Chapter 1: Prologue
He found that he liked the woods in Storybrooke. They were not as dark and deep as the ones in the Enchanted Forest. He had always been frightened of those. He had to be in a place where stories were history, not just simple tales. His brothers had always called him craven for it. For travelling in his carriage though the King’s Roads with his trusted guards. He could not be blamed, he thought. For in the woods there were monsters and witches to be found and on the road robbers who looked to steal whatever they could find. Not here. The town did not have any of those problems. He detested the Evil Queen for robbing him of his vast estate but he did not resent her curse. The simple pleasures of a life away from the Enchanted Forest. The careful blend of leaves and spices. The roasted smell of his coffee beans. The gentle click of his stove when he opened a flame. The woods that lead out onto the park. Out in the open with nothing that threatened to eat him. No curling roots or howls from the creatures of the dark.
There was a pleasant mist covering the place too. It gave the leaves that newly-rained look he did not often appreciate in his old life. Nobles were not supposed to take joy in small things. He took a deep breath and had that mist expanding each vessel in his lungs. For a moment he wondered if there was some of the Evil Queen’s magic there, if there was something in it that could poison him. But he felt no different as his chest fell with a sigh. He looked at his watch. Appreciated the expensive make of it. The brown dye of the leather, the small stitches that kept it together. The numbers and hands that made it look old. As if it could have been a family relic belonging to this world. A quarter to six. If he timed his walk right he could stop by Main Street and pick up a fresh lobster for his dinner. He only needed to turn around and follow his own trail out of the woods.
This place where only birds sang. His shoes crushed dry leaves when he got the distinct feeling that he was not alone. All sound of life had been silenced. A chill set his pores on edge for that was how all Enchanted Forest histories began. The moment when the birds would cease their songs. A sharp, deep breath. It was only a woman walking ahead. Dark haired, in a soft yellow coat. She had the port of the Evil Queen. Of course the birds would stop singing when she walked among the trees. He relaxed, she was mostly fangless. With a son filling her days she had lost any motivation to do harm, he believed. There was no danger in overtaking her steps and nodding her way as he headed out of the woods.
There was the soft chill of the wind passing through his fingers as he got closer. A nod, no more. No good afternoons, the woman did not deserve that much of his respect. He turned to find her looking away, as if she had spotted an exotic creature up in the branches of a tree. Just as well then. There were also fresh rolls he would like to get from the baker. Some good wine if he felt like it. The park was visible then, just a few minutes’ walk. But he felt the fresh will-be-iciness of the Autumn air. Inside his chest, wrapping itself around the white of his ribs. It was nothing like he had felt before. There was movement there too, searching fingers. Expert and adept to the task. Stealing his heart.
It did not feel like the way he had imagined all those years ago in the Enchanted Forest. Mostly he felt cold, every particle landing on his still beating heart. It pulled at him, commanded him. Turn around and face me. So he did. She gripped his heart with the ferocity that every bard and writer strung into their words. Her eyes shone violet and he remembered that he was nothing but a craven creature. To save his life he would have promised to do anything. Anything at all. But she was silent, demanded nothing of him. With a strange expression, empty. A shadow of who she had been. He was bid into silence and then her fingers closed around the pulse of his heart. Tighter and tighter.
Indescribable pain. He was dying. No, he was being murdered. With a crack, his heart broke in two. But that was not enough to kill him. What would, was the deliberate crushing of it. Turning that red glass back into sand. His last thought was a pathetic one.
He would not be dining lobster after all.
Fragile. Maybe that was the wrong word for the moment. But it was the best Emma could do as she sat at the dinner table. Precious was a better fit but what that implied sent a sharp ache through her. So. Fragile. How the air felt and her son laughing over some remark his mother had made. It hadn’t felt like that for a long time. Or ever. This was still new, dinner and a movie on Friday night. A warm pie sitting in the oven, waiting to be sliced. The beer glass on the table told Emma she had been expected. Invited in. She couldn’t quite believe it though she should. There were many reasons as to why she should.
As she chewed on roasted eggplant Emma thought of them. Those many reasons to believe. Numbered them to keep them all ordered, to make them easier to remember. First, they had defeated Zelena a month ago. She had been too stubborn to surrender and chose to fall back beyond the town line. Zelena was now a dulled knife that lived the life Regina’s magic got her in Boston. Second, the resulting stillness of that did not mean that there was some imminent disaster coming their way. Third, things had changed. Were different in familiar ways. Emma looked at Regina, that strand of hair that refused to stay behind her ear. The rest of all those numbered reasons vanished from her mind as she did.
Regina wore that grey silk blouse, the one Henry had snuck out of her closet. The same she had on when she knocked on Emma’s door in New York. Emma hadn’t known her then. She was just a stranger, moving into the apartment across from hers. Batteries, Regina had asked if there were any she could spare. Apologized for the intrusion with warmth spilling on her lips. The door to her half-empty apartment had been wide open, enough to spike her curiosity. Emma had thought...she knew what she’d thought then. She could not think it again.
“Emma, perhaps the Sheriff’s department can help with that.” Regina said casually as she refilled her glass with wine.
“With what?” She heard herself ask.
“Ma…” Henry sighed in exasperation. “With setting up the book festival? Getting them their IDs and stuff?”
“Uh-huh,” Emma replied, aware she wasn’t fooling either of them. “Whatever you need, bud.”
Her son scoffed and shook his head in mock disapproval. She didn’t know how to recognize that gesture before. But she saw it now. The clear mirror image of Regina. Her son. With a silver fork in his hand and the cloth napkin on his lap.
Regina threw her an amused look, as if to say our son . It spread cold throughout her insides. Henry had been Emma’s for a whole year. In that apartment in New York. A whole year when they tried and failed to get him into basketball. He did his math homework on the same table they ate quick dinners on. Played Saturday morning video games. Got grass stains on Sundays. He was Regina’s again, after their true love broke the curse. The room upstairs was back to being his, this house. That smelled of lavender. Where he did his homework on a desk, a dorky poster above it. Elaborate dinners and eggs in the morning. Home, as it should be. As it always was.
“Every time this town adds more citizens it turns into a bureaucratic nightmare,” Regina said after clearing her throat. “And unfortunately there is no magical work-around to mountains of paperwork they’ve created for us.”
“You got that right,” She tried to joke but the attempt only made Regina give her a curious look. “Not that I’ve ever wanted to get out of it because I obviously wouldn’t know where to start…”
“Obviously.” Regina smiled at her. Those smiles that used to be rare, like an eclipse. “I’m surprised you haven’t hurt yourself in the attempt.”
Emma had to look away. It was a habit she developed after she’d swallowed that potion in her New York apartment and she’d known just who her neighbor was.
“Huh, well maybe I’m finally acquiring a taste for desk work.”
“That and Gramps and Mulan won’t let you off the hook.” Henry said, finishing the last of his mashed potatoes. “Yeah, I’ve seen the group chat.”
“Betrayed, by my own son.” The words came out but they seemed to float in their air. As if someone else had said them. But she thought them convincing. Until she felt Regina’s eyes on her. Doubtful, as she had just spotted a frame that was an inch too far to the left. Carefully she placed her cutlery on the plate and set her napkin aside.
“Carino, would you get started on slicing the pie while your mother and I clean up?”
For a moment he looked like he might protest, roll his eyes and say mom, I’m not a baby. I know when you don’t want me in a room. But the current sleepiness of the town seemed to be enough proof that anything said in his absence would be boring. Not worth sacrificing his mother’s pie over. Henry nodded and practically slid on the wooden floors into the kitchen.
Wordlessly Emma piled dishes onto each other, cleared crumbs off the table. Anything to avoid the conversation that appeared to be brewing between them.
“Emma…” Regina began, setting off pressure on her chest. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah,” She tried to bite down her defensiveness. “Why?”
“You seem distracted.” It was not a delicate observation. It demanded an explanation.
She laughed and scratched her neck. Emma could tell her the truth. Say she ran into Regina’s soulmate at Town Hall. Heard him talk about their afternoon tea and the scones she had served with it. How that knotted up her insides with something she did not want to name.
“OK, maybe I was lying about finally settling into deskwork,” She said in a way she hoped would convince Regina. “The quiet can get a little unnerving around here.”
“I’m afraid there aren’t nearly enough villains to keep small towns less mundane.” Her brow quirked and something was implied in her words. Like Regina had caught her lie but decided it was best to keep up the pretense.
“The kid’s book festival is sure to liven things up, right?” Emma tried her best to smile as she followed her to the kitchen.
“Oh, so you were listening after all.” She teased. “Apparently, every Storybrooke citizen is wildly interested in hearing about the books written about them. A couple even want to present work of their own.”
“A town full of narcissists. Should have seen that one coming.”
“At least it’s good for the town’s economy.” Regina said with a breath. It seemed like the words someone says before well, this has been nice.
But Henry served her a large slice of apple pie with a large scoop of ice cream. Her son presented her with movie choices, all campy black and white classics that made Regina hold her sighs. Emma recognized them from their Saturday night marathons. It pulled at the heartstrings that kept her going. Fragile was still the right word. To be on Regina’s couch barely following the plot to the Invisible Man, feeling her legs get heavier with the meal she had. Regina might have fixed her with a look Emma did not have the courage to try and decipher. She knew that at the end of the movie Henry would stretch out on the carpet. Kiss them good night and that would be the end of it. Back to the loft. Quiet and careful up the stairs to keep baby Neal asleep in his crib.
Her cell rang and buzzed on her lap with that sickly sweet Aqua song Henry had made her ringtone. Emma held to it like the ticket stub to her favorite movie. Regina only coughed as a comment and her son bit down a laugh.
Hua Mulan .
“I’ll be a sec. Don’t pause the movie.” She told them as she got up and moved to the dining room.
“Hey.” Emma breathed into her phone as her fingers followed the carvings on Regina’s chairs. “Tell me the sisters aren’t missing a cat again.”
“I wish.” Mulan’s voice was dry and shaky. “ Emma, I think you should get down here.”
“What’s wrong?” She whispered out of instinct. Her pulse quickened in her ears as she heard Henry’s laugh trailing after his mother’s. A pause settled in between the lines. Followed by the rustling of leaves and a sharp breath.
“We found a body.”
Just like that the stillness was disturbed. A cliffside falling into the sea.
The mint green of the walls made her nauseous. Emma could taste that green in her mouth. Bleach and alcohol. Her knees were weak and it was only the wall behind her that kept her standing. The smell of a hospital’s morgue. Death. She would always think that as mint green from now on. With that bitter taste in her mouth she considered calling Regina. Close her eyes and walk her through everything Emma had seen tonight. But she thought better of it. Emma waited with a bag of that red dust in her grasp. Mulan appeared at the end of the hall, with a somber expression. Paper cups in her hands and her steps practically silent on the linoleum floor. She handed Emma a cup and joined her leaning against the wall.
“It’s funny,” There was a wear to her voice. “Or not, I suppose. I was getting used to the quiet of town. Seemed to me like it was going to last. I liked it that way.”
“Yeah,” Emma said after a sip of her coffee. “I thought so too. Shouldn’t have counted on it.”
There was something she swallowed down with her two-sugars coffee. Her place, her job was clear at that moment. Her knees might be weak but Emma knew what was expected of her. That badge strapped on her belt made this her responsibility. Being the Savior was a directive.
Find the threat if there were any. Protect the town. The rules were heavy in their simplicity.
“Did you tell Regina about this?” Her fingers tapped on the thick cardboard holding her coffee.
“Not yet. For all we know Clifford died of natural causes.”
Mulan hummed skeptically and set her gaze on the tinted windows across from them.
“Do you really believe that?”
There was so little they knew about Clifford’s death. It hadn’t been the body itself that had given them pause. It’d been the look on his face. Edward Clifford died terrified of what killed him. No blood at the scene. Just thin red dust that had nicked Emma through the latex of her glove. The woods had been silent as if life had been scared away. They had wheeled Edward Clifford into the back of an old ambulance and brought him here.
“No.” Emma admitted with a sigh.
The door at the end of the hall swung open and Whale walked out. He looked like he might have truly belonged to that dark black and white world. His blonde hair stuck up and the rings under his eyes had become more pronounced. The doctor and monster, Emma thought. Something like a tired satisfaction sat behind his eyes and that alone served as a warning. Whale approached them with his chin up and his hands stuck in his lab coat.
“Well?” Emma asked.
“His heart is missing.”
“But there was no blood at the scene or on him,” Mulan said as she threw Emma a concerned look. “Could he have been moved and dressed…”
“You misunderstand me,” He smirked, dangling the answer like bait. “Yes, his heart is missing. But his body is intact. It wasn’t done by surgery or anything so common. Deft hands reached in and took it.”
“I don’t follow.” Her deputy furrowed her brow and crossed her arms over her chest.
“I’m sure Sheriff Swan does,” Whale took one deep breath. “She is very familiar with magically removed hearts. Intimately, I would say.”
“I don’t like what you’re implying.” Blood pounded in her ears. Like a hammer.
“You know what this looks like. To me, it seems that---”
“I know what it looks like, Whale.” Emma had not forgotten he had led that mob against Regina. He had been one of the first to try and tear her apart. “But I’m holding my judgment until we have evidence.”
“Is that what you’re doing? Perhaps you’re just--”
“Send the full report to our office when you have it.” Mulan intervened, likely noticed the way Emma’s jaw had clenched. “Make sure you cc’d me and Nolan.”
Emma could not stand to stay in that hall a minute longer. She turned on her heel and tightened her hands into fists. Concealing the evidence bag within the palm of her hand. Remnants of a dead man’s heart.
It had rained in the early hours of the morning. Regina could feel it in the air, the scent of water and dirt. A small and common thing she loved. It made her open her windows and get dressed with a sense of calm. Dew still clung to the reds and violets of her backyard. She felt it settle in the capillaries of her lungs. Henry had woken up early, bleary eyed and hair tangled up like a crest. But determined to finish his book early in the morning, before their breakfast. He wanted to make up for that year when she was not his mother, include her in every activity that had been his and Emma’s in New York.
