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Once Upon a DEL

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Madalena struggled to contain her excitement as she followed the attendant down the long, vaulted corridors. The castle, foreboding on the outside, was impeccably decorated within, warm and inviting in the flickering glow of the wall sconces. She glanced down at the pendant she'd been given. The Dark Evil Lord had exquisite taste. Madalena already liked this place better than Richard's or those Valencian people's castles.

She was left alone in a cozy receiving room. At least there's booze, she thought, pouring a generous helping of cider. Already bored, Madalena paced the room. She checked her teeth in a silver hand mirror, admired an impressively large beryl ashtray, smirked dismissively at a small whittled horse. Finally, she turned her attention to the massive mahogany desk. The drawers were locked, of course. Madalena set down the stein, flung her sleeves back, and used her dark dark evil powers to open the top drawer. A sizzling shock flung itself down her arms, but the spell worked and the drawer shot open. The elaborate golden box inside the drawer remained locked, and Madalena could feel the power of blood magic pulsating from it. She squinted, staring as if to peer into it, trying to determine if it was worth the danger.

“It's not,” a melodious voice promised.

Madalena's eyes widened. Speak of exquisite taste! The woman before her was gorgeous, resplendent in a clinging black mermaid gown with an impressively high collar and an impressively low neckline that made even Madalena blush – whether from jealousy or want, she wasn't sure. The only color about the woman was an apple-shaped garnet pendant nestled in her bosom, and matching lips that were equally delicious. Madalena recalled her own reflection from moments before and raised her chin, jutting her own chest out as she sucked in her stomach. “And who are you?”

The woman gave a half-smile and came around the desk. She bent low before Madalena, slowly pushing the drawer shut. Straightening, she used one manicured finger to lightly-but-effectively push Madalena aside, then took the seat behind the desk. “Why, I'm the Dark Evil Lord, of course.”

She snorted. “Not bloody likely. The servant said 'he'. I know I heard 'he'.”

“Men. So full of assumptions.” The DEL twisted back and forth in her swiveling chair. “I only let those I deem most worthy come near, you see. Let them believe what they like. I mean, obviously folks consider me the 'Evil Queen' anyway,” she said, gesturing down her body as if that explained everything (and maybe it did), “but no need to advertize that I run the largest, evilest magical society in all the lands. Amirite?”

Madalena flushed. “You think I'm most worthy?”

The DEL's smile grew wide, sending ice down Madalena's spine. “Well, you're powerful enough.” Her nails traced her desk. “How worthy remains to be seen. I'll accept you as a protégée. On a strictly trial basis, mind.”

Madalena hopped and clapped her hands, but she managed to bite down the squeal.

~ * ~

Strong voices could be heard clearly across the water, long before the ship was close.


“Gare and Sid are just supporting, so we came to give a hand.
They didn't want to let us, but their king did command,
so he gathered up Gal's fam-i-ly while we struck up the band!
Now we're saving Madalena and – Ooooh, hey, there's land!”

Emma turned, noting that the gathered townspeople looked as dumbfounded as she felt. “What the hell is that?”

“A pirate ship, that is.” Killian pulled her close.

Mary Margaret's voice popped up behind them. “Hey, hey, it's The Monks!”

“What?”

Her mother looked from the ship back to Emma. “The Monks. They're fantastic! They've taken a vow of singing.” She smiled up at David's equally confused look. “My father used to have them to the castle every year for the Midwinter Ball.”

“She's right,” Regina said, making her way through the crowd. “They managed to escape the curse. Wonder what world they've been hiding in.”

“AHOY!” A man with flowing salt-and-pepper hair, and beard to match, hung from the side of the ship, waving furiously. He nearly slipped, but strong hands grabbed him and threw him back onto the deck.

“I think we're about to find out,” Killian said. He was obviously leery, but he was the first to run forward to catch the ship's lines. He made no attempt to hide his open appraisal – and subsequent disappointment – of this new pirate ship.

A stout, surly man in worn armor observed them from the prow. “Look at these buncha slack-jawed morons.” He pushed the deckhands aside as the ladder was lowered. “Hey! Any of you see a real pretty evil lady?” Several in the crowd choked on snickers. “Probably in the company of an even eviler dark lord?”

“I think it's 'Dark Evil Lord',” a younger man, possibly his squire, piped up from behind him.

Another knight pushed them both aside. “Honey over vinegar, Gareth,” he admonished from behind a wide smile. “Greetings, citizens! I am Galavant.” He paused a beat for applause that didn't come. “This is my associate, Gareth, and that way back there,” Galavant turned and pointed toward the ship, “is our good friend, King Richard.”

“Sid, thanks.” The squire gave a humorless smile and bowed. “Always a pleasure.”

