Snow White, while more than occasionally insufferable, is not wrong when she says that Regina has always felt things deeply. Far too deeply, even without her heart. But now that it’s back in its cage, firmly in place, her emotions are even more acute.
The first wave of pain comes seconds after she hears Robin say, "Marian?"
It begins as a throb in her belly when she recognizes the name, then turns into a flame licking at her bones when she recognizes the woman, until finally it becomes water closing over her head, total and inescapable, when she recognizes the horror of her situation.
The pain is a complex thing: incredulity and resignation and fear, disbelief and anger and shame. The very first whispers of a terrible emptiness, the kind that swallows people whole.
It is everything, and she is aching with it, burning from it, drowning in it.
Tears sting her eyes as she drags in a shallow breath, watching Robin and Roland and Marian. Feeling the way a beggar might, staring through the window into a warm home. Covetous. Hungry. Resentful.
And hopeful, still, in the ugly, buried depths of her. Ever hopeful, that secret, small part of her that never extinguishes, that has no place in a life such as hers. The voice that whispers perhaps, perhaps, perhaps this is wrong. All wrong. Perhaps he will make a choice, and perhaps—she will be the one he chooses. She is a hero now--
No. No. Regina might be a hero, but unlike the Charmings, she isn’t a fool. She knows that given a choice, maids are preferable to murderers. And anyway—never before has Robin had to confront the truth of Regina’s past so directly. When Marian tells her tale, what will be left of the respect and belief in Robin’s eyes?
Kindling. Less than that. Ashes.
Regina can already taste them on her tongue.
As recently as one hour ago, Robin was a match struck in the dark. Bright, a beacon, something to guide Regina back to parts of herself she’d forgotten even existed. Now he is the smoke, a remnant that is already fading into the night.
Regina’s eyes dart listlessly, fingers curled into loose fists.
How transient happiness is, she thinks, turning the tremble of her mouth into a snarl. Little wonder she had stopped chasing it in favor of destroying it instead.
When her gaze lands on Emma Swan, it makes sense to channel the monstrous rage and helplessness that roars through her body into vicious, spitting words.
Just like your mother, Regina says. Never thinking of consequences.
It is easier to blame Emma, she thinks. Better than to think of the truth, the truth she knows better than anything else: that she cannot outrun the past. That she will never be more than her sins.
The yelling, it turns out, does bring some degree of satisfaction.
But… it does not lessen the hurt.
A second chance. That’s what she wanted all along, isn’t it? What Robin wanted, too.
Well. Neither of them ever specified a second chance for whom.
The irony of it would be almost delicious, if it weren’t so bitter.
“Regina,” Robin says. His eyes are kind, and that is enough to tell Regina what she needs to know.
Kindness has only ever been pity. And accepting pity means acknowledging the truth of her situation. Regina will not do that. Not for him, this thief who smells of ozone and wood, of forest and blood. This father and husband who was for her a companion and friend.
Regina makes her own truth. It is the only way she can stand to rise again, each and every time she is brought low.
“You’re a good man,” she says, because grace is something no one expects from her and it is a perverse sort of joy that comes from defying expectation.
Robin reaches out. To touch her, maybe. To slide his hand through her hair, bring her close. Tender, slow, like she is precious. Like she is something he would miss.
Instead, he offers his hand. A…handshake. Regina’s belly bottoms out. She works to keep her face rigid, to be a blank slate. It is something she has never learned particularly well, but the alternative is to cover her despair with righteous, reckless fury, and that—that will not do.
She takes his hand, and the lion tattoo mocks her, a waving flag of every lost chance. The screaming reminder of her own weakness, both then and now.
“And you are a remarkable woman,” Robin says. The worst thing of all is his utter sincerity, the way he means it. Fool. What a fool, to think his honesty is any sort of gift. It’s an arrow, buried shaft-deep between her ribs.
Regina looks away, struggles to breathe. The warmth in Robin’s face fades, transforms into a craggy desperation, skirting wildly at the edges of his handsome features.
He reels her in by the hand, and she braces herself against his chest. Thinks of him lending his heart to her for strength, so careful and so careless in his offer.
