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Regina comes to her in the evenings from the very first night, when the castle is quiet and the only sounds that Snow can hear are the steady drip, drip, drip of water somewhere in the distance and the echoing sound of the guards’ footfalls in the halls. Regina is her only visitor, of course. The guards had once been Snow’s– she knows them by name, remembers them well, but they don’t know her anymore. They serve only their queen, and Snow is but a nameless prisoner in the dungeons.

When Regina comes, it is prideful and vicious, cold and vengeful. “Your Prince Charming is dead,” she says the first time. “As you deserve.” Snow had wept, of course, had mourned David, right up until Regina’s grudging return a week later and an announcement of, “Your darling husband lies in your childhood bedroom, eternally slumbering.”

She does that at first, plays mind games with Snow and delights in them, and Snow’s defiance feels feeble in the face of Regina’s power. Regina has won. Snow’s precious daughter is somewhere far from this castle, left alone without a family. Snow’s husband is lying unconscious somewhere in this castle. And Snow will never leave the dungeons again.

Regina rages, Regina accuses, Regina is someone twisted and furious and Snow looks at her and wonders how she could have become this. Has it only been a dozen or so years since Snow had seen Regina on a horse and known that she was good? In the quiet of the dungeons, she retraces Regina’s history with her, remembers every smile and every comment, struggling to understand when it had been that Regina had first begun to despise her.

When Daniel had died, Snow concludes at first. That had been her great crime, telling a secret as a child. She had trusted someone evil, and Regina had paid the price. But no, she is suddenly sure. Regina had been furious with her. Regina had blamed her. But there had still been moments when she had smiled with her true eyes. With her soft gaze that had been real, no matter what Regina might tell herself now. Regina had loved her, even if she’d been angry, and that had only dulled over time.

“There was no one time,” she says suddenly, and Regina pauses in the middle of a diatribe to stare at her. Regina, to Snow’s quiet amusement, comes to Snow to complain, because everyone else is just too obedient now. And Snow watches her and tries to figure out what had gone wrong.

Now she knows. “It wasn’t a moment that broke us. It was dozens. You hated me over time.” She knows what her father must have done to Regina. She isn’t a fool. He had been a king, and had demanded certain duties of his queen. He had been possessive and demanding, and she remembers sneaking into Regina’s room whenever her father had put Regina under lock and key, slipping past guards with a bright smile and bringing her sweets. They’d lain together on the bed and Snow had thought this is sisterhood when she’d been old enough to understand that Regina only has about eight years on her.

Regina hadn’t hated her then, either. Had she?

“I’ve always hated you,” Regina sneers, but it is a feeble argument now, when Snow has replayed every moment already.

“Was it magic that made you hate me?” she asks. She knows better than to mention her father, but she wonders if it might have been a little of both, slowly poisoning Regina against her. In this empty tomb, with no family or friends to speak with, Snow can think more clearly about everything between them.

“I should have executed you months ago,” Regina snaps, but there is something uncertain about it, something hesitant that Snow hadn’t expected.

When she thinks about it, it makes perfect sense. “You can’t,” she says, and she watches Regina, sees the emptiness and frustration in her eyes, and she knows exactly why. “I’m your only friend.”

Regina barks out a furious laugh, and she strides off.

But the next day she is back, and she does not stop. There are fewer and fewer grievances to air, little to hold over Snow’s head anymore. Regina tells lies about the deaths of Snow’s friends and allies, and Snow learns to show no emotion at all. It saves lives, she knows, keeps the people safe, and she gets better at it until eventually Regina tires of frightening her.

She talks about Snow’s missing daughter sometimes, and those are the only times  Snow allows herself to show emotion. “Do you think she died on the side of a road somewhere, trampled by a horse’s hooves?” Regina suggests brightly. “Or maybe your magical wardrobe dropped her into a lake.”

Snow trembles, fears the worst, and misses her poor daughter with all she has. It has been…months now, locked up in this dungeon without any way out. Snow has tried, has attacked guards bringing her food and scraped at the walls with utensils, but this is the cage that had held the Dark One once. It is impenetrable.

Most of the time, though, Regina comes just to talk. To complain about Snow’s imbecile advisors and about the useless villagers and about how her victory is so easy. Snow is fairly certain that Regina has discovered that her victory is dull, that she has constructed her entire life around a fight that has been won and now she is all alone.

Regina snarls at her when Snow points it out, and she storms off and then storms back the next day with a litany of reasons why Snow is wrong. “Admit it,” Snow says, raising her eyebrows. “You’d be happier if you let me out and spent the next ten years chasing me through the woods.”

“I’d be happier if you were dead,” Regina bites out, but she doesn’t leave.

And so they settle into this, months of arguments and quiet conversation, of a Regina whom Snow had longed for for so long. Not the gentle, loving Regina of Snow’s youth. No. That Regina is long gone. But a friend, a rival, someone who feels like an equal– there she is.

It’s the only thing in this cursed, dead world that feels real, and Snow comes to savor every conversation. Regina has grown more mild, less hateful and cold. She is still angry and twisted and lost, but it all feels like playacting now, like she’s struggling to be someone she has misplaced.

And then.

And then, one night, Regina arrives in the dungeons with her face pale and her eyes frantic, and Snow is at once afraid. “She’s here,” she says, and somehow, Snow immediately knows who. “I don’t know how. She must have…somehow, she came here before the curse. When Rumple escaped, she went to him. And now she’s here.” She paces, and there is no regal bearing to her steps anymore, nothing but the fear of a child. “She remembers everything.”

“Who,” Snow says. She already knows.

Regina casts her a frightened, despairing look. “Mother,” she says, and Snow reaches out of the bars of the cage and takes Regina’s arm.

They are perhaps the only people in this realm– even before the curse, even before it all went wrong– who might understand exactly how horrific it would be if Cora Mills took control of the kingdom. “You have to fight her,” Snow whispers. “You have to stop her.”

Regina casts her a tormented look. “She’s stronger than me. I can’t do anything.”

And that is their death sentence, together.

The dungeons grow darker, and food grows less plentiful. Regina stops visiting as often, and when she does, it is with weary eyes and little to say. Sometimes she is bruised or injured– sometimes she looks as though she’s lost a fight, and Snow gently presses her on her injuries and gets few answers. The guards are sparser and more abrupt now, and they watch Snow with menacing eyes.

Snow is afraid of them. She tells Regina and Regina seals the cell better, has the huntsman stand outside the cell for hours each day until the guards stop coming to visit. Months pass, perhaps even years, and Regina stops visiting altogether.

Perhaps Snow goes mad. Perhaps she only shuts out the world and fades into a fugue, an empty world where there is no one else. She eats when she remembers, and she sleeps most hours of the day, and she wastes away in this quiet, cavernous dungeon deep beneath the castle.

When Regina next appears, Snow believes at first that she is only a dream, a vision of a long-gone past. But Regina speaks, her voice urgent, and there is something small about her that Snow doesn’t recognize, something unfamiliar that jolts her to herself. “Snow,” she whispers, and she stares at Snow in horror. “You’re skeletal. Haven’t we been feeding you?”

Snow can’t respond. There is food, but not much of it. There is even less now that Regina doesn’t come to check on her. Regina swallows, and she, too, looks worryingly thin. “What happened to you,” Snow rasps, the words hurting her throat.

Regina shakes her head. “Never mind that,” she says in a whisper. “Mother has been– Mother has been content until now as my right hand, but I have heard her speaking to Rumple. Tonight, she intends to seize the throne for herself. I will be…” She tilts her head down, stares at Snow with dark, brooding eyes. “I will be her monster,” she says. “I do not know what she will do to you.”

She unfolds something in her hand, and Snow blinks at it. It is a paper, a spell etched into it, and it smells like somewhere fresh and crisp, like an outside that Snow hasn’t seen in years. “This is a portal,” Regina says in a low voice. “If you climb to the tallest tower of the castle and leap off with this spell clenched in your fist, you will go to that other land. To the place where your daughter is.”

Snow stares at her, uncomprehending. Too much has happened, and she is still so weak, but she remembers her daughter. She remembers grief and dreams and longing, and every bit of it feels impossible now. “No,” she says hoarsely. “I can’t take that. Regina, you have to go. You can’t let her make you a monster.”

Regina smiles at her, opens the door of the cell as though it isn’t even locked, and she walks inside and presses the spell into Snow’s palm. “I was always a monster, Snow,” she murmurs. “You were the only one who couldn’t see it.”

And then they are off, up the staircases that wind through the castle, dodging guards and cries. Snow sees a flash of alarm, hears the clanging footsteps of soldiers, and Regina whispers, “Hurry. Hurry, Snow–”

She finds reserves of strength that should be depleted, musters up all she has in this desperate escape, and Regina presses her on, through the towers and up to a room that seems to swim with magic. “Hold it tightly,” Regina says. “Hold it– go–”

A wave of pale red magic wafts through the room, and Cora stands before them, her face menacing. Snow wavers at the top of the tower, sees the malice on Cora’s face and is afraid for Regina, and Regina shoves her, throws her from the tower–

She falls, faster and faster as the ground screams toward her, and she clenches her hand around the paper and wonders what it might be like to die like this, full of hope–

And then she hits the ground. There are rushing noises around her, more than she’s ever heard before, and then an, “Oh, shit– Lady! Lady, are you okay?” and Snow stretches out on hard, rocky land, and wonders if this is hell.


When Emma Swan turned three years old, the lady at the house had said, “It’s time, Emma. You’re going to go back to that big, pretty place full of children that we saw last week, and you’re going to find a mommy there. A real mommy, not just someone to mind you. It’s going to be wonderful.”

She had thought that the lady at the house had been a real mommy, which had been confusing, as confusing even as the whispers of a baby and space and what we can afford. It became clearer a few days after when she’d come to the big place with the loud children and the stern women who minded them.

Then one day when she’d been at the park, running away from two of the meanest boys who liked to pull her hair, a pretty lady on a park bench crooked a finger to her. And Emma went. Maybe because there had been something glistening in her eyes that Emma had sensed, or because she had felt that quiet connection between them. But there had been something, and Emma had ventured toward the lady without looking back.

The lady whispered, “Emma, I’m your mother,” and Emma thought of course you are, I was supposed to find you, and she took her hand and skipped out of the park.

Years later, Emma still laughs when she thinks about it. “You literally abducted me,” she accuses her mother, who looks sheepish about it. “You just walked into a park and kidnapped me. How did you never get arrested?”

She knows how. Foster kids slip through the cracks all the time. It’s why she’d become a social worker in the first place, once Mom had managed to sort out her papers and create new identities for them both. Emma had picked the name Swan from the story of the ugly duckling, and Snow and Emma Swan have been living on the outskirts of society since, careful not to stand out too much.

Emma works. Mom does not, not in any way that can be easily quantified. She’d worked when Emma had been a kid, cashiering and waitressing and a long stint at a local gas station. Mom is like that, a queen in another realm and happy just to be with Emma in this one. Emma doesn’t understand it. She’s far more cynical than Mom, far less trusting of happy endings and fairytales even with the legacy that she carries in her blood.

She sees what fairytales did to Mom, and she cringes when she imagines buying into any of it. Mom had, very simply, been Hamleted, overthrown by a despotic relative who should have been her steward and had instead murdered her father. Then she’d gotten Stockholm Syndrome and now thinks fondly of her captor, which makes perfect sense, because Mom loves freely and irresponsibly without Emma to keep her in check.

When Emma points out all of this, Mom sighs heavily and says, “I never should have let you go to a liberal arts college.”

Well. Emma is right. And Mom still has a soft spot for Evil Queen Regina, who apparently had a very difficult childhood and hardly wants to murder anyone anymore, but Emma is the one who’s supposed to go back there to save everyone, and she’s going to call the shots. The bane of her existence, the reason why she’d spent the first three years of her life without a mother: that’s the Evil Queen, and Emma doesn’t plan to get distracted.

By day, she works with kids, helps them get settled in new homes and adjust to them. In the evening, she learns how to fight. How to ride a horse, how to fire an arrow with perfect accuracy, how to wield a sword and use cutting precision. When she’s twelve and breaks her leg falling from a tree, she puts out every light in the emergency room under her mother’s stunned eyes, and they realize, too, that she has some magic. She teases it out, learns how to control it, and prepares.

She is going to kill the Evil Queen one day, and yes, Mom, she’ll get rid of her mother, too. That’s the best way to break the curse, isn’t it? A few quick slashes with a sword, and it’ll all be over.

First, though, they have to figure out how to get back.

Emma has a lead. There’s a Craigslist ad, quick and baffling to anyone who isn’t plugged into the idea of multiple realms. ONE BEAN. WILLING TO SELL. She doesn’t tell Mom.

Mom isn’t coming with her, though Emma doesn’t plan to tell her that, either. She won’t take it well, and she won’t understand why. But Mom is too gentle for the world she’d escaped, too soft and dreamy. Emma is the fighter now, and she’s going to make sure that the Enchanted Forest is safe before she lets Mom go back there.

It’s not as though she’s a child anymore, when she’d had dreams about noble victories and grand wars. No, she’s twenty-seven years old, and she knows that Mom has to be protected.

She gets the bean. The guy who has it is a grubby-looking man who calls himself Neal and . “I just want it gone,” he says. “I’m never going back there. Trust me.” Emma pays him, and she keeps the bean nestled in her pocket as she returns home.

It is nearly her birthday, and so she keeps the bean hidden away for a few more weeks. She turns in her notice at work and ties up loose ends, and she arranges for an acquaintance to offer Mom a small but well-paying job doing bookkeeping. Mom is pleased and Emma encourages her to take the job. “I’m always at work during the day, anyway,” she reminds her. “You get bored without me here. You’re a people person.”

On her birthday, Mom makes cupcakes, just like she always does, and they eat them and lick off their fingers in happy contentment. Mom says, “You know, if you want to go out with a friend tonight, I don’t mind.” She watches Emma keenly, never subtle about how much she’d like Emma to have friends to go out with. Or, better yet, a date.

Emma had two awkward boyfriends in high school, both of whom had Mom talking about true love with shining eyes, and has had a few casual girlfriends since, which also had Mom talking about true love but with more uncertain eyes. They don’t do a lot of casual dating in the Enchanted Forest, Emma figures, and probably not a lot of casual lesbianism, either. Emma has severe doubts that she would ever fit in in the Enchanted Forest, but she figures that she can swing in, save the day, and then head back home to indoor plumbing and more subtle despots. And, maybe, to a friend or two, though she’s always been kind of a loner.

