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under the soil

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  "… imagine! imagine!

 

 the wild and wondrous journeys

 

still to be ours."

 

 —  Mary Oliver, from “Last Night the Rain Spoke To Me”, in ‘Blue Horses’

 

 

 



The palace is just as complex as it is enormous. Emma would have thought that the door to the Garden of Immortality would be grand and beautiful to reflect the similar brilliance of all other belongings to the bourgeoisie, but Regina leads her instead to a door that looks as though it might enter a small stuffy room filled with sacks of flour and grain and hay. But instead, it leads to a small balcony and a black spiral stair that spins them from stairs to pathways to stairs again until they are walking down a wooden-planked path to the hollow of an enormous tree.

“We go in there?” Emma asks hesitantly and peeks inside. She can already imagine the sort creatures that live in the dark, waiting inside the ancient wood, preying on blind unaccustomed travelers to make quiet work of.

“We can’t,” Regina puts a cautious palm against the tree’s old gnarled bark, and with that slight touch, ignites a powerful electric shimmer that ripples across the entire entrance. “You see? These barriers are impenetrable.”

“So, nobody can enter?”

“No person, no one but the original caster,” Regina hums faintly. She traces the tip of a finger along the magical boundary, the minor electric shocks  rippling across the bark like water on a windy day. “Which would never do it. She’s an old white bitch. She likes everything under her control.”

“Okay,” Emma says. Her mind loops back to the rose that the imp had given her, its petals so red it almost gave off heat. Her heart quivers. “So how do we get it?”

Regina surprises her by whistling. It’s very short, only a quarter note of sound, but it has the same bright musical quality as a bird. Emma blinks, and watches mystified as a large black bird swoops down onto one of the low awning branches beside them.

“Uhm,” Emma lets show an incredulous smile. “A crow? How’s a dumb bird supposed to help?”

“Crows are incredibly smart, Emma,” Regina says, and extends a few fingers, waits for the crow to hop closer along the branch. When it is close enough, she gently pets the bird’s smooth feathered head, once firmly down the top with two fingers, and then down the sleek neck with the back of her knuckles. She smiles tenderly down at it. “And will hold a grudge longer than even I would, so I recommend caution the next time you are within speaking distance to one.”

The crow cocks its head to the side, stares with one sharp beady eye at Emma.

“Right,” Emma nods, looks away. “Good to know.”

Regina chuckles, and says something so softly to the bird that Emma can’t hear it. She assumes the crow can understand though, because it doesn’t move or fly away, and it has its head tilted to the side attentively; it even bobs its head once when Regina is finished, which earns it a lovely smile and another pet down its sleek neck.

Then Regina turns back to Emma. “She will help us,” she says, but before Emma can feel any sort of anything, she holds up a finger. “With one condition.”

Emma sighs. “Great.”

“She’s lost a gold coin and wants it back.”

“A gold coins?” Emma thinks with quiet dismay all the gold coins in the world, transferred between hands, dropped and kicked mindlessly into the gutter, offered and lost to the pockets of strangers and friends. “Like, a specific one?”

“Yes,” Regina says, and smiles, reading her mind. “But she says she lost it here, in the castle grounds.”

“Oh. Well, thank god for that.”

“Really dear,” Regina says, and gently takes hold of her shoulders. “It could have been worst,” she turns her around to guide her toward the expansive courtyard. “Just think about what the alternative could have been. This garden has been here for centuries, and people have been coming here for just as long, always willing to give up something, whatever the price may be. Rarely is it just their time.”

“What have they given up?” Emma asks. When Regina doesn’t respond, she glances back at her curiously. “What?”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to disturb you, dear.”

“Oh, shut up. I’m not that sensitive. In fact, I--”

“Their eyes. Sometimes a tongue, too.”

“-- have even -- oh.” Emma wraps a hand around her throat. “Okay, never mind. I don’t want to know anything else.”

Regina laughs, a low, sleepy chuckle.

The castle grounds are enormous. The evening sky finally has lost its light, and without the moon, everything has turned flat and depthless in the black. As they walk, fireflies float in a daze across the black lawn, and the castle offers yellow squares of light from its windows. It provides enough visibility to make out the shape of the Queen, and to watch as she walks quietly beside her like a dream or something else imagined, ghosting along the garden with an ease that still surprises Emma. She can still at times seem so incredibly unreal to Emma. Like a sad doomed figure from a fairytale. Destined to a life of vengeance and dark quick whims.

 But Emma has seen her laugh; she’s seen her sad and hopeful and tired and miserable. It makes her wonder, sometimes, how much more you need to know about a person before you can truly know them. Before you can trust them.

“What are you thinking about?”

Regina’s voice appears without warning, trips Emma like an invisible wire.

“Uh. Yeah.” Emma answers, confirming that she had in fact been thinking. She winces, glances at Regina. There is enough light to make out the lovely curve of her smile. It is a pretty smile, showing very little teeth, but it makes her eyes look soft. It makes Emma’s heart beat painfully fast, painfully hard. She swallows. “I... I was thinking about ...immortality.”

Which she hadn’t. Immortality seems like a dusty restless kind of life. But what else can she say? The Queen’s eyes widen slightly with surprise or perhaps she is only feigning surprise, willing to go along with anything just to string a conversation between them; even this completely made up interest.

 “Really?” She asks.

“Yeah, sure,” Emma looks down at her shoes, watches each step she takes. “I mean, who’d want to live forever without a tongue?”

Regina laughs. It’s that free-spiral sort of laugh of hers, that loose warm falling sound.

“It does sort of take the pleasure out of it, doesn’t it?” Regina smiles, and the tips of Emma’s ears warm. She’d been thinking about how tasteless food would be without a tongue but looking at Regina’s warm glowing eyes, she suspects Regina might be referring to something else.

Emma clears her throat. “Right.”

“But I doubt the people who gave their eyes and tongue for immortality ended up living very long,” Regina continues, on her own. She unlocks a black gate that Emma hadn't even seen in the dark and holds it open long enough for Emma to walk through. “They’d have found a way to reverse the rose’s curse.”

“Really?” Emma asks, looking at her in surprise. “Why do you think that?”

“That’s how most of these stories end,” Regina says, and clicks the gate behind them. “With a few exceptions, of course. But for the most part, people don’t want unlimited power and a long life. They want a happy life and looked for it in all the wrong places.”

“But to work so hard, and sacrifice so much,” Emma says, amazed. “And then just give it up. I can’t imagine it.”

“You would, if you had made the choice they did.”

“I guess,” Emma responds, still amazed. “But why give up so much in the first place if it’s not worth it?”

“You’d be surprised how little people actually know about what they want,” Regina says. Her voice is going soft, faraway, like it does when she’s explaining the complicated rules of magic. “If you’re miserable enough, you look for the cure anywhere, and often, once you have it, you realize that you’ve gone too far, and gotten it all wrong. You acted too quickly, you looked for all the wrong solutions. You lost sight of what’s good.” Regina trails off quietly.

“Are you speaking from experience?”

Regina turns a look sharply onto Emma. Her heart blooms with panic. She had forgotten, in just the span of a few seconds, the person she was speaking to. This is in fact the Evil Queen, not a friend or companion, and conversations between them should remain carefully short, succinct. But Regina has been speaking to her with such an open heart, with such candid honesty, Emma lost track of what can be said. She wants to know everything. She wants to put Regina under a solid light, to illuminate her from all angles. Recently, it has felt as if that was something she could do. Anything could be shared between them, any secret, any fear.

But no. Of course not.

“Am I speaking from experience,” Regina repeats quietly, her voice smooth and terrifyingly cold. “I don’t know, I suppose you’ll have to enlighten me. What about my life seems so horrible to you that you assume I must regret it.”

“Regina...”

“No, please tell me,” she says. “You obviously think I should be drowning in regret or remorse, crawl on my knees for forgiveness. You’re a smart girl. You know so much. Tell me, what should I regret?”

“You’re being ridiculous,” she sighs in annoyance. “I asked a simple question.”

“Yes. You do love your questions, don’t you?”

“Yeah, well, you were the one talking to me,” she snaps, unable to quite level out the wet emotion in her voice. “I figured I’d make some kind of conversation — sorry I forgot you live without regret or guilt or any other rational feeling, so just forget I even asked.” Her tone fails to carry any of the clarity she had earlier this evening. She knows she’s speaking with far more hostility than she feels, but her anger keeps bubbling up, wounded and mean, it is growing quick and wild like a poisonous plant, wrapping around honest genuine things, and making them unrecognizable.

Regina sneers. “Oh, you have to make conversation with me, do you?

“We could just stand in silence, but it would make time go a little slower wouldn’t it?”

“Well, rest assured, you won’t be the only one relieved once this little adventure is over,” Regina snaps. “The sooner I can get your snide questions out of my life, the better.”

“Good. I’m counting down the days till I get your nasty attitude out of my life.”

“Trust me, it won’t be much longer.”

For some reason, her heart trembles.

“Great,” she mutters, and kicks a rock. “Can’t wait.”

They walk silently. It’s a little embarrassing how quickly the silence eases Emma’s anger, whittling it away until it is a small delicate thing inside her chest that feels surprisingly like embarrassment. She sighs, and idly  worries over the insults they both threw  like a finger mindlessly going over a splinter.

She sighs. They need to talk about it.

She wants to talk about it.

“Regina,” she starts.

But before the conversation can even start, it blows inward like a curtain against an open window, flickers helplessly in the air as Regina suddenly breaks off from the wooden-planked path to step down into the black grass.

“Hey,” Emma stops in surprise. “Where are you going?”

“We should split up,” The Queen determines. She heads off toward a trail that looks like an endless tunnel of black which will swallow her up the moment she steps out of sight.

“Hey -- hold on,” Emma grimaces. “We can’t just -- Regina, come on, can’t we just stick together?”

Regina glances back at Emma impatiently. “We’ll be faster this way,” she says, and points to the meandering pathway going the opposite way. “Go on, dear. We’ll meet back in an hour.” And then, without another word, she walks away.

Emma’s heart tremors. As she watches the Queen go, her arms close around her chest and she rubs the skin to put some warmth back into her, but the cold is too sharp, it won’t be soothed. With a sigh, she starts on the path.

The dirt path rolls away into trees and offers the back-side of the castle. There are black, empty windows, and vacant balconies which twinkle with a scatter of little lights. She kicks away small rocks as she walks, watches them skip and disappear into the black again.

She knows she should be looking for the coin, but something small and cold is leeching her of resolve. Though she tries to keep her mind focused on her task, her thoughts keep slipping to the warm little tent that Regina materialized for them last night. With those thick sleeping bags. And the fur blankets. And Regina’s quiet warm breath tickling her ear. Right next to her.

And then maybe they can talk.

As the path leads toward the trees again, Emma gradually slows to a stop. Her hands are shaking, and though she rubs them together, blows warm air against her fingers, this cold seems almost cancerous, like ice is spreading through her and, replacing whatever inside of her with more ice.

She’s never felt this way before. Cold has never felt this way before.

“Gods,” She mutters miserably, and plops down on the nearest beach. A sense of loss swells up below her ribs. She just wants Regina here. Regina would know what to do. Regina would help warm her up.

Just then, a swirl of black smoke swallows her up. Emma gasps, and stumbles, caught off balance, but she is immediately caught by a firm hand.