Fool, she thinks again. But she is not certain who she means.
“I need some time, milady,” he says quickly, voice low. “This isn’t as easy as it seems.”
Marian is behind him, holding Roland in her arms, a ghost made flesh. Regina remembers, distantly, the incandescent joy of Daniel’s return, how anything even resembling reason seemed to fade away. He was the axis of her world, even in death. The thing that kept her turning.
If he came back, whole and hale and hearty, would she ever be able to forsake him for someone as dark and unpredictable as herself?
“No,” Regina says slowly, closing her eyes. “It’s probably much easier than you think."
Henry stays the night with her, a benediction, a balm. The lantern that does not go out. When she loses Henry, she will go mad.
(It is not “if” any longer. Regina has no room for wishes or optimism. Henry will go one day. They all go. There has never been anyone who has stayed.)
“Emma was just trying to do the right thing.”
The reflex is there, Regina supposes, to tell David and his wife to go jump off a bridge just so they can rub everyone’s nose in the strength of their true love saving them yet again from deserved, imminent death.
But Regina thinks pettiness is probably the larger part of villainy, so she refrains. Henry nudges her foot like he is proud of her, and it’s the only warmth in the cold she feels when she turns to face the Prince.
“Cheesecake?” she asks pleasantly. Granny’s is busy these days, bustling with the force of small town life, but there is a chill that’s set in, has everyone huddling close. Whereas once it might’ve sent daggers of yearning through Regina’s chest, seeing people so endlessly happy with what she herself doesn’t have, now she only feels weary acceptance when she watches a woman curl into a man, when she glimpses a hand sweep down the back of a significant other, protective and ardent at the same time.
Life will always be full of things she can’t own for herself; it does no good trying to capture what was never meant for her in the first place.
David furrows his brow. “No thanks,” he says. “Do you…want to come sit with us? We’d like to talk.”
He motions to a booth, where Snow White sits with her son, with Emma, with Hook. Henry is the invisible string that ties her to them. It is for him that she nods.
“I’m not angry at you,” she says to Emma, when she slides into the booth.
Hook snorts. “Good,” he says. “You shouldn’t be. She did a fine thing, yeah? Saved a life.”
“And potentially altered the future as we know it,” Regina says peevishly, then takes a breath. She will not be goaded into a fight by a pirate. She is a woman, human and heartbroken, but she is still a queen.
Emma looks miserable. “I didn’t know who she was,” she says. “You gotta believe me, Regina.”
Regina rubs her forehead. “And if you’d known,” she says. “Would you have let her die?”
“No.” Of this, Emma is more certain. Confident. Good. So deeply, and truly good, despite her circumstances, despite her alienation, despite her loss.
Regina remembers the surge of light magic, the way it had felt winding through her. She aches for what might’ve been, if the power flowing through her veins had grown in branches of white and blue, rather than black, green, billows of sickly red. If something inside had told her, You have a choice. Choose well, instead of egging her on as she wrought destruction.
“There's no use in looking back,” Regina says. “What’s done is done, and you did what you must.”
Snow White’s voice is soft when she speaks. “We’re not sorry she saved a life, Regina. But we are sorry that you’re hurting because of it."
The reminder is unwelcome, sharp. Regina grips the table to ground herself in something other than the ebb and flow of sorrow that churns through her.
If they are a solar system, these people, then Regina is the comet that streaks through space, comes inches within total obliteration of each planet, leaving a fiery trail in her wake. When she was little, looking up at night, Regina always thought—rather whimsically—that comets were just stars searching for their place in the sky.
But now, she sees she is the outlier. The anomaly. The destruction everyone fears.
If she was not hurt, she thinks she would have done the hurting, eventually.
“Don’t be sorry,” she tells Snow White, teeth bared in an approximation of a smile. “It’s better this way."
Her mother always told her that love is weakness.
Regina knows that is a falsehood; love is strength unrivaled. Love is lasting. It is unforgettable. It might fade, but it never disappears, however much a person might wish it would go.
Love outlasts ambition and power. Love is what is left when everything else turns to dust.
There was a moment when that thought might have been a comfort.
These days, it feels like a warning.
