In the middle of the night, Henry wakes up with a heavy idea rushing through him; it moves him up out of bed and out of his room, down the steps to the small cluttered room full of books and bottled dry herbs that his Mom could name without even looking up. Regina has been spending most of her time in here lately, but she isn’t there now so he searches quickly for something to write with.
He finds a small stick of charcoal in the back of a desk drawer and sharpens it into a point by rubbing it hard along the edge of the desk. There is a small bound book full of empty pages on the desk so he pushes off a few papers to make room and sits down, rubbing the charcoal between two unsteady palms.
He was an Author, after all. Surely, he still possessed some magic even if he broke the pen.
But the words don’t shine once he’s written it and nothing brightens or shifts around him. It’s just this room and the smell of dry herbs hanging in jars above him, the chalky feeling of charcoal on his fingers. When he sneaks up to peek into Emma’s room, his heart twists sharply, and then drops. Emma is still awake, staring dully at the ceiling above her, absently tying strings together for a dream catcher she’ll finish by morning.
He goes back to bed feeling heavy and full of dread. When he wakes up, his Mom is already there, and though she doesn’t mention the book he knows she’s seen it by her dark eyes and the stern line of her mouth. He’s embarrassed and ashamed by the end of her speech, but she talks about recovery in a way that makes him think of stairs and steps, all the learning and failing and climbing back up again.
He closes his eyes and hopes – because maybe Emma is just at the bottom of a long spiral staircase. Maybe she’ll climb like Mom did. Maybe it’s all just about the waiting.
He hopes so. He keeps the book just to remember.
Emma tries to steal the dagger the next day. Henry is with his Mom when he hears the news; he watches the way his Mom’s face changes, moving as quickly as rushing water to expressions so new and painful he is suddenly certain that they’ve lost everything.
But then his Mom’s face clears and she leads them all through the motions – through the empty hallways to a quiet, silent place where Emma can lie in peace. Pale and trembling.
Henry sits with her on the bed, doodling in the corner of a page of his small book as his Mom locks herself in the room with books and Emma sleeps. No, she’s not asleep – Emma can’t sleep – but her eyes are closed and so he doesn’t bother to try to hide the pages from her.
He draws an awkward shape of a head and doesn’t bother to fill it in with eyes or a nose, but he adds the flower crown Emma wore that night at the dance, and then her soft wavy hair. The flower crown is hanging in his Mom’s room now, slowly drying in the sun, and Emma’s hair isn’t soft or wavy anymore. But he doesn’t know how to think about either of these things, so he just keeps drawing them.
“Is that supposed to be me?” Emma asks tentatively and Henry nearly jumps at the sound of her voice. It’s too watery, too thin, like the sound of wet, worn leather. It could have been a voice of a total stranger, but when he looks at her, its still Emma. Even pale and trembling, she’s still Emma.
He manages a small smile and shrugs, “Yeah, it’s supposed to be.” When Emma smiles and tries to lift up on her elbows for a better look, he subconsciously shifts the book away from her, suddenly guilty for the soft flowers and curly hair. For leaving out the eyes, for leaving her face blank.
Emma’s face wavers before she smooths it all out again. “Well, you can just show me when it’s finished, I guess.” She lets herself slowly rest back onto her elbows, but her smile tightens into just a thin line.
“Yeah.” He says, and feels the air shift, like a change of current, into a silence that is more numb and scalding than just empty. It swirls around them, heavy and unbearable as he fiddles awkwardly with his stick of charcoal and tries not to notice how small the bed feels now with Emma resting beside him, how her fingers look thin and bony curled into a fist at her side, how closely her skin is beginning to resemble the pale white flatness of the walls around them.
Everything about her seems to be diminishing, becoming sharp, cut down so that only the very bare bones of her remains. He doesn’t know how to look at her and not see all that has changed.
“You can leave if you want, kid.” she says, eventually, her voice wavering. “I don’t feel so good, anyway.”
Henry worries the edge of his thumbnail, glancing at Emma and then away again. He doesn’t know whether he should fight to stay or allow Emma her silence and peace. His Mom would know what to say, but she’s still locked away in the study and it’s just them here, in this quiet, closed off room.
After a breath, he says, “I promised Mom I would stay with you.” Emma’s face closes, becoming flat and empty and he winces, adding just a beat too late, “And I want to stay.”
