Emma almost makes it out without triggering the alarms.
She’s so close. The first two-thirds of her mission go off without a hitch; henchmen dodged, viruses uploaded, and only a few short hallways between her and a clean getaway. Emma can already imagine the golden warmth of the sun, the sea breeze whipping over her skin as she jet-skis away from the island nation of Corazón.
And then she sees the door.
Even for an evil lair, it’s out of place. From the outside, the castle looks like something out of a fairy tale, complete with quaint but bustling town around the base of the walls. The interior, on the other hand, is stuffed with high-tech additions, hand-woven tapestries hanging alongside hand-scanning ID pads.
The door is neither fashionably ancient nor aggressively modern. Instead, it just looks... normal. It wouldn’t look out of place in your average suburban home, which only makes Emma more uneasy.
She can't resist the urge to pick the lock and slip inside, where she finds more suburban stylings. Quietly, she ghosts down the hall, stomach twisting further with every door she peeks into. Bathroom, bedroom, kitchen... all unoccupied, but filled with everything a guest could want, from no-tears shampoo to quilted bedspread.
At the far end stands a final door, identical to the others but somehow the most ominous yet. Steeling herself, Emma opens it.
When she sees what’s inside, she almost wishes she hadn't.
The room is nearly bare, a single chair bolted to the floor between four stark white walls. A small figure slumps in the seat, head covered by an upside-down bowl hinged to the headrest. Wires curl from ports around the dome, trailing down the back of the chair and into the floor.
Fingers clutch the armrests, twitching slightly before Emma’s horrified gaze. The boy’s mouth is in constant motion, muttering too quietly for her to make out the words.
She feels sick. Sure, brainwashing machines are a staple of the evil genius arsenal, but using kids? Emma was almost enjoying this mission, and then she had to go and find something like this.
“Stay calm,” she says through gritted teeth, setting a hand on his arm. The boy flinches, and she pastes on a smile as she lifts the humming bowl off his head. “I’m gonna get you out of here, okay?”
For a moment, the kid just stares at her. He looks healthy enough, if a little dazed, and doesn’t resist as she guides him out of the chair. “Are you here to... rescue me?”
“That’s right,” Emma fibs. Technically, she’s here to upload a virus to the cryogenic satellites his captor launched last week, thus preventing a second ice age, but it’s not like she can leave him here now that she’s found him.
Oddly, he doesn’t look reassured. “You’re not going to take me back, are you? You can't, she promised!”
Emma frowns. Back? They haven't even left yet. “Don’t worry, kid,” she soothes. “You won't have to go anywhere you don’t want to. I promise.”
Any further debate is cut short by the abrupt wail of alarms. She holds out her hand, and it only takes a second for the kid to grin and grab on.
And that’s how Emma Swan, secret agent, ends up rappelling down the outside of a castle with a ten-year-old under one arm.
The kid falls asleep as soon as they leave the island, worn out by their mad dash to the extraction point. Not feeling too fresh herself, Emma eyes him with envy as she pilots them away from Corazón.
Sadly, the kid’s presence quashed her original escape via jet ski, but that’s what backup plans are for. To dodge pursuit, they travel by submarine, then car, and finally submarine-car, taking indirect routes to throw off any tails. By the time they resurface in one of HQ’s hidden docks, she’s dead on her feet. Her passenger, meanwhile, is wide awake and bouncing off the walls, buzzing with fresh energy from his nap.
This does not exactly endear him to Emma’s boss.
“You weren’t joking,” she says, aghast. “You really—” The shorter blonde cuts herself off, scrubbing a hand over her eyes. “Just once, Swan. One mission with no improvisation or surprises or international kidnapping. Is that too much to ask?”
“I didn’t have a choice, Tink!” Emma retorts. “What, was I supposed to leave him there?”
Tink hesitates, fiddling with the collar of her GODMOTHER-issue jumpsuit. Unlike the blue uniforms of the base staff, hers is emerald green, a security badge pinned over her heart. A miniature Tink beams up from the laminated card, but she’s not smiling now. “Guess not,” she mumbles. “But you’re not the one who has to fill out the paperwork.”
G.O.D.M.O.T.H.E.R. runs on paperwork. The agency isn't much older than Emma, but they’ve already grown past the borders of their homeland, working to prevent disasters—both natural and manmade—across the globe. All those good deeds come with a lot of red tape, and Emma has generated her fair share—more, if you ask Tink.
They both turn to look at the boy. He's currently crouched by Emma's submarine-car, fascinated by the green gunk dripping from its undercarriage.
“C’mon, Tink, look at him,” Emma wheedles. Then, louder, “Hands to yourself, kid. Knew a guy who lost a finger that way.”
He looks up, beams at her, and goes right back to poking at the propellers.
“Cute,” says Tink. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do. There’s space in a few of our orphanages—”
“No.” Emma cuts her off, jaw tightening. “No orphanages, no homes. I promised.”
This earns her Tink’s most unimpressed look. “Where else are we supposed to put him?” she demands. “This isn't a daycare, Swan.”
“I...’ll think of something,” manages Emma. It’s better than admitting that what to do the kid post-rescue never even crossed her mind.
Tink snorts, but lets it go. “Better think of it quick, before Blue notices,” she warns, Emma’s spine going straight at the mere mention of their director. “And I still want your mission report ASAP, got it?” Emma nods, and her handler returns the gesture before glancing back at the kid. “What’s his name, anyway?”
There follows another embarrassed pause.
“You didn’t even ask—”
“I was busy, okay? I’ll get right on it.”
“Swan, this is why you’re still a field agent.”
As her handler departs, Emma resists the urge to make a rude gesture at Tink’s back. She’s a field agent by choice, because that’s where all the action is. It lets her travel to new and exciting places, meet new and exciting people, and punch them in new and exciting ways. She’d rather be strung up over a pool of angry sharks—again—than be “promoted” to a desk job like Tink’s. Sure, the hours are better and there’s less chance of death by collapsing volcano lair, but where’s the fun in that? The pay raise and improved benefits are equally lukewarm: Emma gets by just fine on her current paycheck, and what’s the point of life insurance if there’s no one to collect?
Shaking off her frown, the agent ambles back to her new ward. She finds him elbow-deep in one of the Beetle’s wheel wells, face plastered with a new layer of grime and a guilty expression.
“What’s your name, kid?” she asks, lips curling into an unwilling smile.
He returns a sheepish grin. “Henry.”
Henry. Emma nods. “Good name. You’ll be hanging out with me for a while, Henry. Come on.” She turns and starts to walk, but he doesn’t follow. “Kid?” she calls, glancing over one shoulder.
Henry hasn’t moved. Brown eyes avoid her gaze, settling at knee level as he mumbles,
Emma doesn’t even get to finish half-assing her mission report before everything goes wrong.
She’s in an office—not her office, see above re: desk jobs—slogging through forms when the other agent bursts in. Startled, her boots slip off the desk, nearly crushing the pyramid Henry’s been building out of manila folders.
“There you are,” the man pants, bracing himself on the doorframe. “Come quick; she’s here! She’s actually here, and she’s not happy.” He pauses, catches his breath, then frowns. “Wait, this is my office. Emma, how do you keep getting into my office?”
She leans back, fingers lacing behind her head. “It’s sort of my job.”
“It’s all our jobs,” he grumbles. “Don’t you get enough fun in the field?”
“Never.” Emma waves a hand. “Now back up, August. Who’s here? What’s this about?”
The way August’s eyes slide toward Henry is answer enough. Emma jerks to her feet, and so does the kid, eyeing the other agent warily around her leg.
“No,” she says, but August just nods.
“It’s nothing bad,” he assures her. “I mean, it’s not really good, either, but...” He gives a helpless shrug. “Blue’s asking for you.” August spares a strained smile for Henry. “Both of you.”
“No,” Emma says again, but her legs are already dragging themselves toward the door. Like every other agent of GODMOTHER, she knows who signs the paychecks—and the kill orders. When Blue “asks,” you answer. Henry trailing at her heels, she follows August into the hall, leaving her unfinished report on his desk. Even paperwork can't save her now.
The trek to Blue’s command center is far too short. August walks fast, sidestepping field agents bristling with tactical gear and squeezing through crowds of base staff in their navy jumpsuits. Emma grips Henry’s shoulder as they move, guiding the kid when he’s too fascinated by the sights to watch where he’s going.
When they arrive, Emma feels the eyes of dozens of analysts following them as they march across the cavernous room, past the buzzing workstations and the giant holographic map. Henry dawdles, eyes bulging, but Emma keeps him moving with a firm hand.
At the far end of the room, August ushers them into the elevator with a low “Good luck.” It looks like he’s not coming up with them, the lucky bastard.
Their ascent in the cool, cramped capsule seems to take as long as the rest of the trip put together, the sound of nervous breathing echoing off the walls. Emma’s stomach lurches when they finally come to a stop, the elevator producing a cheerful chime that does nothing to lift the mood.
The doors slide apart with agonizing slowness, revealing the austere wood paneling of the director’s office. Luckily, the first face she sees is a friendly one.
“Tink,” Emma hisses as she steps into the room. “What—”
A dainty cough from one side makes her mouth snap shut. “Green,” Blue corrects. “You know better, Swan. We use codenames for a reason.” The rebuke is gentle. They always are. It doesn’t make Emma hate them any less.
As she masters her wince, the voice's owner sweeps into view with a smile. She must have been lurking at the wet bar beside the elevator, just out of sight. And it is lurking, because Blue doesn’t drink. The only reason to stand there would be to help Emma make a fool of herself, which is just insulting. She does that just fine on her own.
“So, this is Henry.” Blue aims her smile in the boy’s general direction, but doesn’t come closer, instead gliding across the room to perch on the edge of her desk. GODMOTHER’s director dresses to match her name in a midnight blue skirt-blazer combo. On one lapel is a silver pin shaped like a four-pointed star—the agency's insignia. On the whole, the ensemble makes her look like the world’s most influential flight attendant.
Blue’s not a large woman, and her crossed legs don’t reach the ground. The massive oaken desk should make her look small, but somehow it only adds to her airy brand of dignity. Behind her, a wall of windows spread out like glassy wings, the bustle of the command center visible below.
“You wanted to see me?” Emma steps forward and a little to the side, blocking the kid from view. Facing Blue always makes her feel like she’s been called to the principal’s office, but if anyone’s getting in trouble, it shouldn’t be Henry. Preferably it wouldn’t be Emma, either, but she’s pretty sure that submarine-car has sailed.
“I wish I didn’t,” hums Blue. “Your work with the satellites was adequate, as always. But your little... side mission presents a problem.”
The little side mission huddles closer to Emma’s leg, and she trails a hand over his head as she stands to attention. “I reacted to new intel,” she defends, sounding as professional as she can. “It didn’t interfere with any objectives.”
“Unfortunately,” Blue tuts, “we also have new intelligence. Rest assured, there will be a full investigation into why it didn’t make it to you in time.”
So that’s why Tink’s here. Emma glances over to see her handler staring at the floor, jaw clenched.
“I went radio silent for the mission,” she tries, but Blue just shakes her head.
“For something this urgent, it was Green’s duty to find a way.”
“How urgent?” How deep is the crap I’m in? is what she means.
“Very,” claims the director, eyes sparking with cool amusement. “As for the consequences... I can't be sure.”
Emma calls bullshit. “You’re the boss,” she points out.
“I am,” Blue preens. “But not everywhere.”
Behind Emma, the floor creaks. She whirls, putting herself between Henry and the sound, and sees—
She’s never met the woman standing by the bar, but she recognizes that face. It’s angrier than the photos Emma studied, pulled askew by a truly black expression, but that’s no surprise.
After all, Emma did just get back from breaking into her castle.
Like Blue, the Queen of Corazón isn't a particularly tall woman. Also like Blue, she’s a lurker.
Emma must have walked right past the dark-haired woman on her way into the room, but now she’s wondering how she ever could have missed her. Even if she wasn't the kind of drop-dead gorgeous usually limited to magazine covers and highly questionable online dating ads, the sheer hatred radiating from every inch of her frame should’ve tipped Emma off.
Henry lets out a soft oop and shrinks further behind Emma’s legs. The queen’s sharp eyes immediately zero in on the movement, scrutinizing the boy before aiming a scathing look at his unfortunate human shield.
“Release my son,” she demands.
Only the presence of Emma’s boss and her boss’s boss keeps her from laughing in the other woman’s face. She settles for a low snort, folding her arms as she returns the queen’s glare. “You’re not fooling anyone.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We’re not letting you take Henry back and do god knows what to him!”
The other woman blinks. “Director,” she says, glancing at Blue. “Please control your employee.” Her gaze drifts back to Emma for a pointed once-over. “From what she’s wearing, I assume she’s some sort of janitor, yes?”
Emma’s in a tank top and cargo pants, her field agent gear still thrown over the swivel chair back in August’s office. She hasn’t had a chance to shower, leaving her sticky from the mission and subsequent travel. Meanwhile, her new worst enemy is impeccably dressed in a pantsuit of royal purple.
More importantly, she has to know who Emma is by now, so she’s just being a bitch. While pretending she can't see the agent glaring at her from a few feet away, which is actually sort of impressive.
“You don’t believe her, right?” Emma asks Blue, whose bland smile doesn’t so much as flicker.
“I’ve seen the adoption forms,” she replies. “Everything seems to be in order.”
Emma loses the battle for control of her facial muscles, and they twist into an incredulous expression. “Of course they do! Evil genius, remember? They have to be faked or forged or blackmailed or something.” She pauses. “How is she even here?”
The queen lets out a delicate scoff. “Oh, please. I’ve known the location of your secret clubhouse for years, ever since you agents started skulking around my island.” Out the corner of her eye, Emma sees her face harden. “You made it further than the rest. Be assured, it won't happen again,” she adds darkly.
Emma doesn’t even glance her way. See? She can be an asshole too. “I mean how is she inside?” she asks Blue. “I have to go through like six secret doors and memorize eleven code phrases just to clock in, and I work here.”
“Our nations aren’t technically at war,” her boss explains. “So, we have to be... accommodating.”
“Yes, and this has been most pleasant,” sneers the queen. “But if that’s quite all, we’ll be going.”
She steps forward, but Emma shifts into her path. Deep brown eyes narrow as they meet Emma’s for the first time, a crack in the shorter woman’s polished façade. A lock of lustrous hair falls over her brow, and the queen glares it out of the way, her gaze promising far worse if Emma doesn’t follow suit.
“I—” She has to swallow, her throat suddenly filled with chalk. “I don’t trust her.”
“I’m shocked.” The queen’s voice is light, dismissive even as her eyes continue to burn into Emma’s. “A spy with trust issues. How original.”
“Swan,” Tink warns, speaking up for the first time. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Emma feels Henry’s fingers twist into the leg of her pants, and her own hands ball into fists. “Henry shouldn’t even be here; he’s just a kid! He shouldn’t have anything to do with this—with us. Isn't that why we do what we do? So kids like him can grow up safe?”
Tink looks away. Blue makes a soft tutting noise, but it’s impossible to tell what’s upset her this time.
Face hot, Emma turns back to the queen. For a heartbeat, she sees something like approval on her face, but it’s gone before she can be sure.
“You almost sound like you believe that. How noble,” she murmurs, dark lips curling around the word. “Even if you are horribly misunderstanding the situation.” She steps closer, voice dropping, and Emma feels a shiver run over her skin. “What makes you so sure I’m not to be trusted?”
“You...” Emma hesitates. Her newfound nemesis finally looks like she’s taking this seriously, so Emma gives the question a moment of thought.
She... can't exactly put the source of her distrust into words. It’s more of a tingling low in her gut, a warning buzz at the base of her skull that’s frustratingly low on specifics. There’s something about the other woman, the heat in her eyes and the self-assured cock of her hips, that makes Emma... uncomfortable.
Yeah, let’s go with “uncomfortable.”
She opens her mouth, only to pause once more. Oh, right. There’s also the whole supervillain thing.
“I just got back from foiling your latest plan for world domination,” Emma points out. “Excuse me if that brings your parenting skills into question.”
The queen shakes her head, looking inexplicably disappointed in her. “The two are hardly related,” she dismisses. “I’ve only ever done my best with Henry. I can only hope that he’ll grow up to be—”
“Evil?” Emma interrupts, and their moment of peace snaps like a competitive eater’s waistband.
One dark eyebrow arches. “Don’t be melodramatic.”
That’s rich. Emma folds her arms. “If I’m dramatic, then what do you call your freeze-ray satellites?”
“I call them the solution to global warming.”
She scoffs. “Global warming doesn’t work like that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Which one of us has seven Ph.Ds?”
Well, it sure as hell ain’t Emma. She’s not even sure she can spell p.h.d.
The queen doesn’t miss her flicker of doubt. With a haughty huff, she twists back to Blue, who has been watching their squabble with every sign of enjoyment. “If this is the caliber of your organization, then it seems I’m wasting my time. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered asking nicely.”
Her barely veiled threat sends the tension in the room rocketing up. Blue’s smile thins. Tink edges toward the elevator. Emma flushes angrily at the insult to her agency, mouth opening for a retort—
“Don’t fight!” Henry is suddenly between them, a hand on each of their legs. “It’s okay, Emma. I’ll go.” Round face set, he starts forward before she catches him by the shoulder.
“Henry, no,” she murmurs. “You don’t have to do this. We can protect you.”
He blinks. “Huh?”
Emma blinks back. “What?”
The kid beams at her. “This was great!” he chirps. “But it’s almost dinnertime. Mom said she’d make lasagna today.”
The queen sets a hand—a graceful, gentle, motherly hand—on his head. “That was before I had to chase you across three countries and international waters. You’re getting rice tonight.”
“Fried rice?” tries Henry.
“Don’t push it,” chuckles the queen.
As the boy makes a face, Emma can only stare. “I gave you half my Apollo bar earlier,” she says weakly, still thrown by the complete lack of fear on the kid’s face as he stares up at his—
“Wait, no,” she blurts. “If you're—If she’s really... Why did you come with me?”
He has the grace to look guilty. “I thought it would be fun.”
“That can't be it,” Emma says, feeling the lifeline of reason slipping through her fingers. “You wanted to come. You made me promise not to take you back.”
Henry nods. “Yup, to the orphanage.”
The orphanage? Jeez, kid, be more specific next time. Emma shakes her head, biting back the words. “But that creepy brainwashing chair...”
“The game chair?” Henry cocks his head, then scowls. “Aw, I forgot to save!”
“I paused for you.” The queen shifts her grip to his shoulder, drawing him close with a smug smirk for Emma. “Time to go, dear.”
Only pouting slightly, the boy takes her hand. “Okay. Bye, Emma!” He waves, and she gives a desperate flap of her hand in response.
“Hold on, look—” she begins, but the queen doesn’t want to hear it. With a final cool stare, she turns on one spiked heel and tows her son out of the room.
“I was in the middle of a level,” Henry says, sounding hopeful. “When we get home...”
“Oh, you’ve had enough fun for today,” is his mother’s response, sharp but fond. “Enough for the month, maybe.”
The elevator closes behind them, plunging Blue’s office into baffled silence. After a moment of muddled thought, Emma drags a hand down her face, palm settling over her mouth as she sighs.
“Oh god, the supervillain’s kid is having a better childhood than mine.”
A month passes before Emma’s return to Corazón.
After the queen left, she expected one of Blue’s lectures, or even a grounding. Last time she mouthed off to a guest, she spent a full month hand-copying forms for the analyst pool. Instead, all she got was a slap on the wrist from her boss, who for once seemed pleased with Emma’s terrible manners.
Sure, snatching a kid wasn’t exactly a gold star on her record, but she promised not to do it again. Besides, by the queen’s own admission, Emma got further into her lair than any agent so far, and Blue doesn’t waste talent.
The island’s security has been beefed up, of course, but Emma enjoys the challenge. Employing a time-tested combination of lies, costumes, and improbably realistic latex masks, she ambles through the castle, planting bugs as she goes. Apart from the threat of discovery and—Emma assumes—execution, it’s as simple as missions get.
