Emma didn't get home until late. Regina had sent David the gnome, a guy who’d apparently inspired a cartoon about a very different gnome, floating back up into the sky and she'd refused to bring him back down. "He'll come down on his own," she said before poofing away and avoiding responsibilities.
Mulan had helped Emma track the floating gnome around town, but she'd gotten bored after a while and said something about "patrol" before bailing. Leaving Emma driving at a snail's pace behind the guy and waiting for him to come down low enough that she could use a borrowed dog catcher's loupe to grab him. David the deputy and Aurora had both, suspiciously, not responded when she'd radio'd for back up. Like Mulan had gotten to them first and told them about Emma’s new impromptu mission.
After finally getting the guy back on solid ground he'd insisted he didn't want to press charges and the she had to insist that he didn't try and get revenge on his own instead. He’d promised, but her knack for seeing a lie wouldn’t let her believe him.
She'd stopped by Regina's to warn her an angry gnome would come looking for her, but found her gone and Hook, sans pants, sitting in her kitchen eating a sandwich.
"No toaster oven on the Jolly Roger," he'd explained.
That hadn't explained the pants situation, but Emma's had been too irritated to ask.
She didn't get around to talking to Gold until the sun was nearly set. Then, after he assured her he was innocent she had to walk all the way over to the library to get Belle to corroborate his alibi, which she'd only done while blushing.
Probably because she was corroborating while Ruby stood at the check out desk thumbing through Laura K Hamilton paperbacks and scowling. The only person who liked Belle and Gold's relationship less was Cora.
When she finally made it home it was to a too damned busy apartment that was too damned small for three grown adults and a kid about four steps from puberty. Mary Margaret was sitting at the counter, her cheek resting in her hand and her other hand listlessly swirling wine in a glass. Henry had his wooden sword out and was jabbing and hiyaing up and down the staircase to the loft and David was at the stove setting something in a pan on fire.
She missed her stylish little apartment in Boston. It had been lonely and austere, but kids weren’t clanging, ladies weren’t drinking and stuff wasn’t on fire.
It was quiet.
She missed quiet.
"What's with him?"
"Your father told him they're going to the stable tomorrow so he can learn how to ride a horse. He's practicing.”
“With a sword?”
“Knights have to ride horses and fight with swords,” Henry shouted.
The kid had been hounding anyone who looked like they'd even touched a sword to teach him about it. All of Emma's very tastefully edited stories of the Enchanted Forest had done little to cool the kid's desire for dangerous adventure in far off lands devoid of toilet paper.
Mary Margaret took a sip of her wine and eyed Emma over the glass. “You’re home late.”
“Remember that show David the Gnome?”
Her brow furrowed, “I remember the little guy who snitched on half the Enchanted Forest.”
Emma took off her jacket and launched it at the coat rack. It just barely made it, and the whole thing tipped into the wall before righting itself. “Probably the same one. Regina got mad and sent him floating over the city for four hours. Which someone would have known if they’d had their radio on.”
David didn’t turn around, but he sort of ducked while he busied himself putting out his fire and plating something blackened.
“Did you finally get him down,” Mary Margaret asked.
“With one of those dog catcher things. They say hi at the vet’s by the way.” She directed that comment towards David. His ears were pink.
“Did you find the murderer yet?” Henry had come down the stairs way too quietly and Emma leapt at his soft voice right behind her.
“Jesus!” Mary Margaret frowned. “I mean—nothing yet kid. Just a floating gnome and a helluva couple of alibis. Did you guys know every single nun was at Granny’s last night?”
All three long term Storybrooke residents were unimpressed.
“The hamburgers are great,” David said.
“And it’s really roomy there,” Mary Margaret added.
“Everyone loves Granny’s,” Henry insisted in an eerily toneless voice.
Sure. Granny’s was great, and cheaper than most fast food places. It was just…weird they all went but the dead one and her sisters. And weird that no one seemed surprised.
She settled into the stool beside Mary Margaret and took her half-done wine, finishing it off in two gulps. "So I'm the only one that finds it weird?"
All three of them shrugged. "The hamburgers are really great," Henry said—imitating his grandfather.
Emma chuckled and ruffled his hair, "I gotta get you out more."
Mary Margaret frowned again, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's just—" All three of them look like she'd insulted their dog or something. It struck her that out of the whole damn town she was probably the most well travelled (if you didn't count magical lands usually only found in books). "I once had a hamburger down in New Mexico so good I dreamed about it years later. Dreams because of a hamburger. And Granny's is good, but there's only about one thing there I dream about."
Henry tilted his head, "What?"
"Ru—rhubarb pie. Granny's rhubarb pie is top notch."
David and Henry agreed but Mary Margaret scowled like she knew that wasn't the pie Emma dreamt of. She reached past her for the wine bottle and refilled the glass.
Taking another big gulp of wine she looked over at Henry. The little guy had climbed up into the third stool and was thinking too deeply—doing that little grimace he must have learned from Regina.
"What's up," she asked.
"I should see more of the world."
David did something between a gasp and a snort and Mary Margaret tried to smile warmly like she was encouraging him but it just came off as frigid.
"Well," Emma tried not to look at the two of them, "We could go sometime. Where you thinking about?"
She was a big fan—though she didn’t think the kid knew she’d been there. “I was thinking something closer first. Maybe Boston?”
"I've already been to Boston."
“You went from the bus station to Emma’s,” Mary Margaret said. "You should see the entire city."
Emma wasn't going to point out that Mary Margaret had seen even less of Boston and wouldn't be going any time soon. Part of the curse still wrapped around the town, and anyone affected by it couldn't leave without losing their memories.
Sometimes when Mary Margaret or David were shooting her the maternal/paternal puppy dog eyes she thought about punting them over the city line just to have a break.
Knowing that Regina would approve and the rest of the town would be horrified was the only thing keeping her from doing it most nights.
"You could check out Harvard," David suggested. "That's in Boston right?"
"You sound like Regina—no we'll do the aquarium. Maybe catch some improv or something and then gorge on lobster rolls and oysters."
Mary Margaret tilted her head, her eyes placid and a little wounded, “You’re making it sound like something you’ll do this weekend or the next?”
Emma shrugged, "Why not? Nothing's stopping us." Besides the murder investigation. And everyone getting jealous of their road trips. And Regina. Emma was pretty sure taking a kid who wasn't technically legally her's across state lines without permission was illegal. "What do you say kid? Next month you and me and Boston for the weekend?"
