A/N: This little one-shot hit me last night so well, here you are. Takes place roughly, I guess, after QoH though honestly anytime after Cora shows up. This is a bit more melancholy, but I think an interesting character study overall, yeah?
Content Warning: Some salty language, some violence and a couple f/f kisses.
Thanks in advance for the read, and hope you enjoy.
Everything burns eventually.
She's been alive long enough to know this, to truly understand it. The alcohol surging like a wildfire through her sleep-deprived system helps to really drive this heartbreaking point home. Or perhaps the scotch just gives her liquid courage.
But no, what she's doing right now isn't courage. This is cowardice, and deep down, she knows it. For once, though, she truly embraces her weakness.
It's a simple necessary evil she tells herself between sips of scotch that no longer feels harsh going down. She seats herself on the floor in front of her fireplace, legs folded neatly beneath her, and gently tosses another glossy photograph into the brightly colored flames. The picture takes a moment to burn, the stock strong and heavy, but when it finally does, it sends up a cloud of dark smoke.
And then the fire gets brighter.
She throws in another picture, and takes another sip.
She's almost through the stack of photographs now, and the excruciating pain in her chest (her heart, she knows) is less, she thinks. This is a lie, of course, but she's been telling herself lies for so very long now that she can't see how one more could hurt.
Especially since she needs this lie more than she has ever needed any other. She thinks that maybe if she can let go, if she can separate – or at least convince her mother that she has – then maybe there's still some hope to be had.
For the others at least.
"What are you doing, my darling?" she hears, and she smiles, but doesn't bother to respond. She listens to the sound of soft footsteps as they approach. When her mother had arrived at the house, she doesn't know. The woman seems to come and go as she pleases these days, stopping only every now and again to ensure that the destruction she has left behind her is complete and thorough.
It is, Regina muses. So very complete. Yes, her mother has done a wonderful job of ensuring that the former queen's soul has been torn asunder once again.
Regina picks up the next picture, and makes to toss it towards the flames, intending to not even look at it before she delivers it to its final resting place. Seeing the images on it can only break her right now. They can only detour her.
And she can't allow that. If she does, they are all lost.
Better it be just her then. What's the line? Oh yes. No one mourns the wicked.
"Why are you throwing his pictures away?" her mother asks. So cold and suspicious, and yet so curious. It takes all she has not to shiver in reaction.
"Because I no longer need them," the former queen answers finally, her voice just as cold, and then as if to prove her point, she tosses the photo in.
Unfortunately, the photograph lands wrong, pointing up towards her instead of down and towards the flames, and she does see the image on the paper.
She sees her son.
He's about seven in the picture, and he's smiling widely, like he hasn't a trouble in the world. He's missing a tooth up front, but he clearly couldn't care less. His brown hair is mussed and his eyes are beaming. He's beautiful.
Her perfect little boy.
Her face contorts, and for a moment she fights like hell to keep control, to not break down and give in to the desperate feelings. To not let her emotions sweep through her. How she manages to actually pull it off, she doesn't know.
Desperation, she thinks. This has to work. It's all she has left.
It's her only play.
"But you love him," her mother says, and again, there's that cruel curiosity. It's the same voice a lunatic uses the first time he rips the wings off a butterfly.
"Love is weakness," Regina answers, almost automatically.
"You've never believed that."
She turns to face her mother, her expression careful and unreadable. This is more Mayor Mills than it is the Queen or the girl she'd once been. This is the politician refusing to let anyone actually see who she is. "You would be surprised what I believe. Turns out I learned my lessons very well, Mother."
"Which means what?"
Regina shrugs her shoulders. "It means that the boy was little more than…a distraction. Something to pass time with. He means nothing to me."
"Ten years you've cared for him. And for ten years, you loved him."
"And for ten years, he hated me." Dull, emotionless, eyes staring straight ahead.
"You can still have him if you want him. You can have them both."
She feels her heart begin to pound, and for a moment, she can't breathe. It takes everything to say quietly, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't lie to me, Regina. I know you too well for that. This isn't just about the child. This is about the Swan girl as well. You feel for her. If you want her –"
"You're mistaken; I feel nothing for either of them," Regina answers, eyes still focused and unwavering. Were her words not breaking her own heart irreparably, she'd almost be impressed by her ability to face her mother and not back down.
Thankfully, though, she's holding strong for once. It's more important than ever now. Her mothers' words are little but silky lies; she'd never allow anyone who might love her daughter more than she could to live. Best, then, that Cora think of Henry and Emma as mere playthings of little consequence or importance.
