“I wish to be sent to the same place as Emma Swan,” you say. Your eyes close as your world fades to black.
I hope she’s okay, you think, your eyes opening to a black and white world. None of it makes any sense but you look, you listen, and then you hear her.
You see her.
“Emma?” You call out, but the second you say her name
the world changes.
This is a soulmate realm and your world burst into colour the moment her name fell from your lips.
She looks at you like you’re the monster that’s kept her company under her bed. The thing of legends and nightmares.
“You’re the Evil Queen”
And your heart breaks because she’s never looked at you like this. Not when you were fighting to keep Henry from each other. Not when she pinned you against the storage cabinet, demanding to know what you’d done to Henry laying in the hospital bed not twenty feet away.
The first time she’d realized you were the Evil Queen, she hadn’t looked at you this way.
You try to explain. “This isn’t real, Emma,” you plead.
But what could you possibly say? This realm may not be real but this is all she thinks she’s ever known.
There are no words.
But there is colour. Surely that would give you credibility? All you had to do was say her name, then hues burned bright, the monotonous landscape disintegrated, and you knew,
but you realize hers is still gray.
Any hope you’d let grow in your chest gets snuffed out. You don’t stop trying. You’ve been through too much and this is what you’re here for.
Then their Charming Majesties show up unbidden (though, technically Emma begged them to come to her rescue) and they’re old. You blink. You suppose they aged well but you’ve aged better. Freezing time for the better part of three decades will do that.
You give it one last shot
“Emma, this isn’t you.”
There’s no recognition in her green eyes. Your own gray eyes are imploring and you wonder if they can be windows to the soul if they are only dull reflections.
"And there must be some part of you that knows that.”
You’re starting to sound almost hysterical. No, that’s exactly how you sound. Desperate, pleading, untamed. Exactly like the women made to cower before a fabricated condition.
There’s a blade at your back and an arrow threatening to pass through your ear and there’s no time left, no tricks up your sleeve.
Purple smoke obscures Emma’s frightened face as you transport yourself away.
You’re in your castle and it looks like its last visitor was a tornado; one that left everything in shambles instead of transporting the contents between realms. You suppose this was the setting of the final battle, the banishment that was not so subtly alluded to. As if an enchanted sword could have decimated the Evil Queen in her prime. Please.
You look around at the beautiful things you’d painstakingly collected during your rein, the objects you'd surrounded yourself with to try to fill that void left by a lost love. Well, indulgent trinkets and a thirst for revenge. You suppose it could have been mistaken for vanity, this compulsion to own lavish ornaments. You’d worked hard to maintain your façade as a powerful, distant Queen. No one knew the motivation behind your vendetta against Snow White and you’d let them believe what they wanted. Fear was cultivated by mystery. You had wielded the unknown as a weapon; if your enemies thought you unpredictable, you’d hold your hand high above them forever.
Your fingers graze a pendant on the vanity, seemingly untouched in the struggle. It shines like it had been forged in the fire yesterday. Around it, a layer of dust had collected, burying the veneer of the oak, the jade surface of a comb. But dust had been reluctant to settle on the pendant, wouldn’t presume to colonize the jewelled surface.
It had been perhaps your most prized of possessions. You’d tried to bring it with you to the land without magic, but it had refused to make the trip. You pick it up now and you can feel the ancient magic emanating in tendrils from the necklace, entwining your wrist and burning a cold caress into your skin.
It had been said that this pendant was older than magic itself. That it had sparked the creation of the realms, had gifted life out of nothing but sheer will. You’d admired the determination, the stubbornness, to create something formidable out of nothing and leave it behind to destroy itself. You had felt an all-encompassing need to have it, to own it, to conquer.
It sits heavy in your hand. You feel the weight of time meaningless to this object, waves of emotions that are not your own sift through you, and it’s alive, somehow.
You feel it. The betrayal, the disdain. Of course, such a being would be affronted to be pulled toward a world that had forgotten its roots. Not a land without magic, but a land that had rejected it. How naïve you’d been, to think you could influence such a powerful force to do anything other than exactly what it wanted.
This entity, that had created realms and turned its back on them. You wonder what it’s doing in a realm that isn’t real, that is the figment of a wish.
You turn it over in your hand. Does it have any power here, you wonder? And you know the answer, it slithers up your arm, around your neck and curls like fingers in your hair.
Foolish to think it would be anywhere it did not want to be. That it would be anywhere that had no obligation to bow before it, kiss at its feet in gratitude for being allowed to exist. This world may have been conjured by a wish, but its creation was executed by ancient forces.
This pendant, responsible for the soulmates of this realm. You want to scream, to cry out why have you bonded me to this Saviour who’s forgotten her drive to save. Perhaps it was that they both entered a world already in existence, trying to fit themselves into a scene already overflowing with people destined to find each other. You were all that was left unmatched. Surely that is why—
You feel a low chuckle sweep over you, leaving goosebumps in its wake and it feels like being reprimanded by your mother.
You drop the pendant with a clatter and the connection is shattered.
You blink. You breathe. You are not here to learn the secrets of this world, you are here for Emma. You hear a high pitched giggle and turn away from the vanity.
He is waiting for you when you arrive in the dungeon. He’d summoned you from his cage and every step that took you deeper into the castle’s depth fueled a resentment not quite forgotten. You face him now and he’s different than how he had fit into a land without magic, frayed at the edges in a way you’d forgotten. Not quite desperation, no. This imp was ever in control, maybe holding dead cards but he knew what everyone else was dealt—probably because he’d loaded the deck.
You say you know better than to make deals with the devil, but do you really? You say you won’t make a deal, you get the information you were looking for, and yet—
He knows you need more, you’ve always needed more. More power. More destruction. More love from your son. He’d baited you with how to draw Emma out and now he offers you a way home.
