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until fate lays down her weapons

Chapter Text

Who lives and who dies?
Who holds on to all our lives?
Time and time and time again,
Will they tell your story in the end?
—The Roots, Who Tells Your Story

 


 

She thought she was ready.

She promised herself she would be ready.

But at the first sound of footsteps on the tower stairs, Regina bolts upright with vomit rising in the back of her throat, her heart pounding.

She’s not ready. She’d been sitting on the dusty ground watching a spider spin its web in the corner of her cell. Now, she races to the bench by the narrow window, sitting with her back straight and her hands folded—the way her mother taught her.

They will not see her weakness. They will not see her beg. She will deny them that pleasure if it is the last thing she does.

She looks out the window to stop herself from glancing at the top of the stairs. For the first time in over a week, it’s sunny outside—yet another turn of bad luck. She’d hoped for rain on her execution day. Anything to spoil the pleasure of the throngs that will surely gather, eager to witness her demise.

By now, she really should be used to not getting what she wants.

Regina forces herself to not turn her head until the guard reaches the top of the staircase. He’s unarmed, and his heavy black armor is sliding around on his scrawny frame. This must be Snow and Charming’s final insult. Without her magic, Regina has no way of fighting off even one puny, defenseless guard. She’s helpless, and they know it.

The guard removes his helmet to reveal… long blonde hair and a perky face. A woman. At least Regina doesn't recognize her, though she doesn’t doubt that her guards switched sides after she was captured.

The guard removes her chestplate to reveal another surprise: green fairy wings. So, Snow is sending fairies to do her dirty work. Another humiliation, no doubt. Regina pushes down her rage and contorts her face into a smile. “Well, well. What brings you here so early?” she asks, her voice as sickeningly pleasant as she can make it.

“Early?” The fairy tilts her head in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

The obvious mockery gnaws at Regina’s patience, and she drops the facade. “Snow said the execution would be at noon. I realize you’re eager to kill me, but you could have at least kept your word. Isn’t that what you heroes are supposed to do?”

“I’m not here to kill you,” the fairy says. “My name is Tinkerbell. I’m your fairy godmother.”

Fairy godmother? Regina stares at her earnest face, framed by the dusty bars of the prison cell. “In that case, you’re late.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” Tinkerbell says.

“Apology not accepted. Now tell me what you want from me, or get out of here.”

“I’m here to free you, of course.”

Regina laughs before she can stop herself. It’s not a joyful laugh—more of a cackle, but hoarse and lacking her typical flair. “Why the hell would you do that?”

Tinkerbell’s eyes widen, clearly in shock that someone would dare question her good intentions. “Because you never got the chance to be the hero you were always meant to be.”

What pathetic nonsense is this? “I got my chances,” Regina says, slipping closer to the bars and lowering her voice to a menacing growl. “And I made my choices. What makes you so sure I was meant for anything more than this?” She waves her hands to indicate the prison surrounding her.

“The book does,” Tinkerbell says, as though that should mean anything to Regina.

“Book? What book?”

“The Blue Fairy has it in her quarters. I was just looking for my wand. She took it away from me, and I wanted it back, because I needed to cast a spell, and—”

“Get to the point. I don’t have all day.” Literally.

“And I saw this book, and I read it. All of the heroes, all the true love stories, they’re all in there. And the heroes, they always get happy endings! The villains never do. They always die,” Tinkerbell says, eyes widening as though she’s imparted a great secret.

“And let me guess,” Regina says, raising a tired eyebrow. “I’m a villain?”

Tinkerbell nods so vigorously, Regina wonders if her dainty little head will pop off. Sadly, it doesn't. “The book decides who’s a hero and who’s a villain! It’s why nothing ever worked out for you. None of your evil plans ever succeeded, did they?”

Regina bristles. “I was doing just fine until—”

“Until you were captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to execution?” Tinkerbell asks.

She has a point about that, but Regina’s far from convinced. “I didn’t lose because of some mysterious book. I lost because I allowed myself to be taken by surprise.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered if you had done it differently,” Tinkerbell says. “Sooner or later, your destiny would have come for you.”

It’s tempting to believe that her situation isn’t entirely her fault, that there were larger forces at play. But Regina’s never been one to blame someone or something else for her own poor decision-making, whether that’s another person or the hand of the universe.

“Think about it,” Tinkerbell says. “Have you ever heard of a villain who found happiness? The heroes always win.”

It’s true. Regina’s known a handful of villains who were merely banished to some horrible realm, or stripped of their power and made to live alone. Most are not so lucky. But if she’s a villain, as everyone believes, then what makes her any different? “This is a cruel joke. Or a trap.”

“If I wanted you trapped, all I’d have to do is leave you where you are now,” Tinkerbell says. “I still can, you know.”

Regina narrows her eyes. “No. If you’re here helping me, it means you’re trying to escape something even less pleasant.”

“Of course not!” Tinkerbell says, but her gaze shifts so that she’s no longer meeting Regina’s eyes. Regina smiles in satisfaction.

“Tell me, what did you do to incur the wrath of the Blue Fairy? Step on a flower? Forget to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you?’” Regina gasps in mock horror, clutching a hand to her chest. “Did you wear the wrong colour gown to dinner?”

“She saw me find the book,” Tinkerbell mumbles. “I’m… sort of on probation.”

“And your punishment was to help the Evil Queen. How sad for you.”

“No! I wasn’t assigned to help you at all. They don’t even know I’m here.”

“You came in secret?” Regina’s almost impressed. Sneaking off from a band of fairies is brave… and foolish. Fairies are not known for leniency among their own kind. “Why the hell would you do that?”

“Because I found this,” Tinkerbell says, reaching into her pocket and rummaging around. Regina expects her to pull out some sort of prophecy or curse, something to justify the urgency in her eyes.

Instead, Tinkerbell produces a neatly folded sheet of parchment, which she unfolds to reveal a drawing. Regina’s too far away to see the picture clearly, and stepping closer would imply curiosity, would imply weakness. As far as she can make out, it’s a picture of a man and a woman, vaguely familiar, who are kissing in what looks to be a tavern.

“What is this supposed to mean?” Regina asks sharply. If this is some sort of taunt, it’s awfully weak. She’s already well aware that others have gotten their happy endings while she has not. “Who are these people?”

“Don’t you see? That’s you,” Tinkerbell says, pointing at the woman, who does look somewhat like Regina. “And that,” Tinkerbell points at the man, “is your soulmate.”

Soulmate.

The word sinks into Regina’s consciousness slowly, the way a stone sinks into water. “Only heroes have soulmates. Everyone knows that.”

“Don’t you see, Regina? You were always meant to be the hero. For some reason, there must have been a mistake, and you never got a fairy godmother to bring you to your soulmate. Your destiny went wrong. But you can fix it!”

“Fix it?”

“If you fall in love with your soulmate, that will fix your destiny! Only true love is powerful enough to let someone rewrite their fate.”

Tinkerbell rambles on about love and fate and destiny and soulmates. Regina takes in none of it. She’s still fixated on the picture of two people kissing in a tavern, the picture that should be impossible.

How could this have happened? She’s a villain. Everyone says so. If what the fairy is saying about villains is true, Regina forfeited her right to happiness when she turned towards darkness all those years ago.

Except… the page still exists. The fairy still found it. If Regina really was meant to be the hero, then maybe it isn’t too late.

Maybe she doesn’t have to die.

Regina looks up from the page to see that Tinkerbell hasn’t stopped talking.

“You can become the hero you were always meant to be! You just need to find Robin.”

“Robin?” Then Regina remembers where she’s seen that face: the Wanted posters currently plastered on every tree in a 50-league radius, on her orders. Her small bubble of hope bursts. “Robin of Locksley? You’re telling me my soulmate is the most notorious outlaw in the realm?”

“He’s not a bad person, really! He’s just… misguided,” Tinkerbell says, hands fluttering. “He’s clever, he’s quick, he’s nimble, he’s—”

“A giant pain in my ass. No matter where I traveled, how many guards I brought with me, somehow he was always there, stealing from right under my nose. Getting in my way.”

“Because fate was bringing you together!”

If Tinkerbell really believes that, she’s more naïve than Regina realized. Which is truly saying something. “Or because I’m a queen with jewels and gold and he’s a thief with no moral compass.”

“You’re one to talk about lacking a moral compass.” Tinkerbell shakes her head, disappointment clear on her face. “I really thought you might want to change. Don’t you want a second chance? Isn’t that better than death?”

“There are no second chances. Not for me.” She’d learned that lesson many, many times. From her mother, of course, but mostly from Snow White—that so-called hero who dangled redemption in front of her like a carrot in front of a mule, only to snatch it away once she realized Regina would never measure up to her hypocritical standards.

“If you can’t take a chance for your own sake, do it for his,” Tinkerbell pleads. “He has no way to be happy without you. His life was ruined just as much as yours.”

Just as much as hers? That’s difficult to believe, unless Robin has also been imprisoned and sentenced to death. Which, frankly, would serve him right.

And yet, Regina’s curiosity is piqued. “If Robin’s life is truly so miserable, why didn’t you approach him with this ludicrous offer? Surely you couldn’t have thought I would be the more agreeable of the two of us.”

Tinkerbell hesitates. “Well, there’s a tiny problem.”

Nausea creeps into Regina’s stomach. “He ran, didn’t he? When you told him he’s my soulmate.”

“No! No, it’s nothing like that.” Tinkerbell shakes her head. “I actually haven’t told him.”

“Then what is the problem?” Regina asks, her suspicions rising further.

Tinkerbell takes a deep breath before answering. “Robin is not here,” she says, as though it’s a horrible confession.

Regina rolls her eyes. “I can see that.”

“I don’t mean that he’s not in this room.” Tinkerbell wrings her delicate hands. “Robin is actually not in this… realm.”

“You can’t be serious,” Regina says, raising her eyebrows.

“I tried to find him,” Tinkerbell says desperately, “but I was too late. He’s gone.”

Crossing realms is never an easy task. If Robin is in the wrong realm, it’s unlikely he’s there for a vacation. “So where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” This gets better and better.

“All the pixie dust can tell me is that he fell through a portal at Lake Nostos, some time ago. No one knows exactly where the portal goes. All we know is that in the realm it leads to, there are no happy endings. Robin must be in great danger,” Tinkerbell says, her eyes wide.

“And you want me to embark on a rescue mission? You may not have noticed this, but I don’t do heroic quests. Especially for criminals I’ve never met. I’m not going to die in another realm for some stranger when I can die perfectly well right here.”

Tinkerbell looks scandalized. “But he’s your soulmate! You must want to help him. You’re not a bad person, not deep down.”

When Regina rolls her eyes, Tinkerbell only becomes more animated. “Come on! You’re a person like any other! You must have hopes, and dreams, and regrets…”

Well, she’s not wrong about that. Regina shuffles closer to the bars and hangs her head. “Come to think of it, I do have one regret,” she says quietly.

“What is it? Murder? Vengeance? Torture?” Tinkerbell looks at her expectantly.

Regina looks around her cell. “I regret lowering the cleaning budget for the prisons. This place is filthy,” she says in her normal voice.

Tinkerbell just sighs. “I know you’re lying. There’s a hero in you, Regina. You just have to find it.”

“You’re wrong,” Regina says. “I have no desire to be a hero.”

“Everyone wants to be a hero,” Tinkerbell says softly. When Regina shakes her head, she says, “You must have wanted it at some point. When did you stop?”

“When I realized it would never get me anything,” Regina says. “It would never make me happy.” The words come out bitter.

“And being a villain made you happy?” Tinkerbell asks.

Regina wants to say that yes, it made her happy, but even she cannot carry off a lie that bold. “It made me strong,” she says instead. “That was close enough.”

“It made you weak. Only love can make you strong.”

“Love is weakness.” It’s her mother’s line, but as Regina says it she thinks instead of her father, the only person who has ever truly loved her and still the weakest person she knows.

“Love is not weakness. True love is magic, the most powerful magic of all!” Tinkerbell holds up the page with Regina kissing Robin as though it’s proof. “Finding Robin is the only way you can be happy.”

When she sees Regina is not moved, Tinkerbell changes tack. “Come on, what do you have to lose?”

The truth is, Regina has nothing left to lose. She’s already lost her power, her magic, and her dignity. Soon, she will lose her life. There’s no reason to prolong the inevitable by embarking on a wild-goose chase to another realm only to be eaten by a carnivorous mushroom or some other such nonsense.

Robin’s fate is not her problem. She’s no hero, ready to gallivant off into the unknown to save a stranger—soulmate or not. She turns away from the bars with finality. Tinkerbell huffs behind her, sounding less angry than disappointed.

Regina means to sit by the window again, at least until Tinkerbell leaves, but she’s too agitated. Instead, she paces the length of the small room, which is much brighter than it had been when Tinkerbell arrived. Noon is approaching.

There’s a rustle of paper from behind her. Regina looks back to see that Tinkerbell has poked the page with her and Robin kissing through the bars and slid it towards her. She walks over and snatches up the paper, intending to push it back through, but there’s no point. Tinkerbell has walked away and is no longer looking at her.

Before she can stop herself, Regina examines the page in her hand. The version of her in the picture is much younger, probably in her early twenties. Still more a girl than anything. And she’s happy, deliriously so. Happier than the real Regina has ever been, although that’s hardly saying much.

Of course she would be taken in by all of Tinkerbell’s fairy nonsense, her promises of soulmates and happy endings. Of course she would leap at the chance to save some no-good, rotten thief who has never caused her anything but grief. The girl in the picture still wants to be a hero.

Regina doesn’t want to know what the girl in the picture would say if she saw her now.

It’s a terrible idea, but Regina slowly finds herself nodding. “All right.”

Tinkerbell whirls around. “You’ll do it?” she asks, her eyes shining. “You’ll come with me?”

“I just said I would, didn’t I?” Regina snaps. “Now get me out of here before I change my mind.”

 


 

To her credit, Tinkerbell planned their escape well. Using her wand and a pouch of pixie dust, she was able to put all the guards to sleep and steal a pair of horses. Now, she uses it to melt the iron bars of the cell, which fall away like water. Regina never put much stock in pixie dust, but now it’s clear why the fairies guard it so closely.

The journey to Lake Nostos, which would normally take only forty-five minutes on horseback, takes almost two hours because they keep hiding from other travelers. More than a few times, they’re nearly caught and Tinkerbell uses some precious pixie dust to cloak them. Before they’re even halfway through their journey, the pouch of dust is dangerously thin, as is Regina’s patience.

Despite that, Regina enjoys the ride. It’s been a long time since she was on horseback with her hair tied back in a simple loose ponytail and no armor weighing her down. And after days in prison, the scent of pine needles and the breeze on her face are more welcome than ever.

“So where exactly is this portal going to take me?” Regina asks once they seem to be in the clear.

“We don’t know much about the realm,” Tinkerbell says. “No one who’s travelled there has ever made it back alive.”

“What makes you think I’ll succeed?” Regina asks. “Or is this just another death trap?”

“Don’t worry,” Tinkerbell says. “I’m coming with you. I’m going to make sure you’re safe.”

Regina looks over at her companion, who looks back at her kindly—and then almost drives her pony into a tree. “That’s reassuring.”

“I know,” Tinkerbell says, then frowns. “Wait. You were being sarcastic.”

“Of course not.”

“You did it again! Stop that.”

Regina navigates her horse around a copse of scraggly trees. “Why are you so eager to come with me, anyway? Is fairy probation so terrible?”

In her peripheral vision, Tinkerbell shrugs. “It’s more than that. I’ve always felt that the fairies could be doing more for people, you know? Not just the heroes. And I’ve never been much good at most of the fairy jobs, so I thought—”

“Never mind,” Regina says, already regretting the question. “I prefer silence.”

Tinkerbell huffs beside her, but thankfully, she stops talking.

When they finally reach the lake, Tinkerbell frowns in confusion. “There was a portal here a week ago. I saw it.”

Regina gestures to the smooth expanse of water. “Well, there doesn’t seem to be one now.”

“I can make one. Just let me remember the steps.” Tinkerbell screws her face up, concentrating. “I think I have to carve the sigil of Valdmir—no, the herald of Merlin…”

“You start with the symbol of Ehwaz,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. “It’s a universal symbol for transportation. Then, beside it, you carve the sign of Iagu. And then—”

“You know how to make a portal? From scratch?” Tinkerbell asks in surprise.

Regina scoffs. “I studied magic for years. I know how to do many things.”

“It’s a closely guarded fairy secret,” Tinkerbell says, narrowing her eyes.

“It’s also common knowledge among practitioners of advanced magic. Believe it or not, you fairies are not so clever as you think.”

Regina assumes they’ll get started on creating the portal right away. Instead, Tinkerbell points her wand at Regina. “Close your eyes and think of your favourite outfit.”

“Seriously? Don’t we have bigger problems than what I’m wearing?”

“You can’t meet Robin in that.” Tinkerbell gestures at Regina’s dirty, shapeless prison gown.

“I suppose not,” Regina says grudgingly.

“Besides, it’s traditional,” Tinkerbell says.

Regina sighs, closes her eyes, and pictures the outfit that gives her the most comfort. Tinkerbell’s magic ripples over her, turning scratchy cotton into smooth satin. A cold weight materializes on her chest, and Regina opens her eyes to see her favourite diamond necklace—a birthday gift from her father. Despite herself, she smiles.

Her shred of good mood vanishes when she looks at Tinkerbell, who is staring with her tiny nose wrinkled in distaste. “That’s your favourite outfit?”

Regina glares at her. “What’s wrong with this?”

“Nothing!” Tinkerbell puts up her hands. “Except… don’t you think it’s a little intimidating? I mean, that’s a lot of black.”

“It’s supposed to be intimidating. And it’s comfortable. It has pockets.

Tinkerbell smiles uncertainly, evidently deciding the argument isn’t worth it. “Well, I’m sure Robin will love it. Although, you probably won’t run into him right away.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I don’t know where the portal’s going to come out.”

Well, Regina’s still wearing the outfit. Regardless of what she told Tinkerbell, her dress is not actually the most comfortable, but she’s certainly not about to change because a fairy thinks she should.

They kneel together by the lakeside. As the sun beats down on them, Regina traces runes in the sand with her finger, and Tinkerbell traces over them with her wand before sprinkling them with pixie dust. It’s a time-consuming process, and Tinkerbell’s not quite finished tracing when Regina sees a trail of white magic curling towards her chest. A locator spell. Her stomach clenches.

“How long will this take?”

“Just a minute,” Tinkerbell says.

Regina turns. In the distance, an army approaches on horseback. Snow and James are there, along with a platoon of archers and a tiny blue dot that must be the Blue Fairy. “We don’t have a minute.”

“Halt!” James’ shout is barely audible across the plain.

Regina glances behind her. The portal is still not ready. Their only weapon is the sword from Tinkerbell’s guard costume, which is useless at this distance.

“Ready!” Snow yells. The archers nock arrows. Regina reaches for her magic, but it’s still weak from the restraining spell they put on her in prison. The restraining spell that was meant to last until just after noon...

“Aim!” The bows rise up, pointing straight at Regina. She glances at her shadow, tries to discern what time it is. She can’t tell. Is it too early? It’s certainly too late to run, too late to duck...

“Fire!”

The arrows fly at her, whistling through the air. Regina throws up her hands, reaches into her gut, braces herself—

Not ten feet from her, the arrows hit a purple barrier and explode into pieces, many of them catching fire before they hit the sand. The archers shout and break ranks, turning and galloping away once they see that the Evil Queen has her power back. James’ mount bucks him off in the chaos, and Snow immediately wheels her own horse around to check on him. Even the Blue Fairy reels backwards in surprise. Regina stands tall, scowls, maintains the illusion even as an echo of the impact crashes through her, making her dizzy. All magic comes with a price, and defensive magic always takes a greater toll. At least for her.

Behind her there’s a roar. Regina turns to see that the portal is finally forming, the smooth surface of the lake broken up by choppy ripples.

“Something’s wrong,” Tinkerbell says, raising her voice over the noise of the portal. “It should go faster than this.”

Regina looks back at the Blue Fairy, who is waving her wand in a complicated series of twirls. “That damn fairy is messing with us.”

“I’ll hold it steady,” Tinkerbell yells. “You go without me.” She thrusts the page into Regina’s hand and points her wand at the portal, sending a stream of green magic into its centre and calming it.

“Go without you? Are you out of your mind?” Regina shouts. The only thing worse than going to an unknown realm with this incompetent fairy would be going on her own. Without a fairy godmother at her side, what chance does a villain have in a land with no happy endings?

The Blue Fairy momentarily ceases her interference with the portal and sends a blast of magic at Regina’s shield. It hits harder than the arrows did, and although the barrier holds, Regina almost falls in the slippery sand. She shoves the page into her pocket before she drops it.

“The fairies have a saying,” Tinkerbell says. “As long as someone believes in you, you’re never alone. And I believe in you. You can fulfill your destiny, Regina, I know it. This is what you were meant to do!”

Everything in Regina screams at her to run, take her chances now that her magic is returning. If she gathers her strength, she could teleport away, find a place to hide, stay there until....

Until what? Until destiny comes for her again? Until the heroes find her, trap her, sentence her to death once more? A worse death than before, certainly. Execution by firing squad in her own courtyard is far from the worst punishment they could inflict.

Tinkerbell is right: Villains don’t get happy endings. As long as she remains in this land, without Robin, she’s doomed.

Snow’s arrow hits the magic shield, making it crackle and flicker. The impact smashes Regina in the chest, much stronger than before. She staggers backwards, struggles to reclaim her balance. She can smell blood, and when she swipes at her nose, her hand comes away red. The portal is pulling at her, the force of it trying to suck her in. She can’t take much more of this.

Still, she hesitates.

“What are you waiting for? Go!” Tinkerbell yells. The portal is finally large enough for her to jump through. Her pursuers are close enough that she can make out Snow’s determined grimace, the Blue Fairy’s cold fury.

“Stay where you are!” the Blue Fairy shouts. Her tone is commanding, but edged with agitation. She’s not as confident as she appears.

“You can do this, Regina,” Tinkerbell says, sweat pouring down her face as she strains to keep the portal open. Blue is more powerful than Tinkerbell and Regina combined, and as she approaches the portal, her interference grows exponentially stronger. Regina has only seconds.

She meets Snow’s eyes through the purple haze of the barrier. There’s a puzzled expression on Snow’s face, as if she can’t understand why Regina isn’t leaping through the portal, eager to keep fighting for her happy ending. Fighting for her life.

Snow readies yet another arrow, and the barrier falls away, the last of Regina’s strength going towards keeping herself standing. Tinkerbell is screaming in her ear, something about destiny and soulmates and ruining lives, but Regina doesn’t care. Nothing matters anymore except the two of them, standing twenty feet apart in the sand, Snow’s arrow pointed at Regina’s heart.

They look at each other steadily. Regina’s black dress is covered in sand, there’s blood dripping from her nose, and she's barely holding herself upright. Snow is cloaked in white armor and her stance is perfect, even majestic. Regina’s mother would approve.

Snow hesitates, lowers her bow but keeps her arrow nocked. Regina doesn’t move. Heroes destroy villains, everyone knows that, but Snow’s always thought herself above that sort of thing. Forcing Snow to kill her could be a satisfying end. Instead of throwing herself into a quest that will surely end in disaster, she can die knowing that her blood is on Snow’s hands.

It would be so easy, and she’s so tired.

Snow’s expression changes from puzzlement to comprehension, as though she knows why Regina isn’t taking the obvious route to freedom. She raises her bow again, more determined this time, and Regina understands: If Snow kills her now, she will not see it as murder. It will be an act of mercy, like a farmer putting down a lame horse. A kindness.

Regina doesn’t jump so much as allow herself to fall backwards into the portal. Snow’s final arrow whizzes past inches above her nose. A blast of magic explodes above her, the Blue Fairy’s last stand, but it’s too late: She’s already falling.

Just before the portal takes her, Regina sees angry clouds gathering in the sky. Apparently it will rain today after all. She allows herself a moment of petty satisfaction.

And then she sees nothing but black.

Chapter Text

Like most things related to magic, Regina learned about portal travel in a book before she tried it herself. The neat diagrams made it look so easy, a simple transfer from one realm to the next, no more complicated or strenuous than hopping between stones in a pond. The books never mentioned the crushing darkness, or the way her stomach drops, or the odd pressure in the air that makes her ears pop. At least portal transport tends to be quick, usually lasting no more than a few seconds. A small mercy.

Now, even that small mercy is taken from her. For an interminably long time, Regina hangs suspended in darkness, feeling somehow as though she is being drained of the little energy she has left. Before long, she’s convinced Tinkerbell lied after all. This isn’t a portal; merely a slower, more torturous way of dying. At least death at Snow’s hand would have been instant. Regina almost regrets her decision not to surrender.

Almost.

Just as she’s resigned herself to her impending death—again—the portal finally ejects her, tossing her up into… more darkness. She hears the whoosh of the portal closing below her and starts to fall, scrabbling desperately for purchase. She hits cold stone, metal bars—a ladder. She grabs onto it, holding tight even as gravity tries to rip her off, sending pain through her weak arms. She clings there, lodges her feet on the bars down below. Only once she’s stable does she allow herself to breathe.

She regrets it immediately. The smell is awful: sludge, human waste, and other scents she’d rather not identify. Below her, there’s the sound of water trickling, which makes sense: Portals always move between water sources. Although she’d expected to come out in a lake or a river, not an enclosed column. Above her she hears rumbling, screeching, and.... horns? Trumpet blasts? What is that noise?

She can move down or she can move up. Moving down would mean heading towards the awful smell and the rushing water. The thought makes her heart pound. She doesn’t know what might be down there. Her mind conjures up visions of crocodiles, alligators, krakens, and worse. She listens for breathing, any sign of animal life, but the only sound from below is the water. Why anyone would build a tunnel full of sea monsters, she has no idea. Still, best not to chance it.

That leaves moving up towards the rumbling and screeching and horn noises. She climbs slowly, inching her battered body upwards until she comes to a large, round metal cover. With some effort, she dislodges it and climbs up, out of the hole, and she sees—

she sees—

buildings. Tall buildings, taller than she’d thought possible, taller even than her castle. They’re made of stone and glass and metal and hung with signs, magical signs that flash with different colours. Coca-Cola. Wicked. The Lion King. Captain America. She cannot even begin to guess their meanings. And some of them change, flash different messages, different colours, through some sort of magic she’s never seen before.

And the noise. The last time she’d heard this much noise, she’d been fighting a battle—a losing battle. Her muscles tense and her fingers itch for a fireball, but this is not the time for magic. Not in front of all these people, so many people, wearing strange clothes and making so much noise. She hears talking, laughing, singing. She hears music played on instruments she cannot identify. She hears—

A horn. She turns and sees something coming straight for her—large, fast, bright yellow. Before she can react, or even identify it, it swerves, narrowly missing her. Regina runs to the side of the roadway as quickly as she can, assaulted on all sides by more horn noises and more strange things moving at her.

Once she is safely in the middle of the pathway, she turns to see what almost hit her. It’s a carriage, but it’s brightly coloured and shaped differently and moves on its own. A magical carriage. Why had she never thought of—

She’s shoved to the side by a man in a gray jacket. “Hey! Get out of the way! Stop standing in the middle of the sidewalk!”

The what? She wants to ask him about it, or better yet, shove him back. But before she can do either, he’s gone, lost in the endlessly moving river of people. She wants to stamp her foot on the stone pathway.

The stone pathway by the side of the road on which people are walking. Sidewalk. Of course. Regina quickly moves to the side, taking herself out of the flow. Once she’s reached a safe vantage point, she shields her eyes and looks for something familiar in her surroundings, something with which to orient herself. All she can find is the sun and a scattering of clouds. Everything else is different: the buildings, the clothing, the noises, the smells.

Even the people are confusing. At home, peasants would greet each other in public and share stories of their crops, their children, their neighbours. Here, they never even make eye contact. Stranger still, some people are holding black rectangles beside their head. They talk to themselves as they walk. Regina struggles to follow, but they’re moving so fast she can only catch little bits of what they say.

“—and I told Stacey, I said, ‘look, if we can’t afford the reno, we can’t afford it, so if you want to spend money on tiles, get a damn job,’ and she looked at me like I was crazy—”

“—Tuesday doesn’t work for me, that’s my daughter’s dance recital. I can pencil you in for Friday at four-thirty. No, I can’t miss this recital, I missed the last five, my wife would kill me—”

“—can you even believe what just happened on Grey’s Anatomy, I swear, reality TV is the future of media in this country—”

Before Regina can work out the context, they’re gone, lost in the endless mass of people.

Gods, this place is horrible. Every aspect of the architecture seems designed to draw attention to itself. Everywhere she looks, there’s something to read or something to see. It’s exhausting. She doesn’t know where to look or what to focus on. She almost wants to go back out in the street and crawl back into the tunnel. Smelly and dark it may be, but at least the noise was somewhat muted. At least in there she was not constantly assaulted by noises, colours, flashes of light, everything.

The sooner she can find Robin, the sooner she can go back to her own realm—and defeat Snow once and for all. But how to find Robin in this strange place?

Where the hell is she?

She may as well find out. Gathering her wits about her, she walks up to a man wearing a hat with a brim on the front only, like a duck’s beak. He’s standing by himself and tapping at his glowing black rectangle. Regina inserts herself in his line of vision and summons up the friendliest attitude she can manage. “Greetings, peasant. I have a question for you.”

The man blinks up at her. “…What did you just call me?”

“What realm am I in?” she asks, ignoring his confusion.

“Realm?”

“Yes, realm, you idiot. Where the hell am I?”

The man blinks at her some more, then rolls his eyes and walks away.

Regina never tolerated such impudence in her many years as queen, and she’s not about to tolerate it now. She tries to reach out with her magic and stop him, but nothing happens.

Frowning, she tries again. Nothing. She can’t feel her magic anywhere. This realm obviously has magic given the flashing lights everywhere, but for some reason she cannot access it.

Desperately, Regina tries to conjure a fireball—her trademark spell. Nothing happens.

She tries something simpler: changing the colour of her shoe. It ought to be child’s play.

Nothing happens.

Perhaps she’s just nervous, she tells herself, and she ignores the panic rising in her chest. She shakes her hands, takes a few deep breaths, even jumps up and down like a fool, drawing stares from the people around her. She tries again.

Nothing happens.

No.

She’d had her fears about coming to this realm, but this is something she never expected. Ever since she was a young queen, she has always been able to count on her magic. She’s never been powerless as long as she’s had her magic.

And now her magic is gone.

Which means…

No, she’s not powerless. She is a queen, and although these ignorant peasants may not respect her, that fact remains true.

You’re not queen anymore, whispers a tiny voice in the back of her head. Regina ignores it. She will be queen by the time all this is over. That’s what matters.

With renewed purpose, Regina stalks up to a woman dressed in man’s clothing, blocking her path. “Greetings.”

The woman looks at her briefly, then walks right past her.

Perhaps she hadn’t heard properly. Regina changes course and immediately approaches a woman in a blue dress. “Hello. Hello!”

This woman doesn’t even look at her. She’s used to that from the peasants in her own realm, but they were always avoiding eye contact out of respect—or, more likely, fear. Here, the lack of eye contact is a dismissal. She never thought the peasants’ cowardice would be something she'd miss about home, but now—

Home. How is she ever going to get home? She doesn’t know where the nearest portal might be, and no one in this realm seems inclined to tell her anything. She’ll just have to hope Tinkerbell can figure out some way to reach her from the Enchanted Forest.

“Excuse me,” says a voice behind her. Regina turns to see a woman with a young girl, about five years old. The girl is wearing a red, blue, and yellow dress with puffed sleeves. The style is vaguely similar to something a highborn girl might wear in her realm, but the colours are garish and the material has an odd shine to it.

“What?” Regina asks, making no effort to disguise her irritation.

The woman smiles brightly. “My daughter wants to take a picture with you. Is that okay?”

Regina looks at the little girl, who is staring at her intently. “What picture? Why would I want to take it?”

The woman seems confused. “You are dressed like the Evil Queen, right?”

At last, some recognition. “I’m not dressed like the Evil Queen. I am the Evil Queen.”

Absurdly, the woman’s smile returns. “Oh, right. Of course. I’m sorry,” she says conspiratorially.

How dare she respond with such impertinence? She ought to be cowering. “You should be sorry. I may not have magic in this realm, but once I return to my own, I will have the means to punish you for your insolence.”

This only makes the woman’s smile widen. “Brianna, dear, stand near the lady,” she says, as though Regina is no threat whatsoever.

The little girl runs over next to Regina, who is too baffled to object. The lady reaches into a bag and pulls out… some sort of contraption. It looks dangerous. “What is that?” she asks in her most commanding tone. The woman just laughs.

“Wow, you are really in-character!”

In-character? Is this a case of mistaken identity? Has she been impersonated? Before Regina can seek clarification, the woman points the device at them. “Smile!”

The little girl beams, Regina glowers, and the woman pushes a button. A light flashes, making Regina blink.

“Sorry, can we get another one?” the woman asks, pointing the thing at her again.

Regina moves forward and snatches it out of her hand. “That’s quite enough.” She doesn’t know what’s going on, but this can’t possibly be good. And what does it have to do with a picture?

The woman blinks at her and takes the thing back. “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. It’s just that Snow White is Brianna’s favourite Disney movie.”

Regina’s entire body goes cold. She may not know all of those words, but she knows the only two that matter. “What do you know of Snow White?” she asks, lowering her voice to a dangerous pitch.

The little girl leaps back into her line of vision. “Snow White is the best princess!”

Regina crouches down to the little girl’s eye level and cups her chin. “Snow White is a monster. Do you understand me?” she hisses.

The little girl laughs, a high-pitched tinkling that grates on Regina's eardrums. She squeezes the girl’s chin tighter until her smile disappears and her eyes grow wide with apprehension.

Before Regina can say anything more, the woman snatches the girl back. “What is your problem?” She glares over her shoulder at Regina as she hurries the child away.

Regina wants to go after them, press the woman for more information, but something tells her it would be pointless. Still, the encounter was informative: this realm does know of her existence, and of her battle with Snow White. Yet they do not seem to fear her.

And of course they side with Snow White. Of course. Regina cannot escape her past even in this strange realm.

More importantly, however, Regina now has an idea of what might constitute an appropriate greeting in this land. She approaches a man wearing a shirt made of blue mesh with “Rangers” emblazoned across it in red. “Excuse me,” she says, loud enough to get his attention.

The man turns. “You talking to me?”

Success! Regina thrusts the page at him. “Have you seen this man?” She points at Robin’s partially obscured face.

The man looks at the page, then looks back at her. “How the hell should I know? Is he a celebrity or something?”

“He has a tattoo of a lion on his left arm.” That ought to narrow it down.

“Is this some sort of quiz show? Am I being filmed?” Looking around, the man asks, “Where are the cameras?”

He may as well be speaking another language for all Regina understands him. “Just tell me, have you seen him? It’s hardly a difficult question.”

The man looks puzzled for another moment, then shrugs. “I don’t have time for this.” Like all the others, he walks away before Regina can stop him.

The people of this realm are disrespectful beyond belief. Clearly, coming here was a mistake. She should have fled while she had the chance, destiny or no destiny.

But she’s here now. She’s here in this horrid realm surrounded by strangers while searching for a man she’s never met. Tinkerbell said fate would draw her to him, but then again, trusting Tinkerbell’s word is what got her into this mess in the first place.

For now, her mission is clear: Find Robin. If she can rescue Robin, that will make her a hero, and then… things will work out for her. Somehow. Heroes always find happy endings, no matter the odds, even when their only qualification is that they refuse to give up.

The thought boosts her resolve, and she looks around for someone else to approach. She can do this. She can find Robin. She can become the hero she was always meant to be.

After all, quitting has never been her style.

 


 

“What do you mean, you’re quitting?” Shirley shrieks through the phone line. It’s an unusual noise coming from someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. Kind of like if a chipmunk swallowed a bunch of gravel, then got caught in a trash compactor.

“Not quitting.” Emma moves her phone away from her ear and tosses a bunch of used pens on her left couch cushion. “Just moving to a different company.”

“But you’re quitting us.” Shirley’s voice is calmer now, but still pissed. “You’ve only worked here for, what, a year and a half?”

“A year and seven months.” She pulls a notepad out of the drawer. It’s mostly unused, but she doesn’t really need it, so she tosses it on the middle cushion with the other ‘maybes.’

“Is it the money? You’re not that experienced, but I guess we can negotiate—”

“It’s not money,” Emma says quickly. She chucks a Swiss Army knife on the far right cushion with the other stuff she’s definitely keeping. It’s the smallest pile. “I just… felt like a change of scenery.”

“Well, you picked a shitty time for it. One of our other recovery agents broke a leg trying to catch her perp. I need you to step in. He’s dangerous, and I know you like a challenge.”

“I can find a challenge somewhere else.” She tries to yank the drawer open further, but it jams.

“What’s more challenging than bounty hunting in New York City?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” Maybe Portland. Or somewhere in Vermont. The maple syrup’s supposed to be good there. Emma rattles the drawer and the jammed object falls out: a half-used package of birthday candles shaped like flowers.

“Swan, you’re the best agent we have,” Shirley says. Emma’s pretty sure that’s a lie, but her superpower works better when she’s face-to-face with someone, so she can’t really tell.

“Isn’t there anyone else you can ask?” She picks up the candles and turns to throw them on the couch, not sure which pile they belong in. She won’t need them for several months, but she kind of feels bad about buying new candles every year. It’s wasteful. They wouldn’t take up too much space...

“Find this guy, then you can quit,” Shirley says firmly. “We already have a lot of intel on him, so you don’t have to do any of the groundwork. Look, if you find him, I’ll give you the best reference you’ll ever see in your life.”

Emma sighs. “Fine. What do you know about him?” She’ll catch this guy quickly, and then she’ll get the hell out of New York. Maybe she’ll go west for a change. Seattle is supposed to be pretty this time of year.

As Shirley gives her details on her new perp, Emma tosses the birthday candles on the left cushion. A fresh start. That’s what she needs.

Maybe this time it’ll stick.

 


 

After the tenth failed attempt at conversation, it's clear that persistence isn't going to take Regina very far—mainly because no one seems to know what the hell she's talking about. Everyone in this realm lacks a basic understanding of concepts she takes for granted.

Mentioning her ‘soulmate’ gets a laugh from a portly man in a bow tie. Asking about where she might obtain a magic bean to create a portal confuses a lady in an extremely short skirt the colour of lemons. A question about where she might find a wash station earns her an eye roll from an elderly woman in a chartreuse peacoat. Regina adds each troublesome word, phrase, or topic to a list in her mind, then avoids them the next time she talks to someone. It's never enough. After every conversation, her list grows longer and her patience grows shorter.

She makes her questions more broad. Instead of asking about portals, she asks about transportation to other realms, then transportation to faraway locations when it becomes clear that “realms” is also an unacceptable term. She ends up with directions to the nearest airport, which apparently features planes, not portals. She asks what planes are and the woman she's talking to grows angry, accusing her of playing dumb. After all, how could she possibly not know what planes are?

She makes her questions more specific. Instead of asking about magic—which no one in this realm seems to understand at all—she asks how the flashing lights work. She’s told about “electricity” and how it’s generated by the movement of electrons between Adams. She asks who the Adams are and the man she's talking to rolls his eyes, then walks away in a huff, muttering about how he’s wasting his time.

Regina’s never exactly craved interaction with strangers, but she begins to dread the moment people turn away from her, the moment their eyes dim and their faces close off as they realize she’s crazy, lying, ridiculous, or otherwise not worth talking to. She dreads the awkward laugh some of them give, trying to pretend as though she is not disturbing them with her strangeness. Some are not so polite, and they hurl insults at her before they walk away. The worst are the ones who treat her with pity, with condescension, as though she’s a small child who’s lost her way in the market. Those people infuriate her most of all.

By late afternoon, Regina is exhausted. She’s humiliated herself in front of more peasants than she can count. She’s suffered the scorn of those so far beneath her on the social ladder that in her realm, they’d have had to beg to eat scraps at her feet. Her every nerve has been trampled on by both the peasants and the sensory stimulation of her surroundings. However, she has a better idea of this world’s beliefs and customs. Her queries have become more precise. She’s able to hold a conversation longer before she inevitably says the wrong thing.

And yet, she still has not managed to find anyone willing or equipped to help her. She’s spoken to shopkeepers, random pedestrians, even one man who claimed to be a magician but was nothing more than a charlatan playing coin tricks. Approaching a sheriff might prove more useful, but she fears what might happen to her if she says the wrong thing in front of someone who could take her to prison—or worse.

As the sun begins to set over the tops of the giant glass buildings, Regina passes a building that smells like steak and freshly baked bread. A restaurant, clearly. Her stomach growls loudly enough that she can hear it over the constant noise of the city around her. Although she knows she cannot possibly pay for any food, she’s inside before she can stop herself, the bells above the door jingling as she enters.

The diner is moderately busy and people are talking quietly over the light sound of some strange music emanating from… the ceiling? Where are the musicians? They don't seem to be anywhere. Apart from the bright lighting, music, and the artwork on the walls, the restaurant looks almost like somewhere Regina could eat in her own homeland. But it’s the smells that draw her in further, giving her a break from the dreadful smell of the city.

A sign reads, “Please Wait to Be Seated.” After the past several hours’ worth of mostly unsuccessful guesswork, it’s a relief to receive clear instructions on what’s expected of her. Regina doesn’t have to stand there for long until a waitress arrives, wearing a black uniform with a name tag that reads “Carla.” Her pale skin is dotted with freckles, but even so, her hair seems too red to be natural.

“Welcome. Are you waiting for someone?” Carla asks, noticing Regina’s lack of a purse.

“I—yes. Yes, I am.”

“Well, let’s get you seated.” Carla waves Regina over to one of the tables and pulls out the chair for her. Regina collapses into it and picks up the menu.

“I’ll just give you a minute to decide what you want to-”

“I want that,” Regina says, jabbing her finger at the first picture she recognizes on the menu: onion soup.

Carla looks surprised, but she nods. “Should I bring that to you now or when your companion gets here?”

“Now. As soon as possible. And a glass of your finest ale,” Regina says, handing the menu back.

“We don’t serve alcohol,” Carla says pleasantly. “Can I get you some water?”

“Is it clean?”

Carla raises a thin eyebrow, startled, then smooths her face into a tired smile. “I assure you, the water is clean. We use bottled water, not tap.”

Regina doesn’t know why that should make a difference, but she nods as though that means something.

“Is there anything else I can get you?” Carla asks. Regina shakes her head, and the waitress walks away. It’s only about thirty seconds before she reappears with a full glass of ice water. It’s cleaner than most restaurants at home can possibly manage, but with how dry her throat is, Regina would probably drink it even if it was full of dirt. She drains the glass in one gulp and demands more.

She’s on her third glass of sweet, delicious water when her soup arrives. It’s wonderful, and Regina devours it all in under five minutes, yet not even caring that it’s burning her mouth. Her mouth is so burned by the time she’s done that she can barely taste it anymore, but it’s worth it.

Somewhat sated, Regina takes stock of her situation for the first time since she’d entered the restaurant. She’s full and she’s had something to drink, which is a huge relief, but apart from that, her predicament is the same: she still has no way to pay for what she’s eaten, unless she offers up her necklace. It seems unwise to spend her jewelry, which must cost vastly more than the food, on her first day in this new land.

Her only other choice is to sneak out before someone realizes she can’t pay. Carla is under the impression that someone will be joining her, so the longer she stays without that happening, the more suspicion she’s likely to arouse. As much as she would like to stay longer and sample more of the delicious food, it’s a better idea for her to get out now. She stands and quietly leaves her table, making as little noise as possible.

As she opens the door, the bells jingle.

Damn it.

She looks around to see if anyone noticed. Carla is busy with a group of patrons in the corner, paying no attention to her, but a man in a white uniform looks up from behind the counter and spots her. “Hey! She’s leaving without paying!”

The chef runs after her, and she flees into the street. She dodges people left and right, running under half-completed buildings and around corners. People make way for her as best they can. Without stopping, she looks behind her, doesn’t see him. Has she outrun him? Perhaps now, she can—

“Watch out!”

She crashes into someone and is knocked sideways into traffic. Before she can orient herself, she sees a carriage coming straight for her. She throws up her hands, reaches for her magic, braces herself—

Nothing happens. Too late, she realizes her mistake, and the carriage isn’t turning—

A hand grabs her wrist and pulls her out of the way—just in time. She’s knocked off-balance and falls sideways against the person who grabbed her. They tumble in a pile on the sidewalk.

Regina sits up slowly, her legs throbbing in pain from the fall. Her rescuer sits up as well, brushing blonde hair out of her face. Like the other people Regina’s met, she’s wearing odd clothing: a leather jacket in a bold shade of red. She places a hand on Regina’s shoulder, steadying her. “You alright?”

Regina jerks away. “After you grabbed me and pushed me to the ground? I hardly think so.”

The woman’s expression turns from concern to disbelief to anger in the space of half a second. “Are you kidding me? I just saved your life and you're complaining?”

“I’m bruised,” Regina says, looking at the purple marks the woman left on her wrist. Her legs feel bruised as well.

“Seriously?” The woman rolls her eyes and stands up, craning her neck to look past the stream of pedestrians. “Damn, I can’t see him.”

She runs back out into the busy street, looking around for something. Carriages swerve around her, making horn noises as they narrowly miss her. Regina should get up and move before the chef finds her, but for some reason, she can’t take her eyes off this strange woman. Has she lost her mind or is she merely stupid?

Whatever the woman is looking for, she doesn’t find it. She runs back through the traffic over to Regina and reaches out a hand, which Regina ignores in favour of struggling to her feet on her own.

“Are you okay?” the woman asks, dropping her hand. “You fell pretty badly.”

“I’m fine.” She isn’t, but she needs to keep moving, because—

“Hey!”

It’s too late. Her pursuer from the restaurant jogs up to her, panting.

The woman in the red jacket crosses her arms. “What’s going on here?”

The chef glares at Regina. “This lady tried to leave without paying for her meal.”

Regina snarls at him. “The food was overpriced garbage,” she says, although she has no idea how expensive the food actually was.

The chef looks at the woman in the red jacket, as though hoping to find support. “She ate an entire onion soup and then ran out.”

“How much was the soup?” the woman asks.

“Thirty dollars,” the chef says indignantly.

The woman’s jaw drops. “Are you kidding me? What the hell kind of soup costs thirty bucks?”

“If she doesn’t pay me right now, I’m gonna call the police.” He doesn’t so much as glance at Regina as he says it, not even allowing her the dignity of eye contact. She loathes him for it.

“If you call the police, I will...” Regina can’t finish that sentence. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do. She doesn’t even know who the police are or how they would hear him call them.

The woman in the red jacket looks at Regina. “Can you pay?”

“I have money,” Regina says, crossing her arms. “I simply refuse to spend it on this man’s mediocre soup.”

The woman looks at her with a piercing expression. Somehow, Regina feels as though she’s being turned inside out and examined. She has to stop herself from shifting awkwardly.

Then the woman reaches into her back pocket and pulls out a thin leather wallet. She pulls out some lightly coloured rectangular pieces of parchment and hands them to the chef. “There. All good?”

The chef looks between the woman and Regina for a few long moments. Then he shrugs and takes the parchment, which must be some sort of currency. “Fine. Whatever.” He turns and walks away, disappearing quickly into the miasma of people.

The woman looks back at Regina. “Seriously, are you okay?” If Regina didn’t know better, she’d actually think the woman is concerned.

“I could have paid,” Regina insists.

“No, you couldn’t have,” the woman says, without a hint of doubt. “I know when people are lying, and you definitely were. What’s your name, anyway?”

Regina suspects that You may address me as Your Majesty would not be an acceptable response to that question. But the woman did rescue her, so she at least owes her a name. “My name is Regina,” she says, reluctantly forgoing her title. The words feel strange in her mouth. She hasn’t introduced herself with her given name in a long time—she never had reason to—and this woman is the first to ask her name since she arrived in this realm.

The woman nods. “I’m Emma. Emma Swan.” A two-part name. It reminds Regina of Snow White, and the thought makes her grumpy.

Regina nods back anyway. “Well, I appreciate your assistance, Emma Swan,” she says, “but I must go.” She turns to leave, unsure where she might be headed.

“Wait,” Emma says, hurrying after her and moving to block her path. “You fell pretty hard. I saw you wince. Are you sure you don’t need medical attention?”

“Are you sure you don’t?” Regina counters, defensive. “You fell too, if I recall correctly.”

“Yeah, because I was saving your life. Risking my own, by the way, which we’ve already established you don’t care about.” Emma seems more angry than hurt.

“Neither do you, apparently,” Regina says, unable to resist argument.

“What are you talking about?”

“What could possibly be so important that you would run back out into the street? You could have died.”

“I was looking for my perp. I’m a bail bondsperson.” Emma’s tone indicates it’s meant to be an explanation, although it clarifies very little for Regina. What is a bail bondsperson? Some sort of sheriff, perhaps.

Emma turns back and looks miserably at the street, where the ‘perp’ disappeared. “I’ll have to find him all over again.”

“Find him?” Regina may not know what, exactly, a bail bondsperson does, but if it involves finding people…

Emma nods. “Yeah, that’s the job. I find people. Look, are you sure you don’t need—”

“Are you very good at it?”

Emma raises an eyebrow at the interruption but nods again anyway. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m really good at it.” She says it as a statement of fact.

“Can you find anyone?” Regina asks. “Anyone in the world?” She’s aware that her voice is edging on desperation, but it’s hard to stay calm when help could be so close.

“Pretty much,” Emma says, crossing her arms. “Why? Is there someone you want found?”

Regina reaches into her pocket and pulls out the page, now badly wrinkled, that shows her kissing Robin. “I need to find this man,” she says, pointing at Robin’s partially obscured face for what feels like the millionth time that day.

“Who’s that?” Emma asks.

“Robin of Locksley.”

“And the lady kissing him?”

“That would be me.”

Emma gently takes the page out of Regina’s hand and studies the drawing. “What is this from?”

“It’s from a book.” Regina doesn’t elaborate, hoping the interrogation will cease.

It does not. “Why do you need to find him? Is he your boyfriend, or your ex, or something?” Emma asks, giving the page back.

“Ex what?” Regina asks, then mentally curses herself. Hopefully it’s a reasonable question.

Emma just waves her hands vaguely, and Regina relaxes. “Ex-boyfriend, ex-fiancé, ex-husband, something like that? Because I just track bail jumpers. I don’t do personal stuff.”

“No,” Regina says. “He’s… he’s just someone I need to find.” Her heart is beating rapidly, but she forces herself to appear calm. This is the farthest she’s made it in a conversation without saying the wrong thing, and unlike the people she spoke to earlier, this woman may actually be able to help her find Robin.

“I’m not gonna track someone down unless I know what you want with him,” Emma says, narrowing her eyes. “And I’ve already got a lot on my plate right now, so you better have a good reason.”

“I can compensate you,” Regina says. She takes off her necklace, which was tucked into her dress, and displays it to Emma. Even in the waning afternoon light, the large diamond sparkles.

Emma gapes at it. “Is that real? Where the hell did you get that?”

“It’s mine.”

“Why didn’t you use that to pay the angry chef guy for the soup?” Emma asks, incensed.

Regina raises her eyebrows. “Use a diamond necklace to pay for one bowl of mediocre soup? I hardly think so.”

Emma shrugs a shoulder in acknowledgement. “Fair enough.”

“The point is, I can pay you for your services.” Regina waves the diamond necklace under Emma’s nose, watches how her eyes track it. It’s good to know that some things about this realm are not entirely different than Regina’s own: greed is clearly still a universal motivator.

“How do I know that’s a real diamond?” Emma asks.

“You’ll just have to trust me,” Regina says.

Emma shakes her head. “Yeah, I don’t think so. Let me see that.”

She makes a grab for the necklace, and Regina pulls it away. “What are you doing?” she snaps.

“I’m trying to see if it’s real. Just hold it up for a second.”

Regina holds it up, keeping a firm grip on it. Emma leans forward and blows on the diamond, which Regina snatches back in confusion. “What the hell was that for?”

“Hold it in the light.”

Reluctantly, Regina does. Emma peers at it. “Didn’t fog.” She looks at Regina in surprise. “It’s real.”

“How did you know to do that?” Regina asks, having never heard of such a test.

Emma shrugs. “I dated a guy once who worked at a jewelry shop.”

“Dated?” Regina asks, before she can stop herself.

It’s a mistake. Emma pulls back, confused. “Yeah, dated. We went out. On dates.” Obviously, her tone implies.

Regina tries to puzzle that out, but the only dates she knows are the ones on the calendar and the ones that grow on trees. In any case, it’s not relevant right now. “So do we have a deal?” she asks, redirecting the conversation before Emma can dwell too long on her mistake. “You find Robin, and this necklace is yours.”

Emma looks at her for a few moments, considering. Regina holds her breath. “Not yet,” Emma says eventually. “I think we need to talk. How about we go somewhere we can chat?” The way she says it, it's a demand, not a question.

Regina’s heart sinks. “Of course,” she says, as though this is a matter of no consequence and not a massive complication she’d hoped desperately to avoid.

“I’m guessing you don’t have a car.”

“I do not.” She may not know what a ‘car’ is, but unless it’s another term for a dress, a piece of paper, or a diamond necklace, she doesn’t have one.

“Okay, we’ll use mine. Follow me.” Emma starts walking, and Regina hesitates, not sure where they might be headed. Should she ask?

No. A car might be a common object. Asking would reveal her ignorance, and then Emma would have questions. Questions Regina cannot answer without invoking disbelief and ridicule, as her limited time in this realm has made abundantly clear. And this woman can tell when she lies…

A few paces ahead, Emma glances over her shoulder. “You coming?”

She can do this. If she’s cautious, if she plays her cards right, she just might be able to gain Emma’s assistance. Then she can finally find Robin and get out of this hell. How hard can one conversation be?

Regina nods to Emma, who turns and continues walking. Keeping her list of forbidden topics in mind—soulmates, destiny, portals, magic, everything about who she truly is—Regina tucks the page in her pocket and follows.

Chapter Text

As Regina struts along beside her, stiff-backed and haughty as though she thinks the dirty Manhattan sidewalk is a runway, Emma asks herself why the hell she’s doing this. Sure, the diamond necklace is attractive. She could probably get a good price for it, but she’d get more money for bringing in her perp, which is really what she should be focusing on. She’d almost had him, too, before she spotted Regina in the road and everything went off the rails.

It’s not as if she likes Regina. In addition to being rude, Regina is probably the strangest person Emma’s ever met, apart from maybe her ex-boyfriend who cut two of his fingers off in a fishing accident and kept them in his freezer next to fourteen tubs of horseradish-flavoured ice cream.

Seriously, who wears a dress like that in July? She’s probably roasting. “What’s up with the costume?” Emma asks. “You know Halloween isn’t for another few months, right?”

Regina glares at her, which seems to be her default setting. “This is no costume.”

“What, so you just walk around like that all the time? Do you live in a medieval roleplay game or something?” The dress is really well-made, as far as Emma can tell. If Regina made the outfit for a game, she definitely went all out.

“I do not—” Regina stops abruptly, like she thinks she’s said something wrong. “None of your business.”

Emma puts up her hands. “Hey, I was just asking. It’s a nice dress.” Although if it were her, she wouldn’t have gone for the pointy shoulders.

“No more questions,” Regina says firmly. They approach an intersection and Regina starts to cross, not noticing that the ‘Walk’ sign is flashing red. A car careens around the turn and she jumps back, looking around self-consciously.

Curiosity. That’s why Emma’s doing this. Something’s off about Regina beyond the weird clothes and the fancy language and the insults. Whether she’s trouble, in trouble, or both, Emma has no idea. But she’s going to find out.

Her car is parked several blocks away from where she met Regina. Apparently, Shirley didn’t lie when she said her perp is good at running. Emma didn’t even get a good look at him before he somehow sensed she was following him and took off. Asshole.

Emma’s car is a Volkswagen Beetle, which is older than she is, and it’s bright yellow. So she’s used to people giving it dirty looks, but Regina hates it. When Emma opens the passenger door for her, she actually takes a tiny step back as if Emma had just asked her to jump in a pit of acid.

Emma rolls her eyes. “It’s clean, you know.”

“I doubt that,” Regina says, but she still hesitates. Eventually, she inches her way in and perches on the edge of the seat, gripping the fabric with both hands. Emma gets in, puts on her seatbelt, and waits for Regina to do the same. But Regina doesn’t, even after Emma starts the car.

“Aren’t you going to buckle your seatbelt?”

Regina looks at Emma, seemingly confused until her eyes land on the gray strap across Emma’s body. She narrows her eyes at it and follows it down to where it’s clipped into the receptacle. Turning her head, she locates the seatbelt on her side of the car. Her eyes widen like she’s staring at a rocket from NASA, not a totally ordinary object.

Maybe she’s on pot. That would probably explain the dress, but she seemed alert when Emma was talking to her earlier, which puts a hole in that theory.

Emma coughs. “Uh, is that a no?”

Regina’s head snaps around, and she seems to suddenly realize she’s just spent ten seconds looking at a seatbelt. “No,” she says tightly, rearranging her face into a displeased expression. “I am not.”

“You sure?”

“Very.”

What could Regina have against seatbelts? Maybe she’s got a death wish. That would explain why she was standing in the road, but Emma’s done being responsible for her safety when she’s just going to get insulted for it anyway. “Okay, whatever. It’s your funeral.”

Once Emma starts driving, it becomes obvious her assumption was wrong. Regina keeps a death grip on the seat for the entire drive.

“Where are we?” Regina asks as they exit the car.

“A bar,” Emma says. Alcohol is a good way to get people talking when they don’t want to. And she’s got a hell of a lot of questions for Regina.

“A bar? You’re planning to operate that... thing,” Regina points at the Bug, “after consuming alcohol?”

“Don’t worry,” Emma says. “My tolerance is good. I can handle a couple beers and I still won’t blow over .06.”

Instead of being reassured, Regina looks completely baffled. In fact, she looks as though she wants to turn around and leave.

“.08 is the legal limit,” Emma says, in case Regina forgot.

Regina’s face clears, and she nods. “Of course.”

They walk into the bar together. It’s not the classiest place Emma’s ever been, but it’s decent: tables everywhere, red and purple fluorescent lights, rock music pumping from giant speakers behind the counter. There’s a fire exit in the back corner, next to the washrooms. The atmosphere is familiar, almost relaxing despite the noise and the lights.

“You find us a table. I’ll order,” Emma says to her companion, who is looking around like a deer in headlights. “What do you want?”

When Regina doesn’t respond for several seconds, Emma snaps her fingers in her face. “Hey. You with me?”

Regina blinks, then glares at Emma. “Of course. Who else would I be with?”

“Very funny. I asked what you want to drink?”

Regina pauses before she answers. “I’ll have whatever you are having.” The way she says it, it sounds as though she’s taking a test and she’s guessing the correct answer. Emma adds that to her mental list of ‘weird things about Regina,’ which is growing at an alarming rate.

“Great. Find us a table,” Emma repeats, then she goes to order the drinks. After some thought, she orders two beers with a low enough alcohol content that she’ll be safe to drive home when this evening is finally over. Once she has them, she looks around for Regina and doesn’t see her anywhere.

At first, she wonders if Regina’s ditched her, but then she spots her at a table in the corner. The bar’s not busy, but Regina’s chosen the darkest and quietest part of the bar to sit at, as far away from everyone else as possible. It’s exactly the kind of place someone would go if they didn’t want to be seen or overheard. That’s not just weird, it’s suspicious.

Emma puts their beers on the table and sits down opposite Regina, who is examining the lamp on the wall beside them. “Here you go,” she says, drawing Regina’s attention to the bottle in front of her.

Regina picks it up but doesn’t open it right away. She turns it around in her hands, tilts it so she can examine the bottle cap, then puts it down and looks expectantly at Emma.

“Is something wrong?” Emma asks.

“Nothing,” Regina says immediately. “Why haven’t you opened yours yet?”

“Uh, because I didn’t get to it yet?” As soon as Emma twists off the cap on her bottle, Regina does the same with hers and immediately takes a small sip. She grimaces slightly before taking another, larger one.

Okay, so she doesn’t love beer. That’s fine, although then it’s confusing that she let Emma pick the drink, but why didn’t she open it until Emma opened hers? Politeness, maybe? Except it’s not like Regina’s shown any hint of manners until now. Weird.

Emma reaches into her bag and pulls out her MacBook. She calls up the bail bondsperson tracking program and looks at Regina, who’s staring at the laptop like it’s from Mars. Maybe she’s a PC girl.

“Okay. Tell me everything you know about this guy.”

“Starting with what?” Regina takes another tiny sip of her beer.

“How about a name? Robin Uffloxsley, right? That’s gotta be a pretty unique last name. How do you spell it?” Emma asks, fingers poised over the keys.

“Last name?” Regina’s eyes widen, like something's just clicked for her. “It’s not a last name, it’s a location. Robin of Locksley.” She carefully enunciates each word. “ I… don’t know his last name.”

“Where is Locksley? Is that a street, or a city, or what?”

“It’s a city. But it’s quite far from here,” Regina says. “There’s nothing to be gained from going there.”

“We could ask people who knew him about where he might be, maybe retrace his steps.”

Regina shakes her head. “There’s no point in retracing his steps. Trust me, Locksley is too far.”

“How do you know? Are you a bail bondsperson?” Why do people always think they can do her job better than she can?

“Trust me. It’s not an option. You’ll have to figure something else out.”

Okay, fine. They can do it her way. “Can you tell me where you saw him last?”

Instead of immediately answering the question, Regina starts peeling the label off her beer bottle. After a couple moments, she says, “I haven’t seen him in a long time.”

It’s true—she’s not lying—but Emma suspects there’s more to the story than she’s letting on. “Do you know who might have seen him last?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“If you want me to find him, you’re gonna have to tell me more than his name.”

“You’ve seen a picture,” Regina says, taking the page out of her pocket and spreading it on the table for Emma to see.

“Yeah, a drawing that looks like it was ripped out of a kid’s book.” Emma picks up the page and studies it in the dim red light. The drawing’s decent but the page is pretty wrinkled, so it’s hard to make out details. “Do you have anything better than this? Like a photo?”

Regina takes another short pause before answering, “I do not.” She goes back to peeling her beer bottle label.

This is the most useless conversation Emma’s ever had. “What do you even know about him?”

“I’ve given you all the information I have. Now, how long will it take you to locate him?” Regina asks, her tone impatient.

Emma stares at her in disbelief. “You want me to find a guy in New York City based on his first name and a drawing of him kissing you? That’s literally impossible.”

Regina’s hands clench around her bottle. “You said you could find anyone,” she hisses. “You led me to believe—”

“I can find anyone if I have the right information! Look, I track people with bank records, social media, stuff like that. Not... ripped-out illustrations, or whatever the hell this is.” The picture is crumpling in her hand. She carefully puts it back on the table.

Regina has the nerve to glare at her, as if Emma is the one being totally unreasonable. “Then you're clearly incompetent.”

“Incompetent?” Emma slams her laptop closed, making Regina flinch. “I'm a bail bondsperson. What you're looking for, lady, is a wizard.”

Regina's eyes widen, and she leans forward. “Yes, precisely. Where might I find one?”

Find a wizard? In New York City? Emma sighs, finally realizing what’s going on. “Look, I don’t know what your problem is, but I don’t have time for this.” She clearly needs to brush up on her lie detector skills. Looking back, it’s obvious that Regina’s been pranking her this whole time. She grabs her laptop and shoves it in her bag.

“Where are you going?” Regina sounds genuinely alarmed. Emma looks up, expecting to see some trace of mockery on her face, but there’s nothing like that. She just looks confused, and… scared?

Emma blinks at her, suspicion blooming in her mind. “Wait, you were serious? About the wizard? You know those aren’t real, right?”

“I—of course I do. I was joking,” Regina says, and Emma’s lie detector pings loudly.

Well, fuck.

“No, you weren’t.” Emma narrows her eyes. “Look, I don’t know what the hell is going on here. But either you tell me exactly who you are, exactly who this Robin guy is, and exactly what you want with him, or I’m out. I don’t care how much fancy jewelry you have.”

“You can’t do that,” Regina says, but she sounds nervous.

Emma leans back and folds her arms over her chest. “Try me.”

Underneath the heat of Regina’s glare, her eyes are full of panic. All of Emma’s instincts are screaming at her that this woman is not dangerous. She almost feels bad for threatening her, but if she’s going to help her, she needs answers.

Finally, Regina speaks. “I need to use the privy.”

“The what?”

“The privy,” Regina repeats.

“You mean the toilet?” Who calls toilets that anymore?

“Yes,” Regina says, but she doesn’t sound sure.

“They’re right over there,” Emma says, pointing at the Restrooms sign.

Regina looks where she’s pointing. “Restrooms?”

“Yeah. Don’t you know what a restroom is?”

Emma doesn’t mean it as an insult, but Regina stands quickly, knocking her chair back. “Of course I know what a restroom is. Why wouldn’t I?” she says hysterically.

As Regina hurries to the bathroom, Emma stares at her, because that was a lie. But why wouldn’t Regina know what a restroom is?

What the hell is wrong with her?

 


 

Restroom, apparently, is another word for privy. There are two doors with signs on them. One displays a crude drawing of a person wearing pants, and the other displays a person wearing a dress. Presumably the one with the person wearing a dress is the women’s washroom?

Before she can open the door, a visibly intoxicated woman stumbles out, clutching her stomach. Well, that answers that.

She genuinely does need to use a latrine, but more importantly, she’s bought herself some time to think. The conversation with Emma is going terribly. That was obvious from the start, but it’s so hard to figure out how to explain herself when she’s constantly translating everything Emma’s saying, pretending she knows things she couldn’t possibly know, and trying to explain her story without revealing the actual truth. It’s like trying to have three conversations at once.

She might have a chance if it wasn’t so loud and she wasn’t so tired. The music from the bar area is still audible in the privy, only slightly fainter than it was in the eating area. She can barely hear herself think. What is this realm’s obsession with noise?

