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Paint It Black

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*~*~*~*~*
PAINT IT BLACK
*~*~*~*~*

Mary Margaret wakes cocooned around a warm body.

Her brain flashes, a thousand countless images in strobe against her brain. David! But the images continue, an unstoppable slide reel, and it is Snow’s jaw that tightens.

“Charming!”

She shakes him, scared all at once that the return has brought him back to the moment the curse first fell, bleeding and near death in her hands, but a flash second later she registers the rise and fall of his chest underneath her.

He blinks himself awake, to the sound of voices coming in all around the neglected, spider-webbed castle, confused and disoriented and angry. She can feel the surge of him upwards, the pull of his body out of her grasp as he pats himself down, then his strong, familiar arms gathering her to him.

Unfortunately, her brain is faster, a step ahead of the reunion, because her voice breaks, low and mournful.

“Emma.”

And she feels the sag of his defeat.

***

They gather in the main hall, arriving in small groups, in differing states of memory and realisation.

Snow catalogues them in her mind, Hansel and Gretel reunited with their father, saved by Emma. Grumpy, who was never so grumpy with her, watching with quiet, smouldering anger, surrounded by his six closest friends that has barely spoke to in years. Red gathering her cloak around her shoulders as she trails after Granny, the shock of scarlet in her hair obvious and as obnoxious as Ruby’s leftover makeup on her face. She lifts her right hand to twist the short locks of her own cut, missing the full glory of tresses and immediately ashamed of her own vanity in the face of everyone’s distress. Jimminy flies to the table with a resolute sadness.

Even as her heart breaks, her hand cradles an acheless, long empty belly. Her logic tells her it’s been twenty-eight years, everything else says less than a day.

Her husband stands beside her, they stand united, a beacon for the others to follow, and she cannot falter her people now.

“She was with Henry at the hospital.” Ella says at last, her chubby babe swaddled and clutched to her chest, an expression of sympathy on her face. Snow bites down the rising bitterness. “That’s the last anyone saw.”

“And Henry.” Snow breathes, suddenly resolute and cold. “Will be with Regina.”

 

“Prepare the horses.” And Charming is everything David never was, decisive and proactive and clear and hers. “We ride in the morrow.”

***

Henry twists, uncomfortable under the heavy pelts of his new bed as the very beginnings of sunlight flicker through the window.

He is not prepared for this world, for the knowledge and proof that he was correct, the all-encompassing guilt and horror. It is one thing to suspect your mother is an Evil Queen, bent on the destruction of the world and everyone in it, but the truth of it is unthinkable.

There is never any sleep for him here, every time he closes his eyes he sees Storybrooke and the people in it, denied everything they held dear. His own family, right in front of his nose, grandmother and grandfather, there but for the curse.

He does not see Emma.

His brain won’t allow him to think about her when he is alone, but her name is always in the back of his thoughts, an insidious little whisper that pulses with his rapid heart.

They woke up together, swirling and eddying in a thick confusion, on a stone cold floor. Before either of them had the chance to understand, they’d been interrupted by a low, chilling, all too familiar laugh. Henry had looked up to see his mother as he’d never known her, the penultimate Queen from his book, long black hair, black gown and blacker eyes.

She had obviously recovered quicker than they had.

And neither he nor Emma were prepared for the force of her power.

Henry is safe, for now, but he can still hear the crisp, clear call of ’guards!’ and the men that had trumped in after, the way they’d grabbed Emma and dragged her, kicking and screaming out of the room.

”You are my son.” The Queen, his mother, had bent almost double to put her face near his. “You best remember that.”

That had been two weeks ago. Henry isn’t even sure where Emma is. He knows vaguely, from conversations he is sure he was not supposed to overhear, that Snow White -his grandmother! Miss Mary Margaret Blanchard!- and her army are trying to pass some barrier that had been erected.

Henry is expected to dress, to appear at meals, to go to classes designed for him, both academic and now practical, fencing and horse riding, as set up for him in a strict regime. Above all else, he is supposed to play the grateful, dutiful son, as if they are still back in Storybrooke.

That is the last thing he can do. His classes remain unattended.

Every time he is summoned to his mother’s presence, cold and regal and always black, he yells at her, unafraid for himself, secure in the knowledge she would never hurt him, because she hasn’t yet. He rants against his imprisonment, the curse, the destruction of so many lives, and Emma, he demands to know.

And every time, his adopted mother ignores his outbursts and with a quiet, steady voice, demands he sit and eat his soup.

Many a bowl or plate end up on the floor, many nights he is sent straight back to his room.

A knock sounds on his door and he is barely able to slide his legs out from the pelts before it is thrust open. There is only one person who would dare barge in without waiting for an answer.

“Henry.” He can only just look at her face. “This has to stop. You are a prince now, this rebellion isn’t cute. It’s setting a bad example.”

As superficially patient as ever, he can hear the frustration and anger coiled behind her teeth as she tries to honey him to her will.

“Where’s Emma?”

The air shifts around him, electrified, and he looks up in alarm to see the tightening of her expression, the hard set of her lips, the shake of her limbs. In another world, it would signal a definite grounding. In this world, he is groundless, scared of her power and cruelty and confused at the two, blending memories of her.

His arm squeezes painfully as she grabs him, drags him upright still in his nightshirt.

“Fine.” She sneers, harsher than she has been to him yet. “You want to see your precious Emma? Let’s go.”

His feet stumble in the half light of morning as they stride through the castle, down several flights of stairs, further and further down, barely raising a glance from the guards posted regularly. His heart sinks as fast as their footfalls the deeper they go.

Any child knows what rooms lie beneath the castle.

He’s shoved through a heavy, wooden door and stretches his eyes out to accommodate the darkness, to make sense of what he is seeing. There’s little light this far down, all the way underground, and a flaming torch on the wall gives only a flickering sort of haze.

The walls and floor are unfinished, a hard packed earth, solid and dank. From floor to ceiling run vertical bars, thick and with the appearance of rust, viciously sharp pointed thorns adorn the metal work, waiting for someone to try to squeeze through. It is definitely a dungeon. It smells of earth and beasts. He can hear the unmistakable snorting breaths of animals nearby, close.

