The pistol at her side was already loaded and ready; she reached down, grabbed the hem of her jacket, and tucked it up into a pocket. Her fingers twitched at her hip as she eyed the dirty man in front of her. The man in front of her might try to run, she thought. He certainly had the look about him – he was a small man with dirt-smeared features and pinprick black eyes that continued to shoot furtive glances at the door.
"Tell me where your friends are."
"Ain't got no friends."
"Oh, my mistake." She took a step towards him and watched him flinch backwards as if the resulting noise had been from a slap and not a footfall. "But, see, here’s the thing: the people back in Boston – well, they think you've got friends. Real good friends. And you know where they’re headed."
"It's a mistake," he argued, his voice cracking midway through the sentence. His eyes shifted towards the door once more, and his lips twitched nervously.
She adjusted her wide-brimmed hat. "This can go one of two ways. You can stand there and tell me what I want to know, and nobody needs to get hurt. Or you can see which one of us is faster."
He transferred his gaze from the door to her face and then down to her holster. He was calculating, she thought, but his chances weren’t good. She was fairly renowned for how quick her draw was, and he couldn’t keep his hands steady enough to hit an unmoving target. "They went west."
"Just left you here, did they?"
"Where are they headed, exactly?"
"To the western-most settlements." He ducked his head, ashamed of his tattling. "And then beyond. As far as it takes to shake the law. Maybe north."
She strode to his side and gripped his shoulders with as much force as she could muster. A small, pathetic whimper escaped him, but the noise evoked no mercy in her. His head wobbled, but he provided no resistance as she pulled him towards the door and out to the sheriff.
One bandit out of four only garnered one fourth of the reward money, she mused grimly. She'd tracked them halfway across the known continent, only to get stymied by one idiot left behind. She planned on collecting the rest, and now she knew which direction to point her mount. As she pocketed the meager reward, she resolved to beat the remaining bandits soundly, simply because they made her life more difficult.
"She should be here," he whispered. The few ragged bushes around him provided no cover from the sun, and the only shade to be had was cast directly beneath his feet. "She can't let anyone die."
When he tripped over a rock in his path, he found that he was too weak to stand back up again. His arms quavered as he tried to drag himself along, but ultimately he let them flop to the ground. Eyes closing, he decided allowing himself a short nap wouldn't be that awful.
With her hat to keep the sun off her face, the ride was almost relaxing. Her long blonde hair was knotted loosely under the hat’s long brim – up off her neck to allow the slight breeze to cool her down. The day was too warm for her usual garb, so she made due with a loose fitting button-up with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. The shirt was once white, but the sun and dirt and lack of regular washing had sullied the garment’s purity. Suspender straps crossed over her back and latched loosely to her trousers. Her lucky red leather jacket was tossed over the horn of her saddle.
The clopping of her mount's hooves kept her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand – that and the sound of her supplies clacking together. Given her druthers, she would never prefer thinking about her life and the choices she had made. That required far too much introspection, which, she found, generally only led to not being happy with herself, which meant being a bit more unhappy than she wanted to be. Keeping her mind in the present was best. She had a job to do and money to earn.
As she scanned the horizon, her eyes focused suddenly on a lump on the ground a few hundred yards away. It was too far away for her to know what it was, so she nudged her horse forward and altered her course. When she was close enough, she patted her horse's neck, slipped down to the ground and nudged the lump with the tip of her boot. The lump groaned and shifted. Squatting down, she confirmed that the lump was indeed both alive and a child.
"Kid, what are you doing out here?"
"Help, please." He gasped, "Water."
She reached into her saddlebags and pulled out her canteen. He appeared too weak to help himself, so she unscrewed the lid and eased the liquid into his mouth. She tilted the container slowly so that not a single drop spilled to the dry ground.
She pushed the brim of her hat up with her index finger and cocked an eyebrow at him. "So you wanna to tell me what you're doing out here?"
"I was looking for someone." He wiped his hand tiredly against his mouth. Feeling a bit better, he blinked through the harsh light and tried to focus on Emma.
"Didn’t find him, did you?" Emma chuckled. "Doesn't seem very smart – wandering out into the wild with nothing. Where you from?"
She shook her head. "Can't say I've ever heard of any town with that name."
"It's a small town." His eyes narrowed as he finally took in her appearance. Hope began to pool in his chest. "What's your name?"
