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one minute.

 

There's a storm coming in.

Emma can see it in the distance, a broiling, ominous streak of blackened blue inexorably rolling towards her. Apparently a hurricane had skirted uncomfortably close to the coast, and flung out all kinds of nastiness across the Eastern Seaboard.

Not that she cares about such trivialities, of course. Not any more.

She presses the accelerator down a little harder, a little firmer—it wouldn't do to be caught out in the open, stuck in rural back-roads without the assistance of magic or family—

Family.

She presses her lips together, and keeps driving.

 

* * *

 

True to form, the storm fair races in from the coast, and is on her within the hour. Steady rain soon becomes driving rain soon becomes torrential rain, and visibility quickly falls to about three feet in front of her car as endless waves of grey wash over the ancient bug. She raises a hand and casts a protective shield around the car so that she can see—

Or, rather, she doesn't. Of course she doesn't, because there's no magic, Miss Swan, you complete fool—

She closes her hand again, clenching her fist so tightly she can hear her knuckles crack, and drives on.

 

* * *

 

Soon the rain becomes so ludicrously heavy that driving further becomes tantamount to a death wish without the protection of her magic, so she pulls into a motel and diner about thirty miles from Portland. From the lightning-crackled ramblings of the radio, the storm won't abate until mid-morning tomorrow, so she won't reach her goal of making the city by nightfall.

But that's fine. She's in no rush—she could be gone for as long as she pleases and the sword will still be ensconced firmly in the stone, killing anyone who dares lay a hand it; Merida will still be busy rewriting Gold's basic nature; the memories of the last six weeks will remain justly excised from those who'd failed her so comprehensively.

She catches a glimpse of herself in the rear-view mirror before she steps out of the bug, frowning—the jet-black leather and taut hairdo might be absolutely fitting for who she is now, but it's no one's idea of inconspicuous, and she needs to lay low for a while. With an inaudible sigh, she unties her hair, letting it tumble loosely over her shoulders for the first time in days. It isn't much, she knows, but until she gets inside and she can get changed it'll have to do. At least she looks like—

Well. Not herself, that's for damn sure. And not who she used to be, either. A twisted hybrid of the two, maybe, a Dark One without any power, a Saviour without any drive to save anyone—

She yanks her suitcase from the passenger's seat, and sprints through the pouring rain all the way to the entrance.

 

* * *

 

It's honestly a pretty dreary place, dark and dank, half the lights faded a dull orange and the other half covered in muck, with a vague odour of mothballs permeating the entire building.

Still, that puts it in the upper half of the list of Nicest Places Emma Swan Has Slept In, so she drags her suitcase up to the counter, where a gruff, tattooed man gives her a once-over.

“Caught in the storm, huh?”

She composes a smile. “I was trying to get to Portland.”

“Mm-hmm. Name?”

She opens her mouth but stops herself before speaking, taking a moment to think, calculate potential outcomes. If she gives her real name—if Regina or her parents realise what she's done—

“Starla. Uh, Starla Page.” Last she checked, Lily was still in Storybrooke with her mother, the pair of them taking zero interest in the events of the town at large, so she figures there's no risk in shamelessly stealing her identities, plural.

“Alright, Starla. Guessing you'll just be staying for the night?”

“Just for the night.”

 

* * *

 

Either everyone else in the motel is asleep, or she was the only one stupid enough to get caught on this particularly stretch of road, because the diner is completely empty aside from her.

Which is fine, of course. It suits her just fine. Anonymity is her friend right now, and it's a friend she knows very, very well.

She's in the middle of a lasagne—a shitty, half-rate version compared to what she's used to, but a version nonetheless—when the tattooed owner walks in, scrubbing a cloudy old glass with a frayed cloth.

He stops when he sees, eyeing her carefully. “On the run from something, huh?”

She glares at him, her lip straining to twitch into a snarl. “None of your business.”

“Mm. Could have fooled me.”

She continues to glare at him, but he continues to be completely unperturbed—and for obvious reasons, because out here, she's nothing more than a thirty-one-year-old with a penchant for black leather who'd rocked up to a random Maine motel in the middle of one of the worst storms in living memory.

“So where's everyone else?” she asks. If this guy is going to be her only conversation partner for the evening, might as well make use of him.

“There is no one else. You're the only schmuck dumb enough to be driving in a storm like this.” He sighs, then fills the glass he'd been cleaning with IPA. “Here.”

She raises an eyebrow as he slides the glass in front of her, taking the opposite seat. “Seriously?”

“It's on the house. Not like either of us have anything else to do.” He squints a little, studying her carefully. “So again, you on the run from something?”

She sighs. “It's complicated.”

“Must be if you're out here.” He purses his lips. “It's family, huh?”

Her eyes widen before she can stop herself and her mouth hangs open a little—shit. “How'd you know that?”

“It's pretty obvious. What'd you do, fuck them over?”

This time she does snarl. “I did not fuck them over. They fucked me over.” And oh, how they had, with their constant interfering in her carefully-laid plans, with their estrangement of her son from her, with their failure.

But the man just sits back and laughs, a rough, garrulous sound. “Word of advice, lady. Fucking people over? That's always a two-way-street.”

She simply drains her glass and finishes her dinner.

 


 

one day.

 

Before leaving the motel the next morning, she makes a call.

It takes two rings to pick up. “Hello?”

She closes her eyes and smiles—it's been less than two days since she'd heard this voice, but even that's two days too long for her.

“Hey, kid, it's me, I just wanted to—”

He hangs up before she can even finish the sentence.

 

* * *

 

She reaches Portland by ten.

She leaves Portland by eleven. Reaches New Hampshire by noon. Has a burger in Portsmouth at one. Rolls past the Massachusetts Welcomes You sign by two. Momentarily considers bypassing Boston at three. Is stuck in traffic by four.

