A month passed quickly. Emma and Regina returned to their stronghold, Henry in tow. The distance offered privacy, after a fashion, even though Snow and Charming insisted on making the journey through the Enchanted Forest several times to see their daughter and grandson. It was an uneasy truce that Regina had drawn with them, steeped in promises that both parties intended to keep, but that were made difficult by the stark reality of following them through.
Snow had never learned to be a mother in the way that Regina had. She'd never watched her baby grow into a child, teaching her to walk, to talk, to read the stories that Snow herself had loved as a girl. Emma was still awkward around her, caught in a contradiction where her friend had transformed into something other, something unfamiliar, something Emma had never had for herself. Every minute they shared together was filled with newness, shaded with the familiar. It confused them both and yet, between the two women, there was love, a love unlike anything Emma had ever known. It terrified her with its strength, with how seductive it was.
And that was why Emma shied away from it. Because love, like magic, presented terrifying powers that were new and uncharted. The love of a mother for her child was stronger and more enduring than anything else, and if anyone understood the pull of it, the surprising way that it pricked at her conscience and her heart, then Emma did. Because Henry had wormed his way into her affections and her mind, no matter how much she'd tried to resist, no matter how many years of his life had passed before he'd found her.
Solitude was no longer an option.
There was something rather comforting about it, even in its unfamiliarity.
Henry, Charming and Emma had left the palace to go riding. Snow watched them leave, hand clasped to her breast, resisting the urge to cry. They were so alike, all three of them. The father Emma had never known bent in his saddle to murmur something in his daughter's ear and she burst into raucous laughter as he clapped her on the back. Twisting around on the docile pony selected for him, Henry had grinned widely at his mother and grandfather, not understanding the source of their mirth, but joining in anyway.
"They seem like quite the family, don't they?"
A voice at Snow's shoulder made her turn to see Regina looking curiously at her, a faint smile playing around the other woman's mouth. Regina's gaze flickered briefly to the long road leading from the castle, where three horses were plodding along companionably, heading for the Enchanted Forest.
"Charming, in fact," Regina said, turning back to Snow. For a moment, scorn colored her gaze, sharpening her features and causing a moue of displeasure to tighten Snow's mouth.
"Is that supposed to be funny?" she barked, gathering her skirts and sweeping from the castle entrance, making her way around the walls towards the garden.
Following her, Regina allowed a sad smile to work its way over her mouth. She caught up with Snow at the top of the steps leading down towards the balcony where trees were kept in check, placed carefully inside enclosures of stone. Since returning here and since she'd been effectively kept prisoner inside her own home, Regina had tended to the plants and flowers that seemed relatively unharmed by the curse. She cast a cursory glance at the empty patch of dirt where her apple tree had once stood and instead followed Snow to a stone bench, watching as the young woman sat down on it, hands joined together neatly on her lap.
"The High Council were impressed with what they heard about you," Snow said quietly, casting a look upwards to where Regina stood. "Surprised," she added, "but impressed."
"What they heard about me? And what would that be, dear?" Regina stood with back erect, uncomfortable with the almost gentle tone of Snow's voice.
"How you were the only one who could stop Emma," Snow said, a frown crinkling her brow as she remembered how her daughter had pushed everyone away, even her.
But not Regina. And as she gazed up at the woman, Snow noticed the dark look that crossed Regina's features, how it fluttered worry through her eyes and how she turned away, looking out across the steep valley that fell away from the castle walls.
"Her magic is unpredictable," Regina said quietly, her voice almost snatched away by the breeze that fled around them. "She struggles to control it."
She turned, tugging on the leather vest that sat snugly around her form. Abandoning her garish outfits had been borne out of a desire to leave behind all they represented. It was a rather more sober wardrobe that Regina adopted now, reminiscent of the girl she'd once been, not the woman she'd made herself into. She felt Snow's eyes on her, caught in the gaze of the girl she'd sought to destroy in the same way she herself had been destroyed: carving out lines of pain in her heart, slice by excruciating slice.
"Was it like that for you?" Snow asked, her head tilting onto one side.
Regina shrugged a little, taking a step closer to where Snow sat on the stone bench.
"I spent most of my life seeking control," she admitted. "For me, magic was a way of finally gaining it. I was taught to take power, not give it."
"Rumpelstiltskin," Snow said grimly. Regina nodded curtly and took a huge breath, letting it out in a long sigh.
"But he couldn't have brought out what wasn't already there," she asserted, arms creeping around her torso and clutching tightly. "I was always told that evil isn't born, it's made. But I have to wonder if Rumpelstiltskin didn't just see it in me all along."
"Regina…" Snow breathed, but was unable to say anything that might provide comfort. She was beset with memories that had always taunted her; now even more so with Regina's changed garb. It reminded her too much of what had been, of the woman – no more than a girl – who had saved her life and lavished upon her instantaneous love and affection. Her heart ached suddenly, painfully in her chest and she pressed her lips together, silent.
"I was always marked, you know," Regina said. Snow's gaze darted to her face and she nodded, shoulders hitching. "My mother…she made a deal with him. I was always destined for greatness." Her voice dripped with sarcasm; her tone hard-edged and bitter.
"Just as you were, dear," Regina continued, as Snow shifted under her eyes, glittering like diamonds and just as hard. "How fortuitous it was that you came along, that I saved your life, that your father wanted to marry me and elevate me to the position of queen."
There was nothing hidden, not any more. Her voice was thick with pain, lips twisting as though the words were sour on her tongue, the memory roiling in her stomach like nausea.
"Regina, are you saying that all of this was meant to happen?" Snow gaped at the other woman, eyes wide with an innocence that reminded Regina all too much of the child that she'd once been. But naivete was no excuse; it never had been. And as she turned on Snow, Regina's lip curled.
"My mother would have done anything to ensure that I became queen," she hissed. "And she did."
Snow remembered the stable boy in whose arms she'd seen Regina that fateful night; the man to whom Regina would have given anything, the man whose love had created a truer magic than any the Evil Queen had wielded.
In the moment that words were on her tongue – words of apology, words of denial, words of excuse and youthful ignorance, Snow stopped them. Because until she had fallen in love with Charming, she'd never really understood what Regina had told her that night. A part of her had never really believed it. And in the years that followed, Snow hadn't been completely blind to the way that their world worked – a world in which women were handed over as prizes to whatever prince fought hard enough, wooed richly enough; whatever kingdom and realm sought to make allies and enter into binding contracts. Childhood notions of true love had paled in light of the very real political deals that were struck between fathers who perhaps didn't love their daughters as much as hers had.
And then there was Regina, whose parents hadn't really loved her at all. At least, not in any way that Snow could comprehend. Cora had traded her child for powers, for a kingdom, for the material comforts that could never quite replace love. Especially not the love that had been ripped from Regina in such a heartless, devastating way.
As she looked up at Regina, Snow suddenly realized all that had been lost; all that Regina had attempted to reclaim in darkest magic and curses created from a lifetime of suffering. But more than that, Snow felt foolish, ashamed. Because even if Regina had fallen towards darkness with an empty heart and a burning lust for vengeance, Snow knew that she had helped to push her.
"Gods, Regina," she murmured, shoulders sagging. "What happened to us?"
It was a paltry question. One that didn't really need an answer. One that Snow knew she'd asked herself, many times in many different ways throughout her isolation spent in the Enchanted Forest.
But as their eyes met, Snow gasped, one hand flying up to cover her mouth. For the first time in what felt like forever, she recognized Regina. She saw traces of the young woman she had adored so much, thought of as a friend, a confidante, a mother. And as Regina visibly struggled to hide it, Snow thought she saw something that she'd sadly suspected was a lie.
"Did you…" Snow began, swallowing over the rising trepidation in her throat. "Regina, did you ever love me? At all?"
"Love you?" Regina's head jerked back on her neck and she stared down at Snow with wide, appalled eyes.