Regina thought of the night when Emma had asked if she wanted to join them for a movie at Kew Gardens. They’re playing these cheesy b-movies, but I..we think you’d be into it. A smile that did not remember Regina had been on her lips and Henry had nodded next to his mother. If she had been stronger she might have resisted the pull of them. That addicting sense of belonging in a world that was so big but reduced to the three of them. Inevitable, it’s what she called it then. That she should fall into their lives. It had been a profound pain to play the part of the stranger, so easily welcomed into their lives. In its place now a longing she hid in between her breaths.
“Mom, can we try that new place on Oak for lunch?” Henry asked through a yawn as he settled on the couch next to her.
“Hijo, you’ve barely had breakfast and you’re already thinking about lunch? Avorazado.”
“I’m growing,” He closed his eyes and leaned back. “And there are a whole bunch of new places that weren’t there before.”
“Planning to eat your way through discovery, are you?” She replied, seeing the Swan in him shining through.
“Yes? It’s new comic book day too.”
Regina smiled. Only her, their, son could have steered the conversation so easily into comic books and take-out. She thought of Emma, of dropping by the station and asking her to lunch. Eating noodles together, how she would stuff her mouth with the last dumpling as Henry glared at her. A Saturday outing, to make up for the faeries so rudely interrupting their Friday night. It would only be fair. Disguise that longing in between observations and minute details of a weekend in town. Pretend that Regina had not noticed her distant look to her. How often Emma’s fingers drummed on a table, as if she were waiting for her time to be over. They could do all that and share a soy pudding for dessert.
Main Street was too quiet by the time she parked her car. Like the clocktower had stopped altogether. People shifted in their coats and avoided her eyes as they walked past her. There had been a nod or two. A scrambling Mr. Bell when she bid him a good morning at eleven. The townspeople were behaving like they had after the curse had first broken. Her skin should have been thicker, Regina would have expected it to be. But the turned-backs and whispers pierced like a red hot needle through dragonskin. She thought it best to let Henry have his time to browse comics while she explored tea blends at the new shop until it was time to meet for lunch.
The Rose Tea Shop had replaced Gold’s with little complaints. Belle had not wanted the space after that promised duel between Hook and Gold had killed them both in Neverland. With the crossing of more people from the Enchanted Forest during the second curse, Regina had been more than happy to let Miss Rose Waters take over and blot out those ghosts. The place had a quaint look to it now, nothing Regina would have picked herself. Pastels that were meant to look inviting and romantic to the onlooker. The bell above the door that rang a little too sweetly as she pushed the door open.
“Mayor Mills, how good to see you!” Miss Waters said when Regina stepped onto the carpeted floor.
“How are you today, Miss Waters?”
“I’m just great. How about yourself?” It was cheerful, in a way most people in Storybrooke were not. This always brought a polite smile out of Regina, she never quite knew what to do with that earnestness.
“I’m very well, thank you.” Her bright blue eyes followed Regina move towards the nearest shelf. The attention would have bothered her but today there was only relief that Miss Waters was not someone else recoiling away from her.
She was a stick of woman, the kind her father’s family would have called calaverica and tried to fatten up. Light brown hair that fell straight on her shoulders. Rose Waters could have been one of Snow’s ladies in waiting. But the details of her life escaped Regina and did not interest her.
Regina turned her attention to the many blends of tea that lined the walls. If anything, she could at least distract herself with the scent of them. Her cupboard could use some restocking after all. Some jars smelled too flowery, some were too medicinal. The flavors and scents she was after were probably out of Miss Waters’s experience. Too foreign to her palate, perhaps.
“Anything I can help you with?” She asked suddenly at her side. “Something for Saturday breakfasts?”
“Perhaps.” Regina was willing to hear suggestions to kill some time.
“I don’t often keep this blend in front,” Miss Waters crouched down to retrieve a small glass jar. “Most people don’t favor the spices, you see.”
With a quick pop to the cork the smells reached her nose. Regina recognized instantly. Clove, anise. Ginger. Nutmeg. The sweetest apples. It had been one of the few things from her father’s land she had been allowed to keep in the King’s castle. Her one Saturday morning tradition allowed at the royal table. Water welled up in her eyes, just a drop. Enough to shake her.
“You could add pine nuts to every glass, to make it really special.” The woman’s smile was so genuine that Regina found herself clutching the jar to her chest.
“Yes. That would make a treat.”
“I have some fig and date rolls to go with it as well. If you would like to try some?” She walked towards the small pastry display next to the till.
“That would be lovely..” Regina found herself accepting a roll and happily biting into it.
Her father’s cook prepared these for her. Puros de higos y datiles. Raquel had left her grandfather’s kingdom with them and had always spoiled Regina with sugar. There had always been something waiting for her down in the kitchens whenever mother had been in one of her violent moods.
“May I ask,” Regina cleared her throat. “Where did you get these, dear?”
“Oh, just an old family recipe.” She blushed. “I thought they made a worthy experiment. And, with this morning’s news, I thought we could all use something sweet.”
“You haven’t heard?” Miss Water wrapped six rolls and bagged them along with that jar Regina had been holding. “Madam Mayor, I thought...you, of all people, would have known.”
“Consider this a once in a lifetime opportunity to enlighten me, then.” Some of her bite returned to her.
“Umm,” Miss Waters swallowed anxiously. “Edward Clifford’s body was found in the woods. Rumor on the street is that his heart is missing.”
Regina felt her own heart clench and air becoming trapped in her throat. A body. Just when the dust was settling in this new version of town. After Friday night dinner with her family. When they were only falling back into their lives. On a lazy Saturday morning.
“I’m sorry if I upset you,” The woman said as she rang up her. “It really wasn’t my intention, ma’am.”
“You haven’t done anything of the sort, dear.” Regina put on her best practiced and collected expression.
It was the truth. Rose Waters hadn’t upset her. It was Emma’s lie about the trivial faery business last night, that was pounding against her temples. The pain had lodged itself in the back of her eyes. She took the paper bag being handed to her and walked out. It was a cold fury she felt, something that bordered too closely on betrayal. Emma had squeezed her hand before she left. It’s nothing, really. Just a missing cat.
If more townspeople shied away from her as she walked Regina did not notice. If there were whispers she did not hear them. There was only the drumming of her pulse in ears and her heeled steps on the pavement on her way to the Sheriff’s station. When she swung the door open she discovered it to be uncharacteristically busy, Regina could have gone by undetected. Almost.
“Regina…” Mulan did not seem surprised to see her. She dismissed the townsperson in front of her and walked up to greet her. “Did Emma ask you to come?”
“No . ” Regina replied pointedly. “But where is Sheriff Swan? I would like to speak with her.”
“She is a little busy but I’m sure--” The door to the Sheriff’s office opened and there stood Emma. Sighing heavily and scratching the back of her neck as Mrs. Lawrence left her office. “Guess she’s free now.”
Emma blinked and ducked her head when her eyes found Regina. It was one of their tacit understandings, this one bore an air of admission. Her shoulders dropped as she stood aside to let Regina step into her office. It was still small, with sparse personal items. Her jacket, a stress ball with far too many creases in its paint. A lonely frame that held a photo, Henry leaning into Regina’s embrace, taken not too long ago. Just a few days earlier she would have picked it up and thumbed it with a smile. But today, Regina crossed her arms and tried to look anywhere but there.
“Look…” Emma began apologetically.
“I don’t want to hear it.” It hurt to say it between her teeth like that. “You left the house on a pathetic excuse last night and today I find out there has been a murder from a shopkeeper ?!”
There had always been grey in Emma’s eyes but it shone darker whenever guilt was involved. Regina watched her take two breaths and close the blinds. The hammering of her pulse threatened to fracture the bone that encased her heart.
“I...I wasn’t sure if there’d been foul play involved.” She said, her shoulder leaning against the glass. “I didn’t want to ruin your night because some guy strained himself to death on a hike.”
“When were you sure?”
“No. Answer the question.”
“Some time after midnight.” An apology or explanation seemed to be imminent. “It’s not like I was avoiding telling you, I’ve been trying to piece it together--”
“And his heart being missing did not affect your decision?”
Her complexion paled as she wet her lips. Regina could see the steps, the two, three seconds she took to measure her words.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Apparently it’s common knowledge.” She felt her jaw click along as she thought of the looks and whispers that followed her today.
“This fucking town. We were trying to keep it under wraps.”
“Because that is only something the killer would know, isn’t that right?” It was cutting, dangerously sharp. “That was the real reason you didn’t think to call me.”
“No! Jesus, Regina. Of course not.” Emma took two steps forward, her hand reached out to hers. But she snatched it away when their fingers grazed against each other.
“Then why am I being treated like a suspect and not like the mayor of this town?”
“I wanted to know all the facts before I brought this to you,” Her voice was low, almost convincing. “I know you didn’t do this--”
“Like you knew with Archie's disappearance? You seemed pretty certain of my innocence then too.”
“That’s not fair.” Her eyes were wide and her breath short.
Regina felt it was fitting to let Emma be pricked by the same blade that was undoing the sutures on what had felt like old wounds this morning.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Call me when you have all your facts, Sheriff.”
Emma could have tried to stop her, demand she listen but Regina did not give her the opportunity. She left her office and the bullpen without looking back. That cold fury melting away into a burning sadness out on the street. Lunch. How could she sit across Henry now? Feel the void of Emma’s absence as she blew on the hot broth. Explain how it was exactly that their hard fought, precious balance had been disrupted as she drank iced tea. Regina thought she was done breaking her son’s heart. And when Emma swallowed that potion at her Queens apartment, her eyes so fragile, Regina thought. No. She had only wanted to believe.
“R’gina!” A little voice squealed as a weight crashed against her knees.
“I told him not to run but I suppose he is excited to have found you.” Robin said as he caught up with his son. He smiled and ran a hand through his son’s hair.
“It’s alright, I’m always happy to see Roland.”
“Out for lunch?”
“Yes, actually,” Regina forced her lips to stretch into a smile. “Henry must be starved and ordering ahead by now.”
“Ah, can’t keep a growing lad from his meal.” He looked at her in a way that told her he was completely ignorant of the whispers. “Roland and I were headed down to Oak street for lunch ourselves.”
An answer to her predicament in the man in front of her. One that seemed to have been handed to her and Regina was desperate enough to take it. Because it was easy. Because two seats being filled at table would make the void more bearable. Would postpone Henry’s questions.
“What a happy coincidence. Would you like to join us?”
“Yeah! Please, thank you!” Roland took her hand.
“I’ve got my orders it seems.” Robin laughed and so she did too.
TW for descriptions of OCD loops, intrusve thoughts, self harm, and violence.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Something had possessed to wear her red coat today, Mrs. Dormer could not tell exactly what. After all, she only needed to leave the house for groceries. She and Tom were to host a dinner party this week. Marie would want olives in his martini and John liked orange peel in his drinks. She would be remiss to be out of those key components come tomorrow night. Still, that very same feeling something had her foregoing her car and choosing to walk instead. Once in Main Street, with the gentle dim of the afternoon she thought that the beach was always so lovely during this time of year. The yellow and orange ombre look to the sky hanging over the water. Yes, a walk would suit her just fine. Concerns about Mr. Cliiford’s death hardly entered her mind, she thought it could never happen to her. It was the water she wanted, not the forest. Who would dare attack her out in the open?
There she went, with her thick red coat to enjoy the chill by the water. Mrs. Dormer thought she saw a figure by the pier. Slim and dressed in a pale yellow. The mayor, she knew at once. Alone and holding an umbrella, as the woman knew it was about to rain. Mayor Mills did no wave as she came closer but then she hardly ever did. But then again, Mrs. Dormer supposed it was only natural, when she didn’t wave her way either. Not that she ever would despite the woman walking closer and closer to her. Every step made her face clearer. Her eyes, they were dark and vacant. Like a doe’s, they did not even search for something.
Then Mrs. Dormer felt that ocean chill in the vessels of her heart.
It was nearly three in the morning and Emma’s boots had been chafing at her ankles all night. Even the soles of her feet felt tender. There had been another murder, her father called her while she was out investigating the first one They found her near the docks, half her body in the water. Emma’s throat closed when she thought of the twisted look of fear on the woman’s face. A mirror of Clifford’s. She sat with the husband for a while, combing through the details of her day. Emma had only learned about the grocery run the victim had planned to make when her phone rang. The heart was missing too. Dissolved, Emma suspected, between the pebbles and salt water at the shore where she was found.
David ordered her to go rest for a few hours, playing with the tone he would have used on Emma as a teenager. Improvised, and still awkward after a year. When that didn’t work, Mulan informed her she looked like crap and was a probable hazard to the investigation. She tried to be quiet as she unlocked the door so as to not wake Snow and the baby. The plan was to slip out of her boots and pass out on the couch. Be out the door before her mother even knew she had been to the loft at all. But when Emma turned the knob she found Snow in her robe, her elbows on the breakfast bar. Sipping on some tea, looking too fresh for the hour. Rosy cheeked and fair skinned, like an illustration in a picture book.
“Sweetheart, hi” Snow greeted her.
“Hope you weren’t waiting up for me.” Emma told her as she freed her feet and plopped down on the couch. She found she was glad to see her after a hard day and a harder night.
“No,” Her mother replied. “Neal has my schedule upside down. Even when he doesn’t cry I’m up.”
Emma nodded and did her best to ignore the disappointment that was quietly making its way through the spaces between her bones. The one interlaced with the envy of a lost girl who had gone and grown up by herself.
“Any breakthroughs?” Snow settled next to her and brought her feet under her. Mary Margaret would have been horrified at the thought of a murder. Her eyes would have been shining and she would have said this all too much. Things like this don’t happen in Storybrooke.
