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Titanic

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Titanic

  

 

She's drinking coffee, too cool now, because she forgot about it when she got lost in thought (something about the first fallen leaves got her thinking), and that irritates her almost as much as the fact that the doorbell keeps ringing.

Her irritation only grows stronger when she realizes the mumbly bastard is at the door again. It's the third time in the span of three days, and perhaps he will only get the hint if he's hit over the head with it?

She opens the door, crosses her arms and waits.

The bastard (Emma's voice in her head, exasperated, tired, His name is Neal. But yeah, he's a bastard.) doesn't cower, not like people usually do when she glares at them (except for – oh, to hell with that, why is it that everything, somehow, seems to come back to Emma these days). But then again, he was raised by the Dark One so there is a chance that that makes him somewhat more resistant to intimidation. He's faced evil before (You are not-- It takes almost all of her willpower to silence the annoying voice in her head) and lived to tell the story. Which, in itself, is extremely unfortunate.

"Umm," he says.

She grits her teeth and forces herself to ask, "What do you want?"

"I... So, I'd really like to spend some time with Henry." He scratches the side of his neck and his face crumples. "I mean, if you are cool with that and... all." 

"Oh, really? And in what universe would I be cool with that?"

"I... don't know. I was hoping you'd be. I'd just really like a chance to get to know my son for real. That's all."

A fireball, preferably to the head, would serve him right for having the nerve to come to her and ask for something so important as if it didn't matter at all. Like he was asking to borrow a couple of eggs, a cup of sugar. "See, therein lies our problem." He seems confused, so she sighs and speaks slowly and deliberately, like one talks to a moron, "I don't know you. I don't know if you are someone I want my son to have in his life." Especially now when he's so fragile and barely smiles, and he already thought his dad died once and she doesn't know if Baelfire is the sort of person who leaves or stays. (And she wishes he would just leave and everything would be so much simpler.)

"Emma knows me."

And that, somehow, is the last straw, because Emma's face gets serious every time he's mentioned and it's clear the relationship between the two of them in the past as well as in the present was and is complicated and convoluted, but at least they had a relationship. So she says the one thing that she somehow knows will have the same effect on him as it initially had and still has on her. "Emma kissed a sleazy, one-handed pirate. I don't think her judgement is anything to go by."

"Wait!" he says before the door closes in his face.

"Goodbye, Baelfire."

  

***

  

She clears her throat and Emma jumps and turns her attention to her from whatever thing it is she's been inspecting under the hood of the pathetic yellow excuse of a car.

"Hey," Emma says. There is just the slightest upward turn of lips.

She almost replies in a similar manner before she catches herself. Suddenly it is very hard to come up with a dignified alternative, though. There's a smudge of something black and rather oily on Emma's cheekbone.

She shakes her head. To think that this, this smudge-cheeked, beanie-clad person is a fabled hero, the bringer of happy endings, Henry's other mother...

Emma tilts her head and looks at her questioningly. "Did you come all the way to the station just so you could glower at me?"

"Your boyfriend dropped by." The one that's still breathing.

Emma sighs. "When are you going to give that a rest? He's not... It's not.. Just..."

She rolls her eyes and saves the frazzled Savior, all aloof and familiar in the red leather jacket and ridiculous beanie, from further failed attempts at verbal communication. "He wants to spend time with Henry."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I told him to talk to you."

"Oh, so suddenly being a glorified sperm donor doesn't give him automatic parental rights?"

"Oh, for f--, god, Regina. Haven't we gone through this already? What more do you want me to say?" Emma sounds more tired than furious.

"I don't know, Emma. Is there anything more you want to say?"

"It's just... I'm really, and I mean really, trying here. You're just impossible to please, you know?" 

Oh, quite on the contrary, dear. "Am I?"

"Whatever. It's your decision. Whether you think it's best if he gets to hang out with the kid, I mean." Emma turns her back towards her, nonchalantly but too quickly.

It's the raggedness, almost jerkiness, of the movement that somehow translates into a sharp pain somewhere in the general area of her left lung, and as it, the ache, settles in her body, it replaces some of the anger. She sighs, speaks, the words aimed at the back of Emma's head, "You do remember our dinner arrangement for tomorrow? Henry is really looking forward to having you over."

"I'm sure he is." Emma's voice is oddly shaky. She's still not looking at her.

"So you are coming?"

"Yeah, sure, of course."

"Good."

 

***

 

Neverland is a place that runs on imagination, but ever since they came back, everything has continued being strangely dream-like. Neverland meant being constantly on the edge, like in a particularly vivid nightmare, but now all the edges seem to have disappeared.

Everything is hazy, frayed, stagnant.

Henry is back home, but everything about him, everything with him, is somehow different.

It reminds her of all the times over the years she has soothed him after a nightmare. All the times she has told him it was just a dream, and slowly, so slowly, the misty remnants of whatever horrors his mind has conjured up have left his eyes, and he has come back from the netherworld and blinked back the monsters.

These days he wakes up every morning and he has faced death and destruction and his mom is still the Evil Queen.

Sometimes she catches him staring, confused eyes meet hers from across the dinner table, and maybe he's wondering what the nightmare, this particular one about his mother that turned out to be true, actually means for the two of them. What it means that she's the one helping him cope with all the other horrors he's seen even though she's supposed to be the most evil of them all. And maybe he's looking for signs of that evil, attempting to reconcile that whole notion of what he knows about her with how he has known her all his life.

His mother the Evil Queen. Destroyer of happy endings, soother of nightmares, the occasional saver of days and lives.

Sometimes, when the staring is more intense and he keeps only picking at his green beans, she wonders if he is looking for reasons to run away again.

But he's home now and that's largely because of her, and it's her hand he sometimes doesn't want to let go of at night, and she has to believe it's enough. 

Sometimes Emma is there as well, but there's something different about her, too, these days. She's not the same person she was before Neverland, and she's not the same person she was there. It's almost as if a part of her stayed behind when they left the island. It used to be so easy, getting a reaction from her. She knew just how to rile her up and more. And then, for the most part, trusting her when it came to fighting for the important things became almost effortless. And she's not sure which one of those, the anger or the deadly determination, she wants now, but she wants something, something other than this.

Because these days, there is a hollowness to Emma. She goes through all the correct moves with Henry, picks him up with a smile on her face and brings him home and says, "Good night, kid," and, "See you tomorrow, kid," and some days she takes him to school and some days she allows him to ride in her patrol car, but she always looks more or less terrified when he isn't looking.

Emma doesn't really look her in the eye anymore and she doesn't know what to do with or about that. Doesn't know why she feels the need to do something. Anything. Anything to get a reaction, something sharp and real, something like the harsh words they used to exchange, something that she hadn't even realized was missing.

 

***

  

Emma is at the door at precisely seven minutes past the time she was supposed to be there. She sighs when she shrugs off her jacket. She's wearing one of her fancier knit sweaters, thankfully one that doesn't look like it came from her mother's closet. Her mother's name is, unfortunately, the first thing that comes out of her mouth. "Mary Margaret was making lasagna when I left."

