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The night everything changes (once again) is the kind of night everyone says they’ll never forget, but in this little fairytale town, remembering is harder than forgetting. It’s a miracle that everyone’s brains aren’t made of swiss cheese by now, but somehow the very magic that keeps ripping holes open across time and realms has a weird way of sealing the gaps up, locking away all the terrible trauma that should be there.

Well, sort of.

Some people have never had the luxury of forgetting the ugliness that Life so often tosses out in the name of teaching strength and resilience.

Some have always struggled to escape the iron grip of Fate and all its casual cruelty.

The seemingly inescapable: Life and Fate, two of the three gods – sharp angles of the Trinity that spins all worlds around. The designers of all that is and isn’t.

The third? Well, that’s Love, and that’s the real reason why we’re telling this story.

It’s why the one who never forgets anything is standing in the middle of the street, eyes wide and dark, her hand against the hilt of the blade that had been thrust into her belly only seconds earlier, blood dripping down the icy cold metal and onto her fingers, slowly drip-drip-dripping to the asphalt.

Her eyes flicker up to the man who’d stabbed her – Rumple’s incredibly damaged boy. He bobs his head in understanding of what’s just happened, and then there’s light crackling around him as Life adapts to what has just happened and tries to correct the terrible wrong which has been committed against this boy.

Helpless to stop Regina from surrendering her own life in order to change Fate.

You see, it wasn’t supposed to be Regina dying tonight. Her original role in the Final Battle was supposed to be something else entirely.

Her fate was meant to be entirely different; perhaps equally tragic, but more in the sad, cautionary kind of way.

That had changed when she had, but the person who was supposed to die tonight? Well, her role has never altered. The Savior was always supposed to be the one to sacrifice herself to save everyone.

Until Love decided to become the revolutionary, stepping in to ensure a different story has a chance to be told.

This is that story.

And yes, it starts with Life surrendering.

 


 

There's always this one haunting moment in any tragedy, the one thing which mentally replays itself over and over. Humans are broken like that, prone to tearing themselves apart and then picking at their scabs until they are red, raw and bleeding. It's why we're here at all, to be honest.

Because of a newborn baby girl who'd been put in a tree, tasked with the unimaginable responsibility Fate having declared that she will save an entire kingdom. That baby grew into a child who no one wanted, tossed back into the system repeatedly because of strange little things that happened when she was around. Things no one would dare actually admit to having seen happen. That girl became an angry, lonely teenager who fell into the arms of a man who promised her love, but then abandoned her. And that teenager became a woman so damaged and broken by years of callous abandonment and the inescapable feeling that nothing in her life has ever been her own that she would willingly twist and break her soul in half to try to not lose even one more person. 

Ah, but we're not just here because of her. We're also here because of a beautiful young girl, who was so terribly destroyed by the mother who should have protected her, and so horrifically manipulated by the teacher who played blind to the child screaming for help. That girl, that child, well she grew into a ferociously angry Queen who couldn't and wouldn't stop picking at the scabs around her youthful wounds. Even when they were oozing and grotesque, infected and full of fever and illness and so much delirium and insanity. She kept going, kept harming herself and then she tried to make others feel that pain, too.

And they did, but never in the way she did. So she kept picking and she kept picking until the day she and that newborn child we spoke of before collided, and and the Queen ended up destroying a world instead.

The irony of it all being that her failure at killing the baby and her success at obliterating a realm were the start of both of their journeys to each other.

We're not there yet.

Instead, the moments are beating down upon them all, the things they'll never forget.

For Snow White, it’s the flash of the red and black of Regina's military coat as she seems to suddenly appear from nowhere, practically throwing herself in front of Emma’s otherwise defeated form. It's the sound Regina makes when Gideon slams his hand forward, the way both the boy and Regina gasp in shock.

For Prince Charming, it’s the way Regina jerks when the blade enters her belly, her eyes going glassy as the reality of the sacrifice she’s just made crashes down on her. Unfocused, uncertain, like for a few seconds, she's somewhere else entirely. It's the odd smile which crosses her face.

For Belle, it’s the surreal quietness of the way Regina crumbles to the streets, her knees folding under her as an unexpected serenity crosses the former Queen’s features. It's the way Regina's blood pours out over her fingers, staining them bright red.

For Captain Hook, it’s the chilling way Emma screams out for Regina, her voice breaking as she falls to the ground, her knees scrapping against asphalt, her hands scrabbling to get to Regina. It's the numbing desperation he sees as Emma tries to push magic into Regina, pleading with her to please, hold on.

For Rumple, it’s the way the clouds in the sky suddenly seem to darken, growing almost inky black. It’s the way the ancient demon inside of him shudders at the energy all around them. It's the way Regina looks upwards, her expressions shifting from shocked, to calm, to frightened to looking almost hopeful. 

For Henry, it's seeing his mother on the ground, dying again. It's the way she gasps his name and reaches for him. It's the thousand other memories slamming against him, the times before this when maybe she didn't know how much he loves her. The ones where maybe she didn't know how much he needs her.

Those are the moments they remember. Everything else seems a blur. A muddle of emotion and tragedy, the terrible details mercifully forgotten.

That's a blessing, of course, but neither our Savior nor our Queen have ever been so blessed. 

 


 

As the lightning continues to crackle around her and Gideon, Regina hears someone screaming her name.

The day’s events flashes before her eyes – running from a vengeful alternate version of her son in another land, finding (and then losing) Robin Hood all over again, and then finally stepping through a tree with Emma, the two of them tracing a decades old path back to the Land Without Magic. She thought today would end with a warm lavender-scented bath and a cup of chamomile tea, recovering from yet another new set of traumas suffered.

But well, plans change.

“Regina!” the sharp and panicked sound snaps her train of thought. Emma’s voice, she realizes.

And then Emma’s touching her, gently guiding her down (Regina thinks it amazing that she’d managed to stay up this long). The first face she sees – the one she actively looks for – is Henry’s – his green eyes frightened as he kneels beside Emma. “Henry," she murmurs.

"Mama." That's all she needs to hear to know that this is terribly serious.

Well, she supposes that was and is the plan.

It’s okay,” Regina tells him. "It's all going to be okay."

He looks back at her in horror, aghast at her calm. This will be the second time she will have died in front of him, and she feels terrible sadness at this. She tells herself that it will be okay, that this will all be all right eventually, but his heartbreak makes her waiver.

Until she sees Emma’s face as the blonde leans in towards her.

“Emma,” she murmurs, her words slightly slurring, blood spotting her lips. 

“Damn you, why?” Emma demands as she presses her hands to Regina’s wound, trying to press her magic into her fallen partner even though she knows that she’s wasting her time; this blade had damaged the Evil Queen in a way which magic could not repair, and they believed (and feared) that the sword could and would do the same to Regina if given the chance. They'd been planning to use it against the Queen and against the cloaked figure.

Best laid plans and all of that.

“I could have beaten him,” Emma insists, her emotions welling up and spilling out. Equal parts heartbreak and anger – fury at Regina deciding to sacrifice her life for her. A culmination of the relentlessly savage redemption quest Regina has been on ever since she’d chosen to tear the Evil Queen out of her.

Before they’d ended up in the other realm together thanks to Genies and wishes, Emma had been terrified about how willing Regina had been to die. How quickly she would suggest that sacrificing herself was the only way to end the threat of the Queen. She’d stopped Regina then and there, but that same unsettling suicidal tendency showed up again in her willingness to allow the Wish version of her son to kill her rather than raise her hand against him.

There, Emma had been able to break free from her weak Wish version just in time to save Regina from certain death.

This, time, though, Regina had been the one stepping in.

Which, she supposes, is why Regina asks, “Did I save you?”

As if they haven’t been living a story where one of them is constantly saving the other one over and over again.

“Yeah,” Emma breathes, choking and breaking in the middle. “You did.” She moves dark hair away from Regina’s brow, noticing the beading sweat there, the signs of fever which won’t have time to take hold and turn dangerous before Regina’s body entirely gives out beneath the physical trauma.

“Good. I owed you that and so much more. You deserve so much better than the story that was never yours,” Regina replies. Though she is gasping for air, her words are clear, even though they shouldn’t be. She’s dying, and they all know this, and she should be nearly incoherent beneath the pain that has grown to be so sharp and intense as to be sanity-shattering. She should be struggling to get the words out, but she’s not. The words are there, and she’s somehow able to look up and into blue-green eyes which are so full of hurt and confusion, so incapable of understanding how this happened. Her hand lifts, and only then does she begin to shake as her eyes fall on the runny streaks of bright red blood on her fingers. Still, she brings her hand to Emma’s face and cups her soft cheek, feeling the blonde turn into her palm, probably not even realizing that she’s doing it.

"And you don't?" Emma asks.

Behind her, Emma hears her father say something about an ambulance, but they all know this will be over before help arrives.

They all know it was over the moment Regina stepped in front of Emma and took the death blow for her.

"I believe we have to make our own stories now." She smiles. "Emma. Emma. Emma."

"Hey, I'm here," Emma tells her, still touching her. She thinks Regina's delirious, no longer making sense. 

"I couldn't let you lose hope," Regina continues, gasping through another wave of pain.

“You think I could have hope after this?”

“I think you will,” Regina promises.

The words are incomprehensible, inexplicable.

“Why? Why did you do it? There had to have been another way,” Emma insists, her tears dripping down her cheek.

“There was, Emma. Me. It was always me."

“No –”

“You told me to challenge fate. You said we make our own. So I did. I changed our fate."

“I meant with Robin Hood. I meant for you to bring him back so you could be happy again.”

“That was never going to work; he’s not real. You are. My Savior. My Sheriff. My Emma. It was always only you. Just like it was always only me.”

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand.” The tears fall from her cheeks, splashing down to her collar and then onto Regina’s face, mixing with Regina’s own tears and blood, tasting of salt, iron and heartbreak.

“Your fate was always to die even when you wanted to live. Mine was always to live even when I wanted to die. That was what Fate decided for us. But I saw how things could be and I changed the story.”

“Regina, please,” she says again, head dipped down, forehead practically against Regina's even as she tries to push healing magic in. Henry's hand is atop hers, like maybe he can give her just enough extra to be what stops his mother from bleeding out.

If only it were that easy.

There’s the sound of boots above them, her parents moving closer. Only Hook stays back, shifting foot to foot, and wondering if the unsettling creaking noise he’s been hearing ever since Emma had taken on the darkness for Regina is the happiness he'd tried to create for himself finally coming fully apart.

Back then, he’d been too consumed with getting Emma back to really consider the implications of Emma’s selfless choice on behalf of the Queen, but during his time in the Underworld, he’d been taunted with it. Asked why Emma would try to save Regina’s soul, but choose to corrupt his.

He didn’t have an answer to that question then, and he wonders if he does now.

Wonders a lot of things as he watches Emma clinging to Regina, their small circle of heartbreak completed by the son they share.

Not that anyone notices the turbulence of his thoughts.

Especially not the two women involved.

“My baby,” Regina murmurs, her quickly dulling eyes flickering over to Henry. “My beautiful little prince.”

“Don’t leave me,” he whispers; Regina’s heart aches, he’s too young to understand any of this. Too innocent to understand what she’d seen in the moments before her decision, a vision flooding her mind with possibilities of a different, perhaps better and more hopeful future. A future, which admittedly, is hard to conceive of right now as she's dying in the street, but she thinks that even if it never comes to be, then it was still worth it if it means that Fate's entire design for them has been destroyed.

“Never,” Regina promises, and brings Henry’s hand to her lips, kissing it and leaving red atop it. She brings it to her chest, then, holding it against her own slowing heart. If this is the end – the actual end – she’s going to go out with him knowing that her heart has always beat for him, and she will take the warmth of his touch with her back into eternity.

But…she doesn’t think this is the end.

It can’t be. Right?

Another turn of her head, and she sees Rumple standing there, watching her with a furrowed brow, looking equal parts impressed, devastated and sickened. She simply stares at him. A tale of such deep tragedy and manipulation, but also a twisted kind of love behind them. Their eyes meet in understanding; he tilts his head like he sees something. Knows something. Then simply turns and walks away, knowing that it’s not his place to be here.

Regina lets out a deep, increasingly ragged breath, and then turns her attention back to Emma. Because Emma needs to understand, and time is growing so much shorter. So terminally short. It takes everything she has left in her, but she forces out the words she needs Emma to hear, barely escaping through lips stained red and wet with blood and pain. “I know that you think this isn’t hope, but it is. It’s what you showed me when you refused to give up on me all those years ago. Because it’s not Fate or magic that makes you who you are. Who you are, Emma – it's the courage, strength and love you have had deep inside of you no matter how many terrible things you've been through. That's what makes you everyone's hope. And it's what drew me you even when we hated each other. But I don't hate you, anymore, Emma. I love you."

Emma’s mouth opens, gaping at the gravity of the moment, uncertain how to respond. Feeling everything.

All she can do is whisper, “Please,” once more.

But Regina is fading too quickly to hear her pleas, her heart slowing beneath her son’s hand.

Her eyes roll to the side, landing on Snow and David, their shared story so full and yet still so incomplete. “You were right,” Regina says, and then the world grows dark.

The last thing she mumbles as her eyes close is perhaps to all of them, but most certainly to Emma, "We're going to beat Fate together."

High above them, thunder rolls and lightning crackles and a new battle begins.

 


 

Five years ago, the only reason people would have attended Regina's funeral would have been there either to gloat or to ensure her death. Now, the wet, green grass is packed with those she’s saved and those who have forgiven her and found unexpected strength in her redemption. As it turns out, they feel a loss they can’t explain, an emptiness they don’t understand. And some even feel a strange sense of wrongness about this moment, a feeling like it isn’t real.

Like it isn’t as final or as grandiose as the death of the Queen should be.

But then, some would most certainly argue, perhaps that’s because they’re not certain if the Evil Queen part of her is actually dead. Sure, the snake version of her was missing when they’d gone to check on her, and the assumption is she’d crumbled into dust upon Regina’s death, but no one knows.

Not for sure.

And Emma’s not entirely certain she could handle it if she did know.

For now, though, her thoughts are on the casket in front of her, red roses piled atop it.

She stares at it while Regina is eulogized, the air thick with emotions.

Snow speaks, Henry speaks, David speaks, even Leroy speaks.

When it’s Emma’s time, she stands and for a few moments just looks at the casket in confusion, as if she is in the middle of a bad dream.

Then murmurs, “I guess, you could say, she knew how to make an entrance and an exit.”

 


 

It’s later and she’s alone in the vault, a bottle of whiskey in her hand as she stares at the casket.

In the morning, it’ll be sealed, but for tonight, the heavy lid can still be moved aside. It’s grossly macabre, and Emma’s drunk, but she needs to see her one last time.

It’s absurd; this isn’t how she wants to remember Regina, but she can’t stop herself. She pushes the lid away and looks in, and then tears come crashing down her cheeks.

Most people say the dead look like they’re just sleeping, but Regina doesn’t. She's too quiet, too still. And while Regina had always been skilled at controlling her movements, the force of her presence was felt in everything she did. Always larger than life, the most bombastic if chaotic light in every room.

Now, there’s just the slight crackle of energy over her pantsuit clad body, her elemental magic still bleeding its way back into nature. It’s why they hadn’t needed to embalm her body for the funeral – because, apparently, magic can temporarily preserve better than formaldehyde ever will. At least until the magic is gone.

Which is almost too shattering a thought to even consider.

She takes a deep breath, telling herself that she needs to get her feelings under control.

Because she has a heartbroken son who has just lost one mother and now desperately needs the other to be strong. And she has boyfriend who wants to be more than that, his hand constantly dipping into his pocket like he has something in there he desperately wants to give to her.

Something she just as desperately needs him not to.

Which, she supposes, is its own problem.

But those words…

No. No, she refuses to think about Regina’s final words.

Because she lives in a town full of fairy tale characters who tell her that now the fated Final Battle is over, she no longer has to be the Savior, and yet they still look at her like she and she alone are the answer to every question.

Ridiculous, really, given that she can’t even answer any of the questions within her own heart.

Such as how she feels about Regina having taken on her fate just as she had once taken on Regina's when she'd stopped the Dark One from possessing Regina.

And more dramatically, why Regina’s final words had, for a brief moment, stopped it.

“Is there enough in that bottle for me?” she hears suddenly, the unexpected interruption making her breath slightly hitch in surprise. She turns slightly, and looking over, finds Zelena standing in the doorway. Unkempt, her eyes wet, and red hair flying in every direction. Visibly and horribly distraught.

“Yeah,” she replies, and hands the bottle over. “You weren’t at the funeral.”

“Regina and I weren’t exactly on great terms before…before.”

"Maybe you weren't but I'm not sure that matters. You were her sister and despite everything else, she loved you.”

“She was a fool,” Zelena retorts, her lip curling into a sneer.

“She was,” Emma agrees, thinking about that moment when Regina had stepped in front of the blade meant for Emma. And then thinking about how a year earlier in a realm created by the Author, Regina had done the same thing for Henry. There, just as here, she’d laid down her life for those she … loved.

Zelena doesn’t answer, doesn’t notice the way Emma is suddenly frowning, drawn in by her own complicated thoughts. She just takes a swig from the bottle, scowls at the sting of it, and then says gruffly, “I needed to see her one last time.”

“So did I,” Emma admits, shaking herself free of confusing thoughts she has no answers for.

“Yeah,” Zelena echoes, and then for a moment, they’re both just looking down at Regina, both marveling at just how wrong it is to see Regina so lifeless and quiet. After a time, Emma turns to Zelena and asks, “Do you think the Queen is gone, too?”

Zelena shrugs like it doesn’t matter but the movement is too rough, too mechanical to be anything but grief and despair. A loss suffered that she can't even begin to comprehend or come to peace with. “Wasn’t that always the goal of Regina’s suicidal redemption plan? Destroy herself to destroy the Queen?”

“You’re still angry about her splitting herself in half.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“I think the person who told me I could be better than the worst of myself was a foolish hypocrite who believed the only way she could ever be worthy of the ‘family’ she so deeply loved was if she was only the part of her that they could accept.” Her blue eyes snap fire. "And so she became that. For all of you."

“We accepted –”

“You let her maim herself,” Zelena cuts in, her voice almost the hiss of a wounded animal who has been through far too much. “If you'd actually accepted all of her, you would have stopped her from ripping herself in half to satisfy some desperate need for forgiveness, for that acceptance you were never going to give. She broke herself in half out of some desperate need to be loved and forgiven and in the end, all any of that got Regina was eternity in a stone box."

Emma looks down at Regina, and then says softly as she pulls her jacket tight around herself to ward off a sudden encroaching cold, "You're right."

There’s a moment when Zelena looks like she might keep attacking, but then she’s scowling and looking around, before returning her eyes to Regina’s too-still body. She says instead, her voice cracking beneath her words. “Did my sister ever teach you a preservation spell?”

Emma blinks in surprise. “Uh, no. Why would she have?”

“Because eventually the magic within her will be completely gone, and not everything is meant to be dust.” She holds out her hands, then and a light vaguely greenish-brown glimmer encompasses them, seeping from her fingers and onto Regina.

“What are you –” Emma stops short. “You’re preserving her body from…decay?”

“She might be a bloody fool, who for reasons beyond my understanding refused to give up on me, but she’s also the Queen,” Zelena says. And then adds, her voice quiet, “And she was my sister." The unspoken "And I loved her, too," hangs thickly in the air, almost suffocating them both with the anguish of it.

Overcome, Emma pleads, “Show me.” She tightens her shoulders, and readies her body for magic and finishes with, “Show me and then drink with me until this day goes away.” She gestures awkwardly behind her. "There are apples there, too. My mom thought Regina would be amused by the them."

"Probably. My sister had a fairly twisted sense of humor beneath all of that self-loathing and rigid stick-up-the-ass poise."

"I can't tell if that was a compliment or an insult. Or both."

Zelena smirks, but it falls away when she looks back over at the casket. She says softly, “We can drink until both of us are sick, but this day will never go away.”

“No,” Emma agrees.

And hugs her jacket even closer around her.

 


 

It’s three in the morning when she crawls into the bed on the upper level, wrapping her arms around her heavily slumbering son and pulling him close to her. She could have gone back to the house she now shares with Killian, could have let him comfort him, but that’d been the last place that she'd wanted to be.

For a thousand reasons she has yet to work through, but the most important one being that right here with Henry is where she should be.

“Emma?” he whispers, turning to face her, his sudden motion causing both the warming blanket and the quilt that they’re under (Maine winters have a way of bringing about bedding layering) to tumble to the floor. In the pale light of the room, she can see dried tear tracks on his cheeks, a sure sign that he’d cried himself to sleep hours earlier. “Did you just get home?”

“Yeah, Kid.” She smiles awkwardly, choosing not to correct the statement about ‘home’ because, despite the fact that she’s been sharing a house with Hook for a few months now, she’s still not entirely used to considering the massive old-fashioned house her home.

“You okay?” he asks, noticing her drift-off. He can smell alcohol on her breath, but there's also the cling of the icy air as well as salt water which suggests to him that after she'd been drinking, she'd been out walking around. 

“No,” she admits. “I’m far from okay right now.”

“Me, too.”

“Look, I know you’re older now and probably really not into sharing a bed with your…with me, anymore, but –”

Hearing what she'd been quick to try not to say, he just as quickly rushes to reassure her. “You’re my mom, too, Emma.” He reaches behind him and pushes a pillow towards her before reaching down and grabbing the warming blanket and yanking it over both of them.

She nods jerkily, unable to speak around the knot in her throat.

“I really miss her,” he says, facing her again, new tears on his cheeks.

“Me, too,” she echoes, and then leans in and presses her lips to the top of his head. Gently, she wraps her arms around him again, holding him as he cries into her shoulder. Crying with him. Eventually, they dose off together, the exhaustion of the day taking them without their permission. Neither of them realizing they’d never pulled the quilt back atop them.

And neither of them thinking a thing about waking up with the quilt settled over them.

 


 

It’s a few days before she’s able to make her way to the mansion, but she’s here now. Standing stiffly, even uncomfortably in the middle of Regina’s room (a room she’d never been into while Regina had been alive) and wondering just what she’s supposed to do now that all of this is hers. Well, technically, the mansion belongs to Henry now, but as his guardian and the (unexpected) executor of Regina’s estate, everything is in her hands including Regina’s home and all of her many curious belongings. Including the Mills family vault where she forever sleeps, preserved.

“I really hope you’re getting a kick out of the headaches you’re giving me,” she mutters, glancing into the air as if Regina is listening to her.

Ridiculous, of course.

“Mom?” Henry says from the doorway, entering with a gym bag slung over his shoulder.

“Just talking to myself,” she chuckles.

“I hear that’s the first sign of insanity.”

“Only the first?"

"Mom would say of many." He glances around, his eyes settling on a stack of sweater sittings on the counter, neatly folded, but not yet put away on shelves in the closet. “She was always so cold.  I think it was probably what her magic did to her body or maybe it was like…lady stuff, but whatever it was, she sometimes would shiver even in a super warm room. Sometimes I'd even find her all bundled up in the middle of summer. But she always wanted a window open, too."

“I remember,” Emma murmurs, glancing over the open window by the bed. Then, an eyebrow up, “Lady stuff?”

“Did it make you smile?” he asks, a cheeky grin on his face, his eyes dancing mischievously. Biologically, he’s not at all related to Regina, but in moments like this, he’s somehow all her.

“A little. You packed up?”

He shrugs. “Why can’t we stay here?”

“You really want Hook in your mom’s house? Because I kind of feel like she wouldn’t be terribly cool with that.” It’s said lightly, like it’s supposed to be a joke, but there’s a heaviness under the words, this feeling like all these broken pieces can’t possibly find a way back together again.

He cringes. “Not really.”  

There’s a clear second statement there that is impossible to miss. A clear suggestion he doesn’t particularly want Hook around at all. Which is a problem because the likely plan will be that at some point he will leave the loft and move in with Emma – and Hook.

“Right," Emma murmurs. Then moves closer to him. "Look, Henry, this place will always be yours. But for now…”

“I get it. You’re together and maybe eventually more. I’m sure –”

"Do you not want to live with Hook?"

"I want to live with my moms," he replies. It's an answer and not one at all. 

“Kid.” She steps in front of him. “Talk to me."

He meets her eyes. “I’m okay,” he says. "Really."

“Yeah, I mean aside from the living arrangements part, you kind of do seem like you are. Why is that exactly?"

“What?”

“We lost your mom a week ago. I still wake up every morning expecting twenty plus texts from her because she couldn’t sleep and decided to rattle off some new idea about improving Storybrooke or screwing around with the budget of the Sheriff’s department. Or, if she had taken too much of her allergy medicine, sometimes she would send me twenty texts about how she plans to kick all the fairies out of the convent, but not before she stir-fries their wings.”

“Yuck,” he grimaces.

“She really hated those fairies."

“Fairies in general, I think. They did kind of screw her over a time or two,” he reminds her, sobering in memory of the often sad and tragic life that his mother had led. A life that had rarely allowed her happiness.

At least, not long-lasting happiness.

“My point,” Emma says gently, hands on his shoulders. “Is that I haven’t stopped thinking about her, expecting her to somehow show up just to tease and annoy me, and I’d bet it will be a very long time until I do. So it’s okay if you are, too. You don’t have to the man of the house, Henry. And you don’t have to protect me if that’s what you’re doing. You don't have to be okay with anything you're not okay with. Even me and Hook."

He opens his mouth to protest, stopped only by Emma’s lifted eyebrow telling him he's wasting his time. Finally, “She’d want us to take care of each other. And she'd want you happy. That's what she'd want. And if he makes you that..." he trails off, incapable of fully committing to acceptance.

“You’re right. But that doesn’t mean you don’t allow yourself to grieve or feel what you feel. She wouldn’t want that for you, Henry.”

“Are you? Grieving?”

“In my own way. I’ve had a lot of experience with loss.”

“So have I,” he reminds her. “But she’s –”

“Different. I know. She's different for me, too."

“Yeah, I know.” He looks around the room, then says, “It’s really cold in here."

“It is.” She wraps an arm around him and pulls him close, rubbing his arms to warm him.

"We are going to talk more about this Hook thing, okay?"

"Do we have to do it now?"

"No. Not now."

Her eyes tracking from the open window and then down to the stack of sweaters that has fallen over.

 


 

Weeks pass, and it doesn’t get easier, but maybe that’s to be expected.

There’s too much anger and heartbreak and confusion for her to be able to start dealing with losing Regina.

There’s just too much…loss.

Of her coin-flip opposite, yet so alike; the woman she’d gone from being enemies to friends to….to what?

To what?

Those last words from Regina – the ones she’d pretended not to hear – blast through her mind.

“I love you.”

Maybe she’d meant as co-parents and magical partners. Maybe she’d meant as best friends.

But…none of that fits with everything else Regina had said.

“We're going to beat Fate together.”

Sitting slumped forward in her chair, her head in her hands as she rubs eyes, Emma tries to remind herself that Regina had been bleeding out and likely delirious during her last few minutes. It’s silly to try to assign any meaning to words that probably had indicated nothing beyond friendship. Friends say that kind of thing to each other all the time, and okay so maybe their friendship had never been conventional and normal by most standards, but they had certainly held a very strong affection and fondness for each other. At the very least, right?

“It was always only you.”

Screaming seems appropriate right about now, she thinks, thumbs pressed against now pulsating temples, a massive migraine coming on rapidly as her emotions shift and tumble.

So, of course, that’s when the door to the station opens.

She hears his approach before she sees him, his gait as always too heavy and lazy. “Swan,” he calls out as he enters. In his hand, he has a bag of food, grease staining white paper.

“Lunch?”

“Aye. For my lady.” He hands her the bag, grinning like he’s terribly proud of himself

“Thank you.” She opens the bag and peers in, finding a hamburger and fries. She hasn’t felt terribly hungry since Regina’s death, and now is really no different, but there’s always enough appetite for fries, she muses. She snags a few and looks up at him gratefully, feeling a flush of guilt about the thoughts she’d just been having about Regina. Well, more the questions she had about the words she’s trying to pretend Regina had never said.

Hook’s been pretending, too, but the wary way he watches her tells her otherwise. Like he’s just waiting for her to either run away and leave forever or perhaps possibly declare that she’s storming the Underworld again, and this time, she’s coming back with the one she really loves.

But Emma doesn’t say those words. She doesn’t say much at all to anyone but Henry, and it’s frustrating him. Since Regina's death, she's been staying with Henry at the loft again, instead of the house the two of them have shared ever since the return from the Underworld, and it's driving him crazy.

This isn’t how he’d imagined the lead-up to an engagement.

Which means he needs to shift the playing field. Get her away from thinking about Regina. Convince her to let Regina go and move on to happier things.

Like their future together, hopefully soon enough as Man and Wife.

“A romantic getaway,” Hook suggests finally, bright and warm, trying to remind her of their future. Because that’s where hope is for him. This wonderful idea of a perfect life for them. A life he’d very much like to get started on now that the whole fated-to-die Savior and Final Battle business is behind them.

