Notes: This is part three in a trilogy made up of Home before Midnight and Waiting to be Cast. It doesn't have an overall title yet, but this is the final part :)
Once upon a time, there was a girl.
She was the daughter of a Lord, brave and clever, but in her father's land, there was no place for a woman to be brave or clever. So she read in secret, and when war came upon their land, she watched and listened and learned what it was to be a leader.
The true test of her mettle came in the time of utmost need, when the enemy were at their gates, and their only hope laid in the aid of a malevolent sprite known only by terrified whispers and reputation. She was the price for her family's survival, and when her father - afraid and horrified - refused, she put out her hand and seized the chance.
Her bravery and strength won the heart of the imp, though he would and did deny it time and again, to her and to himself. It was only when he thought her dead, lost to him forever, that he truly realised what had slipped through his fingers.
The girl was not dead, or lost.
Instead, she was imprisoned, closed away from the world.
Even when the world was spun about by a curse that threw them into a new land, she was trapped by the same woman. Her life was dark and bleak, and all she had was the wits she was born with and the heart to stay strong.
No prison can stand forever.
The girl walked free, at the side of a woman who wore a star.
Isabelle French is that girl, and the imp is now her devoted lover.
She isn't a vengeful person, not in the least. Anyone who meets her acknowledges that she is the sweetest and kindest person imaginable. But most people who meet her don't know that she remembers what they can't.
In this cursed town, where everyone is living a false life, only three people know the truth. One of them is the caster of the curse, the woman, the witch, who imprisoned Belle for more than half her lifetime. The other is her imp, Rumpelstiltskin, Mr Gold, who now lives and breathes for her. And Belle is the third.
She doesn't know why she remembers. It could be the imprisonment. When one only has walls for company, one has to look inwards. The memories were fragile, like cobwebs in sunlight, but there were there, and if she was careful, she could touch them.
It became easier, once she was free, once Rumpelstiltskin touched her hands, once she could look at the world as it is and was. Only then, did the fragments of two lives start to make sense. She could remember being Isabelle French, but that was a miserable time in a closed off world. As Belle, there was laughter and foolishness and roses and happiness, if only for a little while.
When she chose to remember, Belle was the better choice.
She remembers the incarceration, though. It feeds a small, steady flame inside her, and it's why she has taken the first steps to bringing down the woman who was once her captor and the Queen who drove her and Rumpelstiltskin apart.
It isn't much, to stand up and say she's running as a candidate for Mayor, but in a town where no one has stood up to the Mayor - no one but her darling, foolish imp - it's as clear a signal as standing on the rooftops with a megaphone. Which she is considering, since she knows it will really work well to make her Royal Mayorness cross.
She's still the same brave and clever girl, and now they're in a world where she can use it, she knows she intends to bring out every weapon of knowledge in her considerable arsenal. She certainly isn't afraid to use what she knows, and that makes her dangerous.
"You're wearing that face again, dear."
Belle smiles across the table at Rumpelstiltskin over breakfast. "This is my usual face."
He folds the newspaper and sets it down, gazing at her. "No, I rather think it's your plotting face," he says. "You try to look so innocent, but your eyes give you away."
She laughs and kicks him lightly in the shin under the table. "No one else can tell."
There's a small curve to his mouth, a secret smile that she has come to recognise. "That's because no one else looks at you quite the same way as I do."
Something in the way he says it makes her blush, and she feels a warming rush of pleasure that makes her toes curl. All the same, if she's going to be running for election, she knows she has to have an answer for everything. "You've been using the night vision goggles again?"
He raises an eyebrow as he butters his toast. "Well, if you insist on sleeping with the lights off..."
There's a silence, the moment of stalemate, then she cracks and starts laughing.
That small smile tilts his lips up again, and she sticks out her tongue as she reaches over and steals his toast.
"You better not come to my debates," she cautions. "If you make me laugh, you'll ruin my image."
"Belle, dear," he says with a fond sigh. "You live with me. I think I've tarnished your pristine image quite enough, don't you? Making you laugh can't really make it any worse."
Her eyes dance with a boldness she never possessed when she first lived with him in the old world. It's a new boldness born of intimacy and secret whispers in the night. "You know I don't mind being tarnished," she says, her voice low and mischievous. "In fact, I wouldn't mind being tarnished a little more."
His hand pauses halfway to the coffee cup. "Now, now," he chastises mildly. "The shop won't open itself."
She grins at him, then deliberately starts sucking creamy butter off her fingertips.
His hand is still hovering half an inch above the cup, and his fingers slowly curl into a fist. He's a delight to tease, because under all that restraint, she knows that he's easily as passionate as she is. They always were well-matched in nature.
"Will you be busy today?" she asks innocently, then licks a last smear from her index fingertip. "The busy business of pawnbrokering?"
"Yes." He always goes monosyllabic when he's trying his best to resist her. "Very."
"Pity." She sighs and gets up, and it's just pure coincidence that her nightshirt is being cooperative in hiking up her thighs as she stretches over the table to gather up her dishes. She doesn't need to look at him to know his eyes have wandered.
It's not just his eyes.
She squeals when she is pulled down into his lap and his arms wrap around her, clinging as determinedly as ivy. His lips are close to her ear, his breath warm. "You're playing with fire, dearie," he murmurs.
She laughs, pushing his hand down onto her bare thigh, guiding it under her nightshirt. Even now, he still trembles as if he can't quite believe it. "I know," she says, and kisses him.
Regina doesn't like unexpected surprises.
Surprises like the girl are especially unpleasant. While she always suspected that Gold - Rumpelstiltskin - remembered more than he let on, she felt safe in the knowledge that he was the only one. And then, his girl, his little mistress, proved otherwise.
Regina taps her nails on the desk.
She's still Mayor for now, but for the first time in years, the ground doesn't feel so stable beneath her.
