*Two quick notes: 1) I started writing this fic around the time that the PROMO for episode 2.14 (Manhattan) came out, therefore any events that happened in the show after this episode aired will not necessarily be referred to!
And 2) I've rated it as M because even though it's currently quite tame, the shouting and screaming and sexy times are upcoming. Promise! Having said that, the relationship between Emma and Regina is going to build sloooooowly. Don't expect any down and dirty smut for a few chapters!*
Henry remained completely motionless as he stood before the portal, his narrowed eyes watching the last booted foot of the seven dwarves disappearing into the purple haze. His coat and scarf were wrapped tightly around him, only the very edges of the fabric flapping in the sharp gusts of air that were blasting out from the centre of the endless tunnel of colour. In his arms he clutched the book. Wrapped around its leather spine were his thin, pale fingers; so tightly that his knuckles had turned ugly and grey against the dark cover. His stance was wide, his frame rigid. Two dark eyes remained fixed on the centre of the vortex, hardly blinking, as he urged himself to take those final few steps forward.
'Henry!' a voice suddenly shouted from behind him, accompanied by two sets of footsteps and gasps for air that were choked under with tears. 'Henry, stop!'
The boy didn't turn around.
Emma and Regina shuddered to a halt several feet back from him, both of them too terrified to touch him in case he threw himself forwards into the portal. Too terrified to go near it themselves, in case it pulled them both into the very last world that they wished to go to.
'Henry?' Regina's voice was soft, and it cracked under the weight of his name. Emma watched as she reached out a hand for him, her usual confidence stripped from her as she pawed at the air behind her son's turned back. 'Henry. Please. I'm so sorry. I can't... please, Henry, I mean it. Step away from there before it pulls you in.'
'You don't want to go in there, kid,' Emma slowly added, fingers tugging at the worn sleeves of her leather jacket. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Regina nodding.
'How do you know what I want to do?' Henry suddenly asked, turning around with his narrow eyes glaring at the pair of them. 'You don't know anything about me. Either of you!'
'Henry, of course we do—' Regina tried to speak calmly, but the deep peals of her voice thrummed with nerves that Emma had never heard from her before.
'No you don't,' Henry interrupted. 'You never have. You always tell me what to do, tell me that I'm wrong, tell me that I'm being crazy. You never listen.'
'Henry, please don't think like that. I'm your mother. I—'
'No, you're not,' he immediately spat out at her. Regina's hand retracted from the air between them, finding a place at the empty space below her throat. She couldn't ignore the icy pang that followed those words, even now. Even after she'd heard them so many times before.
Emma tilted her head to one side. 'Henry. Come on. She's right: she is—'
'And neither are you.'
Silence followed his words. Neither woman looked at one another.
Behind Henry the portal was gradually shrinking. Once wider than his arms could span, it was now little more than a tunnel in the ground.
'You're both liars,' he shook his head at the two women before him. Turning his gaze on Regina, he said, 'You told me you were going to be better. You promised. But you were just lying to me, like you always lie to me, just to get me to stay quiet while you get to do whatever you want. You are the Evil Queen. You always have been, and you can't change that.'
As Regina blinked, the anger that she had carried with her for so many years slowly dimming in her glassy eyes, her son turned to Emma. Tears were already running down his flushed cheeks as he spoke.
'And you told me he was dead. You told me.' His voice was quiet, but the hurt that clung onto those words screamed out at the both of them.
'Henry, please. Just let me explain,' Emma tried to take a step forwards. He immediately raised the book – the one possession he had carried with him, both in his arms and in his battered heart – and hurled it towards the pair of them. It landed with a thud at Regina's feet, the words Once Upon a Time invisible and pressed down into the dirt.
'No,' Henry shook his head, taking a step backwards. 'You promised. And you lied.'
Both women screamed as his next step turned into his last. For a moment he was there, solid and throbbing with anger, with eyes so narrow that all he could see of them was a blur of yellow and a slash of black. And then he wasn't. The ground snatched him from them, and he tumbled down into the purple tide that was slowly drawing out.
