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The Evil Queen has her parents.

 

It’s like a nightmare from another time, the stuff of bedtime stories that had always ended with a prince sweeping her off her feet and rescuing her from the vile demoness. It’s impossible , and now it’s happening before her eyes.

 

When she’d been a child, she’d spent hours in front of the portrait of the Queen Regina in an abandoned, dusty hall and wondered how someone so beautiful could be so evil. Now she knows, the Evil Queen standing in front of her with a heart in each hand and her eyes dark and demanding as she laughs off the key to the kingdom.

 

“Please,” she begs again, and traitorous tears slip down her cheeks. The Queen looks even more disgusted at them, even more frustrated. “Please, I don’t have anything else to offer–“

 

“Be a hero ,” the Queen exhorts her, and if she could think about anything other than her parents’ drawn faces, she might have thought that odd. “Be the savior and save them.”

 

“I can’t!” Emma says, her cheeks wet and her heart anguished. “I can’t…be…” Whatever it is the Queen is demanding from her. Desperately, she racks her brain for something the Queen might want from her, for something she can trade for her parents–

 

And she thinks of something , at last. “All I can offer you is myself,” she whispers, bowing her head before the Evil Queen. “Take me instead of them.” It emerges a sob, and she feels weak, weak and lost and alone, and she wishes the Queen would just kill her and end this now.

 

The Queen tilts her head, considering. “Start the road trip early,” she mutters to herself, and then sighs. “Well. Maybe my other self might actually be good for something when we get back. I accept your offer,” she says briskly, and plunges her hands into Emma’s parents’ chests again, returning their hearts.

 

Her mother says, “ No !” and her father rises, but the Queen raises one hand and they’re suddenly fading away into purple smoke, and Emma’s stomach is somewhere near her feet for a moment. Magic , she realizes, coughing and nearly teetering over. They haven’t left her. She’s been taken from them.

 

They’re standing near the lake. The Queen has returned to the clothes that she’d been wearing when Emma had first seen her in the woods, her hair short and her eyes almost kind. Emma lurches back, afraid, and the Queen says, “Ready for the trip home to Storybrooke?”

 

Storybrooke . The land of her dreams, from where this Queen claims to hail. She nods shakily and then ducks her head. “I don’t have a choice, do I?”

 

“I’d prefer you did ,” the Queen says, and she sounds almost cranky about it. “But here we are.”

 

And of course the Evil Queen has freed Rumplestiltskin and is working with him , and he’s another blight on the kingdom that she’s set free in exchange for…a bean? A magic bean. She hurls it to the ground and then takes Emma’s hand in hers as a portal flares before them, and oh, god, the Evil Queen is holding her hand.

 

Emma quivers and the Queen’s hand is steady and warm as she murmurs, “Don’t be frightened,” and spares Emma a smile. Emma is terrified but curiosity prickles at her, the kind she’d had as a child before everything had been so soft and bright and there’d been no more dark corners to explore. And maybe, maybe this woman who can see her dreams might really be someone who can change her life forever.

 

She furrows her brow and prepares to jump with the Queen, and then–

 

–A whirr of an arrow and the Evil Queen is pulling her down, ducking away and saving them both and then gaping in wonder at the man who’d shot the arrow.

 

The portal roils smaller and smaller again until it closes, the magic bean wasted for good.

 


 

It’s to be expected, really, that Emma had been about to get answers and had finally started to warm to the Evil Queen when said Queen decides instead that they’re going to walk with this man through the woods. She introduces herself to him as Regina, and Emma stubbornly thinks that she’s going to call her that from now on, too. She might be a hostage but she hadn’t chosen to be ignored like this, traipsing after Regina and Robin Hood like she’s back in the castle, a princess meant for balls and flowers and smiles and nothing real.

 

“And why should I trust a woman who’s a dead ringer for the Evil Queen?” Robin Hood asks Regina. Regina laughs, light and breathless, and Emma glowers at them both. From behind them. Mostly, she’s glowering at their backs.

 

Her white cloak is torn by brambles, grey and brown from trailing on the ground in the woods. She’s never been in woods like this before, dark and forbidding and without a single stray flower to tuck into her hair. She’s discovering quickly that she doesn’t like a bit of it, least of all the duo murmuring to each other ahead of her.

 

She drags her feet and falls behind, and Regina is turned around a moment later, hands on her hips as she eyes Emma critically. “You’re a mess.”

 

“I wasn’t exactly prepared for this today!” Emma protests, flushing under the other woman’s gaze. “I thought I’d be– watching my son knighted, not being abducted by the Evil Queen.“

 

Regina smiles, almost distant, and Emma stops protesting at once. Like this, she’s as effortlessly beautiful as her portrait had been before it had been torn down. “It was a lovely ceremony,” she allows, and she sounds almost proud. Emma’s lips are dry, and she wets them nervously with the tip of her tongue. “I wish I’d been able to take a picture for…”

 

“The other Henry,” Emma guesses, and Regina looks at her in surprise. “You said we…we share custody of him in Storybrooke?” Share custody , as though they’d once been wed. An impossibility. Emma shivers at the thought of it.

 

Regina is still looking at her, her forehead wrinkling as she considers her, and she says abruptly, “You’re going to need something else to wear. May I?”

 

The Evil Queen is asking her for permission to…to do magic on her, Emma realizes, watching her fingers lift and stretch out to her. Emma bites her lip and ducks her head in a quick bow. “I am your hostage,” she reminds her. “You can do with me whatever you wish.”

 

“Whatever I wish,” Regina echoes, sounding very amused at the thought. But she only touches Emma’s arm– gentle, automatic, as though touching Emma comes naturally to her– and more of that warm, impossible magic wafts over her. “How’s this?”

 

It’s a vest and light shirt and pants, the sort she hasn’t worn since she’d turned sixteen, and it’s easier to move in it than anything she’s worn since then. “Better,” she says gratefully.

 

“You wore it during our last alternate universe trip,” Regina says, and Emma’s curiosity is piqued.

 

“In your world, we do this a lot?”

 

“On occasion,” Regina allows. “Not too often, thankfully. I can hardly keep track of who I am anymore even without a dozen sets of memories.” Her hand is still on Emma’s arm, and Emma doesn’t think about why it is that that touch is taking up most of her conscious thoughts. “You’ve done a bit more than I have.”

 

“The other me,” Emma says, and she waits until Regina and Robin Hood find a place for them to sleep tonight before she asks anything else. Robin has a tent he offers gallantly to Regina, and Regina offers to share it with Emma instead. She lights a fire for them to huddle around as the temperature drops, and she speaks in hushed tones to Robin Hood before he bounds off with his arrow and she sits beside Emma, their knees bumping.

