CHAPTER TWELVE
The Weak

It hurt to breathe.

That depraved woman's weapon had ripped a hole through her flesh, the sensation causing a fire to rage through her body and compress her lungs. It was unbearable, and although Cora knew of pain, the effect of this world's weapons was unlike anything else she had ever felt before. And oh, it enraged her, to have allowed such a thing to come to pass. Cora had believed her plan foolproof, but then again, perhaps she shouldn't have put her faith in a man; for what were they, other than the very definition of a fool?

She was loathed to admit that she hadn't foreseen this. She believed the pirate's need for revenge would outweigh his conscience, but perhaps he cared less for his dead lover than he was apt to admit. Why else would he throw away his chance to avenge her? In the end though, hearts and their emotions were unpredictable things; and Cora, of all people, should have known that. It was why she had ripped her own out years ago.

It mattered little, however. Cora was not stung by his betrayal, but he would certainly die for it regardless. The man's insubordination had complicated matters, and now her daughter's defenses – let alone any other idiot who sought to stand between her and her property – would surely be up when Cora finally returned to her.

And that was simply unacceptable.

Still, there were more important matters to attend to first. The nameless man she had stumbled upon screamed as Cora pressed her palm to his forehead, syphoning his life essence from his body in order to relieve herself of her own injuries. It was temporary however, and as the man's now lifeless body slumped to the pavement, Cora found herself contemplating her options. Should she get her daughter back she could simply guilt Regina into healing her and sparing her life, but with the Savior guarding her, it was doubtful that Cora would be able to get close enough to try. What the man at her feet had sacrificed would sustain her for the time being, yes, but it still left her significantly weakened. She needed to be healed.

So Cora took her second best option.

"I was wondering when you'd show up, dearie."

As purple smoke billowed from her form and dissipated into the air, her eyes locked on the man on the other side of the room. He was leaning casually against the counter of his shop, looking almost as though he had been expecting her at any moment. Should Cora have had her heart inside her, it might have constricted at the sight of him. Rumpelstiltskin was, and always would be, the only man she would ever love in this world. In the end though, that had been the problem; and so now when she looked at him – heartless and cold – she felt nothing but a desire to take what she needed and leave him behind in the dust, forgotten.

And yet still, she feigned a warmth she did not possess and stepped towards the man. "Rumple… I should have known you'd be aware of my little visit to this town; nothing has ever gotten past the Dark One, has it?"

Rumpelstiltskin laughed. "Flattery now, Cora? You must want something." Coming around the counter, the man dragged a singular finger against the surface. "Tell me, how did the Savior end up besting you? I find it interesting, that you would allow such a humiliating defeat…"

Cora's eyes flashed at the insinuation, although she wasn't surprised that he had known. The man really did have an annoying knack of being involved in damn near everything significant that had ever happened or ever would. "Defeat would indicate that this is over, my dear Rumple… and believe me, this is very far from it." Until Cora took her last breath, she would never stop her pursuit of Regina. Her daughter was hers, and hers alone. The Savior had been a fool to believe otherwise.

"The woman fights with her heart and it makes her reckless," Cora continued, arching an eyebrow as if daring the man to deny it, "the fact that I'm still breathing attests to that. Should she have been focused on her anger towards me instead of her desperation to save my daughter, perhaps she would have thought before she acted, and would have been successful in her endeavor. Her love for Regina makes her weak, and mark my words… it will be what destroys her in the end; of that I'm certain."

Rumpelstiltskin's brow rose. "The Savior and the Evil Queen?" His surprise made way to amusement fairly quickly however and he giggled, drumming his fingers together. "My, my… when word of that gets out it'll surely cause quite the uproar, won't it?"

"It won't," Cora warned, taking a step towards him. "My daughter does not suffer the same… affliction that the Savior possesses. That disgusting woman has warped her mind, and I will not have Regina's indiscretions be the subject of idle gossip between the peasants. So should you value your tongue, you will keep that information to yourself. It is of little importance anyhow, as I have already taken steps to rectify the situation; it is doubtful it will last very long."

"Still concerned about the royal image," Rumpelstiltskin noted, although looked more amused about it than anything else. "But this isn't the Enchanted Forest, dearie; and in this world, your daughter isn't a Queen."

Cora's eyes hardened with determination. "We shall see." Her gaze fell on Rumpelstiltskin then, and she steered the conversation back to the reason she had come. "If you're already aware of what transpired between the Savior and me, then you must know why I'm here."

"Ah yes," Rumpelstiltskin purred, fingers drumming against the surface of the counter as a smirk crossed his features. "Pesky little downfall, isn't it; being unable to heal yourself without a heart? You removed it to make yourself stronger, and yet here you are, injured and weakened, unable to do anything about it. It's a cruel sort of irony, isn't it?"

He looked almost pleased by that, and Cora cocked her head at him in response. "Still bitter, are you then, Rumple? I would have thought someone of your power and position would have found a way to move past your frivolous attachment to me, but perhaps I was wrong."

"Don't flatter yourself, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin warned. "You haven't been worth a thought in a very long time. Which is why I'm curious as to why you've wasted what little time you have left by coming here; because from where I'm standing, I'm not seeing a reason to help you. In fact, from what I've heard, it was you who brought a certain pirate to this realm. Would I be wrong in assuming you promised him vengeance in exchange for his help?"

