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Too Wise to Woo Peaceably

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It’s a fine summer’s day and they are picnicking in Leopold’s personal garden. Regina leans against a tree, its weeping branches shading her face from the sun, and runs her fingers through Henry’s hair. He is, for once, silent, his eyes closed and head resting against her thigh, and it’s peaceful.

 

“Someone’s coming,” Snow says, abandoning her embroidery, and sure enough, Regina looks up to see a messenger approach the party.

 

“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” he says, bowing low to Leopold and then to Snow, who nods her head regally. “I bring the message that Queen Abigail’s company are barely an hour from here.”

 

Leopold’s beneficent smile broadens at this news and Henry sits up. “Is everyone coming?” he asks, voice high and eager.

 

“I believe so,” the messenger says and Henry grins across at Snow, whose fair skin cannot hide the blush spreading across her cheeks.

 

“Tell me,” Regina says, sitting up. Her back hurts from slouching and she stretches, loathing, and not for the first time, the tightly corseted waist that is the current fashion in the White Kingdom. She had been wearing riding breeches and shirts most of the summer, but King Leopold has high expectations of dress of the women in court. “Is the ugly duckling returning with the company?”

 

The messenger’s brow furrows, staring at her in utter confusion. “I beg your pardon, Lady Mills?”

 

“She means Emma Swan,” Snow says and frowns over at Regina. It’s a frown that says, stop being so mean, and so Regina ignores it.

 

“Oh, yes, Lady Swan has returned with the company,” the messenger says. “She fought most valiantly against the Dark One’s forces.”

 

Regina sighs. “How tedious. I had hoped she would be kidnapped by some marauding vampires or werewolves or other such creatures.”

 

The messenger just stares at her. “Lady Regina! That is dangerous talk.” This is spoken in a whisper as though even speaking the words aloud might cause her harm.

 

“She’s forgiven,” Leopold says, waving a hand at the messenger. “There’s something of a merry war between Lady Regina and my niece. They never meet but they bicker.”

 

Regina scoffs. “Merry?” She says nothing more, though. She knows how fortunate she is to be at here at all; had Leopold turned her away over eleven years ago, as he had initially intended to do, she would have been utterly lost to her mother’s whims. Now, as a long time guest of the White Kingdom, she is somewhat at the mercy of King Leopold, whose hints at marriage had become too pronounced to be ignored at one time. His interest in her quickly waned, however, and now she lives comfortably here.

 

Henry twists to look at her, his features falling into a frown, and she smiles at him in an effort to reassure him. “I don’t like when you’re mean about Emma,” he says.

 

She clasps his chin, looking deeply in his eyes. “I’m sorry, my darling,” she says.

 

“I take it you do not like the lady,” the messenger says. She’s beginning to think that the puzzled look is just his natural expression.

 

You were certainly chosen for your quick wits,” Regina replies, rolling her eyes. She heaves herself from the ground, pulling Henry up with her. “Come, we must dress.”

 

The next hour is a flurry of frantic movement, everyone desperately getting ready for the arrival of Queen Abigail, King George’s sons and the rest of Abigail’s company. Regina finds herself squeezed into a richly embroidered gown by Granny, far too heavy for such a warm day, and she notices Henry tugging at his shirtsleeves disconsolately when they meet in the crowded throne room where Leopold presides.

 

The doors swing open and the company appears, Queen Abigail striding forward, followed closely by King George’s twin sons, James all charm and swagger, David the quiet, reserved one. She spots Zelena’s red curls. Her recently discovered sister is dressed in riding leathers and there is permanent scowl set upon her face, which intensifies when she meets Regina’s eye. She shivers at the venom in her gaze; she had hoped that time spent as the magic practitioner in Abigail’s company would offer Zelena a chance for a happier life where her resentment of Regina didn’t overtake her many good qualities – but perhaps she was wrong about that. Henry stands on tiptoe beside her, searching out his favourite, precious Emma, and Regina cannot help but scan the crowd herself for that shock of yellow hair.

 

“Looking for someone in particular?” Snow whispers, and she’s grinning. Regina shoots her a poisonous look.

 

“Your majesty,” Queen Abigail says, curtseying.  “Thank you for your hospitality.”

 

Leopold stands and bows in response. “But of course, Abigail. You and your men are welcome as long as you need.”

 

“We hope to stay two weeks at least,” Abigail says. She gestures at Snow, standing beside her father. “This, I believe, is your daughter? I haven’t seen Princess Snow since she was a child.” Abigail’s company stop with Leopold annually, but Abigail usually continues on to her kingdom instead. More’s the pity. Regina likes the queen; she has a sharp mind and is fair and just ruler. Had she been queen when Regina had run from her mother, she would have approached Abigail instead.

 

Snow curtsies, blushing. She notices that Snow’s gaze is not fixed on Abigail, but instead just over her shoulder, at Prince James. She thinks Leopold would like that match; James will take King George’s throne one day and the merging of the two kingdoms would be beneficial in many ways.

 

It is then that Lady Emma Swan enters. She’s late, of course, because Emma has never been on time to anything in her life. She bows briefly, before striding forward and shaking Leopold’s hand. “It’s good to see you, uncle,” she says.

 

Leopold laughs. “Welcome back, my dear.”

 

“I see you’ve grown tall, Snow,” Emma adds, pulling her cousin into a hug. “I suggest you stop or you’ll loom over all the princes of the realm and then where will we be? No one will marry a giantess.” Snow giggles and Regina rolls her eyes.

 

“I see you’re still intent on talking rubbish at all times, dear.”

 

Emma clasps a hand to her heart and feigns staggering backwards. “Oh, my dear lady disdain! You’re still alive?” Henry laughs, the traitor.

 

“Could disdain die while you live?” Regina asks. “You provide such ample opportunity for mockery.”

 

“You’re the only person here who thinks I’m worthy of mocking,” Emma says. “But then you’re the only person here who doesn’t love me.”

 

“Oh yes, Emma Swan, beloved of all ladies,” Regina mocks.

 

“Indeed,” she says, and sighs. “It’s such a shame I love none.”

 

“Some might call that a dear happiness to women everywhere,” Regina suggests. “I can’t imagine a worse suitor than you.”

 

“Hey!” Emma says, and then she shrugs. “I could be an excellent suitor if I put my mind to it. You, on the other hand, have a heart of stone.”

 

“Love is weakness,” Regina says. She feels a shiver run through her as she parrots her mother’s words, but it is a message she has had to take to heart. Henry is the only person it is truly safe to love and even then she worries constantly that one day he will be taken from her.

 

“May the gods keep you in that frame of mind,” Emma counters. “So some poor fool escapes a scratched face.”

 

“Scratching couldn’t make it worse if it were a face like yours.”

 

Emma scowls. “Hark her,” she says and she turns to Henry. “And how are you, kiddo?” Henry beams, smile bright as the sun.

 

“Oh, that’s right, run away,” Regina says. The bitterness seeps into every syllable of her voice and it enrages her because she absolutely positively does not care about what happened between them eleven years ago. “That’s what you’re good at after all.”

 

“Mom!” Henry says, stamping on her foot.

 

Emma shrugs. “She’s a bit of a grump, your mother, isn’t she?” She looks over at Regina for a moment. “She takes good care of you though?”

 

Henry nods. “Makes me eat all my vegetables.”

 

“Good,” Emma says and her gaze is laden with meaning, at once so serious that Regina feels stripped naked. She’s reminded of that night ten years ago, of Emma – who had run the year before – at her door. She is reminded of the blood and the screaming and “take him!” and “I can’t” and the child thrust into her arms anyway, the child who has become something of a safe guard for her, that illegitimate child who she would swear on everything is hers by blood (and isn’t she fortunate that the fashion at the time was for high waists and that Snow’s mother carried low and small because Leopold was not in the least suspicious that she had been hiding a pregnancy), who protected her from even the possibility of marriage to Leopold, something she would have considered abhorrent enough to run from amnesty.

 

Regina just nods, feeling her lips tighten into a frown. “If we are quite finished,” she says, turning to Leopold and tilted her head, “I do have things to be getting on with.”

 

She stalks from the throne room and perhaps she’s imagining it, but Emma’s eyes seem to follow her.

 

*

 

Emma watches Regina leave, her head aching and heart pounding. Her uncle sends them off shortly after, to rest and clean themselves (and, gods only know, Emma could do with a bath) and get ready for a banquet that night. “Tomorrow we shall hold a masquerade,” he says and Emma tries not to let her exhaustion show. All she wants to do is sleep for a week and eat at least half the stores in Leopold’s kitchen, not dance and make conversation and endure festivities.

 

She stays in the throne room, only James remaining behind. She actually prefers the younger twin, David, but James has adopted her as his drinking buddy and he’s tenacious with those he claims as friends. “Did you see Snow?” James asks, sprawling across one of the benches. “Hasn’t she grown up to be beautiful?”

 

Emma wrinkles her nose. “You’re talking about my cousin.”

 

James ignores her. “Just, those eyes, and that skin…”

 

“She’s too pale,” Emma says and for a moment a familiar body flashes through her mind. She shakes her head, as if this will rid her of memories she has long since tried to bury, of smooth, brown skin, of warm curves and a constellation of freckles on the left shoulder, of lips as red as blood, crossed by a faint scar and parted in a silent gasp.

 

“She’s just so pure,” James says. “If she were mine…”

 

“Let’s not talk about the lady like she’s a possession,” Emma says mildly. Her days in Abigail’s company have led to many such conversations, where men talk of women as jewels to be bought, displayed in fine cases, and worn as ornaments at parties and celebrations. She never wishes to be owned, never wishes to marry.

 

“I should like to possess her,” James says and waggles his eyebrows. She takes a moment to glare at him and he shrugs as an apology. “Seriously though, she’s the most beautiful woman in these parts.”

 

“I’ll try not to take offense,” Emma says. “From a purely objective standpoint though, Lady Regina would be my pick — if she weren’t an evil hell beast.” James raises an eyebrow and Emma feels her skin flush red. “You’re talking like you want to woo Snow though.”

 

James sighs. “I think I love her,” he says.

 

The question ‘have you even spoken two words to her’ is on the tip of her tongue. “Okay,” she says, drawing out the second syllable. “Abandon me to matrimony then. That’s fine.”

 

It is then that Abigail enters. “What’s this about matrimony? Surely you’ve not found true love, Swan.”

 

“Not me,” she says. “Him.” She jerks her thumb across at James who has the good grace to blush. “He fancies Snow White.”

 

“Of course he does,” Abigail says. The only reason Emma has lasted as long as she has in the company is Abigail’s leadership. She’s wry and reasonable and an excellent leader. They have been patrolling the borders for too many years to count, fighting back Rumpelstiltskin’s armies, and there have been times where Emma has considered cutting her losses and running, but Abigail has stopped her.

