The next time Blacky graced the Charmings' Palace with her presence, Emma had to congratulate herself for masking – as well as she could, anyway – any unease she felt. As though sensing the fizzing discomfort in the air, however, Blacky made sure to avoid Emma for the majority of the evening. Even as it grew late and she and Henry sunk into the soft mattress of her large, Queen-sized bed, the little cat curled defensively against her son's chest, away from her.
Emma had to wonder, with dread weighing down her chest, if the creature really was consciously aware of the sudden suspicion stinking the air and, with it, if the cat really was just as ordinary – to this world, and the last – as she had first reassured herself. The sinking feeling pulling her down into the bed sheets was enough to keep Emma awake long enough to feel the shifting of the mattress beside her. She refrained from moving, quickly shut her eyes, and listened to the sound of Blacky shuffling from the bed and dropping to the floor.
The bedroom window had been deliberately left open despite the chill of the early Winter air, and an extra few blankets had been added to her bed spread. Emma was overly aware that Blacky would not stay the night and could not find it in herself to close the window, should it mean the cat remained, and – although she was sure this was just her overactive imagination – turned into a hideous, man-eating beast by morning.
When she was sure the cat was out of the room, Emma shot up from the bed and stared at the ghostly wisps of curtain that billowed around the empty cavity. She hurried from the bed, pulling on trousers from the day before over her nightwear, quiet enough not to disturb Henry from his slumber, and raced from her room.
To the alarmed and fretful guards she passed, Emma voiced her hushed reassurances that she needed a little air. She ignored the flaws in her excuse and, when stopped at the door, disarmed a guard in favour of his sword and detached a torch from one wall.
"I'll be back," she hurried, "don't wake my parents!"
# # # #
Regina was unsure as to where the bobbing, orange glow was coming from, at first, but it soon became clear that she was being followed. Panic seized her chest and caused her to stumble, still inside Tsuki's body, through some tangled brambles at the base of the fallen tree she had just leapt from. Silently cursing, she hurried on, leaving the dirt and debris of the forest caught in her fur to be cleaned out by Tsuki herself. She diverted from her usual path, sinking further into the forest, if only to have her pursuer follow an inconvenient trail.
The snapping twigs in the distance alerted her to the struggles of her follower, and she continued on through thick hedgerows and twisted bushes, where she hoped to lose the persistent pursuer. The snapping and cursing, however, only grew closer and, glancing over one shoulder, Regina realised that whoever was following – and she was beginning to have an idea of who it might be – was not going to relent. They were getting closer.
Overwhelmed with rage and panic, she forced herself to leave the path she was carving through the forest and leapt up a tree trunk, claws scathing the bark until she had scaled enough to reach the first branch. Once there and out of sight, she stopped and watched, waiting for the identity of her pursuer to be revealed.
Regina thought that she should be surprised, but as soon as Emma Swan's figure came into view, a torch in one hand and a sword in the other. She could only find it in herself, however, to roll the large, orange eyes she was borrowing and leap from her branch.
She supposed she could have remained up there until Emma tired of her search, losing the trail, and took off home again – or, better yet, got lost in the forest – but the cat was out of the bag (and she almost winced at the pun). It was better she dealt with this now rather than in a month's time.
Her landing over rustling leaves spooked Emma, and she managed a smirk even confined to Tsuki's pliable body. Soon, green eyes pierced her own, and the sword, trembling in one hand, wavered between the ground and pointing directly at her. Playing the sympathy card with a deep inner-amusement, Regina let out a quaking meow, high-pitched and fearful, and watched as the sword hung loosely in Emma's hand. Just as she had thought. Pathetic.
Feeling a little safer, if not just as worried about what this might mean for her future, she begrudgingly sat and stared up at Emma, waiting for her to make the next move. She wondered if Emma would relent and leave, seeing she was posing no threat, but Emma remained and her eyes were dark and hard.
Regina had felt the change in her previous visit, the hostility in the air that seemed to exude from the tense blonde, and she had hoped that it didn't mean what she thought it meant. Of course, that seemed to be the case now.
