“Red. Red, come on.”
She blinked fuzzily, fighting against the too-bright colors and the too-strong scents and the too-loud sounds. What is going on? There was a tug on her arm, and the urgency in the touch broke through the battery against her senses. She lurched forward, landing ankle-deep in untouched snow with a light crunch, losing her balance and falling to her hands and knees, feeling the icy chill soaking into her ungloved palms. A flash of bright red crossed her vision.
“Red, get up. We have to go.”
She finally placed the voice. “Mary?” she rasped against the metallic taste coating the back of her throat. She licked her lips. Her hands were stained crimson.
Oh god. Ohgodohgodohgod.
Gruff yells punctuated by the heavy thump of sturdy boots drifted in at the edges of her hearing, and she realized the sounds belonged to a hunting party.
Hunting the wolf.
She stumbled to her feet and ran, blind with panic.
The echo chased her through the forest (redredred), but she ignored the cry, drowning it in the pounding of her heart. Her cloak (red as the blood on her hands) flapped in the wind, catching on branches and forcing her pace to slow; she didn’t dare stop to take it off.
I’m the wolf. The wolf is me. I killed Peter.
She ducked a branch, leaped over a fallen tree, and kept running, heedless of distance or direction.
I want to die.
The first thing she heard was the chirp of a bluebird.
Red groaned, opening her eyes a crack and letting them adjust to the blinding reflection of sun on snow. Her entire body ached, she seemed to have spent the night laying on a tree root, and, judging by the sunlight, it was already late afternoon. She tried to sit up, and let out a small whimper of pain.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re awake,” Mary said, hurrying over to support her. “Are you alright?”
“Mostly,” Red winced, probing at the thick pad bandaged to her hip. “What—” Moon. Wolf. Blood. RUN. “How did you find me?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Mary admitted. “But your tracking lessons were very helpful.”
“The hunters?” Red asked, alarmed.
“Chasing false trails,” Mary answered. “They’re looking for wolves, not people.”
Red flinched, pulling her cloak tighter around her shoulders.
“Do you want me to redress your wound?” Mary asked, misreading the expression. “It looked like it was healing well, but I’m not sure if the silver—”
“Why are you here?” Red asked sharply.
“What?” Mary said, startled. “I thought—well, I suppose I could leave, if you want me too…?” she trailed off, unsure.
“That’s not what I meant!” Red bared her teeth, feeling dried blood flake off the corners of her lips, and caught a faint, fearful tremble in Mary’s knees. “Look what I did to Peter, you think I wouldn’t kill you in a heartbeat? I’m a monster!”
“You’re not a monster!” Mary said vehemently. “You can’t control the wolf, Red, you wouldn’t have done that if you could help it.”
“You can’t know—” Red staggered upright, leaning heavily against the tree.
“Yes,” Mary interrupted gently, reaching out to help her, “I can. I know you, Red. I trust you.”
“You shouldn’t.” Red jerked away, nearly losing her balance, and took a few shaky steps.
“But I do,” Mary said, letting her retreat. “Where are you going?”
“Away,” Red gritted out. “Where I can’t hurt anybody else.”
Mary watched her for a long moment. Then, “My name is Snow White.”
Red stopped in her tracks, thrown by the sudden shift in the conversation. “What does that have to do with—”
Then, she realized—
“Snow White?” she squeaked. “You mean—”
“We’re both fugitives,” the runaway princess smiled sadly. “We’ll last longer if we stick together, right?”
Red slumped, unable to argue with either the enormous amount of trust she had been offered or the tacit plea for help. Snow White had a price on her head, and was hunted in almost every kingdom. She would need a friend.
Whether by habit or arrangement, almost every inhabitant of their sleepy little town (not so sleepy anymore) had gathered at Granny’s diner by the time the royal couple made their appearance.
“We need a plan of attack,” King James said firmly as he settled at the bar and turned to address the rest of the room. “The Evil Queen doesn’t have the powers or resources she had before. We can end this threat right now.”
There was a murmur of agreement from his assembled subjects, packed into every available seat. Ruby put down two mugs of beer and almost retreated to the back room before Red remembered that she was a part of the war council, too. She had a right to be here.
“Hang on,” said Emma Swan. Red was surprised to see her at the gathering, despite her recent involvement in Storybrooke’s affairs. Emma hadn’t come from the Enchanted Forest, after all, and really had no reason to take an interest in its politics. “What exactly do you mean by ‘end the threat?’”
