DISCLAIMER: Characters are not mine.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Takes place in the Enchanted Forest. I'm playing around with canon quite a bit. Snow White and David are older than Regina, closer to Cora's age; Snow had nothing to do with Daniel's death; King Leopold is Prince Phillip's father, not Snow's; Emma did not get sent to Storybrooke in a magical wardrobe.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To mysensitiveside[at]yahoo.com

Two of a Kind
By mysensitiveside


Part 1: The Tattoo

Regina's tattoo appeared at dawn, on the morning of her seventeenth birthday.

She'd been waiting for it, unable to sleep for most of the night. Of course, although she hadn't meant to, she dozed off when her palms were still blank, only reawakening when the sun had already been up for a few hours.

It took Regina a few sleepy moments to remember.

Once she did, she immediately shot up in bed, struggling briefly with the sheets before she could reveal both of her palms to herself.

Her heart both sank and soared.

It was on her left hand, in dark ink. There was a small star-like symbol at the center—lying, appropriately, right at the junction of her head line and her fate line—surrounded by concentric circles of various designs. The circles gave way to a swirl of shapes, like the edges of a crescent moon, and a series of dots, extending out from the center like rays.

It was beautiful, reminding her of the sun, moon, and stars all at once.

But it meant that Daniel had not been her soulmate.

It meant that someone else was.

Daniel had been seventeen when Cora killed him, so he already had his tattoo. Regina had studied it, had traced her fingers over it so many times that even now, a little more than a year later, she only had to close her eyes, and she could see it in her head once again.

Daniel's tattoo had been beautiful as well; but it did not match Regina's.

Regina closed her hand into a fist, as silent tears slipped down her cheeks. It was only when she was alone that she could truly mourn for Daniel. Her grief had weakened with time, but now, with this fresh ink imprinted onto her skin, the feelings came rushing back. He might not have been her soulmate, but she had loved him, truly, with all of her heart.

Even so, a traitorous corner of her heart now rose up in happiness. She loved Daniel, yes, but he was gone, taken from her, and there was nothing anyone could do to get him back. And this… She opened up her hand once again. This was a sign of hope.

Because there was someone else, out there somewhere. Regina might never find the person—it was still known to be somewhat rare to actually find one's soulmate—but there was someone out there.

Someone Regina could love; someone who could love Regina in return.

Regina stayed in her room, running her fingers softly over her new tattoo, for as long as she could. Soon, however, she could delay no longer if she wished to avoid punishment. The fact that it was Regina's birthday would certainly not stay her mother's hand.

Her parents were already seated when Regina entered the dining room. Her father smiled kindly at her as she approached him, and he got up to give her a hug.

"Happy Birthday, my beautiful girl," he said warmly.

Regina returned the hug and didn't let go right away, even though she could almost feel her mother's eyes on her back. "Thank you, Daddy," she whispered.

He kissed her cheek, but then pulled back and returned to his seat at the table.

"Good morning, mother," Regina said, turning to face the older woman, who nodded to her but did not respond verbally.

Regina moved to take her own seat, but stopped when her mother tutted at her.

"Really, Regina," her mother sighed, already disappointed. "Come here and show it to me."

Regina did know better, but she had hoped to be able to keep this to herself for a little while longer. After everything with Daniel… Well, Regina thought that no one could blame her for not wanting to share.

Still, she did as she was told, walking over to her mother's side and displaying her left hand, palm up.

Cora grabbed hold of Regina's wrist and pulled the hand closer. She chuckled to herself and said, "I see your little stable boy isn't your soulmate, then. You see, darling? I told you that everything I do is for your own good."

Regina had to clench her teeth to stop herself from responding. She ripped her hand away from her mother's grip, exhaling deeply to regain her composure, before smoothing out her dress and going to sit down at the table.

The day went on like any other, for the most part; most girls would get some sort of party for their birthday, even a small one, but Regina knew not to expect anything. She did receive a few new dresses—all the better to show her off to potential suitors, like some prize horse for sale, Regina assumed. She considered herself lucky, at least, when her father was able to sneak a small pastry to her as a treat after dinner. She ate half of it, but then the ingrained image of her mother's look of disgust and disappointment popped into Regina's head, and she threw the rest away.

That night, Regina lay in bed, once again unable to fall asleep. She held her hand up above her head, using the light of the moon to take in every mark and line and circle in the intricate pattern.

She tried to imagine what it would be like to find that one person out there who had the same markings on his own hand. It would be a mirror image, on his right hand, to match her left. She brought up her own right hand and pressed her two palms together. Their tattoos would line up perfectly, designed to fit together every time they held hands.

Regina tried to imagine what it would feel like. Tried to imagine the joy, love, and intimacy that would exist between them.

But she couldn't.

It was exactly one month before her eighteenth birthday when, upon returning from a ride with Rocinante, Regina was greeted in the stable by one of Cora's maids, who informed her that her mother wished to see her immediately.

She left Rocinante in the care of the new stable boy—she hadn't learned his name, could barely stand to even look at him; she knew that he thought her to be horribly conceited, but she simply couldn't bring herself to behave any differently towards him—and hurried up to the house.

Regina found her mother in the drawing room. Cora would appear relaxed to most people, sitting as she was, staring casually out the window, but Regina's trained gaze knew better. She stood silently in the doorway, waiting for her mother to acknowledge her. It took several moments, but then Cora turned to look at her, steely eyes sweeping up and down Regina's form. Her mouth tightened in displeasure.

She turned back to the window, stating simply, "You're late. And you look an awful mess. You're very fortunate that there is no one else to see you but me."

Regina self-consciously attempted to smooth out her hair and looked down at her dirty riding boots. She should have stopped to change, but had chosen instead to hurry in response to her mother's summons.

"I apologize, mother," she said. "I was out for a ride, and-"

"I don't care about your flimsy excuses," Cora spat out, whipping her head back around to glare at Regina in anger.

A split second later, however, the anger was gone; Cora smiled widely and gestured for Regina to come sit beside her. "Oh but never mind all that, dear," she said, as though she were someone who ever let anything go. Warily, Regina went to her mother as she continued, "I sent for you because I have a truly wonderful surprise for you. Next month, on your birthday, your father and I will be throwing a ball in your honor." Cora clapped her hands together once and looked at Regina expectantly. "What do you think?" she asked.

"A ball?" Regina repeated, shocked. "Mother, I… I don't know what to say."

Cora sighed and rolled her eyes. "'Thank you,' Regina. You say, 'Thank you, Mother, for being so exceedingly more generous than I could possibly deserve.'"

"Yes, of course," Regina hurried to correct her mistake. "Thank you, Mother. Truly, I-"

"Yes, yes, all right." Cora waved a dismissive hand. "You may go, now."

Regina left, going quickly up to her own room without taking any time to think. She leaned her back against her door and exhaled.


Regina had been to balls before, of course, but there had never been one for her. She couldn't help it, then—she smiled, bright and excited.

Maybe her mother really did love her, after all.

Regina stood still, a solitary island surrounded by an organized bustle of activity. One woman pulled tightly at her corset, while a few others held her new gown out, getting it ready for Regina; yet another woman was sticking pins in her hair, and another was getting ready to apply cosmetics to Regina's face as soon as she was fully dressed.

She'd gone out for a long ride, longer than it should have been, and there was very little time to finish getting her ready.

There was a knot of anxiety settled deep in Regina's belly. Her mother was planning something, she knew. Something beyond the mere occurrence of that evening's ball. Something big. Cora had been giving off little hints here and there over the past month, and Regina had the gnawing sense that her life was about to change in some irrevocable way.

The question, of course, was whether the change would be good or bad.

Regina looked up into the mirror when she heard the door open behind her. Cora entered, a coolly serene smile on her face. She didn't say anything, but merely observed, as Regina was softly directed to lift her feet and step into the gown. It was beautiful, expertly tailored, a deep royal blue adorned with embroidered gold thread. The cosmetics were applied with a deft and efficient hand, and then with a nod of approval from Cora, all the women filed quickly and quietly out the door.

Cora stepped forward, staring at Regina's reflection over her shoulder. Regina looked straight ahead, studiously ignoring her mother's presence, though her entire body was tense in nervous anticipation.

The silence between mother and daughter was strained, but neither said a word for a full minute.

At last, Cora said, "This is a big day for you, Regina." Regina finally shifted her gaze to the right, meeting her mother's eyes in the mirror, but she still said nothing.

"Now come," Cora continued. "Your father will escort you in to the ball. You know how to comport yourself, I expect nothing but the best from you." She paused a moment, thoughtful. "You will make me proud tonight, Regina."

Regina's heart skipped a beat. She turned around quickly, but was met only with the back of her mother's head, as the older woman was already on her way out of the room, expecting her daughter to follow.

Still, Regina remained motionless for a beat. The thought of actually making her mother proud… It was not a thought that Regina dared entertain very often. She shook her head at herself. No. This woman had killed Daniel; what did Regina care of making such a monster proud? Nothing. Nothing at all.

And yet…

She looked up at the ceiling and blinked, willing the gathering tears back. She would not cry. Not now. Her makeup would be ruined, and that was unacceptable.

With a deep breath, she walked out of the room and found her father standing beside her mother, waiting for her. She took his arm, only needing a little bit of effort to force out a smile at him.

"You look beautiful," he told her.

Cora's smile turned sharp. "You could even say that she looks fit to be queen," she commented with faux nonchalance.

Regina frowned, but immediately smoothed out her facial muscles at her mother's soft tut of disapproval.

Her mother went first, escorted my some handsome young prince from a neighboring land. Regina could hear the loud applause from the ball's attendees for their hostess.

Then it was time for Regina and her father. He squeezed her hand, and they descended the stairs together.

She smiled politely as they made their way towards the ballroom floor. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she couldn't help but notice how quite a few people kept whispering back and forth to each other, as they looked from Regina to somewhere across the room.

When they reached the bottom stair, the crowd of people parted before her, and there, at the other end of the room…

Regina's step faltered, but her mother was right there, immediately grabbing hold of her free forearm and holding her upright.

Regina was frozen, shocked, but her parents urged her forward, and the three of them walked together across the span of the floor.

Regina's head was spinning, though, because there, at the far end of the pathway now open before them, was the king. King Leopold. What could a man of his exalted stature possibly be doing at Regina's birthday ball?

Cora's comment about being fit to be queen jumped to the forefront of Regina's mind. For a moment, her heart leapt. The king had a son around Regina's age… Could it be? Regina flexed her left hand. Could it possibly be that the prince was her soulmate? Why else-

Regina could no longer think, because now they were there, standing before the king. Her parents let go of her, and she curtseyed, bowing her head low.

She was watching his shoes, so she knew immediately when the king stepped forward, towards her. Still, she kept her head bowed until he reached forward and tapped the bottom of her chin to tilt her gaze upwards.

"Happy Birthday," he said softly. He looked kind, but up close, he seemed older than she'd thought he was. There was a sort of dullness behind his eyes, like he somehow wasn't fully present. Regina blinked, mentally shaking off the chill that swept through her. The king continued, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Regina, I've heard a lot about you from your mother."

Cora cleared her throat, and it spurred Regina to finally reply. "Thank you, Your Majesty. The pleasure is all mine." She curtseyed again, unsure what else to do.

The king smiled, then, and Regina could only watch in astonishment as he reached out and took her left hand, ignoring her tattoo completely, and slid a huge ring onto her finger.

The crowd cheered.

Regina didn't understand…

In a daze, she turned with the king to face the crowd, her palm lying on the back of his hand. She looked to her mother, who was watching the king with sharp eyes, and then to her father, who smiled at her softly.

"Ladies and gentlemen," King Leopold called out, causing everyone to immediately quiet down. "I am happy to introduce my betrothed, soon to be your queen!"

He raised their two hands into the air.

Regina thought she might faint.

Eleven months earlier

Cora summoned Rumplestiltskin to the woods.

"Cora!" the imp exclaimed in greeting. He giggled. "Now, to what do I owe this visit?"

"I need to discover the identity of my daughter's soulmate, so that I can decide what to do about him," she told him.

Rumplestiltskin walked in a close circle around Cora. "Ah, soulmate magic," he said. "That's not easy to mess with, you know. No shortcuts allowed." He wagged his finger in her face, before giggling again.

Cora rolled her eyes. "If I thought for one second that you cared at all about what was or was not allowed," she said, "I'd be an utter fool."

Rumplestiltskin grinned, the corners of his lips twisting upwards in an almost grotesque display. "Oh, Cora, you know me too well," he laughed.

"I know the design of her tattoo," Cora told him, cutting to the point. "So what is your price?"

He stood before her with pursed lips, tapping his fingers against his chin, as though in thought.

"You have nothing I want as of now, but I'm sure I'll be able to think of something, when the time is ripe," he said.

"Fine." Cora nodded. She then flicked her wrist, and an image of Regina's tattoo appeared out of thin air between the two of them.

Rumplestiltskin tilted his head back and forth, eyeing the design. "Pretty," he commented, before he closed his eyes and mumbled some words under his breath.

When he snapped his fingers, the tattoo disappeared, replaced immediately by the image of someone riding horseback. Cora watched intently, but at first could see nothing identifiable of the figure beneath the dark green riding cloak and hood.

The horse was running at full speed, and when the rider turned to look backwards, the hood fell away, letting long blonde hair fly loose in the wind.

Cora frowned.

"Who is she?" she asked. The girl looked vaguely familiar, but it was nothing that she could put her finger on.

Rumplestiltskin giggled once again. "Oh, no one you would know, dearie. A beggar and a thief. Goes by the name of Swan."

Cora's mouth twisted in disgust. This certainly would not do. Regina was meant for something bigger; Regina was meant to bring power to her family. Cora's mind was already off and running, hatching up the beginnings of an idea.

"My daughter must never know about this," she said to Rumplestiltskin, waving her hand through his illusion and causing it to fade away. "Even now, the girl has a horrible romantic streak, but I have important plans for her. And I mean it, Rumple, if you do anything to interfere with me…"

"Oh, I wouldn't dare," he assured her.

She narrowed her eyes at him, unsure whether or not she could believe him. Either way, there was nothing she could do about him right now. With a huff, she waved her hand and disappeared in a burst of purple smoke.

There was much work to be done.


Part 2: The Wedding

It really was absurdly easy for Cora to get Leopold alone. Easy enough that it almost took the fun out of things. Almost, but not quite.

"It has been quite a while, Your Majesty," Cora began, bowing her head in feigned deference.

"Oh come now, Cora," he said, perfectly relaxed, as he sat down and lounged back against a settee at the edge of the room. He took a sip of the wine Cora had refused. "We're old friends, aren't we? There's no need for titles, between us."

Cora's smile thinned. "Not friends enough for you to take me as your wife," she reminded him.

Leopold sighed, already tired of the topic. They'd had the same conversation several times before, it was true, but not in many years, so Cora didn't know what he had to complain about.

"I couldn't marry you after what happened, Cora," he said. "You know that perfectly well."

No, he couldn't. Not after that idiotic little twerp had ruined everything.

"Yes, yes, of course," she murmured, finishing with a light, airy laugh, as though it were all just some silly trifle. She walked towards him, slowly, and ran her fingers along the velvet upholstery along the settee's arm. "But now," Cora continued, "if the rumors are to be believed, then I hear you're on the prowl for a new wife. It has, after all, been several years since poor Eva's tragic demise."