She thought about staying there all night, stuck in a tasteless stalemate with Emma (the idea only all too reminiscent of their time in Storybrooke), but she could feel her compressed spirit itching and convulsing inside Tsuki's tiny body and knew that she hadn't long before they parted. She could not risk her spirit roaming free in these dark woods and knew that, as reluctant as she was in entertaining the thought, she would have to return to her cottage sooner rather than later. And she was sure she'd have an unwelcome visitor when she did.
It was with a sigh, unsure as to what to do now, that Emma lowered herself into a crouch. She eyed the little black cat before her with caution, as though it might spring at her at any moment, and her fist tightened around the sword in her right hand. She frowned at the cat, which she was sure the beast returned, and tried to ignore the sounds of the buzzing forest around her. She was well aware that she had passed the grounds of her Kingdom and feared what monsters lurked in the dark woods her parents had severely warned her against entering.
She was almost thankful when, with a dejected and irritated meow, Blacky perked from her feet and hissed at her crouched form before hurrying into the woods. Emma barely had time to straighten before she was lurching after the cat, torch held in front of her so as to keep its retreating form in sight. It wouldn't do to lose it now, she thought, not when she had come this far.
Emma managed to follow the cat for what could have been hours, gaining only minor scrapes and scratches from the unwelcoming forest. She had little time to pause for breath, and took note of the lightening sky; dawn was fast approaching, and Henry would soon wake without her.
She did not understand the coiling feeling deep within her gut that warned her that whatever Blacky would reveal to her by dawn would not be something she wanted to see, but she continued on regardless, stopping only when she noticed winding tendrils of smoke coming from directly ahead, above the canopy.
The twisted smog could only ever be coming from a fire, and Emma's stomach lurched at the possibility. A camp? Even as she wondered what was going on, however, she was suddenly quite sure of what – or who – she was going to come across once she reached the location of the fire. There was no doubt in her that that was where Blacky was heading.
Before she entered the clearing, even, her sight of the quaint cottage obscured by trees, Emma hoped that she was about to come across a lonely old woman who lived with the company of none but her cats. She wished to believe in her father's theory that Blacky was merely an owned cat who had a taste for Palace finery, but the twisting of her gut told it that solution would most definitely be too good to be true. Too easy.
By the time she reached the cottage's front door, Blacky was nowhere in sight, but an open window had her suspicious. She thought about knocking, reassured herself that she still might be intruding on a lonely old woman, but the hammering of her heart drove her hand toward the handle without thought. Before she realised what she had done, the door was closing behind her and she was staring into the cramped interior of the miniature house.
The living area took up the majority of the space, an old settee and armchair consuming the majority of the limited floor space, standing directly in front of her and shielding her from the dying blaze of the fireplace. To her right stood a small table and chairs, and a ladder that she assumed led up to the second level, opening up into what Emma saw to be only a small space. The dining area housed numerous cupboards and shelves, each filled with jars of ingredients, cooking equipment, and books, along with trinkets she was sure had been used in her old world years before the invention of electricity, though were much more than vintage decorations here.
Caught in her assessment of her surroundings, she failed to notice the little black cat until it had jumped onto the back of the sofa, staring at her shyly. With a peculiar frown, Emma almost thought she had no right to have been suspicious in the first place and reached her hand out to pet the tiny animal, considering leaving now and returning home before her absence was noticed. Her eyes were stinging with sleep deprivation and the sword in her hand (the torch had been abandoned in the forest after burning out) hung limp and heavy, her muscles pleading with her to drop it.
As her fingers neared the soft, black fur, however, Blacky let out a hostile hiss and leapt from the back of the sofa. Emma stared after the cat as it disappeared into the kitchen area, frowning with both unease and confusion. That wasn't like Blacky. With her sword hand raising almost subconsciously, she made to go after the cat to make sure it was okay, but a soft groan from by the fire froze her in place.
A tremor of panic charged through her spine, feasting with a tickling unease at the soft flesh over her back, and she twisted to crane her neck over the sofa to see what – or who – had made the noise. The sight that greeted her sent her reeling with dubious incredulity.
Lay there on the rug in front of the fire was none other than Regina Mills. She looked different here, to say the least. Her hair, grown to her shoulders, waved and curled with the lack of a straightening iron, and her face held a more natural glow as opposed to the brutal make-up she had preferred in the old world. Natural pink lips parted with another groan, much softer, and Regina's head shifted to one side, eyes clenching, as she came back to herself.