“Henry needs me, Storybrooke needs me,” Emma replies, her voice dull, her eyes flickering up to take in the way he’s indolently slung across the desk. There’s a lazy casualness to his movements, betrayed only by the keen awareness in his eyes. The way he watches her, waiting for something to break.

Waiting for Regina’s final words to change everything.

Because doesn’t Love (even the suggestion of it) always end up changing everything? Sometimes for the better, but also sometimes for the worse?

Like in Camelot and that field when he'd been dying and she'd, in her frightened desperation, turned his already damaged soul into something far darker?

But no, they both try not to think about that. They’ve managed to move beyond it.

Well, mostly they’ve managed to just ignore it, but it’s worked out just fine all the same. At least he likes to think so as his fingers scrape the box in his pocket.

“Henry is safe at the loft. And your father can watch the town, love,” Killian reminds her, and then he’s stepping forward and wrapping his arms around her, like his touch will be enough to anchor her back to their story. “It would do you good to get away. It would do us good to have some time alone, together.

But his words and his touch aren't enough for her. Nothing is right now. “My father doesn’t have magic.”

“And Storybrooke hasn’t had a magical problem since the Queen and uh…Regina died. With the whole Final Battle rubbish behind us, we can move forward finally. You and me, I think we deserve some just us time away from this town and all of her misery. Don’t you?”

“Her?”

“The town, Emma,” he says gently, like he’s speaking to a child. Placating, but also annoyed.

Emma turns, then, and stares at him in confusion, like for a moment her name on his lips sounds weird.

“What? What is it now? What have I said wrong now?" he demands, and he’s spoiling for a fight he thinks they’ve been needing to have since the night Regina had fallen to the ground, a sword meant for Emma stuck in her chest instead.

“Nothing,” Emma finally stammers. “It’s just...we can’t - I can't - leave this town undefended.”

“So that’s it? We can never leave Storybrooke again? That seems dramatic and a bit ridiculous, you must agree.”

“I don’t know about never again,” she allows. “Just…not right now.”

“Emma, we should be getting ready to take the next step in our relationship,” he insists.

Her eyebrow lifts. “That’s why you want to go away? So you can –”

“Don't,” he warns, like he knows that if she intentionally ruins a moment which he’s been building up to for weeks, well, then maybe there’s no coming back from that.

She holds up her hands, not quite placating, but not entirely dismissive of him, either. “Look, I know you want to do something – get away, just the two of us and we will. Just…not right now, okay? The town is pretty frayed because of what happened. Whether they ever wanted to admit it or not - or even knew - she was their rock. They need me right now.”

“You’re not the Savior, anymore.”

It takes her a moment to reply, Regina’s last words once again rolling around in her mind. But they don’t make sense to her, and so she confirms his instead, “No, I’m not. Regina was that.”

“Emma –”

“I need to talk a walk. And to go check in on Henry.”

“The lad is fine.”

She turns to face him, blue-green eyes blazing defiantly. “The ‘lad’ is my son, Killian, and I’ll say whether or not he’s fine. He lost his mother only a few weeks ago. He’s not fine.”

“And you? How are you?” There’s a different question there, but he dares not ask it.

“She was my best friend and she was my partner,” Emma answers, and it’s not really an answer at all.

"Aren't I your partner?

"Killian -"

“Right,” he grunts, and then steps back because he’s been around enough to a disturbing non-answer when he hears one. “Will you be home for dinner?”

Her eyes narrow, like the words both sound and feel wrong, even though they’re objectively not unreasonable. “Honestly? I don’t know,” she finally answers, her tone chilly. And then, with that said, she’s standing up, and walking away.

“Emma!”

The door closes behind her, her name swallowed into the clicking of metal and wood.

Until the wind whispers it. A softly murmured sigh. It almost sounds like exasperation with a hint of worry.

She stares upwards, thinking she must be going insane.

Thinking maybe she already is it.

And then, she shivers.

 


 

She finds herself in the Mayor’s office a few days later.

Eventually, Archie will take over the job. Until there’s time for a full election, anyway. He’d long ago been named the unofficial Deputy Mayor in the city paperwork (apparently Regina had always had a succession plan in place, who knew?), and now it’s just being formalized. Or it will be eventually; he’s not yet ready to leave his job as counselor for a shaken town. All in time. For now, the office is quiet, the beautiful but melancholy wallpaper Emma’s only company.

Carefully, her mind churning with a hundred thoughts, Emma sits behind the desk, her eyes flickering up to a martini glass atop it, red lipstick pressed against the rim. She thinks about Regina telling her how she’d confronted the Queen in this office, using their unique split but still the same person to steal a wish from the Genie. And thus, save Emma from a lifetime of being a cowardly, simpering nobody serving a cold and cynical version of her parents.

This glass has been here almost six weeks, Regina has been…gone almost five.

She shivers and pulls her jacket tighter. It still doesn’t seem real or possible. And those goddamn words are still scratching at the back of her mind.

"I love you."

A thousand other things to say, and she’d chosen to say that. Why does it matter? What does it change? Nothing, right?

The love of her life is Killian Jones.

Regina’s was Robin.

Right?

And yet…

Tears fall down her cheeks.

And yet…

“Why?” Emma whispers. “You could have said anything else.”

She’s suddenly struck by an absolutely picture-perfect image of Regina staring back at her, that impatient smirk slightly lifting her lip even as her eyebrow soars upwards in bemusement. She can almost hear the exasperated, Miss Swan.”

Which is, of course, utterly ridiculous. But…it’s also not the first time over the last week she’s seen Regina in her head – or in her dreams. And the meetings haven’t been what she might have expected. Well, they haven’t been much at all. A gaze, a smile, maybe a word or two. Sometimes a curious moment of just looking at her and seeing Regina looking back at her. Fascinating, but hardly the kind of conversations you’d expect your subconscious to have with the dead.

Miss Swan.” More insistent now, perhaps even annoyed. 

She’s about to reply – which is madness – when she hears a sudden thunderingly loud crack coming from outside. Like something breaking. Wiping roughly at her eyes where moisture has gathered, she stands up and crosses to the window, pushing aside the curtains to look out onto the courtyard, Regina’s proud apple tree large and magnificent in the middle of it. Only it doesn’t look so magnificent right now, one of its large limbs having suddenly snapped right down the middle, red apples strewn across the bright green grass, one of them rolling several feet away and managing to settle straight up.

Emma notes with a sinking heart that the broken branch is the one that she’d severed from the tree six years ago. Regina had eventually healed it, returning it to its former glory, but she wonders if absent its caretaker, the limb has one again decayed, shattering beneath the previous injury.

Death is no simpler than life, Emma.”

The thought of the tree decaying without Regina and the sudden out-of-nowhere sobering words slam up against her still badly broken heart, and then just like that, Emma’s on the ground, knees hard against the marble, sobbing roughly into her hands, her shoulders spasming as everything spills out.

She feels arms around her a minute later, soft lips pressed against her hair. “Shh. Shh.”

She looks up, and into her mother’s worried green eyes. “Mom?”

“I just had this…weird feeling that I needed to be here. That you would need me.”

"I do," Emma murmurs, and holds on.

 


 

“Drink this,” Snow orders, offering Emma a glass of water as she makes her way back over the couch in Regina's office. Emma thinks to argue but the look in her mother’s eyes suggests that now isn’t the time to be stubborn just for the sake of it.

Instead, she murmurs, “I’m okay.” Her eyes flicker over to the fireplace, dormant absent Regina.

“You’re not," Snow corrects. "I’m not. I don’t think we’re supposed to be.”

“It’s stupid, right? I mean, I hated her when I first came to Storybrooke. We got on like cats and dogs that first year. I used to dream about running her over with the Bug. How awful is that?"

"You'd hardly be the first person to have fantasized about running her over with...things."

"Things?"

"Horses. Carts. A couple of battering rams," Snow says thoughtfully, no doubt playing back her own twisted history with Regina in her head. “But then everything changed. She changed. Because of Henry and you –”

“And because of you,” Emma adds.

“Because of all of us. Her family. We helped her find the best of her herself. We helped her become who she always wanted to be."

Emma frowns. “Did we?”

Snow’s brow knits. “I don’t understand. Of course –”

“We encouraged her to split herself in half, Mom. Was that…finding the best of herself? Was the last few months where she seemed so tentative and uncertain all the time who she wanted to be? Even after she was just Regina without the Queen, she looked at herself in the mirror like she was someone terrible."

For a moment, Snow doesn’t respond, as if she’s weighing Emma’s words. The troubled look that flitters across her face tells Emma that this probably isn’t the first time Snow has had thoughts like these. Finally, Snow says, “Emma, we just wanted her to be happy.”

“I know, but Mom, she wasn’t happy after she did that."

“She wasn’t happy before she did that.”

“She was. With Robin. Or at least she could have been. She was trying to be.”

“Maybe,” Snow agrees, and it seems like an odd non-answer.

“Mom?”

Snow sighs. “I’ve thought a lot about that night on the roof and the choice she made to split herself in half. And I’ve thought a lot about the choice I made to encourage it. I told her that we forgave her and the way she replied…now that I think about it, I should have realized that what she was saying was that even if we could forgive her, she couldn’t forgive herself. But I was so…eager to have the chance to get rid of the Queen once and for all, for her to have a chance to start over with a clean slate, that I didn’t stop and think about what cutting her in half could do to her psyche. I was selfish, and you’re right, she wasn’t happy afterwards because what she did to herself just reinforced all of the hatred and self-loathing she’s been holding onto for so long. And then she had was all of the guilt without any of the fire which had helped her to survive. We – I should have done better for her.”

“The Queen put you through a lot,” Emma reminds her. "Your choice was understandable."

"You don't think yours to support her was?"

"I think I felt guilty about not supporting her after Robin died and I felt guilty about Killian surviving. He was the one who was supposed to die, not Robin."

"It doesn't work that way," Snow insists. "Killian didn't live because Robin died."

"No, but Robin died because I brought everyone down to the Underworld to save Killian."

"Emma -"

"Point is," Emma cuts in, because that's very much something she doesn't want to talk about right now. "I think we all bad choices that night."

“And now they're both gone,” Snow replies, sitting heavily down beside Emma. "I still can't believe any of this is real. After everything I went through with Regina, after every bit of history and trauma she and I survived...for it to all just end so quickly...it just feels wrong."

They let Snow's words hang over them, both of them deep in thought until Emma asks one of the questions that's been bothering her since her conversation with Zelena, “Do you think she thought that the only way for her to ever get real forgiveness was for her to die for me?”

“I think…” Snow pauses, knowing what she’s about to say will crack the thin strand of denial that Emma’s been trying to cling to – and perhaps not just since that terrible night on the street five weeks earlier. “That Regina loved you very much. And not just as friends or as partner. She loved you, Emma. And Regina always loved with the heat of a thousand supernovas. She would have done anything for you. Even...that."

“Mom –”

“Emma.” She places a hand on Emma’s cheek. “I had the sometimes amazing and sometimes terrifying privilege of knowing Regina better than most people were ever allowed to. I knew her through the good and the bad times and I knew her through great happiness and even greater tragedy. I knew her heart and her eyes, and I knew the way she looked at someone when she was in love. I saw the way she looked at you. And not just that night. I saw the things she was willing to do to protect you. I saw her heart, and I think if you’re honest with yourself, you did, too.”

“But that’s –”

“That’s friendship, yes of course, and if you’re about to say it, yes, I’m sure it was always a little bit for Henry, too. But Emma, it was more than that and you know it. The journey the two of you went on together was incredible. Where you started and where you –”

“Ended,” Emma finishes for her, her voice dull.

“Doesn’t change what was there. Emma, you know.”

“No, no, I can’t because –”

“Because if you do, that means –”

“It means I lost another person I love.”

Their eyes meet.

Snows says softly, so full of understanding and compassion that it aches, “You love.”

No sooner are the words out of her mouth then there’s a sudden rush of air past both of them, spinning them around in its wake, and pointing them towards the fireplace which is now ablaze.

“What the hell?” Emma breathes, the heartbreak from a moment before pushed away.

Snow’s mouth opens around an answer and then closes again in recognition of its absurdity.

She shrugs helplessly, instead.

Their eyes both on the flames as they tickle the air.

Emma steps forward, and haltingly whispers, “Regina?” Like it’s insane to even think this.

But the flames surge when she speaks, turning from orange to almost translucent.

“Miss Swan.”

“Did you…did you hear that?”

Snow shakes her head, but there’s a strange softness to her eyes suggesting that she doesn’t think Emma’s going insane here. That maybe she does think that perhaps Emma can hear something no one else can. Before an answer can come, though, before they can actually start to believe that Regina is somehow talking to them from beyond the curtain of Life and Death, the flames suddenly flicker and fade.

Gone as quickly as they’d arrived, the fireplace dormant again. Leaving both women shocked and confused.

Emma finally manages, “Was that…did that…did that actually happen?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know,” Snow admits, staring at the now quiet fireplace.

“Right. I need to…I need to…”

“Emma.”

“Get back to work. I need to get back to work.”

“No, you need to go see Henry.”

“Henry? Why? Is he-”

“He’s as fine as anyone else is right now. But, Emma, whatever that was or wasn’t and no matter what you feel or don’t, Regina is on your mind. And in your heart. You need to be close to her right now and the closest you will ever be without her will always be through the son you share.”

“Yeah, okay.” She steps back, takes two steps, and then turns around and hugs her mother tight. “Thank you for finding me.”

“All family jokes aside, I meant it when I told you I just knew I needed to be here. Something told me that you would need me.” She glances back over at the fireplace, curiosity in her eyes.

Emma thinks to follow Snow down that rabbit hole, but it’s more than she can deal with.

Right now, Snow is right and what Emma needs most is Henry.

Regina’s son.

Their son.

Their original bond.

Not quite the original beginning of their journey (that had been Snow and Regina’s relationship many years before, and Emma does her best not to think of that because then it all gets really weird when she remembers that she’s the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming and even years later that's still super strange to her), but the start of the one which had brought them to Regina’s final words to her.

"I love you"  and “We're going to beat Fate together.”

Words, which, at the moment don't seem terribly final.

An absurd and probably unhealthy hope.

Damn her Charming genes.

Emma leans in and hugs her mother again. Closes her eyes and lets herself be held.

Allows her mothers’ never-ending faith in things always getting better to seep into her bones if only for a moment.

And then she pulls herself up tall and says, “I’ll be with Henry.”

“Good,” Snow says brightly. She glances back at the fireplace and then says, “It will be okay, Emma. It always is. Even in the worst of times, even when everything seems hopeless or it feels like it’s crazy to have any, hope has always gotten our family through in the past –”

A flicker of flame licks against the wood, perhaps an ember from before, but…

“And hope will get us through this as well.”

"One of these days," Emma tells her, "I'll figure out how to actually believe that."

"You will," Snow promises. 

 


 

Emma finds him standing at the rail on the dock, the wind sweeping back his hair as he looks out over the water. “Hey,” she calls out, offering him a cup of hot chocolate as she steps in close.

“How’d you find me?” he asks.

“Well, you weren’t in school, and I checked all the many other places you’ve played hooky at.” He grins, but doesn’t say anything. “And I checked your mom’s vault. So, this was just next on the list.” She reaches out and touches his arm and asks gently. “Why here, Kid?”

“You might not know this, but mom loved the ocean. The smell, the sound, everything.”

“I knew,” Emma tells him. “She tried to pretend she couldn’t stand it after Killian came around, we she'd have us meet down here a couple times a week."

“She really disliked him,” Henry notes, thinking back on all their interactions.

“No, she hated him,” Emma laughs, but there’s a strangeness to the sound. An odd discomfort.

He turns to face. “What’s wrong?”

“Just thinking.”

“About Mom?” His brow wrinkles. “Or about Hook or about what she said to you? Or both?” He nods and continues before she can stop him. “Right. You’re wondering if she hated him because she loved you. I mean yeah, probably, but I think she had other reasons, too.”

“They have – had – a past. And I think they were both uncomfortably aware of how similar they were. Or at least used to be."

“Probably,” Henry agrees. “But it was probably mostly all about you.” He’s teasing a little bit, trolling and pushing, and she wonders if this all seems so very simple through a child’s eyes. Yes, he’s lost too much in his life, but nothing on the scale she has – and certainly not regarding love and lovers as she has. Not that Regina was a lover, but still…this is all so messy.

Emma chuckles. “You’re a pain in the ass. You know that, right?”

“I’m aware, after all, I come by it naturally. Don’t deflect.”

“I’m not. I’m just…not ready to deal with any of that.”

“Will you ever be ready?”

“Will it change anything if I ever am? Or if I’m ever not?”

“Means you might not say yes to Hook when he asks.”

Her eyes narrow. “Okay, that sounds like an entirely different conversation you and I need to have. I understand the house and not wanting to live with him thing, but you told me you were okay with him and I dating. Has that changed?”

“Actually, what I said was that I want you happy. And I still do. I'll support whatever makes you happy."

“But?”

He scuffs his shoe against the planks. “I’m a kid. What do I know?”

“You know who Peter Pan actually is, you know how to rewrite worlds -"

"Do I?" Henry cuts in. "My pen couldn't bring Mom back."

"Rules of magic," Emma notes.

"Except every rule we've ever known have has been broken a hundred times. Why not this one?"

"It's more complicated than that."

Oh good, the Regina-like voice is back.

"Rude."

Choosing to ignore the voice for a moment, Emma pushes on. "My point is, you've been through a lot. And I don't just mean with magic and fairytales. You also figured how to bridge the gap between me and your mom and that wasn't easy. We were really at war that first year. We needed you to show us both we could be a family and thanks to you, we became that. I’d say you’re a lot more than just a kid. And you’re my son. I want to know what you think. Always.”

“Okay. It's just...I think…maybe you two don’t bring out the best in each other and I think that sometimes, you two seem like you’re miserable with each other,” Henry tells her and then immediately cringes. Not like he thinks she will hurt him, but rather afraid that he’s hurt her and hates the very thought of that; that he once hurt Regina is still something which weighs horribly on him. Even if doing so had indirectly led to his mother’s choosing to try to redeem herself.

“Honestly? Sometimes – a lot of the time – I think you might be right about me and Hook.”

“And other times?”

“I dragged my family to the Underworld for him. It has to be True Love, right?” There’s an uncomfortable dullness to her tone, like these are words she’s said to herself a thousand times – the only way she’s been able to justify her terrible acts against her family while she was the Dark One. And then afterwards when she’d chased after a man who had treated her horrifically. Yes, she'd done him wrong first by making him the Dark One, but...

True Love, right? And doesn't true love explain everything? Doesn’t it justify everything?

“No, it doesn’t and who ever said you and Hook were True Love? A rigged test created by a bloviating fool with flames for hair? Swan, you're smarter than that."

She looks up sharply, towards the horizon and then towards the water.

“Emma?” Henry queries, brow furrowing in concern.

“Sorry – been dealing with a nagging headache that won't leave me alone."

“Do you want me to?”

If Emma didn't know better, she'd think Regina almost sounds wounded. But that's insane, of course. “Anyway, sorry, Kid; what were you saying?”

“I wasn’t but...have you ever thought about storming the Underworld for Mom?”

“Once is more than enough, Miss Swan.

Emma chuckles darkly. “I’m pretty sure your mother would have my head if I even considered doing that again. Calling me 'Miss Swan' the whole time even though she knows that annoys the shit out of me."

"Mom liked annoying you."

"I'm aware," Emma replies dryly. "In any case, she went down with me to Underworld the first time because …well, actually I don’t know why.”

“I went because you needed me.”

“Yeah, you do,” Henry tells her.

“It’s not that simple. I know you all think that love is some magical fix-all –”

“No,” he argues. “If it was, Mom wouldn’t be gone. She’d still be here.”

"Maybe, I'm still here."

Emma turns her head again, glancing once more out at the water before turning back to scan the dock and look for any unannounced intruders. “Henry, do you hear anything?”

“Just the water,” he tells her. “Why?”

She shakes her head. “It’s nothing. How about we get out of here and get –”

“He needs to be spoiled right now.”

She grins. “To Granny’s for some ice cream. I think we could both use it.”

“You’re kind of the worst sheriff,” he laughs, stepping away from the railing.

She stops and looks at him, serious and worried. “But I'm a good mom, right?”

“Yes, you are.”

Henry leans up and kisses her on the cheek. “You’re a great mom.”

She lets out a breath of relief, then says shakily, “Okay. Let’s get out of here.”

“Mom,” he says, turning to face her. “We are going to talk about her eventually.”

“We can talk about her anytime you want,” Emma reminds him.

“I mean about you and her.”

“Your ice cream is waiting for you.”

He scowls at her. Then, growing serious. “You’re my mom, Emma. I just want you happy. Even if that means coming to terms with everything."

"You first," Emma counters. "Because no matter what you tell me, Kid, you're not handling this. And while I am so proud of you and thankful for you - I don't know what I would do without you - it's not your job to protect me."

“Yes, it is,” Henry declares, his tone like steel, so reminiscent of Regina. “No matter how many times you tell me otherwise, it will always be my job. I'm your son. Just as much as I’m hers. You two always will be my mothers, alive or…it will always be my job to take care of you. Nothing will ever change that.”

And with that, he is walking away, heading away from the pier towards the street, leaving her perplexed as she tries to figure out what just happened.

She looks back towards the water, the breeze around her suddenly brushing past her cheeks and billowing her hair.

“I don’t know if I’m going insane or I just had too much coffee, but if you are out there trying to contact me from the great afterlife, it’d be real nice if you could somehow help me figure out how to make any of this better.” She shrugs. "I kind of miss you."

“I kind of miss you, too."

"Oh," Emma murmurs, because she doesn't really know what else to say. Especially if this is all in her head.

"But my time and my energy are short, Swan, and we have wasted far too much of both of them."

Emma blinks. “What?”

"Find the Queen."

“What?” Emma asks again, feeling incredibly stupid about speaking into the air.

Even stupider when she's greeted with nothing but the sound of silence, the wind continuing to kiss her cheeks.

“Hey, Emma? You coming?”

With a groan of exasperation, she trots down the pier. “Sorry,” she says when she gets to him. “I was just –”

“Listening to the wind,” he finishes cryptically, and then he’s walking towards the Bug.

Leaving her wondering if they’re all going just a little bit insane.

 


 

Chapter Text

“Find the Queen,” Emma murmurs to herself as she pads across the wet grass of the cemetery; late Winter is rolling in hard and with it, abundant snow and rainstorms. Somewhat to her surprise (and perhaps confusion), Emma has more than a few distinct memories of Regina curled up in front of the fireplace in her office, often a blanket over her legs as she’d worked on town business. It’s a strange thing to have this image tucked away so fondly in her memory – this tiny slice of casual domestication by the typically larger-than-life Mayor – but it’s there and when she considers it, she always finds herself smiling at the comfortable simplicity of it. The ordinary, everyday Regina Mills-ness of it. An ordinary which most people had never had the privilege of getting to see.

She misses that, Emma thinks, pushing the loud, creaky door to the vault open. Which is ironic given that she hadn’t ever really thought about it in any kind of actualized way while Regina had been alive. Oh certainly, she’d had these stray thoughts about how attractive – or dare she stupidly say cute – Regina looked when she was on her couch, cross-legged with her glasses on, sometimes a glass of red wine at her hand if she was working late. The thoughts had always taken her by surprise, but then Emma had always reasoned that there was no reason she couldn’t be appreciative of her best friend in her calmest state.

It'd made sense then.

Nothing makes sense now.

Especially not the part where she’s listening to voices in her head and (somewhat) searching for a woman who had most certainly died at the same time Regina did. After all, they know that’s how the split worked per Jekyll and Hyde – the copy or separation was never its own actual person, always just a breakout.

Not that the Queen would agree with this, but well, she’d been a snake last time she was seen.

Or…is she still a snake?

No, this is crazy.

And yet here she is, in the doorway of Regina’s family vault, three stone coffins visible to her.

Henry Mills Sr. Cora Mills. And of course, Regina Mills.

She almost leaves at just the sight of the coffins.

At just the thought of having to once again face the reality that Regina is dead.

Dead and…dead is dead, right?

Rules of Magic, right?

Only Henry is right and there have been a lot of exceptions for something everyone assumes is a hard and fast rule.

So, then, maybe death perhaps isn’t quite as absolute as everyone always assumed it to be. Does that mean, then, that she should go looking for the Queen? Or is she just going insane and all of this is some wonky way to deal with her feelings?

Feelings. Yeah, those are a problem she's going to have to eventually deal with.

Later, though; right now, she’s standing in Regina’s vault trying to find the Queen because maybe the Queen can help her…well, Emma’s not sure what the woman who hates everyone can actually do to help. Then again, she’s also uncertain about the voices in her head so it’s all kind of messy.

“Story of my life,” Emma mutters, and think to ask aloud why she’s suddenly talking to herself.

Where had her head-voice gone? If it was Regina, why has she stopped talking all of the sudden?

Emma sighs. “Okay, this is crazy. I’m gonna go now.” She looks over at Regina’s coffin. Thankfully, it’s sealed shut so any insane idea she might have about verifying Regina is still in there can’t be confirmed on a whim. But if she’s honest with herself, there’s a moment where she wonders…

She shakes her head to clear away the thought.

Regina isn’t talking to her from inside of a box. Her life isn’t that much isn’t a D-list horror movie. At least she doesn’t think it is. Maybe she should open the coffin and …

“Swan?” an accented voice demands from the doorway, red hair framed by the moonlight.

“We keep meeting here,” Emma deadpans. “I don’t have any liquor this time.”

“Shame,” Zelena replies. “But I didn’t come here for your terrible choice in liquor.” She steps in closer, her eyes narrowing for a moment as they fall upon the three caskets. “Why are you here?” she finally asks, turning her full attention to the Sheriff. “Were you missing my sister?”

“Yes,” Emma replies. “Were you?”

For a brief flash, Zelena looks equal parts impressed by the easy answer and quick return and annoyed that Emma had so deftly managed it. With a shrug, though, she dismisses it. “I don’t think I need to explain why I am in my family’s vault. You on the other hand? Should.”

“I thought I just did. And anyway, this technically belongs to Henry, and I’m his guardian.”

“How nice that that finally happened for you. Only took my sister dying to make it happen legally."

Emma's eyes narrow. “Are you…trying to start a fight with me?”

Zelena suddenly, sharply glances up at the air. It’s brief, and Emma supposes easy to miss except she’s been doing it for the last several hours as well. Finally, she mutters, “Maybe. Not that there's only bloody point to it."

“Or maybe there is,” Emma counters. “I’m going to ask you a really crazy question.”

“You should definitely kick the pirate to the curb before he gives you crabs; I hear they're a bitch to get rid of even in this world."

Emma wrinkles her nose in disgust. "Can we please not talk about Hook? Or my sex life? Ever."

“Oh, I'm happy never to talk about your sure-to-be-dreadfully-boring sex life, but we both know my sister would agree with me.” Zelena continues. “But then she’d probably also say anything that makes you happy is enough for her. Disgusting.”

“Your sister. Regina –”

“I’m aware of who my sister is,” Zelena retorts, once again glancing at the air.

“Is she talking to you?”  Emma steps towards her. “Is Regina talking to you right now?”

Zelena’s eyes snap to her, blazing hotly. “That’s insane,” she snarls.

“I know. But I think she’s been talking to me. Maybe you…too?”

“She…has?”

“Yeah. You?”

Finally, almost reluctantly, Zelena relents. “I thought I was going insane. I mean, again. And maybe I still am. Why would she be talking to me?”

“Like I told you: she loved you. Loves you. No matter what was between the two of you, you were her sister and she was always hoping to eventually have the chance to fix things with you. She wanted you in her life."

"She had a terrible way of showing that."

"Really? Because it seems to me like even when you two weren't talking, she was still fighting for you."

"Until she got split down the middle, and I was a reminder of everything she wanted to pretend she never was."

"She still loved you even then," Emma insists. 

“I don’t need a bloody pep talk, Swan."

“And yet, you’re still here. Why?”

“She won’t shut up.”

Emma's eyes widen in surprise, her heart suddenly hammering in her choice as excitement bubbles forth. It's one thing to think you're losing it and hearing voices from the grave due to your grief and emotional confusion, but quite another to realize you're not losing it at all. “What is she saying?”

“What is she saying to you?” Zelena counters.

“Oh, you know, the usual. Miss Swan this and Miss Swan that.”

“She’s been lecturing me mostly. Even from the afterlife, she can’t manage to stop telling me that I can be someone better than I think I can be. Funny for a woman who thought that she had to chop herself in half in order to get the family she wanted so badly –”

“That’s not –”

Zelena ignores her, continuing on, her cheeks flushing with anger and hurt and Emma’s guessing quite a bit of unaddressed grief as well. “But I wasn’t good enough for her after the split. Only the great and wonderful Charming family were. I’m good enough now that she’s dead, though. Because she needs me.”

“Find the Queen?” Emma puts in, hoping it will get Zelena back on track. There's a tremendous amount of unresolved hurt and pain in Zelena, but it seems to Emma that she's the last one right now who has the capacity or ability to deal with any of it. But they can deal with Regina-From-The-Grave, she thinks.

Or at least try to without both of them breaking down beneath their mutual emotional upheaval.