"I loved you," Snow said hastily, effectively silencing the other woman. She saw the dubious gleam in Regina's eyes, the flaring of nostrils that indicated disbelief and she leaned forwards eagerly on the bench.
"I did, Regina. You were so brave and kind and…and you were my friend!" Snow's voice rose in entreaty, but she felt, rather than saw, the hardening of the woman before her.
"Yes, dear, I was," Regina spat. "And look where that got me. Love is weakness, Snow. I was never more vulnerable than when I cared about you; when I spared your feelings at the expense of my own."
"And you punished me for it, didn't you?" Snow's voice was low now, grated with the understanding of a child's misplaced devotion and loyalty. "Of all the people in my life, Regina, you were the one whose love I needed the most."
"Need?" Regina echoed, a mirthless laugh trickling from her lips. "Tell me, Snow, what did you ever need that wasn't given to you by your slavish, adoring prince and your friends?"
"I…" Snow faltered, blinking rapidly. "I needed you, Regina. I needed a mother."
"No," Regina shook her head emphatically, arms uncurling from around her torso and stretching wide into the air. "You wanted a mother, Snow. And you did whatever you had to in order to get one."
"Wait – is that what you…you think I told your mother about Daniel on purpose?" Snow was aghast, recoiling from the suggestion as much as from Regina, advancing upon her. "No, Regina! That's not true! Your mother – she tricked me into – "
"She tricked us both, Snow," Regina cut in, her voice ragged. "But while you got exactly what you wanted, I lost everything."
"I was a child, Regina!" Snow got to her feet, refusing to let this woman intimidate her even as she trembled underneath Regina's gaze. "How could I possibly know what you'd been through, what had happened to you?"
"You couldn't." Regina's voice was cold. "And you never did. You still don't."
Snow's face crumpled into painful acceptance, because for all the times she'd indulged in righteous confusion as to just why Regina had chosen to victimize her, she'd never really stopped to try and understand why. A blush of contrition rose on her cheeks and she shifted, uncomfortable with the stark truth of the other woman's words.
"I just wanted us to be a family," she said dolefully. "I never wanted to hurt you."
Regina let out a breath of mirthless laughter, lifting her face to the cool air coming from the valley and up over the castle walls.
"I wanted that too," she said slowly. "And, for a time, I even thought I might have a family of my own. But that was taken away from me, just like everything else."
Snow recalled a dark night in the depths of winter, when she'd refused to leave Regina's bedchamber, when pristine linen sheets had been stained almost black with blood. The nursemaid had tried to shoo her away, but Snow had stayed, sickened by the limp, discolored body that was wrapped in a cloth and taken away; heartbroken by the way Regina thrashed and screamed, reaching blindly for a baby who would never suckle at her breast, never stretch out its tiny hands for her in need.
She'd never really acknowledged how it must have felt for Regina to lose a child; never really felt the yawning chasm that it left, aching more and more as years passed by, compounding every single bad thing that Regina had ever been told about what she didn't deserve.
Not until now, as Snow gulped over the sudden, jagged shards of emotion in her chest. Because at least she'd found Emma again; at least she'd been given a second chance. Snow couldn't help thinking that perhaps Henry was Regina's. And in all the ways that she was prepared to fight for Emma, all the ways in which she would strive to gain her daughter's love and never let it go again, Snow knew that Regina would do – and had done – even more for Henry's.
Getting to her feet, Snow grasped Regina's arm in hasty fingers. "Why didn't you just kill me back then? Why did you let me grow up thinking that you cared for me?"
Regina leaned in, her face inches from Snow's; so close that she could feel the quickened breath of the girl on her cheek.
"Because I wanted you to suffer, just as I did. I wanted you to know how it felt to have nobody, nothing, no hope." Regina's lips pressed together and she averted her gaze. "No love."
"That's why you took my father from me," Snow whispered, realization dawning. "It's why you turned me out of my home, made me run, sent the Huntsman to kill me."
"And still you survived it," Regina said bitterly. "You found your true love; your happy ending; a loyal group of friends. How could you possibly even begin to understand what it was like for me? I was always alone, Snow. There were no fairies to cast their magic on my behalf; no handsome prince to draw his sword for my honor."
"So you turned to magic to get what you wanted."
"I did what I had to do," Regina stated blankly, snatching her arm from Snow's grasp and turning towards the wall of the balcony, gazing out across the valley. "I did the only thing I could do."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Letting out a dry laugh, Regina shook her head. "Like you said, Snow; you were a child. A child who had everything. A child who was always there to witness my humiliation. And perhaps you were used by my mother, as I was, but you were there, always so greedy for my love and affection."
Regina's lip curled a little at the memory of it, but as she turned back to face Snow, it was the unexpected sadness in her eyes that truly betrayed her.
"I couldn't punish anyone else. Don't you see that? But I could punish you. So I waited until you were old enough to feel the loss of everything you'd ever known. Like I had. Until I could be the traitor to your love, as you were to mine."
Her gaze roamed over Snow's features, the rapt attention on the other woman's face, horrified comprehension dawning over her face.
"Tell me, dear, when you were in the forest with nobody to come to your aid, being hunted down like an animal; how did you feel?"
Snow blinked, catching her breath. "Scared. Alone. Like hope was gone."
A tiny nod inclined Regina's head. "Imagine feeling that way for your entire life, Snow. Imagine having your true love taken from you; the only hope you ever had for happiness shattered into pieces so small and insignificant that you'll never be able to piece them back together."
Her voice broke and she pressed her lips together, trying to stem the surge of hurt that rose in her chest, unwilling to let Snow see further vulnerabilities, more weaknesses.
"But you did," Snow said quietly. "Regina, you did put them back together. With Henry. With – with Emma."
"Oh yes." Regina tossed her head, eyeing Snow with something like scorn. "At the hands of your benevolence."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You took my true love away from me once, Snow," Regina said through gritted teeth. "And now you have the power to do it again. When I've taught Emma how to use her magic; when I've fulfilled my purpose, you'll have no more use for me and you can finally end the game. You can win. Isn't that the law of this land? That good will vanquish evil?"
Snow's eyes flew open and she stared at Regina, appalled. All her life, she'd seen herself as the innocent victim of Regina's impossible rage and desire for vengeance. And, gathering the forces of good around herself: people who were willing to sacrifice themselves for her, fight for her, even die for her, Snow had never once stopped to think about the reasons why Regina hated her so much. In the world they had inhabited here in Fairy Tale Land, those reasons had become irrelevant, lost in the battle between good and evil. All that mattered had been that good would win. That evil would lose.
Those stark opposites seemed a long way away from what had come afterwards, shrouded in the mire of a dark curse and a life less lived than endured.
Looking at Regina now, Snow was conflicted, tormented by the years behind them and fearful of the years ahead. But her own feelings paled in comparison to the careworn expression she saw on Regina's features, the way that the other woman's eyes refused to meet her own, the sorrow that hung heavy on shoulders she'd seen thrown back in proud, arrogant rage.
It was difficult not to feel guilt, regret, and a hundred other emotions that welled like tears in her throat, threatening to overwhelm her. Because Regina had love now; she had the comfort that had been absent in her life for so long. And who was Snow to take that away from her again?
"Regina, I'm – " Snow moved forwards, trying not to notice how Regina flinched away from her. "I'm sorry," she said. And this time, she meant it. With everything she had in her.
"I'm so sorry," Snow repeated, reaching out, fingers closing over Regina's arm.
"When I was in the forest," she said, as Regina shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, "I learned to be brave and strong, self-sufficient. By the time I met Charming, I didn't need anyone else's help – certainly not his."
Regina lifted her chin, eyes glittering as Snow let go of her arm and clasped her hands together, fingers worrying at each other.