Leopold sat up straighter in his seat as Cora moved to stand before him. "Ah, so that's what this is all about. Have you forgotten that you have your own husband, now? Really, Cora, I don't know what you could possibly expect, but surely you know that I still can't marry you."

Cora's smile was as cold as ice. "Certainly, I know that quite well," she agreed.

Then, without a word of warning, her hand struck out, burying itself deep in his chest.

Leopold gasped, crying out in pain when Cora's fingers flexed around his heart. She retracted her arm and eyed the king's heart with satisfaction. Leopold clutched at his chest, staring at Cora in mute horror.

"But you will marry my daughter," Cora told him. The grin that spread across her face was genuine, now, full of triumph.

Cora looked down on Leopold; she had the urge to spit on him, but turned away to place his heart in the small box she'd brought with her.

"I'll take some of that wine now," she said, her voice calm.

With that, she took Leopold's goblet, which he had placed on an end table, and drained it quickly. When she smiled, her teeth were stained red.

Emma woke up with a start, as she nearly fell out of her hammock; it would have been a pretty long fall, from her perch in the trees down to the ground.

Her heart racing, Emma clutched at the nearest sturdy branch and tried to figure out what it was that had caused her to wake up so suddenly. She'd been with the Merry Men long enough by now that she was used to the youngest of their ranks' habit of sleeping in the trees. It had been a while since Emma was actually scared that she would fall out.

It was then that Emma noticed the nearby laughter. She looked up and was unsurprised to see Will Scarlet beaming down on her from his own hammock. He held an acorn aloft between his fingertips, and she realized belatedly that he'd probably been throwing them at her again.

"Ha ha, very funny, Will," she called up to him.

"I know," he replied with a grin. "It was."

There was a blur of motion out of the corner of Emma's eye, as Mulan did some acrobatic twirl out of the tree, landing lightly on her feet.

"She could have really hurt herself, if she'd fallen," Mulan stated, the disapproval evident in her voice.

"Aw, Swan's all right," Will countered with a shrug. "Right, Swan?"

Emma rolled her eyes.

She stretched, then climbed down to the lower branches and dropped to the ground, not nearly as graceful as Mulan had been.

"What's that on your hand?" Mulan asked, tilting her chin towards Emma's right hand.

"Hm?" Still partially asleep, Emma looked to Mulan in confusion, before she brought her hand up in front of her face. There was nothing strange about the back of her hand, as far as Emma could tell, but she jerked her head backwards in surprise when she flipped her hand over.

"Whoa, Swan!" Will called down from up above. "You've been holding out on us. I didn't know today was your birthday!"

"Yeah…" she replied vaguely, staring with wide eyes at the new tattoo that had appeared overnight. "Until just now, neither did I."

With their newfound reason to celebrate, Robin had agreed that they could use a little of the money they'd taken from the baron whose township they had recently passed through. "We're poor, after all," Will had argued. "Splurging just a little for Swan still falls within the mission. Plus, you know, morale!"

So with a laugh, Robin had given the three friends a few coins to go spend on some good mead, while he sent their best archers hunting. They'd have a feast, that night.

"Robin didn't take nearly as much convincing as I'd thought he would," Will commented as they rode slowly back to camp with their new purchase. "Maybe he's your soulmate! Have you ever gotten a good look at his tattoo?"

Emma laughed. "Don't be stupid, Scarlet. Marian is his soulmate."

"No she's not, actually," Mulan replied nonchalantly.

"Huh?" Emma turned to look at Mulan. "What do you mean?"

"Having a soulmate doesn't mean you can't be with anyone else." Mulan shrugged. "The magic isn't as straightforward as most people think. Some people find their soulmate but decide to remain platonic. Some have two soulmates, a different tattoo on each hand. When Robin and Marian fell in love, they decided that they didn't need to find their 'true' soulmates, because they'd found each other. I think it's quite romantic, actually."

"Mulan, have you been holding out on us too?" Will teased. "I hadn't realized you were a romantic."

Mulan blushed. "I'm not," she protested.

"How do you know all this stuff?" Emma asked.

Mulan cleared her throat. She was obviously uncomfortable, and Emma was about to take back her question when Mulan explained, "I once had a rather unfortunate meeting with a matchmaker. It didn't go well, but I did learn a few things."

Will's eyes brightened, and he looked like he was about to launch into a new round of teasing

Emma cut him off, however, by suggesting a race back to camp. Easily distracted, Will accepted right away and took off on his horse without waiting for the other two. Mulan and Emma shared a smile, before they quickly set off and gave chase.

The following day, Mulan was one of the few exceptions to those who woke up with varying degrees of a hangover. Emma, unfortunately, was not so lucky.

"Why is everyone making so much noise?" she complained, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes, as though that might stop the pounding in her head.

"You need to get up, Emma!" Mulan called up to her. "Arthur has returned from his scouting trip with some big news, and now we're leaving. Get Will, too!"

Emma groaned, but carefully navigated her way out of her hammock and up to where she could shake Will awake. If his bleary, bloodshot eyes were any indication, he was in even worse shape than she was. Somehow, they both managed to not fall out of the tree as they slowly made their way down to the forest floor.

By the time all the Merry Men had decamped and set out, however, Emma was feeling much more like herself.

She urged her horse forward, up near the front of the pack, and settled into stride beside Little John. "Where are we going?" she called out over the sound of pounding hooves.

"We're headed to King Leopold's palace," Little John replied cheerfully. "There's going to be a wedding, which means that it's the perfect time for us to pay His Royal Majesty an uninvited visit!"

They had been quite a long distance from the palace, so it took nearly a week's worth of hard riding, but Robin Hood and his Merry Men managed to arrive in time to set up camp three days before the royal wedding was scheduled to take place.

Emma felt claustrophobic, which was strange, considering that they were actually camped in an open field, instead of the tightly packed forest. Well, claustrophobic might not be the right word. But there were just so many people…

From all over the kingdom, people had been flocking to the palace and camping out on the king's lands. They weren't invited to the wedding itself, of course, but everyone wanted to come pay their respects to the royal family.

Emma didn't like it one bit.

She was used to hanging around with the Merry Men, now, but this was all just a little too much. In the Merry Men, Emma had finally found a group of people who seemed to accept her, but with this many people around, Emma felt out of sorts. She frequently found herself looking over her shoulder, unconsciously waiting for someone to tell her that she didn't belong, or that she was doing something she shouldn't.

Emma could fake it when she needed to, sure—act all bold and brash and sure of herself. But for her whole life, she'd felt like she could never quite make herself be what everyone wanted her to be. She was loud when she should be quiet; angry when she should be demure; too weak when others needed her to be strong.

And now, with all these people surrounding her…

Somehow, it was just a reminder that for more than sixteen years, Emma had never been enough for anyone. Not the Swan family, who had raised her for a few years, until she was no longer what they wanted. Not the man who had seemed kind when, thinking she was a boy, he'd hired her to help out with odd jobs, but who had a whole different use for her in mind when he discovered she was a girl (a deep stab wound to the upper thigh made him rethink that idea quickly enough, at least). Not the boy she'd been partners-in-crime with for a little while, who was happy to kiss her when things were going well, but equally happy to leave her behind when they got caught. Certainly not her parents, whoever they had been.

So Emma stayed focused. They were there with a job to do, and Emma could stay focused on that, at any rate, instead of all the unwanted emotions churning in her gut.

The benefit of there being a huge wedding, of course, was that it meant that everyone's attention would be turned to the same thing, at the same time.

Most of the guards would be at the wedding, under the assumption that any major threat would be to the king or future-queen themselves. The Merry Men, however, were far more interested in the royal treasure than the royal family, and it was sure to be at its most vulnerable during the ceremony.

On the day of the wedding, Emma and Mulan were given the role of lookouts. Emma was still new enough and young enough that she wasn't yet allowed to play an integral part in the theft itself. Mulan was only a few years older, but she had been around long enough and was so good with a sword that she was trusted to both help and keep an eye on Emma, as well as get them both out of there safely if anything went wrong.

All of the tree climbing Emma had taken to doing with Mulan and Will now came in handy, as the day before, they'd scouted out a way to scale up the side of the cathedral, unseen by the guards. They perched along one of the flying buttresses, just outside one of the upper windows.

From there, they could see inside the building with a clear view, and by climbing up and moving along the roof to the next window over, they could see from the west front all the way up to the altar. It wasn't the most comfortable of vantage points, and they were lucky that the weather was pleasant, but it was good enough that they could stay as still as possible for however long might be necessary.

Their job was to watch the ceremony and alert the others when it was time to get out of there; they each had a red flag to wave, and there would be someone else outside the treasury, waiting for their signal.

Of course, barely fifteen minutes into their watch, Emma was already growing bored. There was nothing actually happening, yet, other than the procession of guests into the cathedral, and Emma had no real desire to just sit around staring at rich people.

Emma started picking at the tile above her head, only to have Mulan slap her hand away.

"You're going to knock something loose and get us caught," Mulan whispered. "Is that what you want?"

"No," Emma replied with a sullen frown and a sigh. She lay back, then, settling into as comfortable a position as she could, and closed her eyes. "Wake me when anything interesting happens," she mumbled. She didn't actually fall asleep, but it was soothing to simply sit and listen to the music that floated up from below.

Emma couldn't say how much time had passed before Mulan reached out to gently touch her shoulder. She opened her eyes at once, looking over to her companion, who told her, "They're all inside, now, other than the bridal retinue."

She shifted her position—slowly, carefully, quietly—so that she could lie on her stomach to get a better view of the altar. Outside, the procession came from a direction they couldn't see, but inside, Emma could at least identify the king and his son by their crowns. She'd never seen anyone royal before. Her first instinct was to feel some sort of awe, but that quickly shifted to resentment; really, it wasn't like they had actually done anything special to deserve their place in life.

Then, Emma came infinitely close to falling to her death.

She'd been so startled that she jerked upwards, losing her footing and sliding down, along the flying buttress and away from Mulan. She slipped to the side, and her feet dangled free for several very long moments, before she was able to get control over herself again and swing her legs back on top of the stonework.

Emma lay perfectly still, her heart racing, as several guards ran over to investigate the racket she'd made. She must have managed to remain invisible from below, at least, because it wasn't too long before she could hear the guards move away again with an assertion that it must have been an animal. To be safe, she waited another minute before she carefully inched her way back towards Mulan.

The other girl had moved partway down as well, in an effort to keep her eyes on Emma. Together, they proceeded back to their spot by the window.

"What in all the lands just happened?" Mulan demanded as soon as they were both in a secure position, her voice tight and frightened. "Are you insane?"

"I don't know," Emma whispered, shaking her head in utter confusion. "I don't know, I…"

She looked over to Mulan, eyes beseeching. "It's my hand," she said. "All of a sudden… It feels warm, and it keeps throbbing, and I don't know what's wrong."

Mulan's eyes widened. Then she sighed, her shoulders sinking in resignation. "Really? Today of all days, your soulmate has to show up?"

For a second, Emma thought she might lose her footing for a second time. "What?" she asked. "My…?"

Before she could say anything else, a long, piercing, note rent the air. She and Mulan both froze—the trumpet blow had come from the direction of the treasury; something was very wrong.

They both scrambled to be able to look inside the cathedral. Everyone inside had clearly heard the sound as well, but no one seemed to know what was happening. King Leopold strode to the edge of the altar and was calling out something that Emma couldn't hear. Then the main doors burst open, and a man on horseback rode right into the central nave.

With the doors open, Emma could hear as the man shouted, "Your Majesty! Thieves! There are thieves in the treasury!"

Without needing to consult each other, Emma and Mulan hurried to get back down to the ground. All the guards were now otherwise occupied, so they didn't have to worry about the noise that they made. They started running over to where they'd hidden their horses, when the loose start of an idea made Emma slow to a stop.

"Emma! Come on!" Mulan urged her.

But Emma could only shake her head, apprehensive but determined. "My soulmate is here," she said. "I can't just leave without..." She paused, looking down on her hand, which was now throbbing even more than before, in time with her heartbeat. She met Mulan's gaze and continued, "No one knows who I am, here. No one will be paying any attention to me. You should go, but Mulan, I have to see. I have to try."

Mulan heaved a sigh of great suffering. "You're insane," she said matter-of-factly. "But I get it. So come on, let's go find your soulmate, and then we can get out of here."

Emma grinned, and the two young women turned and ran back in the exact opposite direction as they had been going.

It was vaguely chaotic at the front of the building, with all the guards, plus a good deal of other young men, trying to round up enough horses to go fight. The king stood to the side, calling out orders, and Prince Phillip seemed to be the one about to lead the charge.

But sure enough, no one paid them the least bit of attention, although it probably helped that they were dressed to look like boys.

Mulan looked to Emma, but no, nothing felt right. Her hand continued to throb, but it was like it was leading her towards the building's interior. She shook her head at Mulan, and the two of them easily edged their way around the guards and up the cathedral steps.

Inside, there was more confusion than anything else. No one seemed sure what to do.

Emma dashed forward, Mulan right on her heels, and stepped up onto one of the pews near the back row.

She looked all around, hoping that something, anything, would stand out. Emma's attention was drawn to the far end of the room. Near the altar, an older woman stood, clearly unhappy, gesturing wildly and yelling something at the priest.

And beside her…

Beside her, the king's betrothed stood perfectly still, staring down at her own open left hand. She seemed young, so much younger than Emma had assumed someone marrying the old king would be, with brown hair and a beautiful gown, and that was really all Emma could take in from this distance

Her heart seemed to skip a beat, and, clenching her right hand into a fist, Emma silently urged the young woman to look up. She hadn't been crowned yet, so Emma assumed that the ceremony had not yet reached its conclusion.

"People are starting to look at us strangely, Emma, we have to go!"

Mulan's voice sounded urgent, but Emma couldn't seem to process the other girl's words. She could feel Mulan tugging on her arm, but she remained still a beat longer.

And then she just couldn't help herself. She called out—"Your Highness!"

Everyone in the cathedral turned to look, but Emma only had her eyes on one person.

Their eyes locked on to each other, and Emma gasped, her hand swelling in a burst of heat, just as the throbbing suddenly stopped. She lifted her hand straight out into the air, her tattoo facing outwards, before Mulan managed to pull her down off the bench.

With their gaze broken, Emma's instincts seemed to kick back in. Her hand felt normal, now, and she and Mulan took off running.

"Stop them!" a shrill voice yelled out, but Emma and Mulan were operating at a different speed than everyone else, and they ran back outside unimpeded.

They looked towards the treasury and were relieved to see their companions racing away on horseback, with the guards in hot pursuit. To cause confusion, the Merry Men would soon split up, going in different directions, and they would only meet back up at their appointed meeting spot after at least an hour spread out and apart from each other.

Emma and Mulan could now no longer worry about the others, as they ran to retrieve their horses.

Every available horse was already being used in pursuit of the other Merry Men, but regardless, Emma and Mulan still mounted their horses quickly and took off, with only Emma daring to look back behind them.

As soon as she caught her breath, Emma couldn't help but burst out laughing.

It was absurd. Absolutely absurd.

Emma Swan, unwanted orphan, had found her soulmate—someone who just happened to be engaged to marry the king.

"So what are we going to do next?" Mulan asked, staring at Emma.