 

“You’re the only person with any sense,” she had told Emma when Emma had come to her, expressing her frustration at the men and their antics. “I need you at my side.”

 

“Thanks, Swan,” James says, glaring at her. It’s half mocking, but she knows there’s an element of real anger in his look. James cannot stand to be made fun of.

 

“No,” Abigail says, nodding. “This is good. You and Snow would be sound alliance. I can help set it up if you wish.”

 

Emma frowns. “So romantic.” She knows her cousin of old; Snow has dreams of True Love and happy ever afters and the perfect wedding with white dresses and sentimental vows and a trained dove placing the ring on her finger – or so she imagines.

 

“Leopold’s holding a masquerade ball tomorrow,” Abigail says, as if Emma hasn’t even spoken. “It’s the perfect opportunity to get a moment alone during the revels.”

 

“I can’t ask her myself,” James says. “What if she says no?”

 

“Are you honestly that terrified of rejection?” Emma asks. “I’m embarrassed for you.”

 

“Shut up, Swan,” Abigail says, bumping her with her shoulder. “How about David?”

 

“What about him?” James asks.

 

“He could woo her in your stead,” Abigail suggests. “You’re identical, after all, barring the scar of course. I’ll coach him, tell him what to say…”

 

Emma is liking the sound of this plan less and less. “I should—” she begins, but is cut off.

 

“I like this,” James says, nodding. “She’s the only child of Leopold, yes?”

 

“His sole heir,” Abigail says. “Like I said, a sound match. And if you love her, so much the better.”

 

“Hopefully she loves him,” Emma mutters.

 

“Of course she will,” James replies. He’s all confidence again, now that things are going his way, and she fights the urge to wipe the smile off his face. Snow is her cousin. Even if she only rarely sees her, she still wants what’s best for her and she isn’t convinced that’s James. She knows how James talks about women. She saw the gleam in his eye at the affirmation that Snow is the sole heir.

 

Yes, she definitely prefers David.

 

*

 

“You’re an idiot,” Marian says, moving in behind Regina as she fastens earrings in her ears. They’re emerald, a remnant of her youth, and one of the few things she took from home when she fled.

                 

“How so, dear?”

 

“This grudge against Lady Emma,” Marian says. “You know, if you thought about it for even half a minute, you’d realise you could be friends.”

 

Regina closes her eyes for a moment. The problem with Marian, she muses, is that she has known her too long and so she’s not afraid of her. They had arrived in the White Kingdom together, Regina desperately seeking amnesty, and Marian tired of her role as Hood, the honourable thief. She had passed the mantle on to one of her men and styled herself as Lady Marian Álvarez, daughter of a noble from a tiny principality by the ocean, looking for life in a greater kingdom and offering Leopold considerable wealth for her continued stay. Leopold would be outraged to know Marian is the dastardly Hood, but then Leopold assumes Hood was a male when he was robbed by Marian and her men fifteen years ago, so Regina only feels limited sympathy. “I have no desire to be good friends – or anything else for that matter – with that woman.”

 

“And what about Henry?” Marian asks.

 

“What about him?” Regina snaps, but she pauses.

 

“Your son knows everything that goes on in this castle,” Marian says. “Do you honestly think he won’t figure out that Emma gave birth to him? If he hasn’t already.”

 

Regina opens her mouth to reply, the very idea that Henry might already know the truth horrifying to her. However, there is a knock at the door, before it swings open and Snow enters. She’s dressed in white – she always is, Leopold’s choice – and her hair falls in dark curls around her shoulders. “Lady Marian,” she says, inclining her head. “Regina.”

 

“Your Highness,” Marian says. Regina just nods.

 

“I wondered if you might do my hair,” Snow says. It’s tentative. The pair have only recently reached equilibrium, Regina having spent many years vacillating wildly between bitterly hating the girl and loving her fiercely, this precious princess who got everything she ever wanted, or so it seemed. It’s only been as Snow has grown into womanhood that Regina has recognised that Leopold’s benevolence only extends so far.

 

“Of course,” Regina says, patting the space beside her and Snow sits. Regina grabs the brush, gliding it through Snow’s hair, before braiding her hair in the series of complex twists and knots that Snow so likes.

 

“So,” Marian says, tone light and teasing. “I hear a certain someone may be planning to speak to you at tomorrow’s masquerade.”

 

Regina is intrigued to see the skin of Snow’s neck blush a vibrant red. “I’m not sure…” she says.

 

“Prince James would be an excellent match,” Marian says.

 

“Yes,” Snow says. She doesn’t sound entirely convinced, however.

 

“What is it, dear?” Regina asks.

 

“He’s very handsome. It’s only, I had often thought my true love would make me feel more,” Snow says. “Was it like that for you, Regina? With Henry’s father?”

 

“Yes,” Regina says shortly. Of course, she has no idea who Henry’s father is. Emma never told her, and the man she tells Henry was his father – Daniel – is from a distant time, a time when she was a much kinder person. Life has scarred her.

 

Marian shoots her a look.

 

“You never speak of him,” Snow says. “Was he from this court?” She giggles. “Well, he must have been. You had been with us for a year before Henry came along. I might have been young, but I remember. Emma left with Queen Abigail only a few months after you arrived.”

 

She shrieks when Regina’s hands tighten in her hair. “Sorry,” she says. “I would rather not remember Henry’s father.”

 

“Masquerade tomorrow,” Marian says. “Are we excited?”

 

The deft change of subject leaves Snow chattering on about her mask and how perhaps she will get to dance with James and perhaps then she’ll know and Regina avoids Marian’s eyes. She knows what she’s thinking. She knows she wants to comfort her. She takes a deep breath and pins the braids into a coil at the base of Snow’s neck.

 

Hard heart, safe heart.

 

*

 

“And just where does your mother think you are?” Mulan asks, peering suspiciously down at Henry.

 

“Right here,” Henry says, gesturing around at the guard’s cabin. “Of course.”

 

Mulan laughs and it sounds like a bark. “I’m not a complete idiot, Mills,” she says. “Get back to the castle. Lady Regina will murder me.”

 

“No, she won’t,” Henry says. “That’d make Marian sad and Mom likes Marian.”

 

Mulan blushes at that and Henry grins. People figure that because he’s ten he doesn’t know what’s going on around the castle, but they’re wrong. He knows a lot of things.

 

He knows that Marian and Mulan are lovers. He knows that Red sneaks out every full moon. He knows all about Granny – the cook – and her life story. He knows that sometimes King Leopold gets a bit handsy with his mother and he knows that she doesn’t like that.

 

And he knows that Lady Emma Swan is the one who gave birth to him, even though Mom swears black and blue that it was her. “It was a long and painful labour,” she had told him too many times to count, “but at the end, it didn’t matter because I had you, and you are everything.” But he doesn’t look like Mom, and he looks a lot like Emma, and once when Granny was making cakes, she said something absentmindedly about his mother loving her cinnamon loaf when Mom loathes cinnamon, and that made him connect the last dots.

 

He doesn’t mind that lie, though he was angry about it for a long while. Angry at Mom for lying to him and resentful of Emma for abandoning him. Now he knows the lie keeps them safe. Sometimes King Leopold forgets he’s present and once he heard him remark, “such a pity that Lady Mills is impure. I could have liked having her for a wife.”

 

And his advisor had said, “they do things differently where she’s from,” and Henry had felt the hot burn of anger rise up in him.

 

Marian had seen him (she’s one of the only people at court, besides Mom, who notices him) and had clasped a hand over his mouth. “Don’t,” she’d whispered and he’d subsided. Later, she had sat down with him before he went to bed, her dark eyes wide and serious and boring holes in him. “Think how little your mother would like to be married to the king.” And he’d understood.

 

“Back to the castle,” Mulan says. “Shoo.”

 

He rolls his eyes at her. “You’re just worried that Marian will arrive when I’m still here,” he says and is gratified when the skin of Mulan’s neck flushes a blotchy red.

 

He dawdles back to the castle. There was a big banquet, and he’s never allowed to go to them. Too young, Mom says, but he knows it’s really that the king doesn’t like the presence of a bastard at prestigious occasions. He doesn’t relish returning to his room, to the cold and no Mom to say good night to him and no fire in his grate. It’s warm out, the late summer air balmy and a faint breeze caresses his skin. It’s at the main courtyard that he hears voices. He wouldn’t stop except one voice is that of his Aunt Zelena, who’d appeared in Mom’s life just a few short years ago.

 

No one will tell him why she showed up and what makes her so angry with Mom. He’s determined to find out though, so he stops and listens. It’s muffled and distant but he makes out Zelena saying, “if I had my freedom, I would do as I wished.”

 

The gentleman with her responds with a laugh. “If,” he says. “That’s a big if.”

 

“My sister,” Zelena spits, “thinks she’s saving me, sending me off with Princess Abigail. I loathe it. I loathe her.”

 

“You know,” the man says, “I’ve heard rumours that Prince James plans to woo Snow White tomorrow.”

 

“What of it?” Zelena asks.

 

“Your sister cares for the girl,” he says.

 

“My sister cares for no one. She’s made that abundantly clear over the past few years.” There’s a pause, the rustle of taffeta, an owl hooting. “She’d resent trouble though…”

 

The pair move out of earshot and Henry scowls. He runs back up to the castle, where he is roundly scolded by Red for being out of doors so late. “I think Zelena’s planning to make trouble for Mom,” he says.

 

“Zelena’s always planning to make trouble for your mother,” Red says, pulling the blankets over him and tucking him in tight as though he were four, not twelve. “She’s not very good at it though.”

 

“You have to tell her,” he says, though his eyelids droop. He’s more tired than he thought.

 

“Of course,” Red says, kissing his forehead. “I’ll tell her.” She blows out the candle and moves to the door. “Good night, Henry.”

 

The door shuts and, though he struggles to remain awake until his mom arrives to check on him, he drifts off in spite of himself.

Chapter Text

Leopold requests an audience with Snow, and Snow drags Regina along with her. “Please,” she says. “I know Papa is going to speak with me about marriage. I need moral support.”

 

Reluctantly, Regina agrees, trailing Snow to her father’s offices. Leopold sits, dressed in masquerade finery, though his mask sits on his desk, ready to be donned when they move to the ballroom. “I have heard tell, Snow,” he says, and the buttons of his waistcoat strain at his belly when he shifts, “that Prince James greatly esteems you.”

 

Snow bows her head, demure in the face of her father, and Regina feels that cold twist in her gut. “Yes, Father,” she says.

 

“If he should propose to you,” Leopold says, “you know what your answer should be.”

 

Snow nods and she feels a reluctant stab of pity. She wishes she cared less for the girl, wishes she could still summon the loathing of eleven years ago; it would make her life at court easier. It is hard for her heart to fight against such love, though, and Snow loves her so very much. “Oh yes, Snow,” Regina says. “By all means, bow and sigh and say, ‘father, as it pleases you’.” She mimics Snow’s voice, high and melodious, and Snow giggles.