When his eyes have properly adjusted to the dark, he sees her, a figure crouched in the middle of the floor, a grey tattered tunic around her small form. Strange, he has never thought of her as small before.

“Emma!” A choked, guttural cry as he runs to the cage. “Emma, it’s me!”

His fingers clench around the bars as he watches her skittish movements, the way her head flicks up to scan him, her eyes two fine narrow points of suspicion, her hair hanging dank and limp down her skull. Her skin is a mottled map of dried, caked in dirt and something he refuses to acknowledge as blood.

“H…He…” Shaky and scared and disbelieving, her voice cracks and coughs before struggling to sound again. “Hen-reh?”

Then a sob cracks out of her throat and he can only watch as she scrambles in the dirt, struggles for a second, and then seems to drag herself across the floor in a crawl.

One eye, swollen and bruised and bloody, rolls up to look at him.

“You’re alive?”

“Of course.” He isn’t sure he can formulate any more than that. “Of course I am.”

A filthy, shaky hand reaches out through the bars, and he almost steps back, but doesn’t. He lets himself be touched, a slide against his shoulder, uncontrolled and unplanned as her fingers try to catch onto something real and tangible.

“Well, well, Miss Swan.”

The voice comes, thick and rich and obscene in the setting, strong and healthy and smug behind him.

The effect on Emma is immediate and instinctual. Henry can swear he feels his heart stop as Emma literally throws herself backwards, landing with a heavy oomph, and then scrambling fast and desperately to the far corner of the cell, plastering herself against the wall and breathing in short, sharp staccato beats.

A trapped animal, tortured and expecting more of the same.

“What did you do?” He spins towards the Evil Queen. “What did you do to her?”

A soft whine hums low to the ground and he realises that there are, in fact, dogs here.

The sneer on her face is terrible as she kneels down in front of him, brings herself eye to eye, and grabs his chin in the pincers of her fingers.

“Do you see, Henry?” She forces his face back towards the cell, to the cowering heap of his birth mother in the corner. “Do you see the price of your rebellion?”

He struggles to free himself, but she holds firm.

“Every time you don’t obey me, each lesson that you skip, each plate of meat you toss to the floor, someone pays.” Her mouth comes close to his ear. “And it obviously isn’t you.”

Tears spring hot and harsh, pooling and spilling out of the corners of his eyes.

“Let her go.” He begs. “Let her go and I’ll be good. I’ll do what you want, please.”

A lifetime of playing dutiful son rises behind his eyes, a thousand times worse as a dark prince than the future of a dutiful mayor’s son.

Her hand eases the tight grip on his chin, sliding to cup it instead. A mockery of parental concern.

“I knew you’d see reason eventually.” She pats his cheek and the softness of it shatters something inside him. “If you play nice, she can have everything. A chamber of her own, a wardrobe befitting a princess, freedom, she’ll share her meals with us. She’ll be taken care of.”

He doesn’t need to think.

“Yes. Please, yes. I’ll do anything.”

There’s a flicker of something in her eyes, cold and calculating, and he gets the feeling he gave too much too fast.

“I hope you mean that, Henry.” Then her free arm flies outward, pointing towards the cage. “Because there will be consequences for any transgression.”

A scream sounds from within, broken and bubbling, as Emma begins to beg in earnest. Henry looks to see her on her back, writhing in the dirt, her shoulders lifted off the ground as her face twists in pain.

“No! Stop! I’ll do it!” Desperate, frantic, Henry can’t even think. He says the only thing left to him. “Mom, please.”

Emma drops to the dirt, swallowing her sobs in rasping gasps, and the creature wearing his mother’s face stands up and twirls, striding out without waiting for him, assuming he will follow without question.

Henry takes one last look at the figure just beginning to draw herself back together, his hand lingers on the bar.

“I’ll be back, Emma. I promise.”

And then he walks out.

***

Regina sits in the high backed chair, spine straight and face passive, as she watches Henry approach the table.

He has done everything she’s asked for the last two days, faltering only once the previous night when he had gotten to the table and there had still been only the two of them. He has done everything, but it hasn’t made her happy.

There is a sullen, scared, distasteful form of obedience in him that galls her.

She knows without a doubt that he is no longer hers, if he ever was, that he will turn on her like everyone else.

“Good evening, Henry.”

He slants his eyes at her, betrayed and accusing.

“Good evening, mother.”

The words are parroted, meaningless as he folds himself into the chair designated to him at the table. Even as she watches, Regina sees him scan the plates full of food, taking stock one by one, and finally settling on the third place set across from him.

“Is she coming?” The first real spark of emotion nearly blinds her. “Like you promised?”

Regina’s fingers steeple in front of her, but she doesn’t need to respond, because the loud sound of a door opening crashes through the tension.

Emma stumbles in, released from the hands of the guards,

She is awkward as she’s never been before. Scrubbed and almost healed, hair pulled back, in a simple gown. It is green and plain and notable only for the way that it obviously does not belong on her frame, too short and ill fitting. A frame that is markedly weakened and frail.

Sitting at the head of the table, Regina’s fingers close over Henry’s wrist, seated at her right. He halts the launch from his chair and bristles at her touch.

“Good evening, Miss Swan.” She gestures to the setting across from Henry, just to her left. “Please take a seat.”

The same suspicion and distrust clouds her eyes that has clouded Henry’s and Regina straightens even further at the reminder of genetics. Her eyes watch every movement, the hesitant steps forward, the silent conversation between Henry and Emma, eyes throwing questions and comfort without words, the gentle easing of herself into the waiting chair.

Regina suppresses a smile at the flicker of pain that crosses Emma’s face as her body bends into a seated position.

“Let’s not stand on ceremony.” Voice thick and sweet, her hands unfold her napkin in crisp, precise movements that belie her words. “I’m sure you must be hungry.”

And for the first time, Emma’s eyes drag away from Henry, from her, to the table. Regina has ordered a feast tonight and the edges of her mouth curl up when she sees it. That pang of starvation, the gnaw of a stomach gone too long without nourishment, the desperation of a starving woman.

At worst, she will gorge herself stupid and be sick in front of Henry. But not Emma, Regina is fairly sure this is a ritual of her childhood, this hunger feast combination, the denial of all things and then a switch of environment, a new home before the threat rolls in again, one that has been drilled into her from an early age. She read the reports, back when they were relevant, the history of abuse and neglect.