In any case, Emma's sudden words work; Zelena’s eyes widen. “She said that to me earlier, too. So, she really has been talking to…us?"

“I guess she has,” Emma replies. “But I don’t understand. I know we’ve all had brushes with death in other realms and Hook was sent back from the Underworld –” she pointedly ignores Zelena’s rather loud snort of disgust – “But dead really is supposed to mean dead. And I saw Regina…die.”

“But no one saw the Queen die, and if she is still out there somewhere, maybe that changes things. I don't know; it's not exactly settled magic and I wasn't the magic theory nerd that Regina was. She'd be able to tell you all about the losers who spent all day hypothesizing about power instead of actually using it."

“Okay, fair enough," Emma amuses, smirking a bit at the thought of Regina bent over her books, taking in every bit of knowledge and theory. One of the earliest small pleasures of her post-antagonism relationship with Regina had been discovering the giddy nerd buried down deep in her. As time had passed, Regina had felt more and more comfortable letting that part of her out to play, often allowing Emma to see her excitedly talking about magical possibilities.

“Anyway, though,” Zelena continues. “She was a snake last anyone saw her. Which is both fitting and hilarious. And frankly, served her right after she betrayed me. Both parts of my sister. Seems I wasn’t good enough for either of them. How’s that for bitter soup party of one?"

Emma steps forward. “I know you’re angry. And scared. And…heartbroken.”

“I am not.”

“You are. Because as much as she loved you – and she did – you loved her back. Your history was messy and incredibly complicated, I know. But so was mine with her. And my parent’s. Even her and Henry’s, to a lesser degree. I’ve come to realize that most of her relationships were like that. Especially the ones which meant anything to her. She never went about anything the easy way. And as frustrating as that was, we all want Regina back so if there’s a way…”

Zelena rubs her eyes. “All right. Fine. Tell me about the night she died.”

“Uh, okay.” Emma runs her hands through her hair. “Wait, is it weird we’re talking about Regina talking to us and the whole time we've been here together, she hasn’t said a word? Shouldn’t she be here…nudging us?”

“Depends on what we’re dealing with. Tell me what happened that night.”

“Okay. Regina and I came back from the alternate realm we were in. We got split up coming through. On my way back to town, Rumple’s kid showed up with a sword telling me it was time to die. Then I heard everyone else showing up. Gideon froze them so we could keep fighting, but Regina somehow broke through. Next thing I know, she’s doing what she did in the Author’s weird world only this time, it was me instead of Henry who she jumped in front of.”

“You Charmings really did curse her with your awful self-sacrificing streak, didn’t you?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, that streak has been there for a long time. Especially since –”

“She ripped herself in half.”

“Yes,” Emma agrees. “Anyway, after Gideon stabbed her, there was a crackle of energy and he vanished into it. I guess to reappear as a little baby back at home. And then Regina was dying.”

“Did she say anything to you?”

Emma doesn’t reply.

“Swan?”

“Uh, you know, just end of life stuff.”

Zelena’s laughs. “For someone who keeps telling me how my sister loves me, seems you’re not able to face just how much she was in love with you. She finally bloody well told you, didn’t she? Now that, is bitter soup."

“I'm not bitter and...It’s messy.”

“Weren’t you just the one telling me all of the relationships that meant anything to her were?”

“That’s what you choose to listen to? Something you can throw back at me?”

“And to think that Regina always thought I lacked a coherent strategy in my attacks."

“Funny. Anyway, what does any of what happened that night tell you?”

“I’m not sure. It’s possible that the same…force…that changed Rumple's little brat back into a baby somehow disassociated Regina spiritually from her body and kept her on this side of the veil. It's also possible it was the same force that was trying to kill you who did it."

“But Regina's body is…dead, right?”

“Technically, yes.”

“Technically?”

“Her heart stopped beating so yes, she died and even with magic, the level of decay is probably significant. But if the Queen is somewhere out there…”

“This is insane. Are we actually taking about trying to find the Queen so we can put Regina’s soul back into her?"

"I think so," Zelena admits.

 "Yeah, I can’t imagine the Queen will accept that without a fight.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps she needs Regina just as much as Regina needed her. No matter what Regina thought."

“You won’t ever forgive the split, will you?” 

“If I get my sister back, I might consider it.” She looks up and around her. “Those are my terms.”

“Is she here? With us right now?"

“She’s here,” Zelena confirms. “She just can’t communicate.”

“How do…how do you know that?”

“What was my sister teaching you? Do you know nothing of spiritual communication limitations? I mean you weren’t snogging each other stupid, which would at least be a valid excuse. So, what were you doing all the times she was supposedly teaching you magic?”

"She taught me combat magic," Emma answers with an awkward shrug. 

“Well that’s something, I suppose. You're not terrible at that.” She glances up. “She is up there.”

“Just listening?”

“Probably all she can do right. Though I’m sure she has an awareness of our thoughts so do try to keep your mind clean."

“Thanks for the advice," Emma replies dryly. "So she’s just…her spiritual…force? Up...there?"

“Soul, spirit, consciousness? Whatever you want to call it. And more like all around us. It's not really directional."

“So why can she speak sometimes but not others? Is it this Vault?”

“No, it’s energy. She only has a limited amount because she isn’t living. And spirits aren’t actually meant to exist on this plane. If she uses too much…there are consequences.” Her eyes find Emma's. “You only ever get one soul, Swan. You use that up, what do you imagine happens to it?”

Oh,” Emma replies softly.  

“Exactly. Which means…she needs us.” A smile breaks out onto her lips as she whispers. “You need me. How’s that for turnaround, Little Sister? You need me.”

“You know, maybe if Regina has limited energy, we shouldn’t goad her into using it?”

“You really are no fun,” Zelena grumbles. "You two are perfect for each other."

“If we can bring her home, you can harass her to your hearts’ content,” Emma assures her, once again side-stepping Zelena's words.

“Before or after I have to watch the two of you go at it.”

Okay, apparently Zelena doesn't plan to allow her to side-step. Awesome. “Zelena, there’s no her and I. There never was. I’m with Hook.”

“You really are an idiot, aren’t you?”

Emma’s about to reply – about to fire back – when there’s suddenly a barely discernable crackling of energy coming from down below in the underground area of the vault. The hidden rooms where Regina always kept all of the darker and more magical parts of herself hidden away from ordinary eyes. The two women exchange a look, and then they’re both racing down the cement stairs, and pushing through the heavy doors into first the room with the Queen’s dresses (a handful of them curiously missing) and then down another staircase and into the cement room with the potions and heart boxes.

The Queen’s true lair.  

Where they find a single sentence etched in the dust on the floor: Find the Queen.

Emma grins.

“You find this funny?” Zelena challenges. “Because she seems rather pissy.”

“Yeah, she does,” Emma agrees, still grinning.

“You really are pathetically lovesick about her, aren’t you?”

“I don't know what I am,” Emma allows. “I just know I really want my best friend, my son’s mother and your sister back. And maybe, we have a chance to make that happen. So maybe, you and I stop annoying each other and we find the Queen is and figure out if there's a miracle to be had."

“Fine, Swan. Fine.”

“Okay, then.” She takes a deep breath and then lets it out, watching for a moment as the dust seems to vibrate on the floor of the cement room. “So how?”

“I have an idea, but you’re not going to like it,” Zelena tells her. “We need Rumple.”

Emma snorts. “Of course, we do.”

“But he and I aren’t exactly…friendly.”

“He and I aren’t exactly friendly, either,” Emma notes. “I’ll talk to Belle.” Emma turns and starts from the room, then stops. “This will work, right?”

“I’m the wrong one to ask if you’re looking for a hope and unicorn shit pep talk, Swan. Try your Mum.”

“Copy that,” Emma says, and is just about to leave when her eyes flicker down at the words. The unmistakably regal style of the handwriting leaving no question as to the identity of the writer. Emma wistfully gazes at the familiar script.

“She never was particularly subtle,” Zelena comments.

“Are any of the Mills women?”

“Not really a family trait of ours," Zelena concedes. "We always go big."

“Yes, and thank God for that,” Emma grins, and bolts up the stairs, leaving Zelena alone in the vault.

“Couldn’t you have fallen in love with someone who didn’t best resemble an excitable wet dog?” Zelena demands to the air. “And assuming we're not completely wrong and you don't just want us to find the Queen's dead snake body, you want me to work with her to bring you back? Do you recall what she put me through when she was the Dark One? And she’s obnoxious. But you already know that part and for reasons beyond my understanding, find that endearing.”

The dust seems to ripple in acknowledgement of her words.

“All right, then. For you, I’ll work with your annoying girlfriend. I’ll even work with the Charmings. I hope that means something to you. Come back, and maybe I’ll ever forgive you.”

And with that said, she's up the stairs, fleeing from the signs of her sister’s spiritual presence.

Fleeing from the suffocating rush of feelings inside her chest.

 


 

She didn’t intend to end up here. 

It’s already been a very long day, and she kind of knows that she needs to clear her head and try to think about the whole bringing Regina back from the dead thing in a sensible, logical way. Her grief, guilt and failure to do that with Hook had led to extraordinary suffering and pain – for her family.

Which is probably why she’s here, in Regina’s house. In her bedroom. Lying on her bed.

Because the high energy and optimism which had been with her when she’d left the vault has vanished into the bitter remembrance of her time as the Dark One – her betrayals of her family for a man who wanted to be let go of - and then the aftermath of it. More failure to try to find a way to let go of.

She can’t – won’t – do that again.

But is this…different?

Don’t overthink this, Swan,” she hears from somewhere behind her, the voice warmly familiar but different from the one she’s been hearing in her head. Trust your instincts, they never fail you unless you ignore them.”

It’s…closer.

Slowly, equal parts reluctant and excited, Emma turns. She faces the wall of the room, towards where a large, beautifully ornate body-length mirror sits on two impressive iron feet and stares. Because sure enough, there she is: Regina Mills. Not in the flesh, but in the reflection. Dressed exactly as she had been on the night she had died, only there’s no blood staining her military style coat now. Her hair is, as always, perfectly coifed, the short ends of it flipping upwards.

“Regina,” she whispers. And then steps towards her, before she can stop herself, she places her fingers against the glass of the mirror, halfway expecting them to slide through the silver surface. “I suppose it couldn’t be that easy, could it?” she muses, offering up an impish smile.

NoAnd I’m not actually on the other side of the mirror. At least not in the Mirror World that you and I were in together. I can't break through just by shattering glass. I’m just…using the mirror as a conduit.”

“Okay, first…this is really happening, you’re actually real?”

“Yes.  I'm real. Kind of. I’m sort of a spirit at the moment.”

“Sort of a spirit. I don’t understand,” Emma murmurs.

“I'm not sure I do, either. I wasn’t expecting...this.”

Emma’s eyes narrow. “You weren’t? But you…it seemed like you had a plan?”

“Not exactly, and I think that’s a larger conversation for later. If there is a later.”

“Okay, I am incredibly confused right now.”

This time a laugh, and Emma feels her inside goes warm at the sound. This isn’t the caustic and chilling laugh of the Queen, but rather the warm like lava cake one that is uniquely Regina. Soft and deeply encompassing, even when she’s low-grade mocking. “I can tell, Regina teases.

“No shit…Regina, I’m talking to someone who died weeks ago. What the fuck…”

“I had the same reaction to this...predicament.”

"Predicament," Emma repeats. "I don't understand any of this. You started out sending signals and then you were in my dreams and talking to me, but there’s never really been a two-way conversation. And in the vault with your sister, all you could do was write a message. But now you can do this? Zelena said you had to preserve your energy or else it could -" she cuts off sharp, not able to handle the idea of Regina's soul being obliterated as Robin's had been. 

“She's right. It's hard to explain in the time we have but that’s exactly it: time and energy. And well place. I couldn’t appear to the two of you in the vault precisely because it is so magical and the wards around it were squeezing me and making me expend a tremendous amount of energy to even do what I did. This, talking to you like this, also expends quite a bit, but I thought we should talk. Maybe I can help you understand...any of this."

“Good luck at that," Emma mutters as she steps back and away from the mirror. Once she does, she’s able to really look at Regina and see that the physical form she’s projecting seems…off. Not only weary and wane in appearance despite her coifing, but also weirdly glitchy. Almost like she's digitalized.

"Not digitalized. Put together by pieces of my soul so you can see me as you recognize me."

"So what form are you...wherever you are?"

"Impossible to describe.  The spirit world is...complicated."

“Of course it is." Emma tilts her head. "You do want us to try to save you, right? Or have we misunderstood what you've been trying to tell us completely."

"I don't want you to give up any more of your soul than you already have, Emma. Not for anyone. Especially not me."

"That wasn't an answer," Emma notes. "Are you okay?"

"I don't really have an answer for that. I'm dead. Not quite the dream I'd hoped for."

The answers Regina has given mixed with her quietly resigned tone are alarming and confusing. “Where are you?” Emma asks, stepping towards the mirror again, a hand extended as if to try to touch Regina. “You said you’re not in the Mirror World so, where are you?”

Regina doesn’t answer.

“Where are you?” Emma repeats, her tone sharper and thinner, bordering almost on hysteria.

“Listen to me: it doesn’t matter and I don’t have a lot of time left –”

“Tonight?”

Regina smiles thinly but then deftly changes the subject away from the darker place it currently is. “I know you, Emma. Better than probably anyone in your life besides Henry.”

“Maybe even better than him,” Emma allows.

“We need to have the conversation you’re avoiding, and we are running out of time. Emma. Focus.”

“I am focusing, and I agree that we need to have the conversation that’s being avoided,” Emma agrees. “I just think you and I want to have different conversations.”

Once again, Regina side-steps. Instead, staying doggedly focused on the Sheriff. “I know you’re still struggling with everything that happened while you were the Dark One.”

“Everything I did,” Emma corrects. “Funny way of saying ‘betrayed my whole family’.”

“You should never have been the Dark One to begin with. That was supposed to be my burden. My fate."

“And dying was supposed to be mine, but we both made choices, didn't we?”

“We did.”

“Great.” Emma’s eyes snap fire again. “You going to explain your choice to me?”

“Easy, Miss Swan –” she can’t stop herself from smirking when Emma throws her a pitiful look of annoyance. “I made the choice to take the sword for you for the same reason you made the choice to take the Dark One on for me. Because it's what we have always done for each other.” 

"But why?" Emma presses.

"You have to answer that question for -" She's cut off abruptly by a sudden glitch which makes Regina seem like she disappears into a spray of digitalized particle before rapidly reappearing. “Time,” Regina murmurs, seeming terribly sad about it. About having to leave once again.

“What?”

“I’m out of time. For now.” She extends her hand, like she could push through the mirror. Almost instinctively, Emma reaches out and does the same. “I know the choice you made to not let Hook go has weighed horribly on you. I, more than most, understand the weight of mistakes. I know what they can do to you, how they can change you. You heard what I said that night on the street – I’m not asking you to reciprocate. But I am asking you to care enough about me to not let me be the reason you harm your soul even further. I don’t want that. For either of us.”

“Regina, where are you? Please?"

“I don’t regret my choice to save you,” Regina tells her as the glitching grows and she starts to fade away, their fingertips separated by glass and magic breaking into a spray light and energy. “Regardless of what comes next for me, I would do it again in a heartbeat. After everything we’ve been through together –” she smiles then and it’s the brightest and most beautiful thing Emma has ever seen – “After everything you have done to and for me and after everything that you've helped me to become, the only thing I will ever regret about you and I is that I wasn’t braver long before the end.”

She’s gone a moment later, and doesn’t hear Emma reply, “It’s not the end.”

Because it can’t be.

 


 

She wakes to a rumbling phone and thirty-two text messages. From her mother, from her son, from her boyfriend, and from Zelena. All of them wondering where she is. Scooping up the phone, she sees her father’s name on the screen and almost laughs. Because Snow probably thinks that Emma’s avoiding her due to yesterday’s emotional breakdown. Her mother doesn’t even yet know the half of how weird yesterday had gotten.

A glance over at the now very ordinary mirror, and Emma’s not entirely sure she knows, either.

Especially when she factors in Regina’s clear omission about her whereabouts.

Frowning at the deeply upsetting thought of what this could mean, Emma dials her father’s number.

“Hey,” she drawls as she presses the phone against her ear. She’s still slung across Regina’s bed, her heavy (and insanely cozy) comforter thrown over her midsection and legs. It occurs to her that it’s probably a bit weird that her first time in Regina’s bed is entirely absent her, but –

Wait, first time?

She shakes her head and tells herself to pull it together. Knowing that Regina has feelings for her doesn’t mean she needs to fall face-first into having the same feelings. It’s not a healthy reaction. Even if it’s one she’s had far too many times in her life.

Potentially even with the man she’s now involved with.

She groans and curses Archie and his relentless psychobabble. And thinks that she really should stop in and make an appointment with him.

To discuss, well, everything.

Such as the mirror and the whole obsessive need she’d had to touch Regina through it.

“Hey,” David replies, his voice tinny over the speaker. “You’ve managed to worry everyone in one night. That’s pretty impressive even for my daughter.” A pause and then. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?” she counters.

“Really?” David chuckles. “Do I need to actually go down the checklist?”

“Fair point. But I’m okay. Hanging in the best I can. I need a favor, though.”

“Anything you want as long as you call your mother, your son, your boyfriend and…Zelena?”

“Oh God,” Emma laughs. “I’ll explain everything. Actually, that’s the favor. Can you get everyone together? Everyone but Henry. I have something I want to talk to you all about.”

“Everyone but Henry?”

“It’ll make sense when I explain everything."

“Okay?”

“Trust me,” she murmurs and then instinctively flinches, wondering why anyone would after everything she’s put her family through.

“Okay.” There’s a beat, and then David adds, “Whatever you need, you know we’ll be there.”

“I do,” Emma agrees. “But sometimes, Dad, that’s part of the problem.”

“Family is never a problem.”

“Until you fail them,” she replies, and then hangs up before he can argue with her. There will be time enough for that this afternoon. And choices to be made.

Choices, which deep down, she knows she’s already made.

 


 

“There you are,” Killian greets, and it almost sound friendly, except that she knows him fairly well. He’s a three-hundred-year-old man with a deeply childish and petty passive aggressive streak that runs deep. She has a feeling what she’s about to say is going to make things a lot worse. But perhaps…perhaps, they need to talk.

About the ring in his pocket she doesn’t want him to give her.

About the many lies they’ve told each other.

And about the damnation she’d let into his soul.

It’s just about time for that conversation.

“Emma? Did I lose you somewhere?” he asks, just a touch of ice in his tone.

“Sorry,” she says quickly, automatically, old instincts from her days moving in and out of foster homes kicking in before she can even begin to wonder why they are. And why they seem to fire around Killian as often as they do. “No, I just…I didn’t sleep much last night. I’m a little bit jumpy.”

“You could have always come home. Where were you?”

“That’s why everyone is here,” Emma states, and then she’s moving away from him. Towards the center of the room where she can see everyone gathered, including Zelena who is standing by herself behind the counter, a cup of likely steaming tea already between her hands.

“Belle called to say she will be here shortly,” David tells her. "Why is Belle coming over?"

"I have a story to tell and it’s a little weird," Emma offers.

“A little?” Zelena sniffs. “Then again, it’s entirely ordinary for this batshit insane family.”

“Says the woman who turns green when she gets jealous,” Hook snaps.

“Oh relax, Pirate, I wasn’t including you in the Charming family.”

Before Hook can respond – and the sudden murderous glint in his eyes suggests he has every intention of doing exactly that – Emma steps between them. “Both of you, stand down. Now.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Zelena sneers.

“You do if you want to –” she pulls up short, not willing to spill their mission quite so casually.

“What the bloody hell is going on?” Hook demands. “You two are working together?”

“Just…give me a minute. Let Belle get here.”

“She’s here,” Snow states, opening the door to admit a harried looking Belle.  

“Which means the only ones we’re missing are the Crocodile and Henry,” Hook observes. “I understand why the Crocodile is missing, but why isn’t your boy here? What’s going on, Swan?”

“I excluded Henry because I don’t want to give him false hope and he’s been through too much. He’s my son and it’s my job to protect him. I haven’t always, but right now, I need to.” The sheriff inhales and then exhales in a burst. “Okay, how to explain?”

“We believe we can bring Regina back from the dead,” Zelena blurts out.

“Okay, that wasn’t where I planned to start,” Emma groans, snapping her head around to glare at Zelena. who, of course, merely gazes back at her, utterly unimpressed.

“Okay, wait, let’s slow down,” David suggests from his position standing next to the couch.  Snow’s seated right below him, her face curiously passive about everything she’s hearing, like she’s not the least bit surprised that this is happening. Like she’d suspected as much.

And considering what had happened in Regina’s office, Emma’s fairly sure that she had.

Hook, on the other hand, looks like’s about to scream, his teeth most certainly grinding.

“I know it’s hard to understand,” Emma soothes.  

“It’s not hard to understand, Swan – it’s impossible. The Queen is dead. We saw her die.”

“We saw you die twice, too,” Zelena notes. “And yet, here you are. Though, to be fair, you do smell like a decayed corpse."

Hook rounds on her. “Since you’re so good at throwing snark, tell me, Witch, why are you even here? None of the people in the room can stand you. Even your sister couldn’t stand you.”

“Killian,” Emma hisses.

“Yes, well, I’d rather be in my position than yours. Regina might not have been able to stand me, but she loathed you.”

“It was mutual,” Hook assures her between grit teeth.

“Enough,” Emma insists, just as annoyed this time as the last.

“Just as the feelings between my sister and your girlfriend are. Even wonder, Pirate, why you’ve never seen the rainbow glitter when you and Swan have kissed? Even wonder why didn't down in the Underworld? Well, now you know. You're welcome."

“Dammit,” Emma swears.

Echoed only by Snow whispering, “Oh, no,” and it’s kind of the understatement of the year.

This time, though, it’s David who jumps between a murderous Hook and a cackling Zelena, putting his arms out to enforce distance between them. To Emma, he demands, “Explain.”

Normally, Emma might bristle at his tone, but he’s standing between an incredibly powerful witch and an angry man with a hook for a hand, so she rather understands his urgency. And then just to underline the urgency and absurdity of it all, Belle who had been quiet since arriving, says softly, “I can see that this is going to be another one of our usual adventures.”

Emma lets out a short, sharp bark of laughter and then says, “It’s about the Queen.”

“The Queen is dead,” Hook repeats tersely once again.

“Well, that’s kind of it, actually. We saw Regina die. Not the Queen.”

Snow jerks forward, the strange bemusement which had been on her face fading. “You think the Queen is still alive? How? When Jekyll died, so did Hyde. And the Queen disappeared from her…cage.” She says the last word with a noticeable hint of distaste, strangely unable to find any satisfaction in the idea of her former stepmother trapped in the form of a vicious snake. No matter how incredibly apropos that description might be. "Emma, are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” Emma confirms. “Considering Regina is the one telling me to find her.”

“You already told me some of this when you asked me to come over, but I think you’re going to need to start at the beginning for everyone else,” Belle suggests, her voice as always measured and composed, entirely calm in the middle of all the anxiety and frustration and even anger swirling around them.

“I don’t know where the beginning is, to be honest. I just know that since she died, Regina has been in my head. I thought it was just…guilt? Grief? Something. But then there started to be these physical signs – fire, sparks of energy, notes written in the dust, and…Zelena heard and saw her, too. And last night, Regina appeared to me from the inside of one of her mirrors. But she says she’s not in the Mirror World that we were in before.”

"One of her mirrors," Hook repeats, as if he's understanding where Emma had been last night.

“We all saw her die,” Snow notes, thankfully drawing attention to her. “But no one ever found the Queen’s body – whether snake or human. It was just assumed she died as well.”

“But maybe not,” David follows. “So, then, where is she?”

“And how does finding her help Regina?” Snow adds.

“She wants to dump her soul into the Queen,” Zelena blurts out in exasperation. Because while this obnoxious family might enjoy these Clue parties, she finds she has little patience for it. How her sister had gone from the Great and Terrible Evil Queen to being invited to spitballing with these fools is beyond her. But well, they mean something to Regina, and Regina means something to them (everyone that is besides Hook, but it’s not like she particularly cares what Hook has to say about anything). Which ultimately means the path to Regina is through and even with them.

“Is that even possible?” Snow queries, looking over at Belle.

Who promptly shrugs and offers up a tentative, “Maybe?"

“Encouraging,” Hook grunts. “So the grand plan is find the woman who tormented your parents and tried to kill your whole family on numerous occasions and hope that you can put her nicer side into her?”

“The plan,” Emma says, her tone firm enough to make him shift backwards. “Is to see if there is a way to return Regina from wherever she is – and by the way, she won’t tell me where it is, but I don’t think it’s either Heaven or Hell – and give Henry his mother back.”

“You’re his mother.”

“I’m one of his mothers, Killian. But she’s his Mom, and he misses her, and you know what? I miss her, too."

He starts to say something else and then falls silent.

Belle uses the quiet to say, "What do you need me to do?"

“Research. Regina keeps saying that she’s running out of energy, but I feel like there’s more she’s not saying. She was able to project into our minds and into the air and then create fire and write words into the dust. And she was able to use the mirror to talk to me face-to-face, but it felt so…fragile.”

“If there's an answer, I'll find it,” Belle assures her. “Do you want me to not tell Rumple –”

“I won’t ask you to lie to your husband.”

Hook snorts, standing up and moving away from the couch.

“Do what you think is best,” Emma continues, pointedly ignoring Hook.

Belle nods. “I’ll be in touch shortly.” She’s out the door a few moments later.

“What about us?” David asks.

Emma sighs. “This is where I ask you to let me do this alone.”

“And this is where we refuse to let you do it alone,” Snow tells her.

“I already put all of you through so much with the Dark One and…” she looks over at Hook, who is faced away from her, looking down at his shoes. “And taking you all into Hades realm. It cost Robin his life and it led to Regina doing what she did to herself in New York.”

“Emma,” Snow soothes and then she’s stepping forward and taking her hand. “Regina’s life led to that moment. You and I can debate whether we should have stopped it –”

“We should have,” Emma states, firm and absolute.

“Maybe. But that doesn’t change that it happened because of everything she’d been through. And it has nothing to do with whether we'd be there for you."

“I don’t want to risk my family again. I can’t.”

“We know the risks,” David insists. “We knew it when we went down with you. So did Regina.”

“I don’t think she knew that Robin’s life would be the price we’d pay for –”

“For my life,” Hook breaks in, flushed and hurt.

“For my choices,” Emma corrects, her voice conciliatory.

“But it wasn’t you she blamed,” Zelena tells her, thinking back to the furious argument between she and Regina about following Emma down to the Underworld. “It was me...and it was herself, which is why she did what she did.”

“I know,” Emma agrees. She thinks to counter Zelena's statement about Regina blaming Zelena for Robin's death, but that's between the sisters. Hopefully, if this pans out - and it's staggering to her that she's actually beginning to think that it could - they will have a chance to work it out between them.

“Splitting herself in half was a mistake,” Zelena presses, because this is something she can’t let go of.

Emma merely says again, her voice quiet and empathetic, “I know.”

“So maybe this is our chance to fix that mistake,” Snow announces as she steps forward.

“Mom,” Emma cautions. “You don’t…what the Queen put you through –”

“Better than anyone, Emma, I am aware of what the Queen did to me. And when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to be rid of her for good, because I thought it would help all of us move on from the past, but that’s not how it works. I understand now that Regina was missing part of herself when she cut the Queen out. And the Queen was missing part of herself as well. We let that happen. I let that happen. If we can fix it –”

“I think we can,” Emma assures her. “But, there are risks.” 

“There are always risks,” David says solemnly.

“True, but…we don’t know where she is. I kind of get the feeling maybe it’s not somewhere she’s supposed to be. And if that’s the case, we could be pulling a string on something even worse than the Queen. Or, this could fail and all we’ve done is bring the Queen out again.”

“The Queen is already somewhere out there,” Zelena reminds her, rapidly tiring of the Charming way of handling situations, which in her head requires action instead of endless talking and pontificating. “Hiding for whatever reason. That alone should tell you that she’s no threat.”

“The Queen has always been the most dangerous when she’s hurting," Snow reminds them. "And if she’s hiding, she is in pain.”

“Then perhaps we should leave her alone and not poke the bloody bear,” Hook sneers as he turns around to face them all. “None of the rest of us have any confirmation that Regina is out somewhere –” he waves his hook in the air. “Up there, just waiting for us to save her.”

“I saw her last night," Emma reminds him.

“You’re exhausted and emotional.”

Emma’s eyebrow jumps. “Excuse me?”

“I’m just saying –”

“Moron,” Zelena sniffs, drawing glares from around the room.

“You’re just saying that I’m having a hysterical woman moment, right? I’m just imagining that Regina is in my head and coming to see me? Why would I imagine that, Killian? Why that?”

For a moment, he says nothing. Because the true answer is impossible to say. So, he stands down and moves away and shoves his remaining hand hard into his pocket, ramming the little felt case down deeper. Understanding that it’s probably never coming out.

“How do we find the Queen?” David asks, voice calm, trying to get everyone back on track.

