A young girl of thirteen walked alone down the vast expanse of the castle corridors. Brilliant sunlight flooded in through the tall windows, shimmering on the girl's curtain of gold blonde hair, and twinkling on the trail of tears that stained her opaque cheeks a puffy red.
Normally this time of year was filled with the joyous sounds of laughter and song. People from all across the realm made the journey to the capitol to celebrate the Week of Remembrance. The townspeople's merriment marked the beginning of summer, with colorful flowers full in bloom and a magnificent sun dominating the pure blue sky.
There was none of that this year. Though the flowers bloomed and the sun shone in the sky, the people of the realm had fallen quiet with mourning. Everyone wore black now. Men wore their darkest colored breeches, women donned heavy black veils that obscured their faces, and the children who usually scampered playfully across the town square had allowed their parents to dress them in the stiff, uncomfortable clothing that merited funerals.
King Henry was dead.
The very thought brought tearful sobs to the girl's eyes. Great, terrible sobs that wracked her body and caught in her chest, rasping her breath to a trembling half-hearted pace. She looked awful. Looing awful was something she'd normally have to work very hard at. She was a very pretty girl. Her eyes were a serene hazel that pierced those they gazed upon, her hair was a curtain of purest gold, and her face was soft, warm, and welcoming.
None of those traits showed now. Lack of bathing had tangled her hair ragged. Her dress was unwashed and covered in wrinkles, and sleepless nights of crying had marred her once perfect face. No one passing in the streets would look at her and say 'That's Princess Emma, daughter of King Henry's heir'. What they'd see would be a mangled shell of a girl shaken half dead by unimaginable grief.
He'd gone peacefully in the night, and had been found limp in his bed, smiling. That was something to be thankful for. At the ripe old age of eight-two, it was a wonder the late king hadn't succumbed to sickness. But the manner of her grandfather's death did little to soothe Emma's pain. To the people of the realm, they were mourning a figure of legend. Henry the Prophet, the savior's son. To Emma though, the mourning was for her grandfather. Someone so near and dear to her heart that with him gone, she felt as though her whole world would shatter.
The day before she'd stood with the rest of her family, garbed in her best dress, and watched as her father, August, was crowned king by the Blue fairy. Standing there among the lords and ladies in their finest clothes, and shouting with the rest 'Long live the King!' as her father stood to take his throne, had brought only a void of emptiness to her once overflowing heart.
Walking this paticular hallways did little help either. Along one wall from floor to high vaulted ceiling was painted a rapturous mural. Heroes of the long exile depicted in their moments of greatest glory. Red Riding Hood, the were-wolf archer draped in crimson. Pinocchio the wooden man. The seven dwarfs gathered behind Snow White and the Great King James, Emma's great-great grandparents. Even in their painted forms the pair gave off a powerful aura of strength and devotion. Their eyes were shining pools of emotion, and the two of them were obviously meant to be together. They were made for each other, as well as painted for each other.
And there at the mural's center were the tale's most important players. A little boy no older than ten stood clutching a leather bound storybook. A gray scarf striped red was coiled around his shoulders, and a smile tugged at his lips. Behind him stood a beautiful blonde haired woman whose arms were draped protectively across his shoulders. Her smile matched the boys, and a red leather coat hung about her torso.
Emma and Henry Swan. The savior and her son. The one who had ended the years of exile, and the one who had found her.
Looming behind them was a shadowy woman cloaked in shadows. A lacy black veil covered her hair, and a devious smirk dominated her mouth. Regina, the evil witch queen who had cast the spell of darkness upon the land, binding all the people to false identities and lives devoid of happiness. For twenty eight years they'd lived in an endless cycle of time frozen misery. Time didn't pass, nothing ever changed, and no one ever got any older. Except for a certain little boy on whom the curse had no hold. Years of growing up in a world had shown young Henry something was wrong. In his time of desperate hopelessness he had gone in search of his true mother. The woman destined to save them all.
Thus had begun Emma Swan's battle against the evil queen. Slowly the curse had started to break. People began to remember who they really were, and in the end good had won.
These were the stories Emma's grandfather had told her and her siblings and cousins each night before bed.
