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Tearstained eyes observed the Royal Palace from afar. Regina vividly remembered the first time she had rained destruction down upon the structure, tearing through it like a whirlwind in search for Snow White and her new-born baby. She had wanted to destroy then, to cause pain and chaos. She had wanted to gloat—see their faces as they realized their entire world was about to collapse in on itself. She had wanted to witness their destruction with her own two eyes. Now she was on the cusp of doing it again, Regina wished she had more of her former self’s conviction. She wished she still wanted to harm Snow White and Prince Charming, because cursing them would be much easier if she still hated them.

The castle in the distance was no more than a sea of lights in the darkness, outlining the structure. She was too far away to distinguish more than that. Soon, though, she would walk amongst the throng of people she knew would have gathered for the Royal Ball in celebration of Snow’s pregnancy. Soon, she would don her magical disguise and offer the pair a gift from a far-away Kingdom. Soon, she would watch the queen and her king die, and she would have to carry that burden on her shoulders forever. Emma would hate her for this, Regina knew. Henry would hate her for this. She fought to get the blonde’s face out of her mind, to get Henry’s face out of her mind. If she had a choice, she would never follow through with this plan, but she didn’t. The only other option was the death of her son and his mother, and that was an option Regina couldn’t even contemplate.

A steadying breath, another moment. Visions of Snow’s joy in discovering her pregnancy came to her. With force, she buried both the pang of pain that tore through her chest and the memory of a frightened girl atop a horse, galloping cross the meadow. Another breath, then a quick flick of the wrist. She had faith in her abilities to disguise herself—Rumpelstiltskin had taught her well. While she did not feel different, she knew anyone else would only see prince Ali of Ababwa, a young man with tinted skin and expensive silk clothing. Her four guards were equally disguised, and all Regina had left to do was return to them and finish the last leg of her journey. All she had to do was tear her eyes away from the castle and turn around, but if she did that, Regina would have to admit to herself that she was on her way to potentially kill—truly kill, not just hunt down and save at the last moment, as was their usual routine—Snow White.

How had the world turned so dark? How had they gotten to this point—again—when they had made so much reluctant headway in Storybrooke? The forced return to the Enchanted Forest had been a devastating affair, but one with so much promise hidden promise. Losing Henry had been shattering—sending him off with his biological mother had been one of the hardest things she’d ever had to do, but she’d had a plan, then; a plan to bury her heart and not feel, and then one to sleep and never awake again. There had been comfort in that thought, and yet, here she was. If Regina had one wish, it would not be to undo sending Henry and Emma away—that had been inevitable—it would be to undo everything that had happened afterwards.

There had been talk of ‘our castle’ for a while. Snow and David had reached out to her, but Regina had been hurting and the last thing she had needed was the Charming family to remind her it was better to live than to die when you would never see your child again, nor the only person in the world who had absolute faith in you. It was easier for Snow White to have hope—as always, it seemed—because the curse had not specifiedshe would have to give up the thing she loved most: that part—as always, it seemed—was Regina’s alone. And so, when they had reached the Dark Palace, Regina had laconically agreed to take the thief with her when she sought to take it back. There was no harm in him being there: she would be asleep soon, regardless.

When Regina had entered the palace, she had carried no ill will towards Snow White. Well, not much of it anyway. There were the demons from their past but her former step-daughter’s childhood mistake had not weighed as heavily upon Regina as it had once done. There had been—and still was—fresh pain now, pain that did not lessen, that throbbed in her heart every minute of every day. Pain that kept her from eating, drinking, sleeping. Pain that had overtaken every thought—both waking and dreaming—and which had sapped every bit of joy she possessed from her.

Unlike Snow White, Regina did not have hope. She had paid her price in order to save them all. Their gratitude over that would wane and they would soon forget. Here, in the Enchanted Forest, all would soon forget. Regina’s deeds of a lifetime ago were too fresh, too much part of legend and lore, for her to be remembered as the Hero of Neverland. Her sacrifices had always been forgotten, after all. Why should this time be different?

Regina had planned to acquire access to the Dark Palace and never emerge from it again. Robin Hood’s presence made her task easier: now she would not have to write out the conditions of her own sleeping curse. She could lower the shield, allow everyone safe harbour, and be well asleep in the crypt before anyone would know. Hood could tell the story, if Snow hadn’t figured out her intentions from the note Regina had left on her saddlebag, thanking her former nemesis for trying to save her. Very few people had attempted to do that those days.

The thief, indeed, had not turned out to be a problem. He had not kept her from her goal: that honour befell her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West—Zelena—and six simple words:

“I have your son… and Emma.”

From that point on, Regina had done anything Zelena had asked of her, because there had been compelling proof: a lock of Emma’s hair, a sheet of Henry’s homework—dated and in his handwriting—and that terrible monkey which changed form at Zelena’s command, turning into the man Regina knew had inserted himself into her son’s life through Emma. The fact that she was angriest because he had also—intimately—inserted himself into Emma’s was a thought Regina rarely confronted. Instead, she had allowed Zelena to whisper into her ear and had gathered her army. Instead, she had donned black again, and had called her most loyal general to her. Instead, she had brought war back to the Enchanted Forest, because Zelena had her family, and Regina may have had to give it up, but she would not let them come to harm. That was a price that was too high.

The term ‘family’ had snuck up on her months ago, and now refused to budge. She felt possessive—protective—over Henry and Emma alike, and the fact that she cared about not just Henry but Emma as well hadn’t come as a shock. She had found herself genuinely happy she would be able to make Emma’s life better at the town line as they departed, and it had been a long time since she had felt any hatred towards the blonde. There was a reluctant friendship between them, a begrudged comradery, and mutual—abide denied if asked—respect. Regina had realized long ago that she was making sacrifices for both Henry and Emma.

In the beginning, she hadn’t wanted to submit to her sister’s dark and often very strange requests, but when Zelena had taken her to a small village to the south of the palace, and had point blank ordered her to pick out five villagers for execution, Regina had known her sister was serious—and insane. She had tried to resist, had told Zelena she wouldn’t do it, but her sister had just laughed.