It's aimless, frankly; vague and meaningless wandering without any of the purpose or drive which has so consumed her life for the last three years—which, of course, is the whole point. Purpose and drive has done nothing but trap and entrap her for three decades; even when those purposes are her own, there's something special, something irreducibly precious about being free—free of obligation, free of duty, free of everything.

And boy, does she decide to exploit it.

Her first port of call is Prudential Tower; a few years ago the glitz and glamour of the shops at its base would have been way above her station, but being the Dark One had changed that. After all, what's the point of dark magic if it didn't allow you to indulge yourself every now and then? She's going to run up a hell of a credit card bill, of course, but that's sort of the point—and plus, magic had only magnified her long-standing talents in forgery. Besides, what would the banks even do? Chase her down to a town which technically doesn't exist, can't be reached by non-magical means, and where she has near-unlimited power?

She flits between stores, casually browsing upscale fashion outlets, glittering jewellery stores and the like. In one, she finds a black full-grain leather jacket which she swears she's seen before—

You know you can do this. It's inside you, Emma—

She scowls, and moves on to the next store.

 

* * * *

 

She's walking down the Charles River, having deposited her many bags of shopping back in the car, and is considering her next destination when she's jerked roughly out of her train of thought by a bright, high-pitched voice.

“Emma? Holy shit, Emma Swan!”

Emma turns, eyes wide, to see plump cheeks and a bushy mane of dark brown barrelling towards her. She barely manages to ready herself before the woman slams bodily into her, wrapping her in a crushing bear hug. “Nice to see you too, Amy,” Emma manages with a wry smile on her face, despite the fact she can't quite breathe properly.

“You too,” Amy replies, disentangling herself. “God, it's been—what, five years? Six?”

“Six.” Emma remembers, of course. She always remembers. “How've you been?”

“Oh, fantastic.” And by the momentarily abandoned pram resting a few feet away, Emma can tell exactly what kind of fantastic her former business partner actually means. “What about you? Still in the bail bonds business? Digging the black, by the way.”

Emma composes a smile, symmetric and friendly and so not like herself. “Small town sheriff, actually.” And epitome of darkness.

Amy's eyebrows shoot upwards. “Shit. Hey, how about a coffee so you can tell me all about it?”

Emma hesitates for a moment, a hundred different instincts screaming no, sorry, I can't—but what's the point of freedom if she can't ignore them for once?

“You're on.”

 

* * *

 

In truth, she needn't have worried—Amy, true to form, is far more interested in regaling Emma with endless tails about her life, her new career as a corporate lawyer, her husband and her five-month-old baby, in fact her second child—

“What about you, Emma? Any family back in small-town-Sheriff-land?”

Emma, thrown unexpectedly out of her growing daydream, can only mumble an “Um—”

“Oh, come on. There must be something to hold you down there,” Amy says with a roll of the eyes, but her lips have pressed together and Emma remembers that this woman probably knows her better than anyone outside of Storybrooke. Which isn't saying much, but it means that it'll be impossible to fool her completely. “There is, right?”

She gives a small smile. “Yeah. There's a family. A—a kid, actually.”

Amy beams. “So? What's the details?”

And Emma is so not comfortable with this conversation now, but what's the risk? She's probably never going to see Amy ever again after today. “His—his name's Henry. He's thirteen.”

Thirteen?

Shit. Even under the circumstances, that was too much information, particularly given that Amy actually knew her before she left for Storybrooke. “Yeah. I, um, I gave him up for adoption back in the day. But we're really close now.” Or we were.

“But that means—doesn't he have, like, adoptive parents?”

“Yeah. A mother.” Oh, more than just a mother.

Amy's frown is only growing. “So—oh.” She leans back, and puts up what can only be described as a smug smirk. “Oh, I get it.”

It takes a moment for Emma to realise what exactly Amy just got, but when she does, she all but jumps out of her chair. “No—not like that! Fuck, definitely not like that.” For one thing, they're both in relationships—or Regina is, anyway.

“Uh-huh. Sure.

She grinds her teeth, hides a grimace, tries to stop herself calling up dark magic she doesn't actually have. Although—“It's complicated. We share him.” Shared.

“You share him.” An exaggerated sigh. “Emma, you cannot be serious.”

“Completely serious. Especially not—” She pauses, swallows nothingness into her chest. She shouldn't, she shouldn't—but she remembers: no consequences, no risk. “Especially not now.”

“What do you—wait.” Amy frowns, and for the first time in this chance encounter she looks genuinely serious. “That's why you're here, aren't you?”

Emma doesn't let her shoulders slump. Doesn't. She is the Dark One, and Dark Ones are not given to such open displays of vulnerability. “I told you, it's complicated.”

“So what exactly—no. No.” Amy shakes her head, waving Emma off as she opens her mouth. “Don't tell me, I don't need to know.”

But it's too late—the dam wall has burst, and frustration is now freely flooding out. “It's not even my fault! I did what I had to do, and she was the one who had to go and get in the way—”

“And now he's mad at you, huh?”

No. No, of course he isn't. He's my son.

“Yeah.”

Amy looks thoroughly unimpressed. “Well, figure it out, alright?”

“Amy—”

“Nothing is more important than family, Emma. You hear me? Nothing.

 

* * *

 

Eleven o'clock at night, as the rain begins to pour once more: “Hello?”

“Henry, please, I need to talk—”

“Not now, Mom,” he says softly, and hangs up.

 


 

one week.

 

She should go back.

She knows she should go back. By now Regina or her parents or Henry would have surely noticed her absence, and even if they want absolutely nothing to do with her, she's giving them valuable time to explore her now-insecure house and discover the truth about the sword in the basement. She has the dagger with her, of course, so they can't actually do anything with said sword, but Regina in particular will take a fraction of inch and turn it into a gaping mile.