Sidney is babbling some nonsense or other down the phone. He's taken badly to incarceration. The one thing she can say for Rumpel's little tramp is that she at least took to imprisonment with something like dignity. Sidney whines like a kicked dog, pleading and begging, and she sighs and hangs up the phone.
Someone taps at the door, and Regina wishes she could throw up shields, or transport herself away, or even just vanish for a few minutes.
"Yes?" she finally says, once she has composed herself and straightened the files on her desk.
The only person who could be worse than Snow or the damn competition is standing there, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
"Madam Mayor." Sheriff Swan strolls into the room.
Regina forces her mouth to smile. "Sheriff Swan."
"The council were looking for those papers to approve the dates of the debates," Swan says, hands thrust into the back pockets of her pants. She doesn't look at Regina. "I figured you might have just forgotten to sign them. Said I'd come by to get them."
They both know she hasn't forgotten to sign them. Regina knows it's just common sense that has prevailed and kept her from shredding them to ribbons, burning them and spitting on the ashes. The town's been hers for so long and seeing something that suggests otherwise is like a hot knife on bare skin.
"Of course," she says, rising. "It must have slipped my mind."
The Sheriff glances sidelong at her, but doesn't say a word, as if she had nothing to do with the affair.
Regina collects the forms from the back of the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. She hasn't even looked at them, but even closed away in the back of the drawer, she could feel the weight of them, warping her carefully-bound world.
She doesn't check the dates. There's no point to it. No matter what day they pick, she will be there to defend what's hers. She signs the forms with a flourish, even though she can feel her hand shaking. In fury or fear? She's not sure anymore.
"Thank you, Madam Mayor," Emma says, as if she isn't begging to be flayed to pieces.
Regina smiles as sweetly and placidly as she can. "If you don't mind," she says. "I have a lot to do."
Miss Swan strolls from the room, as if she hasn't just knocked another block from the foundations of Regina's confidence. Regina always suspected who Emma Swan might be. She always hoped she was mistaken, but the more the world shakes around her, the more she doubts it. The only one could change everything.
Regina rises and fills a glass from the decanter, the tang of apples sweetening the air for a moment. She lifts the glass in a shaking hand and drains it.
It would be so much easier if she would just twist the power and crush Emma's heart in her chest. No questions asked, no suspicions. But in this place, in this time, she has no access to her old magics, and Miss Swan never stays long enough for her to slip something in her drink. A blade would be too obvious, and Regina knows that some appearances must be maintained.
Yet, it's not appearances that drive her from the office.
She finds herself at the front door of the Nolan house before she even realises that she's left City Hall. She looks blankly at the bell, then reaches out and presses it in, just for a second, just to let herself need someone, need company for a moment.
She's already halfway down the front path when the door opens.
She stops, halfway between her car and the woman who once called her friend. Her keys are cutting into her hand and she knows she can make a choice. She can walk away, back to her office and isolation. Or she can have a friend, here and now.
"Regina, are you all right?"
She turns and for a moment, the smile is almost real. "I've been better."
Kathryn runs lightly down the steps and towards her. "The re-election?" she says. "I did wonder how you were holding up." She touches Regina's arm, genuine, affectionate. "You've done so much for this town."
Regina looks at the hand on her arm, lost.
No one touches her, not willingly, and not with good intentions.
She looked up at Kathryn's face, smiling and genuinely welcoming. "What do you want from me?" she asks, afraid and confused. "I couldn't help you with David. What use can I possibly be to you?"
Kathryn laughs. "You really don't have many friends, do you?" she says. She slips her hand through Regina's arm. "Come inside. We can have tea. You don't need to do anything for me except unburden yourself."
"It doesn't make sense," Regina says quietly, almost under her breath. "Why?"
The other woman gives her a patient look. "That's what friends do."
Dazed, Regina lets herself be led into the house to be a friend.
David isn't a hero. He's just a guy. He has screwed up more times than he can count, but when he looks at Mary Margaret, he knows he's done the right thing by being with her.
His wife amazed him when he told her he was leaving her. She smiled like she knew it was coming, but he figures that after you've spent years without your significant other, you've got used to being on your own.
David loves watching Mary Margaret, but he loves it best when she's asleep in his arms. It's like her worries vanish, and the tiny lines that wrinkle her brow and the corners of her eyes are all smoothed away. She smiles when she sleeps, as if she's dreaming of something wonderful, and she looks so beautiful that sometimes, he forgets that he needs to sleep himself.
They have only known each other weeks, but sometimes, when he looks at her, he feels they have known each other for years. He doesn't know her mother's name, she doesn't know what his favourite subject was in school, neither of them really cares.
What matters is that when she touches his hand, he knows he can be a hero for her.
It's hard and it's frightening and sometimes, all the contempt directed at them hurts, but he made a promise, and he doesn't want to lose her again. He could break it, walk away, take the easy way out, but this woman, he knows he can and will do anything for.
When she told him about Henry's book, he wanted to laugh.
It was crazy, after all. Fairytales and magic and happy endings never happen in the real world. It's not like anyone in a coma was really woken up by true love's kiss. Okay, yeah, Mary Margaret read to him, which woke him, and then when he almost drowned, she brought him back, but that wasn't quite the same.
And yet, sometimes, when he remembers to sleep, he dreams of a place that could almost be a fairytale.
Mary Margaret is always there too.
He's not sure why he dreams of her in a net or squishing bugs or the time she hit him with a rock, but every time he has a dream like that it's so real that waking comes as a shock. He isn't David in that place. He's James, but sometimes, he dreams that the woman with Mary Margaret's face and a rock in her hand calls him Charming.
It's why he believed her when she told him about the book.
Before she ever told him anything, he was already dreaming of it. Charming and the mystery woman who he promised to find. It wasn't Mary Margaret, not quite. The woman in the dream was tougher, stronger, but there are moments when David can see that shining through in Mary Margaret.
It's like the first time they went out together in public.
She held his hand, and she was trembling from fear, but she walked tall and smiled as if she didn't give a damn what anyone thought, and for a second, he could believe that she was the warrior woman from his dream.