“Oh, but you will, Regina.” It was a whispered promise. “You will, because if you don’t, I’ll make Emma’s life a living hell—and Henry’s by extension. With my minion in New York, I can arrange anything to happen to the poor, defenceless, little Savior and her son. Don’t test me, Regina. Choose five.” Regina had, four elderly men and an elderly woman, and had watched in horror as Zelena had declared that by order of the Queen, they were to be executed. Frozen in place, she had watched as they had been run through with swords and had bled out on the hard ground of the village square. She had seen the hate of the villagers—reflected in fifty or so eyes—and their pain, and when Zelena had finally allowed her to leave for her carriage, Regina had shed bitter tears over her lot and over that of the villagers. Emma would not want Regina to do this in order to keep her safe—Henry would not want her to—but Regina did not feel like she had a choice. From that point on, she vowed to keep as many people safe as she could and find a way to fight Zelena’s control. She would fix this—somehow—but Henry and Emma could never come to harm. Not ever. If they did, it would all have been for nothing.

With each passing day, Regina wondered more about how much truth there was in Zelena’s words. She wondered if Henry and Emma were truly safe, truly happy, but every time she requested more proof, more knowledge, her efforts were met with repercussions—with more threats, and more weight upon her shoulders.

“Do you know where memories go when they are replaced, Regina?” Zelena had asked of her the one time Regina had truly tried to resist her—a magical battle that Regina had won. She had Zelena pinned to the ground, she could have killed her right there and then, but the words stopped her. To her shame, Regina’d had to admit she did not know what happened to memories when replaced.

“Memories never fade, my dear sister, and they can be captured. I have them, two small bottles of liquid memories, locked away safely. One flick of the wrist, Regina, and I shatter the bottles—I don’t need to have them on me to destroy them. They’ll be gone, forever: all of Henry’s childhood memories—the good times he had with you? All gone. Emma’s reunion with her parents, that moving goodbye the three of you had? All gone. If you kill me now, neither will ever get them back; even if you somehow manage to reunite with them, they will never remember. The western border, Regina. Move half of your army there. There is something I want in Camelot while we wait for Snow’s child to be born.”

Regina didn’t know if memories could be plucked out of the air and bottled like that—it sounded entirely improbable. She’d had no way to find out if her sister was telling the truth, though, so like before, she hadn’t wanted to risk it. With a heart as dark and cold as the black marble of the palace that seemed eternally destined to be her prison, Regina had summoned her general and had belayed Zelena’s order. The western border: to Camelot. As long as Henry was safe, and Emma. Emma, who Regina thought of more every time Walsh returned to the palace and smirked at her through his monkey mask.

Every time Regina laid eyes on the monkey and his human counterpart, the image of him and Emma in bed together came to her mind unbidden. The white, hot jealousy that poured through her veins at that image was getting harder and harder to control—although she had buried the true reason for her anger under layers upon layers of excuses. Walsh was taking Emma’s autonomy from her, was manipulating her. It was abuse, rape, and Regina convinced herself that her frustration stemmed from her inability to warn the blonde. She had convinced herself that these were the reasons for her anger, and not that the thought of anyone touching Emma made her blood boil.

When Emma had crossed the border and the rest of them had returned to the Enchanted Forest, Regina had been aware she cared about the blonde. She was family, Henry’s other mother. While she refused to examine her feelings now—not wanting to torture herself more with something that could never be—literally killing to protect Emma’s life had made Regina realize that her feelings for the blonde might actually run a fair amount deeper than just familial. They had clashed so beautifully in those early days, she trusted Emma explicitly, and Emma—more than anyone who had ever entered her life—saw the real Regina. They hadn’t always seen eye-to-eye, and they had hurt each other terribly over the years, but Regina loved the blonde. She simply refused to examine in which way.

The days spun together in an endless tapestry of dullness and anger. Zelena ran the war efforts as much as possible indoors. Regina was only summoned to belay new instructions to her armed forces every few days or so. The rest of her time, she resided in her rooms—the very same ones she had already spent so much time in when she had been much younger but equally trapped. She re-read Henry’s algebra equations, ran her fingers over the shirt Walsh had delivered and no longer carried Henry’s scent—although she could imagine it did—and ran her finger over a lock of blonde curls. She felt pathetic for clinging to these mementoes so, but they were her only life-line to the people who held her heart, both of whom were a literal world away.

Regina reluctantly followed every command Zelena gave her to the letter, but always tried to keep casualties and damages to a minimum. She knew that angered Zelena—who had begun to formulate her orders more specifically as a result—but Regina had no desire to harm any inhabitant of the Enchanted Forest. This wasn’t a war like before, where she would have burned the entire Kingdom to the ground in order to suss out Snow White; Regina was fighting a domestic war against her sister where she tried to resist—or at least show her disdain—over every order, every request, without endangering her family. More times than not, she almost pushed too hard, almost brought forth her sister’s jealous rage.

Here, locked in the fortress of stone and marble, effectively cut off from everything and everyone but her wicked sister, Regina had been unable to do anything but play along—and it was killing her more with each day that passed. Every day, Regina plotted revenge, plotted a way out of this deadlock. She had ran every scenario, had thought through every option, and had come up empty-handed. And so, when Zelena had come to her with a small jewellery case and clear instructions, she had tried to fight, had tried to find a compromise, but had eventually been forced to agree.

“What will happen to them?” Regina had asked, and Zelena had just smirked.

“That is for me to know, and for you to fret about, dear sister. Just find a way into the palace and get close enough to use the box. You will find out what happens.”

“It would help it I knew what was in it..." Regina had tried again, scrambling. Zelena had regarded her, backlit by bright sunlight that had no business intruding on a conversation as dark as this one.

“The end of Snow White.” Selena had gloated in the words, and confusion and horrified shock had vied for Regina’s attention. She had watched the Wicked Witch as she strode further onto the balcony, trying to come up with a reply to what she was sure came down to a trade: Snow and David’s life in order to keep Henry and Emma safe.

“I thought you needed Snow White, needed her baby?” She had tried, grasping at straws so this would not end up being her reality.

