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under the soil

Chapter Text

Without you, away from the beatings of your heart

     There, my heart rots away under the soil.

 

-- Forugh Farrokhzad, excerpt of Without You



 

“You’ll be married soon, you know,” Her maid says. She is brushing Emma’s hair, picking the leaves and twigs out as she goes. Though Nomey is normally very gentle, when it comes to brushing hair she tends to yank hard enough to pluck the thoughts clear out of Emma’s head. “Don’t you think you ought to act a little more ladylike?” Nomey sighs. “At least until the wedding is through.”

Emma just shrugs and counts brushstrokes. She suspects that soft hair may be her one and only charm, as her mother has ordered the maids to brush it one hundred times each night. So far, she has counted only sixteen.

“I only worry for you, my dear,” Nomey worries, as she has done almost every night since the proposal. Nomey is a stern woman who never feigns anything, not laughter or politeness, not even for social pleasantness, and now she sighs mournfully over Emma’s hair, as if she can see the future mapped out on her skull. “You will make life so much harder for yourself, my girl, if you do not learn how to settle down and be still.”

Emma closes her eyes. She numbers the strokes silently, though she knows only Nomey’s count matters.

“Maybe, if your husband is kind, it won’t matter so much.”

 Thirty. Thirty-one. Thirty-two. Thirty-three.

“Or maybe a witch will turn you into a wild goose and save you both the trouble.” Nomey sighs.

Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. Forty. Forty-one.

“Well. At least try to keep out of the woods, love. You’ll find more trouble than you know what to do with, over there,” her maid grunts, and yanks the brush so hard the room loses shape and swims in front of Emma’s eyes. She presses her lips tight together as to not make a sound. She keeps her eyes closed, listens to the quiet rustling sound her hair makes with each firm stroke of Nomey’s brush. “My god, these sticks sure do love your hair, don’t they?” the woman sighs mournfully. “Oh Emma.”

Eyes closed, she doesn’t think about her wedding day. She doesn’t think about the unnamed prince who will one day soon become her husband. She doesn’t think about being Queen or how eager her mother seems to be about closing the loose-ends of her daughter’s freedom, putting her future away on a box on a shelf. She counts brushstrokes.

*

Though Nomey does her best to block all known escape routes in the palace with her army of stocky nosey maids, Emma has always had a talent for finding a way out. Early in the morning, as the cooks blue the air outside with their smoke, Emma climbs out of the small square kitchen window, slips the attention of both the guards and the dogs. Scrabbling over the tall wall of mossy stones that borders the woods, Emma grunts, and pushes herself up and over the wall, dropping onto the other side where all the rules are different, and the traps are at least swift and honest.

All her life, the woods have been her one and only escape. From her mother, from her life, from everything. She was not a princess in these woods. She doesn’t know who she is: she is unnamed, unknown, a person walking away from a beautiful castle that is not her own.

It is a clear cool morning and the sky is a pale blue, spattered with barely-visible stars that wink in and out of Emma’s sight.

Emma walks out between the trees, absentmindedly whittling herself a ring out of a buckeye. The tall wet grass dampens the end of her dress.

An hour pass, and another. Along a sloping green hill, white flowers blow back and forth like waves of a green ocean.

When her legs tire, Emma takes a seat on a mossy log. Wistfully, she carves her initials into the side of the wooden ring, rather fancying the idea of wearing a ring like this instead of the heavy, punishing sort of thing her mother will want her to wear. She can already imagine the daily pain it will inevitably cause her: the snagging of her hair, the constantly pinched skin, the new holes in her clothes.

She can’t quite imagine the way marriage will transform her life yet, but it turns her stomach with a sour kind of dread knowing that every aspect of it will be done without her.

And, why not? Everything else in her life has happened that way.

Once, a few years ago, a surprised horse reared back onto its hind legs in front of her little brother: it cut its great black hooves into the air and missed his tiny skull by mere inches, stamping the ground with unforgiving fury. She knew in that moment that nothing in the world would have been able to keep those hooves from stomping out her brother’s life if he had been even an inch closer. Nothing -- not if she cried or plead or ran to him. Nothing.

Much in the same way, she knows she will be married. There is no real escape.

Gradually, the morning warms into day. A sparrow darts from tree to tree, filling the air with its soft chatter.

With a sigh, Emma sits on the warm dry earth. She turns the leaves with her fingers and roots idly in the dirt, trying to gather up the courage to leave this place. 

It is then, as she is digging through the dirt, that her fingers bump up against a strange branch sticking up from the ground. It is hidden well by weeds and moss, buried deep beneath a heavy log, but Emma can see the slender, shapely look of it, almost like a hand, with five long bony points.

“Huh,” Emma smiles after a moment, and gently traces a finger along the soft, smooth wood. “You’re sure a weird-looking thing,” she says. “And quite possibly the unluckiest thing out here. You’re never going to get any sun beneath a log like this.”

Staring down at the branch, a funny warmth fills Emma’s stomach. It looks so hand-like, so regal and expectant, it is as if a Queen had pushed her hand up from the ground to be kissed by Emma alone.

Warmed by the thought, Emma bends to do just that. Her lips smack a sweet chivalrous kiss against the hand’s brown knuckles.

Immediately, the hand twitches in surprise, pulling reflexively back. Emma doesn’t notice. She has already turned away to inspect the log.

“You know, it’s too bad. I bet you’d be as tall as all these other trees if you weren’t trapped under this damn thing.” Emma gives the log a hard pat, pleased by the hollow, echoing sound the wood makes against her palm. She tilts her head back, considering.

After a long moment, absentmindedly trailing her fingers along the strange hand-like branch, Emma comes to a decision and stands.

“Well,” she brushes off her trousers. “Any fool can push a log, right?”

Planting her feet, Emma positions her two hands firmly on the log, giving it a firm push. When it doesn’t budge an inch, she grunts, and pushes again, hard enough to make her boots slide into the mud and put her bones up close against the skin. Using her shoulder as leverage, she pushes, scrabbling against the ground. She pushes until her hands hurt, until her ribs ache around her lungs, until the log is nearly a full three feet away.

Sapped of all strength, Emma lets herself go limp against the log.

“Goddamn,” she groans, and lets her head fall back against the log. Between the gaps of the slender branches, the sky whirls with motion over her head, spinning white with clouds. Overwhelmed, she lays an arm over her eyes.

Slowly, the newly exposed soil warms under the sun.

Deep, deep beneath the earth, there is a soft, relieved sigh.

The fingers of the hand extend slowly from the palm, test out its reach in the empty space in front of it. Very gently, the hand turns its wrist in slow circles, warming up the stiff  cold muscles.

“Gods,” Emma, oblivious, breathes up at the sky. “Why couldn’t I have been born a knight? Or a farmer or gods, anyone useful,” she passes her fingers absentmindedly through her hair, oblivious to the small movements beneath the earth. “Even a prince might have been able to push that log farther. He’d at least have a sword.”

The blue sky above her head erupts with restless birds. Small black dots swirl above her head, their swarm falling apart and coming back together again. Emma watches them without interest, breathing quietly, gradually slower.

“A princess can’t do much,” She says softly, to herself. She pushes a curly blonde strand of hair behind her ear. Her fingertips rasp against her cheek, dry and rough with dirt. “Well -- they can marry. But that’s just about it. That’s all I got to offer.”

Beside her, the hand tries to find her, searching blindly with muddy fingers. Once, the hand grazes the side of Emma’s arm, but Emma neither startles or jumps, having mistaken the hand as a harmless stick, she merely brushes the touch away as she would brush a strand of hair off her forehead.

“But I guess marriage is something,” Emma continues absentmindedly, and smiles, warming up to her own joke. She plucks the ring she whittled out of a buckeye back out from her pocket, now as smooth and thin as a coin. She rubs off some of the wet dirt with the hem of her shirt. “As a princess, I have only myself to offer,” she says, “And though I may not be the best company, or much of a wife, I am kind and I am loyal. I promise to care for you, to protect you from misery and loneliness, to stand beside you as a wife and a friend -- or, I suppose I will just sit,” she laughs, and puts the ring on a slender finger. “Till death do us part, I’m yours.”

The hand grips Emma’s wrist.

Startled, Emma yelps and yanks back. Beneath her knees, the earth shakes, tumbling into a widening hole in the ground.  A boom of magic thunders from below, cracks open the bed of black earth where a hand lifts towards Emma. It is truly a hand now, connected to slender bony wrist that follows with an arm, an elbow, a slowly rising body.

Emma sits there, too frightened to move. She watches as the blind hand reaches for her. It coasts its muddy fingers along her ear, slides down her jaw to put her palm fully on Emma’s cheek.

“Foolish girl,” the voice of a woman croaks humorously from the pit of dirt, her voice as rough as sandstone. “You’re mine, now.”

All the space in Emma’s chest constricts. Scrambling up to her hands and feet, Emma pushes herself up and runs, darts blindly through trees. She doesn’t stop until she has cleared the woods, until she has scrambled and scraped herself up the stone wall and rolled over onto the other side.

When her mother finds her muddy from head to toe, a warm bath is called to scrub her skin back to soft cleanliness, and two-hundred strokes ordered to clear her hair of tangles and sticks and selfish ungrateful thoughts. But Emma hardly notices, lying against the edge of the porcelain tub, she doesn’t even count the strokes. She merely lies there, stunned into a silence so deep not even Nomey can rouse her from it.

**

Her mother announces the very next morning that the wedding will be this afternoon. Her father’s face broadens with a smile, all the maids clap and smile with happiness, and Emma just nods. Since then, Emma has tried to follow along with the conversation, with everyone’s excitement, but her mind keeps going blank, empty, and whenever she is roused again, by a loud laugh or by her mother’s voice, she finds that she has not been thinking of her wedding at all, but of the mossy log where white flowers had grown in between the cracks and where a cool, firm hand had closed around her own.

“Emma?” her mother asks again, voice now sharp with warning. “Are you listening?”

Emma blinks. “Yeah.” she answers, hollowly.

“I will need you to be ready on time, just this once, honey. I don’t want any of your usual shenanigans, alright?”

“Alright.”

She didn’t have the heart to make much of an escape, anyway. After a long warm bath, Nomey starts the slow torturous process of preparing her body to be wed. It is slow and painful: she must be fit to her dress, by her mother’s dream, which involves a lot of scrubbing, plucking, pulling, softening her hard-rough features.

Staring in the mirror, Emma can see where her mother’s beauty had crashed and ended in her face. The boneless prettiness of her mother is cut square and harsh with her hard jaw, steel-grey eyes, and small chin.

“You seem worried,” Nomey says after a little while. Her fingers do the quiet, careful work of braiding her hair with flowers. “Nervous about meeting the prince?”

A horror blooms in Emma’s chest at the thought, but it quietly dies. Emma sighs and shrugs, picking hopelessly at the thin silver bracelet on her wrist.

“Not really,” Emma says. When Nomey meets her eyes in the mirror, she rubs her hand, squeezing the bones. “Or maybe I am, I don’t know.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” she mumbles, and looks down into her lap until Nomey pulls impatiently on her hair, makes her grimace and press her shoulders against the maple back of her chair again. “Fine. I guess...I guess I was thinking about what might be out there in the woods.”

Nomey grunts, unimpressed. “If you tear your dress trying to get out there today, I promise whatever is out there will be the last of your worries.”

“I’m not going, anywhere,” Emma says glumly and picks at her bracelet. “I was only wondering. I mean, you’re the one always telling me to be careful out there. I was just wondering what kind of trouble you think is out there.”

“Oh, now you wanna know?” Nomey stops. “You’ve never seemed all that worried before.”

When Emma only shrugs, Nomey makes a flat line with her mouth, but she resumes her work, combing her fingers slowly through Emma’s long hair.

“Well, there’s no short list of trouble that will find you in the woods, my dear,” she teasingly tugs on a strand of Emma’s hair, and bends to pick up another white flower from the porcelain bowl on the oak desk. “There’s bears, and wolves, and snakes, poisonous plants and devilish bugs that will give you a mean little sting. And if no creature manages to snatch you up for dinner, you’d probably end up lost, waiting for the hunger and cold to get you instead.” Nomey glances at the side of Emma’s face to see whether her words have made any effect. “No? Not scary enough for you? I could go on.”

Shrugging, Emma looks down at her hands. “You’ve never heard of anything...else...being in the woods?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know...something ...magical?”

Nomey frowns, and squints at her in the mirror. “No,” she says, after a long silence. “Not for a long time. Your parents have made sure of that,” she pauses, her fingers slowing in their work. In the mirror, Emma watches Nomey’s face tighten, falling for a moment into the secret lines of worry that are usually pressed clear by scorn and exasperation during all hours of the day. “Well. Except for maybe one mean old witch. But you don’t have to worry about her, love, she is as good as dead.”

Emma’s heart kicks up hard against her ribs. “Oh yeah?” she asks, “What’s the story?”

Nomey shrugs and threads her fingers through long yellow hair. “You must know it already. Your mother likely told you.”

“My mother?”

“Well, sure. About your step grandmother.”

“What?’

Nomey glares at her. “Don’t be funny with me. You know all about the Evil Queen -- her picture hung for a little while on these walls. Don’t act like you don’t.”

“No, I know, but Mother told me she was dead. Like dead dead.”

“Right. She might as well be.”

“But she’s not, if you just said -- you just said, she’s as good as dead, ” Emma slinks down in her chair, and puts her head in her hands. “Oh gods. The Evil Queen?

“Darling, it doesn’t make any difference.”

“Uh, yeah, it does.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Nomey gripes, exasperated now as she plucks another flower up from the bowl, carefully tucking its small stem into a loose curl. “Trust me darling. She’s as good as dead. She’s been buried in those woods longer than you have been alive, dear. She’s not coming back out.”

“But some idiot could accidently wake her up,” Emma groans, talking mournfully to her knees. “Any lonely idiot could just stumble upon her, wake her up for a stupid joke.”

“No,” Nomey chuckles. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Then what would it take?” Emma asks hoarsely and lifts her heavy head. “What would it take to wake her up?”

“True love’s kiss,” Nomey says dismissively, and resumes threading together Emma’s hair, as if she had not tipped the world significantly, spun it on its great slanting axis. “Honestly, honey, I don’t know where all this anxiety is coming from. The chances of her true love just stumbling upon her cold body is very small. Nobody is going to dig up a body, much less kiss her awake.”

“Oh gods,” Emma whimpers. “Oh gods.”

Nomey gives her a queer little look and shakes her head. The fingers braiding Emma’s long blonde hair gradually slow, tucking one strand over the other, taking their time.

“You know,” Nomey says after a long moment, “I always wondered why your mother didn’t just execute the poor woman. Not to put any judgment on your mother, of course -- the Queen’s crimes were cruel. But the loneliness of being buried alive just about takes the warmth right out of the blood, doesn’t it?” she sighs.

“Yeah,” Emma croaks. “But say ...say she did wake up. I-is there a way to put her back to sleep?”

Nomey halts for a moment, as if from a mechanical error, putting her hands briefly on pause. She stares down at the top of Emma’s head with an inscrutable expression, as if she were a fortune teller peering into their clouded crystal ball where a future will present itself indistinguishable from a myriad of dangerous possibilities.

Then, slowly, she shakes her head. “Oh, honey,” she sighs. “This story is so old, and it’s been over for a long time. I can’t imagine how it could possibly impact your wellbeing, especially on a day like this, your wedding day.”

Emma merely nods and looks down into her lap. She doesn’t lift her head up again, remaining silent as Nomey finishes up, working her hair into a beautiful braid that spirals loosely down her neck with tiny white flowers. Anxiously, she waits, worrying her ring finger, rubbing the skin nearly pink.

*

The prince arrives in a parade of horses and white wedding banners, their flags snapping confidently in the wind. Emma watches her fiancé dismount, standing tall and firm-jawed beside his horse, seemingly unmoved by how the whole world prepares for him. Cooks and maids bustle about, drape everything in white. Her mother and father have orchestrated a little welcoming gift, something she is meant to deliver by their side, but when her mother came looking for her, she ducked quickly behind the nearest tapestry.

The tapestry is thick and dusty, but Emma stays there, backed up against stone, watches everything through the slightest silver of window.

Distantly, there is the sound of footsteps. Emma closes her eyes, silently hopes the feet simply move on to another room. But they don’t. The footsteps slow and stand still.

And then.

“I can see your feet.”

The voice has a deep resonating sound, echoic, as if it had come from deep within a well. Emma blinks, and looks down at her bare feet where her toes peek out from below the tapestry.

“Oh,” she says. “I guess you can.”

“In all honesty,” The woman says. “It was your dress that gave you away.”

Emma groans. Peeking through the tapestry, she glares darkly at the long white plume of her dress,  long and ridiculous as a peacocks’.

“Goddamn,” she mutters.

“Besides that, though, you’re nearly invisible.” The woman’s voice is smooth and velvety. It draws Emma’s eyes to the wall of fabric where the rugged outline of what must be a maid is visible; she’s a slim, broad-shouldered woman set with purpose, most likely sent to corral her back to her mother.

“I suppose you’re here to usher me back outside.” Emma sighs.

There’s an odd little sound, almost like a laugh, but off somehow.

“Not at all.”

“Really?” Emma asks, and peeks her head out curiously.

Immediately, it is clear to Emma that this woman is not a maid. She is wearing a beautiful dark blue dress that cuts low along her collar bones, enough to reveal the black corset underneath, and then flows out to the floor; the collar of her dress is the color of plums in the summer, juts out far enough to touch her ears, and with her long black hair piled elegant above her head, her face look severe and beautiful. When the woman tilts her head, the silver of her earrings flashes in the light, stuns Emma into silence.

The woman smiles and regards her with a playfulness that seems both genuine and menacing. Like a cat with a mouse. It fills Emma’s stomach with a nervous flutter.

“No,” the woman assures smoothly, and walks closer. “I’m not really a fan of weddings, anyway. I’m certainly in no rush to get this one started.”

“Oh”

The woman smiles with pleasure. “I am surprised, however, that you and I seem to share that feeling.”

A distinct danger makes itself known in Emma’s gut. To embarrass a high-standing prince, even to a guest or distant relative, would doom her family forever. Outside, the sound of soft, aimless laughter goes up and down the castle walls.

 “Oh, no,” she amends, quickly. “I do want to get married.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yes. Yes of course”

“And so, you were hiding behind a tapestry because...?”

“I was...I was waiting for one of my maids,” Tripped up in her own excuse, Emma anxiously runs her fingers into her hair. “You see...my...my hair, it needs to be fixed. A few flowers came loose.”

“Ah,” the woman smiles. “Well, no worries. I can easily do that.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Any excuse Emma might have uttered is disrupted by the abrupt proximity between them, closed by two steps, the space between them is set ahum with perfume and the faintly dangerous excitement of a moment going terribly astray. Very gently, the woman curls a strand of Emma’s hair around her finger and tucks it smoothly behind an ear. Those fingers trail softly over the top of Emma’s head, traces the perfect braid, still neatly in place.

“Well, if you look at that,” the woman whispers, softly. Her eyes shine with something dark, something beautiful. “Your hair doesn’t need fixing at all.”

It is then, in that single quiet moment, that Emma notices the buckeye ring on the woman’s fourth finger, fit perfectly, shines a warm red-brown.

“Oh,” she croaks, but before she can scrape up a yell loud enough to be heard, the Evil Queen covers her mouth with the palm of her hand.

“Shh,” the Evil Queen says, calmly, almost placatingly. “It’s alright.”

It’s not.

Emma pulls back, fights for distance: she jerks up her knee, twists her body away, rakes her fingernails across whatever inch of skin available. A yelp of pain confirms her aim, and puts some real fight into their scrabble, until an iron-like hand wraps around her wrist and pushes her whole body against the wall.

“Enough!” The Queen demands, out of breath. “Be still, god dammit!”

 “Get away from me.” Emma grunts, and tries to wiggle her hand out of the woman’s grip.  The stone brick pinches the back of her hand.

“My god, I’m not going to hurt you, just --” The Queen snarls with frustration, and changes her grip, wrapping her fingers around Emma’s neck. “Just hold still, will you? I’m just trying to talk --”

Emma grabs the woman’s wrist to do the one and only self-defense trick she knows how to do: butting her head hard against the side of the woman’s jaw.

The Queen releases her with a pained grunt. Though this is her moment to escape, maybe the only one she will get, Emma feels herself sink back against the stone, amazed; she watches with a squeamish curiosity as the Queen gently presses fingertips to the side of her face, assessing the damage. A gleam of watery-red blood colors the woman’s lower lip before she swipes it away with her tongue.

Emma grimaces slightly. “Did I knock out teeth?”

The woman snorts. “No,” she gives Emma a surprisingly amused look. “Who taught you how to fight? A farm goat? The cattle?”

Emma’s anger comes back. “I can kick too.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” The Queen swiftly wipes a dark smudge of lipstick from the corner of her mouth. She smiles. “I won’t be needing another demonstration of that unique fighting style, by the way.”

“Then I suggest you don’t get any closer.”

"I figured as much, my dear."

This close, Emma can see the likeness of the woman captured in all the portraits that used to hang on the wall in the great hall. The paint was faded even then and her memory of being a child even more so, but somehow the worn-down expressions of those pictures remain. She remembers, as a child, she used to look for her mother in every picture, search for any secret resemblance in their youth that might hint a future where her awkward height and harshness will eventually soften and even out. When she had exasperated herself of hope, she looked for happiness instead, and found it everywhere, in every face except her -- the Queen; she stood behind Emma’s grandfather in every picture like a hostess poised at the entrance of a grand and beautiful party where everyone is exceptionally dressed, and all the drinks are laced imperceptibly with poison.

Clearing her throat quietly, Emma tries to hide the fear in her voice. “So. What are you doing here?”

“Simply to talk.”

Emma’s stomach squeezes. “Okay,” she presses back. “Why?”

“Don’t you know?”

“No,” Emma says, uneasily. “If its revenge you want, it’s a waste of whatever weird-ass second chance you got now.”

Something in the Queen’s expression ripples with anger but she promptly soothes it out again. “I want nothing to do with your mother,” she says tightly. “Quite frankly, I don’t care if she’s happy or dead in the ground.”

“Oh,” Emma hesitates. “Okay...”

“As you said,” the Queen says, and nearly takes a step closer before changing her mind. “It would be a waste of my very weird second chance."

“Right..." she says uncertainly. "So. What do you want?”

The Queen smiles wickedly. "What you promised me." she purrs.

Emma's heart jumps. “What?”

“And perhaps a better ring, too,” The Queen regards her ring with an elegant flick of her wrist. “But honestly it’s starting to grow on me.”

What?!”

“It’s not literally growing on me. I know you were a little confused about this, so let me clear it up for you -- I am not a tree. Or any other kind of plant,” The Queen smiles, softer again. “Although that was sort of cute that you would go through all that trouble for a tree. Very foolish, but ...cute.”

“You’re kidding me,” Emma sputters, but there is a crazed sort of honesty in the Queen’s eyes. Slowly, Emma deflates, sinks against the stone wall. “Oh no, come on,” she whines softly. “You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t marry you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I --” Emma laughs, lets out a ragged breath of air, and rakes her fingers through her hair. “I mean, first of all, I don’t love you.”

“Well, no, of course not--”

“And second of all, I’m getting married to someone else.”

“But with time --” The Queen halts, and her eyes blacken. She bares her teeth with a snarl. “Oh, so now you love this prince?”

“Well, no--”

“But you’ll marry him?”

“I have to--”

“You have to marry me,” the Queen snarls, and grabs her harshly by the chin. “You know the kind of curse I was under. You kissed me awake. That doesn’t just happen. You’re not that much of a fool -- you must know -- you of all people must know what that means.”

Emma jerks her chin away, “It means nothing to me,” she spits, and knocks the Queen’s hand away. “And I told you to keep your goddamn distance.”

“It means nothing to you?” The Queen asks with a smile, but there is no real pleasure in her expression, not even in her own meanness. She looks somehow more dangerous with a smile, capable of just about anything. “Really? How darling. The daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming doesn’t believe in true love.”

“Maybe I don’t,” Emma says disdainfully. “But even if I did, I wouldn’t believe in this. This isn’t anything.”

Some horrible emotion erupts across the Queen’s face, something dark and hateful and unimaginably lonely. But as quickly as it appears, it’s gone again. Her expression goes blank, unseeing. Slowly, she straightens her shoulders and puts distance between them again.

“Very well,” she says. Her voice sounds far away, remote. “Forget your vows, if you wish. But I have vows of my own.”

Then, in a swirl of dark purple smoke, she’s gone.

**

Nothing happens at first. When she walks back outside, her mother looks on her with smiling fury and bids her to come stand beside the prince, who stands just as he had when he arrived, with such silent brooding expectation it is as if they have already married, and he is cordially waiting through what must seem like a meaningless frivolous process; her one moment of choice. Her chance to either say “I do” or run away.

 It is falling into place so easily she believes for a wild moment that she had merely dreamed up the Evil Queen, dreamed of a secret true love furious and powerful enough to destroy even the institution of marriage.

And then it happens.

It is just a small gust of wind at first. It carries in the smell of frost and damp pine leaves, and guests laugh in surprise, hold onto their hats. Birds scatter quickly into the air and disappear into a scorched blue sky. Horses stir and stamp their feet anxiously.

Then it picks up: the wind comes from every direction, furious and vengeful. It strips the earth of any unnecessary softness. Trees groan and crackle with weak branches; hats fly off the heads of the guests; white tablecloths tumble off into nearby bushes, takes all the baked treats, the silverware, and the plates with them; her mother screams in fury when she sees the white cake slide off its big glass stand.

“What the hell?” the prince grunts.

“Go inside.” Emma orders. She grabs the prince firmly by the elbow.

The prince jerks his arm away. “It’s just wind --” he starts to say but turns upon an incoming stick that pierces his eye straight to the brain, silencing him forever.

Thus, came the end to her first wedding.

*

But since her mother is nothing if not persistent, a horrible sequence of failed weddings soon follows the first. Her second fiancé -- a tense serious sort of man -- dies shortly after her mother’s toast, poisoned by a spider that had drowned in his glass of champagne. The third dies soon after arriving, kicked in the head by his own horse. The fourth Emma never really got to know as he arrived as a bloated body on the beach. The fifth merely cancelled.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Snow cries, “She’s cursed! Not a single prince in all the realms will marry her.”

Her father juggles his young son on his lap and gives his wife a comforting squeeze on the shoulder. He’s a firm believer of fate and true love, but Emma knows if she ever explained what happened in the woods, the real reason behind these murders, he’d enter a realm he couldn’t understand. He believes in good people deserving good things, and that a good heart (the only kind a daughter could have) can never be destined for a rocky, troubled life such as this.

“If she is cursed, we will break it,” her father says, and squeezes his wife’s shoulder again. “Maybe we can talk to the fairies. They’ll know what to do.”

Her parents don’t ask her what she could have possibly done to deserve a curse like this, and she doesn’t answer them. A cold bitterness is growing in her heart, pumping through all the little chambers, getting mixed up with the blood.

Later, when the sun has sunk down below the trees and her parents have soothed themselves with a task, Emma slips into her father’s room and dresses quickly in his clothes; she stuffs her feet into shoes too large for her, straps one of his swords clumsily to her hip.

She glances at the mirror, and sighs. It looks all wrong. She plucks at her father’s large dark blue shirt, which falls awkwardly on her shoulders. A simple gust of wind could slip the material right over her head. She could sneak something out of Nomey’s sewing basket, but she wouldn’t know the first thing to do with a needle and thread.

Gruffly, she tucks the shirt into her trousers. Just then, an odd clicking sounds from behind her, oddly sharp and delicate. Like heels.

“Well this is a surprise.”

Emma stiffens. She makes her back straight, her shoulders even like a hanger.

“Get out of here,” she says. Surprised by the firm, commanding sound of her voice, she goes a little harder. “Or I’ll make you get out.”

“Oh really?” The Queen laughs, sounding highly amused by the idea. “How will you do that?”

“I’ll...” Emma hesitates, and grimaces at the tinkling laughter. “Seriously, go away. I don’t want you anywhere near me.”

“Oh, have I upset you?” the woman croons.

Soft footsteps approach. In the dark blue shade of the room, Emma can see a slim figure move closer through the mirror. The woman’s shoulders are narrow and slim, her neck elegant. Her black hair is pulled up into a different style, but it’s too dark to see how it changes her face, whether she looks any different from the pictures on the wall.

“Well I’m sorry,” the woman says, but her voice has changed. It’s taken on a softer, gentler tone. Quietly, the Queen approaches, her footsteps inaudible against the ground. “I know seeing that kind of violence is upsetting. It used to upset me too. To see life end in front of you -- it is horrible. But I came to realize that sometimes violence is necessary.”

A hot, sick anger lurches up in Emma’s chest.

 She holds very still, watches the darkness through the mirror. A second passes, and then another. Slowly, the Queen walks into the soft flickering pool of light. 

She is still so beautiful. And so terrifying.

Very gently, she lays her hands upon Emma’s shoulders.

“Don’t touch me.” Emma grunts.

The Queen sighs and lets her hands drop. “This is ridiculous,” she says, and turns to sit on the edge of the small oak drawer beside the mirror. There is a new calm about her, a glacial ease in her movements; she tilts her head and appraises Emma. “Why is it that I am being treated like the villain here? I did you a favor, darling. Those men would have sucked the life out of you the first chance they got. I released you from that.”