So she doesn't go back. She needs more time; more time to plan, to consider, to contemplate in secure and impenetrable isolation. She needs more time to work out her next move, she needs more time before Henry actually deigns to speak to her for more than five seconds—

She crushes her empty plastic cup of coffee in her fingers, then sighs when she realises what she's just done.

Apparently, the Land Without Magic is not so completely lacking of magic after all. In truth it's nothing at all to a first approximation, doing little but strengthening her muscles and sharpening her senses ever so subtly, but it is noticeable and it is there. And it's—

It's disappointing, to be honest. Not because of the extra power, of course, that's always handy, but can't anything ever just be as it seems?

Why does everything always have to be complicated? She's so, so tired of complicated—what's the point of being the Dark One if she can't have even a little simplicity?

She's spiralling deeper and deeper into herself, morose and slouching in the corner of a fucking Starbucks when her phone rings. She frowns when she sees the unfamiliar number, but takes the call anyway.

“Yeah?”

“This Emma Swan?”

She immediately sits upright. “Jim—how did you get this number?”

A chuckle. “You know Amy can't keep her mouth shut as well as I do.”

She grinds her teeth silently—she should have figured that Amy would talk. A small part of her wishes she'd just ripped the woman's heart out when she'd had the chance. The rest of her is thankful that she couldn't have even if she'd wanted to.

Still, the chance that word will get back to Storybrooke is pretty low—not like it'll make much difference now. “Right. What's up?”

“I heard you were back in town for a few days.”

No, I'm not—“A few days, yeah.”

“I need a favour, Swan. A client has skipped out on us and none of us can find him.”

A job. She's being offered a job. “Amy told you I'm not in the business any more, right?”

“Yeah, something about a being a small town sherriff.” Another chuckle, this one patently disbelieving. “Still, if you're in town...”

She shouldn't. She shouldn't. She has her plans and her family and—“Give me an offer.”

“Fifteen grand.”

Fifteen grand?For a favour?

“The bail is two hundred grand, and the fee is fifteen percent. I'm willing to split it half-and-half once you bring him in.” A brief pause. “I'm serious, Emma. We're going to be neck deep if this guy gets loose.”

It takes only a second to make her decision. “Tell me what you've got.”

 

* * *

 

It's easily the most difficult case she's ever been given.

The target—Mark Critcher—is a banker, apparently, which explains the massive bond, but he's also a shady type with nebulous connections to local organised crime. Connections which become rather less nebulous once she dives into the case, because it quickly becomes obvious to her that she's being watched.

It's honestly kind of embarrassing, the way those two thugs tail her everywhere in their blatantly conspicuous black Mercedes, making their presence known to her at every waking hour. Even before she went to Storybrooke, though, she wouldn't have been intimidated at all by that in the slightest—she's dealt with standover goons before, and has handled herself when she's needed to—but now she has magic. Not much, granted, but more than nothing.

Frankly, those poor fools have no idea what she is capable of—

And she really, really has to stop thinking about Regina when she's doing this. Not least because Regina probably wouldn't approve, the hypocrite.

Even ignoring the two thugs, though, this Mark Critcher has clearly gone to extreme lengths to cover her tracks, and it takes several days of interviews, of collating scraps of information, of informed guesswork and banking on her still-active superpower to even get the slightest hint that she's on the right trail. She knows she's on the right trail, of course, because her near-permanent tail becomes even more overt about its presence.

Tonight, for example, she's just walking back to the hotel, takeaway in hand, when she notices them walking behind her, less than twenty feet away.

She rolls her eyes; honestly, enough is enough. It's time to take slightly more drastic action.

At the next intersection, she feigns confusion about her orientation, then sets off on a meandering and apparently-aimless walk towards what she knows is an empty alleyway. Turning inside, she quickly darts behind a metal dumpster and waits for them to follow—which they do.

She smiles, lethal and so very, very dark.

Idiots.

They're both a foot taller than her, of course, and probably fifty pounds heavier each, but she both has magic and surprise on her side, and they never stand a chance. She incapacitates one before he's even aware of her presence, and has the other on the floor seconds later, gun pointed down at his head.

“Tell me where he is,” she hisses—now that she's gone to this effort, she might as well take the opportunity to make this quick.

He laughs, though with a shakiness in his voice and a wild light in his eyes that betrays both fear and shock that a slight blonde bail-bondswoman like her could take out two hardened strongmen with such ease. “If you think I'm going to talk—”

Tell me.” She clicks off the safety, the metallic noise echoing through the empty alleyway. “Or I blow your fucking brains out.”

“Do it,” he spits up at her, and she almost does—“You won't get anything on him if you do.”

Which is a fair point, of course. So she has to consider other measures—magical ones. It isn't as if she has any other options at this point. “Okay.”

She bends down, briefly watches him inch away from her, then drives forward, slamming her hand into—into—his chest. She allows herself a moment—she honestly hadn't been sure that this would work—before ripping the beating, glowing heart out of his body.

“Now,” she says with an utterly terrible smile on her face, “Pick up your friend here and take me to your boss.”

He does so without another word.

 

* * *

 

Later that night, she's sprawled out on her hotel bed watching Colbert, cash-stuffed envelope beside her and the reheated box of takeaway in her hand. She munches on it absent-mindedly—it's got enough salt and flavouring to not be completely bland, and it's cheap enough to not actually make her pay any attention to the taste. She vaguely recollects the night's events: the way his face had paled instantly when he'd opened the door to her, the way Mr Critcher had constantly asked how the hell she'd found her on the way back to Jim's office, the way his two thugs had fled like men possessed when she'd returned their hearts—

Shit.

She'd told herself she wouldn't do that, particularly after—after Henry. She'd promised herself she wouldn't do that without good reason, without a clear justification to be found in her plan. Violet had been a necessary last resort, Merida is integral to her ultimate goals—but those two?

Well. It isn't as if she'd had any other choice.

There's always a choice, Emma.