“We’re going to do her hair and paint her toenails,” Grumpy muttered, his customary bad temper making itself known. “What do you think he means, sister?”
“You’re going to kill her,” Emma said flatly. She wheeled to face Snow. “Mary Margaret, are you seriously going along with this?”
“Hey, show a little respect for the queen.” Contrary as usual, Grumpy jumped in once more. “She knows what she’s talking about. Unlike you,” he added snidely.
“I don’t know what I’m talking about?” Emma’s eyes narrowed. “No one in this town gave a second thought to challenging Regina until I showed up, and now you want to—”
“You don’t know her power—”
“Enough,” Snow said, standing. The room fell silent. “Emma is the one who broke the curse and restored our memories; at the very least, we owe it to her to listen to her opinion. But Grumpy’s right,” she added apologetically. “You weren’t—you only know Regina as the mayor, not as the Evil Queen.”
“Henry’s book,” Emma began.
“It’s not the same,” Snow answered. “I know living in this world wasn’t…ideal, but you weren’t cursed to live a timeless existence for twenty-eight years.” Snow swallowed, and Red caught the almost-imperceptible tremble in her voice. “She didn’t kill your father, or betray your trust, or send an entire kingdom to hunt you down like an animal—”
“No, she didn’t,” Emma conceded. “But as much as you want to make her pay, you have to know that two wrongs don’t make a right. We’re better than that,” she said earnestly. “Going after Regina now will only lead to trouble.”
“Trouble for her!” someone yelled out.
As shouts of agreement sounded throughout the room, Red watched the silent, oddly symmetrical battle of wills between Snow and Emma. It was too early to tell the outcome, but Emma would need some serious resolve to out-stubborn Snow. She was no longer a mild-mannered schoolteacher, and Red knew from experience that when Snow set her mind to it, she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
“Snow, please,” Red begged. “I don’t want to hurt you.” She cast a glance at the rapidly darkening sky, stained orange and pink on the horizon. It was almost moonrise—they were running out of time.
“Red, it’s okay,” Snow said soothingly. “I told you, the cloak is enchanted. As long as you don’t take it off, you won’t transform.”
“But what if?” Red insisted. She didn’t know whether it was a heightened sensitivity to her inner animal, or just her imagination, but her skin prickled all over, like something scratching to be let out. At Wolfstime, with the fresh scent of the forest strong in the wind, she wasn’t sure she would be able to resist. “Please.”
“Alright,” Snow conceded after a long moment. She picked up the coil of rope at Red’s feet. “How do you want to do this?”
When the knots were tied to her satisfaction, Red settled against the base of the tree to wait out the night.
“Remember,” she said, unable to resist reviewing the instructions again. “If the wolf gets loose, climb a tree, as high as you can. It won’t be able to follow.” She paused, watching Snow contemplate the web of rope around her wrists and ankles. “Snow. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” her friend said absently. “Red, do you trust me?”
“Of course I do,” Red answered, puzzled at the arbitrary inquiry.
“Then trust that this is for your own good.”
“What? No!” Red panicked as Snow reached out, untangling the velvet folds of her crimson cloak. “Stop! Snow, what are you—”
“The wolf is a part of you, Red, whether you like it or not. You can’t learn to live with it if you ignore it forever.”
“No!” Red tugged helplessly at the knots as Snow finally extricated the cloak, letting it drop to the ground.
“You can control it Red, I promise.”
The monster awoke, muscles stretching, jaw widening into a terrible fanged grin, as dark fur sprouted and eyes flashed a feral gold.
The last thing Red saw was her cloak, a bright splash of blood on the pale snow, like an omen of the carnage to follow.
Once again, it was the bluebird, letting out an annoyingly cheerful chirp, that awakened her.
Red sat up, wincing at the throbbing in her head, and took stock of her surroundings. The tree she was tied to looked rather worse for wear, stripped of its bark and covered in deep claw marks; the rope, though slightly frayed, had held, she noted with relief. She swallowed, tasting nothing but the usual morning dryness, and glanced down at her clean hands.
“Snow?” she called.
There was a sleepy mumble from somewhere behind her, and she turned to see Snow, sheltering against a boulder, wrapped in both cloaks for warmth. Red waited a moment, but her friend only shifted to a more comfortable position and returned to her slumber.