"Emma. Yours?" Her usual bristly attitude didn't apply to children. Children were too young to be malicious.
"Henry Mills. Emma, do you know who your parents are?"
He recognized that she was dodging his question and sighed. "It's several miles west of here."
"I'm taking you home, kid."
Maybe, he thought, she was the one for whom he was looking. If she entered the town line and stayed, she just had to be the one. With that in mind, he nodded and struggled to his feet. She put her foot in one stirrup and kicked her opposite leg over. Reaching down, she grabbed his arm and helped him up behind her. He quickly wrapped his tiny arms around her waist. Although she was mildly irritated at the intrusion, Emma said nothing.
"Emma, why were you out here?"
She glanced back at her charge, shrugged, and turned away once more. "Business."
As they rode, thoughts came together in his mind. Her finding him was no coincidence – it couldn't be. There were hundreds of miles of wide open spaces, and she had stumbled upon the tiny patch of land he occupied. Their meeting was fate or, better yet, destiny.
"I think you were meant to find me," he said, pressing his cheek to her back.
"Storybrooke is cursed," he confided.
She searched the area ahead for the town of which he spoke. The sooner they arrived, the sooner she could resume her search, and the less she would have to listen to his imaginations. He looked to be around ten years old – too old for such childish nonsense. Yet she was in no position to say anything. She wasn't his mother.
"How much farther?"
"Not far. You have to believe me. You have to break the curse."
Finally the roofs of buildings crested, and Emma heaved a sigh of relief. The boy slouched against her. She twisted briefly to look at his dejected face. "Kid, I gotta say – none of what you're saying makes a lick of sense."
"Why won't you believe me?"
"There's no such thing as curses." She leaned to the side and spat to display her disdain for the idea. "Otherwise, with all the enemies I've made, I doubt I'd be alive."
"But that's just it! If you are who I think you are, then it's because of the curse that you are. Magic is real."
This was nonsense. She fell silent, even as he begged her to believe him, and trotted down Storybrooke's main street. As they entered, she could feel dozens of eyes watching them, though only a few people were bold enough to openly stare from the street.
"Where do you live?"
"I'm not telling you until you listen to me."
She made eye contact with a pretty woman leaning on a railing outside of what could only be the local saloon. The woman winked at her, and she smirked back.
She called over, "Where's this kid belong?"
"He's the mayor's," the woman responded. "And that's the only free answer you'll get from me. But – if you come back later…"
"I'll keep that in mind." Emma nodded politely at the woman and logged the information away.
"Just ask for Ruby."
The woman disappeared back inside and all at once the staring stopped. The men tending their horses nearby resumed their work. Emma let her horse move further into town, judging how close she was to Henry's house by how agitated he became.
"Just stop for a moment and listen!"
She pulled her horse to a halt in front of the most regal looking house she had ever seen outside of the confines of city living. Though the land was dry and hostile, somehow this house had a leafy apple tree flourishing in its yard.
"Your parents are probably worried sick."
"My mom's not worried," he argued. "She's evil."
"How bad can she be, kid?"
She examined his face and noticed a small bruise near his temple. Perhaps she would stick around, just to do a little digging. There was probably nothing to the Henry's fantasies, but after her own childhood, Emma was unwilling to ignore a child's plea for help. Emma gave him a gentle push and eased him to the ground before sliding out of the saddle herself. She looped her reins over a fence post and grabbed Henry's arm just as he made a last ditch attempt at running away. She'd dealt with so many flighty individuals in her lifetime that this was simply second nature to her.
The front door to the house erupted open and two figures darted outside. The taller of the two was a rugged man who smiled at her. He hovered a foot or so behind the woman with him. This dark haired woman, who was dressed in immaculately pressed black trousers and a silken blouse, glared. For a moment nothing was said to Emma as the woman hugged Henry to her chest and admonished him for running away.
Emma cleared her throat. "I take it you're the boy's mother and father?"
"Who are you, and what were you doing with my son?" The woman stood and all at once Emma felt the full heat of the woman's anger. Though the woman was about her size, certainly no bigger, the woman had the ability to feel larger and imposing. Emma was envious of this, as it certainly would only have assisted her in the past.
"I found him about five miles from here, collapsed and dehydrated. I gave him water and brought him back."
"And still you refuse to tell us who you are."
"She's Emma," Henry supplied. "And she's telling the truth."