Just last week the whole lot of them had been gathered as usual in the king's vault-like bedchambers, piled on his four poster bed in their bedclothes to hear the story of the curse's breaking. It was a ritual they'd all grown up with. Coming together to hear their grandfather's stories. Other girls her age would find sitting in their nightgown with one of their babbling toddler cousins plopped in their lap to listen to their graying, wrinkled grandfather talk about the past to be childish or boring. But it was something Emma would miss more than she say.
Most recently it had been little eighteen-month old Leo who'd filled her lap, sucking his thumb. Between the gathered children a golden locket was being passed. Each of them took a turn examing it's contents, a faded picture of the king's family gathered together. His grandparents, his mother, his new born aunt, and the king himself, a young man in the bloom of adolescence.
Billowing torches kept the bedchambers brightly lit even after the fall of night. The room was large and spacious, befitting of a king. Along two of the walls stood enormous bookcases filled to bursting with old tomes. Here and there along the shelves clocks ticked in perfect harmony with one another. Emma often enjoyed taking them down one by one to examine them. Her grandfather had been collecting clocks since he was a little boy.
"I was always checking them to see if I was crazy" he'd explained to his grandchildren for the thousandth time. He always began the story by describing his childhood in the other world. The world filled with strange technologies and oil powered horseless carriages.
"Were you crazy?" one of the smaller children asked with dead seriousness. Henry laughed, a loud, melodious laugh filled with contented happiness.
"Just a bit" he said tugging at the graying whiskers on his chin. "At least everyone in Storybrooke thought so. I was the annoying kid with the book who went around telling everyone they were really story book characters. No one really believed me of course, why would they? Most of them just ignored me, though Jiminy Cricket did humor me, and my Grandmother Snow White was always supportive. She was my teacher, you know. She gave me the book, and that was when I realized the town was cursed. That something was wrong."
"So you went to find her!" one of the girls chirped.
"'In the city of tea leaves and revolution'" Emma finished. Henry chuckled. The books always made the story sound so much more melodramatic. Which was understandable, this was the world of fairy tales after all.
"Yes, I went to find her in Boston. I'll always remember her face when I showed up on her door. It was her twenty-eighth birthday that night, just like Rumpelstilskin foretold. I told her I was the son she gave up ten years ago, and before long she was taking me back to Storybrooke. By some miracle she ended up staying. And that was how it all began."
"Then she broke the curse?" asked Melody, the youngest of Emma's sisters.
"Eventually" said Henry. "But it took time. She didn't believe in the curse at first, or magic. You have to understand children, Emma didn't grow up like you did. She didn't have a family or a home. She had to fend for herself. A lot of people hurt her very much, my father included. By the time she reached adulthood she'd closed herself off from the world, and wouldn't let anyone into her heart. That other world is very different from this place children. There, people don't believe in anything they can't see. There, happy endings are just in stories, and true love is a childish fantasy. Emma grew up there, so that was what she wanted to believe, even when the truth was right in front of her. Pinocchio was starting to turn to wood, but when she looked at his skin all she saw was flesh. Denial can be very powerful."
A saddened silence fell over the gathered young royals. They all knew the story by heart. After all they'd heard it over and over again since birth. But the story was about their family, and it's low points upset them close to tears.
"She believed eventually though, right?" perked Jamie, Henry's great-nephew. His grandmother was Rose, the original Emma's sister who'd been born after the curse's breaking. Their age difference was over thirty years, which made the age spacing of their descendants a bit unusual even for fairy tale standards. Henry smiled.
"How?" one of the girls asked brightly. Emma couldn't help but chuckle at the memory. It was amazing how enthusiastic they always got when hearing those stories. They knew how they ended, they even knew some of the chracters in person, but every time they came together in Henry's bedchamber, it was like they were hearing it all again for the first time. Again Henry chuckled.
"I did something incredibly, incredibly stupid. It worked, mind you, but if it hadn't I wouldn't be sitting with you today. Do you remember the poisoned apple, whcih the queen used on my grandmother?" A gaggle of young heads bobbed their confirmation. That was a story they'd heard often. Of how, in an act of self sacrifice to save her love, Snow White had eated a cursed apple, to be awoken by Prince Charming's kiss.
