Swan dives into the abyss – willingly.
Emma had never stepped foot in a castle this luxurious before, and while its grand walls and high ceiling, and all the other fancy things, should have impressed her, it didn’t.
She was more focused on the way Regina trembled as she got closer to the throne room, and how she introduced Emma to her mother.
To be quite honest, she wasn’t exactly impressed with the heartless princess, either.
Cora sneered down at the two girls who stood side by side. Regina, of course, had the gall to look embarrassed, not even bothering to look her in the eyes. Swan didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest. “You stole my prized steed, and you expect mercy?” she paraphrased, bounding down the steps in a regal way.
“I don’t expect anything. I’ve never expected anything my entire life. If you want anything in this world, you fight for it.”
She raised a carefully sculpted eyebrow. “Was that a challenge, girl?”
“Not towards you. To your knight. I said I fight for what I want. And I want to be your knight.” Beside her, Regina gasped, but she ignored it.
Cora tittered, covering her mouth with her hand. “You’d be lucky to clean my stables, little one. Regina? Thank you for returning my thief. You’re dismissed.”
Regina bowed her head, hesitating. She didn’t want to lose a new friend so quickly. “Mother, if I may? We do need a stable hand – ”
“No, you may not,” she hissed. “you’re dismissed.”
The princess’ daughter stepped back, her eyes downcast, and Swan cleared her throat. “You’re never going to amount to anything if you let her step on you like that. As a princess in training, your pride is more important than your discipline. Or so I’ve seen.”
Regina would have taken it as helpful advice, had she been given such words in a private setting, not under the direct gaze of her mother.
Cora looked most displeased, and the blonde didn’t even bother looking back at her. She just had a feeling that the woman was mightily pissed. “Okay?”
The brunette saw how sincere the blonde was in her words, and knew she spoke from experience. “Swan?”
“You could never rule a kingdom as a doormat. That’s what she’s trying to teach you. To stand up for yourself. At least, that’s what I would hope.”
“A girl who pretends to be wise beyond her years.” Cora scowled. “And how would you know what is best for my daughter, peasant Swan?”
Emma took offense to that statement. “Your majesty, I am merely stating what seems obvious. This was clearly a test, to see if your daughter had any backbone. She had made a decision for a punishment, a fair and ironic one never mind, and you didn’t take the time to consider such a sentencing. Chopping off my head doesn’t seem particularly fair for stealing a horse. I am but a child, a runaway even! I know not my place. Cleaning the stables would give me a purpose and a chance for a better life. Unless…” she paused dramatically. “Oh, dear. The rumors of your missing heart are true?”
Regina didn’t realize her jaw went slack until Emma poked her chin upwards. “Very unbecoming of a princess,” she muttered at her, with a gentle smile.
Prince Henry, who had been silent until this point, perked up in his throne. “You call my wife heartless, young one? Even though she stands before you, showing you mercy until this point? Why?”
Swan broke her sky green eyes away from Regina to the kind-looking gentleman. “My prince,” she nodded, “I was merely offering my job qualities. See… I know where her heart is.”
Cora huffed through her nose, not unlike an impatient stallion. “You’re wasting both our times, child. Are you this desperate to become a knight, a grown man’s job, though you claim to be a child? Missing hearts? What kind of witchcraft are you speaking of?”
Emma’s green eyes glinted specks of gold. “The most magical kind, dearie.”
“She could have killed you. Gods, she almost killed you!”
Emma hummed to herself, shoveling the dirty hay aside. “Perhaps. I’m glad you’re looking out for me. Don’t think I’m not grateful.”
Even in her white dress, she still looked out of place. She sat upon the horse, half-straddled, her legs crossed, fiddling with the frills of her skirt. “Someone has to. You seem to have a death wish.”
“Perhaps. But right now, I’ve got no real place to go, and I’ve always wanted to live in the presence of royalty.”
Regina huffed angrily. “Prepare to be disappointed.”
She paused, and looked to her side. “Oh, I wouldn’t say I’d be too disappointed.”
Sputtering for a moment, she smoothed out her skirt as she hopped off Toboso. “Are you flirting with me?”