She’s had a lot of simple missions over the last month. Tink is playing it safe, eager to sink back below Blue’s radar.
Once she’s out of listening devices, Emma only hesitates for a moment before heading to Henry’s suite. The boy’s rooms are near the center of the lair, past another layer of defenses that Emma avoids by slithering out a window and using the grappling hook built into her shoe.
Minutes later, she heaves herself over the kid’s balcony, only slightly out of breath. After a quick stretch, she slips her shoe back on, takes a moment to admire the ocean view, and heads inside.
Henry’s in his game room again, making quiet pew pew noises as he wriggles in his chair. Emma still finds the thing both awesome and creepy, but at least this time his game is being projected on the wall before him. He’s also not alone anymore: a small side table has been added beside the chair, and perched on the edge is a young woman, smiling as she ruthlessly mocks his playstyle. Her lipstick is matched by a scarlet streak in her hair, both clashing fabulously with the black skirt and white frills of her... A snort escapes Emma. Of her classic maid outfit.
The sound alerts the maid. Eyes widening, she hops to her feet between Henry and the intruder, then taps the kid on the shoulder.
“Emma!” Henry cries, twisting around to give her a wave. “Come watch!” he invites her, then sinks back into his game before she can do more than wave back.
Bemused, Emma strolls over and extends a hand to the maid. “Hey,” she greets. “I’m Emma, obviously. Emma Swan.”
The girl grins toothily. “Ruby,” she introduces. “I know who you are, Miss Super Spy. Thanks.”
“You’re the reason I have this job,” Ruby says. “Well, you and Granny. She got me the interview.”
“Right.” A pause. “What job?”
“Making sure the little prince here doesn’t flee the country again.” The maid gives Henry’s chair a thump, and he squawks about her throwing off his aim. “And watching out for people like you, I guess. After you made it in here, Her Majesty decided the normal security wasn’t cutting it.”
Makes sense. “So you’re the bodyguard, huh? Where did you train?”
Ruby barks out a laugh, which turns into a wheeze when she notices Emma isn't laughing along. “Oh, you’re not joking. No way, girl, I’m just the babysitter.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Henry proclaims to deaf ears.
“Yup, I have zero marketable skills,” Ruby says with far too much pride. “Just ask Granny.”
“So what would you do against someone like me?” Emma has to ask.
The girl shrugs. “Dunno. Die loudly?” She pales. “You’re not here to kidnap him again, are you?”
“I didn’t—” Emma sighs. “That was a misunderstanding. I’m just here to check in.”
Ruby’s skittish stance relaxes, the maid far too easily convinced. “Oh. That’s a relief. Henry’s fine, I guess. I don’t know a ton about kids.”
“Uh, good,” says Emma, who knows even less. With a glance at Henry, she edges closer to his babysitter. “His... mom. What’s she really like?”
She doesn’t expect anything more than a canned response, but Ruby seems thrilled at the chance to gossip. “Her Majesty’s terrifying,” says the maid, “but she sure can run a country. She’s a real workaholic, and a little too scary for you to like, but it’s real easy to admire her.”
“What about... you know, the orbital freeze ray stuff?”
Ruby flaps a hand. “Everyone needs a hobby. Come on,” she wheedles. “There’s never any real harm done.”
“She replaced the prime minister two countries over with an evil twin!”
“Yeah, but he was an asshole. Plus, all the money she pumps into her pet projects is great for the economy.”
Emma stares, opens her mouth, closes it, and stares some more. “This is an island of crazy people,” she says at last. “Ruby, your boss tried to take over the world on...” she counts in her head, “... seven separate occasions. Her first ‘pet project’ was a giant octopus that nearly ate Rome.”
This completely fails to dent the maid’s confidence. “That octopus could have ended world hunger if it wasn’t homicidally insane,” she defends. “And anyway, she’s done a great job here.” Red lips twist in thought. “If I had to choose an evil overlord, it would definitely be Regina. She’s got that... you know, jenesicle.”
“Je ne sais quoi?” guesses Emma.
“Dunno, what’s that? Point is, Her Majesty’s never let us down. Back when she got Henry, the grand vizier was all like, ‘You have too much on your plate! A kid is a waste of time! I’m secretly in love with you!’” She rolls her eyes. “He didn’t last long.”
“Ruby,” the agent hisses, jerking her head toward Henry.
“What? He’s heard it all before.”
Concern. Emma has nothing but concern for this place. Before she can even start to digest the flood of new information, Ruby continues to spew more in the background.
“Don’t worry, nobody liked Sidney. No non-sketchy person would ever want to be grand vizier.”
“The Queen,” Emma nudges her source back on track. “Regina, right?” She knew the name—it was in the briefing that Emma definitely read and didn’t just skim—but this is her first time actually voicing it. It sounds... pretty on-brand, actually.
“Right, right,” Ruby hums. “Like I was saying, the world could do worse. She’s dedicated, she’s legit royalty, she’s good at pretty much everything she tries, and have you seen what’s inside those pantsuits? Sure, if you piss her off, she’ll destroy you if it’s the last thing she does, but she even grinds people under her heel in like, a sexy way.” Ruby pauses for a dreamy sigh. “Know what I mean?”
“No,” Emma lies, clearing her throat. “And I was wondering more about how she is with He—”
Breaking off, she holds up a hand. As Ruby goes quiet, Emma’s ears pick up a familiar rhythmic sound. It’s the stomp of Midas-brand military boots, the brand favored by Corazón’s secret police.
“Ruby...” She turns to see the younger woman backing away, holding Henry behind her.
“What?” the maid says, sweat beading around her nervous grin. “I’m totally as surprised as you are!”
Even if Ruby weren’t the second-worst liar Emma’s ever met, she wouldn’t believe that for a second. The tromp tromp tromp of booted feet grows closer, and she pivots to watch the door. One eye stays on Ruby, who is still trying and failing to proclaim her innocence.
“I definitely didn’t do anything,” she insists, poker face ruined by her nervous giggles. “Nope, not me. What silent alarm?”
The door locks behind Emma as she stumbles inside. Straightening her clothes, the agent aims a pointless glare over her shoulder before turning back to take in her prison. It’s not exactly what she expected. There are no bars on the windows, no chains dangling from the walls. The table full of food is a surprise, though not as much as the woman on the other side.
“Agent... Swan, was it?” greets the queen. “Please, sit.”
Because she is trained to resist coercion in all its forms, Emma’s stomach does not growl. Her nostrils twitch as they inhale the scents of Mediterranean cuisine, but she stands firm. As firm as the pasta piled on the nearest dish, perfect and golden and dusted with flakes of cheese and herbs—
“Never,” she snaps, more for her own sake than the queen’s. “Do you expect me to talk?”
“No, Miss Swan, I expect you to sit and have lunch like a civilized human being.” Her captor illustrates her point with an elegant spoonful of yogurt.
Ugh, the food really does smell good. And if the queen is eating, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance it’s not drugged. Emma’s eaten with worse odds. "Lunch?" she echoes, dropping into the offered chair as sulkily as she can. "It’s already three in the afternoon.”
“Yes, you were behind schedule." The queen aims a judgmental stare down the length of her perfect nose. "Don’t worry, I accept your apology.”
“You're the worst,” Emma mumbles around a mouthful of salad.
“What was that?”
Emma swallows. “I said, this is a first.” She wishes more people fed her before trying to kill her.
Dark lips quirk as the queen chews. “For both of us. You’re... out of place, Miss Swan.”
“If you’re worried, that must mean I’m doing my job,” Emma quips.
This only seems to amuse the monarch. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about your work. Your snooping is a minor inconvenience at best. No, what surprised me was your interest in my son.” Her tone snaps across the final words like a whip, eyes going hard and bright as mirrors. “Let me be perfectly clear, agent. If you even consider using my son against me, I will d—”
“Destroy me if it’s the last thing you do. Yeah, I heard.”
The wind robbed from her sails, Regina droops into the slightest hint of a slouch. “Miss Lucas talks too much,” she grumbles.
“She also said you fought to keep Henry when you first adopted him.” Not in so many words, but Emma can read between the lines.
“Yes.” The queen’s voice is wary. “And I’ll do it again, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“No, uh...” Emma stuffs a hunk of bread into her mouth to give herself time to think. This works a little too well, nearly suffocating the agent before Regina takes pity on her and points out the bottle to one side. Several gulps of wine later, Emma powers on with the scraps of dignity she has left.
“That’s good of you, is all,” she says. “Henry’s lucky to have a mom who loves him.”
“I don’t recall asking for your approval, Agent Swan.”
“Well, you’ve got it.” In this one narrow area, at least. “I wish my pa—”
She’s still lightheaded from her near-asphyxiation. That’s the excuse Emma gives herself as she shuts up. Across the table, the queen’s narrowed eyes tell her that the slip did not go unnoticed.
“If only you didn’t try to topple economies for fun,” the agent blurts, eager to move on from her spurt of candor.
“That virus was meant to stabilize inflation! It would have worked if your employers didn’t interfere.” Regina is far too dignified to pout, but a thread of petulance weaves into her glare. It’s all very convincing, but Emma’s heard the ‘greater good’ speech from far too many villains to drop her guard.
“And what about the mutant apple tree invasion?”
“Finland should be thanking me. Do you have any idea how much lumber they consume per annum?”
“Nope,” Emma is not ashamed to admit. “And I’m sure they’d be happier about your... gift if the trees didn’t fight back so much.” From what she’s heard, even saying the word “axe” within a mile of the unnatural orchard is as good as asking for a twig in the eye.
“Deforestation affects us all,” huffs the queen. “I’m merely helping them do their part for the planet.”
“Okay,” soothes Emma, trying not to smile. “I believe you.”
“Don’t patronize me.” Regina bristles. “And leave my son out of your games.”
The queen’s mouth stutters, taken aback by the ease of her agreement. Emma’s a little surprised herself, but it rings true. Coming back here, looking at Henry’s life with fresh eyes, has convinced her that the kid is safe and happy. It’s obvious that Henry has people who care about him, who’ll fight for him, and that’s all Emma can ask for—even if they are lunatics. For once, she’s glad to be proven wrong.
With her threat delivered and accepted, Regina seems at a loss for what to do next. The queen settles for taking a sullen bite of paella, refusing to drop her glare even as she chews. With an internal shrug, Emma follows suit. No sense in letting food this good go to waste.
“So,” she speaks up after several silent minutes. “Is it always this sunny here?”
“Don’t feel the need to make conversation,” the queen answers a too quickly, almost as if she were waiting for Emma to talk. “We are not friends, Agent Swan.”
All right then. Awkward silence it is.
Emma tries not to stare at Regina while she eats, but there’s not much else in the room to look at. Definitely nothing as interesting. Unlike her own table manners—touch and go at the best of times despite years of lessons from Blue—the queen eats with grace, the smooth curve of her jaw bobbing smoothly with every bite—
“You’re staring,” says the queen, flicking a pointed look at the fork frozen halfway to Emma’s lips. “Is there something wrong with the meal?”
“No, it’s great. I was just...” An excuse, an excuse. Emma’s mind races. “I was just wondering what comes next,” she improvises. “Am I a prisoner? Am I a guest? Is this going to be a regular... lunch... thing?”
“This is not a date.”
Emma presses her lips together. She knows she shouldn’t point it out, she really does, but like the bread a few minutes ago, the words refuse to be swallowed. “I never said—”
“Enough chatter, Miss Swan.”
The return to awkward silence is almost a relief. By the end of the meal, Emma is itching to leave—out the window, if she has to. Slowly, she pushes back her chair and stands.
“Well, this has been fun.” The agent sidles to the door and finds that it has been unlocked. A good sign, unless the execution squad is waiting outside. Holding her breath, she pulls it open and—
The empty hallway calls to her, but Regina’s voice is stronger still, dragging her head around before she can think twice. “Yeah?” she answers, eyeing the other woman with caution as she rises and comes closer. There’s something in her hands, a small black box that she holds out once she comes within arm’s reach.
“You almost left these behind,” says the queen. Under her piercing eyes, Emma opens the box.
It’s full of her bugs.
The next time they meet is less civil, more maniacal-laughter-and-doomsday-machine-y.
Emma hauls herself onto the ladder from the open roof of her submarine-car, leaving her trusty steed bobbing in the surf as she boards the oil tanker. The ship creaks as she vaults over the rail and takes off at a jog, following a memorized map to the forward deck.
There, she finds the queen posed atop a crate, one foot braced dramatically on the gunwale. Since the ship is moving at approximately zero miles per hour, there’s no wind to tug at her red velvet overcoat, but she cuts an impressive figure all the same.
Between them, a strange device is planted into the deck, whirring alarmingly as Regina calls out.
“You’re too late, Swan! The sequence is already in motion!”
“You can still stop this!” Emma shouts back. “Don’t do something you might regret!”
“As usual, you couldn’t be more wrong.” Fortunately for both their throats, Emma is now close enough that they can stop yelling. As she skids to a stop, the queen sneers down at her, which really shouldn’t be allowed to be as attractive as it is. “Once my machine transforms this entire cargo of oil into peanut butter, the world will be one step closer to independence from fossil fuels.”
“Seriously?” Emma groans. “You have to know this won't work.”
“The chemistry is sound!” snaps Regina.
“That’s not how people work,” Emma says. “What, are you going to do this to all the oil in the world?”
The queen’s expression speaks for itself.
“You are, aren’t you? How would you even...”
Regina is only too happy to brag, eyes lighting up as she explains. “I’ve made excellent progress on replicating the process with a pulse of radiation...”
“Oh, come on!”
“Spoken like a true gas-guzzler,” sniffs the queen.
“The Beetle’s electric,” Emma retorts. “And that’s not the point. How do you know your peanut ray won't make cars... I don’t know, explode or something?” Emma is talking wholly out of her ass, but from the way Regina’s face stiffens, the exploding car theory is far too possible for comfort.
“People could get hurt,” she tries, and the queen scowls.
“Then they should have paid more attention to the environment.”
“Jeez, Regina, why do you have to be so... extra?”
“I don’t know what that means, but I suspect I should be offended.” The queen pauses. “And who said you could use my first name?”
That’s what she focuses on? Giving up on diplomacy, Emma clambers onto Regina’s device and starts looking for the control box.
“Don’t!” the queen calls. “You don’t know how it works. You’ll only hurt yourself.”
“Thanks for the concern, Your Majesty, but I don’t need to be a genius”—Emma grunts as she peels back a panel and finds the port she’s looking for—“to do this.”
She pulls the technical doodad from her jacket, plugs it in, and hops down as the machine grinds to a halt. Without its deafening whirr, the deck goes quiet, the sudden silence only broken by the slap of waves against the hull.
“I’ll just build another,” Regina claims as she climbs down from her perch, but the words are half-hearted. Her energy seems to have drained away along with her machine’s, and she looks as exhausted as Emma feels, though considerably more put together. Between all that mad science and wicked scheming, where does she even find the time to apply flawless eye shadow and elaborate liner?
“Then I’ll stop that one too,” Emma answers wearily, gaze still tracing the silver streaks of makeup above the queen’s lashes. “You really don’t have to do this, you know.”
In a heartbeat, the fire is back in Regina’s eyes. “I refuse to do nothing,” she snaps.
“There’s a few steps between ‘nothing’ and ‘radioactive peanut butter.’” Emma slumps against the side of the boat, sliding down the gunwale and kicking her legs out before her. “You could join a U.N. committee or something. Talk it out.”
The queen laughs, high and bitter. “Talking is worthless,” she spits. “People don’t change unless you make them.”
There’s far too much to unpack there, and Emma is no therapist. Rather than try, she lets her head fall back until it hits metal, letting herself relax for the first time in weeks. The analysts back at HQ barely caught on to this scheme in time, and since she is apparently the Regina expert, Emma’s been run ragged ever since. Next time, the eggheads can come plug in their dongle themselves.
After a few long, unexpectedly peaceful moments, she hears the queen take a breath.
“I wasn’t worried, you know,” Regina says. It takes Emma another second to realize what she means.
“Didn’t think you were,” she replies. “We’re not friends, right?”
“No.” Emma cracks an eye open to see the queen shifting on her feet. “Though I suppose Henry would have been disappointed,” she forces out. “He’s developed quite the secret agent obsession over the past few months.”
“Tell him it’s a shit career choice,” mutters the agent. “The hours suck and there’s no overtime.” She exhales a lazy hum, savoring the sun on her face. “At least the opposition is pretty.” Her eyes snap open as her brain catches up to her mouth. “... tough,” Emma chokes out. “Pretty tough. I’d hate to be bored.”
“I’d hate to disappoint,” Regina drawls, graciously ignoring the stumble. She’s a little further along the deck, elbows braced on the rail as she stares out to sea. “Speaking of your job, shouldn’t you be detaining me?” The queen glances down at Emma, eyes almost playful. “We’re in international waters. This could be your only chance to get your hands on me.”
With a groan, Emma sits up. “We’re in the middle of the ocean,” she points out. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Emma looks up just in time to yelp and roll away from the descending rope ladder. While she goggles at the attached helicopter, the scent of apples fills her nose, and Regina steps over her with a smirk. Emma doesn’t bother trying to stop her from grabbing hold of the ropes, one foot bracing on the lowest rung. At a whistle from the queen, the helicopter pulls up and away, Regina dangling above the waves as her coat billows in the ocean breeze.
“Until next time, Agent Swan!”
As the chop of rotors fades into the distance, Emma flops back onto the deck. Limbs sprawled out, she squints into the sun, a slow sigh leaking from her lips.
Emma practically rams open the door to Henry’s wing of the castle, stumbling at the pang from her opposite shoulder. Her good arm steadies her against the wall, but the agent winces when she sees the hand-shaped red smudge left by her palm. Regina’s going to kill her.
“Henry?” she calls. “Kid, you here?”
For once, she hopes he’s not. Henry’s rooms are the only place Emma can be sure there’s no nasty surprises lying in wait, but she’d rather not drag the kid into this.
There’s no answer, but a quick scan of the hall alerts her to the lights and sounds spilling from the crack in the game room door. Emma sighs, vaguely concerned. Kid’s got an addiction.
“Henry,” she repeats, nudging the door open. “Too much of that and you’ll go bli—”
Ruby’s face hoves guiltily into view around the back of the game chair. “The kid’s in class!” she defends. “I’m off duty!”
“Actually, I’m glad it’s you.”
The maid hops up, folding her arms. “No need for the tone of surprise.” The teasing turns into a gasp when Emma hauls herself around the doorframe to reveal her bleeding shoulder. “What happened?”
“Came in through the sewers this time,” Emma pants. “Then the vents. I was doing fine until something shot me in the dark.”
“Ouch.” Ruby winces. “Wait, something?”
Emma hesitates. How to say this without sounding completely ridiculous? “Like I said, it was dark,” she hedges. “But from what I saw, it was a... squid?”
“Or an octopus or something!” Emma says, cheeks warming. “It tentacled deeper into the vents before I got a good look at it.” Her face burns, but Ruby is nodding now.
“Ah, the glocktopus.” She says sagely. “We thought we’d gotten rid of all of those.”
“The—” Emma probably shouldn’t be surprised at this point.
Mistaking disbelief for curiosity, Ruby explains as she leans over to examine the wound. “Remember the big one? The one that got loose and—”
“Decided she was in the mood for Italian, yeah. Little hard to forget.” Emma was actually on a mission when the colossal cephalopod made landfall in Rome, so she missed all the fun. The next morning’s news was very confusing.
“Well, her kids are as nasty as she is. At least they’re smaller.” The maid clicks her tongue, stepping around Emma to prop up her un-shot side. “C’mon, Granny can patch you up. Looks like it went right through.”
“Felt like it, too.”
Emma zones out as they stagger through the castle, stealthy as a three-legged octopus. The pain isn’t that bad; it’s mostly to tune out Ruby, the bottomless well of useless intel. With her thoughts miles away, she’s almost surprised when she’s finally plopped down onto a kitchen stool.
