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I.

The King has sounded positively gleeful when he said he would execute her come the next morning if she couldn't provide him with straw spun to gold, and Cora knows he hasn't been joking. There will be no one who would intercede on her behalf, either. The prince may have looked at her with some admiration and then sympathy during their brief exchange at the ball, but he'd no more go against his father now than he had done when his father had made her kneel and apologize for something that hadn't been her fault. And her own father? She snorts, and it almost turns into a sob before she catches herself.

Cora has given up expecting anything from her father, other than a drunken stupor, a long, long time ago. And her mother is dead.

There is no one to help her, and there never would be. She has to save herself. The room they'd locked her in is too high above the ground to jump; she'd only end with her neck broken and her limbs smashed to pieces. Even if she tore her dress to pieces and tried to use the pieces to make a rope, the result won't hold her, not this fabric. But they have kindly provided her with straw, straw, and more straw. And if she can't spin it to gold, she can use her own dress and every bit of cloth in the room to sow herself a gigantic cushion. It still takes every bit of courage she has, but in the end she maneuvres it out of the window and throws herself downwards on it, stark naked.

She hits the ground. There is a moment when she can't breathe, and her body aches all over. But she is alive, she is still alive. She rolls of her cushion and manages to tumble out of the courtyard. Because of the ball, the castle has been open to visitors, not barred, and while there are guards, they only stare at the sight of a naked woman running away from them, and do not pursue. Nobody has bothered to tell them about the King's amusing little joke regarding the Miller's daughter he'd caught at the ball. They probably assume she'd been someone's plaything for the night, and is sent home after not having given satisfaction.

There are some drunken guests leaving the castle, to be sure. She hits the first single man she comes across over the head with a stone, takes his finery and his money and does not look back. By dawn, she has reached the Enchanted Forest where she'll be safe until she can figure out where to go to next. One thing is sure: she has no intention of returning to either her home village or the castle, not until she can do so with an army at her back and the King at her feet.

"My, but you are a fast young woman," says a voice. "I wanted to rescue you, you now."

She turns around and sees a man in courtier's clothes unlike any other she'd seen before. His skin is that of a lizard, and his eyes are not human, either. There is no way he could have followed her without her noticing, which means he must possess magic. Under other circumstances, she'd have been fascinated, and curious to learn more, but right now, she is exhausted and sore all over.

"Too late," she replies and turns her back to him again. "I rescued myself."

 

II.

For a while, they are deliriously happy together. As satisfying as killing the king was, she quickly finds out that there is no need to sit on a throne if you can make the people already on it tremble and beg for your help, something at which Rumplestilskin excels, and which she learns very quickly. Their minds fit together like intricate puzzle pieces, and the pictures they form are ever new and exciting. As for their bodies, here she finds herself the teacher, not the student; for all that he's older and passionate, there is also a shyness in him, a hesitation about his own limbs; an echo of past humiliations. They had been, after all, differently insulted, he and she, even if the results are now the same. Her body had been seen as the only thing acceptable in her, to work at the mill, and to be used at some man's pleasure. As soon as she had opened her mouth to speak and reveal she had a mind and desires of her own, she had been deemed too proud and in need of punishment. His body, on the other hand, had been deemed too weak at first and then disgusting, even as he had his power, and the things he could do with his mind had been both feared and longed for.

Taking joy in each other is yet another way to triumph over the past, but it also makes her discover, for the first time in her life, tenderness.

For a while, they are happy.

Then she gets pregnant, and while there is no doubt this is what he, too, wanted, he behaves strangely torn the closer the birth comes. She can read him like a book by now, but this remains a mystery. A child, her firstborn, had been what he had wished for from the beginning; they would never have met otherwise. He's told her about his son, about the pain that still drives him; maybe, Cora thinks, he is afraid to lose this second child as well, and tells him neither of them will ever let this child go.

"No," he says. "We won't. That much I could see."

And he looks as if this is a curse instead of a promise.

