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Son of a Woodworker

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How is he supposed to be honest to the woman he identifies as, well, his mother... when the truth would hurt so deeply?

August has never had a mother. He doesn't understand what it would be like to have one emotionally, but, he supposes that the technical aspect makes sense. If he looks at the technical sense, then... his mother is the Blue Fairy. She gave him life. And he knows of no greater good power than the blue fairy. Regardless of what he's found in this world, he has never and probably will never meet a power as great as the pure power of fairies, which comes from a place of love for the greater good. He knows if he can just be brave, tell the Blue Fairy... there's magic in Storybrooke, she can bring Emma and Snow White home.

Of course, that's what makes this all the more terrifying. She had been the first to tell his father he couldn't send August through the wardrobe, and his father had done it anyway. His father's last words still echo in his mind as August slips in through the side entrance of the convent at dusk.

But, you told me to be honest, father. You told me not to lie.

Sometimes, you lie to protect the people you love. You must look out for the child.

It is the only way we'll see each other again.

August's hand goes to his wooden features, covering his eyes as he tries to shake away the thoughts of just how deeply he's failed his father. The convent is dark and quiet. He hasn't seen any of the fairies since he's arrived, and frankly, he doesn't even know if they're still here. If there is magic, they might have moved on, found a new place to dwell.

All the questions and concerns running through August's head just make it impossible to concentrate. Part of him wants to turn around, go back to the stables and talk to Henry, but he's already ruled that out. He has to get Emma back. For Henry.

It's why you sent the postcard, too. A small voice reminds him. He'd been in such a state at the time, when he'd blown past the post office to pick up the postcard on his way out of town, August hadn't really been sure what he'd done. Had he sent the postcard? He's still trying to figure out how he found that bird…

There'd been a very selfish part of him, a part of him he knows just all too well, that told him not to send it. Neal doesn't deserve Emma. No one deserves her. Especially not me. But she deserves a happy ending. If he's it…

August isn't sure why his mind keeps drifting back over a decade while he sticks close to the shadows, looking for the Mother Superior's office. After years of getting caught up in just trying to make ends meet, when August thought he was ready, he'd gone to find her. Why he thought at 15 she would have been ready for what he had to say, August couldn't possibly recall now. He knows now that given the fervent denial she had of everything she'd seen, things would have been no different whether she was 15 or 17 or 21 or 25. Emma's stubborn. She had needed something threatened that mattered far more than any boyfriend or screwed up failed guardian angel.

Some angel. He's doing an awesome job. What kind of angel disappears like he does, gets caught up in every stupid vice that comes along? Who the hell did he even think he was, calling himself that? Well, you know what they say. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Wow. That's August in a nutshell. Every time he tries to do the right thing, something will come along to distract him. You realize this is why you needed a cricket as your freakin' conscience, right?

August is so distracted he misses the sound of approaching footsteps behind him until they're right there.

"Can I help you?" It's her.

August swallows, and suddenly every part of his body wants to shake and shiver until there's nothing left. He'd thought explaining things to his father would be different enough, but... this is the Blue Fairy. She'd given him three impossible words to live up to. And in this world with pleasures unlike anything the world has ever seen, it is so easy to lose track of time. And August knows he's fundamentally built that way. Easy to lose track of time. Easy to distract. You're not anyone's Protector, regardless of how you try to claim that title now.

"Is... Mister Booth, is that you?" So, she still remembers the identity he's provided her all this time. Maybe there's a chance. She hasn't called him - "Pinocchio..." Oh.

August swallows again, but it's harder than it was before. So, instead he tries to collect his thoughts, as scattered as they are. He has been telling himself ever since he left the stables that he is willing to do whatever it takes to save Emma and Snow, to bring their family back together. He knows there's a part of him wanting it because he's selfish. He wants to see his father again and he can't do it until he's... better. But that's not really why he wants it. He doesn't want Henry to have to grow up without his mother. Not after he's found her.

"Pinocchio, please look at me?" She doesn't sound angry. She sounds... worried? Comforting?

August lets out a breathless, mirthless chuckle. "I'm not so sure that's the best idea." He mutters, and his control is already starting to break. He doesn't have the anonymity he's been able to use to his advantage for the last year. He doesn't have the ability to just say he wants to be an apprentice.

"Please?" It's so quiet, it's just that one word. August doesn't know how to say no to it. He's never been taught. He was never built to have a mother; he doesn't know what that pull on his heart really means.

If August is crying, he doesn't know. He hasn't been wooden in so long that it's like rediscovering his body all over again. He knows he feels like it. The shame, the weight of everything he's done is threatening to swallow him.

Yet, his feet move, and he slowly pivots to face her. His face, he's sure, is covered in darkness as the last of the twilight fades in the windows of the hallway.

But, that doesn't faze her. Even in the conservative, oh-so-different garb she's worn for 28 years, it still looks just like her. Those eyes, that smile. It's the Blue Fairy. And he's just the stupid boy who took her gift and completely squandered it. "Look at you..." She takes a step closer, and August turns his head, trying to keep it together.

"Yeah, that's the problem." He says in a rush of air, chuckling a little. "As you can tell, I might've, um... might've failed your last exam there."

The disappointment is evident in her voice the moment she speaks, and August can feel his heart shredding. And she's not even his father. He can't imagine how this would be with his father. "This world has many temptations, and you gave in, but, I'm sure you tried, Pinocchio – "

"Please, don't." August's voice is tight, controlled. He's trying so hard to stay in one piece, to remind himself why he's really here. "I'm not that boy anymore." I'm worse.

"No, that's the point. You are." Even though August tries to move away again, it's too late, and she has his hand in her grasp, pulling the sleeve of his jacket up enough that she can see the polished wood. "I'm so sorry that Geppetto sent you here. You were never meant to carry that burden. No one could have expected that you..." She trails off, but it's obvious what she wants to say. No one can expect the pathological jackass to succeed at protecting The Savior.

"You don't understand. I didn't... I could've tried harder."

"But, you tried, that's part of being human." Right. He tried. He screws up her life once or twice to scare her straight. And then he loses track of time. "You left her when you were a little boy, no one could fault you."

A little boy. Right.

August slips the cash into his jacket pocket, then turns back to Neal. "I'll send you a postcard."

Even though Neal is satisfied with the answer, August isn't sure he plans to keep that promise or not. What does he care? This guy's been leading Emma down a path of nothing but thievery and conning. Not exactly befitting of the Savior.

Even as Neal leaves the car, and August drives it back down to Portland, where he can leave it in the storage unit he's been given, August knows that Emma doesn't need the ill-gotten gains from the theft of the watches. He's not perfect. Hell, he doesn't even  know  Emma, but he does know that she has a very set path in life, and being in lust with some thief would mean everyone who's been cursed will stay that way forever. His father.  Her parents.

August feels remorse for the way he's handled it even as he drops the car off and checks his phone. If he tries to get close to her after prison, maybe it'll work out. But, honestly? August doesn't know how he's supposed to talk to her.

His bookie is calling. August has been avoiding him for two years now, ever since he's gotten his act together to find Emma. He still owes 20 grand on his gambling debts from his decidedly more wayward youth.

Neal gave him 20 grand. And Emma shouldn't have the money in the first place.

And six months later, in some bar in Phuket, stinking of booze and suntan lotion, August is sandwiched between two nameless, curvaceous girls while he plays a hand of poker. His bookie needs interest. It's 40 grand now, not 20.

If he can just win this hand, he'll win it all back. And by now, what, Emma should be out of jail. He'll go touch base with her, try to prepare her for… hang on, is that a Jack of Diamonds? He needs that.

If he can just win this hand, he'll win it all back.

But… of course, he never does.

"My father gave me a job to do, and I screwed it up." August's voice is raw and scratchy as he speaks, but he's not sure if it's from anger, sadness, or fear. "I'm sorry. I was supposed to be there for her. I get that now."

The Blue Fairy smiles again, but it fades when August wrenches his arm free. He doesn't want to be touched. Or coddled. Or comforted. Their forgiveness means nothing to him if he can't redeem himself for Emma. It's not their lives he screwed up, it's hers.

Goddammit, why can't he stop thinking about Phuket?

"Look, I'm not here about me, okay?" That sounds bizarre coming out of his mouth, because he knows it's not a normal thing for him to say. Well, to say it and mean it. "I'm alive, that means there's magic. Here. In Storybrooke."

"Pinocchio – "

"August. "

"August." The Blue Fairy holds her hands up to stop him before he goes on a tear. "Yes, there is magic in Storybrooke – "

"Then get Emma and Snow White back here. You can do it, I know you can. The fairies have the most powerful magic our world has seen." August doesn't realize how fervently he's pleading until he grabs her hands, pulling them close. "Look, I'm me. I have a body, I'm alive, I should be dead. If that can happen, then getting them back from wherever they've been sent should be easy."

There's silence as August waits, like the hopeful, terrified, messed up boy he really is deep down.

The hope fades from his features as the Blue Fairy simply shakes her head. "It's not, August. I am so sorry."

At first, he doesn't believe what he hears. He's living, breathing proof of magic in this world. "What?"

"While Emma and Snow White may be in the Enchanted Forest, we have no way of getting them back." The Fairy's words are measured, the tone reminds him all too well of the line she sold Snow and Charming when he was a boy, about how the wardrobe could handle only one. Is she lying to him? "We Fairies still don't have fairy dust. Our magic comes from fairy dust and our wands. Without one or the other, we cannot return either of them."

August blinks, and then takes a step back. He needs to think, needs to breathe. "Unbelievable…" No fairy magic. He never even considered it, and now? He doesn't have a plan. This can't be the only option. He has to fix this. "So, then how am I alive? I should be wooden. If you knew the things I'd done – "

"Rumplestiltskin brought magic to this world," The Fairy waves his comment off. Like a mother would, but he just doesn't know to respond to that. "But it's unpredictable. It doesn't work the way it should."

"Rumplestiltskin." August breathes. The gravity of the situation settles over him. He's going to have to go to him. Just like that, August is thinking like his old self. If he has to go to the bad guy, fine, sure, as long as it saves Emma, gets her back here. "That's it." August starts to walk past her, and the Blue Fairy follows him. He can hear her quick steps behind him.

"Wait, Pinocchio, don't! You don't know what he'd ask of you, you don't even know if he wants to do it. Or if he can."

August sighs, turning to look at the Blue Fairy, putting his hands on her shoulders, ignoring their wooden creak as his wrists move. "I took advantage of him once. I owe him. If he can do this for me, I'll pay whatever price he asks."

"Don't, August. You are not prepared for that."

August smiles a little, swallowing and pulling away. She doesn't understand. How could she? She's never really been human. She's never had to live with the things he has. "Believe me, the price would be worth it. Just promise me. If you see my father, you never saw me." August begins to backpedal, still facing the Fairy, giving her a firm point.

"You never saw me."

Those good intentions might very well lead him to hell. But, at least he can make Emma happy. He tries not to think about how much losing her could hurt, tries not to think about how much time he wasted without ever truly realizing how important she would be to him.

He made this bed. He has to lay in it.

He's just built that way.

Chapter Text

She made this bed. She has to lay in it.

Ten hours. Emma gave Hook ten hours, and if he knows what's good for him, he won't try to follow them. But, Emma is pretty sure tying him up will guarantee he comes after them.

"Bad form," right? That's what he would say. Oh, well. Emma's made enemies before. At least her skin isn't crawling anymore.

"If we keep heading West, there is a clearing we can make camp at long enough to get some sleep in." Emma wants to keep moving, but as light has faded, she knows arguing with Snow is definitely going to require more energy than she has. And some serious toothpaste. She's pretty sure her mouth still tastes like giant hand.

Emma stays silent as they travel West, and as the twilight finally fades, they've made camp, a fire crackling as the darkness threatens to swallow all of them.

"You should get some sleep." Mulan's voice as she speaks quietly to Aurora catches Emma's attention as she throws a blanket down for herself. Emma's trying not to watch, but it can be difficult not to. There's something between the two of them that Emma can't quite identify. It's not the way Aurora reacts, though, it's in the way Mulan acts. Distant, but at the same time, concerned. Involved.

Emma finds herself reminded of August. The fact he'd helped her prove Regina framed Mary Margaret and...

Emma clears her throat, pushing the emotional response away. She's good at keeping things locked in, no reason to change now.

The camp is set. Mulan settles beside Aurora, as if waiting for the next threat, while Snow builds the fire. Emma feels useless. What else is new?

Sighing, she gets up and looks around aimlessly. "I'm gonna take a walk."

Snow looks up at her, and Emma immediately realizes there isn't exactly going to be an opportunity for peace and quiet. "Hook could be coming. You shouldn't be alone."

Emma opens her mouth, but she knows her expression is as lost as she feels. She really wants to just be alone, she's trying very hard to just process everything that's happened the last few days.

"I will walk with you." Mulan's voice isn't the one Emma's expecting. She glances up at the warrior woman as she leaves the solace of the campfire, walking towards her. "No one should have to be alone. Not in this darkness."

Something about the way she says that sends a chill down Emma's spine, and she simply nods, unaware that her face has fallen considerably. Maybe she's needed the silence and alone time more than she realizes.

Snow doesn't push it. She takes a seat beside Aurora near the fire, and Emma nods.

It's much easier to walk away from Snow this time, but that might be because Mulan is right behind her, a quiet force of nature while they walk.

Emma doesn't really keep track of her footsteps, but she does recognize when the campfire is no longer crackling in the back of her mind, and she glances back at Mulan. "You didn't actually have to follow me, you know."

The warrior has fascinated Emma ever since she got here, but this is the first time she's really talked with her. Alone. "I know. But, Aurora looks up to Snow White, and if she believes we should stay together, I will respect that." Mulan's hand has never left the hilt of her sword, a move that should freak Emma out, but it doesn't. Then again. She killed a dragon a few weeks ago. Life is all sorts of weird right now.