“Oh please,” Emma briskly continues with her menial task, tucks her shirt in around her waist. “You didn’t save me from anything.”

“You need a belt,” the Queen says, and snaps her fingers. There, between her fingers, a sleek black belt materializes. Standing, she promptly slides it through the loops of Emma’s trousers. “And of course, I saved you,” she continues, clinches the belt tightly around the waist. “Marriage is awful. Those men might have acted sweet at first, but they’re all the same. All anyone wants in marriage is control. And they’d get it, they always find a way to strip you of everything, of every little pleasure and any meager little choice.”

Emma looks at the Queen. Beneath her calm beautiful face lies a powerful anger. Along her jaw, a small muscle flickers beneath the skin. Emma imagines in the space between them a web of complicated wires where the slightest move might reveal a dangerous trap, one of deadly consequence, but despite the danger, she can’t quite thwart the urge to speak her mind. The words tumble out of her.

“And that’s somehow different from you?”

The Queen’s black eyes snap up. “Of course,” she says, and straightens up. “Of course, it’s different.”

How?”

“Because,” she scoffs incredulously. “I’m your true love.”

Emma laughs, and the sound kills the light behind the Queen’s eyes. For a single moment, as the Queen stares at her with that quietly stunned look, all the danger evaporates from her. But before the feeling can reach Emma’s heart, demand some sort of leniency, the moment is over, and the Queen sinks back into her cruelty like an eel into a rock.

“So, then what is the scenario that would finally please you, princess?” The Queen asks coolly. “Would you prefer to be married off to some oafish prince? To some boy-king who will, at best, love you as well as he can before he meets his own true love and tosses you aside, or at worst becomes cruel and keeps you forever. You’d prefer that to someone who is destined to love you?”

“I don’t want to be forced to marry anyone,” Emma snaps, and returns to her image, exasperated. She drags her fingers quickly through her hair, pulls it up from her neck, high up on her skull and ties it into a ponytail. “You think I want to spend the rest of my life stuck in some forced, loveless marriage?”

 “No,” The Queen says coldly. “Our marriage wouldn't be anything of the sort.”

Yeah. Well,” Emma grumbles. All her anger rises again, like a hot, sick rush in her chest. “Fated or not, I couldn’t love someone so cruel -- pressure me to marry you then murder all other competitors when denied? I don’t have the faintest desire to get stuck with someone like that -- you don’t give a shit what I want out of my life, and frankly I don’t care about what you want either.”

The Queen registers the words like a physical pain, but before she can respond, there is a creak of floorboards right outside the door, a warning of a visitor, and just like that, she’s gone with a crack of black magic, leaving behind the smell of ozone and the starless clear night behind her.

Emma sighs, and turns towards the open door, the worried, hawk-like face of her maid peeking out through the slats of wood.

“Hey,” Emma musters up a smile.

Nomey gives her one looks up and down, then sighs, and enters the room completely. In her arms, there is a small leather bag.

“Here,” she sighs sadly. “I packed you a few warm meals for your trip.”

Emma laughs, a teary surprised sound, and walks into Nomey’s open arms.

“You silly girl,” Nomey sighs, and wipes Emma’s wet cheeks with a swipe of her fingers. She grips the long hair and sets Emma’s head against her neck. ‘I warned you, didn’t I? Don’t go into the woods, I said. You’ll get yourself into more trouble than you know what to do with. I said it about a hundred times. At least a hundred. Didn’t I?”

“You did,” Emma nods against her shoulder. “You really did.”

“Gods. The Evil Queen as a true love -- not even I could have thought fate would pull that kind of trouble into your life.”

“I know.” Emma sighs. “Fate bites.”

Nomey chokes out a teary laugh. ‘“Just don’t fall in love with her.”

Emma laughs too. “I’ll try.”

*

Over the small rocky wall bordering the castle, the forest is different,  more alive. The trees look just the same on the side of her parents’ kingdom, but they stand with a simple beauty, their bark and leaves a shelter for other harmless animals. On the other side, something grand and deadly lives in these trees; they stand apart from everything else, full of obscure purpose; the soil makes room for their roots; the sky cannot evade their branches.

Emma weeds through the trees, steps carefully along the rocks and roots. A flock of birds flow close by, dart into the net of branches above. Absentmindedly, Emma thumbs the card in her pocket, its vague half-remembered directions leading her gradually to what Nomey believes to be her only hope.

After an hour or so, she comes upon it: a squat square little house made entirely of rocks and vines. It seems to come up directly from the earth, as if it existed naturally below the surface, but gradually, over time, the dirt and grass shifted to make room for it above ground.

She knocks twice for politeness, but when no one answers, she opens the door.

Inside, the space is warm and earthy. The kitchen is small and tidy, with broad-planked floors. It smells strongly of grass and in the corner,  small fire burns. On a rock beside the fire, a small copper kettle quietly simmers.

“You’ve come in time for tea.” A man says, directing Emma’s attention to the corner. She blinks. “Would you like a cup?”

The man has a hard, quirky face with thin lines that bracket his mouth. He wears only an old woolly sweater, his broad torso disappearing into a thick hide of black fur. His legs shift absentmindedly, and his hooves make a soft noise against the wooden floor.

“Uh, sure.” Emma answers finally. Cupping her hands together, she blows out short streams of air into her fingers. “So, are you half...goat?”

“A fawn,” he answers. His voice is deep, so deep that the source of it seems to rumble up from some separate, remote place in his chest rather than his mouth. “Although, not too far off from a goat, I suppose. Other than language and magic, the only real significant difference between us may be our taste in tea.”

“Uh,” Emma offers a smile. “Okay.”

The fawn smiles back. “Why are you here?”

Emma glances around the small living space. There were old musty books lined neatly on a shelf, a cup of white daisies on the windowsill.

“I need a spell,” she says. She watches his face for any indication that she has reached the place Nomey had described, but his face is smooth and clear as a dinner plate. She continues, hesitantly. “I heard you were a person I could trust if I needed a dark spell.”

“Yes,” the man says blankly, and pours hot water into two cups.

“I need to get rid of my true love.”

The fawn laughs. The sound comes from deep in his chest, a rumbling sound that seems to shake up from his bones.

“I’ve lived a long time, my dear. Longer than some mountains and rivers, and many of that time was spent in the middle of affairs of people like you, but never have I heard such a request,” The fawn smiles, reveals his tiny pointed teeth. “In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been done.”

“I figured,”  Nobody in the world seems to be as unlucky as her when it comes to love. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“Well sure. I would think any kind of poison would do the trick.”

“No, no,” Emma cuts in quickly. “I don’t want to poison her -- I just want her out of my life. I woke her up with a kiss, and now she thinks we’re meant to be. Isn’t there anything to undo it?”

The fawn lifts his great curious head, stares with black unblinking eyes at Emma. Something in his black eyes makes Emma want to look away, but trapped as she is by her polite upbringing, she holds still.

“What do you think would undo a kiss of True Love?” the fawn asks.

“I thought, well, maybe I could just put her back to sleep.”

“A sleeping curses.” The fawn hums. “Well. That would work.”

Emma nods hesitantly. It’s what the Queen deserves -- if not for her previous atrocities, then certainly for the deaths of the four princes who will never look upon the sky again, never feel the sun, never stretch their stiff joints or seek out warmth in another. For their abrupt deaths, for the loss to their families, for the hole their futures fell into, the Queen deserves nothing more than to close her eyes and never wake. Staring down, Emma hooks her fingers together, digs her thumbnail into her palm.

“Just for curiosity’s sake,” She starts. “How...uh, how bad is a sleeping curse?”

“It’s forever.” The fawn says, then tilts his head. “Unless, of course, you have a true love to kiss you awake.”

“Right, but what I mean is - how bad is the experience. Do...you know, just fall asleep or what?”

“You revisit all of your most painful memories and your deepest regrets.”

“Oh,” Emma mutters. Her heart falls into a deep black pit inside her chest. “That’s...um. Pretty rough.”

“Yes.”

She sighs. “Isn’t there some way just to...I don’t know, break your true love with a person?”

The fawn turns to look at her again but this time his sight seems to go through her, unfocused and slightly myopic, as if he were watching something deeply fascinating in the space just a few inches in front of his face. A hazy stream of golden light catches on a hanging pot and darts quickly in all directions like a school of small fish. Emma watches and waits.

After a long while, the fawn inhales deeply, and seems to return to himself. He puts his tea mug down.

“It might be possible,” he says. “But difficult. And very time consuming. Poison certainly would be quicker.”

A soft hope fills Emma’s chest. “I don’t mind if it takes a little while.” She says.

“Very well.” The fawn rumbles, voice deep and far away. “I’ll come up with a list of what you’ll need for the spell. It is of course only guesswork, but...it should work.”

*

On a flat round tree stump, Emma hopelessly reviews the small list of items again:

  1. The All-Seeing Eye of the Ancient Haddock
  2. A tooth from the Black-Horntail Dragon
  3. A Rose plucked from the Garden of Immortality
  4. A Phoenix feather plucked from the rejoined twin flame
  5. A Treasured Belonging from your True Love

“What does a twin flame even mean?” Emma mutters.  Against her leg is the small wooden compass the fawn had lent to her. It would help guide her, he said, but only in navigation. “How the hell do I even get a tooth from a dragon?”

From high above, birds caw, sounding far away. The forest slumbers in the midday light, seemingly quiet and contented.

“Whatever,” she sighs, again, and stands. In her palm, the compass whirls, its red arrow ticking inside its wooden chest, passing little apertures.

She follows the compass into the depth of the buzzing grass, winds through trees and walks well into the forest. Crows hop along on the branches above her. She pays them no mind. The sun is warm, and it rests steadily on her neck and back as she makes her way through the trees.

After nearly an hour of walking, she happens upon the coastal edge. The ocean sits still as a dish, shimmers with a deep dark blue importance.

The compass freezes, unmoving.

Emma’s heart drops. “Oh no,” she groans and taps a fingernail frantically against the thin glass surface. “Come on, you can’t just leave me here! What the hell am I supposed to do?”

The compass remains unmoved. It points a straight red finger to the large blue ocean in front of her. The water before her is so steady and flat, it seems almost featureless. Yet something about it frightens her.

It seems, for a moment, that an immense presence is watching her from below the surface. Something vast and silent and unmoving.

A cold shiver crawls down Emma’s neck at the thought of continuing. The thought of venturing down into deep water terrifies her; she had nightmares like what she would be willingly walk into, the little suffocating traps waiting for her in underwater caves, the black water impossible to navigate on her own. Her chest cramps with fear.

She could drown, she could get lost down below. She’d never find out if a princess could be anything more than a wife or a victim.

But she’s gone so far. After a long moment with the sun warm on her back, with fear gripping her stomach, she pulls off her shirt and shoes and heads towards the water.

The water is chilling, and it almost steals the warm golden confidence in her legs and arms. To keep from backing out, she jumps in head first.

Below, the water is cold and dark. Her arms and legs feel strong as she swims down, ignoring the cold and the gentle sway of the current. She swims down, follows the rugged edge of the black coastal rocks that will likely lead to her destination.

 She ignores the  pressure in her head, swims until the water grows darker, and darker, and the rocks seem almost unidentifiable against the black.

She feels out the cave with her hands, the rock jagged in some places and smooth in others. She had read somewhere that underwater caves sometimes had pockets of air trapped inside. And others only water. People sometimes got sucked into them; they get lost, they get trapped below a wall of water.

Finally, the cramp in her lungs is too much, the need for air swelling up like a huge balloon against her ribs, but when she turns around, she doesn’t see the watery green brightness of the surface above her. There is only blackness. She must have slipped farther in the cave then she thought because all around her there is only a deep black silence.

Kicking with her legs, she scrambles along the rock. She tries to find her way back, retrace her steps. Didn’t she go straight down? Didn’t she keep one hand always against the rock. Wouldn’t she be able to just turn around, go straight back where she came? But again, and again, wherever she turns, there is a flat wall of rock.

It’s alright, she thinks to herself with some panic. She’s just gotten turned around, she thinks. Only that. She’s not in trouble, she tells herself. Not in serious trouble, at least. She can still find the surface. She’ll be alright.

With her palm flat against the rock, she follows a trail towards what she believes to be the surface. Everything is black.

Time passes. She doesn’t know how long. The only way to mark it is through her own experience, which seems to be going backward. A moment ago, her chest had been aching, but now she doesn’t even notice it. And the water doesn’t even seem all that dark anymore. It is shifting and bright, granular. It is full of glass. There are so many colors. She can stay and sleep, she thinks.

Then, suddenly, as if a rope has slipped around her chest, she feels a powerful jerk lift her upward. The water blurs around her quickly, a swirl of colors before suddenly she is cutting through beams of sunlight, the water blue again, a bright glimmering blue.

When she breaks through the surface, her lungs start hurting again. She sucks in lungful of air, in desperate gasps. She gasps, coughs, and sucks in more air.

Above her, the blue sky expands. Little black dots swim in her vision.

Softly, her back touches the beach. The sand feels soft and warm against her back. And though she can’t quite breath yet, her body registers the ground with relief, allows her to sink down into the comfort of warm sandy dirt.

“What were you thinking?”

Jolting, Emma’s eyes open wide.

Above her is the Queen.

Blood rushes painfully to her head. The Queen looks truly ferocious in her anger, like some dangerous snarling creature, about to lunge, and though most of Emma’s brain is still laboring to get air through her lungs, the rest of her blooms with panic.

The Queen must see it in her face, because she snaps her fingers, and freezes everything in Emma’s body.

“Explain,” she says coldly, brooking no argument.

Emma coughs, spits out a mouthful of water. She croaks up a hoarse strange voice. “It’s n-none of y-your--” she coughs again, grimaces at the water in her throat.

“None of my business?”

“Y-Yeah.”

“I just saved your lousy life,” the Queen snarls. “Tell me what the hell you were doing.”

Emma can’t do much more than glare. But she has a good glare, so she throws her best at the somewhat blurry vision of the Queen.

Anger pulses in the Queen’s jaw, but after a long moment, she sighs and looks away. She snaps her fingers and releases her.

“Fine,” the Queen stands over Emma. “Forget gratitude entirely then. At least tell me what you were thinking.”

Emma tries to get up, but she’s too numb. She tries to lift onto her elbows, but they don’t move; they remain frozen beside her, as if detached from her body. Slumping against the beach, she stares up at the sky. She is shaking, she realizes. The thought comes to her a second later, slow, detached: she’s freezing.

“Is this your spell, still?” she asks.

“No,” The Queen sighs. “You’re likely in shock. That water is freezing.”

“When will it wear off?” she asks, tries not to panic.

The Queen sighs again and snaps her fingers. A heavy blanket wraps around her, a fur-covered blanket, thick as an otter’s coat. The warmth comes gradually to her, like the sun in the early morning. It comes from a great distance.

Emma sighs, and closes her eyes. She can hear the Queen moving around on the beach. Her feet make a soft sound along the sand, and Emma realizes dimly (stupidly) she’s barefoot. When she speaks again, her voice is closer.

“That water is also well-known to be infested with dangerous creatures. I’m sure even you are aware of that.”

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Emma grumbles weakly. “I don’t owe you an explanation.” It sounds weak even to her ears, swaddled now in warmth.

The Queen’s upper lip curls. “How about you tell me what you were doing in that water and I don’t put you right back in one of those underwater caves to turn into mush like you were going to.”

Emma grimaces. Glumly, she looks away, squints at the deep blue ocean. The water has grown choppy now, its wrinkled surface bright and alive with froth. She listens to the water’s soft, repetitive sounds that roll softly to the beach and fall back again.

After a long moment, she sighs. “There’s this spell.”

“A spell?” the Queen’s voice lifts immediately into interest. “Really? What sort of spell?”

Emma hesitates.

“Ah,” the Queen smiles, wanly. “A surprise for me, then?”

“No,” she lies weakly. “It’s got nothing to do with you.”

The Queen ignores her, looks out at the sea. “You’re looking for ingredients,” she continues. “There’s something in the water that you need, then.”

“Yes.”

The Queen holds out her hand. “Let me see your list.”

“I-I can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“I...” Emma tries to think of a clever lie. “I lost it in the water.”

“Then I will send you back to look for it,” the Queen says it in the sort of voice that Emma doesn’t feel tempted to test, and so glumly, with warmer hands, she searches for the small sheet of paper in her shirt pocket. She hands it over with a hard ball of dread, watches the Queen’s eyes flit quickly over the list, back and forth.

A minute passes. And then another.

Gradually, the Queen looks up again. Her eyes are black and keen.

“What is this?” she asks. Her lips thin into a line. “I don’t recognize it.”

Relief wells in Emma’s chest. She shrugs.

The Queen gives her a brief appraising look, then purses her lips. “If you’re trying to poison me, you should know you’ve been terribly misleading. None of these ingredients would actually do me any harm.”

Emma sighs in exasperation. “I’m not going to poison you.”

A short “Hmph,” is all the Queen has to say about that before a wrinkle of concentration forms between her eyebrows. She runs the tip of her thumbnail over some of the words, as if she could feel out for a secret meaning in its letters. “For all intents and purposes, it looks like a love spell. But it’s...not,” she says softly, almost to herself. Her head tilts to the side. “It’s all out of order. It not like any spell I have seen,” the Queen looks up at her again, this time with a guarded look, far more suspicious. “Are you sure it’s an actual spell? It looks like utter nonsense to me.”

Emma just shrugs. She’s incapable of looking innocent.

The Queen’s eyes narrow. After a long silence, appraising it over again, she sighs, and gives it back.

“Well, whatever it is, it’s going to get you killed. I suggest putting it to rest.”

“No.” Emma folds the paper neatly, tucks it into her front pocket. “And it’s not nonsense. I’m going to finish what I started.”

“From the looks of it, you’ve hardly started anything.” The Queen gives her a dry passing look. “Plus, you couldn’t even get the easiest one.”

Shame scalds Emma’s cheeks. “I don’t care,” she huffs, and sits up, working her wet hair into something of a ponytail. “I’m going to go back in and get that stupid fish-eye.”

“No, you are not.”

“Yes --

No, you are not. You are completely unprepared. You don’t even know how to find this goddamn fish, much less how you will manage to scoop out its eye.”

“Well, I want to at least try.”

“That’s incredibly stupid.”

Emma sucks the back of her teeth, holds in her angry retort. She shouldn’t take the bait, she knows, she’ll just end up giving everything away, all for pride’s sake. But there’s that age-old irritation, that red shame, the sense of being sized up and then shuffled off to the side. Forgotten. She takes a slow breath and busies herself with the task of drying out her hair, wringing it out and running her fingers through its wet snags.

A stitch of time passes. But, gradually, the silence turns on her. Her remaining irritation kindles, turns into a hot red shame.

“You must think I’m some kind of coward,” she says at last, just as angry as before, and yanks her fingers through her hair. “To think I’d just give up right at the start. But I’m not as weak as you think I am. I’m going to do it, I’ll get all of it.”

“You can call it weak if you’d like,” the Queen says flatly, and lets her attention drift on to some other minor thing in the distance. The afternoon light is drawing out shadows, picking out the shapes of the trees and draping them upon the floor. “Personally, I can’t think of anything less interesting than someone who pretends to be fearless. It only sounds like stupidity and pride to me.”

Emma frowns, but her anger is shunted, closed off behind some other feeling. She watches how the small facial muscles below the Queen’s skin tightens, forms a rigid face of disdain, and resumes the task of drying her hair. It seems impossible to her that this dark-eyed, furious woman -- dismissive towards death, uncaring of others’ feelings, prone to fits of unimaginable cruelty -- could ever really want anything out of love. That any kiss could have woken her up.

“I’m not going to give it up.” she says at last, unyielding.

“No,” The Queen agrees. Her voice is measured and cool. “And you’ll fail miserably doing it,” She gives Emma a cool sideways look. Then she sighs. “ But I’ll help you.”

“What?” Emma asks.

“I’ll help you get your silly spell.”

“You don’t even know what it is.”

“No,” the Queen looks at her briefly, irritably, and then looks away. “But if you’re not going to see reason, I might as well help you.” She stands and brushes the sand from her leather pants, flicks the loose strands of her hair impatiently back from her face. “And anyway, I don’t want to keep dragging you out of this godforsaken water -- it’s an exhausting effort.”

 “Well,” Emma pauses, unsteady. On the rock, her compass lies still. Of course, it will: it knows nothing of morality, and will be unable to guide her between fair or cruel anymore than it could cut the eye out of the fish itself. She stands uncertainly, looks to the water. “Do you know how to get to that fish?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

The Queen smirks. She snaps her fingers, and in a whirl of black smoke, Emma feels everything inside her shrink, and turn in on itself.

She drops abruptly, gasping helplessly, feeling a suffocating pressure all around her. And then hands scoop her up and toss her into the water where, inexplicably, breathing seems to come easier.

The water feels different, too. It’s not as cold, and the blue seems somehow more vibrant. She turns to see the surface and catches a terrifying glimpse of what she only assumed would be where her arms would still be, her legs, her torso -- but instead, everything is gone, slicked back into what appears to be slimy scales. There is just one long snake-like yellow tail, smooth and narrow and framed on top by a thin, flimsy dorsal fin.

She’s an eel.

Fucking bitch, Emma thinks.

A long black eel slides past her. Emma immediately recognizes her, not necessarily by looks, but by the dangerous presence she emits; it seems only fitting that the Queen should take the shape of a far larger eel, with far sharper teeth. Scary bitch, Emma thinks.

The water feels wonderful. It is cold and utterly clean -- and so bright and full of life. An enormous school of fish streams by her, passing through a watery beam of sunlight. Below her, the water opens into a blue nowhere. Emma’s heart blooms in her ears.

It’s just so bright.

There is a kingdom of purple corals. Orange starfish glow dimly in the dark, cemented to rocks. Below, blowing back and forth in the tide are see-through flowers with long poison tentacles; along the rocks lie fields of clams and pink spheres with a thousand needles on their back.

Emma falters, but the Queen slides by her, teasingly nudging her forward.

She follows.

The water grows dark, nearly black, but everything remains visible in Emma’s sight. She can see the shapes of the rock, the sway of the water, the slow movements of the other creatures, navigating through a watery granular darkness.

It doesn’t take very long; it seems only minutes before the Queen slows again, her body coiling at the entrance of an impossibly cold cave. The water seems to resist their entrance. It has an acrid smell, slightly brackish, as if the cave were the mouth to a darker richer body of water from a different source.

After a stitch of time, a moment of deliberating, Emma catches sight of the Queen’s face, somehow still snidely triumphant in its blank, expressionless design; her sharp needle like teeth seemed to sneer back at her.

Irritated, Emma swims past the Queen, going ahead on her own. But all her confidence evaporates once she enters the cave.

For a moment, there’s just black water. And then, in the deep black, Emma catches the sweep of a fin -- it’s spined and flat, broad as her hand. The creature roves around soundlessly, and then, Emma sees it.

The eye.

One staring yellow eye, big as a poker chip. Rising towards her.

Emma freezes.

The Queen moves quickly. The water ripples all around them, filling the small compact space with an ink-like smoke, hiding them. And yet, through the gray-black, Emma can still see the globe-like eye, a golden orb that never closes, set on her with a terrifying focus. All around her, the water is black, cloudy with magic, but still that eye holds her.

And then, it’s gone. There’s a blind scramble of movement, a soundless struggle as a large black eel wraps itself around the enormous body, sets its teeth deep into the socket; and just like that, the eye, previously intact, searching for movement, is gone; in its place is merely a red socket.

A horrible sound shakes the water, rattles the whole cave-like world. The sound is an awful and pained, and the space around them seems to shrink, crumbling forward. Before Emma can make sense of the danger around her, she feels a powerful  inner tug, just as before; it lifts her up, pulls her from the water.

Soon enough, she is standing in knee-length water, coughing out salt water. As she climbs the slick seaweed covered bottom, she squints towards the beach where the Queen is already standing. In her hand is the small golden orb, now as glossy and still as marble. She is analyzing it with a cold curious eye, and it makes Emma hurry along, worried suddenly that the Queen will destroy it.

But when the Queen sees Emma, she drops the golden orb into a small pouch and swiftly pulls the drawstring closed.

“Here,” the Queen offers, and tosses over the bag.

Emma catches it with a sigh of relief. She pockets the bag.

When she looks up, the Queen is watching her with an oddly hopeful smile on her face, as if one helpful incidence could make them into companions. Two people who might smile and laugh with one another. Emma stares blankly back. She knows she should be able to muster up some real gratitude for the Queen, as she has now saved her twice. But after a silent moment, Emma just snatches her bag from the ground and busily searches for her compass.

“Let’s go,” she says, and nods towards the pointing arrow’s new horizon. 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"Even when I look away I am still looking."

 

 

 

—  Richard Siken, from Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light



 

Apparently it is a two day walk from the lake to the mountains. Which seems ridiculous since the Queen can easily disappear and reappear at a snap of her fingers.

But when Emma brings it up, the Queen sends her a blank-eyed satisfied look; Emma recognizes the expression: she’s watched the expression flicker onto the faces of others right after she’s made a fool of herself.

“No," she says with elaborate patience. "I can't do that.”

“Why?”

“Because, magic takes precision. And I’ve never visited the Black-Horntail dragon before,” she says all this slowly, which puts a pellet of anger in Emma's throat, but since tone is meant to rankle, she does her best to bite her tongue. “Would you like me to take us both into the middle of the dragon’s cave?”

“No,” she sneers. “Sorry I even asked.”

The Queen smiles nastily back.

The forest gradually thins. On the distance, the great outline of a ragged mountain terrain lies still, its rocks daunting and tranquil in the evening light. A nearby village prepares for the evening. Through the thin trees, a light flicker on, shines a pale yellow against the molten blue sky.  There’s the cluck of chickens, the quiet hiss of spraying water.

“We should stop here.”

“Here?” Emma asks. She looks down at the rocky terrain beneath them, the ground full of rocks and sticks. “There’s a village nearby, you know.”

“I’m aware,” the Queen says. “Which is why I’d prefer to stop here before we get any closer.”

Emma squints a look back at her.

She can sort of see why. The Queen is a hard woman not to pick out of a crowd, even if she were wearing something sensible rather than a sleek diamond-studded red dress so red it could be made of blood; it goes beyond her clothes. She has a face that draws people’s eyes first for her beauty, and then for the cold feeling in their hearts, for the subtle way in which her eyes prick at their memory. Even twenty years later, her story is still a favorite amongst the villagers to share late at night. Her cruelty creates a good hush when telling horror stories.

But Emma’s tired. She is still cold from the water, and she’s not in the mood for a restless night on the rocky ground.

“Well, then we’ll meet up tomorrow I guess.” she says. She turns without another word and heads down through  a small trail of scrub grass.

Behind her, she can hear the Queen scoff. But after a beat, there’s the sound of footsteps behind her. Emma doesn’t look back to make sure. She looks on towards the small sleepy looking village only a half mile away.

For a while there is silence. Branches crack underneath their boots. Somewhere in the distance, an owl hoots. Some other small nightly creature rustles around in the thick brush.

“You’re upset.” the Queen observes. She has been silent for so long, Emma nearly startles at the surprise of her presence.

She looks back at the Queen with surprise. The Queen looks back without expression.

“Well yeah,” she says. “Of course, I am.”

“Why?”

“I need to pick just one reason?” she shakes her head, and whacks a tree branch out of her way. “How about the fact that I have no future as a princess, expert maybe if I marry well, and so far, my only option is a murderer.”

The Queen makes a noise behind her, whether out of irritation or indignation, she isn’t sure, but it is still an indication, Emma supposes, that she is listening. Emma waits for a response, listening to her walk behind her. The Queen is close enough to touch every branch only seconds after she does.

There’s a beat of silence.

And then:

“So, is that all?” she asks.

Emma turns an artic glare upon her.

“Sorry dear,” The Queen smiles back coldly. “But if you were hoping to marry someone of royalty with no blood on their hands, I’m afraid you’re out of options.”

Emma turns back to the path. A hard pellet of anger forms in her throat.

 “Whatever,” she mutters, and watches her compass. The trees around the mountains are all new; their roots are frail and insecure in the ground.

When she speaks again, the Queen’s voice is harsh as sandpaper. “The only difference between the other men you were going to marry and myself is that I happen to have a personal investment in you. I would protect you from anything in the world,” she sneers. “Don’t I qualify more than a prince?”

“Except you lack a heart.”

“No prince has that.”

Emma releases a tired sigh, exasperated by the Queen’s tireless dedication to an argument that seems, more and more, to exclude her own point of view.

“It doesn’t even matter,” she says. She throws a small rock, watches it skip over dusty pine needles, flush a frightened bird from its hiding place. “It’s not like I even wanted to marry those princes. I don’t want to marry any of you.”

Silence catches and holds.

After a little while, Emma glances back. She can see the Queen’s face in the dark. Her expression is clear of all expression, transparent as water.

Emma turns around again.

They walk in silence through the dark trees. The town appears gradually in and out of the trees in rows of steepled roofs and orange lit windows. In the center, a squat little boarding house sits in the dark, some rooms lit and still many with empty black windows.

As Emma approaches, she notices a distinct absence. The only footsteps she hears are her own.

When she turns around, she finds the Queen still at the edge of the tree line. Emma sighs, starts back.

“No,” the Queen calls. “Go on, get a room without me.”

