It was a long, sleepless night in the mausoleum, measured out in candles burned end to end and bursts of fear that left Regina tensed against the wall, listening for footsteps—or perhaps for the rattle of pitchforks, she thought once, deliriously, the bitter laughter sticking high in her throat before she could drive it out.
No one came, and by dawn she was slumping, aching with fatigue and uncertainty, and still she refused to move, reluctant to be forced back aboveground though the thought of staying another hour in the shadows of that place chilled her thoroughly. She had nowhere to run—no energy to run, at that—and her ignorance of this world, of her place in it, made her predictable, left her two steps behind the others even with her magic restored.
So, then: she could linger in the vault like a fox waiting for the hounds to descend, or she could rise and claim what they had always said was hers, and there was no other choice, not with her body cluttered as it was with thoughts of a proper bed, and long mornings sipped away like coffee in the kitchen, and the smell of apples mingling with something deeper, something like memory, oaky and comforting.
Back to the house, a flick of magic landing Regina on the doorstep before the intention was clear in her mind, and she rested a hand on the latch as her heartbeat crept up into her ears, swallowing against the flare of anxiety that rose with it. She pushed her way inside, chin held high, and walked the length of the foyer before the door clicked shut behind her.
There was silence, no breath but her own, and though she moved with all the care of an animal that had been hunted before, she understood intuitively that the house was empty. They had given her that much, for now, and she took the stairs wearily, thinking less and less of the defenses she should be constructing in favor of sleep.
This was Robin's doing, she thought, and a hesitant smile worked itself across her lips before she could bite it back. Her defender. The title was as pleasing to her now as it had been in the beginning, and the man certainly was proving useful… except the idea of using him caught at something within her, made her pull back in discomfort. She had just used his son to get what she wanted, an ugly but necessary power play, and, if it came down to it, she wondered if she would extend that same ruthlessness to Robin himself, if she could barter his life away as easily as blowing out a candle.
But maybe, whatever it meant for her, she could take these last moments of dawn, these last minutes before she collapsed into sleep, and let herself imagine that Robin's kindness towards her was only kindness, that his loyalty was more than a product of his fear (or his lust), that he meant—simply, impossibly—to protect her, in his own honest way.
She stumbled into her room, the door left open for anyone coming after her (let them come), and tucked herself into bed, made herself small under the covers, one hand still ringed around the leather cuff as if to guard it. And she dreamt, amorphous things that would slip away from her when she woke, leaving behind only the taste of smoke.
Two days passed, and she saw no one.
She had slept almost until sundown that first day, disoriented and restless when she fumbled her way out of bed and padded downstairs, shivering in the eerie stillness of the house. Her steps led her, uncertain, to the kitchen. She hadn't eaten in more than a day, and though she didn't feel much like doing so now, she began opening cabinets at random, picking through boxes and jars for something that might tempt her.
She was regarding the box marked quinoa with equal parts curiosity and skepticism, turning to the patchy light that flowed in from the window over the sink to examine it more closely, when her mouth went dry, a different kind of hunger crying out from the empty pit of her.
Quinoa rained down on the floor, the box broken in her hand, as Regina moved for the back door in what felt like slow-motion. She struggled to twist the knob, finally remembering the deadbolt and pinching a finger as it slid free, and then she was facing fresh air again, stilling on the threshold just long enough to breathe in the dusk before she was across, intact, no curse or person to hold her back from it now.
She picked up speed, nearly overbalancing from her own momentum over the uneven lawn. Apples lay half-lost in the grass, a ripe trail guiding her where her vision failed, and she reached for the tree, hands veering up at the last second to hover inches from the bark while the rest of her caught up. This close, and those last inches could have been the open air under a cliff's edge for how she had to brace herself before letting her hands fall.
It was real.
It was real against her fingertips, it was real when she closed her eyes, shoulders shaking with something between a laugh and a cry, it was so real that it drew blood when she clutched at the bark a little too tightly, and every knot and branch and leaf of it was hers.
Her tree, her truth, and it was too much to believe—and, yet, the knowledge had been growing in her for some time, slowly, seeded in the unexplainable familiarity of things and in the apple Robin had placed as an offering upon her windowsill, so identifiable in its color and bite. There was simply nothing more to deny, now.
She thought to linger at the tree, to find herself in it once more, but the great urgency had left her. She would have time—oh, more time than she could manage, if this was to be her only company here—to visit it when she felt the need, or when she had a particular taste for its fruits, the sweetness measured against the tang of their skins.
She wondered if those who were watching her (someone must be, she knew, and tried not to think what color those eyes might be) were disappointed to see so little excitement: a woman—a monster, perhaps, though the distinction seemed irrelevant now—standing under an apple tree in the gathering dusk, soon to return to the house to sweep up the mess she'd left of the kitchen floor.
So much for the fascinating and terrible doings of the Evil Queen, and she would laugh, amuse herself with their boredom, except the thought of being made that girl again was crushing.
This was another castle (another life) to be locked away in, to waste away in, alone with her tree and the light of day and whatever small magicks she might find use for, and the solitude would kill her. Here there wasn't even a scullery maid to speak to—giving orders sometimes the only way she had exercised her voice for days at a time—or a balcony high enough to… fall from while she sought the free wind in her hair.
There was nothing, really, and Regina was sick to the teeth of nothing.
She felt like a trespasser in the house, kept to the rooms she'd grown somewhat accustomed to and walked particularly light past the doorway at the top of the stairs, the boy's, closed off in its disuse and all the more sacred for it.
She would not think on the simple mathematics, the ones saying that if she was real and the tree was real and the Dark Curse all but proven, then the boy (named for her father, of all things, and something in his smile that might be hers) must also…
It was insupportable.
The child was impossible even if she hadn't (couldn't have) borne him herself, and yet she did not understand what they could have been angling at with this particular lie. A son. Motherhood. Entrusted with a life when all she'd ever learned how to do was take them, twist them beyond all reckoning—she, who had not spared children in the violence of her reign, who had damned herself to never feel that quickening under her belly out of fear and pride and crooked notions of love.
She who had no heart to give to any living creature, much less to the son of the woman fated to destroy her.
But the thought was insidious—the boy, his room, constantly met in the corner of her eye, as if they were playing hide and seek (had they, once?)—and sometimes she walked from room to room to room and couldn't lose him, couldn't outdistance the faint smell of cinnamon and soap and the words, repeating in a loop like the half-forgotten melody of a song: was he the happy ending that had been promised?
(Had he loved her?)
(And she, him?)
The afternoon of the third day—how tiresome, that she could not even lose herself in time but was instead powerfully aware of its inching passage—Regina stood outside, sun down her back and enough apples piled in the basket over her arm for a person to make themselves sick on.
She was determined to try the oven that evening, to bake a pie (or ten) in that contraption with its mystifying dials and buttons that her fingers insisted their mastery of even while her mind hesitated, skeptical of their knowledge.
The weight of the basket shifted against her ribs as she reached again, an apple pulling free from its holding with a rustle of leaves and branch, and there was a second sound underneath it, something dully thudding through the grass behind her that had her dropping her hands (the basket crashing, upended, over her feet) and turning quick, sharply aflame from the wrists down.
"My, my, dearie, do you incinerate all your guests before you invite them in?" the Imp asked with amusement, standing cocked against his cane.
