Once Upon a Time. R. 8K+
Ruby | Red Riding Hood, Queen/Huntsman, Red/Huntsman, Ruby/Graham. (Compulsively thrown together the very night in which all the Red Riding Hood "canon" shall get completely jossed? But what is caring about OUAT canon, though.)
All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
“I didn’t ask you anything difficult,” the queen says. “Only to find the fairest girl in the kingdom. That shouldn’t be too hard.”
She has lain herself along the wine-colored couch, the long curves of her body rolling over velvet with velvet; her voice is cool, ironic. “I have tired of the advice of mirrors,” she continues, and her hand traces a disdainful line in the air. It nearly glistens, a slick black glitter to her touch in the air. She is full of magic, greedy with it, bleeding with it. It seeps into her voice, richens it, makes it echo and glister in his ears. Or perhaps she has always echoed: in him, through him. “Cold glass is good for some things, but it only gets so far when you tell it to think for itself. You’re what I need for this. You’re a red-blooded man, after all.”
He makes a small sound in his throat, quizzical. It is painful to talk to her. She has a knack for knowing what he means, in despite. Somehow, that makes it worse. Her eyes glitter like the rest of her, deepset black sparks at the back of them. “Of course you are. Of course you still bleed. Would you like proof?”
He raises his head and she slides into standing; he watches her move, sinuous and slow, an eternity between two steps. Then she is above him, then she bends in toward him, then her hand is on his face, tipping up his chin, and her wine-dark mouth is slow and hot and languorous on his own. Until she bites.
His mouth opens under hers, rapt with pain, and his hands clutch hard at her hips, fingers sinking into dark, dark velvet. When she raises her head, she is laughing.
“See?” she says. Her hands are on his shoulders, dragging him up from the cold marble floor to look her in the face. The tip of her tongue traces along her lower lip, carries the red, different from the wine and rouge that colors her mouth. “You’ve lost nothing. Nothing that matters.”
He swallows, bows his head again. Her hands do not leave his shoulders, only smooth the grooves they have made in the leather. Her touch is light, ceremonial. She can afford to pick and choose.
“Go, and bring her to me. The fairest. You’ll know her when you see her.”
She laughs. He can feel it filling up his chest, rattling among his bones, and he licks at his lower lip, rubs the back of a hand against it. His knuckles come away faintly red: she’s won again.
Under his tongue, the spark of pain dulls to a low, throbbing ache. It carries him out of the palace and into the woods.
It’s the middle of the night and Ruby’s got the newspaper cracked open to the want ads. Not like anyone wants a damn thing hereabouts, but she’s always taking a look-see, just in case. That vague hope is always simmering inside her: maybe someone’ll want to get out this time. Maybe someone’ll take her with them.
Nah. Same old, same old. Same shit, different day. Someone’s missing cat, someone’s requested repairs, the paper thin as skin and rubbing ink off on her fingers. She wonders why she bothers. But it kills the time, same as the rest.
The door swings open, and she doesn’t have to ask for whom the bell tolls; there’s a select number of people who’d come by at this hour. Heavy boots knock hard on the tile and the number dwindles. She remembers the way people walk. (It’s not polite to stare, Granny has said to her, more than once. But Granny dear, she defends in her head, I wanted a look at that ass.) When she puts down the paper, Sheriff Graham has already found himself a booth, is looking down at its sticky tabletop, and she congratulates herself silently. Got it in one.
“Can I help you?”
She kicks a heel against the back of the counter stool and spins herself into standing, sliding off the cherry vinyl with the cooling coffeepot within her reach and tucking the paper into her apron. The diner is empty around them, the fluorescents overhead cutting unsympathetic swaths through the darkness that seems to seep in at the edges all the same. He’ll be the last one out, she decides, and flips the OPEN sign to CLOSED as she passes by the door. The long way. He’s tucked himself up into a corner booth, all for one. Guested by his thoughts, she guesses, and who knows, maybe there’s a lot of them. Not a thought she’s inclined to think about him, but he’s got to be the mayor’s top boy for some reason, right? And he looks tired as hell.
A tiny smirk tugs at her mouth. There’s a reason for that.
She flips his mug over, pours him lukewarm coffee. He takes it, black, and drinks it down, barely looking like he knows what he’s doing. Maybe he doesn’t. “Thank you,” he says.
“It’s nothing. Know what you want?”
“Just coffee for now.”
He nods, looks up at her, eyes wide in his face, plaintive somehow. “You know how it is.”
“Worse than ever ‘cause it’s quiet. Uh-huh. I know. I know about how much crime there is in this town.”
He grins a grin that sits crooked on his mouth. “I should keep my eye on you. Prospective disturber of the peace, yeah? That’s what your granny’s told me.”