Emma stops. For a moment she considers the benefits of getting into it with this woman right here in the middle of town, but after a moment, she just shakes her head and turns away. It’s probably for the best. They’d probably only argue. Or worse, talk. She doesn’t exactly want to sleep in the same room with the Queen anyway. 

The front lady looks up at her with a blank look of hospitality. She knows this sort of look; she has seen it on many of the maids who used to tend to her, who stepped in temporarily for a pre-existing role that was often absent. It’s a cold graciousness, a thin reedy kind of care that could be put away and erased if they wished, the way someone might tend to a garden.

She pauses at the front desk. “What’s your available rooms?”

The woman looks up blankly. “Do you want a one or two-bedroom.”

She hesitates. She could go out, tell the Queen to just come inside with her. But it would require so much work. She shrugs.

“One, I guess.”

When she slips out her small purse, the woman’s attention seems to sharpen. Her eyes go black as sleet. Emma takes out a golden earring.

“Would this work?”

The woman hesitates, tests it out against the edge of the desk. When the gold doesn’t bend, she gives a small nod, and looks briefly to some place behind her shoulder. She doesn’t look at Emma again, not even once through the exchange of keys and information. But Emma supposes a little social discomfort is well worth a warm bed.

When she turns, there’s a man with a charming smile at her side.

“Hello, lass,” he smiles charmingly, leans an elbow against the counter. “Need help finding your room?”

“Oh. No, thanks.”

“Come now, it’s an old place, it can get confusing. I’ll escort you.” He says, and glances at her key. “Second floor, huh? That’s a nice room, you’ll like it there.”

“Uh, right,” she hesitates. She looks back at the manager, but the woman doesn’t look back. She stares at the front door blankly as if some working part of her brain has turned off. “Thanks, I guess.” She follows him.

“You traveling?” he asks.

“Yeah, for now.”

“Good. A lass like yourself shouldn’t always be on the move. It makes it hard to meet people.” his smile gives makes her heart recede in her chest.

“Right.” She says and holds her key firmly. Room numbers seem to pass by her chronologically, with a clear simple order. Her heart quickens.

When they reach the door, she very quickly sides the key in the lock and turns it. She shoulders it open.

“I can help unpack –” he starts.

“No thanks,” she closes the door sharply.

With the door closed and locked, she sighs deeply.

“Who was that?”

She jumps and turns around. The Queen has already taken off her heels and now stands beside the bed with a polite puzzled look on her face.

“Wha—?” Emma sputters. “What are you doing here?”

The Queen frowns at her. “What do you mean? You only got one room,” she leans over distractedly and picks a thick wooly blanket up from the bed. She folds it neatly over her arm. “Did they only have one bed available?” she asks.

“No, I --” Emma’s cheeks heat up. “You said to get a room on my own.”

The Queen looks at her with some amusement. “Because I didn’t want to be recognized. So, I sent you in on your own for our rooms,” she glances around. “Or at least a room with two beds.”

“Oh.”

“What did you think I was going to do? Sleep outside?”

“I…I guess I did.”

 “Oh pues. Ni modo.”

“Okay, well,” Emma rubs the back of her warm neck. “What do you want to do?”

The Queen gives her an amused look. “I’m going to sleep in the one bed you’ve bought for us,” she says and tosses the wooly blanket carelessly on the chair next to them, sitting down on the soft cushioned bed. When she looks up again, she’s smiling that cat-like smile of hers. “You’re welcome to join me.” she smooths her hand along the inviting expanse of soft white sheets.

“Ha,” Emma scoffs, blushing red. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

The Queen shrugs and flicks an unsurprised hand toward the closet. “Then there’s blankets in there, and I think an extra pillow.”

“Awesome.” Emma sighs. Of course, she gets the floor.

In the closet, there is a wreckage of blankets and pillows. The space is snug and cozy, the floor blackly glittering like a storm drain. It smells vaguely of pine and shoe-polish.

“How did you pay for this, by the way?” The Queen asks behind her. When Emma turns to look, she is picking absentmindedly at the white sheets with her fingertips.

She frowns. “What do you mean?”

“Do you have a stash of village money with you?”

“Oh,” Emma shrugs, turns back to the closet space. “No, I just exchanged on of my earrings.”

“The pure gold ones?”

“Yeah.”

The Queen turns a blank-eyed look at the door. After a beat, she asks. “Who was at the front door?” She asks again. “Was he at the front desk?”

“Yeah,” Emma says absentmindedly, busy with the task of making her sleeping arrangements as comfortable as possible. She pulls out one, two, three blankets from the small wicker basket in the corner and straightens each one out until the floor is a soft pillowy landscape. She tentatively presses with the weight of her hands and knees, testing out its comfort. “I mean, there was another woman there. Then I paid, and this other guy working escorted me to the door.”

A beat passes. Then Queen hums softly. “Alright,” she says.

Emma plops a cheek on the fat pillows. She closes her eyes, waits for the Queen to finish up her idle business and turn off the lights. But a minute goes by, and she can still see the brightness through her closed eyelids.

Sighing, she opens her eyes, watches the Queen flip idly through an old ragged-looking book. She is curled in the small love seat in the corner by the window, reading with a serious absorption. Her finger absentmindedly bends the corner of the page back and forth.

Emma sighs, and sits up on a bent elbow. “Hey,” she says gruffly, waits for the Queen’s eyes. “You actually going to sleep in the bed or what?”

The Queen glances at the bed as if she were only considering it. “Maybe.” She says and returns to her book.

A hot frustration bubbles up in Emma’s chest, but she checks it aside by turning on her back. “Can you at least turn the light out?” she sighs.

The Queen hums absentmindedly. ‘In a second.”

Emma waits a second. The seconds pass, and then minutes go by, and all the while Emma waits, blinking sleepily up at the ceiling as the time passes slowly. Gradually, the room darkens on its own, dimmed by the later hours of the night. But in the corner, the candle-light stays on. There’s the sound of dry pages, the Queen’s idle movements, her sighs as she bends the spine of the book backwards and repositions against the chair. 

Finally, Emma’s exhaustion gathers her into action. She stands up, walks soundlessly on bare feet over to where the Queen is sitting. She doesn’t appear to notice Emma until it’s too late, and Emma has already reached the desk to blow out the light.

It is dark a total of three seconds before a hot fire erupts suddenly  in her face. The hot flare of red light brings unexpectedly the invasive thought of just how painful burning alive would be. In the dark, some of the Queen’s snarl is semi- visible – just a flare of nostril and the sharp gleam of her teeth.

Once the lamp is lit again, the Queen rounds on her with a fierce snarl. “I was reading.”

Faced with the Queen’s fury, Emma feels a quiet wake of nervousness up her spine. She knows the Queen isn’t stable, and true love or not, she very likely still poses a danger to Emma.

But still. Something about the Queen makes it impossible for her to act rationally. She can’t just back down.

  “And I’m trying to sleep,” she snaps, with enough force to make even the Queen slink back. “You’ve been reading for two fucking hours and I’m exhausted!”

The Queen gives her a surprisingly surly look. “Well, you were so quiet, I figured you fell asleep,” she grumbles. “You could have just asked.”

With a snap of her fingers, the Queen produces a slip of black material. It looks silky and soft to touch. She shakes it out until she can take a hold of both ends, stretch it out tight.

“What’s that?” Emma watches the Queen uneasily.

“Hush,” She says. “It’ll help you sleep.”

The material seems unlike any fabric Emma knows. It has an astral look to it as if the Queen cut out a piece of the night sky just for her. It even smells vaguely of the night: like frost and wet grass and some other sharp clean scent she can’t put a name to. When the Queen wraps it around her eyes, it blankets the whole world in a soft soothing dark.

“Oh.” She whispers faintly.

The Queen takes a hold of her shoulders and guides her back to her bed of blankets. As Emma settles and gets comfortable, stretching out her feet, and positioning her cheek onto the pillow, she feels a soft hand stroke down her long hair. The touch is barely there, the softest she’s ever felt, but still there.

Emma hesitates. But she decides against calling for it to stop. The hand slides a strand of hair behind her ear before it slips away again.

In the dark, Emma can hear the Queen walk back to her chair. Frowning, Emma blinks sleepily up in her own illusional dark, and tries to refocus on the movements in the room, curious if the Queen will ever fall asleep, but the blankets are soft and warm. She sinks into a deep restful sleep.

She wakes periodically, short enough to forget about it in the morning if not for the events to come. Every time she wakes, she sleepily slips the material off her eyes and squints at the harsh yellow light. Still on. The Queen still in a small love seat, reading her book. She’ll stop occasionally, glance out at the window, at the lights and the stars and the silence of the slumbering world outside. A world she doesn’t seem to want to join.  

Emma wakes two more times, and each time results in the same scenario, the Queen attentive and still, reading a book silently in a  peculiar wakefulness.

Until near the early hours of the morning. When she wakes again, it’s due to a jarring scrapping sound right outside the odor . She frowns and slips the night-like material off her eyes, but the room is finally dark.

Then, another noise. Right outside the hallway.

She sits up on her elbow, squints through the dark to listen. Slowly the room settles in the dark again. The window has turned blue with the early hours before sunrise.

There’s another noise, but this time louder and more familiar. It sounds like a pop, the glide of her door unlocking. She stills, watches in a frozen panic as the door slowly creaks open.

In the dark, she can see figures slip into her room. They come in hunched, dark-figures, their footsteps faint against the carpet. They creep silently, make motions with their hands, to close the door again, to move to the bed.

Her eyes whirl to the bed. There, she sees an obvious lump of a sleeping figure. The Queen, finally asleep, unaware of the danger she’s in.

Panicked, she scrabbles up on her hands and knees. But before she can holler out a warning, a cool hand wraps around her mouth. A cool iron arm wraps around her body and holds her close. 

“Shh, dear,” The Queen whispers close to her ear. “Hold still.”

Emma’s breath rushes hot against the Queen’s hand. She follows the command dumbly, too relieved to fight or question her. All she knows is that the Queen is safe. She came prepared, aware, willing to wait all night for the possibility of violence.

She watches silently as the dark figures move to the bed. In the dim light, she sees the glimmer of a dagger’s blade; they shine brightly, their sharp points tilted to the unsuspecting figure of what could have easily been her or the Queen. Her heart squeezes at the thought.

She winces when the men lunge. There’s a brief clamor, their violence exciting some laughter as the daggers plunge and strike something solid.

But after a beat, when there’s no pained whimpering or screams, the men gradually come to a stop.

One man, in a thin voice, sighs. “What the hell?” and slips the cover off.

What happens after is too quick to follow. There’s an abrupt pained yelp, and then men are stumbling over each other, pushing to get out of the way, kicking whoever is in their way.

Then suddenly, above all that commotion, the Queen laughs. It rings with terrifying resonating clarity. It only spurs the men’s terror. The men who can walk push their way to the door. One, too wounded to walk, crawls blindly.

The light flickers on with a snap of the Queen’s hand. The light fills every corner, reveals on the bed a pile of snakes that had once seemed human-like and peacefully still.

One snake, black and two-headed, falls onto the floor next to the wounded man. He yelps, and limps back, struggling for distance. Against his chest, he cradles his wounded hand; his fingers have turned an odd shade of black, and curl into the palm as if it were a withered bud of a flower.

Emma watches, stunned. She can’t move, can’t even think.

The Queen slowly stands. She walks over to the two-headed snake with a boneless ease, picks it up and cradles it tenderly against her chest. The man looks at her helplessly, a slow pain-gripped look of understanding on his face.

“You…” the man swallows, his voice cracks with horror. He looks up at her with a rheumy-eyed gaze. “You’re the Evil Queen.”

“So, you recognize me,” the Queen slides a steady hand down the snake’s long neck. “Good. Then you already know I’m not merciful.”

He holds out a shaky palm, his good one. “Please,” his voice shakes. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, your Majesty – I thought she was traveling alone. I didn’t know she was yours.”

The Queen hums, a sound of annoyance.

“Please.” His voice cracks. “Let me live. I’ll be in your service. I’ll do anything.”

“I’m in no need of you,” she says, bored, and holds out her hand. “Give me your hand. The ruined one.”

The man shakes. He looks down at the Queen’s extended palm fearfully, but knowing his limited choices, slowly gives her his wounded hand.

She grips his hand firmly and turns it over. He yelps in pain, watches her fearfully.

“This is my gift,” she says in her velvety dangerous voice. “You may keep your life. With one contingency.”

The man swallows. He looks on nervously as the Queen extends the black two-faced snake towards him. The black snake is quick, succinct. It wraps around his wrist, and then, impossibly, disappears into his skin.

The man cries with alarm. He watches as a snake-like tattoo crawls up his arm, settles dangerously at the edge of his shirt sleeve.  It might have looked like an enormous vein if not for the open jaws of the snakes poised on either side of his arm. From the wrist bone to the shoulder

“Wha—what?”

“I don’t often give warnings. You’re lucky I have an audience, or you may not have been so lucky,” she says with a chilling smile. She grips his wrist, hard enough to elicit a pained whimper. “From this day on, you will never enter the room or bed of another unsuspecting girl. Ever.”

He nods his head quickly.

“If you do,” she grips his ruined hand painfully hard. “My snake will take the rest of you.”

He nods again, more pained.

When she releases him, he scrambles hurriedly to the door. His shoulder hits hard on the door frame on his way out, but he doesn’t stop. His heavy boots clamber all the way down the stairs, out the house.

A restless quiet settle over them. The room feels punctured by silence, as if the quiet came in like a wave and swept the place, left it ruined and empty, scarred. Emma remains frozen where she is, crouched in the closet. She waits, staring at the back of the Queen’s head with a sort of nameless fear, as if she were hiding in the forest somewhere watching a wild creature maim and kill its prey. The Queen sighs, and rolls back her shoulders, rubs a hand along her tired neck. 

She turns back to Emma.  “Are you still tired?” she asks.

Her voice is impossibly different. Soft, sweet, cautious. It’s as if a light has switched.

“Huh?” she asks faintly.

“Do you want to go back to sleep?” The Queen asks. The sudden softness in her expression is simply too much to comprehend. A second or two ago it had been murderous.

Emma closes her eyes and tries to sort herself out again. She can’t let herself be frightened by the Queen – she’ll never have the courage to go through with this spell if she lets her fear get to her. She won’t allow it.

“No,” she says, and slowly stands. She clears her throat. “I’m not tired.”

The Queen looks her over again, a quiet intricate assessment.

Emma isn’t sure what she’s looking for, but she must have found it, because a  soft relieved smile blooms on her face.

“Very well,” she says. “Let’s get a move on.”

With a snap of her fingers, the remaining snakes on the bed disappear. They go up in a plume of smoke. Emma nods, and turns away. In the following silence, as they go about their normal routines of waking up, Emma feels a sort of feeling well up inside her chest. It’s not admiration – not quite. It’s a quiet, blunted feeling, but there’s a quality of respect to it too, a horrified kind of respect that bundles up like a rock in her throat.

As Emma spits out her toothpaste, she looks up in the speckled mirror to find the Queen suddenly right behind her. It’s only a little bit of an effort not to flinch.

 She takes a deep breath, looks at the Queen calmly. “Yes?”

“I went down to the front desk,” the Queen says. Emma nods slowly a little warily, as if the information could potentially be dangerous – with the Queen, who knows – but then suddenly the Queen holds out a delicious looking pastry. “They were serving breakfast. Would you like this?”

“Oh hell yeah!” Emma exclaims happily. “Is it warm?”

The Queen blinks. “Would you like me to warm it?”

“Um. Are you offering?”

The Queen merely presses her fingertips into the pastry. A warm steam lifts. The pastry’s soft buttery-brown dough seems to glow, turn a lighter shade as the apple inside turns liquid again.

When Emma bites into it, her eyes nearly roll back.

 “Oh my god,” she moans, mouth full. “That’s so good.”

The Queen has already turned around to flip through their belongings, and though she doesn’t appear to be listening, Emma still calls out a muffled “Thank you!” Because the Queen deserves some gratitude.

For the food. And for saving her life, kinda. For the third time. Or whatever.

*

It’s still early when they set out. The trees are full of speckled light, their thin leaves a brighter green in the early morning.

They walk at their own pace, unhurried. The sun gradually warms their backs, the top of their heads. Emma sighs, watching her compass. The red arrow in the compass shifts to the left and she follows it, ducking under a low branch of another tree.

After a long while, Emma finds herself coming back to a thought. She can’t quite let it go. It tumbles out of her after nearly two hours of walking.

“Do you think that guy learned his lesson?”

“I doubt it.”

Emma looks at her. “Really?”

“Men are stupid,” she says, bluntly. “Which makes them predictable.”

Emma snorts. “Well yeah,” she says. “But still. He was terrified. I doubt he’d just forget that.”

“He will,” the Queen answers with certainty. “He will convince himself, eventually, that I was merely bluffing. He will start to doubt that the snake in his arm is real, and not just a trick. He will come to believe that I wouldn’t have the heart to kill a man for his pleasures.” The Queen rolls her eyes.

“You seem so sure.”

“I am,” the Queen says. “People don’t change.”

The soft curious feeling in Emma’s chest wilts.

She looks back at her compass. “I guess,” she mutters, and lets the navigation reabsorb her attention so that she won’t have to think about the prickling feeling of disappointment in her heart.

For a while, they walk in silence. Emma doesn’t look up from her compass. As they walk, the grass grows taller. The ground goes soft, marsh-like. Her boots sink an inch into the ground with each step.

“Emma, wait.”

“Yeah?” she asks and doesn’t look up. She’s not in the mood for conversation, and she knows looking up would have invited it. So, she doesn’t see the river right in front of her. 

“Emma –” the Queen warns one last time.

Emma looks up, but it’s too late. When the tip of her shoe slips into the cool water, she realizes her mistake and tries to save herself, but it only leads to her arms wind milling wildly about for a second before she tumbles head first into the water. It is cold enough to punch the air out of her lungs.

Had the river been deep enough to pose a real threat, Emma might have saved herself a serious bruising. Both of her hands and her pride. But the river has shrunk in the dry months, turning pitifully shallow.

So instead of a real drowning, she ends up sputtering on her hands and knees. Blinking in shock, she sits up and wipes wet strands of hair from her face. She stares up at the Queen with a helpless look of shock.

The Queen’s frozen face looks back.

There’s a beat of silence.

And then the Queen laughs. It is a shockingly joyful sound.

“You idiot!” she laughs in delight.

“Shut up,” Emma grumbles, her face warm. She stands up and takes in the damage. Her arms are soaked. Her pants are black and tight from the water, wet all the way down from her knees.

She sighs.

The Queen is still laughing. It rings bright and clear in the cold air, sounding loose and free like a bird taking sudden flight. It’s a lovely sound, and hearing it, Emma can feel something go soft in her chest. Just a little.

Thankfully, once on the trail, the Queen seems to remember the bitter chill in the air. With a snap of her fingers, she replaces Emma’s clothes with clothes far nicer and warmer than her fathers. It looks like the sort of thing the Queen might wear but not quite as severe; they’re simple and sleek: black leather pants, black boots, and a close-fitting blue leather waistcoat. It fits far better than dresses or trousers ever did.

Emma looks down in wonder. “Thanks,” she says, softly.

The Queen shrugs like its nothing. Maybe it is to her. But Emma suspects she must somehow know her discomfort. The sick-feeling of dread she has for every dress she’s ever worn. Somehow, she must have guessed.

Emma smooths her palms down the sleek leather and pulls it closer to her body. She follows the Queen.

*

It’s nearly night when they reach their destination.

Ahead of them there is a mist of clouds above the tops of the mountains. A pale moon shines in the blue sky, the light of the sun quickly disappearing. It won’t be long before it’s completely dark.

“Should we wait till morning?” Emma asks.

“No,” the Queen responds, and though Emma doesn’t turn around, she can feel the Queen’s approach; there’s the soft lavender smell of her clothes or hair (her perfume?), and the faint electric buzz of a body nearing her own, almost skin-to-skin now, standing too close. “We should catch it when its sleeping.”

“Right,” Emma nods, and after a beat, shifts away. “So, this way, then, yeah?”

“No, hold on,” The gap extends, and Emma looks back, startled that she must search the darkness to find the Queen again. Off the path, the woman is standing quietly amongst the elm trees, waiting in her usual high-shouldered way for Emma’s attention. When she has it, she nods, steps back.  “We should go this way, it’s quicker.”’ 

Emma pauses. She frowns, looks back to the path. “My compass says this way.”

“Yes, I know. It’s taking you around the mountain,” the Queen says, and nods towards the top. “But this is a shortcut. It’ll put you right at the dragon’s cave.”

Frowning, Emma checks the needle of the compass again. It remains unwavering, its glass face displaying a clear direction. The side of her mouth pulls down in contemplation and from behind her the Queen sighs again and bends a low awning tree branch away from her with a slow wave of her fingers, as lazily as she might wave away a fly. She moves towards Emma in that slow soundless way of hers.

“I promise,” the Queen says, with some exasperation. “I am not going to deceive you.”

In the shifting dark, the Queen is almost visible. There’s the faint curve of her neck, the side of her face. Her black eyes are hidden in the hollows of her face, in the shadows of starlight.

She looks down at the clear visible trail ahead of her, and back to the black landscape behind the Queen. Emma’s heart hesitates then leans to one side.

She steps forward.

“I’m going this way,” she says. “You’re free to follow me. But if not, well. I guess we’ll have to go separate ways.”

“Emma.” the Queen sighs.

Emma keeps moving, pushing straight ahead onto the compass’ track. She listens for following footsteps, for a flare of a weary sigh, for a voice to call out to her, but there is only silence.

After a little while, climbing up the tough rocky terrain, a heavy weariness begins to cement itself to her heart. Gradually, Emma comes to a slow stop. She looks behind her again, feels a cold chill at the sight of the long empty road.

But why should it matter? So, what, the Queen abandoned her. She had planned to do this alone, after all. It should be done alone. She doesn’t need help.

With a sigh, Emma moves on. She climbs the black rocky path up the curve of the mountain, fumbles blindly with the low awning tree branches; she manages to duck in time for some and merely moves through the web of pine needles with others.

She climbs and climbs.

At the top, where the air is thicker, Emma can look out over the cliff’s edge towards the lights on the shore, the black field of grass and trees, the lit yellow windows of the village houses dotting the distant hillside. On a flat lake, boats the size of pebbles are moored in deep water.

There’s a deep sigh behind her.

For a moment, Emma thinks it’s the Queen. Her heart lifts with a soft leap of hope. When she turns around, she fully expects to see an exasperated Queen behind her, fully prepared to sneer at her.

But instead, what she sees is a large hollowed-out cave, the walls scoured with black granite. Flecks of metal and glass dot and sparkle in the black, illuminating the small space with its tiny reflective light. Her heart falls back into the pit of her chest.

In the middle of the deep black cave is a dragon. The dragon.

And it’s enormous.

Its scales are a pale grey except for its back where narrow spikes lift from the ridge of its spine; the black spines appear to be a part of the skeleton, is as if its spine has grown outward, and pierced through its skin.

The dragon lifts its enormous head. Though its pale eyes seem to see straight through Emma, her presence is known. A deep growl rumbles out from its chest.

“Oh fuck.” Emma whispers.

The dragon stands, its joints cracking. A deep growl rumbles out of its mouth, its teeth gleam with a thin sheen of saliva, just slightly pink from blood.

It lifts its great head, lets out a mighty roar.

“Fuck,” Emma gasps, and ducks behind a black rock.

The dragon lumbers closer. Its tail swivels nearly careen right into Emma, but before it can she rolls quickly onto her back. The tail lands with a loud smack against the rock, with a weight and force that Emma knows would have killed her.

“Oh fuck,” she whispers, again. Slowly, as quietly as she can, she picks her way towards the back of the cave. A prickling embarrassment comes over her, worse than even the sick-like fear, because it brings the reality of the Queen’s warning. Here she is, faced with her hasty recklessness, and a very quickly approaching death if she is not careful; she’ll end her story being a hasty stupid princess, the sort of ending maids will tell other girls in their care, to dull their hearts from excitement and adventure.

The dragon turns its great big head, looking for her.

She crouches, hides. She watches the dragon smell the air, its half-mouth, tasting out the air. Then, gradually from the roof of its mouth, a dangerous blue glow that flickers and sparks with heat.

It takes a second to click.

Yelping, she jumps up, lunges to the far side of the cave. Flames burst and fly up along the blackened granite around her, and she only very nearly misses its heat with a roll of her back, rolling over a flat rock, and propelling back up onto her feet again; her every move is determined by the hot rush of a wiry instinct in her threatened heart. God, she wants to live.

She ducks over a new rock and hides, panting, out of breath. She watches the dragon pace, its teeth bared.

As it paces, the dragon clacks its teeth together. After a moment, Emma notices the somewhat awkward angle it rests its jaws, so that after it roars, it’s mouth never truly closes.

Frowning, she peers closer. Along the dragon’s lower jaw, one of its sharp teeth is crooked. It is in the back, one of the shorter sharper ones meant to crack bones. It is bends crookedly towards the middle of its mouth, and every attempt to close its mouth slices open the roof of its mouth.

“Oh fuck,” Emma whispers.

The dragon pauses, hearing her.

Slowly, its shoulders bloom, growing tall: its neck lifts its mighty head up. Turning to face her, the dragon bares its ferocious teeth again; she sees more of its flaws, the scarred untidy scales, the torn flesh, how some of its claws are missing.

 As a child, she used to watch the guard dogs wrestle. Many, at an old age, knew to be calm, and patient when with the guards, but the others grew anxious with their free time. They could turn playful in an instant with one another, rolling each other over quickly with wagging tails and a ferocious strength, biting each other’s necks and tugging on their ears. It seemed like such a wild playful sport, she loved to sit on the black gate and watch them play. But always, if they grew too loud, too wild, a guard would jump in, and hold them down. Then came a true whipping.

Some calmed with time, their wildness shunted into work. Others grew only wilder: they growled at walking shadows, snapped at the hands of children. Those dogs are left in chains with muzzles around their noses.

Emma thinks quickly. On the ground, scraps of metal glitter over the sleek rock. An old linked chain gleams from the ground, likely stripped from an old boat, its anchor still attached somewhere, bare and old. It gleams dimly from below the dragon’s claws.

Breathing quietly, Emma stands, a shaky plan in set. She walks closer.

Though powerful, the dragon’s movements are slow. At Emma’s approach, the dragon rises its huge head and lunges again, its jaws large and predictable. Emma ducks its aim, and slides under his neck, hiding below its softer underbelly. The dragon roars, and shifts, looking for her. Its muscles clench below the scales, struggling to coordinate. Above her, Emma can see its jaws hanging partially open, its teeth gleaming in the soft black.

An odd sensation runs through her then. It’s all coming together. She can feel a plan knitting together in her head, and though it requires an untested set of skills from her, a strength of ability and a clarity of mind, it all suddenly feels within her grasp. Her muscles burn, her mind hums, sharp and clear and competent. She can do this.

Careful not to make a sound, Emma bends to pick up a rock. She aims it in the corner, tosses it as she might skip a rock into the lake. It makes a loud, reckless sound, like a dish dropping onto the kitchen floor, and immediately, the dragon swings its head over.

As it moves, Emma acts quickly, picking up the old metal chains from the ground, wrapping it around her arms. She steps out, waiting for the dragon to discover the empty corner. When it does, it swings its head around again, eyes flashing like coins in the pitch dark. It locks eyes with her. And roars.

It’s a loud unsettling sound, like metal grinding on metal. A thin filament of bloody saliva connects its open jaws. Moving quickly, Emma wraps the metal chains twice, three times, four around the dragon’s mouth.

Confused, the dragon rears back. Holding firmly, Emma hefts it forward, dragging its head down low enough to hook the chain to a solid, heavy chest on the floor. The dragon makes a surprised sound and jerks its head back and forth, but unable to move, it roars again, a frightened, muffled sound. Its wide pale eyes whirl towards her.

“Oh quit,” she sighs, and wipes a sweaty curl from her forehead. “You’re alright.”

The dragon makes a frightened sound, surprisingly like the whinny from a horse, and tries to pull its head free. Gently, feeling a soft twinge of sympathy, Emma puts a hand out tentatively. Slowly, she lays it on its snout. When it doesn’t immediately snarl, she slides her palm back and forth in soft, soothing strokes, the way she’d pet a horse.

“It’s alright,” she reassures, and dares to stroke the top of its scaly head. Her fingertips smooth down the top of its shiny black snout, mindful of its teeth, but sympathetic to its fears. Surprisingly, the dragon seems to settle down. It blinks its big pale eyes at her, and slowly calms. The dragon adjusts its body, folds itself over its arms and legs.

It only takes some careful maneuvering, then. With the help metal rod, to prop open the dragon’s mouth, she can reach a hand into the back of the dragon’s mouth. But the tooth is already loose. Gently, she twists and wiggles the tooth until it finally dislodges.

A deep grunt reverberates in the dragon’s chest. It shakes its great big head, seems to look at her  gravely, with large white eyes. After another long second, Emma slides the tooth in her back pocket, takes out the metal rod, and carefully, slowly, unwinds the metal chains.

When the dragon is free, she half expects it to lunge at her again. It would be the sort of grim ending that Nomey would fashion up at the end of one of the many cynical stories she told her as a child, providing only a subtle hint to the important lesson about life Emma was meant to learn. The moral, she supposes: don’t expect kindness from beasts.