"The Captain is living on borrowed time, and is of no consequence to you," Cora clipped, allowing her eyes to roam the man in front of her, before snapping them up to meet his gaze. "Unless you prefer to deal with him yourself? I could exchange him for your help, if you prefer."

"You can't exchange what you don't have, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin reminded her with a raised finger. "If the man is living on borrowed time, then he is not currently in your possession. For if he was, he would certainly be dead by now."

Annoyance twisted in Cora's gut as she stared him down. "Then what is it that you desire? Influence, Power?" she guessed, trying to find the man's motivations. It was certainly beneath her, to bargain for her life in this way instead of just taking what it was that she needed from him, but in her current state, Cora knew she was in no position to take on the Dark One. And oh, how her weakness irritated her, but Cora forced herself to swallow her pride and continued, "Once I reestablish my daughter's position, she will be in need of a king; that position could be granted to you, if you so wish."

Rumpelstiltskin laughed at the offer. "You forget, my dear Cora; I know you, I made you. The last thing you would do is marry Regina off to someone you could not control." He waved his hand to dismiss the thought, "Regardless, I have no interest in marrying your daughter… she isn't exactly my type."

"She came from me, did she not?" Cora challenged, finding offense in that. "And no matter how much you may despise your own foolishness now, there was once a time where I was everything you desired."

"Things change, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin reminded her. "Besides, no matter how much you may wish it, and no matter how much you seek to change it, Regina is not and will never be you. Perhaps it's time to find yourself a new hobby."

Cora's eyes flashed, but she did not use her magic in retaliation, despite how badly she ached to. It would be a fool's errand; and one which would surely give the man cause to choose the wrong side. Rumpelstiltskin had always been out for his own interests, and should they not align with Cora's at the moment, then the last thing she wanted to do was give him cause to stand by what the Savior desired, as it would certainly mean her downfall. Keeping him neutral, for the time being, was a much safer option; at least until she found a way to heal herself and restore her powers to full strength.

"So you refuse to help me then?" Cora questioned, raising a singular brow as she searched for that annoying shred of humanity the man still held inside of him. "You're content on condemning the woman you once loved to death? Perhaps it's you who no longer has a heart then, and you're unable to help me just as much as I'm unable to help myself. Because not using my vulnerability against me? Well, that just doesn't seem like you, now does it?"

Rumpelstiltskin laughed. "Believe what you'd like, dearie, but it doesn't change anything. Until you have something of value to offer me, getting involved in your affairs is more trouble than it's worth." It was a brutal honesty that Cora hadn't expected, as she had counted on the man's heart to betray his common sense. Perhaps she had been right, when she guessed he no longer had one.

Or perhaps he had just learned how to not allow his emotions to weaken him.

"Although if it's any consolation, I do have every faith that you'll prevail through this little… mishap," Rumpelstiltskin continued, finally crossing the remaining distance between them to stand before her. "I will admit though, I am very curious to see how you do it. Every magic user in town has been warned about you, so it'll be quite difficult getting close to them, won't it? Especially with your limited powers and even smaller time frame…"

"So what's next, hmm? What are you left with?" Rumpelstiltskin drawled, causing the irritation in the pit of Cora's stomach to burn hotter. The man lifted his finger as he continued, "Ah, your heart. You've always been a quick study; you could always put it back in and learn to heal yourself, but I wonder… would you be able to live with yourself, once you're able to feel the guilt for all that you've done?"

"Everything I've done has been for my daughter's benefit," Cora countered, finding his theory absolutely ridiculous. She chuckled at the mere thought of it. "What guilt lies in that? I molded her into her highest potential; it's what any good mother would do."

"Regina is useless when she is in your shadow," Rumpelstiltskin told her, his tone unapologetic. "You went too far and have broken her beyond repair. She's crippled in your presence, and that is why I encouraged her to get rid of you all those years ago. With you around she is nothing but a frail puppet, but without you she is a weapon; one that, despite how much you may wish it, you will never be able to utilize, for you've become her failsafe."

"If I can break her, then I can certainly rebuild her," Cora snapped, unhappy with the man's assessment, as it sounded as if she had inadvertently groomed Regina for his benefit, when the girl had been and always would be her toy to play with. "Once I rid her of her undesirable traits, I will make her powerful; strong. She will rule not only this town, but this realm with me by her side one day; of that I can assure you of, my dear Rumple. Because yes, I have made her into a weapon, but you're wrong in assuming that she is hindered by her maker; for in the end, only the creator knows how to truly wield their work."

"And where is your weapon now, hmm?" Rumpelstiltskin countered, raising his eyebrow. "Off cowering in a hole somewhere because of what you've done? You have no restraint, Cora; that has always been your greatest flaw, and one that will no doubt not only bring your plan to ruin, but destroy it before it has even started should you be foolish enough to put your heart back into your chest."

"And here I thought you were advocating for it," Cora responded, surprised by that yet keeping it out of her tone. "You always hated the moment that I chose power over the ability to feel love, so why warn me against doing it now?"

"Because you will not survive it."