But Snow is not Mary Margaret. Her eyes are made of something stronger even if they are no less curious.
“No.” She said with a sigh. “It’s pretty much a deadend. Just like Clifford. Both had been out alone. No one knows of any issues or enemies. The two were barely friendly...if there is a connection I’m not finding it.”
“Edward Clifford and Charlotte Dormer.” Her mother hummed out their names. She was trying to piece something together. “They were both former nobles.”
“Yeah, I sorta got that from the size of their mansions.”
“No, I mean--I shouldn’t be surprised David didn’t get to explaining this, he never did get court politics down…”
“What do you mean?” Emma fought off a yawn and turned her head towards Snow.
There was a small laugh coming from Snow. Nostalgic. That bittersweet kind that always made Emma feel distant from the woman who turned out to be her mother.
“When Regina took the throne from my father, there were some changes she made. Big and important changes.”
“OK…” A sudden wish to disappear in between the cushions overtook Emma. Talk of their fucked up family history always made her throat and stomach burn.
“There were some families that Regina up-ended. Either because they were loyal to me or because there was some strategic value to their estate. It certainly made her popular in some regions amongst the serfs and townspeople,” It was her teacher's voice Snow used on her. Calm but keen. “The Cliffords and the Dormers were two of the first families who had their land and wealth confiscated.”
Snow tiptoeing around the truth only made Emma’s muscles contract and her mouth numb with disgust. The relief she had felt at finding her mother awake was vanishing.
“Yeah, but that was the Enchanted Forest. This is Storybrooke.” Emma needed to point out. Thought her words would make it all sound ridiculous. “Those people were living in overpriced Victorians and had bank accounts to match. I’d say those old grudges are gone.”
“I know, I know.” It was as if she were conceding to a child. “But you were looking for a connection. Maybe that’s it.”
Emma shrugged her shoulders and didn’t think of anything else. What was there to say? Tell her mother about the crystallized remains of a heart sitting in evidence. The intact bodies of the victims and the murmurs going around town. How Regina had curtly thanked her for her call about Charlotte Dormer and hung up without another word.
“You don’t think there is a chance that this is related to Regina?”
Something snapped at the words Like a tense string that had suddenly been pulled too hard and broken violently.
“No. I don’t. ” It was impossible to consider, Emma was certain of that. But that her mother would suggest it and Regina would accuse her of it paralyzed her.
“She’s different now, I know that. After that year in the Enchanted Forest it felt like there was no going back but--”
“But what, mom?” That last word Emma let fall sharply. “Regina has nothing to do with this.”
“I just think--That what happened in New York between the two of you brought you closer together. It made you see the best in her.” Snow touched her forearm and she had to contain her flinch. “I want to believe it’s a coincidence but what if we’re overlooking the obvious?”
We. A clear side of which Emma was supposed to be a part of. There were more things she could have said. Regina was the mother of her son. Every ounce of goodness in her bones was hard earned. Leaving that house on Mifflin always left her with a void and with the urge to run back to their life in Queens. Say that Emma had asked and Regina had rejected the plan. No one would think to look twice at us. Think about it.
One. Two. Three. Breathes to pick her words, the right way for a daughter to say all that. She hadn’t mastered that yet. To tell the truth and feel lighter under her mother’s gaze.
“Snow, I...really don’t think she’s involved. Trust me, I--”
Just then her baby brother wailed into the night. Her mother’s brow furrowed and she put a hand to her chest. Emma watched as she set her mug down and every other concern left her mind.
“Oh, that’s Neal’s hungry cry,” She said, getting to her feet. “Which means there will be a diaper-change-cry in three hours. I’ll be back.”
Emma felt her chest deflate and the heaviness of that same disappointment. The guilt that followed it, she could not be feeling it. To be upset about losing a place in everyone’s lives that was never meant to be hers. She sat with them all on the couch and drifted off to sleep listening to her mother sing a lullaby in another room.
“So what’s your story?” Emma had asked as they walked out of the bodega. She’d bought her canned coffee drink with too much sugar and gotten an orange creamsicle for herself.
“Do I need to have one?” Regina bit her tongue, believing the less she said would guard her from the inevitable outcome.
“I’m just curious.” The creamsicle had begun to melt in the heat.
“That’s just a kinder word for suspicious, Miss Swan.” She had quipped and enjoyed Emma’s barking laugh.
The memory of that day echoed throughout her body all night. Wrecked it with cold chills and sweat that made silk cling to her back. It was so clear, so set in her mind. She thought it was almost palpable, even the colors of the day. So unlike the day she’d had, the hours had slipped past her. She could not trust her recollection of them. Regina stared and stared at the digital numbers on her alarm clock, trying to decide if her eyes tricked her. If her mind was nothing but a liar. If it had conjured up her daily routine, the coffee with two sugars she’d had at ten. All an illusion to bury the truth. The dark in her bedroom felt like ocean water, coming in through her nose. Becoming intertwined with her blood vessels, filling her up until she stopped fighting. Gave herself to a restless sleep.
In the morning, Regina cut herself while shaving the incoming black hair of her legs. It happened rarely, she was always so careful with a blade against her skin. Watched the corners, stretched out her ankles. But today, she thought, she did not mind the blade on the soft skin of her calf. The cut was shallow but the water turned red with her blood all the same. A bleeder. It burned while she stood in her shower and did nothing to ease her discomfort. Stood as the faint smell of basil got lost in the steam and the tips of her fingers grew wrinkled. She even forgot that with one touch she could mend her skin.
It was deserved. Regina’s own voice whispered as she watched the soapy red water go down the train. Whatever she got, it was deserved. A numbing cold spread down her spine and reached her toes. Breathing became a problem, drowning on mere air. It was Henry’s voice coming through her bathroom door that opened her lungs for air. She turned the water off and strung a sentence together. What is it, hijo? A question about adding water to the refried beans and about the platano sitting on the fruit bowl had her slipping into her robe.
Breakfast was an exercise of polishing her veneer. Sipping on her black coffee and pretending she could feel her limbs. This was one of Regina’s skills, something she had learned at a young age. To act as if nothing was wrong, like there hadn’t been a tilt to the axis of her world. Her son smiled quietly, asked a few questions about the day. Promised to wait to be picked up at school without protest. With a heavy silence he wrapped his arms around her middle. Stubbornly tucked his head under her chin before climbing into the car. Regina understood. He believed in her. That last smile as he rushed inside the school building confirmed it.
That had been it. That certainty of owing the search of the truth to her son. Regina cancelled every appointment and meeting, she gave her assistant no explanation. Nowhere to find her. She headed for her vault and put up a shield with her magic. No one in or out but herself. The scent of damp and earth enveloped her and the stone encasing her reassured her that she was alone.
The feeling had not returned to the tips of her fingers beyond an incessant pulse but still she pulled every volume she thought useful. Sure, she had to be sure. Without a shadow of a doubt that she was not responsible. Memory loss. Manipulation. Soul separation. Susto. Proxy magic. Blood magic. Sure, she had to be sure.
“Fuck.” Regina breathed out as she inserted a syringe in a vein. The pain at least still felt real.
Her blood filled the syringe red. Bubbled and burned just the same as she transferred to a glass vial on an open flame. Poisons, powders. Venom. Herbs and chemicals. Brujerias y hechizos. No traces of them in her blood. It made her obsession for an answer grow desperate. There had to be something she overlooked. Something she had forgotten. Because deep down. Regina knew it could be no one else. Not when her mother’s body was already laid in the ground. Not when her sister led the life of a Daphne Green four hours away.
Air. Regina was choking for it. Through gasps she took herself out to the openness of the cemetery. Graves were being dug and for a second. For a second she saw the fresh bodies that would go in them. Everything. The trees. The mist on the grass. The sounds of the woods became a blur to her and she walked away from it all. Until the ground her heels sank onto the pebbles of the shore. There was a buzzing in her ears and a pain in her chest. Pressure everywhere. It was how the feeling returned to her body. With the tightness of a death wish.
“Regina!” Someone called after her.
She recognized the voice, it squeezed at her. It always did. The drawl, how it curled around the o’s. Just pleasant enough.
“Robin.” Her lips moved, curled under that polished veneer.
“Taking a break from Town Hall duties? ” He smiled at her, his world remained untouched.
“Yes. Guilty as charged.” Regina heard herself laugh. How the sound vibrated in her ears, foreign. It rang as if someone else had decided its pitch.
“Would you like some company? The air is so crisp out here.” Robin moved closer, still with that smile on his face. The particular one that reminded her of that bond they were supposed to share.
“So you’ve heard about the murders.” She told him.
“News are slow to find me but they reach me nevertheless,” He furrowed his brow. “I don’t think it’s wise for you to be out on your own.”
“An honorable outlaw. Out to protect the Queen, is that what you’re doing?” The words seemed to spell themselves out in the air as she walked closer to the water.
“It is what the legends would have me do.”
Regina studied him for a moment. His features were not unkind. Composed by straight lines and a strong chin. Forgettable in a way only a woman of her years could know. A man like every other. Perhaps at nineteen when she had been desperate to rid herself of the crown and the life that came with it she might have accepted him as the answer. The simple resolution to her story.
“Any theories as to who might be responsible?” He followed after her, shrugging his shoulders.
The vein in her arm pulsated with the question. That cut on her calf burned against the fabric of her tights. Regina could tell him the truth but the thought spread a numbness to her finger tips.
“No. Not yet.” The numbness reached her face.
“Perhaps I can be of assistance?”
She knew then. With absolute certainty that if she were to tell the truth his face would rearrange those straight lines into conviction. One that was unearned, faith bought by way of destiny. Blind to the deepest and most fatal of her flaws. Willfully ignorant to her nature. It made a knot out of her throat. It was the last thing she wanted.
“I’m very confident you could.” Regina let him lead the way along the shore.
Salt scratched at the insides of her throat. Emma did not know what she expected to find out here, hidden among the pebbles of the beach. Steam and sweat were trapped under her coat, it made the uneasiness of her body worse. The sound of the waves hitting the shore and the wind were of little help to drown out the ring of her mother’s words. But what if we’re overlooking the obvious? It was unacceptable. Emma refused to even consider the possibility. She had shared it with no one, had asked her mother to do the same. Townspeople were jumping to enough conclusions as it was. There had to be something she missed. Some clue, some stupid puzzle. A hat out in the woods, a ridiculous magical artifact she only thought existed in the shitty VHS tapes of her childhood. Anything that would disproof Snow’s theory.
It was her title, it was supposed to be who she was. The curled fists of the Savior and the ugly truth was that Emma clung to it in Storybrooke. When everything in this world after the second curse made her feel less than. A daughter, a mother. Soulmate. The spare, that is who she was. But the Savior, the town could not do without her.
Emma let out a breath out in frustration as her phone buzzed in her pocket. She had come to dread whatever conversation waited for her at the other side of the line.
“I think it’s a waste of time to comb through the victims’ routines,” Mulan’s irritation with the case came through with no filter. “In a town this small, they weren’t all that different. They shopped at the same places. Windham for groceries, Mrs. Flores for their bouquets. Down to their damn tea and scones. If everything is a connection then--
“Nothing is.” She kicked at a pebble as she walked along the shore. “What did Main Street vendors have to say about them?”
“Good customers. Always paid on time. Didn’t feel too warmly about the new tax on luxury goods or town legislation but--”
“That’s standard for Storybrooke.” Emma was quick to say, uninterested in feeding irrational fears.
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
The clouds parted enough to let the Sun through. The light hurt her eyes and Emma turned to shield herself from it. She wished she hadn’t done it. That she would have kept her eyes trained on the water. Regina was up ahead. Clasping her hands and walking next to Robin. The wind was in her hair and she smiled at him. Emma felt a pang of selfishness. She thought. She thought that if Regina had said yes, had wanted to leave this place an ugly jealousy wouldn’t cut its way through her ribs. She thought of a life in New York, of the wind hitting Regina’s hair. Away from magic and conspiracies. Soulmates and predestination.
A life where her place wouldn’t come with a title. The easy and heavy rules of it. This rift between her and Regina wouldn’t feel so fucking wide. Regina’s eyes found her across it. Dark and uncertain. Until they became severe on her, a warning to keep away. It had been a while since she had glared at Emma with so much venom. Emma couldn’t look away from her.
“Are you there?” Mulan’s voice cut through her.
“Yea--I’m here.” It was only half a lie. When she kept her gaze trained on Regina. Caught in wanting her attention. Whatever shape it took.
“What should we do next?”
“I--” Emma began walking towards where Regina stood. Bracing herself for the iciness of her words. Why, Sheriff didn’t you know? Murderers always return to the scene of the crime. “I don’t know. Just give me some time to figure it out..”
“Sure.” She cleared her throat with something like finality. “Who knows? Maybe the answer is staring at us in the face.”
“Could be.” Her chest was about to crack with the sudden and furious beating of her heart.
Regina’s eyes had turned to Robin.
The police car was an old car Regina’s magic had down to the details of the time. The deep brown of the fabric, the cassette deck that Emma was strangely fond of. The car was made from a hard metal that didn’t meet safety standards anymore. It ate up more fuel than it was worth, Emma usually opted to patrol the streets in the Bug. David mentioned it might be a good idea to let people know they were out there and Emma didn't care enough to argue about it. She only cared that it was almost three o’clock and it was her day to pick Henry up from school. Even if Regina had gone back to despising her they still shared their son. Emma waited patiently and tapped her fingers on the wheel. She failed to keep her mind occupied, away from Regina. Of all the things she wishes she’d done different. Even as the clear burst of squeals and laughter that signaled the end of school pushed out onto the pavement.
Henry found the car straight away. His shirt was untucked and his sweater was rolled up by the sleeves. Emma noticed he had probably grown a little because the white of his socks was sticking out like a sore thumb. His hands clung to the straps of his backpack as he hurried over to the car.
“Hey, ma.” He said in a muted voice.
“Hey. How was school?”