But instead, the dragon merely gives her a long solemn look. It turns away, moving quietly into the soft blackness where it came from, back to where it may sleep, again, undisturbed.

Watching it go, she touches the tooth in her back pocket. She lets out a breath. It’s there, it happened.

Once outside, she looks out at the mottled green darkness. A welter of anonymous yellow lights flickers in and out of the tops of trees. Boats sway distantly on a black ocean. In her palm, the compass whirls quietly; its needle ticks across east and west, urging her towards a field of roses.

She could get a head start. She probably should.

But inside her chest, there is a soft inner tug, a gentle pull. She tries to shake it off, put herself into motion again, but her heart suffers an interval of dislocation. A loss of order: the Queen is a cold irritable woman, even monstrous at times, but there is also a sharp clarity about her, a precision and honesty that is difficult to confuse or misconstrue; she would not willfully abandon Emma; she would have followed Emma to this cave even if she was furious, even if hate had started eating her from the inside, she’d have followed Emma the way a magnet snaps itself to iron. Emma knows that.

After a moment, Emma pockets her compass with a deep disgruntled sigh. She sets off to the opposite side of the mountain where a small rocky path leads her down to where she suspects the Queen’s shortcut somehow failed her.

*

It doesn’t take too long to find her. A mile down the path, Emma slows, hearing the rough voices of men in the distance. They crackle, their laughter low and rough like gravel. The smell of smoke sharpens the air.

Emma walks quietly, approaching a small campsite. A loose group of quiet men sit beside a fire, sipping whisky. Yellow triangular tents dot between the trees. When Emma walks closer, she spots a larger group of men standing off to the far side of the campsite, their backs tall and hard. Noise comes from them in abrupt clamors, their laughter loose and uneasy, going up and down the campsite.

Through the gaps of their arms and shoulders, Emma can see in fleeting glimpses the woman they are all looking at. Her stomach sets with ice.

It’s the Queen. Surrounded by men. She snarls like a wild animal, her arms wrapped in hefty black chains.

“Let go of me,” she snarls. Metal clamors loudly, and the men laugh again. “You goddamn stupid bastards. Let me go!”

Their laughter invites a black electric fury that explodes from the Queen’s fingertips. But the chains around her arms only seem to absorb it, surrounding her with her own black electricity. She screams, more out of fury than pain, and the men laugh again, loud and mean with their relief. 

“Idiots,” she pants, her voice ragged and hateful. “I’ll kill you all. I’ll find each one of you again. I’ll rip you to shreds.”

Some of the men shift with that. Their nervous expressions are broken by nervous laughs.

Emma looks around quickly, searching for a diversion. She moves silently. The night sky hangs heavily above, dead-quiet, almost white with all the stars. Horses stand silently on the outskirts of the camp, quiet as statues beside their wooden posts, their heads hanging in sleep.

Quietly, she steps along gravel and slips close beside the horses’ large sleeping bodies. From the back of her pocket, she takes out the tooth and quietly cuts their reigns.

She had hoped that might be enough. But when nothing happens, she puts the tip of the tooth against the tough hide of one of the horses. The sharp edge of the tooth runs up quickly up from the back of the leg towards the top of the horses’ spine.

The horse wakes with a jerk. Its back legs react immediately, jerking out, and with another loud neigh, it stirs up some real terror amongst the others.

Released of their reigns, the horses rear back, stamp their hooves with fearful commotion along the ground.

“Get,” she hisses. With a hollow slap of her palm, she pushes the horses’ big head away.

The horses all take off. The sounds of their clumsy urgency alert the attention of some of the men. The men shout in alarm, gather the attention of the others. 

“The horses!” a man shouts, and the others gather reigns, whips, gears. “Quick,” the men stumble into each other, pushing them toward the abandoned stalls.

Squatting behind a tree, Emma watches, waits until all the men leave. The hurried sound of their footsteps disappears into the distance, and slowly, a deserted-calm settle across the campsite.

The Queen remains. She stands as high as she can with her chains wrapped around the wrists. Her eyes are cool and black, and she stares into the depth of the green where Emma hides. Likely awaiting some other danger, some other attack.

When Emma stands, the Queen seems to deflate, as if an inch of air is released from beneath her skin. Her shoulders sink, and she lets her arms drop back heavily against her thighs.

“You’re alive,” the Queen says. Her voice is like the pant of a rising lion, ragged and harsh from starvation. “I heard the dragon roar ...A few times, and then it stopped. I thought...I was sure you were killed.”

“Oh.”

“But you’re alive,” the Queen says with a soft tremulous smile.

“I -- yeah. I’m alive.”

“How did you do it?” the Queen looks her quickly up and down. She frowns. “You’re hardly even scratched.”

“I don’t know - I just did it,” Emma says. A sudden awkwardness is rising in her -- it must have something to do with the shining look in the Queen’s eyes, as if her survival is some miracle. No, not even her survival. It is the fact that she has returned unscratched, unharmed. Emma glances over to where the firelight glows into the black sky. “Let’s get you out of that while we still have firelight.”

She doesn’t look up again. She fiddles with the chains with a metal pick. Sometimes she watches the Queen’s hands. She can see everything in those hands; her restless fury and her restraint. Her fingers flex into a tight fist, and then slowly uncurl again. Again, and again. Every time her fingers uncurl, the buckeye ring catches in the firelight.

Finally, the chain unlocks.

The Queen shakes her wrists loose, lets out a deep, ragged sigh.

“Alright,” Emma says, tentatively. She steps back, nods towards the forest. “Let’s get going.”

The Queen doesn’t move, however. A glacial look sweeps across the campsite. Searching, perhaps, for any stragglers, for any terrified men just coming back with their horses, coming to the abrupt conclusion that they’ve left a nightmare behind. She narrows her eyes into the thin trees.

 Birds stir. A branch cracks.

“Hey. Come on,” Emma grabs her elbow. Mindful of the bruises, she doesn’t squeeze, doesn’t pull.  “Leave them.”

Emma’s grip is shaken with one competent flick of the Queen’s wrist. She turns her black arctic eyes onto Emma.

“Why?” she asks.

The cold, arid look of her face evaporates the air in Emma’s lungs. Then, with a snap of the Queen’s fingers, a tree in the corner of the campsite groans and falls onto the ground. It elicits a frightened yelp, a quick scurrying of feet, and immediately, like a lion on a hunt, the Queen turns towards that direction. She lifts her hand toward her narrowed scope of aim and throws a powerful burst of black magic.

Emma snatches her wrist. “Enough,” she grips the Queen, tugs her back. In the distance, there’s the sound of a man groaning, panting, clearly in pain. The Queen jerks her arm away. “Stop,” Emma squeezes her grip. “It won’t solve anything.”

The Queen clenches her jaw. “No,” she says, and smoothly grabs Emma’s wrist, twists it to expose her own elbow, its deep-colored bruises, the raw skin, the blotches of yellow. “But I suppose this solved something?”

“No, I only meant--”

“I know what you meant.” she says. When Emma looks up, she sees a black emptiness that she has never seen in the Queen’s face before. It makes her heart quake. “It’s different when it’s them, isn’t it?”

“No-”

“Maybe you’re right,” the Queen says evenly. “After all, they have families, don’t they? They have lives, good hearts in their chests. It’d be unfair if I hurt them back. Think of what they’d lose.”

“I didn’t mean,” Emma stammers. “Look, I didn’t say what they did was fair--.”

“I don’t care,” The Queen says, her voice measured, severe. “Nobody does. Nobody cares if it is the fair thing to do. Nobody cares if a few men torture a witch in the woods. Not if they have a good reason in the end,” Abruptly, with a cold hard hand, she takes a hold of Emma’s chin, lifts it towards her with two fingers. “Even you,” she says. “With your pretty little face. Nobody is watching for you to mess up. Nobody cares who you put away, just as long as you’ve got a pretty little story to tell them all later about how ‘good’ you are.”

Emma swallows quietly, voice dry and gone.

The Queen gently releases her chin. She gives her a long look, and then turns away without another word, limping silently down the hill and beyond the trees. Bullfrogs croak quietly, their songs interrupted by intervals of silence. After a long moment, Emma follows her, a high buzz of blood in her ears. Their silence persists, following them into the deep of the woods.

*

After nearly an hour of walking, Emma decides that they should set up camp. Carefully, with unpracticed hands, Emma builds a fire of loose branches and pine needles, feeding the meager flames until it is large enough to burn some warmth into the air, share its heat. The Queen doesn’t seem to give her much notice. She materializes a tent out of nothing, snaps her fingers and produces a line where they will hang their clothing once they’ve washed them.

Emma hates that she finds herself watching the Queen most of the time. She could be doing anything else -- there are in fact plenty of important things she should be doing. But instead, she finds herself mulishly watching the Queen. There had been a wall of glass in her heart, separating herself from the Queen; it had been solid and hard, completely immovable, or so she thought. But the last few hours have softened that wall inside her, and with it, like streams of water breaking through a dam, welcomed a new skittish nervousness inside of her.

When the Queen pauses, sighs, wipes away a curly strand of hair from her face, Emma finds herself offering the small container of food that Nomey had given her.

“Do you want some of this?” Emma asks. The Queen glances at her dismissively, and that single glance sends a cold beam of pain through her chest. She scoffs, sets the container down. “Fine. Starve yourself, then.”

But the Queen merely returns to her work. Whatever, Emma thinks irritably, but her anger is muddled, and for once she doesn’t know who it is directed towards.

Bats circle the air, sweeping low and agile to the fire. Emma squats beside the warmth, puts her hands flat against the fire. Eventually, when all the small menial tasks are done, and there is nothing to distract the Queen, she joins her. She sits a few feet away, perching on a rock with her legs neatly crossed at the knee.

Hesitating, Emma fusses with the container of food again. When she hands it over again, she feels stupidly pleased with herself when the Queen sighs and accepts it.

She must have been hungry after all, because the Queen hums pleasantly and closes her eyes after a forkful of cold rice and chicken. Emma’s cheeks warm up and she looks away.

Time passes, mostly in silence.

As the night grows darker, everything around them seems to shrink and recede. The trees fade away into the blackness, and their red tent disappears completely in the dense black of the branches. The only thing that remains solid and unchanged is the Queen, sitting still as a stone beside her, picking mulishly at her food. Her face as hard and flat as a shovel against the fire’s glow. Oddly, it’s a comfort.

Dark eyes cut over to her. “What is it?” the Queen asks. Her shoulders rise as if she were preparing for a sharp blow that could come at any moment.

Emma quickly looks away. “Nothing,” she mutters. The tips of her ears burn.

The fire crackles. Slowly, the evening settles again.

The Queen clears her throat. From a small black pouch against her waist, the Queen takes out a small tin flask. As she unscrews the flask, she gives Emma a curious sort of look from the side of her eye.

“Would you like some?” she asks.

Emma hesitates.  “I don’t know.”

“It’s only whisky,” she says, then looks at the flask. “Or maybe it’s the poison?”

Grumbling, Emma yanks the flask from her and takes a big sip. She’s stolen a few sips of everything that the cook has ever stashed secretly in his kitchen, but everything there had a strong clean scent to it, and felt somehow dry, like swallowing a mouthful of saltwater. But this is warmer, smoother. It tastes faintly like smoke.

“How’s the poison, my dear?” The Queen gives her a warm, sleepy-eyed smile. It heats up the space in Emma’s chest far quicker than the alcohol did.

“Ha, ha,” Emma hands her the flask. “It’s good.”

The Queen chuckles into her own sip. The look in the Queen’s eyes puts warmth in her cheeks, and Emma finds herself settling in next to her, as if spending time with the Queen is the easiest thing to do. Something she’d even enjoy doing.

But the Queen ruins it.

As Emma is handing the flask over again, the Queen asks it: the dreaded question.

 “So,” she says. “Tell me about this spell.”

Her heart drops. “I already told you,” Emma gives the Queen a flat uneasy look. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Which is a lie.”

“It’s not.”

“If it’s not, then why can’t I ask?”

“Because,” Emma huffs, getting warm. “It’s none of your business.”

“And I’ve made it my business,” the Queen sneers. “Don’t I have a right to know? I’ve helped you from the very beginning. You wouldn’t have made it out of that cave without me.”

Shame heats her up. “If it bothers you so much, you can leave.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I’m serious. I’ll do this without you.”

“Really? So, if I just got up and left it would be all the same to you?”

Yes.”

The Queen’s silence is like a mirror, flashing her lie back to her. Looking away, Emma stares down at her hands. They are roughened from the last few days, calloused in the palms, her knuckles lined with thin red lines. If the Queen continues to push, she’ll have to somehow fabricate higher stakes, but she can’t imagine one that would keep the Queen at bay.

But the Queen merely sighs. “Fine,” she says, and tips the flask toward her lips. An oval of reflected light slips over the shaft, glittering briefly at the bottom of the bottle as she hands it over to Emma.

The whisky is strong and burns hotly in her chest. After a few sips, Emma finds herself settling on the ground, stretching out her legs and laying her heavy head on the mossy log behind her. She can see the Queen’s legs right beside her, still neatly crossed at the knee, the skin smooth and warm beneath the firelight. Her ankle turns idly, and Emma glances down with some surprise to see her toes: the skin glows red against the fire, her nails a pretty dark purple.

A swell of warmth fills the place right below her chest, turns her heart over the way a rough current turns water. Curiously, with the tip of her finger, she touches the top of a purple toenail. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. There’s just something oddly touching about it all -- surprisingly human. Emma can imagine her bent over a knee, carefully painting along the smooth clear nail, careful to avoid the raised edges of brown skin. When Emma looks up, the Queen is staring down at her with a bemused expression, her eyes shining curiously in the dark.

“You have pretty toenails,” Emma explains.

“Thank you,” she says. Her lips press together as if to suppress a smile. She holds out her hand. “I think I should hold the flask for now.”

Emma nods heavily. She hands the flask over.

The air smells of smoke and the cooling air. She blinks drowsily up at the enormous sky, watching bats skim the surface for other life.

“What made you think the list was a love spell?” Emma asks. It comes out before she is fully aware of the question herself.

The Queen looks at her with an unreadable expression. “All the ingredients seem to point to that,” And then, a spark of true interest lights up in her eyes -- a sharp-eyed, book-read intelligence. “The rose of immortality tells me that whatever you’re trying to do, you want it to be permanent. And roses are generally associated with love and romance. But that is not necessarily their only use in spells. They can also be used to induce secrecy or confidentiality between you and another person.”

“But then you have the Phoenix feather from a twin flame,” she continues. “A Phoenix feather used in a spell generally will have something to do with passion, rebirth or purification. But you had a feather from a twin flame, which is always used for love spells.” “And then, of course, the last ingredient.”

“Oh,” Emma sighs. “Right.”

“A treasured belonging from your true love.” The Queen smiles that mean little smile of hers, the cat-with-a-mouse smile. “How’d you plan to get that from me, dear?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it yet.”

“Mm.”

“Well? What is it, then?” Emma asks. “The treasured belonging?”

The Queen smiles without humor. “And wake up with both of you gone?” Clicking her tongue disapprovingly, the Queen scoots off the log and lowers her butt down to the ground beside Emma. “No, I don’t think so.” she sighs around the mouth of the flask, and then holds it away, far from Emma’s reaching hand.

Emma sighs, and rests her head back against the log. The star-lit sky blurs around her, like a puzzle of white dots all slowly moving out of place.

“The dragon tooth throws me off, though,” the Queen says quietly, returning to her conversation as if she had never been interrupted. She takes another idle sip of her whisky. “It doesn’t fit with the rest. Unless it’s for protection -- soldiers used to wear dragon teeth around their necks to ward off their enemies or diseases. But generally, they’re used to destroy or dismantle something.”

Her heart picks up with unease, running like a motor against her ears. Emma swallows quietly and stares up at the sky, hoping silently for the conversation to dissipate into the air like the smoke.

“How did you get the tooth?”

Emma glances at her uneasily. “What do you mean?”

“Well, ingredients are always very particular,” The Queen runs a fingernail absentmindedly across the light brown buckeye ring. “Their context matters: the item’s potency depends on the way you get it. Which is why you sometimes get bum spells from old warlocks who only ever bargain for their ingredients,” the Queen turns her eyes towards her, rests her cheek upon her hand. “Your spell’s purpose is very much tied in the way in which you get your ingredients, not just the ingredients themselves. If you got a loose tooth from the cave’s floor, the spell would react differently than if you ripped it out of the dragon’s jaw. Makes sense?”

Emma nods. Though the conversation is dangerous, she can’t help but be fascinated: The Queen is full of knowledge, of things both fascinating and mysterious, of rules and ideas that go a great depth beyond anything in Emma’s world. For a moment, she considers telling the Queen the story with the dragon, its twisted tooth, its horrible persistent pain, if only to hear the spark of interest in the Queen’s voice and have her explain it in detail. But she decides against it. She feels like she might lose something by doing so, some important piece of information she will need to keep for herself.

 “I just ripped it out.” she says.

“Well,” the Queen smiles at her. “That certainly is very impressive. It takes some serious guts to do something like that.”

There’s a span of silence, the air crackling with sparks of dead wood. After a moment, the Queen extends her hand, and tentatively brushes the very tips of her fingers through Emma’s hair. Her fingers trail away, waiting a second or two afterwards, as if expecting Emma to slap her hand away, but when Emma remains still, she very gently repeats the motion.

The Queen gently clears her throat. “You know, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff... I could teach you,” she says, and twirls a strand of blonde hair around her finger, tucking it gently behind Emma’s ear. “Then you wouldn’t need some old warlock to give you dead-spells. You’d know what to look for, and why. You’d know how to do it on your own.”

Emma tilts her head, looking questionably up at her. “You’d teach me?”

“Well of course,” she says softly, and brushes her fingers through her hair again. “You have a courageous heart. You have the makings to be a very powerful witch. I can feel it.”

An electric thrill runs up Emma’s spine.

“You’d really teach me?” she repeats, softly. “No strings attached?”

“Well,” The Queen hesitates, and then very gently slides her fingers through Emma’s hair again. “No more than the obvious string tied between us already.”

All her excitement folds in on itself, turning into a cold sour feeling. “Right,” Emma says, and flicks a dead leaf into the fire with annoyance. “Well, then forget it.”

The Queen pulls back. A choked incredulous laugh leaves her. “Are you serious?” Her voice is rough as sand. “Just like that?”

“Yeah. Just like that.”

“You impossible girl,” the Queen utters, voice low and bitter. “You’d deny yourself something you genuinely want just to spite me?”

“I’m not going to marry you for a few magic lessons.”

“Marriage is only a statement. I don’t care if you marry me or not.”

“But you want me to be with you.”

“You don’t have to make it sound — why are you always making it sound like that? It’s not — I’m not,” she exhales roughly, and drags her  fingers through her hair. “I’m not forcing you to be with me.” When Emma scoffs, her face clouds. “I’m not.”

“Right. Because you’re my true love, and it’s not a forced relationship if it’s true love. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to be your wife,” Emma sighs and picks herself up by her elbows and then leans out of the small cozy space beside the Queen where she had allowed herself to get warm and forgetful. She lays her arms against her knees. “And you seem to have forgotten that you murdered four of my five fiancés.”

“Who meant nothing to you,” the Queen sighs.

Emma’s eyes snap to her. “Goddamnit,” she growls. “How shallow — how fucking vain do you think I am? You think that makes a difference?!”

“Yes, yes, I know, I know,” The Queen says with exasperation, not at all penitent. “Life is precious, and so on. I was merely making the point that none of their deaths were meant to hurt you. Since I knew none were particularly dear to you, I merely thought of them as obstacles to get rid of. I didn’t think it’d make such an impression on you.”

“Is this meant to appeal to me?”

“Well you’ve mentioned their deaths more than once,” The Queen huffs and looks away. “I thought I’d at least mention it. It wasn’t meant to hurt you.”

Emma feels torn between laughing and screaming with all her might at the Queen. But in the end, she just mutters a gruff “whatever,” and turns her head sideways to rest her cheek against her knee.

A minute of silence passes.

Quietly, the Queen clears her throat. “And I don’t expect you to be my wife,” Emma sighs again, starts to straighten her back for a real fight, but the Queen cuts in quickly, determined to finish. “I don’t. And while I’d want a relationship... I wouldn’t want anything more than what you’d be willing to give to me — I wouldn’t expect anything physical, not if you didn’t want it. I remember...” she clears her throat and turns her head away. “I remember how it feels, when it’s not your choice. I wouldn’t want that for you.”

Emma turns her head towards her. When her head finally clears, it’s like a blank bright field, dead of thought. For a while, she can’t think of anything else to do but watch her.

Finally, she asks. “What do you want?”

“I want a chance.” she whispers. Her voice is a soft tremble.

It’s hard to argue against. For a moment, Emma feels her heart softening, considering it, the possibility of giving in, of giving the Queen a chance. She knows the Queen, she knows that everything she’s said has been wrung out from the heart: not a single physical thing would ever occur between them until Emma very clearly wanted it to. She’d have that at least. Not many newlyweds do.

But as she considers it, an imagined future pass through her head, sporadic and dim, mixing with the stories in her head. She can see a few bright years, maybe. An unbalanced happiness; it’s possible the Queen  harbors some kind of tenderness for her, a cold sort of appreciation, but it wouldn’t be love, not really. Not for her -- it would be a love devoted toward their connection, towards an idea, and any attempt to break that connection would invite cruelty on her. Her weakening resolve firms again.

 “I‘m sorry,” she says, finally. And she is; she feels for the sucking black hole in the Queen’s heart; if saving her from it meant giving no more of herself than the effort it took to push a dead log off a struggling tree, she’d do it again in a heartbeat. “But I can’t,” She says it in the most final-sounding voice she can muster, not to be cruel, but to leave no room for hope. “It’s just not in me to give.”

The Queen’s face tightens and pulls back as if she’d been splashed with ice-water. She waits a moment, blank-eyed and unblinking, and then stands again.

“It’s late,” the Queen says at last. She stands unsteadily, and turns around without another glance, walking into the black.

*

The morning is cold and foggy. The cold creeps into the empty pockets of Emma’s sleeping bag, makes the tips of her fingers and toes numb. Groaning softly, she turns over onto her side, seeking out the warmth of another sleeping bag. But when her arms slide along the sleek cool material of the tent, her consciousness comes up sharp, rolling her over with alarm. The tent is empty, the Queen’s sleeping bag neatly rolled up, long-empty.

She sits up. Through the canvas door, she can see the rugged outline of the pine trees around them. Beyond that, the flat empty sky. But no one else.  Her heart blooms in her ears.

She stands, walks out into the cool air. The morning is quiet, peaceful. The Queen’s boots and jacket are gone. Quietly, she wraps her arms around herself and does her best to hurry herself into anger, but there’s a vast emptiness welling up in her chest; it keeps her rooted in one place, staring blankly down at the white ash in the firepit.

She stands there for a while. She doesn’t know how long. But at the sound of footsteps, Emma jolts as if from a dream. The cool air stings the wetness on her cheeks and she wipes it away, embarrassed. She arranges her expression, peers at the thicket of green trees until the Queen enters.    

“Where’d you go?” Emma asks, when the Queen is close enough. The woman looks up.

“Nowhere,” she says, and drops her bag on the stump of a dead tree. “We should get going, we have a long way to go to Frau Holle’s castle.”

“Frau Holle?”

The Queen wipes her forehead with the back of her wrist. She sighs. “Yes,” Her voice sounds tired, strained. “Her castle is located beside the garden of immortality. It’s not technically hers, but she owns the land, and has put magical barriers all around the garden, so our only access to it is through their own special gate.”

“Oh,” Emma says. She waits for something to say, something that will clear the strange feeling buzzing in her head, but nothing does.

“If we get there by tonight, we can attend her party,” The Queen continues her own. “She throws parties like you wouldn’t believe. Every day, there’s a new theme, a new list of invites.”

“Okay,” she says. “How do we get in?”

The Queen smiles at her, at last. “We match the theme.”

*

The sun rises dimly from behind the sky’s cloudy cover. Through the pine needles, a weak cloudy light throws grey shadows across the Queen’s back and shoulders. Her hair shines black as they walk in the dim light, with the same glossy shine of the raven feathers ruffling along her shirt collar.

“Would you like to ask me something?” the Queen asks without looking.

Emma winces, and looks away. The Queen seems always aware of her movements; she knows where her eyes go, what her hands do, and due to that, can sometimes track where her thoughts go, watch the ideas crackle and bloom over her head. 

Emma sighs. “I want to know what happened this morning.”

The Queen makes a light mocking noise. She has never said so herself, but Emma has come to understand the Queen in their short time together, and through her looks and noises, she has come to know that the Queen is very rarely in the presence of others. Soldiers, maybe; enemies, inevitably, and the villagers she would only ever talk down to. But never company. As a result, her conversational tone is sharp, always to the point. When a conversation ever drifts into a subject where its purpose is not immediately clear, she becomes stiff and flippant.

“Nothing.” the Queen answers flippantly.

“Great,” Emma mutters.

The Queen sighs. “I already told you. I went for a morning walk. Do you really want me to go into more detail?”

No. I don’t want more details. I’d like the truth.”

“I am telling you the truth.”

 “Sure,” Emma sighs, exasperated. “Of course, you are. But you’re not telling me anything important.”

“Am I supposed to conjure up something interesting?” the Queen grumbles, her mood darkening. “I saw a black-tailed hawk. It was spectacular. What else would you like to know?”

“Whatever. Forget it.”

“Oh great,” the Queen gripes. “Now I’m the bad guy.”

“No,” Emma sighs. “But you’re exasperating. If you went on a morning walk and came back totally normal, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But you didn’t. You came back acting strange, and quiet, and instead of being honest about it, you’re just making me guess.”

There’s a long quiet moment.

And then the Queen sighs. “I know,” she says. She presses the heel of her hand into her forehead. “I’m sorry. I just...I didn’t sleep very well.”

Emma looks at her with surprise. In the cloudy light, there are clear, visible signs of exhaustion in her face, the listlessness in her eyes, the thin lines around her mouth. She had confused them as contempt.

Softer, Emma asks. “Why?”

The Queen sighs. “It’s pathetic...” she gives Emma a look of real trepidation, as if she believed Emma would laugh at her, and with that single laugh, shake the whole world’s impression of the Evil Queen. “It’s just. Ever since waking up from the curse...it’s been difficult getting to sleep.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“I don’t know,” she sighs gruffly. “I’m just restless.”

“Okay,” A small smile pulls at the corner of her mouth. “So, you just, what, wander around in the dark when you can’t sleep?”

The Queen hesitates. She shrugs.

What?”

“I just usually get restless in the dark, that’s all.” The Queen says. She seems determined to have this conversation without saying anything of real substance at all.

“Okay, so what, you’re afraid of the dark or something?” There’s a small wince in the corner of the Queen’s expression, and Emma absorbs it like a blow. She can’t control her surprise. It bursts out of her like a cough. “You are?”

The Queen sighs. “I just don’t like how quiet it gets. And still. And...”

“And?”

“There’s all these bugs.”

Bugs?”

“Yes,” the Queen says grimly. “Alright fine. See? It’s pathetic.”

“No, no,” Emma starts, but she’s smiling. “Come on, it’s not. I mean, I’m just surprised. You don’t seem like someone who's afraid of bugs.”

“I’m not afraid,” she snaps. “It’s nothing like that.”

Emma raises her eyebrows. The Queen sighs.

“It’s just, lately, I wake up in the dark and I have this strange feeling. I can’t explain it,” the Queen does her best to seem detached, nonchalant as she watches the small thin leaf-shadows flicker along the floor. But at her side, her fingers flex anxiously into her palm. “It’s like I’m under the curse again, and there’s this weight on me. In the curse, you were never fully asleep. A part of you was always dreaming under the curse but another part of you was aware of what was happening to your body. The whole time I was aware,” she closes her eyes; a terrible haunted look enters her expression. “I could feel them shoveling dirt on me. I could feel the dirt getting heavier over the years. I could feel roots growing and animals scrimmaging up on the surface. And all the time, in the dark, I could feel bugs. Everywhere. Crawling on me.”

All the humor in Emma curls up in her chest. The Queen turns her face away, but the image of her with her eyes closed stays with her. That harsh aggrieved look. She’s there when Emma closes her eyes, and she’s there when she opens them, too.

The silence holds. It seems like the sort of moment to offer up reassurance or comfort. She remembers the look the Queen gave her when she blew out the candle in their small room; she had seen the anger in her crumbled face, but now she retraces the memory, finds in her expression the signs of panic. She wants to say something that will convey real understanding, but her brain goes on spinning and going nowhere like a carriage stuck in mud. She can’t imagine anything to say other than the blank empty assurances any stranger might offer, which would in the end would mean nothing.

So, she doesn’t say anything at all.

The Queen clears her throat. “Anyway. We should go up this path,” she nods to a little footpath made out between the brush.

“Okay,” Emma says, voice lacking, mind empty. She shrugs her pouch higher on her shoulders and follows the Queen in silence.

They walk. The morning heats up gradually; the earth gives back a warm dirt smell. The Queen moves purposefully, lifting the edges of her black-feathered shawl as she passes through tall thistles, but she drops it too soon, and its edge snags on a spiky weed. Dropping down, Emma gently disengages the cloth and stands up again, readjusting the collar of the shawl up where it should be, close to the nape of the Queen's neck. Just a route task, a motion she’s seen the Queen do a hundred times before, but as she is pulling away, she lets her hands linger briefly on the woman’s shoulders, holding them still.

