"How could you?" Red asked her. She was the only one who would, though Snow could read the bewilderment, hurt and accusation in many other faces. "How could you do this? After all she's done? After what we've suffered? After all the dead? Are they to have no justice?"
Snow kept her voice calm and quiet, though she felt raw inside, as if every word coming out of her mouth would tear a little more flesh.
"They did get justice. She had a trial, had to face what she'd done."
"But she was sentenced to death at that trial, and yet she lives," Red said, and now she sounded more wounded than angry, which was worse. She'd been the first friend Snow White had made after her world had fallen apart, when no one else would dare. "Because of you. When she's learned nothing, regretted nothing. She even said the only thing she felt remorse for was not trying harder to kill you, and you still spared her life. Why?"
Snow considered talking about mercy again. She even for a moment, to her shame, thought about bringing up how everyone had blood at their hands now, a none too subtle appeal to the horror her dearest friend had gone through when finding out about her wolf nature, and squashed the thought immediately. The fact that she had had it, with that cool, calculating voice in her mind that had enabled her to plot the taking of a kingdom against the odds, that voice that sounded suspiciously like Cora to her, made her guilty enough to speak the truth, selfish as it was.
"I loved her once," Snow said. "She raised me, and even before that..."
Red raised her hand as if to ward of any tales that painted Regina in a less than horrifying light. "I killed my mother for you," she said softly, and that truth stood between them, sharp and painful and deadly.
"If she was threatening your life at this very moment, I would kill her," Snow whispered. "But not in cold blood."
"She's threatening everyone's lives as long as she draws a breath, and you know that's true", Red returned, wrapped her red cloak around herself and turned away. "We can only hope you'll be able to defeat her again before she she kills too many of us, I suppose. It's on your shoulders now. You are the Queen."
Sometimes it seemed that dead mothers were the stepping stones Snow's life path was made of. They told her her mother nearly died when giving birth to her, and that this changed Queen Eva forever, transforming her from a lighthearted fancy free girl into a thoughtful, wise woman, the object of everyone's admiration. In the end, she died nonetheless, and Snow alone knew that it would have been within her power to save her mother. Years later, when she realized Charming's mother had chosen death because of Snow, she buried that knowledge within her together with the sight of her mother's cold dead body in the crypt. It was too awful to be shared. Even the sight of her old nurse Johanna bleeding to death in front of her, because Snow made the wrong choice, had a ghastly inevitability to it.
The only mother she'd been ever been able to save was Regina, and Regina never was her mother at all. When the Huntsman told her the truth about his instructions from Regina, his precise instructions, the irony threatened to choke Snow. After all, she'd given Regina her heart already a long, long time ago.
After discovering Cora was in Storybrooke and talking to David about possible ways to defeat her, Snow insisted she needed to talk to Regina, to try to split them apart. "Regina has never trusted her mother," she said, and they keep debating it until David brought up that Snow has told him Regina loved Cora, too.
"Which is it?"
"Both," Snow said.
He opened his mouth as if to protest the two were mutually exclusive and then closed it again. She could see it in his eyes, the memory of David Nolan and Mary Margaret, of loving and betraying at the same time. Neither of them liked what they did last year, before their memories returned, but neither of them can forget it. He once said that it was part of them now, and they should use that knowledge to do better.
"After what you told me," he returned instead, "about what Cora did to her, I don't understand how Regina can love her at all. It would be like me loving King George."
Snow looked at the ring she wore, his ring, his dead mother's ring. "No, it wouldn't. He didn't raise you. You never chose him. He never was all you admired, all you wanted to be. He never was your hero. He only ever hurt you and used you, and you didn't owe him anything. He never loved you, or made you think he did, you never felt the loss of that love or wondered whether it was ever really there, and you never wanted to be loved by him."
Her voice had gone faster and faster as she spoke, until he put his hand under her chin.
"We're not talking about Cora and Regina anymore, are we?" he asked quietly.
She didn't want to discuss it. Not now.