Most places in this city are generally cleaner than in her realm, but this restroom is an exception. It’s dirty, it smells deplorable, and some type of large black insect is crawling on the floor by the sink. Regina enters a stall and stares at what is presumably the latrine, although it’s full of water. Is that normal? She goes into the next stall and checks: yes, this one has water also. It’s not clear where it flows from or to, but she doesn’t have the time to question it.

She does her business quickly and stands up, not sure of what to do next. She moves to unlock the stall door, wondering what—

There’s a loud sucking noise behind her and she jumps, banging her elbow against the wall. Pain ricochets up her arm. Heart pounding, she turns to see the water in the latrine disappearing through the hole in the bottom. When it’s gone, the latrine refills itself, then finally goes quiet.

Once her heartbeat has slowed again, Regina studies the latrine. There’s a blinking red light above the seat. Experimentally, she waves her hand in front of the light, and the latrine empties itself again with another loud roar. She flinches back, pressing herself to the stall door in a futile attempt to escape the noise.

Outside the stall, she hears the door to the washroom crash open, then the sound of two women talking loudly. Regina can’t bring herself to exit the stall and face them. She refuses to struggle through another awkward conversation, and she’s had more than enough people staring at her outfit for one day. She stays pressed against the door as the women trade makeup tips and chat about the relative “hotness” of several men named Chris, who all seem to work at the same place called Hollywood.

Several minutes later, the women finally leave, and Regina exits the stall to wash her hands. The soap is liquid and stored in a dispenser on the wall, but the sink is normal enough. More troublesome is the lack of towels. Instead of a towel rack, a metal instrument is mounted on the wall, with a curved protrusion in the centre that seems to point downward. There are no instructions, of course. Taking a guess, Regina places her hands underneath the curved section.

The instrument comes to life with a loud roar, louder even than the latrine. It breathes a forceful stream of hot air onto her hands. Regina jerks back and claps her wet hands over her ears. This must be what the people here use instead of towels. Of course they would find an alternative that is as loud and annoying as possible. She waits for the device to go quiet again, then pats her hands dry on her skirt, the satin doing a poor job of absorbing the water.

Turning away from the hot air contraption, Regina catches sight of herself in the mirror above the sink. Her dress is as immaculate as ever, although her hair is starting to pull loose from its bindings without magic to keep it up. The worst part is her eyes. She looks exhausted, like she has no idea what she’s doing. She looks scared.

She braces herself on the sink and tries to think. Emma clearly isn’t going to help her, so she’ll need to find someone else, someone less suspicious. She’ll try again once she’s learned more about this world and what she can and cannot say.

Although, she could be here for days before she finds someone. She still doesn’t have anywhere to sleep tonight, or any money for food, or any way to obtain either of those things.

She needs to find some way to make Emma help her. Perhaps more bribery—but she’s already offered Emma everything she has. She needs a better story—but Emma can tell when she’s lying. She could tell the truth—but Emma would never believe her.

She’s doomed.

“Regina.”

She looks up and sees Emma in the mirror. How long she’s been standing behind her, Regina doesn’t know. “What?” she snaps, turning around and glaring at her.

Emma shrugs, her thumbs stuck in her pockets like an overgrown teenager. “You’ve been gone for fifteen minutes. I thought maybe you climbed out a window or something.”

“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“Are you okay?” Emma asks.

“I’m fine.”

Emma shakes her head. “You’re lying. Just like you’ve been lying to me since we got here.”

“I have not.” She’d been extremely careful to tell the truth. Evidently, it hadn’t been enough.

“Maybe not directly. But something’s going on that you’re not telling me about.”

Regina stays silent, so as not to incriminate herself further.

“Do you need help? I can get you help,” Emma says. “This guy Robin, did he do something to you?”

“Of course not,” Regina says.

Emma looks thoroughly confused. “Are you in trouble?”

The biggest trouble of her life. “I told you, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine!” Emma shouts, exasperated. “And if you tell me what’s going on, I can help you!”

“If you want to help me, you’ll find Robin.”

Emma crosses her arms and leans back against the wall. “You know what? I don’t think this is really about Robin.”

“Why would you think that?”

“You don’t have any money, you won’t tell me where you’re from, you’re dressed like you stepped out of a Comic-Con, and you didn’t know what a washroom was until this evening.”

“Of course I—”

“No, you didn’t,” Emma says without a shred of doubt. “And when I said you needed a wizard, you asked me to find one for you, like that would solve all your problems. Honestly, I’ve been trying to figure you out all evening, and I’m coming up blank here. So why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not? Just tell me the truth. I can help you.” Emma uncrosses her arms and takes a step forward. Regina presses herself further into the sink.

“The truth?” Regina laughs, almost hysterical. “You don’t want to know the truth.”

“Yeah, I do.” Emma’s voice is softer now, more gentle. She sounds almost concerned.

Regina’s losing it. She’s exhausted, hungry, backed up against a sink in a public privy that smells of excrement, and she’s tricked herself into believing the bounty hunter she’s trying and failing to hire actually gives a damn about her well-being. It doesn’t matter what she says at this point. She’s doomed no matter what.

“All right,” Regina says, because she’s too tired to lie any more. “I’ll tell you the truth.”

It all comes out, everything from being the Evil Queen, to losing the war and being sentenced to death, to Tinkerbell saving her from execution, to jumping through the portal, to her endless attempts to find someone who can help her find Robin. It’s perversely satisfying to watch Emma’s eyes grow wider with every word she says. At several points during the story, Emma interrupts her with “Wait, seriously?” or “Snow White? Really?” or “Are you kidding?” But other than that, she lets Regina talk.

When Regina’s finally finished explaining everything, she’s out of breath and nearly dizzy. “So there you have it. The truth.” She means her voice to come out strong, but it merely sounds tired.

Emma stares at her for a few moments, at a loss for words. Regina waits for her to laugh, or yell, or otherwise dismiss her as everyone else in this realm has. She ought to leave and preserve what little remains of her dignity, but as the silence stretches on, she doesn’t move. Neither does Emma. They stand across from each other in the small room, Regina breathing heavily, Emma making no noise at all.

Over a minute passes. Emma opens her mouth, then closes it again. A traitorous voice in Regina’s head whispers that Emma’s not like the other people in this realm. Emma can tell when she’s lying, and she’s not lying. If Regina’s going to find help from anyone in this city, it will be from the person right in front of her.

Finally, Emma opens her mouth. “That’s impossible,” she says firmly, shaking her head. “Fairy tales aren’t real.”

Emma may as well have struck her. The words are far less cruel than many of the things Regina’s heard today, but the dismissal hurts more coming from this woman who might have agreed to help her if she had only been able to maintain her composure. If she had not been so pathetically weak.

Regina wants nothing more than to yell at Emma, tear into her until she understands who Regina truly is and how powerful she can be. Alternately, she wants to collapse to the floor, bury her head in her hands, and scream.

She does neither. Instead, she nods curtly and walks past Emma without a word, keeping her head high.

“Hey! Where are you going?” Emma calls after her.

Regina stalks out of the bar, resisting the urge to cover her ears as she passes by the boxes with the music coming out of them. Outside, it’s grown darker, although the city seems no less active than it was in the middle of the day.

She’ll have to find a pawn shop, trade her necklace for money. Then she can find a place to stay for the night. And tomorrow, she’ll attempt to locate a wizard. There must be one somewhere in this city, regardless of what Emma says. There has to be. Because if there’s not…

She hears the door open behind her, then a series of quick footsteps. “Regina. Wait.”

Regina whips around. “What do you want now? Have you come to call me a liar some more?”

“I’m not calling you a liar. I’m pretty good at knowing when people are lying and you’re not. Are you?” Emma sounds almost hopeful, as though she’d like Regina to confess she is lying after all.

“No. But if you don’t think I’m lying, you must think I’m crazy.” Which is hardly an improvement.

Emma puts up her hands. “Look, I don’t know what to think. That story, what you just told me, it’s…”

“Impossible. So you’ve mentioned.”

“It’s a lot to believe,” Emma says, stepping closer to Regina slowly. “But I’m not calling you crazy. I mean, your story is crazy.”

Regina rolls her eyes. “Oh, well. That’s much better.”

“But, I don’t know,” Emma says quickly. “This is a crazy world. And I’m not saying I believe you, but I’m not… I’m not saying I don’t.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m guessing you don’t have anywhere to stay,” Emma says. “If you just came here from the Magic Kingdom.”

“Enchanted Forest.”

“Right. That.” Emma pauses briefly, then continues. “How about you stay with me tonight? And tomorrow, I’ll look for this Robin guy. Just to see if I can find anything.”

Regina studies her, searching for signs of deceit. Emma’s face is open and her hands are outstretched, her posture indicating honesty, but Regina still doesn’t trust her. “I won’t pay you unless you find him.”

“Of course not,” Emma says. “You don’t have to pay me anything unless I find Robin.”

Despite everything, hope starts to flicker in Regina’s chest. Emma must believe her a tiny bit if she’s willing to let Regina stay with her, if she’s willing to look for Robin. Some part of her must believe it’s possible to find him. And even if this is all a trap, it’s not as though Regina's situation can get much worse.

“I suppose that is acceptable,” Regina says, making her decision. “Yes, I will stay with you tonight.” Even if Emma intends to murder her and chop her up into a thousand tiny pieces… well, at least she won’t be worse off than she was this morning.

“Great.” Emma smiles and walks over to her yellow carriage, entering it. Regina follows her and gets in as well. This time, when Emma clips in her seatbelt, Regina pays attention and copies her.

“So does this mean you do believe me?” Regina asks.

Emma turns a key and the carriage wakes up, lights flickering on all over the inside. It takes her a while to answer.

“I think you’re telling the truth,” she says finally. “And I’m going to help you.”

It’s not quite the vow of reassurance Regina was hoping for, but after the day she’s had, it’s more than enough.

 


 

Regina’s quiet as Emma drives them to her apartment, which gives Emma some time to think. At first, she’d thought maybe Regina was drunk, or on drugs, or maybe in shock from almost getting hit by a car, but she seems lucid, albeit scared. Being in shock doesn’t explain the dress either—unless she went into shock, lost her memory, then saw what she was wearing and came up with the story from there. But it’s a hell of a story to come up with so quickly. Way too many details.

She could be a really intense method actor or something. But Emma’s lie detector didn’t go off once while she was telling her story, and there’s no way anyone could fake the barely concealed terror in Regina’s eyes.

That leaves crazy—and apparently amnesiac, if she doesn’t know what seatbelts or washrooms are. Lying doesn’t feel like the right thing to do here, but neither does leaving a confused, mentally ill, memory-less woman with nowhere to go. Especially in New York City, of all places. And if she tells Regina the truth, she’ll just walk away again. So Emma’s apartment it is, at least until she can get Regina the help she obviously needs.

One bit of Regina’s story still doesn’t make sense. “So, Robin. You say he’s your soulmate, but you’ve never met him?” Emma asks.

“No,” Regina says, then mumbles under her breath, “Unfortunately.”

Emma stops at a red light and turns to look at Regina. “But what do you even know about him?”

Regina shrugs her pointy shoulders. “He’s an outlaw, he’s stolen from me several times, he’s a menace to society, and he’s my soulmate.”

“Well, what do you like about him? ‘Cause it kinda sounds like you hate him.”

“What do you mean, what do I like about him?” Regina asks, irritated. “I already told you. He’s my soulmate.”

“But what does that even mean?” Emma asks. “That he’s your soulmate?” The light turns green again and she turns her eyes back to the road.

“It means he’s my second chance,” Regina says.

“Second chance? At what?”

“At a happy ending,” Regina explains slowly, pronouncing each word carefully as though she’s teaching a five-year-old.

“How does that even make sense? What if you don’t like him? What if he’s a jerk?”

“He’s my soulmate,” Regina says again. “And quite frankly, Miss Swan, this is none of your business. I am hiring you to find Robin, not to evaluate him.”

“Right.”

The rest of the drive passes in silence. It’s not awkward exactly, but it’s definitely a relief when they finally pull up in front of Emma’s apartment complex. Emma leads Regina through the lobby into the elevator, ignoring the stares of the landlord and the other apartment dwellers.

As the elevator moves up, Regina clutches the railing with one hand and her stomach with the other. Emma ignores the swooping sensation she’s felt a million times before, noting in the back of her mind that elevators are another thing Regina doesn’t know about.

Is she from some weird cult, or a very obscure religion that doesn’t believe in modern technology? What kind of organization would want its recruits to think they’re fairy tale characters? Emma’s never heard of anything like that, but it’s not like she’s got a better explanation. She’ll have to Google it later.

Her apartment is at the end of the hallway. She unlocks the door and walks inside, smelling the familiar stale air. After a moment’s hesitation, Regina strides in after her and looks around, inspecting her surroundings.

Up until now, Emma totally forgot about the disaster state she left her apartment in. She hadn’t noticed it much when she was on her own, but now she’s got company, all the flaws are obvious. The couch is covered in junk. Half-full cardboard boxes are stacked beside her desk. The garbage bin in the corner is overflowing with takeout containers because she forgot to take her trash out last week.

“I suppose bail bondspeople don’t make much money in your land,” Regina says, giving Emma a judgmental look.

“I make plenty of money,” Emma says, crossing her arms.

“And yet you live here.” Regina says the last word with an extra few layers of disdain, as though she’s describing a crack den and not a perfectly average, if messy, one-bedroom apartment.

Emma just shrugs. “We’re not in Manhattan anymore. Welcome to Brooklyn.”

Okay, so it’s not the Hilton, but it’s definitely better than a park bench or a few feet of sidewalk in the rain without so much as a tent. Her Royal Judginess can just deal with it. Besides, it’s not like she’ll be staying long anyway. Just tonight, and then tomorrow Emma will figure out what to do about her.

Regina walks into Emma's bedroom, shoulders back and hips swaying. “This doesn't look overly comfortable, but I suppose it will do.”

“Excuse me? This is not a slumber party. You're not sleeping in my room.”

Regina comes back out, looking irritated. “Unless there’s another bedroom I don’t know about, I believe I am.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so. You’re sleeping on the couch.” Emma starts clearing off the piles of junk she left there earlier, stacking them haphazardly in the corner by the TV.

Regina peers at the couch with suspicion. “You want me to sleep on that?” Judging by her tone, it’s as though Emma’s asking her to sleep on a bed of broken glass.

“It’s not that bad,” Emma says.

“Why is it opposite the sock rack?”

Emma looks where Regina’s pointing. “That’s not a sock rack. It’s a television.” So what if she likes to do laundry in her living room? That’s not a crime. And her socks weren’t all dry yet. Draping them over the TV was a practical decision.

Regina opens her mouth, probably to complain some more. Emma cuts her off. “I’ll get you a change of clothes.”

She goes into her bedroom and rummages in her closet for an outfit that looks like it might fit Regina. She comes up with an old T-shirt with a band logo on it and a pair of ragged shorts. She hands them to Regina and points her to the washroom. “You can change in there.”

Regina doesn’t seem thrilled about the clothes, but she goes.

While Regina's in the washroom, Emma whips out her phone. She opens Google and hesitates, not sure what to search. She tries “fairy tale cult,” but that doesn’t get her anywhere. Neither does “fairy tale religion.” “Fairy tale cult religion” is just as useless.

Wait. Regina mentioned she came out of a hole in the ground. A manhole, probably. Maybe that’s a clue?

Emma’s searching “NYC sewer fairy tale cult” when there’s a knock on the door. She opens the door to Marian, who looks unusually frazzled. There's a streak of flour on her brown cheek, and her wavy dark hair is a tangled mess. “Hey, can I borrow a few eggs?” she asks.

“Sure,” Emma says, letting her inside. “How many do you need?”

“Seven.”

“That's a hell of an omelet,” Emma says, walking to the fridge. Does she even have that many eggs?

“I was making cookies, and I forgot to buy more eggs earlier. I'd have given up on the cookies except I promised to bring some in to work tomorrow,” Marian explains, her voice rapid.

Emma moves aside a bottle of whisky and a nearly empty carton of orange juice to reach the carton of eggs, still mostly full. The expiry date says they’re good for another couple days. She hands the box to Marian, who smiles. “Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about it. You had my back when I ran out of milk a few weeks ago, remember? We’re good.”

“It’s not a competition,” Marian says, amused. Clutching the egg carton to her chest, she looks around. “Hey, uh, what’s going on here? Were you robbed or something? It’s just, your place is normally neater than this.”

“I’m moving,” Emma says.

“You’re moving?” Marian raises her eyebrows. “Were you going to tell me?”

“Uh, was I supposed to?” Do people normally tell their neighbours that they’re moving? It’s not something she’s ever done before.

Marian’s eyebrows drop and she looks at Emma for a few moments, her face unreadable. “No,” she says finally. “I guess not.”

Awkwardness settles between them. Emma moves to finish clearing off the couch, breaking eye contact.

“You don’t have to make it nice for me,” Marian says lightly.

“I’m not. I have… a guest.” Emma finishes stacking everything in a heap. Miraculously, everything balances, except for a pen that keeps rolling off. She stuffs it in her jacket pocket to throw out later.

“A guest? Anyone interesting?” Marian asks.

“You could say that,” Emma says. “She’s, uh…”

The bathroom door opens and Regina walks out. She’s wearing nothing except black leggings and what looks like an actual, honest-to-god corset, which is still tightly laced up. It’s silver and beaded and it shows off the tops of her breasts.

“I require assistance,” Regina says, then frowns at the stranger. “Who is this?”

“This is my neighbour Marian,” Emma says. “Marian, this is Regina.”

Marian smiles pleasantly. “It’s nice to meet you, Regina.”

Regina eyes her with disinterest before turning back to Emma. “You need to help me remove my corset.”

“Uh… now?”

“Um, I can go,” Marian says.

“There’s no need,” Regina says. “Feel free to finish your business, peasant.” She looks at Emma expectantly.

Okay, this is officially the most awkward thing that’s happened to Emma this evening. Regina, on the other hand, doesn’t seem embarrassed at all. Obviously whatever weird cult she escaped from didn’t put much stock in privacy.

Just to get this over with, Emma walks over and tries to help take Regina’s corset off, but it’s a tangle of strings at the back. She can’t make sense of it. “How do you usually take this thing off?” she asks, tugging at the laces with no luck.

“Magic,” Regina says, which is no help whatsoever.

Marian, still hanging out in the kitchen nook, clears her throat. “You know, I went to Ren Faire for years. I’ve unlaced a few corsets. Maybe I can help.”

Emma drops the laces and throws up her hands. “Fine with me, if you think you can. As long as it’s okay with Regina.”

Regina shrugs.

Emma steps away from Regina, and Marian moves into position, unraveling the laces in a matter of seconds. “There you go,” she says cheerfully.

Regina holds up the corset so it doesn’t fall off and inclines her head at Marian in a sort of respectful gesture. Then she walks back into the bathroom and shuts the door.

Marian tilts her head. “Not too big on the gratitude, is she? Attractive, though,” she says, looking at Emma meaningfully.

“She’s not a one-night stand,” Emma says. “I’m just letting her stay with me.”

“Is she a relative? Or a friend of yours?”

Emma shakes her head. “I just met her this afternoon.”

Marian's eyes widen. “You’re helping someone you don’t even know?”

“That’s a shock?” Emma asks, a little offended.

“You just don’t seem like the sociable kind of person, that’s all,” Marian says, raising her hands in a placating gesture.

“I’m sociable!”

Marian crosses her arms. “I’ve been living next to you for a year and a half. Do you know what my last name is?”

“A year and seven months,” Emma says, ignoring the name thing because she hasn't got a clue.

Marian sighs heavily. “So how come Regina’s staying with you? Is she homeless?”

Emma walks to the far corner of the apartment, and Marian follows. Keeping her voice low, Emma says, “Yeah, and get this: She thinks she’s the Evil Queen from the Snow White story and she lives in some place called the Enchanted Forest. She’s on a mission to find her soulmate, Robin, who somehow wound up in Manhattan.” She’s not the gossiping type, but she needs someone else to hear this, just to make sure she isn’t the one losing it here.

Marian stares at her for a moment, eyes wide. “I know it’s none of my business,” she says finally, “but it’s a good idea to find these things out before you bring a girl home.”

“She’s not a one-night stand!” Emma says again. “I don’t even—I mean, I’m not—”

“Hey, I’m bi,” Marian says, putting her hands up. “I’m not judging.”

Emma shakes her head rapidly. “I swear, I just bumped into her on the street and heard her story. And, you know, I wanted to help her, so she’s staying with me.”

“If she thinks she’s the Evil Queen, how do you know she’s not going to steal your jewelry or something?” Marian asks. “This could all be an act.”

“I’m good at knowing when someone’s lying. I’m a bail bondsperson, it’s part of my job. She’s just a lost, confused woman who doesn’t know what’s happening and needs someone’s help.”

Marian nods reluctantly. “So what are you going to do? Let her stay here forever?”

“Of course not,” Emma says. “Just tonight, and then tomorrow I’ll find a decent shelter or somewhere they know how to take care of mentally ill people. I just want to make sure she’s safe.”

“I know a good therapist,” Marian says. “Dr. Archie Hopper. I’ve been seeing him for six months now. He’s fantastic. If you give me your contact info, I’ll text you his number.” Marian takes out her phone, which she unlocks and gives to Emma.

“Thanks so much,” Emma says, putting her phone number into Marian’s contacts and returning the phone.

“No problem. Thanks again for the eggs,” Marian says, picking up the carton and walking to the door. Before she leaves, she adds, “It’s del Bosque, by the way.”

“What?”

“My last name. Not that you asked.”

Marian leaves just as Regina comes out of the washroom. She’s changed into Emma’s T-shirt and shorts, and although they fit, she looks uncomfortable.

“Do you always wear your underclothes to bed?” Regina asks, picking a thread off Emma’s shorts.

“Those aren’t underclothes,” Emma explains. “They’re pajamas.”

Regina stares down at her clothes. “This is sleepwear?” she asks in disbelief.

Emma sighs. “Yes, Regina, that’s sleepwear. It's totally normal, trust me.”

“Is everyone in your land a prostitute?”

Emma chooses to ignore her, with some difficulty. Instead of answering, she runs over to her closet and grabs her nice blanket—the one without ketchup stains—and lays it on the couch for Regina, who still seems highly displeased with the whole arrangement.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have a spare toothbrush for you.”

“A what?” Regina asks, puzzled.

Oh, come on. “Never mind. Just… go to sleep, okay, and we’ll talk in the morning,” Emma says, suddenly exhausted. “Don’t steal anything,” she adds as she heads for her bedroom—and then locks the door, because she’s not an idiot.

Emma hears Regina sigh loudly outside the door, and she lets out a small sigh of her own. Then her phone lights up with a text from an unknown number, containing a string of digits. This must be Marian, giving her the therapist’s phone number. Emma punches the number into her phone and calls it. After a few rings, someone answers.

“Hello?” says a sleepy male voice.

“Hi, is this Dr. Archie Hopper?” Emma whispers.

“...Yes?” he whispers back.

“You don’t have to whisper,” Emma reassures him. “Sorry to bother you, but I could use your help. I’m… a friend of Marian’s. Marian del Bosque.”

“Of course,” the doctor says after a moment. “What can I do for you?”

“Well,” Emma whispers, clutching her phone to her ear in her dark bedroom, “it’s kind of a long story…”

Twenty minutes of careful whispering later, Dr. Hopper promises to come over the next morning and meet Regina. Emma thanks him and ends the phone call, hoping to hell she’s doing the right thing.

As she changes into her own pajamas and topples into bed, she can still hear Regina tossing and turning on the couch, the old springs making little squeaky noises.

Emma clamps her pillow over her head and sighs. It’s going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Between the uncomfortable couch, the continuous noise of traffic, and the residual stress of almost dying—twice, Regina sleeps terribly. When she wakes, she feels barely rested. Emma is standing in the kitchen, fully dressed, so Regina sits up even though her body is begging her to go back to sleep. “What time is it?”

“Almost eight,” Emma says. “I left you a change of clothes in the bathroom if you want to shower.”

Regina doesn’t know what a shower is, but Emma’s turned away from her and is occupied with something on the stove. She stands up and stretches to remove the kink in her back, then goes into the bathroom.

In addition to the latrine and sink, there is a tub that must be for bathing. There is also a metal instrument at the top of the wall beside the wash tub; she noticed it last night but forgot to ask Emma what it was for.

She’ll have to make use of the washtub at some point. For now, she removes her cotton shirt and her small pants, folds them neatly, and places them on the floor. She’d left her dress hanging on the rail above the washing tub. Now, it’s folded awkwardly on the lid of the latrine, next to a stack of clothing containing a shirt, trousers, undergarments, and socks.

Regina forgoes the undergarments but dons the shirt and trousers. The shirt is of terrible quality, made of scratchy white cotton so thin it’s translucent. The trousers are even worse. They’re made of a stiff blue material that clings to her skin even more tightly than the leather trousers she wore back home.

She removes the clothes and puts her dress back on, lacing up the back as best she can without magic or assistance. It’s horribly wrinkled and it’s not as tight as it should be, but at least she looks like herself again.

After using the latrine, Regina stands up slowly, bracing herself for the loud noise. Nothing happens. She frowns, puzzled, before realizing that Emma’s latrine does not have a red light on the back. Instead, there is a lever on the side, which she presses downwards. Sure enough, the latrine empties.

Regina would normally do her hair and makeup with magic, but obviously that's not an option. She brushes her hair with Emma's hairbrush and puts it in a tight, high ponytail. Then she rummages around until she finds Emma's makeup. The foundation is too light for her skin, but she makes use of the mascara, eyeliner, and a tube of dark red lipstick that looks as though it's rarely been used.

Regina leaves the bathroom and walks into the kitchen. Emma is at the table preparing them both bowls of something from a box labeled “General Mills.” She looks over, hearing Regina approach. “Hey,” she says, then frowns. “I didn’t hear you shower.”

Regina sighs. “I don’t know what that means.”

“You don’t know what a shower is?” Emma asks, her eyebrows flying up.

“Evidently not,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. If she knew, why would she have said that?

Emma’s expression softens. “Sorry, sorry. It’s, um… like a bath, except you stand up.”

That explains the pump on the wall over the bathtub. “I see. However, I have no need to bathe. I did so last week.” Regina settles herself in a chair at the table, where there is a place set with a bowl, a spoon, and a glass of water. There is also a mug of something that smells like chocolate, with a mountain of whipped cream on top.

Emma coughs. “Right. Well, uh, here, we bathe a little more often. Like, every day.”

Every day? “That seems excessive. Especially since your city is so clean.”

“New York is clean? Compared to what, raw sewage in the streets?”

“Yes, exactly.” Regina frowns at the little brown circles in her bowl, floating in a sea of milk. “What is this?”

“They’re called Cheerios. It’s cereal.”

Regina eats a spoonful of the cereal. It tastes vaguely of chocolate, and the texture is dry, stale, and hard all at once. “Is it meant to taste this horrible?”

“What are you talking about?” Emma picks up the box and studies it. “Oh wait, this expired a week ago. Sorry.”

Emma puts the box down and moves to a metal contraption with levers on the front. “Okay, new plan. Hope you like Pop-Tarts.” She takes some pastries out of shiny wrappers and puts them in the slots on the a metal contraption with levers on the front, then presses down the levers.

After that process is complete, Emma turns back to Regina, finally taking in her appearance. “Didn’t like the clothes?”

“I did not,” Regina says. “Peasant fashion doesn’t suit me, I’m afraid.”

Emma rolls her eyes and sits down, pulling Regina’s unfinished bowl of cereal towards her and—to Regina’s horror—eating it.

“You’re going to eat that?”

“I don’t like to waste food,” Emma says.

When it becomes clear that Emma isn’t planning to make further conversation, Regina takes a minute to look around the kitchen. There are some familiar elements—cupboards, for example—but the food comes in packages that she doesn’t recognize at all.

“Who is General Mills?”

“What?” Emma frowns, then follows Regina’s line of vision to the top left corner of the cereal box. “Oh. That’s not a name. Well, not a person name. It’s the name of the company. They make cereal and… stuff.”

The knobs on the metal instrument move up slightly, producing a large click. Regina almost jumps out of her chair. Emma stands up and moves over to the instrument, frowning at it. “Crap.” She pulls the tail of the instrument out of the wall and grabs a knife.

After a few moments of jiggling the knife in the machine, she produces two flat rectangular pastries covered in rainbow sprinkles, which she transfers onto a plate. She places the plate in front of Regina and sits down in front of Regina’s discarded cereal. “Eat up,” she says, and does so herself.

Regina nervously takes a bite of the odd-looking pastry. It’s horrendously sweet, but far more edible than the cereal. If this is the breakfast food in this realm, she’ll just have to cope. It’s not as though she’ll be here for long anyway. Now that she has a bail bondsperson on her side, things should move more quickly.

A few seconds later, Regina hears a sound like a bell ringing, although she can’t determine the source. Emma stands up immediately. “I’ll get that.”

Get what? Regina almost asks, but she stays seated in favour of finishing her meal. If this is some odd breakfast ritual, she wants no part of it.

Emma opens the door to a man with red curly hair and glasses. “Hi. Thanks for coming.”

“Emma Swan?” the man asks, sticking out his hand. Emma nods, and they shake. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Emma lets him in, and they both walk over to where Regina is sitting.

“What is he doing here?” Regina asks Emma. Evidently they’ve never met, so this can’t be a regular occurrence. What is Emma up to?

“Regina, this is Archie. He’s here to, um…” Emma seems at a loss for words.

Archie steps closer, smiling and offering Regina his hand. “You must be Regina. Or would you prefer that I call you Your Majesty?”

Regina refuses to shake his hand. “How do you know my name and title?” She turns to Emma. “What have you told him?” she asks, more suspicious by the second.

Archie drops his hand but continues to smile. “Emma told me you’re here from another… realm, is it?”

Regina nods warily. “That’s correct.”

“I’m a therapist. Do you know what that is?” Archie asks.

Regina narrows her eyes at him. “It means you ask people annoying questions while they’re trying to eat breakfast?”

Archie chuckles irritatingly. “It’s a job with many different facets, one of which is to help people with the changes in their lives. I think going from one realm to another sounds like a pretty big change.” His smile widens, as though he expects Regina to smile back.

Regina’s happy to disappoint him, but after the tiniest of pauses he continues talking anyway. “Emma thought I might be able to help you. Is it okay if I sit down?” he asks, indicating the chair Emma just vacated.

Regina looks at Emma, trying to determine whether she might want to sit again—there are no other chairs at the table—but Emma is leaning against the kitchen wall with her thumbs in her pockets, watching them. “I suppose I won't stop you,” Regina says to Archie. He sits in Emma’s spot, in front of her bowl of horrid cereal.

“How do you plan to help me?” Regina asks.

“I thought we could have a conversation.”

“A conversation.” Regina rolls her eyes. “Yes, I imagine that will fix everything. Is this really your entire occupation? Having conversations with people?”

“Most of it.” Archie hasn’t stopped smiling since he sat down. Regina’s fingers itch. If only she had her magic, she could wipe that annoying smile off his face. Or teleport him somewhere she wouldn’t have to look at him.

“Emma told me that you are the Evil Queen,” Archie says.

Regina glares at Emma, who averts her eyes. “And what else has Emma told you?”

“Not much,” Archie says quickly. “I was hoping you could tell me some more.”

“And how is this going to benefit me?”

“If you tell me what your world is like, I’ll have a better understanding of the challenges you might face in this one. I’ve helped many people in similar situations to yours.”

Similar situations? That’s doubtful. Clearly, this is about more than helping her adjust. If she had to guess, this is a test of her sanity. Not a pleasant prospect, but if she refuses, Emma could just throw her out anyway. What choice does she have?

She smiles in what she hopes is a convincing manner. “Of course. What do you want to know?”

Over the next few minutes, guided by Archie’s persistent questioning, Regina tells him the exact same story she told Emma yesterday. Partway through the conversation, Emma slips over to the table and grabs her cereal and her cocoa, which she finishes at the counter.

When Regina finished explaining her story, she sits back and takes another bite of her breakfast.

“Thank you for telling me that,” Archie says, still smiling.

Regina arches an eyebrow at him. “Let me guess: You think it’s crazy.”

“What makes you believe I would think that?” Archie asks mildly.

“It’s what everyone here seems to think,” Regina says.

“That’s probably because most people would say a story like yours is not possible. Most people in this realm don’t believe in magic.”

“Do you?” Regina asks.

“It’s quite a lot to believe, but I like to keep an open mind.”

An open mind. Regina severely doubts that.

Now that Regina’s told her story, the questioning begins in earnest: Do you remember where you got that dress? That necklace? How long have you been queen? How did you become royalty? You married into it? Can you tell me about your marriage? All right, we can change the topic. Why do your subjects call you the Evil Queen? Because Snow White told them you’re evil? And they believed her? Why do you think that is? Does it bother you? Do you see yourself as evil? Do you have magic in this realm? You don’t? Do you think you would need to use something other than magic here, to control people?

Regina answers the questions as best she can, trying to stay as calm as possible. At that last one, she leans in and says, as clearly as she can, “I have no intention of hurting anyone in this realm. I would have no reason to do so.”

“Of course not,” Archie says.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get more breakfast.” She’s not hungry, but she’s tired of talking. Surely the doctor has made up his mind about her sanity by now.

“There’s more Pop-Tarts in the box on the counter,” Emma says. Regina had almost forgotten about her. “Just put them in the toaster. Archie, I’ll show you out.”

Obviously, they’re leaving to talk about her. Emma is about as subtle as an ogre, and half as graceful.

To maintain her excuse of wanting more breakfast, Regina walks to the counter and places more Pop-Tarts in the metal machine, which must be the toaster. She depresses the levers and the machine contracts around the food. Heat emanates from the openings at the top.

In a minute, she’ll know her fate. For now, she stands at the counter, watches her breakfast fry, and tries to remain calm.

 


 

Emma closes the apartment door behind her and says quietly, “So what do you think? Is she crazy?”

“We try not to use the word crazy,” Archie says gently. “But yes, based on that preliminary assessment, I believe Regina has something called delusional disorder. Grandiose delusional disorder, specifically.”

“There’s an actual name for it?”

Archie nods. “I believe her delusion of being an evil sorceress, the conqueror of kingdoms, is a coping mechanism.”

Emma frowns. “Coping? With what?”

“I don’t know,” Archie says, pushing his glasses further up his nose. “If I had to guess, I would say social isolation, or rejection. You see, with grandiose delusional disorder, it’s common for people to believe they are a powerful, respected figure. These patients typically have higher-than-average self-image, and usually come from a higher socioeconomic class.”

“That explains the necklace. And the fancy clothes.”

“Exactly. However, I think Regina is a special case: The Evil Queen is a powerful figure in our culture’s media history, but not a particularly loved one. For people with delusional disorder, the grandiosity of the delusions often correlates with the patient’s ego. I suspect the inverse may be true in Regina’s case.”

It takes Emma a second to realize what Archie’s saying. “You think she hates herself?”

“I think that’s likely,” Archie says gravely. “She hates herself, and she feels powerless, and she’s turned that into a power fantasy that places her as the object of mass loathing.”

“So she really does believe it? She’s not lying?”

“Absolutely. She completely believes what she’s saying. She’s not intending to deceive us, or herself, at least as far as her delusions go. It’s actually quite fascinating.”

“Fascinating?”

“And depressing,” Archie amends. “But yes, I do find this fascinating. The human mind… it truly is a resilient thing. Endlessly adaptable, and quite powerful. I suspect Regina is highly intelligent. Just look at the memories she’s conjured up to support her delusions. They’re quite complex.”

“Is that a normal part of it? The disorder?” Emma asks.

“The false memories she has of her life in the Enchanted Forest, those are called confabulations. They’re rare, but not unheard of. She seems to have a particularly… serious case. It’s unlikely to get better without treatment.”

“So I have to take her to the hospital, right?” She’d sort of expected that.

But Archie hesitates. “Well, that’s—that’s complicated.”

“How is it complicated?”

“Does she seem dangerous to you?” Archie asks. “Do you think she would hurt you?”

Despite Regina’s wacky outfit and all that talk of being an evil mastermind, none of Emma’s instincts are telling her she’s a threat—at least at the moment. “No, I don’t think so. Mostly I think she’s scared and confused—and pissed. But I don’t think she’s going to murder me in my sleep or anything.”

“I agree with that assessment.” Archie smiles briefly, then turns serious again. “You know her better than I do. Based on her behaviour so far, does she seem as though she might be in danger of hurting herself? Any evidence of suicidal tendencies?”

Emma waves her hands in dismissal. “No, nothing like that. She’s just going on about finding Robin. She doesn’t know much about him, though. I don’t think he’s actually a real person, so I doubt this is a stalker situation. But it’s still crazy, right? Or, I mean… you know,” Emma says, not sure what the right word would be.

“She’s obviously struggling with some serious issues,” Archie says.

“Yeah, you think?” Understatement of the century.

“However, you can’t legally put someone in a mental hospital against her will unless she is in serious danger of harming herself or others.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Emma asks. “I can’t just send her home. Weren't you listening in there? She thinks she lives in the Enchanted Forest. The first memory she has of being here is crawling out of a sewer in Times Square. Which is impossible, by the way, because she was clean when we met and she claims she’s never seen a shower before.”

Archie sighs. “The most I could do would be to write a recommendation for admittance, which I’m not necessarily willing to do under the circumstances. But even if she somehow gets admitted to a hospital, she’s not likely to be there more than 24 hours. They’ll evaluate her and send her back out.” Archie sounds calm and rational, like the guidance counselors Emma used to deal with in school. The useless ones. “I’m sorry, Emma, but I just don’t think there’s anything we can do. Unless you’re willing to let her stay with you.”

Let a crazy woman stay in her apartment for who knows how long? Yeah, no way that’s happening. “Look, it’s not like I want to throw her out on the street. But like you said, this lady obviously has a ton of issues. I’m just gonna screw her brain up even more.”

“Of course you’re not obligated to go out of your way for a woman you barely know,” Archie says. “But I don’t believe you would, as you put it, ‘screw her brain up.’ What I think Regina needs most right now is a calm, reassuring presence in her life. Someone to help ground her in reality.”

A calm, reassuring presence. Emma almost snorts. She’s pretty much the furthest thing from that. Besides, how is Regina her responsibility? Emma’s not even good at taking care of herself most of the time.

Although, Regina probably wouldn’t love a lot of smothering attention. She seems like the kind of person who values her independence. Emma can relate. Maybe they wouldn’t be so bad together after all. They could just stay out of each other’s way as much as possible, at least until Emma finds some way to get Regina out of her hands.

And then she can just… explain all that to Regina in a way that doesn’t make Regina feel as though she’s being brushed off. Or reveal that Emma’s basically been lying to her the whole time.

“Even if she could be admitted,” Archie continues, “I don’t think a hospital would be the best choice. I think the best course of action would be to give her a positive, stress-free environment. Give her things in this world to care about and tie herself to.”

“And that would help?”

“I think there’s a very good chance.”

“Right,” Emma says, unconvinced. How can someone be happy if they don’t even know who they really are? If they think they’re evil?

“So if I was willing to let her stay with me—and I’m not saying I am—how would I help her?”

“That’s also complicated,” Archie says apologetically. “The thing about delusional disorder is that it’s quite difficult to challenge. The patient has no idea they have a problem, so they’re likely to resist treatment. The only thing you can do is be patient and careful. Ask questions, but don’t tell her why she's wrong.”

“Because she wouldn’t believe me.”

“She wouldn’t,” Archie says, “but even if she did, that wouldn’t necessarily be better.”

“Why not?”

“It's very possible that she’s trying to escape a frightening and dangerous situation, and as a coping mechanism, her brain conjured up the story she told you. If you shatter her delusions before she’s ready, the harm may outweigh the good.”

Emma folds her arms across her chest. “So, what, I’m supposed to lie?”

“I don’t mean that,” Archie says, shaking his head. “Just make sure to be careful. The danger in telling her you don’t believe her is that she may just incorporate you into the delusion, and then she’s lost you as an ally. Question the delusions gently, try and get her to trace her logic, but don’t directly confront her or push. Focus on the feeling behind whatever she’s telling you. Validate the emotions, if you can.”

“Are you sure that’s enough?”

“Completely. Human beings, by nature, are extremely resistant to changes in their worldview. It takes quite a lot of effort and courage for someone to change their mind, especially about something as big as this. So be patient. We need to meet her where she’s at.”

“Do you think there’s hope for her?” Emma asks.

“Oh, absolutely,” Archie says, nodding vigorously. “She’s created a reality for herself that still allows her to believe in love and happy endings. Honestly, I think that’s brave. It means she’s fighting. It is completely possible for people with this disorder to live happy and full lives, as long as we can address the aspects of the delusion that are causing distress. Although, ideally, it would be beneficial if you found some way to get her to consent to therapy.”

“On false pretenses? How would that even work?”

“Not on false pretenses, no. If you can convince her that talking to someone might be helpful for any valid reason…” He trails off, looking about as hopeful as Emma feels. Regina doesn’t seem like the type of person to enjoy chatting about her private life to strangers when she doesn't have to, or to even acknowledge that she needs help.

Besides, there’s another issue: money. “Even if I manage that, it’s gotta be pretty expensive.”

“I’d be willing to discount my usual rates for her,” Archie says.

“Why?”

“My husband Marco has this disorder.” Archie smiles gently. “You could say it’s close to my heart.”

Emma raises her eyebrows. “Did you meet while you were…”

“Treating him?” Archie laughs. “No, no. Actually, he was teaching a woodworking class. I still have the birdhouse we made.” His smile grows fond, as though he's reminiscing. Then he refocuses. “If there’s anything else I can do to help, please give me a call. And do keep me updated on Regina’s well-being, if you decide to let her stay with you.”

Emma nods. “Thanks.”

“Good luck.” Archie shakes her hand again, then turns and walks towards the elevator.

Emma sighs and presses her forehead against the cool door frame, already exhausted. After all that, she still has no idea what to do.

Maybe she’s overreacting. Regina seems smart, like Archie said. Maybe she would be fine on her own after all. She can run around looking for Robin for a few days, and when she doesn’t find him, maybe she’ll realize he’s not real and change course. Surviving on the streets is hard, especially when you don’t have any money or any legal papers to help you get a job, but it’s not impossible. As long as Regina doesn’t do anything stupid, she might be fine.

Yeah, Emma’s probably overreacting. She opens the door and goes back into her apartment. Regina’s not at the table anymore. She’s moved to the counter, where she’s—fuck. “Stop!” Emma yells.

Regina freezes, the knife in her hand hovering just above the toaster. The toaster that’s still plugged in. “What?!”

Emma rushes over, accidentally knocking over a chair, and rips the plug out. “You can’t stick that in there. You’ll electrocute yourself.”

Regina frowns. “Electrocute?”

“Shock yourself really badly with electricity. Which is, uh, energy…” Regina looks confused, but the definition of electricity isn’t the point here. “You could die.

Regina aims the crumb-covered butter knife at her accusingly. “You were using a knife to get the pastries out earlier.”

“Yeah, but I unplugged it first.” Emma points at the wall socket. “That’s where the electricity—the power—comes from. You have to take the cord out before you can stick a knife in a toaster, because metal conducts electricity.” She’s babbling, rattled by Regina’s close call.

Instead of saying thanks, Regina says, “You ought to replace your toaster. Unless they’re meant to be this non-functional?”

Emma’s houseguest may not have a handle on how appliances work, but she’s sure as hell got a grasp on sarcasm. “Yeah, I know. I just keep not getting around to it.” Emma digs out the pastries, which are largely crumbled by this point, and tips them onto Regina’s plate. “There.”

Regina makes a face at the pastries, but she takes the plate and sits down to finish her breakfast. Although her back is to Emma, her posture is full of tension. She must be more rattled than she looks.

Emma leans against the counter and sighs. If Regina doesn’t even know she shouldn’t stick metal objects in toasters, how the hell is she going to protect herself on the streets?

But it’s not like she can stay with Emma forever. That’s ridiculous. Isn’t it?

“We need to sell my necklace,” Regina says from the table. “After that, we can look for Robin.”

“No, I can look for Robin,” Emma says. She’s got no intention of looking for a guy who doesn’t actually exist, but she’s not going to tell Regina that. “You’re not coming with me.”

Regina’s shoulders, which relaxed slightly when Emma said she would look for Robin, tense up again. “Then what am I supposed to do? Sit in your apartment and eat tart pops?”

“Pop-Tarts. And no, you’re not gonna stay here.”

“Where will I go?”

A calm, positive environment, Archie had said. “How’d you like to go to the library? You can, uh, learn stuff about our world.” That should help ground her in reality, like Archie was talking about. And it’s pretty much the calmest environment Emma can think of.

After a few seconds, Regina nods. “That would be acceptable.”

Emma slumps further against the counter. Dropping Regina at the library and pretending to look for a guy who’s not real is a stall tactic at best, and a shady one at that, but it’s all she’s got right now. She’ll buy herself time to figure out a better solution.

Because there’s got to be a better way to deal with Regina.

Isn’t there?

Chapter Text

Regina expects them to take Emma’s car, but Emma says that morning traffic is a nightmare. Instead, she takes them underground into a large tunnel full of people.

“What is this place?” Regina asks as they approach a cavern backed by a wall of tiles. A large group of people is standing there, waiting for something.

“Subway station,” Emma says. “The train will be here in a minute. Until then, stay behind the yellow line.”

It’s closer to two minutes before a large silver carriage clatters into the station. A tone chimes and several sets of doors open. People stream out, walking quickly past them, and they board just before the doors close again. Regina has to admire the efficiency. The infrastructure seems like it would be difficult to replicate, but a method of transporting so many people at once is certainly useful. Perhaps there’s a way it could be adapted for her realm?

She would definitely need to somehow make it less hot and crowded. All the seats are occupied, so they’re forced to stand and hold on to sturdy but thin straps hanging from the ceiling. The motion of the train is almost soothing, a closer approximation to the sway of a horse-drawn carriage than Emma’s car. However, Regina never had to stand in her carriage. Every time the train reaches another station and screeches to a halt, she loses her balance and crashes into one of the strangers standing next to her. Some of them shrug it off easily, but others shove back or mutter obscenities at her.

Regina wants to retaliate, but starting a fight in such a crowded place seems unwise, so she merely glares at the offending strangers as best she can. Unfortunately, since everyone seems preoccupied with their newspapers or their glowing black rectangles, no one notices and the effect is entirely lost. It’s incredibly frustrating. What does this realm have against eye contact?

Eventually, the train starts to empty and one of the seats is vacated. Regina drops into it immediately, ignoring the questionable stains on the fabric, and stares down a heavily pregnant woman who had been trying to sit there herself. She only got on the train two stops ago, and Regina’s been here for at least twenty minutes. She deserves this comfort, paltry as it may be.

Ten seconds after she sits down, Emma leans in and whispers, “Stand up. We’re getting off next.”

Naturally.

After they get off the train, they walk a short way to a jewelry shop where Regina is able to sell her necklace. It’s difficult to part with, especially since it was a gift from her father, but the $3000 she negotiates for it softens the blow.

“That’s a lot of money,” Emma says as they exit the shop. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I would like to find a decent residence. Something considerably nicer than your apartment.”

Emma crosses her arms. “Good luck with that. My rent is $1750 per month, and that’s not even touching food, insurance, clothes…”

“On second thought,” Regina says, “perhaps I should just stay with you.”

“Yeah. Perhaps.” Emma rolls her eyes.

On the brief stretch of sidewalk outside the shop, they strike a deal: Regina will pay Emma $1000 in cash in return for letting Regina stay with her until Emma locates Robin, at which time Emma will get the rest of the money.

“Are you sure you don’t wanna keep it?” Emma asks.

“I’ll hardly need it after I leave this horrible realm. I have much more at home.”

Emma still seems skeptical, but she nods and takes her share of the money. Regina puts the rest money in a purse Emma lent her.

“You’re gonna want to hang on to that,” Emma says. “There’s a lot of pickpockets in this city.”

Regina raises an eyebrow. “I think I can outsmart a few common criminals.”

Their next stop is the library, a majestic stone building with a gated entrance and arched windows. The exterior is quite beautiful, but the inside is harshly lit and quite bare. It is, however, much cooler than the sweltering outdoors, for which Regina is grateful.

“Are you good here for a bit?” Emma asks.

Regina looks around the library, which is full of books, tables, and comfortable chairs. “I think I can handle myself.”

“Look, it’s fairy tale appreciation week.” Emma points to a sign on a section of wall covered with coloured papers. “You’ll fit right in. And if you need anything, the librarians can—"

“I know how libraries work,” Regina snaps.

Emma holds up her hands in a placating gesture. “Right. I'll come back when it closes, okay? We can go home together. If you wanna eat lunch, I think there’s a Subway around the corner.”

“Where am I supposed to get food in that underground train station?” Regina asks.

Emma blinks at her for a second before coming to a realization. “Oh. No, I mean the Subway sandwich shop. Green and yellow sign. Can’t miss it.”

“They named a sandwich shop after the train? Why the hell would they do that?”

“It’s not named after the train,” Emma says. “I’m pretty sure they’re both named after submarines.”

“Submarines?”

Emma sighs. “I’ll see you at 6, okay?”

“Fine by me,” Regina says, and Emma leaves.

Regina has seen libraries before—she'd even had one named after her, a well-intentioned but useless effort by the librarians to get on her good side shortly after she conquered their kingdom. However, this library has a dizzying selection compared to the libraries she’s seen. It appears to sort its books by number, although Regina has no clue what the numbers could stand for. Different sections of the alphabet? Different topics? Or is it entirely random?

What she needs is information that could help her find Robin, but she has no idea where to start. She's relying on Emma's expertise there, whether she likes it or not—and she doesn't. In the meantime, it would be helpful to develop a basic understanding of this world. Not knowing where to start, she wanders between the rows of bookshelves and selects a book at random. It’s titled “The Fundamentals of Biology: Developments from 1800-1900.” She opens it to a page in the middle.

It is a common misconception that the purpose of evolution is to make a species better. Nature has no concept of “better” except as it relates to an organism’s ability to survive in its environment. An evolutionary trait that benefits an organism in one environment can hamper its ability to survive in another. Darwin made this point clear in his ground-breaking treatise called “On the Origin of Species,” back in 1859.

Incomprehensible. She puts it down and selects another book, titled “Medical Essentials.”

The vaccine for smallpox was discovered in 1796 by Edward Jenner. It has been so effective at preventing the virus that the vaccine is no longer delivered in many countries.

The illustration on the page is of a man with his face covered in lumps, the obvious symptom of pock-face disease. Regina reads on. It seems a virus is… a type of disease? And a vaccine is some sort of preventive cure. Not magic, but something called ‘science.’

When Regina was a girl, no more than five or six, an epidemic of pock-face disease swept her grandfather Xavier’s kingdom during their war against King Charles. It turned the tide of the war, allowing Charles to emerge victorious. Most suspected the king of transmitting the sickness to their kingdom through contaminated supplies delivered by one of his soldiers disguised as a merchant. Their healers had no idea how to treat it; even magic had done nothing. If there had been a cure—or, better yet, a vaccine…

Regina looks around for something to write on. Eventually, she finds little pads of thin parchment next to something she hears referred to as a “computer,” as well as tiny pencils for people to write down the book codes. Regina steals a pad and a pencil and takes notes on the medical book, stuffing the slips of parchment in Emma’s purse when she runs out of space. After she finds Robin, she can take them back home and show them to the local healers.

The medical book is thick, and she’s not halfway done before the pad is empty. She’ll no longer be able to take notes here… but if she were able to sign out books, she could take them to Emma’s apartment and take as many notes as she liked.

At home, when someone wanted to take a book out from a library, they would need to sign out the book on a piece of parchment. Here, people simply give the librarian a card, and the librarian aims a device at the books until it makes a noise. Evidently she’ll have to obtain a card of her own.

Regina approaches the help desk. The librarian behind the desk is wearing a floral print dress, and her name tag reads Juanita. She’s holding a curved object to her ear and speaking into it rapidly. “Yeah, I don’t know where she is. She was supposed to be here ten minutes ago.”

“Excuse me,” Regina says.

Juanita turns to Regina, her eyes widening as she takes in Regina’s dress. “Never mind, she’s here,” she says to the curved object before placing it into a receptacle with a click. “Where have you been? You’re late,” she says to Regina.

“Pardon me?”

“The kids are all waiting for you.” Juanita moves from behind the desk and starts walking quickly away.

Regina hurries after her. “I believe there has been a mistake.”

Juanita doesn’t seem to be listening. She’s already motioning Regina over to a group of small children sitting in front of an empty rocking chair. “When you said you would be coming in full costume, I thought you meant you were coming as Snow White.”

Regina bristles. “Snow White?”

“Yes! The book we hired you to read to the children!” Juanita clucks at her. “Didn’t you read the e-mail?”

The Snow White story is in a book? That must be how everyone in this realm seems to know of her. This is her chance to find out the details of how this realm sees her. If that requires reading to children, then so be it.

“My apologies,” Regina says, her voice smooth as silk. “Where is the book I am to read?”

Juanita motions her into the empty rocking chair and turns towards the children. “Hello, everyone! This is…”

She looks at Regina, who smiles. “My name is Regina. I’m going to read you a story.”

A man runs up to Juanita and says something to her quietly. Regina can’t overhear much, just the words “horse” and “out front” and “trouble.” Juanita’s eyes widen. She grabs a large book from a nearby shelf and thrusts it at Regina, then leaves with the man who interrupted her.

This leaves Regina alone in front of ten children, all likely between the ages of five and seven. Some are sitting quietly, while others are talking to each other. One girl is munching on small rounded carrots from a coloured container. Two boys in the back row are pulling at each other’s clothes. None of them seem terribly interested in her.

Regina opens the book to the first page.The picture in the book displays a version of Snow White that looks passably similar to the real one, although with much shorter and neater hair. The real Snow White is certainly pale, but this version is even paler, her skin truly as white as snow. She’s dressed in rags and scrubbing the castle floor, surrounded by birds and squirrels and other woodland creatures. Regina struggles not to gag.

She begins to read aloud. “Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there lived a princess whose name was Snow White. She had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as night. She was the kindest and most beautiful girl in the entire kingdom, but she lived under the rule of a wicked stepmother who made her do all the chores in the castle.”

Already the inaccuracies in this book are astounding. The kindest, most beautiful girl in the entire kingdom? More like the most horrid, wretched, ugly she-demon in the realm. What’s more, Snow had never done any chores. She’d been notorious for calling servants to help with everything from preparing even the most basic meals to brushing her hair. If Regina had ever so much as suggested that she do one bit of work for herself, the king would have had her locked in her room for a week.

She wants to rip the book to shreds and burn it, but she forces herself to turn the page. The next illustration depicts a woman with a crown and a purple cape glaring at Snow White from a castle window as Snow dances with animals outdoors. Presumably the angry woman is meant to be her, although her skin is much lighter than Regina’s and her features are harsher. Why is she just standing there scowling at Snow? Does this fictional version of her have no better way to spend her time? Ridiculous.

“Snow White loved her stepmother,” Regina reads, “but what she did not realize was that her stepmother only married her father because she wanted his gold. She had no love for him, nor for Snow White. The wicked queen was so envious of Snow White's beauty that she—”

Regina cannot keep reading. Her stomach is turning and she feels as though she may vomit. Beauty? They turned this into a story about vanity? They think she married the king for money? This version is even worse than the horrid lies Snow White spread about her.

“Keep reading!” a boy yells.

Regina surveys her audience. She may not be able to rewrite her story, but she might be able to teach these children the truth. “You seem like intelligent children. Mature children.”

Most of the children nod. A couple of them sit up straighter, as though trying to prove her right.

“The people in your life have been lying to you,” Regina says. “This book is lying to you. I am going to let you in on a very important secret.” Children love secrets, do they not? “I am going to tell you how it actually happened.”

“How do you know?” one girl asks.

Regina leans in and whispers conspiratorially, “Because I was there.”

That gets the children’s attention. Even those who seemed bored earlier are now looking at her with interest. Good.

“Once upon a time,” Regina says, “there was a young woman who was kind and gentle. All she wanted to do was ride horses—and she was very good at it. One day, she saved the life of a young girl whose horse ran wild. Do you want to know how that young girl repaid her for saving her life?”

“Did she say thank you?” a girl in a purple dress asks.

“Try again,” Regina says.

One of the younger boys raises his hand. “Did she give her a sticker?”

“No, she did not. She told her father, the King, what happened, and she said that she wanted the young woman to be her new mother.” Regina’s lip curls at that.

“Was the king nice?” asks a boy in a green shirt with some sort of large reptile drawn on it.

“The king was not nice,” Regina says. “Everyone thought he was nice, but he was cruel and vindictive.”

A girl in a blue shirt reading ‘Dora the Explorer’ raises her hand. “What does ‘vindictive’ mean?”

Regina sighs. “It means he was… he was mean. Mean and awful.”

The little girl’s mouth drops open. Clearly she had not been expecting this twist to her story.

“The young woman begged the girl to change her mind,” Regina continues, her voice rising. “But the young woman’s mother convinced the girl that what the young woman wanted did not matter. All the young woman wanted was her freedom. Thanks to the girl’s selfishness, the young woman spent the next ten years trapped in a castle at the mercy of the mean king.”

Regina leans forward. “And that little girl who caused so much pain and misery, do you want to know what her name was?”

“What?” several children ask at once.

Regina widens her eyes. “Snow White.”

Several kids gasp. A little boy in a yellow sweater bursts into tears. “No!” he shouts. “Snow White is supposed to be nice!”

Regina’s grip on the awful book tightens. “She is not nice. But no one knew that except the young woman. So one day, the young woman decided she would have her revenge. She became a glorious queen, and she killed the mean king with venomous snakes and blamed it on Snow White, sending the order out for her to be executed.”

“What does ‘executed’ mean?” asks the boy in the reptile shirt.

“It means killed,” Regina explains.

The girl in the blue shirt frowns. “The queen killed Snow White?”

“No,” Regina admits, scowling. “Unfortunately, Snow White escaped. And the kingdom all thought she was innocent, so they hid her, even though the queen demanded that they turn Snow White in. They disobeyed Her Majesty, and they were punished for it.”

“Did they have to go to bed before their bedtime?” a young boy asks, his lower lip trembling.

“They were tortured and sentenced to death,” Regina says.

There’s another chorus of gasps, at least among the children who know what those words mean.

“Snow White believed she was the rightful ruler of the kingdom,” Regina continues. “She told the peasants that the queen was a wretched monster, stirring up resentment against her, even though the queen had only ever wanted to be happy.”

“Was the queen sad?” asks a tiny boy with blond hair.

“Sad?” Regina frowns. “Of course not. She was angry.”

“My mommy says that when people do mean things, it’s because they have boo-boos on the inside, and that means we have to be nice to them.”

“Your mommy is a fool,” Regina says harshly. The boy shrinks back, and she takes a deep breath, unsure why she’s so rattled. “Eventually, the queen and Snow White fought a great battle. The queen was able to defeat much of Snow White’s pathetic army, but Snow White used trickery to win, and so the queen lost. She was imprisoned in her own castle and left to die, until her fairy godmother arrived and let her out. Someday, she will have her revenge on the mean, horrible Snow White, and will end her life once and for all.”

One boy is crying—a Snow White loyalist, obviously—but the rest seem angry, on Regina’s side now. The girl in the purple dress yells, “Kill Snow White!”

“Yes!” Regina smiles. At last, she’s won herself some allies in this awful realm. “Kill Snow White!”

It becomes a chant, growing louder and louder as the kids warm to it. “Kill Snow White! Kill Snow White!” Some of them jump up and start dancing around. “Kill Snow White! Kill Snow White!”

Juanita runs up to them, horror written all over her face. “What is going on here?”

“Story time,” Regina says, her smile growing larger.

“All right, that's enough, everybody!” Juanita waves her hands, trying desperately to get the attention of the children. After several seconds, they finally start to settle down.

Juanita turns to Regina, furious. “Now, can you please explain what is going on?”

Before Regina can answer, a lady rushes in, dressed in the same outfit Snow White is wearing in the picture book. “Hi, sorry I’m late. I’m here for story time.” She smiles at the children. “Hello, everyone. It’s nice to meet you! My name is Snow White, and I’m going to—”

“Kill Snow White!” yells the girl in the purple dress, pelting her with tiny carrots. The others, all except the crying boy, roar in agreement and jump to their feet. Fake Snow White screams and flees the room, pursued by a horde of shrieking children.

Regina could not be prouder, even when a security guard informs her that she is permanently banned from every single branch of the Brooklyn public library system.

 


 

Emma thought the hospital would be white and sterile-looking, like the ones she’s seen on TV. But it actually seems kind of cozy. There’s a sitting area with couches, a television, and even a foosball table off to one side. It’s not busy, but there are a few people chatting on the couches.

“I can help you over here,” says the woman behind the desk.

Emma walks up to her. “Hi,” she says to the woman, whose name tag on her cream coat reads Tamara.

Tamara smiles. “What can I do for you?”

“So…” How is she supposed to explain this? I met a woman yesterday who thinks she’s the Evil Queen, and now she’s staying in my apartment. “I have a… roommate… who experiences delusions. And she doesn’t remember anything from before yesterday. Well, she thinks she does, but she thinks she’s from the Enchanted Forest…”

Emma expects Tamara to look shocked, or at least surprised, but she just nods. “Go on.”

Emma tells Tamara the whole story, all about the Evil Queen and Snow White and Regina’s soulmate Robin. “So I just want to know what my options are,” she finishes. “I know she can’t be admitted unless she comes here herself, and I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening. But is there anything else? Some other program?”

Tamara nods. “Actually, I’m running a study that aims to treat people with that disorder, and I think your new friend might be a good candidate.”

“You do?” Emma asks.

“Yes,” Tamara says with a smile. “I think our program could be very helpful to her.”

“That’s great news.” Emma feels hopeful for the first time all day. “So, what kind of treatment is it? Is it, like, talk therapy or something?” That’s the only therapy she knows.

“We would probably start with that, but it’s not the purpose of the experiment,” Tamara says. “The talk therapy would likely be necessary, in Regina’s case, to convince her the experimental phase is a good idea.”

“What’s the experimental phase?”

Tamara opens a drawer and pulls out a shiny pamphlet, which is covered in neat blocks of text containing phrases like “electroconvulsive therapy” and “deep-brain stimulation.” The text is punctuated with colour pictures of beds, electrodes, and wires. It all looks very clean and clinical.

As Emma takes the pamphlet, she frowns. “Is this legal?”

“Of course. We’re fully licensed,” Tamara says. “And fully funded. I know it looks scary—”

“Uh, yeah,” Emma says, looking at a diagram of some electrodes strapped to a patient’s head. “No kidding.”

“—but electroconvulsive therapy is proven to be therapeutic for many people with major depressive disorder. Due to the overlap between depressive disorder and delusional disorder—especially in Regina’s case,  I would guess, although of course we’d have to diagnose her ourselves—I have reason to believe the treatment would be very effective.”

“So you would add that to the talk therapy? When she’s ready?” Emma asks, fiddling with the pamphlet.

“It would have to replace the talk therapy,” Tamara says in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone. “The talk therapy would just be to get her to a point where she would accept the electroshock treatments, but at that point maintaining it would add an extra variable and compromise the integrity of the experiment.”

Archie would not like that at all. “Regina’s not an experiment. She deserves the best help she can get.”

“Of course she does,” Tamara says. “And I’m telling you, this is it.”

“How would you get her to agree to the study though? Without making her stay here?”

Tamara pauses. “In her case, I’d be willing to consider involuntary admittance,” she says quietly.

Emma stops fiddling with the pamphlet and stares at Tamara. “You'd take her anyway? Isn’t that illegal?”

“Normally, we only take people who are in danger of harming themselves or others,” Tamara says. “But if she really has no memory of her life before she got here, if she really has no idea how to take care of herself, then she is a danger to herself, in a way. So this might be the best option, especially if she’s as miserable as you say she is.”

“I didn’t say she’s miserable.”

Tamara tilts her head. “She thinks she’s the worst villain in fairy tale history, and her entire mission in life is finding a man. And you don’t think she’s miserable?”

“I mean… I guess,” Emma says. Regina’s not exactly a happy camper, that’s for sure. “But the therapist I talked to said as long as I give Regina a positive, supportive environment, her delusions might get better. Or at least they won’t matter so much. She can be happy anyway.”

“It’s definitely possible to live a happy life while managing delusional disorder,” Tamara says, “although it depends on the delusions. Regina's seem particularly… difficult, but to be honest, I’m less concerned about the delusions and more concerned about the amnesia.”

“Why?”

Tamara leans forward and stares hard at Emma. “I loved my grandmother more than anyone in the world. She was always there for me. She was warm, funny, liked to knit… And then she got Alzheimer’s. During the last years of her life, she didn’t know who her family was or what was going on.” Tamara’s voice has an edge to it now. “She didn’t know we loved her.”

“I’m sorry,” Emma says awkwardly.

Tamara keeps talking. “I guarantee you, if my grandmother had been given the option to get better, no matter what the cost, she would have taken it. We would have given it to her. It’s not fun living when you don’t even know who you are, who your family is. When you don’t even know you have a family.”

Her gaze is intense, and Emma tries not to look uncomfortable. “I’m, uh, really sorry you had to go through that.” 

Tamara sighs. “What’s your plan, then? If you don’t get Regina help? Where is she staying now?”

“With me,” Emma says.

“You?” Tamara raises her eyebrows. “Are you a doctor? Are you even willing to let her stay with you indefinitely? Your other options, as far as I can tell, are to leave her out on the streets to fend for herself—even though she apparently has no idea how to cope with the real world—or let her stay with you, even though you have no idea what you’re doing.”

Emma looks at the pamphlet again. “What, and you think strapping her to a bed and shocking her is the solution?”

“It’s a valid medical procedure, and we wouldn’t perform it without her consent. She would have other options as well. Group therapy, CBT, ACT, medication… There are many different avenues for her to consider.”

