This is the fairest of all the worlds she’s known.
The fact that it’s only fair to some, not all, does not do anything to negate that.
Ruby delivers her groceries.
Regina can’t immediately tell if it’s because Charming is worried she’ll get lynched if she sets foot in the White Rabbit’s food emporium, or if it’s a courtesy at Henry’s behest, given that Ruby’s baskets of food are full of things she’s partial to.
The fact that she isn’t to be starved to death while under her unspoken house arrest is a minor amusement; her magic might be unpredictable, in this new, supposedly curse-free version of the town she crafted with little more than her mind, but food seemingly is value-neutral enough to be conjured up at just about any point.
The window sill in Henry’s bedroom is lined with cupcakes, for a day; wet with icing the next.
She’s so bored that by the fifth time Ruby comes around with her basket, she actually tries to strike up a conversation with the girl, and gets hissed at in response.
“I didn’t think wolves hissed,” she says, letting the basket sink down to her elbow and then dangle there, like culinary chattel.
Ruby looks taken aback, but then just says, “If you’d ever been close enough to one to find out, Your Majesty, you wouldn’t be having this conversation with me right now.”
Regina honestly can’t decide if that’s right or not--the things in the forest that had done her bidding, back when she was someone, are more unmentionable than the thing that dominated Little Red Riding Hood’s past--but there’s something to be said for Ruby’s determination in thinking she is in fact the most horrid, deadly thing that’s ever existed.
It’s familiar, that fear of only ever being able to destroy.
“It was a joke, dear,” she finally just says. It comes out like a sigh; like Ruby’s somehow scored a point, as opposed to the truth, which is that Regina is tired of trying to win altogether.
“Oh,” Ruby says, looking at her with the kind of concern one would project at an ailing grandmother, about to keel over from a head cold.
Not that Red would know the first thing about that kind of grandmother.
They look at each other silently, until Regina arches an eyebrow and says, “I hope you’re not expecting gratitude for your... baskets. I’m perfectly capable of fending for myself.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you are,” Ruby says, in the sort of tone that lets Regina know that Red is now holding the reins. “And look at what happened to us all the last time you fended.”
“Are you eating enough iron, dear?” Regina says, after a few seconds, plastering on a smile. “You’re looking a little... pale.”
Ruby’s expression is oddly reminiscent of Snow’s, which then reminds her of Emma’s, which reminds her of Henry’s; all of that in the span of about three seconds, before Little Red Riding Hood flounces out of her house, with neither hood nor basket, but a kind of prowl to her gait that means that some things stay the same anyway.
Regina watches her go, and then checks the contents of her delivery.
Everything she needs for spanakopita; something neither Henry nor Charming would have even the slightest idea how to make.
All magic comes at a price, Rumpelstiltskin told her once.
It had been far too late for it to make any difference, at that point, and even then he’d failed to tell her about the fine print, the parts of his deals that went unspoken and simmered on for centuries while he danced around the goods and evils of the world, tugging on all of his strings.
Not everything that looks like magic actually is, it seems.
Or maybe it’s just love that sometimes isn’t.
Even after all this time, Regina cannot really tell the difference.
With the ninth basket, three weeks into her house arrest, Ruby says, “You know, I never did anything to you.”
Regina is actually surprised by the statement and stops rifling through the basket’s contents--everything she needs for a vegetable lasagna, this time--and looks back at her. “Define did.”
“Guilty by association? Is that why? Because Snow was--” Ruby starts, and then sighs, “Is my best friend?”
“They’re not dead,” Regina says, more roughly than she means to.
“How can you even be sure of that? Are you--”
“If they died, I would not live through the night. Don’t pretend that it’s not true; that kind of naivete might look endearing on some, but you’ve been through enough in your life to realize that the only thing keeping me alive is the faint notion that my magic may be able to help get them back here.”
Ruby looks a little offended by that bland statement. “James would never do anything to you; Henry wouldn’t--”
Her eyes roll without her consent. “Yes, of course, you’re right; a ten year old would dictate policy in this ridiculous, non-democratic miniature kingdom that Charming is piecing together. Tell me, have you voted on anything? You do realize he’s not even actually of the ruling class, regardless of what world we’re in--don’t you?”
Ruby’s chin lifts. “And who elected you, Mayor Mills?”
Regina’s smile is thin. “Saying he’s no better than a woman you’d rather enjoy as a lunchtime snack isn’t much of a compliment, dear.”
A muscle on Ruby’s face throbs, and then she just sighs. “Did you have to give me hepatitis?”
It takes Regina a second, and then she almost laughs. “No.”
Somewhere at the back of her mind, she’s asking a far younger (but equally insolent) Snow the same question; did you have to? Did you have to? Did you?
Ruby studies her quietly for a few moments, the red of her shirt as dark as Regina’s lipstick, and then she tentatively says, “What if I told you that--it’s gone, now?”
“What if what is?” Regina asks, even though she suspects she already knows, and it’s another one of those prickling little coincidences that makes her feel that really, all the power in this realm is still unallocated; still hers to grab, if she just makes the right move at the right time.
Ruby’s jaw clicks, which seems like it might be a warning, and then she says, “Granny... forgot. That I don’t eat meat, here. She made me a sandwich with roast beef in it and I finished half of it before I realized that... I shouldn’t.”
“And you weren’t ill,” Regina notes, tilting her head. “How curious.”
“What does...” Ruby starts to say, and then stops. She just stops, and looks at Regina with an entirely different expression for a few seconds, before taking a step back and fixing the ridiculous hat she found God knows where. Her sense of fashion in this realm has always left a lot to be desired, Regina thinks, raising her eyebrows faintly.
“If you’re asking, I believe you already know.”