She closes her eyes, screwing them tight, willing that damned voice away somehow—and her wish is immediately fulfilled, because her train of thought is broken by a knocking on the door.

She sets down the takeaway box, calling out, “Who is it?”

A brief pause, then another sharp, insistent knocking.

Frowning, she gets up—she'd told the hotel, no room service—and with a frustrated huff, swings the door open—

—and stops.

“Mom.” Henry's eyes are watery and his shoulders are shaking, and—oh. Oh. “Mom?”

She buries herself, immerses herself in him, trembling so violently she's sure she's about to shatter into a million little pieces, but she doesn't care, she doesn't care, because Henry is here, her son is here, and she's whispering I love you to him again and again and again—

“I know, Mom,” he murmurs, “I know.”

She squeezes tightly then unwinds herself, tears running freely down her face—and finally, she notices that Henry is not, in fact, alone.

“Regina.” Henry's mother is wearing that same scarlet blazer she'd worn the last time they'd talked to each other, but this time Regina is—

Regina is smiling. Smiling, with an expression so soft and gentle that Emma is certain that Regina has never looked at her that way before. “How—how did you know?”

That smile doesn't change. “How could I not?”

 

* * *

 

It turns out that, despite the way they'd greeted her, they're both still extremely wary about her, fully expecting—with reason, as the case may be—her to have access to her magic. Henry, in particular, though he's obviously missed her desperately—and doesn't that make Emma feel great about herself?—he is still deeply furious over what she'd done, and refuses to let her apologise.

Or, rather, Regina refuses to let her apologise.

“Not until you explain why you left,” Regina explains firmly, with the same iron strength as she'd displayed on the porch. “You owe us that much.”

Emma's eyes flash. “I owe you nothing—”

“Oh, but you do, Emma. You are his mother, and that means you do not get to simply skip town and run off into the hills when things get too difficult,” Regina says, jaw set and eyes burning. “Or did you really think that removing yourself from Henry's life would make up for what you did?”

Emma will not be weak. She will not be weak. Dark Ones do not show weakness.

Her fists clench and unclench, her back teeth grind audibly against one another, and she looks away. “Yes,” she whispers, so softly that she thinks—hopes—that Regina can't hear her. “I did.”

But Regina hears, because of course she does, and she softens instantly. “Well,” she says, in a voice suddenly as gentle as the smile she'd given Emma mere minutes before. “You were wrong.”

 

* * *

 

After they'd all had dinner together—Emma having had to return to the shop for more late-night takeaway—she's fully expecting them to return home now that they know that she's safe, well and (for the time-being) harmless, at least to them, and she's already starting to say her goodbyes—

“Oh no, Emma,” Regina cuts across sharply, though there's a ghost of a smile on her face. “We're not about to let you run off again.”

Emma swallows, wrings her wrist. “I—I don't think I'm ready to go back yet. To Storybrooke.”

“Then neither are we.”

Slowly, slowly, Emma smiles.

 


 

one month.

 

It turns into a generalised, multi-week holiday for the three of them, right up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard. First Emma takes an entire week to show them around Boston, which is the city she knows by far the best. Then New York—this time without any pixie dust soulmates to save from resurrected sisters—then D.C., Philadelphia and down towards the South.

After a month, they head over the North Carolina border. Emma tends to drive, with Regina making small talk beside her and Henry generally asleep in the back, and it's—it's good. It isn't her plan. It isn't what she needs.

But it's good, and right now she'll take that.

For every mile they put between themselves and Storybrooke, she can feel the darkness she'd so willingly embraced slip away, bit by bit by bit, and—well, honestly, she doesn't know what to think about it, other than to suspect that it's probably Regina's doing. Quite frankly, she isn't quite sure what Regina's game is here—she must surely know by now about Emma's plans, or at least have an inkling, and Emma knows that she's in contact with her parents. But she hasn't asked, or hinted, or done anything other than enjoy spending time with her son.

It is, to say the least, profoundly suspicious, not least because Henry is still too quiet around Emma, reserved like he'd never been before, watchful and wary and—

“Mom.” He puts down his ice-cream for a moment, placing a hand on her arm and god, he's so like his mother. “It's fine.”

“Kid, if there's anything—”

“It's fine,” Henry repeats, too firmly to be natural. “Really.”

How she wishes she could believe him.

 

* * *

 

When she brings it up with Regina on a North Carolina beach, she just sighs.

“Emma, you surely can't expect that—”

“I don't,” Emma interjects, blunt and harsh as she always seems to be these days, and she hates herself for it as much as she treasures the strength it projects.

She looks down the sand dunes to where Henry is building a sandcastle, just above the high tide mark, and listens to the rhythmic rolling, the slow, endless roaring of the waves up and down the beach, feels the sea breeze rippling past her face. Here, now, a thousand miles from home, it's easy to forget about magic, about Dark Ones, about curses and manipulations and warped, twisted bitterness so sharp she can almost taste it—

But she can't forget. Won't forget. The reminders are there, a constant buzz, a tingling beneath her skin hinting at something far more immense, far more powerful, and sometimes she hungers to just reach out and take—

Yet she can't. She can't.

“He's angry. I get that. But I swear to you—”

Regina shoots her a narrow-eyed glance. “What did I tell you about justification?”

“Rich coming from you,” Emma mutters. “I am trying to apologise him. To make things better.”

“You could have done that in Storybrooke.

“Regina, do you have any idea how hard I tried to get him to talk to me? He wouldn't even stay on the phone for more than five seconds at time—”

“If you're saying you tried to guilt him into talking to you—”

Emma's eyes widen immediately. “You think I'd do that? You think I'd toy with him—

“The thought crossed his mind.”

