Chapter 1: Prologue: That's The Deal
"Then, congratulations. You've won."
Snow brought it to her mouth, taking the bite before any hesitation could steal into her mind, heart or hand. Knowing there never would have been any, even as tears clouded her vision. The taste of the flesh so familiar, as she stared at her Stepmother's rapt face instead of the ruby fruit held within her own pale fingers.
She swallowed and, as she tried to breathe in, her chest constricted. The air stuck, with the apple, pain blossoming in a sudden sharp spasm across her lungs. The next breath didn't even make it down her throat, panic causing her eyes to tear, her chest to seize. Not through her lungs this time. Radiating from her heart. A tear falling down her cheek from so far away.
All of it as though through mud, through ice. She couldn't lower her arm, or tighten her grip on the apple in her hand. She'd only the seconds to realize that when her knees gave, and she fell, like an avalanche. Sudden and complete. The grey sky, the many colors of her Stepmother's dress, and the ocean of grass kelidoscoping across her vision.
The impact of her hip and then body against the ground like dead weight, the apple falling free from her fingers, as her eyes closed, like locking doors with a weight no ogre no touch. Leaving her in darkness. Endless, all-consuming darkness. Unable to blink, unable to shiver, unable to cry out as she fell down and down and down into the abyss's undertow.
Chapter 2: Haven't We Both Suffered Enough?
The darkness a rolling endlessness. Absolute.
Falling shapelessly through a shapeless tunnel.
Yet a maddening tingle still teased at her face. Her face? And her cheek. Her temple, the bridge of her nose, across the back of her hand, her prone fingers. She couldn't open her eyes, eyelids like slabs of the heaviest stone, but she could feel that. That, there.
Her own hair brushing against her own skin. Then more. The wind riffling through her hair, across her head, running like fingers through it, and pulling at her cloak, there. At her shoulders, across her arm and back where it must have fallen. The waving leaves of grass blowing against her open fingers, crushed between the back of her hand and the solid ground.
Everything else was silence. Silence, stillness and shots of sensation. She could not even panic. Her chest and all of her body still as the grave. Dead, but not dead. A slither of sound from somewhere nearby, a great rustle of something heavy moving on the grass, sounded like a great snake.
Was that her Stepmother, the long train of her skirts dragging on the ground? Or was she long gone now? Was it an animal? When was now? Where was she? Was her body left to lay where it had fallen? What would become of it? Become of her now? What had her Stepmother said of this?
with nothing but dreams formed of your own regrets.
How precious everything seemed suddenly from the greatest to the smallest. Charming. Her Friends. The ability to take in a single breath, to look up and see the sky. But not only those. Everything. Everything unconsidered. Unknown. Her heart, an unbeating rock in the tomb of her chest, still prickled over with the ice of grief and confusion. Daniel.
A face in the cloudy shadows of memories more than ten year back. Of old childhood grief and the beginning brilliant hopes she could never have known would be so dashed. She could hardly remember the shape of him in the dim of the stables that night. She'd never heard his voice. Never spoken to him.
All she'd known of him was by his presence in that one great moment of shocked, by Regina's Love in the conversation when she'd given pursuit, and then by his absence barely two days later when he'd run away. No. When he'd been killed by Lady Cora. Had his heart ripped out in front of Regina.
She regretted never knowing. She regretted so many things when it came to her Stepmother. She regretted that she had not been older earlier than time would have allowed. Old enough to see her grief. Old enough to see her madness. Regretted pleading moments ago with the woman she'd blindly adored for long once, who'd punished her for over a decade, not for saving her life, but for a death she'd not known of until so shortly ago.
How that blind emotion still pierced through her, even now, years into bitter betrayal.
Would it end here? Could it end here? Lady Cora was long gone. Her father was long gone. She dwelt inside the tomb of herself. All of them collateral. All of them pieces on the chess board picked off one by one by the woman who had done nothing to rid herself of the moniker The Evil Queen, from the moment she had usurped an entire kingdom.