“I might,” she lies now. “A few people from work were talking about getting drinks. But I wanted to spend some time with you.” She curls onto the couch with her mother, feels the gentle press of a kiss into her hair, and she closes her eyes and lets herself imagine  a world without the looming task of saviorhood in front of her. Maybe soon. Maybe…

Mom falls asleep, and Emma kisses her forehead, runs a hand across her arm to memorize the feel of it around her shoulders, and then she slips away with only a note folded neatly on the coffee table in front of her.

She retrieves her favorite horse from the local stables, and she rides to a far side of the paddock with him before she tosses the bean. “Come on, big guy,” she murmurs, urging the horse on. “Let’s do this.”

And they ride forward as the portal appears in front of them, surging into the unknown.

The Enchanted Forest is smaller than Emma had imagined. She’d grown up on stories of opposing kingdoms and great wars, and Mom had drawn map after map of it until Emma had it all memorized. But each kingdom is more like a city-state, just a few villages clustered together with trees and farmland around them, and Emma can ride through an entire kingdom in just an hour or two.

She knows where she’s heading, would know even if this route hadn’t featured in half of her dreams since she was three. The Queen’s Palace rises above the others, tall and menacing with black spires rising around its highest tower. Silhouetted against the dim light of the rising sun, it is like a warning sign, a reminder of what it is that Emma is about to deal with.

She rides closer to it, and she sees– empty villages, villagers hiding behind windows with fearful eyes. Quiet, fallow farmland. Demonic dragons swooping over the land, a clear threat to anyone who might dare ride through it.

For the first time, Emma wonders if she can handle any of this. She calls her magic, feels it spring to life in her hands with an ease that has never been there before. This is a land of magic, a place where she is strong, and she reminds herself of that as she spurs her horse forward. “Almost there,” she promises him. “Almost…”

And in the distance, she sees them.

It’s a convoy of guards, all of them with the dead, blank faces that had always made Mom shudder to talk about. They ride to meet Emma, and Emma reaches for her sword, calls her magic again, prepares to fight–

And then stops.

This is the way in, she realizes suddenly. This is how she gets to the queen. Regina reigns over this place– evil mother or not, Mom had been certain that Regina would prevail– and Emma will get her audience this way. And when they face each other and Emma drops to her knees before her, she will strike her down with magic and shatter the curse.

She holds up her hands. “I surrender,” she says blandly. “I’m yours for the taking.” One of the guards raises her eyebrows from behind her nose guard, but the others don’t react at all. Emma’s eyes flicker to the bemused guard, wonders at the expression she can just barely see past the line of metal across her face, but the guard only lowers her helmet and rides ahead of the others back to the castle.

Emma is shoved roughly from her horse, marched up through the castle, and brought with callous hands into the throne room. A guard pushes her inside in front of him, and Emma stumbles forward, gathering her magic as subtly as she can. “We found an intruder,” he announces. “Just as you predicted.”

“Ah,” says an oily voice, and Emma knows it, just like that. Mom hadn’t known everything. Mom hadn’t prepared her for this, and she quashes her magic, hides it away with her heart racing, and she straightens and stares up at the thrones in front of her.

There are two. One houses an elderly woman, out of her prime but just barely, her eyes gleaming with hungry interest as she takes Emma in. On the other sits a man with glimmering skin, his eyes cold and his lips curled into an inhuman smile. Between them is a woman, knelt on the floor, her head down and a chain connected to a metal collar around her neck.

Emma gapes at them, her confidence fading, and the man says, “This must be our savior.” His smile grows wider and crocodilian, and Emma staggers back. “Come closer, dearie. We’ve been so looking forward to your arrival.”

He extends a hand. Emma doesn’t move. He tilts his head. “Has your mother left you completely unprepared?” he asks, and– quick as a whip– he hurtles something small and sharp at her face.

Emma catches it, closes her fingers around the tiny dagger before it can hit her. Shaken, infuriated, she hurls it back, and the man snaps, “Get it.”

The woman on the floor moves, just barely, and the dagger disappears in a puff of smoke. Emma glances at her, still can’t see her face, but notices that the end of the chain dangles from the finger of the woman on the throne. She tugs at it absently, as though to warn a disobedient pet, and Emma swallows and looks away.

The woman on the throne says, “My dear, you are an honored guest here. I am Queen Cora,” she announces, her smile as hungry as her eyes. “And I have ruled this kingdom for two and a half decades.” She gestures to the man. “This creature is the Dark One.” Her hand falls on his hand, possessive and warning, and he raises it to his lips and kisses it. “Perhaps your mother has told you stories of the monster of this realm,” she says sleekly. “But we have tamed the monster. She is ours now.”

Cora. That’s the Evil Queen’s mother. Emma’s eyes flicker from them to the woman knelt on the floor, who doesn’t react at all to the conversation. “That’s the Evil Queen?” she says slowly.

Cora inclines her head. “We have been trapped in her curse for twenty-eight years,” she says, and she looks mournful. “Every day is the same. This is a prison, and we have been waiting for you for so long. Only you can truly defeat her. Please,” she says, and she steps off her throne, the chain still dangling from her fingers as she closes her hands around Emma’s. “Please, Savior, break this curse.”

This isn’t what she’d expected. There is no fight to be had, no enemies to defeat. Mom had made a big deal about Cora– she’s evil, she’ll manipulate you, she’s a liar– but Emma knows the story of Mom and the stable boy, she knows that Mom has been desperately trying to justify a child’s actions for decades–

Could it be that this is all she needs to do? That the grand, prophesied final battle might have been resolved all on its own? But Emma can feel her unease in this room, in this strange and cold place where powerful people reign. Maybe it is the Dark One, lounging comfortably on a throne as though it is where he belongs. Maybe it is the defeated Evil Queen, who has moved silently on the floor, crawling behind her mother as Cora tugs her along.

We have tamed the monster. But even the Evil Queen had never been so cruel as to reduce Mom to a pet.

Emma clears her throat. “I’m not sure exactly how the curse is meant to be broken,” she admits. “I thought I was coming here to fight a battle. So I’ll need some time–”

“You will have it, my dear,” Cora says, and she still holds onto Emma’s hands, the chain rubbing against Emma’s skin. “You shall be our guest while you find your bearings. I don’t doubt that you will find your way here.”

The Dark One says, “You must be famished. It’s a long journey.” He sounds mocking. Emma is pretty sure he doesn’t know how to not sound mocking.

She clears her throat. “I rode through most of the night. Food would be amazing right now.” She shouldn’t trust anything that they offer her, she knows, but she can’t do much on an empty stomach, and she hadn’t thought to pack anything. “And my horse–”

“Being cared for in our stables,” Cora says kindly, and Emma relaxes a little.

The Dark One turns to a guard– the bemused one, Emma thinks, who looks expressionlessly at her now. “Show Emma to the dining hall,” he orders. “We shall feast in celebration.”

She hadn’t told him her name. And that, more than anything, stays her confidence as she follows the guard to the dining hall.

The Evil Queen kneels also in the dining hall, beside the table, without a word. Emma is seated beside Cora, and she finds it impossible to ignore the woman crouched beside them, silent and faceless as she eats none of the food. “Is she…what happened to her?” Emma finally asks.

Cora scoffs. “She tried to reconquer the land from me,” she says. “Foolish girl. I stamped the fire out of her. And now she does what she’s told.” She lowers her voice, conspiratorial. “She is my daughter, you know. I’m not proud of it. But I do feel responsible for all the evil she’s brought upon this land.”

“Well, yeah. I…my mother mentioned she had a rough childhood,” Emma concedes, and then, with less conviction than when she had once said it, “I always thought that that was bullshit. Lots of people have cruddy childhoods and they don’t turn to mass murder. Mom and I were dirt poor for most of mine. We were on the run from the government for a lot of it, too. But we made it work. You can’t just…” She hesitates, unwilling to offend the woman sitting beside her, and Cora nods sagely.

“Well said, my dear.” She tilts her head. “I do wonder if all it will take is the Evil Queen’s death at your hands to break the curse.” She says it casually, as though it is the weather they’re discussing and not her daughter’s death, and Emma feels sick. The Evil Queen might be…well, evil, but Cora makes it clear that her evil didn’t grow in a vacuum. “Perhaps we might arrange a battle after our feast.”

The Dark One says, “I will ready the room.” His face is expressionless, impossible to read, and he rises and departs from the dining hall.

Emma watches the Evil Queen. It’s impolite, probably, to stare as much as she is, but she doesn’t understand, not this woman from Mom’s stories. She had saved Mom from a runaway horse, had made an instant connection, had married Mom’s father. They had spent years together before Mom had sensed her distance, before she had begun to understand that something ugly had taken root within Regina, and then Mom’s father had died and Regina had sought out Mom, too.

It had all gone downhill from there, and Mom had hidden for years before she’d amassed enough supporters. But even now, Mom still thinks of Regina fondly, even as she’d shared her atrocities with Emma. Even now, she thinks that Emma is going to save her.

Emma doesn’t want to save her. Emma wants to kill her, but not at Cora’s behest, in some casual slaughter. This is what she’s been bred for, what has been her task since she’d been born. This should be a war, clean and simple, not an execution.

Emma shifts uneasily as she stares down at the sleek, black dress Regina wears as she kneels. She follows the arch of the woman’s back, the dark hair that falls around her face to obscure it, and she says, “Hey. Hey. Do you even talk?”

Cora says smoothly, “She will not speak without being ordered to.” She lowers a hand to Regina’s hair, proprietary, and yanks it back to show her face.

It is a horrible, twisted thing. There are crisscrossing red scars across it, more like tattoos than cuts, and her eyes are wild beneath them. Her lips are curled back in a snarl, and she is– like a beast, uncontrolled as she glowers at Emma, and she strains against her chain as Cora holds it taut.

Emma swallows. “Nice to meet you,” she says, doing her best not to flinch back. “You have a lovely house. This place should be my mom’s, huh?”

Regina strains harder. Cora says sharply, “Enough, Regina,” and Regina falls, head bowed to the ground.

Emma drums her fingers against the table, uncomfortable, her appetite gone. Cora says, “Why don’t I show you to the room we prepared?”

She rises, Regina moving with her, and she leads Emma toward the back of the dining hall. “It’s where Regina sleeps on the nights when she is…well, a bit frisky,” Cora says, twisting her lips. “Most nights, in fact. We have to be sure that she won’t go out and endanger the poor villagers. They live in fear.” She shakes her head, regretful, and opens a door that Emma hadn’t noticed in the wall.

Behind it is a winding hallway, leading downward, and Emma reaches for her sword, rests her hand on the handle of it in quiet reassurance. This feels like a descent into the lion’s den, and Emma is just beginning to understand how out of her depth she is. She knows how to spar, knows how to wield an arrow, and knows how to use her magic– but she has never had a real opponent before. She has never been surrounded by enemies, all of them with hidden agendas, and has been forced to embrace them. Even the guard who had seemed to have a personality is gone now, there’s only Cora and her monster in this dark passageway, and Emma can feel a chill down her spine as they move lower and lower.

The passageway finally opens into a room, cold and dark, and Cora says abruptly, “Well, then. Let’s see what you can do.” She waves her hand, and the chain falls from Regina’s collar.

Regina moves forward in a rush of magic, and Emma twists around and promptly falls flat on her face. The room is burning, fire all around her, and she has to dodge out of the way of the fire to avoid being scorched. Regina descends upon her, her face twisted into an inhuman snarl, and her magic is everywhere, stifles Emma’s feeble attempts to throw up a shield in an instant, and Emma knows that she is utterly outmatched.

She draws her sword, and Regina crooks a finger and ties it into a knot. Emma backs up, her heart racing, and she is fucked. She doesn’t stand a chance against this demon, and she has no idea how she’s going to break the curse now

One thing is for sure, though. This is hardly an execution.

Regina is crouched in front of her, something animalistic on her face, and when she leaps and throws Emma back, Emma slams her own head against the floor. She sees stars, and then she sees that snarl, a hand at her chest, about to take her heart and crush it to dust–

“Enough,” Cora orders, and Regina leaps back, still on all fours. She sinks back into a kneel, waiting passively as the chain is reattached to her collar, and Emma sits up, her heart pounding with terror and despair as she gapes at the prone woman who had so easily outmatched her.

“You will train with her until you are strong enough to kill her,” Cora says dismissively, leaving Emma in guest quarters. A guard is stationed outside of them, for your protection, Cora says, but Emma is privately dubious. She is not a welcome guest here, no matter what Cora and the Dark One might say, and she knows that they have some agenda for her beyond breaking the curse.

She paces in her quarters, already antsy. She misses her mother, misses a world without any of this intrigue, misses the Internet and her phone, which she’d left behind. Here, she knows absolutely nothing. Here, she’s all alone.

Carefully, she slides the door to her quarters open. The guard watches her expressionlessly, blank as all the cursed people are, and Emma says, “Hey. So, like, I was hoping to go use the bathroom–”

“There is a chamber pot in your quarters,” the guard says.

Emma shudders. “Great. Thanks.” She closes the door again.

It doesn’t take long to get out through the windows. For one, there are absolutely no safety features on them. Probably for dramatic fairytale moments where someone gets thrown out a window or something. And there are so many ledges and turrets and crenellations around the castle that it’s easy enough to climb out and slip down a level or two.

When she finally hits a snag– there is no way down anymore, and she still has a dozen feet to go– she pushes a window open and slips back inside.

The castle is silent at night. There are no guards around, and the large ballrooms and elaborate halls are empty. No one stops Emma from moving through the castle, though she has the sneaking suspicion that Cora will know exactly what she’s doing, somehow. Cora seems to know everything.

Emma isn’t all that interested in the ground floor. She moves instead through the guest quarters, careful as she steals from one place to the next, and she follows another map, this one less confidently described. Mom had said…third level, fourth door. If they’ve kept it untouched–

She pushes the door open gingerly, afraid of what she might find inside, and there he is.

He lies on the bed, his eyes closed, just about Emma’s age and with her hair and forehead. Her father, King David, who has been unconscious for twenty-eight years since he’d saved her from the Evil Queen. He still breathes, but he doesn’t move, and he doesn’t react when Emma touches his face.

“Hey,” she whispers. “Hey, Dad. Good to see that you’re still hanging in there.” Mom had been worried about him, hadn’t said it– Regina will take care of him, she’d declared, but she had always been uncertain– but Emma can feel relief suffuse her now. Something had gone right, even if it’s just this one thing, and she holds his hand in hers, squeezes it and tries– on a whim– a gentle kiss to his forehead.

Nothing happens. Of course not. She might be a product of fairytales, of dramatic true love that can shatter curses, but Emma is hardly that anymore. Emma doesn’t believe in fairytales. She believes in magic and medieval intrigue and her sword, but the idea that they live within stories escapes her, and she lacks the hope and faith that makes Mom thrive.