“If you can convince her she has a disorder.” Emma pictures Regina trapped in what is basically a prison cell, sitting there in a hospital gown while everyone tries to persuade her she’s crazy. Sure, she is crazy, but Archie had said she needed the delusions. What would happen if they were ripped away?

“I may be able to obtain a court order to keep her here indefinitely, but I don’t think that’s likely.” Tamara says. “Otherwise, us giving her the help she needs would depend on her realizing she has a disorder and therefore needs help. So yes, we would try our best to get her to that point.”

“Wouldn’t she be… I don’t know, lonely?”

“She’d have lots of human contact. And you’d be able to visit her, of course,” Tamara says. “If you’re concerned.”

Visit her. Yeah, that would go well. Regina would probably be thrilled to see the person who promised to help her find her soulmate, then abandoned her to a mental hospital.

And that’s if they even managed to keep her there. Otherwise, she’d definitely leave as soon as she could. Then she’d be by herself on the streets of New York, desperately looking for a man who doesn’t exist.

Plus, Regina said she was running around asking everyone for help finding Robin before she met Emma. The drawing of “Robin” isn’t exactly distinctive: white guy, light brown hair, blue eyes, maybe a bit of facial hair. That could describe lots of men. What if some guy decides to take advantage of this crazy lady, paints on a lion tattoo, and tells her she’s his soulmate?

And what if Regina escaped some horrible cult, and they’re looking for her? How would she defend herself?

It’s too dangerous. “Sorry,” Emma says to Tamara. “But I don’t think this is going to work. Thanks for your time.”

She doesn’t look back as she leaves the hospital. There’s a garbage can outside, and she moves to throw out the pamphlet.

Something catches her eye and she hesitates, looks at the pamphlet again. On the back, in the section titled “Success Stories,” there’s a photo of a smiling woman sitting with her husband and two girls at a picnic table. Under the photo is short, neatly typed blurb.

Julie M. struggled with depression and delusional disorder for ten years before she received our treatment. She had trouble connecting with her family or holding down a job. Now she works part-time as an auto mechanic and enjoys spending time with her husband Mark, their girls Emily and Jackie, and their dog Laurie.

Her family. Regina could have a family. They might be out there looking for her right now. And if she doesn’t remember them, how would they ever find her? How would she ever find them?

Maybe this treatment isn’t such a bad idea…

But who is she to make that call? Emma barely knows Regina. Besides, she might not have a family. Or they might be shitty. Maybe that’s why she left, or escaped, or whatever.

No, Emma can’t do this. She can’t send some woman off to a mental hospital when the dangers are so high. She’ll have to figure something else out. Without any more hesitation, Emma walks away from the hospital.

But she puts the pamphlet in her pocket.

Chapter Text

Regina quickly tires of standing outside the library with nothing to do. Her black dress attracts both heat from the sun and stares from various passers-by. After an hour or so, she decides to strike out on her own. How complicated can it be to find her way back to Emma’s residence?

Very complicated, as she finds out when she gets on the wrong subway train and ends up across the city from where she needs to be. After many hours of struggle and many humiliating questions to strangers, she eventually finds her way back to Emma’s apartment—only to be barred from entry.

“Sorry, lady, but I can't let you in,” says the implacable landlord.

Regina’s hot, she’s tired, and this is a complication she does not need. “I was here yesterday! Do you not recognize me, you incompetent moron? This is where I am staying!”

“Non-residents are not allowed in the apartment complex.”

The argument carries on for several minutes until finally, Emma arrives. Regina’s relieved to see her until she notices that Emma is absolutely furious.

“Regina, what the hell are you doing here? Why’d you ditch me? I told you to stay at the library.”

Regina crosses her arms. “I do not have to do as you tell me.”

“I looked for you!” Emma says, her voice rising. “Look, I know you're some fancy evil queen where you come from, but here? You’re just like everyone else. You can't yell at my landlord, and you can't stand people up whenever you feel like it! Okay?” She turns to the landlord. “I'm sorry you had to deal with this.”

The landlord shrugs and lets them pass.

“Was the library that boring that you couldn't stay there?” Emma asks as they enter the elevator.

“Boredom was not the issue,” Regina says curtly. “Unfortunately, the employees there are completely unreasonable, and I have been… permanently banned.”

Emma’s eyes widen. “What? Why? How do you even get banned from a library? Did you throw books or something?”

“Of course not,” Regina says. “That would be childish. I simply corrected a story.” The elevator comes to a halt and they step out onto Emma’s floor, which smells like burnt vegetables. One of her neighbours must be cooking.

“What story was it?” Emma asks, pulling out her key and unlocking the door.

“It was my story. I had every right to correct it,” Regina insists.

Emma pushes the door open. “What are you talking about? You mean the Snow White story?”

“The story of me in this realm is all wrong. They turned my life story into some parable about vanity ,” Regina spits out. “I told the children what really happened—”

“The children? What children?”

Regina tells Emma about her afternoon dealing with immature children and incompetent librarians. She expects understanding, perhaps even a shred of sympathy for her ordeal, but when she’s done, Emma merely closes her eyes and rubs her temples. “You got banned from a library because you tried to convince five-year-olds that Snow White is a jerk?”

“Haven’t you been paying attention? She’s the evil one, not me!”

“Well, I’m really sorry about that, Regina, but you can’t tell kids that Snow White is a villain. That's just... not okay.” Emma drops her purse on the floor and flops down on the couch, slumping into the cushions

“I was telling them the truth!” Regina protests, moving to face her. “They believed me.”

“Kids believe anything! You could have told them you’re Santa Claus and they’d probably have believed that too.”

“Santa Claus? Is he also a so-called fairy-tale character?”

Emma sighs. “No, he’s a made-up guy who’s supposed to bring you presents at Christmas. Parents get their kids to believe in him until they’re old enough to know better. It’s stupid.”

This is getting them nowhere. Regina changes the subject to something more relevant. “What did you do today? Where did you look?”

“Look?” Emma asks, baffled.

Evidently, Emma is less intelligent than Regina realized. “For Robin, you fool.”

“Uh, I made some progress,” Emma says after a moment, “but I haven’t found him yet.”

That’s awfully vague. “What progress did you make?” Regina asks, growing suspicious.

“I… followed some leads that didn’t go anywhere. I ruled some stuff out, at least,” Emma says quickly, before Regina can interrupt. She meets Regina’s eyes coolly.

Could Emma be lying? Might she still not believe Regina’s story?

No, they have a deal: Emma will only get paid the rest of the money if she finds Robin. If Emma was going to take her money and toss her out, she’d have done so by now.

Still, this is a disappointment. “I hoped you might move a little faster than that.”

“Hey, you wanna go out pounding the pavement? Be my guest,” Emma says with a shrug. “What do you want for dinner?”

“What are the options?”

“We can get Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, McDonalds…” Emma trails off when she sees Regina’s expression of total confusion. “Uh, do you like burgers?”

“I don’t know what those are,” Regina replies as patiently as she can manage.

“Okay, I’m getting burgers,” Emma says, standing up and grabbing her purse. “Come with me.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Regina says, and she sits in Emma’s recently vacated spot on the couch.

Emma slings her purse over her shoulder. “Well, I’m not leaving you here. Come on, get up.”

Regina crosses her legs and stays where she is. “I have spent the past several hours attempting to navigate this hellish city, and now you expect me to—”

Emma puts up her hands. “Fine. Fine. If I go out to pick them up, do you promise not to steal anything?”

“As though you have anything worth stealing.”

“And just stay away from the toaster, okay? And anything else you don’t recognize. Actually, you might want to change for dinner. It would suck if you spilled ketchup on that dress. You’ll probably be more comfortable anyways.”

“This is perfectly comfortable,” Regina says.

“Well, it doesn’t look comfortable. Seriously, how do you even walk in that?” Emma shakes her head. “You can look through my closet to find something to wear. Just don’t go poking around or anything.”

“Believe me, I have no desire to ‘poke around’ in your closet,” Regina says.

Emma rolls her eyes. “You’re welcome.”

After Emma leaves to pick up the food, Regina goes into the tiny bedroom. Emma’s closet is mostly full of the same type of clothing she offered Regina yesterday—long-sleeved shirts made of thin material, stiff blue cotton pants, and the like. She also has a ridiculous number of leather jackets. Regina skips over all of those, hunting for a dress or black pants or something else that might be familiar to her. She tries on the handful of outfits that seem suitable, but the few that actually fit her properly are made of strange materials that irritate her skin.

Just as Regina’s about to give up and select one of the plainer shirts, she notices a box at the back of the closet. It’s covered in dust and made of some unfamiliar material that seems almost like very stiff parchment. Perhaps this contains better clothing?

Regina opens the box to find it does not contain clothes at all. The first thing she sees is a blanket, knit from thick white wool with a purple ribbon running through it and the name “Emma” stitched on the corner. It looks like a baby blanket, something handmade for Emma by her mother or another relative. Regina’s mother was never one to gift her daughter with something so frivolous, and her father did whatever her mother told him to do, so she has nothing like this herself.

She pushes away a pang of envy and reaches into the box again, then hesitates. Emma had said not to go poking around. She would undoubtedly be furious if she knew what Regina was doing.

Then again, Regina’s told Emma so much about her life, and yet she knows almost nothing of Emma’s. That poses a problem. In Regina’s experience—with trade deals, with other royals, with life—the person in any relationship who has less information about the other is always in a compromised position. Emma is her employee, not her adversary, but she currently controls both Regina’s living situation and her ability to find her soulmate.

More information wouldn’t hurt.

Regina keeps digging and comes across a contraption that appears similar to the one the lady in the square had pointed at her. Without investigating further, she puts it back in the box, not thrilled by the reminder of that particular incident.

Next in the box is what Regina now recognizes as a “photo,” thanks to her time in the library. It’s glossy and a bit faded. The image is of a young girl wearing glasses and kissing a young boy, both of them smiling at each other. The girl looks so happy that it takes Regina a moment to realize that it’s a much younger version of Emma. She stares at the photo for a few long moments before putting it aside.

At the bottom of the box is a picture drawn in coloured wax. It’s obviously a child’s drawing, and it features a simple line drawing of a girl with blonde hair in between two larger line drawings of people, one male and one female. The woman is wearing a crown and a long, elegant dress; the man seems to be wearing some sort of cape, a dragon’s tail coming out the back. Clumsy writing above the picture reads “My Family,” the ‘a’ in ‘Family’ written backwards.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Regina startles at the unexpected voice from the bedroom door. She turns to see Emma glowering at her. “I told you not to go poking around!” Emma says angrily.

“I couldn’t find any good clothes,” Regina says, standing up and squaring her shoulders.

Emma walks over and snatches the picture out of Regina’s hand. “This is my stuff.” Her voice is low and rough, and her face is contorted with rage. “This is private. Do you know what that means? Do you have that in your realm?”

“You’re overreacting,” Regina says.

“I’m really not,” Emma says. She grabs a shirt and a pair of pants and shoves them at Regina. “There. You can wear that. And from now on, this closet is off-limits.”

Regina takes the clothing and walks away before Emma’s mood can worsen. Before she exits the bedroom, she turns to see if Emma is still glaring at her, hoping to gauge her mood.

Emma’s not looking at her. She’s staring at the drawing with an expression Regina can’t place, tracing the image of the little girl with her index finger. After a few moments, she snaps out of it and begins carefully stacking the items back in the box.

 


 

What the hell was Regina thinking? Emma left her alone for what, ten minutes? And she immediately did the one thing Emma specifically asked her not to do. Emma should have known she couldn’t trust her.

They don’t talk, but after Regina changes, Emma keeps her in sight until dinner shows up. Regina at least has the decency not to complain about the food, although she does pick off the onions not-so-discreetly and put them on a napkin. When she’s done eating, she takes a tiny pencil out of her purse and writes something on her napkin for some reason. Emma doesn’t care enough to ask what it is.

After they finish their dinner, Emma digs out an old city map that she basically memorized about two weeks after she moved to New York. She puts a big black dot where her apartment is and gives the map to Regina.

“Here. If you’re not gonna wait for me to pick you up, you might as well have some way to navigate.”

Regina puts the map in the purse Emma lent her. The purse is full of paper slips, which Emma isn’t sure she wants to ask about. Was Regina... stealing paper?

Whatever. Not Emma’s problem.

Hoping for a few moments of privacy, Emma shows Regina how to work the television, which Regina deems “interesting, but not as useful as a magic mirror.”

At least it’s real, Emma almost says, but doesn’t. She might still be pissed about Regina’s snooping, but she’s not that mean.

Regina starts out watching the news, probably scouring it for information about Robin, but she soon switches channels. After hopping between a few, she lands on a documentary about horses that keeps her attention. She seems calmer than she did earlier, paying rapt attention to David Attenborough’s soothing voice and the pictures of horses galloping along green fields.

Meanwhile, Emma goes on the Internet and tries to figure out where Regina might have come from. She Googles “fairy tales” and “alternate dimensions” and everything else she can think of. The only thing she finds is a YouTube video of some guy named Jefferson, who’s apparently a physics professor, talking about his theory of how all the stories in the world are just part of the collective consciousness across the multiverse or something. It’s confusing as hell, and Emma watches about two minutes of it before rolling her eyes and exiting out of the tab.

It’s almost nine before she remembers she totally forgot to go grocery shopping, so she tells Regina they’re going to the store. Regina doesn’t look pleased that her TV-watching has been interrupted, but Emma obviously can’t leave her alone in the apartment. She’d probably go through Emma’s bank records next.

Unsurprisingly, Regina hates the grocery store. The moment they enter, she plants her hands on her hips and narrows her eyes at everything—the people, the signs, the merchandise—like she’s squaring up for a battle. “The market at home was not nearly so loud as this.”

After everything Regina put her through, Emma’s having a hard time being sympathetic. “Sorry, Regina, but that’s what stores are like here. You’re gonna have to get used to it.”

The store is unusually busy for a Friday evening, and the only cart left has an annoyingly squeaky wheel. Emma grabs it anyway and leads them to her regular aisles. Or at least she tries to, but Regina keeps stopping to look at stuff like melons and instant coffee and chocolate bars. She picks up a box of pre-made lasagna shells and stares at it like it’s the Holy Grail.

“If you see something you like, let me know and I’ll tell you if it’s too expensive,” Emma says. Wherever Regina’s from, they obviously didn’t have half of this stuff. Emma might be pissed at her, but it wouldn’t hurt to let her try new things. That’ll help “ground her in reality,” or whatever Archie was talking about.

Regina pauses and looks around. “I’d like to get some kohlrabi,” she decides.

What is that, some mythical fantasy food? “Look, Regina,” Emma says, trying to be patient, “maybe they had that in your… realm… but it’s not a thing here.”

Regina points over Emma’s shoulder. “It’s right behind you.”

Emma turns to see a display of green root vegetables that is, in fact, labeled ‘kohlrabi.’ “Oh,” she says, tossing a few in the cart indiscriminately. Firm means ripe, doesn’t it?

Finally, they make it to the snack aisle. Emma pulls a few essentials off the shelf—potato chips, granola bars, chocolate cereal. Regina disappears while Emma’s comparing the prices of nacho chip brands. When she comes back, she's carrying an armful of vegetables and a clear plastic bag filled with at least ten different kinds of apples, which she places in the cart.

Emma sighs. “You can't put all the apples in the same bag. They have to go in different bags, depending on the kind.”

Regina frowns at her. “That seems incredibly wasteful.”

“Yeah, well, most people don't get fifty different kinds of apple every time they go shopping.”

“Why not?” Regina asks, sounding genuinely confused.

“Because…” Emma has to think about it for a second. “I don't know, I guess most people have favourites.”

Regina raises her eyebrows. “You have all this produce, and you don't even bother to taste it? In my realm, every new food is considered a delicacy.”

“Right. Well, this isn’t your realm. And I don’t even like apples, so I hope you’re prepared to eat all those by yourself.”

People are starting to stare at them. Well, mostly at Regina. She’s starting to look kind of stressed, so maybe it’s better to get her out of here. “Hey, can you go grab us some milk?” Emma asks.

“I suppose,” Regina says, like she’s doing Emma a massive favour. After she walks away, Emma sighs. This is the worst grocery run she’s ever been on, and that includes the time when she was trying to buy Advil at 3 am after a hangover before realizing she was at an Applebee’s.

Okay, maybe that time was worse.

While Emma’s stocking up on bread and doughnuts, the cashier announces over the loudspeaker that someone left their purse in aisle five. The announcement ends with a screech of feedback, then the background music starts up again—some annoying pop song Emma doesn’t know the name of, but she’s pretty sure she’s heard it three times since they got here.

Regina returns with a carton of milk. Emma checks the date, just to be safe, which turns out to be a good idea. “This is expired.”

“How do you know?” Regina asks.

Emma points to the ‘Use By’ date on the carton. “See?”

Regina crosses her arms. “It was at the front of the icebox.”

“It’s called a fridge, and they actually put the newest stuff in the back so people use up the old stuff first.”

“How was I supposed to know that?” Regina says irritably.

“I don’t know, people just know that stuff. Your parents tell you, I guess, or you pick it up.” Regina looks really tense, so Emma says gently, “Look, it’s your first day here. It’s normal that you don’t know everything.”

“I’m not a child,” Regina says. “Don’t treat me like one.”

Emma sighs. “I’m not. You know what, I’ll get the milk. Just… stay here and guard the cart.”

Regina raises her eyebrows, and Emma corrects herself, “Not, like, actually guard it. Just keep an eye on it.” She envisions Regina using a stalk of celery as a sword, fighting off all the suburban moms who dared approach within three feet of the cart. She wouldn’t put it past her.

“Fine,” Regina says, her voice clipped.

A few feet away from them, someone accidentally steers their cart into a display of canned pineapple, knocking the cans to the ground with a loud clatter of metal. Regina flinches like she’s heard a gunshot.

“You okay?” Emma asks.

“Of course,” Regina says, turning away from her.

“Because you don’t sound okay—”

“Stop talking.”

Emma gets the hint and runs to grab the milk. When she’s done, she looks around for Regina, only to find her haggling with the lady behind the meat counter about the price of sausages.

“Regina, you don’t have to argue about the price, okay? You just pay whatever the sticker says.” Emma turns to the old woman behind the counter. “Sorry about my, uh, roommate. She’s an actress.”

“I am not—”

“Look, we’ve got everything we need. We can go check out now.”

Regina’s pressing her hand against her stomach. Maybe the burger didn’t go down well?

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Emma asks as they move through the checkout aisle, raising her voice so she can be heard over the beeping of the scanners.

Regina opens her mouth to answer, then someone accidentally bumps into her and she snaps, turning on him and getting right in his space. “How dare you?” she spits at him.

The guy, a middle-aged man wearing a sports cap, looks like he’s about to pee his pants. “Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean to bump you.”

“Regina, that’s enough.” Emma reaches out to grab Regina’s arm, but the second she touches her, Regina jerks away and turns on her.

“Don’t defend him.”

Emma stands her ground. “It was an accident. You are seriously out of line.”

Regina’s face is pulled back in a snarl. It’s not clear how in-control she is right now. For all Emma knows, she's living out some kind of Evil Queen power fantasy. Emma turns to the guy, who’s still standing frozen against the checkout counter. “I’m sorry,” she says, and the guy doesn’t even nod, he’s so freaked out.

Thankfully, their stuff has been checked out by now. Emma pays, aware of the many people staring at them right now and the way Regina is still fuming. As soon as possible, she grabs the groceries and gets the hell out. She doesn’t even stop to check if Regina is following her, and doesn’t find out that she was until they get to the Bug and Regina climbs in too.

Emma’s fuming as she pulls out of the parking lot. “Regina, what were you thinking? What that guy did was an accident! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“No,” Regina says. “Now stop talking.

This is not what Emma signed up for. Taking care of a confused amnesiac lady would have been be hard enough on its own, but this woman is a sociopath. Emma can’t sense a single bit of remorse from Regina for anything she did, and she almost made a grown man cry because he bumped into her by accident.

Emma thinks about Tamara’s pamphlet, still burning a hole in her purse. She thought it would be a last resort. But if this is genuinely how Regina sees the world around her—everyone a threat, everyone out to get her—and this is how she responds to it, maybe they are in last-resort territory.

When they gets home, Emma goes into her bedroom and takes the pamphlet out of her bag, then hesitates. Is this really a good option? It’s pretty intense… but at this point, what choice does she have?

Emma's not going to force Regina into anything. She won’t let anyone make Regina stay in that hospital against her will. Even if it would be better in the long run, she doesn’t want that on her conscience. But Regina can’t stay here.

The reasons keep piling up. Regina’s totally unpredictable: she steals paper, apparently, and flips out on people for no reason. She’s never shown any sign of being grateful for anything Emma’s done. And like the lady on the pamphlet, she could still have a family she doesn't remember. There might be people out there who love her, who would make her happy.

She’s obviously not happy with Emma. Archie might think Emma’s capable of creating a positive environment or whatever, but Regina’s been thoroughly miserable since Emma met her.

Yeah, Regina's probably better off without her. Painful as it is, Emma’s just going to have to explain everything as best she can and hope Regina makes the right choice for herself. If not… well. She’s not Emma’s problem. She never really was.

Her mind made up, Emma walks out of her room and sees that Regina is already passed out on her couch, asleep. Emma sighs and pulls the blanket over her, tucking it around her feet.

She’ll tell her tomorrow.

 


 

Regina’s in the middle of the road. That doesn’t make sense, she needs to get to the sidewalk, but she can’t move. Someone’s behind her, a man, his arms wrapped around her so she’s paralyzed.

She doesn’t have to look at the arms encircling her torso to know they’re large, hairy, dotted with age spots. She doesn’t have to turn to smell his rancid breath, faintly laced with the scent of the garlic bread he loved so much. She doesn’t have to struggle to know that struggle is futile, but she does anyway. The arms around her tighten as she knew they would, tighten until she cannot breathe, then tighten even more.

What is he doing here? He should be dead. She arranged his murder, attended his funeral, comforted his daughter as they laid the casket in the ground. And yet, it does not surprise her that Leopold is here with her in one of the worst moments of her life.

She hears laughter and twists her head. On the sidewalk, her subjects are laughing at her. Snow is there, as well as Tinkerbell and her mother and even Emma, all mocking her from a safe distance. It’s not surprising to see them either. She’s never had the luxury of privacy during her worst moments; why should that change now?

A horn sounds, and she twists her head back to see a car approaching. Leopold does not move. Her death will mean his own, and yet he remains there, pinning her down as the car hurtles toward her, and she’s stuck there, helpless, with no one coming to save her—

“Hey! Hey! Wake up!”

Regina opens her eyes. In the dark, someone is holding her down. She immediately goes still, shrinking back into the sheets, her entire body tensing.

“Regina? Are you okay?”

The first thing that registers is the use of her first name—Leopold never called her by her name. Only after that does she register that the voice is feminine, and the person standing above her is the wrong size and shape to be her ex-husband.

Her eyes adjust to the darkness. The person above her is Emma, not Leopold, and the hands holding her down were actually shaking her, to wake her up.

“Are you okay?” Emma says. “I think you were having a nightmare.”

“Get your hands off me,” Regina snarls as soon as she finds her voice. Her tone makes Emma flinch and shrink back immediately.

“Sorry.”

Regina untangles herself from the sheets and sits up, ignoring Emma’s attempts to help her. “What were you doing?” she asks, trying to sound angry instead of afraid.

“I was trying to wake you,” Emma says, stepping back. “You were talking in your sleep. Who's Leopold?”

It's the last question Regina feels like answering at the moment. She looks around the dark room, still half-expecting to see the stone walls of her bedroom back in her castle. Instead, she sees Emma’s tiny apartment, with its blank white walls and pathetic furniture. “Why were you awake?” she asks Emma, hoping to ward off further questioning. “Are you in the habit of roaming around your apartment at night?”

“I was having trouble sleeping,” Emma says, running her hand through her unruly heap of hair. “And you’re changing the subject.”

“I am fine. Stop asking.”

Emma looks skeptical, but she nods. “Okay.”

Regina can’t bring herself to look directly at Emma’s face, afraid of what she might see there. Disgust? Or pity? Which would be worse?

“You can talk to me about it if you want,” Emma says tentatively.

Pity. Pity is definitely worse.

“There is nothing to talk about, other than the fact that your couch is horribly uncomfortable,” Regina says. “I don’t know how you expect me to sleep on something like that.”

“If it bothers you so much, we can switch for tonight.” Emma shrugs. “I can sleep anywhere.”

What kind of person offers something like that? What is Emma after? Emma has been unexpectedly kind to her so far, but everyone’s kindness has limits. Regina knows that better than anyone.

However, the couch truly is uncomfortable. If Emma does have some secret plan, Regina may as well endure it in comfort. After a moment’s thought, she nods. “That would be suitable.”

“Hey. You know what you need?” Without waiting for an answer, Emma goes to her icebox and opens the door. She rummages around in it for a few moments, growing frustrated. “Damn it.” She shuts the door of the icebox.

“What?”

“I’m out of ice cream.” Emma looks at Regina apologetically, as though expecting her to be disappointed, but Regina’s merely confused.

“What’s that?” she asks.

“You’ve never had ice cream before?”

Regina knows right away from Emma’s tone and expression that she’s said something strange. She closes her eyes. It’s exhausting, not only depending on someone else to explain things, but having to endure their judgement every time—unintentional as it may be.

But when she opens her eyes, all she sees on Emma’s face is determination with a hint of… excitement? “Come with me,” Emma says.

“What?”

Emma is already moving to the closet where she keeps her jacket. “We’re going to fix this right now. Everyone should get to know what ice cream tastes like.”

“Right now? Wearing this?” Regina looks down at her sleepwear. People don’t seem to have much of a dress code in Brooklyn, but she’s fairly sure they don’t wear pajamas in public. “That can’t be appropriate.”

“It’s fine, trust me. I do it all the time. But here’s a sweater, in case you’re chilly.” Before Regina even moves, Emma comes back and hands her a soft blue sweater. It’s the kind with the teeth in the front.

It takes a second, but Regina figures out she’s supposed to put the little metal tooth in the metal container and pull up. The sweater isn’t terribly attractive and it does clash with her pajamas, but it’s been worn smooth on the inside so that it’s soft.

Emma puts on her boots and her red jacket. Regina goes to put on her heels, but Emma hands her a pair of old shoes made of soft mesh.

“Running shoes,” Emma says. “Comfier than heels. Just try them on.”

Regina reluctantly puts them on. Surprisingly, they not only fit perfectly but are, in fact, comfortable. Emma grabs her keys and they leave the apartment.

It’s noisy and busy outside, like it always seems to be here, but the night air is cool and crisp and refreshing. On nights like this, Regina’s father would take her outside as a child so they could look at the stars. He’d taught her to navigate and how to recognize constellations in the web of shimmering lights. It was one of the rare activities they shared that her mother never tried to ruin. Regina looks up as she walks, wondering if the stars in this realm are the same as those at home.

At first, it seems as though there are none. Only after a few moments of searching does she notice the handful of faded stars, most of which seem isolated from each other. The patterns are nearly impossible to distinguish.

Suddenly, Regina feels very, very homesick.

Emma takes her past stone buildings and colourful stores and people. After only a few minutes, they reach a shop called ‘Brooklyn Ice Cream.’ The name of the shop is written in blue letters, all glowing brightly except the last two. A faded sign in the window reads ‘Open 24 Hours.’

Emma pulls the door open and holds it so Regina can enter. Inside, the shop is brightly lit with harsh white lamps. There’s a display case at the back with buckets of coloured substances in them. Apart from an elderly couple sitting near the washrooms, the shop is deserted. The hum of the lights and the periodic honking from outside are the only noises.

They approach the counter, where a pale teenager with brown hair is reading a well-worn book at the register. He looks up when he sees them. “Hi. How can I help you?”

Emma looks at Regina. “What flavor do you want to try first?” She gestures at the display.

There are so many options; it’s overwhelming. “I don’t care.”

“Can we have a sample of vanilla?” Emma asks the teenager. He takes a tiny spoon and digs out a small bit of white ice cream, which he hands to Regina. Not knowing what to expect, she puts it in her mouth. Immediately, her eyes close as she takes in the delicious creamy taste and texture.

“This is…” She trails off, not knowing how to describe it.

“Yeah,” Emma says. “I know.”

Regina tries every single flavour the store offers. She finds she prefers simple flavours, such as chocolate and vanilla, over those with too many elements crammed together, like something called Blueberry Sprinkle Surprise. The cashier seems like he wants to say something about all the free food she’s eating, but every time he does, Emma glares at him and he backs down.

Eventually, Regina settles on French vanilla, which Emma explains is “just like regular vanilla, except it’s made with eggs, so it’s kind of fancy.” Emma orders something called Rocky Road, which is chocolate with marshmallows and peanut butter and nuts. Emma also insists that both of them eat their ice cream out of waffle cones with rainbow sprinkles on them. “It makes it more fun,” she says. Regina’s dubious, but she takes the cone anyway.

They settle into a booth near the window where Regina can look outside and see the endless traffic passing by. The noises from the city are muted, and the lights are not as bright as they are outside.

“I found this place a few weeks after I moved here,” Emma tells her as they eat. “I’d just caught this lady who jumped bail after she was charged with tax evasion. She knew how to run, too. I was tired and beat up and this place was like heaven.”

“I can imagine,” Regina says. She pictures Emma, covered in bruises, stumbling across this little shop in the middle of the night.

“Ice cream makes a lot of stuff better,” Emma says. “I still come here a lot when I can’t sleep.”

“Do you have a pen?” Regina asks.

“A pen? Uh… yeah. I do, actually.” Emma removes a black pen from her jacket pocket and hands it to Regina. “Why?”

Regina uncaps the pen and writes Ice Cream on a napkin. “I’ve been keeping track of things from this realm that I’d like to bring over to my own when I return.”

“Oh. Oh. The paper, from the…” Emma’s eyes widen as though something has just made sense to her. “What do you have so far?”

Regina thinks for a moment, trying to recall everything she’s written so far. “Flush toilets, toilet paper, light bulbs, penicillin, antibiotics, antibacterial soap, electricity, traffic lights, paramedics, the Dewey Decimal system, and pasta shells.”

Emma nods. “That’s a good list.”

They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes, eating their respective ice creams. Emma sprawls in her chair like she’s trying to take up as much space as possible, her shoulders slumping and one foot in the aisle. Regina sits neatly, her ankles crossed, her elbows hovering over the table.

In the relative stillness of the shop, Regina’s mind finally starts to settle. She thinks of Robin, lost somewhere in New York. Has he found somewhere warm and safe to spend the night? It’s not likely. A heavy feeling settles in her chest, and it takes her a moment to identify it as guilt.

Before she can dwell on it, Emma speaks. “I need to know who Leopold is,” she says gently. “If he’s dangerous…”

“He’s not dangerous,” Regina says immediately, her whole body stiffening.

“Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yes. He can’t hurt you.”

“I’m not worried about me,” Emma says steadily. “I’m worried about what he might do to you.”

“There is nothing more he can do to me.” She knows it’s true, despite what her dream-self had believed.

Emma looks like she wants to press further, and Regina braces herself for further questioning. Surprisingly, however, Emma says nothing, despite her obvious curiosity and… concern?

That could by why Regina's mouth opens and she says, “Leopold was my husband. He was… he was not a kind man.” She means to say it casually, to provide just enough of an explanation to discourage further conversation, but her voice comes out quiet and fragile.

Emma seems to understand the meaning behind her words, judging by the way her gaze immediately sharpens and her posture grows tense; either she's particularly intuitive or she's known women in Regina's situation. Possibly both. “Your husband? Damn.”

It's not the most eloquent response, but the sentiment behind it is clear: Emma is angry, but not with Regina. Rather, she seems angry on Regina's behalf. It's unexpected... and surprisingly validating.

“Why did you marry him? Is it okay if I ask that? You don’t have to say if you don’t want to.” The last bit comes out in a rush, Emma putting her hands up to indicate that Regina’s free to disclose as much information as she likes.

Normally, Regina wouldn’t answer that question with a sword to her throat, but it’s so quiet here and she’s so tired and it’s so nice to have someone to listen to her who’s not five years old. “My mother accepted the proposal on my behalf. I was unable to refuse.”

“Your mom sounds like a piece of work,” Emma says without hesitation. Her tone contains shock and anger, but not pity or condescension.

Regina smiles wryly. “I don’t know what that means, but I believe it’s accurate.”

“Yeah?” Emma seems to be hoping for more information, but when Regina doesn’t respond, she doesn’t press. Regina takes another lick of her ice cream, which is starting to melt.

“What about your dad?” Emma asks.

“My father was not as powerful as my mother. He would have stopped the marriage, but there was nothing he could do. Or at least he believed there was nothing he could do.” In truth, he never even tried.

Emma nods slowly. “So you’re not tight with your parents then.”

Regina translates that as best she can. “No, we’re not close.”

“How long were you married for?” Emma asks quietly.

“Ten years.” Ten horrific, isolating, horrendous years.

“That’s a long time,” Emma says. “You must have been pretty young when you got married.”

“No, I was eighteen.”

Emma's jaw drops. “Eighteen? What are you talking about? That’s so young!”

Young? “In my realm, eighteen is the typical age of marriage.” She’d been the last of the girls in her age group to marry, much to the dismay of her mother. Regina winces at the memory of all the conflicts they’d had over her lack of a husband.

Emma shakes her head. “Well, here, it’s considered really young. Was your husband that young too?”

“He was fifty-seven.”

Emma’s grip tightens around her ice cream cone. She stares at Regina with horror dawning in her eyes. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. That’s so gross. And it’s awful that it took so long for you to get a divorce.”

“What is a divorce?”

Emma’s ice cream cone splinters in her hand with a small crack, rainbow sprinkles breaking off and scattering on the table. She opens her mouth, then closes it again, seemingly shocked.

Regina does not know what to make of that. She eats her own ice cream with an odd sense of self-consciousness, taking care not to spill any on Emma's sweater.

When Emma finally speaks, her voice is strained. “A divorce, it’s when two people who are married stop being married.” She shakes her head. “That’s… not a good way to put it, probably. But that’s basically what it is.”

It’s a confusing way to phrase things, but Regina quickly grasps Emma’s meaning. After all, there’s only one way to stop being married, and a special word for the loss of a spouse is hardly the strangest thing this realm has invented. She nods. “Yes, it was ten years before I could—before Leopold passed away.”

“Wait, he died?” Emma asks, her forehead wrinkling.

Regina frowns. “Is that not what you meant?” This conversation grows ever more confusing.

“No. No, that’s not what I meant.” Emma shakes her head rapidly. “Why would I mean that?”

“Well, how else do people end a marriage?” Regina asks, her tone sharp with frustration.

“They—they sign papers. The married people go to a courtroom and sign some papers and it’s over,” Emma says.

Regina blinks at her. “That’s all?”

Emma shrugs. “I mean, it usually takes a few months, but yeah. That's all.”

That’s all.

Regina looks at her left hand, at the space her wedding ring occupied for ten years. Leopold, at their wedding, had struggled to put the band on her. It had been too tight, not properly fitted, or perhaps he’d wanted it that way. After Leopold’s funeral, it had slipped off quietly—her reward for ten years of anxiety and malnourishment. “Divorce sounds like an excellent idea.”

“I guess you don’t have that in your realm,” Emma says, her voice small.

“We do not,” Regina says. It’s near incomprehensible, that so many years of misery could have been avoided with the stroke of a pen. Not for her, perhaps, not for the wife of the King, but for others... She picks up the pen and writes Divorce on the napkin, under Ice Cream.

“So, uh, your husband died?” Emma asks. “What happened?”

“I killed him,” Regina says almost absently, still preoccupied with the thought of divorce.

She regrets it immediately when Emma flinches back, her eyes widening as though Regina’s shocked her. It seems an odd reaction, though, since Emma already knows who she is. She may not have gone into detail about the people she’s killed, but a title like the ‘Evil Queen’ does not imply warm and cuddly.

The things she’s done had been justified. The people in her realm hadn’t seen things her way, believing Leopold to be a fair and just ruler. Emma, however, has no reason not to take her side. She’d thought…

Thought what? That Emma would sympathize? It’s one thing to know someone is a villain and another to learn that she murdered her own husband. Regina should have known not to mention Leopold; she should have known this would be a step too far…

Then Emma says, “Good,” in a voice that’s low and angry, and Regina starts to breathe again.

“I guess the version of the Snow White story from the library didn’t mention any of that,” Emma says.

Regina shakes her head. “No, it did not.”

“You wanted them to know,” Emma says quietly. “You just wanted them to get it.”

Regina says nothing. She had been thrilled when the children had believed her, but now… Now, her actions seem like a desperate search for validation.

“Look, I understand what you’re going through,” Emma says.

It’s obviously an attempt at connection, but it’s laced with pity Regina doesn’t want. Her hands clench reflexively. “Really? You’ve gone to an alternate realm that’s turned your life into a children’s tale? No, you don’t know what it’s like, what I’ve been through.”

Emma pulls back slightly, obviously hurt, and Regina worries again that she’s gone too far. Then, shockingly, Emma nods. “You’re right. I guess I don’t know exactly how it feels. But I know what it’s like to have other people tell you who you are. It sucks.”

Not for the first time, Regina finds herself growing curious about this strange woman who’s taken her in, who lives a life of apparent isolation and yet was kind enough to take her for ice cream at three in the morning. She studies her, red leather and wild hair and a mouth that turns down at the edges, a mouth she’s never seen smile. “And who are you, Emma Swan?”

Emma blinks, surprised, and tucks her arms around herself as if she’s cold. “I’m just me,” she says. “I’m not a hero or a villain or anything. I’m just… trying to do the right thing, you know? Trying to be a good person.”

It’s not anything close to a brag; in fact, there’s something like sadness in her voice. She looks strangely apologetic and she doesn’t quite meet Regina’s eyes. Regina says nothing, not sure what’s expected of her, and awkward silence fills the space between them.

Emma sighs. “Was it good? Your ice cream?”

Regina looks at her mostly empty cone. “It was wonderful.”

Emma suppresses a yawn. There are shadows under her eyes and her jacket is rumpled. She’d clearly rather be in bed right now, especially after everything she’s done over the past day and half: pulling Regina away from a car, saving Regina from the toaster, getting Regina through the grocery store, taking Regina in, weathering Regina’s insults and all her terrible behaviour… And here she is, buying Regina ice cream simply because… she’s trying to make her feel better?

Regina says, barely loud enough to be heard, “Thank you.”

As Emma eyes widen in shock, shame curdles in Regina’s stomach. “Don’t worry about it,” Emma says. “It’s just ice cream.”

“Not for the ice cream. For helping me.” Regina swallows once, twice. “I realize I haven’t been the easiest houseguest.”

Emma raises her eyebrows at that but says nothing.

Regina pushes down her pride and continues, “Earlier, in the store, I didn’t mean… I don’t know why I was so angry.” She had been trying to remain inconspicuous, if only to avoid a repeat of the library incident, but it had been so loud and chaotic, she’d barely been able to think. “I wasn’t trying to cause a problem.”

Emma closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, there’s no anger there, only resignation. “I know. It’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Regina whispers. This is the part where a true hero would apologize. That might mean something to Emma, but for all she knows she should, Regina just can’t—she won’t—

“I realize, of course, that this is a business arrangement,” she says quickly. “I just wanted you to know I appreciate what you’ve done for me. I know this has been difficult for you, especially since my story was not easy for you to believe. So… thank you.” Her voice trails off awkwardly.

It’s the first time in years that she’s thanked anyone sincerely for anything, so she’s not entirely sure what to expect—a smile, perhaps, or ‘you’re welcome.’ Definitely a response of some sort. However, Emma merely presses her lips together and looks down at the table. Instead of appreciation, forgiveness, or even anger, her face reflects only torment. Has Regina somehow made another social error? Do the people in this realm have different customs around gratitude?

An apology would be ridiculous and Emma’s left her with no conversational threads, so Regina finishes her ice cream instead of talking. The clock above the ice cream counter ticks steadily: ten, twenty, thirty seconds. Outside, traffic rushes by, barely visible in Regina’s peripheral vision as a series of flashing colours reflected in the glass of the windowpane.

Forty seconds, fifty, a minute, and the silence stretches uncomfortably on. Regina licks the last bit of ice cream from her cone. The cashier mops up the tables nearby, probably eager for them to leave so he can clean their table as well. Outside, a party of drunken revelers passes by the shop, their voices swelling momentarily before they are gone.

“Are you happy?”

Regina blinks. She’d begun to think Emma would never reply. “Pardon me?”

“Are you happy?” Emma repeats, looking her in the eye now. Her voice is low, intense. “Is this good?”

“I told you, the ice cream was wonderful,” Regina says politely, folding her hands on the table.

Emma shakes her head. “No, I mean, being here. Right now, with me. Was this... was it enough? Are you happy?”

What sort of question is that? It seems quite personal, and fairly unrelated to their previous topic. Is that how people in this realm typically respond to apologies? That doesn’t explain Emma’s discomfort, but what other explanation could there be?

Normally, she would reply to such a ridiculous question with an insult or a sarcastic retort. And yet she cannot bring herself to do that now, not when Emma’s looking at her as though she actually cares about what Regina says.

Regina opens her mouth to respond that of course she is happy. That way, they can move the conversation along to a less difficult topic. Then she realizes she cannot say that, because it would be a lie.

She’s not happy. She won’t be happy until she kills Snow White, completes her vengeance, and wins her kingdom back. That has been her goal for years now.

And yet… it’s strange. She last saw Snow White fewer than 48 hours ago, but here in this little shop in Brooklyn, eating her fancy French vanilla ice cream out of a rainbow sprinkle cone, it seems somehow harder to reach the anger that’s carried her through the world for so long. Her feud with Snow White already seems like a distant memory, like the work of fiction this realm believes it to be. It feels oddly as though a weight has lifted from her shoulders.

However, that doesn’t mean she’s happy.

Does it?

What does happiness feel like?

“I… I’m not unhappy,” she says carefully. It’s not the most enthusiastic response, but it’s as truthful as she can manage.

Apparently it’s not enough, because Emma shakes her head. “That’s not what I asked. I asked if you’re happy. That’s different than not being sad.”

“How do you know?” Regina snaps, although there’s no bite to it. “Are you the happiness expert?”

Emma takes a deep breath before she says, “No, I’m not. But I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that. Can you remember the last time you were happy? Like, really happy?”

“Why?” Regina asks, her muscles tensing.

“It’s just a question, Regina,” Emma says calmly, although she does not meet Regina’s eyes.

Just a question? Nothing is ever just a question, especially when it comes to something like happiness. Emma’s behaviour is far too suspicious for this to be a routine social interaction. What could be the purpose of this interrogation?

Regina mentally scans their conversation for anything unusual. Emma’s been strangely compassionate, especially for someone so prickly. And then there’s her reluctance to make eye contact, her readiness to forgive Regina’s misdeeds, her strange look of apology when she said she was just trying to be good…

It’s as though she’s done something wrong and is trying to compensate somehow. But what could she possibly have done? She hasn’t been the most pleasant hostess, but she’s hardly been cruel. In fact, she’s been unusually kind in allowing Regina to stay with—

Oh. Oh. Of course.

Regina sits back in her seat, her stomach twisting painfully. How had she been so stupid?

“You’re not going to help me, are you?”

Emma’s eyes widen. “What?”

“You’re going to make me leave. That’s why you’re doing all of this for me. You feel guilty, and you wanted to assuage your guilt by buying me ice cream as though that will make up for tossing me out on the street.” Regina crumples the remnants of her ice cream cone into a napkin and pushes it away. The leftover taste of the ice cream on her tongue now seems sickly sweet, almost nauseating.

“How—why would you think I’m kicking you out?” Emma asks. It’s weak, not even an attempt at denial.

“Did you decide I was too inconvenient? Or—” Regina’s stomach sinks. “You’re like the rest of them. You see me as a villain. And good people don’t help villains.” Now everything makes sense: Emma making sure she’s okay, Emma pretending to care about her problems, Emma asking if she’s happy. “You’re just like those heroes. A pathetic hypocrite.”

“Regina…”

Or perhaps Emma had never intended to help her. Perhaps she was always planning to take Regina’s money and abandon her. “You will give me my money back. If you try to keep it, I swear, I will…” Will what?

“Regina, can you please listen to me?”

“I don’t need your help anyway,” Regina lies. “I don't want your money or your services or your—or your ice cream. I'll be much better off without you.”

Emma's eyes widen as though she's just learned something important; belatedly, Regina remembers Emma can tell when she's lying. She barrels forward regardless. “I’m sure there are many people who would be willing to assist me. I’m going to find Robin without you, no matter what it—”

“Regina, I’m not kicking you out.

That silences her. There’s a brief flash of what almost looks like surprise in Emma’s eyes, or perhaps doubt, but then it’s gone, replaced by sheer determination. “I’m gonna keep my promise and I’m gonna help you, villain or not, because that is what good people do.”

Regina laughs. She can’t help it. “Since when is that what good people do?”

“It is,” Emma says firmly. “You can stay with me for as long as you want. I got your back, okay?”

“What does that mean?” Regina asks, too exhausted to try and puzzle out yet another of Emma’s strange phrases.

“It means I’m going to help you as much as I can for as long as you need.”

As long as she needs? What sort of offer is that? Regina examines her, searching her expression for any hint of dishonesty. “If this is some sort of trap…”

“It’s not a trap, Regina.” Emma’s face is open, honest. It seems impossible, but… could she be telling the truth?

“Why would you do that for me?” Regina asks. She intended it to sound scathing, but it comes out as little more than a whisper.

Emma spreads her hands. “We have a deal, right? I promised to help you, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Regina wants to question her further, but she’s barely opened her mouth when she yawns unexpectedly.

“Come on, let’s go home,” Emma says. “Maybe you'll be able to sleep now.”

As much as she’d like to continue this conversation, Regina really is tired, so she nods. Emma may be an idiot with strange ideas of what ‘good people’ are supposed to do, but at least she’s not about to throw Regina out.

Emma picks up their napkins and throws them in the garbage, and they walk to the door together.

”And if you ever need someone to listen to you, I’m here,” Emma says. “You can tell me anything.”

Regina raises her eyebrows. “I don’t think listening was part of our arrangement.”

“Well, it is now,” Emma says as she pulls open the door and holds it. “Just… no more scaring children, okay?”

“Well, I can’t promise that.”

Emma rolls her eyes. But as Regina passes her, she sees the corners of Emma’s mouth turn ever-so-slightly up.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Emma throws Tamara’s pamphlet with all the information about the mental hospital in the recycling.

Maybe taking Regina in isn’t the right thing to do. There’s still a chance Emma's going to screw everything up. But if Regina really has no idea what good people do, no idea what happiness even is, there’s no way Emma can kick her out. Sure, she’s obviously got a ton of issues, but she’s still a person. No one deserves to be treated the way she has been.

So it’s up to Emma to create some sort of positive environment for her.

She starts as soon as she can. Early that morning while Regina’s still asleep, Emma runs out to Staples and buys a couple notebooks. They’re just lined exercise books, the kind kids use for their English homework, but Regina seems happy when Emma gives her one. She titles it “Items, Concepts, and Practices to Implement Upon Return to the Enchanted Forest” and before she even has breakfast, she copies over all her notes from the backs of napkins and library slips, filling the notebook with gorgeous handwriting.

Emma keeps the other notebook for herself, and she titles it “Stuff Regina Needs.” In it, she makes a bullet list of all the things Regina’s going to need:

  • Clothes (shirts, pants, underwear, etc.)
  • Comfy shoes
  • Haircut??? (to disguise in case assholes from cult are looking for her)
  • Decent coat
  • Hat(s)
  • Doctor’s appointment
  • Dentist appointment
  • Papers to become legal citizen—fake birth certificate? SSN?
  • Ice cream (misc. flavors)

After breakfast, Emma drives them to the library. After yesterday’s awkward subway ride, she figured driving would be better than trying that again.

She was wrong.

“Must we go all this way? It’s terribly inconvenient,” Regina complains as they settle into a traffic jam.

“Yeah, well, maybe you should have thought of that before you got yourself banned from the entire Brooklyn library system,” Emma says.

Regina’s scowl intensifies, and she mutters something about “Snow White ruins everything” that Emma chooses to ignore.

They hit a snag at the library: Apparently identification is required to get a library card. Regina, of course, has none.

Emma takes the librarian aside. “Look, this is my, uh… cousin. She’s staying with me for a bit because her house burned down, so she doesn’t have any of the papers she needs. Maybe I can just fill in my information instead?”

The librarian, a small Latina woman named Maria, looks at Regina and nods. “Don’t worry about it,” she says quietly. “We don’t need her papers.”

Maria gives them the form for out-of-state residents. Emma pays the fee and fills in everything from the address to the zip code to the e-mail address to the phone number. All she can’t fill in are the name and the birth date.

Regina takes care of those—turns out she’s in her early thirties—but she puts her name as “Regina” with no last name. When she tries to hand in the form, Maria shakes her head. “Sorry, ma’am, but we need a last name.”

Regina tenses, so Emma puts a hand out—not touching her, not quite, but enough that she knows it’s there. “Hey, it’s okay. Just make something up,” she whispers.

After a moment’s thought, Regina writes “Mills” as the last name. She’s got a little smile on her face, both when she writes it on the form and when she signs it on the back of her brand-new library card.

“How did you come up with that?” Emma asks once they’ve sat down at a table. “Is it because you saw it on the cereal box?”

Regina shakes her head. “My mother worked at a mill. She hated it there.”

“Sticking it to your mom.” Emma nods approvingly. “Nice.”

After dropping Regina off, Emma’s next stop is the drugstore. She picks up a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some deodorant—unscented, probably the safest bet. She grabs some earplugs because on the way home from the ice cream shop, Regina mentioned that she thinks this realm is too loud. Emma also picks up some tampons, because her period’s coming up and she’s out of—

Fuck. Tampons. Is she going to have to explain tampons to Regina?

Whatever. She can deal with that later. Maybe she’ll buy her a book or something.

Emma’s browsing the shampoo aisle when she gets a call from her boss. It’s weird; Shirley normally gives her at least a few days before she gets on her case about a perp.

She accepts the call. “Hey.”

“Have you seen the papers?” Shirley yells in her ear, sounding way more pissed off than normal. Which is saying something.

“I’ve been busy. Why, what’s up?”

“New York Times, page eight. There’s an article on your guy. He broke into a jewelry store and almost got caught, but he escaped. Wanna know how?”

“Uh, yeah, how did—”

“He stole a fucking police horse and rode it down the middle of the street,” Shirley says, her voice growing more shrill with every word. “Caused a car accident on the Eastern Parkway.”

Emma stops abruptly. “The Eastern Parkway?”

“Seriously, that’s the part you focus on? Not the part about the horse?”

Where on the Eastern Parkway?” She’s standing in the middle of the aisle and people are glaring at her, awkwardly pushing their carts around her, but she doesn’t budge.

“Just past Kingston.”

That makes no sense. Two days ago, her perp was running around Manhattan. How did he somehow end up one block away from the Eastern Parkway Branch Library? The exact library Regina was at yesterday?

What if this guy was part of Regina’s fairy tale cult, or whatever, and he’s stalking her?

No, that’s impossible. How would he even know she was at the library? It’s not like Emma told anyone she’d be taking Regina there. He couldn’t have been following her…

Except when she first tracked him down, he’d been trying to break into a shop three blocks away from the restaurant Regina dined-and-dashed at. That’s twice now they’ve ended up in the same place. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but after everything Regina told her about her old life, Emma’s not willing to assume the best-case scenario.

In the meantime, there’s a worst-case scenario for her to consider. She's not sure exactly which parts of Regina's story are real and which come from her delusions, but if Archie's right and the Evil Queen thing is a coping mechanism for feeling powerless, the crappy parents and crappy husband were probably real. The part about Regina killing her own husband and taking over the throne, on the other hand, sounds more like a power fantasy that Regina's mind turned into a memory. So the jerk husband could still be alive and out there, maybe even looking for his missing wife. It seems unlikely, but Emma's not taking any chances with Regina's safety.

“Shirley, I gotta ask you a favour.” Emma moves to the end of the aisle and ducks behind a display of greeting cards, lowering her voice just in case. “I need you to put out an alert—quietly—to keep track in case any shady guys named Leopold pop up.”

There’s a long pause, and then Shirley says, in the most unimpressed voice Emma’s ever heard, “What the actual fuck are you talking about?”

“He’s probably in his late sixties or early seventies.” Emma grimaces before continuing, “Maybe dressed in medieval clothes. And it’s for a—a friend of mine. Just ask people to keep an eye out, okay? Please?”

“For an old guy named Leopold who’s maybe dressed funny?” Shirley asks. “Swan, do you realize how vague that is?”

“It’s all the info I have.”

“Get more info.”

Yeah, that would go well. Hey Regina, please don’t kill me, but can you tell me as much as possible about your jerk ex-husband who you think is dead but might actually not be dead? “I can’t do that.”

“Call the cops.”

“I can’t. This lady—she’s not exactly here legally, I don’t think. I don’t wanna get the feds involved.”

Shirley sighs heavily. “Swan, what the hell are you up to?”

“Look, all I’m asking is for you to let me know if you hear anything suspicious. You know half the bounty hunters in this city. Just put out an alert.” She’s pretty much begging at this point, but this might be the only way she can keep Regina safe.

Shirley doesn’t say anything. After a minute or so, Emma’s pretty sure she’s not going to get a response.

Then, “Fine. but you’ll owe me one.”

“Thanks so much,” Emma says, feeling a burst of affection for her boss. “I really appreciate—”

Shirley hangs up before Emma can finish the sentence.

At the checkout aisle, Emma picks up a copy of the Times. She flips to page eight, which features a grainy, blurry cell phone photo of a guy on a horse. He’s racing down the Eastern Parkway while cars swerve to avoid him. The title of the article is ‘Escaped Criminal On Horse Causes Traffic Accident on Eastern Parkway.” Emma skims to the end of the article, which mentions that despite the efforts of seven police officers, the criminal is still at large.

On a hunch, she looks at the bit about the jewelry store. Sure enough, it’s the same one where they sold Regina’s necklace.

Her first instinct is to run over to the library, show Regina the article, and ask if—

No, that’s a horrible idea. If Regina finds out a horse-riding criminal keeps showing up near her, she’ll probably assume he’s Robin. Then she’ll want to meet him, and if he’s someone dangerous from her old life who’s stalking her…

He might not be. This might all be some weird coincidence after all. Either way, Emma won’t be able to relax until she knows he’s safely in custody.

Which means she has to get to work.

 


 

That evening, they go to the mall.

It’s loud and chaotic and full of people—not unlike Times Square, but indoors and with fewer flashing signs. Regina keeps her new earplugs in place, which blocks some of the noise. However, the sensation of the material in her ears is fairly unnerving. “Let’s make this quick, shall we?”

“Fine with me.” Emma taps at her phone, frowning. “I wanna get home anyway.”

They go through eight stores before they purchase so much as a shirt. Regina refuses to settle for low-quality clothing, but Emma makes it clear the clothing she’s used to is out of their price range, so she’s forced to branch out. She tries on clothing made with strange patterns, odd designs, even materials that hadn’t existed in her own realm.

The last time she’d had assistance choosing her own clothing, she was newly crowned queen and she’d had an entire team of seamstresses dressing her up like a rag doll. She hadn’t enjoyed the experience one bit, but now that she’s in a realm where the fashion customs seem both vague and complex, she wishes she had several people to help her choose something that would allow her to blend in—or at least stand out in an acceptable fashion.

However, her one source of fashion advice, barring the overly perky salespeople, is less than helpful.

“What do you think of this?” Regina asks, stepping out of the change room in a black jacket made of a soft material called ‘suede.’

Emma looks up from her phone. “That looks good. Get that.”

Regina rolls her eyes. Is it too much to hope for more than a three-word opinion on a piece of clothing? “That’s what you always say.”

Looking back at her phone, Emma shrugs. “Everything looks good on you.”

Regina goes back into the change room, feeling unreasonably warm.

At the tenth store, Regina tries on something called a ‘pant suit,’ which is quite comfortable. When she steps out of the changing area, Emma’s eyes widen, her phone forgotten. Her expression of awe is oddly gratifying.

After they’ve selected a few basic clothing items—three shirts, two pairs of pants, a jacket, and the pantsuit—Regina drags them into a variety of shops. There are stores for everything: makeup, luggage, electronics, sunglasses. The market back home had not been nearly so specialized. She’s browsing a store devoted entirely to baby clothes when Emma taps her shoulder lightly. “Can we stop at the food court? I’m hungry,” she says irritably.

A court of food? Regina envisions her palace courtroom with a roast chicken sitting on the throne, wearing a crown and listening to the concerns of fruit and vegetable subjects. She smiles before she can stop herself.

“You look happy,” Emma says, not sounding entirely sure.

“It’s nothing.” Embarrassed, Regina removes the ridiculous image from her mind and the smile from her face. “Let’s go to the food court.”

Emma doesn’t press, but the lines in her face smooth out as though a weight has been lifted from her.

It turns out the food court is really an indoor courtyard with many tables and a variety of restaurants. When they get to a table, Regina drops onto a hard chair, exhausted. She removes the plugs from her ears, which are starting to hurt, and the noise rushes back to her with full force.

“I’ll get the food,” Emma says, noticing Regina’s exhaustion. After stacking the bags on the table and chairs, she leaves. Regina closes her eyes and tries to relax.

That doesn’t last long.

“Regina?”

Regina opens her eyes to see a face she never expected to see again. “Ursula? What the hell are you doing here? Apart from infecting the area with the stench of fish.”

“I could ask you the same question. What brings the Evil Queen to the Big Apple? All obvious puns aside.” Ursula moves some bags over and sits down across from Regina, placing her container of sushi on the table. “Although, I must say, it’s refreshing to see a familiar face here for a change. Even if it’s yours.”

Regina smiles, feeling slightly less homesick. “Really, how did you end up here? I thought you were dead.”

“I got lucky,” Ursula says. “My father is Poseidon. He negotiated to have me sent here instead of being executed. It was difficult, but apparently the Blue Fairy isn’t willing to piss off a sea god.” She cackles, breaking apart a pair of chopsticks.

“And Cruella?” Regina asks. “The two of you used to be inseparable. Is she here too?”

The smile on Ursula’s face disappears. “No, she… she died. She skinned some princess’ puppy and the prince pushed her off a cliff.”

Regina frown. “That’s unfortunate.”

“Not for you,” Ursula snaps, her hands tightening around her chopsticks. “You didn’t care about her. No one did, except me.”

“True as that may be, it would have been nice to see a villain win for a change.” Regina’s not particularly sad that Cruella wasn’t one of the lucky few villains to escape death—she had been fairly irritating—but considering her own situation, she takes no pleasure in hearing about another villain’s untimely demise.

“Well, you’re right about that.” Ursula sighs, then forces the sadness off her face. “So what about you? Were you banished too? Or did you escape somehow?” She takes a bite of sushi.

“Not exactly,” Regina says. “I came here to find my soulmate.”

Ursula chokes on her sushi. A grain of rice falls from her mouth onto her Brooklyn Aquarium uniform shirt, leaving a streak of white against the dark tan. After a few seconds of coughing, she manages to say, “You have a soulmate?”

Regina explains her story to Ursula as quickly as she can, and Ursula’s eyebrows rise higher and higher. By the time she finishes, Emma is back with a tray of burgers and fries.

“Regina? Who is this?” Emma asks, looking at Ursula with narrowed eyes. “Who are you?”

Ursula looks up at her. “Robin?” she asks, turning to Regina before Emma can clarify her identity. “Well, she's rude, but attractive. Blonde. I should have known that would be your type.”

Her type? Regina shakes her head quickly, feeling uncomfortably flushed at the ridiculous notion that her soulmate would be… “No, this is Emma Swan. She’s a professional person tracker.”

“Bail bondsperson,” Emma says.

Regina waves a hand. “Either way, she’s helping me find Robin. I'm also staying with her.” She gestures at the woman across from her. “Miss Swan, this is Ursula. We know each other from the Enchanted Forest.”

“Right,” Emma says, eyeing Ursula skeptically. Emma looks like she wants to say more, but then Ursula looks at her watch and almost jumps out of her chair.

“Crap, I have to go. My shift is in thirty minutes and getting to the aquarium takes at least twenty-five minutes from here. Probably longer, because it’s Saturday and the subway’s gonna be full of kids.” Wrinkling her nose, she packs up the rest of her sushi and stuffs it in her purple snakeskin purse. “Good luck with your happy ending, Regina. I hope everything works out, if only so you can stick it in the Blue Fairy’s smug face.” She grins, then grows serious. “A victory for one villain is a victory for all of us.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Regina says. Ursula stands and leaves, waving a tentacle at her in goodbye.

“That was bold,” Regina says.

“What?” Emma asks, sitting in Ursula’s place with the tray of food. She hands Regina the burger with ‘R’ on the wrapper.

“Taking a tentacle out in front of all these people.” Regina unwraps her burger to see ketchup, lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes—but no onions. She smiles and takes a bite.

“A tentacle?” Emma asks. “What tentacle?”

Regina puts down her burger and stares at Emma. “The incredibly large tentacle she was just waving around? Long, green, lots of tiny suction cups? Are you blind?

Emma’s jaw drops. After a long pause, she says, “I, uh… I guess I missed that.”

“You know, for a bail bondsperson, you’re awfully unobservant.” Hopefully Emma will be better at finding Robin than she is at spotting tentacles.

“Are you and Ursula friends?” Emma asks as they eat.

“No, Ursula’s not the type to have friends. Cruella was the one exception.”

Emma’s eyebrows fly up. “Cruella? Like, Cruella de Vil? As in, tried to skin a bunch of Dalmations?” Emma tilts her head, evidently having trouble processing. “She was friends with… Ursula the sea witch?”

“Yes. Although perhaps ‘friendship’ isn’t the correct word,” Regina says. “Rumour had it they were in a romantic relationship, although they argued so frequently it was hard to tell.”

“I didn’t know you guys did, like, normal relationships,” Emma says, wiping a bit of ketchup off her chin. “I thought it was all soulmates and true love crap.”

“Not everyone gets a soulmate. In fact, most people don’t,” Regina says. “What is everyone else supposed to do? Be miserable forever?”

“I don’t know,” Emma says. “I kinda thought maybe that was the idea.”

Regina shakes her head. “Not at all. I had various sexual relationships myself. Maleficent, for example.”

Emma’s eyes widen. “Like, the dragon? How would that even work?”

“Well, she wasn’t a dragon when we—”

“Yeah, right, got it,” Emma says quickly.

“And what about you? I don’t suppose you’re… involved with anyone?” It seems unlikely; Emma’s never mentioned a lover or shown any sign of having one. However, anything that could distract her from finding Robin is something Regina ought not to make assumptions about.

Fortunately, Emma shakes her head. “I don’t really do relationships. Not anymore.”

“That does not surprise me.”

It wasn’t meant as an insult, but Emma puts her half-eaten burger down and narrows her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Miss Swan, you’re not exactly the warmest person,” Regina says, returning Emma’s scowl.

“This coming from someone who calls herself the Evil Queen,” Emma snaps.

They glare at each other for a few moments, and then Emma sighs. “You know what? Let’s just finish our lunch. Then we can get you some shoes.”

The argument doesn’t come up again, but Emma’s quiet for the rest of the meal.

 


 

“Regina’s experiencing hallucinations?” Archie’s voice over the line sounds tense. “What were the circumstances?”

“She met some lady named Ursula. You know, like the witch from Ariel?” Emma says quietly, pacing around in her kitchen. Regina’s putting her clothes in the bedroom closet—well within hearing distance if Emma doesn’t talk quietly. “She was nice enough to go along with Regina’s story. Although I still don’t know why Regina was talking to her at all.”

“The name could have triggered the hallucination,” Archie says. “Especially if Ursula was willing to engage with the delusion.”

“What do I do?” Emma asks.

“Apart from keeping her in a positive, stress-free environment, I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” Archie says. “And please keep me updated if it happens again.”

It doesn’t happen again, but that night, Emma’s perp breaks into the mall, hitting half a dozen stores and escaping before security can catch him.

Emma thought—well, hoped—that Regina would give her enough time to track down her perp, arrest him, and also come up with some excuse for why she hasn’t found Robin (and never will). But two days after their trip to the mall, Regina corners her at her desk. “How close are you to finding him?”

Emma sighs. “Regina, can’t you be a bit more patient?”

“I have been patient,” Regina says in the long-suffering tone of a woman whose husband has not yet returned from the war.

“It’s only been a few days,” Emma says. “I think maybe you need to alter your expectations. There are more than eight million people in New York City. Give me some time.”

Regina huffs and walks away, but she’s definitely not going to be gone for long.

The next day, Emma buys a used laptop. With the help of a programmer she knows from work, she reconfigures the browser to block all keywords even remotely related to her perp. Then she shows Regina the Internet.

That buys her a couple weeks.

While Regina’s distracted, Emma throws herself into finding her perp. She compiles a list of as many crimes as she can, trying to find a pattern—particular locations he favours, or people he hangs around with. However, the only similarities she can find are that he only steals from rich people, he never gets caught, and he keeps showing up near Regina. Not every time, but on four separate occasions over those two weeks, he’s within two miles of her on the same day.

Emma also doubles her efforts to figure out where the hell Regina came from. She sneaks Regina’s dress to a fashion expert under the pretense of having it dry-cleaned, but apart from learning that the style dates back to early 18th century Europe, she gets no information about who might have made it or where it was made. She asks Regina questions about the geography of her ‘realm,’ but landmarks like “the Tree of Wisdom” and “the Forbidden Fortress” don’t show up on Google Maps. She even calls NYC Wastewater Control and pisses off the customer service guy confirming that there are, in fact, no people living in the sewer system.

Still, she thinks she’s got everything under control… until she comes home one day to find Regina sitting at the desk staring intently at her laptop.

“What the hell are you doing?” Emma yells. She e-mailed Archie from that laptop earlier. She’s still logged in to her account… how much has Regina seen?