“The Queen may be the darkest part of Regina,” Snow notes. “But she’s still Regina. So we figure out where Regina would go in Storybrooke if she was hurt. And that’s where we will find her.”

“She’s not in the Vault,” Zelena states.

“Or her house or office,” Emma adds.

“Emma,” Snow says. “Wait a minute. Where she feels safest.”

“Henry,” Emma says, eyes wide. And then laughs. “Trying to keep him out of this was always going to fail. Somehow or another, every part of Regina will make its way back to her son.” She turns and starts for the door.

“Emma, if the Queen is with Henry and she’s hurt, she could be quite hostile," Snow reminds her.

“I can handle it.”

“Maybe I should come with you,” Zelena suggests.

“Or maybe I should,” Hook puts in, a heavy layer of sarcasm dripping off his words.

“I don’t think either of you coming with me is a good idea right now.”

“She’s my sister,” Zelena reminds her, her voice dropping to show her hurt. Her need.

“I know and I’m gonna need you to get her back. All of her. But if the Queen is hurt, my mom is right; she could be incredibly hostile. Let’s not give her any other targets to vent on. Okay?”

They hold a gaze for a moment and then Zelena mutters, “Whatever,” and stomps away.

To Hook, Emma says, “I know we need to talk when this is all over.”

“Interesting words,” he notes.

“Killian.”

“Go find your Queen.”

She puts her hands up, won’t argue with him. Couldn’t anyway. “The rest of you, keep looking. If I’m wrong and she’s not with or near Henry, she’s still somewhere out there. Let’s find her.” She pulls open the door and then stops. “I don’t know what’s going to happen here or even if we really do have a chance to save Regina but I do know that I was selfish before – I put all of you in terrible danger because I was afraid. I won’t do that again. So if it has to be just me, then it's just me. Understood?"

She doesn’t wait for an answer. Isn’t sure which she wants to hear.

And so, Emma Swan just keeps going.

 


 

Well, that is until she gets to her car, sits in the driver’s seat, adjusts the rearview mirror and –

--- promptly sees Regina staring back at her through the mirror.

She jerks so hard in her seat that she’s pretty sure she’s given herself seatbelt burn.

“What the fuck?” She declares.

“Eloquent as always,” Regina chuckles.

“Says the woman who knows how to make that word an adjective, verb, noun and pronoun.”

Regina just smirks, then quickly gathers herself, “I haven’t seen the Queen with Henry.”

“I don’t think she’s with him. I think she’s watching him. Would you be able to see that?”

“No. I haven’t been allowed to get anywhere close to her.”

“Allowed?” Emma asks with a frown. “Regina, what is going on here?"

“Not what I expected,” Regina suggests again, sighing wearily – well, as weary as a spirit can manage. “I’m in trouble, Emma, and I think I was very, very wrong about how I came to be like…this. Or at least very, very wrong about who would be controlling my destiny once I surrendered myself to it. I thought it was…a benevolent force. And maybe it was at one point or at least a neutral one like Fate's supposed to be, but it isn’t now. I should have known better. Like I told you in that other world, it’s me and I should have known better than to have hope that I could ever really find happiness.”

Emma thinks to argue, but it's hard to do so when she has no idea what they're going against or if there is a chance to make any of this better. 

"You’d think the Underworld would be my biggest threat but…” Regina scowls. “There’s more in play than I think we ever realized. Fate has always been behind you and it’s behind me. And it’s guided every bit of our lives. We always thought it was this mercilessly driving force, Emma, and maybe to a degree we accepted it as that even as we struggled with it, but this is something else. This is something even worse than that.”

“Wait, are we still talking about…fate?”

“More like…Fate. Or at least what has become of it. Everything has changed."

“You’re not making any sense at all. Are you telling me Fate is an actual person? And they're what has you?"

“Yes. No. I’m telling you I made a terrible mistake.”

“Regina –”

“I’m sorry,” she says then. “I saw it all so clearly in that moment and I was so selfish.”

“You died for me,” Emma reminds her. “I’d hardly call that selfish.”

“It was selfish. I chose to die for you because I couldn't stand the idea of you being hurt or not having you in my life, but also... because I had this wonderful vision of a beautiful future for us, and I thought that dying was the only way to that future. I’m so sorry for what I've done,” Regina tells her, tears falling quickly, and Emma has this strange moment of being deeply disconcerted by the realization that even ghost Regina can cry.

Still, though, Emma is grappling with Regina's words. Desperately trying to make sense of them. “You had a vision as you were dying? Of...us?"

“Before I died.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m not sure I do, anymore. In that moment, it was as clear as when I knew that I was the one who had to pay the price to stop Pan’s curse. Back then, I knew the only way to save Henry was to save you and…I was okay that. Even if we were barely allies at that point, I knew that my way forward was to give you the hope you’d been trying to give me. That night in the street, when you were fighting Gideon, I had that same…certainty. I knew that my way forward was to do what I did. I believed that – as insane as it sounds – dying for you would give us a chance.”

“Us,” Emma repeats.

“That’s the selfish part."

“I would have still died, though, right?”

“Yes. Maybe not that night, but eventually by Gideon's sword, yes."

“Then I still don’t really see the selfish part. You still saved me."

“Maybe and maybe that's the one actually beautiful thing left in all of this for us. But  I think maybe it's time for you to let me go.”

“Wait, what? I’m not –”

“This is one of the journeys we've always been on, right? Let go when we're supposed to. Be able to move on. Neither of us have ever been especially good at that. Maybe it’s time one of us does the right thing. You've always been stronger than me."

“Regina, no –”

“I never should have put you in this terrible situation. I never should have pushed my feelings on you. You’ve had enough forces in your life taking away your free will for selfish intent and I just become one more person doing it. I'm so sorry."

“Stop apologizing. We can figure this out.”

“Listen to me: I need you to tell everyone you were wrong. Tell them –”

“No.” Firmly, sharply, eyes blazing. “I’m not doing that. I’m bringing you home.”

“Emma, please. Let me go. You’ve already been through literal Hell once. This could be far worse than that if she were to break through and that's what she wants, I think. She's worse than Hades could ever dream of being."

"She? Regina, who? Is Fate a she?"

Before Regina can answer, that strange digitalization like effect starts showing itself again, pieces of her cracking and breaking away. When Regina finds her eyes again, she says, “After all we have been through, every road we walked together, every other way we found, since the day I met you, I hope somewhere deep down inside of you, you know that was always only you.”

"You keep saying that," Emma tells her, tears cascading down her cheeks.

"I just wish I'd said it when it still mattered."

And then she’s gone again, a strange painful vibration in the air all that remains of her.

Recovering from her shock, Emma forces herself to focus. 

On finding Henry and then finding Queen.

And then hopefully bringing Regina home.

Even if that means going through Fate, herself.

 


 

Chapter Text

She’s waiting for him when he steps out of the school building, a greasy bag in her hand, and a smirk she doesn’t particularly feel on her lips. Her son is too smart not to see right through her, but when it comes to food, he’s also a Charming and a Swan. That means softening him up with fries is usually a strong first move. “Hey, Kid,” she greets warmly, swinging the bag towards him.

“Uh oh,” he says warily, so much like Regina that it almost physically aches. "What did I do to warrant junk food? Or...what did you do?"

“Rude. You know,” Emma drawls. “I could be here just to say hi.”

“You could, but I feel like there’s more.” He tilts his head. “Emma, what's going on?”

She sighs. “It’s a long story. Let’s take a walk.”

“Okay.” He opens the bag and pops a fry in as they start making their way down the street, moving towards one of the walking trails that curls into the vibrantly green woods, which blanket the backside of Storybrooke. It’s a path Henry’s walked with Regina several hundred times over the years, and with Emma a few dozen or more.

“Is this about Mom?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“is this also about the Queen?”

She darts a quick look over at him but doesn’t answer until they’re deep enough in the woods to be sure that they won’t be overheard. This particular path weaves between large trees for about a mile before coming up behind Regina’s house. “Why are you asking if it’s about the Queen?”

He shrugs.

“Henry. Why?”

For a moment, he doesn’t reply. Clearly wary. Then, “You won’t hurt her, right?” His face scrunches up for a moment, a sharp reminder for Emma that despite all of his bravery and courage and desire to be strong for everyone, he’s still a little boy suffering from incredible loss.

And yet, he’s also a young man who might be the key to all of this.

“Are you saying you know where she is?” Emma asks.

“Are you saying you think she’s alive?” Henry counters.

Grudgingly, Emma answers, “I think…she might be.”

His jaw twitches.

“How long has she been coming to see you?” Emma prompts.

“She didn’t. I saw her watching me. I don’t think she even knows that I know.”

"Strange," Emma murmurs. And it is; it seems incredibly unlikely that the Queen would be so unobservant. But then, she’d suffered a catastrophic loss as well. Perhaps having Regina sheered from her, regardless of her anger towards her other half, had been too much. Or perhaps the aftermath of being a snake had messed with her. Or perhaps, far more simply and yet infinitely more disturbingly, Regina’s death had physically wounded the Queen as well.

“Is she hurt?”

“I think so,” he allows. “Hard to say. But…I was able to follow her. That’s weird, right?”

“Very. Where is she?”

Henry shakes his head. “I want to know why first.” His voice lowers. “She’s all I have left of my mom. I’m not…I can’t let you hurt her, Emma. I can’t.”

Emma stops and then turns to face Henry. “Hey. Hey. I’m not…I’m not going to hurt the Queen. I promise you, I have no intention of that. But I think she can help us…fix all of this. Make everything better. For her and for us. I think.”

“How?”

Emma stands up and starts walking slowly, giving Henry plenty of opportunity to change course and hopefully lead them towards the Queen. “Have you had any strange feelings, like you’re being watched over the last few weeks? Since your mom…” she trails off again. “Anything weird?”

“I mean, I’m grieving," Henry notes. "Archie says it’s not unusual to hear the voices of loved ones in your head.” It’s an oddly cagey answer, the kind someone gives when they’re afraid that if they say the truth of what they think, they might get scolded or mocked for it. Or in the case of his family, as of late, coddled.

He has no tolerance for any of those things, right about now.

“Archie is good at what he does, but this is Storybrooke. Weird shit happens here daily."

He can't really argue that, but her words are less his focus than the implication of them. “Wait, are you saying not only is the Queen alive but…the other part of my mother is as well?” Excitement makes his voice sharpen, the volume rising up rapidly.

Emma puts out one of her hands as if to urge calm. “No. I mean, not exactly. But that’s why we need to find the Queen. I promise I’ll explain everything – or at least as much as I can – but I’d prefer to only do it once and Henry, we need to move quickly.”

“Okay,” Henry agrees. The wariness is still there, but Emma imagines this isn’t as much about her so much as it is about the words he’s hearing and the hope he’s trying to push back. The hope he doesn't dare allow, because watching that hope get shattered would be unbearable.

Emma knows that feeling all too well, but there's also a suffocating fear, which she’s trying to keep under control. Fear of whatever Regina is going through. Fear that they will be too late to save Regina from whatever terrible fate has been placed before her thanks to her choice to disrupt Emma’s.

Fear that in carrying out this rescue mission, she will surrender herself back to Fate.

And fear that if she doesn’t do anything at all, the consequences for all of them will be terrible.

The ones for Regina unimaginably so.  

No matter how feelings for Regina, whatever they may or may not be, that fear is something Emma knows she can't live with.

“We need the Queen,” Emma assures him. “And if we play our cards right, we might be able to fix something none of us should have ever allowed to be broken. But time is short, Kid, so I need you to believe in me right now. I need you to trust me and help me help…them. Please?”

“I always trust you,” he says emphatically. “I just…don’t want to lose her again. Any part of her. I can't.”

“I know,” Emma replies, and then she’s crushing him into a hug. “Me, neither.”

His eyes flicker up to her face, curiosity shining, his eyebrow lifted in a way that’s so intensely Regina as he regards his other mother and the heartache he sees. “You know, don’t you?”

She smiles thinly, unable to answer a question she’s still trying to figure out. “The Queen?”

Henry turns and points deeper into the woods. “She’s staying in Ruby’s old hideaway.”

“Well then let’s go make a house-call,” Emma suggests, and then stops towards the darkest part of the woods. 

Where, of course, a

 


 

It gets progressively darker, and somehow nosier the deeper you travel into the Woods (there’s an official name for it somewhere in the town books, but everyone has always just called it the Woods, which has always afforded it a level of mystery and menace). This far back, you can hear the wildlife moving, the birds chattering incessantly. Emma’s struck by the bemusement of realizing that the Queen – who detests birds – has likely been forced to listen to them for weeks, probably getting crankier by the minute over it. Weird, she thinks, how the thought of an angry Queen doesn’t seem to frighten her.

She should be terrified of the audacious woman who is one of literature (and her mother’s) greatest enemies. Scared shitless of the Queen who had wished her into another realm and torn Regina’s life asunder. She should be all of those things and more, and yet with each step she takes, the realization of just how unafraid she actually is of the Queen comes into focus.

The question is why, and she doesn’t have even the slightest bit of an answer for that.

“There,” Henry says suddenly, dragging her from her thoughts. He points ahead, indicating towards a little wood cabin, which is well hidden by dense shrubbery and massively tall green trees. “Apparently, that’s where Granny lived when they were in the Enchanted Forest.”

“Visited by the big bad wolf who was her granddaughter,” Emma quips.

Henry shoots her one of his humoring looks.

“It’s funny if you’re me,” Emma mutters. And then takes a deep breath. “Okay, let’s do this.”

“You sure?” Henry asks. It's a strange question, but she imagines it's more about wariness over interacting with the Queen than it is about the bigger plan.

Not that he knows what that is yet, but she knows her son well enough to know he'll be supportive of anything which brings his mother home.

“I’m sure.” She turns to face him. “But maybe you should –”

“Come with you to see my mom. Absolutely.”

Emma groans in exasperation, choosing to, for once, acknowledge a lost battle when she sees one. She leads them up the path, sliding under the cover of the greenery to find the front door. “Think we should knock?” she wonders aloud.

“If we knock, she may hide or run away –”

“Which doesn’t at all sound like the Queen,” Emma notes. “But then, the very fact she has been hiding away here suggests she’s not exactly herself right now.”

“And if we don’t knock, we could surprise her, and she could turn us into maggots.”

“She’d never turn you into a maggot,” Emma challenges.

“You’re stalling.”

Emma throws him another look, then steps forward, grabs the doorknob, and turns it. Not surprisingly, it catches. Well, at least the Queen is locking herself in. A small tinge of electricity into her skin suggests that she’s reinforcing it with magic. After a deep breath, and then a wiggle of her fingers, Emma releases a spray of her own magic into the doorknob, the lock behind it immediately clicking open, and the door creaking as it swings inwards to allow entrance. “If she turns me into a maggot, don’t let me get stepped on," she pleads to Henry.

“She loves you just as much as the Regina part of my mom does,” Henry replies, and then he’s moving away from her before she can even begin to wrap her mind around his words much less come up with a retort. Instead, blinking against the start darkness, she follows after him.

Stopping only when she hears, “Took you long enough to find me, Savior.” Slowly, Emma turns towards the voice – deep and silky as always, but somehow also cracked from lack of use and perhaps a bit of pain. Eyes adjusting, she sees the Queen sitting in a large, crimson overstuffed chair in the corner of the front room, a thick fur blanket over her legs. Her posture is too slumped and unbecoming of her usual regality to be anything, but a clear sign of her ill health.

“Were you waiting for me?” Emma asks, trying to keep her tone light and casual. Like she's not worried about any of this. Especially not the Queen.

She rather doubts that she's pulling it off, but well, it's worth a try.

There a flicker of motion through the air, and then a flame pops into the air, held in the Queen’s palm. The light is meagre, flickering a pale orange in the dark air. It’s enough, though, for Emma to see and take in the Queen’s pale features, a thin sheen of sweat clinging to skin which while usually bleached pale with makeup, is now somehow almost deathly in pallor. Which, unfortunately, makes entirely too much sense, considering.

“I know you pretty well, Swan; I knew - like the infernal cockroach you are - you'd eventually you’d show up.”

Choosing to ignore the insult, Emma steps closer to the Queen. “What else do you know?”

“I know that Regina is dead and I’m not and that wasn’t supposed to happen.” Her eyes flicker over to Henry, who is standing right next to Emma, looking desperately like he wants to rush the Queen and hug her. “And I know that he shouldn’t be here to see me like this. Unless, of course, that’s exactly what you want. To have my son see the woman you all want him to hate weak and dying.”

“That’s not why we’re here and it's not what we want,” Henry says softly. “And I don’t hate you. You’re my mom."

“What?” the Queen exclaims, her defenses and bravado dropping away as she stares back into her son’s soft green eyes. It only lasts a moment, though, before a lifetime of rejection and fear takes over once again and a sneer replaces the astonishment. “I’m already defenseless; you don’t need to lure me to you.” Her dark eyes, the orange of her flame glinting in them, flash dangerously. “Just finish me and be done with it. I’m sure your insipid mother will be thankful.”          

“Regina,” Emma says, taking another cautious step. The Queen clearly still has magic; sure, it doesn’t quite seem like much considering the weakness of the flame in her palm, but any could be more than enough if the Queen were to lash out in fear. And she really doesn’t want to become a maggot. Even if it is at the hands of the still-living half of the woman she…uh…cares about.

“That’s her name," the Queen declares imperiously, a sneer lifting her lip.

“It’s your name, too," Emma insists. "You’re two parts of the same person.”

The Queen laughs sharply, almost hysterically. “That’s what this is? Regina is dead because she was a fool and threw herself in front of the Black Bitch’s pawn for you, and you think you can just swap me in for her and pretend like nothing has happened. How inanely Charming of you.”

“Sorry, what did you say?” Emma demands, taking perhaps too quick of a step towards the Queen because the flame in her hand suddenly pops up in defensive reaction. Emma puts her hands up in a conciliatory motion, taking a single step back. “The Black…who now?”

“Emma,” Henry breathes, because even at fourteen he knows that that wasn’t the part of the Queen’s words his blonde mother was supposed to focus on (at least not yet). But well, she is a cop and a bounty hunter, and when someone drops a clue to the bigger mystery in front of her, she’s going to jump at it. So, turning his attention to the Queen, Henry emphatically assures her, “We’re not trying to replace you.”

“If you’re not here to kill me and you’re not here to replace me, then why are you here?”

“To put you back together,” Emma answers, grounding herself back into the immediacy of the conversation. She has a thousand questions to ask the Queen about what she might know about the manipulation of Gideon and the attempt to bring about the Final Battle, and perhaps even where Regina is, but those questions can hold. At least for the moment. Because as different as the Queen and Regina are from each other in temper and method, in many ways, they’re very much the same. Which means that the only way to get anywhere with the Queen is to let her get them there in her time.

And that means answering her questions and convincing her of their genuine intent to fix the wrong which had been committed on that roof top (and in the street the night Regina had died) and put the two parts of Regina back together. The Queen and the Mayor. The mother, the friend, the enemy and...

Well, who even knows, anymore.

“Put me back…Swan, have you had a psychotic break? Regina is dead. There’s only one part left. Me. And that may not be for very much longer."

"You're dying," Emma states, her words more of a sobering realization than a question.

“How pedestrianly on the nose,” the Queen sniffs. Then adds with impressively dripping disdain, "For whatever reason, the wolf never installed electricity here. I suppose she missed when she could eat people without having to cook them.”

“Mom,” Henry scolds, but it’s almost gentle, and doesn’t leave much of mark.

Smirking slightly, the Queen says, “There are candles around the room, though.” She noticeably doesn’t mention why she would like the candles to be lit but the flickering of the flame (uncomfortably similar to the way Regina had been flickering in and out in the mirror when Emma had seen her a few hours ago) in her hand is a pretty fair indication as to the reason.

Emma turns to Henry, “There’s probably matches somewhere over there.”

“Right. On it.” He moves towards the far side of the room, away from the two women.

“If Regina had ever taught you how to create fire, you wouldn’t need a lighter,” the Queen grumbles. “But no, she didn’t want to teach you anything which could be considered dark magic. She didn’t want to risk letting you get corrupted like she was. She didn’t want you to become who I was when I was part of her.”

“Turned out I didn’t need her to teach me dark magic. I learned it all on my own,” Emma tells her, her tone morose and brittle, the memories of her days as the Dark Swan sweeping over her and leaving her with the same churning guilt that’s been plaguing her ever since the moment the demonic form known as the Dark One had been torn out of her. “Now, can we talk without all this bullshit fronting? Because time is pretty short and this is wasting what we do have.”

“Fine,” the Queen replies archly, her head lifting up. Emma imagines the visual would look far more imposing if not for the fact that the flickering orange flame reflecting off her face shows just how sickly the Queen actually is. “What did you mean by put us back together?”

“Exactly that.” Emma stops for a moment to gather her thoughts. She rubs her eyes, takes a deep breath and then says, “Okay. So, you know Regina died for me. Gideon stabbed her.”

“I know that one moment I was a snake –” she snarls the word out. “In a cage entirely unbecoming of my status and then the next I was buck-naked in the middle of the forest, feeling the life draining out of Regina and waiting for myself to die as well. But I didn’t.”

“Why were you naked?” Emma queries.

“Ew,” Henry calls back across the room, his voice coming out of the inky darkness.

“Magic has a twisted sense of humor,” the Queen replies.

“Fair enough. What do you know about how she actually died?”

 “Not much. I know it was meant to be you. Fate designed it to be you. But I think everyone knew that,” There’s a sharpness to her tone, a raw simmering rage just below the surface as she considers the many ways Fate has determined and decided the course of her own existence as well. Rarely if ever for the better.

“Yeah, Fate seems to have had a hard-on to see me dead. Not really sure why,” Emma agrees.

“You serve a purpose to control the grand narrative that is Life. And in the end, that’s what Good and Evil actually is, a terrible story which ends with my death. Fate is about fulfilling a destiny we never chose.”

“I know,” Emma says gently. “And I think that’s why we’re here right now. You know that she and I – you and I – have talked a dozen times about fate and the many ways it's twisted our lives.”

“I know we’ve spoken of beating it,” the Queen answers and then laughs. She thinks back to a conversation she and Emma had had when she’d still a part of Regina. About how Fate had manipulated Emma’s life by throwing Maleficent’s daughter into her path. Then, the discussion had been about stopping Emma from falling into the darkness as Rumple had wanted her to. They’d believed themselves successful, thought they’d finally beat Fate at its own game.

Until Emma had been standing in the middle of the street with streaks of inky black surrounding her and her hand thrust into the air, the Dark One’s dagger gripped tightly in her hand.

Fate had won again.

 “Right,” Emma agrees. “And that night she…sacrificed herself for me, I think she thought she saw a way to win. She said she saw something. Had some vision. Saw some beautiful future. And then told me that we'd find a way to beat Fate together."

The Queen’s eyes narrow as she tries to work her way through Emma’s words. Behind them, several flickers of light from candles begin to cast a glow around the room. Not quite bright enough to provide light upon the Queen just yet, but that seems to be the eventual outcome.

“When did she tell you all of this? When she was dying?”

“No. When she came to me after she died.”

“After. Huh. Spirits usually only remain in the living world under three conditions,” the Queen murmurs, and for a split second, Emma finds herself smirking because as it turns out, there’s a nerd side to the Queen as well. “A violent death can occasionally cause a spirit to seek vengeance. But, as we all know, vengeance was always my part of the equation. She was the peace, love and hope for unicorn dust part of us so that seems unlikely."

“Also, she chose to save me,” Emma notes, then laughs, the sound thin and humorless. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

The Queen throws her a curious look, for a moment looking like she wants to press on that, but then chooses to continue with her previous words. “A spirit can also remain here if there’s unfinished business but that’s generally just a final message type of stay. It very rarely lasts long unless…unless the spirit is being trapped within this world by another force.” She tilts her head as if finally understanding. “That is what you think has happened to her.”

"Right. Now, tell me about the Black…”

“Bitch?”

“I assume that’s not her actual name,” Emma almost pleads.

Because that would be weird. Or maybe normal. Some days, she honestly don’t know which is which, anymore.

“Alas, no,” the Queen allows, just as Henry approaches with a lit candle and offers it to her. With a small smile of affectionate gratitude which seems to reach her tired eyes, the Queen accepts the candle and allows the flame in her hand to flicker away. “She’s known as the Black Fairy, and she’s one of the oldest existing demonic entities there is. Existing across multiple realms and dimensions, she is comprised of entirely stolen dark magic and energy. She’s a bitch.”

"But what does she have to do with any of this?"

"She's the one behind the kidnapping of Rumple's child and the turning of him into a weapon against you."

"How do you know that?"

"Because Rumple did. And because of the way my magic reacted when he was near me. She and I have crossed paths before; I never forget a ...taste."

"I'm not sure I want to know."

The Queen lifts an eyebrow in bemusement.

Waving it off, Emma asks, “Regina kept talking about how she made a terrible mistake and something has changed with Fate. And look, I know this makes no sense, but could this Black Fairy somehow have…hijacked Fate?” The moment the words are out of her mouth, Emma scowls, taken aback by the utter absurdity of her own statement. Though she’s been in this world of fairytales and twisted narratives for over four years now, there are days when the reality of it being her reality still fucks with her. Right now, trying to figure out what the physical embodiment of an existential entity might be, well it’s a perfect formula for a migraine.

“I suppose she could. After all, that's essentially what she tried to do to Rumple's welp. But as far as Regina, to what end?" The Queen thumps her her pointer finger against her bottom lip, her thoughts whirling rapidly. "Why would she allow Regina's death to replace yours in the Grand Design? 

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

“Well, she’s an insipid twit of a creature with delusions of power and grandeur, and I know she was at least somewhat responsible for the Dark Curse which brought us all here so I suppose it’s not unreasonable to think maybe she’s been meddling in Fate's domain for far longer than we realize.”

“Okay, let's assume that’s true for a minute; is she strong enough to be able to keep your other half in this world?”

“Potentially, but again, why would she want to? My nicer half is infinitely more meddlesome here than she would be stuck in the Underworld. And she’s done far more to unravel the Grand Design than anyone ever believed possible. Including removing you from it. Why not just allow her to move on if for no other reason than to get her off the board?” the Queen queries, her brow furrowing as she tries to think her way around the puzzle. It’s a warmly familiar expression to both Emma and Henry, both quite used to Regina’s more contemplative gazes. “You said Regina spoke of a beautiful future. In relation to what, exactly?”

“To her and Emma,” Henry replies, before Emma can clumsily and awkwardly stumble her way through such an explanation. Then adds, "To you and her."

“Well, that’s awfully presumptuous. What makes you think I want anything to do with some…beautiful future with you, Miss Swan?”

“I…I didn’t –”

“You love her,” Henry states, stepping in front of them.

“You don’t know me. And I know that no part of Regina has ever suggested such a thing. She may be fond of your obnoxious birth mother, but I am not.”

“Yeah, you are,” he lobs back. So easily and effortlessly.

“Hey, Kid,” Emma suggests, because there’s a deeply unsettling discomfort to this conversation. A kind of push and shove force which feels almost suffocating. In a way, no different than the concept of Fate manipulating their lives and pressing them down roads they might not have chosen for themselves. And well, this whole situation with Regina and feelings is something she still hasn’t entirely wrapped her mind around, the implications of it extraordinary. It all feels so very overwhelming to her. Even if it apparently doesn’t seem to feel that way to anyone else.

Henry looks back at her, seems to read the skittish wariness in her eyes and backs off. He says instead, looking back to the Queen. “Emma's right: I am just a kid. I don’t know much about fate, but I am the Author and I’ve read all the books the previous Author left behind. I know how the story was supposed to go for both – for all - of you when it was first written. But I also know all of you have changed it. I know you two created an entirely new book.

“She may have, but as I keep reminding you both - and as Regina herself was very clear about - I’m not her,” the Queen declares, and then she coughs. She shifts anxiously, uncomfortably, drawing the blanket up higher over her. A small tremor bends her frame for a moment, and she grimaces through a shudder of pain. It’s a strange thing, seeming to come both from nowhere and everyone all at once. There appears no injury to heal, no gaping wound to magic closed.

Unless, the Queen muses darkly (and not for the first time), the wound is Regina herself.

“No, but she also wasn’t her without you,” Emma states. “It took me a very long time to realize that. You were her protector. The one who gave her fire and the ability to fight back.” Emma tilts her head as she considers the Queen’s rather dark and bloody past – a past Regina had run from. “Sometimes in unnecessarily horrible and violent ways, but it helped her survive situations most people could never even conceive of much less walk away from.”

For a few long seconds, the Queen says nothing, clearly overwhelmed by Emma’s words. Then, her voice cracking, she whispers, “What do you want from me?” She waves at herself. “I’m obviously not strong enough to take on the Black Fairy, even if she’s the one who has Regina.”

“I don’t need you to be strong enough for that; I just need you to be strong enough to forgive Regina and let us put the two of you back together. As the person you’re meant to be.”

“I have to give you credit: the lengths you're going to to get her back are...impressive. Though, one would think you'd have learned about desperation like this."