 

Emma ventures then, “What is she like?”

 

Regina doesn’t have to ask who she means. “She’s…exhaustingly noble,” she says, staring into the fire. “Fierce. Brave. She gave me chance after chance to prove myself even after I'd given up on myself. She never stops fighting for what she believes in." Her eyes are glittering, awash with fondness, and Emma's throat is dry.

 

And then Regina says, "And she's so, so good. Just like you in that regard." She turns shining eyes toward Emma and Emma forgets how to breathe. "She wouldn’t think twice about offering herself to her worst nightmare to save her parents," Regina murmurs, her hand reaching out instinctively to cover Emma's. "It's how I know she's still hiding in you somewhere."

 

She turns back to the fire, her eyes far away, and Emma's never wanted so desperately to be someone else.

 


 

In the morning, she awakens with an aching back and an empty bedroll beside her. Flyaway hairs are loose from her braid and she’s glad she has no mirrors in the tent so she can’t see how atrocious she looks.

 

“First night sleeping in the woods?” Regina says, poking her head into the tent, wide awake and as perfectly coiffed as she’d been the day before. She smirks. “I love the bedhead.”

 

Emma tugs at her braid, frustrated and humiliated, and Regina’s eyes soften, as they tend to whenever Emma’s agitated. “What’s wrong?”

 

“I’ve never…I’ve never done it myself,” she mumbles, flushing. She’s had attendants and a doting mother her whole life, and she’d never thought she’d be in a position where…

 

She blinks at the ground, feeling the tears threaten to start again, and then there are fingers on her braid, undoing it as skillfully as any attendant might. She shudders at Regina’s touch, leaning into her hands. “I can’t tell you how many mornings I wasted doing Snow’s hair every morning,” Regina sighs, and there’s a note of melancholy to her voice and a surprising lack of loathing. “I was nothing more than a glorified babysitter at the best of times, and I knew to cherish those dreadful moments.”

 

“I raised a son, not a daughter,” Emma says feebly, running a finger through the waves of hair that have been freed from the braid.

 

Regina takes them from her, twisting her hair into a new braid. “I don’t get it,” she says finally. “Your mother was a spoiled brat of a child, but I thought I’d raised her to be a bit…tougher.”

 

The stories of the the other Emma are still ringing through Emma’s ears, enough to make her react to that as though it’s a personal attack. “You hunted her down and tried to kill her!” she says hotly, and then cringes, dipping her chin in ladylike apology.

 

Regina looks delighted instead of insulted. “And it built character, didn’t it?” She tilts her own chin, smug, and Emma twists her head to stare at her in disbelief.

 

Regina finishes the braid and loops it around the center, tightening it into a more efficient bun and then tucking a flower into it. “Breakfast?”

 

Breakfast means eggs and bread that Robin Hood brings them suspiciously fresh, and Emma doesn’t question it and eats gratefully. Regina is distracted by him again, inquiring about his family and his Merry Men, and Emma’s mood fades with each moment they spend together.

 

Finally, she says, “I’m going to bathe at the lake,” and stalks off, unnoticed by them both.

 

She could have run , she thinks sulkily, sliding out of the clothes that Regina had given her and into the nearby water. Regina’s doing a subpar job at hostage-keeping for an Evil Queen. Regina’s too busy with her paramour to remember Emma exists . Some villain.

 

This desire to be noticed is new, too. There had been a time when she’d been groomed to be a coddled princess, a symbol of hope for her kingdom in the same ways as her mother had been. There had been quiet talk about her someday choosing a king and ruling , and then there had been Neal and then Henry and suddenly Henry had been the heir instead. She’d been relieved. She’d never wanted to rule. All she’d wanted had been to fade into the background, to be the model daughter and mother.

 

And she had, until an Evil Queen had wandered into her clearing in the woods and looked at her like she’d mattered . And now it’s all she can think about, mattering. About being brave and noble and everything that this other Emma is supposed to be.

 

She doesn’t stand a chance. The other Emma is a dream. But on her way back from the lake, she does hesitate over the sword she’d found in her room and try to lift it.

 

It’s lighter than she’d expected, and she tries swinging it and loses her grip. It hurtles from her hand into the nearest tree, and she sighs and leaves it behind.

 

And Regina and Robin are still talking over breakfast. His hand is on her knee, and Emma glares at it with such intensity that it takes her a moment to realize that they’re talking about her now. “–once the princess has returned from her morning bath,” Robin is saying mockingly.

 

Regina laughs. “Oh, trust me, I’d be right there with her if I didn’t have magic to keep me fresh. Not all of us enjoy eau de forest.” She sniffs, mock-haughty, and he looks at her like he might kiss her.

 

Emma clenches her fists and then unclenches them hastily, setting her hands at her side with ladylike decorum. Robin curls his lip. “She’s exactly the kind of royal I despise,” he says, and Emma doesn’t know if she’s imagining Regina’s jaw tightening or not. “Soft, spoiled, and privileged. She knows nothing of the world around her.”

 

Regina opens her mouth to respond and Emma can’t bear to hear her agree, can’t bear to hear that it’s all right because there’s a better Emma out there who isn’t any of those things. She hurries away from the camp and finds the sword again, this time swinging it with both hands on the hilt.

 

It’s easier this time, and she tightens her grip on it and struggles to remember Henry’s exercises until she’s out of breath and crying to herself. She doesn’t have Henry’s stamina or skill and she’s useless , and there’s no use in trying.

 

She tucks the sword away again and returns to camp, her head held high and her eyes rimmed with red.

 


 

There are reports outside the woods of a missing princess, of astronomical rewards to save her. There are rumors that Prince Henry has gone himself to search for the princess, that the Evil Queen is out to take the kingdom again, that Princess Emma is already dead. Emma wants to reassure her parents and her son but Regina is adamant that no one hear word of her.

 

“We’re going to wait until Robin’s contacts can get that magic bean,” she says, pulling Emma up onto a rocky path. “And then we can go home and forget this place.”

 

“This is my home,” Emma protests weakly, and Regina gives her a look. She tries another tack. “And what about your– what about him ?”

 

“He’s coming with us,” Regina says, and her eyes glow for a moment. “I never believed…”

 

Emma’s been hearing about true love her whole life, had hoped desperately for that kind of magic that her parents had had. Neal had been new and exciting and different and she’d thought he might be it, but then he’d been gone and she’d felt the hole in her heart heal, had walked through life and never missed him like she might have a half of herself.