She blinked. “Did I come on a bit heavy? I’m sorry. I don’t do this often.”
“Talking. I was… I was looking for a friend. I don’t have any, and you didn’t look like you had any, so… sorry, that was presumptuous. I’ll shut up, now.” Regina could visibly see the girl hunching into herself as she went back to shoveling.
Emma felt a hand on her shoulder. Bracing herself, she turned around.
Regina held out an apple. “I don’t have friends,” she started, an unsure frown around her words. “But if your words don’t get you killed, I’d like you to become mine. I wanted you to work here, and the stables… well, I love horses. Riding, caring for them… it’s the only place that gives me any peace from Mother.”
“I-uh… yeah, I understand that. I don’t have many hobbies that I can be left alone in. Really, running away is my only peace time. Understandably, if I’m left alone, there’s a sudden worry that I try to run away.”
“Who…” she paused. She’d been wanting to ask all day, but she wasn’t so sure she wanted an answer, according to her mother’s reaction. “If you don’t mind… who raised you?”
The girl known as Swan leaned against her shovel. “Correct me if I make a wrong assumption, but your mother is the sole reason you don’t have friends. She doesn’t want you to hang with the peasants, and she thinks the rest of the royal family are all competition. She cares about you. She wants to see you as the Queen. But I don’t think she knows how much the solitude can make you when you finally reach that goal.” She paused, taking a small bite of the offered apple. “Because having emotions, like love, are a weakness.”
The brunette took a shuddering breath. “And you don’t think so?”
“My magic is powered by my emotions. Usually, intent, but if I need raw power, I get angry, or happy, or whatever. There’s power in what I feel. Love can be strength, I think.”
“Strength,” Regina whispered to herself. “My mother is powerful. And if what you say about her heart is true – ”
“Her lust for power can only take her so far. She’s not powerful. Not nearly as powerful as I can be. Spinning gold is a good party trick, but… actually, why is she on a throne?”
“Each prince and princess rules their own region of the kingdom. It helps when deciding the successor.” She gave Swan a curious look. “What does my mother have to do with your mystery guardian?”
“Your mother is the reason you don’t have friends. For entirely different reasons, my caretaker is why I could never have friends. He has a reputation.”
Her brows furrowed. “Will you tell me?”
“I… I’d rather not.”
Seeing how vulnerable the girl looked, from someone she assumed didn’t like having weaknesses, she decided not to press forward. “I understand, Swan. If it was avoidable, you would have never known of Mother.” She smirked. “I did, however, get you a job here, and as long as she sees the usefulness in you, we’ll be seeing each other a lot more. I would refrain from questioning her authority.”
Swan scoffed, moving to the other side of the stall, the apple diligently hovering behind her. “I’m a kid; heartless or not, I doubt I’d get more than a flogging.”
Regina nodded. “Or, of course, she poisons your next drink.”
She didn’t look particularly worried, picking up her shovel again to work on the next stall. “I’ll be sure not to accept the next wine glass from her majesty-in-training.” She took another bite of the apple. It was particularly juicy, just the way she loved it. “But hey, about earlier. If I come off as like that again, please tell me. I really didn’t mean to – ”
Regina held up placating hands, her smile bright. “I only asked if you were flirting with me. I wasn’t mad at you, just… confirming.”
“Oh.” It could have been the physical exertion, but she felt her cheeks begin to warm. “I’ve never even done that before, it’s just something I picked up from… you know.”
“I really don’t,” Regina smirked, before chuckling. “Good night, Swan. I will see you at dawn.”
Emma’s eyes followed her retreating form, with a slight flutter in her chest. She wasn’t all that sure if she was flirting with the girl before, and she wasn’t too sure if she meant to.
“Night,” she muttered belatedly, and Regina’s head turned sharply. Her teeth showed in her brilliant smile, before she turned back around, ducking out of the stables.
Suddenly, Emma – Swan – was alone again, her thoughts as her only company. She found that her thinking could really occupy her time, when the need arose.
She didn’t have a real clue where she was in the Enchanted Forest, but she figured somewhere North. It would only be a matter of time before Rumple found her. If he hadn’t already.
What were the chances of her running into the one person, in the entire forest, that could actually protect her from the Dark One? Someone who Rumple could never lay a finger on?