"Overnight?" Henry's eyes bugged out.
"Why not? I've still got my apartment." That she needed to deal with. Sheriff's pay wasn't as lucrative as bail-bonds person pay and she was gonna have to get into her savings if she didn't get off her butt and find a subletter soon.
Mary Margaret, trying not to be Debbie Downer, but failing, asked, "What about Regina? If she finds out you're taking him—"
David set down plates in front of everyone. He'd cooked chicken breasts as big as his own hands on the skillet. He’d poured something that started life as Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom on top to hide the black bits. But Emma could still see a healthy stretch of char peaking through the sauce on hers.
Reaching for her fork she said, "I've got to go do an interview with her tomorrow. I'll just ask."
"She won't like that."
"I don't think she's gonna be mad about a weekend trip next month Mary Margaret. And if she's that worried she can tag along. Right kid?"
He grimaced like his grandmother and stabbed his chicken heartily. The rift that had formed after his mom had accidentally poisoned him hadn't been healed. Even though he'd brought her back to life and been by her bed almost every day of her coma.
Apparently it was a lot easier loving people when one of you was near death.
Henry and David were out the door the next morning while Emma was still wiping the sleep from her eyes and trying to crack her persistently uncrackable neck.
Mary Margaret was up too and wordlessly put a mug of coffee into Emma's hands when she slumped onto a stool in the kitchen.
"Henry's a furnace and kicks in his sleep."
Mary Margaret winced in sympathy.
"He's pretty excited about the stable huh?"
"Seems that way. He's been begging your father to teach him since you and I were over There. This should be good for them. Bonding." Mary Margaret said it so hopefully.
"He wanted to ride a horse so bad why didn't he ask Regina?"
Mary Margaret wrapped both her hands around her own mug of coffee and brought it to her lips. "I don't know," she said between sips. "And I don't think David knows Regina can ride either."
"You never told him?"
"Never came up."
A lot of things never came up. As far as Emma could tell her "parents" were basically newlyweds. They'd been married less than a year when they had her and were still in that "love guides us through all problems" phase. Emma was familiar with that phase. Many an idiot new spouse had put up their life savings to bail someone out and then had to watch as the loved one ran and Emma had to hunt them down.
Mary Margaret and David struck her as slightly less naive (though that could have been because of her own dumb optimism). Yet a lot of stuff slipped in between the cracks. Neither of them actually talked to the other about Mary Margaret's missing heart.
Or having Emma and Henry crowd their open floor plan loft and effectively ruin any chance of intimacy.
Which was another thing—
Emma had no plans to pry. Ever.
But she was pretty sure they hadn't done…stuff since the curse had broken. Both of them were extra crabby whenever Hook's bird mentioned sex or Mulan and Aurora walked by with their arms touching.
After showering and seeing Mary Margaret off for the final day of set up before the clam bake Emma made her way across town to Regina's place.
Some homes had changed since the Curse. People didn't maintain their lawns or prune their plants or rake the leaves that were starting to fall.
Regina wasn't one of those people. She'd been in a coma for a week and stuck in the hospital for something like six more and she still had the greenest lawn and the best looking trees and bush—
And Emma's mind went there.
She shuddered and parked her cruiser on the street in front. The door opened wide as she clomped up the steps, but instead of Regina in her neat little pants suit or pencil skirt it was Hook, wearing pants again, but his shirt open to the navel, his hair in sticking up in every direction and his hook gone. The ornate sleeve of his shirt was pulled over the end of the residual limb. He leaned against the door and tried to look rakish.
"Ms. Swan, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
She'd gotten really good at ignoring his come ons. She didn't even have to glare this time. "Where's Regina?"
"And you're hear because?"
"Hey hot mama!"
A flurry of feathers that should be plucked and stuffed in a pillow case landed on Hook's shoulder. That god damned bird. It tilted its head and seemed to gaze at her. Like it was human.
She resisted the urge to draw her gun and shoot it off his shoulder.
"Well," Hook said, "Aren't you going to say hello?"
The bird nipped his ear and he grinned.
"No, but I might roast the thing for Thanksgiving if you're not careful. Where's Regina?"
He rubbed the bird's head, "Why is everyone always threatening to eat him? Were you lot not fed enough as children? Do you have no understanding of how tough and gamey parrot is?"
He chucked the bird under its beak with his knuckle. And talked to it like it was a baby, "I won't let them eat you."
"You're short tempered," he observed.
"Sexually frustrated," the bird squawked.
"I swear to God, both of you—"
"Regina squeezed some orange juice before she left. Fancy a cup?" He didn't wait for her answer, just turned around and padded into the kitchen, his bare feet slapping loudly against the wood floor. His bird flew over Emma's head and out the door. Torn between wanting to chase it down and put it out of everyone's misery, and the need to find Regina so they could go talk to whoever the hell that gnome claimed lived on Gingerbread Lane Emma had to eventually settle on following Hook into the house and kicking the door shut behind her.
She noted the blankets pooled on the couch and the dirty boots and long coat lying on the floor.
“Late night,” she called ahead.
Hook was busy in the kitchen, using his one hand to pour juice and his other arm to hold the cup steady. Watching him she was reminded that the hook wasn’t a hand and he didn’t have magic to supplement the thing. In his undone shirt standing at the isle pouring juice he looked completely…average.
“Regina caught me eating all her good bread and prosciutto last night and forced me to help her make cider.” He pushed the glass of juice over with the end of his arm. She saw a peak of the scarred limb mostly hidden by his shirt sleeve. “Apparently I’m a greedy thief and I have an alcohol problem.”
“You’re giving pre-Curse Leroy a run for his money in one of those departments.”
“Not much else for a pirate to do in a town like this.”
“You could become a fisherman.”
“I’m one of the most infamous pirates to ever live. I do not fish.”
Emma tried the juice. It was tart and satisfyingly pulpy. Almost like biting into an orange. “Coast guard?”
“I hung up my white hat a long time ago and have no plans to put it back on.”
“I don’t know what to tell ya Hook. Unless you want to start stealing movies online there’s not a lot of pirating to do in Storybrooke. You’re gonna have to reevaluate your life I guess.”
He rolled his eyes, “God, you’re as bad as those three.” The other Four Thieves. A name Emma was a 100% sure they’d given themselves to sound cool.