Glancing up, she finds the Queen. Her eyes are sharp and intent on something in front of them.

A fountain. Overflowing with gold coins.

“Oh,” Emma sighs.

“Right,” Regina says, and then gently pushes her forward. “Go see if you can get one.”

Emma almost tells her to forget it, that she’d rather leave this impossibly cold place, go set up camp, sit in front of the fire, wrap up in blankets, settle into each other side by side. They could share whatever whisky is left in Regina’s flask, and maybe Regina could comb her fingers through her hair again. She’d give it all up if she could feel warm again. The spell seems small and inconsequential against that.

But instead, she tips over on one bent knee, and slips a hand into the cool water. It sends a paralyzing shiver up her spine, but Emma pushes through, reaching out to the slim gold coins that slip and slide out of her reach at the bottom. But the moment she brushes against any coin’s surface, the first one, and then the second, it turns into dust in her fingers.

“Fuck,” Emma sighs. She curls her freezing hand into her chest, rests her aching head against the fountain. “Of course there’s a twist.”

“Here,” Regina gently pushes her aside. “Let me help.”

She extends her hand close to the surface of the water, not-touching except for the very tip of her finger, which makes a slow lazy circular motion along the surface. And there, below the rippled surface of the water, Emma can see a swirl of smoke starting to circle and whirl, taking shape.

Out of the smoke comes hundreds of minnows. Hundreds of them, all sleek and dark and quick. The fish swarm the bottom of the golden fountain, turning the water into a cloudy storm of dust as the fake coins disappear one by one.

All except one.

With another snap of her fingers, the minnows are gone. Swiftly, Regina plucks the coin from the water. She looks at it with sharp analytical eyes, a look that Emma imagines must have come from years of struggling to master magic, when she was just a young girl, determined and mean and sharp as a tooth, but helpless, too, and in need of something more powerful than her wit to keep her afloat. Beneath the cold in her heart, a core of lemon warmth flares up between her ribs.

“See?” Regina turns her bright eyes onto Emma. “Much easier than plucking out a tongue, isn’t it?”

“Ha,” Emma coughs. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Regina’s eyes sharpen. Her pupils pin intently onto Emma, seeing likely for the first time her pale skin and trembling fingers. She looks her up and down, and grimaces.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

“Yeah, just cold,” Emma says, but as she turns back around, the blood in her heart sloshes to one side, and spots spread like ink blots in front of her eyes. She stops, and feeling her vision slide away, gently catches Regina’s elbow to steady herself.

Steady hands clamp around her arms. “Emma?” Regina’s voice is full of alarm. “Do you need to sit down?”

“No,” Emma says breathlessly. “I’m just cold. I’ll be fine once we get back to our camp.”

“Alright,” Regina says grimly, and then pulls a swirl of black smoke around them and return them to the big hollow tree where the crow is still perched. Regina approaches steadily, the bird cocks its head to the side, its black eyes pinning to the golden coin in her hand. “Here,” she offers the coin up to the crow’s sharp sleek beak. “Now, the rose.”

The crow clips the gold coin in its beak and takes off. After a minute or two, Emma starts to worry that they’ve fallen for a silly trick, and that they’ll end up waiting another hour in the cold, clouding the air with their breath as they wait for a bird to come back with a rose that is impossible to get. But the does crow comes back, barely a few minutes later. It swoops down rather abruptly on one of the low awning branches, a beautiful blue rose  gleaming brightly in its beak.

Regina smiles with relief and gently smooths a hand down the bird’s sleek black head. “Thank you,” she says and gently takes the stem from between the bird’s beak. The rose glows dimly in the dark, as if lit by a cool inner light.

Emma squints at it. “That’s it?”

“Yes,” Regina raises a curious eyebrow. “Were you expecting something grander?”

“No,” Emma’s mind loops back to the rose the imp had given her. It had been warm, and so so red. She rubs her chest. “It just ... looks different than I expected somehow.”

“Well,” Regina starts to say, but gradually drifts off, her focus narrowing down onto Emma’s hand, which has returned to its new habit of smoothing small circular motions along her chest. “You keep doing that,” she frowns, and when Emma just blinks blankly up her, she puts a firm hand on Emma’s, stopping the motion. “Emma are you sure you're alright?” Her voice is so soft and gentle Emma feels she could almost lean into it, put her cheek against her voice as if it were the palm of a hand.

“Uhm. Yeah,” Emma nods shakily. “Just... cold.”

Regina’s mouth flattens. “Very well,” she says. With a firm, steering hand on Emma’s back, she helps guide her toward the back gate.  “Once we get out of the castle’s range we’ll make camp, alright? We’ll get you warm.” she says and soothingly rubs her back. And for that single moment, Emma feels reassured, returned to safety.

But in the climb back, Emma loses her hope again, feeling it drop somewhere in the scrub grass, down along the slope of dune grass she tumbles and limps along, working eventually, breathlessly, toward the distant line of trees. Where they will build a camp. With a small warm tent. With warm fur blankets. A fire. And Regina.

As Emma continues to climb, she tries to imagine the ocean: it’s dark blue water, all its motion, the rising and falling and tumbling down again, moving gracelessly against the beach. Emma tries to imagine herself there, sitting in a safe place high above the shore, watching the waves roar up to the shore; she hoped it would somehow get her outside of the tumbling feeling in her stomach, but nothing can quite undo it. She doesn’t feel somewhere safe or faraway. She feels right in the middle of it. Her blood is the ocean. She’s drowning inside her skin.

Stopping abruptly, Emma leans a weary hand onto the tree next to her. The world around her keeps moving, spinning, tumbling.

Emma.”

 “It’s okay,” she manages, but her neck feels wet with a cold sweat, and everything inside of her is turning to ice. “I just ...I just need to sit down.”

“This isn’t normal,” Regina says after a long moment, nearly a minute of watching Emma take deep breaths in and out, in and out. She puts a worried hand on Emma’s back, rubs small little calming motions along the ridge of her spine. “It’s not even that cold outside.”

“Maybe it’s food poisoning,” Emma manages roughly. She drops her head into the cradle of her knees and wraps her fingers around the back of her cool neck to keep herself together. Between her heels, the world continues to gently move, as if she were sitting on a small wooden plank in the middle of the ocean. She closes her eyes, presses her head firmly against her knees. “I don’t know,” she sighs. “Maybe I’m getting sick. Does my forehead feel hot?”

A warm hand brushes back her hair and presses against her forehead. It rests there for a beat or two before Regina sighs.

“You’re not warm at all,” she gently combs her fingers through Emma’s hair, a comforting gesture that Emma would not have suspected the Queen to give so easily. “Do you need water?”

Emma’s stomach jolts, and she groans. “No. Please. I’m fine, I’m just a little dizzy.” She blankets the world away with two palms. “I’ll start walking again, soon. Once the world stops spinning.”

“Alright,” Regina says, though her voice sounds strangely distant, as if she were speaking from the other side of a very long narrow tunnel.  “Is the coldness coming from a specific place?” When Emma nods, two very firm fingers lift her chin sharply, makes her head feel like a melon, heavy and full of water. She groans and squints at Regina’s dark intent eyes. “You feel it in one specific place?” the Queen asks.

Emma nods.

“Show me.”

She complies clumsily. Her fingers feel slow and uncoordinated, and so untying the simple back of her dress becomes ridiculously hard, like a riddle that hides in the shadows of one’s common sense. Finally, she manages to loosen the corset enough to pull it back from the skin. She pulls the fabric off her shoulder and fumbles it down far enough along her elbow to reveal the place below her breast where the pain thrums quietly like another heart.

Regina inhales sharply.

She lay a shaky hand against Emma’s chest. “Oh gods,” she breathes. “Emma.”

“What is it?”

“It’s poison,” she breathes, and at the terrible doom of those words, Emma musters the courage to look down, but looks away after only a few seconds, unable to witness the complicated network of veins that has taken her hostage like the ravenous vegetative predators that eat the inside of trees. “It’s okay,” Regina assures, but there is a grip of panic in her face. “We can fix this. There are anecdotes. It’ll be okay.”

 When she stands, she holds her hands out for Emma. With a brittle wince, she rises, and disappears with the Queen in a black whoosh of smoke.

They reappear in a small, dark space. She blinks and peers around her, but it is too dark to make sense of. After a few minutes, as Regina moves purposefully in the dark, her eyes slowly adjust.

Above them, small square windows filter in little bars of steel-colored light. It is a dim, close space, full of the sage and juniper incense that Regina likely burns to cover the smells of whatever else happens here. It is surprisingly cluttered, unutterably so: on desks, there are thick books that line the wall, books that fill the drawer space, lie open with their spines exposed on the floor, and where there are no books, there are jars. Jars with a myriad of content, some strange and bizarre and others as commonplace as the  herbs stocked in a kitchen.

“Where are we?” Emma asks, grimaces at the rough, leather-like quality of her voice.

“My vault,” Regina answers distractedly. She lights all the lamps along the wall and knocks a wall of books away with an impatient flick of her hand. “Here. Sit, my dear.” Emma props herself up on the cold metal slab that she hopes has only ever been used as a table rather than whatever else an Evil Queen might use a metal slab for in a cold dark underground vault. Some things are better left unimagined.

Regina turns away, and Emma silently watches her work. Her back is a taught platform of precise movements, a platform to answer and receive the quick movements of her hands, which perform an  unbelievable amount of work.

 Emma tries to keep up with most of it. From where she sits, she can see that there is quite a bit chopping and stirring, but it is almost impossible to picture the full amount of work that magic requires, mostly due to the fact there are hundreds of things happening all around her: small menial tasks that are done in an instant, like pouring water, bringing a pot to a boil, clearing a counter full of beakers and valves -- all done on their own. Or rather, at the command of Regina’s quick thinking, her mind full of a thousand things at once.

By the time Regina has turned around again, she is holding a smoking potion and the entire vault has cleared itself into order again. Her perfect hair isn’t even slightly mussed from her work.

“Here, drink this,” Regina commands, and grips Emma’s elbow to help direct the potion to her mouth.

Emma grimaces, but opens her mouth obligingly. The taste springs tears to her eyes. But she drinks every drop, and when it is gone, Regina sets the potion aside and squeezes Emma’s trembling shoulders with firm hands.

 “Do you feel better?” she asks.

“Maybe,” Emma croaks. She tries to straighten up, but the movement invites a pulverizing sensation so painful that it blows the whole world inward. Above her, the ceiling ripples with little tremors of motion, a thousand intersecting circles dropping like rain on a muddy road.

“No,” she gasps. “No.”

Regina’s face quakes but turns flat again quick enough. “Alright,” she halters out, “I’ll make another one. Just hold on, dear.”

She turns around, but this time Emma doesn’t have the focus to watch her. In her vision, little black dots swim around, moving and merging together with a panicked sort of life, like fish squirming in an inch of water. She closes her eyes, listening for the sound of quickly approaching heels.

Regina surprises her not a minute later, appearing out of nowhere as a grey blurry outline. Squinting, Emma tries to refocus on her, but her vision has slipped under water. She can’t see her, can’t answer, and so after a moment, Regina grips Emma’s chin firmly enough to guide the potion to her mouth herself.

“Is it working?” Regina voice is a whip, and through Emma’s grey squirming vision, she can see her dark eyes.

Emma swallows once, and then twice, tries to clear the thicker texture from her throat. But there’s nothing. Nothing opens inside of her, nothing releases.