Regina was the first to reach it, falling to her knees and thrusting an arm deep into the portal. Emma's hands quickly found the back of her coat, pulling her back up.
'No,' she snapped, turning her round to face her and shouting the words into her face. 'Regina, you can't go in there. I've been there, remember? I've seen what's left. If you go through there, the second someone from that world catches sight of you, you'll be dead. You can't help Henry as the Evil Queen.'
'And I suppose you can go through?!' Regina pushed Emma off of her, spitting the words out. 'He's my son, Miss Swan – I'll be damned if I let him go into that godforsaken place alone.'
'Regina, please,' Emma's words were more frantic this time, even as the portal reached the size of a rabbit hole. 'It's not safe for you.'
There was a pause, filled only by the roaring of the purple tide going out. 'It's not safe for anyone, Emma,' Regina said slowly. She bent down and picked up the book. 'I don't care if it kills me – I'm getting our son back.'
The words ripped the breath out of Emma's chest.
'I don't have time to argue with you over my choice of semantics, Miss Swan – either come with me, or go back to fighting with the charming man that you deemed to be respectable enough to father your bastard child. The choice is yours.'
Without another word, she stepped forwards and disappeared feet-first into the almost-diminished portal. Emma blinked, watching the light slowly fading. Watching the barrier between her and her son beginning to close.
'To hell with this,' she muttered to herself, closing her eyes. She took a step into the darkness and held her breath as she felt the cold waves wash over her.
Half a mile away, at her preferred table in Granny's, Snow sat perched on the edge of a chair with her eyes fixed on the clock on the wall. Charming sat opposite her, watching her dark brows drawing closer and closer together with every faint tick.
'She'll be here soon,' he said softly, reaching out and taking his wife's hand. 'She's only ten minutes late.'
Snow shook her head.
'No,' she said, stuffing a five dollar bill under her coffee cup. 'Something's wrong. We have to go.'
In a vast expanse of dark, grasping trees near the edge of the Enchanted Forest, Regina stood with her chin thrust sharply into the air. Her son's book was clutched under her left arm, resting in the crook of her elbow.
The moment she had landed in the forest, unfaltering with both of her feet planted firmly on the floor, her dark eyes had started scanning the trees for a sign of her son. She bit her lip as she realised that she couldn't see anything – not a disturbance in the branches, not a footprint in the dirt. Her forehead creased slightly.
A faint roaring sound from behind her grabbed her attention and she spun on the spot, her right hand outstretched as she waited for an animal to jump out at her. She saw nothing. Taking half a step forwards she squinted towards the nearest bushes, clutching the book closer to her side. Through the sparse branches, she could only see open space. And yet still the roaring.
It was then that the portal released Emma Swan into the forest, sending her tumbling into Regina's side with a crash. The book skidded several feet away as Emma's frame knocked Regina to the ground, both of them shrieking with surprise as they thudded to the floor. For a moment there was silence, the roaring noise now gone. Then Regina spat out, 'Will you get off of me?!'
'Sorry,' Emma mumbled, scrabbling to her knees so that she could climb off of the mayor. The moment that she was standing, she reached out a hand. Regina raised an eyebrow in annoyance and pushed herself off of the ground singlehandedly, barging past Emma as she went towards the book. 'The saviour arrives,' she muttered under her breath as she bent down to gather up its now dented cover.
Behind her, Emma was too busy brushing the leaves and mud off of her dark jeans to hear her. Regina turned to face her, clutching the book tightly to her chest as she waited for the blonde woman to register that she was waiting. Emma glanced up, sensing that she was being glared at, and sighed.
'Sorry,' she repeated, picking another leaf off of her shin before finally standing upright. In the dull green of the forest her red jacket was glaringly obvious, and Regina rolled her eyes at her pure ineptitude when it came to absolutely everything.
'So, you decide to come,' she drawled out. 'I'm so pleased.'
'Well, Madame Mayor, like you said,' Emma threw back, 'he is our son. Neither one of us has a chance of getting him to come home by ourselves. He's disowned both of us – remember?'
Regina's arched eyebrow quickly fell. 'I remember.' Her voice was immediately softer, and Emma sighed once more.
