.

.

"In that garden bright my beloved I see;
Though she has no wings, yet a swan is she.
Her fingers are covered with golden—"

Emma groans aloud, snapping the unusually heavy, over-sized children's book shut in her lap. Her fingertips skim over the gilded, fancy lettering of ONCE UPON A TIME.

Oh my god, are they serious with this crap?

"—okay, jesus christ, look," she explains, interrupting herself.

It's a room full of goddamn preschoolers, but they're gonna learn it sometime, right?

"Guys, real life isn't like these fairytales. There's no enchanted pumpkin, no talking animals…" Emma begins flipping through pages, staring down at the watercolor illustrations, gesturing idly. "… no little mermaid in a bikini, and there's definitely no true love's kiss while we're on the subject…"

At this declaration comes a chorus of tiny-voiced protests and questions, and a few exaggerated cries of joy.

"Miss Emma! Miss Emma!"

"Girls are GROSS!"

"What's a kiss?"

"Ariel is REAL!"

"Miss Emma!"

It's a couple minutes of social interaction and she's already being hounded. Some of the more eager kids scoot in closer as Emma continues flipping different sections, frowning and shaking her head in annoyed disbelief. She tucks a blonde curl behind her ear. "The Beast clearly has anger management issues, and Red Riding Hood would have been eaten in seconds," she points out. "Also, the little old woman in the shoe can't get child support from her deadbeat husband—"

"Emma Swan, WHAT are you doing!"

She jolts in place on the creaking wooden chair. Mary Margaret's feet delicately maneuver over the scattered assortment of rainbow-hued blocks and abandoned, stuffed toys, but her body language and expression reads genuine anger.

The four or five kids closer to Emma's knees slowly, very slowly back away onto the rug with the others.

Oops.

The bell through the intercom above them rings, and rings one more time, signaling the end of the day as the preschoolers hurry to their cupboards and Disney character book-bags. Emma releases a long, relieved breath, her shoulders slumping.

"Everyone remember to bring your things for Show And Tell tomorrow!" Mary Margaret calls out pleasantly, smiling so radiant that it's almost like a minute ago never existed. "Wendy, Peter, stop pulling thatTiana, that's a beautiful drawing, honey. Be sure to show that to your—no, Max, put away your skateboard toy"

As soon as the room is empty, Mary Margaret turns back to her, arms cross. A glare on her snow-white features.

"Was that really necessary?" she says, lowly.

Emma stands up carefully from the rocking chair, tucking the fairytale book under her arm. "Hey, you're the teacher here," she replies, neutrally. "You know I'm not certified to be around those little monsters."

The other woman rolls her eyes.

"All you had to do was take over story-time while I got up for the restroom," Mary Margaret whispers angrily. "I leave you with them for eight minutes and it turns into a disaster—"

"Well, you should have known better, or at least held it in."

Mary Margaret's glossy-red and heart-shaped mouth twists up, lips pressing together.

"You know what being pregnant does to me," she says indignantly, almost whining. Her pale, swollen hands hook under her gigantic, round belly draped in lilac-blue fabric. Emma certainly does remember.

This is Mary Margaret's second babybut during the first pregnancy, Emma decided to room with her in the Blanchard apartment, taking the loft/spare bedroom for half the rent. She didn't mind being homeless and sleeping in her car before then, but her newest friend insisted. It wasn't until after discovering all her car windows had been smashed Emma caved to the offer.

They weren't exactly on the same wavelength about a lot of subjects: Emma preferred the heat; Mary Margaret turned it off. Emma played her stereo with rock and bass music; Mary Margaret loved instrumental. But, little miracles, they both did love their hot chocolate with a sprinkle of cinnamon, and they were openly and proudly bisexualhence, all of Emma's car windows being destroyed. Unsurprisingly, reporting it didn't solving anything, but Emma had figured that would be the case.

Mary Margaret got knocked up the first time during a one-night stand with some guy claimed to be a doctor.

Emma didn't bother with the I told you so's and looked after her. Of course, Mary Margaret never saw him again and didn't want to bother. But shortly after, she met someone else and got knocked up a second time. This time, the guy stayed.

He fell in love with Mary Margaret and her first daughter. They were planning on getting married soon after Mary Margaret popped out his baby. And despite Emma's (possibly biased) opinions on him and 'charming' men in general, Mary Margaret and David were sickeningly, revoltingly cute. Like something straight out of a romcom or a Lifetime movie.

A cellphone buzzes, snapping both women to attention. Emma reaches for hers in a jean pocket, one-handed, until she notices Mary Margaret is looking at her own and sighing. "I'm gonna have to make dinner late again…"

"Speaking of deadbeats…" Emma mutters, glancing away.

She avoids a hit on her arm by jerking backwards with expert finesse. Snow's disapproval is evident, and Emma's not sure for which thing. "David is not like that. He's a veterinarian. He helps society."

"He went to jail."

Mary Margaret sputters, wide-eyed, "So did you!"

"Yeah, but, he embezzled from his employer, Mary Margaret. I hit a sign with my car once."

"You were drunk!"

Emma scowls, one of her forefingers fiddling semi-nervously with her circle necklace. "There wasn't anyone around!" she argues, knowing it's a weak argument, watching Mary Margaret's features soften. "And it was a bad week, so, whatever…"

"Just when are you going to…"

She doesn't have to say it. But, Emma knows her best friend wants to.

"I don't settle."

"There's nothing wrong with needing to settle down sometimes," Mary Margaret says, running her hands over her stomach, calmly and with an absurd amount of patience. The way she talks to Emma sometimes is like… like she's trying to be Emma's mother, and it gives her the willies. "I don't understand how you are so disillusioned about life."

Emma shrugs, making a mock-contemplative face.

"… I guess it started when my parents dropped me off on the side of a freeway?" she offers, walking around Mary Margaret for the preschool classroom's exit. "Just a thought for later."

"Where are you going to now?"

"Dinner with some deadbeat guy," Emma deadpans, and then smirks, looking back over her right shoulder at the other woman huffing in irritation. "Relax, I'm kiddingI've got a case, alright? Technically on the clock. See you."

"Be careful," Mary Margaret says pleadingly, eyeing her.

"When aren't I?"

"I'm serious, Emma. You're going to give someone a heart attack one day. And it better not be me."

Retreating into the now empty, yellow-and-blue tiled hallway of the city preschool, Emma mumbles noticeably under her breath, "Yeah, yeah, Mom…" Jeez. Melodramatic much?

Emma hops down the outdoor stairs, and fishes out her car keys. It takes a moment, but she realizes that ONCE UPON A TIME is still tucked under her arm. Emma half-considers running back inside, but just because, she votes against it.

It goes into the passenger seat. She tosses it there, sliding herself in and turning on the engine. Mary Margaret said she found the old, ratty thing in the back of her closet last year, insisting that all fairytales had some truth within them.

Emma's jaw tightens.

Real, my ass.

.

.

The roads are slick with ice and sleet, tires crackling against street-salt, and occasionally, she hates living in New York City. It's not because of vulgar, tobacco-scented yelling, or endless, strobing lights, or the whole-milk cheesy pizza.

It just reminds her too much of Neal.

He died back in Boston, while on-duty at his job as a firefighterbut, Emma couldn't help but think about reminiscing, fond stories of his first apartment in this city. It came into her permission after losing him to a building fire, the grief still fresh, a way to hold on to his memory. She remembers the phone call from his superior, remembers thinking about Neal being buried alive under smoking, burning rubble, his ribs and lungs crushed completely.

She fought to escape Boston and where she lost him, and yet, Emma still gravitated towards Neal's memory. Now, she can't bear the thought of selling the apartmenteven if the electricity is faulty, and the plumbing is shit, and the neighbors are worse—but she can't live in it either.

She's not sure what she's going to do, though. Mary Margaret has her fiance and her babies crowding the Blanchard apartment now, Emma doesn't want to impose on them.

Losing Neal still hurts, but Emma discovered she could channel her overwhelming anger and the grief into a career of bail bonding. Tracking down scumbags and losers, and dragging them back to face the music, it felt damn good. Cathartic, even.

She parks her yellow bug near an alleyway, getting out her fake wheel-boot.

The fugitive she's chasing has gone by a couple aliases in the last few months, and been tricky to place. In a stroke of luck, though, the latest ID he's been using "August Booth" has been traced in the nearby area.

With a quick, silent climb up, mindful of the slippery, cold steel of the outside fire escape, Emma peers into the unlocked window.

Floor 8, Room 15.

There had been a blank info name-card on the apartment listing when she checked. Smart, but an obvious choice that someone's trying to hide.

Emma jams in one of her legs through the window first, gripping the windowsill with darkly gloved hands and shoving up. She heaves herself horizontal before noticing a small, auburn-haired boy peering out from the next window over. He eagerly waves a string-puppet hand at her, but unsmiling. She immediately taps a finger to her lips, nodding and giving him a bright, unassuming grin. He nods back to her with solemn, bleary intent, mimicking the finger-tap with the puppet-hand once and closing his window.

Jesus christ, that was close.

She finally works her way in, pushing the window open a little further. It's not as scummy of a hideout as she expects. Lived-in. There's pickle-green, dusty curtains, and a worn-out, plaid sofa by a walnut-colored coffee table.

The table is littered with a Styrofoam cup filled with unidentifiable liquid and a plate of partially-eaten, floured pizza crust.

Emma listens for any movement before circling the room, patting down her belt and her jeans. She's not licensed to carry a gun, but then again, she's never had to use one. Not even if the other guy has one in his possession, ready to get trigger-happy on her ass.

Before her fingers grasp around her taser, something fragile shatters in the distance.

Emma's knee rams into the coffee table and she curses.

"Fuck!"

Suddenly, thundering footsteps approach from behind her. Within seconds, Emma finds her arms trapped at her sides, a male grunt hotly blowing in her ear and against her skin. Emma's hands clench tightly into fists, and she slams the back of her head into Booth's face, releasing his hold. Emma's vision greys out in temporary, spider-webbing pain.

She stumbles out of the way as he swings wildly at all directions, hollering, clutching at his bruising nose. His fingers hook into her hair, yanking her beanie off and tearing at her curls. She screams out, mouth contorting open in rage and more pain.

He attacks once more, landing a kick to Emma's gut and sending her against the wall, colliding into a hanging picture. Emma lets out a wincing moan, feeling blood dripping down her cheek and temple, from the impact against the cracked glass.

When his meaty, tanned hands reach for her throat, she lets him, long enough to break his grasp, thrusting her elbow into his injured nose, and running full-forced into him with arms wrapped around his waist.

They're both off balance and go flying into the huge, antique wardrobe. They tangle into musty and mismatched clothing before Emma feels nothing.

The ground disappears under her feet, and so do the clothes around her.

.

.

It's like the air is sucked away, whooshing.