Regina turns to her and glowers. “Miss Swan. We need to talk.”

“How did you hack into my laptop? I never gave you my password.”

Polaris. ” Regina holds up the yellow sticky note with Emma’s password on it and rolls her eyes. “You left it on a piece of paper stuck to the inside of your drawer.”

Emma snatches the sticky note away from her and crumples it up. “I told you not to go snooping!”

“I hired you to find someone, but two weeks have gone by and you’ve given me nothing.” Regina crosses her arms, unapologetic. “And now I find out you’ve been lying to me.”

Emma’s stomach drops. “Uh, what’s going on?”

Regina moves over so Emma can see the screen and… shit, it’s worse. There, on the screen, is her perp’s file. “You found Robin and didn’t tell me?”

Shit. This is exactly what she didn’t want to happen. “Whoa, whoa, hold on. Why do you think it’s him?” she asks, stalling for time.

“Well, you obviously think it’s him. Otherwise you wouldn’t have so much information on him. Why did you not tell me you found him?” Regina asks furiously.

“Because… I didn’t have any hard evidence,” Emma improvises. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up. And we still don’t know for sure it’s him.”

“Of course we do.” Regina taps at the screen, which displays a still image of grainy security footage. “Look at his forearm.”

Emma leans in. The black-and-white footage reveals a blurry black smudge on her perp’s arm where his hoodie sleeve is pushed back. “What’s that supposed to be?”

“The lion tattoo!” Regina says, as though Emma’s an idiot.

“Regina, that could be anything. That could be a shadow. What other evidence do you have?”

Regina pulls up another file: a digitized crime report. “According to this, he constructed a bow and arrows out of branches, decorative rocks, and an old shoelace, then used it to break into a store that sells camping equipment.”

“Yeah, but anyone could do that.”

Regina pulls up some more reports. “Robin stole from me on many occasions. These crimes reflect exactly his type of thievery, deception, and general moral ineptitude.” She glares at Emma. “Believe me, Miss Swan, this is my soulmate. Now, where is he and how do we get to him?”

Chapter Text

“Could that be him?”

“Which one?” Emma asks. “The guy in the red hat or the guy smoking or the tall guy in the blue shirt?”

“Blue shirt.” Light brown hair, a poorly trimmed beard, shabby clothing… he does fit Robin’s profile. Regina tries to quell the strange fluttering in her stomach. Even if she is about to meet her soulmate, she has no reason to be nervous.

Emma leans forward over the steering wheel to get a better look at the man skulking around the bar entrance. She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. My informant said he wasn’t very tall.”

Disappointment settles in Regina’s gut. It’s ridiculous. She’s already waited days to find Robin. In some ways, she’s waited years. She can wait a few minutes longer.

Is Robin good at waiting?

From the moment she saw Robin on Emma’s laptop, her head has been spinning with questions about Robin—ridiculous, pointless thoughts about the most random things. It’s embarrassing. She’s a grown woman, a queen, and yet she feels the way she did when she was fourteen years old and hopelessly infatuated with her handsome language tutor, Sir Penn.

Regina reminds herself firmly that Robin is a means to an end, a stepping stone in the path to her happy ending. Nothing more. It does her no good to speculate.

Besides, she has to find him first.

Settling herself more comfortably in the passenger seat of Emma’s car, Regina scans the sidewalk outside Happy Larry’s Funky Monkey Bar and Grill. It’s not the busiest area of the city, but people still move in and out quickly enough that she needs to keep careful watch.

When Emma explained stakeouts to Regina, she made them sound exciting. Her face had lit up when she’d described lying in wait, keeping our eyes peeled, so when Robin shows up we can make a move on him. Regina had expected tension. Action, even.

Not… this.

“So what exactly do we do here?” Regina asks. Surely there has to be something more to this exercise than waiting.

“We wait,” Emma says, calmly taking a sip of her coffee. So much for that.

Does Robin like coffee?

“And this is really your job?” Regina asks. “You get paid for this?”

“Not enough.” Emma looks at her with one eyebrow quirked. “You sound surprised.”

“I wouldn’t have expected you to enjoy work that’s so… stationary.” Apparently the life of a bail bondsperson is not nearly so difficult as Regina assumed. If the job largely consists of lounging in a car drinking stale coffee and waiting for the criminal to make an appearance, she ought to make Emma lower her fee.

Emma smiles and turns back to keep an eye on the bar. “You get used to it. But we can chat if you’re bored.”

“I am not bored, Miss Swan,” Regina says sharply. “Why? Are you bored?”

“Not yet,” Emma says. “Wait ‘til hour five.”

Regina stares at her in horror, and Emma’s grin widens. “Kidding. If Robin doesn’t show after two hours, we can go home.”

Where would she and Robin live?

“Is that the typical protocol?” Regina asks, trying to keep blatant relief out of her voice.

“No,” Emma admits, “but you’ve never done a stakeout before. I wouldn’t put you through anything that rough.”

“I can handle it,” Regina says. “There’s no need for you to alter your methods on my account.”

Emma shrugs. “If you say so.”

It’s awfully monotonous… but still better than trusting that fate would put her on some sort of supernatural collision course with her soulmate. Tinkerbell’s word, unsurprisingly, has not been reliable. However, Regina has something better than a fairy’s misguided assertion: a tip, from someone Emma claims is a reliable informant, that Robin would rob this bar sometime tonight.

Hence the ‘stakeout.’ Hence the tedium.

Regina focuses as hard as she can on the people moving in and out of the bar. She counts the number of people with blond hair, then the number of people with green shirts. That soon grows tedious, so she moves on to determining the ratio of people with hats to the people without. Unfortunately, that doesn’t take long, so she devises a more complicated game: mentally rating the outfits she sees in terms of comfort, attractiveness, and perceived durability. When she’s finished with that, she analyzes the body language of people in pairs or groups to determine which are friends, which are romantically involved, and which are merely acquaintances.

When she can’t stand it any longer, she checks the clock on Emma’s dashboard. She blinks, certain she’s read the numbers incorrectly, but they remain the same.

Five minutes have passed.

Regina glances at Emma out of the corner of her eye. Her head is resting on the back of the seat and her posture is, as always, abominable—Cora would have a heart attack. Emma’s right hand is gripping her coffee so loosely that it seems as though it could spill at any moment; her other hand is resting casually on her lap. Her eyes, however, are scanning the area in front of the bar like a hawk searching for prey. For all Regina knows, she hasn’t even blinked since they arrived. Clearly, she’s prepared to stay here for a long time.

That’s fine. Regina can do this. She’s conquered realms, assassinated kings, and led a kingdom to prosperity. She is more than capable of… sitting around waiting for something to happen.

She’s not bored.

She leans forward to examine a man approaching the bar—but no, it’s just an ordinary man with Robin’s facial hair.

Perhaps she should have brought a book. She found a fascinating one at the library about zebras—horses with stripes, who knew? Or she could have brought the one about the establishment of democracy. That one, she owns. Emma bought it for her a few days ago, along with a book called “Your Changing Body,” which she’d shoved at her awkwardly before running away. Regina still doesn’t know what the hell that was about.

Does Robin like books?

This time, Regina seizes the thought and removes it from her brain. Enough. She has no reason to wonder about that. Besides, Robin is a criminal. Why would he enjoy books of all things?

Although… it was rumoured that before he became a thief, he belonged to a noble family. He would know how to read. He may even have some knowledge of politics. They might actually have things in common, even shared interests…

It’s silly. It doesn’t matter. They’re soulmates. They’ll meet and fall in love and Regina will survive, will have the story she’s always deserved, and that is all that matters.

Regina crosses her legs, tapping her fingers on the ridge of the car door in various patterns. She looks out the window. A young girl is curled up on a bench with a young boy, both of them no more than fifteen or sixteen. They’re sharing a box of cookies and laughing with each other.

What does Robin like to talk about?

The questions keep coming, out of her control. How incredibly irritating.

Although perhaps her curiosity is understandable. When she’d first come here, she’d merely been trying to escape execution. But now that Robin has been confirmed to exist in this realm, that this isn’t all some cruel joke, it all suddenly seems…

Real.

It’s a hard concept to wrap her head around: someone who would love her unconditionally, who would do anything for her. Someone she would love equally in return. It seems a foreign concept, but that is what soulmates do. That is what heroes do. It’s how the story always goes.

However, there has never been a story where a hero became a villain and then met their soulmate.

What if Robin

No. No. She will not go there. Robin would love her—will love her. Of course he will. Soulmates always love each other. When she had cursed Snow, Prince James had moved heaven and earth to get to his true love. Robin would do the same for her. That’s how this works.

An image enters Regina’s head unbidden: her lying in the glass coffin instead of Snow, with Robin bending over her, kissing her. The scene makes her uneasy, although whether that’s because of her prone position or because she cannot actually picture Robin’s face with any detail, she doesn’t know.

She imagines the scruffy man from all the Wanted posters bending over her unconscious form, and a shiver runs through her. She cannot help but feel… violated.

But it wouldn’t be violating, because in this scenario, she loves him and he loves her. They’re together, a matched set, made for each other by the hands of destiny. Somehow.

What if Robin doesn’t love

“Hey.”

Regina turns to see Emma looking at her, the lines of her face deepened in concern. The lights from the sign above the bar tint her face pink and blue, but her eyes are the same shade of green as always.

“You seem kinda stressed. What are you thinking about?” Emma asks quietly.

Belatedly, Regina realizes she’s breathing rapidly and gripping her knees so tightly her knuckles are white. She folds her hands in her lap instead and straightens her posture. “Sleeping curses,” she says truthfully.

“Like the one you gave Snow? With the poison apple?”

“Cursed apple,” Regina corrects, automatically irritated. “Curses are not poisons. Any sorceress who’s even remotely competent knows the difference.”

“Right, well. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m no sorceress.”

“Poisons have antidotes.” It’s a matter of semantics, but the mistake is common enough that it gets under Regina’s skin. She imagines it’s the way Sir Penn felt when his language students broke grammar rules. “The sleeping curse has no antidote. It can only be cured by True Love’s Kiss.”

“Is that what Snow and Charming did?”

Regina rolls her eyes. “Yes. Is this your way of distracting me? It’s terrible.” And not the least bit touching.

“Nah, I’m just curious,” Emma says, and Regina is not disappointed by that. “So that whole thing with them, did it happen like in the book? Like, Snow was in the house with the dwarfs, and you tricked her with the comb and the corset, except that didn’t work, so you tried the apple?”

“What? Of course not,” Regina huffs. “That would have been a massive waste of time. I kidnapped Charming and held him hostage so Snow would eat the apple.”

Emma plants her elbow on the car door and rests her head on her hand. “Why not just stuff the apple down Snow’s throat? Wouldn’t that have been even quicker?”

Regina takes a moment to savour that lovely visual before she replies, “More satisfying, perhaps, but far less effective. The sleeping curse must be consumed willingly.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Emma says. “How would the curse even know if it was willing or not?”

As much as Regina would love to explain the finer points of spell theory, the intricate dance between magic and user—or curse and victim—that she’s spent nearly half her life studying, it would most likely go far over her conversational partner’s head. So she merely says, “It’s magic, Emma.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “Okay, fine. But in that case, couldn't you have tricked Snow into eating it? Like, made it into applesauce or something?” Her posture is casual, but there’s a challenging edge to her voice.

“Are you doubting my expertise?” Regina asks, irritated.

Emma frowns. “What?”

“Don’t you think if there was a less complicated way to trick Snow into eating the apple, I would have considered it?” Honestly, it’s as though Emma’s trying to get her to admit she had no idea what she was doing, or even that she doesn’t remember what her life used to be like. How stupid does Emma think she is?

“No, I just… I’m just asking.” Emma softens her features into something more polite. “So, uh, how come you couldn't just trick Snow into eating the apple?” she asks, her voice now lightly curious.

Regina debates whether or not to answer, but her enjoyment of magical history overrides her desire to let Emma stew in her curiosity. “The first sorceress to administer the sleeping curse was quite vocal about her methods when she cursed the princess Alexandra to keep her away from her true love, the lady Parvana, so that—”

“Wait,” Emma interjects. “The lady?

“Yes, the lady Parvana,” Regina says. Was Emma not listening properly? She certainly seems alert now, almost surprised, as though Regina’s said something odd. She continues, more slowly, “So that they would not marry and create an alliance that would threaten her kingdom. Are you telling me Mr. Disney did not mention that in his version of the story?” She tries to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but largely fails.

“Actually, he didn’t get around to that one,” Emma says tightly. “For some reason.”

Oh, excellent. So the other so-called ‘fairy tale characters’ were not subject to Disney’s mutilation of their life stories. “How lucky for them,” Regina says, crossing her arms.

Emma pauses for a long time before she says, “Sure. Lucky.”

Regina turns to her, certain that she’s heard something in Emma’s voice, but Emma’s not looking at her. She’s not even looking out the window. She’s looking down at her lap, seeming somehow lost.

“Are you all right?” Regina asks, only because she needs Emma in good condition to find Robin and not because she actually—not for any other reason.

Emma’s head snaps up, and she clears her throat. “I’m fine. So what’s your point? Or did you just feel like giving me a history lesson?”

Regina wants to press, but the look on Emma’s face tells her that would not be a wise idea, so she reluctantly returns to their previous topic. “The point is that the witch couldn’t resist gloating about her victory, so word of the curse spread widely, even after she was captured and burnt at the stake. Now, as a general safety measure, royals typically refuse to eat food provided by strangers.”

Emma nods slowly. “That sucks for the Enchanted Forest Girl Guides.”

“Pardon me?”

“It’s a girls’ club. They sell cookies.”

Regina frowns. “To what end?”

Emma sighs, then continues with her questioning. “So why didn’t you go after Snow again? Try jabbing her with a needle, or something? Isn’t that supposed to work too?”

“It wouldn’t. Once someone has gone under the curse and woken up, they will be immune to it forever,” Regina says.

“So it's like the chicken pox.” Emma’s forehead wrinkles and she leans forward, concentrating. “In that case, why don't people curse themselves while their true love is next to them, get kissed awake, and then they never have to worry about it anymore? They can eat all the weird apples they want.”

Regina sighs deeply. “First of all, the curse is extraordinarily complicated. Only extremely skilled practitioners of magic, witches and wizards who have studied the darkest magical arts for years, can create it.”

“Okay, fair enough,” Emma says, taking another sip of her coffee.

“Secondly,” Regina continues, “true love is extremely rare. Only soulmates have ever shared it. Anyone who does not have a soulmate would be stuck under the curse forever, trapped in a prison of their deepest regrets. It would be an incredibly foolish risk to ta—”

She freezes. There’s a man, matching Robin’s description, wearing a hood, picking the lock on the side door of the bar—a door she hadn’t even noticed until now. His right sleeve is pushed back. There, on his forearm, is a lion tattoo.

“It’s him!”

Emma follows her gaze and visibly startles, nearly dropping her coffee. “I can’t believe it,” she mutters under her breath. Which is odd, because Emma expected Robin to be here. Why would she—

The door opens and Robin slips in quickly. Regina jolts out of her seat, suddenly realizing this is what she’s been waiting for. “We have to catch him!”

She exits the car as quickly as she can, her stomach twisting, her heart pounding in her throat.

It’s time to meet her soulmate.

 


 

How the hell did this happen? Emma purposefully took them to the farthest location from where her perp was last seen. This is literally the least likely place for him to be right now.

This guy has got to be stalking Regina somehow.

They enter as discreetly as they can. Inside the bar, there’s a counter up against the far wall. One exit to the left of the counter: that must be where her guy came in. Washrooms to the right, but no exit there. Lots of people, all pressing up against each other, form a wall that blocks her visibility. There’s only one bartender, and she’s distracted with a group of patrons.

If Emma were planning to steal something, where would she go? The cash register is blocked by the bartender, but bars usually have a safe in the back somewhere, right? While Regina looks around haphazardly, Emma sneaks around to the other side of the counter. Sure enough, her perp is crouching behind the bar and fiddling with the lock on a safe on the back wall, out of sight of the bartender.

He stops as soon as Emma sees him. As though he can sense her presence, he looks over and spots her, obviously recognizing her even though he’s only seen her once. Before Emma can even move, he leaps up, knocks over a stack of wine bottles, and bolts out the door.

The bottles crash onto the floor, narrowly missing a party of college-age women who scream and leap out of their seats. One woman knocks over the speakers, which make a loud feedback noise when they hit the floor. Within a handful of seconds, it seems like everyone’s yelling.

“Robin!” Regina screams, but it’s drowned out by the noise. She tries to follow him, but in the chaos, someone accidentally shoves her and she slips onto the glass-covered floor.

“Regina! Are you okay?” Emma runs over to her, crouching down and looking her over for injury. Her hands seem okay, just a bit scraped, but one of her heels is broken and her left foot has been sliced open. There’s a lot of blood.

“I’m fine. Do your job, Miss Swan!” Regina yells, practically shoving Emma away from her. “Find Robin!”

“But you’re not—”

“GO!” The expression on Regina’s face tells Emma that if she doesn’t move it right now, she’ll never be forgiven as long as she lives.

Emma takes off, dodging around people and racing out of the bar via the same exit her perp used. He’s not there. She looks around desperately, scanning the road and the sidewalk and everywhere else. She’s not going to lose him, not again, not when Regina’s safety is on the—

There, by the convenience store. He’s a couple blocks away now, but maybe not far enough away that she won’t be able to catch him.

She runs faster than she knew she could, weaving through the stream of pedestrians, dashing across traffic when the lights at the crosswalk aren’t in her favour. He’s good. He’s really good—probably the best criminal she’s ever chased. Either he’s lived in this city for a long time or he has an intuitive understanding of his surroundings, because he always seems to know just when to turn, which alleys to duck into.

Emma’s good too, and she tails him down street after street, nearly catching up to him. Still, by the time she’s finally able to corner him in an alley, she’s gasping for air and so is he.

Up close, he does look sort of like the guy from Regina’s book, except scrawnier and with a lot more facial hair. Also, the guy in the book doesn’t look like he’s ready to stab someone. This guy, on the other hand, is holding a knife and pointing it in her general direction. Emma whips her gun out and aims it at him with her thumb on the safety, backing him towards a fence.

“Drop the knife,” she commands.

He reluctantly lowers the knife but doesn’t let it go. “What do you want from me?” he asks, his voice hoarse from exertion. He’s got a British accent, kind of posh, and it makes Emma even more irritated.

“I just want to talk.”

“Talk? You want to trap me and take me back to prison. I don't talk to sheriffs.” Emma can hear the fear in his voice, beneath the loathing. This guy has been in prison before. He has that look, like he’d do anything to avoid being trapped again. It’s the same look Emma saw on a lot of the women in prison. It’s the same look she sees in the mirror sometimes.

“I’m not a sheriff, I promise,” Emma says in what she hopes is a reassuring tone of voice. “I want to talk about Regina.” She studies him carefully as she says Regina’s name. If he doesn't know who Regina is, then the name will mean nothing to him. If he does, his face should give that away.

However, he just looks confused. “Who is Regina?” he asks, sounding genuinely puzzled. “I’m afraid I don’t know whom you are referring to.”

Emma examines his eyes, his tone of voice, every line in his face, but there’s nothing to indicate he’s not telling the truth. Still, she’s not convinced. “Why were you at that bar tonight?”

Despite the exhaustion on his face, he manages to raise an eyebrow. “I fancied a pint,” he says in an irritatingly sarcastic tone.

“Can you cut it with the smartassery?” Emma snaps, backing him further into the alley. “Yesterday, you were across town. Why did you come all the way here?”

He narrows his eyes at her. “Why the hell should I tell you anything? You’re just going to drag me off to prison anyway. Just arrest me now and get it over with.”

Emma hesitates. Sure, she could bring him in now… but he wouldn’t have to talk. He has fifth amendment rights just like any other criminal. If he’s connected with Regina’s cult, if he knows something, she might never get that information out of him.

Besides, if she arrests him, she’ll have to bring him back to the station. In her car. With Regina. Which means she’ll have to explain what’s actually going on here.

As much as she hates it, she’s only got one option. “I’ll make you a deal.”

Immediately, his face fills with revulsion. “I don’t make deals with—”

“I’ll let you go.”

His eyes widen, then narrow again within a fraction of a second. “Why would you do that?”

“I’ll let you go if you answer my questions honestly and if I like the answers. Trust me, I’ll know if you’re lying.”

His eyes flicker from her face to her gun and back again. “If I’m going to answer questions, you could at least have the decency to lower your weapon.”

“So you can escape? Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Well, I’ll hardly be in any condition to answer questions with that thing pointed at me.”

It’s a fair point. “Fine, but I’m cuffing you to the fence.”

“You’re arresting me anyway? That seems to defeat the purpose of this entire exercise.” He raises an eyebrow again. “Unless I’ve misread you entirely and you’re actually hoping to take this in a very different direction, in which case, I’m afraid I’m not interested.”

It takes her a few seconds to get the implication, but then she snorts. “Don’t worry, scumbag criminals aren’t really my type.” Anymore.

“No offense, but I can’t say I’m upset about that.”

“I’ll let you go after you answer my questions. Maybe. Now give me the knife.”

There’s a long pause in which he’s obviously weighing his options, but he really doesn’t have any, and he’s apparently smart enough to realize that. Finally, he hands over the knife, then puts his hands against the fence obediently— too obediently.

“And your lock picks.”

He looks caught out for a second, then sighs in defeat. “Fine,” he says, shaking a set of lock picks out of his right sleeve.

“You got any more of those?” Emma asks.

“No,” he says, looking her in the eye innocently.

It’s a lie. “Shake out your other sleeve.”

He glares at her resentfully while he shakes another set of picks out of his left sleeve. “That’s all of them,” he says honestly. “Are you happy now?”

“Not really, but I believe you. So far.” Emma confiscates the lock picks and tucks them into her jacket pocket, next to a spare set of Regina’s earplugs and the pen she keeps forgetting to take out. Then she cuffs both his hands to the fence pole above his head. Once that’s done, she backs away a few paces to give him some personal space, as well as get away from his smell—this guy clearly hasn’t showered in a while.

“Why were you at that bar tonight?”

He seems confused, but he answers, “Truthfully, I… I don’t actually know.” His forehead wrinkles as though he’s never actually considered it. “I just felt… it seemed like the right place to be.”

It’s honest, but it doesn’t make any sense. “You mean you didn’t even plan to be there?”

“Is that so odd?” He shrugs. “Haven’t you ever just gone wherever your gut told you to go?”

Emma has done that. She’d practically lived that way, back when she’d been stealing cars and not giving a crap about anything. Still, her gut hadn’t taken her every which way across the city, regularly bringing her in suspiciously close proximity to a crazy lady who thought she was her soulmate.

“You really didn’t have any logical reason for being there?”

He shakes his head. “None whatsoever.”

She tries to recall another place he’s been to recently that was weirdly close to where Regina had been. “What about the bodega you robbed? The one on Main Street?”

“How did you know that was me?” he asks in surprise. “I’ve been trying to stay inconspicuous.”

Emma stares at him. “You stole a horse and drove it down the middle of the street.”

“That was one time,” he huffs. “Apart from that, I’ve been quite subtle.”

Subtle? Emma’s never met anyone less subtle in her life—well, except maybe Regina, a woman who said she didn’t care much for chocolate and then ate half a chocolate cake over the course of a week by slicing tiny bits off whenever she thought Emma wasn’t looking.

“Why were you there?” she repeats. “Why that specific bodega?”

He shrugs, at least as much as he can shrug when he’s tied like a turkey from the wrists up. “Again, I felt like it.”

“You had no other motive?”

“I’m afraid not.”

It sounds like the truth. Still, it’s hard to buy that he’s not stalking Regina when he showed up near her so many times. What other explanation could there be?

It seems like there isn’t one… well, apart from the one Regina would probably come up with. She’d mentioned once that according to her fairy godmother, fate is supposed to bring soulmates to each other no matter the circumstances. She’d rolled her eyes when she said it—apparently this “fairy godmother” is kind of an airhead—but if Emma didn’t know better, she’d almost think that was actually happening. Him showing up near her as many times as he did is a hell of a coincidence, and Emma doesn’t trust coincidences.

She also doesn’t trust shady criminals, so even though her instincts are telling her that this guy is telling the truth, she doesn’t let him go yet. “Are you sure there wasn’t some kind of… I don’t know, pattern?”

Apparently he’s had enough, because he snaps, “I’m terribly sorry I don’t have a master plan that meets with your satisfaction. Next time I arrive in a horrible city like this with no way of making a living and no idea what’s going on, I’ll attempt to be more coordinated with my criminal activity.”

All of Emma’s muscles tense up. It almost sounds like he arrived in New York under the exact same circumstances as Regina did. What could that—

Oh, wait. He has a British accent. Obviously he’s from England. Maybe he came here to get a job or something, and it didn’t work out. There’s a perfectly logical explanation.

Still, the way he phrased it… “And you’re sure you don’t know Regina?”

He tilts his head, this time looking as though the name might mean something. “Now that you mention it, the name does sound familiar…”

Emma waits expectantly, her nerves on edge, but then he sighs. “Is she someone I stole from? Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea.”

He doesn’t know Regina, he has no plans, no idea what he’s doing… so this really is just a coincidence. Or rather, a highly unlikely series of coincidences. It’s weird, but unlike magic and soulmates and fate, coincidences are at least real. This must be one of those freak statistical things, like how the divorce rate in Maine is correlated with margarine consumption, or something like that.

“Is that all the questions you have?” Her perp sounds exhausted. Even if she had more questions, he’s in no shape to answer them.

Emma sighs. “Yeah, that’s it.” She takes out a set of lock picks—her own, in case the ones she confiscated are crap—and starts to work at the lock.

“You don’t have a key?” He twists his head and looks at her incredulously.

“No. Now stop moving your hands.”

“That seems like an oversight,” he says, but at least he stops wriggling.

“Well, I don’t normally let my criminals go after I catch them. So it’s never been a problem.” If Shirley could see her now, she’d kill her.

After a few seconds, the lock opens and her perp works himself out of the cuffs. He looks at her as though he’s surprised she’s really letting him go.

“You can go,” Emma says roughly, still not sure this is the right thing to do.

“Really?”

“Yeah. A deal’s a deal. But listen, this is a one-time—”

Before she can finish, he’s gone.

Emma makes her way back to where Regina is standing by her car, glowering at everyone and pressing a hand to her stomach. At least it seems she’s gotten her foot bandaged. She looks up when she hears Emma approach. “Where is he?” she says immediately, looking around and then narrowing her eyes when she sees Emma is alone.

Emma spreads her hands in apology. “He got away.”

Regina's nostrils flare and she steps forward on her uninjured foot. “How could you let him slip away? How horrifically incompetent—”

“It wasn't him, Regina,” Emma says quickly. “It wasn’t your soulmate.”

The anger on Regina’s face turns to shock, and she steps back. “How do you know that?”

“I told him about you, and he didn’t know who I was talking about.” She’s not even lying, for a change.

“What exactly did you say to him? What words did you use?”

“I don’t remember the exact words, but I told him your name. I swear he didn’t recognize it at all.”

“Are you certain?” Regina’s still glaring at her, but her voice is fragile. She looks like she would topple over if someone tapped her on the shoulder.

“Yeah, I am,” Emma says gently.

Regina steps back again, putting her hands on Emma’s car to steady herself. “That’s impossible. He would recognize my name. Everyone from my land would.”

“Regina—”

Regina shakes her head rapidly. “It was the same tattoo. I know it was.”

“Regina, lots of people have lion tattoos.”

“Then we have to keep looking,” Regina says. “He must be out there.”

Emma keeps her voice as soothing as possible when she says, “Regina, I’ve looked everywhere, you saw how much I looked. I just… I don’t think he’s here.”

From the look on her face, Emma thinks Regina might actually scream at her, right in front of this bar with all the people around them. But after a few long moments, Regina whirls around and gets in the passenger side of Emma’s car.

Emma gets in on her side. “Are you—”

“Don’t talk to me,” Regina snaps. And it’s only because Emma can see the way her face trembles and hear the way her voice cracks that she stays silent for the entire, very long ride home.

 


 

She was so stupid.

Sitting there in that car, wondering about her soulmate, imagining the life they could have together… How could she have hoped this might actually work out for her?

She’d been so sure the man on the video was Robin. Two weeks of nothing, and then there he was on Emma’s computer. And it was all a mistake.

Maybe Robin is still out there somewhere. Maybe there’s still a chance…

Except surely Emma would have found him by now. He’s probably dead, or in another realm entirely. Or perhaps he is out there and her accursed destiny won’t let her ever find him.

It’s too late. She’s already the villain. And villains don’t get happy endings.

She never should have trusted that damn fairy. What was Tinkerbell thinking? It was careless, even cruel, of her to corner Regina with such a terrible proposition when she was trapped in Snow’s prison cell with no other options.

No. This is not Tinkerbell’s fault. Loathe as she is to admit it, this is not even Snow’s fault. It was her own choice to go through that portal.

This is her fault.

By the time they make it back to the apartment, she’s trembling with the effort of holding back tears, clenching her hands into fists and pressing her lips together. Emma lets them in and Regina goes straight to the bathroom—the only room with a lock on the door. She turns the lock and curls up on the floor next to the door with her head resting on her knees, not bothering to turn the light on.

When she was sitting on death row in the Enchanted Forest, she’d thought dying in front of her worst enemies and former subjects would be the worst possible end.

She was wrong.

Two weeks ago, she’d been ready to die—or as close to ready as she ever could be. Then she foolishly allowed herself to have hope, to wish for things that were never hers to wish for. She threw herself into yet another doomed quest for happiness.

She spends several minutes sitting there, long enough that her back becomes sore and her knees start to ache. Her injured foot throbs in pain. Occasionally, Emma’s voice, muffled by the door, floats into her consciousness.

Are you okay?

Do you wanna talk about it?

Do you wanna eat something? Or drink something? I can make cocoa.

Regina, please talk to me.

Tea? I think I have tea. You like chamomile, right?

I promise I’ll leave you alone if you just tell me you’re okay.

Regina?

Eventually, Emma falls silent, as Regina knew she would. Emma can talk all she wants about what good people do, but she and Regina are not friends. Now that the possibility of finding Robin is off the table, their deal is no longer in effect, which means Emma has no incentive to let Regina stay with her.

She remembers the first several hours wandering around New York City and trying desperately to get someone, anyone, to listen to her. She’s not in such poor shape now—she has money, at least, and much more knowledge of this realm. Perhaps Emma will help her find somewhere to stay for a while, until her money runs out.

Then she can wait for the inevitable.

Have you ever heard of a villain who found happiness?

She thinks of Cruella, lying mangled at the bottom of a cliff somewhere. She thinks of the sorceress from the tale she’d recounted to Emma, tied to a pole and burned to a crisp. She thinks of Ursula, the daughter of a mighty god, banished to live in a realm without happy endings because it was the best deal her father could negotiate. Regina has done more damage than any of them. What chance does she have?

Wrapped up in her whirlwind of anxious thoughts, it’s a long time before she registers the steady breathing on the other side of the door. It’s close enough that Emma must be sitting down, the same way she is.

What is Emma doing there?

Oh. She said she would leave when Regina said she was okay.

Well, she’ll be there for a long time because that is not going to happen. Regina pulls her knees tighter against her chest and says nothing. Eventually Emma will leave and go to sleep.

Except Emma doesn’t leave. Minutes go by, then hours—two, three, perhaps more. It’s impossible to say in the dark, windowless bathroom.

It’s absurd that guilt, of all things, twists in her stomach. Why should she feel guilty because Emma has made the terrible decision to spend the night sitting on the floor instead of in a comfortable bed? Or at least the couch, which is where she’s been sleeping since the night she took Regina for ice cream. The night she swore to keep her promise and help Regina because that’s what good people do.

It’s absurd that Regina should feel responsible for that.

And yet…

“You should leave,” she says quietly. At least she should let Emma know that whatever show of solidarity she’s putting on is completely useless.

There’s a surprised intake of breath, then Emma says, “I’m not going to leave until I know you’re okay in there.”

Regina chokes out a laugh. “I’m not okay.” And I never will be.

“I’m sorry you didn’t find Robin,” Emma says. “I get that you’re heartbroken. But it’s not the end of the world.”

“I’m not heartbroken,” Regina says. “I was never in love with him.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Emma asks, her voice filled with confusion. “If you tell me, maybe I can help.”

“There’s nothing you can do.”

“Regina, you don’t know that. How bad could it—”

“I’m going to die.”

For a few long moments, there’s silence from the other side of the door, silence so complete Regina cannot even hear breathing. Then, “Why?”

“I failed to become the hero.” The words come out in a monotone.

“This is about your destiny.” Emma says the last word with an extra layer of skepticism. “Because you think you’re a villain.”

“It’s not about what I think. The book says I am a villain. If I were a hero, I would have succeeded by now.”

“I thought you didn’t like heroes.”

“I don’t,” Regina snaps. “They’re horrible hypocrites and I despise them. I just… I want what they have. I want to be happy.”

“And only heroes ever get to be happy? Honestly, Regina, I find that a little hard to believe.”

Anger swells in Regina’s gut, and it’s almost comforting. “Whether you believe it or not makes no difference. This is my life, my reality. You couldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

The arrogance contained in those two words pushes Regina over the edge. “All right, I will. Do you know what it’s like when nothing you do ever works out? I spent years hunting Snow White and got nothing out of it. Everyone always believed her, always helped her, and why? Because she’s the hero. Because she’s good. And I am not.” How could she ever have doubted that destiny is working against her? Looking back, without the veil of hubris to keep her from recognizing her failures, it seems so obvious that she was always doomed.

The truth is, she’s never been a hero. Heroes are happy and grateful and they don’t feel the way she feels. They don’t get so angry they want to hurt things just because they can. They don’t snap at people for the slightest mistake. They don’t turn their backs on happiness because they’re too cowardly to even try for a happy ending. They become good people because it’s right. Like Emma did.

Emma does not reply, and Regina sense judgement in the silence. She keeps talking. “It’s always been this way for me. Even when I was a child, wishing on the brightest star in the sky, hoping for someone to get me away from my mother. It never worked.”

Regina regrets the words as soon as she says them. Emma is a bail bondsperson, practical and jaded. Out of all the people who might understand wishing for things that would never happen, Emma is surely the last person who would ever—

“Polaris.”

“What?”

“The North Star. When I was a kid I made wishes on it all the time ‘cause some kid at my school said it was magic.”

“What did you wish for?” Regina asks, half-expecting Emma to ignore the question.

Surprisingly, Emma merely takes a deep breath before she says, “A family that would love me.”

“Did the wish come true?” Regina asks, more for confirmation than anything. The answer is already clear in the way Emma’s voice broke when she said the word family, in the way she’s never mentioned anyone in her life she’s close to.

Then Regina remembers something else: the picture tucked away in the box she wasn’t supposed to look at. The girl had been clearly defined, if childishly drawn, but the parental figures were a mishmash of features that didn’t resemble anything real, let alone human and loving.

Regina’s not at all surprised when Emma says, “No, it didn’t come true. Eventually I figured out it wasn’t going to. Making wishes doesn’t change things. Turns out fairy godmothers don’t exist in my world.” She laughs, but it sounds bitter.

“They exist in mine,” Regina says quietly. “They’re supposed to help everyone with a pure heart. Apparently that didn’t apply to me.” She pictures herself as a small child, making wishes that didn’t come true long past the point when she should have realized it would never work. Then she pictures Emma doing the same, a world away, for an entirely different reason. It makes her heart ache.

“But you said you were supposed to have a fairy godmother. It sounds like someone else screwed up. I mean, you weren’t a villain when you were a kid, right? So it doesn’t make sense that you’d be punished for stuff you hadn’t done yet.”

“Unless they knew what I was going to become.”

“No, you know what? It sounds to me like everyone in your life who was supposed to care about you let you down. I know how that can make you feel like you’re nothing. But it’s not your fault, I promise. It’s not like they offered you a great life and you told them to stuff it. You never had a chance.”

The compassion in Emma’s voice grates on Regina’s ears. She buries her head in her knees, as though that will muffle the sound, but it’s not enough.

“Regina. It’s not your fault,” Emma repeats, more gently.

“You’re wrong,” Regina whispers.

“What are you talking about?”

The words come out slowly, painfully. “A few years after I married the king, I came across a spell that is supposed to find someone’s soulmate, if they have one. And I was young, and hopeful, and curious. So I tried it at night, when everyone else in the castle was asleep. The spell took me to a tavern in a village not far from me. I saw Robin at the bar, drinking and laughing with his friends.”

“So you met him after all,” Emma says. “You found him.”

“No,” Regina says, forcing the word out of her throat. “I never met him. I didn’t go in. I convinced myself it was a trick, and I tried to forget about it.”

“You were afraid he wouldn’t love you?”

“He would have loved me. He’s my soulmate. That’s…” Regina squeezes her eyes shut. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“Why?” Surprisingly, there is no judgement in Emma’s voice.

Regina presses herself closer to the door. “Living in that castle, I was… invisible. I was the king’s wife, or Snow’s nanny, if I was anyone at all. I hated being angry all the time, but at least I remembered who I was. I felt like there was still some part of me left underneath what everyone else told me I was. It was the only thing they couldn’t take from me. That anger was the only thing that made me feel like myself.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Emma asks.

“What’s wrong is that heroes don’t feel that way. They don’t get angry at their mother or their father or the child they’re supposed to be mothering. If I’d met Robin when I was supposed to, if I had become the hero, all that anger would have melted away. And there would have been nothing left of me.” Regina hates herself for the way her voice breaks.

“Wait, this was after you married the jerk?”

It seems an odd thing to mention. Regina composes herself enough to say, “Yes, this was a few years after I married the… after I was married.”

“You’re mad at yourself because you didn’t walk out on your abusive jerk husband to go be with a guy you’d never met?” Emma sounds as though she’s trying to keep her voice under control and doing a poor job of it.

“I was too afraid to follow my destiny. I ruined his life!”

“What, by not dating him? Bullshit.” Emma’s voice crackles with anger. “See, here in this realm, we call that victim-blaming.”

“He was miserable! He was an outlaw, he had no home or friends, and now he’s dead for all I know. The man I saw in the tavern, at least he was happy.”

“If he made crappy choices because he wasn’t dating someone, that’s on him, not you,” Emma says. “We make our own choices in this world.”

“Well, my choice was made out of fear. I was afraid to be happy.” Regina smiles bitterly. “And now I never will be. I sealed my destiny years ago.”

“I don’t believe in destiny,” Emma says firmly.

Even though Emma can’t see it, Regina rolls her eyes. “You thought I was a cartoon character until two weeks ago. Forgive me if I don’t take your word on what to believe in.”

“Fine,” Emma says, a thread of exasperation in her voice. “Let’s assume you have some horrible villain destiny, or whatever. What makes you think that would even apply here? It’s not like you’ve been narrowly escaping death every other second.”

“Perhaps destiny is taking its time with me,” Regina says. “Prolonging the torture.”

“Or maybe not,” Emma says, and Regina imagines her leaning forward in excitement. “You said happy endings don’t exist here, right? For anyone? It’s a level playing field. No heroes, no villains. Just people.”

Regina had never thought about it that way. She’d never thought of this realm as anything other than a horrible nightmare and a dumping ground for villains her realm saw fit to leave alive. “What’s your point?”

“‘My point is, maybe the rules are different here. This can be a second chance for you.”

That snaps Regina out of her ridiculous thoughts. “No. I don’t get a second chance.”

“I don’t believe that. Regina, everyone gets a second chance.”

It’s awfully close to a hope speech, and Regina would reply with a scathing retort if it were anyone but Emma saying those words. The shock of hearing such a thing, spoken with such conviction, from a woman who has shown no evidence of believing in such foolish things as second chances is the only reason why Regina asks, “How could you possibly know that?” in a voice that’s not anywhere near as mocking as it should be.

“Because I got one.”

Perhaps Emma thinks that should change something, but it merely confirms what Regina already knew. “That’s because you’re a good person.”

“I wasn’t always a good person. I used to be really selfish. Always out for myself, never caring what happened to anyone else. I felt bad for myself and I took it out on the world, but I changed. I became better.”

“Because it was the right thing to do,” Regina says tiredly, echoing Emma’s words from the ice cream shop.

“Yeah, well… not exactly.” Emma sighs and settles herself against the door, if the faint rustling noises are anything to go by. “The rest of the world always told me I would never be anybody important. And I was just proving them right. It pissed me off, so I decided to prove them wrong.”

Emma says it easily, like it’s nothing, but Regina feels as though she’s been doused in cold water. “You became a good person out of spite?” Hardly a noble emotion… but something Regina is very, very good at.

Emma laughs as though she hasn’t just turned Regina’s world upside down. “I mean, yeah, sort of.”

Regina rises and unlocks the door, pulling it open. Emma nearly topples over, but manages to grab the door frame. She blinks up at Regina in shock.

“And it worked?” Regina asks, reaching a hand down. “You’re happy?”

“I’m… happier,” Emma says carefully. She takes Regina’s hand and stands up to face her. “My life isn’t perfect, but it’s not awful. And I’m alive, obviously, which means you’re gonna be fine. The rules are different, see?”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Regina says, although her heart is beating quickly, begging her to believe what Emma’s telling her. “You’re not in the book. You don’t have a destiny.”

“I don’t care what any book says. I don’t care what anybody says. In this world, you don’t have to be a villain. You can be whoever you want.” Emma hasn’t let go of Regina’s hand. She grips it tightly, bringing her other hand up to cover it as well. “And if someone from your old life comes back and tries to hurt you because they think that’s who you are, they’re gonna have to go through me. I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise.”

Every word Emma says sends shivers down Regina’s spine. It’s as though Emma’s relieved her of a burden she didn’t even realize she was carrying. She’s no longer alone, no longer bound by destiny… if what Emma’s saying is true.

“Why would you do this for me?” she asks in a whisper. “And don’t say it’s because this is what good people do.”

Regina expects Emma to struggle with a response that’s not her typical good-person line, but Emma doesn’t even hesitate. She looks Regina in the eye and says, “Because I believe in you.”

It’s this more than anything else Emma’s said tonight that convinces Regina she’s telling the truth. Regina’s seen the way Emma hesitates to talk about anything connected to her life in the Enchanted Forest, as though part of her is still struggling to accept it’s all true. As long as Regina’s known her, she’s approached the world with skepticism and cynicism as her armor of choice.

Regina stands taller, warmth spreading through her chest. The woman who struggles to believe in anything has chosen to believe in her.

“Do you want to be a good person?” Emma asks.

Regina looks at this beautifully imperfect person, this angry and spiteful and good person who believes in her. “More than anything,” she whispers.

Emma smiles, large and genuine, and squeezes Regina’s hand, which is still clasped in both of hers. “And you’re ready to do this? You’re ready to change?”

“Yes,” Regina says. “Yes. I’m ready.”

She’s never been more ready in her life.

Chapter Text

One Month Later

It’s ten after seven when Emma hears her bedroom door creak open. She twists the bread bag closed, not bothering to tie it, and turns around to see Regina enter the kitchen. “Hey, good morning.”

“Good morning,” Regina says, grabbing one of Emma’s sweaters from the back of a chair and tugging it on over her blue silk pajamas. Emma studies her face for any sign that she slept roughly or had a nightmare. She usually complains about the former but doesn’t always admit to the latter. Today, though, she seems well-rested—there are no circles under her eyes even though she hasn’t put makeup on yet, and the corners of her mouth are relaxed.

Just to make sure, Emma asks, “How did you sleep?”

She gets a brief but genuine smile in return. “Fine, thanks. How about you?”

“Pretty good.” She drops two pieces of bread—one regular, one multigrain—in their shiny new toaster and pushes down the plunger, eliciting a happy beep from the machine.

“Why are you making toast?” Regina asks, her voice still heavy with sleep. “It’s Wednesday.”

“Sorry, pancakes day is canceled. The stupid stove’s acting up.” Emma’s not an expert in appliances, but she’s pretty sure gas stoves aren’t supposed to shoot sparks at you when you turn them on.

“The stove too?” Regina frowns. “It’s distressing that another of our appliances needs replacing. Where did you purchase them, the local garbage dump? I suppose that would explain the large dent in the side of our old toaster.”

The dent had nothing to do with a garbage dump and a lot to do with a crappy date and three shots of tequila, but Emma decides not to mention that. “The stove came with the apartment. And the toaster didn’t need replacing either. It mostly worked.”

Regina snorts. “I’m sorry. Did I simply imagine the time you got half a bagel stuck in there and it caught fire?”

“Okay, that happened once. ” Regina raises an eyebrow at her, and Emma mutters, “That you saw.”

“In any case, I’d prefer to minimize the chances of our apartment burning down,” Regina says as she walks over to Emma’s unmade couch bed and starts folding the blanket.

“You don’t have to do that,” Emma says automatically. “I’ll—”

“‘—do it myself.’ Unlike the last seven times you said that, I’m sure.” Regina finishes folding the blanket and drapes it artistically over the back of the couch, which always makes Emma feel like she’s living in a magazine. “Really, I don’t mind.”

“I just don’t get why it matters that the furniture is neat. It’s just you and me here.” Emma opens the fridge and examines their three jam jars—two mostly full, one totally empty. “We’re out of apple jam. You want raspberry or strawberry?”

“Raspberry,” Regina says, grabbing two plates from the cupboard and setting them on the table. “What if we have company?”

“We never have company,” Emma reminds her. “The closest thing we’ve had to company was when the pizza delivery guy came in for two seconds to get a glass of water, and then he didn’t even finish it because you snapped at him for forgetting the anchovies. Pretty sure he’s not coming back anytime soon.”

She immediately regrets bringing it up when Regina’s face falls and she turns away. “At least I apologized to him,” she says quietly.

Technically, that’s not true. Emma had apologized to him while Regina glared at him over her shoulder. Regina’s apology came later, to Emma, when they were finishing their pizza on the couch. It had been awkward and totally unexpected, and Emma’s pretty sure Regina only did it because she’s still afraid that the universe will take it out on her if she doesn’t act good enough.

She never should have brought it up. Before Emma can even think of something to distract her, though, Regina tilts her head and asks, “What about that lady who lives next to you? Mary Ann? She’s come here before.”

Today must be a good day. “Marian,” Emma corrects, “and she wouldn’t care if the place is messy. Besides, I don’t think she’s coming back.” She hasn’t been over in a month. Emma obviously drove her away the last time she was there, which isn’t surprising—she tends to do that to people. What is surprising is how much Emma actually misses her. She’s never missed talking to any of her neighbours before.

“Well, that’s her loss,” Regina says in such a matter-of-fact way that Emma almost doesn’t realize she’s been given a compliment. Before she can reply, Regina’s attention turns to the steaming mug on the counter. “What am I drinking today?”

“Mango pineapple tea. I don’t love it, but maybe you will.” Ever since finding out Regina loathes Emma’s favourite comfort drink, she’s made it her personal mission to find Regina her own. They haven’t had much luck yet, but Regina seems to like fruit and tea, so this seemed like a good bet.

Regina takes a sip and her face immediately wrinkles. “Ugh.”

Okay, maybe not.

Regina shakes her head and dumps the entire cup of tea down the sink, shaking the liquid out a little more vigorously than necessary. “I wouldn’t give that more than one point five out of ten.”

Emma sighs. “The highest you’ve ever given anything was seven point two. I think maybe you’re just picky.”

Regina tilts her head. “Remind me what that rating was for?”

“Apple juice. I thought that would have been more of a hit with you, since you literally eat anything with apples in it.” She’d even eaten Emma’s disaster of an apple crumble the one time she tried to make it, on a day Regina had felt crappy because she’d picked something up in the doctor’s office while getting vaccinated for the first time ever. Although considering that Emma accidentally put in half the normal amount of sugar and twice as much flour, Regina might have just eaten it to be polite.

“Apple drinks in this realm are far too sweet,” Regina says, scrunching up her nose in distaste. “I know you say there are no villains in this realm, but whomever decided it was necessary to take perfectly good apple juice and dump sugar in it most certainly falls in that category.”

If she’s joking about villains, it’s definitely a good day. “Well, I wouldn’t know,” Emma says, right when the toast pops up. She grabs it and starts spreading the butter.

“Because you hate apples.” Regina shakes her head as though Emma’s a hopeless case. “Really, what do you have against the world’s best fruit?”

Emma turns around, ready to list off the many reasons why apples are definitely not the best fruit, but her loose pajama sleeve sweeps across the plate and knocks the toast onto the floor. “Dammit.” She picks up the toast slices and examines them. There’s a bit of dirt in the butter, but it’s nothing she can’t scrape off, so she puts the toast back on the plate.

“You aren’t seriously thinking we’ll eat that, are you?” Regina asks as she walks up next to her.

“Why not?” Emma asks, scraping the dirty butter onto the edge of the plate.

“Emma,” Regina says sternly. “I know you don’t like to waste food, but we can’t eat this.”

“I can eat it. I don’t care, I’ve eaten worse stuff. Look, I’ll make you new toast, and I’ll have both of these.”

“Absolutely not.” Regina picks up a piece of toast and examines it. “I can see dirt on it.”

“I’m scraping it off!”

“Not all of it. You could get sick.” Regina gently takes the plate from her and dumps the toast into the garbage.

“I guess,” Emma says, even though her stomach automatically clenches as she watches the perfectly good food disappear. “Probably not that sick though.”

Regina smiles at her and shakes her head fondly. “However did you survive before you met me?”

“I don’t know,” Emma says, and it’s supposed to be a joke but it comes out a whole lot less flippant than it sounded in her head.

Regina’s smile fades, replaced by an expression Emma can’t identify. It’s warm, sort of like her ‘you’re being an idiot but I don’t mind’ face, but a bit more… intense, somehow. Emma shifts in place, not sure what’s happening or how to respond.

Maybe she should have responded, because Regina wipes the expression off her face and looks down at the table. She raises her eyebrows when she sees Emma’s laptop open on the table, a movie theatre website up on the screen. “What’s this?”

“I thought maybe you’d want to see a movie this afternoon,” Emma says. “After we go to the Met.”

“Can’t we do that at home?”

“I’m not talking about Discovery Channel documentaries.” The one about the history of air travel had been three hours long. Emma had almost fallen asleep. “I mean a real movie, in theatres.”

Regina hesitates. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea for me. Those seem loud.”

“They are,” Emma says, “which is why I found a theatre that has sensory friendly screenings. They turn the volume down and the lights aren’t so bright. They don’t have them very often, but they have some at 3:00 today. We could make it.”

Regina’s eyes are soft when she smiles at her. “Which movie?”

“There’s a few there, but I think we should see the first one.”

Regina leans over and peers at the screen. “The one with the bacteria?” she scoffs. “I hardly think so.”

“Oh, come on! What’s wrong with a cool action movie?”

“It’s scientifically inaccurate.” Regina frowns at the miniaturized movie poster on the screen, next to the summary. “I highly doubt bacteria could even grow to such a size, let alone eat a person whole.”

“It’s not supposed to be accurate. It’s supposed to be awesome.”

Regina purses her lips and scrolls through the movie listings. “What about this one?” she asks, pointing to a documentary on different structures of government around the world. “This looks interesting.”

It looks boring as hell, actually, but Emma’s getting hungry. “Maybe we should decide after we have breakfast.”

“It’s my turn to pick a movie.” Regina lifts her chin defiantly and a chunk of her recently shortened hair falls into her face. She pushes it behind her ear, looking irritated. It’s sort of adorable.

Wait, where did that thought come from? Emma pushes it out of her mind and refocuses. “Yeah, I know. How about we talk about it while we eat?”

Regina looks like she’s going to argue, but she must be hungry too because she rolls her eyes and goes off to shower.

Right after Emma depresses the plunger for the second round of toast, there’s a knock on the door. Emma opens it to see Marian, holding a carton of eggs. “Hey,” Emma says in surprise. She grins even though this means Regina was right.

“Hey. Sorry it took me a while to return these. Work has been ridiculous,” Marian says with a slight grimace.

Emma had totally forgotten about the eggs. “You didn’t have to worry about it. But, thanks, I guess. Do you want a cup of coffee or something?”

“No thanks, I wouldn’t want to bother you,” Marian says with a polite smile.

“You wouldn’t bother me. I offered.”

“I don’t really like coffee anyway.” Marian shrugs, but there’s tension in her shoulders. Emma remembers how the last time Marian was here, her face had fallen when she learned that Emma was moving and didn’t think it was important to tell her. It had never occurred to her that Marian might consider them friends—or used to. Probably not so much anymore.

Maybe she can fix that.

“How about mango pineapple tea?” Emma asks. “I bought some so Regina could try it, but she doesn’t like it and neither do I, so now I just have a whole bunch sitting around. And, uh…” She sticks her thumbs in her pockets and shrugs. “We could catch up?”

She’s not sure what to expect, but Marian smiles, for real this time. “That sounds delicious, actually.”

“Great.” Emma opens the door wider and lets her in. “If you end up liking it, you can go ahead and have the whole tin.”

“Thanks. I love tea, actually, and I haven’t bought any in—whoa .”

“What?” Emma grabs the canister of tea bags and turns to see Marian frozen in the middle of her living room, looking around in awe.

“You’ve decorated,” Marian says, sounding almost impressed.

“What are you talking about?”

Marian looks at her, eyebrows raised as though she can’t believe Emma even has to ask that question. “Well, that, for instance.” She points to the giant watercolour painting of some horses—thoroughbreds, Regina had called them—on the wall near the TV. “I didn’t know you were such a horse person.”

“I’m not, but Regina is. We saw the painting in Central Park and she stared at it for like five minutes, so I bought it for her.” It’s one of the only times Emma’s seen her look almost happy.

“What are those?” Marian asks.

Emma follows her gaze. “Uh, sunflowers?”

Marian sidesteps some neatly piled library books Regina left on the floor, picking her way over to the shelf by the fire escape. “They’re gorgeous!” She reaches out to brush her fingers over a vibrant yellow petal. “And they’re real!”

Emma smiles as she puts the kettle on. “Yeah. Regina talked about how she had this apple tree that she grew with her dad and she really missed it. But I’m pretty sure growing an apple tree is against apartment regulations, so…”

Marian goes over to the fridge, opens the door, and pauses. “Wow, that’s a lot of drink containers.” She carefully slots the egg carton in between the kale and the cranberry juice. Then she closes the fridge door and looks at Emma strangely. “Regina’s really settled in here, hasn't she?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Emma says. “Is that bad?”

“Of course not.” Marian leans against the counter next to Emma and crosses her arms over her purple ‘Save the Penguins’ shirt. “I just thought that you were planning to move. But it’s nice that you’re not.”

Marian says it so happily that Emma almost feels bad saying, “Actually, I am planning to move.” She gestures towards the living room. Regina made her unpack most of her stuff because she was tired of always tripping over boxes, but one lonely pile of clutter is still sitting in the corner by the TV. “I’ve just postponed it a bit, so I can get Regina settled.” That’s what she tells herself whenever she gets that hot, tight feeling in her chest that means she’s stayed in one place for too long.

Although, now that she thinks about it, that feeling hasn’t been so urgent recently.

“How long is that going to take?” Marian asks.

Emma shrugs. “No idea. I’m trying to get her papers and stuff, but that’s a process. And then she’ll have to get her own place, and a job, which could take weeks. Months, even.”

Marian’s face brightens. “Actually, it might not take months.”

Emma frowns, her stomach twisting oddly. “Why not?”

“She can work for me,” Marian says. “I could really use someone to help me keep up with paperwork. It’s pretty basic stuff. She seems smart, I don’t think she’d have any trouble.”

“Hey, that’s a great idea. Regina can go work at…” Emma trails off, abruptly realizing she has no idea what her neighbour does for a living.

Marian smiles tightly. “A bookstore. We’re holding this giant fundraiser really soon and the planning isn’t going well. I'm lucky, I have a great team, but it's just a lot. And the advertising…” She stops talking suddenly. “Sorry. You probably don't want to hear about this.”

“It’s okay,” Emma says. “Vent all you want.”

“No, I don’t really want to talk about it anyway.” Marian sighs. “So what have you been up to? Searched for any interesting criminals recently?”

Great, so they’re going from Marian’s depressing work news to Emma’s depressing work news. “You could say that. Have you seen the papers?”

Marian shakes her head. “I haven’t kept up with the news recently. I’ve been busy.”

“So has he.” Emma grabs the paper and flips to page 12, which has an article about her perp. “Last week, he broke into a hotel, stole a whole pile of fancy soaps, made his way past three teams of security guards on his way out, then got stuck in a revolving door. They almost caught him.”

Marian takes the paper. “He still got away though?”

“Yeah,” Emma says, less amused by the whole thing than Marian is. Shirley hasn’t been happy with her lately. She hasn’t been happy with herself lately—it almost never takes her more than a few weeks to catch someone. This guy must have listened to her when she told him he wasn’t being subtle enough because now he mostly flies under the radar, except for the occasional heist. Like this one.

“It’s actually kind of impressive,” Marian says, scanning the article.

“Impressive?” It’s not the word Emma would have used to describe this guy. ‘Annoying,’ maybe. ‘A giant pain in the ass,’ definitely.

“In a way,” Marian says, quirking an eyebrow. “He’s been clever. Most of the evidence for this stuff is circumstantial. It would be difficult to prove him guilty in court.”

“How do you know?”

Marian shrugs. “I went to law school. Criminal law was my favourite subject.”

“You have a law degree, but you work at a bookstore?” Emma asks incredulously.

Judging by the way Marian’s eyes narrow, she’s hit a nerve. “It’s not all about money. Bookstores do important work.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Emma backtracks. “You must really love it then.”

Marian smiles, too wide to be genuine. “Of course I love it,” she says brightly, and Emma’s lie detector pings.

She barely has time to wonder what that’s about before the kettle flicks off, indicating the water has boiled. Not two seconds later, the toast pops up. Emma pours water into Marian’s mug, then grabs the butter.

“So when can Regina start?”

“As soon as she wants,” Marian says. She blows on her tea and takes a sip, then grimaces. “That was a bad idea.”

“We’ll have to come up with a cover story for Regina,” Emma says. “Something to explain why she doesn’t know about stuff, because she still gets confused sometimes. You want any toast?”

“No thanks. Has she remembered anything about her past?” Marian bravely takes another, smaller sip of the hot tea.

“Nah, she still thinks she’s from the Enchanted Forest,” Emma says, lowering her voice even though the shower is still running.

Marian raises her eyebrows. “She still thinks that?”

“Yeah, still. I’m actually gonna bring it up with Archie today, because I’m getting worried.”

Marian puts her tea on the counter, giving up on it for now.  “No, I mean, you haven’t told her you think she’s mentally ill?”

“Of course not,” Emma says, thrown by the judgement in Marian’s voice. “How do you think that would go?”

“But aren’t you afraid she’s going to figure out that you’re lying to her?”

“Well, what’s my other choice?” Emma asks, raising her voice involuntarily. “Do you know what it's like to be homeless?” 

“No,” Marian says quietly.

“Because I do. It is not fun. Trust me, I am doing Regina a favour.”

Marian doesn’t respond to that, and in the silence that follows, Emma realizes that the shower isn’t running anymore. Shit. Could Regina have heard anything?

“I should go,” Marian says, breaking the silence. “I have work.” The tension in her shoulders is back, and she’s not making eye contact.

Emma gestures to the tea. “Do you want that in a travel mug?”

“No, it’s fine.” Marian picks up the mug and takes a large gulp, pain crossing her face before she puts the mug down again. “Thanks again for the tea, and the eggs.”

After Marian leaves, Emma finishes buttering the toast, then applies the raspberry jam. It seems like a long time before the bathroom door creaks open and Regina steps out in her bathrobe, scowling.

“Hey,” Emma says nervously. “How was your shower?”

Regina crosses her arms. “Productive. I came up with seven more reasons why we should see the documentary. Number one: The educational—”

“You know what?” Emma interrupts, relief coursing through her. “We can see whatever you want.”

 


 

Their discussion on watching the movie continues in the car, Regina talking faster and faster the closer they get to their destination. As much as she does want to ensure they watch her clearly superior movie selection, at the moment she couldn’t care less about it—she has a bigger problem on her mind.

“You ready for this?” Emma asks when they pull into the parking lot at Archie’s office.

“Yes,” Regina says with determination. She’s in a good mood today. She slept well—for once—and she has things to look forward to later.

All she has to do is get through the next hour.

They start off slow. Archie asks her about her day, then about her week. He takes her through some breathing exercises to help her manage her anger. She shares memories of her childhood—some good, most not—and he assigns her a journaling activity. It’s not fun, but it’s certainly straightforward enough.

Then they get to a more difficult topic.

“Last session, you talked about your fear of dying, because villains always die and you believe that you are a villain. Is that correct?” Archie asks. Regina nods, and he says, “I want to dig into that a little bit. What would you say a villain is?”

Regina narrows her eyes at him. “What sort of question is that?”

Archie adjusts his glasses. “I think the definition of ‘villain’ is, by nature, subjective. If I knock over someone’s cup of coffee by accident, for example, then to them, I might be a villain. But I was just going about my day. So when you call yourself a villain—”

“I murdered people in my quest for vengeance,” Regina says almost evenly.

“Ah,” Archie says, appearing startled. “I—I see.”

The more she lives in this world, the harder it is to rationalize everything she’s done. She’d been an extreme case, yes, but many people in her realm wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with killing or at least seriously injuring someone who had wronged them. Here, they’re less tolerant of such things.

“Why did you kill those people?” Archie asks.

“They deserved to—” She stops, shakes her head. “I thought they deserved to die.”

“Were they villains?”

“No,” Regina says. They had been wrong in their perception of her, and they did things that hurt her, but she and Archie have discussed the difference between ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’ before. The people she’d killed had been… not innocent, perhaps, but certainly not evil.

“Then what did they do to deserve death?

Regina frowns. “I told you, they allied with Snow White.”

Archie holds up a hand. “I remember, yes, but you say the rules are that good people are happy and bad people are not. So if they were not bad people, why did they die? If everyone can be killed, what makes villains different?”

Regina narrows her eyes at him. “Is this one of those questions where there’s a correct answer and I’m supposed to find it, or are you genuinely curious about my opinion?”

“I’m always genuinely curious about your opinion,” Archie says. “I just think it might help if we laid down some definitions.”

“Definitions?”

Archie carefully tears a sheet of paper off his leaflet and lays it on the table. One on side of the paper, he writes ‘Heroes,’ and on the other, he writes ‘Villains.’ He draws a vertical line between the words, separating the paper into two columns. “What would you say that a hero is?” he asks, clicking a pen.

Regina immediately wrinkles her nose. “Entitled. Cocky. Arrogant.”

Archie writes the words down in the ‘hero’ column. “That’s a good start, but let me put it another way: How can you tell that someone is a hero?”

“They win,” Regina says immediately. “Everyone helps them.”

“Who helps them?”

“Other heroes. Fairy godmothers. Anyone. Everyone.” So many peasants helped Snow White, gave her the benefit of the doubt even though there was no proof that Regina had been lying about her. So many people came to help Snow when she ate the apple and fell under a sleeping curse. She’d had an army at her beck and call without even trying, simply because she was good.

“So a villain, then, is someone no one helps?” Archie asks.

“Exactly,” Regina says. “Someone who always loses.”

Archie writes ‘always loses’ on the ‘villain’ side of the paper. “Anything else?”

Regina thinks for a moment. “Someone…” She trails off. It’s a harder question than she thought it would be. “Someone despised. Someone who is… hated by everyone.” She grips one of Archie’s soft pillows.

Archie adds “hated” to the “villain” column. “What else?”

“That’s it.”

Archie nods slowly, frowning at the mostly empty page. “In that case, can you tell me how other people would define villains?”

Other people. She thinks of peasants bowing before her on the streets, avoiding eye contact, fear and loathing written over all their faces. What had been going through their minds?

“Just say whatever comes to mind,” Archie says. “This is a safe space.”

Regina hesitates, then says, “Someone evil. Someone… someone vile.”

If she tries, she can still see the fathers and mothers who were taken from their children and executed in the town square. She can hear the screams of villagers as she took their leaders captive. She can smell the stench of burning vegetation as she razed the fields of her enemies. “Someone who tears families apart. Someone who causes pain and destruction. Someone who…”

“All right,” Archie interrupts, seemingly alarmed. “That’s enough.”

Belatedly, Regina realizes she’s breathing rapidly, hunched over the pillow she didn’t realize she was still holding.

“Do you want to take some deep breaths?” Archie asks gently.

Regina wants to leave, but she promised herself this would finally be the day she stayed until the end of a session, so she forces herself to stay on the couch. She focuses on the plants in the corner of the room, on the calming pumpkin shade of the walls, on the velvety texture of the pillow. When she feels marginally more calm, she looks at Archie again and gives him a tiny nod.

“All right, I want to ask you one more question,” Archie says.

Regina nods again, not trusting herself to speak.

“You said that people never helped you when you needed them to, because you’re a villain. If you were in trouble and they didn’t help you, do you think that makes them villains too?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Regina says slowly. “Heroes don’t help villains. They punish them.”

Archie looks like he wants to argue that point, but then he shakes his head. “Even if that’s true, you don’t need to worry about that. You’re trying to change, aren’t you? To stop being a villain?”

“Yes,” Regina says quietly. “I’m… I’m trying.”

Archie waits, sensing there’s something else on her mind.

After a long pause, Regina whispers, “What if I don’t deserve to change? The people I killed, they’ll never get a second chance. Why should I?”

It’s a thought that’s haunted her ever since the day she gave up on finding Robin, the day Emma told her she believed in her. It means everything that she has the support of Emma and Archie, even though they know about her past. And yet… why should she get to change? What right does she have to accept the kindness of these people when she’s rarely offered the world any of her own?

Instead of answering the question, Archie says, “I have something I want to show you.”

He reaches into a bag beside him and pulls out a series of thin books with colourful pictures on the covers, which he lays on the table for Regina to see. There’s one titled ‘Hawkeye’ with a well-muscled man wearing blue and purple and holding a golden bow. Another one, titled ‘Black Widow,’ displays a red-haired woman in a black suit holding a large gun. “Do you know who these people are?”