It's cruelly pointed statement, but perhaps an earned one, Emma allows before pushing the darker memories and thoughts away and focusing on the immediate issue. She counters with, "You're not listening to me. I do want her back but I want my Regina back. And that means both parts of her."

“Even if I were to believe you, why should I forgive her when she refuses to forgive me?"

“She sent me to find you.”

The Queen looks over at Henry, as if once again gauging honesty from the one who she will always believe in, no matter what form she is in. “Trust us,” he implores.

“Fine. Let’s say I can…forgive her. And let’s say she’s finally able to forgive me. What’s your plan to get her away from the Black Fairy? Because I promise you, if that hag does have her, she won’t let her go easily. Especially since she appears to be the one who manipulated and twisted everything to get Regina there."

“I think that’s where we bring the family in.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that. Do they all agree with this idiotic plan of yours? To join me and Regina back into one great big over-thinking, self-loathing, ill-tempered mess of a woman?”

“Yes.”

The Queen's eyebrow shoots into her hairline. “Even your mother?”

“Yes.”

“Zelena really wants you back, too,” Henry assures her.

“And your noxious pirate? What does he think of this 'beautiful future' of yours?”

“That’s complicated and…probably over.”

The Queen stares back at her, seeming as though she’s considering some type of caustic response, but then she jerkily nods her acceptance. Because pride and snark may be all she really has left, but even those weapons seem worthless in the face of the hurt and confusion on Emma’s face. A rather strange thing, really, considering how much energy she’d spent on trying to destroy the Savior, once upon a time.

“All right,” the Queen agrees. “Because I have nothing to lose –”

“And everything to gain,” Henry chirps, eyes bright.

She rolls her eyes at him, but that same enduring affection for him that every part of Regina has for him always breaks through any irritation that arises. “I’ll go along with whatever your ridiculous sure-to-fail plan is. But don’t ask me to hug your mother.”

Emma chuckles and then steps closer to the Queen, offering a hand. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

The Queen moves the fur blanket away from her knees, showing off the pair of loose heather sweatpants she’s wearing (Regina’s, Emma notes, thinking of the times she’d come over to the mansion for a Sunday breakfast – ostensibly with Henry, but somehow always involving a full day event doing family-type things, just the three of them – and found Regina comfortable and casual).

“Despite whatever Regina said to you when she was dying, you do know that we can’t actually beat Fate, right?” the Queen challenges. “Not really.”

“I know we can’t if we don’t try. Regina believed we could. I think our job is to prove her right.”

The Queen grunts in disgust. “Under all that gruff and grime and cheap leather, you’re still a Charming, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know about that. My hope and faith tends to be pretty broken these days. But your other half believed in me, and I figure all of us have been through too much to give up now.” She wiggles her finger, urging the Queen to take her hand.

“We can do this,” Henry declares, and then just as the Queen grasps Emma’s hand, he moves around to her side to support her as he and Emma help the Queen up from the chair. Almost immediately, she wavers, her knees turning to rubber, the sweat on her face glistening.

“Stay with us, okay?” Emma pleads, an arm around her, bent to hold the Queen as a tremor passes through her. Mouth close to the Queen’s ear, she murmurs, “Stay with us.” Long seconds eclipse as the Queen shudders, her fingers biting into Emma’s palm, her only anchor the sound of both Emma and Henry’s voices reassuring her. Telling her it will be okay.

But it's never been okay. Not for her.

Rarely for Regina.

Why should that change now when she’s broken in half, felled by the loss of the other half of her which had previously rejected her?

Maybe it won’t be okay. Maybe it never will be. But then again, maybe they’re right and as insipid and Charmingesque as the thought is, maybe they're right and there really is nothing left to lose and everything to gain.

Teeth grit, the Queen straightens herself, pushing the pain back down.

Finding the fire that had helped Regina to survive her mother, her husband, Rumple, and a hundred other torments.

“You okay?” Emma queries.

“I always am,” the Queen replies imperiously.

“You ready to see the family?”

“If your father pulls a sword on me –”

“He won’t,” Henry promises. “But no throwing fireballs at him.”

“Or making sheep cracks about him,” Emma adds. “I assume all of those were yours.”

“Most of them.” The Queen grudgingly admits. “Fine. Take me to your family.”

“Our,” Henry corrects, so painfully earnest and honest that it makes her heart ache with need and want of these words and ideals which he offers up so easily and effortlessly. “Our family.”

“Our family,” Emma echoes.

“All of you are fools and there will be no group hugs.” And then she’s striding out the door of the cabin, somehow managing to still look regal and just a tint bit dangerous even in sweatpants.

“Well, I’m not a maggot,” Emma notes with an air of false cheerfulness.

“You still can be,” the Queen calls back at her.

Emma groans and with Henry, follows through the door, coming to a halt beside the Queen, who is looking up at the tall trees, eyes closed. Like she’s just inhaling the calm around her. So naturally, Emma breaks it. “I’m guessing your magic isn’t strong enough to teleport you?”

“If my magic was strong enough to do that, do you think I’d look the way I do?”

“Point taken. I’ll do it. Hey, you know, your sister and I can probably give you a jump once we get to the loft.”

“Did you just compare me to a car, Miss Swan?”

“Yes.”

The Queen sneers in disgust and then mutters, “My other half is a fool.” Before Emma can reply, the Queen reaches out, grabs both Henry and Emma’s hands and demands, “Do it.”

“She means ‘please’,” Henry assures.

“She doesn’t,” Emma answers with an entirely too giddy grin, and then she’s squeezing and allowing her magic to bubble up and out of her and into the Queen and Henry, the whirl of it sweeping them all away to –-

 


 

-- somewhere entirely different from where they’re supposed to be, Emma realizes as the trio reappears in the middle of what appears to be a white room covered in dense purple smoke. It's quite similar to Regina's magical smoke, though decidedly paler and more translucent, reminding Emma of the Queen's tenuous fireball. It's a rather disquieting comparison, to be sure.

“Mom?” Henry asks, possibly to both women, his voice peaking in alarm.

The women exchange a wary look of confusion before the Queen manages to hiss out, her voice trembling just a little bit, “Miss Swan, what the hell did you do this time? Where have you taken us?”

“Relax, Queenie; Emma didn’t do this: I did,” another voice says, and then there Regina is, walking through the smoke, towards them. Clothes the same as they’ve been on the last two visits, she nonetheless seems weaker, appearing exhausted and sickly, much like the Queen.

Who is staring at her other half in disbelief.

“You look like shit,” the Queen finally declares.

“Right back at you, Your Majesty.” Her gaze flickers over to Henry, her eyes lighting up.

“Mom,” he says again, and this time he means it just for her.

She steps towards him, as if to touch him, but stops short. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Henry assures her. “We’re going to fix everything.”

“You can’t.” To Emma, she says, I don’t have much energy or time left –”

“Before the Black Fairy shows up?”

Regina’s eyes narrow, then dart to the Queen, who haughtily reminds Regina, “You sent the Savior to find me.”

“That was a mistake."

"Of course it was. I should have known you'd never actually want me," the Queen sneers.

"Wait," Emma starts, desperation creeping through her.

Regina's head snaps around to Emma, eyes dark and furious and full of so much fear. "I told you to drop it and walk away.”

"You had to know that was never going to happen."

“She's right," the Queen declares. "She's never listened before when we told her to go away, why would she start now?"

"Not helpful," Emma mutters.

The Queen ignores her, pushing on with, "Besides, I don’t wish to die just because your suicidal streak survived you into death. Contrary to your every attempt to destroy yourself and me along with you, I rather enjoy existing.”

“Be pissed off at me all you want, but you don’t understand, and I don’t have time to explain. You all need to stop this. Before the consequences of continuing are far worse than what happened in the Underworld.”  Regina glares at Emma, her dark eyes piercing. “You did enough damage to your family, then, Miss Swan; don’t repeat that mistake. Do better this time. Let me go and move on. Do the right thing, for once.”

“Mom,” Henry says again, aghast at her words. He turns towards Emma, taking in her shock and surprise and clear heartbreak, the guilt she’s been barely suppressing since returning from the Underworld crushing.

But it’s the Queen who says, with a lifted eyebrow. “Perpetually self-loathing, self-sacrificing and suicidal; a truly inspiring combination, Regina, dear.” To Emma, she states, “Just a reminder: I was still with Regina when we all ventured down to the Underworld –”

“Shut up,” Regina demands.

“No. You're the one who sent Swan to me," the Queen hisses. To Emma, she says, “No matter what she says to push you away, her part of us never blamed you. I did, but she never did.” Her eyes snap back to Regina. “Maybe for once, you should try fighting for something other than to be forgotten."

That makes something in Regina spark and then she’s crossing over to the Queen and before she can think to stop herself, she’s jabbing her finger at the Queen and hissing, “You have no idea what you’re talking about or what the consequences of –”

“Regina,” Emma breathes, speaking for the first time since Regina’s horrible words to her.

“Your hand,” Henry puts in, wonder in his voice.

Both the Queen and Regina look down, seeing where Regina had been jabbing her finger. An area which is now alight in glittering magic, Regina’s hand aglow in it. Instinctively, the Queen reaches out, her fingers inexplicably closing around Regina’s hand, flesh meeting flesh. The magic around them grows as the two women gaze at each other in wide-eyed amazement.

But then Regina is pulling away, anxious eyes darting fearfully towards the smoke and around before finally settling on Emma. “I can’t stay,” she states, and now it’s more of a desperate plea than an attack. “I need you to understand. I need you to think of everything we’ve been through.”

“That’s all I’ve been thinking about," Emma insists. "From our beginning to..."

“Our end," Regina declares. "Because that was our end."

"It doesn't have to be," Henry insists, so young and innocent and perpetually hopeful even in the face of such a dire situation.

"It does," Regina argues. "I need all of you to remember how we got here. I won’t be responsible for the end of our family.”  Even as she says the words, her skin begins to crack and break apart, the digital like effect starting to sweep her away again. “If I accept my punishment and stop fighting back, Fate will leave you alone and let you be happy. I keep Fate with me, and I keep her away from all of you. I can…exist with that.”

“Or not,” the Queen retorts. “She will consume you, and then she will come for everyone here. Because she isn’t actually Fate and you know that as well as we do. She’s a power-mad bitter old hag who hijacked our fate and our destiny with the creation of the Dark Curse. She ensured we ended up on the path we did.”

“We made our choices,” Regina insists.

“You did,” Emma agrees. “And then you made better ones. And we can keep making better ones until we find a way through this. All of us together."

“She’s too powerful –”

“And you’re a coward,” the Queen growls. “We can take the Black Bitch. For everything she ever did to us, we can pay her back in kind by tearing her insides out of her one by one and feasting on them as she screams for the mercy she and her wretched fairy kind never showed us.” She looks over at Emma and Henry as if to gauge their agreement, and instead finds them both appearing mildly queasy. With a quick eyeroll, she turns back to Regina, and pushes on, eyes glittering maniacally. “If you surrender to her – if you do what you always do and give up because you hope that obedience will provide less pain, it’ll end as it always does for us. Just as it did with Mother and the King and Rumple. Horrifically. But this time it’s worse because there are finally people we actually care about. People we want to fight for and -" she glances once more over at Henry and Emma before haltingly adding, "People we want to be with."

“I can’t take anymore. I just wanted to be happy,” Regina whispers, her physical form almost completely gone now.

“We can be,” the Queen declares, head up.

“We can be,” Emma echoes, stepping beside the Queen, smirking when she sees the Queen roll her eyes again, even now unable to accept too much sappy.

“We will be,” Henry insists and then he’s in a line with them, reaching for Regina.

Who finally relents and extends a hand back. “Bring me home.”

The next thing any of them now, the room is exploding in light and then they’re –-

 


 

--standing together outside the Charming loft, the three of them crowded in front of the door.

“Did that…just really happen or did we have a group delusion or did I?” Emma queries, glancing over at her companions. Almost immediately, she stops speaking as she notes that the Queen has grown even paler than she was, sweat glistening on her brow, a few drops dripping across her cheekbones.

“Mom,” Henry shouts.

“Miss Swan,” the Queen murmurs. “If you have a miracle to pull out of your bag of Savior tricks, now might be a good chance to do it.” And then her knees are buckling, and she’s falling. Only the instincts of someone who has had to move quickly while on the run and on the hunt allows Emma to jerk forward just in time to get her arms under the Queen’s rapidly collapsing form.

“I’ve got you,” Emma tells her as she lowers her down, hearing the sound of Henry rushing into the loft to get the rest of the family to come and help. One arm still under the Queen to cradle her, Emma lifts a hand to her face and urges, “Don’t give up. Either one of you. Just hang on a little bit longer.”

"I've held on for so long," the Queen murmurs, her words slurring as her eyes roll back and she sags against Emma. 

"I know," Emma assures her, the words feeling necessary even if neither part of Regina can hear them.

The door opens and then Snow and Zelena are both rushing out into the hallway, eyes wild.

“What happened?” Zelena demands, falling down beside her sister, and immediately reaching for her. The panic painted in broad strokes across her face is almost breathtaking to see, especially after everything the two sisters have been through over the years.

“I’ll tell you everything once she’s inside and we know she’s okay,” Emma assures Zelena, as she reaches for her hand. When she takes it, Zelena looks up at her in not outrage but surprise at the idea of someone touching her in a way that isn’t hostile. It reminds Emma entirely too much of both herself and of her early interactions with Regina as they’d started evolving into friends. “But right now, what I need from you is help. You and me, I think we can give the Queen just enough energy keep her alive, but I don’t have a clue how to do this on my own. Help me. Please."

Relenting, she folds her fingers into Emma and moves their hand to the Queen’s chest. “It’s terribly trite and far harder than anyone admits, but…think good thoughts. No fear, only good thoughts.”

“Can you do that?” Emma asks, looking into her eyes.

“She can,” Henry declares, and then reaches out and takes Zelena’s other hand.

“So, can you,” Snow tells Emma and then follows Henry’s lead. As they all seem to do.

Which, naturally, makes Zelena roll her eyes - apparently a Mills family mainstay. “You people really are intolerable.”

“Regina says that, too,” Snow chirps brightly.

Zelena grunts and then closes her eyes.

Emma does the same.

Think good thoughts.

Henry at the door of her apartment.

Her parents rushing toward her, embracing her.

Saving the town in the mine with Regina.

Saving Henry with Regina.

Crossing realms.

Moments spent with her family.

Fighting together and laughing together.

Time spent with her parents, with Henry, with Regina.

Afternoon lunches and coffee, the ocean breeze filling all her senses.

Standing with Regina as they watch their son get his first kiss.

“I saved you, now you save me.”

Emma’s eyes snap open and she watches in wonder as energy flows from her and Zelena into the Queen’s body, her frame shaking as life invades every cell, pulling her back to them. She looks up in amazement, seeing Emma and Zelena and Snow and Henry around her.

She smiles almost lazily in understanding, and then passes out again.

 


 

“She’s stable,” Zelena says, finally moving away from the Queen’s unconscious form on Snow’s bed and over to Emma. 

“Good," Emma nods. “Then we need to get working on the next part of this.”

“Which is what exactly?” Hook asks. He’s been oddly quiet since he’d watched them bring in the unconscious Queen. “You said some wench called the Black Fairy has Regina’s spirit? How is that even possible?"

“There’s a lot of questions I don’t have answers for,” Emma admits.

“Like how the Queen survived Regina dying,” Charming suggests.

“For one. Also, exactly what the Black Fairy wants with Regina.”

“Perhaps, we are walking right into her trap,” Hook provides. “Perhaps, she wants us to bring Regina back and plans to come along for the ride. Have we considered that?”

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Emma allows. “Which is why I asked Belle to bring Rumple in. He might be a son of a bitch – “

“A son of a bitch none of us should trust –” Zelena notes.

"True, but he’s one who probably knows how to stop a stowaway.”

“Indeed, I do, Miss Swan” Rumple says as he and Belle step through the open doorway into the loft, the baby version of the once homicidal Gideon wrapped safely in Belle’s arms. He shuts the door behind him and waves his hand to create a magical seal. A glance at the Queen and then over to Emma Emma, and he says in that uniquely smug and condescending tone of his, “Miss Swan, the Queen is unconscious and can hardly be blamed for not putting up the proper protections, but you should know better. If your enemy is quite literally a force of nature, it stands to reason that she has the ability to observe your conversations and interactions without you noticing. So, unless you wish to reveal your plans, perhaps you consider using that blonde head of yours."

"You're a real dick, you know that?"

“Indeed, but as you said, I'm one who knows how to help you so perhaps -"

"And we will help you," Belle cuts in, looking directly at him. A reminder of the remaining fragility of their relationship, even with Gideon returned to them.

"We appreciate it," Emma states. "So is this the Black Fairy we're dealing with?"

"And how long have you know it was her?" Hook adds, his voice intense and accusatory.

"It is her," Rumple agrees, entirely ignoring Hook. "And I can help you put up blocks, but it should be noted that the Black Fairy is hardly a…stowaway. She’s a very ancient form of evil and she’s quite powerful. So powerful that it would appear she has pushed the actual Fates from their positions.”

“As in Greek Fates?” Charming asks, the disbelief clear in her tone.

“We interacted with Hades, didn’t we?” Rumple reminds him, eyes twinkling with a mixture of bemusement and perpetual disdain for this family.

“Fair enough," Emma concedes. "So if the Black Fairy took out the Fates, what happens if we take out the Black Fairy?"

“Hard to say," Rumple shrugs. "I imagine someone else will be assigned the duty."

"Good."

He looks at Emma curiously. "After everything the Fates designed for you and our troubled Queen, I wasn’t of the opinion that either of you were too terribly fond of them, Miss Swan. Certainly not enough to want them back in charge of your lives."

“I never said I wanted them back in charge, but I'd rather them than the Black Fairy. We were able to change our fate before - several times, actually. If the playing field is even, we can do it again. And keep doing it until we defeat any Grand Design they have."

"The playing field is never even, Miss Swan. What would ever make you think it was?"

Emma just glares at him.

"I told you he was a son of a bitch no one should trust," Zelena grumbles.

Sensing a fight about to escalate, Snow steps forward. "But someone did change the Queen's fate, right?"

“So it would seem," Rumple agrees. To Emma, he asks, “You mentioned to me on the phone that Regina said she had a vision - a 'beautiful dream' you called it - which made her step in-front of the sword for you, thus taking on your fate for herself?” Off Emma’s nod, he wonders aloud, “It would seem you have some other entity – whether an escaped Fate or otherwise – trying to help out."

"You don't think the Black Fairy was the one who sent her that?"

"No. She's incapable of imagining anything that could be considered beautiful. Someone else sent the vision, for whatever reason."

“Don’t imagine you have any idea who?” David queries.

“Not a one, and for the moment, it might not be terribly important. They appear to be trying to help as opposed hinder, which suggests to me that they’re not an ally of the Black Fairy. To be fair, very few are. She has quite the reputation for destroying everything she has ever touched.”

“You two seem pretty acquainted,” Zelena notes, glaring at him. Never trusting.

“Need I remind you that I’ve been around a very long time,” he replies icily.

“And destroyed a great many lives during that time,” Zelena shoots back.

“Seems to me you did that all on your own.”

“Enough. Rumple, tell them the rest of the story,” Belle murmurs, her voice soft as she rocks Gideon.

“What story?” Hook growls.

Rumple throws him a look, for a moment seeming like he might say something caustic, but then he returns to ignoring him, knowing it will enrage the pirate. Especially considering how everything else right now seems to be twisting Emma's story away from him more and more. One glance over at Belle and he relents. Grudgingly, he concedes, “I have knowledge of the Black Fairy not because she and I crossed paths, but because she is my…mother.”

This should land on the group with the force of an explosive bomb. Should render them all silent with shock.

But then from the bed, the Queen says as she sits up, “Of course the bitch is.”

“Welcome back, Your Majesty,” Rumple states, an eyebrow lifted. “Seems you’re a snake with more lives than most cats have.”

“You would know.”

“Hey,” Emma says wearily, stepping between the two of them, arms out. “I know that there’s not a lot of love lost between the two of you, but we probably have a very small window to save Regina, which means you two have to stow your hatred of each other for five minutes and work together.”

“It means very little to me one way or another,” Rumple states. “But for what it’s worth, the Savior is correct as far as time being short. Based on everything you’ve told me about what’s happened and your conversations with Regina and what I know of how my mother draws strength, it seems likely that she is draining Regina’s life force. Literally using her spiritual energy to charge herself up and thus make herself incredibly powerful. If we can draw Regina back to the Queen, they will both recover, but if we don’t do it before my mother finishes her consumption, Regina’s soul will be obliterated.”

And there’s the nuclear bomb effect; the room goes deadly silent.

Henry finally says, his voice quiet but firm, “So, we’re going to do something. Right?"

Emma looks up, looks across the room – from her mother to her son to the Queen. “We are.”

“And we will do everything we can to assist,” Belle promises.

“So, where do we start?" Zelena demands, her energy anxious and jittery.

“With ingredients as always,” Rumple smirks. “Something you never had much interest in.”

Once again, Emma is stepping forward. “Tell us what we need to find. Zelena and I will go to the vault and retrieve them.”

“I’ll come with you,” the Queen states, and starts to rise.

“No,” Snow says immediately, drawing a sharp look of surprise. Then, quieter, “No. You’re clearly not strong enough to be out there and if there was any kind of fight, well, we can't take that chance."

“Ah, of course; you want to make sure Regina had a body to come back to,” the Queen translates.

“No. That’s not why…” Snow holds up her hands, then, turns and walks away.

“I guess I’m going to play peacemaker in every direction,” Emma mutters. Then looks at the Queen. “I know you want to fight the world and show it how strong you really are, and believe me, I get that, but you’re hurt and you're in really rough shape right now. Lay low. We will get the ingredients and be right back.”

“This placating handling thing you do works on Regina,” the Queen growls. “Not on me.”

“Fine. For once, Your Majesty, just shut up and sit down. We’ll be back shortly. Or don’t. Your choice. I’m all out of fight so if you don’t actually want this –”

“I do,” the Queen says softly.

"Then work with me, for once. Not against me."

The Queen looks like she's about to argue again, but Henry's soft voice cuts her off. “Mom, please."

She looks at Henry. “You really are the Charming secret weapon, aren’t you, my little prince? Always able to lead me in any direction you need me to go in.”

“I just want you happy."

“The story of all of us,” the Queen murmurs, thinking back to Regina saying that just hours ago, and the many times she’d said that when she’d been one with Regina. The equally many times such a simple thing had been denied to both of them through the cruelest means. “Fine, Swan. Go.”

Emma starts to move, slowing only when Hook falls into step beside her. “Killian?”

“He’s not coming,” Zelena growls.

Ignoring Zelena, Hook says almost placatingly, “I’m trying to help.”

“Then come with me,” David suggests, a hand on Hook’s arm. “We’re going to go get the town on high alert, just in case anything does come across.” Hook looks back over at Emma for a moment, seeming like he wants to protest, but then sighs and reluctantly leaves with him, passing Emma and Zelena as they go.

Closing her eyes to allow the emotions of everything rush through her, Emma takes a breath and then turns her attention back to Rumple. “Give us the list.”

 


 

After the door closes twice more, it’s just Snow and Henry and the Queen and the awkwardness is just a bit too much for all of them so Snow ambles away, over towards the bar to make tea. Henry, as always unconcerned with tension, sits beside the Queen. “You feeling any better?”

“I’ve felt worse.”

“That’s something.”

“Where did this eternal optimism come from? Was it truly cursed in your DNA? It couldn’t possibly have come from me or from Regina; neither of us have ever been optimistic about anything in our lives. And yet you are, in spite of everything we did," the Queen states in amazement.

He shrugs. “You’re wrong.”

“Am I?"

“You are,” he says, and then leans down and kisses her on the head. “You should sleep.”

“I’m fine.”

“So, you always tell me, but I’m not a kid, anymore. I can see when you’re hurting now, Mom. I can handle it. I told Emma this and now I'm telling you it: I'm your son and it’s my job to take care of you when you can’t do it yourself. Nothing either of you say is going to change that."

Her mouth opens in protest, but then closes. Feebly, exhaustion hitting her, she concedes.

“Good. I’ll be upstairs if you need me. I think it’s going to be a long night for all of us.” And with that, he’s up and bouncing his way up the stairs towards the loft he and Emma had stayed in.

Leaving just the Queen and Snow alone.

“He’s right, you know,” Snow says, walking over with two cups in her hand. “And you’re wrong.”

“Snow White telling me I’m wrong again; shocking.”

Snow extends the cup to her. “I meant, you’re wrong about never being optimistic in your life. I met you when you still were. I met you when you still had hope for something better.”

“Yes, well, that got destroyed by you and your horrendous monster of a father,” the Queen bites back even as she takes the cup. She brings it to her mouth, takes a sniff, and then finally a small sip of it. "You don't actually think we're going to sit here and have us a warm and fuzzy bonding talk, do you?"

"I think right now, you're a captive audience. Nowhere for you to go. So maybe, we take the opportunity given to us and we actually talk."

"I don't talk, I act," the Queen growls.

"Maybe. But the moment, neither one of us can act. All we can do is wait. So?"

The Queen scowls in response. "What do you think will come of this...talk of ours?"

“A new beginning," Snow suggests. "For you? For me? For you and Regina? For this family of ours?"

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? The idea that you still somehow made me your family after everything you did to rip away the one I'd chosen for myself."

“I like the idea of you being my family, yes,” Snow allows, glancing down at the liquid within her own cup. Looking up, she says, “I’m sorry I ever forced you to be it, though.” She says nothing for a time, just thinking. And then finally, “We have all changed over the years. I know things I didn’t know then. Things I didn’t see and couldn’t understand. I didn’t know who my father was. I didn’t understand what he was doing to you. I just….I just wanted you to be happy.”

“Shouldn’t you be saying this to Regina?”

“Aren’t you Regina?”

“No, I’m the part of her that showed her how to survive our mother, the King and a hundred other abuses. I’m the part of her that made her get up when all she wanted to do was curl into a corner and scream at the unfairness of everything. I'm the part of her that made her strong enough to make it through constant nightly assaults by your father, multiple miscarriages, the destruction of her soul and the terrible choices she - not me - made. You call me the Queen instead of Regina because that’s who she became and it’s easy to separate us into the lighter and darker sides of us. Maybe that’s even true; that sweet girl you met on the horse that day wouldn’t have hurt a butterfly back then, but I was already inside of her, helping her to survive Cora. Regina always had the heart and the emotion and the desire to the person she wanted to be, but by then she lacked the courage because of everything we’d already been through. You may not believe this, but I was the part of her who pushed her to dare to love Daniel, despite the risks. But I was also the part of her who took the soul-shattering despair she felt at his death, and I turned it white hot rage. Every time your father touched her, she crumbled, and I kept her up with promises that we would become so strong and powerful that one day no one would ever hurt us again. And that would be enough for us to be happy.” The Queen looks down at the cup of tea, anywhere but up at Snow. “I believed that I had kept my promise to her.”

“Believed?”

“Until Henry and Emma came into her life and she actually seemed be truly happy in a way I'd never seen before. Happy to be making pancakes for Sunday breakfast and meeting your daughter for coffee. Happy that she was the Mayor and people actually seemed to be thankful that she was leading them. Happy when Robin Hood came into our lives. She’d changed so much by then – that she started to have hope again. This time, she was one telling me not to be afraid of trying to love again.” She shakes her head in disbelief. “And yet when the worst happened once again, and Robin died in her arms, I was the one she blamed for it. Because as it turns out, that whole time that I thought I had been protecting her and making her strong when we were together, she had still been hurting. She blamed me for everything I ever did to save us both.”

“Neither of you is responsible for what happened to Robin," Snow insists.

“She disagrees. You know, I wanted to blame Emma. Emma was the one who dragged us down to the Underworld so we could save that worthless pirate of hers. But Regina refused. She believed that our sins had created a blood debt we could never satisfy. One that had cost Robin his life, and would eventually hurt everyone she loved. And she insisted on blaming me for having caused that debt. Funny thing is, until you handed her that needle, she was coming to terms with accepting that debt, even if it meant pulling away from all of you and isolating herself again. And then you showed up on the roof and she jumped at your offer like it was her salvation."

"Because it was easier," Snow says sagely. 

"Easier? Tearing us in half was easier?" The Queen's voice starts to rise as her face flushes with anger, her eyes finally finding Snow's again.

"No, Snow placates. "Believing she could cut the pain and the guilt and the grief she was feeling out of her was easier than directly dealing with it. For what it's worth, though, we wouldn't have let her retreat from us." The Queen tosses her a withering look, as unamused as ever at Snow's annoying persistence in regards to Regina. So naturally, stubborn as ever, Snow continues on. "As for Emma, blaming herself - you - was easier than it was to risk losing Emma because she blamed her."

The Queen falls silent, deep in thought.

Hesitantly, Snow pushes on. “Has Emma always been…between the two of you?”

The Queen's eyes snap up, an aggressive glint to her eyes as her posture shifts just slightly enough to show a defensive enough edge to let Snow know she's hit a sore spot. “Just as you have always been. She wanted to forgive you. I refused. So she broke us in half and then managed to forgive everyone who hurt her except me."