The panic in Ruby’s eyes is instantaneous; it’s the kind of abject fear that Regina used to thrive on, used to relish, as her only real source of feeling--but it’s not directed at her, and as a consequence, it feels like a hollow, detached memory of triumph at best.
Her own curse, she thinks, unable to stop her mouth from turning down; experiencing everything and feeling so very little of it.
“Or it was just the curse lifting,” Regina says, with a small shrug. “I wouldn’t panic unless--the moon has been calling to you. But if it had, I’m sure you would’ve taken every possible precaution by now. The cell in the Sheriff’s Department is well-fortified, Miss Lucas. I’m sure that--”
“Yeah,” Ruby says, her lips snagging on her teeth. “You’re right. It was just the curse.”
“Did you miss it?” Regina asks, as Ruby turns for the door again.
She gets a look of absolute disbelief, and that blow feels like something; it feels the same way that finding Henry’s teeth underneath his pillows and swapping them out for gifts per a silly tale used to. Like she’s a part of something that she really, absolutely has no right to be.
“How could anyone miss--”
“I meant being able to eat meat,” Regina says, smiling a little wider. “I personally can’t imagine going without.”
For one second, she thinks Ruby might either throw up or try to kill her; one would be entertaining, the other would give her something to do for the next fifteen minutes, and so it’s not even entirely unwelcome. Reducing someone to vomit would be a new accomplishment--or, well, not new, but …
Instead, all that happens is that Ruby says, “If I never eat meat again, it will still be too soon”, and just like that, any moment of pleasure she might get from the moment is gone.
The look on Ruby’s face is an abrupt reminder of why it is that she allowed the girl to keep her family, even with the curse. Some losses require at least a modicum of respect.
“Yet you crave it,” Regina says, carefully.
“Always,” Ruby says, her lips barely moving.
Regina sobers, the smile fading slowly, and then says, “In this realm, vegetarianism is a viable option; disease or no disease.”
Ruby turns away from her again and tugs the hood on her coat over her head.
“I know,” she says. “But … that doesn’t solve anything, Regina.”
Regina looks at her basket, full of eggplants and zucchini and eggs and tomatoes and onions, and the ever-present wine and cake, of course.
It’s only when the front door shuts again, blotting out the outside world, that it hits her that Little Red Riding Hood hasn’t been little in a very long time, now.
One morning, after a particularly vivid nightmare in which Daniel’s heart is plucked from his chest over and over again, torn to shreds by her mother--with claw-like nails and needlepoint precision--and then slowly consumed, she wakes up with a pounding heart and bile rising in her throat.
This isn’t her burden to bear. It’s not--nobody ate him. Nobody ate a single piece of him.
(The last remnant of the dream had been her mother spearing a pulsing red slice of flesh onto one of the pure gold forks that they only ate with on special occasions, and telling her not to be weak, entreating her to be a good girl who would make her mother proud.)
She’s heard stories, of course, that brought about this dream; about a family in which a particular curse, tangled up in the tides, affects all the girls. They call it the beast. Beasts are plentiful in the forest, however, and none are like this.
Other animals have a modicum of will, free or otherwise, but not this cursed beast, no. It may wish to stop, but cannot. It just consumes everything, including all that it loves; it cannot stop itself until the tides change once more.
After she washes her face and rinses her mouth out with clean, tasteless water, she looks at herself in the mirror and feels … relieved.
For just one day, it makes holding court bearable. Snow’s smile doesn’t cut, and Leopold’s doting behavior towards his daughter and his dead wife merely feels discourteous, not a blunted reminder of what little she’s gained for how much she’s lost.
She teaches herself how to make apples grow, later that day, and plucks one off a tree that shouldn’t be bearing fruit for another season.
It tastes fresh and mealy, and Regina vows to think more carefully of her diet in the future.
Is it worse to remember vividly, or not to remember at all?
Sometimes, she contemplates asking, but she wouldn’t know who to ask; the girl or the beast.
To one, the boy may have been nothing more than meat--particularly flavorful, maybe, but indistinguishable from any other in general--and to the other...
It takes her several months to realize that she may have erred in her assumptions; that the strain in Ruby’s eyes--however young Storybrooke has kept her--suggests that no, it truly doesn’t matter if she’d ask girl or beast.
Perhaps, the bitter taste of true love lingers at the back of her mouth all the same.
The curse breaks instantaneously, but its smaller consequences flicker out like a candle.
Her magic comes and goes, like waves crashing into a shore; some days, she cleans the entire house with dancing brooms and buckets like in that insipid Disney movie. Other days, she can barely flick a light switch from across the room.
There isn’t an inch of her own house that she hasn’t cleaned at this point, and all Charming wants to do is stop by to look at her from behind the tip of his pointed sword and the five tips of his appropriated badge, silently reminding her that this--whatever he means by it on a given day--is all her fault.
It’s so tiresome.
She can’t recall what winning feels like, but she doubts it was as drab as Charming is making it seem.
The stories around the realm generally assumed that she--The Evil Queen; complete with capital letters, black and embossed, and a flourish of smattered blood--was particularly keen on the darker elements of sexual pleasure, and so this whole... chains situation that they’re experimenting with right now...
Ruby--almost gone, now--looks at her warily and says, “Nothing about this is funny.”
“No, I quite agree,” she says, tightening one a little bit more, and then pausing about an inch away from her face; she knows that the girl wants to flinch away, that whatever she smells like is overpowering to the point of being unpleasant (even if it’s merely perfume or soap), but can’t, because of their respective roles in this grotesque theater. “Did you ever consummate your love?”
A while ago, the girl would’ve told her to go to hell; the beast would’ve snapped at her.
Today, it’s none of those things; all she gets is a, “Did you?”
It reminds her of Emma Swan, unexpectedly, who would’ve loved to walk in on this conversation with a needlessly sarcastic, geez, Regina, maybe if you’d just screwed that guy you liked on a bale of hay or something, you wouldn’t have grown up to be such a bitch!