"I don't know that he and I would have fallen in love if I'd been the princess I was." She let out a tiny, self-conscious laugh and shook her head. "I probably would have perished if I hadn't found the strength to fight for what I wanted."
Regina let out a sigh and frowned. "But you didn't, Snow. You ended up with all the help you needed or wanted, no matter what I – "
"No, Regina, listen." Snow shook her head, cutting the other woman off. "Even though I didn't understand why you wanted to hurt me; even though I wanted to hate you so much, it was you all along who'd taught me that."
"Taught you? Taught you what, dear?"
"How to be strong. How to be brave." Snow wasn't sure that she'd ever really realized it until now, until this moment where there was no need to hide anymore – not for herself, and certainly not for Regina.
"I worshipped you," Snow whispered, throat thickening again with the love she'd felt for Regina as a child. "You saved my life because you were brave, Regina. And I think – I think I always knew that your mother didn't love you the way she should have done. But you were so strong, so unbreakable. Everything I became when I ran from the palace…it was because of you. Because of who you were."
A wind from the distant mountains whistled its way through the valley below and up over the parapet of the castle, snatching at tendrils of their hair. Regina shivered as she looked at Snow, seeing for a brief moment the child that she'd loved, no matter how hard she'd tried not to, no matter how much she'd wanted to make Snow the origin of all the sadness and pain in her life.
It still hurt; a half-forgotten wound that throbbed under a scar she wore like armor. But Regina couldn't help wondering if she didn't need that protection anymore. If, by returning to the place where it all began, it was time to rip away the shields she'd fashioned to defend herself against harm. Time to heal.
"I know you haven't had much hope in your life," Snow continued, Regina silent and contemplative before her. "But I saw you when Emma left, back in Storybrooke. I know how much you love her. And I still know that. I still see it. I have no right to take that away from you. Nobody does."
A dismissive, bitter smile curved Regina's mouth, her eyes dark and mistrustful.
"Try telling your High Council that, dear," she said in a low tone.
"Maybe I won't have to," Snow said equivocally. "Maybe you'll prove it to them yourself. You proved it to Emma. And…and I think maybe you'll prove it to me, too."
Now Regina looked startled, shaking her head wordlessly and clutching at her torso. Her greatest enemy; perhaps her greatest ally. It defied all logic. It certainly defied all the broken emotions of their past.
Nodding a little, Snow drew in a breath, held it for a minute and then let it out slowly. She gathered her skirts around her and walked past Regina, towards the steps leading back up towards the palace. It was only when she reached their foot that she heard her name called in a tremulous, hesitant voice.
Turning, she saw Regina staring after her, a frown burrowing between the other woman's eyes.
"I did," Regina said, lines appearing around her eyes with the sheer effort of admission. Her arms tightened around her body, nails digging into the leather of her vest.
Snow shook her head a little, confused, mouth parting in enquiry as Regina clenched her teeth together, unable to bite back any more truths.
Finally, she gazed into eyes that had looked upon her as a mother, once upon a time, and let herself confess.
"I did love you, Snow."
Emma leaned forwards in the saddle, wishing that she hadn't approached the prospect of riding with such gusto. Despite it being the quickest way from one location to another, she'd been rather spoiled with the carriages that her parents had sent for her and had only spent time on horseback when she'd explored the Enchanted Forest with Henry.
But Charming had easily slipped back into his old habits, and approached the notion of a ride with much more enthusiasm than Emma had anticipated. So much so, that, as soon as they reached the end of the long road leading away from Regina's palace, he had kicked his horse into a gallop that gave Emma and Henry no other choice than to frantically urge their steeds on just to keep up with him.
By the time he slowed his horse, the beast snorting and tossing its head, his face was flushed with pleasure and he twisted around in his saddle, turning to his daughter and grandson.
"I didn't know how much I missed this!" he shouted, letting out a laugh.
"This is so cool!" Henry called out, his voice echoing from the canopy of trees overhead. Above, a startled flock of birds took flight from the trees, their wings whistling as they soared into the blue sky. Leaning back in his saddle, Henry watched them swirl around in wide circles before they took off in the direction of the mountains.
He hadn't felt this happy in a long time. Reading about this magical land in his book of fairytales was one thing; actually being here was very different, exceeding any and all of his expectations. Everything was different here – the forest seemed to hum with life, the creatures in it gathering by the side of the track their horses had followed, not scuttling away into the underbrush like they'd always done back in Storybrooke. He'd spotted curious rabbits, even a deer that had peered between heavy fronds and watched them pass by. When Henry had stared back at it, the animal had merely chewed thoughtfully, showing little to no fear.
And Henry didn't feel fear, either. This was what he'd always dreamt of; what he'd longed and hoped for. It was precisely this sort of experience that he'd imagined to provide comfort during those nights in Storybrooke when an Evil Queen had punished everyone and he'd never felt more alone. But here in Fairy Tale Land, there was no Evil Queen anymore. He had two mothers who loved him more than he'd ever thought either of them could, or would. He had grandparents who were real, not confined to the pages of a book, who indulged him and savored every moment they spent with him.
It filled him up, right to the brim.
Ahead, Charming was pulling on the reins, slowing his horse to a walk rather than the eager trot that the animal kept breaking into. Craning his head around, Henry looked at Emma, her mouth twisting into a brief expression of pain as she pushed down at the saddle with one hand, the other gripping the reins of her mount. Stifling a grin, Henry clucked at his own horse, reaching out to pat at its neck and stopping until Emma caught up with him.
"Hey, kid," she said in a strained tone, quirking a smile at him. "How's it going?"
"Better than you," he said, as Emma's eyebrows rose for a second. "Still getting used to being in a saddle rather than your bug, right?"
She let out a sighing laugh and nodded. "Driving my bug never made me this sore, yeah."
Henry nodded. "Do you miss it? Storybrooke? The other world?"
"I miss cars and cellphones," Emma grumbled, but she looked kindly on Henry and noticed the flicker of alarm that colored his features, reaching out an arm to pat him on the back.
"We've all got some readjusting to do," she told him. Understatement of the year, she thought grimly, flexing her fingers before grasping at the reins again. Even though she'd gained some control over her magical powers, they still taunted her, trembling below the surface of her skin all the time.
"I miss video games," Henry said suddenly, cutting into her thoughts. He shrugged helplessly and grinned at her.
"Cheeseburgers," Emma supplied, and he giggled.
"Microwave ovens," Emma said, entering into the game just to see the bright smile spread across Henry's mouth.
"Proper roads," Henry said, as his horse stumbled slightly, forcing him to grab on to the pommel of his saddle.
"Proper plumbing," Emma rolled her eyes, and they couldn't help bursting into laughter.
"What's the joke?"
Charming turned his horse on the pathway in front of them, all three animals coming to a halt.
"We're wondering how you people lived here," Emma said. "You know, without cheeseburgers."
Beside her, Henry tittered and she couldn't help taking some wicked pleasure in how Charming's face fell. Of all the people she'd interacted with since they'd come here, it was her father who appeared most sensitive to her displacement; his efforts to overcompensate for what she'd left behind in the dizzy days after their return had both embarrassed and touched Emma. She'd read Henry's book; she knew that Charming was an emotionally heightened version of what a man should be, but the reality of experiencing it – of accepting that he was her father – was a little overwhelming at times.
He never stopped trying, though. Never stopped wanting to shower her with his love and care, offering protection she didn't need and a concern to which she was unaccustomed. Emma had struggled with recognizing in his presence the father figure she'd never had, the love she'd always craved, the unfamiliarity of a David Nolan that she'd never met before.
"I guess…" Charming said, clasping his hands together on the pommel of his saddle. "I mean, we have wild boar. That's kind of like a burger." The hopeful look on his face slid away as he observed the dubious expressions of his daughter and grandson.
"Kind of," he added in a woeful tone.
