Author's Note: See Prologue for disclaimer, warnings, rating, etc. This chapter takes place during the last half of Queen of Hearts. The gypsy character is not based on the real traditions or stories of the real Romani culture, it is a mish-mash of fantasy that I have weaved together in my head. While this is mainly a SwanQueen story, there are some scenes of other pairings, as mentioned in the summary. Enjoy and don't forget to vote SwanQueen!
Part I: The Return
Welcome to Storybrooke
Regina Mills half walked, half limped down the tidy streets of Storybrooke. Nobody spoke to her, they barely even looked at her. She was a pariah, The Evil Queen. She was the one that had cursed everyone and stolen their memories and their happy endings. Let them stare, she thought bitterly. Let them come, let them attack, she would suffer their pathetic peasant slings and arrows. They could say whatever they wanted, because it was all true, even if it was irrelevant to her. She was the Evil Queen, what would she care if some farmer jumped in her face to make accusations. Even if someone had been brave enough to try, though, she wouldn't have noticed. The world was out of focus and lazily tilted to the side. Flashes of noxious green continually flooded then receded from her vision, like waves on a beach. The magic she'd absorbed, cast with killer intent and powered by pilfered fairy dust, was slowly but surely killing her. She had endured pain over the years, plenty of it. Physical and magically delivered blows had rained down on her since she had been a child. All of that, yet nothing compared to the agony she was in now.
Every step she took was a new torture. Her empty stomach pitched violently and she gagged on the taste blood and bile on her tongue. Every time the green flashed in her vision the pain intensified, and she wasn't sure how much further she could go. Her home, a few blocks away, seemed just as unreachable as the moon. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. She would not give the people what they wanted to see. She would not break down, not here and not now. She would make it home and there, surrounded by the life she had thought was her happy ending, she would die.
Her skin was on fire, every nerve was coated in acid and electrified. Everything, every single part of her body, hurt. Her fingers and palms, how she had absorbed most of the spell, throbbed and crackled with pain that paralyzed her hands. Her bones had been hollowed out, marrow replaced with white hot molten steel. Her arteries and veins were filled with lye. The worst of it, though, was her heart. Her weak, loving, heart that had betrayed her time and time again. Her heart was an Old War mace, covered in razor sharp spikes. It pierced her lungs and heart in a thousand places and dug deeper into her chest with every beat of her rapidly weakening heart. Her heartbeat was out of rhythm and painfully erratic. Her entire body shuddered uncontrollably every time it squeezed. Her chest was unbearably tight and she could barely breathe. It felt like she was tightly squeezed into an iron maiden corset. How ironic it was, Regina could barely form the thought amidst the chaos of pain, that the Evil Queen had traded her life for those of the Savior and her thrice damned mother and no one would know or even care.
She had wandered off the sidewalk and into the street. The only way she knew this was because she had twisted her ankle when she had suddenly come to the edge of the sidewalk and stepped into the gutter. Maybe a car would hit her. It would solve everyone's problems, Regina felt a twisted grin cross her face at the idea. Storybrooke would be rid of its Evil Queen and she would be out of the hideous pain she was in. She had held it in, masked her pain at first. Of course it hadn't been so severe then. She had been almost fine at the well, strong enough to welcome Ms. Swan back and accept her thanks. Then there had been the sickingly sweet scene at Gold's pawnshop. The magic's poisonous bite had made itself known there. Then again, she always got a little nauseous when Snow and her farm hand prince found each other. By the time the happy family left for Granny's Diner she was having problems focusing. She had pushed past Gold, ignoring the imp no matter how caustic his words were, and held her head up high. By the time she had walked out his door, however, she had known that something was very wrong with her.
She could see three blurry figures standing in the road ahead of her. They were foggy, indistinct and she did not recognize them. She knew every face in Storybrooke, so these were hallucinations. Her brain, feverish with pain, had conjured phantoms to continue her torture. They could do their worst, she couldn't imagine any pain worse than she was already in. The green rolled in again and she shuddered to a stop, unsure if she could make it another step
"What's wrong with her?"