How does he even know of your home? Of Storybrooke?
You’d faced him, determined to not show weakness, to leave the dungeons untethered to the green imp. Never again, you’d told yourself long ago. And yet...
You unlock his cage with a wave of your hand.
Rumpelstiltskin lets out a maniacal giggle. Revels in the same air he’d been breathing for decades in that cage. His green eyes sparkle yellow. He’s gotten what he wants.
You damn well hope it was worth it.
It’s time to be the Evil Queen. You draw her to you, pull her around yourself and you can’t quite tell whether you’re putting on a mask or taking one off.
You know you left the Evil Queen back home, you know that. But you know what she’d say and you know what she’d do and it’s almost easier than when you act as yourself. There are no eggshells to look out for, no qualifying your anger and certainly no regrets.
So you may not have intended to let Rumpelstiltskin loose to raid imaginary villages, but you stick to your decision because at least you know what needs to be done. You know how to draw out the Saviour within Emma and you know how to bring her back.
And as for the soulmates, well, you’ll cross that chasm when you get there.
You walk with your head held high, your cape trailing behind you and it feels good. It feels like you can breathe without apologizing for the oxygen you’ve wasted on yourself.
You raise your hands and think of the place you’d begrudgingly called home for half of the most excruciating decade of your life. You’d been glad to leave Leopold’s summer castle behind in your memories when you cast the dark curse. You’d never wanted to return to the house of your own personal horrors but this isn’t about you. It’s about Emma.
You’re outside the great hall when you see Henry.
Your breath catches because he’s all grown up in his suit of armour, waiting to be knighted, and he looks nervous. His iron shoes fit a little too large and he looks down at them as if he doesn’t believe he’ll ever fill them. This is the moment you hadn’t dared dream of as a young girl—not with the mother you had. Getting to watch your child grow up, learning a trade or skill and walking their own path through this enchanted world. Sure, you hadn’t envisioned them as a knight and watching Henry jerkily learn to drive brings its own joy but this, this is Henry in your world, and it’s more than you thought you longed for.
You’re careful to hide behind a statue, such that the measly guards don’t catch you lurking. The security of this castle is that of a kingdom that has forgotten facing threat. The guard would be no match even for a non-magic-wielding foe. What a charmed life was created for the Charmings here.
Henry enters the hall and you watch him as long as you can until the doors close. You take a deep breath; you know what to do.
You strut into the room, all dominance and swagger.
There’s a collective inhale and you know what they hold their breath for.
“Sorry I’m late.”
You read the words as a script and you taunt and bait in all the right ways. It’s like stretching a long dormant muscle that retains its memory. You try to spark a fire in Emma’s eyes but if they shine, it is with a layer of unshed tears and it is not enough.
You transport out, your hostages in tow, all disappointment and stalemate.
Your hostages are more insufferable than you remember them being. Self-righteous heroes rattling off their hope speeches to themselves. Patting each other on the back with their words and assuring you that their daughter will defeat you.
She comes to you at your castle, like you knew she would.
“She’s not going to hurt you. It’s going to be okay,” she says and you can feel a smile break across your face.
“I knew you’d find the hero in you,” you say, your voice full of pride. You’re ready for this battle and you conjure a fireball to cradle in your hand.
She clutches at the box she holds in front of her and her green eyes are afraid. The only fire there is a reflection of your flame and you don’t understand. You’ve showcased the Evil Queen, you’ve become the villain befitting a Saviour.
She bows before you. A sight you never thought you’d see. Granted, you may have pictured the Saviour on her knees before you but then she’d never been this frail.
She offers the key to her kingdom but that’s not the key you wanted. This key won’t unlock her potential and you watch the way her tears trail down her chin, leaving smeared red lipstick in their wake. You think of soulmates. You think of home.
“I just want to wake you up and bring you back to Storybrooke,” you sigh. And there, a flash of recognition. You hold your breath. Was that all she needed to hear? Was it that simple this whole time?
“How do you know of my dreams?”
You sigh and sink your hands into Snow and David’s chests. You rip out their hearts and maybe they aren’t real but they beat in your hands and remind you of your grand plans for revenge in this very room all those years ago. What you would have given to have them like this then. What you did give, in the name of vengeance. And now their hearts are but a tool to bring out the lost Saviour.
She’s on the floor, she’s given up.
“I know you Emma, you fight when it matters.”
You know she’ll stop you, she has to. The Emma Swan you’ve learned to tolerate fondly has to be in there. You push and you pour salt in her wounds. Dust falls between your fingers.
She cries out in despair.
You went too far and it wasn’t enough. What’s left of her parents’ hearts is on the floor and you feel your heart may have fallen along with them. You thought this would work. But this fake Emma has lost her very real parents and you know she won’t forgive you this. Not like this.
“With me,” you say. You turn your back on her and walk out of the room. There’s no need to use your magic now, you know she’ll follow.
You don’t know what your plan is but you have a magic bean waiting for you and you’re going to have to damn well figure it out before you get there.
You’re walking through the woods and Emma is snivelling behind you. She drags her feet and you feel it as if they were digging a grave within your chest.
It must be the connection of soulmates, that makes you feel this way for an Emma you don’t even recognize. You wonder if this is how she’d been as a young child, being at the mercy of her rotating foster parents. Afraid, unable to defend herself. You look back. She seems so young.
Maybe closer to your Emma than you’d previously thought.
There it is again, the pain deep in your chest. You close your eyes.
You turn around suddenly and she nearly walks into you, before scampering back like a kicked puppy. “They weren’t real, Emma. I didn’t really kill them. I just need you to remember.” The words stumble from your lips and you desperately try to seek out eye contact but she keeps it from you, like a prized possession she’s worried you’ll take away.
