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Motherless Children

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Emma enjoys preparing dinner with Mary Margaret. She’s never been much for cooking herself, not when takeout menus and a wide array of cuisine exists in Boston, but Mary Margaret sets Emma to boiling pasta and slicing vegetables while Mary Margaret deals with the more complex task of perfecting her secret florentine-vodka sauce recipe and making sure the french loaf has the perfect amount of garlic butter before it goes into the oven. Emma can’t help herself; she thinks of Henry, of how he thinks Mary Margaret, this wonderfully soft woman practically her own age, is her mother. She wonders if this is what it’s like to have a mother: a warm house, shared cooking, the smell of spices and the feeling of safety.

“The mushrooms are done, can you hand me that pepper?” Emma says. The knife is comfortable in her hand as she holds it to create a dinner, and not for the usual reason she holds onto the handle of a knife. Mary Margaret hands her the pepper, and a clove of garlic too. “We’ll keep away the vampires tonight,” Emma jokes, holding up the garlic.

Mary Margaret laughs. “Whatever else Henry thinks is in Storybrooke, I don’t think we have any of those,” she replies. “Here, taste the sauce and tell me if it’s too salty.” She holds up a wooden spoon.

It isn’t too salty, they decide. Mary Margaret returns to stirring the simmering pan of sauce, adding some herbs.

“Did your mom teach you how to cook?” Emma asks. It is a real question, it’s just conversation. But she knows the story of Snow White, and it’s a test, too.

“No,” answers Mary Margaret, not turning around. “No, my mom died when I was young. I don’t really remember much of my childhood, I guess I blocked some things out. My dad married my stepmom, but she didn’t really know what to do with a stepdaughter, and after Dad got cancer and passed away my stepmom just... I don’t know, we just didn’t get along.”

“Sorry,” says Emma. “I mean, when you talked about adopted kids I wondered if.... if there was some story there.”

“It was a long, long time ago,” says Mary Margaret, dismissively. She turns down the heat on the sauce, and checks to see if the oven is hot enough yet. “Like I said, I don’t really remember it that clearly. I left home when I was about sixteen, stayed with friends, got some scholarships and worked my way through college to get a teaching degree.” She adds a bit of spinach to the sauce, then turns to take the slices of pepper. Emma darts to the stove to keep the pasta from boiling over.

“Well, this smells fantastic. I never really learned to cook.”

“I had a roommate who forced me to in college when she saw all I ate was apples and fast food,” Mary Margaret says with a laugh. “If you want, I could force you into learning, too.”

“Depends,” says Emma. “Would we get to start in on the wine before everything’s done cooking?”

Mary Margaret gives her an impish grin. “That,” she says, “is definitely what we would do.”

In response, Emma grabs the red wine just as Mary Margaret turns down the heat on the sauce.

Maybe this is what family is like, and maybe not, Emma thinks, setting out plates and forks before pouring the pasta into a colander. But whatever it is, it’s nice. She lights a candle, and remembers wishing to not be alone.

“All done,” says Mary Margaret, maybe Snow White, maybe Emma’s mother, pulling the garlic bread from the oven.

Her foster mothers had preferred to make nothing more complicated than frozen pizzas.

-

Emma sits in the diner watching Storeybrooke wake up; no cocoa this morning, she is awake too early and needs at least enough coffee to float a sailboat before she will consider herself truly conscious. The diner isn’t actually open; Ruby let her in out of what was probably pity when she saw Emma making sad faces through the window, so Emma gets to drink the first cup of the day while Ruby has the second. For a while, the sound of chairs being pulled off the tables and their legs hitting the floor is the only sound.

“It’s going to be a long day, I don’t know if the cook is going to show up and I have to run home to check on Gran every hour, so that’s why I’m here so early,” Ruby says, her tone subtly different than the usual affront at what life has dumped on her.

“She’s doing worse?” Emma asks.

“She’s just been a bit sick, so she doesn’t know if she’ll need to go to the hospital or not.” Ruby sounds dismissive, but Emma can detect a note of concern below it.

“Think she’s going to need to?”

“Doubt it.” Ruby shrugs, and starts cleaning the counter. It shouldn’t need to be cleaned before opening, since it would have been cleaned and closing the night before, but Emma doesn’t comment. “But it’s not like she’s got anybody but me to keep an eye on her after her heart attack.”

“There has to be more than just you,” Emma says.

“Well, Mom won’t dig herself out of the hangover until at least after noon, and Tony’s got no reason to give a shit, it’s just his girlfriend’s mother.” She lets out a bitter laugh. “Doesn’t look like I would be the most responsible person around, does it?” she challenges, putting her hand on her hip and standing so it’s impossible not to see how her waitress uniform barely covers her, how her bold red lipstick is impeccable even at this early hour.

Emma shrugs and sips her coffee. “Last week I had a date with a guy who’d fled bail after embezzling money and was cheating on his wife. Looked like a winner who belonged in the expensive restaurant I’d told him to be at. I don’t put a lot of stock in how people look.” She ignored the thought that a small town could also be something other than it appeared; she knew what kind of secrets usually lurked behind the windows of peaceful houses. They weren’t happy-ending fairy tales.