Regina’s never seen books like these, but she can make a pretty good guess. Their stances and the looks on their faces give them away. “Heroes,” she says in disgust. “Why are you showing me this?”

“You’re right,” Archie says. “These people are heroes. Superheroes, in fact.”

“Superheroes?” Those sound even worse.

“But they weren’t always,” Archie says quickly. “They actually started out as villians, and they changed. It’s quite a common theme in our culture, actually. Redemption arcs are very popular.”

Redemption arcs.

Regina picks up a book and leafs through the pages, which are filled with explosions and words like Kaboom and Pow. It’s an odd style of storytelling, but the pages convey a sort of energy she’s never seen in a book before. “What are these called?”

“Comic books. They’re… well, they’re sort of like fairy tales,” Archie says with a chuckle.

“So these people are fictional?” Regina says, frowning.

“That’s correct.”

“Then why should I care what they can and cannot do with their lives? They’re just stories.”

“Most people in this land would say the same about you,” Archie says gently. “But stories can be very powerful.”

Regina closes the book and examines the cover. Is there another dimension where these villain superheroes actually exist? She might be holding a warped version of someone else’s story.

Then again, she’s read history books. Those are hardly any different.

“This has been a very productive conversation. I’d like for us to discuss this more next time,” Archie says.

Regina looks at the clock, startled. Has it already been a whole hour? She collects her new comic books and stands on shaky legs.

Archie opens the door for her and before she walks out, he smiles at her. “I’m very proud of you, Regina. You’re really opening up and doing very well. I know how challenging that is.”

“Well, your validation means everything to me,” Regina says sarcastically. Then she stops, reconsiders, takes a breath, and says, “Thank you.”

It’s genuine, and by the way Archie’s smile widens, he knows she means it.

 


 

If Emma had known Regina was going to stay the entire time, she’d have brought something better than her phone with her. Her laptop. A newspaper. A book, even.

She sits and fidgets with her phone, her right leg bouncing up and down so rapidly it shakes the chair, and pretends she doesn’t notice the two old women glaring at her from across the waiting area. She checks her messages, but apart from her daily sarcastic text from Shirley telling her that no shady Leopolds have been spotted recently, there’s nothing. She goes back to fidgeting, tapping her fingers on the side of the chair loud enough that one of the old ladies clears her  throat, which she ignores.

Eventually, finally, Regina steps out of Archie’s office. She looks exhausted, but she’s normally glowering at this point, or close to tears. Today went well then. Emma’s thrilled until Archie steps out as well, turns to her with a massive smile on his face, and says, “Emma, you can come in now.”

Regina smiles weakly at her and settles in a chair with… is that a Marvel comic book? Emma sighs, then stands up slowly and follows Archie into his office. It’s a sick shade of orange with a bunch of obviously fake plants in the corner, gathering dust. On the wall, there’s a framed photo of Archie and his husband in suits, probably from their wedding. There are a few abstract paintings as well, mostly blues and greens that clash with the wall around them, and next to the paintings is one of those stupid New Age clocks that doesn’t even have numbers on it.

Emma sits cross-legged on the overstuffed couch and hooks her elbows around her knees, clasping her hands in front. Archie sits on the chair across from her. “It’s nice to see you here, Emma. How are you doing?”

“Me?” Emma frowns at the question. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be fine?”

“Living with someone who has a mental disorder can be difficult at times. I just wanted to check in.”

Emma shakes her head. “I’m not worried about me. I’m here for Regina.”

“Of course.” Archie picks up his pen and paper. “You mentioned in your email that you had some concerns. Has she had any more hallucinations?”

“No, nothing like that,” Emma says quickly. “I would have texted you. I’m just worried because it’s been a month and she still believes she’s the Evil Queen.”

Archie raises his eyebrows. “She may never stop believing that.”

“Wasn’t that the point of the therapy?”

“Not at all. I’m trying to expand her worldview, to allow for a more nuanced position on good and evil. That way, she can stop punishing herself and start to be happy. At the moment, she’s got a sense of learned helplessness that is quite toxic. Luckily, the fairy tale framework she’s constructed gives me a lot to work with.”

“What does that mean?” Emma asks, totally lost.

“I think that being the Queen, a powerful figure, is important to her self-esteem. And it doesn’t do any harm to allow her to believe that’s her past. In fact, it could do a great deal of harm to rip that away from her. My goal is to give her a brighter future. Target the evil, not the queen, as it were.” Archie’s forehead wrinkles. “I didn’t realize you had a problem with that.”

Emma sighs. “I didn’t a month ago, but… well, for one thing, she’s still going to the library every day and writing down all the stuff she reads about.”

“She told me about that,” Archie says. “I actually think it’s wonderful that she’s still learning things, absorbing herself in this world.”

“Yeah, but she’s doing it in case there’s a chance she can go home someday,” Emma says slowly. “She’s homesick for a place that doesn’t exist.”

“Hopefully, once she spends more time here, that will change. It’s important to expose her to as many new environments as possible.”

“I’m trying. I’ve been taking her to all the dumb tourist spots.” Using her fingers, she lists, “The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Chelsea Market, this weird Manhattan bookstore with a cat in it…” She puts her hand down. “Anywhere she wants to go, we go. She’s still not happy.”

“How do you know that?” Archie asks.

“I know her,” Emma says tersely. “I live with her. She’s not eating properly. She’s not sleeping. She has nightmares a lot. She barely even looks at herself in the mirror anymore.”

Archie, who was looking concerned, actually brightens at that last one. “Mirrors are an important symbol in the Snow White fairy tale. It makes sense that she would avoid something that reminds her of her old self. This could actually be a sign of progress.”

His relentless optimism makes Emma want to scream. “It’s not just that. She gets upset a lot and sometimes she doesn’t wanna talk about it. So it builds up, and then she snaps at people, and then right after she always looks terrified. Like she thinks someone’s gonna jump out and punish her, or worse. She’s sad and I don’t know what to do.

Archie smiles gently at her. “You’re doing everything you—”

“It’s not enough!” Emma almost shouts. “I thought you’d help her!”

“I think I am helping her,” Archie says evenly. “She’s not miserable because she thinks she’s a fairy tale character. She’s miserable because she thinks she’s evil and she’s going to die. That’s the part of her delusion I’m trying to modify. If we can get her to see that villains can be redeemed, that they can live, she’ll be happier.”

“How long is that going to take?”

Archie sighs. “I don’t know. Honestly, it could take weeks.”

“But she’s depressed! She thinks she’s the worst person in the whole world!”

“And you think that taking away her primary coping mechanism is a good way to make her less depressed?”

Emma uncrosses her legs and rests her elbows on her thighs, leaning forward. “I thought you could do it gradually,” she says, forcing herself to lower her voice. “Not all at once.”

“That’s easier said than done,” Archie says with a rare frown. “As I’ve told you, it takes a tremendous amount of courage and effort for people to change the way they perceive their entire world. Imagine how you would feel if you suddenly woke up in a land where magic and fairy tales are real. Don’t you think you’d have a hard time accepting that?”

Emma rolls her eyes. “I mean, maybe at first, but I’d get it eventually. I’m not saying it’d be easy, but I wouldn’t keep telling myself it wasn’t real if all the evidence was right in front of me. That’s what Regina’s doing.”

“It’s easier to prove something true than prove it false,” Archie says. “Either way, my point is that I don’t want to take Regina’s delusions away and leave her with nothing.”

“She wouldn’t have nothing. She’d have me.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Archie asks. “You look like maybe you could use some deep breaths.”

“I’m fine, ” Emma insists. “Look, I understand that believing in her delusions helped her for a while, but now they’re just hurting her. I was on board with the fairy tale stuff before, but now… I’m not so sure.”

Archie tilts his head. “Emma, what do you think fairy tales are for?”

“Teaching kids the difference between good and evil, right? I don’t have a problem with them. I just think adults like Regina should know that fairy tales aren’t real.”

Archie’s hand twitches, like he wants to grab a pen and start taking notes on everything Emma’s saying. It makes her skin feel hot and prickly. “To me, it sounds like you do have some issues with the idea of—”

“I don’t have issues. Stop psychoanalyzing me. I’m fine.” How many times does she have to say that?

“I was just trying to start a conversation.”

“Yeah, about me. I’m not here to talk about me. I’m here for Regina.”

“I realize that,” Archie says patiently. “However, I think it might be helpful if we could discuss you for a minute.”

Okay, they’re not getting anywhere. “Sorry, but you know what? I’m done with this.”

“Emma—”

Before Archie can stop her, she stands up and stomps out of the room.

 


 

Regina’s reading her comic book—which is fascinating—when Emma throws open Archie’s office door, less than five minutes into her session. She storms out looking like she’s about to punch something.

“Done already?” Regina asks in surprise.

“Yeah,” Emma bites out. Regina waits for her to elaborate, but she walks past her without even glancing her way.

Emma stomps down the staircase towards the parking complex where her yellow Bug is parked. Regina follows, struggling to keep up. “Are you okay?”

“I’m absolutely fine.” Emma doesn’t even hold open the door to the parking complex. She lets it swing shut, almost hitting Regina in the face.

It’s irritating, of course, but Regina’s annoyance is eclipsed by something else: worry. Emma’s not a warm, fuzzy person by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s never looked so agitated before, and according to her, she’s been to therapy several times.

They get in the car together, and Regina has the good sense not to say anything more. Emma clamps her hands on the steering wheel like she’s trying to break it and drives just a little bit over the speed limit, just enough to raise Regina’s heart rate.

What is wrong with her?

Normally, their weekends together are pleasant. Regina has therapy in the mornings, which is not pleasant, but afterwards, no matter how long she manages to stay, Emma always takes her to some part of New York she’s never seen. They’ve visited everywhere from the American Museum of Natural History (Regina’s pick) to something called the Baconery (Emma’s pick) to Central Park (which they both agreed on, for once). Today’s venue is the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Regina’s pick).

Usually, Emma keeps up a steady stream of semi-relevant commentary on wherever it is they’re visiting. Today, however, Emma’s sullenness extends throughout the drive to the museum, the ridiculous lineup for the entrance, and the two-hour guided tour. By the time they’re released to browse the art on their own, Regina’s concluded that something is definitely not right.

When she’s in a mood, Emma will generally leave her alone for a bit, then try to start a conversation about something relatively neutral. Maybe she should wait for Emma to get over it… but she has waited, for hours now, and Emma has not yet come around. That leaves starting a conversation.

What does Emma like talking about? Regina should know this… but over the past month and a half, they’ve mostly talked about her. Emma’s commentary on various tourist attractions notwithstanding, she’s offered very little personal information over the time they’ve been together. Still, Regina’s picked a few things up. Emma likes her job, the colour yellow, her car, and cocoa with cinnamon. She likes oranges and pears but not apples. She sleeps lightly, rarely makes her bed, and frequently leaves the bread bag untied. None of those make good topics of conversation, however—certainly none would be good enough to drag her out of her funk.

They pass a portrait of a mother holding her infant son, and Regina seizes the inspiration. “My mother took me to a museum once.”

Emma’s eyes flash to her and she frowns, confused at the choice of topic—Regina never talks about her mother. She prattles on regardless. “I was perhaps seven years old. It was a history museum, not art, but I was excited.”

“Oh,” Emma says. “That’s… nice?”

Regina nods vigorously. “It was. She took me so that I could be educated on the history of the realm, as preparation for my future life as queen. But she bought me a doll at the gift shop. I had it for years.”

Emma nods and turns away, walking in the opposite direction of the painting. Regina follows as quickly as she can. Conversation hadn’t worked. What else can she try?

Ah, of course. Emma, as much as she loves food, is awful at listening to the signals of her body. She frequently gets hungry without noticing, and therefore grouchy. “You’re hungry, aren’t you?”

“What? No, I’m fine,” Emma says. “We can keep going if you want.”

Regina doubts that very much, so she changes tactics. “I’m hungry.”

Emma frowns at her. “Well, you could have just said that. I think they have a cafeteria in here?”

They make their way to the cafeteria. Emma orders a sandwich while Regina orders a burger. “Do you want some French fries with that?” the vendor asks.

“French fries?” Regina frowns. Where has she heard the term French before? She’s definitely heard it somewhere…

Ah, yes: at the ice cream shop. Emma had explained that French vanilla ice cream was regular ice cream, except with eggs in it. Presumably, French fries are regular fries with eggs in them. “No thank you. I’ll have the regular fries.”

The vendor looks confused. “Regular fries?”

“Well, why would I want fries with eggs in them?”

That only makes him look more confused. Emma taps Regina on the arm. “French fries are normal fries.”

Well. Apparently she misunderstood that. “In that case, yes, I would like some.”

“And would you like a drink with that?” the smiling vendor asks, sounding as though he would very much like to roll his eyes. Regina grits her teeth and orders a bottle of water, which she never does, just to make him go all the way to the drinks area at the back to pick one up.

That, at least, seems to cheer Emma up. As they sit down to eat lunch, she even smiles a little and asks, “So what have you been learning at the library?”

Between bites of her burger, Regina says, “I’ve been studying electrical currents. The physics behind them seem very similar to magical theory, and I’m trying to determine whether it would be possible to somehow adapt electronics to run on magic instead of electricity. Hypothetically, of course,” she adds quickly. Emma’s never said anything, but Regina knows she’s confused by her desire to return home someday. Her confusion is understandable given that Regina’s memories of her home are, for the most part, less than pleasant. She’s tried to explain that despite the horrors she suffered, her home is still her home, but she’s not quite sure that explanation got through to Emma.

Luckily, Emma merely asks, “How would that work?”

Regina launches into a lengthy explanation of physics and magical theory and clean energy and the possibility of connecting a source of magic to a power station, which would supply the electronics with energy. She trails off when she notices that Emma seems totally baffled. “Never mind.”

“No, I can get it,” Emma says, visibly concentrating. “It’s like… jumper cables.”

“What are jumper cables?”

Emma starts to explain jumper cables and Regina picks up her water bottle, intending to take a drink—the long explanation made her thirsty—then she drops it in shock when she sees a face.

There, in her water bottle, is—was that—could that have been Blue?

Regina picks the water bottle up and blinks at it. Blue’s stern face is gone.

“Did you see that?” She turns to Emma, who is looking at her in concern.

Emma frowns. “What?”

“For a moment, I thought I saw…” Regina shakes her head. “Never mind.”

“You can tell me,” Emma says gently.

“I thought I saw a fairy I know. Or, her face, at least. In my… in my water.” It sounds ridiculous when she puts it that way.

Evidently, Emma thinks so too. “A fairy?

Regina tries to smile. “It doesn’t matter. I must have made it up.” Yet it had been so clear…

“Probably,” Emma says, putting a hand lightly on Regina’s shoulder for a moment. “Don’t worry about it, okay?” Despite her words, her face is creased in concern.

“I don’t think I can finish this,” Regina says, still unnerved. Could Blue have been spying on her? Checking up on her to see whether she’s found Robin? Does Blue know about her quest? Does she care?

“Do you want to go?” Emma grabs Regina’s half-eaten burger and takes a large bite, then pulls out her phone and starts tapping out a text message.

At least it’s not as though Regina had been doing anything evil. She’d merely been talking with Emma, which is hardly villainous activity. Why is she even thinking about any of this? It’s ridiculous. She’s had a long day and she’s seeing things. That’s all.

“Regina?”

Regina snaps out of her thoughts and sees Emma staring at her worriedly. “Do you wanna go?”

“I… yes, I think so.”

“Okay, let’s go.” Emma snatches Regina’s uneaten French fries from her tray before standing up from the table. “Hey, you know what probably has a lot of electricity stuff in it?”

“What?” Regina asks, standing up shakily.

“The bacteria movie,” Emma says as they leave the cafeteria. “Remember there was that cool lightning ball on the poster? I bet you’d love that movie more than the boring one about politics.”

“Politics are not boring, Miss Swan,” Regina says, irritated. Why would Emma antagonize her after something like that?

Emma grins at her as she continues to list the merits of her favoured movie, and Regina suddenly realizes Emma’s trying to take her mind off what she saw—or thought she saw. She gives her a grateful smile in return before launching back into their argument, and before long, she’s almost forgotten about the strange, impossible image of Blue’s face in her water bottle.

Almost.

 


 

Emma keeps the argument running until Regina’s face has relaxed and she’s no longer pressing her hands to her stomach. About twenty minutes after they leave, Regina decides she is hungry after all, so Emma takes them to a fast-food place. While Regina places her order, Emma snags them a booth by the window. It has a nice view of… well, the parking lot, anyway.

She’s just starting to relax when she hears a voice behind her and her entire body freezes.

Emma? Is that you?”

She doesn’t have to look around to know who’s speaking. It may have been almost eleven years since she last saw him, but you don’t forget the voice of the asshole who knocks you up and lands you in jail. You just don’t.

Neal moves from the booth behind her to the seat across from her, taking his tray with him. “It’s… it’s really good to see you.”

After a few seconds, Emma finds her voice. “Is it?”

Neal flinches back slightly. What was he expecting, that she would say it’s good to see him too? He doesn’t seem to have thought through what he would say or do—and isn’t that a shock—so they just sit there for a few moments.

Regina comes back with the food and looks confused for a second, but then her eyes widen in recognition. How would she—oh, right. Regina saw the picture of them kissing, the one she keeps in her closet. She should have burned that thing a long time ago.

For a couple moments, Regina looks between them with narrowed eyes. Then she slips into the booth next to Emma and, in a totally unexpected move, puts her hand almost possessively on her shoulder. “Emma, darling, who is this?” she asks in a much sweeter tone than Emma’s ever heard her use.

Emma’s not sure what’s happening, but she decides to go with it. “Uh, this is Neal. We… used to date.” She’s not sure stealing cars together and having bad sex in motel rooms counts as dating, but it’s not like she has a better word for it. “Neal, this is Regina.”

Neal looks between the two of them, confused. “Wait, are you two, uh…”

Regina smiles. “Together? Yes, I am Emma’s girlfriend.”

It’s a good thing Emma wasn’t drinking anything because she probably would have choked. Girlfriend? What the hell is Regina up to? Emma sneaks a glance to her left and Regina winks at her—at least, she assumes it’s a wink even though Regina used both eyes.

Neal doesn't notice, probably because he’s busy staring at Emma in shock. “You like girls?”

Shit. She hadn’t even considered that part. Her mouth goes dry, but she manages to form the words, “Is that a problem?” instead of saying no.

“Of course not,” Neal says quickly. “So do I. Like girls, I mean. Actually, I’m waiting for my fiancée. She’s meeting me here in a few minutes.”

Emma nods. “Good for you.”

In her peripheral vision, she sees Regina smile artificially. “So what do you do, Neal?”

“Oh, uh…” Neal shrugs, giving her an awkward half-grin. “This and that. What about you?”

“Nothing at the moment,” Regina says. “One of the perks of coming from a royal family is that I don’t require a job.”

Neal drops his burger. “You’re royalty? ” he splutters, which makes the petty part of Emma’s brain happy.

Regina’s fake smile intensifies, so that she’s giving him her ‘I’m better than you in every possible way and I want you to know that’ face. “Minor royalty, from Saskatchewan,” she says casually.

“Oh. Wow. Sounds fancy.” Neal shifts uncomfortably on the bench. “Well, uh, what brings you here?”

Regina rattles off some story about a foreign affairs trip. It’s all bullshit, but Neal looks more impressed by the second. Emma finally starts to relax. Maybe Regina has this conversation handled.

Then the bells jingle and a woman in a cream coat walks into the restaurant. A horribly familiar woman.

Please, no, Emma thinks, her stomach dropping, but of course Neal recognizes her instantly. “Tamara!” he almost yells, probably thrilled to have someone on his side in this conversation. “Over here!”

It’s like watching a car crash. Emma wants to move, to run, to do literally anything except sit there as Tamara walks over. Except Regina’s blocking the aisle and Tamara’s kissing Neal on the lips, and then she’s turning to Emma and narrowing her eyes and saying, “Hey, don’t I know you?”

“You guys know each other?” Neal asks, looking between them quizzically. Regina’s forehead wrinkles, and she turns to Emma like she wants to ask the same question.

“No,” Emma says as quickly as possible. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Emma,” she says, reaching out her hand.

Tamara’s eyes narrow further. Emma meets them, silently begging her to take the hint. If Tamara admits to recognizing her, she’s screwed. Regina will want to know how they know each other, and Emma can’t exactly say that she went to a mental hospital to talk about maybe getting her committed because, oh yeah, she’s actually crazy.

After a few moments that feel like a million years, Tamara reaches out and takes Emma’s hand tentatively. “Right,” she says uncertainty. “I must have mistaken you for someone else. I’m Tamara.”

Emma tries to communicate ‘thank you’ with her eyes, but now Tamara’s looking at Regina. “And you’re Emma’s girlfriend?”

“Yes. My name is Regina,” she says, sticking out her hand like a politician.

“That’s wonderful,” Tamara says, and they shake hands. “How long have you two been together?”

“Oh, about a month and a half,” Regina says.

Tamara glances at Emma again, probably remembering how Emma came to see her about a month and a half ago. “Is that right?” she asks slowly.

“Uh… yeah,” she has to say, because Regina’s next to her. “That’s about right.”

As Tamara sits down next to Neal and starts to eat her burger, there’s another awkward silence. Emma thinks maybe she can get away with making an excuse and leaving, but Regina seems happy eating her burger and making Neal uncomfortable. After the close call with Tamara recognizing her, Emma doesn’t want to do anything to make Regina suspicious.

She’s probably overreacting. It’s not like she’d given Tamara a physical description of Regina. She has no reason to think that they might be the same person, and Regina’s gotten pretty good at New York small talk, so it’s not obvious that she isn’t from here.

Neal says, in an obviously desperate attempt to make conversation, “So, uh… football season is starting soon. Who are you rooting for, Regina?”

“Oh, I really… I couldn’t say,” Regina says.

There’s silence. Too late, Emma notices that Regina is looking her way. Her expression sends a clear message: Translate, please. For all her research into science and medicine, Regina hasn’t made it to the sports section of the library.

“Uh, Regina doesn’t follow football,” Emma says. “People tossing around a leather ball on a field and getting into pileups isn’t her idea of fascinating.”

Regina relaxes. “No, I most certainly don’t,” she says, sounding genuinely baffled at the idea that people would do that for fun.

Emma doesn’t realize what she’s done until she glances at Tamara. There’s a glint in her eyes that Emma really, really doesn’t like. Apparently her subtle over-explanation of an ordinary concept wasn’t so subtle after all.

“So what do you do for a living, Regina?” Tamara asks.

“Oh, Regina is royalty,” Neal says. “From… Saskatchewan, I think.”

Tamara leans back and crosses her arms. “That’s interesting. I didn’t realize Saskatchewan had royalty.”

“Well, the more you know.” Regina glances at Emma like she’s sharing an inside joke, but Emma’s not laughing. Anything that adds to Tamara’s suspicion is definitely bad, especially if it involves Regina describing herself as royalty—especially royalty from an obviously made-up location.

Maybe it’s fine. Maybe Tamara won’t have a problem with Emma dating the crazy woman who doesn’t know she’s crazy, instead of bringing her in for treatment. Except judging by the look in Tamara’s eyes, she definitely has a problem with that.

“How did you two meet?” Tamara asks next. Her tone of voice is the same one Emma uses at work when she has a theory and is trying to get more evidence.

Emma tries to think up an answer that won’t make everything worse, but Regina beats her to it. “We met at the top of the Empire State building, at sunset.”

“That’s… very romantic,” Tamara says, looking confused. Emma looks at Regina, trying to figure out where the hell she got that from, but she can’t read her expression. Still, at least Regina’s answer isn’t going to confirm any of Tamara’s theories, so Emma’s relieved. For now.

Regina opens her mouth to say something else, but before she does, Neal says, “You know what, this is great. You being with Regina. I’m happy about it.”

“Why?” Emma asks.

“Well, if you’re a lesbian,” Neal says, “then it doesn’t matter so much that we didn’t work out, right? I mean, it was never going to work out anyway.”

Emma’s entire mind goes blank and suddenly she can’t remember a single reason why punching his lights out would be a bad idea. She pulls her hand back, ready to curl it into a fist, ready to launch herself at him—

Then Regina clamps her hand on Emma’s leg under the table, holding her in place. Emma reluctantly sits back and Regina starts moving her thumb in small, calming circles on the back of her thigh.

Meanwhile, Tamara’s glaring at Neal. “You can’t assume she’s a lesbian,” she hisses. “She might be bi, or pan.”

“Oh, sorry,” Neal says, and at least he has the decency to look embarrassed. “Uh… what are you?”

Emma opens her mouth, but she must be a worse person than she thought because she can’t make herself say any of those words. Luckily, Regina steps in for her. “I don’t see why that should make a difference to you, especially considering that she’s currently with me,” she says coldly, still tracing circles with her thumb. Emma tries to focus on that instead of how much she feels like she’s going to throw up.

Neal raises his hands. “Of—of course not.”

“So how did you two meet?” Regina asks.

“I bumped into Tamara on my way to work,” Neal says, looking as grateful as Emma feels for the change in topic. “Spilled my coffee all over her.”

“How romantic,” Regina says, raising a sarcastic eyebrow. “What is it you do, Tamara?”

“I work at a mental hospital,” Tamara says, and all of Emma’s muscles tense up. “I do research to find better treatments for illnesses.”

“That’s very admirable,” Regina says politely.

“I think it’s important for people to have the most possible information about their illnesses,” Tamara says, glaring at Emma. “That’s why I believe in informing my patients as much as possible about the issues they’re dealing with.”

“Honesty is the best policy, right?” Neal says, smiling, and something in Emma snaps.

“Oh yeah? When did you learn that? Because it sure as hell wasn’t your policy when you were with me.”

Neal’s eyes widen, like baby deer eyes, and he flinches back. It’s not enough though, and Emma wants to flatten him because how dare he act like he’s the one who’s getting screwed over here? He has no right to be hurt about any of this.

“I changed, Em,” he says quietly.

“Don’t call me that.” Sure, Emma believes in people changing, in people getting second chances, but Neal… in her mind, he’s always been the creep who betrayed her.

“Emma. I mean it, I’m sorry. I’m not the same person who—”

“Left me in jail?”

“You left her in jail?” Tamara asks, looking at Neal with wide eyes. “You never mentioned that.”

“I told you I have a—a past,” Neal says, sounding trapped. “I didn’t keep that from you.”

“Yeah, but you never mentioned that you left a girl there to take the fall for you.” Tamara lets go of Neal’s hand and shifts a few steps away from him.

“Do we have to talk about this right now?” Neal asks.

“We can talk about it later,” Tamara says, looking at him like he’s something she found on the bottom of her shoe.

“This has been lovely, but Emma and I have a movie to get to,” Regina says, clearly sensing that Emma can’t take this anymore. She takes her hand off Emma’s leg and grabs her purse.

Tamara looks between them and Emma holds her breath, but she just says, “Of course. It was nice to meet you, Emma.”

“You too,” Emma says, breathing out in relief. Either Tamara’s put enough pieces together to know what’s going on somehow, or she’s distracted by how mad she is at Neal, or she’s just decided to cut Emma a break. Whatever reason it is, Emma doesn’t really care.

“It was nice to see you again, Emma,” Neal says. “I hope we see you around sometime.”

Emma gets out of the restaurant as quickly as she can, for once not bothering to take the food. She slips in the driver’s seat and has one moment to collect herself before Regina slides in on the passenger side.

“Well, that was unpleasant,” Regina says.

That’s when it all hits Emma: the stress, the fact that she just saw her ex-boyfriend, the fact that she’s still lying to Regina—possibly the only person in the world who really cares about her. She shudders.

“Are you okay?” Regina asks quietly. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it.” She needs to distract herself, get her mind off what just happened. She starts the car and puts her hand on the emergency brake, but before she can release it, Regina grabs her hand and gently takes it off.

“I think it would be good if you did talk about it.”

No, it wouldn’t. “Look, it’s only 2:30,” Emma says, pointing at the clock on the dashboard. “I know lunch and the museum took longer than we thought, but I think we can make it to the movie.”

“Emma, you need to calm down. I refuse to die in a fiery accident simply because your ex appeared to ruin your day. Take a moment, relax. We’re not in a hurry.”

Regina’s voice leaves no room for argument, so Emma reluctantly turns the car off. She stares straight ahead and takes some deep breaths, trying to get the lump out of her throat. “I don’t want to talk. There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Really?” Regina asks lightly. “I think if I ran into someone who broke my heart, I would have a lot to say about it.”

“He didn’t break my heart. We were kids. I thought he understood me, and I just… latched on.” It had felt like love, and she’d thought it was love, but looking back, she can’t remember a single thing she felt with him besides the occasional sense of safety.

“I don’t mean to press,” Regina says carefully, “but you seem very upset for someone who never loved him, even considering that he got you sent to prison.”

Emma can’t even begin to explain all the reasons why she’s so upset right now. She should come up with some kind of excuse so they can move on and it’ll be like this never happened.

Instead, what comes out of her mouth is, “He got me pregnant.”

Regina’s eyes widen. “Oh. Did the child... did something happen?”

“No, he was fine,” Emma says. “At least as far as I know. I gave him up for adoption. Do you know what that is?”

“Yes.” Regina looks slightly offended, like she always does when Emma assumes she doesn’t know something—even though she often doesn’t—but for once, she keeps her mouth shut.

“And… I don’t know,” Emma continues, unable to stop talking now that it’s out there. “I just think sometimes that maybe if I’d stayed with Neal, I might have been able to keep the kid. Like, we could have raised him together.”

Regina nods. “That’s why you got upset when he said it was for the best that things didn’t work out.”

“I mean, it probably is for the best,” Emma says. “The kid’s better off without us as parents. We would have been a disaster.” Even if they’d somehow managed to stay together, neither one of them knew the first thing about parenting, let alone had the money to raise a kid properly.

“It sounds like you did the right thing,” Regina says.

“Yeah, I know. It just… it’s something I try not to think about.” No matter what, no matter how many times she goes over her logic, she’s never going to know for sure that he didn’t grow up the way she did.

“I understand,” Regina says quietly. “As much as I can understand, anyway.” She reaches out and puts her hand on Emma’s. “And I’m sure what you did was the right choice.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re a good person and you make good decisions,” she says, as though it’s as simple as one plus one equals two. Emma thinks about telling her it doesn’t work like that, but Regina’s looking at her like she’s good and she matters and Emma can’t quite bring herself to ruin that. Not right now.

So she just says, “Thanks.”

“Have you talked to Archie about any of this?” Regina asks.

Emma sighs. “No.”

Regina nods slowly, comprehension dawning on her face, and she takes her hand off Emma’s. “You haven’t gone at all, have you?”

“No, I haven’t,” Emma admits, not looking Regina in the eye.

“Why would you tell me you did if you didn’t?” Regina’s voice is cool, and Emma flinches.

“Because you didn’t want to go, remember? I figured it would help if you thought I was going too.” She does look Regina in the eye now, trying to read her expression. “Are you… mad at me?”

“I’m not happy that you lied about it,” Regina says. “I’m an adult. I could have made that choice on my own. But you are also an adult, and if you don’t benefit from therapy, then you shouldn’t go. Having said that…” Regina looks slightly pained, but she says, “Archie can be helpful. He may be irritatingly happy most of the time, but I—I like it, sometimes. Talking about my problems.”

“I’m glad you do,” Emma says fervently. “But I just… I hate just sitting there while someone analyzes me.” It reminds her of talking to social workers when she was in the foster system, which never ended well.

“I understand that.”

Regina doesn’t seem to have anything to add, and Emma figures it’s safe to change the subject. “So, uh, why the Empire State building?”

Regina shrugs self-consciously. “It was in Sleepless in Seattle.

“The romcom?” Emma raises her eyebrows. “You didn’t tell me you watched romcoms.”

“I was curious to find out more about how people in this world handle relationships,” Regina says defensively. “So I did my research.”

Research. Despite everything Emma’s just been through, she almost laughs at that. “Real-life romances aren’t like they are in romcoms, you know. Not every argument ends in a last-minute airport dash.”

Regina rolls her eyes. “Well, I assumed as much. That would be exhausting.”

“Is that how you got the idea for the fake dating thing, too?”

“...Possibly.”

Emma smiles. “Thanks for doing that, by the way,” she says quietly. It had almost ruined everything, but Regina's intentions had been good.

“I didn’t do it for you,” Regina says, although the gentleness in her voice suggests that she very much did. “I just enjoyed watching that weasel squirm.”

“Yeah, so did I.” That part, at least, had been fun.

Feeling much calmer than before, Emma checks the time: 2:35. “Crap. We gotta run if we’re gonna make it to that movie. Although even if we miss the first ten minutes, it’ll probably be fine. It’s a documentary. We’re not gonna miss anything,” she says, her tone lightly teasing even though her voice is slightly hoarse.

“Actually, I changed my mind,” Regina says casually. “I think we should see the bacteria movie.”

Emma doesn’t need a lie detector to know that Regina’s saying that to make her happy. “We don’t have to.”

“No, I want to. It’ll be…” Regina twists her mouth into a passable imitation of a smile. “Fun.”

Emma considers arguing, since Regina did just do her a favour—of sorts—but then she thinks about watching three hours of political documentary, and she reconsiders. “Yeah, it will be fun.”

This time, when Emma starts the car, Regina doesn’t protest.

Chapter Text

Marian’s bookstore is located in a small, old-fashioned wood and brick building in downtown Brooklyn. It carries a mixture of new and used books, and although it’s not fancy—or terribly busy—it’s clean and well-maintained. Marian moves through her employees with easy confidence, greeting all of them and conversing with them as equals. They follow her directions without question. Regina has never seen authority wielded so effectively without the help of fear, and she’s impressed despite herself.

After introducing Regina as “her new neighbour,” Marian leads her to a table in the back room with a small stack of paperwork on it. “Here,” she says. “Tax forms, order forms, budget details. I need you to fill them out.” She shrugs apologetically. “You might be a bit bored, but it’s the best I’ve got right now. We have a bit of a backlog. I’ve included instructions, but do you want me to go over it with you?”

Regina assures Marian that she’ll be fine, then settles into the hard plastic chair and gets started on the paperwork. It takes her a while to figure out how everything works, but soon she’s moving through the pile at a decent rate.

It’s calming work, familiar work. The more she goes through the forms and financial records, the more caught up in it she gets—and the more concerned she becomes, because the finances do not look good. She makes some notes on the budget, adding in simple suggestions for improvement. When she’s done, she brings it to Marian, who is on the phone at the front of the store.

“Yes, sir. Of course.” Marian gestures for Regina to join her behind the counter. There are a few plants by the window, which all look meticulously cared for, and stray papers are everywhere. Regina places the neatly stacked paperwork on the counter, then sits on a wooden stool and watches the birds fluttering outside the window.

After a minute or two, Marian gracefully ends the phone call, sounding more stressed than ever. “What’s the matter, Regina? Are you stuck?”

“I’m finished.”

“That’s great,” Marian says absently. “Can you go on to the rest of it?”

“That was the rest of it.”

Marian finally notices the stack of papers. She grabs them and flips through it, her eyes widening. “Wow. This is amazing. It would have taken me three hours to do this.”

“Also,” Regina says, “I analyzed your budget.”

Marian stares at her. “You did what?”

“You’re having financial issues,” Regina says. “You’ll be in debt in a few months if this continues. You have more employees than you could possibly need. It’s not financially viable.”

Marian shakes her head. “I can’t fire them. They’re my friends. They trust me.”

“That’s heartwarming,” Regina says tersely, “but if you keep spending money at this rate, your company will go bankrupt and then none of them will have jobs.”

“But that’s why we’re holding a fundraiser.”

“A fundraiser you haven’t advertised,” Regina says as patiently as she can manage, which is not very. “No one’s going to attend it if they don’t know it exists. Also, you need to somehow fund the fundraiser, and you don’t have the money for that either.”

Marian looks like she wants to argue, but then she sinks down in her chair. “I know. I’ll ask Sabine to run the numbers with me again if she has time. It’ll work out.”

“The money isn’t your biggest problem,” Regina says. “You’re letting your emotions run your business, and if you do that, you’ll go bankrupt. Just like Kathleen Kelly.”

“What, from You’ve Got Mail?

Regina points to a name on the page. “I recommend that you fire Percy Lapin. He’s a drain on your resources. His function can easily be assimilated by your other employees, and according to the timesheet, he’s been late seventy percent of the time over the past six months.”

“How did you even calculate that?” Marian asks. “And I can’t fire him. He was a friend of my dad, and he has an eight-year-old kid.”

“That’s not your problem,” Regina says sternly. “You’re a leader, and you have to make difficult decisions. The financial health of your company is more important than one person’s child.”

“It’s wrong,” Marian says. “I’m not going to fire him.”

Marian seems adamant, so Regina reluctantly decides to let it go. “Fine. In that case, you will have to move somewhere with a lower rent.”

“I’ve thought about it,” Marian says, putting her head in her hands. “Moving would cost more than we would save. We can’t afford it.”

“Then you need to get your landowner to renegotiate your lease.”

“We’ve tried. He won’t do it,” Marian says, lifting her head back up.

Regina frowns. “Let me see the contract.”

Marian shakes her head. “There’s no point. Look, I studied law at Harvard, and I’ve been over the whole thing with a fine-tooth comb. Trust me, he’s got us. He’s coming here this afternoon, actually, so you can ask him yourself. Just as long as you don’t make him angry.” Ah, so that was why the phone call rattled her so much.

“You could appeal to his ego,” Regina suggests. “Offer to name something after him, or dedicate the fundraiser to him.” People always used to do that for her in the Enchanted Forest, although it never worked the way they intended. However, many of the shallower kings and dukes lapped that type of thing up.

Marian raises her eyebrows. “How are you coming up with these ideas? They’re brilliant.”

Marian, of course, has no idea that Regina is—well, used to be—the Evil Queen. Regina can’t exactly explain that she’s had years of experience with managing money and people, in a far more high-stakes environment than this. “I’ve had experience working in upper management,” she says instead, which isn’t quite a lie. “I’ve dealt with these situations before. Stay confident, focus on your assets, and you’ll pull through.”

“Thanks,” Marian says. “I think I needed to hear that.”

Regina studies the hunch of her shoulders and the circles under her eyes. She’d looked alive when she’d been among her employees, but here behind the desk, she looks trapped. “I have to ask, what drew you to this position?”

“It’s important,” Marian says quickly. “This bookstore carries books that tell the stories of women, people of colour, queer people… people whose stories are usually erased, or told wrong.”

Regina thinks of a library book with her story in it, told completely wrong, and her appreciation for the woman in front of her grows. “Yes,” she says quietly. “That is important.”

“And it’s… it’s satisfying,” Marian says. “Really.” She nods as though she’s finished, but the muted sadness in her eyes tells a different story.

Regina says nothing, waiting for her to go on. For a few seconds, the only sounds are the rustling of pages and the background noise of traffic.

Then Marian sighs. “I just pictured myself out in the world writing my own story, not telling everyone else’s,” she says in a rush, as though she’s ashamed. “Living my life, finding love and all that stuff. Not that this isn’t a good job, but… is that bad?” She looks up at Regina, her brown eyes wide.

“Of course not.”

Marian shrugs. “I guess sometimes I do want to be Kathleen Kelly.” Then she wrinkles her nose. “Unless that means Heller is Joe Fox. Because no.

“So why don’t you leave?” Regina asks. “Do something else? You seem like a capable woman.”

Marian’s gaze drifts to a large portrait of two people who somewhat resemble her, mounted on the wall behind the counter. The plaque under the portrait says ‘Carlos and Rosa del Bosque, Our Founders.’

“My parents ran this place,” Marian says quietly. “They died six months ago in a car crash, so it’s mine now.”

Regina’s not the kind of person who says sorry, especially when she didn’t do anything wrong. She does place her hand on Marian’s arm, the way her own father would have done with her, the way she sometimes does with Emma. “I don’t have all that much experience with good parents,” she says, “but I imagine they would have wanted you to be happy, not to put yourself through this for their sake.”

Marian nods slowly. “Thanks.”

They sit there for a few moments, then Marian sighs. “We should get back to work,” she says, but Regina can tell that she’s going to think about what she said. She walks away with warmth spreading in her chest.

She just helped someone.

Regina spends the rest of the morning learning the various tasks of a Bosque Books employee. She learns customer service from August, who tells her about the book he’s writing about his two-year stay in Thailand in which he ‘found himself’—or at least found several attractive women. She reorganizes the Plants and Gardening section with Jacinda, who tells her how Marian used to date her girlfriend Sabine when they were both at Harvard, meeting at a ‘Save the Rainforest’ rally. She unpacks stock with Drew, who tells her all about his two pet frogs that he’s convinced are madly in love.

No one cowers away from her. No one refuses to make eye contact. No one even questions her presence there. It’s a new feeling, and the more time Regina spends in that little bookstore, the more she finds she likes it.

 


 

“Nope. I have no idea where he is,” Jeanette says, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she perches on the chair in the interrogation room.

Emma’s lie detector pings. “Really? Because I’ve heard reports of him breaking into shops around here, and security footage indicates you were there at the same time as him yesterday.”

Jeanette shakes her head.

“If you tell me everything you know, I can help you. I can negotiate with the cops, get them to go easy on you.”

“That wouldn’t be honourable.”

She’s the third criminal Emma’s interviewed that morning, and this is the third time she’s gotten that response. What does that even mean, anyway? They’re all criminals. They all steal crap. There’s nothing honourable about what they do. Emma should know.

She pulls out a square of soap, which is wrapped in paper marked with the logo of the New York Hilton. “We found this in your bag.”

Jeanette shrugs. “So what? Just because I’m homeless, I’m not allowed to have fancy soap?”

“I just think it’s interesting that all the criminals we’ve arrested for their connection to this guy have this kind of soap on them. Especially since he robbed that hotel a few days ago.”

“That’s what you think is interesting? You should get a hobby, lady.”

“Look, Jeanette,” Emma says, because using the criminal’s name is supposed to build a connection. She’s seen it before on cop shows. “This guy could be dangerous. He’s broken into a lot of places.”

“Whatever. It’s not like he’s hurt anyone.” Jeanette breaks eye contact and starts examining her nails. So much for a connection.

Emma leans forward, planting her hands on the table. “Look, I know you’re in cahoots with him. I just want information on where he is.”

Jeanette shakes her head again, and Emma sighs. She’s not going to get anything out of her. “Thanks for your time,” she says grudgingly, and pushes her chair back so hard it scrapes against the floor. She leaves the interrogation room no better off than when she went in.

All she wants to do is work on the case, but she passes a hot dog cart as she leaves the police station and the smell makes her stomach growl, so she grabs lunch at a nearby sandwich shop—grilled cheese for her, Tuscan chicken for Regina, and a couple bottles of root beer because Regina’s never had that before. She’s already paid and left the shop before she remembers that Regina’s at work now. She’ll probably want to eat lunch with all her new work friends, Jacinda and Drew and… that other guy Marian mentioned. What was his name? September?

Although, maybe Regina hasn’t made any friends yet. Marian said her employees—she’d called them “associates”—are all super chill, but Regina’s not exactly great at getting along with new people. Then again, neither is Emma, so maybe it would be better if she stayed away.

Except she’s already bought the sandwich, and Regina probably packed half a salad or something, which isn’t enough even though she always says it is. She’ll get hungry by 2:00 and then she’ll be miserable for the rest of the afternoon.

That settles it, and she drives over to Marian’s shop. A few customers smile at her when she walks in, and she awkwardly nods back, fighting the urge to stuff her hands in her pockets.

Marian spots her right away. “Hey, Emma! Are you here to see Regina?” She starts walking towards her, but a lady cuts her off with a question about where the knitting books are located. Give me a second, Marian mouths to Emma before going off to help the customer.

Without anything better to do, Emma browses the books. There are all kinds: mystery books, romance books, philosophy books, even an entire shelf dedicated to books about motorcycles. There’s a whole row in the back corner dedicated to fairy tales, which seems kind of excessive. Emma tries to picture Regina selling Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to a customer, but she can’t come up with a mental image that doesn’t involve Regina setting the book on fire and then throwing it out a window.

As she goes through the fairy tale aisle, the Snow White story is nowhere to be found. Apart from a few volumes of Grimm stories, most of the books are from non-European cultures. Not all of them are in English. One whole shelf is labeled ‘Variations on Classic Stories,’ and it has a section for ‘Queer Retellings and Reimaginings,’ which she hadn’t even known was a thing. It’s not a big section, but the little shelf is packed with books—mostly new, although some seem to have been published a while ago.

Emma puts down the food and root beer on an empty part of the shelf and pulls out a book with two women on the cover, dancing in a castle ballroom. They’re looking at each other with identical sappy expressions. Their faces so close together they might as well be kissing. There’s some other stuff on the cover, magic dust and lamps and glitter effects, but the women are obviously the centre. It’s… jarring, to see two women where there would normally be a woman and a man, and Emma feels horrible for the way her heart races as she looks at them together.

“I love that one.”

Emma almost drops the book when she hears Marian’s voice at the end of the aisle. “I just saw it,” she says, suddenly wanting to put it back. “You have a lot of fairy tale stuff.”

“Yeah, they’re my favourite.” Marian runs a finger along the spines of a row of books. “I mean, they’re classics for a reason, right? There’s something really special about them. I love giving people these books and giving them the chance to see themselves in a story, usually for the first time.”

“Sure,” Emma says awkwardly, not really comfortable with the heavy direction this conversation is going in. “And this looks great,” she says quickly, “but I’m not a big reader myself. I just don’t have time, you know?”

Marian nods at the book in Emma’s hand. “We have that one as an audiobook. Great for long car rides.”

“Seriously? You’re trying to give me the hard sell?” Emma smiles so Marian knows she’s kidding.

Marian shrugs, spreading her hands. “It’s my job.”

“Sorry, but I’m not in the market for fairy tales right now,” Emma says, putting the book back and shoving her hands in her pockets.

“Even though you’re apparently living with one?” Marian asks, raising her eyebrows.

Emma rolls her eyes. “If you ask her. Although she doesn’t really like to be reminded of the whole Disney thing. How did she do this morning?”

Marian’s face lights up. “Amazing,” she says. “She worked through a huge backlog of paperwork in under an hour, restructured the budget to help us save money, and she’s been on the phone negotiating with vendors all morning. She’s brilliant.”

Emma grins. “Hey, that’s awesome.” Regina had tried to hide it, but she’d been worried about not having any employable skills.  With work experience at a reputable bookstore, she might actually be able to get a job, support herself… maybe she can even move out at some point. She won’t need Emma anymore, which is a good thing for both of them.

Emma’s stomach is twisting. She must be hungry. “So where’s Regina?” she asks.

“Back here,” Marian says, leading her to a room at the back of the store. Regina is working at a little desk in the corner, talking on the phone with someone. She’s multitasking, making notes on a page full of numbers while she talks. There’s a crease between her eyes and her hair is falling in front of her face as she concentrates. Emma has a sudden urge to reach out and tuck it behind her ears.

Where did that come from?

“And the stock will be here by seven tomorrow, correct?” Regina asks. “We need the gardening books for our Sublime Summertime display.” There’s a brief pause, then she rolls her eyes. “Yes, seven in the morning. And before you ask, we won’t be paying for overnight shipping, given that the order was originally placed a week ago—or rather misplaced, on your part.” From the glint in her eyes, Emma’s pretty sure that’s not true, but she says it so confidently it’s hard to imagine anyone calling her on it.

“By seven then,” Regina continues, sounding victorious. “Excellent. It was a pleasure talking to you too.” She hangs up and rolls her eyes, then finally notices Emma. Her whole face brightens, which somehow makes Emma’s stomach twist a little more. “Emma! What are you doing here?”

It takes Emma a second to remember what, exactly, she’s doing here. “Bringing you lunch,” she says, tossing the sandwiches on the desk and pulling a bottle out from under her arm. “And root beer.”

Regina screws off the top of the bottle and takes a sip. Her eyes flutter closed as she concentrates on the taste, her tongue swiping out just slightly over her dark red lips, and Emma’s stomach does something funny again. After a few moments, Regina opens her eyes. “Six point four.”

Emma’s about to reply when the door creaks open behind them and she turns around. A man with a prosthetic leg and a T-shirt that reads ‘Ask Me About My WIP’ walks into the room, waving a cell phone at them. “Terrible news: Samdi just called. He’s canceling our venue for the fundraiser.”

Marian’s face falls. “He’s doing what? Why?”

He shrugs. “That creep Heller out-bid us.”

The employees unpacking books in the corner groan in recognition. “Who’s that?” Emma asks.

“Isaac Heller. He’s our main competition,” Marian explains. “He’s an author and a bookstore owner, and he stocks a lot of his own stuff. It’s… how should I put it?”

“Pseudo-progressive bullcrap,” one of the employees in the corner says, rolling his eyes emphatically. The serious-looking woman beside him nods in agreement so vigorously that her blue headband slips forward.

“I gotta be honest, I’ve met lemurs that were braver than him,” says the guy holding the phone.

“It’s problematic,” Marian says diplomatically. “He’s holding his own fundraiser on the same day as ours. We thought he had his own venue, but I guess he changed his mind.”

“Yikes,” Emma says. “Can’t you guys get another venue though?”

“I doubt it,” says the woman with the blue headband. “Not the size we need, and not on such short notice.”

The man holding the phone sighs. “I got Samdi to come here to give us the refund.”

“When is he coming?” Regina asks.

The bells above the door jingle. Emma looks back through the door and sees a man, tall and handsome, walk into the shop. He’s bald with dark skin and a neatly trimmed crop of facial hair, and he surveys the space as though it personally belongs to him. “I’m guessing right now,” she says.

Marian nods curtly and steps out of the back room, gathering her fluffy purple cardigan around her like armour. “Baron Samdi,” she says, keeping her tone calm and professional. “It’s lovely to see you.”

“The same to you,” Samdi replies. His voice is low, charming in an oily sort of way. “I trust Mr. Booth informed you about the change in plans?”

“He did,” Marian says. “I don’t suppose I could ask you to reconsider? It’s just—” Her voice slips, anxiety leaking into it, and Emma winces because this guy is not going to appreciate that. “We really need this venue.”

Just as Emma expected, Samdi shakes his head. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” He hands her a piece of paper—a check, probably—and turns to leave.

“I don’t think so,” Regina mutters beside her.

Ignoring Marian’s frantic whisper of “Regina, no, wait,” she strides through the bookstore.

“Excuse me,” she says cheerfully.

Samdi turns just before he reaches the door. They’re too far away for Emma to hear, and sneaking up to eavesdrop probably wouldn’t help anybody, but Samdi and Regina have a conversation that involves a lot of gesturing and raised eyebrows and calculating expressions. After a few minutes, Samdi waves Marian over to her desk and she joins the conversation, looking a little out of her depth.

By the time Samdi leaves, Marian’s eyes are wide as saucers. Emma and the others cluster around them. “What happened?” Jacinda asks. “Did you get the venue back?”

“No,” Marian says, “but he’s offered us another venue. He promises it’ll be big enough. Also, he’s going to fund the entire thing.”

“That’s amazing,” Drew says. “That is so cool.”

“And…” Marian looks like she’s going to faint. “Regina got his number.”

Everyone gapes at Regina, who raises an eyebrow and looks at them smugly.

Marian seems to collect herself. “We should probably get back to work. Good job, Regina.”

The employees disperse, leaving just Emma standing next to Regina. As soon as everyone leaves, Regina smiles at her, the smugness replaced by sheer pride.

“Wow,” Emma says simply.

Regina’s grin widens. “Yes.”

“Are you gonna call him?” Emma tries to picture Regina with a boyfriend, getting dinner and movie with Mr. Moneybags in his impeccable suit, and something in her chest tightens. She’s… she’s nervous for her, that’s it. She’s just gotten over the whole Robin thing, and Samdi doesn’t exactly seem trustworthy.

Luckily, Regina just laughs. “No, I’m not. Although I do appreciate that he gave me his number.” She tucks it in her pocket fondly.

“Yeah, that’s not bad for your first day on the job,” Emma says. “And I’m glad everything worked out. It’s great that the other venue was free that night.”

Regina shakes her head. “It wasn’t. I simply managed to persuade him that our needs took precedence over those of the company that currently had that spot.”

Emma frowns. “Which one?”

“The Children’s Aid Society,” Regina says matter-of-factly, like she’s commenting on the weather. “They were hosting a fundraiser as well, but that booking has been postponed indefinitely.”

“You kicked out a charity for children?” Emma asks, her voice rising slightly. “Does Marian know?”

Regina raises an eyebrow, apparently surprised that Emma has a problem with that. “No, I never mentioned it to her. And I didn’t ‘kick them out.’ They’ll get another venue.”

“Yeah, maybe. Or maybe not. Seriously, you really can’t see anything wrong with that?”

Regina tilts her head. “This is a business situation,” she says. “Someone has to lose in these types of negotiations. I much prefer to be the one saying who, when, and how, than to be on the other end of it. Is that wrong?”

There’s no remorse in her eyes, only confusion. There’s no hint that she even understands how—how cold that is. The way she looks right now, Emma can almost picture her as the Evil Queen she says she was, ruthless and calculating and not caring about anyone except herself.

Then Emma looks at Marian’s employees, who are all smiling and laughing, thrilled by the news that they’re not totally screwed after all. “I don’t know,” she says quietly.

She realizes she’s messed up when Regina takes a small step back. “You do remember that this is hardly the worst thing I’ve done? Or has my past slipped your mind so easily?” Her face is cool, almost angry, but her tone is all hurt and anxiety. Her forehead is slightly wrinkled, the way it gets whenever she’s made a mistake and she’s trying to figure out what it is.

“Of course not,” Emma says quickly, stepping forward to close the space between them. “I know who you are—who you were. I just… I’m having a bad day, that’s all.”

Regina’s expression doesn’t change, but the anxiety in her eyes slowly disappears as she nods. “I see. The criminal hunting is going poorly?”

Emma sighs. She’d almost forgotten about that. “Yeah, it is.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Regina asks, and there, that’s the woman she knows. Prickly, sure, but still a good person. Still her friend.

“Not really. Can we just eat lunch?”

They do eat lunch, with Jacinda and Drew and August and Marian. The sandwiches and root beer are supplemented by beignets hand-delivered by Jacinda’s girlfriend Sabine, who apparently owns the third-largest chain of food trucks in New York City.

Emma can’t stop thinking about Regina though. Sure, the charity thing had been cold, but that’s something they can talk about. The way Regina reacts when she thinks she’s done something bad, how scared she gets, that’s a real problem. No matter what Regina thinks, she’s not a bad person and she’s definitely not a murderer. Emma needs to do something, but besides being supportive and taking her to see Archie, it feels like there’s nothing she can do. It’s frustrating.

As she leaves to get back to work, she passes a bulletin board with posters on it: upcoming events, programs, movies… and an ad for a musical. The green and black sign with its cartoon drawing pops out among the other papers on the board, Idina Menzel’s name at the top in bold letters.

Emma remembers what Marian said about representation, about the power of seeing yourself in a story for the first time. She grins and pulls out her phone to look up ticket prices.

Maybe there is something she can do.

 


 

“Wicked?” Regina frowns at the tickets in Emma’s hand. “This is a musical?”

Emma grins at her. “Yeah. I figured we could see it to celebrate you getting through your first week of work.”

She’d more than gotten through it, actually; she’d enjoyed it quite a bit. However, Regina has no idea why Emma would want to go see a musical about… the Wicked Witch of the West? Whatever version of the story this is, it’s a safe bet that it ends in misery, and she doesn’t feel as though that would help her right now.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she asks.

“Of course, you’ll love it,” Emma says confidently, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “I mean, I’ve never seen it, but I know the plot. It’s a pretty popular musical.”

“If you already know the plot, why do you want to see it?”

“Just trust me, okay?” Emma’s still grinning. “It’ll be good, I promise.”

Regina’s skeptical, but she’s never known Emma to break a promise, so she nods reluctantly. “All right, if it will make you happy.”

Emma’s smile grows at that.

Marian’s bookstore is closed on Friday afternoon, so Emma picks Regina up from work and they go together. As they purchase snacks and sit in their terrible balcony seats, Emma keeps smiling at her as though she knows something Regina doesn’t. What could possibly be going through her mind?

Regina’s suspicions are confirmed in the first musical number: the evil witch dies after all. She’s not even disappointed, given that she expected that ending, but she very much wants to leave. However, it seems important to Emma that she stay, so she reluctantly settles in her seat and keeps watching.

Throughout the musical, Regina tries not to care about Elphaba, tries not to relate to her, because she knows what will happen in the end. And yet she cannot help herself from growing attached to this plucky young witch who just wants to do the right thing and help people, but nothing she does ever goes as planned. She watches, captivated against her will, as Elphaba learns about magic, makes a friend, dreams about her future as a great sorceress… and then slowly falls to darkness, losing everything in the process.

Why did Emma do this? Elphaba’s a sympathetic character, which Regina deeply appreciates, but it's hard to watch this knowing what’s going to happen to her, how she’s going to die, because no one mourns the wicked, after all…

And then.

Elphaba lives. More than that: she walks off with the man she loves. It’s not a perfect ending, and it’s more than a little surprising that she doesn’t end up with Glinda, given their obvious chemistry. Still, Elphaba’s alive and happy and Regina… Regina can’t breathe.

As the crowd rises in a standing ovation, Regina stays glued to her seat. She’s seen the cartoon drawings of villains-turned-heroes fighting for their happiness in the comic books Archie gave her. She’s listened to Emma tell her, at every opportunity, how much progress she’s making and how she can find happiness.

Somehow, not until she saw Elphaba walking offstage hand in hand with her true love, ready to find her happy ending, did she believe it herself.

By the time the curtain falls for the last time, she can barely stand. Her legs are wobbly and she’s oddly lightheaded.

“Did you like it?” Emma asks as they leave the theatre.

“She was a villain,” Regina says, unable to do anything other than state the obvious. “And she didn’t die.”

Emma smiles. “Exactly! See? She had a story like everyone else, and she didn’t die. She became a better person and she got to be happy! That’s going to be you, Regina.” There is no doubt whatsoever in Emma’s voice.

Regina opens her mouth, but nothing comes out.

Emma’s smile disappears. “Hey, what’s wrong? What are you… oh, the noise. It’s too much, right?”

It’s not, but Regina doesn’t protest as Emma leads them down a staircase to a relatively quiet part of the theatre basement.

“Do you need your earplugs?” Emma tilts her head and narrows her eyes as though she’s trying to decipher Regina’s expression. “Or… some water?”

Regina manages to shake her head.

“What do you need?” Emma asks.

“Nothing,” she whispers. “Nothing.”

Emma’s face falls. “I’m sorry. This was a bad idea, wasn’t it? I should have—”

No, ” Regina says, reaching out and gripping Emma by her bare shoulders—because she’d worn a tank top to the theatre, of course. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Emma takes a tiny step back, but she doesn’t pull away entirely. “Then what is it?”

In that moment, Regina hardly notices the noise of the theatre or the constant movement in her peripheral vision. She’s too busy marveling at the strange lightness in her chest, in her heart, in her soul. “I think…” She can barely form the words, but she says, “I think I’m happy, Emma.”

“Are you sure?” Emma asks. “You’re crying.”

Now that Emma mentions it, she can feel hot tears running down her cheeks. “I… yes. I’m sure.”

Over the past few weeks, she’s felt bits and pieces of this feeling, usually when she was around Emma. And yet there has always been that ever-present fear in the back of her mind, casting a shadow over every moment of lightness.

Now, it’s gone, replaced by the knowledge that she doesn’t have to die. She can live, she can make mistakes and make amends and survive and be happy. She doesn’t need to find her soulmate. She doesn’t even need to stop being angry… although it’s hard to summon up any anger right now.

“That’s really good,” Emma says. “I’m really glad.” Her eyes are shining and she’s smiling so widely Regina can see that one of her bottom teeth is just slightly crooked. Regina takes another half-step closer before she remembers that Emma likes her space.

However, Emma is not pulling away from her now. If anything, she’s leaning in, staring at Regina with just as much intensity.

Regina studies her, warm eyes and golden hair and imperfect teeth, and all of a sudden she’s overwhelmed with gratitude.

“You did this.”

Emma’s forehead wrinkles. “What are you talking about?”

“Thank you,” Regina says, putting all the emotion she has into her voice. “For doing all of this for me. For believing in me. For everything. You… you made me happy.”

“Regina, I didn’t do that,” Emma says. “You got better on your own. You’re the one who’s been putting in all the work. I just helped a little.”

“A lot,” Regina corrects, and Emma flushes slightly, breaking eye contact and looking at her boots. But she’s still smiling, and it’s quite possibly the most breathtaking thing Regina’s ever seen.

It must be part of happiness, this feeling that she wants—no, she needs—to press as close to Emma as possible, so close that some of this lightness seeps out of her and into Emma because she wants to share it. It must be happiness that causes her hand to leave Emma’s shoulder and trace the sharp planes of Emma’s face, moving down to cup her chin gently.

Emma shudders underneath her touch, just barely, but enough that Regina pulls back. Most of Emma’s unspoken personal rules—don’t touch me, don’t make me talk, don’t tell me what to do—can be circumvented if she thinks someone else will benefit, particularly if that person is Regina. It’s a phenomenon she’s exploited frequently to get Emma to eat something or drink something or tell her what’s wrong, simply by stating her own needs. But although she’s sure Emma would stay here for hours if Regina so much as implied that was something she wanted—and her heart aches with that certainty—she’s not interested in taking advantage of Emma’s natural selflessness to cater to her own need for intimacy.

Except once again, Emma leans back in, pressing close enough that her breath hits Regina’s cheek, making it tingle.

Suddenly, Regina needs to know, more than she’s ever needed to know anything, if Emma’s experiencing the same feeling she is. “Are you happy, Emma?”

Emma’s eyes widen. Regina’s never asked her that before; in fact, it’s possible that no one has asked her that before. The thought makes Regina’s chest hurt. Emma swallows, and Regina’s close enough that she can hear it. “Uh, you mean in general?”

“No,” Regina whispers, brushing her thumb over Emma’s cheek and making her shiver. “I mean here, right now, with me.”

Emma’s eyes drop to Regina’s lips for no more than a millisecond, but the motion shoots sparks from Regina’s heart to her spine all the way through her core. Suddenly what was enough a moment ago is no longer remotely satisfying, and Regina leans in further still, close enough to feel Emma’s body heat.

But everything she’s about to do will depend on what Emma says next.

After what seems like an eternity, Emma nods slowly. “Yeah,” she says, her voice little more than a whisper. “I’m happy.”

Regina smiles in satisfaction. She’s not delusional enough to believe she’s personally responsible for all of Emma’s happiness, of course, but the thought that she may have contributed to at least some of it is enough to draw her even closer to Emma, so close they’re practically touching. The hand not touching Emma’s face has moved to her back; Emma’s hands are resting gently on Regina’s waist, holding her. Emma’s cheeks are flushed, her breathing is shallow, her eyes are fixed on Regina’s, and Regina needs… she needs…

She closes her eyes and leans in, closing the small distance between them so that her lips can touch Emma’s…

And she hits air.

Regina opens her eyes to see that Emma’s finally pulled back, her formerly bright eyes now full of confusion. She must not have realized what Regina had intended. Regina pulls her hands away and lets them hang at her sides, her face heating up.

“I… I’m happy for you,” Emma says. “I’m happy that you liked the show, and… I’m happy that we’re friends.”

Regina swallows past the lump in her throat. “Emma—”

The instant she hears her name, Emma drops her hands from Regina’s waist and takes another step back. “I should, uh, get to work.”

“Right,” Regina says, dazed and hurt but determined not to let it show. “You should.”

They walk out of the theatre together, not looking at each other.

“Are you gonna be okay to get home on your own?” Emma asks, her tone overly casual.

Regina pulls out her subway card from her pocket. “Of course,” she says, matching Emma’s tone. “And did you remember your water?”

Emma hoists up her bag, which is bulging with the visible outlines of a water bottle and the energy bar Regina reminded her to bring. “Yep, got it right here.”

“All right. Then I will see you later,” Regina says with a forced smile.

“Okay, see you,” Emma says, backing away quickly and practically running away from her. Regina stares at her retreating form with an odd mixture of disappointment and guilt swirling in her gut.

She tries to shake it off as she turns and walks toward her subway stop. It’s not as though she’d done anything, after all. She hadn’t crossed any lines. She’d merely… misread the situation, allowed joy to overcome reason for a brief moment. She and Emma are still friends, and that is exactly what she wants—brief moment of lunacy aside.

She doesn’t notice she’s missed the subway stop until she’s two blocks past it, lost in a part of New York she’s never seen before. The map Emma gave her is still tucked away in her purse, but she decides she doesn’t want to go home after all. That… incident with Emma is no reason to be miserable, after all. She’s still light, still happy, still grateful to be alive, and she’s determined to enjoy the hell out of it.

She starts walking, not going in any particular direction for once, just letting her feet take her. There are so many wonderful things to see now that she’s looking for them: children going shopping with their parents, flower vendors selling their arrangements of colourful blossoms, even a street magician playing card tricks—a sight she finds almost whimsical. This world and its ideas about magic are amusing now, as opposed to a continual source of frustration.

Regina wants to watch, but the sun is in her eyes. She moves to the side of the sidewalk, out of the flow of traffic, and puts down her purse so she can retrieve her playbill from the musical. Using it as a visor, she watches the magician play his card tricks, which are fairly impressive considering that he doesn’t have actual magic.

She’s so invested in the card game that she almost misses the blur of activity beside her. It’s so fast she could have mistaken it for a trick of the light, but when she looks down, her purse is gone.

It’s not even a surprise. Of course, the moment she drops her guard…

She frantically looks around for the thief. Luckily, pedestrian traffic is thick enough that he can’t get through easily, which means he’s close enough for her to catch. She races after him, but right when she’s about to grab him, there’s a break in the crowd and he takes off.

