Disclaimer: Not mine, as always.

Just a step away from happiness and sanity blurs;

Drives her crazier

(Eveline by Nickel Creek)

Charming doesn't quite know what to think the first time Regina knocks on the door of Snow's apartment.

It's about a week after she returned Henry to him (something he's still trying to wrap his head around, honestly), and the knock on the door is almost tentative. Maybe it's the nature of the knock that causes him to get up from the table— where he and his grandson sit eating pancakes—without thought or caution, but when he does open the door, a smile still in place, he freezes, and wishes his sword was a good deal closer.

Regina looks the same as she always has— at least when compared to David Nolan's memories (not so much Charming's); neatly put together and professional, but there's something off about it all—he thinks then that it's due to the absence of a sneer or smirk. He's wrong, of course, but understanding comes later.

At that moment though, he's mainly thinking of Henry, and how best to keep Regina from getting anywhere near him. Regina herself seems to barely notice Charming at all, so fixed are her eyes on her son, but she does not take a single step toward the boy, indeed, does not come close to crossing the threshold of the apartment. It's Henry who breaks the silence, as short as it, in actuality, is.

"What are you doing here, Mom?"

Charming can tell the boy hadn't meant to tack on the title (had done so by reflex), but he can also see how it affects Regina—the woman visibly swallows and her eyes flash in a myriad of emotions. He has no love for the woman (by any stretch of the imagination) but even he feels a bit of pity at the inner turmoil so clearly tormenting her.

But her voice is steady when she responds, addressing Charming instead of her son (an easier task, perhaps). "I found the man you were looking for. Jefferson."

"How did you—?"

She hands him a slip of paper as she cuts him off, business-like. "He has been moving frequently, from what I can tell. It's a wonder he hasn't run out of Storybrooke altogether. If he has any further knowledge of the hat, it would be lost if he did that, as you very well know. So I would hurry to this address, if I were you. "

"But, why—?"

The woman does not move her gaze away from him, but Charming is sure she is not speaking to him when she replies. "I am helping. This is what you wanted, isn't it?"

The Mayor, or former Mayor, as it were, leaves without another word or glance. Charming turns back to Henry after she's gone, his eyebrows raised. The kid looks utterly baffled, as though he is trying to figure out Regina's true agenda. Charming finds himself wondering if she hadn't just told them.

"What do you think?" He asks the boy.

Henry hesitates. "I don't know. She's… the Evil Queen. She can't be good now, can she?"

Charming doesn't know how to respond to that, but he does later go to the address Regina provided (with a bit of backup). Jefferson is there.

[But the Mad Hatter is of no help— his name being a more accurate description of his mental state than Charming would have hoped— and the quest to find Snow and Emma continues].

The second time, it's early (too early) in the morning.

Charming is pretty sure Regina hadn't slept that night (and maybe the night before that as well) because there are dark circles under her eyes that makeup can't quite cover, but her clothes are as neatly pressed as always.

"The dwarves are looking for fairy dust. They won't accept anything from me, but they trust you. This is a talisman to assist in their blasting. Point and press the knob on top. It only has a few uses in it, so take care."

"Regina, wha—?"

She did not bat an eye at Charming's crown-decorated boxers, or his bewildered expression, and she certainly does not waste any further time waiting for him to wake up enough to actually understand what's going on. She's already half-way down the hallway when she calls out over her shoulder. "And please keep Henry away from it. He has a tendency to involve himself in these sorts of things."

[The dwarves continue mining with the help of Regina's artifact. It speeds their progress, but not enough to capture success].

After the third time, Charming knows this (this whole Regina-popping-in-unannounced-with-clever-potential-solutions-to-his-biggest-problem) is going to become a regular thing, at least until they find Snow and Emma. He's just not sure how to feel about it.

Henry clearly isn't either, but before Regina leaves (in her usual brisk manner), he does speak up, albeit hesitantly.