That night was one hell of a ride.
She was predatory and smiling and practically threw him onto the bed. He was too surprised to wonder where the meek kitten that normally crept around her bedroom had gone, and by the time words came back to him, she was making good work of getting rid of them again.
For the first time since they had started their affair, she didn't bother switching the lights off before stripping off her blouse and skirt, and she pinned him right there and then, and he was pretty damn sure he had died and gone to heaven.
That was when the line between the woman in the dream and the woman in the bed beside him started blurring. Suddenly, the woman he loved was becoming as strong and capable as the woman in his dreams, and yet, she was still as gentle and loving as she had always been.
What surprises him is that it isn't just Mary Margaret.
Other people appear in the dreams from time to time. They look like they do every day, but their clothes and voices are different. He couldn't help staring at Ruby one morning, after a really strange dream with wolves and horses.
"What?" she asks, pouring coffee for him. Her mouth turns up at one side. "You want another girl already?"
"No," he says, frowning. "This is probably a weird question, but do you ever wear a red hood?"
"Like a sweater?"
He shakes his head. "More like a cloak."
She snorts, leaning down on the counter. "You like playing dress-up?" He stares at her and she laughs. "No, I don't wear hoods or cloaks. Why?"
He shakes his head again. "I have this clear memory of you in a red cloak with a hood," he says. "It's like I've seen it right in front of me, and it's just… I can't see why I remember it. I don't know if it was maybe a dream or something."
She bites her lower lip, raising her eyebrows. "Dreaming of me, huh?"
He gives her a look. "And Mary Margaret."
Her eyes widen in surprise and she swats him with a cloth. "You sly dog," she says, her eyes dancing. "It's always the quiet ones."
"No, no, no," he says, waving a hand. "Not like that."
Ruby just laughs and strolls away, a swagger in her step.
David takes his coffee and takes refuge in the furthest booth from the counter. Normally, he hides there from the judging stares, but this time, the look on Ruby's face makes him sure it's a good idea to be out of arm's reach.
The election is getting to everyone.
Archie Hopper knows he's the busiest he's ever been, because everyone is trying to find their long-lost nerve when faced with the choice of voting for Regina or Isabelle. Or, as some see it, voting for Gold and his girl over Regina.
People are scared, and he's not really surprised.
So many want to go for the girl, just because of who she is, and not because her boyfriend is the scariest man in Storybrooke. Then there are the ones who want to vote for Regina out of loyalty, but don't want to upset the most terrifying man in Storybrooke by not voting for his sweet and harmless girlfriend. Then there are even more who just want to get the heck out of dodge until it's all over, but are too curious to leave.
Archie wonders how elections run when all the voters aren't terrified of one of the candidates and the other candidate's significant other.
He tries to be diplomatic about the whole thing, but he's been in Storybrooke too long and knows Regina too well. He's got a bias towards someone who is smart and kind, and who doesn't resort to flat-out threats and blackmail the minute there might be something on the horizon that she doesn't like.
That's not to say he thinks Isabelle is weaker.
Far from it.
He remembers the first time she was in his office, trembling like a leaf, and all but clinging on Gold's arm. Now, he sees her in town, talking to anyone who stops her to ask her questions, and smiling like she knows she's worth it. The difference is amazing, and he knows that somehow, Gold is responsible for it, even if the man seems about as caring as a lamp stand to everyone else in town.
There's affection there, even if they are one of the most unexpected couples he's ever come across. She's all warmth and sunshine, while Gold is frost and sharpness, but it works, and when they're together, the love is tangible.
She still comes by, once in a while, even though she obviously doesn't need any more therapy. He has a feeling she just likes to talk to him, because unlike every other person in Storybrooke, he doesn't need to know more about her or ask her questions. He knows where she came from, he knows why she was locked up and above all, he doesn't need to ask about why she's living with a man double her age and half her charm.
"I brought cupcakes," she says, as she pushes the door open. He doesn't know how she knows his schedule, but she always shows up right on time, smiling and sunshine, after he's chased another client away with the promise that no, Regina can't slaughter everyone who doesn't vote for her, not even if she wants to, because genocide is no way to win an election.
"You're a lifesaver," he says, putting the kettle on to make tea.
Isabelle laughs. "Still not letting up?" she asks.
"You'd think she fired lightning bolts from her eyes the way people are acting," he admits, rinsing out two mugs, as she sets out pretty, colourful cupcakes on a plate.
"Why do you think people are so afraid of her?" she asks.
He looks around at her, but she's busy arranging the cakes, and he wonders why she can ask such a question. After all, she was illegally imprisoned, allegedly at Regina's hand, and yet, she never acts like it's something she'll use against the Mayor. It was only raised once, at the council meeting, to confirm that she was sane enough to stand, and when broached on the subject, she would deftly deflect any questions about it.
"Why do you think?" he asks after a moment.
She sits down on the couch and looks over at him with a small, knowing smile. "Are you fishing, Archie?" she asks. "You know what happened to me isn't anything to do with how other people feel about her."
"Some might consider illegal imprisonment everything to do with it," he points out, pouring them both a cup of tea.
She shakes her head. "Everyone was scared of her long before they knew anything about that," she says. "Why?"
He frowns. "Because she's her," he finally says.
She looks at him, lips twitching. "You call that a reason, Doctor?" she says. "Look a little deeper."
He sits down opposite her, and she settles back on the couch, raising her eyebrows challengingly. He's pretty sure she knows something that everyone else is missing, something huge, but he can't put his finger on what it is. "She's a megalomaniac," he says.
Isabelle inclines her head. "A good assessment," she agrees. "What else?"
He studies her thoughtfully. "She's used to having control. She's used to no one questioning her position or her authority." Isabelle is nodding, as if he's a smart pupil and she's his favourite teacher. "She's used to power and wielding it like a rod. If she doesn't get what she wants, she can be ruthless."