 

“A strong husband would do you good, Lady Regina,” Leopold says, an eyebrow raised critically.

 

Regina laughs. “Oh no, your majesty,” she says. “I am too old for such things. Surely the only men interested in me are those with beards and I cannot abide a bearded man.” She casts a glance at Leopold who is, of course, bearded, as are all men his age.

 

“Marry a woman then? Or clean shaven man?” he suggests, the scowl disappearing from his brow only a moment after it appears.

 

She ignores the suggestion of a woman. She has made no secret of her inclinations and Leopold’s kingdom is a liberal one in that sense. But there is no joke to be made in marrying a woman – or not one Snow or Leopold would find remotely amusing. “What? A boy? And me with a ten-year-old son.” She stands, walking to the window, where she has a clear view of the festivities being set up in the courtyard below. “I couldn’t be both mother and lover and he wouldn’t know what to do with me. No,” she says. “I will remain as I am.”

 

“That’s so sad,” Snow says and her eyes actually mist up in sympathy. “You’ll be alone forever.”

 

Better alone than shackled to a husband she cannot love, she thinks, but that might be a bridge too far for Leopold. “I’m not alone,” she says instead. “I have Henry.”

 

Leopold’s lips twist at the mention of Henry, of her supposed bastard. “Yes, well,” he says. “One day I would like to see you fitted with a partner, dear. One who is perhaps not so particular when it comes to, well…” He pauses.

 

“If you find that person, send them my way,” she says. “I plan to one day take my seat with the bachelors in heaven.”

 

“I hope you do not listen too closely to Lady Regina, daughter,” Leopold says, turning to his daughter.

 

“For my part,” Regina says. “I hope you follow your heart as well, Snow. I’m sure the prince is a fine man, but make sure you love him.”

 

Snow looks anxiously between her father and Regina, and Regina wonders whether Snow is regretting asking her for moral support. “I think the festivities are close to starting,” she says and smooths the folds of her white gown. Leopold dons his mask and leads the way.

 

The courtyard is a whirl of colour and light, and Regina feels her heart lighten at the sight of the throngs of people. Whatever some people may think of her, she is capable of having fun. She enjoys dancing, more so now that she has the freedom to dance with whomsoever she chooses, now that the spectre of her mother no longer lurks over her shoulder.

 

“You are too light on your feet, Regina dear.”

“A lady must always be demure.”

“Do not smile so much. A queen never smiles.”

 

She will dance with everybody tonight. She will be light on her feet. She will dance with those who are beneath her, with women and men alike. She is not a queen. She will never be a queen now. The thought makes her smile. She will not care if she smiles too much or even if she laughs.

 

Papi used to say that a star danced and then she was born, though Mother told it differently. “The pain, Regina. I cried.”

 

(She does not like to remember the past, though her son carrying her papi’s name gives her comfort.)

 

She strides forward and spots Emma instantly. She is dressed as a knight – a highly unoriginal costume – and a gilded gold mask covers her face. She would recognise that gait anywhere, though, would recognise the swell of her breasts beneath the thin chain mail, the slope of her shoulders. She knows her of old.

 

She is going to have some fun tonight.

 

*

 

“My queen?” It is Regina. Emma would recognise the smooth husk of that voice anywhere.

 

It is in that moment that Emma panics. “Yes,” she says, pitching her voice higher, straightening her back.

 

“Dance with me, your majesty,” Regina says, falling into a low curtsey. She is dressed in a gown of brilliant blues and greens and when Emma looks at her mask, she realises she is costumed as a peacock, feathers adorning her mask and that sweep of dark hair sitting high on her head.

 

What choice does Emma have but to take that hand in her own and allow herself to be led onto the dance floor?

 

It is pleasant enough, when she forgets that she is dancing with Lady Regina. It’s always nice to have soft, feminine curves pressed against her body, to have long fingers laced through her own.

 

“Are you enjoying your time in the White Kingdom?” Regina asks.

 

“Very much,” Emma says.

 

“You must be relieved to have more diverse company,” she says. “It cannot be easy spending all your time with such bores.”

 

“They’re not all bad, just as the company here is not all good. I have heard tell, for instance, that you have become disdainful and sarcastic,” Emma says.

 

“From my sister? Or Lady Emma?” Regina asks and, the cheek of it, she laughs. “It sounds like something she’d say.” She spins out from Emma, a twirl of colour and light. Emma pulls her back in automatically, the two of them dancing together as natural as breathing.

 

“What do you have against Lady Emma?” Emma asks. “I know many esteem her highly.”

 

“May I be frank, your majesty?” Regina asks, and Emma nods. “She’s your court jester, your fool. No one takes her seriously, least of all herself. She’s an idiot.”

 

Emma feels white-hot humiliation burn inside her. She knows Regina is angry at her, knows she dislikes her even, but to hear such words spoken aloud… What makes it worse is that they are words that have often played through her mind. Regina has a way of finding her weak spots and breaking down her fences and she hates it. “And what if I tell her you said that?”

 

“She will attempt some wit at my expense. No one will listen and she’ll disappear soon enough. Lady Emma always runs.” Regina spins again and Emma feels sick. Perhaps if she throws up on Regina’s exquisite gown this horrific dance will end. “Come, Abigail. We must follow the leaders.”

 

They part a short while later and Emma finds Abigail, dressed in gold and holding her horse mask in one hand. “I hate her,” she hisses. “I hate her so much.”

 

“Regina?” Abigail asks.

 

“She is the most terrible person in existence,” Emma says.

 

“Yes,” Abigail says, her gaze wandering over to where Regina dances with a dark-skinned woman dressed as a pirate. Regina is laughing, her head tilted back, red lips wide and teeth flashing white. She smiled at Emma like that once. “She certainly seems like evil incarnate.”

 

“She’ll lure you in,” Emma says darkly. “Make you think she likes you, while all the time she’s laughing at you behind your back.”

 

“And how did this fresh hatred come forth?” Abigail asks.

 

“Um,” Emma says and she screws up her nose, which is itching beneath the confines of the mask. “I might’ve pretended I was you.” 

 

“Isn’t that treason?” Abigail asks, but she’s laughing.

 

“Shut up,” Emma grumbles.

 

“I think you’ll find eavesdroppers never hear any good about themselves,” Abigail says. “Lady Regina and I have become close over the years. I like her and you know I rarely like anyone.”

 

Emma isn’t sure she can account for the stab of jealousy deep in her belly at Abigail’s words. She hates Regina, she does, but if she’s being honest there’s a possessive quality to her hate. No one else should know Regina if she cannot. She snorts. “You like everyone, Abigail,” she says. “Liking Lady Regina is proof enough of that.”

 

“Oh look,” Abigail says, laughter in every syllable. “She’s coming this way.”

 

Sure enough, the music has ended and Regina is cutting a line across the dance floor to them. “Please,” Emma says, the pitch of her voice desperate. “Give me any errand you can devise. I will go to the sea kingdom and steal Queen Ariel’s voice again, spin straw into gold, slay a dragon for you if that is your will, rather than spend five minutes conversing with that harpy. Please, what will you have me do?”

 

“I desire nothing but your good company,” Abigail says, and she grins, the evil troll.

 

Emma throws her hands up in the air. “I see you want me dead.”

 

“Your majesty,” Lady Regina says, curtseying. “My lady fool,” she adds blandly, but there’s a smirk playing at the corner of her lips that tells Emma she knows exactly who she was dancing with earlier.

 

“If you will both pardon me,” she says stiffly and storms away.

 

As she does, she hears Regina ask, too loudly to be entirely innocent, “was it something I said?”

 

She has never loathed someone more in her life.

 

*

 

For a man whose proposal has apparently been accepted, James appears to be in a foul mood when he leaves conversation with Zelena and approaches Leopold and Snow later in the evening.

 

Shortly after her brief conversation with Abigail, Regina had been dragged away by Snow. “It has happened,” she had said, and her eyes were shining bright as stars. “I’m in love.”

 

“Oh,” Regina had replied, hoping her voice didn’t sound as hollow as she felt. That small, evil voice in the back of her brain had asked, why should she be happy when you are not? How is that fair? “Congratulations, my dear.”

 

“He asked me to dance and we just connected,” she had said. “It’s true love, I know it is. I was able to accept his proposal with a clear conscience.”

 

“I’m so happy for you.” She had found, for once, that she was speaking the truth. Though true love was not for her (she had Henry, which was enough, which had to be enough) she knew Leopold. Though he put up a good façade at magnanimity, what Snow wanted wouldn’t matter to him ultimately.

 

Now James is distinguishable from his twin not simply by the lack of a scar down his cheek but also by the metaphorical storm cloud gathering above his head. “Why so glum, James?” Abigail asks.

 

“I’m fine,” he says shortly.

 

“You are not unwell?”

 

“No, your majesty.” He glares across at his brother, who stands silent and solemn to one side.

 

Regina rolls her eyes. “He is neither sad nor sick nor merry nor well. But civil. And, I think, jealous.”

 

Abigail looks honestly befuddled. “But why? The deed is done. You are to marry Snow. Leopold has no objections. You must only set the day.”

 

“Prince James,” Leopold says. “My daughter is yours for the taking.”

 

“Speak, prince. It is your cue,” Regina says, because James appears to be struck mute, eyes wide with surprise, mouth slightly agape.

 

“Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. My princess, as you are mine, I am yours.” They’re pretty words, and they are matched with a beaming grin, though Regina remembers the face – stormy, ugly – that preceded it, when he thought he had been thwarted, and she frowns for a moment.

 

But Snow is so happy, eyes shining with unbridled joy. “Speak, Snow,” she says, putting aside her concerns. “Or if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss.” The next thing, Snow has thrown herself at James, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him soundly.

 

Abigail grins at her. “You have a merry heart, my lady.”

 

She nods. “I do my best.” Her gaze drifts to Snow and James. “I’ll bet you anything Snow is whispering that he is in her heart.”

 

“A good guess,” James says, grinning.

 

“And so it goes. The whole world is to be married but me.” Regina smiles.

 

“Regina, I will find you your happy ending,” Abigail says and Regina laughs.

 

“Do you have any particularly handsome siblings?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Will I do?” Abigail says and for a moment her gaze is so earnest, so horrifyingly, terrifyingly open and hopeful, that Regina’s throat constricts.

 

And then hysterical laughter bubbles up within her and suddenly she can’t breathe for laughing. “No, your majesty,” she chokes out. Silence. Leopold glares at her and Snow worries at her lip with her teeth. “I mean, not unless I could have another one for working days. Your majesty is too costly to wear every day.” Abigail’s lips quirk into a smile. “Forgive me, your majesty. Most people are well used to my nonsense.”