She shakes her head.

There’s a long beat. Regina puts a shaky hand on her cheek. She strokes gently with the back of her fingers.

“It’s alright, darling,” Regina’s voice is a soft tremble. She smooths a thumb quickly below Emma’s eye, wipes away a tear hiding in the crinkle. “Something will work. I’ll think of something. Just — just let me think of something.”

Emma nods her head. It feels heavy and full of water. She tries to be present, to be awake and alert, but everything around her keeps getting sucked away below the current of passing time. Everything goes on, voices and thoughts and movement. She doesn’t know how much time passes but when she lays her heavy head down, Regina’s shoulder is right there to catch her. Maybe she has just returned or maybe she never left. It doesn’t matter.

Softly, Emma turns her cheek. She lays against the soft curve between the shoulder and neck, listens to the thump of Regina’s panicked heart; against her ear, it sounds big and hollow, like the deep boom of a canvas drum.

“I’m sorry,” Regina’s voice is a wet wobble. “For earlier. At the castle. For picking a fight,” a shaky hand strokes down Emma’s hair. “All — all you wanted was to talk, to understand, and I got so stupidly stubborn. And I left. I should never have left. I could have caught this earlier on -- I could have --” her voice wells and breaks into a ragged cry; her hand makes a fist in Emma’s hair. “Oh, my girl. My darling girl.”

Words catch in Emma’s through. She wants to reassure, to hold back. But she can’t answer. She can’t do anything. Something has gone undone inside of her. Something has fallen part. 

She closes her eyes.

Her mother told her once that the soul is a soft feathery thing. That it is tethered to the body. But Emma can feel it now. It is not solid at all: it is water, rushing down to the soft, pressed places in the body, pooling in her lower back, in the calves, in her elbows. Waiting for her to die.

Distantly, she can hear Regina crying. It comes from far away, as if Regina were in another room, weeping over some other lost life, but Emma can feel Regina’s arms around her, cradling her close, caressing her hair. Warm wet tears are dripping through the haze, dripping onto her neck, her cheeks, her chest. Regina is crying for her. Weeping for her. Weeping.

A stunned realization thunders against her ribs, echoes all over Emma’s body like a voice in a cave. There is a way for her to survive. There is still a chance.

It is purely instinct that drives Emma up toward Regina’s mouth.

The kiss doesn’t take the first time. Blind as Emma is, Regina isn’t quite where she expects her to be, so when she lunges, it results in a hard clash against bone. Maybe her chin, though Emma will never know for sure. All she knows is that Regina’s startled cry comes out hot against her ear, which means she is near a mouth.  Emma turns once more, searching blindly for some part of Regina to hold onto, some part of her that will right her aim, help her steer Regina’s mouth to her own.

She tries again. It’s clumsy. Their teeth clash. But a warm hand settles onto her cheek. A brief realignment occurs, and then Regina’s mouth is firmly against her own, gently cushioning her teeth with soft full lips.

The kiss holds.

And then it happens.

 Emma has never felt anything like it. It is as if something has broken inside of her, some small dense thing that has waited forever to break and release upon the rest of the body the enormity of her heart’s longest secret: that all along, there had been this, this soft healing light, this kiss, a moment flooded with warmth; drenched with sunlight.

Emma groans when Regina starts to close their kiss, letting space enough to breath between them. Her soft warm lips thin with what she wants to say.

“Emma?” Regina’s breath comes rough and warm with hope. “Are you -- are you—?”

Emma rises to meet her mouth again with another kiss.

The rest of Regina’s breath rushes out against her mouth.  The angle is just a little off, and so at first Emma’s mouth simply meets and glides against Regina’s without rhythm, but with just a tilt of her head, her fingers tangle in Regina’s hair and the kiss deepens. Regina groans and puts both her hands flat on the metal slab beside Emma’s legs. The sound of her fingernails against metal pulls a sharp electric tingle up Emma’s spine, like a zipper going up. She opens her legs and pulls Regina closer by the ankles. Her whole-body flushes hotly beneath her clothes when Regina’s warm hands get a firm steady grip of Emma’s knees.

There, they make out in the cool dark.

Regina likes to bite when she kisses, which surprises Emma not at all. She laughs against Regina’s mouth the first time she does it, and the Queen immediately breaks off her kiss with swift vengeance to roam the underside of Emma’s jaw with hot warm kisses that leave the faintest impression of her teeth.

“Regina,” Emma groans, just as Regina finds the small square patch of skin behind Emma’s ear, and warms the space with her mouth. Emma groans and smooths her hands up and down Regina’s back, wanting some way to take charge; she fumbles around for some obvious place to begin undoing the complicated knots that criss cross into a hard-patterned ridge all the way down Regina’s back. But the ties are all cleverly interlocked, a complicated lock she cannot undo.

So, she tries another route. As Regina finishes up another love-bite all the way down on Emma’s neck, Emma waits for the soft release of her mouth, for the moment when Regina is at her most unsuspecting, when she is smoothing the plot of skin she’s just sucked purple with another softer kiss. Emma waits for that moment, and then, when Regina sighs another soft kiss against Emma’s neck, she pushes firmly enough to make Regina stumble back a few startled inches.

“What—?” She starts, eyes wild and lips all red from kissing.

But Emma is already off the metal slab, snatching Regina by the arms and pushing her hard up against the table. She slides both hands up underneath Regina’s thighs to lift her up, pushes her up until their positions are completely switched and it is Regina wo must slide her arms around the shoulders to keep balance. Emma groans and grips the back of Regina’s thighs to help pull them closer. She drops a soft kiss against the hollow of Regina’s throat.

A breath of hot air puffs against Emma’s ear. “You,” The initial roughness of Regina’s voice dissipates like a cloud of smoke as Emma gently works down the curve of her neck. Her voice turns high and breathy. “You--you stubborn girl.” But she sounds breathlessly pleased, as if Emma just pulled off the most impressive stunt, and it urges her on; she kisses more roughly, squeezes hard enough to make little white indents of her fingers along Regina’s thighs.

They kiss for a while. Hands roam and grip onto what can be grabbed: the back of a head, elbows and hips, any angle or arch.

 “Emma,” Regina pants. She strokes the back of Emma's neck. “Emma, darling.”

Up until this point, hearing her own name in Regina’s voice has felt like an encouragement, but as she works her way down the other side of Regina’s jaw, the hand on her neck turns into a grip of hair that pulls Emma from the hickey she’s making up high on Regina’s neck.

“Emma,” Regina pants, and looks at her with black eyes, her face flushed. “We, uh,” her voice roughens, and she gently clears her throat. “We shouldn’t be doing this here. Now.”

Emma blinks. And nods. “Right,” she says, and goes back to the soft warm angle of Regina’s neck, where teeth indents mark the spot she’d been sucking. “Where you wanna go?” She breathes against her skin.

“Emma,” Regina starts to sigh, but her voice drifts off as the kissing goes on, and for a minute they only sigh. But gradually she remembers herself. She grips Emma’s hair again, pulls her back. “Hold on,” she sucks in a breath. “Hold on. We shouldn’t be doing this,” she says, a little more clearly, and Emma blinks, leans back, her heart shriveling up. “Not...now, at least...This...isn’t the best time for ...” she clears her throat again, and gently smooths a hand down the back of Emma’s thigh, bringing wordlessly to the small flushed space between them the dizzyingly near possibility of sex. 

“Right,” Emma says. Her cheeks burn. “Of course.”

Regina hesitantly puts away a loose strand of blonde hair. She curls it around her finger first, then tucks it behind Emma’s ear.

“You know, that doesn’t mean I don’t want this,” Regina continues softly, not quite looking at her. She curls another strand of Emma’s hair around her ear, flattens the tips of her fingers along the curve of her ear, helping smooth down her stray wayward hair. This close, Emma can see how dark and pretty Regina’s eyelashes are. They make a shadow against her cheek. “Because, I do. I really want this,” her voice quakes softly, and she clears her throat. “But I don’t think...”

She drifts off. The spell, and its dangerous potential hangs like smoke between them, makes the air dim and unbreathable. Emma stares blankly at Regina, scarcely breathing until her lungs sting and she must look away.

“Okay,” she manages. “Let’s go then.”

Regina wraps them up in smoke, takes them back to the thicket of trees. They walk on for a little while longer, searching for a place where the trees are well-spaced, and the ground is flat.

When they find it, Emma grabs the small hatchet from her bag and puts herself onto the task of getting a fire. She starts with getting smaller sticks and then works on chopping some of the smaller trees at the edge of their camp. Her mind tangles with so many thoughts, she may have been thinking of nothing at all.

But as she hacks away at a small, stunned looking tree, the quiet repetitive motion loosens up some of her thoughts, allows a startling bloom of panic to rise inside of her like a wave.

“Gods,” she breathes, and drops the hatchet helplessly. She looks for Regina, finds her blissfully distracted with the work of setting up their tents.

She slips away. In the shadows of the trees, far enough where she can crouch in the dirt and pine needles without being noticed, she puts her arms over her head, breathes in and out as evenly as she can. But each breath comes out in a ragged exhale the future keeps coming and coming.

Gods. She is in real trouble.

She knows now: she must make a choice. And quickly. She has walked blindly into the middle of a precarious balance where whichever side she tumbles onto, the fall may be devastating.

Emma has been told fairytales all her life. She knows where she is: she is a girl with a huge decision, facing down two very different endings.

End A): she is the feckless stubborn girl who ignores all warning signs of her closing future and pursues her spell anyway, losing herself not only a companion, but a whole world of happiness: Regina’s soft, loose spiral-like laugh, her dry wit, their long steady conversations, those silent side-eyed looks, her soft sleepy smiles; A friend, a love, one who listens, who knows her completely.

End B): she is the blushing foolish princess who allows herself to be seduced by the Evil Queen’s charms and willingly destroys her one chance at freedom. She’ll enter a shallow one-sided sort of relationship with someone who has never truly seen her beyond an idea; beyond their connection, beyond the magic of True Love, Emma will be nothing to her. She will resume being nothing the moment Emma is hers.

Emma closes her eyes. She leans her head against the tree.

She needs to know whether she can trust the Queen.

But the Queen’s history skitters here and there through her memory, in scraps of her maids’ storytelling where each violent death and heartless trick shines like sharp grains of color within the depthless plane of the Queen’s life. She knows the stories well. And many of them start out frighteningly like her own, with a character whose purpose is turned on its head by the Queen’s soft loveliness, who comes up suddenly to a difficult decision: to believe in the Queen or betray her.

And in those stories, regardless of their original purpose, the characters that decide to believe in the Queen’s good heart find almost at once that their story has a very bitter end to it.

What makes her story different?

“Emma?” a distant voice call.

Emma opens her eyes.

She turns to the voice. Between the tall, scrawny trees, she can see that the Queen has grown restless in her absence. She has abandoned their tents to wander in between the small crowd of trees, stopping every few steps to scan the area and call her name. Even from this distance, Emma can see the worry in her tired face, weighing down her heavy tired shoulders.

Her heart squeezes.

Standing unsteadily, she calls, “I’m here,” Regina finds her immediately, her dark eyes snapping to her like a magnet. “Coming.” Emma calls and carries her traitorous heart like an egg in her chest all the way back to Regina.

