Contrary to popular belief (okay maybe just Regina that one time at Granny’s Diner) Emma was not a runner. Yes, she could run , but when it came to the big stuff Emma was usually the one who pulled up her big girl pants and faced things like a Savior/best damn bail bonds person in New England.
That curse August told her she was born to break being the one major outlier.
She didn’t believe in running from the bad stuff. Because running meant that you could actually get away and Emma had learned long ago that nothing was inescapable. Not warrants, exes or even stupid fairy-ordained destinies. Sooner or later, no matter how long your put if off, whatever was coming for you would find you.
Which was why she really hated Gold’s son. This guy spent three hundred years running from his dad and now they were in the same damned borough in New York City and he was being chased by one of the best damned bail bonds persons of New England and he was still choosing to run rather than face the music.
She was so annoyed she put on a burst of speed, leaping spryly over the hood of a taxi and impressing herself with her agility.
But did Nailfire, or whatever the hell his name was, stop to stare in awe at her agility? No. Instead he shoved a guy, kicked over a garbage can and kept running.
And Emma kept chasing. She wasn’t even winded and was almost tempted to call out a taunt. Maybe something about how she’d chased a fairy murderer who turned cars into dogs earlier and his non-magic ass couldn’t compare.
After leaping over a gate like he did parkour in his off hours the guy hooked a left down an alleyway. Emma landed only a few feet behind him and gave herself one long moment to assess her surroundings. The kind of moments a hunter of idiots runners was good at taking. She saw what he’d been too busy running to see. He’d trapped himself and would be forced to take a corner which meant if she went straight—
She charged down the alleyway—magic-like adrenalin coursing through her. She saw his shadow before she saw him. Smirking on her prowess she ducked her head and led with her shoulder. Then she slammed into him so hard they both went careening into the cobblestone—the pavement bumping painfully against her knees.
She twisted herself around and used the deep gap between the stones like handholds propelling herself forward towards her target.
And then she froze. Like magic. One second in motion and the next inert, her mouth hanging open and only the sound of her breathing—his breathing—in her ears.
Then other sounds returned. The street and the people and finally her own voice.
And as his shock wore off—just a little faster than her own—it was replaced by a smile.
The god damned asshole was happy to see her.
Then she started talking. She started accusing. Everything that was running around in her head just fell out of her mouth without rhyme or reason.
Because it was Neal. The bastard who left her with enough stolen watches to put her in jail for a year. The guy who sent her keys to a stolen car but couldn’t be bothered to attach a god damned note. The guy who told her again and again that he loved her and that she had a family and then abandoned her.
The son of a bitch had fucked her up royally.
Just the night before she’d sat on Regina’s couch and called him cancer.
And he was smiling because he was happy to see her.
“You played me.”
He looked confused and she saw Henry and the way he’d tilt his head sometimes and pretend he didn’t know what she was talking about. Then she saw Gold mirroring the same expression and revulsion trickled down her spine.
And then everything else rambled out of her as she realized it wasn’t just Gold or just Neal. It was the both of them. Working in some sick concert to ruin her whole life.
“Who’s Gold,” he asked. Like he didn’t know. Like they were still two normal little orphans from bumfuck nowhere figuring out their lives by pointing at a place on a map and just driving and— “Your father. Rumpelstiltskin.”
The name didn’t sound so ridiculous for once. Not when he blanched—the color leeching out of his cheeks.
Emma had a super power. One honed on Neal’s lies and it worked then—cutting straight through his denials and put upon confusion.
Of course he knew who she was. Everyone had known. All of them. Him and his father and her parents and stupid nun fairies and more. Orchestrating her whole life.
That’s what they kept calling it. And Mary Margaret liked to act like it was romantic—like David throwing her into a hole in a tree or Neal leaving her in a parking lot was exquisitely painful Love Story bullshit.
“You brought him here,” Neal asked.
Acting like he was the one being ambushed in this situation.