“They were my parents,” she says defiantly.
You sigh and keep moving forward. She doesn’t trust you, doesn’t believe you. You’re near your wits end and you nearly let out pained laugh. What a sense of irony this universe has. To give you a soulmate who’s grown up with no greater fear than your presence, fed by the tales of your reign. Who can’t remember how far you’ve come from the darkness you lived in, what you’ve sacrificed to try to escape it.
You’d said her name and saw the colours fall into place.
This Emma might not even know your name, and ‘the Evil Queen’ won’t make anything brighter.
You continue in silence.
“We’ll make camp here,” you order. Emma looks like it’s the last thing she wants to do but at least her sobs have ceased. The sun is setting and you order Emma to stay while you go in search of firewood. You don’t issue any threats.
She sits beside the fire, making herself as small as she can and fidgeting on the rough ground. You don’t try to coax her into talking. What would you say? You can’t bear to hear about the life you’ve ripped from her. You can’t bear to hear her say aloud just what she thinks of you.
You need a plan.
You’d tried invoking the Evil Queen, you’d taken it as far as you could. Maybe the amputation of your former self was more exhaustive than you’d thought. Maybe you put on the act as you would last season’s dress; familiar and comfortable and no longer who you are now. But you struggle to imagine what else you could have done.
In the end, it is Emma who breaks the still night air.
“What will you do with me?”
The words claw at your throat. You ache with flimsy reassurances, with promises to keep her from harm. But “I will bring you home, Emma” is all you say.
Her chin begins to wobble once more and she chokes out “I was home”. You bow your head and stare into the fire. You wonder what she sees. A bright, white flame. A dark, cold murderer.
“That wasn’t your home. Your home is Storybrooke. It’s our son, Henry.”
“Don’t you talk about my son.” And it’s so close to what you’ve been searching for but it lacks the burn of having lost him before.
You don’t have a response to that. So you say nothing at all.
You magic up tents and soft sleeping bags. You walk toward yours and you’re about to turn in for what promises to be a fitful sleep when her voice reaches out.
“I don’t understand.”
You stop in your tracks, one hand holding open the entrance to your tent. You’re letting mosquitos in and you’ll regret it later but right now you feel tethered in place. Her voice is softer here. She is softer here.
“I can always distinguish falsehood from truth. And you’ve not uttered a single lie.”
You turn around. Emma has moved from her spot by the fire and she’s close. You don’t know what she’s asking. What she’s offering. This isn’t trust. Or belief in what you’ve been spouting. But it’s close.
An acknowledgement, perhaps.
“Goodnight, Miss Swan.” You leave her to mull over those thoughts on her own and you dream of the meaning of soulmates and what ifs.
It’s dawn when you wake. The woods are quiet and the sun peaks out between the trees. You’ve missed mornings like this. Well, not the crick in your neck from sleeping on the forest floor. But the view from your castle, the dew that had made a home on your balcony and shone in the morning light.
But you definitely haven’t missed not having coffee to greet you downstairs when you wake. Or the hot shower to wash away the nightmares that cling to you as a cold sweat.
There’s no running water but there is a lake. You leave the makeshift campsite and wander to the edge of the water reflecting the sunrise. You use your magic to bring it to a bearable temperature and fold your clothes neatly against a nearby rock. Your ornate garb seems out of place here.
You walk into the water and if you close your eyes, you can almost ignore the pebbles beneath your toes and imagine you’re home. Where Emma looks at you as an equal. Where your priority is Henry above all else. Where you’ve long since abandoned the notion of a happy ending.
You don’t have your salon-grade shampoo here, but you use your magic to transport a couple eggs from a nearby farm. When you were younger, you used to sit with your handmaid while she separated the whites in preparation for your bath and she’d tell you stories from her hometown, of prophecies and fate. She’d tell you of soulmates, the fairy tales of your realm.
You’d grown up on those promises. That if you were good, you’d be rewarded with someone who was your perfect fit. It wasn’t long before your motivations emphasized avoiding your mother’s punishments and you buried that hope inside of yourself, not daring to let it see the light of day. When you said I do at your wedding ceremony, you thought you’d let that part of yourself die for good.
But here you are, washing your own hair with egg whites in the Enchanted Forest, watching the sunrise dance along the water, thinking of what business fate has dictating your happy ending. You wash your body idly, the suds slowly giving into gravity’s pull and dispersing into the lake around you. What ifs swirl in your mind. Family meals no longer scheduled, but routine. Joint custody without transporting Henry back and forth. Blonde curls splayed out on your lap as you finish off paperwork. Fighting off the latest threat together and then remaining together as you pass out from exhaustion in your suit and her jeans.
You submerge yourself below the water line, holding your breath and closing your eyes tightly, trying block out the images from your mind’s eye and focus on the slow building burn in your lungs as your body aches for oxygen. Your chest has felt hollow since kidnapping Princess Emma and you welcome the fire, for at least it is full.
Black dots blink at the edge of your closed eyes. Black dots on a black backdrop and yet you detect movement. You wonder if that’s how Emma feels when she looks at you. You can’t take it anymore and you break through the surface, hands pushing your hair back as you gasp for air.
There’s a clearing of someone’s throat behind you and you nearly jump out of your own skin. You look over your shoulder with your best disarming glare, determined not to show your voyeur that they’ve surprised you.
Your glare falls on Emma, who’s decidedly not watching the droplets of water trail past your shoulders, down your back, and you quickly rearrange your features into something less intimidating.
“Yes, Emma?” you prompt when she doesn’t say anything. She makes a sort of strangled sound at first, but continues anyway with the confidence of a woman whose grand speeches have been heard by audiences of hundreds.