 

“Your nonsense delights me,” Abigail says. “This lightness of spirits about you becomes you well.”

 

Her shoulders relax. “Your majesty is too kind,” she murmurs. “Snow, James, may the gods give you joy. My king, I bid you a good night.”

 

And she leaves, hearing the laughter and merriment behind her. There is one gentleman, however, who does not look altogether pleased. Poor David – the second son, born twelve minutes too late – stands in the shadows, his eyes on Snow.

 

*

 

Henry watches his mother leave the party, skirts trailing behind her. He’s too old now to speak as as he did when he was child, when he would see his mama dressed up and lisp adoringly, “you’re boot-iful, Mama,” and be rewarded with a hug or a kiss on his cheek. She is beautiful though, but in a kingdom that privileges pale skin and pink cheeks, Snow is considered fairest of them all.

 

His mother has something of a second sight for him, able to sense his presence whenever he is close, and so it is only now that she has departed he feels safe to sneak closer to the group congregating around King Leopold. Everyone thinks he is in bed, asleep, but everyone is at the party.

 

“What a pleasant woman,” the queen – Abigail, he thinks – says, gazing after Mom.

 

“She is certainly … lively,” Leopold says. Henry wonders if he imagines the twist of his mouth at the word and he wants to laugh because Mom isn’t lively but almost inexpressibly sad sometimes. Just because people laugh doesn’t make them happy, but no one seems to notice this.

 

“She doesn’t seem that enamoured with the prospect of marriage,” Abigail says.

 

“Can you imagine?” Leopold says. “She would mock her suitors until they were driven out of their senses. Then there is the boy to consider of course…”

 

“She would make a wonderful partner for Lady Emma,” Abigail says, deftly interrupting before Leopold can say something offensive, and everyone around laughs.

 

“They would drive each other mad,” Leopold says.

 

“They loathe each other,” Snow adds, clinging to her handsome prince, the twin without a scar.

 

“When do you two wish to marry?” Leopold asks.

 

“As soon as possible,” the handsome twin says and Snow giggles. “I would marry my love tomorrow.” Henry pulls a face.

 

“So soon?” Leopold asks, raising an eyebrow. “Give us a few days to prepare festivities at least. Shall we say five days from now?”

 

“And,” Abigail adds, “we shall not be bored in the meantime. I intend to undertake a task that would be beyond even the Dark One’s magic, making Emma Swan and Lady Regina fall hopelessly in love with each other. With your help…”

 

But it is then that Henry is caught. “Henry!” Mulan is at his shoulder. “Get to bed.”

 

He scowls but scurries off before Mulan can alert them to his presence. He wants to know the plot Abigail is cooking up. Now that the thought has entered his mind, he wants more than anything for his mom and Emma to fall in love and live happily ever after. They could be a family.

 

He makes it to his bedroom just before Mom does, curling up under the covers. She sits on the bed beside him and he pretends like he’s barely awake. “Mama?” he asks sleepily.

 

She brushes his hair from his forehead. “Hello, my sweet boy.”

 

“Did you have a good party?”

 

She laughs. “It had its moments.” She sits. In the moonlight, she looks sad and old.

 

“Mom,” he says. “Are you happy here?”

 

“With you? Right now?” she asks. “The happiest I’ve ever been.”

 

“You know,” he adds and his voice is actually hoarse with sleep now because it is well past his bedtime, “if you wanted to fall in love and get married, I wouldn’t mind.”

 

She kisses his forehead, pulling the bed covers up to his chin. “Don’t worry about me, darling. I am perfectly content.”

 

But content isn’t happy and he wonders – hopes really – that maybe Emma would make her happy. It’s a ridiculous fantasy, but it’s why he doesn’t say anything about what he overheard because what if Abigail is right? What if she can make it work?

 

*

 

Emma is nursing the mother of all hangovers in the shade of a tree in one of the private gardens when she hears the clatter of people. The last thing she wants is to have to talk to another human being so she clambers up the tree, bark scraping against her fingertips. She’ll slip away when the party passes her by.

 

But they don’t, the bastards. They take her spot beneath the tree – Abigail, James, David and Leopold – and send a servant for a pitcher of lemonade. Emma hopes a bird shits on their heads.

 

“How goes the marriage preparation?” Abigail asks James.

 

As James launches into talk of how perfect and pure and beautiful Princess Snow is, Emma drifts off. She wonders at this obsessive need for people to marry, to yoke themselves to another person for life. She has seen enough marriages to know how badly wrong things can go – unfaithful spouses, abusive husbands, women so worn down with housework and children that the very life is drained from them, couples who sit at opposite ends of a long table and do not speak…

 

Only the very deepest love would ever convince her to try matrimony and she amuses herself while Abigail organises a musician to sing by imagining her perfect woman – for she has long since given up interest in men. Once burnt, twice shy, Granny always used to say when she snuck into the kitchens. Any woman she married would have to be wealthy, Emma’s certain of that, because her own money is predicated on long campaigns with Abigail’s company and if she is to marry she wishes to actually be with her wife. Intelligence is another must; she cannot understand men who actively seek out silly wives. Beautiful, regal, quick witted, brave… And for a moment she sees a flash of dark hair and eyes, hears a sultry, mocking voice, and she almost falls from the tree.

 

She shakes her head. The musician plays, singing of faithless men and the wooing of women. She hates this song. Abigail has bards play it especially to irritate her whenever the opportunity arises. “An excellent song,” Abigail says, and there’s a clink of coin, muffled thanks from the musician.

 

“So Leopold,” Abigail says. “What was it you told me of today, that the lady Regina is sick in love with your niece, Emma?”

 

Emma lets out a loud squeak and desperately tries to pass it off as the cawing of bird. Her hands sweat and she grips the branch clumsily.

 

“I don’t know what to think,” Leopold says. “But she loves her with an enraged affection.”

 

“And you’re sure it’s the truth?” Abigail asks.

 

“I would have thought it a joke but that she is so anguished about it,” Leopold says. “She swears she can never tell her.”

 

“It’s true,” James says. “Snow tells me she has all the marks of love. She writes countless letters, never sent. Snow has seen her fall to her knees, weeping over it, crying, ‘Oh my dear, sweet Emma, if you only knew’…”

 

“Snow is worried she might do herself an injury,” Leopold says gravely.

 

“Someone should tell Emma,” Abigail says.

 

“I won’t,” James says. “You know her well, Abigail. She’d torment the poor woman.”

 

“Lady Regina’s an excellent woman,” Abigail says, real vehemence in her voice. “She deserves better than your idiot niece, apologies your majesty.”

 

“She’s so wise,” James says.

 

“In everything except loving Emma,” Leopold responds. “I wish she could have fallen in love more wisely this time around. The first unfortunate situation, we of course know about…”

 

“I wish she had fallen for me,” Abigail says and Emma is astonished to feel a stab of pain in her heart at the thought. “I love Emma dearly. She’s brave in so many respects but she’s so terrified of commitment that even if she felt anything for Regina, I doubt she’d do anything about it.”

 

“It is hot,” Leopold says. “Shall we retreat inside?”

 

Emma drops from the tree, limbs shaking and head spinning. She’d think it was a trick, but for her uncle being a part of the conversation, but for the parts of the truth taken from Snow. “Regina loves me?” she mutters, kicking at the base of the tree. “Why?”

 

It must be requited, is her next immediate thought. Abigail thinks she’s afraid of commitment. She’ll show her. She’ll be the most committed wife there ever was. She knows Regina well. She’s a beautiful woman, wise, witty, caring. They’re certainly compatible, or at least they were. Her face flushes hot as memories cross her mind. And there’s the boy to be thought of; she doesn’t regret giving Henry to Regina, not for an instant, but the idea of having some role in his life once more, well, that’s worth everything in the world.

 

Yes, Abigail and James will poke fun, but can’t a person change? When she proclaimed that she would die a bachelor, well, she didn’t think she’d live until she were married. She looks up and sees Regina approach at a furious pace.

 

“Beautiful,” she breathes. She’s some distance away still but Emma thinks she spies some marks of love in her. She leans against the tree trunk, feigning nonchalance, but her jacket snags against the rough bark and she almost falls.

 

Regina stands before her, a flush of pink high in her cheeks. “Against my will I am sent to bid you to come into dinner.”

 

“Fair Regina, I thank you for your pains,” Emma says.

 

“Hardly fair,” Regina says, pursing her lips. Emma grimaces momentarily at her poor choice of words, but Regina looks more amused than anything so she chuckles and tosses her curls. A lock of hair gets stuck in her mouth. “If it had been painful, I wouldn’t have bothered,” she adds.

 

“You take pleasure in fetching me then?” Emma asks. She would not have thought Regina would be quite so obvious. Her gaze darts momentarily to the rather daring display of cleavage and her tongue flicks out, licking dry lips. When she glances back at Regina she has one eyebrow raised.

 

“The biggest thrill of my life,” she says. “You’re not hungry? I’ll tell Granny to feed your dinner to the dogs then.”

 

Emma laughs again and Regina’s brow furrows when she doesn’t actually say anything in response, before she turns on her heel and strides back to the castle. Emma watches her go, pretty convinced that there’s a little extra wiggle in her walk that hasn’t been present before. “Against my will I am sent to bid you to come into dinner? There’s a double meaning in that.” She can’t help the broad grin that spreads across her face.

 

Loving Lady Regina Mills with all her heart will be the easiest thing in the world.

Chapter Text

“But tell me truly, Snow,” Marian says, her voice seeming preternaturally loud in Regina’s ears. “Does Emma really love Regina so ardently?”

 

Regina falls with a thud to the floor, taking several puffy, white dresses with her. Cursing silently, she freezes, hoping against all hope that the women didn’t hear the noise from Snow’s closet. Snow has been threatening to make Regina wear this peach monstrosity of hers for the wedding and she hopes if she finds it and hides it she might be allowed to wear her own gown. It seems she is in luck for the three women simply continue talking. She crawls towards the door of the closet, sliding it open a crack.

 

“So says my betrothed,” Snow says. “And Queen Abigail. She thinks Emma is ready to settle down and be tamed by Regina’s loving hand.” She laughs.

 

“She asked me to tell Regina,” Marian adds, “but I persuaded her that was a terrible idea.”

 

“Why?” It is Red’s voice. “I think they’d make a lovely couple.”

 

Marian laughs. “Have you even met Regina? I don’t think nature’s ever made a prouder woman. I love her dearly, but if I hadn’t seen her with Henry I’d wonder if she was even capable of love.”

 

“Marian!” Snow exclaims and Regina feels a burst of warmth for the girl, until her next words. “Actually, it’s true. I don’t think anyone alive – no matter how noble, young, beautiful – could form an equal, loving partnership with Regina. She’s so…”

 

“Pig-headed?” Marian suggests. “Contrary?”