She and Booth tumble right out ofno, they're inside—the wardrobe, but no longer where they once were. Tumbling, tumbling right down a hill. Green, high grass and teal-gem sky overhead, warping faster and faster. Emma separates from the fugitive, rolling and coming to a halt at the bottom of the hill, into the mud. She lays out on her side, head buried in sweet-smelling, squishy meadow-grass, as the dizziness grows heavier and heavier, darkening her eyes before steadying out.

A tall, huge shadow blots out the clear, bright sunlight in Emma's face. Her instincts scream to fight. She tugs out her taser gun from her belt, aiming and clicking it on, and watches as Booth convulses uncontrollably.

Emma flings herself out of the way, as the fugitive makes loud, gulping noises and collapses nearby.

Fuck.

Her face is hot and rosy, tacky with crusting blood. Sweat dampens her white, ribbed turtleneck, between her shoulder blades. "I did NOT ask for this, you asshole," she mutters, glaring at the unconscious, faintly breathing man.

To hell with him.

Forcing herself to sit upright, gingerly touching her abdomen, Emma finally takes in her surroundings. How in the world...? Wait, wait—okay, she was in the shabby apartment building, and then flung into the big, carved wardrobe, and then...?

Then what…?

Emma shields her eyes against the sun's ruthless glow, blinking a couple times to get the fogginess out. Someone on a horse gallops towards herit looks like a woman. Young. Very young with a creamy-rose complexion that is darker than hers.

"You're woundeddo you need help, miss?" she asks, and Emma's mouth goes completely dry as she gets a better look at her.

Holy shit, she's gorgeous with those long, slim legs encased in riding trousers.

The clothes are… they gotta be expensive. A tailored sea-foam green jacket, a white neckerchief, and seemingly new, brown, riding boots. The way the light halos her… it's either a forming concussion or this is the most cliche love-story about to unfold.

Emma hopes for a third option, if she has any kind of say in it.

"Where am I?"

The woman cocks an eyebrow, suspiciously, but not unkindly. "How is it that you do not know? You're in the King's lands."

Emma grimaces, rubbing at her tender gut with her palm again.

"Who…?" she asks, teeth exposed.

"King Leopold. This is his kingdom you've taken to fighting your enemies singlehandedly in." The other woman leaps off her whinnying horse, swinging one leg over the ornate, leather saddle. Her thick, lovely hair tied loosely to her skull in a braid, flopping against her neck. Thin, black hairs curl free. "My name is Regina. Heir to my father Prince Henry's lands."

Emma swallows against the dryness of her throat and exhales, squinting an eye shut.

"Um…"

Regina walks towards her, getting down on one knee so they both are eye-level. Emma leans automatically out of her space, her eyes widening. "I saw you appear over the hill so suddenly, from thin air," Regina explains, lowering her voice in a gentle timbre. Emma's chest feels so warm. "Did you summon a spell or a portal from another realm?"

Portal?

"Summon a… a what?" Emma says, outright confused. "Thin air? What the hell are you talking about?"

Regina gives her a deeply worried look, those dark brown and luminous eyes narrowing. "Perhaps it's best that we have you ride back someplace safe," she concludes, primly. "To… tend your wounds and get you some water."

For once, something is beginning to make sense.

Emma nods, becoming aware of her gradually-increasing dizziness and the blood still drying to the side of her face. "Yeah… yeah, I could use a hospital right about now," she murmurs, taking Regina's outstretched, suede-gloved hand.

The word hospital crinkles Regina's tiny, button noseadorably, Emma's thoughts projectbut the other woman says nothing or questions it. "What about the man who came with you?"

Emma's head turns around to him in the meadow-grass. She replies, dully, "Leave him there. He'll wake up soon enough and then, I'm sure he can find his own way back homeif he's got the brains for it."

"I'll send for someone to fetch him later," Regina says, fingers squeezing on Emma's as if decisively, or comfortingly. "If he's a scoundrel or a thief, then we will rest a little easier when he's locked within a dungeon cell. Come with me, please."

With tentative, slow maneuvering between them, and verbal encouragement, Emma swings up on the white-speckled horse, legs firmly apart. Regina joins her, mounting gracefully.

She seats herself behind Emma with the reins in hand, and encircles her with her arms. Their thighs and legs are nearly nestling up to each other's. If Emma didn't feel like her head was splitting in half, and she didn't need to vomit up her breakfast of one granola bar… this probably would have been the perfect time to hit on her.

Oh god, don't go there. Don't even do the thing, Swan.

"I don't usually ride with a saddle," Regina announces, as if bashful. A soft, breathy chuckle grazes Emma's nape. "I suppose that's fortunate I had one given the circumstancesI take it you don't ride horseback often?"

Feeling pleasantly warm again, Emma hums in agreement.

"I've done some bareback riding in my time, hehjust not on horses" she says mischievously, before realizing the implications of what she just said.

Oh my god, you idiot.

Emma's face goes a pink flushing color. "You know what, youyou can just forget I said that." Regina clears her throat, but Emma's unable to tell if the other woman is as absolutely embarrassed as Emma is currently feeling.

Embarrassed being a kinder word.

"As you wish."

.

.

It's a palace. Emma wasn't expecting a damn palace in the middle of nowhere, situated next to a misty, towering mountain.

A gaggle of servants bow upon their approach through the silver-glinting gates. A handsome girl with olive-toned skin receives the reins, as two male servants aid Regina and Emma off the horse. "His Majesty is currently abroad and wishes you to remain within the grounds, need I remind you, Young Miss," is said critically, by a shorter, robed woman with a pewter-monocle hanging off her nose.

"Yes, of course," Regina says with obvious indifference, wrapping her arm securely around Emma's and leading her through the entrance. "Have my handmaidens boil some water and bring my herbs and a mortaroh!" She adds, "And plenty of fresh cloths."

Emma gazes over her, eyebrows furrowed in amusement.

"Are you performing surgery or something?"

There's a deliberate halt as they walk on, and Regina tsks. "Perhaps you are coming down with a fever," she muses aloud, pressing the back of her hand to Emma's forehead momentarily, startling the other woman. "You're speaking in tongues, I'm afraid."

It takes a second, but Emma can sense the disapproval trailing after them. The handmaidens do as they're told, following the two women into a more private wing, but all with matching sour expressions. One of them gestures faintly to Regina, and Emma looks her newest friend over.

There's specks of dirt and mud on her impeccable outfit, and she's tracking in more on her boots.

Regina refuses the suggestion to change out of her gear, as one of the girls asks daintily. "As soon as I am finished here," Regina says. "In the meantime, fetch me more hot water and make the preparations for dinner. I'll be taking it in my chambers."

Emma bites down on a smirk as the dainty handmaiden curls her upper lip into a sneer. "I'll have whatever she's having," she calls over to the servants, knowing it's probably not gonna happen. But still, the scandalized looks on their faces is priceless.

Definitely worth a glimpse of Regina's actual smile.

"You shouldn't have done that," she points out, peeling off her dirtied, cocoa-colored riding gloves.

Emma shrugs.

"What are they gonna do? Spit in my food?" At the semi-knowing look from Regina, she barks out a laugh. "Fair enough. Alright."

"Poison is not so old-fashioned as you may think," Regina points out.

"Hey, as long as the food's good, right?"

"Rest assured if anyone tries to harm you under my nose, they will be dealt with most severely."

Emma strips off her red leather jacket and her own gloves, as Regina soaks and dampens a clean cloth, holding it up. "I can, uh, clean up myself," she insists, and Regina ignores her, tapping sharply under Emma's chin to make her lift it.

The scrape of the wet fabric against Emma's cheek, and the small, open wound, causes her to flinch.

"I'm sorry, it'll sting a little," Regina murmurs offhandedly, rinsing off the crimson-bright blood. Emma watches in mild fascination as the water gradually darkens. "You are certainly not from around here. Are you a sorceress?"

"Excuse me?"

"You don't have to fear speaking of magic. We do not condemn others for practicing it. At least, not in this kingdom."

Emma's curiosity heightens.

"Are you… one?" she asks, uncertainly.

Regina's knuckles turn white as her hands clench rigidly around the damp cloth. "I can do magic, yes," Regina says, tonelessly.

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen name-days."

Emma blinks. She's so young.

Regina finishes up scrubbing Emma's face and temple, tossing another cloth into the cooling water. She turns away for the tray of miscellaneous vials and herbs, as she called them.

"Yourself?

"Twenty-eight years old. My birthday was in autumn," Emma answers, feeling the stinging pain intensify on her face and head. Shit.

"You still haven't told me your name…" Regina's eyelashes are naturally full and dark, despite the lack of makeup. She glances up at Emma from underneath them. "Wouldn't it only be polite?"

"… Emma."

"Em-ma," Regina repeats back in soft contemplation, looking her over. The way she says it, so purposefully, Emma feels something in her chest tighten and loosen, grow hotter… and something deeper too. It's a nice feeling.

"It's a beautiful name."

Regina's hands busy themselves over the silvered, decorative tray, crushing plants with skilled ease in two stone bowls, and mixing in water. Emma's nostrils pick up the woody scents of honey, and lavender, and aloe. She watches Regina thin it into a slimy green-golden paste, before coating the first three fingers of her right hand, and reaching out with her left.

"Try to remain still," she informs Emma, sliding her fingers over Emma's jaw, angling her head sideways. After shrinking from to Regina's initial touch, Emma decides not to fight anymore, lips pressing and thinning together. "Does it still hurt?"

"Even if it hurts, I'm pretty convinced I'm dreaming," she she says, confidently.

"Well, this will prevent an infection. Dream or no dream, according to you."

"How do you know how to do this, Your Majesty?"

Regina half-smiles at the teasing note in the other woman's voice. "I assumed it would be only practical to learn simple healing remedies along with my studies," she says with a hint of pride.

"Magical studies?" Emma says dubiously. "Can't you just—POOF!" She wiggles her fingers for the added effect.

Regina's expression hardens, taking away any traces of a smile.

"I don't like using my magic," she tells her, sounding melancholy. "It came naturally to me, even though Mother insists upon more teachings, to improve what's already there." Emma's skin feels less rosy with heat, along with her cuts. The mixture has soothed down the itching and raw stinging on her temple and right, swollen cheek. She catches herself about to scratch, and immediately lowers her hand.

"Magic is temptation, and temptation will lead to the darkness," Regina says, looking down. She washes the paste from her hands in another bowl of water. "As all souls will experience one day. Temptation was built to overcome us at our weakest."

… Whoa, okay.

"That's very, uh… oddly specific, actually," Emma says with slow, but clearly mocking intent, gathering her long, yellow hair up at the crest of her head. "Hey, you wouldn't happen have a scrunchie on you, do you?"

At the narrow-eyed bewilderment, Emma tries again, clarifying, "Er, a ribbon? Anything like that?"

"How about a change of clothes instead?"

That works, too.

.

.

Emma refuses a bath, after seeing what the tub looks like. It's a slippery, metal death-trap, and looks freezing.

While the handmaidens attend to Regina, Emma sneaks a couple, shredded bites of Regina's dinner on a nearby, black-walnut furnished table. Dinner tastes like roasted turkey, but for all she knows, it could be some mythological beast a knight slew last week.