 

True love is rare, after all, and she knows to cherish it when it’s found. And Regina seems to believe that Robin is her true love– is another chance with a man who’d been dead in Storybrooke– and she should be supportive of it. Regina is kind and brave and deserves happiness, and Robin…

 

Robin isn’t good enough for her, Emma decides one day, testing out the sword while she’s supposed to be bathing. She’s clumsy with it, lacking all the grace that Henry has with his sword and Robin has with his bow, but she’s stopped accidentally cutting herself (“Do you walk through brambles on purpose ?” Regina had demanded one night, but her hand had been resting on Emma’s bare leg as she’d healed her and Emma had barely managed a shrug in response) and she feels– a little more like Emma Swan when she’s holding it.

 

She’s a child, playacting at being a hero because Regina wants her to be one. She tosses the sword down, her face burning with humiliation. Who is she to talk about what is good enough for Regina when she’s more useless than Robin? When all she has is her title and the face of a woman whom Regina had adored?

 

She goes to take her bath, runs her fingers through her hair and scrubs at her skin and tries to wipe her mind clean of all these worries and angers. It isn’t proper. Eventually, Regina is going to realize that she isn’t going to be Emma Swan and send her back, and she can’t lose all her best habits because of a couple of weeks in the woods.

 

She starts when there’s a movement in the water and twists around, her eyes wide and terrified– but it’s only Regina, down to her shoulders in the water. Emma’s eyes flicker downward, unbidden, and she flushes and turns away at once. “I thought you used magic to keep clean,” she says, eyes trained on a nearby rock.

 

“I do. Sometimes, you just need a nice, long bath,” Regina says, and Emma tears her eyes away from the rock to catch the lazy smile on Regina’s face. “You know, I’m not actually a fan of traipsing through the woods like this. It’s just happened a few too many times for me not to get used to it.”

 

“I’m getting used to it,” Emma confesses, sighing. “I suppose Emma Swan lives in the woods and runs around it like a…” She waves vaguely. “A little squirrel.”

 

Regina laughs. Her laugh rings rich and deep over the quiet water, her shoulders shaking and the swell of her breasts visible over the water. Emma stares at them, her throat dry again, and Regina says, “I don’t think she enjoyed camping with the Charmings any more than I did. Well, perhaps a bit,” she admits grudgingly. “She isn’t perfect , you know.” She cocks her head thoughtfully. “She’s stubborn. Obtuse. Frustrating. She veers from self-absorbed to selfless to a fault.” But for all her criticism, she’s smiling, her eyes sad and longing. “She doesn’t talk without it being pulled out of her. Do you know why you’re here?”

 

Emma shakes her head. “You said she made a wish.” She can’t imagine why Emma Swan who is everything Regina’s dreamed of would have ever made a wish to be her .

 

“She wished she wouldn’t be the savior anymore,” Regina says wistfully. “And my–” She hesitates. “Someone granted that wish.” She doesn’t talk about what’s waiting for her at home, has called it only a great evil and has seemed happier avoiding discussion of it. Emma doesn’t press her. “I wish she’d stop trying to bear every burden under the sun and just– just let me help sometimes,” Regina confesses.

 

It’s the most vulnerable she’s been since Emma had first met her, and Emma swallows and thinks of cuts on her legs that aren’t from brambles and says, “She doesn’t want anyone to worry, I suppose. She wants you to be happy.” This, she can imagine, because she’s known Regina for ten days and the idea of her sadness is enough to make Emma try like she’s never tried before.

 

Regina touches her arm. She’s so tactile all the time, with Robin but even more so with Emma, as though she can communicate through her fingers on Emma’s skin. Emma can feel goosebumps rising under the water as Regina’s knuckles run over her arm, and now it’s Regina whose cheeks are darkening as she stares at the rock instead. “I’d be happier if we went at these things together,” she whispers, and she turns back to Emma, her fingers leaving Emma’s arm and trailing lightly across her jaw. Emma is frozen in place, yearning for things she can’t name as Regina traces her features. Regina’s fingers move upward, running along the line of her lower lip and her eyes a realm away, and Emma wants to part her lips and move forward and–

 

There’s a shout from camp, and Regina jolts. “Robin,” she says, and it sounds like a death sentence to Emma’s ears. “We’d better get a move on.”

 

Emma nods, numb and aflame and wanting and terrified.

 


 

She’s awake that night when Robin and Regina are by the fire, the tent flap whipping around in the wind so she can see them from her bedroll. They’re talking in low tones, but as the fire begins to die down, Emma can hear more and more of it.

 

It’s Regina describing Storybrooke to him, the town that had been a curse but now seems more like an ideal. Emma longs for it just as much as Regina does, dreams about it in vague, indistinct bursts that feel more like memories than dreams. Sometimes she sees Regina, sees Henry and her parents and dozens of others who are known and strangers. Sometimes she sees worlds that can’t be Storybrooke, shadows with no master and buildings that stretch to the sky. She remembers little when she awakens, and Regina does her best to explain where she can.

 

A dragon. Magic. Something called a skyscraper and a land called Camelot and a dagger that Regina claims Emma isn’t ready to know about. Today, it’s a quiet explanation about the woods outside Storybrooke where the other Robin Hood had made his home, and Robin listens intently. “I don’t know if you’d want...the Merry Men have left to Camelot,” she murmurs, her eyes sad and regretful as they reflect the reddish glare of the fire’s dying embers. “I know there isn’t much there.”

 

“What I have seems like more than enough,” Robin says, and he touches her chin as Regina had touched Emma’s earlier that day, but he also turns it so she’s staring up at him. Emma squints in the dark to make out Regina’s expression as she looks up at him. Sometimes all she sees when Regina gazes at Robin is the missed chances in her eyes, the stricken grief and regret instead of hope for something new.  

 

He leans in to kiss her and Emma squeezes her blanket, her teeth pressing so hard against her lip that she tastes blood. Regina doesn’t kiss him back, doesn’t intensify the kiss, but she accepts it and keeps staring at him after he leans back, searching his face for something Emma can’t name.

 

Emma feels sick. Emma is still biting her lip and breaking every rule that a princess has to maintain composure, and she wants to stagger out of the tent and vomit. The only thing keeping her rooted in place is Regina and Robin, Robin preparing his bedroll for the night and Regina speaking softly to him as she rises.

 

She enters the tent and blinks, looking dazed at Emma’s stare. “You should get some sleep,” she says, bending down to brush her knuckles along Emma’s cheek. “Tomorrow we can go pick berries. I know you’d like that.” She laughs softly, mostly to herself, and looks at Emma with inexpressible fondness.

 

Emma can’t smile back at her. She says, “I’ve got to...take care of something,” and staggers out of the tent and halfway to the lake before she’s heaving sobs, dry and pained and helpless. She wipes at them furiously. She doesn’t know what they’re coming from. A kiss? What does she care about a kiss?