“As I said, Regina. You needn’t worry your pretty little head. We both know where the intellect resides in our family.” Zelena delivery had been a light sneer as she had set her hands upon the railing. Regina had sallowed, had turned the box over in her hands in hopes of divining its purpose. Even now, standing on a hillside overlooking the dip in the landscape that led to the Royal Palace, the box remained a mystery to her. All she knew was that it would end Snow White. Once upon a time, this knowledge would have made her ecstatic; today it made her heart pound violently in her chest, and she felt physically ill.

They would never know, Regina tried to ease her guilt. Emma and Henry would live on without ever finding out what she had done to their parents, their grandparents. But Regina would know. She would know forever, and that was what made it nearly impossible to tear her eyes away from the lights in the distance and stride back to her waiting transportation—a flatbed with elaborate pillows and a canopy that allowed the warm summer’s breeze to ghost past her features as the guards hoisted it up onto their shoulders and slowly headed down along the path towards the castle. Emma and henry would never forgive her for doing this, Regina knew, but they would never find out. As for Regina, her life had lost its meaning the moment she had said goodbye to Henry. This was something she had to do. There was no other way. As the castle rose up above her and they entered the gate, Regina played six words over and over through her mind; Emma and Henry would be safe.

She was received by a guard in uniform, who requested her invitation. She explained she did not have one as she was on a journey for her father, Sultan Mustapha, heading towards Camelot. After hearing of the organised ball, however, Ali had decided to pay his respects to the King and Queen and congratulate them on their unborn heir. The male regarded her, took in the sight of the sweaty guards who stood silently, muted by magic just in case. Regina held up the gold and opal jewellery box, and finally the guard left to discuss the matter with his superiors. With a war on, you couldn't be too careful, he explained. Regina had been forced to dip her head at the fresh stab of shame and panic that flooded her system.

"Of course." She had agreed with a voice that was surprisingly firm and stable. "You never know who would want harm to come to the Queen and her King."

If only the guard knew who she was, and what her intentions were. If only he would refuse her access. There would be repercussions, but for tonight, Snow White would live. Of course, he wouldn't bar her from entering; Regina had met Sultan Mustapha once, when he was still a young prince himself. She knew she had captured the family resemblance, and Zelena had promised her that Ali was one of Mustapha's actual sons, one who rarely left Agrabah. Stealing his identity was a safe choice, and it would get her in. Sometimes Regina regretted she was so good at being evil.

While she waited, Regina—Ali—regarded the throng of people from her vantage point. Everyone who was anything in the Enchanted Forest had gathered here—and there were a lot of people who had become friends with the royal couple in Storybrooke; commoners who now had regular access to the royal palace—Red, for one, who was engaged in animated conversation with an Asian woman with a sword strapped to her hip, and Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip, who were chatting with Prince Eric and Ariel under the lit canopy. Regina didn’t recognise many of the other guests who had spilled into the courtyard for a breath of fresh air, but every time she did recognise someone she had to fight her rising panic. She did not want to commit these atrocities before their eyes. She did not want them to think ill of her—not more than they already did now the war was back on, now she had betrayed them already. She jumped when the guard emerged seemingly out of nowhere.

“Prince Ali of Ababwa? The Queen and King have asked me to extend a welcome into their home. Please allow me to escort you to them so they may greet you personally.” The guard, an older male who had obviously organised more royal balls than this one and was used to dealing with royalty, stepped aside as the guards gently lowered the stretcher to the ground. She stood on shaking legs and stepped off. Sitting cross-legged on the pillows for so long had numbed her legs. The discomfort caused by pins and needles shooting down the appendages distracted her from her racing heart enough to nod haughtily and follow the male into the sea of people.

“Prince Ali of Ababwa, second son of Sultan Mustapha.” The trumpets cheered as the guard announced her arrival, and all eyes turned to her—an unknown Prince in the Enchanted Kingdom, an exotic novelty from Agrabah. They were instantly intrigued, and Regina was once more reminded of why she had never belonged in these circles. She hadn’t grown up in this world, her world had been horses and lower royalty if anything—and she had never enjoyed it. Being forced into this world didn’t rev up her anger, though. Instead, the feeling of dread settled more heavily in her gut. She felt so young again, wishing she could run away from all her troubles. History had taught her that was impossible, though, and so she walked.

The people parted for her and her muscular guards in puffy red satin pants. Their eyes tracked her as she channelled the Evil Queen’s confidence into her walk. A front, a last-ditch effort not to crumble and loose her nerve. Being watched was something she was used to, but it was different now; instead of making her feel powerful, she felt infinitely smaller because of it. She felt as if they could read her shame through sun-kissed skin, could look beyond the features of a strapping young man and see the trapped woman hiding. If only they could see, she thought. There would be no one left to protect Henry and Emma if she was executed for treason, but at least she wouldn’t have to carry the guilt. If she was braver, she would end things herself, but she wasn’t. She had never been that strong. She also did not trust Snow and David to believe her, and so she walked and prayed for something—anything—to prevent what was about to happen from happening.

Snow and David stood before their respective thrones, smiling down at her curiously as she strode forward. She kept her eyes on them, fought to take step after step and ignore everyone else around her. If she could just focus on Snow and David, if she could just tell herself that they would gladly sacrifice themselves to save Emma and Henry, she would be okay. Still, the acid spread in her gut. She swallowed heavily and forced herself to stop thinking. It did not make her feel better.

As she walked, her throat went dry and she fought tears. She hoped her disguise would hide her inner turmoil. She walked as her heart pounded and her sweaty hands tried not to fidget with the box. Time slowed as she walked and met Snow’s eye. The woman regarded her with mild curiosity, completely unaware of the coming danger, and Regina wanted to shake her for being so naive. Snow could prevent all of this, if only she was more aware of what was going on around her. It was all Snow’s fault this was about to happen. It was Snow’s fault. It was Snow’s fault. It was all Snow’s fault.