“I’ll wear that proudly.” She smiles back at him, that big broad grin that she knows makes men wince when she holds it too long. But he’s used to it. Storybrooke’s used to it. Maybe he should keep an eye on her: it’s enough to make a girl start fires. “Old bat,” she mutters under her breath. The old bat will be home, ensconced in a bed identical to all those of her guests. One of those beds, at least, has already been rumpled from use tonight. There’s a reason he looks so tired. She’s seen the reservation, the names in the book, the handwriting.
“How’s Regina?” she asks sweetly and he coughs on his coffee.
“Have I mentioned—not to complain—that this is cold as ice?”
“‘S what you get for coming in here at this hour of night. What time is it, anyway?”
He doesn’t answer. She shrugs. They both know it doesn’t matter. His collar is tucked down crooked on the inside of his vest; he’s done up some buttons wrong. She doesn’t look lower, not yet. Graham flusters. Graham always flusters. You’d think that by now he’d’ve learned not to.
“She’s fine,” he says eventually, “keeping a lid on the town. As she does. I don’t see her that often.”
She’s not gonna dignify that. That’d just be mean. “More often than me.”
“No reason. Just curious.”
“I think she was thinking of you the other day.”
“Me?” Ruby’s jaw drops. She didn’t come here to be surprised—but hey, every now and again, the world hands her one. “What for?”
He raises a hand—mind?—and she squints at him as he reaches out, pulling the newspaper from her waistband. His hand grazes her hip, a slice of skin she’s left bare between shorts and blouse, and she shivers and doesn’t bother to try to hide it. Mind? No, sir. But he’s not biting; or at least, he’s not looking. Maybe with assiduous effort, but all the same, his eyes are on the newspaper, scrolling down.
“There.” He points, laying it down. “Regina seemed to think you’d fit the bill.”
She scries over his shoulder. INTERN/PERSONAL AIDE NEEDED. AMBITIOUS YOUNG WOMEN, AGED 18 - 25. ASK AT MAYOR’S OFFICE. Telephone number. “Shit,” she says. Wasn’t reading close enough, she thinks. Weird, she thinks, but she’ll take that over the alternative. “She asked for me by name?” He shrugs, mouth in a crooked, noncommittal line, and she lets it go, keeping a slow eye on him. Not that that’s taxing. “What’s she need me for?”
“It’s not all that clear.” He shrugs, apologetic. “Regina.” Like everyone knows Regina, and everyone does, fair point, but he says her name like she’s her own explanation. Maybe to you, Ruby thinks, crossing her arms. “Still—”
He drops off explaining and maybe that’s okay, maybe that’s a dropped question mark in a town full of answers, maybe it’s a crumb to the adventure-hungry, but fuck if she isn’t starving. Maybe he’s teasing her; the fact that she wants out is a joke, yeah, both cosmically and just plain in the town. But his face is earnest and tired and barely up to bantering: yeah, maybe not.
She nudges her hip up against the table and takes a sip of his coffee. Foul. It doesn’t get better as it stands. Her lipstick leaves a red smudge against the rim. Not so professional, but at this hour of night, who gives a damn for professional? Hour: still unnamed. Hour of late-o’clock, too-late-o’clock, kind of hour that gets a girl chastised. No one will scold him for coming home reeking of stale coffee and sweat. Not when he’s leaving, at least, rather than going-towards.
“Got what I came for, then.” He rummages into his pocket for a crumpled bill, some small change. “You can keep that. Finish it.”
“It’s shit,” she says flatly, and he laughs. Coffee? she wonders, sympathy? Me?
And her grin comes back in full force, bitten into the shape of her mouth. “Sheriff Graham, did you come here for me?”
He ducks his head, smile twisting to the side and still not funny. “It’s not as if I had to hunt you down.”
As he walks the outskirts of the forest, he thinks first of Snow White, the exiled princess. Thinks of her trembling white fingers, smudged with ink, her face scratched and tearstained, her long ropes of black hair.
He will not think of her; he will follow the queen and throw his thoughts to the fire. The girl is a forest-thing now, far from delicate. And she isn’t what the queen wants. The queen wants a live girl, any girl but this.
She broke a mirror over this one. He was in the foyer, listening. It takes work to break a magic mirror, and the mirror had re-knit itself by the next time he was invited to her chambers, but he had heard, with perfect clarity, the splintering fracture of the frame and the queer, gluey sound of her pulling on sentient glass. It had howled; she had balled the howl up in her fist and melted it into her hands. When he was admitted, she had reached for him with hands of sparkling silver.
(The breath he took, when she began to unlace and unbuckle the ties of his armor and he realized there was no one watching—he remembers this, the great, shameful ease of it, in spite of himself. Had breathed into her hands and the blindness of the walls, had bitten her throat rather than protesting, because for once the walls were deaf. He was, is, a huntsman, after all.)
Not the princess, then. The fairest, the fruit of the kingdom itself.
He’ll have to go into town, he thinks, eventually. This should be work for one of her courtiers.