She shouted back. Shutting him down and trying not to mentally collapse in his presence. And there was something about seeing her so scared and angry that just sort of…melted him. The livid anger disappeared and the charm came on strong. Slicing through more than ten years like they were nothing and merging with his own nerves because of his dad.
“Not here,” he said, when she demanded an answer. He nodded down the street to a bar and urged her to go for a drink.
No. It wasn’t him urging or requesting. He turned and walked away, expecting her to follow and the same condescension his father exuded shaping the strong lines of his back.
How much of an idiot was she that she hadn’t seen it earlier? They were practically twins with their smug stupid know it all faces. If she kneecapped his ass he’d probably even limp like his dad.
He rounded the corner and she hopped up in down in frustration before going after him. A whole ten years of angry words were boiling up inside of her and she couldn’t wait to vomit them all over his dumb pouty face.
They got stares.
Walking down the street people stared.
And Regina supposed it was an unusual sight. Three deputies, a formerly evil mayor and a pirate walking shoulder to shoulder. No one arguing and no one in chains.
They were a team.
A team and a Charming.
Only they weren’t off to vanquish a foe. But to manipulate one.
A task Charming had seemed all too okay with performing.
That hadn’t stopped him from bringing his huge sword. He was carrying it like a lumberjack again. Blade resting on his shoulder. It was some new affectation that came from merging a milquetoast veterinarian’s assistant with a bucolic prince.
People eyed the sword, just like they eyed the one strapped to Mulan’s back or Aurora’s magical bow.
“Am I the only one in this group willing to use modern weaponry,” Killian asked.
Against everyone’s better judgement they’d allowed him to take a shotgun and he was wearing a bandolier of shotgun shells over his coat.
“I don’t think a shotgun slug is going to take out a giant fire-breathing dragon,” David muttered.
“And your dinky little sword will?”
Charming spun around to face Killian. His sword slipped off his shoulder, the supernaturally sharp tip digging into the sidewalk. “It’s been good enough in the past.”
“That’s because your lot lobs them like grenades. I wouldn’t trust your aim with your new depth perception.”
“Says the guy who has to shoot his shotgun one handed.”
“You know,” Regina mused, “if you two just dropped your pants here in the street we could measure and get this over with.”
Aurora patted her purse, “I’ll gladly document it.”
“And then text me the photos at 3 in the morning because she thinks its funny—no one is dropping pants,” Mulan declared.
Mulan could be such a spoilsport. Though Regina suspected she was being a wet blanket because she was worried. She kept glancing at Aurora with concern, but Aurora, trying to show she was a “strong woman” was acting like she wasn’t terrified they were seeking out the woman who’d cursed her into a hellish dreamscape for more than thirty years.
She didn’t tremble, because Aurora never trembled but when her hand brushed against Mulan’s there was brief and purposeful contact. It was sweet, and Regina had the good manners not to show she’d seen the display of affection. It always made Mulan blush and Aurora get cranky.
Rumpel’s girl perked up when the five of them strode into “her” library. She snapped a book closed that she’d been reading and moved another pile off the counter to better stare at them.
“Can I help you?”
“No,” Regina said sharply.
Belle peered. “Any particular reason you’re all walking into the library…armed?”
“Any particular reason you’re pairing that skirt with those shoes,” Killian shot back.
Belle looked down at her outfit in alarm. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“Nothing,” Aurora insisted. “Killian’s just jealous because he hasn’t been clothes shopping in three hundred years.”
“Can we please focus,” David sighed. He glanced over at Regina, “Any reason you brought us to the library instead of the caves?”
“I wanted to watch Killian snipe at Rumpel’s girl.”
Killian and the girl both huffed.
Mulan sighed then. “She has a secret passage to the tunnels, David. It’s obvious.”
“No, it isn’t,” Killian opined.
Mulan waved at the wall covered in a mirrored glass mural of a tree. “Yes it is. Look at this wall. Only one pane of glass has fingerprints on it, it’s recessed up at the top and the dust on the floor is scattered away from it like there’s air coming out of the gap at the bottom. And it’s an apple tree—Regina can never pass up hiding things behind her favorite symbols.”