“Snow!” Red tried again.
“Hm?” This time she got a response. Snow stared at her through her lashes, clearly still half-asleep. “Red? What…” Suddenly, she was wide awake. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Red waited while Snow scrambled out of her makeshift bedding and began fumbling with the knots.
“I’m sorry, I would have untied you sooner, but I fell asleep,” she explained remorsefully. “Were you up long?”
“Not really,” Red answered, rubbing her hands together once they were free. “Nothing…happened, right?”
“No, nothing,” Snow said, neatly coiling the rope. “Why, don’t you remember?”
“No,” Red admitted.
“Oh,” Snow said, disappointed. “The wolf calmed down after an hour or so; I hoped that was your doing.”
“It wasn’t.” Red recalled the events that had led up to her transformation, and felt a flash of anger. “I can’t believe you did that!”
“What?” Snow asked, surprised and confused.
“Took off the cloak! I told you, I can’t control it! What if I’d gotten loose?”
“I would’ve climbed a tree, like you told me to.” Snow’s chin rose defiantly. “Besides, nothing happened.”
“This time!” Red corrected angrily. “You can’t just—just put people in danger like that! It’s my choice; I know my own limits!”
“No, you don’t,” Snow said. “You can’t know the wolf, because you fear it too much.” She crossed back to the boulder, picking up the red cloak and shaking it out. “And you’ll spend your entire life fearing it, never taking off this cloak, because you won’t believe in your own power.”
Red glared, and was about to reply, when Snow reached out and settled the cloak around her shoulders. The anger retreated, muffled but not eradicated.
“Is that better?”
Red looked away, feeling sick. If the wolf was strong enough to come out during the daytime, if she hadn’t known, if she’d accidentally crossed her limits because she’d been too afraid to test them…
“Yeah,” she said finally. “Okay. Let’s tame the beast.”
Red wished that she’d had the foresight to avoid serving alcohol.
“It’s not right!” Emma said heatedly, chair letting out a squeal of protest as she stood abruptly. “I will not allow anyone, royalty or not, to murder—”
“Now, now,” the Blue Fairy placated, “we’re talking about justice, not murder.”
“You want to kill her,” Emma hissed. “That’s not justice.”
“We are at war, Emma,” King James began.
“Are we?” Emma asked. “Are we really? Look around. We’ve beaten her already. We’ve won. How can you justify this?”
“This may be our only chance,” King James insisted. “Without magic, she has no power. She’s completely vulnerable.”
“Then what’s the point?” Emma demanded. “If she’s so helpless, why do you need to—to chain her to a tree and burn her at the stake?”
There was a burst of angry complaints, but Red still heard the haunting screams of a man condemned to death by the force of forged iron.
“Emma’s right,” she said loudly, surprising herself—and everybody else—by being the first to speak up in the sheriff’s defense. “It’s not justice, it’s an execution. I’ve killed enough, and I’m tired of it.”
Emma glanced at her, expression revealing gratitude and more than a little shock.
“Red…” Snow said sympathetically, perhaps reading the mixture of guilt, regret, and determination in her voice.
“You’re the last person I expected this from,” Grumpy scowled. “You saw what she did to Snow! To all of us!”
“Yes,” Red acknowledged. “But she’s fine now. I’ve seen worse. I’ve done worse.” She looked around the room, making eye contact with each of the assembled townspeople.
“We all have our dark sides,” she said, “some darker than others. The Evil Queen has a lot to answer for, but are the rest of us really so innocent? Where do we draw the line?”
“You can’t be saying we’re as bad as her!”
“No,” Red shook her head. “What I’m saying is she should have a chance to defend herself. Maybe all she needs is a chance for redemption.”
“Come on, give it a chance! Spring is the season for trying new things!”
“Snow, I said, I’m not eating that!” Red rolled her eyes.
“It’s not that bad,” Snow wheedled.
“Snow, it’s leaf soup.”
“Basil soup,” Snow corrected. She glanced up at the sky, judging its darkness through a canopy of new leaves. “You should eat something.”
Red’s stomach grumbled in accord, and she sighed. Yes, controlling the wolf was easier on a full stomach, but the thin concoction sitting on the fire smelled completely unappetizing. She needed something a bit more substantial. She needed meat.