"Why?" she asks, because even though evil needs food for sustenance as well, she knows there must be some reason Emma mentioned that particular evil by name.

"Guess."

Of course. Foolish, naïve Snow White. She's not sure what Snow thinks she can accomplish by attempting to passive-aggressively sabotage the still-fragile truce between her and them, but it's oddly satisfying that Emma still chose to come here despite her mother's attempts at bribery. If for no other reason than the fact that it's nice for Snow to get a taste of rejection for a change. But she doesn't say that out loud, because Emma is not like Snow. That much she has discovered.

And maybe it's not anger she wants from Emma. Maybe it's something else, something more like the magic they made together, warm and exciting and protective, because anger can be quite as hollow as no feeling at all when it's served its purpose.

 

*** 

 

After dinner, Emma lingers, and with a little bit of imagination she can almost believe she's reluctant to go back to her parents' apartment. She knows she would be.

But it's Henry's bedtime and there's really no plausible reason for Emma to continue her lingering so Emma is standing at the door, holding her jacket.

"Well, thank you for coming," she says.

Emma sighs. "I still can't believe I didn't know you could cook so well. If I'd known, I would've made sure to score a dinner invitation much sooner."

"And how exactly would you have done that?"

"I dunno. By stroking your enormous mayoral ego?" There's a flicker of old fire there, something that used to define their relationship before the curse broke, and even though it feels almost nostalgic in its simplicity, it is still a welcome flash of color among all the grayness.

"Well, that dinner might've been one you wouldn't have lived to tell anyone about." She makes the joke for old times' sake even though it's a little too true to be funny.

"Maybe. But at least I would've died happy." And suddenly something about Emma's tone is too dark to be taken lightly.

"Who died?" a boy's voice asks before she can comment on it. Henry is standing on the stairs, a toothbrush in hand. He shouldn't look so resigned to the fact that people keep dying all around him, left and right, all the time.

Emma smiles faintly. "No one died, kid. No one's died in a while."

Two months, she wants to say. But that's a lifetime by recent Storybrooke standards.

"Are you going home?" Henry asks Emma, disappointment evident in his voice.

"Aren't you going to bed soon?" Emma asks, mildly confused.

"Yeah," he says.

And then she suddenly understands. "Emma can stay for a while. We can talk."

Henry smiles. "Good. Good night." Then he runs upstairs faster than either of them can wish him good night in return.

"What was that about?" Emma asks, still staring at the spot on the stairs where Henry was just seconds ago.

"He doesn't like the quiet these days. I usually keep the TV on in the living room. At least until he falls asleep."

"So he just wants to hear..."

"Our voices, yes."

"Okay," Emma says, frowning a little. Then she looks determined, like this is some intense challenge she's willing to accept for the sake of her son. She hangs her jacket in the closet again. "Okay."

 

***

  

The TV is on as background noise. It's some corny show about vampires and werewolves (and didn't that fad pass already), and she's not paying much attention to it, but apparently there's something about the show that Emma finds fascinating.

"So, this may be stupid, but werewolves are real and I guess I'm even friends with one, but how about vampires?" Emma asks.

"Never met one."

"But they could be real?"

"I suppose. At least the stories exist in our land as well."

"Stories?"

"About creatures that feast on human blood."

"I guess there are also fairy tales in Fairy Tale Land?"

The conversation has reached a point where she doesn't even know if Emma is actually interested in what she can tell her about their land of origin or if Emma is just asking question after question so that silence can't get a hold of them. But the questions so far have been relatively harmless, and it's all for Henry, all for the familiar hum of voices in a distance as he's falling asleep, so she keeps her voice patient. "It's not actually called Fairy Tale Land. It's called The Enchanted Forest. And yes, there are, there were, fairy tales there as well." 

"What kind of fairy tales?" 

"Well, my mother used to tell me the story of the little girl and the goat."

"What happened to her? The girl?" 

"She died." 

"Why?" 

"Because she refused to give the goat to a man who would've killed it." 

"Wow. That's... That's intense." 

"Well, you met my mother." 

Now, for the first time, Emma is quiet and keeps her eyes on the TV, which is oddly considerate behavior on her part. After a while she says, "My mother can be pretty intense, too." 

She sighs and thinks of decades of blood feud and how, somehow, all that has culminated in her sitting in her living room with Snow White's daughter while Snow White and her peasant prince are eating lasagna, probably without red pepper flakes, in their unsavory loft on the other side of the town. "I know." 

"She was a lot nicer before she remembered who she was." For a second, Emma seems to regret her words. Then she shrugs. "If she gets to say she wants a new baby, I get to say that." 

A new baby? But it doesn't seem like that's something Emma wants to elaborate on so she doesn't push. Now is not the time. "If you are looking for someone who's going to argue with you there, I'm not the person." 

They are both silent, but then Emma yawns, rubs her eyes. "I should go. Otherwise I'll fall asleep right here."

"Yes, you probably should." 

"Thanks," Emma says. She doesn't specify what for. 

"You are welcome," she says. She doesn't know what for, but Emma's hair is a little tousled because she's been sitting slumped against the back of the couch, and her tiny smile is a little loopy, and there's just something about that that renders some things meaningless.

 

***

  

For some reason, he's ringing the doorbell again. He has his thumbs in the back pockets of his loose chinos (his shoes match his pants exactly – the level of peasantry, really) and he's biting his lower lip when she opens the door.

"So..." He draws the word out uncertainly.

"What do you want, Baelfire?" 

"It's... It's Neal now, I guess. Has been for a while, actually, so..."

She sighs pointedly. 

"... but that's not the point." His brows furrow and the lip-biting, vaguely Henry-like albeit much less precious, continues. "Anyway, so, Emma told me to talk to you again. About spending time with Henry, I mean. And... Here I am, obviously wasting my time, talking to you." 

"Ah, I see an optimistic outlook on life is one thing you have inherited from your father." 

"And you are very sarcastic, you know? It's no wonder you drive Emma crazy. Umm, her words, not mine."

But Emma didn't seem crazy the night before. No, she seemed downright mellow. She's not certain if she would choose crazy, crazy like before, over mellow, and she wonders when, exactly, Emma said that to Baelfire.

And she wonders if Emma ever calls Henry our son when she's with him. The thought that he might be contained in that precious pronoun makes her angrier than it probably should. No, actually she has every right to be angry about that. She has the right and no one else. 

It's not as if she doesn't know that choosing anger, anger over Emma dragging him back into both of their lives, over... whatever the other option would be might not be the healthiest decision, but there are certain levels of foolishness she's not willing to sink to. 

Idiotic levels. Charming family levels.

Emma levels. 

"I guess I just don't get it. I mean, I know you are his legal guardian and everything and I get that Emma has no other option but to respect that..." 

