A light snow falls from the grey sky, blanketing the woods around Storybrooke. It’s a bright midwinter morning, and there are two women standing on a small cliff overlooking a stream that was once a river. One holds a golden sword to the other’s throat. It’s the end of everything.
“You’re the evil queen.”
“If words like that make you feel better, Miss Swan, then go right ahead and use them. But don’t presume to understand anything about me or my life.”
“I don’t need to understand you, Regina. I came here to stop you. To fix everything you destroyed. It’s taken years, and now-”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
Her earliest memory is of water. She remembers falling into the winter-cold river next to her parents’ home, and of great strong hands plunging through the darkness to find her. Her father wraps her in a blanket and then his arms, trying to warm her. She is only under water for a few moments, but those moments stretch in her mind and follow her for the rest of her life. She remembers cold, and very little else.
When her mother dies, she does not cry. She holds tightly to her father’s hand and he holds tightly to hers, and she lets him cry for both of them. Her mother had always seemed strange to her, like a beautiful and untouchable figure from a story. To her, it’s as though a statue has been stolen from their family. But she knows her father grieves for his love that is now gone, and so she squeezes his hand from time to time. She will not miss her mother, but she loves her father.
She’s a beautiful young woman - barely that even - when her father sells her to the king, bragging about her ability to make wealth where no man can. She never blames him. They are poor, and poverty is one of the few things that can crack her resolve. Hunger makes the strongest man weak, and though she thinks she is stronger than the strongest man, hunger reaches even her.
Her skin is pale, her hair dark, and she stands with a grace and arrogance reserved for royalty. When the king threatens to execute her if she fails, she doesn’t even bat an eyelash. And when the little man comes to her cell to offer her a way out, she doesn’t hesitate for a moment.
The bargain is struck.
Her marriage is a grand affair, but the ring her new husband slides down her finger was made by her own hands. She does not love her husband, but she doesn’t pity him, either. That puts him in higher regard than most she knows. He is a fool and a terrible ruler, but she can easily correct such weaknesses. It is his daughter that gives her pause.
All she knows of mothering is to stand aside, cold and distant, and let a father care for a child. The girl is precocious, with pale skin and dark hair. At court they whisper: Snow resembles her mother inside and her stepmother out.
The whispers do not bother the queen. Nothing bothers the queen, except for the truth.
“Why did you do this?”
“I thought you don’t need to understand me.”
“Maybe I want to.”
“I don’t trade in maybes, so if you’re going to do it... do it.”
“There has to be another way!”
Regina shakes her head. “Everyone knows that the evil queen has to die for the story to have a happy ending.”
“This isn’t a story, Regina. This is real life!”
Her first foster home she can remember is in Revere, near the beach. The summers are crowded and the winters are bare, but she can hear the ocean from her room, if she strains hard enough. She always strains hard enough.
She doesn’t get along with the kids at school. She’s quiet, and stares at the world with wide-eyed wonder, lost in her own imagination. She’s an instant target, and when she comes home with a bloodied nose, the only thing her foster parents do is sigh. The next day, her eye is blackened. On the third, she stops staring into the distance and starts watching the other children.
With every new family comes a new school, and she starts to get really good at watching and waiting and, most of all, knowing how to stay safe.
In high school, she falls in with the crowd of kids who cut classes and smoke behind the bleachers on the football field. It feels right and wrong at the same time, like she’s better than this behavior, even though the people accept her for who she is.
Her latest foster parents are nice enough, but hands off with an older child, and so they only chastise her lightly when the calls start coming from school. They remind her that she’s too old to keep cycling through homes, and pretty soon they’ll just send her out into the world, on her own.
She’s not sure that would be so bad.
The summer when she’s sixteen she gets a job on the Cape, waitressing in a local tourist trap. An older guy on the waitstaff catches her eye, and she spends her nights with him in his shack out by the beach. It’s the only kind of place people like them can afford, and they sleep with the door open because air conditioners are a luxury. She doesn’t have to strain to hear the ocean.
