Guarded

Regina stood in the jail cell in the Storybrooke cop shop with her eyes closed, invoking the opening rites of her latest combination of spells in her head.

The jail cell and the area around it seemed to have some residual magic left in it. The spot empowered her, whether it was from the wraith or the hat or Emma Swan, she couldn't say. She figured it was a combination of all three.

She'd been there nearly every night in the past two weeks, – as late as she could as to avoid Sheriff Charming – experimenting with various incantations, potions, and rites, trying desperately to find a combination that would take her to the other world. To her old world.

It had been the only occupation keeping her sane lately. It wasn't like she had any visitors to entertain. No town to lord over. No son to take care of.

She breathed deeply.

Her job had become research by day – poring over her limited library of magical tomes – and attempt by night, testing out the theories she'd worked up during the daylight hours.

She hadn't been able to get it right so far. She'd teleported herself across town, once set fire to the desk in the Sheriff's office (hadn't that been fun to lie about to Charming), and once, inexplicably, turned her hair white.

Tonight, she was tentatively excited. She'd finally come up with a composite spell that she thought, along with a return enchantment, could take her between worlds.

She spoke the final words aloud, screwing her eyes shut even harder and drawing symbols in the air with her right hand. She heard a loud crack and felt the air shift around her, her body feeling immense pressure, then light as air, then succumbing to a familiar gravity again.

When the spell's smoke cleared, Regina did not see her castle or the Enchanted Forest, but another set of jail cell bars, these ones closed.

"Shit!" Regina hissed as she gripped the bars in her hands. They were made of cold steel, but wider and squarer than those in Storybrooke's jail. The blue fluorescent lighting hurt her eyes and buzzed in her ears.

"Welcome to Stormcage Containment Facility. You look a little lost," a smooth, low voice purred behind her. Regina spun around, ready to defend herself from whatever monster made this cage its home.

She was surprised to find a beautiful, curly-haired woman sitting up in the cot against the wall. Regina opened her mouth to respond but found herself unable to speak. Her eyes dipped over the stranger's collar bones, the hint of cleavage at the crest of a grey tank top.

The woman paid no mind.

"It's all right. I didn't plan on ending up here either. Not exactly the way I would've preferred to live out my days." The woman said. She stretched in her bed, rolling her neck and rising to stand.

Regina stayed frozen, absorbing the British accent that coloured the soothing tones of the woman's voice.

The stranger offered her hand to Regina.

"River Song. Welcome to my humble abode. And you are?"

"Regina Mills." The former-mayor answered blandly. She took the hand to shake it but before she had time to do so, River had yanked Regina's arm roughly under her own, pulling up the sleeve of Regina's jacket to check her wrist.

Regina struggled and eventually tore her arm away, pushing River backward towards the cot.

Regina soothed her wrist with her left hand. She was ready to fight or kill the prisoner if she had to.

"What the hell was that for?" Regina demanded, reclaiming some of her composure.

"Just checking for a vortex manipulator. You must have some kind of device. Otherwise how did you get here?" River said.

"I used a variety of spells – you could've just asked." Regina responded, keeping her distance from the blonde.

River laughed.

"My dear, when you have as many enemies in the universe as I do, you tend to act first and question later."

Regina was about to protest but realized how hypocritical that would be. She nodded instead and dropped her gaze.

"I understand."

"Do you?" River quirked an eyebrow. "Well that's refreshing."

River took a seat on the cot and patted the spot beside her.

"Come now. I promise I won't bite. Being cooped up for months at a time clearly does wonders for my social skills." River grinned, a glint in her eyes.

Regina hesitated for a moment, then sat down, her thigh lightly brushing against River's for a second before she shuffled farther down the bed.

River reached for Regina's wrist again. The brunette flinched and pulled her arm back.

"It's okay, I just want to have a look at it," River soothed.

Regina submitted. Something about the prisoner made her feel oddly comfortable.

River bared Regina's wrist again, much more gently this time, skimming over the skin with her fingertips. Regina's flesh broke out in goosebumps. There were little red marks where River's nails had broken skin a minute before.

"I'm sorry." River said sadly. She looked up into Regina's eyes. "Sometimes I get a little carried away." She released the wrist, leaving Regina a bit sad at the loss of contact.

"It's all right. I know something about that too." Regina said. She recalled the days just before she'd sent Henry to live with his grandfather: terrorizing the townsfolk, entrapping her son, returning to her old habits. 'A little carried away' was putting it lightly.

River smiled warmly.

"So tell me, Regina Mills. How did you find yourself in my prison cell? You mentioned something about spells?" River asked as she leaned back against the wall. Regina followed suit.

