A/N: This is word vomit and I apologize. I haven't written in a while. My muse seems to have left me for another. :(

Six Strings Attached

Life is easy where there are no strings attached; easy and tedious. Life without strings is merely a continuous run from one checkpoint to another. A puppet without strings is free, yet in need of guidance like no other puppet.

Emma Swan is different; Emma Swan has never had any strings, nor has she ever had a master, nor does she ever have need of one. Tall and uncertain she goes, stumbling about by herself like a creature born of magic, and when the strings begin attach themselves to her, Emma doesn't gratefully accept them, but fights them with all her might because they feel like thorns around her throat. All of this is futile. Henry captured her first; an innocent introduction into the terror that was to come. It wasn't his fault, she kept convincing herself in the heat of battle. Mary Margaret came second, snatching her up from the ground when there was nowhere else to go on the puppet stage. That made for two. No big deal. Emma Swan can handle two strings for a short period of time, she recalls thinking as her sword clashes with reflective obsidian armor - she can see herself recuperate before she actually does through its eyes - leaving naught but a dim scratch on its surface.

Ruby - Red - was the third to hold her down. Not intentionally, that is for sure. In fact, in a strange way, with Ruby, Emma felt like she was the one to reach out and voluntarily let herself fall deeper into this trap. Ruby was a puppet whose strings had been cut off, lost and unbalanced. She needed this, Emma thinks as the black knight before her shatters to a billion sharp shards, only for them to regroup and for the creature of darkness to rise up again. Just how much death can survive a little bit of life?

Fourth, her father, slash. Fifth, her enemy, parry. Sixth…


"That's enough playing for now, dearies. Shoo, shoo!"

It's him; Rumpelstiltskin. He must have been watching her the whole time she was trying to cut her way through him and his sorry ass. Grumbling under her breath, Emma watches the black frost giants retreat, forming a circle around her and her enemy. "Tsk, tsk, tsk, Miss Swan. Has it really come to this?" he chirps, twirling around her like he's the freaking swan queen, and Emma is reminded of why she's always hated ballet.

"You should ask yourself that," she spits in return, her breath coming heavy and worn after the exhausting fight.

He sighs in disapproval. Them Charmings, so, so obstinate, all of the family tree, unable to look at themselves in the mirror properly even as they're crushing it to pieces. "You are a capable warrior faulted by misdirection, Miss Swan. I'd rather not have to lose you, so let me ask you one simple question: Whom are you fighting for?" Spotting a little twinkle of indecision in her eye, he decides that is what he's placing his bets on. "No need to hurry, my dear. My minions will be more than happy to tear you to shreds soon enough."

The fifth string tugs at her conscience. "You'll have to try much harder than that to pull me over to your side. Try seventy two virgins or a free ticket to Foo Fighters, I hear that works," she scoffs. "I fight for my family, you sick bastard."

"Do you, now?" Rumpelstiltskin lets out his signature high-pitched imp laugh and Emma feels like choking a sparrow for a second. "You didn't fight when your family really needed you, when you refused to believe in the curse. You didn't fight for your boy when he confided in you."

Emma grinds her teeth.

"No, your motives are much more instinct-based than that. You fight for your, so they say, one twoo wuv."

She envisions herself cutting his head off and putting it on a stake for all to see.

"The problem here is, you never even stop and think about why. Why Regina, of all people?"

The sixth string. That one sneaked its merry way into her heart like the best of assassins. It began as nothing more than daily/weekly sessions of unfriendly banter to drive off the unresolved sexual tension - a thin thread. Somehow it evolved into mind-blowing sex. That helped, yeah, a straw was born, lying inconspicuously around her ankles and leaving her foolishly thinking there was nothing to worry about. Until the day the curse broke, the day Henry died and was revived, the day magic returned, the day Emma wished she'd let Regina die in that fire, the day Regina ran for her life, and the day Emma followed instead of doing what she was told. The day Emma found her clutching a pillow in Henry's room. The day Emma foresaw Rumpelstiltskin's plan, stepped in front of her and screamed stop.

"I love her," Emma mumbles. She can feel her resolve weakening in sync with the arm holding her sword unsheathed.

"And that's where you're mistaken, dearie. You do know she separated you from your parents, yes?"