"Evil, one might say," she murmurs, then blows on her tea.
Archie's cup stops halfway to his mouth. "Isabelle…"
Blue eyes rise. "Operation Cobra, Archie," she murmurs. "I hear you're in on it."
He lowers the cup. He knows the woman sitting opposite him isn't insane. He's signed papers confirming it. He would stand up in front of a court and testify to it. She can't be saying what he thinks she's saying. "Henry told you?"
Her eyes dance. "I told Henry," she says, her hands wrapped around her mug. "Think about it, Archie. Think about everything he's told you. Think about every story in that book, every person you see in this town."
He stares at her. "Isabelle, what you're saying can't be true."
She sets down her mug. "I want to tell you a story," she says, calmly and quiet, "about a little boy who had some very, very cruel parents."
"I don't understand."
Isabelle French smiles quietly, beautifully. "No, you don't," she agrees. "Not yet. But you will." Her eyes are bright and knowing and he finds himself leaning forward to listen, as she tells him all about the little boy who just wanted to be free.
Anne Lucas is a watcher.
Not that anyone would know it to look at her, little old Granny, working away. She knows she looks the frump. Hell, it's sometimes useful for no one to look too closely at the old lady pouring your coffee. You hear all the stories and all the woes and no one has any idea that she's heard every scandal, every piece of gossip, every rumour and whisper to pass through the doors of the diner.
Not that she tells anyone.
Each person's private affairs are their own business. If those affairs become public, it's another matter, but she's not one to spread the tale if she hears it whispered in her diner. A good innkeeper is like a Priest: take all the secrets and know everything, and never breathe a damn word about it.
Watching before the election was interesting.
She remembers time when no one would have had any doubts about who would be in power by the end of the month. There would have been one box and Regina's name right there beside it. That was then, and she knows times are changing.
Mr Gold's girl is a big part of it, but she isn't the whole.
Anne remembers a day when no one would even think of looking at Regina cross-eyed. It all changed when a girl with a yellow bug, a hell of a lot of spunk and a big damn chainsaw walked into the Mayor's garden and carved up her apple tree. That was when people started to take notice.
All the same, everyone knows Emma isn't Mayor material. If her name was against Regina's, people wouldn't be as jumpy. The difference is Gold. There's no question that Gold's girl is a damn good candidate, but if she didn't have the shadow of Gold lurking in the background, as silent a threat as Regina herself, then there's no way in hell there would even be any real contest. She could be the best candidate in the world and no one would listen.
Gold is the thing that makes people stop short. His presence is what makes them pause to look at the pretty, harmless, sweet little thing offering a flyer. That's when they start to listen to exactly what she's saying, and that's when the game changes.
Anne knows the girl isn't harmless.
No one who could tame the beast could be considered harmless. She might smile and laugh and look like a little angel, but Anne knows there's got to be steel underneath it all. The girl never denied she'd been in an asylum, and it takes someone hard as rock to come out of an experience like that as level-headed as she is.
She came to the diner once, a bunch of flowers in one arm and a book in the other. She smiled and chatted with Ruby, girls being girls, and then sat down to eat a slice of cream cake that looked almost as big as her. Then she sat with her book, but she wasn't reading.
Anne recognised another watcher when she saw one, and Gold's little poppet is one. She was watching and listening, and she saw Anne look at her. Anne had to admit she was surprised when the girl smiled, put her finger to her lips, then went back to pretending to read.
The girl is quiet and smart, and knows that she has to get to know her targets. She's a hunter, and if Gold is anything to go by, she's a damned fine one. This is a girl who doesn't let anyone else decide her fate, and that's what makes the election an open battle. She's not afraid of Regina, and the more she talks, the more people listen, the less afraid they are of the Mayor as well.
It's not an act, either.
Anne is sure of that. She's seen enough people playacting at being sincere that she can see honesty a mile off. Isabelle French is as honest as they come. She doesn't tell lies. She's straightforward. She smiles when she's happy, frowns when she's sad, and she never, ever backs away from what it is she's doing. She's brave and stubborn and determined, and the more she smiles, the more people are drawn to it.
There's power in being terrifying, and that's what Regina has, but there's also power in being brave, and it's much rarer.
Anne's curious about how the election is going to go.
She knows where her vote will lie. Has done since there was a second option. She stopped giving a damn about what Regina or Gold or anyone thought about her a long time ago. It's not out of having guts. It's just the fact she knows that either way she votes, one or the other could make her life hell. So she's going for the one who feels right, the candidate who might actually be able to get things changing. It's just a coincidence that it happens to be the person who might be able to knock her twisted old bastard of a boyfriend into shape and stop him being the town's secret dictator.
Other people aren't so sure.
She's heard them whispering in the diner, glancing over their shoulders like there's a boogeyman waiting to catch them. She's watched enough elections in movies and on TV to know that in a democracy, there shouldn't be this much fear. There should be flags and dumb mottoes and people kissing babies.
Anne's pretty sure Regina has never kissed a baby in her life.
Izzy, on the other hand, has been seen cooing over Ashley's little one. She's been in the kindergarten showing the smallest kids how to make paper flowers and boats and crazy hats with streamers. She's visited the old folks home. She's doing it right. She's doing it quietly and sweetly and knowingly, just like a good watcher should. See what's there and take it and make it work for you.
Anne knows for damn sure that it'll be a close run thing.
What it comes down to is just how scared the people of Storybrooke are.
Or how brave.
That's the one thing a watcher can never really tell. You can't see how brave someone will be until you put them to the test.
Leroy doesn't care for much in the world.
As long as he could hold down a job long enough to get paid and get paid enough to get a bottle, he was pretty much set. He didn't think of Storybrooke as worth a damn, and he sure as hell didn't care that Regina was throwing her weight around.
No one bothered about him, either. It worked for him. He had his trailer, his booze and sometimes, if he was real lucky, there was enough for a steak. It didn't happen often, but when it did, it was a treat.
He got by on his own.
Then she showed up.
