Ella leaves Snow to go get washed up for dinner, whilst Snow heads the other way. She thinks it a better idea to start getting Emma ready now, rather than fail miserably later. She trusts Charming to ready himself (five years as royalty seems to have done the trick), wherever he is. Probably chasing Emma up a tree, she thinks, drawing an amused smile from herself.
"Emma!" She calls. "You in your room?" There's no reply, but Snow decides to check anyway, despite the fact that the only time Emma spends in her room is at night (and even that's reluctantly). As predicted, Emma's room is empty, and Snow instead rolls her eyes at the clothes strewn across the floor. With a sigh, she bends down to pick them up and at least put them all on a chair somewhere. They don't smell too bad, which Snow supposes is a bonus. It had never occurred to her to feel guilty about the sheer amount of dirty clothes the three of them hand off to the servants to wash until Charming had made a comment about it.
After deeming the room appropriately presentable (to whom, she's not sure), Snow decides to check the little garden that Emma spends a large amount of time in when not with her friends. Hopefully, she'll be there, and they can get started on the painful procedure of getting ready straight away.
Snow proceeds carefully down the stairs. She's due next week, yet she still forgets about the extra weight on her stomach. If it hadn't been for Ruby, she would've overbalanced going down them last month. And that would've been a bloody disaster, literally. You'd have thought she'd have been used to pregnancy, having already experienced one, but no, she was every bit as naïve as the last time. When she'd been pregnant with Emma, she'd walked a bit too close to the archery range, and nearly ended up with shish kebab baby.
She makes it down without mishap, and heads across the hall to go outside. The afternoon sun is still winking in the sky, letting the trees cast lengthy shadows, that remind Snow that it is in fact, still summer. You wouldn't know it, with the weather they'd experienced for the last month. Standing still for a moment, she lets the warmth wash over her, closing her eyes temporarily to feel the full effect. It puts her in a good mood, and she feels calmer about the whole preparation routine she's about to put herself through. Truthfully, it's only a small dinner, and Emma won't be too bad, but with the baby, Snow's just not feeling like arguing with her at all.
But Emma is nowhere to be seen (or heard) in the garden, so Snow heads back inside, sighing as she pulls out from under the sun. Maybe they can eat outside, if it doesn't get dark too early. "Grumpy!" She spots him coming up the stairs just down the corridor. "Have you seen Emma?"
He shakes his head apologetically. "Sorry, no. Gotta start getting ready, eh?" He winks, and Snow laughs.
"It has to be done. I just want to get it over with; do you know where she might be?"
He frowns, considering for a second. "Not really, no. I've not seen her since she and the Prince left this morning." She notices he still refers to Charming as 'the Prince', which ironically, is one thing he never really was.
"But that was hours ago!" Snow exclaims, frowning too now. "They must be around somewhere…"
"I'll go ask the guys on the gate if they've come back in." Snow smiles, because Grumpy is ever the gentleman, whether she's pregnant or not.
"That would be great." Her tone is warm, and relieved that she wouldn't have to go chasing after them herself. "Thank you, I'll see you in a bit then."
He nods, and bows with a grin. "Your highness." He laughs, and spins around to hurry back down the stairs, leaving Snow unsure of whether to start getting herself ready first. No, she decides. Emma is priority, and plus, it'd be so much harder to complete the process in one of her bigger dresses.
So she heads down to the kitchens, and checks the servants are sorted with everything they need, more to pass the time than anything. They're still delighted to see her, and eager to show off what they've prepared for the night, which she graciously marvels at. With wicked glints in their eyes, they tell her that 'his Majesty the King' came by to pilfer two slices of chocolate cake earlier, and Snow promises she'll scold him, laughing. They're respectful enough to use a title that still makes Charming uncomfortable, yet at ease enough to tell on him, which she takes pleasure in. She often teases him that all the kitchen staff prefer her, which he's hugely indignant about.
She's nothing to do until she finds Emma, so wanders aimlessly around the corridors until Grumpy appears, some half an hour later. "Didn't see them on your way then?" Snow raises an eyebrow, though she knows it is no fault of Grumpy's.
"They're not back yet." He cuts her off before she can make another joke. "Well, they haven't come back through the gates. Unless the Prince decided to throw his five year old daughter into the castle…"
"Not back yet?!" Snow interrupts, voice rising in pitch. "There's less than two hours until dinner!"
Grumpy shrugs. "Maybe the Prince forgot."
"No! He wouldn't forget!" And Snow knows he wouldn't, so her word is final on that topic, something that's obvious to Grumpy in her tone.
"Snow, I don't know." He shifts to his other foot uneasily. "Why else?"
"I don't know! But he wouldn't forget!" She's almost shouting now, and on realising it, she stops with a sigh.