She had to work to let the fires die, extra seconds of breathing to find the calm she must face him with (and, of course, he missed nothing; his eyes glinted with pleasure at her fear), and then she was a stone, impassive but for the smirking gibes she had learned at his side.
"I never asked—who gave you the limp, Dark One? I should send them a fruit basket."
Something tugged at the corner of his mouth that had nothing to do with the spill of apples between them.
"Most people don't bother with the title these days." He might have been nostalgic, his face suddenly set with lines and she had never seen him old, just a man, but then his eyes gained the sharpness she remembered. "I'm sure you can relate, Regina."
"Why are you here?"
She was itching to shift her feet, to right her basket and tidy what had been ruined, but she would not bend to him, would not bare the soft nape of her neck to his bladed scrutiny, and for all her voice came clear and biting, Rumplestiltskin would not be fooled into believing she was beyond his pull, not when he knew the power in names.
"Simple curiosity. What does a Queen do with no subjects to press under her thumb? I must admit I'd hoped for something…" his hand trawled the air with distaste, "less domestic than this. Unless you're planning on poisoning someone—might do you good, dearie, liven you up some."
"Would you care to stay for dinner, then?"
"Charming, but no."
Rumplestiltskin shifted closer to the tree, leveraging against his cane to steal an apple from the lowest branch, one that she had passed over for its lack of ripening. He bit into it, the fruit showing green-tinted under the skin just as she had suspected, and smiled at her through the bitterness.
It was an oddly intimate gesture, all-knowing, and Regina felt hideously exposed.
"I trust you didn't drag yourself all this way for a few apples," she snapped, holding the urge to shudder at bay with clenched fists. "What, then? Should we talk about the weather next?"
"There's a storm coming, all right, and you won't know it until it's upon you."
"Do you never tire of speaking in riddles, Imp?"
His lip curled into a humorless smile at the question, and Regina half-expected him to disappear on the spot, to leave her once more stranded in the labyrinth of his mind games without a word to guide her.
His hand twitched and, as Regina waited for smoke, he spoke.
"Oh, they'll come for you, make no mistake about that. Things will get messy, and they'll be wanting your magic, or your head—it doesn't much matter which—and they won't think to thank you for it."
Another trail of riddles to follow, then, scattered before her like breadcrumbs and still not enough to live on.
Rumplestiltskin waved her interruption away impatiently. "You're not one of them, never, but they'll find uses for you, they'll see you tamed, and you'll let them. Might even ask for it, just to earn a pat on the head and a seat at their table and blissful ignorance about the fact that they're calling you monster among themselves when your back is turned."
Regina's eyes narrowed, looking for the catch, looking for the sharp edge that would cut her throat if she wasn't careful. And yet… she could find nothing. Just the Dark One (just a man) staring at her with unreadable eyes.
She had to gather her voice twice before it complied, another question drifting low and tired and (more than anything) childish across the yard between them.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"This world isn't like ours. You'd do well to remember that. And to remember why you gave up your own heart to curse them."
The word curse hung in the air as Rumplestiltskin vanished into nothingness, so clean she would have sworn he had never stood there at all if it weren't for the sour apple lying in the grass, a single hard bite taken from its side and a prick of memory—all of this has happened before.
She stood long watching the sky, the slow ordering and breaking of cloud patterns high above, and feared that the Imp was not wrong, that despite the sphinx-like nature of his message he had meant to counsel her, genuinely, for perhaps the first time in their acquaintance.
There was nothing fatherly in him and yet… she thought there might be something like regret in his air, after all.
That night, Regina dreamed of a mob, bindings tight at her wrists and apples, rotten, breaking open black, and of ice, pounding her strength against it, a heart in her hand that glowed with purity (whose?), everything blue-toned except the redness in her hand, of her hand—and she woke to burning knuckles and a print in blood on the bedpost by her head and knew again that this, whatever it was, had happened not for the first time.
(And was it reassurance or dread she felt at the sight of blood once more on her hands?)
They lay shoulder-to-shoulder in the tent, Roland's heels drumming idly under his blanket—sharp little things, they were, his son all-angular in sleep—as he listened to the story, one Robin had told on a great many nights before, about a knight and a quest and the fine lady who awaited him with a crown of apple blossoms in her hair and secret magic in her fingers, and how the kingdom was saved by their meeting.
Roland's eyes wandered along the seams of the canopy, clearly lost to distraction, and Robin held in a sigh, finished his tale more out of routine than necessity. He knew how his son had taken to this world, its newness, and he was glad of it, that Roland should embrace this not-yet-home so readily. But watching the changes in him, how he now gravitated towards playgrounds and ice cream and so many things Robin knew so little of, was by turns thrilling and aching, and he could not shake the thought that they were both losing something in the process.
The knights and ladies that had once enchanted Roland felt tired and pale in this place, abruptly overthrown for superheroes and alien creatures that Robin struggled to understand—he still wasn't sure what a thor was, or a loki—and he resolved once more to go back to the library (nevermind that his time was doubly spoken for, in camp and in town) and make a proper study of this world, of the stories he must know, so that he might enthrall Roland at bedtime again, or at least keep up with him.
Robin felt the loss, all the same, and greater still when and so they lived, and loved, as long as there were stars in the sky crossed his lips and his son asked after Regina and not his mother.
(He felt the loss, and knew his failure, and yet his heart awakened at the sound of her name.)
"Why did Regina go away all smoky, papa? We were playing."
"Aye, so you were."
"Doesn't she want to play anymore? She used to, to come here, and we'd do the fire and the shadow animals…"
There was accusation—imagined, Robin assured himself, one hand pressed to his chest as if to stifle some hurt—in Roland's sleepy question, in the disappointed downturn of his mouth, and so he lied, no answer to give but one his son might understand, and it stuck in his teeth, rotten, acrid, and everything he deserved for teaching Roland truth and duty when he kept neither commandment himself.
"You remember the big snowmen?" he asked, and Roland nodded, eyes widening as he pushed sleep away that much longer to listen. "Well, Regina is very busy making sure the snowmen stay out of town—they melt, you know, and all that falling snow might hurt someone."
"Yes. So you see, Regina's job is important."
"Will she come back when the snow's gone?"
"I… what did she say to you, when you were playing?"
"She said, 'does Papa ever tickle you?'"
"And what was your answer?"
"Of course Papa tickles—"
Roland collapsed into giggles as Robin made good on that reputation, catching a sharp kick to his ribs and hip for his efforts and wincing at the tenderness, the sure bruises he would find in the morning, but it was worth it, forever worth it, for this moment of normality with his son.
They soon settled back, breathing heavy, Roland's deepening almost immediately with an ease Robin envied (he would not find sleep tonight), and he let his thoughts, his heart, turn back to that last unanswered question:
Will she come back?
Henry handed her the book, and the weight of it surprised Emma even though she could see that its pages were straining against the leather binding, bulging with newspaper clippings, photographs, maps, drawings, and story after story written not only in Henry's messy scrawl but in handwriting that had to have come from half of the townspeople: she recognized contributions from Archie, Granny, Mary Margaret, Tink, even Hook, and she clapped the book shut before she could pry any further—this book was not meant for her, after all.
"There's some space at the back if you have anything to add."