Petrified to the spot, Emma's eyes travelled Regina's body. The dress she wore looked to be a far cry from the Gucci and Burberry she was accustomed to seeing fit snugly around the lithe, olive-toned body before her, but its authentic appearance gave the usually hard-faced woman a much softer, approachable persona. Though Emma doubted much had changed to tamper Regina's devious nature.
Something suddenly clicked, then, as her eyes rose back to the sleeping woman's, and the plummeting drop of her heart had her taking a rushed step back, shoulders slamming with a panic into the closed door.
Regina was Blacky. The realisation hit her so suddenly, it could only be true. Sucking in a breath, she twisted her neck to spot the furry, black animal now sitting atop the table, licking its paw. Her breathing was both shallow and laboured, eyes wide, and she almost jumped right out of her skin when she heard the low-toned greeting of, "Hello, dear. Nice of you to stop by."
Regina sighed as she fixed her startled guest with a firm glare. Damnit, she'd ruined everything. Again. Dusting off her dress and combing an unruly strand of hair out of her eyes, she attempted to ignore her sudden fatigue at having a bad night's rest on top of the draining magic she had performed, and shifted straight past Emma – barely holding back a sneer at the sight of her sword – into her kitchen area.
The fire was still burning, despite its fatigued flames, and the heat was a welcome blanket against the cold outdoors. She stopped to pull the window shutters tightly into place and then made for her pantry, going in search of her go-to anxiety-relief. When she returned from the pantry, she saw Emma standing, a little stronger, in the middle of her living room. She raised an eyebrow at the pale expression, hardened and cold, and nodded down to indicate the jug in her hands. "Would you like a glass?"
With no answer returned, save the garish, unblinking green gaze that, if she was honest, was beginning to unnerve her, Regina moved to the table, shooing Tsuki from the top. She retrieved two glasses, anyway, and thrust the second into Emma's hand. Only when Emma gripped it back and appeared to become aware of their close proximity did she take a sip.
Forgetting, all too late, that this was a woman who actively plotted to poison both her and her mother (and succeeded in one – she dared not dwell on the outcome of the other), Emma filled her mouth with the milky substance. It was only when the nutty taste attacked her tastebuds that sense returned to her and she spat the liquid back into the glass in distaste, ignoring the disgusted look Regina was now giving her.
"It's not poisoned." Regina rolled her eyes, taking a sip of her own hazelnut milk. "But if you'd much rather prefer something else, I suppose I could make coffee." She only wanted to keep busy, and the guise of playing the perfect hostess filled her bones like she had birthed the character.
At the drop of that one little word, however, Emma's face shattered with longing. The gesture was far too precious to give up on and, poisoned or not, Emma found herself craving coffee more than she did getting the hell out of a former Evil Queen's cosy cottage in the woods. She could not quite voice her wishes, however, but her parting lips and desperate intake of air had a small smirk playing at Regina's lips.
"I'll take that as a yes." Her smile was almost private as she turned, dropping her glass onto the sofa to go in search of the right jar of coffee beans. "I suppose we won't be talking of my little visits to your Palace?" she asked over one shoulder as she reached down a jar and a mortar.
Emma's silence was as much an answer as she could take. With her back turned to the other woman, she allowed her body to go through the familiar motions of retrieving the necessary ingredients and equipment, all the while her chest felt as though it had concaved in on itself, ribs tightened around her lungs, throat blocked with the determination to keep her sobs at bay. It was over. She was done.
Her brisk movements disguised the quake of her tingling hands and the coffee, now, was as much for her own case of light-headedness as it was Emma's. It was only whilst kneeling before her fire, stirring a pan of warming water, that Emma spoke.
Her eyes took in the equipment that Regina had settled down before her on the fire and a frown suddenly marred her brow, as though only just realising that Regina had been moving all this time. She felt herself falling from her earlier paralysis and asked, if only to test her new acquaintance with her voice box, "How did you learn to do all of this?" The bitterness did not quite lift from her tone. They didn't have coffee back at the palace.
Regina turned if only to regard her disdainfully over one shoulder, as though having previously forgotten she was still imposing upon her home. "I'm a domestic Goddess," she deadpanned, turning back to her brew.
