Notes: I wrote this over a fortnight ago, so it preceded both the Stableboy and the preview of episode 19, but I can't help feeling validated by events in one episode and what potentially looks like it'll happen in the next. I have been on the August-is-Baelfire bandwagon since his second episode, and I'm sorry to anyone who doesn't agree, but my fic, my theory :) (Also, he drinks the water of life. That's why he still looks young. Just sayin')
Emma was pissed off.
For one thing, she was lit up like a Christmas tree. For another, Mr Gold - or Rumpelstiltskin or whatever the hell he was calling himself now - was skipping around her and clapping his hands in delight.
"Gold!" She grabbed him by the front of his jacket with a snarl. "What the hell?"
"You did it, dearie," he said, grinning and showing teeth that were sharp and inhuman. "I think my little experiment went quite well, don't you?"
She looked around the ruins of what was Storybrooke. Mountains had grown up out of nowhere, and forests spread around. She could swear that there was even a castle in the distance, and she knew that even though her geography sucked, there was no way in hell a castle like that ever made it to the States.
Last thing she remembered, she was cleaning her teeth in front of the bathroom mirror before going to bed, and the walls had started crumbling around her. Like everyone else, she fled for the streets, and now, she was in the middle of a screwed up Storybrooke with Gold all covered in leather and prancing around like a drag queen on parade.
"Gold," she growled, pulling him nose to nose. "I'm gonna say it again. What. The. Hell?"
He cackled, so unlike the formal, stone-faced Gold she knew. "You broke the curse, dearie. I would have thought that much was obvious."
She stared at him in disbelief. "You're bullshitting me."
He feigned shock, clasping his hands over his heart and laughed. "Language like that on the lips of our hero!"
She punched him in the face, knocking him right on his ass, and that shut him up. It was probably the immature thing to do, but God, his giggle was annoying. "Explain."
He picked himself up and perched on a tree root, still grinning as if he'd won the Lottery. "What's to explain, dearie?" he asked, spreading his arms. "This is the Enchanted Forest. Your boy was right. You brought it back." For a moment, his smile turned dark. "All the happy endings that were stolen."
Emma rubbed her head. No amount of Tylenol or booze was going to deal with the headache she could feel building. "The Enchanted forest? You're serious? Like real magic?"
"The girl who resembles a light bulb is asking is magic is real?" he giggled again. "Emma, Emma, Emma, you were made for this." He hopped to his feet, no longer bothered by the limp or a cane. "I made you to make things right."
"You… made me? Sorry, buster, but even I know how sex works and there's no way in hell you screwed anyone to make me."
He looked offended for about a second. "I wasn't talking about the mechanics," he said indignantly, wrinkling his nose. "I brought your dear, doting parents together, not that they'll ever admit it. The Shepherd and the bandit. Quite a tale you have to be told there. And I kept them together." His grin widened into a broad smile. "True love is strongest when you have to burn to get to it, when it's a challenge. Your parents burned and burned and burned and out of them, came you. The power of true love, distilled in a single person."
Emma looked up at the sky, trying to clear her head. It didn't work. "Holy shit! Is that a dragon?"
"Welcome to the world, dearie." He was behind her suddenly, and his fingers skimmed along her shoulders. "You were the saviour. True love incarnate."
She turned to face him, and could see the light from her own skin reflected in his. "You," she said, "are talking out your ass."
"Well, it's a good thing my ass is as smart as my face," he retorted with a smirk.
Just because she could and because her Sheriff's badge was dust in the wind, she socked him in the face again.
"You're still a jerk."
"And you're still the biggest candle on the cake," he retorted, snickering. "Punch me all you like. It won't undo what we've done." He swept into a ridiculous extravagant bow. "Your Kingdoms await you."
She glared at him. "So I'm True love incarnate, huh? I guess they didn't build fairytale bastards with a sense of irony?"
He bit his lip at her in a show of mock-innocence. "Shall we?" he said, offering an arm, which she ignored. He snickered, skipping alongside her as she stalked off down the nearest path. "Do you know where you're going?"
"Right now? I don't give a crap as long as there's tequila."
"Not in the Enchanted forest, dear," he said, grinning at her as she stopped dead, "but you're going to love the moonshine."
She stuck her finger right in his face. "I swear to God, Gold, when my head doesn't feel like it's been twisted round and glued on backwards, we are going to have words."
"I'll look forward to it," he said, grinning from ear to ear, as they descended the muddy path.
There were people ahead, and voices, and Emma wondered suddenly if Henry had made it through the change. He wasn't from the Enchanted Forest. "Henry," she said suddenly, whirling on Gold. "He's not in the book."
"But he's part of the story," Gold replied, and for a moment, he was almost Gold as he was again, a mild smile and a nod that could mean anything.
Emma spun around again, her heart leaping at the sight of Mary Margaret. Only, it wasn't Mary Margaret. The woman running towards her had confidence about her that Mary Margaret was always lacking. She was wearing a bloody white dress and her hair was wild, but she was still her. And there was something strong in her eyes, in her smile, and Emma felt her legs shaking beneath her.
"My girl," Snow White breathed, taking Emma's face between her hands, running her thumbs along Emma's cheeks. "Look at you. So grown-up."
Emma had a feeling she was glowing, and not just in the metaphorical sense. "Uh…" She held up her hands, colours swirling around them. "Okay. This can't be good."
"I'd back off if I were you, Snow," Gold said, giggling. "There's going to be a lightshow."
Snow White turned on Gold, Rumpelstiltskin, whatever and decked him, and Emma knew exactly who her mother was. "Don't you ever tell me to stay away from my child again, Rumpelstiltskin," she snapped. "I'm not about to forget this was all your doing."
"The warning still stands," he observed from his vantage point on the ground. "Your little ray of sunshine is about to become just that."
Snow White turned to Emma and whatever she saw made her eyes widen and she backed away.
"What's going on?" Emma demanded. "Seriously, guys?"
"It's cooooooooooooming," Gold singsonged. "Brace yourselves."
Whatever 'it' was, Emma expected it to hurt, but there wasn't any pain. Instead, the light seemed to just pulse out from her with every beat of her heart, expanding, spreading, filling the world, and she was tingling from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet.
"What is that?" she heard Snow White yell.
"That," Rumpelstiltskin howled back, "is the curse being broken into tiny, tiny pieces, never to return!"
"Gold, I swear to god I'm gonna kill you!" Emma shouted over the roar in her ears. The last two words hung in the sudden silence as the light winked out, leaving the world glowing like a negative for a moment.
Emma looked at her hands, then looked at Gold furiously.
"Don't look at me, dearie," he said, getting to his feet with a grin. "I only made you what you are. You're the one who wants to glow."
"You want me to hit him?" Snow White offered, getting to her feet and brushing herself down. "He's earned it."
Gold - no, Rumpelstiltskin. It could only be Rumpelstiltskin. Gold would never stick out his lip in a mocking pout. "Is that any way to say thank you?" he said. "After all, the Queen's curse is broken, her power is weakened and you are finally free and it's all down to…" He paused, feigning consideration, then pointed at his chest. "Oh, yes. Me."
Snow White and Emma exchanged looks.
"Of course," he added, waving vaguely at them, "you helped."
"'Helped', he says," Snow White snorted. "Sure. It was only our love that did it. I'm fairly sure you couldn't have done it without us."
He raised his shoulders in a shrug and grinned. "If you want to believe that." He looked Emma up and down in consideration, strolling closer. "It's all done and finished, and yet, you did it without even facing Regina. I'm intrigued, dear. What did you do?"
Emma stared at him, and she knew that if she wasn't already glowing like a low-cost light bulb, then she would have been blushing. She wasn't the kind of person to easily embarrass, but there was no way in hell she was going to admit what had been said between her and August. Definitely nothing about the discussions, the debates, the heated arguments and the even more heated sex. Especially not about the stupid, soft, happy feeling she got about him after he kissed her goodnight and climbed out her window like a cat burglar. She'd never got around to asking about that particular skill.
"Maybe I just had to exist," she said, hands on her hips.
"Hmm." Rumpelstiltskin pivoted to face Snow White. "So, dearie…"
"Don't even think about trying to get back in my good books," Snow White said coolly. She looped her arm through Emma's. "Come on, Emma. I need to find some new clothes, and we need to find your father."
Emma's steps faltered. "My… father?"
Snow White's face lit up. "Of course," she said. "Charming is going to be over the moon."
Emma held up a hand. "So… you're my mom. And David… is…" Magic, dragons and Gold in skin-tight leather pants aside, everything felt really weird.
"And there's the shock kicking in." Rumpelstiltskin's giggle rang in her head as she fell sideways. It was echoed by a grunt of pain from him and just before she passed out, Emma knew Snow White - her mother! - had punched him again.
"Give me a good reason I shouldn't, Snow. He took our child and used her and we missed everything about her life."
"Now, now, dearie! All in a good cause." There was a yelp and skipping footsteps, and Rumpelstiltskin tutted. "Well, that wasn't very nice."
Emma groaned quietly, bringing her hand to her aching head.
"Emma?" Mary Margaret's voice was right beside her. "Emma, are you okay?"
Emma opened her eyes, her head still spinning. They were in a house of some kind, a cottage, and she was lying on a bed, which was a good thing, because she was pretty damn sure that being upright was going to be impossible. "Mary Margaret?"
"Call me Snow." The other woman's face swam in her vision, but she was smiling. "Or mom, if you want."
Emma blinked foolishly at her. "I don't know if I can."
For a moment, Snow White's expression froze, as if she was trying not to show something, but she nodded, smiled again. "That's understandable," she said. "After all, I look like I'm the same age as you." She smoothed Emma's hair. "Your father's here."
Emma sat bolt upright, regretting it instantly.
On the far side of the room, David had Rumpelstiltskin pinned to the wall by his throat. He didn't notice the faces that Rumpelstiltskin was pulling, because he was staring at Emma as if she was the most amazing thing in the world.
Emma shifted self-consciously. "Am I still glowing?"
Snow White squeezed her hand. "Not as much," she said. "Charming, get over here."
Rumpelstiltskin was promptly dropped on the floor and David - Charming? - crossed the floor in three quick steps, and knelt by the bed. He caught Emma by the shoulders, staring at her, then pulled her into the most genuine hug she had ever felt in her life.
He pulled back, and she was shocked to see his eyes were wet. "James," he corrected. "My name is James."
"Or Charming," Snow White said, looking at him with a warm smile.
Tiny bursts of light streamed from Emma, bubbling in the air like swirling clouds, before twining around her parents.
"Oh God," Emma groaned. "Sorry. That's kinda embarrassing."
Snow White just laughed. "New magic," she said. "You'll adjust."
Emma reached out and tugged at a strand, but it remained where it was. David - James - put his hand out and covered hers. "It's meant to be there," he said with a smile that was so warm and so real, she wondered at just how bland David had seemed in Storybrooke. He looked at Snow White, who smiled back at him. "It's love."
"Now you see why I created the curse, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin interrupted, making a face from behind James' back. "It's sickening, isn't it? All this happiness and romance."
"Quit it, Gold," Emma said rubbing her head. "Just explain."
He spread his hands in an expansive shrug. "Simple, dearie," he said. "You're the embodiment of love and right now, your cup runneth over with the stuff. It's latched on to the connection between mummy and daddy dearest." He waved his fingers at them, his nose wrinkling. "You've just illuminated what was already there."
"Then why aren't you glowing?" she demanded. "You touched me."
For a moment, barely a split second, he looked lost, his fingers twitching together in front of him, then he laughed. "I have better things to do that be trifling with such useless emotions."
Emma winced. If her lie-sense tingled back in Storybrooke, it was like someone blasted her with a foghorn now. "This whole curse was trifling with those useless emotions," she pointed out, but her heart wasn't in it. She was too busy looking from her mother to her father and back again.
Snow White was glowing. Not quite the same way Emma currently was, but it was like she was lit up from the inside, and Emma could see why she was called Fairest of them all. James, Charming, was looking from her to Emma and back, and the expression on his face took her breath away.
No wonder they wanted so badly to be together in Storybrooke, if this was the love they had left behind.