"I see," Cora says simply. Her mother studies her intensely, trying to figure out if this is a game, but they've been away from each other for so long now that perhaps Cora has finally lost her ability to penetrate her daughter's shattered soul with just a flicker of her dark cruel eyes. "And what of this town?"
"It can burn," Regina says softly, and throws another photograph in. There's only one left now, and she prays that her mother will leave her to destroy it alone.
"Yes, it can," Cora agrees with a smile that almost looks happy – assuming Cora has the ability to feel that emotion. "And it will." She leans down and kisses Regina on the forehead. "We'll do it together. As we were always meant to."
"We will," Regina nods, and what she means to say is that they'll die together, and perhaps that, too, is what they were always meant to do.
"Finish ridding yourself of your past, and then get some rest. Tomorrow, we will remind these foolish peasants of the penalty of daring to oppose us."
Regina smiles at this. "Thank you, Mother," she says.
"For setting me free." It's a strange statement, but if Cora realizes it, she doesn't show such. In fact, she seems almost prideful about the words she hears.
"That's what mothers do, my sweet girl," the woman states without irony.
She's gone a moment later, back off to wherever she'd been before. Her mother has never been one to stay in one place long. Perhaps she's afraid that if she doesn't keep moving, her own demons will finally catch up with her.
Regina knows the feeling all too well.
She waits a few minutes – really waits – to ensure that Cora is completely gone before she decides to torture herself by turning the last picture over.
It's of them, of course. It had to be. She doesn't know when it was taken, but the photograph shows Emma and Henry together, both of them laughing.
She traces her fingers across the glossy paper, and tries to pretend that she doesn't see the tears rolling down her nose and splashing against Henry's beaming face. This is the right thing to do, she thinks. The only thing to do.
Emma will protect him, she knows.
Emma will do what has to be done, she hopes.
She motions to throw the photograph into the fire, but finds that her hand refuses to move. Her brain insists upon the action, but her heart won't allow it.
And so she folds the picture up instead, and slides it into the pocket of her pants. Her eyelids heavy, but sleep nowhere close, she finishes off the scotch, and then curls up on the couch to watch the fire until it burns itself out.
Regina's mistake is in thinking that Emma will just accept what she herself has already accepted – the inevitability of the former queen's defeat and death. The older woman should have known better, of course; the blonde sheriff has always been too stubborn for her own damned good.
It's near to morning when the damnable woman climbs through her bedroom window, and then just stands there, framed perfectly by the breaking light, looking exactly like the brilliant savior that she is. Her blonde hair flows haphazardly down over her shoulders, and it, too, catches sunlight in a way that seems almost majestic. Her hands are rested on her hips, and she's looking straight at the former queen who is lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
"I have a favor to ask," Regina says after several moments have passed.
The brunette chuckles. "You didn't even let me ask it."
"I'm not doing you any favors unless you agree to fight."
"I'll fight," Regina tells her, but doesn't sit up. "Just not on your side."
"Why the hell not? You want to defeat her just as much as I do."
"I do, but I also know we can't. I can't."
"So better for you to try to kill us?"
"That's not how this is going to go down. You're the one who has to kill me. You know that, Emma. You've always known that." She stands up from the bed and crosses over to the dresser. She opens a box sitting atop it, and extracts a beautifully jeweled knife. "This should do it." She holds the blade out to Emma, her gaze unusually unfocused, pointed down towards the carpet.
"I don't want your knife, Regina. I won't use it. I won't kill you. You think I could live with that? Goddammit, would you at least look at me when you're telling me that you want me to murder you?"
The former queen finally looks up, and Emma's not one bit surprised to see the ashy tear-stained cheeks or the bloodshot eyes. "Better?" Regina asks.
"No, none of this is better." She steps towards her lover, hands stretched out as if to touch her. "You and me, we can do this. We can stop her –"
"Together, yes, I know. It seems everyone wants me to fight with them. How ironic that no one ever wanted to stand with me before the fighting started." She puts the knife back down on the dresser, but doesn't put it away.
"That's bullshit and you know it."
Regina chuckles. "Perhaps." She sighs then, and gestures towards her closet. "I'd like it if you would choose the red and black suit hung up next to the door. I think I'll look good in it. Assuming there's enough of me left to bury."
These are completely the wrong words, apparently, because three seconds after they're out of Regina's mouth, Emma is across the room and has her slammed up against the headboard, a hand wrapped around the former queen's throat.
"Fuck you," the blonde growls, her eyes a deep violent green. Her lip is raised into a sneer, the expression hideously wrong upon her beautiful face.