 

Snow and Red laugh and Regina’s face feels too warm. She clenches her hands into fists. “I’d rather talk to my cousin, counsel her to fight against her passion. I could make something up, slander Regina.”

 

“You can’t do Regina such a wrong!” Red says, horrified. Red will be her only friend now, Regina thinks. “If I liked women, Emma would be a fine choice. Surely Regina will see that.” No, Regina amends silently. I am alone in this world.

 

“She’s the finest of women,” Snow says. “Brave, beautiful, chivalrous. Though I have spent little time with my cousin since our childhood, James speaks so highly of her.”

 

“And do tell,” Marian says. “How goes it with James?”

 

She can just about hear Snow smile. “We’ve barely had two moments alone since our engagement,” she says. “But oh Marian, I do love him desperately. I knew from the moment we danced at the masquerade.”

 

“Perhaps we should try and find him now,” Red suggests and the three leave, allowing Regina to stand and exit the cramped closet space. Her head spins.

 

She knows Emma loved her once – in as much as Emma knew how to love – eleven years ago. She knows that their brief time together meant something, those fumbled kisses, those nights sharing a bed, Regina holding a hand over Emma’s mouth when she moaned because Snow was just next door, a light sleeper and an all too inquisitive child, and she couldn’t resist the press of Emma’s body.

 

But Emma ran.

 

She’s back now, she thinks. Back and apparently desperately in love. She did see some odd signs of it the previous evening.

 

It feels as though fire rushes to her ears at the memories of how Marian, her dearest friend, sees her. She stands condemned for arrogance and scorn, and she cannot refute it, not entirely. Well, farewell contempt and pride. “Love on, Emma,” she murmurs and she cannot help the smile that spreads unbidden across her lips. She will not leave Emma’s love unrequited. She will not be so cruel.

 

*

 

Abigail is calling it a bachelor party, and Emma sits at the bar, nursing a drink and wishing she could be somewhere where Regina is. She watches Zelena, dour as ever, in the corner, muttering away to her cronies. Emma’s never trusted Walsh, who spent too much time sweet-talking her, and she trusts Whale – the physician of Abigail’s company – still less.

 

She tried to befriend Zelena early on, knowing she was Regina’s sister, and feeling raw with loss. “I know your sister,” she’d said.

 

“Oh precious Regina,” Zelena had snarled. “Tell me, did her diamond tiara start to pinch? Is that why she ran away from Mother?”

 

She had felt her hand curl into a fist. Everyone at Leopold’s court knew Regina’s story, how she had run from home after her mother had accepted a proposal on her behalf, how her first love had died in suspicious circumstances, how she had desperately sought amnesty with the White kingdom. Lady Cora Mills had hunted for her, had even shown up at the palace, though she had been turned away. Emma wouldn’t wish that mother on her worst enemy.

 

Now, she orders another ale from the barman and swivels on her stool. David seems to be in a contemplative mood as well, ignoring his twin’s attempts at drawing him into arm wrestling competitions. “Why so serious, Swan?” James asks. He’s drunk, pink-cheeked and jovial and just a little bit too tactile. She shrugs his hand from her shoulder.

 

“I am not as I have been,” she says.

 

“No,” James says. “You’re sadder.” He pouts.

 

“I think she’s in love,” Abigail says, speaking loudly.

 

“It’s a toothache,” Emma says feebly.

 

“What sort of toothache makes you sigh like a lovesick fool over a single pint of ale for the best part of an hour?” James asks.

 

“Most toothaches I would imagine,” Emma replies.

 

“My little Swan’s growing up,” he says, ruffling her hair. She shakes him off.

 

“She’s dressed to impress,” Abigail says, looking her up and down. “Gods above, Swan, I don’t think I’ve seen you in a gown since, well, ever. Love does change people, doesn’t it?”

 

“I’m tired,” David says suddenly, abruptly. “Swan, you want to head back?”

 

Emma has never been more grateful. She throws a few coins on the bar, enough for a couple of rounds for the rest of the revellers, and follows David from the tavern. She turns before leaving and sees Zelena approach Abigail and James. Odd, she thinks, but shrugs. Perhaps alcohol has made Zelena a more pleasant acquaintance?

 

David is silent on the walk back. It is when they reach the castle that he turns to her and asks, “The princess loves him truly, doesn’t she?” There’s an urgency in his voice.

 

“Yes,” Emma says. “She seemed relieved when I spoke with her, said she just knew.”

 

“Oh,” David says glumly. “Good. Well, g’night, Swan.”

 

She falls onto the bed though sleep eludes her. She cannot help but think of Regina, just a few doors down. Would she be sleeping? She had always looked so beautiful in rest, the moon shining on her face, all worries and cares smoothed away. During their brief time together so long ago, Emma had stayed up, watching her, the slow rise and fall of her chest beneath her cotton shift, the pursing of lips as she breathed, the way her hair spread across the pillow…

 

It doesn’t seem fair that a woman get more beautiful as she ages, rather than less. She drifts off, but her dreams are filled with Regina.

 

If this is love, it is not such a dreadful thing.

 

*

 

He’s sneaking around again when he sees the men. They’re drunk and he wonders if they’re returning from James’ bachelor party. He’d had a visit from Emma earlier that day and she’d mentioned it. “I don’t want to go,” she had admitted to him. “But Queen Abigail insists.”

 

Henry had smiled. “Mom has to go to some weird ‘family’ dinner thing,” he’d said. “She’s furious I wasn’t invited.”

 

Emma had run her fingers through her hair at the mention of his mother and he’d had to hide a grin behind his hand. “Are you upset?” she had asked.

 

He’d shrugged. “Nah,” he’d said. “King Leopold’s totally boring.”

 

He hadn’t mentioned that it also gave him prime sneaking around opportunities. So now he watches the two men – Walsh and Whale, he thinks their names are – and listens. “She pays well,” Whale says. “A thousand silver coins.”

 

“That seems extreme.”

 

“She can afford it,” Whale says. “You know she’s Lady Regina’s sister, yes?” So these are Zelena’s men, Henry thinks.

 

“Half, I thought,” Walsh replies. “Zelena never knew the mother, given up at birth. There’s bad blood there – sisterly resentment and all that. What does that have to do with anything?”

 

“Only that our lady hates no one so much as her sister,” Whale says.

 

“You’d think she’d try a less convoluted plot,” Walsh replies. “Seducing Emma Swan’d do nicely. Or kidnapping the boy.”

 

“Too obvious,” Whale says. “Attack Princess Snow, however…”

 

“True,” Walsh, says, nodding. “It’s a good plan. James angers quickly and he’s apt to believe everything he hears.”

 

“Well, it’s not like it was any great hardship for me,” Whale says. “That Red…” He laughs and Henry doesn’t like the sound of it. “She’s a firecracker.”

 

He hears Walsh murmur in response, something to low and, presumably, lewd given the way Whale laughs again. He feels anger rise in him, furious that Red should be talked about so rudely. She’s always been kind to him. “And James was fooled?” Walsh asks.

 

“Definitely,” Whale says. “Got all red-faced in anger about it. Promised to make the princess pay.”

 

It is then that Mulan approaches and Henry has never been more grateful for the steady, responsible captain of the guard. “State your business,” she says.

 

“Don’t have to tell you anything, lady,” Walsh replies and turns his back on her. Henry sees Mulan’s hand fall to the hilt of her sword.

 

Henry wants to stay and watch the proceeding but he must find his mother. He returns to the castle and sneaks into his mother’s room. He will be in trouble, he knows, for sneaking out at night (“Again, Henry?” Mom will ask, throwing her hands dramatically in the air. “After all our talks. Do you even know what insubordination means?”) but it’s important, more important than the possibility of getting into trouble. When he reaches her room, she’s asleep. The moonlight sweeps across her face – across the features so dissimilar to his own, even though their mannerisms are the same – and she snores lightly.

 

“Mom,” he whispers, nudging her shoulder. “Mom, wake up.”

 

She rolls over. “Mmm, not now.”

 

“It’s important,” he hisses. “Zelena’s trying to ruin Snow’s wedding.”

 

Mom opens one eye. “I’m sure she is but she will fail,” she says, taking his hand and squeezing, her grasp firm and reassuring. “Can the details wait until morning?”

 

“I suppose,” he says. He will wake early and find her. After all, it’s not as though James can do anything tonight. “Night, Mom.”

 

“Good night, precious boy,” Mom murmurs and then she is asleep again.

 

*

 

The morning of the wedding, Regina slips into Snow’s room, waking her with hot cocoa and soft, buttery pastries. She slept like the dead the night before and cannot remember her dreams, but she leaves a pastry and glass of milk on Henry’s bedside table. Soon this whole wedding palaver will be over and their days will once again be spent in peace.

 

And perhaps. Perhaps Emma might be there too. She smiles.

 

Snow sits up in bed in her white nightgown, with Red sitting at her feet, bemoaning her headache, and Marian curled up on the window seat. Regina sits at Snow’s vanity, tearing a pastry to shreds though only eating the smallest flakes. She feels strangely tired and her head aches.

 

“Your dress is so lovely,” Red says, staring enviously at the gown hanging in one corner of the room.

 

Snow smiles. “Isn’t it? Regina, you really don’t look well.”

 

“Allergies,” she says, and, as though on cue, she sneezes.

 

“Oh no,” Marian says and perhaps she’s imagining the sly glance. “Perhaps the swansdown pillows irritated?”

 

Regina sneezes again and glares at her. “Is it not time you were getting ready?” she asks Snow, who looks over at the clock and gasps, nearly disrupting her cocoa.

 

Her dress is covered in feathers, and Regina sneezes again when she buttons up the bodice for her. “You know what would help?” Red suggests. “Granny makes a great poultice out of Gomphocarpus physocarpus.”

 

“Swan flowers, you mean?” Marian asks and Regina sneezes for a fourth time.

 

“Is there something you want to say, Marian? Some joke you wish to make at my expense?” she asks and Marian grins.

 

“Of course not. You’re awfully defensive though.”

 

“When people are making insinuations about my romantic li–” She realises too late what she’s just said and wonders if she jumped out the window whether Marian would follow her to continue to mock her.

 

Marian grins again, looking for all the world like a cat who has just caught a plump, juicy sparrow or blackbird. “I would never dare suggest the proud lady Regina is in love,” she says. “Only, it seems someone we all know once swore she would never marry and now is talking of leaving a certain queen’s company and settling in the White Kingdom.”

 

“You gossip too much,” Regina grumbles, finishing with the buttons on Snow’s gown.

 

“I gossip just enough,” Marian replies. “Oh, Snow. You look charming.”

 

“Don’t cry,” Regina orders. “Your make up will run.”

 

Snow throws her arms around Regina’s neck. “I love you,” she murmurs. “And I hope one day we will be related by more than friendship.”