 

She’s swinging her sword in the dark, risking her fingers and toes and still so completely useless at it that she’s frustrated again, when she wonders for the first time if she might be in love with Robin. That must be it. She’s always been partial to thieves, even if she’d thought she’d loathed Robin, and this nausea can only be the sickness of heartbreak.

 

She must be in love with him. Oh, god, how can she look Regina in the eye if she’s–?

 

A new bout of nausea hits and she crouches to the floor, the tears beginning anew at the thought of Regina’s discomfort with her. And no , this can’t be over Robin. She’s been so stupid . Of course– And it’s absurd that she had even considered him when Regina…

 

Regina is…

 

She sets her sword down, wiping her tears away, and slips into the tent again. Regina is already mostly asleep, her brow creased with worry as she tosses and turns, and Emma reaches out to smooth the wrinkles of her brow. “Sleep well,” she whispers, and watches her sleepy smile with aching, breathless yearning.

 


 

She isn’t supposed to swear, not when her principal jobs are hosting dignitaries and serving as ambassador to other lands. She’s supposed to be the model princess, beloved and respected in all the lands. She’s done everything in her life with that care until the moment she’d followed Regina into the woods. But fuck . Fuck , because the only thing worse than traveling with two people in love is being in love with one of them.

 

They pick berries in the morning and Emma can’t tear her eyes away from Regina, enough that Regina says, “Emma, is everything alright?” and touches her arm worriedly. Emma likes– no, loves the way Regina says her name. She loves the way Regina looks at her in concern, as though she’s the only person in the world who matters. She loves Regina laughing at something Emma had said and completely oblivious to her berry-purple tongue.

 

She loves Regina, every bit of her, and she slips off in the afternoon to practice with the sword with increased determination.

 

She still isn’t very good at it, but she thinks she’s getting better. Her shoulders ache sometimes, and Robin looks at her with distaste each time she returns from her supposed hour-long baths, but she’s getting better and she thinks that someday, she might even figure out how Emma Swan had been so good at everything. Lots of practice, maybe, but from the way Regina describes it, Savior Emma had picked up a sword and slayed a dragon without a hiccup.

 

Well, fine. Emma might not have it inborn anymore, but she can make up for that with enough hard work. It’ll be worth it, if only to see Regina look at her with the same eyes as she gets when she talks about the other Emma and Henry. “You weren’t that bad,” Regina says one afternoon. They’re lying in the sun, taking a break as they finally move their camp forward a few miles. Robin is off practicing with his bow. He’d invited Regina with him but Regina had excused herself, insisting she’d had to keep an eye on Emma. Emma hadn’t protested. “At least you came with me.”

 

“You threatened my parents!” Emma says indignantly.

 

Regina grins, propping herself up on her elbow. “I gave you and Henry a much harder time in the last alternate universe.”

 

Emma’s eyes widen in mock surprise. “You? Give someone a hard time? Impossible.”

 

She’s pleased when Regina kicks her leg and laughs, her eyes sparkling. “I wasn’t myself,” she says, tilting her face to the sun again. “I thought Henry had lost his mind. And then you arrived and I thought he’d just found a patsy.”

 

“What made you believe, then?” Emma wants to know. She doesn’t know when she’d started to believe Regina. Maybe it had only been when Regina had first taken her hand.

 

Regina shrugs. “I don’t know if I did. I just knew– I wanted to protect him, even when I didn’t know him. It’s Henry,” she says simply, and Emma craves to have seen her with him, to know what it means to have Henry and Regina in a family with her. “Why did you name him Henry in this world?” she wants to know.

 

It’s Emma’s turn to shrug. “I was...I was seventeen when he was born. I didn’t really have much say in anything. My mother says I blurted out Henry’s name just after the delivery and they thought I’d chosen it. I don’t even know why I said it.” She stares at the sky, afraid of what Regina will think of her after what she reveals. “I hardly saw Henry at all after he was born. He was in the nursery, mostly, and my parents took charge of raising him because I was so young. For a long time, I thought that I’d done something wrong in– in getting pregnant in the first place,” she admits. “I thought I’d let everyone down, and if I weren’t too close to Henry, then people might forget.”

 

“What happened?” Regina asks, her voice only a whisper, and Emma dares to look at her and sees compassion in her eyes. “What changed?”

 

“I heard him crying one night. He was about six months old and the nurse had stepped out for a minute and I’d heard him in the nursery.” She’d been terrified even to be so close to the nursery, to be caught by her parents and to see the disappointment in their eyes. But Henry had wailed and wailed and no one had come, and she’d ducked into the nursery and lifted him carefully into her arms. “And he stopped, just like that. And I couldn’t bear letting go of him again.”

 

“No,” Regina says softly.

 

“I decided he came first. Even if it meant I wasn’t...I wasn’t going to be who my parents wanted me to be.” She bites her lip. “I think they were disappointed at first, but they grew to accept it. It’s the only thing I chose, you know? To be a mother.”

 

“I know,” Regina murmurs, and Emma is afraid to see what’s on her face. But when she finally peeks over, she sees tears wet in Regina’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” Regina says, wiping at them. “It’s been...I think this has been the longest I’ve been without him for years. I don’t even know if he’s safe right now, and there’s nothing I can do but–” She heaves her shoulders, a stray tear slipping down her cheek. “We shouldn’t have stayed.”

 

“You had just seen...you know. Him,” Emma says, waving vaguely toward the woods. “You weren’t thinking straight.”

 

Regina sits up to look at her, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t like Robin very much, do you?”

 

Emma presses her lips together, willing herself to wall in the response that bubbles up. “He doesn’t like me,” she says, sulky. “Everyone likes me.”

 

Regina reaches out to catch a lock of hair between her fingers, twists it and lets it fall free. “The perfect agreeable little princess,” she agrees, her eyebrow still quirked. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you aren’t all that agreeable anymore. Sometimes you’re positively cranky.” She twirls the lock of hair between her fingers as Emma stares up at her, crestfallen. “I can’t say I’m complaining about it,” Regina says, almost to herself, and despair fades as quickly as it had come.

 


 

Emma is taking a bath– an actual bath, after she’d swung her sword too hard and went flying into the mud– the next morning, and it’s nicer than she’d remembered, being able to luxuriate in the water of a river and let her mind wander.

 

Her parents must be worried sick by now, reliving their worst nightmare three decades years later. She wonders what they’d think of her now, traveling the woods with the Evil Queen and a thief and never even trying to flee. She wonders what they’d think if they knew that she was in love with the Evil Queen.

 

They’d be horrified, of course. Her mother would cry and her father would rage, and nothing would persuade them that she hasn’t been enchanted. Certainly not meeting Regina and seeing how little of the grandeur and pretension and evil remain.