"What's the deal with you and Aurora anyway?" Emma's candor even catches her off-guard, and she tries to follow it up with a smirk, crossing her arms across her chest. "I mean… you just… you look after her. And I know you were friends with that guy – "

"I cared a great deal for Philip." Mulan cuts Emma off with a tongue as sharp as her sword, and Emma's eyebrows rise in surprise. Mulan apparently notices this and Emma sees a new expression, a softer one, flicker across her features. "I don't know that you would understand."

"Try me." May as well. Who else is she going to make friends with around here? Emma backs up against a tree and slides down to the ground, trying to ignore how much this forest continues to look just like that clearing August took her to –

"I vowed to help Philip find his love. Aurora." At first, the words are stiff and faltering, like a car that hasn't turned over in some time. "We spent a long time journeying together. The quest was difficult, it was harrowing, and… " Mulan's gaze drops to the ground. "The experience brought us closer together."

"You fell in love with him." Emma replies softly, even though she hates that she's mentioning it.

Mulan's silence is the only answer Emma needs.

She frowns. "But, why? Why help him get Aurora? It would mean losing him."

Mulan turns to look at Emma, examining the blonde's features. In the silence, it's just the two of them. No secrets, no prying eyes or overly curious ears. "When you love someone, you are willing to put aside your own feelings if it means their happiness. That is what a warrior does. I held a duty to Philip. He cared for Aurora, therefore…" Mulan looks away from Emma, back the way they came. "I shall care for her."

"You'll be doing that a long time." Emma mutters back, not sure why those words have struck such a chord with her.

Mulan's next response is softer, but almost… happy? "It is the debt I owe. I can never repay Philip with his life, therefore, I can repay him in protecting hers. That is what we do for the ones we love."

Emma's shocked. She's been selfish for so long, worrying about the next move, the next con, the next case, caring about Henry has been the only thing she can accept. The notion of taking on the welfare of another simply because of some misplaced sense of duty sounds so childish¸so fairytale, so

"So much like August…" The words barely creep past Emma's lips, but once they're gone…. They're out there. Mulan turns to face Emma, talking another few steps closer. Her body language has changed as well.

"August. Your mother… she mentioned him before." There's a creak of leather and metal and Mulan takes a seat beside Emma. "What is like August?"

Emma clears her throat, glancing up at Mulan. The pieces have begun to click into place, her mind is working in a way she's never considered it before. The reason why August was so resolved towards the end, the way he didn't seem disappointed with her for only believing when he was dying.

I failed…

It doesn't matter, you don't believe…

I lied to protect you.

You can see it now, can't you?

"Emma?" Mulan's voice breaks her out of her reverie, and she blinks.

"Um… August, uh… August seemed to have this, um, this misguided notion that he needed to…" Emma doesn't really know how to put it in words. She hasn't had to before. She's been fending Snow off with lies of omission. Something August seems to have instilled in her now, but it's more out of respect for his memory. She can't afford her parents to hate Geppetto. It would be too much. "Protect me. Like… like a duty. He even went so far as to try everything he could to convince me of the truth. When I didn't see it, he…" Emma shrugs before letting her hands rest on her knees. "He got sick. Too sick. And I didn't realize what he was trying to do for me until it was too late. And now I think he's… dead…" Emma chuckles, but for some reason, she can't see clearly. That swell of emotion she keeps having to fight back against, like Monstro and the raft – oh, God, don't think about him again – and she's losing. "I said so many things to him that I didn't mean, simply because I was angry. Because I thought he was crazy. And I should've done more. I should've helped him the moment the curse had broken. Instead, I just… I got caught up. In everything else." Emma swallows. "He shouldn't have had to die."

Mulan takes a deep breath, and the immediate space between them cools, as if her calm has filtered over to Emma already. "The greatest sacrifice a warrior can make for someone they love is their life. There is no greater gift, there is no greater tool. If he felt he needed to protect you, then that is the choice he made. He accepted it. You should respect it." Mulan's gaze has gone cloudy, she's clearly not talking about August. "There is nothing to be gained in mourning that cannot be gained in remembrance and a desire to make good on the promises you could not before. No matter what mistakes either of you have made, all you can do is live your life with honor and duty. Like they did."

Everything has gone silent again.

Emma sniffs and stands, clearing her throat. She wipes her face again, to clear her mind, and nods some. "Let's head back to camp."

Mulan looks as though she wishes she could say more, but instead, she simply nods and stands, following after her.

"Did I overstep?" Mulan's question makes Emma pause, and she glances back.

"What? No. No, I just…" The blonde smiles, shaking her head. "I need to get home. There's so much to worry about and I just can't process it all."

"I think I may have a solution to that. I think I might have a plan, to help us change our path. I have contacts in the coming town, it's possible someone may have heard or seen from Hook or Cora." Mulan is back to business again. It's comforting, so Emma doesn't fight it either. "When we get back to camp, we can tell Snow White, formulate a plan…" Mulan trails off as the two of them round the corner.

Aurora is asleep by the fire.

But where the hell is Snow White?

"Oh, you have to be kidding me…" Emma breathes, exasperation and worry permeating every bit of her body. Cold fear suddenly settles, and she swallows. "I'll find her, stay with Aurora."

Ten minutes later, Emma nearly falls down an embankment trying to get to her mother, who is curled up at the base of a tree, staring at the moon.

Emma stomps down the worry and fear there, too. Living her life with honor and duty, right? Wasn't that how Mulan put it?

First thing's first, then.

Protect her mother.

 

Chapter Text

Protect his father.

Ultimately, it is that thought that stops August from going to see Rumplestiltskin right after he leaves the Blue Fairy. Too much has happened, and the resurgence of guilt from his actions in Phuket remind August that he's damaged, wooden, but most of all - doesn't have anything to offer the man who loves to make deals.

He needs a plan. He needs to regroup. While he's willing to pay a price, he still needs to have a clue what it is. Or, at the least, what he does have to offer that would help Gold get Emma and Snow White back home. If that price involves his father in any way… then August can't. He just can't. Not until he has something to offer.

August's shame drives him from the Convent back to the woods, then out towards the mines. As the light fades, he can hear the sounds of metal on rock in the faint distance. The mines. That must be the dwarves. With everyone's memories back... the dwarves must be working again. On something to find Snow and Emma?

August can only hope. He's trying with that, but it's difficult. No, it's suffocating right now. For a second, he finds himself wanting to give up again. He's alone, he's not even a real man anymore, and worst of all, he can't even do something functional to help Emma.

Eventually, he has to stop walking as he catches sight of the well, not sure if it's exhaustion or what might be hunger. As he stiffly makes his way over to the well, he slides down to the ground and lays back against one of the great tree's mighty roots, those wooden-lidded eyes of his focus on the stars above.

August instantly relaxes.

He's not sure how long he crashes out there again, but he finds himself staring at the stars again. They're not the stars he likes. He prefers the summer stars. There's the tail end of Scorpius before it disappears, there's Hercules and Ursa Minor and Major, the bears. And then there's Cygnus...

The Swan.

August's heart clenches painfully, the wooden body he's slowly been relearning unable to dull the heartsickness he's feeling.

He's supposed to protect her. That's all he's ever been tasked to do, and at every turn, he has screwed up. So much of his time in Phuket is a blur, so he just knows his nights dreaming of Emma in the dark haze of junk and alcohol are all he deserves to remember. He should suffer the rest of his life for not doing what he was supposed to do in the first place.

That thought alone catches him off-guard.

When August had first arrived in Storybrooke, he knew how selfish his actions were. Fear. Shame. Embarrassment. Guilt. The laundry list of emotions that had brought him to the town could go on for days.

August's eyes blur as he feels sleep taking him over for the night. He doesn't want to sleep. He hates thinking about Phuket, about the years he wasted. Why didn't he go back for her sooner?

He keeps wondering if he'd come back sooner, if he hadn't given up, maybe she wouldn't be out there right now, trying to get back to her family. He hopes. No, he knows. He'd know if she was gone.

Funny thing is, even after all this time, even August can't remember why he didn't come back for her sooner…

A whole year has passed. It should be enough time. Emma will be out of the system, and August is quite happy with the fat wad of cash in his pocket. As long as he picks up a flight out of Phuket now, it shouldn't take him more than a few days to find out where she's gone.

Whistling something that he vaguely remembers seeing as a child, something about strings not holding him down, August rounds the corner and winks to the ladies he's come to enjoy. He feels great. High on life, even. The boy who loves temptation has spent the last year partying and living it up.

Swooping over to plant kisses and to get a feel for what he'll be missing, August really hates to leave. He doesn't really think he'll be gone anyway. He figures if he can just make sure Emma's set up somewhere safe, he can head back here and try his luck again, since it's been on his side.

Time always seems to blur in Phuket.  Especially  at this particular location in Patong. The nightlife is spectacular. After another dalliance with the ladies and a few more platitudes about how he'll never forget them, he heads down the street, intending to pick up transportation down to the airport. Just needs to get away for a little while. It's getting to him. He's even laid off the blow for the last couple of months. The booze, he tapered off a week or two ago. He wants a clear head, like he had when he'd had to deal with Cassady to begin with.

"You going somewhere, Booth?"

The voice makes August pause, grinning roguishly as two burly men step out in front of them. One of them, the American, he knows all too well. The other one, Thai, he remembers from his last long run at the Blackjack table. "Johnny, Mao, haven't seen you guys in a while." August stuffs his hands into his pockets, at ease with the ruffians he knows so well. "But, yeah, catching a flight back to the States, thought maybe a little layover in Bangkok, just have some business to attend to."

John clicks his teeth, stepping closer. "We're gonna miss you, buddy. Didn't think you would be heading out any time soon."

"We have a good thing here." Mao's English is flawless, but somehow, he always sounds like he's about to deliver a punch. August shrugs it off, grinning wider.

"Yeah, well, I'm not leaving forever. There's just this girl I have to situate – "

"You have girls here." Mao sounds angry. August's brow furrows, and an unusual weight settles in his stomach.

"Yeah, I know, it's not like that." August chuckles, trying to keep cool even though John and Mao have walked closer to him, cutting his path off ahead. "Guys, call me crazy, but I might be getting the impression you don't want me to leave."

"Hạwhnā doesn't have that in the cards. You were supposed to bring back the winnings from your last game, scalp the marks." The Ringleader's angry? Not good. Mao crosses his arms over his chest, and August glances around him, scoping out an escape route. 

"Guys, c'mon, I'll be back, I'll do my thing, but look, I have other things to do – " 

"Sorry, Booth." John steps closer again. "But, no one leaves the Island. Not when they work for Hạwhnā." 

August turns to bolt, but in the time John and Mao have been distracting him, it's too late. Several apes that identify as the Ringleader's guards are behind him. August tries to run, but one of them grabs him, and pain blossoms across his solar plexus as the wind is knocked right out of him. He goes slack as he recovers, now held up, arms pinned in some bodybuilder's vice lock. 

Panic fills his senses. This isn't how it's supposed to go. He's supposed to get back to Emma, his father's depending on him, hell, at this point, it's not like Emma has anyone either. He's supposed to help her, he was gonna go  do that

"Hạwhnā says you work for him." Mao smirks, a look that shows August just how badly he'd thrown his chips in with these people. "You are his 'jackass' now." 

August swallows, his throat goes dry. He thrashes, trying to free himself. "Look, guys, I was gonna come back – " 

"No, Booth. You don't leave." John walks over to the chain link fence at the alley, fishing through some trash until he pulls free a heavy, filthy pipe. "We're gonna make sure of that." John stalks closer. "Hold his legs."

The pipe comes down, and August braces himself -

He wakes with a start in the pre-dawn hours, heart racing, gasping for air in a purely terror-driven reaction. He blinks stupidly as he sits up, but the images are already fading. He just remembers the worst pain of his life and… fear… the dream's gone.

August feels his stomach turn, and if he had bothered to eat anything since he woke up moonlighting as a bookcase , maybe he would have something to puke up. Instead, he just curls up and tries to relax.

It takes him the better part of an hour to calm down from a numbing fear he can't even place. He hasn't had dreams like that since he made it to Storybrooke and met Emma. He can't even remember what the dreams are, but he knows he's not had night terrors like that. Then again, maybe he's been too focused on the pain of slowly turning back into a puppet to notice.

Thanks to the nightmare, now he's even more buried in self-pity, even if he's not sure why. He sighs, looking back up at the sky, searching the constellations he loves the most. But, they're not there. They've faded, and it's the winter, so there simply aren't the ones he knows so well. There is no Cygnus to give him hope. The very myth of Cygnus is of men who were disgraced in life, only to receive pity from the gods and be placed as swans in the sky. Seems hopeful. It's gotten August through many summer nights as an adult, on top of the additional reminder of Emma.

That hits him like a ton of bricks.

For the first time since he's really woken up, since he's been on the move, trying to help get Emma and Snow back, he realizes…

What would Emma think if she saw him now?

August feels an itch on the inside of his elbow he hasn't felt in a year. The realization hits him with horror. He's jonesing.

Emma would hate him. What respect would be left if the man who is supposed to protect her is walking proof of how badly he's failed?

August isn't sure he can go much lower than this before he feels that urge to just give in, give up creeping back in. He's been telling himself he won't do that, but all the solitude, the hiding… it's starting to take its toll. Before he had a drink, he had a needle, he had something

Something rushes past him into the clearing, and August scrambles back clumsily, feeling just like that wooden boy in Geppetto's woodshop as he took his first ungainly steps.

A great black beast stands before him, chuffing and huffing, looking around the clearing. What it's looking for, August hasn't a clue. It does occur to him that while he might be kindling now, he doesn't doubt that a wolf like that could bite him. And it could hurt.

