It's all about Henry, and she tells herself that enough that the words are ringing in her head with every spell attempted, with every magical method read. This is about keeping him safe first and foremost, and if they're going to have ogres mysteriously breaking through the barrier into Storybrooke every week, she needs to be capable of defending him. And it takes one time too many trampled by an angry troll before she admits that bullets aren't quite as effective as they are with humans.
"It was never this bad before," Ruby tells her one evening, wrapped in her red cloak as the full moon shines overhead. "Not even after the curse broke and you and Snow were gone. It's almost as though-" She stops, her eyes moving unconsciously toward the center of town and the house where no one goes anymore.
Emma grits her teeth and moves on, unwilling to think of the woman within it, the one she'd entrusted with her son- knowing who she was and what she was capable of! What had she been thinking- the one who'd sequestered herself in her home weeks ago. The one whose face she still can't get out of her mind- not her surprise at Archie's death, not her heartbreak at Henry's rejection, not the apologies and the concern and the lasagna-
She hadn't meant to trust Regina. It had just…happened, and now it's a struggle to contemplate how much the betrayal burns.
The magic is so minor at first that she can use it even fighting side-by-side with her father and he never even sees. A little burst of something to confuse a trampling wild beast, a little twitch to throw an ogre off Charming so he can slay it properly…it's small and she's still able to look Gold in the eye when she browses through the books in his shop.
But then one day Charming isn't there, and she and Henry are picnicking by the old quarry when a massive snake the diameter of a minivan bursts from the ground, spitting dangerous-looking venom their way and Henry is screaming and all Emma can do is remember Gold coaxing her to focus, focus and the light that shoots from her hand and incinerates the snake leaves her breathless and empowered.
"Did you see that?" she demands, swinging Henry around to pull him into a hug. "Your mom's got you covered!"
"Yeah," Henry says. His voice is dull and he's clinging to her so tightly that it leaves marks she finds later, but she barely notices, too caught up in her victory. "Yeah, I saw."
She can protect the people she cares about, and that's what's so intoxicating about it, why she's started making a habit of patrolling the edges of town every night to fend off the inevitable attacks. Magic has become a weapon to her, a way for her to fight for her family and friends and this impossible town that is home now. And she'd never fall into the traps that others had, not when her purpose is so clear.
Henry is quiet and distant more often than not, and she wants to comfort him, to tell him that she has it under control, but her priority has to be his safety first, his peace of mind second. Her parents are wary but they trust her judgment, and she doesn't go in depth about how much she can do now.
She's taken on a seven-headed monster, a vicious goblin duo, a dozen creatures who'd dared attack Storybrooke. And with each victory she can feel herself get a little stronger, her strength and skill sharpening with every successful attack. She still relies on her gun when necessary but magic has become her weapon of choice now, and it leaves her exhilarated and feeling like she can do anything.
She's down by the water one night when everything changes.
There's a sound of footsteps- too heavy to be human, too fast to be harmless- just beyond the docks, and Emma reacts, channeling power through her as the monster steps through a rift that flickers into view. A single strike- bright enough that it's blinding, and she has to squint to aim at the hulking beast again- is enough to slow it, and the second throws the creature backward, into the water, charred and dead and barely recognizable-
But at that moment she realizes that he is recognizable, and it isn't a beast after all, and then she hurls herself forward and vomits into the water as the Giant sinks below the surface.
No. It's all she can think, the word vibrating through her with her every step, and then she's running away, far from the docks and into the town; and when she finally collapses to the ground on someone's lawn, her eyesight is blurred from tears and her heart is pounding angry accusations against her chest. She can't breathe, she can't speak, and she can't contain the fury and pain and disbelief warring within her.
How many others? she wonders. How many good creatures had stumbled into Storybrooke only to be destroyed by an overzealous sheriff who shot first and asked questions later? She's never been so rash, so quick to …execute before now. But she'd never had the tools of execution so easily at her grasp before now, either. What kind of arrogance had she had, so convinced that she would never have to pay a price for her magic! How convinced had she been that she had had it under control!
She has to undo this somehow, and that thought is enough for her to find her determination again. Yes, she'll go see Gold. He owes her enough favors to help her with this, and she'll find the way to retrieve the Giant and return everything back to normal. She's been overwhelmed until now, but this is a warning she can work-
"What are you doing here?" The voice is sharp and cool as ice, and worrying as the sudden realization that there's only one lawn in town quite this big. "Where is my son?"
"He isn't yours," she echoes her own words, looking up at Regina. She feels vaguely guilty at the words, even knowing now what she does about the woman in front of her.
Regina's eyes are dark and unforgiving, and Emma thinks suddenly that tempting an evil ex-queen alone in the night might not be the best idea. "I could kill you where you stand," Regina snaps.