A chair scraped on the floor, and Rumpelstiltskin draped himself onto it. "So, dearie," he drawled. "Family reunion aside, what do you plan to do with your newfound power? Go to war? Crush the Queen completely?"
"This isn't my war, Rumpel," Emma murmured. She noticed the way he grimaced at the name. "You set this all up. You can go to war if you please, but I'm going to find my kid, wherever the hell he is."
"Oh!" Snow White gasped. "Henry!" She looked at her husband. "James, Henry!"
Emma fidgeted self-consciously. "Um. Yeah. Grandson. Congratulations?"
James pulled both Emma and Snow White into his arms, hugging them both. "This has been my best day in a long time," he declared. "And I didn't even have to get shot, tied up or hit with a rock."
"Say what now?" Emma said, pulling back awkwardly. Hugs were all well and good, but two in ten minutes, not so much. It would take getting used to. Especially from the man she knew as David.
Snow White hid a grin. "We didn't have a normal courtship," she explained, getting up and offering James her hands to haul him to his feet.
"She shot me," James said. "With an arrow."
Snow White rolled her eyes, beaming. "You jumped in front of it."
"And you hit me with a rock. I didn't jump in front of that."
Snow White's eyes danced and Emma couldn't help grinning when she said sweetly, "Your face did."
James smiled like it was Christmas. "God, I love you."
Emma struggled to her feet, supported by both her parents. It still had a strange ring to it. Parents. She knew it would take some getting used to, but she couldn't stop grinning, despite the craziness going on around her. Even if she was in the middle of a nervous breakdown and this was part of it, it was a part she didn't mind enjoying.
"Where are we?" she asked, one hand on Snow White's shoulder.
"Granny's," Snow White replied, looking around. "It's in the wrong place. It was never that close to the road."
"We're still unfolding the world again," Rumpelstiltskin cut in. He was standing by the door, looking out at the forest. "The whole world was twisted up like a genie in a bottle, contained in one little town." He turned with a knowing grin and laughed that grating laugh. "Of course it takes a while for everything to get back to its proper place."
Emma looked at Snow White. "Is he always this annoying?"
Snow White nodded. "I never thought I'd see a day when I missed Mr Gold."
Rumpelstiltskin snickered. "Two sides of the same coin, dear," he said with a sweeping bow. "Take away Gold's suits and manners and I'm everything that's left."
"In leather pants," Emma observed, rubbing her head. "Are they really necessary?"
He pirouetted with a grin, showing off every side of the very fitted outfit. "You noticed them, dear. I don't make your eyes wander."
Emma flipped the bird at him, then took a breath. "We need to find Henry. He could be getting in all kinds of trouble."
"He'll be fine," Snow White said. "He's like you."
Emma gave her a look. "That's what I'm worried about." She lifted her hand from Snow White's shoulder and took a step towards Rumpelstiltskin. "I could find people in the real world. How do I do it here? I don't have the internet."
Rumpelstiltskin raised his eyebrows. "Dearie, think of what you are. Think of how you feel about your boy."
He unfurled one hand and a map unrolled from it. "This is the world," he said. "Take a look and you'll know."
She snatched the map from his hand, spreading it on the table. "Okay, where are we?" Before she even finished speaking, a small, pulsing light coalesced over the map. "Huh."
Twin pinpoints in the same shimmering gold that covered Snow White and Charming appeared too. There was even a dimmer greyish spot in the small cluster. Emma glanced at Rumpelstiltskin, who was - for the first time - silent and stone-faced. So there was love somewhere in him? Interesting.
Emma closed her eyes and tried to focus on Henry and how much she cared about him. The light blazed so bright that even though her eyelids, she could see it.
"I think you did it," James said dryly.
Emma cracked one eye open warily.
A glowing ball was hovering above the map, barely bigger than a marble. It was pale blue and flickering, and she reached out to touch it. Images flickered behind her eyes, of a courtyard in a castle, faces that were familiar, but just different enough. And there was Henry, sitting in the courtyard, grinning happily at someone who looked like Ruby.
"Gotcha!" Emma breathed.
"Hold on!" Rumpelstiltskin's voice broke into her senses, before hands grabbed her, and the whole world seemed to contract then expand around her. She could hear the wind rushing in her ears and then, she hit the ground, only it wasn't the wooden floor of the cottage, and she was covered in a pile of bodies, all of them groaning.
"What just happened?" Emma asked with a wince, as her parents and Rumpelstiltskin all tumbled off her.
"You just did magic!" Henry crowed in delight, running across the courtyard and throwing himself into her arms, knocking her flat again. "I knew you would be awesome!" he pulled back, frowning at her. "Why are you glowing?"
"I don't even know, kid," she said, then hugged him tightly. "You're okay?"
He nodded happily. "How did you do it?"
"No idea," she replied. Not exactly the truth,, but not exactly a lie either. She nodded to Snow White and James, who were both standing nearby, clasping one another's hands. "Look, kid. I think your grandparents want to meet you."
Henry's face lit up and he leapt to his feet, running to them.
Emma remained where she was sitting until a scaled hand appeared in her line of sight. She looked up at Rumpelstiltskin, then grasped his hand and hauled herself to her feet. "Thanks."
"You really have no idea?" he murmured.
"Do you?" she asked.
His lips twitched. "Well, there's always true love's kiss. It breaks any curse, you know. I imagine it's more powerful when it's True Love doing the kissing."
Emma's stomach did a weird flip-flop. It couldn't be that, could it? Yeah, she was getting fond of August, but the idea of true love in the real world was the kind of romantic bullcrap that only ended badly. Even if the guy brought her a gorgeous new pair of boots, let her drive his bike, and even snuck her away for a picnic by the lake. The skinny-dipping was a surprise, but fun all the same.
Mary Margaret giggled herself silly about them. She even cleared out when August insisted on trying to cook for them both. It ended with a pan in the trash, take-out, and making out on the roof. They laughed together, which was something that Emma never had in a guy before.
Most of them, it was about the hunt, the catch and then, the getting lost. Most didn't pursue. Most didn't stay, if they did pursue. Most definitely didn't consider the height of romance hiking to a spot in the forest, just because there was a site of historical significance to town, then spent the afternoon telling her stories about it over a bottle of the best cherry liquor she ever tasted.
"Can't say," she said.
He tapped his lower lip thoughtfully with a fingertip. "Hmm."
Emma turned her back on him, trying not to think of the fact that August was never a fairytale character, that he wasn't born from the stories. Right now, her family were back together, and they were waiting for her. If August was there, he would wait for her, and she was surprised to realise that if it came down to it, she would wait for him too.
It was dark and kinda cold.
Emma padded through the tiled halls. Her t-shirt and shorts pyjama combination had been replaced with warmer clothes and some soft leather boots, but even that didn't stop the glow that was radiating from her. It was hard enough to sleep with everything going on in her head, but being her own personal nightlight wasn't helping.
Henry had spent hours running around and meeting everyone he could, talking excitedly until his voice faded to a squeak, while Emma just sat, trying to take it all in. She'd never seen him happier, and that in turn made her happy.
It was a relief that he could actually sleep. Otherwise, Emma knew he would have noticed that she was being a lot quieter than the saviour of the Enchanted Forest should be.
Her mind kept drifting to Regina, the Queen.
She knew the real story now, of Snow White, her step-mother, of the terrible hatred that rose between them. She knew, deep down, that there was no way that some romantic crap between her and August had changed anything about the Queen. Maybe it broke the curse enough to bring back the Enchanted Forest, but for someone who hated enough to kill her own father to bring down her enemy...
No. She was still out there, somewhere.
Of course, the face of August crept up on her unexpectedly as well.
She wasn't sure which one she was more worried about. August was a guy who could take care of himself. Years of running all over the world showed that. But if he had got caught up in the whole crazy thing, then maybe he wasn't as safe as she hoped.
She found herself back in the council room. Her mother's council room. That thought made her head spin. James and Snow White ruled this Kingdom, from this place. There were maps on the table, showing the different Kingdoms and the borders of the lands.
She sat down in one of the grand chairs and drew the largest map to her, gazing at it.
Emma leapt to her feet, startled. "Jesus, Gold!"
Rumpelstiltskin was seated in one of the deep window ledges, one foot propped up against the wall. His arms were folded over his middle, and he was gazing into nothing. "Sorry, dearie," he said, a faint trace of a smile tweaking at his lips. "Wouldn't want to frighten you."
"Yeah, right," she snorted, sitting back down. "What the hell are you doing there?"
He tilted his head to look at her. "What are you doing there?" he countered, waving one hand towards her.
She traced her fingers along the edge of one of the maps. "Couldn't sleep."
He nodded slightly. "All the world is changed," he murmured, sounding more like Gold and less like Rumpelstiltskin. "You know it's not over, dearie. Not until she's gone."
"You think I don't know that?" Emma said tiredly. The mead hadn't helped the headache any. "I'm not here to be your weapon, Rumpel. I don't kill people, even if everyone tells me they deserve it. It's not who I am." She looked at him. "Love doesn't kill."
He laughed then, low, quiet, almost sad. "I wouldn't be so sure of that, dearie. Love destroys as much as it creates."
Emma studied him. "What's your story?" she asked, sitting back in the chair. "Everyone here has a story. Some of them are good. Some are bad. No one can tell me anything about you, except you're the go-to magic guy."
He watched her silently.
"C'mon," she said, spreading her hands. "You've messed with my life enough. Don't I get to know why?"
"Maybe I just like to mess with people," he said with an almost convincingly wicked grin, lowering his foot from the wall. He propped both hands on his upraised knees in front of him. "You came in here for a reason, dearie. It wasn't for my irresistible company."
"You got that right," she said, making a note to interrogate him properly when she was much more conscious. She glanced at the map, an in the split second it took her to look away and back, he was suddenly beside the table, in the chair beside hers. "God damn! Will you stop doing that?"
His red eyes gleamed at her. "Looking for someone?"
She glared at him. "What's it to you?"
"Only helping, dear," he replied dryly. "If you plan to find the Queen with your little magic tricks, I don't think you'll succeed." She raised her eyebrows in question. "You can find any who has a trace of love in them. Hers was destroyed long ago."
She remembered the map, before, and the faint, shivering speck of grey that represented him. "Yeah," she murmured, looking back at the map. "Snow said that she was so caught up in hating that she forgot how to love." She drummed her fingers on the map. "So who would be hanging out with her? Someone who cares?"
"With the Queen?" He shook his head. "No one, dearie. No one useful. She'll be licking her wounds. Biding her time." He frowned at the map thoughtfully. "Henry would have been her prize of choice. She knows that you broke the curse by now, and she knows he's one of the few things you care most about."
Emma stared at him. "What?"
"She always finds a weakness," he replied, his voice unusually direct and low. "Everyone has one, and she knows how to find them." His eyes narrowed to slivers. "Unless there's someone else you care about? Someone else she would go after?"
Emma felt like she'd knocked back a glass of water that turned out to be bleach. "Shit," she whispered.
Rumpelstiltskin's hands moved hers over the map. "Look, Emma," he whispered, his eyes on her face. "Look hard. If she has what is yours, she'll know well how to hide it."
"Oh no she won't," Emma growled. "No one takes what's mine."
She heard Rumpelstiltskin laugh with glee as the world blazed white.
Rumpelstiltskin helped Emma pick herself off the ground. "So she has some defences in place after all," he said thoughtfully. "That's... unfortunate."
"No shit, Sherlock," Emma groaned, rubbing her side.
She wasn't sure how the whole transporting thing worked, but no one mentioned that it was possible to ricochet off an invisible barrier while doing it. It felt like she had cracked a rib or two, but she forgot all about that when she looked up at the Queen's hiding place.
Even if it was a cliché villain lair, it looked good. Spiked towers and turrets bristling with weaponry, black stone that gleamed unpleasantly. The moon was right behind one of the towers, a bright crescent.
"Why did you think this was a good idea?" she hissed at Rumpelstiltskin. "Two of us against that?"
The imp's eyes gleamed and he flashed his teeth in a grin. "I think you underestimate what we are capable of, dearie," he said. "And better that it's only us. There's only so far that the power of moral indignation can take your dear daddy."