"Kid, I wouldn't know where to start," Emma muttered, mostly to herself. And that was the truth, but more than that she couldn't stop her mind from overturning the fact that all the painstakingly-accumulated love in the book might very well mean nothing to Regina herself, an eventuality Emma didn't know how to tell Henry to gird his heart against.
"This is amazing, Henry, really amazing," she began, and Henry turned from her slightly, blowing out an exaggerated sigh.
"But you don't think it's going to work."
"I hope it does, and I think it's definitely worth a shot. I just don't want you to—"
"I know, I know, you don't want me to get hurt," he said, rolling his eyes with all the teenage scorn he could muster before he turned suddenly earnest again. "But this is only stage one of Operation Elephant, Mom. We're just testing the waters, and if the book doesn't work on the first try, I have, like, three other plans ready to go. Something's bound to break the spell."
There was a part of Emma's heart that pinged, tenderly and cruelly, at Henry's words, at her (their) marvel of a boy and the depths of his faith, before she realized that he was asking what she thought, about some detail or other she had lost in her musing.
"You're right, Henry. Damn right," she said, squeezing his shoulder and then wincing when she remembered too late to moderate her language. "And don't tell grandma I was swearing in front of you, 'kay?"
In the two-and-a-quarter weeks (Regina would lie, even to herself, that she had not been keeping meticulous count of the days, though there was little enough else to occupy her) since her last contact with the town at large, she had almost given up the expectation that anyone should visit her again, whether they meant her good or ill.
And so she was unprepared for the light hammering at her door that morning, falling motionless in her place in the living room like an animal sensing danger, and tried to ignore the rush of her heart into her throat and the heat of magic amassing at her fingertips.
It was hardly likely, she reasoned, that any pitchfork-wielding mob would pause in their intention to burn her at the stake to knock politely first, and so she rose, going to the door and peering out the sliver of window beside it to see what, precisely, had come calling.
It was Emma, nervously pushing her hair back and holding a cumbersome tome under one arm—seeking magical tutelage, perhaps? She needed it, but Regina had never fancied herself a teacher.
She had left Emma waiting long enough that another moment or two wouldn't matter, and she took the time to decide what face to present to the world today. She had become out of practice, facing things, in her solitude.
There was an old sorcery trick, a bit of glamour, to make oneself appear taller and more imposing than in reality, to accentuate the lines of power usually not so visible to the naked eye, and Regina embraced it, supposing that the illusion would do its work on Emma, as unschooled in magic as she seemed.
But then Regina felt ridiculous, as if somewhere Rumplestiltskin himself were laughing at the cheap charms she had been reduced to, and she let the glamour drop with a flush of embarrassment.
What did she have to prove to this girl, to impress upon anyone at all at this point? She was tired of these games; so terribly tired of trying.
Through the window she watched Emma raising a hand to knock again and, with a sigh, released the lock and swung the door half-open before she could think better of it.
Emma, tipped off-balance by Regina's sudden appearance, stared at her with wide eyes—in this, at least, Regina could see a spark of Snow in her, and the remembrance of that old enmity made it easier to square her shoulders and school her expression into one of blistering indifference. She crossed her arms, waiting in expectant silence for the other women to speak some reason for her visit.
Indeed, she's inherited all the eloquence of her parents, Regina thought with impatience.
"What is it that you need from me now, Miss Swan?"
The name, or perhaps only the scorn in Regina's tone, had Emma lifting her chin, meeting her gaze as if accepting some unspoken challenge.
"It's more that I have something for you, actually," she said steadily, with a streak of coolness to match Regina's own. The tension held for the space of a breath and then eased as something more like wry humor crept into Emma's voice at the corners. "Also, no one's seen you in days, and we just wanted to make sure you were still, well… you."
Regina assumed she had passed whatever appraisal had been set for her, as Emma made no move to do anything but stand there, no doubt muddying the entryway with those worn-out boots, and she wondered what the alternative might have been. Had they expected to find her reverted to the Evil Queen (as the legends would whisper fearfully of her), or to the other Regina they had known—or had it merely been a polite way to remark, with no little surprise, that she was still alive?
Strangely, the revelation that they had not even feared her (feared for her) enough to keep a man on watch over her doings provoked a slight pull of disappointment in her stomach that she had been wrong in this, and she filed that feeling away to puzzle over later.
She supposed it was only natural they would now send a canary into the proverbial mine to scent for signs of madness or great curse-brewing evil, but she would have thought the townspeople to know her well enough that any vengeful plots she may have harbored would have announced themselves more violently—and in a more timely manner—than this.
"I'm touched," Regina said, being sure to sound anything but.
Emma merely shook her head at the rebuke, as if she had expected nothing less (as if she knew Regina so well as to anticipate her very words), and launched into a rambling bit of exposition that Regina could hardly follow—of her own arrival to Storybrooke, of portals and parallel worlds and the missing pieces of her past falling into place, and, most of all, of Henry.
Henry, who had unlocked the truth of all things for Emma, and who now wanted to do the same for Regina.
With a book.
"I know this all sounds a little crazy—believe me, I know—but Henry worked really hard on this, so if you could at least look at it before you write it off completely—"
It didn't look like much, the leathern book Emma shifted from arm to arm as she talked, and Regina suspected there was still some hidden trick to it (she would be a fool not to consider the possibility that this was all the Imp's handiwork, or something equally infernal), and yet…
And yet she felt its call, the book emanating a sense of compulsion to her that had no other explanation than that it belonged to her.
"I'll look at it," she said quietly.
Too quietly, apparently, since Emma kept babbling about how important the damn book was until Regina put out a hand to take what was already hers, not-so-gently extracting it from Emma's grip.
"I said I would look at it."
"Oh." Emma seemed slightly perturbed by the lack of conflict the exchange had brought, as if Regina might invite her in for pie and gossip next. "That's awesome. I don't know if anything's gonna happen when you read it, but you should keep it, and then if something… um, magical does happen, maybe you could call and let us know before—"
"I want to see him," Regina interrupted suddenly, never knowing she meant to speak until it was done. "I want to see my—"
She stopped short, her tongue curling against the next syllable. The oldest lesson in magic (the most dangerous) taught that granting something its true name—even now the name Rumplestiltskin rang in her ear with the deadly sharpness of a bell—acted as a form of summoning.
And she knew not what she would summon should she use that name, but it felt all but forbidden to her, one last sacred place she could not risk breaching.
"Henry," Emma supplied herself, filling the odd silence that had fallen, and Regina nodded.
Emma hesitated, and Regina knew that whatever reaction to the book she had been prepared for, it had not been this. (And it pleased her, bitterly, to surprise them still.)
"I'll wear the cuff," she gritted when Emma had no answer for her, swallowing against the bile that rose to her mouth at the mere mention of that thing. "I'll follow whatever rules you deem necessary to make him safe. Just… give me something more than a book."
She hated the way it sounded like begging, all her vulnerabilities on garish display, and wished that she had indeed used her sorceress glamour to drive Emma away, that she had never opened the door to her at all.
There was no reason to honor her request—Regina knew she would have laughed in the other woman's face had their roles been reversed—and no earthly hope that they would trust her with another child after what had happened with the thief's boy, but Emma looked at her thoughtfully, taking her measure.
"I think I can arrange that," she said finally, a hint of smile breaking through her otherwise guarded expression.