The Queen pauses. Emma gives her a soft squeeze, rubs her shoulders, then let’s go -- anything more would embarrass them both. But as Emma moves into the front, she catches the Queen look shyly away, the tops of her cheeks a dusky pink. Emma turns back onto the path, her own flush a secret that only the thistles and the weeds will know.

*

It is evening by the time they reach the castle. Clouds hang heavily in the sky, holding the last of the light from the vanished sun. The courtyard of the castle is bustling with people already, blurry dots of color, all trailing towards the entrance.

 “So, what’s next?” Emma pants, and rests her tired back against a tree.

“We fit in.” The Queen answers, observing the castle silently. “Whatever the theme is, we’ll match it.”

“Okay,” Emma grimaces. She’s not exactly in the mood for a party. The last few hours of hiking are coiled in the soles of her feet and in the back of her calves, her muscles all spun tight as rope below the skin. “So how do we figure out the theme?”

The Queen inclines her chin, watches the castle from afar. “It’s a masquerade. See?” she asks, and points down at the courtyard, and though Emma squints at the castle again, trying to see past its rugged outline down for the details that the Queen can so easily pick out, but it’s just a foggy blur from a distance; simple dots of color indistinguishable without her glasses.

“So, we just wear a mask or something? That’s it?”

“No. It seems like they’re dressing as popular archetypal pairs,” at Emma’s bland look, the Queen smiles. “You know. From fables. There’s the Fool and the Sage, the greedy King and the Outlaw. Death and the two Lovers.”

“Okay,” Emma says, smiling a little. The Queen looks excited. “You got a costume in mind?

“I do,” The Queen says and snaps her fingers.

 A black swirl of magic envelopes them both. Emma coughs, waving her hand and squinting through the smoke until it clears.

 She frowns. “What are you supposed to be?” she asks.

The Queen tilts her head, smiles coquettishly. The tips of Emma’s ears burn. She is in a black satin dress with sleeves that turns into lace around her arms, doesn’t interfere with her shoulders; her face is covered by a white skeletal mask that tucks over her nose, leaving the hollow of her cheeks exposed. In such a dress, Emma can see what it is about her. What made her horrible tale of cruelty one that passed from every mouth, from villager to sailor, becoming such a mysterious tale it survived generations of retelling. She fascinated the people’s hearts just as much as she haunted and hunted them.

“The Dark Curse,” she says, clearly pleased with herself.

“Of course.” Emma snorts. She glances down at her own dress, lifts the hem, frowns down at her shoes. “So. What am I?”

It should be obvious. She imagines the archetypal opposite of a dark curse would be a prince in dashing armor, handsome and strong, a sword at his side. But instead, she is in a long red dress. Lifting a hand to her face, she feels out the cool mask below her fingers, puzzling over the little raised bumps, the feathered edges.

The Queen blinks at her.

“Well,” she offers a hesitant smile. “You’re what breaks a dark curse.”

“Yeah? And that’s what? A knight in shining armor?”

Though the Queen’s face is partially covered, Emma can see her expression turn cold through jut the corner of her mouth; her smile curls unevenly on one side as if an invisible string has lifted her upper lip from the corner.

“No,” she says. “Not a knight.”

Emma grimaces, but before a real argument can kick up between them, the Queen turns away. “We should get going,” she nods to the blurry distance. “They’ve already started letting people in.”

“Yeah, but...” Emma starts, but the Queen is already walking on without her.

Sighing, she follows her.

They don’t talk again until they’ve reached the welter of anonymous guests, all filling in with their friends, their partners. Laughter lifts softly in the cool air. Flowers whiten along the window panes. The Queen’s warm hand finds her lower back, helps pilot her towards the entrance of the castle.

The castle has huge wide doors, all open to people. Guards stand interminably, writing down the names of people, recording their presence, their costume. The Queen walks them over to a stationary guard with a book and a pen. He glances up at them, turns back to the page, writes swiftly with a pen.

“Names?” he asks.

“This is Emma,’ the Queen answers. “And my name is Regina.”

Startled, Emma tries to keep her face neutral. Her memory loops, spiraling back at the realization that she did not know the Queen’s real name until this moment. She tries to flip back through her childhood to pick up on any moment when the Queen’s name was spoken aloud, but all she can remember are the thin nameless titles her mother gave her, a way to reference the Queen without naming her directly in conversation, as if she thought merely speaking her name aloud, even offhandedly, would bring the woman back to life.

Maybe her mother had reason to fear her name. Now that it is here, it’s the only thing Emma can think of. Regina? she thinks, even as the guard nods and welcomes them inside; even as Regina smiles, puts a hand on Emma’s lower back to pilot them inside, Emma is turning the name over in her head; Regina? she thinks. Regina?

Regina guides her toward the ballroom. Though Emma’s not normally someone who gawks at beauty, her heart whoops at the sight of the ballroom. It’s enormous. Chandeliers shiver with brilliance above them, the floor a pearly white. Glasses of champagne shimmer on plates of gold, bobbing between crowds of people in the hands of white-gloved servers.

But the most noticeable distinction (Emma thinks) is the dancing. In the parties her mother and father usually plan, there is never any dancing. Their parties are stiff, elegant gatherings where Emma knows the names of all attendees, and everyone wears white glove, sips from champagne glasses, and sighs over their kingdom’s minor but persistent failures.

But this is loud, intimate, fun. On the floor, shadows of the people dancing pass, entwine, twirl quickly into each other. Heels make quick concise sounds on the floor. Emma watches, her heart drumming up some real excitement.

The hand on her back disappears. The pressure had been soft, gentle enough to adjust to and forget. And then suddenly it is gone.

“We will be able to reach the garden through one of these doors,” Regina whispers, her voice low and close. The light makes her skeletal mask gleam brightly like real bone. “But we shouldn't try to get to it now. We will need to wait an hour or so, act like we’re real guests. The guards will be watching for suspicious activity. Would you like a drink?”

Emma blinks, dazed. “Sure.” Regina’s slender shoulders turn and slide in between people. It’s almost a shock not to see the room split for her; to see the Evil Queen disappear into a crowd.

Alone, Emma observes the room. As she waits, she can feel the eyes of others skimming over her, attempting to identify her costume. Feeling her cheeks burning, Emma wanders from her spot, hoping to avoid conversation.

She walks down the cream-colored steps, toward another room where white chairs stand on thick white carpets, all angled toward a stone fireplace, tall enough for a child to stand up in. When she steps inside, the noise behind her abruptly disappears. Her ears pop with the sudden silence as if she has sunk her head deep under water.

She blinks, and turns, expecting to see the door closed behind her, but it’s wide open and everyone in the ballroom still visible.

Odd, she thinks.

Hesitantly, she wanders deeper. She walks up to the large window, overlooking the courtyard. Below her, there is a large sprawl of green grass, large proud fountains, a few dozen orchards. Emma scans the entire yard, but as far as she can see, nothing remotely remarkable or magical appears in her surroundings. Certainly nothing that would resemble the Garden of Immortality.

Doubt clouds her heart. Her hand falls to her pocket, thinking of her compass (had she not even checked?) but feels only the smooth fabric of her dress.

“It’s hidden, dearie.”

Emma startles. There is a short, slight man standing just to the side of her. He seems to be dressed in a costume that makes his skin shine and gleam like a snake’s, and his eyes look somehow enhanced, inhuman; they look too big for his face, as if his skin and flesh had already begun to do their after-life work, shrinking back from the bone.  It’s shocking enough to make Emma take a step back.

“What?” she utters, voicelessly.

“The Garden,” he smiles. The sight of his sharp teeth makes Emma’s heart go cold. “Just a cloaking spell, dearie. No reason to fret, it’s nothing but a clever trick.”

Before Emma can question him, he snaps his fingers. The spell dissipates, its impact lifting from the world like a sudden eruption of butterflies, something soft and complex leaving in a rush. Through the window, the grass shimmers, and presents what seems to be acres and acres of orchards. She spots flowers like dots of birds in the large ocean of spiraling black thorns.

“Oh.” she whispers.

“Yes,” he answers, still smiling. “It’s too bad your spell doesn’t ask for something a little simpler. You’ll have to go through more than ten miles of poisonous thorns for even a glimpse at a rose.”

A sick cold feeling folds in Emma’s stomach. “How did you know I wanted the rose?” she rasps.

He laughs, a tinny, unpronounced sound, as if something sharp got stuck in his throat and he can’t completely cough it up. He snaps his fingers, producing a small cream-colored card. It is small and glossy, and though somewhat familiar, she only recognizes it when he flips it over to the side where the fawn’s perfect handwriting articulates perfectly her list of ingredients, her spell.

Gasping, Emma lunges for it. But her hand only goes through a flush of burgundy smoke. There’s that sharp, tinny laugh behind her, and she whirls around, her heart pounding hard in her ears.

“Give that back,” she rasps.

“Now patience dearie,” he smiles, the same kind of cat-smile that Regina perfected, but somehow more terrifying. She can see now, in the new light, that his skin gleams with scales, not make up. His eyes are dark and peculiar as a bird’s. “I’m only here to help.”

“Give that back to me,” she squares her shoulders, “Or I’ll....” she drifts off.

“Call the Evil Queen?” the man laughs, and the malice rings through the air sharply in a single high-pitched discordant wave of sound as if from a bell that had just crashed to the floor; it is a sound that cleaves from him any lingering human-like qualities. “Yes, what a gift it must be to have the Evil Queen as your true love.” his eyes gleam. “Though, I suppose, not for long.”

She looks away. “What do you want?”

“Oh, only to help,” he says, but his voice sounds oily and self-satisfied. “We have a similar goal, in fact. The Evil Queen and I... have a history. Not a very pleasant one, at that,” his eyes gleam menacingly. “It is in my best interest to see you succeed.”

“Cool,” Emma says flatly, uneasily. “But I’m not interested.”

“No?”

“I don’t need your help.”

“How about a little inspiration?” The man smiles, his face mean and ugly as a shark. And then he snaps his fingers again, producing in a span of seconds a beautiful rose. “You can cross this off your list.”

Emma’s heart tremors, staring at the Rose.

“H-how?”

He merely extends the rose to her: an offering.

She hesitates.

Until this moment, she hadn’t allowed herself to fully consider the sort of harm she will be doing to the Queen by going through with this plan. She had imagined the Queen’s love as a thick weedy plant that grows only for itself, detached entirely from the sort of sentimentality that real love grows out of, and so it seemed almost harmless to pluck it out of their lives. Regina would find some other person or thing to put her attention into, which is easy when the subject of that attention doesn’t matter. She figured they’d both be happy, in the end. Or at least free.

But this makes her plan seem almost sinister. Like some sort of malignant vengeance; it will have consequences that will not heal.

“Consider it a gift,” the man says malignantly, dangerously. He offers the rose to her again, stem first, and she hesitantly takes it. The stem is surprisingly spiny; it prickles her fingers, and sticks to the skin, still sticky from being cut right from the source. “From a friend.”

She stares down at the rose. It is smaller than she imagined it would be. But beautiful. It has a dangerous gleam to its red petals. She can’t describe it: but it seems to put off heat, as if the source of the rose’s redness came from something alive in its roots, from blood and flesh.

She shivers and looks up. But the room is empty again.

Hesitantly, she slips the rose into the side of her dress. The petals feel cool to the touch, and so she tucks it into the side of her dress where the fabric is tight and hard to stretch. Close to the heart. She’ll show it to Regina later. Regina will know what to do with it.

Wearily, she walks back into the room. The music has kicked up to a more festive tune. There’s laughter all around, bodies spinning in perfect tandem with one another. After one brief glance across the room, she stops, spotting  Regina almost immediately. She sighs.

Regina is situated in the corner, clearly visible as everyone around her very clearly avoids her. Though she is disguised well enough in her mask and dress, she still has a way of looking at her surroundings as if she already owns everything. She stands with two glasses of champagne, one in her hand and the other on the cream-white mantle beside her, and as she waits, she observes the room icily as if she were the hostess and all the other guests merely visitors she has reluctantly welcomed into her home. No one dares approach her, and when they do, it is only to quickly slide past her like fish.

When Emma starts towards her, she feels the whole room’s attention. It is like walking through a spider web, invisible to the eye, but impossible not to feel.

When Regina looks her way, there is a quick shuffling, the room’s attention shifting away again, as if they all feared Regina’s disguise might be real after all; that Death had truly come to a party to stand in the corner and sneer at them over the top of her drink.

“You’re scaring everyone,” Emma whispers when she’s close enough.

“Am I?” Regina hands her champagne glass, an intrigued smile on her face. “Here? In the corner, ignoring everyone?”

“Maybe it’s the glare. You look like you might bite if anyone gets too close.”

“Well, I can’t help that.”

“Why?”

“I don’t like people.”

Emma rolls her eyes, but the tips of her ears warm. You like me, she thinks, a strange warmth bubbling up in her chest.

They stand quietly together. There’s a warm kind of peace in the room. Emma settles against the cool marble column beside the Queen, close enough to feel the warmth of her arm. Emma sips her champagne and watches the couples dance in a slow sway, the music strumming a sweet mellow hush across the room. 

“It’s strange, being here.” Regina says softly.

Emma blinks, looks back at her. “Hm?”

Regina tilts her head, looks on almost wistfully. “Do you see that man over there?” she points with a small nod of her chin.  “The one with the blue gabardine suit?” Emma follows the line of Regina’s sight where men and women dance in pairs. There are several men present, all looking roughly the same: tall, handsome, scruffy looking. But the blue catches the light, and Emma nods. “He threw a sword at me once,” Regina hums at the memory, as if it brought back something pleasant. “It went right through me. I disappeared before he could see the damage, of course, but in my own castle, I was afraid I would lose my life to this silly man’s vengeance,” She sips her champagne. “And now we’re all here, at the same dance.”

Emma frowns, watches the man dance; he’s a sinewy, lanky man but muscled by age and labor, most likely a farmer by tradition, though he seems very clumsy, and not at all a good dancer. But he’s willing to laugh at his mistakes. He’s got large ears and a short buzz of yellow hair that is going bald in the back and looks quite happy with that large goofy smile on his face as he dances with a much younger woman, likely his daughter. Watching him, Emma can easily imagine the strength it would take to throw a sword hard enough to go right through a human chest. But not the rage. That is blank empty buzz in her head.

 “What was he getting vengeance on?” she asks faintly.

“Oh, I hardly remember,” Regina says, and takes another sip of her champagne. “It all sort of blurs together, honestly.”

The answer puts a hard pellet of anger in Emma’s throat.

“Do you feel guilty?” Emma asks. It happens before she can stop herself.

When Regina turns to look at her, Emma can sense the danger of the conversation in her dark eyes, the limitless possibilities of where it could go -- none of it seeming very pleasant or quick.

“Do you think your mother feels guilty?” she replies coldly.

And though Emma knows nothing good will come of this, she still can’t quite keep the indignant anger from coming up quick in her next laugh.

“Come on,” she says. “That’s different.”

“Really?” Regina’s eyes pin her with their depth. “How?”

“What my mother did to you was only a response,” she surprises herself with her brashness; she has picked at something that has haunted Regina, pulled it up high between them so that it can hang in the light of this beautiful party and stare down at them like a dead man. But she’s never been one to lie. “How can you possibly compare what my mother has done to your madness? You ruined lives, Regina. You devastated people’s families. You orphaned children, widowed wives, slayed entire villages.”

The list surprises Emma, even as it rolls off her tongue; she’s always known just how devastating Regina’s path of vengeance was, felt its relative impact in the stories that Nomey told her, but always the endless string of deaths remained somewhat abstract. Now, saying it aloud, staring at the cold eyes of the Evil Queen, she feels a quiet tremor in her heart. Her true love is a murderer. She’s taken hundreds of lives.

But it seems not to have the same effect on Regina.

“That’s a charming summary,” Regina says, blithely. She twirls her champagne glass lightly, watches the liquid swirl and bubble. “But in reality, it actually doesn’t stop there.”

“What?”

“Well think of the response to my violence,” Regina sneers. “The wives I widowed will come to hate the second husbands they’ve married themselves to, and all the bratty children they have with him. Some will abandon their family. Or maybe one morning their husband or child will drop a kitchen dish, and they will put glass in their food to be done with it,” there’s a laugh in the crowd, a man clumsily stumbling over a woman’s toe while dancing, and Regina turns to watch them. “Then there’s the children I orphaned. They’ll grow up with a seed of hatred in their hearts. They’ll probably marry some local village boy or girl, have a few kids, and start torturing their own children when they get the chance. Just to pass on the hurt.”

A hollowed-out anger blooms in Emma’s chest as she feels watches Regina talk. She lists the atrocities with a stony calm, as if she is as indifferent to the devastation she has caused as she would be to a sudden bout of rain. The foolish little swell of warmth in Emma’s heart turns icy cold, and all understanding of Regina blurs, to the point that Emma can’t even picture the face beneath the Queen’s skeletal mask, her human qualities seeming suddenly strange and unreal below the ugly cruelty of Death’s face. To think some part of her admired the Queen, missed her even, wanted to console her --

“Tell me,” the Queen says, turning her cool eyes back onto Emma. “In this little scenario I’ve given you, do you consider it all my fault?”

Yes.” Emma grits.

“I see,” the Queen says. “So not the abusers themselves?”

“Well, yes, of course, but --”

“But it matters what created the monsters,” The Queen finishes for her, picking up the sentence as if it were her own. “So, then what about your mother? How is she faultless?”

“You can’t compare it, Regina. You can’t blame her for what you became.”

“No? Not for any of it?” the Queen asks. “Not even for her little trick as a child, ruining my escape plan so that I would be forced to become her step mother?” The Queen’s smile pulls her lips back from her teeth. “Or how about the abuse I survived from your grandfather for more than a decade, when I was just a child myself? Do you think he felt any guilt for it? Think of all the years I spent serving him, being the wife, I needed to be. Saying nothing, doing nothing, wanting nothing. A goddamn lifetime. Or what about ...” she stops abruptly and closes her eyes; her arm falls woodenly to her side, eliciting a silver tinkle of light from her bracelet against her champagne glass. “Oh Emma. I could go on forever. I could name every single rotten horrible thing that’s ever happened to me, and behind it you’d find a person who doesn’t feel the slightest bit guilty  for it. Who has never had to answer for it, and who likely never will.”

Emma’s anger falters. It sinks somewhere below her heart, still burning hot, but disconnected somehow, unfocused.

She grapples for it, holds firm. “Is that how you justify it? Your life was ruined, so you ruin as much as you can?”

“I never said it justified anything,” Regina snaps. “But I’ve paid for the lives I’ve ruined, more than your mother has paid for ruining mine, and so frankly, I’m not interested in a conversation about whether or not I feel any guilt for it. If I did, I’d be the only person in this stupid brutal world who ever has.”

Regina’s hard dark eyes puts her suddenly back into focus. Here she is, suddenly clear again. Maybe even more clear than before.

Before, Regina’s rage had seemed like a furious animal that had slipped off its leash, something large and hateful and out of control that can destroy everything in its path, blindly and with little purpose. That’s how her mother described her -- as a woman whose rage simply got the better of her. But now, looking at her, Emma thinks she can almost see into her head, see the cold, exact way in which she looks at the world: where everyone is guilty; a perpetrator or soon-to-be, waiting patiently, furiously for their chance to  hurt someone else. Someone small and defenseless.

That is not a rage that simply gets the best of a person -- that is a rage that lives steadily inside of someone, impersonal as an organ, simply functioning as it is meant to. It would descend upon others like a powerful curse, stripping people of everything that mattered, not necessarily because they deserved it but simply because they deserved no less.

A sick oily feeling fills her stomach. She can’t imagine the sort of life Regina must have lived to become this. Someone who has lived with hate all her life, she now sees it everywhere; she puts it where it is not, easily as a thumb pressing a bruise into a fruit. Her mother helped shape it. Her whole family contributed to it. Will she?

But it’s not like that. She’s just protecting herself — she’s not doing it to punish Regina. It’s not meant to harm her. They’ll both be better off.

Finishing her champagne with a hasty gulp, Emma sets her glass down on the mantle beside her. She looks out toward the ballroom floor where couples dance. Everyone is in pairs, in each other’s arms, smiling, laughing, looking flushed and happy under the soft evening light.

She looks back to Regina. The woman has turned her attention silently to the ballroom, as well. It is impossible not to notice the longing in her eyes. And it just all seems so terribly lonely: all of it -- Regina, her childhood, their entire situation, everything.

Then the music picks up. It switches into a bright banal song, the sort of quick-temped waltz that Emma has only ever watched from the sidelines. And suddenly, though she has a mission, Emma finds herself smoothing a palm down the front of her dress, tidying her hair.

When Regina turns to her, she nods to the ballroom floor.

 “Wanna dance?” she asks.

The startled, struck-dumb look on Regina’s face is almost comical, but the way she looks around as if Emma could have possibly been asking anyone else is far more hilarious.

“With me?” Regina asks, incredulously.

Emma laughs. “Yes. Who else?”

Somehow that answer makes Regina more skeptical. She glances around one last time, as if she is expecting to find a mysterious partner hiding behind one of the marble columns, laughing at her. But when no one appears, she looks back at Emma with shining dark eyes.

“Really?” she asks softly. “You want to dance with me?”

“Yeah,” Emma shrugs. “I mean we’re at this beautiful party, and we’re the only two people not having fun. I’d like to dance,” she offers out her hands. “And I bet you do too.”

What looks suspiciously like a blush floods Regina’s cheek. She scoffs, but she cannot hide the furtive glow of pleasure in her eyes.

“Well, I suppose,” she says, at last.

Regina grips Emma’s hands in her own.

Emma finds almost immediately that Regina is a very good dancer. Not just competent -- not just talented. She is the sort of dancer that immediately commands the room, that turns the heads of every dancer, if not for her terrifying beauty, than for the powerful confidence in her shoulders, in the sure competent way in which she positions her hands (one high on Emma’s back, the other holding her hand), and the unequaled grace in which she guides them seamlessly into the next few steps of the dance that has already started without them. In a whirling span of seconds, Emma finds herself in the middle of the room, following Regina’s lead, her every step finding the instep of Regina’s easily enough.

“Wow,” Emma laughs breathlessly. She knows she looks flushed, warm, admiring. “You’re a very good dancer.”

“Thank you, darling,” Regina turns her, smiling with pleasure. “But in the waltz, you know, you’re only as good as your partner.” 

For once Emma knows she isn’t being teased. Before, when she danced with men, she clumsily followed the steps of the waltz like rote directions in her head -- left foot, right foot, box step, forward swing, promenade -- a faded blueprint in her mind that she tended to fumble up in the quick speed of things. But now, the steps come without a single thought, effortlessly, with a fluidity like water.

As they dance, Emma catches sight of their reflection in the wall-paneled mirror. It sends a spark of electricity to her stomach.

Until this moment, she had not seen her costume in its entirety. But now, with every turn, she sees them: The Dark Curse and True Love’s kiss. Orbiting each other, spinning like two circles entwined, round and round, forever.

They look stunning together.

All around them, there are pairs of eyes watching them; there’s a turn, a flash of hair and shoulders, and then their eyes again, watching steadily, transfixed.

She feels suddenly lightheaded. The lights blur, swirling the room like a carousel of brilliant colors and people and time. Dizzied by the swaying of everything, her grip instinctively moves to where Regina’s elbow points out elegantly in a poised correct angle, a steady place that never bends, offering up what seems to be the sole equity in the room, keeping her afloat.

She’s not sure how Regina does it, but without a single word, the music slows and everyone falls seamlessly into a softer tempo all around them, as if they are twirling along a wind-up music box that has suddenly all at once unwound to its last few notes, and though it is the most graceful seamless trick Emma has ever witnessed, Regina doesn’t give any indication that she has even noticed the difference. She keeps them on-tempo, her arms still perfectly poised, and her eyes trained politely to some vague place behind Emma’s shoulder. But Emma knows better.

She keeps her hand on Regina’s arm, a soft swell of gratitude filling her. She squeezes her arm gently and smiles.

Maybe it’s the evening: the last of the light is here, and it’s all rose-colored and soft, falling across the floor in crystalline pink shimmers and leaf-shaped shadows. Or maybe it is the way Regina’s dark hair has slowly loosened from its elegant bun atop her head, allowing a few soft wavy curls to touch the base of her neck. Or maybe it’s something clearer than all that: like how her heart keeps squeezing painfully inside her chest and she can’t quite make it stop. But whatever it is, suddenly all Emma wants to do is tell her about the spell. Everything about it. It seems suddenly cruel not to.

“Hey,” Emma starts. Her heart beats too quickly, too fast and too hard like a bird.

Regina looks at her curiously. “Yes?” She smiles.

From below her mask, Emma catches a flare of pink high on her cheeks, the face of the cool distant Queen suddenly looking quite hopeful. Hoping for a different conversation, entirely.

The words turn to ash in Emma’s mouth. “I just wanted to know how you learned to dance.”

“Oh,” Regina says. Her face flickers with embarrassment before a window shade pulls down. “My father taught me.”

“Oh yeah?”

Regina smiles. “Yes,” From the warmth in her eyes, Emma can imagine her as a young girl -- a girl standing on the shoes of her father, laughing, watching their feet do the motions. “My father used to throw parties just like this, actually. He was always such a fan of music and dancing.” she makes a low sound in her throat, a deep-from-the-well sort of sound. She has a voice that resonates. “Gods, my mother was always so furious with him.”

“Why?”

“Because parties were supposed to be social functions where business could happen. But my father only ever used them to dance with people and make them laugh.” she smiles and exhales a soft sigh. “If we all lived in my father’s world, I’m sure that’s all anyone would ever do.”

Heart dipping, Emma nods. Her memory skims over the stiff parties of her own childhood, her mother’s friends all smiling wide and fake over their champagne glasses.

Emma sighs. “I always hated my mother’s parties.”

“As any sensible person would.” She says it so casually that Emma laughs, a sudden watery light filling her up, overflowing like a river in a flood. It has something to do with Regina’s wry smile, with the simple direct complicity she shares with this woman. With the one and only person in the world who doesn’t like her simply because she’s her mother’s daughter.

There’s a moment of quiet. They follow the steps of the dance, following one another effortlessly, guessing one another’s movements. Regina tilts her hand, and Emma spins gracefully, steps back so Regina can step forward.  

Facing Regina again, Emma laughs happily. “I’ve never danced like this,” she says. “Ever.”

“Well, you’re a natural, darling.”

She sighs contently. "I really like dancing with you.”

Regina’s eyes spark. After a long moment, the woman tentatively smiles back. Her eyes shine in the lovely evening light.

“I like dancing with you, too.” She says so softly her voice is almost inaudible.

Emma smiles. She slides her hands under Regina’s arms, wanting suddenly the support of Regina’s narrow shoulders, her straight back, her arms. It feels like she won’t be able to stand on her own soon, not with this painful sort of weakness spreading in her chest. She bends closer, lays the side of her cheek softly against Regina’s shoulder. She closes her eyes.

It’s just a second or two. Not even long enough for Regina to return the embrace, because quite suddenly, something sharp and stinging swarms into Emma’s chest.

“Ouch,” Emma yelps, and pulls away. Her hand flies immediately up to her chest, but the stinging has already subsided into nothingness.

“What?” Regina asks. Her cheeks are flushed, and her hands are still frozen midway in the air, paralyzed by their embrace. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Emma mutters. She seeks out the stem of the rose hidden within her dress, but her fingertips come across only skin, and when she opens her dress up a little bit, to examine what she can see of the rose, the petals wither away into dust. Black dust falls to the floor, crumbling into nothing.

Emma frowns down at it. She sighs, annoyed, and gently rubs her chest.

“What’s wrong?” Regina asks.

Emma shakes her head. “Nothing,” she says, but there’s a pain in her chest, painfully cold. Like an ice pick. She clears her throat. “We should look for the rose, right?”

Regina narrows her eyes, looking for all the world like she might upbraid her for the obvious distraction, but Emma simply turns towards the back door, successfully dodging yet another conversation.

Chapter Text

  "… imagine! imagine!

 

 the wild and wondrous journeys

 

still to be ours."

 

 —  Mary Oliver, from “Last Night the Rain Spoke To Me”, in ‘Blue Horses’

 

 

 



The palace is just as complex as it is enormous. Emma would have thought that the door to the Garden of Immortality would be grand and beautiful to reflect the similar brilliance of all other belongings to the bourgeoisie, but Regina leads her instead to a door that looks as though it might enter a small stuffy room filled with sacks of flour and grain and hay. But instead, it leads to a small balcony and a black spiral stair that spins them from stairs to pathways to stairs again until they are walking down a wooden-planked path to the hollow of an enormous tree.

“We go in there?” Emma asks hesitantly and peeks inside. She can already imagine the sort creatures that live in the dark, waiting inside the ancient wood, preying on blind unaccustomed travelers to make quiet work of.

“We can’t,” Regina puts a cautious palm against the tree’s old gnarled bark, and with that slight touch, ignites a powerful electric shimmer that ripples across the entire entrance. “You see? These barriers are impenetrable.”

“So, nobody can enter?”

“No person, no one but the original caster,” Regina hums faintly. She traces the tip of a finger along the magical boundary, the minor electric shocks  rippling across the bark like water on a windy day. “Which would never do it. She’s an old white bitch. She likes everything under her control.”