"Regina has never been able to trust her mother," she said, "or not to love her, even as she hated her at the same time. And she never will be."
Snow did not know Cora had, in fact, killed Daniel until Regina told her, presenting that truth together with a poisonous apple, but she had figured out a long time before that that Daniel had not simply "run away", leaving Regina able to marry Snow's father after all. There was Cora's sudden disappearance just before the wedding and afterwards, which after all of Cora's insistence that she didn't want to lose her daughter was bewildering, to say the least.
Snow had been a trusting child, but not a stupid one. She concluded eventually that Cora must have done something to drive Daniel away, and that this was why Regina did not want her mother to visit anymore, or why Regina's father never offered any explanations regarding his wife's whereabouts when he visited. That was when she began to understand the magnitude of what her confession to Cora had caused: that instead of allowing Regina to keep both lover and mother, it had robbed her new stepmother of both.
It took her years, though, to understand just why she'd been so easily persuaded by Cora that day. After all, even as a child Snow could keep a secret. The worst, most horrifying secret, the truth about her own mother's death and the way she could have prevented it from happening. She hadn't told anyone, not Johanna, certainly not her father, not even David after falling in love with him. Regina's secret had been a far lesser burden by comparison. But Snow had listened to Cora regardless, and the reasons were two fold. Firstly, Cora had not lied. Going back to that day in her memory again and again, Snow had looked at every single word as if it were one of the stones the dwarves mined and sharpened into brilliant diamonds, cutting through anything. Cora had been suggestive, of course, and had known exactly what not to say, but by themselves, everyone of her statements regarding the fear for her daughter's future, the wish to be close to her, the willingness to do anything to achieve that had been true.
The other reason, though, the other reason had not been about Cora at all. It had been because Snow hadn't wanted Regina to run away with Daniel, not when she'd just found her, and when Cora had offered a chance to stop this while still being able to tell herself she was being a good friend, Snow had taken it. She'd been living a lonely, terrified life until Regina had saved it, in more than one ways. Her father was distraught about her mother's death, so every courtier said, and hardly talked to her, and when he did, she could not look at him without knowing his sadness was her fault. She tried to be good as her dead mother had urged her to be, but every pitying glance from the servants just made her want to scream they should all stop, that she was not a poor little girl but a criminal who brought her mother to death. It came to the point where she hardly even moved because she wanted to smash everything around her so badly that she was afraid that it would happen any moment. And then there was Regina, who was hardly more than a girl herself and blew into her life like a wind forcing all the dust of her mother's funeral away even as it threatened to choke Snow. Regina stopped that horse and saved Snow, but she didn't pity her, or pat her on the head, or talked to her as if she was a fragile little thing. Instead, Regina told her to get up on the horse again, she talked to Snow like Snow was sensible and capable of understanding things, and when Snow had questions, Regina answered them and explained things. Regina did none of this because Snow was a princess, or her mother's daughter. She simply did it because she was Regina, and Snow began to live again, and loved her utterly and completly.
Cora had simply offered her a way to have what she so desperately wanted. It took Snow years to acknowledge the truth of this. It took her even longer to use this understanding, but use it she did.
"You can have a mother, or a new Dark One," she said to Regina, both of them years and lives away from the two girls on horseback, and she saw in Regina her own desperation to believe, her own eagerness to take what was offered. Snow did not lie, she does not utter a single falsehood, any more than Cora had lied to her, and yet everything coming out of her mouth was a snare.
Giving Regina a heart. It had become the worst habit.
Snow had stopped being a child a long time ago. In many way, Regina never did, though it took Snow years to comprehend this. It was not a natural thought to have, given their differences of age and position. A nebulous version of this quintessential truth about Regina started to form in her when she grew up and watched her stepmother's wardrobe grow ever more extravagant, as if Regina had put all her playfulness and longing for freedom into gowns that became increasingly unlike anyone else's, defying gravity, each like some particular dream given shape. Snow, growing up, took delight in this and admired Regina all the more for it; it was not until later that she started to wonder whether all these creations were not a harmless prelude to Regina's later attempts to fit them all into shapes born of her own increasingly dark imagination.