She interrupts his babbling with her laugh. "Yes, because Miss Swan has always had such great respect for the law." 

"Still," he says. "I don't get why things are so different now. Or why you are so uptight because, believe it or not, I'm not a bad person."

"Of course you don't get it." He couldn't possibly get it, because he, based on his five minutes of pretend-fatherhood, has no idea how it feels to almost lose a child. How it feels to see your child so afraid of shadows and how, even if he claims he doesn't need it, she dug up the Spongebob nightlight he used to have on every night up until he was eight and how so far he hasn't turned it off on a single night.

And it's not as though Emma knows it either, not all of it, but it's obvious she knows a thing or two about both losing and being lost, about uncertainty versus familiar routine, ten years worth of it, even if she only knows how important it is because she never had it. And without Emma, there would be no Henry and without Henry there would be nothing to lose. (And, technically, it's true of Baelfire as well, but only technically.) 

"I take it that's a no then?" He seems to be attempting some kind of a puppy dog impression with his brown eyes, and it's both so notadorable and painfully obvious he doesn't understand how in vain his efforts are. 

 

***

  

Henry is standing there in the foyer with his overnight bag and a gift-wrapped package with an awkward yellow bow on it, and he's looking at her with questioning eyes. "Are you sure you aren't coming, too?"

"Yes, sweetheart, I'm sure. You go ahead and have fun."

"Grandma said it's okay if you come." 

"Your grandma says a lot of things."

He frowns. "Do you think she didn't mean it?" 

"Oh, I'm sure she thought she meant it." She doesn't want him to worry about things possibly escalating again. About everything being curses and punches and poisoned apples and good and evil once again.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you should go."

He is uncertain, all the conflicting notions of loyalty no doubt too jumbled and complicated in his mind, but she smiles at him and kisses the top of his head, and he grins, only barely, but he grins.

 

***

 

It's much later and the doorbell rings. Her heart takes a small leap because her first thought is Henry and maybe something's happened or maybe he's just had it with the idiots. Maybe he didn't want to stay the night. Maybe he wanted to come home instead.

But it's not Henry. It's Emma.

Emma doesn't have a coat on and it's a cool night so she's shivering, and she looks like someone who has left some place in a hurry.

"Is Henry alright?" she asks even though she knows the answer already, because Emma looks more bewildered, indifferent even, than panicked.

"Yeah, he's fine. He may have overdosed on cupcakes, but yeah, he's asleep."

"So why are you here?"

"I'm actually not sure," Emma says and frowns.

"Well, come on in." Because Henry wouldn't like it if Emma froze to death while racking her brain.

 

***

 

"So, it's my birthday." 

"Yes, I'm aware of that." That's why she swallows back the happy birthday that's on the tip of her tongue. Because it's also the 29th anniversary of her glorious creation. Storybrooke, Maine. Paradise on earth. It's not exactly a day that could be characterized as happy for any of them, and she's sure Emma's had enough half-hearted congratulations for the day anyway. "So it's only been a year. Somehow it feels like it's been much longer."

"What?"

"It's only been a year since you first arrived in Storybrooke." 

"Yeah. And to think that I thought it was just a lucky coincidence that it was that night that Henry found me." Emma's face contorts into a grimace. "Ugh, why did I say that? My parents have officially ruined the whole concept of finding people for me. Among other things."

She considers resisting, but there's always something lost and sad about Emma these days and even more so today so she takes the bait. "What did they do this time?"

"Well, they chose this day – of all days they chose this day to tell me..." Emma laughs, but the laughter doesn't reach her eyes. "My mom's pregnant. God, there's a sentence I never thought I'd say out loud..." 

The latter part, spoken a little breathlessly, is pure deflection. Underneath the casual words, there is a whole avalanche of fear and hurt, barely contained in the weak attempt at a smile. 

She's too busy pondering on the subtext she recognizes so very well that she forgets to pay attention to the semantic content of the statement. It is rather unnerving, almost grotesque actually how Emma's profound sadness irks her more than the fact that her insipid parents are expecting an addition to the already sugar sweet family bliss. "Great. More idiots is just what this world needs." 

"Right. I forgot who I was talking to. Come to think of it, why am I talking to you about this?" Emma's voice is hard. It's an ugly voice now that she's come to the conclusion that the old them, the secretly evil Mayor and the annoyingly invasive Sheriff, is not what she wants them to be anymore. It's a voice that says things like You're a monster and not things like our son. 

"That's a good question." People don't usually forget who they are talking to when they are talking to her. 

"I should... I should probably go." 

And something in her cracks again. Why? Who knows why. The only thing she knows is that she really, really doesn't want Emma to go anywhere when she's hard like that, when her jaw is set so firmly and her eyes are more gray than green.

"Where would you go?" 

Emma seems to ponder the question for a while. Then she shrugs. "I don't know. Somewhere where there's alcohol. Lots of it and preferably cheap."

"Do you really think getting drunk is the best solution to your present troubles?"

"Yeah, I really do."

She could say something about parenting done responsibly. About faulty coping mechanisms and about having the emotional capacity of a spoon. About cheap alcohol, rum and sleazy pirates, but none of that seems right. What she says instead is, "Well, I've got a pretty nice stash."

Emma, for once, looks surprised. 

"It's not as if the thought of your parents breeding makes me exceedingly happy either. We might as well commiserate." 

"Never talk about my parents breeding again. Please." But Emma is almost smiling when she says that, so that's a mission accomplished. 

Why? Who knows why.

 

***

 

The whiskey is a nice Scotch single malt, smokey aftertaste with hints of orange and peat and a pleasant burning in her throat after each sip. She feels almost relaxed after a while. 

Surprisingly, Emma is not a talkative drunk either. At least not until she says, "Ghosts," and her cheeks are slightly flushed. 

"What?"

"Ghosts. Are they real?"

"We are seriously continuing this?"

"No, it's just... something I'm actually wondering about." 

"Well, no, Emma, ghosts aren't real." 

"Really?" 

"I suppose that can be a matter of belief."

"Do you? Believe in anything, I mean? Like god or something?"

"No," she says. Because if she started believing in deities, in heaven and hell, or concepts like karma or Qadar, if she allowed herself even a single moment of subscribing to some value system based on the notions of absolute evil and absolute good and rightful consequences with no room for moral ambiguity, nothing about ends justifying the means, no room for changing your fate... Well, she'd be fucked.

"I lived with a bunch of Jesus freaks for a while. Funny how they kept talking about mercy and all that, but... yeah." It's strange how most of her conversations with Emma happen in between the actual words and it's strange how a single ineloquent yeah can be so many things. A confession, an offering, and a question. And it's strange how she knows that Emma knows that she knows what it means, even through the slight haze of the alcohol.

"The whole concept of mercy usually implies regret," she says.

Emma's eyes widen, then narrow. She shakes her head, seems to be trying to wrap her head around the prospect. "You don't regret... that stuff?"