She regretted that she would never live to see if it might end now. She regretted that even now, when her nausea was tiding to turn into a maddening overwhelm, when her stomach was sawdust and dreams more than life, her mind filled with apples. Her Stepmother's prized tree in the Royal Gardens. The story of it gifted from her father. Dishes that were made when it came into season, bowls of apples on the table displaying them.
How in the early years, they'd always been there, and then faded, as years went by, to never be seen again. Until now.
She regretted that like the sharp silver dagger and the Huntsman, with his grave bitterness and confused tears after reading her letter, that she would have bitten the apple, again, now, hesitationless, if there was the slightest chance it might matter, might bring peace into the future of her Father's people.
"We got her, Daniel."
A voice. Spoken, disjointed through her thoughts. As disembodied as her every though. A black ribbon running through the endless abyss, where the wind and the grass and the still emptiness layered themselves like overlapping, suffocating, walls. Regina. Her Stepmother. The Evil Queen.
The voice that had lasted the longest in her life, from her earliest until now. Her last parent.
The woman to murder her father, outlaw her, hunt her down, and threaten her into this.
Still close by, but far enough she could only catch a word here and there in the wind, soft whispers in the unfathomable distance of the darkness, spoken to a grave as remote as her fallen body, where it lay choked by the regret that she did not believe that this act would change the current reign, or woman, in the slightest.
Chapter 3: You're Too Noble for Your Own Good.
The slithering sound, the great rustle of the heaviest, most well-made skirt fabrics, had come and gone. Leaving her untouched, unmoved, abandoned by her Stepmother one last time. A fallen body, left to the ravages of Daniel's small mountain. How close they lay now, unable to breathe, unable to speak, together, unknowing of each other. Twined forever in a madness started right here, that would rest and rot right here.
She regretted the terror that built in her as wondered when it was now. Would she be found by something wild in the night? And if she was, would she feel herself die, unable to struggle? Every emotion like an new ocean of onslaught assailing her from all sides in the endless darkness, endless cavern. Only her thoughts, only her memories, only her regrets.
But somewhere, somewhere Charming was alive, Charming would be free. He would
"She's over here!"
If her heart could choke the way her lungs, her throat, her body has, it would now. As Happy's voice called out, casting out the wuthering wind through the grass. Other voices joined his, a company of sounds, like a symphony, layering so fast, so confused and scared, that they become a screaming cacophony she can't pick out at first. Until her stillness, even when she feels her body shaken. It flops back under no control, which leads closer and closer to back to utter silence.
To the arrival of others. She can hear the running footsteps, the flapping of the great well known cloak.
"I found her laying her like this. Is she -- "
"Granny, give me your dagger."
Her precious friends. The rock in her chest cannot turn over for them. For Red and Granny and The Seven Dwarfs. For the stricken sensation of everything she has lost. They are all within inches, all the people who have saved her life, countless times, all the people who have sacrificed, who have felt the sting of protecting her, and she cannot reach out. She cannot explain that she is right here, that she hears them, every word.
"Maybe she's just sleeping."
She regretted that she couldn't comfort them, as their desperation wore thin as the wind in Red and Grumpy and Sleepy's voices. She regretted that she couldn't tell them why, regretted that she couldn't tell them it was worthwhile, that she would do it again. That some part of her, so small it threatens to eat her whole, is terrified of being alone, after being held so tightly and so warmly by all of them through the bitter cold of her last few years, regrets the biting fear of this future, regrets making one of the choices on this path.
I love each and every one of you,
but this is something I have to do. Alone.
She doesn't regret the saving of a life, a life her life could not be lived without, but she regrets them. Regrets that she did not bring them with her. Regrets that Charming was not in King George's castle. Regrets that no one ever knew about Daniel, will know about him even now, has likely even looked to his grave feet from her. Regrets that she did not bring them, even when her heart, whatever it is, wherever it is, that is not the dead rock, rages with a painful spike, that she will not regret that they did not watch her fall.