 

Something niggles at the back of Regina’s mind, some dark cloud threatening to ruin the most happy of days, and she pushes it aside. “Be happy,” she whispers back. “Always be happy, my dear Snow.”

Chapter Text

He can’t find Mom anywhere.

 

He wakes late – and perhaps he shouldn’t have been outside past midnight, eavesdropping on nefarious sorts – to breakfast resting on his bedside table and it takes him until he’s three quarters of the way through the pastry that he remembers. He has to tell Mom.

 

Her room is empty, bed made and the gown that had been hanging on the wardrobe door, ready for the wedding, is missing. He checks Red’s room, the dining hall, the kitchens. No Mom.

 

Snow’s chambers are empty too and her wedding dress is gone, and he runs out onto the grounds, towards the chapel. He bumps into Mulan. “Not invited to the wedding, Henry?” she asks.

 

“I’m never invited anywhere,” he replies. “Did you arrest those men last night?”

 

“After one of them made some rude suggestions about my person, yes. Were you snooping?” Mulan asks, raising an eyebrow, but then she catches sight of Henry’s face and the panic he feels must be written across his face because her own face turns grave and she asks, “what’s wrong?”

 

“I need to warn someone,” he says. “There was a plot. Zelena.” It’s all so garbled and urgent. He can’t think straight.

 

“Slow down, Henry,” Mulan says.

 

“No time,” he replies. “I need to tell Mom. Snow’s in danger.”

 

They’re coming into view of the chapel now and Mulan grabs Henry’s wrist, holds him back, when he starts to run. For a moment, he thinks she’s worried about him interrupting the wedding and he’s furious because there won’t be a wedding to interrupt if Mom doesn’t hear what he has to say right now, but then he sees James storming away from the church, fists clenched, and he is followed by Zelena and Abigail and his twin. “I’m sorry, Henry,” Mulan says. “I think we might be too late.”

 

*

 

There’s something wrong with James, Regina thinks, watching him at the altar. Snow is radiant, pale skin glowing with a blush that would make any bride envious. She beams at her future husband, whose entire body is tensed, posture stiff, lips twisted, eyes cold.

 

Nerves, Regina thinks. It must be nerves. She glances past him, catching Emma’s eye. She smiles and Regina feels like she might just melt. She is so easy to care for. She feels her lips twitch, but she pulls it together, turning back to the ceremony in progress.

 

It was quite a coup of Leopold’s part to get the Blue Fairy to officiate Snow’s wedding, but then, Regina supposes, he is royalty. She’s never trusted the fairies; too many times to count as a child she wished to them, so fervently. When Mother had locked her in the broom closet for playing with a servant, she had wished. When her dear little puppy, Quixote, had caught his claw in her lip, she had wished. When she had held Daniel’s lifeless body in her lap, her sobs raw and aching from deep within, she had wished. And yet, the serving girl had been dismissed, her puppy’s neck snapped, Daniel’s heart crushed to dust.

                                                                                                                     

So when Mother had announced her betrothal to the old king – who had been old enough to be her father with several daughters only a few years younger than her and a desperate need for sons – she had not wished. She had run.

 

“If any of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoined, I charge you on your souls to utter it,” the Blue Fairy intones.

 

“Know you any, Snow?” James asks. There’s something about his tone that Regina cannot like.

 

“None, my prince,” Snow says. She still smiles, but Regina notices the furrow at her brow. His behaviour isn’t how Snow would expect her future husband to behave on their wedding day and she must be concerned.

 

“Know you any, Prince James?” the Blue Fairy asks.

 

Leopold, from the audience, calls, “I dare make his answer – none.” There’s a wave of laughter around the chapel.

 

“By your leave,” James says. He’s smiling but it’s not a pleasant smile, his lip curled and his eyes sharp as shattered glass. “King Leopold, you give me your daughter with free and unconstrained soul?”

 

“Of course,” Leopold says. “As the gods gave her to me.”

 

“And what can I give you in recompense for this gift?” He spits the last word and Regina shifts closer to Snow, placing a hand at the small of her back.

 

“Nothing, unless you give her back,” Zelena says and there is a triumphant slant to her mouth. Regina remembers, with a flash of sickly horror, Henry coming to her last night. She had brushed aside his story, exhausted, and forgotten it in the morning.

 

“An excellent suggestion, m’lady,” James says. “There, King Leopold, take her back again. You would give this rotten fruit to someone you call a friend? She has only the appearance of virtue.” He turns, sneering, to Snow. “Oh, look how like a maid she blushes. But her pink cheeks stem from guilt, not modesty.”

 

Leopold’s face grows pale and then very red. “I would be very careful at the accusations you levy against my daughter.”

 

“I would be very careful at attempting to trick a crown prince into marriage with a proven wanton.”

 

“You took her virginity?” Leopold asks, and he is trembling with anger.

 

James laughs, the sound bitter and echoing through the stone confines of the chapel. “Not I.”

 

“James,” Snow says suddenly. She sounds so young, her voice shaking and high. “Why are you saying this?”

 

“You would deny it?”

 

“Deny what? I have done nothing.”

 

“Who was the man who talked with you last night outside your window?”

 

“No one,” Snow says and there is desperation in her voice. “I talked to no one.”

 

“James,” David says. He places a hand on his brother’s arm, which is thrown off.

 

“I saw you,” James says. “And it wasn’t the first time, was it? Slut.”

 

Snow faints at this and the chapel erupts in pandemonium. Regina catches her, is left to bear her weight, sinking to her knees and resting Snow’s head in her lap. Her skin is as cold and white as her namesake.

 

“My prince,” Zelena says. “Perhaps these are not things that should be spoken of in a place of worship.” Her face is the very picture of solemnity, but Regina catches a flash of success in her eye and she knows. This is Zelena’s doing. This is revenge.

 

James throws one last, loathing glare at Snow’s body, his gaze drifting up to Regina. She is struck by the venom in his eyes, the anger feeling like a slap, and she feels her own face turn hard, eyebrows knitting together, her lips tensing into a scornful line.

 

James turns on his heel and leaves, followed closely by Zelena, and then David and Abigail, who throws her an apologetic glance as she departs. There is a presence beside her, Emma, and she is helping to lift Snow, to lie her down on an empty pew, rest her head against Regina’s lap. Emma’s hand smooths Snow’s hair back and the tenderness of the gesture unmoors her.

 

“How is she?” the Blue Fairy asks.

 

“I can’t find a pulse,” Regina says, feeling around at Snow’s throat and then wrist. “Oh gods alive. If she dies…”

 

“Death is the fairest cover for her shame that may be wished for,” Leopold says and Regina has never hated him more. If Snow dies, she will leave this place, Mother be damned.

 

Emma hands her a mirror and she holds it to her mouth. It mists. “Alive,” Regina breathes. Emma remains silent and it’s unnerving; Emma is never wordless. The shadowy stillness of the church oppresses.

 

Snow stirs, eyes fluttering open. “What–”

 

“Quiet, dear,” the Blue Fairy says. “Do not exert yourself.”

 

Leopold paces, his footsteps echoing. “Can she deny the stories? I wish she were dead. I could not possibly be more vilely disappointed in my own daughter.”

 

Snow starts to sob and Regina has never felt more powerless in her life, has never wanted her mother’s gift for magic. “You imbecile–” she hisses, which would have gone very badly for her, had it not been for Emma.

 

“Your majesty, be patient. For my part, I think James has been misled.”

 

“Of course he has been,” Regina snaps. “Snow has been lied about and I am going to kill–”

 

She is interrupted again, this time by Leopold. “Why would the prince lie? He loved her. He cried when he spoke of her treachery.”

 

“Oh, because James couldn’t possibly be a good actor,” Regina snaps.

 

The Blue Fairy speaks. “If I may,” she says. “Snow has been faithful. I have known her since her birth. I know her looks well and she is innocent of this.”

 

“That was never even a question,” Regina says, jaw clenching. Snow still shakes.

 

“Princess Snow, who is this man you are accused of being with?” the Blue Fairy asks.

 

“I don’t know,” Snow wails. “I swear, I am virtuous.”

 

“James has been misinformed, I suspect,” Blue says. 

 

At the same moment, Regina and Emma say, “Zelena.”

 

“I have a suggestion,” Blue says. “Snow shall be placed under an enchanted sleep, that none but her true love can break. We shall say that this happened the moment she was accused. When proof comes out that she has been belied, James will wake her. Their bond will be secured in true love’s kiss.”

 

How can be possibly be her true love?” Regina asks. “How could anyone’s true love treat them like that?”

 

Snow speaks. “I want to do it.” She holds out a hand to Blue, who takes it, leading her to from the chapel to a private room at the back, supported by Emma. Leopold follows.

 

Regina is left alone.

 

*

 

Regina stands facing a statue of one of the old goddesses, her marble face stern and unyielding. Emma watches her shoulders shake and heave, though her sobs are silent.

 

“Regina, have you wept all this time?” she asks.

 

“Yes,” she says, her voice wet. “And I will weep a while longer.” She does not turn to face her.

 

“I don’t want that,” Emma says and Regina laughs.

 

“I do it freely,” she replies.

 

“Snow has been wronged. It will all turn out in the end.” Regina turns to her, tears staining her cheeks. For a moment, Emma’s mind goes blank and then she blurts out the first thing that comes into her head. “There’s nothing in the world I love as much as you,” she says. The words seem too loud, reverberating around the chapel. “Isn’t that strange?”

 

For a moment, Regina just stares at her. “Idiot,” she murmurs. “My dear, sweet idiot.” One hand stretches out, as if to touch Emma’s cheek, and Emma leans forward into the touch, but Regina pulls back. “I cannot say it. Not now. Don’t make me say it.”

 

It’s the most tragic of circumstances, but Emma cannot help the smile threatening to split her face. “By my sword, you love me.” She steps forward.

 

“Do not swear by it,” Regina says, though she shifts towards her. They are only inches apart. “I’d hate to see you run through by your words.”

 

“I swear you love me and I will use my sword on anyone who says I don’t love you back.”

 

And then Regina is kissing her, her lips hard and fierce against Emma’s and Emma can taste salt from Regina’s tears and feel Regina’s fingers curl into her hair, tugging almost to the point of pain and Emma is so desperately gentle back, her fingers tracing Regina’s spine and her body just grazing Regina’s.

 

She breaks away, nuzzling at Regina’s neck with her nose. “I love you,” she whispers. “I have been the biggest fool in the world all these years.”

 

“We are all fools in love,” Regina murmurs, and presses a kiss to Emma’s neck, barely a whisper. “This is very sacrilegious.”

 

A thrill shudders up Emma’s spine. “I would do anything for you. Ask for it and it’s yours.”

 

She feels the body beneath her hands tense, her spine go rigid. Her next words are hissed low in Emma’s ear, where they burn ice-cold. “Kill James.”