She felt restless, agitated. It wasn’t even moonrise, and already, the urge to hunt was almost too strong. She had intended to try remaining human-shaped tonight, but the risk was too high.
Red sighed again. “I think I need my cloak.”
Snow had just fumbled the thick material out of her pack when the snap of a twig caught them both off guard.
“Hello,” a man said cheerfully, coming out of the tree line as Red sidestepped to block Snow from his view. “What a pleasant surprise. What brings you two to the woods so late?”
“We lost track of time,” Red said vaguely, wary of his interest. The man didn’t look overtly threatening—he was rather short, and a bit scrawny—but he was wearing a black leather uniform and carrying a large, spiked helmet that marked him as one of Queen Regina’s soldiers. She realized he was waiting, clearly expecting an introduction, so she continued, “My name is Red. This is my friend, Mary.”
“A pleasure,” he said. “I am Stahl, former member of the Queen’s guard.”
Red and Snow exchanged glances as best as they could with the shadow of Snow’s hood obscuring her face. “Former?” Red asked.
The man let out a regretful sigh. “Yes, I’m afraid we had a difference of opinion. I’m a deserter, you see.”
Apparently that was enough for Snow. “Mister Stahl, would you like to join us for dinner?”
Stahl was very talkative company, filling gaps in conversation without any hesitation. This covered Snow and Red’s silence quite nicely; by mutual agreement, they had decided to avoid revealing any potentially dangerous information. Luckily, their new acquaintance didn’t question why both wore hooded cloaks, despite the crackling fire and the warm spring air.
Finally, he wound down enough for Snow to jump in and suggest bedding down for the night, to which he happily agreed, wandering off to secure the perimeter. Red didn’t bother to tell the soldier that she could smell anything not downwind and hear everything else, welcoming the time to discuss him privately with Snow.
“What do you think?”
“He seems nice enough,” Snow admitted, “and he did say he was a deserter. Maybe he can give us some help.”
“But do you want to risk asking for it?”
“I don’t know,” Snow let out a sigh. “What about you? Are you getting any…I don’t know…feelings off him? Anything suspicious?”
“No,” Red answered, “but…” she paused as a strong gust of wind drew his scent to dance with the swirling leaves. “He’s coming back.”
They separated, moving to opposite sides of the campsite and busying themselves with mundane tasks.
“All clear,” Stahl said as Red bent to straighten out her bedroll. “If you ladies want, I can take the first—”
Red glanced up, wary at his sudden silence, and blanched as the soldier drew a long knife from his belt with a faint rasp that sounded almost deafening in her sudden fear. Where was the threat? She whirled, seeing only Snow, dark haired, fair skinned, and all too recognizable with the hood of her cloak loose around her shoulders.
Before she could process the scene, Red was already throwing her own cloak to the ground, crossing the clearing with a single leap, and intercepting Stahl before he could reach her friend. The huge bulk of her wolf form slammed into him, throwing him abruptly sideways; he smashed into the ground and she crouched over him, pinning him down with one large paw.
He let out a yell, one hand scrabbling uselessly for his knife, several feet out of reach, while the other fought against her hold. Red let out a short warning growl, and he went still, quaking silently.
“Red,” Snow said, worried.
The reminder of her audience, combined with the stench of his fear, almost convinced her to let him go. She knew Snow would favor showing him mercy. But Red also knew that Stahl was dangerous. He would go after them again, or give them away to other bounty hunters. She couldn’t compromise their safety.
She sank her fangs into his throat and clamped down until his struggles ceased.
“Red, are you alright?”
She didn’t look up. “Yes. Fine.”
“Red.” Snow picked her way down the riverbank, settling herself on a large rock and watching Red with a steady gaze. “I think we should talk about it.”
“About what?” She went back to scrubbing at the mess of dried blood and dirt clinging to her fingernails.
“Will you look at me, please?”
She hesitated, all too aware of the crimson stains on her lips and chin, splattered over her entire front. She wondered if she’d be able to get away with ignoring the request. But Snow was using that tone, the one filled with heartfelt pleading, the one she couldn’t resist. She turned slowly, peering up through her eyelashes, as if their frail barrier would make the judgment any less harsh.
“Are you alright?” Snow repeated. Mercifully, her expression showed no sign of horror, terror, or disgust; her voice revealed only concern.