Suddenly she jumped and began to frantically look about at where they stood, her eyes narrowed. She turned in a full circle on herself, shuffling her feet beneath her, her gaze scouring the nearby landscape as she no doubt searched for a glimpse of the boy that they had chased after.
'If you're looking for Henry,' Regina said flatly, 'he's not here.'
'How can he not be here?' Emma spluttered. 'Have we gone to the wrong world?'
'Portals aren't trains, Miss Swan. You can't just accidentally get off at the wrong stop.' She sighed and rolled her eyes to the sky. 'But they are rather changeable. If you go through at a different time… you might just find yourself slightly further away.'
'So he's here,' Emma replied, 'but he's not here.'
'Exactly,' Regina smiled tightly. 'So glad you understand.'
Ignoring her tone of voice, or by now possibly immune to it, Emma replied, 'So how do we find him? Is there any way to work out where he would have come through?'
'No,' Regina replied simply, wrapping her arms more tightly around the book and shifting her gaze to something distant on the horizon. 'But he followed Ruby and Granny and those idiot dwarves. No doubt he'll be with them.'
Emma frowned slightly. 'Are you completely sure about that?'
Regina's dark gaze flickered momentarily from whatever had captured her interest back towards the green eyes of the woman before her. 'No,' she repeated. 'But I have to believe that there's still some hope. And they're the only hope he's got.'
Emma could only nod in response. As Regina continued to squint into the distance, she turned away and closed her eyes, muttering to herself a small, sad prayer that her son was okay. That in this strange and unpredictable world he was smart enough to fare better against its dangers than she had been able to.
'I'm so sorry, Henry,' she sighed to herself, putting her hands on her narrow hips and letting her head fall forwards until a curtain of blonde curls shielded her face from view. She wasn't crying, but she desperately wanted to. Part of her wished that Regina would decide to abandon her right then and there so that she could collapse to the floor and cry like a child for the rest of the night. Perhaps then an ogre would appear: perhaps it would hear her cries and, barely stopping to sniff the smoky winter air around its blinded skull, rip her to pieces until the only person Henry had left to hate and resent would be Regina.
'Miss Swan?' Emma's eyes snapped open again. Slowly and painfully, she turned around to face Regina once more. 'Are you alright?'
The pang of concern in her voice was more startling than comforting. Emma straightened her spine and nodded, lips pressed tightly together. 'Fine.'
'Good.' There was a pause. 'Then are you ready to go?'
Emma frowned. 'Go where exactly?'
Emma's mouth fell open in surprise. 'You have got to be kidding me?' The words tumbled from her lips before she thought about what she was saying. 'We've barely been here ten minutes and you're already thinking of ways to go back? Was it all talk, then, you saying that you wanted to save Henry and make him want to come back with us and—'
'Miss Swan, as much as I enjoy what appears to be a split personality disorder on your part, when I said "home" I did not mean Storybrooke. I still fully intend to find Henry.'
'So where are we going?'
Regina smiled her half-smile and gestured towards the far side of the circle of trees. 'If you'd be so good as to come with me? It's not far, where we're going. But night will fall soon, and I can assure you that even the Evil Queen tries to stay out of these woods when that happens.'
Without waiting for a response she began to majestically stride across the clearing, Emma staggering behind her without a word. The two women began to make their way through the trees together, Regina clutching tightly onto the book in her arms with every step of the way.
'Henry?!' Red's voice rang out between the trees as a trampling of footsteps rushed towards the spot where they'd heard her scream come from only moments before.
'Ruby!' the young boy grinned in delight, wrapping his arms around the tiny waist of the woman stood before him. Soon seven men and an elderly woman arrived on the road where the pair stood, gasping for breath as they witnessed the embrace. 'How did you find me?'
'Wolf thing,' she replied shortly, hugging him close. 'What the hell are you doing here?'
'I followed you through,' he said simply.
'And…' she looked around for a moment, seeing only her familiar companions and a vast expanse of deserted trail. 'Where are your moms?'
No reply came from the boy. After a moment Red pulled away from his hug and knelt down before him, frowning as she read his hurt expression. 'Oh Henry. You didn't.'