"Thanks, Mom."

Regina's mask slips; it's only for a moment, but Charming is once again taken aback about how much is there. He doesn't know how it's possible for a woman like her, but she clearly loves her son. And love is something Charming has always firmly believed in, no matter what obstacles may block its path.

"You're welcome, dear." The term of endearment rings true this time; it's almost alarming how soft it makes the brunette look, when not delivered in its usual mocking and derisive manner. "But you should know, Henry, that I am not doing this only for you."

'"Why else are you doing it, then," Charming asks, during attempt number five (which involves a foray into Gold's shop, late one night). "If not just for Henry?"

She waits a long time before answering (so long that he thinks she, as is typical, has simply ignored him). "For me." She finally says, but then hesitates again before adding, almost wearily. "And for your daughter."

[Gold's is a bust, though they do find some interesting ingredients that Regina thinks she may be able to make use of.]

Regina does not clarify her answer until during her next visit, when she brings with her a potion that smells absolutely horribly, and a large, full-length mirror.

"I wish to… redeem myself," she says as they watch the potion dry on the glass of the mirror, sitting as far away as possible, on the other side of the apartment. "I have been… I look back, and I do not particularly like the direction my life has taken. I think sometimes that…"

Regina looks away, and Charming gets the feeling that she is not talking to him at all—that he is merely another inanimate object in an empty room where the brunette can voice her thoughts aloud. So he says nothing, but Regina continues without any further prompting.

"…That I have… strayed. Fallen. That I am not, perhaps, the person I should… be."

She says nothing further for a long while, so Charming risks speaking (because the question has burned on his tongue for several days now).

"And Emma? Why did you say you were doing this for her?"

The woman's normally olive skin looks pale in the dim light of the room. "I have come to realize I owe her many debts. And perhaps… not a few apologies. This seems a fitting start, wouldn't you agree?"

It's not a question that she wants answers, Charming knows, but despite himself, he can't help but feel that the answer to it is 'yes'.

[The potion melts the mirror, and part of the floor. It does not, however, open any portals.]

It's around attempt number eight that Charming notices that Regina is coming apart. She's slowly stopped trying to hide the dark circles under her eyes, and her hair is now pulled back from her face in a messy mockery of a ponytail that can't quite capture all of the black, wayward strands. And Charming's not exactly the observant type, but he's pretty sure she's worn the same grey shirt a few days in a row now.

"You do know they are safe, correct?" Regina asks, her voice low and gravely as she nicks his finger with the tip of one of Snow's kitchen knives (unsanitary, yes, but neither of them seems to care).

"Snow and Emma?" He asks slowly. "Yes." He doesn't clarify; doesn't feel like Regina needs (or deserves) to know that he will always be able to feel, in his gut, when Snow is truly in danger. It's not something she will ever understand, which begs the question: "But how do you?"

"Your daughter. I can... Feel her. Sense her. I believe my magic— it may have formed a sort of…tie between us when we opened the portal."

"Emma?" Charming asks, alarmed. The idea of his daughter connecting with Regina in any way does not sit well with him. "What do you mean, sense?"

Regina shakes her head, and though he repeatedly asks for clarification, he receives none.

[He gains nothing more from the attempt than a sore finger; he wants to think that Regina might have pricked it in a particular tender place on purpose, but knows the thought to be false. This certainty bothers him as much as their failure in their quest.]

"Something's wrong!" He's sure he locked the front door, but Regina somehow manages entrance, because she's barging through the door of his bedroom, and waking him from his fitful sleep, the night after attempt number ten.

But he isn't Prince Charming for nothing (as much as the Evil Queen had wished it, in turning him into David Nolan), and he leaps out of bed, his sword off of the floor and in his hand in less than a second. It's funny (funny as in odd, not ha-ha funny, not in the least) because his first instinct is to protect Regina from whatever it is that has her so distressed. Which is ridiculous, of course, on so many levels.