"I hardly think there's time for that," Regina answers coldly. "But if you think you can be quick enough…"
The hold on her throat tightens.
"Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you."
"No, dear, at least say what you're actually thinking right now," Regina shoots back, straining against the hand. "Tell me you hate me."
"I hate you."
Regina laughs at this, the sound almost hysterical. "Feels good, doesn't it?"
Emma pulls back, but her hand stays across Regina's throat, still tight, still cutting off oxygen. "No, because I love you just as much."
"Don't say that." Tears prick her eyes. "I need you to hate me."
The hand finally drops away from her throat. "I guess we have a problem then because I don't." She takes a breath, "Why won't you fight her?"
"Because if I do, I will lose like I always lose. I can't defeat her. I never could. If I try now, it won't be my life I pay with, it will be yours and it will be his."
Her hand climbs upwards, shaking fiercely. She places it against Emma's cheek, dancing fingers over warm skin. They slide slowly over Emma's slightly open lips, and she's not all that surprised to feel the light kiss laid across the tips. She's even less surprised when the blonde places a hand over hers.
"I won't do it. I won't kill you. I won't."
"You will. And once you have, she'll go to me, and that will be your one chance to take her down. She'll be vulnerable for a few seconds. In her own way, she does love me, and that's when you'll be able to stop her. Two for the price of one."
"You can't make me do this." The words sound petulant even to the sheriff's own ears, but she wouldn't pull them back even if she could.
"Oh, but, I can and will. Make no mistake, my love, I will keep coming at you and him until you have no choice but to defend yourself with deadly force."
"Kiss me." It's abrupt, but Emma understands the desperation perfectly.
"No." Because she won't let this be goodbye.
The former queen nods slowly. "You should go then."
"It doesn't have to be like this." She reaches out and grabs Regina's hand, squeezing it as tight as she can. "Please. I don't want to hurt you."
"I know, and that makes you the first person in my life who hasn't wanted to, but I need you to protect our son. Do you understand me?"
Emma answers by surging forward and pressing her lips as hard as she can against Regina's. The contact is passionate, but devastating in its rawness, and for a moment, Regina wonders if the kiss alone will break her.
Fingers weave through her hair, and pull her closer. A hand slides under the hem of her shirt and settles flat against her spine. The kiss deepens, and threatens to become so much more if she'd allow it to. But she can't, and they both know it.
She tastes salt and wonders which one of them is crying.
"I won't do it," Emma says once more as she pulls away, and Regina sees that there are tears splashing down her cheeks, dripping down off of her chin.
"Then you will destroy us both." The former queen steps back, breaking the connection between the two of them. "You're the Savior. Take the knife, and do your job. That's what you're here for. To vanquish the Evil Queen. So do it."
"I hate you."
"Good. It'll make it easier to get over what you have to do."
"If you make me do this, I'll never forgive you for it."
"You will. When you realize it was the only way to protect him."
Emma simply shakes her head. Then, quietly, "What was the favor?"
"Right. That." She reaches into her pocket and extracts the folder up picture. She presses it into Emma's hands. "Make sure this is buried with me."
And then she turns and exits the room, leaving Emma to stand there alone, sunlight washing over, making the tears on her cheeks sparkle.
She looks down at the picture in her hand, unfolds it and sees her face and Henry's looking up at her, twin smiles greeting her.
Defiance burns through her.
"Trust me," Emma says softly, and though she's the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, it's the single most absurd thing that she's ever said to her parents. Her green eyes are determined, however, and it's quite clear to everyone in the room that she believes every word that she's saying.
"This is madness," Snow answers. "They will kill you."
"No, she won't." She steps over to the window, and looks outside. From where they're hiding out at the Sheriff's Station, she has a fairly good vantage point from which to see all of fires burning hotly through the town (there have been a slew of injuries, but thankfully so far, no fatalities. It's like Cora has been playing with her food, and Regina has just been going through the motions of it all).
"Who? Cora or Regina?" Snow presses, joining her at the window, and placing a hand protectively around her daughters' forearm.
"Cora will try, but she can't take my heart, and I think whatever this power I have is, I think it'll protect me from almost everything she throws at me."
"You hope," Charming corrects. "You don't know."
"I have faith."
"Now isn't the time for faith," Red tells her.
Emma turns to face her. "Now is exactly the time for faith. I haven't had a lot of it in my life, but I feel in my heart that this is right. She won't let me die."
"You mean Regina," Snow says.
Emma nods her head slowly, sadly. "She doesn't want to kill me, she wants me to kill her, and then kill Cora. With this." She motions to the knife.