“Yeah, well,” says Ruby, “‘s’why I’m rotting here and not in Boston. With my luck, I’ll be here til I die. Least there’s always partying with my friends in the woods when I need a break.”

Emma is suddenly cold, and wraps her hands tightly around her mug. Seriously, Henry’s daydreams need to stop getting to her like this. “Be careful in those woods, you never know what’s out there.”

Ruby rolls her eyes. “Yeah, you heard my pity story. Doesn’t mean I need a mother, thanks.”

“Sorry,” Emma says. “You’re right, I can’t ever claim to be much of a mother.”

“Family’s overrated sometimes,” Ruby replies, and turns the closed sign to open.

-

“How’s the baby?” Emma looks around the tiny studio apartment Ashley lives in. It would be the type of place, Emma thinks, where the carpet in the bathroom (a travesty in itself) hadn’t been updated since the seventies, and it was a crapshoot if there was black mold growing in the missing grout of the shower liner. It was the type of place that Emma had lived in when she was eighteen and pregnant and contemplating a baby in the vicinity of all the roach spray kept under the kitchen sink. She held out a bag. “I thought I’d stop by and see how you were doing. And see if you could use these.”

The bag held a pack of diapers, a few bottles, some pacifiers, a few other things. Stuff Emma had never needed. She had left the hospital with nothing but a thick file of legal documents.

Ashley holds the baby close. “We’re doing fine,” she said, “and Sean has been helping me out with some of the baby stuff.” But she takes the bag anyway, and puts it on the kitchen counter. “Um, come in. Everything’s a mess. Sorry.”

The floor is strewn with clothes, and the mattress on the floor has a tangle of sheets on it. Next to the bed is a crib, barely fitting into the small space, and it looks like it was found at a yard sale. “Don’t apologize, nobody expects you to be cleaning right after having a baby,” Emma assures her.

“If only that were true,” Ashley complains, sitting at the kitchen table and motioning for Emma to do the same. “Ruby got me some time off at the diner, but a few of the people I clean houses for aren’t very happy.” Her face hardens. “Screw ‘em.”

“That’s the spirit,” Emma says. “Can I hold... Alexandra, right?”

“Yes,” replies Ashley, instantly aglow. “Alexandra.” She holds out the baby, but cautiously, as if she can’t quite believe yet that the deal with Mr. Gold is off, that nobody will take her baby away. Emma looks down at the tiny face, still wrinkly and not all the way filled in with baby fat. The baby shifts in her arms, snuggling deeper to become a compact little armful of warm softness.

She could have had this. She could have cradled her own son, could have raised him by herself in an apartment she could barely afford, could have refused to give in to the fears that she would never be a mother who could give him a chance to live the sort of life where he never had to go hungry or fit all his belongings in a garbage bag. She could have not spent the last ten years telling herself that she had done the right thing in giving him away to someone she didn’t know, someone who wanted a baby so much she would give him the home he deserved.

Emma has her issues with Regina. However, seeing Ashley’s glowing face and the determination behind it that she will do anything it takes to give her daughter a good life, Emma still isn’t sure the choice she made ten years ago was wrong for Henry. And the fact that she is still unsure after ten years is why she is so certain that Ashley, who is not unsure at all, should keep her baby. No matter what owing Mr. Gold a favor might entail.

She hands back Alexandra, and the baby gurgles happily at her mother. “She’s beautiful,” Emma says. “A perfect little princess.”

Looking at the mother and baby, Emma can almost picture them as a fairy tale. It does not matter whether the curse is real or not in this moment: in this crappy apartment, with a used crib and gifted diapers, there is love and happiness. And those are magic, all on their own.

-

That night, Emma awakens in the darkness, and puts her hands over her face at the thought of another sleep-starved night. But then she hears what woke her up: the sound of shuffling and sobbing, from Mary Margaret’s bed.

It’s not her business if Mary Margaret cries, Emma tries to tell herself; yes, they know each other and live together, but Emma’s only known her less than a month... and still, she can’t help herself. She pushes back the blankets, creeps across the loft to Mary Margaret’s side, and pulls the cord on her bedside lamp. Mary Margaret is just sitting up, blinking in the light, and Emma crouches beside her bed.

“Are you okay?” Emma asks, resting a hand on Mary Margaret’s arm.

“I’m-- yeah, I’m fine,” Mary Margaret says, “I just thought I heard a baby crying.”

“I just heard you crying,” says Emma awkwardly. “No babies.”

“I thought for sure there was a baby,” Mary Margaret says distantly. She brushes her fingers across her cheek. “I didn’t know I was crying.”

“Maybe you were dreaming about it,” Emma says, standing up. She is struck by a sudden ten-year-old memory, of waking in the night, sure of hearing a baby as her breasts filled painfully with milk that she could not give, and the tears that followed, tears she didn't expect or want.

“Maybe,” says Mary Margaret, reaching for the lamp cord as Emma makes her way back to her own bed. “It felt important. But I don’t remember it now.”

She turns out the light.

-


Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home
A long, long ways from my home

-Traditional Spiritual