"Go inside," the woman commanded. "Graham, you may go. Thank you for your assistance."
The rugged man nodded curtly and walked away, leaving the two women to stare at each other. Emma had been evaluated before, dissected with piercing looks, but none quite as potent as the one she was currently receiving. She shifted her weight and placed her hands on her hips.
"Well, you've got it from here." Emma nodded. "Is there somewhere in this town to spend the night?"
The power of the woman's look diminished, though her dark eyes remained on Emma's face. "You're staying?"
"I was tracking bandits before this little detour. They're probably far from here now, so I might as well get a good night's rest on a real bed."
"I suppose telling you is the least I can do for the woman who rescued my son."
"Perhaps you'll also answer me one other question: Who are you?"
"Got a first name?"
"I don't know. Do you have a last?"
"Swan." Emma smirked.
"Regina," Emma repeated. The name was quite befitting the snide look that adorned the other woman's face. The look was haughty and arrogant, as if it were specifically designed to make Emma feel lower than a tick on a dog's belly. "Join me for a drink down at the saloon, Madam Mayor?"
Regina's nose crinkled at the distasteful thought. "No, but I will invite you inside for one if you insist."
Emma trailed after the regal woman, unsure as of yet what to make of Regina Mills, mayor of Storybrooke.
Henry latched onto her waist as soon as she stepped inside the house. She allowed the contact for a moment as she tried to gauge Regina's reaction. The downward curl of Regina's lips was the only display of displeasure that the other woman allowed on her face. Gently, Emma pushed the kid away from her and held Regina's gaze with her own.
"Henry, go to your room. Ms. Swan and I need to talk."
Henry glared at his mother but scurried down the hallway. Emma wondered what could prompt such hostile behavior between a mother and son. As soon as he was gone, Regina guided Emma to a sitting room and promptly poured the blonde a drink.
Emma accepted the tumbler. "I saw the tree out front. It's remarkable that it's still green."
"I've been caring for it since I was but a girl."
"Henry's an interesting kid."
"Oh?" Regina had her back to Emma, so Emma missed the pained look that crossed the brunette's face.
"I'm surprised you let a boy as grown as him believe in magic."
"He thinks the town is cursed." Emma sipped the liquid and was pleased with the burn that cascaded down her throat. "And that you're evil. Why would he think that, Madam Mayor?"
The accusation in Emma's voice rankled Regina, but she gave the blonde a terse smile. "He has always been prone to flights of fancy, Ms. Swan. I do my best as his mother to let him have what's left of his childhood."
The statement felt loaded to Emma. "And what of his father?"
Emma noted the slight tremor that ran through Regina's hand. It was but a momentary lapse in the woman's finely constructed façade, but it was enough to let Emma know she'd touched upon a sore subject.
"He is no longer with us."
"How old is he now? Henry, I mean."
"Ten." Regina poured her own glass of cider with hands that were once more steady and stood with her arms folded. "He has a few years left of being my little boy."
"I noticed he has a bruise."
"He's a clumsy boy."
"Does he get bruises often?"
Emma wasn't sure what to make of that. She had a few drops left in her glass, which meant she only had a few more minutes to get information without being rude. Under other circumstances, she wouldn't mind being impolite to get what she wanted, but something told her that Regina would not take kindly to such methods.
"It's unusual to see a female mayor."
"Perhaps." Regina eyed Emma's nearly empty glace. "You will find lodging at the saloon. Ask for Granny Lucas. I'm sure she can spare you a room for the night, even if you do not purchase… companionship."
"I was considering staying a little longer than a night." Until that point, Emma had not had such a plan, but there was something odd about this town. She didn't owe Henry anything, but she felt obligated to make sure he was fine. "I'm worried about Henry."
"Are you a cowboy or a knight, Ms. Swan?"
"Cow…person." Regina amended. "You've known him for a matter of hours. What do you care about a little boy like him?"
"So you'll leave in the morning." Regina made sure Emma had finished her drink before taking the tumbler back and pushing Emma towards the door. "Just head down the street. The saloon is hard to miss."
Emma tilted her head and nudged her hat, the only semblance of manners Emma was willing to show the mayor. She untied her horse and, with a meaningful look back at Regina, walked down the road. A small puff of dust billowed up behind her. A single leaf on the apple tree shriveled, snapped, and drifted away on a breeze.