“OK, I guess. Got an A minus on that history quiz.”
“That’s great. Really great.” Emma noticed the white in his knuckles as he gripped the arm rest. “Had anything good for lunch?”
“Just some mac and cheese.” Henry sighed as he ran a hand through his hair.
That alarmed her. Regina loathed the school’s cafeteria food, even after her careful reworking of the menu. Henry would take a neatly packed lunch that he never traded. Fragrant rice and expensive cuts of meat. Vegetables were carefully weighed in grams and planned for nutrition. But Emma knew that more questioning would do her no good.
“‘How do you feel about some burgers?” She asked, trying to sound casual. “We could eat and go for a drive.”
“On a weekday?”
“Haven’t you heard, kid?” Her voice wasn’t convincing but it would have to do. “There is a new Sheriff in town.”
“Ma, that’s bad.” Henry’s laugh was subdued but she’d take it. “Even for you.”
The car smelled like grease and pickles but it was a good price to pay. To sip a shake without questions and too many eyes. Henry was quiet. Taking deep breaths after every big bite and methodically eating his fries one by one. Emma knew her son, the little tells in his expression of when he was gearing up to say something. The furrow to his brow, the clenching of his jaw. So very obviously a Swan and a Mills. She drove to border the trees, one big circle around town to give him time.
“I kinda wish it was my birthday again.” He finally said when he was down to the crumbs on his pants.
“I don’t think we can get away with cake just yet.” She tried it. To sound clueless, to make what she knew was coming lighter on them.
“Ma, you know what I mean.” He looked at her with stubborn and brittle eyes. Stop, I’m not a little kid anymore.
A light drizzle hit the windshield as she parked on the side of the road.
“Yeah, I...” Emma sighed as she slumped her shoulders. “I think I do.”
It’d been the perfect day, his birthday. In the heat of August. They fake-remembered a tradition, a day in Corona park. Ice cream on the grass. Ice skating, walking around until the night market opened. All that had stayed intact for his first real birthday in the city. Regina had dropped by with a book wrapped in gold and silver paper I heard your birthday was coming up and I thought you could use one more book in your collection. Emma had felt some indescribable thing expand in her chest. Maybe Henry had felt it too. Because he’d wrapped his arms around Regina and asked her to come with them. Only if it’s alright by your mother, her eyes had been so bright. It’d looked like magic, that someone could light up like that.
In the nights when she couldn’t help herself Emma returned to that day too. To Regina’s hesitant grip on her fingers as she helped her on the ice rink. The easy way she’d teased Emma and fit so seamlessly in what had before felt like an insular unit of two. She had wanted more of it and learned soon after it was not something she could have.
“It’s not fair,” Henry said quietly, under the sound of falling raindrops. “After everything mom did..the things people are saying. She didn’t do anything wrong.”
Emma wanted to find her words but instead she lay on hand at the nape of Henry’s neck. She imagined the hushed whispers following her son around school corners today. Even Snow’s reassuring smile must have made his insides twist.
“I don’t think she knows that.”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s like..I don’t know...like she is bracing herself for the worst to come true,” He took a deep breath to steel himself. “And she’s not really there sometimes. Mom tries really hard to keep me from seeing. Has an extra cup of coffee. Smiles a little more than usual but…”
“You’re the world’s most perceptive middle schooler.” She squeezed his shoulders. “I’m working to straighten this whole thing out. I don’t want you worrying about it--”
Henry gave her a look of disbelief that could rival Regina’s.
“Which is easier said than done, I know.” She let out a breathy laugh. “But the point remains. You’re our son, it’s not your job to worry about us.”
“And you’ll take care of mom?”
“I…”Emma thought of Regina by the shore, that hard look of her eyes. “ I’ll take care of your mom, kid. Always.”
“Do you need help?” Henry asked, touching her elbow. “Looks like that pan could use a little scrubbing.”
“It’s alright, mi vida, “ Regina replied, already feeling how the dish soap would splinter her nails. “You go ahead and get some rest.”
She could feel his concern like a burn on her neck. He’d been careful, busying himself with small tasks in the kitchen. Taking out the trash without being asked, rearranging the top shelf of the refrigerator. Insisting he wanted hot chocolate from a saucepan. It was clear Henry did not want to leave her alone and the thought of her day being so easily gleaned from her expression terrified her. Regina did her best to reply, to tell her son about the day she did not have. Lied about meetings and paperwork. Omitted the paralyzing doubt, the questioning of the threads of her reality.
“We can finish that documentary we started the other night?”
“And give myself the impossible task of waking you up in the middle of it?” The attempt at levity felt hollow and she prayed he did not pick up on it. “We’ll end up spending the night on the couch.”
“I’m not as bad as ma, she’d be out in the first ten minutes and curl around you if you give her the chance.” Henry smiled in a way that was just like Emma. Subdued and gentle, the realization flooded her chest with panic. “ I actually think I hear that graphic novel calling my name.”
"I think so too." It was the best reassurance she could give him. That everything was fine, would be fine. A quiet lie.
He kissed her cheek and gave her shoulders a squeeze. That Regina was confident was real, in a way she couldn’t have been convinced before. After Henry had gone up the stairs she focused on grease stains on the stove. Lingering fat on utensils. Anything that kept her grounded but by the end all she had achieved was making her body a husk.Just a thing that Regina seemed to have slipped out of once more. Still she had to tend to it, as part of a routine. Unsure hands prepared her for her rituals.
The tea leaves tainted the water maroon and the steam opened her pores. It rid her of the scent of soap and oil. Regina’s fingers worked like cogs in a clock. Precise and predictable. Even in Queens Summer she kept this routine. Spiced tea that warmed her chest and flushed her face. Emma had discovered that about her neighbor some months ago. God, it smells amazing in here. You don’t mind me, do you? The brown in her eyes had grown lighter, Regina had fallen into that role. Disappeared in it so willingly.
Can’t we go back? It’s done, this town...they don’t need...
She should have said yes when Emma asked. Packed everything into trunks and suitcases. Scarves and coats Yellowed books and kitchenware. La casa en una maleta. It was too late for those kinds of regrets. Regina sipped her tea and went up the stairs. Drank it as she carried out the rest of her routine. Eye cream. Verbena from a glass jar. Coconut oil at the tips of her hair. Nothing she could feel. The spice in the tea tasted bitter when it met the mint in her toothpaste. All she needed was sleep as she settled in bed. A dreamless, thoughtless sleep. It would be denied too. She knew it because the cogs of her mind were too precise and predictable.
They found Emma again. Sunburned by the Autumn Sun. Working to find the culprit of the murders of Edward Clifford and Charlotte Dormer. Her lips had parted when their gazes met across the beach. Regina had felt that burning sadness simmer, she wanted to be angry. Wanted nothing more than to hate Emma Swan. The words she’d wanted to say had been stuck in her throat. Venomous questions that were meant to rot everything they bit. Did they mean nothing to each other? That only the seed of doubt, was able to fracture them? Regina should have spit them out. Watched as Emma’s eyes rid themselves of their gentleness.
Then she would prove her right. That Regina was who she had always been who she would always be. This thing that did not deserve consideration or mercy. An evil that would always strike when she least expected it. Wouldn’t that be the logical outcome to her story? Some cliched moral about the nature of evil, the scorpion who just had to sting. Perhaps that was the answer. Her arm pulsated where the needle had gone. Blood magic. Brujerias y hechizos. Proxy magic. No traces of them in the red of her blood. No traces that she was not responsible. She could be. Her hands could still pluck a heart from a chest as they would an apple from its branch.
That familiar touch of darkness crept in the fibers of her muscles. It could work through her. Slither out and control her. It had before, all these years ago when she had been a little more than a child. Regina pinched her eyes shut and tightly grasped the fine cotton of her sheets. She had done it before, why wouldn’t she have done it this time? Found Edward Clifford out in the woods and Charlotte Dormer by the water. Regina could have called magic to the tips of her fingers. Sharp and brutal, to cut through his sternum. Find the warmth beat of his heart. Take it. Swiftly. Crush it and delight it. Like so many times in her past. As she had done to nobles and their knights. For their land, for threatening her rule. Because she remembered the disdain in their eyes. Regina had taken from their serfs too. Because she could. Because in the end she had grown addicted to her own horror.
Sweat drenched her back. Her pulse beat throughout her arteries. The image of two hearts in her grasp was too vivid. Regina felt them struggling against her grasp. How their essence would have turned to dust in between her fingers. It would have been like it was when she ruled a kingdom. Her blood would have rushed to her ears and cold would have settled in her limbs. As their faces contorted to fear. Power and magic, filling and expanding her lungs. Fuck. It would have been all too simple. To slip on her boots and find someone walking alone in a trail somewhere. Unsuspecting and too trusting. It would have been so easy to turn back. Undo everything she had worked for. Lose Henry, who was sleeping two doors down to hers.
God. Regina did not want to do it. Clutch and smother beating hearts, empty her stomach in guilt. It could be that all compulsions itched so horrible under one’s skin. That all they did was make anyone wish for death. Regina doubted she was strong enough to fight it. If anything, that Summer in New York proved how easily she could become intoxicated by things she was not meant to have. There was a sting in her eyes that ran hot down her cheeks. She should have condemned herself to sleep forever when she had the chance.Placed herself in a glass coffin for all to gawk at the body of the Evil Queen, feel gratitude that there was no one around to wake her from the curse. Her mind went to magical binds. To complicated spells and runes. If these murders were her doing she had to be restrained. But anything done by her magic could be undone by her own hand.
As she struggled to breathe Regina searched her nightstand for her phone. Thursday, October 13. 00:45. The brightness of its screen hurt her eyes but not enough to make her pause.The number she dialed she knew by heart.
“Regina, everything OK?” Emma answered after two rings. The deep concern in her words made Regina’s voice break with a shudder.
“Are you hurt? Is Henry?”
“No, no. It’s nothing like that. It’s--I can’t even say it.” If she had wanted to hate Emma, the wish was gone. In its place was a want, one Regina swallowed back with her tears.
“Hey, hey. It’s alright.” She said softly. “Do you need me to come over?”
“Yes,” Regina choked out a sob. “Please.”
The spare key was just where Regina said it would be. Behind a loose brick by a windowsill. The front door was so well oiled that it did not creak when it was opened. Emma immediately noticed how different the house looked in the dark. Its corners seemed sharper and its usual glow was replaced by the stray moonlight. The smell of dried Eucalyptus warmed her chest and the pristine wooden floors reminded her to slip out of her trainers. Hang her coat by the door. She thought she would have found the light leading to Regina’s study. But all the halls of the mansion were covered in that pale blue shine. Regina’s voice had been so frail over the phone, strained desperation dripping out of it. It troubled Emma that she was not downstairs to meet her, she feared it was more than Henry had said. She took a moment to calm her thoughts before venturing up the stairs.
The upper floor was darker, everything seemed misshapen. Emma resisted the temptation of checking on her son. Simply listened for Henry’s tale-tale snores by his door. There she saw the thin yellow ray that escaped from under Regina’s door. Socked feet moved cautiously towards it. Her knuckles quietly knocked quietly on the wood. Everything about tonight seemed so new and delicate. Strung together by the thinnest of threads.
“Regina?” Emma whispered with her hand on the knob.
She felt the inner working of the lock turn in her palm as her heart beat turned erratic. All to stop at the sight of Regina sitting up on her bed. Knees up on her chest, her nails digging into the flesh of her hands. She said nothing as Emma stepped in. Just watched her through red-rimmed eyes. Regina’s chest rose unsteadily while her lips parted, all the color drained from her face.
“Hey.” Emma said as she moved towards the foot of her bed.
The angles of her face seemed sharper. Like she had lost weight since she saw her. There was redness to her wrists and the silk of pajamas was wrinkled. Signs that it had been pulled. Emma then found the small traces of blood in her lips, places where Regina had bitten down. Her pulse was beating away in her throat, so afraid for the woman in front of her.
“What’s going on?”
“I took a sample of my blood today.” Regina told her, eyes focused on the white of her knuckles.
“Why?” She sat by Regina’s curled feet and stopped short of touching her.
“I had to know,” The words were raspy and wet. “If something had taken a hold of me. If I was being used for...for….”
“Regina…” A pain struck Emma in the chest. Overwhelming and deep with the memory of Henry's words. Regina was bracing herself for everything to come undone.
“I didn’t find anything,” She pressed her lips together over the blood. “And that...that was much worse. Because if I did this, if I...murdered them then I have no excuse. Even if I can’t...I can’t remember it. I’ve tried searching my memories. I found nothing but. I can see how--”
“You didn’t find anything because you didn’t kill those people.” It was instinct that made Emma take her hand. Rub her thumb across Regina’s knuckles. Like taking care of her was second nature to her. Not just a promise.
“You don’t know that. I don’t know that.” It came out in a harsh whisper. “I’m capable of it, I--”
“No you listen,” Regina snatched her hand away. “Do...do you know how many hearts I tore out? How many I crushed? I don’t. Some slipped my mind. Some...fuck. I didn’t think worthy of deigning with a memory. The first one, though, I never forgot. A girl who was my age. Rumple baited the darkness in me with her. I..I can still see how her heart first broke down the middle...I…”
“Stop, OK?” Emma dared to squeeze her wrist and find her gaze.“Yeah, maybe you are capable of all that. Same way I’m still capable of pulling the awful shit I pulled some ten years ago. Everyone has it in them. But that doesn’t mean you did this.”
Regina's serious eyes studied her, in the same way Henry did whenever he was trying to decide if he was being met with the truth.
“If you really believe that,why didn’t you tell me about Clifford? Why hide it from me?”
Emma wanted to be honest. Say every word she had been swallowing and biting down. Every syllable that frightened her. But those threads on this fragile thing were threatening to break already. This thing she guarded so fiercely.
“I guess telling you made it real,” She said with a sigh “And besides, that’s kind of my job. Savior slash Sheriff and all.”