The wolf whines slightly, then begins to sniff around the clearing idly, before howling unhappily at the sinking moon. As the howl fades, August watches in awe as the wolf scrambles from one end of the clearing, then back the other way, like a dog searching for a master. Or… maybe not a master, but… family?

August's eyes narrow. If he was human, his expression would have been even more blatantly sympathetic, but it hurts just the same. There is only one person he ever knew to be a wolf. He'd spent a few short months watching that red cloak flutter behind her.

"Ruby…" He whispers as the wolf turns to look at him. It's so weird how normal that name feels now. He can't actually think ot just call her Red anymore.

The wolf pads closer, looking him over cautiously, but won't get within arm's reach.

Slowly, August shifts so he's in a position to kneel, and he slowly reaches out a wooden hand in a gesture of welcome. "Ruby, I'm not gonna hurt you. It's okay…"

Cautiously, the wolf steps forward, sniffing at his hand. August forces himself not to flinch, he doesn't want to scare her. If it is her. He hopes it's her. He could use a friend, and she's one of the few ones he has had the pleasure of speaking to.

"Ruby… it's me, it's August…" He doesn't know what's going on, why she's a wolf, but he hopes she's known it was coming and can control it. If that means she finds out about him, that's fine.

Ruby nuzzles his hand, whining in a way that he can only describe as comforting. He smiles, a little laugh escaping his mouth as she nuzzles his hand a bit more urgently, chuffing and growling like a playful puppy.

"Okay, so I guess I owe you and Granny an apology for disappearing, I'm sorry…"

The moon sinks beneath the horizon as the first real strands of sunlight filter through the trees.

Ruby suddenly pulls back, the wolf huffing and growling again.

"Ruby, no, wait – "

She's gone through the woods again. August tries to stand up so he can go after her, but… damn his whole body, he's made of wood. What's he gonna do?

Leaning against the well, August tiredly watches where Ruby's disappeared off to, trying to replay the last few moments in his head. What she was doing out there… the fact that she recognized him…

She was looking for family. Her family is Granny. And Snow.

Familiar faces. She calmed the moment she saw him. She could tell he was a safe place.

A safe place…

August's eyes widen. Wait a second…

Like a wardrobe.

This time, August doesn't let anything stop him from making his way to Gold's shop.

August does have to duck behind a wall as he hears the Prince on a tear, but he can't make out what it is. Granny's with him, though, so he's in good hands.

August pauses at the entrance to Gold's shop. Up until now, he's been demoralizing himself and thinking of all these reasons why he can't do this, why he's not ready.

Not this time. Not again.

By the time he comes to, his legs are in casts and his head's spinning. He feels a sharp stab in his arm, but August is too weak to move.

"That oughta keep him here a while…" Is that John?

"The heroin or the broken bones?" Mao, that sonuvabitch…

"Oh, both. But, I'm guessing the heroin will be his weapon of choice."

That's the thing about Pleasure Island. Turns you into a jackass.

August steps inside and the bell rings. He can hear Rumplestiltskin's voice from behind the counter even before he looks at him. "Ahhh, if it isn't August. W. Booth. Might want to lock that door behind you and flip the sign, dearie. You never know who can walk in."

Chapter Text

You never know who will walk in.

"His hat. My boy, he would never go anywhere without his hat."

Every conversation starts this way. Archie… Jiminy… he's come to expect it.

Every morning, it's always the same. The old man once known as Marco, who knew only the loss of children he never had, gets up and works in his garage, then heads to the office occupied by his oldest friend and sometimes oldest enemy.

Geppetto is sitting on the same spot on Jiminy's couch he always does, clutching the one artifact that seems to survive even through the darkest of times. A little red cap slides between his fingers as he keeps turning the one thing he has of his boy, staring at it idly. He doesn't sleep except when his body forces him to.

Some days, that is all he ever says. He walks in, takes his seat, starts with Jiminy: "His hat" and the rest of the hour is spent in silence as the carpenter runs his fingers lovingly along the brim of the little red cap, so battered, but yet still in such good condition. The little feather tickles Geppetto's calloused fingers, and he finds himself swallowing back a lump in his throat, reminded of how it would feel to have his boy hug him, that feather brushing his cheek.

The silent days are the worst. He wants to speak, but he can think of nothing. At first, the thoughts are slow, a trickle of worry here, a thought of elation for his son's survival there. Then, they begin to come faster, in greater frequency. Where is he? Is he safe? Is he eating and taking care of himself?

The thoughts keep turning through Geppetto's mind as he keeps hold of that cap, slumped in the corner of the couch. How did he keep up with the family trade? Why did he not try to see him sooner?

What kind of man has he become?

And then the reminder sets in. His apprentice. August. The man he had barely begun to know, who had seemed so stiff and weak at times, looking at Marco with such… adoration.

Henry's words whispered in his ear, like so many secrets from his dear Pinocchio in the past.

August is Pinocchio.

August is his precious, dear boy.

And he is gone. He has left and Geppetto has no idea where. All he has left is this cap… This one precious thing that has travelled with his boyeverywhere in the old world and this new one.

Why would he leave it now? Perhaps he hates him now. Perhaps he is so angry with him for leaving him here alone, he wants to forget. Like every day that Geppetto sits in the office of his oldest friend, he refuses to see the hope that led him to seek out a son in this marionette in the first place.

All he knows is his boy left his hat. He needs to get it back to him somehow.

I don't think I became the man he wanted me to be.

This isn't the first time, and it certainly won't be the last, but the memories have overwhelmed the man. The tears spill over his cheeks at the loss, the realization that he has disappointed his son, leaving him in this horrible, terrible world all alone, entrusting him with something he couldn't possibly do.

Geppetto clutches the cap tighter, threatening to crush it in his fingers as his tears turn to honest sobs. It seems today will be one of those days where he lets the loss of his son, the hopelessness of the situation tear him apart, with no end in sight.

While his boy hasn't been gone for long, it has been 28 years since Geppetto has held his boy. 28 years since he told his boy to be strong, to protect Emma.

And his boy has had 28 years to take all of that responsibility, the weight of guilt and the fate of the land on his shoulders.

It's too much. It's always too much. This father knows he will never be able to apologize to his son. He never truly expected him to succeed. It had been a foolish, foolish dream of a scared old man.

The sobs wrack his body harder as he lets himself sink into that place where his son never comes home, where he cannot find him, and he's left alone with his own choices. There is no way to describe the physical anguish that takes hold of him in these moments. Everything about this world seems to make pain even more raw than what he knows to be true. His chest clenches painfully, and he finds himself brought right back to the brink of his first terrifying experience without his son.

The night has fallen. Where is Pinocchio? Where is Jiminy? That cricket is supposed to be watching his son, where has the boy gone?

Geppetto takes the walk to the village school at twice the pace he normally does, ignoring the fact that his chest burns. A new emotion has taken root there. Worry, panic, the sense of terror only a father can have for his son's welfare.

It is at the sight of one of the village boys, holding a torch as he walks from the butcher closing up shop for the night, that Geppetto feels relief. Perhaps he has seen his boy.

"Have you seen my boy? Have you seen Pinocchio?" The child hasn't, and before Geppetto realizes it, he has begun to ask relentlessly with every child he has seen. That weight, that new fear, has continued to grow and swell. He simply doesn't know what to do with it, even as he tries to tell himself all will be fine. He has barely had his son for a week, and suddenly, he is gone? He was to go to school with the other boys.

No one has seen his boy.

Before he knows it, Geppetto is bolting through the village, calling for his boy. With each shout, the desperation becomes clearer. As he reaches the edge of the village, spent, winded, and his vision clouded with tears, Geppetto is lost.

He sinks to his knees, crying his boy's name.

But he hasn't come home.

Geppetto feels the weight of his friend's hand on his arm, and the old, broken man looks up, surprised from his unabashed bawling.

Unlike the other days, though, Jiminy is not remaining a silent counterpart in front of the carpenter, waiting for resolution that will not come until father and son are reunited.

"Geppetto. He is going to come back home." The voice is still the one he remembers on his shoulder, but there are still no words to help assuage Geppetto's sorrow.

"When?" He whispers, his eyes searching his old friend's human face, a face he has spent 28 years with, but at once, hasn't seen since he was a child. "How could I be such a fool, Jiminy?" Geppetto sits up. "I should have built the wardrobe faster. If I had been faster, if I had not been so… so selfish trying to teach Pinocchio everything, my boy could have had the Queen's help. The two of them could have gone together, they would have been together and my boy wouldn't have had to grow up alone." The tears fall faster, and he blinks stupidly, reaching up to wipe them away. It's almost a shock. "He grew up with no one! I left him to care for a baby. Alone. I have no right to be his father!"

Jiminy's hands reach for the cap. He pulled back instinctively, but as he glimpses down to it. Geppetto's heart skips a beat painfully as he realizes he had held the velvet cap so tightly, he has begun to ruin its shape. A horrified little noise leaves his lips, but Jiminy takes it and smoothes it out with care.

He can't even care for the cap of his precious little boy any longer. Hope seems so far away again.

"Geppetto…" Jiminy's voice is soothing, especially as he watches the man finish reshaping the cap, then put it aside just out of arms reach. "You did what you thought was best for your son." He reaches up, pulling his glasses off so he can rub his eyes. "Regardless of how it turned out, you are his father, and you did what you could. We both have enough regret to live a lifetime, but…" Jiminy folds his hands in front of him, glasses hanging by one of the temples. "You… you can't focus on the past. You have to live in the present."

"And how am I supposed to do that, eh?" Geppetto's voice is surly, he feels anger begin to well up at Jiminy's assumption that things could be so easy. "I don't know where he is! My boy is out there! For all we know, he has crossed the town line." And there's the crux of it. That is the real fear Geppetto has. If they cannot cross the line, he cannot follow after, and he might never see his son again.

"He hasn't." Jiminy's voice is firm. "I don't believe he would. Geppetto… you have to have faith."

"In what?" He scoffs, wanting to let the anger take hold.

"Your son kept his promise, didn't he? He came back. He did what you asked him to, even with that monumental weight on his shoulders." Jiminy smiles a little, unfazed by the anger. "So have faith in him. He found you once."

Geppetto stops, and he finds himself playing words in his head all over again.

I made him a promise – a long time ago. By the time I got around to making good on it, I think I was too late.

But you kept your promise. You realized your mistake and you tried to fix it. That's important.

"If I had a son…" Geppetto whispers, finishing the memory as his vision blurs once more. "That would be enough for me."

Jiminy has heard the story of August's visit to Marco's garage before. He must know why Geppetto's eyes have clouded.

"He said he wanted to fix things." Geppetto glances up at his friend, swallowing back tears. Faith in his son, he said. The hope seems to be welling up even while he thinks it shouldn't. "He was sick. He was hurting."

"No son ever wants to leave their father forever." Jiminy's voice is heavy. "No matter how much bad blood is between them." Geppetto is only barely listening now.

He stands, taking the cap with one hand as he wipes his face clean with the other. "Then it is my turn."

"Turn?" Jiminy stands as well. The hour isn't over, it breaks the cycle they've been following.

"He found me. Now it is time I find him." Geppetto feels renewed, reaches over and pats Jiminy's shoulder. "Because that is what family does. We find each other."

Chapter Text

"Because that's what family does. They find each other." August may be made of wood, but he wants to think he still has that conviction he had as a 'real man.' His voice is confident, desperate, even if he has to stumble around the counter of Rumpelstiltskin's shop, trying to keep the attention he's gotten thus far – probably because he 's a novelty piece.

Gold's laugh is just as painful as the same one he gave at August's poor choice of words trying to make Emma believe. "I'm sorry, let's just take a wee step back here." Gold turns to face August, leaning against his counter with ease. Even with the light, airy and dismissive tone, August isn't deterred. At this point, he's come to peace that he's willing to pay any price as long as it protects his father and gets Emma and her mother back to Storybrooke. Wherever they are. "Do you think you're their family?" Gold chuckles and August is suddenly thankful – for the first time since waking up – that he's made of wood. He can't feel his cheeks heat with embarrassment and anger.

"I told you last time," August tries to keep his voice casual, even though his head is spinning as he feels more and more like he's running out of time. He'd been slinking around this town and through the woods ever since he woke up, and he really has no scope anymore. Days really do lose meaning when you pass them over and over again without a watch. If Phuket taught him nothing else, it taught him that. "Emma trusts me-"

"Trusted you," Gold holds his cane up towards August's wooden chest, cutting him off as the two of them stand in the quickly dimming light of the shop. "Past tense. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you haven't exactly been wandering around showing off your..." Gold's eyes rake down August's body in a way that doesn't feel dirty only because it feels so... belittling. "New tan. Does Miss Swan know that you've been a naughty boy, Pinocchio?"

"Don't call me that." August regrets letting it get under his skin as soon as Gold says his given name. It's astounding to think a name that he knows people have grown up hearing and thinking of that animated film could cause such a visceral reaction, but August knows he should be used to it by now. He just has a hard time letting the really personal things go.

The ammunition has been given, and Gold's smile is cold, calculating. August vaguely remembers seeing that look on Rumpelstiltskin's face as a child, and his eyes have to search the shop for distraction. "So that's what went wrong. You tried, you failed, and it took her almost losing her son for her to break the curse. Does she even want to see you?"

It's a good question. August finds his mind fading back to the last time he saw her, the way she looked at him with such... hope, and then loss. Like, she knew that she needed his help and he was... utterly useless.

August has been fighting his demons all this time, and for just a moment, they've won him over again, reminding him how completely and utterly useless he is. The very notion that he's considered himself a 'guardian angel' of sorts at any point just tastes like lead in his mouth. "She saw me. She believed." August finds that his voice isn't cooperating. He wants to sound confident, laid back and casual, the persona of August W. Booth he knows to be comfortable. "I told you I was sick. Same thing I told her. It took actually seeing me..." He trailed off. "Before she understood how powerful it was. She believed before then, though." He sounds way too much like the last time he was in this shop, trying to muster words for his father.