"Yeah, but I don't remember Ruby having to kill her own boar before frying it up on the griddle," Emma intoned. "And that stuff you call cheese here…it's not…it's not great."
"It tastes like feet!" Henry said brightly and, Emma threw him a tiny glare, unhelpfully.
Charming heaved a sigh, leaning back in his saddle. His lips pursed into a line of such agonized apology that Emma threw up her hands and shook her head.
"We're kidding!" she told him in an attempt to assuage the worry crinkling his brow.
"Mostly," Henry added with a cheeky grin. But Charming seemed appeased for the moment and shook his head, even mustering up a low chuckle. The teasing, he could cope with, for the most part because it reminded him all too much of his wife. Seeing her traits in the daughter he was still getting to know was comforting, if nothing else.
Even if, he admitted silently, he missed cheeseburgers as much as they did. He missed the ease of their life in Storybrooke; how daily life was full of conveniences that he'd never even dreamt of when they'd lived here before. It had made him somewhat complacent, he supposed. And he knew that coming back to Fairy Tale Land had been abundantly easier for him than it had been for the other citizens of Storybrooke. Unlike his wife, Charming's demeanor and background had enabled those disgruntled villagers around their castle to be rather more forthcoming with their dissatisfaction, and their complaints sat heavily on his conscience.
He couldn't help wondering if perhaps Storybrooke had offered a way of life previously denied to the people under his care; if, in some way, they thought about their cursed exile from Fairy Tale Land with something akin to fondness, not regret.
Emma pushed her horse forwards, coming alongside Charming and peering into his face.
"Hey," she said quietly, "we really were joking, you know."
He nodded at her and smiled affectionately. "Yeah, I know," he said slowly. "I guess it takes some getting used to, being here. For all of us, it's a return to a life we once lived. For you and Henry, everything's new and unfamiliar."
"Not everything," Emma shrugged. "Back in Storybrooke, I made friends who kinda felt like family. And they're still the same, sort of."
She huffed out a faint laugh and cocked her head onto one side. "So maybe now I understand why Leroy's so grumpy all the time, and maybe Ruby gets a little more fierce around the full moon. But show me a woman who doesn't flex her claws once a month, right?"
Charming had the good grace to blush a little and cleared his throat, glancing away across the forest floor.
"Listen," Emma said in a more serious tone, "this is new for everyone. But we're here now. So we have to make the best of it, right?"
"That's right," Charming said with a broad smile, reaching across the space between them and laying his hand over Emma's, warm and strong even under the leather gloves they both wore. "And I still wouldn't change anything, not if it means I get the chance to know you and Henry."
Now it was Emma's turn to flush and she shifted in her saddle, wincing at the dull ache spreading out over her buttocks. She missed her yellow bug most of all, she decided grimly.
"How far are we from home?" Henry asked, his horse plodding up beside them. "Are we gonna ride much further?"
"No," Charming told him, with a sidelong look at Emma. "There's a clearing up ahead; I thought we'd rest up a little, maybe have something to eat?"
The look of relief that spread over his daughter's face brought a smile to his lips and he patted at the saddlebags behind him. "It's not cheeseburgers, but I figure it will do just as well for lunch."
He tugged on the reins, turning his horse and leading them along the track a little further to where it opened out into a shaded open space. As they slid from their mounts, Emma grunted as her feet hit the ground and pressed a fist into the small of her back, letting out a grateful moan.
"How do you know the woods so well?" Henry enquired, following Charming to a cluster of fallen logs where they began to unpack the saddle bags, revealing a hunk of bread and some preserve that Snow had assured him was made from the sweetest berries the palace had to offer.
"I wasn't always a prince," Charming pulled out a leather skein of water and uncorked it, handing it to the boy. "Before I met Snow…before I even knew who she was, I used to roam these woods as a boy."
Dropping down close to them, Emma stretched out her legs and picked off her gloves, taking a piece of bread that Charming proffered and biting down into it thankfully.
"It's kinda weird to think of Prince Charming as a boy," she said, mumbling through her mouthful of food.
"That's because I was never a prince," her father told her, smirking at the wide-eyed, surprised looks that Emma and Henry gave him. He shrugged and unwrapped a sweet cake, laying it carefully onto the top of the log between himself and Henry.
"My parents owned a farm," he explained. "I grew up tending to goats and working the land as best I could to help my mother. We were poor, but we were happy."
Henry looked more than a little disappointed, a frown working its way across his brow. This wasn't the legend he'd read about in his book – it wasn't even close. Prince Charming – a shepherd?
It must have shown on his face because his grandfather reached out and ruffled his hair.
"Sometimes we start from humble beginnings, Henry," Charming said. "And sometimes things happen that we can't control, but we do what we have to in order to protect our family. That's what I did. To save my mother and the farm and…well," his shoulders lifted in a shrug of acceptance, "it turned out okay in the end, didn't it?"
"You found your true love!" Henry chirruped, a smile returning to his face once more.
"Okay," Emma said, drawing out the word with dubious intent, "but how does a farmboy get to be a prince, huh? That's what I want to know."
Under her narrowed gaze, Charming grinned and shook his head. "That's a story for another time," he told her, as she pushed out her lips and grunted, unsatisfied. "I wouldn't want to shatter all your fairytales at once now, would I?" he looked at Henry and Emma, eyes twinkling.
Henry slid down onto the patch of grass under the log, idly pulling at some blades with his fingers as Charming passed him a slab of cake. Shoving it eagerly into his mouth, Henry munched in silence for a minute as he leaned back against the log, looking up at the branches overhead and, above them, a sky of clearest blue. It was hard to believe that anything bad could ever happen here – not now, anyway, he reminded himself with thoughts of Regina. And it didn't really matter what the true fairytales were, he pondered, because the reality that was laid out before him was far more alluring than anything he'd read in his book.
Propping himself up onto one arm, he looked at Emma, lying on her back with eyes closed, face raised to the sunlight dappling down through the leaves overhead. For all her half-hearted grumbles about this world, she looked truly relaxed. He'd never really seen her this at ease before. Not without Regina by her side. And a stray thought popped into his head: he wished that his mom was here with them. She only seemed to smile when she was with him and Emma.
It occurred to him then, that whatever fairytale had brought them here; whatever nightmare had twisted Regina into an Evil Queen, then it was most definitely over. The darkness that had shrouded this land was gone, leaving only sunlit days and peaceful nights. And as he lay back down against the log behind him, Henry let out a happy little sigh of contentment.
A clap of thunder overhead was what made Emma's eyes snap open. After filling herself with the food Charming had brought and some of the sweet wine he'd offered her, she had drifted off to sleep in the peaceful clearing. But now, as she looked up through the canopy of trees, she could see ominous dark clouds swallowing up the blue sky, sweeping towards them from the distant hills.
Charming was already on his feet, gathering up the remnants of their lunch and stowing it safely into saddlebags that he slung over his shoulder. Raindrops began to patter through the leaves, a thousand tiny droplets of percussion to the booming thunder that sounded above once more.
Henry flinched and squinted up at the sky, a fearful expression on his face. He instinctively inched closer to Emma and she threw an arm around his shoulders, tugging him against her.
"It's just a storm, kid," she said, hurrying him over to where their horses were shifting, Charming's mount tossing its head and whinnying nervously.
Henry looked up at her and squinted. "I don't like them," he admitted, looking much younger than his years.
"Me either," Charming came up behind them and threw the saddlebags over his horse's back. He busied himself tightening girths on all three horses and glanced back at Henry, a comforting grin on his face. "When I was your age, I used to hide under the bed during storm season."
He patted Henry's horse, leaning in to murmur something in its ear which seemed to calm the animal.
"Under the bed?" Henry echoed, allowing Charming to boost him up and into his saddle.
"Storm season?" Emma narrowed her eyes as she scrambled up onto her own horse. "There's a storm season?"