 

When Neal had returned, her mother had prodded her toward him and encouraged her to look past the years after he’d abandoned her. But she suspects there’s a limit to just how forgiving her mother can be.

 

Her mother had fallen in love while on the run in the woods as well, and Emma wonders absentmindedly as she dresses if that’s how she might understand Emma. It’s a moot point, anyway, of course, because they’re not going back home and Regina doesn’t even feel that way about Emma, so–

 

There’s a shout from the camp, then a howl, and Emma stumbles backward in the middle of shrugging on her shirt, alarm filling her. Regina is at the camp. That was Robin’s voice, and she doesn’t know what could be howling–

 

She grabs her sword and runs , her heart pounding against her ribs, and she skids around the corner to their camp and face-to-face with a massive, slavering ogre.

 

She screams. It howls and swipes a long hand at her, and she’s rooted to the spot until a burst of flame slams into the ogre. “Over here!” Regina shouts, and the ogre turns, distracted, and smashes its fist into Regina’s face.

 

Emma screams again, her voice twisted into something terrible and unrecognizable. Robin is firing arrow after arrow at the ogre, each one swatted away like a mosquito, and Regina sways in place, whatever shields she’d had up only enough to keep her from losing consciousness. Regina looks dizzy, her eyes glazing over, and Emma remembers only then that she’s holding the sword in her hand.

 

She swings it. Her blow is clumsy and imprecise, but it crashes into the ogre’s knee and distracts it from Regina for long enough for her to try to plunge her sword into its chest. The sword slides across leathery skin, drawing blood but not enough , not nearly enough, and Regina is barely conscious and sliding to the ground and Emma is in a panic.

 

She draws the sword back again, stabs at its knees and gut and swings with all the strength she’s built up from weeks of practice. She might not be Emma Swan , but she can be enough for this, enough to rescue them all from one beast, enough to–

 

The ogre lumbers toward her, finally noticing that she might be something more than an annoyance– which is oddly gratifying after all her practice– and she slashes a cut across its stomach, huge and raw and bleeding. The ogre roars, and before she can do anything more, it wraps its enormous fingers around her waist and lifts her into the air.

 

She kicks at it and slashes at the fingers that hold her until the ogre shakes her violently, the sword flying out of her grasp. She even tries biting at the skin, gagging at the odor of it so close to her nose, but it’s no use. For the first time in her life, she’s actually fighting , and now she’s going to die anyway before she can save Regina. She thrashes in its grasp, scratches and punches and curses a damned useless arrow of Robin’s as it whizzes by, and she’s almost ready to sob when the ogre’s fingers go limp around her.

 

What? She slips from its hand, falling to thankfully soft ground, and looks up just as the ogre topples over on its side, a sword protruding from one eye. But who–?

 

Henry is breathing hard as he climbs onto the ogre, yanking his sword from its eye and wincing as he wipes it off. “Mom,” he says, his eyes alarmed as he runs to her, and she sits up and can’t believe, Henry , just in time–

 

She’s startled at how bitterly disappointed she is that she hadn’t gotten to slay the ogre.

 

But Henry’s here, and she can finally take a breath. “Henry,” she says breathlessly, reaching out to embrace him. “Oh, Henry, I have so much to tell you–”

 

“I thought you were dead ,” he says, his eyes wide, and then he turns suddenly, as though remembering her captor. “ You ,” he snarls, and Regina is still on the ground, her eyes clearing up.

 

“Henry,” she whispers, and if Emma had ever doubted Regina’s story before, it’s impossible to when she looks at Henry with that much love in her eyes.

 

Henry moves so quickly that Emma almost doesn’t expect it, the sword still oozing with ogre goo pointed at Regina’s throat without a second to spare. “You abducted my mother,” Henry says furiously. “You left her to ogres ? I’ll kill you. I’ll–”

 

“Henry!” Emma says, stumbling to her feet and running to him. “Henry, stop , I’m fine –”

 

“You don’t look fine!” Henry says, turning to stare at her incredulously. His sword moves with him, still too close to Regina but with enough distance that Emma can breathe again. “You’re– Mom, what did she do to you?”

 

Emma can imagine how she looks, filthy and a little bloody and still stinking of ogre. She’s wearing clothes she’d have never worn within the castle, her hair loose and wet against her back and her eyes wild, and to Henry, she must look like a stranger. “She didn’t do anything,” she says rebelliously. “ I did this. I nearly took down that ogre, if you hadn’t–”

 

“Mom, you’ve never so much as fought your attendants on anything,” Henry says, and he looks at her with pity that feels suddenly patronizing. “If she’s bewitched you–”

 

He turns back to Regina.

 

Emma’s faster.

 

She moves between them as swiftly as Henry turns, and she’s standing in front of a still-compliant Regina before Henry can plunge his sword into her or Regina can surrender willingly. “You don’t hurt her,” she says shakily, and she doesn’t know which is more unacceptable– Regina being hurt or Regina being hurt by Henry’s hand. “I won’t let you–”

 

“You won’t let me?” Henry sounds amazed, his sword dipping to her neck. “Are you even my mom or...or some kind of decoy–”

 

“Henry,” she says hoarsely, and she can feel Regina’s hands against her, trying to move her aside to safety. She stands firm. “I can’t let you hurt an innocent over a misunderstanding .”

 

Henry stares at them both, eyes flickering to Regina and then to Emma with uncertainty, and Emma struggles to find steel within herself and succeeds. There’s a sword at her neck, drawing blood, and she keeps her lips firm and doesn’t let either of them move her aside.

 

Henry takes a step back, still staring at them in disbelief. “I’m coming back,” he says, clenching a fist. “I’m going to get the whole army and bring them here, and I’ll free you from the Evil Queen’s spell. You won’t win this,” he says to Regina. She only looks at him in silence, her gaze unwavering and full of love. He falters at what he’s seen in her eyes, swallowing hard, and when he flees back into the woods, it’s with another glance darted back at her.

 

Emma rubs at her neck, unsteady on her legs. Regina slumps to the ground again, her eyes wet and wide. Robin says genially from his vantage point at the other side of the clearing, “Well, that was something, wasn’t it?”

 


 

“I’m sorry,” Emma whispers that night. Their bedrolls are closer tonight so Regina can heal Emma, brushing her fingers across scrapes on her face as she works on Emma’s neck. “I really tried this time.”

 

“Tried...what?” Regina actually sounds puzzled, and Emma ducks her head and flushes.

 

“To be a hero,” she mumbles. “I’ve been...I’ve been practicing for weeks , and I thought I might be able to do something useful this time.” She swipes at her cheeks, embarrassed. “When the other Emma made her wish, I think she just...took away everything that made her who you wanted.”