Something red flashed to Regina’s left, the twirling of fabric, a touch of gold. Regina’s eyes were drawn to the movement instantly, shaking her out of her desperate mantra. Ten paces from the thrones, Regina fell still, struck by the vision of Emma Swan joining her parents on the raised stones so she could get a better view of their visitor. She watched as Emma levelled curious green eyes with hers and felt her heart plummet and shoot up to her throat at the same time. She managed to contain the desperate sob that threatened to claw up her throat, managed to hold in the reverent uttering of Emma’s name, and she even managed not to frantically scan the crowd for her son. She couldn’t move, though. That ability had left her as she was confronted with the vision of the woman who had taken up equal amounts of space in her mind as Henry had.

Her mind raced as she stood frozen to the spot, struck by the sudden appearance of the woman whom she had not only thought she would never see again, but whose parents she was on the verge of killing—or at least seriously harming. She had forgotten what staring into Emma’s eyes did to her, how minimal the distance between them always became, even if they were the length of a room away from each other. How had she not realized her feelings for the blonde before? How had they remained so distant despite the warmth that spread through Regina’s frame, no doubt covering her cheeks. Perhaps, she realized, her feelings for the blonde were exactly the reason they had remained distant. They overwhelmed her now, crashing down on her and making her dizzy. For a second that stretched on forever, Regina forgot about everything but bright green.

A murmur rose up in the crowd as a blush crawled up Emma’s cheeks and Snow glanced between the handsome prince in her courtroom and her daughter. David cleared his throat, and Regina felt the spell that had bound her fall away. Reality hit her with such force that she found herself gripping the box tight enough to whiten her knuckles. It couldn’t really be Emma. It was impossible. Emma was in New York, she was being watched over by Walsh. She must be seeing things, imagining… or someone was impersonating Emma like she was impersonating the Prince. A test Selena had set out for her, perhaps? A trap? By the Gods, what if it was a trap?

“Prince Ali…?” Snow’s voice was soft and lightly amused, and Regina’s eyes flashed to her. She fumbled with her thoughts, tried to get a grip on them, and urged her feet to move again. Act normal, get a hold of yourself. The mission, focus on the mission.

“I-I apologize for my behaviour.” Regina remembered to deepen her voice and add her practiced accent. She rushed forward, covering the distance between her the throne in quick steps the guards had to hurry to catch up with. She bowed deeply, finally remembering the box in her hands. If this was a test and she did not give the box to Snow and David, Zelena would know—the blonde still staring intently at her might actually be the Wicked Witch, Regina realized—but if this was not that kind of test and the box did contain a spell or object that would cause the death of the King and Queen, Emma would have to watch her parents die. She might even die herself. Regina swallowed and once more fought the urge to run.

“That’s alright.” There was a twinkle in Snow’s eyes, and David just looked confused as Regina straightened out. She fought looking over to Emma, but her self-control didn’t last. Once more, she took in the blonde, and if it was a disguise, it was a very, very good one. Emma looked exactly like Regina remembered her, but in a dress. Regina was fairly certain that part was a first for her. Regina would have remembered Emma in a form-fitting red garment that put her lily white breasts proudly on display. Her hair had been done up in an elaborate do that Regina wished to undo with shaking hands. The blonde smiled and dipped her head a little, and Regina felt something flutter in her stomach. The feelings that had overtaken her as they had said goodbye at the town’s edge returned ten-fold, aided by how frayed her nerves had already been.

“You… had something for us?” Snow’s voice was fully amused as she offered Regina a chance to regain her composure. Regina’s eyes flew back to her. She didn’t get a chance to think about her answer before she blurted it out.

“No!” The force with which the word left her throat caused a chuckle to rise up from the crowd, and Regina took a steadying breath. This was not going according to plan—at all. She was clutching the jewellery box to her chest now, and David’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Relief flooded her system, taking her breath form her once more. It was done. Whatever happened now would happen. If it was a trap, she had fallen for it, but she was not going to give Snow White the box. “No. It is not worthy enough to be given to a queen of such beauty, and I did not bring a gift for…?”

“Emma. This is our daughter Emma. She arrived just this morning from a… faraway Kingdom after being away for a long, long time.” Snow instinctively reached out to the woman next to her—a mother reunited with the daughter she had thought lost. Emma smiled indulgently, if not with a bit of reserve. Her eyes never left Regina’s disguised form, though, and her gaze burned.

“…for Princess Emma, then.” Regina’s voice almost broke over the utterance of the blonde’s name, but she managed to hold it together as she passed the box off to one of her stoic guards. “Please, forgive me my failure to present myself as a good guest in your lovely home.”

She couldn’t do it. If there was even a chance that this was the real Emma, that she was really here, then that meant that Henry was here as well and she had no one left to protect. She was not going to commit murder or another atrocity if there was even a chance she did not have to. Seconds ticked away as she waited for Emma to transform into Zelena, or for something else to indicate she was now in danger, but Snow just regarded her intently a moment, then smiled.

“There is nothing to forgive, Prince Ali. You grace us with your presence, with or without a gift. I heard you are on a journey? You had not planned to attend a ball, so we understand you don’t have a gift for us, right David?” David hummed. “ So, really, just… mingle and relax, please. Should you need a place to spend the night, you and your guards are very welcome here.”

As always Snow was courteous and slightly awkward, her voice playing at amusement, and all Regina could think as her heart rate slowly levelled out was that Snow had no idea how close she had come to dying. Emma remained silent, regarding her with an unreadable face. The blush had faded, as had the smile, but her gaze was open and she looked intrigued. It was hard not to fixate on her, Regina found, and even harder not to drown in the need to believe that it was really Emma.

“Thank you.” She didn’t manage more than a whisper and hoped her former step-daughter would interpret the relief in her voice as Ali’s relief over a defused social faux-pas. Snow nodded, and with that, the crowd fell apart, chatting amongst themselves, while Regina still stood unmoving. She was quickly absorbed in the throng of partygoers, the same throng of people that swallowed Emma as she disappeared into the crowd. Regina tracked her until she passed behind a pillar and Regina lost her.

“You seem quite captivated with my daughter, Prince Ali.” Regina whirled around and came face to face with a squinting David, who had puffed himself up to his full height. Regina’s frayed mind struggled to catch up to current events—and then realized that in David’s eyes, she was a young man who had just faltered the moment he had laid eyes on Emma Swan.