Charming laughed lightly, springing up onto his mount as Emma eyed him enviously. "Yeah," he nodded, gathering the reins and leading them from the clearing as lightning cracked the sky over their heads, lighting up the dull gray clouds for a second. "One year the entire village near Snow's castle flooded. But don't worry," he added, seeing the alarm that crossed Henry's face, "we'll be fine."
Struggling up into her saddle, Emma grunted. "Oh well, as long as the royals are taken care of, then I guess that's okay. What about the people in the village?" she squinted up at the dark sky overhead.
Charming frowned, urging his horse forwards as another clap of thunder boomed above them. "Emma, we don't make the rules in this world…things work differently here."
"Yeah," she replied shortly, "I get it. But it's not so different to where I grew up. There are those who have privilege and those who don't."
"What's privilege?" Henry asked, kicking his pony into a trot to keep up with Emma and Charming.
Emma glanced at Charming, at the discomfort that spread over his features and burrowed between his brows. She wondered if it troubled him as much as it did her: the way that everyone who had experienced a taste of democracy in Storybrooke had returned to a life where inequality was rife. Because even though Regina had controlled her town with an iron hand, Emma knew that everyone had had a home, basic comforts, the freedom to come and go as they pleased. Here, in Fairy Tale Land, Emma had seen the hovels that surrounded the castle – what Charming referred to as a village. But it wasn't like any village that she'd ever seen. People were forced into deferring to Snow and Charming's rule; and what was more disconcerting was the fact that a lot of them simply seemed to accept it.
"Let's just get back to the castle," Emma said sternly, ignoring Henry's raised eyebrows of enquiry and the way he looked expectantly between her and Charming.
She dug her heels into her horse, grasping the reins a little more tightly as the rain began to come down harder now, bouncing from her leather jacket in staccato bursts of noise. Perhaps it bothered her more than she cared admit – that the power in this world rested in the hands of the few. Hands that held decisions about her life and relationship. Because, no matter what the people thought, and certainly no matter what she and Henry thought or felt, it was a small, elevated group of people who would censure Regina.
Not for the first time in her life, Emma felt the unfairness of it all, as unstoppable and undeniable as the rain itself, pouring down over her and filling the sky above with smothering clouds of gray. Gritting her teeth, she pushed her horse forwards and leaned over the reins with intent. She might not be able to stop the rain, but there was nothing she wouldn't do to stop those who sought to destroy her happiness. If there was a price to pay for Regina's crimes, then it would be created from good, not compounded by evil.
As thudding hooves pounded on the ground beside her and Charming's horse took the lead on the road back to the castle, Emma cast a rueful look back at the sky behind them. The rolling darkness seemed to chase them, and she couldn't help shivering as she felt the rain soak through her jacket; the clouds seemed tinged with purple, billowing in tendrils reaching for them like greedy fingers. The corners of her mouth turned downwards as she gripped the reins a little less tightly, giving her horse its head as it broke into a canter.
The sooner they got back to the relative safety of the castle; the better.
Regina peered out of the window in her bedchamber, narrowing her eyes as she looked at the approaching storm. One of Snow's birds had brought a message that Charming, Emma and Henry were on their way back to the castle, but it didn't stop her worrying about them. She turned from the window, sighing in the knowledge that, in spite of the way concern gnawed inside her gut, she welcomed it. Because how many years had she lived ensconced in a world where her only worries had been for herself? How long had she been closed off from the care that she now gave so freely, that she reveled in and was returned by Henry and Emma?
It seemed like a lifetime had passed since she'd felt emotions directed towards others that weren't steeped in rage and vengeful wrath. One less lived, less loved and less nurtured, not in the way she clung to her life with Emma and Henry now. And even if they were living underneath the shadow of punishment and retribution demanded by others, it was really nothing in comparison to the recompense Regina demanded of herself. Change was difficult: she of all people knew that. But guilt? Guilt was sharp with newness and pricked Regina's conscience every single day – a conscience that she'd never allowed herself to have before now.
She'd abhorred how people lived that way, despising their innate desire to quiet the nagging guilt in their heads and hearts. Regina had rebuilt herself in another image, where guilt was cast aside in favor of a revenge that she justified with a scarred and wounded heart.
It was ironic, then, that she had become just like every other tortured soul. As much a victim of her own machinations as everyone else. She'd gone right back to the beginning again. But this time, she had more to live for than ever before.
The door to her room flew open and Emma stomped in, scattering droplets of water everywhere. Kicking the door shut, the blonde let out an aggrieved sigh and pulled at her jacket, wresting it free from wet locks of hair that clung to the leather and flinging it onto the floor.
"Henry's fine," Emma said, as Regina moved towards her, mouth open in question. "Snow's got him and Charming heading for a hot bath."
"Which is precisely where you should be going too, dear," Regina clucked disapprovingly as Emma fumbled with her jeans, peeling them down and leaving them in a sodden heap by the doorway along with her boots.
"I'll live," Emma grunted, tugging at her shirt and casting it onto the pile of wet clothing. "It's just rain, Regina. And, unlike everyone else living here, at least I've got a castle to come back to." She moved over towards the fire burning in the grate, shivering in her underwear and holding out her hands before rubbing them together.
Grabbing a fur from the bed, Regina walked up behind Emma and threw it around her shoulders, receiving a grateful smile of thanks for her pains. But it soon faded as Emma turned back towards the flames and Regina peered around her, frowning into the blonde's face.
"Did something happen?" she asked gently, as Emma rolled her eyes and pushed at her wet hair.
"You mean other than getting soaked through to the skin?" she grunted, pulling the fur around her body, trying to glean some warmth from it across her icy skin.
"I mean the reason why you have such a black look on your face," Regina commented, as Emma drew closer to the fire and sighed. "I thought spending the afternoon with your father and Henry would have – "
"Reminded me of who I am and what this world is like," Emma blurted, hunkering down and holding her hands closer to the flames than was necessary in order to feel their heat. Fingers splayed out, she could feel the fire almost licking at them, threatening to blister her skin but the pain felt good, like a salve to the discontent in her gut that had been growing steadily with every beat of her horse's hooves. So she ignored Regina's narrowed gaze over her shoulder and stared into the depth of the fire, seeking a reflection for the burning resentment that roiled in her stomach.
"This place," she began, grinding her back teeth together. "The people here, how can they live like this?"
"Like what, dear?" Regina dropped into one of the chairs by the fire and frowned at the hunched figure in front of her. She could see Emma's magic with a trained, suspicious eye, fleeting across the blonde's skin and shimmering gently in the firelight.
"Did you know David – Charming – " Emma let out a noise of exasperation and shook her head. "My father," she finally said, "wasn't always a prince."
"I did know that, yes," Regina nodded.
"But now he's back here, it's like he's forgotten what it was like to have nothing. No power. No say in what happens."
"Emma," Regina sighed, reaching out a hand towards the other woman, "I told you before, the rules here are – "
"Stupid and unfair!" Emma scrambled away from Regina's outstretched hand and fixed her with a shadowed glare. "He and my mother, they live in a fairytale castle and have clothes and food and...and hot baths and whatever their heart desires, but what about everyone else?"
She pulled the fur around her shoulders and began to pace back and forth in front of the fire.
"How anyone can prefer this world to Storybrooke is beyond me," she muttered grimly. "In my world you'd be given a fair trial and…and everything you've done to help us - help me – would be taken into account. But here, nobody cares about that. All they want is for a bunch of cronies who don't know their ass from their elbow to decide whether you should be allowed to be a person, Regina! And the stupid thing is that everyone just goes along with that! I mean, doesn't anyone think to question it? To wonder whether it's the right thing to do?"
Thoughtfully, Regina watched as Emma's pace increased, as her fingertips, grasping the dark fur tightly around her body, began to glow a little more strongly, a little more dangerously.