This- this must be a good use of magic, and Emma straightens, standing up to face the other woman. "You can try."
Regina lifts a hand and Emma tenses, but in an instant the queen is grasping her by the chin and forcing their gazes to meet, the steel of her eyes fading into a kind of wary concern. "What have you done?" Regina whispers, and Emma has to tear herself away to throw up the rest of her dinner.
She doesn't know how she winds up in Regina's house, sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of apple cider that's probably poisoned but hasn't killed her yet. "You gonna tell me you told me so?"
There's that smug superiority again, the kind she remembers best from before the curse was broken. "It seems like I don't need to," Regina retorts. She's leaning against the counter, her own cider half-finished, and Emma takes another tentative sip. It cleanses the bad taste in her mouth, burning it away as tense silence reigns in the room.
"It sucks you in," Regina says finally, setting down her mug. "Magic. You might think you're using it because you're desperate, for good purposes, but…"
"But sooner or later you wind up killing your shrink?" Emma asks dryly.
"I didn't kill him."
Emma watches her for a moment, the frustration and helplessness contained in one very frustrated queen. "I don't think you know how much I want to believe that. But I saw-"
"You've seen a lot of things lately, you say," Regina counters. "Ogres and beasts and monsters. You can't possibly think that I'm doing all this!"
Once, Emma had prided herself in always knowing when someone was lying. She doesn't know anymore, now that Regina had persuaded her of her innocence so successfully once before, that she seems so honest when she denies it even now. But even without that uncanny sense of hers, she can't think of a motive for Regina threatening Henry that day the snake had attacked. Not Regina, who undoubtedly loves their son.
"I don't," she agrees.
Relief washes over Regina's features, and she sinks down onto the chair opposite Emma. "Thank you," she murmurs, and Emma wonders if she's ever seen Regina so openly vulnerable as she is now, aching with loss and pain and isolation.
"I'm not sold on Archie, though," she says quickly, uncomfortable with the way that Regina's watching her now, as though she holds the key to her son in her hands. There's need there, and naked desire, and Emma doesn't know what she can say to the nemesis who understand her now better than she does herself.
Regina stands silhouetted in the moonlight at the edge of the dock, and Emma can't bring herself to move forward, not when she's only steps away from the spot where she'd killed, just hours ago. The magic is still all around them where the rift had been, tingling at the edge of her senses, and she inhales the power of it unconsciously as she waits. "I can save him," she whispers, more to herself than to the other woman.
Regina responds anyway. "No. Magic like that…the price you'd pay would destroy whatever you sought to repair."
"I have to-"
"There's nothing that can be done," Regina snaps. "You live with it and move on." And that's definitely bitterness in her voice, curt and impatient. "I don't doubt Snow and Charming will be happy to forgive, if that's something you want."
"Regina…" She doesn't know what she's going to say, what she can say to this evil power who's gone to such terrible lengths to destroy her family and now seems only a woman, desperate to leave the past behind but still inextricably chained to it.
Regina saves her from saying any more by gesturing for her to join her. "Can you see that ripple?"
"Ripple?" And now that Regina's mentioned it, yes, there is something almost structured about the magic around them, all emanating from a spot just beyond the dock.
"Something's here. Hidden from sight." She frowns. "I can't get a sense of what it is." Unexpectedly, she grabs Emma's hand, and Emma startles. She gets a disdainful, almost amused, glance from Regina for it. "Focus, Emma. Bring your mind into this."
The magic sparks between them, and Emma directs all her attention to the ripple in front of them, willing it to show her the same way as she had the dreamcatcher. Regina's grip is strengthening her, sending more carefully honed magic her way.
A ship. That's what the magic has been cloaking, and she knows instantly who it must be, who would have the magic and the resources to come here like this. "Hook," she hisses, at the same time as Regina whispers, "Mother?" with such abject dread that Emma can't help but feel for her.
They pull apart at once, staring at each other with newfound uncertainty. "Cora's been manipulating us," Emma says at once, the realization hitting. "Isolating you- framing you-"
"Tempting you," Regina adds, and there's no masking the sympathy on either of their faces right then. And Emma thinks that, for the first time, they understand each other perfectly. Roles reversed, perhaps, but she's been where Regina has and Regina's certainly been where she is now. And she can't help but feel connected to Regina now, to ache for her and consider that Henry might have his mother back after all. That she might have a new ally in Regina.
She doesn't apologize yet- she can't find the right words, not when morality is muddled and the villain is a victim, too- but as they head out to brief the others, she stands a little closer, her hand brushing against Regina's in quiet support.
It's a start, and she thinks she might be okay with where this goes.