Sometime Before the Breaking of the Dark Curse
Thomas Hatter wearily swiped at the sweat dotting his brow. Shuffling through the dense underbrush of Darkling Woods was no easy task and his journey had been long. He came to this realm flush with victory having procured the last item on his list: the heart of a Vile Harpy from Olympus. The quest was not without difficulty.
Olympus was a heavily guarded realm, its defenses only surpassed by those of Asgard, the most technologically advanced of the Nine Realms that made up their intergalactic planetary system. To any other procurer of rare goods the task would be nigh on impossible, but Thomas prided himself on stealth and subtlety and he had the benefit of employing many agents over many worlds who knew secret entryways to places mere mortals were prohibited from even approaching. The Strophades Islands were one such place.
Protected by the powerful goddess Iris, the island was a sanctuary to the wild elements of the wind. There, magic permeated every rock and every blade of grass, making for a treacherous place to journey. Were Thomas not constrained by an unbreakable contract of both duty and loyalty, he would rather preferred to avoid it. Seeing as how there were no alternatives for procuring a suitable heart and that he alone had been entrusted with the vital task, there was no choice to be made. He would not let the Master down.
It took a week to secure passage on a ship that was willing to anchor close enough to the island so that the last leg of the journey could be made upon a small dinghy. After rowing to shore, he'd donned the cloak gifted to him by his powerful benefactor, an item steeped in ancient magic that obscured him from view so long as he moved slowly. Time was of the essence but Thomas liked his limbs and bowels in their current locations, so he was resigned to emphasizing safety over speed.
Dozens of tribes of harpies inhabited the island, and though a scant few were friendly to deal with most were vicious killers. They roamed the island in packs of three, never alone save in cases where the old or lame were left to fend for themselves, to hunt game and make sport of fighting or racing one another through the skies above. Occasionally the humans native to the planet would venture to the island to trap a specific species of bird whose gold-flecked feathers could be sold for healthy sums. These daring adventurers the harpies abducted, the males to procreate with – as there are no male harpies – and the females to enslave for menial labor. Those that were not fit for duty were slaughtered and eaten by the tribe to great fanfare. Live broiled human was a special delicacy to the most bloodthirsty tribes.
Thomas had not wanted to become another nameless victim, so he stuck to the coasts until he worked his way around to the northwestern edges of the island. Forests of exotic trees and plants dotted that area, providing cover through which to slip undetected past the harpies patrolling the coasts. Once inside the forest proper he knew he was safe. Harpies feared the forest and the savage beasts that lived within it. But Thomas did not fear the shadow. The cloak he had been provided enabled him to waltz through the dense foliage without regard for the things that inhabited the darkness. The Master owned the darkness and had taught Thomas how to utilize it to his own benefit.
The purpose of eluding the coastal harpies was to reach the heart of the island where the Temple of Isis was located. A grand building of white marble, it sat atop the highest peak of Mount Kerykeion which sat dead-center of the island, and it was frequented by the only tribe of harpies friendly to humans: the Stoutheart tribe. He had acquaintances among them who were expecting him, so he made his way there as efficiently as he could.
Once he reached the base of the mountain, his contact was waiting for him as arranged. Her name was Alieda and she was a specimen of immense beauty whose body was covered by a thin coat of downy white hair crested in blue about the shoulders.
Harpies were more humanoid than most mythologies depicted, though the tales were accurate to describe them as having birdlike feathers and wings. Their hands and feet were more human than bird, however, having fingers with opposable thumbs and toes, ten a piece just like humans except for the sharp talon-like nails at the tips. Also, they had hair rather than feathers on their head, though it was never of a color typically found in humans, for each tribe had a different color associated with it.
The face of a harpy was almost entirely human, although covered with a very fine hair that grew in patterns of distinct and intricate swirls and lines of colors appropriate to their tribe. Most harpies were exquisitely beautiful, which they used to great effect to entice human males away from their trapping groups. The allure of their melodic voices and exquisite curves was too much for any ordinary man to resist. Once in the harpy's clutches, the man would be used to sate their primal urges only to be killed and ritually consumed afterward.
For that reason, Thomas did not trust the species as a whole, even the friendly tribes that lived along the slopes of Mount Kerykeion where the benevolent goddess Iris’ influence was most keenly felt. Alieda, however, he did trust, but only because he had previously adventured with her to great satisfaction and learned her to be as reliable as she was kind. In many ways, Alieda was a better person than him, which Thomas took no shame in, as he was content with his choices in life and was far too hardened to feel such things anymore. His brother Jefferson was the only sentimental fool left in the family. Knowing that about Alieda served as reassurance that she was a dependable ally, though, which made the belief worth noting.
It was without second thought, then that Thomas allowed Alieda to lead him up a winding path that circled the mountain like a corkscrew and which ran at least ten miles in length. Nearly eight miles up, Alieda veered off the path into a secluded cavern whose entrance was neatly tucked into a crevice just below the northern slopes of the crest. Having escorted him deep within her den, she revealed the prize with little fanfare: a Vile Harpy, instantly recognizable by the inky black feathers decorated by dark purple cresting around her breasts. To his surprise, she was in chains and unconscious, ready to be divested of her heart.