Regina was about to protest that assertion when Mulan stepped forward and pressed the exact button that had to be pressed to move the fake wall and reveal the elevator.
She pulled the lift door open and motioned for everyone to step in. “Now Belle you’re going to stay here and operate the lift while we go down and have a chat with my girlfriend’s mortal enemy.”
Mulan could be so maddeningly good.
Neal tried to be casual ordering their beers. He asked her what she’d been up to and Emma lied robotically and he told her what he’d been up to and she ignored him—preferring the thunder in her ears and the hundred questions running around and around in her brain.
Chief among them, “Did you know?”
His revulsion talking about the other world was enough of an answer for her. He probably would have shoved her out of the Bug while it was in motion if he’d known back then. Let her get run over by a couple of semis and never look back.
He told about how he learned. How August showed up and kicked Neal’s Lost Boy complex into high gear with talk of prophecies and duties. He made to make it sound nice. Or tragic. And he really fucking sold it with the puppy dog eyes. But all she could see was that wall she stared at day in and day out in her cell in Phoenix.
The conversation kept twisting with Neal having an answer for every question—like he’d spent the last ten some odd years preparing himself for this meeting in an empty sports bar.
But then she asked how. How could they have met if it wasn’t in his plan and it wasn’t in his father’s?
Neal got introspective. He’d always been thoughtful. Whether casing a joint or planning a con he could slip into a pensive mood that seemed to arrest his whole body. This time his eyes stayed focus on a point between Emma and the bar countertop as he worked out his answer. He looked up through hooded eyes and started talking about words that made Emma itch. Words like “fate” and “destiny.”
Words her parents used. Words Regina used.
Excuses. Her parents shoved her in a tree and blamed it on fate. Regina destroyed the lives of a whole land and called it destiny. Neal abandoned Emma because some higher power said she had to save the world and he couldn’t be involved.
It was such. Fucking. Bullshit.
Neal leaned in. Sounded optimistic. Sounded like another one of those fate zealots back in Storybrooke. “Maybe there was a reason,” his voice was soft and wistful. “Maybe something good came from us being together.”
Maybe fate was real and not just something Emma name checked when she interrogated fairies.
As much as she hated Neal—and she did hate him—he’d given her Henry. And Henry had given her hope and love and a family.
A family she’d been destined to save since she was in the womb.
And she was back to the bullshit and the people she loved most all tearing her apart because of fate.
“Nope,” she said shaking her head and lying through her teeth. “Nothing.” She thought about her tiny cell and how she’d press up against the cinderblock wall at night to try and stay cool. “I went to jail. I’m over it.”
He looked sorry and Emma had to stand up to put space between them. “And I’m over you,” she claimed. She was grateful Regina wasn’t there to point out how bald that lie was.
Only then Neal glanced down at her chest bashfully—hopefully? “Then why do you still wear it?”
Her hand flew to the locket beneath her shirt. Warm and inert and empty of the magic pull she’d grown too accustomed to.
“The keychain,” Neal clarified.
And she could feel it too, the cheap metal pressed into her palm. Smooth and worn down by ten years of constant wear. A reminder of him. Them. Everything that hurt.
She said something about it being a reminder to never trust others and watched the guilt play across his face. Enough guilt that she reiterated her original request. The one she’d made what felts like days before.
She asked him, the man who’d betrayed her and hurt her and nearly destroyed her, to do her a favor and come meet his father.
And he, the man who’d taught her what love felt like before ripping out her metaphorical heart, said no.
If she’d still had a heart inclined to romance his refusal would have crushed it.
She staggered outside and tried to school her insides. Her heart was racing. Her chest was heaving. Her mind was working through very particular memories like a broken record.
Away from him for the first time since seeing him the realization that it was God damned Neal was allowed to settle.
Neal being Gold’s son made perfect sense. The kind of sense enough to not even shock her. And it didn’t—not really. The shock was because of Henry. Because Neal—Gold—they weren’t family. They didn’t matter.
