Time for a heart-to-heartless.
In the enchanted forest, princesses were held in a suspiciously high regard. Really, she was more familiar with the princesses in any given kingdom, than the kings or queens. She knew of course, of King Leopold and Queen Ava, but she was sure that if they had a daughter, their names would quickly be forgotten. That’s just how it worked, for some reason.
Princess Cora, to Swan, didn’t really have a ‘princess’ air about her. Perhaps her age had a good deal to do with it, but she carried herself like a queen.
Well, she certainly tried to act like it in front of her subjects, at the very least.
Prince Henry, a man who came across as gentle (far too gentle to be leader of anything in Swan’s opinion, but she felt she had too many enemies as it was to mention it) gave her the opportunity to clean the stables as her punishment. Cora didn’t like the idea much, but Emma was sure that Cora didn’t like much anything. She had approved of it under one condition, in Emma’s own room the following morning: “You will never bring up my heart again! I don’t know how you found that information, but it stays with you to your grave, girl! Do you understand me?!”
Emma didn’t intend to repeat the information, not because of Cora’s wishes, but rather, for Regina. She wasn’t an expert on reading facial expressions of other people, having not talked to other people for most of her life, but she’s looked in the mirror long enough to know when she was upset, and when she was trying to hide being upset. Seeing that look reflected upon other people made it easy for her to interpret.
The brunette didn’t want to be reminded that her mother, technically, ‘doesn’t love me’. Those were her words. Emma couldn’t exactly say that she was wrong, nor could she prove to the contrary. The morning after Emma arrived, Regina had asked her if she could possibly return the heart to her mother. “I want to see what she’s like,” she tried to explain, before clarifying. “I mean, I don’t know when she lost her heart, but Mother’s been the same for as long as I can remember. Even if there isn’t much of a difference… I’d like Mother to be whole again.”
No one stole from the Dark One. And that would be the only way to get the heart of his true love.
Still, it would have been so easy to lie to her.
But even that statement was a lie. It’d be damn difficult, and it would haunt Emma, probably.
“I can’t promise you that. I can promise to ask for the heart -” once she and her guardian were on speaking terms, she silently amended, “- but I don’t know where he keeps it.”
She was silent for a moment, and Emma allowed herself to relax, leaning her head into the girl. She wanted to ask Regina how to braid hair, but that might stop the brunette from doing it herself, and she was rather enjoying the attention. It had been so long since anyone had done something for her without a motive. Rumple had taught her the art of the deal, a favor for a favor – it was one of the things the Dark One was famous for. But Regina had been pleased at the request for a hair braiding. Emma didn’t even know that Regina had braided her own hair. Didn’t Princesses have people for this?
“They do,” Regina confirmed, “but I’m not a princess, remember?”
Oh. She had forgotten that.
‘You are to me,’ seemed like one of those statements that crossed the imaginary boundary that you just don’t say to other people, so she didn’t say it aloud, but it was true. She wasn’t sure how much of that was Cora’s training, but Regina’s grace and poise seemed natural to Swan.
“Thank you,” the brunette said sincerely, her voice filled with laughter.
“Oh, shit,” she muttered, her eyes suddenly wide, her cheeks pink. “I said that out loud, didn’t I?”
“It was sweet,” she shrugged, her fingers expertly sliding through the blond strands. “Though I could do without the swearing.”
Emma rolled her eyes, but held her tongue. Witch or not, it was never wise to anger someone with a fistful of your hair.
“Your magic is supposed to be a secret, isn’t it?” Emma gave a lazy hum of affirmation. “Then how do you expect to become a knight and not use it?”
“I rarely use my magic, you know.”
Regina’s eyes wandered around the extravagant – by comparison to the other guest chambers – room, or rather, suite. “I can see that.”
Emma could practically hear Regina’s yes roaming about in her head. “Hey! It’s my room, for the time being. Might as well get comfortable.” Until she could build herself a nice private cabin, at least.
“And how will you try to explain this room to the servants and maids?”
“With a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door.”
Regina snorted demurely, but otherwise didn’t comment. “And who do you plan to fight for Mother’s undivided attention?”
“Yesterday, I requested an audience with her knight. So my best bet is a test of some kind. And magic doesn’t require spells, or wands, or silly hand motions. If you’re good at it, it flows through you. I’ve been told I’m pretty good.”
She hummed. “So why does fighting excite you so much? Are you really this thirsty for adrenaline?”
“I want to explore. Cora may find usefulness in my quickness and resourcefulness. The Enchanted Forest is a very large place, and I plan on seeing it with insurance, and preferably on a payroll.”
