She's consumed with thoughts of Regina.
They follow her when she wakes up in Snow's bed in the morning, the other woman sleeping soundly beside her; when she sees the fairly decent size of Snow's room and remembers Snow explaining just how much Regina hates her; when she's fetched for breakfast again and Regina doesn't even acknowledge her, even though she's returned to more comfortable clothing. She watches the woman and strains to understand her, to know how the evil queen and the heroic daughter and the loving mother are all reconciled within her.
She craves to see the girl Snow had described more than anything else, to know that she endures even now. For Henry's sake, for the sake of everyone she's gotten to know in this castle, for the sake of the kingdom she's barely seen.
And if pressed, she'd probably admit that it's partially because she thinks she saw that girl yesterday in the desperation and pain in Regina's eyes as she held off a living zombie to save a woman she's made no secret of loathing.
Snow doesn't press her, thankfully, even though she's full of so many questions that it's interrupting Henry's lessons. It seems that her escort is a thing of the past- or that Regina just isn't interested in what she does anymore- and she has full freedom in the castle now, and she explores again, remembering where halls she'd seen only once might be or where the armory is or how to find her way back to her room. She's quickly bored and back to Snow by afternoon to watch Henry practice with a bow and arrow. Snow is a skilled archer, and Henry's getting the hang of it quickly.
She doesn't see Regina again until she's tersely told to stay for dinner, and even when she deliberately drags her place setting over until she's sitting next to Henry, Regina doesn't say a word to her, merely asks Henry about his day. Regina had crossed a self-forged line when she'd exposed so much of herself to Emma that day, Emma suspects, and now she's rebuilding that line with practiced apathy.
Days pass, and Regina still says little to Emma. There are no more threats, no more attempts to take Emma's heart, and Emma finds herself watching Regina with fascination bordering on obsession despite her best efforts.
"Really, Miss Swan, you've moved from flattery to obeisance," Regina remarks one day when Henry's running late and Emma can't stop glancing toward the head of the table. "I liked you better when you were putting up a fight, not ogling." She smirks once, the rest of her expression obscured by the flickering candlelight.
Emma flushes. "You saved my life," she points out, going for the simplest truth. "I'm gonna be confused by that, okay?"
The queen is all skillful maneuvering and regal masks, keeping the girl who'd taken such joy in riding and loved a stable boy and had a mother who'd snatched it all away from her hidden away from Emma's searching eyes. "Much as I'm certain you'd like to ascribe that to my good intentions, I assure you that I was only looking out for my son. He doesn't deserve to watch the woman who gave birth to him strangled to death in a stable, as…gratifying as it might have been for me."
"So you do still want me dead," Emma presses, satisfied when Regina's brow furrows and her lips purse. Not that she's fishing for a reaction. Really.
"I want you gone, Emma Swan. As it doesn't seem that you can feasibly go anywhere, I'll have to settle for having you…" Her voice trails off for a moment, Regina's eyes running over her until Emma feels naked to the bone, stripped down from her tunic to nothing but her heart and mind and too-open face. "-silent in my presence," Regina finishes, almost reluctantly, the final words a caress of what had come previous, silky and meaningless and ever so intimate.
Emma aches to speak in rebellion or glare right back or grab Regina to her right then- her hard body softening and pliant in her arms, her lips burning and her chest heaving and promises she'd never meant to make coming to fruition right then- but then Henry bursts in with a wave of happy chatter that drowns them both and they rock together in the undertow, Regina's eyes still smoldering with unspoken guarantees and Emma's own gaze blazing in response.
It's the most they've said to each other in days and Emma is unsatisfied by what she's seen. For all her seductive promises of what might come, there's nothing real there, not like the Regina Emma had seen at the stables or the one Snow speaks of so regretfully. This Regina is distracting and intriguing and Emma can't deny that wealth of attraction she awakens, but behind the sheen of satin and lace and the curl of her lips, nothing draws Emma in quite like the desperate woman who'd stood between Daniel and Emma and taken a beating for it.
She pushes her chair back and rises, and they both turn to look at her. Regina's expression is cool and Henry's is inquiring, but Emma shrugs at both of them. "I have to go."