"What! What is it? What's happening?"

Regina looks at the gleaming sword in grasp and actually lets out a laugh; Charming can almost hear the way madness creeps around the edges of the sound.

"You fool," Regina gasps. "Thinking every problem can be solved with a sharp blade. But you can't reach them, can you? We can't reach her!" She groans and stumbles backwards, both hands gripping at her head, pulling at the hair at her temples.

"Reach who, Regina?" It's the only question he can think of asking, because he doesn't think he'll get much of a response if he goes with his gut instinct and asks 'what's wrong with you?'

"Emma!" Regina growls, sounding out of breath. "Your daughter!"

Charming likes to think he's pretty cool under pressure, but he experiences a sensation not felt in twenty-eight years upon hearing these words. Panic. For his daughter. "Emma? What—what's happening? What's going on? Regina!"

"I don't know. I don't—" She's trembling now, and as Charming steps closer, he can see the sweat collecting on her forehead. "It just—hurts—I—I think she's hurt." She takes a few stumbling backwards until her back presses against the wall; her legs give out shortly after and she slides to the floor, still clutching her head in her hands.

He's never felt more helpless in his entirely life (and that's saying something). He can't reach Emma, and he really doesn't know what to do with the former Evil Queen having a fit at his feet because of some supposed connection to his daughter, who is apparently feeling something similar or worse or different (or, or, or) and he just doesn't know what to do. But instinct mercifully takes over, and suddenly he's on his knees, on level with the shaking woman before him, not quite touching her, but whispering quiet encouragement. He's not sure if they're for her benefit or his.

"She's going to be okay," he says. But there's an unspoken addition at the end of the phrase; 'and you will be too.'

[Regina leaves after another hour or so; she spends most of the time with her head and her hands, biting at her bottom lip so hard it bleeds. She does not, however, allow even a single tear to escape her tightly shut eyes. When she does depart, she does so without any dramatics or explanations; only gruffly remarks that Emma, like the brunette herself, will survive.]

For the first time in weeks, Charming doesn't see Regina for the next several days. It makes him nervous, and not in the typical she-must-be-plotting-something way, either. No, he is nervous because he thinks something may have happened to her. And even though it's not a nervousness that comes from him wishing Regina well (because he's more concerned about how the woman may be affecting his daughter, truly) it still feels odd to be concerned about the Evil Queen, regardless of the reason.

He's not the only one who is feeling conflicted.

"Have—have you seen my… mom today?" Henry asks, his voice small and hesitant.

Charming scratches at the back of his neck. "No, I haven't, Henry."

"And— what about the day before that?"

"Nope. Not then either."

Henry's lips twitch into a frown. "Do you—I mean, she normally stops by. To help us. Maybe you should make sure she didn't… forget."

Something pulls at Charming's chest, because even though Henry had been Regina's biggest critic, stubbornly labeling her as the Evil Queen even when everyone thought him crazy, he was still raised by the woman, and that counts for a hell of a lot, no matter who you are, or how much you might fight against it. So Charming can't blame the kid for his barely concealed concern or the slight plea behind his words.

"You're right, Henry. She probably just lost track of time."

"Right. 'Cause she's been working so hard. To get back Emma and Grandma."

Charming nods. He doesn't trust himself to speak after that, only grabs his sword and pats Henry on the head, telling him to be good (he still hasn't figured out how to treat his grandson—the default seems to be something like how he might treat a dog, but he figures he'll have time to work on that later).

He does not encounter much traffic on his way to the Mayor's mansion. Most people in Storybrooke are still uncertain where, exactly, Regina's powers lie on the scale of non-existent to will-rip-me-to-pieces-with-magical-tree-roots, so they tend to stay away. As for those who know her magic is running on empty, well, they're not so ready to lynch her—not anymore—not after everything she's done over the past couple months. Those people, including Charming himself, don't really know what to do with the woman at all. So they simply leave her be. Hence, the light traffic.