She didn’t have much faith in there being one True Love, but Rumple seemed to believe in it, and Cora seemed to support that theory – literally giving him her heart and all.
Swan paused, flexing her arms a bit. A kingdom with a magical princess helped her blend in more, but she was sure Rumple could detect her if she did anything major.
“The magicalest kind, dearie,” she mocked herself. “I might as well have started giggling and rhyming.”
“You know,” The Black Fairy commented, standing behind Emma (who, to her own credit, didn’t flinch), “I’ve wondered if rhyming spells made the effects more powerful. Singing is a magic all on its own, I hear.”
Emma pinched the bridge of her nose. “You followed me?” Of course her godmother followed her. She always had before. It was wishful thinking, that she had been able to avoid the both of them.
“I always know where you are, child. The perks of being your fairy godmother.” She looked around the stables, her nose sniffing in disdain. “I don’t think I’m doing my job as I should, however. When I told you to look for something better…”
“Anything is better than staying another minute with him again,” she scowled, and The Black Fairy rolled her eyes. “It’s only temporary, I think. She might actually let me be a knight, if only to find a way to legally get me killed. I’m ready to find my parents, Fi, and I’m not coming back until I find them.”
Fiona raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. “And when they don’t want you to come back home?”
Emma shrugged. “Unless they’re extremely powerful, they don’t have a choice. If they say no to me, they can say no to the Dark One. I just want to know who they are, Fi; I’m not asking for more adults to tell me what to do. I’m ready to be on my own for a while. Besides, I still have a promise to fulfill. I’ll find Baelfire, soon enough. It’s an easy enough trade, I think, but I guess it’s a deal that even he can’t make. Or won’t.” She patted the knot of the blanket, wrapped around her waist, still hidden by the ogre skin loincloth. “Yeah, maybe he did kill my parents, and kidnapped me. But I need to know. I want to know what they were like. How they would have raised me. Or, if they even wanted me.”
The Back Fairy, without question, supported everything she just heard from the young magical, for… personal reasons. “And I suppose you won’t be satisfied if I told you outright? About your family, and where you came from?”
“No. No. Because…” Because I wouldn’t believe you. Because I can’t trust you. Because everything I’ve ever felt about Rumple, I get the same sense from you, and I will never learn the truth from the two of you. “Some things I just got to figure out on my own, Fi. Besides, I’m making friends, here. When the journey ends, the fun stops.” A brunette’s distant, throaty chuckle echoes in her head. “If you wanted to help, you could have told me where Baelfire is.”
“In the open sea,” She told her bluntly. “Living with pirates.”
Swan blinked in surprise. “Wow. Okay. That was easy.”
“There is no way to get to a ship that can travel between realms. As it is, the ship can only be found when it wants to be found.” Her features softened, and for once, she looked like the mother she was meant to be. “When I tell you to be patient, dear, it’s for your own safety. You are capable of great things, Miss… Swan, But I still need to look out for you. A great many things depend on your well-being.”
“No pressure,” she muttered, the words she had heard all her life echoing through her mind. “Great things, Emma. Always great things. Finding a missing child will be my greatest legacy. If anything, it seems like Baelfire is destined for great things. Not me.”
The Black Fairy tsked, before regally – somehow – sitting on a bale of hay. “Finding him isn’t set in stone, Swan. You’ve triggered quite a few events beyond a simple hide-and-seek mission.” She waved her wand, and a black smoke covered the room, before quickly dissipating.
Emma frowned, leaning against her shovel. She glanced around the spotless stable. “Thanks for the help I didn’t ask for.”
“You were distracted; you still are. That girl has no idea who you are, and what you are capable of. But,” she held up her hand, quieting Emma’s rebuttal. “She can. Her mother uses magic. Magic is usually passed down maternally. On occasion, generations are skipped, but not this time.”
Emma gasped at the implications. “You mean…?”