"Doing the right thing is never easy," she said, rising to her feet. "Not for people who hold responsibility in their hands. You know that."
"What I know," Emma spun around and faced Regina, eyes stormy and troubled, "is that my parents seem to have forgotten that in the world you created for them? At least there they had a vote. A home. A job."
She threw up her hands in the air, the fur slipping from her shoulders and falling in a heap at her heels. "If they'd returned to a village that floods during storm season," her voice was bitter, resentful of the realities of this land and the incongruity of it with the tales she'd been told as a child, "then I doubt they'd be so quick to set themselves up as judge and jury when it comes to you."
"But everything's fine when you're the queen," she said in a sardonic, sing-song voice. "Or the daughter of one," she added resentfully.
"Emma – " Regina began, as light began to crackle around Emma's fingers, but the blonde shook her head violently, cutting her off.
"No, Regina," she growled, "don't. Don't tell me that this is just the way things are. Don't try to convince me that this is what you deserve or what's right. I don't want this life. I don't want any life where you're not allowed to be who you are – who you've become."
She winced, finally noticing her hands and flinching as though they hurt. But it was the sight of them that gave her cause for pain: glowing and trembling with the power that surged through her like quicksilver, turning her blood to mercury, both burning hot and icy cold all at the same time.
Emma thrust them away from her, as though the very motion itself could rid her of this terrible curse that she felt moving inside her like a parasite, feeding from the anger that she could barely acknowledge, let alone control. As she did so, twin shards of light leapt from her fingertips and into the fire. The flames roared and exploded in a burst of white, sending sparks flying across the rug on the hearth where they glowed brightly before extinguishing with tiny puffs of smoke.
"Regina!" Emma backed away, staring at her hands with wide, horrified eyes. "I can't…it won't stop…"
"It's alright," Regina curled her fingers around Emma's wrists, ignoring the sparks still emanating from the blonde's fingertips. She drew Emma towards her until they were almost touching, until they were close enough for Emma to feel the cool leather of Regina's vest against her stomach, until they could lock gazes and Emma was soothed by the deep brown eyes that stared into her.
"Remember what I told you," Regina's voice was calm, even though Emma shuddered under the sudden power surging through her. "Focus on the things that make you strong, Emma; the things you trust, the things you love."
Emma squeezed her eyes tight shut and tried to remember, tried to summon up the feelings that she knew were inside her somewhere, but she was cold and miserable and confused and, she had to admit, afraid. Her anger, she knew, came from a place of trepidation, of displacement and unfamiliarity that had weakened her confidence. Magic, fueled by her frustration, had rushed in to fill the cracks, widening them so much that sometimes, Emma felt as though she would split apart from the sheer force of it.
"Concentrate," Regina's voice whispered near her ear and Emma trembled as it reached beyond the magic, beyond everything else. One of Regina's thumbs tracked a line across the inside of Emma's wrist, tracing a path of something Emma couldn't quite define, but what felt like all the good she'd ever suspected was in the other woman; all the love Regina had to offer her and Henry. All that she'd become. And as she allowed herself to really feel the presence of Regina near her, next to her, all around her, Emma knew in her gut that it helped.
The tension across her shoulders eased a little, receding with a prickling sensation as it took the magic with it. By the time she opened her eyes she was well nigh divested of it completely and she blinked at Regina's enquiring smile before throwing her arms around the other woman and clinging to her.
"Thank you," Emma breathed, her voice muffled against Regina's neck. "Thank you." The relief in her voice was palpable.
It was odd, Regina thought, how greatly she'd been starved of this. And she hadn't realized it until Henry and Emma offered her the affection that she'd sorely missed; the physical contact that she'd craved, without even knowing it. How lonely she must have been, to still feel the pang of strangeness in Emma's embrace, to still yearn for it even though it was freely given.
Reaching up, Regina's fingers slid into Emma's wet hair and she realized that the blonde was shivering against her. She wasn't sure whether that was because of the magic, or because of the cold. Perhaps it was both.
"You need to choose your battles more carefully, dear," she remarked with a wry smile, taking hold of Emma's hand and leading her over to their huge bed. "More carefully than I did, anyway," she added.
"I'm not trying to fight it," Emma said, through chattering teeth. She grabbed at another fur on the bed and wrapped it around her body. "It's a natural reaction to something invading me – like…like a sickness or something." The corners of her mouth turned downwards as she mulled it over; it really was like a disease for which, apparently, there was no cure.
"And the more you see it that way, the more you'll resist it," Regina admonished, fetching her robe from the side of the bed and encouraging Emma to slip into it. "Look," she said, as Emma slumped onto the bed, "I know you don't much like magic, and I know you like living in this world even less, but the angrier you are, the more difficult your magic is to control."
"This world sucks," Emma grumbled, sounding rather more like Henry than a grown woman, shoulders hunched and hands worrying each other in her lap.
"Eloquent, as always," Regina commented, eliciting a narrow eyed glare from the blonde. But she perched on the bed next to Emma and clasped her hands together in her lap, frowning slightly at the disconsolate figure beside her.
"You want me to fight, don't you?" she asked, as Emma gave her a sidelong look but said nothing, her silence answering the question well enough. "But I'm tired, dear. I'm tired of waging war on everyone and everything."
"The truth is that you and I are more alike than different," Regina continued. "We've both fought hard to get whatever comfort we can out of our lives and it never really worked."
A sad smile slid over her lips and she shook her head. "The way we did it…that's the difference between us. And the hardest choices are the ones we rarely feel able to make for ourselves; the ones we're forced into by things beyond our control. Coming back here hasn't been easy for anyone, least of all you, but you have to understand, Emma; I'm not giving in. I'm accepting. I'm choosing to accept all the things I did and the consequences of them. And, for once, I want to do the right thing. Even if that leads to my demise."
Emma blinked at Regina as the other woman leaned forwards and peered into her face. Back in Storybrooke, when Regina had simply been a somewhat tyrannical Mayor, doing the right thing had been justified by keeping order and abiding by the law. But here, the laws that governed them were buried in magic and totems like good and evil: concepts that simply failed to provide enough justification for Emma to let them dictate her conscience.
"It's not a weakness to accept that we can't win," Regina said softly, as Emma let out a long, weary breath. "And it's not a weakness to accept the things that seem beyond our control, either. In fact," she lifted a hand and laid it over Emma's clenched fists, "it's a strength."
"Right," Emma said bluntly, the planes of her face settling into hard lines of irritation, "but while you're going all zen on me, Regina, there are people out there who want you dead; people who have blindly stumbled back into this stupid world with its stupid rules that don't make any sense. Fairytales aren't meant to be like this!"
Getting to her feet, Emma tugged on the belt of the robe, tightening it around her waist, then throwing her hands up into the air.
"They sold me a lie. All the books, all the stupid movies, all the stories that we tell our children. It's just one big, fat lie," Emma clutched her arms around herself and shuddered. She turned to Regina, crouching down and resting her hands onto Regina's knees.
"This world's just as fucked up as the one we left behind and I'm the only person who seems to understand that," she said slowly, gazing up into Regina's eyes. "Everyone seems perfectly happy to go back to the way things were before and I just…I don't get why."
Regina lifted a hand, pressing her palm against Emma's cheek. "Because they think they can get their happy endings back," she said slowly. "The ones I took away from them."
"Yeah?" Emma's eyebrows rose. "From what I've heard, not everyone's life was as charmed as they'd have us believe. Archie – he wanted to kill his parents; Leroy…well, he had the love of his life taken away from him, and Ruby? Ruby has to deal with being a frickin' wolf once a month and knowing that she ripped apart the person she wanted to be with more than anything. Tell me, Regina, how are they happier endings than the ones they might have found in Storybrooke?"
"You're very sweet, dear," Regina said, rubbing her thumb along Emma's cheekbone. "But nobody was really happy in Storybrooke. Not until you came along, anyway. You brought the possibility of happiness with you, and that's quite the power to wield."