No, she won’t do anything that crass, but there is only so much one can hold back and then Emma is reaching out, grabbing a roll of bread out of the basket and bringing it back into her chest, protective as she begins to nibble, frightened it will be snatched away from her immediately as she spares Regina a sideways glance of apprehension. The skittish movements of prey being hunted.

“Henry?” And that sounds more like the Emma of old. “How are you, really?”

The boy nods, a quick gesture of confirmation, eyes wide and wary. He’s a quick learner, he always has been, way too smart for his own good, and he has obviously caught onto the threads of something sinister.

There’s a landmine and he needs to look where he’s treading.

“I’m good.” He doesn’t even glance when Regina piles his plate full of food. “What about you?”

“She’s fine. Aren’t you, dear?”

Eyes wide, Emma nods. Her eyes scan the table again, teeth biting her lip, until she can hold back no longer and then takes a small piece of the roast. Nibbling again.

“And…” Tremulous and wary, Emma watches Regina, alert for any hint that she’s crossing the line. “Mary Margaret? The others…?”

“Your mo…” Henry chokes back his interruption with one quick, scathing glance.

“Mary Margaret is gone.” She takes a slow, deep swallow of wine as she watches the horror and grief begin to form. “But Snow White is just fine.”

Emma recovers quickly, closing her mouth with a snap. Having tested the boundaries of her shrunken stomach, of Regina’s tolerance of her at the table, Emma begins to serve herself larger amounts of food as she waits for the explanation.

“Most likely off with her Prince Charming, and all the rest of your so called friends, working hard at getting that happy ever after they were so desperate to protect. Well, they probably would if they weren’t trying so hard to find a way through my enchantments. We’re quite protected here, in our little sphere of the land.”

Henry is watching them, eyes going back and forth, trying to map out this little game.

But he is no longer a main player and the sooner Regina admits that to herself, the better. She has said goodbye to him twice now, once as she’d kissed his swiftly cooling dead brow in the hospital room. And then only minutes later, after he’d woken and the curse had been broken. She’d known then she had to let him go, just as she knows now the last two weeks have been the desperate clutches of a desperate woman. And that does not befit the wicked witch.

There is, however, a different way to play this game. And she is beginning to realise that she holds the upper hand like never before.

“They haven’t recovered as nearly as quickly as I, I’m afraid. But I’m sure in just a few days they’ll find enough power and magic to break it down and storm the castle, come to rescue you.”

She can truly cut down Snow White, hurt her where she lives, and with that thought, Regina can practically taste the vengeance running down her teeth.

“You and poor, little Henry here.” Her eyes slide right over his face, as familiar to her as her own, as anything she’s ever known, the son she’d never had. For one second, the thinks maybe she can keep him and meld his mind back to her, but then she lets it go. “Henry, who has been given so much since we’ve been here that he feels the need to throw untold amounts of his food about, wasting it while you were starving, fighting the dogs to gnaw on a bone.”

She can hear Emma’s gasp at her cruelty, but it’s Henry she’s watching, that crushing of the last fragments he might have been holding onto, even after everything, any hope he ever had of redeeming his evil, wicked mother. He bows his head, unable to look either of them in the eye.

“But don’t worry, it will all be over soon.” Regina announces, full of drama. “Before the barrier falls down, Miss Swan, you will take Henry back to Snow White and her band of merry men. And you will give him his own happy ever after.”

Regina doesn’t watch them, doesn’t need to see the hope spring in their eyes.

Rejected yet again.

“Guards!”

They drag Emma away from the table for a second time, amid Henry’s sudden protests.

***

She thinks, initially, they mean to take her back underground, to live amongst the dogs, to be brought out and hosed down on occasion to keep Henry happy.

But they turn right in the hallway and then up the large flight of stairs. Towards the chambers then, Emma thinks, that large, grand room they’d bought her to earlier, left her to dress and make herself presentable.

Maybe Regina, the Queen, will keep her word. The first deal, at least. She doesn’t hold out much hope of being set free. Maybe she will have her own space, her own clothes, still a prisoner, but one with more rights than she’d had recently.

The hands on her arms bite roughly, holding tightly as they continue to drag her forwards, not caring too much if her feet find purchase on the stone floor at all. This entire palace above ground is built of stone and steel, all angles, with no sign of the dankness that she’d been kept in. They continue past the door of her chamber, at least, the one she remembers as being hers.

Now she’s groundless, she has no idea where they’re taking her, and they don’t speak to her. She learned that lesson quickly. They follow their Queen’s orders, they don’t deviate one iota, they barely even look her in the eye. Wherever she’s going, there is no way to stop it. Her only choice in this matter, if she does not want to fight or try to defend herself against them, is to follow obediently.

They take her to a different chamber, a series of rooms really, that is larger and grander than any apartment she has ever owned or rented. It is lavish and obscene and stark, but mostly it is draped in black. And Emma has a strong suspicion she knows who sleeps here.

“Wait here for Her Majesty, the Queen.”

It is a barked order, one that brooks no argument.

Well, she thinks, at least she is neither shackled nor beaten. That certainly is an improvement. Her belly is growling, rolling in on itself. She hadn’t eaten much before she’d been dismissed, certainly not as much as she’d wanted, but whatever she’d managed is sitting heavy now.

She does not know exactly how to wrap her head around what is happening. Despite her current circumstances, she almost can’t believe that Henry’s tales are true. It is hard, however, to argue with the memory of fighting a dragon, the magic that had saved Henry and the reality of the steel bars, the stone floors, and the magic that had wrapped itself around her and squeezed until she’d screamed while Regina had laughed.

True. Her brain keeps screaming at her, it’s all true.

Which means, as Henry had tried to tell her numerous times, Mary Margaret actually is her mother.

Her heart aches a little when she thinks about it, all those times they had talked, the times they had laughed and even poked a little fun at the theory. All the times Emma had secretly wished it to be true. All the things they could have said to each other.

And further back, back to where she hates remembering, where she tries so often never to go, back to all those nights huddled under threadbare sheets, with bony knees and a child’s fervent prayer, pleading with all her might as she closed her eyes and wished herself to be a princess in a tale, waiting for her parents to ride in and rescue her. From the dragons, the beasts and evil witches and the most dangerous of all, the foster parents.