“I-I… She…” What could she say to this? She felt a blush rise to her cheeks regardless of the fact that David had the wrong idea about the situation—right?—and wished the ground would swallow her whole. This whole evening had turned into a confusing disaster, and she needed time to herself, time to regroup and figure out a plan. She needed to find out if Emma was really Emma, if Henry was here as well, and if they were here—if they were safe—then she needed to turn the tables on her sister and break free of her once and for all. David’s hand landed on her shoulder, and the barest hint of a smile touched the corner of his mouth.

“Emma is her own woman and she has a mind of her own, so I wish you luck, but any man who looks at my girl like she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen is okay in my book.” David squeezed her shoulder and Regina’s heart sped to a gallop, blushing even harder. This was not at all going according to plan, she decided. David was basically giving her—him—his blessing to pursue his daughter and it was entirely too much today. For a day that had started with the sure knowledge that Snow White would be dead or otherwise hurt by the end of it, to be given a father’s blessing to pursue his daughter instead was simply too much of a discrepancy to entertain—especially because it wasn’t a blessing meant for her but for the handsome Prince she was imitating.

One more squeeze and he was gone, leaving her struggling to find words to reply long after he was gone. It took a moment, but then Regina realized that if David—and by extension, Snow—were alright with Ali pursuing his daughter, it would actually be easy enough to get close to her—if Emma was even remotely interested in Ali, of course. Regina wondered if it also meant that the two parents did not know about Walsh and the proposal Zelena had gloatingly told her would be coming soon. She hadn’t spotted a ring on Emma’s finger, but that didn’t mean anything. Suddenly fearful, Regina ran her eyes over the faces in the crowd, wondering if Walsh was here too. No, if David didn’t know about him, he couldn’t be. She relaxed a fraction.

“You four, go. Leave. Wait on the hill, I will join you shortly.” The guards bowed lightly and pushed through the crowd, disappearing and leaving Regina alone. Even though the men worked for her, a weight still fell off of her. The guards reminded her of Zelena, of being watched and held prisoner. Without them, she felt freer to move around, and hopefully discover the truth about Emma and her miraculous appearance in the Enchanted Forest. They would undoubtedly tell Zelena she had failed in executing the plan once they returned to her, but with the twists and turns of this night, Regina was hopeful she would return to Zelena with the ability to retaliate. If Emma and Henry were here, safe, then she had no reason to obey her sister anymore. She could have allies. Allies, such a hopeful word.

Clearing her throat, Regina finally turned around, scanning the crowd for the only two people who had her interest now: Emma, and Henry. Henry was nowhere to be found, but after a few minutes of wondering and dodging other guests, she spotted Emma as she entered the hall from the terrace outside. She really looked a vision in her bright red dress, her hair slightly curly and full of bounce. Regina remembered vividly the first moment she had laid eyes on the blonde, outside of her home in storybrooke. She had been awestruck then, and that had never truly faded. There was something spellbinding about the blonde, about the strength she exuded along with a vulnerability born of a hard life. Regina watched her as she moved through the crowd, beaming whenever someone spoke to her, but whenever Emma thought she wasn’t being watched, the smile faded for worry.

Regina allowed the crowd to swallow her as she kept her eyes on the blonde, observing her mannerisms, the way she moved, the way she spoke. It had to be Emma, Regina concluded—or someone who knew her intimately enough to portray her so very well. Again, Regina thought of Walsh, but the monkey boy didn’t strike her as capable enough to pull it off. Regina had spent years observing the blonde. First out of a fearful hatred that had urged her to learn all about her nemesis that she could, but she had soon become intrigued by the tough woman who was so fragile emotionally. There were many parallels between them, and in the few moments they had truly gotten beyond the animosity between them, Regina had found in Emma a woman who truly understood her. And she understood Emma in return: she understood putting up a front to shelter your fragile heart, she understood wrecking all that was good in your life. Regina understood pushing away the people you loved.

Emma mixed and mingled, and from a secluded corner, Regina watched her, hoping to catch a glimpse of a young boy with brown hair who she missed so desperately. He never appeared. Instead, Emma became aware of her. Across the distance of the ballroom, Emma caught her eye, and she smiled. Regina quickly turned away, hiding her interest, but by the fourth time Emma caught her, she realized she needed to move, that no one was helped by this stale-mate where Regina was too overcome to move, and Emma… well, who knew what Emma was thinking?

As a slow waltz came on, Regina gathered her courage and strength and pushed through the crowd to a point where she could intercept the blonde, appearing before her on her path with a nervous smile that was not at all feigned. Making contact with the blonde felt like another turning point. Like with the jewellery box and her split-second decision not to give it to Snow White, engaging Emma in conversation meant that she would open herself up to either the reality of her existence in the Enchanted Forest, or the shattering of her hope. It were Emma’s eyes—again—that soothed and skyrocketed her nerves. The way they met hers and seemed to look straight through her was both steadying and deeply unsettling, and it was something only the real Emma could do to her—right?

“Princess Emma,” she spoke quietly. She bowed lightly, trying to remember she was a confident male prince talking to a beautiful princess. Emma’s eyes traversed her body, and Regina struggled to remember that Emma wouldn’t be able to see past the disguise. Emma was looking at a man with a sparkly red and gold vest over a bare, well shapen torso and matching harem pants and loafers. She was seeing short dark hair in Regina’s own colour and skin slightly darker Regina had been born with. Emma was seeing Prince Ali, not her, but as green eyes met and held hers again, she did not find the thought of her disguise comforting. There were so many memories attached to that stare… “Would you perhaps do me the honour of a dance?”

A second passed, then another. Emma didn’t speak, nor released her gaze. “Yeah, sure. I’m not exactly good at it, though.” There was an amused warning on her voice, and Regina found herself smiling involuntarily. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as she reached out her hand and Emma took it. Heat shot through her system at the touch. It felt real, Emma’s warm skin against hers. It reminded her of the town line, of saying goodbye to her, and she held on a little tighter at the memory of it. She needed Emma to be real, needed to have hope—something so very rare in her life these days.

