact, a cynic. “It’s, uh…Arendelle offered me a spot on their team.” She lifts her shoulders, tries to play it off. “It’s not a big deal. I didn’t answer yet, but of course, I wouldn’t leave Storybrooke–” 

 

Snow frowns at her. “But you’ve always wanted to join Arendelle. Isn’t that why you’ve been so upset with Regina for all these years?” 

 

Emma manages a smile. “I know. But I know the team is…I know Storybrooke is really important to you–” She’s been with Storybrooke for so long, has stayed Storybrooke’s and fought for their glory even when no glory had been forthcoming. This is Snow’s point of pride, the thing that ties them together, and leaving to Arendelle might shatter that–

 

Snow laughs suddenly and for so long that Emma looks askance at her, on the verge of taking offense. “Emma,” she says, and she laughs again. “I hate the Proeliate. Haven’t you noticed? I think it’s savage. Barbaric, really. Violence can be justified if you’re protecting your kingdom or the weak. But violence as a spectator sport?” She sounds disgusted, and Emma stares at her in startled confusion.

 

“But you’ve…you’re the manager . You talk about sponsors all the time.”

 

“I love sponsorships,” Snow sighs dreamily. “Clothes, pictures, scripts. Not a bit of violence or me having to worry about you getting stabbed in the gut in the abdomen. Why can’t you do more sponsorships and fewer battles?” she wonders aloud, and she turns to smile at Emma, who is gaping at her in disbelief. “I’ve been managing your team for twelve years because I love you , sweetheart. We don’t have a lot in common, but we’ve always had this.”

 

“Oh.” Emma finds that her throat is suddenly a little clogged. “I…I didn’t realize.” She’d been so sure that this is theirs, that every loss had been a disappointment to Snow, who is always on the verge of disapproval in the arena. And now… 

 

“If Arendelle is what you want, then go for it,” Snow says gently. “We can find another mother-daughter bonding activity. How do you feel about escape rooms?” 

 

“They’re okay,” Emma says, and she isn’t sure if she wants to laugh or cry. “You’d really be fine with me going to Arendelle, Mom?” 

 

Snow’s eyes shine. “I’d change my entire wardrobe to blue and white,” she says, and she presses a kiss to Emma’s temple, casual and affectionate. Her eyes turn briefly somber. “But what about Regina?” 

 

Emma knows what she’s asking, and she isn’t brave enough to be deliberately obtuse. She shrugs unhappily. “She’ll go back to Misthaven at the end of the season,” she murmurs. “They all will. It’s not like I’ll be fighting alongside her again anytime soon.” She stares out into the night. “At least we…we worked through some things first. Maybe we can both finally move on.” 

 


 

Waiting for Emma in the sitting room feels like an echo of the past, of being nineteen again and wondering what’s taking Emma, why she’s still out in the common house and what new friends she might be making there. They’d been inseparable most of the time back then, but there had been those brief moments when they’d be apart and Regina would fret.

 

Emma had been launched into a new world outside of Storybrooke and she’d thrived like Regina never had, had made quick friends and admirers and had glowed with the attention. Regina had never been envious of her, but she’d envied every passing stranger who had gotten time with Emma, every glancing conversation that hadn’t been with her. She’d been happy for Emma, she had , but there had always been the fear that she might find someone better, someone kinder or happier, someone more compatible.

 

In that sense, she reflects with some gloom, she hasn’t changed very much. 

 

But tonight had felt healing, and Regina already feels that sense of emptiness without Emma. She misses her, which is nothing new; but to acknowledge that reality without being angry about it– that’s something else entirely.

 

Is she smiling? She winces at her own stupid expression and wipes away the smile, but she can’t seem to tamp down the warmth that remains. This is good. They are careening toward a destructive encounter with Mother, but she has beside her the only person who has ever made that bearable, and that’s… 

 

She rises, walking from the room to the kitchen, and makes a sudden decision. Emma and Snow might still be in front, so she exits through the patio instead, walking along the winding path that will take her past a dozen other cabins, right up to the hotel that houses the team managers. 

 

She speaks to the concierge briefly and gets the room number that she needs, and she raps at the door reserved for Cora Mills with renewed confidence. 

 

Mother opens the door, a smile spreading onto her face. “Ah,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for you to come visit.” She steps back, and Regina walks slowly inside. Her heart is pounding, her back stiff with the fear that comes with being around Mother. But she forces herself to take even breaths, her face expressionless. 

 

She is unsurprised to find Gold sitting on a couch in the suite. “You won’t fault your manager for visiting with an old friend, would you?” Mother says, placing her hands on the couch behind Gold. He murmurs something into her ear, and Regina watches them with her expression even.

 

When she speaks, it is far less equivocal than it had been earlier. “Drug Emma again, and I’ll have you thrown out of the Proeliate,” she says with deadly calm. “I don’t know what else you’ve both been responsible for– the malfunction at the regionals, maybe. Was that your insurance policy in case Misthaven lost?” She takes a breath. “Who put it in Zelena’s head in the first place that I should fight in the Proeliate?” 

 

“Darling,” Mother says, and she walks to Regina and confirms and denies nothing. “You can’t possibly fault a dead woman for wanting to see her daughter again.” She cups Regina’s face, looks at her with naked pride on her own face. “And look at you. Look at how magnificent you’ve become. You are a fighter who will never be forgotten.” 

 

“It’s all you’ve ever wanted from me,” Regina says, and it is an accusation, not praise, though Mother takes it as the latter.

 

“I have given you so much,” Mother murmurs. There is real affection in her eyes, enough that Regina is unsteady with it, with the deep-seated need for it that makes her knees wobble. And then, Mother’s eyes turn sharp and deadly. “And you threw it in my face. For what? For a man ?” 

 

“To be free, Mother,” Regina corrects her. “You were going to marry me to that decrepit old man–” 

 

Mother scoffs. “And you would have thanked me for it someday, when you were a queen. Ungrateful little brat .” She throws out a hand, and Regina can feel her throat constrict, the choking sensation that nearly strangles her as she hovers in midair.

 

No. No . She freezes, convulsing in midair, clawing at her neck. Mother doesn’t have this hold on her anymore. She’s stronger now, older, a mother in her own right– She gathers her own magic and hurls Mother backward, releasing herself as Mother lets out a snarl.

 

And abruptly, the snarl fades. Mother rearranges her features and offers Regina another smile instead. Regina trembles. “I should not have done that,” Mother murmurs. “We have such a…charged relationship at times. I think that there is much to mend.” She moves forward with the motions of someone who is accustomed to being obeyed, someone who doesn’t imagine that she will ever be pushed away.

 

Regina doesn’t push her away. A little girl, buried deep inside of her, weeps when Mother wraps her arms around Regina, and Regina closes her eyes and surrenders to them both for a brief moment. Holding Emma had felt like healing. Holding Mother feels like tearing open old scars to cut deeper. “My darling girl,” Mother whispers against her. “If only you hadn’t humiliated us so grievously eleven years ago.” 

 

She pulls away before Regina can, and Regina stands in the center of the room, fairly certain that she’s just been threatened. “Don’t touch the rest of them,” she says. Mother has returned to Gold, who sits silently on the couch and regards her. “Henry. Zelena. Lucy. Emma . Do what you do to me, but don’t touch them. Or I will make you pay.” Her voice is steel, her stomach fire, and she stalks from the room without looking back.

 

She makes it back to the cabin with her head high and a building desperation to tell Emma what had just transpired, and she calls, “Emma?” 

 

“Just us,” Jacinda calls from the back of the cabin. “I am ordering the kids to sleep. It’s late .” Regina follows her voice to the back, a strange relief settling over her at the sight of Henry, sleepy-eyed in the top bunk and smiling at her.

 

“Hey, Mom,” he says, yawning. She takes his hand and presses a kiss into his palm, and he puts his hand obligingly to his cheek. “Laser tag was awesome.” 

 

“I’ll come along next time,” she promises. 

 

Sabine winks at her from where she’s lying beside Lucy, Lucy’s head resting on her abdomen. “Bring a buddy,” she says, wiggling her eyebrows. “Did you have fun tonight?” 

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Regina says haughtily, and then laughs, incapable of pretending for too long. Sabina whoops in a whisper, and Jacinda drops the last of the kids’ clothes into the laundry and lays a hand on Regina’s shoulder, steering her out of the room. 

 

By the time they’re back in the sitting room, Regina has returned to the heavy awareness of what had happened next. She recounts as much of it as she can to Jacinda, who listens in silence. 

 

When she’s done, Jacinda says, “I want Lucy in the alternate position next match.” 

 

“She will be.” Regina trusts Emma to do that without question. Lucy isn’t going anywhere near Mother, no matter how cranky she’ll get about being benched. “I won’t let her in that arena near Broken Kingdom. I swear.” 

 

“Good.” Jacinda heaves a sigh. Sabine joins them, squeezing onto the loveseat beside Jacinda, and Jacinda leans back against her. “I want her benched every fight,” she admits. “Every match. I know how talented she is, but every battle terrifies me.” 

 

Even Sabine nods at that, her old enthusiasm for the Proeliate gone. “I think you had the right idea with Henry, Regina. She’s just too young. If she can take a few years off–” 

 

“She’ll be furious,” Jacinda murmurs. “She’ll hate us.” 

 

“And when she’s fucked up in five years because of the violence she’s experienced in the arena?” Sabine says reasonably. “Will she love us then?” Jacinda shakes her head, and Sabine murmurs, “A few years off. She won’t have to struggle to get onto a team. She’s going to get the junior MVP this year. There isn’t a team who would give her up.” 

 

“Misthaven will leave her a standing invitation,” Regina says, and Jacinda looks up at her in surprise. 

 

“You’re not staying with Storybrooke?” 

 

Regina shakes her head. “You knew this was always a onetime arrangement. If Storybrooke wants us to stay, no one’s said a word.” She realizes too late that that sounds almost resentful, and she quickly amends, “And they have their own fighters who will be back. So do we. But I don’t think Fiona is going to return, so we’ll have a position to fill–”

 

Jacinda is still staring at her, her expression stricken, and she says, “But what about Emma?”

 

What about Emma? Emma will be happy in Arendelle, and perhaps they will meet in this village from time to time during the finals. Perhaps there will be quiet discussions in the gardens, both of them slipping away from their teams, and perhaps their next battle won’t be so bitter. Regina will always wonder about what they’ve let slip away. Maybe Emma will, too. 

 

Maybe someday, she will find a way to fight Duos again with someone new. 

 

She slips off to bed, changes and reads a few news articles about the final four teams before bed. She reviews the possible lineups in her head, wonders what Emma has chosen for her. Wonders where Mother will meet her.

 

Emma enters the room when Regina is already drowsy, and Regina vows to tell her about Mother tomorrow. “Hey,” she murmurs. “Sorry I’m back so late. I was thinking on the lineup.” She gathers her pajamas and sits on her bed, lost in thought. 

 

Regina says, “You’ve benched Lucy.” It isn’t a question.

 

“Yeah. I’m not that irresponsible,” Emma says wryly. “It’s the rest of it that I’m not sure about. I’ve been trying to avoid putting Cora with you or Zelena–” 

 

That would leave Mother with Emma, which is unacceptable. “It won’t matter,” Regina says dully. “Mother and Gold are in touch. I don’t know if they’re working together, but…” There’s nothing they can do about Gold, not right now. He owns Misthaven, and with that, too many of their futures. Zelena has always been too loyal to him, since the years he’d trained them in childhood. Where would Cruella and Ursula fall? Can they afford to create a schism right now?

 

“Yeah.” Emma heaves a sigh. “I think it’s safe to say that Gold is going to make sure that your mother knows whichever position you’re going to be in.” 

 

She’s beaten me every time we’ve fought . A stray thought, a whisper of defeat.

 

Emma says quietly, “That was a long time ago. You underestimate yourself. But I do think that she’ll give us a fight. Not an easy one. And she’s going to do whatever she can to beat you down.” 

 

Regina watches Emma, the weight of her decisions on her face, the way the moonlight highlights her features. “Then what are we supposed to do?” she says.

 

Emma gets off her bed. Sets her pajamas down and walks across the room in four quick steps to settle on her knees in front of Regina’s bed, her eyes bright and a little wary. “We have to put you in a position where we can’t lose,” she says in a murmur, and she lifts her hand and places it, deliberately, atop Regina’s.

Chapter Text

The patio curtains had been left ajar last night, just enough that the sun is harsh and bright on Regina’s face in the morning on Thursday. It’s early, much earlier than she likes to get up on the morning before a match, but she can feel her heartbeat quickening with the awareness of what she’s about to encounter in the arena and she knows that she won’t be able to sleep again. 

 

She props herself up in bed, blinking away sleep-dry eyes, and she glances over at the other bed in the room. Emma sleeps differently than Regina remembers, sprawled out across the bed to inhabit every last bit of it, her blanket discarded on the floor and her head flung back against her pillow instead of on top of it. Regina had imagined her sleeping in that tight little ball that she’d always been in when they’d shared a bed, but this makes nearly as much sense. Emma’s default position is one without a partner in her bed with her.

 

Regina closes the curtains so the sunlight won’t rouse Emma, and Emma lets out a light snort and then flops to one side. It’s chilly in the room in the cool air of the sunrise, and Regina kneels down and lays the blanket over Emma’s body. For an instant, she dares to touch Emma’s cheek, running the backs of her fingers over the skin, and she shivers with the sense that she is on the verge of transgressing something sacred, something she has no right to touch.

 

And fuck , but she wants to touch it. She shakes when she remembers the force of Aphrodite’s magic in the arena, the way that it had made her basest urges seem as necessary as life itself. It had been a tease, an impossible and irresistible thing, and she had only stopped herself for so long. Then there had been the kiss , and that can be shrugged off as a moment of sweeping victory, except…

 

Not the best kiss I’ve had in the past few days . What does it mean? What is rising between them, as uncertain and tentative as it is exhilarating? They’d practiced together yesterday, and it had felt mechanical and uncomfortable, too many years and too much between them. “We’ll get it,” Regina whispers, and Emma exhales against the tips of her fingers and lets out another snort. 

 

Regina backs away, washing up in the bathroom and pulling on her jumpsuit. She tucks something into the pocket of it, feeling very silly about it, and then she straightens. She stares at herself in the mirror, and she wonders what her younger self would have thought of this strained, bitter woman that she’s become, still wearing the Storybrooke colors and preparing for a showdown with Mother. She knows what her younger self would have asked. Is Emma there? Well, okay, then. 

 

She doesn’t want to go to the common house for breakfast today. Mother is bound to be lurking there, and she has to save her energy for confrontation until later. Instead, she digs through the staples in the kitchen and finds the ingredients for pancakes. She shreds an apple and tosses it into the batter, and she fries her pancakes as coffee brews in the background. 

 

The pancakes are ready and the coffee nearly done when she hears it: a quiet moaning noise, somewhere near the kitchen. She moves to her own room for a gripped instant, but Emma is still silent. That had better not be Cruella and Ursula for a morning quickie–

 

But it’s Zelena’s door where she hears movement. Thumping, and a gasping noise in place of breathing. “Zelena?” she calls in a low voice. “Zelena, I’m coming in–” 

 

She pushes open the door, and her heart clenches in her chest. Zelena is lying on the one occupied bed in the room, spread-eagled across the mattress, and her eyes are awash with terror as she lies still. “Zelena?” she whispers.

 

Zelena is still breathing hard, on the verge of what looks very much like an immobile panic attack. Regina sits on the bed beside her, places her hand against Zelena’s chest, and waits until her heartbeat steadies. “I can’t feel my arms and legs,” Zelena chokes out. “I can’t move them. They’re like weights holding me down– something is wrong ,” she says, and she looks up at Regina in terror.

 

Zelena is the older sister, the one who has resented Regina her entire life, and Regina remembers a time when she’d treasured Zelena’s attention and wanted nothing more than her approval. The dynamic has shifted over time, has left Regina as the caregiver to her flightier sister, and she feels the responsibility of helping Zelena right now like the movements of her chest. “You’ve been…that doesn’t just happen ,” she says, struggling to keep her voice calm. “Someone did that to you. Where were you last night after practice?” 

 

“Just at the common house,” Zelena says, and she is still breathing too quickly, her pulse raging against Regina’s palm. “I had drinks with Ursula and Cruella. Gold came in with intel on the Broken Kingdom lineup, and I was so–” She shudders. “I met him, did you know? In Oz. I thought he understood me.” 

 

She isn’t making any sense, but Regina focuses on the most important detail of Zelena’s night. “Gold,” she growls. “He did this to you. Mother must have sent him. Why would he–?” She had warned them to stay away from Zelena, had made it clear that she’d known who had drugged Emma. What audacity would spur him to sabotage her now? 

 

Only that Regina is meant to fight fourth. “Mother wanted us to have a loss under our belt. And we’re good. Too good. We might not have lost the battle we would need to for Mother to fight me.” 

 

Zelena stares at her. Regina gets up, pacing as she considers her options. “I’m going to call a medic. See what can be done to negate these effects.” 

 

“Nothing can be done,” Zelena says sharply, and Regina knows and dreads that caustic, angry voice. “Don’t you know? Mother isn’t taking chances. I am yet another cog in the machine meant to propel her toward her chosen daughter–” 

 

“Zelena.” There must be something in Regina’s voice that silences Zelena, because she is quiet. Regina glances at Zelena’s legs, and she wonders how much magic it will take to undo Gold’s damage. Too much. More than she can spare before a fight.

 

She puts her hands on Zelena’s thighs, and Zelena says, “Don’t be an idiot, little sis. You’ll just make yourself weak.” 

 

“Love is weakness,” Regina murmurs, Mother’s old mantra, and Zelena watches her, her eyes downcast, as Regina calls forward more of her magic. 

 

It isn’t hard to find the places where Zelena’s nervous system has been frozen, rather than severed. Regina warms it with her magic, urges neurons to start firing again, and Zelena leans back against her pillow and whispers, “I loved him, you know. He was the only one who ever– the only one who ever saw me as something other than Mother’s unwanted child.” 

 

“Who?” Regina asks, running her fingers over the next dead spot in her nervous system. Zelena can’t mean Gold, can she?

 

“Hades,” Zelena murmurs, and Regina remembers that Zelena had mentioned getting Broken Kingdom’s lineup. “And now…now he’s working with Mother. Maybe she had been the one to send him to me.” She laughs dully. “How fucked up is it that I’d rather Mother have used him to manipulate me? That at least then, I would know that I mattered–” She takes a sharp breath, her heart rate accelerating.

 

“You matter to us,” Regina says, her voice rough and hoarse. “Mother was an evil– Mother did everything in her power to make us suffer. To make us strong . You’re worth a dozen of her, you know? And this team– we love you. All of us. You’re the one who says what needs to be said. Who brought me here in the first place. And I…” Her voice is trembling, but she keeps her hand steady on Zelena’s legs, and they twitch beneath her. “I wish you’d understand that you are so much more than what Mother won’t acknowledge.” 

 

Zelena closes her eyes, her feet moving in ponderous motions. “I don’t want to fight him,” she says, her voice very small. “I don’t want it to hurt more.” She is still so young in so many ways, unafraid of her own inner child, and Regina aches for her. 

 

She stretches out beside her, running a hand over the deadened neurons that control Zelena’s arms, and she pushes forth more energy. “It’ll hurt either way,” she says quietly. “But I think…at the end of the day, you’ll be happier when you crush Hades into the arena floor.” 

 

She is beginning to grow dizzy, exhaustion setting in from the sheer volume of magic that she is using, and she closes her eyes and lets the magic flow on autopilot into Zelena.

 


 

Regina is asleep on Zelena’s bed, which fills Emma with quiet panic as the match gets closer and closer. “It’s all right,” Zelena says, walking unsteadily to sit on a couch. “It’s a rejuvenating sleep.” She moves in a clunky way, as though she is still growing accustomed to walking, and she sits down hard. “Seems like someone tried to put me out of commission. She can be awakened soon.” 

 

“We’re not fighting without Regina,” Emma says grimly. “We can shuffle everyone around so she’s last in the lineup, but Lucy isn’t leaving the alternate position.” Lucy scowls at her. Emma shrugs, unmoved, and sits down on a couch next to Henry to eat her cereal in a cup. 

 

Henry says, “We just have to wake her up. Mom isn’t a morning person, but she’ll drink some coffee and be fine.” He looks up at Emma, hopeful, and he says, “She’s just out of magic. It comes back after you sleep, right?”

 

“Right,” Emma says reassuringly, but she isn’t so sure. A full night’s sleep after using a fight’s worth of magic, maybe. But whatever Regina had expended to heal Zelena, it had been enough to leave her dead to the world. Regina awakened now will be a weaker Regina, and Emma doesn’t want her facing Cora like that . Cora will eviscerate her. “Hey, why don’t we go to the common house and get a real breakfast like everyone else? We’ll give your mom as much time as we can to get some sleep.”

 

Zelena stays back, doing stretches on the floor of the kitchen, and Emma heads out with Lucy and Henry on either side of her. Henry still looks worried. “My grandma is going to be in the common house. I’m not supposed to be there without Mom.” 

 

“I can handle your grandma,” Emma says with confidence that she doesn’t feel. “Besides,” she points out, “There will be loads of fighters there. No one is going to try anything in front of that many people.” She tweaks Henry’s ear as they enter the common house. “Come on, Truest Believer. You know we’ve got this in the bag. That’s why someone screwed with your aunt. They’d have to drug us to get us to lose.” 

 

She sees the others, clustered around a table with a few other fighters, and she nods to Jacinda and gives Lucy a little push. “Go,” she says. “Eat something. You’re going to need your energy to cheer us on.” She leads Henry to the buffet, and they get pancakes and cocoa. “This is pretty cool, huh? After today, we might be in the finals.” 

 

“I don’t doubt it,” says the woman behind them. Elsa, smiling that shining smile at Emma, and Emma grins back. 

 

Henry eyes Elsa suspiciously. “You’re rooting for my mom’s team?” 

 

“I’m rooting for the team that will give Arendelle the best fight,” Elsa says easily. Abruptly, her eyebrows shoot up as though she’s heard something untoward, and she elbows someone behind her. Anna , Emma realizes, and the younger woman lets out a snort as though Elsa has said something in response.

 

They navigate their mental bond with ease, and Emma watches them from the corner of her eye as she makes Henry cocoa. Anna takes an apple and an orange from the buffet, flips both into the air, and Elsa neatly knocks one onto her plate and the other onto Anna’s– no , it’s about to bounce off the plate, but Emma blinks and it is on Anna’s plate, so instantly that she must have imagined it. They walk in perfect sync, deep in a conversation that no one else can hear, and there is a little spark of magic that moves between them, barely visible.

 

Henry watches them go, and he says, “They haven’t lost a single fight in thirteen years. They’re both killer in Solos, but they always fight Duos in the championship match. Arendelle is really good, but they always go to five fights and Anna and Elsa always get the first Duo.” 

 

Emma looks down at him, very fond. “You know everything about the Proeliate, don’t you?” 

 

Henry shrugs modestly. “Pretty much,” he says. “Mom says that I should…that there’s life outside the Proeliate. That I should spend more time riding my bike and hanging out with kids my age and reading comic books. That even if I do fight in the Proeliate one day, it shouldn’t be my whole reason to exist, or I won’t ever learn how to live.” He scoffs. “It’s silly.”

 

“It’s not,” Emma says. It’s an automatic desire to back up Regina, but she also knows that Regina is right. “Look…I don’t spend a lot of time living outside the Proeliate, and it sucks sometimes. I’ve never really gotten a chance to…to grow up,” she says ruefully, because she still feels very much like she’s a teenager sometimes. “To travel to all the cool places in the United Realms and even in the Land Without Magic. To fall in love or have a family or–” Her throat feels scratchy. “I love the Proeliate so much , but it isn’t everything. Don’t let it take over your future, kid, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Henry says quietly, and he is lost in thought as he eats his breakfast. Emma glances around the room, spots narrowed eyes on them from tables far across it, and she lifts her chin and meets Cora’s cool look with her heart pounding. And Cora smiles, slow and deadly, until Emma begins to shake from it. 