Granny looks like her name, all grey hair and bosoms and spectacles on a chain around her neck. “You’re the kidnapper, then,” she huffs, her tone not quite joking.
“I gave him back,” Emma weakly defends, gritting her teeth as the woman performs a brisk investigation on the hole in her arm.
Granny makes an indecipherable noise. “Ruby, the cooking whisky,” she orders.
“Tell me that’s for drinking.”
The bottle clunks down on the counter by her head. “Don’t scare her,” Ruby chides, holding up a plastic case. “You know we have the medical kit.”
“Must’ve slipped my mind in my old age.”
“Wasn’t scared,” Emma says under her breath. Just for the record.
While Ruby takes a seat, unscrewing the cap of the cooking whisky, Granny starts to clean and dress the wound. She doesn’t grow any more gentle as she works, but it’s a better job than Emma could have done one-handed on herself, so she’s not complaining.
“I’m only doing this once, and that’s because Henry likes you,” the cook informs her. “You’re on your own next time, spy girl.”
That’s fair. “Ruby likes me too,” Emma offers, just in case it helps.
“Ruby will like anything with a pulse.”
Emma almost smiles before Granny turns back to her, eyes like iron. “Why do you all like Regina so much?” she wonders aloud, then holds her breath as Granny’s fingers go still on her arm.
“I’ve lived on this island for a long time,” Granny’s replies, resuming her work. “Saw the crown change heads twice before I had my first kiss.” In the background, Ruby gags. “By the time I popped out her mother”—more noises of disgust from her granddaughter—“that old fox Xavier was down to his last heir. Third in line, once upon a time, before his brothers both swung and missed.” She looks up. “That was the first Prince Henry.”
Emma does some quick mental math. “Regina’s... grandfather?”
“How old exactly do I look?”
Unfortunately, Emma always was terrible at math. As Ruby cackles, she ducks her head to avoid Granny’s affronted glare.
“Her Majesty’s father,” emphasizes the cook, “was decent enough. Never tried to take the throne from his father, which made him the smartest of the bunch. King Xavier might’ve handed it over eventually if it wasn’t for the wife.”
“Her Majesty’s mother,” snickers Ruby. Emma glares at her.
“Princess Cora wasn’t the patient sort,” Granny muses. “Smart, ambitious too; and worse, she let everyone know it.”
“I heard she was a witch,” whispers Ruby, earning a scoff from her grandmother.
“She was foreign, which was bad enough.” The cook gives Emma’s knee a thump. “No offense.”
“It’s... fine. So, Cora,” echoes Emma. “Like the country? Sounds like fate.”
Granny’s face sprouts a new crop of wrinkles as she scowls. “She sure thought so. Sooner than later, the king got tired of having his bed checked for snakes and packed the heir and his family off to parts unknown. Her Majesty was just a girl then.” Her eyes go distant, a half-wound bandage slipping from absent fingers.
“Obviously they came back,” Emma prompts after several seconds.
The older woman shakes herself. “Hm? Oh, that they did. Some years later, the king finally dropped dead. Heart attack, people said.” Her voice goes conspiratorial. “But... mind, you didn’t hear this from me... but, they were here within the day, and the new queen looked mighty smug. Cora didn’t waste any time getting to work after that. ‘Restructuring’ the military; passing new laws left and right; shuffling the government around like her personal playing cards. Not my favorite decade, if I’m being honest.”
“It wasn’t all bad. She founded the secret police,” Ruby supplies, to Emma’s consternation.
“And that’s a good thing?”
“Oh, they were terrible back in Cora’s day,” grants Granny. “But Ruby was too young for most of that. She’s talking about Her Majesty’s version. It’s like that for a lot of things. Cora forced them into place, but Regina was the one that made them work for us.” Her face softens. “No one trusted her at first, not even after she started unclenching her mother’s iron fist. We were all waiting for the other shoe to drop, but eventually we got tired of waiting. Ever since she was crowned, Her Majesty’s done nothing but prove herself.”
“I always knew she could do it,” Ruby claims.
Granny mutters something that sounds suspiciously like “Anything with a pulse.”
Emma’s brain feels cramped, her skull stuffed to the ears with exposition. Well, now she knows where Ruby gets it from. Her questions have been answered, only to plant another one on the tip of her tongue. She’s almost afraid to ask, but... “What happened to them? Henry and Cora.”
Granny gives her a searching look before answering. “Word around the castle is that he found out what really happened to his father. Next thing anyone knew, we were at a funeral.” She shrugs. “Never really was clear who it was for, come to think of it. None of us even saw the coffin. Or maybe coffins, who knows?”
Emma officially regrets asking. “Well,” she says, making to stand. “This has been... fun, but—urgh.”
Stout fingers refuse to release her bandage, pulling it tight over her tender shoulder. “I wasn’t finished,” Granny tells her. “You’ve heard the story, now comes the warning. Corazón doesn’t forget. The old ones like me who saw what came before, the young ones like her”—she nods at Ruby—“who’ve known little else; all of us are damned sure who has our interests at heart, and it isn't you.”
Emma is pretty sure that the “you” isn't aimed at her specifically... but it still feels sort of personal.
“I told you, spy,” concludes Granny. “Next time, you’re on your own.”
Well, that’s nothing new. Emma nods and removes herself from the cook’s grasp as politely as she can. “Understood. I’ll see myself out.”
Granny snorts. “Nice try. Ruby?”
The maid snaps to attention, only swaying slightly as she puts down the cooking whisky. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am!” she slurs, saluting. “I’ll make sure this no-good sneakin’ snake-in-the-grass doesn’t get her sticky fingers on any classified milt’ry whatsits.”
Granny’s sigh chases them from her kitchen.
“She can be chatty, but she’s not wrong,” Ruby says without a trace of irony. “Her Majesty may be a tyrant, but she’s our tyrant. It’s not like anyone else ever stepped up. Back in the bad old days, we never got any help from... who did you say you worked for?”
“I didn’t,” says Emma, smiling despite herself. Ruby would make the worst spy.
Especially because she lets Emma choose their route out of the castle, making it a piece of cake to detour down a certain hallway, stop to tie her laces, and palm the coin lying just where her briefing said it’d be. She slips it into her boot, and it chafes at her ankle as she makes her way to where she park-slash-docked the Water Beetle. Ruby waves, and Emma nods back before lowering herself into the floating car. A few buttons later, she’s underwater, starting her ambling route back to HQ.
As fish glide past the Beetle’s windshield, she turns the coin over in her hand, imagining she can feel the tiny data drive sliding back and forth inside the hollow disc. Emma’s curious about the contents of the dead drop, but there’s nothing she can do. Only Tink knows how to decode the files—and besides, her car only has a cassette player.
Granny and Ruby made a good argument today, about Regina and Corazón. Emma’s sure they believe it. She’s not so sure that the rest of Regina’s people feel the same.
The coin clatters into the ashtray.
After all, at least one person on the island isn't on their side.
“One large grilled shrimp, please. Mojo verde on the side.” Emma smiles at the woman behind the food cart as she fishes through her pockets.
“Your accent is terrible,” Tink grumbles, which is rich, considering her own Australian tones are as thick as ever. “And the mission’s not done until you deliver the package.”
In response, Emma holds out a handful of coins, including the hollow one she picked up on Corazón last week. “There,” she says with the slightest roll of her eyes. “Mojo verde.”
For this mission, mojo verde is code for “mission success.” Less officially, large grilled shrimp is code for “Emma is starving and in the mood for seafood after being shot by an octopus.”
Tink takes the money with a quick smile. “Good work, Swan.”
Emma accepts the praise with a smile, leaning back to take in the food cart Tink's using as cover. Her eyes drift over the wooden frame and hand-painted sign, idly searching for... Aha. There, scratched into one of the posts that holds up the canvas awning, is GODMOTHER's four-pointed star. Tink's getting better at hiding the symbol, but Emma hasn't missed one yet.
Triumphant, she turns back to her handler, who wrinkles her nose. “I'll get you next time.”
“Sure you will.”
“Don't gloat.” Tink crosses her arms. “What are you waiting for, a prize?”
“That'd be nice. But no, I just want my food.”
The undercover agent winces. “The stall's really just for cover...” she deflects, clearly not in the mood to play chef.
“Hey, I already paid, didn't I?” Emma lets her voice rise. “Are you trying to rip me off?”
The street is mostly empty, but Tink still stiffens at the threat of attention. "Fine, fine!" She scowls, starting up the grill. "Hope you like burnt shrimp."
"You know I'll eat anything." Emma grins, resting an elbow on the counter. "So, I’ve been playing delivery girl for months,” she changes the subject. “You gonna tell me what’s on the drive this time?”
Her handler just shakes her head. “I don’t know, and you know I couldn’t tell you even if I did.” She leans closer. “Be careful with questions like that, Emma,” she warns, voice dropping. “People are already making noises about you being in bed with the Queen.”
“I’m not in anything with her!” Emma hisses, feeling her face go hot. Tink’s pitying look doesn’t help in the slightest. “I’m not,” she repeats. “I stopped her radioactive peanut oil plan, didn’t I?”
“But she got away,” her handler gently rebukes.
Emma gives a grudging nod. Tink’s criticism never stings like Blue’s does. Maybe it’s because of Blue’s rank, or their history, but it always feels different to be lectured by the director. Less constructive, more... overwhelmingly disappointed in Emma’s work and Emma in general.
She’s probably imagining things.
Anyway, Emma takes Tink’s mild accusation in stride. “Even if I had arrested R—the Queen, could we have held her?” she wonders aloud. “You know, legally speaking. It’s not like our laws are any better than hers out on the high seas.”
“This is serious,” snaps Tink.
“I’m being serious!” Emma claims. “She had a helicopter, Tink. The Beetle can drive and swim, but flying is a little much to ask.”
Her handler sighs. “I know; it was in your report. People are still... concerned.”
“Blue?” guesses Emma.
“Actually, no.” Tink sounds as surprised as Emma feels, which isn't exactly reassuring. “She hasn’t said anything.” A frown flickers across her lips. “But she hasn’t stopped everyone else, either.”
“Everyone else?” Emma notes, fighting the urge to let her head flop back and grimace at the sky. “Fantastic.”
Her handler lifts a helpless shoulder. “Nothing you can do but keep doing your job. And speaking of, I’ve got your next assignment. How’s the arm?”
“Fantastic.” The agent rolls her shoulder in illustration. “So, where to? Back to the island?”
“Not this time. With the rumors and all, I thought it would be best for you to get some distance from the Queen. You know, prove she ain’t got her hooks in ya.”
Well, Emma can't argue with that; not without proving Tink’s point.
A second later, she wonders why she would even want to argue. It’s not like she prefers her missions to Corazón. Not like she enjoys the visits to a tropical paradise filled with interesting people. Not like she looks forward to the opportunity to check on Henry and the slim but tantalizing chance of crossing paths with Regina.
Something is thrust beneath her nose, the smell jolting her out of her head. Despite Tink's threat, the shrimp are perfectly grilled. Emma hums happily, dunking the skewer into the green sauce before taking a bite.
“This mission,” she says around the mouthful of seafood. “If it’s not Corazón, then where?”
“Rumplestiltstan,” answers her handler, sliding a napkin across the counter with a grimace. “You’ll be running backup for an extraction. You’ll get the full brief later, but it’s nothing complicated, and your primaries know what they’re doing. Should be easy enough.”
Emma bobbles her head. She’s been doing this long enough to know that Tink is being dangerously optimistic. Even the simplest missions have their fair share of danger. Still, at least she hasn’t—
“It can't possibly go wrong,” Tink finishes, and Emma groans.
The back of the stealth plane smells like sweat, gunpowder, and facial hair.
Admittedly, some of it is from Emma, but she can't take all the credit. There’s only one of her, so basic fractions would suggest she’s one-eighth guilty, tops.
Minus the pair of pilots, six bodies fill the cramped rear compartment. In theory, there’s room for eight, but that’s little comfort to Emma when she’s sandwiched between two stout men in tactical gear. There's barely enough room to turn her head, which leaves her staring at the operative across the aisle. Like the rest, he wears black body armor, GODMOTHER's star insignia embossed in gray on one shoulder. Emma's pretty sure the branding defeats the purpose of a stealth mission, but the agency will slap their mark on anything they can reach. She's willing to bet the stealth plane itself has a star or two stenciled onto its fuselage, and it's invisible from most angles.
Sensing her gaze, the operative looks up, scowl deepening as he meets her eye. He has the biggest beard, which Emma takes to mean he’s the one in charge here.
“I’m the one in charge here,” he barks. “Got it?”
Emma nods. She understands why he's pulling rank. The D-Team is GODMOTHER’s longest-serving squad, a holdover from before the agency started using versatile solo agents like her. Each member of the septet has a very particular set of skills, from Sneezy’s wisdom in all matters chemical to Grumpy’s mastery of explosives large and small. They truly are the Swiss army knife of black-ops squads, which sounds great until you whip out the corkscrew when you needed the nail file.
Emma’s never worked with them before, but she can see why they’d resent being babysat by one of their replacements. “Got it,” she assures him. “Just here to help. Not trying to step on any toes.”
“Yeah, right,” he grumbles, frown still going strong.
“You must be Grumpy,” guesses Emma.
“What gave me away?” Grumpy snorts. “I’d like to see you stay positive through fifteen years of grunt work. The most action we see these days is mopping up your messes; and sister, I’m no janitor.”
She nods. “Rough deal. But at least it’s not a desk job.”
Grumpy chuckles, then shakes his head. “It ain’t much better, either. It’s been ages since we got an actual mission.” His team lets out a chorus of supporting grunts, and he goes on, emboldened. “It’s always the same: ‘Secure the perimeter, D-Team.’”
“Park the invisible cars, D-Team,” another operative chimes in, wiping his nose.
“Guard the prisoner, D-Team,” a voice echoes back from the cockpit.
“Hide the bodies, D-Team.”
Grumpy slaps a hand over his neighbor’s mouth. “He’s joking,” he lies. Badly.
With some effort, Emma does them the favor of turning away, pretending not to hear the whispered scolding across the aisle. It’s not exactly news to her that GODMOTHER’s work can get dirty; the things they do are as dangerous as they are necessary. They keep the peace, and sometimes that means... well, bodies. She’s not a fan, but omelets and eggs, you know?
She makes a face. Even thinking the phrase makes her feel dirty. Blue says it better.
Today, though, they’re here to save a life. Rumplestiltstan’s local devil calls himself Mister Gold, and his hobbies include extortion, arms dealing, and assorted corruption. Obviously, they can't leave an agent of GODMOTHER in his hands. The prisoner is currently en route to the crime lord’s mountain stronghold for what will surely be a pleasant and civilized exchange of information. It's up to the D-Team—plus Emma—to make sure they never get there.
“Target in sight,” the copilot reports in cheery tones. “We’re almost on top of ‘em.”
With a grunt of acknowledgement, Grumpy and his neighbor get to their feet. Moving to the back of the compartment, they reach up and unspool two ropes from the overhead winches built into the ceiling. Once the lines are clipped to their harnesses, they signal the pilots, and the ramp lowers, filling the plane with a roar of wind.
Like the rest of the team, Emma looks on as the pair step out into empty space. They drop out of view in an instant, winches whirring as they descend. Soon enough, the ropes slow, then stop as the operatives touch down. Emma feels the plane’s speed drop to keep pace with the target, and turns to the man beside her. Sneezy, if she’s remembering right.
“So do the rest of you just sit here?” she asks.
“Mostly, yeah,” he sniffles. “You can go take a look if you want.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Emma moves to the ramp and leans out, a safety strap wrapped around one hand. Peering down, she sees Grumpy and his partner hunkered down atop a moving van on the road below. The former is carefully sticking something to the roof, kept steady by his teammate.
“Okay,” his voice crackles through her earpiece a few moments later. “Det cord is in place, setting the timer for ten sec—”
“Tunnel!” The copilot interrupts. Twisting around, Emma sees him reaching over to shake the pilot. “Pull up, Sleepy!”
“No time!” Sleepy yelps back. “Cut the ropes!”
The two operatives closest to the ramp are already in motion, leaping to Emma’s side with bared knives. She lends a hand as they hack at the lines, and the ropes fall away seconds before the van disappears into the tunnel.
“Whew,” sighs the copilot. “Well, that could’ve been worse.”
A muffled BOOM echoes out of the tunnel mouth, drawing a whine from Sneezy. “Come on, Happy. I keep telling you not to say stuff like that.”
When the van shoots out the far end of the tunnel, Grumpy and his partner are no longer on the roof, which now has a smoking hole in it. Instead, they cling to the sides of the vehicle, barely keeping their grip as it swerves.
Up in the plane, the D-Team’s remaining members waste no time. “Bashful, cover them,” orders Sneezy. “Doc, get ready to receive wounded. We need to send down new ropes, so—” He pauses, frowning. “Who’s the ropes guy?”
“Dopey is,” Happy calls.
“Right. Where’s Dopey?”
Doc points downward.
“Son of a... ah... ah-choo!” Sneezy sputters.
Emma’s starting to see why these guys were sidelined.
“I’ve got it,” she says, reaching up for fresh ropes. One is hooked into her own harness, the others held in her hands as she dives off the ramp. Squinting into the wind, she drops toward the van, willing Grumpy and Dopey to hold on just a few more seconds. Her heart skips a beat when she spies a figure hanging out of the passenger window, struggling to aim a pistol.
A gunshot from above puts a hole in the sideview mirror, making the criminal yelp and duck back inside. Bashful’s work, no doubt.
Emma doesn’t waste time by landing on the van, dropping straight to Dopey’s side and latching one of her spare ropes to his harness. With him secured, she pushes off with one foot, swinging around the back of the vehicle to do the same for Grumpy.
“Thanks, sister,” he pants, clutching the lifeline with relieved hands. “Now let’s get out of here.”
Less than a minute later, they haul themselves back into the plane, Grumpy and Emma each clutching one arm of a hooded figure. Doc hustles to lay the rescued agent down in the aisle, while Bashful pulls the bag off of a familiar face.
“August,” Emma sighs.
He blinks up at her. “Emma?”
She nods, leaning closer to inspect his face. August doesn’t look too battered, but who knows what Gold’s people did to him. She should probably be nice—
“Finally tore yourself away from your work wife, huh?” he croaks. “I’m flattered.”
Never mind. He’s fine. Emma sits back with a roll of her eyes.
“I don’t hear a denial...” August goes on, ignoring the none-too-gentle nudge of her boot. “Should I be jealous? I thought I was your work wife. Ow!”
Grinning down at her friend, Emma withdraws her boot. “Do you want me to put you back where I found you?”
The next time she returns to Corazón, it’s as a tourist.
Well, a “tourist.”
“If you walk this way,” calls the guide, “you’ll see the royal line, dozens of kings and queens all the way from our founder to—”
Emma’s head cranes back to take in the painting. It’s one of those fancy oil ones, the queen’s skin rendered in glowing golds and soft browns. She’s dressed in a sleek grey dress, a scepter in one hand and a fancy sash slung across her shoulder. Her chair is plain enough, but painting-Regina oozes enough swagger to make it look like a throne. Chin at a proud tilt, she smirks down at the tour group, looking almost as smug as the real thing.
Emma has to wonder if she held that expression through the entire session, or if the painter just thought it captured the queen’s essence. Honestly, she wouldn’t be surprised either way.
Smiling to herself, she joins the other tourists as they move on. She’s not going to be caught or shot today. Her hair is crammed beneath a short black wig, her face covered in more false features than a Mr. Potato Head. She’s even changed how she moves, walking in an anxious shuffle to blend into the Hawaiian-shirted flock. There’s absolutely no way—
A ripple runs through the tour group as Emma feels a hand on her elbow. Polite but firm, it draws her to one side, where its owner waits. He’s a curly-haired man with a friendly, bearded face, but the crowd’s tittering reaction comes from his uniform, which is glossy black from the cap on his head to the boots on his feet—the blindingly obvious ensemble of Corazón’s secret police.