She needs a drink.
She hadn't thought that Regina would let her leave the castle again, but the queen doesn't follow her out and the Huntsman is nowhere to be found as she picks her way along the path, following the road toward the lights in the distance. It's twilight. The sky is darkening and the warm glow of the town ahead flickers in a way that Boston never had, lit by fire and low-lit lamps instead of the cold science of electricity. Still, though, it's a place where people live, and she's never been to a town without a few decent bars.
She'll have to drink this fixation with Regina away. It's damned unhealthy and dangerous, too, flirting on the edge of a precipice with someone who's tucked away her empathy so efficiently. The girl Regina may have loved Daniel and the adult Regina undoubtedly loves Henry, but that's as far as Regina will display human emotion, and she would have no patience for Emma delving further.
Delving is a bad word, she decides, her mind wandering places it shouldn't in an instant, and she wraps her arms around herself and quickens her pace toward a bar and oblivion.
The woods are dark on either side of her, parting more as she nears the town lights, and she hears a howl somewhere close by. For the first time, she wonders what else might be lurking in a fairytale world. Dragons, setting fire to the woods? Werewolves hunting their prey? Vampires, looking for a quick fix and delighted to find a woman all alone in the woods? It's like something out of a horror movie, and Emma instinctively tenses, reminding herself that she's more than capable of defending herself.
Still, if she's going to do this again, she'd better have a sword handy from here on out.
She walks on, her senses prickling at every crack of a branch or distant howl, and it's a surprise and a relief when she hears a girl's voice behind her calling, "Emma? It's Emma, right?"
It should have only been one of the serving girls who'd know her name, but the girl who catches up to her is tall and grinning- without the mark thirty years of endless servitude has left on some of the girls- in her expression. "I'm Red! Snow's friend," she clarifies, and Emma recognizes her- or rather, her red cloak.
"You're the one she was passing messages to that day at the stables!" she realizes. Snow talks to birds and they seem to talk back some times, and take little rolled up notes to people on the outside other times. Regina's restrictions on Snow seem as harsh as the ones on Emma- maybe more so, if it's been three decades of Snow trapped in the castle without her friends and family.
Red bobs her head in acknowledgement. "She said that you were being held prisoner there, too. Are you really Henry's mother?"
"Regina is Henry's mother," Emma corrects her. "I'm… just the woman who gave birth to him." It's how Regina refers to her, with all the scorn of her son's circumstances of birth attached, but she feels power in it just as acutely, in the recognition of blood and connection there that can't be denied.
"Wow." Red seems impressed, all youthful enthusiasm and earnest interest, and Emma can see why kind and motherly Snow would take so well to her. "So…the queen let you go?"
"Are you going to run away?"
Emma stops walking. She hadn't even thought of it, though it had been foremost on her mind a week before. But now there's Henry to think of, his trust in her growing every day. And there's Snow who's become the friend she's never wanted or expected. She's cultivated a taste for being alone, but her heart hurts at the thought of leaving them both to find that same realization while they languish, dreaming of their savior who might never come to set them free.
And there's Regina, whose eyes spark with cool fire and whose lips whisper quiet threats and whose heart has been laid bare before her once and made an addict out of her. She swallows. "No, I don't think so. Not now."
She'll have other chances, if she needs to leave. She'll have to.
Red escorts her through the town, pointing out sites that Emma loses track of quickly. "There's where the farmers live, and that's Gepetto's shop, and back there is the fairies' domain, now that their magic is gone." There's a flicker of light in the direction Red's gesturing toward, dim and suppressed.
"Did Regina take it from them, too?" Emma asks, curious. Rumpelstiltskin hadn't seemed affected by Regina, but perhaps she'd been too afraid of him to enchant him like she had the rest of the town.
Red shakes her head. "This world is weaker in magic. I also have more control over my-" She stops, frowning. "Um. Anyway, they still have a little power, but the fairy dust isn't as strong anymore, I guess. Here's the tavern!" She announces, stopping in front of a pathway winding up to a well-lit building. "Granny runs it, but I have a shift tonight."