It felt like charity, and Regina would once have burned any who dared to pity her, but she had no sharp retort ready for the woman, and the moment passed unremarked.
"Thank you," she said, finding (to her own wonder, and a half-hearted despair) that she meant it honestly. And, after a beat, added "Emma," as if testing the power of the word.
This time, a full grin split Emma's face, and it was not shrouded with any hint of her parentage, with anything at all of the past. "I'll be in touch, Regina."
For her whole life, really, all Regina had wanted was to be left alone, only for person after person to take up the mantle of hounding (haunting) her with demands and duties to complete: her mother, Leopold, the Imp, Snow, even her kingdom, as poorly and callously as she had ruled it.
And now everyone had finally left her alone, shut into this lonely house, surrounded by the ghost of a life she had once known, and instead of relief she felt the full weight of this isolation like bonds fixed upon her, so that she longed again for escape.
The visits from Rumplestiltskin and Emma, as brief (and, she would swear, unwelcome) as they had been, had left Regina hungering for more despite herself, even as she dreaded the thought of keeping such company.
Waiting for Emma to call about when she might meet the boy—and then the oddity of their voices meeting through the lines of the telephone, the conversation crisp and clear though they stood at opposing ends of the town—had her worrying a path through the backyard when she couldn't sleep, half-overcome by a strange desire to please these people, to win something back she hadn't known to be missing.
(Oh, it was a path she had first worn deep under the thumb of her mother, so deep that she would never quite lose its marking.)
The book itself had been strange, filled with memories she had no share in (even if she felt their truth, she could not say for herself what had befallen her, could not mend those rifts between the world she knew and the one she occupied now) and no clear answers, no magic revelations as Emma had hoped for.
Still, she had tried, and even now she would sometimes sit and idly finger through the patchwork of photos and stories that formed its pages, looking for whatever unknown key might open the way to her.
She lingered long over the absences as well, those missing chapters that might have detailed her relationships with Emma and Robin in clearer words so that the whole book now felt incomplete without them. It was no matter, surely—they had perhaps met only in passing—but she couldn't shake the thought that they were concealing something from her.
Nothing had awakened, and though Emma had sounded more than a little crestfallen by the news (the lack thereof), she had not balked from the plan to bring Henry to Regina, to return him, if briefly, to the home that Regina had all but stolen out from underneath him.
The wait was agonizing, no less so as the clock dwindled down to the appointed hour of their meeting, and Regina was trapped in her own uselessness, folding and unfolding her hands while she braced herself against the unforgiving frame of her chair.
Another fifteen minutes, and he would be there.
Another fifteen minutes, and the world might as well come apart at its seams.
She glanced down again at the jeans she had chosen, the simple button-down top, and wondered if she had time to change clothing yet again—nothing in the wardrobe had felt suitable, but this at least had seemed like something ordinary enough, something Henry might find familiar and… normal.
She sneered at the word as soon as it coalesced in her mind, thinking furiously to herself that she knew little enough of its meaning here to presume to know what a boy of his age might like, or what her son might see when he looked upon her, clothed in these garments that were invariably hers but also another's.
And that woman, whoever she had been, was one Regina did not know how to be.
But then—the soft rapping of Emma's knuckles at her door, more than ten minutes before she had expected them, and she should have known (she had known, instinctively) that turning her thoughts to him so, that allowing herself to name him, would summon him direct.
She managed to rise, and walk, and work the latchings of the door so that it opened, and even those simple acts were a mystery because she did not remember moving, and even now she looked at him without looking, fragile and frozen at once.
He must have said something, or Emma did, and when Regina failed to make any sign that she had understood them they exchanged a glance, and Emma gently freed the edge of the door from Regina's grasp and took charge of ushering them all inside.
"Hey kid, why don't you run up to your room for those comics you were talking about, and we'll meet you up there?"
Henry nodded and turned for the stairs, but not before his eyes sought and met Regina's for a fleeting, searing instant before he was away and she was left shaken, burning along every nerve (so this was what it was to be tied to the stake, to surrender to the flames) from his nearness.
After a moment she realized Emma was struggling to get her attention, and found her voice at last.
"You're early," she rasped, swallowing thickly and brushing past the other woman to salvage what remained of her pride.
"Of course, the one time I manage to be punctual and you still have something to complain about," Emma responded good-naturedly, though she kept a mindful distance as Regina fought to compose herself.
So much for presenting herself as a functional adult, let alone a reasonable facsimile of a mother.
"I'm not complaining, but, yes, a little warning would have been nice."
She approached the mantel with leaden feet, reaching for a plain wooden box resting there and, more importantly, for what nestled inside—the cuff that would seal off her magic, that steep price exacted of her to meet Henry.
When she would slip it over her wrist, feeling the violent roil of impending sickness in her belly, Emma stopped her. "Don't worry about that, okay?"
Regina tensed, guessing that this gesture was no kindness at all but another test set before her. But she was glad enough to drop the cuff back into its box and scorn the weakness Emma was so willing to embrace, her refusal to be cruel as Regina would have been.
(Her fingers, of their own accord, itched to strike for Emma's heart.)
"I see the inclination towards blind trust runs strong in your family."
"More like we had the kid protection-spelled up the wazoo a long time ago, but yeah, the trust thing is good, too," Emma answered lightly, not rising to the bait. "And you haven't given us any reason to think you'd break that trust, Regina."
The words were honest enough, but Regina felt the sting of an unspoken clause hanging at the end of the statement: yet. Trust was conditional, as were so many other things Regina had found unattainable in life and had long learned to live without.
She fiddled with the other trinkets on the mantelpiece, aligning them just so (as if it mattered), delaying now with no more purpose than pure avoidance of the confrontation she herself had so foolishly arranged.
"He won't bite, you know," Emma said, as if to remind her that this really had been all her idea, and Regina scowled inwardly to have become so transparent.
"Well, I should hope he was raised better than that," she snapped, heat once more flooding through her body and settling high in her cheeks.
Emma softened, looking first like she might move to reassure Regina and then thinking better of it, as if she too had learned that there were teeth of a different kind to fear.
"C'mon." Emma touched her arm, nudging her towards the staircase, and then, when Regina still faltered, tightened her hold and all but dragged her there (not ungently) by force.
So, there was not so much trust as to leave her and Henry together unchaperoned, it seemed, but Regina felt only a dim gratitude (and gods, that concession nettled her) for the presence of another, and Emma was perhaps the most bearable of the lot she could have been stuck with.
Whatever ceremony she might have expected when she crossed the threshold into Henry's room, some burst of recognition descending like lightning and knocking her senseless, all of her apprehensions were rather dispelled by the boy's ready smile and the familiar way he motioned her to take the place next to him on the bed, handing her a stack of glossy papers as if she were not a stranger to him at all.
He chattered away at her, this boy, hardly seeming to notice that she responded with nothing more than faint (and probably misplaced) 'ohs' and 'mmms' in her distraction. Here, with the bed supporting her weight instead of her own unsteady legs, she could take him in thoroughly; for even though she knew he must be a foundling (that cutting shard of her history had not been forgotten), she could not stop herself from searching his face for some way in which they might be alike.
After a time he settled back against the wall to read his comics, inviting her to do the same, and she did her best to turn her attention to the so-called 'avengers' in her hands.