"Some of it," (that stuff, she wants to roll her eyes), "was necessary." 

Emma's voice is quiet, almost gentle, a lot tired. "I don't know what I'm supposed to think of you."

Well, as long as they are talking about how things are supposed to go, "I think the answer is rather simple."

"I dunno... It's all so messed up right now. People and stuff." 

And stuff. "I guess you're right." 

"When people get shot, they are supposed to die." 

When people fall in love, they aren't. "Yes, it's a bizarre world we live in." And a world in which Daniel died, twice, and Baelfire is still breathing is not just bizarre but also impossibly unfair, but it's not something she wants to say out loud, not now, not ever, not to Emma.

Emma runs a hand through her hair, grunts. "Sometimes I keep wondering when I'll wake up in a psych ward somewhere. Realize that it's all been some kind of a delusion." 

"Is that something you wonder or is that something you wish would happen?" 

"I don't know. And yeah, I know it sounds crazy."

And, well, when your life's story is told as a fairy tale and there is an animated version of you and your son has been afraid of both the fictional and the real you, there is a chance you may start to question your own existence. You may start to wonder if you could possibly have imagined all of it. Or at least some of it. And that little bit of delusion may allow you to survive for a little longer, may make everything a little bit more bearable. But that doesn't make you crazy, now does it? It makes you human, she supposes, and it's this, this last sliver of humanity somewhere underneath all the dark, murky waters that she's been trying to reach for and then hang on to. For her son and for herself. "We are not crazy. The world is."

The noise Emma makes in response is half snort, half chuckle.

"You find that funny?"

"No, not really. You know what's funny, though? How this..." Emma gestures with her free hand, draws an invisible circle in the air between them, "You, me, Henry... It's the only thing that feels..."

"Real?"

"Yeah. Real. And it's not supposed to."

She is about to speak, say something, some explanation, something about being weary of things happening the way they are supposed to, and who exactly is it who can determine those things, all those supposed tos, and then she realizes that Emma is standing very close and there's absolutely no reason for her to be standing so close. 

Emma's voice is hoarse, barely above a whisper, when she looks her in the eye, lost and desperately seeking something, and asks, "Can I touch you?"

"What?" She regrets her tone immediately. It's too harsh, too abrupt, too surprised, too everything she doesn't mean for it to be, but only because she is surprised, because this? This is definitely not something that's supposed to happen.

Emma looks horrified, clasps a hand over her mouth and stumbles on words. "I... I'm sorry. I don't know what that was, but it wasn't... I don't... I'm sorry. I'm sorry." She almost trips over the carpet in her hurry to leave, and when she's in the doorway, she turns around and says, for one last time, "I'm sorry."

She has no idea what to say, let alone do, so she says the thing that's most expected, "It's fine."

"I didn't mean it. I mean, I don't..." 

"I know. It's fine."

 

***

 

She doesn't sleep much that night.

Emma didn't mean it. Emma is physicality embodied and Emma didn't mean it.

Emma probably kisses people, chokes people, punches people when she feels anything at all.

But she can't help wondering... Wondering if Emma touches people the way she does magic (warm, tender, protective), or the way she fights (fierce, relentless, harsh).

Or both. What if it's both?

But Emma didn't mean it, and even if she did, it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the fact that Emma is physicality embodied and she probably kisses people, chokes people, punches people when she feels anything at all.

She doesn't sleep much that night.

  

***

 

It's two weeks later and she's waiting for Henry in front of the school building because even though she generally avoids crowds these days, she needs to take him shopping for clothes because his growth spurts, while sporadic, are getting unsettlingly fast.

The first person she sees is, however, not Henry, but Henry's teacher. Snow waves at her, smiles widely, and don't come here, don't come here, don't you dare come here, but lo and behold, there she is.

"So I hear congratulations are in order."

Snow's smile is warm, genuine. "Thank you."

She almost snorts. "I was being sarcastic."

"Why?" And, somehow, it's that high-pitched why, so full of wonder, that summarizes the entirety of their relationship. 

"Why am I not happy that you always get a second chance at everything?"

"Regina, I... I really don't want us to fight."

"And we don't anymore. Not actively."

"We could have so much more than just that. We could be a real family again."

And she just has to ask, because this is the part she just cannot, can absolutely not, wrap her head around, "Why would you want to have anything to do with me after everything?"

"I loved you, Regina. Some part of me will always love you. No matter what."

It means so little. So very little. "And some part of me will always want you dead."

And suddenly Snow is a little girl again, a little girl whose precious feelings have been hurt. "You used to hate Emma, too. But you two keep choosing each other." 

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I guess I've been feeling a little left out."

Snow White. Naïve, foolish Snow White. She laughs, because it's beyond ridiculous. "Are you jealous of me or your daughter?" 

"Is it wrong if I say both?"

"Yes."

"But why? It's not like I can help that." And how wonderful must it be to have lived in an environment where what you feel, what you do, where all of it is right, because you are you, and you are worth everything to everyone simply because of that. To have lived in a world where everyone is willing to fight your battles for you. Where no one tells you what to do, how to be, and then, when everything goes wrong, blames you for the choices made for you.

"It's not about you, Snow. This time it's not about you."

"Regina..." Her eyes are pleading.

"Don't worry. This one," she points at Snow's midsection, "won't live a cursed life. But you can't expect me to be happy for you. You don't have the right."

And so maybe it's becoming clear that she's spent most of her life fighting a losing battle. Somehow happy endings seem inevitable, like forces of nature, when others see you as good and even though the thought makes her sick, there's a part of her, a small, small, but growing part, that doesn't really care anymore. That part seems to be more concerned with how Snow White also seems blind to the fact that there's someone else in her family, too, who isn't exactly happy with how things have turned out.

That part keeps wondering where Emma is. Because it's been two weeks of dinners for two and even though Emma and Henry have spent time together, Emma has been waiting for him in the car and dropped him off without walking him to the door.

 

***

  

Three more days and it's the darned doorbell again, and she's hopeful, once again, but no, it's the bastard.

"Well, if it isn't the Dark One Junior."

"Err. Your majesty." The minute bow of his head is mocking, but the tiniest hint of mischief in his eyes, the familiar boyish glint, saves his sorry ass.

"What are you doing here? Again."

"Still hoping to see my kid." 

Kid. No, that's Emma's word. "Well, keep hoping."

"No, wait, please," he says. "How's he doing?" 

"Better," she says, because the concern in his eyes seems genuine enough.

"Good, good," he says. Then he sighs, and turns to go until something stops him and he turns back around. "Have you, err, have you seen Emma lately?"

And why is he asking her? "Yes, I've seen her." Technically.

"Do you think she's mad at me? I mean, madder than usual. Because I haven't. Seen her, I mean."

She's not sure where the feeling of relief comes from, but somehow it's satisfying to know that at least Emma hasn't been spending time with him. "Well, Baelfire, I wouldn't know. Nor would I care."