It was all true.

Bitterness eats at her, flickering around the corners of her brain, because she was supposed to be a princess, a happy, loved child in a happy, loving family, wanting for nothing. And it was stolen from her. Her parents’ lives stolen. All the people she had grown to like and to love in Storybrooke, stolen.

It is then, as Emma is standing there stewing in resentment, in the same place the guard had left her, without having taken even one step, that the door opens behind her.

“I must say.” Regina chuckles darkly, walking in a circle and coming around to face her. “I think I almost miss the leather jacket.”

It’s a split second, a flash of anger, where Emma wants to spit in her face. This woman drenched in black, with the sculptured dress and the dark make up and starkly contrasted white flesh against finely detailed black hair, this woman is almost Regina Mills, Emma’s adversary and Henry’s mother. The Mayor of Storybrooke.

But it passes, too quickly it passes, because while she is almost Regina Mills, she is wholly the Evil Queen and Emma cannot forget the weeks in the dungeon where it seemed she visited daily, sometimes more than once, to torture her. For pleasure, for revenge, for no reason at all except to hear Emma beg.

As a control for Henry’s obedience.

She has no doubts that this Regina can and will cause her pain, if not death, without blinking. Emma needs to play this differently, needs to back down and act meek at least for now. Because while she is Henry’s control, there does not even need to be a spoken threat for her to know that Henry is hers. She also has no doubt that this Regina will hurt Henry if provoked enough.

“Now that we’re alone, I propose we make a deal of our own.” Regina arches her brow and waits, when no answer comes she sighs. “You can speak, Miss Swan. In fact, I encourage you to do so.”

Emma’s hope sinks a little bit more, she knew it was too good to be true.

“You’re not letting us go? Please.” Because somewhere in there, she has to believe, is Regina Mills, the woman who fought so hard for the best for Henry. “For Henry’s sake, don’t lie to him.

An amused smile, sharp and angular, precedes the teeth that glimmer.

“I didn’t lie. That is exactly what I’m proposing, I will let Henry go, just like I promised him. He has no business in my life. I don’t want him here anymore. He will thrive, I am sure, with the sickly sweet horde of do good-ers you call family.”

Emma blinks.

“Henry?” Fear ratchets up her spine. “But not me?”

It’s the eyes that scare her most, delighted and hungry as they watch her squirm.

“Well, Miss Swan, there is a price for freedom and happiness. You for him. You, for the happiness of your entire kingdom.” She leans in close. “Everyone you hold dear, your mother and father, their friends, your son. I will leave them alone, let them stumble through their lives, striving for joy and good and sunshine and bluebirds and puppies, for all I care.”

It’s absurd, it’s inconceivable.

Her struggle must show on her face.

“Make no mistake, there is a battle looming. They are summoning all their friends and powerful allies, making new alliances, they are preparing for a war they think must be fought. They don’t want it, but right now I’m sure they believe I will never leave them alone, that they will never be safe until I’m gone.”

She laughs, low and sinister.

“And for vengeance, I am sure. I have done the most unthinkable things to those people.”

Regina’s hand comes up, her forefinger extended, and Emma cannot stop herself from flinching away. It catches her chin, however, and pulls her face closer. Emma can feel warmth from Regina’s face on hers.

“But you can end it all, Emma. I will leave them all alone, for the rest of their lives and mine, if you agree to stay here.”

She closes her eyes, unable to process it.

“And never see them again?”

Henry, she had just gotten to know him. Just gotten to know Mary Margaret, Snow White, who was her very first friend in a good, long while. Family, the word sticks in her throat, everything she had ever wanted, the only thing she had ever wanted.

The pointed finger under her chin flattens, is joined by four others, and then Regina is cupping her cheek.

“I had an agreement with Henry, it still stands. You will have your own chambers, your own wardrobe, but most of all you will have your freedom, as it were. You will be free to visit with them one week out of every month, provided you return. Willingly. Provided you make them let you return. I am sure they will try to keep you with them, they may even use magic, but nothing will work against your own will. This is your choice.”

It’s too easy, much too easy.

“And that’s it?” Emma opens her eyes to find intense ones staring into them. “I just have to stay here? No more dungeon under the castle?”

Regina shrugs.

“We returned to this land almost exactly as we had left it. I have no need for anything or anyone new in my castle. Certainly, there is no room for children, and prisoners are much too much work. In fact, there is only one vacancy here, one person unaccounted for that needs replacing.”

And it is here that Emma feels that almost certain dread crawling up her spine again.

“Graham.”

Regina mouths the name, whispers it to her with just a hint of anger and spite. Emma shakes her head in confusion, disbelief.

“You need a sheriff? I mean…” She tries to remember, desperately, what Henry had said about it, about the wolves and the knife and Snow White. “A hunter? You need a hunter?”

“No.” Lips closed tight in amusement for just a second, Regina’s eyes watch her carefully. “No, Miss Swan, I don’t need a hunter.”

It takes her that second and a few more for her to fit the pieces together.

“But Graham didn’t do anything else for you…” Her brows crumple together. “Oh.”

Her body reacts on instinct, pulling back as she tries to step away, suddenly intensely aware of how close they are, but Regina’s hand closes tightly under her chin again, her other hand springing out of nowhere to hold the back of her head. She can go nowhere.

“You’re kidding, that’s not…” But the confirmation is right there in Regina’s eyes, dark and cruel. “You can’t mean…?”

“But I do, dear.”

She is dragged forward, that last inch, and their mouths smash together. Emma clamps her lips shut, but it’s useless, that mashing of teeth behind lips, jaw bones pushing. It’s harsh and painful and violent as she struggles to pull back.

“Or…” Regina offers, finally breaking away, “I can throw you back down to the dogs, keep Henry with me and eventually break him down, turn him against you and everyone else, until he’s as dark as I. Until he kills you himself. And whilst he’s doing that, I’ll be hunting down and killing your mother, not resting until the ground is awash with her blood.”

A whimper chokes out of her throat, unbidden and painful.

“It’s your choice.”

But it’s no choice at all and they both know it.

Emma nods into the hands that still hold her head.

