Fifteen years later.
Emma didn’t know what to think.
Running away from home had never worked before. She had assumed that he always knew where she was, at all times, just because he was Rumplestitskin. The irony did not escape her, seeing as to what her life-long mission was.
Perhaps she was getting better at her escape attempts. Or maybe he just hadn’t noticed yet. Yes, the latter seemed more likely.
Ever since she was a child, and had cognitive hearing, she was wary of the beast who claimed to be her father. She didn’t believe it, or the story about how her mother had died birthing her.
And it wasn’t because those stories were outlandish, or he was just not convincing enough. Oh, he was. He was terribly convincing, to the point that after all these years, if she was just paranoid or crazy, to not accept him.
She didn’t even believe her own Fairy Godmother. Considering that was how they were powered, she wasn’t visited often after the first appearance. Whatever. She firmly believed that fairies shouldn’t wear black, anyway. Seemed to give out the wrong message.
She was at the outskirts of a small town, now – not that she noticed. Her mind was occupied.
Every time he – Rumple, never ‘dad’, or ‘papa’ as he insisted – spoke to her, she just felt a bit of unease. Not a wave a nausea, but instead, a flutter of something intangible, something she didn’t really understand, but she knew what it amounted to; skepticism.
If he wasn’t going to tell her, then Emma figured it was time she learned on her own. She conjured herself a black steed and fled from the cabin, for what must have been the twentieth time.
Being a witch meant she didn’t need much for her escape. The only thing that held any importance to her was her blanket.
True, she had escaped – tried – before. But this time, it was special – this time, she had finally mastered the locator spell.
And now, it was taking her to her true parents.
Her blanket, hidden by her ogre-skin armor, tugged against her waist, and she followed it without hesitation.
Despite the unease she felt at going so far off on her own, a witch in a foreign land no less, she was sure that she could at least see her own green eyes reflected in people who loved her.
She had doubts, of course, but even if the blanket led her to a grave, then at least she’d have peace of mind.
Grinning widely, letting the wind sweep along her platinum blond hair, she spurred on the mighty black horse and swept through the dirt roads of the town, effortlessly ducking the signs and avoiding people.
This village was far too quaint, too unprotected. It would take the Dark One seconds to wipe through it and pick her out of the rubble. He might even take away her blanket this time, and she could not have that.
He would not catch her again. She had gotten so much better, so much further at this point.
Village after village came and went, and for a moment, she wondered if she was being magically teleported to a start point, and doomed to repeat her journey forever.
Quickly reaching out into the air, she pulled her hand down and bit into a freshly conjured apple.
This one was particularly juicy. She was used to stealing the best, now.
The steed below her was exceptionally powerful, she couldn’t help but notice. A gathering of trees in the distance served as a suitable place to stop and rest the creature. The smell in the air told her that she was near a lake.
She was right, as per usual, allowing the horse to trot towards the clearing.
She leaned against the tree, and began to wait, her arms crossed.
When the horse had his fill, and looked back towards her, Emma decided that there were no immediate threats.
She summoned a canteen and sprinted towards the lake. Quickly filling the large container, she sat back and held out the half-eaten apple for her new friend.
It was while she was petting the large beast’s shining coat, that she noticed a royal coat of arms surrounding the saddle.
Her fingers stilled. “Sorry, boy. I don’t think I can afford you.”
She raised her hand, intent on banishing the horse to whence it came.
The steed let out a snort of irritation, and stamped the ground.
Emma was no horse whisperer, but she could have sworn that he didn’t want to go back.
Usually, her instincts worked in her favor, but stealing a royal horse, and an easily recognizable one at that, considering its size and pure solid color, would no doubt allow her to stand out.
“Hang on,” she muttered, standing up slowly. “I’m going to try something.” Her hand waved over the horse’s snout, and she slowly began to circle the stallion. In moments, he began to shimmer, and soon enough, she was looking into the eyes of a white pony, with black spots. She decided to keep the black mane and tail.
Emma rested her hands on her hips, satisfied with the transformation. “Perfect.”
She heard so many sounds in that moment. A soft intake of air; a subtle swipe against a tree’s bark; a crunch of dead leaves in the dirt, and finally; the gentle lift of fabric against the autumn breeze.
Despite the Dark One’s many flaws, and despite her paranoia, she took all of his survival lessons to heart. She needed all of them if she was going to rebel against something so powerful.
Fortunately, he was never that obvious, and she was never that gullible.
The blonde conjured another apple for herself, and the other hand held the shinier of the two. She held it out, staring at the shadowy figure in the woods. “I won’t bite.”
Silence. Emma blinked, and she was suddenly past the tree, leaning against the next one. The person next to her gasped. “But I should.”
The girl in front of her, stepping back in alarm, was so young, she figured, at least as young as herself. Her dark brown hair, almost black were it not for the sun’s cast, was tied in a braid that went far past her shoulders, lain across the front of her neck as her head snapped to Emma’s location. The black dress she wore was plain, not unlike a robe, but it didn’t make her hidden form any less flattering, especially with the white sash that hugged her waist.