"That would be because of Regina, and through her, Henry." Gold reiterates as he steps around the counter, cane hitting the wood slats of the floor with an ominous clack. "You, Mister Booth, got in the way. You were neither helpful, nor are you family. If anything, she probably thinks you are dead, and that is if Miss Swan is still alive."

"She is." August knows he should be surprised by his confidence, but if there is one single fact in this world he is sure if, it's that Emma is not dead. She's missing, not gone. He knows the difference. "She is still alive, Gold. And if I can help her, then I have to." August presses on. "In all of your life, there must be someone that you have indescribable hope is alive. Don't you?"

There is a long pause, a flicker in Gold's eyes August has never seen before. His gaze slips to the floor. And then, he's off again. "Emma and Mary Margaret fell through a hat, a portal that has no destination and was spinning wildly out of control." Gold heads towards the back of the shop, and August struggles to follow after him, barely managing to keep his hands in his pockets and not knock something over. "I have it on good authority, thanks to our acting Sheriff, that they might actually landed somewhere quite familiar. Very serendipitous if you ask me."

August's heart jumps to his throat. It's not possible... "The Enchanted Forest..." He mutters, even if it sounds impossible. Hello. Wooden man. Walking impossibility. Shut up, August.

"Possibly. And if that's so, it's entirely possible that Emma and Mary Margaret are looking for a way back on their own." Gold leads him to the back room and waits for August with patience that should concern him. Rumpelstiltskin's reputation has given August plenty of reason to think he's at home with the long con. "Now, the Sheriff has a suspicion that is the case, but he's not in a position to do anything about it."

Gold stops at his work bench, leaning on his cane as he pivots to face August. "I am."

"And how exactly is that?" August is suspicious, he doesn't bother hiding it. He can still hear the Blue Fairy reminding him that she doesn't think he can afford the price he'll have to pay to Gold, but he's still willing to take that risk.

"I have you."

A weight sinks into August's stomach. Maybe he should have listened to the Blue Fairy. "Excuse me?"

"Well, dearie, if I were Snow, I would be looking for a portal that we know for a fact goes to this world." Gold smiles, probably at his own cleverness more than anything else. He holds his finger up and uses it to emphasize his point, and August can almost see the demon behind that seemingly harmless face. "And what is the one thing we know did that the first time around?"

"The wardrobe." August finishes the thought that Gold leaves dangling.

"Exactly. The wardrobe." The demure nature returns, but August is still tense. He has a bad feeling about what's coming. "And while there's probably enough magic left in it to bring those two back here, there is one small catch."

"Crossing the town line." August remembers hearing Grumpy's shouts as he left town the first time. If Emma and Mary Margaret showed up outside of Storybrooke, there's no guarantee that Snow's memories would stick around. "Emma was always excluded, but not Mary Margaret. There's a chance she'd... forget." August swallows, but it won't go down. Really? Because he wasn't there to protect Emma like he was supposed to, she could lose her family again? "How do we stop that from happening?" August's question comes out in a rush.

Gold shrugs. "Well, we'd need to find a way to draw the portal into Storybrooke. Not an easy accomplishment by far. They can go take a seat in the wardrobe, it's still going to pop them out wherever..." He waves his hand towards the sky a bit. "You and Miss Swan landed all those years ago in that great wide somewhere. Unless, of course, we had something that was also enchanted similarly. So, something made out of a very powerful..." Gold's eyes focus back on August. "Tree, for example."

Pinocchio, don't! You don't know what he'd ask of you.

You are not prepared for that.

August ignores the warnings the Blue Fairy tried to give him, and he glances up at Gold. "What are you proposing?"

"Well, obviously, we don't know how or when Emma and Snow will attempt to use the portal. So, the best solution would be to use the magic you possess as a homing beacon. But, if it doesn't work, well..." Gold tilts his head, frowning. "It would not be in my best interest to waste the favor you still owe me on something as trivial as your death." Gold picks up something from the work bench, and the glint of metal catches August's eye. He can't swallow now. He feels something that he's not really sure how to express, other than that it's fear and trepidation.

Gold takes a few steps closer and holds up the wood plane. "Now. If you'll pull up your sleeve, Mister Booth. Just a shaving or two should do the trick."

"You want a shaving of my arm." August reiterates, the disbelief only barely colored by what he will gladly admit as fear. He knows of The Dark One. While August might've been brave enough once to think he could get one over on Rumpelstiltskin he isn't stupid enough to think he can do it again. If there's a reason he wants the shaving... it's a very big reason.

"Well, yes." Gold still sounds like the two of them are talking about the weather or baseball stats. "Any part of your body is currently still imbued with the magic of the enchanted tree you came from. Magic works on the principle that like substances seek each other out. Hence, if Emma and Snow go through the wardrobe, to draw them anywhere other than the original portal exit, I need something that's been through that portal and has magic in its own right: You."

August knows he should say no. Giving him a shaving of any part of his body is a bad idea. He knows that. He doesn't know much about magic at all, but he does know that if you give something to someone like Rumpelstiltskin It will come back to haunt you. But, it might really be the only thing to get Emma and her mother home. He owes this to her.

"Fine." August pulls up his sleeve with courage he's not entirely sure he's actually feeling. He's handled many a human foe. Hell, even his hazy nightmares of Phuket hold demons that make him jump up out of bed in a cold sweat. But this is different. He was a child when he first set eyes on Rumpelstiltskin.

As Rumpelstiltskin sets the plane in place along his forearm, August's breath catches. The two men meet gazes, and August feels that same, childish fear of the Bogeyman he felt when the other man held a knife to his throat.

The plane drags across August's wooden arm.

"Just let me know if you feel anything... earth-shaking."

Chapter Text

Earth-shaking.

That's the best way Emma can describe the bizarre adventure she'd just had.

And yet, the streets in Storybrooke so late in the evening seem all too normal for Emma. After many nights under the stars of the Enchanted Forest, the… absolutely bizarre experience with Cora and Hook, and just… the entire mess, Emma expects danger around every corner.

She feels like she's being watched, and at each step, she wants to glance back, find the eyes that keep trailing down her spine.

Even as she walks alone, wandering so she has some space from her family – oh, that's still weird – the town doesn't feel safe. She's not sure it ever will. She tries to block out the sounds of the small town as it closes up for the night, if only so she can confirm that there won't be the following bellows of trolls or ogres or yet another insane phantom of the night just behind the sleepy main street.

Nope. Just Storybrooke. Just the place she's come to call home for the last year, even if she's never called another place "home" before and truly meant it. Full of memories now, of attachments, of people she's wanted to see ever since she got dumped here. She's missed Granny's cooking, Ruby's charm and easy way of always knowing what Emma wants to drink at the diner and she misses bumping into August like it's…

Emma's easy, muted mood suddenly doesn't feel so muted anymore.

Emma's footsteps falter until they come to a stop in the middle of the empty street, and she takes a deep breath as her gaze scans the road ahead. Ahead of her… she knows she can head to the loft, and her mother probably won't bother her, too wrapped up in reuniting with her father. Ugh, so much of that is weird and makes Emma feel like nothing is real. It makes her heart clench painfully, aching for some semblance of normalcy.

But, Emma knows, even as she slowly turns around, pivoting on her heels and staring back at Granny's… she doesn't know what normal is. Is normal bumping into August, pretending she doesn't know he had been telling the truth all along, having never outright lied to her; just omitting the more fantastical elements until it came rushing forth like the tide? Or is normalcy another empty spot in her heart where she blocks it all out? Pretends she didn't watch his eyes cloud over and turn to painted wood –

Emma blinks back moisture and warmth in her eyes, swallows down a lump in her throat.

She can't do this. She can't be expected to just live her life with this secret eating her from the inside. She hasn't let herself think about August since before they'd begun the final push to get back home. She knows she's been holding onto this… silly notion that August might still be alive somehow. But, she knows better. She knows what she saw, she knows that she had seen the look in his eyes of a man who was…

Dying.

Emma swallows again, then takes a deep breath, forcing the pain back down. She doesn't get close to people easily, she knows this. But, August is different, and even if she doesn't want to admit it, she knows why. The connection… the fact that he was supposed to protect her… she had gone to him for help with Henry because, even after everything, she'd realized he'd told the truth and that he could help.

And he turned to wood in front of her, probably thinking he didn't mean anything to her.

Emma starts walking towards Granny's before she really has a chance to think about what she's doing.

This has to stop. All of it has to stop. She just needs to see his body, affirm that he's gone, and she'll do what she has always done.

Emma will run. She will run from his memory so she never has to think about him again. Because that is the only option.

Emma's feet won't pass the first step to the inn.

She tries again, but her feet are iron, her legs have gone heavy.

I can't do this…

Emma tries to backpedal, bumping into the railing unceremoniously.

What if he's still up there? Shouldn't he still be up there?

"Emma?" The voice in front of her rips her from her thoughts, and she's faced with the Widow Lucas, the door to the Inn already open, propped by the old woman's hip.

Emma swallows, not sure how to explain what she's doing there this late, or even how to cover for how obviously distracted she is. "Um… Granny, I just… " Words completely failing her, Emma feels like a fool.

"Sweetheart, how about you come on inside for a bit?" Granny's voice, the smell of cocoa past her, it's all too inviting, and Emma's feet start to move on their own.

She pauses. She can't do it. No. Not even with Granny there. "Um… I… actually, I was just here to… see…" Emma knows she has to cover. The secret August kept might have been discovered by Granny while she was gone, but Emma can't afford to take that chance. She can't let anyone in. "How… how's August doing?" Emma's voice is hesitant, she knows Granny doesn't believe what she's asking any more than she does. But, there's that little bit of hope still clinging, still hanging on, wanting August to just round the corner and say "I've been meaning to bump into you."

"August?" Granny's surprised expression practically stops Emma's heartbeat mid-thump. "Oh…" The sigh in that sound, the annoyance, takes Emma aback. "Well, truth be told, I haven't seen him, lass." The widow finally steps out of the doorway and Emma watches it go, cutting off the avenue to August's room even as she tries to absorb what she's saying. The woman sounds like she's two seconds away from punching something. "In fact, I went to check on him a few days ago and… well, looks like he hasn't been there in a while. Room's cleaned up and everything, but he hasn't paid rent since, well, since the whole curse broke. Now, mind you, I don't care who he thinks he is…"

Emma's brain has completely stalled. His room is clean? He isn't there?

Then where the hell is he?!

"I don't care who the boy thinks he is, he could be Little Boy Blue and just leaves to stay in a shack somewhere so he can tend to his horses and his cows with his horn…"

Did someone find the body? Move it? He was solid wood when she left him.

Maybe it worked when she broke the curse….

And he left.

"Regardless, I have bills I still have to pay, and dammit, that means he has to pay his rent. He has his things there, and that means he needs to be responsible for his commitments."

Emma realizes she hasn't seen his bike since she got back.

He left, Emma. If he's not dead, he left.

"Emma?" Granny's voice forces Emma to focus, and her eyes wander back to the older woman's. "Have you been listening to anything I've been saying?"

He's not here, Emma.

Emma swallows, nodding and trying to put on a brave face.

"Thanks, Granny, I'll… um, look, I'll cover his rent for the last few weeks. Just…" Emma's surprised her voice sounds so even, or that she's even making the offer. "Leave me a… a bill or… something at the Sheriff's office, thanks…" Emma just wants out. She backpedals so fast her hip bumps the railing and it spins her around just in time for her to jog down the stairs and walk briskly away.

With each step, she finds herself choking back tears, determined not to let a single one fall. She's had worse, she's been hurt worse, this is no different.

Dead or alive, it really doesn't matter, does it? If he's dead, nothing will bring him back.

If he's alive, he's got every reason to stay away.

Let's be honest with ourselves…

Emma swallows it down. Forget. Don't think about him. Just like she doesn't think about Graham.

Because no matter what hope Emma has kept alive thus far, it doesn't matter now. The facts speak for themselves.

August is not here.

Did you really think he would be?

Chapter Text

He's not here.

Did you really expect him to be?

The party has dwindled down to a trickle, and Archie has finally excused himself for the evening. He can't help it. Even with the pleasant conversation, the wonderful news that Emma and Snow are settled and well, Archie's mood is slightly soured as his eyes scan the room.

"Have a nice night, Archie." He hears Red say as he passes her. He smiles politely, but his heart isn't in it. After all, how can he be happy? His best friend, the man who has been suffering for his lost child, understandably doesn't feel like coming to a party celebrating Emma and Snow's return. Archie has been hoping that Geppetto will see reason, come along, maybe even ask for help in determining what has happened to his son, but, it's too much.

Once he makes it outside, Archie glances down the road, contemplating a walk down to his friend's home. On a night like this one, he knows Geppetto has probably set himself upon some poor, unsuspecting hutch or a child's toy, and he's probably trying to keep himself busy.

But, something makes Archie stop in his tracks and turn, heading back to his office. His guilt over the situation with Pinocchio, it's too much for all of them. In all honesty, he's surprised he hasn't seen the Blue Fairy visit Geppetto, considering her involvement. But, he knows Geppetto's memory is quite deep. He's thrown Jiminy's sins in his face before – which Archie needed to hear, he's aware of that – and it wouldn't surprise him that a conversation with the Blue Fairy would end just as badly.

Maybe it's that there's still a very real part of Archie that always wants to take the path of least resistance.

Sighing, Archie makes his way across the street, on his way to the stairs leading up to his office.

"Jiminy?"

The voice stops him in his tracks. He's heard that voice before, but… Archie turns slightly, swallowing. His heart has started to race in direct juxtaposition to his mind, which seems to have gone blank.

In the dark shadows, the gap between his office building and the next beside him, a figure stands, hands tucked in pockets of a black leather jacket. Face obscured from no light, the body language is so familiar to Archie, and he knows. He just knows.