Cora's brow furrowed, her gaze mapping every line in his expression, every flicker behind the man's eyes. It was then that she realized. "You still care for me… don't you, my dear? Somewhere, deep down, there's still that little spark of feeling you haven't been able to rid yourself of." The realization made her laugh out loud, finding Rumpelstiltskin's humanity ridiculously pathetic. Her reaction clearly infuriated the man, but Cora found no need to address his emotional response. "You forget, Rumple, I'm not like most people, and it will take much more than a heart to cripple me, no matter what I've done since it's removal."

"Then do not heed my warning, and wallow in the repercussions of your own idiocy," Rumpelstiltskin snapped, unable to hide his own irritation with how Cora had reacted to his show of concern. Still, he did seek to bury it rather quickly, and waved his hand at her as though none of this was of any importance in the long run. "It's of no matter to me. You want to know why I won't help you, dearie; why I will not choose your side? This is why. No matter what you choose to do, whether you place your heart back in your chest or find another way to heal yourself, your plan is doomed to fail, because Regina will never be able to function like the Queen you need, the weapon you need as long as you're around. And I, for one, do not plan to be on board when this little ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean."

Anger bubbled in the pit of Cora's stomach, and she wished for nothing more than to make him sorry for ever standing against her, for betting against her when she was up against nothing but an uncivilized reject of a princess. It wasn't the time though, and she knew it; if nothing else, Cora had always been unwaveringly patient when it came to enacting her revenge. In the end, Rumpelstiltskin would get what was coming to him; she would make sure of it.

"Fine," she responded flatly, a challenge in her eye despite not allowing her anger to filter through her tone. Cora didn't want him to know how much his refusal bothered her; she had been betting on it, due to the man's past feelings for her. Without him, things became… much more complicated. Doable of course, but complicated. "Perhaps I had expected too much of you; in the end, you really are nothing but a coward, aren't you? Why fight for a better world, when you can cower in this one?"

Rumpelstiltskin's eyes narrowed at the insinuation, but it didn't enrage him as much as Cora had hoped. "'Better' is a relative term, dearie," he reminded her. "And one we do not see eye to eye on. I happen to enjoy this world, and feel no need to return to the old one."

"Why?" Cora challenged, finding that strange. She stepped into his space, staring him down, and asked, "What is it that ties you to this place?" Rumpelstiltskin said nothing in response however, and it spoke volumes to the other woman. The man had a secret, and one that she would make a point to uncover later, should Cora find she needed leverage on him in the future. She smirked at his silence.

"Keep your little secrets then, Rumple, if they make you feel safer," Cora responded, taking a step back from him as she made her closing statements. "But remember that I know where your weaknesses lie, and as such will always be able to exploit them. And the worst part of it all, the most pathetic part of it all… is that you know that, don't you? You know that, and yet you'll allow me to keep living; you'll allow me to walk out of this shop and do nothing to stop me because of that pesky little thing inside of your chest. You really should have ridded yourself of it long ago, my dear, because I can guarantee you that in the end, its presence will be the one thing you truly regret."

The man lost control of his anger then, and his hand shot out to wrap around Cora's throat. The woman did nothing to stop it however, not only having expected that reaction, but knowing that to counteract it in her weakened state would be nothing more than a waste of strength. Rumpelstiltskin held her there for a moment before his eyes flashed in anger and he pushed, using magic to force Cora against the wall and pin her there.

"Are you trying to get me to kill you, dearie…?" Rumpelstiltskin asked, keeping her held in place as he stared her down. "Because correct me if I'm wrong, but that does seem a little counteractive to your goal."

"No," Cora responded, smirking despite the pain in her back and the difficulties she had in taking her next breath; because at the end of the day, she knew that she was winning. "I'm proving to you that you can't."

Rumpelstiltskin stared at her for a very long time, his expression hardened despite the clear conflict that raged behind his darkened eyes. And then finally he moved, dropping his arm and allowing Cora to be released. "You're as good as dead anyway, dearie; the spell you've used to delay the inevitable will grow weaker each time. You have three days at most should you slaughter a dozen, so perhaps you should stop wasting your time with idle threats and figure out how you're going to survive to see the end of the week."

Cora laughed as she pushed herself off the wall and straightened her dress. She knew he didn't have it in him. "What happened to your faith in my ability to prevail? Has it gone so quickly?" she asked, cocking her head to the side as she smirked. "Don't concern yourself with me, Rumple… at least, not yet. I'll get what it is that I want; and when I do, my dear, it'll be you that I'm coming for next. Perhaps you should take this time to reevaluate your priorities, and if you happen to find your intelligence and come to the right decision, maybe I'll allow you to survive the end of the week as well."

And then she was gone in a puff of smoke, leaving the man behind to contemplate his choices as Cora sought to find an alternative plan of action. Because while she didn't show it, this failure drew cause for concern. Her current weakened state meant taking magic users by force would be difficult if not impossible, and her heart… unfortunately, that too would come with repercussions that Cora did not know if she wanted to face a second time. Because while she didn't believe Rumple's claims that the guilt she would inevitably feel for her actions would become unbearable to live with, Cora feared she wouldn't have it within her to remove it once again, as the first time… well, that had been hard enough.

And back then, she had only loved one.