“Difference being they care what happens to you.”
He considered his orange juice and raised his shoulders a fraction in a half shrug. Emma could see the hint of a tattoo on his chest, masked by his shirt and swirls of chest hair. She wondered what kind of tattoo a real pirate out of a storybook had. Was it his dead girlfriend’s name? A picture of his ship?
He noticed her staring and raised an eyebrow, “See anything you like?”
“No,” she fired back without thinking. His amusement didn’t even waver. “Now where the hell’s Regina? We’re supposed to go talk to some cookie man or evil witch or something and I wanted to get it done sooner rather than later.”
“She had to run an errand. Told me to tell you to meet her at the stables.”
Emma’s heart thumped twice as fast briefly. “The…stables?”
He nodded and sipped his juice.
“Any reason—why—why the stables?”
“Maybe she wanted to take one of her hell beasts out for a ride. How should I know?”
“She didn’t say?”
“Oh yes, she went into avid detail because she and I discuss every minute detail of our lives and then braid each other’s hair.”
Emma finished the rest of her orange juice and pushed back from the counter. If she drove fast, with the sirens on, maybe she’d get to the stable before Regina, because if she got there afterwards she really didn’t want to see what would happen.
She didn’t beat Regina there. Instead she pulled in, gravel shooting out from beneath her tires and a billow of dust trailing her, just as Regina was getting out of her car.
The other woman crossed her arms and eyed Emma as she parked. “I don’t think the sheriff is supposed to speed that fast,” she remarked when Emma got out of her car.
“I had my sirens on most of the way.”
“That might make it worse.”
Regina was dressed a little more Enchanted Foresty than usual. Or maybe just horsewomany. She was wearing tight riding pants and knee high boots. Her blouse was one of her normal tailored mayor blouses, but the blazer was full on preppy horsewoman.
She was just missing the crop. Emma felt poor just looking at her.
“Why are we here,” she asked—hopefully deflecting the conversation from her speeding, or David’s truck at the other end of the parking lot.
“Gingerbread Lane is an old unpaved logging road and Gauvin and Hwin need to be taken out for a ride. I thought we might kill two birds with one stone.” She looked over Emma’s shoulder, her face impassive, “Why is Charming’s truck here?”
She raised an eyebrow.
Emma sighed, “He’s teaching Henry how to ride a horse.”
Instead of being angry or sad Regina just snorted. “Charming? Really?”
“Henry’s been asking apparently.”
“Of course. Why ask his mother when there’s a former prince around?” She wasn’t actually expecting an answer from Emma, and said to herself, “Apparently I failed at teaching him about the dangers of assuming based on gender.”
“Pretty sure that’s just society failing.”
Regina huffed in a way that indicated that, no, Regina was the one that failed. It was endearing.
“So you’re not…planning on turning David into a toad or anything?”
Regina sighed, “Somehow I think Henry would be offended by me turning his grandfather into an amphibian. So I’ll just be resigned. For now.”
The qualifier didn’t completely ease Emma’s concern.
Regina walked back around to the trunk of her car and popped it open and Emma came closer to make sure she wasn’t pulling out a shotgun or something equally murderous.
“What’s with the saddle?”
“I had to go pick it up from Donkeyskin’s shop. I needed a new one.”
“You couldn’t just magic it?”
She eyed Emma before she reached in and pulled the saddle out, “Magic is no match for quality leather working. Besides,” she sniffed, “with the curse broken the town’s economy isn’t maintained by magic. She needed the work.”
That was true. The cannery was shuttered about a week after Emma “saved” the town.
Regina shoved the saddle into Emma’s chest and she had to scramble to grab it while Regina turned back around and started pulling other horse looking junk from the car.
“She know your dusted her dad?”
“That’s why she gave me a 15% discount on the tack.”
“She’s grateful, not stupid.” She paused, “Or as stupid. The curse apparently added a few points to her IQ." Emma faintly remembered a story about Bluebeard’s daughter disguising herself to get into Regina’s palace, and then traipsing around her room in full on royal gowns.
Regina piled all the other horse junk on top of the saddle and Emma grunted and tried not to drop anything, spreading her legs a little to improve her balance. "Why am I carrying this?"
"Because you are here.”
"And because I need to speak with the stable manager. Take that down to Gauvin's stall would you?"
Emma could have fought her on it—particularly as she felt like a pack mule, but Regina was already headed towards the attached office and she would have had to jog to catch up with her and throw all the leather good at her.
It seemed rude.
She wrestled with all leather. Something—a bridle? Reins?—she had no clue—dropped and she caught it with the toe of her boot. She had to squat and grab the metal part of it with her pinky and then shuffle towards the stable.
As she picked up speed she got a better handle on all the junk and by the time she was stepping into the stables and looking down a long corridor of stalls she was no longer in danger of dropping Regina's crap.
The stables hadn't seen a whole lot of use during the Curse and even maintained by magic they were a little run down from thirty years of disuse. Tired looking. All the white paint was dirty and cracked and only half the stalls had animals in them.
A sign tacked to a cork board offered riding lessons on the cheap. It looked new enough to be put up post-Curse. Probably put up by some prince looking for some extra cash.
Hopefully not the prince she lived with.
Or maybe it was a knight?
She was pretty sure the Enchanted Forest had had knights.
David was leaning against the door of one of the stalls closest to the entrance. A travel mug of coffee was dangling from his finger and must have been the reason he looked as chipper as he did.
"Thought you had a meeting," he said, not taking his eye off the inside of the stall.
"Meeting moved to here."
She balance the saddle on the stall door and looked in. Henry was standing on a stool brushing an ugly paint horse's coat and trying not to look self conscious.
"What are you guys up to?”
David pointed his mug at Henry. "Teaching him how to ride."
Emma raised an eyebrow but didn't ask the obvious question: How brushing a horse taught the kid anything.
Henry looked up from his mind-numbingly boring work and a big grin split his face. “Mom!” He dropped his brush, hopped off the stool and ran up to the door. It was still weird to hear him call her that. Felt kind of like someone walking across her grave.
But she smiled back. It would be shitty not to. “Hey kid.”
His small hand reached up to touch the supple leather of the saddle’s seat. His eyes were wide, “Is this for me?”
“No idea. Regina just had me bring it in.”
