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Frozen Hearts

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Her hands are shaking.

The snow sneaks, slithers its way toward her skin, seeping through her boots at the patches most worn down. There’s a faint tingling around the edges of her feet, the tips of her toes and at the sharper edges of her ankles, pinpricks shooting down into muscle and bone. The sharp sting of the wind across her face is like the back of a hand striking her cheek, leaves her ears ringing with white noise. Lead runs through her, replaces her bones and poisons her muscles against her and she can’t keep her arms up, how is she keeping her arms up, how is she not impervious to the effects of snow at this point, when all she can feel is numb, sharp, tight—

There’s a slight flicker, a shift in the landscape, and Regina wrinkles her nose in reply, eyes narrowing as she wills her hands to stop shaking. She shouldn’t be out here much longer, should really get up out of the snow, off the ground. She’s losing light as it is, dusk settling over the forest like a blanket of gray against white. Her prospects will be even more bleak by the time night falls, the storm sweeping up options in its path with increasing fury. Still, she will not move from this spot, will not loosen her grip on her bow, will not release the arrow until her hand stops shaking — why are they still shaking — because there is a fucking rabbit.

There is a fucking rabbit in front of her, just on the other side of the glen, between a clutch of trees and all at once her mind goes flat blank. For a moment she is nothing — not the dull ache at her lower back, or the weight of her hair over her shoulder, or the chapped, blistering, peeling skin of her lips. She is nothing but the monster hollowing out a home in the pit of her stomach, clawing viciously at the walls until bile bleeds out and sends a fire licking, scorching its way up her throat.

Hunger personified, and screaming death into the void.

Her hands are still shaking, and the bow rattles against her gloves like the echo of teeth chattering against the cold.

It takes all of her willpower, what little she has left, to draw in a deep enough breath to focus. She realizes, too late, her mistake: the breath seizes up before it really has much of a chance to build, chest immediately growing tight, pinched around the bottom of her lungs. The fire in her throat flares up and out, flooding her system with panic and she tries, she really does, to lean into it — to hold the breath, and not release, and ignore the the way bile builds against her sternum. In the end her effort is futile, though, hands shaking worse than before as her eyes narrow against the pinch that bubbles, boils, threatens to burst from the back of her throat and—

The arrow flies, crooked and curved across the glen, and lands a good six feet to the right of the rabbit, who promptly scurry-hops off into the near-night dusk, tracks quickly being covered by still-falling snow.

Fuck!” she shouts into the storm, but it ends up lost, choked out through the cough she’d been fighting so hard against. Begrudgingly Regina gives herself over to it, allows Hunger to be shoved back into the hollow and doubles over with the force of her coughs, glove slipping, catching against bark as her palm presses for purchase. She struggles, gasps for breath between them, can’t quite draw enough and it has her squeezing her eyes shut against the pain, mind growing fuzzy. Another cough, this one rougher than before and the bow slips out of her fingers onto the forest floor as her arm wraps around her middle. Another, worse still, wet and thick and lodged firmly in her chest. Another, deep, hollow, rasping raw and rattling her lungs like bags of bones and another, another, another…

It’s not until the fit is tapering off — when her lungs have exhausted their signal flare and there’s a pressure behind her eyes that wants to well up into tears but can’t quite manage it — that Regina even realizes she’d fallen to her knees and sunk into the snow, and the knobby, curved hardness beneath her is her bow being buried down deep.

“Shit,” she hisses, the last handful of coughs feeble as she clumsily shuffles back and plunges a gloved hand into the snow, fingers wrapping delicately around her bow and pulling it up and out. What little light is left is enough to tell her she hasn’t broken it, and rather than waste precious breath on relief, Hunger finds itself glaring across the glen at the place the prey had been perched.

It’s been three whole days since her last meal, since she’d last sated Hunger’s fury with the last meager portion of food she’d been rationing out for well over a week. She’d used the last of her coin just to get it in the first place (got far less than she should’ve, frankly, but she’d been desperate and hadn’t hid it well from the merchant, and she’d been too dizzy with Hunger’s pangs to do something as trivial as barter). No manner of careful rationing was enough to make it last forever though — it would’ve spoiled eventually, anyway — and for the last three days she’s been left with nothing but what Nature’s wilderness has to offer.

As it turns out that means very little, as winter crashes into Misthaven like a wave looking to drown. With each passing day Regina continues to strike out on her own, cold seeps deeper into the ground, sucking the life out of the forest and sending what little remains into hiding. Every garden has been covered in frost. Blossoms on every bush no longer bloom. Tracks in the snow have long since disappeared— either into the deep dark of caverns, or beyond the mountains on the other side of the Forbidden Forest, to the kingdom in the far west that’s too close to the sea for snow.

That rabbit, measley as it might have been, was the first real piece of game she’s seen in weeks, and Hunger turns against her in a blinding rage now, her ears ringing worse than ever. She’s a better shot than that, she knows she is, could have — would have landed that arrow just so in order to make the most of its meat, could’ve used the fur for, well, anything to help keep her warm. Her cloak is threadbare at best, at this point, but every opportunity to mend or replace it has gone up against the decision of whether or not to eat for a week, and, well.

Regina has to eat.

There’s a small voice in the back of her mind, dry and derisive (and echoing, she knows, a version of her she’d abandoned when she’d left) that can’t help harping on what a hypocrite she’s been these last few weeks. There’s little good putting food in her belly will do, if she freezes to death in the meantime, but Regina pushes the thought (the memory) down and away, and slowly rises to her feet.

If she can’t find food, she needs to find shelter.

The effort of reaching back to hook her bow back around her quiver stretches the already tight threads holding her chest together thin and taut, leaves her wincing in lieu of inhaling sharply. Instinctively, she reaches for the waterskin tied at her hip, fumbles with the plug for a half moment before finally prying it loose. The gasp that rises out of her is raw, rough and grating around the edges, and where she’d denied Hunger relief earlier she allows Thirst to hope for it now, tips the opening against her lips and—

Empty.

It’s fucking empty.

Shit, shit, shit.

Water, she really can’t do without for much longer. If she weren’t so ill, perhaps, she’d last another day, maybe two. As it is, each hour she goes without water makes each of her fits worse than before, picks up the pace of the pounding at the base of her skull and forces her to stop for rest far more frequently than she can really afford in all of this snow. Relief evaporates from her lungs like smoke spiraling up after a fire extinguished as she forces the plug back into the opening, her tongue growing more cottony in her mouth by the minute.

Begrudgingly, she trudges across the glen, boots half-dragging through snow ankle-deep. Using the last vestiges of light, Regina sifts through the snow that’s accumulated in the last few minutes until her fingers enclose around the long, thin shaft of her arrow. With the way her luck’s been going, she doesn’t even want to imagine how difficult it would be to craft new ones right now.

Each one is more precious with each new day that dawns, and Regina indulges, just for a moment, in clutching the arrow close to her chest.

(She does not, does not think of home.)