"They maybe we should do what she wants," Charming offers, having the good sense to look vaguely queasy about his own words. "It'll all be over."
"Not for me, and not for Henry," Emma answers.
"Okay," Snow says, nodding her head in understanding of her daughters' words. "What's your plan, then? What is that you think you can make happen?"
"I can make her stand up to her mother. I can make her fight back."
"She won't let me die," Emma says again. "And this is all we have. Gold is standing on the sidelines and won't fight with us, and Blue isn't strong enough to take them both on. Regina is our only chance to beat Cora here."
"Why would she help us? She's chosen to stand with her mother."
"No, she hasn't. She's afraid and she's broken. She doesn't believe she's strong enough to defeat her mother. She thinks this is the only way to do it."
"If you're wrong," Charming starts.
"I'm not. Please, let me try to save her. Let me try to save us all."
"Don't make us lose you again," Snow whispers.
"I won't." She thinks about asking them to ensure Henry is protected and loved should she be mistaken, but then quickly pushes that away. She slides a hand into the pocket of her jacket, and feels the folded up picture there. Henry is safe right now, hidden with Archie and Granny in an underground bunker somewhere.
The next time she sees him, this will all be over.
Unless she fails. Unless she's wrong about Regina.
No, there's no more room for doubts.
It's time to head towards the fire, and hope to hell that it doesn't burn her.
Cora actually smiles when she sees the blonde sheriff walking towards them.
"She's alone," the older woman states, eyebrow lifted. They're standing in the courtyard of City Hall, like two queens looking for their palace to rule from.
So far, they've put on a hell of a light show, but not much more than that.
The Queen of Hearts is about ready to make a few bold if not deadly statements. Maybe take a few heads and hearts along the way just for the fun of it.
"I don't understand," Regina says softly, and she doesn't. This isn't how this is supposed to go. Emma is supposed to be here, for sure, but she's supposed to have the rest of her family around her. And half of this goddamned town.
But it's just her, and what the hell is she thinking?
"Regina," Emma says then, and comes to a stop in front of them. She has her fathers' sword in her hand, but it's mostly just decoration, fairly useless against their magic. She lifts her eyes up, and stares directly at the former mayor.
"And what is this?" Cora asks. "Such foolish bravery."
Emma ignores her, looking right at Regina. "I won't do it." She reaches down to her belt and extracts the blade that the former queen had given to her the previous night. She holds it up and then drops it to the ground. The sword follows after it, a symbolic gesture meant to signify not surrender but rather faith.
"You're going to have to kill me."
"That can be arranged," Cora answers, and then stretches her fingers out and sends a shockwave of bright light bouncing towards the blonde. It hits her hard in the chest, and for a moment, Emma can't breathe nor think.
It takes everything she has not to scream.
She looks up finally, seeing joy on Cora's face, and absolute panic and fear on Regina's. "I'm not afraid of you," she tells her brunette lover.
"You should be." And this time Regina's the one that lights her up. A wave of energy bursts from her hands, this one much more harsh and painful. This time, Emma can't help but scream as she feels her bones compress and crack.
Once the energy stops, Emma looks up. "I won't hurt you."
Regina just about screams in response, and then steps up the energy output. Even through the pain, Emma knows what this. This is being pushed up against a wall. This is an attempt to force her hand, to make her fight back.
"You're playing with her," Cora suggests after Emma slumps to the ground, breathing heavily, and gasping for air.
"I'm enjoying my victory," Regina states, sounding very much like she isn't.
"Perhaps or perhaps I was right, and you do feel for her." Again with the curiosity.
"I feel nothing."
"You're lying," Emma says. She looks right at Regina, and smiles. "You can hurt me all you need to, but I know you won't kill me. I know you won't. You love me."
She's blown backwards a few seconds later, and for a moment, everything goes hazy and dark, and she wonders if she was wrong, so terribly wrong.
But then she hears the sound of cold laughter.
"She's right. You are in love with the daughter of Snow White," Cora announces, her disbelief clear.
"No." She sounds to Emma's ears like she's coming apart.
"Don't deny it to me, Regina. Did you not learn your lesson before? This silly girl will destroy you if you let her. I won't let her come between us like this."
"Kill her, Regina or I will. You need to be free of such weaknesses. Take her heart from her if you want it and crush it. Be free of her."
"Yes, Mother." She steps towards Emma, standing over her, and that's when Emma realizes that Regina has thrown her back towards where the knife was dropped. Each magical push was meant to get her back there.