Still, Emma holds onto his hand, craving a connection to this unconscious man who is her father, and she heaves a shuddering sigh and blinks away sudden tears. She’s really on her own in this strange land, and this is the closest she’s gotten to an ally. To someone who could be family, if he’d only awaken–

She closes her eyes tightly, pushes back the tears that threaten to leak out, and she looks away from her father and into the hall instead. And that’s when she sees it.

The fleeting sensation of– a white dress fluttering down the hallway, the sound of bare feet against stone. Emma lets her father’s hand go and moves silently to the door, catches sight of the white dress disappearing into the next corridor, follows the mysterious woman.

She makes it all the way to a small door at the side of the castle, leading out into the gardens, and then she hesitates. The woman stands just outside, in the gardens, illuminated in the moonlight. Her figure is slight but curved, her hair so long that it falls to her waist, and when she turns to stare at Emma, she is so heartbreakingly beautiful that Emma’s breath catches in her throat.

“Are you real?” Emma whispers, and the woman vanishes, just like that, as though she’d never been there at all.

By the next morning, Emma has decided that she’d imagined the woman. This isn’t a castle of phantoms and dreams. It’s a cold, hostile place, and Cora wouldn’t abide by strange women wandering through the gardens. Emma’s breakfast is served in her quarters, at which point she is ordered to bring her weaponry and meet Cora at the castle lawn.

Emma finds clothes in her closet that hadn’t been there the night before, armor and tunics and boots that fit her perfectly, and she dresses in them and straps a knife into her boot. Her guard escorts her downstairs to the front lawn, and she sees them waiting: Cora, her face forbidding even through her smile, and Regina knelt at her feet.

“Today,” Cora says. “Today, you will fight my monster to the death.” She drops the chain and steps back, and Regina attacks.

Emma still isn’t ready for her, but there is more space here, and no suffocating walls for Regina’s fire to envelop. She dodges Regina’s blows, stumbles back and finds her arrow, and she shoots a barrage of them at Regina with perfect precision. One hits Regina’s arm, and she lets out a howl and sends a wave of magic to claw at Emma’s abdomen, burning into her.

Emma uses her own magic now, hurls white magic at Regina, and Regina waves it away and clambers back toward Emma. She moves on all fours, as fast as a beast, and when she throws herself at Emma this time, Emma slips backward and falls.

Regina is on top of her in an instant, her hands like fire scorching Emma’s skin, and Emma struggles against her, trying to push her back. Regina doesn’t budge, and she lets out a strangled noise like a growl, magic pressing into Emma.

And then, a murmur at her ear, throaty and deep. “Second door off the kitchens.” Emma jerks, throwing Regina off of her, and she draws her knife and scoots back. Regina snarls, that angry red-crossed face like something out of a horror movie, and Emma is sure that she must have imagined it.

Cora ends the fight soon after, and Emma excuses herself to go down to the lake behind the castle to clean herself. She strips off her clothing and washes in the water, that muttered phrase still lingering in her mind. Had Regina spoken? Emma hadn’t entirely believed that she’d been capable of speech, that she is still at all human.

It isn’t until the evening that she is able to sneak out again and go to the kitchens. They are quiet and empty, so clean that Emma suspects that the food being made is all magic, no cook left to feed them. The second door in the kitchens is a pantry on one side and a closet on the other, and Emma stares into the closet in bewildered confusion.

Then she sees it, propped up in the back of the shelf. There is a book in the dark, and a paper tucked within it with elegant writing upon it.

She cannot kill me, it says. She has tried.

Emma blinks at it. There is no doubt in her mind that the she in question is Cora. Is this a message from the Evil Queen? What does it mean?

But when she opens the book, she feels it at once. Magic, stronger than anything she’d toyed with in the Land Without Magic. This surges through her, brings her to life, and she feels more powerful than she ever has been.

She steps out of the kitchens, drunk on the magic that rushes through her, and she slips and falls to her knees. In the distance, she thinks that she sees the beautiful woman again, dressed in white and watching her, and she reaches for her– claws for her, magic shining through her until she can hardly stay upright–

And then she is falling, and the woman in white is there, holding her, staring at her with unblinking and strangely familiar eyes. “Shh,” she whispers. “Emma, you must stay quiet,” and then the world is growing fuzzy and the sky bright, and Emma wakes up in her bed in a cold sweat with the Evil Queen’s message still clenched in her hand.

She is stronger in the morning. When she fights Regina today, her magic doesn’t weaken as Regina brushes it away, and Regina sneers at her and looks furious about it. Maybe Emma had somehow misjudged her murmur yesterday, had seen it as Regina helping when she hadn’t meant to. Was that book supposed to kill her?

She thinks she might have collapsed on the ground, overwhelmed and powerless, if not for the woman in white. Maybe Regina had been planning to come out and kill her then. Emma is her worst enemy, the greatest threat to her life. It wouldn’t be hard for Regina to set her up and finish her off.

But she is sure now that the woman in white is real. Maybe she is a ghost, some long-dead loyal servant of Mom’s family who has come to save Emma. Or maybe she is a resistance fighter. Emma remembers the guard who had shown up to bring her to the castle, that expression that had made Emma sure that she isn’t cursed. Could they be the same person? Emma’s memories of last night are fuzzy, but she does remember that they both have dark eyes. She hadn’t been able to see too much of the guard under that nasal helmet.

Regardless. This phantom isn’t going to be the key to breaking the curse. Regina is, and Emma eyes her at lunch with a wary gaze, lingers near her bent body and feels distinctly uncomfortable about it. Everything about Regina makes her uncomfortable, and she makes her excuses and retreats back to her room.

In the room, she finds another paper, written in the same handwriting. The ledge on the second floor. Once it’s dark, Emma slips out the window, and she climbs down to the second floor of the castle. There is a ledge there, though Emma has no idea how Regina might know that Emma has been out here, and something shiny and round rests on the ledge.

It’s a mirror. Emma stares at it, baffled, and then she remembers the old Disney movie. “Uh,” she says. “Magic mirror, yeah? Can you show me Queen Cora?”

The mirror lights up, and Emma catches sight of Cora, speaking in a low voice to the Dark One. Emma can hear them when she brings the mirror close. “I want it broken,” the Dark One says, his voice sharp. “This curse was constructed for a reason, and your incompetent daughter–”

“Oh, hardly,” Cora scoffs. “This is all you. And I’ll get it done.”

“Good.” The Dark One moves closer, more menacing. “I expected this fixed decades ago. We had a deal, and I kept my side of it. You are queen, aren’t you?”

Cora lifts her shoulders, small and unintimidated. “And I will keep mine. You know she won’t die.” She sounds irritated by that fact. “I’ve done what I can to subdue her. The rest is up to the girl.”

Emma squints at the image, searching for Regina in the edges of the mirror, and she finds her at last, hunched over in a corner with no reaction to the man and woman plotting her death in front of her.

She feels a stab of– pity? Compassion? Something that the Evil Queen doesn’t deserve, and she tucks the mirror into her pocket and climbs back up to her window.

When she is there, she whispers, “Show me Regina.” Regina is still knelt in place, and Emma can hear the Dark One and Cora arguing as though from a distance. A door closes, and then they are gone.

Regina stays kneeling for another moment. Then she sits up for a moment, curls onto the floor, and stares directly at Emma. Emma jumps back, taken by surprise, and Regina says, “Stop it.” Her voice is sharp and throaty, as dangerous as she looks, and Emma clutches the handle of the mirror and refuses to look away. “Don’t be an idiot,” Regina snarls, and she glowers past those angry lines on her face at Emma. “If I give you magic, save it. Don’t show it to Mother.”

Emma blinks at her. She must have a mirror, too, and she can see Emma through it, because she just looks progressively more annoyed at Emma’s surprise. “I said–” she begins, and Emma decides right then that Mom had been wrong when she’d called Regina charming.

“I heard what you said,” Emma snaps. “If you wanted me to keep it a secret, you could have mentioned that. Or told me…anything.” She glowers at the screen. “I have no idea what’s going on here. I don’t even know whose side you’re on. I can’t figure out your mother’s agenda, and I–” She sits back on her bed, glancing out at the walls of the room, and then she thinks to eye the mirror on the wall with suspicion.

Carefully, she drapes a jacket over the front of it, and then she returns to the handheld mirror. Regina is stretched out on the floor in it, letting out a low groan as her back creaks, and Emma realizes for the first time that she’s been left naked in her prison, with no blanket or dress gown. She bites her lip and puts aside her discomfort for a moment to say, “You should try walking around. It’ll be good for your back.”

Regina scoffs. “If Mother walks in and finds me upright, I’ll be chained at her bed again for a month. She wants me broken.” She states it like a fact, something she has long ago come to terms with, and Emma shudders.

“Doesn’t she…I mean, she’s your mother.” Emma has few memories of her life before Mom, but she remembers it as lonely and frightening, as a world where she’d been surrounded by old terrors. She can’t imagine a mother who would do something like this to her daughter.

Regina shrugs. “She was happy to keep me beside her until it became clear that I was in her way. Mother loves power more than anything else.”

“And now she wants you dead.”

Regina shakes her head. “I don’t know what she wants,” she says grimly. “There are…there are plenty of curses that might require the life of someone with your blood. Or the heart of the one you love most.” Her face tightens, the red lines crossing her face scarring even more deeply with the motion, and Emma wonders.

She ventures, “Have you ever–”

“I’m not here for girl talk, brat,” Regina snaps. “I want answers. Where is Snow?”

Emma allows her dislike to return in full force. “Safe,” she says. “I didn’t let her come along.”

“Didn’t let her?” Regina echoes, incredulous. “Don’t tell me that Snow White has finally learned to listen.”

“No. I didn’t tell her that I had a way here.”

“Why not?” Regina looks at her with marked dislike. “She would have been a more competent savior than you.”

“Well, I was coming to kill you,” Emma says evenly, “And I didn’t think that she’d approve.”

Regina laughs sharply. “Get to it, then. You know which room I’m in.” She moves her mirror around, and Emma recognizes the enclosed room that she’d fought Regina in on the first day here. The place where she sleeps, naked and unprotected in this cold, hard castle. “Come and kill me.”

Her words are challenging, but there is a desperation in them, a desire that Emma can’t ignore. She stares at Regina, possibly the most unlikable person she’s ever met, and she summons up the will to go find her right now. Would Regina fight back at all? Maybe not. What does she have to live for?

She tucks the mirror in her pocket, steels her nerve, and pulls on her boots. She picks up a knife to slide into the boot, pauses, and sits back down with a thump.

What is she doing?

She takes the mirror out again. Regina is still visible on it, staring blankly into her own mirror, and Emma says, “Why does Cora want to break the curse?”

Regina doesn’t answer. “Second thoughts?” she husks, sounding deeply disdainful. “You are every bit your mother’s daughter, aren’t you? She could never kill me, either. And look what that did to everything she loved.” She spreads her hands in mocking amusement, and Emma hates her. “Idiot girl,” she says, and the mirror goes blank, showing only Emma’s reflection.

Emma grits her teeth and shoves her mirror back into her pocket.

When she looks out the window, she can see a woman she recognizes, dressed in white and knelt in front of the lake as she sips water from her cupped hands. Emma calls down, “Hey!” and the woman flits away, fading into the shadows.

In the morning, she is summoned again. Today’s guard is the one she recognizes, the light brown skin and dark eyes familiar. She walks with purpose, but her eyes flit to the side to watch Emma as they descend, calculating and curious.

Emma stares back at her, but she is too wary to push for answers just yet. There is no way of knowing if this woman is friend or foe.

Regina is knelt on the ground beside Cora when Emma steps out into the courtyard, and Emma averts her eyes from her, her discomfort compounded by their last conversation. She’d been horrible and unpleasant last night, yes, but she’d also been human, and Cora is set on treating her like an animal.

“Will you let her stand opposite us?” Emma ventures, bold and as much an idiot girl as Regina had claimed she was last night. “I want to get her measure.”

Cora laughs. “You hardly need that to kill her,” she says. “Would you prefer to hold her chain?” She places the chain in Emma’s hand, and Emma has to swallow back nausea.

She lets the chain fall from her hand, taking a step back, and Cora says, “My dear, I have tried to make it clear to you that she is only a monster now. Hardly the girl she once was. She was a monster long before I put the chain on her.” She waves a hand, and the chain springs back to her hand. “Go on, Regina. Remind her,” she says, and Regina raises that scarred face to Emma and sneers at her.

When she leaps, Emma isn’t ready for her. She throws Emma down to the stones of the courtyard, scratches long cuts into Emma’s face, and Emma finally remembers to fight back. She relaxes her hands and then shoves when Regina doesn’t expect it, sending her back against the wall of the courtyard.

Regina slides to the ground, and Emma takes advantage of that to mount her, Regina bucking up against her as Emma fumbles for her knife, and she presses it to Regina’s throat. Cora hisses, “Do it,” but Emma is frozen, uncertain, and Regina’s hard eyes are like beams of light burning into Emma.

Emma is aware of everything: Cora’s building fury, the cool metal of the knife in her hand, the warm body beneath her. It seems an unfortunate time to notice what she’d tried not to last night– that Regina must be given food outside of the meals where she is knelt at Cora’s feet, because the body beneath her isn’t narrow and skinny but warm and soft and curved. Regina feels like a woman, not a monster or an Evil Queen, and Emma’s hand wavers over her throat.

She pulls the knife back. Regina looks deeply frustrated with her. Cora’s eyes are cold and hard. “I’m sorry,” Emma says, exhaling. “I can’t just…I can’t just kill someone like this. She’s a person.”

Cora is livid. There is something dark and dangerous in her gaze, and Emma has to muster up all of her strength to face Cora right now. “Then you are useless to me,” Cora spits out. “Both of you.”

She reaches her hand out, and the chain springs into her hand. It yanks Regina toward her by the neck, dragging her through the courtyard, and Regina tosses Emma a hateful glare as Cora stalks away. Emma stands alone in the courtyard, lost as to what she might do next, only the guard beside her still watching her thoughtfully.

By evening, Cora is in better spirits. “You only need to understand who you’re going to kill,” she says cheerfully. “Not a human. A creature who has only caused pain.” She leads Emma up the stairs of the castle, into a set of quarters that Emma has never seen before. “Here,” she says, and she shows Emma into a room. “Do you hear that?”