As if it were that easy.
At least currently, she’s faced with someone who knows. The darkness swirling around behind the whites of her willing captive’s eyes say as much for the beast; the irises, with a lingering mixture of incredibly human pity, are what remains of the girl.
“Sucks, doesn’t it,” Ruby then says, before baring teeth that are anything but human in an approximation of a smile.
A while ago, Regina wouldn’t have laughed.
The request isn’t unexpected.
The candle on the table in front of her is lit, which is almost a mirror to what else happens: Ruby shows up with a basket full of the ingredients to make a bisque, and then, still clutching the basket to her chest, says, “I think I might have a problem.”
“Is it me?” Regina asks, politely, glancing up from her magazine; these meetings used to take place in the foyer, but Ruby has started letting herself in ever since Regina stopped bothering to lock the door--for someone supposedly fit to rule, Charming really just has not outgrown the peasant manners that he was raised with. “Because I believe a line is forming right outside of Dr. Hopper’s office...”
Ruby rolls her eyes, suddenly more the teenager than the woman who circumstances back home had brought around; all that’s missing is the smack of gum, but perhaps, with memories returned, that particular habit has become too undignified of an otherwise pretty, well-raised girl. “No. If I wanted in on the revenge plan...”
“Oh, there’s a revenge plan now?” Regina says, drolly. “Well. That should prove entertaining.”
Her snide retort earns her a displeased look, but that’s all.
“Spit it out, dear,” Regina finally says, because there are another six hours for her to fill in this day and she’s been contemplating learning one of Henry’s video games. Why not? It’s the closest she’ll get to--
She sighs, and watches as Ruby awkwardly shifts in front of her. She’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of black jeans that Regina suspects don’t belong to her, but either way, she looks like she belongs.
The fact that she doesn’t is punctuated by what comes next.
“That thing you did to James, with the branches,” Ruby asks, almost meeting her eyes. “How strong are they?”
It isn’t an idle question; not a mere curiosity expressed by a girl who has longed to see more of the world for twenty-eight years, but hasn’t set a single foot outside of the small town that has bound her all that time.
It’s the way that Ruby’s nose almost twitches, after she’s asked, that has Regina sitting upright and looking at her with--well, the kind of expression that would signify alarm if Ruby had any experience at reading terror casually masked.
Regina can’t help but wonder if Ruby’s ever seen this kind of terror; or if she only dreams of the other, inflicted by a part of herself that she cannot leave behind, not even here.
“Not strong enough,” she finally says, evenly. “Wood won’t hold you, Red. Your grandmother found that out the hard way, did she not?”
The gimmick up, Ruby’s eyes lash over to hers, a predator almost visible behind them.
“Can you do anything else, then?”
Regina lowers the copy of Architectural Digest that Charming has so graciously left her, after weeding through her library for anything inappropriate, and says, “You’d be better off asking--”
“I won’t,” Ruby cuts her off, with more determination than she’s heard in a long while. “I’ve seen what he’s done to Belle, and--”
The sentence trails off into nothing, and Regina silently gets to her feet.
“Has she not told you what I’ve done to her, then?” she finally asks, moving around her coffee table, until she’s standing in front of Ruby.
“It’s not the same,” Ruby says, muted; there is a cagey quality to the way her shoulders bunch up, then relax again--like there are bones threatening to burst through her skin, but she’s holding them back, for now.
Something bitter flickers in Ruby’s eyes, and then she says, “You never claimed to love her.”
“No, I most certainly did not,” Regina agrees, and after a moment, rolls up her sleeves. “You’re going to have to talk to the Prince... or is it the Sheriff now?”
It earns her a mistrusting look, but Ruby ultimately just lowers her eyes again. “Why? You didn’t need your books when you pinned him to the wall, did you?”
“Magic is different here,” Regina says, neutrally. “I’d rather hope you were also invested in a more reliable solution to your problem than one that happened to work for me one time.”
After a silent, internal debate, Ruby finally nods. “I’ll get what you need, if you tell me what it is.”
The list is short, and Ruby scrawls it down on what Regina realizes, belatedly, is the order pad from the diner. It’s the kind of thing that would be amusing if they weren’t days away from a full moon, and Ruby’s strides weren’t lengthening as she backs out of the living room, pausing only in the doorway.
“How is it that magic is different here, but … I’m going back to how I was?”
Regina watches the muscles in Ruby’s back tense and relax, tense and relax, until they just tense, and then sighs. “Curses work by different rules. Don’t ask me to explain the difference, but where magic fails, a curse can persist indefinitely.”
“Unless true love’s kiss breaks it. Right?” Ruby says, almost inaudibly.
“So the stories go,” Regina says, and wonders if to Ruby, her heartbeat is as loud as the pounding rhythm of a marching band, even on the other side of the room.
Ruby’s head turns back to her at her oblique statement, and--she’ll swear it, later--it results in a faint tremor in Ruby’s ears, even behind a curtain of hair; but in the look on her face is one of peculiar understanding that she doesn’t think she’s faced in a lifetime.
“Yeah,” Ruby says, pulling her shoulders back up and looking away again. “So they do.”
Charming comes and supervises, the third time.
Regina dryly thinks of it as the time when he’s sure that Ruby won’t actually break free, which is precious, of course. He’s fine with the idea of her being eaten, but his own hide...
His sword is strapped across his back and he grimly sits down next to her, on what used to be Emma’s desk, before Graham’s desk became Emma’s desk, and Emma’s desk became Charming’s desk. It’s empty, aside from the patterns that Regina has laid out on it and will be perusing throughout the rest of the night.
“One could argue I should be getting paid for services rendered,” she says, evenly, as the beast yanks on the chains that they’ve drilled into the back wall of the station. Concrete is such a peculiarly useful invention. Eugenia Lucas must be green with envy over the fact that here, cloaks are more or less unnecessary.