The first time Snow saw Regina as a child without any need to speculate was also the first time she ever felt hate for Regina. Before that, Snow had been declared outlaw and traitor already yet had still been full of hope. To learn that Regina had hated her had shocked her, but Snow had told herself that Regina had reason. Besides, if Regina had truly wanted her dead, she'd have had a lot of opportunity to do it herself. Asking a stranger to do it had to be proof some part of Regina was still struggling with what used to be affection, surely. True, there was also the suspicion that it had not been the djinn but Regina who'd killed Snow's father, but there was no way to be sure of this without questioning the djinn, and he had vanished. Snow would not condemm Regina without proof. She owed her better than this.
In retrospect, she'd been a child herself, womanly shape not withstanding, desperately clinging to a childhood dream and wilfully ignoring anything that did not fit with it. The culmination of this was the first time she rescued Regina from an execution and their time in the woods afterwards. Snow laid her heart bare and revealed, without restraint, just what Regina had meant to her. Years later, with her opinion of both Regina and herself significantly darker, she concluded that the oddest thing about the whole experience had been the way Regina had responded. There had been no smugness or the satisfied glee of dealing with a hopeless fool in the other woman, no. Instead, Regina had been stunned and then increasingly hopeful.
Until they'd stumbled across the piles of charred, dead bodies. Snow had seen death before, but nothing like this. Her parents had died in bed, and their servants had made sure that their still bodies were put to rest with dignity. No one had bothered to do this for the men, women and children who were spread on the ground, dead for at least a day, by the sword or by fire, fear and desperation still on what was left of their faces. The sickly stench of human decay mingled with cold smoke. Snow recognized some of the faces. She didn't know any of these people, but she'd seen several of them before. They'd been part of the village where the woman at her side had been about to be executed.
It took all Snow had not to throw up. She knew Regina then, knew her as she'd never known her before. Knew her even as Regina protested and started to stutter and stumble through her words, Regina, who'd never been anything but smooth and elegant in speech and gesture.
"But you said..."
The irony was too horrifying. Snow had dreamed of a moment like this, of Regina being willing to start anew, to put the past behind them, together. To stop hating her and start to love her again. Now it was here, and Regina's outstretched hand made her nearly as sick as the dead bodies did. But Regina, oh, Regina still didn't see. Those bodies might as well not have been there as far as Regina was concerned, other than as an inconvenience. Regina only saw Snow betraying her again.
A child, unwilling to acknowledge anyone's right to live except if she had feelings for them herself.
One could grow weary of love as well as of hate. When Snow took Rumpelstilskin's potion to rid herself of love, it was because of Regina as well as because of Charming. In the end, she forgot one and tried to kill the other, and was not sure what that said about her feelings for either. But there was clarity then, at least. Any ambiguity about Regina had left her, and it all seemed perfectly simple. She would kill Regina, as she should have done that day in the woods when the extent of the damage Regina could do had been revealed to her. There was no more silliness about childhood memories holding her back, and she saw it clearly: her arrow piercing Regina's latest fantastic gown, cutting through silk and skin, flesh and bone, right to the heart.
Charming stopped her, and by the time she regained the ability to love, she was grateful, but she also never forgot that sense of purpose and lack of regret. Briefly, she wondered whether this was how Regina felt, and decided it was not. Whatever Regina had become, it was never dispassionate. Another legacy from her near successful murder was the decision that they had to act now in ways other than living as outlaws and helping those in distress, putting out this fire and that, dealing with festering wounds but never cutting to the heart of the problem. Regina had been Queen for years by then, and she'd grown worse at it, not better. There was hardly a town and village left where no one had suffered. If Snow could not kill Regina, she also could not let her continue to hurt and kill others.
She had made Regina Queen, in ignorance and love, with a betrayed confidence, and now everyone was paying the price for this. It was her responsibility to depose her.