He is no good in the court: he is her silent shadow if he is anything and that is enough. Still, she has not declawed him. There is more blood on his hands than ever before. More blood in his mouth.
In private, she has caressed him for it, thanked him, as though he had anything to do with it.
You’re not like them, she says, you could eat them alive.
She has demanded such things of him. He is starting to believe her.
Her fairest, then, will not be a pampered court product, no pale little curtseying morsel. She sent him for a reason. There is always a reason; she sent him, and this means he shall find. The kingdom adheres stringently to the rules of quests: looking means finding, particularly when there is a queen in the tower, watching the sky, scrying her mirror, waiting, waiting.
Testing. (The thought of her is alive in the back of his mind; he keeps it like the cut on his lip, open under his tongue.)
He stops at an inn at the edge of the forest, silencing the roil of noise inside when he pushes in the door. It’s the queen’s mark, all over him: black leather and red traveller’s cloak, the one she clasped to his shoulders when she decreed him Official Huntsman. The clasps are silver wolves, jaws biting into the fabric. She is cruel in her kindness, down to the details. (Later, she showed him to his quarters and lay down on the wolf-rug with which she had adorned his floor. The pelt had stared at him with mismatched glass eyes, red and black, as she raised her skirts, as she knelt. She had not bothered to scrub the blood from its jaws.)
The queen’s hands are all over him, and he is already taking up a place in their whispered stories about her: her huntsman, not her knight. They understand the difference better than the court does, perhaps. If they remember what he was before, they do not say. They remember the wolves: they do not remember him, jeered and hunched over scraps. This piece of history is washed away as cleanly as ink in rain. What lingers: the wolves. The wolves and the queen’s hands.
“I need a room for the night,” he says. His voice, as always, surprises him: it rusts in his mouth, comes out as hoarse now as it did in the woods. Still forgets to use it. Still easier not to.
The old woman behind the counter nods with downcast eyes, bustling around the side to give him a key. He remembers to offer her a coin. She might willingly have forgotten to ask for it, but this is the queen’s money; he only remembers it to give it away.
“D’ye like anything to eat, sir? There’s good stew, good meat, the finest bread—”
“Meat,” he says. “Please. And something to drink.”
She pockets the coin and wipes her hands on her apron, once, twice. “O’course,” she nods, greasy gnarled fingers twisting up the fabric. Retreating, he thinks, like prey. It wasn't his demand; he isn’t hunting. But they do that now, folk big and small shy back from him before he does a thing. Sheep, she would say.
Perhaps she’s right. He has no desire to take their necks between his jaws, but still, he cannot help seeing what she sees: their softness, their cringing gentleness. He sits down, splaying his hands on sticky, splintering wood. Slowly the talk begins to rise around him, in quieter nerved-up waves. He is not harmless, she has taught him that, if nothing else. But he can be, in single moments between the rest.
“Here you go.”
A plate clatters down on the table, slices of something roasted and red dripping fat and blood onto its plate. Deer, if he had to guess. A tankard clanks down next to it, pouring foam. “Anything else?”
He looks up and it’s a girl, all pale skin and dark hair—he blinks, but no, no, a different girl, a thousand-times different girl, whose insolent smile is taking up most of her face. He sees the smile before he sees her face in full, takes in the way her sharp teeth press against her lips. Blinks again. She is leaning in close, closer, her hip curving up against the table so tight that her apron crumples up, her skirt catching in folds.
“No,” he says. “Thank you.”
“You’re a Palace man.” It’s not a question. Her eyes flick over him, pale and sharp as her teeth. “You’re the Palace man. You’re the Queen’s own.”
He turns his eyes away, down to the meat. He takes a knife from his belt. The smaller one. She watches, still, and her fingers trace idly along the table.
“What are you doing here? She sent you—how far?”
Palace policy dictates not to answer the questions of the commoners. His own policy locks his throat whenever he can get away with not speaking. And he is desperately hungry, cutting into the meat and biting chunks from his knife. He does not speak. Still, she lingers, and her eyes, when he looks back up at her, are ravenous.
“A queen’s quest. I can’t imagine.”
All he can see, when he looks at her, is how desperately indeed she is imagining. Her chin tilts up, and he sees the column of her throat, a perfect, unbroken line of white. Her shift cuts low in the front; her breasts rise and fall, part of that same white carving and cleanly colored as snow.
He is choking, then, in spite of himself, and she leans in, those breasts at his neck, under his nose, as her sharp little elbow digs hard into his back. “What’s wrong,” she breathes, and her skin brushes his, hot and soft and smelling of sweat, the residual scent of meat lingering in the air around her.
He swallows and looks up at her.
“Thank you,” he says, for lack of anything else to say, though it was nothing. She is not an exiled princess, nothing like, but she has hair black as night and skin white as snow and lips that may be pale as hoarfrost but the tongue with which she licks them is animal-bright.