Galavant continued, “We have come on a valiant quest to rescue our crazy ex, Madalena, from the Dark Evil Lord. Oh, don't give us that look! We all have one. And before you ask, no, it's not like that. Sure, Gareth still loves her for some unfathomable reason, but Richard's happily married, as am I. Isabella!” He turned back and held a hand out to a lovely lady, a princess by the subtle tiara, as she disembarked.

Princess Isabella gazed lovingly at her husband. “Two months it's been since our special day...”

“No, no, darling. Not yet. We were asking about Madalena.” Isabella's eyes flashed, but she smiled brightly and excused herself.

Their apparent king, Richard, stepped forward. “Hello, pleb--” He glanced at Galavant. “Ah...Citizens. Look, we know she's here. I saw her myself, with a little help from the great Xanax.”

Now Emma choked. “Beg pardon?”

Richard continued as if he hadn't heard her. “Which of you is the Dark Evil Lord?”

Her eyes unconsciously flicked to Regina, and Emma cursed inwardly. To her mortification, Regina noticed and gaped indignantly. Emma also saw that her own mother had looked at her, and she caught her father's eyes sliding away from Killian.

“Oh, that kind of land, eh?” Galavant grinned. “This could be fun!”

“You promised that you'd quit hero work. Remember? A cottage by the sea. Seven--”

“Three.”

“--children. Never go to bed without a duet.”

Galavant's smile never dropped. “Darling, can we talk about this later? We're on a valiant quest right now. For strictly moral support. Let's help the men get started before we drop 'em, hm?”

“Come on,” Granny said, motioning at the lot of them. “Let's get you washed up, and maybe you'd like to be fed? Sheriff, I'm sure you'd like to talk to them afterward and see what's this about a Dark Evil Lord?”

“Has anyone seen Mr. Gold lately?” Regina asked pointedly, and Emma flushed again.

“All right,” David said. “Yeah, let's break it up and let our new...guests...settle in.”

“OH, TAD COO-PER!” the king cried, and Emma jumped.

She froze as the sun was blotted out. “My god.”

“Oh yes,” Richard grinned. “Isn't that right, Galavant?”

“Yes, Richard, yes. You have a dragon. I've apologized a million times. Can we move on already?”

“Move on with my...”

“Dragon. Your very impressive dragon.”

“Tad Cooper, guard the boat, if you don't mind.”

“It's a ship,” Killian grumbled under his breath, pulling Emma along to Granny's. “Who, exactly, are the morons here?”

~ * ~

The monks, thankfully, were practicing a new routine in the room Granny'd given them, and though it angered her something fierce, Granny allowed David to shoo most of the townspeople before the interrogation. She'd gotten a second lunch rush out of it first, so she didn't fight too hard. King Richard's chef helped distract her – purposefully or no, Emma wasn't sure – by declaring Granny's lasagna the best he'd ever tasted, pleading with surprisingly unctuous aggressiveness in attempts to get the recipe out of her.

They'd pushed together two tables, and the two groups took turns questioning each other. David began. “What makes you think this Dark Lord– ”

“Dark Evil Lord,” Galavant corrected.

“What makes you think this Dark Evil Lord is in Storybrooke?”

“We did see it,” Gareth told them. “All of us. She went into a spooky-looking castle on a spooky-looking hilltop.”

Emma traded looks with her family. Regina was the one who spoke up. “We're fresh out of castles in this realm. Maybe you saw the Enchanted Forest. That's where we're from, originally.”

“No, it's here,” Richard assured her. “Xanax gave us a potion to send us down a spinny-hole to the right place.”

“It was a whirlpool, sire.”

“A portal, you mean?” Regina clarified. “Well, we do get more than our share of Dark Lords. What did he look like? Or Madalena?”

“She's real pretty. Her eyes just...light with cruelty,” Gareth said, and Isabella gave a shocked look as if he'd spoken poetry.

“She's got great legs and a nice, firm tush. That's why I stole her to begin with.” Richard looked at his wife, whom Emma had still not been introduced to, and coughed. “I mean, ah, she's brunette. I couldn't even say what color her eyes are. He's pretty right, though. Lots of cruelty in 'em.”

Emma tapped her glass. “We don't have any castles, unless another portal has touched down somewhere. Maybe it's worth looking into. Henry, do you know anything about this?”

He shook his head. “I could get the book and see. Maybe there'd be something now that they're here.”

“What book is that?” Galavant asked, looking between them with more intellect that Emma had originally credited.

She smiled. “A log. At Town Hall. Lots of visitors leave messages, draw pictures, you know. Regina's mayor. Why don't you two go check that out?”

Regina stood and took Henry, nodding to Emma as they left. Good. Regina would look into it, too.