“I’m going to regret telling you this,” she smirked, and her expression didn’t reflect the weight of those words. “Yes, Regina is capable of learning magic, if she is willing. Powerful magic; one day, capable of rivalling your own. I’m telling you this, because now, while I may want you to stay away from her, you can make your own choices. Clearly, you already have. But tread carefully. You may be afraid for her now – ”
“I’m not,” Emma said immediately. “Rumple won’t hurt her. He’s on thin ice with me, and he learned from his first child not to do anything too stupid. Regina is safe from him.”
“I’m sure you are confident in that belief,” she nodded. “However, there might come a time where you need to be afraid of her. Power corrupts, dear. And your power will be absolute.”
The blonde took an involuntary step back. “You’re telling me I could hurt her? Accidentally?”
She pursed her lips. “I’m telling you, Swan, that you could hurt anyone. On purpose. But magic has a price. Always.” Her voice was thick at the end, as if she had just told Emma something personal. She cleared her throat daintily, and smiled that thin smile that Emma never really liked. She held out her palm, and with the other hand, swept her wand across it. A black cuff shimmered into her hand. “But this, my dear, is absolutely free.”
Emma eyed the cuff skeptically then looked up at the fairy, who was a fair bit taller than her. “I’m not putting that thing on.”
“Of course not,” she said quickly. “But it makes for insurance. You wanted to explore this vast land on your own, and I meant to give this to you before, but you left without announcement. You can protect yourself. You don’t need me. But other magic users can be a threat to you, and the people you care about. Or even their family. This trinket makes sure that when the need arises, you will do what is necessary to protect yourself. You’re a fifteen-year-old witch, Emma, and while you have hidden yourself well, sooner or later, your little secret will be known.”
“Let them come for me.” Her tone was resolute, and unwavering. “I’ve never been afraid.”
“You’ve never been without the Dark One. You’ve never been tested.”
“With or without magic, I’ve never backed down before. I don’t need a lock on my magic to prove that to anyone.”
“You may not,” she conceded, her hand still out. “But other people might find that more difficult to believe.”
Emma gave the magical inhibitor a longing look before she waved her hand at it, and it blew away in a puff of gray smoke.
“Shame,” Fiona lamented, finally lowering her hand. “That was meant to be a birthday gift. I had it specially made, with enhancements.”
With humorless eyes, Emma reached out to take the apple that has stayed at her side throughout the conversation, and took another bite.
The fairy grinned, and stood. “Very well. Happy birthday, Swan. And good luck.” With a flutter of her wings, she began to float up, and she began to shrink as she flew through the barn doors into the night sky.
Emma was left alone with her thoughts again. They began to weigh more heavily, this time.
The trek towards the castle was short, but it gave her far too much time to think, and to plan her next actions.
There were a few things she had picked up from being the alleged spawn of the Dark One, and knowing how to make a good plan might be one of them.
With careful fingers, Emma charmed the blanket beneath her protective cloth, and the hand-stitched ‘Emma’ shifted letters to her new identity.
In her new room, a plain one-bed-one-desk-one-mirror room, Swan swept her hand in an arch, watching the room become not-so-plain. She looked into the full-length mirror, and inspected her hair.
The long length of silver-blonde hair reached the top of her backside, and for Emma, it looked like a calling card, and very recognizable. She had considered cutting it, but she had settled for a hood.
Her hand was slanted at her shoulder, ready to make a slashing motion, before she stilled.
With a tired breath, she began braiding her hair.
After thirty minutes of huffing, and puffing, she practically breathed fire into the mirror. Untangling her hands from her hair, she twisted them into loose knots, wondering who had done Regina’s hair.
In a resigned state, Swan took one last look at the black cuff that sat on her new dresser, her supposed birthday present, before walking into her new private washroom, shedding her armor and her blanket.
Emma would have steered clear of using magic. She now had three examples of how magic could take over one’s life, and no intention of becoming a fourth.
Swan, however, wasn’t afraid of paying the price, and Cora better goddamn well know it. Part of her just hoped that Regina could see the bright side of magic.
Even if she herself found it difficult to, on occasion.
It was a … strange day. And even though she had forgotten her birthday, she was sure she wouldn’t forget this one.
Rumplestiltskin stood in the middle of a clearing, with raised hands and sparkling, golden eyes.
Surrounding him, were five magic beans in five vials, filled with murky, greyish liquid.
It was time.