"Pinocchio?" He whispers, confused and hesitant. He doesn't want to be hopeful. He doesn't want to believe what he sees in front of him.

"Hi… Archie." The voice is unmistakably the one belonging to August W. Booth. To Pinocchio.

His voice is gone, his mouth has gone dry, but there is a lump in his throat he can't seem to swallow past. He takes a step closer.

"Don't." August is quiet. He sounds… weak? "Can I come upstairs?"

Oh. That's a question that needs an answer. Archie forces his mouth – and brain – to work. "O-Of course. Please…" Archie glances behind him, around the street, but there's no one out there. "Come in."

August moves faster than Archie expects, and before he realizes it, he's held open the door and watching the back of a man walking up the stairs. From the back, with the helmet on and the leather jacket, hands stuffed in his pockets, Archie can't be sure why this feels so… wrong to him.

He follows August up the stairs, fishing his keys out of his pocket, head bowed as he does so. There is so much he wants to say, so much he wants to ask, but he doesn't know where to start, and he knows that for whatever reason, August's silence and disappearance has been intentional.

He's so distracted, thinking of all those things he wants to say and ensuring that he doesn't say them. It isn't until he's unlocked the door to his office and stepped inside, where Pongo has been sleeping since Archie brought him back up here during the party, that he realizes what's truly happening.

Archie glances up as he puts his keys in his pocket and turns to face his visitor. Geppetto's son. Geppetto's boy. He's here.

Archie's glasses fall slightly down his nose as he jumps a little, not prepared for what's in front of him.

The man in front of him reaches up to pull the helmet off of his head, and now, he can see August in his entirety. His vision clouds slightly as he sees the darkly stained wood that comprises August's face, and as August unzips his jacket, pulling it off slowly, Archie sees that his arms and fingers are just as bad.

"Oh…" The little noise from his lips is sad. Profoundly sad. It's all he can manage. "Pinocchio… what… what happened to you?" Archie's lip trembles a little, in that way it always does when he stutters, not really sure what he wants to say, or how to say it. He hopes beyond hope this is not the reason he's stayed away. He wants to think that August has not had to suffer this way alone.

"Um…" August is looking at the floor as he finally finishes stripping off his jacket with care. Pongo has finally woken, and he trots over to sniff at August's feet, a whine escaping the canine in a way that completely resonates with Archie. "Life, oddly enough." August tosses his things onto the couch, holding his arms out in a way that entreats Archie to look him over further, as if he's on display. "I don't think it would've been that tough of a stretch for you to realize that I could've used you on my shoulder these last… oh, 28 years." Archie swallows thickly as August continues. "I screwed up, Jiminy." August sounds so… exhausted and tired. "I thought I could do it, but I just couldn't. I left Emma when she needed me, and by the time I found her again…" He sighs, and Archie realizes very suddenly that while he looked like a man, there was a part of August that was still that young boy.

"O-Oh, please. Please sit." Archie extends his arm in a motion to suggest August takes a seat, and he steps closer, ready to fall over himself to help this boy he had such high hopes for all those years ago. August waves his gesture away, but he does take a seat. But why does he look so broken, so weak? Just sitting down takes more effort than Archie ever remembers him needing to as a boy, even when he was wooden. "Where have you been? Your father has been worried sick, ever since Henry told him you were here." Archie takes a seat across from August, trying to curb the hundreds of questions running through his mind. "Everyone has been worried about you."

"I don't know, they seem to be doing just fine without me." August grumbles, clearly without thinking to hold his tongue.

Archie's brow furrows. He understands why August is upset, but he knows that it's also not that simple. "Pinocchio – "

"I haven't been Pinocchio since I was a boy. I'm August now." August gives Archie a look that, even if less expressive, gets the point across.

"You're right." Archie concedes, finding himself falling into the role of 'conscience' with ease. "I apologize. You must have been through a great deal." Archie pauses, confusion sweeping over his features. "Wait, you mentioned the party. Were you…" He tilts his head to look at August, shifting in his seat. "August, were you there?" The guilty look on his face makes Archie sigh. "Okay, that's just… a little creepy. Is that what you've been doing here? Wandering around, watching others?"

"Well, what am I supposed to do, Archie?" August throws his hands up in defeat, the resounding clack an obvious point of contention for the wooden man. "I couldn't exactly just waltz in during Emma and Mary Margaret's Welcome Home Party going 'Gee, Emma, I am absolutely thrilled you are back, but I was too busy taking lessons from an armoire!'"

Archie sighs. If August has been lurking around town, he can't imagine what he's seen or heard since they've been back. But, given his response, he's assuming August is coming from a place of… exclusion. Feeling forgotten. "August…" He begins. "I don't think you understand. Emma has assumed you're dead. Or gone. Either way, she has this… this…" Archie motions to his own chest. "Hole where you were, and she has to figure out how to move on past that. Emma deals with that by not mentioning them. Henry's doing it, too, because he doesn't want to upset her." Archie lets out a little huff of frustration. "But, you're here. You have got to go see her."

"What, like this?" August waves his hand, hearing his fingers clack together. "Archie, I can't. She saw me turn like this, I can't show her that I…" August trails off, his eyes closing as he drops his hand.

Another wave of sorrow and pity run through Archie. August feels like he isn't good enough. For anyone. "She thinks you gave up on her." Archie presses, even though he knows that isn't entirely true.

"What?" August's sharp note of hurt mixed in with confusion catches Archie by surprise. He had known August and Emma held a sense of camaraderie, but, was there more? "Archie, I know she had no reason to ever want to see me again after I told her who I was. But she came back, she asked me for help with Henry and I was too weak to do anything! But, I never gave up on her! I always had faith in her. I'm just…" August swallows. "Archie, I'm not ready. I don't want her to see me like this."

"But you need to." It has become clear to Archie in this moment that it isn't solely his father's forgiveness he's been looking for. It's Emma's.

"I won't, Jiminy, so let it go!" The use of his real name – old name – gives Archie more than enough reason to pause in the face of conflict. So he does. He lets it go. He's not ready. He knows trying to explain why would be impossible to Emma, but… he understands.

"Okay… Okay." He concedes, holding his hand up as he tries to figure out the best way to move forward. "On one condition."

"Jiminy…" August warns. He knows where he's going with this, it's plain on his face.

"Just go see him." Archie pleads. "Just for a few minutes. He loved you like this before, he loves you no matter who you are or what you've done, but you are breaking his heart, Pinocchio." Archie sees August flinch, but it seems to have been the chink in his armor he needs. "He needs his son. And you need your father."

There's a long, long silence. He can't tell what August is thinking, but considering it's been so long since Archie has seen him, he frankly doesn't care. He's just glad he's here.

"Do you think he's home? I didn't see him… um…" August glances up at Archie, the expression a mixture of guilt and nerves. "From the window, I mean. At the party."

Archie stands, the relief washing over him like a warm gust of air in the summer. He reaches out for August's jacket, picking it up. Thankfully, the man follows by standing and facing him. "He chose to stay home tonight. He's probably still working on that jewelry box the two of you had started." Archie smiles, hoping that his optimism will bleed over to August. "Go, August. See him. I promise you won't regret it."

August nods and takes his things. "Thanks, Archie." He pulls back on his unique blend of costume and clothing. "I'll see you soon."

Five minutes later, Archie's sitting at his desk in his office, staring at his files on his desk, but he's not thinking about anything work-related.

Pongo trots over and sniffs his hand, whining again. Archie scratches behind his ears.

"I know, boy. I hope they work it out, too." He sighs. "He needs all the support he can get."

Pongo simply paws at Archie's hand again, demanding more comfort. There never seems to be enough of it.

Chapter Text

Courage. There never seems to be enough of it. No matter how much Archie's words resonate with August, he can't seem to stop the quivering of his body, the way his wooden limbs are shaking with each step.

It's taken him an hour to work up the nerve to do what his conscience has asked him. Say what he will about Jiminy, but he really does seem to always know what August should be doing, even if it's not what he wants to. Of course, that doesn't make the steps he's taking any easier.

He's tired. He's weak. The knowledge that Rumpelstiltskin took a part of him, that August let it happen, and yet Emma and Mary Margaret returned without it, has led August to think that his increasing weakness is because of the Dark One. How he could be so desperate to let that happen?

As August turns the corner towards a dimly lit garage, barely visible behind the large boat that his father still hasn't fixed... his feet still. He's frozen, knees locked and his heart pounding in his chest with an intensity he hasn't really felt since he was face to face with the Blue Fairy.

He can't do this.

August's heart has risen to his throat, all thoughts that he's been pushing back, telling himself that he is strong enough to do this, suddenly come forth and roar in his ears. What if he's ashamed? What if he doesn't want anything to do with him? What if he sees that where once was skin is now lacquer and he can't handle the disappointment?

What if he hates him because he failed all of them?

Before August can stop himself, he's turning, pivoting on his heel to walk away. After all, he's behind the boat, he hasn't been spotted -

A muffled thud and a bark of profanity makes August freeze once more. The tinkling of metal across concrete punctuates the thick silence that August has trapped himself in. An accident, maybe it's nothing...

There's a throaty, foreign noise; one that draws a sudden, sharp pain from August as he feels his chest clench. The noise happens again, something drawn deep from within the figure working in the garage. A sputtering, wet quaking sound echoes in the small space, and August can feel his entire body go numb.

"Oh..." The voice is so small, so unlike the man he knows to be his father, and yet August can't stop his feet as he creeps around the boat to come closer. There's a string of muffled Italian, but the sounds are stifled and caught in between... August sees his father.

Sobs. His father is sobbing.

A long sniff, and Geppetto reaches up to wipe his eyes, his nose, his mouth, as he crouches down. His hands, covered in gloves that have no fingers any longer, try to scrape and scour the concrete. August blinks, his wooden eyes cloudy but he's not sure why. And he can't figure out why his father's crying so much either. He understands missing him, but...

Geppetto reaches under the table, then sits back up. In those calloused, abused hands, is a small wooden cuckoo bird.

Realization smacks him so hard his head spins.

The gear works of the cuckoo clock that meant so much to both of them has been vomited onto the garage floor, and his broken father is trying to pick them up with an urgency that shatters his heart.

Before he can stop himself, August is moving swiftly. In seconds, he has dropped down beside him, working to pick up the pieces with him. "H-Here, let me help..." August's voice has all but left him, thick with emotion, shy and uncertain like the first time he'd seen his father in Gold's shop with the same clock.

He looks up, and his father's eyes are locked onto the wooden hands assisting him.

Older hands, wrinkled and worn, quake as Geppetto sets down the bird in his hand. August swallows, but he can't seem to breathe. Time stands still as his father's careful, skilled hands reach out, fingers running along the smooth finish of the back of his son's hands.

"My boy?" Geppetto's whisper is almost missed the first time. But, then those fingers reach higher, then run up the long length of August's arms. August's face is a mask of shock, of fear, of raw trepidation and almost panic as his father's eyes climb higher and higher. Until they meet. "My... my boy..." The disbelief in his voice can only be matched by the desperate hope in his eyes. August tries not to buckle, but when Geppetto's hand reaches up, resting on his cheek, he shudders as he chokes back a sob. "My... Pinocchio."

August doesn't know why, but the word is out of his mouth before he can even comprehend what's happening. "Father."

"You're home!" Geppetto's relief is palpable, a broken sob as he suddenly pulls his son into a breathtaking hug, crushing and oppressive, desperate and all things fatherly, holding the man against him as if he was a young boy all over again. "My son..." He cries, and August is engulfed in the emotion.

"F-Father..." It's all he can choke out, but his arms are around him, holding him tight, and August's face disappears somewhere in his father's shoulder.

Tears are shed by both of them for incalculable minutes, and with each sob, one clutches harder to the other on the floor. August doesn't know how to prepare for this, he doesn't know how to handle what has been bubbling under the surface as he spent 28 years alone.

Geppetto finally pulls back, and August is startled to realize his own cheeks are wet. So, he can cry. Geppetto's hands are on his face again, brushing those tears away. "There you are..." He breathes, and August shudders again. "My clever boy..." Those words break them both again, and again, there is the embrace, the sobs, and the genuine wash of emotion encompassing joy and relief, raw and untempered without any of the other emotions August knows will be underneath.

He's not sure when, but eventually the sobs stop, and his knees are cold and feel raw, even though they're wooden. His limbs hurt, he feels weak all over again, but he doesn't want to let go.

But, they do have to part. When they do, August is at the ready with an apology. Realizing that he made his father hurt this badly, he doesn't know how to make it up to him, but he wants - he needs to try. "Father, I am so sor-"

"My poor boy, can you ever forgive me?"

There's silence as August tries to take in what he's just heard. "I... what?"

"I am so sorry. I cannot possibly make it up to you," Geppetto's words are tumbling out faster than August can comprehend them, and it's all what he wants to say, wants to tell him. He wants to tell his father about how he let Emma down, that he wasn't strong enough, that he's like this because he didn't do what they asked of him, but he's still talking. "I should never have put that on you, my clever boy. You were so young, and this world is so terrifying."

"No," August's brow furrows as he tries to stop the man from taking on sins that aren't his own. At least, not to August. To August, the blame and responsibility has always been squarely on his own shoulders. He wasn't strong enough, he didn't think ahead, and he caused all of the hardship Emma faced. "No, this isn't possibly your fault. Please, stop, I don't want you blaming yourself-"

"But, look at you." Geppetto whimpers, and the raw emotion is pain and blame, directed at himself. August can't seem to erase it, even as his blue eyes search his father's face for a way to do that. "I should have protected you from this, and now? Now, I can't..." His father looks down, and in that moment, August understands.

He broke his father. He didn't do what he was supposed to, and his own father is weakened, carrying all of that weight and guilt.

"Father..." August whispers. His wooden hand reaches out, and he takes his father's rough hand into his own impossibly smooth one.