Emma elbowed him sharply. "So we're going to attack the castle with what? The power of love and sarcasm instead?"
He laughed, and for once, it sounded more human and genuine. "She'll never see it coming."
"I tell you what," Emma said, rolling her eyes. "I'll fetch a basket and some apples and knock on the front door. She'll never see that coming."
Rumpelstiltskin grinned at her. "Honing your sarcasm I see."
She made a face at him. "Well, what's your idea, genius?"
He tapped his fingers together thoughtfully. "We knock at the door," he said.
"And then the apple-assault?" Rumpelstiltskin gave her an even look. "What? Seriously? We knock at the door? We just destroyed her curse and you expect her to just let us in?"
"Not us, dear," he said, uncurling a finger to point at her. "You. The final battle."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Emma backed away. "I'm not your assassin."
Rumpelstiltskin didn't move, little more than a silver-edged shadow beneath the trees. "I never said you were, dear," he said, "but put your mind to it. If you don't deal with her, that means it's down to your parents. Haven't they suffered enough?"
"Don't you dare use that card with me," Emma snarled.
He spread his hands, as if he was harmless. "I'm not asking you to cut her throat, dear," he said. "I'm asking you to face her. You're the one she wants. Now that you're evenly matched, I think you're the only one who can make her see reason."
"Reason? The woman who cut out her own father's heart?"
He shrugged. "Face her, try, and if all else fails, walk away?"
"You know it won't go down that way," Emma said grimly.
"Of course," he said with a mocking little bow. "You would never walk away."
She looked up at the castle again. "Can you tell if there's anyone in there with her?"
"Aside from your special someone?" She flashed a glare at him and he raised his hands as if to ward her off. "That's what got us this far, dear. I'm only saying what you already know." He approached her, silent as a cat. "Tell me, Emma, do you plan to walk away?"
"You bastard," Emma whispered angrily.
He smiled, the shadows on his face twisted by the moonlight. "I'm not making you do anything, dear," he reminded her. He pointed at her. "You make the choice. I'm only showing you what the options are. Stay." His finger pointed down, then flicked up to her face, and he smiled. "Or walk away."
It was tempting to kick him in the balls, but she turned away from him and stalked towards the castle gates, ignoring him when he called, "Good luck, dear."
The gates were as imposing as the castle, and she wondered if it was the magic letting her see the sparks of reddish fire dancing across the metal. If not, any regular Joe who came by would have run screaming. It looked like something from a bad seventies horror movie.
"Hey!" she yelled, as if anyone could hear her. "Hey! Regina! You want me? I'm here!"
It didn't help the whole horror-movie-theme when the gates screamed inwards.
A column of smoke coalesced just inside the gates, shifting into the shape of a woman, and Emma couldn't help but laugh out loud.
"Really? You're the Evil Queen and you went with figure-hugging black and cloak and shit? Did you want to be more obvious?"
The Queen gazed at her, her dark eyes somehow colder and steadier than Regina's. Emma could see where the veneer of propriety that kept Regina from going psycho has been stripped away, leaving nothing but fury and malevolence. She made a note to herself that this probably was a bad person to piss off.
And she had just laughed at her.
Good job Emma, she thought.
"You took your time," the Queen said. Definitely not Regina. At least Regina had to pretend to be a decent person.
Emma shrugged. "Family reunion. Tough to get out of."
There was the tiniest of twitches at the Queen's lips. Not a big fan of family stuff, when it came to Snow White, huh? Good.
Emma rocked on the balls of her feet, considering her options, given her current reputation as saviour and general good guy, and what Regina - and now the Queen - knew of her. Emma knew she was always seen as honest to a fault. Now, to see how good she was at lying. More than one life could depend on it.
"I meant to say," she said, "Thank you for helping to fuck up my whole life. Good job. Really appreciated it a lot. Gotta say you really knew how to mess with a newborn. The US foster system? You couldn't have cursed me better."
"And that's why you came?" The Queen folded her arms, her eyebrows raised. "To lecture me about your pitiful life?"
"That and Rumpelstiltskin is a manipulative jackass who press-ganged me into a one-man assault," Emma replied, hands on her hips. "He's got it into his head that I'm the one who can kick your ass into touch."
The Queen laughed quietly, though it didn't reach her eyes. "Ah, yes," she said. "Little Rumpel and his glorious visions of a saviour."
Emma looked her up and down. "We could duke it out," she said, "but seriously, I'm sick of this bullshit. This isn't my life. I'm not a hero. I'm not a saviour. Hell, I'm not even the Princess everyone keeps on trying to dress me up as."
"No," the Queen said with an almost benevolent smile. "You don't fit in here at all."
Oh, sister, Emma thought, growling inwardly, you did not go there. She could clearly see her parents' faces, their smiles. She remembered the celebration, and for the first time, feeling like she really had a home. She was trying to offer a truce, a pax, something to give the Queen a chance to be decent, but looked like that was falling through.
"I don't want to fight," she said, honestly. "I'm not a killer."
The Queen's mouth turned up. "I am," she said. "I could flay you to ribbons with a gesture."
"Yeah, you could," Emma agreed, "but why would you do that when sending me back to my real home would hurt my mother even more?" There was a flicker of interest, and dark suspicion in the Queen's eyes. "She didn't even recognise me. What the hell kind of mother is she if she doesn't recognise her own child?"
She saw the glimpse of the Queen's teeth. It wasn't a smile. It was something much more deadly and feral than that.
"I think we can come to an arrangement," she said, turning and sweeping back towards the castle. "Come along, Miss Swan."
The gates creaked shut behind her and Emma took a deep breath, heading into the lion's den.
The inside of the castle was exactly as Emma imagined: glistening mirrors, tall windows, polish black stone floors. It was like something out of a vampire's handbook, with flashes of red here and there.
Emma wondered if awareness of clichés went out of the window when you went evil. It totally looked like it in the Queen's case.
Mirrors lined the hallways, and Emma could swear she saw a face flitting from frame to frame as they ascended a staircase. She was practically walking on the end of the Queen's train, the black dress like a waterfall tumbling down the stairs.
"Nice place," she said, just to break the silence. "Grim."
The Queen looked back at her, as if she was a child who had done something stupid. "This way," she said with a curt gesture of her fingers, leading Emma along a corridor lit by flaming torches - flaming torches? Really?
A room lay ahead, apparently their destination.
"What's he doing?" The Queen spoke to thin air.
"He's testing the defences along the south perimeter, Majesty." Emma swore aloud when the mirror nearest her replied. The face contained in it shimmered and wavered into more familiar features.
The Queen dismissed him with a gesture, and another gesture closed the doors. "So, Miss Emma Swan," she said, walking across the room, her back to Emma. "You're in my domain now." She turned to glance over her shoulder. "Afraid?"
"Should I be?"
The Queen laughed softly. "That depends." She snapped her fingers and someone grabbed Emma from behind by both arms, pinioning her. "You see, you have a lot of power right now, and I… well, I'm running a little short."
Emma squirmed against her assailant, then froze when she caught a glimpse of him in one of the mirrors. "August?"
The Queen smiled. "He's one of mine now," she said. She widened her eyes innocently. "I did say you took your time. I had to find my own entertainments." She offered a smile. "And you should know, Miss, Swan, you're a terrible actress."
Emma's hands clenched into fists by her sides. It was one thing to be caught in a trap that she mostly expected, but it was another for her not-boyfriend to be under a crazy Queen's spell and doing things he would never normally do.
"Sweetie," she said aloud. "I'm sorry."
She slammed her foot down on his, the shock enough to make him loosen his grip, freeing her elbow enough to ram it into his belly. August doubled over with a grunt and she grabbed him around the neck and swung him around to crash headfirst into one of the walls. The crack when his head made contact made her wince, and he crumpled in a heap on the floor.
Emma whirled around to face the Queen, who was looking both a little surprised and amused. "One-on-one," she said, her hands itching to deck the Queen's smug face.
"Oh, please," the Queen sighed. "You think that would stop me?" She glided over to the dresser by the wall and flipped open a small wooden casket. Something was glowing inside, pulsing and flickering. The Queen tilted it this way and that, as if examining a precious jewel. "Do you know what this is?"
Emma shook her head, poised to attack, poised to do something, anything.
The Queen turned. "This was his," she said, revealing the shining object, a blood-red heart. "I took it for my collection. If you don't want him to meet the same fate as your dear pet, Graham, then I would suggest you let me take your power."
Emma suddenly understood what people meant when they talked about the red veil coming down over their eyes. It took every bit of her willpower not to run forward and beat the Queen to death with her own footstool.
Only the flickering, pulsing heart stopped her.
"My power?" she said, her own heart racing. She didn't know what her power made her capable of and she sure as hell wasn't confident enough to use it, but if she could get the Queen away from the heart and close enough to brain her with something, then she could work out where to go from there. "You mean the glowing thing?"
"All of it."
Emma hesitated. The Queen, the person who knew nothing about love, and only lived on hate, demanding to wield the hot, fierce power that she couldn't possibly understand. It would be like throwing someone who couldn't swim into the deep end of a pool. Emma shook her head. "Trust me," she said. "You don't want this."
The Queen smiled mildly. "I think I'll be the judge of that, Miss Swan."
"Don't say I didn't warn you," Emma replied. "How do you take it?"
The Queen's smile remained, just a little turn up of her lips. "Your heart for his."
Emma snorted. "You think I trust you to keep your word?"
"Shall I put it another way?" The Queen reached into the box and lifted out the heart, closing her hand around it and squeezing. On the floor, August twitched and cried out in pain.
"Okay! Okay!" Emma held up her hands. "You got it. My heart for his."
"Good." The Queen replaced the heart in the box and closed the lid. Magic crackled over it, sealing it shut, and Emma stifled a growl of frustration. Even if she pinned the Queen down, the bitch could probably shatter the box with a gesture. From the look on the Queen's face, she knew it too.
Emma clenched her fists by her sides as the Queen approached. The other woman was drawing up her sleeve as if she was about to touch something dirty, but she was smiling and her eyes were gleaming with something like hunger.
It hurt like hell when the Queen's hand sank into her chest, somehow without breaking the skin. It felt like a vice closing on her heart, and it was cold. She felt sick to her stomach, but she grit her teeth and thought about August, about Henry, about her parents.
The Queen screamed suddenly, shattering the silence. She ripped her hand from Emma's chest, the skin blistered and bleeding. "You burnt me!" she snarled, cradling her wounded hand to her chest, blood dripping down her skirts. She gestured wildly at the box, but nothing happened, panic flooding her face.
Emma's heart was beating again, fast and hard, and she could tell from the light on the walls that she was glowing again, but for once, she didn't mind. "Burnt by love, huh?" she said, stalking towards the Queen. "I'm a living metaphor." She grabbed the Queen by the shoulders and headbutted her as hard as she could. "And that's for messing with the guy I like."
The Queen - dazed from the blow - moved her hands again in what had to be a spell, but whatever it was, whatever she cast, it bounced off Emma like raindrops off the sidewalk. She looked afraid, which was a new expression on the face of Regina.
"What are you?" she whispered hoarsely.
"Didn't you get the memo?" Emma replied, pushing her back, away from the chest, until she collided with the nearest wall. "I'm True Love."
The Queen stared at her and for a moment, Regina slipped out. "The hell you are!" she hissed.
Emma looked at her, the sad, cruel, hate-filled woman twisted by grief into something evil unable to even touch love for fear of being burnt.
"What happened to you?" she asked, pressing her hand to the Queen's chest. "What happened to your heart?"
She didn't know who yelled louder when her hand slid into the Queen's chest, and the glow that surrounded her surrounded the Queen too. Oh, it was gross! But it didn't feel all fleshy and warm and messy as it should have, and she felt something cold and hard against her fingers.
The Queen was trembling, staring at her wildly. "Don't."
"That's your heart?" Emma said, dazed, wrapping her fingers around it. It was tiny, barely the size of a plum, and felt like it was covered in ice. It was weird, but she could feel so much sadness twisted around it and anger.
"Please." The Queen was practically whimpering, pulling at Emma's wrist.