Without prelude, Alieda handed him her knife and smiled. “For you,” she'd said, her voice airy like a nightingale’s heavenly ballad.
Thomas had been very confused. He'd thought the deal was she would lead him safely to the boundaries of the Vileheart tribe, from whence he would commence his work. He'd looked over at her with a furled brow to see her smiling beatifically.
“I don’t understand,” he said, then scratched at his itchy stubble. He was well past due for a shave. “This wasn't part of our deal.”
“No, it was not.” She brushed her shoulder against him, a strange look in her eyes. “I wish to amend the deal more to my liking. To that end, I’ve sweetened the pot.”
Thomas frowned deeply. Shrewd negotiation was not his forte. His area of expertise was more in the acquiring of things than the settling of terms determining where said things wound up going after he handed them off.
Alieda gestured toward the unresponsive harpy. “This one is quite a catch. She is the eldest daughter of the Chieftess Lemaria.”
That raised Thomas' eyebrows. “Won't such an act spark a war? I imagine this Lemaria won't fancy her daughter's heart being cut out.”
“Quite so,” Alieda laughed, a trilling sound that was not at all unpleasant to his ears. “But no, there will be no war. She will be expecting retribution for having broken the sacred laws. She murdered a prominent member of our tribe and then consumed our slain sister's newly hatched brood of younglings.”
Making a face, Thomas shook his head. “Sounds like a lovely lady. I'm glad I have yet to make her acquaintance.”
“As you should be,” said Alieda, again eyeing him strangely. “She would no doubt enslave you many years to expand her own line.” She then leaned in and then gnashed her sharp teeth together, “And then eat you alive after she...milked you dry.” As Thomas' eyes widened, Alieda laughed at him.
Long used to Alieda’s capricious nature, he ignoring her mirth at his expense. “That would have been most unpleasant,” he said, then grimaced at the thought of being drained in more ways than one.
“Quite so.” Again Alieda brushed her shoulder against his as she stepped in front of him. “Fortunately my offer is much more generous and much more...enjoyable.”
Thomas felt his face flush at her suggestive tone. “And what offer is that?” He didn't have to ask to know what she was going to say, but as a man of at least some honor he felt responsible for having the particulars laid out plainly.
Gazing warmly at him with her large blue eyes, she tugged at her bottom lip revealing a glimpse of perfectly white teeth, two of which were elongated fangs. She then glanced back toward the prisoner.
“In exchange for her heart, I would have you lie with me. I have delayed producing heirs long enough and I am now in season.” Shifting a bit, she ducked her head and he could tell by the way her soft facial hair ruffled and shimmered that she was blushing. Looking at him through her lashes, she added, “And I am awfully fond of you, Thomas. You are the most interesting human I’ve ever met. And while I am aware that this may be the last time you visit our isle, I would have something to remember you by if you are amenable. Besides, I believe that you would father strong daughters for me – strong enough to perhaps promote me beyond my peers in the eyes of Iris. Who knows, should you return, you may even find me to be Chieftess of the Stoutheart clan.”
Thomas made no reply at first, merely stood dumbstruck like a foolish boy just turned of age who’d been tossed in front of his first whore without a manual to figure out how such things work. Alieda frowned at his perceived lack of interest.
“I was under the impression you fancied me as I do you,” she said, sounding hurt. “Is it really so awful a suggestion to mate with me?”
Thomas shrugged as if disaffected when in truth he cared for Alieda and would otherwise have granted her wish without question had equal measures of fear and respect of the Master not so long dominated his life. Affection was not a trait fancied by the Master nor was it to be indulged in by his servants outside of their unquestioning loyalty to him. There was no time for romance when one was helping to conquer not just a planet but an entire system of them.
What, Thomas wondered, would the Master do should he discover the care that had fermented between his most trusted servant and a being of a species held almost universally in low regard. According to the ancient sorcerer, Harpies were little more than ravenous savages whose voracious appetites for betrayal and carnage made them unfit for service. That opinion was not unique, which was why he had believed the same until he met Alieda and other members of her tribe.
The Stoutheart clan were honorable creatures, which Thomas found ironic seeing as how they trusted him, a man lacking almost all virtue. Yet Alieda and her kin saw past the cold pragmatism he practiced to the tiny sliver of humanity that remained inside his heart. They treated him with dignity and respect, and he both admired and loathed them for it. Feeling any kind of sympathy or affection was dangerous in his line of work.
“I don’t deny that I care for you,” he said but made no attempt to further expound upon his complicated feelings.
Alieda shuffled forward, the lush plumage along her arms glimmering in the firelight. “Why do you deny yourself then?” When still no reply was made, her eyes narrowed in accusation. “Is it because of...him?”