'They don't need me,' he replied abruptly. 'They don't want me. They both lied to me and tricked me and thought I was too stupid to notice. I don't want to see either of them ever again.'
'Henry,' Grumpy said slowly from behind Red's back. 'What Emma did… I'm sure she only said your father was dead to protect you. She must have had a reason.'
'And what about Regina?' he immediately replied. 'What about her reasons? She told me she was changing, and then she just…' There was no finishing his sentence. Everyone there knew what the mayor had done in the last few weeks.
'They'll come after you,' Granny sighed. 'You know they will.'
'I don't care. I want to stay here, with you.'
'You don't know that, kiddo – you don't know what this world is like.'
'Then teach me,' he begged. 'I'm the grandson of Snow White and Prince Charming. My mother is the saviour of Storybrooke and I lived with the Evil Queen for ten years: if anyone is meant for this world, it's me. Please. Just take me with you.'
Red's hand squeezed his shoulder instinctively. 'Well. We're certainly not just going to leave you out here on your own. But, Henry… they will come looking for you. And when they arrive, I'm not going to just send them away again. They're your mothers. They deserve a second chance.'
Henry glared into the darkening clearing, but nodded. 'Fine. If they come, I'll listen to them. But if they're too busy fighting with each other back in Storybrooke then it might be too late – so you may as well teach me how to ride a horse while we wait for them to steal another magic bean.'
The group laughed. 'We can teach you how to mine fairy dust.' The suggestion came from Doc.
'And to shoot a bow and arrow,' Granny said.
'And to hunt animals, and to fend for yourself,' Red whispered in his ear. He smiled up at her.
'Come on then,' Grumpy gestured to the woods at his left side. 'That's the quickest path through. We should be there by nightfall.'
'Where are we going?' Henry asked.
Happy laughed. 'Well. To our cottage, of course.'
'So tell me,' Emma said in her slow drawl, stepping over a log with her arms outstretched in case she fell for the fifth time on that short journey. 'Where are we actually going?'
'I've already told you,' Regina replied flatly. 'You'll see when we get there.'
'It's just that, from what I saw and heard last time I was here,' Emma continued, ignoring the mayor's response entirely as she continued on her current train of thought, 'there isn't exactly a lot going on here anymore. I got the impression that your curse kind of saw to that.'
'Yes, dear,' Regina sighed, pushing another branch out of her face with her free arm. She continually squinted into the dimming distance as she moved, checking on their progress towards this unknown destination. Emma tried to gauge how well they were doing, but to her nothing about this landscape, other than the increasing lack of light, ever seemed to change. 'From what you saw, that would be the case. But as I'm guessing that dear old Snow never brought you quite this far into your journey of self-discovery, you'd have no reason to think otherwise.'
'What do you mean?' Emma sighed, looking around her and still seeing nothing but trees. 'Regina, Jesus, please. Do we actually have a destination in mind, or is this just a Hansel and Gretel-style ploy to try and get rid of me? Because I still have my phone with me, and it's got GPS on it.'
Regina paused for a moment to throw Emma a look of utter contempt, but it was swallowed up by the increasing darkness. Eventually she heard another thud from behind her and, with a cold smile, she knew that her companion had fallen over again.
For another ten minutes they walked in complete silence. Emma shivered violently beneath her leather jacket but didn't say a word, choosing instead to clutch the fabric about her thinly covered abdomen and dream about being back at home with a mug of hot chocolate in her hand. With a pang, she suddenly realised she'd left without telling Snow where she was going. She was supposed to meet her at the diner to tell her about Neal and she'd completely forgotten. Groaning to herself, she looked up at the thick canopy of trees above her for the next few paces. When she looked back down again she could not stop the violent scream that erupted from her mouth as she looked into the eyes of the twisted, terrified face of a man frozen to the ground before her.
'Miss Swan?' Regina's voice called from further ahead. She didn't sound annoyed, but she didn't exactly sound concerned either.
'What the hell is this?!' Emma's words panted out of her as she staggered backwards from the man, trying to tear her eyes away from his glassy and cold but otherwise entirely alive ones. She heard a sigh from the queen as she began to retrace her steps back towards her. When she reached the man, she inhaled sharply.