Grumpy steps closer, trying to look as comforting as possible, which Snow appreciates. "They won't miss it." He tells her, with conviction. "There'll be back in time."
She sighs. "I know. Sorry for shouting so much just then." She smiles apologetically at him, drawing a smile from him in return.
"Nearly blew my hat off." He jokes.
"I'm pregnant, don't blame me." She defends herself, laughing.
"I would never." He winks again, as he walks away with a gracious bow, leaving Snow alone with her worried frustration.
Assuring herself that they'll be back any minute, she heads up to the guest quarters to see Ella and take her mind off of things. Ella would reassure her that they'd be back in time. She's probably been through a similar experience herself, seen as she has her own daughter.
She sits with Ella for at least half an hour as the other Queen gets ready, making amicable conversation in an effort to distract herself from the mounting dread she's feeling at the prospect of readying Emma in such a small amount of time.
"Make Charming do it." Ella advises. "He's the one who's bringing her back late." The thought of Charming attempting to get Emma into a dress makes Snow snort.
Deciding in the end that she will get ready herself first, Snow kills another hour bathing and dressing, despairing at the fact that she now only has half an hour left for Emma. She's a little frustrated now, perhaps at Charming for being late. It's only a dinner though, and she realises that Emma especially prefers running around in the woods to polite conversation. Perhaps her husband is attempting to tire the little Princess out, in order to help her sit still as her hair is done.
Another fifteen minutes, and Snow's heard no word. She'd not sure if the mounting feeling in her gut is anger or fear. Obviously, she knows Charming's not perfect – she's not either. They're not always entirely responsible, and Snow remembers how he only grinned when she skipped court to go riding with Emma. He didn't grow up as a royal, she reminds herself, as she often has to. All the balls and courts and dinners must feel incredibly tedious to him.
She refuses to let herself worry, knowing he'll only raise an eyebrow at her, and make her realise she's being stupid.
She starts without them. The first course, as always, is a lavish affair, littering the table with plates and plates of food hailing from across kingdoms. Snow doesn't enjoy much of it. She's plagued by that ever rising feeling in her gut, the feeling caused by her husband and daughter's unexplained absence. It's a little like morning sickness, she muses, briefly wishing for the time when she always knew where Emma was – in her womb.
Ella tries to make conversation with her, as do many of the other guests. Her replies are half-hearted, distracted, and they all slowly give up as it becomes clear her mind is somewhere else. Someone raises a question about the whereabouts of the King and the Princess, which Snow supposes is completely justified. She does not share her worry, and announces to the entire room that they're with Charming's Mother. A lie, of course – she's dead. But none of them know that. Most of them think Charming's of royal birth.
She excuses herself as the third course is announced.
"Grumpy! Have they come in yet?"
There's concern in his eyes. "I've got everyone watching out." He always knows what she needs. "But no one's seen them."
"Grumpy." Her voice is low, almost a whisper. "Do you think-"
"No." Grumpy cuts her off, knowing exactly what kind of fear she was about to confess. "They're fine Snow. Much as I hate to say it, the Prince knows how to look after himself, and Princess Emma… well, there's not much that could stop her."
He's right, of course, but he's not a parent. Not a wife. He doesn't know what it's like to receive threats from someone once trusted, threats warning harm on a little baby girl whom Snow hopes will never have to face the darker side of the world.
"I want to look for them." She says, abruptly. "Send men out. They went for a picnic, so they can't have gone far."
Grumpy bows respectfully. "Of course, your Highness." He walks off quickly, eager as ever to fulfil her demands.
Snow barely contemplates re-entering the dining hall. Ella will cover for her, she knows that, and so she hastens towards the front gate in order to receive news as soon as it comes in. In the old days, I would've gone out looking for them myself, she thinks fleetingly, wondering where that brash impulsivity had gone. Charming and I always did do a better job of finding one another than anyone else.
There is indeed nothing stopping her from joining the search. She is the Queen, and loved far and wide – if she wishes it, it will be done. If asked, many of the townspeople would come to her aid.
She hopes it doesn't have to come to that.
She reaches the door out of the castle in time to implore on her soldiers the necessity of finding Charming and Emma (which is not needed at all, but she can't help it). Then they ride out, into the descending darkness. Snow had not realised how late it is, and takes that as a sign that something is definitely wrong. Though the approaching night is clear, it's also cool, and Emma left her cloak in her room (which Snow knows only because she tidied it up).
Red arrives, having been at market all day. As soon as Snow informs her of the situation, she promises to find Emma and Charming, and is straight back out of the door. She's an excellent tracker, Snow thinks, almost confidently. She'll find them.