 “Okay, but, I understand the fight over me, I guess. But why Emma? Is it because she has feelings for her?"

"Not everything about us was one or the other. Some things, we both felt," the Queen says cryptically. 

"Oh," Snow breathes. Then, "You know that's okay, right? That you...feel that way? About Emma?"

“Is it? Regina died for those pathetically unrequited feelings. I never would have allowed her to do that.”

“Strange,” Snow notes. “Because I have a fairly good memory of you standing in front of me when the ghost of your mother was trying to come after me. And I’m pretty sure that was you and not Regina. And that was hardly the first time. So either she was in more control than you or –”

“You’re her family,” the Queen says quietly. “There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for you. Including find her strength. Ironic, really."

"How so?"

"She always needed me to give her strength until the people who loathed me won her over and then she threw me out."

"Because I never understood," Snow tells her. "Though, to be fair, you made it hard for me to understand with all the trying to kill me."

The Queen grudgingly dips her head in acknowledgement of Snow; probably the best she will concede. 

"But that's the past," Snow continues. "I want to move forward. All of us. As a family. And you a part of that family.  I am sorry I didn’t realize that earlier. I’m sorry that I pushed for what happened on the roof that night. I never realized…I never understand how much she needed you to survive because I never really understood the reason why you were there. If I’m honest with myself, and I think I need to be, part of what I did that night was for much the same reason Regina couldn't blame Emma: because I needed to believe that there was a clear separation between the Regina I loved and the Queen that I hated.”

“And now?”

“Now, I understand that letting her break herself apart just meant letting her hate herself even more. Now, I understand that the only way forward for Regina is peace within all parts of her. You hurt me for years because of a mistake I made as a spoiled, idealistic, misguided child.  You tore apart my life and made me miss the first half of my child’s life. You introduced me to rage and hatred in a way no one else ever has.” The Queen starts to respond but Snow holds up her hand to stop her, drawing a flash of annoyance. “But you also brought us to a new land that gave us a different kind of hope. You didn’t know it was that at the time, but maybe Regina did, deep under all the anger. Here, I don’t have to lead. I can guide. Here, I don’t have to worry that a cough means that I might die tomorrow. And here, I can make amends with old enemies who never should have been enemies. Because you are my family and I’m yours. Like it or not."

“I don't like it," the Queen says grouchily., almost petulantly.

It takes everything Snow has not to laugh. She's not quite foolish enough to believe that the Queen has been tamed - this will always be the dangerously incendiary and rash part of Regina - the violent and reactively protective side. But, if the Queen can come to a place of understanding that not everyone is out to hurt either she or Regina, perhaps there is hope for peace within Regina once the two of them are merged once again. "Well, I do.” Snow counters.

The Queen grunts in response. Then says, “Are you happy now? You used my illness to force me into one of your annoyingly sappy pep talks."

Snow grins, practically beaming. “I'm not unhappy. And for what it's worth, this was definitely not the plan. But, I wasn’t about to pass up on the opportunity.” She stands up, then. “Henry is right, though: it’s going to be a long night and you really should try to get some sleep. I can’t imagine this Black Fairy is going to let Regina go without a fight so all that strength you were just telling me about? Your desire to protect her? Well she’s going to need it tonight. We all are.”

“And if we fail? If we can’t bring her back and it’s just me? What then?”

“Well, I guess that depends on you and what you want. If it’s still revenge –”

“It’s not,” the Queen says tiredly."I've lost too much. I'm sick of losing."

"If it’s family you want, well, we’re right here.”

“I’m not good like her. If it’s not both of us, you need to understand who and what I am. I'll never be good like she is."

“ A few months ago, I would have agreed with you. I told myself that Regina was all good so that meant that you had to be all bad but that was never the truth. None of us are all anything, even if nature is perhaps, darker than others." The Queen snorts in bemusement at Snow's careful word usage. "But I truly believe that in the end, our choices are what make us who and what we are. She chose to find happiness in family, friendship and responsibility. You can as well.”

“So easy.”

“Nothing ever is,” Snow counters and then starts to move away.

“And if that happiness turns out to be with your daughter –”

“That’s Emma’s choice to make. And if that's what she wants and makes you both happy, why would I be against it?”

“Don’t you believe that True Love has destined for your daughter to be with the pirate?”

“I believe in True Love. Whether that’s what they have…” Snow shrugs noncommittally.

“She went down to the Underworld for him.”

“I love my daughter desperately, and I am immensely proud of the woman that she is, but I think that maybe she has a lot she needs to work through that she never has. Including, perhaps, her reasons for making Hook the Dark One and then following him down to the Underground. And for saving you from the Dark One before that. And trying to save you now. They may seem like similar events, but I don't think they are. I think it's far more complicated than that."

“She loves the pirate,” the Queen says again, a tremor in her voice showing off her desperation.

“How did you go from pushing her to love Daniel to being so afraid of love now?”

“Love has always hurt us. With Daniel. With Robin. Both of those losses changed us. Left us...this."

 “Your mother was wrong, you know that, right? Love isn’t weakness.”

“It’s always been for both of us. It wasn't the loss of Robin that made her so desperate, but rather the implication of it, in her mind. Her love for all of you and her fear that the sins she’d let me commit to save us might one day hurt all of you made her choose to tear me out and throw me away.”

“And yet it’s your love for her now that’s making you fight for her once again. Look, I don’t where’s Emma’s heart lies. That’s not mine to say and I will support her wherever it takes her, regardless of who it is with. But what I do know is that you two have been on a tremendous journey together. You started as enemies and have become…well, that’s also not for me to say. But here’s another thing I know: True Love was never meant to feel like an obligation. It was never meant to make you tear yourself to pieces to justify it. The best of it makes you stronger. The worst of It? Probably isn't love at all."

“You do realize that this perpetual hope and optimism you have is actually twisted and insane, right?” the Queen asks, eyes wide with disbelief.

A slow smile spreads across Snow’s face. “Perhaps, but you made me this way whether you like it or not. Because what I said before was true: when I met you, you were the brightest star of optimism I'd ever seen. And you said, you were already within Regina. So even if it was only for a moment, both of you showed me something I never forgot and never let go of, even when I didn't realize I was still holding on to it. All those years ago, you taught me what love truly looked like. And so now, I'm showing you what hope looks like.” And with that said, she walks away, over to the couch, leaving the Queen alone with her thoughts.

Confused and disorientated, a thousand churning thoughts racing through her feverish and exhausted mind.

A feeling she hasn’t had in a very long time burning hot in her chest.

Unmistakably, undeniably and even obnoxiously: hope.


 

Chapter Text

It’s well after dark when the various teams start returning to the loft. First, a dirt-smudged David and Hook. They'd been in the middle of town fortifying defenses and ensuring that any of the vulnerable citizens has been moved out of the way of any potential incoming problems. They're both tired when they re-enter, but David's mood seems positive and energetic. Hook's is quieter, more subdued, his thoughts creating an almost tangible dark cloud around him.

About fifteen minutes after David and Hook return, Rumple and Belle arrive. He's carrying what appears to be a very old magic book in his hand, the binding of it curiously thin and fragile looking. "Human skin," the Queen murmurs, when she sees Snow eyeing it anxiously. "It's always human skin."

David pours himself a drink after that, and then passes the bottle of whiskey to Hook.

Who only glares slightly when the Queen demands a drink.

Finally, just before the clock hits nine, Emma and Zelena enter with a wooden box, specks of dust and grime all over them.

Like they've been in some kind of fight. When Snow tilts her head as if to ask - and she's really starting to think maybe she just shouldn't - Emma shakes her head. "Trust me when I say, you don't want to know." To the Queen, she adds, "But your defense systems are evil."

The Queen, even pale and tired, smirks. "All in the name, dear."

"You could have warned us."

"I could have," the Queen concedes, quite unapologetically.

Emma rolls her eyes and then turns towards Rumple, holding up the box of supplies. “Every ingredient you requested."

“Including the bloody one, though I must admit that was a bit of a mess to procure,” Zelena notes, with considerably less disgust than one might assume. 

“Bloody one?” David queries.

“Trust me, you really don’t want to know that, either,” the Queen says as she joins the group, her fingers clutching onto the top of one of the chairs to keep her upright. She’s grown progressively paler as the hours have passed, her breath rattling around in her chest even as her vision swims. A somber indication, Rumple had explained, that the Queen and Regina remain connected, and the reason the Queen continues to exist is because Regina does. Should Regina cease, well…

Snow had, of course, had asked if he was certain, and that was met with a withering look. One glance back at the Queen had told her that the Queen believed his words, her desolate expression unnerving.

Now, though, it’s time to focus on their plan and the hope it provides.

The hope that they can rejoin the two parts of Regina and mend their heartbroken family.

And once again save Storybrooke.

“In any case, it's all in there,” Emma confirms as she puts the box on the table in front of Rumple.

He opens it and peers in, finally saying, “Very good, Miss Swan; it would seem you can take direction after all. Who knew?"

“Rumple, we’re here to help,” Belle reminds him, deftly stepping in between he and Emma. She can see how exhausted and worn down the Sheriff is; she's been running on fumes for a very long time - since well before Regina's death. This idea that she can make this whole mess better than it is all that's keeping her going.

“I’m aware, Belle; that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it,” Rumple shoots back. Then, with a heavy sigh of enforced tolerance, he says, “All right, we have three hours to prepare the necessary ritual. We’ll start by creating the drawing circle which will be used to call Regina back to a physical form - in this case, the Queen's. There can be only one practitioner of magic inside of the circle at a time, or it will change the energy in a way we can’t predict; so we will need to work in shifts to prepare both the Call and the Draw I’ll start and then Zelena will take over me and then Miss Swan.”

"Wait?" Hook puts. "Call and draw?"

Once again, Belle is quick to step in, recognizing the tension in the room especially amongst the former villains. "The Call summons the spirit to the circle, the Draw traps her inside until the ritual is completed. They're part of the same ritual, but require different incantations."

"But first things first," Rumple redirects. "We have limited time and the circle has to be perfectly created. A single flaw will keep it from holding."

“I can assist,” the Queen says, pushing herself forward. 

Rumple looks over at her, his eyes tracking down to her trembling hands. For the briefest moment, he looks like he’s actually worried about her, but then he pushes it away behind a mocking sneer. “As I said, a single flaw will undo everything we're attempting to do. So all due respect, Your Majesty -" and he smirks darkly as he says these words - "It's best if you go lie down and wait to be saved.”

She bristles. “That was hardly due respect."

“Turns out I don’t respect you that much. And I do still owe you for –”

“You don’t,” Belle says, her voice strong and uncompromising. “If she owes anyone, it’s me. And I refuse to claim the debt. I refuse to claim any of the debts I'm owed. This feud between all our families is over. I don’t want this for our child."

“He’s already part of this,” Rumple tells her.

"Through no fault of mine or Regina's," the Queen snaps back. "We did nothing to that hag of a mother of yours."

“No," he agrees. "But the Black Fairy used my son to bring all of this about. A child she was able to get to because we had to hide Gideon because of you.”

“Because of you as well,” Belle is quick to correct. “If I can forgive you, then you can forgive her." She looks around the room, her eyes drifting past Zelena and then settling on Hook. "All of these vendettas, where have they gotten any of us? All of this anger? Are any of us better for it? Forgive and lets all move on."

“The bookworm isn't wrong. But I neither need nor want you to forgive me,” the Queen tells Rumple, for once no snark in her voice, just exhausted honesty. “Any more than I could ever forgive you for what you did to Regina. But she does forgive you. Because she’s the better part of me. She always was. And she always believed that there was some small part of you who cared about her and maybe even loved her despite everything you put us through.”

“She’s as much a fool as you are.”

“I know that you made the King impotent,” the Queen says, looking right into his eyes. “You wouldn’t save us from him because you needed her to break in half for your plan to work, but you did make it so he couldn’t hurt her like that any longer. You at least took that nightly pain away from her."

While it's hardly the first time (even tonight) that Snow's heard the Queen mention her long-dead father's mistreatment of her former stepmother, it never ceases to make her stomach sink, a shudder of revulsion creeping through her. She's hardly alone in this, the rest of the room shifting uncomfortably.

Emma, entirely too used to the realities of horrors such as the kind the Queen is speaking of, just shakes her head at Henry.

Don’t ask. Don’t ever ask.

“I said I’d help, and I will,” Rumple finally allows, unable to permit himself from heading down a path with too much guilt on it. “But you’re still in no condition to assist. You need to focus on staying alive for the next three hours. If we’re right and you and Regina are still linked, you’re giving her as much energy as she’s giving you. Preserve what you have and let us do what we need to do. If we succeed, we will need all of your combined strength to fight back my mother.”

"Fine," the Queen concedes with a growl, before turning away, allowing Henry to help her back down to the couch.

“What about the rest of us?” David queries.

“We wait,” Belle puts in, speaking before any caustic thing her husband might reply with. She knows him well, and despite his often darker more self-defeating ways, she loves him. Still, there’s a time and a place for his habit of pushing people away. “All we can do is wait and be ready.”

“Well, then, I guess I’ll make some tea,” Snow announces.

 


 

Emma’s standing out in front of the loft, head back, breathing the night air when she hears his familiar footsteps coming closer. Without looking over at him, she says quietly, “I don’t want a fight.”

“No fight, Swan,” Hook murmurs, coming to a stop next to her.

She turns her head and warily repeats, “No fight?”

“There’s no reason for a fight and I’m far too tired to create one just so I can lose. I know where this is heading. I think maybe I’ve known for a very long time, but I allowed myself to believe…I don’t even know anymore.” He takes a breath and then looks right at her. “Do you love her?”

“Killian –”

“Do you love Regina?”

“I…as a friend, as a –”

“Emma. I understand that we’re over and I am doing everything that I can to accept it like a man. Treat me with that same respect. You know what I’m asking. Are you in love with the Queen? With Regina? With both of them? Is she who you see in your future?”

“I…I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Everyone keeps asking me to figure that out and…I don’t know. I just know that not having her in my life feels like there is a gaping hole and I don’t know what to do with that.”

“And me? When I’m not in your life?”

“I felt desperation when you were gone.”

“Desperation about losing me or about being alone?”

“I do love you,” she insists.

He smiles tightly, hearing the lack of an answer in her answer. “But you’re not in love with me.”

“No,” she admits.

He bites his lip, fighting back emotion. “All right,” he finally says, because it’s about the only thing he can manage to get out. “All right.”

“Killian –”

"No. Look, I have spent a tremendous amount of my life making terrible mistakes -"

“Am I one of those?”

“I think the very fact we are having this conversation says otherwise. A lifetime ago, this isn't how this conversation would have gone at all."

“I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you."

“I believe you. But, just answer me one question: when did I lose you? Or did I ever have you?”

“I can’t answer that."

He forces another grim smile, fighting against every one of his baser instincts. “Can’t or won’t? Because if I had to make a wild guess, it was the moment you saw Regina standing in the street with the Dark One’s energy around her and decided that you couldn’t allow it to take her.”

“It wasn't like that. She fought so hard to be a better person; I couldn’t let the Evil have her back.”

“And yet you let it have me when you made me a Dark One.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know. But I think I knew the truth even back then. I couldn’t accept it, but I knew it.”

“This isn’t about Regina,” she insists.

“Perhaps not, but it’s also not about us. And I’ve spent too much of my life destroying my soul because I lost love to ever do it again. Whatever else, Swan, me understanding that, well, that's your doing. So…” he nods his head jerkily. “Be happy. Just…be happy.” He turns to walk away.

“Killian –”

“Please understand,” Hook says, over his shoulder. “I’m not a good enough man to stay around and watch you reunite with Regina. I’ll never be a good enough man to watch you with her. But if Hell is coming to Storybrooke this night, I’ll be there, protecting her and your town. You have my word on that."

“And then what?”

“And then there's a lot of ocean left to explore," he replies before walking away, his heavy boots scuffling the street as he disappears into the inky darkness of the rapidly blackening night.

 


 

It's about fifteen minutes later when Emma finally steps back inside the loft, roughly wiping at her eyes.

“Emma?” Snow asks, immediately coming over to her. “What – where’s Hook?”

“He went back into town,” Emma answers, sounding beyond exhausted. 

“What happened?” David queries, his voice low so as not to disturb Zelena who has moved into the circle to take over for Rumple. She’s bent down at the waist, using a silvery wand to trace curious hieroglyphic figures into the dust which has been spread across the width of the circle.

“Hook and I broke up,” Emma admits.

Snow immediately takes her arm and pulls her back outside the loft, away from ears Emma might not to want to hear this. Reaching up, she hugs her daughter. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry.”

“He thinks I’m in love with Regina. I think he was…stepping aside for her?” Emma laughs bitterly at the shipwreck that is her love life. “I don’t even know how I feel, and everyone is telling me what I’m supposed to do next.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Snow insists as she steps back.

“You say that, and I know you mean it but even you believe I’m in love with her, too.”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what you you believe and what you choose to do,” Snow tells her. “This is the second time today I’ve had this conversation –” her eyes flicker over towards the Queen, who is curled up on the couch, restlessly slumbering against Henry’s shoulder, his arm curled protectively around her. “But love – even True Love – isn’t supposed to be a prison. You should never feel trapped inside of it. If you do, it's not True Love."

“I feel trapped inside of everything these days," Emma shrugs.

“Then maybe, my sweet girl, you need to focus less on who you love and more on loving you.”

Emma laughs. “You really are a walking, talking inspirational speech, aren’t you?”

“She’s right, though, Emma,” David tells her. “No matter where your heart takes you, you can’t possibly give enough of it to be healthy if you’re not really sure what you want from life. Or for yourself. Anyone who loves you would understand that and step back for you. If it’s meant to be, it’ll find a way.”

“Because of fate?”

“No, Emma,” Snow corrects. “Fate isn’t why two souls find their way to each other over and over again; faith in this is.” She taps her daughter’s chest, just over her heart. “Maybe it's corny and Regina would say very Charming-like, but it's also the truth. You’ve rarely followed your heart. For a time after we first met, you trusted your instincts, but then you stopped. You got so wrapped up in always trying to do the right thing by everyone that you forgot how to do right by yourself. And while that’s heroic, it’s never really been living.” Snow smiles softly, sadly. "Some of that is our fault. We put this burden on you."

“It's not your - I'm doing the best I can,” Emma insists.

“We’re not doubting that,” David assures her. “We’ve never stopped believing in you.”

“That’s not true,” Emma counters. “When I was the Dark One and when I dragged all of you down to the Underworld, you all lost faith in me and you were right to.” She weaves her hand into her hair. “It’s even worse now, isn’t it?”

“I think we all have made too many mistakes to decide what’s worse now,” Snow tells her. “And I could care less about the past. I have spent too much of my life living in the past and losing the chance to love. Right now, all that matters is everything in front of us. What we do next.”

“So what do we do next?” Emma asks, sounding so terribly young. “What do I do next?”

“I think that after you’ve been through, maybe it’s time you finally allow yourself to heal,” David tells her. “And whatever that looks like, however long that takes, we’re with you every step of the way."

“And Regina? What if she comes back all set to start living this beautiful future she saw?”

“I think Regina has some healing to do, too,” Snow says simply, glancing over at the Queen. "And knowing her and everything she has been through -" Snow shudders as she thinks about the unsettling revelation about her father and Regina's marriage from earlier that evening - the last thing she would want is for you to feel like you were being forced into anything with her."

“I want to feel like my life is my own,” Emma tells them. “To create and build up and even screw up. Not driven by fate or decisions that aren’t mine.  I don’t want to be part of some prophecy or even some vision that I had no part in creating. I just want my life to be…mine.”

“It will be. It is,” Snow promises and then steps close and hugs her. “Whatever you want it to be.”

She feels her father’s arms come around them both, his hand on the back of her head.

Eyes closed, she falls into their comfort.

Falls into the –

A door opens, red hair flowing. “If you’re all done with your group hug, Swan, it's your turn to draw dirty little pictures in Rumple's sand.”

The door clicks shut again.

Emma laughs, then Snow does. After a few seconds, David joins them. Because their lives really are absurd, sometimes.

 


 

It’s ten to midnight, and the loft is cloaked in a soft white glow from a hundred candles lit around the room. More specifically, there’s a secondary circle of them around the magic circle, which is taking up a massive chunk of the ground floor of the loft.

“All very ritualistic,” Emma mutters, looking down at the circle filled with dust hieroglyphics.

“Magic is ritualistic,” Rumple reminds her, his usual condescension on full display.

She chooses to ignore him, looking over towards Zelena. “You holding up okay?”

It’s a sign of how exhausted Zelena is that she doesn’t shoot snark back, but instead says, “I’m ready for this to be over so I can sleep for the next four years.”

“I hear that.” She offers a tired smile of acknowledgement and then makes her way over to the couch. The Queen is awake now, but still leaning heavily against Henry, his arm still tightly around around her. 

“I’m fine, Miss Swan,” the Queen says automatically.

“I wouldn’t have expected you to be anything else but fine,” Emma teases and then offers her hand. “But I think it’s just about showtime, Your Majesty, so if you're done being snarky and maybe have a little more left in your tank, now would be the time to pull it out. Things are probably about to get super wild.”

“Understated as always,” the Queen replies as she lets Emma pull her up. There's a moment when she's on her feet - one where she's clutching Emma's shoulders to keep her up and they're just looking at each other like they're trying to gauge the thoughts of the other woman.

“Henry, can you help me with lighting the rest of the candles,” Snow calls out from across the room, somewhat breaking the curious staring contest.

He looks over at the Queen, as if verifying that she’s safely up. “I got her,” Emma promises. Reluctantly, he moves away, joining Snow who hands him a box of matches.

“You got me?”

Deftly avoiding the potential trap of that question, Emma sidesteps with, “He cares about you. Wants to make sure you’re safe.”

“Oh, I'm far from safe. I can feel my other half's desperation. Regina is giving up.”

“We’re coming for her. If you can, find a way to let her know that.”

“She knows. She's just not sure she believes, anymore. Pushing past her fear has always been her undoing."

“Well, then, I guess it’s our job to convince her to keep fighting."”

“You infernal Charmings. You never give up. It used to drive me out of my mind trying to figure out why I could never pierce Snow’s faith that she’d either defeat me or somehow win me back over to her.”

“I’m a Swan," Emma reminds her. "Not completely Charming, and faith doesn’t come easy to me.”

“No,” the Queen allows. Then, after looking around. “Where’s your pirate?”

“In town.”

“Something happened between the two of you?"

Their eyes meet in a strange, almost disquieting kind of understanding.

“We’re ready,” Rumple says from behind them. He indicates to the circle. “The Call is prepared. Once the first part has completed and the Queen has joined with Regina, we should be able to then Draw my mother in through the pathway that was created by them.” To the Queen, he asks, “Are you ready?”

Instead of replying immediately, the Queen turn to Emma and says, “If this is the end of both Regina and I –”

“No ends yet,” Emma says. “Have faith.”

“If faith doesn’t come easy to you, why should it come easy to me?”

“What choice do we have?”

The Queen inclines her head in acknowledgement, then looks back at the others – everyone but Belle (Rumple had insisted on sending her, Gideon and Neal away from potential exposure to his mother) still around. They’ve formed a spread-out circle around the magic one, their hands joined to create a continuous energy current strong enough to keep the circle closed from anything else but she or Regina coming back through it.

At least in theory.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Rumple suggests.

"Right," she murmurs, looking over at Regina’s family…her family. For the last time if this fails. Bright eyes so full of love and affection. For her.

Incomprehensible. Empowering.

She takes a deep breath. "If this is the end, you need to know that she loved all of you more than you could ever begin to imagine. I hated her for that. She believed that the hope and friendship and family that all of you were offering her could be enough to get her through the darkness. I hated her for that, too, because she saw me as that darkness. And she was my light. I existed because she was hurt and she needed my defiance, my strength and my anger to keep fighting and to keep holding out hope - in spite of everything - that one day we would find some kind of real happiness. I may have failed Regina, and allowed her to do horrific things and thus become something far different than what she ever wanted to be, but because of me, she survived long enough to find...this."

Emma steps forward, reaching for the Queen's hand and squeezing it, much to the Queen's astonishment, her eyes on their combined hands. "This story isn't over yet. She needs you now more than ever. Your strength. Your defiance. Your anger. Your fight. She needs you. Bring her - both of you - home to us."

"All right," the Queen murmurs, and then, as regal and as defiant as ever, she breaks away and steps towards the circle.

 


 

The room is entirely dark now except for the candles.

With heavy feet and a pounding heart, the Queen steps inside the magical circle, gasping when she feels thick tendrils of magic attaching themselves to her skin. It’s exhilarating but also overwhelming. Like mainlining on the purist form of a drug. Her eyes roll backwards, the air in her throat catching.

She hears Rumple say to the others, “Focus.” And then he’s saying something in a very old language, one even she doesn’t know.

The magic lifts from her skin, feeling like it’s pulling her upwards with a thousand tiny hooks. Her head wrenches backward and she screams as her eyes turn white, her vision going blank even as the magic helps her to soar and see between and into other realms.  

And then there she is. Standing in the middle of a cloud of collapsing purple, what looks like digital lightning striking all around her. She’s pale and crumbling, the very last of her soul hanging on to this reality.

“You came for me,” Regina says, the disbelief clear in her voice.

“I will always protect you,” the Queen answers. “The question is, will you let me?”

“Will you let us try to be happy again?”

“I don’t know how. I’ve never known how. But if you can forgive me for everything I did in the name of trying to protect you, then I can try. That's the best I can do. Is it enough for you?” She extends her hand.

“You were always protecting me,” Regina says, more of a thought to herself than a statement.

“I always tried.”

“We went too far. We can’t –”

“I know. We won’t. You can stop me.”

“You never wanted me to before.”

“I want to be happy, too."

“Maybe we can protect each other. I need your strength.” Regina reaches out her hand to take the Queen’s.

“And I need your love," the Queen replies as her hand closes around Regina's.

The moment they touch, the room cracks, the floor beginning to crumble and collapse beneath Regina, a loud shrill laugh echoing sharply, violently

“I see the Black Bitch has shown up,” the Queen comments.

“Tell me you have a plan for her.”

“The ones waiting for us to come back to them do.”

“Then we’re gonna win,” Regina declares triumphantly and then, just as the floor finishes its collapse from beneath her, she grabs the Queen’s hand, their fingers merging as they connect, their energy slamming violently together as their physical forms recombine into one.

Together, they let out a terrible scream.

 


 

Emma jerks forward, stopped from invading the circle only by Zelena’s hand on her wrist, her fingernails pressing deeply into the Sheriff’s wrist. “No, they have to finish this part on their own. And we need to keep the Draw together so that when the Black Fairy comes through, she’s trapped.”

“Okay, okay,” Emma breathes.

Rumple turns his head and looks at her. “Did you really think this would be easy, Miss Swan?"

“I think you could maybe not be an asshole time,” she mutters.

“Not likely,” and then continues reading that strange language as Zelena tightens her grip on Emma’s hand on one side and Henry’s on the other side to further strengthen the Draw.

Emma responds in kind, her eyes on the circle where the Queen is hovering, bright white energy and sparkling purple magic covering most of her shuddering, screaming form. And then…just like that, she stops moving, for a moment hanging in the air like a broken marionette on strings, its vicious puppet master having forgotten to put away its toys. An unsettling and unworthy mental image to say the least.

Then, quite abruptly, the strings cut and the woman in front of them crumbles to the ground, the energy and magic around her slithering away.

“No,” Rumple murmurs to the group. “She has to crawl out on her own.”

“That’s not how we do it in this family,” Snow tells him.

“For once, this isn’t about family. This is about her. Both sides of her. If she wants to live, she has to find it within herself to be strong enough to keep fighting. All the parts of Regina that make her who she is have to come together in order for her to move forward. This is about her.”

“He’s right,” Emma states, her own thoughts ticking back to her mother’s earlier words.

About healing herself.

No way forward except through yourself first.

“Mom,” Henry whispers towards the slumped figure in the circle. “Mom, please come back to us. Please come back to me. Mom, please.”

Nothing.

Nothing.

Noth –

A hand slams down on the ground, fingers shaking.

Slowly, Regina forces herself to her feet, stumbling as she tries to turn one step into two. She steadies, jaw set, hands clenches and her eyes still glowing purple. Inhale, exhale and then she puts her foot down again and stumbles out of the circle, taking two more steps before she falls to the ground.

No one moves, no one breaths.

Rumple says, “The pathway between realms is created; Regina is through.”

No one dares to moves.

He clarifies, “You can go to her now.”

All at once, everyone breaks the circle they'd created around the magic one. In a sudden burst of movement, Emma and Zelena and Henry and Snow rush towards Regina, while David grabs his sword and moves to Rumple’s side, ready to face off against anything that might come across.

“Mom?” Henry asks.

Her eyes open, honey brown and tired. Immediately, she reaches out for her son while looking around the room, “Am I really back?”

“You tell us. Are both of you with us?” Emma asks, reaching for Regina’s wrist even as Zelena settles a hand over Regina’s heart. One is feeling for a pulse, the other for magic.  

“We’re here,” Regina confirms, sounding almost drunk and delirious. “We’re both here.”