Alieda refused to speak the name of the Master, a practice characteristic of his servants, only her motivation was less of obedience than of distaste. Thomas did not approve of her opinion of his sovereign lord but he had stopped trying to correct her. In his experience women of any species were intractable once their minds were set and this one was too stubborn for her own good.
Sighing, Alieda reached out to grasp Thomas’ hand. He allowed their fingers to tangle together, enjoying the juxtaposition of his tanned skin and her own stark white, incredibly fine hair. The smooth softness of the hair covering her body never ceased to amaze him. It was much more pleasant to the touch than he’d ever imagined, different in texture than skin but not at all in a bad way.
“Take what you want for once, Thomas,” Alieda then said, stepping up until her prominently feminine frame was flush with his. Her eyes held an almost pleading quality as dangerously sharp teeth nibbled at a plump and entirely too kissable lower lip. “He has enough of you already. Let me have this one piece for myself. Let us have this moment. Please.”
Unable to hold himself back anymore, Thomas gave in to long-suppressed desires. Surging forward, he grasped at her face with both hands and plunged their lips together. A low moan rumbled through Alieda’s throat when he shifted the angle, her lips parting to allow him better access to her mouth. She tasted of wild honey and sweet strawberries.
As they kissed, Alieda worked at Thomas’ clothes and maneuvered them toward her carefully arranged nest of densely packed straw and feathers. By the time she had pushed him down onto it, he was bared to her, looking up to hungry blue eyes and kiss-swollen lips. No time after that was wasted on talk and that there was a captive if not conscious audience only made the experience all the more intense.
And that is how Thomas came to procure the heart. All in all, it was not only a successful quest, but a very enjoyable one as well, just as Alieda had promised it would be. If he lived to see the Master's plan fulfilled, he would make sure to visit her once again, if only to witness her rise to power. She was a natural leader and as clever a tactician and strategist as he knew. He believed her to be worthy of such elevation. But for the present he was consumed by compulsion to fulfill the will of his all powerful benefactor.
After trudging another hour through the dense Albion forest, he at last reached the predesignated location, and there found his master waiting.
“Do you have it?” the Master asked, his face concealed by his hood. His voice was gravelly, deep, and lacked any discernible emotion.
Digging around in his pouch, Thomas procured the vessel containing the heart and presented it with a flourish. “As you requested, my Lord. The heart of a Vileheart harpy. Quite an extraordinary one, I might add. It belonged to the eldest daughter of their Chieftess.”
The Master smiled as he eyed the heart through the glass of the container. To any other it would have been a menacing look with the way his eyes darkened, but to Thomas the expression was welcome, for it meant the Master was pleased at his efforts.
“You have done well, my friend,” the Master said as he took the vessel. When he opened it, his smile intensified. “Very well.”
“Why the Vileheart?” With the Master in such a good mood, Thomas felt safe enough to risk sating his curiosity. “There are many other tribes from which procuring a heart would have been more expedient.”
The Master’s smile faded but he did not seem displeased as his brows furrowed ever-so-slightly. “Did your feathered paramour not relate the story of their origin to you?”
Thomas gulped at the Master’s reference to Alieda as his lover. Fear for both himself and her flooded his mind that required great willpower to choke back. Being the Master’s most trusted lieutenant meant he was frequently exposed to fear, so he was able to quickly master his emotions and answer the posed question before the Master was given a reason to anger.
“No, my lord, she did not.”
As the Master glanced down to further study his prize, he began to relate a fascinating story that made Thomas forget all about his concerns regarding his dalliance with Alieda.
“It is very interesting tale,” the Master said. “Long ago, the Vileheart were not so vile at all. They were then the most beautiful and kindhearted of all harpies, known as the Goldenwing Tribe for their brilliant plumage. They alone were permitted into the Temple of Iris to bask in the glory of the goddess.
“But one day while their Chieftess and a cadre of attendants and priestesses were journeying to the mountain, they were waylaid by a rival tribe. You see, the Goldenwing did not indulge in the martial arts, for theirs was a way of peace. They stood no chance against a foe practiced in warfare. With no way to defend themselves, they were slain to the last.
“Overcome by sorrow and a desire for vengeance, the Chieftess' eldest daughter besought Iris to intervene, but the goddess refused. Revenge, Iris claimed, was not the way to assuage grief. Feeling betrayed, the new Chieftess secluded herself and began to consort with dark magicks, calling upon Unis, the sister of Iris and goddess of shadows. One night under the light of a waning moon, Unis revealed herself and struck a bargain with the Chieftess.
“In exchange for the ability and proficiency to wield shadow magicks, the clan was to forever be in her service. The Chieftess, driven to the brink of madness by thoughts of revenge, agreed. But she did not know the true price of her bargain, for shadow magic does not like to be wielded by those not inclined to evil. It warped her mind and her heart, reshaped them into vessels of darkness that were soon filled to overflowing. The Chieftess used these new abilities to slaughter those responsible for the deaths of her mother and her sister, and then went on to burn down villages and sack dens, killing many innocents in the name of justice. Soon, intoxicated by the power she now possessed, her golden feathers turned onyx, and her once noble heart became black as the night.