But a mother's love for their child was innate, was it not? Although Cora spewed the pretty words to make Regina compliant, she had never truly felt what it meant to love her. She was incapable of it. And should she return her heart to her body and feel what it was that she had been missing, it would mean that she was not only Regina's weakness, but that Regina was hers.

And that was completely unacceptable, as the last thing Cora wanted, the last thing that she needed in order to achieve her ends, was a weakness she wouldn't be able to find it within herself to eradicate.

It was simply too dangerous.

[x]

"I was wrong."

"What?" Emma asked, turning from her parents to set her eyes on Regina. The woman was sitting cross-legged on the bed in the corner of the room, Henry latched onto her right arm as he rested his chin on her shoulder, the two of them looking down at the book that lay open on the duvet in front of them.

Although they all knew that Henry wasn't able to read the language that Regina's spell books were in, he still had insisted on 'helping' them all the same. Emma had just thought that he needed a distraction from the looming threat of Cora, but the longer she watched the two of them, she finally began to realize that what Henry was doing wasn't for him at all. He clung to Regina for support not because he needed it, but because she did. Regina had looked as though she were about to shatter, but when Henry needed her to be strong, to protect him, the change in her was almost instantaneous. In the end, her son would always come first, and if Henry needed her to be his rock, then Regina would without hesitation.

"The spell," Regina elaborated, placing her hand on Henry's that was clasped around her bicep as she looked over at Emma. While her voice still lacked the strength and conviction it usually had, her spine was straight and her posture assured as she told her what she had found. Yet even still, she had a hard time keeping eye contact; everything that had happened between them causing her to feel shame every time their eyes met fully. "The one my mother will use to prolong her life. It's… I had believed she could only do it once, but I was… wrong."

"So what, she could hold out indefinitely?" That sounded like the opposite of good news.

"No," Regina responded, her eyes landing on the book in front of her and scanning it for a moment before she took a deep breath and continued, "The spell loses power each time it's used; eventually it'll stop working completely. I… I'm unsure how long it'll take until that happens, however. It depends on the severity of her wound and the strength of her sacrifices."

"Sacrifices?" Mary Margaret asked, blanching a little at the news.

"Well she's using dark magic, Snow. What did you expect, that she would prolong her life with rainbows and unicorns?" Regina suddenly snapped, looking at her like she was being stupid. And while Emma was glad, in a way, that she had reacted like that – since it meant that Henry had helped Regina feel a little bit more like herself – the blonde still released an exasperated breath at her tone. It really wasn't helping.

"So what, that means everyone in town is fucked then?"

Regina shot her a dark look as she covered Henry's ears and placed the kid's head against her chest, prioritizing being a mother above all else right then because it was the only thing she could really handle. "Emma."

"…Or something entirely less swear-y."

Although Emma understood where Regina was coming from, at the end of the day that really wasn't the important issue, and so she had a hard time actually caring about her colorful use of language. When it was just them that Cora was after that was one thing, but now everyone else was in danger. And god, just the thought of that made Emma's stomach sink to the floor. She was so convinced that Cora would come after them first, but apparently that wasn't the woman's plan at all, and now other people were going to suffer for her mistake.

She should have shot her in the head.

Five fucking times.

"We need to warn the town," David said, taking his cell phone out of his back pocket as Henry squirmed out of his mother's hold, wanting to be able to hear the conversation. "We can't leave them defenseless against Cora."

"How can we hide everyone though?" Henry asked, his gaze resting on the four adults in turn as he wrapped his arms around his mother's forearm again. He looked worried, and Regina placed a protective hand against the side of his head. "Cora's really powerful… right? I mean, that's why we're hiding down here instead of fighting?"

Emma opened her mouth to answer, but closed it almost immediately. She didn't really know how to answer him, because every answer she had made her feel guilty. They were supposed to be the heroes, right? And yet they were hiding down there because Emma had prioritized his and Regina's wellbeings over the safety of the rest of the town.

What the hell kind of Savior did that make her?

"We're just… regrouping," David tried to explain, his phone still clutched in his hand as he looked over at his wife, who was staring at Regina. The former queen wouldn't look at anyone though; she was just staring at the book in front of her, her gaze unfocused as she was no doubt reminded why they were down there in the first place.

Emma wished she could take those memories away from her. Somehow, someway, she just wished she could make it okay.

But it really never would be, would it?

"And we need to keep you safe," Mary Margaret interjected quickly, looking at Henry to try to get his attention off his mother. The more Regina withdrew, the more concerned he got, and the last thing Regina needed was more guilt on her shoulders for worrying him.

"Don't worry, kid; we won't let Cora kill anyone," Emma tried to assure him. But just as she said that, David's phone rang. Emma sucked in a sharp breath as he pressed the talk button and held it up to his ear. She had a bad feeling she knew what the phone call was going to be about.

As David answered it, he moved away from the group and went into the bathroom to take the call in private; mostly for Henry's benefit, but probably Regina's as well, who had bit the inside of her cheek as soon as the phone rang, her expression clouding over.

"Alright, so, good news? Silver lining?" Emma tried, her voice a few octaves higher as she pretended she didn't feel as hopeless as she did. But she really had no idea what to do next. She didn't want to leave Regina and Henry, but trying to wait Cora out could cause the rest of the town to suffer in the meantime. "Anyone? Cause we really don't have a lot of time here."