Hearts. Emma hears them beating, can see their red light gleaming from the drawers opposite her. Regina still kneels on the ground, and she casts a wary glance at her. “The Evil Queen took those lives,” Cora says. “Forced them to do her bidding. And these are hardly the worst of her victims. She wiped out whole villages, my dear. Executed men, women and children, the frightened and vulnerable, all to find your mother and make her pay. Imagine what she might do if you leave her alive. This curse will endure forever.”

She steps back, yanking Regina with her. “Think about it,” she says, and she leaves Emma behind in the room full of hearts, still frozen there as she listens to the sound of them beating.

It’s not as though Emma isn’t perfectly aware of who the Evil Queen is. She knows the atrocities that she’d committed, has grown up with them memorized. Mom might have believed that Regina might be redeemable, but Emma isn’t a fool. Regina deserves execution, or at least a life wasting away in prison. And this isn’t the Land Without Magic. By laws of this world, Emma is the heir to the throne and would be expected to carry out that execution.

But Emma isn’t a product of this world, and her stomach turns at the idea of killing someone. Of killing Regina, who has clearly suffered enough in the years of the curse to pay for all she’s done. Anything else only feels cruel.

She sits on the floor opposite the beating hearts, and she thinks, and thinks, and thinks.

Her only interruption comes soon after, when she hears footsteps padding through the rooms behind her. They are quiet and slight, and Emma twists around, glancing out into the rest of the chambers around her. She sees the glimmer of white disappearing around the corridor, and she clambers to her feet, chasing after it.

The woman in white is standing on the windowsill, staring out into the night as though she might jump. “Wait,” Emma whispers, and the woman turns. “Don’t–” The perfectly sculpted features are familiar, as though they might be something from a dream. That dark hair falls long around her, framing her features, and she has light brown skin and brown eyes that hold depths within them.

Emma holds a hand out to the woman, desperate to keep her from jumping, and the woman descends from the window, walks slowly toward Emma, and then kisses her. It feels like a dream, like something precious that has never been Emma’s before, and Emma kisses her back, feels a swooping sensation in her chest and loses herself entirely in the woman’s embrace.

“Who are you?” she whispers, and the woman steps away and disappears into the wind, floating away in scattered pieces as Emma stares on in horror.

She can’t find her again– not in the rooms around her or the hall, and not in the grounds outside her window when the guard outside escorts her back to her own quarters. The woman has disappeared as quickly as she’d arrived, and Emma pulls out her mirror again and whispers, “Show me Regina.”

Regina’s mirror is in her pocket. Emma can only see the folds of fabric and darkness in her own mirror, and she can hear the sounds of a scuffle beyond it. She hears a groan, and then a sharp laugh, angry and cold. “Useless,” Cora is snarling. “Useless wretch. I would kill her–”

“We still need her,” the Dark One says, his voice cool. “She is the key to the broken curse. Be patient. No one has ever spent long around Regina without wanting her death.” He has an odd little laugh, a cackle that sounds less human than anything Regina has ever done, and Emma flinches when she hears the sound of a boot hitting flesh. The mirror jerks in Regina’s pocket, and Emma recoils–

And then, at last, everything is still. Cora’s voice is fading, and a door closes in the mirror. Regina’s hand appears in the pocket, and she raises the mirror to her face.

Today, at least, Cora has left her her clothes, but Emma gasps at her bruised face. “She did that to you?”

Regina sighs. “Not you again,” she says, scowling fiercely at the mirror.

Emma glares back at her. “Shut up. Is there anything to treat it in the castle?”

Regina laughs, hysteria in her voice. “Are you trying to save me? What a child you are. Oh, no,” she says in mock concern. “Do you think it might scar?”

“Shut up,” Emma says again, and she tucks the mirror away and pushes her door open.

It’s the same guard again, and Emma clears her throat. “I have some…” She bites her lip. “It’s kind of embarrassing. But I fell kind of hard in the courtyard this morning, and my ass is killing me,” she confesses. The guard stares at her, her eyebrows twitching. Emma tries for a timid smile. “Do you have anything that might help with the bruise? I guess not, like, Benadryl, but maybe some kind of herb or potion or…?” She lets her voice trail off.

The guard disappears down the hall, and another guard takes her place. Emma waits, pacing her room impatiently, until the guard returns with a cream in a little vial. She hands it over silently, and Emma says, “Thanks. Really helpful. No need to tell this to the queen,” she adds, a little sheepishly. “I’m trying to seem at least slightly competent here.”

She ducks into her room again, latches the door, and climbs out the window and into the next level. By now, she is beginning to learn all the twists and turns of the castle, and she weaves through the hallways and finds her way to the passageway off the back of the dining hall.

It isn’t locked, nor is Regina’s room. Emma can guess why, how a woman like Cora has broken Regina so thoroughly that Regina won’t dare to run. She slips inside, and she finds Regina unconscious on the floor. What Emma had thought was a dress from the fabric she’d seen in the mirror is only a tattered dress robe, hardly enough even to cover Regina in the cold of her prison.

There are mottled bruises on her skin, some of them with dried blood caked into them, and Emma winces and takes out her cream. “Hey,” she says in a low voice. “Regina.”

Regina opens one eye, which is good. Emma had been worried about a concussion. Instead, Regina lets out a long-suffering sigh and says, “Leave me alone, demon spawn.”

“You’re one to talk about demon spawn,” Emma mutters, taking her in with a critical gaze. “I thought you were bad, but your mother is a monster.”

Regina doesn’t respond, and Emma gets to work on the bruises. Regina is silent, doesn’t push her away, and Emma rubs the cream into her skin and watches with satisfaction as the bruises fade. “This is much better than anything we have back at home,” she admits. “I kind of figured you didn’t have modern medicine, but magic balances it all out, huh? I guess it makes the fairytales more glamorous when everyone’s got teeth and perfect skin. You do have nice teeth,” she says, and she remembers suddenly the woman she’d kissed. Those had been exceptionally nice teeth, she thinks, and she flushes.

When she looks down, Regina is staring incredulously at her. “Are you complimenting my teeth?”

“I’m just being nice. Not that you deserve nice, after what you did to this realm. To my parents.” She thinks of her father, still unconscious, and she wonders where he might have been today if not for Regina and her guards. A father she might have grown up with, who had been Mom’s steady companion over the years. Now, almost thirty years separate them, and Emma doesn’t know what might be left between them if the curse breaks.

Regina is still staring at her, and Emma says reluctantly, “In my world– I’m a social worker. I work with disadvantaged kids. Kids in bad homes. Kids who need to be rehomed. We would have done our best to get you out of her house if you’d grown up in Maine instead of…here,” she says, waving around at the cold room. “Maybe you’d have been a little less screwed up then. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s an excuse, but…”

But. She’s never met a mother like Cora before.

Regina closes her eyes. “You’re as bad as your mother,” she says coldly, and somehow, it doesn’t land quite like the insult Regina had meant it to be.

Cora still demands that Emma fight Regina in the mornings, and Emma does her best, choreographs battles where she loses the upper hand and leaves it to Regina to nearly kill her. Regina, she notices with some resentment, never holds back. But Emma is getting better, stronger, and she keeps her magic under wraps but feels it growing with every battle.

Regina is teaching her, she realizes one day. Slowly, she’s teasing out Emma’s potential under her mother’s watchful eye, training her to become more and more powerful. Maybe this is just some twisted attempt to get Emma to kill her. Maybe Regina is trying her best to give up entirely. But Emma refuses to play along.

In the evenings, she goes out to search for the woman in white. She wanders the grounds, and she finds the woman more often than not. The woman never speaks, but she kisses Emma, leaves her with a strange, floating sensation, and Emma craves to know more and gets nothing.

This is how fairytales work, right? The hero finds a mysterious princess and falls in love. Emma doesn’t know if she’s in love, but she wonders about the woman, her eyes casting around for her with her heart pounding, and she wants nothing more than to know everything about her.

After she finds the woman, she pulls out the mirror. Regina is frustratingly unhelpful. “I don’t know what Mother wants,” she says for the hundredth time in the past week or two. “I don’t know what she’s planning. I have theories, but nothing makes sense.”

“Then what use are you?” Emma demands, disgusted.

Regina sneers at her. “I’m not here to be of use to you. I’m a prisoner here just as much as you are.”

“You weren’t always a prisoner,” Emma points out.

Regina laughs, tired and annoyed. “I was always a prisoner here,” she says. “Don’t let a few years spent in vengeance mislead you. That was all I had.”

Regina is so unpleasant, so very much like a fairytale villain with no redeeming qualities. Emma has no idea what her mother had seen in Regina, except that Mom could see the good in anyone, even if it doesn’t exist. “Would you have killed me?” she says suddenly, remembering the curse. “When my father brought me to the wardrobe. Would you have killed me if you’d caught me?”

Regina shrugs. “Probably,” she says, dismissive, and Emma adds baby killer to Regina’s lengthy list of negative attributes. And then, suddenly thoughtful, Regina says, “Well, no. I probably would have raised you.”

Raised me?” Emma repeats disbelievingly. Well, that might have made some of their fights uncomfortable, when Emma is writhing beneath Regina and emerges unexpectedly aroused. She is abruptly very thankful that Regina had never had opportunity to meet her as an infant. “You think you’re mom material?”

Regina looks very tired again. “Go away, brat,” which is what Regina says now when Emma has gotten too close to a personal revelation.

Emma gapes at her. “You wanted a child?” she says, pressing harder.

Regina lies back and refuses to answer for a moment. When she speaks, her voice is heavy. “More than anything in the universe,” she whispers, and Emma is dumbfounded. Stiffly, Regina says, “I suppose I thought that it might be…I used to be so full of love,” she mutters, and the mirror is loose in her hand, enough that Emma sees the ceiling for a moment before the image returns to Regina.

Emma wonders at that, at a Regina full of love with nowhere to gift it. It’s an alien, impossible image. “I like kids,” Emma admits. “Never really saw myself with one. I just want them to be safe, you know? Happy.”

Regina raises her eyebrows. “Aren’t you just perfect in every way,” she says dryly. “Next you’ll say you’ve never spitefully separated parents from their children just to see if they’d live with you instead.”

Emma blinks at her. “Regina,” she says carefully, “Are there some kids out there lost in the woods somewhere for the past twenty-eight years?” Regina scowls at her, which is a frightening maybe-confirmation. “Tell me where. Regina.”

Regina rolls her eyes, which is just obnoxious at this point. “There aren’t,” she says. “I reunited them a year into the curse. There was nothing else to do.”

“Nothing else to do?” Emma echoes. “What, you got sick of making everyone miserable that quickly?”

Regina gives her a cool look. “It was…they didn’t even know it,” she says, heaving a sigh. “They all served me and accepted me as the queen and moved around like a sea of mindless automatons. Tying up loose ends was the only thing there was to entertain me.” She shakes her head. “The prisoners I freed…a waste of time,” she says with disgust.

“But you didn’t free my mother.” Hence the certainty that Mom has Stockholm Syndrome, because what the hell, if they were friends, then Regina would have let her out before it became a question of Cora’s dominance.

Regina’s scarred face twists as she stares at the wall past her mirror. “She remembered,” she says. “At least for someone, I could be the villain again.”

“You want to be a villain?” Emma says dubiously. Well, isn’t that very fairytale of her.

Regina turns back to Emma, her eyes boring into the mirror with sudden intensity. “Better villain than victim,” she says, and Emma feels it like a chill through her.

The castle is growing cooler as autumn shifts into winter, and Emma shivers in the halls and puts on extra layers until a guard silently proffers a cloak one day. Regina is given no such accoutrements, remains knelt on the floor in the same black gown during the day and is left with nothing at all at night.

“Is it…” Emma ventures one night, because she feels obligated to ask. “Why does she take your clothes at night?”

“It’s not sexual,” Regina says, and Emma exhales a sigh of relief, one that earns her raised eyebrows from Regina. “It’s about power, and ensuring that I know how powerless I am. She wants my humanity gone. Not that there was much to begin with,” she says wryly, and Emma blinks at her in disquiet. Regina, for all her history and disfigurements, is the peak of flawed and vindictive and messy humanity.

She clears her throat. “I don’t understand. You think she needs you killed for a spell.” Cora is impatient about it but encouraged by Emma’s improvement, and Emma is careful not to show exactly how much stronger she’s getting. “Right? But none of this helps with that.”

Regina lifts her shoulders. “She needs me killed by you,” she says. “To break the curse, I suppose. And she knows that you’re too much of a fucking angel to kill another human being.” She says it with something bordering on fondness, and Emma stares at her through the mirror, heat rising in her cheeks at the tone of Regina’s voice. “So best to keep me a beast.”

Emma says, “You aren’t a beast.” She licks suddenly dry lips, thinks about what she can say, and then falters. It has been a long time since she’d last flinched back from Regina’s face, and she finds herself tracing the scars with her eyes sometimes, finding a strange beauty in their patchwork color. Regina is never going to be as beautiful as the woman in white, but there is something about her that isn’t offputting, even if her personality is terrible.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Regina says suddenly. “It’s never made sense why she wouldn’t take my heart. She would have absolute control then. I wouldn’t be talking to you at all if she willed it. I’d just be…well, what she wants me to be,” she says grimly. “I don’t understand why she didn’t take my heart.”

Emma leaves Regina like that, contemplating in the mirror, and she shivers. It’s freezing tonight, and she’s been given a thicker blanket for the winter that she quite likes. But she isn’t ready for bed yet. It’s still early, and nighttime is the only time she has to do what she wants to, unwatched by Cora or the Dark One.

She slips out the window, as she always does, and heads through the halls from the downstairs window to the room where her father sleeps. Behind her, she thinks that she hears footsteps, and she twists around. The hall is empty.

She sits with her father for a few minutes, studies his face, and feels compelled to speak. “She’s still really beautiful, you know. Mom, I mean. I know there’s going to be a huge age gap when…well, whenever you wake up,” she says, scuffing her shoes against the bottom of the bed. “When I figure out how to break the curse without killing anyone.”

She isn’t killing Regina. “I really thought I could,” she admits to her father’s prone body. “I was just as naive as Mom, I guess. I figured that I would just come in here and slay the bad guy like a video game. But people are all…complicated and shit.” She slouches in her chair, scowling at the bed. “Me. Her. Especially her. She’s terrible,” she adds hastily. “Just…more like that high-maintenance customer at a fast food joint than like a fascist dictator. Feels kind of like she’s been punished enough for that already.”

A door creaks in the distance, and Emma’s heart skips a beat. Carefully, she steals out of the room and retreats to the castle grounds, shivering in the cold.

In a whisper, she says, “Show me the woman in white,” to her mirror, and she sees the woman, the shifting movement of the image in the mirror a sign that she’s looking at her through the lake. She wanders out to the lake, seeking her out, and she sees her standing in the freezing water, her dress pooling at her feet.

