It was Friday night. Emma and Mary Margaret were sitting on the sofa, watching a Project Runway marathon, eating Chinese takeout and working their way through a box of Two-Buck Chuck. Emma had seen enough crappy sitcoms and bloated romcoms in her time to know how tonight was supposed to go: in her role as the Sassy Best Friend, she should drag a lovelorn Mary Margaret out on the town, get her drunk on overpriced cocktails, and find her someone cute and smart and absolutely not David Nolan. As plans went, it was simple; three steps, not much to mess up even for someone with as little experience of this kind of stuff as Emma. But in Storybrooke there was only one place that offered anything close to nightlife, and it would be full of the people who'd hissed tramp at Mary Margaret in the street, who'd called up the school and yelled at the principal about employing a known home-wrecker. Emma didn't imagine they'd be any nicer to her now, not with all the rumors going around about how Mary Margaret had apparently started burying deer hearts in wooden boxes out in the middle of the woods.
The fun of small town life.
Mary Margaret had refused any thoughts of leaving the apartment that weekend, and Emma couldn't say she blamed her. She was bored as hell, because watching a bunch of annoying people yell at one another while making ugly and impractical clothing wasn't her idea of a good time, but if she couldn't be the Sassy Best Friend, Emma figured she could at least be the best friend who was sticking around.
Which was why, when the doorbell rang a little after nine, Emma got up to answer it, leaving Mary Margaret curled up under a comforter. If it was another prudish busybody come to yell at her, or even a repeat of the flaming bag of dog-crap incident, better that Emma deal with it right now. She opened the door, drawing in a breath to help her face whatever was out there—but let it out in a rush when she saw, not Mrs. Hawthorne or a mound of rotten fruit, but a young woman wearing a pair of hospital scrubs. Her hair hung lank and unbrushed around her face, and her bare feet were scraped and battered, clad only in the town's brown-grey mud.
Emma stared at the woman; the woman stared back at her. "Can I help you?" Emma asked slowly. She usually had reason to wish for more job experience at least once a day—knowing how to track down people who'd skipped out on child support payments got you pretty far being a sheriff, but there was so much more that she was having to learn as fast as she could. Cats stuck up trees, long lost sons trapped at the bottom of old mine shafts, drunken fights outside of bars—and now, it seemed, barefoot women showing up on her doorstep at night.
The woman didn't answer her, just stared at Emma's face closely, the way you might look for traces of a childhood friend in a grown-up's face. At her sides, her hands were curled into fists.
"Ma'am, can I help you?" Emma tried again. She glanced over her shoulder to see that Mary Margaret had stood and was peering over at them, her comforter still wrapped around her shoulders. "If you need police help, I—"
The woman's face lit up in a broad, bright smile. "Can I talk to you about true love?"
"Mary Margaret!" Emma called out without looking behind her. There was no way she had training for this.
Mary Margaret peered around Emma's shoulder, expression tight as if she was bracing herself for yet another verbal blow. "Is everything okay?"
"Snow!" the woman said joyfully.
Yeah, definitely not enough training.
They met for the second time in the Forest, in a clearing where the light was cool and green, refracted through a thousand thousand leaves. They were not surrounded by rich brocade or glittering finery; the air was not thick with the smell of beeswax candles and rosewater perfume. Where their fathers had come together to discuss trade and politics, Snow White and Belle crossed paths in the middle of an undeclared war. Snow, sitting on a fallen tree trunk, was skinning the rabbit which was to be her dinner. She watched Belle walk across the glade. The sword which hung from Belle's waist might have been a threat, but the dark circles under her eyes and the tired, slow manner in which she moved told Snow otherwise—told her that there had been trials in Belle's life of late that matched her own.
"I cannot offer golden plates, or troubadours to play while we eat, Princess Belle," Snow said when Belle reached her, "but I would be glad to share my meal with you."
"Your highness' hospitality is most kind," Belle said. She didn't smile, but two dimples appeared in her cheeks, as if she appreciated the absurdity of their out-of-place formality as much as Snow did; as if she appreciated, more than Snow could know, an unexpected offer of friendship in the middle of the greenwood.
Mary Margaret made the coffee while Emma sat at the kitchen counter with the woman and tried to coax some information out of her. She got a name—Isabella—but nothing else. If Isabella had been in a hospital, as her clothes seemed to indicate, she wasn't saying where. She didn't seem to want to give a full name, or a phone number, or anything else that could help Emma figure out what was going on. For a wild moment, Emma thought about pulling her leather jacket and her steel-toed boots on, right over her pajamas, in the hope that they'd give her some extra authority.
