Emma didn’t care what Michael said, being a guardian wasn’t getting any easier the longer she did it. Not that she was bad at it - she kept her charges obsessively safe and as happy as they could manage to be - but Emma never quite managed to rid herself of the restlessness, the neediness that was associated with the very-recently-dead. She got attached, made it personal, interfered too much, and wound up sitting in a heap outside of Michael’s office, bruises on her knees and elbows from being tossed unceremoniously back onto the city steps by Peter.
The little robed figure next to her sniffled, drawing her out of her self-absorbed examination of her torn blue jeans. “Hey,” she muttered, taking in the tiny wing-stubs and the still-regulation white toga. “Your first day?”
The little girl blinked at her through her sandy blond bangs. “Yeah,” she whispered sullenly. “I got sick.”
Emma winced internally. “I’m sorry.”
The girl shrugged. Emma hesitated and reached out to touch her shoulder. Feelings and memories flooded her, which she did her best to ignore. Touch was hard for Emma, another thing that wasn’t getting any easier. Touching someone, angel or human or hell, even dog, was basically like turning on a faucet and sticking her brain underneath it. She inhaled sharply when the kid shot forward and wrapped her arms around her neck, sobbing; Emma grimaced and shifted her wings into a more comfortable position, patting awkwardly at the shaking ribcage.
“I miss my mom.”
“Yeah,” Emma agreed uselessly, continuing to pet and hum until the gold door in front of her creaked open.
“Emma? He’s ready for you.” Pale, beautiful Zadkiel smiled at her softly from the doorframe, his long hair bound in a complicated braid that flopped lazily over his shoulder. Emma sighed and glanced down at the still crying kid, loathe to leave her, even to answer a summons from Michael. Seeing her dilemma, Zad glided the rest of the way out of the door and down the steps, his stride so smooth Emma wasn’t sure his feet were really touching the ground - which, knowing the archangels, they probably weren’t. Gently, he crouched down next to her and lifted the kid out of her arms.
“Go on,” he said, as the girl attached, limpet-style, to his neck and kept crying. “I’ve got this.”
Emma’s hands hovered over the little, fluttering wings for a second more, and then she sighed. “I’m in big trouble, huh?”
Zad’s smile stretched further, but his lips stayed closed and he only pushed at her gently with his will, a tugging sensation at Emma’s shoulders and wings like a particularly strong breeze. Emma wiped her suddenly sweaty palms on her jeans and obediently stood. He could have pushed a lot stronger, could even have made her think she wanted to go, but the fact that he hadn’t made Emma feel obligated to go anyways.
Besides, it wasn’t like Michael could actually kill her, or anything.
She remembered to tuck her wings tight against her back and legs, just in time to avoid clipping them on the door frame. They weren’t actually a convenient size for her height - as far as Emma had been able to tell, wings came in roughly standard issue sizes and hers were on par with the rest of the entry level guardians - and to hold them like this she had to cross the tips at her ankles and hunch her shoulders up. She wasn’t all that good at controlling them yet, and it took a lot of focus, so she didn’t notice right away that Michael wasn’t alone in his office.
She noticed when a pair of arms wrapped around her and hugged, and she sagged into the embrace immediately, the touch familiar and non-invasive the way only the archs could manage. “Again, Emma?” Gabriel murmured in her ear, carefully speaking the words out loud.
“‘What are we going to do with you?’” Emma aped the next sentence solemnly, prying her face out of the crook of Gabriel’s shoulder and squinting up at her. Though all the archs were genderfluid, as far as Emma had been able to find out via some inelegant questioning, Gabriel tended to prefer her female form when they were in the City, and Emma tended to prefer Gabriel’s female form, period, with its elegant high cheekbones and fondly sexual smirk.
Gabriel shook her head and rubbed her fingers along Emma’s jaw. “No, actually, I know exactly what to do with you this time.”
“That remains to be seen.” Startled, Emma jerked her head towards Michael’s desk and felt her stomach drop back down at the look of censure on his face. He was leaning on both hands and glaring at her, fingers tapping and primary wings stretched almost the full length of his not-small office. Size and space didn’t make very much sense in the City, and really all Emma could figure out was ‘big,’ ‘really big,’ and ‘small enough to be realistic.’ (Realistic was a vague remnant from being a living human, like time, that she understood.)
“Hey, boss?” Emma thought about disengaging from Gabriel’s arms and snapping to attention, but Gabriel had begun petting her wings and it felt really good. “I thought I did okay this time?”
Michael heaved a huge sigh and then was on the other side of the desk, sitting between his hands. “Emma.” He didn’t say anything else but he didn’t have to; the entire sequence of events was rolling through all of their heads like a freakishly fast movie. It slowed to watch the end in something approaching real time.
“What, I was just supposed to let him get his ass kicked?” Emma defended, watching herself score a really sweet right hook dead onto a guy’s cheekbone and trying not to let Michael or Gabriel feel her pride at the move.