They had made it from the cathedral back to the forest without any complications, and after trotting their horses through a cool stream for half a mile, they'd settled far off the path to eat some dried meat and berries from their packs.

"Huh?" Emma stared back in confusion. "Um, well, we're going to wait a little while longer and then go join everyone else at the meeting spot." She paused. "Aren't we?"

Emma couldn't read the expression on Mulan's face as she asked, "What about your soulmate?"

Emma laughed. "Oh, you mean the soon-to-be-if-not-already-Queen of the Enchanted Forest?" she asked, sarcasm dripping. "I think it's safe to say that this falls into one of those other categories you were talking about the other day—as in, a category where two people are such entire worlds apart that it was actually probably a mistake."

Mulan frowned. "I told you that soulmate magic isn't always straightforward, but it doesn't make mistakes, Emma."

"Fine, so not a mistake, then," Emma allowed. "But I mean…" she trailed off, raising a skeptical eyebrow, but Mulan maintained her same serious expression. Emma scoffed. "Come on, Mulan, you think I'm just going to… What? Go romance the queen right out from under King Leopold's nose? I'm no one. I'm less than no one. My own-"

Cutting off the end of her own sentence, Emma stood up, shoulders tense, and irritably wiped at her eyes, though no tears had fallen. The anger and hurt had come upon her so suddenly that it almost took Emma by surprise; she'd been feeling perfectly fine just moments ago, but the emotions were quick to surface.

Mulan stood up as well and placed a gentle hand on Emma's shoulder. "What is it?" she asked softly.

Emma shook Mulan off and took a few steps away, keeping her back to her friend. Mulan waited quietly, patiently, until Emma was ready to continue. She breathed deeply in and out, and then whispered to the trees, "My own parents didn't want me. And now you think that someone like her would want anything to do with me?"

The question was rhetorical, but Mulan answered anyway. "I don't know," she said, causing Emma to laugh once again, more bitterly this time.

"But what I do know," Mulan hurried to continue, "is that actually finding your soulmate is rare, and it is special, and you cannot throw that away."

Emma bowed her head, scuffing her boot on the ground, but remained silent.

They were both silent for what felt like a long time, before Mulan went on.

"I found my soulmate," she said softly. Emma turned her head to look back at her, her eyes questioning. "I found him, and he was wonderful, and I loved him very much, and then he died."

Emma turned back fully to face her friend. "Mulan, I—"

Mulan shook her head, cutting Emma off. "We were soldiers together in my native land," she explained. "But I… I couldn't save him, and he was killed, but there isn't anything I wouldn't do to get another chance with him. So you don't get to just throw this away like it's nothing. Maybe you're right, and maybe it can't or won't go anywhere, but you have to at least try. You're not no one, Emma—you are brave, and strong, and good. And this isn't nothing."

It was probably the longest string of words that Emma had ever heard Mulan put together. She looked down at the ground, unable to meet Mulan's gaze any longer.

"Will was right, you know," Emma mumbled. "You are a romantic."

Mulan said nothing.

Emma exhaled deeply through her nose and looked back up to look Mulan squarely in the eye. "Okay," she said. "So what do we do next?"

If Emma could get away with never having to climb up the side of a tall building ever again, she thought to herself, she would be very grateful.

It had taken them a fair amount of time to scout the place out, but they were at least fairly certain that, based on the presence and movement of guard patrols, they'd figured out which room they wanted. If they were in fact right, then they were in luck, because while the hallway outside the room was heavily guarded, no one had thought to guard the balcony.

Emma had insisted that she go first, even though Mulan was the better climber; it wasn't easy to climb in the dark, but she took her time, inching carefully upwards, trying to balance caution with her growing fatigue.

Finally, as she reached the edge of balcony floor, Emma wrapped her elbow around one of the rungs in the railing and reached down so that Mulan could hand her the rope that they'd stolen from the stables. She tied it as well as she could to the railing, letting the other end hang loose. Mulan pulled hard on the rope, carefully testing her full body weight against the knot, before she nodded her satisfaction. Odds were very high that, no matter what, they'd need for their getaway to be much faster than their ascent had been.

Emma hauled her body over the railing, falling into a heap on the floor, with Mulan following right behind her. They could hear several indistinct voices coming from inside the room, but no one appeared to have heard them, and the glass door was covered by a heavy curtain.

"Now what?" Emma whispered.

Mulan shrugged.

With a deep breath, Emma did the only thing she could think of. She reached her hand up and knocked.

The voices inside quieted instantly.

A face appeared from behind the curtain; the young woman was pretty, and blonde, and maybe they'd gotten the wrong room after all.

"Who are you?" the woman asked, more curious than concerned. "And how did you get out there?"

Emma swallowed past the anxious lump in her throat. "Well, we climbed," she said, ignoring the first question. "Is this…"

Someone else reached to pull the curtain back, and Emma flinched at the sudden increase in light.

"It's you!"

Emma looked towards the new speaker. She inhaled sharply, as her heart rate picked up. They'd managed to pick the right room, at least.

She was beautiful. Emma had gotten only the briefest of glimpses at her before, but now she couldn't look away. The other woman met Emma's gaze head-on, her face equal parts confused, intrigued, alarmed, and dignified. And she was beautiful.

Mulan cleared her throat. "Uh, can we come in, by any chance?"

The blonde looked over to the princess—to Emma's soulmate; it was still so strange to think—who nodded her assent. She opened the door for them, and they tentatively stepped inside. There was a third girl in the room, with auburn hair, but Emma barely noticed her, all her attention focused on the brunette.

No one said a word, at first, an awkward silence falling over everyone. This was a mistake; Emma had known this would be a mistake, and once they got out of there, she was going to yell at Mulan for a very long time for getting her hopes up, and-

Before Emma's mind could run away too far, the third young woman spoke.

"But… You're girls."

In response, Emma could only laugh nervously, quickly changing it into a cough.

"Women," Mulan corrected.

"Sorry," the redhead said with a shrug. "It's only that when we saw you before, in the cathedral, you looked like boys."

With the ice at least somewhat broken, Emma stepped forward. "I'm Emma," she said, trying to act more confident than she felt. "And this is Mulan."

The brunette still hadn't said a word since they'd entered, but the blonde provided the introductions. "I'm Abigail. That's Aurora," she said, with a nod towards the one who'd spoken earlier. "And the only one you're really interested in is Regina, here."

Their gazes met again, and Emma smiled shyly. Regina didn't return her smile, but her eyes darted all around Emma's face, up to her hair, and then down to her hand.

"Hi," Emma ventured softly.

"Hello," Regina responded, and Emma's heart thumped extra loud at the low, smooth sound. "What are you doing here?" she asked.

Emma scratched the back of her head, unsure how to answer the question. She looked to Mulan for help.

"We're here to rescue you," Mulan stated. "If, well, you want to be rescued."

No one responded.

Hesitating only slightly, Emma took another few steps towards Regina, until she was standing just a few feet away, and she extended her right arm before her, her tattooed palm displayed upwards.

Regina breathed in deeply at the sight of it, briefly closing her eyes, before she too reached forward, placing her open left hand side-by-side with Emma's right.

It was somewhat overwhelming to see—their two tattoos, matched so perfectly. Emma's hand felt normal, now, as the earlier throbbing and heat had disappeared as soon as they made eye contact for the first time, but she had to work to keep it from shaking.

"Can I…?" she whispered, tearing her gaze away from their hands to look Regina in the eye.

Regina seemed to understand, and nodded.

Emma swallowed. Then, just as she was about to move to clasp their hands together, the door to the room opened and closed again, and everyone jumped, startled.

"Regina, dear, I-"

Emma whirled around, but then could only stand there, frozen in fear. It was the woman who had been yelling at the priest.

The newcomer looked around the room in surprise for a moment, before her eyes landed on Emma.

"You!" she exclaimed, her eyes narrowed in a truly frightening display of hostility. "What are you doing here? You're going to ruin everything!"

Regina stepped forward. "Mother, please, just-"

"Stay out of this, Regina," the woman ordered. "I am so completely disappointed in you."

Emma gasped in shock, then, as the woman waved her hand in her daughter's direction, and Regina flew backwards, her back hitting the wall with a painful-sounding thud. A number of ropes immediately emerged from the wall and tied tightly around Regina.

"Regina!" Emma called out in panic.

But then she had other things to worry about, because the crazy witch was coming at her, hand outstretched, and then her hand was sinking right into Emma's chest.

"Mother, no!" Regina screamed, but there was nothing she could do.

Mulan came running at them, her sword out and ready, but then she too was flying backwards, helpless. Aurora yelped, and Abigail wrapped her arms around her, cowering in fright.

And Emma could only gape at the woman in front of her with wide, terrified eyes. It hurt, everything hurt, but she couldn't make a sound, she could barely even breathe…

The woman tried to withdraw her hand, but Emma could tell from the woman's face that something was wrong. She pulled her arm back, but Emma's body jerked forward right with her.

"What…?" The woman tried again and again, her face angry and confused, but they remained stuck together. And Emma couldn't think, it just hurt so badly.

But then... Emma didn't see how it happened, but somehow Regina got free, and she rushed forward. She stretched out her hand, and Emma reached for her instinctively.

Their hands met, and in a burst of white light, Regina's mother was thrown back and away from them. Emma gasped for air, doubling over, but she didn't let go of Regina's hand.

Released from whatever magic had been holding her, Mulan went first to check on the woman, who lay crumpled on the ground, where she'd hit her head.

"She's alive," Mulan announced, "but unconscious." She stood up and turned to Aurora and Abigail. "Are you all right?" she asked them, and they nodded mutely. She turned to Emma and Regina, then, saying, "We have to get out of here. Now."

Emma turned to face Regina. "I don't want to force you into anything," she said earnestly. "I mean, your mother seems really crazy, but you're about to marry the king, and I can't offer you much of anything, and-"

"I'm coming with you," Regina interrupted, and in spite of everything that had just occurred, a wide and toothy grin burst onto Emma's face. Regina's own smile was smaller, but still sincere. She squeezed Emma's hand and then let go, moving over to Abigail and Aurora. She spoke quietly with them, and they all shared a tight hug.

Emma still felt like she was in shock; she had no sense at all about anything that had just happened. Mulan didn't hesitate, however, and she went right over to Regina's wardrobe and began combing through the clothes there. She picked out a pair of riding trousers and a loose shirt.

"I'm not allowed outside the palace," Regina said, turning back to Emma. "So we can't exactly leave out the front door."

Mulan smirked. "We're going back out the way we came in," she explained, angling her head towards the door to the balcony. "Ever slid down a rope, Your Highness?"

Regina looked out into the night through the glass door and paled, just slightly.

"Here, put these on," Mulan continued, handing over the clothes. "They'll work a lot better than your gown, for where we're going."

Emma turned away with a blush, while Abigail and Aurora helped Regina change out of her dress.

"Okay," Regina said when she was done.

Everyone's attention was drawn to Regina's mother, then, as she began to stir. They were running out of time.

Regina turned again to her friends. "You need to get away from here, as quickly as you can," she uttered urgently. "She won't go after you, because you're both royalty, but promise me that you'll stay out of her way. Please."

They both nodded and promised.

"Um, it was nice to meet you?" Emma told them with a lopsided smile. Abigail could only laugh in response, the sound coming out somewhat hysterically.

Mulan nodded to them formally, but then ushered Emma and Regina out onto the balcony.

"Ready?" Emma asked Regina.

She rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath. "I suppose so," she replied.

And with that, the three young women slid down and away, vanishing into the dark night.


Part 3: The Family Tree

The doors to the council room swung open. Charming jumped to his feet, his hand going immediately to the hilt of his sword, as everyone else turned to face the entryway.

The guards moved to intercept the intruder, but stopped when they saw Snow White rise with a bright smile on her face. "Red, you've returned!" the queen exclaimed happily.

Red glared the guards back to their positions, before she turned to face the council. Her face was grim, as she met the queen's eyes. She offered a small and brief smile, then said, "Snow. David. I need to speak to you both, alone, right away."

The council members frowned at the lack of proper formality, but the king and queen had always laughed off the idea that Snow's childhood friend should not be allowed to disrespect them so. Still, at King Charming's nod, they all stood up and filed out of the room, muttering only a low grumbling of disapproval.

"Guards too," Red declared, with pointed looks in their direction. None of them moved. "Honestly, I'm not going to hurt either of them. Don't you all know that by now?"

"Go on," Snow told them, and they too left quietly.

"Really," Red huffed, not even trying to hide her annoyance. "Just because I'm a

werewolf, they act like I can't be trusted. As if the two of you wouldn't be dead a hundred times over, if it weren't for me."

David grinned. "It's good to see you, old friend."

Snow rushed forward and wrapped Red up in a tight hug. Red returned the embrace, but stiffened as she remembered why she had come. Snow pulled back, her eyes full of questions.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

Red pulled up a chair and sighed deeply, her shoulders hunched over the table. "You should sit down, both of you," she told them softly. After exchanging a wary look, they did, reaching out to clasp their hands together.

"Red, you're scaring us," David said. "What is it?"

"It's Lady Cora," Red replied, practically spitting out the name in disgust. "I've heard from multiple reliable sources that she's gotten her hands on a prophecy, and..."

"And…?" David prompted, when it appeared that Red wasn't going to continue. Her leg was bouncing nervously up and down, and she wouldn't meet their eyes. Her gaze seemed instead to be fixed on Snow's stomach.

Snow sighed, as Red remained silent. "Honestly, that dreadful woman. I don't understand why she still holds such a grudge against me. I know I told Leopold not to marry her, but even if I hadn't, someone else certainly would have. She can't really have expected to pull that off. And besides, she managed to marry a prince after all, didn't she? He may not be right in line for the throne, but-"

"Snow, stop." Red shook her head lightly, then finally looked up at them, her face stricken. "The prophecy says that your first-born child will be her downfall. And the very minute she hears that you're pregnant, you know that she'll come up with something awful. Even if she doesn't find a way to just kill you outright, she certainly will never allow you to simply raise your child in peace."

Snow and David could only stare at her, looks of horror on their faces.

"But…" Snow stammered after a long moment. The hand that Charming wasn't clutching flew down to her stomach. "I'm not… Am I? I wasn't sure…"

Red's smile was small and sad. "I can hear four separate heartbeats in this room, Snow," she said. "You're pregnant."

As far as everyone in the castle was concerned, the queen had taken ill.

So ill, in fact, that she had become bedridden, and for the past five and a half months, only a few select people had been allowed to see her. The mood in the castle was very quiet and subdued, as everyone was quite worried about their beloved queen.

Thus, unbeknownst to almost all, on one beautiful morning, Snow White gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

It was Red's grandmother who served as midwife, the only person other than Red whom Snow and David trusted to keep their secret.

Snow wouldn't stop smiling, as she held her daughter tightly in her arms, even as streams of tears fell unchecked down her cheeks. "I love you so much, my darling girl," she whispered. "My beautiful Emma. I will think of you every single day and love you every single minute."

David knelt beside the bed, one hand on his daughter and the other on his wife, trying desperately not to weep.

Come nightfall, Red came to them with drooping shoulders. "We need to do this tonight," she said. "The longer we wait, the harder it will be for you." She was met with only silence. She went on with a whisper, "It's for her own safety; you know it is."