Emma fights to keep her breathing level, to keep her ever-thrumming undercurrent of magic under control. “If you honestly believe—”

“I said it crossed his mind, not mine. What you did was more your style than a Dark One's,” Regina adds, and Emma almost snarls because Regina is still there making that distinction—“He's a thirteen year old boy, Miss Swan. What the hell is he meant to think when his mother breaks his heart then runs away?”

“It's not running away!” she snaps, her fury, ever-present these days, momentarily getting the better of her. She closes her eyes, berates her lack of self-control. “It's protecting him.”

“From who? You?” And that, that is a question Emma cannot possibly answer, so she looks away, remains silent for a minute.

She runs a hand through her hair, which is down permanently these days and starting to regain some of its natural curl as it tumbles over her overcoat. She's still wearing black ensembles without exception, but without the harsh lines and razor-sharp curves of several weeks ago. Regina had even picked out one or two for her.

“I just wish he would talk to me,” she murmurs eventually.

A hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently as Regina stands. “He will. Give him time.”

Emma wants to ask how she knows, but thinks better of it.

 

* * *

 

Inevitably, they end up at Disney World, which means Emma is treated to the delightful spectacle of Regina complaining about literally everything: the pricing, the food, the buildings, the depiction of Snow, the depiction of herself—nothing escapes her gaze, nothing passes without comment. It's enough to send Henry into constant giggles, which only grow when Regina mock-glares at him.

“Be nice to your mom, kid,” Emma reproves him lightly, though she herself is suppressing a grin. “You know this is weird for her.”

“Yeah, but—” He leans towards her conspiratorially, and not for the first time Emma notices just how tall he's gotten. “I've seen her secret wardrobe,” he stage whispers, so loudly that Regina scowls at them from several feet away. “I know she's got a dress just like that.”

Emma simply dissolves into laughter, and she marvels at how something so simple can make her feel so light.

 


 

one night.

 

That night, she lets herself into Regina's room.

“Emma.” Regina is already half tucked into bed, reading a novel. “What is it?”

“I need to talk to you,” she says bluntly.

Regina removes her reading glasses and sets down the book. “Go ahead.”

“How did you find me?”

Regina stares, evidently not expecting this question nor this conversation. “What?”

“In Boston. How did you find me?”

“I learned some tricks from you, apparently. You were very profligate with your credit card,” Regina says with a smirk. “After that, it was simply a matter of breaking the spell you placed around the town, at least for long enough for Henry and I to leave and, well, the rest was straightforward.”

“How long did it take for you to realise—”

“That you were gone?” Regina bites her lip, makes a show out of being in thought. “About ten minutes.”

Emma starts. “You knew the whole time?” And Regina's gaze is level, her expression completely neutral, and Emma knows she must be telling the truth. “Why didn't you come and get me straight away, then?”

“What, and bring you back to your magic so you can continue with your devious plan?” Regina snorts. “Emma, please.”

“My plan is not devious. If you could just trust me—

“Give me a reason,” Regina says, leaning forward slightly, her eyes wide and bright and pleading. “I want to, but I'm also done with playing games with you, Emma. Give me a reason, and I will.”

Emma wets her lips, plays with her fingers. If she does—if she does—

“Emma...”

“Tomorrow,” Emma whispers, shaking slightly, doing her best to block out a cacophony of malevolent voices screaming their objection. “I'll show you tomorrow.”

 

* * *

 

Day two at Disney World initially follows much of the same patterns as the first: they spend most of the morning at the Cinderella Castle, and Emma has to roll her eyes and the fourteenth iteration on my castle was vastly superior to this second-rate imitation and even Snow White would find this painfully inadequate. But Emma isn't stupid, and she knows that Regina is actually enjoying herself quite a lot, even if most of that is second-hand via Henry.

It puts them all in a sufficiently relaxed frame of mind that when Henry darts off to go buy them all lunch, she takes a single deep breath, balls her hands into tight fists in her lap and closes her eyes. The voices—the darkness—has been whispering at her for the best part of twelve hours, and she's changed her mind a dozen times already, but she's stronger than them. She will be stronger than them.

“So...” Regina begins, evidently sensing the significance of the moment.

“Can I ask you something first?”

“If you must.”

“Okay.” Another breath in, another breath out. “Were you serious, what you said back at your porch last month?”

Regina raises an eyebrow. “I said a lot of things then. Most of which, I'll note, remain true.”

She grinds her teeth; trust Regina to make this needlessly difficult and involved and—no. No. She must go through with this. “About giving me a chance, if I just opened up to you.”

“Of course.” Regina furrows her brow slightly, her lips pressed into an uncertain frown. “Did you think that I wouldn't?”

And Emma is absolutely not going to answer that question, because—“Okay. Okay. There's—in my house in Storybrooke, in the basement, there's—“

“—A sword. Excalibur. I know.”

Emma's eyebrows shoot upwards. “You knew? But—”

“Breaking and entering, Miss Swan,” Regina reminds her, and Emma is more than a little tempted to indulge the darkness just for a moment if only to wipe that smug smirk off Regina's face.

“You're a goddamned felon,” she mutters, before sighing. “Well, once I pull the sword out and make it whole again, I can—”

“Destroy all light magic. Emma, I'm aware of all this.”

Emma stares. “So why the hell are you asking me to open up?”

“Because I don't understand why,” Regina says simply. When Emma continues to stare, she continues, “I know you, Emma. Destroying all light magic on a whim is perhaps something I would have done, but you... you wouldn't do that without a reason.”

Emma looks away.

“Am I wrong?”

“Yes,” Emma says, so quietly the word is almost lost amongst the general chatter, the mingled laughter from the thousands upon thousands of families surrounding them. “I don't want to just destroy light magic.”

Regina has that cautious frown again, and she's leaning forward, reaching for Emma's arm. “Emma...”

“I want to get rid of it, Regina. All of it.” She pauses for a moment. “You know, Tamara may have been a seriously nasty piece of work, and my methods are a lot better than hers, but she had a point.”