The officer meets their questioning stares with a smile. “Move along,” he calls. “Nothing to worry about, I assure you.” His voice shifts to a carrying whisper. “She was seen littering in the courtyard.”
Throughout the group, bits of garbage hastily vanish into pockets.
As she is towed back outside, Emma drags her feet, putting a whine into her tone as she objects. “It was an accident,” she says. “I was going to pick it up. Am I being arrested? My father’s a lawyer.”
“You’re embarrassing yourself, Miss Swan.”
Tamping down her grin, Emma slips free from her escort, leaving him blinking at his now-empty hand. “Your Majesty!” she gasps, hands fluttering. “Wow, you really do take littering seriously here.”
“Sit down,” snaps the queen, gesturing to the rim of the fountain where she herself is perched. She’s dressed like a tourist herself, or at least what you’d think a tourist looked like if you’d only seen one on TV. Emma thought her own floral shirt and cargo shorts were pushing it, but that’s nothing compared to Regina’s oversized straw hat and flip-flops. Her face is further hidden by a pair of sunglasses, and her shirt proudly proclaims that she ♥s NY.
As if sensing Emma’s judgement, the queen’s mouth twists beneath her mirrored lenses. “Sit,” she repeats. “This isn't about your sloppy habits.”
Behind Emma, the officer clears his throat. “You really should pick up your trash, though.”
“Thank you, Graham,” sighs Regina. “That’s all for now.”
Emma leans back on her hands, watching him leave. Between him and Ruby, Corazón has some very attractive civil servants. In no rush to talk, she sits quietly, enjoying the sun until the silence is split by familiar acid tones.
“If you're quite done leering,” huffs the queen, “I didn’t call you here to ogle my staff.”
“You didn’t call me at all,” Emma retorts mildly. “You just sent your goon to drag me here.”
“Graham? He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Regina says, almost fondly, then ruins it by adding, “Unless I ordered him to.”
At this point, the threat barely registers. On a logical level, Emma knows that she should probably take the tyrant and mad scientist seriously, but that’s not easy when she’s glaring adorably at you over her tacky gift-shop sunglasses.
“So, what is this about?” Emma asks. “Finally had enough of me? Am I about to be ambushed and chained to your wall?”
Regina pushes her shades back up, lips drawing into a smirk that puts her portrait’s to shame. “Is that a request?”
For the sake of the mission, Emma does her best to ignore this. “Get to the point, Regina.”
“Very well,” grumbles the queen. “Why are you here, Agent Swan? I believe Miss Lucas informed you of the island’s view of your intrusion.”
“The other Miss Lucas.”
Oh, Granny. Emma shrugs. “Still gotta do my job.”
Emma doesn’t dignify that with a response. They may talk more than they fight, but there’s no mistaking that they’re on opposite sides. She can't make this too easy for the queen, especially not if Regina’s building what GODMOTHER thinks she is. Wacky science projects are one thing, but a bomb like the one described in her briefing can't possibly be used for anything good. As much as Emma wants to, she can't give Regina the benefit of the doubt with stakes that high.
After a few seconds of expectant silence, the queen frowns. “You’re awfully quiet today,” she notes. “I expected some of the customary moral drivel by now. Something about how my son deserves better than me, or how my ambitions are ‘misguided’ or ‘reckless’ or ‘a hazard to human civilization.’”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
When Emma doesn’t rise to the bait, Regina shakes her head. “You’re much less fun like this,” she decides. “I do hope your masters weren’t too strict when they shortened your leash.”
That one stings. “You’re trying to get in my head.”
“Not today,” Regina claims. “It’s far too crowded in there already. GODMOTHER has their hooks in deep, don’t they?” She snorts. “I already know why they sent you. It’s the same reason as always—they don’t like the competition.” Another sound of disgust. “Hypocrites. Their noble claims are as much of a stretch as that acronym.”
“Hey,” Emma objects. “It stands for... something.”
The queen leans closer, one elegant eyebrow arching over the frame of her sunglasses. “Oh? Do tell.”
Damn. She was mostly bluffing. “Uh, the G probably stands for Global,” Emma hedges. “And one of the Os is... Operations? Wait, no. Office? It’s in the handbook somewhere.” Then, several moments too late, “Anyway, they don’t have me on a leash.”
“Of course they don’t,” says the queen, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. “What a pity. As arrogant as it is, your nerve is one of the things I admire about you.”
Emma feels her brows rise.
“One of the only things,” Regina hurries to clarify. “I’ve always found blind loyalty to be a considerable turn-off.”
“I’m not blind,” snaps Emma. “You have no clue what they’ve done for me.”
This time, Regina doesn’t ask, just sits back with a look of ill-concealed interest. If she’d pushed, Emma wouldn’t have given her squat, but the queen’s silence makes this feel less like the interrogation it is and more like a conversation between not-friends. Besides, her own pathetic past is hardly world-shattering intel.
“I grew up in an orphanage,” she says, eyes sliding away from Regina and over the sunlit courtyard. “Until I was three, it was all nuns, all the time. I swear I thought that was just what grown-ups looked like—it’s not like I had anyone to compare them to.”
She can see the muscles in Regina’s face twitch as she does the mental math, lining up the timelines until she says, low and soft, “You’re a war orphan.”
“I wish.” Emma’s tone spikes in a bitter laugh. “My parents didn’t die, they just... left me there. Their revolution was more important, I guess.”
On the stone of the fountain, Regina’s hand twitches toward hers. They don’t quite touch, because neither of them is stupid enough to cross that line, but Emma appreciates the gesture.
“Were you ever adopted?”
“Nope. I just... grew up. Did a lot of stupid stuff when I was a kid, but I must have done something right, too, because GODMOTHER came calling as soon as I was of age.” Which was a stroke of luck, considering Emma was in prison at the time, but she leaves that part out for now. No need to lower the queen’s opinion of her any further. With a clear of her throat, she goes on.
“Turns out the orphanage was one of theirs. It’s not like they recruited every kid they raised,” Emma adds, noticing the look on Regina’s face. “Blue said they’d been watching me for years before they decided I had the right stuff.”
That offer was everything to a young Emma, not yet Swan. A chance to do something other than survive, to actually make a difference in a world that, honestly? Sucked. She still doesn’t know enough about the other woman to say for sure, but she thinks that’s something she and Regina have in common.
“Yes, that’s much better,” snarks the queen. So much for common ground.
“I should’ve known you wouldn’t understand,” Emma grits out. “Unlike you, I wasn’t born with a crown with my name on it. Before GODMOTHER, I had nothing. Without them, I’d be nothing.”
“I doubt that very much.”
Regina almost sounds like she believes that. Somewhat mollified, Emma shakes her head. “You didn’t know me back then.” She barely knows her now. “I was not headed in a good direction. Besides, it’s not like any job could compare to what I’m doing now.”
The queen falls silent for almost a minute. Then, to Emma’s confusion and mild offense, she switches subjects entirely.
“Miss Swan, have you ever wondered why my secret police stomp around dressed all in black, announcing themselves before they enter every room?”
In fact, Emma has never wondered.
“Of course,” she says.
The queen’s lips twitch. “Of course,” she echoes. “And naturally, an agent of your caliber must have instantly concluded that those secret police were only a cover for their more covert colleagues.”
“Y—” Just in time, Emma stops herself, remembering their first meeting, when Regina mentioned her “caliber” in far less complimentary terms. “It’s not quite that simple,” she hedges.
“Well spotted,” praises the queen. “I do employ less visible operatives—secret secret police, if you will—but they have better things to do than stalk my own people.”
“You’re not afraid of rebellion?”
“Why would they revolt?” Regina spreads her hands, pride oozing from every perfect pore. “My Corazón ranked among the top five in last year’s World Happiness Report.” The queen clenches a fist, face scrunching up in a fierce yet oddly endearing expression. “I’m coming for you, Finland,” she mutters.
Right. Emma saw that in one of the innumerable mission briefings. “I thought you leaned on the judges,” she admits. Regina’s expression sends her hands rising in surrender. “But obviously, you have higher standards than that.”
“And don’t you forget it,” sniffs the queen. “I’m not afraid of a challenge.”
Emma lowers her hands and leans back onto them. “Where are you going with this, Regina?”
“My point is that the secret police—the obvious ones—have a purpose as well. They’re like... the sign on your lawn that tells people you have a security system. They are always in action, always useful, and because of this, they rarely wonder what they’re not being told.”
Ah. Now Emma sees where this is going.
“I’m not a complete idiot,” she says. “I’ve always known there’s stuff I’m not being told.”
The queen hitches one shoulder in an elegant shrug. “Very well.” Emma may not know all of Regina, but she knows her well enough to suspect that’s not the end. Sure enough, the queen goes on after a calculated pause.
“I suppose I was expecting too much of you.”
Emma doesn’t bother to hide the roll of her eyes. “Don’t try to reverse-psychology me.”
“Very well,” Regina repeats, actually sincere this time. When a few moments pass without another verbal prod, Emma lets herself relax.
“How’s Henry?” she asks.
“He excelled on last week’s language exam,” the queen reports, nothing in her voice but pride. Against all reason, the kid has become their safest topic. “He’s also taken to stalking the guards in his free time. Nothing to do with your influence, I’m sure.”
“Hey, I haven’t seen him for weeks,” Emma defends, fighting a grin. “Did he get the drop on any of them?”
“Rarely. I only hire the best,” Regina sniffs. “Though he did give Graham quite the shock yesterday.” There’s that pride again. “Perhaps it’s time to find a new captain of the guard.”
“Don’t be too hard on the guy,” snickers Emma. “Of course Henry’s good. He’s your kid, after all.”
“Hmph.” The queen’s mouth twitches. “Don’t try to blame this on me.”
“It was a compliment!” Emma claims. “You’d make a great spy.”
“Thank you,” Regina bites out, sounding somewhat less than flattered. The sour expression is short-lived, soon replaced by a sharp, self-satisfied smile. “I saw through your latest costume, after all.”
Emma pulls a face. “Yeah, how did you catch on? Thought I thought of everything this time.”
“Where to begin?” The queen inflates even further, the smugness in her tone reaching dangerous levels. “You used that same false nose the first time you barged onto my island, you spent more time watching the guards than the artwork, and your—”
As she cuts herself off, Emma circles a hand through the air. “No, no, keep going. This is great feedback. My what?”
White teeth dent Regina’s lower lip as she wavers. “Your eyes,” she says at last, voice barely audible. “They’re far too... distinctive.”
Well, that wasn’t what she was expecting. Emma’s never been particularly vain, but if she had to pick a best feature, it would obviously be her chin. Attempting to see what Regina means only ends in her going cross-eyed, gaining nothing but a budding headache.
With a muffled snort, the queen rises. “I should be going.” she says, the words coming out in a nervous rush. “I expect you’ll do the same.”
Before Emma can see straight again, Regina has fled.
“Long story short, I couldn’t get to the plans.”
Emma tips her chair back on two legs, rocking slightly as she waits for a response. It comes sooner than she expects, in the form of a hard poke to the sole of her boot that nearly sends her spilling to the office floor.
“Feet off my desk,” snaps Tink. “You’re getting sand everywhere.”
“That’s the Queen’s fault too,” Emma grins.
Tink purses her lips. “I’m sure.” As Emma swings her feet off the desk, she nudges her potted plant back into place. The multicolored tulips have been a fixture of Tink’s office for years, and always seem to be in bloom despite the room’s lack of windows. “Emma, you remember what we talked about, don’t you?”
“Hey, she caught me fair and square. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell her anything.” Emma looks away. “Nothing classified, anyway.”
“Emma.” Her handler slumps back. “If you weren’t so obvious about this crush of yours, I’d be worried you already turned.”
Frowning, Emma sits a little straighter. “I know which team I’m on,” she assures Tink. “Look, this... understanding between Regina and I goes both ways. She barely even tries to capture me anymore. I can use that.”
The other woman nods reluctantly. “Good point,” she muses. “But I’d feel even better if you two weren’t apparently on a first-name basis. Next thing I know, you’ll be telling me she’s ‘not that bad.’”
“Actually, she—” Emma cuts herself off at Tink’s sharp look. “She... doesn’t have the worst intentions,” the agent rephrases. “I mean, the execution is obviously—”
Emma was going to say completely bonkers, but sure. “Exactly,” she agrees. “I mean, her latest project, the bomb—I almost want to hear her explain that one.”
She’s half joking, but the half that isn’t zeroes in on Tink’s momentary look of confusion. Maybe Regina’s words burrowed deeper than Emma thought, or maybe it’s Emma’s own trip down memory lane that has her alert, but either way, her handler’s flickering expression is as good as a warning bell.
“Yes,” Tink says a moment too late. “The bomb. I can’t imagine—”
“It is a bomb, isn’t it? That’s what the briefing said.” The words may be coming from Emma’s mouth, but she feels like a spectator as a chilly laugh gusts past her lips. “I mean, you wouldn’t tell me something you knew was wrong, would you?”
Her handler shifts in her chair. “The analysts do make mistakes,” she tries.
“Oh, that makes sense.” Emma grins, wide and false. “I knew it couldn’t be you just messing with my head. Right?”
Tink’s mouth opens and shuts.
“I’m sure GODMOTHER trusts their agents a little more than that,” Emma goes on. “I’m sure you wouldn’t lie to me just because of some office gossip bullshit.”
“No...” Tink says weakly. “But we do have some new theories on what the Queen is making.”
“It’s possible,” hedges Tink, “that the components recently shipped to Corazón could be used for something else. Not a bomb, but a generator.” With the cat out of the bag, the smaller woman starts to relax. “The parts don’t exactly match any device we know of, but it’s probably some kind of clean energy, judging by the Queen’s track record.”
Now that sounds more like Regina. Emma knows better than to voice this thought, especially after raising such a stink about being trustworthy. Still, she can't help but ask,
“So what’s the harm?”
Tink blinks at her.
“If it’s just a big engine”—her handler winces at the oversimplification—“then why was I sent after it?”
They don’t like the competition, Regina’s voice whispers in her ear. Emma gives her head a quick shake to dislodge the thought, but before it completely fades, she feels a cool rush of air on her back as the door hisses open.
“Allow me to explain,” says Blue, and Emma feels her spine snap straight. Did Tink tattle on her?
A glance at the other woman quickly banishes the idea; Tink looks even more shocked than she does. “Director!” she greets, springing to her feet. “Agent Swan and I were just discussing—”
“I’m aware,” Blue hums, which means she either has the best timing on the planet, or she’s been watching them.
“It’s true,” the director continues. “Such a device would be a blessing in the right hands. But no reasonable mind could possibly agree that those hands are the Queen’s.” Blue lets out a high, fluttery laugh. “The world doesn’t need any more mutant apple orchards or flying ice cannons.”
“Orbital freeze rays,” Tink mumbles. Blue ignores her.
“Fair enough. So why didn’t you just tell me that?” Emma rises to face her boss, hands squeezing together behind her back. “I’ve been a good agent for the last ten years, haven’t I?” It comes out more pleading than she wants it to.
Blue’s lips twist. “Oh, my Swan, you’ve done so very well all these years. Ever since I plucked you out of that cell, a lost girl lashing out at the world. I believed in you when no one else would. Isn't that enough for you to trust my judgement?”
“Of course I do. I just—”
“Please,” sighs Blue. “Think back. All your missions. All the good you’ve done. Has my guidance ever led you astray?”
There’s something about how she says guidance, as if—
“You’ve... You’ve done this before?”
“Does it matter?” The director spreads her hands. “You’ve always made the right decision. That’s what’s important. That’s how you’ve been able to put so much good into the world.”
Behind her desk, Tink is silent, trying to hide behind her tulips. Emma folds back into her chair as she absorbs Blue’s words, feeling the last of her indignation drain away. Like she told Regina, she never expected to know everything about her agency. She’s always accepted that some things are just above her pay grade, and is this latest stunt really so different? Blue’s right: GODMOTHER has steered her straight for over a decade. Emma trusts them just as much as she owes them.
“Fine,” she agrees, a sour taste lingering in her mouth. “Guess that makes sense.”
Blue beams. “Wonderful.”
“But...” Emma starts, and the director’s expression freezes. “What if the Queen changed? Just for the sake of argument, what if she’s done with the homicidal octopi and the radioactive peanut butter? A fancy generator is a lot safer than the usual mad science. Shouldn’t we... I dunno, encourage it?”
“Oh, Emma.” Blue glides closer to rest a cool hand on the agent’s cheek. “I did hope you would realize on your own, but it seems you require a little more guidance.” Her fingers drift down, then tighten, cradling Emma’s chin in an iron grip. “The Queen is toying with you. After all she’s done, do you truly think a few smiles from you can set her on a better path?”
Emma manages not to flinch. “I never said it was because of me,” she objects. “She’s got a kid now. As far as reasons go for giving up a life of crime, that’s a pretty good one.”
Blue releases her with an irritated tch. “A lovely fantasy,” she hisses. “But make no mistake: People don’t change.”
With that, the director leaves as abruptly as she arrived. Emma and Tink stare after her until the click of the doors snaps them from their trance. While her handler begins nervously tidying her desk, Emma’s gaze drops to her lap, Blue’s final words echoing in her skull for more reasons than one. The director’s ironclad statement makes some sense. After all, she’s been facing off with villains far worse than Regina for longer than Emma’s been alive. But...
If she doesn’t believe people can change, then what exactly does Blue think of Emma?
“Come on, the guy calls himself Mr. Gold.”
“Forget the name! Gold isn’t a fun nemesis like yours,” August insists, eyes meeting hers in the rearview mirror. “I’m the fifth agent to be assigned to his case, and only one of the other four is still on active duty.”
“Did the rest... retire?” Emma asks hopefully.
“No. No they didn’t.”
August’s gaze returns to the road, and they sit in silence for several moments.
“And you’re sure he doesn’t have a golden gun, or metal teeth, or, like, a vat of molten gold he dunks his enemies into?”
“No.” August’s tone is uncharacteristically grim. “Mostly he just has them buried alive in the desert.”
Emma winces. “Well, that’s something at least.”
Her partner glares.
“Okay, fine! Your nemesis is a boring murderer. You win.”
August snorts. “So you get why you’re the distraction. If Gold sees me... well, I like not being vulture food.” His grin flashes in the mirror. “I thought you’d be happy. You’ll get to see your girlfriend, after all.”
Emma just frowns, shrinking into the car’s plush back seat. She... she’d rather not be anywhere near Regina, honestly. She came dangerously close to defending the queen in her chat with Tink and Blue, forcing her to face the possibility that she is in over her head.
She’s almost glad August is with her on this trip to Corazón. Sure, they'll be splitting up, but maybe knowing he's on the island too will help her hold back from any stupid decisions.
With a blink, Emma looks up to find that they’ve arrived. Peering through the car’s tinted widows, she sees Regina’s castle from an angle she’s never tried before: the front door. August puts the car in park before twisting in his seat, holding out an earpiece the size of a pea.
“Easy, Swan. I’m just giving you a hard time,” he says, almost apologetic. “I bet she won’t even notice you.”
Emma snatches the earpiece from his hand. “Gee, thanks.”
“I’m just saying, she’s never seen you dressed... like this.” The hand flaps vaguely in her direction. “And obviously, you look terrible, so—Ow, ow!”
Emma tries to scowl as she releases his thumb, but feels a smile pulling at her lips. August has always been good at annoying her back to reality. “Thanks,” she says, this time meaning it. “I’m ready.”
“Good. You’ve got the easy job. Just keep an eye on a few dozen of the world’s most notorious criminal masterminds while I break into Gold’s car.”
“Oh, is that all?” Rolling her eyes, she slips the radio into her ear. “Be careful,” she orders. “And remember everything I told you about the Queen’s security.”
“Hey, you got past them, didn’t you?” With a laugh, her partner slips out of the car and jogs around to open Emma’s door for her. She lets him help her out, polished shoes sinking into the rich velvet carpet that stretches all the way from the castle’s yawning double doors.