She dreams, on the bad nights.
They are good dreams, sometimes. Stories of sunlight and laughter, flashes of fondly tugging closed the ends of a knit green winter’s cloak, ducking as familiar hands slip the bright yellow of a daffodil jauntily in her hair. There are smiles, in her dreams. A canopy of leaves, merry campfires, fields and meadows and babbling brooks. And a man, the warmth of his chest, and the warmth of the heart lying within it.
She dreams of raw attraction. The hungry pull of messy kisses, artless moans, the stroke and curl of fingers where she's hot and slick, the taste of her name on someone's mouth.
Yes, those are the good dreams.
Then there are the nightmares. The ones of being put on trial, the kind where she faces all whom she has wronged, spirit and body alike, thousands of accusing eyes and twisted limbs and screaming that never ends. There are dreams of being burned alive. Beheaded. Cut cleanly through with a sword. Put down on a bed of arrows. Poisoned, or bespelled. Killed, and not mourned.
She dreams of Marian, flanked by Roland and Robin and Henry, all of them pointing resolutely towards a cliff. She dreams of walking. She dreams of falling.
Her mind spins stories of redemption and retribution and she knows, she knows which of the two is more likely. Which of the two she deserves. But it doesn’t keep her from reaching out when she wakes. Doesn’t keep her from flailing blindly for someone who is just beyond her grasp.
Doesn’t keep her from wanting.
Then again, few things rarely do.
“You must open yourself up to love again, Regina,” Tinkerbell says.
“Tried that, remember?” Regina asks. “Didn’t end up so well.”
Tinkerbell spins in her seat, every revolution bringing Regina a glimpse of her wise, luminous eyes.
“I find it interesting,” Tinkerbell says, “that you’re so sure the story has ended at all.”
Once upon a time, a very long while ago, Regina was a girl. Just a girl. A twiggy little thing who liked horses and idolized her parents. She was a princess. A princess who made stupid mistakes but did so with good intent. Who trusted too much and then not at all. Who counted to three and blew on dandelions, wished for true love and happy endings before she disdained both.
She wasn’t always a villain. Evil is made, not born.
Some evenings, as she stands outside in the frigid Maine air, blanket around her shoulders, sipping hot cider and staring unseeing into the horizon, Regina remembers the girl that she was. She rocks gently on her heels and thinks of remaking herself. Not into a hero, and certainly not into a villain. But perhaps she could be that girl again. The one who saw the world as a place with promise. Who saw herself as a person with potential. Desirous and deserving of the storybook finish.
Mostly she discards the thought. Can’t fathom walking into the sunset towards her very own ever after. Not with the silhouette of Marian still swinging about town.
But every so often, a constellation wheels through the space between two trees. It catches Regina’s eye, and she smiles.
Orion, the hunter. A marksman.
On those nights, in that constellation’s honor, she clutches the blanket around her neck, pretends it is a riding cloak, and plucks a dandelion out of thin air.
Closes her eyes, counts to three, and makes a wish.
There’s a drawing on a napkin bolted to the wood of her front door. It’s held in place by an arrow, finely made, lovingly crafted. Regina wrenches it free, tests the weight in her palm. She can almost hear the song it would sing as it sails through the air, the thwap! as it buried itself in the door. The sounds are familiar to her, a white noise, a lullaby. Without them, she feels strangely hollow.
Just…another thing to miss, she supposes.
On the napkin is a crude rendering of a flying monkey and a small child with a stuffed animal, the words Roland says hello.
Regina swallows, folds the napkin carefully into her breast pocket.
Just another thing of many.
"How are you?"
Weeks later, and they are at Granny's, a belated celebration of Belle and Rumplestiltskin’s nuptials. An intolerably joyous occasion made worse by Robin's decision to check up on Regina as she sits outside, draining her scotch under a canopy of twinkling lights.
"Drunk," Regina answers. It could be worse, she supposes. She could be drinking whiskey. She scowls into her glass; the bastard didn't even have the decency to leave alcohol untouched. Even that has his memory attached to it.
"Ah," Robin says, and sits down next to her. He feels like her shadow, like a half of her that splits at the root, flying away into the night just when she needs him most.