She pursues him as fast as she can. He’s faster than her, and he has the added advantage of not wearing heels. Despite Regina’s best efforts, he starts to get away from her. Then, out of nowhere, he trips and falls in the middle of the sidewalk.

Regina drops to the ground beside the thief and grabs him by the arm, pinning it above his head so he stays down. With her other hand, she grabs her purse and tries to wrench it out of his firm grip. “Give that back, you hooligan! You had no right—”

She stops yelling abruptly. There, on the man’s forearm, is a lion tattoo. It looks exactly like the one from the page Tinkerbell found.

Robin?

He looks up at her. They lock eyes, and although she’s never met this man in her life, her skin tingles with an odd sense of familiarity. From the way his forehead wrinkles and his hand loses its grip on her purse, she thinks he might feel it too.

However, his eyes are blank. There’s no sign that he recognizes her, and she’d most certainly made herself recognizable. She’s probably imagining things, and she squashes down the stirrings of hope before they can sweep her away all over again. She’s been down that road too many times.

This must be the thief Emma tracked down—a random person, no concern of hers beyond the fact that he just stole from her. She snatches her purse back. “What the hell were you thinking, stealing my property?”

The man cocks an eyebrow, unashamed. “Judging by your clothing and the fact that you were holding a musical playbill, you’re hardly living in poverty,” he says, looking her up and down just a little longer than necessary. “I figured you wouldn’t miss your purse as much as some would.”

“Of course I would miss it.” All her money is in here, plus her cell phone, a book, her keys, her apple keychain Emma bought for her…

“I realize you would miss it,” the thief says slowly, his voice dripping with condescension. “I merely said you might not miss it so much as some would.”

The arrogance in his tone makes her blood boil, even though part of her admires him for not merely rolling over and begging for mercy—convenient as that would be. Regina opens her mouth to snap that she’s calling the police and he will be sent to prison for as long as possible, if she has anything to say about it.

Then she pauses. She was in such a good mood just a minute earlier, and although this man does not deserve her forgiveness, she did manage to catch him before he entirely ruined her day. Besides, she’s trying to be a better person. If she can get a second chance, who is she to deny him one?

She takes a deep breath, counting to four the way Archie always suggests and forces herself to relax her hold on his arm. “Fortunately for you, I’m in a good mood today, so I won’t turn you over to the police after all—provided you never steal from me again. I suggest you reconsider your criminal ways and pursue a more lawful course of action.”

Although she plans on letting him go, she can’t help leaning in and sneering at him, “Because if you ever steal from me again, I will have you arrested if it is the last thing I do.”

She’d hoped that, at least, might instill some fear in him. Instead, his eyes widen, the blank stare from earlier replaced by a sharp look of surprised recognition. “I don’t doubt it one bit.”

He pauses just long enough for Regina to realize she’s holding her breath.

“Your Majesty.”

Chapter Text

Regina wants to question him right there and then, but they’re in the middle of the sidewalk and people are beginning to stare. Robin could get spotted at any moment, so Regina grabs him by the arm and drags him into an alleyway, stuffing him in the narrow space between two dumpsters for good measure.

“What was that for?” he yelps. “You are the Evil Queen, are you not? Or am I mistaken?”

“You’re not mistaken,” Regina says, her voice coming out the slightest bit shaky. “I am—I was the Evil Queen.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t recognize you at first, without the fancy outfits and the elaborate hairstyles.” Robin wrenches free of her grip and wrinkles his nose at the stench of trash. “What are you doing here? I don’t suppose the Sheriff of Nottingham sent you here as well?”

Regina snorts. “You think that weasel could have sent me anywhere? I would have flattened him. No, I came here on purpose.”

Robin’s eyes widen. “On purpose? Whatever for?”

“Because… I was looking for you.” Her heart begins to pound. This is it. This is her soulmate, just when she’d given up on him, and she’s—dammit , she’s entirely unprepared.

“You came all the way to this horrid realm to arrest me?” Robin puts a hand to his chest mockingly. “I’m flattered.”

Flattered?

“Or do you have much more time on your hands than I realized? Is ruling the kingdom such a tiresome endeavour? Did you require a change of scenery?”

“Of course not, you imbe—” Regina closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, counting to four before opening them again. “Actually, I came here to save your life.”

“Save my life?” Robin’s forehead wrinkles. “Why in the hell would you do that? Please forgive my bluntness, but given that up until now, you’ve been trying to kill me…”

There is really no good way to say this, so Regina just says it. “Robin, you and I are soulmates.”

It goes over about as well as she could have expected, meaning that Robin says nothing, just stares at her for a good ten seconds with his eyebrows raised. Finally, he says, “What sort of evil trickery is this?”

Somehow, Regina never put any thought into what would happen if she actually found Robin, how she would convince him that she was his soulmate. Perhaps she’d hoped that he would just magically believe her through… some sort of mystical soulmate intuition. No such luck, apparently. She grasps for proof. “You have a lion tattoo on your arm.”

Robin narrows his eyes. “That’s hardly private information.”

Regina tries to think of something else relatively unique that she knows about him, but having never actually met him, that’s really all she had. She throws up her hands, exasperated. “Well, why else would I be here?”

“Because you were screwed over, just like I was, and now you need my help to get back?” Robin asks.

“Why the hell would I need your help?” Regina asks, more than a little offended.

“Why would you help me if you don't?”

It’s a fair question, and there’s only one way to answer it. Still crouching by the dumpsters, Regina grits her teeth and tells Robin about Tinkerbell’s offer. When he learns that she was on death row, he seems to relax, apparently thinking that avoiding death is a good enough reason to hop realms for a stranger.

“All right, I believe you,” he says when she’s done. “But are you absolutely sure we’re soulmates?” He spreads his hands. “No offense.”

Regina sighs. “Yes, I am absolutely sure.”

“Because if I recall correctly, you did order my execution. Several times, in fact.”

She crosses her arms. “Well, you stole from me more times.”

Robin shrugs in acknowledgement. “That I did, but you were quite rich. Tell me truthfully, did you miss any of your baubles?”

“One of the brooches you stole was a family heirloom, passed down from my mother,” Regina says indignantly. She’d actually hated the piece and had been almost happy when she’d discovered it missing from her carriage. Still, that didn’t give Robin the right to steal it.

“One of them,” Robin says. “And the other five million trinkets you own, are they all priceless heirlooms as well? Your family tree must be quite extensive.”

“You’re not even going to apologize?” Regina asks, raising her eyebrows. The nerve of this man.

“Oh, I shall apologize,” Robin says. “Just as soon as you apologize for trying to kill me… what was it, twenty times? At least.

“You were a criminal. I had every right.”

As soon as the words leave her mouth, she regrets them. That’s something her old self would have said, and she’s supposed to be better now. A good person would not say that, would she?

Even more worrisome is the fact that she’s fighting with her soulmate, not five minutes after finding him. Panic rises up in her. “I mean… I’m sorry,” she says. It’s physically painful, more so than any battle wound she’s ever received, but she manages to form the words, “You’re right.”

Robin’s eyebrows fly up, but he slowly nods. “Apology accepted,” he says grudgingly. “I suppose I apologize for stealing your mother’s brooch, and all of your other ugly jewelry.”

“Thank you,” Regina says, ignoring the insult with a great deal of effort.

“I have to ask, how have you managed to survive in this realm?” Robin sounds almost envious. “I’ve seen no evidence of magic here, and although I’ve been sleeping on the streets, I somehow cannot picture you doing the same.”

“I’m staying with someone,” Regina says. “I’ll take you to her apartment. You’ll be safe there, I promise.” She starts walking, motioning for Robin to follow.

“How did you get someone to let you stay with them?” Robin asks as he catches up to her. “Did you bring over half the realm’s fortune to use as a bribe?”

“Of course not,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. She may not have been the most generous ruler, but she would never do something so careless as bankrupt her own kingdom for personal gain. “I sold my necklace. My staying with her was part of an arrangement we had. I also hired her to look for you, but she found someone who wasn’t you and… well, I gave up after that.” She shrugs, a little sheepish at the admission.

“You hired someone to look for me?” Robin’s eyes widen. “Was it a grumpy blonde woman with a red jacket, by any chance?”

If Regina wasn’t in the middle of a New York City sidewalk, she’d have stopped walking. “Yes. You met Emma?” Except that makes no sense. If Emma did meet Robin, then why didn’t she realize it was him?

“So that’s why she was trying to capture me.” Robin shakes his head. “I assumed she was trying to arrest me. Now that you mention it, she did ask me about Regina. It just never occurred to me that she was talking about you. She has an interesting way of phrasing things, I must say.”

A remarkably ineffective way of phrasing things, as it turns out. Regina feels a pang of irritation. Perhaps if Emma had been more clear, she could have found Robin weeks ago.

They approach a busy intersection and Robin pulls his hood up, hiding his face as much as possible. Apart from the way his eyes dart around, constantly scanning the area for police or other authorities, he seems perfectly calm in her presence. Strangely calm, in fact.

“So it doesn’t… bother you?” Regina asks, trying to keep her voice casual.

“What doesn’t bother me?”

“That your soulmate is… well, the Evil Queen.” She’s no longer used to describing herself that way, at least outside of Archie’s office. It feels odd now, like putting on a mask that no longer fits.

Robin rolls his eyes. “Honestly, you could be Rumplestiltskin in disguise for all I care, as long as you can get me out of this awful place.”

“It’s not that awful here,” Regina says. “Not once you get used to it.”

Robin carefully dodges a small pile of vomit-covered trash on the sidewalk, out of which rats are scrounging for dinner. “Well, I must not be used to it then.”

It takes some time and a lot of dodging to avoid police officers, but they eventually make it to Emma’s apartment. Regina lets them in and Robin looks around, taking in his surroundings. “Are you sure Emma will be okay with my staying here?”

“Absolutely,” Regina assures him. “She’ll be thrilled that I found you.”

Robin looks dubious, but then he shrugs. “If you’re certain. Although based on our previous encounter, I sense ‘thrilled’ may be an exaggeration.”

“Do you want something to eat?” Regina asks. “Or something to drink? We have… well, almost everything.”

“Water, if you please.”

Regina hands him a glass from the cupboard and he fills it from the sink, then drains it so fast he starts to cough. Then he drinks another glass, then a third. When he’s done, he puts the glass on the counter and turns to Regina. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Apparently their mythical soulmate connection does not extend to small talk, because neither of them seems to know what to say after that. After a few moments of awkward silence, Robin clears his throat. “Might I be able to draw myself a bath?”

“Of course. I’ll do it for you,” Regina says, happy for the excuse to take a moment alone. “You should eat something.”

“Fruit would be lovely. I haven’t had that in a while,” Robin says, picking an apple out of the fruit bowl and taking a large bite. Regina smiles briefly at that, then goes to draw Robin his bath.

Sitting on the cold ledge of the tub, she finally starts to process what’s going on. She’s found her soulmate, which means her quest is on track. He doesn’t hate her like she feared. He’s not even as irritating as she assumed he would be.

So why the hell is she so nervous?

She hears a cough and looks up to see Robin standing in the doorway, looking at her expectantly. Regina forces a smile and gets out of his way. “It’s all yours.”

“Much appreciated,” Robin says with a polite nod.

She leaves the bathroom and, for lack of anything better to do, sits down on the couch. Emma’s pillow is still there and the blanket is unmade; she hadn’t gotten around to folding it this morning before work.

Emma. Of course, that’s what she should do: tell Emma. She’s been part of this journey nearly since the beginning, and despite her surprising incompetence, she deserves to know Regina found her soulmate.

And… perhaps telling Emma will make this feel real, not something that can be snatched away from her in a second.

Regina’s hands shake as she texts Emma, her palms so sweaty she nearly drops the phone. When she’s finished, she places it gently on the coffee table and tucks her feet up underneath her, folding her still-shaky hands on her lap.

She’s done it. She’s found her soulmate, she’s made peace with him, she’s set her destiny back on track. She’s done it.

All she can do now is wait.

 


 

I found him.

Emma stares at the text from Regina, a chill creeping up her spine. It’s a few seconds before she gets it together, but then she texts back, fingers flying over the touch keyboard, What do you mean???

She doesn’t get a reply, and she doesn’t wait around for one. She’s already pulling on her coat, already grabbing her car keys and running to the Bug. She knows what this means. There’s only one person Regina’s been trying to find, and that person isn’t even real, so whoever it is she thinks she’s found has got to be bad news.

She drives at least five miles per hour over the speed limit all the way home. She parks crookedly, slams the door behind her, and runs up the stairs to her apartment. She opens the door—unlocked, even though Regina always remembers to lock the door behind her—and bursts in to see Regina sitting on the couch. She’s not hurt, as far as Emma can tell, but she’s staring vacantly off into space.

“Hey,” Emma says breathlessly.

Regina’s head snaps around, her eyes meeting Emma’s, and she stands up. She’s smiling, but it’s a brittle smile. “I found him,” she repeats.

“Who? Who did you find?”

“My soulmate. The man you found, it was him all along.”

Fuck. “The guy we saw at the bar?”

“Yes.” Regina frowns at her and her eyes sharpen with irritation. It’s at least an improvement on the empty look that had been there a second ago. “I don’t understand how you didn’t recognize him.”

Shit, shit. “I don’t… I’m sorry.” She looks around the apartment, but there’s no one else there. “Where is he? Did you bring him here?”

The moment she says that, the bathroom door opens and her perp walks out with one of her nicer towels wrapped around his waist. “Ah. Emma Swan, I presume?”

This isn’t happening. This is a nightmare, and soon, she’s going to wake up and make Regina breakfast like normal and Regina will make the couch up for her like normal and everything’s going to be fine.

“I am Robin of Locksley,” her perp says, walking forward and reaching his hand out. “It’s nice to see you again under more… pleasant circumstances.” He’s shaved, which means he used either her razor or Regina’s. Either way, she kind of wants to throw up.

Regina’s standing right there, so there’s nothing Emma can do except walk forward and shake his hand. “So, Robin, you’re Regina’s… soulmate?”

“It seems that I am,” her perp says, smiling at Regina, who smiles back. It’s a smile unlike any Emma’s ever seen Regina produce—soft and happy, but tentative, almost nervous. A surge of protectiveness washes over Emma, and her free hand clenches into a fist.

Whatever this guy wants, she’s not going to let him get away with it.

“I apologize for giving you so much trouble,” Robin says. “And I do appreciate that you’re allowing me to stay here.”

“It’s fine,” Emma says tightly. Oh, he’s good. She can’t detect anything except honesty on his face. But he has to be lying. He has to.

Unless Robin’s part of the same cult Regina was in… except then why did he claim not to know her name? How big could an underground fairy tale cult be? It’s way more likely that he somehow came across her, Regina thought she recognized him, and he went along with it to take advantage of her. The thought makes Emma want to punch him in the face.

She can’t do that, unfortunately. Luckily, Robin goes into the washroom again so he can put some clothes on, which finally gives Emma room to breathe.

It’s true that he doesn’t seem like a threat, and as far as she knows, he’s never done anything that bad… but what other possibility is there? That Regina’s story is real? They’re fairy tale characters from some fantasy world, and the woman living in her apartment for the past three weeks—the woman who watches horse documentaries and laughs at Emma’s terrible jokes and gets migraines in the sun—is actually the worst villain in fairy tale history?

It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. Regina’s not evil. The person currently in her bathroom, on the other hand…

Regina puts a hand on Emma’s arm, and she almost jumps. “Are you okay?” Regina asks her.

“Yeah,” Emma says, then, “Are you?” because Regina looks rattled. Happy, but also stunned.

“I’m fine,” Regina says quickly. Too quickly.

Emma fakes a smile. “Hey, I’m gonna step out for a minute, okay?”

“Are you sure everything is all right?” Regina reaches out a hand to touch her arm again, then pulls it back hesitantly. “You don’t seem all right.”

Guilt swirls in Emma’s stomach. Regina’s looking at her with so much warmth, so much trust, and what she’s about to do will crush her heart.

But what choice does she have?

She shrugs Regina’s hand off. “Yeah. Yeah, I just… need some air.”

Regina looks at her oddly, but she nods. “Okay.”

With a heavy heart and a twisting gut, Emma steps outside, takes out her phone, and calls the second contact on her list.

Shirley picks up immediately. “Did you find him?”

“Yeah,” Emma says, keeping her voice quiet. “I found him.” Technically, Regina found him, but that’s not exactly the point.

“Finally. Did you bring him in?”

“Not yet.” She swallows hard, hesitating for only a second before she says, “Here’s what we need to do.”

 


 

After Robin puts his clothes back on and Emma finishes her phone call, Emma asks Robin to help her take out the trash. “With three people in the apartment now, we gotta keep on top of the chores.” She laughs, but it sounds hollow, and Regina wonders again what’s wrong with her.

“I can help,” Regina says. She’d be glad for the opportunity to see if she can figure out what has Emma so upset.

“No,” Emma says quickly. “Robin… should learn where the recycling area is, if he’s gonna stay here.”

“I still need to learn where the recycling area is,” Regina points out. Given Emma’s bad habit of throwing out paper in the garbage, it’s taken a long time for the recycling bin to fill, so they’ve never taken it out before.

“It’s all right,” Robin says. “I’d be glad to pull my own weight.”

Emma picks up the recycling bin, which is so heavy at this point that she immediately drops it. Papers scatter all over the floor. Emma curses under her breath and starts to pick everything up.

Regina and Robin both help, and before long, Emma and Robin are leaving with the trash and recycling.

After they leave, Regina notices something on the ground. If she gives it to them now, it can still be recycled with this load. She goes to pick up the small piece of paper and sees Tamara’s face.

She looks at the paper more closely. It’s a pamphlet from the mental hospital that Tamara apparently works at.

Emma went to the mental hospital? Is she all right? But she said she’d never met Tamara…

Whatever she went for, she must have been ashamed of it if she’d felt the need to lie about it. Regina’s concerned and offended all at once. If Emma was struggling with a mental health issue, she could have told her.

The pamphlet outlines information about a study that aims to treat people with delusional disorder. People who don’t accurately perceive reality.

Nothing makes sense. Why did Emma have this? Why did she lie about it? Why is Regina’s heart pounding like it knows something she doesn’t?

She reads through the pamphlet, hoping for answers. Most of it is a fairly straightforward, if excessively wordy, description of the study—the methods, the science behind it, etcetera.

Then, under a colour picture of some electrodes, there’s a small section of fine print.

Although it is preferred that patients participate of their own volition, involuntary admission will be considered in extreme cases. If you have a friend or loved one struggling with this condition and you believe this experiment could be beneficial, please do not hesitate to contact one of the experimenters for further information.

Involuntary admission? Friend or loved one?

Oh.

Oh.

Emma didn’t think she was crazy. She thought Regina was crazy, and she was going to… she wanted to…

Regina almost drops the pamphlet, her whole body starting to shake at the thought that Emma would have abandoned her to a place like that.

But she didn’t. She didn’t. She must have changed her mind at some point, once she realized Regina isn’t crazy after all.

Except… if Emma believed that Regina was crazy, then why would she have helped her find Robin? Why would she have helped her at all? Robin said Emma had been tracking him for a long time. Why would she have done that if not to help Regina?

Why would a bail bondsperson want to find a wanted criminal?

No. No, this entire line of thought is ridiculous. Emma helped her because she believes in her. In a minute, she’ll return with Robin and everything will be fine.

Even as Regina thinks that, memories flash through her mind: the way Emma’s leg tensed under her hand when Tamara mentioned she works at a mental hospital, the hesitation when she first offered to help her, the way she said she believed in her but she never once said she believed her…

The apartment door opens and Emma enters.

Alone.

“Where is Robin?” Regina asks, forcing the words out even though there’s something pressing on her lungs and she feels like she can’t breathe.

“He got arrested,” Emma says, her face contorted into a picture-perfect mask of grief. “The police were downstairs. I’m really sorry. I guess someone must have seen him and tipped off the cops that he was here.”

Ten minutes ago, Regina would have believed her. But now that she’s looking, she can see the way Emma’s eyes don’t quite meet hers. She can read the insincerity in the line of her jaw. “Someone.”

“Yeah.” Emma shifts her weight from foot to foot. “I’m really, really sorry. I know how much he meant to you, and if there’s anything I can—”

Don’t .”

Emma stops moving. “Don’t… don’t what?”

Regina doesn’t say anything, just raises her hand with the pamphlet in it. All the colour drains from Emma’s face, and Regina’s last tiny, irrational shred of hope disappears. “Don’t lie to me,” she croaks. “Don’t you dare lie to me anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” Emma’s tone is politely quizzical, but Regina recognizes the look in her eyes as pure terror.

She can’t breathe. She can’t breathe. “What have I done?” Regina whispers, dropping the horrible pamphlet to the ground and taking a step back. She brought Robin here thinking he would be safe. She placed all her hopes on the woman in front of her, and now…

Beneath the false confusion on her face, Emma’s eyes are calculating. Regina can see the wheels turning inside her head: Can she get away with this? Is there a way out? Can she lie? How gullible is Regina, exactly?

Eventually, her expression morphs into one of careful patience. It’s the same one she uses when she’s reminding Regina how to work the remote control, and it grates on Regina’s nerves as much as it always does. “Regina, I can explain, but I need you to bear with me.”

“Explain. Yes, I’m sure you have an excellent explanation for why you tricked me into thinking you would help me find my soulmate, even though you think I’m insane.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Emma says in the quiet, careful tone of a nurse telling a patient they have some horrific disease. “I wasn't trying to—to trick you. Archie said—"

“So the doctor is in on this?” As soon as the words leave her mouth, she knows it’s a ridiculous question. Of course he is; that’s undoubtedly why Emma wanted her to see him in the first place.

“He told me what’s going on. I just… I know this is going to sound hard to believe. Trust me, I get that. But the good news is, you’re not the Evil Queen. Okay? You have a mental disorder that makes you think you’re evil and bad and all of those things.” Emma takes a tentative step towards her, stretching out her hands in front of her in a placating gesture.

Regina moves back and sideways, putting the couch between them. “I do not have a mental disorder.”

Emma takes a deep breath. “See, that’s the thing. It’s the kind of disorder that makes you think you don’t have a disorder. And it’s really convincing, and that’s why you have all those… memories about the Enchanted Forest and magic and all of that.”

“You think I conjured up thirty-four years of memories? Why the hell would I do that? And even if I did, why those memories?” Why Snow? Why Cora? Why Leopold ? Why would she do that to herself?

“Archie thinks you’ve been through some kind of trauma,” Emma says gently. “He says the fairy tale thing is some kind of coping mechanism. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you about it. I didn’t want to take that away from you.”

“No, you just wanted to hand me off to an asylum so you wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore,” Regina snaps, her mind still burning with the image of all those electrodes, that clean white hospital bed. “How considerate of you.”

Emma flinches back at that—good. “I didn’t do that,” she protests. “But when I was thinking about it…. I just wanted to help you. That’s all.”

Help me?” Regina’s eyebrows fly up and she steps forward. “You lied to me. You took my soulmate from me.”

Emma looks as though she would very much like to crawl into a hole and hide, but she stands her ground. “That guy is not your soulmate, Regina, he’s dangerous . He’s trying to take advantage of you. I was protecting you!”

Protecting her. “By lying to me? By ruining my only chance at a happy ending? You’re going to get me killed, you idiot!” How is she going to prove herself a hero when her soulmate is in prison because she trusted the wrong person? Emma may as well have put a sword to her throat.

“Get you killed?” The thin patience in Emma’s voice is rapidly fading. “I probably saved your life! What was I supposed to do? You know what happens to people like you on the streets?”

“People like me?” Regina spits out the words like the poison they are. “You mean crazy? Or just weak?”

“No!” Emma shakes her head vigorously. “Just… mentally ill. Confused.”

“Label it how you want, but that hospital you wanted to put me in was not for sane people.”

“Regina, look, won’t you just hear my side of the story?” Emma yells, thoroughly exasperated.

Regina crosses her arms. “Why should I, when you never listened to mine?”

“Look, I didn’t know what to do.” Emma spreads her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Obviously I screwed this up—”

Obviously .”

“But I had to do something. This fairy tale stuff you believe in, It’s hurting you. I know you can’t see that, but it is.”

The unintentional condescension makes Regina want to scream. “No, I can’t see that. Because you’re wrong.”

“I’m not wrong!” Emma shouts. “Regina, you’re sad all the time! You think you’re a bad person! You think you’re the worst villain in fairy tale history!”

Regina staggers backwards, grasping one of the kitchen chairs to keep her balance. The worst villain in fairy tale history. The words aren’t anything she hasn’t heard before, but coming from Emma, they hurt more than they should. The worst villain in fairy tale history.

Emma must realize what she’s done because horror dawns on her face. “Regina, no, I didn’t mean—”

Regina laughs, high and hysterical. She’s been an idiot. She’d never understood why Emma had believed in her; she'd clung to it as a fact without caring to analyze the reasoning behind it. She’d thought, somehow, that she’d…what, that she’d deserved it? That she’d earned it?

The truth makes far more sense. Emma had not believed her or trusted her or seen the good in her.

Emma had lied.

“Regina, you’re not that person,” Emma says, still desperately trying to backtrack. “You’re not evil.”

“Of course I am.”

“Yeah? In case you haven’t noticed, Regina, you’re pretty pissed at me,” Emma says, her voice horribly calm. “But you’re just yelling at me. You’re not really trying to hurt me.”

“That’s because I don’t have my magic.” Regina flexes her right hand instinctively. “You have no idea what I would do to you if I could.”

Emma raises her eyebrows. “What? What would you do to me?” She asks it as though it’s a challenge. See, Regina, you wouldn’t really hurt me.

Fine. Regina can take that challenge. She twists her face into her most frightening mask and stalks forward, rounding the couch until she’s well into Emma’s personal space. “What wouldn’t I do to you?” she hisses. “I would light you on fire and burn the flesh off your bones. I would rip apart your skeleton and throw the remains to the wolves. I would have you strung up in the square and publicly humiliated for hours until I finally took pity and ran a blade through your neck.” She would. She would. That is what she did to people who got in the way of her happy ending.

Emma’s eyes widen, but she stands her ground. In that same infuriatingly steady voice, she says, “I don’t believe you.”

Believe me! ” Regina screams. Above them, the lights flicker.

“Look, Regina, I know you.” Emma takes a large step forward; Regina takes a small step back. “You’re not a villain. You’re not the Evil Queen. The Evil Queen isn’t real.”

“I am real!” Regina shouts, and the lights flicker again, for longer this time. She’d thought it a coincidence at first, but now she realizes there’s more than anger flowing through her. It’s slow and sluggish, but it’s there: magic. Her magic.

Magic is emotion. Her happiness had not been powerful enough to access whatever magic is in this world, but it seems her rage is more than enough.

The knowledge hurts more than she thought it could.

“I know,” Emma says. “I know you’re real. But this magic stuff, it’s not real.”

Not real. No, what isn’t real is the person Emma thinks she is: some sniveling pathetic crazy fool who doesn’t even know her own life. What isn’t real is the relationship she thought they had, the love she felt… or thought she felt.

Regina shifts her focus to what is real: the heat rising in her chest, the slow quickening of blood in her veins, the faint tingling of magic on her skin. “I’ve been a fool,” she says slowly. “I should have known you would never help me if you knew who I really am.” The worst villain in fairy tale history.

“I do know who you are,” Emma says quietly. “I know exactly who you are. You’re Regina. That’s what matters.”

“You’re wrong.” Regina lets go of the chair and clenches her hands into fists. “You don’t know what I’ve done. Who I’ve killed. How could you possibly know who I am?”

Emma shakes her head vigorously. “I know you’re not a murderer.”

“How? Because of your ‘superpower’?” Another realization strikes, and Regina barely keeps herself from grabbing the chair again. “Or because you would never let a murderer into your home, is that it?”

“Come on, Regina!”

Would you?”

Emma doesn’t answer, but the look on her face tells Regina everything she needs to know. “Of course you wouldn’t,” she bites out, even as hot tears prickle behind her eyes. She blinks them away furiously. “You’re too good for that.” And I’m too evil.

“That’s not the problem,” Emma says. “I just know that’s not who you are.”

“You have no idea who I am.” The one person who was supposed to know her, the one person she trusted with her story… and all this time, Emma had no idea.

“Of course I know who you are,” Emma says. “You’re Regina, okay? You’re just Reg—”

The stove bursts into flames.

“What the fuck?!” Emma shouts, running over to it. She grabs a faded yellow dish towel and starts trying to beat out the fire.

For the first time since arriving in this realm, Regina feels awake, alive, powerful. Most of all, she feels like herself—the Evil Queen, conqueror of realms, not whatever pathetic crazy woman Emma mistook her for.

The worst villain

Another hot bolt of magic rushes through her and the flames jump higher, close to Emma’s face. One more push, one more surge of magic, and Emma will burn.

Regina could do it. She wants to do it. It would be so easy to make her burn, to punish her for ruining Regina’s life, her happy ending, her everything. Then Emma will know just who she really is, what she is capable of, and she will fear her, like everyone else—

Emma will fear her—

Emma turns to Regina and her eyes widen. Regina could do it… just a little more…

“Regina?” Emma’s voice is barely audible over the crackle of the fire. “Are you okay?”

She can’t do it.

Instead, she snarls, “Go to hell, Miss Swan.” With one final burst of magic, she makes the flames explode higher, although not quite high enough to reach Emma. Then she grabs her purse, lying carelessly by the couch, and runs out the door.

Ignoring Emma’s shouting, she slams the door behind her as she leaves and runs as fast as she can, tears stinging her eyes and blurring her vision. She doesn’t look back, doesn’t stop running, doesn’t even wait for the elevator. She flies down the stairs and runs out, pushing her way through crowds, along busy streets, through alleys and around corners until there’s no way Emma would ever be able to find her.

She ends up in a small children’s playground in a pleasant residential area. There’s a bench in a patch of sunlight near the sandbox, blue with peeling paint, and she collapses onto it, her lungs burning and her vision fading. She pulls her legs up and wraps her arms around them, tucking them in close and burying her head in her knees, smelling the light breezy scent of the fabric softener she convinced Emma to buy.

And she cries.

Chapter Text

By the time Emma puts out the fire, it’s too late to go after Regina. She tries anyway, running out of the apartment without even locking the door and combing the neighbourhood. She visits all of their usual spots—the movie rental store, the Italian bakery, the Starbucks down the street where Regina’s tried every drink and some twice. She asks everyone if they’ve seen anything, but no one can tell her anything useful.

She never really thought she’d find anything. Regina’s smart; she’d never hang around where Emma could find her. It’s tempting to break out her bail bondsperson skills and put a trace on Regina’s phone, but that seems like it would cross some kind of line. Obviously Regina wants nothing more to do with her, and the thing is, Emma can’t really blame her.

She returns to her apartment two hours after she left with nothing to show for it. Once she gets in, she spends a few moments just staring resentfully at her stove. Of all the times for it to just explode…

Emma rests her elbows on the counter and puts her head in her hands. Terrible scenarios run through her head: Regina getting beaten up, Regina starving to death, Robin escaping and doing horrible things to her. She doesn’t know where Regina will go or what she’ll do or what might happen to her, but Emma does know one thing:

Regina is never, ever coming back.

She’s not sure how long she stands there before she hears a gentle knock on the door, followed by Marian poking her head in.

“Hi,” Marian says. “I just got home and, uh, you left the door open. What’s going on? Where’s Regina?”

When Emma doesn’t say anything, Marian comes in, closing the door behind her. “Emma, where’s Regina?”

Emma can’t look Marian in the eye when she says, “She’s gone.”

“What?” Marian yelps.

Emma tells her the whole story as quickly as she can. Marian’s face grows tighter with every word. At the end, she crosses her arms.

“So you think this guy was stalking her.”

Emma had expected kindness, even sympathy, but Marian’s tone is cold. “Yeah.”

“And you don’t think that’s something you should have told her? I mean, wouldn’t you want to know if some guy was after you?”

Emma’s fuse has never been long, and after everything that’s just happened, it’s even shorter than normal. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Marian looks her steadily in the eye. “I’m just asking, are you sure this is just about protecting Regina?”

“Of course,” Emma says, crossing her arms. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Marian looks on the verge of saying something, but then she just shakes her head. “I’m sorry for both of you.” She turns and walks out, leaving Emma alone. Again.

Emma sighs and tries not to look at the horse painting on the wall, or the sunflowers by the window, or the library books on the floor. She tries to locate one part of the apartment that Regina hasn’t somehow touched. All she can find is the pile of crap in the corner that she never actually got rid of. The sight doesn’t do anything to distract her from the worry churning her stomach.

Where the hell could Regina be?

 


 

“So I’ve got a few rules,” Ursula says as she unlocks the door of her apartment. “Don’t eat all my food. Don’t touch my stuff without asking. Actually, don’t bother asking. Just don’t touch my stuff. And for god’s sake, don’t tap on the glass.”

Regina’s about to ask what she means by that, but then she sees the several brightly lit fish tanks scattered around the edges of the apartment. It’s the only truly jarring touch; other than that, the place is small but homey, with patterned wallpaper and old-fashioned furnishings. It smells vaguely of the ocean, vanilla bean candles, and burnt ramen—a nauseating combination.

She’s glad for it. It allows her to pretend the turmoil in her gut is from something other than the memory of Emma’s face falling as she saw the pamphlet, the memory of Emma calling her a villain, the memory of what Emma did to her…

Ursula’s staring at her with what almost looks like concern, and Regina realizes she’s holding her hand on her stomach and breathing heavily. She pastes on a smile. “Thank you,” she says as she puts her bag down on the couch. “For letting me stay here.”

Ursula shrugs awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable with the genuine gratitude in Regina’s voice. “Hey, it’s no big deal. Us villains have to stick together.”

“Ex-villains,” Regina reminds her. “I’m not a villain anymore, and it doesn’t seem that you are either.”

Ursula raises an eyebrow. “Really? If you’re not a villain, how come your luck was so bad?”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Regina says, not sure whether she should be offended.

Ursula laughs at her. “You hired someone who was literally hunting down your soulmate to throw him in jail. I’m not sure how much worse your luck could…” She trails off suddenly.

“What?”

“Regina,” Ursula says slowly, “why is there a fairy in my fish tank?”

Regina looks up to see Tinkerbell’s watery face staring at her from the eel tank in the corner. “Tink! What are you doing here?” She walks over to it and awkwardly crouches to put herself at eye level with Tinkerbell. In her peripheral vision, she sees Ursula going into her bedroom and closing the door, either to give Regina some privacy or because Tinkerbell’s presence irritates her. Regina would bet on the latter.

“It’s nice to see you too,” Tinkerbell says sarcastically, her normally cheery disposition nowhere to be seen. “I’ve been trying to contact you , but I’ve had trouble gathering enough power to create a connection. The magic in your world is strange.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Regina says. “You look terrible, by the way.” It’s true, and not simply because Tinkerbell happens to be wearing an eel as a necklace. She’s dressed in gray rags, and her normally springy blonde hair is now stringy and lifeless.

“I’ve been on trial,” Tinkerbell says. “Because I broke the rules and helped you.”

Regina’s heart drops. She’d been so concerned with her own quest, her own survival, that she’d never even wondered about Tinkerbell’s future after she helped the most wanted villain in the land escape to another realm. Tinkerbell had sacrificed herself to save Regina, and in return, Regina hadn’t given her a moment’s thought. And judging by the resigned expression on Tinkerbell’s face, she expected no less.

“I’m sorry,” Regina says, allowing sincerity to come through in her voice and her expression. “I never intended for that to happen to you.”

Tinkerbell’s eyes widen in pure shock, but she nods. “Thank you. That means a lot.” She pauses and tilts her head, studying Regina for long enough that she grows uncomfortable.

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” Tinkerbell says quickly. “You look… different, that’s all.”

Regina’s not sure whether she means the lack of an evil glare, the smeared mascara she hasn’t cared enough to wipe off, or simply the haircut. In any case, she knows better than to take that as a compliment. She sighs. “How are you contacting me now? Did they… free you?”

“Sort of,” Tinkerbell says. “They let me out because they’re busy with an investigation. Apparently, the Sheriff of Nottingham sent Robin to your world, as punishment for his crimes. But no one can figure out how he got the bean to make the portal.”

It is odd that someone as pathetic as the Sheriff of Nottingham could have gotten his hands on such an important magical object. Fairies normally keep those things locked up tightly. Has there been a security breach?

“Honestly, things over here haven’t been great since you left,” Tinkerbell continues.

“Should I be flattered?” Regina asks dryly.

“Well, not unless you can control the weather,” Tinkerbell says. “It’s been storming ever since you fell through that portal. But that’s not the worst part.” She leans in, her previously dull eyes now glimmering with the promise of gossip. “Snow and Charming had an argument.”

What? ” Now that’s news. True Loves never argue.

Tinkerbell nods. “So much for that ‘happy ending,’ right?”

“What do those idiots have to fight about? They have everything.” Power, the love of the people, each other… what could possibly be making them miserable?

“Rumour has it, they’re fighting about you,” Tinkerbell says. “James is upset that Snow didn’t kill you when he had the chance. Snow’s upset because she never wanted to kill you in the first place.”

Regina can’t help herself from smiling at that. The longer she’s stayed in this land, the more time and distance have dulled the urgency of her feud with Snow White. Still, the petty side of her rejoices at the thought that even from another realm, she’s managed—finally —to throw a wrench in Snow’s seemingly perfect happiness.

“Blue has been having a fit over the whole thing,” Tinkerbell continues, her eyes gleaming, and the name is like a bucket of cold water dumped on Regina’s head.

“That reminds me,” she says, lowering her voice. “I saw the Blue Fairy. She was spying on me from my… my water bottle.”

She expects Tinkerbell to look surprised, or possibly laugh, but she just nods. “She was probably checking up on you. I told her about your quest.”

“Why the hell would you do that?” The last thing she needs is a reminder of how badly her ‘quest’ has gone.

“I didn’t exactly want to,” Tinkerbell snaps, and immediately Regina feels guilty for asking. Clearly the circumstances hadn’t been her fault.

Before she can apologize, Tinkerbell asks, “Where is Robin, anyway?” She looks around as though hoping to see him hiding behind Ursula’s couch. When Regina stays silent, her eyes widen. “Don’t tell me you haven’t found him yet.”

“I did find him,” Regina says bitterly. “And then I was betrayed by the person who promised to help me.”

There it is again: the massive weight of hurt and self-recrimination and hot, hot rage settling in her chest as though it had never left. Perhaps it hadn't.

“What happened?” Tinkerbell asks.

Regina takes a deep breath and spills out the whole story, everything from the moment she got to this realm to finding Emma and making a deal with her, all the way to Emma’s ultimate betrayal. The only parts she skips over are the good parts, the pancake breakfasts and movie nights and sightseeing and all of the other things that had made her so happy. Those parts are too painful to think about, let alone speak aloud.

When she finishes, Tinkerbell shakes her head. “You should have trusted in fate!” she says, exasperated. “Like I told you to! Why didn’t you?”

Without meaning to, Regina thinks about Emma, holding her hands in the middle of the night and looking at her with all the sincerity in the world. I don’t believe in destiny. I believe in you.

For weeks, she’d clung to that whenever she’d doubted herself. Everything she’s done to improve herself has been founded on the certainty that Emma had been telling the truth that night. Every time she’d felt lost or sad or confused, she’d held the words to her like a talisman and drawn comfort from the knowledge that such a good person thought she could be good too.

Now, the memory makes her want to vomit. She forcibly banishes the image from her mind and nods. “I know. Next time, I will. I promise.”

“So, how are you going to get him back?” Tinkerbell asks. “I don’t mean to pressure you or anything, but you’re kind of my only hope.”

“I don’t know,” Regina says. “I’ll… I’ll think of something.”

She hesitates, considers saying something about how grateful she is for Tinkerbell’s help, but decides against it. There’s no need to be that sentimental. And it really is Tinkerbell’s own fault if she’s in trouble. Regina never asked her for anything.

The picture in the water starts to fade. “Our connection is breaking,” Tinkerbell says. “I’m going to try and persuade Blue to let me come and help you. Just be careful and fi—”

The image disappears before she can finish her sentence, but Regina knows what she was going to say: Find Robin.

Tinkerbell didn’t have to remind her. She will get Robin back, no matter what it takes.

At this point, what else can she do?

 


 

Before Emma’s even made it through the prison doors, her palms are sweaty and her chest is tight. It’s been eleven years since she was behind bars, but as far as her body is concerned, it might as well have been eleven minutes.

She struggles to keep herself calm as she registers at the visiting area. She’s not even entirely sure why she’s going. There’s probably no point. After all, why would Robin want to see the person who threw him in jail?

Gaining someone’s trust just to screw them over later isn’t something she has a problem with, usually. But she hadn’t even looked Robin in the eye when she’d snapped the cold metal handcuffs around his wrists and read him his rights. She always looks her perps in the eye when she arrests them. If she’s going to put someone behind bars, she figures at least they should have a face to picture during all those long nights with nothing else to do except hate anyone and everyone who had a role in putting them there.

Emma’s almost surprised when they tell her he’s agreed to meet with her. They let her in the visiting room and although it’s crowded, she easily spots him behind a table in the corner. She makes her way over to him and slides into a chair opposite.

“I’m not here for the pleasure of seeing you,” he says tiredly without even looking up from the table. “I just want to know how Regina is.”

It’s the best thing he could have said. Right away, all of the guilt swirling around in Emma’s stomach is gone, replaced by sheer fury. “Why should I tell you, after what you tried to do to her?”

“I did nothing to her.” There’s an edge in Robin’s voice she’s never heard before, not even when he was threatening her with a knife.

“Well, I can’t tell you anything about Regina. She’s… she’s gone.” She says the last part quietly, but she still winces as she hears the words.

“Ah, so you admitted to throwing me in jail?” Robin looks slightly impressed at that. “How… almost honourable of you.”

“No,” Emma admits. “She figured it out.”

“I can’t imagine that went well,” Robin says, not at all sympathetically.

That’s a hell of an understatement. With some effort, Emma pushes thoughts of their argument out of her mind and clasps her hands together on the table. “I want you to tell me what the deal is with you and Regina. Why she thinks she knows you.”

“I don’t need to tell you anything. Regina’s already told you everything and you didn’t believe her, so what do I have to gain by telling it to you again now?”

“I don’t care about that.” Emma lays her palms flat on the table and leans forward. “I want to know about Regina.”

“What do I have to gain from this?” Robin asks.

“What do you have to lose? Your arraignment is in, what, an hour? Less than that? Sooner or later you’re going to end up in court. I’ve seen your charges. Most of the stuff they can pin you on is pretty minor. Petty theft, breaking and entering, larceny.”

“For a good reason,” Robin protests. “I was simply trying to survive in this strange land.”

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Emma says, a bit of frustration creeping into her voice.

Robin raises an eyebrow. “Speak the truth?”

“Call it my land. You don’t have to keep up the medieval crap here. Regina’s not around to see it.”

“I’m not making it up. Why would I be doing that?” There’s no trace of a lie on his stupid smarmy face. Damn, he’s good.

“Okay,” Emma says. “Here’s what I think happened: You run into this woman. She says she’s the Evil Queen and you’re her soulmate. She looks well-off, rich even, and you realize she’s crazy. So you pretend to go along with it, because maybe she can help you out. Am I right?”

Robin’s been shaking his head more and more vehemently through her entire speech. “You could not be more wrong. I would never do such a thing, least of all to my soulmate. If I am to ever leave this realm, she is my only hope. And I definitely do not want to remain here a second longer than I must.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “Right, because this ‘realm’ is so horrible. I’m totally convinced that you want to go back to a land with no indoor plumbing and food that’s probably full of salmonella. Get a better story.” She softens her voice, just a little bit. “Look, you have nothing to lose here. Just tell me the truth. Tell me what you want with Regina. I’ll ask them to go easy on you.”

“I have told you the truth,” Robin says, sounding just as exasperated as he did when Emma had him tied to a fence. “If you’re so convinced I haven’t, why do you need me to repeat my story for you? You know that I’m right.”

“I don’t know that,” Emma says quickly. “Because you’re not.”

Robin looks at her knowingly, and suddenly, she feels ashamed. She’s not the kind of person who intimidates criminals. She’s acting like the kind of person she hated back when she was in prison, and this guy can see it.

Then she remembers again what he tried to do to Regina, and her anger returns. “Fine,” she says, grabbing her bag. “Be like that. I’m leaving.”

Robin looks at her with something like pity. “Goodbye, Emma Swan. Oh, and good luck making amends with Regina,” he adds, and Emma fights back the powerful impulse to deck him.

She turns and walks out, nodding to the guard that she’s done with Robin. Behind her, she can hear the guards putting Robin back in handcuffs and hauling him back to his cell, and she wants to throw up.

It’s not fair. She’s doing the right thing. Isn’t she? She is. She has to be.

Except deep down, she can’t ignore the voice in her head that keeps whispering: He’s not lying.

Fuck.

 


 

Marian looks up the moment she hears the bells on the door jingle. When she sees Regina, she drops her half-eaten sandwich on the shop counter. “Regina! What are you–”

“You’re a lawyer, correct?” Regina asks, forgoing pleasantries.

Marian looks confused, but she nods. “I haven’t practiced in a while, but yeah, I passed the bar. Why do you—oh.” Her eyes widen. “You want me to get your sou… Robin out of prison.”

Regina doesn’t miss the way Marian almost said “your soulmate.” It confirms something she’d already suspected, but hadn’t wanted to believe. “Emma told you everything.”

Marian looks as though she’s going to deny it, but then she sighs. “Yeah, she did.”

First Archie, now Marian, presumably Tamara as well… who hadn’t Emma told? At this rate, half of New York City must think she’s crazy. Marian most certainly does, if the way she’s averting her eyes and fidgeting with her sandwich wrapper is any indication.

At least Marian’s not looking at her with pity, the way Emma had. The knowledge that Marian believes her to be insane does hurt more than Regina thought it would, but she pushes down the hurt because she’s on a mission. “Can you get Robin out of prison?”

“Me?” Marian shrugs in a self-deprecating, apologetic sort of way. “I’m sorry, but I doubt it.”

“Why not? You studied law.”

“Environmental law!” Marian says, throwing up her hands. “They’re not the same thing.”

“But you must have had some training in criminal law,” Regina says. “And you enjoy being in a courtroom more than working in a bookstore.”

Marian pinches her lips together and looks down, as though she’s going to refuse, but Regina sees the desire burning in her eyes. Still, she hesitates. “I don’t know if I have the time.”

It’s clearly an excuse. “I can take over work on the fundraiser,” Regina says. “You’ve seen my capabilities, just as I’ve seen yours. You’re intelligent, charismatic, and passionate about what you believe. If anyone can get Robin out of prison, it’s you.”

Marian still looks unsure. “I mean, there are definitely holes in his case. And he’s a conventionally attractive white guy. Miracles happen for people like that. But he’s still done a lot of crimes.”

“At least come with me to meet him,” Regina says, making her voice as sweet as possible.“You’ll see that he doesn’t deserve to be imprisoned. The story the press is telling about him is all wrong.”

That gets to Marian, as Regina knew it would. Finally, she nods slowly. “Let me get my coat.”

Marian grows even more hesitant as they approach the prison. “I’m not even wearing my lawyer clothes,” she says, nervously pulling at the hem of her tree-patterned shirt.

“Robin won’t care about that.” He’d probably be thrilled, in fact.

“Yeah, but the guards might. What if they don’t let me in?”

Luckily, they manage to arrange a meeting with Robin in a private room. They find him sitting at a table and staring at the wall, his fingers tapping quietly against the table. Regina’s stomach drops as she looks at him. If she hadn’t trusted Emma, Robin wouldn’t be here right now, looking like a rat in a cage.

Robin looks up when they walk in and when he sees Regina, his face brightens. “Your Majesty.”

“I’m sorry,” Regina says immediately. “I didn’t know Emma would betray me that way. I never thought…” She stops, unable to continue the sentence.

“It’s all right,” Robin says. “It’s not your fault.” Then he frowns. “You know, she came to visit me earlier.”

“What did she want?” Regina asks immediately, her muscles tensing. Why would Emma visit Robin? Does she have doubts? Perhaps she realized she was wrong, that Regina isn’t crazy after all, perhaps—

“I believe she wanted to intimidate me,” Robin says, and Regina’s hopes fall again.

Ridiculous. She should have known better. Why would it even occur to her to give that woman the benefit of the doubt?

Robin looks at Marian. “Hello. I like your shirt,” he says. “What are you doing here?”

Marian clears her throat, apparently not expecting a compliment. “My name is Marian del Bosque,” she says, “and I am an attorney. It’s nice to meet you.”

“An attorney. Excellent,” Robin says tiredly. “I could certainly use one of those.”

Marian sits down opposite him. “I’ve looked through your file and they can only prove that you were there for four of these crimes. And that still doesn’t mean you did them. For the rest, you kept your face hidden pretty well, so good for you.”

Robin looks surprised, but he says, “Thank you.”

“Did you do it?” Marian asks bluntly. “The stuff you’re here for?”

“Much of it, yes,” Robin says without hesitating. “Not all of it.”

Marian skims through the list of crimes for which Robin is a suspect. It’s a lengthy list. “Can you tell me who did the rest of it? If we can prove that other people committed these crimes, that’ll strengthen your case.”

“Absolutely not.” Robin looks almost angry at the question. “Those people are my friends. It’s not honourable to betray other thieves to protect oneself.”

Marian sits back in her chair, looking somewhat impressed. “You stole all this stuff, but you care about honour?”

“I am a thief, not a scoundrel,” Robin says indignantly. “There are lines.

“Right,” Marian says skeptically. She flips through Robin’s case file. “So you’ve just been, what, running around rallying criminals and stealing from rich people to give to poor people?”

“Well, I tried stealing from the rich to make myself rich, but that admittedly didn’t work so well.” Robin frowns in self-recrimination. “However, some people helped me, and I thought it would be honourable to return the favour. Why are you staring at me?”

Marian’s staring at him with her mouth slightly open. “Oh my god,” she says slowly, her eyes lighting up. “You’re Robin Hood. You’re really actually Robin Hood.”

Robin tilts his head. “Who is Hood? I am Robin of Locksley.”

“It’s real, isn’t it?” Marian whispers. She looks as though she’s about to launch herself across the table and shake Robin’s hand, or maybe request an autograph. Regina recalls the Robin Hood story this realm had come up with; clearly, Marian’s familiar with it.

She must also be familiar with the Snow White story, because when she looks at Regina, the wonder slides off her face. It’s replaced with narrowed eyes and wary eyebrows. “And you’re…”

Regina straightens automatically, not sure how to respond. She’d insisted to Emma that she is the Evil Queen, but admitting the same here would not be a wise course of action, judging by the disgust and mounting horror in her friend’s expression. Or rather, her former friend’s expression; it’s not likely that Marian will want anything more to do with her after this.

She pushes the thought away before it can weaken her and concentrates on how to answer the deceptively simple question. Is she the Evil Queen? She may not be the innocent, confused lady Emma thinks her to be—her stomach clenches again at the thought—but despite her performance in Emma’s apartment, she’s no longer the woman who tortured and murdered her enemies without a second thought.

In the end, she says the only thing she knows to be true: “I used to be the Evil Queen.”

Marian doesn’t look reassured by that, so she quickly adds, “My story, it’s not what this realm says it is. Things are… more complicated.” An understatement, but she’d rather not get into the details in this cold interrogation room when they’re supposed to be working on Robin’s case.

She’d rather not get into the details at all.

Marian nods slowly and opens her mouth, but before she can say anything, a guard opens the door. “You’re free to go,” he says to Robin. “Someone’s offering to pay your bail.”

Pay his bail? Could it be…

No. Of course not. That would be ridiculous. Emma would never.

Except when Regina walks out with Robin and Marian, Emma is standing there with her hands stuffed inside her pockets.

Emma’s eyes fly to Regina’s as soon as she steps out. Despite the automatic resurgence of emotions—pain and heartbreak and rage, all hitting at once—Regina grits her teeth and refuses to look back. She has nothing to say to Emma and no reason to acknowledge her presence. Instead, she slips her arm in Robin’s and looks only at him.

Robin is the first to speak. “You’re really getting me out? I’m hardly complaining, of course, but after everything you said to me, I assumed that would be the last thing on your agenda.”

In her peripheral vision, Regina sees Emma shrug. “I don’t know. I guess… I believe you. At least I believe that you’re not out to hurt Regina, no matter what else is going on here.”

“Does this mean you think I’m crazy?” Robin asks, and Regina flinches.

Emma sighs in a way that means yes. “Look, I have no idea where you’re from or how you got here, but I don't think you’re a threat. So yeah, I’m going to help you.”

Regina’s skeptical, but Emma sticks to her word. Ten minutes and a few signatures later, Robin is free—or at least, free to leave, with the requirement that he return for the hearing.

“Well,” Robin says as he walks out of the jail, blinking in the bright sunlight. “What now?”

He looks at Regina as though she’ll have the answers. Truthfully, Regina doesn’t know either. What does one do with their recently-freed soulmate whom they barely know?

Wait. She prepared for this. She did research for this. She knows the next step here, and she smiles at him confidently. “Now we go on a date.”

“Excellent,” Robin says, sounding relieved that she has a plan. “I’m sure that will be lovely. I have just one question.”

“What?”

Robin frowns. “What the hell is a date?”

 


 

Emma catches up to Regina on her way to her car. “Hey. Regina.”

“What, Miss Swan?” Regina asks, whirling around and glaring at Emma as though she’s a tiny, worthless insect.

Emma flinches, but she doesn’t back down. “I just wanted to say, you can stay with me if you want.”

“And why the hell would I want to do that, after everything you did to me?”

Emma shrugs, not really having a great answer to that. “I mean, clearly you’ve got somewhere to stay. But Robin is staying with Marian, and I figured you might want to be close to him.”

“And if I say no?”

Emma pulls a wad of bills out of her pocket and thrusts it towards Regina. “This is the money you paid me to find Robin for you, and… well, I didn’t. So it’s your money. You can probably rent a hotel room for a few nights at least. Or I can help you get set up with an apartment. Depends how long you’re going to stay for.”

Suddenly it occurs to her: If Robin is here, then Regina really might end up going back to… wherever the hell she came from. However that works. Emma’s stomach drops.

“Ursula’s place does smell like fish,” Regina mutters to herself.

Why is the nice lady from the mall letting Regina stay with her?

Regina’s face tightens as she visibly weighs her options, trying to decide whether proximity to Robin is worth proximity to Emma. Just as Emma is sure Regina’s going to say no, she nods briskly. “Fine. But I want privacy.”

“You can still have my room,” Emma promises, feeling lighter. Regina’s going to be with her; she’ll know Regina is going to be okay. This is better.

But then Regina turns away from her and gets into Marian’s car instead of hers, and Emma’s stomach sinks.

So they’ve got a ways to go.

Chapter Text

The first thing they do when they get home from the prison is plan their date.

“This looks interesting,” Robin says, looking at a picture in the Movie Review section of the newspaper. “It has flesh-eating bacteria.” He frowns. “What are bacteria?”

“It’s not interesting,” Regina says quickly. “Let’s not watch that one.”

Robin looks closer at the page. “The reviewer gave it four stars. Is that bad? How incredibly confusing.”

After ten minutes trying to choose a movie—preceded by twenty minutes explaining to Robin what, exactly, a movie is—Regina would normally be willing to simply agree to the suggestion. However, her memory of watching this particular movie is irrevocably tainted by the memory of the person who originally suggested it, the person who gripped Regina’s knee during the scary parts, the person who ate the kernels at the bottom of her popcorn bag so they wouldn’t go to waste.

No, Regina will not be watching this movie again.

“What about this one?” Robin asks, still flipping through the paper. “Different Structures of Government Around the World? This hardly looks interesting, but it only has one star.”

Regina smiles and gently takes the paper from him. “Why don’t we just have dinner?” she suggests, and Robin easily agrees.

The dinner takes place outside on the roof of the apartment building. With some help from Marian, they manage to set up a table with a nice tablecloth, some frayed but fancy napkins, and even two candles. They order Chinese food from a semi-nice restaurant—all of Regina’s favourites and some things Robin thought he might like. They lay the food out, take their places, and… stare at each other.

For a few long moments, the only noises are traffic and birds chirping.

“What normally happens on these dates?” Robin asks, fiddling with his chopsticks.

“Well…” Regina hesitates. She may have done her research, but she’s hardly an expert when it comes to dating. “I believe we’re meant to get to know each other.”

“Why?” Robin asks, genuinely confused. “We’re soulmates. We’ll have our whole lives to get to know each other. Why make an ordeal of it?”

“Of course we will,” Regina says quickly. She hadn’t meant to imply that she has any doubts about that. She doesn’t have any doubts about that. “It’s merely a tradition in this realm that I thought we might enjoy. People use it to discuss their interests, their plans for the future, that sort of thing.”

It’s also the only model she has for developing a relationship beyond ‘love at first sight,’ but she decides not to mention that.

“Ah.” Robin nods. “I’ve been meaning to ask about the future. Would we live in your castle when we get back to the Enchanted Forest?”

Regina opens her mouth to snap at him for saying that, given that he’s obviously mocking her. She no longer has a castle, after all. Then she realizes he was sent here while she was still winning the war against Snow White.

She explains her situation to him as best she can. When she’s done, Robin looks relieved. “To be honest, I’m rather glad we won’t be living in a castle,” he says. “I’ve never liked them much myself. No offense, but I’m more comfortable around trees.”

“I like being around trees myself,” Regina says quickly, eager to capitalize on this shared interest. “When I was younger, all I wanted was to run away from home and live in the forest.”

“What stopped you?” Robin asks.

The correct answer to that would be ‘my mother,’ and then, ‘the king.’ Neither of those are topics she wants to get into on a first date, so she merely says, “Circumstance.”

The memory of said circumstances brings up a question that turns her stomach: Should she tell Robin that she almost found him?

Would it matter? Does she owe that to him?

No. They’re together now. She found him now. That’s all that matters.

It’s not that she’s afraid to tell him. He’s her soulmate; he should forgive her. It’s just… not necessary at this point. It’s not as though she can go back and change it, after all.

“When is Tinkerbell going to contact us?” Robin asks, pulling her from her thoughts. “To take us back?”

Regina shrugs. “As soon as she can, I assume.” She decides not to mention that she has no idea when that could be.

“So our plan is to simply remain in this horrible place until then.” Robin sighs. “I suppose I can manage that.”

“To be fair,” Regina says, feeling some small measure of loyalty towards her current home, “New York City is not actually a terrible place for someone not on the run from the authorities. The people here have several useful ideas I plan to bring back.”

Robin raises an eyebrow. “Like what?” he asks, sounding a bit skeptical.

“Let me show you.”

Regina retrieves her stack of notebooks from Emma’s apartment—only because she knows Emma’s not home—and shows them to Robin. He looks on as she pages through them, explaining the contents briefly.

When she’s done, he seems impressed. He takes a notebook from her, the one titled Amenities, and flips to the section on household appliances. “And you’re going to introduce all of this to our realm, to make it a better place?”

“Is that a shock?” Regina asks, somewhat offended by the surprise in his tone.

He looks up from the diagram of a laundry machine and meets her eyes. “I never knew you cared so much about the people in your realm.”

“I did care,” Regina says quietly. “I may not have been a good person, but… I cared.”

Robin tilts his head and stares at her for long enough that she grows uncomfortable. “This was a bad idea,” she says, shaking her head. “I shouldn’t have—”

Robin reaches out and gently puts a hand on her arm. “No, it was a good idea. I’m happy that I’m getting to know you.”

“Really?” Regina asks.

“Of course,” Robin says. “You’re not quite the person I imagined you to be.”

Regina can’t help but roll her eyes at that. “Because I like trees?”

“Because you have a heart,” Robin says, his face serious and utterly sincere.

It’s an awfully quick assessment to make about someone he’s known for only a few days. Then again, perhaps that’s the point of soulmates: They don’t have to know you for very long in order to know you well.

So instead of questioning him, Regina smiles and says, “Thank you.”

 


 

When Emma wakes up the next morning, she can hear Regina’s light snoring in the other room. She can see her bag by the couch. For a moment, everything feels right and happy and normal.

Then everything hits her all over again: Regina’s face closing off as she walked away. Regina looking at her like she’s the goddamn devil. Oh, and the fact that Emma still has no idea what the deal is with Robin.

She’s not an idiot. She knows that two people having the exact same mental disorder by complete coincidence is… unlikely, probably. There’s got to be some more logical explanation. Emma needs answers, she needs reasons, she needs Regina to stop looking at her like that, she needs…

Breakfast. She needs to have breakfast. They have eggs, right? She was supposed to go shopping yesterday and didn’t, but they should have some left.

Emma drags herself to an upright position, blinking sleep from her eyes. After a moment’s hesitation, she picks up the blanket, folds it, and drapes it awkwardly over the back of the couch. It’s not perfectly neat—definitely not magazine-worthy—but it’s one less thing for Regina to worry about. One less thing that could make her even more angry.

There are two eggs left in the carton, enough to make each of them an omelet. Except as she’s taking the eggs out of the carton, one of them slips out of her hand and bursts on the floor, yellow spilling out over the beige tile like blood at a car accident.

Dammit.

One egg left. It doesn’t take long to fry it up. Emma sprinkles in some parsley and puts a little too much salt on it. Then she covers the plate with a pot lid and goes to dig up something for herself.

She finds nothing. No bread, not even the weird multigrain stuff Regina likes. No breakfast bars, no yogurt cups, no milk. Nothing in the fridge or the cupboard above the sink. She searches everywhere twice—sometimes three times because she can’t remember what she’s already searched. Finally, in the very back of the pantry, she finds the box of stale cereal she bought months ago. It’s a little squashed, but when she shakes it, she can hear stuff rattling inside.

Well, she’s eaten worse. She pours herself a bowl of the chocolate cereal and sits down to eat it before realizing she’s forgotten the milk. She’s halfway to the fridge before she remembers she’s out of milk anyway.

She’s barely managed to sit back down when Regina steps out of the bedroom. As soon as she spots Emma, she stops and rolls her eyes. She sighs deeply, as though Emma’s presence is a burden she can’t possible bear this early in the morning. Clearly, she’d thought Emma would be done already, which doesn’t make sense until Emma glances at the clock and realizes she’s been trying to make breakfast for the past forty minutes.

“I can leave if you want,” Emma says quickly. It’s the first thing she’s said to Regina since yesterday.

Regina arches a judgemental eyebrow at her. “And go where?”

“Uh…” She hadn’t really thought that part through.

Regina looks like she’s about to turn around and go straight back to bed, but then she catches sight of Emma’s cereal. “You’re eating that?” she asks, wrinkling her nose and walking further into the kitchen. “You’re going to get food poisoning.”

Emma shrugs. “There’s only one egg.” She drags her spoon through the dry cereal, steeling herself to take another bite.

Regina stares at her as though she’s lost her mind. “There’s no milk.”

Emma shrugs. “We’re out.”

That doesn’t seem to impress Regina. “Have you forgotten how to make toast?”

“We’re out of bread.”

“What about those horrible breakfast bars you eat? The ones that taste like chalk?”

“They don’t taste like chalk,” Emma says, although she knows it’s pointless. “We’re out of those too. Look, I’m fine.” She takes a bite of cereal and almost spits it back out—it’s somehow even more stale than she expected. She swallows it anyway, though, because Regina is still looking at her. “This is fine.”

Regina raises her eyebrows again, a mixture of skepticism and judgement on her face. Then she perches on the seat opposite Emma and starts to eat her omelet, carefully averting her eyes as Emma continues choking down her cereal.

Emma’s experienced a lot of awkward silences in her life: dinners with new foster families, new-kid-at-school introductions, even the handful of disastrous blind dates she’s been on. This silence tops all of them. They avoid eye contact as much as possible, and every time cutlery hits a dish, Emma winces.

After what seems like an eternity, Regina abruptly says, ““My date with Robin went well.”

Against her better judgement, Emma seizes on the topic of conversation like a drowning woman clinging to a life preserver. “That’s great,” she says, trying not to sound overly enthusiastic even though Regina’s finally making conversation. “What did you guys do?”

“We ate dinner,” Regina says, still not making eye contact. “We talked. It seems we have much in common.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

Emma didn’t mean it as a challenge, but Regina bristles. “Many things. We both love being in the forest. We both love horses. We both…” She flounders for a split second, then recovers. “We both care for each other.”

“That’s great,” Emma says, making sure her tone is as neutral as possible. “I’m glad things are working out so far.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Regina asks sharply. Maybe neutral wasn’t the way to go.

“Nothing,” Emma says quickly, adjusting her tone of voice to ‘politely eager.’ “I’m happy for you.”

Regina glares at her. “What. Is. That. Supposed. To. Mean.”

Emma sighs. Regina’s obviously determined to take everything she says the wrong way, so she may as well say what’s bothering her. “It’s just, do you know anything real about him? Like his religious beliefs, political beliefs, how many kids he wants?”

“Why is that relevant?” Regina asks, sounding honestly confused.

Emma stares at her. “What do you mean, why is that relevant? Regina, you’re talking about spending your life with this guy. Don’t you think you should at least make sure you agree on the important stuff?”

“The only important thing is that we are soulmates. We love each other,” Regina says slowly, like she’s talking to a toddler.

“But that’s not going to be—”

“It’s more than enough,” Regina says.

“He’s a thief, right?” Emma presses, because she can’t help it. “According to you, didn’t he steal a bunch of stuff from you?”

“Why should you care?” Regina asks. “You don’t even believe that.”

There’s a noticeable twinge of hurt underneath the anger in her tone, and Emma winces. But she’s got a point to make and Regina needs to hear it, so she barrels forward. “Are you okay with that? His whole revolt-on-capitalism crusade?”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay with that? He’s my soulmate. I support him.”

Emma lays her hands flat on the table in a placating gesture. “Sure. It’s just, are you really okay with having a soulmate who’s basically an anarchist? Last I checked, your political beliefs run more along the lines of ‘absolute monarchy.’” They’ve had this conversation before, usually involving the words ‘agree to disagree.’

