Apart from the tension left over from the previous days hostage situation, it was a typical morning at school for Nicholas and Ava. They heard frantically whispered gossip as they passed through the halls to their lockers, and saw an abundance of notes passed between desks during first period. Despite being a terrible, terrible event that had no doubt scarred those involved for life, yesterday's scarfaced gun toting maniac was all anyone was talking about. It was easily the most exciting thing to happen in Storybrooke any of the students could remember. Nothing good ever happened in this town. Until now.
"Do you think Henry's okay?" Nick asked as the two of them stepped out of the algebra room. A colorful crowd of kids passed in a nonstop flurry around them. Their fellow junior high students could be seen gathering near the water fountains, some to talk about sports, others to gossip about those beneath their social status. These were girls mostly. The cliqueish girls that existed at every school, who spent the majority of their time plotting the misery of those around them. Basic middle school stuff. Ava tensed at her brother's question. That was the part of the rumors that really bothered her. Rumor had it that Henry Mills, the mayor's kid, had been at the center of all the mayhem.
Though they hardly knew the kid, after all, he was a few grades below them, Ava couldn't help but worry about him. She felt like she and Nick owed him something. It had been he who'd urged his mom, Sheriff Swan, to go in search of their father instead of just shipping them off to the foster system like anyone else would have done. They'd spent an afternoon with him baking in Miss Blanchard's apartment. That had been the funnest day Ava could remember. The rest of her life seemed like a hazy blur of the weeks they'd spent on the streets, moving from one rundown alleyway to the next, hoping for nothing more than for a dry place to sleep.
"I don't know" she answered, adjusting the strap of her backpack. "Have you seen him today?" Nick shook his head.
"No, but he's here. Tough kid. Most of his class didn't come in." He paused, peering down the busy hallway. Indeed, the majority of Mary Margaret's class was absent, which was understandable. Yesterday had been very traumatic. "Do you wanna go check on him? I think he has the same lunch as us." After a moment's consideration Ava nodded. Yeah. Checking on him would be good for her nerves. Henry Mills was probably the closest thing either of the twins had to a friend. Maybe that could change.
"Yeah" she said. "Let's go."
Looking both ways down the bustling hallway, the two of them stepped into the shifting river of students headed towards the school's front doors. The late winter air was crisp and cold. Puffs of breath hung visibly , and a chilled breeze swept across the schoolyard. It was around eleven thirty, lunch time. A favorite privilege of the students was being allowed to eat their lunch outside. This was a privellege everyone took advantage of, even in the colder months when snow was usually piled high. Anything was better than sitting in the humid basement cafeteria where the ceiling sloped and dripped.
As was usual for the lunch hour, most of the picnic tables that littered the courtyard were full up by the time a quarter of the students arrived outside. With the tables taken kids sat in circles beneath the tall trees on the western side of the building, or against the concrete wall formed by the handicap ramp at the front.
Nick tightened the collar of his coat and pulled the brim of his hat down. It really was cold. Back before she'd died his mother wouldn't have let him leave the house without a scarf triple wrapped around his face, which became pink as could be in cold temperatures. These thoughts made him smile. He missed his mother. They'd never had much, but she'd been a loving parent, and that was all any kid ever really needed.
Finding Henry Mills wasn't hard. He could always be found sitting somewhere off by himself, his nose lodged in a heavy leather bound book twice the size of his head. The kid was a notorious loner. That was common knowledge.
That was probably why it was surprising to find him sitting against the trunk of an ancient oak in the company of Rob, a tall boy in the eighth grade. Rosalinda, their neighbor, and the scruffy looking motorcycle rider who'd rolled into town a few weeks ago. He and Henry were deep in conversation, the latter's iconic boom open on the ground between them.
"What's Rosa doing here?" Nick whispered to his sister.
"I don't know" Ava whispered back. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Why was Rosa here? She didn't go to school, and even if she did, she was old enough to be a senior in high school. She had no place at the elementary school.
Rosalinda looked much the same as she had earlier that morning at the window. Her clothes were wrinkled and unkempt, her hair was a frizzy mess, and dark bags hung beneath her bloodshot eyes. Between trembling fingers she held a crumpled piece of paper. Every few moments she'd glance down at it, eyes dancing across its surface, as if trying to find deeper meaning in it than she'd already discovered. Rob on the other hand was staring off into the distance. His knees were hugged to his chest, and his entire body was shaking as though he were shivering.
And apart from Rosa, what was the motorcycle guy doing there? He was a visitor in town, so he couldn't have any kids here. Curiosity taking hold of her, Ava used a finger to plug one of her ears, sharpening the hearing in the other. This was a trick she'd picked up from their nights in the alleyways, when they'd slept in shifts while the other stood watch. They'd never been ambushed in the dark, but they had picked up great listening skills.