Emma turns away from him, facing the white blank wall. All he can see is the curve of her jaw and the gentle, uneven movements of her throat as she swallows. “It’s fine.” she whispers. “I know I’m not...” she sighs. “I know I’m not really her, anymore.”
Henry sits silently, grappling frantically for something to say. He knows that he had allowed himself to divide Emma in his heart. He had separated all these new, sharp differences in his mother to make them into something else – something outside of her like a brief, confusing fog that clouds up the window until it can be wiped away and forgotten.
He’s not sure what he believes and only has the vaguest idea of what to say. But he knows what his Mom would do – he’s watched them spar and fight, circling each other like two lions, learning each other’s weaknesses and their strengths, stepping closer and closer every time, knowing every mine in the field between them.
He takes a deep breath, and presses a gentle hand on Emma’s arm and says, “You’ll always be Emma.”
And though Emma remains faced away from him, he can hear the sharp, ragged breath she takes. And though she doesn’t speak again, he knows enough about his mothers’ to know that relief can well up in odd moments like this, even with everything else raw and stripped away. It’s in the faint line of Emma’s mouth, faced away from him with her eyes closed.
Emma starts pacing after a few days. Closed off in a room, she seems even more wild and loose than she had with a heart in her palm and leaves in her hair. In a small closed room, full of old furniture and dust, she fills the space between all four walls with her motion and her restlessness.
Hook and his grandparents visit her every once in a while, if she’s feeling better or doesn’t look too sickly. (But she always looks sick) and so Henry stays with her most of the time. His mom hasn’t visited yet.
He thought maybe Emma hadn’t noticed it yet. After all, she had bigger things to worry about than her friend coming by to check in - to worriedly chart her progress of disintegration as they navigate empty-air and conversation. He thought maybe the other pains - the small disappointments and the loneliness that crowds an ordinary life - would become less important.
But one day, as he sits on her bed and watches his Mom turn again and again from the door to the window and then to the door again, she whirls back to him with an expression so painful it freezes his entire body.
“She’s angry at me, isn’t she?” Her voice cracks like a dry branch, but her face is as firm and hard as it has looked for the last few days. She is pale and frightening with the white sky behind her. The corner of her mouth juts down sharply as she folds her arms around her chest, “That’s why she hasn’t come to see me, isn’t it? She’s mad I tried to take the dagger from her.”
“No.” Henry fills in immediately because he knows it’s what he’s supposed to say. But he has not yet mapped out the full extent of his mother’s feelings for Emma, and what they might have become in these dark, uncharted areas.
Emma doesn’t stop pacing. “She hasn’t even stopped by, not even to check up on me and I’ve been here for days. She still has only ever contacted me through you.” Emma moves back to the door and swiftly sits down in the old wicker chair in the corner; her movements are more fluid now, more deliberate and careless, like something else is moving the joints and threads of her body, something wild. Henry tries to pretend that this does not make her strange to him.
“She’s just been really busy.” He says, but when Emma turns to look at him, he glances down to his book and the pages in his lap, filled with drawings and words that are not Emma’s sharp, narrow face. Gently, he clears his throat. “She wants to help you, Ma. She’s just trying to figure out how.” Emma doesn’t make another sound, and though Henry hadn’t lied, the silence that surrounds them still feels chilling.
That afternoon, he went down into the soft warm air of the kitchen where he knew his Mom would be. She’s wearing a long dark dress with sleeves that shadow her quick movements, a red flicker of color as she cuts bread and cheese, carefully picking out those brown oily olives that Henry hates (and Emma secretly loves).
When his Mom glances up at him, her face warms immediately into a smile. “Oh good, Henry, you’re here.” she wipes off the edges of the plate with a towel, “I was just going to find Snow, but if you have time, dear, could you take this to Emma?”
Henry feels the obliging part of him lift up, wanting to duck beneath the weight of responsibility that seems to always surround his Mom, to help carry it with her, but Emma’s eyes are still there in the back of his head, staring at him with a searching kind of anger that he knows is just another kind of sorrow.
He remains standing in the doorway. “Why can’t you do it?”
His mom’s face blanks with surprise before suspicion makes her go stiff. “Henry, you know I can’t. There - I still have so much more to do, I don’t have time to see Emma.” She frowns and sets the plate down sternly when Henry doesn’t move. “Why would you ask me that?”