“Just try not to screw everything up,” she hisses, shrugging August’s hand off her elbow. “I already rescued you once this month.”
“Yes, Mom.” He whips up a hand in an exaggerated salute, then winks and turns back to the car. As he drives off, Emma strides up the carpet without a backward glance. She takes a slow breath with each step, straightening her suit jacket and checking that her hair is secure in its fancy knot at the crown of her head. Tonight, she has no fancy wigs or fake noses. Tonight, her persona rests on the clothes, the hairdo, a dozen other little touches... and most importantly, her confidence. By the time she swaggers up to the doors, there’s no trace of Emma Swan, secret agent. In her place stands Emma Swan, security consultant for the rich and fiendish.
There are no tour groups in the castle today, just a whole lot of not-so-secret police. Graham himself is manning the door, uniform shinier than ever. Ironically, he doesn’t recognize her without a disguise... at least, for all of ten seconds. Halfway through examining her—forged—invitation, the captain of the guard does a double-take, eyes snapping back to Emma’s face as realization dawns.
“Regina invited me,” she blurts.
She’s not sure Graham believes her, but more importantly, neither is he. His face clouds with thought, the gears grinding almost audibly in his head. Finally, he palms his forehead and decides that she’s his boss’s problem now. With a warning look, he waves her inside, and Emma swallows a relieved smile.
It’s time to party.
Tonight’s gala is being held in one of those enormous rooms that all castles seem to have for no apparent reason. Probably called the Grand Hall or something equally full of itself, the chamber seeks to drown Regina’s guests in both quality and quantity. Clusters of furniture are spaced along the walls, couches and armchairs forming small semi-private lounges the size of a normal room. Above them, banners flaunt Corazón’s royal crest, a cascade of white squares on black cloth topped by a tongue of crimson flame.
At least Emma thinks it’s cloth, until she notices how the stylized flame flickers and glows. A closer look reveals that each banner is actually an electronic display on a paper-thin screen. It’s ridiculously impractical, and Emma wishes she didn’t find it so cool.
The space between the mini-lounges is dotted by decorations, each more grandiose than the last. A pillar that crackles with violet electricity, the sparks forming dazzling patterns in the air. An aquarium suspended from the ceiling in three enormous glass globes, connected by a web of twisting tubes that look a stiff breeze away from shattering. And at the center of it all, a towering tree that seems to sprout straight from the marble floor, its branches weighed down by fat, shiny apples the size of Emma’s head.
The mission briefing hadn't mentioned the reason for this soiree, but now Regina’s motives are obvious: She clearly threw this party just to flex on her fellow criminal masterminds.
Emma stops admiring the queen’s ego just in time to dodge one of the mobile refreshment tables. The three-legged platform chirps angrily at her before trotting off, an entire champagne tower balanced on its head. Torn between apologizing and chasing the thing down for a drink, Emma splits the difference and trips over her own feet.
Luckily, she finds something to break her fall. Less luckily, that something is someone’s arm.
“Unhand me!” cries a voice, sharp and imperious and mortifyingly familiar.
“Regina?” Her fingers give the queen’s forearm a reflexive squeeze.
“Em—Miss Swan.” Regina’s voice softens, but not by much. “I... wasn’t sure you’d be attending tonight.”
“Just try to keep me away,” Emma quips, meeting the queen’s wary look with a grin that she hopes isn't too strained.
“I wish I had,” Regina says in an undertone, then seems to remember that they aren’t alone. “I don’t believe you’ve met my other guests.” Her free hand flutters toward the man and woman she was talking with before Emma’s interruption. “Kathryn Midas, of Midas Manufacturing, and—”
“Call me Mr. Gold,” a soft voice cuts in. Emma’s smile stretches a little tighter as the kingpin steps forward, leaning on his cane. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Midas hangs back, her shimmery silver dress rippling as she glances between Emma and the queen. “How exactly do you know Regina?” she asks, sharp eyes boring into the undercover agent.
“And on a first-name basis, at that,” Gold notes with some interest.
Emma risks a glance at Regina, whose eyes burn into hers. Don’t embarrass me in front of the other supervillains, they demand.
With the barest of nods, she turns back to the others. “I’m a contractor,” she informs them. “Security systems, mainly. I’ve been testing the island’s defenses for almost a year now”—the agent hides a wince as Regina’s toe jabs at her calf—“and they are rock solid, let me tell you.”
Gold cocks his head. “A contractor,” he hums, eyes crinkling. “I dabble in contracts myself, you know.” His lip curls in what could charitably be called a smile, a metal tooth winking at Emma as it catches the light. “Just a little joke. Ha ha,” he says. Not laughs, says.
“Hah,” echoes Emma. Could this guy get any creepier? “So,” she stammers, rallying. “Gold and Midas, huh? You guys must get along great.”
That joke goes over about as well as Gold’s.
“Like a warehouse on fire,” Kathryn says, glaring daggers at the man, who sneers back.
“Yes,” he agrees, tooth flashing. “We’re thick as thieves.”
Emma gets the feeling she just stepped on a land mine, but Regina draws her away before the pair can really get going.
“Security contractor? Really?”
“Oh, you haven't been getting my invoices?” Despite herself, Emma can't help but tease the flustered monarch. “I don’t come cheap, you know.”
Regina doesn’t look amused. “What is it this time?” she asks. “Why are you here?”
“Hey, maybe I’m just here for the party.” Emma spread her arms, nearly decking a passing henchwoman. “The food, the entertainment, the... you.” She doesn’t mean for that last one to slip out, but it does have an impact. The queen’s expression flickers, almost pleased for a split second before boomeranging back to suspicious.
“You’ll understand if I don’t take your word for it.”
Well, yeah. Emma shrugs.
“So...” Regina hesitates before stepping closer. “I suppose I’ll just have to keep a close eye on you, Miss Swan.”
They’ve been in each other’s space before, but the queen’s presence seems especially, er... present tonight. Her perfume fills the air with flowers and apples and something sharper. Her makeup is even more on point than usual, easily outclassing Emma’s—which was literally a team effort. Her dress... Emma’s been doing her best not to focus on the dress, because once she starts, it’s going to be real hard to notice anything else. Her dress is dark and slinky and bares skin in very interesting places, and that’s all Emma’s going to say about that.
With a blink, she shakes herself out of her silent appreciation, expecting to be met by the queen’s usual smirk. Instead, she catches the tail end of Regina’s own admiring once-over, which Emma has to admit is quite the confidence boost.
She’s flying high for about a second before Regina notices her face-splitting grin and spins on one daggerlike heel.
“Of all your costumes,” the queen calls back. “I suppose I hate this one the least.”
That decides it. After this mission, Emma is buying a tuxedo. Smothering a smile, she strides after her host. “I’m don’t want any trouble,” she insists. “Honest.” Technically, it’s August who’s making all the trouble, and he’s only after one of Regina’s guests.
“Hmph,” is the other woman’s only response as she resumes her tour of the room. Her guest list includes more than its share of powerful names, but here Regina is Queen. Never missing a step, she exchanges greetings with generals, clasps hands with CEOs, laughs with leaders from every continent.
Through it all, she doesn’t spare the agent another glance. To Emma, it almost seems like a dismissal until she notices how Regina’s pace never leaves her behind, how the aura that makes the crowd part before her seems to extend to Emma as well. It takes a few more minutes for the agent to figure it out, and almost a quarter of an hour before they have the privacy for an accusation.
“What am I, your muscle?” she whispers.
Regina jumps as Emma’s breath brushes her ear. “Hardly,” she says, recovering with an eloquent flick of her hand. “You’re my arm candy.”
“Oh, goo—wait, what?”
“That’s enough mingling for now,” the queen decides, ignoring her. At a click of her fingers, a row of tables trots up. The first one carries champagne, which Regina takes, and the rest carry assorted finger foods, which she waves toward Emma.
“I heard your stomach trying to interrupt my conversation with the Prime Minister of Finland.”
Emma gives her a sheepish shrug, mouth already too full to answer.
“No, don’t apologize.” Regina hides a smile behind the rim of her champagne flute. “I’d rather listen to your stomach than yet another humblebrag about their low crime rate and their perfect education system and their saunas.”
“Uh, sure.” Emma smiles around a bite of chicken. “You’re really gunning for that ‘happiest country’ thing, aren’t you?”
The queen’s face sours. “I was robbed,” she mutters. “My Corazón matched that frozen wasteland in every metric except...” Her words trail off into frustrated grumbles.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“Lack of supervillain,” Regina repeats, still fuming. “Obviously a highly biased category. As if a few instances of... creative foreign policy detract from my overwhelming success.”
Wisely, Emma doesn’t contradict her. “Maybe next year,” she offers. “Especially if you get that fancy power plant working.”
The queen only freezes for a split second. “So that’s why you’re here.”
“That’s why I was here last time,” Emma corrects. “This time I’m happy with the food.”
Regina fixes her with a wary eye. “Then why bring it up, Agent Swan?”
“Just curious, I guess.” Emma pauses, for once thinking before she speaks. “It seems more... normal than your usual save-the-world projects.” Less insanely dangerous, is what she means, but Emma would rather not fight tonight.
To her surprise, the queen’s cheeks darken. “I may have been giving your suggestions some thought.” Each word has to be forced through her lips. “Especially the one concerning a middle path between world domination and futile politicking.”
“I said what?”
Regina’s eyes rise toward the ceiling. “Perhaps I’m giving you too much credit. How else can I put this?” Her lips purse. “I’m trying to be less... extra, was it?”
Emma’s startled laugh fills the hall. She tries to choke it back, but instead just chokes, wheezing around the champagne in her windpipe. Curious eyes turn their way, but Regina fends them off with a cool smile.
“Allergies,” she says, baring her teeth until even the nosiest of her guests looks away. “Are you still alive, Miss Swan?” she murmurs, turning back to Emma.
Who can't assemble a response, the bulk of her brainpower focused on the feel of Regina’s hand on her back. It’s slipped under her jacket, the palm warm through the cloth of her shirt, and Emma shivers. Regina’s thumb idly strokes over her spine, and with effort, she manages a reassuring smile.
“I’m fine,” she coughs, taking a wobbly step away from the queen.
Regina drops her hand, brow wrinkling. “Are you?”
“A-okay.” Sucking in a deep breath, Emma lets her head fall back. They’ve made a full lap of the hall, and now the branches of Regina’s titanic apple tree spread out above them like a leafy umbrella. They seem to move with a mind of their own, their gentle sway sending soft breezes across the room.
Wait. Emma cranes her head further, squinting into the leaves. For a second, she thought she saw...
“Don’t worry.” Regina’s voice draws her attention back down to earth. “It doesn’t bite.” A pause. “Anymore.”
Emma smiles, but the queen doesn’t miss her distraction. “Are you certain you’re all right?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s just... Bathroom?” she asks, and Regina manages to look both disgusted and fond.
“Out that door, halfway down the hall.”
“Great.” With a wave of thanks, Emma hustles off, following Regina’s outstretched finger... at least until she’s out of sight. Once the gnarled mass of the apple tree’s trunk is between them, the agent stops in her tracks. After checking that no one else is watching, she shed her jacket, rolls up her sleeves, and starts to climb.
In moments, she’s amongst the branches. They’re broad enough to walk on, with smaller boughs sticking out in every direction. The light through the leaves tints everything green, and the whole tree continues to rock gently beneath her feet. Moving carefully, Emma makes her way through the arboreal jungle gym, tracking her prey with ease. She corners him before long, pushing past a final screen of branches to find the boy doing his level best to hide behind an apple.
“Isn't it past your bedtime?” she asks, crouching before him.
Henry’s grin peeks into view. “You’re not supposed to be up here,” he giggles.
“Yeah, kid, you got me.” Emma sits down, legs dangling off the side of the branch. “I won't tell if you won't.”
With the easy agility of a ten-year-old, Henry scampers to her side and plops himself down.
“You haven't visited in forever,” Henry accuses.
Leaning back, she looks him up and down. He does seem taller than the last time she was here. Unlike her, the boy is dressed in his most casual clothes, which still leaves him looking like a tiny accountant.
“Sorry, kid,” says Emma, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “I’d love to stop by more often, but I’ve been... busy.”
Busy trying to convince her bosses that she’s not a security risk, mostly, but he doesn’t need to know that.
Henry wriggles away from her hand. He’s trying to look mad, but there’s really only room for one expression on his little face, and right now it’s all curiosity. “Spy stuff?”
“Yeah, spy stuff,” chuckles Emma. “I jumped out of a plane last month, y’know.”
“Coool,” he breathes. “Did you get to use a hang glider?”
“I had a rope. Does that count?”
Judging by Henry’s face, it does not, but he brightens up soon enough. “Why are you here now? Is it to spy on my mom? Can I help?”
Emma frowns. “This isn't a game, Henry. My job is dangerous. Pretty sure Regina’s told you that a million times by now.”
“Yeah,” the boy glumly confirms. “She’s always warning me about that stuff. But you're a spy, and she likes you!”
“She does?” Emma wipes off her smile with a shake of her head. “No, never mind. Kid, I’m serious; being a secret agent isn't all martinis and code names.”
“I knew you used code names,” gasps Henry, expertly dodging the point. “What’s yours?”
“Focus, Henry,” she tries, but it’s impossible to resist those pleading eyes for long. “It’s Swan.”
“Isn't that just your name?” Once again, the kid seems unfairly disappointed.
“Code name,” she defends. “My real name is classified.” So classified even she doesn’t know what it is, Emma ruefully reflects.
This seems to satisfy Henry, who nods before opening his mouth for more questions.
“The main idea,” she goes on before he can get them out, “is that you’ll have to wait ‘til you’re older to get a code name and start jumping out of planes.” Much older, if Regina has anything to say about it, but Emma is more than happy to leave that problem for her.
Henry takes this about as well as she expected—that is, not at all. “I don’t have to,” he mutters mutinously. “Mom says you were hired when you were a teenager.”
“I was sixteen,” Emma retorts. “You’re... ten.” She sighs, setting an awkward hand on one bony shoulder. “You’ve got a good thing going here, kid. Don’t be in such a rush to give it up.”
Either her words get through, or Henry realizes she’s not going to be an easier sell than his mother after all. Whichever it is, the boy sinks into sulky silence, glaring at the guests strolling beneath their branch. Emma takes a few minutes to check on Gold, then lets the kid mope for a little longer before nudging him with an elbow.
“So, you guys have been talking about me?”
“Sometimes,” admits Henry, still pouting. “Only when Mom brings you up. Or I do. Or Ruby.” He catches the twitch of her lips out the corner of his eye. “Fine, maybe more than sometimes.”
“Honestly, I’m flattered that you look up to me,” Emma muses. “But...”
“Never said that,” she hears Henry mumble. He really is Regina’s kid.
“But,” the agent goes on, “you’ve got options. You can be whatever you want—” She hesitates. “Unless you have to be king or something. Is that how it works here?”
“Mom says I don’t gotta.” Henry informs her. “She can have them do democracy instead.”
“Oh just like that, huh?”
“They will if she tells them to,” he insists, the irony flapping merrily over his head.
“Right. So, yeah, you’ve got options,” Emma repeats. “It’s always nice to have options. If I’d—” She breaks off, lips pressing together.
Unfortunately, Henry has his mom’s ear for unsaid words. “Do you... not like being a spy, Emma?” he asks, big brown eyes locking with hers.
“What? Of course I do! It’s way better than prison.” She bites her tongue. Okay, that didn’t come out right.
Henry’s eyes gleam. “You were in jail?”
“Don’t tell your mom,” Emma begs. “It was only for a little bit.” More accurately, a little bit at a time. She was in and out of the local lockup throughout most of her teens.
“I do like what I do,” she clarifies. “Helping people, seeing the world, kicking a—” Emma coughs. “Kicking butt and taking names. I wouldn’t have gotten to do half of it in another line of work. But you can already do all that, kid, and more. You don’t need to risk your neck just for some excitement.”
“I guess.” Henry looks more thoughtful than convinced, but she’ll take what she can get.
Sadly, her triumph only lasts the handful of seconds it takes the kid to think up another question. Like his first, it’s far too on point for Emma’s comfort.
“If you were in jail, then did your spy bosses make you join?” he asks. If it hadn't been delivered so innocently, Emma would be checking over her shoulder to make sure Regina wasn’t feeding him lines.
“No!” she laughs. “They wouldn’t...” She can't finish that sentence in good conscience. Blue doesn’t waste talent. “Where do you get these ideas, Henry?” she deflects instead.
He shrugs. “Comic books.”
“Not your mom?”
“She doesn’t talk about your bosses much.” He darts her a sly look. “Just you, mostly.” Cute. “But I don’t like ‘em.” Less cute.
“Any particular reason?” she asks, honestly curious. Who knows, maybe the kid’s got some real insight.
“They have an underground base.”
“Only bad guys have underground bases!” Henry claims, dead serious. “Good-guy bases are fancy buildings with big windows and secret passages and firefighter poles!”
With great effort, Emma doesn’t laugh. “Anything else?”
“Sometimes they fly.”
Hard to argue with that logic. Emma thinks for a moment. “Okay, kid. We’re on different sides, sure. But that doesn’t have to mean that anyone’s good or bad. My boss could say your mom is the bad guy.”
And Blue has, multiple times, but that’s not the point.
“But you don’t think so, Emma. Right?”
Crap. She answered that question much too fast, didn’t she? A good agent would probably have looked thoughtful for a second, then said something reassuring but actually meaningless. Emma... Emma didn’t have to think at all, and that is the opposite of good.
At least Henry looks pleased. “I knew it,” he chirps, oblivious to Emma’s rising panic.
“Yeah it’s great,” she blurts in an anxious rush. “But enough big talk for now, all right? Come on, this is supposed to be a party!”
Emma waves her arms, which even she realizes is a little desperate, but thankfully, the kid takes it at face value. Grinning, he wriggles closer, and when her hands drop, one ends up slung over his shoulders.
“Just one more thing,” he says, relaxing into her side.
The words are light, but Emma’s wariness still lingers. Henry has a way of getting past her guard—in more ways than one, she reflects, peering down at the warm body tucked beneath her arm. He’s surprisingly heavy, and one elbow is digging into her ribs, but somehow she doesn’t mind.
“Okay, shoot,” she invites.
“Can I try on your bow tie?”
“There you are. I thought you might have left.”
Emma manages not to twitch as Regina appears at her side. So much for a quick exit. She makes a subtle scan of her surroundings, but no easy escape presents itself. Trapped between the queen and the roots of her ginormous apple tree, there’s nowhere to run.
“Nope, still here,” she answers as innocently as she can. “No need to worry.”
Regina gives her a flat look. “The only worry I had was that you’d fallen in,” she drawls.
“What?” Too late, Emma remembers the excuse she gave the queen nearly an hour ago. “No, wait. I wasn’t—It’s not like I was—I mean, not the whole time—”
The queen drops her judgmental mask, lips quirking up at the corners. “I know,” she chuckles. “I take it Henry was happy to see you.”
Emma really shouldn’t be surprised. “You knew he was up there?”
“He’s perfectly safe.” Regina bristles, defensive. “The tree likes him.”
“The tree—” With a shake of her head, Emma resolves not to ask. “Anyway, he’s gone now.” The kid was half asleep when she sent him off to bed, her bow tie dangling lopsided around his neck. “We had a nice chat.”
“I hope you weren’t filling his head with more swashbuckling nonsense,” warns the queen.
Emma shrugs, hands finding her pockets. “The opposite, actually.”
“Yeah,” she says, a little smug. “I’m not totally irresponsible. Also, swashbuckling? I’m a spy, not a pirate.”
“Such a high bar,” Regina mutters. Then, at a more normal volume, “Forgive my assumption. He must have gotten all those stories from the other secret agent who’s been snooping around my island.”