It was another hour before Snow and David could be coaxed into transferring the baby into Red's arms.

"Bring her somewhere safe, Red," David murmured softly, as Snow buried her face in his chest.

Red nodded solemnly, then left without a word.

Outside the castle walls, Red's grandmother held the baby while Red shifted, and then secured the child to a harness she attached to the wolf's back.

The wolf sniffed at the baby, but didn't seem too uncomfortable with her charge. Then, with a blink of her big, yellow eyes, she took off running, and both wolf and child quickly disappeared out of sight.

Mulan was the first one to make her descent down to the ground. The rope ended a decent ways above the ground, but she made the final jump look easy.

Although Regina went down the rope considerably more slowly and didn't make the smoothest of landings, she was quick to get back to her feet and brush herself off without complaint.

Then Emma was right behind, and while she almost managed to land upright, she ended up tripping over her own feet and tumbling to the ground.

"Well look at this beautiful girl," Regina cooed warmly.

Emma looked over sharply, only to find that Regina was simply admiring her horse.

Mulan was already astride her own horse, leading Emma's behind her, and she tossed the reins over as soon as Emma regained her feet.

The mare was five or six years old, by Emma's best guess. Emma had "acquired" her from a farmer nearly two years earlier and had done most of the training herself, earning many a bruise to show for it. It was hard to see in the dark, but she did have a beautiful coat—a golden, almost yellow, color—with a strip of white down her nose and light, flaxen hair.

"Yeah, she's a stubborn one, but she's all right," Emma replied fondly, patting the horse's side. "Regina, meet Bug, your ride for this evening."

Regina made an expression of distaste. "I'm sorry, but did you just call her Bug?" Even just from looking at the horse, Regina could tell that she was an intelligent, prideful creature. Not one she'd think to name after an insect, of all things.

Emma shrugged, before launching herself up and into the saddle. "She seems to like eating them, so I started calling her that, and the name just stuck," she explained.

She extended her hand down towards Regina, ready to pull her up behind her, but Regina just frowned.

"Why do you get to ride in front?" she asked.

"Uh, because she's my horse?" Emma replied in confusion.

Regina crossed her arms in front of her chest. "That may be, but if you were a true gentleman—well, gentlewoman, I suppose—you would allow me to take the more comfortable position. I'm an excellent equestrian, you needn't worry about that."

Emma laughed. "Well, Your Highness, I'm sure you're used to living in style, but I'm afraid things are going to be a little different where we're going. And there's no time like the present to start getting used to it," she teased with a wink.

Mulan cleared her throat. "If you two think you could save the flirting for later…? We should really get going before someone notices that she's missing."

Regina blushed, but when Emma reached her hand down again, she took it, only releasing a small huff of annoyance as she settled onto the horse's back as best she could.

"I wasn't flirting with you," she said softly into Emma's ear.

"I don't doubt it," Emma replied. "But I suggest you hold on to me, now."

With no other word of warning, Emma urged Bug forward into a trot. Regina let out a gasp at the unexpectedly sudden movement, but she managed to keep her seat and, with only a bit of hesitation, put her hands on Emma's waist and held on tightly.

Mulan and Emma knew that there was a distinct possibility that the Merry Men would go on without them, thinking they'd been caught (or worse), so they hurried as quickly as they could towards the meeting spot, but it wasn't easy to ride in the dark through a relatively unfamiliar forest. No one talked, though; they simply settled into a rhythm and rode quietly through the night.

Regina let her mind wander, trying not to panic as they moved farther and farther away from the life she knew.

It was just past daybreak when the meeting spot first came into view. Emma let out a relieved whoop at the sight of the tents that signified that they hadn't been left behind. The sound startled Regina, who had come close to dozing off, with her cheek resting against the back of Emma's shoulders. She quickly sat up straighter, tightening her grip when she almost overcorrected too far backwards.

Robin, already awake and out of his tent, had clearly heard them coming before he could see them, and he stood waiting for them, an arrow already nocked and ready.

Luckily, he didn't release before they were close enough that he could identify the two riders, and he lowered his bow with a welcoming smile.

"How nice of you to join us," he said as they pulled up beside him. Woken by the noise, a few other faces began to peek out of their tents, as well. It was only then, however, that Robin noticed the stranger riding behind Emma. "And who is this?" he asked, always wary of the unexpected.

Emma rubbed soothingly at Bug's neck—a misplaced action, meant to calm her own nerves, rather than her horse's. "Well, sir… This is Regina," she said simply. She smiled brightly, as if showing up with an uninvited guest were nothing new.

"Regina, hm?" Robin's eyes narrowed in suspicion, but then widened as a thought struck him. "Emma Swan," he began sternly. "I very much hope that you don't mean the Lady Regina, who married the king yesterday."

Emma's smile faltered slightly, and she turned to glare at Mulan, who had surreptitiously dismounted and was quietly leading her horse away; it was really her insistence that had led to this moment, after all, but it was Emma who now stood under fire.

She cleared her throat.

"You're right!" she exclaimed with false enthusiasm. "She did not marry the king."

At that, Regina leaned to the side and added, "Yes, you and your band of criminals, here, decided to stage an interruption before I could."

"Regina!" Emma admonished through clenched teeth. "That's not exactly helping."

Regina shrugged. "It's not as though he wouldn't find out eventually," she reasoned. "Might as well get it out in the open now." She then carefully slid down off of Bug's back, stretching out her muscles.

"Oh, no." Robin looked back and forth between the two young women. "No, you're not staying," he said to Regina. "We may be outlaws, but we certainly don't take hostages, and—"

"I am not a hostage."

"She came voluntarily!"

Regina and Emma protested both loudly and simultaneously.

"After all," Regina admitted, "I didn't actually want to marry the king, so Emma and Mulan really did me a favor."

After setting her horse to graze, Mulan had come and rejoined the group, and at the mention of her name, Robin looked over at her.

"I can at least be sure that you haven't lost your mind," he declared, "although I cannot say the same for Swan, over there."—"Hey!"—"So tell me, Mulan. What exactly is going on here?"

"It's complicated?" Mulan shrugged, with an apologetic smile. "You should let Regina stay."

Robin grumbled something inaudible under his breath, but then said, pointing a finger in Regina's direction, "I won't make you leave right this minute, but you're not staying!"

"So…" Emma paused, thinking about how to word her question.

She, Regina, and Mulan were relaxing along the edge of a stream bed. Robin had decided that they would stay where they were for one more day, giving their injured members—including Will Scarlet—some more time to rest, and allowing Bug and Khan, Mulan's horse, to recover their strength as well, after they'd ridden through the night. Robin did send out more scouts, however, since Mulan and Emma had been able to ride right to the meeting spot without being seen, and they couldn't risk the king's men doing the same.

"Can we talk about your mom, and how she stuck her hand into my chest, and that weird white light thingy that happened?"

Regina could practically feel both pairs of eyes on her, but she didn't turn to face either of them, choosing instead to just look straight out across the stream. She understood that they needed to talk about what happened, but she really didn't want to; what if they decided that she couldn't be trusted, or simply wasn't worth the extra risks, since her mother was so awful?

The silence stretched out between them, broken only by the sounds of nature—the gurgling stream, the wind in the grass, and the occasional notes of a bird call—but neither Emma nor Mulan pushed for answers, and for that, Regina was grateful.

She sighed.

"She was trying to take your heart out," Regina admitted softly. She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "I don't know why she couldn't do it, with you. I've seen her do it once before."

Emma pressed her open palm firmly to the left side of her chest. "Take my heart out?" she repeated, the horror evident in her voice. "Why…?" Her voice trailed off.

Regina didn't bother to answer that one; it was perfectly clear why someone would want to remove another's heart, even without Regina saying it out loud.

"The white light came when the two of you touched hands," Mulan pointed out, cutting into the tense silence. "I can assure you that that isn't something that happens with all soulmates."

Emma and Regina glanced at each other shyly. Although they obviously knew what they were to each other, it was the first time that someone had actually said it, out loud and with both of them there. Emma reached out after a moment, laying her right hand, palm up, on the grass at Regina's side. Regina just stared down at Emma's tattoo at first, her eyes tracing over the familiar lines, before she too reached out and brought their hands together.

There was no white light, this time, but there was something. Both of them could feel it, like some kind of warm, but sharp, current, humming just below their skin. It wasn't unpleasant; quite the opposite, in fact.

Regina pulled her hand away, and Emma gasped at the sudden stop to the sensation within her.

Regina's heart was racing, her mind running right alongside. It was magic, it had to be magic. But magic was a weapon. It was a cage, it brought nothing but heartache and despair, and Regina wanted nothing—nothing—to do with it.

Emma's reaction was quite different. A smile played at her lips, and though the feeling scared her, and she didn't understand it, she also couldn't deny the sense of wonder and excitement that coursed through her.

Mulan was again the one to break the silence. "Will your friends be okay?" she asked Regina.

"My friends?" Regina turned to look at Mulan in confusion.

"Aurora," Mulan clarified, "and Abigail."

"Oh. Yes, I suppose Abigail is a friend," she replied. "She lives so far away, though, that I rarely see her. And Aurora, I'd only met her the day before the wedding. Phillip is courting her." She laughed, as she realized, "If they were to get married, then I would have been her mother-in-law. But anyway, yes, they… Well, I hope that they'll be all right. My mother is many things, but she isn't stupid enough to go after anyone she doesn't already control."

"Except for Emma," Mulan reminded her.

"Except for Emma," Regina acknowledged, glancing at the person in question out of the corner of her eye. "She panicked, I think. But now she'll take a step back and be very strategic about whatever it is that she's going to do next."

When they returned to camp, Emma went to check on Will. He'd been shot from behind, an arrow piercing the muscle in his left shoulder.

All things considered, however, he seemed to be in good spirits. Granted, that might have been due to the alcohol they'd given him to help numb the pain.

"Swan!" he exclaimed happily as she entered the tent where his wound was being treated. "I hear that you kidnapped the queen and have taken her as your concubine!"

Emma stopped in her tracks, startled. "You heard what?"

Will merely grinned at her in response.

"I didn't kidnap her," Emma sputtered. She moved to Will's side and punched him firmly in his good shoulder, causing him to wince. "And she's not the queen. And she's certainly not my concubine." She punched him again.

"Ow, stop it," he laughed, batting her hand away.

"Well you're the biggest gossip in the group, Will Scarlet, so you better correct anyone spreading this nonsense," Emma told him, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "Regina is here… as our guest," she settled on.

"Whoever she is, you like her, don't you? I can tell," Will teased.

"Watch it," Emma warned good-naturedly, "or I'll punch you in your bad arm."

Will just laughed.

That night, Emma, Regina, and Mulan retired for bed quite early. It was a day unlike any Regina had ever experienced. Luckily, she was exhausted enough to not let it bother her too excessively that she was sleeping outside, in a tent, on the ground.

Emma and Mulan had decided not to tell her that they usually slept in the trees; one step at a time, they figured.

The following morning, Robin came to them early.

He repeated to them again that Regina couldn't remain with the Merry Men. He went over all his reasoning, about how whether Regina had come voluntarily or not, the rest of the world wouldn't see it that way, and there would be hordes of people coming to try to get Regina back, and they simply couldn't afford that kind of attention.

They listened attentively, and he concluded, "So that's it, then. I'm sorry, but she simply can't stay."

After he left their tent, Emma, Regina, and Mulan went and had a talk with Marian, and then it was settled quite quickly.

Regina stayed.

Regina dealt as well as she could with the sudden and complete change in her life's circumstances. Within very little time at all, she'd gone from living with her parents—lonely and trapped—to being engaged to marry the king—against her will—to traveling the countryside with a band of outlaws—distributing gold that had belonged to her one-time fiancé. She was no longer quite so lonely, per se, but she was a complete outsider in this strange new world.

Emma tried to help her feel at home, but there was no denying that Regina's adjustment was just so much greater than anyone else's when they'd first joined the group.

Still, Regina didn't regret her decision to leave her old life behind, even though things with Emma were… complicated.

Regina had to admit that Emma Swan did not exactly match the fantasies she'd had as a child of her knight in shining armor, coming to take her away from her mother.

Emma was loud, and crass, and she had horrible taste in friends, when it came to Will Scarlet, who was even worse than Emma. Although… She could also be sweet, and kind, and brave…

On Regina's bad days, she refused to acknowledge those latter traits; because when it came down to it, she asked herself, hadn't she simply traded in someone her mother had chosen for someone whom "fate" had chosen? And who was fate to decide that Regina belonged with this rough, unsophisticated girl?

Emma, meanwhile, seemed to alternate multiple times every day between completely smitten—something that pretty much everyone other than Regina seemed to notice and use to tease her accordingly—and completely annoyed.

She had to admit that it hurt, though, that Regina so clearly wanted to avoid holding her hand. Emma wasn't exactly a tactile person, herself, but there was such a surge of warmth and comfort that came whenever their tattoos touched. Regina plainly didn't feel the same way, however. She didn't seem to mind if Emma touched her with her left hand, but whenever Emma so much as grazed their tattooed hands together, Regina would immediately pull back, as though she'd been burned.

Regina didn't tell Emma that for her, that same warmth and comfort was actually terrifying.

She didn't understand why it happened; what it was about the two of them in particular that led to a burst of magic when their hands touched (and she'd spoken with Mulan, who confirmed that she'd never heard of such a thing ever happening between soulmates). But the reason why didn't matter in the end. The mere fact of it was enough.

For Regina, the magic felt too good. For her, the temptation to embrace the magic between them was really dangerous; it was the danger of turning into her mother.

But she didn't explain any of that to Emma. So used to handling things on her own, it didn't occur to Regina that she should, or even that she could.

For Emma, Regina's reactions hurt, but they also weren't any real surprise. Because of course someone like Regina would resent being tied to someone like Emma. Emma had served her purpose, in getting Regina away from her mother, but after that, there was simply nothing left between them.

"What do you mean, Emma's gone? Where did she go? When is she coming back? Is she coming back?"

The utter panic that Regina felt when Mulan told her that Emma was gone was entirely unexpected.

Mulan stared back at her with wide, surprised eyes. "Uh… Yes, she is coming back, but I don't know when, and I don't know where she went. She took Will with her, and she asked me to keep an eye on you."

Regina frowned, worried. It wasn't like Emma to just disappear like that.

No. Regina barely knew Emma, given how it was only two and half months since they'd met, so it could very well be that it was just like her to disappear, suddenly, without a word of warning, or even saying goodbye.

Regina affected an expression of indifference and nodded her head to Mulan. "Yes, well I don't need you to look after me, but thank you for telling me. Good day, Mulan."

With that, she turned and walked purposefully away; she had nowhere in particular to go, but Mulan needn't know that, and Regina was very practiced at pretending things that weren't true.

Three days later, Regina woke to find Emma kneeling over her, gently shaking her shoulder.

Emma wore a bright smile on her face, but although Regina's heart leapt at the sight of her, she hid it well. She swatted Emma's hand away and demanded, "Where have you been? I can't believe you just left me here."

Emma's grin only brightened as she stood up. "Did you miss me, Your Highness?"

Regina scoffed. "Of course not. I'm just saying that it's very rude to suddenly—"

"I'm really sorry, Regina," Emma interrupted. "It was all for a good cause, though. Come on, I want to show you." She reached down and extended her left, tattoo-less hand.