She hummed again. “I suppose that makes sense. But if you ever want to tell me the real reason, I’m sure it’ll make even more sense.”
Emma chuckled. “Yeah, I guess it would. But it’s not a lie. It’s just not the whole truth.”
“If I could speculate, the truth has something to do with your father’s identity.”
“Not my father,” she muttered absently, an instinctive reaction, “but yes. Is that okay?” She opened her eyes and peered at the girl in the mirror’s reflection.
The girl could only nod. “I can commiserate with secrets. My mother has some of her own.”
“That’s not the same,” Emma frowned. “Don’t make it sound like it’s the same thing.” She did not like being compared to the other witch.
She gave a disinterested hum. “You could have fooled me.”
“She’s keeping secrets from you for some unnecessary crusade to protect you. I’m keeping secrets to protect myself.”
“Protect yourself?” She furrowed her eyebrows. “From whom? Mother? Your guardian? The public?”
Swan quieted for a moment. “You told me that if I had never sought an audience with your mother, I would have never met her if you had the choice. One day, I’ll tell you who my Caretaker is. I just hope that you never meet him.”
I’m protecting myself from you, and your friendship. When I tell you, this is all over. That’s what it sounded like, and she knew it. Because it was true.
“Okay. I agree to those terms, Swan. But, in order for that to work, you must do me a favor.”
She stamped down her urge to blurt ‘anything’, and just nodded. She wasn’t sure if it was her desire to talk about anything but Rumple, or to prove her worth to a new friend.
Regina slung her friend’s long platinum-blond braid across the front of her shoulder, allowing her to look at it in the mirror. “Don’t get yourself killed.”
Emma hesitated, and nodded again. “Thank you.”
The brunette smiled tightly. “Anytime, dear.”
Was ‘dear’ a term of endearment? It was the base part of the very word, ‘endearment’. Then again, so was ‘dearie’. Everyone had their quirks.
She had meant what she said the night before – about wanting to be Regina’s friend. Her friends didn’t amount to much, only her fairy godmother and Rumple, because she saw him every day, and she certainly wasn’t going to fall for his ‘family’ ruse, so he had to be labeled as something. So, he was a friend.
Going by that short list, Regina was very quickly becoming her best friend, and scaring off said friend with her rather open-minded suggestions would not go well.
Perhaps there was someone in the ‘sub-kingdom’, as she’s started to call it, that would catch her interest? Statistically, there had to be. What were the chances that the first person she had a conversation with beyond her guardian’s grasp, be someone that she could be attracted to? She believed pirates had a saying for that… any port in a storm? (She allowed herself a moment to wonder if maybe Baelfire had learned that mantra yet).
She needed to see more people. Clearly.
If she were honest with herself, she was desperate for any human contact.
Swan decided, officially, that she hated everyone.
Cora proved to be a real hindrance to her plans as she had shown up in the dining area for breakfast. ‘Mess Hall’ didn’t seem appropriate for such a lavish, clean room.
“The Princess commands for your appearance at the lake,” a nameless, faceless knight said, right after she had picked up a turkey leg.
“Of course,” she muttered, and began to nibble at her eggs. She had no idea what bird produced eggs this shade of yellow, but she decided that she wanted more of it.
The knight’s hand roughly landed on her shoulder, and suddenly, the knight was missing a hand.
Swan savored the taste of her breakfast, her eyes fluttering shut in delight, as the man behind her screamed in a silent cry of pain.
A silencing spell helped greatly in that moment. She didn’t think she could stomach the screams. Watching the silent movements of panic, however, was hilarious.
She peeked over, absently grabbing two thick slices of wheat bread to make a sandwich with the turkey.
Yes, she decided, quite hilarious. She could do without the blood, though.
With an annoyed sigh, she got up and walked over his form, careful not to step in the muddle. With a flick of her hand, the wound was cauterized, but the silencing spell remained strong.
Perhaps ‘Mess Hall’ was an appropriate name.
She ignored the eyes on her, idly wondering where the Princess was. It wasn’t like she was ever given a tour of the aggrandized Mansion.
For a princess, Cora had a lot of personal guards and servants, which only supported her theory of the real hierarchy of royalty. Though, she supposed, the ability to spin gold could have something to do with the sub-kingdom’s prosperity. Even though the villages surrounding it didn’t show it.
From what little she had seen, Cora wasn’t as respected as The King and Queen, but that may just be attributed to her less-than-charming personality.
Clad in bull hide pants and boots, and a soft cotton shirt for the wind chill and flexibility, Swan jogged her way around the inside of the fortress. There wasn’t much space to explore, but she made the most of it.