“We're going to need horses,” Gareth said.

David smiled. “We can do better than that. But couldn't he just fly around on his dragon?”

“We have to show them the town line first,” Mary Margaret spoke up. “The dragon can't pass through; there's no telling what would happen to him.”

“How so?” Richard asked, concerned.

“It's a long story,” Emma said. “Dad, you giving them a ride then?”

“Dad?”

“Also a long story. C'mon, I'll tell you on the way,” David promised.

Gareth rose without hesitation, but Galavant looked at his bride. “I'll be here if you need me,” he promised, “but this is your quest.” Isabella beamed.

“Right. C'mon, Sid.” Gareth looked questioningly at Richard.

“Go on ahead, buddy.” Richard touched the sword at his belt. “I've a quest of my own.”

David kissed Mary Margaret. “Find out about his quest,” he murmured.

“The man brought a dragon. I'm on top of it.” When he was gone, she beamed at the two couples. “So you're all newlyweds, are you?”

“So are we!” cried the chef from a booth in the corner. Emma saw that he shared it with a pretty young woman, although a smile revealed a most unfortunate dental situation.

“Congratulations!” Mary Margaret cried without missing a beat. “A round on me to toast your long and happy lives together.”

“You're on a different quest, are you?” Mary Margaret asked once the newcomers were more comfortably relaxed.

“Why are you keeping Tad Cooper prisoner?” the king asked in return.

“I assure you, we're not.”

“You said he can't leave town. That's what people say to prisoners.”

“The town line does funky things. Turns people into stone or trees, wipes their memories...It's complicated,” Emma explained. “Storybrooke allows magic, but the land outside the boundaries doesn't. I don't know what would happen to a dragon who crossed over, and I don't suggest trying it out.”

“I see.” Richard's elbow fell off the table, and he nearly followed it. The king was obviously drunk, although Emma was pretty sure he'd only had one beer. Still, it seemed he did see.

“So, your quest...”

“He was right, you know. I should be able to fly around on my own dragon. I've not tried yet. There's just been so much going on, what with quests and packing and dicing the whole way over.” He stood, shakily, knocking over his chair. “Well, I'd say it's past time!”

“Richard, no!” His wife, whose name was apparently Roberta, tugged ineffectually on his arm. “Richard, please. You know better than to drink and dragon! Tad Cooper doesn't like it.”

“Only when I don't share. Good woman there! Might I have a cask of ale to go?”

“Richard, that's worse!” Roberta cried. “You can't ride him for the first time when you've both been drinking.”

“But you couldn't possibly leave us before the newcomer's tradition!” Emma broke in.

“Oh? What's that?”

She clapped his shoulder, and he nearly fell again. “Walking it off. Granny, some coffees, please?” Emma looked down at her mother. “I'll see if there's any sign of Mr. Gold while we're out.”

As she gathered the drunken king and his wife, Emma heard her mother ask, “So how did you two meet?”

Galavant looked at Isabella with love-sick eyes. “Two months it's been since our special day...

Emma didn't stay to hear more.

While they herded Richard through the streets so he could sober up, Emma and Roberta enjoyed surprisingly delightful conversation. “So you're saying this is a land of fairy tales?” Roberta asked, sounding sincerely intrigued.

“Not exactly. Technically it's the Land Without Magic, but this town, Storybrooke, is kind of a displaced refugee camp from the Enchanted Forest. Where are you guys from?”

Roberta flashed a frightened look to her husband, who was securely linked on her right arm. She whispered, “We're between kingdoms right now.”

Richard perked up. “What kind of 'One True King' has no kingdom and can't ride a dragon?” he opined, shoving his face into his cup and looking very startled to realize it was no longer beer. Roberta sighed, pulling gently as he tried to turn back toward the harbor.

Emma did what she could to intervene. “What's this about being the One True King?”

Richard took a huge breath, surely about to break into song, when he choked on his own lungs. He looked around guiltily. “Look, I'm a little tipsy. Can I just talk it?”

“Please do.”

“Okay, so I pulled this sword –” Emma startled at that, but Richard continued, “and I'm supposed to be the One True King to Unite Them All. Which, you know, seems some mighty big shoes to fill. I did all right, though. I did, didn't I, Bobbie? There may or may not have been a bad guy that I totally defeated all by myself. (Spoiler alert: there was!) But the damned serfs tore apart my castle and instilled this...this idiocy called 'democracy', so now I don't have a castle or a kingdom. Which, I mean, how can you be a king without a kingdom?” He drank deeply of his coffee. “Ahhhh. So that's my quest. I need to find a new kingdom. Say, is Storybrooke hiring?”

Emma smiled. “Sorry. David and Mary Margaret have a handle on things, and what they don't, Regina and I cover.”