He's been working on a way to find his son again ever since he lost him, this she knows, and has put her own mind to it in order to help him, but now she starts to feel that he think about their child as much as about the one who is long gone. Maybe he should even consider to let the past be the past. They should be enough for him, she and their child. If he stops looking for what he lost, he will fully appreciate what he has, Cora concludes, and starts to wonder about a way to make sure he will, indeed, stop looking forever.

The baby is born and a beautiful girl, and he still looks at her with both love and despair, which gives Cora the final impetus. For the first time, she turns magic against him and subjects him to a truth spell in order to discover what ails him. Which is how she finds out just how he had intended to find his son again. He has finally found a curse powerful enough, but only one driven to utter ruin, so desperate and monstrous that she would sacrifice who she loved most, could cast it.

"And this is what you mean to do to our child," Cora says slowly, and the spell has him admit that while he's still looking for another way, he hasn't abandoned the idea. There is a part in him ready to trade one child for another, and it is her child who has the disadvantage here. As the spell wears off, he swears he will not do it, they will find someone else to cast the curse; there will be someone else, he promises.

But the damage is done. Her heart has started to harden against him the moment she found out he's even considering sacrificing her child for his son, and he doesn't trust her as he used to anymore, not after she used a spell against him that took what should only be freely given, the hidden truths he could hardly face himself. Something has to be done.
At first, she considers simply taking his dagger and order him to stop his plan forever, but she knows him too well. He will find a way to get it back, sooner or later, and then all she will have accomplished is a delay. Even if she takes his heart, he will find a way. He will. She has no doubt of this; he would not be the man she loves if he could not.

There is just one conclusion to be drawn, in the end. She has to take out her own heart before she can bring herself to do it, but it is the only way, and after her heart is gone, any lingering doubts disappear and she sees everything with sharp clarity. Indeed, it was foolish to hesitate at all. "I knew this day would come," he tells her when she has the dagger pointed at his heart, "but what no vision could ever tell me is this: do you know I love you, even now?"

He is telling the truth. He's also using the only weapon he has left, in the hope that it will make her hesitate, and if she still had her heart inside her, it would. It would give him the chance to overpower her, and while she hears the truth in his voice, she sees the calculation in his eyes.

"As I love you," Cora says, brings the dagger down, and becomes the new Dark One.

III.

Cora's original plan had been to ensure Regina would marry King Leopold. It would make her daughter the queen Regina had always been meant to be, and it would have the added delicious satisfaction of seeing Regina in Ava's place, with the knowledge that Ava's own daughter helped her to do it.

Unfortunately, the girl Snow White spoils everything by blabbing to her father about how Regina truly loves someone else and thus can't marry him, and shouldn't lovers be together ? For a moment, Cora has a good mind to strangle her. Then something even better occurs to her, and she modifies her plan. The stable boy Daniel lives. Instead, Cora's husband Henry dies, very suddenly, leaving her a cruelly bereaved widow King Leopold has no choice but to offer hospitality to at his court, her and her daughter both. Well, Henry had outlived his usefulness a long time ago anyway, and she only left him alive because, for all that he lacked initiative and backbone, he truly was devoted to Regina, had loved playing with her, raising her, and Cora had seen no reason to deny her daughter the attention she herself could not always provide. As long as nothing more important demanded Henry's removal, that was.

This time, she does not indulge in any uncertainties, or complicated set ups. She takes Leopold's heart and makes him propose to herself, instead of Regina. After the marriage, she has him meet his demise at what looks like the hands of the stable boy, thus getting rid of the inconvenient Daniel as well. It leaves Cora as sole ruler, and both her daughter and Ava's with no one else to love, fear and obey. She has meant to make Snow White her daughter's servant, thus completing her revenge, but Regina is sentimental about the child who'd gotten her out of a marriage she hadn't wanted, or maybe she just always has wanted to have a sister. Well, why not. This, too, is a revenge on Ava, Cora decides: making the daughter who'd idolized her a part of Cora's family instead.