“Where are you planning on taking me? Surely, this is not our final destination.”
You sigh and turn slowly to face her. “The beach,” you say. She glances around the lake and the ground leading to it, raising an eyebrow that feels like an echo of her challenging you over the years. “Not this one,” you add hastily.
“What is at this beach?” Emma asks and her cheeks are pink in the rising light, though she wouldn’t know, you suppose.
“Our way home,” you answer. She doesn’t say anything for a moment. Doesn’t move. Doesn’t blink.
Then she meets your gaze and now you’re the one blushing and you wonder if she can tell.
“What do I call you?”
A shiver passes over your skin and you’re aware of everywhere the water touches. While the truth is your ally, what with her fully-functioning lie-detector accompanying her to this realm, you can’t bring yourself to tell it. One word, and she’ll know what you’ve been hiding from her. That she is inexplicably tied to you in this realm. And while it brings hope and promises of a new start for you, it will only bring her closer to your darkness. She deserves so much more than the Evil Queen and you cannot bear to burden her with it. You couldn’t blame her if she rejected you, but you also don’t know if you’d survive it. So you lie.
“Eloise,” you say. The name of your grandmother, who’d never shown you the same cruelty as her daughter. Though perhaps she’d passed on too soon to show those colours. But you have memories of her being the leader of her household, of caring for you and it made you think that maybe a powerful woman need not always be isolated.
Emma echoes the name and it’s clumsy on the way out. Her expression is quizzical and she looks down a moment in thought, before realizing where her gaze landed and deliberately raises it to look over and past you. You’ve been caught in your lie, as you knew you would. She presses her lips together tightly and looks vaguely disappointed. Had the princess thought she’d become friends with her captor?
Emma stays staring into the distance, lost in whatever thought is echoing in her mind. It’s your turn to clear you throat, since you’ve been clean for a while and your skin is starting to feel the time spent in the lake.
“Unless you’re planning on joining me, Princess,” you trail off with a challenging smile, because you can’t quite resist getting a rise out of Emma, in this realm or any other.
Her cheeks flush redder than her smeared lipstick and your smile widens as she hurries back to the campsite. Better this way, held at a distance with the power dynamic in your favour. You’ll bring her to the beach and bring her home to Storybrooke. And if the trip home doesn’t return her memories, you’ll figure it out when you get there, where the weight of destiny is heavy with her impending battle to the death rather than the doom of being tied to you.
You put your dress back on, ignoring how the waist pinches slightly as you move and the chill of the morning air elicits goosebumps along your exposed cleavage.
You return to your camp where Emma sits on a log, staring at nothing and purposefully refusing to acknowledge your presence. You sigh and magic away your evening accommodations, replacing them with a breakfast of pancakes for Emma and some fruit with yogurt and granola for yourself. A loud grumble pierces the silence and you look over at Emma in triumph. She rises and approaches the newly-appeared table and your expression quickly turns to one of horror as she reaches for your bowl.
You furrow your brow and wave your hand to replace the pancakes with a second bowl. You take a bite and turn the granola over in your mouth, wondering what could have possibly influenced this Emma to opt for a healthier, less carb-filled option. Was it a habit, ingrained in her that she should? You remember your own upbringing, mother ensuring you were always conscientious of your waistline. No King would want a plump bride when they could have their pick of lean ones. You’d have hoped Snow would be kinder, easier on her daughter.
You eat in silence, both facing the rising sun.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” you whisper. The sunrise breaks through the clouds, soft light stretching its reach as it wakes. Emma’s eyes leave the horizon to glare accusingly at you. She furrows her brow, crinkles her nose. It’s confused and petulant and hurt.
“You’ve found your soulmate?” Emma asks incredulously. You stutter, unsure what to say, what she’s asking. You feel far more exposed than you had in the lake. “You?” And it’s uttered with so much disdain that you look away.
“Yes, I have.” You speak quietly. After a beat, you meet her glare. “Would it be so wrong? For an Evil Queen to have a soulmate?”
Emma backpedals without saying a word. Her expression changes, becomes sheepish, shy almost.
“No, everyone gets a soulmate.” She says carefully, enunciating her words. “Not everyone is lucky enough to meet them.” Oh, you recognize the emotion lingering in the depths of green eyes. Not abject horror. Jealousy. Child-like, wondering why the world isn’t perfectly fair.
You don’t know what prompts you to reassure her, not when nothing is real here and you’re the one keeping her soulmate from her in the first place, but you say “A child born of true love and you worry you won’t meet your soulmate?” nevertheless. Your eyes are kind, you keep your voice soft. A tone you used to reserve for Henry alone. Emma blinks at you, tilting her head.
“All in its own time.” You leave it at that and return to your breakfast, finding your appetite has dwindled. Emma’s resorted to pushing the last of the grains to different sides of the bowl instead of bringing any to her lips. You stand and Emma follows suit, watching in a barely-hidden awe as you magic away the table and its contents.
You suppose there wouldn’t be much need for Royal wizards and witches, to fight side by side soldiers on the battlefield when there was no great enemy to rage wars against. Would magic have been relegated to the servants quarters, easing the burden of dishes here, or drying laundry without creases there? At once you understand the fury that had burned quietly from within the ancient pendant in your chambers.
You press your lips against each other and cease your musings to find Emma staring at you. Awaiting instruction. Her gaze travels idly across your features, following the neckline of your bejewelled corset and dropping lower to the pleated skirts that rustle against your leather pants in the faint wind. Her green eyes are dark and you’ve seen the look before. A Saviour hungry for answers. This Emma, well, it is something else entirely that stirs her hunger.
You’ve taken a step toward her before you realize what you’ve done. Your heart beats wildly in your ears and your blood runs hot and you don’t think, just do. The sudden movement is enough to jolt Emma from her head and her look of longing is quickly replaced by guilt and admonishment.