She had never been fond of such tales of gods among mortals, with good and evil delineated so crisply and colorfully (no one would ever mistake the villain for a hero, here), and it was difficult to follow the adventure threading through the pages when Henry sat so near, as at ease in her presence as she wasn't in his.
They would make things so simple in their stories, rendering morality a matter of child's play—though she would concede that she herself had been no more than a child when she had learned the true ways of the world, steeped in the depths of her mother's games and the Imp's cursed powers.
Regina was so lost in thought that Henry had to tap her arm (she startled under his touch, but only mildly) to call her back, repeating his question for perhaps the third time. His smile was inlaid with an edge of mischievousness when he asked what she thought of the timeskip during the Illuminati arc, and she felt a curious streak of pride run up her back: he was no fool to have observed that she had been staring at the same panel for five minutes and absorbing absolutely none of it.
"It's all a bit… incredible," she said, cursing her inarticulateness even as she sensed she was answering some deeper question than the one that had been asked of her.
"'Incredible' like throwing a car across the street or battling snow monsters?" Emma said pointedly from her perch in the corner of the room, throwing a conspiratorial wink towards Henry.
"Here, try this one. You always liked the X-Men."
"Did I?" she asked, suddenly shy. Henry nodded, launching into another soliloquy (about blue teams and gold teams, and, oddly, the apocalypse) that she was content just to play listener to.
He had not asked about the book, she noticed, nor anything else of substance, and it was a relief. She would much rather learn something of the boy, and something of herself through his eyes, like the fact that (as he told it) they had never agreed on whether Dark Phoenix or Days of Future Past was the better story arc.
Not that she understood entirely what that jumble of words meant, but it was still a filling in of the blanks, as endless as they seemed, or the click of something falling into place, and that sense of rightness anchored her.
The comic he handed her was indeed well-worn, its pages filled with another set of spandexed heroes, noble to a fault, and no matter how she yearned to hate them she found the tension in her shoulders easing.
This was simply a mother reading stories with her son, and how many times had they sat like this, elbows nigh-touching as they fought for the better view?
And for all Regina didn't remember, a piece of her knew, deep in her bones, that this too had happened before. Truth ran deeper than memory and some ties could not be cut cleanly, even by the Fates.
Even by the spiteful nature of her own magic.
A bell rang somewhere above her head as she stepped over the threshold, and Regina smirked at her inability to ever take Rumplestiltskin unawares—even in a land where magic was dimmed, sparse, he would have his wards set against potential enemies.
"So you've finally come to ask me." His voice covered the distance between them cleanly, as warm on her ear as if he were looming beside her, and she willed her eyes to adjust to the darkness of his shop so that she might locate him. "It took you longer than I thought."
There, positioned behind the counter with an almost bored tilt to his head, waited the man they called Gold, hardly sparing a look for her as he ran a polishing cloth along the spindle of a weather vane over and over again.
"I, no—" she said defensively, but her cheeks flushed hot at the barb.
Of course all of her misfortunes, and all of her magicks (gone awry or not), traced their origins back to the Imp. And how like her, to make the same mistakes time and again, so often forgetting that the simplest answer to a riddle was often the surest.
She cleared her throat, searching for calmness. "You could reverse the spell, then? You could restore my memories?"
His amusement and the hard satisfaction in the turn of his mouth pierced her thoroughly. He loved to despise her, and she fed herself to him so willingly, though she supposed she was not a unique target of his malice—he despised everything.
"No, dearie. Only the potion maker holds that power here—and that would be you, in case you've forgotten that as well."
"But I've tried, everything I know to do." She sounded like a child again, a mewling tinge to her words that she could barely stomach.
"You sacrificed a great deal to rid yourself of those memories, did you not?"
He was impatient now: she was being a poor student yet again. And there was truth in what he said, that she had forsaken much to be in this position: a home, a son, an entire life, untold pieces of herself that might never be recovered.
The polishing cloth in his hand stilled its movements as he fixed her in his sights to unload his contempt. "And now you think you can simply ask nicely for your little universe to rewrite itself? You think it so easy to cheat the laws of magic?"
This had always been her problem, the notion of sacrifice and what it entailed. The heart of the thing you love most, she thought sickly, tasting the echoes of what those words had meant, and how mortally had she betrayed herself this time?
"Would you… would you try to get them back, knowing everything you know? Knowing all you've done?" She hardly expected an answer (hardly knew why she hazarded the question), speaking into the void as she was.
For a moment, the hungry expression that Rumplestiltskin wore when one asked a favor of him emerged, flaring across his (in this light) ageless features.
But the mood passed just as suddenly, and the man—once more a man—turned away, already losing interest in her plight. "I'm not the one who erased my memories. I have no answers for you."
So the Imp would not help her—could not, as he had said—but there was a strange lack of malice in his indifference towards her. For once, perhaps, she was free of his machinations to make her own mistakes, and to pen her own fate.
As Regina retreated back into the street, the bell chiming sharply in time with her step again, she thought she heard, she could not be sure, a whispered "I would."
She took to walking in the night when sleep refused to come to her, letting her feet choose the direction, wending where they would—they knew where all paths led, if she did not.
She avoided streetlights and main roads, anywhere she might encounter other people, and so she often found herself near the water, or pushing into the outskirts of the forest where the undergrowth was not so thick as to snare her ankles. In the dark she felt powerful, remembered what it was to stalk and prowl and court danger, flirting with the idea of what fearful things she might stumble across in unfamiliar terrain.
It was one of these past-midnight walks, when the moon burned full above the trees, that brought the thief back to her.
In its silvered light, nothing could remain hidden for long: she spied the antlered head of a stag, frozen as it listened to her passing, and a serpent returning to its nest under the leaves, and a curtain of yew parting at her side to reveal a bow fully drawn on her, the arrow leveled at her throat, with Robin's face framed by the hard angle of the bowstring behind it.
The sudden meeting seemed to surprise them both, and they stood stunned for a long moment, their breaths lightly fogging the air between them.
Robin's hand was steady on his bow, moving neither to release nor lower the shot which would surely kill her if let fly, and in this impasse Regina struck upon a new spark of curiosity, that tip-of-the-tongue feeling of recognition of something from the past: they had done this before, she was almost certain of it.
Robin, perhaps more than once, had held bared steel to her skin with an intent to destroy her, and never did, and now the gesture resonated with an intimacy that touched Regina down to the tender place between her thighs.
He looked at her without expression, as if she were indeed nothing more than an animal to be felled on a hunt, and that… that was irksome, to say the least. She knew she did not command the same deference, or terror, here that she once had, but to be met so insistently with his complete lack of reaction to her presence maddened her, sharpened the contrarian edge in her into a weapon to match his.
If he must taunt her with his indifference, well, then—she would have to provoke something more pleasing from him.
And what gave greater pleasure than violence?
Setting each foot deliberately, she moved towards him, close and closer until the tip of his arrow pricked the skin above her collar.
"If you mean to shoot me," she said quietly, and at last his eyes raised from the middle distance and drew level with hers, "you may as well do the job properly."
She felt half-ridiculous acting like this, and yet her pulse thrilled with her recklessness, a feeling as if she were just now coming back into her own after a long absence. It meant something, to reach down and find this vicious core of hers intact after all her time in this land had worked to dull her so.