*

As it turns out, they are both too wired to fall asleep. So, Emma puts another log on the fire, one that will last them a while, and settles her head on the rolled up sleeping bag she has bunched up beneath her head. Her toes stretch to the warmth as she stretches out, quietly  watching the grey night grow darker and dot gradually with stars as if each light is pressed individually into the sky each night.

Regina is sitting on the log next to her. Her mind is somewhere else and has been since they settled in front of the fire. Whatever she is thinking about must require all her attention because her hands keep mindlessly starting a braid, but she only ever gets halfway before her fingers run absentmindedly through her progress.

Emma watches this happen three times before she nudges Regina’s knee. Regina blinks down at her, still somewhere far away. She looks down at Emma as if she is surprised to see her there.

Emma gestures to her hair. “Mind if I try?” she asks.

This time, Regina’s expression turns puzzled and polite as if Emma had said something in a language she could not understand. But when Emma sits up on the log, and gestures for Regina to sit against her legs, Regina seems to know what she is asking. As she settles along Emma’s knees, she silently winds up all the sleek glossy hair on her neck and presents it to Emma in a thick organized bundle.

“Thanks,” Emma says, and runs her fingers indulgently through Regina’s thick black hair.

Regina hums. “You do know how to braid hair, don’t you?”

“Sure.” Emma lies.

She’s seen Nomey do it about a thousand times. She figured it counts.

Very quickly, however, she learns that it doesn’t count at all. The pattern comes back in her memory like a complicated puzzle, not at all the thoughtless mechanical process Nomey had made it seem when she drilled it upon her head every night.

But Emma does her best. And gradually, after trial and error, she comes upon a pattern that works. Diligently, she puts one strand over the next, tightens from the base, and repeats it with the left until Regina’s hair starts to wind together into a pattern that is easiest to follow when it comes unthinking, like steps in a staircase, right after the other.

Regina doesn’t advise or complain. She suffers the mistakes patiently, watches a pair of sparrows chase a jay through the trees.

After a little while, as Emma works around the middle of Regina’s braid, she feels a strange inward tug in her heart. It is a sad kind of longing, the wish to be reassured.

“Tell me something.” Emma says.

Regina hums. “What?” She asks. Her eyes are closed, and her voice so soft and sleepy that any curiosity or intonation is lost in the wind. With her head against Emma’s knees, she is warm and boneless, open to anything.

Emma smiles. “I just wanna know something about you,” she says, tenderly strokes the top of Regina’s head as softly as she would pet a cat, and Regina very nearly purrs. “Tell me anything,” she says softly. “Tell me a story.”

And Regina does.

The stories come out gradually. Regina talks in a low sleepy voice, mostly unfiltered, although Emma suspects that whatever details she does leave out is not for her own benefit. These blanks and gaps always seem to hint at another, at a third party whose actions ripple subtly from one story to the next, who always stands just out of sight.

Emma continues to braid Regina’s hair as she listens. All the stories seem to be plucked from the later few years of Regina’s reign, at the point in which she was the sole ruler of the White Kingdom and Emma’s mother simply a bandit that devotes her time to hunting down her wealth from the back of black carriages. Regina spins her victories into a somewhat ridiculous tale so that she can play both the villain and hero, retell horrible punishments that she has suffered and the horrible vengeance that followed -- she lists them all as if she were simply reciting indisputable facts, like the ingredients to a spell.

Amongst these tales, there are also tales of true heroism, though Regina never tells them as such; she doesn't seem to consider them heroic at all, though they come packaged like one.

Like the story about the young girl who stumbles upon the Evil Queen in the forest; she had not recognized the Queen in her horse-riding outfit and sought out help from her brutal drunk of a father. Their mill is failing, she had said. Her father keeps selling the mules for drinks at the pub, she had said. The Evil Queen had listened and then sent her to the market with a pouch of coins for whatever she needs; when the pouch was empty, the girl would find that it refilled on its own. And upon her return, if the girl ever did return, she would find her father long gone, and in his place, a dazed startled mule ready for work.

These pockets of heroism don’t make much of difference, she knows. But still, somewhere, dotted here and there throughout the kingdom, there are people who likely mourned the Evil Queen’s fate; who knew the woman to be sharp and clever and fueled by a hard, level-eyed sort of justice.

It warms Emma up inside. She watches Regina talk quietly. The light from the fire keeps her somewhat illuminated as the night shrinks the world around them.

The Queen keeps resting her sleepy head against Emma’s knees like she may fall asleep, but it hasn’t happened yet. Regina seems to enjoy telling stories too much; some aspect of the story will always wake her up again, require some concentration to provide the right amount of details that will shine light on just how clever she had been.

“I was in search of the Haddock eye, at this point. It was a little while ago. I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but it can act as a decent deterrent if you pair it with the right ingredient,” Regina states, and leans her head back against Emma’s knees again, getting comfortable. Emma suspects she likes the long drawn out exposition in her stories as much as the exciting parts. “But it’s a tricky spell to cast. You need a specific condition, not just an ingredient.”

“Really?” Emma says, but she isn't really listening. She is focused on Regina’s hair, now thickly contained in a braid that needs a rubber band. “What spell is this again?” she prompts to keep her distracted.

She reaches with the tips of her fingers for Regina’s small bag and tugs it in closer to her. The bag jangles with its own nimbus of sound.

“A deterrence spell,” Regina continues. “You can get rid of just about any nuisance with it. But for it to work correctly, you’d have to pair the haddock eye with an actual nuisance. Something that has ailed another. Like, say a splinter or a broken tooth,” she says, and then stops suddenly, as if interrupted by a thought.

 But Emma doesn’t notice the pause. Her focus is on the small bag as she rifles through the strange continents for something as normal as a thin rubber band.

“Haddock eye and a splintered tooth,” Regina repeats faintly. Her voice is a struck shrinking sort of sound. “You can get rid of just about anyone with that.”

Hearing the tone, Emma slips back into the present. “Oh yeah?” she asks in gentle misunderstanding, having missed the most important part. She slips a rubber band quickly around the bends of her fingers. “Why did you want this spell, again?” she asks

But Regina only shrugs and doesn’t answer.

Emma glances at her curiously. “You forget?” she asks, and pulls the band off her knuckles, wraps it three times around the end of Regina’s braid. It looks better than she thought it would. With tentative fingers, she runs along the tidy imperfect pattern she made of Regina’s beautiful hair. She playfully tugs at the end, expecting Regina to laugh and continue her story. But Regina doesn’t. She doesn’t even budge.

Whether from disinterest or forgetfulness, the story crumbles into silence. A terrible hollow silence.

After a minute, Emma nudges Regina gently with her knee. Regina inclines her head, a silent indication of her attention, and so Emma leans over her shoulder, close enough to kiss her neck if she wanted to.

She smiles at her. “Don’t you wanna see your hair?”

“No, darling.” Regina responds quietly and doesn’t even touch a hand to her hair to check. “I’m sure it’s beautiful.”

Emma’s happiness wobbles, off balance. “You feeling okay?” She watches the side of Regina’s face for a hint to what she is feeling, but her expression is as still and flat as glass.

“Yes, of course.” She answers, and even musters up a smile for her. But it doesn’t quite reach the blank empty look of her eyes.

Emma hesitates. But she already knows she will not be able to pursue the subject tonight. Regina is clever in conversation, as clever as she is in magic, and if she really wanted to, she could hide a hundred different traps behind her words so that any attempt to understand will fall blind and walk in circles. She’s not sure if either one of them has the energy for that.

“Okay,” She says hesitantly. “You wanna go to bed or something?”

Regina shrugs silently and stands. She folds her arms over her breasts and turns to give Emma one last blank inscrutable look. Then she walks toward their tent.

In the tent, though the space is close and the sleeping bags thin, neither one of them move toward the warmth of the other. Between them, small accidental incidents of intimacy occur: Regina’s fingers brush against the side of Emma’s wrist, her hair tickles the curve of Emma’s ear, cold toes slide across an ankle. In the dark, as the quiet hush of their breathing surrounds them, it is quite possible to imagine how either one of them could move past this quiet middle place. Emma could roll onto her elbows, crawl up onto Regina They wouldn’t have to kiss, if Regina didn’t want to. But .

A sleeping bag rustles, and Emma’s heart stills. She waits. But the space between them doesn’t close. Regina rolls on her side, shows her back to Emma. She is a straight dark line in the dark, out of reach.

 Emma watches her silently until sleep takes her away. 

 

*

The morning is cool and damp. Above them, pine branches sway and drop their thin needle leaves down onto their tent. Emma blinks  sleepily into consciousness, gently nuzzles her cheek against the warm brown pillow beneath her.

A soft hum rumbles beneath her.

Blinking, Emma lifts her sleepy head. There, below her, she finds Regina blinking sleepily back at her. Her eyes are unfocused and scrunched up adorably from grogginess.

She looks so lovely. Her dark hair is splayed across their pillow in messy curls, and her mouth is smudged with the dark red remaining lipstick she forgot to wipe off the night before. Her fingers are tucked comfortably under Emma’s thick nighttime sweater, ghosting small absentminded circles along Emma’s back as she battles away sleep; an unsuccessful battle: her dark lashes drop heavily down again, and for a minute or two she doses, lost again to sleep.

Emma watches her warmly. With a gentle hand, she smooths a hand along Regina’s dark hair, careful not to accidentally snag a curl.

The morning light is cool and steel-like, casts dim grey shadows across their small yellow tent and across Regina. Shapes of leaves dance across the hollow of Regina’s neck, sway back and forth along her sleeping peaceful face. She is beautiful. Beautiful.

Her hand follows down the curve of Regina’s cheeks to the strong jutting line of her jaw. Regina’s dark lashes flutter. She makes a soft noise in the back of her throat and flattens her palms along Emma’s back. The warmth between them is completely their own, their sleeping bags splayed out flat beneath them, their bodies resting against each other from their ankles to their chests. 

When Regina’s lashes flutter again, she looks up at Emma with warm half-asleep eyes. The tenderness in them coils in Emma’s stomach, and thoughtlessly she grazes a thumb over Regina’s mouth, smiles down at those lipstick stained lips that she had kissed only yesterday.

She thought she saw a smile at the corner of her mouth. She thought she felt those hands along her back move up, a whisper of permission.

She leans down slowly, but instead of soft warm lips she feels the cool side of Regina’s cheek. And then a steady hand pushes with surprising force on her shoulder, enough to disrupt Emma’s weight, rolls her from her elbows to her knees.

Regina slides out from beneath her, quick as a fish.  “We should get going,” she deftly wipes the side of her cheek before she stands, swiftly unzips the canvas tent.

Emma stares blankly at the black square of blanket beneath her. It takes a moment for her stunned heart to feel anything but surprise, but when it does, a hot steady shame comes to her like the slow march of red ants. Closing her eyes, she waits until the shame sinks somewhere below her heart and spine, until she feels she can stand and face Regina again.

She walks out into punishingly bright light, blinks until she finds Regina beside their dead fire-pit, competently zipping up their heavy bags.

She closes her arms around her chest and walks to her side. Her heart squeezes painfully when Regina doesn’t register her presence at all, merely continues her task with the same cool impassive expression she left the tent with as if what happened was only an awkward misjudgment between acquaintances that she doesn’t think necessary to mention ever again.

“Look...”