"I'm looking for my son's birth-mother and grandmother. Who is also my stepdaughter." Regina glanced at River. "Long story. They're in a world adjacent to the one I just came from. Not this one though. It seems I missed my mark." Regina said as she looked around the room.

"And you used spells? Real magic?" River asked. She'd come across witch doctors, self-described witches and warlocks, and various magicians in her time travelling and studies, but even the ones who weren't phony were usually only minimally capable of anything.

She'd never heard of someone universe-jumping with magic before. The historian in her was captivated.

"Yes. It took an awful lot of experimenting and trial and error. But I thought I'd finally managed something that worked." Regina closed her eyes, her head falling back in defeat. "I guess it's back to the drawing board."

"So you have a way back then?" River asked casually, masking her curiosity.

"I have a standard return spell – somewhat like an undo function."

River's brain worked maddeningly.

"Take me with you." She said plainly, turning to the woman beside her.

"Excuse me?" Regina said. She didn't like to be ordered around.

"You can do that, can't you?" River asked.

"It's not simply a question of can or can't. Do you expect me to take a criminal back to the world where my son resides? That's lunacy." Regina stood and walked to the cell door.

"What are you in here for anyway?" Regina asked softly.

"Murder."

Regina didn't flinch. She merely nodded.

"Must've been someone important," Regina said. She gazed down the curved hallway outside of the cell.

"So why haven't you cast your spell to return? Enjoying my company that much?" River asked coyly.

Regina sat down on the cot again, closer to River than she had been before, putting their hips side-by-side.

"You certainly are… intriguing. But the real reason I'm still here is to recuperate. The working of enchantments, especially ones that cross entire dimensional barriers, takes a great deal of energy."

River could see the bags under Regina's eyes now that she was closer.

"You haven't been sleeping, have you?" River tested.

Regina shook her head. Why was honesty so reactionary with this woman? She supposed she could attribute her truths to her exhaustion. Perhaps her weariness had eroded her walls.

But she'd been tired before. Sleepless, even. And still she'd never been so open with anyone in over three decades.

"How long until you can go back?" River said.

"I don't know. I'll be able to feel when it's time. But it could be minutes, hours – it's impossible to be sure. I've never successfully done it before today." Regina said with a sigh.

"Then relax and tell me more about where you come from." River said.

"I come from a few places," Regina said cryptically.

"Then start from the beginning." River encouraged.

And so Regina began to share her origins with the woman who had until recently been a stranger. Sometimes it was easier to share with someone new, someone unfamiliar.

The narrative came pouring out of her. She kept most details short, but recounted bits and pieces as she went. When she paused or hesitated or became lost in a fog of memory, River would prompt her, pulling her back in to the thick of it.

River was enraptured. It was heartbreaking to hear about Regina's upbringing: about the cruelty of her mother, the loveless marriage, and the darkness that ruled her life.

Regina began to realize as she spoke just how lonely she'd been since Storybrooke had changed. No one would speak to her anymore, not even Kathryn, who she'd become accustomed to venting to. All she could do was sit in her empty home and throw herself into studying or cooking or cleaning and she'd had very little chance to speak to anyone at all.

As she spilled her guts to River, little by little, she began to feel more peaceful.

River reached out and took Regina's hand in her own, squeezing it slightly and holding it for the rest of her tale. River had been lonely too. It had been five months and three days since the Doctor had last called on her for company. She was beginning to resent him for forgetting about her.

It felt good to be close to someone again, to feel a little thrill when she held Regina's hand, to want to listen to her for days on end.

Regina only got so far as when she called Rumpelstiltskin into her chambers when she suddenly stopped. She took a deep breath in.

"It's time."

River nodded, she loosened her grip on Regina's hand, but did not let it go. Regina looked into the prisoner's bright eyes – they seemed to shift from blue to green to gold and back again.

"Thank you for asking. And for listening. No one has truly listened to me in a very long time." Regina said quietly.

"It was my pleasure. I'd love to hear the rest," River said.

"I would like that. And I'd like to hear more about you." Regina replied.

"Is that a possibility? Could you come back and visit?" River asked. Her tone was tentative, a bit afraid of what the answer might be. She wondered when she'd become so needy.

Regina looked down at their joined hands and paused, deep in thought. When she finally looked up, there was lightness in her expression.

"I don't see why not. I know the precise method that brought me here this time; I have it recorded. I'll have to tweak it to go anywhere else, but to come here again? I'm fairly confident I could re-enact the first crossing."

"How very scientific of you," River smirked.

Regina smiled back as she rose to her feet, reluctantly letting go of River's hand.

"Do you mind if I observe?" River asked.

"Not at all," Regina responded, letting her eyes close. "Goodbye, River."

"Till next time, Regina."

And with the farewells exchanged, Regina began the chant that would return her to Storybrooke.