 

“Who I wanted?” Regina echoes, her fingers tracing the scar at Emma’s neck. Emma shudders at her touch. “Emma, this isn’t about me. Well, I can’t say I’m opposed , but–” She huffs out a breath. “I didn’t need you to win. I needed you to fight .”

 

Emma rolls over, stares at her and can’t fathom what it is that lurks in Regina’s eyes. “I don’t understand,” she says helplessly.

 

Regina studies her for a long moment. “You really don’t, do you?” she says kindly, and now she’s touching Emma’s face, stroking patterns along the line of her hair. “Being a hero was supposed to be for you , not me,” she murmurs, and her eyes are solemn. “And I don’t see how it’s more heroic to slay an ogre than it is to stand with a sword at your throat, fighting for what you believe in.”

 

Emma is kissing her before she can think, surging forward and pressing her hands to Regina’s cheeks and her lips to Regina’s lips. Regina breathes into the kiss and lets out a sob, and Emma lets her go, dismayed. “I’m sorry,” she says fretfully, sitting up so she can wriggle back and give Regina some space. “I don’t know what I was–”

 

Regina moves toward her, hands on her shoulders and her eyes on Emma’s lips, and Emma can only whisper, “Regina?” before Regina’s lips find hers again. “ Regina ,” she breathes against her mouth, kisses her lips and her cheeks and the tip of her nose, drags her lips along the side of Regina’s neck and tugs on her earlobe with her teeth and this is a dream, it must be a dream–

 

She’s never been with a woman before, not in this reality, but she knows instinctively what she wants to do, where she wants to touch and what feels so impossibly good when Regina’s fingers and tongue and lips attack her skin. She sucks on a breast over Regina’s nightclothes, hears the gasp and presses a hot bite to it, reaches under Regina’s shirt to touch the soft skin at her hips. Regina sinks her teeth into Emma’s shoulder where it meets her neck and Emma almost cries, pulls her closer until Regina is on her lap, writhing against her and waking something hot that curls through her belly and craves more, more

 

“Wait,” Regina whispers breathlessly. “Wait, Emma, please –” She’s struggling to talk but her hands haven’t stopped moving, have been cupping Emma’s face and running across her skin and she’s still perched on Emma’s lap. She presses a kiss to Emma’s forehead and then looks horrified with herself, as though she can’t seem to remember how to stop.

 

Emma clutches onto her and waits, her hands straining with how much they crave touching her again. “Regina–”

 

“I didn’t tell you. I forgot and then...I don’t know why I didn’t tell you,” Regina says hopelessly, and Emma thinks a kiss on the cheek might be harmless enough, might until Regina turns her face and they’ve locked lips again, Emma’s tongue curling around the sensitive spot above Regina’s teeth and watching her convulse in response. “Emma, stop. You have to– You’re madly in love with this awful pirate back home!” she bursts out, and her hands slide down to grip Emma’s ass and Emma doesn’t see how she’s supposed to care about anything else right now. “This isn’t what you want.”

 

“Then why won’t you stop?” Emma says challengingly, unfazed by Regina’s revelation.

 

It’s a mistake. Regina sucks in a shuddering breath and slides off of Emma, her fingers running up Emma’s hips and thighs and back to Regina’s own lap, where she folds them together. “I have– I have a soulmate , Emma.” Emma presses her lips shut, flattens her hands at her side and watches her with narrowed eyes. “I have a second chance with him. I can’t–”

 

And for a moment, Emma is repentant, is guilty and god , they’re in his tent right now and he’s right outside and–

 

And then she remembers Regina’s eyes when she talks about the real Emma and remembers the way Regina had sat still when he’d kissed her and she remembers that she’s learning to fight. “Have you ever crossed realms to save him ?” she asks, and years of diplomatic training have paid off, if only to keep her voice impassive as she asks a single question.

 

Regina sags, staring at her hands on her lap as she chooses her words. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “But...you’re not real.”

 

I’m not real?” Emma demands, forgetting diplomacy faster than she’s ever switched gears before. “ I’m not real? And Robin’s– what, the original version of your soulmate now?”

 

Regina shakes her head, and Emma sees tears glistening in her eyes. “No one else has ever wanted me,” she says, and Emma stares at her in horror. “You’ve never…” Her voice trails off. “You’re not real,” she says again, and this time, Emma has no response that will satisfy Regina.

 

“Okay,” she says, her voice small, and she stretches out in bed again and tries to understand how there can be an Emma who’s earned Regina’s devotion and wouldn’t want her.

 

She can’t. It’s as simple as that. She turns again to see Regina looking down at her with raw yearning naked on her face. “I feel real,” she whispers; and this time, when she reaches for her, Regina doesn’t pull away.

 


 

She wakes up in the morning still wrapped around Regina, their clothes haphazard and skin still pressed to skin, and she allows herself a tiny moment of cowardice and pretends to be asleep when Regina stirs.

 

Regina sits up, and Emma can feel knuckles brushing against her brow, soft and affectionate. She still can’t imagine that Regina would want her, that she could be in love with someone who might reciprocate in some way. She savors every touch, still too cautious to open her eyes, and she hears a whoosh of magic as Regina dresses herself and steps out of the tent.

 

Robin is out there. He says something pleasant to Regina, and Emma feels a hot stab of jealousy that is curbed only by no one else has ever wanted me and the absolute desolation on Regina’s face as she’d admitted it.

 

Regina says something in response, and then clears her throat and says, “I...I have a confession to make.”

 

“There’s no need, Regina,” Robin says, and Emma doesn’t know if she’s reaching or she can actually hear a note of discomfort in his voice.

 

She can imagine Regina’s impatience well enough, though. “No, I think there is.”

 

“Really,” Robin says, and no , Emma isn’t reaching. “I think I’ve...heard everything that needed to be said.”

 

The tent flap opens just enough to treat Emma to the sight of Regina opening and closing her mouth, at a loss for words. “Oh,” she says finally.

 

“It’s a tent, not a fortress,” Robin reminds her. Which– fair . Emma’s eavesdropped on dozens of conversations from inside the tent. She’s eavesdropping on one right now, actually. She winces. Robin does, too. “I admit that I left after...well. I thought it best to give you your privacy.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” Regina says, chagrined. “You’ve spent all this time with us, trying to help us–”

 

Robin cuts her off. “I’m afraid I have a confession to make as well,” he says, revealing something in his palm, and Regina lets out a curse a moment later.

 

Emma climbs to her feet, curiosity overtaking caution, and she ducks out of the tent in time to see the magic bean in Robin’s hand. “ What ,” she says, and both of them look at her, startled. “How long have you had that?”