"Yes," Emma narrows her eyes. What game is this imp playing?

"You do know she caused the loneliness that has been your only companion your entire life, yes?"

"I do," Emma replies, louder now. "But she's here for me now."

"You do realize she murdered a friend of yours?"

"Yes!" the blonde yells, rage welling up inside her along with long forgotten memories of Graham and graveyards and vaults and wolves. She hasn't forgiven Regina because it is not her place to do so. It's Graham's. He'll deal with her when the time comes and she's prepared to beg him to spare Regina. Why?

Because Regina saw no other way, Emma remembers. Regina was broken. By fixing her, Emma can fix everything she's done, and she will; she has started months ago. That is her mission, isn't it?

"Interesting… You remember all of this, yet you seem to overlook the fact that she's been deceiving you. That doesn't suit a woman of your standing, Miss Swan."

"Somehow I find it hard to believe you."

The obsidian knights laugh at her ignorance; a sheer metallic sound like chalk on a board, and Emma has to cover her ears as it digs into her brain. The sword falls from her trembling hands and lands in the wastelandish dirt.

"She didn't tell you how much she loved the genie of Agrabah, did she? And love him dearly she did, for as long as he was of any use to her," the imp chuckles. "But when he lost his value, so to speak, Regina pushed him away faster than you could say… please."

He's trying to make her turn against Regina, that much is clear. Does he really think more stories of the queen's bloodstained past will make her change her mind? Emma fights for Regina as long as the sky is blue. Or black. Or sometimes red. As long as the sky exists, there. "Cut the crap," Emma grumbles and wipes a string (touché) of blood off her chin.

"How many times has she told you she loved you?"

The sixth string tugs at the very blood pumping in her heart. She had taken her to her bed. She had kissed her, run a thumb over Emma's cheek, she had pleaded for her not to defend what was left of Regina's fragmented honor, only making her fight that much harder. She had taught her magic. She had taught her day and night… but not once in those two years since the day they met had Regina said the three most powerful words in the world.

The hole in Emma's heart that was supposed to be filled with them by now suddenly grows wider and maggots creep in to feast on the rotten flesh. The sixth string hardens, coiling around her limbs. It controls her and keeps her frozen in place like a puppet whose act has been written off the script.

Rumpelstiltskin gives her a knowing, cheeky grin. "She isn't capable of such advanced emotions. But don't be so hard on yourself, dear; you're not the first one to have fallen for her tricks."

The sixth string was the one Regina used, the one she couldn't run from. Could it be true? Could Regina have faked affection just to get herself back to power? Maybe she even planned for Emma to go out and fight - and die - die so that the queen could reign for evermore, the way it was supposed to be.

Emma shakes her head; this isn't possible. It's Rumpelstiltskin she's dealing with. He's lying. He's a scheming bastard. He's…

The morning Emma left the castle for this crusade, Regina didn't come to say goodbye.

He's right.

Tears sting like fiery boulders in her eyes and she lets out a gasp of surprise. In contrast with the searing pain, a new kind of cold seeps through her gut; frostbite so powerful it seems to be turning her to ice. Her mouth opens, but no voice comes out; her lips shake on their own accord, her eyes staring far, far away into the colorless sky. She can't feel the blade in her back. But she's cold, arched backwards so that if it weren't for the pointy end sticking out of her chest, a child might hope she's merely leaning on something for support. But she's so cold. Even the tears turn to ice and freeze on her pale cheeks. Even the crimson liquid running down her legs feels like the northern waters. The sixth string has become an invisible chain locking her in a lifelike statue of herself, freezing to touch.

And he smiles at her trembling body, knowing way before she did that six strings were one string too many.

The White Knight remains forever frozen in the middle of the battlefield along with the obsidian giant who struck her down. As a reminder or a warning; perhaps simply a painful reminiscence, what with the sword piercing her heart. She never knows the reason Regina had never told her the three words that could have saved her life. She doesn't know what a simple 'please' or two had done. She dies, so cold, harboring a frozen desert in her damaged soul, without ever finding out how many tears Regina cried the day she left for the sixth crusade with a sixth string attached to her heart.

Six hundred sixty six was one tear too little, it seems.