Henry mattered. And his father was sipping a beer in a sports bar just behind her and his grandfather was no doubt filling him with boiled hot dogs and warmed candied nuts. And she was gonna have to explain all that to him.
She was going to have to tell her son—who trusted and worshipped her—that she’d lied to him.
Staring off into space she blindly reached for her phone and hit the fourth number on speed dial. It went directly to voice mail, Regina’s recorded tone clipped and officious. She sighed and tried David next—this time getting a more laconic “leave a message.”
Mary Margaret answered on the second ring—her voice breathless like she’d run across the room to answer the phone.
“Emma? Is everything okay?”
It really wasn’t.
And Mary Margaret, heartless and far from herself, was hardly the best person to explain it to. Emma pressed her lips together and tried to ignore the sound the televisions in the bar behind her.
“Emma?” There was concern there. Genuine concern. The kind a woman without a heart shouldn’t be able to have. If Emma tried she could see her best friend Mary Margaret on the other end instead of the heart-free mom/friend she was now. “What’s wrong,” she asked again—the genuine concern actually palpable over the phone.
A shaky sigh rattled out of Emma’s chest, “I found Henry’s dad.”
Caves always smelled…salty.
All the moisture and minerals gave the air a distinct tang unique to being underground. When Regina was briefly blinded and kidnapped by a Nordic god turned minotaur she’d known where she was by the smell.
Emerging from the elevator into the caverns that ran beneath Storybrooke evoked unpleasant memories. Mulan took time out of her worrying for Aurora to give Regina a look.
“Better than the princess,” she shot back haughtily. The minotaur god was cosigned to the past and she really didn’t need her savior then, Mulan, to bring it up now.
Aurora fingers played nervously with her bow’s grip—her own nerves muting Regina and Mulan’s back and forth.
Charming gave his sword a lazy practice twirl. “So which way to the evil dragon fairy?”
She pursed her lips and suffered the stares of all four companions. Finally, “I’m not sure.”
Killian scoffed loudly behind her.
“When she was a dragon it wasn’t hard to find her. Who knows what she is now.”
“Besides dead,” Aurora said distantly.
“Besides mostly dead.” It was a critical distinction. Dead was of no use to them. Mostly dead was hopefully the state of evil fairy witches after Saviors skewered them with their father’s sword.
Aurora gripped her bow tighter. “She won’t be hiding. Where ever she is it’ll be in plain sight.”
David glanced at Mulan. “Then we’ll go first. You two stay back.”
“I’ll help,” Killian offered. He cocked his gun impressively. “Watch the rear and all that.”
Regina refrained from making a joke about Killian’s fondness for the rear and instead agreed to Charming’s very loose idea of a plan.
A raspy groan filtered through the cave and Mulan unsheathed her own sword and motioned towards its origins. “Sounds like we go this way.”
This was why Regina hated heroes. Regina was accustomed to running away from the scary noises. Big lug heroes like Mulan and Charming happily ran towards the noises with swords drawn and good intentions wielded like shields.
They all headed towards the sound. Charming and Mulan leading the way, Regina and Aurora ensconced in the middle and Killian gawking at the back.
Until they’d actually stepped into the cave Aurora had been herself. Assured Mistress of the Nightmare Realm and general know it all. Now trapped underground she was taut as a wire—almost rigid. Every new noise earned quick and sure focus and a sharp intake of breath as she prepared to reach for an arrow.
“Nervous,” Regina asked quietly. The others were just far enough away to keep the conversation quiet as long as their voices were low.
“You aren’t,” Aurora asked, never taking her eyes off the path ahead.
“Emma killed her with nothing but a pistol and a sword. I hardly consider her a threat.”
“She was a dragon then. Who know’s what she is now.”
“Besides mostly dead.”
Aurora took the briefest of moments to glance at Regina. “Besides mostly dead. Did the curse do that? Let her live?”
“If it worked correctly. Yes. No one could die during the curse.” Unless she crushed their heart in her hand. The scar itched beneath the bandage on her bad hand and she slid it into her pocket.