“Wonderful.” With a large and grandiose sweep, Regina lets go and twirls around, gesturing. “Then we have two days to prepare for your journey. You most certainly need new clothes, Henry’s trunks must be packed, and you, my dear, you.”

At this, she stops, turning to face Emma again, a smile on her face that borders on unpleasant.

“You have two days to convince me that you’re willing, that you’ll be my pet, obey my every whim and will. I know you heard the stories, I know you’re aware that I stole Graham’s heart, I hope you don’t force me to do that again. Because I will. You also have one little task to complete before you go.”

With no hands holding her still, Emma fears she will fall down, swaying slightly as if drunk on her feet. This cannot be happening.

“One little visit.” Regina emphasises her point by pinching her left thumb and forefinger together. “To see an old friend from Storybrooke. I believe you’re quite familiar with him.”

Before she has a chance to figure out this latest puzzle, Regina steps closer again, places the fingertips of her right hand against Emma’s breastbone, and pushes her. Emma stumbles, feet skidding on the floor until her back hits the door behind her.

And Regina is fast, pressing her whole body against her, knee to knee, hip to hip, breasts to breasts, face an inch from her own.

“Now, about convincing me…”

***

This might actually be fun, Regina thinks, breaking Emma Swan.

She forces her mouth onto Emma’s again, allowing only this one more time Emma’s resistance, before leaning down and laving a thick, wet stripe up the tendon of her neck. The woman trembles, shivers in her grasp.

“Come on, Emma, a little more convincing than that.”

There it is, the setting of her jaw, the tightening of her eyes, and then Emma’s body stops fighting, stops struggling, becomes pliant in Regina’s hands. And this time, when she closes her mouth on Emma’s, there is no resistance.

She pushes the shoulder of the borrowed gown down, taking in the exaggerated jutting of Emma’s collarbone. She makes a mental note to feed the woman well in the coming weeks, restore her to the strong woman she used to be.

“I’ll have you measured tomorrow.” The plans are spoken out loud. “You’ll have new clothes made and you will wear them. But for now, this does not fit you.”

Regina steps back and gestures to the simple gown, wonders if perhaps she should tell Emma it is her mother’s. It was certainly never her own. Another moment passes and Regina raises an eyebrow before Emma catches on.

It’s a challenge and she knows Emma cannot resist them.

“Do you need help?” She asks, arch and cloyingly sweet. “I’m sure my guards could take it off for you, if you like. They haven’t seen a warm blooded woman in a long time.”

There, behind Emma’s eyes, a flicker of fear, the truth that Regina would follow through with the threat without blinking.

Emma’s hands rise slowly, unsure, even as her eyes are resolute and unblinking, rise up behind her to pull at the ribbon ties that lace up the back of the dress. It’s such a natural, instinctual movement, Regina thinks Emma could have been doing it her entire life. Though she’s fairly sure the amount of dresses Emma has actually worn is minimal and those without zips even less.

“Yes.” She hums her approval as the material slides down Emma’s form, pooling at her feet like a second skin. “Good to know you can follow some instructions.”

Eventually, Regina will teach her not only to follow instructions, but to anticipate them. She will have Emma not only pliant and willing, but responsive and eager, begging and desperate.

“I’ll give you tonight.” Regina tells her generously as she pulls Emma’s shoulders from the wall and propels her to the bed, pushing her onto her back and following her down, giving her no space. “To get this weak little flower act out of your system.”

Fear, resignation and defiance stare back at her, from Emma’s still unblinking eyes as she climbs up and straddles the body on her bed.

“But fair warning, Emma, I chose you because in every action, everything you ever did in Storybrooke, was full of fight and energy and passion, always that passion.”

She grabs Emma’s wrist and holds them over her head, lengthening her body to match, feeling the stretch of sinew and bone.

“And that’s what I’m after.”

***

Henry bounces on the balls of his feet.

This outcome is better than he could have hoped for. He and Emma are leaving. He has lost his mother, that is unmistakable, but he knows now that she always was and always will be the bad guy, the evil witch, the villain.

Given the very real choice, he has chosen Emma and Mary Margaret and David and Ruby and the dozens of other characters that will be waiting for him when they arrive. He suspects he made that choice the moment he bit the turnover and everything else has just been confirmation.

He cannot live with an Evil Queen that keeps prisoners locked up, the reality of her deeds staring him in the face and harsher than the broad brush strokes of cartoon villainy that he had been reading for months.

With this in mind, he bounces, a large, heavy trunk at his feet as the carriage draws up. Four large, imposing horses snuffle hot air out of their noses, black and muscular as they stamp their hooves. One heavily armoured guard sits on the front ledge with the reigns in his hands, his face hidden by a helmet.

He realises, suddenly, that he has never seen one of their faces. In fact, he has only seen two faces in the weeks he has been here.

His face rises to the sky, feels the sun on his skin, and it’s the first time he can breathe properly.

Footsteps break his reverie and he turns, unable to suppress his excitement.

“Emma! Are you ready?”

She is standing next to his adopted mother and he pauses. He’s not an idiot; he knows there is something wrong, something dark and unspoken that has had a hold of her since she’d been taken from the dungeons. But that will end, surely, once she is reunited with her parents.

In her hands she is clutching a small carry bag and Henry quirks his head.

“Is that all you’re bringing?”

Her throat bobbles and she forces her lips into a smile.

“My trunks are already loaded, kiddo.”

Henry nods at that. He doesn’t know what to say, but something needs to be said. This is a goodbye of sorts and the feeling of finality hangs thick and suffocating. Emma kneels down without warning and pulls him in.

Not only does he permit it, he bends to her, moulds himself into her arms in a way he had never allowed himself to do back in Storybrooke. She’s shaking as she runs her hand through his hair and cups his cheek, a truer gesture from her than it had been from his mother.

“Tell her.” She whispers in his ear. “Something, anything, whatever you need to say, because you won’t see her again.”

As she stands up, planting her hands on each of his shoulders for support, Henry sees the edge of a black gloved hand hovering high at her back. A split second, then it is gone, and he is left puzzled at the gesture.

The Evil Queen, his brain tries to remind him as he looks up, but he has a decade’s worth of memories that tell him different and he launches forward one last time, wraps his arm around her waist and holds tightly.