“Courteous.” Her voice is amused; it occurs to him that he has yet to see her with a single spark of deference, and he thinks again of his mission, of what the queen wants. Thinks of the queen and can taste the thoughts like blood in his mouth, but they make sense where they fall. Thinks of the red stain of the queen’s lips and the prophetic shape of the girl the country’s waiting for, and his pulse rushes in his ear. “From what I’d heard, I’d’ve thought you’d be one to kill a man as soon as look at him. No time for courtesy.” She sounds slightly disappointed. “Still, the night’s young.”
He is silent. It doesn’t matter: she isn’t a man.
(Nor, he thinks, a sheep.)
She clears the platter away from under him, her bare arm brushing hard against his leather and her breasts pressed almost to the table. “If you don’t go slipping away like a ghost in the morning, come down and break your fast here. Maybe Granny’s sweet-cakes will sweeten your tongue, and you can tell me stories of the Palace.”
Then she is gone and laughing, her hips and elbows twisting a swath through the room. The room watches. He takes note.
When he leaves the next morning—early and silent, yes—he thinks of her, thinks her laugh is a ghost in the room, caught between the rafters and the floor.
There’s a police car outside Granny’s the next day.
“You know,” Ruby says, stepping out onto the balcony. “I have a car of my own. I can get to Regina’s whenever I want.”
“Yes,” says Graham, pushing the whole upper half of his body out the window, “but it seemed polite to follow up—”
“Polite.” She squints.
He shrugs, slumping down into the window frame, bracing himself against the small slice of glass pane he forgot to roll down. “Regina wants what she wants.”
“What’s she want with me?”
His head tilts. “Come to dinner.”
“Will you come?”
“Dinner with the mayor. Damn.” She purses her lips, biting into the soft skin inside her mouth. Inside, she can hear Granny’s voice, already starting to query. Ruby? Who’s there, where’ve you gone? “And you’ll be there.”
“Okay. Means you can fill in the silences. I don’t know what the hell to say to her.” She offers him a slow smile, she’s not sure what for, but something sparks in his eyes, warier than before. “But you do.”
“Should I pick you up?” he says, rigorously focused on the point, and she shakes her head, letting him off the hook. For now.
“I have my own car. Seriously.”
Bracing her hands on the porch and leaning in, she watches him as he drives away. It doesn’t make sense. Of course it doesn’t. Regina doesn’t make sense. Sometimes she thinks the whole town doesn’t—that the queer wheeled rules by which it operates, rolling and rolling in self-consistent circles, would fall apart if she looked too hard. But you don’t get to look too often. Too much to do, at least that’s what everyone around her tells her. Too much—between turning down the bedsheets in the rooms and serving up coffee at the diner. Time gets spent too quickly for everyone to realize that there’s nothing behind it, nothing at all.
That’s just you, Granny has said. Willful as youth. She’s meant to grow out of it.
Maybe it is her. Maybe it is her, serving up food for everyone else and sleeping in a bed the same as any guest’s in the inn. Hard not to feel like a stranger; hard to call anything here her own. Hard to want to.
And when she gets out, when—
Hell, Mayor’s favorite whatever won’t be too bad a title to check. Bragging rights, somewhere where they don’t know who she is in advance, where what she tells them matters.
Until then, it will pass the time.
His boots scour well-trodden paths; he is walking without thinking, as if he is free. The forest is terribly silent around him: he listens closely, pulls a soft whistle from the air as he breathes in. No response. The wolves are silent—alpha-less, now.
(Of course I’ll enact your law, she had said to him, magnanimous and apple-sweet once he had grown strong again, with a price. My kingdom must not be overrun, and the wolves of the forest grow too bold these days.
Bring me the leader’s pelt, she had said, the rest will scatter, and she had kissed him, slowly, catching his upper lip in the pull of her mouth. You only have one thing to do. A very little thing. I will give you a night.
The pelt and the head. I will need to see its eyes.)
He used to walk here with the wolf at his side, clad in tatters and hide. Now he wears metal, leather, things made for him by the queen, half-stitched in her name and half-spelled to his body; he can feel the way the leather grips at his stomach, his arms, like her hands. Heavy, he can hear it as he walks, the way it shifts as he moves, wearing him.
The steeled toe of his boot catches on—something, and he stumbles, lets himself fall to his knees. A flowered vine, he sees, picking it up.
A girl laughs.
She steps out onto the path, laughing, leaning against a tree and looking him lazily up and down from her place above him. The girl from the inn.
“What’re you doing here?” he asks.
In response, she dangles the basket she is holding in front of her: a few small apples roll around inside. “There’s fruit around here. How else d’you think we get by? The forest is plenty giving if you know the right places to look.”
He doesn’t respond. She crosses her arms, still looking amused. “And you, what’re you meant to be doing, other than tripping over our flowers?