The tremors in her hands metastasize like a disease, leave every limb trembling around the ice in her veins. It takes her two tries to reach back and deposit the arrow into her quiver, her fingers fumbling further as she pulls her hood up over her head, reaches for the tattered edges of her cloak to wrap it more tightly around her too-rapidly (regrettably) thinning frame.

Blearily, she blinks up and around, tries to discern through increasing flurry the general direction she’d seen the sun slip behind the treeline. It’d been off her left, at her back when she’d spotted the rabbit’s movement before, or at least, she thinks that’s where it’d been. She should venture east, back in the direction she’d been travelling before she stopped, and that’s on her left— right, it’s on her right, it has to be on her right.

Right?

The uncertainty she tries to swallow down only makes it halfway, gets stuck somewhere in her throat along with the rest of dry and sick and ache. She can feel it hover there as she resumes her trek across the forest, positions itself in the middle and forces each shallow, stilted breath she takes to work its way around the lump. It sets alight spark to flame in her chest all over again, makes her feel like she’s burning from the inside out, and in the dark she loses track of just how far she’s traveled.

The moon is meek tonight, behind the storm of a sky, and the brief flickers of it that manages to peek through the ever-increasing snowfall (blizzard, the back of her mind supplies, harsh and hissing, this is turning into a fucking blizzard and you know it, find some fucking shelter before it’s too late) do little to light a safe path for her to follow. In the end she’s forced to stumble mostly blind across dirt, through snow, arm outstretched from beneath the barely-there warmth of her cloak as her only defense against obstacles in her makeshift path. Occasionally her palm slaps against the bark of a tree trunk, clumsily navigates around the near side before pushing her away and onward.

It’s the hills, really, that she struggles with the most. Ordinarily she’d be able to make quick work of them, muscles toned from years of exploring forests from one kingdom to the next. But she’s tired: she hasn’t eaten in three days, her waterskin is empty, she is fucking freezing and burning alive all at once, and each extra step up a gentle incline feels like climbing the mountains in the west.

She should’ve followed the animals, to the shore, before the first snowfall, before—

Before.

It’s as she’s coming up over the top of a hill that her foot catches, trips over a large, protruding tree root, and she’s left stumbling, skidding a sinking path down the hill, heart pulsing fear like a searing burn straight through the walls of ice she’s constructed around it. She’s not quite sure how far down the hill she struggles not to fall, but she thinks she’s near the bottom, based on the incline, when her hands finally find purchase against a large tree, knees scraping painfully against the bark as half her body weight slams against the trunk, her bag doing little to cushion the blow. A gasp shoots up out of her like a knife, high and somehow remarkably clear given how heavy, wet, tight her lungs are. There’s nothing for her to do but relent, rest her weight against the tree and squeeze her eyes shut as she tries to catch her breath. Idly, she rolls her ankle a little, some of the panic receding when she doesn’t feel a flare of pain at the movement.

In all of its twisted morality, fate — Regina figures — probably thinks sparing her a broken ankle is kind.

(She doesn’t have anywhere near the energy required to be angry at the fact that she’s not all that inclined to disagree, given the circumstances.)

When she lifts her gaze up from the ground at long last, she finds a pair of glowing orange eyes staring back at her.

Startled, Regina stumbles back with a slight shout, nearly misses tripping back over another root and sinking back down into the snow. Her heart is pounding furiously now, hard enough to break through all of the ice, and she can feel each shard lancing through her veins, piercing through and pinning her in place until she is nothing again — not sick, or Hunger, or Thirst, but Fear, masquerading as Heart.

Then she blinks once, twice, and all at once she realizes those aren’t eyes at all: they’re light — the flames, she thinks, of candles flickering dimly within the chambers of lanterns.

Finally.

She doesn’t think, doesn’t plan or gauge her surroundings, doesn’t even so much as reach for the dagger at her hip, much less her bow. She refuses to even blink, eyes locked on light several hundred feet away as she’s pulled forward like a moth to a flame. Her hasty approach is costing her, she knows, she can feel what little energy she has left rapidly depleting, legs quaking with the effort of staying standing at all, but she can’t stop, can’t sit and give her body the rest it so desperately needs because what if they move away, what if they put it out

Crack.

Instantly, Regina freezes on the spot like she’s been doused in fairydust, and for a few precious, precious seconds, she allows her gaze to drift down to the spot beneath her feet. There, beneath her left boot and stretching out a good fifty feet in front of her, is a pond frozen over with ice, and without enough light she can’t quite tell if it’s thick enough to traverse.

There’s a second crack from beneath her boot, this one sharper than before, and Regina takes that as a definitive no.

Slowly, carefully, Regina lifts her leg off of the ice and retreats back to the pond’s edge, fuzziness fading from her mind enough to give her the clarity she’s so desperately needed. She has not survived this long, has not come this far to be done in by a streak of blind, illness-induced recklessness. Desperation, she’s given credence to in recent weeks, has allowed for its failings in much the same way she’s allowed Hunger and Thirst to dictate her emotions, and Snow to build a barrier around her heart.

But this— letting illness consume her mind until it has one of its own, until she is nothing but Sick, in place of her soul? That she won’t allow.

The light, thankfully, hasn’t gone out in the space of her little misstep, and though it takes her a little longer Regina makes her way around the pond instead. It’s significantly brighter on the other side, light spreading out across the snow in an orange glow, and the closer she gets the more the glow covers, consumes. It takes a minute for her eyes to adjust to the change, but each step brings the world before her into stark clarity, and two little beacons become four, and then eight, multiplied out across the expanse beyond.

A village.

A smile creeps its way across her face, broken and barely there but she resolutely does not care, lets hope blossom in her chest against every bout of cynicism, deliberately ignores the way the ringing in her ears has warped into a horn blaring, warning her, reminding her just how dangerous hope can be— how much more disappointment hurts, when she loses it, in the end.

(She has been trying so, so hard in the last month not to lose it.)

At long last she’s close enough to make out the vague outline of the buildings, squints hard to discern the distance between the cottage at the edge of the town and the next one over. The second isn’t a cottage, she realizes, but a barn, and the small bud of hope in her is like a balm against her soul.

Belatedly, she realizes she may not exactly be all that presentable, but there’s not much to be done for it beyond pushing her hair away from her face and focusing what little clarity she’s claimed forward into her eyes. She hesitates when she reaches the door of the cottage, sways a little on the spot as she tries, only half-succeeds at swallowing, clearing her throat. Her hand hovers in the air for a few seconds before her knuckles finally land, rap rather clumsily and probably a touch too loud against the door.

Behind her, the wind picks up, blusters and blows the edges of her cloaks about, and Regina fumbles for the edges once more, arms curling around her middle without a second thought. She strains to hear anything above the wind’s howl, only just refrains from pressing her ear against the door to discern movement or—

“Yes?” a voice answers from the other side, cautious and too-quiet against the storm. “Who’s there?”

“A traveler,” Regina answers, struggling to raise her voice above the storm, “just passing through.”

