She can't stop staring down.
One time, when she'd been ten- eleven, maybe?- she'd been in a school with a mandatory production that her whole class had been required to join, regardless of whether or not they were foster children with parents who weren't interested in buying them the fancy dresses that the story demanded. She'd stood there in a little blue paisley dress, feeling more like Laura Ingalls than Cinderella, and watched the other girls in the class compare gowns and spin until the material floated around them, real fairytale princesses.
She'd long since been on her own and discovered the joys of the little black dress or a pair of blue jeans, but there's still a certain magic to princess gowns that she can't resist, even as she feels naked and unprotected by the restrictive layers of fabric that clings to her legs and the corset that a servant had fastened so tightly she can barely breathe. Still, she feels regal in her getup, graceful and-
"Would you stop tripping into me?" the Huntsman complains as her shoe traps the front of the gown and she topples forward again.
Well, it isn't like it's magical. She leans on his arm, straightening herself out. "Come on, I'm sure you get women falling into your arms all the time," she says teasingly, grinning at the way he blinks down at her corset and then looks away just as swiftly.
He rolls his eyes, pausing by the door to the dining hall. "Don't let the queen hear that or she'll execute every maid in the castle."
"Really now, my Huntsman." Regina's voice is smooth and polished with all the assurances of power as she calls out to them from inside the room. "I am entirely confident of your devotion to me."
Emma pulls the door open, and Regina crooks a finger from her seat at the table. The Huntsman walks to her and Emma stands in the doorway, shifting from foot to foot, as he bends to kiss his queen.
She can't help but notice how Regina kisses, the way her lips close over his with arrogant possession, the way her cheeks hollow out over fine cheekbones and her hand presses against the nape of the Huntsman's neck to deepen the embrace. And then it's over in a moment, the Huntsman retreating past Emma and Regina's eyes on Emma's, her lips curved in a smile that holds no humor.
Henry is staring at his plate, and Emma gets the distinct impression that this performance was all for her, a quiet reminder from the woman who holds her guard captive.
"Good morning," she ventures, tripping only a little as she makes her way to her seat. The table looks like the kind you'd see in a boardroom, long and sparse in a way that defies dust or any imperfections. Henry is seated beside his mother, who is naturally at the head of the table. A third plate is set at the opposite head, distant from mother and son.
So that's how this is going to be. Regina is definitely smirking when she nearly falls into her seat, the dress catching the side of her chair as she does. Henry remains oblivious. "Emma! I didn't know you were coming to breakfast!" He beams, sliding his plate down to the middle of the table.
"Henry!" Regina snaps, but the kid is already sitting back down halfway to Emma, chattering about his morning plans, and Emma raises her eyes to catch Regina's, unable to resist a smirk of her own.
This isn't a competition- and it isn't one that she can win, nor does she know what she'd do if she did win it. But she can't deny the warmth that comes with Henry's smiles, or the rush of victory at the way Regina's lips thin around the fork in her mouth. Do you really love him, or is he just another prize to be kept? She'd been so sure yesterday, when Regina had held her son in her arms as though he meant the world to her, but her visit later that night had left Emma suspicious again of the evil queen's motives.
What kind of mother wants him to be hurt, the way Emma's certain he will once she disappoints him?
And Emma knows that she will disappoint him, knows that with all the certitude of the girl who'd grown up consistently disappointed in all the adults around her until she'd lost all faith in others. She doesn't trust people with the same earnestness that a little boy in medieval clothing can trust a mother he's never met, and she aches with the knowledge that Regina intends that she be the one to crush Henry for good.
The woman sitting across the table from her, her eyes running over Emma's body now like she owns it- she's evil, and the veneer of magic that lends a fantastical air to everything that she does can't mitigate that anymore. This is the woman who had entombed Snow's prince and a dozen tourists, who still holds the Huntsman prisoner, who reigns over a kingdom that Emma has barely had chance to see but knows better than to believe it's with compassion and goodness. Regina might care about Henry, but she isn't above putting her own needs first, and Emma is suddenly determined that Henry will never suffer from her again.
"-And I'm going horseback riding again today and Snow said I could ask you to come too!" Henry is saying.
And it's partially concern for him and partially because of the stricken look on Regina's face that Emma says immediately, "Of course I will," before Regina can object.
And she knows instinctively that Regina, for all her bluster and machinations, won't refuse Henry while he's smiling with such open enthusiasm.
The stables are to the right of the castle, well kept with plenty of space for running. Henry races ahead as they descend to the fields, shouting back to her about the horse she'll be riding, and Emma pulls her dress a little higher and shudders at the thought of riding for the first time like this.
"Don't worry, you can always tell him you don't want to," Snow says by way of greeting outside the stables. She's smiling, welcoming and kind, but Emma can see the worry on even her face when she trips over the hem of her gown and falls against the outer wall of the stable. "Ladies are meant to be skilled at riding but never display it in public."