Regrets that they all would have understood, would have known she'd have done it, even if they were there, even if they were watching. They assailed a castle to help her save Charming. They have watched her assail her entire future to save him, too. Because they know her, because they have loved her. Against the ocean drinking her dry, only to drown her again, she regrets that she did not tell them each every cent of what was in her heart for them, each of them apart and specific, so special to her.
She regrets, as she feels the cold of sharp metal rest beneath her nose and above her lip, blade twisting slightly, waiting, watching, that she would never again see Red's flippant smile. Never watch her go the end of her healing, to the place where maybe she will find love again. Might forgive herself for Peter, and her Granny for loving her imperfectly but with all her heart. That they will never have children that play together, or another adventure in the deep forest, another meeting in the spring. There would be no more teasing, no more learning, not more laughter even in the darkest, most needing moments.
That she could never crinkle her nose and tell Red she'd never look at an apple the same way again, and have her hand squeezed in a way that said she was perfectly understood.
"She has no breath. She's gone. She sacrificed herself, for true love."
That she would not be there when Red had mastered The Wolf entirely, to beam with such pride next to her Granny. Instead of beat with insane grief and anger on the endless darkness against the agony of denial and inability to deny in the voice that trembles above her. That voice that thinks her lost entirely. That she is lost entirely from them.
From Red with her unquenchable lust for life, and her Granny with her spine made of steel, who could survive anything. From Grumpy and his indomitable will that hid beneath such a sneer a great heart, splintered to shatter, but still so true.
From Dopey whose hat always needed adjusting, and Sleepy whom she was always tucking pillows under, and Doc who needed to have his glass pulled off gently when fell asleep holding books long into the night. From Bashful with his quiet helping, and the calm that radiated from Sneezy with the house was a safe abode for him, and the way Happy went out of his way to make things easier on everyone simple because he could.
"She sacrificed herself for all of us."
And Grumpy, Grumpy whose voice clogged her where she could not cry, could not drown, could only be utterly overcome with anguish, that beat on like an unassailable storm, as he snapped to correct Red. Regretted that it was true, that she was so well known she could hear hearts breaking in the silence above her. That like Regina and the Huntsman's dagger, when she would have chosen her murder to save her father's people, like her heart had shuddered when she said Charming would die, Regina could have named any of them.
Maybe she wouldn't have drunk a potion to forget them, as they came into and out of her life, like seasons and columns and miracles, never forgotten of her heart. But she would have bitten an apple to save the lives of each the people standing above her. With the same lack of hesitation. For all that they were, for all that they'd done for her, she would have bitten it and fallen like this, all the same. All for gratitude, all for recompense, all for selflessness, all for love.
Chapter 4: I Would Rather Die...
The grief of their presence, the grief of their grief, is overwhelming. Filling her nye constantly with the desperate urge to cry, that bloats and bloats, growing larger and larger, but her eyes cannot sting, her throat cannot catch, her tears cannot fall. She can only drown. They whistle as they work on their task. A glass coffin to hold her body forever, too beautiful to even be buried in the ground. Its own curse, its own miracle.
She can hear the movements and clatter of the tools. The small grunts of work. She knows by the way they breathe and the sounds as they finish pieces, what is happening not too far from her. A whimpered heavy sigh followed by a sneeze as something is sawed free is Dopey and Sneezy to her far left. Happy's voice, low and somber, anything but his name, telling them where to wrap the root-work. The whistling goes on, and it is the torrent of their work, the torrent of her great pain. Because soon it will all be gone.
Soon they will go. Taking their maddening comfort, their well known tune, and leaving her in silence alone, forever. Then it will only be her, her tomb, and the glass coffin. Their slow steady work, without breaks, breaks her heart, but it is the whistling that makes her want to break most. It fills her with each new drop of regret. That she will never see their faces again. That she will never tell them all that was in her heart, gratitude unmeasured for saving her when she was lost, not once, but twice. From the world and from herself.