Emma looked at her. The woman was the way she was because she had cut emotion out of her life: there was no care, no love, no affection. Nothing that was part of being a real, normal person. She took a breath and imagined the Queen, Regina, with decent emotions like any other person, rather than just the anger and control and hate.
Within her hand, something twitched.
The Queen cried out, short and sharp.
The room glowed golden, bright to the point of blinding. Emma closed her eyes, and in her hand, the tiny heart grew warm and beat faster and faster.
It was turning into a very weird night.
Not to say that the day had been much better, but the night had been pretty damn weird.
The Queen, Regina, or whatever, was curled in the corner of the room, crying like a kid that had its favourite toy stolen. The room wasn't black anymore. Almost as soon as the Queen's heart started beating again, some kind of makeover magic pulsed in the middle of the castle, and the walls were suddenly brighter, less horror-themed.
Emma was sitting on the floor, propped against one of the walls and panting. She could see her hands were still glowing, and they were shaking like crazy. Whatever the hell she had done, it was nothing like anything she had ever felt before.
She wanted to head to August, get the box open, free his heart and get him back on his feet, but her legs were refusing to help, all limp and trembling. If the Queen felt half as bad as she did, she knew it was going to be a while before either of them were going anywhere.
For the first time her life, she was relieved to see Rumpelstiltskin.
He threw the doors open and strolled in as if he were the King of the goddamn castle, clapping his hands in the most patronising way possible. "Well done, dearie," he said, grinning malevolently in the direction of the fallen Queen. "Well done indeed."
"Go to hell," Emma said faintly.
"Nice to see you too," he said, sauntering over to her. "I see you got in touch with your inner magic, dear. I'm sure people ten miles away thought the sun was coming up early."
She reached out and grabbed his arm. "Help me up," she said through gritted teeth.
"Such a hurry," he chuckled, but pulled her up with surprising strength.
"Would you shut up if I asked?"
He snickered. "What do you think?"
"I think hell would freeze over first," she retorted, flinging her arm around his shoulder, which made him stop short in surprise. "Look, Rumpel, I did something, I don't know what. My legs feel like ass and my head feels like cotton. I need you to get me across the room and pretend like I'm walking."
"Ah," Rumpelstiltskin said, spotting the heap of limbs. "Your pretty piece of flesh."
She glowered at him. "And get the chest off the dresser."
He glanced over at it, and she saw him grimace in disgust. "I see."
They picked their way across the room towards the prone August, Emma leaning heavily on Rumpelstiltskin's shoulder. They stopped on the way to collect the chest, and she felt something that could have been relief, if she wasn't so tired that it was hard to tell. The magic around it was fading rapidly, like a puddle on a hot day.
He helped her kneel down with surprising gentleness, the box tucked under his arm. "You know what you're doing?" he asked, as he handed it down to her.
"I can take a wild stab in the dark," she replied, running her hands over the surface of the wooden chest. It was still sealed, but she closed her eyes and concentrated, and willed something to happen.
Several minutes later, Rumpelstiltskin said, "if you want it open some time this evening…"
"Shut up," Emma snapped, handing it back to him and reaching for August instead.
He was a dead weight in her arms and she hauled with all the strength she had left until he rolled onto his back. There was a dark bruise blossoming on his forehead, and Emma winced guiltily, reaching out to touch it. This time, her fingers tingled and it started to fade almost at once.
"Okay, this is going to get real annoying real fast," she said, looking up at Rumpelstiltskin. "It never does things when I need it to, and when I don't think about it…" His expression made her stop. "What's funny?"
"You just described all magic in a nutshell, dear," he said, flipping open the lid of the chest and revealing the pulsing heart. He looked down at it in contempt. "She always did like the most base of magic." He offered her the box and its contents. "Though I don't see why she knocked him out."
"She didn't," Emma replied, picking up the heart in one trembling hand. It was warm, and felt soft and familiar in her palm. "I did that." She could feel him staring at her, and looked at him. "What? You thought I'd be all sunshine and roses and crap like that? She sicced him on me to hold me for her to take me out. He would rather have died. Better he was out of it."
"Very practical, dear," he said, leaning over to touch August's throat. Something sparked at his fingertips, and he pulled his hand back sharply, frowning.
"No healing," she said, laying the heart on August's chest. "Not until he's conscious."
"That wasn't healing."
She glanced at him, at the taut, puzzled expression on his face, then back down at August as his heart slipped back into his chest. He took a gasping breath, and his eyes popped wide open, staring around wildly. He caught sight of her, then sagged back, panting.
"Hey," she said, hoping she wasn't grinning like an idiot.
He groped for her hand. "Hey."
He nodded, struggling to sit up, Emma supporting him with one arm. "Been better. Heart surgery, not as fun as the brochure suggests." He looked startled when Rumpelstiltskin caught his other side and helped him sit up. "Uh. Hi."
"Long story," Emma said awkwardly. "We're in fairyland."
"I know," August said.
"I know it's… wait… what? What do you mean you know?" She stared at him, but he was too busy staring at Rumpelstiltskin, who was frowning at him. And then she spotted tell-tale sparks whirling between them. "Oh, you have got to be bullshitting me!"
Rumpelstiltskin looked at her, both confused and alarmed. "Not my doing, dearie! I've never seen this… individual in my life."
August looked between them. "Huh?"
Emma waved to the sparkling threads. "You! Him! Love! What the hell? I knew you were too good to be true!"
August blinked slowly, then burst out laughing. "Oh God!"
"You. You thought that he? And me?" August was shaking with mirth. "Oh, I gotta write this down!"
Emma exchanged bewildered looks with Rumpelstiltskin. "Post-heart-replacement crazy or something?" she asked hopefully. "Maybe it'll clear."
"I've never heard of it happening before," Rumpelstiltskin replied, giving the other man's shoulder a cautious prod. More threads leapt between the point of contact, and he tugged on them, staring at them as if they were strange insects. His confusion only grew when August threw an arm around him and pulled him into a bearhug.
"Hey!" Emma said, nudging his shoulder. "Giggles. Care to share what the hell is going on?"
"I second that," Rumpelstiltskin said gruffly, prising the man's arms off him and leaning back out of reach. He looked like an offended cat.
August looked between them, smiling from ear to ear. "Emma, I want you to meet my father."
Rumpelstiltskin made a strange, choked noise, his eyes widening.
"Father?" Emma said.
"Bae?" Rumpelstiltskin croaked.
August laughed. "Surprise!"
Emma was only kind of surprised that she slept.
After the showdown with the Queen, the rescue of August and the big news that she had secretly been screwing Gold's kid, everything just caught up with her. She didn't even have the energy to transport them back to Snow White's castle, and August determinedly dragged her to one of the grand bedrooms and threw her down on the mattress.
"You need to rest," he insisted.
"But the Queen..."
He clapped a hand over her mouth. "We'll lock her up for the night," he said. "Don't worry. I won't let him do anything to her."
She pulled his hand away. "You think you can stop him?"
He smiled. "You know I can," he said, leaning down and kissing her on the forehead. "Get some sleep, sunshine. We'll need to head back in the morning."
She had too. Although, it was really more like passing out cold, her face buried in a pillow and blankets draped haphazardly over her. She was woken by the sun creeping in the tall windows, filling the room with light.
It took her a moment to get her bearings, then she rolled out of bed, slipping her feet back into her boots, and padding out into the halls. It was weird, but she immediately knew where August was, like a sixth sense, and she wandered in that direction, as if led by an invisible line.
He was with Rumpelstiltskin on one of the balconies, sitting on the balustrade and talking. Rumpelstiltskin was leaning on the railing, looking out across the forest below, and for the first time since she'd officially met him, he almost looked relaxed.
August raised a hand in greeting. "Morning!"
Rumpelstiltskin straightened up, turning enough to glance over his shoulder. "Miss Swan. I hope you're feeling more vertical?"
"Getting that way," she replied. "Where's..."
"Still in her room," August replied. "Told you not to worry about it." He pushed himself off the balustrade and got up. "You hungry?"
"There's food around here?"
August laughed. "You didn't think I'd let you starve?" He glanced at Rumpelstiltskin - his father! - and asked, "You hungry?"
Rumpelstiltskin made a small gesture with his hand. "You two eat," he said. "I'll secure the castle properly, so no one can try to steal the Queen's secrets."
August nodded, clapping Rumpelstiltskin's thin shoulder with one hand, before offering Emma his arm. "My lady."
She looked at his arm, then smiled. Why the hell not? She was a Princess now. "Sir," she said, trying her best curtsey. She heard Rumpelstiltskin snicker and ignored him, taking August's arm.
He led her back through the castle to a massive hall with a grand wooden table covered in a crazy amount of food.
"How much do you think I eat?" she demanded, laughing.
"I've taken you to an all-you-can-eat buffet," he reminded her. "I know exactly how much."
She swatted him in the belly. "Dumbass." She released his arm to sprawl into one of the high-backed chairs. "How's your chest?"
"Full of heart, thanks for asking," he replied, hauling some of the plates towards them. "How about you? You're back to a dull glow, at least."
She glanced at her hands. "I can pretend it's like a tan from hell," she mused. "And at least I'll never need to carry a torch."
He smiled. "I'm glad you came for me."
She shrugged, grabbing a piece of bread and smearing it with butter, avoiding his eyes. "Well, yeah. I couldn't just leave you."
He nudged her foot with his. "Well, this Princess is very glad her Prince came."
She shot a look at him and he grinned at her. "You," she said, "are an idiot."
"Never said I wasn't," he said with a smile.
She chewed thoughtfully on her bread. "That's not the only thing you didn't mention," she observed, once she swallowed.
"I never lied," he said at once. "Not ever. I just... neglected to mention some things."
She snorted, helping herself to some more of the food. "Nice try."
"Well, Gold was never my father," he said. "Maybe parts of him were, but I looked at him and I didn't see the man I knew." He shrugged. "I couldn't say 'this is my dad', when all I could see was someone wearing his face, but acting like someone I didn't know."
Emma looked down at her plate. "So," she said, "how old are you?"
He laughed. "I'm baring my soul about my long-lost dad and you want to know if I'm a dirty old man?"
She made a face at him. "The curse was in place for twenty-eight years. How long were you around before that?"
He smiled. "Long enough," he said. "I look good for my age."
"And my parents look the same age as me," she said. "This is all messed up."
"I won't disagree," he said. "But if I wasn't as old as I am now, I wouldn't have met you, so I think it's only a good thing."
She couldn't help smiling at that. "Smooth."
His eyes danced. "I try."
She pulled one leg up under her. "So you knew about the curse?"
"Not all the details," he admitted, "but I knew pieces enough to put most of it together. It's why I did the book. Something had to get you to Storybrooke, and Henry has enough of you in him to go looking."
"You did the book?"
He looked sheepishly at her. "Can this be another of those things I forgot to mention?"
"Why didn't you say something?"
He shrugged. "If I told you the curse was real, my father was the creator and that you were the daughter of Snow White and Prince James, would you have believed me?"
"Point," she concurred. "I would have thought Henry put you up to it."
"Instead of the other way around," he said. He offered her a quick smile. "Am I forgiven?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I'll think about it."
"That's good enough for me."
Emma managed to move all of a step before her mother grabbed her in a hug.
They were back in the council chamber of Snow White's palace, and from the looks of things, Snow White had been pacing there for some time. Several pieces of furniture had been overturned, and a platter of food was lying untouched.
"Where were you?" Snow White demanded, looking frantically from her to the woman pinioned between Rumpelstiltskin and August. "What the hell is she doing here?"
"We were finishing the story, dear," Rumpelstiltskin murmured. He was holding the Queen's arms between a finger and thumb, and from the look on the Queen's face, that was barely even needed. She looked like a shell of a woman, pale, hollow-eyed, and trembling.
"It's taken care of," Emma said, wrapping her hand around Snow White's wrist. She could see the loathing in Snow White's eyes, and could feel the tension radiating through the other woman. "Mom."
Snow White turned to her, startled.
Emma nodded. "Let her be," she said quietly. "It's taken care of."
"Trust me," Emma said, squeezing Snow White's wrist. "She's disarmed."
Snow White looked from Emma to the Queen and back again, then breathed out. "Okay," she said. "I trust you. But I think you'll have to explain it to your father." She covered Emma's hand on her wrist. "What are you going to do with her?"