In fact, Snow White surprises her in a pleasant fashion. She catches the girl hiding in her room one day, and Snow confesses to having watched Cora practice her spells. She is curious.
Regina has never been curious, not since her early childhood anyway, before her father distracted her with riding and foolish games that required no mental exertion. As it turns out, Snow White does not only have a quick mind, but the patience to learn. And she is young enough to take Cora's lessons about how grief and rage can be channeled into magic and power over the fading memory of her mother's insistence on goodness. Of course, there is no question about her becoming Queen after Cora, that is still Cora's goal for Regina, but watching Snow White grow into a princess of Cora's own making, she finds herself considering another possibility. After all, there are other kingdoms. Why not let Snow White have one of those? King George's, for instance. He reminds her all too well of her late, unlamented father-in-law, down to the way he has managed to empty his kingdom of riches in his own greed and now seeks to whore his son to buy himself money with a marriage.

"But I don't want Snow White to leave," Regina protests tearfully and adds something about being utterly alone then, which was really hurtful, given that she'd still have Cora. Sometimes, Cora thinks, it is really impossible to be a mother without being heartless, or one would be crushed.

Snow White , on the other hand, promises to be obedient and also takes to instructions about how to rid herself of King George after a convenient time had passed, and how to make sure her husband would never, ever do anything she doesn't want. When Cora showes her how to brew the poison, she pays attention to every detail. Just how much attention Cora finds out when she feels the same poison inside her, handed to her in the form of an apple. One of Regina's apples, for her daughter has taken to gardening with a passion, and has brought her the first apples of the autumn to eat, and even as she takes a bite, Cora, with a galvanizing shock, feels her heart reenter her body as Snow White appears behind her.

"Regina..." Cora exclaims.

"No, she didn't know," Snow says. "But I do. I knew you'd killed my father, but I didn't know how you'd done it. So I had to wait till now. Till you showed me."

"Regina..."

She tries to call for her daughter, wants Regina to help her, but Snow White mistakes her meaning.

"You don't have to worry," the girl says, in that eager to please schoolgirl fashion she has. "I won't harm her. She loves me, and I love her. She won't rule, of course, I'll do that, and you know I'll be better at it. She'll be my sister queen. But you - you have to go. You hurt us both too badly. You killed her father, too, didn't you? "

Regina, the basket with apples in her hand, stares at her and Snow White, her face white. That long gone heart beats slower and slower in Cora, and the pain is unbearable, but it's shot through with something else. She's lost them both, the daughter she has born and the daughter she has made, and yet, hasn't she also won? They would be queens, after all, and such queens. For a moment, she can see them: the Snow Queen, beautiful and terrible, and at her side, the Red Queen.

"It's enough," Cora whispers, and the last of her life fades away.

IV.

Cora knows the moment she went through the mirror that she has Rumplestilskin to blame for this. The magic smells like him, and more importantly, the result does. Now she is the one separated from her child by being in another world, and he has gotten his hands on her firstborn after all. For all that she's ensured Regina will not be his daughter, he'll make her his instrument.

She should have killed him a long time ago. Or at least gotten her hands on the damn dagger. Oh, but he'll pay for this. She doesn't yet know how, but he'll pay in the same coin.
As it turns out, it is relatively easy to make herself the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. As soon as she has accomplished this, she tries to find a way to leave it. At first, she looks for ways back to her own world, though she doesn't expect to find them; it would not be like Rumplestilskin to be that careless in his selection of her exile. Next, she looks for ways to the world without magic, because a plan is already forming in her mind, but she quickly finds out that whichever world she wants to go needs to send someone into Wonderland first. When the girl Alice appears, Cora uses her chance. Making Alice bear her own form and taking Alice's is child's play by now for her. Unfortunately, Alice's world isn't quite without magic. Almost, but not completely. And thus it can't be the one from Rumplestilskin's story.