“I suppose I could take a kingdom without magic, but that really isn't very enticing.”

“So, this is the town line. See the sign? This is the road out, and it circles around this way,” Emma gestured, “and this way. You can't really leave the town lines unless you were born out there, for the most part.”

“Fascinating.” Richard immediately stepped forward, and a curtain of blue-purple electricity ran up and down the man before throwing him back several meters.

Emma and Roberta ran to his side. He didn't seem to be breathing. Emma tried to feel for a pulse on his neck, and suddenly Richard coughed a small puff of smoke. She rolled him over and pounded his back. After a moment, he gasped, “Fascinating!”

On the plus side, he seemed very sober.

~ * ~

“No spooky castles yet,” David said, settling into a booth. “We just have the forest to check after dinner. How'd things go with you today?”

“King Richard has a sword designating him the One True King to Unite Them All, but he figures he should have a nominal kingdom to start with before beginning unification,” Emma explained to her family.

“Galavant and Isabella love to sing,” Mary Margaret reported.

“They all do,” she and David said in unison – as did Killian, who she'd thought had escaped the singing by spying on the pirates all day.

“I did learn quite a lot about Madalena,” Mary Margaret continued. “A real nasty piece of work, by the sounds of it, although I did hear the story from a jilted ex and his bride. Still, we don't need another even remotely evil queen on the loose in Storybrooke. And...they all really seem to care about saving her. She's part of their family. I think there are a number of compelling reasons why we should help them.”

“Primarily,” Regina's voice broke in, “because their Dark Dark Evil Queen is indeed in Storybrooke.” She and Henry pulled up two chairs. “We saw the castle and the queen, but we don't know where they are.”

“Dark Dark?” David asked.

“That's what the book said,” Henry explained.

“Overcompensating, if you ask me,” Regina scoffed. “Why does a new evil queen have to show up as soon as I'm rid of mine? You'd think we put out a 'now hiring' sign or something.”

Emma inhaled milkshake up her nose, which took some recovery time. When she was finally finished and the tears cleared away, she was surprised to see that it was Galavant and not Hook with his face anxiously close to hers. “Are you sure this is the savior?” Galavant asked, unimpressed.

Emma frowned at her mother, who shrugged. “Parents brag. I'm sorry!”

Galavant swung into the booth behind Emma, backwards so as to face her. “Do you really just go around calling yourself 'the Savior'?”

“Look, I didn't pick it.”

“No, but I did some years ago, and Sid convinced me that it was a total douche move. You don't think?”

She couldn't help but chuckle. “Yeah, it's probably pretty douchey, but I haven't been able to escape it. Permanently, that is.”

As Galavant considered this, Gareth and Sid arrived – looking refreshed but still garbed for a quest. “You're not staying for dinner?” he asked his friends.

Gareth accepted a wrapped bundle from their chef with a brief nod. To Galavant, he said, “No. Prince Charming here –”

“No!” Galavant gasped.

Gareth grunted in reply, somehow conveying a mountain of either doubt or disdain with one quick noise. David stood up. “That one's not really an actual title.” He looked at Mary Margaret. “It was more of a hazing situation at the time.”

“Pillow talk,” Killian coughed into his one good hand.

Anyways,” Gareth continued, “the prince here says the forest is the only place left to check. We'll want to do that before it gets too dark.”

Galavant wiggled in his seat. “You'll be back early, you say? Not attacking it tonight?”

“We don't know anything about the DEL yet. Attacking on home territory at night with no plan ain't wise strategy.”

“Well, I'm sure Isabella won't mind if we tag along then. The ride here hardly qualifies as adventure.” Galavant stood, then reconsidered. “The portal was pretty awesome.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“Snow and I are going with you,” David said as he paid up the bill.

“And us,” Killian added, smiling at her. Emma smiled back.

Henry looked pleased. At first Emma thought it was to see her and Hook so happy again, but no. “You'll be needing someone with evil queen expertise, I imagine?”

“Oh no, kid. You're staying here.”

“No, I'm not.”

“Someone has to stay and watch the dragon, right? Pirates and dragons aren't good enough?”

King Richard hurried out of the hall, running right into the back end of Sid. “Oh, sorry! Thought I'd missed you. I'm ready for searchies now!” He smacked Sid and ran for the door. “Not it!”

Henry looked at Emma, brows raised. “I'm going if he is.”

~ * ~

Regina couldn't believe her eyes. “I know we saw it in the book, but I did not expect to find an actual castle. How long has this been here? They claim to have been on their quest for two months now.”

“Well, your majesty,” Killian said, “we have been a bit preoccupied of late.” They all crouched in silence as they examined it from afar. “What kind of magic do they have?”