She's too tense to rejoin the feast, and decides the guests will survive without her. It's not like she'd been contributing much to the conversation anyway. So instead, she stands by the door and waits. Waits for something - anything – that will crush her fears (on second thoughts, she'll not settle for anything – by this point, she wants her daughter and her husband where she can see them). Grumpy stands beside her in an effort to be comforting, which sadly, doesn't have the slightest effect. A small part of her wants to ask for his reassurance, but a larger part of her doesn't want to admit the possibility of her family being in danger out loud.
Saying it out loud would make it real.
So she continues to wait, for – god knows how long. She waits until finally, a few of her knights can be seen in the distance, riding back towards the castle. Her heart quickens, and she barely feels Grumpy's hand on her arm that she supposes was meant to be reassuring. She's not going to wait any longer.
She tears out of the door towards the knights, and they pull to a halt just before they meet her. The cold night surrounds her; she shivers, engulfed by the darkness as she notices the grave looks on their faces. She feels like the darkness is choking her.
They dismount. "Your Majesty, I'm sorry-"
"No, oh God no." Her voice is barely a whisper. It feels like her heart is going to rip out of her chest.
"We found the Prince's horse." He continues. Frosty. "Dead." He finishes. No.
"There was also a dead black knight." His voice is slightly shaky. Regina. She was supposed to be gone, banished. They hadn't heard from her in years. Snow feels long buried hatred twisting inside her, resentment and fear. Regina had taken so much already. She can't have them too. I won't let her.
"There was also… this." He pulls it out from underneath his cloak. A sword. Caked in blood, recently used. To kill someone. Charming's sword. Whose blood is it? How should she know? Not Charming's, she prays. She doesn't even allow herself to think of it being Emma's. Perhaps he used it to kill the horse, she hopes, perhaps it was hurt and death was kindest. Perhaps they're on their way back right this moment, taking so long because they're on foot.
Hope. That's what she's good at, isn't it? That's what Charming had taught her. There was a little girl, long ago, who had silly, childish hopes, of a new mother, a new friend. Silly, childish hopes of a happy ending. Regina had destroyed that little girl. And now, just as that girl had begun to hope again, had found her happy ending, Regina was there again - her best case scenario had had no explanation for the black knight.
"Snow… we don't know anything for definite." Grumpy, always trying to comfort her.
"Yes we do." She snaps, as tears pool in her eyes. "My husband and daughter are missing. Their horse is dead, my husband's sword is covered in blood and there was a black knight present." She rounds on the guards again. "Ride out again." She orders, not registering how irrational she's being. "Find something else."
Ever faithful, her knights turn to their horses with respectful bows and muttered 'your Majesty's. But before they even have the chance to mount, more guards come riding towards the castle. "Snow!" Someone shouts. It's Red. She's riding on the back of one of the knight's horses, and in front of her, covered by her red cloak – Emma.
"EMMA!" Snow screams, already running towards her daughter, sobbing. She doesn't care what anyone thinks of her – that's her daughter there, her daughter, alive!
The horses pull up beside her and Snow ignores Red as she says something, taking her daughter from her friend. "Mommy!" Emma cries. Her cheeks are marked with tear tracks, and her eyes are red. She hides her face in Snow's shoulder, and for a moment, it's just the two of them, lost in the euphoria of finding each other, sobbing into each other's shoulders.
But Snow knows she has to be strong. She's a parent. If she can't be strong for Emma, who can she be strong for?
"It's okay." She whispers in her daughter's ear. "It's okay. I've got you. You're safe now. I love you. I love you. It's okay." Emma's sobs quiet into strangled little cries as Snow rubs circles on her back and whispers comforts in her ear.
She finally looks up at Red, who answers her silent question. "No one's seen him."
Snow fights the urge to scream. She bites her tongue so hard it bleeds, and the metallic taste fills her mouth. Emma, she reminds herself. Emma always comes first. But she's torn. She should take Emma inside, clean her up, get her something to eat and drink, sit beside her as she falls asleep. But going inside feels like giving up. It feels like she's leaving him.
In the end, she knows what she has to do. Emma is her priority, and going inside isn't really giving up. "Stay out and wait." She orders, and Red and all the knights nod solemnly, knowing exactly what they're to wait for. She takes the first step back towards the castle, and another.
"No!" Emma screams. "We have to get Daddy!"
Snow freezes. Emma will know, will know where he is. So carefully, because she doesn't want to push her obviously distraught daughter too hard, she asks her: "Can you tell me what happened Emma?" Her voice is hoarse. She sounds broken, she thinks, fleetingly.