The woman is watching her– she is always watching her, is always there when Emma looks for her, and Emma sometimes isn’t sure if she really might be a figment of her imagination. Like, realistically, who hasn’t conjured up a sexy lady to kiss in their mind, at least once or twice? But she seems solid, a figure from a dream turned real, and Emma can’t help but feel the impossible pull to her.

She stands in the center of the water, and Emma takes off her cloak and her boots and wades out to her. “Hey,” she whispers, and the woman smiles.

There is something so enchanting about her face, about the dark eyes that are so strangely familiar, and Emma can’t tear her eyes away. The woman touches Emma as though they are intrinsically attached, and Emma closes her eyes and kisses her, tastes sweetness on her tongue. The water is cold and Emma’s pants are soaked from the knee down, but she is so, so warm.

She whispers after, the cold beginning to seep back into her, “Who are you?”

The woman is silent, watches her only with those rich eyes. Emma tries again. “I know you, don’t I?” The woman tilts her head, a noncommittal response. “I’ve seen you before. I know it. I just can’t figure out how. It’s not like I’ve spent much time in the Enchanted Forest–” She thinks again of that guard who stands beside her with eyes that aren’t cursed, and she shifts, wondering. “I just…don’t usually go around kissing strange women,” she says. “Not without tequila, anyway. But we feel…connected.”

The woman touches her face, strokes it with warm hands, and Emma closes her eyes and feels that electric sensation that binds them together. It’s like magic, surging between them, and she lets out a little whine of protest when the woman’s hands disappear.

When she opens her eyes, she is alone in the lake, and her teeth are chattering from the cold. Her cloak is still on the shore, and Emma wades back to it, her hands shuddering from the cold. Her bare feet are freezing, and she thinks suddenly of Regina, curled up in the cold without anything but magic to protect her.

When she steals back inside, it’s to the dining hall, the cloak carefully folded in her arms. Her feet are warm inside her boots now, but there is a chill in the poorly ventilated castle, and Emma thinks longingly of the radiator back at home. Magic can do plenty, but it can’t replace electricity wholesale.

She pushes the door to Regina’s cell open, and she finds Regina inside, curled in a ball and shivering uncontrollably. She doesn’t look up when Emma appears, only curls in tighter, and Emma averts her eyes and feels new heat in her chest as she crouches down beside her.

She lays the cloak over her, and Regina says, “Mother will be furious. You can’t.”

“I can’t let you freeze to death, either. She’ll have to understand.” Emma tries to wink at Regina, who looks at her with weary, uncertain eyes. “It’s the fucking angel in me. Right?”

Regina shakes her head. “You’re a fool,” she says. “Wasting your kindness on me. You have no concept of what a hero would do.”

“I don’t care about heroes or villains,” Emma says, and she feels suddenly self-conscious. “You’re just…you’re the only person in this whole realm who’s keeping me from losing my mind. Okay?”

Regina offers her the ghost of a smile. It’s the first time she’s ever smiled in front of Emma, and Emma is suddenly transfixed at how it transforms her face, makes her almost beautiful. She is abruptly reminded of the woman in white, and she stops, horrified at herself, and averts her eyes.

She speaks to Cora in the morning, insistent and carefully modulated to sound as though she’d only stumbled on Regina in her cell last night. “I had gone out to wash in the lake,” she explains swiftly, and then returns to her point. “She can’t be left in that dungeon. She’ll die, and who knows what might happen if I’m not the one to kill her? It has to be in combat, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” Cora says coolly, and then, with supreme disinterest, “Very well. If you wish to sleep with that mongrel at the foot of your bed, then you shall.”

Emma blinks at her, mildly horrified at the suggestion of Regina there every night, in her last modicum of privacy in the castle. “Oh, I didn’t mean–”

“I think you did,” Cora says, her voice sleek and oily. “Unless you’d prefer the dungeon?”

Regina remains knelt at Cora’s feet, with no reaction. As horrified as Emma is, there is also a strain of relief running through her. Regina might be a pain in the neck, but she deserves better treatment than what Cora has offered, and Emma can give her that, at least.

She is brought upstairs that night by a familiar guard, already stripped naked and with the chain still at her neck to affix to the bed. “Thanks,” Emma says, flushing for no reason at all. “I’d really just…prefer if she were clothed, if you can pass that on to the queen–” She finds sleep pants and a warm lace-up sweater in the wardrobe when the door closes, and she offers them to Regina, staring determinedly at the wall.

Regina says, “I see that Mother fully expects me to sleep at the foot of your bed.” The chain is attached to the bed near the corner at the wall, and Emma notices that it’s shorter than usual, built to give Regina little freedom. She won’t even be able to climb onto the bed with that, let alone stand up or walk around.

Emma yanks at the chain, attempts to break it with magic and brute force, but it remains immobile. “I’ll take down the mattress,” she says, tugging at it. “There’s no reason for you to sleep like that. It’s demeaning–”

Regina laughs. “Please,” she says. “I’ve been sleeping on a stone floor for decades.” But Emma moves stubbornly to yank the mattress down, moving it awkwardly up against Regina until Regina climbs onto it. She is different in the pajamas that Emma had supplied, softer and warmer, and she looks only like a girl now, uncertain and so young beneath the scarring on her face.

Her eyes are closed at once, and Emma lays her blanket over Regina and feels a flash of relief, as though she’s finally accomplished something good in this miserable world.

She creeps out through the window, leaving it mostly closed behind her so Regina won’t awaken from the draft. She should stay tonight– should watch over Regina, should make sure that Cora doesn’t check in on them– but she has the sudden, inescapable urge to see the woman in white. Something is pounding in her chest, a want that she can’t shake, and she needs to kiss…someone, a beautiful mirage, a vision of a fairytale.

When she finds the woman standing in the courtyard below her window, she doesn’t hesitate, only kisses her with desperate motions. She trembles in her embrace, brings her closer, and moves her hands down the curves of the woman’s back beneath her white shift. The woman matches her kisses, lets her own hands mirror Emma’s, and Emma feels the connection between them surging like a sea at high tide, threatening to overwhelm her.

She takes a step back after, panting, and the woman in white watches her with that enigmatic smile on her face and takes a step back. Emma swallows, and she stares at her silently, watches as the woman fades away into nothingness.

She twists around, peers up at her window, and sees a face staring down at her. Emma winces and climbs back up. Regina’s chain must have given her just enough leeway to see out the window, though she’s still low down enough that it’s possible that she hadn’t spotted them.

But she is lying on the bed when Emma returns, her face tight and irritated. “I was going to come right back,” Emma protests, already on the defensive. “I just had to take care of something.”

“Sticking your tongue in her mouth?” Regina says her with marked disgust, and Emma blinks at her, startled.

“You know her? Who is she? What’s her name? Is she that guard–”

“I’ve never seen her before in my life,” Regina says, leaning back against the mattress. She’d been straining to see, and Emma can see the angry red against her neck, just above where the collar sits now. “I just know that I hate her.”

“Because she was kissing me?” It feels like a challenge, and Emma regrets it the moment that she says it. What is she saying, what is she implying–?

“No. Maybe,” Regina says sourly. “But it’s something else, too. She looks like–”

“Who?” Emma says it too eagerly, desperate for answers, and Regina just shakes her head and lies down on the mattress. She shifts, uncomfortable, and Emma bites her lip and offers Regina her last pillow.

“No,” Regina says immediately. “It’s too soft to begin with. I’m just not accustomed to…where are you planning on sleeping?” she demands, eyeing the floor where Emma has just set up a thin blanket. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She pats the mattress demandingly, and Emma decides that she is not going to get into another fight with Regina tonight.

She crawls up onto the mattress, still clinging to the thin blanket that she’d used on the warmest nights, and Regina gives her a fierce look and lifts the heavy comforter. Emma climbs under it, too, and Regina closes her eyes at last.

Regina shifts when she’s asleep, moves closer to Emma, and Emma curls against her and shuts her own eyes, feeling closer to home than she’s been in ages.

The guard watches them carefully in the morning when she comes to retrieve Regina, her eyes flickering to the covered mirror and then to the mattress on the floor. Emma stares at her, belligerent, and the guard looks down at Regina instead.

Regina still wears the pajamas that Emma gave her, and Emma says in a steely voice, “I expect them to be returned tonight.” She nudges Regina with her foot, a halfhearted movement that fools no one, and the guard leaves silently with Regina.

Cora’s eyes are dark with annoyance when she speaks to Emma later. “Do you wish for this world to be like this forever?” she demands. “Do you think that kindness to a monster now will balance out any scales? The curse must be broken. And if I see that you are made weak by the Evil Queen’s presence in your bedchambers, well, we shall see about making you strong.”

“I will do what needs to be done,” Emma snaps, and she fights with extra energy against Regina when they battle, has her backed against walls and flat on the floor with a knife to her neck before she falters and Regina regains the upper hand. Regina is just as vicious, throwing magic at Emma and leaving a burn on her cheek when Emma retreats, and Emma is sore and bruised all over by the time they’re done for the day.

It’s hardly enough to satisfy Cora. There is an impatience in the air now, a distrust of Emma that she takes out on Regina. Regina is brought up to Emma’s room that night with a muzzle, caught around her face to keep her from speaking, and Emma lies next to her in silence and doesn’t go out, not even to see the woman in white.

The muzzle is gone again after a few days, but Cora still lurks around them, forbidding and angry. Regina looks weaker after those days, tired and hungry, and Emma sneaks food to her at night and doesn’t push her too much. “I’m fine,” Regina mutters. “I’m fine,” but she takes the food that Emma offers and devours it like she’s been starving, and Emma curls up beside her at night and wonders about escape.

The castle is unguarded, really. There are the cursed guards, but they are few and far between, and Emma is confident that she could smuggle Regina out, if not for the chain. They can tear the iron bedpost apart if they need, bring it with them until they find someone with a magic bean, who can send them back to the Land Without Magic. They can get it removed there.

And Emma can leave this land to its curse. Can leave her father in a bed, unconscious, for the rest of their existence. Can return home and admit all of this to her mother, who has spent a lifetime training Emma to save all these people. Can leave behind the woman in white and her intoxicating connection to Emma–

She takes in a sharp, shaky breath, and reconsiders it all. She can’t leave, even to save Regina. Regina is…Regina is the cause of all of this, and Emma wasn’t made the savior just to save her. There has to be a better way.

She climbs down the window again, but she can already feel her mind wandering back to the woman on her mattress. She can’t leave her to be treated like this. She can’t not break the curse. She can’t–

She needs help, but she has no one here. The woman in white stands in a clearing below her window, but Emma doesn’t go to her, too conflicted by a thousand different choices. Instead, she climbs through the window that will take her to her father’s room, shutting it behind her and twisting around.

And in that moment, she discovers that she isn’t alone. There is no creeping chill across the back of her neck, no warning– only the Dark One, sitting on a chair opposite the window as though he’s been waiting for her, his fingers steepled in thought as he takes her in. “Emma Swan,” he drawls, and Emma freezes. “Our wayward princess.”

Behind him stands that familiar guard, the one who isn’t cursed. She is still silent, and she keeps her eyes carefully blank beside the Dark One. The Dark One pays her no attention. “I am growing impatient,” he says. “I have been waiting for twenty-eight long years and a hundred more for this curse to be enacted and broken. I have waited to be brought to the Land Without Magic. And still, you waver.” He shakes his head. “Do you think that you are being kind? That this is compassion?”

Emma straightens, her jaw tightening. “I’m trying,” she lies. “I’ve been fighting her every day, and I’m getting stronger–”

“You invite her to your bed and try to unmake a monster,” the Dark One says coldly.

“I want her to die as a human. Someone who knows what she’s done.” The hatred is harder to summon up now than it ever has been. Regina as the Evil Queen is foreign now in the woman who is an ass but one who has been victimized and struggles only to defeat the bad guys. Emma sets her chin. “It’s not like we’re sleeping together.” In any sense that matters, anyway, though she wakes up with Regina gathered in her arms most mornings.

The Dark One sneers at her. “I am not Cora,” he says. “I don’t believe that the Queen must die in combat. That’s her silly little theory. She has interrogated me about the Dark Curse for years, has struggled to understand it, and she still falls short. Only I know how the curse truly works. It is my curse.”

Emma blinks at him, startled. She hadn’t known that, but it makes a certain sense. “I won’t kill her in cold blood,” she says, her heart in her throat. “In combat or not at all.”

The Dark One laughs, malicious and high-pitched enough that it sends a chill through her. “Perhaps not. Perhaps you require a more…hands-on reminder of the lives you ruin each day that you hesitate.” He examines his fingers, then meets her eyes, and Emma takes a step back at the expression within them. “For each day it takes to end my curse, I will kill another villager,” he announces, disinterested. The guard looks sharply at him. “You will murder an innocent each day until you do what must be done.”

Emma reels, horrified. He wouldn’t. He won’t. It’s a bluff, and one she’s going to have to call him on. “I’m trying,” she says again. “Give me a week. One more week. I’ll–”

The Dark One disappears in a flash of smoke, and Emma is left speaking to a chair. “Well, that was rude,” she says aloud.

The guard watches her, and Emma glares at her, is frustrated enough with this entire situation to say something. “Okay,” she says. “You know what? I’m done. I am done with this…pretending and lies and whatever the hell is going on here. I want answers, and I want them now.” She points an accusing finger at the guard. “You’re not under the curse,” she says. “Tell me.”

The guard stares at her. Then, in one abrupt moment, she turns around and leads Emma from the room. Emma follows her down the hall, through the doors outside, and for a moment– Emma is certain that she must be–

Then she pulls off her helmet. Beneath it is long hair, a face lined with distrust, and eyes that she knows now are nothing like the woman in white’s. Emma feels a stab of disappointment, but she thrusts that aside. “Tell me your name,” she orders.

“My name is Mulan,” the guard says, and Emma gapes at her in surprise.

“Wait, really? Like the Mulan? That was my favorite Disney movie growing up. Mom’s too, actually. She didn’t like Snow White. You were the coolest of all the princesses– and you had the best story, too–” Mulan looks baffled, and Emma puts a pause on what is beginning to feel suspiciously like fangirling. “How did you escape the curse?”

“A number of us did,” Mulan says, and she looks suddenly weary. “There were others at first. Cora cast a protective spell around her when the curse hit, and many of us were spared. She had her pirate hunt us down in the years that followed, until the last few of us remaining were able to kill him. I am the only one left.” She bows her head. “I have been here, hidden and waiting, for twenty-six years.”

“Waiting,” Emma echoes. “For what?” Even Mulan can’t possibly take down a witch and a Dark One.

