“Emma.” Mulan pointed at something further up their trail. She signaled for the three men behind them to stop and slid out of her saddle. Emma followed her example, she drew her blade. They had done this about half a dozen times today and Emma tried to look sharp as she watched Mulan’s back while she investigated a snapped sapling. She motioned for Emma to look for prints to the right while she went left. Once again, all they found were animal tracks. Mulan smiled at Emma apologetically and they returned to their horses.
“Do you want to advance in this direction or should we backtrack and go further east?” Mulan asked.
“I don’t know,” Emma said and looked around herself. It all looked the same to her by now. She wouldn’t even have known that she’d been here five years ago if Mulan hadn’t assured her that she had. “This is kinda fruitless.” Emma shook her head in frustration as she was about to get back into the saddle.
“Wait,” Mulan said.
Emma turned her head with her left leg already in the stirrup.
“Let’s take a break, have a look at Azeem’s map.”
“All right,” Emma agreed.
She signaled for their companions to take a break and the three young men unhorsed. They all found someplace to sit and made sure that they could overlook the terrain so that no one could sneak up on them. Mulan seated herself against the same tree as Emma, looking into a different direction. Emma stared at the map Azeem had given them.
“You seem distracted,” Mulan said after awhile.
Emma raised her head. She couldn’t see Mulan without leaning forward and turning to her far left so she didn’t try. “What makes you say that?”
“You seem more interested to observe the horizon than our path - and the horizon is hidden behind trees and hills here. You’re staring into nothing,” Mulan clarified in her level voice that observed but didn’t condemn or praise.
“I’m not feeling too well today. Maybe it’s something I’ve eaten.”
“What are the symptoms?”
“My chest feels heavy somehow, a little like it’s burning inside. And I’m short of breath,” Emma answered.
“I know that feeling.”
Emma frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You’re in love,” Mulan made the diagnosis.
Emma’s head whipped around. “What?”
Mulan leaned forward so that she could look at Emma. She repeated, “You’re in love.”
“That’s ridiculous. Who would I be in love with?” Emma demanded, but somehow she already knew the answer because a name flashed instantly through her mind. She felt tears sting her eyes at the same time and she pulled her head back to not have Mulan see them. She lowered her gaze into her lap. “It can’t be,” she whispered to herself.
And yet it could because her body told her that it could. It had been there for awhile now, this feeling of complete contentment when she was with Regina; the anticipation when she was on her way over to the mansion or the diner, knowing she would see her. The joy when she made her smile or laugh, and the way she sometimes couldn’t sleep at night because she was going over conversations they’d had, or conversations she’d imagined they’d have. She’d fooled herself into believing it had all been about Henry, always. But that wasn’t true, hadn’t been true for a while now. She loved her son, yes, but there was a part of her heart that had been claimed by another – Regina.
Emma put her face into her gloved hands, shaking her head. This wasn’t good, it wasn’t right. And it had taken coming to the Enchanted Forest to make her realize it. They could have just been as they were in Storybrooke, things wouldn’t have changed, but they had to come here. Now she knew.
And what if Regina knew as well? Had she given herself away already? She had been protective, yes, but it was under the cover of the promise she’d made to Henry. They had talked, they had looked at each other. She had looked at Regina a lot. She was a beautiful woman – elegant, passionate, with a whip-smart sense of humor. She loved to hear her laugh, see her smile...
“Oh God, help me,” Emma whispered and wasn’t really sure there were deities in the vicinity. She felt a hand on her arm and looked up into Mulan’s dark eyes.
“It’s okay,” Mulan said.
“No, it’s not. It’s Regina. She would never even consider me. She hardly thinks we’re friends. How could we ever be anything more?”
“You can’t, not here. This is the Enchanted Forest, nobody’s ever even heard of... a woman who loves another woman.”
“Yet you’re not shocked,” Emma stated.
Mulan took a deep breath, her own eyes fixed on an horizon she couldn’t see. “I told you I know the feeling,” she then said.
Emma looked puzzled at Mulan until she thought back to their time in the same woods, the way Mulan had fiercely protected Aurora. “You love Aurora.”
Mulan turned to her and looked earnestly into her eyes for a long silent moment. All the pain, all the joy, all feelings that Mulan had ever had in her queen’s presence seemed to become visible.
Emma gasped. “I’m so sorry.”