“Forget it.” Regina states, and finally looks at her. In her eyes, Emma can see no further than the black depth of her pupils. She might as well have been staring at a stone wall. “We should get going. I have a feeling this last one will be tricky.”

“Regina,” she sighs. “Come on,” she lets her fingers glide down Regina’s arm, but she doesn’t dare grip her. “Can’t we talk about it?”

“We are on a schedule.”

“No, we're not,” At that, Regina looks at her again. She pauses with her task, her hands stilling for a moment so that she can stare with blank dark eyes at Emma. She waits for her to elaborate. “I mean, we don’t need to go hunting down the Phoenix feather right this moment. We can spare a conversation. The spell won’t fall apart if we have to wait a few hours, or even a day.” Or maybe even forever.

Regina’s eyes dim. Emma sees it happen. A light turns off.

“There’s no telling who may be out looking for a Phoenix feather for themselves,” Regina says. She tightens the straps of her back pack in one swift violent motion then turns away. “We should get on with it.”

“I’d rather talk.”

“And I’d rather not.” Regina leaves without touching her, without looking at her. She sets herself on the next step in the packing process.  After the clothing lines are wound-up, there will be the tents, and then the food, which all can disappear in a distracted flick of a hand if Regina doesn’t mind imprecision. Normally, she does.

But today she clearly wants to be finished already, and on the move. With just a flick of her fingers, everything, including the ashes of last night’s fire, disappears in a flush of black smoke; the only thing that remains is the damp furred blanket of pine-needles the trees have dropped over night, leaving behind a space so swept of their presence, not even a hunting dog could follow their trace.

When Regina turns around, she has in her hands the small green compass that will direct them to the very end of their trip. She tosses it carelessly, and Emma catches it in the same quick wounded way she’d catch a rock if it was hurled at her.  

 “Where we headed?”

Emma looks down. And blinks. She stares down at the compass blankly, uncomprehending. Then tilts her wrist to reveal to Regina the clear face of the compass. Inside its small complicated world, the red arrow spins in circles, running endlessly one way, like the hand in a clock that counts only seconds.

They both stare at it for a long time.

And then Regina clips a loose strap in her leather waist coat. “It’s not in this realm.” She says, staring at nothing.

“We have to go to another realm?”

“Yes.”

“Is that possible?”

“Yes,” Regina says. Her voice sounds strange, oddly flat and thin, as if it had been stretched and smoothed down by a hot iron. “I have a magic bean. It should be able to take us where we need to go.”

“Okay,” Emma says slowly, watching Regina. “Then what’s wrong?”

“The Phoenix is native to this realm,” Regina says after a second, answering automatically though her attention is clearly somewhere far away; in her absence, the calm teacher-voice fills in. “And protected, generally, by powerful magic-users. For it to have made it across another realm, it would have needed to be smuggled by a very clever, very powerful magic-user.”

 “Okay…” Emma says, uneasily. “So. Where do we go?”

Regina closes her eyes. When she looks up again, she has returned to the present, though it appears to have drained her of everything. Everything but misery.

“Where lost things go.” she answers, faintly.

*

Wonderland is a strange place. That is all Emma can think of. Anything she might have recognized in her own realm came back in this one as strange and impossibly distorted; lizards skitter under rocks with alarming speed, glitter with unrecognizably bright colors and too many eyes. Birds look down on her from the branches above, large and misshapen, as if they were the refracted reflections of the birds in her own realm; they could have been the nightmares that the birds of her realm dreamed up.

But the strangest part of Wonderland is Regina. Since stepping into the world, she hasn’t said a single word. By the quelling looks she’s been sending Emma, she clearly believes that any sound louder than a breath may very well signal an ambush, though she doesn’t seem even remotely interested by the dangerous-looking creatures that watch and stalk them from above. And she still won’t even look at Emma -- she doesn’t look anywhere but the path in front of them, hasn’t even once, as if she feared the grassy trail in front of them might change its direction if she gave it the chance.

“Look at that,” Emma remarks suddenly, unable to stop herself.

Above, something small and dark stares down at them. It has remarkably human-like eyes though from where it is crouched, Emma can clearly make out four paws and a long-curled tail. She might have mistaken it for a cat if not for the sudden smile that flashed in the dark like a silver pocket knife.

“Don’t look at it,” Regina rebukes sharply. “You’ll only get us into a conversation neither one of us will enjoy.”

Emma glumly looks away.

In her palm, the compass points honest and true to the middle of Regina’s back. Though they haven’t exchanged more than a few words this morning, mere scraps of conversation, Regina seems to know exactly where the compass is pointing them to. She leads them toward it with the with the sure-fire competence of a boat cutting through water.

They’ve walked long enough to make the back of Emma’s neck feel warm with sweat. She sighs and pulls her hair up swiftly into a ponytail.

Nearly half an hour later, Regina stops suddenly. She passes over a water bottle, lets her sit down for a quick breather.

Then, out of nowhere, she says.

“I have to leave.”

Emma looks up. She stares at Regina’s face, clear of any shadow or expression.

“Are you kidding me?”

“No.”

“You’re leaving me?” Emma makes a noise almost like a laugh. “Here? Alone?”

Regina makes that line of hers with her mouth, stares directly at the middle of a tree as if it might respond with important information. “It isn’t safe for you to be seen with me.” She says at last, in a flat, final-sounding way, clearly unwilling to give anything more.

Before Regina, Emma never would have considered herself much of a fighter – she never had the chance to, she was too busy following directions, doing what was expected of her, never straying too far from where she needed to be. But something about Regina makes her want to butt heads, ram against all expectations.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I can’t tell you,” Regina answers shortly and slides the backpack off her shoulder, sets it on the ground. She takes out a small compact hand mirror small enough to fit in the palm of her hand.

Regina extends the mirror. “Here,” she says. “I will communicate with you through this.” The silver face of the mirror gleams sharply in the light, throws back the hard-disgruntled line in Emma’s forehead. It seems utterly ridiculous, but she supposes its better than if Regina disappeared without a trace, without even this vague line of communication to bridge them together again.

Just as Emma starts to reach out towards the mirror, Regina pulls it back. She holds it close to her ear, waits until she has Emma's eyes.

 “Before I give this to you, I want to make sure we’re on the same page,” she says in a commanding tone. “You will not use this. You can’t communicate with me at all. This mirror is a one-way line, and only I will use it.” she waits patiently for Emma’s incredulous clamor to go down before pressing on. “Emma, I’m serious. I don’t want you to even attempt it. If I’m going to give this to you,  I have to know that you won’t try to use it unless it is to answer my call.”

“Then don’t give it to me,” Emma answers flatly. “I don’t want it.”

“You need to have it.”

Why?”

“So, I can reach you.”

“And, what? I just wat to be called on?” Emma’s lip curls. “Forget it. If you want to leave, leave. We’ll just go our separate ways and meet up through a miracle or something.”

Regina’s glare is scathing. “I’m not leaving you in another realm without any way to contact you.”

“Then don’t leave.”

A flash of emotion crosses Regina’s face, unrecognizable. It might have been dread for the growing likelihood of losing this argument or something else entirely, but it draws out a certain anxiousness in her that Emma has never seen. She smooths away a dark curl of hair and flattens the palm of her hand across her forehead in an uncharacteristically nervous gesture

“I don’t want to leave,” she says, quietly. But her voice has changed. A thread of fear colors her words. “I don’t,” she says. “But you can’t be seen with me. I can’t allow it.”

Staring at her, Emma feels her heart give. She sighs, extends a flat hand.

“Fine.”

Gently, as if it were fragile, Regina hands her the mirror. Emma glances at it briefly before looking back, meaning to say more, to at least say goodbye, but when she looks up Regina is already gone.

Gone without a trace. There’s just the trees and her silence.

And a mirror.

She grimaces.

Shoving the mirror in her back pocket, she turns back onto the trail. Whatever, she thinks coolly to herself, but her anger has already moved on to something else; hooks catch onto other tiny hooks, tangle themselves into a red wounded feeling that aches inside of her like a bruise.

The woods deepen around her. She follows her compass as it winds her along a trail of thick trees to a thin stream of specked blue water. Beneath patches of floating algae, thin silver fish slip in and out of her sight. Though the whole world is bright and strange and unreal to her, she finds she sort of likes it. She likes its little dangers and promises. In the walls of her own castle, days are organized to the minute by bells and maids. The seconds ran into each other, ran on and on into empty rooms.

A few days ago, it would have seemed impossible that a girl like her could have done any of what she has done. But she’s done it. She’s faced down a dragon, survived poison, stole a rose, visited another realm. If Regina were here, she might have told her about it.  How grateful she is.  

The mirror gleams.

Emma feels it in her back pocket. It sends a prickle of electricity up her spine.

Hurriedly, she takes her mirror out. In its smooth glass, she sees the tops of the trees and the sharp anxious look on her face.

“Regina?” she asks tentatively, waits for a change. “Hello?”

The mirror remains still, unchanging. It tosses the morning light out in a dozen different angles.

Emma’s heart dips. Staring down at her face in the mirror, she watches her expression gradually harden, turn thin and lined with exasperation.

“You know,” she starts, inhales a big shaky breath. “If this is to get back at me or something, I gotta say, it’s a really shitty thing to do.”

She waits a moment. But the only face looking back is her own.

“I don’t know how many times we have to do this. I’ve told you a hundred times,” she exhales in a deep rumble of a voice. “If you’re mad at me, just tell me. I’d rather just know. I don’t want to be sulking around a weird ass realm, so you can work through your mood on your own. I’d rather you just yell at me.”

A beat passes. Strange unknown birds sing from above, their voices soft and strangely human-like.

In the cool glass, she watches her own face wobble like a reflection in a pond. She sighs and closes her eyes.

“If this is about this morning, I’m sorry,” she says quietly. She leans her tired back against a tree and stares up at the criss-cross of branches and leaves, the world of strange animals. “I shouldn’t have done that. It was a mistake.”

The silence buzzes back at her. When she sighs, her breath clouds with a visible stream of breath. As the day goes on,  the sun seems to be slowly withdrawing from the world; the light has turned into a damp pale-blue shade that makes everything feel as if it were sinking slowly underwater.

“Or maybe it wasn’t,” she says softly, nearly a full minute later. “I know I haven’t been honest with you. I’m sorry, I don’t want to make you feel like I’m trying to...to exploit our True Love without committing to you. I don’t — I don’t want that to be how things go between us. I  guess I don’t really know how things should go between us. All I know is that I want to be honest with you. I want us to talk about everything.”

The seconds tick off quietly in her head. She counts to ten before the hurt and shame is too much to drown down in silence.

“Goddamn it,” she snaps, feeling a hot sting of tears. “Can you at least tell me where you are?” The answering silence is too much, too much to accept. She nearly throws the mirror away in defiance, but instead, she calls hoarsely, in a voice close to tears: “I can see the mirror gleaming, you asshole. I know you can hear me.”

To her surprise, Regina answers.

“Very well,” she says, in a clear flat voice. “Meet me at the lake.”

Emma’s heart bundles in her throat. “The lake?” she asks and looks around. She has wandered away from the blue stream of water, but she thinks she can hear its soft babbling motion somewhere in the distance. Where water goes, it will eventually pool. “Okay.” She says, softly, relieved. “I’ll meet you at the lake.”

The mirror blinks and goes dull again.