Upon reaching the mansion, Charming feels his uneasiness grow. The yard, once meticulously maintained, now grows wild with weeds and tall grasses. Worse, bits of trash litter the area, seemingly blown out of the house by forces unknown, for the front door is open and swinging slightly on its hinges.

The whole thing is, quite frankly, creepy.

And Charming's not one to get shivers (aside from when Snow gives him that very particular look that means he's in very deep shit) but the sight of the abandoned yard does the trick.

Of course, that's nothing compared to what he finds when he steps through the swinging door, and into the kitchen.

It's weird, but the first thing he notices is that Regina is not wearing shoes. Stupid thing to notice— completely moronic detail to fixate on— but Charming can't remember having seen the mayor without shoes (nor the Evil Queen) and it just catches him off guard. And maybe it's just easier to focus on bare feet rather than the absolutely wild look in Regina's eyes when she looks up to find him in the doorway, or the impressively sharp knife that she grips, knuckles white, in her hand. Her left sleeve has been pulled back (not even neatly rolled) and she's holding her arm over the Hatters hat, which sits on the table (so innocently, the stupid thing).

"Regina—" He begins his eyes wide.

"Oh, don't bother, Charming. This is it. Don't you see?" Her voice is raspy and free from the typical careful infliction the woman had always placed on her words. "This is the only possible way. Don't you think I would choose any other option if I could? But the hat needs power. It needs magic to repair itself. Magic more powerful than either you or I can possibly help to possess—to afford." Here her eyes glint, and Charming wants to take a step back. "All magic comes with a price." She actually laughs. "A price! And I only have one currency left; the blood of one borne into magic."

"No. This isn't—there has to be—."

"She could have died! Emma could have died and I can't—" Her voice breaks. "I can't let that happen. Not when Henry asked me to save her. Not when she saved me. Not when—not when I can feel her every heartbeat, every moment of the day."


"Do not act you though you care, Charming. Do not act as though you weren't wanting this very thing a couple short months ago. This accomplishes everything, do you not see? I'm restoring the happy ending I stole from you so long ago! Bringing back your daughter, when I took her before. And at the cost of my life! Don't you see the poetry? The justice? How well it fits into one of your fairy tales! How neatly it all ends!" He would have thought the knife would shake in her hands, seeing as the rest of her is so unstable, but she holds it steady.

"Regina, don't!" He takes a step forward.

"Why not?" She hisses. "Why should you even care?"

He does care, but in a way he can't understand, let alone explain. So he does something unusual, for him; he sticks to logic.

"Emma." He says shortly, and it's enough. He immediately has Regina's full attention. "What if she's as tied to you as you are to her? What if, in doing this, you kill her? Then you'd both— And Henry—Henry will be left without either of his mothers. What then, Regina?"

Every part of Regina slumps; a puppet with her strings cut. She collapses into a chair and hunches forward onto the table, sliding that damned hat away from her as she completes the motion. But she does not drop the knife, and Charming approaches with caution.

"You don't understand," she says weakly. "You don't understand what it's like to feel this way."

Charming remembers much about the Evil Queen, but in that moment, he can see none of that woman in the tormented soul who seems to slowly be losing her grasp on her emotions—on her sanity, even. He supposes it's that—the disconnect between those two images of the brunette—that allows him to sit down next to Regina, unprotected from any assault (physical or magical) she might suddenly unleash.

But she doesn't even look up.

"I can't— I can't go another day feeling like this. She needs to come back. It's more than the physical. It's— I know when she's upset. Or worried. Or excited. I dream about her. Every night. And I— If she doesn't come back soon—" Regina does raise her head then, her eyes almost pleading. "You don't understand how it feels. You can't possibly understand."

Charming reaches over and takes the knife from her hand. She is complacent and resigned.

"I do," he says, and his voice is soft, but unyielding. "I understand perfectly."