She still smells like his mother.

“Take him.” Comes the hiss above him, as he feels her push at his shoulders to get him away. “Take him, Emma, before it’s too late.”

He doesn’t quite fight as Emma pulls him towards the carriage, but he doesn’t make it easy either. They climb up, his hand resting on the shiny black door, before sliding in and scooting across the soft leather seats. He hides his face against the window so she cannot see the tears as he feels her weight settle down next to him.

His body jerks as she slams the door.

“It’s going to be okay, Henry.” She promises softly, a little sadly. “This is going to be much better for you.”

They don’t talk for several more hours and it isn’t until he finally turns around to see her leaning against her own window, shoulders shaking silently, that he realises she has been crying too.

***

“Snow!”

Charming’s voice reverberates around the castle walls, making her snap to attention from the map spread out on the table in front of her. Red’s head lifts as well, eyes wide with questioning.

“The barrier.” Snow breathes, hopeful. “They’ve broken it!”

They both turn and head towards the door.

“Snow!” Charming roars again, louder and closer, and she can hear his footsteps falling heavily on the cobblestones. “They’re here!”

The words confuse her, so starkly different to any conversation they’ve had since their return. It has all been about clerics and magic and the possibility of releasing Rumplestiltskin if they got desperate enough, temporarily.

But her eyes catch sight of a window as she passes it and she stops in her tracks.

Over the path that crosses the water, the long single road, she sees the dark carriage and the horses frothing at the mouth as the guard whips them into a frenzy.

Her run turns into a full sprint then, feet slapping against cobblestones hard as she gathers her skirts up over her ankles, not bothering to watch where she is going or who she barrels past to get there. She has known this castle all her life, her feet know where to land.

Charming stops in his mission to find her in order to let her past, then follows swiftly at her back.

She arrives breathless, panting, as she stands at the edge of the long drive, her feet feel the grass underneath her toes. All too late, she realises her vulnerability. If this is a trap, she is defenceless. The familiar snick of a sword leaving a scabbard behind her makes her grateful for her husband once again.

As the carriage stops, larger than she remembers it ever being, Snow holds her breath.

It escapes her a moment later, a large lungful of air in sweet relief as she watches both Henry and Emma climb down.

She pulls Henry to her, the safest option, in a tight embrace that he returns. It does not escape her notice that he is shaking. Otherwise, he looks fine. He has obviously been cared for and that eases her mind somewhat. After a few seconds, she releases him to the care of a people waiting for their prince.

And she looks up to face Emma.

Her heart freezes. What can be said about Henry cannot be said about Emma. She has not been cared for, not in any stretch of the imagination. Weight has fallen from her, quickly and harshly, her eyes are dark and sunken, her entire body posture is wrong, and there are bruises fading on her skin.

Regina, her brain slams back into planning, will pay dearly.

“Oh, Emma.” She breathes, unable to contain herself any longer, reaching out to pull the other woman forward. “Emma.”

It is their first meeting as mother and daughter and Snow wishes it were different, that the body she embraces was not so stiff or awkward, that the tears in her eyes were tears of joy and not this helpless horror. She alone, out of the crowd that is forming behind her, can attest to the true horror of Regina’s cruelty.

After a count of four, Snow feels a shudder in Emma, an intake of breath and then Emma seems to melt, becoming fluid as her limbs throw themselves around Snow and hold on tightly. They begin to shake and Snow realises the force of Emma’s breakdown, the sobs that wrack her body.

She looks over her shoulder.

“We need to get her inside.”

***

As the afternoon progresses, things calm down. Emma retreats into herself and remains quiet, content to sit at the round table and watch everyone else talk, chatter constantly, and let Henry pick up the task of filling everyone in.

Snow can’t believe the story, she cannot accept Henry’s continued insistence that Regina will now let them go, has already let them go, that she will not come after them. In fact, that she will not seek out anyone.

It seems anticlimactic, in such a way that Snow is suspicious. There is something wrong. There has to be a hidden catch. There is no way that Regina would give everything back to her, allow her to have her family, Charming and Emma and Henry, without exacting some form of price from her.

She looks to Emma for confirmation, but the woman has her head leaning to the side, staring out the window and barely listening.

They eat dinner, conversation loud and boisterous and beer flowing, a celebration that has been delayed since their arrival back to this land. Snow watches eagle eyed as Henry eats, talks, and looks around with amazement. Occasionally, she catches him throwing a concerned look to his mother, but otherwise he seems genuinely okay.

The dread gets heavier in her chest the darker the day gets, as the sun goes down.

“Come on, Henry.” Snow finally takes his hand, with one last look to Emma to see if she has even noticed the droop of his eyelids and sag of his head. “I’ll show you where you can sleep tonight. We’ll fix a proper place for you tomorrow, okay?”

He nods wearily, amiable and unresisting, allowing himself to be led away, to be tucked in to a make-shift bed. It’s crowded in the castle at the moment, everyone seems to gravitate here and they aren’t turning anyone away.

“I haven’t slept in weeks.” He murmurs sleepily, an excuse. “But now… it’ll be better. Emma’s okay now, she’s okay.”

And then he’s gone.

Snow sets her jaw and strides back to the crowded hall. She needs answers and she will shake Emma back into awareness if it is the last thing she does. This is not the Emma she knows, the woman who rode into Storybrooke in a yellow bug and demanded attention, who stood up to both Regina and Mr. Gold when no one else would.

She needn’t have worried, it seems, because the moment she enters the room is the moment Emma does snap to attention.

“You’ll have to restrain him.” She says, looking straight at Snow. “Tomorrow, when I leave, he won’t like it.”

She quirks her head, uncomprehendingly.

“Leave?” The word sticks in her mouth, a bad taste. “But you just got back… I just got you back.”

What a pretty blanket.

Without speaking, without taking her eyes from Snow, Emma reaches up to the high neck of the gown she’s wearing and pulls it down. It takes a second for Snow to fully comprehend what she’s seeing, but the three solid gold threads of the band around her throat are unmistakable.

It hits her in the stomach, steals her breath, and she stumbles as a roar of voices and protests rise from the crowd.

“No.” She won’t accept it, she won’t. “No, Emma.”