It’s more effective that a dip in a cold lake, this look of repulsion that she would have found herself attracted to the Evil Queen for even a moment. You look away and bring your hand upwards in a flick of the wrist. Your regal dress is replaced with the coat and dark slacks you’d worn when you first got here.
“A little chilly for such a dress this morning,” you mutter. You lead the way to the beach and Emma follows. Neither of you says another word before you arrive.
And then you’re waiting and you have nothing to say to this Emma, who seems to be losing some of the fear instilled in her with every moment you aren’t killing her here on this pebbled beach. Which would be a problem, if you were still trying to embody the Evil Queen to awaken a Saviour. But you’d already shown that was ineffective. So you do nothing to hold onto the reputation of the Queen as the minutes pass and you feel the embarrassment of a great build-up fizzling out.
“He’ll be here in just a moment,” you assure. Maybe you don’t need to be seen as evil anymore, but you don’t want to seem incompetent either.
You swear the imp is late just to spite you, to make you seem like a fool. But he shows up with a giggle you’d recognize anywhere, in any realm, under any curse.
“Well, dearie, on behalf of all Rumpelstiltskins everywhere, I’m here to make good on my word.” Rumpelstiltskin does everything with flair, always has, and you suppress a roll of your eyes.
“You made a deal with the Dark One?” Emma breathes, as if Regina has somehow betrayed a trust they don’t have between them in this realm. “And you let him out of his prison, Eloise, he was there for a reason! He’s worse than even you, if the tales are to be believed.”
You ignore her and turn to look at Rumpelstiltskin. He doesn’t miss anything that could be exploited in his favour. An amused smirk crawls on his scaled face.
“A fake name, dearie?” He talks only to you and you stare back defiantly, trying desperately not to give anything away. You may be leaving this realm in a moment, but a moment is more than enough time for him. “Names are a valuable currency in this realm, wouldn’t you say? I wonder what purpose keeping yours hidden serves.”
“The bean,” you urge. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter, you don’t let him goad you into giving him any more insight. Emma’s internal lie-detector will have told her enough, this is but confirmation. It doesn’t matter. You hold out your hand and Rumpelstiltskin drops a single magic bean atop your awaiting palm. He doesn’t move to leave and you throw a snarky “Don’t you have somewhere to be,” his way.
“Off to raid some fake villages,” he says and disappears in a swirl of red-tinged smoke.
“So it is a fake name,” Emma says, clearly as incapable of letting sleeping dogs lie in this realm as she is back home. You ignore her and throw the bean on the sand, opening a green portal that will put an end to all this madness.
“You’ll need to take my hand if you’re going to make it out of this portal in one piece,” you say. You reach your hand out and you wait.
“Why would you lie about your name?” Her voice is high, with a pleading edge that reminds you of her mother. She’s not made a move to take your hand so you do it for her. The moment you make contact you feel the air get warmer, a current passes along your entwined fingers as if there’s something alive between you. It hits you like jump-starting a car and you hesitate.
You look at the whirring portal that will take you back to Storybrooke and the Saviour’s destined final battle and separate lives. You wonder what Princess Emma is destined for here, in a land where she isn’t the Saviour.
Emma takes a step toward the portal and your hands together feel like belonging and you can’t breathe.
You’re conducting this train but if you think of home, will the portal spit you both right back out, here on this beach with her hand in yours?
You know what you should do. What you need to do.
But here there’s that claim you had no right to stake. And you can’t give that up.
She looks over, concern dancing along the corners of her eyes.
An arrow whizzes near your heads and you tug Emma down with you into a crouch.
“This is a robbery,” an oh-so familiar voice calls out. You thought you’d never hear it again and your heart flutters and remains anchored by Emma’s hand in yours.
“Robin,” you whisper his name, afraid of what will happen. But there’s no change in your vision, no recognition in his features. He approaches with sleeves rolled up and that lion tattoo displayed proudly on his forearm and you can see the colours of it against his fair skin.
You wonder what he sees.
“You know this thief?” Emma hisses, but she doesn’t let go of your hand. You swallow.
“In another world.”
He’s shouting at you to remove your jewellery and you look between him and Emma. You look at green eyes, a tattooed arm. Pixie dust doesn’t lie.
But pixie dust didn’t ordain the soulmates in this realm.
The portal closes and your heart is heavy with a choice taken from you.
You blink at the beach in front of you that is pebbled in greys and dull beiges and browns. Where a tornado of greens and sparking yellows and home had been not moments ago. Robin is running off with his bounty and it hurts to watch him go, looking for all intents and purposes like the man you’d left behind in Hell those long months ago.
He hasn’t aged a day but you feel like you’ve aged years in this moment.
He’s running away, and there’s someone running toward you. You can hear the sound of horseshoes on trodden dirt, the shout of a royal general leading his men into battle. You need to move, but your feet remain content among the pebbles.
You feel a tug from the hand you’re still holding. Your mind can’t process the sensation, because why would she not run away? Why would she pull you from the impending army instead of toward it?
You don’t understand, but you act. You squeeze tighter and break into a run. Hands lose their hold, but you run together along the beach. You don’t make it far.
A sword is thrown with the might of a thousand men, or perhaps just a very determined one, and you’re quite sure if you never see another flying weapon again it will be too soon. It just clips your knee but it’s enough to buckle, and you fall to the ground. Contact points burn but they’re overshadowed by the searing pain radiating from the back of your knee. Your soon-to-be captor is gaining on you and Emma has stopped short a few paces ahead as she realizes you’re no longer beside her.
You turn on the ground, ready to face your sparring partner and summon the magic from deep within you. You let it hum beneath your skin, getting it ready for battle but not showing your hand just yet. You raise your chin in defiance and meet hazel eyes.