“Under her influence the whole tribe fell to the shadow. It is this power that the heart yields when utilized in a well-crafted potion. Whatever emotion is strongest in a persons heart will consume them, swallowing them whole until nothing is left of the person that once existed.”
“I see,” Thomas said, understanding the significance of the tribe now. What he didn’t know was the Master’s purpose for the heart. “And what will the heart accomplish?”
The Master’s eyes flashed yellow. “Have you located the girl?”
“Of course, my lord.” Thomas bowed his head before raising his eyes to meet the Master’s penetrating gaze. He had come by that information shortly before departing for Olympus. “She dwells in the cursed realm of Queen Regina. They call it Storybrooke.”
“Excellent!” The Master’s sinister smile returned with a vengeance. “And the boy? The brother of the one she loved?”
Although confused by where all of this was going, Thomas nodded. “Joshua, my lord. He as well inhabits that land.”
“Yes, Joshua,” the Master drawled, appearing inordinately pleased. “Very well. To answer your question, I will use the heart to precipitate events upon which I have waited for a thousand years. And you, my faithful servant, are to play a vital role.”
Thomas basked in praise so rarely bestowed. He knew the events to which the Master was referring and felt privileged beyond compare to be trusted with bringing them to pass.
He bowed his head in respectful obeisance. “I am ever at your command, my Master.”
A large hand was laid upon his shoulder, and Thomas lifted his head to find the Master peering down at him fondly yet gravely.
“These are your instructions, my friend,” said the Master. “Complete them and along with riches more vast than you can comprehend, I will reward you with all the time you require to visit your lover and the daughters she will soon bear you. If it be your wish, I will event grant you permission to dwell with them so long as you remain at my disposal.”
The boon, which was as unexpected as it was incredible, thrilled Thomas so much that he almost burst with gratitude. He only just barely managed to restrain himself as the Master went on.
“When the Dark Curse is broken, you are to infiltrate the land currently occupied by the denizens of Misthaven. Do not concern yourself with the lack of magic there, however, for the Dark One will bring it with him. I know him well. He cannot live without it.”
As Thomas digested the instructions, he watched the Master crush the heart in his hand, grind it to dust, and then withdraw a vial from a pocket hidden within his robes. After removing the cork, he added the dust to the potion within the vial and then replaced the cork before shaking the vial in a circular motion that set the liquid inside swirling. Then he spoke a one word spell, which caused the opaque liquid to flash a variety of brilliant colors, crimson and jade and darkest onyx, until coalescing into a glowing violet.
The Master extended the vial for Thomas to take. “Once you have blended in,” he said as Thomas took the item, “simply slip this potion into the boy’s food or drink. He will fall prey to his rage and seek to exact vengeance on the one who took his brother away from him.”
When the ramifications of the effects suddenly dawned on Thomas, his eyes widened. “But won't that mean the girl will be in danger? What if he kills her? I thought you needed her.”
Thomas winced at his impertinence. The praise had clearly gone to his head for him to so blithely ignore the Masters’ distaste for any questioning of his motivations. Out of an overly developed sense of self-preservation, he bowed his head slightly as he took the proffered vial, hoping the Master would not take offense to the slight, however well meaning.
“I do,” the ancient sorcerer said plainly, no hint of anger in his voice, which was a great relief to Thomas. He seen the kinds of punishments the Master was capable of dishing out and wanted no part in experiencing them firsthand. “But I also require her to be strong,” the Master continued. “She must be strong enough to open the prison that contains my beloved or she is useless to me. Before that can happen, she must be tested.”
Thomas’ brows drew in tightly. He was still doubtful concerning this course of action, though he was wise enough to not give it voice. Lenience may have been extended toward him once but he was not about to press his luck.
“Do not fear, my loyal servant,” the Master said, having apparently picked up on Thomas’ doubts. “This course of action has been foreseen. I assure you that my method will produce exactly the results I wish. The girl will die but will then be resurrected more powerful than ever before. Only then will she be fit to accomplish my ends.”
Thomas nodded his acquiescence then tucked the potion into the pocket of his vest. “Your will be done, my Master. I will depart on the morrow.” He tipped his chin down in deference then turned to depart. Before he could even pivot, though, he was halted by the booming voice he had learned to obey out of both bone-deep fear and heart-felt respect.
“There is one last thing,” said the Master, eyes glinting in the low light of the forest. He extended out his hand, and in a swirl of magic silver-rimmed onyx in color, a gem appeared in his hand. Blood red and crescent shaped, the gem emanated an inky sort of energy which seeped out in rolling waves. A wave of the hand over it placed some sort of spell upon it, identifiable only by an aura that encompassed the surface for a split-second before fading from view. “Take this phylactery. It contains a portion of my power from which to draw energy. I have enchanted it to bear your touch without harming you.”