He laughs, it's self-deprecating and not too amused. "A while back Emma said you two have been working on your differences and I guess I'm asking if you have any insight on how, err, how that's done."

"You are asking me for advice on how to make amends with your ex?"

"Well, I asked Emma's mother and she suggested flowers." He grimaces.

And she grimaces, too, because flowers? Yes, that's certainly something Snow White would suggest and the exact kind of thing that would only drive Emma further away, because she's quite certain Emma would not be too fond of big gestures and grand declarations. She hates that Baelfire seems to share her view on this. Hates that he, too, knows this about Emma, and probably from experience. "I can tell you this much: taking advice from Snow White is a recipe for disaster."

"Oh, well, thanks anyway, I guess."

"Go home, Baelfire," she says.

But he's still there and he's looking at her with a semi-friendly frown (and yes, it's strange how a frown can appear friendly) on his face. "I don't know if this, you know, you not wanting to have anything to do with me has something to do with your relationship with my father, but... We don't have to be enemies, you know."

"Oh, I don't see you as an enemy. I barely see you as anything."

"Right," he says. "Right."

  

***

  

Eleven days later it is Emma who is standing on her porch. "Hey," Emma says, and there are snowflakes in her hair.

She is too... everything to say anything but, "Hey."

"Henry forgot this," Emma says and holds out Henry's PSP.

She's quite certain she hasn't seen or heard the device in the house in a while so returning it seems a lot like an excuse. Which is curious, because Emma shouldn't need excuses to be standing on her porch. But maybe after the... incident she does so she doesn't say anything, but moves aside and allows Emma past her.

(And she'd already almost forgotten the particular combination of laundry detergent and something fresh and sharp (ginger and lime?) that she can always sense when the distance between the two of them is less than two feet.)

"Emma!" Henry exclaims from the dining room where he's setting the table. (Just two plates.) "What are you doing here?"

"You left this," Emma says and hands him the console. She's smiling at him, but there is something empty and vaguely sad about the smile.

"Thanks," Henry says, but he, too, looks slightly confused.

"Well, I've got to go," Emma says. "Night shift awaits."

"You're not staying for dinner?" Henry asks.

"No, kid, sorry," Emma says, and she looks like she's going to bolt, but then, suddenly, she wraps her arms around Henry and whispers something in his ear. He blushes, but smiles, and whispers something back.

Then Emma is gone, and it's just the two of them left staring at the door.

"Mom?" Henry says very carefully.

"What is it, dear?"

"Why was Emma sad?"

"You think she was sad?" She tries to keep her voice level.

"She said..." He looks embarrassed, a little afraid, as if he still doesn't know if this is something that's allowed or not. "She said she loves me."

"You know she loves you. You wouldn't be alive if she didn't."

"Yeah, but she said it."

A hug and a declaration.

No. It's not possible.

But there's no way around it. Something like that from Emma can only mean one thing.

She spurs into action, already guiding Henry towards the door as she reaches for her car keys and cell phone, and she dials David, because he's the lesser of the two evils.

When David answers, it's apparent from his tone that he has no idea, so she says, "David. Could you watch Henry for a few hours? There's something I have to do."

"I don't need anyone to watch me," Henry says petulantly, but yes, yes, he does.

  

***

  

She drives around town, slowly, but impatiently, and she doesn't breathe properly until she spots the yellow car in front of the sheriff's station.

Emma is standing next to the car and when she exits her Mercedes and walks towards her, Emma shakes her head. "What are you doing here?"

"You don't get to leave. Not now." Her voice is a lot sterner than she intends for it to be.

Wide eyes. "Who said I'm leaving?"

"You did."

"I'm pretty sure I didn't." Emma's attempt at keeping her voice carefree is weak.

"You didn't have to."

"I..." 

"Emma," she says and that's all it takes for Emma to fall silent and for the dark clouds to appear.

"I don't know," Emma says after a while. "I don't know."

"What don't you know?"

"I just don't know. I guess I've had a hard time figuring out where exactly I fit in the grand scheme of things now that... Now that I've done what I was supposed to do."

"And leaving solves that puzzle how?"

"That's the thing. I don't think I do. Fit in, I mean."

"Just because your parents will have another child doesn't mean they don't want you anymore."

Something flashes in Emma's eyes, some undefined hurt. Emma doesn't say anything, but Emma's feelings are always in the silences, in the spaces between words, so she takes a guess, "That has happened to you before, hasn't it?"

Downcast eyes. "Yeah."

"People can't be replaced like that. You should know." She hopes that Emma understands what she's actually saying.

And apparently Emma does, because as she leans back against the car and looks up at the sky that's getting darker and darker, stars appearing among the different hues of blue and gray, she says, "Henry doesn't need me." 

She's about to argue, because sometimes Henry surely acts as if he does, but she knows and Emma knows that it was the two of them for ten years, and that's why the only fair thing to do is to state the truth, "Perhaps not. But he wants you."

Emma sighs and seems to come to some decision. "Come with me," she says.

"Where?" she asks, and it's not (she swears it's not) that by now she would willingly follow Emma almost anywhere, but she's surprised by the sudden suggestion.

"There's something I want to show you. Besides, I'm hungry."

  

***

  

"Don't," Emma says before she can make a remark, anything at all, about the car or the fact that there are food wrappers on the floor. "This car kept me warm when I had nowhere to go. It's a good car."

"If you say so," she says.

"Oh, and please, hold this, just in case." Emma hands her a comic book. "It's Henry's. I know technically the town line shouldn't be cursed anymore, but you never know."

"We are crossing the town line?" She's crossed realms who knows how many times, but in this world? The thought of leaving, exploring the world beyond Storybrooke is so novel, so utterly, yes, horrifying, that she, again, forgets how to breathe for a while.

"Yeah."

 

***

 

"Are you still you?" Emma asks when they have passed the sign that says Leaving Storybrooke.

"Yes," she says.

"Good," Emma says and it's been a long time since anyone suggested that the fact that she is who she is was in any way a good thing.

  

***

 

"I've been coming here a lot lately. When I've been thinking about, you know, leaving." Saying the actual word seems to take some effort.

It's clear from the sign what the place is. It's Chantey's Lobster House. What's not clear is why they are sitting in Emma's car in front of it. "Why are we at Chantey's Lobster House?"

"August brought me here," Emma says. "When he was trying to make me believe the curse was real."

"He took you to a lobster house?" Of all the ridiculous things she's heard...

"No, this is the start. He took me back to where it all began for me."

"Is this the place where..."

"Yes," Emma says before she can finish her question. "This is the place. The tree is in that forest." She points at the dark woods behind the building.

"Still doesn't answer the question. Why are we here?"

"Come," Emma says. "I'm having a lobster roll. And I think you should, too."

She's confused, and this is not Storybrooke, this is the land without magic, actually without magic, and she's already feeling like there is something about her that's different and it, the abyss, reminds her of the time when the curse was still unbroken. She doesn't know why, but she follows Emma as she strides towards the shabby-looking little restaurant.