There’s a very long pause, silence against the cacophonous symphony already vibrating through her ears, and then the definitive drag of a bar lock being shifted, the click of a handle being pressed. Slowly, very, very fucking slowly, the door opens, just enough to let more light spill through the crack, and as she squints against it Regina’s just able to make out the face of a woman peering out at her, apprehension clear in her eyes. “What do you want?”

“Shelter,” Regina breathes— croaks, really, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. “I saw your barn, I was hoping, with the storm—” She falters as the woman pulls the door open a few inches more, the rest of her explanation dying in her throat. It’s the woman’s turn to squint at her, clearly sizing her up to try and discern whether or not she’s a threat. Idly, Regina’s fingers fidget with the end of her braid beneath her cloak, fatigue starting to settle in around the edges of her vision while her mind is briefly unoccupied.

Clarity washes over the woman’s face like a wave, Regina breathes in, and then the woman is shaking her head, lips pursed into a thin line. “I’m sorry,” the woman says, the words an even harsher hand than even the wind had been earlier. “I can’t.”

The same pressure-pain from before slams against the back of her eyes, pushes her closer to tears than last time and has her losing focus, mind growing fuzzier with each second. “Please,” she says, voice catching, breaking slightly and that’s the illness, she knows, and Thirst, stealing her voice, “just for the— just until the storm lets up. I won’t be in the way, I won’t take anything, I can help with—”

“You’ve been in the forest too long, Miss,” the woman says, and it sounds almost kind. “The Royal Guard has been raiding villages all over the kingdom.” A beat — Regina’s heart sinks down to the pit of her belly — and then, “If the queen caught wind of even a whisper of a rumor that you’d been here—”

“No one would have to know,” Regina insists, fingers flexing anxiously to try and force some feeling back into them. “I can be gone before sunrise, no one else in the village or your household would ever have to know I was here.”

Again, the woman shakes her head, and Regina forces her desperation down to knocking knees in an effort not to let it control her voice. “I can’t,” the woman insists, gripping the edge of the door hard. “My husband’s been sent to the front, it’s just me and I can’t—” For a moment she’s absolutely silent, teeth digging into her lower lip as she gives Regina another once over. She softens around the edges, just a little, but it’s not until the woman takes a half-step back and glances over her shoulder that Regina finally accepts the woman’s answer as final and unyielding.

At the other end of the room is a small bed shoved into the corner and Regina’s gaze settles, with startling clarity, on the two small children curled beneath layers of blankets, faces lax with the ease of sleep.

Regina’s heart flutters, flips inside her chest, and even after the woman’s turned back to look at her it takes Regina a good long moment to remember how to breathe. “I understand,” she says, and she does, she does, but it doesn’t make forcing the words out hurt any less. The pressure behind her eyes builds to the point of stinging, and she’s closer to tears than she’s been all evening— closer than she feels she has any right to be, right now. Quickly, she bows her head and lets her eyes slip shut, nodding even as her chin trembles. “I wouldn’t ask you to— I understand. It’s alright.”

It takes her a moment longer than she should— a moment longer than she’s proud of to find the wherewithal to shift, turn to walk back out into the storm, but it’s that small bit of hesitation, in the end, that grants her grace. “Wait,” the woman calls, still trying to be quiet. “Just… wait here, a moment.”

Curious, Regina turns back toward the house even as the door shuts in her face, back to swaying again as she fights to keep her balance. The blare of warning is back in her ears again, has her gut twisting with anxiety at the what ifs: what if she’s an informant, what if the Guard’s already stationed in the village, what if Snow’s already here? Instinctively, Regina’s hand travels up, rubs at her throat as she swallows hard, but before she can even think to summon up the strength to turn tail and run, the door is opening once more, this time wider than before.

“Here,” the woman says by way of greeting, arms stretched out in offering. Regina glances down at the woman’s hands and tries— fails to suck in a proper breath at the cloth draped across the woman’s palms. At the center she’s piled together a meager (bountiful, beautiful) assortment of food from her kitchen: a small loaf of bread; a few strips of meat dried, preserved for the winter; a clutch of eggs; a modest wedge of cheese— cheese, the woman has cheese, gods fucking bless her, honestly.

“It’s not much,” the woman adds after a moment, sounding a little awkward. “I’ve had to ration more carefully, this winter, and we’ve been unable to plant anything, in the garden— plus the trees and bushes are all barren, there wasn’t even enough time before the snow to try and preserve anything but—”

“Thank you,” Regina rasps, hand falling down to her heart as she blinks back up at the woman. This time, her smile feels earned, and with the pressure behind her eyes beginning to abate Regina knows she’s started to cry, tears mingling with snow as they land on her lashes. “This is very kind of you.”

The woman doesn’t smile, not really, but her mouth twists into something Regina thinks is supposed to resemble one as she wraps up the food in the cloth, tying it together with a knot before pressing the bundle into Regina’s hands. Gingerly, Regina slings her bag off of one shoulder and brings it around her front. She pulls at the strings to open it, just enough to nestle the gift carefully atop the rest of her possessions, and uses her cloak as a barrier to keep the snow out.

“Is that empty?”

Startled, Regina blinks back over at the woman as she pulls her bag back over her shoulder, brow knitting in confusion. “What?”

The woman nods at Regina’s hip. “Your waterskin— is it empty?”

Her whole face feels hot, flushed against the stain of her tears, and she finds herself fighting the instinct to rub at her throat again. She chews at her bottom lip for a second before nodding, fingers twitching in an effort not to reach for the waterskin. “It’s been hard to find fresh water, with how cold it’s been, but… if you know where there’s a well, maybe, then I could—”

“I wouldn’t bother with one,” the woman dismisses, leaning against the doorjamb. “More trouble than it’s worth on a night like this, honestly.” A beat, and then, hand outstretched again, “Give it here.”

Still, Regina’s teeth dig into her lip as she glances down at her waterskin, debating. She can’t afford to lose it — she doesn’t have a spare, and she’s nothing she could use to make another — and the thought of letting it out of her sight, even for a moment, has anxiety twisting at her core again. Even if the woman brought it back, there’s no way Regina would know what she’d put in it, or if she’d been forced, or worse, bought out, to slip in some poison—

And that, Regina decides firmly, is a stupid thought: this woman has shown her nothing but kindness, even if she is refusing Regina shelter, and she needs water, above anything else. “Thank you,” Regina says again, carefully unfastening the rope from her belt and passing the waterskin over. “Really, I—”

The woman’s shaking her head and disappearing back into the cottage before Regina can fumble over the rest of her words. She takes the dismissal for the reprieve it is, uses the extra moment to try and regain her composure, Thirst hammering at the base of her throat in anticipation. The third time the door opens it’s the widest yet, and as the waterskin — now blessedly full — gets passed between them, the source of the light makes itself known, fireplace crackling quietly in the far wall. This time, Regina feels the full force of it, heat spilling from the hearth and tingling at the tips of her fingers, her toes, her nose.

