"I meant to send it with Regina just now, but I guess I was just too caught up to remember. I can bring it with me when we meet up." Snow said.
"What are you talking about?" Emma's voice had lost its calm. "Regina's right here."
"Emma, what's wrong?" Snow heard Regina say.
Then Emma's voice. "Cora. She has Henry."
Emma felt as though the air wasn't moving around her. Like every particle of it was stuck still, all of it solid, so that she too was rendered immobile against it.
She knew that reasonably the knowledge of Henry's current captor – a matriarch so brutal and insane she'd been a harbinger of evil most her life – should have spurred her on, pressed her into action. But she couldn't move.
Her phone was still on the floor where she'd dropped it. She could hear the frantic screeches of Snow's voice through the receiver, as if it were a voice bleeding in from a television left on in another room. Emma's eyes were stuck on the door Regina had left through.
Of course it wasn't the air that was really holding her down. It was the doubt. If Cora had Henry… scratch that: Cora had Henry and without his safety insured, Emma could only feel a bitter uneasiness sit deep in every bone.
It wasn't until she heard the sound of running water that her fixation broke. She turned towards the sound briefly – in the direction of the kitchen. She raised herself from the couch, picked up her phone from the floor, and muttered something to Snow, managed something about still meeting at the crypt before hanging up abruptly.
She left the cell on the coffee table to buzz with further messages before she let herself into the kitchen. She froze again two paces past the door.
Regina had her back to her. She was standing at the sink, running a soapy sponge over a plate under water that was steaming enough to scald. She didn't seem to care. Her movements were stilted, nearly robotic. Something about the triviality of it, the absurdity of it, made Emma seethe automatically.
"What are you doing?!" Emma croaked out, her voice shrill and thick with imminent sobs of fear and fury. Regina didn't pause or flinch, merely maintaining her methodical cleaning. "Regina, LOOK AT ME." And even when she didn't, Emma continued. "How can you stand there and wash dishes while that psycho has our SON?!" Emma's entire body was thrumming and hot. She felt sick.
Regina's muscles stiffened further. When she finally spoke, her voice was low and cold, full of an icy temper that beat Emma's tenfold. Emma felt her body temperature drop.
"I am trying. To do something that will calm me. And you are not helping." Her voice was almost a growl. Emma's eyes widened as she noticed a deep purple glow begin to emanate from the woman's form. It shifted from and began to move and grow, sprouting into eager, violet flames licking up her sides.
Emma realized her mistake too late. She imagined this was part of Cora's plan all along: watching their movements closely, choosing a time when Henry was in Snow's care, forcing Regina to an all-too-familiar precipice. And Emma had done nothing to control her own anger, feeding into the pain that Regina herself was trying to overpower. Emma had goaded her. When she spoke again, her voice was weak.
"Regina, I didn't mean to–"
"None of your blood ever means to do anything wrong. That's the problem, isn't it, dear?" The brunette finally turned towards her, her eyes appeared almost black, the fire she was producing enshrouded her like a cocoon. Emma could feel the heat billowing from her in waves and took a step back.
"You think because your intentions are so pure, you must always be doing the right thing. But the truth is your intentions blind you to what the consequences of your actions will be."
Into every syllable, Regina poured her fury, and Emma had no doubt that this was the legendary Evil Queen she'd only glimpsed until now - the one who cast curses and burned villages and ripped beating hearts from their homes.
Regina took two slow steps towards the blonde, grinning madly, eyes glittering. Emma – in a half-hearted response she would have thought better of had she the clarity – stepped forward too, reaching her hand out towards Regina, into the edge of the flames, only to pull it back just as quickly, cradling the burned limb. Regina didn't flinch at the accompanying cry of pain. She only moved forward to close the distance herself.
There was a moment in which Emma thought that this was how she would die, caught in the all-encompassing inferno that was, and truly always would be, Regina. But the moment was fleeting, overwhelmed by the sudden realization that Emma could not let her destroy them without a fight. She wouldn't allow it because she knew that what she felt, what they felt, was stronger than anger. It was stronger than anything.