His face brightened further, “My mom’s here?” It was a lot different then when Emma had first shown up in town and he’d scowled at every mention of Regina. Since she was now the cool bad ass witch who defeated evil with giant rubble monsters he was thawing. The hurt hadn’t been erased. Just…eased.
“She’s talking to the stable manager. We’ve got to go talk to someone about that murder and she thought we should ride out there.”
“She’s not just poofing you,” David asked.
“Does my mom even know how to ride a horse?”
“Of course I do, and I probably know more about it then your grandfather.” Regina had arrived with the stubby stable manager in tow. Her lips were curled up into a half snarl that had Emma, David and Henry all wilting. She nodded at the stable manager, and the little round woman waddled quickly down the corridor with another saddle grasped in her meaty hands.
Then Regina irritation seemed to reverse course. Her sneer softened into something uneasy but kind. “I used to ride quite often once upon a time.”
“Why’d you stop,” Henry asked.
“Queens don’t go riding bareback through the country side.”
“No instead they—“ Emma tapped David’s stomach with her elbow and he shut up.
Regina caught David’s retreat and Emma’s elbow. Her eyes sharply focused on the two of them even as the rest of her was directing a maternal smile at Henry. “If I’d known you wanted to learn I would have been happy to teach you.” There was no hint of chastisement in her voice, but a touch of the hurt that put crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes.
Henry missed it. “It’s okay. Gramps is teaching me.”
“Ah.” She frowned, her dark eyes taking in Henry, his tennis shoes, his brush, and the pristine looking horse. “How exactly?” The hurt dissolved into haughty judgement and she pegged David with an annoyed glare, “You know teaching horseback riding actually requires sitting astride a horse?”
“I’m teaching him to respect the horse first.”
“And I supposed you’d teach him to drive by having him wash your car?”
Regina’d been gearing up for a lecture, but David’s terse response stopped her dead. She looked surprised—but not really mad. “Oh,” she nodded, “I guess that makes sense.”
Emma was grateful she hadn’t had David teaching her how to drive as a kid. She preferred stealing cars to gently washing them with a giant sponge. And he definitely would have been the dad having her use shammies and doing two coats of wax.
“Perhaps when your grandfather is done teaching you the absolute basics we could go for a ride together?”
“Sure,” Henry said—a little wary. Was it always gonna be like that between him and his adoptive mom? Would she be asking him to come by for Christmas and he’d look nervous before agreeing?
It had to suck knowing your kid didn’t trust you. Even if Regina didn’t seem offended by his tentativeness.
She was just smiling again. That warm and totally genuine one that made something in the pit of Emma fidget. “And maybe, if you stick with it, we could see about having a saddle made for you?”
“We don’t want to spoil him,” Emma murmured.
“A good saddle isn’t spoiling him. It’s making sure we have grandchildren one day.”
Emma had never seen her kid really blush or seen Regina sound quite like a mom until that moment. Henry’s face turned bright red and the mortification a kid could only achieve because of their parents being jerks blossomed on his face.
David coughed and ducked his head, his fist over his mouth to hide an amused little grin.
“Mom,” Henry gasped.
“Oh don’t be embarrassed. You’re with family here, and it’s something you do need to think of if you’re going to be riding regularly. Sterility in male riders is very real.”
Emma had heard something similar, but, “I thought that was just because of the jeans cowboys wear?”
“It also has to do with how a man rides and what kind of saddle he’s on.”
David nodded, “She has a point.”
“And you should probably ignore it,” Regina glanced at David, “or Henry will wind up with a very young aunt or uncle.”
Emma clapped her hands, “And we’re done with this conversation!” David and Henry were matching shades of red. She pulled all the saddle toward her with one hand and dragged Regina away by the bicep with the other. “We are now going to leave you to forget this conversation ever happened.”
Henry and David both glowed with the kind of gratitude that made Emma actually feel like the “Savior” she was always told she was.
The woman’s horsemanship had not improved.
Regina should have expected that. Almost three years for her had only been the span of an afternoon for Emma. She hadn’t had a chance to get lessons, or even just sit on a horse.
So she sat very rigidly on Hwin, her legs sticking out to stay clear of the mare’s flanks and the two ends of the reins clutched in one hand so she could cling to the horn of the saddle with the other. It was a very plain western saddle meant for long days spent horseback and working cattle—but it was significantly more forgiving to a rider than the lean and sparse saddle Regina had designed. It was also too big and Emma kept scooting back and forth to find a way to balance herself.
“Relax,” Regina called in a soothing tone. “You’re not gonna fall off.”
“Easy for you to say queen who mounts the world.”
She whipped her head around, “What?”
Emma tried to wave her off, slipped and grabbed the horn again. “Nothing. TV show humor. Get HBO.”
“Do I look like I’m made of money?”
Emma’s plaintive stare suggested that she did.
Tugging on her own reigns, Regina slowed down so she could ride beside Emma. The old logging road was had grown narrow from years of disuse, with gnarled branches of trees reached out to grab at their clothes, but it was still just wide enough for them to ride side by side. Sometimes they had to ride so close Regina’s knee would brush against Emma’s.
It was nice—until Emma would slow down or speed up to end the contact.
This time Regina reached out and put her hand on top of Emma’s. She ignored the daggers shot her way. Emma wasn’t a big toucher.
She couldn’t feel the warmth of Emma through her thin doeskin gloves, just the hard tendons in her hand as she continued to hold onto the saddle horn. “It isn’t easy to fall out of that saddle Emma, and Hwin isn’t going to buck or bolt.”
“No, she’s going to walk. Or trot. Or canter.”
“If you’re that nervous you can sit behind me. I’m better than you just holding that horn like a newborn.”
More daggers. Flirting with Emma Swan was something new—an experiment suggested by Aurora—and the subject of the experiment was not fond of it. “I’m fine on my own horse,” Emma said dryly.
“Well, then relax. My back is hurting just watching you.”
She did relax, just a little, and Regina let go, her fingers immediately missing the contact. She balled her hand into a fist and her gloves squeaked softly.
“I still don’t see why you couldn’t just poof us,” Emma grumbled.
“The horses needed a stretch.”
“Which they could have had not while we’re on police business. Magic would have been faster.”
“You could have used your sirens to get to the convent faster yesterday, but you didn’t. Why?”
“It’s an abuse of power.”
She raised her chin, enjoying Emma’s surprise. “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”
“This coming from the walking id.”