 

“Kid,” she says abruptly, and she seizes Henry’s arm. “Let’s go wake up your mom. It’s getting late.” She leads Henry from the room with his mouth full– sees Cora rise and stride toward them– speeds up, Henry stumbling beside her–

 

They make it outside when Emma nearly slams into someone else. Gold . He’s walking in, Snow wary beside him, and Emma thinks to bite out, “Get away from here.” 

 

“Emma!” Snow looks dismayed. Gold only smiles.

 

Emma jerks a thumb at him, tired of the secrecy and the lack of communication. “He’s been sabotaging us. He’s working with Cora.” Snow’s eyes clear. Henry looks up at Gold with trepidation. “I want him gone from the team. He nearly knocked Zelena out of commission last night–” 

 

“You’re leveling a lot of wild accusations at me, dearie,” Gold says, his voice silky. “I’m sure you have evidence for them?” 

 

Snow looks uncertain. “I don’t know,” she says, turning to Emma. “How do we know that Gold was responsible for any of this?” 

 

“More importantly,” Gold cuts in, “Are you certain you want to cut me out of this team?” The obvious yes dies on Emma’s tongue at Gold’s cold smile. “Whatever shall Storybrooke do without Misthaven? It’s bundled into the contract you’ve signed, you know. I have final say on any decisions pertaining to my team.”

 

“We’ll report you,” Henry says stubbornly. “The Proeliate board will kick you out–” 

 

“No,” Gold says sleekly. “The Proeliate will investigate my team for any signs of foul play. I wonder what might happen to your chances if there were evidence of tampering?” 

 

“Tampering against us,” Emma says, but she is beginning to feel that helplessness that comes when someone else holds all the cards. She knows that her Misthaven members are still attached to Gold’s team– Zelena’s contract alone is for some ridiculous number of years. Team Misthaven can’t leave Gold’s clutches without some heavy fines and penalties. “We won’t be penalized for it.” 

 

Snow is still staring at Gold, horrorstruck. “I thought you wanted to win,” she says. “Why would you sabotage us?” 

 

Gold sneers at her. “I don’t answer to you,” he says, and he walks easily past them, into the common house.

 

Henry clutches Emma’s hand, and Emma says grimly, “I’m going to wake Regina up. Let’s get this fight over with.” She makes the mistake of turning around– sees Cora, descending the steps toward them– and turns back quickly. “Come on, kid,” she says, quickening her pace. “I’ll race you there.” 

 

They make it back to the cabin before Cora can make it to them, and Zelena comes out to meet them. “We’re running out of time,” she reminds them. “We have to sign in before ten or we’ll be disqualified.” 

 

“Right.” Henry disappears into Zelena’s room and returns, a few minutes later, with a groggy Regina. Emma sets a coffee mug in front of her, and Regina wraps her hands around it. “We’re going to head to the arena now,” Emma reminds Regina. “We have a half hour before sign-in. Are you going to be ready?” 

 

Regina lets out a grunt of acquiescence. “We’d better go,” Emma says, and she sends a group text out to Team Storybrooke, hesitating at the door. Henry and Zelena are walking ahead of her, Zelena’s steps steadier now, and Emma looks back at Regina. “Hey,” she says softly.

 

Regina rubs at her eyes, takes a long sip of her coffee, and smiles back at Emma, tentative. “Hey,” she murmurs back. “Sorry I…” She motions at herself. “I’m not going to be at my best today.” 

 

“Shut up,” Emma says, and she finds herself smiling, easy confidence blooming just with Regina’s words. “You’re going to be amazing. You always are.” She ducks out of the cabin before Regina can see her flush, and she heads out after Henry and Zelena.

 

Fourteen years ago, Emma had arrived in Storybrooke with nothing but a backpack containing a box of crackers, a water bottle, and the blanket with which she’d been found. She hadn’t planned to be in a small town, where she might be found and remembered; she’d just been driving a car that she’d stolen and been too young to drive, anyway, and she’d seen a state trooper parked up the road and panicked. She’d taken a bumpy fork instead, had driven over a dirt road and found herself in a small town, and she’d tried to find an unobtrusive place to leave the car and find something to steal when she’d seen a pretty girl and a magical explosion in the forest instead. 

 

Her life had been changed then forevermore, and the changes had piled up. Magic, springing to her fingers like air to her lips. Regina, who had resented her and then been her entire life. The Proeliate. Her parents, her kingdom, a life that had felt so clear and rich with possibility that Emma had been terrified of it all falling apart.

 

And then: it had, with Regina’s departure. She had kept everything but Regina, but it had all felt emptier, lonelier. She’d lost a piece of herself, and she had never quite recovered. 

 

And for the first time, today, it feels as though she might be able to take it back. Practice had been too frenetic yesterday, too distracted, and today will be unlike anything she’s experienced in a decade. Regina will be fine. Regina will be stunning .

 

That is, if Regina ever arrives.

 

The others have already signed in when Emma enters the arena, and they mill around the prep room, the clerk with the sign-in tablet waiting stiffly near the door. “Fifteen minutes,” she says, darkly disapproving, when Emma and Zelena rush in. “You’re still short one.” 

 

“She’ll be here,” Marian says evenly, glancing at Emma. “Won’t she?” 

 

Emma bobs her head. “She’s just finishing her coffee. She was exhausted. She’ll be here,” she echoes, and she is suddenly nervous.

 

But Regina is not there. Five minutes pass, then ten, and they are all on edge. Emma calls Regina and gets no response. Jacinda says, “I’m going to go get her,” and leaves the prep room with Sabine. They wait on edge, fingers drumming against tables and chairs and the screen at the top of the room muted, and everyone is afraid to speak. 

 

Emma glances across the room distrustfully, to where Gold has situated himself between Cruella and Ursula as though to make a very specific point as he types busily on his phone. The clerk checks the time. Zelena paces, and Mulan shreds a napkin into tiny pieces. Emma wonders, not for the first time, if she’s misread Regina. If the fight today is enough to send Regina running, if facing Cora is enough– or worse , if the fight she’d chosen is–

 

And then, the clerk says, “One more minute. It may be time to bring in an alternate–” and Regina sweeps into the room. Emma nearly sobs with relief. “Oh,” the clerk says, relieved. “Sign right here, please.” 

 

Regina signs, smiling coolly at the clerk, and Emma blurts out, “What took you ?” 

 

“Just taking my time,” Regina says. There is something odd to how she says it, her voice almost a purr, and Emma eyes her with caution. She can’t sense anything from her right now, the bond silent. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

 

The clerk leaves the room, pausing only to warn them, “Don’t go anywhere. They’ll be announcing you in ten minutes, and you’d all better be there then.” She glares at Regina, then Emma, as though Emma is somehow responsible for Regina’s tardiness.

 

Emma grimaces. “Regina,” she says, and she nods to the door. They have to talk. Regina looks fine now, wide awake and ready for action, but they’re not ready , and Emma has the sinking feeling that they won’t be. “We need to talk strategy,” she says, pulling Regina out to the hallway. “We have– uh –”

 

Regina puts her hands on Emma’s hips, sliding them over the curves of Emma’s jumpsuit with hungry eyes. “Emma Swan,” she says, her voice husky, and Emma is frozen in place. “I think that perhaps we might enjoy ourselves here today.” 

 

Emma’s mind churns, her heart beating rapidly and the hallway suddenly very warm. “What are you doing?” she whispers, her voice hoarse. “Regina–” 

 

Regina’s eyes gleam like Emma’s never seen them before, her mind absolutely blank to Emma, and Emma realizes abruptly what she should have known instantly. She puts her hands on Regina’s shoulders, backing her gently against the wall, and then she lets her hands grow hot, hotter and hotter until Regina is staring at her, wide-eyed with horror, and she spits out, “What the hell do you think you’re–” 

 

“You’re not Regina,” Emma says, her jaw clenched. “Who are you?” 

 

Regina smiles. Her skin lightens, her hair with it, and her features grow less round and more angular as her jumpsuit turns from green to red. In a moment, the siren from Broken Kingdom stands before her, her eyes dangerous as she throws Emma away from her. “You’re welcome,” she says, sneering at Emma. “You would have been disqualified entirely without me.” 

 

Emma feels suddenly weary. “Cora sent you.” 

 

“She has her heart set on fighting her daughter. A waste of time,” the siren says dismissively, and her eyes glitter. “I can feel it, you know. Your deepest desire.” She transforms again, turns into Regina with barely a flicker. “I know what you want,” she whispers, her voice throaty.

 

Emma punches her in the jaw. “Get out of here,” she snarls. “Go away .” The siren rubs her jaw, back to her original face, and she looks miffed as she floats down the hall. Emma slumps against the hallway wall, the truth beginning to dawn on her. 

 

Regina hasn’t arrived because Regina isn’t going to arrive. She’s done this before, has lingered outside a prep room at the arena and waited desperately for Regina. Eleven years ago, nearly to the date, and she’d been so sure that Regina would come– that Regina hadn’t run, despite the empty bed and the charm she’d left behind– 

 

And now, again, Regina is missing. She’d been in the cabin, had been prepared to join them. Why aren’t Jacinda and Sabine back? Where has Regina gone? Had Emma pushed too hard– had she put Regina in a position where Regina couldn’t bear to be here? Maybe it’s just Cora, waiting for Regina in the arena, that had frightened her off. No one scares Regina like Cora does–

 

“Hey.” It’s Marian, leading the others out to the hallway to await their announcement. “Where did Regina go?” 

 

“She’ll be here,” Emma lies. She doesn’t know what else she can say. Instead, she hovers, texting Jacinda for some direction. Got through sign-in. Is she there? Did you find her? Are you coming back? 

 

Under control , is the only response she gets, which isn’t comforting at all.

 

The announcer begins with Broken Kingdom this time; Storybrooke, for the first time, is the favorite to win the match. The siren emerges with Cora, looking up at the crowd with vague disinterest, and Emma feels a little spike of loathing toward them both. I can feel it, you know. Your deepest desire. The siren can go to hell .

 

The format for this match is alternating Solo and Duo matches, and Emma notes that the Blind Witch, Broken Kingdom’s weakest fighter, is in the final Solo slot. Cora doesn’t plan for the match to go on past second Duo, then. 

 

Well, neither does Emma, she thinks grimly, and then the announcer says, “And from Storybrooke, in our first Solo match, Hua Mulan!” 

 

Mulan steps out, eyeing Zoso with distrust. “In first Duo, Cruella De Vil and Ursula!” The crowd is cheering, the lights bright, and Emma feels sick with dread. What happens if someone doesn’t arrive for the pregame handshake? That can’t call for a specific consequence, can it? “In second Solo, Zelena Mills!” 

 

Zelena looks greenish, and not in her standard pre-battle way. She stares at her opponent, waiting in the center of the arena, and she shakes her head. “I can’t,” she whispers. “Where is Regina?” 

 

Emma can’t bear to answer. She waits in the hallway, only Lucy and Marian beside her, and her chest is too tight to allow breathing. Zelena walks forward, her feet dragging against the floor, and she stands uncertainly opposite Hades.

 

“In second Duo,” the announcer says, and he pauses, holding the word Duo for a little too long. And in that moment, a hand slips into Emma’s.

 

“I fell back asleep over my coffee,” Regina whispers in her ear, wry and still very tired. “I might have to nap on the bench.” 

 

Emma lets out a ragged breath, and Regina’s hand tightens in hers. “In a much-anticipated return to the arena,” the announcer continues, “Regina Mills and Emma Swan!”

 

And the audience erupts. They walk out together, hands locked as they’d been every time they’d fought Duos together before, the crowds screaming their names for what seems to go on forever. Even the announcer, after hastily tacking on Marian’s name, returns to them. “It’s been eleven years since the top-ranked Duo in the history of the Proeliate have fought together. Though both Mills and Swan have denied the possibility in the past, this pairing seems inevitable. Now, we’ll see if their partnership has withstood the test of time.” 

 

“He talks so much,” Regina says in Emma’s ear, and Emma just laughs a little sobbing noise, too relieved to say anything else. They stand opposite Cora, who looks sour and displeased. As though she hadn’t orchestrated Regina’s qualifying signup in the first place. 

 

Beside Cora, the siren smiles at them, and Emma says quietly, “Leave her to me.” She feels a bolt of loathing, and Regina gives her a curious look but nods. 

 

When they’re finally on the bench, Regina slumps against Emma, yawning, and Emma chews on her lip and thinks. “You need food,” she decides. “That should replenish something .” She doesn’t care, she discovers. She doesn’t give a damn if Regina gets into her circle for their fight and immediately passes out, because Regina is here and that matters more than winning or even putting up a fight. 

 

She finds concessions just inside the main entrance, where people are still filtering in for the match. “That’s Emma Swan,” someone says breathlessly, and the line clears abruptly to let her go first. 

 

“What are you going to get?” a girl asks, her eyes shining. She’s wearing a green and gold flag like a cape around her shoulders, and she had been next in line before Emma had been rushed to the front. 

 

“Uh, I was thinking about some fries. Maybe a cheese danish. No, scratch that,” she says, remembering how delicate Regina’s stomach can be with some cheeses. “Do you have something heavy on protein?” 

 

She emerges with a fish-based breaded item and the fries, and she smiles sheepishly at the girl. “Not for me,” she admits. “For Regina.” 

 

“Is it true?” someone else on line asks. “Are you really going to fight again?” 

 

“I want to know if they’re going to date ,” a third person says, and there’s a little guffaw of amusement from the whole line. Emma offers them an awkward smile and lifts a hand, ducking away back to the prep area. 

 

It’s intimidating to imagine how many people are counting on a strong battle from Regina and Emma. Emma has no idea how they’ll do, except that their muscle memory has to be strong enough for their fight to go well. They’ve had a day to practice, a day spent mostly in training and without a proper fight for them to find their groove, and she has the sinking feeling that this is going to be a disappointment for their fans. 

 

She pushes that aside when she enters the arena again, Regina’s head against Zelena’s shoulder. “Eat,” she orders, and Regina takes a fry halfheartedly. “More.” 

 

She watches the arena as Regina eats meekly beside her. “I’m sorry I was so late,” she says in a whisper to Emma. “I really thought I was about to get up– Jacinda had to pour water over my head to wake me up–” 

 

Emma stares straight ahead. Broken Kingdom’s Zoso is swinging his energy whip, hurling it at the far edges of the arena, and Mulan catches the whip with her sword, winds it around her sword. “It’s fine,” she says. “We would have managed.” 

 

“I didn’t want you to manage,” Regina says, and Emma can feel her frustration, tugging against Emma’s mind. “You don’t have to be so…so…” 

 

“Understanding?” Emma suggests. 

 

“Yes!” Regina hisses. In the arena, Mulan hurls the whip back with enough force that it nicks Zoso. Emma turns away from her to stare at Regina, bewildered. Regina crunches hard on a french fry. “You’re allowed to be angry, Emma. It was irresponsible. And it left you floundering again , without me–” 

 

“I think you’re angry enough for the both of us,” Emma murmurs, but she feels oddly relieved at Regina’s fury, at the recognition of feelings that Emma had decided were irrational. Regina turns sharply to stare at her, too close, enough that Emma is suddenly thrust into the reality of the little brown dot to the right of her lips, the scar that bisects the upper lip, the beginnings of crow’s feet at the edges of her eyes–

 

She can feel it thrum through her like wanting, and she remembers again your deepest desire and tries desperately to close off her mind. It had once been easy, locking away her feelings for Regina. There had been a little vault deep in her mind, and she’d had the discipline only for keeping her heart there. 

 

She is less confident in that vault now, too much of her revealed. Regina stares at her, and Emma feels the heat flash between them, seeping into her mind, and is sick with affection. She turns rigidly to the arena, watches as Mulan uses her sword to yank Zoso’s whip from him. The heat fades to a slow burn, lingering between them without overwhelming her.

 

“That’s our girl,” Marian says in an undertone, watching the match with interest from her spot on Emma’s other side. She tilts her head, her eyes gleaming as she tracks Mulan’s movements. “Look at the way she retrieves the whip. She can handle any weapon like a pro. Any .” 

 

Mulan’s sword vanishes, and she raises the whip, her gaze challenging. Zoso scoffs, summoning another whip from thin air, and their whips tangle and hiss as the energy burns. Zoso is undeterred. He throws out an arc of energy, enough to sweep over the room, and Mulan lets out a strangled cry and swings the whip, drawing energy to it and away from her body like a lightning rod.

 

“She’s good in Solos,” Regina says quietly. “I’ve always thought of her as a Duo fighter, but–” 

 

“She’s good in everything,” Emma says, and she feels a sweet little rush of pride as Mulan hurls the energy right back at Zoso. “She’s a lot stronger than she lets on.”

 

Mulan strides forward, nimble and swift, and she has Zoso’s heart in her hands before he can mount a counterattack. Emma exhales. “That’s one down.” Her eyes flicker to the Broken Kingdom bench. Cora sits in silence, her eyes narrowed, and she allows a cold smile when she sees Emma watching.

 

Emma shudders. She isn’t afraid of Cora– how ridiculous would it be, to fear a woman who had roughed her up eleven years ago? She’d just been a child back then, and she had trusted Cora– not to care about her, but to see her as a useful body, as someone worth keeping intact. The vicious attack had been unexpected, and she could defend herself against something like that now. 

 

When she thinks about it for too long, she finds herself wondering, too, why Cora hadn’t just killed her. By the end of Cora’s attack, there hadn’t been any part of Emma that had been capable of defending herself. And there had been anger glinting in Cora’s gaze, yes, but more than that…calculation. Cora had intentionally left her in critical condition, had intentionally brought her close to death and had wounded her in ways that would take months to heal–

 

But she hadn’t killed Emma. Maybe she had just wanted Emma to suffer for her part in Regina’s escape.

 

No . Regina’s voice is ragged in her mind. No, it wasn’t you who she wanted to suffer . Emma pulls her gaze away from Cora– looks to Regina, her heart pounding– sees the guilt that Regina is drowning in and feels sick.

 

“Stop,” she says aloud. “Stop.” And then, silently, stop hating yourself when you can hate her instead

 

Regina sends her a small, uncertain acquiescence, and they turn back to the match. It’s the first Duo now, and Cruella and Ursula are in control of the match. They’re up against two women, the pirate captain Milah and the so-called Demon of the Underworld, Megara. Milah has a crossbow, and she’s using it ably while Megara fights off Cruella’s hounds with middling success. 

 

“Typical,” Milah says. Ursula slaps away one of her bolts, looking deeply unimpressed with their opponents. “He brought you two together, didn’t he? I did my research. And now you can’t fight independently.” 

 

“We don’t mind,” Cruella says, and she conjures another hound out of nowhere, this one enormous and slavering and deadly-quick. It hurtles toward Milah, who dodges it and draws a sword in her left hand to beat it back from her. “Tell me,” she drawls, “Did you have as heavy a chip on your shoulder when you were married to him?” 

 

Married to– Emma twists around to find Gold on the far side of the bench. He’s watching the fight, his eyes cool, and she blurts out, “Is that your wife ?” 

 

Milah laughs bitterly in the arena, drawing Emma’s attention away from her. “It got heavier when he murdered me for the crime of leaving him,” she says, and Emma looks askance at Gold. Gold’s eyes glitter and he looks very dangerous. Milah says, “This is what he does. He finds women and he manipulates them. Uses them. And when he doesn’t get what he wants from them, he kills them.” 

 

“I like her,” Emma says brightly. Gold gives her a cold sneer, and Emma is suddenly very done with Gold being here , sitting with them as though he is tolerated or needed. Had he really murdered a woman? The Proeliate doesn’t judge, not like that– every realm is different, and the crimes of one are simply the way of life in another– but Emma judges just fine. “I don’t like you,” she adds plainly. “And I want you gone.” 

 

Gold’s lip curls. “If I go, my team goes with me,” he says. Regina eyes him dubiously.  But Zelena shifts in her seat, and Gold looks at her with satisfaction. “These women owe me their victories and their positions,” he says. “They won’t forget that.”

 

In the arena, Milah has gotten in a lucky shot, this time aiming past Ursula to strike Cruella’s side. Cruella is on her knees, her hounds around her, and Ursula is making a mad dash for her. Emma says, “We’ll see.” It’s a weak response, and Regina’s lips tighten. We can get rid of him, she thinks at Emma.

 

Maybe , Emma thinks back, but her eyes flutter to Zelena, who still looks uncertain, and Regina nods slowly. How long is your contract with Misthaven?

 

Brief, Regina says silently, but there is an uncertainty with it, a determination to protect her sister and teammates.

 

Emma turns back, dissatisfied, and watches Cruella stagger to her feet with the bolt still in her side. Ursula’s tentacles are moving faster, twisting dangerously, a shining blade in each one. Megara lifts her hands, a glowing bauble at the center of them, and she hurls it at Ursula. In a moment, there’s a flash of light, and Ursula is slumped on the floor.

 

It’s over. Emma grits her teeth, waits for the buzzer and for Cruella and Ursula to be healed. It’s one battle, and they’re tied. It isn’t the end of the world. But it means that their last chance to avoid battle with Cora is gone, and the second Duo fight is coming.

 

But first, Zelena.

 


 

Zelena walks to the circle, her skin already green, and Regina can see the drag to her legs, the way her arms still aren’t working as quickly as they had a day ago. It’s enough, though. Zelena is powerful, stronger than she’ll ever grasp, and all she needs is a boost of confidence. 

 

She doesn’t walk with confidence. She stares at Hades with her face set, and he makes a tsk-tsk noise in his throat and says, “I thought you’d be game for a little competition in the arena.” 

 

The buzzer sounds, and Zelena is outmatched in an instant. She shouldn’t be– Hades is sloppy, moves slowly and without much imagination– but Zelena hasn’t even bothered to conjured up a broomstick. Instead, she switches to defense, throwing up shields to defend herself from blue fire that Hades tosses out at her. 

 

“Yours is much better,” Emma murmurs, and Regina allows herself a little curl of pleasure at the validation. She feels it blossom, becoming something full-fledged and hot in her chest, and she winces. Today– Duos, and the rapid loss of her magic this morning– has left her weak and helpless to her own emotions. She’s still exhausted, but the food has helped where sleep hadn’t, and adrenaline is doing the rest, filling her up with emotion where she’d been a hollow shell until now. 

 

Emma gives her a sidelong glance, and Regina knows that Emma can sense Regina’s roiling thoughts. She takes a breath, struggling to calm herself, but it seems to do the opposite. When she twists around, it’s to watch Zelena and to distract herself from whatever is taking over her. 

 

Hades moves toward Zelena in little bursts of energy, and Zelena retreats with equally matched bursts. Even the announcer has noted that Zelena is fighting below par. “This isn’t what we’ve come to expect from Storybrooke,” he says, sounding dissatisfied, and the audience lets out irritated murmurs. 

 

Hades says, “Really, I did think you had a little more fire than this.” It’s condescending, and Regina grits her teeth. He lowers his voice, but it carries across the arena so Regina can hear it clearly. “You were more lively when we were together in Oz.” 

 

He sounds almost patronizing, and Regina bristles. Zelena does, too, her jaw snapping shut, and she says, “How long have you known my mother?” Hades looks startled at the question. “Were you– you knew her before she went down to the Underworld?” Zelena asks, and now her voice is shaky. “Did she send you to me? Was our whole…was it just a way to keep her eye on me?” 

