Note: Edits made 5/1/14, mostly for clarity + a chunk inserted into Chapter 5. I'd been meaning to do it for a while, but A Curious Thing finally forced me off my ass and got me moving, lol.
You can't believe you've spent the past week in a castle.
You can't believe you've spent the past week in a castle bored.
But it's been nearly a week since your ma drank that vial that the pirate had given her and suddenly began talking about fairytales and another realm and the savior, and since you'd both jumped into this other world to help out against a threat that is, supposedly, the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz. You'd barely arrived and met the woman who's just about Ma's age and somehow your grandmother when Ma had had to head out on recon with her newfound dad and an army of knights, leaving you behind.
And maybe you're sulking a little, because hanging out with your grandmother could be kind of cool but you want to be with Ma, exploring this new world, whether or not you don't have the memories that she's regained. It's always been you and Ma until now, and you've always come first, so it's hard to think about her ever having another priority. You still come first for her, but she's a hero in this world and you're supposed to be a hero too, so you tell her to go and force a smile and then mope around the castle for a week, wishing you could be out there.
Grams is nice, once you get over the whole Snow White thing. She shows you how to shoot with a bow and arrow and she says she'll have someone teach you to ride a horse properly soon and she's quick to fill you in on the situation in the surrounding kingdom. But she's also busy all the time and the castle is so big and empty when she's having private councils. You try sitting in on one and get dirty looks from the nobles who attend, and after that Grams suggests that you might be better off in the library or out on the grounds during.
So you start exploring, and that's when you finally start to enjoy yourself. You rap on walls and listen for hollow wood, and you poke at stones to find the loose ones. It's a castle, after all, the fairytale kind you've imagined all your life, and there are hidden passageways everywhere, secret rooms within walls and under floors and spanning level after level of the turrets.
Grams laughs when you tell her what you've been doing. "I was the same way when I grew up. Every nook and cranny of my castle!" she reminisces, an odd, sad little smile crossing her face. "My stepmother was the only one who could track me down when I would go wandering. I only found out later that even she needed her magic to find me."
"You really had an evil stepmother?" you want to know, and there's something pressing against your heart when you ask, some awareness that this is important, linked to the memories that no one's been able to give back to you yet.
Grams stares at you for a long moment. "I had a stepmother," she says at last. "It's very complicated, Henry." Which is her code phrase for everything that has to do with the life you can't remember, and you scowl and look at the ground.
"Whatever," you snap back, turning for the door.
Grams sighs, and you can't be too mad when she looks so pained about it. "And Henry?" she calls after you. "Remember, stay away from the upper levels of the east wing of the castle."
You're not supposed to go to the east wing. You'd asked jokingly if there's a wilting rose floating up there somewhere, but Grams had barely laughed and instead sat you down and told you the truth. It's more than anyone else has given you since Ma took that potion, even Ma, and you drink in every word wonderingly.
There's a woman there, a powerful sorceress who'd saved everyone in the kingdom the year before and brought them home. And you and Ma had been a part of her spell, the part that had separated you from the rest of the realm and left you in New York with no memories of the years you'd spent with your extended family.
Ma had been freed from it with the memory potion, but you're still caught up in the spell, and you're the trigger that could undo the whole thing and destroy everyone in the Enchanted Forest if you meet the spell's caster. "Even a shared glance from across a room could be enough," Grams warns. "Regina doesn't know exactly what constitutes meeting according to the curse. We can't risk you ever seeing her."
"Is she trapped in the east wing because I'm here now?" you want to know. You wonder if she holds a grudge against you for taking her freedom away, and if it's bad that you might have made an enemy out of a powerful magician. Your heart hurts at the thought of this woman you don't know hating you and you don't know why.
But Grams shakes her head vigorously. "No, of course not, Henry! She would gladly stay there forever if it meant that you were here." You frown at her certainty and she flushes, suddenly guilty. "I mean, she's a bit of a loner. And doesn't get on very well with anyone. I think she prefers the solitude."
You're dying to ask more questions, to find out more about this sorceress who you can never see, but Grams is stubbornly silent on the topic and you scope out the secret passageways that lead to the east wing, careful to never leave the safety of the closed walls.
And when Grams tells you that there's going to be a private council and that this Regina will be present, you nod somberly and agree to stay out by the lake until it's over, widening your eyes with extra earnestness.
She squeezes her eyes closed and rests a resigned hand on her swollen belly. "Just…don't be seen, Henry. You know the risks."