Or pheasant.

The smoky, hunk of meat is covered in a sweet, brown sauce, along with carrots and ripe tomatoes. Emma pops a finger into her mouth, sucking on the juices. There's no way she could spill on this nightgown Regina let her borrowit's

It's ridiculous.

Elegant and dreamy, the cotton sleeve-ends go to Emma's fingertips, but the rest of it appears see-through and poofy. Except for the dove-white, V-neck scoop on the front, the entire nightgown is a soft, ashy-pearl color. Actual pearls dangle off Emma's bodice.

No ribbons in sight, or provided, so Emma knots her own hair in a self-made bun, one or two tendrils slipping free.

There's so many little things about the private chambers she didn't notice before. All of the fixtures being wrought iron, including the candelabrum and bracket feet on the banister-back, throne-like chairs. An ebonized, lit fireplace and mantle, with moldings like twisting scrolls and foliage down and along the massive sides. An open-air balcony completely overlooking the mountain grounds, and the high-rise gates just below. A bedstead with white and ivory linens, and big, ivory curtains surrounding it

"I hope I didn't keep you long."

Emma spins to face her on bare feet, swaying a little. And she can't help when her jaw feels like it's dropping, mouth going slack.

Regina treads her way over, feet also bare and peeking out under the indigo-velvet gown. It's encrusted with diamonds. Real-looking diamonds patterned on lace and embellished along the width of Regina's flat stomach and around the gown's collar and to her shoulders.

She's unpinning her exquisitely swept up black hair, letting it fall in uncoiling, thick waves to her face.

"Nice place," Emma blurts out.

"It's one of the king's many palaces. He's quite wealthy." Regina yanks out the last glimmering, raven-black pin, setting it aside on the desk. She raises and waves the back of her hand without saying anything. To Emma's surprise, the guards bow from the corridor and come forward to shut the the chamber-doors. "I call it The Tower Castle. This is my end of it to do with as I wish."

"You don't sound too happy about it."

"It's an arranged marriage. It doesn't really matter what I think," Regina admits, neither frowning nor smiling. In fact, Emma thinks her voice sounds hollow. Void. The other woman doesn't touch her freshly prepared, heated meal, uncapping the clear-glass, sparkling decanter and pouring its amber-gleaming, liquid contents into an ale-tumbler.

Emma's mouth waters in anticipation of some decent alcohol. Cheap whiskey only gets you so far. She sneaks in a bit closer.

"Well, that sucks."

"Sucks?" Regina questions her, those blush-colored lips twitching in humor.

"It bites. It, um" Emma lets out a sigh, as the other woman cants her head, looking her up and down in plain skepticism. This is going nowhere fast. "How about you're not happy about it. That's what it feels like."

"Then yes. This arrangement sucks," Regina agrees, blandly. She takes a large, open-mouthed swallow of the alcohol, and then another, draining her glass. Emma holds in the urge to chuckle at her gusto. "It'll be done when I turn twenty."

"May I?"

At the nod, Emma pours herself a glass, taking it up and smelling the lip. Brandy, probably. The stronger stuff, anyway.

"I don't think I could ever go along with something like that, if I'm gonna be honest. Not thatuh, you're making the wrong choice. I'm not even sure where I stand on the whole true love debate anyway," Emma says, cradling her drink and staring right at Regina.

"You don't believe?"

She snorts. "In love at first sight? Seriously?" Emma replies, but she can't keep her eyes off herRegina's magnificence, or the string of diamonds spilling down her bare back, or her long eyelashes surrounding deep, darkest-brown eyes. There's just something enchanting about her beauty. "I think I'd believe in true lust at first place before anything."

Regina straightens up, chin raised. Her diamond and sapphire ring-covered fingers brushing over her waist, putting her hand on her hip, as if preening under the attention. "Love isn't formed at a whim, Emma. Love grows strong; it's resilient. Like a tree."

"You mean the one out back?" Emma says, grinning at the unexpected and shocked look, "The apple tree?"

" In a manner of speaking, yes. I suppose so."

She fiddles with the pearly bodice, adjusting the material squeezing under her breasts, mindful of the dangling beads. "You sure you don't have anything more comfortable than this?" Emma asks, complaining a little.

Regina cocks an eyebrow, smirking over her drink. "Unless you wanna run around in a nightshirt?"

"Not the worst thing I've ever owned"

Emma closes in what remains of their distance, stopping in front of Regina who doesn't back off. She takes a long, obvious sip and then places down her glass of brandy on the dinner tray. "You'd look good in a nightshirt," Emma comments again, dropping her eyes to Regina's hand nursing the ale-glass to her chest, before gently guiding it away, Emma's fingers separating it from her.

There's a playful scorn to Regina's tone. "That's improper conduct and language to address a Queen."

"I thought you weren't married yet," Emma points out, smug.

"Don't act coy with me."

They're face-to-face, lips inches apart, and she can smell the spice-berry brandy on the gusts of Regina's breath. "Fine, then I'll leave that to you," Emma says quietly, meeting their eyes. She grasps one hand to Regina's velvety elbow and then relaxing her fingers.

She's ready to kiss her already, but suddenly, Emma is. Or rather, it's Regina's mouth clashing against hers, pressing too-hard and sloppy-wet, like a tight, airless seal. It's too passionate and eager. Emma imagined she would be a little shyer, if anything. Regina whines a little, sad note from her throat, visibly disappointed as Emma pulls away and inhales noisily.

"Take it easy," Emma murmurs, cradling the side of Regina's face, caressing her thumb over a flushed cheek. "I'm not going anywhere"

Instead of an argument, simmering right on the surface of her tongue, Regina gulps it down and nods. Emma's other hand moves up her arm, brushing over her dress attentively, pale fingers sinking into her Regina's dark, loose hair and tossing it over her shoulder.

Warmth and blessedly soft skin, Emma's mouth returning to her lips, grazing them and then opening slightly. It's an unbearably slow and coaxing kiss, and Emma can feel Regina's entire body shivering. Gooseflesh follows wherever Emma's hands goher fingers stroking lightly over Regina's ears, like she's done this before, and running admiringly over the nape of Regina's neck.

"See what I mean?" Emma mumbles with a faint grin, eyes lidded. Her lips parting against Regina's mouth. She responds with another kiss, this time opening it up, waiting for Emma's mouth to mimic hers. Regina's tongue slips past the barriers of teeth, licking in. Emma moans into her, breathless, her heart pounding when Regina's fingers scrape into her hair, holding her closely.

She gives it another moment, sweeping her tongue against Regina's, before pulling back. "Alright, alright need to turn it down a notch," Emma says hoarsely, desire overwhelming her senses and making her lightheaded.

Regina's mouth looks sweet, rosy-red and plump.

"Was that?"

"Great," Emma answers, licking her kiss-tender lips and rubbing her fingers over them. Oh wow. She smiles in reassurance, as Regina beams, ring-jeweled hands returning to herself. "Yeah, it was."

.

.

The daylight wanes, dimming into smoky-orange dusk.

"You never answered my question earlier," Regina says from her original position near the decanter. "Are you a sorceress from another realm?"

Emma raises her head from staring down and flipping idly through BOOK OF SPELLS, suddenly alert. She feels a flash of annoyance.

"I definitely don't belong here, if that's it," Emma snaps, feeling immediately sorry for the hurt crossing Regina's features. "We don't have any magic. It doesn't exist." A tensed arm-wave. "Freaky-ass portal in the wardrobe being the sole exception."

"I have heard of the Land Without Magic, but only through tales," Regina murmurs, lowly. "It's a dreadful place."

Slightly defensive now, Emma hunches her shoulders and frowns across the way.

"How would you even know that? You haven't seen it."

"That's not true."

Regina walks around her, looking tight-lipped. She rummages through her ebonized, glossy chest-of-drawers, and presents out a miniature handheld mirror. Silver-beaded and polished to a shine. Regina's fingers clutching around its giant handle.

"It's my looking glass. It's able to contact other worlds and illuminate the person whom carries it," she explains, as Emma curiously joins her at her side. It's glowing? Pulsing with a bright, shimmering violet. Emma makes a disbelieving hum anyway.

"When I gaze into your land, I can see so much pain being done to others. Misery. War. Death."

Emma's fingertips stretch out, brushing the mirror's edge. The glow brightens.

The swirling, violet smoke in the glass disappears, replaced with images that burn themselves into Emma's retinas.

A wailing infant in the crackling, dead grass, flattened out by the roars of a speeding truck. Mary Margaret curling into herself, head bowed. A carousel lit in neon blues and pinks, and two darkened figures beneath it, dancing and holding hands. Neal in his heavy, fluorescent-yellow uniform, covered in grime and ash, his helmet flying off as a heavy, flaming steel-beam lands on top—

Emma gasps horrified, as if unable to catch her breath. She backs away from the looking glass and Regina, tripping on her nightgown. Regina quickly grabs her arm and her side, before Emma careens onto the floor, half-dragging the other woman to a chaise.

"Emma, Emma," she repeats, leaning over and clasping Emma's wrists to her. "Take a deep breath you must look at me."

Tears glistening in her eyes, Emma obeys, shuddering out an exhale.

"Do you need to lay down?"

A firm head-shake.

"I need to go home," she whispers to Regina, pleadingly. A single droplet rolls free.

Regina's fingers massage comfortingly over Emma's wrists before releasing them. "I wish I knew a way but, perhaps we can find one."

" What?"

Emma watches uncertainly as the other woman hurries back to the looking glass, returning to her. "II'm giving this to you," Regina says, with enough optimism as she could muster. "You'll be able to see me, and I'll be able to see you."

"How does that work?"

Regina steps over near the bedstead, yanking aside a sheer, ground-length sheet off a piece of furniture. A mirror—humongous, but it's a mirror nonetheless. Made in all silver-metalwork, beaded and lavish as the looking glass abandoned in Emma's lap.

"With this," Regina says, determination amplifying in her expression. "It's another looking glass. Namely that one's twin." Emma glances down at her own mirror in her lap, sniffling, not trusting herself to reach for it.

"So it's like a two-sided window? But, there's no magic in my world"

"As you already have said, there are exceptions," Regina insists. She laughs a high, bell-like sound, To Emma's ears, it sounds forced, but the brilliant smile that accompanies it feels consoling. "Magic is drawn to you, Emma. I'm not sure why, but I can feel it can't you?"

Emma wants to say no—she wants to so badly, thinking of home. But then, she feels a hot zap up her arm, crawling into her belly.

The ground vanishes underneath her, as does the chaise, and the orange dusk.

She shuts her eyes.

.

.

Emma opens her eyes.

Pickle-green, dusty curtains flap around, as a wintry breeze pours in through the open window. The odor of dried, mildewing pizza crust assails her nose. She blinks out the sudden, overwhelming blurring in her vision, groaning aloud.

What?

There's a coffee table, bumping at the level of Emma's knee. She's shaking so hard that her bones feel like they're jumbling loose from her joints, even with her arms clenching protectively around her abdomen. Heat builds uncomfortably around her ears and on her neck.