"Put her somewhere safe," Emma replied. "Somewhere secure. I want to talk to her, later." She drew Snow White away and said to her quietly, "Don't freak out, but I gave her back her heart."
Snow White stared at her incomprehendingly. "Her heart?"
Emma nodded. "Don't ask me how, but I found it and gave it a kick-start. I think she might be in shock."
They both looked over at the Queen.
"That's the perfect punishment," Snow White said slowly. "Being forced to care and feel and knowing what she's done..."
Emma didn't meet her eyes, wondering just how bad it must feel to get your conscience back and to remember what you had done to your own father. "Yeah. I guess." She nudged Snow White. "Is there somewhere we can put her? Out of the way? No one else needs to know, not yet."
"Except Charming," Snow White said at once.
Emma nodded. "Well, yeah. The four of us and James." She looked over at Rumpelstiltskin. "Can you put some kind of security in place, to make sure she goes unnoticed?"
He grimaced. "If you insist," he said. "And I advise against keeping her alive."
"Well, you would," Emma snorted. "But I'm the saviour, so let's play saviour-says, okay? We're keeping her alive and safe, and I want to make sure of that, so you're going to put up the defences and make sure no one can get to her."
Rumpelstiltskin bowed in the most mocking way she had ever seen. "As you wish."
Emma rolled her eyes. "Snow, is there somewhere out of the way?"
"The north-west tower," Snow White said after a moment. "And there's no balcony and the windows are smaller, so no way for her to escape." She looked at Rumpelstiltskin. "You know the way?"
Rumpelstiltskin took the Queen by the shoulders and steered her towards the door.
"And Rumpel," Emma called. "No stepping on her heels or tripping her or pushing her over, no matter how tempting it is."
Rumpelstiltskin shot a glare over his shoulder, but nodded as the door closed behind him.
As soon as it was closed, Snow White turned a stern look on her daughter. "So you decided just to run off and pick a fight with the Queen?"
"Not by choice," Emma protested. "She had August."
August waved vaguely at Snow. He'd settled in one of the chairs, and was picking at the food platter on the table.
"Oh." Snow White looked at the man, then whirled around to face her, a knowing look in her eyes. "Oh!"
Emma felt her cheeks redden. "I thought he was in trouble."
"I was," August put in cheerfully. "Hi, Snow. Thanks for having a butt-kicking daughter."
Snow White studied him. "Do I know you? Here, I mean?"
August shook his head. "I doubt it," he said. "And I'm no one important."
"You're a lying ass," Emma snorted, perching on the edge of the table.
He looked shocked. "You know I don't lie," he said. "I only adjust the truth, as needs must." He flashed a grin. "And I'm not really important. What I did was, maybe, but me? Important? Not especially."
"Po-tay-to, po-tah-to," Emma said, kicking his knee fondly. "If you hadn't written the damned book in the first place, I wouldn't have needed to save your ass from the Queen."
They both turned in unison to look at Snow White when she laughed.
"What?" Emma asked.
"Nothing, nothing," Snow White said, trying her best to hide a smile. "Not at all seeing a familiar pattern in a relationship here."
Emma looked at her, than back at August, who was fighting to hide a grin. "Snow," she said, with more than a little mischief in her voice, "did I tell you that I might kind of be seeing Rumpelstiltskin's son?"
Snow White started to laugh, then stopped. "Wait. What?"
August raised a hand and saluted, tapping his forefinger against his brow. "Hey."
Snow White blinked at him, then at Emma, pointing between them. "Excuse me?"
August grinned at Emma. "I think we broke her."
Emma nodded. "Yeah," she said. "We seem to be doing that to a lot of people."
By the time evening fell, it turned out that everyone in the Kingdom had heard the rumours about the Great and Noble Emma Swan being enamoured with the long-missing son of the Terrible Rumpelstiltskin.
Emma closed the door and knocked her forehead against it. "I'm not going out there."
August swatted her backside with a grin. "You're going to let them win?"
"What's to win?" she asked. "They're expecting me to be in some kind of Princess dress and to be a hero and you… you're meant to be all creepy and scaly and giggly. What the hell are they going to think when they see us?"
"That they're right about half of us?" he suggested, leaning closer to kiss the back of her neck. "I'm known for my giggles."
She rolled her eyes and laughed. "You really don't mind that everyone'll be staring?"
"Have you looked at my face recently?" he asked innocently. "I'm used to people staring at me all the time. A prime piece of manflesh like this is too good to miss."
She elbowed him in the ribs with a smile. "If you can cope being put on display, I guess I can too," she said. "But don't forget that the whole 'enamoured' thing is just fairytale stuff. You're okay, but there's no amouring going on."
He widened his eyes. "Yes, Princess Emma." He reached over her shoulder and brushed at her collarbone. "You've just got a bit of fairytale on you."
She snorted. "Why do I bother with you?" she asked.
"God knows," he said, pulling her around for a quick kiss. "But you rescued me from the tower and fairytale rules say that now, I must swoon and dote on your every word, and then you must carry me into the sunset."
"You're joking, right?"
He looked at her, stone-faced. "The rules of fairytales are no joking matter."
She punched him on the middle of the chest. "You are so full of it," she said, trying not to grin. "I know for a fact that Snow and James had at least seven chances before they finally got their happy ending. Rescuing you from a tower isn't a binding contract."
"Ask my dad," he said solemnly.
For a moment, just a split second, he almost had her.
She socked him again for good measure. "Next time an evil Queen takes you hostage, you can rescue your prime piece of manflesh yourself."
"I'll look forward to it," he said, then detached himself from her to unlock the door. "Our peanut gallery awaits."
"And your father and my parents."
"Who did you think I was talking about? I'm amazed James hasn't strung papa up from the gantries in the great hall already." He bowed and offered her his arm. "Shall we?"
Emma grinned, slipping her hand through his arm. She was wearing a great combination of breeches and shirt with a gorgeous waistcoat, and despite the lack of product, her hair was doing amazing things all by itself. August had tried to convince her it was all magic, but she liked to think of it as knowing how to use a brush.
As expected, a hush fell on the hall the moment they entered, and Snow White immediately crossed the room to greet them.
"Hey, Emma!" Henry waved happily, as he hurried towards them. "Hi August."
Emma was surprised their fathers didn't approach, but then she spotted them, standing over in one of the windows. Rumpelstiltskin was fidgeting awkwardly, and from the look of it, James was giving him a lecture. The idea of it, her dad facing August's, was enough to make her bite her lip to keep from grinning.
"Everyone's been dying to see you," Snow White said in a murmur, clasping Emma's hand. "They know that you defeated the Queen. Now, they're just curious about the rest of the stories going around about you."
August promptly gave a giggle that was unsettlingly like his father's and Emma raised her eyes ceilingwards.
"Well, that answers that question," Snow White said with a helpless laugh.
"Why?" Emma said, looking at him. "Why do you feel the need to do that?"
He gave her his best innocent look. "Blood, dearie?"
She felt she was entirely justified in elbowing him in the ribs.
"So it's all true?" Henry exclaimed eagerly. "I knew you had to be part of the story!"
"Couldn't be here if I wasn't," August agreed with a smile.
Emma touched his arm. "You go and scare people," she said. "I think I need to go and rescue your father."
"Wh… oh." August winced. "Yeah. Good luck."
Emma smiled, then slipped away between the gathered throng. Some people stepped back as if afraid or awed, while others touched her in passing, which really was way off in the getting-in-personal-space boundary. Still, she guessed they had good reason, being all uncursed and mostly happy again. At least they weren't all trying to hug on her like Grumpy did when he met her.
The Prince didn't turn to look at her, or even glance away from Rumpelstiltskin. "Emma."
"How many of his bones have you threatened to break so far?" she asked, approaching him to stand side by side. When James didn't immediately reply, she nudged him gently. "You think I can't recognise The Lecture when I see it being given?"
He glanced at her, then smiled ruefully. "Would you consider it justifiable, since I have twenty-eight years of lost time to make up for?"
"All the same," she said, touching his arm. "August just got his father back, and he's kind of attached." She offered a small smile. "It's another reunion. Like us."
James's expression softened, and he lifted a hand to cup her cheek and kissed her on the forehead as if she was a teenager going to her first prom. "Just for you," he said. He stepped back and smiled. "You look beautiful."
Emma felt the blush accelerate up her face and shrugged. "It's okay, I guess. Not exactly a Princess outfit, but I like it."
"It's exactly a Princess outfit," her father countered warmly. "You're a Princess. That's your outfit. You made it a Princess outfit." He skewered Rumpelstiltskin with another glare. "And your welcome lasts only as long as my daughter speaks for you."
Out of spite, Rumpelstiltskin bowed in his best, bandy-legged fashion, sneering after James as he walked away.
"You do want me to speak for you, right?" Emma said, crossing her arms. "Because messing with my parents won't get you a warm welcome, and I'm sure as hell not letting your son out of my sight again for now. He might lose more than just a heart next time."
Rumpelstiltskin fidgeted with his fingers. "He's a good boy," he said. "He always was. Too brave for his own good."
Emma took pity on him. "Rumpel," she said quietly, "I'm not going to take him away from you. You of all people know how crap my life was without family. I know how precious a kid can be."
He raised his eyes to hers. "Dearie, you already have." His lips twitched. "Don't imagine I don't know about you two. You were the one who could reclaim his heart from the Queen's chest. You could do it, because it was already yours."
"You opened the box," she countered, startled. "I didn't do anything."
"I couldn't have taken the heart," he replied. His lips twitched in a crooked smile. "He's still my son, but he's yours as well now. I know how love works. I have studied it, examined it, and seen it firsthand. Some love is inborn, but the kind you and he have: that kind of love has to be made, and tried, and forged to iron."
"Again with the making," Emma said. "I didn't make anything."
"Look around you, Emma," Rumpelstiltskin said, quiet and calm. "You remade the world as it should have been. The Queen is subdued, though not yet at peace. The people in these halls are happy as they would have been. Your son is Prince in a Kingdom that will only grow and prosper. You did all of this." He smiled quietly, barely a curl of his lips. "You became a hero."
She wished she could have given him some smartmouth response, but she couldn't find a single word.
Emma knew what it was like to screw up.
Hell, most of her teens had been spent excelling in the school of Screw Up.
All the same, she had never screwed up anywhere near as badly as the woman currently imprisoned in the north west tower of her mother's palace. No one else wanted to go near the woman who was once the Queen, except Rumpelstiltskin, and she suspected he only went to silently gloat at the Queen's misfortune.
Regina - she couldn't be the Queen anymore, she couldn't be more different - was about as broken as it was possible to be. Whatever she had been and done had been unravelled when Emma gave her heart a wake-up call.
For that reason, Emma visited her, when no one else would.
August had offered, but after the whole heart-stealing thing, Emma was wary of letting him in the same room as the woman, even though she knew that Regina was powerless now. It was an instinctive impulse, but she had no intention of letting them cross paths again.
Emma sat at the small table, watching as Regina carefully poured them both tea from a china teaset. The woman's hands trembled constantly, and the spout of the teapot rattled quietly against the edge of the cup, but Regina pursed her lips and frowned in concentration, until both cups were full.
"Thanks," Emma said, offering her a quick smile.
Regina sat down carefully. She was wearing a plain shift-dress and her hair was drawn back loosely in a braid. She looked a lot younger, and a lot frailer. "How's Henry?" she asked as she tried to pick up her cup. Her fingers twitched so much that tea dripped into her saucer, but she pretended not to notice.
"Well," Emma replied, adding sugar to her own tea. "He's loving it here. James is determined to teach him how to be a knight."
A small smile shivered across Regina's lips. "He must have been pleased to find out he was right all along," she said.
"I'm going to be hearing 'I told you so' for the rest of my life," Emma admitted. She gazed at Regina. "I never understood why you wanted him. I mean back in Storybrooke. You weren't really a people-person. Why did you want a kid?"
The cup slipped from Regina's hands, bouncing onto the table, and tea slopped all over the place. She gave a startled cry, leaping up and patting at the spill with her skirt.