Regina only hesitated briefly before she reached up and allowed Emma to pull her to her feet. Her muttered protest was a weak one when Emma didn't let go, and instead practically dragged her outside the tent.

"Look!" Emma exclaimed with pride, as they emerged into the sunlight. She was practically bouncing in excited anticipation.

With an annoyed huff, Regina looked to where Emma was pointing. She really didn't know what the big deal was; all she saw was Bug, grazing next to stupid Will Scarlet, who sat on his horse and held the reins for…


Regina released Emma's hand and ran over to her horse, who whickered happily as Regina threw her arms around his neck.

Emma sauntered over to Regina's side, nodding in thanks to Will. He winked at her and then let Rocinante's reins drop, before he trotted off on his own horse, leaving the two young women alone.

Regina kept stroking Rocinante's head and neck, but she turned to face Emma. "How… You got me my horse? How did you even…?" Regina shook her head and laughed. "You got me my horse!"

It was the happiest Regina had ever sounded in all the time Emma had known her. At least she'd managed to do something right, Emma mused to herself.

She shrugged, pawing at the dirt with her boot. She felt a counterintuitive mix of simultaneous pride and embarrassment. "Well I know that you and Bandit weren't getting along all that well," she said, alluding to the horse Regina had been riding since she'd been traveling with the group. "You've talked about Rocinante a lot, and it wasn't all that hard to figure out where you used to live. I roped Will into helping. And what can I say? Sometimes it comes in handy to know a thief."

Regina smiled, wide and radiant, and in a moment of admitted-sappiness, Emma felt like it was the most beautiful sight she'd ever seen.

It was gone too soon, though, as Regina's expression shifted to one of concern. "You went to my house? Emma. Are you crazy? You could have been caught! What if my mother had seen you? That was horribly dangerous!"

"Hey, it's okay," Emma cut in. She placed a hand on Regina's shoulder. "We didn't get caught. No one saw us. And this was worth the risk."

Regina exhaled audibly, but then rolled her eyes. "Idiot," she murmured, but there was real affection in her voice, and the two them just stood and grinned at each other.

"Thank you, Emma," Regina said softly after a bit. "Really, this means a lot."

She bit her lower lip and then reached out. For just a moment, Regina purposefully grabbed hold of Emma's right hand with her left, and they both gasped at the sudden flow of magic. Regina squeezed Emma's hand once, but then let go.

Before Emma could miss the contact, though, Regina steadied herself with her hand to Emma's hip as she leaned in and placed a brief, but firm kiss to Emma's cheek.

They were both blushing when Regina pulled back.

Emma cleared her throat after a taut beat of silence. "I have to say, you know, that Rocinante is pretty ridiculously well-behaved," she said, feigning casualness. "And he came right along with us, like he knew, somehow, that we were taking him to you. Really, he should give headstrong, old Bug, here, some lessons."

Regina smiled, leaning back up against her horse. "Yes, well maybe she'd be better behaved as well, if you called her something nicer than Bug," she suggested.

"Nah, she likes it," Emma insisted, smiling back just as bright.

After that, things got easier.

They started really talking with each other, sharing pieces of themselves. First it was all small things, a quick story, or an opinion, or a stray thought, shared here and there. Then Emma began talking about the Swan family, or how she'd first met up with Robin, and Regina would talk about Daniel, or her father.

Time went on, and they shared stories of very different, but equally lonely childhoods.

More time passed, and Regina stopped physically pulling back from Emma, regularly twisting their fingers together, even as she still tried to keep their tattoos from touching.

Emma finally just asked Regina why she resisted putting their tattoos together. Regina found that it was such a relief to finally talk about her mother, and how all her biggest fears revolved around the thought of Cora's corrupted blood running through her own veins. Emma shared her own fears about never being enough for anyone.

It wasn't easy, finding the time or space to build a connection, while they lived under the open sky with barely any privacy to be found. Will in particular teased them endlessly, but instead of just getting angry or annoyed, like she used to, Regina started blushing.

But they carved out whatever space they could, creating their own little cocoon. They told each other things they'd never dared say out loud before; dreams for the future that had always felt hopelessly unlikely—the possibility of love, a real family—but now started to feel like they might be within reach.

One night, both Mulan and Will were serving as nighttime scouts, standing watch in a wide perimeter around their encampment, and Emma decided that it was high time that Regina discovered what it was like to sleep in a tree. It was a clear night, and the moon and stars shone brightly through the trees, giving them plenty of light to see by.

Regina was highly skeptical of Emma's proposal, but with a laugh, some gentle teasing, and a steady hand at her back, Emma was able to coax her up into the branches. Emma set up both hammocks pretty low to the ground, but once Regina was actually in the tree, she found that she wanted to go higher.

She climbed upwards, slowly but steadily, with Emma just a step below her, muttering words of encouragement.

Regina stopped near the crown of the tree, reaching a spot where she still felt secure, but she could look up and see through the leaves to the stars up above. Emma came up beside her, on the opposite side of the tree's narrow trunk.

Regina watched the stars, but Emma watched Regina.

"Regina," Emma whispered, bringing Regina's gaze down to her. "I really…" Emma broke off her sentence, frustrated with herself. There was so much she wanted to say, so much she wanted to tell Regina, but it was all too jumbled, in her head and in her heart, and she didn't know how to put any of it to words.

Regina smiled softly. "I really too," she whispered back. She held on tightly to the tree trunk, and she could feel her heart beating rapidly, but she knew that it had nothing at all to do with her precarious position in the tree, as the branches swayed just slightly in the breeze.

Maybe it was something about standing with her feet so far off the ground, but Regina felt a swell of courage go through her, and she leaned her head forward. Regina made the first move, but Emma met her halfway, and they shared a kiss in the moonlight.

For nearly five months after their successful theft of a good chunk of King Leopold's gold, the Merry Men remained in hiding. They never stayed in one spot for very long, they didn't travel in any kind of logical route, and they were sure to take a wide berth around even the smallest of towns. These strategies had worked well for them in the past, in terms of not getting caught; no one could ever guess where they were at any given time, or where they were going next. And Robin would send out only a few men at a time to venture away from the pack in order to distribute Leopold's wealth to the peasants and townspeople within the realm.

At last, then, Robin decided that it had been long enough that it was safe for the whole group to take a short break from their standard way of living and spend one night as a group in a small town. They'd traveled beyond Leopold's borders a few weeks prior, and only the small amount of gold that they'd saved for themselves remained from their haul. With that gold, they could stock up on supplies, spend one night relaxing in town, and then be back on their way.

Regina found that she was nervous, as the group rode cheerfully into town, although she couldn't quite articulate why. To her horror, she realized that she'd actually grown used to living in the woods with this pack of wild (but surprisingly polite, when it came down to it) men. It helped to not be the only woman, of course, though neither Emma, Mulan, nor even Marian were exactly paragons of femininity.

Emma didn't bother trying to suppress her excitement at the prospect of spending a night in town. "Oh, Regina," she said as they approached the township, practically moaning, "there will be fresh food and good wine, and Little John said there's a whole market we can explore… And beds! Regina, tonight we can sleep in real beds!"

Regina chuckled. "Well, when you put it that way, I can definitely see the appeal," she admitted. She'd never been to this kingdom before, having only ever been to lands ruled by either King Leopold or King Midas. It looked quite the same as any other kingdom, she thought.

After leaving their horses at the town's stable, Will chose to head right to the local tavern, while Regina, Emma, and Mulan decided to check out the marketplace.

They simply wandered around for a while; Emma and Mulan showed a particular interest in food and weapons, but Regina indulged a side of herself she hadn't been able to in months, happily examining beautiful silk scarves and pieces of jewelry.

At one point, Emma felt the hairs prick up on the back of her neck, and though she didn't say anything to either of her companions, she began paying closer attention to their surroundings. It didn't take long for her to be sure of it: they were being followed.

They went around a corner, and while Regina and Mulan were talking, Emma held back a moment, and then turned to confront the woman who'd been trailing along behind them.

"Can I help you with something?" Emma asked, although her forceful tone and hand to the hilt of her knife belied any seeming goodwill in her words.

Regina was a bit slow to realize what was going on, but Mulan was almost immediately at Emma's side, her hand already reaching for her sword.

To Emma's utter surprise, however, the woman just smiled. "It is you, isn't it?" the stranger asked, her gaze directed towards Emma.

Emma narrowed her eyes. "I don't think we've met," she said. She felt sure that she would have remembered the tall, striking woman. "You must have me confused with someone else."

The woman didn't seem dangerous, at least, so Emma turned to move on, but she froze in her tracks when the woman's next question hit her.

"Do you still go by Emma?"

Emma whipped back around. She unsheathed her knife but drew some sense of calm when she felt Regina press a comforting hand to her back. "Who are you?" she demanded. "How do you… Who are you?"

The woman smiled again, though there was a hint of sadness to it. "We have met before," she said, "but you were much too young to remember it."

Emma's hand began to shake, but just what she was afraid of, she couldn't quite say.

The woman looked around, to be sure no one else was listening in, and then she took a step forward, narrowing the distance between them.

She whispered, "Emma, I was there the day you were born."

She had parents.

She had parents, and they'd been forced to give her up as an infant.

She had parents, and they'd been forced to give her up as an infant, and she was a princess.

She had parents.

Emma kept pacing, the words running through her head over and over again. The words hadn't yet sunk in.

She didn't quite understand how the woman—Red, was her name—had managed to recognize her. Something about "smelling like a Charming," which was fairly disturbing, actually.

But Emma was a Charming. She was the secret daughter of King David and Queen Snow, and Emma felt like she could scream.

She did scream, then, sinking into a crouch down near the ground and releasing a strained shout of frustrated confusion. Emma's head was bursting with new information, but she just felt so lost.

Right away, Regina was there.

Regina was crouching down beside her, resting one hand along the side of her ribcage and rubbing circles into her back, and finally, Emma could breathe.

Regina didn't really know what to do; didn't know how to help, or what to say. But she could be there, at least. She could stay there, crouched at Emma's side, and hold her as gently as she could, until Emma finally stopped shaking.

Emma told Robin as little information as she could, but he didn't object when she said that she had to leave for some unspecified amount of time, and that Regina and Mulan would be coming with her. He assured her that the Merry Men would stay within a day's ride of the town for a while, so that she could find them again when she was ready. And that was that.

It wasn't so simple with Will. He was angry and confused when she told him she was leaving, and she couldn't blame him, but she couldn't bring herself to tell him what was going on, either.

She was still half-convinced that this was all some cruel joke, and she wouldn't spread it any more until she had a firmer grasp on things. Regina and Mulan had been there when Red shared her story, so Emma didn't have to hide this from them, but she just couldn't yet share it with anyone else.

They did get to sleep in a real bed that night, just like Emma had wanted, but neither she nor Regina did much sleeping, in the end. They shared a room with two beds, but they only occupied one; Regina lay on her back, and they wrapped their arms around each other, with Emma curled into Regina's side, one leg draped in between Regina's and her head resting on Regina's chest.

They didn't talk, even though each could tell that the other was still awake, but they both took comfort in the other's presence, and that was enough. Regina did drift off to sleep for a short amount of time, but Emma continued to hold on tight, listening intently to the beat of Regina's heart.

As dawn broke the next morning, Regina woke up and kissed the crown of Emma's head, and then they wordlessly got out of bed and packed up their things.

In spite of the lack of sleep, Emma was wired, full of jittery nerves, when she, Regina, and Mulan met up with Red again.

And with the sun still sitting low in the sky, they left the town behind and rode off in the direction of the Royal Castle—towards, according to Red, the place where Emma had been born.

The notion of having parents wasn't really any easier to accept, even after Emma had met them.

Emma had found that she could only really handle them in small doses, and only that much when she had Regina there with her, holding her hand. Regina still didn't like to have their tattoos touch, so they held the opposite hands. Emma understood why, now, so she didn't mind.

Regina couldn't say that the king and queen had made all that favorable of an impression on her, she had to admit. The queen in particular was way too pushy, in Regina's opinion, for someone who had chosen to give up her only child, only to now insist that she was overjoyed to have Emma back. It hadn't quite been explained why they'd given Emma away, but Regina greatly disliked them for it on principle.

Still, it at least made Emma laugh when Regina would make fun of them, so there was that, at least.

Mulan didn't seem quite sure what to do with herself, once it became clear that the whole thing hadn't been some kind of trap. But she was content to remain at Emma and Regina's side, having apparently appointed herself as their personal guard.

The three of them had decided early on that they wouldn't reveal Regina's true identity, so it wasn't all that surprising, then, when two full days had gone by before they fully realized the extent of Emma and Regina's interwoven histories.

The six of them, Emma, Regina, and Mulan, plus Red, David, and Snow, were dining together, as had become the norm, but Emma wasn't paying any attention to the ongoing conversation. Her leg bounced nervously up and down, stilled only by Regina's hand placed on her knee.

Emma hadn't quite wanted to know, at first, but now the question burned at the back of her mind, until she finally just blurted it out.

"Why?" she asked loudly, interrupting whatever it was that Snow was in the middle of saying. Everyone turned to stare at her.

"Why what, darling?" Snow asked, her voice light, but Emma flinched at the term of endearment.

Emma didn't respond right away. Regina caught her eye, smiling in encouragement.

"Why did you abandon me?" she finally asked in a small voice, looking intently at her untouched plate of food.

"Oh, Emma," Snow said sadly. She pushed back her chair, as though she were planning to get up and come around the table, but knowing that Emma needed that distance between them, Regina glared her back into place.

"We had to," David spoke up, reaching out to hold Snow's hand. "Emma, it was for your own safety."

"What does that even mean?" Emma protested. Her leg began its jerky up-and-down movement again, dislodging Regina's hold on her knee. She brought her head up, though, looking directly at both David and Snow. "How could I have possibly been safer out there, with no one, than I would have been here, with my goddamn parents?"

Emma felt like she was losing control, and, desperate, she reached out for Regina with her right, tattooed hand.

Regina didn't hesitate for even a moment; she took Emma's hand in both of her own, letting the magic burst forth and flow freely beneath their skin. It connected them, in some way beyond words, and Regina could feel Emma calm down, just slightly.

Red was actually the one to finally explain. Or begin to, anyway. "It was my idea, Emma," she said. "There's a prophecy about you, and if Lady Cora ever—"


Emma and Regina both called out the same word simultaneously.

David and Snow looked at each other, unsure what their reaction meant, before Snow continued.

"There's this wretched woman, the Lady Cora Mills, and well, let's just say that our families don't exactly get along, and if we hadn't let you go, Emma, and kept you hidden, even from ourselves, she would have killed you."

Regina paled.

Emma, on the other hand, began to laugh. She tried to stop, but it only got worse, growing louder and more out-of-control.

Regina could only stare at Emma, a new layer of disgust towards her mother washing over her.

Everyone was staring at Emma, in fact, until David demanded, "What is going on?"

Emma managed to control herself just enough that she could say, "I've met the Lady Cora, as it turns out. She's already tried to kill me, too, but she couldn't."

Regina closed her eyes. She couldn't look at Emma anymore; couldn't look at the woman she'd come to like so much, maybe even love, but whose life her own mother had somehow ruined.