“Okay,” Emma says. Her mind loops back to the rose that the imp had given her, its petals so red it almost gave off heat. Her heart quivers. “So how do we get it?”

Regina surprises her by whistling. It’s very short, only a quarter note of sound, but it has the same bright musical quality as a bird. Emma blinks, and watches mystified as a large black bird swoops down onto one of the low awning branches beside them.

“Uhm,” Emma lets show an incredulous smile. “A crow? How’s a dumb bird supposed to help?”

“Crows are incredibly smart, Emma,” Regina says, and extends a few fingers, waits for the crow to hop closer along the branch. When it is close enough, she gently pets the bird’s smooth feathered head, once firmly down the top with two fingers, and then down the sleek neck with the back of her knuckles. She smiles tenderly down at it. “And will hold a grudge longer than even I would, so I recommend caution the next time you are within speaking distance to one.”

The crow cocks its head to the side, stares with one sharp beady eye at Emma.

“Right,” Emma nods, looks away. “Good to know.”

Regina chuckles, and says something so softly to the bird that Emma can’t hear it. She assumes the crow can understand though, because it doesn’t move or fly away, and it has its head tilted to the side attentively; it even bobs its head once when Regina is finished, which earns it a lovely smile and another pet down its sleek neck.

Then Regina turns back to Emma. “She will help us,” she says, but before Emma can feel any sort of anything, she holds up a finger. “With one condition.”

Emma sighs. “Great.”

“She’s lost a gold coin and wants it back.”

“A gold coins?” Emma thinks with quiet dismay all the gold coins in the world, transferred between hands, dropped and kicked mindlessly into the gutter, offered and lost to the pockets of strangers and friends. “Like, a specific one?”

“Yes,” Regina says, and smiles, reading her mind. “But she says she lost it here, in the castle grounds.”

“Oh. Well, thank god for that.”

“Really dear,” Regina says, and gently takes hold of her shoulders. “It could have been worst,” she turns her around to guide her toward the expansive courtyard. “Just think about what the alternative could have been. This garden has been here for centuries, and people have been coming here for just as long, always willing to give up something, whatever the price may be. Rarely is it just their time.”

“What have they given up?” Emma asks. When Regina doesn’t respond, she glances back at her curiously. “What?”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to disturb you, dear.”

“Oh, shut up. I’m not that sensitive. In fact, I--”

“Their eyes. Sometimes a tongue, too.”

“-- have even -- oh.” Emma wraps a hand around her throat. “Okay, never mind. I don’t want to know anything else.”

Regina laughs, a low, sleepy chuckle.

The castle grounds are enormous. The evening sky finally has lost its light, and without the moon, everything has turned flat and depthless in the black. As they walk, fireflies float in a daze across the black lawn, and the castle offers yellow squares of light from its windows. It provides enough visibility to make out the shape of the Queen, and to watch as she walks quietly beside her like a dream or something else imagined, ghosting along the garden with an ease that still surprises Emma. She can still at times seem so incredibly unreal to Emma. Like a sad doomed figure from a fairytale. Destined to a life of vengeance and dark quick whims.

 But Emma has seen her laugh; she’s seen her sad and hopeful and tired and miserable. It makes her wonder, sometimes, how much more you need to know about a person before you can truly know them. Before you can trust them.

“What are you thinking about?”

Regina’s voice appears without warning, trips Emma like an invisible wire.

“Uh. Yeah.” Emma answers, confirming that she had in fact been thinking. She winces, glances at Regina. There is enough light to make out the lovely curve of her smile. It is a pretty smile, showing very little teeth, but it makes her eyes look soft. It makes Emma’s heart beat painfully fast, painfully hard. She swallows. “I... I was thinking about ...immortality.”

Which she hadn’t. Immortality seems like a dusty restless kind of life. But what else can she say? The Queen’s eyes widen slightly with surprise or perhaps she is only feigning surprise, willing to go along with anything just to string a conversation between them; even this completely made up interest.

 “Really?” She asks.

“Yeah, sure,” Emma looks down at her shoes, watches each step she takes. “I mean, who’d want to live forever without a tongue?”

Regina laughs. It’s that free-spiral sort of laugh of hers, that loose warm falling sound.

“It does sort of take the pleasure out of it, doesn’t it?” Regina smiles, and the tips of Emma’s ears warm. She’d been thinking about how tasteless food would be without a tongue but looking at Regina’s warm glowing eyes, she suspects Regina might be referring to something else.

Emma clears her throat. “Right.”

“But I doubt the people who gave their eyes and tongue for immortality ended up living very long,” Regina continues, on her own. She unlocks a black gate that Emma hadn't even seen in the dark and holds it open long enough for Emma to walk through. “They’d have found a way to reverse the rose’s curse.”

“Really?” Emma asks, looking at her in surprise. “Why do you think that?”

“That’s how most of these stories end,” Regina says, and clicks the gate behind them. “With a few exceptions, of course. But for the most part, people don’t want unlimited power and a long life. They want a happy life and looked for it in all the wrong places.”

“But to work so hard, and sacrifice so much,” Emma says, amazed. “And then just give it up. I can’t imagine it.”

“You would, if you had made the choice they did.”

“I guess,” Emma responds, still amazed. “But why give up so much in the first place if it’s not worth it?”

“You’d be surprised how little people actually know about what they want,” Regina says. Her voice is going soft, faraway, like it does when she’s explaining the complicated rules of magic. “If you’re miserable enough, you look for the cure anywhere, and often, once you have it, you realize that you’ve gone too far, and gotten it all wrong. You acted too quickly, you looked for all the wrong solutions. You lost sight of what’s good.” Regina trails off quietly.

“Are you speaking from experience?”

Regina turns a look sharply onto Emma. Her heart blooms with panic. She had forgotten, in just the span of a few seconds, the person she was speaking to. This is in fact the Evil Queen, not a friend or companion, and conversations between them should remain carefully short, succinct. But Regina has been speaking to her with such an open heart, with such candid honesty, Emma lost track of what can be said. She wants to know everything. She wants to put Regina under a solid light, to illuminate her from all angles. Recently, it has felt as if that was something she could do. Anything could be shared between them, any secret, any fear.

But no. Of course not.

“Am I speaking from experience,” Regina repeats quietly, her voice smooth and terrifyingly cold. “I don’t know, I suppose you’ll have to enlighten me. What about my life seems so horrible to you that you assume I must regret it.”

“Regina...”

“No, please tell me,” she says. “You obviously think I should be drowning in regret or remorse, crawl on my knees for forgiveness. You’re a smart girl. You know so much. Tell me, what should I regret?”

“You’re being ridiculous,” she sighs in annoyance. “I asked a simple question.”

“Yes. You do love your questions, don’t you?”

“Yeah, well, you were the one talking to me,” she snaps, unable to quite level out the wet emotion in her voice. “I figured I’d make some kind of conversation — sorry I forgot you live without regret or guilt or any other rational feeling, so just forget I even asked.” Her tone fails to carry any of the clarity she had earlier this evening. She knows she’s speaking with far more hostility than she feels, but her anger keeps bubbling up, wounded and mean, it is growing quick and wild like a poisonous plant, wrapping around honest genuine things, and making them unrecognizable.

Regina sneers. “Oh, you have to make conversation with me, do you?

“We could just stand in silence, but it would make time go a little slower wouldn’t it?”

“Well, rest assured, you won’t be the only one relieved once this little adventure is over,” Regina snaps. “The sooner I can get your snide questions out of my life, the better.”

“Good. I’m counting down the days till I get your nasty attitude out of my life.”

“Trust me, it won’t be much longer.”

For some reason, her heart trembles.

“Great,” she mutters, and kicks a rock. “Can’t wait.”

They walk silently. It’s a little embarrassing how quickly the silence eases Emma’s anger, whittling it away until it is a small delicate thing inside her chest that feels surprisingly like embarrassment. She sighs, and idly  worries over the insults they both threw  like a finger mindlessly going over a splinter.

She sighs. They need to talk about it.

She wants to talk about it.

“Regina,” she starts.

But before the conversation can even start, it blows inward like a curtain against an open window, flickers helplessly in the air as Regina suddenly breaks off from the wooden-planked path to step down into the black grass.

“Hey,” Emma stops in surprise. “Where are you going?”

“We should split up,” The Queen determines. She heads off toward a trail that looks like an endless tunnel of black which will swallow her up the moment she steps out of sight.

“Hey -- hold on,” Emma grimaces. “We can’t just -- Regina, come on, can’t we just stick together?”

Regina glances back at Emma impatiently. “We’ll be faster this way,” she says, and points to the meandering pathway going the opposite way. “Go on, dear. We’ll meet back in an hour.” And then, without another word, she walks away.

Emma’s heart tremors. As she watches the Queen go, her arms close around her chest and she rubs the skin to put some warmth back into her, but the cold is too sharp, it won’t be soothed. With a sigh, she starts on the path.

The dirt path rolls away into trees and offers the back-side of the castle. There are black, empty windows, and vacant balconies which twinkle with a scatter of little lights. She kicks away small rocks as she walks, watches them skip and disappear into the black again.

She knows she should be looking for the coin, but something small and cold is leeching her of resolve. Though she tries to keep her mind focused on her task, her thoughts keep slipping to the warm little tent that Regina materialized for them last night. With those thick sleeping bags. And the fur blankets. And Regina’s quiet warm breath tickling her ear. Right next to her.

And then maybe they can talk.

As the path leads toward the trees again, Emma gradually slows to a stop. Her hands are shaking, and though she rubs them together, blows warm air against her fingers, this cold seems almost cancerous, like ice is spreading through her and, replacing whatever inside of her with more ice.

She’s never felt this way before. Cold has never felt this way before.

“Gods,” She mutters miserably, and plops down on the nearest beach. A sense of loss swells up below her ribs. She just wants Regina here. Regina would know what to do. Regina would help warm her up.

Just then, a swirl of black smoke swallows her up. Emma gasps, and stumbles, caught off balance, but she is immediately caught by a firm hand.

Glancing up, she finds the Queen. Her eyes are sharp and intent on something in front of them.

A fountain. Overflowing with gold coins.

“Oh,” Emma sighs.

“Right,” Regina says, and then gently pushes her forward. “Go see if you can get one.”

Emma almost tells her to forget it, that she’d rather leave this impossibly cold place, go set up camp, sit in front of the fire, wrap up in blankets, settle into each other side by side. They could share whatever whisky is left in Regina’s flask, and maybe Regina could comb her fingers through her hair again. She’d give it all up if she could feel warm again. The spell seems small and inconsequential against that.

But instead, she tips over on one bent knee, and slips a hand into the cool water. It sends a paralyzing shiver up her spine, but Emma pushes through, reaching out to the slim gold coins that slip and slide out of her reach at the bottom. But the moment she brushes against any coin’s surface, the first one, and then the second, it turns into dust in her fingers.

“Fuck,” Emma sighs. She curls her freezing hand into her chest, rests her aching head against the fountain. “Of course there’s a twist.”

“Here,” Regina gently pushes her aside. “Let me help.”

She extends her hand close to the surface of the water, not-touching except for the very tip of her finger, which makes a slow lazy circular motion along the surface. And there, below the rippled surface of the water, Emma can see a swirl of smoke starting to circle and whirl, taking shape.

Out of the smoke comes hundreds of minnows. Hundreds of them, all sleek and dark and quick. The fish swarm the bottom of the golden fountain, turning the water into a cloudy storm of dust as the fake coins disappear one by one.

All except one.

With another snap of her fingers, the minnows are gone. Swiftly, Regina plucks the coin from the water. She looks at it with sharp analytical eyes, a look that Emma imagines must have come from years of struggling to master magic, when she was just a young girl, determined and mean and sharp as a tooth, but helpless, too, and in need of something more powerful than her wit to keep her afloat. Beneath the cold in her heart, a core of lemon warmth flares up between her ribs.

“See?” Regina turns her bright eyes onto Emma. “Much easier than plucking out a tongue, isn’t it?”

“Ha,” Emma coughs. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Regina’s eyes sharpen. Her pupils pin intently onto Emma, seeing likely for the first time her pale skin and trembling fingers. She looks her up and down, and grimaces.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

“Yeah, just cold,” Emma says, but as she turns back around, the blood in her heart sloshes to one side, and spots spread like ink blots in front of her eyes. She stops, and feeling her vision slide away, gently catches Regina’s elbow to steady herself.

Steady hands clamp around her arms. “Emma?” Regina’s voice is full of alarm. “Do you need to sit down?”

“No,” Emma says breathlessly. “I’m just cold. I’ll be fine once we get back to our camp.”

“Alright,” Regina says grimly, and then pulls a swirl of black smoke around them and return them to the big hollow tree where the crow is still perched. Regina approaches steadily, the bird cocks its head to the side, its black eyes pinning to the golden coin in her hand. “Here,” she offers the coin up to the crow’s sharp sleek beak. “Now, the rose.”

The crow clips the gold coin in its beak and takes off. After a minute or two, Emma starts to worry that they’ve fallen for a silly trick, and that they’ll end up waiting another hour in the cold, clouding the air with their breath as they wait for a bird to come back with a rose that is impossible to get. But the does crow comes back, barely a few minutes later. It swoops down rather abruptly on one of the low awning branches, a beautiful blue rose  gleaming brightly in its beak.

Regina smiles with relief and gently smooths a hand down the bird’s sleek black head. “Thank you,” she says and gently takes the stem from between the bird’s beak. The rose glows dimly in the dark, as if lit by a cool inner light.

Emma squints at it. “That’s it?”

“Yes,” Regina raises a curious eyebrow. “Were you expecting something grander?”

“No,” Emma’s mind loops back to the rose the imp had given her. It had been warm, and so so red. She rubs her chest. “It just ... looks different than I expected somehow.”

“Well,” Regina starts to say, but gradually drifts off, her focus narrowing down onto Emma’s hand, which has returned to its new habit of smoothing small circular motions along her chest. “You keep doing that,” she frowns, and when Emma just blinks blankly up her, she puts a firm hand on Emma’s, stopping the motion. “Emma are you sure you're alright?” Her voice is so soft and gentle Emma feels she could almost lean into it, put her cheek against her voice as if it were the palm of a hand.

“Uhm. Yeah,” Emma nods shakily. “Just... cold.”

Regina’s mouth flattens. “Very well,” she says. With a firm, steering hand on Emma’s back, she helps guide her toward the back gate.  “Once we get out of the castle’s range we’ll make camp, alright? We’ll get you warm.” she says and soothingly rubs her back. And for that single moment, Emma feels reassured, returned to safety.

But in the climb back, Emma loses her hope again, feeling it drop somewhere in the scrub grass, down along the slope of dune grass she tumbles and limps along, working eventually, breathlessly, toward the distant line of trees. Where they will build a camp. With a small warm tent. With warm fur blankets. A fire. And Regina.

As Emma continues to climb, she tries to imagine the ocean: it’s dark blue water, all its motion, the rising and falling and tumbling down again, moving gracelessly against the beach. Emma tries to imagine herself there, sitting in a safe place high above the shore, watching the waves roar up to the shore; she hoped it would somehow get her outside of the tumbling feeling in her stomach, but nothing can quite undo it. She doesn’t feel somewhere safe or faraway. She feels right in the middle of it. Her blood is the ocean. She’s drowning inside her skin.

Stopping abruptly, Emma leans a weary hand onto the tree next to her. The world around her keeps moving, spinning, tumbling.

Emma.”

 “It’s okay,” she manages, but her neck feels wet with a cold sweat, and everything inside of her is turning to ice. “I just ...I just need to sit down.”

“This isn’t normal,” Regina says after a long moment, nearly a minute of watching Emma take deep breaths in and out, in and out. She puts a worried hand on Emma’s back, rubs small little calming motions along the ridge of her spine. “It’s not even that cold outside.”

“Maybe it’s food poisoning,” Emma manages roughly. She drops her head into the cradle of her knees and wraps her fingers around the back of her cool neck to keep herself together. Between her heels, the world continues to gently move, as if she were sitting on a small wooden plank in the middle of the ocean. She closes her eyes, presses her head firmly against her knees. “I don’t know,” she sighs. “Maybe I’m getting sick. Does my forehead feel hot?”

A warm hand brushes back her hair and presses against her forehead. It rests there for a beat or two before Regina sighs.

“You’re not warm at all,” she gently combs her fingers through Emma’s hair, a comforting gesture that Emma would not have suspected the Queen to give so easily. “Do you need water?”

Emma’s stomach jolts, and she groans. “No. Please. I’m fine, I’m just a little dizzy.” She blankets the world away with two palms. “I’ll start walking again, soon. Once the world stops spinning.”

“Alright,” Regina says, though her voice sounds strangely distant, as if she were speaking from the other side of a very long narrow tunnel.  “Is the coldness coming from a specific place?” When Emma nods, two very firm fingers lift her chin sharply, makes her head feel like a melon, heavy and full of water. She groans and squints at Regina’s dark intent eyes. “You feel it in one specific place?” the Queen asks.

Emma nods.

“Show me.”

She complies clumsily. Her fingers feel slow and uncoordinated, and so untying the simple back of her dress becomes ridiculously hard, like a riddle that hides in the shadows of one’s common sense. Finally, she manages to loosen the corset enough to pull it back from the skin. She pulls the fabric off her shoulder and fumbles it down far enough along her elbow to reveal the place below her breast where the pain thrums quietly like another heart.

Regina inhales sharply.

She lay a shaky hand against Emma’s chest. “Oh gods,” she breathes. “Emma.”

“What is it?”

“It’s poison,” she breathes, and at the terrible doom of those words, Emma musters the courage to look down, but looks away after only a few seconds, unable to witness the complicated network of veins that has taken her hostage like the ravenous vegetative predators that eat the inside of trees. “It’s okay,” Regina assures, but there is a grip of panic in her face. “We can fix this. There are anecdotes. It’ll be okay.”

 When she stands, she holds her hands out for Emma. With a brittle wince, she rises, and disappears with the Queen in a black whoosh of smoke.

They reappear in a small, dark space. She blinks and peers around her, but it is too dark to make sense of. After a few minutes, as Regina moves purposefully in the dark, her eyes slowly adjust.

Above them, small square windows filter in little bars of steel-colored light. It is a dim, close space, full of the sage and juniper incense that Regina likely burns to cover the smells of whatever else happens here. It is surprisingly cluttered, unutterably so: on desks, there are thick books that line the wall, books that fill the drawer space, lie open with their spines exposed on the floor, and where there are no books, there are jars. Jars with a myriad of content, some strange and bizarre and others as commonplace as the  herbs stocked in a kitchen.

“Where are we?” Emma asks, grimaces at the rough, leather-like quality of her voice.

“My vault,” Regina answers distractedly. She lights all the lamps along the wall and knocks a wall of books away with an impatient flick of her hand. “Here. Sit, my dear.” Emma props herself up on the cold metal slab that she hopes has only ever been used as a table rather than whatever else an Evil Queen might use a metal slab for in a cold dark underground vault. Some things are better left unimagined.

Regina turns away, and Emma silently watches her work. Her back is a taught platform of precise movements, a platform to answer and receive the quick movements of her hands, which perform an  unbelievable amount of work.

 Emma tries to keep up with most of it. From where she sits, she can see that there is quite a bit chopping and stirring, but it is almost impossible to picture the full amount of work that magic requires, mostly due to the fact there are hundreds of things happening all around her: small menial tasks that are done in an instant, like pouring water, bringing a pot to a boil, clearing a counter full of beakers and valves -- all done on their own. Or rather, at the command of Regina’s quick thinking, her mind full of a thousand things at once.

By the time Regina has turned around again, she is holding a smoking potion and the entire vault has cleared itself into order again. Her perfect hair isn’t even slightly mussed from her work.

“Here, drink this,” Regina commands, and grips Emma’s elbow to help direct the potion to her mouth.

Emma grimaces, but opens her mouth obligingly. The taste springs tears to her eyes. But she drinks every drop, and when it is gone, Regina sets the potion aside and squeezes Emma’s trembling shoulders with firm hands.

 “Do you feel better?” she asks.

“Maybe,” Emma croaks. She tries to straighten up, but the movement invites a pulverizing sensation so painful that it blows the whole world inward. Above her, the ceiling ripples with little tremors of motion, a thousand intersecting circles dropping like rain on a muddy road.

“No,” she gasps. “No.”

Regina’s face quakes but turns flat again quick enough. “Alright,” she halters out, “I’ll make another one. Just hold on, dear.”

She turns around, but this time Emma doesn’t have the focus to watch her. In her vision, little black dots swim around, moving and merging together with a panicked sort of life, like fish squirming in an inch of water. She closes her eyes, listening for the sound of quickly approaching heels.

Regina surprises her not a minute later, appearing out of nowhere as a grey blurry outline. Squinting, Emma tries to refocus on her, but her vision has slipped under water. She can’t see her, can’t answer, and so after a moment, Regina grips Emma’s chin firmly enough to guide the potion to her mouth herself.

“Is it working?” Regina voice is a whip, and through Emma’s grey squirming vision, she can see her dark eyes.

Emma swallows once, and then twice, tries to clear the thicker texture from her throat. But there’s nothing. Nothing opens inside of her, nothing releases.

She shakes her head.

There’s a long beat. Regina puts a shaky hand on her cheek. She strokes gently with the back of her fingers.

“It’s alright, darling,” Regina’s voice is a soft tremble. She smooths a thumb quickly below Emma’s eye, wipes away a tear hiding in the crinkle. “Something will work. I’ll think of something. Just — just let me think of something.”

Emma nods her head. It feels heavy and full of water. She tries to be present, to be awake and alert, but everything around her keeps getting sucked away below the current of passing time. Everything goes on, voices and thoughts and movement. She doesn’t know how much time passes but when she lays her heavy head down, Regina’s shoulder is right there to catch her. Maybe she has just returned or maybe she never left. It doesn’t matter.

Softly, Emma turns her cheek. She lays against the soft curve between the shoulder and neck, listens to the thump of Regina’s panicked heart; against her ear, it sounds big and hollow, like the deep boom of a canvas drum.

“I’m sorry,” Regina’s voice is a wet wobble. “For earlier. At the castle. For picking a fight,” a shaky hand strokes down Emma’s hair. “All — all you wanted was to talk, to understand, and I got so stupidly stubborn. And I left. I should never have left. I could have caught this earlier on -- I could have --” her voice wells and breaks into a ragged cry; her hand makes a fist in Emma’s hair. “Oh, my girl. My darling girl.”

Words catch in Emma’s through. She wants to reassure, to hold back. But she can’t answer. She can’t do anything. Something has gone undone inside of her. Something has fallen part. 

She closes her eyes.

Her mother told her once that the soul is a soft feathery thing. That it is tethered to the body. But Emma can feel it now. It is not solid at all: it is water, rushing down to the soft, pressed places in the body, pooling in her lower back, in the calves, in her elbows. Waiting for her to die.

Distantly, she can hear Regina crying. It comes from far away, as if Regina were in another room, weeping over some other lost life, but Emma can feel Regina’s arms around her, cradling her close, caressing her hair. Warm wet tears are dripping through the haze, dripping onto her neck, her cheeks, her chest. Regina is crying for her. Weeping for her. Weeping.

A stunned realization thunders against her ribs, echoes all over Emma’s body like a voice in a cave. There is a way for her to survive. There is still a chance.

It is purely instinct that drives Emma up toward Regina’s mouth.

The kiss doesn’t take the first time. Blind as Emma is, Regina isn’t quite where she expects her to be, so when she lunges, it results in a hard clash against bone. Maybe her chin, though Emma will never know for sure. All she knows is that Regina’s startled cry comes out hot against her ear, which means she is near a mouth.  Emma turns once more, searching blindly for some part of Regina to hold onto, some part of her that will right her aim, help her steer Regina’s mouth to her own.

She tries again. It’s clumsy. Their teeth clash. But a warm hand settles onto her cheek. A brief realignment occurs, and then Regina’s mouth is firmly against her own, gently cushioning her teeth with soft full lips.

The kiss holds.

And then it happens.

 Emma has never felt anything like it. It is as if something has broken inside of her, some small dense thing that has waited forever to break and release upon the rest of the body the enormity of her heart’s longest secret: that all along, there had been this, this soft healing light, this kiss, a moment flooded with warmth; drenched with sunlight.

Emma groans when Regina starts to close their kiss, letting space enough to breath between them. Her soft warm lips thin with what she wants to say.

“Emma?” Regina’s breath comes rough and warm with hope. “Are you -- are you—?”

Emma rises to meet her mouth again with another kiss.

The rest of Regina’s breath rushes out against her mouth.  The angle is just a little off, and so at first Emma’s mouth simply meets and glides against Regina’s without rhythm, but with just a tilt of her head, her fingers tangle in Regina’s hair and the kiss deepens. Regina groans and puts both her hands flat on the metal slab beside Emma’s legs. The sound of her fingernails against metal pulls a sharp electric tingle up Emma’s spine, like a zipper going up. She opens her legs and pulls Regina closer by the ankles. Her whole-body flushes hotly beneath her clothes when Regina’s warm hands get a firm steady grip of Emma’s knees.

There, they make out in the cool dark.

Regina likes to bite when she kisses, which surprises Emma not at all. She laughs against Regina’s mouth the first time she does it, and the Queen immediately breaks off her kiss with swift vengeance to roam the underside of Emma’s jaw with hot warm kisses that leave the faintest impression of her teeth.

“Regina,” Emma groans, just as Regina finds the small square patch of skin behind Emma’s ear, and warms the space with her mouth. Emma groans and smooths her hands up and down Regina’s back, wanting some way to take charge; she fumbles around for some obvious place to begin undoing the complicated knots that criss cross into a hard-patterned ridge all the way down Regina’s back. But the ties are all cleverly interlocked, a complicated lock she cannot undo.

So, she tries another route. As Regina finishes up another love-bite all the way down on Emma’s neck, Emma waits for the soft release of her mouth, for the moment when Regina is at her most unsuspecting, when she is smoothing the plot of skin she’s just sucked purple with another softer kiss. Emma waits for that moment, and then, when Regina sighs another soft kiss against Emma’s neck, she pushes firmly enough to make Regina stumble back a few startled inches.

“What—?” She starts, eyes wild and lips all red from kissing.

But Emma is already off the metal slab, snatching Regina by the arms and pushing her hard up against the table. She slides both hands up underneath Regina’s thighs to lift her up, pushes her up until their positions are completely switched and it is Regina wo must slide her arms around the shoulders to keep balance. Emma groans and grips the back of Regina’s thighs to help pull them closer. She drops a soft kiss against the hollow of Regina’s throat.

A breath of hot air puffs against Emma’s ear. “You,” The initial roughness of Regina’s voice dissipates like a cloud of smoke as Emma gently works down the curve of her neck. Her voice turns high and breathy. “You--you stubborn girl.” But she sounds breathlessly pleased, as if Emma just pulled off the most impressive stunt, and it urges her on; she kisses more roughly, squeezes hard enough to make little white indents of her fingers along Regina’s thighs.

They kiss for a while. Hands roam and grip onto what can be grabbed: the back of a head, elbows and hips, any angle or arch.

 “Emma,” Regina pants. She strokes the back of Emma's neck. “Emma, darling.”

Up until this point, hearing her own name in Regina’s voice has felt like an encouragement, but as she works her way down the other side of Regina’s jaw, the hand on her neck turns into a grip of hair that pulls Emma from the hickey she’s making up high on Regina’s neck.

“Emma,” Regina pants, and looks at her with black eyes, her face flushed. “We, uh,” her voice roughens, and she gently clears her throat. “We shouldn’t be doing this here. Now.”

Emma blinks. And nods. “Right,” she says, and goes back to the soft warm angle of Regina’s neck, where teeth indents mark the spot she’d been sucking. “Where you wanna go?” She breathes against her skin.

“Emma,” Regina starts to sigh, but her voice drifts off as the kissing goes on, and for a minute they only sigh. But gradually she remembers herself. She grips Emma’s hair again, pulls her back. “Hold on,” she sucks in a breath. “Hold on. We shouldn’t be doing this,” she says, a little more clearly, and Emma blinks, leans back, her heart shriveling up. “Not...now, at least...This...isn’t the best time for ...” she clears her throat again, and gently smooths a hand down the back of Emma’s thigh, bringing wordlessly to the small flushed space between them the dizzyingly near possibility of sex. 

“Right,” Emma says. Her cheeks burn. “Of course.”

Regina hesitantly puts away a loose strand of blonde hair. She curls it around her finger first, then tucks it behind Emma’s ear.

“You know, that doesn’t mean I don’t want this,” Regina continues softly, not quite looking at her. She curls another strand of Emma’s hair around her ear, flattens the tips of her fingers along the curve of her ear, helping smooth down her stray wayward hair. This close, Emma can see how dark and pretty Regina’s eyelashes are. They make a shadow against her cheek. “Because, I do. I really want this,” her voice quakes softly, and she clears her throat. “But I don’t think...”

She drifts off. The spell, and its dangerous potential hangs like smoke between them, makes the air dim and unbreathable. Emma stares blankly at Regina, scarcely breathing until her lungs sting and she must look away.

“Okay,” she manages. “Let’s go then.”

Regina wraps them up in smoke, takes them back to the thicket of trees. They walk on for a little while longer, searching for a place where the trees are well-spaced, and the ground is flat.