Without words she knows them by their touch even. The respectful steady hands of Doc, who checked her for the smallest signs of life, and then changed her out of her fur and leathers into a soft gown. The languid, slow touch to Sleepy as he crossed her arms, murmuring 'so she'll be comfortable.' The timid, gentle shake of Bashful's fingertips as he continued to brush early winter's slushy snow free from her face and hair. It is Grumpy only whom she knows by his absence.
He can angrily growl orders, and he can give her a castle of glass to hold her for eternity, but he cannot touch her. Not since they carried her here. He had lost so much already. She knows him only by his breath, in his nose and out his mouth, threatening to shudder but never allowed, somewhere feet above her, right as the glass monster swallows her whole. Each moment a regret for the grave hurt she's paid their grand kindness with now, too.
"You're too late. "
"I’m sorry. She’s gone."
She doesn't know how long it is before these blurry sounds, like words echoing through water, dribble toward her. They love her too well to put her in the ground, but she regrets how they've taken with themselves even the wind and the sounds of the forest, too. They mean to protect her, but they cut her off. How soon, soon, it will be as her Stepmother said, only her own thoughts and the dreams of her regrets.
From so far away she struggled to focus, from the mire, from the darkness, from the endless weight each new second, each new thought, each new regret, lends to an endless eternity of grains of sands left to add up. Voices like whispers through walls. The glass coffin, but something in her stirs still. As though her frozen heart could lurch, could demand. The voice that isn't Doc's or Grumpy's. The one that had followed, from further away, slowly and then suddenly closer like it was approaching through a tunnel.
"At least let me say goodbye."
Oh, Charming. If she could laugh and smile and sob, it would have all happened here. He was free. Somehow he was free. Her Stepmother had kept her word. Or he'd freed himself. But he was free. Alive, free, and so grief stricken in so few words. The pause that had followed before the sliding sound of the glass coffin being pulled back and the soft, whisper cold snowflakes found her cheeks again.
A sound less than a foot from her that had to be hands on the side of the coffin again. His hands. Charming's. Everything that was everything rested in that sound. In the regrets for him that clouded the lake of her still heart, her mind falling through the endless darkness of her thoughts, or what once was dreamt in only the most secret, sacred places.
I will find you. I will always find you.
They had been his words. Always his words, and the last words she'd shouted to him as he rolled away in the cage, blood dripping from her mouth. She regretted that she hadn't been unable to see them through. She had not found him. Only a mirror. Only her stepmother, the apple and this deal. Here he was, proving he had found her. Again. Not on the hill close to where she'd once been saved by her Stepmother, but deep into the heart of The Enchanted Forest where the dwarfs brought her to her last home.
She regretted that she couldn't see his blue, blue eyes. She regretted that she would never see his fawn hair turn silver. She regretted that she'd never meet his mother, the woman who could stand the mettle of King George and still bequeath rings that had earned his fierce loyalty. She regretted not holding out one day longer before drinking the potion. She regretted that this was how her dear friends and her Charming would meet, over her body, in grief.
She regretted that his path had to change now, and wondered where it might lead. Her heart, dead and still, screamed at the half formed notions of his life beyond this moment, this day. Whose hand would come to rest in his, once his heart accepted this terrible truth? Would he return to Abigail? Would he return here to her across the years? Would his children play in these woods? She regretted the loss of a life, any life, they might have one had, children, joy, the love that should have been more than a diamond, cold and eternal in her chest.
She regretted that she hadn't told him she loved him. Oh, he knew. She knew that. That Red had told him. That her actions had told him. That he'd argued that she did, that it was True Love, even when the potion had her saying she hadn't and didn't. But that she hadn't said it the forest, when her memory came back. That she hadn't said it to the mirror, with their hands against each other but a million miles apart.
That she hadn't said it in her own words. Regretted that in this moment, when his warm breath touched her lips and she knew, without needing to see, he would kiss her goodbye, the she could not tell him, that she loved him so greatly, beyond words and deeds, with every part of her heart and soul, that she would make the choice again, gladly sacrifice her world for him, bite into that same apple every day of the rest of her eternity, for his freedom, for his life, for his love.