A spark of magic fizzles out in your raised hand.
Henry looks down at you, fierce and protective. He wears his suit of armour as if he’d never worn anything else and you hold back a smile. Well, it looks like someone rose to be the hero your villain demanded after all.
He scampers to pick up his sword and regain his power position before you realize he’d lost it. Of course, if you had been the Evil Queen and if you had been trying to hurt him, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity in the first place.
His hands only shake a little bit and he tightens his grip on the blade. He means to strike and the nervous glint in his eyes tells you he’ll aim to kill. It doesn’t matter that he’s not real here, he’s your son and you can’t hurt him. Not again. Not even here.
“Henry, I’m not going to hurt you.”
It doesn’t faze him, doesn’t stop him. And you close your eyes and accept your fate. You’ve already lost. You couldn’t remind the Saviour of who she is. Your own weakness made you hesitate and you couldn’t bring her back. You felt that what if in your bones and you’d been struck still by possibility. You feel that what if now as a whisper of a dream. Meaningless. Inconsequential. And it had cost you. It had cost her.
You close your eyes. You wait.
Nothing happens. No pain in your chest. No blood making its great escape from your veins. It’s been too long. Surely it would have been over by now. Henry’s always had swift reflexes, you’re certain they would be just as nimble here.
You open your eyes and see the blade of a sword much too close. It hovers before you and your heartrate begins to slow down.
You look past it and see Henry and a small rescue group immobile.
You turn your head over your shoulder and your breast is still heaving from nearly rejoining your lost love, your late father, your last soulmate, and you lock gazes with green eyes.
“Regina,” she says and your heart stops in your chest. She’s looking at you in wonder, blinking at the world around her and you know she must see.
“Regina,” she says it again and a smile breaks across her face. “I remember.”
You stare back, your heart now beating wildly, making up for lost time. You wait.
You wait for her to yell at you, to beat at your chest and scream at being tied to you; you wait for her to take the three steps that would close the space between you and never let you go; you wait for her to shrug off your connection like a sweater that doesn’t quite fit.
She does none of those things. She just stares back and you realize, she doesn’t know.
Of course she doesn’t get it. She’d never heard of a soulmate realm before this one, didn’t grow up with the lore whispered in dark corners of taverns or around a fire when dusk breeds desperation to believe.
From a world without magic, a world that had forgotten its roots.
She wouldn’t have grown up dreaming of a love preordained to be everything you needed. She wouldn’t have grown up believing in love at all; how could an abandoned child possibly understand why love isn’t enough to hold onto your daughter and protect her from the life Emma had led?
But the yearning, the need to be closer. Surely, she’ll have noticed how intense your bond feels. You feel it like a second skin; suffocating and warm and too tight and exposed. Surely she must…
“So, how are we gonna get home now?”
It’s not as quiet, walking with Emma now. The air is lighter, but it’s brittle. She knows who you are but she doesn’t know who you are to each other here. You’re waiting for it to come out, in a smile too wide or a brush of a hand walking too close. So you stare straight ahead as you walk and you don’t talk about anything but getting home.
“We could go back to Rumpelstiltskin? Maybe he has another bean.” Your heart stops in place but you keep going, letting it rattle against your ribcage.
You dismiss the suggestion as it hangs in the dead air between you. There’s always a price to pay and now that he has his freedom, you fear he’ll use Emma to twist not your arm but your soul. Every minute here with him knowing is a minute too long.
No, you’ll return to your palace, you decide. There wasn’t anything there to help you before, as Emma points out unhelpfully, but you brush that off because anything is better than grovelling again to Rumpelstiltskin and you lash out but don’t tell her why.
It’s silent after that.
You move around each other in your chambers in the way you used to dance at balls. Cold. Far apart. Aware. You rip out every drawer (and pointedly ignore images of ripping off drawers that float through your mind like soft sighs because she’s here and the bed so used to entertaining is right there) looking for something that will help you, knowing you’ll find nothing.
Her fingers run gently over the surface of your vanity (and you’re not thinking of them running across your skin, through your hair, against your lips), gathering dust and teasing (not teasing) apart the trinkets scattered across it. You see the pendant in her path, you snap at her not to touch it and she snaps her fingers back as if they’ve been burned.
You pick up the powerful necklace and instantly the now-familiar connection is formed and it still reminds you of your mother’s abrasive touch. The thrill that runs down your spine feels like being reckless and unapologetic and revered for it. You slowly roll your neck, stretching, fitting into this feeling. Flashes of scenes replace your vision and your eyes become wide and unseeing. A spinning wheel with golden straw. A dark curse. An empty wardrobe.
You open your eyes and drop the pendant. Gently, of course. With respect. And the connection is broken. You leave it behind to do what it will. You’re done pretending like you have any measure of sway with the ancient entity.
You sweep out of the room and you have to call over your shoulder to get Emma to follow. She’d been at your dresser, distracted by your dresses. You think maybe you’d been hasty to change out of your old clothes.
And damn, the small grin she sends you makes you wish she were.
She asks you why you’re walking when you have magic. You don’t say that you are holding onto your moments here, walking beside your soulmate, the way you once held onto treasures and kingdoms and hearts. You don’t say you have a tendency to break precious items in your hold. Instead you reply with a cloud of purple smoke and step again into a castle you’re not welcome in.
Emma begins walking down the hall like she owns the place (not yet, and now not ever) and you pull her sharply against you, against the wall out of sight to avoid detection from the guards. They don’t notice you, but you notice everything about Emma in this moment. The way her hair rails against being held in the loose braid, individual strands jumping overboard and landing around her face, her neck. The way her cheeks are tinged a light pink that seem uncharacteristic on this woman who is no longer the fragile princess you caught singing in the woods two days ago. The way goosebumps have marred the smooth terrain of her skin, starting along her collarbone and moving up her neck. The way her chest is still with every breath she doesn’t take.