Emma arches an eyebrow. "If the dress didn't tip you off yet, I'm not much of a lady."
"No," Snow agrees, her lips pursing a bit with every passing moment. "Where's the clothing I sent you?"
"Regina," Emma announces, pulling herself up again. Henry is calling out into the stable, and a man emerges, lurching from side to side as unsteadily as Emma as he leads a horse with him. "Requested that I not change out of this outfit around Henry."
"I will not have my son escorted by a woman with no propriety," Regina had snapped when Henry suggested otherwise, eyes flashing. It had been the only thing she'd said during the meal after Henry had invited Emma along, and they'd both obeyed without question.
Now, Snow sighs. "Of course she did."
"But if he's riding with that guy, I should be on equal footing, right?" Emma gestures to the man, who's passed the reins to Henry already and is stumbling back into the stables with lumbering, confused steps.
"Daniel doesn't ride." Henry walks over to them, a docile pony following. "He just takes care of the horses."
"Is he okay? He looks kind of…" She considers. "Kind of like me, but without the dress," she admits, shamefaced.
Henry shrugs. "I don't know. He's always been like that. He likes the stables and the horses so I guess Mother just lets him stay out here. I've never really thought about it."
They both look to Snow for explanation, but she's uncharacteristically silent, her eyes dark and uncertain. "It isn't my place to say," she says tightly.
"It isn't my place!" The words burst from the woman as if they're an oath, a dirty phrase she keeps constrained to her mind for fear of what might happen with exposure. Emma stares, taken aback by the vehemence, and Snow stares determinedly at the ground.
"Mother." Henry says it with certainty, stepping forward to touch a hand to Snow's arm. "What did she do to you? To him?"
When Snow raises her face to his again, it's a different face than Emma's ever seen, tired and pained and so very old. "She did nothing," she says, and Emma doesn't believe it for an instant.
But Snow doesn't want to expand on it, not even when the Huntsman arrives from a far field and has Daniel bring them each a horse. Daniel stumbles again as he passes the reins to Emma, something not quite right about his face, and Emma shudders.
The Huntsman saddles her horse for her, smirking at her face. "Don't worry, it hasn't rained in days. The chances of you falling in wet mud are much less than you falling on hard grass and breaking a leg."
"You're always a pleasure." She follows Snow's lead and manages to mount the horse on her second try, her gown riding up to her knees as she does. The Huntsman eyes her legs appreciatively before he swings onto his own horse and rides over to Henry.
"What now?" she asks Snow.
Snow is staring at her, her lips quivering with repressed emotion that's nothing like the intensity of her reaction to Daniel. "Is this… is this your first time riding a horse?"
"If I ever figure it out."
"I'll help you." And Snow's eyes are shining with tears as she shows Emma how to encourage her steed on and direct it from side to side. Snow's a born teacher, talking to Emma as though she's a child without hitting the line between helpfulness and condescension, and Emma finds that she's eager to show her what she learns as she steers her steed around the field. There's a sort of rush to riding a horse, even as slowly as she's going, the sturdiness of the mount like no vehicle she's ever ridden, and she's surprised to realize that she's enjoying herself.
"Wow, Emma!" Henry's pony is moving at a quick trot now and he and the Huntsman are riding around them in a wide circle. "You're really getting the hang of this!"
She turns to respond and tumbles to the ground face-first, landing on her stomach. All the air is punched out of her in an instant, her ribs sore if not broken. "Thanks!" she calls out in a tiny voice.
The Huntsman is helping her up, holding back a smile that still leaks through. "I wasn't giving you advice, you know."
"Oh, shut up." She scowls at him halfheartedly and climbs on the horse again, her sore muscles protesting the thump as she hits the saddle. She's stubborn enough not to give up the first time she falls, especially when even Henry is looking so pitying at her fall.
For all his bravado, the Huntsman rides beside her for the next few rounds while Snow takes off to follow Henry, and soon Emma's feeling confident enough to catch up to the others.
They're speaking in low voices as she approaches, the tones of co-conspirators. "-knight always rides a horse!" Henry is saying. "It's in all the stories!"
Snow shakes her head. "We have to do this at her pace. We don't want to frighten her off."
"It'll take more than a fall to scare me," Emma tells them, unable to stop her lips from twitching when Snow startles on her own horse.
"Emma! You're here!" Henry is a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar, eyes wide and cheeks just a bit too red to be innocent. "Uh…how long have you been here?"
"Henry!" Snow reproves. She smiles at Emma, quick and sincere. "He cares about you," she murmurs. "And he knows you're trying."
Emma smiles back, her eyes moving to Henry again. If Regina's big plan is to embarrass her in front of Henry, even Emma happily providing her with material doesn't seem like it's enough to scare off the kid. He's grinning at her successes now, excusing her failures, and Emma shivers with the responsibility of his unconditional faith.