He called her Mrs Gold to her face the first time he met her, and the way she lit up made him damn sure never to call her that again. Bad enough knowing Gold was getting some, especially from a pretty girl like that. It was worse to know she was happy about it.
She insisted on taking him for dinner, and talked at him like they had known each other before. He scowled at her and let her to do all the talking. She made the offer, after all, and he wasn't about to let her forget it. He wasn't a gentleman and he sure as hell wasn't paying for dinner for Gold's woman.
Two days later, she was back, bringing him a picnic lunch.
It took less than a fortnight for her to get a smile out of him. How the hell she did it, he didn't know. There was something about her. Something warm and welcoming, like she was ready to be the friend of anyone in the world. He accused her of playing him, doing it all for the campaign, for the damned election, and she rolled her eyes.
Sometimes, she said, you just had to do kind things for the people who needed it most. She kissed him on the cheek and smiled like he was worth a damn.
That stuck with him.
It's not like he's a political activist. Okay, yeah, maybe he put her flyer in the window of his trailer, but it's not like he chased people down the streets to talk to them about her. Okay, maybe he said something about her when he was in the store and the store attendant noticed he wasn't buying booze. Okay, maybe he was at the polls the second they opened to cast his vote, but that's hardly a big deal.
He's still there when Regina comes by. She's all smooth and sophisticated, like she doesn't have a care in the world, but Leroy is watching her. Something's kinda off. He doesn't know what. It's not like her make-up is smudged or her hair is out of place, but something isn't right about her. She feels wrong.
He puts it down to being sober. Seeing her without the haze of alcohol means he can see all the anger and tension in her face. She isn't happy, and it's all because of Izzy French. The Mayor looks right through him when she passes, and that makes him feel happier than ever that he didn't put his mark anywhere near her name.
Izzy comes by a little later in the day. She has nothing on Regina's power-suits, but her plain little dress somehow looks a thousand times better than anything Regina was wearing. She's looking pale and tired, but hopeful, and she's on the arm of her son of a bitch boyfriend.
"Leroy," she says, smiling. "You made it."
He can't help smiling in return. "Thought I'd come and see what the big deal was," he says.
"Belle," Gold murmurs.
She raps his arm. "You go and make your mark," she says. "I have time."
Gold looks at Leroy like he's taking measure of him, but Leroy's been living hard too long to give a crap what Mr Gold thinks of him. The man's lips twitch, and Leroy isn't sure if it's annoyance or amusement. Either way, Gold turns and heads to the polling booth.
"Don't worry about him," she says. "He's just worried about the turn out."
"It hasn't stopped," Leroy said at once. Izzy's eyes narrow suspiciously, her lips turning up in that knowing smile. "I… might have been hanging around to see how it goes."
Izzy's eyes dance. "I knew you cared," she says, swatting his shoulder.
One side of his mouth twitches up. "Maybe I just want to see you get your ass handed to you," he suggests.
"I'm sure," she says, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek again. "It's very sweet of you."
Her boyfriend returns, his cane tapping on the floor. "Dear, you need to do your part."
Izzy rolls her eyes fondly. "You would think I didn't know how an election works," she says, but she hurries off all the same, her skirt swirling around her.
Leroy watches Gold watching her. For a second, the biggest hardass in town looks like any guy with a girlfriend who's out of his league: dazed and pleased. He's almost smiling, and for a second, he looks like he might even be a nice guy. Of course, it can't last.
"I hope you voted the right way," he says, still watching, leaning on his cane.
"I don't see how that's any of your business," Leroy replies.
Gold looks at him. "Anything that happens here tonight is my business," he says. He points a thin finger at Izzy, who has somehow ended up laughing with Granny. "Everything that affects her is my business."
Leroy snorts. "Like she's your property."
Gold's mouth curves up. "Oh no, dearie," he murmurs. "Quite the opposite."
Leroy eyes him. "What'd'you call me?"
Gold looks sidelong at him, then blinks as if he has something in his eye. He lifts one hand to rub at it, then stops. It looks like he's got some real bad skin problems on his hand, and he's staring at it like Leroy is.
"You got the plague?" Leroy says, only halfway to joking.
Gold looks at him, and Leroy really, really wishes he hadn't asked. "No," he says, grinning in a face that looks monstrous. "I've got something much better." He turns and calls Izzy's name, and Leroy backs away.
Something weird is going on, and he's not sure he wants to know what it is.
Emma's nap is disturbed by the sound of a plate shattering.
She left the polling stations just an hour before, and for the first in days, took a chance to grab a few hours sleep. It had been a hell of a time, with people going crazy all over town, as if an election was something new and terrifying.
She's halfway to her bedroom door before she even gets her eyes open, and stumbles all the way to the kitchen. Mary Margaret's standing there, and there's a broken dish at her feet, but she doesn't even seem to notice it. She's pale, trembling, and leaning against the counter as if it's the only thing holding her up in the world.
"Mary Margaret?" Emma runs to her, putting an arm around her in case she's about to faint or something. "You okay?"
Mary Margaret turns her head slowly, as if she can't quite recall how, and stares at Emma as if she's a stranger. Her lips part and she reaches up a shaking hand to touch Emma's face. "I remember," she breathes.
"Remember?" Emma frowns. "Remember what? What happened? Did the plate hit you on the head on the way down?"
Mary Margaret laughs and it's nothing like her usual laugh. It's strong and warm and for some reason, makes Emma tremble right down to her toes. "I remember everything," she says, and throws her arms around Emma. "I remember you."
"Oh… kay…" Emma says, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. "Been living here a few months. Kind of hoped you would."
Mary Margaret pushes her back and looks her full in the face, and something about her isn't Mary Margaret anymore. "No," she says, and smiles, warm and confident. "Henry was right. He was right about everything. And I remember."
Emma blinks at her. "What?"
Mary Margaret smiles even wider. "My silly little girl."
Emma's never speechless. Not ever. Smartmouth. She has one. Except today. "What?"