Mulan smiled softly and lowered her eyes. “I’m luckier than most, I’m friends with the person I love. She cherishes my company,” Mulan said proudly.
“She’s the lucky one to have such a friend, a protector, Mulan,” Emma said with conviction and now it was her arm on Mulan’s, trying to give comfort.
Mulan nodded. She shifted her position from her knees to sitting down a little downhill from the tree Emma sat against. “What are you going to do about Regina?”
Emma shook her head. “I don’t know. If you’re right and the Enchanted Forest doesn’t support same-sex relationships – this is so absurd – but then I can’t even solve this here, can it? Only, what if she falls for Robin?”
Mulan turned. “That’s how it usually happens,” she repeated her words from their conversation the day before.
All the things that had been said on the subject came back to Emma, Tinkerbell, her fairy dust, the tattoo. The Enchanted Forest seemed to already have made up its mind about Regina and Robin. The only way to win Regina’s heart would be to get her back home to Storybrooke, but would this realm let her go? Emma shook her head again, more about the way her thoughts personified this realm. How could an imaginative constellation of earth, air, people form opinions? But she knew about storytelling, and this realm was all about stereotypes, themes, literary form... and magic.
Could it be possible to change fate? To break a predestined pairing of a fairy tale happy ending? Did true love have an expiration date?
Emma hoped so. Regina had already changed all of these things when she decided not to meet Robin, hadn’t she? When she had cursed her enemies. Robin had married Marian, had loved another - and by what Emma knew of that story they had been each other’s one true love. But what if Regina wanted this? What if she wanted her happy ending now? With Robin? Could she, could her parents, could anyone interfere with the power of love?
Emma leaned her head against the bark of the tree. Loving a fairy tale character proved to be one hell of a mess. But then, she loved Regina, not the Evil Queen, and Regina had ceased to be a character a long time ago. She was a woman, her own woman. Someone who could decide for herself who she wanted to love. Emma just had to have faith that it would be her and not Robin. That didn’t mean she just had to sit by and watch, right? She would just have to be doing what Robin did, too. Woo Regina.
And she already had the perfect code name for this mission: Operation Cinnamon.
Emma smiled lazily to herself. She would win the queen’s heart; she had to.
Regina looked around herself, even though there was not much to see. They had just entered the part of the woods that had marked the border to her kingdom, turning onto a level path when before they had been going down a hill. Now the same hill was to their right, green with foliage; to their left the formerly luscious flora looked desolate, burned, dead.
Regina sighed and stopped her horse. She looked over her former kingdom and her heart broke for it, for its former inhabitants, for King Leopold’s subjects. They had been good people, used to a kind king. The fact that the same king had treated her like a possession, like a servant, like a whore shouldn’t have mattered in the way she had treated them after Leopold’s death – but it had. Everything that was his, everything that was connected to him had seemed guilty of some crime against her. And she had taken her revenge – on him and everything connected to him, including his people. They, in turn, had taken it out on the land to tell her never to return, never to torture them again.
It all ended here.
“Regina?” Robin roused her from her thoughts. They had all stopped, Robin and Little John sat patiently on their horses beside her.
Regina nodded and they resumed their way down the path. Regina kept looking past Little John at her former land, until they entered another path and the desolation greeted them on both sides. Robin pointed for the four men behind them to ride in a square around them, to be on the lookout for enemies.
“It’s pretty depressing,” he said.
Regina looked at him with haunted eyes.
“I’m sorry, it must be hard. This was your home.”
“Home,” she tried the word out. Had this kingdom ever been her home? She had lived here for most of her life, first with her parents in their lavish house, then at the castle. She had loved aspects about this land, green fields to ride on, lush apple trees in their garden, it had all seemed so big when she’d sat on her horse, riding fast, the sky the limit. Then the king had married her and her world had become a golden cage. And even as she reigned as queen she hadn’t been free to roam the woods, to ride the fields. She’d had too many enemies and she had ridden in a heavily guarded carriage.
It seemed that people had been her home more than the actual land or a house, a castle. She had wished her mother to be one of them but that didn’t happen. Her father had been a home, Daniel another. She’d cursed her enemies to live in Storybrooke. She had cursed herself to live in Storybrooke with them. And she had build herself a new home when she’d adopted Henry – family was indeed a strange concept.
Not very surprisingly, she thought of Emma. She was part of her family now, part of her home, because she talked to her, she cared for her, she wanted her to be safe. They had taken this feeling of home back to the Enchanted Forest, into these woods.