Mary Margaret just looked at her sympathetically, which helped to the sum of zero.

"…She's weak," Regina finally said, her voice barely above a whisper. It was almost as though she struggled with telling them that. Emma's gaze snapped towards her.

"What?"

"The… the spell she's using," Regina told her, voice a little strained as she momentarily caught Emma's eyes. "It takes a lot of energy to uphold. Until she's— until she's healed… she won't be nearly as powerful." At Emma's reaction to that, suddenly the blonde realized why Regina was so hesitant to tell her in the first place. "No, Emma, you can't—"

"Because waiting around until she's fully healed is a better idea?"

"Even at a quarter of her strength, she's still more powerful than you!" Regina exclaimed, trying to get Emma to understand that this was still dangerous. Which Emma knew, but she liked the odds of this a hell of a lot better than the coin toss to see whether Cora can live out the rest of the week or not. "You can't just barrel in half-cocked and—Emma, stop! Stop!"

Regina tried to make it sound demanding, and yet in the end it only came across as frantic and scared. So badly in fact, that it caused Mary Margaret to act on her behalf and place a hand on the small of Emma's back, halting her daughter's movements. The blonde closed her eyes for a moment and took a shuddered inhale of breath, the gun she had meant to grab just sitting beneath her hand as she leaned against the table it was placed on.

"Emma, Regina's right," Mary Margaret told her softly. "You can't go after Cora without a plan."

She knew that. Of course she knew that, but when Emma heard that there might be a brief moment where Cora was less powerful than usual, the last thing she wanted to do was wait around and let it pass. It was the first shred of good news they heard, and Emma just… she wanted this to be over. She wanted her family to not live in fear; to not cower in the dark like caged animals. She wanted them to feel safe. She wanted to be safe herself.

And sitting down here wasn't accomplishing any of that.

David took that moment to come out of the bathroom, a grave expression on his face as he hung up the phone. Emma felt her stomach sink to the floor as she looked at him. "Where?" she asked, because she just knew.

"…In an alley off of Fifth and Main."

"That's near Gold's shop," Mary Margaret responded, concern showing in her eyes, although it was doubtful it was for the man's wellbeing. "Do you think he…?"

Everyone looked at Regina, but she didn't have the surefire answer that they were looking for. "If it benefited him," she responded softly, almost apologetically, like this entire thing was here fault. And that's what pissed Emma off the most; the fact that Cora was the one who was sick, the one who was deranged, and the one who's entire fault this actually was, and yet she had screwed with her daughter's head so badly that Regina felt responsible for it all.

"We need to find out then," David responded, determination in his eyes as he headed for the door. "Now. And warn the rest of the town while we're at it, because that woman is not killing anymore of our citizens."

"I want to help!" Henry exclaimed, but Regina had a hand on his shoulder to halt him so fast that the kid was barely able to move an inch.

"Henry, it's not—"

"You can help here, kid, okay?" Emma tried, squatting down on her haunches to look up at her son on the bed. "Getting everyone in the loop is gonna be hard even with calling a town meeting, cause not everyone's gonna hear the word in time and show up. But with email and texts, maybe we'll be able to warn a lot more people. You can help your mom with that, okay?"

"He can help the both of you," Mary Margaret interjected, causing Emma to turn sharply towards her. As much as she wanted to protect them, Regina had already said that this place was impenetrable, and she was the goddamn Sherriff. She needed to be involved in this, whether she liked it or not, because it wasn't just their lives on the line anymore. And if Gold had helped Cora…

"If you actually think for a second that I'm going to allow you to leave my sight—" Regina tried, looking at the blonde like she couldn't actually believe her choices right now, but Emma just took the woman's hand in hers and looked up at Regina imploringly.

"Regina, I swear, I'll be back in a couple hours. But this is my job, not to mention entirely my fault that she's not dead, and I can't—"

"Emma, a word," Mary Margaret interrupted sternly. "Now, please."

Emma sighed softly and got to her feet, untangling her hand from Regina's.

After her mother had pulled her into the far corner, she told her low tone so as not to be overheard, "You need to stay with them. I understand that you feel responsible, but you can't leave them alone here."

"I wasn't going to," Emma tried to explain. She wasn't so stupid that she was going to leave them alone and defenseless, no matter how secure this place might be. "I was going to leave you with them. But this situation has gone from bad, to worse, to completely fucked, and since David and I are the authority in this town, we both need to—"

"Do you really think Regina needs me right now?" Mary Margaret asked sharply, looking at her daughter like she was questioning whether or not she was dropped on her head as an infant. "I saw what she did to herself in the bathroom, Emma, and no matter how much she may have calmed down since, it won't stay that way. Whatever… whatever happened this morning… I know Regina, and I know how she reacts to things. And that… that was not like her. She needs someone right now; someone that she can trust and feel safe with."

"And I'm it?" Emma bit back in a fierce whisper, feeling guilt and self-loathing constrict her chest. "I'm the entire fucking reason this happened, Mary Margaret. Cora did this to her because of me, because of what I feel for her. How the hell can Regina put her trust in me, feel safe with me, when it was my stupid crush that ruined her life?"