“Are you telling me that Robin and I are not a good couple?” Regina asks, her voice rising. “How dare you presume to pass judgement on my relationship?”

Emma sighs. “Look, Regina, you’re a queen. Apparently,” she adds, and Regina’s eyes narrow dangerously. “And Robin,” she continues quickly, “based off what Marian told me about him, I’m pretty sure he’s the kind of guy who chains himself to trees and thinks cars should run on vegetable oil.”

“Robin has no opinion on cars,” Regina says, not really getting the point of the analogy. “Either way, that hardly means our relationship is doomed.”

“It’s not that you can’t get past these things,” Emma says carefully. “I’m just saying, you’re in a three-day relationship. Don’t get your hopes up. There’s nothing wrong with being cautious.”

“Says the woman who hasn’t been in a relationship in years.”

“Look, I may not be the world expert in romance,” Emma says, and isn’t that an understatement. “But I know you have to put effort into these things instead of just hoping they’ll magically work out after five minutes.”

Regina raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think you do know that, given that you do the exact same thing.”

“No, I don’t.” Emma jabs a finger at herself. “Relationship failure, remember? I’m not even trying.”

Regina puts down her knife and fork and screws up her face into an expression of exaggerated idiocy. In a mocking imitation of Emma’s voice, she says, “Oh no, I don’t like the city I’m living in. I guess I should just move to a different one instead of actually putting down roots because that’s hard .”

“I don’t do that,” Emma says, stung.

“Of course you do,” Regina says in her regular voice. “You complain that you don’t have a home or any friends, but when those things don’t magically fall into your lap, you give up and run away.”

Emma tries to come up with a good argument for that and finds none. She crosses her arms. “Yeah, well, at least I take responsibility for my problems instead of assuming that they won’t matter once I have some random person to make out with.”

“I do take responsibility for my problems,” Regina says coolly, but her face twitches slightly. “And Robin is not some random person. He is my soulmate. I’m in lo—I’m falling in love with him.”

Emma should know better than to use logic at this point, but she’s tired and exasperated and maybe a little hurt by what Regina said, so she says, “Come on . You can’t fall in love with someone after three days. That’s not how it works.”

Regina leans in and twists her face into a menacing snarl. “And what would you know about love?”

Emma drops her spoon and it clatters inside the bowl, sending cereal flying over the sides. Her muscles tense and her heart starts to race as her exasperation ignites into full-blown rage. But as much as she wants to snap back at Regina, to wipe that snarl off her face, she doesn’t have a good response. Actually, she doesn’t have any response at all.

Because the answer, of course, is nothing. And Regina fucking knows it.

For a few moments, there’s complete silence in the room, except for the faint rumbling of traffic and a small tinny noise. They register it at the same time. Both of them look down to see Emma’s hand shaking, gently rattling her spoon against the side of the bowl.

As soon as Emma notices it, she pulls her hand back, stuffing it under the table for good measure. She hadn’t noticed before, but she’s shaking all over, although whether it’s from rage or stress or just the stupid cereal is something she couldn’t begin to figure out.

Emma looks up to see Regina taking in her dishevelled appearance, her twitchiness, and the bags under her eyes she didn’t bother to cover up with concealer. Slowly, the victory drains out of her formerly smug expression, and Emma sees a flash of… something. Pity? Compassion? Concern? She holds her breath.

Then it’s gone and Regina’s face is blank. “I can’t eat this,” she says, pushing her plate away with disgust, and Emma’s hope disappears.

“Why the hell not?”

“It’s burned.”

Emma looks at the half-eaten omelet and can’t see any burned patches on it. “What are you talking about?”

Regina points to a miniscule, barely-noticeable brown spot where Emma had, in fact, burned the omelet a tiny bit. “Scorched to a crisp.”

“Oh, come on!” Emma shouts.

“It’s inedible.”

Regina’s lying. Badly. But she stares Emma down anyway with narrowed eyes, daring her to disagree.

Emma crosses her arms and glares back at her. “Seriously? You’re going to throw away a perfectly good omelet just because you’re mad at me? That is so immature.”

Regina lifts an eyebrow. “It’s not my fault you’re a terrible cook,” she says, and leaves the table.

“This part isn’t even burned!” Emma yells, gesturing to the majority of the omelet, but Regina has already slammed the bathroom door behind her. Emma just barely keeps herself from stamping her foot under the table.

She sighs and pulls the perfectly good omelet towards her. If Regina won’t eat it, she will.

Then she stops.

Regina’s never done anything like that before. She’s gotten mad, she’s even stormed off a couple times, but she’s never just abandoned her breakfast.

Could Regina have…

No, that’s ridiculous. Regina was just being petty. There’s no way she did that on purpose so that Emma would have something decent to eat.

Regina’s mad at her. Regina doesn’t want to be around her. That’s the reality Emma’s going to have to live with until she can find some way to fix it.

(If she can fix it.)

Regina obviously needs time, but eventually she’ll cool off and then they can talk properly. Emma can explain herself, Regina will listen, and things will be okay again.

(Right?)

For now, Emma finishes off her cereal and Regina’s omelet, which tastes perfectly fine, and tries to think about something other than the woman sulking in the next room.

 


 

Their fight over breakfast is the last time they speak to each other for the next two weeks—at least directly. Regina develops the habit of staying in bed until she hears Emma leave the apartment in the morning. But when she finally makes her way to the kitchen, there’s always food on the table: scrambled eggs, or apple pancakes, or toast with jam. And every breakfast is accompanied by a different beverage, each one bearing an earnest yellow sticky note with its name written in careful cursive. One morning brings cranberry juice, while another features Gatorade in an unnatural shade of orange. Once, there’s milky coffee labelled “cappuccino” with a lopsided smile drawn in the foam, half-melted under the harsh kitchen lights.

Regina leaves them all untouched. She washes the plate and utensils, but she puts the full glass or mug on the counter for Emma to see. When Regina gets back to the apartment in the evening, the glass has always been emptied and washed and put away. But every morning, they keep coming.

When she finally tastes her perfect drink, it’s not Emma who finds it for her. It’s her tenth date with Robin, in a little cafe near Central Park, and he orders them both mugs of artisanal apple cider. It’s rich and tangy and not too sweet, and it tastes just like the apples that come from her tree back in the Enchanted Forest. She makes a noise that’s somewhere between a groan and a hum.

Robin smiles. “You like it.”

“I love it,” Regina says. “It’s perfect.”

“Excellent,” Robin says, looking very pleased with himself. “I’ll make sure to order this for us every time then.”

Every time. No more guessing, no more going through drinks that taste terrible in order to find one that might not. She’s found one that she likes, and now she can stick with that. Forever.

Excellent.

Robin starts talking about his criminal friends and Regina just… watches him. This is someone who cares for her, who knows her better than… better than anyone.

Doesn’t he?

So why can’t she stop thinking about Emma’s words during that disastrous breakfast?

Deep down, she knows why: Emma may have been rude and entirely out-of-line, but she wasn’t actually wrong. Regina’s tried to bring up topics such as politics with Robin, in between their movie nights and card games and other bonding activities. Generally, he either agrees readily to whatever she says or dismisses the topic altogether, claiming that it’s not important.

More and more, she starts to think that the reason she hasn’t mentioned her ill-fated discovery mission to him is that she’s afraid.

It’s ridiculous . Robin is a difficult man to anger, and he’s forgiven her for trying to kill him. Surely he would forgive her for ruining his life so many years ago.

Wouldn’t he?

Regina looks down at the cup in her hand, the dark red sweet-smelling liquid. She looks back up at Robin. He has beautiful eyes, warm and steady blue eyes.

She can tell him. She can trust him.

“Robin,” she says slowly, “there’s something I haven’t told you.”

Robin raises his eyebrows. “What is it?”

“I…” She hesitates, unable to continue.

Robin frowns, clearly sensing that something’s wrong. He reaches out and puts a hand on hers. “You can tell me.”

“I found you,” Regina says slowly. “Years ago. I knew that you were my soulmate, and I could have chosen to meet you, and I didn’t.”

Robin seems confused, and Regina rushes to explain herself. “ I was not in a good position. I was married to the King, for one thing. And for another, I… well, I was afraid. Of how my life might change. I’m sorry.” The words come out almost on top of each other.

“Why are you sorry?” Robin asks calmly. “That seems very reasonable to me. You didn’t even know me.”

“Really?” Regina asks. “You’re not angry with me?”

“Of course not,” Robin says. “There’s more than one pathway to destiny. We just took a different one.” He smiles gently. “You made a mistake, and you’re fixing it now.”

A mistake. Not a choice, not a deliberate transgression against fate. It’s the most charitable way of looking at her decision; she couldn’t have hoped for anything better. She opens her mouth to agree with him, to thank him, to change the subject before he changes his mind.

Instead, she asks, “What do you see in me?”

She hadn’t meant to ask that, and naturally Robin looks just as confused as she is. “I’m not sure what you mean. You’re my soulmate.”

“Yes,” Regina says quickly, “of course. But… what do you like about me?” Her voice wavers with uncertainty and she may have just made history by asking her soulmate such a pointless question. Still, now that she’s on this path of conversation, she cannot help but follow it.

Robin, baffled as he is, answers, “You’re my second chance. Isn’t that what you see in me?”

It’s the same answer she gave Emma so long ago, when Emma asked why she liked Robin. A second chance. Isn’t that all she was ever after? A happy ending, a love story of her own? Isn’t that exactly what she sees in him?

So why does she feel that she’s about to vomit?

“You’re also quite a good kisser,” Robin says lightly, evidently sensing her insecurity.

Regina smiles, trying to disguise her feelings, but it doesn’t work. “Did I say something wrong?” Robin asks, his forehead wrinkling in concern.

“No,” Regina says. “Not at all, of course not. You said… it was perfect. That was everything I’ve ever wanted you to say.”

It’s not a lie… so why does it feel like one?

Robin studies her for a long moment, unconvinced. “Should I have said ‘very good kisser?’”

Regina leans in and kisses him as hard as she can manage. He’s surprised at first, but he soon reciprocates, kissing her back with equal passion.

“Okay. I believe you,” he says, laughing a little as she finally lets him go.

She should be happy at that, but all she feels is relief, followed almost instantly by shame. She should never have doubted him. He said everything she’s ever wanted him to say. How could she possibly ask for more than that? What more is there?

And yet, as she listens to him call her his second chance , all she feels is nauseated.

She’s spent too much time around Emma, so much that she’s been influenced by her constant disbelief. That’s the problem. Or… perhaps she still is a terrible person, selfish and always wanting more than she can have. Perhaps that’s the real problem with villains: they will never let themselves be happy. They refuse to accept the happiness the world is trying to give them.

No. That will not be her. She is happy with Robin. She is.

This is enough.

It has to be.

Chapter Text

Emma’s never been inside a university before, so she doesn’t know if the physics building in Columbia University is anything special. It’s definitely big though, and despite her usually good sense of direction, she can’t find the room she’s looking for anywhere.

She almost jumps when she hears a friendly voice behind her. “Excuse me, are you looking for someone?”

Emma turns to see a young man, probably a student, wearing a moderately nice jacket and a tie with little stars on it. “Yeah, hi, I’m looking for Professor Jefferson,” she says. “I wanted to talk to him about, uh, his multiverse theory. You know, the story transference… thing,” she finishes weakly.

It still sounds ridiculous. Over the past couple weeks, she’s been through every possible explanation for where Regina and Robin might have come from, and the most logical one is still that they were brainwashed as part of some cult or something. Problem is, she’s searched everywhere, asked people from every part of the world she could, and no one’s heard of anything like that. But how else could two people have the exact same memories of the exact same place that doesn’t exist?

Weirdly, Professor Jefferson’s theory is the only other one that even comes close to making sense. That must be why it’s stuck in the back of her mind even though it’s still absolutely batshit crazy. So here she is. She’ll talk to the professor and get some fucking answers, for once.

“Jefferson? The physics professor?” The man shakes his head. “I’m afraid you won’t find him here. He’s on leave at the moment.”

“Like a vacation?” The university website didn’t mention that.

The man smiles wryly. “More of an involuntary leave. The administration wants him to get some good rest.”

“Right.” In a secure psychiatric facility, probably.

“Are those doughnuts?” the man asks, indicating the box in Emma’s hand.

She holds up the box so he can see. “Yeah, I read that Professor Jefferson liked them.”

The man smiles at that. “I enjoy doughnuts,” he says mildly.

“Oh. I just…” Emma shuffles her feet. “I had a question. It’s kind of specific.” She’s not sure how many people really understand Professor Jefferson’s theory besides the man himself. Probably not many.

“Well, if you’re looking for a physicist, I might be able to help,” the man says. “I’m Professor Merlin, and I teach quantum physics.” He puts his hand out for Emma to shake, which she does, balancing the doughnut box under her left arm.

“You’re a professor?” Emma asks, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. This guy barely looks old enough to have a doctorate.

“That surprises you,” Professor Merlin says with a small smile, so obviously that didn’t work. Luckily, he seems more amused than offended.

“I guess I figured a professor would be more…” Emma trails off.

“Old? White? Grumpy?” Professor Merlin fills in.

“Yeah, I guess,” Emma says sheepishly. “I just sort of imagined one of those old dudes with weird hair.”

“Not all physicists look like Einstein.” Professor Merlin’s smile grows. “Would you like to come in?”

Emma hesitates, but he seems nice and she really does need answers, so she nods. He unlocks the door of what is apparently his office and lets her inside.

Professor Merlin’s office is cluttered with bookshelves, a desk with a tiny potted bonsai sitting on it, and about fifty photos of a gorgeous olive-skinned woman who must be his wife. The bonsai is sitting directly in the sliver of light coming from the thin window. The position is a little awkward otherwise, right in the middle of the patch of photos, which suggests that the professor moves the plant throughout the day so it can get more sunlight. It’s exactly what Regina did for the sunflowers when they first bought them, even though Emma had laughed at her gently because really, what difference did it make?

If Regina was here, she’d probably know exactly what to say to this professor guy. She’s never been in a university either, but she’s read all those books about science. Besides, she’s gotten good at faking it even when she doesn’t know something. She wouldn’t be intimidated by the rows and rows of Latin books or the several diplomas on the wall.

Emma shouldn’t be intimidated either, considering she’s faced down way worse things than this, but she hates being out of her depth. Everything about this situation makes her want to crawl into a hole and hide.

She sets the doughnut box on the desk as gently as she can manage and sits down in the chair opposite Professor Merlin, who takes a seat in his worn leather recliner. “So what brings you here?” he asks, steepling his fingers on the desk.

Emma shrugs awkwardly. “I have a question, and it’s… I don’t know. I guess it’s a bit weird.”

“There are no weird questions in science,” Professor Merlin says.

So he’s that kind of teacher, the let’s be friends and learn this together kind of teacher. Emma’s okay with that. At least it’s better than the other kind of teacher, the I know everything and you’re here to obey me kind of teacher. She had a lot of those.

“Right,” she says, feeling marginally better. “My question is, are there—could there be—other worlds out there?”

Professor Merlin’s forehead wrinkles. “You mean, different cultures?”

Emma shakes her head. “No, like… different realms. Not in the same universe. Or just really, really far away.”

“Other universes?” Professor Merlin tilts his head. “I think many people have speculated on the existence of those.”

“Not just other universes. Worlds that we have stories about,” Emma continues. “In our world. And the rules are different. Like,they have magic, but we don’t. And… ethically. It works differently.” She can hear how ridiculous she sounds, and she cringes inwardly. She wouldn’t blame this guy if he tossed her out of his office right now, laid-back attitude aside.

But Professor Merlin leans back in his chair, now paying complete attention. “That’s a very interesting question. Why do you ask that?”

“I just have this…” She stops before the word friend can escape her mouth, because that’s not actually true anymore. “This… roommate. And it’s important to her that I find this out.” It’s not technically a lie; Regina would love to know she was here. She’d get all excited about it because she’d think that Emma’s finally starting to believe her.

Which is exactly why Emma didn’t tell her she was doing this.

“I don’t think science has an answer for whether or not it’s possible,” Professor Merlin says carefully. “Although I don’t want to rule anything out, it’s not generally considered a viable theory.”

“So that’s a no,” Emma says, feeling a small rush of relief. If it’s not a viable theory, she can leave, right?

But Professor Merlin holds up a hand. “Well, not exactly. There aren’t many definite ‘nos’ in science, despite what most people believe.”

“So, that’s a yes?” Emma asks, confused.

“Not exactly,” Professor Merlin says again in that same careful tone, which is starting to get irritating. He can obviously tell she’s getting lost, so he waves his hands. “Let me use an example. Have you heard of the Heisenberg Principle?”

Emma shakes her head.

“Physicists have long noted that light can behave as both a particle and a wave, depending on how it is measured. The interesting thing is that the light itself seems to decide how it will act, as though it knows the intent of the scientist doing the measuring.”

“So light can think?” Emma asks, baffled. She barely made it through high school science, but she’s pretty sure light can’t make decisions.

“No, of course not,” Professor Merlin reassures her. “My point is that according to this theory, the act of measuring something can itself affect the reality being measured.”

“What’s your point?” Emma asks, crossing her arms and tucking them in close to her chest.

“The point is that this theory, although it is true according to all observational evidence, flies in the face of everything traditional science would have us believe.” The professor looks like he’s itching to grab a marker and draw a diagram on the whiteboard behind him, but he stays put and just spins back and forth a bit in his chair. “The goal of science is supposedly to learn more about the objective reality surrounding us, which of course supposes that such an objective reality actually exists. But this experiment says that even such basic things as light and molecules are, partially, decided upon by us. So we have a say in the reality around us, even on a subatomic level.”

Emma’s more confused than before. “But, there is still a reality, right? Something is true or it’s not.”

“What I’m saying is that it’s not always that simple,” Merlin says gently.

“So what does that have to do with my question?”

Merlin leans forward. “The idea of a reality existing because one believes in it, or magic existing for the same reason… there is some scientific precedent for that. Is it scientifically likely? Probably not. I don’t have evidence for you. But the real question is, what would it take for you to believe it?”

“If there was proof that it’s true, I would definitely believe it,” Emma says firmly. “And it sounds like there isn’t.”

“Even science can’t prove anything,” Professor Merlin says. “Evidence can support a theory or it can refute it, but in the end, just like in everything, we have to choose what we believe.”

Emma sighs. If she’d wanted this crap, she’d have tried a philosopher. “Okay, but what does the evidence say about what I’m talking about?”

“Statistically speaking, it’s not likely,” Merlin says again. “I think most physicists would agree that what you’re talking about, a world that functions on karma as a physical concept, is not possible. There is no physical basis for such a system, especially at such a macroscopic level. As for other worlds… well, that’s an open question. Many scientists do think that is possible.”

“What do you think?” Emma asks. This guy may not be a physicist, but even though his answers are kind of annoying, she’s not sensing any bullshit.

“That there are other worlds out there? Yes, I absolutely believe that,” Professor Merlin says in a tone of absolute confidence. “But that’s not important. The important thing, Emma, is what do you believe?”

What? Oh, come on. The whole point of her coming here was for someone else to give her the facts. How is it still on her to figure this out?

Emma nods, suddenly overwhelmed by anger, frustration, and mostly the need to get the hell out of there before she yells at this nice professor guy. “Right. Thanks, but I really gotta run.”

“Of course,” Merlin says with a nod. He stands and opens the door for her, and Emma almost does run out of the university building into the warm, suffocating summer evening air.

It doesn’t make sense. She didn’t get anything out of this guy except that he believes some weird crap that probably isn’t true. And that’s his problem. The point is that Regina’s reality is most likely impossible.

So why does she feel like her brain got run over by a truck?

It’s getting late, and she hasn’t even had dinner yet—not that she’s hungry. She should drive home and go to bed. Except she can’t, not yet, because for some reason, her lungs feel like they’ve just gotten two sizes smaller. She’s breathing in short gasps, her heart is racing, her head is spinning, and she wants to punch something.

She doesn’t. Instead, she sits down on a bench outside, puts her head in her hands, and tries to breathe.

 


 

Regina’s waiting for Emma when she comes home that night.

Emma’s eyes widen when she sees Regina sitting at the table. “Hey,” she says, shutting the door behind her. “What are you—”

“How dare you.”

Emma’s face morphs from hopeful to confused. “What are you talking about?”

Regina holds up the piece of paper she found on Emma’s desk that morning—right there in the open. “I’m talking about this therapy bill. You’re planning to send me to Archie again, aren’t you? If you think I’m going back there, you are sorely mistaken.” Yes, it had been helpful… but she’s not going back to a man who believes her to be crazy.

“No!” Emma says quickly. “No, that wasn’t for you.”

“Who was it for, then?” Regina rolls her eyes. “You expect me to believe it’s for you ?”

Emma doesn’t answer right away. She stares at her feet and puts her thumbs in her belt loops, then takes them out and clasps her hands in front of her. Finally, she looks up. “Yeah,” she says quietly. “It is, actually.”

You’re seeing him? Why?” Regina asks, genuine curiosity leaking into her voice despite her attempt to sound unconcerned. Emma hates therapy.

“I’ve been kind of stressed, I guess.” Emma laughs, but it sounds hollow. Regina notes the bags under her eyes, the limpness of her hair, the harsh lines of her face.

“Are you okay?” Regina asks, trying to sound as indifferent as possible. Emma still lied to her, still ruined her life. Why should Regina care if she’s okay or not?

Except, unfortunately, she does.

“I…” Emma hesitates, and Regina’s certain she’s going to say she’s fine, the way she always does. But then she shakes her head. “I… I don’t know.”

That’s a ‘no,’ coming from Emma, and it indicates even more than her deteriorating appearance that something is wrong.

Before Regina can do something foolish like ask her about it, Emma goes to the fridge and takes out a long series of bottles. They slowly cover the table: juices, energy drinks, obscure fruit-flavoured iced teas, and more. Regina stares at the growing collection, recalls the apple cider she’d been so pleased about earlier, and something like guilt settles in her stomach.

Finally, Emma reaches into the back of the fridge and pulls out a quarter-full bottle of alcohol, then pours its entire contents into a glass.

Where was she tonight that she’s in such poor shape now? Or is this simply the culmination of two weeks of stress that Regina hasn’t witnessed?

“Can I sit here?” Emma asks, pointing at the chair opposite Regina.

Regina shrugs. “It’s your apartment.”

Emma takes it as the ‘yes’ it is and settles down with her drink. Regina pushes down the urge to tell her she’s poured too much, she shouldn’t do that to herself. She’s not Emma’s mother, and by her own choice, they’re no longer friends. This is none of her business.

Unless this is her fault. At their ill-fated breakfast two weeks ago, she’d essentially told Emma to her face that no one has ever loved her. She’d known she’d gone too far almost as soon as the words left her mouth, and she’d tried to make amends by leaving her the omelet, but she’d never actually apologized. Still, it’s not as though that could have caused Emma’s apparent breakdown… could it?

Just in case, she clears her throat and says, “I’m sorry for what I said to you. I didn’t mean it.”

Emma’s eyes fly to hers. “What?”

“At breakfast,” Regina clarifies. “Two weeks ago.”

Emma looks at her steadily. “Yeah, you did. But you were right.”

“No, you were right,” Regina admits. “I was angry because I didn’t know what Robin sees in me.” She sighs. “I still don’t.” It’s frustrating that Emma’s her only confidante; it’s even more frustrating that confiding in her still feels like the right thing to do.

“No, I wasn’t right,” Emma says. “You were. What the hell do I know about any of this?” She throws up her hands. “Robin loves you. I don’t get it, but he does, somehow. He looks at you like you’re everything to him.” There’s a note of jealousy in her voice, and Regina’s reminded again that Emma’s never had anyone who looked at her that way.

“Still,” Regina says, “it was wrong of me to say that to you.”

Emma sighs. “Yeah, well. I’m sorry for what I said too. I know you’re trying to take responsibility.”

“You don’t even know what I’m taking responsibility for,” Regina says, wincing slightly at the hurt that creeps into her tone.

“You’re still mad,” Emma says quietly. “Because I don’t believe you.”

“It’s more than that,” Regina says. “I'm mad because you took my choices away from me. I’m mad because you interfered in my life without my consent.”

“I was just trying to help. I was just trying to do the right thing—”

“Exactly,” Regina says bitterly. “You were being the hero. And heroes have never helped me before.”

“I’m not going to apologize for doing the right thing,” Emma says, looking at Regina with a sort of fierce righteousness in her eyes.

It’s galling, and Regina meets her gaze with equal intensity when she says, slowly and clearly, “You hurt me. You were the one who told me that whatever I felt, it was okay. Well, I want to be upset about this, and you won’t let me. You won’t even acknowledge that you hurt me.”

Emma sits there, mouth slightly open, looking like a kicked puppy. Regina waits, hoping for Emma to say something, expecting Emma to challenge her. But there’s nothing. Emma closes her mouth and looks away, back toward her drink.

“You’re right,” Emma says. “I’m sorry.”

It’s the apology Regina’s wanted for weeks, but she cannot bring herself to take any pleasure in it. She’s so tired.

“I don’t know what you want me to do,” Emma whispers.

Regina sighs heavily. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, and she doesn’t know if she means it as a reprieve or a death sentence for their friendship. Emma seems to take it as the latter, and slumps further in her chair with her eyes cast towards the ground.

“So is that it? Is that all the reasons why you’re mad at me?”

“Not quite,” Regina says. “Mostly, I’m mad because you said you believed in me, and I… I believed you.”

“I do believe in you,” Emma says, leaning forward in her chair towards Regina. “That wasn’t a lie.”

Regina rolls her eyes. “You only believe in me because you think I’m a delusional amnesiac who’s never done a thing wrong in her life.”

“I never said that,” Emma says stubbornly. “And that’s not why I believe in you.”

Regina shouldn’t ask it, but she can’t help it. “So if you did believe me now…”

“I would still want you here,” Emma says. “I wouldn’t regret helping you, I promise.”

Regina closes her eyes. “I wish I could believe you.”

“Is there anything I can say that would get you to believe me?” Emma asks. “Anything at all?”

Regina opens her eyes and says, quietly, “I don’t think so.”

Emma’s face falls at that, but it’s the truth. Regina looks at her for a long moment, then stands to leave, walking towards the bedroom. There’s nothing more for her to say, nothing more for them to—

“I want to tell you about my parents.”

Regina stops.

Where could Emma possibly be going with this? She’s volunteering information about her past. Information about her parents . She’s only done that once before, and it was when she told Regina she believed her the first time.

“I thought you said you never met them,” Regina says. If this is another lie…

“I told you they abandoned me,” Emma says. “I never told you that I found out who they were.”

Regina turns around. “You did?” All this time, she’d been under the impression that Emma had never met her parents, that she’d gone her whole life knowing nothing about them. If she found them and never mentioned it, the meeting cannot possibly have gone well.

“About two years ago, I was in this relationship with a guy I sorta cared about. Not, like, in love or anything, but he was decent to me. And… well, he was married.” Emma shrugs in a self-deprecating sort of way, as though to say yeah, I know, I screwed up. As though Regina’s in any position to judge her.

“One day,” Emma continues, “his wife came home and saw us together, and he acted like he didn’t even know me. Like I was nothing.” Emma’s tone is conversational, but there’s something underneath it that Regina’s never heard from her before, something almost haunting.

Regina walks back over to the table. She doesn’t sit down, but she puts her hands on the chair back and leans over it, looking Emma in the eye from above. “Then what happened?”

“I went through a bit of a rough patch after that,” Emma says. “Robbed a convenience store, was careless about it, got caught. Skipped out on my bail. And I… kind of got obsessed with finding my parents. Because I just didn’t know what else to do.”

Obsession with a futile pursuit. Regina knows all about that. She doubts Emma’s obsession had been as destructive as hers, no matter how bad she thinks it is.

“I got caught by a bail bondsperson named Cleo,” Emma says. “I escaped and I was gonna make a run for it when I saw that she had this tracking program. And I thought maybe, she could find my parents. So we made a deal: She’d help me look for info about them, and I would go quietly. So I went looking for information. And guess what?” She smiles, a twisted sort of smile with no joy in it at all. “I found some.”

“What did you find?” Regina asks, knowing the answer can’t possibly be good.

“Turns out my parents were pretty crappy people. They were arrested for selling drugs to kids. It was a whole thing. So, yeah. They never cared about me.” Her voice cracks on the last few words, but she doesn’t break eye contact.

“What about your blanket?” Regina asks, confused. “The one with your name on it?”

“It came from my first set of foster parents,” Emma says. “I think they had a miscarriage before they got me and the blanket was almost done, so they just stitched my name on it. It wasn’t actually supposed to be mine.”

“That’s horrible,” Regina says.

Emma shrugs. “They weren’t bad people, really. My birth parents were still worse. My dad died of an overdose in prison, and my mom…”

Emma hesitates, and Regina knows it must be horrible, if this is harder to talk about than a death. “What about your mom?”

“She died a few years ago too,” Emma says quietly. “But… after she got out of prison, she got married. And…”

Regina waits.

“She had another kid,” Emma whispers. “Before she died.”

“Oh,” Regina says quietly. She pictures Emma, two years younger, wearing her glasses, finding out all of this and being totally alone. “I can see how that would have been difficult.”

It’s probably not the best thing she could have said, merely an acknowledgement of Emma’s struggles rather than anything truly comforting, but Emma’s eyes shine with gratitude anyway. “Thank you,” she says.

“So then what happened?” Regina prompts, dreading the rest of the story but needing to hear it all the same, needing to let Emma tell it to her.

“I lost it, Regina,” Emma says simply. “I couldn’t let myself believe it. I told myself it wasn’t true. I’d spent so long looking for my parents, hoping that I would find them, and I told myself, even if it was bad news, that would still be better than not knowing.”

“But  it wasn’t,” Regina says.

“No,” Emma says. “Because then I didn’t have any hope.”

Regina is starting to see where this is going. “What did you do?” she asks carefully, evenly.

“I went back to the station to look through the file again. I broke in, in the middle of the night. I convinced myself that there had been a mistake, maybe I missed something, maybe they missed something… there was nothing.”

“Believing it wasn’t true didn’t change anything,” Regina says softly.

“I’m not done,” Emma says, and her eyes are almost hollow. “The bail bondsperson lady, the one who caught me? Cleo? She came to get me out. The cops were there, and she helped me escape. But, uh…” Emma looks down, presses her lips together, looks back up. “We escaped through a window. And the glass broke, and she got cut. Really bad.”

Regina knows what Emma’s going to say before she says it.

“She didn’t make it,” Emma says.

“Oh, Emma,” Regina says quietly.

Emma doesn’t cry, just sits on the edge of the chair rocking back and forth slightly with her hands folded in front of her. “But I got better,” she says. “After that. I stopped believing in all of that stuff, and I got my life under control. Cleo told me, before she died, that I had a second chance, and I should take it.”

Take it, she did. Regina can imagine how she built herself so completely in the image of the one person who ever believed in her, took her place in the world out of grief or guilt or simply a sense of duty. And it had worked.

“It’s better, you know? Not having that hope. I mean, yeah, it hurt, but then I got to move on.” Emma’s voice cracks and she tucks her arms around herself, apparently unconsciously. “I got to change my life, be a better person.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Regina asks.

“You wanted the truth,” Emma says. “That’s the truth. And I promise, everything I said to you about you being able to change, I meant it. I just wanted to help you because… when I met you, I saw someone who was grasping onto this belief because she had to. Who couldn’t see things the way they were because she was too busy seeing them the way she wanted them to be. I wasn’t trying to fix you, or save you, or whatever. I guess... I guess I was just trying to be your friend. Because you looked like you needed one, and maybe I needed one too.”

“Why?” Regina asks, because she can’t help it.

Emma doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t even have to think about it. “Because you’re brave, and you’re smart, and you’re a survivor. You’ve been through hell, but you didn’t let it break you. You didn’t stop believing in love, and happy endings. I… I thought that was dumb. When I met you. But now, I’m not sure. I mean, it’s more than I ever managed.” She laughs, and it’s the most miserable thing Regina’s ever heard.

“And,” Emma continues, “you understand me. You get what it’s like to be alone and misunderstood. You don’t judge me the way most people do. I can just talk to you. I’ve never had that before.”

“Me neither,” Regina says quietly. She has never had a friend like Emma, or for that matter, a friend at all. Mother had seen to that as a child, and then as an adult, she’d seen to that herself.

“I helped you because I thought you were like me,” Emma says. “But now I know you’re not. You still believe in all this stuff—love, fairy tales, all of that. And I thought that was dumb, but…  I don’t know. I think maybe you’re better than me.”

“I’m not better than you,” Regina says quietly.

“And I get you, Regina. I really do. I know you think this is your fault, that people don’t love you because you don’t deserve it. But Regina, that’s not how it works. It’s not like good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Sometimes bad things happen to people who didn’t do anything to deserve it. Just because no one has ever—I mean, it’s not anybody’s fault, okay? Not everyone gets to be loved. Not everyone gets the happy ending. Some people just don’t get the fairytale.”

Finally, she recognizes the emotion that was on Emma’s face when she looked at the photo of herself from a couple years ago, where she was smiling and hopeful. It’s the same expression on Emma’s face now, as she tells Regina about Cleo’s death.

Grief.

“I know it’s not easy to change what you believe in. Archie says it’s hard for people to change their worldview,” Emma says.

Regina looks at her trembling hands, her pale face, her limp hair, and thinks Archie was right about that.

And Regina finally realizes that this is not about her, never has been about her. This is about Emma, a broken woman’s desperate attempt to reassure herself that she still matters in this world.

The whole idea that fate isn’t real, that good is a choice, is simply what Emma needs to believe to get herself through her day. And she’s been pushing it on Regina because she doesn’t know any better.

Oddly, when Regina figures that out, she starts to feel better. It becomes easier to forgive Emma now that she realizes how truly flawed Emma actually is: not her saviour, not anyone’s salvation but her own, but a good person nonetheless.

Regina can relax now. She can stop struggling with whether or not to believe what Emma’s telling her, and the tiny, traitorous part that longs to believe it can be silenced forever.

“Can you try to believe me? Regina, please?” Emma’s voice cracks.

Regina looks at her and she can’t bear to tell her the truth, but Emma must see it in her eyes: She will never try to stop believing what she does. She can’t. She knows that as surely as she now knows that Emma will never see things her way either.

Emma shrinks back when she sees Regina’s answer. “Yeah. I know.”

“Can you try?” Regina asks, even though she knows it’s futile.

“I have been trying. It doesn’t make sense. Only good people get to be happy? Only good people deserve to be loved? And bad people don’t get to be loved? You can’t ask me to believe that, Regina.”

“I’m not asking you to believe that about yourself,” Regina says. “I know you’re a good person. You’re not from my realm. It’s different for me.”

“It wouldn’t be different,” Emma says. “That doesn’t make sense. But even if it did, you’re asking me to believe you’ve been bad forever? Since you were born? I can’t believe that either, Regina. That’s not who you are.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I do. And even if you were, why would any world be like that? Why would any world have this system where if you’re good enough, you get to be happy, you get to have people love you? It doesn’t make sense.” Emma shakes her head. “I talked to this professor at Columbia. That’s where I was tonight. And he says it doesn’t make sense. But you know what does make sense? You know who does do that? Cult leaders! Bad people who want to hurt you!”

“Wait, you talked to a professor? About whether or not my story could be true?” All this time, she thought Emma wasn’t even trying to believe her, that there was no part of Emma that could believe her. She was wrong, apparently.

“Yeah, a physics professor,” Emma says. “I asked if it’s possible for alternate universes to exist, like with different ethics and stuff. Like you talk about.”

“And the professor thinks it’s not possible.”

“He said that it’s possible, but not likely.”

“But it’s possible,” Regina says, because she can’t help it.

“Not likely, Regina,” Emma says quietly.

There’s a moment of quiet, then Emma sighs. “I just don’t get why you want to go back,” she says. “You think it’s this horrible place where people want to kill you, and you want to go back there?”

“It’s my home, Emma,” Regina says gently.

“I know,” Emma says quickly. “I get that. Or at least, I get that that’s important to you. But is that really why you want to go back?”

“It’s part of it,” Regina says. “It’s not the only reason. But I can’t explain the others.” Truthfully, she doesn’t want to go back to a land where everyone wants her dead, even though it is her home. She doesn’t know what it would do to her to be in a realm with Snow, with magic at her fingertips.

But Tinkerbell had said she was her only hope. What would Blue do to her if Regina doesn’t even try to come back? Besides, Regina’s ruined Robin’s life once. She doesn’t want to ruin it again.

“I know we’re not friends anymore,” Emma says quietly. “I know we’re not gonna be friends again. And that’s…” She takes a deep breath. “That’s what it is. But I just want you to know you have options. You can stay here if you want. Or I can help you find an apartment. You don’t have to go back there. You can do whatever you want.”

“And if I do want to go back there?” Regina asks.

“Do you?”

“I don’t know,” Regina says.

It’s not as though she has anything for her in this realm. Marian would never give her a job now that she knows her true identity. She’d be stuck, dependent again on a woman who doesn’t know who she truly is and never will.

Emma does not want to believe. She’ll go to her grave before she believes a word of what Regina’s saying, no matter how much proof is laid in front of her.

“I won’t even talk to you,” Emma says quietly.

Oh. Emma thinks this is her fault. She’s driven Regina away.

“It’s not your fault that I don’t love him,” Regina says before she can stop herself.

Emma freezes. “You don’t?” she asks, and Regina doesn’t dare believe that’s hope in her voice.

“Yet,” Regina adds quickly. “I’m sure I will, I just…” It should have happened by now, she knows that. Two weeks is far longer than anyone should take to fall in love with their soulmate. And yet she knows she cannot blame Emma for this, at least. All she ever did was plant the idea.

“And you think that means you’re doomed?” Emma asks quietly. “Regina, come on. You’re doing everything you can. You’re trying your best, I’ve seen it. You’re being a good person. And now you’ve bent yourself into knots trying to be in love with this guy. What the hell more do they want from you?”

“I wish I knew,” Regina says.

Emma sighs. “I don’t get it. I really don’t. But if you really want to go back…” She swallows, closes her eyes, opens them again. “I’ll support you, I promise. I’ll do whatever I have to do to help you.”

“Thank you,” Regina says, and means it.

“Are you still mad at me?”

Regina can’t lie to her. “Yes,” she says,because she is. She understands Emma now, and her anger has shifted from a sharp pain to a dull ache in her ribcage, but it’s still there.

Emma nods. “Okay,” she says quietly. For the first time, she doesn’t try to defend herself. She simply turns, breaking away from Regina’s grip, and walks to the bathroom, evidently assuming the conversation is over.

“Emma,” Regina calls after her, and she stops immediately, shoulders tensing. “I’m not good at letting go,” she says, because she needs Emma to understand that this is not only about her. “But…”

Emma turns at the ‘but,’ hope slowly rising in her face. “But?”

“But I’m going to try.”

Emma smiles weakly. “Thank you.”

As the bathroom door closes behind Emma and Regina finally hears her sniffle, trying to be discreet as though they aren’t in the same apartment, as though Regina cannot hear her anyway, Regina resolves to forgive her, even as she realizes that she already has.

 


 

The next morning, Emma still has that weird feeling in her head that she always gets after she’s been crying for a long time. It sucks as much as it always has. Aren’t people supposed to feel lighter when they talk about their secrets? Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of catharsis?

Emma just feels empty.

Well, not totally empty. There’s a big helping of shame swirling around in her chest, along with a fair bit of self-loathing. But it’s worth it if any part of what she said made Regina feel better.

It’s not like Regina’s forgiven her. Emma’s not an idiot. Regina may not be mad at her anymore, but when has she ever been able to let something go? The fact that she’s planning to return to a place where everyone wants to kill her with a man she doesn’t love is proof enough of that.

Besides, now that Regina’s got Robin for emotional support, Emma’s redundant. She needs Regina now more than Regina needs her, and that’s a recipe for disaster.

Emma listens for any movement in the apartment, but there’s nothing. It’s not surprising that Regina’s left already, especially because it’s the day of Robin’s trial. Emma hauls herself off the couch, walks into the kitchen, and stops.

What the hell?

It’s like she’s entered the Twilight Zone. The table, normally bare, is covered with food: perfectly browned waffles, a little jug of syrup, a plate of sliced banana, and a mug of cocoa with whipped cream and cinnamon.

It’s not like Regina could have made it for herself and then somehow forgotten about it. She doesn’t like any of those foods.

This is… this is for her.

Why did Regina do this? How did Regina do this? She’s never even make breakfast before. Although upon closer inspection, the edges of the waffles are lightly singed, and the faint burnt smell in the air suggests that maybe this wasn’t her first try.

There’s no dirty plate and cutlery, so Regina must have washed her own dishes and put them away. But at the counter, there’s an empty glass with a sticky note stuck to it. Emma pulls off the note and reads the beautiful, familiar cursive:

Fruit punch—8/10. Needs more apples.

She doesn’t know how long she stands there staring at it, trying to figure out if it’s real or just a dream. It looks real, feels real, but nothing about it makes sense. Why is Regina being nice to her? She fucked up. Regina’s still mad about it. That all makes sense. Emma should be making Regina breakfast, as part of her apology. That would make sense. But this… where the hell did this kindness come from?

What does any of this mean?

Emma stands still in the middle of the kitchen, staring at the food on the table. Her heartbeat is fast and she’s trembling. All she can do is look from the food to the sticky note and back again.

There’s a little shape in the whipped cream on her cocoa, wide at the top and pinched at the bottom. A leaf? A face? A… heart? Whatever it is, it’s too dissolved for her to make it out anymore.

She’s not hungry enough for this. It’s more food than she’s had for any one meal in the past two weeks, and her stomach hurts at even the thought of eating it all. But… she can’t not eat it either. Regina doesn’t like any of those foods, except the banana, which will go bad by the time she gets home. If Emma doesn’t eat it all, it’ll go to waste.

It takes her an hour to get through half of it, but when she has, her hands have stopped shaking. When she’s done, she washes the dishes and puts them away. She boxes up the rest of the food in the Tupperware Regina made her buy and puts it in the fridge. Then she carefully peels off the sticky note from the side of the glass and grabs a pen.

There’s a little bit of room under Regina’s message, not enough for everything she wants to say. Why have you done this? she wants to ask. Do you forgive me? Do you hate me? Do you realize how sorry I am?

In the end, she just writes Thank you in the neatest printing she can manage and sticks the note back on the glass. It doesn’t look like enough. It doesn’t feel like enough.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s a start.

Chapter Text

Regina never expected Robin’s trial to be a public event, but apparently it’s a slow news cycle because the media coverage is ridiculous. The reporters are, as always, divided: half the city thinks he’s an innocent scallywag; the other half thinks he’s the devil incarnate.

Between Robin's natural charm, Marian's lawyer genius, and the lack of evidence, Regina figures they have a decent chance of clearing Robin of his charges. The clincher comes when half the homeless population of New York City shows up to provide Robin with airtight alibis for each one of his alleged crimes. The line of witnesses stretches out the door of the courtroom, led by a man who gives an incredibly detailed and impossible-to-disprove account of a conversation about aliens he had with Robin, halfway across town from where Robin was allegedly robbing a zoo.

The prosecution, skeptical of the witnesses’ integrity but having no rational explanation for how so many people could manage to coordinate such a ruse, are forced to throw the case out, even the original charge. All that's left is the problem of Robin having skipped bail, and Marian argues that charge down to a mere fine, which is happily paid for by the collective miscreants of Brooklyn.

The media has questions when the trial is over: Were the criminals lying? Is it possible they were all telling the truth? If they were in fact lying, how did they all coordinate themselves so neatly? Regina doesn’t answer any of their questions, but she does buy Marian a drink.

Regina and Robin go out to dinner to celebrate, then go for a pleasant walk along the waterfront, arm in arm. After only a few minutes, Regina sees a shimmer in the river. She tugs on Robin’s arm to stop him, suddenly filled with a sense of unease. “Robin.”

Robin looks where she’s looking and sees Tinkerbell and… oh, gods.

The Blue Fairy is here too.

Tinkerbell smiles, but it’s a forced smile. “Hello, Regina. Robin! I’m so glad to see you.” The tension in her voice is palpable.

There’s surprise on the Blue Fairy’s face when she sees Robin, just a flicker of emotion before it evaporates into her normal impassive gaze. “I’m pleased to see you as well,” she says, her voice cool.

Robin knows only some of the danger Regina’s in—she hadn’t wanted to burden him, soulmate or not. However, he knows enough to be able to deduce that this is a very precarious situation. He straightens by her side. “I appreciate that,” he says in his most formal tone. “It is lovely to see you too.”

“Tinkerbell has told me your story, Regina,” Blue says. When she turns her eyes towards her, Regina feels her gaze like a chill to her bones. “She told me how you almost lost Robin, and how you found him again. You fought so bravely to be with him.” Judging by the amount of emotion in her voice, she may as well be reading the instruction manual for the dishwasher.

“She did,” Robin says, and Regina squeezes his arm in gratitude. “We both fought to be with each other.”

“And how are you enjoying your time together?” Blue asks.

“It’s wonderful,” Regina says immediately. And it’s not even a lie. Robin is attractive, he’s witty, he’s intelligent, they get along brilliantly… it’s not a lie, so why does it feel like one under the fairy’s piercing gaze?

“I’m so pleased to hear that,” Blue says, not sounding terribly pleased at all.

Regina doesn’t say anything, just tries to look happy and clings to Robin for dear life. He clings to her just as hard, evidently sensing her distress.

“We think we have a way to come to your realm,” Tinkerbell says with obviously false brightness. “So we can come and rescue you tomorrow, if all goes well.”

Tomorrow.

Regina’s stomach bottoms out. She only got back on good terms with Emma last night. They haven’t even spoken since. And now she’s leaving? Already?

“Is that a problem?” Blue asks, noticing the distress on Regina’s face.

“No!” Regina says quickly. “Of course not.”

“A very dear friend of ours is holding an event tomorrow that we were rather looking forward to,” Robin covers smoothly. “She’s put a lot of work into it, and I expect it to be brilliant. Are you sure we won’t be able to attend?”

“The portal opens tomorrow,” Blue says, and it’s clear that there is no room for argument. “We’ll meet… where is a central location in your realm?”

Central location. “Central Park?” Regina suggests immediately, thinking of the lake where Emma took her boating, and they fed the ducks....

“A beautiful place,” Robin says, and Regina remembers that they went there too, went on a bicycle ride only two days ago. Why hadn’t that been her first thought?

“We can meet by the main visitors’ centre?” Regina asks. “It’s in the middle, easy to find, and people do tend to meet there, so it would hardly be conspicuous.” Two fairies meeting two other fairytale characters ought to be conspicuous anyway, but Regina leaves that out, continuing to discuss this very important meetup as though she’s organizing a brunch.

“That would be fine,” Blue says.

“You can orient yourselves using the Empire State Building. It’s the tallest building in New York City, very hard to miss…”

For the next few minutes, Regina gives the fairies directions using everything she remembers from the map Emma gave her, the map with the black dot that has meant home for the past two months.

It’s not long before the connection starts to flicker, and they hastily say their goodbyes. Blue’s eyes don’t leave Regina even as the image blinks out.

How the hell is she going to tell Emma?

“We’re going home,” Robin says happily, and it takes Regina a second to realize he means the Enchanted Forest, not an apartment on a rundown street in Brooklyn with a pot of sunflowers by the window. “How shall we celebrate?”

“Actually,” Regina says, “I think there’s something I need to do.”

 


 

Emma’s never actually rooted for one of her perps to go free before, but she’s glad that Robin’s trial went well. It’s partly because he’s not really a bad guy, and partly because she’s happy for Marian, but mostly because Regina’s forgiveness is probably tenuous as it is.

She wished Robin ‘good luck’ the day before the trial, but other than that, they haven’t really spoken since Emma saw him in jail. He’s been spending all his time with Regina, going to movies and hanging out in Marian’s apartment doing… whatever it is they do together. So it’s awkward when she goes over to give Marian a bag of bread—in exchange for the bread Marian gave her last week—and it’s just Robin there.

He’s at Marian’s kitchen table, a stack of books piled in front of him, and he’s taking notes in a notebook similar to Regina’s. He looks up when he sees Emma and nods politely. “Emma. Hello.”

“Hi,” Emma says uncomfortably. “I just, uh, wanted to drop this off.” She holds up the bag of bread. “Where’s Marian?”

“Out shopping for the fundraiser tomorrow,” Robin says. “She’s decided on a fairy tale theme.” He smiles. “I believe we may have inspired her.”

Emma drops the bread in the bread box—because of course Marian has an actual bread box, like a real adult. “That’s great,” she says.

Robin’s pencil breaks and he curses under his breath, then starts hunting around in the pile of books for another one.

“Here,” Emma asks, fishing out the pen from her pocket and handing it to him. “You can have this.”

“You keep a pen in your pocket?” Robin nods appreciatively. “You’re very prepared.”

Emma shrugs. “Nah, I just keep it there because Regina takes notes too and sometimes she doesn’t have a pen around.”

“I see,” Robin says.

There’s a moment of awkward silence.

“Uh… I’m glad your trial went well,” Emma says. It feels weird saying that, given that she’s the reason the trial existed in the first place.

“Thank you,” Robin says. “So do I. The other men in that prison were animals. Most of them had no honour whatsoever.”

Emma stuffs her hands in her pockets. “Sorry I… you know, got you thrown in jail for a bit.”

Robin shrugs and keeps scribbling in his book. “It’s all right,” he says, perfectly calm.

“You’re not angry?”

“Of course not,” Robin says. “You were doing your job, and although you were somewhat misguided, you were also trying to do the right thing for Regina. I have to appreciate that.”

“Thanks,” Emma says. Looking at him, talking to him, she can kind of see what Regina sees in this guy. He’s calm, intelligent, kind, forgiving… all things Regina deserves.

She looks at the stacks of books. There’s a wide variety: books on ethics, books on leadership skills, even a book called Camping for Dummies. “Marian gave you these?” she asks.

“She recommended them to me,” Robin says. “She’s very kind.”

“Why were you looking for books on this kind of stuff?”

“I’m trying to change like Regina has,” Robin says with a smile. “The Robin Hood in the stories here, he may not be real, but he seems like a good person. I want to be like him when we go back home.”

“That’s great,” Emma says, ignoring the pang in her chest when he says go back home. “So are you gonna round up the Merry Men?”

“Yes, although we’ll have to call it something else.” Robin holds up a book on gender theory. “I don’t want to name the group something that excludes women and other gender identities,” he says primly.

“You’re doing the whole outlaw thing?” Emma raises her eyebrows. “Is Regina on board with that?”

Robin shrugs. “We haven’t really talked about it, to be honest, but I know she supports me.”

“Right.” Emma badly wants to ask more about that, but interfering in Regina’s relationship hasn’t ever ended well for her, so she changes the subject. “Is that why you bought Camping for Dummies?

“No, I already know how to camp,” Robin says. “It’s just… well, Marian suggested that one, and she seems to like it when people take her suggestions.” His smile grows. “I was grateful.”

“That’s nice of you,” Emma says. Then she frowns. “Wait, how did you buy these anyway? You don’t have any money.”

“Someone gave it to me,” Robin says, suddenly not meeting her eyes.

“Who? Marian?”

“A very nice woman on the subway,” Robin says. “She seemed wealthy. She had a poodle.”

Emma crosses her arms. “Did she give it to you on purpose?”

“...Not technically.”

Seriously? You stole it? You just escaped prison.”

“In fairness,” Robin says, arching an eyebrow and waving a book on ethics at her, “I hadn’t read this when I took the money, had I?”

“I guess not,” Emma says, trying not to laugh. “Well, it was nice talking to you.”

She turns to leave, but before she makes it out the door, she hears Robin’s voice.

“Why did you change?”

Emma turns back around to see him looking at her thoughtfully, all traces of cockiness gone. “What do you mean?”

“You used to be a thief,” Robin says. “Now you clearly aren’t. Why?”

Emma shrugs, uncomfortable with the idea that she’s somehow a role model for redemption. “Honestly, I changed because I—I needed to, I guess. I wanted to be someone, and everyone always told me I was no one, and it made me angry. So when I realized I’d hit rock bottom, I decided to pick myself back up. I mean, what else was I supposed to do?”

Robin tilts his head. “I think that’s admirable,” he says.

“I don’t know about that,” Emma says, “but thanks.”

Robin is quiet for a few moments, lost in thought. Then he says, “Was it… difficult? Changing your life?”

“Yeah, it was,” Emma says. “But trust me, if I did it, anyone can.”

“I appreciate that,” Robin says, genuine gratitude in his voice.

Emma smiles at him. “And listen,” she says, trying to lighten the mood, “you don’t have to go crazy trying to take all those notes this evening. You’ve got time.”

Robin frowns. “Well, not if we’re leaving tomorrow. We won’t be able to take all these books with us.”

He says it so casually that it takes Emma a second to register the words, to realize their importance. “You’re leaving tomorrow?”

“Oh,” Robin says, looking suddenly guilty. “I forgot she hasn’t told you yet.”

Emma feels dizzy; she can't seem to breathe properly, like the wind's been knocked out of her. Why didn’t Regina tell her? Has she not forgiven her yet? Was the breakfast just a trick?

“She was going to tell you,” Robin says quickly, looking a little alarmed at Emma’s change in expression. “She just wanted to make sure she did it properly.”

Before Emma can reply, there's a knock on the door, and Regina enters the apartment. She’s carrying a bunch of grocery bags in one hand and dragging a suitcase with the other. Her eyes immediately move to Emma. “You’re here,” she says. “You weren’t in your apartment, so I wondered—”

“You’re leaving?” Emma interrupts.

Regina drops her bags and her eyes fill with guilt. “I was going to tell you,” she says. “I promise I was, as soon as I figured out how.”

“It’s fine,” Emma says automatically. “Don't worry about it.”

“But you're upset,” Regina says. “Aren't you?” She steps closer to Emma and examines her face; Emma avoids looking her in the eye. “You are upset.”

“It’s fine,” Emma repeats. She has to get out of here. Her head is spinning and her chest is tight and she can’t—she can’t be here anymore. “I just… have to go do something.”

She steps past Regina and walks out the apartment with no idea where she’s going, closing the door on the sound of Regina calling after her.

 


 

As much as she wants to go after her, Regina knows there’s no point in following Emma. She needs space and time to process what she’s been told—although hopefully not too much time, because Regina has a plan.

It takes her twenty minutes to set everything up: the chips in bowls on the coffee table; the movie ready to play on the TV; the popcorn ready by the microwave. When she’s done, she packs her belongings in the purple suitcase she bought, leaving the ones that aren’t important but taking all her notebooks and souvenirs.

Then she waits.

It’s nearly two hours before Emma comes back. She’s holding some plastic shopping bags, as well as a small backpack. “Hey,” she says, looking around at the various snacks. “What’s going on?”

“We’re having a slumber party,” Regina says as cheerfully as she can manage.

“A slumber party?” Emma asks, raising her eyebrows. “You and me?”

Regina nods. “Apparently it’s a thing that friends do,” she says, putting a little extra weight on the word friends.

Emma smiles slowly, gratefully. “Yeah, it is.”

“What is that?” Regina asks, indicating the bag Emma’s holding.

Emma comes closer and thrusts the bag at her. “I got you some stuff.”

Regina takes the bag and unzips it. It contains a Swiss Army knife, a box of matches, three different maps, a slip of paper with phone numbers for emergency services on it, batteries, a spare set of earplugs, a water bottle, her favourite kind of chocolate bar, and a keychain that’s a wooden carving of a shoe.

A survival kit. Emma has no idea where she’s going, so she’s packed everything that might be useful or welcome. There’s only one thing that doesn’t make sense. “I understand most of this,” Regina says, “but why the keychain?”

Emma shrugs. “I went to a shop that’s supposed to sell magic stuff. The lady said it’s a good-luck charm for traveling. I don’t know if it works, but… I mean, I thought you might like it.” Her voice trails off uncertainly.

Regina’s quite certain Emma doesn’t have any faith in the charm, and she’s also certain that the charm is useless. Still, warmth spreads through her chest at the small concession to her beliefs. “Thank you.”

“And here.” Emma takes a wad of money out of her back pocket and pushes it into Regina’s hand. “Just in case.”

“Emma, I don’t need this,” Regina says gently. The currency is useless where she’s going, and Emma’s not exactly rich.

Emma shakes her head. “Please, just take it. In case the portal pops you out in, I don’t know, Alaska, or something.”

“Emma—”

“It’ll make me feel better,” Emma says, and there’s enough anxiety in her voice that Regina sighs and takes the money. She puts it in the backpack, which she then places next to the suitcase she bought that afternoon.

“So, uh, what normally happens at these slumber parties?” Emma asks. “I’ve never been invited to one before.” She says it casually, like it doesn’t matter, but when Regina turns to look at her, she can see on her face that it does. It makes her heart ache.

“Well, I’m inviting you to this one,” Regina says. “And you’re the only person I’m inviting, so I certainly hope you’ll come.”

“I mean, it is in my apartment,” Emma says. “You made it pretty convenient for me.” She smiles, but it’s a tentative smile. Her eyes are wary, and she’s studying Regina’s face as though she’s looking for clues about what’s really happening.

“I think people watch movies when they have slumber parties,” Regina offers. “We could do that if you like. Or… we can braid each other’s hair?” All her slumber party knowledge comes from movies, so she’s hardly an expert.

“We can probably skip the hair braiding.” Emma spots the DVD case on the coffee table and her smile grows, becomes more genuine. “Harry Potter! That’s my favourite.” She looks at Regina, her eyes shining. “You remembered.”

“Of course I did,” Regina says. “I look forward to watching it with you.”

However, as they watch the movie, it quickly becomes clear that Regina’s opinion of the series does not match Emma’s.

“How this school is even allowed to exist is beyond me,” she says during one particularly ridiculous scene involving a screaming hat. “The type of magic these children are practicing is completely nonsensical.”

“I know,” Emma says, her voice full of fondness. “I heard you the last five times you said that.”

Regina throws up her hands. “Who would send their child to such a place? Who would want to go there?”

Emma sits up straight and looks at her, eyes suddenly wide. “Everyone wanted to go to Hogwarts,” she protests. “It’s every kid’s dream. The magic letter shows up and takes you away from your horrible family to a world of magic, and you find out you’re the hero.”

“Was it every kid’s dream, or was it your dream?” Regina asks slowly.

Emma’s quiet for a moment, contemplating the question, then says, “I wasn’t really a kid when the books came out. They were a little late for me.”

“I see,” Regina says.

They watch the movie for a while. Harry has his first flying lesson, taught by an incompetent woman named Madam Hooch. Regina rolls her eyes.

Then Emma says quietly, “I read the first book to the baby.”

Regina takes a moment to piece that together. “Your son?”

“I must have read it out loud 20 times.” Emma smiles, barely enough to be noticeable. “My cellmate hated my guts. But they didn’t have a great selection in prison. It was Harry Potter or Macbeth, basically. And I didn’t want him to grow up plotting to overthrow the government or something.”

“So you wanted him to grow up believing in magic,Regina says, another piece of the puzzle that is Emma Swan falling into place.

Emma’s silent for a few long moments, her forehead wrinkled in confusion. Then she says, barely loud enough to hear, “I never thought about it that way.”

Regina leans in and puts her head on Emma’s shoulder. It feels like the right thing to do.

When the movie’s over, the couch is littered with popcorn kernels and fragments of potato chips. They’re too tired to clean it up and Regina refuses to let Emma sleep on that kind of mess, nor will she sleep on it herself. So, for the first time since Regina moved in, they end up sharing Emma’s bed.

They start off lying across from each other in silence, just staring at each other in the faint light from the window. Then, slowly, they start to talk. Regina tells Emma about her love for horses, and more importantly, for the horse riding lessons that had been her only escape from her mother. Emma tells Regina that her son’s birthday is Valentine’s Day and that every year, she buys a carton of mini cupcakes and puts a candle in just one, for him. They talk about little things too, tiny details about themselves that would be insignificant except that neither of them enjoys sharing. Regina admits to her deathly fear of spiders; Emma reveals that she can’t sleep with socks on.

They both stay awake as long as they can. In the end, Emma falls asleep before Regina does, when she’s so tired she can no longer keep her eyes open. In the early morning light, Regina studies Emma’s face: the slant of her cheekbones, the downward tilt of her lips, the dusting of golden hair on her forehead.

By the time she falls asleep, she has Emma memorized.

 


 

When Emma wakes up, Regina’s head is tucked into her neck and Emma’s arm is flung across Regina’s body. Their hands are curled between them, barely touching. She lies there for a few minutes and watches Regina’s sleeping face, watches her chest rise and fall gently.

They have to go. Regina said the deadline is noon, and they’ve slept in after staying awake so late. Sunlight is streaming through Emma’s window, and as much as she wants to stay there with Regina forever, she knows how selfish that would be.

Regina made her choice and it wasn’t Emma. So she carefully lifts her arm off of Regina and gently moves Regina’s head off her shoulder, laying it down on the pillow instead. Regina remains asleep as Emma walks quietly into the kitchen.

She starts making the batter for apple pancakes—Regina’s favourite. Regina comes out of her room shortly. “Good morning,” she says, her voice raspy with sleep.

“Hi,” Emma says quietly.

Emma expects that Regina will go shower. Instead, she comes up beside Emma and starts to help her with the cooking. “You don’t have to do that,” Emma says. It’s not their routine, but Regina just arches an eyebrow and passes her the whisk.

It feels oddly normal, even though they’ve never done it before, to make breakfast together. They don’t talk, but they still make the pancakes in record time. Somehow they seem more delicious than anything either of them has made before.

Soon after Regina showers, Robin and Marian arrive. Robin helps Regina put on her medieval dress again, the same one she wore on her first night with Emma, the same one Emma had carefully dry-cleaned before hanging it up in her closet so it wouldn’t wrinkle. Her hair isn’t long enough to put back in the fancy updo she’d sported a month ago, but she lets it curl naturally and even accentuates it a bit with the curling iron. It ends up looking regal enough—or so Emma assumes—but much softer than her previous look.

When they absolutely cannot put it off any longer, Regina, Robin, Emma, and Marian each grab a suitcase—Emma taking the heaviest one for Regina—and through some unspoken agreement, they all pile into Emma’s Bug.

Emma’s expecting Regina to sit in the back so she can be with Robin, but instead, Marian climbs in the back and Regina sits up front. Emma starts the car and places her hand on the gear shift, and before she can move it off, Regina’s hand settles on top of it.

Emma looks over at Regina, who is looking at her hand, seemingly startled at the fact that she put it there. She looks at Emma as though to ask if it’s okay, and Emma just smiles a bit to reassure her and pulls away from the curb without comment.

In the backseat, Marian and Robin keep up a running conversation, talking in low voices about Marian’s fundraiser, Robin’s plans for the future, anything and everything. Maybe they had their own version of her slumber party with Regina last night.

The drive to Central Park takes forty-five minutes, but it passes in the blink of an eye. All too soon, they’re pulling up in the parking lot and Regina slowly takes her hand off Emma’s, and then they load the suitcases out of the car and start dragging them towards the park entrance.

Emma’s not sure if she should follow them in, and how far, but Regina stops them at the entrance. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Emma asks, desperately hoping to get at least a glimpse of these people Regina’s going to leave with. These people from her cult, or whatever.

Regina nods. “Yes, I think this is best for everyone,” she says gently.

There’s a moment of awkward silence, then Marian moves to shake Regina’s hand.

“It was really nice getting to know you, Regina,” Marian says formally. “And thanks so much for all your help.”

“Thank you for yours,” Regina says.

Marian holds her gaze for a few moments, then pulls her into a hug.

Robin comes over to shake Emma’s hand. “Goodbye, Emma Swan. Thank you for helping Regina. And, I suppose, me.”

Emma takes his hand and shakes it firmly. “Bye. Sorry again for… you know, putting you in jail.”

Robin tilts his head. “You know, in your own way, you have more honour than any sheriff I’ve ever met.”

Emma has to smile at that. “Thanks.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“You too.”

Robin steps away to see Marian, who envelops him in a hug that lasts a very long time.

While they’re doing that, Regina slowly walks over to Emma. “I suppose this is goodbye, Miss Swan,” she says. The words are casual, but the tone is not.

“Yeah,” Emma says, not meeting Regina’s eyes. “I guess it is.”

Emma can’t handle a hug right now. She feels like a coward, but she sticks out her hand for Regina to shake.

Apparently that’s not enough for Regina, who clasps Emma’s hand in both of hers and pulls it in towards her heart. It feels somehow more intimate than a hug would have been, especially when Regina’s looking at her with so much softness.

“Thank you,” she says quietly. “For everything you’ve done for me.”

Emma’s got a lump in her throat. If she talks now, she’s going to cry. So she takes a moment, nods, and then says, “Be careful, okay?” Her voice is hoarse, but at least she’s not crying.

“I will,” Regina says. “You too.”

“And if you need anything,” Emma rushes to say, “you can come back here. You know that, right?”

“I do,” Regina says, her eyes warm.

“And if you get in trouble, you’ll call me. Promise?”

“I promise.”

There are a thousand things Emma wants to say, a thousand feelings she doesn’t understand, but in the end, she manages, “I’m glad I got to see you get your… uh, happy ending.”

“So am I,” Regina says. “And I promise you, when they write my story in the book, I will tell them about you. Emma Swan, the brave, kind woman who helped me find my happiness. Everyone will know that you are a good person.”

“You’ll put in a footnote for me?” Emma tries to joke. It comes out serious, tentative, and full of longing.

“Much more than a footnote,” Regina says. She leans in, slowly enough that Emma could back away if she wanted to, and presses a kiss to Emma’s forehead. They stand there for a few moments, Emma with her eyes closed, listening to the bustle of traffic around them, feeling the breeze on her face and Regina’s lips on her forehead. Regina still has Emma’s hand clasped in hers, pressed between their bodies as they stand there.

It’s too short a time before Regina pulls back, though Emma can still feel the imprint of soft lips on her skin. Robin walks over and takes her hand, and with one last look at Emma, Regina follows him into the park, dragging her suitcases behind her. Emma turns around and walks back to the Bug, not waiting for Marian to follow.

