He's always known his mom had Big Dreams for him, but he never actually thinks about what those Big Dreams are until the summer after his freshman year of high school. Although, if he’d been paying attention, he would’ve seen the warning signs from the day Miss Sanders gave his moms that Middlebury info.
So his grades are good, by the end of the year. His grades have always been good. And he tests well, because honestly, what’s a Scantron compared to the Dark One. Easy peasy. Miss Sanders wants him to write for the school paper and she’s been passing his term paper around among the faculty and there is a little bit of buzz about Henry Mills going places.
Places that aren’t Storybrooke.
Like, college places.
His mom has Big Dreams for him and apparently has always had Big Dreams for him because he has a college fund that makes Emma nauseous to talk about. “You could buy a house with that money, Regina. You could buy two houses.”
“That’s how much college costs!”
“What the hell is wrong with a state school?”
Before his mom strangles Emma, he coughs, reaches for the laptop in between them and settles back into the armchair. “Uh, before you go all Thunderdome over this, maybe we could figure out things like what I want to do and where I want to be?”
His mom beams at him and Emma rolls her eyes but they both shut up for a grand total of two minutes. It’s a new record.
He takes June to do some research and July to pick some cities and then in August, the three of them load up the Benz—his legs are officially too long for the Bug—with two designer soft-sides and one battered Nike duffel bag and his mom drives them out of Storybrooke.
She’s pretty calm on the interstate, which Emma comments on, which is so stupid because he knows that she knows the whole story of his adoption already but he’s pretty sure Emma just likes to listen to his mom’s voice. As for why his mom is always willing to tell the story, he’s not really sure but he figures she probably enjoys having someone to even tell the story to.
Emma’s presence—bright and shimmering, day in and day out—has done a lot to make him see just how alone his mom was before. He remembers when she would have her laptop open on the kitchen counter while she made dinner so that she could review paperwork she’d had to step away from to pick him up and get him settled at home. When she’d spend half of their nightly story time working out the crick in her neck from where she’d had the phone cradled while doing the dishes. She doesn’t multitask as much, now that Emma worked the high school into her afternoon patrols, now that Emma will surprise them with a pizza and paper plates or will just clear the table while his mom deals with late night conference calls. Sometimes when he comes down from doing his homework to grab a post-dinner snack—usually something salty, like plantain chips—they’re both in the den, Emma flipping channels and his mom protesting every time she passes something with explosions, and it’s good. Good, good, good, that someone is there to hear his mom’s voice.
His mom pauses in the story to switch the radio station before it slides into full static, and even though the volume is low, Emma picks up the melody of “Living On A Prayer” in maybe a chord and a half. They bicker with just their hands over the volume controls until Emma leans over slightly and pretends to bite at his mom’s fingers while cranking the volume all the way up.
He rolls his eyes and slouches further in the backseat while Emma warbles out the chorus in her abysmally out of tune way and rocks out on air guitar. In the rearview mirror, he can see his mom roll her eyes, too, and her nostrils are flared like she’s actually irritated, except she’s only got her right hand on the steering wheel and he knows her face when she’s hiding a smile.
By the time they finish up at BU—third on the list—he’s stopped caring. Blah blah, diversity, blah blah, engagement, blah blah, campus-focused culture, blah blah, endowment. All the Dartmouth buildings look a little bit like his house and Bowdoin’s freshman dorms are tiny and BU kind of looks like someone dropped big concrete blocks in the middle of old Boston architecture. That’s basically the only difference he can see.
Also, his moms are totally being gross.
Not gross-gross like his grandparents, but like… Emma keeps putting her hand on his mom’s back when they cross streets. And not high on her back. But like… kind of right above her butt. Which is just really really weird and he would very much like it to stop.
Except every time she does it, his mom gets this really stupid smile, just for a half-second, and considering how quiet she is during most of the tours, he really likes even half-second smiles.
She’s really quiet during tours. To the point that she’ll whisper questions to Emma for her to ask the tour guide or the dean talking to them or a professor they happened to get a chance to chat with. He asks her about it right when they start the BC tour on day 5 of their trip and she just smiles at him—not a good stupid smile, one of those tight, Mayor smiles—and says she should have packed different shoes.
He decides not to say anything about the fact that they eat lunch across the street from two shoe stores, because Emma badgers his mom until she slips out of her heels and puts her feet in Emma’s lap and doesn’t say anything resembling words for the next ten minutes. To be fair, it might also be because he’s trying not to ralph all over everything.