The clattering of iron shoes against the cobbled corridor grows fainter as the guards leave, so out of practice they believe their armour will save them here. Once you would have decimated them without hesitation. Giving them their dues for being as arrogant as to think their chains and armour stood a chance against the wrath of the Evil Queen. But there are six degrees of separation between anyone in your land without magic, you pray there are some to spare between you and your former self.
Emma exhales as the off-key ringing becomes soft as a memory not quite forgotten. She makes to take a step back and your grip on her wrist tightens. You remember holding on too tight to Henry. You let go. She’s looking at you with wide eyes, that hold promises of a future you’ll one day deserve. You wonder what she means by them, because it certainly isn’t what you’re reading into.
You lead the way to the nursery, remembering a room with the roof torn off, Snow White crying, holding David between her blood-trailed thighs as he breathed his last breaths in this realm. The breaths that could have been his last in any realm, were you not committed to watching them suffer in solitude next to each other for the better part of three decades. What would have been forever, had Emma not come to town.
You know it’s a lie the moment you think it. Already, you’d become bored, no longer fulfilled by the vengeance you’d carefully crafted with a borrowed curse. How long would you have truly lasted, reliving the same routine, day in and day out, while the only thing that grew and flourished was your son? He’d eventually have left you, gone off to lead his own story. How long until the sheer inactivity of it all would have had you on your knees begging for the ability to throw away the culmination of your adult life’s work? Would you pay the price and say goodbye to the one you loved most when they were the very reason you ached to leave it all behind?
“This is where I would have grown up. In a way, I suppose I did.” Emma’s musings tear you from your own, this room haunted by memories for all who enter, it would seem. Memories and what ifs, rolled into one.
You start to notice the differences, the changes. There’s a bed instead of a crib. A small writing desk instead of a box of toys. The mobile remains, near the window, the sunlight splitting into rainbows as it hits the glass unicorns and it’s quaint. Befitting a princess. The wardrobe is in the corner, not demanding your attention the way you’d expect such a feature would.
You walk over and slowly open the doors. It appears the Charmings had, well, repurposed it. It holds thick blankets, soft linens. A spare pillow. It’s jarring, really, to see this magnificent creation that had held so much power, holding bedsheets.
It’s then you realize, there is no humming beneath your fingertips where they hold open the doors. There is nothing in the space around it that makes those in its presence believe they are breathing fresh air. There is no magic.
And this is not your way home.
Emma rushes over, starts taking the linens from the wardrobe and throwing them haphazardly across the room. They flutter slowly to the ground and you stare after them, telling Emma there’s no use. She’s stubborn as her parents, likely believes the family mantra just as they did. There’s no finding anyone with this lump of wood, but she doesn’t listen.
“Surely, there is a way to return the magic,” she pleads. You don’t share the same hope as she does, but you watch as she tries, as she pours all the love she has into the palms of her hands and pushes it onto unyielding wood. And when she asks you to help you don’t hesitate. She takes your hand and you look over in shock. You’ve used magic together time and again and she knows you don’t need to keep contact to do it. But you remember the kickstart to your magic in the town hall in front of a wraith and you figure if ever there was a time to give your magic its best chance, it’s now.
It’s not enough.
If you can’t get home using an outdated model of the magical wardrobeTM, you’ll just have to make a new one, is the conclusion the two of you come to after several rounds of throwing out ridiculous ideas (on Emma’s part) and shutting them down faster than a desktop computer in a blackout (on your part).
This time there’s no snarky remarks about magic and teleportation. The castle is surrounded by the Enchanted Forest, and finding the right tree isn’t an exact science. You told Emma that she’d know when she came across a tree that contained sufficient magical inclinations, that she’d be able to feel it. So naturally she’s taken to touching each tree you pass, going to far as to press her ear against it like a damn tree-hugger as if the magic flowed through the tree’s venous system, fighting so violently against the sap that she’d be able to hear it, if only she listened close enough. You tell her it doesn’t work like that, but she doesn’t care. She lets out a care-free laugh, throws her head back and your shoulders feel like they are carrying stone bricks of a curtain wall.
“Will you miss this, all you have here?” You hadn’t formed the question in your mind, but the words roll off your tongue. She pauses, pulls away from the latest tree to have been graced with her embrace. It occurs to you that it’s absolutely ridiculous to envy an overgrown shrub but this entire realm is farcical and you leave the thought with the dirt beneath your feet as you tread on.
“That Emma wasn’t me.” No, you suppose not. The Emma that you were paired with by not-destiny, not-pixie-dust, but something that predates them both, that Emma is not your Emma. Not the Emma standing in front of you now. It wasn’t her. But it was you. And you feel the loss as if you’d even had it in the first place.
She doesn’t elaborate, leaves it at that. And she’s said enough.
Her pace picks up but you make no effort to match it. You’re entirely in your own head when you run into Emma, standing stock still without warning. Your hands brace yourself against her hips, a shiver races down her spine and you’re so close you feel it ripple against you on the way down.
She’s still in her dress and it’s soft beneath your fingers in a way you’d forgotten since you left the fabrics of this world behind in favour of rayon and polyester blends. It had been an unforeseen bonus, knowing Snow White went through the motions of an unfulfilling life in itchy cardigans and shirts that shrunk in the wash. You drag your hands away, and they’re immediately homesick. You wipe your palms against the sides of your coat, brush off the remnants of nostalgia.
There’s a tree that Emma’s staring at and she doesn’t touch it, doesn’t press herself close, and you feel the energy radiating off of it, full of raw light and crisp air and answers to more questions than you’d ever be able to ask. You know you’ve found it.