Emma looks over at Zelena, who says, “Her magic is back to what it used to be. A tad weaker than normal, but that's to be expected."

“Any sign of hijackers?” Snow queries.

“None,” Zelena replies with a relieved sigh. “The Dark One may be a catastrophic asshole, but he knows what he’s talking about. If the Black Fairy comes through, she’s going to show up –”

Her words are broken in half by a massive cracking sound, the borders around realms breaking apart as the Black Fairy crawls through them, appearing in the middle of the circle. At first, an almost inexplicable form made purely of smoke and sizzling energy and then as the Call traps her within the circle, a furious woman begins to appear, humanizing with each passing second.

" - as the gnat she is," Zelena finishes.

“Mother,” Rumple greets cheerfully.

“You worthless little bastard.”

“Another happy family reunion,” Emma quips, then turns her attention back to Regina.

It seems like Rumple, for the moment, has everything quite in hand. She knows that that will change shortly – the plan has always indicated there will have to be a magic show of force from their side to eradicate the Black Fairy – but that can wait for a few minutes.

After all, from what she can hear, Rumple and his mother have some unfinished business to discuss.

She turns to Regina, “You always have to go the most dramatic way around things, don't you?"

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Regina replies. Her hand lifts and she places it against Henry’s face, cradling his cheek, his warm flushed-with-life skin as much a balm to her soul as his smile is. “But I am sorry for anything that I put you through.”

“You’re home; that’s all I care about,” he reassures her.

“I, on the other hand, have so many questions,” Emma states.

"Me, too," Snow echoes.

“At the terrible risk of sounding like a Charming, I think it's safe to say we all do,” Zelena confirms.

“Mm. I probably have a few answers." She looks over at her sister. "One that's going to surprise you,” she tells her sister.

"How so?"

"First, help me up. If we have a fight ahead, I need to be back on my feet for it.”

“Are you sure you’re ready?” Snow asks.

“As ready as I’m going to be. Help me up.” She extends her arms to them.

Snow steps back, watching as Emma and Zelena help a wobbly Regina to her feet, Emma using her hand at the small of Regina’s back to keep her from falling over as she tries to gain her balance. It takes a few seconds, and she almost looks like she’s going to vomit, but then she’s blinking to clear her vision and she’s just breathing.

Because she can.

Finally, she turns to Zelena. “I had help from someone you and I know very well.”

“Who?”

“Our mother,” Regina says and then approaches the circle, standing next to Rumple.

“Good to see you up and around, Your Majesty,” he notes, caustic but still somehow sounding almost fond and appreciative. 

She nods, an acknowledgement of their always turbulent and curious relationship. Her eyes then track to the Black Fairy. “How’s it feel being the one locked inside the cage? Are you enjoying it as much as I did?"

“You choose your fate, dearest. You came to me willingly," the Black Fairy cackles. "Not the prize I'd been expecting, but a delicious one nonetheless."

"No one ever goes to you willingly," Regina sneers. "And I'm going to enjoy seeing you turned into ash and using your wings as toothpicks."

She doesn't see the squeamish looks exchanged behind her; probably for the best.

"Awfully confident now behind the protection of the idiots who couldn't even manage to kill the villain of their story."

 "They're idiots," Regina admits before steeling herself and taking on her most aggressive stance. "But they're my idiots and you will go through me to touch them."

"You know I'll get out of this little cage of yours eventually,” the Fairy growls at her. “Neither my bastard son nor your pathetic weakling family will stop me. You can’t change fate. You can't change what I am and you won’t change the unimaginable hell I’m going to bring down upon you.”

“You’re not Fate. You’re just a power-crazy poseur. And you're right: I did choose my fate. I took Emma's. And when I did, I destroyed your long game. You lose."

The Black Fairy hisses at her, teeth bared in rage.

“You know what happened?” Rumple asks, for the moment ignoring his furious mother. He sees Emma and Snow and Zelena move in closer so they hear them.

“I do.” Regina turns and looks at the group. “Very short story: by the time Gideon and Emma were fighting, this bitch had already murdered the Fates and taken over for them. Apparently she got a glimpse of a different timeline where she fought us and failed, so she figured she'd boost herself using the powers of the Fates to ensure she won this time around, because she wasn’t meant to in the original Grand Design. Actually, the original Grand Design was long gone by then. We had already completely altered it. But even in the revised one,  Emma wasn’t meant to die that day. The story was supposed to go an entirely other way, I’ve since learned.”

"What other way?"

"A different one," Regina says cryptically, not really wanting to speak of a timeline where Emma and Hook had ended up married. "One she made impossible."

“Okay? So what about your vision?” Emma queries.

“Someone hijacked the hijacker,” Regina chuckles. “Turns out my mother –” she looks at Zelena. “Our mother - knew Rumple’s mother a lifetime ago.”

“I trained her where my son failed to. I taught her how to touch all of the darkness inside of her,” the Black Fairy says haughtily, her voice like poisonous sugar, her sharp teeth for a moment disappearing to allow her to look human once again. “I made her what she was.”

“That explains a lot,” Zelena mutters.

To Emma and Snow, Regina says, “She was also the one behind the origination of the Dark Curse and the creation of a Final Battle. All her manipulations of our lives were to get us to where we were that night. But when Henry and Emma came into my life, they helped me change enough to change all of her plans. So she had to adjust and find a new way to win. That meant going through the Fates. If you had died that night, Emma, it would have split the realms open and allowed the Fairy Bitch and her army of shadow demons to come through. Everything would have been lost to her. All realms. From moment one, this was always a game of power, and we have always been its pawns. And after she did what she did, we were most certainly going to lose. We should have lost. She cheated and cut your thread.. But then my mother interfered. She’s the one who sent me a vision from a different possible timeline. She knew that if I died instead of you, it would destroy your fate and all of the Black Fairy’s plans.”

“How did you survive?" Charming queries.

"Enough story time," the Black Fairy growls. "Let me out of this...cage...and I'll make your death quick."

Regina ignores her entirely. "When I ended up in the spirit room, I couldn't figure out how. Even though I had this vision of a different reality, I still expected to come to in the Underworld. For a few weeks, I didn't have a clue what was going on. I just knew that I was able to watch all of you and somewhat communicate. And I knew that part of me had inexplicably survived. And then she started harvesting my energy and I understand what had actually happened in the street that night. I realized that in her greed for power, she had pulled my soul up to her instead of allowing it to full pass through. Which had allowed the Queen to continue existing back in the living realm."

"Which gave you your way home," Snow says brightly.

"Wait. Harvesting your energy?" Emma presses.

“She means eating her heart," the Black Fairy giggles. "It was quite...delicious."

“She was eating your heart?” Henry squeaks.

“She tried,” Regina shudders, her lip curling up into a defiant sneer, which makes her look decidedly more like the Queen than Regina.

“I don’t understand,” Zelena cuts in. “How do you know it was our mother who sent you that vision? And how did she know it would save you?"

“I know it was her because she gave me all of her strength when I had none left,” Regina tells her, her voice quiet. She reaches for her sisters’ hand and squeezes it. “I have more to tell you later, and I think I can make it all make sense for both of us, but what matters now is that you understand that our mother chose to give me everything that was left of her so that I could fight to get back to you. She protected both of us."

Zelena nods jerkily, unable to speak.

“Your mother wasn’t a hero,” the Black Fairy growls. “She was a demon just like me.”

“Maybe,” Regina agrees. “And I never said she was a hero, but in the end, unlike you, she chose her children.”

“That seems as good a place as any to end this conversation,” Rumple notes. Then looks back at Emma, Regina and Zelena. “When I remove the Draw, she’s going to come at us quickly. Be ready or we're all likely to find out exactly how well she consumes hearts."

“Mom,” Emma says to Snow, gesturing towards Henry.

“Wait,” Henry declares, but then Snow is grabbing him and pushing him away from the center of the fight She ducks him down behind the bed, her arms circling around him protectively.

“Now,” Rumple declares and then he’s swirling his hand and the magic holding the Black Fairy in the circle sprays away.

She grins victoriously, eyes going black, teeth bared.

She charges.

And is immediately hit with four bursts of magic from different sides.

She screeches.

“Charming, this would be the time," Rumple tells him. Immediately, David steps forward, his sword up. The sword which has done so much to thwart great evil, a symbol of unending resilience as much as it’s a symbol of heroism.

The Black Fairy’s face changes to one that’s almost human, eyes wide, her lip practically trembling with pretend fear as she gazes back at the handsome Prince Charming. “Would you really just execute me? A defenseless woman? You're supposed to be far more heroic than that."

“I stop the monsters who try to hurt my family,” he says and then he swings, his blade slamming into her throat. There’s no spray of blood, no tearing of flesh. In fact, there's nothing but a loud horrific wail as centuries of darkness unravel.

"I really fucking hate fairies," Regina comments.

“Hold her,” Rumple demands. “None of her gets free.”

The three women beside him all respond by throwing even more energy into their sprays of magic, the collision of four different magics slamming against the coiling darkness as it squeals and squirms, desperately trying to find even one little pocket of space to escape into.

The effort is in vain; the magic assault too united and too focused.

The coil unwinds faster and faster, spinning and crying and then finally, finally…

Collapsing.

A small tiny woman, no bigger than a fairy. Wings sputtering frantically, helplessly. Gaunt, little more than skin and bones, eyes sunken, she stares upwards. “Son,” she murmurs. “My son.”

“Rumple,” Regina says, through grit teeth. “Finish this.”

“Protect me,” the creature pleads. “I’m your mother.”

“Yes, you are, and this is the end of you. Mother,” Rumple tells the creature with a malicious grin on his face. And then he steps forward and in one downward motion, slams his boot down onto the fairy. The crunch and subsequent screams are something Emma think she’ll never forget. But then, it’s over. The shadows fade as quickly as they’d come.

“Is that it?” Emma asks, wide-eyed with disbelief.

Some things can apparently still shock her, even after all this time.

“Were you hoping for more, Miss Swan?” Rumple asks her, as disdainful as ever. Leaning down, he reaches into his pocket and removes a glimmering glass bottle full of pink liquid. With a careful scoop of his hand, he pushes what’s left of his mother’s bony remains into it. The moment they touch the fluid inside, they seem to almost melt, immediately liquifying.  

“What I’m hoping for is a tall glass of whiskey and a nap,” Emma replies in disgust, eyes on the bottle.

“Soon enough,” Regina states, stepping forward and placing a hand on Emma’s arm. The touch is almost immediately electric, the warmth from her fingers seeping into Emma’s skin.

The reminder that Regina is actually alive.

Back home again.

Emma turns and hugs her tightly, fiercely.

For a moment, Regina seems stunned – she and Emma have always tended to avoid physical touches even as they’ve grown closer over the years. She’s always wondered why?

And if her reasons for why are the same as Emma’s. None of that matters at the moment, though. All that does is Emma’s arms wrapped tightly around her, her face pressed into Regina’s shoulder, a spot of wetness against her military coat.

Exhaling, Regina places her arms around Emma and pulls her flush. “It’s okay,” she murmurs.

“You died.”

“And you saved me. It’s what we do.”

Emma nods against her, still holding on tight. Until a voice from their side says, “Hey, can I join?”

Their son.

Arms out, they pull him into them, the three of them folding together.

Rumple coughs to clear his throat.

“I really dislike him,” Emma mutters.

Regina snorts, and then she’s pulling away and allowing all three of them to turn and regard the rest of the group. It’s not lost on Regina that it looks like both Snow and Zelena would like to rush in for their own hugs. It’s apparently going to be that kind of…early morning.

She thinks she can live with that.

Just happy that she’s alive to live with that.

Seeming rather impatient with everyone as usual, Rumple loudly announces, “At the risk of suffering even more trauma today, I think it’s time I take my leave.” He starts for the door.

“Rumple, wait,” Regina calls out. Their eyes meet. He smirks. She rolls her eyes in exasperation.

“What of your mother’s… goo?” Zelena asks, glancing down at the bottle in his hand.

“We could flush her,” Regina suggests with a shrug. “That seems fitting.” Her eyes glitter darkly, a reminder of the Queen who has been returned to her.

“Wouldn’t it be putting Dark Fairy into the drinking water?” David asks, looking vaguely ill.

“There’s nothing of her left,” Rumple assures him. “This is just…a trophy.”  

“Ew,” Emma says, nose wrinkled.

“Catch up, Miss Swan; the real world is rather nasty.”

“Not mine,” she tells him.

“Lucky for you Charmings.” And with that, he’s out the door.

“He’s always a ray of sunshine,” Snow notes.

“That he is,” Regina says, and then takes a step forward. Almost immediately, her knees buckle, and she crumbles, ending up on her back, looking up at the ceiling. Everyone around her again. Wincing, she waves her hand into the air. “It’s been a long day; I could use sleep.”

“So could we all,” Emma announces as she and David help Regina back into the sitting position, leaning heavily against the front of the couch. “Regina, if you’re okay with it, your sister can take you home. I’m sure you’d much prefer to crash in your own bed tonight.”

“I would, but...” She looks over at Emma quizzically. Like she's wondering about the many conversations they need to have.

“I’ll come by in the morning and we can talk then," Emma assures her. She motions to the rest of the group. “Family breakfast.”

“I’d like that.” Regina looks over at Henry. “What about you?”

“I’d like to come home,” he tells her.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Kid,” Emma says, kissing him on the top of the head.

He grins and then he and Zelena are helping Regina up, arms both around her.

Regina looks out at the beaming Charmings and shakes her head. Then finds Emma's eyes, seeing such an incredible depth of emotion looking back at her.

Hard to imagine, impossible to give up on. 

“You idiots,” she says affectionately, just before Zelena’s smoke whisks them away.

 


 

Chapter Text

“He’s asleep,” Regina whispers, looking up from her spot sitting on the edge of Henry’s bed. His face is turned into the pillow, his too-long messy hair splayed across it. She reaches out a hand and runs it across his cheek, still not quite believing this gift of another chance that she's been given.

Like every other time before it, she's still not entirely sure she deserves the new opportunity, but this time, she's determined to make the most of it.

Whatever that looks like.

“You should be as well. It’s been a long... a long few weeks,” Zelena comments, stepping into the room. "A few hours ago, one part of you was dead and the other was dying. I know you're something of a Superwoman, but you should be resting." The concern in her tone is strong, overwhelming all of her usual sarcasm.

It's enough to make Regina turn her head and look at Zelena. Really look at her and see just how much her sister has changed. How far they both have.

Quietly, she replies, “I think we could both use it.” She gets up, pulls the covers up over Henry, kisses him on the forehead and then moves away. She turns the lights off, closes the door and then follows Zelena into the hallway, towards the master bedroom.

And then turns into an unexpected hug from her sister. It only takes Regina a few seconds to soften into the embrace.

“I know we don’t do this,” Zelena tells her, arms circling Regina, holding on tight.

“Sometimes we do," Regina reassures her, holding on just as tight.

They hold on for a few moments longer, and then Zelena steps back, wiping at her tears.

“We’re okay,” Regina promises.

“You forgive me?”

“A long time ago. You forgive me?”

“Not as long a time ago, but yes.”

“Good enough.” She frowns for a moment, thinking.

“What is it?”

“Our mother. It's weird and it's complicated, but I want you to understand the rest of what happened.”

As they enter Regina's bedroom together, Zelena asks, “How did she…when did she leave the afterlife? Wasn’t that supposed to be some kind of happy ending for her? Actual peace?”

“It should have been, but she’s our mother and it wouldn't surprise me if she got herself kicked out,” Regina chuckles, sitting on her bed. “Quiet and peace were never her style. Nor was staying out of our lives. At least this time, she was trying to protect us. I guess she figured out a way to keep an eye on us, and when the Black Fairy put her plan into motion, Cora escaped from the Afterlife and found a way to send me the vision that convinced me to do what I did."

"Step in front of the sword for your beloved."

Regina gives her a "don't start" look.

Zelena rolls her eyes and changes the subject back. “Did Cora speak to you?”

“Not much. Only to tell me to keep fighting and that she'd ensure I got back to the people I love. People like you."

“You trusted me," Zelena states, the disbelief clear in her tone.

Regina reaches forward and takes both of her sisters' hands. "I believe in you. No matter what we go through, I will always believe in you."

“You know, you call the Charmings 'idiots', but you might be the biggest of them all.”

“Probably,” Regina agrees. She gets up, then, and disappears into the bathroom. The sink turns on a moment later.

“What did you mean when said Mother gave up all of herself for you?” Zelena asks from her position still on the bed.

“Exactly that.” Regina calls back to her, his disembodied voice echoing from the bathroom. “After I realized who was behind what was happening and that it wasn’t really one of the Fates, that’s when I started pushing back on being saved because I could feel myself weakening rapidly. The Black Fairy was, essentially, eating my magical heart. I didn’t think I would be strong enough to rejoin with my other half. And I wasn’t. The rejoining would have killed both of us and allowed the Black Fairy entrance without resistance. That is until our mother gave up the rest of her spiritual energy to boost me back up. You know, she was actually laughing as she was breaking apart. Laughing at the Black Fairy. She said, ‘my daughters are going to destroy you’. But this time it wasn’t about grabbing power for herself. In the end Mother sacrificed herself for us. It was her twisted and deranged way of saying…she loved us.”

“We lead very strange lives,” Zelena notes.

“The strangest.” Regina agrees as she comes out, dressed in pajama bottoms and a tank. “Go on, get some sleep. We can talk more in the morning.”

Zelena stands and starts for the day, stopping only to ask, “What’s it like being dead?”

“It's not something I'd like to repeat any time soon. I think I rather prefer living.”

“Me, too.” Zelena says quietly, and then closes the door behind her.

 


 

Alone in her own room a few minutes later, Regina inhales and then exhales. Her body is on fire, still sharply aching from the pain of the last few weeks. Even pulled back together, there's abundant healing to be done. Both in spirit and in frame.

Hands trembling, Regina waves one to put up a sound buffer on the room. Then picks up her blankets and uses them to muffle first a scream and then her sobs as everything comes pouring out of her. A thousand different terrible and terrifying memories which will never fade.

It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.

Hand against her chest, feeling her heart beating.

We’re okay. Regina, we're okay.

“Don’t ever stop speaking to me,” she murmurs aloud.

I’m glad you need me. That's all I ever wanted.

“I know. And I do."

Good. Now stop talking out loud; you look insane. I'm right here; I can hear you. Remember? We're together again.

Regina closes her eyes and nods, collecting herself.

I know you don't believe this right now, but you're strong. You’ve always been strong. 

“You were always our strength,” Regina corrects.

Perhaps, but you were always our heart. It's taken me a very long time - and perhaps the irritation of those annoying people you so love - to understand that we need each other to ever have any chance of happiness. And that's what I want. For you. For both of us. We can have that.

"Suddenly, you're the hopeful one," Regina chuckles.

I was left alone with Snow White for several hours. She's like a virus.

Regina chuckles knowingly, then taps her chest again. “It’s okay.” A statement, not a question.

Yes, it is. Now close your eyes. Tomorrow, we start on fulfilling that beautiful dream of yours.

“Of ours.”

Of ours. Now quiet that mind of yours. We'll both be here in the morning.

"Yes, we will," Regina agrees as she curls on her side, and closes her eyes.

 


 

Morning comes far sooner than it has any right to, but then she's nearly leaping out of the bed to start preparing for the Charming Family Army to arrive.

And all of the stress and excitement sure to come with them. Such as the impending conversation with Emma.

Rather than give into the anxiety of that impending discussion, Regina decides to focus on breakfast. Pancakes, bacon, hash, fresh squeezed orange juice.

Enough to keep her busy and and out of her own head. 

An hour later, a knock breaks the spell and then she's pulling off her apron and padding over to open the door to reveal Snow and David, baby Neal in his arms. “My favorite Charming,” Regina coos, plucking the boy from David’s arms and then snuggling into him as he giggles happily in response.

“Ouch,” Emma feigns, coming up the walk and then following everyone in the house, shutting the door behind her. "I'll try not to take that personally."

"He takes direction better than you do," Regina reminds her. "What can I say? The Queen in me appreciates that." She wiggles her eyebrows when she says this. It's certainly flirtatious, but it's also just her being playful. Just her enjoying the strange new freedom of acceptance that rejoining has given her.

“Oh, don’t listen to her, Swan, she’ll always like you best,” Zelena chortles as she spins into the kitchen, grabbing a piece of bacon off the plate before Regina can snap around to stop her. She's out of the room before anyone can react, making the whole thing seem just a little bit surreal.

“She’s in a good mood,” Emma notes watching Zelena flee into the front room.

“It’s a nice thing to see,” Regina replies, as she watches her sister fondly. “Now go set the table.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Regina winks at her, then turns to David and Snow. To David, she says as she hands Neal back to him, “You take him. Snow, help me finish up the pancakes.”

“On it.” She follows Regina back behind the counter, picking up a spatula. Then, “How are you?”

“I’m all right,” Regina assures her. “I’m sure I’ll have a few restless nights, and I probably should go speak to Dr. Hopper, but I’m…here.”

“Yes, you are.” She licks her lips. “You have all the Queen’s memories, right?”

“I remember your conversation with her, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good, because I want…all of you to know that I love you and I forgive you for everything. You're my family, Regina and I want all of you.”

“We know. I know.”

“And I meant what I said about the other part, too,” Snow says, eyes glancing towards the table where Henry and Emma are goofing around in their attempt to set the breakfast table.

“I know that, too,” Regina assures her. “But she and I are complicated when all we are is friends, and I don't think either of us wants- or needs - complicated right about now. I think I need to take a step back for awhile and just try to enjoy being alive and whatever happens or doesn't happen, well, it'll be our choice."

“Fair enough.”

“Good, because you’re burning my pancakes.”

“Oh!”

Regina rolls her eyes, even as Henry and Emma’s laughter makes her heart swell.

“It’s a nice sound, isn’t it?” Snow asks, head turned towards the laughter.

“It is," Regina replies, her hand drifting to settle over her heart.

Snow grins. “Now you’re burning the pancakes.”

“Ugh,” Regina groans as she looks down at the burnt mess of one. “Go away and let me finish.”

“I’ll go set the table they’re not setting.”

“Good plan.” She watches as Snow leaves, listening to Snow’s bemused scolding of Emma and Henry and then the giggling laughter which follows it.

Still smiling like a fool the whole time.

 


 

“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it, but you didn’t have to stay to do the dishes,” Regina tells her as she takes the last dish from Emma’s hand, submerging it into the basin of soap suds. She eyes the rack of already washed dishes carefully, ensuring that no food debris has been missed.

“I know," Emma agrees as she puts the dish towel down and turns to face Regina. "But I figured we should probably talk about everything.”

“Do you actually want to?”

“I never really want to talk," Emma admits. "But I know that you mean too much to me to have something weird between us so...we need to talk."

“All right,” Regina agrees. “There’s somewhere I need to go. A couple things I need to do. Will you come with me? We can have this discussion there.”

“Of course.”

“Emma,” Regina says softly. “Stop looking so nervous. We’ll be all right, regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen with us.”

“You promise?”

“We have been through far too much together not to be. You mean too much to me to let anything...we are going to be just fine."

“Okay. So where are we going?"

Regina reaches for her hand. “Take a deep breath.”

“Why?”

“Because we are going to my vault, Miss Swan."

"Why am I Miss -"

She doesn't let Emma finish her sentence before she jumps them, the smoke overtaking their vision. When it clears, they're just outside the door of the Mills Family Vault. Immediately, Emma stumbles forward, doubling as she tries to keep herself from throwing up.

"- Swan again?" she mutters weakly, finishing her first sentence before changing the subject to, “Why is it so much worse when I teleport with someone else? Feels fine when I'm the one doing the teleporting?"

"Do you get carsick when you drive?"

"No."

"Same principle. Don't worry, a couple hundred more jumps and you'll be a pro at it. As for Miss Swan, well you were asking questions and it annoys you," Regina quips, eyes dancing mischievously. 

“Hilarious. Why are we here again? Besides making me want to throw up on your shoes?"

"Don't you dare. These cost more than that the reckless excuse of a deathtrap you insist on not recycling."

Emma snorts, somehow incredibly tickled to hear Regina insulting the Bug again.

Mostly because it means that this really is real and they really did somehow, almost inexplicably, survive death.

"Emma?"

"Sorry, I was..just thinking."

"I know I've warned you about that."

"And still I persist."

"Now you know why I prefer your little brother," Regina teases as she leads them through the door and into the vault. They move towards the room with the three coffins in it, both of them stopping by the doorway. Involuntarily, Emma shivers at the realization of what’s still in one.

Regina’s original body.

“You may want to turn away from this,” Regina tells her.

“What? What's going on? Why are we here?"

Looking more than a little unsettled even as she rallies herself to do what she must, Regina explain, “Two types of the same magical matter aren’t supposed to exist in the same reality. Even when one is dead. When I was separated into two parts, we were already bending the rules. In a way, that caused enough stress to create the reality cracks the Black Fairy needed to put her plan in place. It would have come eventually, regardless, but we may have sped it along.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“As I said, you may want to turn away,” Regina repeats, crossing over to the coffin and with a wave of her hand, cracking the magic seal. When the lid slides back, she looks down at her quiet corpse, a glimmer of preserving magic keeping her looking like she’s mostly just sleeping.

But this body is empty, just matter.

Her hand rested against the protection spell, she breaks it away and then touches the corpse’s chest, fingers bending inwards. And then, for the second time in two days, she violently pulls part of herself back into herself, crying out in pain and shock as matter slams together.

“Regina!” She rushes forward, stopped only by the heat of the magic flowing off of Regina.

And then Regina stumbles, falling backwards and away from the now empty casket.

“I’ve got you,” Emma says, helping her into the ground, her arms wrapped around Regina's trembling frame. “Holy shit, that was insane.”

“Yeah,” Regina agrees, head lolling backwards to rest against Emma's shoulder. She feels one of Emma's hands come up to touch her forehead, deft fingers moving sweaty hair away from her brow. She's still shaking under the force of all the magic this body has absorbed over the last two days, her heat pounding.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t look okay.”

Regina looks up at her, and smiles, and for a moment, even though Regina is plainly exhausted Emma is almost blinded by the openness she sees there. “I’m better than I’ve been in a very long time, Emma. Just very tired.”

“Oh. Then we should get you back home and -"

“No. We should do this. We should talk.” She pulls herself away from Emma, both of them feeling the sudden disquieting chill of the distance between them.

“Okay,” Emma agrees awkwardly. “So…”

Regina snorts. “And I thought I was bad at this. Emma, I don’t expect anything from you. I never should have told you about the vision I had. I was selfish in doing so, but in my defense, I was also bleeding out and had no idea where the vision had come from or what it actually meant. I just knew that I wanted you to have hope because you've always given me hope. But the thing you need to understand is, that vision came from a different reality. That doesn’t make it our reality and it doesn’t ever have to be our reality. You are under absolutely no obligation to reciprocate my feelings. That’s not what I want from you. I would hate it if any future we could have was built on that or the idea that the decision is anything but yours.”

“Do you love me? Are you in love with me?”

“Yes," Regina replies without hesitation. "I love you and I am in love with you,” she says, and it’s almost breathtaking even to her. Because there’d been a time not too terribly long ago when such courage would have been impossible. When such words would have been unthinkable.

“Since when?” Emma asks, looking for all the world like she can’t quite believe Regina’s words.

“I think I have loved you almost since the moment I met you. I didn’t know it, then, but those fights we had when we couldn’t stand each other…they helped me get through some of those days when I felt like I was sleepwalking through an endless nightmare. You being there pushed me on even though I loathed you and believed that I wanted you to just leave. And then it grew into something else. I didn’t know who I was but inexplicably, you were always there for me. Always refusing to give up on me even when I didn’t deserve it. As for when I fell in love with you? It was when we were hugging Henry after we saved him from Pan. I looked up at you and you looked at me and you had the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.”

“Funny,” Emma murmurs. “I remember thinking the same thing.”

“Emma?”

“About your smile. Look, I don’t know what I feel,” Emma admits. “But I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’m not hurt. You being honest, being yourself, will not hurt me. The only thing that could hurt me is if you lied to me. So don't do that."

“I won't. I just..I .just know that I feel like decisions have rarely ever been mine. Everyone has been telling me what I feel and how I should feel and what my future might look like. With Neal, with Hook –”

“And now with me. I’m sorry for that. You know better than most that much of my life has also not been by choice. And even beyond that, there was also the kind of choice you make when you’re desperate to have one. I don’t want that for either of us. If the difference between that vision and this reality is that we’re always just the best of friends and partners and co-mothers, I can more than live with that, Emma. I can be very, very happy with that."

“Are you happy now?” Emma asks.

“I’m working on it. What about you?”

“Honestly, I don’t even know where to start.”

“We’ve both been through a terrible amount of trauma in our lives. And sometimes together.”

“We have,” Emma agrees. “You understand, right? I just need something that’s actually mine.”

“Something you and you alone chose; of course, I understand.”

“Maybe –”

“Don’t make commitments just because you feel like you need to give me hope,” Regina insists, her tone reassuring yet firm. “I know it’s your instinct, but it’s not fair to either of us. It’s better for both of us to move on and focus on being happy. There are many beautiful dreams to pursue.”