It takes a little while to find the stream again. She has to trek up a grassy trail uphill, through wet leaves and hard weedy plants, but gradually the trail winds her back to the stream, takes her a mile or two downhill to the view of water. The lake spreads out enormously between the trees, its wrinkled blue surface glimmering with the sun.

It only takes a mile or so more until she spots Regina. She is a dark figure in the distance. As she gets closer, she puzzles over Regina’s change of clothes. She had left in one of the sleek outdoorsy outfits that Emma secretly loves so much; she can still recall the shape of her legs in black leather, the strong pronounced line of her back in that trim waist coat of hers. But now, she wears a long-flowing red and white dress, which seems somehow off; red and white.

Emma gradually slows. She is close enough now to piece together her mistake.

The woman in front of her is not Regina.

Though, from a distance, she had appeared strikingly similar, Emma can now see the more obvious differences. This woman is older, and smaller; instead of Regina’s strong, square jaw, she has a thin face that seems smoothed clear of any or all emotion; and though her hair is dark, it doesn’t quite have the black astral shine of the sky at night.

The woman tilts her head, gives her a cold swift appraisal.

“Uh,” Emma offers a somewhat awkward laugh. “So, you’re not Regina.”

The woman looks Emma in the eye. “No,” she says simply, displays no interest to make up for the strangeness. “I’m not.”

“Okay.” she says. “So why am I here?”

“You walked here on your own.”

“Yeah, to Regina. You’re not her.” her voice flattens uneasily.

The woman simply watches her. Her attention is somewhat jarring: it has the dull apathetic look of a person who has seen everything in the world, everything it has to offer, and has decided it’s all dull and unsurprising.  For a moment, in her gaze, Emma is nearly overwhelmed by the dumb animalistic instinct to run, to head uphill and climb a tree. But she stays still, struggles silently through the feeling, mostly because she suspects the danger she has fallen into is beyond the safety procedures Nomey had given her for normal dangers, and that unlike a bear, this woman will not be deterred by a hill or tree.

“You are Regina’s true love.” the woman says at last. It is not a question, and her voice carries nothing but a vaguely bored tone, and yet, Emma still feels the need to affirm it.   

“Yes.”

“How interesting.”

The woman smiles. It is the only warning Emma gets, and though she takes it seriously, she doesn’t make it farther than the scrawny line of trees behind her.  

A dark red magic, sharp and electric, overcomes her.

It doesn’t hurt at first. It hits like a crackle of static, replaces all the feeling in Emma’s body; her body falls solidly, spasms beyond her control like the confused scatter of birds that flush from a tree. Sand fills the dry seam of her lips, dusts the side of her face. Then, slowly, as she lies against the cool sand, the pain comes to her; her heart presses into itself like the small cushion Nomey kept in her sewing box, the one she sticks all her needles in. In a sudden spasm, her throat closes, and she chokes in air through uneven gasps.

“Look at you,” the woman looks down at her with cool, unfeeling eyes, as if Emma were a bug drowning in her cup of tea. “You’re just a girl. To think, all my hard work might have been undone by you. Some silly young thing. You might have ruined it all.”

As she coughs in air, she spits out her only weapon: fearlessness.

 “Fuck you.”

The pain comes again. It slides her vision away in violet streaks; her ears pop, and dim. And as the world recedes, she can hear the woman laugh; it follows her into the black of her unconsciousness, falls light and steady like rain.

*

When Emma wakes, she is flat on her back on the floor. She blinks blearily, rubs her hand along her face. Greenish sourceless light buzzes down from above. With a brittle wince, she rises into a sitting position. Her head is ringing, and there’s a buzzing disconnect in her body; the bones, pressed too long and hard against the skin, have reoriented themselves to the flat featureless hours of unconsciousness. It will take a while to wake them up again.

Though she doesn’t know where she is, one glance around quickly surmises that wherever this is it isn’t good. In her small windowless space, she can see bars, a lock, and a scratchy yellow square of a blanket. The only real light comes in thin rectangles slant in through the bars. Distantly, she can hear the orderly sound of footsteps, quiet and routine; a guard making rounds.

She groans and rests her aching head against her knees.

A minute or two passes. Silence comes in patches. Guards sigh, and rounds are made. A moth keeps whirring dryly against a lampshade.

Then, in her back pocket, she feels her mirror vibrate again. She very nearly tosses the whole thing against the wall, but before she can even fully get it out of her pocket, a familiar voice calls her name.

“Emma?”

This voice is Regina’s. She recognizes it immediately, this deep, firm-tempered voice that can slip easily through emotion like a thread through the eye of a needle; it is a wonder how she could have possibly confused Regina with that flat, featureless voice, a woman without feeling, without heart.

With a soft groan, she rubs her face again. Then she stands and limps her way towards the yellow square of blanket where the light looks stronger. When she is settled, she sighs, and hesitantly turns the mirror around. She squints uneasily at the face of her True Love.

Regina’s eyes immediately go wide.

“Wha—Emma?” she gasps, then sucks in her breath.

In the stronger light, Emma knows she must look a mess. She can feel a patch of ripped skin on her lower lip, and if she pushes her tongue up to the roof of her mouth, there is rough torn skin there too. There’s a sore on the side of her tongue, likely from her own teeth, and bruises she can’t identify.

“Hey,” she answers.

For a long moment, Regina only stares with helpless fury. She looks everywhere, at every little hurt: the blue spots under the skin, the clenched wounded look of her jaw, the wounds Emma has not had time yet to identify -– if they are there, Regina will find them.

 “What happened?” Regina asks, at last. Her voice is wrecked, but there is a hard underlayer of anger below. It breaks like metal through her concern. She already knows.

Sighing, Emma rubs her head. “Look – It happened sort of quickly. I didn’t mean –”

“To go against my specific instructions?”

“Okay, they weren’t that specific.”

“How could you possibly have misunderstood don’t use the goddamn mirror unless I call you.”

“I saw the mirror gleam and I thought it was you! How was I supposed to know?”

“Did you hear my voice?”

“No.”

“No. You didn’t. Because I didn’t call you.”

“And I thought you did,” Emma snaps. “Maybe you should have told me instead of just disappearing. Maybe you should have let me know that I might get jumped by a nasty old woman if I fuck up.”

Regina’s jaw clenches.

A silence catches and holds. Regina stares at the corner of Emma’s prison cell. Something appears to be dripping from some point on the ceiling; it makes a quiet singular sound every other second like the quiet drip of a sink.

“Why did you just leave?” she asks quietly, her anger gone.

Regina’s anger slips away too. When she speaks, her tone is a mirror to Emma’s.

“I told you. You weren’t safe.”

“You left so quickly. You didn’t even say goodbye.”

“I was in a rush.”

“It just…It seemed like you were trying to get away from me.”

Regina closes her eyes. “I wasn’t. Please don’t think that,” she whispers. On either side of a mirror, though there are miles of dead air between them, the softness of her voice helps make up for some of the distance. “I was afraid for you. I felt like I had put a huge target on your back. I thought if I left quickly, you’d be safe.”

Emma nods and looks down at her fingers. There are new calluses that have roughened the geography of her hands, shaped them into hands that know work. She sometimes wonders how else she has changed. Would her mother recognize her if she returned home at this moment? Would anyone?

“I didn’t mean to go against you, you know,” she says, softly. The morning loops in her head, and she feels her heart lodge in her throat. She wants to splay out everything she’s been holding onto, to be understood. “I promise I don’t do shit just to hurt you.”

“I know.” Regina says, softly.

Something new settles between them. A softness, a hard-fought intimacy. They might be getting better at this,  Emma thinks. Maybe they’re learning to listen; maybe they learned it from each other. Maybe it’s not so crazy to believe that the two of them are perfectly suited.

She looks Regina over quietly, takes her in. It is then that she realizes that Regina is not outside as she expected her to be. The light shining on her face is not natural sunlight as she had assumed but brightly artificial, aimed directly from above her head in a small tidy-looking room. On the wall behind her are stacks of identical black hats lined neatly in rows.

“Where are you?” Emma asks.

“An empty room,” Regina sighs. She flicks an absent hand to the space around her. “I came to visit someone I knew once. I thought he could help, but he seems to be long gone.”

“Right,” she says, but her thoughts are abruptly cut off by a violent shiver. Closing her eyes, she sighs weakly. “I’m guessing you can’t poof me there with your magic?”

 “I already tried. I’m sorry darling, there is a magic-barrier around your cell. I won’t be able to enter the space or pull you out of it.”

“Damn.”

“I will find my way there, but it will take a while.”

“No, that’s alright,” she says, and stands. She slides the mirror back into her back pocket, rests her forearms through the metal bars. “I’ll improvise.”

“Emma?” Regina’s muffled voice calls. “What are you doing?”

“Shh.”

“Excuse me?”

Shh – don’t talk.”

“Ugh.”

Emma waits until she hears the guard’s footsteps in the distance. When the guard’s pacing shadow creeps along the wall, Emma crumbles against the cell door. She lets out a howling shriek of pain.

After a beat of hesitation, the guard comes running. His presence comes with a nimbus of noise: there’s his heavy sword against his hip, the click of his handcuffs against his keys. He appears, and walks closer, looking curiously indifferent as he peers down at her hunched body.  

“Miss?” he asks.

He steps closer.

Gripping the thick red fabric of the guard’s shirt, she yanks him forward sharply. Unsuspecting as he is, he does nothing to dull the impact, so his head hits squarely against the cell doors with enough force to ring across the empty air. His consciousness goes out of him swiftly, irrevocable as a rock tossed into a lake.

“Oh,” Regina’s surprise comes from her back pocket.

Emma grunts. She guides the guard’s heavy body down to lie flat across the entrance of her cell. Flat like a board. There, she roots for the keys hidden on his belt.

She turns the key and slips out. For a moment, her heart feels completely buoyant from the fear of being caught. There is just this success, her competence and quick thinking. But then in the hallways, the fear returns. She slips out from the visible eye as soon as she can, steps in through a sturdy-looking door in the far end of the hallway. The hinge obliges with a rusty little creak and a hard shove with her shoulder.

In relief, she exits into a small, cramped stairwell. Small wall-candles glow all the way up, step by step, lighting the walls with their steady shadowless light. With a soft relieved sigh, she takes out her mirror.

Regina stares back with that cat-like smile of hers; with her body positioned comfortable against the back of her chair and her cheek pressed gently against the side of her knuckles, she has a way of looking, a sleepy-eyed look of interest that makes Emma flush; her mind winds back to the thought of her red warm mouth, of long slow kisses, of wandering hands. Something warm and electric zips up Emma’s belly.

“Well look at you.” Regina very nearly purrs. “You’re always finding new ways to impress me.”

Emma’s cheeks warm. “You have a troubling fascination with violence, you know.” she says and starts up the stairs.  

“It’s not a fascination.”

“Yeah? What do you call it?”

“A healthy appreciation.” Her eyes crinkle. When Emma laughs she continues. “Dear, you live a life like mine, you come to enjoy a good fight every once in a while.”

“I’m sure,” she shakes her head, smiling. “I’m putting you back in my pocket.”

“No.” she whines but is quickly muffled again.

She winds up the stone stairs, passes doors whose windows peek into others way of life. It is busy with the lives of normal everyday people: there are maids that sing softly as they scrub the floors, splay soapy water along the red and white tile; guards sit bored on wooden crates, smoking little stubs of cigarettes as they play cards with one another. It seems even in strange evil little places such as this, life has a way of going on.