Of course she had sensed the protection spell immediately, but Regina closed her eyes and concentrated on the palace – and, yes, the waves of darkness pulsing from it. So thick, grey, and heavy, covering her like a warm and soothing blanket...

Regina snapped her eyes open. No! There was nothing comfortable about it. It absolutely did not feel familiar, like home. It did not call to her tauntingly, laughing deep and cold within her soul.

She smacked her lips, trying to get some moisture back into her suddenly-coated tongue. “There's a glamour,” she croaked, barely a whisper. She cleared her throat. “In the protection spell. It hides the place from anyone not specifically seeking it. It's strong magic, blood magic. And, yes, dark. Maybe even dark dark,” she acknowledged.

Snow eyed her intently, as if she knew what Regina wasn't saying, and Regina looked away. Snow tightened her grip on her bow and set her face in a neutral mask. “We haven't seen any movement. No one's come or gone. We need to get an idea of how many might be in there, and how many have dark magic.”

“The darkness is heavy here,” Regina warned them. “I don't know how many there are, because the castle itself feels full of darkness. We might want to draw them out.” She looked at Emma. “What do you think?”

Emma closed her eyes, emulating Regina. “I don't think there are too many different magic sources. It's hard to get a feel without crossing her protections and alerting her to our presence.”

“Madalena's so strong already?” Isabella asked, hefting her own bow. She looked intently toward the castle. Regina knew that look. There was something personal there.

Emma looked back at Regina. “No.”

Her heart, safely nuzzled in its own protection spell, stopped. Regina met Emma's eyes, unable to read the savior's look. To her surprise, Emma laughed. “You don't feel it?”

Regina crossed her arms. “I thought I did.”

“It feels awfully familiar, don't you think?”

“Emma, no! The darkness is no old friend. You can't let it call to you.”

“No old friend, no.” The savior reached out and squeezed her arm. “I think maybe the Evil Queen is in there.”

The Evil Queen?” Regina shook her head, which now buzzed madly. She barely noticed Henry wrapping surprisingly strong arms around her. “It can't be. She's dead. I killed her!”

“I know, but this is definitely a magic I've fought before. Something we've fought together. It feels just like her.” Regina could tell it pained Emma to say it.

“We're going to need a better plan.”

She was distracted on their return to town. It had been bad enough when she had lost a love that had given her reason to remain true. She'd also been fighting with her sister, and a baby depended on them both. Regina had done what she could to keep her own darkness at bay and do right by those she loved. She'd even found a way to rid herself – to rid the worlds, she thought – of the Evil Queen once and for all. Had she failed? Had she and Swan failed only to allow the Evil Queen to team up with a kindred spirit and a Dark Evil Lord? If they'd failed against the Evil Queen, how could they possibly win against them all?

She slowly noticed Isabella baiting Snow, and it seemed as if it had been going on for some time. Isabella had a line of rabbits and squirrels slung across her hips, out of the way of the nocked bow she kept at the ready. “I'm happy feeding everyone,” she ribbed, “but I hope I'll not have to battle all by myself.”

Snow had apparently had enough, and arrows started flying. Regina jumped as Henry threw an arm across her chest to stop her, as she'd so often done to him in the car. He'd apparently noticed her bemusement, and she gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

“Oh, no! That one was mine,” Snow called, rushing forward to grab a pheasant from Isabella's hands.

“Only because I clipped it for you!”

“You never shoot at something you can't kill cleanly,” Snow snapped, and Isabella frowned but didn't argue. That seemed to clear the air between them, and Snow looked at her with a bit more respect.

Regina wished she could be so...playful.

Had the Evil Queen already affected her so much that death now seemed playful? Regina shivered.

“Hey, it'll be okay,” Henry promised. He looked at her, searching. “It will be.”

“I know.” She smiled, hooking her arm through his. “I know.”

~ * ~

She didn't sleep well. They'd planned to meet in the morning, but Regina found it unnerving that everyone unconsciously gathered at her house. At least they brought breakfast, she thought, trying to keep on the bright side.

Har har.

“From what we could tell last night,” Gareth said, looking wide awake for all that Regina knew he'd kept a full watch on the castle, “there are only three or four servants. And we only saw a handful of guards. If they're that powerful, though, they probably don't need many guards.”

“We split up,” Sid said, happily jumping in. “I saw an interesting light show in the back. Lots of lightning, flashing, that kind of thing. It changed colors toward the end. Kind of reminded me of that Enchanted Forest place, really. Not your Enchanted Forest,” he hurriedly added. “Way different. I think. Unless that's where you're really from?”

“I doubt it,” Galavant said.

“Well, it seemed like...like a magic spar, honestly. I think that's what it was.” He looked from Isabella to Snow. “Kind of a non-lethal show-off, I think, between the two of them.”