Thomas eyed the phylactery warily, almost afraid to make even the barest contact with an item of such insidious purpose even though he’d been assured of his safety. Fear and respect of his lord prompted him into obedience just the same. He took the phylactery in his hand, breath catching in his lungs as his skin made contact with the glowing container of more power than he could ever dream of possessing. His breath came back at once upon noting that it weighed in his hand as nothing more than an ordinary gemstone. Fears thus relieved, he fetched his pouch from his side to gingerly deposit the phylactery inside.
“Bury it among the wolf dens in this...Storybrooke,” the Master said after Thomas had secured the item for transit. “In indirect contact, it will corrupt the process of reproduction among the animals. They will dwindle to the point the girl will have to return to this land. When she does, I shall be waiting.”
The pieces of the Master’s plan started to come together in Thomas’ mind, dim but discernible enough for him to understand how this girl named Ruby would be lured into the Master’s clutches. His eyes crinkled with delight at the ingenious plan.
He gave the man to whom he had pledged his life a deep bow. “As you wish, Master.” And then he set off for the city of Camelot. He had business to attend to before venturing to Storybrooke. Smile on his face, he strode into the thick underbrush, comfortably blending into the shadows once more, and slipped off into the darkness.
Some Years Later
Ruby jolted upright with a gasp, startled awake from the throes of an incredibly vivid dream. Chest heaving, she glanced over to find her wife laying on her side on facing the wall, still soundly sleeping. Relief washed through her as she came down from the heart-fluttering anxiety yet lingering from the dream. At least she hadn’t woken Regina.
Of late Regina had been working to finalize plans for upcoming city projects, which meant plenty of stress to go along with the brutally long hours. Ruby understood the importance of her wife’s job, really she did, but the past weeks had put a strain on the household that she was more than ready to be relieved. Currently Regina was hardly ever afforded an hour or two of free time at home before exhaustion set in and she was collapsing in bed immediately after tucking in the kiddos. As a consequence of the limits on her time, she was spending less time with the kids than she ever had in their lifetime, the reasons for which their twin five year olds were not capable of comprehending. And though Ruby tried her best to do so, no amount of reassurance could prevent the girls from missing their Mommy something fierce.
Sophia and Amelia were not the only members of Casa de Mills affected, either – their Mama missed her partner in life just as much. Ruby was generally an upbeat, persistently positive person but it was hard to stay chipper when she was sleeping less and fitfully when she did. The bed felt empty, cold, and uncomfortable without Regina’s presence beside her, without that weight in her arms or laying across her chest that reminded her of everything good and perfect about her life. Stress eating in grotesquely unhealthy amounts wasn’t helping Ruby’s mood, either. It was a good thing she was a werewolf or else she would have gained twenty pounds.
The stress for her came on two fronts: home and work. Keeping up with twin tornadoes named Sophie and Amie was an exercise in amused frustration even when the most awesome tag team partner ever, and on whom she could rely to give her a breather before she pulled her hair out by the roots, was present. But Regina wasn’t there. She was working crazy hours and too tired to be of much assistance, which meant Ruby often felt as if she was carrying the weight of two parents upon her shoulders. And as if her hectic life at home lately wasn’t bad enough, there was an uptick in crime that had the five employee Sheriff’s station stretched perilously thin. Paperwork was piling up on her desk with each new case, and there was no end in sight to the mountain of it rapidly growing between patrol duty and active investigations with her unable to devote a slew of overtime to get caught up.
Thankfully the mad rush at Town Hall was nearing an end. Soon enough things would settle back to normal and Ruby could hardly wait. She needed Regina now more than ever, even though it made her feel selfish because the kids needed their Mommy just as much if not even moreso. It was just that the bleak situation with the native wolf population of Storybrooke was getting worse, worrying Ruby to the point of distraction on top of all her other responsibilities, and without Regina to anchor her, she felt her tether to composure beginning to fray at the edges.
Of course, there was no question in her mind that Regina would drop everything to help if made aware of the deepening crisis, but Ruby couldn’t bring herself to add that burden onto her wife’s already too-full plate. One overwrought parent was enough. The best thing for them both was for Regina to get through the current hectic situation at work as quickly and efficiently as possible. Paperwork at the station could wait and so could Ruby, even if that meant she had to hold in her almost constant anxiety for her four legged compatriots a while longer. The task was not going to be easy though, especially if she kept having such unsettling dreams.
With her heart rate back down to normal, Ruby laid back against her pillows then immediately shifted to her side so she could snuggle up behind Regina. Careful not to wake her wife, she gently rested her head next to Regina’s on the pillow as she slid her arm around the swell of a shapely hip to secure them more snugly together. The action disturbed Regina enough to elicit a tiny yet totally adorable squeak of protest as she ever-so-slightly readjusted her position. For a moment Ruby held her breath, afraid she’d messed up, but to her relief Regina stilled immediately thereafter. Ruby smiled, completely smitten by what many would consider an insignificant action. To her, though, and to be so bold as to quote The Police, “every little thing she does is magic.”