“I believe I know the steps.” She managed to make the words sound light as she pulled Emma along onto the dance floor. For an awkward moment, they found themselves standing opposite each other, then Regina remembered she was posing as a male and carefully reached out to lay her hand softly on Emma’s hip. A shiver coursed through her body, and Emma pressed into the soft touch, connecting them more fully. As they locked eyes, Regina stepped forward and slid her hand over Emma’s dress to settle against her lower back as she lay her other on Emma's upper arm. She swallowed as the blonde licked her lips. They were so close now, close enough to feel each other’s breath ghost over their faces. Regina pulled Emma in a little more and whispered over the music. “Just let me lead you.”

Emma settled her body against Regina’s a tad awkwardly, but she still fitted against her like they had never known differently. It wasn’t her body Emma was feeling, Regina reminded herself, but Regina was acutely aware of a soft skin as her hand slid upon it, and breasts that brushed her own as Regina pulled her against her a moment to ready their stances. Regina felt another hugely humiliating blush crawl onto skin she hoped was naturally capable of covering it. Emma cleared her throat, then smiled, and once more, Regina returned the gesture as her eyes scanned the green so close to her—closer than they had ever been. Involuntarily, Regina pulled Emma a little closer, relishing the feel of strong muscles and warm skin. It felt real, and as she counted down to their first paces and manoeuvred Emma along her body, she realized she desperately needed Emma to be real. She needed this to be real.

Under Regina’s guidance they fell in with the rest of the dancers, even though Regina barely noticed anyone but the blonde. Within seconds it became clear that Emma was either a very bad dancer or she really didn’t know the steps. Regina counted under her breath, helping Emma keep her rhythm as she pushed at her hip or stepped away with enough physical warning for Emma to follow her. The dance had been a means to an end, a way to get Emma alone, to question her and see if it was really her, but Regina found herself spellbound by tumbling curls, by feet that stepped on hers every other step, by laughter that covered apologies and two hands that held on to her tightly as the only way to remain standing. She forgot about her mission to discover, settling for the potential delusion because being near the blonde after a year of torterous emotions and fear for the woman's safety was more than she had ever thought she'd have. She was too overwhelmed to do anything but revel.

By the third song, Regina could no longer see the woman in her arms as anyone other than her Emma, as the woman she had come to see as family. The woman in her arms—the woman who fitted so naturally against her while she really shouldn’t, while they should keep the distance they had always kept just so they could maintain the status quo—had to be her Emma. The way she moved with just that hint of insecurity now she was out of her element, the way she subconsciously resisted being directed by Regina’s strong hands, the way her head tilted and how she smiled in that stunted but deeply emotive way... Regina swallowed heavily, overcome by the desire for this moment to never end now she slowly begun to lower her defences.

It took Regina minutes to realize why she was so affected—as always, being with Emma made her feel alive. For the first time in more than a year, Regina felt hopeful, felt light. With Emma came the promise of Henry, and if the two of them were safe, there would be no more war. Perhaps Emma would listen as she explained that it hadn’t been her decision but Zelena’s. Perhaps now Emma was here, everything would be alright. Hope was a powerful drug and she used it to excuse why—as Emma clung to her shoulder, laughing—she felt lightheaded, and then, when Emma slowed then halted and observed her, her stomach clenched nervously, afraid to break the moment.

She still held Emma’s upper arm, still held the blonde close with a hand that burned wherever it touched skin. Emma’s borrowed perfume—she recognised Snow’s scent everywhere after being exposed to it for twenty-nine years in Storybrooke--mingled with the barest hint of sweat and freshly cut fabric filled her nostrils. Emma’s hands on her shoulder and hip gave her shivers. Her entire world had been reduced to a two-syllable word: Emma. They stood silently opposite each other, searching each other’s eyes. They hadn’t exchanged more than apologies and reassurances during their entire dance, and Regina wondered if she should speak now Emma had stopped them.

Without the dance as an excuse, there was just silence, but Regina found herself wishing to fill it not with words but with actions. She hesitantly slid her hand from Emma’s arm to her cheek, brushing a perfect curl away from it and behind the blonde’s ear. For a moment she truly contemplated closing the minimal distance between them and tasting soft lips. Emma’s eyes flickered to her lips as if she had the same idea, but Regina knew she was hiding her identity, she knew who she appeared as to Emma. No matter her pounding heart and Emma’s quickening breath, she couldn’t kiss the blonde. It wouldn’t be right.

“I know who you are, Regina.”

Emma whispered the words into the minimal space between them, and Regina’s heart skipped a beat, then sprung to a gallop as panic flooded her system. How could Emma know? It was impossible. Cimpletely impossible. She dropped her hand and stepped away a little. It was a chance to breath—as if fresh air came rushing back now there was distance. It cleared her mind enough to fully panic. She felt entirely shaken, and even more so when Emma reached out and took her hand. Emma searched her face, then pulled at the hand as she set herself in motion. Regina let herself be dragged off of the dance floor and outside into the crisp night’s air, aware of how her heart was beating in her throat. She thought about denying the accusation, about hiding behind a mask for a little longer, but one look at their joined hands and Regina surrendered to the inevitable.

“What gave it away?” It was almost impossible to form words, but it was easier now she didn’t have to bend her voice. Soon they left the people and lights behind and stepped onto the grass of the palace gardens. Regina let herself be pulled along by the arm willingly. She might be terrified of what was to come, but Emma had not called the guards, and she did not seem afraid—apprehensive, perhaps, but not afraid.

“Your eyes, and your voice, I think, but mostly I saw ‘Aladdin’ a gazillion times growing up and while you are no street-rat, I would recognise that name anywhere.” Emma’s voice sounded amused but she wasn’t smiling. She finally let go of the hand she had dragged Regina along by and simply walked next to her. They headed for the nearest path and walked it, the gravel gritting under their feet. Regina had been here once, as a child. The gardens had been better maintained then, and she remembered roses. Currently the gardens were recovering from years and years of neglect. Not even a year in capable hands had been able to fill the voided left by trees and bushes that had obviously been beyond saving.

“I’m sorry, Aladdin?” Regina was genuinely confused, and although it was not the most pressing of her questions, it was the most intriguing one.

“Disney movie, like ‘Mulan’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’. The prince you chose? He gets impersonated by the main character.” Emma explained herself a tad impatiently, and Regina realized she shouldn’t linger too long on this. Emma had brought her here for a reason—a chance—and it was time to get to it.