It had been an age since she had had a plaything within such easy reach, and Robin was a pretty one at that. What did it matter that he had been kind to her when he had no cause to be, when he stood so near and she need only to extend a finger to make him squirm?
(She was hardly going to hurt him, now, was she?)
Regina pressed forward ever-so-slightly, daring him to draw true blood from her.
But then the arrow was gone from her throat, and Robin had stepped back, restoring a semblance of balance—of safe distance—between them. "Milady," he muttered, expression still shuttered. "It's not safe to walk alone so late at night."
"And yet here we are."
Here you are, she hungered to voice, if only to further toy with him, to disturb him from his careful composure.
"Not alone." A flick of his fingers and she caught movement, two men emerging from the shadows, just enough to make their presence—and the moon-glint of their weapons—known.
Regina was impressed with their discretion despite herself, but she merely arched a brow in their direction. "I would have thought anything lurking in these woods would fear me more than I'd have cause to fear it."
"Most things," Robin agreed, and for the first time Regina thought she detected a twitch of amusement in the corner of his mouth, so at-odds with his usual frowning neutrality.
Before she could wonder at it, he continued with something of an explanation. "Still, with the Snow Queen on the loose, it does not seem wise to tempt fate. The men are restless, over-watchful at this hour, and one could easily meet an accident."
The small hairs on the back of her neck rose at the word. A marksman like him, whose reputation in the Enchanted Forest had grown so great as to reach even the heights of her lonely tower, did not have accidents, and did not allow his men to shoot at uncertain targets, either.
"Is that a threat?"
"Hardly," he said, with a huff of breath that from anyone else might be mistaken for a surprised laugh. "No, milady, it was something of an apology. For drawing my bow on you."
"I see. You would not like to meet my wrath, then."
They had begun, absently, to move through the forest again with an air of shared patrol, Regina's hands clasped loosely in front of her and Robin's fingers still trawling along the line of his bow at his side. He made a sign to his men, and they withdrew into the trees as silently as they had arrived.
Doubtless following along lest I make some untoward move on their captain, Regina thought with a sniff. The thief had been so scrupulous about avoiding her company that she couldn't expect a complete change-of-heart from him now—perhaps being alone with a woman offended his chaste morals or some other insensible creed he held to.
"Never, milady," Robin responded, neatly picking up the thread of conversation and sending it circling back on itself. "I do not think anyone should like to fall into your disfavor."
His face was in shadow, his eyes made dark by their surroundings, and so he kept himself removed despite the proximity of their bodies, unreadable to her again. How was it that he could reveal so little of himself every time she meant to stir him to action, to make him say anything that she could use to understand his strange manner with her, the distance he painstakingly maintained, the gentle disregard with which he looked upon her?
"And now you are angry with me," he observed wonderingly when she receded into a sullen silence, and the fact that he could read her moods with such accuracy made her burn all the more. "Please, tell me how I have given offense this time."
She had killed men for less insolent comments than his.
She stopped so abruptly that he almost collided with her when she turned on him."You raised your weapon to me, and I know you didn't take me for some wandering doe in the woods."
Robin's mouth opened to protest, but she bulled on before he dared to fully interrupt.
"You act as if you know me, sometimes, and then refuse to give straight answers to the most basic of questions." She was straying from what she had intended to say now, reaching for accusations against him that would let her sustain the power of her anger. "And you…" she started, feeling the burning creep to her cheeks as she grasped for what she wanted to say, "you… look at me strangely."
When you look at me at all was left unspoken, half-swallowed as she regained control over her tongue and thanked the gods that the night was dark and she could still meet his gaze with a coolness she did not feel anywhere else in her body.
It seemed a paltry, petty list of grievances indeed when laid out in so many words, and regret collected in the back of her throat like smoke that needed to be choked back.
And then it was smoke that she was breathing in, rising from someplace below, and Robin startled her by stepping so close that his knee brushed against her leg and it was her turn to retreat, confused, from his nearness.
The edge of a fallen leaf had caught itself on the heat radiating from her, its embers glowing warmly in the dirt at her feet. Careful, dearie, the voice of her old master whispered through her, as though she needed another warning that the volatility of her magic was only too willing to set the entire forest alight, whether she meant to or not.
Robin ground out the thin flame with the toe of his boot and spoke without looking up at her. "To put it plainly, I frustrate you?"
There was something in the question that was boyish, teasing, and Regina felt her temper flare again. "Unceasingly," she spat with honesty and watched, somewhat pacified, as Robin flinched under the blow.
He grew serious, now, and shifted his weight uncomfortably but did not back away. They were not touching, but she was acutely aware of the warmth, the pendulous weight, of his body standing in juxtaposition with hers.
And if Robin's sudden stillness, the slightest hitch in his breathing, was any indication, so was he. "It's just that…"
From this halting phrase she at least won the small satisfaction that he did not deny any of it, this time—that his avoidance was purposeful, that he liked being cryptic and coy and utterly infuriating whenever they were forced into meeting.
"I remind you of someone you used to know," she finished for him, mockingly, echoing his own words back to him. Their previous encounters had given her little enough ammunition to use against him that she had to prod every point he offered her in the hopes of finding a singular vulnerability to dig her nails into.
Just to wound him a little.
Just to see something of what lay beneath his skin, his steady eyes, and better understand what compulsions drew them together, and together again without their asking.
"Just so," he said in simple agreement, as if there was nothing more to it than that.
"You don't like speaking to me."
"I have nothing to speak of that would interest you."
It was tiresome, moving in these empty loops of conversation that meant only to take each other's measure, striking and feinting in a series of tests of… something that never quite got around to uncovering what they truly wanted to say.
Regina's muscles rippled with an ill-suppressed urge to rip more satisfying answers from his throat, the truth from his heart. She could do that, still, with ease—and, stranger yet to contemplate, she thought that Robin might even let her lay her hands on him.
"Your son," she said instead. "Your son interests me. He is well, I trust?"
Robin tensed—she should have guessed that this would ever be his weak point, the thing he guarded most jealously as his own and no other's—and then the set of his shoulders relaxed a notch when he parsed her question as genuine.
"Very well," he acknowledged with a dip of his head before sighing. "It seems he adopts some new word, some new story or hero from this place every day, and I'm left just trying to keep up with him."
She should laugh at him for being bested by a child (as if it's shocking that he's not the quickest study, she thought with a pleasant swell of venom), but instead Regina found herself softening towards the wistfulness in his tone. She knew what it was to feel awkward and unlearned around her own son (heat rising in her again at that word, this time in shyness), when once they must have shared all of that secret realm that was built between parents and their children.
She, too, was battling to understand the pantheon of superheroes that occupied so much of Henry's time. His head drooping between the pages of a comic book had become a familiar sight to her now.
"So, which hero has Roland adopted as his favorite?" she prompted, unable to resist a chance to take another dig at the thief. "Surely a noble archer like his father—Green Arrow, Hawkeye, perhaps?"
"I see that even Milady puts me to shame in this regard," Robin muttered darkly. "However do you make sense of them all? As soon as I learn the names in one book, Roland brings home another ten for us to read!"
"Ah, yes, and the literacy rate in Nottingham was rather lacking, if I remember correctly."
"Bit too busy thwarting corrupt monarchs to brush up on our memorization skills, you mean."