 

Hades laughs. It isn’t friendly. “Zelena, my dear,” he says, shaking his head. “You must know by now that you are hardly a thought in Cora’s mind.” 

 

Zelena staggers back, her eyes wide, and Hades strides right through her weakened barriers. Regina’s hands are fists, and she jerks forward, feels the fury coursing through her veins, and even Emma’s hand on her arm isn’t enough to calm her. “Give her a minute,” Emma hisses. “Let her fight this battle.” 

 

Hades reaches for Zelena’s chest. And the green clears from Zelena’s face as she reaches out, striking Hades hard and throwing him back from her. “You’re wrong,” she says, breathing hard. “Mother cared enough to spend years keeping me out of the arena.” She turns, her eyes seeking out Mother on the opponents’ bench. “And now,” she says, defiant, “I’m never going to leave it.” 

 

She slams her hands down into nothing, heels of her palms out, and magic erupts, sharp and powerful and beyond anything she’s done in the arena before now. Hades is caught in it, and Zelena laughs, a full-on cackle that sounds more like delight than desperation. When she throws out her hand for her broom, it appears, and she hurtles into the air, leaving flaming green magic wherever she goes. She rises to the cheering of the crowds and then dives low, hurtling toward the floor. 

 

Hades doesn’t stand a chance. He runs, and Zelena catches him, hurling him against the wall and pinning him there for just long enough to seize his heart. She flies back up to the audience, holding out the heart with pride until the buzzer sounds and the heart and broom both vanish at once.

 

She lands on her feet in a crouch, and when she stands, it’s without the drag to her legs or the uncertain awkwardness to her arms. “I am so finished with you,” she says, her eyes flashing, and she stares directly at Mother. “I used to think that you were ashamed of me, but I was wrong. You’re afraid of me.” She laughs lightly, her sneer something magnificent, and Regina watches her in silent awe. “And you’re wrong, by the way. You fear the wrong sister.” She turns on her heel and marches back to the Storybrooke bench, and Regina leaps up and wraps her tightly in a hug. 

 

Zelena shuts her eyes, the bravado gone for a moment while she clutches Regina, and when she pulls away, it’s to stop in front of Gold. “And you know what?” she says. “You can leave.” Gold gapes at her, his lips parted. “Feel free to come collect us after we fight Arendelle,” Zelena drawls. “Or try to complain that you’ve lost control of us now and see how it goes. The paperwork to get us out of Team Storybrooke right now should take longer than the Proeliate.”

 

Gold twists around, looks to Ursula for support. Ursula says, “I love this song,” and leans back against her seat, grinning. 

 

Cruella says, “He’s not going on about that contract again, is he?” She scoffs. “Absolute control, my ass . What is he going to do, try to enforce it?” She yawns. “He needs us if he ever wants to have a chance in the Proeliate again.” 

 

“There are a dozen teams that would try a trade for us,” Zelena points out. “We’re nearly finalists.” 

 

Gold glowers at her. “I’m not trading you away, dearie ,” he says viciously. “I’m not done with any of you.” But he stands, his feet wobbling, and he walks deliberately away from their bench. Regina thinks for a moment that he might go to sit with Mother, but he walks out instead, through the hallway and out of the arena without a look back.

 

“We’ll worry about him later,” Ursula says dismissively. “After the finals. After this fight,” she amends, and there is a murmur of agreement.

 

As one, their eyes move across the bench to where Regina and Emma are sitting. Emma’s mind goes rigid and sharp, and Regina takes a breath. They have maybe a minute or two before the battle will begin, and Regina feels suddenly sick with uncertainty. This is a mistake. This is the best thing she’s ever done. This is going to be a humiliating defeat. This is going to end her career or begin it again. 

 

This is…

 

“This is Duos ,” Emma says quietly, and her mind is empty of anything real. 

 

Regina remembers, suddenly, the weight in her pocket, and she plucks out the little item she’d slipped in this morning. “I got this for you,” she says. “It wasn’t easy.” 

 

Emma stares at the brightly wrapped taffy, her eyes wide. “Regina,” she whispers. “Is that a Laffy Taffy ?” 

 

“I had to talk August into getting it,” Regina says, irritable when she remembers it. “I hate talking to August. But he found the taffies for me and had them shipped to Storybrooke. He’s talking about marketing them in the United Realms. He thinks that Chewy Cuties can make him rich–” She stops. Emma is staring at her, her eyes watery, and she takes the taffy and unwraps it. 

 

Back when they’d been partners, Emma had eaten a handful of the taffies before every fight. Today, she pops this one into her mouth and whispers in a low, wet voice, “Why don’t lobsters share?” 

 

Regina blinks at her. “Emma–” 

 

“Circles!” the announcer calls. “A reminder to Team Storybrooke that we’re ready to begin–” 

 

Regina takes a circle near the middle of the arena. Emma moves toward the one behind hers, and they watch warily as Mother takes a circle on the far side of the arena. The siren glances at her, then nods, her own circle just in front of Regina’s. 

 

The buzzer sounds, and the siren transforms in a fluid movement.

 

Daniel stands before Regina, his youthful expressions craggy and real.

 

Emma lets out a strangled noise. Regina is frozen in place, aghast, and Daniel lifts his hand and sends a wave of energy at Emma. “Oh, like hell ,” Emma snarls, and she is on him without a second thought, her fists flashing out and bruising Daniel’s gentle face.

 

It’s like something from a nightmare, and for a moment, Regina can’t figure out what is real and what is the illusion. Daniel reels against the blow, helpless beneath Emma’s onslaught, and Regina isn’t herself– 

 

“Stop! Stop! ” she snaps, and she’s running forward without a second thought, stepping between them. Emma looks up at her, wide-eyed and betrayed, and Regina shakes. “I can’t– I can’t see him like this–” It brings her back to waking up beside his prone body, to knowing that he’d been murdered in the night and she hadn’t done a thing to ease it for him. It leaves her stricken and horrified, and Emma stumbles back. “I’m sorry,” Regina says fretfully. “I just– leave him to me, please .” 

 

“Okay.” The resgination is like a flash of grief against her heart, but Emma doesn’t say anything else. Regina longs to say something to make it right, but there are no words that can do it. “He isn’t real, Regina,” Emma says quietly. “I know that he looks like the…the love of your life–” The words emerge strained and sick, and Regina can feel Emma’s mind closing off to her. 

 

Stop , she thinks. Stop, please, that’s not what this is– Every time she looks at Daniel’s face, she feels a wave of guilt, and she can’t say why. Maybe it’s because she’d forgiven Emma for his death. Maybe it’s because she hadn’t been there in his last moments. Maybe it’s because she trembles around Emma now like she never had with him– because the heat that suffuses her now isn’t for him, just as it hadn’t been when they’d been younger, when she’d chosen stability over Emma– and she can’t bear to face even a false Daniel and hurt him even more. 

 

Daniel says, “Regina,” so gently that she takes another step toward him. Emma shakes her head and races away from them, moving to the far side of the arena, and Regina turns her attention back to Daniel. “My sweet Regina,” Daniel murmurs, and he reaches out and shreds her neck and shoulder with clawed, sharp hands. 

 

Daniel smiles, kind and gentle, and Regina’s body screams in agony. She throws up a shield, too late, and she struggles to push him back. Her shields are weak, her movements slow with the pain and her drained magic and the desperate guilt, and Daniel says lovingly, “You betrayed me. How dare you return to her after all I gave up for you? After all I lost because of you?” 

 

The real Daniel had always been fond of Emma, had spoken about her like he might have a sister-in-law. There had been moments when she’d wondered, though– moments when Regina had run from practice to the stables, still flushed with the heat that had come with training, and Daniel had grown solemn and distant. When she’d told him that Emma had proposed, eager to tell him that their relationship would be safe, he had sat, shellshocked, and said, Then this is our end . He had proposed in turn only a few minutes later, no ring or anything but his certainty, and she had accepted, of course, grateful for a reason to spare Emma a lifetime chained to royalty. 

 

It hadn’t occurred to her that marrying Daniel would solve nothing until they’d already been outed and had to run. 

 

“You’re not him,” Regina says, but she still can’t bring herself to attack him, to bruise the face that had once been her escape from the world. “You’re not–” Daniel breaks through her shield, his hand hot and deadly as it touches her skin, and she is burnt by it, helpless and useless. She hates this– hates that his memory is being transformed like this, that she now knows how his face might have looked if it were brutish and cruel. You only like him because he’s soft and boring , Zelena had said once, and Regina hadn’t denied it. But was that really so wrong? Every relationship doesn’t have to come with sparking electricity, with the kind of energy that brings her to life over and over again. Daniel had been solid, had been her refuge, and she had loved him for it. 

 

Zelena had mocked her mercilessly about it. You want it all, she’d accused Regina, because back then, that had been what had angered Zelena most about Regina. You already have a relationship that actually does something for you, and now you have this limp, halfhearted thing–

 

Gods, she’d believed Zelena, had felt terrible about it, and had repressed it until now, staring at this grotesque facsimile of Daniel. Somehow, the siren catches it all, has some sort of empathic mind-reading ability where she knows every fear and regret. “You never loved me enough,” Daniel says sadly. “If you’d loved me, you would have tried to save me.” 

 

“Stop,” Regina chokes out.

 

Daniel laughs, that gentle one that had always made her feel safe. “You spared her from your mother. You were selfish with me–” He moves closer, puts a hand to her cheek and lets his fingernails scrape bloody streaks across it. “And now, you’ve gone right back to her.” 

 

It’s all of her guiltiest fears thrown in her face, and the arena feels so far away. The world is blurry around her, and she stops, dazed, feeling only pain where it is deserved. Her hands tighten at her side, a dozen traumas emerging at once to surround her.

 

And, from somewhere behind her, someone shouts, “ Fight Duos, you motherfuckers! ” 

 

Regina jolts. Duos . Fight Duos . She feels as though she’s being broken out of a spell, and she jerks, sees Cruella standing in front of the bench with the annoyance on her face to match her tone when she’d just yelled. Duos. It’s been so many years since they’d fought proper Duos, and they’d forgotten how to do it in the stress of the arena. They’ve been fighting Solos in tandem, nothing like the Duos of the past. 

 

Fuck , she’d left Emma alone with Mother. 

 

Emma is across the arena, trading magical blows with Mother, and she’s gasping from the effort of holding her off. Her fear is a palpable thing, sticking in Regina’s throat, and Regina sees flashes of a moment in time, eleven years ago– Mother approaching, a smile cold on her face– Mother’s hand raking open Emma’s throat– Mother hurling her against walls, breaking limbs with abandon–

 

“Emma,” Regina whispers, her heart clenching, and when Daniel approaches again, she sets him on fire with a careless twist of her fingers. There is no choice, not really, when it comes to Emma in danger now. She doesn’t look back, races across the arena to Emma, and she stops short only a small distance from the fighters when she realizes that Mother is speaking.

 

“Did you count on my daughter to save you?” she says, her voice low and amused. “Did she save you the last time? She never will, you know.” She has Emma in a chokehold now, that signature magic that makes Regina’s throat ache, too, and Regina moves carefully, sure that she will only get one shot at this. “Are you in love with her?” Mother says, and she laughs. “Look at what it did to you. Pathetic .” She steps forward, and Regina knows– she’s going to be too slow, there’s no way to stop Mother in time. Mother’s hand is in Emma’s chest, Emma’s fear raging around Regina, and she purrs, “Love is weakness.” 

 

Emma looks down– across the arena, to where Regina is moving toward her, and Regina opens the bond between them for the first time in eleven years. “No,” Emma says, but it isn’t to Regina. Until now, they’ve only been inhabiting their bond because it won’t stay put, have had it pulling them together without unleashing it. Regina has been terrified of what might happen if she’d do what she once had– thrown it open, let it join them together and never pull them apart again. 

 

And Emma– Emma has never closed it in the first place. 

 

The magic surges between them, so strong that it is like a star erupting in the center of the arena, and Regina hurls herself into it with abandon. Emma says, her voice sick with wonder, “It’s strength,” and the magic that surges from her chest is the blast of a supernova, blowing Mother across the arena and slamming her into a wall.

 

Regina rushes to Emma, though she can already feel that Emma isn’t in pain. She touches her own cheek, her throat, all the places that had been torn open, and she discovers that they are healed. Even her exhaustion is gone, new reserves of magic crashing open inside her, and she laces her hands into Emma’s and feels nothing but the relief of being awake again after eleven years of slumber.

 

Emma smiles at her, a fierce grin that is as wet as Regina’s must be. “Let’s dance, Molinero,” she says, and the world erupts around them with swirling, vicious magic. 

 

Mother is somewhere in the distance, is attacking them with magic that had always torn through Regina’s. Today, it bounces off of them, presses into corners in their magic and vulnerabilities, and Emma repairs them with only a thought. 

 

Regina knows this, just as she knows all of Emma’s thoughts. This is different than before, somehow. The exhilaration of it is the same, but there had always been bits of themselves that they’d held back, that they’d kept jealously for themselves. Today, there is none of that, every last secret and love and fear unleashed, and Regina feels as though she must be glowing. As though this is it, the pinnacle of Duos, and Regina and Emma have found it. 

 

Hey , Emma says silently, and Regina feels a flood of love around her, never quite gone and now blooming in perpetuity. And then, again, Why don’t lobsters share?

 

Because they’re shellfish , Regina says, because of course she’d looked at the taffy’s jokes before she’d given it to Emma. Her own affection for Emma is like flowers bursting to life in their minds, and she wonders if this would have worked before. If they could have opened the bond like this when they’d hated each other without it killing them.

 

Mother is in front of Regina, through the swirling waves of magic, and her eyes are narrowed. “This is where you learn what happens when you try to defy me,” she says coldly, and Emma thinks no and strikes with their joined magic. The siren staggers to her feet, transforming again, and this time she is a shroud, a floating demon that seems to float above them.

 

The siren is like a black hole, sucking away magic, and Emma thinks, like hell , leaping up in the sky to punch it and drive it back. She returns to the ground, mildly stunned, and Regina’s concern whips around her as she turns to Mother. “You don’t own me anymore,” she says through gritted teeth. “I got away. And you’re dead .” 

 

Mother laughs, sharp and vicious, and she draws a glowing weapon that she throws swiftly at Regina. It burns into her arm, and Emma heals it with a thought. “I might be dead,” Mother croons, taking a step forward. “But I created you. I raised you. And I will always be a part of you.”

 

“Yes,” Regina says, because it is true. Mother has made her into the woman she is today, for better or for worse. 

 

No , Emma thinks, and she is strong and brave and stubborn, defiant in the face of Mother’s quiet words. No. The woman who Emma sees, Regina realizes in shock, is strong and brave, too, is stubborn to a fault and is governed by her emotions, is someone who has learned to bend in ways that would horrify Mother. It can’t be her.

 

It’s always been you , Emma thinks, and Regina steps forward, her magic whipping around her, and Emma lifts a hand in perfect synchrony and wraps Mother in chains of energy. Mother struggles, her magic pressing back against the chains, and Regina walks forward in quick, steady steps.

 

“I’m never going to make you proud, Mother,” she says in a murmur, quiet enough that even the fighters on the benches won’t hear her. This isn’t for them, or for anyone else. “But I’m going to figure out how to do something that you never could.” She slides her fingers into Mother’s chest, closes her hands around a heart that looks deadened and black. “I’m going to be happy,” she whispers, and the buzzer sounds.

 

The magic swirling around them fades, as does the heart in Regina’s hand. Mother stares at Regina as though she’s never seen her before, and Regina takes a step back, reaching out for Emma as the siren lands on the ground behind them. The magic is gone. 

 

The bond is still wide open, and Regina can feel Emma’s shaky delight as though it’s her own, the tentative feeling of something that is so wondrous and perfect that it can’t possibly be for her. You earned this , she thinks, and she is aflame, still burning with the fight and the bond and the victory, her nerve endings bare and exposed and drowning in sensation. We did this

 

The announcer is speaking– “That’s a win for Storybrooke! This is their first time as finalists in eleven years, but it’s a promising year for them–” Their team is around them, Zelena in her arms and then Lucy, Marian initiating a team hug that feels as though it is very far away. There is still magic burning under Regina’s skin, adrenaline heightening it to unbearable peaks.

 

Emma– Emma – is in the huddle, and her hand brushes Regina’s side. All of Regina’s blood seems to rush to that spot, and Regina’s heart stops beating. The bond between them intensifies, the magic like a constant surge, and when they step apart, it doesn’t lessen. 

 

“I need– a shower,” Regina manages, her voice like something in the distance. Snow says something, but Regina doesn’t hear it– they usually have a half hour to cool down before the postgame interviews, it must be fine– and she staggers away from the celebration, away from Emma, who is crackling through the bond like wildfire, and she flees into the hallway and to the prep room.

 

The bathrooms behind it are lined with shower stalls, each one sealed well and with a seat embedded in the wall against the corner. Regina sits on the seat, lets the recycled water roll over her, and it does nothing to put out the flames raging inside her. Her head is spinning, and she can still see through Emma’s eyes, can still feel the magic coursing through them both as she sees the blur of the hallway, the prep room, the shower doors.

 

She stands and opens the door to her stall, and Emma hurtles in, presses Regina against the back of the shower wall and kisses her soundly. The bond explodes into blinding color– somehow, the door is slammed shut behind her and sealed– and Regina chokes on Emma’s kiss, tugs her closer, kisses her harder. The water runs over them, Emma still in her soaked jumpsuit and Regina bared around her, her legs sliding up to wind onto Emma’s hips and Emma flush with wanting, with the fire that still bristles between them. 

 

Emma’s kisses make Regina wild, make her thrust against Emma and rub against her in a desperate attempt to come. She reaches down between them, her hand to her clit, and Emma slaps it away. Mine , she thinks, and the thrill that runs through Regina makes them both shudder, makes Regina writhe against Emma. Emma’s fingers move swiftly, creep down Regina’s skin until she is in a state of agony, and Regina can feel Emma’s wonder at Regina’s slick center as Emma thrusts within it. 

 

Regina slumps forward, her lips falling to Emma’s shoulder. Her body is raging, and she’s never wanted anything this much– has never felt it so combined with someone else’s helpless desire– and Emma lets out a helpless groan as Regina cries out in her mind, jerks up and down against Emma’s fingers as Emma breathes faster and faster, throws her own head back and staggers back against the shower door, and the water rushes over them as Regina comes, wet and slick and needy and harder than she can ever remember before.

 

“Oh, god,” Emma mumbles, staring at her in awe. “Oh, god, oh, god, oh god –” She is still gaping at Regina, and Regina can feel it through the bond, the never thought I’d see her like this and she’s so beautiful that only sets Regina off even more. She clings to Emma, who is still dressed in that damned jumpsuit, and she imagines for a moment what it might be to lick her up and down, to bite her inner thigh, to rest her hands over Emma’s abdomen, possessive, and drag her fingers down to–

 

Emma is gasping for breath, rocking against her, and Regina says slowly, “Are you– is this working ?” She imagines through their bond, for a moment, a whispering of a breath against Emma’s clit, and Emma chokes out a noise and writhes. In her mind, she presses the heel of her hand to Emma’s center, and then replaces it with her lips, sucking firmly–

 

A wave of sensations nearly overpower her, and Emma’s head crashes back against the shower wall. She’s coming without a touch, and Regina inhales sharply, suddenly feral with the desire to get Emma’s clothes off . “Please do,” Emma gasps, and Regina slides the zipper down, first in a rush, and then stops short at the sight of Emma’s breasts, heaving in their constraints. Emma lets out a dry little laugh at the way that Regina lurches in place, struck silent by them, and Regina is awash with sensations that aren’t hers, with the last time that they’d been so naked in front of each other, that moment in her bedroom nearly twelve years ago when she’d first touched Emma like this. 

 

She shudders at the sensations that she can feel from Emma, and she peels the jumpsuit from Emma’s shoulders, unsnaps her bra, and lets her breasts loose. Slowly, carefully, she cups them in her hands, and Emma makes a noise like a laugh and a sob. I’m beginning to think that this is an obsession of yours, she thinks through the bond, and Regina thinks back shut up and kisses a nipple. Emma falls very silent. Regina palms them, licks a path along them, and sucks at one until Emma is letting out little noises, swaying against her. 

 

They could easily become an obsession, Regina concedes, and Emma’s thrill of delight seeps through the bond. Regina kisses her way down Emma’s abdomen, water and salt running down it around her, and she falls to her knees as she peels the rest of Emma’s jumpsuit from her. Emma slides backward, her knees wobbling, and Regina twists her around and sits her on the shower seat, legs spread to either wall of the shower as Regina kneels in front of her.

 

Emma’s hands are in Regina’s hair, yanking at it, and Regina savors the pain as she feasts on Emma, the noises she makes swallowed up by the sound of the shower. And then– Emma comes, and the force of it is so strong through the bond that it brings Regina to a crescendo of peaks, falling backward onto the floor and gasping through a shared burst of orgasms. 

 

Emma drops to the floor over Regina, and she tugs her up, eyes shining. Regina glows through the bond, trembles with it, and she whispers, “Please,” the two of them on the shower floor together, wrapped in each other’s arms, and the bond burning with a new kind of magic. She doesn’t know what she’s asking– if it’s please don’t regret this or please don’t push me away or please never stop doing this – but she feels with clarity that Emma’s heart is just as raw, just as terrified, and they are, for once, in perfect agreement. 

 

“We’re going to be late to postgame,” Emma whispers, running her fingers through Regina’s hair. She is sitting on Regina’s lap now, staring at her with uncertain eyes, and Regina wants nothing more than to kiss her again. 

 

She leans forward, traps Emma’s lip between her teeth, and presses her lips to Emma’s jaw. “We’ll figure out a– a medical exemption,” she breathes against Emma’s skin. Emma shudders, a hand sliding across Regina’s back over and over, tracing the line of her spine. “Because I will die if I have to let you go now.”

 

Emma lets out a little laugh, and the warmth that shines through the bond is healing, is everything that Regina’s ever wanted. “Okay,” she whispers, and she lifts her hands to press them against Regina’s shoulders, gentle and so soft that they make Regina want to sob. This kiss is quieter, is tender and sweet, and it burns in Regina’s belly as much as any other. “Okay.” 


She leans against Regina, their foreheads resting together and their bodies tangled around each other, and Regina holds her tight and feels, through the bond, heat and heart and the blessed relief of finally .

Chapter Text

There is a blur of activity over the next couple of days leading up to the championship. After back-to-back matches for the past week and a half, there is a nearly weeklong gap between the semifinals and the championship match for the teams to prepare and for the media attention to intensify on the two teams that remain. 

 

Arendelle has already released their lineup, and Emma should be focused on it– should be piecing together who will fight and who will sit out the match, who is best paired with each member of Arendelle and so on. Instead, she finds that her main focus is, instead, on something unrelated to the championship. 

 

They’d made it to the postgame interviews twenty minutes late, both of them freshly showered and incapable of keeping the smile off their faces. Snow had eyed them suspiciously and Marian had winked at them, but no one had said a word when they’d taken their seats, Regina’s thigh up against Emma’s. Emma had flushed every time that Regina had spoken, which hadn’t been subtle at all, and then they’d gone out for dinner with the others and Zelena had made some sly comments about water pressure and Emma had been sure by the end of that that Regina would be done with all of this.

 

But when they’d gotten back to the cabin, Regina had edged Emma’s bed over to hers with a determined sort of tilt to her chin, and Emma had kissed her soundly against the patio door, her heart doing a little swooping movement against her chest. They’d gotten lost in each other again that night, and Emma had awakened the next morning in Regina’s arms. 

 

Now, it’s Sunday, and the third day since everything had changed. There are more changes ahead, more complicated than before, and they go to the hospital as a team. 