Regina's mouth is hanging open, and her eyes are glinting with surprise. “You—you want to destroy magic? All of it?”

“Look around, Regina,” Emma says, sweeping with an arm at a mother handing an ice cream to her daughter; a family pushing a stroller down the path, hand-in-hand; a father laughing as his son babbles excitably, an oversized cartoon-character balloon bobbing along in their wake. “What do you see?”

“An inept failure of an attempt to recreate my former homeland.”

She can't help but grin a little at that. “But what don't you see? What isn't here?”

“Magic,” Regina murmurs, sitting back as realisation overtakes her. “There's no magic.”

“And instead, there's...”

“Happiness.”

Emma takes Regina's hand, squeezes it imploringly. “Do you see now? Do you understand?”

Regina's expression is open, so open, and oh, she does—“And you think it will be that simple?” Regina asks, with a note that a wildly optimistic corner of Emma's mind thinks sounds like hope, “Do you really think that you can just get rid of magic and we can all live happily in peace?”

She swallows. “No. I think I know more than most people that it's not that simple,” she says, before hesitating, collecting herself. “But do you know what there definitely won't be? A new crisis every week. Curses to break. Insane teenagers who steal children. Time-travelling witches. Hellbats which eat people's hearts. Storybooks which can dictate a person's entire life.”

And Regina is staring, still staring, with wide, wide eyes as if she's just seeing Emma, truly seeing Emma for the first time. Emma brings the hand still ensconced in her own up, pulls it under her chin, presses her lips to the leather glove.

“I want to live, Regina. Really, truly live a life where I get to make my own choices and make my own way for myself, without having to worry about titles or magic or fate. And I want my parents to live, and I want Henry to live, and I—I want you to live as well.”

A single tear rolls down Regina's cheek, and Emma doesn't even think before brushing it away. “Does that make sense, Regina? Can you understand that?”

Regina looks away, but doesn't let go of her hand.

“I think I can.”

 

* * *

 

When Henry returns to them, their hands remain firmly together. He raises an eyebrow, but doesn't question it, and Emma thinks she spies a shadow of a smile. Whatever the case may be, he spends the rest of the day in high spirits, which naturally means he's thoroughly exhausted when he gets back to the hotel.

To tell the truth, she's more than a little tired as well, strange as that may seem for a Dark One. But no—or very little—magic means that her eternal lack of sleep is temporarily lifted, so she's not surprised by her drowsiness. But on closer inspection, perhaps it isn't tiredness after all; she feels oddly light-headed, as if laying all—or, at least, most, because she hadn't yet told Regina about some of the more brutal aspects of her plan—her devices bare had lifted a burden from her, a weight she hadn't even known she was carrying.

Whatever the case may be, it's a damn weird feeling, so she soon steps into the shower, and stays there for a good half hour, mostly just resting her head against the porcelain walls as hot water trickles over her back. By the time she leaves, she's feeling vaguely refreshed again, and she pulls on a tight-fitting tank and slacks—not all in black, for once—and pulls the door open to find Regina standing right outside.

Oh.

“Regina,” she blurts, trying not to let her eyes down to Regina's already mostly-unbuttoned shirt and the flush creeping up her neck and the colour of her full lips—“Do you, um...”

Oh, fuck—

“The, uh, hot water was out in my room,” Regina says, astonishingly managing to only sound slightly shaky despite her blatantly dilated pupils and rapidly pinking cheeks. “Do you mind?”

Emma swallows, tries to ignore the many, many voices—not all of them borne of darkness—in her head, low and animalistic, whispering at her to simply take—“Not at all.”

She turns her body to let Regina through, but either the two of them are clumsy when in this state or the doorway is narrower than Emma had predicted, because Regina's hip brushes her own as she moves past, and fuck, she's gone, she's completely gone—

Regina lets in an audible gasp and freezes at the contact, and their eyes meet, their faces so close that Emma can feel the heat of Regina's breath on her cheek—

Later, they'll both claim they made the first move.

 

* * *

 

It takes about ten seconds for Emma—whose baser, darker instincts are singing with fierce joyto push Regina backwards onto her bed and straddle her. Another minute for Emma to lose the tank top she'd only just put on. Another thirty seconds for her to remove—without tearing, miraculously—Regina's blouse and bury her mouth in Regina's cleavage.

Regina gasps, arches her back and digs her nails hard into Emma's bare shoulders—oh, this is going to be rough. She smiles, wide and borderline predatory, and rises, rises up to claim Regina's mouth with her own, catching the bottom lip between her teeth as Regina lets out a low moan which all but vibrates down to her—

Fuck—

She breaks off, reaches down to unhook Regina's bra—but she's stopped by Regina's hand enclosing around her wrist, just as unsteady as her own.

“Emma, wait.”

No. No, she can't, she won't—this is what she wants—

Regina takes a long, trembling breath. “Emma, what are we doing?”

Emma closes her mouth, opens it again. “I thought we were living.” She starts playing with Regina's bra strap, savours the shivering reaction that brings. “I told you—don't you want that?”

She gets her answer when Regina pulls her down for another kiss.

 


 

one morning.

 

She wakes up the morning to dazzling sunlight, a diffuse yet strangely pleasant soreness at the top of her thighs, together with several decidedly less pleasant sore spots scattered across her back and shoulders. She lets out a small groan and shuffles slightly so she's facing away from the window, feeling the rough blankets rub against her bare skin.

Bare skin—

Memory comes flooding back at the realisation, and she opens her eyes to see an unkempt mess of tousled dark hair in front of her, half-covering a sleeping face which is a picture of contentment and tranquility. She reaches up, starts brushing hair out of Regina's face—though she stops when the blank expression on Regina's face shifts, and the first signs of a frown appear. Before she can take away her hand, though, Regina lets out a low, thin whine, and Emma feels a surge of affection—if she didn't know any better, she'd have said that the sound was cute.