“Don’t do it again.” That overwhelming pain overtook Emma again with the look Regina gave her.
One long breath was the sign that something was about to change. Paired by the tightness in lingered in Regina’s chest. The hesitation in the way she parted her lips. Emma had learned how to read her, had relearned it all when Regina had been stranger across from her.
“I need you to do something for me.”
Anything , the word almost left her lips. Instead she nodded and let Regina lock their fingers together as she laid back against the pillows. The exhaustion was evident, the swell of her eyes. Emma couldn’t believe how someone with such soft hands could have ever ripped hearts apart. With a frame so small and red-bitten lips.
“ I need you to cast a restraining spell on me, only you’ll be able to--”
“Regina, I’m not doing that.” Emma took her silent exasperation as a good sign. “But I can keep watch if it makes you feel better.”
“You could doze off, Sheriff.” It wasn’t a teasing tone but Emma recognized the words for what they were. A reminder of the many times she had been caught napping at her office. “I could easily slip past you.”
Emma could have called it a reflex. To do what she did, move to wrap her arms around Regina’s middle. Her muscles were tense against her arms, her breathing still uneven. Despite Neverland and those days in New York there had always been a breaking point to their house of cards. A mistake, one Emma wanted to undo as quickly as she’d made it. I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. Don’t make me leave. Please. But Regina settled under her touch, pulled Emma closer. Until she had no choice but to perch her chin on Regina’s shoulder.
“We can’t do this forever,” The ups and downs of her breathing began anchoring themselves to Emma’s. “You can’t watch me every night.”
“Just tonight then,” Emma hoped Regina couldn’t feel the furious beating of her heart against her back. “We’ll figure this out.”
Would love to know what you think so far!
A single ray of pale sunlight woke Regina. It made one straight line across her bedroom, like a sundial informing her that it was still early. That seemed to matter little when Emma’s arms surrounded her waist. Regina could feel her muscles against the skin that had somehow gotten exposed overnight. It was not a strong grip but her body ached against it. Remnants of yesterday, of razors and needles.Those predictable cogs in her mind were still spinning and clicking into place. The images of pulsating and dying hearts still clouded her mind’s eye. But the fear, the panic did not invade her body like that familiar paralysis.
“You’re awake.” Emma words come out in a sleepy and raspy drawl.
“Only just.” Regina did not turn in her arms. She could not face her and meet with their color in the early morning.
“Good, you got your rest.” Her lips were carefully avoiding the skin on the back of her neck. It was easy to recognize it for what it was. A confirmation, a reassurance that the worst had not come to pass. Not last night, at least.
“Yeah, yeah.” Her breath warmed her, eased the pain at the places where she had twisted and scratched her skin.
It had crossed her mind many times how this might feel on her body. On her skin. The weight of her. They were short-lived fantasies that Regina slipped into whenever she cleared plates off the table. As it was often about all things Emma, those fantasies could never compare to the safety of her touch.
” Emma,” She began because this moment had to come to an end some time. “What now?”
At last her arms released Regina’s waist and left her skin cold. She rolled onto her back and took a deep breath. Regina thought, indulgently and selfishly, that Emma looked like she belonged there on her bed. Her golden hair splayed out on goose feather pillows. Like they had done this before. Brujeria or another kind of magic is what she would have blamed before New York. Before saying goodnight in the hallway and grocery bags ripping on stairwells. That was the price she paid, a taste of what she could never keep.
“I’ve been mulling that over, this whole damn thing makes no sense.” The words came with a furrow to her brow. “The victims, the apparent lack of motive...at this point I’d take a curse over it.”
“Clifford and Dormer,” Regina said, trying to draw lines between them. “Two former nobles who--”
“Whose estate you took, I know. Got the history lesson from Snow already.” Emma draped her arm across her eyes. “We’ve combed every bit of evidence. They either had too much in common or not enough to be significant.”
Regina curled her fingers around her sheets and worked at steadying herself. If truly every angle had been considered then Emma hadn’t hit a dead end. She had the answer within her grasp but she refused to accept it. Frustration braided itself with fear. Of course Emma would refuse to see it. It was sheer, stupid stubbornness that blinded her.
“No matter how you look at it, all the signs point toward me as the culprit. I’m the strongest connection between the two. I have the means and the motive.” Regina felt her chest rise unsteadily. “And you don’t want that to be true.”
“That’s not...I thought we’d talked about this.” She dropped her arm from her eyes and looked straight up at the ceiling. “You didn’t do it, Regina.”
“But that is how this looks. It’s what any sensible person in this town is meant to believe.”
The florist, the butcher. Nurses, teachers. Everyone who went about their life wondering when the Evil Queen would return, everyone who remembered what it was to fall from her grace, would have been waiting for it. Regina pictured them, stopping the street with a morbid sense of delight on their face. Did you hear? Oh, I always knew it was her. Who else could it be?
“That’s it.” Emma's chest rose and fell as if she were on the precipice of something. Her eyes wide with a revelation.
“What?” Regina let out a shaky breath, readying herself for it.
“We are all supposed to look at the evidence and conclude it was you.” She sat up and huffed out a laugh.
Emma tipped her head to the side, there was a playful expectation tangled with the usual gentleness of her eyes. If darkness could have weaved itself onto her fibers, flooded her lungs, the realization slowly pushed against it. Like the meeting of two rivers.
“I’m being framed, ” Regina felt the words roll out of her mouth with clarity and relief. “The culprit must have some control over magic, to be able to imitate me in such a way.”
“With Gold gone and the faeries at the convent that again only leaves you as the only option. Again.”
The idea of someone having slipped past her careful controls and outsmarting her made Regina’s stomach knot with anger.
“It’s all so convenient, isn’t it?” She managed a scoff and kept the tremor out of her voice. “They’ve thought of everything.”
“But what I don’t understand is why ,” Her brow furrowed in concentration. “Things are quiet, the town’s biggest concerns are related to the pumpkin crop this year. I don’t get it.”
“Since when has anyone needed a reason to harm the Evil Queen?”
“Maybe that was true before but everyone was beginning…”
“Trust me? People are fickle, Emma,” Regina stopped herself from reaching out to comb her fingers through her hair. “It doesn’t take much to confirm what they secretly believe to be true. Someone would only need to disturb the still water and convince them a monster was on the loose.”
“So we’re dealing with some Hannibal Lecter asshole. Great.” Her eyes, with their morning gold, found hers. “But that’s… that’s not what worries me the most.”
“I can see how a heart stealing maniac wouldn’t be your top concern but--”
“Whoever they are, they seem to have a lot of insight about you,” Emma brushed her fingers on her knuckles. Light and tentative. “Who you are, what you would do. They want you isolated.”
It frightened her and seldom anything did. That someone could predict that it would take just a push for the memories of darkness to suffocate her. That they would know she would first believe herself to be responsible, that she would obsess. Desperately. Blame no one but herself, against all logic. All reason.
“Well,” Her voice had suddenly grown strained with emotion. “Thank you for robbing them of that opportunity.”
Theodora had a fondness for mornings. In the Enchanted Forest she would rise along with the servants and oversee their work. It was not customary but it gave her a sense of worth that nothing else quite did. Mornings in this town meant she got the coffee going and got to making a list of the day’s work. However, this particular morning she could not say what moved her to find her walking shoes and buy herself breakfast from Granny’s. Theodora was not too hungry, in fact she could not recall the last time she ate from Eugenia Lucas’s kitchen. But it seemed of great importance that she be on her way to the diner as quickly as possible.
At least the morning mist was pleasant enough for a walk to Main Street. Nothing important came to mind, nothing about the precarity of her life. She only thought she would cut through clearing on her way, how convenient that it should be right where she needed it to be. A great empty field that most people did not frequent, there wasn’t even a path on the grass. If she squinted she could see the abandoned barn house everyone avoided. Yes, it was a fine morning for a brisk walk.
Through the mist she saw a figure. Too well dressed for the hour, heeled boats and a coat too fine to belong to most townsfolk. The figure, who she recognized to be the Mayor, walked her way. There was purpose to her steps, she seemed to Theodora of a cat hunting its prey. This reminded her that she should feel dread, that there was no good reason to be out here in the mist.
And yet Theodora did not move.
The front door closed with a quiet click and Emma swallowed the bit of sugary pastry in her mouth. It was nothing like she had ever tasted, rolls of spiced figs and dates. Regina had insisted she at least eat something with all the coffee she was siphoning off into a mug. The easy familiarity stuck to her ribs. It’d felt like the daydreams she had in New York, stolen moments during busy days where her mind would drift to the neighbor across the hall. How do you take your coffee? Two teaspoons of honey and milk. But reality had a way of settling in, washing away those daydreams. This time it had come in the form of an alarm on her phone, loudly reminding that her shift was due to start soon. The early morning light could not last forever.
A quarter past seven, she could get to the station and change into her spare clothes and avoid awkward explanations that veered into lies at the loft. Emma unlocked the Bug and was about to slide onto her seat when a runner nearly bumped into her.
“Sorry, oh gosh! I didn’t see you there, Sheriff.” She said still jogging in place. “I was in my own little world.”
“That’s alright.” Emma could not place the woman, she had a hard time placing new townsfolk. Brown hair and thin like a stick, her sweats were practically hanging off her.
“They really get the heart pumping, such a rush! Do you run?”
“Only if there is a monster involved.” She replied, slipping her keys between her knuckles. There was something about that unsettled Emma, she was too chipper. Too eager to prove something.
Maybe she was unhealthily paranoid but she did not like the way the woman’s eyes drifted to Regina’s front door and then back to her.
“Oh look at me holding you up!” She chuckled. “I’ll let you go on your way.”
That irked Emma most of all. It sent an acidic twist through her, she could not explain why. She nodded and slipped into her car, with her nerves on their very last end as the woman smiled at her through her window. Her gut pulled at her, her finely tuned bullshit detector was on full blast. She failed to smile back as she pulled out from her spot and rushed to the station. There were shared records with Town Hall Emma could check and she could find the woman’s identity there. At the time, she had moaned and complained when Regina had suggested they register every new citizen. But now Emma could scour through them and find the stick-thin runner on them.
There were five hundred new people that had been taken in with the new curse. Emma had never bothered to count them and the interface they used was at least one and half decade old. At best, it would take all morning. She resigned herself to it, ignoring the odd looks Mulan gave her. It was obsessive and paranoid, Emma knew that. To go off based on a feeling, it was hardly good detective work. Making hasty connections and jumping to conclusions about a stranger that had just rubbed her the wrong way. But she was sure it was not something she could ignore, it would nag at her. Wear her down and the next bad thing that happened would be her fault. It was midmorning when Emma found the record that matched the face. Rose Waters.
Ten after ten, Emma could not wait. She threw her jacket and headed towards Main Street. Townspeople nodded as they saw her, maybe some tried to talk to her. She waved them off or promised to take care of whatever it was later , there was somewhere she needed to be. The Rose Tea Shop, the sign said in cursive. Emma allowed herself a second to catch her breath, compose herself and practice the smile she’d have to use. The bell above the door announced her presence as she stepped onto what used to be Gold’s pawnshop. It was nothing like it, Rose Waters had turned the place into a pastel assault on her senses. Where there had been wood there was violet carpet. The place smelled like potpourri and sugar, it made her mouth taste like soap.
“Sheriff! How nice to see you again!” The woman said from behind the counter. With the very same smile on her face. “What brings you here?”
“I, um--” Emma thought of an excuse as she approached her. “Time for my break and decided to come browse for a bit.”
“Anything you’re looking for? I have some marvelous black teas if you’re looking for a coffee alternative.”
“Uh, sure. I’ll definitely check those out.”
“Great, let me know if you need any help.” Her lips quirked slightly, nervously even. Hardly suspicious, she reminded herself.
The truth was that Emma did not know what she was looking for. What she had hoped to find in coming here. There were Fall decorations that were clunkily being put together, orange and yellow leaves that reminded her of the many grade schools she’d gone to. Festival writers get 15% off! A small chalkboard hanging off the shelves read in pink and white lettering.
“Excited about the book festival?” Emma pointed towards the sign, trying to get the woman to talk. “ I hear Town Hall is pulling out all the stops.”
“Ah, yes. Yes! It would be my first ever, we did not have that kind of thing in the Enchanted Forest, you see.” Rose replied as she began restocking a glass display near the till. “Stories should be celebrated.”
“Have you signed up? I know some people want to present their work and--”
“I have, yes, but I’m thinking of removing my submission.” Her cheeks flushed as her eyes went wide. “It’s--I’m no writer, Sheriff. At least not in a way that is good enough to present to anyone , let alone a festival…”
“I think you might be selling yourself short,” There was a trick to reading people, knowing just the right thing to say. Emma had learned that a long time ago. “Trust me, you can’t be worse than the author who first wrote about this town.”
Rose blinked at her and took a deep breath, it clearly had an effect.
“You’re too kind, Sheriff Swan.” She said meekly as the glass lid went over the newly filled display. “Really. I--I’ll think about it. About staying, I mean. If I don’t completely hate what I wrote.”
Emma’s eyes went directly to the small pile of pastries and bit her cheek. They were the very same rolls she had accepted from Regina this morning. Fig and date, sticky with sugar syrup. Not a coincidence , her gut told her with a tug. A theory was forming in her mind and she decided to put it to test.
“Ah man, how could I forget? Can I have some of these rolls?” Emma pointed at the glass display. “I kinda ate all of Regina’s this morning and she made me promise I’d get her some more.”
“Oh,” There. Rose’s nostrils flared and she swallowed thickly. “Of course, I’m glad they were to your liking. Anything else I could help you with?”
“Yeah, but it’s kind of a dumb question,” It was her laugh that had to sell it. “Do you have something like... I don’t know, sleepy time tea? I’m hopeless at all this stuff.”
“Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“No, not me. When I’m out, I’m out like a rock.” Emma watched how her expression darkened with her answer.