It was a virtual impossibility for Ruby to not be comfortable when so warm and surrounded so thoroughly by Regina’s grounding scent: coconuts from the lotion rubbed nightly into flawless legs, lavender from body wash and shampoo, and the uniquely tangy yet sweet apple smell of powerful magic. She closed her eyes, safe and secure and happy, and allowed her mind to wander back to the reason she’d been wrenched from blissful repose.
Unlike most of her dreams, she could remember this one with almost perfect clarity. For some unknown reason she found herself back in the Enchanted Forest, though she did not know exactly where. Curled up on a cot within a cozy little cabin she did not recognize, she’d felt a little strange, as if some familiar yet unnamed magic was presently swirling about within her body, creating a pleasant buzzing inside her abdomen. Dismissing the feeling as inconsequential, her eyes wandered over the cabin until halting at the hearth where a low fire was burning. A young man with a thick mop of raven hair was sitting in front of it. Dressed in peasant garb characterized by a blue shirt and a peculiar red kerchief about his neck, he nonetheless projected an aura of authority that demanded her respect.
“Why aren’t you asleep?” he’d asked without looking back as he poked at the fire with a wrought iron poker.
Although she was taken aback that he had known she was watching him, she responded with a rather undignified snort. “I can’t. I’m too excited.”
She could see his shoulders shake as he chuckled. “That’s to be expected. It’s not every day that you find out you’re going to be a mother for the first time.”
Reaching down to rub her still-flat tummy, she sighed happily. “I didn’t plan this but I’m so glad it happened. I just hope she feels the same way.”
The man leveled a fond smile in her direction as he turned his attention to her, revealing an angular face, full lips, a long sloped nose, and prominent ears. His most remarkable attribute, however, were large, piercing blue eyes that bespoke a life experience incongruous with his apparent youth.
“Don’t you worry, little Eleni,” he said, eyes revealing a somewhat diluted merriment. “She will be thrilled. Of that I’ve no doubt.”
That Ruby didn’t object to being called by a different name in her dream was very weird in retrospect and why her mind chose such that name in particular was equally as mystifying. She was also confused as to the scene being something out of a sprawling, artsy, bucolic period movie – the kind Regina adored but she sort of loathed yet tolerated for the sake of her wife’s happiness. Perhaps, she supposed, her subconscious was prompting strange scenarios to process something she had repressed or was struggling with. If that was the case, she was ignorant of what message it was sending. Whatever the cause of the dream, it certainly seemed real enough, which was worrying on a whole new level.
“How do you know?” she’d then asked, worrying her lip.
“Because of who she was before she met you,” the man said with calm assurance that didn’t seem forced. “She was once a lonely, wretched creature who lived to inflict misery upon others. But you looked beyond the bitter woman she’d become and refused to accept that was all she could be. You saw promise where everyone else saw failure and redemption instead of condemnation even she believed she deserved. Your kindness thawed her icy heart and your unconditional love inspired her to change. What’s happened to you now is proof of that. After all, this child is the first I know of to have been conceived by True Love.”
Ruby, as this Eleni, had hummed with approval at the explanation before quirking her head to the side. Eyes inquisitive, she posed, “Father...do you still think it wrong that I chose a person touched by the darkness as my mate?”
Ruby thought it shocking that she not only referred to a man who looked her own age as her father – and because she had no clue who her father really way – but at the turn in the conversation, as it resonated with her own choice in a mate. It was an undeniable fact that Regina was touched by darkness and they, too, had conceived with True Love. Perhaps that was the underlying cause of the dream, that it was some sort of rustic interpretation of the way her own daughters came into being. But even if that was true, she still couldn’t make sense of the presence of the yet unnamed man in her dream.
In response to her question, he shook his head before saying, “My misgivings were well founded but ultimately proven wrong. She has a long ways to go yet but I can see that she is trying, and not only for your sake. She truly wants to be a better person. How can I disapprove of her if that is so? Besides, I would be a hypocrite if I held her past against her or judged you for seeing the good in someone who had chose only evil beforehand – not when my own True Love was the most evil witch to ever live.”
Ruby’s imaginary self, this Eleni, had gaped in amazement at the mention of the man’s True Love. And she could clearly recall the quasi-fearful way she’d pressed in on the topic, her curiosity getting the best of her.
Eyes wide, she probed, “You never talk about her, and I stay silent out of respect. But in the spirit of happiness at the joy of this miracle in our lives, would you at least tell me why you never revealed your feelings to her?”
After a deep breath strained by memories that were obviously painful, her ‘father’ answered, “I thought it was impossible dream, really. Before her fall from grace, she was of high birth and I a lowly servant. And while I believe she felt the same, I couldn’t imagine it ever working between us. Our differences seemed insurmountable to an outlook as black and white as mine was at that time. Sadly that attitude wasn’t proven false when I found out she had magic like I did. By then I deemed it too late for anything beyond cordiality to exist between us. Another lamentable decision.”