She doesn’t look back to see if Regina turned around. She doesn’t run after her and beg for her to stay. She doesn’t cry, even though she feels tears prickling behind her eyes.

She gets to her car and slides into the driver’s seat, Marian entering soon after on the passenger’s side.

“Hey,” Marian says quietly. “Are you okay to drive? You look… you don’t look okay.”

“I’m fine,” Emma says. “I’m absolutely fine.”

It’s a lie, but the only person who would call her on it has just walked away from her forever, and the person next to her has enough grief of her own. So Emma says nothing more as she starts the car and slowly drives away.

Chapter Text

As Regina walks hand in hand with Robin to the designated meeting spot, there are a thousand times she wants to turn back. Each time, she reminds herself why she’s doing this: Tinkerbell needs her. Robin needs her. Even if she fails, they have no chance if she doesn’t at least try to prove herself a hero.

She tries not to listen to the voice in the back of her mind whispering that Emma needs her too.

Neither she nor Robin speaks until they reach the visitors’ centre—the meeting area—and see the two fairies, who are drawing some odd looks in their traditional outfits.

Blue nods politely at them. “Greetings, Your Majesty. Robin.”

“Greetings,” Regina says. “Thank you both for coming.”

Tinkerbell looks like she wants to step closer to them, but she stops herself. Regina tries to make eye contact with her, but she looks down at the ground and shakes her head slightly.

Blue steps towards Regina and for a moment, she’s sure Blue will confront her, tell her she’s not allowed to go back. However, Blue simply says, “Let’s get on with it then, shall we?”

They walk to a pond, one of the smaller ones without too many tourists around it. It’s hardly a secluded location, but it’s the best they’re going to get. Blue examines the position of the sun. “How close would you say we are? Five minutes?”

Regina checks her watch. “Seven minutes.”

“And how would you know that?” Blue asks, one eyebrow raised.

Regina shows Blue her watch. “People in this realm frequently carry timepieces on their wrists. They’re quite exact.”

Blue eyes it skeptically. “If you say so.”

Robin frowns. “What are we waiting for?”

“Noon,” Regina says. “When morning changes into afternoon. It’s the second-best time for transitional magic, like portal travel.”

They wait the required seven minutes separately. Blue wanders around the gardens, admiring the flowers. Tinkerbell sits on a bench and people-watches, still avoiding eye contact with Regina. Robin and Regina stand together in silence, still holding hands. Regina tries not to compare Robin’s rough and slightly sweaty hand to Emma’s smooth one, tries not to recall the cool weight of Emma’s hand between her own, and fails on both counts.

After a few minutes, Robin sighs, clearly bored, and asks, “So what is the best time for transitional magic?”

“Midnight,” Regina says automatically. “When one day changes into the next.” It’s one of the most basic magic rules, and she’s had it ingrained in her for longer than she can recall.

“I suppose that makes sense,” Robin says thoughtfully. “Although, not to question your expertise, but I will point out that when I was sent through a portal, it was neither noon nor midnight.”

That does seem to qualify as questioning her expertise, but this is absolutely the wrong time to start an argument about it, so Regina merely smiles at him. “Generally the timing doesn’t make too much of a difference for portal travel when the portal is formed in a realm with magic,” she explains. “In a land where magic is very limited, however, we’ll need all the help we can get.”

“Ah.” Robin scratches his head. “I never realized magic had so many rules.”

Out of nervousness, Regina starts to ramble, even though Robin no longer appears interested. “For other transitional spells, the timing is more essential: spells that change appearance, for example.” It’s the one thing this realm had gotten completely right about the Cinderella story. “Also, sleeping curses, which are really a type of inter-realm travel: they’re actually transporting the victim from this realm into a nightmare realm full of their greatest failures and deepest regrets. That’s why, after midnight, the chance of reversing those spells decreases exponentially, so it’s important to—”

Regina stops abruptly when she notices Blue staring at her. She’s been an idiot, talking about things like sleeping curses with Blue in earshot. Why would she remind her that she used to be an evil sorceress of the highest caliber?

She keeps quiet for the rest of the waiting period. Once the time is up, Blue tosses a bean in the glassy pond. The water starts to churn slowly, and passers-by watch with interest, but in the end, nothing happens. The water smooths out again.

“There’s just not enough magic,” Blue says, sounding entirely unsurprised. Regina’s not surprised either. She would have been more surprised if everything had worked perfectly, given that she never expected Blue to make this easy for her.

“Well, what do we do?” Tinkerbell asks, sounding a bit frantic. “That was our only bean!”

Blue pulls another bean out of her pocket. “I brought another in case something like this happened, but we cannot use it here. We need somewhere more magical.”

“And where would that be?” Robin asks, confusion on his face.

“Somewhere people still believe in fairy tales,” Blue says. “Somewhere the magic from our world can function.”

“Where are we going to find a place like that in this realm?” Tinkerbell asks.

Regina and Robin exchange a look. “I think I know a place,” Robin says. “There’s a fairytale-themed fundraiser occurring tonight. We could try there.”

“Excellent,” Blue says. “We’ll aim for the midnight window.”

“What shall we do until then?” Robin asks.

Blue looks Regina in the eye and says, “Why don’t we let Her Majesty decide?”

And Regina understands: This is a test. She has twelve hours to prove herself a hero, in love with her soulmate, worthy of a happy ending.

She smiles as sweetly as she can, meeting Blue’s gaze despite the dread swirling in her gut. “Tell me, have you ever tried ice cream?”

 


 

The drive back to the apartment is somber. Neither Marian nor Emma feels like talking for much of the way. Finally, after they’ve crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, Marian speaks. “So I guess you’re going to move now,” she says, her voice flat.

It’s been the last thing on Emma’s mind for a while. “Uh… I don’t know,” she says. “I guess… maybe I’ll stay put for a bit. Get things sorted out.”

“You’ll let me know, right?” Marian asks. Her tone is casual but her posture is tense.

“Yeah, of course,” Emma says. “You’ll be the first to know.”

They’re quiet for a few minutes longer.

Then Marian says, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, “My parents died in February.”

“Oh,” Emma says, not sure what to do with this conversational curveball. “I… I’m sorry.”

“When they died, I took over their business,” Marian says. “I didn’t want to, but it was everything to them. I couldn’t just let it go, let everyone lose their jobs. But it was a lot, and on top of losing them, it was just… I didn’t want to.”

Emma nods. “You wanted to run away. I get that.”

“I almost left,” Marian admits. “Anyway, I came home after work one morning and realized that not only had I forgotten to buy groceries, but I forgot my key at work. I didn’t have the energy to go back and get it, so I just sat there by the door. And then you showed up.” She smiles. “I didn’t know what to expect because, you know, you were pretty intimidating back then.”

“I was?” Emma asks, surprised.

“Yeah. All I knew about you was that you wear a lot of leather, you came home at all hours of the night, and you never made eye contact when I saw you in the hallway. Plus, when I saw you that day, you were wearing sunglasses and you looked kind of tired. I think maybe you were hungover.”

“When was this?”

Marian thinks back. “February… 14th? No, 15th. The day after Valentine’s Day.”

Emma nods. “Yeah, okay, I would have been hungover.”

“So like I said,” Marian says, “I didn’t know what to expect. But you saw me and you asked what was wrong, and I told you, and then you whipped out a set of lock picks from your jacket and broke into my apartment for me.” She laughs. “Then you gave me a bag of your groceries—you’d been out grocery shopping—and you told me this story about some guy you were chasing. Oh, and you ran back to your place and grabbed a carton of mini cupcakes with one missing, and you gave that to me too. Do you remember that?”

“No,” Emma says, “but I believe you.”

Marian smiles. “Anyway, yeah, that’s what you did. And it made the world feel a little bit less garbage. It was enough. I decided to give things another shot.”

“So that’s why you gave me a bunch of vegetables three weeks later,” Emma says. “To pay me back.” It had been the start of their food exchange, she remembers that much.

“Nah,” Marian says, her tone teasing. “I was trying to save your life. The groceries you gave me, I think it was like, three loaves of Wonder Bread, a box of muffins, and… one orange. I figured you could use the vitamins.”

She gives Emma a sideways glance, smiling. “What I’m saying is, I hope you stay.”

“Thanks,” Emma says, and despite the hole in her chest, she can’t help but smile back.

There’s silence for another few minutes. Then Marian sighs. “I don’t even have a date for tonight,” she says miserably.

Emma hesitates before saying, “I’ll go with you. You know, as friends.”

Marian looks at her in surprise. “You’d do that?”

“Sure. Except I’m not wearing a costume,” she adds hastily, because she has limits.

Marian smiles gratefully at her. And okay, things might be really shitty right now, but at least they’re a little better than they were a minute ago.

At least she still has a friend.

When they get home, they realize Emma doesn’t actually have an outfit suitable for a fairytale-themed costume ball. All her dresses are either black leather or perp-bait or both, so Marian digs something out of her own closet, which is full of archery gear and cosplay outfits.

The dress Marian finds is feminine, lacy, and a shade of pale pink that would probably look good with Marian’s darker skin tone but that makes Emma look kind of washed-out. But it’s at least vaguely princess-like, and it’s better than a stupid costume, so Emma takes it and doesn’t complain.

She takes it back to her apartment to get dressed. The place feels empty with Regina gone.

Maybe she shouldn’t stay. Maybe it would just hurt too much.

Then she looks around and sees the sunflowers, the horse painting on the wall, the snack debris littering the couch.

She takes out her phone from her back pocket. Her lock screen is a selfie of her and Regina standing at the top of the Empire State Building. It was raining when they took the photo, but Emma’s grinning and Regina… well, she looks less pissed than she normally does. Her lips are tilted up just slightly, and although most people probably wouldn’t pick up on it, Emma can tell she’s happy.

Emma looks at the picture for a good five minutes.

Then she calls her boss.

Shirley picks up on the fifth ring. “Swan. What is it?”

“Hey, you know what I said a couple months ago, about moving?” Emma asks.

“Yeah?”

“Change of plans. I’m staying right here.”

There’s a long pause, then Shirley says, “Fine. As long as you’re not planning on bailing any more perps out of jail.”

“I’m definitely not,” Emma says. “That was a one-time thing.”

“Thank god,” Shirley says before hanging up, but unless Emma’s mistaken, she sounded happy.

 


 

Regina spends the day taking Robin and the fairies to the ice cream shop, the theatre, and any number of tourist attractions, none of which she pays any attention to. She kisses Robin whenever she can, hopefully demonstrating that they truly are in love, meant to be, that she didn’t ruin everything by becoming a villain. When it’s finally time to attend the fundraiser, Regina still isn’t sure if she passed Blue’s test, but if the fairy’s chilly expression is any indication, things aren’t looking good.

Still, there are two hours until midnight, and she’s not giving up yet.

The fundraiser is already busy when they arrive. After some thought, Regina had reconsidered Samdi’s offer and had arranged to put back the charity, booking the community center on the other side of the city for Marian’s fundraiser instead. Apart from an impressive-looking clock tower rising from the roof, the venue is nothing special, but it’s large enough and clean enough for their purposes.

They pay at the entrance and Regina and Robin walk in together, the fairies melting into the background. The room may not be grand, but Marian’s team hasn’t let that stop them from creating an interesting environment. There’s a giant multifaceted silver ball on the ceiling, casting light around the room. Paper streamers hang limply from the basketball nets like multi-coloured seaweed. The walls are decorated with cardboard murals depicting scenes from various folk tales. The faint smell of sweat lurks under the pleasing scents coming from Sabine’s foldout table in the corner, where a variety of nominally fairytale-related foods and beverages are available. Poison Apple Cider. Goldilocks Blondie Bars. Sleeping Beauty Layer Cake.

Most people are wearing costumes, generally related to some fairy tale or another, although there are a few superheroes and movie characters as well. No one looks at Regina twice except to give her outfit an admiring nod, which is a pleasant change from the usual stares and raised eyebrows. Robin is more out-of-place than she is, given that he’s still wearing his hoodie, but he steals a pirate hat and eye patch that were left on a table and blends in well enough after that.

After only a few minutes, Marian spots them. She’s wearing an archer’s outfit, dressed more like Robin Hood than the man himself, and her eyes light up as she runs over to them. “Hey! What are you guys doing here?” She hugs Robin and then Regina in delight.

“We didn’t want to miss this,” Robin says, clearly thrilled to see Marian again. Regina smiles as well. She knows Emma didn’t want to come, but it’s good to see Marian at least.

Except then Regina hears a familiar voice, a voice that shouldn’t be there, and her heart leaps with recognition. “Hey Marian, I got us something to—”

When Emma sees Regina, she drops both of the glasses she was holding. They shatter on the hard floor of the makeshift ballroom, red liquid spilling everywhere. Many people turn to look at them, but Emma doesn’t notice. She’s busy staring at Regina, eyes wide, mouth gaping open. “Regina,” she says softly.

“Emma,” Regina says, barely keeping herself from rushing forward and hugging her. “It’s good to see you.”

It takes Emma a moment to collect herself. “Yeah, you too,” she says. “I’m glad you could make it.” Her eyes dip down Regina’s body, and the room suddenly feels too warm. “You look…”

Regina rolls her eyes. “Scary? Intimidating? Ridiculous?”

“You look good,” Emma says firmly. “Really good.”

“Thank you,” Regina says. “So do you.”

Emma grimaces. “I look like I don’t belong here.”

Emma’s dress is a frilly, ill-fitting princess gown that doesn’t particularly suit her. Overtop it, she’s wearing her red jacket, which clashes horribly with the light pink of the dress. Her hair is loose in large curls, which are frizzing because of the humidity. Her makeup is expertly applied in shades far too bold for the outfit she’s wearing, and her heels are a faded off-white with little bows on the tips, one of which is torn. Her awkward stance suggests she’d rather be anywhere other than where she currently is.

“You look beautiful,” Regina says, and means it.

Emma flushes and dips her head. It’s a few moments before she finally takes notice of the broken glass and spilled liquid around her. “Oh, shit. I should, uh… I should clean this up.” She dashes off.

Regina’s about to go after her to help when Robin holds out his arm. “Would you like to dance?”

A classical song is playing, one Regina vaguely recognizes. They have a couple hours until midnight, so even though Regina’s not exactly in a dancing mood, she forces a smile and nods in case Blue is watching. “Of course,” she says, forcing a smile. “That would be lovely.”

Robin smiles in return and leads her out to the dance floor. They fit well together and, after a few moments of initial struggle because neither of them really remembers how to dance, they settle into something more or less resembling a waltz.

They dance for song after song. As often as she dares, Regina looks away from Robin’s smiling face and scans the room for Emma, but she never sees her anywhere.

With no alternative, Regina keeps smiling, keeps dancing, keeps trying as hard as she can to pretend it’s not hellishly frustrating that Emma is in the same building as her and they may still never see each other again.

 


 

Emma spends most of the fundraiser being the worst date ever. She brings Marian drinks when she looks like she’s thirsty from talking to so many guests, but mostly she hides in the corners or in the washroom. It’s easier than watching Regina whirl around the room with Robin, that constant smile on her face. Emma can’t tell if it’s fake or not. A small, jealous part of her hopes it is, but a larger part of her hopes it’s not, wants Regina to be happy.

Either way, it hurts.

At about twenty minutes to midnight, she’s bringing Marian a glass of cider when Sabine walks up to the stage, picking up the microphone. Marian raises her eyebrows. “What’s she doing?”

“And now,” Sabine says, “for a very special dance, we'd like you to grab someone you didn't come here with and partner with them for this next song!”

Sabine puts back the microphone and winks at Marian, who sighs. “I told her not to pull that.”

As if on cue, Robin approaches them and extends a hand to Marian. “My lady, may I have this dance?”

Marian looks at Emma and rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling when she takes Robin’s hand and walks away.

“That's an odd dance requirement,” Regina says from behind Emma, startling her. “Is she trying to start trouble?”

Emma is sure Sabine did it so Marian would have an excuse to dance with Robin, which is probably why Marian is half-heartedly glaring at her over Robin’s shoulder. But now the lights are dimming and the tacky disco ball is brightening, and everyone's found someone to dance with except her and Regina, who are just standing there across from each other.

Part of Emma wants to run away, get as far from this extremely dangerous situation as possible, but a larger part of her can’t help saying, “Do you, uh, want to…”

She trails off when she sees the fear in Regina’s eyes. Regina looks around like she expects someone to jump out of the shadows and yell at her.

“Never mind,” Emma says, her heart sinking. “It’s okay.” She starts to walk away, but then she feels a hand on her shoulder, gently stopping her.

Emma turns around slowly. Regina reaches out and takes her hands, then leads her out onto the dance floor. Emma puts her hands gently on Regina's hips, and Regina puts hers on Emma’s shoulders.

“Uh, I don't really know how to dance,” Emma says apologetically. “Not like this.” This was a mistake, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, why had she ever—

“I do,” Regina says, interrupting her racing thoughts. “Trust me.”

And Emma does.

Regina takes a step, leading them, and Emma tries to move with her. It’s not perfect at first. Their rhythm is off, and Emma nearly steps on Regina’s feet a few times, muttering apologies every time.

After about thirty seconds, Emma gets the hang of it, and things move a bit smoother. She stops looking at her feet and looks into Regina’s eyes instead. The light from the disco ball is hitting Regina’s face in an almost eerie way, accentuating her heavy makeup and making her look almost like the Evil Queen she claims to be. It’s intense and otherworldly and absolutely beautiful.

It takes them most of the song to totally figure it out. But then the lights are swirling around them, and the music is swelling, and Regina’s looking at Emma like she’s the only person in the room, and in that moment—

Something shifts. Emma stops fighting the magical, visceral feeling deep in her gut. As Regina whirls her around the dance floor, mistakes forgotten now that they’re finally, finally together, in sync, Emma lets go of her doubt just for a moment and allows herself to just believe.

She’s not sure exactly what she’s feeling, whether it’s friendship love or… or something else, something she’s never really felt before. All she knows is that for a minute or so, she’s in some kind of heaven and she doesn’t want it to ever stop.

Eventually the music slows down. Regina pulls Emma forward and Emma tucks her head in between the point on Regina’s shoulder and her neck, burying her face in the satin. Regina smells like the apple shampoo Emma got for her and the lotion she made Emma get because dry skin is for peasants, Miss Swan and Emma wants to cry.

“Is this okay?” Regina murmurs in her ear. Emma nods against Regina’s neck.

They stand there and sway for a few moments as the song starts to wrap up. Regina’s clutching Emma’s shoulders and Emma’s buried herself in Regina, arms wrapped around her, palms on her back.

Then Robin touches Regina’s arm and she turns to him, breaking away from Emma. “We need to go,” Robin says, looking apologetic. “It’s almost midnight.”

Regina nods reluctantly, and Emma remembers what she is: a placeholder. Just someone to fill Regina’s arms until the stupid dance was over.

The placeholder steps back and lets go of Regina’s hands, allowing her to take Robin’s arm. She slots in perfectly at his side, but she shakes her head in apology. “Emma, I’m sorry, but I can’t… I have to…” Her voice cracks and she doesn’t finish her sentence.

Emma pastes on a smile. “You have to go. I get it.”

It’s so hard, but she takes a step back, then another, and then she turns—breaking eye contact with Regina—and stumbles towards the edge of the room, dodging around couples still dancing together.

She tries not to turn around. She really does. But at the last second, she turns just in time to see Regina look back at her. For a brief, electric moment, their eyes lock. And maybe it’s all in her head, but Regina looks just as heartbroken as Emma feels.

Then someone moves between them, and by the time they move away again, Regina’s gone.

 


 

It takes everything Regina has to walk away from Emma for the second time, to follow Robin to the doors of the room like she’s supposed to. The fairies are waiting for them there, and when Blue sees them, she nods. “I need you to make sure everything’s ready,” she says to Tinkerbell.

Tinkerbell’s eyes widen. “At the... at the fountain?”

Blue nods again. “I need to talk to Regina. Alone.”

Of course.

Tinkerbell grabs a bag, presumably containing portal supplies, and scampers off, leaving Regina with Robin.

Blue narrows her eyes at Robin. “That includes you.”

“Anything you have to say to Regina, you can say to me also,” Robin says firmly, placing a hand on Regina’s arm.

“It’s all right, Robin,” Regina says. She knew this was coming, and she’d rather not be told of her impending doom with her soulmate by her side. She can do this alone.

Robin looks at her for a few long moments, reading the sincerity in her expression. “All right,” he says finally. “If that’s what you want.” Reluctantly, he retreats to another part of the ballroom, looking back several times at them as he goes.

“Perhaps we could find somewhere to sit?” Blue suggests.

Regina allows Blue to lead them to a bench in the corner. She couldn’t care less about whether they sit or stand.

A tray is sitting next to them with little cookies on it, shaped like books. It’s a new tray and only one cookie has been taken. Blue eyes it for a moment, then selects a cookie from the opposite end of the tray from the missing cookie, leaving a pleasingly symmetrical array.

“Have a cookie,” Blue says, offering Regina the tray.

“No, thank you,” Regina says. She’s never been less hungry in her life.

Blue eats her cookie daintily, then sits on the bench with her legs tucked up underneath her. Regina sits with her back straight, her hands folded on her lap. The way her mother taught her.

“Please don’t punish Tinkerbell,” Regina says quietly. “She was only trying to do the right thing. She’s a good fairy.”

“Tinkerbell has been punished,” Blue says. “She has learned her lesson. I see no point in punishing her further.”

Regina’s heart aches with relief. At least one of them will make it out of this mess.

Wiping icing sugar off her hands with a lacy napkin, Blue looks out at the party, which is starting to wind down. She takes in the people dancing, kissing, talking. “It’s sad, isn’t it?” she says quietly. “They have no idea.”

“No idea about what?”

Blue flutters her hands in the general direction of the fairy tale decorations. “That this is all real. That they’ve made a mockery of our lives. They may get close to believing, but they don’t know the truth.”

“I fail to see how that’s tragic,” Regina says.

Blue turns to her, her eyes widening. “How is it not? They have no hope. They’re lost.”

“They actually invented something called GPS. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of it?” If Regina’s going to die, she has no patience for whatever nonsense this is.

Blue ignores her. “Our world used to be like that, you know.”

“Lost?” Regina says dryly.

“Yes, and hopeless.” Blue’s eyes grow distant. “Allow me to tell you a story. I think it will explain some of my decisions.”

Excellent. Regina’s about to die, and the Blue Fairy has decided it’s story time. Regina wants to ask her to move it along, but that would sound very close to begging for her own death, and she’s hardly about to do that.

“I had a sister once,” Blue begins, “a very long time ago, who believed that the fairies were wrong to bring hope to the world. She was banished, of course, but she came back, claiming she was wrong, and someone gave her back her magic.” Blue takes a deep breath. “It was a mistake. She had been learning dark magic in order to take her revenge, and she killed everyone, all of the fairies except me. I had to kill her before she killed me too.”

For a moment, Regina’s too shocked to be afraid for her life. Blue looks like nothing Regina’s ever seen from her before. The cool condescension, the superiority, is gone, replaced with only grief. Human lives may be like grains of sand to her, but this pain will last forever.

“I wrote about my family in here,” Blue says, indicating the large, leather-bound book of tales. “I told their story so that everyone can know that they were good. It didn’t take long for the people of our world to stop believing.”

“Believing? In fairies?” Regina recalls the fairy maxim Tinkerbell told her: As long as someone believes in you, you are never alone. How long had Blue been alone, trying desperately to convince the world to believe in her again?

“Yes, but also in magic. Without the fairies, people had nothing to believe in. And without belief, magic withered.” Blue holds up the book. “But with this, by telling the story of my people over many years, I was able to spread the truth about them. Eventually, magic returned, and fairies were able to thrive again.”

“You found a new family,” Regina says slowly.

Blue smiles. “I did. And every day, I ensure that we will never again stray from our true purpose of helping those who deserve it. Yes, I am strict, but it is worth it every time I find a new tale of heroism to add to this book.” Her gaze turns almost conspiratorial. “Surely, you can understand that, Your Majesty. A good leader does not try to please everyone. A good leader is not always… well-loved.”

Regina stares at this woman who has tried for so long to revive her people, only to push them away in the name of doing the right thing. “Does that bother you?”

“No, I don’t need their adoration,” Blue says. “It is enough that they survive because of me.” Emma would know for sure if she’s lying, but Regina strongly suspects that she is… or that she’s fooled herself.

“You see, stories are very powerful,” Blue continues. “People come and go, but stories endure long after the creators have passed on. They give hope. They show that good people can be happy and evil people are punished.”

Blue says it as though it’s simple, but it doesn’t make sense to Regina. “This realm has stories too,” she says, thinking of her comic books. “And yet this realm follows different rules. Good does not always win. Evil is not always punished.”

“That’s because sometimes good needs a little help,” Blue says. “That’s where the fairies come in.”

“I was good once,” Regina says. “I was supposed to be a hero. I even had a soulmate. Why didn’t you help me?”

Blue looks at her for a long moment before she says, “Regina, everyone has a soulmate.”

What?

“Everyone does? Not just the heroes?” This goes against everything she’s been taught. How long has Blue kept this secret?

“Everyone does,” Blue confirms. “At least in our realm. Not in… this place.” Blue gestures at the ballroom with disgust. “This place has no soulmates, and obviously no true love. But in our realm, yes, everyone has a soulmate.”

“Then why can’t everyone find love?” Regina asks.

“There has to be a balance,” Blue says. “As tragic as it is, not everyone can win. You see, true love is magic, the most powerful magic of all. And you know the rule about magic.”

“It always comes with a price,” Regina says, reciting the most basic rule of magic, the first thing every magic user ever learns. “The more powerful the magic, the larger the price… true love has a price?” How had she never considered this before? How did she never learn about that in all her years of magical study?

Blue nods. “Yes, an enormous price. And who do you think should pay that price? The heroes? The good people? The ones who try so hard to do the right thing? Of course not. That isn’t fair at all.”

“So who does pay the price?” Regina asks, even as she realizes the answer.

“Villains,” Blue says, confirming her suspicions. “Or at least, they’re supposed to. Did Tinkerbell tell you what’s happened in our realm since you did not pay your price?”

Regina thinks back to Tinkerbell’s news from their conversation in Ursula’s apartment: Snow and James arguing, storms for a month and a half. “There’s an imbalance.”

Then, suddenly, more pieces start to fall into place. “It was you,” Regina says slowly. “You sent Robin to this realm. You ripped out the page with my story in it. You made sure it wouldn’t happen.”

“No, you made sure it wouldn’t happen,” Blue corrects. “You were the one who found your soulmate and chose not to be with him.”

“You knew about that?” Regina asks, gaping at her.

“Of course,” Blue says. “You still could have had a happy ending if you’d been brave enough. I merely removed the inevitability that you would find Robin.”

“You also never helped me when I was a child. Fairy godmothers are supposed to help people.”

“Good people,” Blue says firmly. “Not villains.”

“Why was I a villain? What did I ever do?”

“I looked into your heart and I saw so much anger, so much potential for darkness,” Blue says, her tone defensive. “You were surrounded by dark magic—your mother, the Dark One…”

“So you gave up on me.” Regina can barely breathe, she’s so furious. “Every night in that house with my mother, every night before I married the King, I found your star in the sky and I wished for you to come and help me. And you never did. I didn’t deserve that.”

Blue opens her mouth, seemingly ready to fire back at her. Then, shockingly, she closes her mouth and remorse fills her eyes. “No,” she says quietly. “You didn’t.”

“Excuse me?” Regina asks in disbelief. Is this some sort of trap?

“I was wrong.” Blue sounds like she’s in pain, but she says, “You are a hero, Regina. You were meant to be the hero ever since you rescued Snow from that horse.”

Regina should be happy. She’s the hero, she can live, this is everything she’s ever wanted. But she’s too confused, too shocked, to feel anything else. “I don’t understand. What about Snow’s story? I was the villain there. I did terrible things.”

“Yes. But I can see that you truly care about Robin. You rescued him and fell in love as you were meant to.”

“You can see that?” Regina can hardly believe it. All this time, she’d thought she failed, but she had passed. Somehow.

“I’m a fairy,” Blue says, somewhat haughtily. “I can tell when someone’s heart is full of love, and yours is, Regina. I can sense that even in a realm without magic. I wasn’t sure at first, but I am now. That proves there was a mistake, that I was wrong about you.”

“What about the imbalance?” Regina asks. “How are you going to fix that?”

“I already have,” Blue says. “I’ve found another villain for that story.”

For a second, Regina wonders if Blue is going to say herself.

“Your mother Cora,” Blue says instead. “She was the one who married you off to the King and sent you down your dark path. She’s a perfect villain. I took care of her for you.”

It takes Regina a moment to understand what she’s saying. “You… killed her?” she asks, hardly able to comprehend it. Her mother had never seemed like a person who could actually be killed. She’d always seemed invincible.

Blue blinks at Regina in surprise. “Of course.”

“You killed my mother,” Regina says numbly.

Blue looks confused. “I would have thought you would be pleased. Your mother was a terrible person.”

Regina wants to ask why that never occurred to Blue so many years ago, when Cora had Regina under her thumb and everyone had been powerless to stop her. She’s not sure what she feels right now. Relief is there, maybe, but so is grief. “She was still my mother.”

Blue tilts her head, not understanding the importance of what Regina’s saying. And Regina doesn’t know how to explain it. Because yes, her mother was a nightmare. She terrorized Regina, and others, for years on end. Regina grew up hearing the sound of hearts beating while she tried to sleep. It kept her awake for so many nights.

And yet… Cora was also the woman who sometimes made Regina her favourite breakfast when she was in a good mood. She was the woman who, reluctantly, bought her Rocinante and arranged for riding lessons. Regina had loved her despite everything, and Cora had loved her back, as much as she had been capable of such a thing.

Regina had wished her dead, many times over, but she’d never imagined what would happen if Cora actually died. It had never seemed possible.

“You’re not pleased,” Blue says, frowning. “I don’t understand. You asked me so many times if I would get her away from you.”

Blue had heard that? Fury rises in Regina again. “You should have helped me then.”

“I should have, yes,” Blue says. “But I am helping you now. I’ve already written you a happy ending.”

She opens the book and shows Regina a story— her story. “You’re the hero of this story, Regina. You’ve finally become the hero you were always meant to be, and I am so proud of you.”

For one moment, Regina’s almost happy… but there’s something prickling at the back of her mind, a small voice telling her she’s missing something.

Then she realizes what it is. “How can my story be possible? It doesn’t have a villain.”

Blue’s forehead wrinkles. “What are you talking about? Of course it does.”

“Who?” Regina asks, baffled.

Blue’s eyes widen. “You don’t know? After all she’s done to you?”

She. Who is she?

Wait.

No.

No.

It can’t be Emma. Emma may have made mistakes, but she’s not evil. She’s not a villain. It doesn’t make any sense.

Except… it does make sense. After all, Regina told Tinkerbell all about the horrible woman who lied to her, betrayed her, put her soulmate in jail. Regina, in her anger, had left out any possible redeeming bit of information. Tinkerbell, of course, would have passed that along to Blue, who would have made an assumption, would have judged based on that information alone…

Regina asks anyway, needing the confirmation just in case she’s wrong. “Who? Who is my villain?”

Blue stares at Regina as though she’s an idiot. “The woman who didn’t tell you about Robin. The woman who kept you apart from him because she was too much of a coward to believe in the truth. The woman who has given up all hope of ever finding a happy ending, so she chooses to believe that they don’t exist rather than accept that she simply doesn’t deserve it. The woman who has been selfish, and cowardly, and cruel to you. The woman who cannot accept her fate.”

Blue flips to the last page of the story and shows it to her. Regina’s last shred of hope vanishes when she sees Emma, lying unconscious next to a fountain, a half-eaten apple on the floor next to her outstretched hand.

Chapter Text

It’s easy enough for Emma to slip through the crowd and out through the back door, the one she’d noticed when she came in. The door leads to a small courtyard with a decrepit fountain in the middle. It’s not a big space—she’d been hoping for a field, or a parking lot—but it’s enough room for her to breathe.

The fountain’s not working, but there are still coins on the bottom, silver and copper glittering in the faint light of the electric lamps mounted on the wall of the courtyard.

Emma fishes through her pocket and finds a few coins. The wishing stuff is crap, obviously. But when she’d been living on the street, she’d taken coins from fountains sometimes, and that helped a little. She may as well return the favour.

She tosses the coins in one after the other. They make little plunk noises when they hit the water.

“Are you making a wish?”

Emma almost jumps at the surprised voice behind her. She turns to see a tiny blonde woman dressed in a fairy outfit and holding a plate with one candy apple on it. “No,” she says, dropping the last of the coins in the fountain and stuffing her hands in her pockets. “I was, uh, getting rid of some change. That’s all.”

“Oh. I see.”

“The party’s in there,” Emma says, nodding her head at the door leading to the ballroom.

“I know,” fairy lady says. “I just… thought I might find someone here. It’s a nice place, isn’t it?”

Emma looks around at the dirty brick walls, the benches covered in bird poop, the cigarette butts and weeds littering the cobblestones. “It is?”

“I mean the fountain,” fairy lady says. “All the wishes. It’s nice to see that people do that, even here.”

“Even here?” Emma repeats, confused. Here as opposed to where?

Fairy lady shakes her head quickly. Her eyes dart around nervously, not focusing on anything particular. “I mean, everywhere. It’s nice that people do it everywhere.”

“Are you okay?” Emma asks.

Fairy lady looks at her when she says that, her eyes widening like she’s surprised Emma asked that. “I… yes.” She shakes her head. “Yes. Would you like an apple?” She holds out the plate with the apple on it.

There were apples in a basket on the food table, part of the whole fairy tale theme. Fake poison apples. This one’s even brighter red than the others, almost artificially ripe and shiny. Regina would be all over it, but Emma shakes her head. “No thanks, I’m not interested in a poison apple.”

Fairy lady frowns. “What? How would you… It’s not poison.”

“Yeah, I know,” Emma says. “It’s part of the fairy tale theme, right? Like, from Snow White?”

“Oh.” Fairy lady smiles. “Yes, it’s a fairy tale thing. Would you like it?” She offers her the apple again.

“Thanks, but I don’t really like apples,” Emma says.

Fairy lady frowns. “But won’t you just try this one?”

“No thanks.”

“Come on, please?”

Emma debates arguing her down, but she’s tired, so she sighs and says, “Fine.” If she takes it, maybe the perky lady will leave her alone. Besides, she’s just doing her job. She takes the apple, hoping the fairy lady will leave.

But she doesn't. She just stays there and looks at Emma expectantly.

“I took it,” Emma says. “You can, uh, go.”

“Aren’t you going to eat it?” fairy lady asks, blinking up at Emma in a way that sets her nerves on edge.

What is this lady’s problem? Why does she care so much about whether Emma eats the apple?

Whatever. Emma will just eat it and then this lady will leave her alone.

It’s not like she was lying when she said it wasn’t poison, so what’s the worst that could happen? She sighs and raises the apple to her mouth, ready to—

“EMMA! NO!”

Regina comes tearing into the courtyard, a confused Robin close behind her. She looks absolutely terrified. “Don’t eat that!”

Emma drops her hand. “Why not? What’s going on?”

“Just give it to me,” Regina says, reaching for the apple. “Please.”

Emma pulls it away and holds it out of Regina’s reach. “If it’s bad, I’m not giving it to you.” Regina’s looking at it like it’s a bomb or something—is that possible? An apple bomb? No, that’s ridiculous.

“Emma, please listen to me.” Regina makes another grab for the apple, but Emma keeps it away from her.

“Not it you won’t tell me what’s wrong with it.”

“What are you doing?” fairy lady hisses at Reigna.

“Regina, what’s going… oh.” Of course: the fairy tale thing. It always comes back to the fairy tale thing. “Hey, it’s just an apple,” Emma says. “They’re just calling it a poison apple as a joke. It’s not really poison.”

“You don’t even like apples!” Regina points out. “Emma, please, don't eat it.”

Emma hesitates. Regina looks terrified, and Emma hates going against her on this. On the other hand, this is the perfect opportunity to prove to Regina that fairy tales aren’t real. And maybe if she stops believing in fairy tales, she won’t leave. She won’t go back to live with those awful people.

“Regina, it’s okay,” she says, raising the apple to her mouth again. “I promise it’s okay.”

Emma —” Regina makes a grab for the apple, but Emma pulls it away. Before Regina can stop her, she takes a bite.

It’s sweet, crisp, a little crunchy. Just like a normal apple. The texture is kind of gross, like it always is, and Emma winces a bit as she swallows it down. “There,” she says, spreading her hands. “I’m fine. See?”

Regina grips her shoulders gently like she thinks Emma’s about to fall. She looks heartbroken, and Emma feels a pang of guilt for putting her through this. But it’ll be better in the long run, for both of them.

After a few moments of nothing happening, Regina starts to look confused. “See?” Emma smiles at her. “Just an ordinary apple.” She takes another bite, just to prove it, and again nothing happens.

“I don’t understand,” fairy lady says. “That should have worked. Why didn’t it work?”

Work? “Wait a second,” Emma says. “You were trying to poison me?” Realization dawns on her. “Seriously? You’re part of this too, aren’t you? The whole cult thing? Look, magic isn’t real, and I just proved that, so can you people just… you know, chill?” This is getting ridiculous.

Regina’s still holding onto Emma and she looks completely puzzled. Then, slowly, comprehension dawns in her eyes. She pulls back and smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes.. “Yes,” she says. “You’re right, Emma. I see that now. Magic isn’t real.”

It’s a lie. Regina just lied to her, but why? Magic may not be real, but Regina still thinks it is.

A small woman in a blue fairy outfit walks in carrying a giant leather book. She notices the apple in Emma’s hand, with the two bites missing, and she scowls. “Why isn’t she asleep?” she asks in a tone that reminds Emma of an irritated principal. “Green, don’t tell me you mixed up the apples.”

“I didn’t!” fairy lady—Green?—says, shaking her head rapidly. “I gave her the right one!”

What kind of shitty cult is this?

“I performed the curse correctly,” the woman in blue says. Her voice is quiet, barely above a whisper, and it sends chills down Emma’s spine. “There’s only one explanation.”

Blue narrows her eyes at Regina, who crosses her arms and meets her gaze coolly. “I was wrong,” she says in a tone of wounded regret. “You are the villain.”

“Hey,” Emma snaps immediately. “Don’t talk to her like that.” If Regina was surrounded by these people for all that time, no wonder her brain got all screwed up. Right now, she’s flinching back like she believes what the woman in blue said to her. Emma puts a hand on her shoulder.

“Blue, are you—are you sure we can jump to that conclusion?” fairy lady says. Seriously, these people are all named after colours?

Blue narrows her eyes at Regina. “You have to die.”

Okay, that’s it. “Leave her alone!” Emma yells at Blue. “Who the fuck do you think you are? I’m calling the cops.” She pulls out her phone and punches in the number, but the signal drops out before she can dial.

What the hell?

“This doesn’t concern you,” Blue says. “You may leave.”

Emma steps in front of Regina, drawing Blue’s eye contact, and curls her hands into fists. “The hell it doesn’t concern me. Regina is my friend, and I don’t know what kind of weird fairytale cult you’ve got going on here, but she doesn’t deserve this. Now let her go.”

Regina moves from behind Emma to stand at her side and look her in the eye. “Emma, it’s okay,” she says gently. “Stay out of this.”

“She’s right,” Blue says, barely glancing at Emma as she speaks to her. “This isn’t your story.”

“I don’t care whose story it is,” Emma says. “I won’t let you hurt her.”

Blue finally looks at her—no, she glares at her. For a split second, Emma thinks she’s going to throw the book at her, or maybe whack her over the head with it. She braces herself, refusing to move from Regina’s side.

Then Blue pulls out a pen from some hidden pocket and, with zero hesitation, stabs herself in the arm.

Robin gasps and fairy lady lets out a shrill yelp. Emma turns to Regina, who doesn’t even look surprised. She looks more scared than Emma’s ever seen her.

“Regina? What’s happening?” Emma asks.

Regina turns to her. “Nothing,” she says unconvincingly. “Everything’s fine.”

Blue withdraws her pen, which is now covered in blood, and opens her book to a blank page. She starts to write. Emma cranes her neck, but she can’t see what Blue’s writing except that it’s in ancient, cursive handwriting. Small drops of blood drip off Blue’s arm, forming small dark red splotches on the stones.

“Tink, what’s she writing?” Robin asks.

Fairy lady—Green? Tink? whatever her name is—leans over and reads, “Regina the villain finally had her punishment, as her dark heart got the best of her.”

Blue finishes that sentence, dots it with a period, and starts on the next one.

That’s when Regina collapses.

“Regina!” Emma shouts, catching her just in time to stop her head from hitting the hard ground. Her eyes are glassy and her normally olive skin has turned weirdly pale. But the most worrying thing is that she’s grasping at her chest as though it’s burning her and heaving large gulps of air like she’s being strangled.

Robin rushes over and drops to Regina’s side, taking him in his arms. Emma doesn’t want to let him, but Regina would probably rather have him there than her.

“What’s happening to her?” Robin asks.

“I think she’s having a heart attack,” Emma says. She’s not an expert, but it’s the only explanation for what’s happening. Or maybe it’s a stroke? No, strokes don’t involve the heart, right?

While Robin strokes Regina’s face and murmurs comforting words, Emma whips out her cell phone. Still no signal. Should she find a payphone? She’d have to leave Regina to search for one, and that’s the last thing she wants, but if her phone is broken…

“Emma? Are you in here?” Marian enters the courtyard and as she sees what’s going on, her face turns from confusion to shock. “What the hell is going on? What’s wrong with Regina? Has anyone called 911?” She takes out her phone and starts tapping.

Blue looks up briefly and flutters her hand in Marian’s direction. Marian frowns. “Wait. I don’t have a signal.”

What’s going on?

Tinkerbell is frozen in place and Blue is still writing furiously. Robin seems to come to the conclusion that Blue’s writing is somehow causing this because he leaves Regina’s side and starts trying to knock her over. She’s a surprisingly strong woman, because he doesn’t manage it.

Emma grips Regina’s shoulders. “Hang on, okay, Regina? We’re gonna get you help. It’s gonna be fine.” She still looks like she’s in agony, but she gives Emma a small nod.

Do heart attacks normally take this long? Emma vaguely remembers when her ninth foster dad had a heart attack. He’d gone down instantly. It hadn’t looked anything like this. But if this isn’t a heart attack, what the hell is it?

Robin finally knocks the Blue Fairy over and the pen skitters out of her hand. She lunges for it desperately. Tinkerbell gets there first, and with a wild look in her eye, she snaps it.

“No!” Blue screams, her voice shrill and horrible.

As soon as the pen breaks, Regina stops convulsing. So there’s obviously a connection between the pen breaking and what’s happening to Regina. But that doesn’t make any sense. How could a few words written on a page make someone’s heart hurt?

Psychosomatic. That’s what this is. Regina thinks it’s real, thinks she’s a villain who deserves to die, so her body reacts like this. She may not be seizing anymore, but her skin is still pale and covered in sweat, and she’s still clutching at her heart as though it’s got a knife through it.

Emma bends close to her and says, “Regina, it’s all in your head. Okay? I promise, it’s not real, please, can you please believe me…” She’s fighting back tears, holding Regina with both hands, begging her to do the thing she’s been unable to do up until now. “Just because you think it’s real, doesn’t mean it is, Regina. You’re not a villain. You’re not .”

Regina doesn’t answer. She looks up at Emma briefly, like she wants to say something, but then collapses back down in another series of coughs. Blood drips out of her mouth and spatters on the bricks.

And Emma realizes it doesn’t matter whether this is a random heart attack or just in Regina’s head. There’s no difference, because either way, the outcome is the same: Regina is going to die. Just because she believes she will.

But that’s impossible . There’s no logical explanation for what’s happening right now… except.

Except there is an explanation. It’s not logical, not even close, but it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

“It’s real, isn’t it?” she whispers. “All of it.”

Regina shakes her head weakly.

Wait. If it’s real, if Regina has magic, why didn’t she use it to defeat Blue? And why would she say that it’s not real just when she might finally be able to make Emma believe?

Then Emma remembers what Regina told her on the night of their stakeout, when they’d sat together and laughed together and Regina had shared everything about the sleeping curse. How it only works when people made the choice to be cursed.

Can you make the choice to be cursed if you don’t believe the curse is real?

Probably not.

No wonder Regina doesn’t want her to believe.

Emma takes a split second, because she’s only human, to wonder what sort of regrets she might be stuck with for the rest of eternity. Then she decides it doesn’t matter. Only Regina matters, and Emma squeezes her hand before she stands.

“You were right,” she says to Blue. “I get it now. I’m the villain.”

Blue narrows her eyes at Emma, unconvinced. “You are?”

“Yeah. It’s not Regina’s fault she tried to help me. I brainwashed her. I had her convinced. But you were right. And I deserve…” Emma takes a breath. “I deserve to be punished.”

“No!”

Emma ignores Regina’s hoarse scream. “I want to try again,” she says. “With the apple. I think I need to believe for it to work.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Blue says coldly. “But even if it wasn’t, I doubt that plan would work, considering you don’t believe in anything.”

Emma looks over at the woman on the ground, staring at her in horror. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I think I do.”

Regina opens her mouth again, but nothing comes out except a choked gasp.

For the third time, Emma brings the apple to her lips. Unlike the first two times, her hand is shaking.

She takes a bite.

The apple tastes different this time. It tastes like alcohol, like prison food, like the cupcakes she eats on her son’s birthday, like the ash in the air when Cleo died. And underneath that, there’s another taste, something ancient and terrible. Emma almost chokes, but she forces herself to swallow it.

Around her, everyone is frozen, staring at her, wondering whether this can possibly work. The only sounds are faint conversation from the waning party, Regina’s shallow gasps for air, and the clock tower chiming midnight.

Dong.

Nothing’s happening. Why is nothing happening? Maybe it’s because there’s not enough magic here, so things are just slow.

Or… maybe she’s not believing hard enough for this to work.

Fuck.

Dong.

She’s tired, but is she tired enough? Is that the curse or is she just tired because she didn’t sleep much last night?

Emma looks at Regina, still on the ground, her breathing shallow. Even if this works, there might not be enough time to save her.

Dong.

No. This will work. It has to; Regina’s come too far for it not to. Yes, she used to be evil—and Emma believes that, she does—but Regina’s gone to therapy, she’s started apologizing, she’s started caring about people. She’s been trying. She doesn’t deserve to die.

Dong.

Emma’s next breath catches in her throat: her lungs aren’t working right. Is it the curse or is she just afraid?

It’s the curse. It has to be. Isn’t it?

It is. She believes it.

Dong.

Emma keeps concentrating. Regina’s the hero… and she is the villain. She’d been right about one thing anyway: she’ll never get the fairy tale.

But that’s okay, because Regina will.

Dong.

Things are happening more quickly now. All of a sudden, she can’t feel her hands, can’t feel her face, can’t feel her legs, and she starts swaying on her feet. She’s going to collapse, but she can’t move her muscles to stop it.

Dong.

As she starts to fall, Marian runs forward and helps her to the ground, lays her on her side so she can look at Regina.

Regina’s eyes are barely open and there’s no light in them, but at least they’re open and does that mean she’s getting better does it mean this is working does it mean—

Dong.

Her head is foggy, swimming with exhaustion. Black spots appear in her vision; sounds fade out. Her skin grows warm, then hot, then it’s burning, everything’s on fire, and Regina’s still not waking up…

Dong.

She tries to keep her eyes open, just long enough to see if Regina’s getting better, but she’s so fucking tired, and she can’t…

she can’t help it, her eyes slide shut

dong.

she can barely hear anything anymore and her skin is on fire.

 

And then she feels something cool, something like—

a hand?

against her hand

 

Regina?

 

does that mean—

 

dong.

 

no, wait

 

fingers wrapping around hers

 

a cool palm gently squeezing

 

maybe?


and then

 

it’s gone


(dong.)



and

 

everything

 

hurts.

 


 

No.

No no no no no no.

It’s not possible. It’s not. This must be a trick of some sort. Perhaps Emma’s just pretending, to convince the Blue Fairy that she’s been cursed after all. That must be it.

Except… Emma would never take that kind of chance on something this important, would she?

Regina regains energy slowly. She’d only been able to move her hand at first, reaching out to lightly hold Emma’s, but now she moves her body closer to Emma’s and reaches up with her other hand to touch Emma’s face.

Snow had looked peaceful under the curse, but Emma simply looks wrong . This Emma is still, and her Emma is never still. Even when she’s sleeping, or on a stakeout, or eating breakfast, she’s always moving, fidgeting with something, or merely alert.

Surely there’s been some sort of mistake, and at any moment, Emma will sit up and look at her with those sparkling green eyes and smile at Regina the way she does, and Regina will yell at her for being an idiot and everything will be fine.

“Emma?” she whispers.

Emma does not respond.

As Regina lies there, voices filter into her consciousness from above.

“I don’t understand,” Blue says. “The book says she should be happy. Why isn’t she happy?”

“How the hell is she supposed to be happy? You killed her best friend!” Marian, angrier than Regina’s ever heard her.

“I did not kill her,” Blue says coldly. “She’s under a curse.”

“Excuse me if I, for one, fail to see a difference,” Robin snaps.

“This should not be possible,” Blue says again. “She should be happy. The book always tells the truth.”

“I can fix it.” Tinkerbell, chiming in nervously.

“But the book only tells the truth. It has the power to make things happen. You should be happy because the book says you are. Why isn’t it working?” Blue flips through the pages in frustration.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tinkerbell says, her voice full of awe. “Because she doesn’t believe. The book doesn’t have power over her.”

A small part of Regina thrills at that. She’s free now. No one can control her destiny. But what does it matter, what could it possibly matter, when Emma is gone?

“That’s not important. We have to hurry to make the portal,” Blue says briskly. “We can sort this mess out once we get back to the Enchanted Forest. But if we don’t go soon, the magic will run out.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think Regina wants to go anywhere right now,” Marian snaps.

“I’ll talk some sense into her,” Blue says. “We’ll figure out what’s gone wrong later.”

A few moments later, Regina registers Blue’s presence next to her. “Regina,” she says in a soothing tone, as though she’s addressing a troublesome toddler. “It’s all right. The villain is defeated. You’re safe now.”

The villain is defeated.

Without even thinking about it, Regina hauls her still-exhausted body upwards and launches herself at Blue, scratching and clawing and screaming as best she can. She aims for Blue’s injured arm, still bleeding from the stab wound, and despite her weakness she manages to land some good blows before Robin and Marian pull her off. She turns on them, furious until she sees the concern in their eyes.

“Regina, she’s not worth it,” Robin says. “I’m sorry, but nothing can undo what Emma did. She sacrificed herself for you.”

“I know,” Regina snaps. Is that supposed to be a comfort, the reminder that this is all her fault? That if it hadn’t been for her, Emma would still be… well, not happy, but alive and well. Now, thanks to Regina, she’s gone forever.

There’s only one way to undo a sleeping curse, after all, and Emma will never be able to access it. There are no soulmates in this realm, after all.

“I understand that you’re upset. Clearly something has gone wrong here,” Blue says in a soothing tone. “But I promise, if you just come with me, you can fix this.” She puts the book in front of Reigna, open to the page with her story on it, as though that will convince her. Regina refuses to look at it, keeping her gaze on Emma’s unmoving form.

Tinkerbell puts a hand on Regina’s. “I’ll make you a forgetting potion,” she says quietly. “You won’t even remember her. You can move on.”

Regina stares at her blankly for a moment before the words sink into her consciousness, and then she shakes her head rapidly. “No. No, I don’t want to forget her.” She was supposed to write Emma into her story. She was supposed to tell the world that Emma had been good.

She does look at the book now. It shows a picture of her and Robin getting married. Emma isn’t in the picture, but the passage next to her contains words such as unbeliever and got what she deserved and the villain was defeated. She cannot see Emma’s name anywhere.

It’s wrong. It’s all wrong. It had been wrong when it happened to her, and it’s just as wrong now that it’s happening to Emma—if not more so. If this is meant to be Regina’s happy ending, she’d rather have died.

Marian crouches next to Emma. “Is she… sleeping?”

“Yes,” Regina says quietly. “In a way. Her soul is in another realm—a torture chamber of her deepest regrets, her worst failures.” She’s seen drawings of the realm in ancient spellbooks: fire everywhere, demons in every corner, everything dark and horrible and painful.

Oh, Emma…

“I don’t think she’s breathing,” Marian says. “How can she be alive?”

“The curse stops her heart and her lungs,” Regina says, “but magic keeps her alive.” As she says that, she realizes something horrible, and her chest fills with ice.

Marian articulates it before she can. “But isn’t magic running out? What happens when there’s no more magic?”

Regina can’t say it, can’t bring the words to her lips. Robin says it for her. “She’ll die.”

He looks to Regina for confirmation. Instead of nodding, Regina reaches out and grips Emma’s hand. Perhaps it’s her imagination, but it feels cooler than it was a minute ago.

“What if we bring her back to the Enchanted Forest?” Robin says. “That will keep her alive indefinitely, while…”

“While what?” Tinkerbell asks. “While we find her true love? She doesn’t have one. Only soulmates have ever shared true love, and Emma doesn’t have a soulmate.”

“But it would buy us some time,” Marian says. “We can find another solution.”

“There is no other solution, but it doesn’t matter anyway,” Tinkerbell says. “The book says Emma’s a villain. She believed that. There’s no turning back from that now.”

The book. The stupid fucking book that started it all, when Tinkerbell found that page Blue ripped out—

That Blue ripped out, and Regina’s path went from “hero” to “villain,” just like that. Her entire destiny, altered.

Would it work in reverse? Tear out the story, change a villain to a hero? Regina grabs the book and starts to tear at it, blindly ripping at the pages.

“No!” Blue screams. She yanks the book out of Regina’s hands and throws herself across it, shielding it with her body.

“Regina, what are you doing?” Tinkerbell asks, her voice shrill.

“My story was part of the book once,” she says while trying to pry the book out from under Blue. “My happy ending with Robin was in there. Years ago, Blue ripped it out, and that changed it.”

“That was about changing the future, not the past,” Tinkerbell says, grabbing her arm to stop her. “You can’t change what’s already happened. Emma became the villain.”

“Heroes always get happy endings,” Regina says. “If we can convince the book that Emma is a hero, something will work out. Things always work out for heroes, no matter what trouble they find themselves in.” It’s a long shot, perhaps… but it could work. It could.

“But how would we convince the book she’s a hero?” Tinkerbell asks. “The book runs on belief. The four of us may believe it, but that’s not enough belief to change the course of fate. There’s not enough magic.”

“What about an entire roomful of people?” Marian asks. “What if we got them all to believe? We could convince them somehow.”

“That might hold the magic long enough to keep Emma alive while we rewrite her story,” Tinkerbell says carefully. “But I still don’t know if it would work. And we would have to tear out your story, Regina—”

“I don’t care.”

“Which I don’t know is even possible. And I know your happy ending isn’t… working, but we could probably fix it if we—”

“I don’t want to.”

“But you’d be giving up your happy ending for probably no reaso—”

Let me do it.

“Think about this, Regina,” Tinkerbell pleads. “It might not work. And this isn’t just your happy ending. It’s Robin’s too.”

Regina’s got her mind made up, and even if Robin disagrees, that won’t change anything. But Tinkerbell’s right, this does affect him, so she turns to him, ready to argue her position.

As soon as she sees him, she knows she won’t have to. Robin looks sad, but not as sad as Regina might have expected, and she realizes abruptly that she isn't the only one in their relationship who wasn't feeling as much as she should. “If this is what will make you truly happy,” he says slowly, “then of course this is what you should do.”

Regina has never loved him more than she does in that moment.

Robin moves to where Blue is curled around the book and wrenches her off it, Marian joining in to help. “What are you doing?” Blue shrieks as Regina seizes the book, flipping to the pages with her story in them.

She rips them out. Her entire story, her happy ending, everything she’d wanted for as long as she can remember, she tears it all out. Then, for good measure, she shreds it into tiny pieces and scatters them on the ground.

Tiny sparks fly up and down the spine of the book, and then the ripped area heals itself, melting back into the spine as though nothing had ever been there. Regina’s disappointed. She’d wanted there to be a scar.

“Now what?” Marian asks. “We need a pen, right?”

Tinkerbell holds up the pieces of the pen she broke. “I don’t think we can use this one.”

“Here,” Robin says, fishing in his pocket and holding out a pen. “Emma gave it to me.”

Tinkerbell takes it and studies it, looking skeptical. “It’s not a magic pen.”

“Neither was the other one, until people believed in it,” Regina points out. She uncaps the pen and tries to write in the book, but nothing happens.

“Only fairies can write down the fairy tales,” Blue says, sneering at them from the ground. “I made sure of that.”

“I don’t imagine you’d be willing to help out?” Robin asks angrily.

Blue lifts an eyebrow. “Of course not.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we have another fairy,” Regina says. She turns and thrusts the pen at Tinkerbell, who backs away.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Tinkerbell says. “I… I’m not even a real fairy yet. I haven’t passed the tests, I got kicked out of the classes…”

“She can’t do it,” Blue says. “Green isn’t a fairy, she’s a disgrace. No one will ever believe in her.”

Tinkerbell looks rattled and close to tears, so Regina leans in and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Listen to me, Tinkerbell. I believe in you. You risked everything to save me because you thought I deserved a second chance. You’re more of a fairy than that blue-clad hypocrite will ever be.”

When Tinkerbell starts to cry, Regina softens her grip on her shoulder, but she keeps her voice stern. “Emma needs help too. She’s never had a fairy godmother, but she deserves a second chance just as much as I ever did. More. So do your job, fairy.”

Tinkerbell swallows hard, nods, and picks up the pen.

Robin picks Emma up, ever-so-gently, and he carries her into the main room of the hall. Marian and Regina follow them, leaving Blue behind to cradle her injured arm.

Marian walks onto the stage and taps nervously on the microphone, producing a screeching feedback noise that makes everyone cringe. “Hello, may I get your attention, everyone?”

The crowd does not look overly excited to be called back to attention when they were ready to leave, to go back to their own homes and their warm beds.

Marian smiles at them. “I have a friend I’d like you to meet. Her name is Regina, and she’s going to tell you a story.”

Regina walks onto the stage and takes the microphone from Marian. In her peripheral vision, she can see Tinkerbell with her pen poised over a blank page, ready to write down everything she says, but she keeps her eyes focused on the crowd. All she has to do is convince this entire room of people that Emma is a hero, and then everything will be fine.

How hard can that be?

Regina opens her mouth, ready to tell the audience all about Emma’s goodness, her unfailing strength, her pure heart. Her heroism.

Then she stops. She can’t do it. She cannot stand in front of these people and tell them that Emma was a perfect hero. How can she get these people to believe that story when she herself doesn’t believe it, when Emma wouldn’t believe it?

She’s not the Blue Fairy. She doesn’t want these people to believe yet another lie.

So instead, she tells the truth.

“I want to tell you about Emma Swan, a woman who was sometimes selfish, and sometimes scared, and sometimes hurtful. But she wasn’t evil. She was a human being in a difficult situation who tried her best for someone she cared about.”

Tinkerbell looks up at her, her expression indicating that she thinks Regina’s gone mad. Regina doesn’t care. She takes a deep breath and tells the story of a perfectly imperfect woman who lost her family before she even knew what that was, who was rejected time and time again by the people who were supposed to care about her, who found it in herself to care about others anyway.

She tells them about pancake breakfasts and late-night stakeouts and ice cream at three in the morning, just because. She tells them about Emma sending Robin to prison and Emma bailing him out again and the drinks that showed up for her for the next two weeks, every single morning. She tells Emma’s story, their story, as thoroughly but as quickly as she can, conscious that with every minute that passes after midnight, magic is dwindling and their chances of bringing Emma back are slipping further away.

She tells the story of a woman who is a hero not in spite of her flaws but because of them, because she worked so hard to overcome them when it mattered most.

“I always thought that goodness was what heroes used to smite villains, and I was always on the wrong side of that,” she says at the end. “Emma taught me that being a hero isn’t about destiny or perfection or living your life according to what someone else thinks your story should be. Emma knew that true heroism is getting up every day and trying to do the right thing, no matter what you’ve done in your past. And that’s how she taught me to believe.”

When she finishes, she’s out of breath from both stress and the exertion of talking so much. And Emma… Emma is still sleeping.

Is there not enough belief? Regina scans the crowd, looking for signs that they believe her story. She thinks they do—they seem engaged, at least—but it’s impossible to tell.

After several moments of nothing, the audience starts to murmur, clearly having expected something to happen. Tinkerbell’s still writing, her forehead wrinkled with concentration. Regina doesn’t care about that, doesn’t care about anything except Emma’s lifeless form.

Robin presses his fingers to Emma’s pulse point, then looks up at Regina and shakes his head.

Marian comes up and puts an arm around Regina’s shoulder. Tinkerbell finally stops writing and looks down at Emma, then looks up at Regina. I’m sorry, she mouths.

Regina doesn’t care about any of it. Emma is gone. She’s failed her. That is all that matters, all that could possibly—

A burst of rainbow light explodes from the page, right where Tinkerbell was writing. It ripples out through the room, blowing everyone’s hair back, knocking over the microphone stand and several plastic cups before passing through the walls of the room.

What the hell was that?

Regina drops the microphone and runs to Emma, ignoring the screech of the microphone as it clatters on the stage. She crouches down and grips Emma’s face in her hands. Her eyes are still closed and she’s deathly pale. Regina brushes her thumbs across Emma’s cheekbones, hoping, praying

She leans in and whispers, “Emma?”

Slowly, so slowly, Emma opens her eyes.

She blinks up at Regina, not seeming to realize where she is. She doesn’t look like herself. Her eyes are haunted, as though she’s seen horrible things. A prison of regret, Regina thinks, and a fear drenches her like a wave. Emma’s come back wrong, she’ll never be happy again, and Regina can’t help her…

It takes several seconds, but Emma’s eyes clear. Regina holds her breath—is she okay? Is she going to be all right?

Then Emma says, very softly, “Hi.”

Regina buries her face in Emma’s shoulder, hugging her tightly. “Hi,” she whispers back.

Beside them, Marian starts to clap. “Thank you very much for that lovely performance,” she says loudly. “Let’s give them a big round of applause, everyone!”

Around them, the crowd starts to applaud—slowly at first, confused, but then louder until the room is bursting with noise. Regina barely hears it, she’s so relieved that Emma is alive. Emma wraps her arms around Regina and holds her as tightly as she can, although she’s clearly still very weak.

“What—what happened? Did I do it wrong?” Regina hears in her ear.

She pulls back and smiles, moving her hands from Emma’s back to cup her face gently. “No. No, sweetheart, you did everything right. You saved me.”

“I did?” Relief sweeps Emma’s face. “Good. I’m glad. But, wait, how did you wake me up? I thought only true love could wake someone up from the curse.” Then her eyes widen. “Did you… did you kiss me?” She sounds almost… hopeful?

“No,” Regina says, “I didn't kiss you. I made sure the book knows you’re a hero. And heroes always win. That’s why you woke up.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Tinkerbell says. She points at the book. “I didn’t figure it out until pretty late, but like I said, true love is the only thing that can change someone’s destiny.”

True love?

It’s Marian who reads the words they can all see. “Regina, in her despair, sacrificed her own happy ending to write Emma’s story. And it was this act of true love that woke Emma from the sleeping curse.”

True love.

“You did that?” Emma asks, and her eyes are wide with awe as she looks from Regina to the book and then back to Regina. “You did that for me? You… you love me?”

“You love me? ” Regina whispers. It’s overwhelming, that someone who wasn’t even her soulmate could still see her for all that she is and love her anyway. Accept her anyway.

But Emma must; there’s no other explanation.

Regina leans in, intending to kiss Emma the way she’s wanted to for weeks, but she hesitates. Perhaps she’s wrong about what this means. Perhaps Emma only loves her in a friend way. Perhaps—

Emma kisses her. It’s soft and sweet and passionate all at once, and it feels like coming home.

After a few long moments—or minutes, who could say?—Regina pulls back and looks Emma in the eye, oblivious to the people around them who have gone back to their lives, oblivious to Robin and Marian chatting animatedly a foot away, oblivious to everything except the woman in front of her.

The woman in front of her is smiling. “You know what? It wasn’t me being a hero. It had nothing to do with me. Regina, you were the hero.”

“I wasn’t being a hero,” Regina protests. “I just knew the book was wrong. You’re not a villain. I had to do something.”

“I’m not an expert,” Emma says, “but I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the kind of thing a hero would say.” She smiles broadly.

Then her smile fades. “Are you sure?” she asks, still insecure even after everything. “Is this enough of a happy ending for you? I mean, I’m still not your soulmate.”

“I don’t know if it’s a happy ending,” Regina says thoughtfully. If this story doesn’t have a villain, after all, then the only people paying for their happiness will be them. The thought doesn’t bother her as much as it once might have. In fact, it doesn’t bother her at all.

Too late, she notices that Emma’s face has fallen. She quickly adds, “I think maybe it’s something better.”

“What’s that?” Emma asks, confused.

Regina leans in to kiss her again before she says, “A second chance.”

Emma’s smile returns at that. “Sounds good to me,” she says. “So what do we do now?”

Regina presses a kiss to her cheek, then stands up, bringing Emma with her. “What do you say we go home?”

“Yeah,” Emma says, grinning. “I think I could use a nap.”

It’s the worst joke ever, and Regina laughs so hard she thinks she might break. “Don’t you dare .”

Marian and Robin have drifted away and are cleaning up, perfectly in sync. Regina looks at Robin and doesn’t feel any regret at all. Ten years ago, he’d have been perfect for her. Two months ago, even, he might have been good. But now…

Now, Regina puts her arm around Emma’s shoulder, leans in for yet another kiss, and smiles. “I love you,” she says, because she wants to, because she can, because there is no reason not to.

“I love you too,” Emma says, her voice shy and earnest all at once. “Now let’s go home.”

And they do.

Together.