“I told you Emma, I’ve changed.”
Emma ignored her, even as the faintest of blushes colored her cheeks, “So who we talking to today? I’m assuming some kind of former cookie?”
“Loaf of bread?”
“What—why would you even—no, a woman.”
Emma groaned, “In a gingerbread house?”
“The very same.”
“But I thought the mechanic’s kids killed her.”
“They burned her alive, which, as you well know, isn’t always enough to kill a witch.”
“What, she eat a peach like your mom?”
“No. She healed herself even as she burned.”
The house, thank Christ, was not made out of cookies and candy. It was a creepy cabin, the kind made out of the fat trunks of trees and with a big wobbly chimney jutting out from above rotten looking wooden shingles. A thin plume of smoke drifted out the top and somewhere far away a raven crowed.
It was hard not to feel a chill seeing the place, nestled in a cove of old growth forest that hid most of the sun’s bright light and made everything colder than the early part of fall should be.
“If she’s so bad why’d you bring her over?”
“Some monsters shouldn’t be left to their own devices.”
“Incestuous serial killers get stranded, but cannibalistic kid snatchers snag a ticket?”
“Most of her power was lost when those children shoved her in her own oven. What’s left of her is dangerous for what she knows, not what she can do,” Regina paused, an obnoxious knowing grin on her lips, “Though I wouldn’t get too close to her kitchen.”
Both horses shivered the closer they got to the cabin. Like they could feel the evil emanating from within. Regina’s stallion pawed at the muddy road and shook his head in protest. Regina had to dig in with her heels and manipulate the four reins. She gritted her teeth silently as she pressed her horse forward.
The one Emma was on was more placid, but she reached a point where she wouldn’t go further and Emma wasn’t about to try and force it. With her luck the horse would bolt and the two of them would end up in New Hampshire by sundown.
“Let me talk,” Regina commanded quietly, “and whatever you do, don’t agree to anything.” She dismounted smoothly and swiftly enough that Emma felt jealous. The chain of Regina’s locket flashed on her neck as she moved and Emma’s locket burned briefly.
As she made her own, considerably less graceful, dismount the front door of the cabin creaked open. The hinges screeched and birds in trees overhead fluttered away, casting the surrounding forest in silence.
A woman emerged. Her whole body was covered in wet looking scars and she was hunched over, as if the burned skin had permanently contorted her. One withered hands held a shawl closed around her shoulders and her other hand, unmarred by burns, was extended before her. Blue blank eyes roved sightlessly. The unblemished hand rose shakily to her mouth. She licked her lips and smiled. “I…smell…a witch.”
“Then perhaps you should invest in deodorant dear.”
Regina’s snark didn’t phase the other woman. She hobbled forward, limping heavily. “Not just a witch—“ She sniffed the air, her head bobbing dramatically. “A girl. An orphan.”
Not true. Emma…Emma had parents now. Sure they were the same age and one was missing an eye and the other was missing her heart, but they were parents who loved her. Parents who cared. Parents who didn’t make her pay rent.
Involuntarily her hand touched her stomach as if too soothe the empty pit that formed at the word orphan. It was habit—the word always clanged painfully around her insides.
The witch was still grinning, and even though she was clearly blind she seemed to be looking directly at Emma. She stepped back in alarm, her shoulder bumping against her horse’s nose.
Then dark hair filled her vision as Regina stepped between her and the witch. “She is not your concern,” she said archly.
The witch tried to look over Regina’s shoulder, craning her neck as far as her misshapen body would allow. “She smells delicious.”
“And she’s about twenty years too old for you. You like them young remember?”
“I can make an exception.”
“I didn’t bring her for you.”
Those milky eyes wandered over the general area of Regina’s head. “Then why?”
“She’s the sheriff, and we have questions for you.”
“Your…granddaughter. How lovely.”
Regina glared—which didn’t do much good. “If you want to start this conversation the wrong way you’re doing a wonderful job Cecily.”
“You’ve come for me haven’t you?”
“Yes,” Emma said, “But—“
“You can’t arrest me. What happened in the other lands remains in the other lands.”
Her story was one of the few from Henry’s book that Emma bothered to remember. A creepy witch eating orphaned kids? It was gonna stick in her head. And at that moment, watching the woman just standing there with bleeding gums leaving her teeth yellowed and long and sharp looking. She wanted to arrest her. Or kill her. To do something. She could hear those teeth chewing on flesh.
“I’ve been good here,” the witch protested. “Just suckling pigs.”
Something behind the house squealed and Emma remembered the name slapped on all the pork at the grocery store. She was going to be sick. “You’re where they get the meat for the grocery store?”
The witch’s smile grew. Her gums had receded leaving each tooth looking longer than it should. “Just the young bits.”
“As soon as it hits puberty she won’t touch it.”
Emma was going to be really sick.
The witch waved to a path that led behind her cabin, “Would you care to see?”
Regina sighed, “No, we’d care for answers Cecily. Stop trying to distract us.”
Cecily (Emma thought the name wasn’t nearly German and evil enough sounding) ignored Regina, and hobbled along the path. Regina buried her hands in her jacket pockets and followed. Emma joined her and fought the urge to draw her gun and use it right then. The witch turned around briefly, like she could see Emma’s thoughts.
“The trick to succulent meat is tenderness.”
Emma kept seeing fat little children in an oven with apples stuck in their mouths. She shuddered. Regina brushed past her, following the other witch closely, and again putting herself between them.
“I produce the most tender meat you’ve ever tasted. You can cut it with your thumb.” She wagged her thumb in illustration.
Coming around the corner of the house Emma was slammed with the smell of animal. It was as bad as the feedlots she’d driven by as she made way through the Texas panhandle on her way between Arizona and Tallahassee. The stench was unmistakable. Hundreds of animals pressed into a small space. Shit and blood and the mere press of bodies producing a unique perfume that could make the unprepared retch.
Regina produced a scarf from her pocket and held it to her nose. Emma just tried to hold her breath.
The barn they stepped into was poorly lit, the only light coming from sunlight streaming through boards. Full grown pigs rutted about in muck in large pens and piglets were all pressed close together in stalls—so close they couldn’t move.
A ploy to fatten them up.
“How are my pretties today,” Cecily cooed.
She flipped a switch near the door and the barn was bathed in stark green yellow white light. Emma squinted.