She turns to you and she’s still so close and you’re nearly too distracted by her eyelashes brushing against her skin as she blinks to hear her ask “What now?”
What now indeed.
To turn this tree into a portal, you’ll need more than a hammer and chisel. No, the tools that are needed have carved another. You ask Emma if she’d known Geppetto in this realm.
She’d known August, and you take her hand and guide her magic as she takes the lead on teleporting you to his work shop. He’s not there when you arrive, perhaps taking a mid-day nap or lost in the woods or out searching for the kidnapped Princess and tending to a broken kingdom. His whittling tools are laid out on the bench and you hold your hand over them, reaching into their past to feel the lingering touch of magic. You’re almost at the end of the bench when you find it, the tool that had carved Emma’s way to a land without magic she hadn’t ended up needing in this realm.
Emma is watching you curiously when you turn around, knife in hand, and she takes the other. You waste no time returning to the tree. You can feel the pit of your stomach wind tighter around itself with every passing moment you aren’t back in Storybrooke. Emma drops your hand quickly and you grip the knife tighter. She offers to help but you hardly know what you’re doing, certainly don’t know enough to give directions. But you mutter excuses of only having one tool and Emma begins to fidget. She taps her foot against the ground, or taps the wood working table, or paces from side to side. It’s wholly distracting and it’s not long before you send her away on a mission to retrieve a flower of blue petals and red thorns. You say it’s a part of the process and she raises an eyebrow but goes anyway.
It’s finally quiet.
So naturally your mind’s eye chooses this moment to project Robin’s face, unaged and unaffected and the knife that had made a home in your gut twists. You don’t understand why he doesn’t sport grey hair and deep wrinkles the way Emma’s parents do. It must mean something. Surely, it must mean something.
But this realm isn’t about you. None of this is about you. It’s about Emma.
An entire world created to trap the Saviour. By the Evil Queen. A woman who pulls her pain around her like armour, lashes out at the world that has wronged her and takes prisoners as it suits her. A woman who can take up more space than is owed her and wear it well. They are two sides of a coin, stubbornness and determination, both holding onto the legacies of lost loves.
The Evil Queen has always had a hard time letting go. So perhaps that’s why here, in this world she’d wished, Robin has stepped out of your memories. The last time you’d seen him, his chin had been in need of a shave. His stubble was with him here, as you stared incredulously at the arrow balanced in his bow. You wonder where he is now. In the woods? Frequenting a tavern? You stare out the window and your heart beats with an echo of longing.
But you know where that road leads. Holding on too tight to a love lost too soon. Trying to bring them back.
Daniel hadn’t fit into your life in Storybrooke, when you’d last tried, and you’d hurt him, had him begging you to let him go. No. You know where that road leads.
You return to the tree at hand.
The door opens and Emma returns with a fist full of flowers. You smile and tell her to leave them on the table. She finds a jar of nails and upends it, letting them roll across the table and stuffs the flowers into the now empty container. She smirks, and it’s smug. She always could tell when you were lying.
You stand and step aside, letting Emma admire your handiwork. You don’t have the skill of Geppetto, honed through decades of discipline, but you were also aided by magic in a way he wasn’t and it will do.
“This will bring us home?”
You nod. It’s time to go. You stand together, facing the, well you wouldn’t call it a wardrobe exactly.
You ask Emma if she’s sure she wants to bring the sword home with her, the sword that Henry wielded over your head, the sword that will bring her death with it.
“I can’t let fate dictate my actions anymore.”
It’s aims true the way Snow’s arrow didn’t, hits you so viscerally you aren’t sure that it wasn’t a phrase impregnated with magic to pierce your skin, because it certainly breaks you.
You nod. It’s time to leave this behind. To go back to a world that had never been black and white.
“I understand now, why you hesitated.” Emma speaks softly and it raises the hairs on the back of your neck, along your arms.
“It’s hard. Choosing to leave a sure thing. A soulmate.”
It’s a wonder your neck hasn’t broken with the speed at which you look at her. She’s not facing your way home anymore, she faces you. Something like dread or fear or hope washes over you.
You swallow against a lump in your throat that could very well be your heart for how much you’re not feeling in this moment. Time has ceased and you think you could live forever in green eyes even as your own blink.
“Not right away. Here, I grew up dreaming of meeting my soulmate, someone who’s jagged edges would match mine. I think recognized yours, even before I recognized you.”
Your heart swells, wherever it may have ended up. You think it might be in her hands.
“You felt it, even then?”
She reaches out, takes your hand and it’s so much warmer than the beach or August’s workshop or standing in front of an enchanted tree.
“Honestly, I just thought it was the dress.”
A light the colour of familiar eyes surrounds you as you bend over yourself to fit within the hollowed out tree. It’s cramped and stuffy, but you don’t feel sorry for the space you’ve taken up. Then you’re falling to the ground of woods that could be called anything but Enchanted and Emma’s falling out behind you, on top of you. The air is forced from your lungs but your soulmate is crushing you and you finally feel like you can breathe.
Your hand raises to touch Emma’s face of its own volition. You trace her cheekbone to her jawline, leaving goosebumps in your wake. She smiles down at you and it lights up the dark woods.
She had smiled then, before you left the wish realm behind. She’d squeezed your hand and brought it to her lips.
Emma had felt it, had called it by its name. “I didn’t need to see colours to see you were brighter than the sun, Regina.”
It’s the same smile now, as she leans into the palm of your hand. You bring it to her neck, wrapping around behind her ear, and you draw her closer. Her lips are soft on yours, taste like cinnamon and berries and solar flares. She leans impossibly closer into the kiss. You close your eyes and you see colour.