You really do like Grams a lot, you think.
There's a whole staircase in the walls behind the war room, leading up to a secret room that's stocked with old-fashioned guns and bows. It must have been for snipers during unexpected attacks on the castle, but now it's your place when Grams holds these meetings, huddled on the stairs with your eyes glued to the thin cracks in the stone that look into the war room.
Today you're watching the door, waiting for the infamous Regina to arrive, but it's just Grams and Ruby and a few lesser princes and princesses you know from past meetings. "She's late," one grumbles, drumming his fingers against the table. "It's bad enough that she's even coming, but does she have to be-"
"You know Regina," Ruby interjects hastily before he can continue. The other nobles seem equally irritated and anxious, eyes darting to the doors and faces tense with unpleasant scowls. "She likes to make an entrance."
And an entrance she does make, the doors bursting open with magical assistance as a woman who must be Regina, if only because of the way that your heart clenches when you see her, strides in. She's wearing an elaborate dress, black and more ostentatious than anything Grams has ever worn- and Grams is queen!- and her hair is piled on top of her head, falling in stiff locks around a face that looks down at everyone else in the room as though they're undeserving.
You think you should be afraid of her, like everyone else who isn't Grams seems to be when she casts her eyes around the room, catching hastily ducking gazes and sneering in return, but you can also see the way her own eyes drop when she takes a seat, as though she's exhausted by her own disdain.
You wonder if she looks at everyone like that because otherwise they'll be the ones sneering back at her instead. You wonder if she'd look at you like that if you ever met, or if she'd regard you like she does Grams, with guarded dislike that does a poor job of masking what you think is respect.
You wonder how it is that you can look at this stranger and feel like you know her so well already.
"The king has sent back word with Captain Hood," Grams begins, nodding to one of the men you don't recognize. "The Witch still believes that Regina is dead, and has no concept of the threat that Emma may pose."
You watch Regina closely when your Ma's name comes up. She'd chosen you two to curse, right? There must have been a reason for it beyond all the magic that Ma is supposed to have. But Regina's eyes are even more shuttered than before, her gaze intent on Grams. "You should bring Miss Swan back as soon as possible, if I'm to train her. Knowledge of the terrain won't do any good when the Witch subjugates you all and we're helpless to resist." She curls her lip with disgust.
"I know what you think about it," Grams sighs, and she looks nervous for the first time since Regina had entered the room. "Still, it's good that one of you will be able to get a grasp on what we're up against. And we can't risk you leaving the castle in any form and revealing you to the Witch."
Regina huffs, leaning back in her chair, her lips stubborn and set. You make the same face when you're cranky, and you grin a little at seeing it on this supposedly terrifying sorceress's features.
Your heart hurts again, aching and insubstantial, and you touch your chest with the tips of your fingers and exhale slowly.
You follow her back to her quarters, climbing in and out of passageways just out of sight, and though she glances around a few times as though she can sense your eyes on her back, she doesn't try to track you down.
You hurriedly make your way along the twisty corridors that surround the east wing, keeping an ear to the wall and following the click-click-click of her rapid footsteps along the way, and when you finally hear her pause and a heavy stone door open, you're glad to sink to the floor and find an eyehole.
She twists her wrist in a flourish and you see your first magic since that magic bean on the Jolly Roger, but this is seamless instead of flashy holes torn into reality, a mere twitch of the air as her elaborate dresses disappear and are replaced with a pair of slacks and a blue blouse that would have looked more at home in New York than in the Enchanted Forest. You're fascinated. You know the story, that they'd all spent several decades in your realm by the workings of the original curse, but Regina is the first one here who you've seen dress like it, who seems infinitely more comfortable in modern clothing than the fairytale dresses.
The dress had been her armor around the others, and you think you understand now how uncomfortable she'd been in the war room, surrounded by people she doesn't like and who clearly dislike and fear her. Maybe Grams is right, and she's a loner by choice. Maybe you didn't change anything by coming to the castle, and you suddenly hurt for this mysterious woman, who's held prisoner by the hatred of others, even though she's working for someone as good as Snow White.
She sighs to herself and slips out of her shoes, padding over to the room to her right, and you hurry to find a new peeking place there. It's a room you haven't seen before in your brief visits to the east wing, and when you see what's inside, you know you'd have remembered it if you had.