A few moments later she's sitting at a small table outside the restaurant and Emma is sitting across the table from her, smiling thinly, and there's a lobster roll on a paper plate in front of her. Cold lobster and mayo and all.

"Try it," Emma says.

"Why?"

"Because it's good. And it's food."

It's food. Food with mayo. She's always thought of that kind of food as the same kind of food her mother used to call peasant food. If you have the chance, you should always indulge, my dear. Never settle for anything less than the best. So she's indulged. Always the best cuts of the rarest of meats, the most expensive wines, the most obscene desserts, and never, not even in this world, never anything like this. She knows it's one of the things her mother fought tooth and nail for, and it shouldn't mean anything because it was always for selfish reasons and it should especially not mean anything after everything, but somehow it still does.

But her mother's dead, and even though a part of her whispers, I'm sorry, mother, she thinks of the way she would occasionally catch her father with the cook down in the kitchens, having conversations in a language she didn't speak, happily chewing on a roasted hare leg dipped in butter, and so she takes a bite and expects to be disgusted, but no, it is, in fact, quite a delicious lobster roll. She can't help the small appreciative sound she makes and Emma grins, and that grin, somehow, is worth everything.

They eat in silence and she keeps surveying her surroundings. There are other people sitting at other tables, and when a trucker passes them, he tips his Yankees cap and says, "Evening, ladies," and she has no idea what to say, but Emma nods at the man and says, "Hey."

"See?" Emma says in a lowered voice when the man is a safe distance away.

"See what?" she asks.

"Nobody knows who we are."

"Well, obviously."

"Nobody here knows who we are," Emma says again and, yes, that much is indeed obvious, but...

And then she understands. "Oh."

"Don't you think it's refreshing?"

Is it refreshing that nobody looks at her and sees an evil queen, the destroyer of happiness, the ruiner of lives and the curser of everything? Is it refreshing that nobody flinches when they see her, that nobody's hand reaches straight for the closest weapon? "Yes, indeed it is." 

Emma grins again, looks carefree, free, and when somebody passes them again, they don't see a savior, a bringer of happy endings, a saver of lives and towns and a breaker of curses, they see a beautiful woman eating a lobster roll.

 

***

 

Some time later, when they are just sitting there, observing people, and breathing is surprisingly easy even without the faint humming of magic inside her, Emma asks her, "How did you know?"

"How did I know what?"

"That I was leaving."

"You told Henry you love him."

"I do love him."

"I know."

Emma sighs, looks a little embarrassed. "You are better with the words, you know."

"I bring the words, you bring the stupid heroics. It's a nice balance, don't you think?" Impeccable parenting á la the Evil Queen and the Savior, the destroyer of happy endings and the bringer of them. Something that was never supposed to happen.

"You've had your stupidly heroic moments, too."

She doesn't know what to say to that so she says, "Let's go home."

"Home?" Emma asks. "I don't think my parents' place..."

But that's not what she meant so she interrupts Emma, "You don't have to go back there tonight if you don't want to."

"Where would I go?"

"Be with the people who don't think you are not enough."

  

***

  

Henry falls asleep on the couch between them, and Emma picks him up and carries him to his bedroom even though he is getting too tall to be carried like that. They tuck him in, spend some time staring at him, making sure he's inhaling and exhaling, and then they close his bedroom door behind them.

"You can have the guestroom," she says.

"Really? The guestroom?" Emma says.

"Really. The guestroom," she says, but suddenly she's a little nervous.

It's not something she has ever considered.

Not consciously, no, never, not ever. And if she has ever woken up from a dream, skin flushed and oddly out of breath and with all those lingering images (some of which she's now certain Freud, or even Archie Hopper, would have a thing or two to say about), faded colors and distant sounds and memories of warm and soft and violent and safe, it's been just that. A dream. The opposite of real.

But Emma is there, bright eyes, pink lips, and she knows. In fact, every cell in her body knows. This is what she wants and has wanted for a while, but never, ever consciously considered, because there are certain levels of falling that are just too foolish.

She has been aware of the feeling, the strange tenderness somewhere in that part of her heart that carries memories of fires and wraiths and failsafes, of Neverland and our magic and our son, but it's been easy to explain that as something that is a direct result of the very simple fact that Henry wouldn't exist without Emma. That in itself is enough to make Emma a little bit precious as well.

But this... This attraction, this aching need, this maddening want, this desire to both possess and set free? It, or at least the realization, is very new, very raw, but incredibly real.

How Emma got there before her, she doesn't know. But then again, Emma is physicality embodied.

Her relationship with her body has been distant, almost hostile, for a long time. Ever since the days of You really should ride more like a lady and what always followed such comments. Ever since that and ever since Leopold. There's been confidence to be found in that distance, because what doesn't hurt can be used as a weapon. Distance is power. Power is control. Control means the world doesn't collapse. Distance is survival.

And later, when she was with Graham, the only thing missing wasn't his heart, it was something else, too, but that missing piece was nothing compared to anything that came before. Graham was enough in a sense, but never more than that. It was never like this when the mere promise of touching, the way Emma's eyes linger on her lips, how she can both see and feel Emma's breath, the air between them getting cool and then warm again... No, it was never like this when all of that is enough to light a fire in her abdomen.

Then the lips are on hers and they are very soft and she gasps, because it's not foreplay, it's not an obligatory part of the routine, it's a kiss that means something, many things (some of which have the potential to change everything), and she's forgotten how it feels. Her hands, almost automatically, travel up the arms, defined biceps, but so incredibly soft, up, up, until they are tangled in blonde hair, and she pulls Emma closer, so close that their bodies are touching everywhere they can possibly touch and she can feel the warmth emanating from Emma's body even through the well-worn, cheap cotton of her tank top.

She leans her forehead against Emma's and breathes, and it's ragged and irregular, but she has to because she fears this time the world might collapse simply because of the sheer magnitude of feeling. And yet it's not enough and she desperately needs more even though she knows it's quite possible everything might implode as a result.

And then one of Emma's hands is on her shoulder and one is cupping her cheek and,

oh,

a thumb caresses the scar above her lip and it's such a tender gesture that it sends shivers down her spine.

And the universe remains intact, but it inhales and exhales with her, and, with it, her magic swirls and creates strange, new shapes and colors somewhere deep inside her.

"You okay?" Emma whispers. 

"I'm fine," she says, clears her throat. "You?"

"Yeah. I'm fine, too." Emma, either because of the odd formality of the exchange or because of what transpired before, smiles in a way that could be construed as bordering on shy were it not so uncharacteristic.

The warmth lingers, but it's slowly retreating. "I should go. To sleep. In the guestroom," Emma says. Her eyes are very bright.

And yes, that's probably what Emma should do, but Emma almost left, and that unleashes something in her and, besides, patience has never been one of her few virtues. "Like hell you should," she hisses back.

