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Along a Crowded Street

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She runs into August at Granny's on a coffee run and it's the first time she's really seen him since that night in the forest and there's a dozen things she wants to say to him -- starting with, what the hell is wrong with you? and ending with, what the hell is wrong with you? -- but the only thing that comes out is, "what the hell kind of a name is August anyway?"

He stares at her.

Across the counter, Ruby is watching them with shameless curiosity. Flushing, Emma grabs her coffee and leaves.

Henry is asleep, pink-cheeked and little boy healthy and everything she gave birth to, a thousand once upon a time's ago.

Henry is in a coma and nobody knows why and Regina is blaming her and she is blaming Regina and the only thing she can hear, most days, is Henry's voice -- Henry as he was, right before he became this still person -- and Henry is saying, over and over and over again, it's poison poison poison poison...

Henry's toxicology screen is negative. (She has the turnover sealed in tupperware and hidden in Mary Margaret's freezer anyway, just in case.)

She catches August visiting Henry in the hospital on one of those nights when she's slipping in to do the same -- Regina's hired private guards to keep her out but, well, Emma is his mother -- and there's this sickening, crunching lurch in her chest when she realises he's reading Henry stories from his book.

Don't, she thinks. Oh, god, please please please don't. I can't --

"You shouldn't be here," she says instead, walking into the room and sitting down in the chair on Henry's right side. His hand, when she takes it between hers, is warm.

August turns a page in the book with his right hand. His left, she realises, is holding Henry's hand and before she can stop herself she thinks, we match.

"Neither should you," he says lightly.

"Whatever," she mutters.

When Emma was six she believed that maybe her foster-mother was the evil step-mother and maybe the other foster children she lived with were her mean step-sisters and that if she was only good enough, if she polite and quiet and clean and not-naughty enough, then maybe her fairy godmother would appear and take her away to where her mother and father were waiting and there she'd be a princess and loved and life would be happy for ever after.

When Emma was twelve she learned the story of how she'd been found, a little boy finding a baby on the side of a road, and she imagined that maybe that little boy was Hansel and maybe she was Gretel and that, somehow, someway, maybe he had made it back to their father only he hadn't taken her with him and, oh, how she had hated him for that.

When Emma was eighteen her hair was longer and blacker and her name was Jack, that night, and his was Daniels, their own private joke, and he was beautiful and mysterious in that dark little booth with his sunglasses still on and his peroxide-blond hair and his leather jacket smelling like earth and rain and his kisses tasting a little like how she always imagined home might and when he disappeared, the next morning, leaving her alone and hung over and not even a hundred percent sure either of them had been real, she thought that maybe she was Rapunzel and maybe he was her prince and maybe if she searched hard enough she would find him again and she might be happy, finally.

When Emma realised she was pregnant and alone and so very, very lost, she stopped believing in maybe's.

They meet in Granny's again.


He is limping today, she notices. "August," she says.

Mary Margaret touches her arm and nods at the clock on the back wall and August steps to the side so they can pass. He smells like the rain that's falling outside.

"I'm sorry," she says. She doesn't know why.

She and Regina have a screaming match in the middle of Main Street, the clock tower above them chiming the hour and for a moment she is sure that she's hearing thirteen strikes of the bell but that's probably just her anger talking because Regina --

She doesn't hit her twice, at least.

In the hospital, August reads Henry the story of Rapunzel.

She leaves before he can see her expression.