"Happiness, power," Emma said sullenly. "That's all you people talk about here. Doesn't anyone want to just…you know…live?"
"Isn't that what we're trying to do?" Regina frowned, as Emma stood and folded her arms over her chest.
"No," the blonde answered bluntly. "You're not. You're hiding away and waiting for whatever punishment is handed out to you. They still think you're the Evil Queen, and you…you're letting them!"
She turned away from Regina, huffing out an irritated sigh and shaking her head. Because when it came down to the lines that they'd drawn separating their past from the present, nothing seemed strong or clearly defined enough to absolve the stains that marred Regina's soul. Not in the eyes of others, anyway.
"Your mother and I had a chat this morning." Regina's voice broke into Emma's harried thoughts and she spun around, shrugging. "She told me that perhaps I needed to prove to everyone that I've changed – prove it to her."
Emma's lips pressed together in a hard line but she said nothing. When it came to the thorny subject of her mother and Regina, she had made her feelings perfectly clear – to both Snow and Regina. She didn't need to pick a side; she'd already sworn her allegiance.
"If I can teach you to hone your skills," Regina continued. "If I can channel your magic into something good…something that might actually help people, then it's possible that this world might show the sort of lenience I never did."
She shifted on the bed slightly, twin lines burrowing between her brows. "I can't ever bring back the people whose lives I took," she murmured. "Dead is dead, after all."
"But perhaps I can help you to understand what it is to have great power, in the hope that you'll use it wisely. Fairy Tale Land looks to you, Emma, for guidance and for authority."
"Haven't you been listening to me?" Emma finally spoke, her voice as tight as the sensation in her chest, clutching at her with imbued responsibility and care that she'd never asked for; certainly that she'd never wanted. "I don't want to be the leader or the hero or whatever else these people think I am! Too much power makes people crazy; it makes them greedy and cruel."
She spoke without thinking, without hesitation. But she saw the expression her words painted across Regina's features, the way the other woman's face paled and how she clenched her jaw, biting down over the shame of past transgressions.
Throwing up her hands again, Emma let them fall back onto her thighs with a loud slap, a noise of pure frustration growling in her throat. She felt the anger again, the temptation to let it out and blaze with fury almost too much to resist. And she wondered, not for the first time, if this was how Regina had felt, if this was the culmination of a life that hadn't satisfied, hadn't fulfilled and hadn't loved the other woman at all. Rather like her own, Emma thought grimly. A life where abandonment had been the only constant.
"Ignore me," Emma grunted. "I'm just – just pissed because I got soaked. I don't know what I'm talking about."
"I think we both know that's not true," Regina said, eyes narrowing.
An awkward silence descended over them. It wasn't until Emma shivered again, teeth chattering audibly, that Regina came to her senses and reached out for her, tugging on the ends of the robe's belt. Emma's legs bumped up against her knees and the blonde clutched her arms around herself, wishing for nothing more in the entire world than the comfort of Regina's bedroom back in Storybrooke, with its luxurious tub and endless amounts of hot water.
"Stop fighting it," Regina murmured, fingers toying with the edges of the robe. "For once in your life, Emma, give in."
The look of anguish that crossed the blonde's face sent a piercing shard of hurt through Regina's chest and she slid her hands around Emma's waist, drawing the other woman closer. There was comfort, at least, in proximity.
"I don't…" Emma whispered in a hoarse tone, swallowing over the years of steadfast independence she'd sought to fill the gaping void that solitude had left in her life. "I don't know how."
Leaning back a little, Regina pulled the robe open, revealing Emma's taut stomach, the lithe form that she adored so much. "Then let me show you," she said, leaning forwards and pressing her lips to skin, humming in gratification as Emma let out a ragged sigh.
When Regina's fingertips curled around the waistband of Emma's underwear, and her mouth hovered over a hip bone, Emma gasped aloud at the sensation, the robe falling from her shoulders and into a silken heap behind her. Her hands reached out to grip Regina's shoulders, nails scraping across the leather vest that the other woman wore, and she closed her eyes as the tip of a tongue traced a flickering path over her stomach.
"That's right," Regina whispered, a hot flush of warmth pimpling Emma's skin and making her shudder. "Just give in to it."
Emma swayed under her touch; Regina's fingers splayed out on her lower back, dipping past the thin covering of cotton and pushing it down so that Emma was completely naked. She feasted her eyes on the woman: her Savior in so many different ways that Regina couldn't even begin to count them. Emma was magic, the pure embodiment of everything Regina had yearned for and lost in the bottomless pit of blackness that had cast its own spell over her heart.
Her mother had told her that magic was freedom, that power was there for the taking. But it was a paltry consolation for giving up the truest of loves. She leaned back a little, her gaze wandering up over Emma's form and lingering on the faint smile that curved the blonde's lips. In Fairy Tale Land, people believed that they were only allowed one true love. But Regina knew that, just like Emma told her, she'd been sold a lie. Because here she was, her heart so full that sometimes it felt as though it would burst from sheer joy; a true love regained and reborn.
Emma's eyes flew open and she stiffened, gaze darting towards where her fingers clenched at Regina's shoulders. She could feel it: power running through her arms like fire in the blood, a sheen passing over her skin – passing through the layers of flesh down to the bone itself.
The whispered expletive was out of her mouth before she knew it, bringing Regina's gaze sliding up to meet her own.
"Surrender to it," Regina murmured. "Give in to how it feels, Emma."
"No – what if…what if I hurt you?" Emma was conscious of how her grip on Regina tightened, how the buzzing sensation at the tips of her fingers had the power to burn, to destroy, to rent apart that which must be protected at all costs.
"You won't," Regina said firmly.
"No," Emma said again, shivering and snatching her hands from Regina's shoulders, holding them close against her chest.
Regina stood up, a dark look passing over her features. With a decisive movement, she unbuttoned the leather vest, ripping it from her body and casting it to one side. Taking the lapels of her shirt, she pulled it apart, revealing her naked skin underneath, breast moving rapidly up and down with hungry expectancy.
"You're afraid of what your magic might do to other people," Regina said, taking one of Emma's hands in her own and pulling it away from the blonde's chest with not a little effort. "But I'm afraid, Emma, of what it might do to you if you don't accept it."
Both women noticed the light emanating from Emma's hands, glowing even brighter than before in the dim room around them. Bending slightly, Regina kissed Emma's fingers, ignoring the sharp intake of breath that she heard from the other woman.
"Surrender to it," Regina said slowly. "I trust you, Emma. You'd never hurt the ones you love. That's how magic works for people like us; it thrives on what we feel."
She lifted her head, looking up into Emma's eyes. "That's why you won't hurt me."
Regina lifted Emma's hand in her own, the magic swirling around it reflected in her eyes as she gazed upon it. It cast an avaricious gleam into her gaze and Emma bit at her lower lip, fearful hesitancy gaining the better part of trust.
"Touch me," Regina said softly, drawing Emma's fingertip towards her skin. "Don't be afraid, Emma. Just touch me. You want me to have faith in you? Then have faith in me."
She felt the magic before Emma's fingers actually brushed over her clavicle, buzzing with intensity, scattering over her nerve endings and shivering its way down her spine. Regina sucked in an audible breath, her heart quickening its pace. She'd promised not to use magic and had largely adhered to the denial imposed upon herself. But this…this wasn't like the skills that Rumpelstiltskin had teased out of her with belittling demands and critical instruction.
No; Regina began to smile as Emma's hand moved now of its own accord, tracking a pathway down over her breastbone. This was something good, something undiluted by pain and sadness. This was magic fueled by love, the most potent of all.
She hissed as the magic became a part of her, winding its way beneath her skin. She'd felt the effects of it before, at the hand of her mother, but this was different; it wasn't restrictive or binding. It was the exact opposite of that: a freedom given without condition, without restraint.