When they find it, Emma grabs the small hatchet from her bag and puts herself onto the task of getting a fire. She starts with getting smaller sticks and then works on chopping some of the smaller trees at the edge of their camp. Her mind tangles with so many thoughts, she may have been thinking of nothing at all.

But as she hacks away at a small, stunned looking tree, the quiet repetitive motion loosens up some of her thoughts, allows a startling bloom of panic to rise inside of her like a wave.

“Gods,” she breathes, and drops the hatchet helplessly. She looks for Regina, finds her blissfully distracted with the work of setting up their tents.

She slips away. In the shadows of the trees, far enough where she can crouch in the dirt and pine needles without being noticed, she puts her arms over her head, breathes in and out as evenly as she can. But each breath comes out in a ragged exhale the future keeps coming and coming.

Gods. She is in real trouble.

She knows now: she must make a choice. And quickly. She has walked blindly into the middle of a precarious balance where whichever side she tumbles onto, the fall may be devastating.

Emma has been told fairytales all her life. She knows where she is: she is a girl with a huge decision, facing down two very different endings.

End A): she is the feckless stubborn girl who ignores all warning signs of her closing future and pursues her spell anyway, losing herself not only a companion, but a whole world of happiness: Regina’s soft, loose spiral-like laugh, her dry wit, their long steady conversations, those silent side-eyed looks, her soft sleepy smiles; A friend, a love, one who listens, who knows her completely.

End B): she is the blushing foolish princess who allows herself to be seduced by the Evil Queen’s charms and willingly destroys her one chance at freedom. She’ll enter a shallow one-sided sort of relationship with someone who has never truly seen her beyond an idea; beyond their connection, beyond the magic of True Love, Emma will be nothing to her. She will resume being nothing the moment Emma is hers.

Emma closes her eyes. She leans her head against the tree.

She needs to know whether she can trust the Queen.

But the Queen’s history skitters here and there through her memory, in scraps of her maids’ storytelling where each violent death and heartless trick shines like sharp grains of color within the depthless plane of the Queen’s life. She knows the stories well. And many of them start out frighteningly like her own, with a character whose purpose is turned on its head by the Queen’s soft loveliness, who comes up suddenly to a difficult decision: to believe in the Queen or betray her.

And in those stories, regardless of their original purpose, the characters that decide to believe in the Queen’s good heart find almost at once that their story has a very bitter end to it.

What makes her story different?

“Emma?” a distant voice call.

Emma opens her eyes.

She turns to the voice. Between the tall, scrawny trees, she can see that the Queen has grown restless in her absence. She has abandoned their tents to wander in between the small crowd of trees, stopping every few steps to scan the area and call her name. Even from this distance, Emma can see the worry in her tired face, weighing down her heavy tired shoulders.

Her heart squeezes.

Standing unsteadily, she calls, “I’m here,” Regina finds her immediately, her dark eyes snapping to her like a magnet. “Coming.” Emma calls and carries her traitorous heart like an egg in her chest all the way back to Regina.

*

As it turns out, they are both too wired to fall asleep. So, Emma puts another log on the fire, one that will last them a while, and settles her head on the rolled up sleeping bag she has bunched up beneath her head. Her toes stretch to the warmth as she stretches out, quietly  watching the grey night grow darker and dot gradually with stars as if each light is pressed individually into the sky each night.

Regina is sitting on the log next to her. Her mind is somewhere else and has been since they settled in front of the fire. Whatever she is thinking about must require all her attention because her hands keep mindlessly starting a braid, but she only ever gets halfway before her fingers run absentmindedly through her progress.

Emma watches this happen three times before she nudges Regina’s knee. Regina blinks down at her, still somewhere far away. She looks down at Emma as if she is surprised to see her there.

Emma gestures to her hair. “Mind if I try?” she asks.

This time, Regina’s expression turns puzzled and polite as if Emma had said something in a language she could not understand. But when Emma sits up on the log, and gestures for Regina to sit against her legs, Regina seems to know what she is asking. As she settles along Emma’s knees, she silently winds up all the sleek glossy hair on her neck and presents it to Emma in a thick organized bundle.

“Thanks,” Emma says, and runs her fingers indulgently through Regina’s thick black hair.

Regina hums. “You do know how to braid hair, don’t you?”

“Sure.” Emma lies.

She’s seen Nomey do it about a thousand times. She figured it counts.

Very quickly, however, she learns that it doesn’t count at all. The pattern comes back in her memory like a complicated puzzle, not at all the thoughtless mechanical process Nomey had made it seem when she drilled it upon her head every night.

But Emma does her best. And gradually, after trial and error, she comes upon a pattern that works. Diligently, she puts one strand over the next, tightens from the base, and repeats it with the left until Regina’s hair starts to wind together into a pattern that is easiest to follow when it comes unthinking, like steps in a staircase, right after the other.

Regina doesn’t advise or complain. She suffers the mistakes patiently, watches a pair of sparrows chase a jay through the trees.

After a little while, as Emma works around the middle of Regina’s braid, she feels a strange inward tug in her heart. It is a sad kind of longing, the wish to be reassured.

“Tell me something.” Emma says.

Regina hums. “What?” She asks. Her eyes are closed, and her voice so soft and sleepy that any curiosity or intonation is lost in the wind. With her head against Emma’s knees, she is warm and boneless, open to anything.

Emma smiles. “I just wanna know something about you,” she says, tenderly strokes the top of Regina’s head as softly as she would pet a cat, and Regina very nearly purrs. “Tell me anything,” she says softly. “Tell me a story.”

And Regina does.

The stories come out gradually. Regina talks in a low sleepy voice, mostly unfiltered, although Emma suspects that whatever details she does leave out is not for her own benefit. These blanks and gaps always seem to hint at another, at a third party whose actions ripple subtly from one story to the next, who always stands just out of sight.

Emma continues to braid Regina’s hair as she listens. All the stories seem to be plucked from the later few years of Regina’s reign, at the point in which she was the sole ruler of the White Kingdom and Emma’s mother simply a bandit that devotes her time to hunting down her wealth from the back of black carriages. Regina spins her victories into a somewhat ridiculous tale so that she can play both the villain and hero, retell horrible punishments that she has suffered and the horrible vengeance that followed -- she lists them all as if she were simply reciting indisputable facts, like the ingredients to a spell.

Amongst these tales, there are also tales of true heroism, though Regina never tells them as such; she doesn't seem to consider them heroic at all, though they come packaged like one.

Like the story about the young girl who stumbles upon the Evil Queen in the forest; she had not recognized the Queen in her horse-riding outfit and sought out help from her brutal drunk of a father. Their mill is failing, she had said. Her father keeps selling the mules for drinks at the pub, she had said. The Evil Queen had listened and then sent her to the market with a pouch of coins for whatever she needs; when the pouch was empty, the girl would find that it refilled on its own. And upon her return, if the girl ever did return, she would find her father long gone, and in his place, a dazed startled mule ready for work.

These pockets of heroism don’t make much of difference, she knows. But still, somewhere, dotted here and there throughout the kingdom, there are people who likely mourned the Evil Queen’s fate; who knew the woman to be sharp and clever and fueled by a hard, level-eyed sort of justice.

It warms Emma up inside. She watches Regina talk quietly. The light from the fire keeps her somewhat illuminated as the night shrinks the world around them.

The Queen keeps resting her sleepy head against Emma’s knees like she may fall asleep, but it hasn’t happened yet. Regina seems to enjoy telling stories too much; some aspect of the story will always wake her up again, require some concentration to provide the right amount of details that will shine light on just how clever she had been.

“I was in search of the Haddock eye, at this point. It was a little while ago. I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but it can act as a decent deterrent if you pair it with the right ingredient,” Regina states, and leans her head back against Emma’s knees again, getting comfortable. Emma suspects she likes the long drawn out exposition in her stories as much as the exciting parts. “But it’s a tricky spell to cast. You need a specific condition, not just an ingredient.”

“Really?” Emma says, but she isn't really listening. She is focused on Regina’s hair, now thickly contained in a braid that needs a rubber band. “What spell is this again?” she prompts to keep her distracted.

She reaches with the tips of her fingers for Regina’s small bag and tugs it in closer to her. The bag jangles with its own nimbus of sound.

“A deterrence spell,” Regina continues. “You can get rid of just about any nuisance with it. But for it to work correctly, you’d have to pair the haddock eye with an actual nuisance. Something that has ailed another. Like, say a splinter or a broken tooth,” she says, and then stops suddenly, as if interrupted by a thought.

 But Emma doesn’t notice the pause. Her focus is on the small bag as she rifles through the strange continents for something as normal as a thin rubber band.

“Haddock eye and a splintered tooth,” Regina repeats faintly. Her voice is a struck shrinking sort of sound. “You can get rid of just about anyone with that.”

Hearing the tone, Emma slips back into the present. “Oh yeah?” she asks in gentle misunderstanding, having missed the most important part. She slips a rubber band quickly around the bends of her fingers. “Why did you want this spell, again?” she asks

But Regina only shrugs and doesn’t answer.

Emma glances at her curiously. “You forget?” she asks, and pulls the band off her knuckles, wraps it three times around the end of Regina’s braid. It looks better than she thought it would. With tentative fingers, she runs along the tidy imperfect pattern she made of Regina’s beautiful hair. She playfully tugs at the end, expecting Regina to laugh and continue her story. But Regina doesn’t. She doesn’t even budge.

Whether from disinterest or forgetfulness, the story crumbles into silence. A terrible hollow silence.

After a minute, Emma nudges Regina gently with her knee. Regina inclines her head, a silent indication of her attention, and so Emma leans over her shoulder, close enough to kiss her neck if she wanted to.

She smiles at her. “Don’t you wanna see your hair?”

“No, darling.” Regina responds quietly and doesn’t even touch a hand to her hair to check. “I’m sure it’s beautiful.”

Emma’s happiness wobbles, off balance. “You feeling okay?” She watches the side of Regina’s face for a hint to what she is feeling, but her expression is as still and flat as glass.

“Yes, of course.” She answers, and even musters up a smile for her. But it doesn’t quite reach the blank empty look of her eyes.

Emma hesitates. But she already knows she will not be able to pursue the subject tonight. Regina is clever in conversation, as clever as she is in magic, and if she really wanted to, she could hide a hundred different traps behind her words so that any attempt to understand will fall blind and walk in circles. She’s not sure if either one of them has the energy for that.

“Okay,” She says hesitantly. “You wanna go to bed or something?”

Regina shrugs silently and stands. She folds her arms over her breasts and turns to give Emma one last blank inscrutable look. Then she walks toward their tent.

In the tent, though the space is close and the sleeping bags thin, neither one of them move toward the warmth of the other. Between them, small accidental incidents of intimacy occur: Regina’s fingers brush against the side of Emma’s wrist, her hair tickles the curve of Emma’s ear, cold toes slide across an ankle. In the dark, as the quiet hush of their breathing surrounds them, it is quite possible to imagine how either one of them could move past this quiet middle place. Emma could roll onto her elbows, crawl up onto Regina They wouldn’t have to kiss, if Regina didn’t want to. But .

A sleeping bag rustles, and Emma’s heart stills. She waits. But the space between them doesn’t close. Regina rolls on her side, shows her back to Emma. She is a straight dark line in the dark, out of reach.

 Emma watches her silently until sleep takes her away. 

 

*

The morning is cool and damp. Above them, pine branches sway and drop their thin needle leaves down onto their tent. Emma blinks  sleepily into consciousness, gently nuzzles her cheek against the warm brown pillow beneath her.

A soft hum rumbles beneath her.

Blinking, Emma lifts her sleepy head. There, below her, she finds Regina blinking sleepily back at her. Her eyes are unfocused and scrunched up adorably from grogginess.

She looks so lovely. Her dark hair is splayed across their pillow in messy curls, and her mouth is smudged with the dark red remaining lipstick she forgot to wipe off the night before. Her fingers are tucked comfortably under Emma’s thick nighttime sweater, ghosting small absentminded circles along Emma’s back as she battles away sleep; an unsuccessful battle: her dark lashes drop heavily down again, and for a minute or two she doses, lost again to sleep.

Emma watches her warmly. With a gentle hand, she smooths a hand along Regina’s dark hair, careful not to accidentally snag a curl.

The morning light is cool and steel-like, casts dim grey shadows across their small yellow tent and across Regina. Shapes of leaves dance across the hollow of Regina’s neck, sway back and forth along her sleeping peaceful face. She is beautiful. Beautiful.

Her hand follows down the curve of Regina’s cheeks to the strong jutting line of her jaw. Regina’s dark lashes flutter. She makes a soft noise in the back of her throat and flattens her palms along Emma’s back. The warmth between them is completely their own, their sleeping bags splayed out flat beneath them, their bodies resting against each other from their ankles to their chests. 

When Regina’s lashes flutter again, she looks up at Emma with warm half-asleep eyes. The tenderness in them coils in Emma’s stomach, and thoughtlessly she grazes a thumb over Regina’s mouth, smiles down at those lipstick stained lips that she had kissed only yesterday.

She thought she saw a smile at the corner of her mouth. She thought she felt those hands along her back move up, a whisper of permission.

She leans down slowly, but instead of soft warm lips she feels the cool side of Regina’s cheek. And then a steady hand pushes with surprising force on her shoulder, enough to disrupt Emma’s weight, rolls her from her elbows to her knees.

Regina slides out from beneath her, quick as a fish.  “We should get going,” she deftly wipes the side of her cheek before she stands, swiftly unzips the canvas tent.

Emma stares blankly at the black square of blanket beneath her. It takes a moment for her stunned heart to feel anything but surprise, but when it does, a hot steady shame comes to her like the slow march of red ants. Closing her eyes, she waits until the shame sinks somewhere below her heart and spine, until she feels she can stand and face Regina again.

She walks out into punishingly bright light, blinks until she finds Regina beside their dead fire-pit, competently zipping up their heavy bags.

She closes her arms around her chest and walks to her side. Her heart squeezes painfully when Regina doesn’t register her presence at all, merely continues her task with the same cool impassive expression she left the tent with as if what happened was only an awkward misjudgment between acquaintances that she doesn’t think necessary to mention ever again.

“Look...”

“Forget it.” Regina states, and finally looks at her. In her eyes, Emma can see no further than the black depth of her pupils. She might as well have been staring at a stone wall. “We should get going. I have a feeling this last one will be tricky.”

“Regina,” she sighs. “Come on,” she lets her fingers glide down Regina’s arm, but she doesn’t dare grip her. “Can’t we talk about it?”

“We are on a schedule.”

“No, we're not,” At that, Regina looks at her again. She pauses with her task, her hands stilling for a moment so that she can stare with blank dark eyes at Emma. She waits for her to elaborate. “I mean, we don’t need to go hunting down the Phoenix feather right this moment. We can spare a conversation. The spell won’t fall apart if we have to wait a few hours, or even a day.” Or maybe even forever.

Regina’s eyes dim. Emma sees it happen. A light turns off.

“There’s no telling who may be out looking for a Phoenix feather for themselves,” Regina says. She tightens the straps of her back pack in one swift violent motion then turns away. “We should get on with it.”

“I’d rather talk.”

“And I’d rather not.” Regina leaves without touching her, without looking at her. She sets herself on the next step in the packing process.  After the clothing lines are wound-up, there will be the tents, and then the food, which all can disappear in a distracted flick of a hand if Regina doesn’t mind imprecision. Normally, she does.

But today she clearly wants to be finished already, and on the move. With just a flick of her fingers, everything, including the ashes of last night’s fire, disappears in a flush of black smoke; the only thing that remains is the damp furred blanket of pine-needles the trees have dropped over night, leaving behind a space so swept of their presence, not even a hunting dog could follow their trace.

When Regina turns around, she has in her hands the small green compass that will direct them to the very end of their trip. She tosses it carelessly, and Emma catches it in the same quick wounded way she’d catch a rock if it was hurled at her.  

 “Where we headed?”

Emma looks down. And blinks. She stares down at the compass blankly, uncomprehending. Then tilts her wrist to reveal to Regina the clear face of the compass. Inside its small complicated world, the red arrow spins in circles, running endlessly one way, like the hand in a clock that counts only seconds.

They both stare at it for a long time.

And then Regina clips a loose strap in her leather waist coat. “It’s not in this realm.” She says, staring at nothing.

“We have to go to another realm?”

“Yes.”

“Is that possible?”

“Yes,” Regina says. Her voice sounds strange, oddly flat and thin, as if it had been stretched and smoothed down by a hot iron. “I have a magic bean. It should be able to take us where we need to go.”

“Okay,” Emma says slowly, watching Regina. “Then what’s wrong?”

“The Phoenix is native to this realm,” Regina says after a second, answering automatically though her attention is clearly somewhere far away; in her absence, the calm teacher-voice fills in. “And protected, generally, by powerful magic-users. For it to have made it across another realm, it would have needed to be smuggled by a very clever, very powerful magic-user.”

 “Okay…” Emma says, uneasily. “So. Where do we go?”

Regina closes her eyes. When she looks up again, she has returned to the present, though it appears to have drained her of everything. Everything but misery.

“Where lost things go.” she answers, faintly.

*

Wonderland is a strange place. That is all Emma can think of. Anything she might have recognized in her own realm came back in this one as strange and impossibly distorted; lizards skitter under rocks with alarming speed, glitter with unrecognizably bright colors and too many eyes. Birds look down on her from the branches above, large and misshapen, as if they were the refracted reflections of the birds in her own realm; they could have been the nightmares that the birds of her realm dreamed up.

But the strangest part of Wonderland is Regina. Since stepping into the world, she hasn’t said a single word. By the quelling looks she’s been sending Emma, she clearly believes that any sound louder than a breath may very well signal an ambush, though she doesn’t seem even remotely interested by the dangerous-looking creatures that watch and stalk them from above. And she still won’t even look at Emma -- she doesn’t look anywhere but the path in front of them, hasn’t even once, as if she feared the grassy trail in front of them might change its direction if she gave it the chance.

“Look at that,” Emma remarks suddenly, unable to stop herself.

Above, something small and dark stares down at them. It has remarkably human-like eyes though from where it is crouched, Emma can clearly make out four paws and a long-curled tail. She might have mistaken it for a cat if not for the sudden smile that flashed in the dark like a silver pocket knife.

“Don’t look at it,” Regina rebukes sharply. “You’ll only get us into a conversation neither one of us will enjoy.”

Emma glumly looks away.

In her palm, the compass points honest and true to the middle of Regina’s back. Though they haven’t exchanged more than a few words this morning, mere scraps of conversation, Regina seems to know exactly where the compass is pointing them to. She leads them toward it with the with the sure-fire competence of a boat cutting through water.

They’ve walked long enough to make the back of Emma’s neck feel warm with sweat. She sighs and pulls her hair up swiftly into a ponytail.

Nearly half an hour later, Regina stops suddenly. She passes over a water bottle, lets her sit down for a quick breather.

Then, out of nowhere, she says.

“I have to leave.”

Emma looks up. She stares at Regina’s face, clear of any shadow or expression.

“Are you kidding me?”

“No.”

“You’re leaving me?” Emma makes a noise almost like a laugh. “Here? Alone?”

Regina makes that line of hers with her mouth, stares directly at the middle of a tree as if it might respond with important information. “It isn’t safe for you to be seen with me.” She says at last, in a flat, final-sounding way, clearly unwilling to give anything more.

Before Regina, Emma never would have considered herself much of a fighter – she never had the chance to, she was too busy following directions, doing what was expected of her, never straying too far from where she needed to be. But something about Regina makes her want to butt heads, ram against all expectations.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I can’t tell you,” Regina answers shortly and slides the backpack off her shoulder, sets it on the ground. She takes out a small compact hand mirror small enough to fit in the palm of her hand.

Regina extends the mirror. “Here,” she says. “I will communicate with you through this.” The silver face of the mirror gleams sharply in the light, throws back the hard-disgruntled line in Emma’s forehead. It seems utterly ridiculous, but she supposes its better than if Regina disappeared without a trace, without even this vague line of communication to bridge them together again.

Just as Emma starts to reach out towards the mirror, Regina pulls it back. She holds it close to her ear, waits until she has Emma's eyes.

 “Before I give this to you, I want to make sure we’re on the same page,” she says in a commanding tone. “You will not use this. You can’t communicate with me at all. This mirror is a one-way line, and only I will use it.” she waits patiently for Emma’s incredulous clamor to go down before pressing on. “Emma, I’m serious. I don’t want you to even attempt it. If I’m going to give this to you,  I have to know that you won’t try to use it unless it is to answer my call.”

“Then don’t give it to me,” Emma answers flatly. “I don’t want it.”

“You need to have it.”

Why?”

“So, I can reach you.”

“And, what? I just wat to be called on?” Emma’s lip curls. “Forget it. If you want to leave, leave. We’ll just go our separate ways and meet up through a miracle or something.”

Regina’s glare is scathing. “I’m not leaving you in another realm without any way to contact you.”

“Then don’t leave.”

A flash of emotion crosses Regina’s face, unrecognizable. It might have been dread for the growing likelihood of losing this argument or something else entirely, but it draws out a certain anxiousness in her that Emma has never seen. She smooths away a dark curl of hair and flattens the palm of her hand across her forehead in an uncharacteristically nervous gesture

“I don’t want to leave,” she says, quietly. But her voice has changed. A thread of fear colors her words. “I don’t,” she says. “But you can’t be seen with me. I can’t allow it.”

Staring at her, Emma feels her heart give. She sighs, extends a flat hand.

“Fine.”

Gently, as if it were fragile, Regina hands her the mirror. Emma glances at it briefly before looking back, meaning to say more, to at least say goodbye, but when she looks up Regina is already gone.

Gone without a trace. There’s just the trees and her silence.

And a mirror.

She grimaces.

Shoving the mirror in her back pocket, she turns back onto the trail. Whatever, she thinks coolly to herself, but her anger has already moved on to something else; hooks catch onto other tiny hooks, tangle themselves into a red wounded feeling that aches inside of her like a bruise.

The woods deepen around her. She follows her compass as it winds her along a trail of thick trees to a thin stream of specked blue water. Beneath patches of floating algae, thin silver fish slip in and out of her sight. Though the whole world is bright and strange and unreal to her, she finds she sort of likes it. She likes its little dangers and promises. In the walls of her own castle, days are organized to the minute by bells and maids. The seconds ran into each other, ran on and on into empty rooms.

A few days ago, it would have seemed impossible that a girl like her could have done any of what she has done. But she’s done it. She’s faced down a dragon, survived poison, stole a rose, visited another realm. If Regina were here, she might have told her about it.  How grateful she is.  

The mirror gleams.

Emma feels it in her back pocket. It sends a prickle of electricity up her spine.

Hurriedly, she takes her mirror out. In its smooth glass, she sees the tops of the trees and the sharp anxious look on her face.

“Regina?” she asks tentatively, waits for a change. “Hello?”

The mirror remains still, unchanging. It tosses the morning light out in a dozen different angles.

Emma’s heart dips. Staring down at her face in the mirror, she watches her expression gradually harden, turn thin and lined with exasperation.

“You know,” she starts, inhales a big shaky breath. “If this is to get back at me or something, I gotta say, it’s a really shitty thing to do.”

She waits a moment. But the only face looking back is her own.

“I don’t know how many times we have to do this. I’ve told you a hundred times,” she exhales in a deep rumble of a voice. “If you’re mad at me, just tell me. I’d rather just know. I don’t want to be sulking around a weird ass realm, so you can work through your mood on your own. I’d rather you just yell at me.”

A beat passes. Strange unknown birds sing from above, their voices soft and strangely human-like.

In the cool glass, she watches her own face wobble like a reflection in a pond. She sighs and closes her eyes.

“If this is about this morning, I’m sorry,” she says quietly. She leans her tired back against a tree and stares up at the criss-cross of branches and leaves, the world of strange animals. “I shouldn’t have done that. It was a mistake.”

The silence buzzes back at her. When she sighs, her breath clouds with a visible stream of breath. As the day goes on,  the sun seems to be slowly withdrawing from the world; the light has turned into a damp pale-blue shade that makes everything feel as if it were sinking slowly underwater.

“Or maybe it wasn’t,” she says softly, nearly a full minute later. “I know I haven’t been honest with you. I’m sorry, I don’t want to make you feel like I’m trying to...to exploit our True Love without committing to you. I don’t — I don’t want that to be how things go between us. I  guess I don’t really know how things should go between us. All I know is that I want to be honest with you. I want us to talk about everything.”

The seconds tick off quietly in her head. She counts to ten before the hurt and shame is too much to drown down in silence.

“Goddamn it,” she snaps, feeling a hot sting of tears. “Can you at least tell me where you are?” The answering silence is too much, too much to accept. She nearly throws the mirror away in defiance, but instead, she calls hoarsely, in a voice close to tears: “I can see the mirror gleaming, you asshole. I know you can hear me.”

To her surprise, Regina answers.

“Very well,” she says, in a clear flat voice. “Meet me at the lake.”

Emma’s heart bundles in her throat. “The lake?” she asks and looks around. She has wandered away from the blue stream of water, but she thinks she can hear its soft babbling motion somewhere in the distance. Where water goes, it will eventually pool. “Okay.” She says, softly, relieved. “I’ll meet you at the lake.”

The mirror blinks and goes dull again.

It takes a little while to find the stream again. She has to trek up a grassy trail uphill, through wet leaves and hard weedy plants, but gradually the trail winds her back to the stream, takes her a mile or two downhill to the view of water. The lake spreads out enormously between the trees, its wrinkled blue surface glimmering with the sun.

It only takes a mile or so more until she spots Regina. She is a dark figure in the distance. As she gets closer, she puzzles over Regina’s change of clothes. She had left in one of the sleek outdoorsy outfits that Emma secretly loves so much; she can still recall the shape of her legs in black leather, the strong pronounced line of her back in that trim waist coat of hers. But now, she wears a long-flowing red and white dress, which seems somehow off; red and white.

Emma gradually slows. She is close enough now to piece together her mistake.

The woman in front of her is not Regina.

Though, from a distance, she had appeared strikingly similar, Emma can now see the more obvious differences. This woman is older, and smaller; instead of Regina’s strong, square jaw, she has a thin face that seems smoothed clear of any or all emotion; and though her hair is dark, it doesn’t quite have the black astral shine of the sky at night.

The woman tilts her head, gives her a cold swift appraisal.

“Uh,” Emma offers a somewhat awkward laugh. “So, you’re not Regina.”

The woman looks Emma in the eye. “No,” she says simply, displays no interest to make up for the strangeness. “I’m not.”

“Okay.” she says. “So why am I here?”

“You walked here on your own.”

“Yeah, to Regina. You’re not her.” her voice flattens uneasily.

The woman simply watches her. Her attention is somewhat jarring: it has the dull apathetic look of a person who has seen everything in the world, everything it has to offer, and has decided it’s all dull and unsurprising.  For a moment, in her gaze, Emma is nearly overwhelmed by the dumb animalistic instinct to run, to head uphill and climb a tree. But she stays still, struggles silently through the feeling, mostly because she suspects the danger she has fallen into is beyond the safety procedures Nomey had given her for normal dangers, and that unlike a bear, this woman will not be deterred by a hill or tree.

“You are Regina’s true love.” the woman says at last. It is not a question, and her voice carries nothing but a vaguely bored tone, and yet, Emma still feels the need to affirm it.   

“Yes.”

“How interesting.”

The woman smiles. It is the only warning Emma gets, and though she takes it seriously, she doesn’t make it farther than the scrawny line of trees behind her.  

A dark red magic, sharp and electric, overcomes her.

It doesn’t hurt at first. It hits like a crackle of static, replaces all the feeling in Emma’s body; her body falls solidly, spasms beyond her control like the confused scatter of birds that flush from a tree. Sand fills the dry seam of her lips, dusts the side of her face. Then, slowly, as she lies against the cool sand, the pain comes to her; her heart presses into itself like the small cushion Nomey kept in her sewing box, the one she sticks all her needles in. In a sudden spasm, her throat closes, and she chokes in air through uneven gasps.

“Look at you,” the woman looks down at her with cool, unfeeling eyes, as if Emma were a bug drowning in her cup of tea. “You’re just a girl. To think, all my hard work might have been undone by you. Some silly young thing. You might have ruined it all.”

As she coughs in air, she spits out her only weapon: fearlessness.

 “Fuck you.”

The pain comes again. It slides her vision away in violet streaks; her ears pop, and dim. And as the world recedes, she can hear the woman laugh; it follows her into the black of her unconsciousness, falls light and steady like rain.

*

When Emma wakes, she is flat on her back on the floor. She blinks blearily, rubs her hand along her face. Greenish sourceless light buzzes down from above. With a brittle wince, she rises into a sitting position. Her head is ringing, and there’s a buzzing disconnect in her body; the bones, pressed too long and hard against the skin, have reoriented themselves to the flat featureless hours of unconsciousness. It will take a while to wake them up again.

Though she doesn’t know where she is, one glance around quickly surmises that wherever this is it isn’t good. In her small windowless space, she can see bars, a lock, and a scratchy yellow square of a blanket. The only real light comes in thin rectangles slant in through the bars. Distantly, she can hear the orderly sound of footsteps, quiet and routine; a guard making rounds.

She groans and rests her aching head against her knees.

A minute or two passes. Silence comes in patches. Guards sigh, and rounds are made. A moth keeps whirring dryly against a lampshade.

Then, in her back pocket, she feels her mirror vibrate again. She very nearly tosses the whole thing against the wall, but before she can even fully get it out of her pocket, a familiar voice calls her name.