Isabella wrapped pale hands around the coffee mug as soon as Mary Margaret set it in front of her, her grip tight as if she was trying to will its heat into her skin as quickly as possible. Mary Margaret sat down with them, but before she could say anything, Isabella spoke. She had a faint accent that Emma couldn't quite place. "You know why I'm here, right?"
"Well," Mary Margaret said carefully, "you said something about true love?"
Emma had just about made up her mind to call the hospital and see if one of the psychiatrists was available for a late-night consult when Isabella peered at Mary Margaret and said, "You don't remember me, do you? You have no idea who I am."
"I'm sorry," Mary Margaret said, wincing apologetically. "Do you have a child in my class? Or a younger sibling? I'm normally pretty good with faces, but—"
Isabella shook her head, frowning. The set of her jaw spoke to a not-so-hidden streak of stubbornness—one that Emma was maybe a little familiar with from looking at her own reflection in the mirror. Abruptly, she turned to look at Emma. "You, I don't remember. You look familiar but you weren't there before. What's your name?"
Emma blinked. Regina was this woman’s polar opposite when it came to meanness and malice, but when it came to getting bluntly to the point, Regina and Isabella seemed about equally matched. "Emma Swan. I moved here pretty recently—"
"When the clock started again," Isabella said, nodding as if she had just said something bland and commonplace, like 'the year is 2012' or 'people in Maine sure do like their lobster.' "I couldn't see it happen, but I felt it."
Emma wasn't at a loss for words very often, but she didn't know how to respond to this woman. It was like having conversational whiplash. Her confusion must have been plain on her face, because Isabella said, "I'm sorry, I'm being a little—well, it's just that they locked me up in that room for a very long time and only having her to talk to… Remembering what's real and what's not was so hard. It takes a lot of concentration. I keep… slipping."
Mary Margaret looked horrified. "You were being kept in a room? For how long?"
Emma's attention was caught by something else Isabella had said. "'Her'? Who was keeping you there?"
"The Queen, of course," Isabella said, entirely matter-of-fact. She took another sip of her coffee. "Regina. As for how long… twenty-eight years or so. Give or take a few Tuesdays."
"Excuse me?" Mary Margaret said. "I don't think I understand what—"
"It's okay," Isabella said, "of course you don't. If the spell is powerful enough that you can't remember your real name, Snow, how could you be expected to realize that time doesn't pass like it should here?"
"Oh god," Mary Margaret said and put her head in her hands, at the same time that Emma said, "Did Henry put you up to this?" If the kid had been recruiting mentally unstable women from a hospital and using them to support his fantasies, Emma was going to have words with him. And possibly put Dr Hopper on speed dial.
"Who?" Isabella said, then shook her head. "No, that's not important. First things first. Where's the book?"
"But you still believe that he'll help us? That he loves you?" Snow said, trying and failing to keep skepticism from creeping into her tone.
"I know he does," Belle said, adding another handful of sticks to their campfire. "Even the Queen cannot fake something like true love's kiss—nor can even Rumpelstiltskin escape it."
Snow watched as the flames licked at the smoking wood. She thought of James, and how his body fit against hers, feeling right in the way few other things did; thought of the hollow look on his face when she'd told him she didn't love him, could never love him. The fire grew stronger, but Snow felt colder. "Sometimes," she said, "true love isn't enough."
Belle's mouth pursed, considering; she wrapped her arms around her knees, hugged them to her. "No one thing ever is, not for a whole life. But there's more than one kind of love, you know."
"A mother's," Snow said, thinking of her own mother's face, now grown hazy and dim in her memory; thinking of her stepmother's measured walk and cool words.
"A friend's," Belle said, and they grinned at one another before deciding on who should take first watch while the other slept. When Snow lay down beside the fire, wrapped in the thick green cloth of her cloak, she realized how long it had been since she had had someone to watch her back—metaphorically or otherwise. The thought kept her awake for quite some time before exhaustion finally made her eyes droop closed.
There was no way of getting the book that evening—Henry would have been overjoyed at the thought of meeting someone else who believed the book was true, but while he would have shimmied down a drainpipe in his pajamas to meet them, Emma wasn't willing to risk Regina's wrath. Isabella talked about it anyway, describing in detail the stories that Emma had only ever skimmed through. From what she said, the stories were a lot gorier than anything Disney had ever put on the screen, the endings and the emphases not quite the same, and Emma listened—not knowing why, not knowing what she was sitting there listening to a woman recite fairytales when she should have been calling the hospital instead. Isabella was a good storyteller, but it was something more than that—listening to her words was like hearing, faintly, snatches of a half-remembered song. Like something Emma had once hummed to herself as a child.