"Whoa," Emma whispered, watching as her fingers left behind trails of light that sparkled before seeping into Regina's skin. "Do you feel that?"
Regina smiled. "I do." She reached for her shirt, pulling on the string ties that held it together and slipping it from her shoulders, dropping it by the side of the bed.
Tentatively, Emma smoothed her hand over the swell of Regina's breast, feeling the nipple there pucker and harden under her touch. Like electricity, a jolt ran through her entire body and she jerked backwards at the same time Regina arched forwards under her touch.
"No, don't stop," Regina urged, wrapping her fingers around Emma's wrist. "Please, Emma, don't stop."
Emma gaped as she made contact with Regina's skin, this time with a burgeoning desire for the other woman that she always, always carried inside her. It bloomed like a rose inside her chest: heady and beautiful. It mingled with the magic that crackled under skin; a cocktail of emotion and power and strength. Always strength.
Moving forwards now, Emma captured Regina's lips with her own, kissing hesitantly at first and then harder. A guttural moan came from Regina's throat, vibrating and humming into Emma's mouth as they grasped at one another, arms sliding around one another's body and hips, thighs, breasts bumping together. Regina's fingers fumbled for the remainder of her clothing, removing it with a rushed, panting pace until she was finally naked, aching for the kiss of Emma's skin against her own.
They fell back onto the bed, scrambling and stumbling, unwilling to relinquish their grip on one another. Regina's leg rose up between Emma's as the blonde leaned over her and gazed down at her for a minute. The air was thick around them, silence falling like a blanket, smothering any and all sounds that they made as Emma's mouth descended onto Regina's neck, teeth pinching and nipping.
It was almost unbearable, Emma thought. She could feel every flick of her tongue over Regina's pattering pulse point deep inside her gut, every indentation of her teeth on Regina's flesh. And when her fingernails scraped up Regina's thigh, Emma felt the sensation as if she'd touched her own body. The magic she'd resisted up until now flowed freely, coursing with renewed passion through her veins, lighting her up and making her feel invincible. And perhaps, she mused as Regina clutched at her and bent her leg so that her thigh pressed against Emma's wetness, she was. Perhaps succumbing to this power was the truest way to feel it, control it, indulge in it. In a life that had been a series of battles, each one fought and hard won, it seemed that laying down her arms and surrendering was the real way to win, in the end.
Grinding herself down onto the body that moved and arched beneath her, Emma flattened her palm out onto Regina's heated skin, fingers working their way up the other woman's inner thigh until they rested against damp curls of hair. She felt dizzy, whatever enchantment her powers had worked swirling around her head and senses in a kaleidoscope of intensity.
When she pushed her fingers inside Regina, Emma let out an agonized groan that was echoed in the throat beneath her, bared to her kisses and her tongue, her teeth that scraped along its length and her lips that sucked at it eagerly. She closed her eyes, giving herself over to the ripples of emotion and palpable feeling that rocketed through her. Regina was murmuring something: half-formed words uttered in a beseeching tone as Emma began to move in and out of her. They fled in and out of Emma's consciousness as she silently urged Regina on towards climax, as she felt her own body begin to respond in kind, hips rolling in ever-decreasing circles.
All the things she'd been afraid of – all the unmeasured power and threats that her magic had posed – dissipated like morning mist on distant mountains under growing sunlight. And, like sunlight, all the magic Emma had ever felt burned hot and bright in her chest, spreading out to the furthest reaches of her body, tingling and glowing and transforming all the darkness she'd ever felt into a conflagration of pure light.
Regina's hands clutched at her, fingers curling around her neck and Emma opened her eyes, staring down at the other woman, dissembled and undone. Teeth bared in a greedy, triumphant grin, Emma thrust inside Regina once more, drawing a keening sound from the other woman. Regina's hips rose from the bed, eyes widening in an almost startled manner. In their depths, Emma thought she could see the magic she wielded, glistening in purple hues before they closed tight shut and Regina began to shudder, scrabbling at Emma's body with desperate fingers as her climax took hold.
A wave of lustrous, iridescent light formed around their bodies, enveloping them both and rising upwards, illuminating the room up to the high ceilings and out towards windows where the encroaching dark was kept at bay.
Briefly pressing her lips to Regina's cheek, Emma felt the other woman's surrender: a breathless, trembling form beneath her own. They lay still for a moment, the last vestiges of magic trickling from their bodies, Regina's hand clenching over Emma's shoulder before it fell back onto the bed with a dull thud.
Emma buried her face into the crook of Regina's neck, breathing in the faint musky scent that gathered in the hollows of skin there.
"That was…" she mumbled against flesh.
"Indeed." Regina's voice was a husked growl, replete and satisfied.
"I mean, it was really…"
"Yes, dear. It was."
Emma nestled closer to Regina, winding her limbs around the other woman, craving the euphoria of her magic again, wondering if every time would be like that from now on if she wanted it.
She knew that she did. Lusted after it.
"If I tell you that you were right," Emma said slowly, lifting her head and looking down into Regina's eyes, "are you going to be all smug about it?"
Regina let out a low chuckle and traced her fingers down the muscular lines of Emma's back. "Perhaps just a little," she intoned.
Emma rolled her eyes and shifted, turning onto her side so that she could look into the other woman's face.
"This magic," she began, "it's a good thing, right? I mean, it's good magic?"
"It's the right kind of magic," Regina blinked slowly, solemnly.
"What…like…sex magic?" Emma said without thinking, then blushed, feeling foolish as Regina smiled indulgently at her.
"That's one way it manifests itself," she told Emma, then shifted in the bed, her gaze traveling around the room. "But other ways are…well, look, Emma. Look what you did."
Lifting her head, Emma's eyes followed Regina's outstretched arm, widening as she surveyed the room. Creeping vines emerged from the floor, snaking up the stone walls and around the windows, verdant and plentiful and alive. Their leaves swayed, caught in an invisible breeze and rustled together like whispers in the far corners of the chamber. Around their edges, magic glistened with golden light, reflected off the waxy, shiny surfaces of the leaves. But amidst them, it was the splashes of color that held Emma's attention. Flowers, all the shades that nature had to offer, dotted among the green with open, broad petals that reached for the light of Emma's magic, buds still splaying wide under the blonde's astonished gaze.
"Holy…holy crap," Emma gulped, glancing back at Regina. "I did that?"
"You did," Regina said gently. "Now do you understand how your magic works? How it comes from what you feel and who you are?"
"I – I guess," Emma responded. "But is it going to be like that every time we…you know, do it?"
Letting out a faint sigh of reprove, Regina shook her head as Emma pushed herself up onto her elbows and stared at the lush greenery across the room.
"Hence the need for you to learn how to control your powers, dear. To control your emotions. Magic like yours is inherently connected to how you feel; if you lose sight of that, then you lose the grip you have over your magical abilities."
"So it's all about what I want, right?" Emma shoved at her still damp hair and pushed out her lips thoughtfully. "If I want something enough, I can get it with magic?"
"It was always how I got things," Regina said slowly, but her brow crinkled and she put a hand on Emma's arm. "But be careful, Emma. All magic comes with a price. The more powerful it is, the greater the cost."
Green eyes blinked at her as Emma frowned too. "That's why you're going to teach me, right? Why you're going to help me? I can't do this without you, Regina. You know more about this stuff than anyone and I – I trust you."
The words didn't come easily and her voice faltered over them, even if the emotion behind them flooded her chest with a warm truth. Emma scooted down in the bed, sliding her arm around Regina's waist and allowing the other woman to pull a blanket up over their bodies. Fingers reached into her tangled hair, rubbing strands of it together and Regina let out a noise of acknowledgement as they moved closer together.
"I know you do, dear," she said softly. "And whatever it takes, I won't let you down."