“Just two?” Isabella asked.

Richard scoffed. “Like that's not enough.”

“Then if they're right,” Isabella said, “the Dark Evil Lord is actually a Dark Evil Lady. It sounds like their Evil Queen is ruling the D'DEW.”

“How bad is your Evil Queen?” Richard asked.

“Worse than you could imagine,” Regina answered. “How bad is D'DEW?”

“Probably not that bad.” Galavant looked thoughtful. “I mean, their last evil mastermind that we encountered was kind of a let-down.”

Richard stood, pointing angrily at Galavant. “Hey, that was an epic battle!”

“Yes, yes, of course. I didn't mean anything by it. Truly, we were lucky to have Richard there to save us.” Galavant stood and reached a hand out to his friend. “We need you again, Richard. You are the One True King.”

“You know I was planning to ride Tad Cooper this afternoon.”

“I do! And I have faith in Tad Cooper as well. You will learn to ride him, and the two of you will lead us valiantly into battle, and they will quake before the True King and his mighty dragon!”

“YEAH!” Richard cried, and Gareth and Sid stood to join them, screaming their pre-battle man-cries together.

Regina sighed. Amateurs. “What does the book say now, Henry?”

Henry quickly returned with his book. He smiled as he explained, “This tells the stories of everyone in Storybrooke. Sometimes it helps us find their happy endings as well.” They all leaned forward to watch as Henry flipped the book open. She caught a glimpse of the castle they'd found the night before, and Henry stopped. Then he squared his shoulders, let out a breath, and turned the page.

The page depicted King Richard atop his glorious dragon, left arm clinging to one of Tad Cooper's long, curved horns while the right thrust his sword skyward. For the first time, Regina truly saw him as a king. “Looks like one quest might be successful, at least.”

“Then it will be Gareth's,” Richard said, clutching his pommel against his heart. “I will not abandon you, my One True BFF! We will save Madalena, if we absolutely must, and we will see your happy ending!”

Maybe not amateurs, Regina reconsidered.

“Now let's figure out how to ride my dragon!” he cried, leading his friends out the door.

Regina turned to Swan. “So, they'll manage to get us in, I think. Close enough without the Evil Queen noticing us. I'm guessing it'll be you and me from there.”

“Maybe. But it's nothing we haven't handled before,” Emma promised.

~ * ~

“This is an awful plan, Swan. Awful,” Regina grumbled.

Emma gave her a sympathetic look. “Just suck it in and try not to squirm,” she said, doing that very thing as she struggled to relax into the palm of the dragon's claw and make herself as tiny as possible. “Please let this work,” she whispered to no one in particular, but the dragon snorted, and she felt a smidgen of reassurance.

“Of all the idiotic things I've let you talk me into...”

“You're welcome,” Emma said, gasping as the talons closed tightly around her. There was no more talk after that.

It was an awful plan. The only advantage they had was that the Evil Queen didn't know they were on to her, and they were going to milk that as completely as they could before said awareness changed. Gareth and Sid would lead an advance guard comprised entirely of their pirates. Emma's pirate would help her parents sneak around one flank while Galavant, Isabella, and Roberta took the other. Hopefully they would cut them off from behind if the Dark/Evil Queens could be drawn out of their castle. They also had a 'no singing' treaty until the war had been won.

Richard and Tad Cooper would provide the aerial assault. They would advance with Gareth and Sid's team and attempt to blast down the castle doors. If that didn't work, they were to take out whatever guards or queens that they could. Mainly, Tad Cooper was to create havoc and distraction...and find a solitary area near the DEL Tower where he could unobtrusively drop Emma and Regina.

She hoped he would get plenty close. They'd put all their combined spellwork into their protection spells, but the thought of skydiving without a chute was still unnerving.

The worst part was that she couldn't see anything, and she could barely hear over the roar of the dragon's lungs, either. It was interesting to see how his breathing changed when he swapped from air to fire. Emma almost got lost in the scientific observation of it all until she felt a sudden gust of heat, followed by the most blasting cold, and she quickly realized that she was falling toward a stone parapet. She landed with a soft “fwump” and rolled, the protection spell holding up nicely. The Evil Queen's distraction had provided an easy opening. She could only hope it wasn't a trap.

“Swan! This way!” Regina was at her side, pulling her toward the tower. They clung to the wall, risking a quick glance at the battle below.

“There!” Emma cried, pointing. As she suspected, the Evil Queen herself was throwing fireballs at the pirates. Emma couldn't see her parents anywhere, and the queen was so far too smart to pull herself from the safety of the barbican.

“C'mon. We don't have much time.”