Well. More or less, anyway.
Charming’s brow contorts in that way that it does when he’s attempting to think very hard indeed, and then he says, “Consider it part of your penance.”
It’s not until after he’s said it, stiffly--the way he talks to things that he’d rather stab--that Regina realizes that she doesn’t actually consider this to be a chore.
The beast isn’t much for company, but it’s better than all the other company she’s had ever since her son decided she’d have to earn his favor.
“Am I scoring points with your grandson, Charming?” she asks, because a positive memory of Henry isn’t one that she’s willing to entertain in his presence; it stings too much, and lingers on her tongue for hours after, until she caves and calls him.
She’s no longer waiting for him to call for more reasons than a dire need for her skills; that foolish hope burned out around the time that Ruby Lucas had shown up with all the light bondage gear she’d been able to find and had said, “It’s time.”
“Every day that passes and you don’t... “ Charming says, but his sentence is lost in the growl and snap that sounds from the cell.
“It must be two-thirty,” Regina says, not bothering to look at the clock and instead holding out a hand towards the cell; light crackles from the tips of her fingers to the bars there, and she gives it a little extra push when the beast lunges from the wall and then batters the cell bars, head first.
It lacks Ruby’s intelligence and coordination, but makes up for it in determination; even the voltage that’s shooting through its bones right now isn’t enough to get it to stop trying to snap its jaw through the bars, at where it sees two potential snacks.
Charming looks incredibly concerned until Regina reaches into the cooler by the side of the desk and tosses a steak into the makeshift cage.
“She gets hungry,” she offers, in explanation, before bringing her other hand into the mix and pinning the beast, steak and all, back to the wall with nothing more than the force of her mind.
“I see,” Charming says, thinly.
“My hourly rate is fourteen dollars, Sheriff,” she says; it’s meant to be in jest, as she supposes an actual zookeeper wouldn’t make nearly this much money, but he wordlessly heads into his office and then--on checks she designed, she printed, she certified--writes her one for three times the amount she’s actually owed for the evening’s shift.
She stares at the check and then shakes her head. “Buy Henry something nice with it.”
Charming looks at her like he’s never seen her before, and the wolf howls before its legs give out and it sinks to the ground in the cell, mindlessly gnawing on its treat.
Just another Thursday night in a town supposedly devoid of curses, Regina thinks, and reaches for her knitting needles.
It takes a little experimenting.
The branches, she’d summoned out of the wood in the walls, and nature is funny about these things; making like for like isn’t much of a challenge, nor is summoning out of thin air, but connecting one type of matter to another requires a level of concentration that she hasn’t had to use in longer than she can remember.
She doesn’t even realize how hard she’s focusing until Ruby steps away from the wall and digs a Kleenex out of her pocket.
“What are you doing?” she asks, both frustrated and annoyed; why people can’t follow simple instructions, such as stay put, is beyond her.
“You’re bleeding,” Ruby says, stepping up against the bars and holding out the tissue. “Your nose.”
Regina sighs, because of course she is--as if magic could ever not come at a price, physical or otherwise--but takes the tissue anyway. Her voice comes out wet and muffled when she says, “Assume the position, please.”
Ruby doesn’t move for a second and then cracks up laughing.
Regina stares at her until she stops, which takes longer than it should; though she supposes, tissue up against nose and hair relatively unkempt after too many months of not getting it cut, she’s looked more imposing.
“Sorry,” Ruby finally mutters, before leaning back against the wall, and then, almost teasingly, spread-eagling herself, letting her hands brush up against the concrete of the back wall. “Here, now you just have to--”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Regina says, dropping the Kleenex and heading to the back of the room, where Ruby’s paraphernalia sit in a box. She roots around it for a moment--and still, it remains amusing that all of Storybrooke probably assumes she owns these things--and then gets out a simple pair of handcuffs, the kind that the Sheriff would carry around, and tosses them into the cell.
“Bind your hands, please,” she says, and watches as Ruby fumbles with them--virgin, Regina thinks, unkindly--before snapping them onto her wrists.
It’s marginally more simple to engineer metal to metal, but still; snapping the handcuffs to the wall--drawing on some of the simpler compounds in the cement--is the first thing that has actually happened for her all day.
Arms raised above her head at an awkward angle, Ruby looks at her skeptically. “This won’t hold.”
“No, but now I know what to do,” Regina says, releasing.
Ruby’s arms slacken and she rolls her shoulders with a little more force than anyone purely human would want to, but then she brightly looks at Regina. “Okay. Good! So if you can just unlock these, we can go and tell my Gran--”
Regina nods at the handcuffs. “You can do that on your own, dear. Where is the key?”
Ruby opens her mouth and then closes it again, before saying, “Shit. I left it at home, because--”
“Because,” Regina prompts, when Red’s face abruptly does her name justice.
“Because the point was to... you know. Restrain me,” she then mumbles.
Virgin, Regina thinks, again, and then just rolls her eyes.
Eugenia has been ordered to stay away by Ruby, but when she turns up in the early evening, on their sixth get-together, Regina is expecting her.
If this were Henry...
Well, she says nothing, but tolerates the ridiculousness of spending an evening with a bolt trained alternatingly at Ruby’s den and at her heart. It would probably have made someone else lose their place in the pattern, but overt aggression is one of the few comforting sensations Regina has experienced, lately.
By midnight, Eugenia has gone to make them both tea with the electric kettle in Graham’s old office; and by two am, she’s giving grudging advice on how to best work the needles.
It isn’t quite a thank you, but then a thank you would be insincere. By the time the sun rises and Ruby emerges out of a pile of matted, ruffled fur, Regina almost forgets that they’re not going to be on speaking terms after this.