When she met Henry's father she was ten weeks free of the foster system and working days and nights in a truckstop that smelled like pumpkins (even though she was pretty sure the cook didn't even know what a vegetable was) and she hadn't intended to follow the busboys to the bar that night but --

When she met Henry's father she was drunk on four jack-and-cokes and the guy sitting in the booth in the corner was staring at her, she knew, and she couldn't stop imagining a thousand different reasons for his stare until finally she just walked over and slid in beside him and demanded to know just what the hell his deal was, watching her like that, and --

When she met Henry's father she was jaded enough to know that he was lying to her when he said he was a senior in college and naïve enough to think that maybe that didn't matter so much and she knew it was probably a bad idea to follow him back to that motel room but his kisses were better than the whiskey, all liquid fire flowing over her skin, and she'd been good for so long, had tried her hardest, done her best, and here she still was, a waitress in a dive, lonely and alone, and he felt and sounded and tasted so good, so true, and --

When she met Henry's father she was not prepared for the aftermath, for the morning after, for the way her memory blurred his appearance but kept his strength and his touch and the rasp of his voice in her silly little heart, and she certainly was not expecting her heart to feel like it was breaking in his absence when she'd never even known his presence until that night, and she definitely was not ready for the ridiculous desperation that led her to eventually break into a college administration center to search through a thousand or more student files until security caught her and the police charged her and she was sent to --

When she met Henry's father.

As she walks into Henry's room her hand presses briefly on August's shoulder, and he doesn't pause in his story-telling but he does tilt his head to the side a little, his cheek resting on her fingers --

one heartbeat. two.

-- before her hand pulls away. She walks around the foot of the bed to her seat.

"So," says Ruby, "you and August."

Emma picks up her coffee and says nothing.

"So," says Mary Margaret, "you and August."

Emma picks up her jacket and says nothing.

"So," says Regina, restraining order in hand.

Emma cuts her off right the hell there.

August stops reading half-way through Snow White and Prince Charming's epic romance and when she looks up, when she starts to ask, what's wrong, he looks away like he's embarrassed or ashamed or something.

"My hand," he says awkwardly. "I can't --"

His hand is resting on the edge of the book, fingers only slightly curved, and she realises then that it's been like that for several minutes now, that it hasn't moved, that -- no.

Slowly, carefully, she lets go of Henry's hand. Stands up. Walks around the bed. Takes the book off August's lap and carries it back to her seat.

Sitting down again, she turns the page and clears her throat. She starts to read.

Later, standing in the dim light near the door that leads to the rest of the hospital and the private guards who will be back from their (bribery funded) extended midnight break any minute now, she hands him back the book. His fingers are flexing again, finally, slow and stiff in the leather gloves he wears.

"Thank you," he says.

She looks up at him and thinks, I know you, I know you, I know you. She doesn't know why.

"When I told them my name," he says then, softly, his words rasping, "they said that it wasn't a real name. That it was the name of puppet, not of a real little boy, and I --" He swallows. "They had a book open in front of them, covered in markings, and they kept tapping this little stick on it like those markings were important somehow so, when they asked me again, well, I just pointed to the largest of the markings at the top of the page and said, that, that is my name." He smiles sadly. "It was the first time saying something untrue didn't even feel like a lie."

She's watching his mouth as he talks, his eyes, the curves of his cheekbones and nose and jaw, so it takes her a moment to move past the truth of what he's saying to understand it.

"A diary," she realises.

"August thirteenth," he says.

Her birthday. In her chest, her heart is doing that lurching thing again.

"Thank you," she manages. "For finding me." On that road, in those woods...

"Emma," he says, and his hand brushes her cheek as she wonders how he got so close all of a sudden. (She should step away, she knows.) He catches a lock of her hair in his fingers and frowns. "Your hair --"

It was black, she thinks without thinking, and yours was blond, but that's too much, too crazy, too like Henry's versions of fairy tales and true love and happily ever after's for all, so she leans forward and up and presses her mouth against his and feels heat flush through her instead, whiskey-warm and familiar and home --

(The night Henry found her, she remembers then, she called him Pinocchio.)

An alarm sounds, off to their side, and the kiss breaks. Turning, they both stare at Henry's monitors which are beeping, at Henry --

-- who is waking, she's sure of it. "Henry...?" Her hands tighten on August's jacket, the leather creasing between her fingers, his arms solid around her, holding her close, holding her steady.

"Mmm," says Henry, sleepy and mumbling, and, "Dahh."

He opens his eyes.

For the first time in ten years, Emma thinks, maybe.

The End