That fall she’s back on dry land, as dry as it gets in Boston, and she doesn’t bother to tell him that she’s pregnant. She wouldn’t know how to find him anyway.
When she’s twenty-three and working her fifth dead-end job in as many months, she sees a guy try to mug a woman in the middle of broad daylight in the Fens. She chases him down and tackles him. They both land in the murky shallow water, and she punches him enough that he stops struggling so damn much. It feels pretty good.
She enrolls in an associate’s degree program in criminal justice the next day, and only works one more dead-end job before she registers with the superior court as a bondsman. Nobody takes her out to dinner to celebrate, but that’s okay because she’s always been happier on her own.
It’s safer that way.
Regina looks down at the river, then back to Emma. “Believe it or not, I want you - I want there to be a happy ending for someone. If it can’t be me, it may as well be Henry’s other mother.”
“What?” Emma looks past Regina, and realization dawns on her face. “No.”
“The evil queen has to -”
“Bullshit, nothing has to happen. I don’t care what Henry says.”
“No?” There is a single tear running down her cheek, and she wipes it away with a strong movement, as if it’s the spread of an infection. “I care. I care very much.”
A thousand words pass between them in the silence. Regina backs towards the edge of the cliff. Emma drops the sword. She hears Henry’s voice calling to her from the edge of the woods, and turns to look. When she turns back, time slows down. Regina disappears from view. Somewhere, far away, the bell of a clock tower starts to chime.
It’s the end of everything.
And the beginning of something else entirely.
The sword hits the ground with a muffled thud, but Emma is at the edge of the cliff, arms outstretched, pulling with all of her might. “I’m not... letting... you go...” She calls out for Henry, who runs towards her.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to save...”
“But she’s - “
“Help me, Henry!”
Henry falls to his knees and takes one of Regina’s arms. “Look... the water... the stream... it’s...”
They pull Regina to the ground, and the three collapse into a heap. Regina tries to scramble to her feet, but Emma holds her back. “Why did you save me?”
“Because I don’t really think you’re evil.” The sound of rushing water almost drowns out her voice.
“Then you’re more naive than I thought, Emma.”
“I’ll take that as a compli - what the hell is that?”
“I was trying to tell you,” Henry says, leaping to his feet and leaving the two women on the ground. He gestures to the distance, where a large, white castle sits on the previously empty mountaintop. “The spell is broken!”
Reintegration into fantasy does not happen easily when one has spent thirty years frozen in a world of cynicism and practicality. The people look to Emma for guidance, and she refuses them three times before giving in. Her first act is to show mercy to the evil queen who started everything in the first place.
Her second act is to find a place to hide from the obligations she never wanted. Her parents do well enough without her, when there are no pressing issues like the execution of evil monarchs.
“I always preferred rivers, myself.” Regina is standing in the doorframe. The door is open, because air conditioning is a luxury that doesn’t exist here. “I grew up on a river.”
“The ocean always seemed safer to me. More isolating.” Isolation had always been a good thing for Emma, until Storybrooke. “Though now that I know there are mermaids in it, I may have to rethink that.”
The edges of Regina’s lips curl in a very small smile. She steps into the cottage, and the two guards assigned to keep watch on her check with Emma to make sure that’s okay. Emma waves them away.
“I want to know why.”
“You called me Emma.”
“You chose not to have me burnt at the stake because I called you by your first name? Are you insane?”
Emma shakes her head. Even when forced by her new reality to believe in magic, she refuses to believe that anyone who raised Henry could be evil. Not real evil. Not the evil she’d seen in the real world of gas chambers and serial killers. Desperate and scared and hurt, maybe. But not evil. “I might be. Does that matter here?”
“You want to go back.” It’s not a question.
“All of the people I killed and all of the lives I ruined, and it matters that I called you by your first name. Why?”
“You were willing to sacrifice yourself so I could have a happy ending. Why?”
A thousand words pass between them as the sound of the ocean drifts in through the open door.