She isn't built to be a role model, and she's certainly not built to be a mother. Regina knows it, Snow seems to know it- but little Henry is still glowing with her every accomplishment, thrilled with every step she takes at becoming someone a prince could respect. I'll never meet your standards, she wants to warn him, before she lets him down. I'm never going to be what you need.
It's Snow who distracts her from her doubts, resting a hand on her back in intuitive comfort. "You're doing great," she says, and for a moment, staring into the eyes of someone else who inexplicably believes in her, Emma can believe it.
They break for lunch after another hour and sit in a nearby field while the Huntsman goes out to fetch a serving maid with food. "After we eat, I go to the library for lessons," Henry tells her. "I guess if the Huntsman isn't supposed to guard you today, you can come too?" He looks to Snow pleadingly, and when she nods in amused acquiescence he jumps up and pumps his fist, "Yes!" and jogs off to share the news with the Huntsman.
"He learned that from the Internet, huh?" Emma suspects that there isn't much fist-pumping in magic kingdoms, especially for a little boy who doesn't seem to have any peers his age.
"Does he have any friends?" she asks, once Snow is done describing the site she's found detailing hand gestures for spies (that sounds a lot more like Universal Sign Language, but Emma doesn't have the heart to clarify).
"Friends?" Snow blinks. "Well, I think he counts me as a friend, and there are the boys who are designated to serve him." She frowns. "It's hard, though. We're all frozen in time, but Henry's from the outside, and any friends he finds are outgrown as quickly as he makes them."
"The curse." Emma hadn't thought about that. "So he's going to keep growing until he's older than Regina herself?"
Snow shrugs her shoulders, troubled. "The other boys don't talk to him much, not after the queen heard one teasing him and dismissed the boy from the palace. And there was that incident with Gretel-"
"Like…Bread Crumbs Girl?"
"Never mind." Emma shakes her head. "What happened to her?"
"He found her sneaking into the palace kitchens to steal food, and you know how kindhearted Henry is. He tried to help her." A little red bird lands on Snow's finger, warbling, and she strokes it with a finger. "She was a part of the resistance on the outside."
"Resistance?" Emma had heard hinting from Rumpelstiltskin, but nothing concrete, not until now as Snow speaks so frankly about it.
Snow raises her hand and the bird flutters off toward the woods in the distance, and if Emma squints she can see someone dressed in red at the edge of the forest receive it. "Not everyone wanted to wait for the Savior." As they both watch, the red-cloaked figure vanishes back into the woods. "Gretel had been sent to gain the prince's friendship. When Regina found her…" Her voice trails off as Henry returns, flushed from his run and still beaming at the thought of the rest of the day.
"Emma, there's marshmallows in the kitchen! And Selyse said that you can have as many as we want so I told her you wanted a bowlful and I can have some, right? Right?"
Emma pretends to think. "I don't know, Henry, I'm kind of feeling like I'm going to need a bowl of marshmallows to recover from that ride…but maybe I could part with a few."
His smile could light a city. "You're the best!"
Selyse isn't nearly as easily fooled as Henry seems to think, and there are two little bowls of marshmallows delivered. Emma watches with a certain level of awe as Henry finishes off the first bowl before falling against her, moaning, "I feel sick, Emma."
"Your mother doesn't want you eating too many sweets," Snow points out gently, but she's smiling at him as he flops to the ground and grabs his canteen. "You don't want to be sick and give up your day with Emma, do you?"
He pops up in an instant, innocent and bright-eyed. "Who's sick?"
Emma pokes him. "Good kid."
The Huntsman doesn't come back and Emma takes that as tacit acknowledgement that today is hers with Henry as they finish up their food and start tramping back to the castle.
She's happy- really happy around him, more than she'd have ever expected from a kid who'd been raised in an alien world. He's sweet and loving and maybe a little more spoiled than she had ever been, even with a literal witch as a mother, but all it's done is made him vulnerable to hurt and sensitive to what his mother is. She craves to protect him from the world, longs to keep his precious smiles so earnest, and knows all the same that it can't last forever, not when her détente with Regina hangs barely by a thread.
Or maybe less. Because there Regina is, standing outside the stables waiting for them, her face drawn and her hands toying with the waist of her dress. Discomfort isn't an emotion Emma would have ever before associated with the queen who rules her kingdom without ever wavering, but Regina is uncomfortable here, enough that she can't hide it.
"Mother never comes to the stables." Henry's face is creased with worry, a counterpoint to Snow, who's just as pale as Regina right now. "She never even rides on her own. Do you think something happened?"
They're still a good fifty feet from the stables when Regina straightens, a decision apparently made, and turns and vanishes into the enclosed stables.