Mary Margaret touches her cheek. "I'm Snow White," she says, then laughs, and repeats it, relishing the way it sounds. "I'm Snow White. God, it feels good to be me again." She looks down and frowns. "What am I wearing? Emma, do you have pants I could borrow?"
Emma feels like she's slipped into some kind of parallel dimension. "Huh?"
"I'll pick something out," Mary Margaret says. "Stay here. We need to find everyone and see if they remember too." She lifts her hand to her lips. "Red. I need to call Red. She has to remember. And Grumpy." She heads for the stairs, but calls back, "We need as many people on side as possible if Regina's still in power…"
Emma sits slowly down on the nearest surface. It's the floor. Huh. How about that.
Mary Margaret returns a moment later in boots and Emma's pants. She has one of the phones and is talking carefully, "So, Ruby… um… you want to hang out this full moon…" Her face lights up. "I knew it! I knew you had to remember! Bring Granny and get over here! And anyone else you can find. We need as many people here as we can!"
"Mary Margaret?" Emma says. "What the hell is going on?"
Mary Margaret grins like it's Christmas. "I think the curse is breaking," she says. "Now get up here. You know Izzy's phone number. You said she knew about us. I think it's about time we got her in here and find out what she knows."
Emma feels like she's part of a game where she's never seen the board, doesn't know the rules and everyone has just thrown the pack of cards in the air and told her to catch the right one. She taps in the number of Gold's place on the phone and hands it back to Mary Margaret, who is looking alive, bright-eyed.
"Mr Gold?" she says. "You remember what we discussed, when I was expecting?" Her smile turns knowing. "You and Izzy should come over."
Emma takes refuge in a large glass of whisky. She's still nursing it when there's a knock at the door and Mary Margaret runs over. She pulls it open to reveal Ruby, who stares at Mary Margaret as if she's seeing someone she hasn't seen in years.
"Snow!" she squeals, throwing her arms around Mary Margaret.
Emma pinches the bridge of her nose. This is not something to be waking up to after a not-nearly-long-enough nap at the end of a week from hell.
"Inside, girls," Granny says, shooing them into the living room. "There might be unwelcome ears out in the hall." She looks Emma up and down. "So this is what you were hiding under your dress, Snow?"
Mary Margaret laughs, returning to sit by Emma, who really wishes she could keep track of what the hell is going on. "Red, Granny, this is my daughter. I think she might be in a bit of shock."
"Who wouldn't?" Ruby says, striding over and holding out a hand. "Nice to meet you properly, Emma. Last time I saw you, you were a bump."
"Yeah." Emma says blankly, shaking her hand. "Likewise." She looks at her roommate imploringly. "Mary Margaret, seriously…" To her surprise, Mary Margaret leans down and kisses the top of her head, like she's a kid.
"Soon," she promises. "We'll get explanations once Gold gets here."
"Gold? How does he have anything to do with this?"
Mary Margaret just smiles. "You'll know when you see him."
When Gold finally drags his butt in, Emma's half-expecting him to have horns or a tail or something, but instead, he's just wearing a hat pulled low over his head and a trench coat like he's a PI in some lame fifties movie. Izzy is with him, and she looks both pleased and exhausted, as Mary Margaret hustles them into the apartment.
Only when the door is closed does Mr Gold lift his head.
"Holy shit, Gold! What the hell happened to you?"
Reptile-like red eyes gaze at her. "I became myself, dear," he murmurs. His skin is scaled and flickering gold, his teeth sharp spikes of bone instead of human. He bared them, grinning unpleasantly. "Didn't you wonder why everyone saw me as the town monster?"
"Shut up, you. No more of that monster nonsense." Izzy swats him. "Snow, you remember?"
"I do," Mary Margaret says, then she punches Gold so hard on the nose that he pitches back into a chair. Izzy swears in ways Emma didn't think she knew, and helps him up, while Emma looks at Mary Margaret, who is shaking her fist and smiling. "And that, you bastard, is for your part in this damned curse."
Gold fingers his nose gingerly, wincing. "Quite fair, dear, quite fair," he agrees. "But I don't think you called us here just to beat me up." He nodded at Emma, his eyes gleaming weirdly. "As I told you. Her twenty-eighth year."
"I remember," Mary Margaret says.
Emma pressed the cool glass to her forehead. "There's a loop here," she says, "and I'm out of it."
Mary Margaret looks down at her with a smile. "We're taking Regina down."
Emma stares at her. "Oh. Is that all?" she says, getting up. "I'm gonna need a bigger glass."
Kathryn has had a nagging headache all day, but she's been ignoring it to keep Regina company in her home. They met after Regina went to the polling station, and came back to the house. It's taken her nearly an hour to get her friend to stop pacing a hole in the rug and sit down.
The poor woman looks like her world is coming to an end, and no matter how Kathryn tries to comfort her about the election, Regina just sits on the couch and shakes her head. "You don't understand," she says. "This is more than just an election."
Kathryn fetches her another cup of camomile tea and sits beside her. "It's not the end of the world," she says gently, pressing the up into Regina's hand. "There are more important things than who's Mayor."
Regina looks at her, and she's never looked more vulnerable. "I'm scared," she whispers.
"I know," Kathryn says, putting an arm around her. She's been at Regina's side since the election dates were set. Every day, Regina's been working like crazy, trying to fix everything, make it so that there's no reason for anyone to vote against her, but they're not blind or stupid, and they've seen the buttons and bumper stickers for Miss French.
The teacup is shaking in Regina's hands and she puts it down on the table carefully. "What if I lose?" she asks. "What then? Everything I've worked for, everything I've sacrificed. What was the point, if I lose?"
Kathryn clasps her hand. "Then you start over," she says.
"How can I do that?" Regina demands, her voice breaking. "I had nothing before this. Everything that was important to me was gone. This was the only way I could succeed."