"Well" Henry continued. "One day the queen was getting desperate. Emma was trying to get me back from her, her life was bound to the curse, so killing her wouldn't work. So the queen reached into this world and pulled back an apple. The very same apple she'd used to poison Snow White. She baked it into an apple pastry, and offered it to Emma as a peace offering. Emma was the bigger woman here, you see. She was willing to leave if it was best for me. It wasn', but her heart was in the right place. That night she told me she was leaving, that it was best, and that this wasn't a story, this was reality, and reality didn't always turn out the way we'd hoped..." The old king had paused, brows lowered, eyes flecked with the emotions of memory. "That broke my heart a bit. It was the first time she'd openly said she didn't believe in the curse. Part of me always knew she was humoring me, but it was still hard to hear it. I hugged her goodbye, thinking that I'd never see her again, and that's when I noticed the pastry on her counter. That's when I did something stupid. I asked her where she'd gotten it, and the answer chilled my blood. She didn't believe me when I said it was poisoned. But I'm just as stubborn as she was, and I wanted more than anything for her to see the truth, for her to believe in the curse...and in me" Henry smiled wanly. "So I ate it" he finished to a chorus of childish gasps.
Emma knew how it ended of course. Yet still the tale made her skin crawl and her subconscious shriek with worry. The cursed apple was meant to make the victim sleep forever, a prisoner of their own body, tormented by their regrets for the rest of time. What kind of heart did it take to make that kind of sacrifice? Stupid as her grandfather said it was, eating the apple had been very brave. Heroicly so, even. A niggling part of her mind asked her again and again, had she been in his place, would she have eaten the apple? Would she have been willing to sleep forever if it meant urging the savior towards her destiny? Much as she'd of liked to say so, she thought not. That was part of the reason she sometimes hated being named Emma. How in the world was she supposed to live up to the bloody messiah?
"Don't worry" Henry reassured them. "I obviously ended up okay if I'm here talking to you now. Emma saved me. She did a lot that night, form an alliance with the queen, watched Pinocchio become a wooden doll again, even slayed a dragon to try and save me. Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed I didn't get to see that. " The children laughed. "But in the end she saved me with the most powerful of gestures, true love's kiss." A few of the younger kids made scrunched up faces of disgust. Henry gave a hearty chuckle. "Not like that, a mother's kiss. To the forehead. True love breaks any curse, and there's no love truer than a parent's love for their child. Just ask your parents. They'd all do anything to save you lot." He paused, gathering his thoughts for a moment.
"When she kissed me the curse broke. Everyone started remembering who they are, and what'd been done to them. The queen fled at first. All the people remembered what she'd done, and they wanted her blood for it."
"Did they kill her?" little Melody asked. The king shook his head. Candlelight sparkled in the white of his thinning hair.
"No" he said. "Emma wouldn't let them."
"Why?" piped Leo. "Didn't she deswerve it?" His question was childish, made only more so by his lisp that came and went throughout his sentences.
"Because" Henry explained, seating himself on the bed and moving Leo to his knobbly knee. "Emma was the savior, the white knight, the hero. Hero's try to save everyone, even the bad guys. Otherwise, they're not heroes at all, are they? They're just another bully in power...Emma wasn't like that at all. Saving the beaten, the broken, the damned, that was what she did best...Yes, I suppose the queen may have deserved execution, in some ways at least. Many of the people thought so. They wanted payback for their suffering, and that's understandable. But whether she lived or died wasn't our call to make. We had to learn to forgive and move on. That's the only way people ever progress, by learning to forgive, and to live together peacefully. When I was a child I wouldn't have admitted it, my views of morality were too black and white, but I loved the queen despite what she did. She was my mother, just as Emma was." Another wane smile graced his lips. "And besides, breaking the curse was only the beginning of Emma's fight against the queen. At the same time, Rumpelstiltskin brought magic to Storybrooke. He and the queen had their powers returned to them, and things got...interesting to say the least. But" he got to his feet with Leo propped against his hip. "They'll be time for that part of the story tomorrow night."
A chorus of whines and protests erupted from the bed, peppered with cries of 'I'm not tired!' but Henry was having none of it.