With her hearing sharpened, an approaching Ava could hear the conversation a full twenty yards away.
"You've gotta be kidding me!" Henry was saying. His face was one of incredulous disbelief, a rare expression for him. "That's gonna cause a time paradox? Caleb spent last night showing us a three siege army, a fountain of fairies, and twelve your old me getting mauled by a dragon witch! I think the universe'll survive you telling me how all this ends."
The motorcycle man chuckled, the ornaments around his neck jingling.
"Sorry kid, it doesn't work that way. What Caleb showed you in his memories was from a defunct timeline. That future isn't going to happen no matter what we do, it's not set in stone. But the future I just came from is on this timeline. At the end of all this Emma sent me back and told me what to do to help you guys, because she remembered what it is I did. I can't tell you, because according to future you, I didn't tell you anything. Don't worry though. You'll find out when it happens." Henry didn't look to happy with this answer. Face scrunching up a little, he tented his fingers critically.
"So" he began again slowly. "If future me told you not to tell me anything, does that mean we win? Emma saves the day?" the motorcycle rider nodded.
"Yep. That I can tell you. I just can't tell you how." He turned to face the approaching twins, startling them. "Looks like your friends came to you. That's convenient, saves time."
Henry looked up, his face brightening significantly. '
"Hey guys" he said cheerfully. He ran a hand down the open spine of his book. "How're you doing?"
"We're good" Ava said hesitantly, looking between the ten year old and his leather jacket wearing companion. "Um..who's this?"
"August Booth" the man answered with a smile. He offered her his hand. "A friend of Henry's. Nice to meet you." Timidly, Ava shook his hand. She wasn't scared of him. She didn't scare easily, but he did unnerve her. Something was off about this guy. Not necessarily wrong off, just weird off.
"Rosa" Nick said to their neighbor slowly. "What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be at work? Ms. Harver'll be really mad if you miss again."
The maid's fingers jerked on the paper, tearing it slightly. She didn't respond.
"She can't answer you" said Rob. Like with Rosa, tears ran in red lines down his cheeks. His hands were trembling, and he was biting his lip like he was on the verge of tears. "Her past is... her past is coming back. She's in a dream...she's sleeping..." he trailed off, before bursting into tears and burying his face in his hands. August climbed to his feet. He clapped Henry on the shoulder.
"Think you can handle everything here, kid?" Henry nodded.
"Yeah, I think so."
"Good. I have to get going. I'm meeting the Hatter at his place. We're gonna head back to the homeland, start setting things up there. That, and I have an errand to run." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a curved hunting horn fashioned from a ram's horn. "Their memories should come back once you show them the pages I told you about, and once Arienna shows herself. She's in your pocket right?" Again Henry nodded. "Well, I'll be off then. Good luck Ava, Nicholas." He turned and walked towards where his motorcycle stood parked by the curb. Abruptly he stopped and called over his shoulder. "Oh, and good luck with dinner tonight, Henry. Hopefully Emma and the queen wont eviscerate each other before we're ready for the battle."
With that he swung a leg over his bike, turned on the engine, and sped away with a squeak of tires. A long silence followed. Ava wasn't sure how to react to any of this. For one, what the heck had that guy and Henry been talking about? Why were Rosa and Rob crying? Rosa usually kept her emotions in check, and Rob was well known as the school tough guy.
"Okay" Henry said, breaking the silence. He looked up at them. "Come here guys. I have something to show you." He patted the ground in front of him and turned to the open storybook, flipping through a few pages. The twins exchanged a look. Nick shrugged as if to say 'may as well'. Neither of them knew what was going on, but nevertheless they lowered themselves to the ground and sat cross legged across from the younger boy.
"What is it you want to show us?" Ava asked, glancing at Rosa and Rob nervously.
"This" Henry gave the book another pat.
"A storybook?" Nick asked, eyebrow curving upward.
"A storybook about you guys" Henry said with an enthusiastic grin. The twins shared another look.
"About us?" Ava asked. This was getting stranger and stranger. Then a terrible realization washed over her. She'd heard rumors about this. Not that she listened to rumors of course. But when the other kids talked about Henry Mills, they always talked about his weird obsession with fairytales. That was why he carried the book around. And, according to one of the sixth grade girls who also went to sessions with Dr. Hopper, he was convinced the book was real.
"About everyone in Storybrooke" Henry said. "And who they really are. Not me though. I'm not in it."
"You think we're fairy tale characters," Ava deadpanned. The words came out harsher than she intended. She really didn't want to hurt the kids feelings. She owed him after all. But there were only so many ways one could deal with someone who didn't quite perceive reality the right way.