It isn't without its uses, though, because Cora finds out something else while she is there. There is a world where all lost children end up if their parents let go of them. It sounds to her as if this Neverland was formed by magic so powerful that it would really draw all the children thus lost to it. Even, and especially, if they were lot while a magical portal opened.
It takes a while, and is a gamble. She could be wrong. But ever since showing up at a ball in her red dress and claiming to be able to spin gold from straw, Cora has loved to take her chances. She finds a way to Neverland, where no one ever ages, and there she finds him, the boy, still fourteen and determined not to care about parents ever again. She doesn't like the shape any more than she used to, but she takes on the disguise of a fairy again. At first, he thinks she might be the one who gave him the bean that brought him here to begin with, but he has sharper eyes than she has given him credit for, and quickly figures out she is someone else. Well, he is his father's son.

Tinker Bell, she calls herself, and persuades him to choose a new name as well. Baelfire is the past; Peter is who she shapes him into, Peter Pan, who delights in his own cleverness instead of fearing his father's, who does not have to worry about other children staying away because here, they flock to him, admire him, want to be like him. Peter, who doesn't fear anything, and who doesn't feel anything to deeply, because as soon as he loses someone, forgetfulness starts to sink into him. She's especially proud of this last spell, because he actually asked her for it.

After all, she is his fairy godmother now.

Eventually, of course, that isn't enough and he still becomes attached to someone enough to hurt again, which is when Cora provides him with the solution she herself found to a similar dilemma. Then, even his silly feud with the pirate pays off, because once they've captured Hook's ship and found the remaining bean there, they're able to return to Cora's own world. A great deal of news await. Her daughter Regina, it seems, has to become a queen who is feared and held in awe, which would be more satisfying if it had stayed that way, but alas, the next part of the news entails that Regina has been overthrown by Snow White and her friends, and is awaiting her execution.

For the first time in many years, Cora deliberately calls Rumplestilskin to her. He's not altogether surprised to see her; after all, he knows what she's capable of, so he must have been prepared for the possibility that she would find a way to leave Wonderland, sooner or later.

"Don't worry, dearie," he says, evidently anticipating a request to save Regina. "She won't die." His smile deepens. "But she will cast my curse now."

"Darling," Cora replies, matching smile for smile, "that won't be necessary anymore. Men are difficult to shop for, but never let it be said that I don't know how to give you a present."

She gestures, and he enters, her protegé, her student, clad in the green he now wears, but still fourteen, still looking as he did when Rumplestilskin let go of him, clinging to his dagger. The blinding joy that for moment breaks through Rumplestilskin's face like the tide coming in, sweeping everything away in its waves, causes an odd echo in Cora. A part of her remembers how she used to love him. A part of her still does, even now. As she looks forward to her own reunion with her daughter, she knows how he must feel.

But he has taken Regina for himself, has broken and reshaped her when no one but Cora should be able to do that, and that is still unforgivable.

"Hello, Papa," Peter who used to be Baelfire says calmly, without fury or love, and the joy in Rumplestilskin's face mingles with disbelief and dawning worry. He looks at Cora, and his eyes narrow.

"What have you done?"

"I taught him what you taught me, " Cora says, "with my own lesson added. You were so kind as to teach my daughter, so how could I do less for you? I taught him how to take out his heart."

V.

"I want you to tell your daughter the truth," Snow White says, voice trembling, grip around Cora's heart firm. Little Snow, with her pixie face, all grown up. Cora had been in Wonderland when Snow White had turned from little lost princess to warrior queen, so she tended to think of her in terms past, but she'd gotten a slight impression of the change when she had met Snow and her daughter Emma in what was left of the Enchanted Forest.

She still hasn't expected this.

Next to her, her old lover and nemesis protests that if Snow White lets him die, she'll kill Henry's grandfather. He really is close to death; there are only two more letters of his name remaining on the dagger.

"I will," Cora says hastily to Snow White, "I promise, and you know I will have to keep this promise now that you have my heart. But let me kill him first. He dies, either way, but if he dies of poison, all his power will be forever gone."