Emma's magic rose up immediately, a wave bursting outwards in all directions from the very core of her. She gasped at the scorching sensation, this time of her own magic enveloping her fully – a bright blue shell of light that filled her in and outwards, mimicking Regina's.
Newly equipped, Emma stepped towards the purple inferno and its host, unafraid, unburned and unharmed this time. She pinned Regina's arms to her sides in a brutal embrace.
The energy around them combined and roared higher, seeming as though it would not die at all, only grow and consume first the room around them, then the house and the entire town.
But finally, gradually, the magic began to subside, lapping lower and lower until it faded completely. The only sounds in the room were the tired, rasping breaths of both women as they gripped each other painfully tight.
"We're going to get him back," Emma managed between breaths. Regina's fingers clenched against her back a little harder.
"I'm sorry, Emma. I'm trying." Regina murmured.
"It's okay. We're going to get him back."
They stayed that way for another long minute until Emma pulled back in the woman's rigid arms.
"I shouldn't have made it worse. I know you're scared and angry and so am I. But I shouldn't have made it worse."
"It's not your fault." Regina said sadly, ashamed that Emma was taking the blame for her outburst.
Emma shook her head. "No, it's Cora's fault. But I wasn't thinking." She tucked a piece of Regina's hair behind her ear and sighed. "I know you don't want to think about it right now, but I need to know: is she going to kill him?"
"No." Regina answered immediately. "She's not."
Emma paused, hating the way Regina's face contorted at the thoughts currently spinning in her head. She waited for Regina's continuation.
"She's going to use him. And before you ask, I don't know how. But that is what she does. She will use him against us somehow. And it will be the most difficult thing either of us will ever face, that I can guarantee."
Emma took in the way the woman faltered and her heart clenched in her chest. She reached both hands up and held Regina's cheeks gently, suddenly spurred by a need to comfort her.
"You are strong, Regina. We are strong. And the thing I know more than anything, the thing I am sure of, is that we will save our son." Emma waited until Regina's wet eyes swept up to meet hers. "Right?" Regina asked.
Regina closed her eyes and nodded. Emma leaned forward and kissed her forehead before tugging her in for a tight hug.
"Soon this will be just another story. I promise." Emma said softly. She didn't know if she was saying it more for Regina or for herself. Perhaps it was both. Either way, whatever was to come, they would face it together. And that was comfort enough to make Emma feel strong. It was the purest determination she'd felt in her entire life.
Regina eased back to look in Emma's eyes. "You really believe in me."
There was another declaration on the tip of Emma's tongue, one she'd been struggling to keep suppressed, one she thought once that she would never say to anyone again. She wasn't sure she even remembered how to form the words anymore for anyone who wasn't her son. And even saying those words to him had been strange at first.
Regina interrupted her thoughts before she could gather them enough to speak. She pulled away from Emma, taking her hand.
"We should get going. They'll be waiting for us at the crypt by now."
Emma gave a sad half smile as she felt like she'd missed the window where opportunity and courage were great enough to force her admission. She nodded at the woman and followed suit as she prepared to leave.
"Mr. Gold?" Ruby's voice echoed through the dimly lit shop as she stood at the entrance. As much as she loathed the idea of entering without Belle by her side, she'd grown impatient waiting for her friend to show up and meet her. Not to mention it was getting too cold without the usual sunshine. She glanced out at the swirling mass of black and red in the sky before stepping all the way into the pawn shop, shutting the door behind her.
"Hello?" She called out again, crossing her arms and feeling sufficiently creeped out by the vacant storefront. She stepped up cautiously to the centremost counter, her attention caught by a strange, empty globe. She reached out a shaky hand towards the spindle at its top, oddly fascinated by the shining point.
The front door swung open abruptly; Ruby's hand shot back to her as she turned around, her heart beating hard.
"My god, it's frigid out there!" Belle said, shutting the door.
"Yeah," Ruby said, trying to regain her composure. "I figured I'd wait for you inside. Bit better in here." Not much, she though miserably, still wary and uneasy about the whole venture.