“Cecily.” Regina’s voice was muffled by the scarf in front of her face.
“Hold on, I need to feed them. I have to prepare the fattest today.”
“The grocery stores are still buying from you,” Emma asked.
“The people of Storybrooke have developed a taste for my meat.”
Regina actually looked ashamed.
“Snow White herself is coming by for piglets this evening.” Cecily reached into one of the stalls and loving stroked the ears of a small pig. “They’ll roast them on the spit tomorrow.”
Emma tried to reconciled the 4th grade teacher who had been her friend with the heartless princess that would do business with a cannibal to make a clam bake special.
“Naturally she goes and turns a simple clam bake into a pig roast,” Regina sighed, “but I don’t care about that right now, we’re here about Merryweather.”
“She’s dead.” Cecily smiled, but whether it was because she found an appealing piglet or because of Merryweather’s fate Emma didn’t know.
Emma rolled her eyes.
“You know more than that,” Regina insisted. “I seem to recall you eating a few of her sisters.”
“They were freshly hatched and I caught them fair and square.”
Emma was going to need to disinfect her entire body when she got home. “You ate fairies?”
She smacked her lips. “The newborn ones are nearly as sweet as children.”
Regina rolled her eyes like it was old news, “And Merryweather and her sisters never forgave you.”
“All the more reason they’d tried to kill me, not the other way around.” She turned towards Emma again, taking a deep breath. “You smell almost as sweet as they did.”
Emma stepped back. Her locket chilling burning with cold against her skin and warring with the her nausea for the most unpleasant feeling.
Regina jammed her scarf back into her pocket and stalked forward, “The gnome told me you know something about her murder. Now stop wasting my time and start talking or I’ll fire up your stove and shove you into it.”
She was blind, hunched, and could barely walk, but Cecily hobbled right into Regina’s personal space, peering up despite being completely blind. “Always quick with empty threats Regina.”
She glared down at the witch. “I burned you once,” she sneered.
“But I hear you’ve changed. What would our succulent smelling sheriff think if she saw you torturing me?”
Regina loomed over her, her face only a few inches from Cecily’s. She spoke clearly, enunciating each word, “Ask the gnome.”
A muscle in the witch’s face quivered.
The room suddenly turned quiet. The pigs turned lethargic in their pens. The stench of the barn seemed to…shift. The space became warmer and the stench turned pleasant. Like something roasting.
There was spice.
Warm and toasty, like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
The whole barn was turning into gingersnaps, the pig shit into chocolate, the straw into spun sugar. The pigs stood immobile. The stark white fluorescent lights overhead flickered and became cozy flames. Icing oozed down the walls. The hard packed dirt floor turned soft and spongy like gingerbread.
Emma cried out in alarm.
Regina crossed her arms, perfectly at ease on the shifting floor. But Emma had to scramble. She reached for the wall and yanked her hand away as icing dripped onto her fingers.
This was freaking— “Stop it,” she demanded.
“This place is looking a little underdone,” Regina said and then flipping fire sprouted up around her feet, scorching the ground and sending up black gouts of smoke that smelled like burned bread.
“You’re the one that’ll roast Regina.”
The gun going off put an end to the brewing battle. A single bullet hole was smoking in the spot exactly between Regina and Cecily’s feet.
Emma looked very official in the moment. Like a cop on television, her badge glimmering on her waist and her gun held in both hands before her, her eyes steely as she glared over the end of the barrel.
“That’s enough,” she growled. “The candy land magic bullshit ends now or Cora gets two more cellmates.”
“You think you can stop either of us,” Cecily actually asked.
Emma’s magic. Raw and ineffable flowed out of her, buffeting them both. “I can try.”
It was the first time this Emma had tapped into her power in Storybrooke, and it exploded out almost in a visible wave that Emma seemed to be completely unaware of. She had no idea how powerful she was. Cecily blanched in horror, her thin frame crumpling in the face of the onslaught. Regina kept standing—the locket scorching between her breasts and the magic moving in and out and around her.
She called Emma’s name—sounding breathless even to herself.
Cecily’s baked goods horror show subsided and seconds later Emma turned off the faucet to her own power. She blinked—as if she’d surprised herself and looked sheepishly to Regina.
“So,” Regina panted, directing her question to Cecily, “Now will you talk?”
“I know,” she glanced at Emma again, “Even if she doesn’t. And that’s one of the reasons we need to know about Merryweather. We’ve already got Emma here walking around with a nuclear power plant inside of her. We don’t need someone else running around murdering fairies.”
“I didn’t do it.”
“Then why’d the gnome send us to you?”
“He wanted you dead.”
“Then he wouldn’t have sent me to you.”
Cecily shifted her shoulders slightly, accepting that fact. “You know my gift Regina.” She hobbled back over to the stalls and once more systematically poking and prodding every piglet within reach. “I see what others can’t. Do you know why?”
“I grew up in the Enchanted Forest. I’m aware of the Blind Witches dear. Didn’t Rumpel kill your great grandmother?”
“Great-great grandmother. She saw the future and he stole that gift from her.”
“The way he tells it she gave it to him.”
Emma had lowered her gun and was looking from one witch to the other in confusion. “I’m lost.”
“The Blind Witches see what others cannot,” Regina explained. “Some saw through disguises and others through lies. Some saw the future. Some saw the past. Cecily here sees—“
“I see intent.”
It had always made it difficult to circumvent her. You could never plan when dealing with Cecily—as Regina and Maleficent had both learned the hard way.
And as too many children had as well.
More than one child Regina had sent into Cecily’s house had died because of it. They’d sneak in and planning to kill her and claim the satchel but would be roasted and eaten instead. It had forced Regina to find younger and younger and more wholesome children for the task. And more impulsive too.
Emma squinted, laboring over that reveal. “So you don’t know what I look like, but if I intend to punch you…”
“She can see it. And what does this have to do with Merryweather? Did you see someone planning to murder her?”
“Worse.” She grasped a pig by its hind legs and drew it from its pen. The screech was ungodly. Emma turned green with nausea. “I saw a war.”
War. Big deal. Emma wanted to see war she could watch the news. It was a damn sight better than watching Cecily throw a piglet to the ground and bind its squirming legs.
Regina took Cecily’s words more seriously. She was still in that fugue state of hers when her mind was working faster than anyone else’s.