She resists the temptation to lean into the warmth, to renew pleas for shelter, but she’s not immune to the fire’s effects, and where fatigue had settled in around the edges before she is exhausted now, shoulders sagging with the weight of keeping herself upright. She can’t linger any longer, not with her willpower rapidly dwindling, and the woman has retreated back into the safety and warmth, looking more than ready to shut the door for good. “You should head west,” the woman suggests, eyes sweeping over Regina’s frame once more. “She has less of a presence there, and the snow shouldn’t be— you should head west.”

Regina’s lips twist into a wry smile as she fastens the waterskin to her belt; the time for that, she knows, is long gone. “Yeah,” she laughs wetly, not quite looking the woman in the eye anymore. “Thank you, again, for your help. I’d be much worse off without it.”

She’s spinning on her heel and retreating back into the cold before the woman can reply, the movement making her dizzier than before, vision swimming with fresh tears, and she’s barely ten steps away from the cottage when she hears the door click shut behind her.

Regina has seen, firsthand, just how much damage Snow can do — how much happiness she can rip out of the world, one chest at a time — but she understands now, where she didn’t before. They’re scared, the people, of incurring Snow’s wrath, and after the destruction she’d left behind in the Willow Forest Regina can’t say she blames them for the hypervigilance and paranoia. It’s so much worse than it was before— Before, and the twist of guilt that coils in her belly bears the blood of a man who no longer exists in her world.

She’s been away from her solitude for far too long.

It’s better this way, she tells herself (has, every damn day since she left); on her own, she ceases to be a liability.

(On her own, there is no one around for her to ruin, and she doesn’t have to destroy everything she touches.)

She’s crying openly now as she stumbles back in the direction she came— weeping, frankly, and where she refuses her pride she cannot ignore the aching burn in her chest. It hurts, badly, to cry this hard— to cry at all when she’s this ill, chest spasming as she hiccups, struggles for breath. Still, she doesn’t stop until she’s beyond the treeline again, stumbling through snow back to the pond that had nearly claimed her, and it’s here she decides to stay the night.

It takes her far too long to settle in, chest as tight as it is by the time she stops running (walking, she can’t run, hasn’t been able to for over a week, but it’d felt like running, in the burn of her legs where muscle was supposed to be). She doubles over, leans against a tree for purchase and squeezes her eyes shut, legs shaking under own weight. Bile rises up in her throat and she wills herself not to vomit, finds relief in the coughing fit that wracks her body once more. Each breath she takes feels like half, leaves her light-headed and swaying on her feet. Blearily, she reaches for her waterskin, pries the stopper loose once more and brings the opening to her lips.

She drinks half.

She drinks half, and it’s selfish, and foolish, and she’s going to regret it in the morning, but the liquid going down is cool, soothing, and she immediately feels ten times less worse than before, dizzy spell fading almost as quickly as it had begun.

(She needed this, she reasons, to even hope to see morning.)

With what little energy she has left, Regina drops her bag to the ground, deposits her bow and quiver next to it and sets to constructing a makeshift tent from the one blanket she’d had the sense to bring with her. It’s crude, and will do little to shield her from the cold, hard ground, but she doesn’t have any other choice, tonight. Setting up camp here, against the curved hollow at the base of the tree, is probably the best she’ll be able to do for a long while.

Really, camp is too generous a term for the home— the bed she makes herself for the night, and tastes like poison on her tongue, but she’s been making do with what she has the last six weeks or so; she can do it again.

(It’s all she has ever done, in the end, and she hopes, against her better judgement, that it’ll be enough to see them— her through to spring.)

The small bundle of food remains untouched and tucked safely away in her bag; she doesn’t have the stomach for it tonight, after another coughing fit, and her mind will be clearer, in the morning, for rationing it out properly. Tonight, she sinks down onto the ground and wraps her cloak around her tight. Tonight, her heartbeat roars in her ears, a too-loud thumping that doesn’t bode well, for the sickness in her chest.

Tonight, like every night in the last three weeks or so, Regina reaches down to the bottom of her bag and pulls out Robin’s scarf, wraps it around her neck and curls up small, against the elements.

Tonight, like every night, Regina closes her eyes, and dreams of home.

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Under cover of darkness, Robin peers around the corner and scans the desolate courtyard. It’s almost eerie under the waning moonlight, shadows skittering across stone as the storm blows clouds to hide the moon in patches. The snow is beginning to pile, a little at a time, around the base of each pillar, the ground glistening wet with frost. Idly, he half-glances up at the tower, mind mulling over what extra precautions they’ll have to take if the stones are too slick to climb.

“Bloody fucking hell, it’s freezing out here,” Will mutters next to him, blowing breath against his gloves to try and warm his face a bit.

“Works in our favor,” Robin murmurs, doing one last sweep of the courtyard. “Not even the guards will come out, in this weather, which means fewer for us to contend with, should we cross paths. Besides, we’ll be inside soon enough.”

“I still think this idea of yours is mad,” Will huffs, but he follows all the same, when Robin takes his first steps out from the shadows into the courtyard.

“Give yourself some credit,” Robin says, fingers flexing at the ready for his dagger, an arrow at the first sound or sign of movement. “It was your observation that gave me the idea in the first place.”

“Mate, keep in mind that I’ve been to Wonderland and—” There’s a soft snap from somewhere across the courtyard and Will stops, grabs hold of Robin’s arm and forces him against the tower wall for cover. For a moment neither of them breathe against the cold, too-aware of the way sound breaks through the snowstorm, but eventually they both relax, and Will’s hand relaxes on Robin’s arm. He squeezes once, though, before letting go, and the crooked little smile he offers up when Robin glances over at him is almost enough to make him laugh.

Almost.

“Trust me, mate,” Will says dryly. “You’d fit right in.”

Rolling his eyes, Robin sidesteps around the tower until they’re nearly below the balcony and then stops, pulls the long loop of rope up and over his head and starts to unspool it. “And you of all people should understand the lengths a person will go to for love, Will.” That earns Robin a heavy sigh and a begrudging yeah, yeah from Will, who takes one end of the rope to fasten the weight, and arrow. “This is the best lead we’ve had in weeks.”

“Not sure I’d call it a lead,” Will mutters, making sure the knots are secure before passing off the arrow.

“You agreed, Will,” Robin sighs, squinting up at the poorly lit balcony before moving off to the right a bit. “As did the others. If you’ve changed your mind, you can go. I can get up there just fine on my own.”

“Yeah,” Will snorts, taking a step back to give Robin room enough to make the shot clean, “because that worked out so well last time.”

“A simple thank you would suffice,” Robin throws back, but he lets it go, knows Will is grateful for what Robin did for him, weeks back. And Will’s not going anywhere, just like the rest of the men scattered and stationed at various points around the grounds. They’ve planned this about as well as they ever could, really, been smart about taking advantage of the queen’s absence to conduct their little mission.

Okay, fine, it’s a break-in.