Regina jerked at the reins and her horse stopped, though it moved nervously by the suddenness of her command. It seemed to fear some sort of attack and Robin and Little John looked around hastily, too. Regina rubbed the neck of her horse.
“I’m sorry, I just... I was thinking about something,” she reassured the men that she hadn’t sensed any danger.
“You haven’t seen anything?” Robin asked.
She shook her head. Thinking of Emma had made her realize that it had been a mistake to ask her to not come to this part of the realm with her. Emma should have seen what she had been, what she had made people do. Regina had been afraid for a moment that Emma wouldn’t understand, that she would be disgusted with the person Regina had been. But as she very accurately had observed the other day, she had met the Evil Queen and, though she had been frightened, had probably hated her, Regina wasn’t that person anymore. Emma understood, she was a part of a safe place where Regina had nothing to fear. And that wouldn’t change by looking at some dead trees.
They had resumed their way.
As Regina’s mind settled into the truth she had just discovered, she became aware of Robin Hood’s eyes on her. She cocked her head to the side and looked back at him. She gave him a little smile. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
He gave the smile back, bemusedly it seemed. “No, not crazy, but quite a mystery,” he answered.
“A mystery? Well, I’m a private person. I don’t share a lot of myself.”
“You seem sad here,” he observed.
“I’m sad that this couldn’t have been prevented, the ruin of this land. It was quite beautiful and now it is dead.”
“People do cruel things when they’re angry, or in pain, desperate,” he said.
“I don’t blame the people, I blame myself. I shouldn’t have been the person who inspired this cruelty,” she clarified.
“You don’t know the person I’ve been. I don’t think you can imagine the person I’ve been.”
“I’ve met bad people,” Robin said.
“Bad people and bad people with power – with magic – are two different things. You know about the curse,” she countered.
“Well, I know what happened here during the curse. I’m not sure... James wasn’t very clear on where he and the other people had gone to. Another realm... I’m not sure I know what a realm is. Is it another kingdom?”
“It’s another place, another set of beliefs, other circumstances. I send us all to a world where magic didn’t exist. I wanted to go to a place where nobody would get a happy ending, because I thought I’d lost mine.”
“A lover?” Robin asked.
“Yes, Daniel. He was a stable boy at my family’s estate. He was killed by my mother. Because she had different plans for me, plans that included a king, not a stable boy.”
“Your mother killed your lover? That seems outrageously cruel.”
“She was a witch also,” Regina told him. It wasn’t an excuse but maybe an explanation. People imagined all kinds of crazy behavior from witches.
“She was your mother,” he argued.
“And she had ambitions for her only child.”
They rode in silence for awhile.
“You did marry a king, didn’t you? Snow White’s father?”
“Yes. I didn’t have much of a choice. But I took my revenge and killed Leopold,” she told him what few people in this realm actually knew to be true. Many may have speculated on it, but few knew for sure that she had killed her husband – had him killed, to be precise.
“What about your mother?”
“That is a very long story,” she said. “But she is dead. I killed her, too.” And other than with the admission about Leopold there was regret in her voice.
“You are becoming more of a mystery, not less. Is that part of your witchcraft or simply your charm?” he asked with a smile.
Regina smiled back. “My life is complicated.”
“It still is?”
She nodded. “Not as much as it has been, perhaps, but it’s different.”
“And is there a man who shares that complicated, different life?”
“Yes, my son,” Regina said.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I’m still living in that other realm, Robin. There is no way back for me. I’ve been exiled and even if I wasn’t, I don’t think I would want to live here anymore. The people hate me, they fear me, they will never understand I’ve changed and that might change me back into the person I’ve been. Being misunderstood can make a person vengeful.”
“My son and I have been looking for a home these last few years. There are rumors that Richard is dead and if he doesn’t come back then England will never again be a home to us.”
“I don’t think you’d be happy where I live. It’s--”
“I think,” he interrupted her and smiled in apology. “I could be happy anywhere with Roland and the right woman.”
Regina looked at Robin. He was serious, she knew. Of course, he didn’t know just how different Storybrooke was from the Enchanted Forest or ‘his’ England, but she had an inkling that he would be able to adjust, he would at least try for her.
But did she want that? Someone who gave up everything for the one they love? Someone out of a fairy tale? Was she ready for her happy ending – with Robin?
Questions to consider. And feelings to observe. And she only had five more days.