"Cora does have quite a way of capturing everyone's attention. When she chooses." Gold said, sidling in from the back room, causing Ruby to jump again and draw closer to Belle. She wondered if he'd been there the whole time, ignoring her until their mutual ally was in the room. Smart move.
"I guess that's where Regina gets it then," Ruby muttered. "Anyway, what's the plan? Why are we here instead of out looking for the heart?"
"The plan involves a little more tact than just that," Gold said somewhat bitterly, drawing an eye-roll from Ruby. He stepped behind a counter to his right and pulled out two wooden cases, setting them each on top of the glass. He spun the first box around to open it towards Belle and Ruby.
The two women stepped closer automatically and turned their attention to its content: a large silver gauntlet, impeccably made and gleaming as it caught the light.
"It used to be part of a set, but I regrettably lost its pair. Thankfully, you should only need one."
"What does it do?" Belle asked, her curiosity alight.
"It was made to handle a very powerful weapon. As such, it can withstand much and protect the user from many kinds of magic. Cora will likely have her heart closely guarded. This should help you in procuring it safely."
"It should help?" Ruby asked incredulously.
Gold seethed a little. "Well, one can never be too sure in this world what will and won't work. But I am reasonably sure. I can't assuage your fears any more than that without lying." He finished with a pointed glare. Belle reached out a hand to Ruby's arm and gripped it meaningfully, catching her eye and willing her to remain calm.
Belle removed the gauntlet from its box and put it clumsily onto her hand, admiring the metalwork from all angles. Soon after she'd done so, it seemed to mould to her hand, fitting it snugly. It no longer felt so heavy, instead feeling as though it were simply an extension of her fingers.
"And I have something for you as well, Miss Lucas." Gold turned the other case around in the same way as the first, opening it towards them. In it was a long dagger with a bright white hilt.
"And what does this one do?" Ruby asked, failing to keep some bitterness from her voice.
"It kills." Gold replied flatly. "My hope is that you won't need it, but in any case, you will take it in the event that you do. Its influence makes you somewhat harder to detect, but beyond that it is relatively plain. Although it did kill a witch once. Should you need it, perhaps it will do so again."
Ruby took the dagger, unsheathing it and learning its weight. She'd learned a few things from Granny and Snow in the days when she'd needed protection. She figured she'd be able to wield it reasonably.
She restored it to its scabbard and hooked it to her belt.
"So where are we supposed to start looking?" Ruby asked, anxious to get out of the shop as soon as possible.
Gold smiled wanly and backed away from the counter, moving to retrieve something else, this time a small scrap of red fabric. "You still have your senses, don't you, wolf?"
"I have a name." Ruby growled.
"Rumple," Belle admonished, shooting him a pleading glance.
Gold put his hand up in surrender. "All I mean is that your sense of smell, your ability to track, it has returned to you, yes?"
"Yeah," Ruby replied warily.
"Will you be able to trace this?" He handed the scrap out to her – a piece of Cora's cloak he'd removed by magic during their last meeting. She took it and trained her eyes on him as she brought it near her nose and sniffed lightly.
She sighed. "Yeah, I think so."
"Good. Then I was correct in choosing you for the task. With your combined cleverness, I'm sure you'll be able to find it promptly." He replied.
Ruby scoffed at what almost sounded like a compliment.
Gold ignored her and came round to Belle's side, he pulled her closer to him. Ruby saw the move for what it was and wandered to the other side of the shop to give the couple a moment.
Gold smiled sadly at Belle. "You are the most precious thing in the world to me. I do not wish to lose you."
Belle clutched his hand with her bare fingers. "You won't. Please tell me you'll be careful too?"
He smiled a little wider. "I will try."
"Why is it you can't come with us anyway? Where will you be?" Ruby asked, unable to mask her suspicion.
"I will be here. Waiting." Gold answered automatically, never taking his eyes off of Belle's face. Belle's smile faded. She already knew the answer to Ruby's next question.