He raises himself up on his hands.
“I was going to the village,” he says, and she shakes her head.
“Wrong path for that. This is the path of needles. You’ll want the path of pins.”
Her eyes sparkle in her face, bright like gemstones or magic. He wonders, briefly, if she is taunting him. Maybe so, but she steps forward, close until her knees are at his cheek.
“Or you don’t have to take a path at all. Walk with me.”
“Off the path?” He raises his eyes, propping himself half into standing, resting his hands on the stiff leather covering his knees.
“Sure. There ought to be rabbits in last night’s traps.” Her grin is carnivorous. “Granny makes pies.”
When he stands, she slides neatly into the crook of his elbow, pressing briefly against him in a few, forward, fluent motions. It is a moment, only a moment, then she slides away just as easily, as the ground roughens underfoot and she skips between rocks and molehills, avoiding the lusher outcroppings of little underfoot flowers that he crushes in her wake. This is true ground; the forest is far more familiar as they begin to stray from the smooth, faintly silvered line of earth that snaked between the trees they leave behind. He knows these woods, still, understands them all the better the wilder they become. They are familiar. It is he who is strange, now.
She leads. He lets her.
They arrive in a wide, sprawling meadow, unbroken by either path and ringed with posies, dappled with light. As he watches, she kneels, picks one of the little yellow flowers with the purple hearts. Her skirts spread around her, and she lays down her basket.
He sees no traps.
She looks back up at him, crushing the flower slowly, idly, between her fingers.
“Why have you brought he here?” he asks.
“What are you doing in our woods, Huntsman?”
The title hangs in the air, possessed of a weight all its own. He thinks of the queen, again: is this her doing? Perhaps there is magic to the title, the way there is in everything she touches. Perhaps that is how she has molded him into it, or it to him, same as the black armor, tight and heavy and hot and hers.
He is hers, and he is here for a reason, and everything happens for a reason: the kingdom itself makes sure of it. Things come to the forest to find their beginnings, or their endings: all quests start in the forest, and all trophies worth the taking must be found there.
The sunlight catches on her hair, the nape of her neck, soaks into the rich red of her cape.
“I am looking for the fairest woman in the kingdom,” he says, slow and deliberate, “and I think I may just have found her.”
She laughs—not like before, the high surprised trill when she watched him fall; this catches in her throat and her slim white hand clutches hard at the bark of the tree at her side, catching her weight as she laughs, laughs, deep as appetite in her stomach. “Me?” she asks.
There is color in her cheeks, from high breath and forest air, palely pink under her skin. Her chest rises and fall, breasts moving under her gown, raised high by the stays she has laced over her loose white blouse. The hood falls back with a toss of her head, and her hair spills out, loose and black like a spill of ink over the red.
Hair black as night, skin white as snow, stark against the red. He knows the prophecy, knows what the queen wants, what she needs.
And you’re a red-blooded man. You’ll know.
“You’ll do,” he says in the end, voice tight in his throat.
Her eyes sharpen, take on an acute, wary look. Her gaze rakes over him, deliberate, shameless and sharp as cut glass. “And what could you want with me?”
“It’s not me.” He shakes his head. “It’s the queen.”
Now she ought to be afraid, perhaps. The queen is a fine figure for the people to remember, so long as she stays in her tower. But the commons rarely seek to come closer, particularly now.
(He understands them perfectly—with a bowed head and blood on his hands.)
Now she smiles again.
“Palace quest. Yes. I’ve heard the stories. Of course.” Her breath catches. “Of course.”
“I need to bring you back. Do you understand?”
The question, unspoken: Will you come quietly? Or will you come hunted?
“I understand,” she says, and tips up her face, eyelids lowering against the sun.
He thinks she is waiting, like some prey wait for the kill, and he approaches her slowly, thinking this needn’t be painful. Not all missions are fated for such ease. He reaches, kneels as he does, taking her arm in his hand.
Her other arm raises up to circle his neck, to bring his face down to hers.
Her mouth is open under his, hot under his, and he is brought to his knees by surprise and the weight of his armor, and she falls into the accidental reach of him, pressed up to his front, the whole of her braced against him and clinging like a drowning woman.
It takes her to break the kiss.
“What is this?” he asks, when her mouth is gone, her head thrown back and sucking at the air, and her eyes gleam when she looks back at him. Her arms wind around him, lazy and sure, and her knees tuck up on either side of his waist, skirts bunching up against her thighs.
“Figured it wouldn’t hurt to make you promise.”
His armor is tighter and hotter than ever; his fingers are still on her bare arm, pressing into her skin. “Promise?”
“You’re the fairest.”
“And you’ll take me.”
“I can’t do anything else.”
Her smile is a riot of brightness and sharpness. “So take me,” she says, and slips a shoulder from her blouse.