"I was always the Queen," Regina told her, years later and in another world. "It was you who put Evil in front of my name." It was her old tune; Snow had made her into who she became, and who she became was not someone to blame for anything anyway.
"Good doesn't do what you did, Regina," Snow replied, feeling weary again, but too old now to believe she could rid herself of her emotions for the woman in front of her by a magic potion, or even by death. And yet, and yet, some of that clarity came back. In Gold's pawn shop, of all the places, when she saw that candle which, as she had now learned, Cora had created. The candle that saved one life at the expense of another. The candle Snow had not used for her own mother.
Perhaps the worst thing about what unfolded was how little of Gold's prompting was necessary. Snow had always been good at figuring out the details. It had enabled her win a kingdom, to comprehend the meaning of Emma's name endlessly repeated on Rumplestilskin's scroll, to get her daughter and herself back to Storybrooke, and it made her put altogether now: years and years of learning the ways of Regina, inside and out, using all that hate and love and making Regina that one instrument Cora never saw coming.
"You did what you had to to protect your family," David said, because David loved or he hated, but never both, and manipulation was a language he never spoke, with or without his memories. He was not like her, which was one reason why Snow loved him.
"I did what was easiest."
The first heart that Snow ever saw outside of its owner's body was Cora's. The second was her own. Offered, inevitably, to Regina.
They said that if you had magic, you could control others through their hearts, and Snow knew both Cora and Regina had done this. Most recently, she'd watched the effect on Aurora. And yet when Regina's fingers held Snow's heart, there was no sense of losing her willpower. There was not even a complete lack of emotion, and absurdly, because it did not matter anymore, Snow thought: I was wrong. Cora could still feel love. This is not like the potion.
If anything, it reminded her of her glass coffin, of the sleeping spell and that sense of being shut away through crystal from the rest of the world, unable to connect, yet still alive. It did not last long. Instead, Regina found another reason not to kill her. She showed Snow the stain on Snow's heart and rejoiced at the prospect of Snow following Regina's own path now.
This being Regina, this indirect acknowledgment that her life and choices had made her thoroughly miserable did not come with the idea of changing. Perhaps Regina believed change was only ever possible in one direction. Perhaps Regina was right, and Snow was naive to have ever hoped otherwise.
Snow did not renember much of her life as Mary Margaret before Emma came to Storybrooke, and it was not easy to figure out which memories were false and curse created, and which actually happened during those 28 years of an endlessly repeating day. There were some images of Regina, frustrated, shouting at her "You won't even fight back?", which Snow doubted were intentionally created for Mary Margaret. After all, Mary Margaret, who loved animals but would not dream of hunting, let alone of toppling a kingdom, Mary Margaret, whose idea of recklessness before Emma came was to flirt with clearly unreliable Dr. Whale, Mary Margaret was supposed to be Snow White's punishment and Regina's triumph. For a woman who had used what she'd believed to be her last moments in life to declare she should have tried harder to kill Snow, Regina had used those twenty eight years with Mary Margaret at her utter and complete mercy with a singular lack of lethalness. Snow no longer believed this to be due to Regina's struggle with the good person who she used to be, though. She concluded it was due to Regina's childlike nature. A child would kick and smash a favored toy, in a temper, but it would not throw it away.
None of which changed what Snow had done. She was the one who'd have to decide how to live with it.
Ruby was calmer and more at peace with herself now than Red used to be. Talking about Regina was almost certainly bound to change that, though. Still, Snow, having emerged from her brooding with the help of target practice, Joan Jett and talking Pinnoccio out of his own guilty withdrawal from the world, decided she owed her oldest friend a chance to say "I told you so", as well as another attempt at an explanation, and an apology.
"Well, yes," Ruby said while they were both drinking hot chocolate at Granny's, "I told you so. And none of it would have happened if you'd let those dammed arrows do their work back then. But you know what? Henry wouldn't be alive, either. You wouldn't have a grandson. And me, I'd still be stuck in long skirts instead of shorts. Seriously, though, the curse messed with a lot of us, and I wish it hadn't for many of the people here. But not for myself. It was nice, you know, not having to worry about hiding once a month. Not remembering Peter."