"Hey, hey," Emma said quickly, reaching over to catch her hands. "Don't worry. It's only tea." Regina looked at their hands, then back at Emma's face, and for a moment, it looked like she might cry. "It's okay. It's only tea."
Regina nodded shakily. "Only tea," she agreed, withdrawing her trembling hands from Emma's. She sat down and tweaked at her stained dress. "I'm sorry."
"You're not at the top of your game," Emma said comfortingly, sitting down beside her and pouring her a fresh cup. "You'll be okay soon."
"Will I?" Regina asked in a whisper. "I don't know if I believe that."
Emma considered it. "You'll be better, then," she said. "How about that?"
Regina's smile was there and gone like a flicker of lightning. "I couldn't get much worse, could I?"
Emma looked at her, then smiled. "Well, you were one hell of a bitch, and I don't think anyone would disagree with that," she said. "I think I like the new, improved, less-homicidal you better."
"You're the only one so far."
Emma laughed. "Yeah, well, I'm allowed to do whatever I want," she said. "If anyone asks why, I can hold up my 'saved the world' card, and they stop asking. The blue fairy was trying to magic me a dress and couldn't get it into her head I don't do dresses."
"You're not an average Princess," Regina murmured.
"You've met my family," Emma said bluntly. "Do you think I had any say?"
She paused, realising it was the first time that they'd brought Snow White or their family into the conversation. She watched Regina's face, and could see the emotions shifting rapidly: hate, grief, and finally, just sorrow.
"You still hate her?"
Regina looked up at her. "Wouldn't you?" She wrapped both hands around her teacup, holding it like it was a grip on reality. "She hurt me in terrible ways, but I reacted in even worse ways than that." She studied her tea. "I didn't want to feel anything anymore. There's some magic that can do that so I used it. I stopped caring." She took a sip of tea. "When you don't care about the consequences, there's nothing you wouldn't do to hurt people."
"So that's why your heart was the way it was?" Emma asked quietly.
Regina nodded, running her thumbs along the edge of her cup. "I thought I could undo it, if I had someone who I could care for and who would care for me," she said. "Unconditional love. Like a child."
"Henry," Emma said softly.
Regina nodded again. "Henry," she whispered. "Named for my father." She lifted her eyes to Emma, and her voice trembled and broke. "How do you make amends, when the person you most need forgiveness from died by your hand?"
Emma rescued the shaking cup from her hands and set it on the table, then took Regina's cold fingers between her own. "You live," she said. "You prove to yourself that you can be better, and that you learned from what you did and lost."
Tear-filled brown eyes looked at her. "I miss my father," she whispered. "He was the world to me, when I had nothing else left. I thought it would get easier, but it didn't. And now, all I can remember is the look on his face when I killed him."
When the woman's shoulders started shaking with silent, trembling sobs, Emma didn't know what to do. A hug, she supposed, was the normal thing. She put an arm around Regina's shoulders, and the other woman crumpled into her, burying her face in her hands as she wept.
It had been a long week.
When she wasn't learning about her parents' kingdom, Emma was spending time with Henry or August, or both. What little time she had left was spent checking on Regina, and making sure that Rumpelstiltskin was still behaving himself.
For the most part, he was.
Trouble was that he obviously wasn't used to living under someone else's roof, and found it impossible to abide by rules that most people took as written. Things like sitting in any chair he pleased. At three of the council meetings, James ended up physically dragging the other man out of his seat between Snow White and Emma. Emma had a feeling he was doing it on purpose, despite his denials.
He was just annoying enough to really piss everyone off to the point of ignoring him, but still civil enough that they couldn't really kick him out for getting in the way. On top of everything, he was the only one who knew all the details of exactly what happened, and his knowledge was vital as envoys drifted in from different kingdoms and citadels, seeking explanations and a chance to meet the one who freed them.
To make it worse, Henry fear in the face of Mr Gold had all but evaporated in the presence of Rumpelstiltskin. If he ever went missing, it was a good bet he would be found sitting at Rumpelstiltskin's side, being told stories of the deals and the plans that had come to pass, and even tales of those who came before him.
Emma found them one night, in one of the darkened libraries, lit by a single candle and the last glow of the fire in the hearth. August was watching from the shadows near the door and she crept up beside him to nudge him. He nodded towards the pair seated on the rug in front of the fireplace.
"And then what happened?" Henry asked breathlessly.
By the flickering candle flame, Rumpelstiltskin's skin was glittering. "The man was wise, but his wife was foolish," he replied. "She asked for many things, to be Queen, Empress, to have power and glory, even to be greater than God. The more she wished, the wilder the sea grew, until at last it was too much and the poor fish took back all it had given, to save the fisherman and itself."
Henry nodded eagerly. "You don't use wishes for selfish things," he said. "They go bad if you do!"
"Wise boy," Rumpelstiltskin said and wagged a finger before the boy's nose. "Never trust in something that appears to have no price. If it sounds like it is too good an offer, then you know it will have a great cost."
Emma found herself smiling, and slipped her hand into August's. He squeezed her fingers and pressed the finger of his other hand to his lips.
"What if you do it, and it's too late when you realise?" Henry asked. "I mean, what if you were tricked?"
Rumpelstiltskin's features didn't move, but the dancing flame made shadows deepen on his face. "Then you deal with the consequences of what you have done," he said. "You must accept the price."
Henry nodded again. "It's like a teeter-totter," he said. "If you push one end, then the other end goes up. You can't just use magic to do everything. If you magic something up, then something has to go down."
Rumpelstiltskin laughed quietly. "You would be a wise wizard. There aren't many of those around, believe me."
"I'm not magic," Henry said. "But Grandpa Charming says he'll teach me to be a Knight with a horse and everything."
"Is that so?" Rumpelstiltskin said. "And a sword, no doubt?"
Henry grinned. "I'll be the best Knight in all the land."
Rumpelstiltskin leaned closer. "I don't know about that," he said in a conspiratorial tone. "I don't know if a shepherd will be the best teacher, unless you want to know all the secrets of herding sheep."
Emma stifled a laugh at the offended look on Henry's face, pressing her mouth to August's shoulder.
"Grandpa James is a great knight," Henry said indignantly.
"And Grandmother Snow is a great armed robber, but I see you are avoiding that line of work," Rumpelstiltskin said, grinning widely.
Henry pulled a face at him and Rumpelstiltskin laughed, reaching over to ruffle the boy's hair. It was a genuine and warm sound, and just for a moment, Emma could see how he could he been a man capable of producing a son like August.
"Now, my boy, what lesson can you take from today's tale?" he said, rocking back and placing his hands behind him on the floor.
"That people who do magic have to be careful," Henry said after a moment of thought. "And that if someone offers you something, always check the details before you agree to anything, because you could get in trouble."
Henry frowned, then pointed at him. "And you don't like Grandpa James."
Rumpelstiltskin chuckled. "Indeed."
"Why?" Henry asked.
"Why don't you like Grandpa James? He's smart and brave and good."
Henry probably didn't notice the way Rumpelstiltskin's face tightened, but Emma saw it, and knew that those were the very reasons. "Surely, you have noticed how much he delights in threatening me," Rumpelstiltskin lied, looking away as he reached for the candle.
"I guess," Henry said doubtfully, getting up. He took the candlestick by the handle when it was offered to him. "Are you coming?"
Rumpelstiltskin unfolded from the floor. "I'll stay here for a time," he said. "I like the quiet."
August drew Emma back into the shadows with him as Henry hurried towards the door.
The door closed, leaving Rumpelstiltskin standing by the hearth, little more than a silhouette against the faint glow of the fire.
"I'm here, papa," August said quietly. "Emma too."
"Ah." Rumpelstiltskin rested his hands on the mantle. "Was that your doing?"
August walked forward, Emma with him. "Anything he asks you, he asks it himself," he said. "I never put you in the book. You know that. I never told him anything of what happened."
Emma looked between father and son, barely visible in the darkness of the room. It felt like this was the right place and time to ask. "What happened?" she asked quietly.
Rumpelstiltskin said nothing, crouching down by the remains of the fire and extending his hands towards them.
Emma released August's hand to approach Rumpelstiltskin. She squatted down beside him, looking at his profile. "You know me," she said quietly. "You know every goddamn thing about me. Probably stuff I don't even know. I've done everything you expected of me. Even more, I bet. Don't I at least get some of my questions answered?"
Red eyes looked at her. "I was a man. I'm not anymore. What is there to know?"
She couldn't say what made her do it, but she touched his arm. He looked down at her fingers in surprise? Confusion? "I'm learning there's a hell of a lot to know when people change in this world," she said quietly. "I know why the Queen became the way she did. What did you do that changed you from a man to whatever the hell it is you are now?"
Rumpelstiltskin looked up at his son. "Bae…"
"No," August said quietly. "Papa, she has my heart. You told her so yourself. I don't want to keep secrets from her about where I came from. Why I did what I did. This is your choice, but I can't lie, not to her. I've been hiding it all for too long."
For a long time, both men were silent.
Finally, Rumpelstiltskin looked at her, and by the throbbing light, he looked a thousand years old. "Your boy asked the right questions," he said quietly. "What if someone was tricked by magic. What happened then." He was silent again for a moment. "I was afraid, and I was fooled, and I became what you see."
Emma knew how much it had taken for him to admit that. She squeezed his wrist. "Thank you," she said.
He averted his eyes, and she straightened up to look at August.
"I'll see you back in our room?" he said, and she knew why he had to stay here for a while, with his father.
"I'll be there," she agreed, then walked away, leaving father and son alone.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea."
Emma's hand was resting on the door handle. "You can't start making amends when you're locked in a tower all the time," she said patiently to Regina, who was standing a few steps behind her. "People need to see that you've changed for the better."
Regina's hands twisted nervously in her skirt. She was looking better, though she was still pale and has shadows under her eyes. Emma knew she hasn't been sleeping, because the Sandman refused point blank to go anywhere near her, and sometimes, her sobs and screams could be heard from the stairs of the tower.
No one else went near the tower but Emma, and sometimes, she would just sit at the bottom of the long, winding flight and wonder if she had done the right thing.
It took nearly a fortnight, but her mother had finally sat down beside her at the bottom of the staircase and took her hand. "You really think she's changed?"
"I know it," Emma said. "She wants to make things right."
"You know that's impossible," Snow White said. "She's done too much."
"Better, then," Emma said quietly. "Surely everyone deserves a chance."
That was why she and Regina were now facing the doors of the great hall, where another gathering was taking place. Regina's dress was plain and her hair in a loose bun. She looked all of twelve years old and scared sick.
No one knew about their plans. Hell, most people didn't even know Regina was still alive, but Emma knew that it was about time that people did, and that they stopped talking about her like she was some boogey-man who would come back from the grave to eat them alive.
"I'm here with you," Emma said. "You don't need to be afraid."
Regina licked her lips nervously. "Do it," she said. "Before I change my mind."
Emma smiled, and pushed the doors inward, striding into the hall. People were finally adjusting to the fact they weren't going to see their new Princess in pretty dresses, but this was the first time she'd dressed formally in something that wasn't quite a military uniform with her sword on her hip. She knew this was the day to show she meant serious business.
All eyes turned to her, as usual. It took some getting used to.
She spotted her parents together. They looked uneasy, but Snow White nodded to her.
A little further across the room, August was sprawled on one of the couches. Red was perched on the arm, talking animatedly to him, while Henry was sitting on the back of the couch. He raised his hand to wave to her, but it froze, when he spotted the woman behind her.
"What the hell is she doing here?"
Grumpy, of course.
Emma turned to face him, and placed her hand on the pommel of her sword. "I invited her," she said. "Is that a problem?"
Grumpy frowned. "Invited her? The Queen?"
Emma glanced back at Regina, who was standing rigid in the doorway, her hands locked together in front of her to keep them from shaking. "She's not the Queen anymore," she said, returning to stand at Regina's side. "And yes. I invited her." She smiled around the room. "If anyone has a problem with that, you bring it up with me. Anyone who looks at her the wrong way or tries anything, and I won't be pleased."
She was completely unsurprised when Rumpelstiltskin stalked closer, the heels of his boots clattering on the stone floor. He stepped oppressively close to Regina, scrutinising her intently, then curled his lip in disdain when she flinched away from him.