"Exactly," Snow says to him, and her face is as cold as her name. "Nobody should ever have so much power again. No one. " Then she turns to Cora again. "Now tell your daughter your true reason for coming here, or you'll die with him."

Regina hasn't made a movement since materializing here with Snow White. She stares at Cora.

"It's true, isn't it," she whispers. "You came for him, not for me. To have his power for yourself. You gave Hook the poison, and told him where he should go. It was never about me and Henry. It was always about yourself."

Cora feels Snow's hands around her heart squeezing a little tighter. "I came for both of you," she says to Regina, and tries to find a way to phrase the truth that will make Regina keep faith with her. It's what she's always been good at. She must not fail now. "I wanted you back. But using him was never an option. Not him. Only a fool would even try and not expect to end up dead. He has to die, don't you see?"

"Thanks ever so much, dearie," Rumplestilskin says, and coughs. "I would never try to use you, either."

"If it was me or your power," Regina says slowly, "what would you choose?"

"Answer truthfully," Snow White adds. As a last gamble, Cora summons her magic and brings back Snow's family; if there is any hope to regain control of the situation, it is by getting Snow White distracted. To be certain, the immediate crescendo of "Mary Margaret!" "Snow!" Don't!" "What is happening!" is gratifying, but unfortunately, Snow White keeps her concentration. Cora feels her mouth open and the words emerge, one by one.

"I love you," she says, "I do. But without power, I am nothing."

The man who has to be Rumplestilskin's son and had rushed to his father's side after she brought him back raises his head and looks at Regina, then Cora, and there is recognition in his eyes. Then he turns to his father again, but his father is no less determined than Cora to make a last gamble.

"There you have it. Now put that heart back inside her," he says, and it's not clear whether he is addressing Regina or Snow White.

"It won't kill her," Snow White replies. "I didn't use the candle on it. You won't make a murderer out of me, Gold."

Rumplestilskin's son stands up, and the filial disappointment in his voice sounds all too familiar to Cora as he addresses his father. "You didn't change a bit, did you."

"Bae, I am dying," Rumplestilskin snaps, "and trying to save my life."

There is only one letter left on the dagger, which Cora still holds. She could stab him now before Snow could crush her heart, but what would be the use? Even getting transformed into the next the Dark One won't keep Snow from killing her immediately after, and Cora has no doubt now that Snow's scruples about murder will end the second moment she's faced with the prospect of an all powerful Cora. Regina won't stop Snow, not when she's still staring at Cora with that expression in her face. Nor will any one else among these high minded fools. There is just one way to change the odds again, to confuse everyone, to give Cora more time so she can regroup and plan a new strategy.

Cora had jumped up when Regina and Snow White first appeared, but now she sits down next to Rumplestilskin again and kisses him.

When one brews magical poisons, one should always leave oneself open a way to counteract them, just in case of an accident during the manufacturing process, and besides, there had been no guarantee Hook would not try to use the poison against her as well. She has taken the antidote just before she's given it to Hook; thus, it is in her body, and she can summon it and transfer it to Rumplestilskin.

"True Love's Kiss," she hears one of the two men, Charming or Baelfire, murmur in confusion and awe, and well, if it looks like that, Cora can't help it, can she? She may not have her heart, but her body remembers. Rumplestilskin wants to live as much as Cora does, so it doesn't surprise her that this time, he kisses her back passionately. This is about needing to change the odds in her favour again, but for a moment, a moment born of memory and desperation, she's back to being a young woman and in love for the first time. Then the transfer of her antidote is complete and she lets go of him.

"I don't believe it," Emma Swan says.

"Oh, I do," Regina says. "You two deserve each other." With that, she vanishes in smoke. Cora gets ready to follow her, to explain a living Rumplestilskin gives them the chance to kill him later, after Cora has retrieved her heart from Snow White, but then her attention is distracted by the sight of a strange young woman in hospital clothes standing at the entrance of the room.

"Your phone call brought me here," she says in a mixture of bewilderment and dissappointment, "but I suppose I misunderstood."