Finally, she finds a door that looks into an empty room. Pushing it open, she peeks out tentatively, looks both ways before she steps inside.

“Okay,” she sighs. She pulls the mirror out of her back pocket, smiles down at Regina’s impatient face. “I think I’ve made it far enough from the prison. How do I find you?”

 Regina rolls her eyes. She snaps her fingers.

Black magic swirls around her, leaves her coughing and wheezing in a new room, right in front of Regina.

“Okay,” Emma coughs, waves away the smoke. “Yeah. I don’t know why I’m not used to that yet.”

Regina stands up from her seat. A curtain falls behind her eyes, closes her face from feeling as she looks Emma over once again. The new, brighter light has brought out new angles, new hurts. Emma feels them now, underneath Regina’s soft touch. Looking up into Regina’s cool eyes, she might have thought the Queen was indifferent. If she didn’t know the woman better. But there is a gentleness in her fingers, an undeniable tenderness.

She very lightly lifts Emma’s chin, tilts her face into the light.

Regina sighs with regret. “You trouble maker,” she says and presses the pad of her thumb affectionately against Emma’s chin. “Why are you always getting into trouble?”   

“I don’t know,” she musters a smile. “But at least I’m pretty good at getting out of it.”

Regina’s hand drops silently. “You are,” she says, voice quiet. She turns away. “While you were gone, I found the room I was looking for. We’re almost there.”

Emma can feel the turn in Regina’s mood. It pulls away from her the way the waves of the ocean pull from the sand. So here it is; between her future and this moment, there is still this, this little insecurity that stands in her way: how easily Regina’s feelings can turn away from her, how easily they can slide out of her understanding.

With a sigh, Emma follows her.

Rooms keep opening into one another. Each hallway brings new beautiful rooms that seem to seep in silence. Even the silence feels different here. It is a silence that has gone on for so long, grown so thick, it is no longer possible to break.

Emma finds herself waiting until they’re out of the rooms. She has things that she wants to ask, but they seem impossible here in these rooms. It feels like the walls are watching them. Once they’re out in the bright sunlight, she’ll ask.

It takes a while, but eventually they slip out of a back door to walk on a small brush trail toward a smaller quarter of the castle.

“So, what’s with that psycho?” she asks.

Regina frowns. “Hm?” She doesn’t look away from the trail.

 “The lady who attacked me,” she clarifies. “She seemed pretty distressed to discover that I am your True Love. She seemed to think I was ruining something.”

“I see,” Regina sighs. “Well. I’m sure you were.”

“What do you mean?”

“She views love as something ugly,” Regna sighs. “A kind of indulgence, worse than laziness. I was never completely sure what she wanted to do in this world, but if I had to explain it, I would say that she wanted to rid the world of love. To save it.”

“Wow,” Emma splutters with a laugh. “What a piece of work.”

Regina hums in hollow accordance. A minute of silence passes between them. Emma mulls over her next question, sensing a pulse of deeper meaning below Regina’s words, but thankfully Regina continues quietly on her own.

“I’ve known her for a very long time, you know,” she says. Her fingers flex idly, a helpless show of nerves. “I’ve spent years trying to impress her, to repulse her, to make her see me. But thinking about it now, I think the only time she truly thought of me was when she was planning to take the world from me.”

Emma looks at her for a long time. She’s afraid to ask. But she has to.

“How do you know her?”

Regina sighs. “She’s my mother.”

It flips on a light. Exposes a horrible new angle. A moment ago, Regina had been a  silhouette with a backlight on, and now she is in color.

The silence feels heavy with the new information. Emma carries it inside of her silently as they walk. A mother, she thinks, who delights in hurting her child. What else could you possibly become but a monster?

They enter a small tidy room. It smells vaguely of old sun-drenched paper and pencil shavings. There are books everywhere, overflowing on mahogany shelves and desks.

“Wow,” she says, with a short whistle. “What a mess.”

“Hey,” Regina closes the door sharply. “This was my father’s room.”

“Oh. Alright,” she says, and glances around the unutterably cluttered place. “I see the resemblance.”

Regina gives her a sharp little look before wading into the room. Emma looks at the space around her. It really is messy. There are rows of small ceramic trinkets on the desks and on the shelves. Weathered, sun-stained maps sit in a pile on an exhausted looking chair, charting parts of unknown worlds. An old lamp puts out a dim dusty light from the corner.

In the back, there is a tall bookcase. Regina is there, examining each book carefully. The spines all give the impression of being long and drearily factual.

After a beat, Regina snaps for Emma’s attention.

Scrambling to her side, she reaches her just in time to see Regina put a tentative fingertip along the top of an old dense book’s spine. The book is a strange pick, as it seems to log in extensive detail an entirely outdated theory of the world and has nothing to do with either magic or their spell, but she doesn’t question it. She watches quietly as Regina pulls the book flat on its spine, the way she’d pull a lever.

Dust trickles out of invisible hinges. The bookcase groans and shifts.

“Step back,” Regina instructs. When Emma just gapes, she gently steers Emma back by the elbow. “Behind me, darling.”

Emma obliges dazedly. She watches as the books slide and push into the shelf in front of her; everything happens on its own, with singular determination, as if each book moved with an impulse to quickly and seamlessly get out of their way. Gradually, the wall recedes into itself.

The room behind the bookshelf is intricately more organized; it is not the sort of room that a man with maps would sit in -- a man who splayed out his books along the spine, who left coffee-ring stains on every inch of his desk. Who organized a row of ceramic animals into a small circus circle on his desk.

There’s no question who rules this room. It is similarly decorated as the rest of the castle, and has a risky-looking silence to it, a dangerous hush like a cave where unutterable horrors occurred and remained undiscovered for years.

Regina hesitates. She enters the room, visibly stiff.

Inside, the walls gleam with mirrors.

On smart little tables, on black and red lacquered walls, there are niches in which treasures of plunder are put on immaculate display. There are age-blackened masks, bowls, vases, half-ruined shields and weapons that have beautiful reverential depictions of animals and other mythical creatures carved into the faintly phosphorescent metal. It looks like a dragon’s haul of treasure, beautiful ancestral belongings stolen from their rightful owners to stand under a white light.

In the center, there is a white-bone bowl surrounded lilies, freesia, daisies, bunches of hothouse tulips in white, yellow, and red, their petals still bright and dotted with dew. A fire crackles inside the bowl, burning furiously, harsh and wild-tempered. Though it roars, it never catches on anything.

Regina extends the tips of her fingers to one of the petals. “She knows we’re here,” she says, seeming unsurprised.

“What?” Emma asks. She looks around anxiously. “You think she’s here?”

“No,” Regina says. She gently traces a petal with her finger. “She’s only sent flowers. That’s her one sign of approval. She must have discovered what we are looking for and approves of it.”

“Oh.”

A sick oily feeling spreads in Emma’s stomach. She feels suddenly as if she’s joined a side. The side who believes that Regina should pay and pay and pay until she has nothing left. It is a terrible feeling.

Regina gently lifts her fingers to the heat. “Poor thing,” She murmurs. “This is only part of the flame. We will have to reunite it with its other half in order for the Phoenix to be born.”

Emma nods. She looks around to the tall mirror-paneled walls, the black and red displays. “How did you know it would be here?” she asks.

The Queen makes a faint scoffing noise. “I know my mother,” she says it as if the knowledge has cost her dearly. Put her in great debt, cost nearly everything. “She would not be able to resist making one last jab at my father.”

“What do you mean?”

She waves an idle hand, looks around at the confiscated treasures. “This room wasn’t always here,” she says. “My mother used to store her treasures in an underground area, the way she stores people. But when my father died, she put it all in here. To spite him.”

“To spite him?”

“He mourned her conquests,” she says, and trails her fingertip along the tip of an intricately carved mask, the face of an antelope. “He loved people – loved everything about them. Their language, their culture, their history. And she dedicated her life to destroying it all.”

Emma nods, watches from the side as Regina moves through the room, pausing occasionally, to touch a particularly beautiful antique. She seems to be struggling through a feeling. Emma can see her thoughts quietly bloom and unveil new depths of grief as she walks silently from one stolen thing to another.

 “When I was seven years old my mother took me down to my father’s room and made me rip up one of his old psalm books. The one in his native language,” she trails a finger along the mahogany desk, spins a small wooden globe of an unknown world in a circle. “I think about it now, and I tell myself that children have been through worse. I myself have suffered far worse. But just thinking about it now, it puts a chill in my heart,” she exhales raggedly. Emma can hear the thickness in her throat. “There is something so awful about being used in that way. I have forgotten almost everything about being a child, but I’ve never forgotten that. The wounding she used me for.”

Emma watches Regina’s shoulders. They are still powerfully poised, straight and sturdy as a shelf, and yet, Emma thinks, something inside of her is wanting out. She suspects if she put her hand on the small place between Regina’s shoulder blades, gently and without a word, something enormous and untouched would be set free. It would pass through her, sweep out of the room with one last wailing scream.

Quietly, she steps closer. Her heart beats hard against her ribs, struck by the feeling that this is something she is meant to do, something she could help with. She lifts her hand, trembling, to the space right above Regina’s shoulders.

But Regina turns away. She nods to the fire. “We should search this place,” she says, and disappears without another word.

The deserted quiet buzzes in her ears. She sighs.

She wanders the space. It’s surprisingly big – it has hidden in its corners and mirrors more rooms. As she walks, she trails her hand lightly along the glass paneling to ensure that she doesn’t bump her nose into a wall when she means to walk through a door.

Wherever she walks, she tries to keep her eye on the fire, a center to locate herself and make her way back to the start, but too many times she finds that she has been touching base with a mere reflection rather than the real fire.

When it happens a third time, Emma slaps the mirror in frustration.

And the mirror ripples.

Blinking, Emma pauses, turns back. Tentatively she puts her hand back to the glass. She presses her palm flat, feels the solid weight of the glass against her hand. It doesn’t ripple again. But…

“That’s strange,” Emma says. The mirror throws back the puzzled expression on her face, the very tips of her fingers. “The mirror feels warm.”

From a distance, she can hear Regina’s footsteps stop. In the strange, bisected angle of the mirror, she can see Regina turn back to her. Her face is smooth, curious. After a beat, Emma presses her hand more firmly against the mirror.

A strange tingling sensation shoots up her arm. Like little pins and needles. The tips of her fingers go through the mirror seamlessly as if the glass were a silver pool of paint.

“Oh wow.” She gasps.

Immediately, Regina is behind her. She looks down at Emma’s hands with wide-eyed wonder, a wonder that is not lost when she looks back up at Emma.

“You brilliant girl,” Regina breathes, and squeezes her arms. Her smile is dazzling and bright. “You’ll be a powerful witch whether I teach you or not.”

A warm flush fills Emma. She clears her throat.

With both her hands splayed across the mirror, she pushes through the near-liquid portal on to the other side. The sound her foot makes on the other side echoes largely into the dark, the walls nearly black, but as Emma stands blinking, looking all around, the color seems gradually to turn turquoise. Regina steps in only a moment later, still holding her arms firmly from behind. A shiver of nervousness trickles down her spine at the thought of Regina letting her go, standing apart from one another in this dark, vaguely aquatic room. But he doesn’t. She keeps Emma close in her arms.