"She's not worth worrying about," he sneered. He looked at Emma and nodded curtly, before prowling out of the hall and slamming the doors behind him. She was bewildered but grateful, because that commendation of weakness from Rumpelstiltskin would shatter some of the fear that remained.
The hall remained quiet for a moment, then gradually, voices rose again and people started drifting away, talking, mingling.
"He'll never stop hating me," Regina said quietly. "He knows I lied to him too many times."
"He's definitely the kind to hold a grudge," Emma agreed. She touched Regina's arm, guiding her forward, into the room, and she felt a warm flush of pride as Henry scrambled off the couch to come towards them. She glanced sidelong at Regina who was looking both terrified and hopeful.
"Hi," Henry said, looking at Regina curiously. He held out a hand. "Do you remember me?"
Regina's smile was tremulous. "Of course I do, Henry," she said, taking his hand and giving it a tentative shake. "How are you enjoying this world?"
Henry grinned. "It's pretty awesome," he said. "I like living in a castle."
Regina's smile grew warmer. "It's a little bigger than our house was," she agreed. She hesitated, then said, "I'm sorry I wasn't a better mother for you."
Henry shrugged with a smile. "I know why you weren't," he said. "Your heart was broken, and now, it's better." He stepped forwards suddenly and wrapped his arms around her waist, hugging her. Emma wondered if her expression when Henry first hugged her in Archie's office was as stunned as Regina's was now. He squeezed her tightly. "I'm glad you're better."
Regina's trembling hand rose to smooth Henry's hair, then she hugged him back, and Emma knew that anyone who was still pretending not to watch would be able to see that there was no way in hell that this Regina was anything like the Queen they knew.
Henry looked up at her. "Do you want something to eat?" he asked.
"I… I could," Regina agreed, looking at Emma uncertainly.
Emma waved them on. "Go ahead," she said. "I've got to go and do the mingling thing."
Henry beamed at her, then took Regina by the hand and led her towards the tables that lined the wall. While it wasn't exactly a traditional style of banquet, the people of the Enchanted Forest were embracing the Storybrooke idea of a buffet wholeheartedly.
"Can't deny he's your son," August murmured, approaching her. "That's the kind of boy that doesn't take anyone's crap."
Emma nodded proudly. "I guess it's in the blood."
Both of them turned when one of the doors swung inwards, and one of the guards rushed in. "Majesties! They're doing battle in the courtyard! Rumpelstiltskin and one of your guests…"
"Aw, shit," Emma cut across him. "August, you keep her safe."
Before he could reply, she was running, and she knew her parents were probably close behind her, as she sped down the stairs. If someone was fighting Rumpelstiltskin, if they didn't get there fast, she knew they'd only find a bloody smear on the ground and a very angry Rumpelstiltskin standing over it.
The sight that greeted her in the courtyard caught her by surprise.
Rumpelstiltskin hadn't turned anyone into something awful. In fact, he was sprawled on the ground, staring at the man standing over him, and if she hadn't known him as she did now, she would have missed the shock and fear in his face.
It took Emma a moment to recognise the other man, who was standing over the prone Rumpelstiltskin, breathing heavily, a sword pressing against Rumpelstiltskin's chest. There was blood blossoming around the tip.
"Tell me where she is, you bastard."
Emma stared at him. "Moe French?"
Her voice startled him and he withdrew the sword. "Sheriff Swan?"
"It's Princess Emma now," she said, approaching him, her hand at her own sword. "What are you doing?"
French's face twitched angrily. "This son of a bitch stole my daughter," he said. "I want to know what the hell he's done with her."
"I didn't steal anything," Rumpelstiltskin growled, rolling onto his side, then pushing himself up into a sitting position. He closed his hand over the bloody stain on his shirt, then looked at his palm. His hand was trembling. "I don't know where she is."
"Bullshit!" French roared. "You took her!"
Emma stepped between them, putting a hand on French's chest. "Back up," she said firmly. "I need to know what's going on. And let's just pretend that I don't know anything, okay? All I know is that he beat you up in Storybrooke. What did he do here?"
French stared contemptuously as Rumpelstiltskin, who had curled his bloody hand into a tight fist. "We were at war with the ogres," he said. "We were dying and desperate. He offered help. But his price was my girl. She agreed, and I never saw her again, and this son of a bitch won't tell me what he did to her." He slid his sword back into his scabbard and looked at her wearily. "She's my daughter, Sheriff. All I want to know is where she is. Even if she's dead. I just have to know."
Emma nodded. "We'll work it out," she said. She glanced over her shoulder, and as expected, her parents were there. "Snow, James, can you take… wait, what's your name here?"
"Sir Maurice," Moe French replied quietly, wrapping his hand around the grip of his sword.
"My parents'll take you in," she said with a nod to Snow White, who hurried forward. "Sorry it wasn't much of a welcome."
"Yeah," he said grimly. "Didn't expect to see his ugly face around here."
He didn't notice the way Rumpelstiltskin's shoulders twitched, flinching, but Emma did, and she waited until her parents ushered their guest and his small entourage into the castle before she approached him.
He didn't move or try to rise, so she sat down on the ground beside him, arranging the sword at her side.
"So," she said, "you gonna tell me what that was about?"
"As he said," Rumpelstiltskin replied in a whisper, "I took his daughter in trade. Some time later, I released her."
He lifted his shoulders in a small shrug. "And then I heard a tale," he said quietly. "Her father had rejected her. Her time with me had corrupted her. He had her scourged and flayed and tortured until she killed herself."
Emma's breath caught and she looked towards the door. "That wasn't the face of a man who had his daughter tortured," she said softly.
"Indeed not," Rumpelstiltskin said, looking at her. He looked completely lost. "She may be dead. She may be alive. I don't know." He opened his hand and stared at the blood. "I believed it, I believed she was gone, I believed he could be so cruel, and I never even looked."
There was something in his voice, in his expression.
Emma reached and took his hand in hers. It was sticky and bloody, but his flesh was cold and rough against her fingers. "Show me the girl," she said. Her voice echoed strangely in her ears and she could see the glow starting already. "Show me what you feel."
Rumpelstiltskin looked at her with blank terror. "Emma…"
"Rumpelstiltskin," she said, as the power gathered around her, "Let me help you. Help me find the one you love."
His blood made the bond easier.
She could taste the copper in her mouth, as much as she could feel his fear, rooted at the very core of him. It seemed like the air he breathed, but wrapped up and tangled in the middle of it, she found the glowing tiny ember of his affection for Sir Maurice's missing daughter. It was genuine, that much she could tell, and it was also as fragile as spun glass.
She couldn't reach it by force, but when he let her in, let her see, she knew just how much he was putting his trust in her, how much he was willing to do to find this girl, and it was enough to leave her breathless.
As broken as Regina had become, Emma knew in an instant that Rumpelstiltskin was even more vulnerable. Emma held his hand tightly, and his fingers closed around hers in as fierce a grip. Whether it was so he wasn't left behind, or out of sheer terror, she wasn't sure.
The world whirled around them, following the faint, flickering glow fanned by hope and dread in equal parts.
Her transporting skills hadn't improved any, unfortunately.
They crashed to the floor together in a heap, but it was a new floor, of dull grey stone, and a frayed, worn carpet.
"Ow." Emma pushed Rumpelstiltskin off her and struggled to sit up.
Then she noticed that they weren't alone.
They were in a room, a plain, dull, grey room which said 'cell' more than anything. The furniture was in pieces, and there was a girl in plain, dull clothes, with a tangled mess of brown hair, holding a broken chair by the legs. It looked like they had interrupted her mid-swing, the chair aimed at the heavy wooden door.
"Oh." The girl stared at her. "Hello." Her voice was hoarse, as if she hadn't used it for a long time. She looked at the chair in her hands, then put it down carefully. "I wondered when someone would remember I was here."
"Belle…" Rumpelstiltskin was staring at her like a drowning man the shore.
The girl turned her attention to him, her eyes widening in astonishment, and her face broke into a smile.
Emma knew Rumpelstiltskin could move fast, but he went from winded on the floor to wrapping his arms around the girl in less than a heartbeat. His fingers were buried in her hair and he was clinging to her like she was his anchor to the world.
If Snow White and James had created a warm glow at contact, Rumpelstiltskin had just set off a 4th of July's worth of fireworks.
And even more surprising was the fact that the girl hugged him back.
Emma heard her whisper, "You took your time."
That seemed to bring him back to himself and he drew back a step, as if he had gone too far. Emma saw the brightness in the girl's expression fade a little. "Dead. She told me you were dead," he said hoarsely. "I thought… I believed."
She reached up one small, thin hand. "Death doesn't always stop true love," she said, and her eyes were smiling as she said. "All it does is delay it a while." She brushed her thumb along his cheekbone. "Do you believe me now?"
She nodded. "I've always known what I felt. I've never lied. Now, it's your turn. Do you believe me?"
They were on the edge of something, teetering on the brink, and Emma had no idea what it was, but she knew it was important. There was a huge question going unasked, and she had a pretty good idea what it was.
Rumpelstiltskin stared at the girl, Belle, and lifted his hand to cover her fingers as they pressed against his cheek. "Belle… I should have… what I said… what I did…"
"Oh, just shut up and kiss me," Belle said, laughing.
Emma was pretty sure that even if Rumpelstiltskin wanted to, there was no way he could have resisted those words, and she ducked her head to hide a grin as Rumpelstiltskin leaned down and kissed his true love's lips.
Yup. A whole week's worth of fourth of July fireworks went off around them.
By the time the light dimmed, both Rumpelstiltskin and Belle were kneeling on the floor, and his head was buried in her shoulder. He was trembling from head to foot, and Belle was stroking his hair and murmuring to him.
"It was really knocked-off-your-feet good?" Emma inquired wryly.
Blue eyes looked up at her. "You know what they say about True Love's kiss," she said quietly.
"Yeah, yeah," Emma said, nodding. "Breaks any curse, cures the common cold and all that."
Belle's lips turned up in a small, knowing smile that was way too calm for someone who had been locked in an abandoned tower for weeks, and she tilted her head to kiss Rumpelstiltskin's ear. "Are you all right?"
When he lifted his head from Belle's shoulder, Emma swore out loud in shock. He looked like he had in Storybrooke, no scales, no glittering skin, no inhuman, reptile eyes. He blinked as if he had stepped out of a darkened room into daylight for the first time in years.
"I feel strange," he said hoarsely.
Belle caressed his cheek tenderly. "I'm not surprised," she said. "You're peaches-and-cream again." She scrutinised him intently. "You really have lovely eyes. I thought you would." To Emma's amusement, Rumpelstiltskin actually blushed.
"So there was a curse?" Emma asked. "And it was broken? Or something?"
Rumpelstiltskin looked up at her. "I think I was just brave," he said, sounding dazed. He rubbed his brow, then looked at his flesh-coloured hand. Belle caught it with hers and their fingers tangled together. "Thank you."
Belle lifted his chin with her other hand and pressed another kiss to his lips. "I knew you would see sense, eventually," she said. She tugged on his fingers. "And you haven't introduced me to your friend."
"Oh. Yes. Emma Swan, Belle. Belle, this is the woman who saved the Enchanted Forest and defeated the Queen."
If Belle's smile had been bright before, it was radiant now. "So we're free?"
Rumpelstiltskin looked at her with such rapt adoration that Emma wondered if the kiss had maybe sucked the oxygen out of his brain. "Forever," he said.
They returned to the castle within the hour, once Emma had gathered her strength again.
The respite had been long enough for her to catch up with how the pair had met, fallen in love, and Rumpelstiltskin had been the King of Jackass. Then, there was the Queen who, as usual, had stuck her knife in and twisted. For someone who had spent all of the last twenty-eight years in almost complete solitary confinement, Belle was surprisingly sane.
"She's tough," Rumpelstiltskin said with that half-smile of his. His face was still as enigmatic as it was as Gold and even when he was scaled, but Emma knew she could probably read it better than anyone save Belle. "She would have to be, to have tolerated me."
"Shush," Belle said fondly, rapping him on the leg. "Anyone would think you were hard to work for."