His heart beats a little quicker, beating against the iron wire that is his unspoken allegiance with his Mom. But he pushes through it. “I just don’t know why you can’t take it to her yourself. It wouldn’t take very long, right?” He doesn’t let himself look away, making himself solid in the doorway, meeting his Mom’s dark startled eyes. “It’s just dropping off lunch.”
“No, it -” She huffs and brushes back her hair with a flustered irritation. “I shouldn’t even be down here at all, I just wanted to make sure your mother eats something she might actually like.”
“Okay.” Henry shrugs gently and looks away. He doesn’t want to press any harder, but he can imagine Emma in her room alone, waiting, waiting, looking at the door and then looking away. He swallows and says softly, “I just think she’d be much happier if you gave it to her, though.”
Regina’s face remains unwavering but Henry can see her hands on the counter slowly curl into a fist, sliding down to hide from him. “Henry, I don’t know what this is about - but you - you know I’ve been working hard on trying to help your mother. This isn’t - if you think I’m not-”
“It’s not that.” He quickly gives in at the sound of distress in his mother’s voice. “Look, I know you’re doing everything you can. It’s just - she thinks you’re angry at her. That’s all. I just think it’s making her a bit restless.”
“Angry?” His mom’s face wavers. “Why would she-? What could I possibly be angry at her for?”
“For taking the dagger.” He shrugs, feeling assured by the worry that flickers across his Mom’s face, knowing now that they are connected by the same fears, their love for Emma like a thread that moves them all together into the fumbling next steps of what might help save her.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” his Mom sighs and Henry smiles.
“I know.” He gently leans against the door and watches as his Mom picks irritably at the plate she made for Emma. “Will you visit her, at least? If you can’t go now, will you later?”
She sighs, “I don’t know Henry. I’ve got a lot to do.” But when she looks up at him, he can see the worries that circle her tirelessly, like a shark in dark water, winding closer and closer to the heart; he takes the plate and walks up all the stairs to Emma’s room, knowing that it won’t really be long before she finds herself along the same stairs, to the same door, all the way back to Emma.
It doesn’t surprise him when he wakes to the sound of the door opening, the silver light outside sliding in before it is quickly closed out again, the room completely dark. He can hear Emma’s surprised hum, shifting beside him to turn towards the door.
“Is he asleep?” his Mom whispers and Emma nods. The room is too dark to see, but he can hear the quiet shift of the springs as Emma lifts up on her elbows, her hair helping outline her against the dark room. “Shh, don’t move, dear. I’ll come to you.” His mom’s warm, comforting voice approaches with the sound of her bare feet.
In the dark, Henry can only see the faint dark outline of his Mom’s body as she moves among the dark and the stillness of the room, but Emma must have better eyes than he does, because she knows where to reach out to find a hand without mistake. He can hear the quiet hitch of Emma’s breath. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, her voice a soft croak, “I’m sorry I tried to take the dagger, I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough, I’m sorry I couldn’t - ”
“Hush, dear. Hush.”
Henry smiles at the sound of his Mom’s voice, so warm and full. He can hear the dry rustle of movement as the bed creaks and Emma gently lies down again, pushed back by his Mom, a warm steady hand combing through Emma’s white hair as she sits gently on the edge of the bed, the springs shifting quietly.
He means to keep watching, listening, but his Mom doesn’t speak again, instead only humming a soft, soothing melody that ebbs and eddies him back to sleep.
He wakes early enough for the room to still be dark, but the corners of the sky is lightening into a soft grey and helps put into shape the lines of the room. When he looks over, he smiles gently at the sight of his Mom fast asleep on the bed with them, curled around Emma.
Her face is hidden in the crook of Emma’s neck, and though he knows Emma isn’t asleep, her eyes are closed all the same; there is a soft smile pulling on the corner of her mouth as she remains perfectly still, and so Henry reminds himself to stay still as well, to allow them to stay in this moment for a little longer.
And as he waits, he thinks maybe there is something a little softer about Emma’s hair, something a little warmer in her skin, something happier in the curve of her smile. He doesn’t have his book with him, and is too afraid to move to find it, but there is something important about this moment, he thinks. Something about Emma’s expression and the quiet, gentle breathing. Something about all the stairs and steps, the failing and learning and all the climbing it takes to come back to the beginning, to come back for loved ones.
He yawns and stretches, and falls back to sleep.