In the center, there is a roaring fire. It burns just as furiously, blue and strangely green, seeming implacable in its separation. The room smells vaguely like water, as if it has flooded time and time again, been washed and scrubbed, then flooded again. From what Regina has said about her mother, Emma wouldn’t really be surprised if she filled this place with water occasionally, just to torture the very idea of love. It seems like something she would do.

“Come, dear,” Regina says in that teacher-voice of hers that Emma loves so much. She gently guides Emma forward. “We will have to carry it out.”

As Regina guides her toward the twin flame, Emma thinks of carrying fire. She can’t quite imagine it. Magic is still such an abstract, shimmering notion in her head, though it no longer seems impossible, it doesn’t seem like something she could ever do. But with Regina behind her, holding her arms and guiding her with that warm teacher-voice of hers, telling her exactly where to put her hands, what to think, what to feel, it seems somehow possible that her hands might touch fire and not be burned.

“Think of warmth,” Regina says against her ear. “Think of your hands as being very warm, so warm they could join the fire and become a part of it.”  

Emma closes her eyes. She thinks of Regina’s mouth against her ear. Her hands touching the back of her arms, her thumbs pressing into the inside of her elbows. She thinks of Regina’s soft deep-voice like warm water.

 She pushes her arms forward. Something warm surrounds her hands.

She feels a smile against her ear. “You brilliant girl.”

When Emma opens her eyes, her hands are in the middle of the fire. The skin is glowing a soft red, but it neither burns or catches. When she pulls her hands back, the fire comes with her. It sits in her palm, furious and loud, feeling strangely intimate, like holding a big fleshy heart.

“Wow,” she breathes.

Regina guides her toward the mirror again. Emma holds the fire in her hands, carefully balancing it between two palms as she would balance an egg. She carries it out through the mirror, toward its other half.

When the fire is reunited with its other half, something inside of it crackles. Snaps, like something opening again. The sound is as sure and clean as wood snapping in a fire -- it pops and crackles, bundles in the center, starts to take shape.

Gradually, as the red center in the fire grows larger, the flames dwindle. They curl like a hand around a body -- there’s a long neck, a broad chest, long fiery-red feathers. Wings stretch out, flap calmly, and gently resettle again. Within the red flames, Emma can see its big black eye. It flickers from her to Regina, then back at Emma.

Blue smoke curls up from the bird’s feathers. Regina raises a curious hand, gently smoothing her palm down the Phoenix’s large feathered head. With a soft musical trill, it ducks its head to be pet.

“What a good bird,” Regina coos, charmed. It strikes Emma suddenly that these introductions are not some strange formality for magic-users but simply the odd quirks of a woman who is fond of animals. Emma watches her for a moment, surprised and amused as Regina scratches a finger beneath the bird’s sharp beak as if it were a wildly misbehaving child she was fond of. Softly, Regina whispers to her. “You should ask if you can take a feather, dear.”

Emma blinks. The bird turns its beady-eyes to her. It watches with a sharp, keen gaze.

“Um…” Emma glances at Regina, hoping for some guidance, but Regina is too absorbed in the bird’s glossy red feathers to notice. She sighs, tries again. “Hi. I uh, I need a feather from you.”

The bird stares at her blankly.

“Say please, you silly girl.”

“Oh. Please?”

The bird has a striking sort of attention, an all absorbing gaze that snaps on her like a magnet or a clip, and just as precisely focused. After a long moment, it bends its head low, accepting.

Tentatively, Emma raises a hand to one of the bird’s long elegant wings. The feathers are cool and sleek, surprisingly hard to touch as if they were scales from some fish or snake. Carefully, she plucks out one of the smaller feathers.

The bird gives her one last long look. And then it takes off with an elegant lunge of its wings.

When the bird disappears, the silence rushes up to them like the waves on a shore.

Emma looks down at the feather in her hand. It is stiff and searingly white at the tip. Circles of red and yellow make a design along the feather, cooling gradually to a flat red at the bottom.   

“Well,” Emma says after a long moment.  She spins the feather idly, doesn’t dare look up to Regina. “That’s…that’s all we need, right?”

“Right.”

Emma looks up at the quiet resigned sound of Regina’s voice. Her heart shivers: this is the end.

Quickly, she deflects that thought, “Well, we still have to find a way out of here,” she looks around. “How do we even get out?”

Regina merely opens her bag, produces another small bean.

Emma’s heart crumbles.

“Oh,” she says.

The transition is quick, a mere shuffling of time. It’s no longer than stepping from one room into another. One moment they are in Wonderland, and the next Emma is staring up at the pale white stars in their own realm.

The sun has gone down, but the sky is still blue. Its color is slowly cooling, receding into the corners of the world. There are her realms’ birds in the trees above, making their normal chatter and noise. Mosquitos buzz quietly.

There is the last ingredient between them, unspoken.

Regina quietly clears her throat.

“Well,” she says, softly. “This is it.” Her voice sounds terribly final. Though Emma turns to look at her, Regina’s head is turned to the side, her attention on some small distant thing in the trees so that the only thing Emma can see is the side of her face, the top of her cheek, her dark eyebrows and long black eyelashes. She anxiously rubs the buckeye ring on her finger. It twists back and forth between the bends of her fingers. Regna takes a deep breath, speaks to the air. “You only need one left, now.” she says.

“Yeah.” she musters.

Regina nods and looks down at her hands. For a while, there is only silence. Regina wordlessly twists the ring back and forth on her finger. In the last few days, the ring has shrunk and grown black around her finger. It will be a struggle to remove – she’ll have to  wiggle it back and forth just to get it over the joints.

A hot rush of sentiment rises so quickly in Emma that it nearly makes her gasp or cry out. Here it is, then. She’s got to decide. Either make a lunge or turn back.

“Regina….”

“I have it with me,” she says, and stares down at her fingers. “I’ll give it to you in just a second.”

“Oh. No, I only meant --”

“Can I just say one thing?” Regina interrupts her suddenly. She looks up, her face gripped by a flushed look of emotion. “I just want to say this one thing to you, and then we can move on, we never have to speak of it again.”

Emma grimaces. "Okay."

Regina releases a shaky breath. She nods, looks down at her hands.

“I have lived a long life," she says. "And not a very pleasant one at that. I had a lot of time to think about it, I suppose. Under my curse, I was forced to re-live my regrets, all my failures and stupid childish fears. At some point, I forget when -- but at some point I made a promise to myself that if I ever got out, I would do it again -- I'd go after your mother, I'd be more violent than ever. I'd rip the world a part for its constant failures, its unending disappointments," she says, like a sigh. Then she opens her eyes, looks at Emma with a shining tears. "And then you kissed my hand." she breathes.

Emma watches on, speechless.

"I don't think I have ever felt happiness like that before. In all my life, I have felt so many things. I have been sick with triumph and horrible fear. I have felt victory and failure. But not until then, until that moment, did I feel happiness," she inhales deeply, shakily. "And since then, I have only wanted more. I couldn't dream of violence or vengeance, or anything, it was beyond my capabilities. I wanted only what I felt in that moment. And you have given me more than I could ever have imagined. You gave me warmth, your companionship, your humor. I have never laughed more in my life, and likely never will again. But if you never kissed me awake, I would have gone out of this world without ever knowing how it feels to truly cherish another person.”

Emma's heart trembles. She stares at Regina with wet eyes. 

“For that,” Regina says shakily. “I want you to know: I would give you anything. Anything in the world.”

Then, gently, Regina tries to pull the ring off.

In that one moment, as Regina slowly twists the ring  along her finger, she knows all at once that Regina is aware of what this spell will do. Emma can see it on her face, the horrible grieved sincerity in doing something painful and necessary; she works the ring carefully back and forth as if it were something crucial and irreplaceable like a heart, something she never expected to part with. But she will give to Emma, and Emma alone. 

Emma puts her hand on Regina’s. “Stop.”

Regina looks up at her.

It is as if she is doused with light. Emma can see her fully, clearly, without a doubt.

Staring at her, Emma feels a small black hole open up in her heart, a hole through which everything that has happened between them -- the laughter, the conversations, the intimacy, everything they’ve learned about one another -- would be sucked away.

She tightens her grip on Regina’s wrist. A small watery laugh leaves her.

“I think I get it now.” she says

Regina blinks, her eyes dark and worried. “What?”

Gently, Emma brings both her hands to Regina's wrists. She holds her gently. "How those people did it," she says. "How people could spend their life trying to undo a spell they gave their eyes and tongue for.”

Regina gives her a blank look.

Emma gently touches her hand to Regina's cheek. She smiles. "I think your right. I don't think anyone knows what they really want," she gently presses the tip of her thumb into the small corner of Regina's eye, where lines make her seem sharp and harsh with her attention. "You tell me, you've never felt happiness. Not until the moment I kissed you awake again. And just now, I thought, fuck. I don't think I have either." she laughs.

Dark eyes blink at her.

"I can't remember feeling much of anything before you," she says. Gently, she lifts her other hand to frame Regina's face. She smooths her thumb gently to Regina's ear. "I can hardly believe it. All my life, I've wanted to be free. It's what I've been working towards it. But I can't imagine it without you. To lose your laugh. Our fights. All your stories. Our conversations. For you to never explain anything to me again. I can't imagine it. If I lost that, if I lost you, forget time or realms or magic, I wouldn’t care what it cost, I’d do anything to get you back.”

A long moment passes. Regina merely looks at her. Her expression seems so blank it looks almost uncomprehending.

Emma's exhilaration crackles with anxiousness.

She squeezes Regina. "You hear me?" her laugh wobbles, her alarm at half-mast. 

 "Yes," Regina nods, looking numb. She puts a shaking hand on Emma's. She nods again and holds Emma's hand more tightly.

And then, with a surprising peep of noise, her expression crumbles. Though a hand comes to cover her mouth, the noises come anyway, little sharp peeps and gasps. They rack her shoulders. She weeps helplessly then, unable to stop, she wraps a hand around her eyes and caves to her sobs, shaking with a force that startles Emma.  

Regina tries to speak, but she can’t make it through her tears.

Emma smiles ruefully. “I sure hope these aren’t sad tears.”

Half-crying, half-laughing, Regina shakes her head. She clutches Emma's jaw with trembling hands, puts teary grateful kisses all over, from her mouth to her jaw and neck. Of course, the kissing can go no deeper: Regina’s breathing is too unsteady, it disrupts their pace, bursts against one another’s lips, makes it impossible to land more than a few tender kisses on the mouth. But it feels wonderful to be kissing right where they are, right in the beginning of their lives together.

After another half-ruined kiss, Emma can’t hold back her laugh. She snorts against Regina’s jaw, gently strokes Regina’s cheek with her thumb.

“I think we should probably wait on the kissing," she whispers, smiling. "Just for a little while.”

  “No,” Regina whines softly. She gently grips Emma’s wrists, holds her as she were a dock to moor herself to. “I can –- I’ll just take a few deep breaths.”

“My girl,” she sighs a smiling kiss against the corner of her eye, the side of her temple. “We got time, don’t we?” Nuzzling her nose against Regina’s cheek, she whispers. “We’ve got a whole life.”

Regina grips her harder. “Yes,” she whispers. “A whole life.”

Kissing her ear, she whispers. "Till death due us part."

"Longer than that if I have any say."

Emma laughs. "Longer than our lives?"

 "Oh, much longer."

"In our next life then." she smiles. "When we meet again."