Mulan tilts her head, regarding Emma evenly. “For you,” she says. “I have followed you through the night for weeks now, but I still have few answers. I don’t know what your plans are here. I thought you might break the curse, but instead, you linger and follow the Queen through the gardens–”

“I do not.” That, at least, Emma can deny. “I mean, I’m not going to treat her like an animal, but Cora is the one who–”

“Not that Queen,” Mulan says, dismissive. “The other.”

What the hell does that mean? “What other…?” And then she remembers the woman in white, the woman she climbs out her window to meet each night that she can. “What queen?” she whispers. “Who is she?”

Mulan looks surprised. “You don’t know?” she says, and then, almost to herself, “Then why would you…?” She clears her throat, faces Emma, and she speaks rapidly. “I have been watching Cora for a very long time. She believes that I am loyal to her, and she believes that I am cursed. It is how I survived the first purge of the uncursed.” She clears her throat. “I was there twenty-five years ago, when she first took the castle. I watched as the Evil Queen threw your mother from a tower and she disappeared. I saw Cora’s fury over her disobedience.

For months, she kept the Evil Queen caged. She pored over spell books. And when the time came, she cast her own curse.”

“Her own curse,” Emma echoes. “Which curse? What did it do?”

Mulan sighs. “The Dark One underestimates Cora. She is not a fool, and she long ago unlocked his curse. And she modified it.”

“Meaning?” Emma is lost, feels the rising dread that she’s about to find out something destructive and vile, something that will cage her in even more deeply. “What did she do to it?”

Mulan looks haunted by the memories, grim with what she knows. “In order to cast the curse herself, Cora needed a heart. But it would have to be the heart of the thing she loved most. And that was…”

“Herself?” Emma suggests, but she feels the sick certainty now. This is going to be bad. “No. Regina. But she couldn’t kill Regina without breaking the curse.”

Mulan nods. “Cora split her daughter. She took every good piece of her– the red of her heart, the kindness and the beauty– and she created one Regina. The second Regina is every twisted piece of the Evil Queen, every part of her that lacks humanity. That is cruel and evil and dangerous. You know them both.”

Emma stumbles back, puts a hand against the cool wall of the castle, and thinks of the woman in white’s familiar eyes. Not familiar like Mulan’s, no. Familiar like a gaze behind red-crossed skin, like Regina without those angry, hollow eyes. The woman in white is Regina, is all the goodness within her packaged away and kept pure and silent.

Emma is breathing hard, her heart pounding and her stomach twisting into a knot. “So then…so killing one Regina breaks the curse. The other will cast Cora’s?”

Mulan nods somberly. “The curse must be broken. Too much is at stake. And Regina must be killed.”

“Which?” Emma thinks of the Regina who is good, who feels so entwined with her when they kiss, those beautiful eyes shining and the connection between them bright and strong. And the other Regina– the Regina who is angry and spiteful and mean and still…and still is–

Mulan tilts her head, and she looks resigned. “You already know,” she says quietly.

Upstairs, Regina is lying flat on her back on the mattress, chained to the bedpost and sullen at Emma’s stare. “What?” she demands.

Emma stares at her, her heart still quivering, and she says, “The Dark One claims that he’ll kill a villager for every day that I don’t kill you. I thought it might be a bluff–”

“No,” Regina says immediately, and she sits up against the bed, her gaze stricken. “No, he has no need to bluff. He doesn’t care about the lives of villagers.”

“Do you?” Emma asks, studying her face. There is already despair in Regina’s face, yes, but there is also grief, more than there ever should have been in the eyes of someone who’s meant to be purely evil.

Regina averts her eyes. “I don’t give a damn about any of them,” she says swiftly. “I just don’t want to die.” She drums her fingers against her knees, stares at them instead of Emma, and Emma can see only the barest shadow of the woman in white in Regina’s face.

Emma shivers, feels it like a freezing ice over her heart. It cracks fault lines around it, and then melts away and leaves her small and trembling with an emotion she can’t quite name. “Do you really think I’d– do you really think I could kill you?”

Regina looks up, catches Emma’s gaze, and Emma can’t breathe. “I think you could do a great many things right now,” Regina whispers, and Emma leans forward, presses a hand against the warm skin that she can feel beneath the laces of Regina’s sweater, and lets her lips drift to Regina’s.

Regina lets out a little cry and pulls Emma to her, the chain cold against Emma’s right shoulder as she presses in closer. It is nothing like kissing the Regina in white, the one who is all chaste kisses and smiles. This Regina growls, leaves hot kisses on Emma’s jaw, and Emma squirms closer to her, pulls herself forward to maneuver Regina onto her lap, Regina’s legs falling around Emma’s torso.

Emma kisses her neck above the collar, lets a hand run through the matted hair that once had been luscious and beautiful. Regina lets out a whine, her hands sliding under Emma’s tunic, and Emma sighs with pleasure and pulls back for a moment to stare at Regina.

The angry red scars across her face do something new to Emma now, make her stomach turn with agony for Regina but still frame her face in something lovely. Emma traces one, strokes the angry bumps of it, and Regina closes her eyes and exhales as though she never has before. “You’re beautiful,” Emma whispers, feeling breathless with this revelation. “You’re so–” She presses a kiss to a scar, then another, and quiet tears leak from Regina’s closed eyes.

When she has kissed each line, she turns her attention to the laced sweater that keeps Regina warm, and she pulls at the laces, bit by bit, until the sweater is open in front of her. Regina bucks against her, legs tightening around Emma’s waist, and Emma licks her way down the visible line of skin, her fingers pulling the sweater down Regina’s arms. Regina has a hand on the back of Emma’s head, keeping her buried in Regina’s chest, and Emma teases a nipple, lets her teeth graze it, watches with satisfaction as Regina’s body arcs and only the chain holds her in place.

“Is it– is this uncomfortable?” she asks, looking up, suddenly very aware that Regina is restrained. Regina scowls at her and yanks her back down, and Emma laughs against her breast and continues.

There is something magical to it, to finding the wildness inside Regina after weeks of rejecting it, to sliding down her pants and finding her wet and warm and ready, to Regina hanging onto the bedpost with white-knuckled hands as Emma crawls to her, kissing her clit and burying her fingers inside her. Regina shakes, lets out low curses, and Emma is so hot with it that she nearly comes herself as Regina’s walls finally clench around her. Regina yanks her up and kisses her desperately, and her hands are everywhere, are raking against Emma’s skin and digging into her pants and are finally, finally inside her, and Emma comes so quickly that it is like a breath of relief that comes in wave after wave under Regina’s ministrations.

Emma shifts closer to her, kisses her soundly, both of them naked now with warm-slicked bodies. Regina tastes like their mingled tastes now, and Emma wants to sob with it, wants to bury away the warnings she’s been given. You do what needs to be done. Regina must be killed. You already know. She buries herself in Regina, feels her arms like a dream of something better, something after, even if after doesn’t exist for them.

Regina must be killed.

Regina must be

“No,” she says quietly, and Regina looks at her in consternation. “No,” she says again, and she stalks across the room, still naked, and digs through the weapons laid out on a chest near the wardrobe and lifts a sharp weapon with shaky hands.

Regina watches her from her spot, stares at her in broken despair, and Emma says again, “No.” She takes the battle-axe, stalks back across the room to Regina, and lifts it high. When she brings it crashing down, Regina only stays still, staring up at her.

The axe hits the bedpost. Emma raises it and slams it down again, over and over until little metal shavings begin to fall from the post onto Regina’s bare skin. “What are you doing?” Regina asks, her eyes wide.

Emma brings the axe down again. “I’m getting us out of here,” she says, her teeth gritted. “We’re done. We’re not going to play anyone’s game. Let’s get the hell out of here and go…somewhere else. Forget the curse. Forget the Dark One and Cora.” She slams the axe down, and she notes with pleasure that she’s slowly breaking off the edge of the bedpost. “We’re done,” she says again, and the post snaps.

Regina stands up, her back creaking in relief, and she nearly falls over again. Emma hurries to help support her, and Regina winds her arms around Emma’s neck and kisses her soundly, an uncertain smile against her lips. “You shouldn’t,” she whispers. “I did this to them. I can’t just…escape and leave them to it.”

“I don’t care anymore,” Emma says grimly. “I’m sorry for them. But they don’t know. And I refuse to let this be how you…” She can’t bear to say it. Instead, she kisses Regina again, and she leads her to the wardrobe to find her clothes. Regina holds onto her, her tired eyes shining with a painful kind of hope, and they dress in shaky movements, clinging to each other until it’s time to climb down the wall outside the window.

Regina hangs on with her arms stiff from terror. “I could just…disappear and reappear down there,” she says sulkily. “It wouldn’t take much. Just a tiny bit of magic.”

“Would Cora notice?” Emma asks, casting a quick eye to the ground below.

Regina scowls at her and doesn’t respond to the question. “I’m going to break my neck,” she declares grimly. “I was a queen, remember? And now this. They’ll hail you as a conquering hero, and it’ll be just because you killed me by making me climb out this window.”

“Don’t joke about that,” Emma says sharply, and Regina stops complaining, looks at her with those bright and startled eyes, and Emma presses her lips together and breathes.

They make it to solid ground, stumbling across the soft grass at the foot of the castle, and Regina is still unsteady. “Really haven’t walked a lot in the past two decades,” she says, her eyes shadowed and haunted. Emma squeezes her hand, feels trembling emotion like grief and rage mingling within her. They need to get out, away from Cora, and nothing else matters.


Nothing except, perhaps, the ghostly vision that Emma’s eyes are drawn to at once, a woman dressed in white who moves freely toward them both. Her gaze is only on Emma, and Regina’s hand tightens in Emma’s as Emma walks them forward. “Hi,” she says, and she feels the indecision roaring through her, the uncertainty of what to do next. “Regina?”

The woman in white smiles, and the Regina beside Emma lets go of her hand abruptly. “No,” Emma says quickly. “Regina, she’s you. You’re both…” She shakes her head, thinking quickly.

One is the key to this curse, the other will begin another. Emma won’t kill either one, can’t, these women who are hers and the same, even when they’re miles apart, and she looks from one to the other and comes to a swift decision. Her horse is in the stables here, and it can only carry two. She will need a second. “I have to bring both of you with me,” she says, and Regina looks at her in disgust.

“What is she?” she demands. “The undamaged version? You can have her. You don’t need me.” She turns as though to return to the castle, and Emma shakes her head– opens her mouth to deny it–

But it is too late. Regina freezes, twisted around to face the castle, and it is too late.

Cora stands livid in the doorway to the castle, her eyes burning into them. Mulan stands behind her, the betrayed look dark in her gaze and making Emma’s head bow. Cora strides forward, magic whipping around them, and Regina’s legs buckle beside Emma.

Cora says, “To me,” and both of her daughters walk to her, Regina jerky as she struggles to stay upright and the woman in white gliding toward her. Emma doesn’t move, clenching her knife in hand, and Cora says, “You think that you can run from me? You think that you will ever do a single thing in this castle that I’m not aware of? You fool.” She twists her hand. “You’ve deluded yourself into believing that you’re a guest here. You have a purpose, and that is the only reason why you live. Rumple!” she barks out, and the Dark One is abruptly present.

He looks around with cold, unsurprised eyes, and then does a double-take. “Who– what have you done?” he demands, gesturing at the woman in white. “What is she?”

“My darling girl,” Cora croons, and the woman in white turns to look at Emma, silent in her entreaty. Emma keeps her hand on her knife, looks wildly between Cora and the Dark One, and has no idea how to end this, how to get away– “When the curse is done, I shall have the beautiful daughter I’ve always dreamed of.”

The Dark One’s lip curls. “Never mind that,” he bites out. “I want the curse broken. Shall we begin?” He turns to look directly at Emma, and Emma knows exactly what he’s threatening. She squeezes her knife, glances from one Regina to the other, and the Dark One says, “Perhaps with this young man.”

He waves a hand. A familiar man blinks, looking unsteady and sleepy-eyed as he stares around at them. “What’s going–?” he says suddenly, and Emma wants to sob as his gaze turns wild. “Snow!” He twists, and he catches sight of the two Reginas, lets out a roar, and charges at them.

The Dark One stops him, has him hit an invisible wall and sink to the ground, and Emma says, “Dad. Dad, please–” Her voice wavers, and her father turns to stare at her, disbelieving.

“Emma?” he whispers, and he stops moving.

The Dark One says, “Tick-tock, Emma Swan.”

Emma clenches her knife, feels the weight of a second one strapped to her arm, stares at Regina with her resigned eyes and the woman in white’s translucent gaze. Looks at Cora, who smiles a sharp, violent smile. At her father, who gapes at her and has forgotten everything else in this tense moment that brims with danger, and at Mulan, who watches Emma with her wary stare.

She looks at Regina again, her heart twisting in pain. Regina closes her eyes in acquiescence, and Emma hurls the knife at her.

And Regina catches it in a graceful movement and buries it in her mother’s chest.

Cora laughs, the sound like a mockery of everything before it, and she says, “Did you think that you could kill me with a metal weapon in a land with magic? Do you think I keep my heart in here?”

“No,” Emma says. “I’m actually pretty sharp sometimes.” The second knife goes just to Cora’s left, where she isn’t watching as Regina stares blankly at her, and it slashes into a white gown, splattering it with red. The woman in white gasps, her eyes wide and lost as they begin to drain of life, and Emma watches her fall, watches the energy that pours from her in a multicolored surge. She can’t look away, her heart still pounding with it, because she has done the unforgivable. Because she has killed, struck down an innocent, and all for–

The woman sobs out, “Emma,” so gentle and confused that Emma has to look away, and then the world vibrates and disappears in blinding color.

She knows this town. She’s never seen it before in her life, but she recognizes the woods from outside the little cabin that used to be just outside the road into town, the place where she’d lived for the past eight years with her mother, a half hour drive from Bangor and work. But there had never been a town before, shops lining the street down from the cabin and houses and apartments on the roads that sprawl out from here.

“The curse is broken,” the Dark One says with satisfaction, and he turns without a glance back at them and strides away, down the road that will lead him out of town. Emma doesn’t follow him, still thunderstruck at what she’s just done.

The woman in white is gone, has disappeared with the curse. Cora, however, remains, the knife still trapped in a chest that no longer moves. Mulan is behind her, dressed in a sheriff’s uniform, and Dad is in jeans and an old band shirt and looks bewildered. “Where are we?” he demands. “What’s happening? Emma?” He turns hopefully to her, and she manages a wan smile.

“I think I broke the curse,” she says, and she takes a few steps forward, careful and uncertain. “I…I guess it took us here.”