Partners, he'd said. A pretty lie.
Regina tosses back the rest of her drink. Well. She's not Peter Pan. She doesn't require a shadow to live.
"Why are you here?" she asks abruptly. Her face feels numb, and the scotch has done nothing to quell the shivers running through her.
Robin moves closer, breath misting. "Checking up on your Majesty," he says. Like he used to, before. Teasing. An undercurrent of genuine concern. As if he would change things for her, were it within his power to do so.
And that—that is too much.
"Don't," Regina says. The alcohol has loosened her tongue. Or maybe it's just proximity; Robin has been given more of her secrets, her vulnerabilities, than anyone alive, save her son. "Don't be nice. Don't give me morsels, like I'm a dog at the dinner table." Her hands shake so badly that the ice in the glass rattles. "You took me in, and then you pushed me out. That's the cruelest trick of all. Giving me a home only to—to lock the door."
She looks at the melting cubes in her glass, eyes burning. "It was better not knowing," she says, voice rising. "It was better being on the outside looking in. It's where I always end up, anyhow."
Her nose prickles, and she puts a hand over her eyes, ashamed.
"When you're alone long enough, you learn to live with it," she says after a minute, trying to explain. "To carry it with you. You don't know any differently."
She turns to Robin, who's looking at her with an inscrutable expression. Regina's glad of it; should he have been kindly or sympathetic, she would've thrown the glass at his head.
"But when someone shows you how to—to rely on them, to depend on them, to be loved by them—when someone fights for you when always you've fought alone—how do you go back? How do you go home to—to nothing? How do you relearn to be lonely? How—"
She cuts off, clutching at the collar of her coat. Robin is still as a statue next to her. He makes no move to comfort her, or touch her in any way. Regina isn't sure if she's glad or devastated.
"I can't go anywhere now without seeing you there." Her voice goes soft, hushed. A confession. "You're everywhere, and I can't erase you."
Robin makes a noise like he's wounded. "I wish you wouldn't try," he says quietly, voice ravaged and rough.
It's the only admission of his feelings that he has given, Regina thinks, and like the dog she said she wasn't, she wants to eat it up, demand more.
"I killed Marian," she says instead.
Robin's face goes hard. "Aye, you almost did," he acknowledges.
"In another timeline," Regina presses, wild and contrary. Angry. "I did it. I killed her. I'm the one who took your precious wife, just because I could, because she got in the way of my vendetta, because it was convenient and easy and it made me feel strong. I didn’t even know her name. That’s how common, how consistent, such things were for me. I did that. That's the woman whose heart you coveted, that's the woman who you called bold and audacious but not evil. You're an idiot! I was evil. And I'm hardly an angel now. My god, you spent years thinking the love of your life was dead and that it was your fault when it was mine all along, and you're still pretending that doesn’t matter, like what we had was anything—"
Robin cuts her off with a kiss, an uncompromising kiss with frustration pouring off him, a kiss that starts hard and just the slightest bit brutal before it gentles almost immediately, becomes slow, fingers tangled in her hair and tongue stroking hers, a relentless rhythm as he shifts closer, giving an audibly bitten-off groan when Regina sags into him, tugging at his lapels ineffectually.
"We are what we are," he says when they part, when Regina licks her lips and tastes cake from the celebration inside, feels the swollen rush between her legs. "Not what we were."
His hands tilt her face, thumbs stroking tenderly under her eyes. With a start, Regina registers that she is crying.
"You have done evil things," he begins, and the words are darts that pierce her under the armor she didn't even realize she'd disassembled. They dig into her soft places, small wounds, each one.
"Yes, I have," Regina says dully, bracing herself for whatever words he will wield next.
"Regina," Robin says, "A person is a sum of everything they’ve ever been. You can’t erase the deeds you have done, but you also can’t make me hate you, so please stop trying.” He knocks his head gently against hers, chiding, scolding. “Even knowing the bad, I care most about the good, love. Because your good—is very, very good. The best, I’d wager.”
Regina sifts through the words, the gorgeous, unbelievable, unbelievably naive words, for one in particular.