“Hey, that was before I knew he was taking them so seriously.” Emma gives Regina a smile she hopes is reassuring. “I wouldn’t worry too much. The kid loves it here. He’s just... curious.” A thought occurs. “Has he been homeschooled his whole life?”
“I don’t recall asking for your parenting advice,” snaps the queen, only to sigh and massage her temples. “I’m sorry. I’m still wound up from dealing with all of them.” One hand makes a discreet gesture at the nearest knot of guests. “Trust me, international criminals make the worst small talk. Everything’s so pointed with them.”
Emma raises an eyebrow. “Don’t you mean ‘us’?”
“You, on the other hand,” the queen goes on as if she didn't hear, “are wonderfully dull.”
“Wonderfully dull,” Regina emphasizes, the lines on her face banished by a smile. “To answer your question, yes. Henry’s tutors have done an admirable job, of course, but I’m aware that he needs peers. I’ve...” She hesitates, but not for long. “I’ve been considering secondary school abroad.”
She lets that statement hang, but it takes Emma a few more seconds to realize that now Regina actually is looking for advice.
“Boarding school?” she manages, striving to pretend she’s not completely out of her depth. “Yeah, more kids his own age would probably do him good, as long as they’re not all—” Emma stops herself before she can say stuck-up brats, but she’s pretty sure Regina hears it anyway.
“Yes, that is a concern,” is the queen’s amused response. They share a smile for a few soft seconds before she clears her throat. “Of course, the decision certainly doesn’t have to be made tonight.” Emma senses that the topic is closed, which is perfectly fine with her. She’s still more than a little stunned that Regina opened it in the first place.
Stunned... and something else; a warm, heavy feeling that she does her best to shove aside. It’s a relief when the queen moves on.
“What happened to the rest of your clothes?” she asks, brow furrowed as if she’s just noticing.
Emma’s jacket is back on the other side of the tree, and she didn’t have the heart to make Henry give back her bow tie. Her sleeves are still shoved up past her elbows, and a few intrepid hairs are starting to make their escape from her bun.
“They’re around,” she mumbles, trying to smooth back her hair. Regina’s eyes are dark, unreadable, but they follow every shift of her newly bared forearms. “Sorry.” Emma tries for a grin. “I know you liked the tux.”
The queen goes pink. “I—I never said this was worse,” she says, drawing a blink from Emma. She was really expecting another denial, or maybe a sideways compliment if she was lucky. “It’s more... you,” Regina adds, which is more along the lines of what she saw coming.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she prods, grin in full force now.
Regina checks over both shoulders to make sure no one is watching, then steps closer. “Less polished,” she says, barely above a whisper. “Less polite. Less false.”
Each “less” comes with a step forward. Emma moves back in turn, but her feet must not be trying very hard, because the distance between them keeps shrinking. Before she knows it, they’re tucked in an alcove formed by the apple tree’s oversized roots, and Regina is all she can see.
One hand rises with a mind of its own, fingers tangling with the queen’s as they come to rest over her collarbone. Regina’s eyes flick downward, as if she can see Emma’s heart going wild in her chest, then drift back up. Her gaze is like a physical thing, brushing across Emma’s throat, her jaw, her lips. It lingers there before returning to her eyes, filling her vision with deep, dark, brown.
She feels like she’s falling, and realizes that it’s because she’s leaning in. Her free hand settles on Regina’s side, sparking an electric tingle when the pads of her fingers find one of the cutouts in the queen’s dress. They stroke over the smooth, soft skin without needing to be asked, and Emma feels Regina’s full-body shiver through a dozen points of contact.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” is what her mouth decides to vomit up. Luckily, Regina mostly ignores this, a puff of amused breath her only acknowledgment. “But,” Emma plows onward, her voice a low croak, “you know we can't do this.”
“I know we shouldn’t,” rumbles Regina. Emma feels the words more than hears them, and realizes that there are barely any gaps between them anymore. These last pockets of separation don’t last much longer, Regina’s thigh burning against hers as the queen leans up.
“I know we shouldn’t,” she repeats, “but what’s the point of being evil if you can't make a few bad decisions?”
Even here, even now, Emma manages a roll of her eyes. “That would be more convincing if you were, you know, actually evil,” she points out. “And we both know that’s not true.” She already admitted as much to Henry, but telling Regina straight to her face hits different. Ah, well. It looks like she’s committed now.
Regina snorts again, heavy-lidded eyes crinkling with delight. “Oh I’m not, am I?” she purrs. “Then we’re practically on the same side.”
“Well, when you put it like that...”
They’re so close that Emma barely needs to move. Her eyes drift shut as her lips find Regina’s, cool and soft and hot and firm all at once. The hand on her collarbone slips out from under Emma’s, slipping up to cup the back of her neck with teasing fingers. Emma feels a tongue tracing her lower lip, waiting to be let in.
It’s not long before their kiss takes a more competitive edge. She feels Regina moan as her thumb grazes the skin bared by the queen’s dress; can't stop her own gasp when Regina nips at the sensitive skin under her jaw. Her hand mirrors Regina’s on her partner’s neck, and they melt into one another, lips moving faster, rougher, sweeter until they’re forced to part for air.
Emma’s eyes flash open in the same instant as Regina’s, two sets of eager breaths filling their private nook. Her mouth feels one more touch from bursting into flame, but it only takes an inviting crook of the queen’s brow before they crash together again.
“Regina,” she groans.
“Emma,” says a voice. Not Regina’s.
August’s unwelcome tones send her recoiling a little too fast. Regina stumbles back with a surprised hiss, but it’s Emma’s skull that bounces off an inconveniently placed root. By the time her head clears, her partner has finished reporting the success of their mission, and her... other partner is muffling her laughter behind a hand.
“It’s not funny,” Emma whines. She can only be grateful her earpiece isn't two-way, or this would be really awkward.
Regina’s shoulders shake with poorly hidden giggles. “I strongly disagree.” Composing herself, the queen helps Emma to her feet. “Consider it a fitting punishment for not telling me about your accomplice.”
Emma’s never felt guilty, annoyed, and aroused at the same time before. This really is a day of firsts. “You’re not mad?” she double checks as she re-tucks her shirt.
“You’re not here for anything of mine?” Regina asks in turn.
“Not your secrets,” Emma assures her, cracking a grin. “But if we’re talking about things of yours...” She trails off at the queen’s unamused expression. “No,” the agent sighs. “We’re after Gold, actually.”
Regina stares for a moment that feels like an eternity, then nods. “Excellent,” she says. “He could use some trouble.”
“You believe me?”
“I might,” hums the queen, eyes playful. “Now, it sounds like we’re out of time.”
As Emma squeezes past her, she thinks she feels the flutter of lips against her cheek. Pausing at the mouth of their alcove, she glances back to meet the queen’s eye one last time.
“Thank you,” she murmurs. “For... everything.”
Regina just smiles back, and for one golden second, Emma lets herself believe that everything will turn out fine.
The piercing whine of the saw fills Emma’s ears.
She leans away as much as she can with her hands and feet shackled to a chair, neck craning desperately to add a precious sliver of space between her and the razor-sharp disk.
“Regina!” she cries, but the queen only spares her a cold glance before jabbing at her control panel.
On Emma’s other side, another saw unfolds from the chair, rising into view on an articulated arm. It starts to spin, matching the metallic shriek of its twin as it forces the agent’s head back to the center.
Teeth clenched, Emma strangles the armrests of her dentist’s chair of death, willing Regina to meet her eye again. When the queen does, her gaze is just as icy as before, face drawn tight with emotion. Even across the room, Emma can see that her eyes are red, underlined by dark crescents. Her skin is waxy, nearly as pale as the lab coat buttoned up to her chin.
It looks like she hasn’t slept since the party three nights ago, which makes total sense considering the circumstance.
“Regina!” Emma calls again, and this time the queen answers.
Whatever she says—nothing pleasant, judging by the bared teeth and wild eyes—it’s drowned out by the shriek of dual circular saws. Almost embarrassed, Emma gives a helpless shrug and tries to jerk a thumb toward the whirling blades. The queen understands at once, blotches of red appearing on her cheeks as she switches off the saws.
“Thanks.” Emma sags against her restraints. “Regina—”
A switch is flicked, and the chair deploys another robotic arm, this one bearing the horrible lovechild of a scalpel and a laser pointer. A crimson beam lances from its tip, and Emma’s sleeve starts to smoke.
“I don’t have time for banter today, Agent Swan.” There’s not a speck of warmth in the queen’s voice. “Just tell me what I need to know, and I’ll make this quick.”
“Regina, slow down! You know I could never—”
At the queen’s command, the laser scalpel moves, cutting a flap in Emma’s shirt over her shoulder. The skin underneath is reddened but not seriously harmed—yet. To her relief, the tool retracts, but another arm is quick to take its place. Instead of a blade, the new appendage is tipped by a fat syringe filled with purple liquid.
“I designed the chair for remote surgery,” Regina informs her in robotic tones. “I never expected to use it for something like this, but you have a way of opening my mind.”
It doesn’t sound like a compliment. Emma swallows. “What’s in the needle?”
“Oh, that I made just for nuisances like you. Once it’s in your bloodstream, you’ll be forced to tell me anything I ask—at least for ninety seconds or so. You won't be saying much of anything after it reaches your heart.” For the first time, her expression shifts, features twisting with rage. “Only fitting, considering how you toyed with mine.”
Emma can't even voice her denials any more. The agent’s eyes plead with Regina as her fingers limp across the controls, the queen’s lank hair not quite covering the throbbing vein on her forehead.
“I warned you, didn’t I? I told you what would happen.” Her hand pauses over a set of big, Frankenstein-style switches. “And yet, you betrayed my trust in every way. Worse, you came back. Why? Did you think I could still be fooled, or are you just here to gloat?”
“Regina, I didn’t do it.” Emma pours all the sincerity she has into the words. “And I don’t know who did, but I can help you—”
“NO!” The queen slaps her console, and Emma winces, but the syringe doesn’t descend. Instead, Regina storms out from behind the controls, pale and hateful as an avenging spirit. “No more lies, Agent Swan,” she hisses, looming over her prisoner. “Where is my son?”
“I swear, I don’t know!” Regina turns away with a disgusted noise, but Emma shifts to hold her gaze, ignoring the cuffs digging into her wrists. “Look at me, Regina! Why would I take Henry from you?”
“Again,” the queen mutters.
“I was an idiot back then,” Emma admits. “I didn’t know the kid; I didn’t know you.”
For a split second, the shadow lifts from Regina’s face. “No,” she murmurs. “So you bided your time.” Her expression darkens, even worse than before. “You played the fool until I thought I knew you, until I almost...”
“No!” protests Emma, but the queen whirls away, stalking back to the console. She reaches after her on reflex, but only succeeds in whacking her elbow against the chair. “I am a fool!” Wait, that’s not right. “I wasn’t pretending!” she tries again. “Please, Regina, you do know me. Do you really think I’d hurt you? Either of you?”
When the queen faces her again, her eyes are wet, her fingers trembling as they wrap around one of the Frankenstein levers. “I don’t know what to think,” she says, and pulls it down with a final-sounding thunk.
Emma doesn’t look away from Regina’s face as the needle approaches her arm. She always figured one of these death traps would be, well, the death of her, but she also thought it would be for something she actually did. That’s not even getting into the fact that she was making out with the trap’s operator just a few short nights ago. Does that make this better or worse? Yeah, Emma’s not sure either.
Oh man, Blue’s going to be so disappointed in her.
Something pricks her shoulder, and her eyes squeeze shut. She hopes Regina finds Henry, and that she’s not too broken up about truth-serum-ing Emma to death. Sure, a little pining would be nice; but to be fair, Emma would be her own top suspect if she were in Regina’s shoes.
Was she supposed to feel something by now? Her chest is tight, but that’s probably just because she’s holding her breath.
She hears a strangled sort of noise from across the room, followed by a hoarse, “Miss Swan?”
One eye cracks open to meet the queen’s intense gaze. “Yeah?”
Regina is leaning over the console, braced on arms that are barely holding her up. “Emma,” she breathes.
“GODMOTHER recruited me from prison,” the agent blurts. “I didn’t tell you because I was worried you wouldn’t let me see Henry anymore.” The queen frowns. “I really have no idea what happened to Henry,” Emma goes on, “but I know you’ll figure it out.”
The confessions are coming faster now, leaping from Emma’s lips like shameful little skydivers.
“I don’t know how to drive stick. This year has been my best one since... ever. I only own one fork because I never have guests. I begged Tink for this mission because I haven't been able to stop thinking about you.” With effort, Emma forces her mouth shut, cheeks burning. “I’m ready for that heart attack now,” she groans.
Lips clamped in a thin line, Regina points. Emma follows the gesture to her shoulder... and the needle barely grazing her skin, still full of purple serum. The syringe folds itself away a moment later, and Emma can breathe normally again.
When she turns back, Regina is suddenly leaning over her, hands resting over Emma’s on the arms of the surgery chair.
“I don’t believe you,” she says, which is a very mixed message. “I can't believe you,” the queen continues. “It has to be you who took Henry, because—” Her hands are shaking, knuckles white. “Because any of the alternatives would be far, far worse,” Regina finishes in a whisper. “At least with you he’ll be...”
Wordlessly, Emma shakes her head and sees Regina’s face crumple. Tears finally escaping, the queen jerks away and drags herself back across the room. Emma yearns to reach after her, to hold her, but she’s still shackled to the damn chair. All she can do is sit in silence as Regina leans against the wall, fingers curling clawlike against the stone.
And then a phone rings. Not Emma’s, because she didn’t bring one, and even if she did, she’d rather be injected with deadly truth serum than install a classical ringtone. She watches Regina force herself to answer the call, then stiffen as she listens to the voice on the other end.
“What?” the queen rasps, wobbling upright from her miserable slouch. She twists, meeting Emma’s gaze with one reddened eye. “Are you sure?”
The call can't last more than a minute, but by the end, Regina is closer to her usual self—on the outside, at least. Emma can see the gaps in her mask, but there’s new fire in her eyes, new strength in the hand that grips her phone so tightly it creaks.
“Good news?” Emma asks.
“No,” croaks Regina, and the doors explode.
With her hands still trapped, Emma can't shield her face, so the explosive entrance gives her a lovely faceful of smoke. When she’s done coughing and her eyes have cleared, the first thing she sees is a familiar four-pointed star.
“Swan!” August is already working on her restraints. “Still alive?”
She coughs and nods, attention captured by the scene across the room. Even with her hair a mess and her lab coat gray with dust, Regina stands tall, facing half the D-Team with Grumpy at their head. The surly operative is scowling up at the queen, but his expression is far less unusual than the tablet he holds over his head with both hands.
“Higher,” demands a well-known voice. “Lift me higher.”
“About time I get to save you for a change,” jokes August, but she barely hears him.
“Why is Blue here?” Emma wonders, watching Grumpy rise onto his tiptoes. “Not for the rescue, obviously.”
August grunts, and the shackle around her right wrist pops open. “Nope. Sorry, Swan, but she’s here for the Queen. We were already on the way when Tink told us you might need help.” He frees her other hand and starts on her ankles, moving faster now that he knows the locks. “Lucky for you.”
“Right...” Maybe it’s the near-death experience, but Emma feels sick, an ominous understanding twisting her gut. “And what does she need from the Queen?” she asks, praying she’s wrong.
“It’s the other way around,” August says, not meeting her eye. “This time, we’ve got all the cards.”
Emma shifts her focus just in time to hear her boss say, “It’s for his own protection.”
In Regina’s hand, the phone cracks. “I see,” she says. If her words were cool before, now they're positively glacial, slowly but surely rumbling toward danger. “And what will this protection cost me?”
Around her, the D-Team shifts uneasily, hands on their weapons, but Blue’s voice is serene as ever.
“Nothing but peace,” she soothes. “All we ask is for is a little restraint. Cease all activity outside your borders. Pause all your little projects. Focus on your people, and let us bring the region back to order.” Emma can’t see the director’s face, but she bets Blue is smiling.
“Henry will be perfectly well, I promise you. When he’s older, he will even be king. Until then, it will be our honor to continue his education.”
“So long as I cooperate,” Regina says flatly.
The D-Team don’t look like they believe their ears, but a tinkling laugh echoes from Blue’s tablet. “I knew you could be reasonable.”
Emma’s teeth grind at the satisfaction in Blue’s words. She wishes she could be more surprised with her boss, but it’s depressingly easy to believe. August wedges his shoulder between her and the others, as if expecting her to object, but Emma keeps herself in check. She can't do anything here, and she has the feeling Regina wouldn’t thank her for making a scene.
There’s not much to say after the queen’s surrender. As Emma follows August out of the room, she catches a final glimpse of Regina. She’s furious, but almost none of it shows in her expression. The only giveaway is a break in the normally flawless curve of her jaw, a sign of clenched teeth that would be invisible to someone who’d spent less time admiring that face.
Apart from that, the queen is eerily calm, which only makes Emma worry more. Blue may think she has Regina cornered, but all she’s really done is taken away any reason the queen has to hold back.
Minutes later, Emma boards the stealth plane with August and the D-Team, careful not to look back as they leave Corazón behind. Blue has cut the connection to Grumpy’s tablet, and with the boss no longer looking over their shoulders, the operatives are ready to celebrate.
“Another one off the list!” cheers Sneezy. “The D-Team strikes again!”
“We showed her,” Grumpy chuckles, like he did anything apart from be a human tripod.
August and Emma sit at the end of the compartment, facing each other across the narrow aisle. “Swan?” he says, voice barely rising above the hum of the engines. “You’re never quiet for this long. I’m starting to worry.”
Well, that makes two of them. Emma’s misgivings can be largely summed up by two facts: A) Holding a kid hostage generally isn't what the good guys do, and B) There’s no way in hell Regina’s going to take this without a fight.
Emma looks up, examining August’s stubbled face. “Tell me you didn’t do it,” she begs.
His expression shutters. “I wasn’t sure about keeping you in the dark, but it looks like Blue was right.” The other agent sits back with a sigh. “It was better this way. Look, Swan, what’s done is done.”
“It’s not right!” Emma hisses, glancing warily at their high-spirited colleagues. She doesn’t know the D-Team like she knows August—and it looks like that’s less than she thought. “He’s just a kid, August.”
He looks guilty, but only for a heartbeat. “I did what I had to,” the agent says, face wooden. “It’s not like I hurt him. We just needed the leverage. You of all people should know what his mother’s like, Emma! This was the only way!”
She stares at him for a long moment. “You’re still the worst liar I’ve ever met.”
August doesn’t try to convince her again.
Emma keeps quiet for the rest of the flight to HQ, but once they land, she’s first down the ramp. Tink is waiting in the hangar, hands twisting anxiously, and doesn’t object when Emma hooks an arm through hers and tows them to her handler’s office.
“Did you know?” she demands as soon as the door shuts behind her. Tink darts behind her desk, collapsing into her chair with upraised hands.
“Not until it was too late.” She seems sincere, but Emma can’t relax enough to sit, her feet carrying her back and forth across the room as Tink continues. “Blue didn’t tell me anything until I asked why she sent another team to Corazón while you were still there. I never would have let you go if I knew about Henry.”
Emma winces, rubbing her arm. A flap of cloth still hangs open over her shoulder. “Yeah,” she mutters. “That was almost... bad.”
“Are you all right?”
“Never mind,” she says. “What happened then?”
“I...” Tink gestures helplessly. “All I could do was get in touch with August. I’m glad you’re not dead,” she adds with a weak smile.
“I want to see him.”
Her handler’s look is all sympathy. “You know why that’s not a good idea. Blue is watching very carefully, Emma.”
“He’ll be scared,” she snaps. “He won't cooperate, and no one wants any accidents, right?” Emma glares at Tink until she nods. “A... familiar face could help.”
It’s thin, and they both know it. But Tink just purses her lips and picks up her phone.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“I don’t know what Green was thinking.”
Emma glowers through the glass wall of the holding cell, eyes burning into the polished shoes on the other side.