"No!" Henry and Snow are shouting in unison, and Emma starts running, more out of years of self-training than any worry of her own. Henry's voice follows her as she races forward. "Daniel doesn't like people to go in the stable! What if he-"
She ducks into the room, dark and dusty and stinking of horses and death, and freezes.
Daniel had struck her as a little off in the kind of way that Rumpelstiltskin had, something magical warped into him and changing him from human to just-nearly-human. But he'd been gentle with the horses, if a little awkward, and she'd filed him away as odd but not threatening.
But Regina is backed against a wall, Daniel's hands wrapped around her throat, manic murder animating his empty eyes. She's choking out broken words to him- words Emma realizes a moment later are his name, over and over again- and the queen, master of magic that Emma can't comprehend, is standing helpless in his grasp.
"Regina!" It's enough to distract Regina for a moment but not Daniel, whose fingers tighten around Regina's throat as she chokes out an unintelligible warning to Emma.
Emma grits her teeth, seeing no option, and barrels into him, slashing down on his wrists with a decisive blow. Daniel lets go for an instant, howling like an injured animal, and Emma shoves Regina to the side just as he attacks again, throwing her against the wall hard enough that she sees stars.
Daniel is at her throat now, choking her in Regina's place, and she hears Henry as though from a distance crying, "Do something, Mother!" and Snow shouting, "Henry, no!" and it's all a blur of pain and getting hazier as Daniel tightens his grip on her throat. She wants to stop him but all her attacks are reduced to scrabbling at his clothing, her senses dulled by the lack of oxygen getting through to her brain, and she can feel herself sinking to the ground, held up only by Daniel's iron grip.
There's a burst of gold sparks in the air and Daniel lets her go, blinking confusedly. And a moment later Regina is sandwiched between them, her hands firm against the wall above Emma's shoulders and her face twisted with helpless rage and grief as she presses it forward, just over Emma's face.
"Can't you just throw him off with magic?" Emma asks fuzzily, the combination of Daniel's hands on her neck and Regina so close making it harder and harder to think.
Regina's words are strained now as Daniel beats at her back, one heavy hand landing on Regina and then another, as mindless as a machine. "I won't…use magic…on him," she manages. There's real desperation and helplessness in her voice and Emma wonders why she's even here, protecting a woman she despises from someone she clearly can't bear to be around. Regina's eyes are stormy, her body is shaking, but her hands are strong, keeping Emma from Daniel as he punishes her with blow after blow of what must be superhuman strength from the way Regina shudders.
It must have been less time than she'd thought at first but it feels like forever when a spooked horse slams into the side of the stable, distracting Daniel from his attack. The fury in his eyes abates in an instant, replaced by the early emptiness, and he shuffles over to the mare and pats it down until it calms.
Emma finds it in herself to stand upright again, tucking an arm under Regina's arms to support her as they stumble out of the stables together. She doesn't trip over her dress again until they're out in the sun and fresh air again, and it's Regina who catches her before she can fall, arms twisting out to grasp her at her waist and straighten her out.
"You saved my life," she says dumbly. It's all she can think of to say to Regina, who seems so bereft of the rage and hatred that has defined her until now in that moment.
The queen is silent, touching fingers to the already tender bruises on Emma's neck.
It's only Henry, who speaks before Snow can shush him, who can shake her out of her stupor. "Snow said the horse would help," he says, his voice very small. "I didn't know that Daniel would hurt anyone."
The words slice through the silence with painful precision. "Only me, dear." Regina lets go of Emma, her eyes hardening again, her back straight as though she hasn't been inflicted with worse than Emma. "Don't get used to it, Miss Swan. And go see the doctor before those bruises have that damn Rumpelstiltskin start a riot." She shakes her head. "Or…you won't see the doctor, will you?"
"I can take care of her," Snow says quickly. "Henry can study alone today."
Henry is suddenly at Emma's side, an arm tight around her waist. "But I want to help-"
"Not another word." It's Regina's tightest voice, compressed and held within, and Henry lets go of Emma at once. "Snow, get her out of my sight. And yourself too," she adds, but the bite of it is more raw hatred than any of the polished condescension Emma's heard from her before. Snow looks down, the anguish on her own face nearly as strong as it had been on Regina's minutes before.
She turns, regal and composed, and if the material of her dress wasn't designed to reveal half her back, they might have never seen the purplish marks against bronzed skin, slashed into her back by Daniel's blows. Henry gasps and whimpers out his mother's name but she doesn't pause, doesn't look back, and never wavers a step.
Only once they're inside, Snow fussing over her and forcing her down into Snow's bed so the other woman can help heal her, Emma finally ventures the question again. "Who was Daniel to Regina?"
Snow spreads a mixture of ground herbs against Emma's bruises. "Her fiancé," she says, and there's a world of sorrow in Regina's stepdaughter's voice as she finally tells the story.