He paused to wearily rake a hand over his face. “As for after her downfall...well, I felt too guilty to give voice to my feelings because of the role I played in it. But I never stopped loving her, even as I ultimately forced to end her life years later. Knowing what I do now, I hate myself for being such a coward when I could have helped her harness the abilities that were so frightening to her, that lead her down dark paths best avoided. I could have been a source of guidance for her and taught her to use her magic for good as my own mentor did for me.”
Eyes distant, he inclined his head, lips turning up wistfully at the corners. “Perhaps we even could have had a chance to make a life together if she really did feel the same.” But then his dreamy expression soured and his expression turned regretful. “Had I to do it all over again, I would make many different decisions, my daughter, which is why I did not stop you from seeing Elaine. For even though she stepped into the shadows cast by her sisters, you saw through the evil she wrought in a way I could not to the pain beneath it which concealed a vast capacity for goodness.”
“Only thanks to you,” she had countered, feeling as sure of that point as she was the sun rising in the east. “You taught me to see a person as a whole for who they are, not just for what they do. That evil is not born but made.”
A tender expression overtook his features, his ageless and sagacious blue eyes softening with affection. “And to your credit, you learned it much better than I ever did,” he said as he deposited the poker next to the hearth and then stood. As he made his way over to the bed where she lay, he added, “I’m so proud of you for that. I should tell you more often.”
Heart full to bursting with love for her ‘father’, she reached out her hand. When he took it, she grasped onto his hand tightly. But just as she was about to say something else, someone burst through the front door.
Out of breath, face reddened through either exertion or cold (Ruby could see through the opening that it was snowing outside), the man looked at her and then her ‘father’ with such sorrow that her chest immediately constricted.
“Leon?” Black eye brows raised as her ‘father’ greeted the intruder. “What’s happened?”
Leon winced visibly, crestfallen and wary. “It’s Elaine,” he replied. “Something terrible has happened. We’ve taken her to the Physician’s chambers within the castle.”
In a panic, Ruby – or Eleni or whoever the hell the dream version of herself really was – sprung from the bed heedless of her condition and quickly threw on a thick hooded cloak that looked suspiciously like her famous red one. Against the explicit wishes of her ‘father’, she ventured out into the snow, breaking into a run the second her boots hit the earth. She moved at full tilt toward a picturesque Citadel looming in the near distance, crossing the span with speed that was impossible for a human being, which alerted her that her dream self was also a werewolf. Upon arriving at the Citadel, she passed through the courtyard with precise movements as if she were intimately familiar with its layout. Once inside the castle itself, she then maneuvered through the maze of hallways and corridors to the Physician’s chambers.
Without bothering to knock she threw the door open and rushed inside only to stop cold at seeing Regina laying abed, her skin sallow, wan, and covered by a thin sheen of sweat. Tremors wracked her frame, which appeared even more tiny than normal under the low candle light. Deep circles were present under her eyes and her jaw was clenched tight, teeth grinding together against some phantom pain that medicine could not alleviate.
Even though Ruby was no healer, she knew the situation was grim. Her heart stopped as her eyes flooded with tears. A scream tore its way through her throat only for her to jerk awake with a strangled cry the second it passed her lips.
Regina’s voice was husky with sleep, even deeper than normal, and it did much to soothe Ruby’s frazzled nerves. She breathed in slowly and deeply to calm her racing heart, but let the air escape her nostrils in a succinct whoosh. Not wanting to worry Regina, she gave a reassuring rub to the silk covered stomach beneath her hand.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said as she then tightened the arm around Regina’s waist. “Go back to sleep.” She lifted up to place a kiss to the smooth skin of a bare shoulder before returning her head to the pillow.
Regina hummed appreciatively at the kiss, then said, “You sure?”
“Mmhmm. I’m okay. Just a bad dream.” Ruby was glad Regina couldn’t her face, else those discerning brown eyes would have picked up on the lie.
“You’re not lying to me are you?”
Ruby stiffened in reflex for a microsecond on being called out. Damn the woman’s uncanny perceptiveness. To deflect suspicion, she put on a false humor. “Am I lying? Moi? Your innocent, wholesome wife?”
Regina chuckled in amusement and Ruby was relieved to hear the smile in her voice when she quipped back, “You weren’t all that wholesome a few hours ago.”
Ruby felt a shiver pass through Regina’s body at the memory of their intimate exertions. In response to a flare of heat shooting through her lower abdomen, Ruby pulled Regina closer against her body and nuzzled her nose into silken hair that smelled of spring lavender.
“And aren’t you the lucky beneficiary of it! I don’t seem to recall you being particularly insistent that I stop tanning your cheeks while I took you from behind.” Her tone was cheeky only because Regina was too drowsy from being woke up at the ungodly hour to get mad. Although she probably would have said it anyway because of how happy she was Regina had enough spare energy to make love before all but passing out.