Emma frowned at the response and huffed out a breath. Her hand finally began clamping around the hilt of her sword and, tired, she dropped heavily into the worn armchair and rested her weapon against the side. She doubted Regina had much fight left in her. The unvoiced implications of what this little discovery meant were not lost on her, and yet Emma still found herself asking 'why?' Why go to all that trouble, put yourself in so much danger? The answer resonated clear as day in her head, as though it was Regina's voice carrying through after having overheard her thoughts. Henry.
Sinking back into the plump cushions behind her back – and doing her best to fight sleep, of which she was sure the coffee would help – Emma viewed the kneeling woman before her with a softer eye. Her head tilted to regard Regina, mainly out of fatigue, as she stoked the fire and stirred the now bubbling water. When the smell of coffee began to fill the air, consuming the natural freshness of dawn, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The smell took her right back to her old world, her own world, and her heart sang in remembrance.
When she opened her eyes again, Regina was before her, holding out a mug. She took it without resistance and blew joyfully at its rising steam. Her first sip was quick and tentative, both cautious of the temperature and the ever-present threat of never awakening afterwards. When her eyes next opened, it was to find Regina had seated herself on the sofa, legs curled up beside her.
Dark eyes pinned her from across the slight distance, curious and not a little fretful. Eventually, voice dripping with morbid curiosity, Regina questioned, "Please, indulge me. What gave me away?" Emma took another sip of her coffee before answering.
As though having been summoned, the little black cat she was so familiar with, and yet so obviously not, entered the room with a whining meow. The intrusion was enough to take Emma's eyes from the surprised, thoughtful orbs of Storybrooke's former mayor. The beast certainly seemed more restless than usual, she thought, and it took a coaxing pat of Regina's hand on the cushion beside her to persuade the cat join her on the sofa.
It settled after walking a number of circles into the cushion, and threw its tiny body down, orange eyes closing soon after. Regina's soothing fingers running through the soft tuft of dark fur by the base of the cat's neck provoked a noisy purr from the settled creature, the sound both familiar and new, but soothing Emma's pounding chest as she took another sip from her mug.
"How did you do it?"
Regina looked up with a sigh. She supposed there was no point in holding back, now. Emma would leave her today and, with her, all chances of seeing Henry again would escape her desperate grasp. The thought almost caused a sob deep within her chest, but she managed to bite it back with a sharp intake of air. Quietly, she confessed, "Your parents' wards hold room for loopholes." Emma did not miss the insult in her tone. "I merely took advantage of them."
"In a cat's body?" She sounded incredulous to her own ears, but not even the magic that so clearly blossomed in this realm could make the idea sound at all possible. Her shoulders were itching with discomfort at the thought.
Regina resisted the urge to roll her eyes and defended, tone sharp, "It takes a great deal of power and determination to master a spirit-extraction spell, never mind actually successfully entering another creature's body."
Emma's eyebrows knitted at her words. "It sounds a little… severe." Even as the words left her mouth, she knew Regina would go to further lengths in order to see their son. The sentiments ravished Regina's eyes with a short-lived fury before simmering down to something akin to despairing resolution.
"I would do anything," Regina began, but she saw the acknowledgement in Emma's eyes and decided that her words did not need continuing. Instead, she took a sip of her coffee and retrieved her hand from the back of Tsuki's neck. Her purring stopped soon after. "Tsuki was more than willing to help," she added quietly, eyes drifting down to the little cat beside her.
Dark eyes met green and Emma was almost sure there was humour behind the insult. "Anything is an improvement on Blacky." Regina shook her head and almost managed a smile at just how terrible Emma was at naming, but she couldn't quite force the gesture.
A silence fell between the two, both uncomfortable and expectant, and it was only after the mug in her hands began to blister her palms that Regina next spoke. Her voice was nothing short of an intrusion to the otherwise quiet cottage. "Will you alert them?"
Emma eyes rose slowly to her own, and she could tell that the possibility had done more than flit across Emma's mind. I'm finished, Regina reminded herself, scaring the hope back deep inside. It's over.
Finding herself suddenly unable to answer, for the part of her that was horrified that Regina Mills had slipped so easily and frequently beneath their noses without alerting a single one of them until now, was instantly countered by her admiration and, shocked as she was to find it, relief that the woman had not given up on Henry. That meant something. It had to.