Floor 8, Room 15. She's standing in the pieces of broken glass. There's a ruined, nondescript picture-frame dripping with her blood.

Her blood.

Emma touches the side of her cheek with a bare hand, scrubbing down harshly on the wound, and looking down. Nothing there, just a sticky, thin film of pasty herbs. Her other hand cradles Regina's looking glass.

She nearly drops it, releasing a pent-up, terrified scream and clapping her left hand over her gaping mouth, trying to muffle it.

Oh my god.

No wardrobe in sight. Emma looks around for it wildly, frantically spinning in place, her pearly bodice clinking. When she races out of the apartment, unlocking it and bursting through the door, Emma stumbles into the wall, heaving out a choked breath.

In the doorway of the next apartment, the small, auburn-haired boy watches her. Ignoring the background noise of his parents hollering threats, and flinging objects, he holds up his Pinocchio, mocking a finger-shh with one puppet hand against his lips.

Emma feels herself and her fear spiraling out of control.

She tears down the staircase, hiking up the nightgown and hustling out into the apartment's entrance. A dark-skinned couple stare from across the street, whispering in growing concern as Emma chucks off her wheel-boot, throwing it, and fumbles with her car keys.

.

.

Mary Margaret sends her four text messages and David sends three more, until midnight hits. Then there are no more texts.

Emma leaves her phone on her mattress, and tosses the rumpled, sweat-stinking nightgown on the bathroom's shaggy rug. It was eleven AM when she arrived at Booth's place, and eleven thirty-eight on the radio when Emma scrambled to get inside her yellow bug.

The fuck?

She rubs her upper arms, wrinkling her fleece bunny-print pajama top. Mary Margaret got her a matched set for the holidaystwo for one. Emma's favorite one, the print with the buttercup-yellow ducklings, is currently housed in the 'dirty' laundry basket.

Her Chinese-takeout ordera helping of beef fried rice and sweet and sour shrimpremains unopened, lumping and cold. The mini-set television blares Saturday Night Live reruns, echoing the laugh-track. Emma pulls her legs up to her chest, toes curling in.

The looking glass reflects nothing but Emma's worn-out, pale face, as she carefully lifts it up, treating it like the object is possibility radioactive.

It's not real.

Swirling, ridging vines pattern the handle, and all around the edges. She flips it over, gazing at the back of it. The silvered vines crowd around the embellishment of a large swan with its wings spread out, and a miniature crown hovering above it.

This time, Emma drops the looking glass, as it bounces harmlessly onto the couch cushion.

.

.

The colorful wildflowers are sparse during the late summer season, withering away and being replaced with cattails and marsh grass. Regina misses the joy of warm spring rains and running through the open fields, climbing the low-hanging branches with her friends as a girl.

But for once, she's not miserable. The servants order back to the manor, and Regina dresses herself into a simple, brown peasant-dress, leaving her wet, black hair to dry under the rising sun, the strands frizzing in the heat. She doesn't care.

Daniel and Marian have returned to their chores, and their jobs, after visiting her for a short time. Regina misses the strength and easiness of Marian's arms locked around her, hugging her and squealing until Regina tickled her sides for freedom. She misses the unrelenting kindness in Daniel's eyes, and his wisdom about town affairs, and above all, she has missed their smiling, radiant faces.

And, she'll never see them again, if Cora has her way. Her mother always does.

Regina's forefinger twists around a dandelion stem, her knees beginning to strain and ache from crouching. A breeze pushes against Regina's face, cooling the sensation of tears on her face. She glances up, eyes roaming across the boulders on the horizon.

A woman, with knotted, yellow-blonde hair and sun-browned skin exposed to her upper legs in cropped pants, approaches from the south. Emma maneuvers herself awkwardly, one of her hands sliding and clutching to the ivy-winding stone.

As soon as they meet eyes, Regina feels magnetism, so heady and powerful that it feels like vertigo rocks her entire world on its axis. Emma's gray tee-shirt flaps around her, damp under her armpits, as she yells and sprints, leaping into the field.

Emma? she mouths silently, doubtfully.

"Regina! Oh my godare you serious?" Emma nearly sends them both crashing onto the grass, her arms embracing and clinging onto Regina's waist. Emma's perspiring, grinning face presses into Regina's neck. Her excitement bubbling out in her shouting voice, uncontrollable in spurts of laughter. "It worked! It freaking workedoh god, Regina! Yes!"

No.

"I thought" Regina mumbles, her sentence hanging off her lips.

She remembered remembered hours spent in front of the marvelous looking glass, waiting for a sign of Emma, whether she was still alive or safe. Emma vanished, along with the smaller looking glass, Regina thought maybe maybe, Emma would still have it in her possession. She obsessively called to it, to Emma, asking for her, and then cursing her, Regina's hope crumbling.

"No matter how many times I tried I thought"

Regina feels Emma's hands slip up her back, and then a pair of ever-soft, gentle lips on her mouth. A sorrowful and bittersweet kiss. Emma parts her own moist, hot lips, nudging them to the corner of Regina's mouth, holding them there.

"I can't believe it's real—but it is," Emma admits in wonder. She leans out and gazes at her brown messenger bag, unbuttoning it one-handed. Regina sucks in air curtly through her nostrils, glimpsing Emma's looking glass within it. "You were real the whole time."

I was always real.

But she does not fault Emma for her beliefs.

Regina only gives her a closed-lipped smile, tucking a strand of fine, sunshine-yellow hair behind Emma's right ear.

"How long has it been?" Emma asks, grinning again, even though Regina can feel her own face stiffening. "No, wait, I got something for you—Taaahhdahh, it's root beer!" she proclaims, thrusting out a dewing, brown-glass bottle. "You're gonna love this stuff."

Regina jumps back a step as Emma cracks open its top, pale foam dribbling out. "It's not gonna eat you alive, c'mon! You're gonna miss out on the best part!" Regina lets out a disgusted, amused noise as she grabs the sticky bottle and takes a deep swig.

It's

"Unusual" Regina says, crinkling her nose in satisfaction. This is no beer she's ever sampled.

"You ain't seen nothing yet." Emma gazes at their surroundings whistling and buzzing with insects, eyebrows furrowing. "Is it just me or does this all look different somehow?" she asks, letting her messenger bag slip off her shoulder.

"We aren't in the same lands," Regina says, gazing longingly at the morning-drenched field. "This is my father's estate."

Emma chuckles, gesturing with open arms toward her. "So you're home? That'spretty cool, right?"

Regina does not share her enthusiasm, handing the bottle to Emma. "It's one last request before I wed King Leopold," she says, vacantly. As if sensing the mood change, Emma carefully takes it, going solemn.

"Then we got a lot of talk about, don't we?"

.

.

The air stifles their lungs, summer-humidity clouding around them. The empty cottage brims with it, and Emma gladly fishes out her melting tub of ice cream. She ends up lounging on the gold-and-blue embroidered settee, watching in amusement as Regina attempts to finish up her story while dipping her fingers into "coconut milk vanilla bean" and nibbling the globs with lady-like delicacy.

"and that's how my mother married the king's son."

"Spinning straw into pure gold?" Emma whistles, impressed. "That's talent, I'll give Cora that."

"Magic is how she gained notoriety. Women are not allowed to gain a higher ranking than their male counterparts. A Queen is always lower in status to a King," Regina says, as if reciting a lesson, albeit grim-faced. "Mother never believed in that kind of rubbish. A woman should be allowed to hold an opinion in court, if she is among her peers."

Emma raises her warming root beer, announcing, "Well, cheers to that." She sips on her bottle, keeping her blue eyes on Regina who avoids looking at her entirely. Regina's fingers press deeper into the ice cream, indenting it further.

"She uses her magic for darkness," Regina murmurs. "I don't want to end up like that"

"You're treating this whole magic thing like it's inherently evil. That's not how people work." Emma scratches at her throat, thinking over her mental example before adding, "It's like practicing religion. What matters is how you treat other people when you use it."

Regina breathes out a fleeting laugh, mouth budding into a smile.

"Can you show me some of your world's magic?" she asks Emma, demure but eager.

"My world's magic? Like what?"

Emma's drawing a complete blankshe just started believing in magic recentlybefore she stoops over her own lap for her messenger bag, jabbing a hand in and showing Regina her Zippo lighter. "Watch," she says deliberately, and Emma presses down and flicks.

As soon as the tiny flame bursts and flickers into existence, Regina's eyes go childishly wide. She claps her hands together, giggling.

"Fire with your hands! I knew itit is magic!"

Emma chuckles, smiling just as cheerfully as her. "You can have it, here" she says, flipping the lid shut and offering it to Regina who suddenly appears so amazed and humbled by the gesture. "No, seriously, you can have it. Call it a gift from a friend."

Regina's fingers, still smeared with cold ice cream, gingerly cradle the Zippo into her opposite palm.

" Thank you, Emma."

"Your mom can't do anything like that?"

Regina shakes her head, rolling her eyes a little.

"No, but King Leopold always listens to Mother. She knows how to manipulate him into doing what she wants." She lets out an long, irritated sigh, closing her hand around the Zippo, but not too tightly. "I'm too young and silly for it, apparently."

Emma nods contemplatively, before speaking up, "Cheers to that, too," she says, reaching out to clink her root beer with Regina's on the table. In the process, the ice cream tub upends into Regina's lap, splashing the melted coconut vanilla bean onto her woolen, peasant dress.

"Oh shit!" Emma curses, loud and miserable, placing down her bottle and grabbing the tub, spilling the edge of her gray tee-shirt and her shorts as well. Her cheeks burn in humiliation. "Regina, I'm sorry. I'll, uh pay for some medieval dry-cleaning"

"Stop fussing," Regina tells her, the corners of her dark eyes wrinkling in mirth. She chuckles. "I need to change out of this ratty thing anyway." At this announcement with Regina holding the front of her stained dress away from herself, piquing Emma's interest.

As the other woman steps into hallway, Emma's head cranes, trying to keep Regina in her line-of-sight.

"You need any help in there?" she asks, raising her voice, smirking. The response is one of the bedroom doors creaking open just enough for Regina's arm to fling the brown peasant-dress rudely in Emma's direction.

Emma turns away, her smirk morphing into an easy grin as she pulls off her now-ruined jean shorts, shimmying down to her red, boy-short panties. She kicks her legs up and crosses them as Emma hops back down, lying out fully and comfortably on the settee.

This day is improving quickly.

She daydreams a little, eyes closed, missing the bedroom door creaking open once more. Emma does jerk to attention, going on her elbows and uncrossing her legs, when hearing someone clearing their throat above her.

Regina is barely a good length from her, those honey-glow fingers laced together. She's bare-naked as anything. Her nipples are dark in pigment as opposed to the pink-peach areolas Emma has often seen during fooling around. They're lovely and huge, aroused. She doesn't understand why Regina is doing this, but she is using the opportunity to catalog every exposed inch of her. From the confident hold of her shoulders to the mound of curls between her legs, coal-black as the hair on top of Regina's head.