The loneliness is abrupt, until she catches sight of Ruby’s dazed and then panicked expression, which takes a few seconds too long to shift into relief to be anything other than haunting.
“Put some clothes on, girl,” Eugenia says, curtly.
Ruby laughs, before saying, “Grandma, these are clothes”, pointing at her overnight get-up: a pair of obviously no-longer-preferred leggings and a too-tight, revealing shirt that Ruby-the-waitress would’ve strutted around town in.
Eugenia just grunts before reaching for the cell door key, and Regina packs away her knitting and discreetly kicks the bin with extra chains and ropes under the desk that used to be Emma’s, before glancing back at Ruby.
Ruby, of course, does mouth a thank you, her mouth smiling in a way that’s already less lupine than it has been for a few days, now.
Regina just raises an eyebrow, and tries not to think about how Charming will take all the credit for all she’s been earning for Henry.
When the day comes, the first time, Ruby shows up on her doorstep at five in the morning, shivering in a blanket and chattering around an explanation that mostly centers on her unwillingness to be a burden to her grandmother.
Regina has no idea why the girl assumes that it’s fine to be a burden to Regina, but obviously, in Ruby’s hormone-addled mind, she’s become fair game for entertainment.
It is at least another twelve hours before they need to go to the Sheriff’s Department, where their set-up will be put to the test, and Regina smiles faintly when she realizes that these may be the last twelve hours of one of their lives.
“If it comes down to it,” Ruby says, when she’s perched on a kitchen stool, cupping a mug of hot chocolate, “You should--”
Regina rolls her eyes. “How noble of you, dear. You know, you really don’t have to tell me that I should value my own life more than yours. It’s … more or less a principle that sane people operate by without prompting.”
Ruby looks a little affronted, and then just sheepish; well, as sheepish as a girl with a few too many teeth in her mouth can, anyway.
“Do you?” she then asks, after a long stretch of silence during which only birds chirp in the distance; they remind Regina of her childhood, and she prefers to have them drowned out.
“Do I what?”
“Value your life? More than mine?”
Regina almost laughs off the question, and then just bites down on the inside of her cheek, but perhaps this is one of those unwarranted moments of total honesty. She’s been near death before; sometimes because of the actions of others, frequently because of her own. Never once has she had a confidante in those moments, and it’s refreshing, to feel heard.
“There isn’t much left of it to value,” she then says, before smiling faintly and shrugging the comment off. “But I am not ready to die, just yet. Not until his … other mother returns.”
“They will,” Ruby says, after a moment. “Come back, I mean.”
“Yes,” Regina says, unable to stop from sounding sour. “True love always finds itself, or … each other. Whatever it is that Charming says. I really should know how it goes, given that the man is like a record stuck on repeat.”
“He’ll always find them,” Ruby says, with a wry smile “Trust me, it’s not just him. It’s sort of their thing.”
“How lovely,” Regina drawls.
“Yeah, it’s great to have to hear about,” Ruby agrees, staring down at her mug. “It’s nice to have that kind of faith, I guess.”
Regina doesn’t bother hiding her disdain for the sentiment, and then just takes another sip, staring out the window. It’s almost spring, now. Apples are starting to grow without her help now; much like Henry is becoming less boy, more man, without any real input on her part.
It’s a thought that makes her burn with anger, and she doesn’t stop it fast enough; the liquid in her cup bubbles up and over without prompting, scalding her hand and splashing onto the table.
Ruby, to her credit, doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t even look. She just goes on staring at her mug and then says, “How old were you when you lost faith?”
“Your age,” Regina says, much sharper than she means to.
“My actual age, or--”
“I meant the same age you were, when you did,” Regina supplies, adding a murmured, “There wasn’t much in the land I didn’t hear about back then, dear.”
Ruby glances at her briefly and then nods. “And it hasn’t been back?”
There are pictures on the fridge that say maybe, but they’re starting to fade, even though this room hasn’t seen light in longer than it should have, and so Regina looks at the black of her boiling coffee and just shrugs.
“Some things, you lose forever.”
It is almost a year to the date of the curse breaking when Henry shows up.
He’s taller, now. Muscles have grown in places that she remembers as being either pudgy with youth or plainly thin.
It’s not as if she hasn’t seen him in a year, of course, but he certainly hasn’t willingly spent any time alone with her. Not when he has his sword-fighting grandfather, and another mission to complete. Operation Tarantula, or whatever in God’s name he’s called this one.
Operation something other than Cobra. Of course, he never thought that she knew, and even tolerated his attachment to his fantasies, to Emma.
Though, the way he sits down next to her, on the desk that used to be Emma’s, suggests that perhaps he’s starting to consider that she’s known all along.
“I think that what you’re doing is really nice,” he tells her.
“Knitting you a hat, you mean?” she asks, not really meaning to. It’s incredibly hard to not think of him as small and hers. It’s so hard. Sometimes, she can’t really fight it at all.
“No,” he says, more patiently than she’s expecting him to. “With Ruby.”
“What is it they say here?” Regina asks, after a few seconds, tying off the end of the string and then pulling the needles away. “Eat or be eaten?”
“You mean it’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Henry says, with the kind of sobriety that an eleven year old should not be able to manage. “And you’re not a dog. Well, neither is she, though I guess she comes closer. But that’s not why you do it, is it.”
“It’s not?” Regina asks, and then, before he can tell her to stop, lowers the hat onto his head.
He looks so much like his mother that she wants to yank it off again immediately, but then his hands cover her own as he pulls it down further, sinking it over his ears, and she just lets it happen. The way she’s let so many things happen, this last year.
“No. You do it because--you do feel sorry, about what’s happened. And if you knew how to fix it, how to bring Emma and my grandma back, you would.”
Henry’s never dealt in beliefs so much as ultimate truths, pure facts. That much hasn’t changed.