"You are fairy tale characters" Henry said completely unfazed. "Hansel and Gretel. Here, look." He picked up the book and set it in front of them. On the page was a colorfully drawn picture of two kids wearing the clothing of medieval peasants walking through a dark forest. Ava gave a start. A heavy knot stuck itself in her throat. The kids looked exactly like them. Not just a little like them, exactly like them. right down to the tiny brown freckle on her left earlobe. She looked up at her brother, who could do nothing but blink. Henry's grin grew only larger."Think about it. Siblings alone in the woods looking for their father. It fits. If you don't believe me, just look at Gretel, she's wearing the same compass around her neck."
Ava found herself edging closer to the page. Her eyes widened as they searched the painted girl's neckline. Yes, there it was. Hanging from a bit of chain around her throat was the same compass Ava herself wore, right down to the crack across its face. A jolt of pain shot through Ava's skull, then another. Again and again great stabbing pains pulsed through her brain, like a migraine headache brought about by a jackhammer.
"How's that possible?" she whispered. Her voice caught in her throat, and was barely audible above the pounding of her heartbeat. Something rustled in Henry's front shirt pocket.
"Can I come out now?" a small voice asked.
"Come out, Ari'" said Henry said, grinning like a maniac.
A tiny winged girl fluttered out of his pocket. Shimmering dust hung about her form, which was wrapped in a gold and white superhero costume, and magic seemed to spark and glitter around her silhouette.
Ava fumbled for the compass hanging around her neck. Her fingers closed around it, the glassy surface of it's face cool against her skin. More pains jarred in on her brain. Misted shadows and semisolid shapes shifted across her field of vision. Like a dream. Nick's hand was gripped tightly to her shoulder. His breath was ragged and uneven. He swayed where he stood, pupils dialating.
"Ava..." he choked. "What's...what's happening?" Flashes of fairies and tall trees flickered through their minds.
"You're remembering" Henry told them as he helped the fairy girl back into his pocket. "Just relax. Everything'll be okay. Just let the memories come. I'll explain when you wake up." He smiled. "I hope we can be friends, guys."
The flashing images grew faster and faster until they were a mental blur of information. Then the flashing stopped completely, and the twins collapsed, a dream like memory taking hold of their minds.
Gretel crouched low beneath an oblong blueberry bush. Grass and twigs crackled beneath her tiny feet. Her eyes darted in all directions, searching for any unseen foes waiting in the night. One could never be too careful in the Enchanted Forest. Dangerous things lurked here. Like bears, wolves, and the queen's roaming patrols. One could never be too careful.
Tentatively Gretel reached into the bush's depths. A grateful sigh escaped her lips as she pulled the last precious berries free of their had been scarce for the past week. Hansel's snares had yielded but a single small grouse, and between the two of them the twins had stopped most of the berry bushes clean. Now they had to scrounge for meals, eating anything edible they could find.
Depositing the juice filled berries in her skirt pocket, Gretel stood up and pushed a dirty blonde lock out of her face. Turning she took three steps between the bush and a stand of overgrown pine trees. A lump stirred beneath the pine's boughs.
"Did you find anything?" Hansel asked in a hushed tone.
"Yes" she crawled beneath the branches and went to join him against the trunk. "Only a little. Why are you up? You should be asleep." Hansel shook his head.
"Can't" his eyes were shining disks in the pale moonlight. He turned to face his sister. "Do you think she's looking for us? I keep hearing noises."
"I don't know" Gretel muttered, tugging at the hem of her dress. They'd been asking each other that same question for days, and no matter how they trued the thought wouldn't go away. Was the queen watching them? She was known for her ruthlessness, and they had directly defied her wishes. The forest could be filled with any number of spies. A shadowy hoodlum lurking just out of sight. A tawny owl watching from the canopy. They could be anywhere, or anything. "What kind of noises?" She hadn't heard much of anything on her food run. Then again, she'd been focused on food, not seeing if she was being watched.
"Voices" Hansel answered. "Little voices in the trees. Sounds like singing."
"Maybe it's fairies" Gretel suggested. "They're supposed to live in the woods. It's summer, so they may be out and about, singing to their goddess. Do you want to go and look? May as well if you can't sleep, and maybe the fairies can help us." Without a moment's hesitation reached over and grabbed the stick he'd sharpened that afternoon. He slipped it into his belt and passed Gretel their single hunting knife. These were the closest things to weapons they had.
"Yeah, let's go."