“Love,” she says. Gives a laugh that feels like broken glass. “Is that what this is?"
Robin’s eyes darken. “You tell me,” he challenges. “You’re the one who told me that yarn about pixie dust and fate.”
Regina jerks away. “It wasn’t a yarn,” she says, stung.
“You’re giving up quite easily for a true story, then,” Robin says, and there—under the stubble, the lock of hair across his forehead, the rueful smile…just under the surface, twitching at the skin, Regina can see pain.
Robin is hurting, too.
“I’m not giving up,” Regina blurts, shocked by her discovery. She peers closer, the rings under his eyes, the thinner shape of his face.
“Love,” he mimics her, makes his voice go dead, empty. “Is that what this is?” He looks angry now as well, plows on: “Like what we had was anything,” he mimics again. “That’s what you said, isn’t it?”
Regina blinks. “I—“
“Know this, your highness, the queen.” Robin drops his mask for a moment, the full extent of his conflict evident on his face. “I have had four great loves in my life. One of them is my first bow, and one is my son. The third is my wife, and the fourth—“ he grips Regina’s wrist gently, brings her close, looks her straight in the eyes: “The fourth is you.”
Regina’s chest goes tight. She stumbles to her feet, intent on leaving, because she can’t do this. She can’t hear this. There is no point. No future. It’s untenable. It’s unacceptable. She—
Robin is up in a flash, spinning her, hauling her against the wall. “Don’t go,” he pleads, eyes bright. “Just. Don’t.”
Regina’s breath hitches; it is the first time anyone has fought for her, and it’s breaking her into pieces. “How can I stay?” she asks. “You’ve got a wife. It’s not fair for you to have that and me at the same time, it’s not fair that I only get half of you and you get all of me. It’s not—“
Robin shakes his head. “You don’t get it, do you?” he asks. “You’ve got a damn well lot more than just half of me.”
And then he’s kissing her again, hungry, mouth clinging to hers. Regina is unprepared for his kisses each time, has never been touched like this, like she’s an oasis in the desert. He kisses as if the world might end at any moment, like he is memorizing every second, savoring every detail. He tastes her, and tastes her, and tastes her till her lips are tingling, the breath pulling from her lungs in uneven bursts when they finally part.
“I asked for time, didn’t I?” he says, voice hoarse. He leans his forehead against hers. “I needed to think of how to prepare Marian. Because I—look, I love Marian. I do. My wife is a part of me. She is the mother of my son, and the first person to have ever known me as she does. But, Regina. Regina, I want you to be the last.”
Robin tucks her hand in his, brings it to his chest. “Dear heart,” he says, endearment all the more sweet for his low, urgent tone, “I told you we were each other’s second chances, and I meant it.”
And Regina, who has lived her whole life watching everything she has ever wanted go spinning wildly out of control, crashing into the ground and burning either by a loved one’s hands or her own, almost cannot believe her ears.
“—what?” she asks, stunned.
Robin looks at her, a small grin on his face. “Expecting a different answer?” he asks, rather rudely in Regina’s opinion. “Worst case scenario, perhaps? Doom and gloom, as always.”
Regina frowns down at her hand on Robin’s chest. “Statistical probability says doom and gloom is the most likely outcome,” she says uncertainly.
Robin slips his hand through Regina’s hair and laughs.
“Not anymore,” he promises, and then they’re kissing again, under the twinkling lights and Orion turning slow circles in the sky.
They’re kissing, and the feelings, those pesky things that Regina can never quite tamp down, are bursting out of her like fireworks into the night.
Things, she suspect, will not be perfect. They will probably not always be happy, either. But that’s okay—happy endings mean an ending in the first place, and Regina?
She sort of wants to see where this goes.
Snow White is as smug as always, pregnancy having made her only more righteous, the glow of her skin almost blinding. Regina adjusts her sunglasses and tries to think charitable thoughts.
“He’s cute, isn’t he?” she asks, elbowing Regina and gesturing across the room, towards Robin, who’s got a champagne flute in his hand and his eyes glued to hers.
Regina smiles, a small private smile. “He smells like forest,” she answers softly. Which is, after all, an answer in itself.