Red could only hold her gaze for a moment before looking away. “No,” she admitted. She paused, trying to force some semblance of order into her thoughts, and Snow waited patiently for her to continue. “I killed him.”
“Red, you can’t blame yourself,” Snow said. “There was a full moon last night, and you hadn’t eaten all day. It was a stressful situation; no one could fault you for losing control.”
“But I didn’t lose control,” Red said. “That was my kill. Not the wolf’s, mine. I ended his life and I wasn’t even sorry. What if…” she swallowed hard. “What if I’m becoming the wolf?”
“Oh, Red.” Snow hurried forward and crushed her into a tight hug.
“I’m scared, Snow,” Red mumbled into her friend’s shoulder. “I’m scared of what this forest is doing to me.” Against her best efforts, she felt tears welling up in her eyes. “I’m turning into an animal.”
“You’re wrong,” Snow murmured soothingly. “You’re still you, and you always will be. Nothing else matters.”
“You killed him,” Snow finished bluntly. Red flinched and tried to pull away, but found herself trapped in Snow’s tight grip. “But Red,” she continued gently, “that doesn’t change anything. Sometimes good people do bad things. It’s the intent that matters. Would you let him live if you could do it again?”
Yes, Red wanted to say, but she knew the true answer. “No.”
Snow seemed unsurprised. “And if his life didn’t compromise mine, would you kill him?”
“Of course not!” Red said.
“That’s the difference,” Snow said. “You don’t kill for sport, or out of cruelty. You do it to protect. And I think the fact that you didn’t lose control shows how human you really are.”
The diner was in chaos. Chairs were overturned, dishes were scattered haphazardly across tables, and patrons were arguing at the tops of their lungs.
“Waiting tables has made you soft—”
“—can’t believe—an outsider—”
“You’re only a child! You don’t understand the necessity—”
Red closed her eyes, forcing herself to ignore the accusations, the insults. Everyone was scared, emotions were running high, she couldn’t hold anyone responsible for their impulsive words.
One voice rose above the rest. “She deserves to die!”
Red snarled, the sound rumbling deep in her throat and spreading through the room in a palpable wave. One by one, the townspeople fell silent, retreating from the aura of unmistakable danger that had manifested so suddenly.
“She deserves to die?” she repeated, pinning the unfortunate Jefferson with her golden gaze. “And who deserves to decide that?”
Red remembered screams of pain, cries for mercy, the crunching of bone and tearing of flesh as she decimated battalion after battalion of soldiers. She remembered the stark fear in their eyes. Yes, maybe Storybrooke had made her soft, and maybe some deaths were necessary but no one ever deserved to die.
Her skin prickled in anger as she stalked forward, leaning in to invade Jefferson’s personal space.
“Are you the judge? The jury?” she growled. “The executioner?”
“There’s no magic,” he whispered. “There’s no magic in Storybrooke. This is—”
“Have you ever killed anyone?” Red asked in a low voice. “Let me guess, you used a weapon. A sword, or a bow, something to distance yourself from what you destroyed. Have you ever torn someone apart with your bare hands?”
Jefferson backed away nervously.
Red continued the pressure, a wild fury adding a tight, converse precision to her movements. “Have you ever ripped out their throat with your teeth, felt their life draining away as their heart stopped beating?”
He bumped a table and tripped backward, glass shattering.
Shouts. Screams. Tables splintering, teeth snapping.
“Someone stop her!”
“It’s Wolfstime! We can do nothing without the cloak!”
“Get some silver!”
Prey. Cornered. She howls softly in triumph, and it shudders. Weak. Helpless.
“Mary Margaret, no!”
A soft weight crashes into her side, clinging stubbornly to her fur. She turns, distracted, glares, growls.
“Red, it’s me,” the familiar voice says, staring with dark, earnest eyes. “Remember?”
A hand reaches out. She sniffs it. The scent is cool, calming. Like peppermint or freshly fallen snow.
Red blinked, looking around at the remains of the diner. If it had been chaos before, this was nothing short of the apocalypse. Everything was broken, people were hiding under serving platters, Emma was pointing a gun at her. She whined apologetically, lowering her head.
Oh, Granny’s going to kill me.
“Okay?” Snow asked, scratching behind her ears.
Red let out a deep, snuffling sigh.
She brushed the tip of her tail over her friend’s shoulder.