Jesus christ.

"I don't want him to have me, before someone who cares for me would," Regina whispers, hands separating but trembling. "I want I want that to be you, Emma."

She says her name: Em-ma.

And it sets off pleasant, warm tingles inside of Emma's belly. Like her own name is supposed to be slow and sensual, blooming off someone else's lips like rich smoke.

Regina hesitates, taking a deep breath, before straddling over her, knees wide-apart. "Are you sure?" Emma finds herself asking, her voice croaking out. Her own hands travel over up Regina's outer thighs to her hips, stunned by the miles of hot, smooth skin.

It's almost too faint and noncommittal, but she catches Regina's nod. Emma removes her hands for a moment, and then presses her thumbs to Regina's collarbones, running them down. She massages tentatively, softly over the peaks of Regina's breasts, feeling her arch and moan. Emma cradles her body in, placing a warm, lingering kiss on her sternum, kissing a path up towards Regina's neck.

"Is this what you want?"

Regina's voice deepening and panting drives her wild.

"Oh my god, yes," Emma says, grunting out as she helps Regina straighten up and changes their positions, urging the other woman onto her back to the decorative, antique-looking settee.

Emma strips off her gray-tee, yanking it over her head and tossing it aside, letting her yellow-blonde curls unravel.

"I haven't gone down on someone in a while" She moves down between Regina's slim, muscled legs, helping them fall open. "so don't judge me, okay?" A hint of a mischievous gleam in her delighted expression. She doesn't bother removing her sports bra, or her own panties already soaking through. She skims the tip of her nose against the satin feel of Regina's inner thigh.

"You doing good so far?" she murmurs, opening her lips and caressing Regina's skin.

An obviously squirming motion, but no sounds of protests or flinching.

"Yes," Regina says, a little more impatiently, digging her blunt, soil-dirtied fingernails into the cushions.

"If you want me to stop just tell me"

She hopes she won't, but Emma makes herself pay attention to each tiny noise, every euphoric breath as she teases, licking and kissing around Regina's labia, sliding her tongue between outer and inner lips until Regina's quivering in anticipation, Emma's hands bracketing her sides. Regina's already wet enough as it is against Emma's drool-shining lips.

She draws quick, crooked circles around her clitoris, flicking the hood over it and down to the little, pinkened nub, her tongue flattening over it. Emma explores with her middle finger, rubbing gently on sensitive outer lips, gathering enough moisture to slide easily into her vagina.

Emma's barely two fingers inside her, mouthing and sucking on her clit when Regina orgasms. All her muscles tense and then she goes limp against the settee's cushion. Regina gasps in weakly, and then out with an low, elated laugh.

"That was nice" Regina concludes, rosy-cheeked and still grinning as Emma wipes off her chin and mouth with her forearm. Emma hums in agreement, scooting up to press her mouth eagerly to Regina's.

She lowers a hand to the waistband of currant-red panties, before guiding Regina's fingers to stroke over the damp-sticky, cottony material.

"You mind helping a girl out, then?"

.

.

The days following pass as a blur, mingling and drifting.

Emma feels immense relief upon waking up, opening her drowsy eyes to the redwood, low-hanging ceiling of the summer cottagenot the off-white, molding drywall of her New York apartment. Regina is there to greet her every sunrise, either with greedy, affectionate kisses or a purposeful, overly curious touch on Emma's jawline. Or another body part. She liked those mornings best.

The days blend together. It's perhaps a week after Emma's arrival. They search out the pastures, Regina chasing after the wild horses. One day, Regina swore, she would ride a stallion from the herd and tame it. She would call him a prized stallion and win every riding tournament in the kingdom.

For now, Regina climbs a ladder in her family's orchard, with Emma below to steady it. Her peasant-style, olive green dress blowing in a frenzy against her legs from the wind at this tree-height, as well as her blue, flowing pants.

"What do you plan to do with all of these?" Emma asks, glancing at the horse-driven cart of apples. So many apples. Boxes and baskets of fresh applesyellow, golden, candy-green, mottled red, and then more shades of red than Emma's ever seen in her whole life.

Regina adjusts her wicker basket, plucking another two apples.

"Pass them out to the lower town. Lord knows they could use more in their bellies," she says, frowning, and then burrows her eyebrows indignantly at Emma's open-mouthed gaze. "What? Children should eat as well."

"No, it's uh" Emma pauses, smiling up at her. "You know what, you're going to make a fantastic ruler."

As if startled by this statement, Regina tightens her arms to herself, basket swaying.

" You truly mean this, Emma?"

"Absolutely, yeah." She looks down, momentarily bashful at Regina's wholehearted enthusiasm. If she's learned anything about Regina, it's all that self-doubt grinding away at herundeniably what Cora might have had a hand in from Regina's childhood. Regina doesn't 't believe in herself, like a future queen probably should. It's a feeling Emma's all too familiar with.

Emma straightens out the strap of her bag over her purple, knitted tee.

"So, how many different kind of apple trees have you guys got out here?" she asks, just for the hell of it.

"Thirty or so."

"Thirty?"

"Or so," Regina repeats, smugly. She picks out one of the reddish-yellow apples from her basket, holding it out for Emma to glimpse at, sunlight glinting off it. "These are the honeycrisps. They have the most hearty and delicious tasting juices of them all."

Emma bites her lips.

"They're not the only thing," she mutters.

"Ha! You're one to talk," Regina snaps playfully, coming back down the ladder. She squawks when Emma lunges at her, tickling her stomach, almost losing grip on the newest basket. They gather up the rest of the apples, piling them into the cart.

Emma glances behind herself, double-checking. Nope, the ones that slipped free from Regina's basketthey're still unaccounted for. Only two or three apples but, hell, if it's for a good cause

"Hey! Regina!" Emma shouts, waiting until dark brown eyes meet hers. She casually tosses a honeycrisp, going for over-hand. On instinct, Regina captures it mid-air, with both hands open. And then, she appears gobsmacked, turning a funny shade of red.

"D-do you not—?"

A clearly aggravated noise tears out of Regina's throat and mouth. She throws the honeycrisp into one of the boxes, teeth gritted.

What just happened?

"Wait, what did I do?" Emma asks. "Is it bad to throw an apple at someone?"

"NO—!" Regina yells, and then clenches her fists, lowering her voice when Emma takes a cautious step backwards from rejoining her at the apple-cart. "Goodness, no, it's I don't think you understand. It's meant to be a declaration of love."

"Oh," Emma says, simply, not looking bothered by this. "I thought it was like a duel to the death or something. So, throwing an apple at someone who you have feelings for means you wanna, what? Shack up with 'em?"

The bright, heated color on Regina's features is adorable.

"If you want my opinion, I'm not against the idea," Emma admits, thoughtfully.

Silence follows, before another one of Regina's aggravated noises. They say nothing on the ride into the lower town.

.

.

Emma cannot believe the instantaneous success of the apple-cart.

She hands off multiple apples beside Regina, peering over her shoulder occasionally to see multiple grateful, tear-streaked faces. A thin, skeletal man receives an entire basket of red apples, and then bows so low to the ground that Emma's afraid he will hurt himself. Some townspeople beg for more, and some offer up a handful of copper coins or even a shiny silver coin.

"You mustn't take their money," Regina says, reminding her solemnly. "It's all they have in the world, besides their families."

It's not long before the crowds dwindle, their arms carrying heavy boxes and baskets, smiling and cheering. Regina hands the last basket of honeycrisps to a rag-covered woman, touching her shoulder and accepting a thankful, snot-wet kiss to her bare knuckles.

Emma finds herself grinning widely along with everyone watching in awe and crying and praying in the open. This has definitely been worth being exhausted, picking all of the damn trees in the orchards for two afternoon's straight.

"You did it."

"We did," Regina corrects her, moving in and wrapping an arm possessively to Emma's. "Let's go for a stroll, hmm?"

.

.

A man with a holstered donkey passes them on the way through the stone arches, nodding in wordless acknowledgment as both women repeat the motion slowly. Up ahead, Emma can see people gathering near a red-and-yellow striped tent. It's cut with a square hole at the very top, and the spiraling, faded words of Martin & Myrna's Marvelous Marionettes are just above the hole.

Regina pulls on Emma's arm, suddenly excitable. "Let's go, Emma!" she cries out, dragging her to the show. Wacky, whimsical music plays within the tent, and a marionette with pale skin and a clean-cut, royal dress drops into view.

"Come one, come all! For a tale that will thrill you and chill you!"

Emma's heart sinks.

God no. She's really beginning to hate the puppet thing.

"Once upon a time..."

"Oh boy, here it comes," Emma mutters under her breath, unhooking her arm from Regina's.

" A kingdom, just like ours, was blessed with the birth of a young girl!" The new marionette appearsa king judging by the paper-mache, golden crown. He waves around a bundle of teeny-tiny, pink blanket, cackling ludicrously and dancing with his strings. "She was the fairest of all the princesses! No, she was the fairest in all of the realms!"

The audience politely claps, nodding their heads in approval.

"But, the king married a beautiful but evil queen, who sought to destroy him and all of their happiness!" One or two children screech out in mock-fear, clutching onto their mother's skirts as the 'evil queen' marionette jumps out, howling. Black yarn hair. Raven-feathers adorning the collar of the shimmery dark fabric of the marionette's poofed-up gown.

"Down with the evil queen!" someone yells from the audience, and it's met with uproarious laughter. "Down with the evil queen!" they chant over, and over. A genuine stab of fear races through Emma. She glances to Regina chanting with them, laughing.

"One day, when the young princess was grown, the evil queen sent her into the forest, leaving her to perish!" New scenery drops into view, the princess-marionette weeping and moaning high-pitched. A male marionette approaches her, carrying an axe. "She hired a lonely huntsman to cut out the princess's heart, and to deliver it to the evil queen for her to crush! But!"

The male marionette begins to wail and tremble, hugging the princess marionette, much to the audience's visible relief.

" He could not! The huntsman swore to protect her and gathered up the village to destroy the evil queen!"

Regina blinks as if coming out of a trance, glancing away from the tent. She touches over her own chest absently. "DOWN WITH THE EVIL QUEEN!" The audience roars, striking their fists into the air. "DOWN WITH THE EVIL QUEEN!"

"But the evil queen saw them coming—!" The same raven-feathered marionette howls and howls. "She cursed the entire kingdom, as her revenge! Sending them to a world with no magic!" A collective gasp from the audience, with Emma and Regina looking up in horror. "A land without dreams and hopes! And the evil queen basked in her glory!" A third male marionette donned in armor. He marches in place, and then swoops down on the 'evil queen' marionette, wrestling her. "Until the day a young knight from far, far away slayed her!"

"DOWN WITH THE EVIL QUEEN!"

"The curse was lifted after her death! The citizens of the kingdom were returned to their homes and their families, and they lived happily ever after!" All the marionettes besides the 'evil queen' parade themselves into view, leaping and screeching out in joy.

As the audience echoes it with hooting applause, Emma discovers a paling, sullen-faced Regina pushing her way through the gathering. She pushes after her, apologizing and ducking other people's free-swinging arms.