With that, she turns around and leaves again. "Belle, wait," Rumpelstilskin calls, and Charming says, sounding rueful: "You know, you asked for advice once, and right now, I'm telling you, man to man, there is no way to win in such a situation. Or give a good explanation. Let it be, and let her be until she's ready to talk to you again.'"

Emma coughs. "Look, I don't care about anyone's love life. I care about no more dead bodies", she ends, pointedly looking at Cora, who is about to suggest a trade, her heart against the dagger, with the full intention of reclaiming the dagger as soon as she has her heart back from Snow White when she realises she doesn't hold the dagger in her hand anymore.

Rumplestilskin must have taken it back when they kissed. There is a reason why he is the only man she has ever loved.

"I can't kill anyone without your mother's approval now," Cora says sweetly, and hopes to incite at least a bit of high minded guilt in either Snow White or Emma. "I am her slave." Possibly in the men, too, but with the exception of Rumplestilskin, Cora has never taken men very seriously.

"You're her prisoner," Emma corrects. Well, given she had left Hook to the giant, she had to have a more realistic approach to life than her parents used to. "I think that's called poetic justice."

The panicked expression the appearance of the girl Belle has left Rumplestilskin with makes place for a more smug look, so Cora switches targets.

"Rumple, I believe you owe me a favour now," she tells him. "It comes with the saving your life territory, you know that."

"You were the one who endangered it in the first place," he says while they both stand up, neither leaving each other out of sight.

"That was Hook. It's hardly my fault that you earned his unending hatred by killing..." Cora begins and that's when she notices. A brief, utterly vulnerable and nakedly horrified look darting from her face to his son before his composure is restored under a mask again. So the boy doesn't know. Of course he doesn't.

"....his mate," she ends, avoiding the words "your wife", or even a gender that would give away the person in question had been a woman. Neither she nor Rumplestilskin break their gazes. They understand each other. He may have his dagger back, but he has to get her heart back to her now if he doesn't want his son to find out the truth.

The heart is still in Snow's hand, but like the others, her attention has been on Cora more than on Rumplestilskin; they haven't even noticed he has his dagger back. The fact he suddenly materializes next to her startles her just enough for her finger to lose the fraction they need to so Cora can summon it to her. She has expected the second spell, Rumplestilskin trying to summon it to himself instead, and counters is, but not the third, which pushes it back inside her. The world ignites, and everything she's been feeling for so long suddenly seems to be a pale shadow of what is coursing through her veins now. Summon a transportation spell that lets her escape to the woods is on instinct more than on rational thought, before she collapses.

The next time she sees Rumplestilskin, it is days later, and no one else is around. Warily, they keep their distance.

"Regina won't talk to me," she says.

"Belle won't talk to me, either, so my sympathy is limited," he replies.

"But your son does," Cora counters, and is aware he'll probably try to kill her soon, to silence her forever. As much as she is still trying to sort out everything she feels about her own actions over the course of her life, she has no intention of letting him. They trade a few more sharp remarks before he changes the subject.

"That was not true love's kiss," he says, surprising her by bringing it up and sounding a tad less convinced than he probably means to. She can't resist.

"Oh, wasn't it? It worked."

"You couldn't... and I don't..."

"If you say so," she murmurs, eyebrows raised. For once, he doesn't have a clever retort, and a whole new army of possibilities assemble themselves in front of her. She is stuck in a world where the people who know her hate her, but she still has her magic. She will have her daughter, sooner or later. And if he'd been her weakness, all those years ago, it seems he hasn't completely recovered from the way she'd dealt with that, either.

As a young woman, she'd been convinced love was what held you back and allowed others to step on you, and so she had tried to rid herself of it. She'd been wrong, and her life had been the poorer for it. But she'd believed something else about love then, and this she still knows to be true: It can be a weapon, and the most efficient weapon of all.

Cora has no idea what this new life of hers will be like now. But it is certainly shaping up to be interesting.