She returns to stroking Regina's hair, and is completely unsurprised when Regina growls, “Must you be so irritating, Miss Swan?”

“I'm the Dark One. I don't need much sleep.”

“I was under the impression that you didn't need sleep at all.”

“Only when I have magic.” She hasn't yet given away that particular secret away, at least. Regina opens her heavily-lidded eyes, and though her mouth is pressed into a grouchy frown, Emma can't help but find the sight more than a little mesmerising. She kisses her; closed-mouthed, slow, langurous, and smiles when she feels Regina reciprocating. “Mm, you're good at that.”

“Thank you. Now let me sleep.” Regina tries to turn away, but Emma laughs, stops her with a firm hand on her hip. “Emma.”

“It's almost time to wake up,” she murmurs, her lips already beginning to ghost over Regina's jaw and onto the column of her neck, as the hand on Regina's hip begins to trail down, down—“Let me help you.”

“Em—Emma.” And Emma can't help but smirk at the way she can do this to Regina's voice with mere touches. “Oh—

“Shh. We have to keep quiet,” Emma murmurs next to Regina's ear as her questing hand finds its destination at last, slips two fingers inside. She knows already from the little gasps that this will be a futile attempt, though, and soon Regina begins to muffle soft whimpers into her shoulder, burying shattered cries in Emma's skin as her fingers curl again and again and again—

God, she could do this forever.

“Are you awake yet?” she asks after Regina's finally come down from the heavens and Emma extracts her fingers, trying to grin smugly but, quite frankly, feeling too damn happy to pull it off.

“Yes,” Regina says between breathless, heaving pants. “Yes, I am.”

Then, without any sort of warning whatsoever, Regina takes hold of Emma's shoulders and turns them over so Emma is pushed back down onto the bed, flat on her back with Regina hovering over her and—oh yes, that is a smirk. “Now for you.”

 

* * *

 

They start heading north the next day; Henry has finally started to get bored of Disney World, evidently realising that the best fairytale land that this world has to offer is no substitute for the real thing. Regina is more than glad to be heading out of the ceaseless heat and tropical humidity of the deep south, and takes most of the drives with a lazy, distant yet seemingly permanent smile on her face. Emma's sure that she's never seen Regina so happy before.

On her own behalf, she's largely fine to be heading back to Storybrooke—because that's quite clearly where they're going, even if they haven't actually discussed it yet—but she can't but help but feel a small but ever-growing sense of disquiet with every minute, every hour that takes them towards Maine and her full powers again.

She pins it down to her plan, now very much out in the open—she assumes that Regina has already told her parents, whom she now seems astonishingly close to, and from there the whole town must have surely heard. She is, of course, fully committed to her task, come hell or high water, but it would make a life a hell of a lot more straightforward if she could rely on Regina as a help rather than a hindrance.

Regina sighs, keeping her hands on the steering wheel. “I don't know. Magic has been a part of me for a very long time, and it won't be easy for me to give it up.”

“Henry wanted you to give it up,” Emma points out. “He knows it's only ever hurt you.”

It turns out to be exactly the wrong thing to say, because Regina's lips thin and her knuckles tighten on the wheel. “Emma...”

Emma flinches; she genuinely hadn't meant that to be manipulative, but apparently Dark One instincts die a hard death. “I'm sorry, I just—I'm going to go through with this, you understand? I'm going to make absolutely sure that no one gets hurt who doesn't need to, but I'm committed, Regina,” she says, low and firm and brooking no argument.

Regina purses her lips. “And who exactly does need to get hurt in this plan of yours?”

Emma swallows, fiddles with her fingers in her lap. “Not you. Not Henry. Not my parents. I promise you that.”

“That really doesn't answer my question, Emma.” She glances over, and Emma sees a sadness bordering on anguish there, as if this hurts—but a hardness too, a steely determination and Emma knows better than to test. “I want to trust you, I do. But how the hell am I meant to when you keep hiding things from me?”

Emma doesn't know.

 

* * *

 

A few days later, they finally roll into New England, and enter Boston at about six. Emma has more than half a mind to keep going and try to reach Storybrooke tonight, but Henry is all but catatonic and Regina already looks drowsy, and she knows that it's unfair to subject them to her own lack of sleeping schedule.

They stay in the same hotel that Emma had stayed in the month before, checking into almost exactly the same room for good measure. Henry all has to be carried to bed and is immediately out like a light as soon as his head hits the pillow, and Regina decides to take a moment to watch the local TV news before going to bed, as Emma busies herself with her preparations for tomorrow. She's been over a month gone, and she'd have to take at least a day or two to assess the situation, and see how her schemes have progressed.

She's in the middle of planning out the next three days when her train of thought is roughly interrupted by the voice of the newsreader.

“The extraordinary trial of Mark Critcher continued today, as witnesses gave testimony on...”

Her eyes fly open and she dashes into the TV room, taking the remote from Regina's loose and very surprised grip and turning up the volume. A reporter is describing the details of the case from outside the courtroom—apparently Critcher is less of a banker and more of a mob boss, and those two goons had been his top bodyguards—

“—both of whom died a few days after Critcher's arrest from almost identical heart attacks. Police are not treating these deaths as suspicious, but...”

Emma falls.

“Emma?” Regina moves over, places a hand on her back, but her head is spinning, the entire world is spinning around, gyrating wildly out of control, whirling into oblivion—“Emma, what's wrong?”

Bodyguards. Died. Heart attacks.

Bile rises up her throat, and she sinks to her knees, unable to think, unable to feel.

“Emma, please. Tell me.”

“I killed them,” she whispers, as the first tear cascades down her cheek. “I killed them.

 


 

one lifetime.

 

It takes over two hours for Emma to tell her story, between hitching, uneven sobs and dry heaving. More than once, she has to dash over to the bathroom when it hits her just what she's done, how far she's fallen. Being the Dark One, it turns out, doesn't remove your ability to feel, and nor does it remove your conscience—not if there's someone else there to bring it back to you.