'We're here,' was her response. Emma spluttered in derision.
'Regina, are you on crack?' Emma exploded, turning to the woman who was currently up at the sky with a blithe smile on her face. 'Who is this man? What happened to him?'
'We're nearly there,' Regina replied, turning around and continuing on her original track at twice her previous speed. Emma took one last look at the frozen man – his mouth was open in shock and his arms stretched out in front of him, like he was trying to protect himself from some kind of blow – before sighing and jogging after Regina. Although she had a sneaking suspicion that the strange man's current state was entirely to do with Regina herself, she stuck closer to her than she had done before.
For the next few minutes similar frozen faces flashed out of the darkness between the trees, each one of them struck into silence just as they were shouting for help. Regina, too fixated on their rapidly approaching destination, didn't look at them as she passed, her feet pounding the hardening ground faster and faster with each step. Emma on the other hand, with her fingers clasped firmly around the gun at her hip, looked each one directly in the eye. She began to apologise to them under her breath. She was sure that Regina must have heard her doing this, but she never turned around. She wasn't interested. They were reaching the very edge of the forest and the place that she called home would appear not too long afterwards.
Emma spotted the castle not long after the tops of the distant snow-covered mountains appeared. Even in the near-blackness that had enveloped the surrounding land, she could make out thin shards of metal that were stretching upwards, clawing at the sky. They twisted around one another like a fire made out of blades, jutting sharply out into the trees and scarring the horizon with their bold strokes. Emma stopped in her tracks as she realised that she'd seen this place before.
'This is your castle?' she asked quietly, her eyes finding the book in Regina's arms as she slowly turned around.
The queen nodded. 'This is home, Miss Swan. How does it suit you?'
For a moment Emma's eyes flickered between the distant, vicious castle and the woman stood before her: pictures of Regina in the book, wrapped head to toe in black and in hate, fitted with this place perfectly. The Evil Queen was made to live in a place like this; her sharp heels ticking against the stone floors as she paced throughout its rooms with a familiar gleam in those dark, dark eyes.
But then her eyes fell back on Regina: her dark hair was messy from trekking through the woods and mud was smeared up the left side of her black trousers. She wore a white shirt, once crisply ironed but now hanging in creases around her narrow waist, with a simple black coat over the top. She didn't stand as tall as he had done in the drawings. When Emma met her gaze, the eyes that looked back at her weren't filled with evil schemes or the venomous hatred that they used to – instead, she saw mild irritation, and exhaustion.
This wasn't the Evil Queen that Snow had spent her life running from.
'It's…' Emma smiled weakly. 'It's got character, hasn't it?'
Regina laughed the only laugh that she knew by breathing sharply out of her nose. 'Indeed it does.' She turned back around to gaze at it for another moment. 'I'm not sure it quite suits me anymore.'
Emma took a step forwards towards her side, half reaching out to touch her arm. Then something caught her eye. She took another step forwards and squinted into the distance, her eyes drawn to an unexpected light in what she assumed was the courtyard of the palace.
'Is that fire?' she asked slowly. Regina stepped up beside her and nodded.
'Yes,' she said. Emma looked round at her. 'They're probably the guards' torches.'
'I don't understand.' She shook her head. 'I thought the curse destroyed this land. How are there still fires, and guards? And people?'
Regina smiled slightly and gestured at the land behind her. 'Miss Swan, just because I cast the curse to take us away from here, does not mean that I didn't expect to one day have to come back.'
She turned away once more and lifted her right arm. Slowly waving it in a wide circle, Emma watched as a pulse of light shuddered through the trees around them. Only then did she realise how silent the world had previously been: now, the forest sprung to life with the noises of birds and insects gently speaking to one another, and in the far, far distance she could hear the shouting of the guards coming from Regina's castle.
'You froze them?' Emma asked slowly.
'I froze my part of the land.' Regina raised an eyebrow as she watched the tiny fires in her courtyard beginning to move. 'My mother's not the only person who knows how to protect herself.'