“You’re late,” was the first words that came out of the Princess’s mouth when they spotted each other.
“My apologies, your majesty. I was turned around.”
“If you had let my knight escort you, you would have arrived promptly.” She looked almost amused.
“Well, yes, maybe. But he could’ve pointed out where to go – Oh. I guess he can’t.”
Her lips twisted into something that Swan believed to be a smirk. She turned to her mighty black steed, that Swan recognized as Toboso. The blonde gave a friendly wave, and he snorted and stamped his hooves. She took that as a hello.
“Stop conspiring with my horse, Miss Swan,” she chastised, and Emma giggled.
“Just Swan, your majesty. Miss Swan was my mother.”
She gave the young witch a look. “Don’t play me for a fool, Swan. We both know that Swan isn’t your true name. I will allow your lies to my daughter and the rest of this kingdom, but you will not lie to me. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal,” she said quickly.
There was a silence. Toboso snorted again.
“And your name?”
“It’s not Swan, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Cora narrowed her eyes. “Your name, girl.”
“I’m not lying to you. Telling you my actual name is out of the question. I’ve never told anyone my name, and unless there’s a way to put a protection on it, I never will.”
She tilted her head, appraising the young girl before her.
Then she smiled. “Perhaps I should tell everyone your secret, then? How you are an apprentice of the Dark One?”
Emma’s lips thinned. “And tell them how you willingly gave him your heart? How he taught you how to spin gold, with Dark Magic? How your lust for power was the only reason you two didn’t run off together, the Dark Two, happily ever after?”
There wasn’t a lot of emotions available to Cora – including anger, for which Emma was grateful – but the calculating stare she gave her affected her more than the raging storm she half-expected.
“Fine,” she announced shortly. She began to mount her steed. “We shall go for a ride. You may steal another of my horses for a short while, only if you swear to return it this time.”
“I returned the last one. Between you and me, I don’t think I’m living up to the legacy you claim I have.”
“Then you shall walk,” she said curtly, and her horse began to trot past her.
Cora was at the front gates when Emma trotted up beside her, atop a small brown pony. “Ready when you are.”
The older brunette stared down at her imperiously. “I told you not to take one of my horses.”
“This is a pony,” she gently corrected her. “And it’s not yours.” She looked around. “Will anyone be joining us, Princess?”
The older woman smirked devilishly, and Swan was sure that if she had a heart, she would have laughed. Wordlessly, she went ahead of her, and weighing her options, the blonde followed.
She wasn’t completely sure of Cora’s power. From what she had gotten from Rumple (correction: practically ripped out of Rumple in one of their trust tests), he taught her basic magic. She could have learned a lot since then. Magic had a tendency to take over a person’s life, as The Dark One had no doubt proven.
A cautionary tale she had taken to heart.
“Regina tells me that you’re here because you ran away from home,” Cora began, as the two made their way down a trail. Emma made sure that the Princess was always slightly ahead of her, because she seemed like someone who would like that. “You ran from the Dark One. Why?”
Emma bit her lip, mostly out of the ridiculousness of the statement just uttered. Because I’m not stupid enough to want to be around him willingly. “Are you asking for leverage, or genuine concern?”
“We both know I’m not capable of that,” she snapped, before holding the reigns tighter. “Though I am curious. Will you at least satisfy your princess with the truth for once?”
How the Evil Princess could hope to guilt anyone, she couldn’t possibly know. Still, she indulged her, if only to dissuade her impatience. “He gave me a task, and I intend to fulfil it.”
Swan could recognize a woman who was easygoing on a saddle, a woman who had ridden for years; and so, she could easily see the signs of Cora stiffen, even on a moving horse. No doubt, she was wondering why The Dark One sent a minion to her own doorstep to ‘fulfil a task’. She let her squirm for a comfortable amount of time, before she came clean. “I’m looking for his son.”
“Baelfire,” she breathed, her momentary panic almost forgotten. Though it was amusing to see the woman pull back, allowing them to go at the same pace. She kept her eyes trained on the blonde, for a deeper conversation, or to avoid a sneak attack, Emma couldn’t tell. “He still hasn’t found him? Is there a chance he could have… perished?”
Emma shook her head. “He’s alive. According to Rumple, anyway. He said that he could just feel it. But I don’t know for sure. In any case, I have to find him.”
“You said you ran away.”
“I did. Rumple didn’t think I was ready to look for him. He has his own plans to find him, and wants me to wait for the perfect moment or whatever. I’m not waiting another second. I needed to get away, and get it over with.”
She nodded stiffly. “There’s more.” It wasn’t a question.