Inside, the tavern is loud and boisterous, men and the odd woman gathered at tables eating and drinking and shouting good-naturedly across the room at each other. Red is quickly distracted by clamors for more drinks, and she manages to set a pitcher of ale down in front of Emma before she bids her farewell.
Emma sips her drink, wincing at the taste. It's sweeter than the beer she's used to, but it'll do. The people around her sound louder and more distant with every sip, and she lets herself tune them out, thinking instead of the little boy she'd left behind with his queen.
She's always been able to hold her liquor but there must be some magical element to this ale, bringing on the first stages of intoxication faster than she'd expected, and she jumps when another pitcher slams down on the table beside her. "I've never seen you before," a little man announces, and then there are a few more crowding behind him, eyeing her through bleary eyes.
"I've been in the castle," Emma says neutrally.
"Sure don't look like a serving wench," someone retorts from behind her. It's another little man, short and bearded with suspicious eyes. "Fine clothes for a serving wench. You're one of hers, aren't you?"
"Here to watch us and report to the queen," another…dwarf, are these dwarves? says. Emma tries to count them, but the ones in front of her keep splitting and reforming. There are either four or eleven, she thinks.
Two identical dwarves lift their drinks to their lips in unison. "Haven't you done enough?" they say together, blurring back into one dwarf to Emma's dizzy eyes. "Damn queen."
"Damn queen!" all the dwarves chorus, raising their glasses and clinking them together.
The suspicious dwarf glares at her again. "Won't curse the queen, either? How deep are you in her pocket?"
"Not deep enough," Emma mumbles. The dwarves stare, and she raises her glass half-heartedly. "Yeah, yeah, damn Regina."
The dwarf's lip curls. "Don't tell me you're one of those savior lovers." He sneers, slamming his glass on the table with enough force that it shatters, startling the rest of the tavern to silence. A thin train of blood runs down his fist. "She's not coming! She's never coming!"
There's a low murmur at that, dark and angry. "Shut your mouth," Red snaps from behind the bar. "The savior will come."
"The twenty-eighth year has started already!" someone else shoots back from the other corner of the room. "Where's the savior now?"
"Yeah!" There's a chorus of agreement, and Red stares down at the pitcher she's filling, her eyes hard and defiant.
"Have faith," an older man calls out, and the dwarf beside Emma snorts loudly.
"Faith?" he echoes. "Faith in a myth? The savior is dead. And it's time we fought back, before that damned queen and her bastard son destroy even what we have here."
"Hey." Emma thinks to say, as the crowd rumbles and more agreement is shouted out. Regina, the royal witch, their threats growing more and more creative. Snow White, a patsy, who's been too caught up in the new prince's life to care about her people. The fury at the castle is low and at boiling point, tension amped up with the help of ale and Red watching helplessly as the people around her seethe with barely contained violence.
"Royals, caught up in their own little spats and destroying us in the process," another dwarf grumbles.
"Like hell!" It's the suspicious dwarf, suddenly switching sides in the clamor to growl at his friend. "Snow is still on our side. It's that little bastard that the queen has forced her to mother that keeps her prisoner." His words are slurred, pain and alcohol slowing his speech. "If I got my hands on that little brat, I'd-" Out of words, he pantomimes, his hands tightening and squeezing an imaginary neck. "-before he grows up to be a tyrant like his mother."
Emma sees through dazed eyes, her pitcher gone and her mind clouded. Her heart is pounding in her ears as she watches someone punch the dwarf in the chest, throwing him onto the next table, and it's only after a moment that she realizes that it's her fist in front of her, her own hands clenched at the dwarf's words.
Someone else howls in fury and there's another dwarf on her, and now she remembers to throw him back too even as the men at the next table crash into theirs to retaliate. There are shouts of frustration and violence and others join in, backing the dwarves or their neighbors, attacking anyone close enough to touch.
Nearly thirty years of fury and helplessness are powering this fight, and to Emma's still-intoxicated mind, it's all flashes of metal and grunts and purple bruises. She takes a moment to realize that she's being attacked, too, and throws herself into the brawl with all the enthusiasm that inebriation can bring.