Her hands are trembling, and Kathryn tangles their fingers together, trying to steady her and calm her. "Regina, you have plenty," she says. "Being Mayor isn't everything. You have a beautiful home. You have a wonderful son." She smiles, gently, encouragingly. "You have friends."
Dark eyes look at her, that same expression of lost confusion in her eyes, and not for the first time, she wonders if it's possible that Regina really doesn't have any other friends. "What if it's not enough?"
"What would make you happy?" Kathryn asks. "You could go travelling. See the world. Take time out and have some fun with your boy before he's grown. You've been letting your job be your whole life for so long. Why not just have a life for a little while?"
She looks confused, as if it's beyond her. "I don't know," she says. "I thought this place, this life would make me happy."
"Has it?" Kathryn says quietly.
Regina's shakes her head. "I don't know," she whispers. "I thought it did. But my son hates me. My father's dead. Now, all I have left is being taken away."
Kathryn hugs her. Regina freezes up like she's never been hugged before, but Kathryn doesn't let her go. "You'll be fine," she whispers. "You're a strong person, Regina. You can start over and you'll be happy."
"How?" Regina breathes. "How can I be happy? He's gone."
"He? Your father?"
Regina shakes her head, as if she's said too much.
"You lost a loved one?"
Regina stands up abruptly. "I think you should go," she says. She almost sounds like her old self, but Kathryn can see she's still shaking like a leaf. "You know your way out."
"I do," Kathryn says quietly, standing too, "but I'm not leaving you."
Regina whirls around, stares at her, fear in her eyes. "Why?"
"Because you're upset," Kathryn says simply. "You need a friend right now, even if you don't want one."
Suddenly, Regina looks all of sixteen years old, wide-eyed, terrified, as if she's been caught doing something terrible by her mother. Kathryn can't help smiling a little. Their hard-as-nails Mayor isn't as hard as all that. She crosses the floor and hugs her properly, and she's both relieved and surprise when Regina actually hugs her back.
For a moment, it feels like everything might be okay.
Kathryn winces. "Oh," she says, stepping back and putting her hand to her head.
"Kathryn? Are you all right?" Regina takes her arm. "Here. Sit down."
"I feel strange," Kathryn says. The headache is throbbing unbearably, and she feels like the world is spinning around her.
She feels Regina's hand on her hand, and it's real and tangible, but her head feels crowded and there's a rushing in her ears, and she looks at Regina in confusion when the woman says her name.
It's her name, but it's not her name, and this place is real but unreal, and Kathryn feels like she's seeing two pictures trying to blur together.
"Regina?" she says, trying to focus.
"Breathe, Kathryn, just breathe," Regina says. "Clear your head."
Kathryn looks at her. "Why are you calling me that?" she asks.
"Calling you… your name?"
She shakes her head carefully. "My name," she says, "is Abigail."
Regina drops her hand, rising and backing away. "No."
Kathryn - no, Abigail - rubs her brow. "Do you have aspirin? Or something?"
Regina isn't looking at her, doesn't even seem to hear her. She's run to the window and is looking out into the street. She's pale as a sheet and she looks like she's about to be sick. "This isn't happening," she says, running to the mirror and touching the glass. "Sidney? Sidney, are you there?"
"Regina?" Abigail tries to get up, but her legs are shaking. There's something wrong here, and she doesn't know what it is. The world doesn't feel right. "What's going on?"
Someone is pounding on the front door. Regina curses, running to her desk. Abigail's head spins, and she leans heavily against the couch. It feels like everything is crowding in around her, and she takes a moment to realise that Regina has a gun, and that the gun is pressing to her head.
"Regina!" Voices are at the front door.
Abigail stumbles against her. "What are you doing?" she asks, too dazed to be afraid. Too proud to be afraid. She's a Princess. She's the daughter of Midas. A Princess doesn't show fear, especially not of a little popgun.
"I'm sorry," Regina whispers. She's shaking so hard that the gun trembles. "I don't have power here. I need a shield."
She's forced into the hall, just as the front doors burst open.
People are there, people she knows and recognises, even if she doesn't understand why.
"Regina!" The Sheriff has her gun out too, and her hands are steady. "Let her go."
Regina shakes her head. "I'm walking out of here, Miss Swan. I'm taking Abigail with me."
Abigail's mind is whirling. Regina sounds like she always knew that was her name, even when she called her Kathryn, but she knows that even if Regina has lied, there was no way she was pretending when they talked. Regina's unhappy and broken, and now, Abigail understands why she said her world was falling. She puts her hand up to touch Regina's arm, and Regina flinches as if burnt.
"You bitch," Snow White snarls. "You can never let the innocent alone, can you?"
"What do you know of it?" Regina whispers. She sounds desperate, terrified. "You're the one who started all this."
"I was a child!" Snow White exclaims, starting forward, but Mr Gold - is that really him? - catches her arm and pulls her back.
"Easy, dear," he says, his eyes fixed on the woman behind Abigail. "This is a delicate matter."
"Delicate?" Snow White said, her face tight with fury. "She cursed us all."
"And she has a hostage," the Sheriff murmurs. She's looking at Abigail, as Regina pulls her closer. "You okay, Kathryn?"
Abigail nods. Mr Gold is right. This is delicate. They have no idea what they might be breaking, but she does. Whatever the hell is happening, Regina is her friend. Regina is scared and she's hurt, and as much as Abigail hates having a gun in her face, she knows Regina will never ever use it to hurt her.
"You should wait outside," she says quietly. "I want to talk to Regina."
"Screw that," the Sheriff says succinctly. "She's holding you hostage. I don't leave people when they're in danger."
Abigail appreciates well-placed authority, in the right time and the right place. This isn't one of them. She straightens her back, holds Regina's arm exactly where it is and stares the Sheriff down. She's a daughter of Kings, Royal born and bred, and she's not intimidated by a little girl and her shiny badge.
"No offence, Sheriff," she says, "but I think I'm in more danger from you than from Regina. I know where her loyalties lie."