“I’m going to have trouble sitting still tomorrow thanks to you,” Regina shot back, more prideful than annoyed, which was not at all surprising.
There was a purpose for why Ruby abstained from mentioning how Regina could easily remove the marks that were laid on her during their passion. For one, she didn’t want to provoke Regina to do just that when she liked the thought of her gorgeous, sexy, goddess of wife going to work bearing her handiwork about upon her body, hidden by clothing but there just the same. Marking Regina always gave Ruby a thrill. During Wolf’s Time, she often succumbed to the animalistic desires of her alter ego, which resulted in a tendency to bite during sex, sometimes hard enough to draw blood. The first time that happened she’d been scared witless Regina would overreact, but Regina surprised her by confessing that she’d enjoyed it. Now with years together under their belt, Ruby was much more free about expressing aggression in bed and Regina seemed especially appreciative of that aggression when Ruby was three fingers deep inside her working a rhythm more punishing than worshipful. Those orgasms were the ones that usually left Regina either boneless in near-delirium or provoked an equally violent response. Orgasmic violence was yet another shared proclivity that reinforced Ruby’s believe they were perfect for each other. Ruby bit her lip in satisfaction at the thought.
The other reason she didn’t mention Regina vanishing her love marks was her awareness of her wife’s undeclared plan to make a deliberate show at work in the morning of what Tink liked to call “a critical case of the Mayoral Sex Aches.” Being an ultra-competitive person, Regina was exactly the type to gloat about how much better her sex life was than her co-workers, particularly considering she was the working mother of twins. Ruby often got dirty looks when visiting Regina on days the mayor was being particularly obnoxious about rubbing the noses of her peers in their sad, sexless little lives. Reformed she may be, but Regina was still Regina, ever the condescending Queen with a superiority complex. But that was okay, ‘cause Ruby liked her that way.
“Aww, I’m sowwy,” Ruby cooed as she nuzzled her nose into the skin at the base of Regina’s neck. “Want me to kiss it better?”
While Regina did not laugh outright, Ruby could feel her body shaking with humor at the poor turn of phrase. Around a muted fit of giggles, she said, “You want to literally kiss my ass?”
A bark of her own laughter escaped Ruby’s lips before she could stop it. She’d said what she did being playful and without thinking, resulting in contracting foot-in-mouth disease. It was a good thing, she thought, that wasn’t a real disease or else she would be the most frequently infected person in Storybrooke. Maybe even the world.
She shook her head, half-embarrassed and half-amused at herself. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
“Head first,” said Regina, giggles having subsided but still sounding supremely amused. “It’s okay, though. I didn’t marry you for your remarkable ability to embarrass yourself.”
Mouth hanging open in mock offense even though Regina couldn’t see it, Ruby responded by firmly swatting Regina’s ass. The unexpected reprisal earned a yelp from Regina, whose rear was obviously still tender from the thorough attention it had received from Ruby’s palm.
“That was for insulting your wife,” she said, a bit cross but used to the insults after years of marriage to the queen of one-liners and put-downs. As a peace offering, she added, “But because I love you...” She trailed off, then immediately began to soothingly rub her Queen’s most famous feature.
Regina sighed in contentment, then after a moment enjoying the easy massage that told Ruby all was forgiven, said, “Ribbing aside, are you sure you’re okay? You normally don’t shout like that after nightmares.”
Regina was right about that. Normally Ruby jolted awake stiff as a board, eyes burning amber with the wolf crawling frenetically underneath her skin. Nightmares were par for the course for her since experiencing a real one up close and personal in a certain basement not very far from her house. This one, while strange, was unremarkable when juxtaposed to instances where she’d relived being electrocuted, having her fingers broken, being shot, hung from the ceiling like a slab of raw beef, stabbed over and over, burned, and whipped in no particular order. Comparatively speaking, the dream she’d had was a cake walk to deal with, so she was mostly unconcerned about how she’d come out of it.
“I’m sure,” she said in reply to Regina. And while she most certainly wasn’t okay, she also wasn’t going to tell Regina that. Best to reassure her worry-wort of a wife so they could both get some rest. God knew they both needed it.
“Alright, then.” Regina sounded unconvinced but too tired to prod any further, which the loud yawn that followed confirmed. “Let’s get some sleep. The morning comes early.”
Although Ruby was surprised Regina didn’t press the issue, she took the win without question, glad they were on the same wavelength. Another handful of seconds passed during which she continued massaging Regina’s smarting rump, after which she snuggled up even closer so that they were pressed together from head to toes. Her nightmares seemed to plague her most often when she was out of physical contact with Regina while sleeping, and Ruby didn’t want a repeat of the mind-bending vision she’d just had. Besides, any excuse would do, really, if it meant she got to hold her wife in her arms, and she did so love being the big spoon.
After settling in, it took less than a minute for Ruby to succumb to the welcome bliss of repose. This time, she did not wake until morning.