 

Gothel is awake at last, almost entirely healed but for angry scarring across her face. She watches them, her eyes cold as she finds Lucy, and Emma shudders. Take her out of here , Regina orders, and she makes small talk with Gothel as Emma pulls Lucy from the room. 

 

“Let’s go to the family lounge,” she says, swallowing back the sudden desolation that comes now whenever she leaves Regina’s side. “Lily’s bed was empty, but she must be there.” 

 

Lily is there, now on a little wheeled scooter for the leg that still has no feeling in it, and Maleficent and August are sitting with her. Emma lifts a hand to wave at them, and Lily takes one look at her and says, “Oh, my god . You slept with Regina.” 

 

“Lily!” Emma yelps, clapping her hands over Lucy’s ears. 

 

Lucy says, “I know , I’m not dumb–” and wriggles out of Emma’s grasp. “They’ve been holding hands under the table at meals,” she says, conspiratorial. 

 

“What? No, we haven’t.” Emma glowers at Lucy. They had, once, but it had been when Cora had entered the cafeteria, and it had been for support , not some sappy…

 

Lily groans. “Emma, you’re a disaster,” she informs her. “I mean, I knew that she was when she came storming in here to demand candy from August–” 

 

“Oh, right. Thanks for that–” Emma turns to August and notices, abruptly, that he isn’t wearing his hospital band anymore. “August, were you discharged?” 

 

August nods. “Clean bill of health as of this morning. Perfect time to start my taffy empire. Also thinking about writing a book,” he says thoughtfully. “A memoir about my time in the Land Without Magic. Very literary. I bet people eat it up.” 

 

Emma blinks at him. “How are you going to write a book and run a business when we’re top seeded in the Proeliate?” she says playfully. August has always had plans like this, schemes to make easy money while they fight. “There’s going to be all kinds of exhibition games and tours and we’ll probably do training and competitions–” She hesitates. August is shaking his head, his eyes knowing, and Emma suddenly has a pit in her stomach.

 

“It’s been fifteen years, Em,” August says. “I had…a lot of time to think after Fiona put me out of commission. And fifteen years is a really, really long time. I don’t think I enjoy the fight as much as I used to.” He looks regretful. “I’m never going to be the kind of fighter that you are,” he points out. “I don’t have a chance of being top-tier or transforming the Proeliate. I think I’m just…kind of screwing around here. Using the Proeliate to avoid doing all the things that I should.”

 

Emma feels it like a thudding in her chest, the possibility of goodbye. “We’re about to win ,” she says. “We’re back in the finals. We’re a contender again.” 

 

August laughs. “And I’ll never let anyone forget that my last year was our big championship year,” he says, mussing Lily’s hair until she swats him away. “Even if I did spend half of it in the hospital.” When he looks up, his eyes are grave. “I think that this is it for me.”

 

“Jefferson’s been talking the same way,” Lily puts in. “Fiona did a number on them.” She pumps a fist. “I, however, will be fighting in the Proeliate until the day I drop dead. You’re going to need some power against Misthaven next year.” She wiggles her eyebrows at Maleficent. “Want to join our team of Proeliate finalists?” 

 

Maleficent rolls her eyes. “Regina would never forgive me,” she says, and Emma remembers the tenuous reality of what comes next with a thud against her ribs. Regina is going to leave soon. If they fight Duos in the championship, it’ll be the last Duos they fight. The Misthaven women were never meant to stay, and Gold will never trade them to Storybrooke. Non-mutual breaks in contract come with penalties and suspensions. And now… 

 

Now, nothing has changed, except that everything has. Regina is sharing Emma’s bed again, the final tension between them resolved and dissipating, and Emma’s heart feels as though it’s full to bursting every time Regina is around her. After over a decade of yearning, Emma knows how Regina tastes now, and she’ll never unlearn the husky sound of her cries.

 

What happens if they’re on different teams, leading different lives? Or, even more so: if they’re in different regions, Emma off in the Northlands and with little reason to return to Storybrooke?

 

Lily says briskly, “It won’t make a difference. People will be knocking down the door of our arena for an in. Even if we can’t beat Arendelle. What are you doing about the lineup?” 

 

Emma shrugs, and she’s relieved when Regina enters the room, looking weary-eyed and worn out from the conversation with Gothel. She seeks out Emma’s gaze first, and Emma gives her a wan smile.

 

“What’s wrong?” Regina murmurs, a hand resting on Emma’s back, and Emma shakes her head and thinks about potential lineups instead of Regina’s impending farewell. 

 


 

 

Lucy is oddly quiet during the walk back to the Proeliate realm, and Regina disconnects from Emma’s side to walk with her. Emma says, “Hey, Henry, did you see this mural?” and Henry wanders away from them to Emma, peering at the painting on the side of the diner’s seating area. 

 

Regina hadn’t signaled anything to Emma, but there is an awareness now that they hadn’t had before, an implicit understanding of how to move around each other. It had come with Duos, with what had happened after Duos, and it makes Regina’s chest heat up with affection she can’t conceal. 

 

She turns to Lucy, the smile still playing with the edges of her lips, and she says, “Everything all right?” 

 

“Yeah.” Lucy is quiet for a moment, and then she says abruptly, “I didn’t know that August was going to quit the team.” 

 

This is out of Regina’s purview. Internal Storybrooke matters should have little to do with her, not when they’re one match away from the teams breaking up again. She thinks about it for a moment and feels sick, imagines going back to Solo matches and can’t bear it. She clears her throat. “I’m sure that your team will still be strong–” 

 

Lucy cuts her off, lost in thought. “It’s just,” she blurts out, fiddling with the zipper of her jumpsuit. “I was thinking about leaving, too.” 

 

Regina looks askance at her. Emma says, “ What ?” from in front of them, her eyes wide and startled. Lucy falls silent, chewing on her lip.

 

Jacinda had wanted this, had hoped to talk Lucy out of fighting again. But beside Regina, Emma’s mind is churning like the sea in a storm, and Regina grasps only flashes of it. Storybrooke. Lucy. Arendelle. August. And so much guilt, swimming around in that sea. Regina says carefully, “You seemed to love the Proeliate.” 

 

“I did. I do ,” Lucy corrects herself, and there is that familiar flash of pleasure on her face. “I love fighting and I love my team. But I…I don’t think I want to spend the next few years fighting. Maybe just the junior competitions,” she says thoughtfully, a shadow crossing her face at the idea of giving up fighting altogether. “Until I’m a little older.” 

 

It’s Henry who speaks now, his little face screwed up in disappointment. “Lucy, you’re the best . You can’t stop now.” He has put so much of himself into Lucy’s fights, Regina knows, has lived through them even more than he has Emma and Regina’s. Now, he looks heartbroken. 

 

“I have to,” Lucy says, and she sounds very serious, mature beyond her years. “I look at Emma and Tía Regina and, like…no offense,” she says quickly, “But your lives were totally on hold when you were fighting. And I saw what Tía Regina’s mother did to her. You spent your whole life competing until you ran away,” she whispers, and she looks at Regina with compassion on her face. “I just don’t want to live like that. I want to go to school. I want to make friends my age and do cool stuff like gymnastics after school and fight in school Proeliate competitions.” She bites her lip. “I’m sorry. It’s stupid, I know–” 

 

“It’s not stupid,” Emma says gently, and she kneels to face Lucy, her smile wobbly. “We’ll miss you, but you make some good points. And you’ll always have a place in the Storybrooke arena. Even if it’s just to hang out after a long day of school.” 

 

Lucy’s lip trembles. Henry stares at her, his teeth gritted, and Emma says, “Henry.” He jerks, looks up at her with guarded eyes. Emma blinks hard, her eyes shiny, and she says, “I don’t think that we all– I don’t think that this means we have to–” She gulps in a breath. “I’m sorry. I’m a mess,” she says, and Henry’s expression softens.

 

“It’s okay,” he says, more charitable at the sign of emotion from Emma. “I just don’t want you to ditch my training because Lucy isn’t going to be fighting anymore.”

 

“Definitely not,” Emma promises him. “Wherever I am, we’re going to train together.” 

 

Wherever I am . Regina remembers that sea of guilt that she’d sensed from Emma, the thoughts of Arendelle that had lurked beneath the surface, and she feels sick. Emma glances at her and Regina schools her thoughts, putting aside her own selfish desires. 

 

Emma’s dream has always been Arendelle. Emma deserves it, and she’s lost enough team members this year that she can move on without feeling as though she owes them her allegiance. Hell, Regina would gladly take Marian and Mulan to replace Fiona and Gothel– who is not in a mental space to fight right now, and she’ll fight Gold on it if she has to– and Mal would be pleased to add Lily on as their alternate. The options are neat, and they allow Emma to move on easily. 

 

Emma looks at her, eyes questioning. What are you keeping from me? she thinks, bolder than they’d been until recently, and Regina winces. 

 

She offers another kind of truth. Exactly what I want to do with you later, she responds mentally, and Emma sends a hot wave of ardor through their bond. It’s enough that they make quick excuses and leave the others behind at the portal, wandering into the gardens around the common house. Regina backs Emma against a tree, kissing her neck, and Emma’s fingers dig into her shoulderblades as she gasps. “I used to imagine this all the time,” she says quietly, and Regina hesitates, her lips still at Emma’s neck. “I never thought it would actually…” 

 

“I wish you’d said something,” Regina murmurs, and Emma lets out a wet little noise. “I would have–” 

 

“You had Daniel,” Emma reminds her. “You never would have chosen me when you had him. You’d sneak out to be with him and I’d just…” She laughs, low and mocking, but the poison in her heart is only directed inward. “I’d lie in your bed and dream about you looking at me the way that you looked at him.”

 

“Emma.” Regina’s heart cracks along fault lines, and she shakes her head, pulling away to look Emma in the eyes. “I didn’t– I don’t–” She doesn’t have the words that she needs to say, the ones that might make this okay. Words like I loved you more than anyone and I only looked at him because I never thought you wanted me and he could never compare to you . But every thought feels like a betrayal of Daniel’s memory, of what she’s held onto for ten years for his sake. How can she say the things that Emma needs to hear when it would trample upon Daniel’s memory? Doesn’t she owe him that, at least?

 

“We were teenagers,” she says instead, pushing away the guilt for a moment. “Every relationship felt like the end of the world. We’re adults now,” she says, and she reaches out, her heart lurching as she touches Emma’s lips. This, too, feels like the end of the world, like tipping over a precipice and never returning. “I wish I’d known,” she says again, and the words emerge, too close to that dangerous place where she betrays a dead man. “It would have changed everything.” 

 

Emma laughs, a wave of disbelief coming with it, and Regina kisses her, pours tenderness and grief into their embrace until Emma is blinking back tears and holding her tightly. How do I look at you now? Regina thinks, and Emma kisses her in response, stroking her hair and resting her head against Regina’s shoulder. 

 

They stand there for a while, quiet emotions passing through the bond. Emma feels fragile still, on the cusp of despair and ecstasy at once. Regina is stricken with fury– at herself, at years of time wasted, at a decade gone with both of them atrophying for lack of each other. If she’d only known– if she could have done something in the first place–

 

She remembers suddenly a day when they’d been younger, a little over a year after Emma had stumbled upon her in the woods. It had been Emma’s birthday, and she’d turned seventeen, but they’d been still so new to the Storybrooke team that no one there had known. 

 

Regina had made her a cupcake that had been less than impressive– she’d only learned to bake after Henry– but she’d decorated it with chocolate frosting and little green and gold sprinkles and had been very proud of it. She had burned some batter in the oven, and the whole house had had a burnt smell to it that she’d known Mother would make her pay for later, but she hadn’t cared right then. All she’d cared about was that Emma would have something to celebrate her birthday. 

 

She’d left the cupcake on Emma’s nightstand that night and made some halfhearted excuse as to why Emma couldn’t follow her to her room– you stink, change out of your jumpsuit and get your own pajamas – and then she’d stolen into Emma’s room to watch her find the cupcake. 

 

She’d seen Emma, tears slipping down her cheeks as she’d cradled the cupcake, and Regina had darted into the room and wrapped her arms around Emma’s waist, holding her in place as she’d murmured, “Happy birthday.” A wild thought had crossed her mind in that moment– that her lips are only a few millimeters away from Emma’s, that it would take only a moment for Emma to twist and for their lips to meet. It had seemed absurd at the time, an instant of hormonal teenager that had had her wry and embarrassed.

 

She’d misread the recipe and put in a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon, but Emma had still eaten the entire thing and then, laughing, let Regina find her water to recover from the cupcake. She’d wound up stretched out on Regina’s bed that night for one of the first times, and they’d laid there for hours, wide awake and talking about their dreams for the Proeliate.

 

“We don’t have a good enough team to win this year,” Emma had said. “No one cares about Storybrooke. Or they’re scared off by your mom.” She’d nuzzled Regina’s side in silent support. “We need a better reputation.” 

 

Regina had snorted. “We can send a message out to Queen Snow and see if she wants to support our team. See if fighters show up then.” She had imagined fighting without Mother around, with someone else in control of the team, and Emma had stroked her hair in quiet support.

 

“Imagine fighting in a team that’s just…really good ,” Emma had said dreamily. “One where even practice would be intense. August told me that in Arendelle, they have to fight for their spots on the team every single year.”

 

Regina’s mood had soured at the mention of August, but she’d refused to let it affect this perfect time with Emma. Emma had continued talking, oblivious to Regina’s struggle against the urge to sulk, and she’d dozed off mid-word. Regina had thought, again, about the whisper of her lips, so close to Emma’s, and she had shifted over and wondered about magic and fairytales that are all real in the right realms, about true love’s kiss and if she could wake Emma just like that.

 

She hadn’t, of course, because Emma had been asleep and that wouldn’t be right. She’d held Emma instead and snuggled up against her, and they’d both slept better that night than ever before. But she’d wondered about the taste of Emma’s lips from then on, right up until it had felt disloyal and then the world had unraveled around them.

 

When she opens her eyes in the here and now, wrapped in Emma’s embrace, Emma is watching her, and she must have picked up enough of what Regina had been thinking to stand very still, her hands trembling against Regina’s hair. Regina kisses her now, gives the girl she’d been at seventeen what she had dreamed of, and Emma says, “Whoa,” almost just a breath.

 

There are noises near the edge of the garden– a group of fighters from the Sunken Land are doing some kind of team scavenger hunt, from the sound of it– and they erupt into Regina and Emma’s clearing. They eye them curiously, Regina still resting her head against Emma’s shoulder, and Emma says, “We’d better go.” 

 

They make their way to the common house, where Emma marvels at the newest merchandise. They have little dolls, each one crafted to look like another member of Storybrooke or Arendelle, and Regina holds up one with a long blonde braid in disdain. “Here,” she says, shoving it at Emma. “Your girlfriend .” It still hurts a little to say it, to think of Emma and Elsa fighting together, and she can feel it sparking a brattiness in her that she should be too old for.

 

You’re always going to be a brat , Emma says fondly in her head, and she retrieves a Regina doll instead, a doll with light bronze skin and dark hair in waves at her shoulder with a detachable fireball. “Much cooler than mine,” she says mournfully. “I don’t get an extra.” 

 

Regina buys Emma’s out of defiance and tucks it under her arm. “The superior Emma,” she says. “It hasn’t said a word.” 

 

“Ha. You wish .” Emma buys the Regina and a Lucy doll and tucks their feet into the pockets at her knees as they enter the cafeteria, peering at the croissants and muffins that are out in the afternoon. “We need to figure out the lineup before the media day on Monday, by the way. I know that Elsa and Anna are in second Duos, kind of waiting for us, but there’s…” She makes a face. “Well, I think we could be guaranteed two fights if we did Solos.” 

 

Regina stares at her in consternation. “Oh,” she says, stunned. She had known that Emma had been having trouble with the lineup, but she had assumed that it was just a question of who would be left out. Not this , the strategic answer that would keep them out of Duos. “We have–” She takes a breath. “We have a strong team,” she says. “I think that Mulan and Marian could easily fight Solos–” 

 

“Marian is better in Duos,” Emma says gloomily. “She has a gift for strategy that we aren’t going to use effectively in Solos. And it would be a terrible waste to leave her out of the match altogether.” 

 

“Oh.” Regina can feel time slipping away from them, the final battle that they’ve craved above all else. “And after this match…” She takes a breath. “You might be in Arendelle,” she says glumly. 

 

“You’ll go back to Misthaven,” Emma says quietly, and they stare at each other, the bond roiling between them. Emma takes a breath. “Regina–” she begins, and Regina feels a surge of hope, suddenly muted as something crashes down over Emma. “Cora’s here,” Emma says abruptly.

 

Regina twists around, the conversation forgotten. Mother is heading toward their table, her face set in grim satisfaction to see Regina, and Regina feels a bout of nausea. Emma grits her teeth. “Get away from us,” she says fiercely, still Regina’s greatest defender.

 

“Don’t get so worked up,” Mother says briskly. “I’ll be leaving this evening. This realm is hardly a paradise for the heartbeat-challenged.” She reaches out suddenly and grasps Regina’s chin, eyeing her with an unreadable gaze.

 

Regina says, and the words are only a little shaky, “Good. I don’t want you here.” 

 

Mother scoffs. “I’m your mother , Regina. You can hardly say that you don’t–” She pauses, and something shifts on her face. “I came here to teach you a lesson about defying me,” she says, and her voice is free of the rich condescension that comes with her lessons , with the reminders of how she will make Regina strong. “But you didn’t squander the past ten years,” she says. There is something nearly like love in her voice, and Regina’s throat is dry. “I am so proud of what you’ve accomplished this year,” she murmurs, and she still holds Regina’s chin in a pincer grip. 

 

She’s a sick, sick woman, Emma thinks, derisive enough to break through Mother’s hold on Regina, and Regina pulls her chin from Mother’s hand.

 

“Thank you,” she says, her back rigid. “But I don’t fight to make you proud. We aren’t on good terms. I won’t forgive you for what you did to Daniel or Emma.” Mother’s face sets, and Regina wonders what it might be like, leaving this realm and trying to build something without a mother who will sabotage it. What it might be like to care about someone without Mother hurting them. “And I won’t…” She chokes on the words, and Emma’s thumb is on her hand, stroking it soothingly. “I won’t forgive you for what you did to me, either.” 

 

Mother’s face is closed off now, and Regina knows already how she is reframing this in her mind. How Regina is being transformed to become the villain of the story and Mother the hero, victimized by the daughter whom she’d raised. If they meet again, there will be no amends, only bitter fury.

 

Maybe that’s just how it has to be, she reflects. There are some things that just can’t be fixed.

 


 

 

Emma keeps a cautious eye on Regina for the rest of the afternoon, but Regina is content, her smiles quick and real. If she is a little more handsy than usual…well, Emma has no complaints. Their practice that evening is a little halfhearted after a day off, but they break up to fight little matches with each other under Emma’s watchful eye. 

 

Lucy gets in a few good blows against Mulan, who regains the upper hand through steady defense and manages a victory. Ursula and Marian fight each other, and Ursula takes a chance with a gambit that gives Marian a close win. Cruella, still hopeless in Solos, is thrown across the arena when she faces Emma, and Regina and Zelena fight so well together that Zelena is cheerful at her loss. “At least I’m losing to the best of the best,” she says as they head back to the cabin. They’d picked up groceries in Storybrooke to make their own dinner in the cabin, away from the common house and the reporters who are beginning to worm their way into it. 

 

The no-media rule has fallen to the wayside with the semifinals, and Emma had caught a few reporters snapping pictures when they’d seen Cora earlier. It can’t be helped, anyway. Monday is the media blitz, Arendelle and Storybrooke both scheduled for an entire day of interviews and photoshoots and exhibitions. They’ve had days to practice before the championships while the press goes live, and the championships are Tuesday.

 

“I don’t see why we have to do a photoshoot with Arendelle,” Ursula grumbles. She perks up. “Unless they want me strangling that annoying little snowman.” 

 

“He’s cute,” Snow says, sounding miffed. 

 

“He’s turns into an inanimate object in the arena,” Ursula says, nose wrinkled. “I’m half squid and I still think that it’s unnatural.” 

 

Emma puts up a finger. “No shop talk tonight,” she reminds them. “We’re going to unwind.” She is very determined to force everyone to relax, to put aside the stress of the championships and take some time as a team. “I got a movie.” 

 

She’d had to pirate it off the Internet to find it in the United Realms, but it’s worth the bother when the title image appears and there is a chorus of laughter. “101 Dalmatians,” Cruella reads dubiously. “This had better not make a mockery of me or my hounds.” 

 

They pause to make dinner. They’d bought enough pizza dough for half the village, and Henry makes himself three mini pizzas with gummy bears on top before Regina catches him. Regina sautes onions and mushrooms in a dish suspended over her hand, and Emma steals some to put on her pizza. Sabine bakes a perfect pizza, Marian’s spicy sauce makes Emma nearly pass out, and Emma catches Zelena flirting with Mulan in an attempt to steal some of her garlic knots. 

 

When they settle down on the couches in the sitting room, it’s much too late to be eating dinner, and Emma subtly shares gummy bear pizza with Henry, the two of them on the floor in front of Regina and ostensibly eating their mushroom pizza instead. “She’s gonna lose all respect for you if she finds out,” Henry whispers. “She might even stop kissing you in the hallway when she thinks I’m asleep.” 

 

“She can hear you,” Regina says in a stage whisper, and Emma hastily drops the gummy bear pizza and shoves mushroom pizza in her mouth instead. “You’re a child ,” Regina says, poking Emma’s back with her toe, and Emma leans back against the couch, running her fingers along the underside of Regina’s calves. She presses a kiss to Regina’s knee and looks up at her, putting on her best puppy-dog face, and Regina sighs. “A child,” she says again, but she’s biting back a smile.

 

They watch the movie, which enrages Cruella and has Ursula unexpectedly amorous. Eventually, they’re both kicked out of the sitting room, and Henry hops up to take their chair. Emma remains, safely ensconced between Regina’s legs, and she sends Regina seductive thoughts while she attempts to carry on a conversation about Solo rankings. There are only a few fighters on their team who will qualify for them– to rank, a fighter has to have either two Solo fights in the championship rounds or three in the regionals and championships combined– and Regina thinks they have a good chance of dominating the top ten.

 

“The rankings are based on blows, too, right? Not just wins. So a long fight works against you,” Mulan points out. 

 

“Not necessarily.” Regina’s words are a little strained. Emma imagines taking the pizza sauce from the counter and dripping it over Regina, then licking it clean, and Regina thinks, that’s the most ridiculously Emma fantasy I’ve ever heard . Still, there’s a frisson of attraction from her. “It’s about…blows that connect. So if you’re good enough to rank, a long battle can work better for minimizing the percentage of licked blows– missed blows,” she says hastily. 

 

Jacinda gives her a shrewd look. “Uh-huh. But can that be enough to push past a loss?” 

 

“Not a loss,” Regina concedes. Emma pictures herself propping Regina up on the kitchen counter, pulling her legs up to hook over Emma’s shoulders and sucking on her clit. “Uh.” Regina is silent for a moment, and Emma can sense the way that her stomach churns. “I…sorry, what did you say?” 

 

Emma imagines them in the arena, throwing each other against the walls until they’re both breathing hard, imagines slipping to the ground and Regina pouncing onto her, imagines doing it in front of the entire Proeliate audience–

 

“I have to go,” Regina says abruptly. “I just remembered…I have something in my room to take care of.” She rises, retreating to their room, and Emma looks after her longingly. 

 

Sabine raises an eyebrow. “You know how much you’re going to owe us if we put Henry to bed, right?” 

 

Henry says, “What? It’s barely bedtime. I’m almost ten, I should get to stay up until at least ten–” 

 

“Deal,” Emma says hastily, and she presses a kiss to Henry’s head on Regina’s behalf and hurries into her room. 