 

“My contact gave it to me about a week ago,” Robin says, looking marginally penitent. It’s probably more because of Regina’s betrayed stare than Emma’s glower. “I thought– I thought I might be making too hasty a decision.” He passes the bean into Regina’s palm, but she continues staring at him, still betrayed. “I saw how you two looked at each other,” he says defensively. “I thought I’d...wait for you to make a decision.”

 

Regina barks out a laugh, her eyes suddenly clear. “You really are Robin,” she says, sighing, and she puts a hand on his shoulder and then steps back, the bean safe in her palm.

 

He packs up his tent and it’s quiet, these final moments when it feels as though everything is about to change. Emma dresses quickly, avoiding Robin until he shakes her hand and says, “I underestimated you.”

 

“I underestimated me, too,” Emma admits, and Robin looks at her with something amounting to respect. It’s not the simple adoration of the masses, the indulgence of her parents’ affection, or even the simplicity that is Regina being kind; it’s something new, and it makes her stand tall just as the others had.

 

He leaves around noon with a kiss on Regina’s cheek that makes Emma smart, and when he’s gone, Emma scrubs Regina’s cheek with a rag until Regina protests, laughing, and kisses her soundly.

 

“Tell me,” Emma says breathlessly when they’ve finally settled by the river, preparing to leave at last and losing themselves in new kisses, each more heated than the last. “In Storybrooke– do you always dress like a prince, or…”

 

“This is a waistcoat!” Regina protests. “I have dozens of them!”

 

“That’s all I wanted to know,” Emma says innocently, pressing a kiss to the skin beneath Regina’s left ear. Regina shivers. “If you want to hold off on the portal until tomorrow…” Emma says invitingly.

 

“As much as that idea appeals to me,” Regina says, leaning against her, “I can think of two reasons why we have to go now.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Henry,” she says, and Emma remembers that she thinks that her Henry might be in danger and nods readily. “And Henry,” she says again, pointing up past the river to the mountain above them. There’s a full command of horses riding down it, and Emma’s father and Henry are at its front. Emma stares at them for a protracted moment, her heart tight, and Regina watches her until she can meet her eyes. “Ready?” Regina says, and she takes Emma’s hand again.

 

“Ready,” Emma says, and Regina tosses the bean to the ground. The portal widens in front of them, and they hold on tightly to each other and leap

 

–And Emma remembers.

 


 

It’s been five hours since the portal and Emma is still standing in front of a river, kissing a spot at the base of Regina’s neck. No . She’s sitting at a table with her father and her son and her boyfriend, listening to their recounting of the adventures of the past few weeks and trying to smile.

 

“Have you been...feeding her?” she says finally, wincing at the thought of the Evil Queen, caged at last and still absolutely terrifying.

 

Henry laughs. “Mom asked the same thing. And when we said that snakes can go for months without food, she just picked up the cage and left.” He sobers. “Do you think she’s okay?”

 

“I’m sure she is, Henry,” Emma says, and she pastes a smile on her face that feels unnatural, that feels as though her skin is stretching and falling loose as though she’s a snake herself and trying to shed.

 

When she gets up from the table, it’s to Killian intercepting her, leaning in for a kiss. She angles her body so it becomes a hug, not for the first time today. He frowns at her, also not for the first time today.

 

Regina had left almost immediately when they’d popped back into Storybrooke. There had been a protracted moment where they’d still been holding hands, standing in the loft as David and Killian had gaped openmouthed at them, and Emma had remembered who she is.

She hadn’t let go of Regina, not until Killian had rushed at her and she’d said his name, and Regina had dropped her hand and stepped back, stricken.

 

She’d looked as though she’d lost everything , and Emma finally has the memories to understand exactly what it had been that she’d taken from Regina this time. She’d been stupid, stupid in the other world, so firmly convinced that Regina choosing her had been the right thing–

 

But Regina hadn’t chosen her , had she? She’d chosen a woman who’d ceased to exist the moment they’d passed through the portal, chosen her over another chance with her soulmate , and now she’s left with only Emma.

 

Five hours without Regina. Emma feels as though she’s drowning, sinking into a world where everything is too close and she can’t breathe. At some point tonight, she’s going to have to go back to her house and back to her life and hope desperately that Regina might at least start talking to her again.

 

For now, she curls onto the couch after Henry leaves, playing with Neal– and god, there’s another horrific realization, that her parents had only had him in this universe to replace their failed attempt with her, because he hadn’t been there in the other– and listening to her father talk about some failed coup involving the dwarves while she nods and makes “mh-hm” sounds.

 

Killian comes to sit beside her, wrapping an arm around her and coming in too close, and she has to control herself not to flinch. “You haven’t told us anything about where you were, love,” he says, and there’s a whine to it that doesn’t conceal the dark suspicion in his eyes.

 

Emma shrugs, keeping her voice carefully even. “There isn’t much to tell,” she says. “We hid out in the woods until we got a hold of a magic bean. Lots of days doing nothing but picking fruit.”

 

David smiles, wistful and unthinking. “Your mother and I used to do that all the time during our one quiet year,” he says. “Camping out and picking berries and huddled around the fire at night, and then in the tent…” His voice trails off and he winks at them.

 

Emma blushes. It’s a holdover from the other Emma, who had felt sometimes like nothing but pink cheeks and tears, and she’s thinking too quickly about in the tent with Regina, to kisses and a whisper of you’re not real. you’ve never… as Regina had held onto her, both of them incapable of letting go.

 

And she might have gotten away with it if Killian hadn’t been studying her face all evening, has been watching her like he can tell somehow and is only waiting for proof. Her cheeks are still flaming and he scrambles away from her as though he’s been burned, glaring at her in shocked betrayal.

 

“I didn’t remember,” Emma says weakly. “I didn’t remember anything.” Regina had mentioned him then and Emma had shrugged off the warning, the idea of loving anyone else so alien . Now she can feel the baggage piling on, hell and Dark Ones and every commitment she’d made weighing onto her until she’s sinking into the ground like quicksand, flattened under the sheer weight of it.

 

“And now?” Killian demands, and Emma remembers Regina in the tent with her hands flat on her lap, no one else has ever wanted me . God. God.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” she says, unconvincingly. “It’s not going to happen, so–”

 

“But you want it,” Killian says darkly, and Emma turns away from him to watch her father in the kitchen instead. He’s turned to stare at them, baffled at the argument, and Emma’s never missed Mary Margaret as much as she does in this moment. “You want her .”

 

“She wants an Emma who doesn’t exist,” Emma says, unable to keep the note of melancholy from her voice. Killian rises so quickly that he nearly nicks her with his hook and storms out, slamming the door behind him.