"I even broke the clock, Pinocchio..." Geppetto pleads, his free hand scooping up the cuckoo again. "I have let you down so much. How can I ever begin to earn your forgiveness?"

"Father, please..." August's other hand reaches for the cuckoo, and he meets his father's gaze once more. "You don't have to earn anything." August ignores his fatigue of too many nights spent in fitful, unsatisfying sleep outside. He ignores the way his arm throbs where the long shaving has marred the beautiful wood his father crafted him from.

Right now, he can't do anything else. August has done this to his father. And now...

"I promise you..." August whispers. "We can fix it."

I can fix you. I failed. But, I need you.

 

Chapter Text

Because I, the town,  everyone  needs you!

I don't want them to need me!

Well, that's too bad, because we all do.

You're saying that I am responsible for everyone's happiness? That is  crap!  I didn't ask for that, I don't want that!

Right  now . A while ago, you didn't want Henry either, but then he came to you and now you are fighting like  hell  for him!

For  him!  Because that is  all  I can handle right now! And I'm not even doing a good job of  that!  Now you're telling me I have to save everyone?  That is  beyond ridiculous , I don't want any of it!

Well, that's too bad, Emma. Because that doesn't change the truth. You're our only hope.

Then you're all screwed.

Emma's footsteps falter as memories threaten to swallow her.

How do I stop this?

Break the curse.

I'll do it, I promise, but I gotta save Henry first and I need your help.

She debates turning on her heel, running back to the loft apartment where the only thing she can equate to family resides. A small bastion of shelter in the storm.

I can't do this, August. It's too big. No normal person can.

Knowing that he's left Storybrooke doesn't stop the words from echoing through her ears. It doesn't stop her mind from conjuring the image of his skin as it glosses over; his scruff becomes grain in the wood, and the only man she's let herself get close to in years dies right in front of her.

Yeah, well, if he were dead, he would've still been in his room, right? She reminds herself, and a surge of hurt, raw anger propels her forward, the kind of anger she's kept locked away for – of all people – Neal, the bastard who set her up and practically ruined her life, never bothering to look back.

Forget August. He's gone. He left, he is just like Neal, she tells herself. And she keeps walking.

But, she's walking towards Marco's house, and so every step is just another reminder that she knew his son, she knew his son, and chances are, he never even knew August was alive. And now he's lost his best friend as well.

Emma pauses at the door, swallowing and reaching up to pull her hair back a little more. She's stopped curling her hair since she returned from the Forest. Who the hell is she trying to impress, right? It makes her look a little more severe, a little more hardened…

A little more like she really doesn't feel anything. Except a whole lot of confusion about her "family."

The door opens before she's even had a chance to knock, and suddenly, all the careful words she has to say, so she can just dance around the fact that she knows that his son is alive and probably so far away he doesn't remember his own name. She's been around addicts enough in life to know when someone has a problem: She just… well, it seemed like those days were behind August.

Emma hates being wrong.

"Your Ma… erm, ah, Miss – Sheriff Swan," Marco staggers as he tries to find the right honorific he wants to place on her through red-rimmed eyes. Emma's cheeks burn as she tries not to let the second-hand embarrassment wash over her. Poor Marco's been trying to cope with the death of his best friend, not knowing where his son is, and here she is, coming over to see how he's doing. "I am… ah, not prepared for visitors." He stumbles, calloused fingers fumbling less than gracefully with his cap. "But, please, come in. Vieni."

And then he's ushering her in the door before she can even say why she's there, that she's sorry, the millions of sincere apologies she has all at the tip of her tongue that she can't seem to vocalize. She reaches up and pulls her scarf off from around her neck. She doesn't want to get too comfortable, but the flush through her body makes her hot and flushed, in an embarrassing, off-balanced way.

Emma doesn't talk about it, but she hates funerals.

Being a kid in the system, Emma has very little experience with funerals. But she's had her fair share of wondering if her parents were alive or dead, and if they were, did they have funerals? Were there other kids there to pay respects? Or did they die alone?

And then the few friends Emma remembers from her time as a thief, before Neal, are punctuated with friends who had problems. Big problems. "I-didn't-have-a-family-either" problems that sometimes – too many times – end with someone in a wooden box and Emma left alone all over again. If she reconsiders what hurt her the most about Graham's death isn't what she now knows, that Regina had done something to kill him; it's that she'd considered letting herself go and she'd lost him right there. And then August…. See, there's a pattern here, and now that she's seen it, she just wants to go back to hiding in the loft, drinking hot cocoa and staring at the wall.

If she never sees another funeral, it will be too soon.

"What can I do for you, Sheriff? I expected you would be with your family on such a gloomy day." Marco is walking into his kitchen, busying himself with a clinking of ceramic that tells her there's about to be a tea kettle on the stove. Hot cocoa flits through her thoughts again but she shoves it aside and takes off her gloves, wanting to focus on why she's there.

"Actually, I wanted to check on you." Her voice sounds so much more casual than she feels, but maybe it's not casual, maybe it's just… she's sick of feeling. "I mean, Archie… you were very close – "

"He was my best friend. For a very long time." Marco sighs, but his throat closes and Emma feels another pang of regret. It's too soon, she shouldn't be here, and she knows that.

"I'm sorry. I sorta…" Emma's lower lip pouts out as she takes a seat at his kitchen table, watching him. "Suck at this whole… grief counseling thing. Not a lot of family experience…" Emma remembers how broken Henry was when she had to tell him, and now, looking at Marco, she can't fathom how she's supposed to help him move on. Especially when August…

"You try, bella, that's all that matters." Marco suddenly sounds so vulnerable, and his tone reminds her a bit of how David's been talking to her since she got back. That odd mix of fatherly affection while an internal war as to what's appropriate. In the silence that follows, Emma's gaze reaches Marco's, and he realizes what he's called her, what he's done. He's stumbling again, reaching for the tea kettle, and Emma can hear herself waving away the apologies, but it doesn't seem to mean much. "I'm so sorry," He's saying, even as she shakes her head. "I had no right to address you so informally. It's just that, with Jiminy gone, and my boy – "

It isn't until she hears Pongo bark in the other room and start whining, scratching at a door in the hallway that she furrows her brow and glances up at the older man. "Pongo?" She calls as she gets up to go find the dog, and Marco is on her heels, a little too close for comfort.

"It's nothing," Marco reaches the dog first, shooing him away from a small room in the back of his home. Emma can see that there's a light on the other side, but that's not an indicator in itself. Why is Pongo scratching there so badly? Marco has a hold of Pongo's collar and steers the dog to the couch, where the old man sits and pets the animal. Emma's heart twists, her stomach writhes.

"You mentioned your boy." Emma immediately wishes she could grab the words right out of the air and unceremoniously shove them under the couch cushion she instead sits down on, across from Marco. But, well, it's Emma, so they're out now. She's said it, she has to commit to it, even if the very thought of asking him about August without blurting out the truth feels a bit like a hot coal in her stomach, turning slowly, eating at her. "I, uh… I guess you haven't heard from him?" Emma stops herself, trying to make sure she sounds casual but curious. And to reinforce the name that comes out of her mouth next. "Pinocchio."

Marco's eyes don't meet Emma's, instead focusing on giving more affection to Pongo, but she assumes it's the grief. She wants to hit herself for even daring to mention to this man who lost his best friend the name of his lost son. In fact, as she sits there, trying to think of something to break the silence, the tension, she's pinching the inside of her wrist, where she used to wear a small black band that August had given her on a whim.

"I want you to have it."

"I'm not taking your stupid bracelet, Booth. It's creepy enough you just plopped down in front of me earlier and just Obi-Wan Kenobi'd some advice."

"I didn't think you were complaining about the advice. Just… c'mon, just take it. It's a good reminder to remember what I said. Think outside the box, don't let them see you coming."

"My boy is… well…" Marco sighs. "When the time is right, I am sure I can come to you with news of his return, Sheriff." He pats Pongo's side as he finally forces himself to look back up at Emma. She can swear she sees something like guilt flicker across his features, her lie detector suddenly feels like it's going off at DEFCON 4 levels, but this is Marco. He's grieving. "How is your boy? How is Henry? He was very close to Jiminy, and… I imagine it is difficult as well."

Emma gives him a silently grateful look, even though she can't begin to explain why she's so relieved he changed the subject. "He doesn't want to eat, he doesn't want to talk. I'm actually kind of at a loss." Emma sighs and leans back, running a hand through her hair and looking at him sympathetically. "Any ideas on what I could do to cheer him up? This whole parenting thing is worlds away from normal for me, and… I'm not exactly… used to having parents myself."

Marco's expression shifts into something Emma thinks she might have seen on her own face. It's that look she gets when Henry asks her something and she can help. "Well… when my boy was… very young," Marco chuckles slightly, and from the way he looks up at the ceiling, she can tell he's fading into the memories of his life – his other life. Geppetto's life. The shift between the two is much more subtle than Emma expects, really. "He had companions. Not other boys at the school. They chased him away, it was why he ran away in the first place. But, his first friends were my only companions. My cat, Figaro."

As if on cue, Emma hears a small jingle of a bell and a muffled brrow from under the couch she's sitting on. She shifts, surprised, but Marco just laughs and motions for her to sit again. "Easy," He reassures. "He doesn't like Pongo, so he stays under the couch. But, I found him the first day the curse broke. He's been here all this time. Maybe that's the kind of thing Henry needs. A friend."

The idea is something different, it soothes the nerves in her stomach while also bringing up a few new issues. "Yeah, I mean, I think that's a great idea, Marco, but I don't know how Henry would feel about a cat – "

"Then take Pongo. For a little while."

The suggestion makes Emma's eyebrows dart up. "Really? I mean, a-are you sure? I don't want to take him if – "

"Sheriff, I am an old, old man." Marco sighs, sympathy etching through his voice. "I have spent much of my very long life alone. I've Figaro to keep me company. This is not the first time I have lost others close to me." There's a sadness in his eyes that Emma, for just a second, feels like she recognizes in herself. Loss… deep loss, loss that defines you. "Please. Take him. Henry will enjoy seeing him."

To punctuate that, Marco stands and gets Pongo's leash from the coffee table, walking over and clipping it to his collar before handing it to Emma's shaking hand.

She swallows, and with all the kindness he's laying on her, she can't stop herself. "Marco, there's something I need to tell you." She whispers, and her eyes suddenly seem to be warm with emotion. He waits, expectant, kind, like a combination of grandfather and father she's never known…

But she can't do it.

She can't tell him his son is alive and left town.

So, she swallows and does exactly what she screamed at August for.

Sometimes we lie to protect the ones we love.

"Just… thank you, Marco. You've been so good to us. I'm so sorry for your loss." Emma pulls him into a sudden hug. It feels at once disjointed, awkward, and yet… comforting. Right. "You know, talking with you about Pinocchio…" She smiles a little, but it feels fake, forced. "I feel a little like I know him."

"Well, when I bring him to you finally, maybe I shall tell you more stories, eh?" Marco pats her shoulder and Emma pulls away, the close proximity foreign to her like so much else in this town.

It isn't until after she's out the door and walking down the street that she absently asks herself…

Did he already have two cups on the coffee table before she arrived?

Chapter Text

Did he already have two cups on the coffee table before she arrived?

That's all that's occupied August's mind while he's had to endure the slow, heart-twisting torture of hearing Emma's voice, muffled through the fragile door of his father's spare bedroom. It's such a stupid, small, careless thing, but it's all he can think about. His heart is pounding in his chest as he hears phrases filter through the walls. The last few days have been punctuated by tears, memories and long hours of silence, spent contemplating what his father needs and what August thinks he should do next.

Shame is a powerful tool, one August knows all too well, and so it's no surprise that he's taken refuge in this small room. The moment his father had tipped him off with a mention of the Sheriff by name, August had fled.

But, of course, all that does is leave him alone with his thoughts. Of his father… of his own failures… of Archie

It had taken every bit of strength and emotional fortitude his father had to keep August in the house after he'd broken the news. All of August's thoughts have now been plagued by the last time he spoke to him, the fact that he snapped at him. He was hurt, he was lashing out, and Jiminy had just been trying to help. And he could've saved him, if only he'd stayed a little longer. Even just the bits of conversation he hears between his father and Emma has August swallowing and trying desperately not to shed tears.

People get built up so much with distance and time. By the time Jiminy is taken from them, the statue of moral fiber and fond devotion has come toppling down with the force of an earthquake, leaving the wooden man shaking in his boots as if he's in the bowels of pleasure island again, a true jackass.

Panic makes August freeze as he hears Pongo start barking and scratching at the door to the spare room, but the moment passes as he hears his father's voice shoo the dog away. The conversation continues on the other side of the door, and August finds himself playing with one of his wooden wrist joints idly. He misses his bracelet… but, it's… not really the bracelet he misses, and he knows that.

"Don't let them see you coming…" He'd told her. He wonders if she hates him now, the way Jiminy alluded to. He thinks he deserves it, but… he can't help but hope that she doesn't. Maybe he can still fix this.

August has been telling himself that he wouldn't fall into old habits, of running and hiding. He tells himself that he wished to be worthy of Emma's faith and trust before he sees her again, that the stars had been watching them. And he needs to make good on it. How many more people have to pay for the Queen to be satisfied? How many more people need to suffer from the curse and its aftermath because August failed in the one task his father assigned him, a task they haven't spoken of since that night in the garage?

"I, uh… I guess you haven't heard from him?" Emma's question is barely audible. But, it's a noticeable change from discussing Jiminy. Wait, is she asking about… "Pinocchio?"

Oh god, she's asking about him.

His father's reply is almost completely missed as the blood rushes through his ears, but before he knows it, they're talking about his childhood and Henry and Figaro and Pongo and all August can think is that she's asking about him.

She hasn't forgotten about him after all?