 

The lights are still off, the room dark, and Regina is nowhere to be seen at first. Emma closes the door behind her, and she reaches out with her mind–

 

Regina is on her in an instant, lunging at her and nipping at her shoulder. Emma topples back onto their bed, and Regina climbs onto her, on all fours as she glowers down at Emma. “You are an evil, evil woman,” she purrs, and Emma grins, pulling her down to kiss her thoroughly. 

 

Please ,” she whispers, and Regina unzips her jumpsuit to flick her thumb over Emma’s nipples. “As if I didn’t notice how you got off at the idea of public–” Regina bites her breast, and Emma lurches back against her. Their minds are emphasizing every sensation, reflecting them back to each other until they rise to unbearable heights, and Emma thrashes under Regina, fully prepared to spend the rest of the night–

 

There’s a light knock at the patio door. “No,” Regina grits out, and then– They hadn’t closed the curtain firmly enough, and there’s a face between the curtains, peering in and then paling as she realizes what she’d interrupted. 

 

Regina lets out a curse, rolling off of Emma. Emma zips herself hastily, Regina’s hand still trailing over her ass and squeezing it one more time, and she tries nervously to fluff her hair and stop flushing as they pull the door open.

 

It doesn’t work. Elsa is beet-red, and she can’t look either of them in the eye. Regina says, belligerent, “You do know that there’s a front door, don’t you? Maybe there, they’d even want to open it for you.” 

 

Elsa bites her lip. Emma says, “It’s fine . Ignore her. She’s just…” She shakes her head, still a little dazed from the interruption. “What can we do for you, Elsa?” 

 

Elsa swallows, and with some effort, she’s able to look Emma in the eye. “I wanted to ask if you’d come to our practice on Monday night after the media are done with us,” she says, and then, with a darted glance at Regina, she adds hastily, “You can think of it as espionage, if you’d like. An opportunity to watch us fight at our best.” 

 

Regina doesn’t smile. “And to see how she fits in with your team,” she says, and Emma closes her eyes and wishes very much that this conversation would be one held out of Regina’s earshot.

 

As though I’d be less insufferable then, Regina mocks her, and Emma sends Regina her best unamused emotions– which are, unfortunately, more than a little amused– and says, “Can I let you know? I think that’s…we should probably discuss it,” she says, motioning helplessly to Regina. “Chances are, there will be reporters around the training arena, and I don’t want– I don’t want any rumors to get out.” 

 

“Of course.” Elsa glances between them, flushes that deep red again, and then backs away toward the patio door. Emma opens it for her, shutting the curtain firmly, and then twists around to face Regina. She feels defiant, ready to fight, and she isn’t going to let the fact that she and Regina are… something… now dictate her decisions–

 

“You should go,” Regina says, and she tugs off her jumpsuit in a fluid movement. 

 

Emma looks at her, her heart beating wildly with confused attraction. “You can’t kick me out because Elsa offered this,” she says, and she feels…hopeless. As though they haven’t moved forward at all in the past few weeks. “This is my team. My room.”

 

“Yes,” Regina says patiently, and Emma notices for the first time that her aura is calm and resigned. “All yours. And you should go to the practice. It is espionage, and that’s all it has to be.” 

 

Oh. Emma feels suddenly foolish, and she ducks her head. “I don’t even know if I want to,” she mutters. “It’s…I mean, we’re losing enough people as it is. I just talked Marian into joining the team this year, and now I’m just…leaving?” She spreads her hands helplessly. “I don’t know. I should talk to them about it.” 

 

Regina walks to her, slides the zipper down her jumpsuit, and Emma feels a little shiver of desire in response. “Not yet,” she breathes. “We’re about to go into the championships. They don’t need any distractions.” She kisses Emma’s pulse point, peels the jumpsuit down to her waist, and Emma shakes it off her feet and wraps her arms around Regina.

 

Regina is warm in her embrace, like a dream come to life, and Emma would like very much to stay here and keep kissing her, an elusive treasure that she had never expected to keep. Instead, she pulls back. “Am I lying to them if I say I’m spying on Arendelle?” 

 

Regina pulls her forward again, tugging her onto the beds and sliding her blanket over Emma. Emma curls into her, a tight little ball wrapped up in blankets and Regina, and Regina strokes her hair and says, “No. I have a mission for you.” Emma almost cracks a smile against Regina’s skin, and Regina whispers, “You go to Arendelle. Learn their weaknesses. And do your best to get ahead of any surprises they might have in store. Understood?” Her voice brooks no argument. 

 

“Yes, Boss,” Emma says teasingly, and she senses immediately the way that the title makes Regina quiver. “Ooh,” she murmurs. “You like being in charge, don’t you?” The mood shifts, and with it shifts their minds, the previous conversation all but forgotten. 

 

All but. One more time, Regina is thinking, over and over as she kisses Emma. One more time. One more Duo.

 

One more, Emma vows, and her fragile heart feels as though it might shatter with every thought between them.

Chapter Text

Monday is media day, and that means that the fighters’ village is officially opened up to reporters and photographers for the day. They’re everywhere, no longer subtle, and Regina sees the flash of a camera with every movement that she makes. 

 

“I’m here to give my audience an intimate look at how you’ve been living in the village,” a reporter says, smiling brightly as her companion takes photos of the sitting room. “Can I see where the children are staying? Nova’s told me all about your accommodations–” She follows Lucy to her room, and she has Lucy sit on her bed and Henry lean over the edge of his for a photo.

 

She tries the same with the other rooms, but Regina and Emma had been prepared for it. The beds in their room are separate, their clothes folded and packed away neatly (a far cry from Zelena’s room, where she’d cleaned nothing and offers sweetly to pose until the reporter has to make an excuse to escape). The reporter says, “So, did you share this room for the whole Proeliate? Or only once you began Duos?” She is watching them keenly, and Regina rolls her eyes and says something dismissive.

 

“Here,” Emma says, jumpy at the incursion into her personal space. “I can show you something cool.” She has the photographer crawl into the closet to see their old graffiti, and the reporter gets misty-eyed at it. She has Emma and Regina pose at the curtains, facing each other against the sunlight and with the lights out so they are only silhouettes. 

 

“I used to run a fansite for the two of you,” she confides before she leaves. “Back when you were in the Proeliate and I was still in school. I met my wife through it.” 

 

“That’s great,” Emma says, the awkwardness floating through the bond, though it doesn’t show on her face.

 

The reporter beams. “We spent so many years hoping to see you in Duos again. I can’t believe you’re fighting together now,” she says, and she turns to Regina. “Are you going to stay with Storybrooke? You can’t give up Duos!” 

 

Regina shifts uncomfortably. Emma says, hasty, “Regina has a responsibility to another team. We’re just grateful that we got that second chance to fight in the championship together.” It’s quick, rehearsed, as though she’s been practicing the brush-off for days. Maybe she has. 

 

There is little that they keep from each other anymore, but Regina has been hiding away bits and pieces, the fears and longing that she knows will only sabotage Emma’s chances with Arendelle. Emma has lost her dream for too many years already for Regina to make her feel guilty now.

 

“Then you’re fighting Duos in the championship,” the reporter guesses. “Your lineup came as a surprise to many of your fans. Do you have any insights you’d like to share on it?” she says hopefully. Regina perks up, struggling to hide her interest in what Emma says next.

 

Emma winks at her. “Not any I’d tell the world,” she says, and she refuses to say another word.

 

Somehow, Cruella and Emma wind up cooking breakfast for everyone, which is a terrifying experience. Cruella is haphazard with ingredients, throwing in items because this needs a little more red or we’ve barely used these , and Emma is too reckless with the stovetop. Somehow, the strange oatmeal-pancake mixture that they’ve turned out, though charred in places, is decent, and Regina has seconds when she sees how pleased Emma is that she’s finished her plate. 

 

“I hope you know that my cooking is at least five percent less chaotic when Cruella isn’t there,” Emma says teasingly as they prepare to join the media in the arena. The reporters are gone, the beds are back together, and Emma isn’t preparing as much as she is lying stretched out beside Regina, her head on Regina’s thigh as Regina checks her reflection in a handheld mirror. “I make a mean mac and cheese. And I can bread chicken like no one’s business. I’m basically Sabine in the kitchen.” 

 

Regina rolls her eyes. “I saw you set three separate fires today.” 

 

“You set fires every day ,” Emma says, wrinkling her nose.

 

“In the arena. Not in my kitchen.” Regina runs a hand through Emma’s hair. In some ways, they haven’t changed at all. In others, she looks at them and hardly recognizes the girls they’d been. They’ve been made harder over the years, and neither of them wears their hearts on their sleeves like they once did. But the women they are feel compatible, as though, apart, they’ve grown into people who are perfectly shaped for each other. “Let me cook for you next time,” she says, and it feels a vulnerable admission. That there might be a next time , without Cruella adding sprinkles to oatmeal because it’s a bit of an ugly texture, isn’t it? That it could be in Regina’s kitchen instead of this cabin, and that there might be something lasting here.

 

She buries that away from Emma, too. Emma had been too badly scarred by the way that everything had crashed down around them eleven years ago for Regina to imagine that she’ll ever manage the same depth of feelings for Regina again. If Regina lets on that she’s thinking about anything outside of this cabin, Emma will be gone in a flash, as quickly as she’d retreated when Regina had first suggested Duos.

 

The future includes them fighting on opposite teams, Emma moving off to Arendelle like she’s always dreamed and Regina in Misthaven helping her compatriots fight off Gold’s schemes; and Regina knows, too, that there is little space in Emma’s future for her.

 

But Emma doesn’t run or turn her down. Instead, she says, “I’m letting Sabine cook for us next time,” and she laughs and wiggles her fingers against Regina’s thigh, missing Regina’s offer entirely. 

 

Regina puts it aside, muzzling her disappointment, and she says, “It’s probably time to let everyone know what the lineup is. So you’ve released it to the media?” 

 

“Yeah. They’re going to want to do comparisons pre-match.” Emma chews on her lip, and she shifts, the anxiety palpable in their bond as they exit the room. Regina can guess why. Emma is the consummate people-pleaser, always focused on making the team happy, and someone is about to be neglected, the alternate in their most important game ever.

 

The others are already ready to go, even little Roland dressed in a tiny Storybrooke jumpsuit as he jumps on a couch. They look up, expectant, as Emma stands in front of them, and she clears her throat. “Let’s talk lineup,” she says. 

 

“Don’t tell me,” Zelena says dryly. “You submitted it at 11:59 last night in an exhausted haze and it’s nonsense.” 

 

Emma laughs, a little burst of tension expelled. “No,” she says. “I spent a lot of time thinking it through. I know it’s not going to satisfy everyone, and it’s a little unorthodox…” 

 

“Spit it out,” Cruella drawls. “We have a photoshoot to attend.”

 

“Right.” Emma swallows. “I watched a lot of Arendelle battles. And the only person I’ve ever seen take down their weird kid-snowman guy easily is…well…” She pauses.

 

Ursula says, “My father.” She isn’t smiling, but she doesn’t look surprised, either. “Fire would also be a mismatch for Olaf, but his strength is in snow, not ice, and water does just as well. I’m going to be in Solos, aren’t I?” 

 

Emma lifts her chin, some of the anxiety easing. “Can you handle that?” 

 

“I can,” Ursula says evenly. “But that means…” She hesitates, looking at Cruella. 

 

Cruella says, “I’m the alternate. Well, it was bound to be me,” she says, dismissive. “I don’t have much flexibility. Let my girl shine.” She pats Ursula’s shoulder and brightens. “Are there going to be photoshoots with the alternates? Because that boy that Arendelle has as theirs is a charming little brat–” Ursula slaps her arm. Cruella winks, unapologetic. 

 

Emma’s relief is almost overwhelming. Regina sways with it, sends a burst of amusement at Emma and gets self-deprecating humor in response. “Uh,” she says. “For the next fight. Kristoff and Sven.” She clears her throat, new panic rising within her, and Regina puts a hand on her arm. “Right. I thought that Marian and Zelena might be a pretty good match,” Emma says abruptly. “Especially when we’re talking about a guy who rides a flying reindeer– do you guys, like, have Christmas? Does anyone else think that’s pretty weird?”

 

She gets a few blank looks, but her diversion works only so much. Mulan takes a step forward, and she says, “Absolutely not .” 

 

She is clearly not talking about flying reindeer. Her face is tight, and she says, “Do you really think that now is the time to shake up our Duos?”

 

Emma remains unmoving at the center of the room, and Regina tries to read the emotions roiling around her. Stubbornness. Determination. A sense that this is the right decision.

 

But it’s their master strategist who says, quietly, “It absolutely is.” Marian stands, arms crossed, and she looks just as certain as Emma is. “We need you in Solos, Mulan. Arendelle always goes to five fights. We’re going to lose Emma and Regina, and we can’t afford to give up another Solo. It’s that simple.” 

 

But it isn’t that simple, and Regina sees it a moment after Marian. It isn’t about this match at all, or whether Marian and Mulan win their match or Mulan wins hers. It’s about something else entirely. 

 

Proeliate rankings are simple. Solo fighters who make it into the championships can be ranked for the coming year: as long as they’ve fought two Solo matches in the championships or three in the entire Proeliate. When Regina thinks back, she remembers two Solo fights for Mulan– one in the regionals and one against Zoso. Another Solo fight, and Mulan will rank this year.

 

Emma, who might be leaving at the end of this Proeliate, is taking care of Mulan, giving her the tools she’ll need to get any position she wants on any team. It’s what she deserves , Emma says silently. I owe her a future where she knows her worth. Aloud, she says, “I think Mulan can take down Honeymaren. And that would leave Regina and me in second Duo, and Lucy in third Solo.” 

 

She clears her throat. “Any questions?” 

 

Mulan still looks rankled. Regina says quickly, “Can we get these photoshoots over with?” They are bound to be a nightmare. 

 


 

In fact, Regina is absolutely right about the photoshoots. She had suspected that they would involve a lot of cooing over Duos pairs and some uncomfortable posing, but she hadn’t expected a facilitator to hurry over the instant they’d walked into the arena and pull Emma away. 

 

“We need a captains shoot,” the facilitator says briskly. “The rest of you, find your opponents. You’re late.” It’s a quick reproof, no time for anything more, and Regina steps back and lets everyone else scatter. Olaf eyes Ursula uncertainly, and Ursula gives him a cool, grim look. Marian chats pleasantly with Kristoff, Zelena interjecting something alarming enough to make Kristoff take a step back. Mulan and Honeymaren stand stiffly next to each other, both of them watching the captains, and Yelana seems delighted to meet Lucy. 

 

Regina barely glances at any of them. Instead, her eyes are fixed on Emma, who is standing just in front of Elsa. “Can we get some of that white lightning that you do so well?” the photographer says. “Hand to ceiling?” Emma obliges, a stream of white light reaching from her palm to high above them. Elsa, at the photographer’s beckoning, creates an elaborate snowflake, sharp-edged and dangerous, and takes a step forward. “Look at this chemistry,” the photographer marvels. “A little closer, heads tilted toward each other and then me, come on–” 

 

Regina can feel Emma’s mind, the odd little guilt that comes as she leans in close to Elsa. Relax , she thinks back grudgingly, and Emma’s guilt only seems to grow when she realizes that Regina is watching. Regina forces out another thought, this one less persuasive. It’s fine, she thinks, and she buries her certainty that not one bit of Emma’s flirtation with Arendelle is fine. You’ll be doing plenty of these photoshoots soon enough. I don’t expect– She stumbles on her own thoughts, and manages the faint, it’s not as though we made any commitments to each other

 

It’s what Emma needs to hear, she knows. The bond between them snaps closed for an instant, and Emma poses with her face set. “Fierce and sexy. Great work,” the photographer praises her, and Regina turns away. 

 

She comes face-to-face with a grinning woman, staring out at the captains with unrestrained interest. “Elsa is so gone for Emma,” Anna of Arendelle confides in her. “Maybe it’s self-sabotage to root so hard for them when I know that I’m the one who’s going to be pushed out of the Duo, but she deserves to be happy.” She lets out a wistful sigh as Regina stares at her, taken aback and horrified. “You know, some of the top teams are led by total assholes who just want to channel all their successes to money and power, but Emma actually seems pretty decent. Elsa talks about her all the time. I told her that it’s getting annoying and if she doesn’t ask her out, then I’m going to do it for her–” She stops, blinking at Regina. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “You’re Regina Molinero, right? The fire lady. You must know if Emma’s interested.” 

 

Regina’s jaw tightens. There are flames drifting at her fingers that she can’t remember calling, and she extinguishes them in a hurry. “I really don’t,” she says coldly. 

 

Anna tilts her head and eyes Regina again. “Is she dating you ?” she says, as though the idea has only just occurred to her. “I watched your last fight together. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you two actually live up to the hype.” She rubs her hands together. “We’re going to have such a good time fighting you.” 

 

The arena has been decorated with wreaths of flowers and long, glittering ice. Emma and Elsa are in front of one sheet of ice, Elsa with her back to the camera as she turns, Emma in front of her with her hand sparking with energy. “Perfect,” the photographer says, and Regina thinks, with a sinking feeling, that they really do look perfect. There is a contrast to their magic, and to the expressions on their faces. Emma is determined and hard, and Elsa is gentle and haunted, but they are all pale skin and light hair and magic, two of a kind. This is where Emma will go after this match– after the closing ceremony– and Regina will never be able to follow her there.

 

“I said fierce ,” the photographer says impatiently. “You look like you’re about to burst into tears, Emma.” Regina looks up, sees Emma staring straight at her, and realizes with chagrin that she’d heard too much. She shakes her head, keeping her face stiff and emotionless, and Emma takes a breath and turns back to the photographer. I’m not going anywhere , she thinks forcefully. I’ll still live in town.

 

Regina is privately dubious. Oh, there’s no rule that Emma has to permanently leave Storybrooke to join Arendelle, but in time, there will be little to keep Emma in Storybrooke. There will be a new team there, and the Arendelle arena will be a pain to commute to by portal, and, eventually, there will be no reason to stay. Emma will linger out of stubbornness until she finally folds, and they both know it. 

 

And whatever they’re doing right now…it can’t last. Not when Emma is leaving, and when Arendelle is going to take her and make her theirs. It’s what Regina deserves, perhaps, to lose Emma in the midst of a championship run, to lose her as Emma had once lost her. It makes Regina ill to contemplate. 

 

“Let’s go!” It takes Regina a moment to realize that she’s being called, too. “Duo partners! You’re up.” 

 

“Hey,” Emma mutters when Regina departs from her spot near the bleachers, Anna bounding ahead of her. “You’re getting stuck in your head.” She rubs the sides of Regina’s arms, over her jumpsuit, a simple motion that is caught by a camera. “At least you’ll have company there,” she says, winking, and Regina’s heart surges in response. 

 

The photographer moves to Elsa and Anna, and Regina lingers with Emma, watching the casual poses that Elsa and Anna take without much urging. “They’re used to this,” Regina points out, and because she can’t let herself enjoy anything without inflicting pain on herself, she says, “You’ll get used to it, too. You’ll be doing these constant photoshoots with Arendelle all the time.” 

 

Emma rubs her eyes, a sigh of exasperation escaping her lips. “I didn’t even accept the offer. I don’t know what I’m doing. I just want…I don’t need more pressure about this,” she says finally, her voice small, and Regina regrets everything. 

 

I’m sorry , she says silently, pouring her sympathy into it so Emma can feel that she’s being genuine. She rests her fingers around Emma’s wrist, and she thinks, I was trying to be supportive .

 

A strained laugh emerges from Emma, a thought passing between them. It’d be nice to be missed instead of supported , she thinks, and Regina stares at her, positive that Emma hadn’t meant for Regina to hear that. Emma is already distracted, glancing at the photographer as he motions them over, and Regina files away that thought to turn over later.

 

“Let’s go, Storybrooke.” The photographer eyes them critically, then turns to an aide. “Get them positioned like we discussed,” he says.

 

The aide looks nervous. Regina levels a glare at her, and Emma elbows her and says, “Be nice . It’s her job.” 

 

Regina relents, tilting a head in acquiescence to the aide. “What we want,” the aide says, emboldened, “Is something that will reflect the intimacy of Duos and the journey you’ve taken until now. So we thought– uh, Emma over here. Regina, would you please stand right in front of her?” They oblige. “Good. Now, hands.” 

 

By the end of the slow direction by the aide, they are standing pressed to each other, Emma’s arms wrapped possessively around Regina’s waist and clasped at her abdomen. Her head is tilted down, lips grazing Regina’s hair, and Regina has a hand raised to press against Emma’s cheek. The camera snaps the photo and then they are rearranged.

 

This time, they are brow-to-brow, silhouetted against the flowers, their hands locked and their eyes closed. For the next, Emma sprawls out on a chair, head tilted back and expression bored, while Regina stands behind her and puts a proprietary hand on her shoulder. In the last of the photoshoot, Emma is turned to the side with magic bright in her hand while Regina pretends to hurl a fireball. 

 

“Excellent,” the photographer says. “These are excellent . I want these in the spread–” He wanders off, barking out orders at Marian and Mulan, and Regina notes with displeasure that their photos are far less intimate. 

 

“Shut up,” Emma says, looking fondly at her. “Those pictures are amazing. Imagine them on posters . Henry would put one up on his wall to show his support and then wake up one day when he’s fifteen and realize, horrified, that he’s been living with that on his wall.” 

 

“Something to remember me by when you go off to Arendelle,” Regina says, leading her into one of the prep rooms. It’s not the one they’d used after the fight with Broken Kingdom– that one is where the makeup artists and hairstylists had prepared them for photographs. This one is empty, but for a few magazines on the table and a discarded cup on the couch. “You’ll look at those pictures that scream sex and think wow, this is how low I sank when I wasn’t the League elite. ” 

 

She’s half joking, trying to stop herself from putting on more pressure, but the humor doesn’t quite shine through. Emma tugs Regina to her, perturbed, and she says with mischief, “I can go lower.” She sits Regina down on the couch, and she kneels in front of her in invitation. 

 

Regina tugs her up and kisses her instead. “Not here,” she murmurs. “There are a dozen reporters wandering this building.”

 

“Yeah.” Emma rests against Regina’s side. “It’s none of their business what we’re doing in our free time.” She hesitates, and then asks, silent in Regina’s mind, What exactly are we doing? 

 

Regina freezes, caught off guard. “I…” She falters. “I don’t know,” she admits. What are they doing, except enjoying each other in every way possible? There is little conflict right now, and Regina doesn’t dare bring up the worst of what had led them to this place. She blames herself too much, her quest for vengeance and hate that had left Emma on shaky ground. She won’t push, either, when she knows that she has overstayed her welcome in Emma’s heart. Emma will never feel the way that she once had, and Regina will accept that. She had squandered that opportunity, and she is glad to have, at least, a taste of what could have been. “But it’s good, isn’t it?” 

 

Emma sits back against the couch, and Regina climbs onto her lap, kissing her languidly. There is no frantic peeling at clothes, no unzipping of jumpsuits, only quiet, gentle kisses, each one more tender than the last. “It’s really good,” she whispers, her smile tremulous, and Regina’s heart aches so painfully that she can hardly breathe.

 


 

“I have to ask,” the interviewer says, leaning forward. “What changed your mind about Duos? You were so adamant that you wouldn’t fight together, and now, you’re about to fight your second battle together.” 

 

Emma laughs nervously, feeling Regina’s stony silence like a palpable thing in her mind before it actually begins. “Well,” she says weakly, “It just seemed like a waste not to fight together. So we got over ourselves and got to work.” 

 

“She didn’t want me to face my mother alone,” Regina says coolly, forgoing the last bit of mystery that they have. “And I didn’t want her facing my mother without me. So this was the only option.” 