One of the hallucinations on the far right swam into focus. It was a young woman in what had once been a beautiful gown. There was a crown on her head. She was yet another princess. Her face faded in and out of focus. Regina wasn't sure, but she looked like one of the many princesses she had been forced to interact with by her mother. How strange.
The name rolled thickly off her tongue, slowed and slurred by the fact that the bones of her face felt like it was made of parchment stretched over broken glass.
"It does not matter. She is the Evil Queen."
Another of her hallucinations, this one dressed in armor, stepped in front of the princess and was pointing a sword at her. The woman's, Regina was sure it was a woman, face was covered by chainmail, but there was fire in her dark eyes. Maybe she was real. Maybe she would kill her. Maybe the Charming clan had hired her as an executioner. Regina wasn't sure if it was the weakness in her knees or in her heart that made her drop to the roadbed, but either way she could no longer stand. She had always promised she would meet her end on her feet, but what was one more broken promise? She tried to laugh, but it turned into a cough that burnt like a knife in her lungs. The sword above her shined in the sunlight and Regina forced herself to look up at its wielder. She might be on her knees, but she still had her pride. They would never take that from her.
"You will not hurt her."
The last figure stepped around the princess and the warrior closer to her. This one was dressed in a long purple cloak that masked her face. Green crashed into her vision again, but Regina did not need her eyes. She recognized that voice, the warm raspy words and musical accent, and immediately knew that she was either dying or hallucinating. That voice, and the woman it belonged to, was long dead and buried. She had seen this woman's heart crushed to dust only inches from her face. There was no coming back from that: no spells, no true love's kiss, only death. The green was not receding and the pain in her chest was so sharp that she doubled over, one hand on the ground and one on her chest.
Cool hands touched her flame hot face and tilted it up, "Oh my Little Nightingale, what trouble have you gotten yourself into?"
The pet name, not heard since her childhood, was the last thing Regina heard before the sparkling green in her eyes darkened to black.
She had fought hoards of Huns in the service of an empire that shunned her. She had hunted viscous monsters who had once been men. She had seen curses cast and curses broken. She had seen monsters rise up from the grave to terrorize the living. She had watched a woman climb a beanstalk in search of a way home. She had traveled what many would consider both far and wide. She had just crossed from one realm to another via a portal. She had never, ever, experienced anything like pushing Aurora's heart back in her chest. She had not expected the rush of magic that had run up her fingers and into her own heart. She had seen Aurora's face in many lights with many expressions on it, but never like that. She had been so breathtakingly beautiful that her heart felt lighter than air. Her eyes, a richer blue then the sky or the sea, had met her own and Mulan had been lost. The way she had looked at her, Mulan could not describe it. Her emotions, usually so controlled, had run through her like a stampeding cavalry. She, momentarily, let herself want. She had not thought of Phillip or of protecting Aurora. In that moment, that instant of magic and wonder, she had wanted to lean forward and kiss the princess she had sworn an oath to protect. She had wanted Phillips's fiancé with every fiber of her being. Then it was over, as abruptly as it had begun.
If there was a way to rescue Phillip's soul they had to peruse it. They would need the wraith's medallion, though. That item, they both knew, was not in their world. They had returned to Lake Nostos in hopes of finding something, a clue or indication of where they might go next. They had gotten a lot more than just a clue.
"Is that a ship?"
Mulan nodded, at a momentary loss for words. She had seen ships before, she had sailed across the sea more than once. This ship was very different from the ones she had traveled upon before. It was floating through the middle of the forest, for one thing.
"I don't understand why you couldn't just poof it straight to the lake, Love."
Mulan grabbed Aurora and pulled her back, placing her safely behind a large oak tree.
"The things you don't understand, Capitan, could fill an ocean."
Mulan didn't bother to shush Aurora's small gasp. She was not pleased to see Cora and Hook either. Her hand fell its familiar position on the hilt of her sheathed sword.
"So you fan levitate my ship the entire way from port to lake, but you can't just poof it. Honestly it sounds like you're doing it the hard way. It's magic, after all."