Granny approves, or says she approves, because it means her feckless granddaughter is Making Something Of Herself, like maybe she can die and Ruby won’t fall into a black hole of depravity in her absence. That’s always what it’s about, Ruby knows. Personally, she’s kind of a fan of the black-hole option, but you don’t say things like that to a maybe-dying woman.
Dying, but not dead, never dead, she cannot imagine death, not for Granny, not even for anyone in their town. Death would mean endings and endings need to bookend beginnings, and fucked if she can remember anything beginning. Things have always just—been. And Granny has always been among them.
(She had looked so small in the hospital bed, so shrunken, but her eyes had shone when she looked up and saw Ruby over her bed, her hand had been tight on Ruby’s own, and Ruby had swallowed back any of the tears she could have spilled, because that meant it had all been a joke, hadn’t it? It’s not like Granny could leave. Any more than, apparently, she can.)
“You should be careful,” Granny warns when she gets too saucy, and Ruby can never tell—careful of what? Not of toothless Storybrooke. Maybe of tempting fate.
Tonight, she doesn’t tell her to be careful, just watches her go. “I’ve told you not to drive around with strange men,” she says, just once, before Ruby opens the door, but it rings hollow.
“Graham’s not strange.”
But all handsome men are strange to Granny, and Granny would have nothing to warn for if there wasn’t at least one handsome man in Storybrooke, and Granny must always be well supplied with warnings, with cares, with enough morals for a girl to choke on. That’s her job, that’s, Ruby sometimes thinks, the whole point of her, and in the whole entire town, there’s only one man worth the warning over. He’s it, Ruby thinks. Only dangerous when he gets to be an old wives’ tale.
The police car rolls up in the driveway, lights off—nothing to see here, officer–and she bounds down the porch. It’s for the old wives that she slides in clumsy and close in the passenger seat, wrapping her fingers with idle strength around his wrist as a brace while she slams the door shut. He blinks, and she lets him go, settling into her seat. The car feels like a getaway, despite the grille behind their heads. She grins over at him. Granny’d say she should be in the back. (For so many reasons. Old enough for the front seat, Gran.)
“Can we turn on the siren?” she asks as his hands settle on the wheel, and he gives her an amused, exhausted look (okay, fair, that was predictable, but there’s only so much .
“We’d wake the town.”
“Are people seriously already sleeping? Jesus, they deserve to be woken up.”
He gives her a sidelong look. “You want to make it look like Regina’s house is a crime scene?”
“A petty one, sure” she grins, “we still have all evening, don’t you think we can manage something minorly illegal?” and he laughs.
“You’re going to be great helping out the mayor.”
Hey, she thinks. She picked me. In theory—someone’s picking someone, here, but she’s never spoken to Regina in her life. Just knows her from afar, her picture in the paper and her voice in the square, lacquered and shining and sleek in her suits. Why, she has yet to ask. The town isn’t big on whys. Things happen, things are put in motion, and when a piece of life falls into your lap, you don’t throw it away.
Life’s happening. That’s more than she can remember for the past—however long, how long? (How old am I? she thinks. It’s an oddly uninstinctual question, sometimes. Takes a moment longer than it should. Old enough.) She’ll take it. Toast to the mayor for it—why not.
She rolls her eyes at Graham.
“Like politicians never do anything bad. The justice bit’s your job, I think.”
His eyes widen at justice—he reacts to the oddest things, she thinks. “What?” she asks, and he blinks like the expression was never there.
He peels out of the narrow driveway too hard; the wheels of the police car spit gravel at the sides of the driveway, and she laughs.
Her hips twist against his own as she bites out the words and his breath hisses through a constricted throat. Words feel unnatural when he tries to force them onto his tongue; they threaten to catch behind his skin, behind their skins. She has freed less than methodically from the leather; gauntlets and greaves lie like battle-remnants over the field. His breath is animal-warm and silent, huffing into the forest air against her neck.
But he forces, nevertheless (thinking of the queen, of protocols ingraining themselves down into his bones).
“What do you remember?”
“Before you were the huntsman. I remember when you were in the forest. When you were a wolf.”
She writhes in his hands like the changed shape of a quest; he feels as though he has come into the woods to catch something mythical, something shape-changing, something that won’t let him let go. The feel under his hands shifts, sure enough: velvet nap to coarse linen to flesh, warm and flush under his palms. Her nails rake down, harsh and delighted, against the furred nap of his chest.
“If you look at our floor in the right places, you can still see bloodstains. You put a blade through a man’s throat, if I recall the story right—I was young, Granny hid my eyes, but I remember, and I’d think of you—”
“Murder,” he says, shuddering, for he has learned that this is the word for such acts, for his vocation, and she shrugs, her whole body rolling further into his hands.
Yes, he thinks, this is the one the queen wants. He shudders under her, fiercely, and clasps his hands to the fair, fair skin above her bony hips. Face masked in her dark hair, he prays that he will not be asked to take an axe to that fair skin.