She felt a hand on her cheek, and she opened her eyes again to find Emma looking right at her. Emma smiled—sad, and hurting, and oh so beautiful—and then brought her lips to Regina's. Regina tasted salt, but she couldn't say whether the tears were her own, or Emma's.

Emma pulled back, but kept her forehead touching Regina's.

"We're going to be okay," she whispered softly.

"Our families might not get along," Emma went on, now loud enough that everyone could hear, "but Cora's daughter is my soulmate."


Part 4: The Beginning

"Who the hell is she?"

Rumplestiltskin giggled, and Cora felt like she had never wanted to kill the little imp as much as she did in that moment.

"Who is whom, dearie?" he asked, an innocent twinkle in his eye.

"Don't toy with me," Cora snarled back. "You know exactly whom I mean. You told me she was no one. She is not no one, so who the hell is she?"

Rumple feigned a sudden look of understanding. "Ah," he said, "you must mean the Swan girl. Your lovely daughter's little soulmate?"

Cora's upper lip rose in disgust.

"Now," Rumplestiltskin continued, "if I remember correctly, and I can assure you that I do, I never said the girl was no one; just no one that youwould know. And indeed…" Rumplestiltskin raised his arms in an elaborate shrug. "You didn't know her at all, now did you?" He laughed.

With a growl of frustration, Cora lunged towards him, only for him to disappear with a pop and reappear right behind her.

"Tsk tsk tsk, Cora," he scolded, wagging a long, golden finger at her. "You mustn't lose your temper, now, hm?

He waited, and Cora took in a deep breath, closing her eyes, and centered herself. She'd been feeling her control slipping away, bit by bit; first it was just a trickle, when the wedding was first interrupted, and then a rushing torrent, when her hand had gotten stuck in that damn girl's chest. But she was stronger than all of that, she was better than all of that, and as she exhaled, she could feel herself reaching out and forcibly clawing that control back to where it belonged.

It was like Rumplestiltskin knew the exact moment when Cora regained a sense of calmness, because it was right at that moment that he chose to say, "Of course, I suppose I may have forgotten to tell you about the girl's parents." He giggled again. "Them, you do know."

Cora clenched her hand into a fist, but she had that control caught 'round the neck, now, and she merely opened her eyes and turned to face Rumplestiltskin again. "Oh?" she asked calmly, a serene smile crossing her face. "And who might they be?"

Rumplestiltskin's grin grew. "It's why you couldn't kill her, dearie," he told her. "Only the greatest magic of all could block that little heart trick I taught you."

Cora sighed, tired of this game. "What are you talking about, Imp?"

Again, that horrible laugh.

"She's a child of true love, of course. The first-born spawn of Their Royal Majesties, the Charmings."

Cora's smile froze in place, as her world flashed red.

Regina stood at one of the windows in the guest room she'd been given, looking out across the Charmings' land. Her thoughts turned to the last royal castle in which she'd found herself. It wasn't all that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that Regina had lain awake at night, dreading her upcoming marriage, only to, the very next night, decide spontaneously to run away from her life, led by two complete strangers.

She'd really had no idea whatsoever what she was getting herself into.

But now, Regina's whole world was different, and it could never again be the same. In spite of her family's wealth and affluence, she'd never known, really, what it meant to be free; not until she'd spent each day with the wind in her hair and the ground flying by beneath her horse's hooves, and spent her nights out beneath the stars, no longer trapped in her gilded cage. She'd never known what true friendship looked like; not until she'd seen Emma, Mulan, and the Scarlet boy interact. She'd never known what it felt like to have someone care about her without asking for anything in return; not until Emma, who outwardly tried to shrug off her own life full of hardships, but who was bursting with righteous anger at the thought of Cora's abuses and her father's passivity.

Not until Emma; none of it until Emma.

It had all been nice while it lasted, Regina supposed.

"Please, Emma, try to explain it to us one more time," David said.

Emma ran a frustrated hand through her hair. "Why?" she asked. "What's the point? I've already told you how it all happened. You think that if I say it one more time, you two will suddenly think that everything is fine?"

Snow began pacing, her lips pursed. "I'm just trying to understand, here, how our only child has managed to ally herself with the most untrustworthy family in all the land!" she exclaimed.

"I'm not allied with the family," Emma protested, hunched over the table where she and David sat. "I just care about Regina."

"Regina Mills," Snow went on, "who was personally raised by Cora Mills, who would like nothing more than to see all three of us dead."

Emma grit her teeth. She wanted to hit something. She wanted to get Bug and get as far away from this conversation as she possibly could. She wanted to wrap herself in Regina's arms and have her say that everything was going to be all right.

Instead, she just muttered bitterly, "Yes, Regina Mills, whose own experiences have shown me that sometimes having a family isn't that great, after all."

Her implied analogy hit home; Snow and David both recoiled, looking like she'd hit them.

Feeling guilty but not wanting to, Emma could only sigh.

Snow sat down beside her, and her expression and posture had softened. "Emma," she said, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. Emma could hear the pity in her voice, and she hated it. "How can you say that? Not a day has gone by when we haven't thought of you, and loved you, and wished you could be here with us. And now, I'm just worried about you. I've come to know Cora very well, and I certainly wouldn't put it past her to send her daughter to seduce you and—"

"That's ridiculous," Emma interrupted, and she pulled away from Snow's hand. "Did Cora put this on my hand?" she asked, opening up her right palm, which she'd had clenched into a fist. "You know, I'd never even known when my birthday was until this tattoo showed up. Because you might know Cora, but I know nothing about you. And you might have thought about me and loved me, but what good did that do me when I was starving on the streets, or when I was thrown in jail?"

Snow looked like she wanted to speak, but Emma shook her head. "You don't know Regina, and you don't know me, and that's because of your decision; I just had to live with it."

Emma stood up abruptly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check on Regina Mills, someone who does actually know me."

The door to Regina's room opened, and she turned to see Emma slip into the room. Regina was able to muster a small smile, just barely, but then she turned back to the window.

Emma remained quietly by the door for a moment, before she crossed the room to stand to Regina's side, a step behind her. She began to reach out to touch Regina's lower back, but stopped when she noticed the tenseness in Regina's spine.

Something between them had changed, since they'd learned about the whole prophecy thing and the feud between their parents. Emma could sense the change, and she knew that she didn't like it, but she didn't have a clue what to do about it.

Emma sighed.

"How are your parents?" Regina asked, angling her face slightly towards Emma, although she still wouldn't meet her eyes.

"Stupid," replied Emma, earning a short huff of laughter from Regina.

She turned her head fully to look at Emma, then. "Are you okay?" she asked, unable to keep herself from caring.

With a shrug, Emma gave in to her earlier impulse, stepping forward to wrap her arm around Regina's waist and rest her head on Regina's shoulder.

They were both silent for some time, and gradually, Regina relaxed into Emma's hold.

"You smell good," Emma commented. She didn't know how to describe the scent, but Regina's was clean, and fresh, and good.

Regina chuckled. "Yes, it's amazing what regular bathing and not being surrounded by a pack of sweaty men will do."

Emma smiled, but at the reminder of the Merry Men, she straightened up and turned to face Regina. She opened her mouth to speak, but then stopped. For the first time in days, Regina was looking at her with her guard lowered—her face was relaxed, her posture open, and Emma felt her heart lift at the warmth in Regina's expression.

For a moment, Emma had no idea at all what it was that she'd been about to say.

Mentally, Emma shook herself. "Right, so, tomorrow I was thinking that I'd head out," she began.

Instantly, Regina shut down. Her entire body stiffened, the slight trace of a smile disappeared, her expression turned cold, and she turned her back on Emma, taking a step away. She'd known this was going to happen; known it was only a matter of time. But the knowledge didn't make things any easier, of course. Regina could feel the harsh disappointment pooling inside her, but the emotion only made her feel angry with herself.

Emma frowned.

"Okay, what just happened?" she had to ask.

"So you're just 'heading out,' are you?" Regina shot back, unable to mask the bitterness in her tone. "I suppose I should thank you, in spite of what's become of things, for getting me away from my mother and from Leopold. I've certainly learned a lot, thanks to you, and for that I am grateful. I don't know what I'll do, now, but I'll just have to figure something out."

Completely bewildered, all Emma could manage in response was, "Huh?"

Regina turned back to face Emma, with her arms crossed protectively in front of her but her head held high. "But tell me this, at least, before you go," she said. "Is it your parents that you're running away from as well, or is it just me?"

Emma began shaking her head. "What? Regina. No. Is that what you think? Do you… Is that what's come up between us lately?"

A slight twitch in Regina's eyebrows was the only outward sign of the doubt that started creeping into her mind.

Then Emma started to laugh, and Regina jerked backwards, turning and walking a few steps away.

"No, wait!" Emma called out, hurrying forward after Regina. "Regina, wait, I'm not laughing at you, I promise."

She let her hand hover over Regina's shoulder for a moment, like she was dealing with a skittish colt, but then she let her hand make contact and tried to get Regina to turn around. Regina resisted, and Emma stopped pulling at her, but she let her hand rest.

"Look at me, Regina, please," Emma whispered.

Regina didn't particularly want to look at Emma, but something in the other young woman's voice made her turn around.

When she did, Emma took another step forward, right into Regina's personal space, and lifted her hand from Regina's shoulder to her cheek. Emma's expressive blue-green eyes, so open and sincere, bore into her, and it was like Regina was stuck; she couldn't have looked away even if she'd wanted to.

"I'm not running away from anyone," Emma asserted. She hazarded a small half-smile. "Well, not from you, anyway. With Snow and David, I'd say it's still up for debate."

Regina breathed in deeply, trying to calm her racing heart. She wanted to believe Emma, she really did, but she'd just been burned so many times before. "You said you were leaving," she pointed out.

"And you jumped to conclusions and didn't let me finish," Emma countered, letting her hand slip down from Regina's cheek to intertwine their fingers together.

She purposefully kept their palms apart, but even so, they could both feel the hum of energy between them. The sensation was distracting, and Emma looked down at their hands, running her thumb ever so lightly around the edges of Regina's tattoo.

Regina cleared her throat. "Well?" she asked sharply. "Are you going to finish, then, or not?"

Emma's gaze jerked back upwards. "Yes," she hurried to say, her eyes locking back on Regina's. She almost got distracted again, lost in the dark, lustrous color. She blinked, and managed to get herself back on track. "I was going to say that I don't think I can just go back to the Merry Men and pretend that nothing's changed. Not yet, at least. But it's not fair to make them keep waiting around for who knows how long. So… I was thinking about going to talk with Robin, and with Will, and I came to ask if you wanted to come with me, or if you'd rather wait for me here."

Emma was looking at Regina with such fondness, such affection, and Regina could only stare back, trying desperately not to let her face fall apart. Her heart still beat with a confused mix of fear and hope and longing and fear… "Really?" she asked, her voice barely audible.

Emma's smile was bright, and she was just so glad that there wasn't anything actually wrong. Not really. Not with them. Regina didn't hate her; she'd just been scared, and that was something that Emma could easily understand.

"Really," she replied firmly, looking Regina straight in the eye.

Regina's face did crumple, then, out of sheer relief. Right away, Emma let go of her hand, only to reach for Regina and pull her into a tight hug. Regina latched onto her, burying her face in the crook of Emma's neck and fisting her hands into the back of Emma's shirt.

"Why did you think I would run away from you?" Emma asked softly.

It was only from within the safety of Emma's embrace—without having to meet her gaze—that Regina felt strong enough to answer. "My mother ruined your life," she whispered. "She's the reason you've only just met your parents. She wants to kill you, Emma. And it's her blood that runs through me, whether I like it or not."

Emma shrugged with one shoulder, careful not to dislodge Regina from her position. "Well, do you want to kill me?" she asked.

Regina shook her head.

"That's good enough for me, then," Emma concluded, and she briefly squeezed Regina a little tighter.

Regina chuckled lightly, but then went silent. It didn't seem right, still, that someone so good, so selfless, had had to give up so much—because of her, because of her family.

Sensing Regina's unease, Emma went on. "Look," she said, "if it weren't for Snow interfering with your mother all those years ago, and this whole stupid feud thing they have going, then Cora would have had what she wanted, and she wouldn't have tried to force you to marry King Leopold. And hey, maybe she wouldn't have been such a raging bitch, too."

Regina couldn't help it, and she guffawed, though she bit it off quickly. Emma smirked.

She continued, "So the way I see it, your mother screwed things up for me; my parents screwed things up for you… We both have had some really shitty things happen to us. But that's about them, not us."

Regina sighed. "There isn't exactly a good history between my mother and the people I… The people I care for," she said. "You'd be better off getting as far away from me as you can." She felt the need to try to warn Emma away, even as her arms refused to let Emma go.

"But I don't want to get away from you." For Emma, it was as simple as that.

Regina brought her head up, pulling back just slightly so that she could look at Emma.

Emma stared back evenly, but Regina didn't say anything, and Emma didn't know what she was looking for. She waited, her gaze flickering between Regina's eyes, her mouth, and that little scar above her upper lip, until she couldn't wait any longer.

Wetting her lips, Emma leaned forward with half-lidded eyes. She paused, hesitating for just a moment, in case Regina didn't want this, but then closed her eyes and bridged the little remaining space between them. Regina sighed into the kiss, her own eyes fluttering closed. One hand trailed upwards to run lightly up the back of Emma's neck and then tangle itself into her hair. Both of Emma's hands dropped to Regina's waist, and she held on firmly, keeping their bodies pressed tightly together. She tilted her head to a different angle and huffed out a breathy laugh as their noses bumped into each other. Regina smiled, briefly, but then brought their lips back together.

They'd kissed plenty of times before, at this point, but they'd always stayed fairly chaste. Things felt different this time, whether due to the relief of getting through to each other, the thrill of feeling truly wanted, the rush of rapidly shifting emotions, even just the increase in privacy, or all of it mixed up together.

Regina leaned backwards, being sure to keep their lips connected. She led Emma forward with her, until they stumbled just slightly before they settled back into each other with Regina's back now pressed up against a wall. Emma moaned softly, breaking their connection so that she could press countless kisses to Regina's lips, cheeks, chin, and jaw, and then trail her lips down the side of Regina's neck. Regina bit down on her own lip, her right hand still wrapped in Emma's hair and the left tracing up and down Emma's back. Emma returned to Regina's lips, and Regina opened her mouth to deepen the kiss. Emma's fingers were teasing at the edge of Regina's blouse, brushing up against Regina's warm skin. Without even thinking about it, Regina then reached blindly to grab hold of Emma's other hand.

Instantly, they both gasped, their mouths breaking apart, as magic began to flow through them. The tingling sensation started at their joined hands, but quickly spread throughout their whole bodies, simmering just below the surface.  It took several moments, but then Emma gained enough control to try to pull their hands apart, but Regina just held on tighter, not wanting to let go this time. Emma had to use her free hand to brace herself against the wall, while Regina wrapped her arm loosely around Emma's lower back, her hand dipping low. They could only rest their foreheads against each other, breathing in each other's air.

Then, suddenly, it was too much. Regina stiffened, and her breathing went from pleasantly labored to completely panicked. She wanted the magic to stop, she wanted it gone, but she felt frozen and unable to move.

Emma didn't notice at first, but as soon as she did, she quickly pulled back, shaking out of her haze and jerking her hand out of Regina's grip. The magic disappeared immediately, and then Regina could breathe again. She kept her eyes closed, her head leaning back against the wall, and took in large gulps of air, while Emma hovered anxiously in front of her.