They stopped, they were far too close for Mulan's taste, less than two yards away, but she dared not move. The foliage was thick here, and her armor was dark enough that they might blend in just enough.
"And what do you know about magic?" Cora's words were delivered with an angry hiss.
Hook held up his hands-hand and hook, Mulan mentally corrected, in surrender.
"Not enough to fill a thimble. I was just trying to pass the journey back to the portal in a friendly manner. All my rum is in the cargo hold."
She didn't have to turn around to know that Aurora's eyes had widened. The portal was still open? The portal that could take them to the Land of Storybrooke and the medallion they needed?
She waited until Cora and Hook were further away before she turned. Aurora mouthed the word 'Portal' to her. Mulan nodded gravely, and silently replied 'hurry'. They travelled through the woods, and despite Aurora's dress getting snagged on errant stumps, tree branches and thistle bushes, they beat Hook and Cora there. Mulan's eyes widened at the site. The portal was not the same as it had been. It was a whirling vortex or water. They could not jump into that, the only thing that would appear in Storybrooke would be their drowned corpses.
"You will need a ship to navigate that portal."
Aurora jumped and let out an undignified squeak. Mulan pivoted and pulled her sword from its sheaf in one smooth motion. She held it up, ready to kill and die for her princess.
"I mean you no harm."
The woman, clad in a dark purple cloak, held up two empty hands. Though she could not see the woman's face, Mulan immediately recognized the style of cloak. The woman's dusky skin only confirmed her identification.
The woman dropped her hands, "Warrior of the Emperor's Army."
"Who are you?" Aurora stepped around Mulan, her voice held a regal tone to it and Mulan almost smiled at the sound.
"I am a traveler on a path that is very similar to yours."
Mulan put a protective hand on Aurora's shawl-covered shoulder, "No. Our paths are nothing alike."
The woman turned her head and when Mulan followed her eye line she could see the tall masts of the ship coming through the trees.
"I am going to steal away on that ship when it sails through the portal. You may try to steal away without me, but you will be caught."
There was no question in the woman's voice.
"How do you know they won't catch you?"
Mulan was impressed with Aurora, she was holding her own.
"A Romani is only seen when they want to be seen. This is known."
Mulan had heard stories about gypsy magic, but trusted neither the gypsies nor magic.
"Mulan." She turned to Aurora. The woman's large blue eyes were full of unshed tears, "We must get through to the other world, for Phillip."
Damn her eyes. Damn her soft voice. Damn her beautiful princess face. Damn, Mulan thought caustically, her own traitorous heart.
She pointed her sword at the Gypsy's heart, "Your word that you can get us on that ship unseen?"
The woman nodded.
"And you will not hurt the Princess?"
The woman paused, "I will hurt neither of you, Warrior, my word."
The ship was breaking through the trees and Cora and Hook would be there any minute. She knew only a few things about the Romani Gypsies, but one of them was that their word was unbreakable-magically unbreakable.
"We will go with you."
The journey from The Enchanted Forest to the Kingdom of Storybrooke had been stomach-churning and unsettling. The Gypsy had sneaked them onto the ship by making them invisible. She had waved her hand right in front of Hook's stubble-ridden face and he had seen nothing. His eyes hadn't tracked the movement and his pupils had not reacted to any change in the light hitting his eyes. They had been truly invisible. She had momentarily considered slaying both pirate and witch where they stood, but had not. Finding Phillip for Aurora was her journey and she would not stray from it. They had hidden themselves in a dark, cramped corner of the cargo hold and had to brace themselves. It had been like riding out a typhoon, wild and dangerous. Mulan had pressed Aurora into a corner and braced herself in front of the princess with all her might, unwilling to let the woman tumble around or be hit by the many lose boxes and ropes that were flying around the hold.