Swallowing thickly, Emma rose from her seat. She had outstayed her welcome for long enough.
Regina watched as Emma relieved herself of the coffee mug and lifted the sword into her hand. Her arms hung with the tiredness of a sleepless night, and she had no doubt that Emma was in quite a hurry to return home, if only to voice her new discovery to the ruling monarchs and collapse back beneath the soft sheets that Regina herself was only all too familiar with. She found it more than peculiar that she was already missing their warmth.
Standing from the sofa so she could better see the other woman out, Regina felt a familiar bite clawing up her throat and, despite being quite certain that she would not be seeing her son next month, or soon after, she found the strained smirk that pinched at her lips a blessing to fall into. "Goodbye, Princess."
Emma turned, clear discomfort from the title tensing her shoulders, and frowned. Her fingers grazed the door handle and she hesitated not once to pull it open, determined to return home. Just as she crossed the threshold, a familiar mocking drifted to her from inside the heated cottage.
"Oh, and Ms. Swan?" She turned quickly, half expecting a delayed attack. "You really do have magic fingers. Your behind-the-ear scratches are, mm, sensational."
The blush remained even after she had reached the Palace and collapsed, thankful of the sight of Henry's sleeping body, on the bed beside her son.
# # # #
A Winter snowfall came like the inevitable end of all cycles, filling the hills and valleys and the surrounding Palace gardens with a whiteness so bleak, Emma felt her stomach freeze merely sighting it. White, everywhere. If anyone were to ask what Emma Swan's idea of death would be, she'd point toward the western hillside, where not even the mangled trees could escape the build-up of frost. The whiteness there sunk from the air, just as pale and devastating, and its flaky poison filtered down with an impression of beauty that had allured her, more than once, to watch nature slowly dying.
She would stay, repelled and enchanted, until the awe mutated into realisation, like the times she would subconsciously crane her neck to see if any bodies could be made out from car crashes and then, disgusted at herself and all around her, she would realise what she was doing and swiftly move along.
She had heard her father telling her mother in a passing comment that this was the coldest winter he remembered having. Then he relayed the tales of his childhood, being brought up on the farm, the animals it was imperative that he tend to should they have a hope of surviving until Spring. Emma had shook her head with a fond smile and concluded that her parents really could not be better suited. She almost forgave Disney right there and then, because who couldn't exploit such an obvious, well-suited match?
But now, Emma's stomach was far from easy. Her chest lurched, fingers numbing on the windowsill in her bedroom, as she peered out at the Palace grounds. Guards were positioned on the usual posts and she almost felt bad for them having to be out in such brutal weather, but then remembered her parents' kindness in rewarding their loyalty. They'd be going home to a warm house and a hotter meal, she reassured herself.
She turned to see Henry leaning against her bedroom door, head of shaggy brown hair almost covering his eyes. He'd grown a lot since they came here, and the heavy fur cloak Snow insisted he wore was now carried over broadening shoulders.
"Hey, kid. You okay?"
Henry joined her side, peering out at the bleakness with a sparkle in his eye that made Emma long for the ignorance of youth. "Yeah… we're going sledging later, will you come?" He looked up, and only after seeing her fretful expression did his stomach coil. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Emma attempted to reassure him, one arm hanging over his shoulders as she turned her gaze back to the window. "I just don't like the cold."
It wasn't a lie, not really. She hated the cold. It reminded her of those nights she thought she might freeze to death, almost wished she would so that her foster parents would see her in the morning, blue and stiff, and cry out for all the wrong they had inflicted, begging the high heavens above for a second chance.
"You can wear a cloak," Henry offered, but saw the resolute answer in her gaze. Sighing, he turned back to the window, trying to find what had her so captivated. "What's out there?" he asked, missing the widening of Emma's eyes as they flew to him. The arm around his shoulder tightened.
She shook her head. "Nothing."
That night, while Snow and James and Henry were curled up with hot chocolates by the fire, Emma excused herself and headed to the gardens. The living bench she was so accustomed to sitting on was covered with a foot of snow, the sight doing nothing for her churning stomach, and so she remained on two feet and was at least thankful for the cover of darkness that attempted to mask the bleakness of the ground around her.