“Henry, is he here as well?”

“Yes, Hook came to get us in New York, and he’s watching him now. I didn’t want to confuse him; Hook gave me a potion to remember, but there was just one dose. Henry doesn’t remember, well, what you made us forget and once I got back and found out about… well… what has been going on… I haven’t told him about you yet. I didn’t want him to hear about you from anyone else.” The fire had returned to Emma’s eyes, although it was mixed with a great variety of emotion.

“Because I went dark.” It was a difficult thing to say.

“Exactly. So, why did you?” The hardness was back now, and it was painful. Emma pulled to a halt and she did as well. They were alone, Regina realized; far from the party. Emma licked her lips, keeping their eyes firmly locked, and Regina swallowed heavily. She had no idea why Emma wasn’t running for the hills, but here they were. The silence stretched out between them, and Regina knew that it was her move now. With a flick of her wrist, the handsome prince fell away and she was left in very un-queenlike travel wear, leather riding pants and boots, a soft leather corset. Emma took a step back and a guardedness came to her eyes now she was confronted with the Evil Queen once more. Knowing and seeing were two different things, it seemed.

“Zelena, my sister.” Regina sighed and wrapped her hands around her midriff subconsciously.

“You have a sister?” Emma looked incredulous, and Regina couldn’t blame her. She smiled softly and nodded.

“Apparently so. Unfortunately, she takes after our mother.” The dark amusement in her voice had Emma cringe a little. “She told me that if I didn’t do what she instructed—fight a war, distract the Kingdom while she gathered ingredients for a spell—she would harm Henry… she would harm you. I-I couldn’t let her do that.”

Moment of truth: If Emma didn’t believe her, it was all over. They would be on opposite sides of this thing until it played out—and it would destroy them both. Emma searched her eyes, her face, then nodded silently.

“I believe you.”

“Even though you know what I did before...?”

“You’re not the Evil Queen anymore—you haven’t been for a long time. My superpower may not be perfect, but with you, Regina, I always know when you’re lying—and this time, you’re not.”

“Thank you.” Emma smiled at her, nodded, and stepped closer again. Regina dipped her head, attempting to cover the tears that threatened to fall. She was overwhelmed, unable to fully understand why and how she was being granted this level of trust, but it meant more to her than she was willing to admit. Especially because it was Emma.

How long had Emma’s acceptance affected her so, she wondered? Was it a recent development, born out of worrying about Emma’s well-being for so long and feeling connected? Was it the history they shared? That time when she had thought Emma was in love with her because their touch had activated Jefferson’s hat and had opened a portal to the Enchanted Forest? It had been a short-lived delusion, of course, but Regina knew how much of an impact that false realization’d had on her susceptibility to her mother’s manipulations. Discovering Emma was most surely not in love with her had been such a blow that she had accepted the manipulative affection of her mother as a substitute. Tonight, under the moon-lit sky, not even the memory of that heart breaking pain could quell the emotions bubbling up inside of her.

“You’re welcome.” Emma smiled that cocky smile that Regina loved, and Regina met it in wonderment, taking in subtle lines on Emma’s skin, full lips, open eyes. The party felt even further away, the noise muffled by high hedges and flowerbeds. They were sheltered, cocooned, and it transported Regina back to the ballroom, to arms around her, to hands on Emma’s skin. She swallowed as she remembered the need to reach forward and kiss.

“When did you know?” She whispered the words into the dmly lit night. It was chilly out, but peaceful. It ran counter to everything inside of Regina, who feared that the hammering of her heart was loud enough for Emma to hear it. Emma grinned.

“Pretty much right away I knew something was wrong, that Prince Ali was not who he said he was. The name and then the way you looked at me when you first saw me; you were too shocked to simply be a prince from a faraway kingdom… I wasn’t sure until we danced…” Regina couldn’t be sure with the lack of light, but the way Emma dropped her gaze to the path below indicated a level of embarrassment that was usually accompanied with a blush. What had that dance been? Regina hadn’t been the only one affected, of that Regina was sure, but for Emma the year had not passed with Regina in the forefront of her mind. Emma had been in love with another.

“I saw you—” Regina reached out a bit hesitantly, fingers connecting lightly with Emma’s as they came up to meet her just like they had at the town line. “—and I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a trick, a test.”

“A test?” Emma gripped her hand as an encouragement.

“Zelena, she sent me here on a mission. The box I would not give to your mother… it’s cursed. I fear it would have killed her.” Emma’s hand jerked slightly, but she did not extract it as she searched Regina’s eyes and found in them a willingness to kill Snow White. “A trade… your parents cursed—possibly killed—but you and Henry safe and happy. Walsh—”

Now Emma did pull back her hand, and she briskly started walking again. Regina hurried to catch up with her, glancing about them a moment to see if anyone else had taken an interest in the garden. They hadn’t. Emma hadn’t pulled away while she had spoken of murdering Snow and David, but at the mention of Walsh. That wound was fresh, Regina realized.

“What happened to him?” She asked the question cautiously, trying not to intrude on an obviously personal subject.

“I stabbed him—sort of. I don’t think he’s dead; he disappeared. When he turned into that… flying monkey… I…” Emma fells silent, her gruff words trailing off as embarrassment and anger choked her.

“Then Zelena must know by now—that you are here, that you know.” Emma hummed stoically, deep in thought.

“I guess so…”

They fell silent, and Regina let her dark thoughts claim her—If Zelena knew then she would come for them. Regina couldn’t go back and fight this war from inside the Dark Palace. Zelena would come for them and without Regina to subtly work the Charmings, it would mean all-out war. No more distractions, no more facades: Zelena would claim Regina’s army, and she would march upon the Kingdom. Now she didn’t have to tread lightly, she would claim whatever items she needed, no matter the cost. Regina shuddered. Emma tilted her head up, inspecting her, and consciously or subconsciously pressed a little closer to her as they walked the paths with no particular direction in mind. It was strengthening to have her non-verbal support.