Magic. Here's where it is, locked away in a room deep within the castle. Shelves and shelves of potions and strange-looking ingredients litter one wall, and books are stacked along the wall out of which you're peering. There's a long, glass-topped table opposite the door with several books open on it and a bowl of apples at its center, and it's there that Regina sits, flipping a few pages before she finds what she's looking for.
She closes her eyes and a purple mist begins to form in the center of the room, hovering in place without dissipating as though it's waiting for her command. Regina opens her eyes. "Show me Emma Swan," she says, and you squint through your hole, wishing it were a little bigger.
The mist parts, and you can see a vague, unformed picture in front of you. You're looking at it from the side and it's distorted because of it, but you can still make out the image of Ma riding on a horse beside your Gramps, her brow furrowed in that way that you know she's complaining right now.
You smile at her with affection, missing her more than ever, and you're surprised to see the same affection- albeit more tempered- on Regina's face as she studies the image. "Such a waste," she mumbles to herself, and the mist evaporates as she turns away.
You find yourself back there later that night. You don't have a bedtime here, not really- you're too old for it and Ma's gotten worse about enforcing your old bedtime the past couple of years, anyway. But Grams does pointedly wish you a good night when you're up later than she is and you drag your feet back toward your room, settling in with a book of adventures from the library and wondering how much work it'd be to hook up a TV in the Enchanted Forest.
Tonight, though, Regina is still on your mind, and you push your dresser to the side and slip through the secret door behind it, hurrying through openings in the walls until you're at the east wing. You peer through the rooms that make up her quarters, searching for the sorceress, but there are some rooms you can't look into that the passageway doesn't wrap around.
Still, though, you're nothing if not persistent, and you find a patch of stone that seems carved together a little too smoothly, attached more securely than the rest of the wall. A door, you guess. Your fingers dart along the side of the wall until they find a hooked catch and depress it, and the door slides open silently.
This is much too dangerous, too close to the sorceress you can never see, but your curiosity is stronger than your common sense right now and you can't seem to stay away. You creep along the sides of what's sort of a parlor, an open room with only a slim desk at one end and a couch along the wall where you've entered from, peeking into each of the other rooms that the parlor opens into.
There's the magical study, of course, and another small library to the right of it. To the left is a room that looks almost like a modern kitchen- so much so, in fact, that you're not entirely sure it isn't exactly that and Regina has been enjoying the comforts of home- and through there, a small hallway that leads to an enormous bedroom.
You can see Regina now, lying in the big bed and tossing and turning in her sleep, and you can't stop yourself from moving forward to the door and watching her as she shifts, murmuring unintelligible words in her sleep. Her hair is out of its coif, her cheeks are flushed and distressed, and she looks so human, so small and normal and unintimidating. You want to come closer.
You're playing with fire, you remind yourself, and when she shifts for a moment and stops moving, you panic, scampering with light feet through the kitchen and back to the parlor, pausing only when you're back in front of your exit, your heart beating wildly.
You're going to leave now. You have to. Everything depends on your ability to step away right now. But you can't stop yourself from glancing around one last time and spotting the frame flat against the edge of the desk.
You step closer, disbelieving, and pick it up. It's impossible. It doesn't make sense, not even in this world where magic is real and Ma and you are royalty. It's beyond anything you'd have ever expected to find in these quarters.
It's a wallet-sized print of you at nine or ten, your hair neatly combed and your shirt one you've never seen before, smiling at the camera with a school-photograph sky-blue background behind you.
You hear a creak of movement from the bedroom and you grab the picture and run, climbing into the passageway and racing back to your room.
You stare at the photo for what must be hours, picking out every detail of it and thinking them through. Your hair is a little longer than it is now, your clothes aren't ones you can imagine Ma picking out, not even for school picture day. You smile at the camera like you're happy, really happy, but you can't remember many times when you weren't happy.
Still, though, it's like looking at a photograph of someone else, or of yourself in a dream. Where is it from? You're certain it's from the years you can't remember, the time you'd been in Maine and Grams is so reticent about. Somehow, a single picture of a time that doesn't exist had escaped whatever wreckage the curse had left behind. How does Regina have it? Why?
You're important to Regina and the curse, you know from the photo. Ma, too. You don't know why and Grams is less than helpful when you ask her about it at the breakfast table. "You were the price of the countercurse," she says finally, but that's just the same thing she's said dozens of times before with new words. She's never called you a price before, as though someone had had to pay it with you.
"Why us?" you persist. "Why me?"