The beast groans on the ground--eleven pm was a particularly bad time tonight, and Regina might’ve pushed a little too hard--and then whimpers. It actually whimpers, like a small dog.
Worse, the sound sort of tugs on Regina; makes her want to send it some warmth or some other form of comfort, but she has no idea what it would even experience as nice, short of a limb to chew on.
Not having a child hasn’t made her less of a mother, it seems; and this beast is nothing like Ruby, who doesn’t need a mother. It’s as helpless as it is vicious, and helpless viciousness...
“You’re becoming a good person,” Henry tells her, solemnly, and then clumsily throws his arms around her neck and hugs her tightly. “I didn’t want to say it before now because I thought you might be trying to trick us, but I think it’s really true this time.”
It’s the beast she’s looking at when she says, “It’s not a trick, Henry. I swear.”
His cheeks dimple a little when he pulls back and nods. “I know. Um, I need to go to bed soon, but I think--maybe, I can come... stay with you again. On weekends. If that’s okay.”
It’s not particularly a conversation she wants to be having while keeping one eye on a wolf that is about as predictable as the early spring weather in a post-curse town like Storybrooke, but then again, maybe this is the exact audience the conversation deserves.
“I’d really like that,” she tells him, not bothering, for once, to shield him from the truth of how she feels.
When he leaves, Charming and his sword waiting for him outside of the room, she sits down on the floor in front of the cage and waits for Ruby to come back.
They won’t talk about this, but sometimes--no, often-- she thinks that Ruby remembers a lot more of her time out there than she would ever want to.
Tonight, for once, that won’t actually be a terrible thing.
The first time, she expects nudity.
Instead, the clothes somehow don’t tear--they just reappear.
It has to be magic; magic and a curse all at once.
She’s still frowning when Ruby groggily sits up, in a hooded Storybrooke High sweatshirt and a pair of capri pants, and looks over at her.
“How was it? Was I--”
“Perfectly well behaved, for a wild animal,” Regina says, hands folded in her lap. “I was expecting slightly more entertainment, but you only managed--”
“Holy shit,” Ruby says, turning to look at the brick wall behind her. Or, well.
What’s left of it.
“Nothing the dwarves can’t fix, dear,” Regina says, drolly. “We’ll simply reinforce it.”
It takes Ruby a moment, during which she first blankly stares at the wall and then runs her hands through her hair, but then she turns back to Regina and forces an unconvincing smile.
“Yeah. That, they can fix.”
“What was his name?” Ruby asks her.
It’s the anniversary of Emma and Snow’s disappearance, and the rest of the town is at some sort of insipid memorial service for two people who aren’t dead, Regina believes.
The impermanence of their predicament makes it seem so pointless, though at least the fact that Ruby is with her, out in her backyard, means that she’s not alone in finding this all incredibly juvenile and contrived.
The basket just has bread and a bottle of wine in it, but Regina’s been saving some pâté for a Beef Wellington; though that hardly matters. It’ll do, for this occasion--having a guest--and so she brings out a plate and a knife, extending both to Ruby.
“Daniel,” she then says, as Ruby’s nostrils flare at the sight and smell of the pâté, and she herself stares at her apple tree, blossoming overhead. “His name was Daniel.”
“Mine was Peter,” Ruby says, and slathers pâté onto the first slice of bread, before politely handing it over.
Regina would prefer the wine, and so declines; she tries not to smile when Ruby just inhales the first bite, and then goes back to looking at the trees.
“Do you ever think that... maybe it’s not them we should be believing in? That there’s someone else, that could break... I don’t know,” Ruby says, brow furrowing as she spreads more pâté on even more bread--and then eventually gives up and just eats the pâté cleanly off the knife.
“My curse is of my own making, dear,” Regina says, extending a hand and waiting for an apple to fall in it.
Today is one of those days when the magic won’t quite work; as if Charming’s boorish speech-giving across town is sapping her of all her strength.
She’s become patient, though, in the last year; and eventually, the apple drops. It always does.
“I meant--the heart. What happened to his heart,” Ruby says, a little tentatively.
Regina looks over sharply, twisting the apple in her hand. “What do you know of it?”
“Snow,” she says, almost snarling; and God, perhaps she’s spending too much time with the wolf-beast-girl if this is what she’s reduced to, so quickly, “doesn’t know the first thing about what came to pass. All she knows is that--”
“It was her actions that led to his death. His heart was--”
The apple shatters in her hand, and Ruby stares at it in horror.
“Yes,” Regina then says, flicking away the bits of it that cling to her palm, and trying desperately not to think of an old dream. “It was.”
“Did you kiss him?” Ruby asks, almost gulping out the words.
Magic crackles around them for a second, until Regina takes a deep breath and thinks of Henry, of cupcakes, of red capes and baskets of food, of rings and ribbons and horses running wild.
She only answers the question when it’s clear that Ruby isn’t cowed by her; that Ruby understands what a loss of control would really look like. “I did.”
“And he was exactly as dead as he’d been two seconds earlier.”
“Peter kissed me, you know,” Ruby says, a little brokenly. “All the time. And--”
“And here you are; socializing with your enemy, because she’s the only other person in this godforsaken fishbowl who understands that sometimes, all there is to do is lose,” Regina says, picking out bits of apple from underneath her nails.
“What if it just... what if he wasn’t the one?” Ruby says, several ticks of the clock later.
When Regina glances over, she looks … primed, as if she wants to sit on her haunches, ready to strike.
“What if, indeed,” she says. Her hand is wet and oddly tender, and she lets it rest on her lap before looking back at the tree. “Who then, dear Red? Who if not Peter? If not Daniel? Do you think Jiminy Cricket might be your true love? An unclaimed dwarf, hatched from an egg? A--”
“Stop mocking me.”