August has lived a pretty long life not giving a damn as to whether or not people remember him. He's never been one to care about anyone's opinions of his life, the choices he's made, even when he first came to Storybrooke. It hadn't been until he met Henry and Emma, started to think about what his life had been and what it was now… what it could be… he wanted to be better. He didn't want to need to be saved.

He wants to save himself, but even so, knowing that she still thinks about him makes his stomach flip as he realizes that there's a possibility, very faint, but still there, that maybe Emma Swan hasn't completely written him out of her life. The months he spent in Storybrooke before the change finally happened, when he thought he had died, he'd started to feel something… very different for him.

See, that's the tricky thing about being easily forgotten – it's because he doesn't make connections and he doesn't miss people. Not even Neal, who he'd had a few more cursory conversations and check-ins with.

But, Emma he misses.

He misses the verbal sparring, he misses the way she always stares him down as if his wit isn't getting under her skin but her eyes and body language tell him that he is definitely getting there.

He had come to Storybrooke with one purpose: break the curse. And along the way, he'd picked up a few secondary, bonus objectives: 1) Send Neal that postcard, because August's failure to watch Emma cost her more than he realized at the time, 2) Help Emma get her kid, since, initially, he didn't want to get in the middle of that adorable kid's problems with both mothers, and yet, towards the end there, he was willing to backburner Emma's desire to reunite with her son. Not his best moment.

August's list of objectives seem to have been accomplished. He sent the postcard to Neal, and now… now he knows Emma's got Henry, and the kid's safe.

So, why does August feel like, even with his father, there's something missing? And why does the very idea that he sent that postcard to Neal still scare the daylights out of him?

Why was he so sure that the moment she and Snow White disappeared that she was still okay? That he'd just know if she was really gone for good?

He knows the answer.

But he's not ready to admit it. At least, not to her. Himself, well, he's exceptional at lying to himself.

So, when he hears Emma open the door and leave, it's that uncertainty combined with the absolute shame over his appearance that stops him from saying 'screw it' and going after her.

The rest of the evening passes with August fidgety and more nervous than his father's ever seen him. Of course, a good chunk of their time together has been spent learning how each other acts now. There are little things that August is sure, inherently, he should know. It's hisfather. But, there are new things now, things he never noticed as a child that he notices because he's adult.

His father's not a young man. His father has demons and whatever those demons are, they plague him well into the evening as the two of them finally settle in the living room with curtains drawn closed.

He tries to start a conversation several times, but every time he opens his mouth, August suddenly feels like a child all over again. Where does he even start? They've talked about his life in Storybrooke, August has made a few off-hand remarks about travelling, and he has made it strikingly clear that he's not ready to talk about Emma or to Emma and he has begged his father to keep him hidden.

It's a cowardly move. He feels like… like he's backsliding, but…

Emma doesn't need him. No one seems to need him.

Except Archie, and look how that turned out. If he'd just stayed there for a few more minutes, he might be alive –

Another knock at the door sends a bolt of fear and trepidation through him. His perfectly circled irises look to his father for guidance, and the old man rises to go to the door, motioning for August to stay put. Given how the night has fallen, he can easily just tell any visitor he doesn't want to see anyone...

"Hey..."

Archie.

"Hello, Geppetto."

The Blue Fairy.

August's entire body feels as though he's taken an ice bath, but somehow, he manages to stand and make it to the doorway in time to see his father's knees shake, threaten to give out. Not sure how he pulls it off, he manages to catch his dad as he swoons, eyes wide with shock and amazement. Sure enough, Archie's standing right there, looking worse for wear, but very much alive. And the Blue Fairy... suddenly, shame has come rushing back above any relief he might have felt.

"Father!" August gasps as Marco's legs actually do give and they both collapse into a heap on the floor, albeit slowly and almost comically.

"Geppetto!" Archie and Blue have somehow managed to close the door and are on either side of the two men. August isn't sure what to make of it, the sudden rush of people and he's too worried, trying to make sure his father doesn't completely pass out when suddenly, Geppetto's hands are grappling for the individuals around him.

"Oh, this is a miracle!" Geppetto laughs. He laughs, and it's like those demons that have been weighing on him all day fall away just for one moment. The laughter is thick from tears, but there are firm embraces and his father is shaking and for just a few seconds, the shock and grief of the day have completely given way to outright joy.

It's not until he feels Blue's hand on his arm, her fingers almost drifting onto the long, marred gash in the pristine wood that he remembers...

This is the closest thing he has to a family... and he doesn't deserve it.

They might be whole, but he isn't.

He feels like he's drowning. Before he can stop himself, August is scrambling to his feet like the ungainly boy he feels like on the inside, all wooden clacks and creaks. He can hear his father asking for him, but August keeps moving. He stumbles his way into the spare room that had been his prison only a few hours before, and now it feels like the only small haven he has in the storm.

He shuts the door with a final slam and before he knows it, he's in the corner of the bed, curled up and trying to grapple with the sense of utter worthlessness that has consumed him. It's a panicked reaction, akin to a child, and he knows it.

But, it's too many people who have all seen him, who know what he's done to himself, and he just wants it to go away.

The thought crosses his mind…

His fingers press at the inside of his elbow absently as his stomach rolls uncomfortably.

"August?" The Blue Fairy's quiet, concerned tone forces August's hand away from his elbow, the fingers drifting down to the gash that he's been hiding under layers since Gold took more than just a shaving of wood from him, but also his pride. He steals a glance at the door as the woman the whole town had once known just as the Mother Superior slowly pushes the door open enough to slip inside.

He tenses, and his eyes immediately search over her shoulder. He just doesn't… he can't see his father. He really wants a few moments alone, but now she's in here, and she can see how he hasn't changed, he's done nothing to fix himself, and he couldn't even save Emma.

She'd warned him not to go to Gold…

The moment she closes the door behind her, August tears his eyes away from that vacant spot over her shoulder and tries to focus on her.

"I told your father that he and Jiminy should sit and talk." She says, and in that tone of voice, August finds himself calming down already, even though he still wants to bolt. "Jiminy said that you went to see your father. I'm glad you've been with him, I'm sure he's needed you."

August doesn't reply, and when she makes a move to sit beside him on the bed, he sits up considerably, not sure how to curb the shame that's making his throat close. He can lie like a rug, but… around her, around his father, around Jiminy, he just…

August doesn't want to keep lying. He did that for ten years and he really is capable of change. He wants to be.

"What's wrong, August?" Her question is sincere, but it's all he needs to be reminded that he's not doing what he set out to. That when he spoke to the Blue Fairy last, he'd had plans, he… he was supposed to bring Emma back. Be a hero, just for a second.

August glances up at her with a mixture of deadpan annoyance and shame, simply motioning to the image before her. "Look at me. You really think I deserve to be anywhere near them? Near anyone?"

She sighs and her hand moves to touch his arm. He's not used to having a maternal figure in his life, and the Blue Fairy is the closest one he's got. And at once, he wants to recoil and retreat, but he can't bring himself to pull away when her fingers warm his wrist. "August…" The fact that she uses the name he's known far longer than the one his father gave him is a bit of a comfort, it makes his heart slowly stop pounding. "You need to stop being so ashamed of yourself. I told you, you father and I, we gave you a task, a responsibility that should never have been placed on someone so young. But, you've tried your best, you've done so much to help everyone– "

"What exactly have I done that has helped anybody?" Thoughts of a case of watches in Neal's hands flicker through his mind. Booze, junk, women, playing cards and roulette tables tumble right after. It's just like the monastery, only this time, he doesn't even have some sort of redemption in mind. "I mean, look at me. I am a physical manifestation of my failures! To protect Emma, to help break the curse, hell, I couldn't even get Emma back from the Forest when she needed me. If I thought for two seconds that I was worthy of magic, I'd be on my knees begging you to fix this, but – "

"August, you are what you are because of the choices you've made." Her tone isn't cruel, it's matter-of-fact and… profoundly sad. As if she's already given up on him. It takes the wind out of August's already deflating sails, and he glances over at her with a raw mix of horror and guilt.

She's saying she can't do anything.

August knows now.

He did this to himself and he truly is beyond saving. He glances down at his hands, watching the joints as he flexes his fingers. "So, there's nothing you can do…" He mutters, even though he knows the answer and he isn't sure he would take any assistance if he could. "And there's really nothing I can do, either." He sighs, surprisingly calm even though it feels like his heart is slowly splintering. "I've… I failed." His voice is light, matter-of-fact, resigned. "I haven't done anything for Emma, for my father, for anyone."

"No, don't say that." The Blue Fairy shifts beside him, to face him, but instead of meeting her gaze, his eyes lock firmly onto the way his shirt sleeve is caught on his marred arm. "August, the rules I set for you were very specific, but… there is no way you could have compensated for this world. Not without your family. You just…" She pats his wrist gently. "You have to find a way to move on. You can grow from this, I am sure you can."

August is less than sympathetic or receptive for her words of wisdom. They feel false, they feel like platitudes and he wants nothing of it. He shakes his head and shifts again, pulling away. "Thank you, but I'd rather just…" He stops himself before he says something he'll regret – as per usual.

All it does is pull the warmth that he was trying to ignore, not let unnerve him, away as she stands up. "Rather what?"

August glances up at her, those perfectly blue eyes of him painted in perfect orbs. He doesn't have to think about it, he knows he's an aesthetically symmetric piece of craftsmanship, but, that's the problem now, isn't it? "I'd rather just be left alone."

The Blue Fairy nods, and she keeps that serene but concerned look on her face even while August is fairly certain she's two seconds from telling him how disappointed she is in him. "All right. I'll let your father know. But… August, for what it's worth…" She makes her way to the door, then stops, turning to look at him once more. No, not him in general, his arm. "Even if I had the magic to do it, I couldn't do anything with you right now. You're not whole. And you can feel it, can't you?" She swallows as silence descends, but August doesn't know how to answer her. He doesn't want to let on that Gold's damage is the result of his own hubris. Another poor choice in a laundry list. "August… whatever you've done, it's done. It's finished. You can only look forward now."

Thankfully for her, the door is closed before he can fire back some defensive remark that he knows he'd regret in the morning.

So, he's alone with his thoughts.

He has to look forward. His eyes drop down to the gash on his arm.

Maybe it's a glimmer of hope, maybe it's the frustration of how useless he feels, but August knows what he has to do now.

Forget the Blue Fairy. He has to save himself.

August grabs for his phone. He isn't sure how he really manages to dial, as he's surprisingly nervous, but by the time the voice picks up on the other line, he's steady again. He has a purpose.

He has to save himself.

"Mister Gold. I'll be stopping by tomorrow. We have business to discuss."

Chapter Text

"We have business to discuss, do we, Mister Booth?" Gold's voice sends a chill down August's wooden spine even as he slips in through the back door of the shop. Rumplestiltskin isn't all mirth; there's a dark edge to his voice that immediately makes August wonder if this is the best idea. It hasn't shaken his new sense of clarity that the only way to be saved is to do it himself, but it might not be the best time to confront the one man who might have the power to do it.

"That we do." August replies, hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket; grounding him in a simple gesture he's come to associate with closing himself off. He steps forward and watches Gold as he flips the sign to the store, closing it for what August hopes will be the remainder of the day. He hopes because he has to think that he can convince Gold to be a man of honor.

That dark amusement that greets him as Gold faces him, resting both hands on the handle of his cane, makes August think hope might have not been the right motivation to propel him here today. "Well, well, well…" Gold smirks, surveying August as if he's looking to buy a new suit. "What can I do for the boy with kaleidoscope eyes?"

August is fairly certain that if his cheeks could flush with embarrassment at Gold's sneer about his painted, artistically perfect eyes, they would. Doesn't stop him from looking anywhere but Gold's direction while he tries to recover from being thrown off of his game so early. August has dealt with gamblers, mobsters, thugs, swindlers and con artists, but he is never ready to tangle with his childhood nightmare. He had spent months gauging this town and its people, but he had always actively avoided Gold – until he couldn't. And he knows why. There are few faces that he remembers from his childhood, but the mottled, dark green of Rumpelstiltskin's, combined with the frighteningly beautiful visage of the Queen Regina, had been the fuel for his night terrors in the cold as an urchin on the streets.

But he can't let that stop him now. He's been running and hiding. He keeps trying to do better, then he backslides. He won't do that now.

"I believe you have something of mine, and I think it's time you gave it back." August sounds smooth and relaxed, as casual as if he was asking Ruby for a cup of coffee. In reality, he's hoping his knees don't start audibly shaking, even as he gives the impression that Gold doesn't frighten him in the slightest.

"Oh?" Rumpelstiltskin's breathy question is more mocking than curious, just like every other time they've been in this situation, standing off, seemingly with a common goal in mind. At least, August had thought they had a goal in common when Emma and Mary Margaret had dropped through a portal into the Enchanted Forest. Standing here now, though, August finds himself more convinced that he has misjudged Gold from the start.

"We had a deal." August begins, and he can feel himself slipping into the same easy pattern of behavior he used to fleece many a mark and win many a poker game. "I gave you a..." He stalls slightly, the distasteful reality rolling around his wooden tongue unpleasantly. "A part of me, and you would use it to help get Emma and Mary Margaret back." Gold doesn't move, but August knows he has his full attention from the way he's tapping his cane gently on the hardwood floor and that curious, quizzical expression is still on his face. "Clearly, you didn't need it, so now I want it back."

August hasn't slept all night. He's been too busy replaying how this could go in his head over and over again. All the ways Gold could say no, all the ways he might say yes, it's all been spinning like spiders in his head, little webs of stories and lies.

He's not expecting what he gets.

"Why?"

Gold's question catches him off-guard, oddly enough. August knows the answer, but, he honestly hadn't expected Rumpelstiltskin to be interested in why he wants it back. "Excuse me?"