Emma scowled and tried to pull away from Gabriel, but it was pretty much useless. “Fuck that.” They’d never censored her or even flinched but she still got a kick out of cursing in front of archangels.
“We don’t interfere,” Michael told her sternly. “We only -”
“Influence, yeah, yeah, I know.” Emma rolled her eyes and batted away Gabriel’s wandering hands before they slipped underneath her shirt and succeeded in distracting her from her anger. Gabriel huffed in annoyance and the disgruntled look on her face almost did it anyways. “They were going to kill him, Mike.”
Michael stiffened at the use of the nickname and seemed to seriously consider scolding her for using it. “Humans die, Emma. You know that.”
It was the wrong thing to say, from a born-angel to a dead-human-angel, and Gabriel at least recognized that. “You know what he means, Emma.” Emma tried to ignore the sting of tears and the returning echo of the pain she’d felt at her own death. “Shh. Or you’ll ruin your shirt.”
When Emma’s eyes stopped blurring and she looked up again, Michael had retreated behind his desk and looked vaguely contrite around his mouth, even if his eyebrows were still stern and scary. “I was going to put you on guard duty for a while,” he said, and Emma felt a real flash of fear at the idea, standing as one in a line and staring out at the darkness without blinking forever, but Gabriel squeezed her forearm and she refocused. “But Gabriel convinced me to give you one last chance. One.” He glared and held up a finger, just in case Emma couldn’t count, and he waited until Emma nodded her understanding before he reached onto his desk and manifested an open manila folder to toss in her direction. It was something they did often, conjuring up items that were familiar to the recent-humans, to keep them from suffering total mindmeld overload. Emma wasn’t sure if the archangels even needed to talk to each other, the way that they were so careful - and sometimes clumsy - about talking to her out loud.
Emma picked up the folder and looked at the picture inside, a kid with dark hair and wide, expressive eyes, hunched down in a bus seat with a huge book open in his lap. Emma thought for a moment that it was a still image, but then he sniffled and turned a page, and she realized she could feel him breathing in her chest, the echo of his life inside of her that meant he was her charge.
“But... he’s gotta be eight? Nine?” Emma tried to hand the folder back, but really couldn’t take her eyes off of him. “Where’s his birth guardian?”
Gabriel snarled, the sound so uncharacteristic that Emma actually leaped a few feet away before she caught herself, and she turned to look askance at her just in time to see Gabriel close his eyes and run his fingers through his hair, and at the motion flow back down into female again. Emma gaped. Michael chuckled at her shock, his eyes dancing with genuine amusement, so that was two things Emma had never seen before.
“It’s not funny,” Gabriel muttered, her eyebrows still thicker and darker, apparently to make her scowl more effective. “His birth guardian quit.”
“We can quit?”
“No,” Michael snapped immediately. “Well, technically. Apparently.” He waved his hand and paced away from them angrily.
“He’s difficult, Emma,” Gabriel said, taking the folder from her fingers and looking fondly at the boy. “He’s impulsive, stubborn, and he has imagination for days. He will get into trouble.”
“Why give him to me, then?” Emma asked, even though her fingers were twitching to reclaim the folder, the kid already tugging her to him.
Gabriel smiled, the harshest angles on her face fading back into the gentle appearance Emma was used to. “Because I think you might understand a little something about being stubborn and impulsive.”
Emma wanted to protest, but thought maybe that would just prove the point. She held out her hand for the folder. “Gimme.”
Gabriel grinned. “That’s the spirit.”
Emma took one last look at the picture before she inhaled deeply and planted her hand down on it. The connection shot up into her arm all the way to her heart, and yanked her down.
Everyone on the bus shivered. Oops. Emma concentrated hard and kept her wings folding until they folded down into nothing and she could scrunch her energy down into vaguely human size. Normally the transition wasn’t so abrupt and she didn’t appear in such a crowded place. Emma felt clumsy and awkward even though no one could see her. She dragged her boots up the center aisle of the Greyhound, checking the seats until she found him.
The seat next to him was empty, his knee and the edge of his book poking over the divide. Emma sat down and carefully avoided touching him, trying to see all that she could with just her eyes. He was wearing jeans and sneakers but they weren’t cheaply made or old, and the starched white collar peeking out from his zippered Superman hoodie looked like part of a school uniform. “What are you doing on this bus, kid?” she muttered.
He couldn’t hear her, not really, but he sniffed and rubbed at his red-rimmed eyes. Emma craned her neck and looked at the glossy graphics he was reading, but before she could parse any of the words, he shifted slightly and his temple collided with her chin. Emma winced and flinched backwards, not prepared, but luckily the contact was brief enough that she didn’t get anything more that an unintelligible flash of emotions. The boy - Henry, she felt his name all the way down to her bones the moment she thought it - frowned and looked up from his book, eyes tracking over in her direction. Emma held her breath and didn’t move even though was pretty sure he couldn’t see her, and sighed in relief when he went back to reading.