"Did she mention that she murdered her father, dear?" Mr Gold says, smiling slightly. "All so she could cast a spell on us all."
"Shut up, Rumpelstiltskin," Regina cries out. It's almost a sob.
"Truth hurts, doesn't it?" He takes a step closer. "Her loyalties lie with herself and no one else, Princess. Don't imagine that what happened in Storybrooke will change that."
Abigail's lips press together in a thin line. It might be true. It could be lies. Right now, all she knows is that Regina is upset and she sounds like she's breaking apart, and friends don't betray friends, not for past mistakes.
"Sheriff Swan," she says. "Get the hell out of here and take your army with you. I will deal with this."
For a moment, the Sheriff looks like she might believe her.
Regina's boy, the child Henry, is standing halfway down the stairs. He looks confused, and there's fear there. It's the guns, Abigail knows. No child ever should be caught up in a fight, not like this one.
Regina's moving, dragging Abigail with her.
"Don't you dare," the Sheriff snarls, moving forward. "Henry, get upstairs, now."
"No!" Regina points her weapon at him, her arm around Abigail's neck. "Henry. Come here. Now."
He stands there, staring, scared. "Mom, what are you doing to Mrs Nolan?"
"It's all right, Henry," Abigail says quietly, calmly. "Your mom's just a little upset." He's the key. He's the thing Regina loves most in the world, the only thing. He was named for her father, after all, and she loved her father. She holds up her hands, palms empty. "Can you come down here, please?"
"Henry, don't," Emma says.
Henry looks between the woman who gave birth to him and the woman who is his mother.
He's scared. Abigail can see it, but he's brave too. A hell of a lot braver than any other child would be in the same situation. He comes down the stairs quietly. He's in his pyjamas and his feet are bare. He looks at the Sheriff and Snow White, both of whom are beckoning him, then looks at Regina.
Abigail can feel Regina shaking. If she loses the boy, she loses what little she has left. One friend isn't enough to take on the world. One friend and the son she loves might just do it.
Henry walks towards them, towards Regina, even though the Sheriff and Snow and Gold all look like they want to drag him back. "Mom, please," he says. "Don't hurt Mrs Nolan."
"Henry, do as you're told for once in your life." Regina is sobbing, but he keeps coming towards her, all young and innocent and wide-eyed. He must have been asleep, because his hair is sticking in all directions. "Henry, please."
"Mom," he says, and he's calm even though the shaking gun is still pointed right at him.
Abigail holds out a hand to him. She tries to smile, but it's getting harder, because Regina is holding her tight. Not out of force, but out of fear. Her head is feeling light, and she knows that she'll probably pass out in a moment.
He takes her hand, then steps right up to Regina's side, and looks up at her. "Mom, please. Let Mrs Nolan go. She's going a funny colour."
"I can't," Regina whispers. "I can't. If I let go, everything falls."
He walks a little bit closer, and if she fires the gun, Abigail knows the boy will be dead before he hit's the floor.
"No it doesn't," he says. "You're still my mom."
"The Evil Queen," Regina cries. "That's your mother. The Sheriff. Snow White's brat."
Henry looks from her to the Sheriff, then back. "She is," he says, "but you are too."
The boy is so brave that Abigail makes a vague note to have him covered in gold by her father. He pushes Regina's hand to one side, the hand with the gun, and steps right up to her, squeezing his arms between Abigail and Regina and hugging his adopted mother.
Abigail can breathe again, and she hears the thump of the gun hitting the floor.
"On your knees!" The Sheriff is moving forward.
"Wait," Henry whispers, as Regina folds down onto the floor. He's still holding her, and she's sobbing and broken and Abigail knows that Regina has always been this way, but closing it away inside. She kneels too, to hug her friend. Maybe she was the Evil Queen, but that doesn't make her any less Abigail's friend, and any less in need of comfort.
The Sheriff lowers her gun. She looks dazed, confused, and she's not the only one.
"What happens now?" she asks, looking at Gold.
He's looking down at Regina with something like pity in his eyes. "Who knows?"
The rain is falling on Storybrooke, washing away the illusions.
Kingdoms are unfolding a little at a time as Storybrooke collapses around them. Memories are returning. Sometimes, people remember instantly, in others, it's more gentle, a recollection or déjà vu suddenly becoming real.
Rumpelstiltskin is perching on the railing of his porch, gazing out over the town. The house will change soon enough. The wooden frontage was already shifting, changing to the stone of his Dark Castle. It was like watching a time-lapsed film of a world being created, with a new piece appearing with every blink of the eye.
"Satisfied?" Belle murmurs, emerging from the house.
"She still lives," he replies, shifting on his toes. "Snow's girl is too kind-hearted, despite everything the witch did."
She sits down beside him on the railing. "You knew she would be," she says. "She's like her mother. You know you can't kill something evil without it affecting you. Sometimes, kindness is the only way to break through."
"Hmm." He's doubtful, but he knows Emma Swan is about as stubborn as both her parents combined. He wonders if Snow and James have been pried apart yet. Last time he looked, he was pretty sure Emma was ready to throw a bucket of cold water over the pair of them.
Belle touches his arm, bringing him back to reality. "I'll miss this world," she says, looking at him with sadness.
"It wasn't kind to you," he murmurs, gazing at her.
She nods. "I know," she says quietly, "but at least I could kiss you here." She reaches out to stroke his cheek. "I won't, now that everything is back to normal," Her voice breaks, just a little, "but I'll miss kissing you."
She rises before he can speak, turns her face away, and he knows she's crying.
He touches his cheek, still warm from the brush of her fingers. She did this. She helped him. She and Emma and Henry, and all in ways that no one saw coming. She knew that if it worked, he would return to what he was, and that things would be as they were, and she still did it, and that's why he loves her more than anything. More than power. More than magic.
She's almost at the door when he catches her arm, and pulls her back into his arms, and without thought or hesitation, kisses her like it's the end of the world.
And in a way, it is.