 

The interviewer doesn’t look surprised. There have been many discussions, at length, about Regina and Cora, and Emma has read more of them than she’d meant to. This interviewer seems to have done the same. “But I did notice that you left Cora Mills to Emma for the start of the battle. You even stopped Emma from harming your opponent.” 

 

“And the minute Emma was in danger, I set him on fire and left,” Regina says, her voice impatient. “I had a moment. Am I not allowed to have a moment?” 

 

The interviewer is not intimidated. “I wanted to ask you. Do you think you’d be fighting now if Daniel Colter were alive?” 

 

Regina scoffs. Emma says, “Okay, you’re out of line–” just as she gets the most startling impression through the bond. Regina, fighting in the arena as her younger self, a tiny Henry watching from Daniel’s lap. Emma’s heart hurts. Then, again, Regina in the arena as a toddler sits on Daniel’s lap. Regina stepping away from Daniel. Regina kissing Emma. Regina and Emma with Henry swinging from their hands as they head for the arena–

 

It’s a past that isn’t real, that had only been prompted by the interviewer’s questions. It’s a past in which Regina is unsatisfied by the quiet, isolated life that she’d chosen, where she’d come back for Emma– where she’d choose Emma– and Emma can’t bear to see it. It feels like a tease, like an invitation to a place where she’d never been wanted, and she recoils from it. 

 

The interviewer says, undeterred, “What’s it like, fighting with that bond? It’s quite something to see.” 

 

“It’s…” Emma glances at Regina, uncertain of what she wants to say. There has already been a to-do about the bond during the exhibition fighting, the two of them lost in each other as they’d faced Marian and Zelena. It had been like attacking an ant with a sledgehammer. 

 

Zelena had shamelessly mocked them for every second during, and Marian had just shaken her head and looked amused by the whole thing. The videographers had nearly salivated. 

 

“I know some Duo pairs compare it to becoming one, but that’s not really how it is for us,” Emma says finally. “Like, we’re very much aware that we’re two separate people. But we get every impression at the same time. And we’re both pretty strong, so everything gets really easy, abruptly. Especially healing and attacking.” 

 

Regina nods. “It’s hard to explain what the bond does,” she murmurs. “It doesn’t go away. Ever . It just lingers there, making sure you’re never alone.”

 

The interviewer frowns. “Was it there when you were apart for those eleven years? Were you communicating privately?” 

 

Emma shakes her head. “No.” And then, daring and feeling very shy under Regina’s warm gaze, she murmurs, “I was just…so lonely.” 

 

Regina lets out a breath. “I cried myself to sleep every night for a month,” she admits, and she has finally forgotten the interviewer, the cameras on them recording this conversation. “And then occasionally after, too. I had...I had a safe place away from Mother and I had someone solid and steady, but I spent months mourning you. Missing that buzz that we got when we would start fighting.” Missing you sleeping next to me slips out, and Emma gapes at Regina, her heart pounding. 

 

Regina averts her eyes. Sorry , she thinks swiftly. I was a very young and very lost girl. I grew out of it after I saw you again

 

After Daniel had died, because Emma hadn’t listened to Regina’s pleas. There is still so much hovering between them, so many wrongs and missteps that have left them scrambling. They’re rebuilding, but it’s slow, and there is still the sense of an impending ending.

 

Arendelle still looms in front of Emma, a perfect temptation, and what reason does she have not to take it? That she might see Regina more? Is she going to become the kind of person who sacrifices everything she’s ever dreamed of for a love that should have long ago gone sour? She wonders what it might be like to fight Duos with Elsa, to be on a team with the superstars of the League. It’s what she’s always worked for. It’s what she’s always wanted.

 

Today, after the Arendelle exhibition matches, she knows that she can have that chance to see.

 

She ducks away from the interview, avoiding Regina’s eyes, and she slips out to the arena. The Arendelle fighters are there, doing their exhibition matches now that they’ve finished their interviews, and Emma watches them from the bench that’ll be Storybrooke’s tomorrow, tracing their movements. Kristoff and Sven, flying through the air. Elsa and Anna, explosive in their magic, harmonizing a low tune that makes the world seem to dance around them. Honeymaren, guiding enormous, ghostly giants like massive mountains through the arena. Yelana disappearing an instant before a giant gets in a blow and reappearing behind him. Olaf, throwing up his hands as snow rises around him. 

 

They are all pros, all so good at what they do that it’s hard to imagine that Emma has the skill to fit in with them. She feels a sudden stab of uncertainty, and then Elsa notices her at the bench and motions her over. “Come,” she says, her eyes shining. “Let me see what you can do with me.” 

 

The media is still watching, but their focus is on the battle between Kristoff and Sven against Honeymaren and Yelana. Anna tugs Olaf with her, and the four of them go together to Arendelle’s training arena, slipping away from the videographers. Anna walks ahead, slipping an arm into Emma’s and chatting up a storm. “So I know we seem really cohesive as a team, but if you look at our records you’ll find that we just merged with Northuldra about eight years ago. We take on new people really happily! And I love how you’re such a physical fighter– I’m tempted to punch people in the face in the arena all the time. You’re going to have to teach me how to fight when you join up,” she says brightly, and Emma blinks at her, already overwhelmed. “I also love that thing you do where you punch someone like this–” She throws her fists out in alternating blows, each harder than the last. They’re so aggressive that Emma can nearly feel them against her chest. “And then you knee them in the stomach. It’s a great move. Not to downplay your magic, which is really great, too! I don’t have natural magic like Elsa and Olaf, but I know that it makes a difference in the arena. Yours is amazing –” 

 

“Anna,” Elsa says, laughing softly. Emma is suddenly aware that her mouth is hanging open as she stares at Anna, trying to keep up with Anna’s trains of thought. “Slow down. You’re scaring Emma.” 

 

“I think she’ll be great on the team,” Olaf says brightly. “Yelana is a sweetheart, but in a very old, very scary kind of way. Emma seems nicer.” 

 

Emma says weakly, “I haven’t even accepted the offer…” 

 

They’ve reached Arendelle’s practice arena, the small, squat building nearly identical to Storybrooke’s. Elsa ducks inside and presses a finger to her lips. “Don’t tell, but we put up a portal in here. We like training at home.”

 

In the center of the training arena is the portal, and Emma follows Elsa into it.

 

Arendelle Arena isn’t the one that they’d used at regionals. Instead, this looks almost like open space, a circular valley hollowed out amidst icy mountains, the glow of the stars above them and colorful purple-orange wisps of light across the sky. Emma takes a breath, staring up, and Elsa says, “This is where we love best. No one knows about it except the team, and no one else can get here.” There is a board, Emma notices suddenly, state-of-the-art and modern in this frozen wilderness, and Elsa turns to it. “Arena Timer,” she says, “Begin.” 

 

Emma is so far from Regina here that she can only feel the barest brush of her mind, a flicker that might be concern. I’m okay , she sends back, and she turns to Elsa. “I guess this is a bad time to admit that I really suck at Duos when I’m not fighting with Regina.” 

 

Elsa shakes her head. “No,” she says. “You have the building blocks. You know how to do it. You just have to be willing to try.” She shifts forward, and her mind opens up, reaching out to lock with Emma’s. Emma recoils and then tries again, the barest wisps of her mind tangling with the farthest reaches of Elsa’s. It’s nothing close to a bond, but it’s a possibility–

 

Olaf throws out a hand and snow piles around them, and Elsa spins around to send icy spikes through his snow, warding it away. Emma raises her hands, sends sparking magic at the snow, and she watches with satisfaction as it melts enough of the snow that Elsa can stalk through it, parting the snow as she heads for her sister. 

 

Anna hums a bar of music, and Elsa is thrown back by the force of the vibration that follows. Emma takes advantage of Anna’s distraction to hurtle forward, fists out, and she makes it nearly to Anna before the humming changes and Emma is abruptly against a soft mountain of Olaf’s snow, encasing her in it as it hardens. A wind roars through the arena, the snow getting more violent around her until she is trapped.

 

They’re strong, she realizes suddenly. They’re strong, and she is strong enough to fight alongside them. She lights a fire, one of Regina’s signature moves, and she lets the snow melt around her, just enough that it won’t be visible from outside her snowy tomb. Instead, she trails magic beneath the ground, a line of white energy trailing through the dirt and erupting beneath Olaf. 

 

He lets out a cry, but Elsa is already upon him, and she seizes his heart and holds it triumphantly. “Our win!” she says, delighted, and the snow disappears from around Emma just in time for Elsa to barrel into her and throw her arms around her. “You are excellent at Duos,” she murmurs into Emma’s ear, and Emma feels melancholy and exhilarated at once.

 

This feels good. Really good, like a place where she’s always been meant to be. Olaf holds her hand on the way back, talking about the wind like it’s a conscious spirit, and Anna laughs and puts in her own thoughts about their secret arena. Elsa just walks next to her, eyes shining, and Emma thinks, I could stay here .

 

She says, “I should go back to my cabin alone,” when they return to the Proeliate realm. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, with so much media around. I’m not ready for those rumors.” 

 

“Of course.” Elsa smiles at her, those blue eyes so blue and that pale hair so light, the darling of the League who has eyes only for Emma. “You have to do whatever is best for your team.” She clears her throat. “Will Regina captain them if you leave?”

 

“I don’t know,” Emma admits. “Regina’s supposed to go back to Misthaven after the championship, but she might just poach Mulan and Marian and Lily. They’re the only fighters we’ll have left.” 

 

“It sounds like it might be time for a change,” Elsa murmurs, her big eyes hopeful. Her tone shifts, a little wary. “And…I know you two are…close now.” 

 

Emma flushes. “Yeah. But I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. Regina’s really enthusiastic about me joining Arendelle, for some reason.” 

 

“For an obvious reason,” Anna says, looking at Emma as though she is very stupid. “She knows she’s the reason you haven’t been on our team for the past eleven years. She’s just trying to fix things.” 

 

Emma gapes at her, forces a little, strained laugh. “What?” 

 

Olaf says wisely, “I’d listen to Anna, if I were you.”

 

“Why would she…?” It’s ridiculous to imagine, that this is how Regina makes amends. It had been easier to believe that Regina is just being resentful and sarcastic, that her supportiveness is somehow snide instead of genuine All Emma had ever wanted from her was her mind locked with Emma’s in the arena, and now Regina is going overboard to give her something that had never mattered nearly as much when they’d been teens. 

 

“Duh,” Anna says. “She’s like, a thousand percent in love with you.” 

 

Emma actually laughs this time, looking to Elsa for support. Elsa shrugs, avoiding her eyes, and Emma shakes her head. “She really, really isn’t. I’m in her head all the time. I’d know if she were in love with me. And that’s just…not what we’re doing.” She glances at the three of them, sees three bemused faces, and winces. “It’s not ,” she insists. “She isn’t– ugh . Forget it.” She twists around, peering back at the arena. 

 

It’s dark now, the last of the interviews and exhibition matches done, and she says, “Anyway, I have to go,” and makes a hasty retreat. Her heart is burning, that terrible old longing still in her chest, and she feels sick when she thinks about Anna’s assurances.

 

Regina isn’t in love with Emma. Emma can’t live her life waiting for Regina to fall in love, because it isn’t going to happen . What they’re doing now– this happy, sexy byproduct of the bond– it feels good, just like it had felt good to sleep in Regina’s bed every night or to be wrapped in Regina’s arms as Regina had explored her body that one night when they’d been teens. This is just a more extreme version of all of that, just like the bond is more extreme now. There have been no commitments, no proclamations, nothing but tender intimacy and affection.

 

And Emma refuses to live in delusion that feelings might bloom one day like blossoms in the tundra. Going to Arendelle is moving on , and Regina recognizes that Arendelle is good for Emma even as she resents it. That’s why Regina is pushing it. Because this new, transformed Regina feels guilty over the years Emma had suffered on her behalf, and she cares enough to want Emma to flourish. It’s the sort of thing that makes Emma love Regina even more, which is a whole new can of worms–

 

She sidesteps the front door and knocks on the patio door behind their cabin, carefully shelving her thoughts as she reaches out for Regina. The door opens a few minutes later, Regina out of her jumpsuit and dressed in a long, silky gown that she wears at night sometimes. Her hair falls off her shoulders in the waves that had been teased out by the hairdresser, and she has scrubbed the makeup from her face. She looks beautiful, and Emma finds that it’s easy to neglect all her prior thoughts in favor of simple gratitude that she can pull Regina close and kiss her. 

 

“You sneaked out during the last interview,” Regina accuses her when they part. “You left me all alone to deal with this lady who told me that she draws artwork of us in compromising positions. Who vetted these interviewers?” 

 

“I bet you gave her a great interview,” Emma says, running a hand through Regina’s hair to watch it bounce back against her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I was…espionage-ing.” 

 

Regina’s eyebrows shoot up. “I had heard that a few Arendelle fighters disappeared near the end, too.” 

 

“I fought Duos with Elsa,” Emma says, and she feels suddenly as though she has betrayed Regina, as though this thing that Regina has encouraged her to do has been the ultimate wrong. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she says quickly. “Just a little sparring–” 

 

Regina smiles, and the bond is unreadable again. “You loved it, didn’t you?” 

 

Emma drops her head. “I liked it,” she admits. “Arendelle is…I don’t know how to describe it. They made me feel like…” She glances up at the sky, and she takes a breath as she remembers that ghostly, magical place where Arendelle practices. “You know when you’re outside for a while and you remember to look up? And you see the darkness first, but then suddenly…” 

 

“Starlight,” Regina says softly. “You see the stars. The arm of the galaxy. And you feel like you’re living among giants, just like them.” It had been a distant conversation, eleven years old, and Regina had mocked it ceaselessly until she’d admitted that it was lovely. “That’s quite a team, to make you feel that way.” 

 

She’s like, a thousand percent in love with you. Emma takes a breath. “Yeah,” she whispers, and she thinks about Storybrooke, suddenly, about Lucy and Mulan, Zelena and Ursula, Cruella and Marian. They aren’t all welcoming and chatty, don’t look at her with those big, shiny eyes. They are a mismatched group of women, complicated and tough and far from the beautiful symmetry of Arendelle, and she has built their angry little team from scratch. 

 

She clears her throat. “I’m desperate to get out of this jumpsuit,” she says quickly, and Regina follows her in, slides her zipper down and hand along Emma’s skin, and she dresses Emma in another silky nightgown and kisses her at the door to their room.

 

“I left a little early, too,” Regina admits. “I told the reporters that Henry had to go to sleep and then I bribed him into staying here with TV and ice cream.” She smiles, sheepish, and turns the doorknob. “The others should just be getting back now– there they are.” She looks startled. 

 

Emma peers around her. The others are already back. They’re all sitting silently on the couches, arrayed around a snoozing Henry, and their faces are grim. Emma’s heart thuds against her chest. “What’s wrong?” she asks slowly. 

 

It’s Zelena who looks up at her, eyes churning with what looks oddly like fury. “It’s been all over the news this evening,” she says coldly. “Emma Swan, captain of Storybrooke, is preparing to abandon ship. For Arendelle .” 

 

Emma’s blood freezes. She’d been careful . Elsa hadn’t told anyone, she’s sure of it. And there hadn’t been anyone watching them when they’d left– but anyway, how would anyone make that assumption just from their departure? “What?”

 

She looks to Mulan and Marian for support, but they look nearly as unhappy as Zelena. “Is it true?” Mulan demands.

 

“Mulan.” Emma thinks of a dozen things to say, none of them convincing. She hasn’t even convinced herself– how can she persuade anyone else that this is the right decision– “I didn’t– I don’t know if–”

 

Is it true? ” Mulan repeats, and there is nothing but betrayal in her eyes, her longest-lasting teammate in the room, the woman who has been with her through losses and wins alike.

 

“No,” Emma says, and she feels the temperature in the room level out for a single instant before she confesses, “Not exactly. I didn’t prepare to…I didn’t make a decision yet.” 

 

“Oh, well, don’t let us keep you,” Cruella drawls unpleasantly, her eyes narrowed. 

 

Emma throws up her hands. “Why do you care? You’re leaving, too!” 

 

“We all care about this team!” Zelena snarls. “We’d have stayed if you’d invited us, instead of going off to chase the next shiny thing. We trusted you! We followed you! Do you think we follow anyone easily?” 

 

She looks at the others for support. Marian is nodding, her face downcast. Mulan says quietly, “Emma, I’ve been fighting here for six years because of you. I don’t care about Storybrooke. I care about my captain–” She stops talking, her voice cracking.

 

Lucy says in a whisper, “You were going to keep a place for me. But you’re not staying.” Beside her, Henry has awakened, and he looks equally devastated. “You’re not even going to be there.” 

 

Ursula shakes her head. “You really got up there every match and told us that we were going to win.” She snorts, shaking her head. “Were you going to tell us that we were the best damn team in the League tomorrow, right before we faced the team you’re running off to join?”

 

“Stop,” Emma says weakly. “Stop. I meant it. I love this team.” She can feel the devastation rising at the hostile faces in front of her, the hurt expressions on even Zelena and Cruella’s faces. “This is…it’s just a really great opportunity. I don’t know if I’ll take it. I didn’t think you’d all stay.” 

 

Mulan says, the truth dawning on her, “You put me in Solos this match so I’d rank ? We might lose the whole championship because you decided it was more important to settle everything after?” She looks shaken. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand how you’d give up everything we’ve worked for and go to Arendelle.” 

 

“Don’t you know?” Zelena drawls. “That’s always been her dream. It’s why Regina is so quiet right now. She sabotaged her once already.” 

 

Regina clears her throat and Emma can’t , can’t watch the team fall apart any more than it already has. She’s done this. She kept Arendelle a secret– kept it from everyone who deserved to know most of all, and now she’s only reaping what she’s sown. She doesn’t want Regina to be put on the spot, doesn’t want Mulan’s stricken face fixed on hers, doesn’t want to keep staring at Lucy’s disappointed face and Zelena’s gritted teeth. 

 

“We have a match tomorrow,” she says stiffly. “I’ll let you all process this in peace.” 

 

She turns around, shaky with heartbreak, and Cruella says, “Are you going off to Arendelle already?” with venom in her voice. 

 

“No,” Emma says dully. She wants to go to Snow, suddenly, but Snow is in the hotel with Gold and Ingrid and maybe even Cora, if Cora had lied about leaving. She is swiftly running out of people to flee to. “I’m going home,” she says, and she tenses at the door. “I’ll see you at the match.” 

 

She stays for long enough to hear Zelena say bitterly, “I wager she pulls a Regina,” and the sound of a palm slapping flesh, and then she is gone, away from the others, away from a team she’s betrayed and the Proeliate.

 

She walks through a portal to Storybrooke, walks to her quiet, lonely apartment, and unlocks the key to the yellow Bug parked in front of it. And then she drives down Main Street until there are no more stores, no more traffic lights, just the big, formal Now Leaving Storybrooke sign behind her.

 

Regina is there, in the bond, desperately calling her name. Emma , she says, and Emma is left with the impression of conflict, of a hostile cabin and tears. Emma, please

 

And then Emma drives over the town line, and the bond stops cold.

Chapter Text

There are a few minutes of uncomfortable silence after Emma leaves. Zelena is still nursing her cheek where Regina had slapped her, glaring at her, and Mulan sits very still on the couch and stares into space. Marian’s jaw is tight. Lucy is crying silently, Henry with his arm around her and his eyes on Regina, and Cruella inspects her nails and does little to hide the furrow in her brow. Ursula strokes her arm, face angled down away from them, and Regina tries with all her might to reach out to Emma. Emma. Emma . She can feel Emma through the bond, in turmoil and pushing her away, and she presses on. Emma, please. Just wait for me. Emma–

 

The bond hadn’t been this strong when Regina had left, all those years ago. She remembers the faintest cry from Emma when she’d first realized that Regina had vanished, after they’d jumped through a dozen realms to wipe their trail and traveled through a section of the Land Without Magic before emerging in Hyperion Heights, and Regina had pushed it away and never heard it again. This time, Regina is sure that Emma has moved realms– can almost see Storybrooke around her– but it makes no difference in their connection. Emma, please , she tries again, and then, abrupt silence.

 

Regina twists around, lays her hands against the counter and strains with all her might, but it’s like fighting with the sky. There is nothing anymore, Emma cut off as swiftly as an axe through their bond, and Regina realizes with rising dread what must have happened. “She’s gone,” she says, her heart stopped. “She went into the Land Without Magic.” 

 

“Well, that’s it, then,” Zelena says sharply. “She’s out. Just a day earlier than expected, I suppose–” 

 

“Will you shut up ?” Regina growls, and she spins around to glare furiously at them all. “All of you! Acting as though you’ve been personally wounded by…what? Emma getting an offer from another team? Do you know how often that happens?” 

 

“She’s never considered it before,” Mulan says quietly. She still looks shaken. “She’s never actually left us–” 

 

“She didn’t leave you today, either!” Regina barks out, and she is suddenly furious on Emma’s behalf. “She’s been agonizing over this for weeks because she’s so damned unselfish that she would give up the opportunity of her career for you people, and you decided to meet her with accusations and…and a complete lack of understanding for what she’s already given up in Storybrooke–” She’s breathing hard, and the others all stare at her, their eyes unreadable. “ Twelve years on a team that has never lived up to her potential, and you’re going to make her feel guilty now?” 

 

“We aren’t those teams,” Ursula points out. “We’re the best team to come out of Storybrooke in decades.” 

 

“And instead of pointing that out–” Regina takes another breath, sharp and hard. “Instead of giving her reasons to stay , you push her away. Idiocy.” 

 

Lucy speaks, her voice small. “She could have told us.” 

 

Regina softens her voice, sees the way that her son and her niece are staring at her and does her best to sound gentler. “She would have. I told her to wait. I didn’t want this happening before we fought the championship.” She motions impatiently at the rest of the team. “We didn’t need this distraction.”

 

“Well, now we have it,” Zelena snaps, and Regina looks sharply at her, fed up with Zelena’s snide remarks tonight. She opens her mouth, ready to reprove her, and then Zelena’s mask slips a little and Regina sees only the devastation beneath it. Zelena finishes, more subdued, “What the hell are we supposed to do now?” 

 

Regina takes a moment, blinks past her fury and takes in the cabin. The fighters on the couches are quiet, their faces lost and downcast, and Regina inhales slowly. They’re angry, but they’re hurt even more than that, and she is accomplishing very little like this. “You have two options,” she says, her voice even. “You can chase her away, push her right to Arendelle without a second thought. Or you can give her a reason to pick us.” Us , because there is no more Misthaven and Storybrooke anymore. They can talk about splitting up again, they have Gold to face at the end of this, but this is a team in front of her, women united by this championship. “You can win this championship and make it clear that Arendelle is a step down from Storybrooke. Emma wants to fight with the elite? We’re the elite now.” The others straighten, and Regina levels them with a glare. “We’re the team of her dreams. Right?”

 

Uncertainty, and then Zelena says, “ Damn right.” She has a fierce scowl on her face, and Regina remembers why it is that she likes Zelena so much. 

 

“Win the championship tomorrow,” Regina says, and she gazes around the room, meets each face with her own stony one. “Do it for Emma and then let her make her decision.”

 

She waits, and there are slow nods, determination settling onto anxious faces. Regina says, “Now, we need to find Emma and bring her back–” 

 

“Wait,” Marian says delicately. She pinches her forehead for a moment, and she says, “I’m the last person to be angry about someone considering leaving their team, but…” She offers Regina a wry look. “You might have known about this all along, but it’s kind of a shock to the rest of the team. Maybe she was right to give us some space tonight to be a little bit hurt.” 

 

Regina scowls at her, fully ready to fight again. “You’d better be ready to fully embrace her tomorrow,” she says, her voice cutting.

 

“Yeah.” Marian looks around at the others. “We’ll do our best.” She glances back at Regina and says gently, “I think it’s a little harder to bury it away when you’re not in love with her.” 