“Where,” Regina asked, “Who’s planning it?”
The blind witch smiled, enjoying the fine film of panic coating Regina’s words. “I might tell you. For a price.” She tugged a knot into place on the pig’s back legs and picked it up again. It squealed and writhed in her surprisingly stable hand.
“You can tell us and not go to jail,” Emma groused.
“And my crime? This isn’t the Enchanted Forest Sheriff. You can’t just lock us away because you don’t like our power.”
“How about for eating kids? That a good enough reason.”
She pulled the pig to the far end of the barn and into a smaller room with white tile walls and floors. “Then I suppose you’ll take Regina too.” Emma and Regina followed her. “How many did she murder—“
“Name the price,” Regina interrupted. She was still in her pensive place. That mayor at town meetings, or the witch intrigued by some new magic.
She stood in the door between that white room and the barn where Emma stood. Emma stepped closer to Regina, lowering her voice, “I thought we weren’t making deals.”
“You’re not making deals because you can’t tell the difference between an ogre and a giant.” Regina didn’t take her eyes off the witch, “I know what I’m getting into. Name your price Cecily.”
Cecily selected a knife from a magnet on the wall. “I want to leave.”
“Emma broke the curse, I have no control over what’s left.”
“No, but Rumpelstiltskin is already plotting his own way out, he has for generations. Learn how he plans to do it and share.”
No talk about how maybe letting a serial killer lose on the non-magic population of the world was a bad idea. Or plan to actually get help from Gold. Cecily asked and Regina promptly answered.
She placed the squirming pig on a slab in the middle of the room, and in one swift, familiar motion, slid her knife through the piglet’s neck. It twitched and blood, brighter than any Emma had seen, spilled across the slab. S
Regina took a step into the room. “You’ll have your way out. Now who did you see?”
Cecily hung the now limp carcass on a hook. Blood dripped on the tile and started to turn tacky on the knife, forgotten on the slab. It covered the witch’s hands and she seemed to marvel at the sensation.
“I saw the war itself. Bleeding into this land from all the others. Trickling over on the backs of your victims. Magic,” she held up a hand and fire flared in it, burning away the pig’s blood, “and its creators,” in her other hand the blood formed a globe of liquid that hovered just above her palm, “want to war over this world—the last bastion of its kind.”
“She intended to stop it.”
Emma was coming out of a dream…or a nightmare. She staggered back into the natural light dimmed by the surrounding forest and gaped at it all. She could smell tree sap and freshly turned earth and hear birds over the muffled squeals of the pigs the Blind Witch was butchering. It was the real world. One that made sense.
The barn was something else. Something as bad as the Enchanted Forest. Disjointed and colored all wrong.
Regina followed her out. Her hand brushed Emma’s shoulder, “Are you okay?”
She shrugged her off. “Fine.” She turned to face Regina, and she kept her eyes only on her, letting the barn itself dissolved into the background, “Except for the part where this had nothing to do with the murder.”
Regina raised an eyebrow, “You don’t think motive is important?”
“Of course it is. But that,” she pointed at the bar, “that’s—war!? We’re in the middle of Maine where our son is learning to ride horses and we’re all stuck going to a clam bake tomorrow. War isn’t an option.”
“It’s rarely a choice for the ones not waging it.”
“Right. Exactly. You said Storybrooke is cut off from the other lands. That you’re the only one who can travel back and forth.”
“So how’s this war supposed to work Regina? Are you going to war?”
“Then what’s going on?”
She shook her head, “I don’t know. All I’ve heard are—“
“Rumors. When we travelled there were rumors, and my mother warned me—“
“The other Cora.”
Emma had to walk away. She took long strides back around the cabin towards the horses and away from Regina talking about another Cora.
“No. No, enough. I’m not—we made it back from the Enchanted Forest—alive! And that’s enough okay? I don’t need wars and factions and whole other timelines!”
Emma shouting struck Regina dumb.
The silence of the forest pervaded their conversation and even the squeals of pigs and chirps of birds seemed to disappear.
It was just Emma and Regina. Magic and all the insanity of it and normalcy. Facing off. Until…
Regina looked…pained. “Denying it won’t make any of it go away.”
“It’s working for Mary Margaret and David.” It was a cheap comment and Emma knew it. Her eyes were wet—with frustration for sure—and she wiped at them.
Regina tried to console her with a weak smile, but it came off like a frown. “Merryweather was murdered because she knew about a war I’ve only heard whispers of. Whether it can come to Storybrooke or not is irrelevant.” It was an olive branch. Regina partitioning all the crazy into little easier to swallow bites. “Whoever murdered her believed. That was enough.”
“Her sisters didn’t know anything. I asked the Mother Superior and—“
Regina stepped close again. Her voice more gentle than it had any right to be. Like she wasn’t talking to Emma, but someone she actually cared about. “She may be part of this.”
Which meant only one, really, really bad conclusion. “We’re not just dealing with murder. It’s conspiracy.”
“Glad you figured that out.” David the former gnome and current city employed groundskeeper, stood between them and the horses, his short arms crossed over his large belly and his bearded chin jutting out in challenge.
Emma asked the obvious question, “Where the hell did you come from?”
He sniffed, “I burrowed.”
The shift from empathetic Regina to wicked queen was so fast Emma got emotional whiplash. She stepped in between Emma and David and grinned savagely. “Come for another go troll?”
“I’m a gnome.”
“Not in this land.”
His cheeks turned as red as his hat. “I came for revenge.”
“And I said no revenge,” Emma shouted over Regina’s shoulder.
The gnome and Regina both made her feel five and actually rolled their eyes, in unison.
“So what? You dig your way out here,” Regina pantomimed a dog digging a hole, “and just demand you vengeance?”
“My original plan was to turn you into a tree. That blind bitch in there hates you as much as I do. She wouldn’t tell a soul and in this forest,” he surveyed the surrounding trees, “it’d be years before they found you.”
“Quaint little plan for murder. How were you going to do that? The sheriff’s standing right here.”
“She wasn’t supposed to be.” His lower lip stuck out in a pout. “You couldn’t have stayed at your desk eating donuts?”
He shrugged, “So they’ll find her body on the edge of town in a few days and you’ll have disappeared. That story will write itself.”
He was a confident little fucker.
Regina laughed, “Of course. You will murder the Savior.”
“Thanks,” Emma muttered.