It was dark outside of the bus and the lights were dim inside; Emma had no trouble seeing so it took her a while to be concerned about the state of his eyes if he kept reading. Right when she was thinking about maybe fiddling with one of the overhead lights to see about getting it brighter, she noticed that his eyelids were drooping and his head beginning to list in her direction.
Carefully, Emma shifted, raising her arm up over his head and bringing it down around his shoulders as he slipped slowly into reluctant sleep. “Okay, Henry,” she whispered, wrapping her fingers loosely around his own. “Why are you running?”
Sorting through a kid’s mind was way, way harder than sorting through an arch’s mind; with no sense of guidance, Emma just skipped haphazardly along the surface, and resisted the urge to go deeper to find what she needed. This was weird, him being so old - Emma was used to starting at the same time as her charge, and worming her way into symbiosis with a newborn baby that barely had any thoughts was much easier than an eight - ten, he was ten even if he was kind of small - year old kid who already had a lot of his walls built up. She found a couple of places to slip down in, a couple of longer thought threads, but balked, feeling invasive.
He wasn’t being hurt, she figured out, although there were a few stray memories of some kids throwing punches and food at school that made Emma’s fists clench protectively as she viewed them from his perspective, and as she carefully expanded her reading outward, waiting for something truly awful to happen, she instead found herself smiling in sympathy for him. Gabriel hadn’t been kidding: this kid had moxie for days and most of his memories had been drawn on like a comic book, everyone in gaudy, colorful outfits with outsized superpowers. He was fun. Emma was looking forward to knowing him.
First thing was first, though. Emma took a deep breath and summoned up the meager amount of Will she had, pressing her cheek firmly to his forehead. You want to go home, Henry.
The bus hit a pothole and Henry jolted awake, his hands flying out to clutch his book to his chest. His eyes were wide with fear; Emma felt guilty for a few seconds, but fear was the easiest way to motivate kids and she didn’t have many more tools at her disposal yet. She didn’t know him well enough and he wasn’t used to listening to her.
He swallowed hard and shifted, shoving his book down into his backpack and shuffling his sneakers on the dirty bus floor. “Um,” he said quietly, inhaling hard and forcing himself not to cry. Emma felt bad enough that she set her hands directly on his shoulders and concentrating on shoring up the courage she knew was there. His spine stiffened at the contact and his jaw tightened. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah, kid?” the bus driver asked over his shoulder, looking up at Henry through the convex mirror. Emma followed his gaze and looked at Henry the way the driver saw him: a pale little kid, riding alone, his hair messy and full of cowlicks. Can’t be any older than your kid, Emma pushed at him, because he was tired and he needed a push.
Henry swallowed hard. Emma smiled and wanted to hug him for being so brave. “I think I made a mistake. I need to go home.”
The bus driver looked at him for a few beats, but Emma knew she didn’t need to do anything; he’d already made up his mind and was just making Henry sweat for a minute more, which as far as Emma was concerned he needed to do. “You stay on this bus instead of transferring at the next stop, kid. I go right back the way we came.”
Say thank you, Emma was thinking, but Henry had already said it, and ‘sir’ besides. He restlessly bounced back and forth between the two seats in his row - Emma moved into the aisle because it wasn’t comfortable feeling him move through her over and over again and she was worried she would accidentally bounce him off of her - until the driver reached into his pocket and poked a pack of crackers over his shoulder.
“Here. Eat something and go back to sleep. I’ll make sure you get back to Storybrooke.” Emma smiled and settled back down in the seat next to him, closing her eyes along with his and letting herself gently push his dreams into happy places.
“Thank you again, sir,” Henry said, adjusting his backpack on his shoulders and squinting up at the driver from the curb. The driver nodded and shut the doors. Henry didn’t move until the bus turned a corner and disappeared from sight. “I am in so much trouble,” he sighed to himself, slowly beginning to meander down the empty street, kicking at a rock.
Emma looked around as she strolled next to him, hands in her pockets. Storybrooke, she thought to herself, shaking her head at how cute it was. City hall, town square, flower shop, hardware store. Like something that had gotten stuck in a 50s sitcom. As a human, Emma had been exclusively a big-city type of girl, and none of her charges had ever lived in a town this small. She hadn’t thought anybody lived in a town this small.
It only took about five minutes for Henry to walk, dragging his feet, from the bus stop downtown all the way to a residential neighborhood and up a gentle hill. At the top of the hill, he paused with his hand on a picket fence, and Emma had time to blink at the size of the house - she’d figured out that he wasn’t poor but since he was a kid, he had absolutely no idea - before the front door opened and Henry stiffened in fear. Emma clapped a hand down onto his shoulder and willed him in place. “Hi, Mom,” he called sheepishly, and Emma felt like he was shored up enough to glance up at the figure he was waving at.
“Holy shit,” Emma breathed, barely even noticing when Henry ripped out of her grip and ran up to accept the tearful hug he was being offered.
The kid’s mom was hot.