Emma's eyes fill with fresh tears, but she nods. She's brave, Snow thinks, proudly. Just like her Father, she also thinks, and she's brought back to reality. "We were having a picnic." Emma sniffs. "Some bad men came. Wearing black." Her lip trembles, but she carries on regardless, the air silent as everyone present listens to her story. "Daddy told me to go run and go hide. Like in tig. He said he'd find me." Of course he did, Snow thinks, sadly. "They had a fight. And there was the red. Like when I fell down the steps." Snow's eyes water at the thought of what her five year old daughter has had to witness tonight. It's not fair.
She catches Red's eye for a second. Her friend can offer no comfort. Emma continues.
"They threw dirt in his face, and hit him." Emma's story pours out of her in a continuous stream now, as if she's saying it whilst trying not to really hear it. Snow wishes she didn't have to hear it either. "They put his hands behind his back and some more men took him away. He was crying." Snow wonders if this is how it feels to have your heart ripped in half. "They looked for me." Emma tells her, tunelessly. "But Daddy told me to hide until he found me, so I stayed in my tree. Then they put Daddy's sword in Frosty, and there was more red." Her voice hitches. "And then they went."
"We found her wandering the forest." Red adds, quietly.
It barely registers to Snow. They have her husband. They have Charming. Regina has Charming. Snow will kill her. She'll kill her a thousand times over, until her heart is completely black. Regina has stolen so much from her, and she deserves to die. There will be no way out for her this time. If she hurts him…
"He told me to hide, and I did." Emma sobs, and Snow is brought out of her dark thoughts. "Did I do it wrong Mommy? He said he'd find me. Did I do it wrong?"
True courage is being brave in the face of fear, Snow was once told. And this is the test of hers. In the face of the hopeless ache in the pit of her stomach, the tears on her cheeks, the shattered feeling in her chest. In the face of all this, she has to find the strength to comfort her daughter.
She has to.
"Oh, no Emma!" Maybe she can be brave. "Never! We're going to find him, I promise!" Her voice comes out much stronger than she'd expected it to. She almost sounds steady. She almost sounds certain. "You didn't do it wrong." Her voice drops to a whisper again. "You've been so brave. I am so proud of you. And Daddy will be too." It feels like lying, to say how he'd feel when he isn't there. It feels like a false promise that everything will be okay, that Charming will come back and tell Emma he is proud of her. In reality, a dark, hopeless part of Snow is wondering if anything will ever be okay again.
She has to take Emma inside, she realises. As much as she wants to leap onto a horse and burn down the forest until she finds Regina and puts an arrow in her throat to get him back, Snow knows, that above all else, she is a Mother. And that comes with responsibilities and rationality that young, childless couples do not have to worry about.
"We must all retire for the night." She says monotonously, making eye contact with no one. If she looks at any of them, she will not be able to keep going. "It is too dark out; we must continue the search in the morning." And with that, she strides towards the castle. No one questions her. They know what she knows – she is a pregnant woman with a five year old daughter, and her guards are exhausted. She must not forget who she is just because he's not here. She is a good person, and he would not have her find him at the expense of their guards.
So they all head back indoors, pretending not to be defeated, pretending there is hope left. Emma chokes back sobs in her arms as they ascend the stairs. She's not hungry, she tells Snow by shaking her head as Snow suggests something to eat. So they go straight to Snow's room, because she can't face sleeping alone, knowing why he's not there with her. And she knows Emma doesn't want to be alone either.
"It's okay." She whispers to Emma, over and over; as they hide under the covers, hide from the knowledge of what's missing. "It's okay." Emma's stifled sobs fade, slowly, Snow doesn't know how long. Maybe hours, maybe only a few minutes. She feels Emma's steady heartbeat in her arms, her constant breathing against her face. She's asleep.
It's then that Snow can allow herself to properly cry, as long as she is quiet. Her ears echo with silent screams, and she realises she doesn't quite know how to comfort herself when he's not there. She hasn't had to do it in five years, has probably never had the occasion to.
For once, she allows the dark thoughts free reign, and they dance through her mind. The last dark thing she did gave her the little girl in her arms. They'd sworn to be good, after that. Regretted it so deeply they'd put every ounce of their being into the hope of redemption. But Snow knows that there are two people in her life she'd turn to the darkness for. Maybe three soon. She'll kill Regina if she touches him. And Snow knows that she'll touch him.
I will always find you. His voice. Or hers. It doesn't usually matter. But we always lose each other too. Definitely her voice. He would never say something so pessimistic. She tries to imagine what he would say next, but is unable to summon the optimism needed to imagine his voice. She wonders where he got it from, sometimes. How does a farm boy have any cause for such faith? Maybe that's what he'd say. Have faith Snow. Yes, that's what he'd say. If he were there.
But he's not.
So he doesn't get to say anything at all.
She falls asleep at some point, a long time after the tears have all dried up and she's so exhausted her eyes will no longer stay open. She falls asleep, and dreams of darkness and blood, and the way Regina will look with an arrow through her heart.