All of their meticulous planning, right down to the efforts they’d put into procuring rudimentary blueprints of the palace, is very much a reflection on the mark Regina had left, on their band. If she ever forgives him for being such a right bastard, he thinks—hopes she’d be proud.

They just… have to find her, first.

The next several moments are a comfortable silence between them while they work, stick to the shadows as they loop the rope between railings and back down, tying off knots and making sure it’s secure before testing their weight on it. A few more adjustments but then it holds, tight and firm, and Will climbs up the rope first, with Robin standing guard. Will’s the stronger grip, between the pair of them, can do better should he need to pull Robin up and over the railing quickly.

He should be nervous, should be unsettled at the still and the silence and the suspicious lack of guards about the grounds, but there’s no space for it in his belly, not with the way worry quakes around the base of his heart, and yearning twists his belly into knots. And that’s— he’s being short-sighted, he knows, sees the forest, and not the trees, and damn the consequences. But he can’t afford to mull over the what ifs any more than he already has, in planning this break-in: they will stop him in his tracks before he’s had the chance to begin, if he does.

And above all else, Robin will not stop until he finds her.

(He refuses to entertain the notion that they may not find her, after all.)

So it’s with a sucking breath and gritted teeth that Robin grips the rope and begins to climb, glove against rope as he reaches up, one hand over the other, to pull his weight higher. He nearly stops, halfway up, hisses at the pain that lances through him on a particularly rough pull, but Robin pushes through it, grimaces, groans the rest of the way up. Perhaps this is pushing it a bit, all things considered, but Regina had been right: the weather is only getting worse.

They are running out of time.

He’s grateful for the hand Will lends him in getting up and over the balcony railing, moreso at the way Will claps him on the back in lieu of the question most others would ask. Robin rolls his shoulders back a bit to settle in his skin again and nods in reply, beckoning Will forward with a wave of his hand.

Together, they damn near tip-toe off of the balcony, brush past too-heavy drapes and duck into the inner chambers. A quick survey of the room tells them that it’s mostly dark save for one flickering candle in the far corner (kept lit by magic, Robin guesses, and pointedly ignores the twist in his gut that follows). It’s also empty, as they’d expected (hoped) it to be, but now is not the time to take chances.

Still not breathing a word, Robin gestures toward the ornate trunk situated at the foot of the poster bed. Will catches on quick and moves over to the far side and leans down, grips the handles on his end. Robin mirrors him, on the near side, and together they lift, hoist with slightly startled groans at the surprising weight. It’s an awkward shuffle to the chamber doors but they manage, set the trunk down in front of the doors as a blockade and make sure the bar lock is firmly in place. It’s not the best solution, but it’ll have to do: the wardrobe would be better, with its height, and heavier weight, but Robin doubts they’d be able to move it without difficulty or making too much noise.

With a soft exhale, Robin turns his attention back to the room at large and settles his hands on his hips, taking a few moments to get a better, closer look at things. The light’s still very dim, against the night, with the lone candle flickering pitifully in the corner and the drapes blocking out most of the patchy moonlight, but his eyes are adjusting, a little at a time. Will makes his way to a desk, on the far side of the room, fingers plucking carefully at an array of books strewn about the surface.

For his part, Robin turns his attention to the wardrobe, reaches for the handle to open it before thinking better of it, and stepping round to the other side, closer to the queen’s private washroom. There, tucked away against the wall, is a full-length mirror, glass glistening within the ornate, golden frame. Robin breathes a little easier at the sight of it, heart picking up pace, but here he finds patience where he’d lacked it earlier. He’s careful, exceedingly so, in his perusal of the mirror, gloves hovering around the edges of the frame, just shy of touching.

It occurs to him, then, that he may have gotten in over his head a bit. “Will,” he murmurs, eyes fixated on the mirror. “C’mere, I need your help. You’ve had your fair share of experiences with looking glasses. How do I get this to… I dunno, open up?”

“You say that like I’m some sort of expert,” Will says dryly, poking over more of the queen’s possessions now that he’s moved onto her vanity. “I wasn’t the one who opened up the portals, mate, I just sort of fell through them. And this is different: it’s not a portal, it’s a—”

“A what?” Robin prompts, only paying half attention as he tugs his gloves off and tucks them in his pockets.

“A mirror.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that, thank you,” Robin drawls, glancing sidelong at him.

“No, Robin, a mirror,” Will breathes, capturing Robin’s full attention as he reaches for the handle of something on the vanity. Slowly, delicately, Will lifts an intricately carved and impeccably clean hand mirror up for display, eyes half-wild as he turns to meet Robin’s gaze. “A magic mirror.”

Robin wrinkles his nose, opens his mouth to argue — it seems much more likely, he’s about to say, that the queen would opt for something with a larger view — but… Will’s right, he realizes after half a moment of simply staring at the hand mirror. The glass almost… shimmers, unnatural and mystifying and entirely independent of the candle’s light, and as quickly as Robin realizes why the queen would choose something so easily carried it also occurs to him that this is their first stroke of real luck, all evening.

It is nothing short of fate, working on their side, that the queen left this behind tonight.

Half-mesmerized and a touch over-eager, Robin crosses the room again quickly to where Will is rooted to the spot, gaze fixed upon the mirrors’ swirling depths. Robin doesn’t reach for it, not yet, but he hovers too-close at Will’s shoulder, near-enchanted—

“I’ll thank you to put me down, if you don’t mind,” a voice snaps, high and irritated (a woman, Robin thinks, though he can’t quite be sure), and it takes them both a second too long to realize it’s coming from the mirror.

Fucking hell!” Will gasps, startled to the point of fumbling, nearly dropping the mirror on the ground. Robin catches it halfway down, narrows his eyes at Will as he straightens back up and adjusts his grip on the mirror’s handle. “It talks!” Will defends, indignant. “I didn’t— I just figured it’d show you things, like a, I don’t fucking know, a seer or something, I didn’t know it could speak.”

“I’m hardly a seer,” the voice drawls. This time Robin’s breath does hitch a little, fingers tightening around the handle. “That’s not how Sight works, anyway— not that I’d expect a common thief to know that.”

“Is it— did that thing just insult me?” Will asks, aghast.

“I’m not a thing,” the voice— mirror— woman says, sharp and clipped. Before either of them can even draw breath to respond, though, the glass shimmers, too-bright and near-blinding, before the head of a woman appears in its reflection and has them both practically swallowing their tongues at the sight of her. She’s… a vision, honestly: blonde hair fanning out in loose curls about her like flames licking the surface of the sea; lips stained dark, in the shades of plum, or a dark wine; eyes a crystalline blue, sharp, piercing, shadows dark along the curved edges, painted black. Gorgeous, really, damn near breathtaking, but there is fury there, burning just beneath the surface, and where Robin should be rightly terrified he finds that he is not.

Against the mirror’s menacing glare Robin can only think of Regina, and the spark she’d so long carried, before Robin’s pride tried to snuff it out.

Gods, he hopes she can forgive him.