"Love doesn't ruin lives, Emma," Mary Margaret told her daughter fiercely, clearly not happy that she was blaming herself for this. "Hatred does."

Emma's cheeks colored in a fierce blush. "I don't—"

"Don't lie to me," Mary Margaret interrupted. "And don't argue with me either. Your father and I are going to find out what happened with Gold and warn the town. We'll call you when we know more, and then if we find we need you, we'll discuss our options. But you are staying with them, and I don't want to hear another word about it."

Emma felt a little disoriented by her mother's strong reaction towards this, as she honestly thought that'd be the last thing she'd hear as far as Regina was concerned, so she kind of stumbled over her words and her thoughts as she blurted out, "How are you—why are you okay with this…?"

"I'm not okay with this," Mary Margaret told her firmly, emotion choking up her words a little as she looked at her daughter. "Emma, the last thing I would have wanted for you was for you to fall in love with someone and have it turn out… like this. Regina might be the last person I would have ever wanted for you, but it doesn't bother me that you chose her as much as it pains me that this is what came of it. You told me earlier that you believe she'll be unable to be with you after what happened today, and that breaks my heart, Emma. Because no matter where you find your happiness, it will always hurt me to watch you lose it."

Emma trapped her bottom lip between her teeth, her eyes welling with tears that she wouldn't allow to fall. She didn't want to draw attention to herself, because this wasn't about her or what she feared she lost; Regina and Henry… they were more important right now. So although her mother's reminder of how much had been destroyed pained her, Emma kept it inside, because it mattered so very little in comparison to everything else that was going on.

Mary Margaret could see the pain in her eyes though, so she gave her a sympathetic smile as she cupped her cheek. "The town may need leaders right now, but Regina needs you," she told her softly. "So stay with her; be the person she needs. Your father and I will deal with the rest and will call you as soon as we know anything."

Emma pursed her lips, but nodded her compliance. Mary Margaret was right; she was needed here more, at least until they found out what happened to Cora. And to be honest she was incredibly thankful for it, because despite the obligation she felt to Storybrooke and its citizens, the last thing she wanted to do was leave. "Thanks, Mom," she whispered, causing a small smile to cross Mary Margaret's face before she turned and joined her husband near the door.

And after a few more words of parting they both left, leaving the three of them alone with their fears, with their doubt, and with the hope that round two with the cruel sorceress wouldn't be nearly as crippling as the first one was.

[x]

When everything else is silent, even the softest of noises sound like screams.

Henry was usually quiet while he slept, but every so often he would choke on a half snore out of nowhere as he rolled over to reposition himself. It was something Regina had known for over a decade, and yet the sound of it startled her so badly she nearly jumped out of her skin, causing the springs in the old bed to creak beneath her. Emma groaned in sleepy protest as she shifted and blinked the sleep from her eyes, looking at the woman who lay next to her on the bed, still incredibly tense.

"S'wrong?" Emma husked, her brow creasing as she looked at Regina's demeanor, trying to assess it and wake up at the same time. "You 'kay?" Her hand reached out to gently touch Regina's wrist, most likely out of habit and only meant as a gesture of comfort, but Regina had been trapped in far too many terrible thoughts for the better part of the last hour that any human contact made her flinch and back away.

"Nothing, Henry's snoring just startled me," Regina explained in a whisper, moving away from her to give the woman, and herself, space. "Go back to sleep."

Emma shook her head as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. As she spoke, her words were interrupted by a yawn. "No, it's—hmmm… it's your turn. I'm fine, just a little…" A second yawn followed. "I'm fine."

Regina looked at her like she was being moronic, but then again, that was Emma for you. "You've only been asleep for an hour, Miss Swan; in no way does that account for a decent night's rest."

"Regina, I swear, I'm fine," Emma tried to assure her, hoisting herself upwards to sit back on the pillows. Her lips pursed as she allowed her gaze to rest on the brunette's slightly disheveled appearance, right before giving her a slight head nod as if to accent her point. "Seriously, you look exhausted. Just sleep, okay? I'll keep watch, I promise."

Regina exhaled a frustrated breath as she shook her head and looked away from her. She didn't want to get into this debate again. It had been hard enough trying to convince Emma to let her take first watch; the woman had a knack of being annoyingly stubborn. But Regina couldn't… she couldn't even imagine sleeping right now, no matter how exhausted she may be. Her paranoia would always keep her awake, and it would stay that way until her body couldn't take it anymore and finally shut down.

She knew the routine far too well by now, but the last thing she wanted to do was tell Emma that.

It was bad enough that she knew, that she saw… God, it made just looking at her so incredibly difficult, because Regina wanted nothing more than to crawl in a hole and never come out. Shame and self-disgust was a constant in her life now, and Regina feared this being over just as much as she feared Cora at this point because how was she just… supposed to continue on with her life after this?

Before, it had been easier. No one knew and Regina could just bury it deep inside, pretending that it didn't exist. But the entire town knew that Cora was on the loose now, and soon the rumors would begin to spread. Although Regina doubted any of them would ever guess what truly happened when she was taken prisoner, she still couldn't bear the thought of anyone looking at her like she was weak, as even if they didn't know the truth, it would still feel like they did.