“Me.” Emma’s voice is deadened, emotionless, a stark contrast to the sobbing body of earlier. “That’s the deal. Me for Henry. For everyone. For you.”

And this, Snow realizes, is Emma’s grief, the systematic giving up any hope she had.

It seems that her entire life, before Storybrooke, before the twenty eight repetitive years of nothing until Emma arrived, she has known that Regina would take everything, would never let her forget that one betrayal.

She wishes now, not for the first time, that she had never opened her mouth, that Regina had let her die on that horse.

“We have to do something.” Grumpy slams his fist on the table. “I say we finally let Rumplestiltskin free.”

Gasps follow his announcement, but Snow is looking to Emma and sees the slow shake of her head.

“I already saw him.” She says it quietly, a whisper in the din of everyone else, but they all stop to listen without question. “Mr. Gold, Rumplestiltskin. Whoever, I just… I’ve already seen him.”

“You made a deal?”

Charming has come to stand by Snow, his hand around her waist holding her up, She can hear it in his voice, that unspoken, it was obviously the wrong one. And she hates him in that second, has to remind herself that he’s not David, that he’s not responsible for anything that David did.

“No deal.” Emma explains. “The opposite, actually. I told him that I did not agree to any deals being made in my name.”

Her eyelids drop, Snow closing out the world momentarily, unwilling to let them see the last of her hope slipping away.

Of course. Regina had to know that they would try to break the contract any way they could, that they would be desperate. And now, no deals can be made on behalf of someone who does not agree. Even ancient and dark magic has rules and this is one of them.

“Out.” She opens her eyes with the sudden order. “Everybody out.”

There are rumbles of protest, for weeks they have gathered and planned and shared as a community, but this is private and, for the most part, it is respected.

They are left alone, the three of them, and Snow sits next to Emma, her hand reaching out and hesitating above her head, wanting desperately to stroke her hair. Something, anything, and she hates how unsure of herself she is, how awkward they are with each other.

Charming is at Emma’s other side and Snow looks at them, father and daughter, and sees the stress ride him hard, the clench of his jaw. The similarities between them leave her breathless.

You do kind of have my chin.

She begins slowly, softly.

“Did… did Regina explain to you the details of…?” Her hand wafts gently in the air around her neck. “The contract?”

She watches her daughter nod, her grown daughter, who she has only known for less than a year, who has led a harsh life, who was already brittle and hard and slightly broken before she came back to them.

The injustice of it eats at her.

“It’s unbreakable.” The words are flat and rote, parroted from a lecture obviously drilled into Emma. “It’s very powerful magic. If I break the contract, or enter into a plan to break the contract, I will be pulled back to a designated place.”

“It is powerful magic.” Charming finally speaks. “Too powerful for a simple binding spell, but probably not unwarranted if she thought…”

But Emma shakes her head.

“It’s not just a binding spell, she doesn’t just want me at the castle.” There is only one logical follow through, all three of them know it, but the words break something in Snow just the same. “It takes me back to her bedchamber.”

This, this is the final price, and it is too high and she can do nothing to stop it.

“She can’t do that.” Charming insists. “You can’t bind an unwilling person with an indentured collar.”

But the words are meaningless, because Snow knows that there are ways to make a person willing that have nothing to do with choice or free will. And Emma has already told them, she did it for Henry, for the people, for Snow.

And now, as Regina has obviously planned, Snow must live with the knowledge that while she has her Charming and her castle and peace among her land, even a grandson at her side, it all comes at the cost of her daughter, taken once again, living in a servitude she does not want.

Again, repeatedly, without end.

It is not something that Snow thinks she can live with for very long.

There is no end to that woman’s cruelty.

***

Slowly, surely, people trickle back into the room.

Light slips away completely and lamps are lit. There is a silence that hangs heavy in the room, but Emma is grateful for it, for the faces around her. She cannot sleep and they do not leave her alone. They sit a silent vigil, her mother’s hand in hers, and this is the memory that will keep her when she finally has to leave.

It comes too soon, the sunlight, a cacophony of sound pours in from the windows. Sounds Emma has never heard in her life with such clarity, birds and animals and nature.

And one she has, the definite hooves of the carriage that brought her here.

She stands up.

“I’ll wake Henry.” It’s the last thing she wants to do. It’s the most important. “I have to say goodbye.”

***

She has little taste for food this evening, sitting at the large table all by herself, and no taste for wine either.

Regina gives a sigh as she swirls the goblet in her hand.

The table is too big, the hall is too big, the castle is too big. No, not big, just quiet. Her father is gone, Henry is gone, everyone gone. A few short years, she refuses to admit decades, the hall was full of people and voices and laughter.

Not hers, never hers, they’d stopped asking for her laughter long before her husband had… died.

Sometimes it seemed that even faking a life was preferable to the truth, dutifully sitting on the Queen’s throne, playing nice to Snow as she grew and Leopold as he grew distant, as opposed to what came after, everything stripped bare and nowhere to go but down into darkness. Maybe that’s why she had struggled so desperately to hold on to Storybrooke, because it was easier to fake a life than live one.

The goblet drops to the table with a clink of metal on wood and then she stands up.

Maybe it’s easier to fake it, she thinks, but it’s much less satisfying. Finally letting go of the fake concern for Snow, giving in to the need to take her down, felt much better than anything she had done, before or since. Well, anything but…

No. They deserved it. They all deserved it and she deserves the comfort of her vengeance most of all.

The heels on her boots click as she walks, counting out the beat of blood pumping through her veins, striding through the palace. Patience is not her strong suit; it has never been her strong suit.

She holds her breath as she throws open the door to her private chambers. Gratified, she realises that everything has been done as requested, to the letter, and she smiles. Of course it is; her guards are spectacular.

Emma’s head flies up at her entrance, fear and hatred warring for dominance on her face.

“What?” She spits. “What did I do wrong? I did everything you asked!”

Her pale skin glows in the fading dusk, moonlight and firelight bouncing off skin slick with sweat. The fire is raging high in the fireplace and Emma is strung naked to the rack nearby, arms above her head and stretched out wide to each corner.

Regina circles her, taking her time. A quick estimate has her guessing that Emma has been hanging here for nearly two hours. She must be ready.