"My head feels… strange," Mary Margaret said after a while. She put her hands up to her temples, massaged them like she was trying to push away a headache.
"It's okay," Isabella said, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder. She seemed far more present now, as if her whole self were coming into sharper focus. "It'll all be clear soon enough. I wasn't a fan of his plan, but he was right—there wasn't any other good way of pushing back against her. Only the words will help."
Emma felt weird, too—like the times when she was a kid and she'd spun in circles on the lawn of the foster home, faster and faster until she'd tumbled to a halt. She blinked down at the coffee mug in front of her. Mary Margaret tended to brew it strong, but she'd never known her to make it Irish. "You said… twenty-eight years?"
"Oh yes," Isabella said. She put her chin in her hands and said, smiling, "I remember the day you were born, little one." She didn't look any older than Emma or Mary Margaret.
It was usual for queens and princesses to be closely surrounded by a retinue when their time grew close; but few, Snow thought, had been so closely attended as she was, or by such an unusual collection of ladies-in-waiting. Belle sat near the window, surveying the dense forests below the castle, her borrowed magic cupped, blue-white and sparking, in her lap. Red was a sentinel at the door, her formidable nose sniffing for any hint of trouble, her bow and arrow by her side. Abigail sat with a whetstone and sharpened broadswords and rapiers until their blades were as keen as her focus. Snow concentrated on what paperwork she could coax from James in order to pass the time, or traded stories with the others; each day, her child seemed to kick stronger and more frequently inside her.
Other princesses, Snow knew, had ladies who helped them knit and embroider, who sang songs and read romances aloud to enliven the long days leading up to their confinement. Snow had friends who would fight for her, who had all lost much but were willing to lose more, and she knew which she preferred.
Emma didn't remember, because there was nothing for her to remember, but she knew—knew that Storybrooke was wrong in ways that went past the weird or the quirks of a small town; knew that the people around her were tied to her in ways that stretched back to before her birth. "Words?" she said. "It just took words to end it?"
"And the right person to speak them," Isabella—Belle—said. She rested her folded arms against the table, seemed to study the faces of Emma and her mother—her mother—closely. The erratic, unsteady person she'd been just a few minutes ago was now gone entirely. "And the right time to hear them."
Snow White held her back straight and steady in an assured manner that Emma had only seen in flashes with Mary Margaret. Queenly, Emma's mind supplied, like a character in a kid's book, and the thought made her choke back giddy laughter. "This is… we don't have the time to talk about things, I suppose?"
Belle shook her head. "No, the others will be starting to feel it soon enough. With each memory recovered, the Queen's spell weakens a little bit more."
Emma watched as a hair-thin fracture crept its way up the brick wall of the living room; from outside, audible even over the TV's low chatter, came the sound of a wolf howling. "She took away my family," Emma said slowly. Snow reached out and took her hand, and it was— "Oh god," Emma said, squeezing Snow's hand tight, "David's my dad?”
"And I'm a grandmother," Snow said dryly. "It's been an interesting night for everyone."
"What do we do now?" Emma said.
"Well," Belle said, looking down at her feet, still bare and mud-spattered. "First, I'd appreciate if you could lend me some boots and a pair of socks. I'm in the mood to kick something."
"Sure," Emma said, going to her room to get her spare pair of boots, as well as a pair of jeans and a sweater. No telling how long they'd be gone for, and those scrubs couldn't be warm out in the March air. She picked up her sidearm, too, coming back in time to hear Snow tell Belle, "If I'd known you were there, I would have got you out, I promise. All this time—"
"I know," Belle said calmly, taking the things that Emma held out to her. "But you didn't, and there's no point berating yourself for something you couldn't control. Besides, first things first." She shrugged out of the dirty scrubs, pulled on the clothes, and tugged her hair back from her face, before sitting down at the kitchen table to lace up her boots. When she stood up again, there was a grin on her face that was quite infectious.
"And now?" Emma said.
"I thought we'd go antiques shopping," Belle said. "I think I know someone who'd be happy to sell us some swords."
There was a rumbling noise from outside, and through the window Emma watched as the brick chimneystack on the building across the road cracked and crumbled. It was as if something living in the ground beneath them was waking up. "Sounds good to me," she said, palm itching to feel the heft of a sword hilt, and then the three of them walked out into a world that was shuddering its way into something new, leaving the door swinging open behind them.