“I’m not mocking--”
“You know, I used to think that you knew more than the rest of us about how this stuff works--magic and curses, but you don’t have a clue anymore, do you?” Ruby says, eyes pinning Regina in place.
It’s a challenge, and Regina cocks her head at it.
“And you do, do you, Red?” she asks, pointedly.
When the girl pounces, it’s the first time in months Regina has felt anything other than empty. It’s different from her latent discomfort at facing the beast that shows itself once a month; this is real, confrontational. It’s enough to send her heart pounding and her blood thinning, and judging by the hungry look on Ruby’s face, she’s not capable of hiding anything her body is doing.
The damn creature that shares a life with the girl--
“No,” Ruby says, before leaning forward, almost like a surrender; but when she nuzzles a stretch of skin right by Regina’s ear, Regina knows it’s a deception--that she’s being toyed with, somehow. “I don’t know anything, but I’ll be damned if that means I never even try.”
“So by all means--try, with someone who can--” Regina starts to say, but hands are pressing against her shoulders and pinning her in place, and then Red’s nose trails down her cheek, pausing right at the edge of her jaw and staying there, sniffing a few times.
“You’ve never asked, if I remember,” she then says, quietly.
In hearing those words, Regina realizes that in spite of what she’s surmised about Ruby’s memories, a part of her has always hoped that she was wrong.
She pulls back just long enough to look at Ruby, and then--hesitating between doing nothing and reaching out and cupping her cheek, or perhaps the back of her neck--says, “Nobody should have to.”
“I didn’t always, and a lot of memories are no more than--flashes, of things I’ve done, but it’s all there. I remember the worst of it, and then I remember--the last few months,” Ruby confesses, silencing any possible retort with a hand to Regina’s mouth, wielded almost like a paw. “You haven’t been watching me for the money, or for Henry, or because the alternative is death. It knows it as much as I do.”
That doesn’t seem to require a response, and so Regina just stares.
“So then why?” Ruby demands, eyes scanning her face for a reaction.
Regina takes a deep breath, lifting the hand Ruby has braced on her chest, and looks at the leaves and branches and apples, so many apples, overhead.
“I don’t know,” she admits.
It’s good enough for Ruby, it seems; all she does is lean down and steals a kind of kiss that nobody will ever write fairy tales about:
Brittle, questioning, and without a price to be paid.
Later, it’ll occur to her that it’s delightfully ironic that the only two people she’s been intimate with in twenty eight years are a man with a wolf, and...
No, it remains impossible to decide if Red is a girl with a wolf, or a wolf with a girl.
Really, it seems to vary with the tides; a theory she would’ve loved to share with Maleficent, back in the day, but it will just have to privately entertain her, now.
It changes nothing, of course.
Her loss never was a curse, and Red’s condition is perhaps more scientific than either of them thought, but somehow, that doesn’t make what happens between them any less pleasant.
The only actual curse they’ve ever shared is metaphorical. Something about the way that Red shifts far away from her but never quite leaves her bed, after the fact, means that it fades to a distant background--a place they may never visit again, and in any event can leave whenever they want to.
One time, Red turns to her afterwards, hair mussed and red lipstick slashed all over her mouth, and says, “Do you think this is fun just because it’s wrong?”
Regina wants to hold her, briefly, because it’s such an innocent question to ask, but ultimately just laughs and shakes her head. “No. I’ve done wrong, and believe me, it’s not like this.”
Red sneaks out before Henry wakes up, that day, and Regina makes pancakes and thinks about a ring that she once thought she could never bear to part with.
For a moment, anyway.
Then, she runs her fingers through Henry’s too-long hair, and heads to her library.
When Emma and Snow come back, an irritating spectacle ensues.
It’s extra irritating because she can’t seem to escape it, no matter how she tries.
Some part of her chafes at Red’s participation in it; as if the last year has been so inconsequential that she can go right back to playing preferred bridesmaid all over again.
The town has stopped wanting to kill Regina primarily because she’s seen as a line of last defense against an even bigger threat, somehow--and so she ends up standing next to Eugenia Lucas at the reunion party, stabbing at a piece of cake--vanilla, of course--with a fork.
“I worried about her, you know,” Eugenia says, without prompting. She’s holding her own fork like it’s a potential weapon, though it’s unclear what she perceives of as a possible threat at this utterly mundane shindig.
“You shouldn’t. She’s responsible about her condition,” Regina says, directing just enough magic at her slice of cake to make it taste like something richer, darker, better. Chocolate and raspberry is what she ends up with. It’s a vast improvement.
“I didn’t worry about that,” Eugenia tells her, pointedly.
The fork gets turned toward her in a way that actually has her stiffen for a second.
“Mrs. Lucas, I’m a few years past where giving me the talk would be anything other than preposterous,” she finally says, raising her eyes to the stoic, powerful--albeit in a small way--woman across from her.
“I’ll keep it short. If you ever hurt her, I’ll let her eat you,” Eugenia tells her, lowering the fork again.
Regina somehow manages not to laugh. “Yes, well, … noted.”
“And don’t think she won’t. She ate--”
“I know,” Regina says, unwillingly looking across the room, at where Ruby is talking to Henry and Charming is doting over Snow and Emma looks like she wishes she could evaporate. “I know exactly what she’s done.”
Eugenia appraises her silently, and then says, “You know, you’re not as terrifying as you think you are.”
“Thank you, I think,” Regina says, finishing the last of her cake and then saying, “If you’ll excuse me, I feel a sudden need to be away from these people coming on.”
That earns her a small chuckle, and when Ruby joins her outside a few moments later, saying, “Ugh, they’re so gross about how in love they are; even you have to feel kind of bad for Emma, right?”, it feels like perhaps not much is going to change for the worse at all.