“I want to explore,” she muttered, staring straight ahead. She didn’t know where Cora was leading her, but her pony knew enough not to stray far from the path she was being led. “He kept me, as a secret. I’m tired of being a secret. I’d rather not let everyone know that he raised me, but I don’t want the rest of my life being planned by the Master Manipulator himself.”
Venting her frustrations about the Dark One, to the possible True Love of the Dark One, probably wasn’t the best option, but it was all she really had.
That gave Emma pause. Princess Cora, potentially, was all she had, the only person she could really confide in, other than her Fairy Godmother, and even she wouldn’t hear a negative thing about the Dark One. Apparently, the godchild could never talk negative about the parents (or guardians, she mentally noted) in front of her fairy, for risk of losing her. Some sacred rule or whatever. Emma agreed, not willing to lose her only… ‘friend’.
“Rumple has many plans,” Cora finally said, as though she was interrogated into admission. “His foresight ensures that his plans will never fail. If he truly didn’t want you to leave, you wouldn’t be here. Perhaps running away was part of his plan?”
And, of course, Emma had considered it. “Then if I see him, I shall thank him for the much-needed space. But if it means I can see beyond his castle, this is a plan I don’t mind. If the illusion of choice is the best I got, then it’s better than facing the hard truth of having no choice at all.”
“And where does that plan involve me hiring you as my knight?”
Emma shrugged – which probably didn’t go through, as she was on a pony. “If he ever came to retrieve me, he’d have to go through you, his True Love.”
Cora didn’t react. “You’re very presumptuous, girl.”
“I don’t think so. I can’t think of any other reason to give someone your own heart willingly. He’s quite notorious for crushing them, you know.”
She harrumphed. “I was referring to your belief that I would protect you from him. Why shouldn’t I just hand you over, child? You wouldn’t even tell me your name!”
“I think you know why I wouldn’t,” Emma snipped back. “How else did you know that Swan isn’t my real name? You tried to check up on me with magic. The spell didn’t work, didn’t it?”
Her lips pressed into a thin line. “I see the Dark One has taught you well.”
“Everything he wanted me to learn.” And some things he doesn’t know I learned. “As for how I can be useful, well, you just said it yourself. I am the chosen protegee of the Dark One.”
As much as it hurt her to do it, she nodded stiffly.
Cora smirked. “So, he claims.” She looked forward again, her thin lips still curved upwards. “I am capable of protecting myself, girl. The knights are for my husband. My Kingdom has a protection on it. And while you delude yourself with the thought of ‘discovering lands’ and exploring our wondrous world, I rarely leave my kingdom. I have responsibilities, as you might deduce.”
Swan blinked. The woman even sounded like she was a queen.
And that gave her an idea. “Perhaps you could use some… assistance? In ascending to the throne, I mean?”
Cora gave her an odd look. “Continue.”
“I am a child. No one would look twice at me – you barely did. And yet, now you know what I can do. You know a useful asset when you see one. Why not send me out to the other villages? You want the throne, and you can’t get it without some… reconnaissance.”
“You stole my horse. You refuse to tell me your name. You spoke out to me when I held your fate in my hand, only spared by my forgiving husband. And you expect me to trust you.”
“You trust me enough with your daughter, so yes, I do.” She sounded far more confident than she should have been. But she was dealing with a woman of pure logic. Emotion was a non-factor. “Because helping me find Baelfire will forever put Rumplestiltskin in your debt, and… me, as well. You don’t need to pay me – ”
“You stole my horse. Cleaning the stables was meant to be the start of your punishment.”
Emma let out an unladylike snort. “Cleaning the stables was an excuse for you to decide my real fate. You were going to use me anyway. I just wish for the terms of how you take advantage of my usefulness, in a way that benefits us both.”
Cora didn’t reply. Emma didn’t hold her breath. She was rather content to enjoy breathing the fresh air of the forest, the animals she had crossed (she had a feeling that they could sense the Dark One’s presence, as she had never seen the forest creatures near the castle), and the lush grass that surrounded them.
She briefly wondered what Regina could have been doing right now. Probably singing to birds and squirrels. The thought brought a smile to her face. She quickly masked her expression and looked over to Cora, who stared ahead, ponderous.
“You could be used for more,” she finally said, finally looking over at her with a look that Emma couldn’t quite describe. “So much more,” she repeated, almost looking angry. “You boast your power as next to Rumple’s, yet you choose to hide in my kingdom.” It was unsaid, ‘You chose to squander your power in favor of working for me.‘
Emma shrugged. “I was told I was destined for great things. You get told that so many times, the only thing you want is something mundane. Like working for a princess and help her become Queen.”