Because they would be right. She was weak.

Disgusting. Pathetic. Depraved.

And then there was Emma, who did know the truth, and yet she would somehow be expected to just go on as normal, and co-parent with the woman who bore witness to her lowest moment? Regina had contemplated just taking Henry when this was all over and running far away from this place, but even if she could find a way past the town line, she couldn't… she knew that she couldn't do that to Emma. She cared far too much for the irritating woman that currently shared her bed to just rip her son from her life, never to allow her to see him again. That was a cruelness that Regina no longer had inside of her.

And it made her want to cry with helplessness, because she just didn't know what to do.

"Regina… you're shaking," Emma noted softly, her tone concerned as her brow creased and she sat up a little straighter. She moved to touch her, but then thought better of it before she allowed her hand to hover in the air for a moment before dropping it completely. "Talk to me."

"To what end?" Regina bit back in a whisper, careful not to wake their son, who was sprawled out on the floor in front of a muted television. He had conked out sometime during the second half of Law & Order. Taking a breath, Regina ran her trembling hand through her hair in an attempt to both have more control over it and make herself look less like the mess that she felt. "You already know why I'm like this; what good will reliving it do?"

Sympathy and sadness crossed over Emma's face then, looking a little lost about how to respond because the sad truth of it was, she did know. She knew better than anyone. Regina felt her eyes well up with tears and as she tried to hold them back she fisted her hair in her hand, looking down at the duvet.

"Regina," Emma implored softly, looking at her like she wished nothing more than to have the ability to take the pain away. Regina wished that she could. "Tell me… just tell me what I can do, and I'll do it…"

"Forget," Regina breathed, the word coming out broken and barely above a whisper as she voiced her one wish that she knew would never come true. A singular tear slipped down the curvature of her cheek and she begged softly, "Just forget, Emma, please…"

Despite how careful Emma had been lately about touching her, there was something about Regina crying that seemed to elicit something inside of her that she could not control. And Regina wished she could hate it, wished she could hate her for caring for her so much even after everything she had seen, but when Emma cradled her head in her hands and wiped away the fallen tear with her thumb, Regina could do nothing else but allow her face to bury in the crook of her neck. She felt safe there, and she despised that she did, because it conflicted terribly with her desire to run away from the woman who knew far too much of her darkness.

Her hand fisting in chocolate locks, Emma pressed her lips to Regina's forehead and promised, "I will never look at you any differently, Regina. It was something that happened to you, not something you chose. It was… it was just a moment, and moments don't define who you are."

It felt as though her entire existence had been defined by her mother, so why should this be any different? She wouldn't be who she was without Cora, for better or for worse, and that was why Regina couldn't bring herself to believe Emma's words, despite how badly she wished she could. She felt like she was nothing beneath the person her mother had shaped her to become.

Hollow. Lifeless.

Just another puppet on strings.

But then Regina's eyes landed on the sleeping form of Henry, and suddenly she was reminded that if nothing else, there was at least one thing that Cora didn't mold her to become: a mother. That choice was entirely hers, and although she was not perfect at it, she strived to continue it all the same, because it was something… he was something that gave her life meaning, purpose, joy.

And that, in the end, was why he was a huge threat to Cora.

Regina knew her mother would tell her anything she wanted to hear, but the fact of the matter was, there wasn't a guarantee that should Cora win, she would allow her to keep Henry. He wasn't something that she had given her, after all, and Cora loathed Regina having attachments that weren't designated by her. It made keeping Henry safe all the more imperative, and Regina suddenly pushed herself out of Emma's arms and stood from the bed as she realized she needed to do more; more than just hiding him, more than just hoping that 'good' would prevail over 'evil'.

"Regina, what are you—?" Emma tried, a perplexed look crossing over her face from the brunette's sudden shift in demeanor, but Regina didn't explain; she just wiped the last of her tears from her cheeks, straitened her spine, and ordered,

"Follow me."

Emma still looked a little confounded at the abrupt change, but did as she was requested and scrambled out of bed to follow her. However once Regina reached the door, Emma immediately grabbed her arm to stop her. "Okay, where the hell do you think you're going?"

Regina took a breath, gathering her courage despite knowing the chances of Cora being on the other side of that door right now were slim. David had called a few hours ago and related the update from Gold, who had admitted that Cora had come to see him, yet swore she had left in the same state she arrived in. Of course David and his wife weren't entirely convinced that he was telling the truth, but Regina believed that he was; if Gold had helped Cora, the last thing he would have done was stick around for the Charmings to find him. He would have gone with her.

That meant Cora was still living on borrowed time, and so Regina knew that the last thing she would do right now was try to find them. Her mother was smart, and she would have guessed that they had taken precautions against her; and at the moment, she was far too weak to stand against them.

Yet even still, her paranoia made her nervous.

Keeping Henry safe was more important though, so Regina turned to the woman who held her arm and told her, "I need to protect our son. This isn't… it isn't enough, Emma. I want to make sure my mother never gets her hands on him, can't you understand that?"

"Of course I can, but I'm still wondering why the hell that means we need to leave," Emma responded, her grip on Regina tightening. She was probably afraid she was going to run out with or without her permission. "What the hell is out there that we can't do in here?"

"My… potions."