Rose Waters nodded stiffly and reached for a box on the shelf behind her. Any hint of shyness and self-consciousness had been replaced by a quiet anger Emma could feel radiating from her.
“Valerian root should help with, umm, your friend’s troubles,” She tried her best to be polite. “Would that be all, Sheriff?”
“Yeah, I think so..”
The gentle hum of the heater in her office comforted her. Regina had always liked to keep a warm office, the people seated across from her usually found it oppressive. They might have even taken long deep breaths to try and forget about the heat but she never cared to make it colder. It was, perhaps, the luxury she enjoyed the most in this world. But then there was lunch with Emma, who she knew would take off her jacket and say nothing about it. Regina had taken to making the temperature a few degrees cooler with her in mind. Today she had walked in through her door, claiming she wanted no complaints, you are eating a full meal not just sour leaves that hate you. A lamb burger, no cheese. Grilled red onions, buns toasted in olive oil. Fries tossed in garlic salt. Regina always sat in quiet awe at everything Emma seemed to have memorized from the Summer.
“Granny really stepped up her game,” Emma said as wiped her mouth with a napkin. “She even threw in a free slice of pie with the order.”
“Breaking the fried-food monopoly will do that,” Regina picked at her remaining fries, one by one. “Can’t afford to stay behind.”
“Right, small town economics and stuff,” She was angling to say something, there was a tell-tale shift in her eyes, “How did all the new people go about setting up their business, anyway?”
Regina had to bite down her smile at the question, letting Emma believe she had mastered subtlety at last. They would get to what she really wanted to ask eventually. Lunch was the sliver of normalcy they had been allowed and she intended to make it last.
“There was no shortage of cooks and serfs tended to the land in the Enchanted Forest. I believe they simply translated their skills while getting to keep their earnings. The curse gave them an opportunity to leave serfdom behind.”
“Hmmm,” She bit her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Did we do background checks to get them their licences?”
“Yes, Sheriff,” There was a look she was fixing Emma with. “Town Hall made sure to thoroughly vet feudal records and hanging-warrants before we let them run a shawarma shop.”
“Was it so preposterous to ask that?” Emma laughed. “You still have my file.”
“I need something to hold the door sometimes,” Regina liked teasing her, enjoyed the touch of color on Emma’s cheeks. “Now tell me, who is your suspect?”
She tapped two fingers on her knee and then took a deep breath.
“The tea shop owner?” Regina covered her mouth and scoffed at the notion. “She is a mouse of a woman, why on Earth would you suspect her?”
“I caught her going for a run down Mifflin street this morning,” She scratched the back of her neck as she was wont to do when she was uncertain. “Her apartment is on the other side of town. I checked.”
“That’s it? She’s a suspect because she went for a morning run in the nicest part of town?”
“No, that’s not it,” This Emma said like she was pulling off a tooth. “There is this…I don’t know, this strangeness to her. It’s more like a feeling…I think she might be fixated on you, or something. It doesn’t feel right.”
Her ears popped and she almost swallowed her tongue in surprise. Of all the things Regina had expected Emma to list as reasons, that was not one of them. She was at a loss for words and took a sip from the lemonade in front of her.
“I know how this sounds but listen, you had her sweet rolls in your kitchen. You have her tea in your cupboard and this morning she happened to be jogging outside your house?”
“The woman has a harmless little crush, so what?”
“It’s not…” There was a particular way Emma’s brow knitted with stubbornness.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Maybe my gut is wrong and these are all just coincidences,” She side-lined the question and it made Regina’s chest throb. “But on the chance I’m right, can we test some samples I got from her today?”
“If she is trying to get to me, why would she adulterate–”
“Please, just indulge me.”
Regina studied her expression, the lines that would crease around Emma’s eyes. Had it been a different occasion she might have marvelled on how she could understand the cartography of Emma Swan, read the earnestness of her concern. The obsessiveness she knew would grind her down. Regina said nothing as she stood up and walked over to her desk. She lifted the receiver and dialed zero to reach her assistant. Emma watched her with a clenched jaw.
“Carmen, be a dear and cancel my next appointment with the usual apologies. Thank you.”
The look that crossed Emma’s eyes, she had seen it on occasion when they lived across from each other. Incredulous that Regina would say yes to anything she asked. Any one person could easily grow addicted to it. Amar como martir, her father would have called the feeling stirring through her. It powered her magic as Regina transported them to her vault, making sure not a single hair on Emma’s head was changed in any way.
“How are we doing this?” She asked as she held her stomach.
“I’ll apply the same tests to these samples that I did to my blood,” To her own credit, Regina did not sound dismissive as she said it. “It should pick up any magical anomalies.”
Emma nodded and unpacked the contents of the paper bag she’d brought with her. It was too simple, Regina thought. To be so easily controlled by pastry and tea. But they had to know, they had to rule it out. No matter how implausible it all seemed to Regina. She gave Emma something to do with her hands, chop pieces of the sweet rolls. Pulverize the tea mix, add salt water to different vials. Her obsessions reeled inside her mind, they reminded her that last time she was down here she could hardly breathe.
As the tea boiled and as the dates and figs began to burn down to sugar, the cogs inside her mind began clicking again. They would not find anything. Their questions would remain open and Regina would still be the best possible solution. The clarity she had felt this morning was slowly vanishing. Poisons, powders. Venom. Herbs and chemicals. Brujerias y hechizos. No traces of them in the tea leaves, nothing but burned sucrose left of the fruit preserves. Emma watched the vials and turned to look at her, probably expecting Regina to give her the answer she wanted.
“There has to be something we missed…”
“If we did, then I might have missed it when examining myself too,” Regina rubbed her temples. “Based on these tests, Rose Waters is as innocent as I am.”
Emma opened her mouth to protest when there was a sudden and loud bang outside the crypt. Somewhere along the line it had become an instinct of Emma’s to stretch out her arm behind her in an attempt to shield her. Regina found that she did not have it in her to refuse, to mock it, very often. They pushed the door open only to be greeted with a mob who only needed their pitchforks. The townspeople shouted over each other and it was hard to make out the specifics of their allegations but Regina did not need to guess what the essence of it was.
Until Emma pressed her lips together and let out a loud whistle.
“Just one of you is going to tell me what the hell is going on!” Her hands went to her hips. Regina felt the violent waves of Emma’s power reaching her skin.
“Theodora Wallis is dead!” A voice from the back came. “Jimmy O’ Connor found her body out in a field, lord knows how long she’s been there–”
“And you’d know that if you weren’t too busy playing house with the Evil Queen!” Someone Regina recognized as Mr. Harrison interjected.
“When are you going to see the obvious, Sheriff?!”
The mob seemed to advance with the intent of taking her, try to pull her apart like they did when the first curse broke. The itch of her own magic pricked her fingertips and Regina could not distinguish the impulse, if it will be fire or smoke that will envelop her.
“Back off!” Emma shoved at a man who came at her. “I am still your Sheriff, and she is still your Mayor, don’t think I won’t put you in a cell–”
“What is the meaning of all this?!” The question seemed to pacify the crowd as they parted. Regina recognized the enunciation, the drawls and curls. Robin. “Have you all lost your mind?!”
“I am sure Sheriff Swan appreciates your concern about the death of our neighbor but this is not the way,” He cleared his throat. “I will escort Mayor Mills back to her home and you all can cooperate in the appropriate manner.”
Every towns person blinked at him and nodded in chastisement. It was beyond usual and the cogs in Regina’s mind seemed stuck, unsure as to what to make of the scene. She tried reaching for Emma’s wrist to ground herself, thumb the softness of her skin. But then coarse fingers wrapped around her own wrist and led Regina away.
Violent mobs were a thing Regina had grown to expect over the years. They were hardly an occurrence in the Enchanted Forest, after all, she picked her appearances carefully. The Evil Queen would arrive in towns and villages where she was wanted, bags of coin to be distributed. A caravan of grain and cattle. Sometimes, when there was fear involved, she would cloak herself in smoke and threaten to raze the land. The happy and the broken did not riot. But in Storybrooke, where people had the motivation, Regina always braced herself for the moment they would storm into her home again. There were some reassurances she had given to Henry over the phone as soon as she was able. She was safe and most importantly, he would be safe with Emma. When can I come home again? Soon, mi vida. I promise. She allowed herself a tall glass of cider as she sank into the leather armchair in her study. More significantly, Regina let herself marinate in the aftermath.
Robin had been gallant, she could see how his picture would have been illustrated in story books. His features sharpened and his quiver made full of arrows. He had said very little even as his hand hovered behind her back. Regina could have gotten herself home with a flick of her wrist but her body had been drained of its energy. Instead they had made it to her front door where he had cleared his throat and bowed his head. Perhaps she should have invited him in, busied herself with making him tea. Offered him a stiffer drink than that and tried to explain the complexities of the situation. But Regina did not have it in her, the will to go through the performance. What she desperately wished was to be lulled into sleep by the steadiness of Emma’s breathing.
The doorbell rang and she thought of not answering but her limp body left her seat anyway. It was not late, it was actually too early for Regina to blink her way to the front door. She opened it without any caution and forced herself to smile at who she saw standing there.
“Miss Waters,” Regina greeted her as she gripped the door knob. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I hope you don’t mind me, Madam Mayor!” She held a basket in her arms, overflowing with food and tea. “I heard about the commotion today and I wanted to drop something off.”
“I–thank you,” She said, catching her breath.
“Some of us are on your side, ma’am.”
Rose Waters said it so honestly, so genuinely that Regina had to clear her throat. She examined the woman and searched for what Emma saw in her, the thing that sparked her suspicion. Her eyes were too wide and her smile too eager but she failed to find faults that went beyond peculiarities. It could have been what compelled her to open her mouth with an invitation.
“Would you like to come in?”
“Gosh, I–yes. I’d love to!” The woman said excitedly and practically rushed in when Regina opened her door wider. “Wow, it’s…you have a truly lovely home, ma’am.”
She stood in Regina’s foyer like one might in front of a place of worship one had finally been allowed in. Miss Waters cradled the basket closer to her chest and let her eyes wander as Regina led her to the sitting room. The peculiarities were more apparent then, she seemed to talk herself out of touching her wallpaper. The tips of her fingers came close to running along the edges of photo frames. Regina heard the smallest gasp when she found the newest addition to her photos, Emma and Henry making faces at the camera. Taken during that missing year away from her. Harmless, all harmless, it was worth reminding herself.
“Is something the matter, dear?” She motioned for her to sit across from her.
“No, nothing’s the matter,” Rose Waters shook her head and set the basket down. “I guess photography is still one of those things that takes me by surprise in this world. It’s something to keep friends and family close to you like that.”
“I suppose it is,” Regina studied the way her fingers flexed and unflexed. The anxious energy to them and thought it was still harmless. “How about I make us some tea?”
Her pale complexion turned bright red up to her ears as she nodded furiously. In the minutes Regina set the water to boil and dropped the leaf mix into a pot she considered that perhaps this act was thoughtless. To let her guard down so easily simply because of a skittish woman who seemed to be taken by everything in her home. There had been nothing in the samples. Poisons, powders. Venom. Herbs and chemicals. Brujerias y hechizos. No traces of them in the tea leaves, nothing but burned sucrose left of the fruit preserves. Harmless, harmless. The woman was as innocent as Regina was. That is what she’d told Emma and believed it.
“Do you need any help?” The question asked behind her back made Regina flinch.
“I’m alright, thank you.”
“Oh, I just thought–” Her thin brown hair looked gray in the kitchen. “After all that has happened, you could use someone to take care of it for you.”
“I can assure you, I’m fine.” It felt as if a pebble were stuck in her throat. She focused on pouring boiling water into the pot and letting the leaves bloom.
“Can I–I confess something?” Her bottom lip quivered.
Regina bobbed her head as she spooned sugar into the ceramic pot. It felt like she had cornered herself into listening.
“In my village all girls dreamed of getting out, ma’am. It was one of the places people forgot about, even during the war. It was a gray, miserable place. But once a year the faeries would come and bring the flowers with them. They would tell us about the princesses and lucky girls who would get their wishes granted. About far away lands and adventures. How good was always rewarded.”
“Fairies play favorites” The pebble in her throat seemed to grow in size and Regina could not think of sparking fire between her fingers.
“Maybe. But one, I think she might have taken pity on me, told me that even the Evil Queen had a soulmate, a man with a lion’s mark. It gave me hope,” There was a shine to her eyes. “That I could find a prince or outlaw who would come rescue me.”
“Did he?” She asked despite knowing the answer. Despite knowing that in the end there had been no one who had come for Regina. That stories could be nothing but convenient lies they told children to keep them from thinking about their empty stomachs.
“I–I wished,” Her smile was nervous but it filled Regina’s insides with cold. “I still do, I guess. To have a brave and noble man to come whisk me away or I don’t know…stand by me at any cost.”
She held her tongue and burned it with the hot tea to avoid giving Rose Waters an answer. There is this…I don’t know, this strangeness to her. It’s more like a feeling . The clicks in her mind were getting louder but Regina only took a deep breath.
“Oh gosh, listen to me going on about this! I’m a hopeless romantic, I–”Her hands went to her chest in genuine emotion, that much Regina could tell was real. “I heard what Robin Hood did for you today, how he walked you home and all those silly hopeful feelings came back to me!”
The chill traveled down her spine, to her toes. That strange feeling Emma must have caught and Regina must have missed. She smiled at her, like one does when staring danger in the face.
Theodora Wallis had been blue by the time she had made it to the scene, that striking look of terror permanently etched out in her features. Emma had punched the car door as she left the scene. Nothing they had done had brought them closer to stopping the murders. Fuck, she couldn’t even keep Regina safe from the very people they were trying to protect. Fuck . Emma had drawn a blank when Henry slid into the car after school, his chest rising unsteadily. Where’s mom? Wasn’t her day to come pick me up? There had been a quiet wish she had made., that their lives had been as quiet as they had been in the city That their conversations would be filled with dumb little annoyances. Dirty subway cars, knee scrapes. Flunking a math quiz. She’d taken the long way to the station. Emma had closed the blinds and stretched out behind her desk once they had reached her office.