On the white sash, held a very familiar insignia.
“Oh,” she muttered, nervously smiling. “Oh. Sorry, miss. I believe that stallion belongs to you.”
Even when her bow was drawn, Emma could tell that this girl was clearly unsuited for the wilderness. “S-Stay back, witch!”
She narrowed her eyes. “Mind your tongue, dearie,” she spat, stepping closer, ignoring the bow, “and take your steed. And if it comes to any harm in your care, I shall be prepared to kidnap you instead.”
Her bow was unwavering, she gave her credit for that. “I would never harm my horse. It is the Princess’s steed. Who are you, and why did you take him?”
The blonde tilted her head. “A bit young to be hunting for a royal steed.” She blinked. “Unless there’s a reward.”
“There is no reward,” the girl muttered, stalking backwards to the horse, her bow trained on the witch. “Princess Cora would love to have a word with you, so I suggest you leave. Now.”
Emma frowned in thought. “I’ve heard that name before. The Heartless Princess?”
And unexpected smile ruptured from her lips, before she composed herself. “It’s not wise to badmouth the royal family after you steal her most prized horse.”
“It’s not wise to point an untrained, plain arrow at a highly trained sorceress.” Perhaps, a bit of an overstatement, but the brunette didn’t know that. “And here we are, both of us making bad decisions today.” She held her hands together behind her back. “Seriously, who are you? And how much is the reward? We could split it – ”
“There is no reward for stealing her property! Mother is far too vengeful for such a pursuit. She will find him, eventually, and kill whoever rides him. So I’m asking you to keep this to yourself, turn Toboso over to me, and get far away from here.”
That was a game plan that seemed far too familiar to her. ‘No wonder they seemed like a match made in heaven to him.‘ “Princess Cora, kill me? Hardly. She may have lost her heart, but she must surely still have her common sense.”
‘Toboso’ huffed quietly, keeping still when the girl approached him. “You seem confident. And you seem to hold a lot of faith in rumors.”
“Oh, it’s a fact. I know more than you think, Regina. Perhaps I should kidnap you instead?”
Her bow wavered. “So you know my name? So you know what my mother is capable of. She would not be kind to you, especially if harm comes to me.”
Emma merely shrugged. “I stole her horse. I already signed my death warrant.”
“No one has to know,” she suddenly pleaded. “Just go. I’ll say that I took it for a ride.”
“I have a better idea. You get on the horse, and I ride behind you. We both go to Cora, together. Because I’ve wanted an audience with her for years.” She licked her lips. “Will you take me, Regina?”
The brunette was dumbfounded. “Why should I take you directly to the princess? She wouldn’t hear you out. She would hurt you. She would torture you.”
“You speak from experience?”
Her brown eyes were intense. “Not first-hand.”
“I will give her a good reason not to kill me. I mean, look at me.” She pointed at herself for emphasis. “Who would kill a face like this?”
Yet another reason she couldn’t believe Rumple’s tales of being her father; she had an aesthetically pleasing face, and she knew it. She didn’t have a blemish on her, despite her life, and until she began to worry about warts and green skin, her appearance would make anyone none-the-wiser to what she was capable of.
Regina gave a sort-of sad smile. “You’re going to go to her with or without me, aren’t you?”
Emma nodded. “It seems to be fate that we met here today.”
“No; it was a tracking spell.”
“A tracking spell I removed the moment I summoned him to me.” She strode forward. “I can see you’re worried about me, princess junior. Don’t be. I’ve met far more dangerous creatures than your mother.”
Regina let out a sigh, before lowering her bow. Quickly mounting the stallion-turned-pony, she held out her hand. “Care to tell me your name?”
Another thing Rumple had taught her – a name could hold power. And she didn’t feel like giving her name to the evil witch. “Swan.”
“Regina,” she formally introduced herself, and grinned. “But I suppose you already knew that.”
Emma allowed herself to be pulled up to sit astride the horse, snugly leaning against her rider’s back. “Didn’t think today would turn out like this, did you?”
Regina coughed uncomfortably, before gently coaxing the horse into motion. “Where were you going before?”
Emma weighed her options. She didn’t see the point in lying, and the girl didn’t seem eager to tell her mother anything that might hurt her. “I’m running away. Getting some distance, mapping out the place before he comes to look for me.”
“You make it sound like you’re a prisoner.”
“No, no. Well… maybe? It’s complicated.”
“I’m sure it is. And you think the only way to avoid him is by… suicide?”
“Your lack of confidence in me is sincerely stunning. Your mother may be as terrible as you may claim, but I’ve handled worse.”
She could tell Regina held on to her skepticism, tensing beneath her, but the two rode on in silence, unaware of the watchful eyes that followed them.