"Are… Are you okay? I'm so sorry, are you okay?" Emma whispered, her voice hushed. Her heart hadn't slowed down, and her body was still humming with the after-effects of magic and of Regina's touch, but now she could only cringe and look on worriedly.

Regina opened her eyes, and the panic hadn't yet fully receded, but she offered a small smile to Emma and nodded. Her tattooed hand, she kept pressed back against the wall, but with her other hand, she reached out and grabbed hold of Emma's shirt, pulling her back closer to her. Tentatively, Emma brought her right hand up to cup Regina's cheek and gently stroke her thumb along the edge of Regina's cheekbone.

"I'm okay," murmured Regina, as she shifted her head to press a soft kiss to Emma's tattooed palm. "I'm okay, I'm sorry, thank you." Her hand was still wrapped tightly around the fabric at the front of Emma's shirt, and she used it to yank Emma closer still. Emma stayed controlled enough to not crash their faces together, but she got Regina's unspoken message, and kissed her again, lightly this time.

When Emma broke the kiss, Regina just reached out and pulled her back into a hug.

They remained like that, standing silently in each other's arms, just breathing, for a long time.

Something was going on. Emma was lying on Regina's bed, her back up against the headboard, with Regina lightly dozing in her lap, but she could hear that there was an unusual amount of bustle going on out in the hallway. She was just debating how to get up without disturbing Regina, when there was a firm knock at the door.

The sound was enough to rouse Regina, who blinked up at Emma sleepily, as Emma smiled softly and slipped out from underneath her. She leaned down to give Regina a light kiss, and then she went to open the door, revealing Mulan.

"What's going on?" she asked right away.

Mulan's face was grave. "Will's here. It's something about Robin."

Emma frowned, concerned, but turned back to look at Regina. She was sitting up, still shaking off lethargy from her nap, but she had been listening enough to tell Emma, "It's all right, go. I'll come find you soon."

Emma nodded. Regina watched as she began to follow Mulan out into the hall, but instead stopped, returned quickly to Regina's side, kissed her one more time, and then shot her an affectionate grin before she hurried out after Mulan.

"Is Will okay?" Emma asked as soon as she'd caught up with Mulan, and they walked in step down the hallway towards the council room. "Has he said anything about why he's here?"

"He seems fine to me," Mulan answered, "but no, he hasn't said anything other than that Robin's in trouble, and he needed to see you right away." She turned her face towards Emma and gave her a sly look out of the corner of her eye. "It took us a little while to figure out where you were," she said with a small smile. "Things seem to be going well between you and Regina."

Emma blushed, even though Mulan had come far too late to interrupt anything indecent. "Yeah, we're all right," she replied with a grin, as she amiably bumped her shoulder into Mulan's.

They continued onward in comfortable silence, although Emma grew more anxious the closer they got to the council room, and she subtly picked up their pace.

As they entered the room, Will Scarlet was standing with his back to them, holding his hands behind him and facing David and Snow. At the sound of the opening door, he turned his head to look back at them, turning around fully when he saw them. He kept his somewhat formal pose, but he grinned at them both warmly.

"Quite a place you've got here, Swan," he said with a smirk and an appraising waggle of his eyebrows.

Emma just laughed, but strode forward and pulled him into a quick, firm, one-armed hug. He returned the hug with a hard thump on her back, but then pulled back. But even though she could easily see the questions in his eyes, she didn't really know how to answer them—because of Cora, everyone who knew was still keeping Emma's relationship to the Charmings a secret.

Besides, she had a few pressing questions of her own.

She cleared her throat and asked, "What's going on, Will? Mulan said something about Robin being in trouble?"

His expression quickly turned serious. "They've arrested him," he said, his face unable to mask the real worry that he seemed to be feeling.

"What?" Emma asked, the creases in her forehead deepening.

"Who arrested him?" Mulan stepped forward to ask, her voice low enough to keep things between the three of them. "Is this about the theft from King Leopold?"

"Well, sort of…" Will hedged. He glanced around the room, as if he were looking for someone.

The door to the council room opened again, but Emma didn't turn to look; her attention remained focused on Will. His own gaze, however, was now directed somewhere behind Emma's back.

His face was stony as he explained, "Robin's been arrested and charged with her murder." He jerked his chin forward, indicating over Emma's shoulder.

Regina had been walking towards the trio, but she stopped in her tracks, as Emma and Mulan suddenly whirled around to stare at her.

Regina paced back and forth in agitation before the windows of the room where Mulan had managed to herd her and Emma after Will had left them to go check on his horse—and give them time to figure out what they were going to do.

The other two sat quietly, although while Mulan at least appeared to be calm, Emma's leg bounced restlessly up and down.

Mulan sighed. "You both do know that this is likely to be a trap, right?" she asked, breaking the silence.

Regina briefly turned her head to glance at Mulan. "Of course it is," she spat out, but she didn't stop pacing.

Emma didn't say anything at first, just continued to worry her lower lip between her teeth. But after several long moments of staring sightlessly at the floor, Emma's eyes rose and began to follow Regina's back-and-forth movement.

Finally, she reached out and was able to catch hold of Regina's wrist. "Hey," she whispered, drawing Regina to a halt and bringing her stressed attention onto Emma. Their eyes connected, and Emma said, "I have to save him. Have to try, at least."

Regina's jaw clenched, and she exhaled deeply through her nose. Still, even as her expression remained tense, her shoulders dropped.

She murmured softly, defeated. "I know. I'm coming with you; I'm the proof you need."

They certainly hadn't been careless as they made their way back towards the town where Robin was being held, but it turned out not to matter.

Cora was waiting for them, much earlier than they'd expected.

The first blast of magic came completely out of nowhere, as they galloped around a bend in the wide forest trail; it went straight for Will, knocking him right off his horse. He lay on the ground, unmoving.

"Will!" Emma cried out.

Will's horse bolted away through the woods at the first flash of light, as the other three scattered somewhat in confusion. Emma's hysterical voice only agitated Bug even more, and she reared up, frightened. It was all Emma could do to keep her seat, while Mulan and Regina worked to calm their mounts.

And amidst the chaos, Cora strode forward from where she'd kept herself hidden, a wide smile crossing her face.

"Oh don't worry," she said calmly. "The boy isn't dead. Not yet, anyway." She flicked her wrist, and Rocinante, Khan, and Bug, still with her forelegs up in the air, all froze. All except their eyes, at least, which twitched around in complete panic.

Mulan didn't hesitate, as she sent two arrows in quick succession towards Cora, before she slid from Khan's back and ran to take cover in the trees. Cora easily waved the arrows away, and they fell harmlessly to the ground, but Mulan was fortunate to be moving fast enough to dodge the first surge of magic that Cora sent her way. When the second blast came, Mulan had managed to reach the wall of trees just off the forest path, gaining at least temporary safety.

Even while Cora's attention was focused on Mulan, Emma was left in a precarious position; it would be a long drop from where Emma clung tightly to Bug's neck to keep from falling.

Emma muttered a long string of curses under her breath. They weren't prepared for this, that much was immediately clear. It seemed naive now, but they'd expected to face Cora in town; had thought that she would come for them behind the authority of King Leopold, not here in the middle of the woods, using the full force of her magic.

In town, with a public audience, Emma had figured that they at least stood a chance. But out here, like this…

Regina, meanwhile, remained sitting astride Rocinante, paralyzed not by her mother's magic, but rather by her own sense of helpless panic. Over the rapid beating of her heart, there was only one recognizable thought that ran through her mind.

Not again, not again, not again, not again…

Cora had turned to face Emma, now, once Mulan decided that it was better to save her arrows, instead of wasting them shooting from afar, when they were so clearly no real threat to the powerful witch. To avoid Cora's first magical blow, Emma had no choice but to let go of Bug's neck and tumble down to the ground. Her landing wasn't as bad as it could have been, but she rolled her left ankle painfully and came up limping.

Still, she was quick to unsheathe her sword, and could do nothing but hope for the best as she swung it forward into a defensive position in front of her. She only just managed to get her sword in place to attempt a block of the next attack, and she exhaled deeply when the broadside of the sword was able to shield her against the flow of magic (rather than disintegrate in her hands, like she'd thought might happen).

Mulan took this opportunity to shoot another arrow while Cora was angled away from her, but this one fared no better. Cora didn't even have to turn away from Emma, but she simply waved her hand, and the arrow stopped mid-flight before it reversed course and went shooting back towards Mulan, moving twice as fast. It embedded itself deep into the tree behind which Mulan hid, right at the height of Mulan's head.

Emma swore to herself again—they were doomed, it seemed. Clearly, this was nothing but child's play for Cora.

The force behind Cora's magic, still bearing down on Emma's sword, seemed to be growing stronger. Emma reset her stance, leaning her shoulder forward to push back against the powerful flow of energy, even as her arms were already beginning to ache.

"Regina?" she called out, glancing at the other woman out of the corner of her eye. Regina had a white-knuckled grip on Rocinante's mane, and Emma couldn't quite tell what was going on in Regina's head, but they needed her. Emma needed her, needed for her to be okay.

Emma's voice snapped Regina out of her stupor. "Mother, stop!" she cried, her inner panic finally bursting outward. Suddenly, where before she'd been paralyzed with fear, now it was like she couldn't move fast enough. She clambered down off Rocinante's back and rushed forward towards her mother, her arm outstretched. She didn't have a plan, didn't know what she was doing, but if she could just get to her mother, not just physically, but get through to her, then maybe, maybe, she could somehow put a stop to this.

Cora didn't give her the chance.

With a sigh, Cora abruptly ceased firing her magic towards Emma, causing the girl to stumble forward and almost lose her footing. Before Emma could regain a full sense of balance, though, Cora whispered something under her breath, and with another flick of her wrist, Emma had to drop her sword, because oh shit, now things were going from bad to worse.

To the naked eye, Cora hadn't done anything, but Emma clawed desperately at the invisible noose she could now feel tightening around her neck. It lifted her upwards, so that, straining on her tip toes, Emma could just barely retain a connection to the ground, easing the tension just enough to not strangle herself. Her left ankle throbbed horribly from her fall from Bug, but she just grit her teeth and willed herself to fight through the pain.

Regina tried to change directions, tried to go help Emma—not again, not again, not again, not again—but she'd gotten too close to her mother, and Cora reached out to her, snagging Regina's chin in a vice-like grip.

"Darling," Cora purred, and Regina shivered in mute horror at her awful, snakelike smile. "How lucky we are that I was here to rescue you from these horrible outlaws. I was so afraid that I'd lost you, but now here we are, together again."

Regina used her peripheral vision to keep her eyes on Emma, who now was struggling to remain as still as possible, but Cora's nails dug into Regina's skin, and she knew from experience that trying to get away would only make things worse.

"Yes, well now that you have me," Regina said, as calmly as she could, "you can let them go. I'm quite sure that they've learned their lesson and will be perfectly glad to leave us alone and be rid of me."

"Oh you're quite sure, hm?" Cora asked. "And what about you?"

Something in Cora's tone made Regina shift her eyes away from Emma. "What about me?"

Cora's eyes turned sharp. "Have you learned your lesson, Regina?"

Regina closed her eyes—she was six years old again, and she'd been late to dinner, earning her mother's wrath; she was ten, and her only friend, the cook's daughter, had been sent away because befriending a servant was beneath Regina; she was thirteen years old, and she was locked alone in her room for a week for rudely talking back to her mother; she was fifteen, and the boy she loved lay dying in her arms.

"Yes," Regina said softly, and a few solitary tears escaped from behind her eyelids to fall down her cheeks. "I've learned my lesson. Please, Mother, I'll do whatever you want."

"Good girl," Cora cooed. She rubbed a soothing thumb along Regina's jaw. And although Regina tried, she just couldn't hold back the expression of utter disgust that flashed across her face. Cora stilled, growing tense.

Regina opened her eyes, holding her breath as she waited for Cora's retaliation, but it was at that moment that Mulan made her move. Regina had actually forgotten all about her, but apparently Mulan had been slowly, silently, working her way around so that she could approach Cora from behind.

Cora may have actually forgotten about her too, because Mulan was able to get so close, her sword drawn and ready to strike, before Cora turned and lashed out. With one hand, she kept Regina in place, but with the other, she first released a fireball, causing Mulan to cry out in pain. Then Cora sent a fast jolt of magic, and Mulan flew backwards through the air. Her whole body crashed violently into a tree, her head jerking back to collide with an audible thud against the trunk, and then she fell down to the ground in a crumpled heap, silent.

Emma and Regina could only watch, helpless, and hope that Mulan had only been knocked unconscious.

But oh, Cora was angry, now, and that meant they were all in real trouble.

She turned back to Regina with a wicked grin, her eyes blazing in cruelty. She went right back to their conversation, saying, "You'll do whatever I want, yes? What a marvelous idea, darling. Because you see, what I want is for Emma Swan to lie dead at my feet, and I think you're just the girl to accomplish that for me."

Emma was having trouble breathing, but although the invisible rope was real enough to feel rough beneath her fingertips, there seemed to be nothing she could do to loosen its hold on her. And now her heart only beat faster as she watched Cora step back from her visibly terrified daughter and wave a hand over her. Regina's whole body stiffened, and then without a word, she turned to stare at Emma.

Cora produced a dagger out of thin air, and she pressed the hilt into Regina's right hand; Regina barely seemed to notice, but she did grip the dagger tightly.

Regina stared at Emma, and while she vaguely understood that at one point she had felt… something for Emma—some emotion that Regina could no longer recall—she now felt nothing.

Nothing, that is, other than a dark, consuming hatred. Yes, Regina had so much anger inside her, she could feel it welling up from deep within her core. She wasn't quite sure why she hated Emma, but that hardly mattered. Emma deserved it, Regina was sure of that much.

Something was very wrong, Emma knew. Even beyond the fact that Regina was now holding a dagger and slowly advancing towards her, Regina's eyes were just… empty. That usual spark of intelligence, energy, and wit; and yes, even the lingering pain underneath it all… It was gone, all of it.

"What did you do to her?" Emma choked out, as loudly as she could manage, towards Cora.

Cora's grin only widened, and she didn't bother to respond.

Regina was almost upon her now, and though she still held the dagger down at her side, Emma wasn't just going to wait around for her to use it.

"Regina," she said. "Regina look at me." It took a moment for Regina's vacant eyes to meet Emma's, but when they did, she went on, "I don't know what your mother's done, but this isn't you. Please, Regina, I need you to snap out of this."

Regina blinked. "My mother hasn't done anything. She only wants what is best for me. My mother loves me," she said woodenly. The words tasted wrong in Regina's mouth, but it was easy to ignore the twinge of doubt.

"No," Emma spat out. "She doesn't. That woman has done nothing but hurt you, your whole life. That's not love. I know that I don't have much experience with love, but I also know a lot about what love isn't, and I know that your mother has never been for you what she should."

Regina thought that one over. "If my mother doesn't love me, then there must be something wrong with me," she said.