"Regina, fight, "Emma growls out.
"I can't." And then she extends her hand and puts it atop Emma's chest, fingers pressing against her skin, and then a moment later, into it.
It's the ultimate invasion, and despite her faith, Emma startles.
She knows that Cora can't take her heart, but she has a fairly good idea that Regina can. Both metaphorically and physically.
"Please," the former queen replies, eyes dropping down to the knife.
Emma shakes her head. "No. You want my heart, take it."
And then just like that, the game is over.
With a loud anguished cry, Regina falls back and away, crumbling to her knees, head in her hands, fingers threaded through her dark hair.
It's the sound of a scream a moment later that makes the former queen finally look up. She sees her mother rushing towards her, hands out, furious. And then suddenly Emma is up in the air, clawing at her throat for air.
"You little bitch," Cora growls. "You will not take my daughter from me."
"I already have," Emma retorts, her words little more than sharp gasps.
"Well then perhaps it's time for you to meet her last True Love," Cora says, squeezing her hand as if to crush every bone in Emma's body. Apparently, Emma's super savior power can't protect her from gravity caving in on her.
But a knife can.
It all happens so very slowly. One moment, Cora is standing under Emma's flailing body, a palm up, her fingers clenching, and then the next she's falling backwards, her hand stretched outwards in disbelief. "Regina?" she gasps.
"I'm sorry," the former mayor says, and she truly sounds as though she is as she watches her mother tumble to the ground, the knife that she'd intended Emma to kill her with now imbedded into the middle of Cora's stomach.
"Love is weakness," the older woman gasps even as she claws for Regina's hand, and desperately tries to hold onto it.
"Maybe, but it's my weakness." She drops down beside her mother and places her forehead against Cora's. She holds the contact firm until the older woman stops breathing, and then finally, she stumbles backwards and away, blindly falling to the ground as energy bleeds out of her.
She feels arms wrap around her then, shaking and unsteady, but still there.
"I couldn't…" the brunette whispers between almost violent sobs.
"I know," is all Emma says to her, her voice low and pained. "And I'm here. I'm right here."
Regina's only answer is to a place a hand over her still beating heart – one which feels like it's currently burning up with pain and sadness and loss and hurt.
They're standing on the beach together, side-by-side, watching as the hastily constructed funeral pyre burns. It's an oddly respectful going away party for someone that Emma views as a horrific monster, but she says not a word in protest, just watches the flames dance their way up into the night sky.
Earlier, there had been others here, but now it's just the two of them.
"I don't have any pictures of her," Regina says suddenly, knowing that she won't need to explain herself to her companion.
"Do you want any?"Emma queries, arms wrapped around her sore ribs. Nothing is broken, but she still thinks that come tomorrow, she's going to have some wonderfully colorful bruises to show off.
"She was still my mother, and she did love me."
Emma says nothing because every answer that comes into her mind feels cold and hurtful. She can't even begin to understand the complexity of the feelings that Regina has towards the woman who had so cruelly shaped her.
"You don't understand," Regina says after several minutes.
"I don't think I need to," Emma replies. "All I care about is that you're okay."
"I know, but until you are, I'll be here. After that as well, I guess," Emma tells her as she moves behind Regina, and places her arms around the woman's torso. The contact is slightly uncomfortable, but Emma accepts this willingly. Sometimes, pain is proof of life.
Times like now.
The brunette turns her head to look at her. "But what if I never am okay? What if I'm always this broken? Will you stay with me the whole time?"
"Yes," Emma answers before pressing a light kiss to the brunette's neck.
"My mother was right about one thing, then."
"You are a fool."
"I'll take that as a compliment." She slips her hand into her jacket, and pulls the picture out. "This is yours." She presses it into Regina's hand. "Love isn't your weakness, Regina, it's your strength. You just never realized it."
"And you? Do you still hate me as much as you love me?"
"I don't hate you at all."
"You said otherwise last night."
"You were trying to get me to kill you. It kind of pissed me off."
"It was a good plan."
"It was a shitty plan." Emma retorts before laying down another kiss.
"I suppose it was." She drops her head back against Emma's chest.
"Let me take you home," Emma asks.
"She doesn't need you anymore."
"Maybe not, but I'm her daughter, and this is where I should be."
"Do you want me to stay?"
"You don't have to."
"But I will if you need me to."
There are no more questions after that. Emma just pulls her arms tighter around Regina, settles her chin on the older woman's shoulder and watches the orange flames from the funeral pyre rise high into the cold night sky.
Together, they watch the Queen of Hearts burn.