“We’re not thieves,” Robin rushes to explain. He winces a bit, at the mirror— woman’s arched eyebrow, and pointedly ignores Will’s doubtful look. “Alright, well, we are, most days, but that’s not— we haven’t come here to steal anything, I swear.”

“Also a stupid part of the plan,” Will grumbles. “The coin we could make off of a handful of trinkets alone would— ow, hey!” he protests when Robin elbows him in the stomach.

“Honest,” Robin promises, trying to keep the m— woman’s focus on him so Will doesn’t provoke her further. “I’ve only come to make a request.”

“Then I’d direct you to the throne room,” the woman says, already sounding tired of them. She turns away, face half hidden in shadow as she starts to disappear from view. “But the queen’s not here, she’s gone for—”

“— a fortnight, yes, we know.” Robin brings the mirror closer to him, stops, about a foot away from his face, and tries his very best not to panic. “I didn’t come to ask anything of her— I came to see you.”

The woman stops, just before she vanishes entirely, lingers there for a beat before finally (blessedly) turning back toward the mirror’s face. “Me?” she asks, and there is something careful, guarded in her voice. “Why?”

“We’re looking for someone,” Will explains, “and you do that whole… not-seer spying on people thing, or whatever you call it.”

The woman in the mirror merely levels him with a look. “You boys don’t have much experience with magic, do you?”

The twist in Robin’s gut tightens, gnaws at his core until he’s nearly squirming where he stands, but he swallows the discomfort down, and ignores Will’s incredulous What d’you mean, boys? in reply. “I really don’t,” Robin breathes, and it’s a softer thing than he’d intended, far more honest than he’s really comfortable being at the moment. But John’s voice is like an echo in the back of his head — you’ve kept those walls up long enough, Locksley, if you want her back, you have to bring them down — and so Robin pushes past the pain, feels like he’s blistering, from the inside out. “Honestly, I try to avoid it at all costs, if I can help it. I’ve seen it do more harm than good, and it always comes with a price.”

She’s quiet for a long moment, lips quirking curiously as she studies him, before she eventually replies. “Magic doesn’t do harm,” she says— informs him, really, like there’s not really room for debate. “People do.”

A beat of silence, and then Will’s looking over at him, sheer and utter bewilderment on his face. “...Is the fucking mirror arguing technicalities with you?”

I’m not a mirror—”

“Will, how about you don’t antagonize what is possibly our last hope and go stand watch like you’re supposed to?” Robin sighs, nodding toward the balcony beyond the drapes. “Make sure a patrol doesn’t come round and see the rope?”

“Alright, alright, fine,” Will mutters, throwing his hands up and spinning abruptly on his heel. He stalks off toward the balcony, pokes his head through the edge of the drapes, muttering under his breath all the while, but he’s properly occupied, at least, which allows Robin to focus on the task at hand.

With a sigh, Robin turns his attention back to the woman in the mirror (the enchantress, really, she’s a witch of some sort, clearly, a sorceress and no less). “There’s someone,” he explains, trying to move the conversation along as quickly as he can without making too wrong a step. “A woman— she used to be part of our company. She left, a couple of months back, but I’m— we’re worried that something may have happened to her.”

“And… what?” the wi— sorceress in the mirror prompts, dry and derisive and shit, this is not going well, what is he doing wrong, fuck, fuck, fuck. “You want me to help you stalk her?”

“Awfully hypocritical of you,” Will throws back, ducking his head inside briefly to throw a dark look her way, eyes shooting daggers across the space. “That’s all you do for the queen, isn’t it?”

“The queen,” the sorceress says, eyes narrowing at Will over Robin’s shoulder, “doesn’t give me a choice. I’ve no obligation to you.”

“Please,” Robin breathes, bringing the mirror closer just to keep Will out of her view. “She may very well be in danger, and even if she isn’t, the weather’s turned absolutely ghastly this season. I only wish to— I at least need to see that she’s alright.” A beat, just long enough to swallow pride and morality down before he adds, “It’s magic I can live with, at the end of the day, whatever the cost might be.”

The sorceress softens around the edges, just a little, expression shifting into something altogether more… curious as her eyes study Robin’s face. “You’re in love with this girl.”

For all that the sorceress seems to be trapped on the other side of that glass, Robin feels very much as though her fingers have sifted right through the glass, sunk deep into his chest and reached for his ever-bleeding, still-beating heart, to rip out and lay bare.

(There’s a part of him, however small, that rises up in warning at the thought, reminds him of the carnage the queen has left behind, one village at a time, but Robin pushes the panic away into the corners of his mind and steadfastly chooses to ignore it.)

“I am,” he affirms, soft and low. He can feel Will’s eyes on his back but makes a point not to turn around. He’s caught her attention now, he can tell, and if she wants his heart laid bare as the price for giving him intel, it’s a price Robin will gladly pay a thousand times over. “If something’s gone wrong, and I haven’t exhausted every possibility to try and help her then…”

“You couldn’t live with yourself?” the sorceress guesses, and there’s that hint of derision back in her voice, like there’s nothing of note (nothing special, the back of his mind supplies, and it’s Regina’s voice, a menacing echo of nothing, nothing, nothing) to make him worth her time.

“I couldn’t,” Robin agrees, pushes past the sorceress’ knowing hmm in reply. “But I love her, and she deserves far more than I’ve ever given her— far more than I probably ever could. If she’s in trouble then I’m to blame— at least in part. I just need a chance to make things right,” he whispers, and it’s too earnest, full of yearning, longing and he resolutely does. not. care. “That’s all I’m asking of you, I swear.”

It’s another long, long moment while the sorceress simply observes him, one that has Robin toeing the line between practiced patience and desperate urgency, but he’s rewarded, in the end, for not pushing her too far too fast. For the first time in weeks, he thinks he may really believe that he’s changed for the better, since Regina’s departure.

Gods, he hopes she gives him a second chance.

“Refreshing as your honesty is,” the sorceress says, “I’m not much one for groveling.” Robin hears Will’s sharp intake of breath at that and glances darkly over his shoulder, mouths shut it with all the pent up frustration he can muster. When he turns back to the mirror, though, the sorceress is drawing in a deep breath and shaking out her hair, almost like she’s trying to stand up straight (which begs the question does she have a body, but that’s a curiosity that may have to go unsatisfied). “Alright,” she says — commands, really, high and clear as her eyes slip shut. “Ask it of me properly. Who is it you want me to show you?”

Hope blossoms anew, burns fresh and fierce in his chest, and Robin breathes a little easier at her acquiescence. “I’d like to see the bandit Regina,” he requests, only a touch awkward, and then hastily adds, “please.”

The sorceress falters, eyes blinking open as incredulity settles into every last line of her face. “You’re joking, right?” she deadpans, eyebrow arching rather perfectly. “This is some sort of, what, test? A way for the queen to see if she needs to inflict another damning spell on me, just to make sure I’m loyal to only her?”

All of the breath leaves Robin at once, shoulders sagging while he tries to wrap his head around the accusation (tries to cope with apparent failure and no, no, fuck, he cannot fail Regina now).