All the while, Regina—

Regina simply holds Emma in her lap, softly stroking loose blonde hair away from her glistening, moisture-covered cheeks. Emma is pretty sure that no Dark One has ever been held like this before.

“I—I didn't know,” Emma chokes out. “I swear, I thought that—”

“I know, darling,” Regina murmurs, pressing her lips to the crown of her head. “I know. Magic is unpredictable in this world, and what you did is far outside the realms of its usual operation. There was always a chance that something unusual could happen.”

“I should have known. I should have known. I'm supposed to know all these things.”

“No one knows all about magic that there is to know. Gold didn't, and his tenure was far longer than yours.”

“I know, I just—god, why do I even care?” Emma asks miserably, making it patently obvious just how much she does. “I'm the Dark One. I can do anything. Why do I care so much?”

But Regina pulls her up, kisses her so sweetly that Emma's tears are briefly stilled. “Because you are still you. You are still the same woman who refused to leave town when I had you arrested. You are the one who pulled me out of a fire and told me that that's what good people did. You are the one who gave us our son. You are the one who showed me a better way, a happier way, and refused to stop believing that I could take it.”

Another kiss, then Regina rests their foreheads together, starts rubbing circles on Emma's cheek. “You are still the same Emma Swan, and the Dark One is nothing more than a title. I thought you wanted to get rid of those?”

Emma smiles, but it's thin and watery. “But the darkness—”

“Is still there, and will remain there, and it will hurt deeply. But I've been to far more terrible places than you could imagine, and I'm still here. If you were able to save me, then I'm certain you'll be able to save yourself if you're willing to fight.”

“And—and if I'm not?”

One more kiss, chaste and light and so, so soft.

“Then let us fight for you, Emma. Let us fight for you.”

 

* * *

 

She doesn't sleep that night—even without her ever-strengthening magic as they get nearer and nearer Storybrooke, she knows there's no way she'd be able to get a moment's rest. So instead, she goes to Henry's room and takes a silent seat next to his bed.

She fully intends on simply sitting and watching him for the rest of the night, but something about her presence must disturb him because he soon opens a sleepy eye.

“Mom?”

“Shh,” she whispers, reaching forward to stroke through his hair. “It's alright, kid. Go back to sleep.”

“Okay.” But he keeps his eye open, studying her with that intelligent, searching gaze of his—“Is everything okay?”

And her chest tightens and her chest constricts, because how, how does she tell him, how does she share this one total and absolute betrayal that will surely crush his faith in her forever—

“Mom?” He's turned over now, both eyes open so he can meet her gaze properly. “It's okay. I know who you are now. I know that—that you've might have done some bad things that will make me mad. It's okay.”

She continues to stroke his hair with a trembling hand, her throat so tight she's struggling to breathe. “Henry—”

“I still love you. Alright? No matter what happens, I'll still love you like I love Mom.”

She smiles, bright and broken and like herself for the first time in three months. “I love you too, Henry. I love you too.”

And she says it again, and again, and again, until he finally falls asleep.

 

* * *

 

Just before they reach the town line the next morning, at the diner where Emma had been originally found so many years ago, she taps Regina on the shoulder and leads her away to a secluded copse in the woods beneath a brilliant azure sky. The air is pure and clear, filled with the melodic trilling of birdsong, a far cry from the dense and storm-lashed evening of her departure.

“I want you to have this again,” she declares without preamble, holding a bundle of black cloth which Regina recognises immediately by the way her eyes widen and her eyebrows shoot skywards.

“Emma—”

“I'm going to have my powers back soon. In full. And I'm not as good at keeping control as you are.”

Regina reaches out, but doesn't take it yet. “The last time you gave this to me—”

“I asked you to save me and you didn't. I remember.” Better than you do—but that's for another time, another wound to be healed. “But I guess that you weren't the only one who failed me.”

A flash of guilt. “Emma—”

“No, I—I think I get it now. I have to save myself, right? You and Henry and my parents and everyone else can help all they want, but in the end it has to be me.”

Another hesitation, a final querying glance—but when Emma doesn't make any move to retract the offer, Regina takes the dagger and stows it beneath her blazer. “So is this where you tell me what you've been hiding all this time?”

No. No, I won't. No, I'm not—

“I guess so.” She breathes in, breathes out. “Merida's in Storybrooke, teaching Gold to be a hero.”

Regina frowns. “Merida? That red-haired girl with that impossible accent?”

“Yeah.”

“No one's seen her.”

“I'm good at what I do,” Emma says simply.

“But if she's teaching Gold to be a hero—”

“Then he's going to be the one who takes Excalibur out of the stone.” She pauses for a moment. “But I figure that isn't happening now.”

“That's really up to you,” Regina says evenly. “But then, why hide this? What's so terrible about all of this that you had to keep it to yourself for so long?”

Emma simply waits. And waits. Because she can't say this out loud—won't say this out loud.

Regina upturns her chin, her eyes wide when the realisation finally hits. “Oh. Oh. You took out Merida's heart.”

Emma grimaces, ducking her head. “It was the only way to make her do what I needed.”

“Justification, Emma. Remember?”

“I know, I—I'll put it back.” She glances at the bulge beneath Regina's blazer. “I guess I don't have a choice now.”

“There's always a choice, Emma,” Regina murmurs, stepping closer and clasping her hands. “I'll use the dagger to stop you from doing anything you can't walk back from, but I won't use it to control you. You have to want this yourself.”

“I do—I do want this. I told you, I just want to live and be—be free and happy with my family.”

Regina smiles, leans forward and brushes her lips across Emma's forehead.

“Then let's live, and go home.”

Above, two birds sing joyously as they cavort upwards, free, high into the crystalline blue.