Regina found the hidden door easily enough. Being of the same blood, she was able to gain entry without alerting the Evil Queen. Regina threw herself into the room, tearing it apart with little thought for the items or their owner. “It had to have been a fake,” she mumbled as she moved her hands along the walls' energy field, feeling for more hidden entries. “The real one must be around here somewhere.”

It took a few minutes, but Emma was able to open the drawers of the great mahogany desk with no magical assistance. She'd expected some kind of find with the difficulty it posed, but the desk was completely empty.

“It's got to be here,” Regina insisted. “If I can find her real heart, I can end her once and for all!”

Emma was quickly circling the room, following Regina's trail. She found nothing the other woman had overlooked. “It's not here, Regina.” Regina looked near tears. “Hey. We'll find it. We will.”

“What if –” She looked at Emma with such sorrow. Before Emma could stop her, Regina had cast off her protection and plunged her hand into her own chest. Regina pulled forth her own heart. “What if it didn't work the first time because she doesn't have her own heart? What if we share one, like Snow and Charming?”

“No! No, Regina, I don't believe that. Your heart is too good. There's another way.”

A tear slid from Regina's eye. “Take care of Henry. Promise me, Swan.”

“Regina, NO!” For a moment, Emma thought she'd done it. A powerful explosion nearly knocked her over. Emma saw Regina grab the desk one-handed to keep from falling. The heart in her hand glowed wildly. “What just happened?” Emma whispered.

~ * ~

“No!” Madalena gasped, heart skipping as she saw Gareth rush the castle. “What are you doing, idiot?” Somehow he managed to dodge all of the DEL's fireballs.

The DEL turned to her with a wide, wicked grin. “Time to play! This is where you graduate or fail, apprentice.” She moved forward and took Madalena's arms. “Remember what I taught you.”

Somehow, she kept her breath from shaking and returned the DEL's magnificent grin. “Let's play, then.”

The two women were a force to be reckoned with. As they'd expected, their combined beauty caused the onslaught of men to give pause, and it was all the advantage they needed. Within seconds, Madalena had slung them back into the treeline from whence they came.

A great blast of heat radiated from above, and Madalena smelled burnt hair. She'd ducked, and she swung around to check on the DEL. The woman had flung herself back against the stones and still looked impeccable as always. Madalena felt the top of her head. “My hair! MY HAIR!”

Hell hath no fury.

Madalena swung around, happy to use the fireball spells the DEL had taught her. No, they couldn't stop a dragon, but they'd sure serve justice upon his rider. As she'd half-feared, it was Richard who was perched atop the thing. “You've got to be freaking kidding me. It really was a dragon.”

“Damn right he is!” Richard cried, and he patted the dragon's neck. “Do your trick, Tad Cooper, do your trick!”

Another hot gust ruffled her sizzled tresses as the dragon reared up, its wings slowly flapping as it expertly stopped and spun in midair. This time when the firey gust came, it was courtesy of the other end. Richard squealed in delight.

If anything could bring her pleasure in that moment, it was the speed at which the DEL was by her side. Together they pummeled the weaselly cretin. To her immense pleasure, Richard was knocked off his dragon's back in a smoking plume. Serves him right.

Unfortunately, his dragon was pissed. But even a dragon was no match for the DEL, and she soon had his legs bound with his own lashing tail. The DEL's laughter rang off the stones. She spun, another flame sparking within her hand. “Who's next?” she taunted.

“Me.” An unfamiliar woman stepped forward. She had the build of a nursemaid and the hair of a squire, but something about her stoked the fires of the DEL's angry heart.

“Snow White,” she spat, and Madalena gave a closer look.

“Really? She's much plainer than I would have thought.”

It was exactly the right thing to say. The DEL laughed. “Who's fairest, would you say?”

“You, of course, your Dark Evilness.”

Snow White loosed her arrow, and the DEL's trailing sleeve was suddenly pinned against the barbican's wooden door. Another came from the opposite direction, pinning the DEL's left hand, and Snow White looked over with a wide grin. Madalena followed her gaze, eyes landing on Isabella. “You? Still a tag-along, hmm?”

Isabella kept a quick succession of arrows coming, and Snow from the other side, and soon the DEL was outlined like a knife thrower's assistant. The DEL laughed. “You think these can stop me?” she asked, pulling her arms forward.

They didn't budge.

“Courtesy of an old friend of yours,” Snow White said with a smirk. “Or should I say 'of your better half's'? Robin left quite a legacy.” The DEL's face twisted in fury, but she was unable to twist free. Snow continued, “It's only a dress, your majesty. She made us promise to spare you, so she can deal with you.”

Madalena was flung against the stone wall herself, her breath knocked free. Furious, Madalena found herself staring into the face of an equally furious Gareth. She'd made a rookie mistake: stared at the prettiest, most powerful woman around instead of watching her back. “Think you can kill me, do you?” she asked, struggling to raise just one hand in order to wield her newfound powers. She started to mist away.