 

Emma laughs, a short, horrified bark, and she’s disturbed at how the sound echoes against stone, mocking her. “I can’t do that.”

 

She sees Regina’s face harden and she pulls herself away and Emma feels the loss keenly. “Get out,” she says.

 

“No,” Emma says, reaching forward. “I can’t just kill James.”

 

“There is no love in you. Don’t touch me!”

 

“Regina–”

 

“No!” she yells. “He has slandered, scorned, dishonoured my friend, your cousin. If I had your skill with a blade I would… What man does that? Humiliates the poor girl on her wedding day, in front of everyone. Oh, if I had my mother’s power, I would take his heart and grind it to dust in my palm.” She’s magnificent in her rage, Emma thinks.

 

“Regina– “

 

“Princes!” Regina sneers. “If only anyone would stand up against that gallant for my sake. But clearly no one has the strength.”

 

“Regina!” Emma says, taking her hand. “I swear, on my life, I love you.”

 

“Use your life for something other than swearing by it,” Regina says and turns away from her.

 

“I’ll do it,” Emma says, speaking to Regina’s shoulders, which are shaking.

 

Regina turns back, eyes wide and wet. “What?”

 

“I will challenge James. For you, and for my cousin.” She takes Regina’s hand, pressing a kiss to her fingers. “I love you, Regina, and I am going to make this right.”

 

The chapel doors burst open.

 

*

 

“Mom,” Henry cries, running towards her and Emma. Emma is standing awfully close and he thinks that maybe her colour is heightened. He looks down and realises that Emma has Mom’s hand in hers. He raises an eyebrow at her and Emma’s cheeks flush scarlet. She drops the hand as though burnt.

 

“Oh, Henry,” his mother says and she has been crying and it kills him. “It’s all such a mess.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” he says, crying into her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

 

“No my darling,” Mom murmurs, wrapping her arms around him. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It was Zelena,” he says. “She plotted the whole thing. She tricked the prince.”

 

“I should go,” Emma says. She touches Mom’s shoulder. “I’ll see you when it’s done.” Mom watches her go, a curious smile playing across her lips.

 

“Tell me everything,” Mom says, sitting Henry down. So Henry tells her, about that night, about the men and their awful conversation, about Zelena’s plot so far as he knows about it.

 

“Mulan has the men in custody,” he says. “We can take them to the king and prove Princess Snow’s innocence.”

 

Mom smiles. “We can indeed.”

 

“Snow will be able to marry James after this, won’t she?”

 

He feels Mom stiffen beside him. “If she wishes,” she says. “James was … unkind to her. He may not be her true love.”

 

“But she said he was,” he says. “She said.

 

“And if he is then I am sure she will be able to forgive him.” He can feel the rage crackling beneath Mom’s skin. He knows how angry she is. Snow has been like a sister to her, even though Mom often doesn’t know how to express that. She’s told him before of how she ended up so far from home, about how Leopold granted her amnesty – and how that was because of Snow.

 

“Like you’ve forgiven Emma?” he asks, glancing at her slyly.

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mom says, but that private smile, the smile that she only shares with Henry, plays across her lips.

 

“Mom,” Henry says. “I know.”

 

“You know what?”

 

“That Emma gave birth to me,” he says. “I’ve known for a while.”

 

“Henry–”

 

“No, Mom,” he says and he meets her eyes, observing her very seriously because he wants her to understand. “It’s okay. You’re my mom. I know that. But, you know, if you want to fall madly in love with Emma…”

 

“Let’s not put the cart before the horse,” Mom says but she is smiling more broadly now, and Henry wonders if maybe her Henry-only smile will become a Henry-and-Emma smile. “Shall we go and tell everyone the truth?”

Chapter Text

She’s going to do the right thing. She’s going to challenge James. She’ll probably die because James is a renowned fighter but she’ll be dying for a good cause and Regina is sure to think it’s terribly impressive. This is what she tells herself as she approaches James, Abigail and David.

 

“Swan!” James cries, jovial. He’s drunk, cheeks pink and hair mussed. He has unbuttoned his shirt and the collar is crumpled.

 

Emma nods briefly. “Your majesty,” she says, bowing to Abigail.

 

“You just missed me being berated by Leopold,” James says. “If he weren’t the king, I might call him a meddling old fool.”

 

“I have come to speak with you,” she says.

 

“Do,” James says, reaching out to pull her towards him and missing. “Make us laugh. We could use a joke.”

 

“I’m not your jester,” Emma hisses.

 

“Emma,” Abigail says. “You’re angry.”

 

“Furious, your majesty,” Emma says. “I wish to tender my resignation.”

 

“Why?” Abigail asks.

 

“Because I do not like the company you keep,” she says.

 

“And it has nothing to do with a certain lady love?” Abigail asks, lips quirking into a smile.

 

“Respectfully, I cannot believe you’re even talking about this now,” Emma says, her hand curling over the sword hilt at her hip. “I wish to speak with James. Alone.”

 

“Go! Go,” James says, waving them off. Abigail shoots Emma a searching look but allows herself to be led away by David to another corner of the tavern.

 

“You’re a villain,” Emma says when they’re alone. “I’m challenging you for my cousin’s honour. Tomorrow, midday. Give you a chance to sober up.”

 

James laughs. “Don’t be ridiculous, Swan.”

 

“You will show up,” Emma says. “Or I will spread word everywhere that the valiant Prince James is a coward. Did you know Zelena has fled? Did you know Snow has fallen under an enchanted sleep? One can only hope, for the lady’s sake, that you’re not her true love, but then you’ve as good as killed her.”

 

James, through his drunken haze, seems to grasp the seriousness of Emma’s tone. “Fine,” he says, sneering. “Midday tomorrow. Hope your lady love doesn’t mind you being skewered by a blade.”

 

She leaves, though not before being stopped by David. “It’s true then?” he asks. “Snow has been cursed with eternal sleep?”

 

“Yes,” Emma says shortly.

 

He swears. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“Yes,” Emma says. “So am I.” She turns her back on him and strides out of the tavern, into the sunshine and cloudless sky. Tomorrow she might be dead, so she will make today count.

 

*

 

They approach Queen Abigail together, Regina and Henry, Regina with his hand clasped tight in hers. “How goes it, Lady Regina?” Abigail asks. They find her in a study, a small chamber commandeered from Leopold for the two week visit. She is removing her riding gloves, slumped in the chair behind the desk.  

 

“My son has information, Your Highness,” she says. “Tell her, Henry.”

 

And so Henry repeats the story, leaving no detail out. Despite his inability to follow her orders and stay inside the castle after dark, she is proud of her boy, proud of his honesty and his sense of justice. “I see,” Abigail says when he is finished. “Thank you, Henry.” She waves a hand at a servant. “Fetch Prince James.”

 

Regina sighs. “What shall you do?”

 

“Well, James will start by offering the most abject of apologies to Leopold and work at making this right,” Abigail says, running a hand through her fine, blonde hair, strands sticking up on end. “Then, I suppose I will have to deal with your sister.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Regina says. “I forced her on you. I thought she would find a purpose beyond hating me.” When Zelena had found her, three years ago, heart twisted and green with envy and rage, she had attempted to kill Regina. Despite this, despite Zelena’s rampant hatred for her, Regina had suggested that she be given a useful occupation instead of imprisoned.

 

“She’s a Mills woman,” she had told a puzzled Leopold. “Her blood runs in my veins. A second chance is all I’m asking.” And Leopold had reluctantly acquiesced.

 

“So did I,” Abigail says. “Apparently that purpose is to destroy those you hold dear. You know she spent much of our early campaigns attempting to seduce Emma.”

 

“I didn’t know that,” Regina says, tamping down on the fierce possessive need she feels to claim Emma. Mine mine mine, pounds through her brain.

 

“Never went anywhere,” Abigail says, grinning knowingly at Regina. “Emma has always had ‘the one that got away’.”

 

Regina wants to say, “I think she got away first,” but that would mean admitting to something she does not yet want to admit. Instead she smiles neutrally and attempts to ignore what Henry thinks is subtle nudging at her side. “It is good to know that the king’s niece didn’t romance her way around the Enchanted Forest.”

 

It is then that James appears in the doorway. He is obviously still drunk, eyes red and he sways on his feet, and when he sees Regina his vacant expression is transformed into one of the deepest loathing. “You,” he says. “You bitch. Turned my friend against me.”

 

“You did that yourself, dear,” Regina says, holding tight to Henry who is trembling with anger. “I suspect this conversation does not need me, or my son. By your leave, your majesty.”

 

“Thank you, Henry,” Abigail says, nodding regally. They leave.

 

In the corridor, a messenger stands. “If you please, m’lady,” he says, “but Emma Swan wishes to see you.”

 

“Very well,” Regina says and turns to Henry. “Back to your room. I will be along presently.”

 

“Take your time,” Henry says and draws her into a hug. “Be happy, Mama,” he whispers. So, with that instruction in mind, Regina steels herself and walks the long corridors to Emma’s chambers.

 

*

 

Emma leaps up when Red speaks. “What you writing there, Swan?”

 

Emma wonders if it would be excessive to eat the parchment so that no one will ever read it. Red’s smile is a shade too bright, and her eyes are red with tears. She knows how guilty the girl feels, even though Snow’s condition isn’t her fault, even though she was played for a fool just as much. “Just a letter,” she says.

 

“Looks more like a poem to me,” Red says, peering over her shoulder. “Are you writing a sonnet in praise of my beauty?”

 

“I was not born under a rhyming planet,” Emma says, sighing dramatically. “It is so bad.”

 

Red takes the parchment. “Eesh,” she says. “I take back my question. I hope this isn’t for me.”

 

“I can’t find any rhyme for ‘lady’ but ‘baby’ – an innocent rhyme. For ‘scorn’, ‘horn’ – a hard rhyme. For ‘school’, ‘fool’ – a babbling rhyme. All very ominous endings.” She flops down on the window seat, head hitting the cushions. Why had she thought this a good idea? Regina deserves better than her halting couplets.

 

“Well, Regina would appreciate the use of the word ‘fool’ at least,” Red says.

 

“Who said this was for Regina?” Emma asks and Red just grins.

 

“Speak of the devil,” she says, and Emma turns to see Regina in the doorway. She shoves the parchment beneath the cushions hastily.

 

“A messenger said you wished to speak to me,” she says. Emma barely notices Red sidle out of the room.

 

“And here you are,” Emma says.

 

“Yes, until you ask me to leave,” Regina says. She stands demurely, hands clasped in front of her and eyes downcast.

 

“Stay until then,” Emma says, grinning.

 

“’Then’ is spoken. Goodbye, dear.” Regina turns, as if to leave and Emma has a moment of horror when she thinks she’s actually going to do it, before she turns back. “But before I go, perhaps you could tell me of your encounter with James.”