Unsurprisingly, Will does not seem to share the same struggle Robin has with speech at the moment. “For a mirror, you’re sort of paranoid, has anyone ever told you that?” he muses, and it’s almost flippant, not at all helpful, but Robin is out of energy to reprimand him.

The sorceress’ eyes cloud dark, blue shadowed by bruises of black and gods, Robin thinks, if looks could kill… “I have a name, you know.”

“Robin,” he says hastily, name tumbling from his lips far, far past the time for it. “My name— it’s Robin.”

She eyes him warily for a moment before something sparks, shifts in her eyes, and perhaps it’s a trick of light, or glass, but Robin swears he sees the phantom twitch of a smile. “Robin,” she repeats, and there’s a touch of amusement in her voice that he’s certain he doesn’t imagine. “As in Robin Hood.” He nods, hope a gentle twinge in chest, and after a beat the sorceress chuckles, low and under her breath. “I’ll be damned.”

There’s something in that, Robin thinks, but he hardly has time to dwell on it before Will’s cutting in again, impatient to the last. “Come on, Robin, let’s pack it in,” he sighs, peeking around the curtain again to peer out into the courtyard beneath the balcony. “I doubt we’ve much time left before the shift change. Nottingham, I can handle, but I’ve really no desire to be caught out by any of the queen’s guard. Let’s—”

“Maleficent,” the sorceress interjects abruptly, ignoring Will entirely as she gives Robin a once-over again. “Not that your little accomplice over there cares.”

Again, Will speaks before Robin has the chance, but he’s topical still, at least, which may yet be of service, and not entirely damning. “Hang on,” he says, releasing the drapes and striding over to them in four long steps. “Maleficent? As in, the dragon, Maleficent? The one Prince James fought and killed, for his future bride?”

The early tinge of amusement makes its way up to her eyes now, holds even when she turns her gaze on Will. “Do I look dead to you?” she drawls. Will opens his mouth, then closes it, shifts his gaze to Robin with an expression of utmost bewilderment. “That was the original plan, I believe, yes,” Maleficent sighs, and she’s… indulging him, Robin realizes, perhaps to match his own confession, not moments ago. “Then he got the idea that I’d make a much better… pet,” she says, practically spits the word, “than my head would a trophy in the throne room. Snow couldn’t be bothered to take care of me.”

“So… this was her resolution then?” Robin guesses, gaze sweeping over the mirror in his hands until his stomach twists in disgust. “Trap you in here, instead? Force you to do her bidding?”

“Well I’m certainly not in here by choice,” she snaps, but it lacks the distinct heat of her earlier ire. She looks… uncomfortable, at her own admission, and it occurs to Robin then that perhaps she hasn’t written them off entirely quite yet.

“You have one now,” Robin murmurs, encouraged by the way her expression softens, just slightly. “None of us have any love for the queen, obviously, but we’re not aiming to use you against her. I just... want to find Regina. Please,” he says, a strained, desperate thing. A beat, and then, barely above a whisper, “You’re my last hope.”

Another moment, far too long (they are running out of time), another silent study of him (he is a phantom, a shell of a person without his heart and Maleficent can see right through him), and then Maleficent disappears, back into the depths of the mirror.

Robin’s eyes sting, vision blurring with unshed tears while he tries, struggles, fails to catch his breath, but it’s only half a moment, that his ache swells in the hollow of his chest, before Will is nuding his arm in earnest. “Robin, look.” He blinks to bring himself back into focus, sniffs slightly to regain his composure, and the sight that greets him has ache receding in his chest, as quickly as it had formed and flooded.

Maleficent’s still gone, but in her place is not the same swirling, shimmering mist beneath the glass from before. Light flickers, fades, gives way to pure white, and it’s not until they’ve been squinting at it for half a moment that Robin realizes it’s moving. That’s… snow. That’s… the storm, picking up in earnest outside, and the flurries in the reflection swirl, settle with wind they cannot hear.

And then the snow parts, like lifting a veil from the vision she’s granted, and there, curled up against what looks like a tree, is the place Robin’s heart resides.

Regina.

She’s bundled up considerably — gloves pulled on; scarf wrapped round her neck; cloak pulled tight around her body— but it’s doing little to shelter her from the storm. The cloak was nearing threadbare, before she left; he can’t imagine it’s doing much for her now, beyond maybe keeping her ears from being fully exposed to the elements. And she’s— gods, she’s shivering something awful, clearly fucking freezing (and what good is evading capture if we end up freezing to death fuck fuck fuck, she was right, he’s never wanted her to be wrong more).

Her whole body convulses suddenly, chest heaving beneath the cloak, and Robin does not need the vision to grant him sound to know that sick has settled deep within her lungs.

Fucking shit.

He’s sinking down onto the foot of the bed without a second thought, grip slackening on the mirror’s handle. “She’s sick,” he says, thick and wet and oh, oh, there the tears are then, fucking grand.

“She’s alive,” Will counters, sounding almost kind, and gods, the world is fucked if Will Scarlet is the epitome of optimism right now.

“She could be dying, Will,” Robin chokes out, unable to tear his eyes away from the vision. “Look at her: she’s hardly any color in her face, she’s probably lost more than half a stone —“

“Where is she?” Will asks sharply, and it takes Robin a moment, to catch his breath through tears, and to realize Will is talking to Maleficent. “That forest, where is it?”

The vision flickers, fades until it vanishes entirely, pulling a gasped No! out of Robin even as Maleficent’s face reappears in the glass. “I don’t know,” she says. “This magic doesn’t work like that. It only shows where someone is when you ask, it doesn’t give an exact location or a map.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Will mutters darkly, but Robin can hear it in his voice, see it even through the blur of his own tears: Will is afraid for her, too. “That’s just great, that’s bloody perfect, that’s—” A whistle pierces the air, melodic and distinctive, and all three of them glance toward the balcony. “That’s our cue,” he sighs, glancing sidelong at Robin. “Guards rotate positions for the next shift in five minutes. We need to leave.”

Robin looks back down at the mirror, teeth digging into his lip at the thought of his love suffering (his fault, his fault, this is all his fucking fault, damn it). He knows— he knows he won’t find any more answers here, Maleficent cannot help him more than she’s already tried, but Robin cannot bring himself to move, hands trembling around the mirror’s edges.

(It’s the first time he’s seen her in months, and Robin is loathe to even let the mere memory of her go, now.)

“Robin,” Will prompts, settling a gentle hand at Robin’s shoulder. “C’mon, mate, we’ve got to get a move on. There’s nothing left for us here, and we can’t find her if we end up getting caught, much less try to help her.”

If we end up getting caught is like a sharp smack to the face, a reminder of just how badly he’s cocked this all up. Will realizes, too late, his mistake, inhales sharply with what Robin knows is an apology ready on his tongue, but Robin shakes his head and forces himself to his feet. “Forget it,” he murmurs, brushing roughly at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Move the trunk back where it belongs. I’ve got this — her.” He can see, out of the corner of his eye, the hesitation on Will’s face, like he wants to protest, but Robin shrugs out of his touch and makes his way back to the vanity without another word.