Her teeth drag down his collarbone. He closes his eyes against their sharpness. The sound that emerges from his throat is higher than before, soft.
She laughs, tasting his skin.
“You aren’t a very good wolf.”
Madam Mayor’s house—Regina’s house, she corrects herself, got to get her head used to the up-close and personal if she wants to keep getting invited to dinner—looms as they drive up to it, shadowed by thickets of trees and gleaming with soft gold light from within. She’s never been this close. Never needed to, never had the call.
It’s not that it’s off-limits, per se. Ashley’s been, Ashley who once babysat for Henry: Nice kid, she’d said, and seriously it’s easy money, like such a cake job and it’s like she’s giving cash away, it’s like she just plain doesn’t care, but Ruby’s never had the yen for money that Ash has, nor the maternal instinct. She let her keep the job and tell her about it. The spiral staircases, damasked wallpaper, not the paper kind—and she gave me a 30% tip when she was late, how rich do you have to be, do you think? Ashley fiddling with her cracked pink purse on the diner table, looking at its cluttered inside, the change on the bottom. How rich? Didn’t matter, except to Ashley, who recreated castles in her dreams every night, castles that maybe even kept the child sleeping inside. Dreams, Ruby gets, but hers take her out of the town, where Ashley’s take root, and damasked walls be damned, that doesn’t sound like a dream to her at all.
So the Mills manor has only ever been an outline to her, seen in silhouette from the road. It’s blocked off by trees, gated at the end of the driveway, but she can see the variegated tips of the roof every time she drives by, ostentatious tower rooms stretching up to the sky. The closer they drive, the more it fills in. It looks more like a castle, not less. But it’s dark, she consoles herself.
He looks over at her and she meets his eyes. “Are you kidding?” she asks, and he stalls the car, gets out without answering. When she opens her door, he’s on the other side, reaching out out of some dumb chivalrous impulse—she slams it and watches his empty hand linger in the air. She takes his arm almost as an act of charity. Just up the driveway, up the walk of stairs, but he reaches out to knock and she puts it down in a hot second. (Hello, Madam Mayor. Your arm candy’s brought arm candy.)
“What’s funny?” he asks, watching her bite her smirk into her lip, and she shakes her head.
"You aren't nervous."
She grins, giddy, because it's true. Confused, yes. But fearlessly confused. Let him fidget enough for the both of them.
The door opens before his fist reaches the door and once again, he’s left with an arm hanging in the air. Regina fills the space with the expanse of her arms, open body closing the gap between the door and the frame. An open posture for a closed woman. She is smiling.
“Graham,” she says. “Ruby.”
Two different voices, Ruby would’ve expected as much, but it’s her own name that knocks her for a six: Regina’s voice is instantly familiar, and now, now Ruby shivers, with a flash of combined fear and comfort. And she knows, at once, that Regina is frightening, but she knows at once, without knowing why, that yes, yes indeed, she deserves to be here, that there’s nowhere else she could be better.
Regina opens her arms, wide and welcoming, and Ruby thinks: it’ll all make sense once she’s inside.
“I’m so glad you could make it.”
“What have you brought me?” the queen asks, stretching her neck and leading with the curious, languid look on her face. He shivers, in spite of himself: it is always too cold in the throne room. The girl stands behind him in the foyer, flanked by blank-faced black guards. She is defenseless, he had protested, and she had laughed loud enough to echo on the stone and cling to its silence. The guards did not laugh. They do not take exceptions.
(Far in the past, and young, he used to wonder if there was anyone inside those black suits of armor at all, or if it was simply a shell. One day in the forest, hidden from the path, he threw his axe at a party passing by, and caught blood and skull beneath the metal and he learned, and now, still later, he understands. They made choices, those men in their armor. That is why they do not interest her: they surrendered before the battle. She prefers battle, the scent of blood beneath the perfume of her court. She knows nothing else so well.)
“The fairest,” he says. “As you asked.”
Not yet touching him, she wraps herself around him with her steps, her presence, walking in a tightening python circle and twining him around in her eyes. He feels his skin prickle and wonder if he is responding, if she is shaping him new every time he looks at her. The mirrors in this castle don’t show him his own face. He has forgotten what he looks like. “Does she look like a princess?” she croons, and he shakes his head. She hisses in a breath; her voice is soft.
“Then what good is she?”
“She does not look like a princess. Nor do you.”
“And what do I look like?”
Her smile is a red slash spreading in the white of her face, like a wound. She reaches out and draws her fingers prickly and slow down the side of his neck, and her thumb tips up his chin with shocking force.
“Like a queen,” he manages, and then there are teeth in that smile, and she brings his face down to hers.
When she releases him, when she draws back, he is immobile, mouth hot, and her eyes are lidded with a pleasure he knows is not entirely to his credit. Some of it is. He flushes. “Good.”