“Emma?”

This voice is Regina’s. She recognizes it immediately, this deep, firm-tempered voice that can slip easily through emotion like a thread through the eye of a needle; it is a wonder how she could have possibly confused Regina with that flat, featureless voice, a woman without feeling, without heart.

With a soft groan, she rubs her face again. Then she stands and limps her way towards the yellow square of blanket where the light looks stronger. When she is settled, she sighs, and hesitantly turns the mirror around. She squints uneasily at the face of her True Love.

Regina’s eyes immediately go wide.

“Wha—Emma?” she gasps, then sucks in her breath.

In the stronger light, Emma knows she must look a mess. She can feel a patch of ripped skin on her lower lip, and if she pushes her tongue up to the roof of her mouth, there is rough torn skin there too. There’s a sore on the side of her tongue, likely from her own teeth, and bruises she can’t identify.

“Hey,” she answers.

For a long moment, Regina only stares with helpless fury. She looks everywhere, at every little hurt: the blue spots under the skin, the clenched wounded look of her jaw, the wounds Emma has not had time yet to identify -– if they are there, Regina will find them.

 “What happened?” Regina asks, at last. Her voice is wrecked, but there is a hard underlayer of anger below. It breaks like metal through her concern. She already knows.

Sighing, Emma rubs her head. “Look – It happened sort of quickly. I didn’t mean –”

“To go against my specific instructions?”

“Okay, they weren’t that specific.”

“How could you possibly have misunderstood don’t use the goddamn mirror unless I call you.”

“I saw the mirror gleam and I thought it was you! How was I supposed to know?”

“Did you hear my voice?”

“No.”

“No. You didn’t. Because I didn’t call you.”

“And I thought you did,” Emma snaps. “Maybe you should have told me instead of just disappearing. Maybe you should have let me know that I might get jumped by a nasty old woman if I fuck up.”

Regina’s jaw clenches.

A silence catches and holds. Regina stares at the corner of Emma’s prison cell. Something appears to be dripping from some point on the ceiling; it makes a quiet singular sound every other second like the quiet drip of a sink.

“Why did you just leave?” she asks quietly, her anger gone.

Regina’s anger slips away too. When she speaks, her tone is a mirror to Emma’s.

“I told you. You weren’t safe.”

“You left so quickly. You didn’t even say goodbye.”

“I was in a rush.”

“It just…It seemed like you were trying to get away from me.”

Regina closes her eyes. “I wasn’t. Please don’t think that,” she whispers. On either side of a mirror, though there are miles of dead air between them, the softness of her voice helps make up for some of the distance. “I was afraid for you. I felt like I had put a huge target on your back. I thought if I left quickly, you’d be safe.”

Emma nods and looks down at her fingers. There are new calluses that have roughened the geography of her hands, shaped them into hands that know work. She sometimes wonders how else she has changed. Would her mother recognize her if she returned home at this moment? Would anyone?

“I didn’t mean to go against you, you know,” she says, softly. The morning loops in her head, and she feels her heart lodge in her throat. She wants to splay out everything she’s been holding onto, to be understood. “I promise I don’t do shit just to hurt you.”

“I know.” Regina says, softly.

Something new settles between them. A softness, a hard-fought intimacy. They might be getting better at this,  Emma thinks. Maybe they’re learning to listen; maybe they learned it from each other. Maybe it’s not so crazy to believe that the two of them are perfectly suited.

She looks Regina over quietly, takes her in. It is then that she realizes that Regina is not outside as she expected her to be. The light shining on her face is not natural sunlight as she had assumed but brightly artificial, aimed directly from above her head in a small tidy-looking room. On the wall behind her are stacks of identical black hats lined neatly in rows.

“Where are you?” Emma asks.

“An empty room,” Regina sighs. She flicks an absent hand to the space around her. “I came to visit someone I knew once. I thought he could help, but he seems to be long gone.”

“Right,” she says, but her thoughts are abruptly cut off by a violent shiver. Closing her eyes, she sighs weakly. “I’m guessing you can’t poof me there with your magic?”

 “I already tried. I’m sorry darling, there is a magic-barrier around your cell. I won’t be able to enter the space or pull you out of it.”

“Damn.”

“I will find my way there, but it will take a while.”

“No, that’s alright,” she says, and stands. She slides the mirror back into her back pocket, rests her forearms through the metal bars. “I’ll improvise.”

“Emma?” Regina’s muffled voice calls. “What are you doing?”

“Shh.”

“Excuse me?”

Shh – don’t talk.”

“Ugh.”

Emma waits until she hears the guard’s footsteps in the distance. When the guard’s pacing shadow creeps along the wall, Emma crumbles against the cell door. She lets out a howling shriek of pain.

After a beat of hesitation, the guard comes running. His presence comes with a nimbus of noise: there’s his heavy sword against his hip, the click of his handcuffs against his keys. He appears, and walks closer, looking curiously indifferent as he peers down at her hunched body.  

“Miss?” he asks.

He steps closer.

Gripping the thick red fabric of the guard’s shirt, she yanks him forward sharply. Unsuspecting as he is, he does nothing to dull the impact, so his head hits squarely against the cell doors with enough force to ring across the empty air. His consciousness goes out of him swiftly, irrevocable as a rock tossed into a lake.

“Oh,” Regina’s surprise comes from her back pocket.

Emma grunts. She guides the guard’s heavy body down to lie flat across the entrance of her cell. Flat like a board. There, she roots for the keys hidden on his belt.

She turns the key and slips out. For a moment, her heart feels completely buoyant from the fear of being caught. There is just this success, her competence and quick thinking. But then in the hallways, the fear returns. She slips out from the visible eye as soon as she can, steps in through a sturdy-looking door in the far end of the hallway. The hinge obliges with a rusty little creak and a hard shove with her shoulder.

In relief, she exits into a small, cramped stairwell. Small wall-candles glow all the way up, step by step, lighting the walls with their steady shadowless light. With a soft relieved sigh, she takes out her mirror.

Regina stares back with that cat-like smile of hers; with her body positioned comfortable against the back of her chair and her cheek pressed gently against the side of her knuckles, she has a way of looking, a sleepy-eyed look of interest that makes Emma flush; her mind winds back to the thought of her red warm mouth, of long slow kisses, of wandering hands. Something warm and electric zips up Emma’s belly.

“Well look at you.” Regina very nearly purrs. “You’re always finding new ways to impress me.”

Emma’s cheeks warm. “You have a troubling fascination with violence, you know.” she says and starts up the stairs.  

“It’s not a fascination.”

“Yeah? What do you call it?”

“A healthy appreciation.” Her eyes crinkle. When Emma laughs she continues. “Dear, you live a life like mine, you come to enjoy a good fight every once in a while.”

“I’m sure,” she shakes her head, smiling. “I’m putting you back in my pocket.”

“No.” she whines but is quickly muffled again.

She winds up the stone stairs, passes doors whose windows peek into others way of life. It is busy with the lives of normal everyday people: there are maids that sing softly as they scrub the floors, splay soapy water along the red and white tile; guards sit bored on wooden crates, smoking little stubs of cigarettes as they play cards with one another. It seems even in strange evil little places such as this, life has a way of going on.

Finally, she finds a door that looks into an empty room. Pushing it open, she peeks out tentatively, looks both ways before she steps inside.

“Okay,” she sighs. She pulls the mirror out of her back pocket, smiles down at Regina’s impatient face. “I think I’ve made it far enough from the prison. How do I find you?”

 Regina rolls her eyes. She snaps her fingers.

Black magic swirls around her, leaves her coughing and wheezing in a new room, right in front of Regina.

“Okay,” Emma coughs, waves away the smoke. “Yeah. I don’t know why I’m not used to that yet.”

Regina stands up from her seat. A curtain falls behind her eyes, closes her face from feeling as she looks Emma over once again. The new, brighter light has brought out new angles, new hurts. Emma feels them now, underneath Regina’s soft touch. Looking up into Regina’s cool eyes, she might have thought the Queen was indifferent. If she didn’t know the woman better. But there is a gentleness in her fingers, an undeniable tenderness.

She very lightly lifts Emma’s chin, tilts her face into the light.

Regina sighs with regret. “You trouble maker,” she says and presses the pad of her thumb affectionately against Emma’s chin. “Why are you always getting into trouble?”   

“I don’t know,” she musters a smile. “But at least I’m pretty good at getting out of it.”

Regina’s hand drops silently. “You are,” she says, voice quiet. She turns away. “While you were gone, I found the room I was looking for. We’re almost there.”

Emma can feel the turn in Regina’s mood. It pulls away from her the way the waves of the ocean pull from the sand. So here it is; between her future and this moment, there is still this, this little insecurity that stands in her way: how easily Regina’s feelings can turn away from her, how easily they can slide out of her understanding.

With a sigh, Emma follows her.

Rooms keep opening into one another. Each hallway brings new beautiful rooms that seem to seep in silence. Even the silence feels different here. It is a silence that has gone on for so long, grown so thick, it is no longer possible to break.

Emma finds herself waiting until they’re out of the rooms. She has things that she wants to ask, but they seem impossible here in these rooms. It feels like the walls are watching them. Once they’re out in the bright sunlight, she’ll ask.

It takes a while, but eventually they slip out of a back door to walk on a small brush trail toward a smaller quarter of the castle.

“So, what’s with that psycho?” she asks.

Regina frowns. “Hm?” She doesn’t look away from the trail.

 “The lady who attacked me,” she clarifies. “She seemed pretty distressed to discover that I am your True Love. She seemed to think I was ruining something.”

“I see,” Regina sighs. “Well. I’m sure you were.”

“What do you mean?”

“She views love as something ugly,” Regna sighs. “A kind of indulgence, worse than laziness. I was never completely sure what she wanted to do in this world, but if I had to explain it, I would say that she wanted to rid the world of love. To save it.”

“Wow,” Emma splutters with a laugh. “What a piece of work.”

Regina hums in hollow accordance. A minute of silence passes between them. Emma mulls over her next question, sensing a pulse of deeper meaning below Regina’s words, but thankfully Regina continues quietly on her own.

“I’ve known her for a very long time, you know,” she says. Her fingers flex idly, a helpless show of nerves. “I’ve spent years trying to impress her, to repulse her, to make her see me. But thinking about it now, I think the only time she truly thought of me was when she was planning to take the world from me.”

Emma looks at her for a long time. She’s afraid to ask. But she has to.

“How do you know her?”

Regina sighs. “She’s my mother.”

It flips on a light. Exposes a horrible new angle. A moment ago, Regina had been a  silhouette with a backlight on, and now she is in color.

The silence feels heavy with the new information. Emma carries it inside of her silently as they walk. A mother, she thinks, who delights in hurting her child. What else could you possibly become but a monster?

They enter a small tidy room. It smells vaguely of old sun-drenched paper and pencil shavings. There are books everywhere, overflowing on mahogany shelves and desks.

“Wow,” she says, with a short whistle. “What a mess.”

“Hey,” Regina closes the door sharply. “This was my father’s room.”

“Oh. Alright,” she says, and glances around the unutterably cluttered place. “I see the resemblance.”

Regina gives her a sharp little look before wading into the room. Emma looks at the space around her. It really is messy. There are rows of small ceramic trinkets on the desks and on the shelves. Weathered, sun-stained maps sit in a pile on an exhausted looking chair, charting parts of unknown worlds. An old lamp puts out a dim dusty light from the corner.

In the back, there is a tall bookcase. Regina is there, examining each book carefully. The spines all give the impression of being long and drearily factual.

After a beat, Regina snaps for Emma’s attention.

Scrambling to her side, she reaches her just in time to see Regina put a tentative fingertip along the top of an old dense book’s spine. The book is a strange pick, as it seems to log in extensive detail an entirely outdated theory of the world and has nothing to do with either magic or their spell, but she doesn’t question it. She watches quietly as Regina pulls the book flat on its spine, the way she’d pull a lever.

Dust trickles out of invisible hinges. The bookcase groans and shifts.

“Step back,” Regina instructs. When Emma just gapes, she gently steers Emma back by the elbow. “Behind me, darling.”

Emma obliges dazedly. She watches as the books slide and push into the shelf in front of her; everything happens on its own, with singular determination, as if each book moved with an impulse to quickly and seamlessly get out of their way. Gradually, the wall recedes into itself.

The room behind the bookshelf is intricately more organized; it is not the sort of room that a man with maps would sit in -- a man who splayed out his books along the spine, who left coffee-ring stains on every inch of his desk. Who organized a row of ceramic animals into a small circus circle on his desk.

There’s no question who rules this room. It is similarly decorated as the rest of the castle, and has a risky-looking silence to it, a dangerous hush like a cave where unutterable horrors occurred and remained undiscovered for years.

Regina hesitates. She enters the room, visibly stiff.

Inside, the walls gleam with mirrors.

On smart little tables, on black and red lacquered walls, there are niches in which treasures of plunder are put on immaculate display. There are age-blackened masks, bowls, vases, half-ruined shields and weapons that have beautiful reverential depictions of animals and other mythical creatures carved into the faintly phosphorescent metal. It looks like a dragon’s haul of treasure, beautiful ancestral belongings stolen from their rightful owners to stand under a white light.

In the center, there is a white-bone bowl surrounded lilies, freesia, daisies, bunches of hothouse tulips in white, yellow, and red, their petals still bright and dotted with dew. A fire crackles inside the bowl, burning furiously, harsh and wild-tempered. Though it roars, it never catches on anything.

Regina extends the tips of her fingers to one of the petals. “She knows we’re here,” she says, seeming unsurprised.

“What?” Emma asks. She looks around anxiously. “You think she’s here?”

“No,” Regina says. She gently traces a petal with her finger. “She’s only sent flowers. That’s her one sign of approval. She must have discovered what we are looking for and approves of it.”

“Oh.”

A sick oily feeling spreads in Emma’s stomach. She feels suddenly as if she’s joined a side. The side who believes that Regina should pay and pay and pay until she has nothing left. It is a terrible feeling.

Regina gently lifts her fingers to the heat. “Poor thing,” She murmurs. “This is only part of the flame. We will have to reunite it with its other half in order for the Phoenix to be born.”

Emma nods. She looks around to the tall mirror-paneled walls, the black and red displays. “How did you know it would be here?” she asks.

The Queen makes a faint scoffing noise. “I know my mother,” she says it as if the knowledge has cost her dearly. Put her in great debt, cost nearly everything. “She would not be able to resist making one last jab at my father.”

“What do you mean?”

She waves an idle hand, looks around at the confiscated treasures. “This room wasn’t always here,” she says. “My mother used to store her treasures in an underground area, the way she stores people. But when my father died, she put it all in here. To spite him.”

“To spite him?”

“He mourned her conquests,” she says, and trails her fingertip along the tip of an intricately carved mask, the face of an antelope. “He loved people – loved everything about them. Their language, their culture, their history. And she dedicated her life to destroying it all.”

Emma nods, watches from the side as Regina moves through the room, pausing occasionally, to touch a particularly beautiful antique. She seems to be struggling through a feeling. Emma can see her thoughts quietly bloom and unveil new depths of grief as she walks silently from one stolen thing to another.

 “When I was seven years old my mother took me down to my father’s room and made me rip up one of his old psalm books. The one in his native language,” she trails a finger along the mahogany desk, spins a small wooden globe of an unknown world in a circle. “I think about it now, and I tell myself that children have been through worse. I myself have suffered far worse. But just thinking about it now, it puts a chill in my heart,” she exhales raggedly. Emma can hear the thickness in her throat. “There is something so awful about being used in that way. I have forgotten almost everything about being a child, but I’ve never forgotten that. The wounding she used me for.”

Emma watches Regina’s shoulders. They are still powerfully poised, straight and sturdy as a shelf, and yet, Emma thinks, something inside of her is wanting out. She suspects if she put her hand on the small place between Regina’s shoulder blades, gently and without a word, something enormous and untouched would be set free. It would pass through her, sweep out of the room with one last wailing scream.

Quietly, she steps closer. Her heart beats hard against her ribs, struck by the feeling that this is something she is meant to do, something she could help with. She lifts her hand, trembling, to the space right above Regina’s shoulders.

But Regina turns away. She nods to the fire. “We should search this place,” she says, and disappears without another word.

The deserted quiet buzzes in her ears. She sighs.

She wanders the space. It’s surprisingly big – it has hidden in its corners and mirrors more rooms. As she walks, she trails her hand lightly along the glass paneling to ensure that she doesn’t bump her nose into a wall when she means to walk through a door.

Wherever she walks, she tries to keep her eye on the fire, a center to locate herself and make her way back to the start, but too many times she finds that she has been touching base with a mere reflection rather than the real fire.

When it happens a third time, Emma slaps the mirror in frustration.

And the mirror ripples.

Blinking, Emma pauses, turns back. Tentatively she puts her hand back to the glass. She presses her palm flat, feels the solid weight of the glass against her hand. It doesn’t ripple again. But…

“That’s strange,” Emma says. The mirror throws back the puzzled expression on her face, the very tips of her fingers. “The mirror feels warm.”

From a distance, she can hear Regina’s footsteps stop. In the strange, bisected angle of the mirror, she can see Regina turn back to her. Her face is smooth, curious. After a beat, Emma presses her hand more firmly against the mirror.

A strange tingling sensation shoots up her arm. Like little pins and needles. The tips of her fingers go through the mirror seamlessly as if the glass were a silver pool of paint.

“Oh wow.” She gasps.

Immediately, Regina is behind her. She looks down at Emma’s hands with wide-eyed wonder, a wonder that is not lost when she looks back up at Emma.

“You brilliant girl,” Regina breathes, and squeezes her arms. Her smile is dazzling and bright. “You’ll be a powerful witch whether I teach you or not.”

A warm flush fills Emma. She clears her throat.

With both her hands splayed across the mirror, she pushes through the near-liquid portal on to the other side. The sound her foot makes on the other side echoes largely into the dark, the walls nearly black, but as Emma stands blinking, looking all around, the color seems gradually to turn turquoise. Regina steps in only a moment later, still holding her arms firmly from behind. A shiver of nervousness trickles down her spine at the thought of Regina letting her go, standing apart from one another in this dark, vaguely aquatic room. But he doesn’t. She keeps Emma close in her arms.

In the center, there is a roaring fire. It burns just as furiously, blue and strangely green, seeming implacable in its separation. The room smells vaguely like water, as if it has flooded time and time again, been washed and scrubbed, then flooded again. From what Regina has said about her mother, Emma wouldn’t really be surprised if she filled this place with water occasionally, just to torture the very idea of love. It seems like something she would do.

“Come, dear,” Regina says in that teacher-voice of hers that Emma loves so much. She gently guides Emma forward. “We will have to carry it out.”

As Regina guides her toward the twin flame, Emma thinks of carrying fire. She can’t quite imagine it. Magic is still such an abstract, shimmering notion in her head, though it no longer seems impossible, it doesn’t seem like something she could ever do. But with Regina behind her, holding her arms and guiding her with that warm teacher-voice of hers, telling her exactly where to put her hands, what to think, what to feel, it seems somehow possible that her hands might touch fire and not be burned.

“Think of warmth,” Regina says against her ear. “Think of your hands as being very warm, so warm they could join the fire and become a part of it.”  

Emma closes her eyes. She thinks of Regina’s mouth against her ear. Her hands touching the back of her arms, her thumbs pressing into the inside of her elbows. She thinks of Regina’s soft deep-voice like warm water.

 She pushes her arms forward. Something warm surrounds her hands.

She feels a smile against her ear. “You brilliant girl.”

When Emma opens her eyes, her hands are in the middle of the fire. The skin is glowing a soft red, but it neither burns or catches. When she pulls her hands back, the fire comes with her. It sits in her palm, furious and loud, feeling strangely intimate, like holding a big fleshy heart.

“Wow,” she breathes.

Regina guides her toward the mirror again. Emma holds the fire in her hands, carefully balancing it between two palms as she would balance an egg. She carries it out through the mirror, toward its other half.

When the fire is reunited with its other half, something inside of it crackles. Snaps, like something opening again. The sound is as sure and clean as wood snapping in a fire -- it pops and crackles, bundles in the center, starts to take shape.

Gradually, as the red center in the fire grows larger, the flames dwindle. They curl like a hand around a body -- there’s a long neck, a broad chest, long fiery-red feathers. Wings stretch out, flap calmly, and gently resettle again. Within the red flames, Emma can see its big black eye. It flickers from her to Regina, then back at Emma.

Blue smoke curls up from the bird’s feathers. Regina raises a curious hand, gently smoothing her palm down the Phoenix’s large feathered head. With a soft musical trill, it ducks its head to be pet.

“What a good bird,” Regina coos, charmed. It strikes Emma suddenly that these introductions are not some strange formality for magic-users but simply the odd quirks of a woman who is fond of animals. Emma watches her for a moment, surprised and amused as Regina scratches a finger beneath the bird’s sharp beak as if it were a wildly misbehaving child she was fond of. Softly, Regina whispers to her. “You should ask if you can take a feather, dear.”

Emma blinks. The bird turns its beady-eyes to her. It watches with a sharp, keen gaze.

“Um…” Emma glances at Regina, hoping for some guidance, but Regina is too absorbed in the bird’s glossy red feathers to notice. She sighs, tries again. “Hi. I uh, I need a feather from you.”

The bird stares at her blankly.

“Say please, you silly girl.”

“Oh. Please?”

The bird has a striking sort of attention, an all absorbing gaze that snaps on her like a magnet or a clip, and just as precisely focused. After a long moment, it bends its head low, accepting.

Tentatively, Emma raises a hand to one of the bird’s long elegant wings. The feathers are cool and sleek, surprisingly hard to touch as if they were scales from some fish or snake. Carefully, she plucks out one of the smaller feathers.

The bird gives her one last long look. And then it takes off with an elegant lunge of its wings.

When the bird disappears, the silence rushes up to them like the waves on a shore.

Emma looks down at the feather in her hand. It is stiff and searingly white at the tip. Circles of red and yellow make a design along the feather, cooling gradually to a flat red at the bottom.   

“Well,” Emma says after a long moment.  She spins the feather idly, doesn’t dare look up to Regina. “That’s…that’s all we need, right?”

“Right.”

Emma looks up at the quiet resigned sound of Regina’s voice. Her heart shivers: this is the end.

Quickly, she deflects that thought, “Well, we still have to find a way out of here,” she looks around. “How do we even get out?”

Regina merely opens her bag, produces another small bean.

Emma’s heart crumbles.

“Oh,” she says.

The transition is quick, a mere shuffling of time. It’s no longer than stepping from one room into another. One moment they are in Wonderland, and the next Emma is staring up at the pale white stars in their own realm.

The sun has gone down, but the sky is still blue. Its color is slowly cooling, receding into the corners of the world. There are her realms’ birds in the trees above, making their normal chatter and noise. Mosquitos buzz quietly.

There is the last ingredient between them, unspoken.

Regina quietly clears her throat.

“Well,” she says, softly. “This is it.” Her voice sounds terribly final. Though Emma turns to look at her, Regina’s head is turned to the side, her attention on some small distant thing in the trees so that the only thing Emma can see is the side of her face, the top of her cheek, her dark eyebrows and long black eyelashes. She anxiously rubs the buckeye ring on her finger. It twists back and forth between the bends of her fingers. Regna takes a deep breath, speaks to the air. “You only need one left, now.” she says.

“Yeah.” she musters.

Regina nods and looks down at her hands. For a while, there is only silence. Regina wordlessly twists the ring back and forth on her finger. In the last few days, the ring has shrunk and grown black around her finger. It will be a struggle to remove – she’ll have to  wiggle it back and forth just to get it over the joints.

A hot rush of sentiment rises so quickly in Emma that it nearly makes her gasp or cry out. Here it is, then. She’s got to decide. Either make a lunge or turn back.

“Regina….”

“I have it with me,” she says, and stares down at her fingers. “I’ll give it to you in just a second.”

“Oh. No, I only meant --”

“Can I just say one thing?” Regina interrupts her suddenly. She looks up, her face gripped by a flushed look of emotion. “I just want to say this one thing to you, and then we can move on, we never have to speak of it again.”

Emma grimaces. "Okay."

Regina releases a shaky breath. She nods, looks down at her hands.

“I have lived a long life," she says. "And not a very pleasant one at that. I had a lot of time to think about it, I suppose. Under my curse, I was forced to re-live my regrets, all my failures and stupid childish fears. At some point, I forget when -- but at some point I made a promise to myself that if I ever got out, I would do it again -- I'd go after your mother, I'd be more violent than ever. I'd rip the world a part for its constant failures, its unending disappointments," she says, like a sigh. Then she opens her eyes, looks at Emma with a shining tears. "And then you kissed my hand." she breathes.

Emma watches on, speechless.

"I don't think I have ever felt happiness like that before. In all my life, I have felt so many things. I have been sick with triumph and horrible fear. I have felt victory and failure. But not until then, until that moment, did I feel happiness," she inhales deeply, shakily. "And since then, I have only wanted more. I couldn't dream of violence or vengeance, or anything, it was beyond my capabilities. I wanted only what I felt in that moment. And you have given me more than I could ever have imagined. You gave me warmth, your companionship, your humor. I have never laughed more in my life, and likely never will again. But if you never kissed me awake, I would have gone out of this world without ever knowing how it feels to truly cherish another person.”

Emma's heart trembles. She stares at Regina with wet eyes. 

“For that,” Regina says shakily. “I want you to know: I would give you anything. Anything in the world.”

Then, gently, Regina tries to pull the ring off.

In that one moment, as Regina slowly twists the ring  along her finger, she knows all at once that Regina is aware of what this spell will do. Emma can see it on her face, the horrible grieved sincerity in doing something painful and necessary; she works the ring carefully back and forth as if it were something crucial and irreplaceable like a heart, something she never expected to part with. But she will give to Emma, and Emma alone. 

Emma puts her hand on Regina’s. “Stop.”

Regina looks up at her.

It is as if she is doused with light. Emma can see her fully, clearly, without a doubt.

Staring at her, Emma feels a small black hole open up in her heart, a hole through which everything that has happened between them -- the laughter, the conversations, the intimacy, everything they’ve learned about one another -- would be sucked away.

She tightens her grip on Regina’s wrist. A small watery laugh leaves her.

“I think I get it now.” she says

Regina blinks, her eyes dark and worried. “What?”

Gently, Emma brings both her hands to Regina's wrists. She holds her gently. "How those people did it," she says. "How people could spend their life trying to undo a spell they gave their eyes and tongue for.”

Regina gives her a blank look.

Emma gently touches her hand to Regina's cheek. She smiles. "I think your right. I don't think anyone knows what they really want," she gently presses the tip of her thumb into the small corner of Regina's eye, where lines make her seem sharp and harsh with her attention. "You tell me, you've never felt happiness. Not until the moment I kissed you awake again. And just now, I thought, fuck. I don't think I have either." she laughs.

Dark eyes blink at her.

"I can't remember feeling much of anything before you," she says. Gently, she lifts her other hand to frame Regina's face. She smooths her thumb gently to Regina's ear. "I can hardly believe it. All my life, I've wanted to be free. It's what I've been working towards it. But I can't imagine it without you. To lose your laugh. Our fights. All your stories. Our conversations. For you to never explain anything to me again. I can't imagine it. If I lost that, if I lost you, forget time or realms or magic, I wouldn’t care what it cost, I’d do anything to get you back.”

A long moment passes. Regina merely looks at her. Her expression seems so blank it looks almost uncomprehending.

Emma's exhilaration crackles with anxiousness.

She squeezes Regina. "You hear me?" her laugh wobbles, her alarm at half-mast. 

 "Yes," Regina nods, looking numb. She puts a shaking hand on Emma's. She nods again and holds Emma's hand more tightly.

And then, with a surprising peep of noise, her expression crumbles. Though a hand comes to cover her mouth, the noises come anyway, little sharp peeps and gasps. They rack her shoulders. She weeps helplessly then, unable to stop, she wraps a hand around her eyes and caves to her sobs, shaking with a force that startles Emma.  

Regina tries to speak, but she can’t make it through her tears.

Emma smiles ruefully. “I sure hope these aren’t sad tears.”

Half-crying, half-laughing, Regina shakes her head. She clutches Emma's jaw with trembling hands, puts teary grateful kisses all over, from her mouth to her jaw and neck. Of course, the kissing can go no deeper: Regina’s breathing is too unsteady, it disrupts their pace, bursts against one another’s lips, makes it impossible to land more than a few tender kisses on the mouth. But it feels wonderful to be kissing right where they are, right in the beginning of their lives together.

After another half-ruined kiss, Emma can’t hold back her laugh. She snorts against Regina’s jaw, gently strokes Regina’s cheek with her thumb.

“I think we should probably wait on the kissing," she whispers, smiling. "Just for a little while.”

  “No,” Regina whines softly. She gently grips Emma’s wrists, holds her as she were a dock to moor herself to. “I can –- I’ll just take a few deep breaths.”

“My girl,” she sighs a smiling kiss against the corner of her eye, the side of her temple. “We got time, don’t we?” Nuzzling her nose against Regina’s cheek, she whispers. “We’ve got a whole life.”

Regina grips her harder. “Yes,” she whispers. “A whole life.”

Kissing her ear, she whispers. "Till death due us part."

"Longer than that if I have any say."

Emma laughs. "Longer than our lives?"

 "Oh, much longer."

"In our next life then." she smiles. "When we meet again."