“I won’t lose you?”

Regina drops her hand down and finds Emma’s, fingers interlacing with Emma's. “No. Never.”

Both of their heads rest back against the wall, butts settled in on the cold cement.

“You know,” Emma says. “You’re a really annoying ghost.”

Regina laughs, the sound genuine and warm. “I had some fun with that.”

“Did you?”

“Up until I realized what was actually happening, yes, maybe a little. It’s pretty hard to get someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts to actually listen to one, so once I was able to start actually talking to you, I felt like I owed you a few vintage ghostly moves.”

“Of course, you did. But hey, if it’s all the same to you –”

“I’ll do my best not to have it happen again.”

“Thank you."

Regina turns to look at her, then, reaching a hand up and touching her face. “Hey, look at me.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Emma, you can’t live your life afraid of losing everyone. Trust me, I’ve been there. And I know how much you've lost, but loss happens. To all of us. Too much. Every bad decision I have ever made has been because of it. And always brought me to a place of terrible misery. Even what we've just all been through came about because of grief and hurt and fear. I was so afraid that my darkness would cost me you or Henry or even your mother that I tore myself in half and opened us all up to even more pain and heartache. I need to start facing my uglier feelings and so do you. That's the only forward for either of us."

“Okay. So what now?"

“Now, I think we both figure out how to heal, separately and as together as you would like. We have to be honest with ourselves and look at it all. The good, the bad, the ugly. As far as you: go see Archie. Spend some time with yourself, finding yourself. You’re an amazing woman, Emma Swan, and there’s no one who should ever have the right to make you feel like less, even if your heart is breaking. You have the strongest moral fiber of anyone I have ever met. Until –”

“Until I’m afraid. You mean Hook.”

“I mean the desperation you feel. Trust me, I understand it all too well, but I want better than that for you. You deserve better than that.”

“I don’t know what I deserve. It’s been almost a year since I was the Dark One and I still dream about everything that happened almost every single night. In Camelot. Here in Storybrooke. Down in the Underworld.”

“You may always. Those are the burdens of our sins. But you’ve always told me that I can be better than the worst of myself. That I can come back from anything. You’ve always told me that you believe in me. Well, I believe in you. Now it’s time for you to start doing the same.”

“Okay,” Emma agrees. Then sulkily adds, “But I still don’t wanna lose you.”

“Oh my dear, Miss Swan, I’m not going anywhere.” And then she leans in, for a moment seeming like she might kiss Emma on the lips, before diverting to her forehead for a pedal soft kiss which leaves Emma almost breathless.  When she backs up, she winks mischievously.

“You’re such a troll,” Emma grumbles.

“Well, I did have an imp as a teacher.” She stands up, winces a bit in pain, waves Emma's concern away and then and offers Emma a hand up. “Shall we go? It’s a beautiful day and I’d really like to be out in it as opposed to inside of here. I find that I don't have much desire to be amongst the dead, anymore."

“Glad to hear it. You know, there’s a nice breeze coming off the ocean today,” Emma tells her as she rises to her feet..

“Sounds perfect.”

They start towards the exit, stopped only by Emma putting a hand out to stop her, fingers curling around her wrist, “Wait. You said you needed to do a couple things? One was…the creepy body-merging thing. What was the other?"

“Oh. Right. My mother.” Regina turns then and crosses over to the coffin containing Cora’s corpse – all that’s left of her in the universe now that her soul has been destroyed. Regina touches the lid with one hand and with the other summons a perfect red rose. “There are things I can never forgive you for,” she says quietly. “Things you shouldn’t be forgiven for, any more than I should be forgiven for some of the things I’ve done. But when  you had the chance to be the mother I needed, you were there for me. So, thank you, Mother. Goodbye."  She places the rose on the coffin lid, presses her fingers to her lips and then presses them against the marble as well. Holding them there with eyes closed as she exhales her emotion. And then she straightens, and says, “Coffee is on you, Sheriff.”

“Whatever you say, Madam Mayor.”

The door to the Mills Family Vault closes behind them, the day stretched out in front of them.

 


 

He's on the couch playing video games when she comes in, teeth bitting into his lip in concentration.

For a moment, Regina considers leaving him to his game; a time ago, he would have been annoyed with her if she'd tried to stay.

But then he's looking over at her and smiling, all bright eyes and joy at her presence.

She remembers how he'd held her when she'd been just the Queen, and so very close to death.

Now, she's both parts or herself again, and she's okay and she's recovering, but she still wants to be close to her son.

"Hi," she murmurs as she approaches. "Can I join you?"

"Yeah," Henry says, moving over so she can sit next to him. He reaches forward and grabs a second controller, handing it to her.

"You know I'm terrible at this."

"I promise I'll go easy on you."

She laughs and settles beside him, allowing herself the small indulgence of kissing his temple.

He doesn't turn his head when he says, "We're home, Mom. Everything is going to be okay now."

"What's home?" she asks, and the questions sound stupid even to her ears, but she's learned over the last few years just how much more than a building the concept of home actually is. 

"It's where all of us are," he tells her, not missing a beat. "You, Emma, Grandma and Grandpa, Zelena. Everyone we love. That's home."

"You really are a Charming," she chuckles.

"Newsflash," he tells her, finally turning to look at her. "So are you now."

Her nose wrinkles. "How do you figure? You know there's nothing going on me between me and Emma, right?"

"I know. But there doesn't need to be. We're family even without the two of you doing...stuff."

"I reluctantly concede that," Regina allows. "But that doesn't de facto make me a Charming."

He simply smirks in response, and then turns back to the TV. "Okay, push start to bring your character on. We're about to go win us the red flag."

"Lead on," Regina replies, and then as always, follows her son to the other side.

 


 

Time - once a memory - passes for all of them slowly, quietly and mostly dully.

Hook leaves town about three weeks after Regina’s return, boarding the Jolly Rodger and taking her and several passengers through one of the bean-created portals from the new crop. Emma reminds him that he doesn’t have to leave, tells him they can be friends, but he smiles weakly and reminds her that they’ve never actually been friends, and this is the best for all of them. Hurt and raw, Emma drinks herself into a stupor that night; and in the morning finds herself hugging the porcelain throne, her mother behind her, patiently rubbing her back, but for once not offering any advice. For once, just being there.

After that, Emma moves out of the house she’d shared with Killian and into a two-bedroom apartment about a mile from Regina’s mansion. It’s got a good-sized room for Henry, which he stays in a few days a week and every other weekend. Their so-called custody schedule is non-specific, always shifting, but somehow remarkably comfortable in the ease and adaptability of it. Henry, at times, looks as though he wants to say something, but always keeps whatever thoughts he has to himself.

Emma starts going to therapy three times a week, and on Archie’s advice, begins to take up kickboxing again just so she can have a physical outlet to work out her many frustrations. It’s nice and it’s good and it feels like for the first time in a very long time, she’s getting strong again, becoming herself again. She builds her body back up. and pulls out her jeans and leather jackets, throwing away the demure clothes she’d worn, outfits from a weakened version of herself. A version she’d allowed to exist.

“Why do you think you did?” Archie asks one cool and blustery afternoon, as patient and as soothing as ever. He’d told her during one of their early sessions that he was thrilled that Regina had returned to Storybrooke (and to sessions with him). Not only because he’d grown fond of her, but also, he has no desire to be the Mayor. He prefers his practice and his ability to help people talk about things they don’t know to work through.

For Emma, this is definitely the case as she struggles to come to terms to a lifetime of trauma. It's even harder to deal with the helplessness of her role as the Savior. The crushing obligation it had created in her, the paralyzing responsibility of dying for Storybrooke just because she’d been given this role that she’d never actually asked for. But beyond that, she finds herself going even further back to her past growing up in homes and how she'd so desperately needed to be wanted, often taking on the poison of learning to make herself small in order to achieve peace. She hadn’t always been successful – and ironically, her complete lack of success doing that with Regina had started this whole journey of hers – but it had manifested itself in her relationship with Hook. The desire to make everyone happy, including her parents. To be the perfect daughter with the perfect True Love. And then perhaps the perfect wife and mother.

“To be happy,” Emma replies simply, not quite able to meet Archie's eyes. “Isn’t that what everything is all about?”

“Yes and no,” Archie responds. “The journey to happiness drives us, but there are other worthwhile journeys along the way, such as fulfillment and empowerment. Ideally, they all get us to the same place, but happiness shouldn’t feel like you’re suffocating, Emma. And it did.”

“It did,” she confirms.

“And now?”

“Now I’m just trying to enjoy being alive.”

“That’s good,” he tells her, unable to hide his pride in her. She feels warmth in the middle of her chest and knows it’s ridiculous and yet another old response from her childhood, but she allows this one because what she’d told him was the truth and if that makes him happy, which then makes her happy, is that bad? 

“No,” he tells her, when she asks. “You’re allowed to feel good about yourself."

“Working on it,” she answers, and then steps outside and inhales the fresh air.

 


 

Regina’s on a different journey.

Finally feeling at peace with her past (as much as she can ever be), she turns her focus towards improving the town and growing it towards the future. New buildings, new initiatives and a stronger push for the idea of family and everyone growing into this community of theirs.

She asks to meet with Hook before he leaves, surprising him with the request.

“Here to gloat, Your Majesty,” he asks from his position by the wheel.

She approaches with her usual confidence, a small leather bag in her hand as she steps up next to him. “No. And this isn’t about her.”

“Then what it is about?”

“Something you can do for me, perhaps."

He scoffs. “Why would I do anything for you?”

“Fine. Something you can do for others.” She hands him the bag.

He opens it and looks inside. “Magic beans?” he asks, eyebrow up. “I have one, already.”

“I’m aware. There’s ten more in there. I thought maybe, if you’re interested, you could be a courier of sorts between the realms. Eventually, I’d like to find a way to bring all of the realms together again, but I haven’t mastered that spell yet. But I know there are people out there who would love to be here and some here that would love to be there. I know you want to bury your pain in the ocean, but take it from me, burying your heartbreak in old terrible habits won’t make the pain go away. You’re beyond those ways now. Whether you want to admit or not, you’re not the same man you were before you came to Storybrooke.”

“Swan," he mutters. "She has a way of upending things."

“She does; she has a way of making you want to change the way you see yourself."

“That, she does. So this plan of yours…”

“Allows you be Captain Hook once again, but this time as someone who helps people start over.”

“And what’s in it for me?”

Regina shrugs. “I suppose you can charge your travelers however much you want to come back and forth, but I think what’s in it for you is…your own journey. And the ability for you to choose to continue to be the man that you really want to be. It's not just me or Emma who have spent much of our lives being at the mercy of the choices of others - you've had a few taken away from you as well. So do something about it. Make a choice."

“One day, I’m going to come back to find you and her together, aren’t I?”

“I have no idea. Maybe? Maybe not. I don’t allow myself to think about that.”

“Don’t you believe Fate has you two destined to be together. Everyone else does?”

“After everything we’ve been through, after everything I went through with the fake version of Fate and after every way the real Fates did everything they could to force me down their path instead of mine, I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. What’s meant to be, Captain is what we make happen. That’s all.”

“I suppose that's the beautiful dream," he notes, smiling wryly, like he still knows what's beneath her words.

She looks back at him evenly. "The beautiful dream is never just about someone else, Killian. It's taken me far too long to understand that, but I finally get it. If there's ever to be any hope - for either of us - of making the dream into reality, it has to be about who we are first. Otherwise, it won't last."

For a moment, they just stare at each other - two former enemies who have been through change beyond the understanding of most mortals. Finally, his bravado sliding away from him, Hook looks down at the beans, then back up at her. “I don't understand why you're doing this. I was leaving Storybrooke with the intent of never returning. If I take you up on your offer, you’ll see me from time to time.”

“I'm aware. I'm doing this because we have stories outside of Emma Swan, no matter our feelings are for her. I’ve been working my ass off to make up for the past and to do right by the people who trusted me to do so. I was their Queen and I failed them. Now I’m their Mayor once again and I won’t fail them a second time. Worse than that, though, I failed myself by throwing away every bit of hope and idealism I ever had as a young girl. I had my reasons, but I also made my choices. Now I’m trying to make different choices. Maybe one day, I’ll find my way back to the hopeful girl who believed in everything beautiful.”

“It’s not easy,” he murmurs, thinking of his own once youthful, hopeful self.

“No, but I believe it’s doable. For both of us. Killian, you’re the captain of the fastest ship there is, and no one knows the seas of the realms like you do. It’s your choice now, and you can just walk away and disappear if you’d like, but I think you’re failing yourself if you do.”

He nods slowly, thoughtfully. “All right,” he says. “I’ll do it.”

She beams and extends her hand. He chuckles in disbelief but takes it. “Good. Then I’ll have a list of passengers heading over with you by the end of the day. I’ll pay for their trips over this time. After that, it’s your ship and your choice as to how you want to proceed.”

“Noted.”

She steps away, moving across the deck, then stops. “You were dead for a time, too, so you probably understand this, but when I was dead or whatever the hell I was up in the spirit realm, I wasn’t scared most of the time. I was just sad. For all the things that I’d missed out on getting to see and do because I’d let my rage remove me from the world and from the lives of everyone who might want to care for me for so long.I'd gotten fortunate enough to get a few of them back, but that just made my heartbreak after what I let pass me by so much worse.  I was heartbroken over the stories I would never get to see unfold, the adventures I’d never get to be part of. I was devastated by every memory I'd never get to make. I don’t want to ever feel like that again. No matter what else happens, I want to feel like I’m finally getting to live. Your turn."

“You’re saying no more crocodiles.”

“No more crocodiles, Captain. For either of us. Just living.”

“Aye, just living.”

And with that, she steps off the boat and heads back into town to meet her family.

 


 

They meet almost every day for either breakfast or lunch, only canceling when police or city business comes knocking. Usually when it does, they’re both called to the scene, anyway, one of them usually showing up with a cup of coffee for the other one. It's funny how often they seem to know when the other one won't have one, but neither of them ever speaks of this or even makes note of it aloud.

And, of course, they argue as much as they ever have, but it’s easy and comfortable, even when it’s explosive.

No one (aloud, anyway) says a word about the clear and undeniable connection between them, understanding that neither woman wants to hear it.

Instead, they support the two of them as they casually date others.

Not saying a word.

The new relationships never seem to go far, neither of them seemingly inclined to take it further.

Both insisting they have other focuses.

And so it goes, for months and months.

David retires from the Sheriff’s Department after Snow gets pregnant again, choosing to stay home and take care of the children while Snow continues to teach, becoming the principal of the grammar school. To replace him, Emma hires Mulan, who arrives on one of Hook’s first transports, to take his position. After a bit of rough-edge sanding and some gentle explanations about the proper uses of force and violence, she’s perfect in the job.

After Hook’s third transport during the first year, Regina creates a five-seat elected council to advise the Mayor, recognizing that Storybrooke’s rapid growth is likely to come with new complications and political concerns. Her integration plan for the newcomers is robust, providing for work and housing until they can establish their own. There are hiccups and the growing pains of bringing so many people together, but Storybrooke is infinitely better for the diversity.

And for the Mayor and the Sheriff, every day there’s breakfast or lunch and quite often dinner and a drink afterwards.

Sometimes there’s coffee shared down by the docks, the ocean breeze rippling.

And then one day, quite out of nowhere, Emma says, “Are you happy?”

“Hm?” Regina asks, her coffee stopping halfway to her lips.

“Are you happy?” Emma repeats again.

“Trying to be,” Regina tells her. “Are you?”

“Trying to be,” Emma agrees.

“What…what is stopping you from being happy?” Regina asks, seeming almost hesitant. Wondering if its time for the "next" conversation.

“At the moment? My own fear.”

“Of?”

“Whether or not a choice is actually mine.”

“Emma, what are you talking about?”

The Sheriff turns then, facing Regina completely, her green-blue eyes vivid. “I’ve been thinking about what it would feel like to kiss you for…I don’t even know how long.” 

“Oh…oh. And do you…do you want to kiss me…now?”

“Yes.”

Oh.

Emma grins. “You seem nervous, Your Majesty.”

That’s enough to snap Regina out of her shock. Eyebrow up, she replies in her haughtiest tone (one which sends a shiver through Emma), “Hardly. Miss Swan.”

"Again with the Miss Swan." Smirking, Emma steps closer to her, a hand reaching up. 

Regina’s catches it at the last moment, her confidence sliding away. “I’ve respected your need to make this your choice and not Fate’s path. I’ve always wanted the same. So, I need to know that this is real and actually something that you truly want with every part of you because if it’s not, I need you to walk away before we destroy something that means more to me than you could ever imagine. I love you, Emma Swan, but I am content loving you platonically. If this is -"

Emma leans in, then and kisses her, cutting off her words. The kiss is gentle and tentative. Softer than Regina might have expected. Cautious and careful.

When Emma pulls back, she licks her lips. "Was that okay?"

Regina nods, for a moment very much feeling like that young girl she’s been trying so long to find again. Along the way, she’s come to understand that there’s no way to go all the way back, but she can find a way to bring that girl forward and let her have a voice in the future as well. Now, in this moment where Emma is standing across from her with kiss swollen lips, she feels the excitement and hope of it all.

Even as the Queen within her tells her to be the one controlling the kissing.

"Was that okay for you?" Regina counters.

"Yeah. And for what it's worth, I'm still not one hundred percent sure I know what I want. But I do know that I have feelings for you. Strong, definitely not at all platonic, definitely entirely real feelings for you. If you're willing, I'd like to see where that takes us."

"I'm definitely willing."

Regina lets the Queen take over.

She pulls Emma flush to her, pressing her lips to Emma's and immediately deepening the kiss. Their bodies warm against each other, Regina breathes this woman whom she’s so quietly loved for so impossibly long in. It’s charged and explosive, but also passionate and strangely even tender.

“Wow,” Emma says, when they finally break away once again.

Regina lifts her thumb to her lip. “Not bad, Miss Swan.”

“You're not going to stop with that, are you?”

Regina’s eyes twinkle impishly. “Convince me I shouldn't.”

“That sounds like a challenge. You know I've always risen to your challenges,” Emma says, leaning in.

A hand on her chest stops her. Regina says softly, “I do. But slowly, Emma. Slowly."

Every moment a necessary choice.

Emma exhales and then leans in again, capturing Regina’s lips.

In the absence of force or fate, making her choice.

 


 

Henry is fifteen when his moms start to formally date. Or well, it's more like cautious courting at first.

And look, there's slow and then there’s molasses, but only Zelena is willing to point it out.

To be fair, no one would expect her not to be the one to voice what everyone is thinking.

“At this point, it’s pretty obvious two you want to hump each other stupid every five seconds," Zelena snaps out at them one night over a family dinner. "I think you can probably stop worrying about outside forces forcing you to be together and just go find a closet and work off some of that lust, all right?"

Okay, maybe that’s not quite what everyone wanted to say.

Close enough, though.

“We’re good,” Regina assures her, her hand slipping out to take Emma's across the table.

And they are. So wonderfully good.

Even if they are molasses slow.

 


 

They find their way into bed far sooner than anyone realizes, however.

Only weeks after their first kiss.

It's as complicated as they are until it's not and then it's just whispering and touching and coming apart wrapped around each other.

Afterwards, sheets tangled around them, Emma finds herself trailing a finger down Regina's arm, marveling at the unblemished smoothness of it.

To which Regina notes, "There used to be a scar there. Maybe half an inch long. A gift from my mother for not behaving."

Emma frowns, thinking of all the conversations they've had over the last few weeks about their pasts. "It's gone now," she notes, unnecessarily.

"Apparently, when the Queen and I split, she got an unmarked body and when she and I came back together, it stayed that way." There's a curious heaviness to her words, like the blank slate had perhaps been unwanted.

Emma gets it. "Our scars are part of our story," she observes, leaning down to press her lips against the warm skin of Regina's arm. "And don't worry, knowing you and how reckless you are -" she grins when she hears Regina scoff - "I'm sure you'll get a whole bunch of new scars sooner or later."

"Whatever," Regina mutters, and then rolls to look at her. She reaches up and moves a strand of hair away from Emma's eyes. 

"What?"

"Sometimes, this all still seems so unbelievable to me."

"But...good unbelievable, right?"

Regina smiles softly. Considering the self-loathing she's always struggled with in her life (and likely always will, to some degree or another), she more than most understands that Emma's battle with her self-worth is a life-long journey. Instead of replying with words, she leans forward and kisses Emma.

Pours everything she is into the kiss.

Everything she's ever wanted to be and have and show.

"Good answer," Emma murmurs, and then rolls Regina over. Straddling her, she grins down at her lover and impishly asks, "Ready for round two?"

Regina smirks in response, the Queen coming out to play. "Do try to keep up, dear."

 


 

"I love you" for Emma comes the first time in the strangest way. Over an unexpected repainting of the Bug, every surface of her shiny and bright.

Regina can't stand to ride in the little vehicle, but she knows Emma loves it. It'd seemed a small and insignificant gesture, but for Emma, it's not.

It's while Emma's walking around the newly repainted car when she murmurs, "God, I love you."

Regina smiles slightly, but says nothing, and maybe that's what makes Emma turn around and look at her.

Understanding the significance both of the moment and her words, especially to Regina. "I mean it," she says, and then crosses over to Regina and hugs her tight. "I mean it. I love you."

"It's just a stupid car," Regina protests weakly.

"I know. And that's why I love you."

Absurd as it is, somehow, having Emma's first "I love you" be because of the yellow death trap just fits for them.

 


 

Henry is sixteen when they move in together.

The first morning after the first night, he makes them promise to soundproof their room.

Horrified and a little bit traumatized at what he’d heard, but inwardly delighted to see how happy they are as they prepare for their days, moving around each other as the Mayor and Sheriff get ready to take care of their town.

Teasing and bickering, their hands occasionally touching as they pass.

So organically them that it’s hard to imagine any reality where it wasn’t always this.

Hard not to pity any reality where it wasn't always this.

 


 

They're still them, though - the headstrong, at times self-destructive, Mayor-Queen and the red-assed, arrogant, upstart Savior-Sheriff.

There are snipping fits and sharp arguments, and all too often they're over fear and doubts and the things they're still learning how to say to each other.

There's tears and screaming and sometimes broken dishes in the aftermath of doors slamming.

There's old fighting habits that die hard, and instinctual flight reflexes which come easy.

And then there's the day when they have the conversation about whether or not they should break up. It's horrible, and heartbreaking, and they're both crying.

Regina asks quietly, "Do you want to end this?" She bites her lip and adds, "Because if you do, I...I won't..." she can't even finish the sentence.

Doesn't really get the chance before Emma is surging towards her and hugging her. "No. No."

Later, she'll tell Regina that it was once again the availability of the choice which had convinced her of what she actually wanted; it had been the right to make a decision for herself absent any consideration of fate which had allowed her the clarity to see and understand the future she wants. 

"This," she tells Regina and presses her against the mattress. "You."

 


 

It's the day before Henry's due to leave for college in Boston, and he asks his moms if they think one day they’ll want to get married.

“Don’t know, Kid,” Emma admits as she flips the omelet in the pan. “Why?”

“Isn’t that what people in love normally do?”

“We’ve hardly ever done what normal people do,” Regina reminds him as she comes into the room, her short dark hair still wet from the shower she and Emma had shared just ten minutes earlier.

“But maybe we should,” Emma says suddenly. “Not because it’s what normal do but because it’s what we want to do."

The underlying theme of everything they’ve done, even three years into this romance of theirs.

Rarely easy, sometimes terrifyingly hard, but always beautiful in a way that makes the dream she’d once had – the dream which had driven Regina to sacrifice herself once upon a time – seem almost insignificant. This is more. Real and difficult and so wonderfully, perfectly them.

“You want to get married?” Regina asks, disbelief still peppering her tone.

“Only if you do.” 

“You already have me,” Regina reminds her.

Emma steps closer to her. “Maybe I want a honeymoon, complete with a wedding night."

“Ew,” Henry groans. 

“We don’t need wedding vows for that, my love,” Regina assures her, grinning salaciously.

“Double ew. Forget I ever asked the question.”

But they don’t forget; they just push the question off to another day.

 


 

About four years after they get together, Regina finally figures out how to bring all of the fairytale worlds together into one. With Hook's help, a vote across every land is taken and the decision is made to meld them all into one. Each will continue to be sovereign within their own kingdom, but Regina is elected to be the overall Queen of the United Realms. A celebration occurs the day magic unseals the barriers, fireworks soaring across a hundred different skies,

High up on the balcony of the castle she'd once destroyed from, Regina leans against Emma, watching the colors in the night. Below then, people hoot and holler, laughing and celebrating. Deep in the middle of the ocean, led by the Jolly Roger, every ship in the new armada and quite a few civilian vessels sends up a flares in the shape of the new flag of the United Realms. 

"How does it feel, Your Majesty?" Emma asks, an arm lazily slung around Regina. "To know that all of this is because of you?"

Regina tips her head up to kiss Emma's chin. "I had help," she says, lifting a hand to graze her fingers over Emma's cheek.

"So, does this make me your consort?" Emma jokes.

"You do recall you're still a princess of your own right, don't you?"

"We played that game," Emma reminds her, thinking back to the adventure they'd undertaken just before the one which had set them on this path.

"True. I prefer you as my Sheriff, anyway."

Emma chuckles, and then nuzzles into her neck. And murmurs, "Long live the Queen."

 


 

The discussion about marriage comes in and out of conversations, and in and out of their thoughts for years. Arriving, warranting some discussion and consideration, and then, once again being pushed off until another day.

The dark shadows of her past marriage to the King still grasping at Regina's heart, squeezing it just enough to make her fearful.

Until one day, a reminder of how fragile life is, no matter the great love, comes around. 

This one courtesy of a villains court led by King George; he rallies them for a rebellion against the Queen. Loudly declaring that Regina is no better than any other villain, and doesn't deserve to lead. Emma and Snow and the Council convince her to fight, reminding her that the people had chosen her as their Queen.

So she fights and Emma fights beside her. She fights and the Realms fight with her.

But none of that matters when in the middle of an especially tense magical battle with the resurrected Jafar, Emma suddenly gasps and collapses, a coil of red-hot magic circling her middle, squeezing into her body like razor blades. Only a thousand other tragedies and the strength of the Queen keeps Regina from panicking instead of acting. The Queen guides her hands and keeps her steady as she protects and then heals Emma. The Queen reminds her of the ferocity of her heart.

Right now, Emma needs that heart. Open it completely, and show her it as you've shown me. No more fear, Regina. 

So she does open it, pouring every bit of it into hands which had once hurt, and now can heal.

Finally, Emma's eyes jerk open, awareness flooding her senses as she registers that she's still alive.

"Hey," she says, like she's just waking up from a lazy afternoon nap.

Idiot.

Regina leans in, then, and rests her forehead against Emma's, feeling the brush of Emma's breath against her face.

"Yes," she says, "I'll marry you."

"Yeah?" Emma asks stupidly, still in a daze, but smiling up at her so brightly.

"I told you before: only you," Regina tells her, because she needs Emma to understand that this this moment could only ever happen with her.

Emma forces herself up, the pain still radiating through her fierce, but the love she feels even fiercer as she affirms, "Always only you."

 


 

Henry’s twenty-two and freshly graduated from college when the wedding finally happens in the lush backyard of Snow and David’s farm.

Later, there will be a celebration for the United Realms, an understanding that this is something they need to share with the people, for now, it's just for them and the people they love. A moment belonging only to them. 

Snow does the officiating honors, allowing David and Henry to walk the women down the aisle. No one is at all surprised when halfway through saying “I know pronounce you Mrs. and Mrs. Swan-Mills,” Snow starts to sob, and Regina reminds her to pull herself together, and then roughly wipes a tear of her own away,

Zelena toasts them afterwards with,” For the couple who was constantly trying to side-step Fate, don’t worry, she long ago got bloody tired of you two taking your annoying time and ran off to irritate someone else."

But it wasn’t just Fate they were trying to side-step. It was a lifetime of baggage and chains and choices which should have been theirs but never were until they forced the issue. Above all else, though, it was the desperate need to make every step of this journey theirs and only theirs.

And now it is.

Their own fate. Their own beautiful dream, their own wonderful love story.

Messy, complicated, occasionally turbulent, but always theirs.

The music for the first dance starts and Emma pulls Regina close.

“Are you happy?” Emma queries. “Is…all of you happy?”

Regina chuckles at that, amused more than anything else when people – especially Emma, who has had more than a few conversations with the Queen part of her over the years, speak about how the Queen continues to exist within her. Never quite calm and always up to snap an insult or start a fight and throw some fire, but more sated and at peace than she’s ever been. Regina reaches up and traces Emma’s cheekbones, the tips of her fingers gliding down and across Emma’s painted lips. “We are. Are you?”

“Yes,” Emma says simply, her own hand reaching up to catch Regina’s and bring it to her lips.

“Good,” Regina says, and then rests her head on Emma’s shoulder as they continue to dance.

A hundred people around them, moving to join them on the dance-floor.

In the end, between the three great gods - Life, Love and Fate - it's Love that declares victory.

And Life? Well, Life goes on.

-Fin.