They’re so gross.
The penny drops when they’re waiting for the Harvard tour to start.
Emma’s idea for the Boston schools has been to do the earliest tour, get it out of the way, and then wander the campus for a little before heading out into the actual city to show them around her town. She’s so hype about it that she’s up every morning with the first beep of her alarm.
Henry is his mother’s son: neither of them are morning people.
So they reach the Agassiz House at some godforsaken hour and before they even walk in—a whole fifteen minutes early—his mom just holds up a hand and says “Coffee,” in this longing voice. Her phone is in her hand and he’s pretty sure she’s been waiting for Google Maps to ping at her the whole walk to the building. And Emma looks at his mom and his mom looks at Emma and Emma rolls her eyes and his mom kisses his forehead and promises a half-caff.
He parks it on a bench inside the building while Emma wanders the periphery of the room and looks over the information sheets on the tables. He thinks it’s kind of funny how she approaches everything like she’s doing reconn.
Apparently, so does one of the deans, because when Emma comes back to where he’s slouched, some unfortunately equine-faced woman comes up to both of them and starts chatting them up. She seems all right, noticing that Henry’s younger than most of the students gathering for the tour, gently teasing about not being awake yet.
And he’s not awake yet, so he just barely manages to mumble out “Waiting for coffee,” in a way that isn’t rude and growly and snappish, and he doesn’t think about what that could sound like because it only sounds like he hasn’t had any coffee yet.
When his mom walks up, maybe ten percent brighter than when she left, and hands him a paper cup without a word—well, it’s coffee, and this is how they are most mornings, so he just starts drinking it.
And then chokes when the dean lady says, “Oh, I always think it’s so nice for families to include their nannies on tours like this. You really are part of the family, after all, aren’t you?”
Emma turns purple—he’ll swear it—but his mom, his mom in her blazer and skirt and heels with her blown-out hair and her crisp eyeliner, his mom—
His mom, glowing from a summer of outdoor lunches and evening walks and weekends at the park or down by the marina—
Everyone around them, himself and Emma included, is in jeans and hoodies and sneakers or scuffed-up boots or just—his mom in her skirt suit, his mom with her perfect posture and—his mom the mayor, his mom the queen—
His mom doesn’t say anything, just takes a long, slow breath, and he can see the muscle under her left eye ticking, he can see how she’s got Emma’s curling fists in her peripheral vision, he can see her looking down and keeping her eyes down and—
“Thanks, Mom,” he says, and shakes the paper cup slightly, slips an arm around her waist and hugs her tightly. “So early.”
He is a whole two inches taller than her and he wishes he were bigger. Big enough.
He can hear the dean stuttering something behind him, and he’s sure Emma will say something back, but mostly he listens to the way his mom’s breathing evens out. “Well done,” she whispers, and her voice is shaky.
They don’t stay for the tour.
Instead Emma drives them over to the Christian Science Center and they watch little kids sailing boats on the reflecting pool and running in and out of the fountain and no one speaks for a while.
He’s the first one to wander into the library, and it doesn’t take long for his moms to follow, midday sun getting too strong in the plaza. There’s a banner for the Mapparium hanging over the staircase and he nudges Emma, juts his chin at it.
She pays for admission and they’re the only ones on this tour. He tries to pay attention but the aftertaste of coffee is still in his mouth and it makes him vaguely nauseated. He thought the Mapparium would be bigger. He thought it would dwarf him. He thought it would make stupidity negligible but he looks at the colored glass that’s supposed to be Africa with names like French Equatorial Guinea and Rhodesia and Belgian Congo and all he can see is stupid, stupid, stupid.
There’s a presentation lighting up different parts of the glass and he should be paying attention to the words but instead he’s standing completely still and listening back to where his moms are at the other end of the bridge. Their words can’t be louder than a whisper but he can hear, crystal clear.
Emma says, “It’s not right.”
His mom says, “It’s not unusual.”
The presentation talks again.
Emma says, “But—how can you—you’re so much—Regina.”
His mom says nothing.
And then a sound he can’t place, and he glances back to see that his moms are face to face, foreheads pressed together, and Emma’s holding his mom’s face in her hands and they are very, very quiet.
The tour guide clears his throat, and his mom opens her eyes, covers Emma’s wrists with her hands. “Pay attention, Miss Swan,” she says. “You might learn something.”