Blue doesn’t even seem to notice. “What were you thinking?” she tuts, hands on her hips. The director’s smile is long gone now, her elfin features oozing with disappointment. “Even if you had managed to release the boy, what next?” She heaves a theatrical sigh. “I hoped you weren’t this far gone, but it seems I was asking too much.”
“You always did,” Emma mumbles at the floor. Even now, she can't bring herself to talk back directly.
“Oh, Swan,” murmurs Blue. “I don’t like this any more than you do. Everything I’ve done for you, all the resources GODMOTHER invested... It’s not too late.” She lets the offer dangle for several seconds before going on. “You clearly care for the boy, and he for you. He’ll listen if you’re there to guide him. You can keep him safe, keep him sheltered from all the troubles of the world.”
“Like you sheltered me?”
“We took you in,” Blue agrees, lips quirking downward. “But perhaps we could have done... more. You could do that for Henry, raise him like you wish you were raised.”
“He was being raised like that,” she retorts, finally meeting the director’s opaque eyes. “You took that from him.”
“Please,” snaps Blue. “We don’t need another Evil Queen. The one we already have was trouble enough. Now that we’ve dealt with her—”
“Come on,” Emma groans. “You don’t really think she’s going to just give up, do you?”
Blue eyes her, mouth flattening at the interruption. “I don’t care for your tone,” she warns, shaking her head. “More of the Queen’s influence, clearly. How can you still be under her spell? She tried to kill you, did she not?”
“Almost.” Emma’s nails dig into sweating palms. “But you knew that would happen when you let Tink send me back.” Blue approves every mission personally. There’s no way she didn’t know when Emma was leaving for Corazón, and what would be waiting when she arrived.
The director doesn’t bother with denial. “And yet you still hold her so highly,” she grumbles. “Not I, who gave you the chance to be so much more than you were. I, who always believed you were meant for great things.”
“Did you?” Emma jolts to her feet. “I thought people didn’t change.”
Blue stares up at her, unruffled. “I hoped you would prove me wrong,” she claims. “Over a decade I guided you, leading you to the make the right decisions, to act for the greater good, but you’ve clearly learned nothing. Ever since you set foot on the wretched island, you’ve been falling backward—”
“I’ve grown more in the past year than the rest of my time at GODMOTHER combined,” Emma laughs. Laughs. Blue doesn’t like that, eyes narrowing to baneful slits as she steps closer to the glass. “The only thing you were guiding me toward was being a better tool.”
The shorter woman falls silent for full minute before her face smooths out and her head gives a slow shake. “Don’t pretend you suddenly know best,” she says. “Even a tool would be better than the selfish, broken girl that you were before I dragged you out of the muck. Begging for recognition, grasping for a connection you’ll never find. Your infatuation with the queen has made you blind as well as desperate—or do you truly think that she could care for you?”
Her words fly out like punches, aimed at the same soft spots Blue’s been prodding for years, but they’ve lost their sting. Emma only stands taller, fists balled at her sides as she grins. It’s not a nice smile, too many teeth and far too much anger.
“Maybe you’re right,” she says simply. “Maybe I am desperate. But not desperate enough to keep working for you.”
For a split second, Blue seethes, lips peeling back, but she can't muster more than a bitter snarl before whirling away from Emma’s cell and storming from the detention block.
Emma drops back onto her bench as soon as she hears the doors close, heart drumming madly against her chest. She feels as exhilarated as she is terrified, the angry energy draining from her limbs now that its target is gone. Blue’s definitely not going to be making her any more offers, but it’s hard to be too broken up about that.
For the first time in months, her head feels clear. She’s picked her side, and it’s not the one that kidnaps children and manipulates their own agents and throws anyone with a conscience into a private prison inside their secret underground base staffed by obedient uniformed minions all emblazoned with their distinctive insignia...
Oh. Emma knocks the back of her head against the wall.
“Henry was right,” she realizes. “They are the bad guys.”
By the time lunch rolls around, Emma has a plan.
Her ears prick up at the sound of a new voice greeting the guards outside the cell block. Keeping her eyes shut and her breath steady, she stays flat on her bench, counting the seconds. After two excruciating minutes of small talk, she hears a two-toned chime, followed by the swish of the doors at the end of the hall. Emma’s the only prisoner in this wing, so the caterer marches straight to her door, humming to herself with tasteless cheer.
The guards are supposed to escort her in, but this time they stay outside, chatting with another of the meal staff. Emma silently thanks their incompetence as the lunch lady reaches her cell and opens the feeding slot in the door.
As soon as she hears the scrape of the hatch, Emma moves, rolling off her bench and lunging toward the sound. She reaches the door just as a tray is pushed through, but ignores the food to grab the hands that delivered it. The caterer recoils, but Emma doesn’t lose her grip, her arms squeezing through the meal slot until her face is squished against the glass.
The former agent is now free up to her elbows, and she takes full advantage of the fact, twisting one arm to snag the key card from the lunch lady’s hip. A few contortions later, her cell is unlocked, and she pulls the caterer's arms back through the slot before swinging the door open and pinning her behind it.
It’s at this point that she recognizes the other woman. It’s a little complicated by the way her face is sandwiched between door and wall, but Emma would know that lipstick anywhere.
“You said you were just a nanny!” she accuses.
Ruby rolls her eyes—or at least the one facing Emma—and says, “Mphma phng buhrhr puh.”
Warily, Emma lets go of her arms and puts a little less pressure on the door. “Say again?”
“There’s this thing people do,” she says, grinning. “You might have seen it once or twice in your line of work. It’s called lying.”
“What the hell are you doing here, Ruby?”
“I was rescuing you,” grumbles the false maid. “Now maybe I won't.”
“Yeah, there was a key card under the baked beans and everything.” Ruby’s arms are still sticking through the meal slot, and one points toward the exit. “Maybe we can talk while we escape? The cameras will be back on soon.”
Blinking stupidly, Emma lets her out from behind the door. Freed, Ruby shakes out her limbs and makes for the exit, leaving her to follow.
“Did Regina send you?”
“Then why aren’t you getting Henry?” Emma demands. “The second Blue knows you’re here, she’s sending the kid somewhere we’ll never find him. Standard procedure for high-value prisoners, especially ones used for leverage—”
Emma breaks off to drag a hand down her face. How did she take this long to see GODMOTHER’s true nature when their handbook has a section on taking hostages? The manual uses nicer words, obviously, but she sort of feels like she should have caught on.
“Ugh, you sound just like Her Majesty,” Ruby complains. “Henry’s next, okay? We just needed backup.”
Further interrogation is put on pause as they fly through the doors. Emma puts up her fists as they burst into the next room, but the guards are already flat on the floor. Above the unconscious pair stands a third figure with a GODMOTHER uniform... and a friendly face.
“What took you so long?” demands Tink.
Emma stares. Ruby answers.
“Came as fast as we could, boss!”
“Not now!” The smaller woman bounces on her toes. “My trick with the cameras—” Ruby brushes past her, and she cuts herself off with a grunt “Right, not now. Move, move!”
They move, move, setting off at a light jog. Ruby leads the way into the next room, and the guards on either side of the door don’t even finish turning their way before she leaps up and does a spinny, sideways-y, punch-kick thing that slams them both into the walls. Tink hops over the bodies without missing a beat, and Emma follows her lead, refusing to give her rescuers the satisfaction of gawking.
“Seriously, Tink, what the hell?” she demands, matching pace with her handler—ex-handler? Ex-ex handler?—as they leave the cell block.
“Fine, we’ll do this now,” sighs the shorter blonde. “Long story short, Gina and I go way back.”
“You do?” A pause. “Gina?”
“Since when have you spoken entirely in questions?” Tink fires back.
“Well excuse me for being surprised that my boss of twelve years is a frickin’ double agent.”
Ruby twists back to mouth “Lying” over one shoulder.
“If it makes you feel any better, I was only working with Regina for about half that.”
Shockingly, it does not.
They slow to a brisk walk as they enter the main corridors, blending in with the stream of staff and agents moving through the base. “Keep your head down,” Tink orders, following her own advice. “Your face hasn't been red-flagged yet, but it will be soon, and so will mine.”
“You...” is all Emma can manage.
“Regina and I reconnected a while back,” Tink sighs. “We’ve been in contact ever since. Had to keep switching methods to stay ahead of Blue—those dead drops I sent you to pick up were our latest trick.” She bites her lip. “I screwed up, though; didn’t find out about Henry until it was too late. Then I panicked, called Regina directly—too late again. After that, it was only a matter of time before my cover was blown, so...” Tink gestures to Ruby, then Emma herself. “Made the best of what I had left.”
“Thanks,” Emma says numbly.
“Oh, we would have gotten you out anyway,” Ruby assures her. “Eventually.”
“Don’t listen to her.” Tink leans up, dropping her voice. “Regina gave me a message for you.”
Emma braces herself.
“Trust me,” says Tink.
“I get it, you’re sorry.” Emma can't be mad at her ex-ex-handler for realizing the same thing Emma did, just earlier. She can even understand the secrecy. Tink didn’t know if she could trust her—though on reflection, a lot of their past conversations feel a lot like tests. Emma gets it. That doesn’t mean she has to like it. “Just give me the message.”
“No, that was it. Regina says, ‘Trust me.’”
Emma’s not sure what she was expecting, but it was definitely longer than two syllables. “That’s it?”
“Well, she sure trusts you,” muses Ruby. “She had me on my way to Tink the second you left our island.”
“For you,” corrects Tink, nudging her side. “She knew you’d take action.”
Ruby pats her other shoulder. “And that you’d probably screw it up.”
“Ruby,” Tink hisses, then skids to a halt, grabbing her companions’ arms so they do the same. “We’re here.”
Emma peers around the corner. They’re in the base’s administrative wing, not far from Tink’s old office. The hall only has one door, about halfway down, and it’s one she recognizes. “Henry’s room,” she mutters, eyes narrowing.
The entrance is guarded by a half-dozen slabs of beef in GODMOTHER uniforms. They’re not the same slabs of beef that were standing watch when Emma tried to break the kid out, probably because she sent half of that group to the infirmary. These new sentries are even beefier and slabbier than the last batch, outfitted with stun batons, body armor, and—
“Full-face helmets?” she sighs. “Oh, Blue.”
“Never a good sign,” Tink agrees.
Ruby’s head pokes around the corner beneath Emma’s. “They’re smart,” she notes. “No blind spots. I could probably get close on my own and take care of one or two, but six...” She pauses to return Emma’s stare. “What?”
“Nothing,” the former agent grumbles. First Regina, then GODMOTHER, now Ruby. Emma is starting to think she’s just a terrible judge of character.
“Don’t worry,” whispers Tink, eyes sparkling. “They won't be looking our way.” Bringing two fingers to her lips, she whistles sharply.
The sound earns them a few odd glances from passing staff, but for the next few seconds, nothing happens. Then Emma hears a CLANG from one hallway over, like a reinforced door falling off its hinges.
“Your office?” she asks.
Tink rubs her hands together. “Guess I forgot to clean out my desk.”
And then the screams start. Biting back a curse, Emma looks back around the corner just in time to see a bizarre, colorful... thing slither into view at the end of the hall. It’s vaguely snake-shaped, made up of a cluster of bright orange flaps sprouting from a slender green neck. The thing rears back, and Emma is horrified to see a leg sticking out of its “mouth.”
“Is that—” She scrubs a hand over her eyes. “Is that a tulip?”
The monstrous orange flower is soon joined by two more, yellow and purple. A wave of fleeing staff members runs before them, shoving past Henry’s guards in their rush to escape.
“Do they eat people?” Ruby gasps, sounding far too interested.
“Of course not, they’re vegetarians,” claims Tink, waving them forward. “Now come on!”
Henry’s face lights up when they step inside.
“You came!” he whoops, sprinting across the room as fast as his little legs can carry him.
“Of course I did!” says... Ruby, who drops to her knees with outstretched arms. Her red-streaked hair flutters as Henry runs right past her to hug Emma’s legs. As Ruby hugs the air, the kid shimmies up Emma's body like a koala, squeezing the breath from her lungs as he buries his face in her shoulder.
Tink pats Ruby on the head. “We should get going,” she says. In the hall behind her, one of her monster tulips spits out a dazed-looking guard.
To avoid GODMOTHER’s reinforcements, they take the long way to the hangar. Henry clings to Emma the whole way, but the extra weight is well worth the comfort of having him safe in her arms.
“Why the hangar?” she asks. “Do any of us even know how to fly?”
“I do,” Ruby mutters, still sulking, but it turns out to be a moot point when they see the extra security stationed at the hangar entrance—at all the hangar entrances.
They all look at Tink, who raises her empty hands. “All out of flowers. We’ll have to find another way out. The motor pool, maybe, or—”
“The docks,” suggests Emma. “Tink, what did they do with the Water Beetle?”
“Scheduled for decommissioning,” the shorter blonde says. “Should still be at the scrap dock.”
And for a few minutes, it is. The Beetle hasn’t been scrapped yet, and the keys are right where Emma left them behind the sun visor. The uninspired hiding place earns a small lecture from Tink, but soon enough they’re on their way, driving down the ramp into the safety of the sea. The submarine-car’s propellers speed them away from the coast, but before they can leave the shallows, something looms out of the murk, glinting in the Beetle’s headlights. It’s a chain-link net, more than big enough to envelop the car.
“Turn!” Ruby urges, but when Emma hauls on the wheel, they find more nets closing in on all sides.
She dodges for as long as she can, but whatever the nets are being towed by, they’re almost as maneuverable as the Beetle. Cornered, she dives, but the weighted chains reach almost to the sea floor, leaving no space to squeeze free. With no other option, she sets her teeth and starts to rise.
“Doesn’t this thing have torpedoes?” asks Ruby, pressing her face to the rear window. “Lasers, rockets, anything?”
In the shotgun seat, Tink points to the dashboard. “We have a periscope and ejector seats.”
“Anything useful?” Ruby amends.
Emma ignores them both, watching Henry’s face go pale in the rearview mirror. “Kid, it’s going to be fine,” she says, and the other adults fall into sheepish silence. “We’ll figure this out.”
When they break the surface, the Beetle is boxed in by a quartet of speedboats. Each has a member of the D-Team behind the wheel, and Emma doesn’t need to look far to find the other three. The operatives are on the deck of a nearby barge, and they’re not alone. Blue is there too, peering down over the rail with Grumpy on one side and August on the other. The director radiates triumph as the barge’s crane hoists the Beetle onto the deck.
Emma climbs out first, followed by Tink and Ruby, who keeps Henry sheltered between her and the car. They’re greeted by August and the others, who search the vehicle and confiscate the keys before herding them toward their boss. Emma glares at Grumpy, who looks away, his expression vaguely apologetic, but that’s little comfort.
Blue’s eyes flash when they are brought before her. Her gaze drifts over Ruby, slides past Tink, and settles on Emma as she says:
“Take the boy. Eliminate the rest.”
Looks like she’s done with the soft touch.
“Um,” Bashful raises a hand, eyes wide. “Do we have to?”
“Are you disobeying a direct order?”
Grumpy waves his hands. “He just means that there’re eight of us and three of them, ma’am. Can't we just take ‘em back to base?”
Blue pinches the bridge of her nose. “They just escaped from the base,” she points out. “They know too much, and holding them isn't worth the trouble.”
By silent agreement, Emma and her fellow escapees form a triangle around Henry. She ends up facing August, who keeps up his silent streak but does... something with his eyebrows as the ring of operatives closes in. Emma takes a slow breath, puts up her fists, and—
Water sprays across the deck as something erupts from the depths. It’s a fat tube half as long as the barge, one side colored a deep purple-black, the other pale pink and covered with suckers the size of dinner plates. The tip of the tentacle holds a half-familiar machine that lets out a whirr, followed by a pulse that makes every hair on Emma’s arms stand on end.
She stares. August stares. The D-Team stares. Blue... shouts.
“Don’t just stand there!” she shrieks. “Attack!”
Visibly relieved to have a less morally thorny command, the D-Team dive back into their motorboats. Wheels are spun, throttles are thrown forward... but the watercraft go nowhere. Sneezy’s engine sputters, then coughs up a cloud of odd-smelling smoke. Frowning, the chemistry expert carefully unscrews the gas cap and takes a sniff.
“Peanut butter,” he announces.
As the tentacle sinks back beneath the water, another arm sweeps through the cluster of boats, leaving their pilots stranded on chunks of floating rubble. “Okay,” Sneezy’s voice drifts up to the barge. “Which one of us knows how to swim?”
Back on the barge, the odds are now much less lopsided. Blue backs up to the rail as August and the three remaining members of the D-Team square off with Emma and Ruby. Tink hangs back, keeping a firm hold on Henry, who holds on just as tightly, watching the action with wide eyes.
“Reinforcements will arrive soon,” Blue encourages her operatives. “That is, if you can't deal with them your—What is everyone staring at?”
With impeccable timing, a shadow falls across the director and a cephalopod-scented sea breeze blows across the deck. Blue turns to face the massive, bulbous head that has risen from the waves, breath catching as her ironclad control slips for a split second.
Atop the rubbery dome, a smaller figure pulls off her diving hood and shakes out her hair. The sun is at her back, casting a golden halo around her wetsuit-clad silhouette like a Mediterranean sea goddess. Her lips part in a grim smile, teeth flashing white in her shadowed face. Against all odds, her makeup is perfect.
“Me,” says Regina.
“This is a declaration of war!” Blue squawks, earning herself a truly withering stare from the queen.
“No,” says Regina. “This is me showing restraint.”
The director laughs, managing to sound dismissive in front of a giant octopus and the woman who rode it here. “You can't threaten me,” she counters. “I’ve faced worse than you—”
“You are worse than me,” Regina coolly cuts in. “But who am I to judge? Release my son and my...” Brown eyes flicker to Emma. “... my allies, and I will leave you in peace.” Her gaze is hard, but sincere. “I’ll even consider your... suggestion to keep my work confined to Corazón.”
Emma sees August and Grumpy exchange a glance. “Blue,” whispers the former. “That’s not a bad—”
“We can't trust you,” states Blue, brushing off her agent. “And you’re hardly in a position to make demands.” Complete bullshit, but she almost sells it. “Our headquarters is deploying additional forces as we speak.”
“If they’re done dealing with their plant problem,” Tink pipes up. Blue shoots her a dirty look.
“You can't escape us,” she tells Regina. “GODMOTHER will bring all our neighbors into order, no matter how misguided.”
The queen does not look impressed. “We’ll see.”
Blue’s eye twitches. “Take them!” she snaps, and her operatives spring into action. Grumpy and Doc dogpile Ruby, while Happy dives for a nearby locker and August comes for Emma.
She has a fraction of a second to study his face before they clash, but they’ve known each other long enough for that to be more than enough time. He looks like he’s been losing sleep, his eyes burning into hers with desperate energy. Her friend is trying to tell her something, and she thinks she knows what.
So she punches him in the nose.
As August staggers back, Emma scans the area just in time to see Happy pull out a rocket launcher. Beaming, the heavy weapons specialist fires a missile at Regina’s gigantopus, which makes a surprisingly delicate squeak and dives. The queen yanks up her hood, managing a reassuring wave before they plunge out of sight. Elsewhere, Ruby scrambles to keep both her opponents from slipping past, Tink helping where she can.
Emma wishes she could join them, but she soon has her own problems when August comes back swinging. The agent tackles her to the deck, and Emma's world becomes a flurry of arms and legs as they grapple.
“You hit me,” August says, voice nasal.
Emma grunts as she wriggles out of a limp arm bar. “I thought that’s what you wanted!”
“It was! You did great.” He throws out a halfhearted elbow. “But you didn’t have to hit so hard.”
“You deserved it,” retorts Emma, voice momentarily cooling.
August grimaces. "Maybe,” he mumbles. “Are we close enough?”
Emma rolls them over, pretending to strangle him. “Almost,” she whispers. “Make it look good.”