Emma blinked. "Your what now?"

"Or more accurately, the ingredients," Regina amended, shifting her weight between her feet as she stared back at the other woman. She needed Emma to help her with this; because she just wasn't… she wasn't capable of doing it herself at the moment. Not with these cuffs on her wrists. "But they're right outside, in the crypt. It will only take a half hour at most, Emma, please. I would feel much better if I knew Henry had more protection than this singular room."

"Regina…" Emma responded warily, her eyes shifting towards the door. "It's risky. And we shouldn't—we can't leave Henry in here by himself."

"If we had any other option then of course I'd take it, Emma; but I can't do magic right now, and you can't do anything at all without help!" Regina hissed back, desperate for her to understand that she needed to do this. She couldn't just… she couldn't just sit here, helpless and victimized. Henry was her son, and it was her job to protect him, no matter what or how much she had gone through not twenty four hours prior.

Emma pursed her lips, her eyes shifting over to Henry's sleeping figure. "Fine," she conceded, knowing she was fighting a losing battle. "But I'm taking my gun."

"I would have told you to anyhow."

Emma shot her a look as she grabbed it off of the far table and holstered it. "Comforting, Regina."

"It's three thirty in the morning," Regina reasoned, trying to make Emma feel better as much as herself about this. "And my mother has always been very particular about rising with the sun. Wherever she is right now, she's sleeping, I assure you."

"Fine," Emma repeated, walking past Regina and grabbing hold of the doorknob. "Let's hurry though; if Henry wakes up and finds us gone…"

"I know."

The two women exited the room, being careful not to wake Henry while they did so. When the door clicked shut behind them, Emma audibly gasped as she watched the door disappear from view, looking akin to the stone walls that surrounded them. She placed her hand against the surface, her brow creasing as she tried to feel around for the door that she would never be able to find on her own.

"It's just… gone."

"That's magic, dear."

Emma rolled her eyes at her tone. "Yes, thank you, I'm aware."

Regina tried to hide the small smirk that threatened to peak out at Emma's response. For some reason, she had always found the woman endearing at the oddest of times. But that feeling left quickly as Regina was made very much aware of how exposed she—they now were, and her expression faded as she took hold of Emma's hand, needing her close not only for her own piece of mind, but to make sure they didn't get separated as well.

"Come."

Emma followed without a word, down one of the winding hallways in the underground crypt to reach another room. Emma noted her surprise about how large the place actually was, but Regina didn't bother with a response as she quickly crossed the area to reach her workbench on the other side. Emma's brow rose as she saw the contents that littered it.

"So what… are we making here, exactly?"

"A few things," Regina told her, beginning to gather the ingredients she needed. "A transportation spell, for starters." It would allow Henry to get away at a moment's notice, and that was imperative should Cora come within thirty feet of him. So long as he didn't say out loud where he planned to go, she wouldn't be able to follow. He may even be able to get out of town with it, since he wasn't bound by the curse like they were.

"Like a poof-poof kind of thing?"

Regina side-glanced her, a disbelieving look on her face. "Please don't tell me that's what you call what I do."

"Well not out loud… usually." Emma looked sheepish, and it caused Regina to chuckle low in her throat as she turned back to her task.

That was the thing about Emma. For as much as she could remind Regina about what happened, she could just as easily keep her mind off of it as well, and that was what Regina needed right now. Her heart rate had already doubled once she had stepped out of that room, and should Emma's innate ridiculousness not have provided her with a distraction, Regina knew her concentration would be shot right now, and that wasn't exactly conducive to getting things done quickly.

"But yes," Regina answered, pulling out a beaker. After blowing off the dust that covered its surface, she finished, "that's precisely what we're making."

Emma still eyed it warily, however. Her self-doubt was written all over her expression. "But what if I can't…?"

"You can," Regina interrupted, straightening her spine before turning towards the blonde. She needed Emma to believe in herself otherwise this would never work, and Regina didn't want them to have left the safety of that room for nothing. "And you will. I've seen what you can do, Emma, and you shouldn't sell yourself short; most people wouldn't have been able to heal me as thoroughly as you did on your first try."

"You're…" Regina's gaze flickered across her face then, finally meeting her eyes. "You're very gifted, Emma. With proper training, you could be… well you could be very powerful, if you so wished it."

Emma bit the inside of her cheek as she held the eye contact Regina allotted her, but in the end it was still very brief, Regina being unable to allow her vulnerabilities to shine through to the other woman for very long. She had seen quite enough of them already. "Would you… train me?" Emma asked softly, almost hesitantly, as though she were afraid of Regina's rejection of the idea. "I mean once this is all… you know. Over."

Regina exhaled a small breath and turned away from her, busying herself with the task in front of her. She didn't want to make any promises she couldn't keep, because she was unsure if she would be able to handle being around Emma for very long after this. "We'll see," was all she said, her voice barely above a whisper as she made the final preparations for the potion.

Emma understood however, understood that no matter what Regina may feel for her, some things might be too damaged to repair; and so while a flash of disappointment flickered across the woman's features, it was gone in an instant and replaced with a gentle nod. "Okay," Emma responded softly, taking another step to reach Regina's side, looking down at the contents on the table.

"So show me how to do this."

TBC…