She turns. “Bring her in,” she calls over her shoulder.
The girl enters ahead of the guards, who slip into the shadows. The door closes behind them, whether pushed or no. Her eyes are up, her smile bemused.
“Your majesty,” she says, and dips into a quick, undiscernibly clumsy curtsy.
“You brought me a peasant slut,” the queen says to him, voice flat. The space between them, stretched out before, begins to tighten once more. Her heels click, measured and hard on the floor, until she is standing before him, fingers unfurling in an agonizingly slow star over the place he used to call his heart. He can feel the angry heat of her hand through the leather. “Huntsman, will you never learn?”
Words are thick in his throat; he is strangling from within, the swift swell of her rage filling his emptiness like a cistern. No.
“Look at her,” he says, for his is a quest completed and there is magic in that, heroism, resolve. It loosens his tongue. She throws a glance over her shoulder.
“A tavern wench.”
“You presume, Huntsman.”
“You trusted me.” He kneels. “Queen.”
It has nothing to do with the girl, then, at all.
The borrowed heat building inside him drains, and he breathes in, deep and shuddering and audible in the vast, largely empty room. Only then does the queen turn around.
He watches her, head at the level of her hip. Watches her. The girl in red, who does not shrink under her gaze.
The queen moves in. “You are not a princess,” she says.
“Hush,” says the queen, touching a calmly peremptory hand to the girl’s face, skin pale as snow. “Your blood is as common as dirt.”
“Just so, majesty.”
“Shush,” says the queen, drawing that finger along the girl’s cheek, flushed bright as blood. “You are no one and you have never been anyone and you would, if left alone in your little corner of the land, die nobody. That is what you are.”
“Only me, majesty.”
“Quiet,” says the queen, twisting a finger into a ringlet of the girl’s hair, black as night. The girl winces, and finally the queen smiles, turning around.
“You’ve brought me a girl who doesn’t know when not to speak,” she says, amused, and the girl’s face twists, more irritation than fear.
“What do you want from me?”
And the queen almost laughs.
“Get up, Huntsman. You’ve done well.”
He rises and looks at the two of them, side by side, hair black and cheeks pale; eyes wicked and faces sharp as blades; lips red as the hunt. One smiles, one frowns, and sharp white teeth threaten in both mouths. And he understands.
She shall never need the advice of mirrors again.
There once was a queen of a borrowed kingdom, and because it was not her own, she knew the size and shape of that kingdom, and the shape of her kingdom was the shape of a story. And the kingdom needed a queen, and the story needed a queen, and so she remained in this borrowed kingdom, at its borrowed head, and the land and the story were quiet for a while.
She was queen, and she was not born to it, so she made herself into the shape of the role, filling her crown and her throne peaceably for a while. She made herself with the utmost skill into the most queenly thing she could imagine, for she was powerful indeed, and knew what it was to wield power. She was powerful, and that was the skill of her. She was powerful, and that changed her.
Full up with power, she began to be less (or more) than a human woman, more (or less) than a queen. And the kingdom needed a queen, and the kingdom called for a queen, and the kingdom, land and story, would cry for the queen.
She knew this first, for she was cleverer than she was good, and the kingdom always shows promises of downfall to those who are clever enough to see them. She saw them, and she listened.
She outlived her husband, and listened as he choked out words of prophecy and blood: hair black as night, lips red as blood, skin white as snow.
She watched her husband’s daughter blossom into this image of prophecy and blood, for the daughter was a princess and princesses are malleable things, born into the kingdom’s needs. She listened as the kingdom waned and its people voiced, low at first, their desire for a new queen, for the old blood to die and let the new blood in, for that is the way of the land, and the land was calling, calling. For the princess with hair blacker than her own, skin fairer to look at and to touch, lips bitten the color of an apple.
The queen knew better than to wait for her to ripen any further. A princess is one thing, and a queen is another, and a princess’s story ends when the queen dies, the queen who becomes wicked that the princess may become good.
The waning queen’s eyes glittered in the dark, her skin grew cold to the touch, her veins thick with magic, and she determined that she would find another queen to take her place. A queen, not a princess, never a princess. A queen with black-roped hair and parchment skin and blood-bitten lips, a queen whose eyes shone in the dark with will, not magic; an indecorous queen to succeed an indecorous queen, whose mind could sharpen like a blade and cut the kingdom into the image she would inherit. A queen that would inherit her work, not undo it—and the queen that came first could shift her shape into something not curtailed by the crown, something as vast and hungry as her heart—and there would be no princess who came to make her dance in iron shoes, to trap her in barrels full of nails, there would be no hero come to dye his youth in her blood.
She dreamed that such a queen might exist, and in her kingdom, and her magic-glutted mind, dreams had a more than likely chance of coming true.
And she sent a wolf to sniff her out.