 

In love with her . Regina gapes, silenced at last by Marian’s accusation, the implication that Regina is… “I’m not…” she says helplessly.

 

“You really, really are,” Lucy says, and she’s finally smiling. 

 

Zelena scoffs, back in her comfort zone. “You always were,” she reminds Regina. Regina feels a panicky pace pick up in her chest, and she stares around the cabin. Henry is beaming at her. Ursula has her eyebrows raised, and Cruella is smirking. Even Mulan is smiling, the warmth in her eyes undeniable, and Regina backs away from them.

 

In love with her . You always were . She isn’t prepared to process the way that clarity seems to bloom in her mind, buds bursting into flowers of realization, and the wry, beneath it, you’re just figuring that out? She’d been in love once, and she remembers it being a peaceful contentment, a gentle sort of vision of the future with Daniel by her side.

 

Emma isn’t peaceful. There are no gentle visions, just ones of conflict and laughter, of teasing eyes that turn hooded at the drop of a dime, of fighting side by side and wrapping themselves in Henry and the arena as much theirs as Regina’s childhood home. There is no contentment in Emma, only hard-fought battles, and Regina aches with longing for every one.

 

She’d fallen in love with Emma when Emma had only been a bold, scrappy little girl with angry, hopeful eyes. When she’d come to her room one day after Mother had punished Regina for losing to Emma the afternoon before, and Emma had held her silently for that night and every night after. She’d fallen in love with Emma when Emma had grasped her hand and the arena had applauded their first victory, and Duos had felt like a life in itself. She’d fallen in love with Emma when Emma had been on her screen again, flush with victory and everything Regina had ever wanted from the arena.

 

She’d fallen in love with Emma when Emma had said you owe me this one and yeah. I did , and the world had unraveled a little more, created a complicated new reality from the one that Regina had been holding onto for so long. They aren’t those little girls anymore, but Regina loves Emma now more than she’d ever thought she was capable of, and she takes a step back under the knowing gazes of her team. “I have to…” 

 

“Go,” Henry says, his eyes shining. “I’m nine years old. I can put myself to bed.” He laughs aloud, and Ursula reaches over to ruffle his hair affectionately. Marian gives Regina a significant look, and Regina retreats, her heart still pounding in her chest.

 


 

It’s an icy cold in Maine at this time of year, mostly because of the wind that chills Emma to the bone as she walks from the car to the diner where she’d driven. Inside, the air is warmer, and she sits at a table and orders a plate of waffles. 

 

She doesn’t touch them, a testament to how she’s feeling. Instead, she hunches over them and stares out the front window, wondering exactly where she’d been found as a newborn. Somewhere a few minutes away, she knows. A baby on the side of the freeway, wrapped only in a blanket with her name on it and no parents to speak of. No family. Twenty-nine years later, she still has no one.

 

She doesn’t know how long she stares outside. Her mind is blank for the first time in weeks, not a hint of Regina inhabiting it beside her, and she finds that she hates it. It’s too quiet in there, too easy for her most intrusive thoughts to consume her, and she bites hard on her lip and pulls out something from her pocket. 

 

It’s a swan charm, the one that Regina had left for her on the eve of their last final. She’d found it in the car, sitting in the cupholder under an expired can of soda, and she runs her thumb over it, scrapes away some dirt and stares at it. Regina had gotten this ridiculous charm bracelet from Daniel, who had gotten it cheaply and hadn’t thought through the logistics of Regina wearing something so clunky when she’d been in the arena most days. Emma had resented it, but Regina had treasured the bracelet, and so Emma had entered a local fighting competition and saved up the money to put a swan charm on the bracelet, right next to Daniel’s horse and stylized R . It had been a little piece of her for Regina, and it had been heartbreaking when Regina had returned it to ride off into the sunset with Daniel.

 

Today, she curls her hand around it, rubbing her thumb against the curve of the swan’s neck. “That’s mine,” says a voice behind her, and Emma startles, a shock of adrenaline rushing through her.

 

She is so rarely surprised by Regina’s presence. Regina looks ruffled tonight, unkempt in a way that she rarely is, and Emma can barely read the expression on her face. “You gave it back to me,” she reminds Regina.

 

Regina sits down beside her and cuts a piece of waffle, deliberately. She slices it in half, spears it onto her knife and points it at Emma until Emma takes it. “It was more like a loan,” she says, and she reaches out to stroke the charm, her finger brushing against Emma’s skin in the process. 

 

Emma stares at her, chews her waffle, and says, “How did you get here?” Regina must have a car– residents of pocket dimensions usually have a license, at least– but she can’t be very familiar with the Land Without Magic. Not enough to find Emma, at least. 

 

Regina shrugs. “August gave me a ride,” she admits, and she twists her face in distaste as she jerks her head toward the window. August is sitting in his car, parked outside the diner, and he winks at Emma and pulls away. “He told me where you’d be,” Regina murmurs. “I had no idea. I guess I don’t know you very well.” It’s self-deprecating, and Emma looks sharply at her.

 

“You know me better than anyone,” she says, and she drops the swan charm into Regina’s palm. Regina squeezes it, her hand moving absently to her chest, and Emma inhales slowly. “We’re just a little…off-center right now. It’s been a long time.” 

 

“Yes,” Regina agrees, and she looks at Emma. Emma looks back. It is disconcerting to stare at Regina, to see emotions in her eyes without feeling them directly. The silence between them is like a wall, erected between them against their will, and Regina says, “No bond.” 

 

“No bond,” Emma agrees, a little relieved that they’re still in sync without it. She laughs suddenly. “Don’t tell me that this means we’re going to have to actually talk .” 

 

Regina looks at her. It’s a warm look, rich with an emotion that Emma has no guidepost for, and she says gently, “I spoke to them. I yelled at them, too. But I spoke to them. They’re just…very hurt.” 

 

“I get it.” Emma stabs at her waffle now, cutting it into tiny slivers rather than to look up at Regina. “I let them down. Kind of blindsided them–” 

 

“They’re hurt because they care about you,” Regina murmurs, and she reaches out toward Emma’s arm and then seems to think better of it. “You’re hurt because you care about them. Family is messy , Emma. It’s not your fault. It’s not really theirs, either,” she concedes grudgingly. “There’s just a lot of complicated emotion.” 

 

Emma slices the waffle again, this time perpendicular to her first cuts. “They’re not family . I don’t have a family. I mean, there’s Snow and David, but they’re…I don’t know. How do you reconcile eighteen years without parents? And the team is…it’s just a team. They’ll barely remember me by the end of next year.” 

 

“You underestimate yourself,” Regina says, shaking her head. “You brought us all together. Even Misthaven. You reached out and gave us a chance, and you earned our faith. Cruella’s , for fuck’s sake. Cruella doesn’t respect anyone , Emma.” She says it with fond exasperation, and Emma takes a break from shredding her waffle and watches Regina instead, admiring the angles of her profile and the hint of a smile on her face. “Zelena likes you.”

 

“They like you ,” Emma points out. “They followed you here.” She is melancholy again, thinking about Storybrooke. “Do you think I’ll be able to live here anymore, if I leave to Arendelle? Are people going to give me a hard time? Granny,” she says suddenly. “Granny would never forgive me–” 

 

Emma ,” Regina says, and she sounds stricken. “Emma, they’re going to be proud . Their favorite star, fighting in the top team in the League? You’ll be a celebrity.” Her voice turns gentle, coaxing. “They’ll be disappointed to lose you, but for the most part, they’ll understand why you left.” 

 

Emma glances at her, a new wave of uncertainty washing over her. “You don’t have to be so…so supportive of me going,” she says again. It had been a relief when Snow had backed her in it. With Regina, though, that supportiveness leaves an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

 

“Yes,” Regina says, and her eyes are set now, are glimmering with unhappiness that she can’t mask in time. “I do.” 

 

Emma is reminded of Anna’s words earlier that night, of the reminder that Regina is just trying to fix things , of the suggestion that Regina might be in love with her– but all she sees now, shining in Regina’s expression as strongly as it had in the bond, is guilt. She takes a breath. “I wish you’d stop doing that,” she murmurs.

 

“What?” 

 

Sacrificing yourself , she means to say. Pretending you’re happy to see me go , she wishes she were brave enough to say. Instead of both, she says quietly, “Hating yourself.” It is the real answer, deep down beneath the history and the insecurity.

 

Regina scoffs, looking away from her. “This is called accountability,” she says, dismissive.

 

“It’s called hurting my partner,” Emma retorts, her confidence rising. “And I will fight anyone who hurts my–” 

 

“I did this to you,” Regina snaps. “I did this to you at our last championship. You could have been there all along if not for me–” 

 

Emma’s voice is low, harsh, and she doesn’t even know what they’re arguing about anymore. “You had good reason!”

 

Regina throws up her hands. They get some sidelong glances from the waitress manning the counter this late at night, and Regina lowers her voice. “You keep telling me I should have stayed,” she hisses, and Emma is suddenly done with this, the back-and-forth blaming each other and themselves for something that is so obviously clear.

 

“Of course you shouldn’t have stayed!” she barks out, too loud. “Your mother literally killed Daniel !” The waitress looks suddenly very interested in their conversation, and Emma leaves her shredded waffle at the table and grabs Regina’s wrist, pulling her from the diner to the parking lot. “You were absolutely right to go,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief. “Of course you were right to go.” It’s something she hasn’t let herself think about until now, the reality of what Regina had been escaping. Regina couldn’t have stayed, Emma’s proposal or not. If Cora had ever figured out what Regina had been doing in secret, Daniel would have died, anyway. Regina had to run, and she had every right to do it exactly when she had. 

 

Regina, however, looks less than convinced of her justification. “I hurt you,” she reminds Emma. “Not just then. When I came back, too. After all you went through with my mother–” 

 

“You were angry.” Emma refuses to listen to Regina’s bouts of self-loathing, refuses to tolerate the sick way that they make her feel. “We were both angry,” she reminds Regina, and she thinks back to comments she’s made, insensitive remarks that have had Regina hurt or angry. Every one of them makes her nauseous. “I’ve been an asshole to you a dozen times, and you always shrug it off because you don’t believe that anyone’s required to be nice to you.” She leans back, hopping onto the front of her car. “Let’s talk about that .” 

 

Regina sneers at her, but it’s halfhearted, and she looks dangerously close to tears. “I will absolutely not talk about that.” 

 

“Then I will.” It’s strange, how bold the lack of a bond makes her feel. The things that are unspoken usually swim between them, easily and delicately overlooked and demanding only brief responses after. Without the bond, she has no indication of how this is making Regina feel, of the sense of stopstopstop that would come with it otherwise until Emma can’t think to argue with it. “I met you at fifteen,” she says. “You were sixteen. You’d taken more abuse than I had after years in foster homes.” 

 

Emma hadn’t been as furious about it when she’d been younger, before she’d seen how parents can treat children who love them and how robbed Regina had been of that. “I know now that you used to take extra for me,” she says, remembering a few of Cora’s offhand remarks, and she lets out a shuddering sigh that she hadn’t intended, a sob that vibrates through her as Regina stares at her, eyes wet and wide. “I’d mouth off at Gold or Cora and you’d do what you could so I wouldn’t go through what you did. Regina, that was the most fucked-up…” She shakes her head, and she can feel the tears beginning, slipping down her cheeks. “It was fucked up that any of that happened. If I’d known…”

 

“Emma, no,” Regina breathes, and she reaches out for Emma, climbs onto the front of the Bug, shivering in the freezing wind. 

 

Emma shakes her head. “You did everything your mother wanted in the Proeliate. You made it to the championships. And she didn’t stop. She tried to force you into a marriage with…into another prison.” Regina leans against the windshield, looking spent just by Emma’s words. “And when you ran,” Emma continues, relentless, “She made sure that you’d never be happy again. So yeah , you have a complex. You moron,” she adds for good measure, and Regina laughs, the sound of it shaky in the wind. 

 

She says something that’s swallowed by the wind, and Emma has to ask for Regina to repeat it before she understands what Regina has said. “Not never,” Regina murmurs. 

 

“What?” 

 

“I’m happy all the time now.” Regina averts her eyes, speaking to the trees instead of Emma. “Sometimes I’m so happy that I’m afraid Mother might appear again and take it all back. And then I feel guilty for being happy, because–” 

 

“Shut up,” Emma says, cutting her off.

 

Regina’s eyes flash. “Is this you showing that I’ll tolerate you being rude–?”

 

“No,” Emma says flatly. “It’s me invalidating your guilt. It’s bad guilt. I refuse to accept it.” She shakes her head. “You have fought for things your entire life. And if Henry and the Proeliate make you happy, then good .” She means it. There had been a time when she’d wanted nothing more than to lash out at Regina, but that is long gone now. Now, she only wants her to be happy.

 

“Henry and the Proeliate…” Regina says slowly, shaking her head, and then she lets out a breath of laughter as the wind pulls tears from her eyes. “Emma, you…” She swallows. “Why are we talking about me, again?” she says, almost plaintive.

 

Emma leans back against the windshield, catching Regina’s eyes, and she admits, “Because if we talk about me, I might just drive down to Boston and never come back.” She laughs, rueful, and she reaches over to cup Regina’s cheek. It’s freezing, but Regina doesn’t recoil from her touch. “Come on,” Emma says. “I’ll show you what I do when I come out here.” 

 


 

Regina eyes Emma’s tent very skeptically. “It’s freezing outside,” she points out. She also thinks about pointing out that Storybrooke is only a half hour away and has plenty of fully heated buildings, but she stops herself there. Emma has shown no willingness to return home. Instead, they’re a five-minute walk from the diner, deep in the woods.

 

“It’s well insulated, promise. I’ve been working on it for years .” Emma looks very proud of her handiwork. “Besides, between the trees and the tent, you don’t feel the wind at all. It’s a great tent.” 

 

Regina is unconvinced. “It’s a big blanket on poles.” Unfortunately for her, Emma gets that kicked-puppy expression when Regina insults her tent, and she is helpless against it. “But I will try it out,” she concedes, pinching the material with severe misgiving. 

 

Emma’s face lights up like the sun. “You’re going to love it. I promise.” Her expression turns sly. “Mostly because I only have one sleeping bag,” she adds, and Regina blinks at her and thinks you planned this, you absolute– and then remembers that Emma can’t hear her. 

 

The tent is less chilly than Regina had expected, and Regina reluctantly undresses. Emma pinches her ass before she can get into the sleeping bag, and then she laughs and strips off her own jumpsuit and slides into the sleeping bag beside Regina. It’s a large one, anbutd Emma curls into Regina, her warmth heating up the bedroll. 

 

And this– the soft ground below the tent, the solitude of it, their small shelter in the night– this isn’t terrible. Regina rests her head against the padded pillow at the top of the sleeping bag and watches Emma, tangling their legs together. “When we first came to Storybrooke, Henry saw the woods out here and had his heart set on camping.” She laughs ruefully. “I told him he was welcome to go himself when he turned eighteen.” 

 

“Come on,” Emma says, running a hand along Regina’s arm. Goosebumps erupt, and Regina has to remind herself what a bad idea it would be right now to distract from…whatever they’re doing. “Horse girl Regina would have loved camping. You’ve just gotta get back in touch with your inner child.” 

 

Regina snorts. “No, thank you. You’ll have to take him sometime,” she decides. It’s bold, an invitation to a future where Emma and Henry have a relationship, to a future where Emma is still around here.

 

Emma is just as aware of it as Regina is. “Absolutely,” she murmurs, and she shifts, awkward and uncomfortable, the uncertainty clear in her voice and her face. “I do this a lot in off seasons,” she says finally. “Just jump in my car and go off into the woods.”

 

“I didn’t know that about you.” She is learning more about Emma tonight, bits and pieces that are coming together into a picture she’s never known. “I never really thought about what you do in the the off season.” When they’d been girls, the off season had been spent in training and skipping out on training to relax at the beach. Regina used to be dark brown by the end of the summer, to Mother’s displeasure, and Emma had laughed and said you look so beautiful when you’ve gotten some sun in that wistful way that Regina had assumed was envy until it had become clear recently that it had been something else entirely. 

 

When Regina looks up, Emma is smiling at her with a distant look on her face, and Regina is suddenly sure that she is thinking about the same thing. “I don’t do much now,” Emma says, shrugging away Regina’s question. “There are usually some minor competitions with decent money prizes and exhibition matches for charity. We practice twice a week in the evenings and twice a week for a full day, so there’s a lot of downtime. I actually got a part-time gig as deputy sheriff last year.”

 

Regina’s eyes narrow. “Do you have a uniform?” she asks, which is really not relevant at all and implies a lot of things that she’s been trying not to imply.

 

Emma laughs, her fingers brushing against the space just above Regina’s hips, and Regina shifts against her, savoring the feel of their warm bodies pressed together. “My Proeliate jumpsuit doesn’t do it for you? All those…hot, sexy zippers –” 

 

“Shut up,” Regina says, kissing her in an attempt to achieve that silence.

 

“Oh, I’m not judging,” Emma murmurs against her lips. “I’ve seen you in ballgowns and it’s…” Her hands are roaming again, up and down Regina’s side, and Regina burrows in closer and closes her eyes, savoring Emma’s touch. 

 

She has to struggle to remember to change the subject. “Will you continue the…the deputy job once you’re in Arendelle? Or work in law enforcement there? I’m sure Elsa would love a personal guard .” She can’t quite stave off the bitterness there, and Emma looks at her askance and changes the subject.

 

“What do you do?” Emma says instead. “What did you do in Hyperion Heights?” 

 

She has stopped stroking Regina’s side, and Regina swallows back self-recriminations and focuses on the conversation. “I, uh…I ran a bar.” Emma’s jaw actually drops a few centimeters, and Regina hurries to clarify. “Daniel’s pet project, but I maintained it after he was gone. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was stable.” She smiles suddenly, remembering the early days with Henry. She’d been a mess, grieving and terrified and furious, but there had been this single bright light in her life. “I was able to spend my days with Henry and keep a baby monitor under the counter at night while he slept upstairs.” 

 

Emma’s eyes are soft. “I would have loved to see it,” she whispers. “Mom by day, gorgeous bartender by night.” She is stroking Regina’s side again, and Regina exhales.

 

“I interviewed for a position at the school here before I joined Misthaven, but I didn’t get it,” she admits. “I don’t know what I’d like to do with the rest of my life outside the Proeliate.” 

 

Emma considers her, raises her hand from the sleeping bag and kisses her wrist. When she pulls Regina close, it’s to wrap her in warm arms and legs, and Regina rests against her side and feels the reassuring sensation of Emma’s chest rising and falling and her heartbeat against Regina’s ears. When Emma talks, the vibrations are soothing. “You could work in a magical field,” Emma suggests. “Be a healer. Or…something really tough and executive. You could be a CEO. Or run for mayor,” she says brightly.

 

Regina laughs. “I think that mayor idea might be better suited for someone with my bedside manner,” she says. “I’m not exactly the gentle, empathic healer type.”

 

Emma shrugs, and Regina feels it rather than sees it. “I don’t know,” she murmurs. “You’ve been pretty great tonight.” She is silent for a moment, and Regina has the sense not to speak. “I know that they care,” Emma says finally. “And I know that they didn’t just abandon me. I just feel like…I always feel so alone,” she whispers. 

 

Regina curls against her, feels arms tighten around her abdomen. “I’m here,” she murmurs. She hasn’t always been. She’s been gone for so many years, and she’d never quite imagined that Emma could be so lonely during them. Regina had been the loner, the one who’d been awkward with people and slow to make friends, while Emma had always been more gregarious than she’d claimed to be and had that natural charisma. And Emma had had good friends– had Lily and August and Mulan and a team that had followed her everywhere– but there has always been a loneliness to her, a part of herself that she has kept away from everyone. 

 

Never from Regina, not when they’d been girls fighting together. “I’m here,” she says again, and she kisses the hollow of Emma’s throat.

 

Emma breathes, the sound of it lengthening and smoothing out, and she says, “Yeah.” She lifts a hand to run it through Regina’s hair, and then guides her head back so their eyes can meet. “I know we’ve had several boatloads of issues, but there’s no one else I’d rather be here with,” she whispers.

 

Regina slips her hands behind Emma’s shoulders, tickling at the back of her neck, and she cradles Emma’s head and feels the warm breath of her companion at her lips. Their lips brush, blood already beginning to surge through Regina’s veins, and then Emma pulls back. “This is probably a bad idea right now,” she says, almost resentfully, almost wryly. “We’re actually talking .” Then, achingly, “I missed us talking.” 

 

“We used to talk so much ,” Regina says, settling back against Emma. She can feel the arousal calming, almost disappointed, and she sets it aside. “Yet, somehow, I think we might’ve been holding out on each other.” 

 

Emma scoffs. “Oh, yeah,” she agrees, and now it’s definitely self-deprecating. “Because what I really should have been talking about was that I was hopelessly gone for you. That would have made everything better and not bombed our relationship at all.” She takes a slow breath, her skin moving against Regina’s. “I always figured…I thought that it was enough, what we had,” she admits. “That I could still have the bond and that I still slept in your bed– it was enough for me for a long time.” 

 

“I wish you would have said something,” Regina murmurs, and she’s dancing on thin ice, getting closer and closer to a truth that might take her too far. She shakes her head. “I only started going to the stables because I thought that you were interested in August and I was so jealous ,” she says, and it emerges in a rush. “I didn’t know that you liked girls until you kissed Lily at the regional drawing. If I’d realized back then, then maybe–” 

 

“Stop,” Emma says, and she sounds stiff now, uncomfortable. “Don’t rewrite history.” Regina stares up at her clenched jaw, offended, and Emma says, “I know what we had back then. I know you wouldn’t have loved me. You don’t need to say these things to make me feel better –”

 

“Go to hell,” Regina says, which is not at all productive and makes Emma say, “That isn’t going to make me feel better, either–” 

 

Regina cuts her off again. “Of course I loved you,” she says, and Emma makes a noise like she’s about to interrupt again. Regina pinches her side to stop her. “You were my entire world back then, Emma. I spent my entire life until you surrounded by people who wanted things from me– who wanted me hurt and beaten and hard– and you came in like this beautiful breath of fresh air. You made me love the Proeliate. I stopped fighting because I was afraid of being punished and started fighting because I loved being around you. I couldn’t sleep without you there,” she says, and she can feel the tears begin to stick in her throat. “I used to have nightmares every night in Hyperion Heights without you. It took months to sleep through the night. I was like a damned newborn–” 

 

“You don’t mean that,” Emma says shakily. “You had Daniel–” 

 

“But I didn’t have you!” The words escape in a rush, and Regina longs for the bond, for the easy way it would convey all she wants to without having to tear these painful words from her throat. “Gods, Emma, you were the best thing about my life for so long, and I would have absolutely been in love with you if I’d known that it was possible, because you were my life. You were the reason I existed . And you know all of that, so don’t lecture me about rewriting history–” 

 

Something wet lands on Regina, and she looks up and sees Emma’s head tilted back, her mouth pressed closed, the tears still slipping down her chin. “Come here,” Regina whispers, and she maneuvers in the sleeping bag, manages to pull them both up so they’re sitting in it instead of lying down and Regina can hold Emma tightly. Emma closes her eyes, resting her head on Regina’s shoulder, and Regina kisses the top of her head and keeps her close. 

 

“It’s so fucking stupid,” Emma breathes. “I know it’s over and that time is long gone and I just– it’s so fucking stupid to still care so much but I–” 

 

“I know,” Regina says, and her heart aches. It’s over. That time is long gone . Emma cries for what they’d lost back then, and Regina wants to weep for what they’ll never reclaim. For the future, gone as swiftly as the past, because they’ve grown up but Regina hasn’t moved on. Regina is still that girl who sleeps better at night because Emma is with her, who loves to fight because of the bond between them.