"No, no, children, it's far too late. You have to get to bed." He glanced at one of his many clocks. "Rose is taking you out riding tomorrow. You need your rest if you're to be up to that. Emma," he gestured to the younglings bouncing in their bedclothes. "Would you mind helping me with this lot? If I do it alone, they'd probably talk me into taking them to see the fireflies." He grinned toothily. "I'm far too soft aren't I?"
Emma returned the grin.
"Of course, grandpa."
Together the two of them shepherded the younger children in the direction of their beds. It took a good half an hour to get them there, talking them down and give them the customary pre-sleep glasses of water, but in the end they did it. Afterwards, the pair found themselves standing in the mural hallway, the same one Emma now walked in reminiscence. Henry gazed up at his mother's image with tired eyes. Emma couldn't help but stare at him. Whenever he looked at her picture, or told stories about the first Emma, he always got that same nostalgic look of reverence in his eyes. A look of love and longing.
"Do you ever miss her?" she asked quietly, trailing a hand down the colored wall.
"Every day" Henry replied. He looked down at her, cyan blue eyes piercing. "But let me tell you something, Emma" reaching into his robe his pulled the golden locket, and pressed it into her palm. "Families, especially our family, always find each other. Prince Charming found Snow White in her glass coffin, I found my birth mother in Boston, and when the time comes, I'll find her again in the next life. No cosmic plane or barrier of death will keep us apart. Nothing can do that." He glanced back up at the painting. "I'll see her again, and when I leave this world, you'll find me in the next one."
A week later, Emma wished more than anything she could believe his words. The locket was heavy around her neck. It's metal was cool against her skin. Tears still stung at her cheeks. No amount of happy memories could change the fact that her grandfather was gone. He'd said she would find him, but how? Death was the ultimate finality, the world that once passed into, could never be left again. With one last look at the mural, Emma stalked away to drown in her misery.
That night she slept with the locket in her hand and the Once Upon a Time storybook stashed beneath her pillow. That night, she dreamed.
Her grandfather walked down a paved street lined with fluorescent street lights. Every now and then a horseless carriage of varying colors chundered down the road, hacking black smog from their tailpipes. Even in the haze of her dreams, Emma knew this place from paintings and stories. This was Storybrooke, the place of the long exile, where king Henry had grown up.
As he walked a thick white fog rolled over the street, and when it passed, the old king was replaced by a little boy garbed in a red striped scarf. He carried the leather bound book, and had a backpack slung over one shoulder. After a minute or two of walking he came to a wooden bench. There he sat, swinging his legs over the edge like a child. For the longest time he just sat there, whistling a jaunty tune. Then a yellow carriage, called a bug, Emma remembered from the stories, pulled up to the curb. Out of it stepped a beautiful blonde woman in a red leather jacket. Smiling a smile that matched Henry's, she stepped up to the bench, knelt down to the child's level, and embraced him tenderly.
"Hey there, kid" she said into his mop of brown hair.
"Hey there, mom" he said back. "I missed you." His granddaughter saw on his face a happiness purer than she'd ever seen him wear before.
"I missed you too," she said back, and her expression made it clear that she meant it, her words laced with a motherly tenderness. Breaking the embrace, the first Emma took a seat beside her son. "So," she glanced at the backpack and the book he carried. "You about ready to go?"
"Yeah, I think so" he said. "Are Nan and Pop waiting for us? On the other side, I mean?" Nan and Pop were what he called his grandparents, Snow White and Prince Charming.
"Of course" Emma said. "We've all been waiting for you kid, it's about time you came on home."
Together the mother and son moved towards the car. Emma took the drivers seat, and Henry walked around to the the passenger side. With one hand still on the handle, he turned and looked his watching granddaughter in the eye. She gasped in her dream state. He knew she was there? Her child grandfather laughed, loud and full of life.
"Until we meet again, little Em. You'll find me. Just you see." Then he took his seat, and the car drove off into the horizon, into the endlessly shifting ocean of the next life.
In her sleep, Emma's grip tightened around the locket. She smiled. Maybe she would find him someday. It would take patience, but sometimes the greatest parts of life took a great deal of time. She would see her grandfather again, as well as the rest of her family. And that was something she was willing to wait a lifetime for.