“Ma, do you mind if I read these?” Henry asked, pointing at the big box of festival submission Mulan had left on her desk. “Social media gets kinda old after the tenth time I’ve hit refresh.”
“You’d be doing me a favor, kid,” Emma breathed out. “Volunteer proofreaders sorta crapped out on us and the deadline’s on Monday.”
“Do you still think the festival will still happen with everything that’s going on?” He picked a file that had been bound together by string.
“I hope so,” She made her smile as reassuring as she could. “Better put in the work if we’re going to be done on time”
He settled back on the couch with a determined look on his face. He didn’t know it but there was so much of Regina in him, giving himself work comforted him. His mind would go and keep going if it was not tethered to something. Emma watched his restlessness fade as he circled and underlined mistakes and read out fragments he found amusing. Ma, did you know Sneezy submitted a memoir? What’s it called? ‘Sneezing through Life’. They were half way through Grumpy’s rebuttal to Sneezy’s account of the events when Emma found what felt like a whole ream of paper at the bottom of the box. The Queen’s Outlaw by Rose Waters.
There it was, the thing she had missed.
Emma’s throat closed as she turned the pages on the hefty manuscript. The young Queen shouldn’t have feared, for the faerie showed her there was another way. That her future laid right before her, if she were brave enough to take it. But the Queen could not, her heart had been too broken to withstand a new love so soon. She glanced at her son, who was still contently buried in other submissions. Her pulse quickened as her thumb quickly flipped ahead onto the story. There was despair in knowing that the people would never accept her, that they would never come to see her as the tyrant who had once ruled their lives. The florist, the butcher. Nurses, and teachers. Everyone who went about their life wondering when the Evil Queen would return, everyone who remembered what it was to fall from her grace, would have been waiting for it.. Did you hear? Oh, I always knew it was her. Who else could it be? They would say, who else would be capable? …The townspeople piled all the Queen’s misdeeds and lined them up in their heads as they marched towards her crypt. They were ready to rid the town of her but then the Outlaw’s ears picked up on the commotion and knew he was to rescue his soulmate. Dashing and righteous, he parted the mob to escort his Queen back to safety.
There were more sentences, detailed to the point of pain. Her eyes sped through the periods and commas, until her hands began to shake. She could be sick with the way her mouth went numb and her vision went black. Emma felt herself walk to open her door to find Mulan stirring sugar into her coffee.
“Hey,” Her voice sounded muffled to her ears. “When was the deadline for those festival submissions? Did someone come in today for a replacement or something like it?”
“Uh, no. Everyone submitted on time two days ago. Why?”
“Shit.” Emma took one last look at her son and rushed through the bull-pen. “Watch him, OK? Not a second out of your sight.”
“What? Where are you going?!”
No time, there was no time to answer. Emma hit Regina on speed dial as she headed towards the car. All she got was the dial tone, over and over again. The last line she’d read cut her breath and Emma knew it was only a matter of seconds before she was too late.
The Queen opened her door to a new friend, a humble shop-keeper.
Who saw it coming? :o
TW for descriptions of blood and graphic violence.
I finally finished! Sorry about the wait!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Regina Mills had always been aware of her beauty, she had been Queen after all. There was a certain port and whether it had been bred or cultivated, no one could say. All that was certain was that she had been a Queen and looked like it. She questioned the reasons why she would open her door to a humble shopkeeper. Perhaps they were simple; there was some goodness left in her still. That it was easy to believe in someone who believed in her. The Queen busied herself with cutting the crusts of white bread and smiled without showing any teeth. It was polite, there were lessons she did not forget.
“How did it feel when you were first told you had a soul mate?” The shopkeeper asked as appreciated the Queen’s poise.
“I can’t say I remember,” Her eyes had a lovely darkness to them. “It was so long ago and I was just a girl.”
This shocked the shopkeeper, as it had not been the story told by the fairies. She remembered how thrilling it had all sounded. That hope should have been offered to the Evil Queen in the prime of her horror, that someone out there was destined to love her. A lesson in patience too, to know that pain was to be suffered before finally reaching that foretold happiness. But to learn that the story had been exaggerated, a fiction , made her heart clench in agony. Surely the Queen was being modest. Surely she was protecting her feelings about the Outlaw.
“But, when you met him again? Sparks must have flown!” She gratefully accepted a sandwich and took one timid bite. “Was it everything you imagined it to be?”
The Queen took a deep breath.
“I had never dared to imagine it.”
“Oh, isn’t that so…” It was intoxicating to think of a woman so beautiful, so regal, to have been so lost. “ Romantic .”
“I suppose it is.”
The shopkeeper squealed, unable to help herself. It was the tipping point of her life, it was something she could feel. There wasn’t a thing about this day she wanted to miss. Not the scent of the spices and leaves in the teapot. The distinct way the Autumn Sun came in through the kitchen window. The loose curls forming at the tips of the Queen’s hair, the ones that betrayed her origins. She noted how the marble of the counter felt cool and how polished the copper of hanging pots was. The shopkeeper could see her reflection on them and she dared to think, her future. The many, many afternoons to come when she could be the Queen’s confidant. Hear all about her day, offer to put on the kettle. Until finally, she was asked to stay for dinner. And delight at all the Outlaw had to say about his day once he joined them at the table.
“Ma’am, it is truly such an honor to…to.., you cannot imagine–”
Then, unexpectedly, the kitchen door swung open. Out of order, upending all of the shopkeeper’s hopes.
“Regina,” The Sheriff said out of breath with her fists flexed. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
She wanted to say yes to that question. There was nothing that the shopkeeper wanted more than to rewrite that second, make it so that her figure never appeared. Make it a better scene, the one she had pictured in her mind when she made sugar syrup to cover the delicate pastry of fig rolls. The ones she had gone through great pains to make. As she had everything else.
“Emma,” Something shifted in the Queen’s face. It made bitterness spread within the shopkeeper. “No, not at all. Miss Waters and I were just making conversation.”
“Right, OK.” The Sheriff moistened her lips and stepped closer to the Queen. “How do you feel about continuing that at the station?”
Just like that the sweet smells of the afternoon air turned pungent
Under regular circumstances Regina could have protested having a police jacket draped on her shoulders. She might have snapped at the suggestion that she needed it. But she was cold, her body chilled to the bone. The thick wool of the collar scratched her cheeks, the rest of her body wanted to curl in on itself. Thinking about the scents of the kitchen, of having to smile and talk of happiness, Regina thought of death. Not in the way she’d done for so many years, at times as relief. An escape for the noise contained in her mind, the only earned and logical ending for the Evil Queen.
As she had watched the expression Rose Waters’ take delight in every lie or omission Regina told she came to think of death as undesirable. Fearsome. All the things she would miss had pulled at her. Henry’s yawns in the morning. Essays to be proofread, long grain rice and chickpeas on Wednesdays. Dulce radura and hot oil. Filling Emma’s glass with the beer she would never say was expensive. The tentative touches on her knuckles and everything left unsaid between them. She had been afraid of losing it all.
Regina took a sip of the terrible station coffee and tightened her grip on the porcelain mug she knew was Emma’s. Little had been said about how Rose Waters might be responsible for the murders, all the woman had done was chatter nervously in the back of the patrol. Splutters about wanting to clear up a misunderstanding and sympathizing with wanting to keep the Mayor safe, of course. Emma hadn’t said a word back to her. In fact, she hadn’t said anything at all. Not even her fingers had brushed against Regina’s in the front seat. It had made her feel so brittle, like the chords inside her throat were nothing but salt crystals. Ready to crumble with the slightest touch.
The door to the Sheriff’s office opened and in walked Emma with a crease in her brow. Regina noticed the hunch of her shoulders and the tightness of her breathing. All things that had not been present in the Summer and not for the first time she felt a pang of guilt. Of having brought her back to Storybrooke. For refusing her offer to leave it. Emma tossed a barely held together manuscript on her desk and threw herself on the couch next to her.
“Did she confess?”
“No,” Emma tipped her head back and closed her eyes. “She thinks she’s cooperating in the investigation because she’s a good citizen or whatever.”
“That was to be expected with delusional fantasies,” Regina tightened her grip on the mug between her hands, knowing there were answers she had to demand. “How did you know to come looking for me?”
It was quiet for too long and there was a tremor permeating Emma’s energy.
“I don’t need you to spare my feelings,” She turned her gaze on her and found Emma already regarding her. “ I need you to trust I can handle myself.”
“I do trust you.” Emma said, moistening her lips. She retrieved the mound of paper off her desk. “ It’s just that she..umm, wrote about it. About you, for the book festival no less.”
The volume fell with a thud on the couch. It made Regina taste bile when she saw the faux-delicate font read The Queen’s Outlaw . Leather bound story books made her heart jump in a potent mix of fear and rage but to think that these dogeared pages held together by string could be causing her all this pain felt like a dagger at her side. It was revolting that so many versions of herself should be contained in writing.
“What else is in it?” Regina asked as she thumbed the corners of the thing. “Does it say who the killer is?”
“No, it reads like a shitty mystery novel,” Emma rubbed her temples. “It’s unfinished too. Mulan’s questioning her now. She denies the whole thing and can’t explain how her writing matches the murders.”
“Is the text directive or predictive?” She thought of those pale eyes watching her in the kitchen and suppressed a shudder.
“What do you mean?” Her chest rose and fell unsteadily, as if Regina had stumbled on something she’d wanted to keep secret.
“Do you think it’s directing people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t or is it merely anticipating their actions? Magic is still involved in both but prediction might be unintentional.”
“I’m inclined to think she has an accomplice somewhere,” It was a careful sidestep Emma took as her eyes drifted towards the manuscript. “More coordination and stalking than magic.”
“In Storybrooke? Not likely,” Regina reached for volume and opened it in spite of the sickness she felt. “Now, let’s see what we’re dealing with.”
Emma breathed in sharply and that tremor in her energy moved to her knee. She could feel the burn of her eyes on her skin, it made her ears throb with her pulse. Regina turned to the very middle of the book, where they might be stuck. In this moment that felt less than final.
In her guilt the Queen went down to her vault to search for a way to resurrect the fair maiden who was the Outlaw’s wife. The very woman whose heart she had taken in the forest. She wanted to be clean of it, she wanted to be absolved of all of her wrongdoing. Unworthy of the Outlaw’s love is what she thought she was. How could she be his true love when she had robbed him of happiness?
“I’m sorry, you don’t know–”
“Regina,” Whispered the Outlaw as he stepped out of the shadows and kissed her.
“It’s alright.” He said as he lifted her up against the wall.
“What is it?” Emma leaned forward, just shy of touching her. “What did you find?”
It was like staring into a warped mirror, a twisted image that resembled her. That the guilt, the terror of her past could have forced her down that path. It was violating, the dagger that cut through the scarred tissue that might have protected her. But like perfectly cut and trimmed pieces, everything inside Regina clicked into place. It felt good in that familiar and awful way, the comfort of knowing that she despised Rose Waters.
“Let me go in,” Regina said, slipping out of the police jacket. “I know what I have to do.”
Emma felt her pulse race and the unruly magic in her veins shake with something. Maybe it was the anticipation of a disaster. Regina had that narrow, hard look in her eye, the one that could scorch everything to ash. It had been gentler over the Summer, with melting ice cream in paper bags and left-overs in Tupperware. Softened until it turned pleading when Emma had that glass vial in between her fingers, not wanting to believe. And let go of that Regina, standing in front of her. Please, you don’t know how much I wish I…please, Emma. She should have smashed that glass vial when she had the chance. They wouldn’t be here, standing in a hallway waiting to be tagged in to question Rose Waters. A fucking psychic murderer, according to Regina.
“What are you going to do when we’re in there?” Emma whispered as she leaned closer to her.
“She’ll be lucky if I don’t actually rip her heart out–” Her lips twitched with restrained fury.
That elicited a deep sigh from her, a gaze that begged something out of her. It made Emma reach for the sleeve of her blouse, touch her wrist with the pad of her fingers. She wanted to tell her that they did not have to do this, there was a town line. Something that could so easily erase everything, make their problems simple. About lost keys, broken heaters and spoiled milk.
“I want her to admit it,” Regina told her quietly. “I want her to pay for it.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Emma swallowed, anchoring herself in the hum of her magic.
There were some of Rose Water’s words that still clung to her mind like gum to her hair. She wanted to unsee the images they created, the strong arms that held Regina. That pieced her back together after having been hammered into jagged and mismatched fragments. Emma couldn’t even bring herself to pity the woman.
“I only want you to be careful.”
“That’s what you’re there for, Sheriff.” Her fingers closed around Emma’s hand. “To keep me in check.”
The door to the interrogation room opened, Mulan emerged with a sullen expression. She bit off at the excess skin of her lips, her eyes rimmed with exhaustion.
“I…I tried . But she never even hesitated. Not a contradiction in anything she said,'' She told them, a frantic hand in her hair. “What if she didn’t do this, what if we’re wrong?”
“We’re not.” Regina’s voice was harsh as she walked past her.
Emma gave Mulan an apologetic look, one last one before taking the plunge into the bright fluorescence of the interrogation room. It made Rose Waters look smaller, like the clerk in a library who could have suggested she read something more suited for her age. The blue of her eyes looked almost milky and she smiled. Wide. As she watched Regina take the seat in front of her.
“Hello, Rose.” Regina’s back might have been a rod, her lips were parted just enough to give the illusion of openness. Emma had forgotten how dangerous, how sharp she could be.
“Madam Mayor,” Rose’s voice was chipper, it felt like cheap candy on a bad tooth. She spoke as if she’d been invited to the station for some shitty coffee and doughnuts. “How are you holding up, ma’am?”