"Waiting to what?" Ruby asked.
"To settle old debts."
It was strange to see the cemetery so full of life. It had never held so many of the town's inhabitants at once. The crowd was shifting uncomfortably, speaking in low murmurs as they stood and sat all over the grounds, leaning on tombstones and fidgeting, obviously perturbed.
Emma and Regina watched briefly from the car. Emma could tell the other woman was afraid to face them all again so soon after the meeting in town hall. She reached for her hand and took it firmly.
"It's going to be okay. We'll just get them in there, put up the wards, and then worry about more important things." Emma said, making sure she caught the woman's eyes.
Regina nodded and gave a weak smile. She took a deep breath, assumed her most graceful posture, and stepped out of the car. They walked side by side into the fray, unable to ignore the silence that washed over the crowd as they passed through it, making their way towards the entrance to the crypt. Regina avoided the sea of terrified gazes, feeling as though she could combust under their scrutiny.
Snow and James were in sight of them now, each wearing sombre expressions. Snow's eyes were puffy and wet and she couldn't meet Regina's gaze. Which was just as well. Regina was doing her best not to look at her.
"Hey," Emma said quietly when they were finally within a few steps of each other. James gave her a pained smile and Snow simply nodded her head.
"I am so, so sorry." Snow blurted out, her eyes threatening to overflow with fresh tears.
"Don't apologize," Regina said before Emma could respond. The three Charmings looked at her in shock as she continued. "We can't change what happened. We will save him. That's all there is to it."
We will save him. Regina repeated the mantra in her own head, over and over as she had been since the incident in the kitchen. Emma squeezed her hand and smiled in appreciation and pride.
"So," Emma continued a little awkwardly, turning to Regina. "How do we do this?"
Regina side-stepped the Charmings and put her hand to the door of the crypt. "I'll show you the place I have in mind. You can lead everyone inside once it's open. I have the feeling my presence still isn't very reassuring to most."
Emma nodded and followed as Regina descended.
She revealed the hidden entrance to what looked like an underground great hall, causing Emma to blink in disbelief for a second before she realized nothing Regina did should surprise her anymore.
The whole process didn't take too long. The townsfolk were anxious to get into the hideaway and followed instructions promptly, filing into the room and filling it, unpacking their sleeping bags and supplies as they went. Regina skulked down the hallway from the entrance, huddled away from view. She'd thought she'd stayed entirely unnoticed until she heard footsteps approaching her instead of moving in the direction of the hall. She spun around, to meet the owner and was thrown a little when she was met by Kathryn, looking oddly soft and light.
"Regina. I just wanted to say thank you. You should know that there are a surprising number of us who are honestly grateful for your protection." She flashed a genuine smile and before Regina had a chance to speak – which would have been a feat since she was at a considerable loss – Kathryn folded her into a firm hug. At first Regina was stiff in her arms, but soon she hesitantly returned the embrace, letting her body relax a little.
When she pulled back she gave Kathryn a reassuring smile. "It is the least I can do. Truly."
Kathryn smiled wider, giving a little nod as she turned to leave.
"Kathryn?" Regina's voice halted the woman in her tracks. Regina was thankful that she still responded kindly to her cursed name.
"Please… make sure everyone is… comfortable." Regina said, unable to suppress her inner politician. The remark made Kathryn smile again.
Snow and David stood back from the crypt as Regina and Emma worked. They had completed a basic ward on the concealed door to the hall and were starting to coat the crypt itself in multiple walls of magic. It was no small feat since they'd been already somewhat drained that morning, emotionally and magically. After a few moments of discomfort, Regina glanced in the direction of the Charmings very briefly before taking Emma's hand in hers.
Snow watched as they exchanged words quietly, Emma also offering a quick glance back at her parents. Emma gave them a smile before she returned her attention to Regina and turned very serious. She leaned in and placed a long, gentle kiss against Regina's lips.
Snow and James had the good grace to turn away a little, wondering if perhaps this might not be the best time for a makeout session, but when Snow turned back she noticed that Emma and Regina's magic had flared, grown stronger from their embrace. The remaining wards went up easily, spreading out over the grounds and flashing in a bright purplish light.