“Maddie,” Gareth said, his voice breaking on the word. Despite herself, she hesitated. “I can't believe you chose this!” he cried, his shaking voice causing her to flush more than the dragon-blast had. Reluctantly, he glanced back at the DEL. “Okay, believe me, I get some of the appeal...but, dammit, Madalena, we had something real.”

Power is reality,” she said with both sorrow and strength in her voice. “It's the only truth there is.”

“You got that right. And I've found the most powerful thing in all the realms.” A smile slowly grew on his face. “It's nothing without you though. I've brought it across the realms to gift at your feet. Will you let me show you? I know it'll change everything. Hell, you can even bring along the hottie if you want. I won't mind.”

Now Madalena smiled. “We could have it all, you think?”

“Oh yes,” he promised. “Every bit of it.”

“Show me.”

To her surprise, Gareth leaned forward and kissed her. Deeply.

It was as if the earth itself shook, and everything came to a stop. Time, good, evil, guilt, regret...none of it existed. There was just a warm, soothing glow and a heart-stoppingly overwhelming sense of rightness. Her legs collapsed as he stepped back, and he barely caught her before she hit the flagstones. “What was that?” she whispered.

“True love's kiss,” Prince Charming said, pulling Snow White close and smiling brightly. The DEL was right; these two were insufferable.

Madalena looked into Gareth's face again, surprised by the depth of feeling that washed over her. She felt like pissing herself. “Are you sure this is love?” she asked, dubious.

“You're not trying to kill us anymore. You know what kind of power that takes?”

Madalena pulled him close. “I chose wrong. I – I'm sorry.”

“You fail,” the DEL spat. “You definitely fail.”

“No, your majesty,” a voice called, and two more women came jogging around the side of the castle. To Madalena's surprise, one of them looked exactly like the DEL. Well, maybe a budget, vanilla version of the DEL.

Madalena's head swung around to Gareth so quickly that she gave herself whiplash. She barely felt it. “Can we keep them both?”

“I'm sorry too,” the not-DEL said. “I was more powerful with you.”

“About time you realized it.” The DEL squirmed against the door.

“And you're more powerful with me.”

“Ha! Not in the slightest.”

“You know what would make us unstoppable? The greatest power in the world.” Not-DEL gulped and stepped toward the true DEL. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I ever created you, that I fed you so, so much over the years, and that I then blamed you and cast you out for it.”

The DEL looked nervous, eyes flicking to each of them. “Okay, this is dark magic. Who did this?”

“I'm sorry,” not-DEL said again, taking the DEL by the chin. She gulped once more. “I forgive you. For everything.” She turned around and smiled at that disgustingly saccharine Snow White. “Everyone else could forgive your actions but me. That was wrong of me. I'm so, so sorry, and I hope that one day you can forgive me as well.”

Hand still holding the DEL's face, not-DEL leaned forward and kissed her. Madalena groaned, not quite in disappointment, and Gareth grinned.

A substantial aftershock hit, but Gareth's strong arms kept her safe. She watched in fascination as the DEL leaned eagerly into the kiss, disappearing into not-DEL's face. No, like, literally disappearing into the woman's face! The woman actually sucked her up with her succubial smootch!

Afterward, she rolled her head, neck cracking. “That was odd.”

“And weirdly hot,” said a scruffy man with a hook for his hand.

“How do you feel?” Snow asked.

DEL-not-DEL looked up and smiled. “Okay. Everything's going to be okay.”

“Guys!” Richard called, his dragon hopping atop the curtain wall. Poor Richard's head was still smoking, half missing beard, hair, and eyebrow.

Madalena clapped a hand across her mouth. “Oh, Richard! I'm sorry! I mean, well, mostly.”

“No hard feelings. She's not evil anymore, right?”

“Right,” Galavant assured him.

“You know what this is?” Richard didn't wait for anyone to respond. “It's a castle without a ruler! Why, imagine that! And I just happen to be a ruler without a castle. I rather like this realm. So does Tad Cooper.”

Isabella looked at Galavant. “We're not moving. Absolutely not. We just settled in!”

Galavant raised her hand to his lips. "Two months it's been since our special day. I vowed myself to her; the party was gay..."

"He hung up his sword and promised clichés," Isabella replied, a smile once again curving as she gazed into his eyes. "But I'll not hold you to it, for it does not pay – "

He picked up the line, and they finished together:

"To leave off our friends and turn away.
To watch the adventure from our safe door waaaaaaaay.
We'll stay together, we'll play together.
So help me, I swear to melee together!
And now...this world seems to be okaaaaaay.
I...think...we'll... stay."