When Snow shows up, on the thirteenth moon since she started guarding Ruby, it feels startlingly overdue; like something obvious that’s been missing, so far.
Regina just points at the desk behind her and says, “It’s where guests tend to sit.”
She expects some sputtering about the word guests, but Snow just silently moves further into the room and then sits down. Her posture is tense and her expression is wary, but Regina just continues knitting another hat--this one for Granny, because Henry has enough hats to last him a lifetime--and sending the occasional small pulse of warmth to the semi-conscious figure in the corner of the cell.
“I don’t understand this at all,” Snow finally says. “What--you two are doing. Whatever this is. You don’t... love her. She doesn’t love you. Why--”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” Regina says, as calmly as she can manage, but something about Snow’s judgment of all of her life choices still chafes the way it always has, going back to when a spoiled, wide-eyed child had expressed disgust at her preference for a pauper. “You have, however, been gone for a year, and while your husband may have play-acted at all forms of law enforcement in your daughter’s absence, neither of you are actually in a position to dictate what we do, dear.”
“I didn’t mean--”
“I know you didn’t,” Regina says, before lowering her needles and looking over at Snow in a way that is almost tired. “But you do come here with questions about justice; about what I deserve. It probably is less than this, but that isn’t up to you to decide. Not anymore.”
Snow looks back at her silently for a few seconds, and then directs a pitying look at Ruby.
“I have never wanted her to be lonely,” she then says, quietly.
“In light of your return, I think we can safely say that she isn’t.”
“Okay,” Snow finally says, before taking a deep breath and sighing. “Can I ask you something, mother to mother?”
Hell is apparently about to freeze over, and a grunt from the cell means that she’s not the only one struggling not to give in to shocked laughter.
“If you must,” Regina says, grudgingly.
“What do you do if your... child has completely inappropriate taste in... people?”
“Pray that it improves.”
Snow rolls her eyes. “Yeah, okay. I’m sure that’s what you used to do whenever Henry snuck off to do God knows what as part of Operation Cobra.”
“Well, I suppose you could try grounding Miss Swan. I’ve personally found it nearly impossible to get her to stop doing anything I didn’t want her to, but you might be in a slightly more privileged position.”
Snow looks incredibly disgruntled, and the beast howls briefly.
The idea that Regina is starting to understand what it wants is a little disconcerting--and possibly a consequence of at least some of the work she’s been doing, because magic always comes with... well, some sort of price--but she can’t help but direct a fond little look at the cage all the same.
She’s actually fallen asleep when Ruby comes to, and only wakes up when a bra is flung at her face.
“What--” she says, before shooting upright, arms outstretched and ready to magically do whatever is needed.
“You’re getting a little too comfortable; maybe I need to get Gran to come and join us again,” Ruby says, stretching languidly and then ambling over to the cell door.
Regina grunts, a hideous crick in her neck from sleeping on one of the uncomfortable office chairs--her legs up on a filing cabinet--and then works her way into a sitting position. “Maybe so.”
“Unless--” Ruby says, as she steps in close.
It’s funny; the most bizarre thing about the beast is that no matter what raw meat it chomps down in the middle of the night, Ruby’s breath is always fine the next morning. Out of everything to be continuously surprised by, it’s an asinine detail, but still. Regina can’t help but wonder what causes it; if it’s something about the curse or something about Ruby.
“Unless what?” she asks, glancing at Ruby while fumbling with the station keys.
“I know what you’ve been doing, you know,” Ruby says, with a private little smile.
“Knitting a hat for your grandmother, you mean?”
“No--the other twenty nine days of the month, give or take.”
The door swings open and Ruby steps out, and this is a vague sort of unspoken ritual; she gets a hug, for having survived the night. With time, it’s become less tedious to have to return it, which is the only thing that makes Ruby stop.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Regina says, pursing her lips a little. “I’ve obviously been researching how to--”
“Uh huh,” Ruby says, stepping away and grabbing her jacket off the visitor’s desk. “Portals, right?”
“Such were the conditions of my parole.”
“Mmhm,” Ruby says, taking Regina’s latest hat and putting it on; Regina can’t help but frown and shake her head, because no matter what she does, her hats only ever look right on the descendants of Snow White. “That’s why all the books on portals are in your study, and all the ones next to your bed are actually about rare curses and rarer cures.”
Regina feels a muscle in her cheek tic. “I’m sure there’s some idiotic saying about sheep laying with wolves that would apply right now, but given that I’m not James, let’s just say that I like being prepared. The last time I spontaneously dealt with anything curse-oriented, it didn’t exactly turn out as I’d anticipated, after all.”
Ruby just sort of snorts, before frowning and plucking some of her own fur out of her mouth, and then shakes her head. “You know what? If it makes you feel better to pretend you’re not looking for a permanent solution, you go right ahead.”
“Looking isn’t the same as finding, Red,” Regina says, after a few seconds. “I have no idea if it’s even possible, but--”
“It’s like--that thing, that neither of us believe in,” Ruby says, silencing her with a slight head-tilt. “You know? I didn’t think it would happen, and neither did you, but... that doesn’t mean it hurts to try and just see where it gets you.”
Snow and Charming would be fairly horrified by this plain and accurate summation of what it is, exactly, that the last year has brought them, but it seems oddly fair and just in Regina’s eyes.
“So now you’re trying,” Ruby says, more gently this time.
“I suppose I am,” Regina concedes.
Ruby just sort of grins at her, wolfishly, and says, “Well, let me know if there are any fun theories I could help with.”
Regina rolls her eyes, but opts not to mention that thus far, most of her investigations have led her to potential cures that involve death, blood-letting, blood-swapping, and once, a ritual exorcism involving the horn of a unicorn.
Whatever Ruby might claim, she obviously believes a little, still.
It’s faith Regina hasn’t earned, but she’ll take it.