Emma's parents exchanged a look of understanding. It was a prideful moment, albeit a confusing one: knowing their daughter had found something truly powerful, something good, even if it was with the woman who'd been the source of their misery for such a long time.
The moment of pride was fleeting: interrupted by shrill laughter that sent a chill through each of them.
"Oh, look at that! She's taught her dog some tricks! How adorable."
They turned to face Cora, who was resting against a tombstone, looking far too at ease surrounded by death. She clapped her hands together and rested them in her lap as she grinned. She pinned Regina with her gaze, delighting in her daughter's obvious anger.
"And here I thought the little harlot could only manage parlour tricks. My, but you have been busy, Regina."
Cora refocused her attention. "And, Snow! I'm surprised you're so willing to let your daughter gallivant around with the Evil Queen and be corrupted by her dark magic. But then you've never been very good at holding on to the things you love, have you, child?"
Snow's face darkened at the comment. Emma and Regina stepped up alongside the other couple.
"Where is Henry?" Emma barked furiously.
"Uh-uh-uh." Cora chastised, wagging a finger. "Not just yet. I have so much planned for you, dear. Aren't you curious?"
Regina erupted. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH OUR SON?"
Cora didn't flinch at the raised voice, instead choosing to study her fingernails. "Oh, our son, is it?" She looked Emma in the eye. "That's precious. You know what my daughter will do if she has him back? She'll take him far, far away from you if she has any sense. It's clear that no one else has the aptitude to care for him."
Snow blanched. Regina shook with rage.
"But we're getting ahead of ourselves. I think now it's time we have a demonstration of those new tricks. And of your devotion. What would you all do for the Evil Queen?" Cora lifted her palms up in question. She stood to her feet, clasping her hands and shooting one last grin at Regina. "Good luck, dear."
With her final words, Cora disappeared in a plume of black smoke.
"What the hell was that supposed to mean?" Emma asked after a few moments of silence.
"Lord if I know," James muttered, unsheathing his sword. "But I would guess it's not good."
"Oh is that what you would guess, Charming?" Regina quipped, unable to stop herself. "Sorry. Force of habit."
He nodded and fell into a prepared stance. "No harm done."
Snow followed suit and readied her bow, followed shortly by Emma with her own sword.
"Well that isn't foreboding at all," Emma muttered as they caught sight of what she meant. A wave of thick, white fog rolled into the cemetery, considerably cutting their line of sight off. The four of them shifted uneasily.
"She really does have a flair for the dramatic, doesn't she." Snow said. "How long do you think we'll have to–"
"Quiet!" Regina hissed, cutting her off. "Listen."
They quirked their ears and at first didn't sense what Regina had. Then they heard it: footsteps. Coming from multiple directions. The group stiffened and raised their weapons. Regina lifted her hands, ready to conjure whatever was required.
The first form that stepped within view in the fog was shambling slightly, clearly not a human in full power of their capacity. After a few more steps, the features were easier to make out.
"Archie?" Snow's voice was weak. Her bow faltered. She shook her head. They'd just seen Archie step into the crypt a half hour ago.
Regina raised a hand in his direction, tilting her head and assessing him.
"It's not him, Snow. She's glamoured a corpse to look like him; it is not him."
"Oh, come on. Zombies? Again?! You have got to be fucking kidding me." Emma gripped her sword a little tighter.
Snow gulped and raised her bow again, steadying it as best she could in shaking hands.
"Kathryn," James said in a choked whisper. The other three followed his gaze to their right, where a similarly shambling form appeared in the fog, wearing the visage of none other than Princess Abigail.
Regina searched around warily as they all backed up slightly, staying grouped together but moving backwards from the advancing bodies.
Then Emma noticed Regina's cheeks had grown too pallid for her complexion. "Regina?"
The woman had stopped moving, dropping her hands to her sides, and was staring straight ahead where another form stepped into view.