Lighting one of the two torches they'd fashioned from sticks and bits of cloth, Gretel lead the way out of the trees and onto the thin dirt path that wound through the forest like a river. Hooting owls called to one another in the night. Fireflies glistened in patches of grass that dotted the path, and Hansel closed his eyes as he walked, listening. He could still hear the voices echoing in the distance. Minuscule song notes echoing off the trunks. Looking for fairies in the dark could be considered very foolish, risking being caught unaware by predators. But it was also perhaps her best chance. Fairies had powerful magic, drawn from the earth itself. Maybe if they found them, they could protect them from the queen's wrath until they found their father.
"Do you still hear it?" Gretel asked. Hansel nodded.
"Barely. Can you see anything?"
The torchlight drowned out the light of the fireflies, but she could still see sparkling swaying through the upper branches in the distance.
"I think so...wait" she spun to the left as a harsh scent his her nostrils. Smoke. There, billowing upward in a gray-black column, smoke rose in the forest. She grabbed her brother by the wrist, knuckles going white. "Someone's here." On instinct she dropped the torch and stomped into out with her boot. Below the smoky column could be seen an orange glow shining like a lighthouse in a foggy harbor.
"Probably hunters" said Hansel. Together the twins lowered themselves to the ground, peeking at the fire from between the underbrush.
"Probably" Gretel agreed. Her voice was laced with fear. This was exactly what she'd wanted to avoid. Wanderers in the Enchanted Forest could hardly be called friendly folks. Most of them were street toughs or pickpockets hoping to prey on innocent travelers. Just as her fears reached the boiling point, a rough hand grabbed her by the collar and heaved her into the air.
"Why hello there, pretty" a poisonously silky voice drawled. A skeleton of a man, with sunken in eyes and gaunt skin pulled taught over his cheekbones. Yellow teeth lined his jaws, and a curbed knife was twirling in his fingers.
With a roar Hansel threw himself at the man's legs, but his charge was knocked aside with a quick kick of the shins. The boy tumbled to the ground clutching his stomach. The man laughed a cold, raspy laugh.
"Good effort boy but I'm afraid it's just not enough. Stay calm and I'll gut ya nice and easy like, then me and me mates I can have some fun with your little friend here, eh?" his tone was mocking and cruel. Then, just as Ava's fear was bubbling to the surface, a great many things happened at exactly the same time.
The sparkling high in the trees had moved from their spot high above the ground, and had flown down to ground level, revealing themselves to be a pair of whizzing fairies with gold and silver dust trails that could spell out words in the air. They were giggling like schoolgirls as they wound circles around Gretel's attacker's head, throwing up sparks behind them and making a series of banging noises with a few well placed shots of magic.
The man's grip on her collar loosened and she kicked herself free. She fell to the ground in a heap, and could only watch as the sparking fairies continued to whiz around his head. He cursed and writhed on the spot, slashing wildly with his knife. But to no avail. The fairies were far too fast for him.
"NOW!" a voice thundered from the trees.
At that command the fairies broke away from the mans face and whizzed over to the twins, over whom they conjured a bubble shaped sphere of magic around them. A protective barrier.
An enormous shadow launched out of the shadows, swinging an ax high above its head, and with a sickening THWACK it brought the axe down on the highwayman's neck. He collapsed in a bloody pile, spasms of movement twitching his limbs. The shadow freed his ax of the man's neck, and spoke in a familiar voice.
"Thank you for the distraction, ladies" he called to the fairies. "I've been looking for these two for quite a while. Again, thank you."
The twins edged backward as the man stepped towards them, into the light of the fairies' auras, revealing a kind, warm face Hansel and Gretel knew all too well.
The woodsman. Their father.
They jumped to their feet and ran into his arms without a ward. Wrapping his arms around them, the woodsman let out a joyous sob. Their family had found each other again. As they always would.
As their eyes opened, the twins let out a gasp.
Henry sat a few paces away, thumbing through his book.
"Oh good, you're up" he said. His face was as bright and sunny as usual. "Be careful about the pentacles I've put on your necks. You'll need those tonight, Hansel, Gretel." He laughed as he said each name. It was a laugh of glee. The twins, eyes still bleary from unconsciousness, look at each other.
"What's going on?" Gretel demanded. Her voice was sharp and decisive.
"Everyone's been cursed" Henry explained. "The queen made everyone forget who they really are. Just wait until tonight, and Emma and me will explain everything. We're gonna break the curse, and we got a time traveler helping us do it. Cool, right?"
I know I say this often, but this was about half as long as I originally intended. There were two scenes I wanted to pack into this one, but they really go better together than they do with this one. Next one's gonna be a ton longer, and the plot'll finally start going somewhere. Sorry if it's been kind of slow the last couple of chapters, and that it's taken so long to get this one up. I've had school stuff, that and I've been writing a Hunger Games Percy Jackson crossover. Go check it out. Happy reading!