He obliges, wedging his feet between them and kicking out to slam her against a familiar shape. Emma flops to the ground, feigning unconsciousness as August turns away.
“Good!” she hears Blue cackle. “Now, the boy!”
August jogs off, and Emma cracks open one eye. Blue has already dismissed her, joining Happy at the rail to watch for Regina. Slowly, Emma rises to her feet, bracing herself against the shape August kicked her into—the Beetle. Dropping into the driver’s seat, she opens her hand, revealing the key August slipped her during their brief brawl.
Now all she needs is a distraction.
As if reading her mind, Regina roars back onto the scene. Her octopoid mount surfaces right in front of Blue, then dives again to avoid Happy’s rocket. Before he can reload, another tentacle shoots up, curling over the barge to drop something onto the deck.
The bone-chilling sight of a countdown timer makes everyone freeze. Then Tink shouts, “Bomb!” and bolts for the Beetle. Ruby flips Doc over her shoulder, then follows suit. August rushes to Blue’s side, while Grumpy lunges for the device and starts cutting wires. Emma starts up the Beetle, then leans over to open the passenger door. Ruby practically throws Henry into the backseat before diving after him. Unfortunately, she’s somewhat larger than a ten-year-old boy, so she only succeeds in wedging herself between the seats before Tink piles in.
As soon as the door shuts, Emma steps on the accelerator and aims them toward open water. Moments later, the Beetle plows through the rail and into empty space. They hit the water with a wet plonk, and she deploys the propellers, launching them forward under the waves.
“See, Henry?” she calls back. “Told you we’d figure something out.”
“Thanks, Emma. That was...” he trails off, voice small. Poor kid’s probably still terrified. “Awesome!” Henry finishes, and she presses her lips together to stifle a laugh.
“Never change, kid.”
A dark shape suddenly looms beside them, startling a low curse from Emma until she recognizes the oversized octopus. Regina perches on its nose like a hood ornament as it swims ahead, tentacles spiraling out behind it.
“Majestic,” Tink breathes.
“Thanks,” says a muffled voice.
Emma glances sideways. “Ruby, get your ass out of my face.”
“—so we stole Emma’s car from the garbage and swam away while Tink’s giant flowers distracted the goons.”
Emma deeply regrets letting Ruby make their report to Regina and Graham. Thankfully, it seems to be over now.
“That’s... mostly accurate.” Tink sounds like it pains her to say it.
“See?” Ruby claps her hands, startling the mystified expression off her queen’s face. “Well, that’s that. You want a tour of the island, Tink?”
Emma’s handler leans away. “I’ve seen the island. I really think we should go over some strategies in case GODMOTHER—”
“We’ll do that while we walk!” Before Tink can find another objection, Ruby is towing her toward the exit. Her protests are cut off as the door shuts behind them, leaving Emma to trade baffled looks with Graham.
She knows this room, actually; it’s the one where she ate lunch with a defensive queen all those missions ago. Today, there are several more seats filled by Henry, Graham, and—formerly—Ruby and Tink. And Regina, of course.
It’s been less than an hour since they arrived on Corazón’s shores to find Graham waiting with dry clothes and a panicked expression that is just now starting to fade. With the briefing apparently over, the captain of the guard rises from his chair. “I’ll be right outside,” he says, then exits at the queen’s nod.
Emma envies him. Now it’s just her and the royal family in the room. As soon as the door closes behind Graham, Henry jumps out of his chair and throws himself at his mother. She sags around him, mumbling softly into his ear as they sink into a happy, reunited puddle. Meanwhile, Emma sits back and stares out the window, waiting for her foggy thoughts to coalesce. After the day she’s had, she feels wrung out from head to toe, but Emma’s used to those pains. The less physical ones, the ones her brain is bursting with... she’s not so sure how to handle those.
Twelve years. Longer than Henry’s been alive. That’s how much time she threw away. Emma doesn’t regret it—how could she? Even the memories of better days, better missions, can't dent her confidence that she made the right choice. How many of those old missions were really as benevolent as they seemed? Thanks to Blue, Emma may never be sure.
“Mnuh?” She grunts, sitting up in her chair. Did she doze off? Henry is standing beside her, one hand on her knee.
“Thank you,” he says, then clambers into her lap to either choke her out or hug her. With his grip, it’s hard to tell. “I knew you’d save me.”
Slowly, Emma’s hands move to the boy’s back. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “Of course, kid. Anytime.”
“Mom knew it too,” he whispers. With a final squeeze, he hops down and scampers off. Too dazed to smile, Emma watches him go, seeing Graham fall into step as Henry leaves the room.
Emma almost nods back off before Regina’s chair scrapes against the floor. Suddenly, she’s wide awake, eyes following the queen as she moves to the window. Deciding to take it as an invitation, she stands, nearly knocking over her own seat, and joins the other woman.
“Emma,” says the queen, but doesn’t turn away from the view. She’s in a dress as black as her wetsuit, a walking shadow except for her face, which looks as exhausted as Emma feels. Still gorgeous, too, but that barely needs saying.
“Regina,” she replies, almost smiling at the way the queen’s nose twitches with irritation.
“You brought my son back to me.”
“I helped,” Emma says, slightly uncomfortable. “Tink and Ruby—”
“Work for me,” Regina cuts in, gentle but insistent. “You didn’t have to do what they did. You could have stayed with your agency. You could have stepped back into your old life. I wouldn’t have been surprised, especially after what I almost did... after what I did do to you.” The words are quiet, brittle. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
Emma shifts uneasily. “It sucked,” she mutters. “And I’m not just talking about the saws and needles.”
“I didn’t trust you,” Regina says. “I didn’t think I could afford to. I’m sorry,” she says again, almost resigned.
“Hey, you warned me.” Emma manages a thin smile. “At least you didn’t drop a bomb on me.”
From the conspicuous lack of explosion as they fled GODMOTHER’s waters, Emma assumes Grumpy manages to defuse the thing in time. But she would pay good money for a picture of Blue’s face when the countdown clock hit zero.
“I—” A little of her customary smugness leaks back into Regina’s expression. “It was never going to explode. I design my generators to last.”
It takes a few seconds for Emma’s sluggish mind to put two and two together. “Why would you give them that?” she yelps. “It’s not going to stop Blue from coming after us. Believe me, that lady can hold a grudge.”
The queen glances away. “It should keep them occupied for some time, at least. Even if it fails as a peace offering, I thought it best to try. I’m being less extra, remember?”
How Regina says that with a straight face, Emma will never know. She feels her smile broaden. “I still don’t think you really know what that means. Hey, if I teach you something, does that make me, like, a super-genius?”
“Very funny, Miss Swan.”
They fall quiet, but this silence is comfortable. Emma leans her elbows on the windowsill, enjoying the sea air for a few minutes more before Regina speaks.
“Coming after us?” she echoes, brow arching.
Emma drops her gaze and shuffles her feet, lining them up with the seam between two tiles. “I’m sort of out of a job,” she mumbles, eyes not leaving the floor. “And, y’know, if Ruby and Graham and Tink need a hand...”
“I...” The queen’s voice is drawn tight. Even Emma’s muddled mind can't fail to notice that. She’s already inching away by the time Regina starts over with a disappointed, “Emma—”
“I know, I know, it’s stupid. Just—just ignore me. You obviously know what you’re doing; you don’t need me.”
“No.” The words brush Emma’s brow, and her eyes snap up to find Regina close enough to touch. “You're right: I don’t need another minion,” she breathes. “I don’t need another spy. I need someone who’ll tell me when I go too far. Someone who understands what means the most to me. Someone I know I can trust.” Her eyes fill Emma’s vision, dark and deep and soft. “Someone stubborn, and insufferable, and—”
“All right, all right, I get the point.” A laugh bubbles up from Emma’s throat, and Regina meets it with a chuckle of her own.
“Who said I was talking about you?” Her teasing smirk is short-lived, soon replaced by a look of naked sincerity. “But yes, if you’re willing, I’d very much like you to stay.”
“You can't already be looking for a promotion.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “So, I don’t work for you,” she muses. “What does that make us? Colleagues? Peers?”
The press of Regina’s lips against hers is short, but it steals the words from her mouth.
“How about partners?”
Halfway through breakfast, the balcony doors fly open.
“Your Majesty. Your Highness.” Ruby bows to the queen, bows to Henry, and shakes her maid outfit in Emma’s general direction. “Your Emmanence,”
Emma pauses her attempt to steal Regina’s blueberries. “What’s up?”
“We’ve got another one.”
This draws a chorus of interested murmurs from the breakfasting family. “Which route?” asks the queen. “Cliffs? Castle?”
“Garden,” Ruby announces to general approval.
“Tink’s turn to show off,” says Henry, the legs of his chair scraping the stone as he scoots to the edge of the balcony.
“Don’t drag,” Regina chides. “It’s not good for the furniture.” Henry replies with the grunt of a recent teenager, and the queen stands, carrying her plate to her son’s side. “Dear?” she calls back.
Emma, halfway through picking up her own chair, pauses to glance at Regina’s. Her eyes dart from the chair to the queen, then she hisses, “Ruby.”
With a snort, the maid lends her a hand. Emma sets her chair down behind Regina, then plucks the queen’s former seat from Ruby’s grasp, plops it down on Henry’s other side, and sits.
“Thank you, Emma,” says the queen, turning a deaf ear to Ruby’s indignant hiss.
Their new positions overlook the castle gardens, which Tink has spent the last few years turning into a small jungle. Recovering from the snub, Ruby skips over to join them, elbow just happening to clip Emma’s ear on the way. “Should be starting any minute now,” she announces, cupping her hands around her eyes. “This one’s a real tough-looking fella. I bet he’ll make it.”
The queen shoots her a stern look. “I believe I officially prohibited wagering on our trespassers.”
“That’s right,” Emma chimes in, nodding earnestly. “Bad Ruby.” Once the queen’s attention returns to the gardens, she winks and holds up three fingers. Grinning, Ruby flashes her a thumbs-up.
Before money can start changing hands, Henry jumps to his feet, pointing a waffle-laden fork to the far end of Tink’s nature preserve. “Here he comes!”
Thanks to the tree cover, they can't actually see the intruder. Instead, the man’s approach is marked by the sights and sounds of traps going off throughout the garden.
“Stepped on the air cannon,” notes Emma, watching stray leaves drift back to earth. “Rookie mistake.”
“Electric eels.” Henry sits back, folding his arms. “He tried the river. I don’t think this guy’s very good.”
“Don’t slouch,” says his mother, tapping the back of his neck. “You’ll make a bad impression on your classmates.”
“Oof, even the pit trap,” sighs Ruby. “Yeah, he must be new.” Losing interest, she leans over to muss Henry’s hair. “Looking forward to boarding school, champ?”
Henry swats at her hand. “Don’t call me that.”
“Henry,” Emma says, holding back a grin. “You should let Ruby enjoy your last few weeks.”
“What about me enjoying my last few weeks?”
She pretends to consider this. “Nah, you’ll be fine. But Ruby’s gonna miss babysitting you.”
“I don’t need a babysitter!”
“That’s right,” soothes Emma. “You’re a big prince now. I know you’ll make lots of friends at your new school.”
Regina shoots her a warning look, though it’s a bit undermined by her suspiciously shiny eyes. “Remember,” she sniffs, “it’s better to be loved, but perfectly acceptable to settle for feared.”
“I did very well at boarding school,” the queen defends. “Just ask Tink.”
The images of Regina and school uniforms that puts in Emma’s head are sadly interrupted by a renewed rustling from below.
“He’s still at it,” Ruby says approvingly. “Maybe—”
They peer over the railing for several silent moments before Regina turns an accusatory glance on Emma.
“You said you rounded up all the glocktopi.”
“I did,” she groans. “It’s holding onto them that’s the real trick.” Standing, she strides back to the table and scoops up her radio. “Graham?” she calls.
“We’ve got a guest in the garden. Could you please walk him up? Take some bandages, too. He might be a little... shot.”
The agent, when he limps into the room, turns out to be almost as green as Tink’s pajamas.
“What are you, still in training?” Emma demands, circling the boy. “Blue should be ashamed of herself.”
“For many reasons,” mutters Regina.
The intruder looks like he’s about to object, but just wobbles instead. “If... if you were going to bring me here anyway, why all the traps?” he pants.
Henry doesn’t even look up from his breakfast. The kid’s become a bit of a spy snob over the years. “You could have taken the safe hallway,” he informs the agent.
Ruby nods. “It’s by the side door. There’s a sign.”
“Says ‘SAFE’ in big red letters,” Emma chimes in. “You guys never take it. I wonder why.”
The man blinks blearily at them before shaking himself and addressing Regina.
“You!” he wheezes. She glances up, hands still smoothly peeling an apple. “These are more of your tricks! Actors, probably.”
“Aw, thanks,” Ruby preens.
“Enough! I’m here to stop the Queen!”
“That’s nice,” says Regina, starting to slice her apple.
“Your words won't work on me,” he blusters. “You won't get away with this!”
“I’m sure.” She sets the plate of apple slices in front of Henry, who smiles back.
The agent sways on his feet. “You don’t want to... reveal your evil plan?” he tries, sounding more than a little desperate. Poor kid.
“Tell Blue she’ll have to wait for the UN proposal like everyone else,” sniffs Regina. The slightest crinkle of one eye is the only sign of how much she’s enjoying this. “Really, you’d think that woman had better things to do than pester my family.”
“I...” The trespasser holds up a hand, then faints dead away.
Emma stops circling and crouches beside him. “You wrapped his wound, right?”
Graham nods. “It wasn’t serious. Should I send him by the infirmary before we ship him back?”
“Y—” she pauses. “No. Kid could use some scaring straight. Send him to Granny.”
After breakfast, Emma drops a kiss on Regina’s cheek, gives Henry’s hair a final ruffle, and heads to the weekly security briefing.
“So, to sum up: three lost pets found and returned; two kids caught feeding beer to the giant octopus; one giant-octopus-sized count of public intoxication; and... a minor disturbance over breakfast this morning. I think we can chalk this one up as another great week for Corazón.”
Around the table, heads nod. Tink, representing their espionage corps; Graham, from the palace guard; Granny, speaking for the civilians; and of course...
“Any comments, Your Majesty?”
“I’d like it noted that Ursula came quietly,” Regina intones.
Emma bobs her head. “Sure. Jacinda, make a note: Big-ass octopus only wrecked one boat while drunk.”
In the corner, her spy intern—sorry, covert operations assistant—returns an enthusiastic nod and hunches over her pad.
“No, no, that was a joke.” Emma Swan, Chief of Security, rubs her temples. “You’ve gotta lighten up, J, or this job will eat you alive.”
“I’d also like it noted that there has never been a confirmed case of Ursula eating anyone alive.” Around the table, heads snap toward Regina. “There have been rumors,” she defends. “Malicious, slanderous rumors. Unlike Ursula I, Ursula II wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Emma stares at her queen, feels a smile creep over her lips. “No, just boats,” she teases.
“Boat, singular. And the owners were quite handsomely reimbursed.”
A glance at the corner tells Emma that Jacinda is still taking notes. Apparently, she’ll listen to the supreme ruler of the island over her own boss. That little traitor. “Go report to Ruby,” Emma sighs. “Brief her on the meeting, and don’t leave out a single detail. Exact words, got it?”
The girl shoots to her feet, performs a textbook salute, and dashes off.
“You shouldn’t tease her like that, Emma,” says Tink. “She’ll actually do it.”
“Jacinda is very capable,” Graham agrees. “You should promote her.”
“But she’s already my intern. What would I promote her to?”
“She could always have your job,” Granny chuckles. To Emma’s horror, heads start nodding around the table.
“Re—Your Majesty,” she appeals.
The queen spares her a dour frown. “I know you’re not asking for favoritism,” she says, straight-faced. “It’s only proper that decisions of rank go through the proper channels.”
By the slimmest of margins, Emma stops herself from making a face. “Fine!” she huffs. “Maybe J can have the job! Let her put up with all of you.”
“Oh, no,” coos Tink. “We’d be much nicer to her.”
Shortly after, the meeting is brought to an early end to allow the Chief of Security to go bang her head against the wall.
“This is their way of thanking you,” Regina says as they stroll away from the briefing room.
Emma scoffs. “You’re going to have to explain that one to me.”
“You’re in charge of keeping the island safe,” the queen points out. “Obviously, you’ve succeeded. The fact that they can mock you just proves how well you’ve done your job.”
“So you admit it: They are mocking me.”
“Mercilessly,” Regina confirms. “But it’s a compliment.”
Emma makes a rude noise, and they continue on, moving through the familiar halls until they reach their destination.
“I’m afraid this is where we part ways.” Regina doesn’t unlace their fingers, merely pulling Emma to a stop before the door. “I’ll see you for lunch.”
This time, Emma can't hold back her grimace, the expression reflected in the polished nameplate beside her face. “Do you have to go?” she wheedles. “I hate this place.”
“Emma, it’s your office.”
“Don’t remind me, I know! It has a desk and everything!” Sweetening her expression, Emma reaches up to loop her arms around the queen’s neck. “A nice, big, comfortable desk.”
“Mm, tell me more.” Regina’s eyes sparkle through her lashes. “Do you do... paperwork at this desk of yours?”
Emma’s arms drop away. “Oh, come on, that’s cheating. Way to ruin the mood.”
The queen laughs aloud, then leans up to plant a kiss on the corner of Emma’s mouth. “Later, then,” she hums, and sets off down the hall with a final teasing glance.
Still grumbling to herself, Emma unlocks her office and steps inside. It’s a nice place, honestly. Bigger than some the apartments she’s lived in. There are plenty of windows, a door that leads onto her own personal balcony, and even a few big bookshelves stuffed with texts she might actually read one day. The aforementioned desk is indeed big and comfortable, a matched set with the cushy swivel chair behind it. Its surface is covered with papers and various businessy utensils—and an octopus with a gun.
Emma stares at the glocktopus.
The glocktopus stares soggily back.
“You’re supposed to be in your tank,” Emma sighs without much hope. “You promised.”
The cephalopod stays still just long enough to show it’s not doing this because she asked, then squishes its way off her desk, over the carpet, and into the aquarium in the corner. With a smug look back at Emma, it stows its gun in the holster glued to the side of the tank, unlocks the lid with one tentacle, and oozes inside. Glaring back, Emma stomps over to her desk. Oh no, now her papers are ruined.
Oh no, now her papers are ruined. How can she possibly get any work done like this? Humming happily, Corazón’s chief of security lowers herself into her chair, throws up her feet, and starts thinking about what she’ll have for lunch. Granny makes a great risotto, and of course there’s always good old grilled cheese—
The phone on her desk nearly rattles itself off its hook before her flailing arms manage to grab it.
“Ma’am,” Graham’s voice greets her. “We’ve got another one. Coming in over the eastern coast.”
That’s... Emma stands and turns to squint out the window. Sure enough, a speck is rapidly approaching by air, soon resolving itself into a paragliding figure. They're still too far for her to pick out any details on the agent themselves, but the fabric wing is dark blue, emblazoned with GODMOTHER’s insignia.
“Two in one day? Find another hobby, Blue!”
“Oh, sorry Graham. I’ll be right down.”
Emma turns away from the window with a quick stretch. Her lazy morning is shattered yet again; by all rights, she should be annoyed. She is annoyed. So why can't she stop smiling?
As she leaves her office, pointing a warning finger at Glocky in her aquarium, the answer comes to Emma. A few years ago, she feared and hated even the idea of a desk job. Now, she has a desk, and an office, and people who actually report to her. How crazy is that?
Sure, it's tedious sometimes. Mind-numbing on occasion. On the other hand, her greatest fear about being chained to a desk has yet to materialize. Judging by today, it may never. To Emma, the worst part of a desk job was the threat of stagnation, of sitting still, of being away from the action every hour of every day. But just look at her life!
Between her not-quite-evil genius wife, her island full of lunatics, and the spy agency that won't leave them alone, being bored is the last thing on Emma’s mind.
And that’s just how she likes it.