“Everything?” She queries, eventually, stroking her own chin in consideration.

“Yes!” Emma is desperate and betrayed. “Of course, exactly as you said.”

“Mmm.” On top of the mantle, her fingers close over the thin rod and pick it up. “I’m sure you did.”

When she turns around, Emma’s eyes widen at the sight of the riding crop as Regina holds the handle in her right hand and draws her left up to the very tip and back down again. It is delicious, the way that Emma shrinks back, tries to hide herself from view even though she is as bare as a person can be.

“Don’t think of this as a punishment, Emma.” Their eyes meet and Regina smiles. “Think of it as a lesson.”

The heat has warmed Emma’s blood, thinned it and drawn it to the surface, making her skin a deep, rosy red. Regina bites her bottom lip as she trails the end of the crop over Emma’s shoulder, up her right arm, and down against her side into her waist and over her hip.

A trail of white blazes behind it, before disappearing, and Emma twists in her bonds, tries to squirm away.

Oh, if only she knew.

“Did you tell them everything?” Regina asks again. “Every little detail?”

“Yes.” Emma rushes to answer, quick to please. “Exactly.”

Without warning, Regina flicks her wrist, drawing the crop back and slamming it against Emma’s hip hard. It cracks up around her side ribs and across her back. A pained cry breaks the air, escaping hoarse and caught, choked back, as Emma’s swallows it.

A bright red line is left in its wake, raised and angry looking. Regina’s fingertip traces it lightly, revelling in the shivers that follow.

“You didn’t leave out any details? To spare them?”

“Yes… No!” Bitten out. “Everything, to everyone, exc…”

Emma gasps, trying to eat the word back.

Regina quirks her brow.

“Except…?”

Hanging her head, Emma tenses the rest of her body as she exhales.

“Except Henry. I didn’t tell him everything, just the basics, I couldn’t.”

There’s a moment of silence, two, of heady expectation as Emma’s face crumples, scrunching up tight.

Lifting the crop, Regina points the end of it under Emma’s chin and uses it to guide her face up again.

“Acceptable. But the others?”

“Yes.” Emma practically spits it. “They know every detail. Are you happy?”

A whistle skims the air as the crop rises and falls again. This time it cross over the welt on her back, making a crooked, raised X. Another cry is choked back, swallowed, bitten off. The lower left corner bit deeply and Regina watches, fascinated, as a small trickle of blood begins to ooze near the divot above Emma’s kidney.

“Ecstatic. Count to five.”

“What?” Emma whips her face to look at her. “Five?”

An intake of breath and Regina does her own little countdown in her head, reminding herself that it would serve no purpose to lose control this quickly.

“Five, Emma, the number. Count out loud. The longer you make me wait, the worse it will be. If I have to repeat myself again, tonight or ever, you will be sorry.”

A puzzled frown follows, but she’s still deliciously compliant.

“One.”

Emma’s voice breaks into a cry as the crop comes down across her shoulder blades, softer than before, but still harder that Regina had planned. Punishment for the delay.

“…Two…”

Crack, parallel to the first one, a little lower down. Emma bites down on this cry.

“Three… Four… Five.”

Each number receives its own little whip, quick and painful, but not breaking the skin. Regina looks at the horizontal pattern rising, red against pale flesh, the last one just above the swell of Emma’s buttocks. By the end, Emma has stopped holding back the sobs. It’s not a great avalanche of hysteria, no, Regina is thrilled to note that Emma gives it up one sound per slice of the crop, restrained, just a moan of pain.

In the silence, Emma pants.

“And Rumplestiltskin?”

There isn’t even a pause this time.

“I told them.”

Whip, crack. Emma has learned to flinch at the whistle in the air, before the touch of the rod on her skin. She’s a quick study. It’s a full scream this time, throaty and real, as the tip once again pierces flesh.

“And?”

“I made them see.” She begs it, insists it, trying desperately to find the words that will make Regina happy. “There’s no hope, they can’t win, they shouldn’t even try.”

Regina leans in close, whispers in an ear plastered with sweat slick hair.

“Seven.”

She is rewarded with a small, broken moan, but there’s no hesitation as Emma begins to count and Regina pays in kind, each strike just a little more forceful until the last three draw blood. A lot of it. Emma’s tears are real, slipping down her cheeks.

Turning the rod over in her hand, Regina slides the weathered soft, wide handle gently across reddened, broken skin. Sobs turn into a moan, a broken hiccupping breath, and Regina coos softly into the heated skin behind Emma’s neck.

“And what do you think, Emma? Will that be enough? Will that stop them?”

She feels rather than sees Emma bite her lip, the flinch of her whole body, as she lets her head fall back and looks up to the frame of the rack.

“The truth, Emma.” Regina reminds her. “And quickly now.”

“No.” It bursts out, reluctant. “They won’t stop trying.”

It’s loud and messy, that gasp Emma gives in as she prepares for the next round of attacks.

But Regina drops the riding crop onto the floor with a loud thump and her palms hover delicately over Emma’s hips, dipping into her waist as the woman shudders, spreading out over her ribs and up her arms. And, as she sucks a messy kiss on the side of her neck, Regina frees Emma’s wrists.

The woman drops like a sack to the floor, curled up on her stomach in what would be a fetal position if she dared stretch the skin of her back. Hard, wheezing pants wrack her body, and confused eyes swirl up to look at Regina standing over her.

“There are fresh towels and clean water in your chambers, Emma. Clean yourself up as best you can and sleep well. I get the feeling we’re going to have visitors sooner rather than later.”

Regina swirls on her heels, striding towards her bathroom, ready to prepare for bed.

“What…?” Emma has regained some control of her windpipe, though her breath still hitches as she props herself up on her forearms. “What was the lesson? I did what you wanted, I did everything you wanted…”

“That is the lesson.” Her voice is not unkind, but it lacks the reassurance Emma is clearly looking for. “It didn’t matter what you did or said or didn’t, what I did tonight, I did because I wanted to do it. And it will always be that way, Emma. Your actions, your deeds and thoughts and words, mean nothing. I do what I want with you, now.”

She doesn’t turn this time, merely waits and watches passively as Emma drags herself into a crawl, then a hunched standing position, and hobbles naked and bleeding out of her door.

***

End chapter one.