She had repeatedly reminded herself, as her arms and legs burned from the strain of fighting to stay upright and steady, why she was doing what she was doing. The answers they needed, namely how to rescue Phillip's soul, rested with the Wraith's amulet and it was here in this Kingdom of Storybrooke. She was sworn to protect Aurora and for Aurora to be happy, she needed Phillip. She had started this journey with Phillip, to find Aurora, and had come full circle. It was her duty, her quest, her one purpose-to see Aurora and Phillip reunited, no matter how much that idea made her heart hurt. There were dangers ahead. Finding Phillip's soul would not be easy. Living beings did not belong in the realm of souls. The Dark One was also here, as was Cora and the Evil Queen. Mulan would not feel safe until she found their old allies. They had not made the easiest of traveling companions, but they were honorable. She had found that though she was as unskilled warrior as she'd ever seen, Emma Swan had a sense of honor that was very close to her own. She liked the blonde woman's spirit. She would be pleased to fight by her side again, though hopefully not ogres. She even trusted Snow White, the queen separated from her love.
She did not, however, trust the gypsy. Helpful or not, Mulan could not bring herself to trust the robed woman. Her mistrust was obviously well founded as the woman knelt down beside the Evil Queen and spoke to her in the same way one would speak to a child. She was soft and gentle with the dark woman. She shifted her grip on her sword and put herself between Aurora and the other two women. The gypsy woman made no move towards Aurora, though. All of her attention was on the fallen queen. Mulan's raven brow rose when the woman bent down and picked the Queen up and cradled her like a child. The gypsy was strong, far stronger than her willowy form appeared to be.
"This is where our paths separate."
The woman turned on her bare heel and began to walk away from them, the queen's deadweight in her arms. The belt of gold coins that peeked out from beneath the cloak tinkled merrily as she moved away from them.
Aurora, too kind and curious for her own good, reached out to the other woman, "But how will you know where she lives? We don't even know where we are!"
The woman, she had never told them her name, smiled in the shadow of her cloak. "I will know." She started walking again, and left them alone. She had not said many words to them, and offered nothing more for goodbye. It was as quick and undramatic as their initial meeting, only in reverse. Mulan, for herself, felt much better without the woman. She knew, in the same way she knew the sun would rise in the morning and set in the evening that they would see the gypsy again.
For the moment, though, it was just her and Aurora again. That was how she preferred it. Their problem, however, still remained. How were they going to find Emma Swan and Snow White in this foreign land? She had never been anywhere like this Storybrooke. Emma and Snow had told them that it was different, but Mulan had a feeling that different was an understatement. She looked around at the landscape. There were buildings made of oddly-tinted wood, smooth stone and shining glass. The air smelled different, and she could taste both the nearby sea and the forest on the wind. It was loud, there were people talking and roars of far off beasts that she couldn't identify. Tall metal trees were planted in stone and everything was utterly different then anything she'd ever seen before. There were giant, hulking creatures of metal and glass all around and the few people, oddly clothed and armed with strange boxes small enough to fit in their palms, on the streets were staring at them. Mulan reached out and pulled Aurora closer to her, and the princess moved to her side without protest. Though she did not say it, Mulan knew that Aurora was afraid. They did not know who was friend and who was foe. She raised her sword, her faithful companion in war and peace times, into a defensive position and looked around, wary and ready to strike at anyone who made a move towards the princess.
"I am Fa-Mulan and I am looking for Emma Swan and Snow White."
No one answered her. They continued to stare. Mulan looked all around her, very little looked familiar. There was no visible castle or even banners to announce who the monarchs were. Had they even come to the right place?
"Does anyone know of Emma Swan and Snow White?"
One man, dressed in an odd bulky clothe armor wiped his black-stained hands on a rag, "They're down at Granny's Diner."
Mulan looked the man up and down. His hair was short and dark and the fancy script sewn into his clothe armor read 'Michael'
"What's a diner?"
Mulan blew out an annoyed breathe at Aurora's question, but she could not find fault in it. She did not know what the odd word meant either. She had learned the common tongue of the Enchanted Forest when she was an adult and still struggled with some words. She pieced it together the best she could and could hazard a guess.
The man tossed the clothe over his shoulder, "More or less."
He sighed, "It's going to be a whole lot easier to show you where it is, then tell you."
Aurora nodded, and Mulan spoke for the both of them, "Lead on."