 

“Foul words,” Emma says and she strides forward, pulling Regina close to her. “Kiss me.”

 

“Foul words lead to foul breath,” Regina says, placing a finger to Emma’s lips. “I’ll depart unkissed, thank you.”

 

“I have challenged him,” Emma says. “He will meet me tomorrow or be pronounced a coward.” She leads Regina to the window seat, where she sits, pulling her into her arms. She relishes the feel of Regina’s back pressed against her body, of Regina’s hair ticking the skin of her neck and face. “So, tell me, which of my bad parts was it that made you first fall in love with me?”

 

“For them altogether,” Regina says and Emma can hear her smile. “And which of my good parts made you first suffer love for me?”

 

Emma growls. “Suffer love? I do. It’s absolutely against my will.”

 

“It must be the truest of true love then,” Regina says. “Fate and all of that.” She sighs.

 

“How is Snow?” Emma asks.

 

“The same,” Regina says, sighing.

 

“And you?”

 

“I am not well,” Regina says. “Not in my heart. This – Zelena, the whole mess – it’s my fault.”

 

“It’s Zelena’s fault,” Emma says, pressing a kiss in Regina’s hair. “It’s James’ fault. Never yours.”

 

Regina turns her head and kisses her. “You make it very hard to resist loving you,” she says when they part, eyes heavy lidded and breathing heavier. The press of her body against Emma’s is suddenly almost too much to bear.

 

“Then don’t resist,” Emma whispers and Regina has a hand curved around her left breast before she can even finish speaking.

 

It doesn’t take long before they move from the window seat to Emma’s bed, by which point, Regina’s gown has been mostly unbuttoned, baring her corset, and Emma is missing her shirt entirely.

 

Emma’s fingers fumble at the laces and Regina laughs, from deep in her throat. “Suave, lady killer, Emma Swan,” she says. “Beset by a corset.”

 

“I’ll give you beset,” Emma grumbles, picking at the knot. “Who double-knots corset laces?”

 

“I must guard my maiden virtue,” Regina says. “Apparently there’s a lady in Queen Abigail’s company who has a taste for the chaste and pure.”

 

“Really?” Emma asks, the knot finally easing. “I’m sure that lady would be interested to know where to find such a maiden. There’s certainly none in this room.”

 

Regina’s gaze turns serious for a moment and Emma knows she’s thinking of Snow and her plan is, and has always been, to distract Regina from thoughts of tragedy until tomorrow so she pushes the corset aside and wraps her lips around a dark nipple. Regina’s back arches and she lets out a breathy sigh. “You and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” she says, her breath ghosting Regina’s breast.

 

“Is that what they’re calling this these days?” Regina asks and so Emma uses her teeth and she gasps.

 

Regina chuckles as Emma’s fingers trace her ribs, squirms at a bite to the soft skin of her hip, lets out a startled bark of laughter when Emma tugs her dress down to her ankles. She blows cool air against Regina’s thighs and she laughs. Emma has never had sex with someone who delights so much in the act and she cannot remember why she ever ran from this.

 

And then she’s kissing and touching where she wants to be the most and Regina tugs at Emma’s hair to pull her closer and she thinks she will never stop doing this. “Fingers,” she pants and Emma complies, pressing forward with two fingers, curling them, a beckoning, asking her to come.

 

And she does, letting out a delighted cry, and then another in quick succession.

 

Emma’s jaw aches when Regina is finally sated and she crawls forward, rubbing herself against Regina’s thigh, pressing sloppy kisses to her jawline. For the time being, Regina is content with this. She’s boneless, one arm covering her eyes as though even looking at Emma is too much in this moment. Emma feels the heat coil low within her, feels moisture build, tastes the slick of sweat on Regina’s skin.

 

When Regina’s fingers dance down Emma’s belly, tangle in the tuft of hair, and press firmly against her clitoris, she shrieks, the sound muffled by Regina’s skin. Regina laughs at the vibrations of her shriek, as she has laughed at everything. “I’m going to be your undoing,” she whispers.

 

“Undo me,” Emma pants. “But be quick about it.”

 

And so Regina does, again and again and again.

 

They lie, limbs tangled and breathing slow and easy. The sun dips low in the sky, painting the light red and purple. “I couldn’t bear it if you ran again,” Regina says, serious again, fingers tiptoeing up Emma’s arm.

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” Emma replies, at which point there’s a knock at her door and she leaps out of bed, scrambling for her shirt. Regina starts laughing and can’t stop and so she throws a pillow at her.

 

Marian enters and shakes her head at the sight. Regina doesn’t even attempt to cover up, basking cat-like in the dying light. “Your king wishes to see you. It has all been proven slander against Princess Snow.”

 

Regina nods. “Thank you, Marian,” she says. “We shall come presently.”

 

Marian rolls her eyes. “Perhaps some clothes first?” she suggests and then she leaves.

 

“Well,” Regina says. “Will you go and hear the news?”

 

Emma grins and curls back up beside Regina. “I will live in your heart, die in your lap and be buried in your eyes.”

 

“Ew,” Regina says, wrinkling her nose.

 

“And I will go with you to my uncle,” she adds.

 

In the end, it is some time before they are ready to meet with Leopold.

 

*

 

James stands at the doors to the chapel where Snow’s body is entombed in endless slumber. Regina watches him. The rage has not abated. Henry grips her hand tighter. “It’s okay, Mom,” he whispers.

 

“And you promise,” Leopold’s voice thunders, “to do the right thing by my daughter? To love her and honour her, forsaking all others?”

 

“I promise,” James says fervently.  

 

She catches Emma’s eye from across the crowd. She stands with Leopold and with Abigail. She has made her peace with Midas’ daughter and, truth be told, Abigail has been an unwitting party of all this. She sought only the truth of the situation and has apparently sent her fastest riders after Zelena. If they catch her, well, that will be another story. Regina does not doubt her sister’s capacity for violence, nor for revenge against perceived wrongs. She only hopes no one else is harmed because of Zelena’s vendetta against her.

 

What did she do? “You were born,” echoes in her skull, memories of a time too long ago. Regina could have done more, should have done more. But they are both Cora’s daughters, both too proud and too easily wounded and find forgiveness difficult.

 

The doors to the internment chamber swing open and Regina cannot help the gasp that escapes, running forward before anyone else can enter.

 

Snow is missing. In place of her slumbering body is a scroll of parchment. She unravels it.

 

Please be not alarmed by my absence. I was woken last night, not by James, but his brother. We are desperately in love and have eloped. Do not be angry, Father. You will have a most happy daughter this night.

 

It is signed by Snow. She passes the paper to Leopold who is struck dumb by the disappearance. Regina thinks of the night of the masquerade. “It was David who wooed Snow in James’ stead that night, wasn’t it?” she asks and Abigail nods.

 

“James was not comfortable with the possibility of rejection,” she says.

 

“Snow was uncertain,” Regina says. “Until the masquerade, where she suddenly knew.”

 

“True love’s kiss is a powerful thing,” the Blue Fairy says. “Perhaps we may discuss this back at the castle.”

 

“One moment, Blue,” Emma says, and Regina’s eyes find her. “Regina.”

 

“I answer to that name,” she says and feels the heat rise to her cheeks. If Emma is going to make some hideous declaration of love, she will not be held responsible for her actions.

 

“You love me, yes?”

 

“No more than reason,” she says, shrugging.

 

“Well,” Emma says, scowling. “The king, Abigail and James have been deceived. They swore you did.”

 

“You love me though,” Regina replies, lips quivering as she desperately tries to contain a laugh at Emma’s glower.

 

“No more than reason,” she replies sulkily.

 

“Then your cousin, Marian and Red were deceived because they swore you did.”

 

“They swore you were almost sick for me.”

 

“They swore that you were near death for me.”

 

Emma scoffs. “Not even close.” She moves closer, gaze dropping to Regina’s lips. “Then, you don’t love me?”

 

Self-conscious suddenly, Regina replies, “I mean, you’re pleasant enough I suppose…”

 

“Mom,” Henry says. “You definitely love her.”

 

“And Emma loves you,” Red adds. “Here’s a poem, written in her hand. A halting sonnet of her own making, written for Regina.” Emma makes a grab at the paper but Red, a foot taller, holds it well out of reach. Regina laughs.

 

“And here’s another,” Henry says, darting away from her towards Emma. “Written by my mom. I stole it from her chambers. It’s really soppy.”

 

Regina feels heat rise to her face, and she grabs Emma’s poem from Red, scanning the parchment. Emma’s handwriting is terrible and her scantion even worse and yet, there’s something there. She smiles even as she cringes. And when she looks up, she sees Emma, a parchment in her own hands, smiling across at her, eyes clear and bright. Regina mouths, this is terrible, and Emma’s soft smile transforms into a grin.

 

“A miracle!” Emma says. “Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Very well, I’ll marry you. But I want it to be noted that I’m marrying you out of pity.”

 

Regina feels the smile spread across her own lips. “I accept. But only under duress and mostly to save your life because I have been reliably informed that true love’s kiss is a powerful thing and I won’t have your death from lovesickness on my hands.”

 

Emma rolls her eyes. “I will stop your mouth.” And she kisses her and Regina honestly couldn’t care less who’s watching.

 

After a few moments, Abigail coughs politely from beside them. “So, how are you finding life in a relationship, Emma?”

 

“I’ll tell you what,” Emma says, an arm still wrapped around Regina, and their foreheads still touch and Emma’s gaze does not shift from Regina. “All the jokes in the world won’t rid me of my happiness.” Then, her eyes darken and turn to James. “Is this a harsh enough lesson for you?” she asks. James kicks at the ground, before turning and storming out. “Still want me to kill him?” Emma asks, running her fingers through Regina’s hair and utterly upsetting the styling.

 

Regina shakes her head. “I worry that you’ll lose,” she says, “and you promised to never leave me.”

 

Emma smiles and then looks around them, at the assembled crowd. “I find I don’t want to let you go,” she says. “Let’s hold a dance to celebrate Snow and David’s elopement and our own imminent nuptials.”

 

“I thought you intended to take Snow and James’ place at the altar,” Leopold says.

 

“There’s time enough for that later,” Emma says, waving a dismissive hand.

 

“Do you remember last time we danced?” Regina says, smiling slyly.

 

Emma gasps in outrage. “I knew you knew who I was.” But she’s laughing now and Regina rests her head against Emma’s shoulder and pulls Henry close to her and everything is right. Her family together, at last, as it always should have been.

 

A messenger enters. “My lords, we have caught Zelena. She is returned to the castle.”

 

Regina casts a questioning look at Emma. “Tomorrow,” Emma says softly. “We’ll deal with her tomorrow. Strike up, pipers!”

 

And so Regina smiles and thinks not of tomorrow, but of a clear and perfect present, and lets Emma take her hand and lead her to the castle.