"Hey, hey" she says, out of breath. Emma grabs onto Regina's leather-hide bag, yanking her to a halt. "Hey, just wait a second are you okay?"

"It's nothing. I'm fine," Regina insists, forcing a big, close-lipped smile.

Emma narrows her eyes.

"I can always tell when you're lying, Regina."

Regina shakes her head, fidgeting with her grasp on the bag. " I didn't enjoy the performance as much as I thought I would," she mumbles, avoiding Emma's eyes, as the other woman touches and rubs her shoulder in slow reassurance.

"That makes two of us then," Emma confirms, grimly.

"Ripping out hearts"

"Tell me about it, right? That's a bit too gruesome for kids that age," Emma says, making a disgusted face and sticking out her tongue. She looks Regina over for a second, bemused. "Wait, I thought it was cut the heart out in the story?"

Regina grows pale-faced again, her lips pressing together in anxiety. This isn't good.

"Emma, my mother"

"—Regina!" Emma yells, as a grizzly-bearded man comes up behind her. He choke-holds a frightened Regina, and then traps her arms at her sides. A fancy, porcelain-handled knife thrusts out, sliding up against Regina's artery. "Let her go—you," she breathes out, astonished. "—August Booth?"

"Where the fuck is this place?" He growls, tobacco-yellowing, dirty teeth baring. "TAKE ME BACK RIGHT NOW!"

"Put the knife downyou're not gonna hurt her."

A nasty chuckle. He brandishes the knife in Emma's direction, sneering.

"I'll slit her pretty little throat like a pig, bitch."

.

.

Regina stomps on his toes with a groan, whirling herself out of his hold and losing her balance, falling onto her bottom to the dusty road. She looks up, breathing hard, expecting the knife to return to her face. But instead, its dazzling blade flies towards Emma's chest.

Everything around her floods out, replacing with a thickening, dull thrum.

It's magic's call.

On the ground, Regina envisions the blade halting in midair, because she wills it to, and stretches out her fingers, concentrating. It halts, inches from jamming into Emma's body, and hovers airborne, as if awaiting a command.

Regina flicks her gaze to the shocked, doughy features of the man. Rage and magic creeps over her, like a sweet, forlorn song buzzing in her ears. The combination intertwining and snaking poisonously through her veins.

He could have…

Regina's fingers contort, her wrist twisting in place.

"Stop! Stop, no!" Emma yells hoarsely, witnessing the knife turn over, backing out of its way. "Regina! Don't do this!"

Magic, magic whispers so sweetly, so comfortingly—do it—. Regina doesn't take her eyes off the man. He's frozen in his terror, looking only at the knife. Hot piss darkens and puddles through his torn, denim jeans.

" Why shouldn't I?" Regina finds herself asking to no one in particular, as if confused, dreamy.

Emma's hand wrings down on her fingers, squeezing to the point of bruising.

She yelps, her concentration and that raging fire breaking. The knife clangs harmlessly to the road, and the horrified bystanders flee at the noise. "You're hurting me, Emma!" Regina protests, attempting to pull away, crawling up to her knees.

"Goodthen you'll calm the hell down!" Emma yells. "You won, Regina. He's passed out. He can't hurt anyone now."

A shuddery, harsh breath. Regina stares down at her own hand as Emma releases it, wide-eyed.

" Did I really do that?"

Regina can feel tears forming and she sees Emma frown, through suddenly blurry eyes.

"It's okay," Emma says, whispering and opening her arms. Regina clings to her, letting out helpless, thin cries for air. "You're okay you stopped," Emma repeats monotonously, burying a hand into Regina's loosened hair and cradling her, rocking her. "You saved both of us"

.

.

For her, it was supposed to be a quick, stress-free trip.

She handed over Booth to the authorities who hired her, knowing she wouldn't be paid for this bail. A couple days too late and past the due date for court. But at least, Emma got the pleasure of seeing him raving, spitting-angry and in handcuffs.

The looking glass went dark, and stayed dark, when Emma held it up on the abandoned sidewalk.

.

.

Thinking about Regina didn't help, repeating her name in her head.

Usually, it did.

Usually, she could do more than catch a glimpse of Regina's private chambers for more than five seconds. The second, bigger looking glass could locate Regina wherever she wasresting in a glade, or wandering in another castle, or even while riding on her horses.

It's habit now, to bring along the handheld looking glass wherever she goes. Right now, it weighs down her purse as she drums her hand underneath the diner's grimy table. "Everything alright?" Mary Margaret asks, obviously faking her merry smile.

"Yeah, sure," Emma deadpans, poking the ketchup on her plate with a greasy french fry.

"Did you hear anything I said?" At the pointed, apathetic silence, Mary Margaret rolls her eyes. She folds her big-print newspaper, tucking it neatly under her hands. "What's going on with you lately, Emma?"

"I wish I knew."

Mary Margaret sips on her tea, muttering, "Cause that's not cryptic."

"Hey, I'm just trying being honest with you here."

" Are you in trouble?"

Emma squints her eyes. "Huh?" she asks.

"Be honest with me—what did you do?"

"Nothing!" Emma protests. Mary Margaret takes another slower sip of her tea, frowning critically. "I haven't!"

"I'm not going to judge you for anything, Emma. I'm only saying that you've been acting strange ever since that case"

The hovering knife. Regina's fingers outstretched.

"It didn't go so well," Emma tells her, shoving away her plate, no longer in the mood for grease burger with a side of grease fries. Mary Margaret takes the invitation, reaching out, tearing off a bit of BLT and gladly wolfing it down.

"You're okay though?"

Her best friend gives her a mildly worried look.

"Yeah" Emma trails off, faking a smile. She stands up. "I'm gonna use the restroombe a second, alright?"

She doesn't wait for Mary Margaret to wave her off, already knowing that at nine months pregnant, the other woman was not particularly inclined to chase after Emma at the moment. Better for Mary Margaret, anyway.

On the way, Emma nearly runs into someone in the lone corridor. A tall girl with bright, cherry-red eyeshadow and miniskirt. Puckering red lips. She gives Emma the up-and-down stare of approval, and then winks, raking her ruby nails over Emma's colorblock top.

Oh, are you kidding me

Emma lets it go this time, clenching her jaw and heading into the women's restroom and checking for occupants. No one. She shuts herself into the stall in the far corner, pulling out the looking glass. She thumbs over the silvered, elaborate vines.

"Please please work," Emma murmurs, closing her eyelids. She thinks about the ground dissolving away, the blackness swallowing into pure sunlight. "It's been a goddamn month. I know I made the decision to come back this timewhy is this any different?"

The object provides no answers.

Emma peeks open her eyes, beginning to scowl.

Okay, you can do this, Swan.

She plants her feet, holding herself straight and upright. Both hands on the looking glass. Emma envisions Regina's face, no specific hair style, no clothing type. Just her face. Her soft mouth, and what it felt like against the round of Emma's cheek.

Emma thinks of the forest beyond the Tower Castle. She could see it from Regina's balcony, rising within in the mist.

Heat zaps up her arms, sparking up invisible flames.

.

.

She opens her eyes, to the sounds of men bellowing and steel pans hitting dirt.

It looks like a campsite. A bunch of mossy and broken logs situated around a crackling, dying fire. It's men, alrighthulking ones with axes and swords. Their faces are covered by black, cloth masks and bandannas tied to their mouths and necks. Bandits? Thieves?

"Oh come on!" Emma screams angrily towards the sky, gesturing out with her arms.

She runs the fuck out of there.

Her brown ankle boots pound rhythmically, struggling to avoid dew-slippery rocks and wet patches of mud. They hunt her down, either for the thrill of it or wanting to leave no talking witnesses about their arrival.

Emma thinks she's about to make it to another set of trees, when one of the bandits appears out of nowhere, weapon raised.

The sword's blade runs through her burgundy leather jacket, slicing a ribbon of blood down to her forearm. Emma gasps in agony, vision swimming, stumbling into a tree for balance and clenching her left, bleeding arm to herself.

She braces herself, for the sting of ice-cold steel, and then watches as the bandits go flying, their skulls hitting the rocky ground or into tree-trunks. The bandit with Emma's red, shining blood on his swordhe's suddenly burning alive.

Emma sinks onto the forest-ground, unable to tear her eyes from the sight. Her stomach churns violently.

He vanishes into the thicket, his screams bubbling and melting away from existence.

"Well, well"

The glowing fireball douses out, as Regina's dark-gloved hand fists up.

"Didn't expect to see you here," she announces, haughty.

"Regina?"

It looks nothing like her. The pinned hair. The long, black coat draping around her and the skintight, leather pants? Emma groans, teeth gritting as Regina fiercely tugs at her left arm, holding it out in front of her and closing her fingers over the bloody wound.

Emma gazes down at herself, as a heated, sharp-shivering tingle passes through her entire left arm. Her jacket is repaired, and there's no blood anywhere. She stares back up at Regina, her lips stained in dark pink makeup and scrunching up.

She she looks bored.

"Are you planning to stand around and wait for them to try and kill you again?"

Emma's mouth slackens.

" Since when have you been using magic?" she asks, doubtfully.

"It's a good thing I am. You're completely useless without any help," Regina concludes, eyeing the lack of blood on jacket-fleece. "You're welcome for that, by the way." She tosses aside her coat with a flourish, strolling off towards the bandit-camp.

Emma runs her hands over her face, shakily getting back onto her feet, using the tree for support.

"I-I don't understand" she calls after Regina, maneuvering with a grimace over the unconscious bodies, attempting to catch up.

"Something we can agree on."

"Hey!" Emma yells at the top of her lungs, grabbing Regina's upper arm and whirling her around. "What the hell's going on?" If she wasn't so scared and confused, Emma might have cowered underneath her anger-darkened look and the softly spoken words.

"You don't get to talk to me like that"

"What is this? What happened?"

Finally, finally, Regina shows her an ounce of emotion. She throws up her gloved hands, yanking out of Emma's grasp and screaming back at her face, "It's been six years, Emma! Six!"

"What?" Emma breathes out, her bright-blue eyes going wide. "H-How? I was only gone for a month!"

A cruel laugh.

"You tell me," Regina says, sneering. "You're the one who left."

"Regina, I don't know! But if it's been six goddamn years, you have to tell me what happened!" Emma doesn't chance touching her this time. She goes around her, putting her hands up as a block and comes to a stop in front of her. "Tell me" she repeats, lowly.

For a moment, Emma thinks Regina will knock her aside, and relaxes when the other woman lifts her head, frustrated.

"I'm the Queen now," she replies, her voice thickening with sorrow. "And my husband" Emma didn't notice the ring before, but it's simple and curved gold. Regina wipes that hand over her lips. "I had a childhood friend his name was Daniel. He worked in our stables. We were only children, but we swore we would be there at each other's side no matter what.'

"I couldn't be there while Daniel was dying," Regina blurts out, almost thunderously enraged. "Mother ordered me to remain here, and my husband held a banquet to honor her arrival into the kingdomwe celebrated the day of Daniel's murder!"