She hesitates. "I suppose…because of your connection to your mother." It doesn't sound like a lie and it makes enough sense that you don't question it, but there's something on her face you can't read, a deception that you can't grasp just yet.
"Because Ma is the savior?" you guess, and Grams chews on her toast for a Maent too long.
"I-" She begins, but she's cut off when a guard bursts into the room, panting for breath.
"She's coming! Right now." He halts in front of Grams, formal once more. "The evil queen demands that I inform you that she's on her way here."
Grams's face tightens. "Henry, you need to leave right now."
"Henry!" The words are urgent and you clamber to your feet, sensing her panic and finding the closest exit in the walls. Grams sighs at you but doesn't order you any further away, so you wait in your hiding place, tense and a little excited at the thought of this new evil queen.
You shouldn't be surprised when it's Regina who sweeps in, her eyes dark and angry and frantic as she addresses Grams. "Someone was in my quarters last night!" she snaps.
"Oh." Grams's eyes are wide. "Oh, no, Regina, I had no idea. I'll send out my guards to-"
"You'll do better than that!" She's breathing heavily, her fingers twitching with magic as she strides closer to Grams, suddenly threatening if not for the wildness in her eyes. She looks…lost, almost, as though something has been taken away from–
Oh. You think of the photograph, tucked beneath your pillow, and you bite back the guilt that washes over you at the impotent desolation on Regina's face.
"I want the trespasser executed. I won't have anyone mucking about in my quarters, stealing from me," she snarls, and she's shaking when Grams takes her hands, her eyes seeking out the vulnerability in Regina's.
"I will find them and remove them from the castle," she says, enunciating each word with care. "We can't have anyone intruding on your space, especially when your existence should be a secret." Regina only glares in response, but Grams seems content with whatever she's seen on the other woman's face, letting Regina's hands go. "What did they take from you?"
Regina whirls around in response, stalking from the room rather than answering the question, and you squirm in your place, unwilling to face Grams just yet.
You need to return the photo. It doesn't seem fair, not when it's a picture that should be yours, but its importance to Regina eclipses any curiosity you feel about it and she seems so adrift without it. So you wait a day, persuading yourself that you'll put yourself at too much risk by going while Regina is still so angry, and then you stay up until the early hours of the morning and head out to the east wing of the castle.
This time, Regina is asleep on the couch in the parlor, and you bite your lip, guilty again that she feels the need to guard her door now. You think of the way the other royals had spoken about her, of the way the guard had called her the evil queen. She's surrounded by people who hate her here, and you've only made it worse by intruding.
You consider leaving the photo on the floor by the wall rather than venturing past Regina to the desk. But that'd be like painting a big red arrow on the wall, signaling THIS IS HOW I GOT IN. And you're not entirely sure that you don't want to come back, once Regina isn't so cautious anymore. (You know you'll be back, because Regina is the most interesting thing about this castle and you want to spend all your time within these walls, a silent observer.)
So you sneak past her, careful in your sneakers on the long carpeted floor, and set the photo back in place on the desk, frowning at it one last time. It's a clue to your locked away memories, but not a very helpful one; not as helpful as one of those convenient potions might be. You can do without it, especially if Regina can't.
You turn to go and your frown grows deeper when your feet don't move with you. There's a light purple mist on the floor that you hadn't seen before, rising up from the carpet to wrap around the soles your feet. A trap! Regina had set it for the intruder, and you'd walked carelessly into it, forgetting the capabilities of the woman sleeping on the couch beside you. And now you're stuck in magical quicksand that crawls along your shoes, higher and higher until it's nearly at your socks.
You quickly yank your feet free of your sneakers, hopping over the mist and back to the secret door, and it's barely shut when you hear the abrupt movements just inside the room.
You peer back in, unable to resist, and see Regina standing, bleary-eyed and dangerous as she heads over to the desk. She stares at the photo for a moment, tracing your features in the picture, and you tense as you see her remember the trap she'd set.
She glances at the floor and freezes.
And now she's gathering up your sneakers and holding them in her arms, shaking harder than she had with Grams yesterday, and there's no anger in her eyes, no deadly fury or frantic terror, just tears that slide down her cheeks as she sinks back onto the couch and sobs into your sneakers. She whispers your name and you fight the urge to come out now, to demand who was I to you and to run into her arms. Your heart is hurting worse than ever before, and you want to touch her, to comfort her, to understand why a sorceress in your grandmother's castle is so intimately connected to you.
You stay in the wall beside her until you fall asleep, and leave only once morning comes.