“Emma,” Dad breathes again, and he rushes to her, wraps her in his arms, and Emma squeezes her eyes shut in an attempt to stave off the tears that follow. “I think…” He pauses, confused again, and he says, “I think I heard you. In my dreams. Were you there?”

“Yeah.” Emma sucks in a quick breath, sharp and unsteady. “Yeah, I would come and…and talk to you…” She leans into his embrace, holds him tightly, and feels his kiss against the top of her head. “I really, really wanted to know you,” she whispers.

“You will,” Dad says. He pulls back to look at her with shining eyes, and he says, “You did it. You defeated the Evil Queen and broke the curse. I knew that you would.”

Emma can’t answer that, and so she only stands there, feeling very fragile, and dares to look at the now-unchained woman crouched beside Mulan.

She looks…different. The scars are still there, but they have settled into her skin, are a little less of an angry red, and the bruises on her skin are a faded purple instead. Somehow, Regina looks different now, as though she has been made whole by the breaking of the curse.

Or, perhaps, by Cora’s death. Emma steps forward gingerly, ignores her father’s questioning “Emma?” and bends down to take Regina’s hands.

“You’re free,” she whispers, and she wants to– to gather Regina into her arms, to examine her now and get her to a doctor. To take her somewhere safe, free of chains and abusive mothers, and to lie beside her until Regina is the woman she once must have been.

But Regina only looks at her, her eyes deadened with pain, and she collapses onto the floor.

Mulan bends down beside Emma. “My car is here,” she says, jerking a thumb toward the sheriff’s car parked on the road. “I don’t know how I know what a car is or that this one is mine, but it’s here, and I’m pretty sure I can drive it. Let me take her out to the hospital and get her treated.”

“The hospital,” Emma repeats, at a loss. This town– whatever it is– it has a hospital, and Mulan knows where it is. Maybe this is the curse in action, giving these people from another realm a place to be, but she has been excluded from it. “Wait,” she says suddenly. “What if– if they see her and know that she’s–”

“I’ll take her to her place,” Mulan amends. “I’ll see what we can get her for her injuries.” She puts a hand on Emma’s. “You did the right thing,” she says. “I don’t know how you knew which Queen would break the curse, but you did the right thing.”

“Yeah.” Emma helps lift Regina, who is surprisingly light, and her heart aches. In retrospect, it seems so obvious. There had been a connection between the woman in white and Emma from the start, and it hadn’t been romantic but the threads of destiny, tugging them to each other for a final battle. And of course Cora would put the key to casting her curse into the daughter she’d so clearly wanted dead. It had made perfect sense.

But in the moment, she hadn’t been thinking. She’d just been desperate to keep Regina alive and safe, and she’d made the only choice that she could.

Mulan drives away with Regina, leaving Emma behind with Cora’s body and Dad. “Who was she?” Dad asks curiously, staring down at her. “Was she…was she a casualty of the Evil Queen?”

“No,” Emma says, her heart dull in her chest. “Other way around. A lot has happened since the curse. It’s complicated. Mom and I…” Her voice trails off as she sees her, walking down the street with a determined step. Mom, her eyes bright with wonder and shining with tears, still with that round face that Emma had always thought was young until right now, when she can see the grey in her hair and the wrinkles at her eyes and Dad is standing tall and young–

And his eyes glow with so much love that she doesn’t know how she’d ever doubted them. He runs to Mom, lifts her into the air and swings her around into his arms, and they are lost in a passionate embrace in a moment. “You found her,” he says breathlessly as Emma politely averts her eyes. “You found our Emma.”

“Emma,” Mom says, and she pulls away from Dad to throw her arms around Emma. “Emma, you did it. You saved everyone. You really did it.” She hugs Emma, and Dad hugs them both, and Emma is surrounded by so much love that she feels sick with it, with her grateful parents and their affection while all she can see is the woman in white with a bloodstained dress.


Regina awakens in a dimly lit room, quiet voices around her, and she feels a growl building up within her before she tamps it down forcibly. This isn’t the castle. This is her house, which is something she knows innately even though she has no idea how she has this house, or where she is– Storybrooke, her mind supplies– and there are intruders here.

“I know that you’re a nurse in this world,” someone is saying. The sheriff. Hua Mulan. “I thought you might be able to help her.”

“Help the Evil Queen?” says another voice dubiously. This one is vaguely familiar, though Regina’s mind doesn’t supply her with answers. “I don’t know, Mulan. What if–”

“Aurora,” Mulan says, and she sounds tired and sad. “She’s really been through it. She’s half the reason we’re not in an even worse curse right now. We owe her this. Can you trust me?”

A pause, and then a more subdued response. “I trust you,” the nurse murmurs, and then there are hands on Regina, bandaging her arms and turning her onto her back to examine her. Regina moves limply, control of her body slipping away, and she closes her eyes and tries to dream of something else.

She dreams of Mother, her cold eyes like piercing knives, and the disgust with which she’d injured Regina. You are nothing, she says. You are a monster, she says, until Regina believes it. She searches for the humanity within herself and determines that it isn’t there, snaps at her captor with magic until Mother restrains her and forces her to her feet. There, Mother says with satisfaction. Know your place.

But there are other memories creeping into her, pressing into the nightmares of agony against her skin and Mother’s hatred. She remembers wandering through the night, her back straight and her heart haunted, and the moment that she’d first seen– a woman, slipping through the darkness, her heart like a beacon in the dark– kissing her, holding her, desperate for the way she’d felt solid only when in Emma’s arms.

Not my memories, she says silently. But there is the other Regina, back within her, bringing pieces of herself together again. She remembers the knife sailing toward her, firm in her hand, and sinking it into Mother. And she remembers a second knife disappearing into her chest, the heartbreak and the dawning knowledge of who’d thrown it. Not my memories, but she remembers Emma killing her.

She hears the women again, their voices hushed. “She’ll need a cane,” the nurse is saying. “I don’t think that this kind of damage to the spine will correct itself for a long time. Physical therapy, definitely. Years of it. I have a name– though I don’t know if he’ll work with the Evil Queen, either–”

“Mayor Mills,” Mulan corrects her, and she sounds very weary. “Look, I don’t like her either. But the savior is counting on me to get her whatever she needs to recover.”

The nurse says, her voice somber, “She’s definitely been…I don’t know what happened to her, but it looks like someone tortured her.” Her voice is soft now, uncertain, and she says, “Do you know what happened to her?”

“I watched it happen,” Mulan says quietly. “Day after day. It’s hard to resent her after what her mother did to her.”

The nurse blows out a loud sigh. “Her mother. Shit.” She puts a hand on Regina’s back, and Regina thrashes against it, feels suddenly trapped and choking in this too-small room.

“Emma,” Mulan is saying into her phone. “Emma– I need Emma, please–”

And then Emma is there. Regina is aware that time has passed because the room is dim now, the light from the morning no longer filtering through the windows, and the nurse and the sheriff are both gone. In their place is Emma, knelt in front of the bed to see her face– why, she wonders, with all the disdain that the other Regina must feel for the reflection she would see now– a tremulous smile on her face. “Hey,” she whispers. “How are you holding up?”

“What do you think? I feel like hell,” Regina snaps, and she winces at herself, at the part of her that is caustic and angry and wants to lash out. The second Regina– the kind one who had been rendered silent and beautiful and good by Mother’s curse– she recoils at the meanness in Regina, at the way that Regina cannot even answer a question without her ugliness showing itself.

But Emma grins, none of that disgust in her gaze, and she says, “Okay, Your Crabbiness. Think it’s a good time to see an old friend? Or…worst enemy, I’m never sure–” And she steps aside to wave someone into Regina’s bedroom.

Snow gasps, her eyes immediately filling with tears, and she says, “Oh, Regina. You’re so damaged.”

It’s so quintessentially Snow that Regina almost laughs. “And you’re so old,” she shoots back, and Emma squeezes her hand and holds it tight, an anchor in this uncertain, new world.

Together, Snow and Emma manage to get Regina to her feet. “I was fine at the castle,” Regina says sulkily. “I don’t know why it’s so hard to move now.”

“You were barely upright,” Emma reminds her. “It was all adrenaline. Come on.” They get her down the stairs, and Emma passes her a cane that leans against the staircase. “Aurora thinks that a back brace and physical therapy will help your spine in the long run. For now, though, she just wants you to practice walking however you can.”

Regina leans on the cane, feels her age shudder through her body, and she walks heavily toward the couch in the living room. She knows that it’s there, just as she could list every food in the pantry, even though she knows that just a few hours ago, she’d been chained to a bedpost in the dark.

David is already sitting on the couch, and he jumps up when he sees her, eyeing her warily. “Oh, lovely. I see the happy couple has been reunited,” she says, not without some bitterness.

Snow nudges her, setting her slightly off-balance. “Careful,” she says, “Or I might start asking questions about another happy couple.” She wiggles her eyebrows at Emma, who looks chagrined.

“Mom,” she says carefully. “I know you…um…have some complicated feelings about Regina…” She is already shifting, moving between Regina and Snow as she speaks. David looks shellshocked as he stares at them, horrified, which is really all Regina has ever wanted

“No,” Snow says firmly. “This is my family. Is it a little strange to see my daughter with the woman I used to have a crush on?” Regina chokes. Emma looks aghast. David looks slightly ill. Snow laughs. “I am much too old to care about any of that anymore. I’m just happy we’re all not trying to kill each other anymore.” She sits down placidly on the couch, right next to the spot where Regina had been planning to hobble over to, and puts up her feet on Regina’s coffee table.

Regina says, “I will absolutely kill you if you don’t put your feet down, you churlish wretch,” and the other Regina within her shudders as Snow laughs and Emma comes up behind her, nuzzling the skin of her cheek, and puts a hand on each side of her waist.

She had thought, when she’d been in the dungeon, that she’d been holding onto her mind quite well. Of course, she hadn’t held onto it at all, and it’s more apparent now. She flinches dramatically at small noises, her heart thumping and her hands flailing each time a door opens, and she wakes in her soft bed with dread suffusing her each morning. Sometimes she forgets herself, forgets that she is a person at all, and her hands tighten into claws as she calls magic when she is irritated.

She ventures outside and finds a town that operates smoothly, as though it has always been here. Snow teaches ten-year-olds, David works in an animal shelter, Mulan is the sheriff. The townspeople watch her with distrust, and sometimes– cars speed through intersections when she has the stop sign, elevator doors whir closed before she can limp toward it, stores close abruptly at three pm because she’s walking toward them– she knows that she is loathed. She still goes to work, because she has returned from the curse with a strange sense of responsibility.

She is fitted with a brace by a grudgingly helpful Dr. Frankenstein, who has decided to lay the blame for everything on her and not his own machinations. “I can’t do anything for your face,” he says. “You can talk to a plastic surgeon if you go out of town.”

“Your face is perfect,” Emma says fiercely when Regina broaches the topic. “Does it…do you want to have it done?”

No. Yes. No. She carries other scars that she hates, that she wishes were long gone, but they are here, and she will have to live with them. Wiping her face clean feels too much like surrendering to the other Regina who lives within her. And yet. “I would like to be beautiful again,” she admits. She wants Emma to look at her with that same wonder as she had the other Regina, the way that Regina remembers it. Not with pity or compassion or polite distaste.

But Emma only watches her with hungry eyes, and she whispers, “You already are,” and kisses her scars ferociously, as though to prove it to Regina. She cradles Regina’s face in her hands and gazes at her when others avert their eyes, studying every imperfection as though each one is precious.

Emma screams in the night sometimes, wakes up sobbing and in despair, and she doesn’t explain it to Regina. She doesn’t leave, either. They are settling into normalcy, are focused on their jobs and the world created for them. Emma has gone out and gotten her old job in social work back, and she stares at her hands sometimes as though she isn’t sure if they’re meant to hurt or heal.

She comes home one Friday with a little boy, a five-year-old with wide eyes who hides behind her and stares at Regina’s scars with open curiosity. “I know this is…” Emma chews on her lip and looks embarrassed. “He was just unexpectedly brought back by a foster family, and he hasn’t been placed again yet. I didn’t want him put in a group home so soon. He adjusts slowly.”

Regina leans on her cane and stares back at the boy. He says, his words clear and timid, “Can I touch your tattoo?” He points at her face, and Emma looks even more chagrined.

Regina feels a strange calm coming over her, a sensation that she hasn’t felt in the longest time. “Certainly,” she says, and she maneuvers to sit at the table, her back encased in a brace that feels sometimes as though it’s the only thing holding her together, and lets the boy clamber up onto the chair to touch her scars.

“They’re so bumpy,” he says, fascinated. “Do you like Star Wars?”

Regina has no idea what Star Wars is, beyond the awareness that there is a movie or…something. “Yes,” she says.

“You look like Darth Maul,” he says, admiring, and Emma puts a hand to her lips to stop herself from laughing.

Regina ignores her and turns to face the boy. “What’s your name?” she asks him.

He is tracing the scars now, moving in a zigzag across her face as though it is a game to connect each one to the next. “Henry,” he says absentmindedly, and grief washes over Regina like a long-gone memory.

“That was my father’s name,” she says softly, and Henry smiles at her. “It’s a very good name.”

Henry sleeps in a spare bedroom upstairs that night, and when Regina wakes up, it’s to Emma’s gasping sobs and to an echo of them in a room down the hall, a plaintive cry that tears at something deep within Regina. She leaves Emma behind, tiptoes to the second bedroom, and she finds a little boy trembling in the dark. He reaches his arms out to her trustingly, and Regina wraps him in her arms and lies beside him in the bed.

In the morning, she awakens to Emma calling her name, wandering through the hallway. She puts a finger to her lips as Emma stops in the doorway, and Emma freezes, stares at them with an expression on her face that Regina can’t read.

“I don’t want him to leave,” Regina says later that day, when Henry is coloring a math color-by-number with gusto, pushing too hard on colored pencils and sharpening them down to stubs. The picture is a dragon, and he is thrilled, is babbling to Emma about dragons and Regina longs to tell him about a dragon friend she’d once had, about riding dragons and magic and a thousand things that she can’t reveal to a boy who is about to leave.

She has never thought of her life as one worth telling tales about, not until a little boy with dreamy eyes had abruptly appeared at the center of it.

“I didn’t think you would,” Emma admits when she disentangles herself from him and joins Regina at the side of the room, taking the glass of cider that Regina offers her. “It was why I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to bring him here. But–” She hesitates, watching him. “I was in foster care for three years before Mom found me. It could have been a lifetime if she hadn’t.”

“I did that to you,” Regina says, and she feels the other Regina within her, the loathing that burns into her skin. “My curse.” How can Emma be here, when she knows who Regina is?