Emma followed the gaze. Regina's reaction and the man's strange clothes tole Emma she was seeing Regina's long lost fiancée. She looked at Regina again. "Just a glamour, right?"
Regina nodded. "Y-yes." Still, she couldn't stop the tears welling up. She raised her hands again, directing them towards the man that wore her lost love's face. "We have to dispatch them. Quickly. There may be more."
David raised his sword in Kathryn's direction. Snow let an arrow fly – it hit the thing that looked like Archie squarely in the chest. He halted briefly, looked down at the protruding arrow, then back up, resuming a quicker pace towards the group.
"Easier said than done." Snow said.
David took several steps closer to his opponent and faced her head-on, angling his sword and bringing it down in a firm arc towards her neck. Just before the sword met its target, Kathryn's hand shot up unnaturally fast and grabbed the blade, stopping its arc. Instead of slicing through her, it carved into her palm only slightly. Her eyes where clouded white and she turned this hollow gaze to the sword in her hand, almost curiously. Then she turned her eyes back to James and threw his sword back, sending him falling backwards with it. He scrambled to his feet and returned to the formation.
"Regina? Any ideas?" James called out, still stunned by the strength the corpse had exhibited.
Instead of replying, Regina conjured a fireball in her hand. She took a deep breath.
"Let me do it. You don't have to be the one that…" Emma trailed off, unable to finish the thought.
"Yes I do." Regina said. She sent the fireball roaring in Daniel's direction. He cocked his head to the side a moment before it hit him and sent him flying onto his back. For a few seconds, the smoking form didn't move. Regina crumpled a little.
Daniel sat up straight, pulling himself to his feet and advancing once more.
"Shit." Emma hissed. "These things are worse than I remember."
Regina steadied herself, her brain whirring as she tried to think of a solution to impenetrable zombies.
"We're just going to have to keep trying. They aren't invincible." Regina said, raising another swirl of fire in her palm.
James stabbed at Kathryn with his sword, driving his sword straight into her stomach this time, undeterred. The corpse kept walking as if it hadn't been marred at all, impaling herself further on his sword until she was at the hilt. He stumbled a little as she pushed further. He put a foot against her body and tried to force her back off of the sword. "A little help here?" He grunted in strain.
An arrow whizzed just past him and he watched it sail into the middle of Kathryn's forehead, forcing her to stumble back, the blade making a sick sound as it slid out of her innards, bringing a slop of congealed blood with it.
Snow steadied her bow in Archie's direction again and made the same mark – her arrow landing in his forehead. He stumbled backwards, landing with a hard thump. He struggled wildly to get to his feet, rolling and sticking the end of the arrow into the ground, momentarily disabled and not quite intelligent enough to understand why. James was meanwhile distracted with Kathryn who was charging with a renewed purpose.
Snow joined his side as another form appeared behind Kathryn – this one glamoured to appear as Leroy.
Regina peppered Daniel's body with fireball after fireball, but he seemed to be resisting them more each time. It was this distraction that made her ignore the fact that Emma had been still for half a minute, her eyes fixed in one place, her sword arm limp at her side. When Regina turned and registered these facts and the horror that had twisted Emma's features, she finally paused long enough to see what she was looking at.
At the edge of the fog was another walking corpse. This one was different. It shambled the same as the others, but it looked more decayed, more obviously undead. It wore a suit that had obviously been dragged through the dirt. Six feet of it at least.
His eyes were just as hollow and empty as the rest, but his face was hollow too: the skin stretched gauntly over his bones.
Still, it was obvious who was ambling in Emma's direction. Painfully so to Emma herself.
Emma could barely breathe but managed to croak one word.
Regina watched for a long moment; her heart seemed to stop beating. She felt like she was sinking. She felt like Emma was drifting far away.
And then Regina fell, tackled to the ground under the weight of the thing that looked like Daniel.
P.S. On the items Gold gives to Ruby and Belle: the gauntlet is very loosely based on Járngreipr (Thor's gauntlets) and the dagger is very loosely based on Carnwennan (King Arthur's dagger).