Regina acknowledged the hit with a tilt of her head. She had always liked sparring with others (and between her mother and Rumplestiltskin she had never had much choice but to), but it was rare to find a person who did not hesitate to return fire when they knew who she was.
"I thought this world wasn't so different from ours, but…" Robin shrugged. "Truthfully, I feel myself as much a stranger here as you do."
"I doubt that."
She pushed past him to continue along the faint trail they had been following. His words had tripped her defenses at last, icing over the familiarity she had allowed him (herself) to speak with, and she wanted to learn nothing more about his son, or what kind of man the thief had been before the curse, or who they both were now.
When Robin fell into step beside her, she forestalled any attempts to resume the inquest into each other's personal lives by asking, "Has the snow bitch showed her face since… that day?"
"She's retreated into the northernmost reaches of the forest for now. The frost is getting worse, though, and I fear her silence does not bode well for what's to come."
"Perhaps it is you who has retreated for long enough."
He faltered at that, and she did not miss the reproof in his voice when he spoke. "You're proposing a war?"
She snorted. What did he know of such things? "An offensive," she corrected. "A chance to catch her off-guard, if you're lucky."
"Yes, it would be," she said impatiently, wondering how she had ever thought of him as something more than the fool he was. "But letting her set the stage for this little conflict is even more dangerous. Take it from someone who knows—you don't want to get cornered into playing by her rules."
With that she changed course and walked away from him, feeling his eyes on her back, centered over her vitals. When she was sure he would not follow her, she touched the place at her throat where his arrow tip had grazed the skin, raising a bead of blood that had yet to fall.
Back in her house, she lapsed into restlessness again, and soon there was a glass of whiskey—then two—burning through her as she roamed between the kitchen and foyer.
Robin had been angry when she suggested direct action against the Snow Queen, but she had seen his hand tighten around his bow again and knew that some part of him, too, hungered for an end to these slow, interminable days of waiting for things that might never come to pass.
The idea would eat at him, and if he should tell the others, there were those who were brave or foolhardy enough to seek out the battle she had alluded to. It was the whiskey, perhaps, or the late hour that let her close her eyes and see what she had set into motion so clearly: a queen moving across the chessboard, followed by a knight and his attendant pawns, as two armies backed by snow and fire collided spectacularly in the middle.
A shiver of premonition hummed to her that she was sending them to their deaths, and she laughed, because it was true and because she did not yet know whether that was what she desired or what she feared most.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Charming muttered as the party trudged through snow that was quickly deepening into something more akin to quicksand for the way it tugged against their legs.
Regina rolled her eyes. Though it was the first time Charming had voiced his disapproval, it felt like the tenth—he had been buzzing with the same reproachful energy ever since the plan to confront the Snow Queen had begun to take form, and (for once) even Snow's gently contagious optimism had not managed to quiet it.
"Perhaps we should have left you behind to mind the children, then," Regina snapped back at him, mostly out of reflex.
Truth be told, she harboured doubts of her own about what they were doing: the seed of a plan she had planted with Robin had accelerated into action in the space of a week, and now it felt like they were charging into combat with all the runaway speed of an avalanche.
Emma had been the one to come to her, as she so often was—she hardly bothered with the formality of knocking on Regina's door anymore.
"Hey, we're going to storm the Snow Queen's castle—wanna come?" she had said in the same breath as hello, and with as much flippancy that Regina had been sure she was joking.
"Word is that this whole 'ambush the snow bitch' plan was your idea in the first place," Emma answered with a shrug. "The least you can do is show up for it. Plus I have a feeling we're gonna need the, uh, firepower."
And, dreadful puns aside, Regina had to admit that being openly invited to test the extent of her powers in a new land had a certain appeal to it. As did the promise of carnage that would certainly come to pass if the queen and her snow creatures put up even a shadow of a fight.
This was, after all, what she had wanted, what she herself had set into motion only days before with a well-placed word into a willing ear.
(Even now, the thief stalked at her flank, silent and grim and steady as he ever was, so that she need not cast her eyes on him to know his presence.)
The bulk of their force—or, more appropriately, the ragtag band of Merry Men, dwarves, Charming, herself, and a few other volunteers they had managed to scrounge up—were marching up to the Snow Queen's front door to cause a distraction and provide cover while Emma and Elsa sneaked around the west side of the castle to slip in and challenge the queen herself.
All in all, it was not so much a plan as a wild fumbling in the dark, relying far more on the element of surprise and the two-pronged nature of their attack than any great skill in battle to bring their enemy down. Snow and Granny Lucas had been left in charge of the town, keeping guard over those too young, old, or otherwise unsuited for combat, and Regina felt again a curl of unease in her gut, thinking on Charming's words: everything did stand wavering on the precipice of disaster, and should they fail… suffice to say that the aftermath would not be kind to those that remained behind.
The farther north they moved through the forest, the more brutally cold it became, every new breath sending clouds into the sky like signals made in smoke. Regina was bundled up in wool and leather like the rest, and much good that was doing against the impossible winter; still, she would not waste the magic to warm herself and instead pressed her body in on itself as firmly as she could, and wished that they would stumble upon the queen's defenses and be done with it.
And then they did.
One of the dwarves cried out in alarm first, a barely-formed Look—! shattering the calm before a massive fist of ice fell into the middle of their party, the warning just enough to set them scrambling to escape being crushed underneath its weight. There was no time to regroup or check for casualties because the enemy was upon them, with several more snow monsters materializing out of the trees with their limbs already groping for targets.
It was easy to draw the magic into her hands, feeling it burn pleasantly through her muscles and explode into the air; this she remembered, fire and war.
Soon Regina was lost to the rhythm of the fight, exhilarated by the dance of thawing the creatures fireball by fireball, reducing each that neared her to helpless stumps, and dodging the falling slags of ice and and floods of meltwater that rained down in the destruction.
Elsewhere, the dwarves were taking their pickaxes to the creatures' legs, and the Merry Men had split into factions to catapult stones into their bodies or use trip ropes to fell them like trees. It was ugly work, and frantic, for there seemed no end to the queen's minions or to their strength, and Regina was the only one not beginning to struggle to stand her ground as the group became increasingly battered, exhausted, and outnumbered.
More and more, she was having to rush to the aid of the others, sending flames over their backs and playing wildly close to the line of turning the entire forest into a pyre that would consume them all, in order to hold the snow creatures off a few minutes longer.
Charming, panting with his own exertions, spared a grunt at her in passing, "We can't keep this up."
Before she could retort (there was not much to say, anyway—he was right, but what else could they do?), a whip-crack of sound rose above the din surrounding them: "Regina!"
Her name, roared in full-throat, and the thief running to her out of nowhere, and in that moment (in the daze of hearing how he had called for her, and the ease with which the word had broken from him as if he had spoken it a thousand times before) Regina would swear the world slowed to match the shallowness of her pulse, the battle falling away as she watched him come.
He had said her name, and, gods, he made it something holy.
"Are you all right?" he asked, face creased with worry, and his hands closed around her shoulders to hold her in place as he looked over her.
"All right?" she echoed faintly, wondering at the question; the man had clearly lost his senses, to ask such a thing when danger touched every space between them, needing only the slightest lapse in concentration to bury them in ice. She tried to shrug him off, saying, "None of us will be unless you let—"
Robin shook his head intently, his eyes a blue so sharp they cut her to the skin. "You're bleeding."