“You should talk to my parents, you know your sister best. I think it’s time for a PR campaign for you and some serious strategizing because your sister doesn’t sound like the type of woman to just give up now her leverage over you is gone.” Emma’s voice was soft, thoughtful.

“She is not,” Regina agreed. “Emma… your parents, the people—”

“They will believe you. If they don’t, I’ll be right there.” Emma’s words reassured her a little, and when Emma reached for her hand as they walked, Regina’s heart fluttered dangerously. She held on loosely, unable to fight her smile.

“Regina?”

“Hm?”

“Thank you.” Emma’s voice was soft, and she regarded her through a curtain of her hair. Regina furrowed her brow.

“For what?”

“For… for a lot of things. For giving me memories of Henry growing up, for giving us a good year together, for keeping us safe. It must have been hard—all of it—and I… I appreciate it.” Emma had difficulty getting the words out, but Regina understood the sentiment. She lightly squeezed the hand in hers and sighed.

“Emma, Henry… he’s my son. I would do anything for him. You know that. And this year, it has taught me a lot of things about myself—things I am not proud of but also things I am alright with. Thinks I think I always knew but didn’t want to admit to myself.” She swallowed heavily, wondering if she had the strength to say what she had been forced to admit to herself tonight. That she was—and had been for a long time—in love with Emma Swan.

“Regina, please… stop.” Emma sounded pained, sad. She didn’t release the hand in hers, however. She held on, letting their fingers interweave naturally. “These past few days, they have been… hard. Walsh—I did love him. I didn’t remember anything about before… about you, and Henry, and me. About how we were making it work. How we saved Henry.”

Emma didn’t look at her as she dropped her voice to barely above a whisper. Even though the words were spoken softly, they cut through Regina like knives, hurting but raising her hopes, regardless. “When you told Henry and I we had to leave, I realized I did not want to—not just because of my parents, but because of you. I looked into your eyes and for a moment I thought the curse was about me, that I was the thing you loved most.”

Emma didn’t sound done, she just trailed off, gathering her thoughts. Regina waited, thankful the darkness covered her blush, that a soft breeze set the leaves in motion and covered the pounding of her heart.

“I wanted to be the thing you loved most.”

Regina struggled to catch the whispered words, but once her mind belatedly pieced the sentence together, she pulled to a halt. Their connected hands caused Regina to stop Emma as well, and the blonde turned back reluctantly, not meeting her eyes.

“I know what you were going to say,” Emma continued before Regina could say anything. “I saw it in your eyes when we danced. I need time. Time to get used to the memories again, time to get used to you, here, and my feelings for you. There’ll be a war soon—there already is a war. Henry doesn’t have his memories, there is a lot of history between you and me, and you and my parents… so much to sort out. I just… I need time, okay? I need you to not say whatever it is you were going to say.” Emma sounded like she was fighting tears, and Regina nodded, swallowing back her own tears as she examined a curtain of curls.

“Okay,” She agreed. This was more than she had ever dared dream. She knew the obstacles, knew the history they both carried on their shoulders, and the uncertainties of the future. She could live with waiting, with letting Emma sort things out first. Her entire life had been turned up-side-down in a day, and it would become even more chaotic soon. For now, this conversation in the darkness was enough. “I can wait.”

Emma nodded. “Thank you.”

“Emma, for you, anything. May I say one thing, though? Then I promise I will give you the time you need.” Emma finally met her eyes, and Regina could see the path of tears light up in the light of the moon. She nodded uncertainly.

“The curse… ‘the thing I love most’… I thought it was just Henry, but over the course of a year, I realized that wasn’t true—that was too short-sighted. I am happiest when the three of us are together, when we are safe and not at each other’s throats. My family, that was what I had to give up: Henry, and you.” She smiled emotionally, unable to stop herself from reaching out and brushing another lock of hair from Emma’s cheek. Emma leaned into the motion, and Regina’s smile widened a bit, watching the blonde as her eyes closed on their own accord. She stepped closer, cupping Emma’s cheek, and Emma opened her eyes again. They regarded each other, openly, hopefully and Emma finally copied her smile.

“Family.” Emma whispered, and Regina nodded.

“Family.” Regina agreed. “No matter what happens next, with your parents, with Zelena… between us, even… you, Henry, and I will always be a family. I-I hope one day we will be connected through more than just Henry, that we will be more to each other than solely his mothers, but even if we never get there, I—”

Emma rushed forward, silencing her with a rough press of lips against hers. Regina started a moment, then sunk into the press, relaxing into the kiss that sent waves of heat over her skin. Warm and soft. Perfect. She gripped Emma’s hand and cheek harder, held her tighter against her. Emma’s free hand settled on Regina’s hip, and Regina pressed her body forward, melting into Emma’s form. It lasted a few, seemingly endless seconds, just a chaste press of lips. Emma pulled away as abruptly as she had leaned in but her hand remained on Regina’s hip, thumb running up and down slowly.

“I want to be more. I just need…”

“…time.”

“Time.” Emma agreed with a soft smile on her features.

“Alright, time.” Regina made the promise easily. With this kiss—a kiss that felt as forbidden as Daniel’s kisses had, a kiss that thrilled her equally. But she was older now, wiser. She was ready to fight for her love now. History would not repeat. She vowed that Zelena would not take this from her—with this shot at happiness, Regina was going to fight for it. She had survived her mother, she would survive Zelena. Emma finally—regrettably—stepped back. Their hands remained linked.

“Perhaps you should transform again. We’ll find my parents; we’ll talk. After that, we’ll introduce Henry to you, and tomorrow… tomorrow we go to war.” Emma moulded her voice into neutral, getting a grip on her emotions for the sake of the mission ahead. She whipped her eyes carefully, making herself presentable. Regina sighed and allowed Emma to pull her forward again, now deliberately picking paths out of the darkness and towards the sounds of the ball. Emma’s words worried her, but she had something to fight for, the same thing she had fought for before: her family. Only now they would be at her side and she could actively fight for their safety.

“We’ll be alright.” Regina promised, and Emma observed her a moment, obviously trying to divine if Regina only referred to the war or also to them as a couple—maybe, one day. Regina squeezed Emma’s hand in reassurance. Both, she promised with the gesture. Definitely both.