“I had wanted you to be my assassin,” Cora admitted after a beat, and smirked at Emma’s wide green eyes. “Last night, that was my plan for you. To have lived with Rumple for so long, your obvious dislike of him, and your sense of humor, it made sense that you take to darkness well.”
“My ‘sense of humor’ is the only thing that keeps me sane with him. No offense.”
She sniffed, but Emma could see a tinge of amusement. “If you weren’t a child, I would have persisted further on my idea. Yet, you are as young as my child, if not the same age.
“I have no interest in becoming the Queen. That is my daughter’s birthright. She will want for nothing again as Queen. At any cost, I want Regina to have the power and riches bequeathed to her. And I shall do what it takes to have her on the throne.
“…I want you to be my daughter’s knight.”
If she weren’t riding a horse, she would have stumbled. “What?”
“That’s what I said,” Swan noted, tentatively sitting back against the apple tree in the orchard, her hands behind her head. “Verbatim actually.”
Regina stood, hands on her hips. “She gave me a watcher?”
Emma couldn’t exactly disagree, but she didn’t have to make it sound like that. “Your worst nightmare has just begun, kid. Your privacy is dead to me.”
Regina flushed. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just don’t understand why…”
“And here’s the second part of my good news. In the morning, we set off for the wonderful city of Mothaven. Wherever that is.”
“I know where that is,” Regina noted, before her eyes narrowed. “Wait, so Mother is not coming? You’ll escort me instead?”
Swan nodded, a little perplexed. “Your mother comes with you all the time? You were alone when you found me.”
Regina looked embarrassed. “I… don’t know how exactly I got there. I woke up in the forest, and was on my way back when I heard you by the lake. Mother said she sent me there, because I could calm the horse. She thought it had gotten away on its own. As I mentioned before – no one person was in charge of watching the stable, until you. Most of our regular workers visited the stable on occasion, but it wasn’t anyone’s responsibility.”
Emma wasn’t exactly sure if the story about waking up near her location was true, but she believed that Regina thought it the truth. “I see.” She brightened. “So you know how to get to Mothaven? Will you be leading the way tomorrow?”
Regina gave a hesitant nod. “I suppose my life is in your hands, knight.”
Again, no pressure. “There is an ulterior motive for all of this.” She eyed her purposefully. “She wants you to be ready for your ascension to the throne.”
She sighed. “I figured that. As soon as I am to be an acceptable age, she intends to marry me off.”
Swan nodded. “Yes, that’s one way.”
The brunette raised a curious eyebrow. “One way?”
“Or, there’s my way. We go out, meet people, make friends. Grow a little. See how the world works.”
“You make it sound as if I’m naïve.”
She fiddled with her thumbs as she looked down at her lap, not sure exactly how to respond to that.
Regina let out a tiring sigh. “If this is the first step to mother trusting me, and it gets me away from the castle, then I am glad that you have presented this first opportunity for me.”
Emma looked up, and the gentle smile that greeted her had called to her, in an instinctive moment. It told her something she had been told all her life, but never really believed. It told her of great things that lie in the girl’s future.
Emma didn’t want to say that she definitely wanted to be a part of that, but she knew it would be quite interesting to see where things would lead. Her mother was probably doing her no favors, but hiring Emma to watch over her was a good first step, even if a rather unexpected one.
“How good are you with a bow?”
Despite the beautiful apple tree, Emma felt no need to pierce any of the fresh, ripe fruit with arrows. Instead, she picked up a few from the ground, ones that Regina usually reserved for her horses, and set them upon conjured bales of hay.
The brunette knocked each apple off in rapid succession, and Emma nodded in approval. The way they had met the day before, the near-princess’s aim fixed on her head, told her that she had at least made it her primary weapon.
Regina allowed herself a bit of smugness before the apples began to float upwards. She glanced at Emma, her lip curled in a frown. “Moving targets?”
“At least they’re not pelting you. Yet.”
Regina blinked, before turning back to her apples and pulling back her bow.
Her aim wavered, however, when a small bluebird perched itself on her hunched shoulder. It began to chirp and pecked lightly at a straw in Regina’s braid.
Emma blinked. “You don’t see that every day.”
Regina looked resigned, subtly popping out her cheek to bump against her new little friend. “I see it far too often, strangely enough.” Shrugging her shoulders, not enough to make the bird want to leave, she refocused on the floating apples.
Usually, it was Regina’s whistles that made the bird warble happily, but the arrow’s air-splitting trill did its job well enough.
Swan laughed, and decided that yes indeed, if she were around to see it or not, no one would forget the presence of Queen Regina.
A small part of her acknowledged that of course she would be around to see it.