Then she's kissing Emma again and digging her nails into the expanse of skin visible between the hem of the tank top and the jeans, and the skin is warm, soft, and Emma chuckles against her lips.

"You think this is funny? Because this isn't," she whispers into Emma's ear, inhales the laundry detergent and something fresh and sharp, because there's nothing funny about any of this. Nothing funny about her almost letting Emma leave without any of this happening.

"No," Emma says, smiles wickedly, nibbles on the skin on her shoulder, leaves a trail of ghosts of lips on her neck. "This isn't funny."

Then she finds herself pushed against the wall, and Emma's hands are on the skin under her blouse, and she tugs at the stupid tank top and there's a firm thigh between hers, and she gasps again, and Emma says, "Shh," because they are still in the hallway, and she kisses her again, and again, and again. 

"Come," she whispers in between kisses, tugs at Emma's arm and guides her towards the bedroom.

"You sure?" Emma manages to gasp.

"Yes, idiot."

 

***

  

And she'd wondered if it would be both, and it is.

But.

She hadn't considered the possibility that while Emma is physicality embodied, and her feelings are always in the silences, in the spaces between words, that does not, does definitely not, apply to sex. That's something she discovers when she's forced to clasp a hand over Emma's mouth, and she almost laughs, because it's so powerless, that "Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck," that she somehow manages to draw from Emma's lips with her fingers only.

She almost laughs, but she doesn't, because it's quite possibly the most beautiful and elaborate declaration she has ever heard.

  

***

  

She wakes up after what feels like two minutes of sleep, and it's colder than it was.

"Hey," Emma says. She's getting dressed.

"Hey." She blinks a few times. It's still dark outside.

"I have to go," Emma says. "My parents will think I've been working all night."

"Not quite all night," she says.

"You," Emma says, looks a little flustered. "What am I even... Just. Damn." She smiles.

"Well, I could say the same," she says.

  

***

 

In the morning she almost burns the pancakes, and Henry asks, "Mom? Are you okay?"

But he looks more amused than alarmed, and she knows there's something she should probably do.

  

***

  

"You," Baelfire says. "You are here."

"Yes, that's very observant of you."

It's not exactly something she wants to do, but she needs to know if he lives in a place that's at least half-decent if she's ever going to let Henry visit him.

It's a small apartment in a building opposite Game of Thorns, and it's almost empty save for a bed, a couch, a TV stand, a bookcase and a massive dining table that sticks out like a sore thumb.

He notices her staring at the table and he laughs, scratches his neck and says, "Geppetto built that. I guess I'm going to have to stay in town because that monstrosity doesn't fit in a moving truck."

"You are staying?"

"Yeah, I mean, all the people I care about are here. So why not?"

"What is it you used to do, Baelfire?"

"What I... What I used to do?" He looks confused.

"Yes, I assume you had a job."

"Yeah, well, for obvious reasons I had no school diplomas to show and I think pretty much everyone who found out thought I was an illegal immigrant from, like, Canada, so I had a hard time... job wise. But somehow I managed. Occasionally I sold some art, but you can't really live on that, so..."

It's not a very satisfying answer, but maybe it's good enough for now. There are no empty bottles or bloody syringes around and the place is clean. "It's not because of your father. It's because of Emma." 

"What... do you mean?"

"The reason why I don't like you. It's because of Emma."

"Err, how, exactly, is it about Emma?"

"I think I might love her, too."

He looks at her with a curious expression that's both shocked and amused. Then the lines on his forehead get deeper and his eyes sparkle with amusement. "You're kidding, right?"

She smirks. The fact that the horrible, beautiful truth is out to someone, even if it's someone she loathes (not with a passion, though – he's not worth it), makes her feel somewhat light-headed. It's a strange kind of victory. "Do I look like I'm kidding?" 

"Wow, that's... That's messed up."

"Because I'm a woman?" She doesn't know where the question even emerges from, but perhaps it has something to do with how she can sometimes hear her mother's voice somewhere in the background. How there are certain ways of being which are just wrong, not per se, but because they are roadblocks on the way to power. We can't afford the scandal.

"What? No, no." He shakes his head almost frantically, as if the whole notion of sounding like a bigot is more horrifying to him than the thing itself. "Because of who you are. And who she is." 

"I suppose that's fair," she says. She's not supposed to feel just the tiniest, tiniest bit of relief, because there's nothing relieving about her past with herself or with Emma's family or with Emma, even.

"What, err..." One of his hands is in his pocket, one on his stubbled cheek, and some part of him is visibly panicking. "So what does that mean? Exactly? That you love her?"

Well, what does it mean to love someone? "I don't know."

"Does she... feel the same way?"

It's a good question, but even though it makes no sense, she knows she wouldn't be talking about this if she didn't have a certain amount of confidence in the matter. "I think she might." 

He looks like he might start biting his nails, and he's not looking at her. "My father has Belle. And she's nice. I mean, she's very nice."

"Good for your father." 

"No, that's not what... You know what? I'm just going to say it. I'm not sure he deserves her."

"He probably doesn't." And she knows they are not actually talking about Belle and Rumplestiltskin. "But what if she chooses to be with him despite everything?"

"Then, well, then I guess it's her choice." His perpetual lip-biting turns into a full-on pout. "And I just hope he doesn't do anything to hurt her."

"You can't force someone to have feelings for you. Trust me, I know." She says it almost gently, because she recognizes that pout.

"No, I know that, but..." And then he's not even pretending anymore. "I just think it should count for something. The fact that I'm actually trying to do the right thing now. But I guess I'll just always be the guy who left her when she needed me."

"And I'll always be the one who cast the curse that made her parents choose to abandon her." When she says it like that, it doesn't actually sound as bad as it usually does in her head. 

"Is that your way of saying she might forgive me some day?"

"If that's what you want to hear."

He shakes his head again. "Do you think people like... like my father can actually change?"

"I don't know, Baelfire. Maybe."

"Maybe," he echoes. He looks lost in thought, buries both hands in the pockets of his jeans, stands there in his almost empty apartment and processes 300 years of family history, abandonment and hurt feelings. "I wish someone had told my father that a long time ago. That and the fact that love is the opposite of cowardice and destiny and fate are crappy concepts."

She supposes she's in a rather good mood, because that's the only explanation for the way something about him amuses more than irritates her. "So do I. Believe me." She knows he knows what she means. That's about as far as their common ground extends for now.

  

***

  

And what does it actually mean to love someone? How do you say, I don't want anyone else to have you, never, not ever, without it sounding a lot like, You are my most beautiful possession?

It's something she wonders when she studies Emma's silhouette in the dark.

"I always hold on too hard," she finally says.

Emma opens one eye, peers at her sleepily, "Well, that could work." 

She snorts. "That could work? Really?"

"It could work, because I tend to run. Even when I don't actually want to."

She sighs. It can't be that simple. "Will you tell me if you ever feel like you can't breathe?"