Maleficent’s still hovering, shimmering in the mirror’s face, regarding him carefully. Robin forces himself to meet her eyes one last time. “Thank you,” he sniffs, voice rough, raw around the edges. And it’s Regina again, always an echo in the back of his mind, teasing him for the manners your mother instilled in you and he can do nothing for her now, he’s waited too long.

The very center of him shifts, spins on its axis while he tries desperately not to dwell on it, not now, not until he’s gotten the men out of harm’s way. Perhaps the queen will set Maleficent free with Regina gone — there would be little use for her anymore — and his stomach turns at his own horrid betrayal, bile rising up in his throat and his hands are shaking as he tries to set the mirror back down atop the vanity, nearly drops it (throws it, he’s angry, he’s an idiot, Regina always said he was a fucking idiot) as the handle starts to slip out of his grasp—

“Wait,” Will says, hand suddenly wrapped around Robin’s forearm to keep him from setting the mirror down. “That might not be… We can’t leave it— her here.”

Robin’s brow wrinkles in confusion. “What?”

Will opens his mouth and shuts it, chews his lip as his gaze shifts down to Maleficent, contemplating. “She knows who we are— knows who you are, mate,” Will murmurs. “What if she tells the queen we’ve been here, or what we asked? She’s a liability.”

“You can’t be serious,” Robin says dully. “You heard her, Will, she despises the queen. She wouldn’t offer up intel freely to aid the queen’s quest.”

“That’s… my point,” Will says, and it’s the kindest he’s been toward Maleficent since they’d discovered her. “She might not be able to help it.”

“He’s right, you know.”

In unison, they both turn their gaze upon the mirror. “I wouldn’t volunteer the information,” Maleficent says, and it’s… a promise, Robin realizes, a kindness he’s very much aware she does not have to extend. “But if she asks—”

“—you’d be compelled to tell her,” Robin surmises. “That’s what you meant, when you mentioned the spell.”

“She doesn’t know about you, you know,” Maleficent says. “The queen— she knows you aided Regina, once, but she doesn’t know Regina’s kept your company. All the times she’s asked to see her, the last couple of years, she’s always appeared alone. That’s not luck, boys, that’s fate, on her side. If you leave me here, you risk losing your advantage.”

All at once, their meaning becomes clear.

“Hang on,” Will says, and there’s an undertone of… amusement in his voice, and perhaps pride. “Are you… encouraging us to kidnap you?”

“I’d hardly call it a kidnapping,” Maleficent says, the barest hint of a laugh in her voice.

If Robin weren’t so fucking consumed, gutted with worry for Regina, he thinks he’d laugh, too.

This is fucking mad.

“We didn’t come here with the intention to steal anything,” Robin argues, but it’s weak; his heart is not in it.

“Good intentions are what got your girl into this mess in the first place,” Maleficent dismisses. “Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. You of all people should know that, Robin Hood.”

At that, Robin does laugh, low and wet and entirely a product of being at the end of his rope (and their minutes are dwindling, they need to get out of here). “Well then,” he sighs, adjusting his grip on the mirror’s handle so she’s more secure, in his hands, “at the very least I can promise not to ask anything else of you, while you’re in our care.”

“That’s not a promise you can keep,” she says, but her whole expression shifts into something altogether more… approving.

Well there’s that, at least.

Another whistle sounds from beyond the drapes, higher this time, and Will releases his grip on Robin’s arm. “Two minutes,” he reminds Robin needlessly. “We’ll be cutting it close, once we’re back down in the courtyard.”

Robin nods, reaches for a silk scarf off of the vanity to wrap the mirror in before depositing it in his quiver, but Maleficent stops him before he can cover the glass. “Wait,” she commands, halting his movement. “There’s — the antechamber. There’s something you’ll need, in the antechamber.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Will hisses, already halfway across the room. “We’re well past the point of petty theft here, I just want to fucking make it out of here with all my body parts intact, thanks.”

“You will,” Maleficent assures him. “I can help you get around the guards on your way out, but you need to do something about this. All of your trouble will be for naught, otherwise.”

Robin narrows his eyes, heart skipping a beat in his chest. “What d’you mean?”

“Go in there,” she urges, “and see.”

Robin’s gaze darts between the balcony and the inner chamber’s barred door and he hesitates, just for a split second, before moving away from the balcony and ignoring Will’s indignant Oi, where the fuck d’you think you’re going, Robin, get back here, bloody fucking hell. Carefully, he tucks the mirror into his belt, grimaces a little at the weight of the crossbar as he pulls it from the brackets. He can’t quite help the dull thunk the crossbar makes when he sets it on the floor, but there’s no voices, no footsteps on the other side, so it’s with very little hesitation left that Robin reaches for the ornate handle, and pulls the door open.

Candelabras line the walls in a circle of shimmering brass, candles lit and bathing the chamber in a soft yellow-orange glow, against the night. In the center of the antechamber sits a small table, cluttered with parchment, books and various bottles, jars. Next to it is an overlarge cauldron, fire crackling softly beneath it to keep a low, consistent heat (more magic, he figures, though this is less surprising). He can’t quite see in it, from this far away, but he can certainly hear it, liquid bubbling, popping and spitting as it sits, stews and brews.

(Off the right there’s an archway, grand and imposing, and out of the corner of his eye Robin sees a flicker of light, red and glowing— feels the pulse ripple its way into his veins and send a shiver around his heart.)

Slowly, Robin crosses the room toward the center, careful to keep his steps light lest his boots make too much noise against the stone (they’re out of time, they’ve taken too long, the guards are already on the move). The candlelight reflects off of the cauldron’s contents, a crystalline blue flashing against his eyes (his hand goes to the mirror at his hip, to make sure she’s safe, and secure). The smell grows stronger with each step he grows nearer— a crisp, fresh thing, like the wake of a waterfall (Regina, Regina, Regina, and Robin’s heart thunders at the base of his throat).

He spares a cursory glance at the cauldron’s contents once he’s nearly upon it, but it’s the table he turns his attention to— to the book at the top of the pile, opened to page twenty-three. He recognizes it as elvish (his upbringing is good for some things, at least) but that’s as far as his comprehension goes. His core coils, twists with something not unlike dread, and he doesn’t bother pulling the mirror from his belt to address Maleficent. “What manner of potion is the queen brewing?”

“One that gives her an advantage— more than I can give her,” Maleficent says, voice a bit muffled against his tunic. “It can do what I can’t.”

“And this fucking swill is worth risking our necks for?” Will mutters, coming up alongside him.

“If you want to save the skin of your precious little bandit?” Maleficent counters. “Yes.”

“What would you have us do?” Robin murmurs, fingers flexing, fidgeting in anxious anticipation.

“Rip that page out of the book, and then do what you do best: steal the thing that holds the most value,” she instructs, “from someone who doesn’t deserve it.”