Aurora stepped over a stone that had fallen in their path and held her hand out to help Regina over. “Did you test the theory often?”
“You mean did I kill people just to see if they’d come back?”
Aurora exhaled—as if she’d been nervous about the answer.
“Not on purpose at least. There was no fun in just murdering people I’d cursed into eternal misery. Not when I could force them to—“
Her mouth snapped shut and Aurora raised an eyebrow.
“Force them to what?”
Storybrooke had often been a brutally lonely place. As isolating as any tower her mother had kept her in. And perhaps when she’d been given the opportunity to manipulate nearly every person she’d ever known she’d run with it. Acted out whole stories and sagas in the confines of a sleepy Maine town.
And maybe she really didn’t want her friends and David Nolan knowing that she once did a one woman show variation of Phantom of the Opera and forced the entire town to attend and praise it.
Some things were better left to foggy and distant memories.
Everyone else had stopped and looked back at her, having gleaned enough of the conversation to be curious about her answer.
She motioned to a spot of dull gray light ahead. “When she was a dragon she often slept in the cave ahead. She could be there now.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Aurora said imperiously.
Regina brushed past her and ahead Mulan and David resumed the trek. “Yes,” she said, “I am.”
“You’re changing the subject!”
Gold was angry. He hadn’t blown up yet, but he was getting close.
Emma didn’t like it when people got angry. Especially the intimidating kind of angry Gold was.
“Henry, go in the bathroom,” she said, not taking her eyes off Gold.
Henry tried to protest but she took a break from her stare down with Gold to shoot him a solid Mom glare. He sulked out, leaving her alone with Neal’s father.
A fact she was now determined to keep from everyone involved. That was what she’d figured out in her conversation with Mary Margaret. The former friend—maybe trying to prove something because of her lack of a heart—had insisted she tell everyone the truth. Only Emma saw what the truth got Mary Margaret. And Regina. And everyone else. Truth never helped. Truth meant getting dragged up to Maine to fight evil queens and dragons. The truth was standing on a roof looking at two sets of stars and being kissed by confusion.
So she’d lied when she got back to Neal’s apartment. Her plan was to get them out of there, and out of New York, as fast as she could.
But Gold had had his own plan and stolen right into Neal’s apartment with that same entitlement that had guided Neal to that bar earlier. Father. Son.
And then Henry had snooped through the apartment unfazed.
Grandfather. Father. Son.
And now he was confused and sulking in the bathroom and she was standing opposite his unknowing grandfather trying to figure a way to get them out of there without a fight or a truth.
Gold stalked closer, his cane reminding Emma more of a weapon than physical support.
She could handle a weapon. She could handle a fight. It’d be easier than sitting the kid down and telling him his dad wasn’t a dead fireman but a living sad sack who ran away from destiny because his dad was the Dark One.
Gold started shouting like he wanted to fight too. Started threatening. The kind of threats that wouldn’t allow Emma to back down. She was too old and come too far to be treated like a…like a child—an orphan—the kind of kid people could get away with beating. She hated when people—Gold—tried to treat her that way.
She took a step towards him ready to snatch his cane away and beat him with it, but he was just as fast and seemed, in an instance, to loom. Somehow being terrifying even without magic. He smashed a bookshelf to the ground and Emma tensed up—ready to block the cane’s blow with her forearm if needed.
And then. Then Neal was there, forcing his father back and unraveling Gold’s anger with a word.
Gold’s anger and Emma’s world. Because minutes later Henry was back in the room too and all of Emma’s plans. All her hopes. All her needs. Were unravelling too.
“Were you really her friend?”
Mulan and David were carefully picking their way down into the pit below while Regina, Aurora and Killian hid behind a stone and watched for Maleficent above. It was a boring job and apparently led to Aurora asking more questions.
“Now,” Regina asked, glancing at Aurora. “You want to ask this now?”
She shrugged, “Not like we’re doing much else.”
“Just looking out for a murderous fairy,” Killian mumbled.
“Were you her friend,” she asked again.
Regina turned her focus back to the pit. A thick fog hid the floor of it and made her nervous.