“I’m fine, dear. It’s not as if there is a murderer out on the prowl,” She folded her fingers over each other, the tips just an inch away from the woman’s. “Unless you tell me otherwise.”
It made a vein throb in Emma’s neck, her hands curled on instinct. The burning white of her magic pulated in between her joints.
“I..I wish I could say. I truly, honestly, don’t know,” Her cheeks turned a deep shade of pink. “I’ve told Sheriff Swan and Deputy Hua that–”
“You have no idea how the killings match your writing,” Emma felt herself take a step towards the table. “Yeah, we got that. Loud and clear”
“Oh Rose, I thought we were friends.” The words were almost sweet, shy as Regina leaned forward. A perfectly calculated act. It might not be ripping the heart out of Rose’s chest but it was something close to it.
“You did?” Her chest swelled at the thought.
“Of course I did,” Regina told her gently. She liked toying with her prey, Emma remembered that now. There was the lure, the bait that could be so willingly taken. “After all, you seem to have me down to my taste in tea and spices, don’t you?”
“I’m observant,” Rose cheerfully snagged the bait. “I like picking up on details.”
“You’re thoughtful, deliberate,” She tossed her back and chuckled. “Which means you wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”
“I…I only want what’s best for you, ma’am, ” The woman swallowed and put a hand to her chest. “Whatever makes you happy.”
“See, there you go,” In an instant, Regina’s lips dropped and her eyes lit up with all the violence of her magic. “ Lying .”
“I promise you I’m not. Please, please..”
The table rattled her hands and the speakers above began to channel pure static. The woman in front of them gasped and winced, as if just looking into Regina’s eyes was painful.
Violet encircled them and Emma only knew to squeeze Regina’s shoulder before magic began to tighten around Rose Waters. Under her touch, she could feel the hard muscles of Regina’s neck begin to relax. The rage of her magic combined with the fury of hers until they were both dulled and extinguished.
“How are you doing it, Rose?” Emma asked her, her hand steadying Regina’s back. “Is someone working with you?”
“I..I.. I just write these things!” The stammer echoed in her ears until it rang false. “If they are coming to life then it has nothing to do with me, I swear!”
“I don’t believe that’s true,” She felt her vocal chords restrain themselves. “I think everything in your story is just one long wish. It might as well be a signed confession.”
“How else would you explain it? Is the manuscript an instruction book, a hit list?”
“That’s not it,” Rose shook her head as her eyes blinked away the tears. “You have to believe me, Madam Mayor”
“I don’t have to do anything, Miss Waters .” Regina spat out. “I owe you nothing but my contempt.”
The woman took Regina’s hands and gripped them fiercely. It made their combined magic boil and burn in Emma’s blood. It was like a tap to her knee, shielding Regina from the intended harm. She barely felt the energy dripping out of her body, growing into a shockwave that pushed Rose away from the table.
“Emma,” This time it was Regina soothing the magic away. A simple touch to her wrist. “I can see this is a waste of our time.”
The chair scratched against the floor as Regina got up and did not spare the woman another glance.Rose’s eyes suddenly grew watery as they did wider. Her lip trembled and her fists grabbed the bunched up fabric of her skirt.
“I’ll have someone bring you dinner to your cell.” Emma told her as she followed Regina on her way out of the room.
“Sheriff, wait,” The words came out broken. “ I don’t understand it either…I, it’s not working. Not the way I intended.”
“In my book, I’d written that the Queen falls in love,” Rose wiped at the corner of her eyes and let out a defeated laugh. The skin over her knuckles had tightened enough to make them bone white. “But I see now that…that it’s obviously impossible.”
“Yeah, and why is that?” Emma held her breath as she looked at the woman.
“The Queen is already in love.”
Emma’s heart hammered until her chest ached with the possibility.
Summer had made her life be composed of moments. Ephemeral and prized. Regina kept expecting a definite end to them. One final that she would forever treasure as the last of its kind. Rose Waters’s declaration, one that laid her bare so simply should have been the thing that marked the end of all those fragile moments. Every cell of her body had grown unruly, her lungs constricted painfully outside that interrogation. She had been so sure. So sure, it would be like their last night in New York. Those hours after they had been mellowed out by wine and Henry had gone to bed. Where the possibility of another life had expanded within her rib cage. Regina could have taken it, taken Emma’s lips with hers. It would have been a mistake. Yeah, lucky for us you stopped it, huh?
“Emma,” Regina had begun right outside the door, desperate to keep her. “She is clearly–”
She had shaken her head, her eyes brittle and Regina had grown silent. Emma had leaned forward and cupped her face. It had been so gentle, her touch so careful on her skin that it shattered every argument. They’d stood there in that hallway in a moment that had seemed to stretch out, with Emma’s fingers caught in the waves of her hair. With Regina’s hand going to her Emma’s waist, closing her eyes to feel the soft thrum of their magic. Her heart slowly settling into this new rhythm, one that accepted that perhaps there was no end . That things were not as breakable as they had once seemed.
But then Mulan’s hurried footsteps came down the hallway. There had been another body found, near the town line.The possibility of another killer still lingered in Emma’s mind, the shift in her gaze made it evident to Regina.
“Go.” The world had trembled out of her. “I’ll go back to my vault and search for a way to unravel this mess.”
“But–” Her thumb had lingered on her jaw.
“I’ll be alright,” Regina had promised her. “We need to work quickly and you can’t afford to play bodyguard right now.”
Emma had given her a reluctant nod and released her. Regina had taken herself to her vault and pulled every relevant tome off her shelves. Now that she knew, now that she understood the magic that had taken root then she counter it. It was coercive and intertwined with hope. That made it more volatile than anything born from rage, the loss of hope could make it explosive. Perhaps Rose had channeled that into the creation of a thing, a being that would do her bidding. While the town and everyone in it slowly bent to her words, it wouldn’t have felt invasive. The magic would have seeped into the carvings of their mind, they would have thought a craving. A feeling that came over them that seemed normal enough. It was frightening to consider.
If not for a season full of subway cars and the sound of her son’s laughter on wide sidewalks, Regina might have convinced herself that she should love the man who was supposed to be her soulmate. She could so easily come to believe she owed it to him, she had taken his wife and now his happiness was her burden. If not for Emma helping herself to seconds of her food and wiping her boots at the door because she never wanted to be told to leave. Her most hidden truth was that Regina had seen the point of no return with Emma when she had climbed out of the well and returned to their son. She had seen that horizon and chosen to rush past it.
A needle of pain pricked the middle of her chest just as there was a muffled sound at the top of the stairs. Sparkling fire at the tips of her fingers she checked the entrance to her vault and found it empty. The air had changed, grown thicker. Regina could feel how it swirled into her and made her ache. Another illusion of her mind, Regina could not allow it to progress. She took deep breaths and continued her search for a way to free from the whims of a shoddy-would-be-author.
Regina flipped through volumes and scrolls, finding nothing but warnings to the caster. Nothing for the trapped, all the knowledge she’d collected had never assumed she would ever be the captive one again. Emma had called Rose Waters’s writing one long wish and perhaps that was the answer. One that had been made over and over again, in so many words, against the will of the people contained in its pages. Wishes and yearnings were particularly pernicious, the magic would claw and resist its destruction. It was not as simple as a curse, curses understood they were meant to wound. They were certain of their purposes. Wishes and the magic involved in them were sugar coated poison. Victims would gladly suck on the sweetness until it killed them.
There was a click behind her, as if someone had unlatched one of her chests. Another trick of her mind that sent one long, painful chill down her spine. It made her magic electric in her blood as she chose to ignore it. Until she couldn’t.
Until glass broke behind her and she turned around only to find herself standing there. In heeled boots and a fine yellow coat, blinking at Regina as if she were a reflection.
The shopkeeper sat caged in a cell. Her heart had been snapped in half. As a young girl she had been told tales of the Queen’s cruelty and she had thought it wonderful. Wonderful that it should be the love of the Outlaw who would have made it subsume, transform her into someone good. He would have shown her the way of the woods, made her skirts wet in the creeks and rivers. The Outlaw would have made fires for her and given her a place around them. That cruelty would have only been reserved for their enemies. But the Queen herself had snatched that away from her. Destroyed everything the shopkeeper had wanted to give her, all for the Sheriff. Who the shopkeeper had never stopped to consider in her writing, after all when the faeries had never given her too much consideration beyond prophecies. A thief, that is what they should have called her. How could she have known, how could she have foreseen such a twisted turn of events?
“Oh, dear Rose, what’s the matter?” His voice made her gasp. “Why have they got you behind these bars?”
It was him, the Outlaw himself. The shopkeeper wiped her tears away with the back of her sleeve to appreciate his expression. Kind and understanding, like she knew he always was. If anyone could understand it would be him. Shining, gold heart.
“Just a precaution, they said,” She smiled at him. “There has been another murder.”
“Yes, I was hoping to speak to someone about setting up a Merry Men watch,” His brow knit, just as she always seen it. It was exhilarating to see it in person, the thing she had so described..“I don’t want to criticize the Sheriff’s ways but why leave you here unguarded? Surely she would want to keep you safe.”
Because he was good and just he could never think ill of the shopkeeper. Not the woman who baked pudding and short-bread cookies for his son. Who knew just the brew for those forest colds. He deserved to be rewarded, she believed. His service, his heroism could not be overlooked in favor of Sheriff whose qualities amounted to having been born as foretold. To rob her and everyone like her of their dreams.
“I..I don’t mind it, really,” A thought formed inside her mind. “But, could..I bother you for some paper and pen? It can get..lonely here. I'd rather keep myself busy.”
“It’s the least I could do.” He told her as he handed her a good number of pages and a pen.
The shopkeeper got to work as the Outlaw settled in a nearby chair. She imagined a whole future for him and the Queen. One where happiness could abound, a Queen that knew nothing of the Sheriff. Whose pain could only be lifted by true love. Her Queen would live beautiful, in love with her fate. With a final period on the page, the shopkeeper sealed her work. But as she should have come to expect, the Sheriff footsteps came to steal and destroy her careful design.
“What the hell are you doing?!” She threw the cell door open, furious.
“Just some light writing, I thought it wouldn’t do any harm–” The Outlaw stood up to her defense. The shopkeeper felt a pleasant warmth course through her, he would stay here while his destiny was fixed for him.
The Sheriff seized her pages and read in a frenzy. All the color drained from her face, there was something to be said about fear on a Savior’s expression. The shopkeeper knew she must have reached the end for she ripped the pages into the smallest pieces she could.
“I’m sorry,” She sighed. “But…but it was the only way.”
“For what?” Her voice was weak and wobbly.
That made the Sheriff abandon everything and run towards the lifeless body of the Queen.
“What are you?” Regina asked, her breath faltering.
The thing said nothing but it breathed. It took up space, the stitching of its clothes were exquisite. It bore the same scar on her lip, the same mole on her neck. It was awe inducing like all terrible, horrifying things were. To see the infinite vacancy in her reflection’s eyes. Regina stood in front of it with her first on fire and breathing on the air grew thicker. It, the thing that bore her face, looked right past her. This was Rose Waters’s long wish, this version of herself who had thoughtlessly committed atrocities. Perhaps the idea was that Regina would become more like her, malleable and helpless. That in the end she would have been too desperate to atone, begging to be forgiven.
But seeing it now, slowly inching towards her she knew the plan must have changed. Regina hurled fire at it as she put distance between them. A being of pure magical energy, it only absorbed the flames into itself. Her reflection matched her steps, the heel of their boots had a rhythm to them. It was a macabre dance she recognized but Regina had grown unaccostumed to following another’s lead.
In an instant the thing that stole her face closed the distance between and plunged its hand into her chest, like the sharpest of daggers. Se me la vida, she thought. Those pieces, those cogs that had always worked with so much precision told her that was the end. Stories always come to them, and it was just that this should be hers. Here was the moment where that precarious balance was lost and the fragile, crystal pieces shattered.
Tears burned in her eyes as the grip around her heart tightened and her bones began stiffening with it. Can you stay forever? And make flan every weekend! What, suddenly you’re too good for freezer cheesecake, kid?” She was so far beyond that horizon now, to sink into nothingness now made her weep. To miss early morning yawns, long-grain rice and the possibility, the possibility of life. Her life. If this magic would claw at her then so would she.
There was power in refusing to submit, in the obstinate determination that had always been hers. Regina called her power to make her fingers blades that could cut into her reflection’s rib cage. Her hand went past the bone until it found the muscle, until she felt beat in her grasp. It was unlike any other heart she had taken in the past, this one was still flesh and fibers. She squeezed tighter and tighter and her reflection mirrored her.
Her own heart had been glass in its cold fingers, she could feel how it would fracture. Split down the middle then turned to dust. Regina dug her nails into the muscle, tore, tore and tore at it. Blood ran down her elbow and tainted her clothes red. Fuck . The glass of her heart had begun to splinter as they both collapsed onto the ground. The thing with its emptiness pressed down on her, quietly. It was worse that it was not angry, that it did as it was told. She pressed the organ harder in her grip, its flesh wet on her finger tips. Don’t you ever think about what we left behind? Regina’s vision was clouded with red, red, red until it was black.
Until it was nothing, until she was nothing. A gentle force rocked that nothing from side to side. It was warm and she thought it was not so bad. That this should be her fate.
“Regina, Regina!” A voice called out to her. “Oh my God, shit. Oh my God..”
That warmth pressed its lips against her temples. Kissed her hair, her cheeks. Her lips, as it was searching for an answer and could not find it.
“Wake up, please. Please, please.” The warmth cried and encircled her.
The black, the nothingness began to dissipate and her chest was filled with air. Emma’s face hung above her, strained and wet. She was alive, she was alive. A long sob tore its way through Regina’s body with careful arms wrapped around her middle.
“I got you, it’s OK.” Emma buried her face in her hair and cried with her. “I got you.”
Would love to know what you think!