"Murder?"

"A nameless man killed him with a poisoned blade, for a satchel of coins in Daniel's pocket!" Regina's voice cracks. "And nobody was there to defend him. I wish I could have—"

As soon as the tears roll down Regina's cheeks, Emma shushes her, cupping her overheated, reddening face and pulling her in. "It's not your fault," she says, consolingly, leaning and pushing her lips underneath Regina's quivering, closing eye. "It was never your fault."

"You're right." Regina looks into her eyes, adding coldly and bitterly, "It's their fault."

The proclamation unnerves Emma, but she dismisses for now, skimming her fingers over Regina's silver, dagger-like necklace. "Let's get out of here," Emma suggests, calmly "Just a little bitI'm gonna take you to my world. We can get away from all this."

"No, I don't want…"

"Please. Let me do this for you."

For a brief moment, Regina looks like Regina—her features softening, going vulnerable.

"Really?" she asks, half-smiling and awestruck.

"Of course." Emma clasps their hands together, feeling the raw, black leather. "C'mon, let's get you changed into something else. I've never seen you in anything darker than purpleand it's kinda freaking me out," she admits.

Before they can take a step, Regina disappears with a POOF! into a vortex of swirling, violet-colored smoke. And reappears, no longer in her original outfit. A belted, scarlet-red gown with plain embroidering, toting a small, mahogany dagger and its sheathe.

"Something like this?" she inquires, amused at Emma's nonplussed expression.

"Um yeah, it's perfect." Emma gestures to her, slapping her palms to her own legs. " If we were going to a renaissance faire."

At the slight eye-narrow and Regina tilting her head in bemusement, she chuckles.

"You know what, we'll make do."

.

.

Emma opens her eyes, swallowing hard and clutching tightly onto Regina's sweaty palm. She discovers herself surrounded by traffic. An intersection with yellow NYC taxis and various cars honking, racing and swerving each other.

"Whoa, whoa!" she shouts, ramming one hand on a car bumper tapping her knees and shielding Regina protectively with the other. "Shit!"

"Get the FUCK out of the street!"

When someone thrusts their head out of the driver's window, yelling obscenities, Regina yanks out her dagger into view. "Okay, we're sorry, sorryRegina, GO!" Emma hollers, pushing on Regina's shoulders to lead until they cross somewhat safely to the walkway.

After glaring at the muttering pedestrians, Regina huffs, sheathing her dagger.

"What the hell was that?"

"Angry drivers," Emma says, scrubbing her hands over her forehead. Oh my god, that was so close. How the hell did no one notice two people appearing out of thin air? Texting and driving? "You'll get used to them. They're everywhere."

A derisive, acknowledging nod from the other woman.

"Cars, yes?" Regina gives her a scathing, good-humored look, folding her arms. "Emma, I've seen your world, remember?"

Emma then smiles, coyly.

" How much of it?"

.

.

She hasn't seen a theater performance since public school. Emma doesn't remember much about the quality, but the comedic dialogue and antics of "Matilda" brought a smile onto her face. A story about a lonely, little girl and her special gifts.

Emma dug out her magenta spaghetti-strap dress from her closet, zipping herself in.

Regina admired a display in a shopping window, and being unable to conjure an exact replica on her own body, Emma offered to help her pay for it. She left the building in a knee-length black coat with a burnished, gold buckle on the waist and collar—what's with all the dark wardrobe choices?

She insisted on paying Emma back when she returned to her world, but somehow, Emma thinks it would be suspicious to attempt to cash in lumps of gold or rudimentary gold coins at the local bank. In any case, she didn't plan on taking any money.

It's around ten at night when they tread up the apartment stairs, crowding each other through the doorway.

"That was nothing like the marionette shows," Regina tells her, laughter still vibrant and clinging in her voice.

"A hundred times better, I think you mean." Emma yanks off her silver high-heels, wincing and setting them on her countertop. "Speaking of things that are not better." She groans, rubbing her bare soles. "I can never get used to these shoes."

Regina stoops gracefully to remove one of her black suede boots.

"How the hell does anyone get around in heels?"

"Refinement," Regina says, cheekily. "Something I'm afraid you're lacking, Miss Swan."

"Mm, that's overrated," Emma challenges her, putting her arms around Regina, circling them until they're chest-to-chest. She kisses her slow and gentle, breathing in the faint scent of honeysuckle. "Besides, I can show you something better than heels, Miss Mills."

Regina backs out, gazing admiringly into bright blues. She nudges her mouth over Emma's chin and then raises an eyebrow. Emma watches her toss a heeled boot out of her right hand onto the couch, and kicks off the other with sly, giggling enthusiasm.

It's that devious glint in Regina's eye, when she rakes her long, dark red fingernails over Emma's naked stomach and breasts, when she kisses and licks her open, that sends Emma to heaven, never wanting to come down, never

Regina's a quick study, thank god—she knows where to touch, how far to go, just how tenderly or how roughly Emma needs it.

"I'm gonna show you a vibrator one of these days," Emma murmurs, trying to catch her breath, thighs quivering and coating with her own fluid when Regina strokes her absently with those warm, slim fingers, and the taste is heat and sex clinging on Regina's lips.

It's been so good, but to hell she was gonna let Regina finger her open with those intimidatingly sharp nails.

Regina doesn't say anything, moaning quietly and snuggling down, rustling Emma's quilts as she pokes her feet in. The other woman turns over sideways, suddenly feeling timid, glancing over Regina's composed, amiable features and seeing a precious smile forming.

" Do you think a person could have more than one true love?"

Regina asks her, but without malice, "Do you love someone else as well?" They're framed in the lamplight, all of Regina's skin luminous and soft, and Emma thinks about stolen, motel maps and rusty, carousel houses on striped poles. Neil's lips dry from frost-bitten air.

"Not anymore," she answers, candidly.

"Then are you going to say it?"

"Say what?" Emma teases, smiling and wiggling when Regina prods her insistently with a mock-outraged look.

"You know damn well what," she announces, boastfully. "Say you love me or"

"Or what—ow, OW, okay!" Emma yells in surrender, grabbing Regina's shoulders as the other grinning woman leans into her, burrowing her face into Emma's neck and biting down. "Fuck, okay—jeez, Regina."

With a expectant, pleased expression, a tousled-looking Regina moves away, securely laces Emma's fingers with her and holding them up to her face. As if plucking a hopeful, terrified conclusion out of Emma's mind. Emma's own heart feels like it's thudding.

"I" She inhales, voice quaking, "I don't know. I love how happy you make me, and and I don't wanna lose this."

Thudding and thudding, and it somehow doesn't help when Regina clasps Emma's hands into her own, as if trying to steady her. "Neither do I," she whispers, earnestly. "Emma, you're all I have in any world of ours we share. I'll love you until my last breath."

The declaration floods burning, overflowing tears into Emma's eyes, as she cries openly, slipping out of Regina's hands and burying her face completely into them. Despite being vulnerable, despite everything that's gone wrong, Regina doesn't avoid touching her.

She embraces Emma, murmuring soothingly into yellow-blonde curls and brushing lips into Emma's scalp

.

.

It wasn't easy.

Emma decided to let her go home. And so, Regina vanished from her world, for good, and took Emma's looking glass with her.

Because that's all fairytales were, right?

Imaginary.

.

.

She contemplates getting into her yellow bug and driving. Leaving New York City permanently this time.

Emma hurries down the sidewalk, bumping into other people's shoulders and earning her the occasional death glare. She doesn't care. On the way, she spots a blinking, neon-lit sign overhead and halts, peering through the glass pane.

Geppetto's Treasure Chest.

Right smack in the center of a variety of junky, peeling bicycles and old clocks, is the huge, antique wardrobe. Emma's eyes widen. It's the same as before, same height, and the same musty and mismatched clothing hanging on the inner, wooden beam.

An old, balding man greets her as Emma bangs open the entrance-door. He's meticulously sprinkling fish food into a goldfish bowl.

"I'll be with you in one minute! One minute!"

"Excuse me?" she asks, gazing at him and then the ominous wardrobe, pointing towards it. "Where did you get the?"

He follows the length of Emma's forefinger, and then exposes his pink, rotting gums, as if self-satisfied. "Ah, yes, the wardrobe. You have fine taste!" he exclaims. "I carved it myself! I'm afraid I've already sold it, miss. The buyer is coming this afternoon."

Shit.

Emma makes her decision, tightening up and roping the loops of her beige trench-coat, mouth scrunching up. She takes a running head-start, leaping over a toy train, her pulse galloping. The old, balding man nearly knocks over his bowl, hobbling after her.

"Miss, don't—!"

She plunges into the chasming darkness of the wardrobe, gasping for a breath and holding it in as if submerging into watersand then tumbles out into the light, groaning aloud and hitting her knees painfully on solid, marble-stone floor.

Emma rubs at her stinging, aching elbow, sitting upright and then, she freezes, gawking. A young handmaiden, maybe fifteen, lays unmoved and dead right besides her, with glassy, grey-blue eyes bulging. Her little mouth contorted open in a silent scream.

Everywhere. Dead bodies.

It's the palace from Regina's kingdom, just as Emma recalls, but the corridors are strewn with lifeless servants and nobles. Their eyes are wide-open in panic, their hands and faces are turning greyish. Emma checks a couple of them for heartbeats, and finds none.

What is happening? A plague?

The doors of Regina's private chambers in the Tower Castle are unlocked, but empty.

"Help me!" She glances up at the noise, and she makes her way down the marble staircase, running and skidding towards the abrupt, choked pleas. "Help—aaaaauughh!"

Another bedchamber, more brightly and richly adorned in golds and crimsons. A greying man with a crown on his own bedstead, shuddering as a blank-faced Regina stands over him, squeezing his beating, glowing heart in both of her hands.

With one, last shudder, King Leopold sags dead on the royal sheets, eyes fluttering shut.

Bits of dust slip through and billow between the cracks of Regina's fingers, as she releases her grasp. Regina sweeps off her extremely low-cut, midnight-blue bodice, glimmering with silver-threaded filigree, as if tidying her appearance.

"You've done well, my dear." Another woman, with dark hair and dark eyes like Regina, pats her arm. Emma gulps soundlessly, her body threatening to shiver. "The kingdom is free of his tyrannical rule."

"He wasn't a tyrant, Mother," Regina informs her, eyeing the body. Her voice low in fury and rasping. "But he did deserve this."

Summoning her courage, Emma steps out from the open-air corridor, glowering as they peer towards her.

"Why are you doing this?"

Cora lets out a trilling, feminine laugh, as if entertained.

"Who let you in here?" she asks, lips sneering.

Everyone else is dead. How could anyone have stopped her?

"Do you know this young lady, Regina?"

"We're acquainted, yeah," Emma replies, continuing to stare at Reginaat her magnificence.

Cora's face twists up in a beautifully deranged expression, her wrinkles deepening. "How dare you" she shouts out, and then cuts herself off, as Regina wordlessly holds up one of her hands and approaches Emma, her glimmery, midnight-blue gown trailing after her.