 

She wants to cry like Princess Emma had, to be weak and pathetic and hate herself for it. Instead, she feels a burden roll off of her shoulders and remembers at once what it had been like to stand tall.

 

David, blessedly oblivious as always, says, “She?” with a note of utter bewilderment. Emma laughs, unable to restrain herself, and kisses his cheek.

 


 

She doesn’t go to Regina that night or the days following. Regina doesn’t want to see her , and she hovers around Henry when he arrives from the house, waiting for news of Regina instead. Henry scowls at her after one too many questions and says, “If you want to know, then ask her.”

 

She can’t. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if Regina slams the door on her, if Regina levels accusations at her like the ones that have been racing through her mind since she’d gotten home. She doesn’t know what she’ll do when she’s rejected for being the wrong Emma , the one that Regina doesn’t love.

 

“Just tell me she’s okay,” she begs Henry one day a week in. It’s been seven days since she’d kissed Regina in front of the portal. “I know she doesn’t want to see me–”

 

“Oh, do you –” Henry says, glaring at her, and she’s raised him in two false lifetimes now but it’s the one where she hadn’t that he resonates most in her heart.

 

“I just need to know,” she pleads with him, and he relents, her soft, smart boy who’d grown up to write stories instead of fighting in them.

 

“She’s not okay,” he says finally. “She won’t talk to me about...whatever went on in the other world. She just said that...that Robin had been there.”

 

It’s Emma’s worst nightmare, that this is what sticks from their journey. This is the third time she’d tried to do something right and ruined Regina’s destiny, the third time she’d stepped in and sabotaged Regina’s love. Selfish, selfish – And yet again, there’s nothing she can do to stave off the well of relief that he hadn’t come back with them after all.

 

Henry bites his lip. “You should go to her.”

 

“I think I’m the last person she’d want to see right now,” Emma says dully.

 

“I don’t think so,” Henry says, and he bites his lip again and says, “Do you think she’s like this…” He clears his throat. “Do you think it’s because of the Queen?”

 

Emma looks at him in surprise. “Because of…?” And of course Henry who can’t possibly know about them would find another plausible reason why Regina has withdrawn. For all her hatred of the Evil Queen, it’s a lot harder to resent her now that she’s only a caged beast, without the words and actions she’d wielded so effortlessly to drive people to loathe her.

 

She thinks about Princess Emma again and wonders if it’s the same, the resentment and disgust and jealousy that she feels toward her. But no, Princess Emma hadn’t been a half of her.

 

Sometimes now, it feels like she might be.

 


 

She knocks on Regina’s door and waits, shivering in the cold, until the door slides open with a glow of magical energy. Regina doesn’t answer it, which makes this so much more awkward, and Emma fidgets in the foyer for a few minutes before she ducks into the study.

 

Regina is crouched on the floor, her hands on the cobra’s cage. She’s watching it somberly and it stares back, its tongue flicking out to taste the air between them.

 

“She doesn’t have you hypnotized or something, does she?” Emma says, only half joking.

 

Regina doesn’t look at her. “She can’t hurt me without hurting herself,” she murmurs. “And she got all the self-preservation in the split.” She touches a bar of the cage, fingers running along it, and she says, “What can I do for you, Emma?”

 

Emma had expected Miss Swan , cool and unyielding, and the Emma hits her like a punch to the gut. It’s quiet, without the anger that Emma had expected, and she tucks her thumbs into the waist of her pants and struggles to answer. “I just...I wanted to check up on you,” she whispers. “I haven’t seen you in a week.”

 

“I’ve been catching up on work,” Regina says, nodding to her desk, and it’s brisk and sounds impersonal except for the part where she still hasn’t met Emma’s eyes once. Emma aches , her heart clenched into a tiny, shaking fist.

 

“Regina,” Emma says, her voice strained. “Regina, please. Just look at me.” She wants to blame the sob in her voice on Princess Emma, but Princess Emma isn’t real no matter how long she’d spent in her skin.

 

Regina lifts her face and Emma sees– red-rimmed eyes, hollow, the pain in them enough to drown in all over again. “Is this why you came here?” she says hoarsely. “To…”

 

“I came to apologize,” Emma blurts out, and she hadn’t , there aren’t apologies that are enough for what she’d done. You can’t take away the love of someone’s life three times and expect them to forgive you. “For what– for what happened in the woods.”

 

“Oh,” Regina says, her eyes hollowing out even more. “Please don’t.” She must know it too, that there’s nothing that can be said.

 

“I have to.” Emma paces in the small room, watches Regina watch her, squeezes her fists and drops them limp at her sides. “I...I sabotaged you and Robin again , and maybe the first time I was– I just wanted to save a life, and the second was Hades even if you went down there for me– but I took him away from you again. And you deserve to be happy. Even if it’s with him,” she says grumpily, charitable only to a point.

 

Regina is staring at her, head shaking slowly, and Emma is afraid when she opens her mouth to respond. “You didn’t...I made that choice,” Regina says. “I chose–”

 

And no , she is not letting Regina fall back into self-loathing. “I– the other I, the figment of my imagination – she pushed you to it. God, she was so in love with you.” Emma regrets saying it the moment she does, because god

 

Regina’s eyes are soft and sad. “She didn’t push me into anything,” she says. “She was...she was wonderful.”

 

“She was a weak, pathetic–” She hates her, hates Princess Emma and everything she’d been too foolish to hide.

 

And Regina’s eyes flash with anger for the first time since Emma’s entered the house. “Don’t talk about her like that,” she says, her voice hard and dangerous.

 

“Regina,” Emma says, holding up a hand placatingly. “I get that you...that you had feelings for her–” The jealousy bubbles hot and furious and so painful that she can’t bear it– “But she wasn’t real .”

 

“Like hell she wasn’t,” Regina snaps. “She was you , you idiot . Even thirty years of being coddled by Snow couldn’t hide you for too long. And every day out there she was a little more the Emma I love , so forgive me if I won’t tolerate you talking about–”

 

Emma drops to the ground at Emma I love , falls beside the cage of an oddly sedate cobra and reaches for Regina and kisses her, trembles in her arms and strokes her cheeks with her thumbs and kisses her again. Regina pulls her closer and a kiss turns to a hug turns to Emma’s face buried in Regina’s neck like she’s finally coming home.

 

“Emma,” Regina sighs, and holds her tightly enough that Emma can believe, for one fierce moment of joy, that she might never let go.

 

And there’s a chorus of Emma s in her mind, of lifetimes lived that hadn’t been real and a thousand universes that could have been, and every one of them springs to life in that moment and blossoms, wild and vibrant and in love.