“Yes.” Could Maleficent be the fog? “Yes, once upon a time I was an evil queen and my best friend was a malicious fairy.”
“And you knew about me?”
“As your mother knew about me,” she murmured.
Aurora stopped watching her girlfriend descend into a potentially haunted pit to turn and face Regina fully. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Your mother was a fairy and knew all about my mother and was only too happy to join the other fairies and refuse to help me.”
“Fairies are obligated to help everyone in need.” Like tiny angels.
“I had Cora Mills for a mother and Rumpelstiltskin orchestrating every event in my life. How much more trouble could I have been in?”
“Maybe you didn’t ask. You have to ask Regina. Wish upon a star?”
Regina had wished every day. Until her mother caught her and told her only fools prayed to fairies for help.
“You also have to believe,” Killian said. “Don’t forget that.”
“And clap and everything else. I’m well aware! Point is we have all turned a blind eye to suffering when it suited us. Even the fairies. And besides, that was long before I knew you, Aurora.”
She rolled her eyes. “That makes it better?”
Her mouth dropped open. Then snapped shut.
Regina clarified—feeling it was very important to make Aurora understand. “I know you now and while it pains me to say it, I like you. Circumstances now…it doesn’t matter how close Maleficent and I once were—I wouldn’t—I won’t—let her hurt you.”
Below Mulan and David stepped foot into the pit where a dragon had once resided. The fog immediately took form, gathering into a gaunt female shape.
Aurora ducked back behind the stone and behind them both Killian crept forward. The princess didn’t panic often—having once said panic wasn’t very regal. It was so very odd to see her panic. Watch her eyes widen with worry and…fear.
“You regularly descend into a nightmare realm of fire and darkness. Why on earth are you afraid of a mostly dead fairy?”
Aurora gulped and watched the fog solidify into a rasping monstrosity that was recognizable as Maleficent only because of the horns curling up from the moldering head. Mulan and David bravely approached and seemed to speak to the thing.
That was the plan. They get the information needed and the others wait and intervene if necessary.
“I like to think I know people.” Aurora didn’t take her eyes off Maleficent. “But she fooled me. She took advantage.”
“You’re wiser now.”
She winced, “Perhaps. But it stings always doesn’t it? That first betrayal?”
Sometimes it didn’t sting quite as much. It hadn’t stung at all when it had drifted out of her mind while standing on a rooftop the night before. It had been the first time in decades.
“It will one day,” she said—surprising even herself. “I think, at some point…at some point it stops being betrayals—being our past—that hurts us most.”
It starts being a son that can barely tolerate you and True Love’s Kiss shared with a ghost of the woman you love.
“Sadly, for some of us the past will always hurts most,” Killian said. “We can’t all just forget it because of a child or a new lover, Regina.”
Aurora looked up at him, plaintive and empathetic.
“Which is why I’m sorry. To both of you.” And Killian looked tragically regretful.
“Because it isn’t always the first betrayal that stings.”
The butt of his gun struck Regina’s temple viciously. Stars exploded across her vision and blood roared in her ears. Aurora shouted and rose but was forced back with a swift kick to the chest that sent her tumbling over the edge into the pit. Below the fog swirled around Aurora, consumed her. Mulan and David shouted and Maleficent hissed.
Hook snatched Regina up by her collar. She grabbed at the arm that held her aloft. She reached for him and her fingers grazed the bandolier of shot gun shells.
“Why,” she croaked.
“Because you’ve moved on.” Killian’s voice cracked. “And I’ve tried Regina. I keep trying to move on, but I can’t.”
“This…this is about Gold?”
“He killed the only person I ever truly loved, and I think it’s time I got my revenge.”
“It won’t help.”
He pulled her close, her the tips of her dangling feet brushing the cave floor. “I think it has to.”
Then he heaved and threw her away. The last sight before the fog consumed her was of Killian’s face. Somber. Fallen. Familiar.
She knew the bitter anger that consumed him and if it weren’t for this betrayal she might have even understood.