There's so many questions buzzing around Emma's head. She shakes her head, attempting to piece them together.

"What happened to you what happened to the person who was too afraid of using her magic because it would hurt someone?" Emma asks, disbelieving. "Or who fed the entire lower town with your orchard's apples? Did you kill everyone here?"

"No. It hardly matters because they were nothing more than parasites." Regina snarls, jerking a forward step in Emma's direction. "Greedy, filthy"

Emma doesn't give her the satisfaction of cowering, speaking calmly, "Regina, this isn't you."

"You will address me as the Queen." Regina's grin morphs cruelly, wickedly over her features. She announces, tracing her eyes over Emma, as if talking to a loathsome begger, "Or Your Majesty, unless you'd like to be the next corpse in the room."

"That's my girl," Cora says, encouragingly. "Display your power for all to see. Make them tremble at your feet."

" I know you're still in there. I'm not giving up on you yet."

Regina rolls her eyes, and her tone is superior as she says, "You knew a weak little lie. It's about time you realized that." From behind her, Emma can hear the heavy thud of footsteps. Guards? Were they still alive? She tries to put them out of her mind and focus on Regina.

"No, she was strong and resilient," Emma says fiercely, leaning into Regina's airspace, voice breaking. A couple, hot tears roll down Emma's cheeks. "Like a tree" she murmurs, giving her a tiny smile. "And I love how happy she made me."

Cora snorts, waving a hand.

"Enough of this nonsense," she says dismissively, addressing the command to their Black Guards. "Kill the intruder."

With a flinch, Emma ducks her head a little as Regina spins around and raises her arm high, conjuring a roaring, conjured fireball.

"Unfortunately for you, Mother it's not going to happen," she announces, narrowing her kohl-lined eyes. "We both know you do not have the authority to command my army, or to command me, for that matter."

"Are you defying your own mother, Regina? After I have given you all you needed for your revenge?"

For a split second, the facade dropsrevealing a younger, openhearted Regina.

"I'm sorry"

Cora raises her hand out, her black, leather-gloved fingers contorting. Regina gasps out, unable to draw in air. The fireball vanishes. Regina gasps again, higher-pitched, her mouth rounding as her mother advances, impaling and ripping out Regina's heart from her chest.

"Oh, my sweet girl," Cora declares, smiling, as she picks up one of the dinner knives. "I'm doing this for the good of the kingdom."

In a foggy, slow-motion horror, Emma watches the blade stab deeply into Regina's heart. At first, she doesn't realize she's the person doing the screaming, as it suddenly invades her eardrums. It doesn't sound like her. Emma screams vulgarities and screams out Regina's name until she's forced down onto her knees, bowing towards the ground, two of the bigger guards pinning her arms behind her.

Already collapsed, Regina exhales one, shallow breath, features conforting. And then, they soften, her head lolling to the stone-floor.

Emma stares over her, sobbing, eyes dripping wet. "I'll find you," she says, whispery and quivering. "Regina no matter what. I promise I'll" Emma's chin jerks upright, by Cora's empty fingers.

When she reaches into Emma's chest, it feels hot. A white, growing light emits from herradiant and brilliantly blinding. With the remaining strength Emma feels inside her, she tears free of one of the guards, and grasps for Regina's heart, clutching her fingers down.

And

.

.

Emma's hand clutches down on the shattered, silvered looking glass.

Her apartment heater rattles on.

"No"

She can't be back.

"No, no" Emma's throat feels like it's full of needles, as she screams down at the object, "NO! YOU CAN'T DO THIS!"

But, the looking glass reflects only hermultiple Emmas with reddened, dampened eyes and furious expressions. With a wild throw, the looking glass shatters further, impacting the nearby wall.

That's it—it's over.

Emma lets out another quivering, heart-wrenching sob, composing herself long enough to stoop down and pick up a glass-shard. Emma's finger opens against the sharpness, with bright, red blood trickling over the edge. It glows brilliantly white.

All of the shards.

They reassemble into the looking glass before her eyes, and Emma clenches onto the glowing object, desperately. "Show me Regina," she growls out, and it vibrates, revealing seconds-long flashes of a nighttime street, an ambulance, and

She doesn't waste any time, running out of her apartment.

.

.

"Miss, you can't go in there!"

Bursting into the emergency room, Emma purposely ignores the nurse, chest heaving violently. One of the attendants grabs Emma's arm, as she gravitates towards Regina. She's pale on the hospital cot, lifeless, hooked up to so many wires. A puppet on strings.

"Get her out of here!"

"REGINA!" She begs, fighting off another scowling attendant reaching for the lapel of her trench-coat, "Please!"

"Dammit, she's going into cardiac arrest!"

As they reluctantly let her go, Emma pushes through the crowd of emergency doctors. Through the blaring noise of the medical equipment, she cradles Regina's face and goes on her instincts, kissing her sideways, pressing her lips down as hard as she can.

Regina's lips open faintly against hers, sucking in a little of Emma's air.

.

.

"Your girlfriend is in the recovery ward," the scowling, bruised-faced attendant tells her. "She's going to be just fine."

Emma nods and slumps into a waiting room chair, nursing her own reddish-purple, swollen jaw. She's still not clear on what happened, but they said Regina was found at the mouth of an alleyway, with nothing on. Completely unresponsive. She's released from the hospital with warnings about a damaged heart.

.

.

"What happened, Emma?"

They stretch out on the creaky, quilted mattress, Emma's mini-set television in the other room crackling with static.

"I don't know," she admits, fingers stroking through Regina's dark, loosened curls. Her head snuggles up against Emma's thigh. "Cora tried to take my heart after" Emma hesitates, biting on her lower lip. "She couldn't do it. Something happenedit was like a light appeared, and I couldn't see anything. Before I knew it, I was back." She adds, meaningfully, "It took you with me.

"You had my heart in your handswhich makes sense," Regina muses.

"None of this makes sense," Emma protests loudly, watching Regina slowly maneuver herself upright. "This is the Land Without Magicexcept for this damn thing." She nudges the brilliantly glowing looking glass with her toes. "I don't know if it has enough to get us there," Emma says, looking Regina over with muted concern. "But maybe you could go. It's your kingdom, after all."

Regina sighs, taking up the handheld looking glass. Images swirl to life—towns rejoicing, carts of flowers and fresh fruits.

"They're celebrating," she says, dully.

Emma furrows her brows. "Celebrating what?"

"The death of the Evil Queen. My death." Regina places the glowing looking glass down with careful ease. "Which means Mother is out of the picture as well—which means, there's nothing for me there now," she adds, forlornly. "I've done terrible things…"

"It's not too late for you."

Regina smiles a little and meets their eyes. "I hope you're right." Emma caresses the side of her face and she leans into the touch, holding Emma's palm there. "But you kept your promise, Emma. You found me."

"I always will," Emma murmurs, inclining towards her and kissing the corner of her mouth.

She lifts up the looking glass. Emma concentrates, envisioning the glow transferring into her right hand. It flows out of the glass like a ribbon, twirling and compressing into an white-glow orb.

Regina chuckles nervously, as the orb floats over Emma's outstretched, curling fingers.

"What exactly do you plan on doing with that?" she asks.

"Listen, we only got one shot at doing this and healing you, Regina."

"Magic isn't exactly predictable in your world."

Emma frowns outright in bewilderment, shrugging.

"No, but" she trails off.

"Oh, whatever!" Regina snaps, crossing her legs and tilting her face up. "Get on with it if you have to."

"Don't be so dramatic."

But to be honest, Emma doesn't know if she can handle another disaster. She takes in a deep, steadying breath, feeling magic's hot, pleasant tingle and gently guides the white glow orb through Regina's breast, cringing at the slightest bit of resistance.

She holds onto Regina's shoulders, perhaps too harshly as the other woman jerks in place and gasps in shock. Regina's eyes glow white before dimming to violet, and disappearing into her brown irises.

"How do you feel?" Emma asks, worriedly.

" Less shaky."

It's true. Regina's color has improved, less pale, less tired. She tenses each group of her muscles, and relaxes them, placing her hands over her chest and feeling her own heart's rhythm without complications or painful stutters.

"I think it worked, Regina," Emma announces, beginning to laugh, wide-eyed.

Thank god.

.

.

Emma leaves New York City, just as planned.

Maine isn't so bad.

.

.

"Though she has no wings, yet a swan is she.
Her fingers are covered with golden rings,
To her little son a song she sings,
From a little gold book she reads him a tale—"

"ow!" Regina interrupts, complaining.

She fidgets on the luxurious armchair and rubs onehanded on the top of her overly round, pregnant belly. Emma grins and closes the fairytale book. "Guess he doesn't like that one," she comments idly, hands clasping it.

Regina winces again, looking down as if offended. "Henry Daniel Mills—"

"Now we know where he gets the crankiness from." Emma climbs off the ornate mansion-rug, tucking a yellow-blonde stand over her ear. She hums and sets a loving, kissing peck to Regina's stomach, and then another to Regina's forehead.

"My son will be a joy and a delight when he is born."

Emma calls out playfully from the bathroom-entrance, "What did we say, Regina?"

At this, Regina gives a tired, amused sigh.

"OUR son," she corrects herself, pushing up to stand as the oven-timer dings. "And, that would be the apple turnovers." Regina enters the kitchen, fishing out the mitts from a drawer. Emma in all her plaid glory, pokes her head in.

"Mary Margaret and David are coming over," she reminds her, drumming her fingers over the wall.

An annoyed nose-wrinkle. Then, "You invited the riffraff for dinner?"

"They're our friends." Emma insists, good-naturedly, "It's over the weekend. We can't just invite them over for one night."

Regina pulls out her cooking tray and sets it down, sarcasm lacing her voice, "They're not my friends."

" Did I mention they're bringing along the kids?"

Regina's features softens with consideration, much to Emma's relief. "I guess they can stay for a few days," she concludes lowly. She removes her mitts and then shouts at Emma's back. "Then I want a hot bath! Also, you are setting out the table!"

Halfway up the staircase, Emma mutters, "Yes, Your Majesty."

Oh god, what was she gotten herself into?

.

.

If she has it her way, Emma will purchase the blue-and-yellow ducklings for the nursery decor. Mainly, the wallpaper.

She tosses ONCE UPON A TIME in the crib, with a warm, secretive smile.

Real life isn't like the fairytales.

It's only meant to feel just as real.

.

.


OUAT isn't mine. HAPPY SWAN QUEEN BIG BANG, EVERYONE! This is actually my first time (and last time, seeing as this fest will no longer run) in Swan Queen Big Bang but also in a proper big bang so I'm really glad to debut in something new and challenging. I know Swen has been feeling kinda down lately, and I hope this fic can pick some spirits up and that it was an enjoyable read for you. :) We'll get through this. Any thoughts/comments are so so appreciated, thank you! My beta Helvetica Brown helped get my revisions/mistakes taken care of, and any that are left are due to me! Big thanks to my beta reader!