They were sitting side-by-side, and had hardly stopped touching each other since he pulled her into his arms. Emma tried to imagine what it would have been like to find out the person she loved was alive, when she believed they were dead. Probably pretty much like finding out that your parents are, in fact, some of the best people you know, despite leaving you at the mercy of the real world. Yeah, probably like that.
They were still holding hands when Emma threw them back through the world in the direction of her parents and August and Henry. Somehow, Rumpelstiltskin managed to brace them so that when they hit, Belle was the one who landed on top.
Emma groaned, flat on her face on the tiled floor of the great hall. Several imps were lying around as well, bowled over like skittles. She was still struggling up onto her elbows and shaking her head to clear it when she heard Belle's gasp.
Three guesses as to why.
She rolled over to see the young woman running at Regina, who stood her ground, didn't move, and took the punch to the face with surprising grace.
"Don't!" August caught the snarling girl around the middle, hauling her back.
"Belle!" Emma called, scrambling to her feet. "Stop!"
Panting and shaking with rage, Belle pointed at the woman who was the Queen. She didn't seem to notice she was dangling in August's arms. "You didn't tell me we'd be having tea and cakes with her!" she exclaimed.
"That's because she's not the Queen anymore," Emma said, rubbing her bruised ribs. She had to look into getting some kind of padding when she did trips like that. "What made her the Queen is gone. She's just a woman now."
Belle blinked. "Oh." She shook her hand. "And ow."
"May I say," Rumpelstiltskin said, smiling broadly, "I still enjoyed it tremendously."
Belle blushed and looked grudgingly at Regina. "I'm not going to apologise."
Regina fingered her bruising cheek. "I wouldn't expect you to," she said. She looked down gratefully at Henry when he handed her a damp napkin to press to her face. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about what happened."
"Hmm." Belle tapped the arms around her waist. "You can put me down now."
August was too busy staring at Rumpelstiltskin. "Papa?"
For the first time, Rumpelstiltskin's face broke into a genuine and warm smile. "That's right, Bae," he said. "I'm back." He cleared his throat. "And you might want to put her down. The cat might be small, but she still has claws."
"Oh! Right!" August set Belle down gently, and she turned to look up at him.
"So you're the one he lost?"
August grinned. "And you're the chipper of teacups?"
They smiled at each other.
Emma could see there was mutual acknowledgement going on, and Rumpelstiltskin limped closer to be part of it. Look, son, I went out hunting with your girlfriend and brought home your new step-mom, and she just beat up your new step-son's adoptive mom. Emma snorted in amusement. It was more like a damned soap opera than a fairytale.
Oh, wait, Emma thought wryly, there's more.
"Moonshine?" Emma said to anyone who might be listening. No one appeared to be, but with the punching of Queens and Rumpelstiltskin becoming a man, and parents being reunited with long-lost children, there was a lot to be seen.
She headed for the nearest table and filled her glass from the most ominous looking pitcher.
"Emma," Snow White said sweetly in her ear, "dear. Have you been off being a hero again?"
Emma turned around, cradling the glass between her hands. "It was kind of accidental?" she said sheepishly. "And it stopped Sir Maurice going after Rumpelstiltskin's blood again."
Snow White raised her eyebrows. "I saw the way he looked at her, Emma," she said. "I don't think this'll stop Sir Maurice at all."
"Dad Prerogative, right?" Emma said, wincing. "Poor Rumpelstiltskin." She looked in the direction of Belle, who was hugging her father, and she saw the moment that the news was broken. Sir Maurice's face went as purple as his tunic. "Do we have heart medication here?" she asked. "Because I think his just exploded."
Snow White grimaced. "All I wanted," she said, "was to have a nice party with no bloodshed or violence."
Emma bit her lip guiltily as Sir Maurice tried to march towards Rumpelstiltskin, who was currently shielded by his son, while Belle wrapped her arm around Sir Maurice's arm in a futile attempt to hold him back.
Beyond them, Henry had guided Regina to the couch that Snow White had just vacated and James was looking unimpressed by the development, especially when Henry made Regina scoot along to make space for him.
Snow White rubbed her forehead with both hands. "This couldn't possibly get more awkward…"
The speaker from the door declared loudly enough for his voice to carry over the ruckus, "The Princess Abigail and Lord Frederick."
James went scarlet, Snow White went rigid, and Emma knocked back her drink.
It was going to be one hell of a night.
"I hate you," Emma declared.
"No, you don't," August replied, unlacing her boots.
"Yeah, I do." She glared at him. He was being all hazy and fuzzy at the edges. Stupid guy with his stupid hands on her stupid shoes. He'd taken away her second pitcher of Moonshine as well. That just wasn't fair. "Your fault everyone was fighting."
He looked up at her, still smiling. Stupid face smile. "How'd'you figure?"
She reached down to poke him in the chest. "I broke the curse because of you," she said. "If the curse wasn't broken, they wouldn't all be fighting."
"But if the curse was still there, everyone would be miserable," he said, freeing her foot and tickling her sole.
She pulled her leg up indignantly. "No tickles." She tried her best to glare at him. "Still your fault."
"Let me guess," he said, eyes dancing, "because my dad made the curse to start with?"
She blinked at him. Stupid Rumpelstiltskin. He was all soft for his girlfriend, and she was all smiley for him, and it was romantic bullshit. "Yeah!" she said. "Your dad is an asshole!"
"Not going to disagree with that," he said. Emma frowned. She knew that wasn't how to win an argument.
"A bad asshole?" she hazarded, even if she didn't believe it.
August laughed. "Sometimes," he said.
She kicked him in the chest with her boot and pushed him back. "You're not doing it right," she complained.
"Doing what right?" he inquired, returning to his task of unlacing her boot.
"Arguing," she said. "You're not meant to agree with me all the time."
"Even when I do?"
She went cross-eyed. "Do what?"
"Agree with you?"
Emma blinked at him. "I'm confused," she said.
He pulled off her second boot and lifted her foot to kiss her big toe. "You're drunk," he corrected.
"Not," she said, unfastening her shirt.
"Emma, I had to carry you up here," August said, kneeling up beside the bed and propping his arms beside her. "You are pretty wasted."
"I'm pretty?" She beamed.
"And wasted," he added.
"I'll keep the pretty part," she decided.
"Good for you," he said. "Do you want me to take your pants off for you too?"
She waved him away and fumbled at the stays of her pants. Stupid no-zippers. Stupid tangled knots. She tugged at the thronging indignantly, then reached for her sword.
"Whoa whoa!" August caught her arm. "What are you doing?"
She glowered at him. "All in knots," she said. "Have to cut them."
"Not with a sword!" he exclaimed, laughing. "Just how many drinks did you have?"
"Just one… jug."
He shook his head, smiling. "You're hopeless," he said. "Papa said he warned you about the moonshine. It's powerful stuff." He nudged her back on the bed and reached for the fastening of her pants. "Here."
Emma fell back against the pillows. "I don't get your dad," she declared. "He's such a prick sometimes, and then, he looks at me like I'm his kid. And then, I'm his weapon to smite people." She frowned. "How do you smite anyway? Do you use a stick? Or a sword?"
"In your case, I think you use your tongue," August said, then exclaimed in triumph as he untangled to knots. His next exclamation was stifled when Emma kissed him, pinning him back on the bed. She lifted her head smugly, her hair all around both of them. "Uh." He peered up at her. "What are you doing?"
"I'm smiting you," she said.
His eyebrows rose. "Oh?"
His hand was in his hair and then, he was kissing her too, and it was good.
"Can people smite each other?" she asked, blinking at him.
"We can try," he offered bravely. "Just promise me you'll never smite anyone else like this?"
She laughed and smote him again.
"Is that a 'good morning, darling'?" August asked, nuzzling her shoulder.
"G'way. Lemme die."
He laughed, which made her head ache even more. "No chance," he said. "We have to go and clean up after the bloodbath." the sheets and blankets were suddenly ripped away and Emma yelped indignantly, groping for something to cover herself against the morning chill.
"Not in the least." August bundled the sheets up in his arms. "My father and mother were married."
She scowled at him, rubbing her head, then looked down at herself. "Uh. Why do I have my sword belt on?"
He drew a breath through his teeth. "Here's the thing," he said. "When you get an idea in your head, you don't tend to let go. You wanted to be the sword-wielding hero. We're going to need some new bed sheets."
Emma fell back into the pillows, which burst, sending feathers everywhere. "Gah!"
"Oh, and pillows," August added. "You're lucky I got out alive."
Grumbling, she crawled to the edge of the bed, brushing feathers from her hair and body, and struggling onto her feet. He set aside the bedding to graciously offer her a long, thick robe that looked more like a blanket with sleeves.
"Thanks," she grunted, tying it snug around her.
"Do you want to make bets on how many survived the night?" August asked. "After all, without your supervision, God knows what they would have done."
Emma made a face. "All adults," she said. "Can do what they damn well like." She rubbed her eyes again. "And they know if they did anything that'll piss me off, I'll go after 'em all and kick their asses to touch."
"There's my brave soldier," he said, grinning. "Hungry?"
"Mm." She stretched and yawned.
"We're just in time for the big breakfast downstairs."
She froze. "Wha?"
"I'm too lazy to go down and drag the food up," he said cheerfully. "I asked your mother to save us a seat or two."
"My head," she protested plaintively. "It hurts."
"Which means this'll be an important lesson for you," he replied, taking her arm and steering her towards the door. "I'm starving and you put me through one hell of a workout last night. Now, come on."
She was still protesting when they entered the hall, but from the sound of it, she wasn't the only one nursing a hangover. All the tables were arranged for people to sit, and most of them were being more careful with their cutlery than usual.
Snow White raised a hand to wave her daughter over, and couldn't help smiling. "Sleep well?"
"Don't ask," Emma grumbled, falling into the chair beside her. "Stupid boyfriend."
"Thanks, dear," August said, smiling. "I'll get you something to soothe the savage beast. Bacon? Eggs? Everything?"
She waved him away and squinted blearily around the hall. "No one died last night, then?"
Snow White looked at her in amusement. "You don't remember what happened?"
The expression on her mother's face was one that spoke of embarrassing photos showing up on the internet. "Uh. No?" she said. "Why? What happened? I remember being pissed off that everyone was fighting."
"Yes. You were." Snow White's lips were twitching. "You might have made that very clear to everyone by lighting up and floating above us all, while yelling that you hate it when people yell and some other stuff about curse-breaking and true love compelling us and things of… are you all right?" Snow White's smile was pure wickedness. "You're looking a little red."
Emma folded her arms on the table and hid her head with a groan. "Really?"
"It would have been a good speech," Snow White said consolingly, "if you hadn't bounced off the chandelier and almost set the wall-hangings on fire."
Emma moaned pitifully.
Snow White petted her hair soothingly. "If it's any comfort, it distracted everyone from their own little battles," she said. "No one died. Belle finally talked some sense into her father, especially since Rumpelstiltskin is human again, and Regina was… almost nice to talk to."
Emma tilted her head to peek at her mother suspiciously. "You're not just saying that?"
Emma sat up slowly, rubbing her head. "At least there aren't any cameras here," she said.
"No," her mother said with just a little too much hesitation. "No, no cameras."
Emma looked at her suspiciously. "But there is something?"
Snow White grinned. "Well, we do have fairies, and I'm sure they can conjure something quite convincing up…"
Emma stared at her, then buried her head in her arms again. "No respect," she complained. "I save the world and all I get is fairy photoshop."
"And breakfast," August said, slipping into the seat beside her. "It's a start, isn't it?"
Emma reluctantly raised her head. "Breakfast is never mentioned in happy endings," she said, taking one of the plates from him.
"A vital part of any happy ending," he said then smiled. "How about this - are you happy?"
She looked at him, then around the hall. She could see Belle and Rumpelstiltskin talking to one another under the warning gaze of Sir Maurice. Regina and Henry were sitting with Red and Granny, and Regina was actually smiling at something. No one was actively trying to kill anyone else, and she had her family and her friends nearby. Emma smiled. "Yeah."
"Then I think it counts. And the bacon makes it extra special."
You just can't argue with logic like that.