"No." Emma shook her head vehemently, but immediately regretted the action, as it caused the noose to pull tighter. She was getting tired, and it was getting harder and harder to ignore the pain in her ankle; even if Regina didn't stab her, Emma wasn't sure how much longer she'd be able to keep Cora's rope from strangling her. Coughing, she continued, her voice weak, "Regina, there is nothing wrong with you. It's her that's wrong. She's all twisted up inside, and she's trying to twist you up too. Don't let her, Regina!"

Regina felt confused. She was listening to Emma, vaguely, but there was something else she'd lost track of…

Oh, that was it. She hated Emma, so of course she shouldn't listen to her.

Regina lunged forward with a snarl of anger. She wrapped her fist around the front of Emma's shirt, unknowingly worsening the pull of noose, and brought the dagger up to rest right at the edge of Emma's skin, just below her jawline.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't slit your little throat," Regina spat out. Her tone was full of fiery rage, but even still, her eyes remained strangely impassive.

Her breathing shallow and her body weak, Emma was just barely clinging to consciousness. The dagger pressed a little harder into her, and Emma could feel a light trickle of blood drip down her neck.

Dark spots were beginning to form in Emma's vision, but with a last gasp of energy, she was able to raise her right hand into the air, palm facing outwards, and whisper, "Because I love you."

Regina didn't quite pull back, but the hand holding the dagger faltered. She blinked—once, twice, three times—and stared in puzzled confusion at Emma's tattoo. That design… Regina knew that design… Why did it look so familiar?

She did pull back, then, and Emma could breathe just a little bit easier.

Regina still held the dagger in her right hand, but she let her arm drop down to her side. A hazy thought was trying to work its way in through the fog of anger, and Regina looked down at her own left palm. She had the same tattoo as Emma did. That was important, Regina knew, but why…

They were soulmates.

They were soulmates, and Emma loved her. Cora didn't love her, but Emma… Emma did.

Regina gasped, dropping the dagger to the ground and, although she could hear Cora advancing on them, she acted instinctively and brought her left palm up to connect with Emma's right.

The relief was instantaneous. The invisible rope around Emma's neck disintegrated, but even as she gulped in much-needed air, her body could no longer hold itself up, and she collapsed.

Luckily, Regina was there to catch her.

She kept their hands pressed together, interlocking their fingers, but with her other arm, she cradled Emma to her chest and gently lowered them to the ground.

"Oh Emma, I'm so sorry," Regina murmured, pressing a hard kiss to the crown of Emma's head.

"Regina! What are you doing?" Cora practically screeched.

Still acting on instinct, Regina continued to hold Emma to her, but now she twisted around, throwing her right hand out towards her mother.

She couldn't say who was more surprised, Cora or herself, when a blast of magic flew out from her open palm. It wasn't too strong, but it was enough to send Cora stumbling backwards.

At first, Emma had been able to do nothing but lie still and breathe deeply, unaware of anything else going on. But the magic running through her seemed to have some healing powers. Her breathing gradually became easier, the cut on her neck stopped bleeding, and her ankle felt nearly back to normal.

"Regina?" she asked softly. "Are you you again?"

"Yes, my love," Regina replied, again kissing Emma's soft, golden hair. "I'm me. Can you stand up?"

Instead of answering verbally, Emma disentangled herself from Regina and climbed to her feet, pulling Regina up with her.

"I think we can fight her," Regina said. Cora had pulled back slightly, regrouping herself, but she was ready to face them. "Together. Follow my lead."

Regina squeezed Emma's hand tightly, but when Cora sent a blast of magic towards them, Regina simply raised her free hand to fire back. Emma hesitantly mirrored Regina's action a moment later, totally shocked when her own magic burst forth.

Individually, there was no doubt that neither Regina nor Emma would have been strong enough to take on Cora.

But together…

The two streams of magic flowed together naturally, swirling and spiraling around each other to become something united and whole; something greater than the sum of its parts. Regina and Emma's magic met Cora's head-on, and the opposing sides collided with a shower of sparks.

They were unsteady, at first, neither one really knowing how to use this newfound ability. But they were able to hold things together just enough, running on instinct and adrenaline, so that they could keep Cora's magic away from them long enough to begin to find their feet and settle into what they were doing.

Emma used her whole body to support her magic. She stood as though it were a sword that she were wielding, rather than this unknown force. With Regina at her side, holding her hand, Emma felt like she could take on the world. Her emotions swirled within her—the fear of abandonment, that one seeming constant in her life, was held in check, while confidence, love, bravery, and hope rose up to the surface. Emma's power was all heart and no finesse.

Regina, on the other hand, was much more refined. She kept her back rigid and tense, everything flowing from the fluid movement of her wrist. She'd seen Cora brandish her magic often enough to know the basics of what it looked like. It didn't quite feel right, though. She was still holding back, torn between wanting to use this magic within her and feeling a debilitating fear of it—fear of what she could be if she gave in to the anger within her.

It wasn't going to be enough.

Cora was gaining on them. They were two against one, and their combined magic held an inherent strength that Cora couldn't begin to understand, but they weren't quite in sync, and Cora's dark magic was seeping in through the cracks, reaching further and further towards them.

Even though Regina's and Emma's hands remained linked, Emma somehow felt that the connection between them was diminishing. Regina was withdrawing into her own head, too afraid and unsure to really let loose.

"Stay with me, Regina," Emma implored, though she kept her eyes on Cora. "You can do this. We can do this. You are not your mother, and this magic is yours—ours—and not hers."

Regina closed her eyes, breathing in deeply and trying desperately to relax.

That anger that had emerged when her mother had set her against Emma… It had been misdirected, but it was still real. Regina had spent nearly her whole life trying to stay under control, but now, Cora had opened a crack in the dam, and everything was threatening to spill out and overwhelm her. She'd kept it all hidden, even from herself, but now Regina was practically shaking with just how angry she was.

But she couldn't let go. She just couldn't. Somehow, Regina knew that if she did, all at once like this, she'd lose herself completely.

She turned her head to face Emma with an expression of torn-up anguish. "I… Emma, I can't," she said, her voice soft and beseeching.

Both of their outstretched arms were aching with the effort of holding off Cora's magic, and with a furrowed brow, Emma turned to meet Regina's gaze. She glanced back at Cora out of the corner of her eye. The older woman was grinning, now, like she knew that she'd won. They needed to do something, quickly, but the one thing Emma wanted to do was probably stupid and reckless and would get them both killed.

She did it anyway.

In one quick motion, Emma swung her left hand, the one controlling her magic, away from Cora and over to Regina. The magic stopped flowing, which left Regina as the only one fighting Cora, just as she reached to cup Regina's cheek in her hand.

"I believe in you," she said simply, with a soft and loving smile. If she was going to die, she would die while looking at Regina.

For one moment, Regina panicked. Her own restrained magic was no match for Cora's, and the dark plumes of energy rushed quickly towards them both.

But then, everything changed.

The panic somehow cleared her head, and the feel of Emma's hand against her cheek, along with the open reverence in Emma's eyes, made Regina realize that there was more than just anger and negativity churning inside her. Regina was so much more than what her mother had made her to be, and the anger fell back, as everything else surged uncontrollably upwards.

A white burst of energy exploded out from Regina, and Emma gasped as it flowed over and through her. The magic flew outwards like a shockwave, but while it had filled Emma with an intense feeling of love and comfort, it knocked Cora backwards and off her feet, cutting off the dark magic just before it reached them.

The sensation left Emma looking disoriented, almost loopy, but Regina just sent her a dazzling smile. "I love you," she said, before pulling Emma in for a hard, ardent kiss.

As they pulled back from each other, Emma could only stare at Regina with a lopsided-but-smitten grin, and Regina stared back with her own mouth pulled back in a wide, adoring smile.

Soon enough, however, their attention was drawn back to Cora, who was slow to get back to her feet, but who now glared at them with an ugly sneer of hatred. She raised both of her arms high into the air, then brought them down to shoot out an even stronger shot of magic. But Regina and Emma wordlessly turned to face her, and, acting as one, threw out their own magic once again.

This time, everything was different.

No longer running on fear and anger, Regina's magic meshed seamlessly with Emma's. And that was the difference between Cora and Regina; Cora's magic was built on greed, darkness, and a lust for power, while Regina's strongest form of magic came from the lightness inside her. Those dark emotions that Cora inspired were a part of her, and maybe always would be, but they paled when faced with Regina's capacity for love, and with all that Emma brought out in her.

Cora's eyes widened, and for the first time in her life, Regina saw actual fear cross her mother's face. Because this time, Cora was outmatched from the start.

Still, all of Regina's anger hadn't just disappeared, and a small thought began to work its way into her mind, until it broke upwards into her consciousness.

I want her gone.

At first, Emma was just concentrating on Cora, on urging their magic to push her backwards. But she began to notice the feeling of something that seemed almost foreign inside her, at the periphery. It was coming from Regina, she realized. Emma could feel Regina in a way that seemed like it should be strange and wrong, but actually just felt natural. Their magic wasn't only running outwards, towards Cora, but also around, between, and through them, and with it came some kind of loose transfer of thoughts and emotions as well.

The feeling was too vague at first for Emma to make any sense of it, but it tapped into something of Emma's own.

Something darker.

For although it was love and strength that served as the backbone to their magic, by no means was it all lightness and affection. The stubbornness and anger they both shared may have been secondary, now, but it was still there, intricately connected to it all.

And through that anger, held in check though it was, a single thought emerged.

I want her gone.

Emma latched onto it. Because yes, she did want Cora gone. Gone from both of their lives. She loved Regina, and that emotion dominated everything else, but beneath it all, she was still so angry—angry not only at Cora, but also her parents. But it was only Cora that she could deal with now, so Cora would have to take the brunt of it.

I want her gone, I want her gone, I want her gone…

It was like a chant, now, echoing inside both of their heads in perfect synchronicity.

Their magic was growing stronger, and they both felt like they were building towards something, though they couldn't say what. Cora wasn't giving up, however. She'd tried using one hand to keep a steady stream of magic going to counter their own, while sending fireballs at them with her other hand. But naturally, without either of them trying or even knowing how, some kind of shield had sprung up around them, protecting them from her attacks. Still, Cora fought on.

And through it all, their hands stayed linked tightly together. It was that connection that was the ultimate source of their power; through the tattoo that, rather than artificially tying them together, was merely an outward symbol of their intrinsic bond.

Suddenly, something changed. Emma and Regina could feel it before they could see it, but then something behind Cora… opened. A swirling, shining, circle of light, like some kind of window, appeared out of thin air. It was too bright for them to be able to tell what lay inside it, or beyond it, but it was growing bigger and inching closer to where Cora stood.

Cora herself hadn't seemed to notice the thing behind her, focused as she was on Emma and Regina.

"Mother," Regina called out, unsure whether she wanted to warn Cora, or tell her to step backwards. But it didn't matter, because it was then that Cora became aware of the light on her own.

Time seemed to be moving slowly, but really, it was over in an instant.

"No!" Cora cried, just before the swirling circle of light overtook her. In a blinding flash, the portal seemed to swallow Cora whole, as it then rapidly shrunk down and blinked out of existence.

And just like that… Cora was gone.

With… whatever it was that had happened to Cora—with whatever they had done to Cora?—it was easy enough to get Robin Hood released. No one could argue, after all, that he had murdered Regina when she was right in front of them, alive and well.

And then, seemingly all of a sudden, Regina and Emma had no one else to fight, no one to run from, and nothing to hide.

They stayed in town long enough for Mulan and Will to recover from the injuries Cora had inflicted on them, but then all four of them decided to return, at least temporarily, back to the Charmings' palace. Snow and David, as soon as they heard about everything, wanted to throw a big celebration in their honor, to announce to the kingdom that Emma was their daughter.

Emma didn't know what she wanted, beyond being with Regina, but she knew she didn't want that.

"Can't we just take Bug and Rocinante and leave and never come back?" Emma implored. She, Regina, and Mulan were relaxing in the palace gardens. Emma lay in the grass, with her head in Regina's lap, as Mulan sat nearby sharpening her sword.

Regina chuckled softly, running her hand through Emma's hair. "I know you're upset with your parents, and uncomfortable around them. You have every right to be, and I'm really not such a fan of them, myself," she said. "But just running away and never coming back isn't the answer. They're still your family, and I think you need to give them a chance."

Regina still hadn't quite worked through what she felt about her own family. About Cora. She had hated her mother, intensely, but some part of her had still always loved her, had still craved her acceptance. She didn't quite know how to handle the world now, with her mother no longer in it. In any case, Regina knew she couldn't encourage Emma to just leave her only family behind without a second thought.

Emma sighed. "I know," she replied with a pout. "I'm no real princess, though. Not like they want me to be. I can't stay here for them to just parade me around."

"You could leave and come back," Mulan offered, bringing their attention over to her.

"What do you mean?" Regina asked.

Mulan shrugged, but looked up from her sword and over to them. "You can do anything you want, now. You could travel, see different things, and take the time to figure out what you both want to do next. It's only running away if you never come back."

"You could come with us, if you wanted. Will, too," Emma said, already warming to the idea. Mulan smiled, but then looked to Regina questioningly. Emma looked up at Regina as well. "I mean…"

Regina smiled, rubbing a soothing hand across Emma's scalp. "It would be safer to travel as a group of four," she agreed. "We could… visit my father?" she suggested hesitantly.

"And your friends!" Emma added, smiling. "Abigail and… What was the other one's name?"

"Aurora," Mulan supplied, a slight blush covering her cheeks when they turned to look at her again. Emma made a mental note to ask her about that later.

Regina continued, "We could go explore places we've never been before."

"Maybe find a dragon to fight, if Mulan gets bored," Emma said with a smirk and a wink towards her friend.

Regina smiled affectionately at them both. "And whenever we're ready, or need a break, we can come back here."

Emma nodded. "Either to stay, or just to tell my parents what we're doing next." She wasn't ready to be anyone's daughter yet. She didn't know how to. And she didn't trust Snow or David to not let her down again. But if they could build up their relationship slowly, on Emma's terms… That, she could handle.

With the idea out there, they all fell silent for a bit, letting their imaginations run.

Regina, her hand still running idly through Emma's hair, looked down, only to find that Emma was already looking at her. They locked eyes on each other.

Emma was the one to break the silence. "Well, I'm in if you are," she said lightly.

"I'll go anywhere with you," Regina whispered, a warm, loving smile crossing her face.

In response, Emma leaned upwards as she simultaneously reached to pull Regina down. She pulled a little harder than she should have, and they crashed together with a laugh, before settling more easily against each other. Emma captured Regina's mouth in a kiss, which began soft but quickly deepened.

They pulled apart, laughing, when Mulan coughed in the background.

"Together?" Emma asked after a moment, her eyes still on Regina. She lifted her right hand, tattoo displayed outward.

In the time since she'd first met Regina, Emma's life had changed so much as to be nearly unrecognizable. She had an actual family, now, along with the friends who continued to support her. But above all else, she had Regina.

Regina smiled. Her thoughts turned to the day her own tattoo had first appeared; how she'd still been mourning Daniel, but how it had been the first sign of hope that there might be something, someone, still out there for her. She couldn't have imagined where the tattoo would take her–couldn't have imagined being with someone like Emma Swan, truthfully—but now, there was nowhere else she'd rather be.

"Together," she agreed. With none of the hesitation she'd once felt, she brought their hands together.

Their magic, no longer tainted by fear, hummed to life.

It would be a new beginning. Together, they could take on the world.


The End

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