Regina crossed her arms defiantly, “But that still leaves me. How do you expect to do it? Your magic can’t even affect the pansies in this world.”
He held up an acorn, “With this.”
Regina’s amused and regal smirk quickly turned into a frown. A kind of worried frown that made Emma’s fingers twitch. Was she allowed to pull a gun on a former gnome wielding an acorn? He grinned devilishly.
“I folded quite a bit of magic into this. Even borrowed some from old friends.”
“For that to work you’d need power—“
“From dozens of sorcerers, wizards and magic creatures.” He held it up to the sunlight and inspected it proudly. “I’ve only been working on it for the last twelve hours, but enough people were clamoring to help put you down that it should be potent enough.”
Emma wanted to ask for what, because it had to be pretty bad if Regina was eying a tiny nut nervously and her two traitorous horses were giving the stand off a wide berth.
But the bastard little gnome threw the acorn and Regina raised her hands to—magic it or something—and Emma was an idiot. She reached out and caught the little fucker. Snatching the nut out of midair with reflexes honed by dodging old drunks’ punches.
The acorn chucker and Regina both stared at her with equal measures of surprise—only rooted in very different emotions. David seemed delighted that she’d caught it, and confused, and maybe scared.
Regina just seemed horrified.
“What did you do!”
Emma wasn’t sure what she’d done. Evil acorns had been thrown and she’d caught them. She looked down at her hand, it was still balled into a fist and as much as she wanted to drop the acorn her fingers wouldn’t move.
The gnome tried to walk away and Regina, without taking her eyes off Emma, lashed out. Vines and branches screamed out of the trees and wrapped around him, again and again until he was in a cocoon of greenery. It bobbed overhead, and the two horses both looked up at it curiously.
Regina kept staring. She yanked her doeskin glove off her hand with her teeth and grabbed Emma’s fist. The bandages she still had on her hand tickled Emma’s knuckle as Regina’s fingers tried to pry Emma’s fist open.
The cut from Gold’s knife had been deep, and her fingers were still clumsy. When David was properly bound she yanked her other glove off and tried to use both her hands.
“Are you insane?”
Emma tried a weak explanation, “It was an acorn?”
“From David the Gnome! Master of Forests! Builder of Trees! He turned his wife into a tree.”
Emma thought she ran up a mountain and turned herself into a tree as a metaphor for death or something. “To be fair, David the Gnome is a lot friendlier on TV.”
“He actually outlined his plan for murder while we stood here.”
“He’s one of the town drunks and spent yesterday floating around town like a balloon. Excuse me for not taking his threats seriously.”
Regina grabbed Emma by the wrist and stuck her balled up fist in her face. “And now? Serious enough for you?”
Why yes. Yes it was.
“Why does my skin look like bark?”
“Because you caught an acorn and are turning into a tree.”
One of the horses whinnied. It sounded like a laugh. Emma scowled.
Regina snapped her fingers, “Focus Emma.”
“I am!” She looked down and watched the bark spread. Little twigs with little leaves sprouted from her knuckles. More of her turned rigid. “There’s an easy fix for this right?”
“If he’d tried to do it with just his regular magic yes. But the whole point of the acorn is—“
“It’s a curse.”
“Isn’t that your expertise?”
She tried to sound a lot more hopeful than she was feeling. She was losing sensation in all her extremities. The spreading bark, maybe owing to some weird gnome sense of propriety, spread over her clothes rather than under them.
So she was gonna be a tree, but she wouldn’t be naked.
Regina prodded the bark with her fingers. “I don’t know. I—I’m used to sleeping curses and ones that ruin the lives of my enemies.”
“Being a tree qualifies as life ruined Regina.”
“I know,” she snapped, “but technically not in the same way.”
“Well, yea for technicalities. Have fun taking Henry to visit his mom the mighty oak.”
“I think you’re,” she winced, “an apple tree.”
“If I die I want my remains turned into a bat and the gnome beat to death with it.”
“Not a problem,” Regina promised grimly.
“Okay,” Emma tried to stretch and make herself taller, hoping it would give her more time. “Let’s look at options. If I become a tree you know where I am and can research and fix it possibly.”
Regina weighed that, “Maybe,” she ran a hand through her hair, mussing it up, “but maybe not. Gnome magic is about becoming one with the land. It tends to be permanent.”
“Tends. Not always? So you get with Gold or the Mother Superior or even that creepy bastard Whale and you guys can—“
“Quiet.” Regina held up her hand for silence and Emma would have reeled back but she couldn’t move much more than her neck anymore.
Regina chewed her lip. She was breathing loudly through her nose and glaring intently—really raking her eyes over the tree that used to be the rest of Emma.
God. She was gonna end up as wood chips in the smoker at Granny’s wasn’t she?
Regina suddenly set her mouth into a firm line and narrowed her eyes before inhaling through here nose, “I have an idea.”
“You have an idea?”
“It might not work. You’re not—“ she winced again, “it isn’t ideal, but I can try.”
The bark had spread to her neck. “Okay. What are you trying?”
Regina reached out—a hand on either side of Emma’s face.
Her eyes flew from one hand to the other and back to Regina’s face. “Regina?”
“Shut up.” She was staring at Emma. Really staring. Like she was trying to convince herself of something. She took another deep breath, this time through her mouth. Her tongue darted out and wet her lips. Her hands trembled.
“Regina—now’s the time…”
Then her finger tips brushed lightly against Emma’s skin before moving into her hair. Her palms pressed against Emma’s jaws and her thumbs grazed her cheeks. She stepped close enough that her knee must of have brushed against the trunk of the tree that used to be Emma’s thigh.
She whispered, “What are you doing?”
“Hopefully saving your life,” Regina murmured. Her breath briefly warmed Emma’s lips. Then she pressed her own to them.
It was the third kiss.
Not as hungry as the first.
Not as kind as the second.
This kiss was gentle and safe and scared and unfamiliar warmth blossomed inside of Emma, spreading from where their lips met through her veins to her center and out to her fingers and toes. A timid tongue—how could Regina ever even be timid—caressed her lower lip and the warmth kept spreading. Emma’s eyes drifted closed, because it just seemed natural and iridescent light shined behind them. Her own lips parted.
Someone sighed softly into an open mouth.
And the acorn fell from Emma’s hand, but she didn’t notice, because her hand was on Regina’s hip and it felt
It felt true.