“You brought her back to me, too,” Emma says quietly, and she leans against the mantle as Regina leans against her cane, both of them watching the boy. “He’s anxious,” she says abruptly. “You haven’t really seen it yet. It’s in his case file. Why he keeps being sent back. He’s prone to anxiety attacks and needs a patient hand. Foster parents take him, think they can handle it, and then realize exactly how much he’s going to need them and they can’t do it. It’s not easy even for someone who’s emotionally and physically stable,” she says, and she is speaking like a social worker now, distant and clinical.

Regina is hurt until she isn’t, until she hears the raw feeling beneath it. Emma is protective of Regina, but even more protective of Henry, who watches them both with wide and solemn eyes whenever he glances up. “You don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I think there are official channels to go through,” Emma says quietly. “And then we can talk.”

There is something about how she says it that still feels removed, that gives Regina nothing but trepidation. “I think we should talk now,” she says. “I’m talking about a child. In our house. As our son. Don’t you think that should be a discussion for us both?” Unless Emma doesn’t want to be here, doesn’t see this as a longterm place where she belongs. Regina squeezes her cane, the fear and loss already consuming her, and she says, “Do you think this is a discussion for us both?”

Emma looks up at her, her eyes anguished, and she says, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I can be that for Henry.” She gulps in a breath and shakes her head, and Regina is heartbroken.

Henry goes back to work with Emma on Monday, and he cries and trembles when Regina hugs him goodbye. “I don’t want to leave,” he sobs, and he shakes and shakes until he can’t breathe, until Emma is late for work and Regina holds him in her arms for a long time, lets him sob and choke and beat his fists against the clothed plastic of her brace, and then he is finally well enough to go.

Emma comes home with a pamphlet. Foster Parenting and the Home Visit. “There’s a lot of training first,” she says, avoiding Regina’s eyes. “It’s not like you can just snatch a villager’s child and run off with him.”

“Oh, boo,” Regina says sardonically, and she studies the pamphlet and fills out an application, then prints a second one and leaves it on the kitchen table. It is a question, one that she doesn’t want to push too hard, and she says nothing about it to Emma.

It is filled out in the morning, and Emma is sitting on the couch, her eyes blank. “Tell me what’s wrong,” Regina pleads with her, but Emma only kisses her and says nothing.

That evening, Emma says, “There is something. About Cora,” she says, and Regina recoils instinctively. “I took care of all the burial arrangements,” Emma adds, and her voice is tentative, careful. “I didn’t want you thinking about that while you were healing. But there’s a grave now, and I just got the call today that the tombstone is finally ready. If you want to go there.”

She doesn’t. But she goes anyway, and she walks with Emma to the grave on Friday afternoon, a quiet corner in the cemetery with a stone that reads only CORA MILLS. It is simple and forgettable, not a word upon it of mighty victories or defeats or power, and Regina knows that Mother would hate it. Good.

She remembers pain and hatred and little love, but she has other memories now, ones that hurt to think about. The other Regina, living within Mother’s quarters. Mother allowing her to venture out at night and get some air, darling, you must stretch those legs sometimes. A private room for her to sleep in, and Mother’s eyes lighting up with affection each time that she visits. Someday, my dear, we will rule this land together, she’d promised, and there had been something almost like love in her voice.

She stares at the grave and feels nothing, and Emma says, “It’s all right if you don’t want to mourn her. I don’t want you to mourn her,” she says darkly. “She was a vile monster–”

“Yes,” Regina agrees. “And she was my mother.” She folds her hands together over her cane and traces the letters on the stone with her eyes. “Thank you for burying her,” she says. “I think I might have cremated her to…to let myself forget,” she admits. “But this is what I needed.”

“Everyone deserves to be buried,” Emma says, and she sounds haunted again, shaky and distant, and Regina doesn’t know what’s wrong.

Snow comes to see Regina in her office, and she is just as perturbed by Emma. “Something is bothering her,” she says quietly. “I thought…I didn’t think that the toll of her time at the castle would be so great.”

“I’m supposed to be the one on the verge of a breakdown,” Regina says wryly. They are friends now, as distasteful as Regina finds it, and there is something soothing about Snow’s presence. “Not Emma. She kept herself while we were there. She was strong and clever and so good–” Her voice catches.

Snow grins knowingly at her. “I knew you’d love her,” she says, and she sounds very smug. “Years ago, I was already sure that you’d be head over heels for her. I figured that she’d show up to your castle, ready to fight, and you’d be gone for her in an instant. She kept talking about killing you, and I was rooting for true love’s kiss.”

Regina rolls her eyes. “Fool,” she says, dismissive. “I hated her when I saw her. I thought that she was a self-important, one-dimensional brat who was exactly like you.” And because she can’t abide by slander of Emma, she adds, “But I was wrong.”

“I was wrong, too,” Snow says quietly. “I thought you’d be on your throne. I left you to Cora–”

“You were a prisoner,” Regina points out.

“I should have helped you,” Snow murmurs. “Years of pain, and no one was there to save you.”

Regina shakes her head. It’s pointless to remind Snow that Regina herself had cast the curse, that she’d been the fool that the Dark One had selected to erect a prison for herself. Snow doesn’t care. Snow, like her daughter, is too fiercely loyal to Regina. “Emma saved me.”

“She did,” Snow says, and her eyes shine. “Is it true that you’re talking about fostering a boy?”

“There is no talking,” Regina says, and then, “Yes.” Both are true, and both leave her confused and lost and certain that there is something that Emma still keeps from her.

But Emma doesn’t explain it. They are taking an online course for the training, and Emma must have signed up, too, though she doesn’t tell Regina that she does. She only sits beside her and logs in on her own laptop, and she looks pained throughout the entire class.

It feels strangely performative. Emma won’t talk about it, won’t let her know how Henry is doing beyond another tersely admitted, “The group home didn’t work out.” Emma takes every class with marked reluctance, and she seems resentful about the whole thing.

Emma doesn’t want it, Regina knows with rising dread. Not Henry, not the certification, and maybe not even Regina herself. With every moment, she distances herself from them, and Regina thinks this isn’t where she belongs. This isn’t what she deserves. And she doesn’t push.

When it all comes to a head, it goes like this: they fail the home study through no fault of their own. The social worker who is assigned to them isn’t able to cross the town line, and she flags their case and they are rejected. Regina spends hours on the phone trying to arrange a new home study where she can drive the social worker in, paces with a cane in one hand and the phone in the other, and Emma watches a movie on the couch throughout the entire affair.

When Regina hangs up, she is irritable and furious and desperate to take it out on someone, and the accusations come too easily. You don’t want this. You don’t want Henry or a child at all. Why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you doing this to us? Do you even want me?

Emma is silent, takes it all with eyes that see nothing, and it makes Regina more and more furious until lights are blinking in the house with the vestiges of magic that she can call in this land and Sheriff Hua is summoned when the earth begins to shift on the block.

“Get it under control,” she says sternly, looking from Emma to Regina, and Regina is humiliated and heartbroken and lost, and she closes the door when the sheriff leaves and goes upstairs to bed instead of pushing Emma for more answers.

She doesn’t know when Emma crawls into bed– half expects her not to– and she sleeps badly. There are nightmares and memories that go hand in hand, and she awakens from one to descend to another when she senses that someone else is in the bed.

Emma is sobbing in her sleep again, her mouth open in a silent scream and her fists hitting the mattress, and Regina puts a hand on her side and rolls her over. Emma flails wildly, nicks the side of Regina’s face, and wakes with a start with a tearstained face and tortured eyes.

Regina kisses her temple, dares to kiss each eyelid, relieved and dismayed at Emma’s presence and distress. Emma trembles beneath her, holds onto her, and she says in a ragged voice in the dark. “I want Henry. I do.” Regina waits, lies beside her, and Emma whispers, “I want you, too. I’ve never wanted anyone else. But I destroy everything I–” Now she sounds tortured, lost and despairing, and Regina shakes her head.

“That’s my line,” she murmurs, and she tries for a smile but gets only solemn eyes in return. “I’m the Evil Queen, remember?”

Emma’s gaze is still fixed on her. “Every night, I dream about killing her. You. The woman in white.” Regina twitches, and Emma chokes out a sob. “I remember the knife and the blood– all that blood, spraying across her dress– and every time I see you–” She shudders. “I don’t know how I ever missed it. You have the same eyes. And every time I see you, I remember how she looked at me when I killed her.” She swallows. “She never got a burial. She never got anything. I killed her, and no one even knows she existed.”

Regina has dreamed very little about killing Mother, has spent far too much time dreaming about Mother in very different, horrible contexts. But she has dreamed about the moment after it, from another Regina’s eyes. “I see it sometimes,” she says. “I see you kill me. The knife and your eyes and how you looked at me like– like I was already gone.” She shudders.

But when she turns, it’s to Emma’s wide, startled gaze, and she knows suddenly that she should have shared this before. That she should have stopped hiding this terrible, self-loathing part of herself and gifted it to Emma weeks ago. “You have her memories?” Emma asks in a whisper.

Regina nods, and she feels a stab of fury, directed inward. A reminder of her own selfishness, of resentment and hatred. “She must have…I suppose we blended into one when you killed her. She is here.” She touches her chest. Emma is crying again, presses a hand over Regina’s, and Regina hurries to add, “She knows you did what you had to to save us all. She thinks I probably don’t deserve you, and she’s right.”

Emma rolls over to stare at her, still wondering. “She isn’t dead,” she says slowly. “She’s in you. She’s part of you.” She exhales, her pulse quick against Regina’s skin. “What do you mean, you don’t deserve me?”

Regina says it dryly, already accustomed to the hate-filled voice inside her. “Emma,” she points out. “I’m the bad one, remember? Mother took everything good out of me and made her perfect daughter. I’m the version that is the monster. I’m the sum of every horrible crime I’ve ever committed, every evil urge I’ve ever had. She hates every other part of me, and she’s right to.”

“No,” Emma whispers, and she looks horrified. “No. She’s wrong.” She sits up in bed, her shirt falling down around her and her legs folded so she can face Regina. “I don’t know what your mother…I don’t know how Cora did it. What she split apart. But I will never take Cora’s ideal and say that it’s good.” Regina twists to stare at her, and Emma squeezes her eyes shut. “You aren’t the bad one. You were a fucking pain and an asshole for really good reasons. And the other Regina…we were linked, yeah, but she never felt real. She never felt like you. She wasn’t the Regina I fell in love with,” she says, and she leans back against the headboard as though it is too heavy an admission to hold up. “That was all you,” Emma breathes, and tears spring to her eyes again.

Regina pulls herself up, wincing as she feels the strain on her back, and she shakes her head. “You love me?”

“Yeah. Don’t make a big thing about it,” Emma warns her, abruptly raw and honest. “This is a big, vulnerable moment, so if you–”

“I love you,” Regina says swiftly. “Of course I love you. I have no idea why you’d love me, but–”

“Shh,” Emma whispers, and she kisses Regina, runs her tongue along the edges of Regina’s teeth and her hands to the spot on the back of Regina’s brace that unbuckles it from her. Regina is still under strict orders about what kind of spinal movement she can handle, and so she lies back, easing Emma up her body, and she mouths kisses against her thighs and then turns her attention to the space between them.

“I love your scars,” Emma whispers after, when she slides back up from where she’d been to kiss Regina’s cheeks. “I love the one that arcs over here the best–” She traces it with quiet affection, over Regina’s cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. “Like it’s underlining your eyes. You have the absolute best eyes.”

“You have the best hair,” Regina says, sleepy and sated. “And lips. I would raise an entire army for those lips. Slay a thousand enemies barehanded for that little freckle on the side of your shoulder. Light a mountain on fire for that little bit of your shoulder blade that juts out– there,” she says, kissing it happily.

“God, that’s hot,” Emma murmurs, laying against her. She slides the brace on with tender fingers, running her fingers over Regina’s back as she seals it away from her. “I don’t have any armies to raise, or mountains to set on fire, but I feel like I could wrestle a dragon sometimes when you smile at me.”

“That would be stupid and foolhardy,” Regina says primly; then, considering what might be the most compelling and attractive battle she’ll ever witness, “Could I choose the dragon?”

Emma just laughs, burrowing against her. “I am so terrified of Henry,” she says suddenly, her voice strained. “Of doing it wrong. Of hurting him like I hurt the other…the woman in white. I keep thinking about that look she gave me and imagining it on Henry’s face and I just…he’s a kid. He’s a kid who needs a mom, and I’m going to screw it up.”

“And I’m the Evil Queen,” Regina says, running her hands through Emma’s hair. “I’m not exactly…mom material. But you know what I have? Why I think I might be able to give that little boy what he needs?”

Emma is silent, and Regina says it. “I know everything I never want to be,” she murmurs. “And I have you.”

Henry steps out of Emma’s car on the afternoon when he arrives for good, looking around warily at the big white house in front of him. It has been a long time since he’d been here, a long time spent on paperwork and training courses and bureaucracy, and Regina doesn’t know if he remembers her at all. Snow and David are there– had insisted on attending his arrival, even though Regina had reminded them that he can’t be overwhelmed– and they sit together on the porch, beaming at the boy who still stands at the car door.

Emma closes her own door and takes Henry’s hand, and Henry clings to it, looking up at her with trusting eyes. She smiles at him, her eyes clear and affectionate, and Regina takes a careful step forward.

She still wears her brace, but she goes without the cane this afternoon, a daring step forward that has her uncertain. It’s the first time that she’s been without the cane since the curse, and Snow looks up at her in surprise as she emerges from the doorway and tries to make her way down the porch steps.

David leaps up, puts a hand out to steady her, and Regina lets him, offers a glancing smile to him and to Snow as she makes her way down the path to the driveway. Her steps are careful, her back artificially straight, but she feels steady on her feet, confident.

Emma sees her– sees the cane missing– and her eyes flicker with alarm for a moment and then joy, unfiltered and bright on her face, and Regina thinks, this woman really loves me with the same wonder that she thinks it every time. She takes another step forward, and she lets her eyes drift from Emma down to Henry, who has turned to watch her approach.

Henry’s little face erupts in a fierce smile, and she knows that he remembers her from the way that his eyes alight on her scars, tracing them with that same interest as before. “Hello,” she says to him, and his free hand lets go of the car door and slips into hers without hesitation. Regina loves him all over again, as instantly as it had happened the first time, with every last part of her fractured heart.

She looks up at Emma, too, who watches Henry with undisguised longing, and Emma gazes at her over Henry. “Hi,” she says, a soft smile playing at her lips, and they walk Henry together to the porch.