 

She could say something now, she knows. She could try to express what she wants and Emma might even reciprocate, might resurrect that girl who had loved Regina so deeply, and they could be perfect again.

 

Except. 

 

Except Regina hadn’t had any dreams back then beyond love and family and her best friend. Regina hadn’t cared where she’d end up except that Emma would be fighting beside her. Emma had had a dream, all these years, and it is so close that Regina can feel it like a looming darkness. Arendelle . Emma’s starlight, the place that had made it all make sense for her. Elsa, who adores Emma, and a team of fighters who would treasure her in the way that she deserves. 

 

What kind of monster would she be if she took advantage of Emma’s old feelings to drag her away from her dreams?

 

She clears her throat, and she lies. Emma will never know that she’s lying, safe from the confines of their bond. “This is good,” she says, her voice so steady that it sounds almost unnatural to her. “I think it’s good for us to have some closure on…on back then.” Emma is still crying, and Regina holds her, eases them back down to the ground. She kisses Emma’s breast, a gentle brush of her lips, and she says gently, “We should sleep. Big day tomorrow.” 

 

Emma doesn’t answer, but Regina lets her eyes close, and she drifts off to sleep much sooner than she expects.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Emma wakes up to an empty sleeping bag and the swan charm beside her. She freezes for a moment– Regina can’t possibly be this cruel, this has to be a bad dream– and then she sees, just outside the tent, the dark movements of a figure in a Proeliate jumpsuit. “Regina?” she calls, her heart pounding, and Regina pokes her head back into the tent, her brow furrowed and her eyes wide with panic.

 

“I can’t find it,” she says hopelessly. “I’ve been looking for an hour – I don’t know what happened– I had it, and now–”

 

Wordlessly, Emma holds up the swan charm. Regina exhales a mighty sigh of relief and clambers back into the tent, seizing the charm and holding it tightly in her palm. “Oh,” she says, and she stares at Emma without another word.

 

When Emma leans forward to kiss her, it’s a tender kiss, far less passionate than it is something else entirely. Regina pulls her forward, out of the sleeping bag and onto her lap, and she buries her face in Emma’s neck. She’s shivering, and Emma says, “An hour?” 

 

“Maybe longer. I don’t know.” Regina shrugs helplessly. “I needed…” She shakes her head and is silent, and Emma holds onto her for another moment before she moves to pull on her clothes.

 

She has a change of clothes in her car, and Regina eyeballs the car suspiciously while Emma switches over to new clothes. “You drive this thing?”

 

“Not often,” Emma concedes. “But I take good care of her.” She pats the hood of the Bug. “We’ve known each other for longer than I’ve known you.” Regina is shivering again, and Emma heats up the car, eyeing her worriedly. “The heat will kick in soon,” she says, and Regina looks dubiously at the controls in the car. 

 

“This car is a wreck,” she decides. “You wanted to live in it?” 

 

“It was nicer when I was fifteen!” Emma protests. “Kind of. It still drives well. I just don’t always remember to bring in the garbage, and then my garbage bag falls over and–” 

 

Regina, with a sigh, begins to put wrappers back into the shopping bag at her feet as Emma drives. She looks exhausted, though Emma doesn’t think they’d gone to bed that late, and she must have been exaggerating about the hour spent hunting for the charm. Maybe it’s just knowing that there’s a match today– that it’s the match, the one they’ve been waiting for for eleven years.

 

Today, they’re going to be champions. 

 

They talk strategy halfheartedly as Emma steers them toward Storybrooke, the green sign coming into view as Emma describes what she’s seen Anna do. “It’s not like she gets up there and starts belting out songs. It’s more like a humming, where the vibrations–” 

 

She stops short. Her mind is abruptly flooded with sensation, with so many thoughts and feelings at once as magic sparks at her fingers. Regina lets out a little cry, and Emma feels, rather than hears, her say, the bond is back. 

 

Emma pulls over, her hands trembling against the steering wheel, and she shuts her eyes and drinks in the sensation of Regina’s mind against hers, inside hers, as intimately connected to her as the magical energy running through her body. She lets her mind run over Regina’s, sensing the grooves that hide Regina’s deepest thoughts, and she can feel Regina doing the same to her.

 

When she imagines breaking this bond– living without it, shattering it when it’s reached this new height– it makes her want to sob. You’ll have to , Regina thinks. If you go to Arendelle. We can’t function like this if we don’t have Duos.

 

Shut up , Emma thinks back in a sudden surge of furious heartbreak. Just shut up about Arendelle – Regina recoils, and Emma drives for an awkward few minutes before she finally says in a low voice, “I want to win this championship and I don’t want to think about anything else until it’s over. Okay?” 

 

Regina crumples a wrapper from a Mr. Awesomebar at her feet and puts it into Emma’s garbage bag. “Okay.” She is silent, the bond tense with it, and Emma takes a breath.

 

She can’t think about it. Hopefully, by now, the team has come to the same understanding. They might hate her now, but they will have to put it aside for the match. This is the most important fight of their lives.

 

With that in mind, she steps through the portal to the Proeliate realm, Regina’s hand tight in hers, and they walk into the common house together. The rest of the team is already there– it’s just an hour before they’re needed at the arena– and Mulan shifts over to make space for Emma. Emma sits uncertainly. Across the table, Regina is fussing over Henry’s hair (wild and unbrushed) and his clothes (spray-painted green and gold) and doesn’t seem to notice the tension that Emma does, filling the room.

 

The others exchange glances and don’t speak, busying themselves with their breakfasts, and Emma clears her throat. “I shouldn’t have let you find out like that,” she says, a tentative apology. 

 

“I shouldn’t have blown up like that,” Mulan says, stabbing her waffles a little too violently. “Or made you feel like it wasn’t okay that you were leaving–” 

 

Zelena scoffs. “Oh, are we lying now?” she says, and she sounds so honest that Emma is almost grateful for her caustic tone. Everyone in her vicinity is so enthusiastic about the offer, and it’s beginning to grate at her for reasons she can’t explain. “We are absolutely fucking not okay with any of–” 

 

“Zelena,” Marian says curtly, and Zelena falls silent, glaring at her. 

 

Lucy says, “Hi! Still ten!” and then changes the subject so smoothly that Emma is suddenly sure that she’d learned tact from Marian. “I know I’m supposed to hope that we don’t get to third Solo, but I want to fight so badly . And Arendelle always wins in five! Did you know that Yelana can disappear? That she’s been a Proeliate champion thirty-six times ?” She bounces in her seat. “This is going to be the best way to go out.” 

 

“You gotta beat her first,” Emma reminds her, very fond. “But we’re counting on you. I have no idea who’s going to win our fight–” 

 

“You will, you idiot,” Cruella says, wrinkling her nose. “A few little girls in sparkly jumpsuits have nothing on our Duos.” She eyes Regina. “Eat, darling, you’ve hardly touched your food.” 

 

Regina makes a face and takes a bite of her eggs. Emma fixes her with a warning glare and sends reproach through the bond. Regina takes another bite. 

 

“Don’t forget,” Emma cautions them, warming to the group again. If they resent her, they aren’t letting it affect the team, and that’s all she can ask for right now. “Before the fight, we have something much harder to deal with.”

 

This is the only Proeliate match in which there are pregame interviews as well as postgame, and they move toward them with a mass sense of foreboding. Regina must feel Emma’s mind buzzing, nervously moving from potential question to potential question, because she sends her a few sharp reminders to calm down .

 

Thank you, very calming , Emma retorts, leading them to a press room in the backstage area of the arena. This particular set of interviews is designed to have them all seated on a small stage in a long line, the reporters below in a group to ask questions. Emma has been put in the center of the line of Team Storybrooke, and she can feel reporters’ eyes on her, itching to ask all the questions about Arendelle that she’s never had to answer before.

 

Thankfully, the first question is for Lucy. “Lucía, you discussed the possibility of a hiatus from the Proeliate earlier this week. Are you planning to compete in the junior competition hosted in the Northlands this summer?” The reporter clears her throat. “And will you be eligible for it if you’ve fought at pro level?” 

 

Lucy looks very overwhelmed at the question. “I…I want to fight every fight I can,” she says finally. “I don’t know what I’m eligible for. If they let me fight, I’ll win.” She says it with confidence, and there’s a low titter through the press room, an appreciation for Lucy that has Emma relaxing. 

 

The next question raises her hackles instead. “My question is for Regina.” It’s Sidney, who’d interviewed them repeatedly when they’d been kids fighting last time. He turns his sharp stare at Regina. “I might be overstepping, but I have to know– Regina, do you see this match as your chance to repay Emma and Storybrooke for what you did in your last championship?” 

 

Emma feels the surge of dread and assent at once from the woman beside her, and she speaks up before Regina can. “You’re right,” she says, and there’s a murmur from the reporters. “You are overstepping. I hardly think that anyone could blame a terrified teenager for running when she was put in a situation like the one that you keep discussing.” She levels a glower at him. Regina is unreadable. Emma clears her throat. “Regina doesn’t owe me or anyone anything,” she says, and she feels the startled gratitude from Regina, though Regina’s face gives nothing away. “And we’re all grateful for the privilege of having her on our team.” 

 

Zelena hoots. Marian says, “Damn straight.” Ursula laughs and pats Regina’s shoulder, and Emma sits, frozen, and sends Regina warmth through the bond as she stares down Sidney.

 

There are a few questions for Marian and one for Ursula, and then the onslaught continues. “How would you characterize your relationship with Regina, Emma?” 

 

“Regina, are you and Emma romantically involved?” 

 

“How deep does the bond run for you two?” 

 

Emma gives noncommittal answers, and Regina says, “I really don’t think any of this is relevant to the upcoming fight,” over and over until the reporters are close to giving up. 

 

And then, near the end, when Emma is sure that she’s somehow escaped these interviews unscathed, a bold reporter says, “Emma, we’ve all heard the news that you’ve been offered Yelana’s spot on Arendelle. Does this match feel like a conflict of interest to you? Will it affect either team’s fighting?” 

 

Emma stares blankly at the reporter. “Why would it do that?” 

 

“There are rumors that Arendelle has agreed to throw the match if you’ll join their team,” another reporter puts in. 

 

“I’ve heard one that Storybrooke is going to resort to foul play to sabotage Arendelle’s reputation–” 

 

“–Some ugly rumors about–” 

 

Emma throws back her head and laughs before anyone else can insert their conspiracy theories. “Trust me,” she says, “None of that is happening.” She gestures at her team. “These two teams are made up of some of the most decent people I’ve ever known–” 

 

“And me,” Cruella drawls, inspecting her nails. 

 

“Some of the most decent people I’ve ever known,” Emma repeats forcefully, and Ursula rubs Cruella’s shoulder as though in apology for the insult. “I don’t expect anyone to fight with anything less than integrity and dignity.”

 

The reporters are not deterred. “Your team won’t be one for much longer, though. Are you considering the offer? Is it a serious offer?”

 

She can feel eyes on her, her teammates silent and the bond with Regina carefully closed off. She is swept away with the desperate urge to lie, to pretend, to satisfy everyone around her with an easy answer that will make them happy. “Yeah,” she says grudgingly. “Yeah, I’m considering it.”

 

What will she have to come back to, after the grandeur and adrenaline of the next match? What will her team be when half are gone to Misthaven, when she has to rebuild nearly from scratch? She’d have Lily, Mulan, Marian. Not Lucy. Not even Zelena.

 

Not Regina, the bond still sparking between them, and she closes her eyes for a moment and inhales slowly. Cameras are flashing, speculation raging about what it might mean, but Emma doesn’t give a damn about any of it.

 

She reaches for Regina through the bond, and she only exhales when she feels Regina’s silent presence in her mind.

 


 

Emma is on edge by the time that they make it to the prep room. Regina feels it, that nervous buzzing again, and this time, she doesn’t send anything to her. Not that Emma won’t feel her concern, anyway. Their bond is growing deeper daily, more and more layered to degrees that Regina hadn’t thought were possible. It makes Regina’s head ache when she thinks too hard about it. 

 

Actually, her head aches even when she doesn’t think too hard about it. In a sudden jolt of panic, she calls for her magic, but it’s still there. This isn’t a magical headache. It’s just her own idiotic decisions catching up to her, and wandering the pre-dawn woods in the middle of a Maine winter is on her and no one else. She’s probably coming down with a cold. She can handle it. 

 

Sign-in is a mere formality this time, when they come straight from interviews, but Nova is the one signing them in and she looks relieved when she counts them. “No surprises,” she says, and Regina just knows that she means Regina. 

 

She signs her name next to her slot in second Duos, teeth gritted in what’s supposed to be a smile, and she says, “Yes, my schedule was clear today, so I thought I’d pop in. Maybe I’ll even stick around for my fight this time.” 

 

Emma pokes her. “Brat,” she murmurs, but she’s smiling, and Emma is the only one allowed to look so relieved that she’s here. Regina waits until Nova has departed before she sits, leaning against the couch for support as Lucy curls up against her. The others sit slowly, lost in their own pre-game rituals. Snow paces, scanning every news article that pops up about them. Mulan is doing stretches on the floor, Marian spotting her. Ursula is stretching her tentacles, which is a vaguely disturbing sight, and Lucy is building a little glass castle in the air with careful precision. Zelena is toying with a sharp green flame, and only Cruella seems unbothered. Emma stands in front of them, hands jammed into her jumpsuit’s pockets, and Regina admires that grim little set to her lips when she’s serious. It’s– dare she say– adorable. 

 

Stop it , Emma says, glowering at her. I’m in the middle of something here .

 

I can tell , Regina shoots back, amused. The top of your nose is getting all scrunchy–

 

Oh, like yours does when you’re thinking really hard? Emma looks smug. You want cute? Try looking at yourself when you start teaching Henry something nerdy and obscure–

 

Did you just call me a nerd? Regina asks silently, outraged. Which one of us–

 

“Mom, pick me up. I’m scared,” Zelena says in a singsong voice. “They’re doing the mental flirting thing again.” 

 

Regina straightens. Lucy giggles to herself. Emma says, “ Okay . Um. This is our last match.” She swallows. “The one that might make us champions. I’ve been fighting in the Proeliate for twelve years, and I’ve never once felt as close to it as I do today.” She wets her lips. “I’ve been fighting for Storybrooke for a long time,” she says, and her voice is small. Mulan’s head has jerked up to follow Emma’s. “I didn’t…I didn’t really have a home before Storybrooke. Before Team Storybrooke. I couldn’t really imagine what kind of life I’d have at all. And thanks to Storybrooke, I’ve had the best thirteen years of my life. Some of the only good years of my life.” Her voice wavers. “And I feel like…I’m fighting today because I owe that victory to Storybrooke. I don’t know why everyone else is fighting–” 

 

“We know why we’re fighting,” Marian says evenly, and she waits, deliberate, until the others all nod in determined assent. Emma stares at her, eyes wide and hurt, and Regina is nearly overwhelmed at the sense of loneliness and confusion that she exudes.

 

But she doesn’t know. How could she? She hadn’t been there last night, at Regina’s fierce words to the team. Emma wants to fight with the elite? We’re the elite now. Team Storybrooke knows what they’re fighting for, and it’s their captain, the woman they aren’t willing to surrender to Arendelle. They’re fighting for a reason to keep Emma, and Emma has no idea.

 

She doesn’t know how she keeps it from Emma in that moment– it isn’t the time, it’ll frighten Emma away, Emma is too fragile– but Emma thinks suddenly are you all right? and Regina discovers that her eyes are wet. 

 

“I’m fine,” she says, and then, honestly, “I’m just tired.” 

 

“Wake up,” Zelena says, clapping her on the knee. “We have a championship to win.” 

 

And then, Nova returns, and they are called out one by one. 

 

Ursula is first, and she strides out with a secret smile on her face, a confidence that the crowd seems to love. “Ursula has fought in three of the championship matches, the first two in Duos. One victory, one loss,” the announcer says, and the crowd cheers. “This will be her first Solo fight. A bold move from Swan, who has opted to use neither of her primary Duo pairs this match.”

 

Then, Marian and Zelena. “Marian Locksley has fought once in Solos and once in Duos, coming out victorious in her Solo match and losing to Olympus’s star Duo pair in the second. Today, she fights with Zelena Mills, a Solo fighter who has one loss and one victory in the championships. A mixed record for these two, and a surprise to see Locksley paired with someone other than her typical partner. However, Mills is a versatile fighter who’s been wasted in supporting roles for the past two decades–” Here the crowd roars, and Zelena looks stunned. Marian nudges her, and she smiles in childlike wonder, gaping at the people shouting her name. “And Locksley is known to be a strategic genius who can excel in any Duo.” 

 

The crowds are getting louder, and Mulan shifts from foot to foot as she waits to be called. “Hua Mulan!” the announcer calls, and the arena explodes with cheers. Mulan walks out briskly, nodding up at the crowd, and then her mask falls and she grins, basking in the whooping and hollering as the announcer continues. “Hua has a victory and a loss in Duos, as well as a victory in Solos. She’s widely considered one of the strongest fighters in Storybrooke.” 

 

The noise of the crowd only seems to rise after that, though Regina hadn’t thought it possible. There is an undercurrent of anticipation in the arena, powerful enough that it seems to spark magic of its own, and she stares out from the doorway where they wait and into the arena. The announcer says, “In second Duos: Regina Mills and Emma Swan!” 

 

The crowd is deafening. Regina’s eyes blur, and she shivers, overwhelmed at the way that the emotion seems to hit her. It’s contagious: the enthusiasm, the screams, the tens of thousands of people shouting for her. She can feel it in her skin, running through her veins. There are more than thirty thousand people out there, and they’re here to watch Emma and her.

 

She stretches her hand out, and Emma finds it without a moment of hesitation. And there they are, walking together to their place beside Mulan, and Emma is crying silently, the crowds and the emotions that Regina can’t stop herself from feeling all sinking in at once. The smile on Emma’s face is blinding, and Regina wants nothing more than to kiss her right now.

 

“Regina Mills has one Solo and one Duo victory under her belt this championship. Emam Swan has a Solo victory, a Duo victory, and a Solo draw to Olympus’s Ares. Mills, of course, returns to the arena after eleven years away. Swan has been languishing in obscurity on Team Storybrooke for twelve years, though reports indicate that Arendelle itself would love to have her. Together, they hold the top ranking for a Duo pair in history. What they do today against the second-ranked Duo pair might cement that.” The announcer pauses, and then says, in a very different voice, “Can I comment on the fact that they’re holding hands?” 

 

The crowd laughs, hoots, and Emma squeezes Regina’s hand even as she turns crimson at the attention. Mulan twists to look at them, eyebrows arched, and she gives Emma a smile that might be a shy start toward forgiveness. 

 

It’s only Lucy left, and when the announcer says, “Lucía Vidrio!” it’s Emma who cheers herself hoarse, who is joined by the rest of them as they whoop and clap for her as she runs out. The crowd is loud enough to drown them out, of course, but it’s enough to light up Lucy’s face, and she stares up at them in awe. “Vidrio is the youngest Proeliate fighter this year, and she has a win in Solos and a win in Duos under her belt in this championship. The favorite for the Junior MVP award, she plans to take a hiatus after this match and focus on her schooling.” 

 

The crowd boos. Lucy laughs, wild and free, and she reaches out to squeeze Regina’s hand. Regina holds it, finds Emma’s hand again, and Emma finds Mulan’s in turn. Mulan takes Marian’s hand, Marian takes Zelena’s, and Zelena takes Ursula’s. They are, all of them, bound together, a long line of fighters about to enter a battle they’ll never forget, and they don’t let go until after Arendelle’s fighters have been announced and stand opposite them.

 

Elsa, somehow, is opposite Regina instead of Emma. At first, Regina assumes that it’s an accident on Elsa’s part– she doesn’t miss a moment to be around Emma– but Elsa gives her a tremulous smile when they shake hands and says, “I’ve been wanting to fight you, too. You were amazing against Athena.” 

 

“I want to destroy you,” Regina says pleasantly, and Emma elbows her in the side. 

 

Stop it . How has Emma managed to hiss in her mind? She loves you. 

 

I hate her , Regina retorts, and Emma elbows her again and says to Elsa, “Sorry, she’s just threatened by people who have good relationships with their sisters.” 

 

Elsa’s face falls and she looks suddenly, urgently concerned. “Regina,” she says, her voice hushed. “She’s your sister . You have to let her know how you feel about her–” 

 

“Okay, I‘m done,” Regina says, and she twists around, feeling at once violently ill. Emma follows her, laughing, and leaves behind an equally amused Anna and a very distressed Elsa. “I am going to rip out her heart and it’s going to be fun ,” she mutters as they sit down on the bench. “And then we’ll talk about letting people know how I feel about them–

 

“You’re ridiculous, Regina Mills,” Emma says, and her eyes are shining, with laughter and with something very serious. Regina takes a breath, her heart hurting, and she thinks in a secret, safe part of her mind, I love you . She doesn’t say it aloud, doesn’t thrust that revelation onto an Emma who is about to leave her, and she only gazes at Emma in silence as the first fight begins.

 

Her head is warm, still a little fuzzy, and she sits back and watches Ursula in all her glory. Something is different about her when she stands alone, when Cruella is sitting next to them and wearing away at her already-short nails– she’s a nailbiter when she doesn’t have Ursula, a deeply disturbing revelation– and Regina thinks that there is still so much more to uncover there, so much potential in each of them that remains unseen. Ursula’s tentacles wind out, and she begins to spin, her tentacles coming with her like a dozen deadly whips. 

 

In his circle, little Olaf is beginning to change. His face, already pale, turns whiter, his midsection cinches like an insect’s, and snow thickens around his body. “This is great,” he says cheerfully. “I’ve never fought an octopus before.” 

 

Ursula stops short, her eyes flashing contemptuously, and there she is, the woman who had been a legend in Undersea before she’d found Cruella. “I’m a sea beast, you fool,” she snarls, and there is, at once, a trident in her hand. She digs it into the ground and the arena seems to shudder. 

 

Olaf lets out a little squeak of alarm. “Don’t hurt me, jellyfish!” he says, throwing up a sticklike hand, and snow bursts from the floor and the walls of the arena, heaps of it piling around them. Tiny snowmen form out of the heaps of snow, all of them diving at Ursula at once.

 

Ursula scoffs, raises her trident again, and water blasts from it like a canon. It overwhelms the snow, sends snowmen flying, and Ursula snarls, “I hate snowmen.” 

 

“She’s so beautiful when she’s angry,” Cruella says sadly, chewing on a nail. “My hounds would make quick work of those snowmen.” 

 

But every snowman that smashes against another just combines, and Olaf happily creates more snow. “I love snow,” he says conversationally. “It’s so white and clean and fluffy–” Ursula hurls the trident at him, her eyes flashing, and Olaf is thrown back, speared by the trident. He pulls it out and eyes it curiously. “Are your hands real?” he wonders. “Or are they just transformed squid legs?” 

 

Cruella leans forward. “I think she might kill him,” she says wistfully. “I wish I could be there for it.” 

 

“You’re sitting ten feet away,” Regina reminds her. 

 

Cruella scoffs. “It’s not the same,” she says sadly. “I haven’t been able to kill anyone in so many years.”

 

Emma is beginning to look alarmed. Regina says, “That must be very difficult for you.”

 

“It’s tragic,” Cruella murmurs, watching Ursula. Olaf has managed to duplicate himself now, a hundred little snowmen with tridents in hand, and Ursula is beginning to look very, very annoyed. Regina’s vision blurs again for a moment, the lights in the arena too warm but her torso freezing, and she shakes it off and does her best to focus on Ursula.

 

Ursula’s tentacles have grown spikes, and they spin around, slicing snow from the mountains around her. “I am– so fucking