"Would you have wanted to remain cursed?" Snow asked, surprised. Ruby tilted her head and thought about it. "No," she said. "It's better to remember. Much as that hurts. And I now can live with the wolf again. But - it did give me a break." A mischievous smile tugs at the corners of her mouth. "Also, I don't think I'd be having sex with Dr. Frankenstein in the Enchanted Forest. He puts those hands to good use, you know."
For a moment, they are girls again, giggling together in the darkness and talking about their dreams as Snow couldn't stop herself from replying "I do, actually."
"Mary Margaret," Ruby said in pretend shock, "you did not!"
"It was the curse," Snow replied with her most deadpan expression, and the hilarity inside felt like a liberating bubble bursting free after weeks of first worry and then guilt, ever since Cora came to Storybrooke.
Then she became sober again. "I put Regina's life before everyone else's, though," Snow said, seriously. "And even you are content with the result for yourself, a lot of other people suffered. And I did not spare her because I still believed she could change. Not really. I did it because..."
Snow stopped, and Ruby captured her hands. Any teasing had vanished from her voice, and she was calm and sincere. "Because you love her," Ruby said, and she did not use the past tense. "I know that. I know you also still hate her guts at times. That's just it. She taught you how to love and to hate, and was the first in both, and so she's part of what makes you you. Snow, I told you once you were the only one who didn't want me to be all human or all wolf, who just took me for me. Who I was, who I am, whatever I'm made of. It's time to return the favour."
"It is my fault", Regina said, as the world was about to end. These two events were inevitably connected, the singularity and magnitude of either occasion being worthy of the other. It did not really sink in as far as Snow was concerned, not until later. She was focused on finding ways to prevent the later that did not involve Regina killing herself, and besides, she still felt raw from Gold's spell that had allowed them to find Regina. The spell that had let her feel every single thing Regina felt, even while Regina was being tortured. And yet, here was Regina, even though every muscle in her body had to scream in protest, even though the horror of just who was executing the torture had to be still shaking her, set on preventing the end of the world as well.
"You have to get back on the horse," she'd said to Snow White, two worlds and two life times ago, "or you'll be afraid for the rest of your life."
There she was again, that fearless girl who'd saved a stranger because there had been no one else who could have done it. Snow blinked, and focused on the task at hand. It was hours later, and they were on board a ship about to cross worlds, when Regina came to her and said, uneasily: "They told me what you did to find me."
"To stop the destruction of Storybrooke," Snow said, because it was true, and because she didn't want to find out whether or not Regina actually felt compelled to thank her. There had been enough world changing events on this day already.
"Ever the hero," Regina said archly, and they were silent for a while, watching the sea. It did not feel hostile, or full of unsaid accusations.
"He was the first person who liked me," Regina said abruptly, "in a long while. Owen. Greg. That man. He was a boy, as Henry is now, and he was clever and kind. It happened shortly after I had created Storybrooke, so you won't remember."
Snow didn't, but she remembered that sense of "not you, oh not you!" that reverbarated through Regina even while her body was put through electrical shocks.
"He was a good child," Regina said, "who gave me hope that life could be different, and I made him a monster."
Whatever she'd done to Owen could not have been worse than what she'd done to many of the people in the Enchanted Forest, and because he'd meant something to her and they did not, Regina would always feel the former as important but not the later. Nonetheless, the regret and pain in her voice were real. Snow didn't say that Owen might come to regret his actions, or that she was sorry that Regina had to suffer through them, because nobody, no matter what they had done, deserved to be tortured. Instead, she replied, not looking at Regina but at the sea:
"You were a good person who gave me hope that life could be different. And I made you a Queen."
Quick as lightning, Regina said, not a little indignation in her voice: "You did not. You might as well say I made you a hero."
The sea around them was strange and new, and what it held, neither of them knew.