"Will you?"

She smiles. "I never meant for any of this to happen."

It's Emma's turn to snort. "Oh, I did."

"Really?"

"No. Never."

She thinks of princesses and horses and mothers and Daniel and castles and prophecies and destiny and fate and pixie dust and revenge and frozen time and death (always death). "It's refreshing, don't you think?"

"Oh, yeah." Emma's eyes are wide and serious and soft unlike any other time,

and...

  

***

 

(Once, when Henry was almost ten and already moody and sad and she had no idea why, he asked her how they were so stupid they let the Titanic sink. Why didn't they just build a normal ship? And she explained the compartments, and how it was supposed to be safer that way, how proud they were of this innovation, and who needs lifeboats when there is no way more than four compartments could ever get flooded. 

How they never thought there would be an iceberg. How they simply never considered the possibility.

"That's so stupid," Henry said as if the ship's fate personally offended him. "I can't believe they were so stupid.")

  

***

 

... and she breathes and allows light in places that have been empty, dark and forgotten for too long. The light floods in and the universe, still, remains intact and she remains firmly in it, doesn't float away into dark nothingness.

In fact, nothing happens, other than the tightening of the arm around her, and she closes her eyes, allows herself to simply exist, and she can hear the drumming of raindrops on windows and on the roof, and the wind, the storm approaching from the ocean, but none of that matters when everything inside her is quiet and peaceful like this.

  

***

 

The following morning the doorbell rings and she doesn't realize Emma, hair shower-wet and dressed in clothes she has borrowed without asking for permission, is right behind her until it's too late, and Emma's eyes widen as she realizes who's at the door.

"Hi, Emma," he says, glances at her, then stares at his feet, looking every bit like a kicked puppy. It would be pitiful if it wasn't also so satisfying.

"Neal, I..." Emma starts, but it's obvious that she has no idea what to say.

He shakes his head and offers Emma a mirthless half-smile. "Don't. I, uh... I know why you're here."

"You do?"

"Uh huh. We have, err, we've been talking."

"Who's been talking?"

He glances at Emma and then at her, the lines on his forehead painfully deep. "Regina and I," he says. It's the first time he has used her first name, and it's curious – the way names hold all that strange power that can build walls between people but also strip someone of certain attributes – of certain pasts, presents, and futures.

"When did you two become such good friends?" Emma asks, deeply confused, though still all kinds of awkwardly uncomfortable, and it's not entirely impossible to imagine a hint of jealousy in her voice. Of whom, who knows, because it's all messed up, people and stuff.

"Never," she says, but she can't help the smirk that creeps onto her face. "Well, Emma, Neal here will be taking our son out to lunch on Saturday." She only wishes that he knows that this is not a consolation prize. Wishes that he realizes, if not right now but with time at least, that Henry is more precious than anything.

He smiles, it's half-pained, but he smiles, and there is something genuinely relieved in his eyes, and she knows it won't be the end of the world, because maybe he's beginning to understand.

Emma's eyes widen some more, but she recovers quickly. "Oh, okay. Great."

She says, "One p.m. Don't be late. You can have two hours with him."

He nods, bites his lip, and says, "Okay."

She assumes the deliberate tone again, the I'm-talking-to-a-moron one, "And if anything happens to him..."

He laughs. "I know. His moms will kill me."

Talking to a moron. "No, Neal, if anything happens to him, call us. No one else. Least of all your father or any of his other grandparents. Got it?"

"Right. Sorry. Got it."

  

***

  

They watch him walk away, slumped shoulders and everything, and Emma takes a shaky breath, but doesn't say anything.

"He's going to be fine." The words take some forcing, but she gets them out.

Emma shakes her head. "It's not Neal I'm worried about. But what if something does happen to Henry and we are not there?"

"It's curious how you weren't at all concerned about that before Neverland."

"I know and now it seems so... It's a terrifying thought, you know? That nothing can be taken for granted."

"Nothing should be taken for granted."

Emma is quiet, breathes softly. Her words are quiet as well when she says, "Would that be so bad, though? If someone took you for granted. If they knew for a fact that you'd be there every second of every day, and they'd never have to fear losing you, not without a warning."

She tries to imagine, and her voice is soft, too, when she says, after swallowing the lump in her throat, "No, I suppose it wouldn't be so bad."

Emma takes her left hand, hovers her lips (light, soft) over each knuckle and doesn't let go.

 

***

 

A month later, just after New Year's, she runs into Neal in the frozen foods aisle in the grocery store, and he glances at her and looks uncertain as to whether he should greet her or not, because they are not exactly friends, but somehow they still talk more than she talks to anyone in town except for the two people she loves and the two idiots she attempts to tolerate for the sake of the two people she loves.

(And soon there will be three idiots and Emma said one day, "Those hormones will make her a monster," and she said, "How can a monster become a monster?" and Emma said, "Shut up. She's still my mother," and she said, "No, I will never shut up," and Emma said, "I would have been there for Mary Margaret, so..." and she said, "If you really think you can tolerate all the syrupiness," and Emma said, "I'm learning," and she said, "What's that supposed to mean?" and Emma said, "As if you are any better.")

His shopping cart is full of ingredients that don't exactly scream a night alone in a bachelor pad.

"Having a dinner party?" she asks him even though she supposes she really doesn't care.

"I guess," he says. "I mean, I'm not, but my father is cooking for Belle and he asked me to buy every single food item I can think of because apparently he can't decide what he's making."

"The Dark One is cooking dinner?"

"Yeah." He chuckles. "He's actually not a bad cook. He used to do that all the time when it was just the two of us. He can make a pretty mean stew of chimera and carrots, but chimera is never in season in Maine, so..."

A single father cooking for his son reminds her of a single mother learning to cook for her son. These are things she has never cared to consider, because she never knew Rumplestiltskin when he was still, more or less, just a man. "So filet mignon it is?" 

"I guess so," he says.

"That goes well with a Cabernet Sauvignon."

"Right. Err. Thanks." His smile is surprised. "You cook?"

"I do."

He examines a package of frozen baby carrots. There's something careful about his tone when he asks, "Does, umm, does Emma still manage to burn the toast every morning?"

It feels like the question actually means, "Is she often in your house in the morning?"

"She's... learning."

"Good," he says. "Good."

And she's actually surprised, not just by how little his face falls, but also by how little her own heart sinks, how little her anger flares, at the thought of him knowing this about Emma's early-morning toast-burning tendencies.

The anger. Perhaps it has finally served its purpose. It has allowed her to survive. Now, it's time to let go, time to hang on to something real, something beautiful, something hopeful. Something like buying ingredients for the blueberry cobbler she's making for dessert for her son, the one who doesn't like apples, and her son's other mother, the one who seems to think food is food (except for celery, not even when she tried hiding it).

She, the fabled destroyer of happiness, has fought it, happiness, so hard, and it's becoming increasingly clear that she has lost the battle.

Well,

damn.