His voice was husked over with pain, so that Regina thought she must have misheard him and began searching him for blood, futilely, until she followed his gaze back to her own arm and saw the rent in the fabric of her coat, the stain spreading from biceps to wrist in a slash of red.
She had not noticed it, even now did not feel anything amiss when she probed at the tear in her clothing and felt dampness beneath—one of the monsters must have caught her with a sharp edge before she had wrecked it. But the bleeding was sluggish, already half-congealed in the cold, and her mind was clear: hardly a mortal wound.
"It's nothing," she said, anger sparking now that she knew the thief had put them all at risk with his inexplicable reaction. He had been to war before, surely, and should not be so weak-hearted over its minor casualties, should not be swooning at the first sign of bloodshed.
She pushed at his hand to make him release her, his sleeve riding up in the struggle, and there, as livid as a brand—
The lion tattoo was unmistakable.
No. Nonononono it couldn't—it wasn't possible. There was a rushing sound coming from somewhere very far away, and she swayed as if taken by the wind, everything suddenly unstable, tilted.
"Regina," he said again, this time gently, and when he reached for her, she answered in kind.
She touched the black mark lightly, as if it would burn her (she, the worst heretic of them all), and when it did not, when she felt only the delicate warmth of his body, her fingers moved of their own accord and traced a path along the join of his wrist until her hand rested in his, one to one.
She did not remember, but she knew, now, what they had been to each other.
Before she could speak, if she could even make the words come, and obey, the thundering in her head crashed down around them. Robin's weight pressed her into the ground, shielded her even as she gasped against his neck, and then he was gone.
One of the snow creatures was burying her, deep, deep, and she couldn't breathe through the cold until she began to burn, her magic spilling out recklessly in her panic until all that was left of her adversary was water.
There was screaming, somewhere, as Regina rose to her feet, now soaked through, and she wanted nothing so much as to shut them up, to make it all stop, but first there—there was Robin, and he would be looking for her…
Instead, she found him at the base of a tree, crumpled over its roots like some broken thing.
Not lifeless, yet, with the thin pulse in his throat trembling under her hand, but she could feel bone shift with his breathing, shallow wheezes that had his eyes closing in pain and worse. There was blood in his mouth, and blue, fading, from those eyes like the last colors in the world, and, no, she would not let him steal those away so easily.
She could not heal him, feared to try—when had she ever been able to do anything other than hurt?—and so she turned from him, back to where the battle raged, and let herself shatter.
The smell of forest was thick around her as she turned it to ash.
(Later, they would tell her she was wildfire, beautiful and terrible and ravenous as the stories of old, until she had burned herself out and fallen down beside the thief like one dead. Nothing of the snow remained, nor the trees that had stood sentinel over the land for centuries, only a heat lingering in the air like the turning of winter to spring.)
(Later, she would wake and reach for him, and break when she met the empty space meant for his hand.)
This world was filled with incomprehensible things—the people ridiculous, the customs exhausting—but hospitals, Regina had decided, were the worst by far.
White and barren and loud when, according to reason, such a place should be restful. There were endless rounds of questions, asked as if she were a dim-witted child who hadn't yet learned her letters, and a prodding of her injuries until they relented to her litany of curses and left her to bleed out or heal on her own.
She wasn't critical, anyway, compared to many of the others who had dragged themselves (or been dragged) in to have their wounds tended to after the battle. How they had all made the journey here was something Regina still could not quite fathom, the last few hours a sickening blur of movement and numbness and one vague memory of Grumpy, of all people, shouldering her weight despite being rather worse for the wear himself.
She had said as much to him, half-delirious, and the dwarf had simply muttered, "No thanks to you" as he inclined his badly singed pate towards her.
"A shame," she had sighed in return. "My aim must be off." And then a quick fall into nothing, and a too-white room, and reaching for something lost.
Her fingers strayed again to the open space beside her, the bedsheet crisp and cool under her touch, and she closed her eyes, trying to think of anything but the way his blood had looked spilled over the snow.
She pressed the cut on her arm in distraction, reopening what she hadn't let the doctors mend with their stitches, and tried to call on the tender feelings that healing spells required.
(She had always been hopeless with tenderness—the Imp would say as much, and her own mother—and yet she had managed it, once, when she was still young and unruined by the life she had chosen.)
In the end, she forced the edges of skin back together in a clumsy, messy patch-job that left her biting her lip and dizzy with the effort, near the absolute threshold of her magic.
If she kept going, if she kept drawing on the waning embers of her power, she might—
"Oh, that's such a relief!" Snow's voice carried from the other side of the room despite the occupied beds and curtains between them, the intermittent beeping of the machines.
Regina covered her ears, twisted away from the sound—relief was unthinkable. Unbearable.
But she could not shut out the conversation, no matter how she ground her teeth against it, and so she heard Emma's voice, lower, accounting for the injured, and the damages to the forest and the northern edge of the town, and the remarkable victory that had been achieved without any permanent losses, no deaths to mourn at all.
Snow's voice was still carefully pitched above her normal volume (the girl had never been subtle, damn her) when she asked after each of the wounded in turn, and where to find them in the labyrinth of the hospital, should one care to visit.
The thief was in room twenty-three, alive, and more than that was meaningless in the wild bray of Regina's heart.
She waited for Snow and her daughter to leave, and longer still, unsure that she would be able to stand, to go to him. The hospital dimmed with the oncoming night, quieter now, and with the shadows helping to conceal the trembling of her body, Regina edged through the hallways in one direction and another until she found the right number posted beside a door.
She delayed there, again, and studied the dilapidated tiles underfoot until her own weakness threatened to drop her to the ground—she needed to sit, and badly—and so she eased into the room.
Her immediate impression was one of wires and mechanical clutter before she located the thief's face in the midst of the confusion, pale and unguarded. She felt shy to look on him, almost, as if she had caught him in a state of undress; as if she were looking upon him, seeing him, for the very first time.
And though she blushed, she found it was easy to indulge her curiosity when no one was watching her. When he wasn't watching her with those impenetrably blue eyes, and she could simply let herself learn the lines of his face, follow the silhouette of his body from end to end and retrace it until she had her fill of him.
One arm was held in a sling across his chest, and the worst of his injuries were concealed by blankets and the tubing feeding in and out of chest, but the machines in the room mapped his vitals, recited them faithfully to her, and, reassured, Regina drew nearer to them, to the bed, hardly without realizing it.
"Robin," she said, feeling out the word with her tongue, the way it curled upwards into something questioning at the end, like she wasn't sure, even now, that she could call him by name.
She waited, listened to the rasp of his breathing, and said it again—Robin—as she reached out to take his hand, winding her fingers in with his in a gesture that had suddenly become familiar.
And, somewhere across town, a woman woke with shards of ice in her hair and the same name on her lips.
As it turns out, sometimes you *do* come back and finish a wip 84 years later (or maybe just four...).
Many thanks to those of you who continued to read and leave comments long after it seemed hopeless that this fic would be continued. Each of those messages really touched me and had a part in nudging me back here to bring some long-overdue closure to this story.
Originally the story was only supposed to have 3 parts, but given the length of this chapter and its natural ending point, I thought it best to split it and save the rest for the "epilogue." Which, I promise, you will not have to wait another 4 years for.