"Enough!" Red is shouting, but she's drowned out by a tavern packed with brawlers, breaking glasses and trampling each other in an attempt to destroy something, anything, and Emma is only thinking of Henry and the way the dwarf had so gleefully promised to snuff out his little life. She kicks and throws herself forward, desperate to defend a son who'd never know what they speak of, outside the castle.
A thunderous bang splits the air, and Emma freezes, recognizing the sound for what it is. Beside Red, an older woman stands bearing a gun, aiming for the ceiling. She fires again, startling the occupants of the tavern for another moment, but it proves ineffective against the mob.
A third bang sounds, but this one's considerably louder, a deafening blow that seems unending, drowning out all the noise in the tavern until even the most fierce fight- between another dwarf and a man with a cloak who looks suspiciously like Dr. Frankenstein under his hood- comes to a standstill. The noise continues, roaring over them all, and slowly, all the brawlers turn to stare at the door.
Framed in the doorway is Regina, her eyes flashing and her magic-soaked hands outstretched, bringing the magic silencing boom to a crescendo before she lets it end. The room is still silent, the dwarves still gaping beside Emma, and Regina's eyes flicker to them for a moment before settling on Emma.
"Miss Swan, I'd like a word," The words are casual, unbothered by the destruction wreaked on the tavern or the drunken fight that had induced it, and Emma swallows and steps forward.
There's a low traitor! from one man as she walks by and a shut up! a moment later, and Emma glances to see who'd hissed the response and is startled to see that it's the dwarf who'd threatened Henry in the first place. He's glancing from Regina back to Emma, looking troubled.
Emma isn't sure how she looks to them- spy or servant or helpless possession- as she follows Regina out without a word, but it's hard to care all too much, still addled by drink and righteous anger that leaves her unfocused on anything but the regal figure in front of her. She stumbles a bit and is vaguely startled by Regina's arm, straightening her against the queen's side.
"I'm so wasted," she mumbles, half in apology, half explanation. "What the hell does Red put in those drinks?"
"It's their only use for fairy dust these days," Regina sneers, tightening her grip on Emma's waist. "Really, Emma, a bar fight? Is that the sort of example you want to be setting for Henry?"
"They…" The queen must be using her magic to quicken their path, because when Emma blinks they're only a hundred feet from where the castle grounds begin. Or maybe she'd lost track of time, pressed up against Regina like this. "They said…things…about Henry."
Regina stops moving. Emma topples forward, barely noticing when she crashes to the ground. "He'd love them if they let him, wouldn't he? And they'd love him. Not…"
"Yes," Regina agrees, her voice soft. "Yes, they would."
There you are. Emma stumbles back to her feet, staring at the eyes of the mournful mother with unabashed interest, subtlety gone with sobriety. This is the Regina she's been looking for, the woman under the queen, and she tips her face forward, wanting to touch her ever closer.
Instead, her head misses its mark and falls forward to drop onto Regina's shoulder. The other woman doesn't move and Emma whispers into her neck, "I found you."
"Who were you looking for?" Regina's tone is strained, her hands settled at Emma's waist again, and Emma sways unconsciously, dancing in time to her heartbeat with the queen as her immobile center.
She remembers to answer only when Regina asks again, the other woman urgent and confused and angry all at once. The magic of the fairy dust wears off as quickly as its onset had come, and she can feel sobriety dawning as they stand together, Regina as dazed by her as she is by Regina.
And maybe her one-word answer is unsatisfactory to sum up the thoughts of the moment, but it feels like it might be enough when "Regina" is all she can respond to the demand.
Her cheeks are aflame, her heart pounding a warning, her mind disorganized and humiliated at the sincerity of her admission, and she pulls away from Regina, running back toward the castle and mentally slapping herself for exposing so much of what she's been craving.
She turns back once, long enough to catch sight of Regina still frozen in place, her eyes narrowed with an emotion Emma can't place and a hand still outstretched ever so slightly where her grip had been settled at Emma's waist.
I'm sorry it's been so long! I've been busy with offline things for the past month, but hopefully I'm back on track after this chapter and will keep marching forward! Thanks as always to my stalwart beta Liz and to all of you here who've read and commented! :)