Straining to look up into the night sky, Emma found solace in its depth. She had waited all day for this and now she felt as though she could breathe again, but her heart hammered so hard inside her chest, she had to worry if there was really something wrong. Her lips were dry and cracked and, restless, she licked them even despite her better judgement.
Heavy clouds cluttered the sky like misshapen marshmallows, and Emma felt their weight from below, feet numbing in the snow that came past her ankles. A frustration began to coil in her shoulders as she watched, waiting, for the sky to grant her wish. Eventually, when her nose was numb and chest seizing at the cold air being inhaled, the blankness above conceded.
The moon was large and full, mocking in its whiteness and bore down on the landscape and Emma like a cold spotlight marking the faults. She craved its touch and closed her eyes, sucking in a startling lungful of ice, as it bestowed what she could only be sure was healing energy over her reddening features.
Her eyelids almost refused to open, whether caught with frost or merely unable to let go of the hope that remained while they were shut, and she stood for a long moment in her own darkness. Only when her hammering heart became too much did she open them.
A cry almost left Emma's lips as she saw the small figure approaching. The closer it came, the more defined its snow-clumped black fur became, weighted by frost. She felt her chest seize with a relief she hadn't known she had been waiting for and did not hold back her thankful smile to whatever heat was keeping Regina alive in her little cottage in the woods.
Turning, she led the creature inside, peering over her shoulder once to confirm it was following. The cat struggled in the shoulder-deep snow, and Emma was suddenly wary of just how different the journey could have gone, should it be anyone but Regina trapped inside the frail body of the beast.
When they reached the warmth of the family living quarters, a meowed sigh was released and before Emma had a chance to call for him, Henry's ears pricked toward the sound and he came rushing over, a large smile over his lips. He had voiced his fears of Blacky's survival chances in the cold, and she had done all that she could to reassure him, but the animal's presence proved to be as much a sigh of relief to her as it quite clearly was for he.
"Blacky!" The sight of her son unwittingly lifting his other mother into his arms and settling her frosty body against his chest, furry ears tickling his chin, provoked a rare stinging sensation behind Emma's eyes and she turned, suddenly overwhelmed by the weight of her intrusion on the mother-son moment, and made for the door. A soft meow had her craning over one shoulder, only to see what she was sure was a rare smile on the little black cat's lips. If cats could smile, this one was laughing with tears.
Later that night, with the window open even despite the night's shocking chill, Emma lay awake beneath the numerous blankets she had begged for and borrowed in her bed. Beside her, a small black shape purred happily against the heat of Henry's back.
As they slept, a new kind of magic began to weave a precarious intrusion into the frosted air. It touched the three beings present with glowing tendrils of effervescent light that sang like windchimes when touched. Unaware and suspended in blissful slumber, neither person in the Queen-sized bed registered the dip and shift of the mattress, or the heat of a new body being added beneath the blankets, safe from Winter's desperate clutch.
When Emma awoke that morning, it was to the sight of none other than Regina Mills sleeping peacefully between her and their son.
A/N: So, there it is, the last chapter. Thanks for showing an interest in this fic, again. It's been great to get it back up, and I'm still working on the sequel, which finally has a title. Feedback has been relatively scarce on this fic, which I understand, as it's a repost, but I would like to confirm that people are interested in the sequel…? I'll post the first chapter of it soon (I want to finish up a few chapters, so that I have a bit of a head-start), and likely update it every week, unless my schedule suddenly fills up.
I'd like to mention, too, that this entire fic was inspired by a line in one of Exquisiteliltart's fics, when Regina said something along the lines of, "I make a beautiful raven…" (I'm pretty sure it's from These Aren't the Happy Endings You're Looking For, but I may be wrong).
Thanks a lot, though, and I hope this fic still has followers by the time the sequel comes out.
Regina Mills has just about enough time to realise that she is awake before she is being dragged from the bed she had fallen asleep in, and pushed into a lavatory. Her eyes are bleary, and her body is cold, but when she opens her mouth in protest, a hand clamps over it to keep her quiet.
Emma's face appears next, her expression somewhere between glaring and incredulous, as she pushes Regina back against a cold, stone wall. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she hisses, casting several quick glances towards the doorway.