Gold takes a few steps closer, that cane a menacing punctuation to his gait. The man stands level with August, and yet suddenly he is a child, seven years old and wandering the dungeons of the King and Queen's castle. For some reason, the whale his father carved for him clanging against the bars of a dark cell flicker through his mind as a little boy wanders where he shouldn't, and August buckles, blinking stupidly as Gold regards him. "Why would I want to give that back, Mister Booth?" The voice is lethal, low, measured, and, August realizes, very aware that he has the power to destroy the person in front of him. "As far as I am concerned," Gold hisses, and August is acutely reminded of a night weeks ago, caught between a blade at his throat and the trunk of a tree while his life is threatened. "You tried to control me, and you probably would've tried to kill me. And then, you came to me begging for my magic, which, as you know, isn't exactly in infinite supply here." August doesn't budge, he manages to hold his ground, but he feels that childhood fear of the Dark One threatening to truly overwhelm him like that very night where he had found the dagger. Gold continues, relentlessly threatening and practically gleeful of the power he has. "I gave you absolutely no guarantees, and well, since you once possessed something that could theoretically have power over me now, then I see no reason why I should give up such an advantage over you."

Silence falls between them, and August's bright eyes scan Gold's features, thankful for what limited emotion he can display for a change. Gold might detect fear, but August truly feels terror striking him to the core.

Rumpelstiltskin has a part of him. And he thinks he can control him.

August has grown up his entire life trying to shake the notion that he was once just a puppet on a shelf, brought to life by the love of his father. This last year has hammered home the notion that magic is his true lifeline, and without it, he is nothing. He's not real.

Insecurity skitters up his spine and spills over his shoulders, and August almost shivers, wanting to will away the visceral emotions that are borne of nightmares and nights spent on the street, only recalling the horrible darkness of his early years, ignoring the love he had.

It takes August a moment to realize that Gold is still staring him down. His eyebrow has quirked. He's waiting for an answer.

August swallows. He had wanted to appeal to Gold's sense of honor, but that's not going to work. He'll have to think of something else. "I need that back. I can't become normal again until I'm whole."

Gold smirks, he smirks, and takes a step back, chuckling softly. "Yeah, I'm afraid I don't see much of a benefit for me here. Who knows what I could do if I hold onto that shaving? Like this, Mister Booth, you're far too easy to control. You are an open book for anyone to read." He casts a glance back over his shoulder, and for just a moment, August sees the copper face that he remembers from the past. "All they need to know is the language."

For just a second, a terrifying, bone-chilling split-second, August braces himself. He expects a wave of the hand, or a flicker of fire, and for Gold to make good on his threat.

But, that second passes and all the other man does is make his way behind his counter and rest against it casually, as if opening up negotiations and not threatening his life.

"There is perhaps, one way I might consider helping you." Gold's expression, his tone, beckons August closer to the counter, but he remains firmly rooted in his spot. "While you've been out there hiding from all your problems, I've been facing mine head-on. And I've found a way to leave Storybrooke - "

"What?" August's interjection is rolled right over as Gold keeps speaking.

"Without losing my precious memories. It's already cost me someone I care dearly for, so when I leave here, I cannot afford any other..." Gold's jaw sets, and for just a moment, there's a flicker of darkness, a sorrow, maybe? And then it's gone. "Hiccups. But, a man as well-traveled as yourself, I imagine he has resources I do not. You provide me with information I need, I might ruminate over the notion of giving you back that careless shaving you left here."

August's heart thumps a little louder in his chest, a heart that he's not sure is wooden or just a magical phantom. "I'm listening." Caution colors his voice, but he still takes a step closer, lured by the prize of his humanity once more.

"I'll not only give you back the shaving, but I'll do one better." Rumpelstiltskin smiles, something closer to what he'd seen of Gold before he'd revealed his identity. "Your Blue Fairy might not be able to make you human, given that she's begging for this shaving, but I could. And not only that, I could make it so you never turn back."

August feels a pang of desire and loss so profound that he actually gives away a tell, his jaw going a little slack as he lets out a deep breath, clearly enticed by the offer. Gold smiles, cold and reptilian.

"I see I have your attention." He chuckles, standing straight once more to truly look August in the eye. "All I need is one thing."

"Name it." August replies, faster, more eager than he means to. The call of real flesh and blood, skin, bones, hair, all of it, is too strong to fight. He has to know. He has too little to offer Gold.

"You knew details about me that no one but my son knows." There's that menacing edge once more, and even as he's speaking, August can see the net he's caught himself in. "So, you tell me how you know my son and where to find him, and I'll restore you when I return."

"You're looking for Baelfire..." August's slight surprise at that notion, as well as genuine shock and awe at the very idea that Gold might possibly be telling him the truth, with a legitimate deal, has him stunned. "And you think I can help you."

"I know you can." Rumpelstiltskin has turned casual conversation into an artform with a brogue and a threat all rolled into one melodic sentence. August has known he's been outclassed when it happens. Typically, he isn't level-headed enough to keep his mouth shut when it comes to battles of wits, but if there's one thing he can thank Emma for, it's that he's begun to hone that particular skill. So, he keeps his mouth shut, but Gold's offer is rolling around in his head all too pleasantly. "I want to reconcile with him, a..." Gold clicks his tongue, perturbed. "An occasion you took advantage of. The least you could do is tell me who Baelfire is, where I can find him, and how he's doing. I believe he is in New York City, but I'll need more details in order to track him down. It's not exactly a small city, is it now?"

"How do you know he's in the city?" The moment the words have left August's lips, he wishes he could grab them right out of the air and shove them back in. Gold's caught it, Gold realizes that August has the information he's seeking.

"Ah, I thought you would be the right person to talk to about this, and clearly, I'm right." There's a scraping of wood and metal, and a worn, grey box is set upon the glass countertop with ease. August can't recall seeing it before, but from the easy way Gold unlocks it and flips open the top, he clearly knows where everything goes and what purpose each item has.

And that's when he sees Gold's slender, graceful fingers pull free the long, flat shaving from August's arm and hold it up to the light of his lamp, looking it over. "Beautiful cut of wood your father used," Gold mutters, as if appraising one of his many antiquities in this shop. "And to think, the stories about you say you were cut from a bad piece of wood." His eyes flick from the shaving over to August. "Maybe it's a matter of rearing that's the problem."

August's anger suddenly surges from the center of that fear and trepidation. It takes all he has to get a handle on it, but his jaw sets nonetheless, and he strides closer to the counter. "Leave my father out of this. He did the best he could for me, and you are not going to tell me otherwise." August reaches for the shaving, hoping to move the conversation along, to avoid the request Gold has.

But, he's not fast enough. Gold flips the shaving away from August's wanting fingertips and sets it back in the box, closing the lid with a resounding, final crack. "Ah-ah-ah, what part of

I've given a proposition' don't you understand?" Gold scoffs and sets the box back under the counter and officially out of August's reach, much to his chagrin. "And believe me, Mister Booth, I know just how bad a father yours was. I also made the mistake of leaving my son in a world he didn't understand. You've given yours the chance to be forgiven." August swallows as Gold's words weave around his mind, reminding him that the reconciliation between him and his father has felt so one-sided, but that the old man has expressed mountains of guilt over what had happened. "Don't you think I deserve the same?"

August wants to say he's not considering the offer. He wants to say that Neal's words, reminding him that if Emma breaks the curse, that means Gold will go looking for him, have already made the decision for him. He wants to say that August has committed enough sins against Emma that he doesn't need to screw things up for Emma even more by sending Gold after him. If Neal comes back to Storybrooke with his father...

August knows what that will mean.

Henry's father... Emma's co-conspirator that she was willing to throw everything away for...

August wishes he wasn't considering it.

Why lie about where you found me?

I lied to protect you.

From what?

I was supposed to be there for you. And I wasn't.

August's own words remind him just what he's cost Emma. Twenty seven years of her life spent alone, because he couldn't be bothered to stay with her. And because the onething he's good at, the one skill he has above all others, is the same skill that has secured that she will never trust him.

But that doesn't mean he has to betray her again. And by betraying Neal, that is exactly what he's doing. If Neal finds her, it would be his own doing. Gold is not who that man wants.

"Sorry." August says softly, taking one step back, then another, each growing heavier. "No deal."

Gold's smile falls. August wants to savor that moment, but he's too focused on the fact that he's kissing away any chance of becoming who he used to be. The Blue Fairy's words haunt him even as he keeps slowly making his way towards the back of the shop and Gold pursues him with a sneer. He isn't whole. He'll never be a real man again.

But he just can't do it. Not this time. Emma's paid enough. He won't take that from her, too. He won't set Gold on his own son just for the possibility that he isn't lying.

"I strongly urge you to reconsider." The r's roll in each word, Gold's patience has been exhausted, but he keeps moving.

"You know what? My dad might not have done his best, hell, I am a monumental screw-up." August stops just for a moment, his conviction supporting him as he faces his nightmare. "But I will never forgive myself for sending your son back to you. You don't know who he is, the choices he's made, and I made a promise. Just this once, I am going to do my damndest to keep it."

August doesn't wait for a response. He turns and stumbles out the back door, footsteps pounding on gravel as he tries to get away from the spider's web as fast as he can.

And with it, he knows he's kissing his last chance at becoming a real man goodbye.

He has to face that. He isn't whole.

So much for August W. Booth. Some guardian angel.

Chapter Text

Some guardian angel, she thinks sardonically, as she stares up at the statue of the avenging Michael in the courtyard of the Convent. Her blue robes clutch to her uncomfortably, strangling and confining on a day when she wishes for freedom. With her auburn hair in a bun appropriate for the Mother Superior, she has walked each path of this place until she finally rested here.

There seems to be so little justice when her child is suffering, and this place of false idols that are not from the Enchanted Forest brings her no comfort.

Magic is the religion of the Forest, and she feels herself straining to maintain that connection that, since leaving that land of Enchantment, has been just out of reach. What minor conjurings she can create are far from the miracles of magic she once helmed. She can be better, a greater asset to her child. And, it's desperation to protect her child that has her here, in this convent.

"Mother Superior..." A breathless, desperate voice catches her attention, and she turns, eyes surveying the unusual sight before her. It's certainly not what she expects. "I'm sorry, I know, you said not to come during the daytime, but have you seen Emma?" He's out of breath - a feat for a wooden man, and she struggles to call him the identity he's crafted with leather and motorcycle oil.

"August..." The name sounds unfamiliar on her lips, but she pays it no mind. Instead, her brow furrows in concern. "No, I haven't. What's wrong?"

"Dammit," He hisses, apparently ignorant of his setting. Not that she is upset, either. "I'm sorry. It's just..." His pants finally subside as she waits, all too patient for her own liking, but she knows whatever he has to say, it's important and has him in such a state. "I was going to see her, tell her about magic bringing me back like this. I mean, I know," He sounds a little sorry for himself, but at the same time, convinced of his intentions. It's curious. "I'm Pinocchio, my whole life has been about lying, but just this once, I have to tell her the truth."

"The truth?" She questions, taking a step closer to him, hands tucked together in front of her. "About what?"

"Look, I should've told you, too. When you came to visit." He swallows visibly, and hands shrouded in leather gloves reach up to scrub at his mahogany face. "God, I am sostupid. When Emma and Snow White were dropped into the Enchanted Forest, I gave Rumpelstiltskin a shaving, off my arm." To emphasize the point, August reaches down and pushes back the leather of his jacket up to his elbow, shoving the black shirt underneath up as well, showing off a marred, jagged, rough scar in the wood. She frowns, her expression reflecting sympathy for the wound, even as she finds herself wondering how he could possibly have been so foolish as to give a part of himself to the Dark One. "He told me he would use it to help them, and he didn't. He kept it, and he just tried to bribe me for information about his son in order to get it back." August is shaking his head, desperate, sounding as guilt-ridden as can be, and she can't help but feel a little pang of sympathy for him. "I was going to go tell Emma anyway, but I think she's..." August's voice trails off, as if he's lost his gusto, and in its place is simply fear and concern. "Gone. I think Gold took her. And Henry. I just happened to overhear Jiminy talking about it, and now..." August leans against the stone railing in the courtyard, shoulders slumped, fading fast. "I can't even tell her what happened to me."

He doesn't continue. Instead, he slumps down to the ground, staring at the wall ahead of him, one leg still bent at the knee, his exposed arm resting atop of his kneecap. She's never seen the damage Rumpelstiltskin did to him, and she finds herself drawn to examine it.

"I thought... maybe I could do it. Maybe I could save myself, but... I'm wrong." His unnaturally perfect eyes meet hers, and she swallows, standing straighter, wanting to present the Blue Fairy he clearly still looks up to. He doesn't see the woman underneath, and he doesn't need to. "I can't do it... If it means betraying Baelfire, even when you trusted me with that knowledge, I just... I can't. I can't ruin Emma's life, not again. I took him from her once, to get her on the right track, but she'll never forgive me if I send that monster after a son who literally jumped worlds to get away from him. She deserves better."

Emma. His concern for Emma has driven him to give up, to pull away from the offer that the Dark One provided.

She sighs after a long moment, her mind turning as she contemplates what this means for the long run.

"Perhaps I misjudged you." She says softly. There must be a note of hope or sympathy in her voice, because it's enough to make him scramble back to his feet, ignorant of how tired he is. She waits until he's standing, facing her, ready to implore her for what she can tell is at the tip of his tongue. And then she tells him what he needs to hear. "I thought you were strong enough to handle your own problems, August. I thought you could do this, if you just had enough incentive. Instead," She shakes her head. "Rumpelstiltskin can control you. Anyone could control you."

She can see the way his wooden heart beats faster, thumping in his chest loud enough to even invite the Queen of Hearts to come after him. "No... I... I did what was best for Emma - "

"Of course, because you are not good for Emma. In fact, being like this is probably the best gift you could ever give her." There's no malice in what she says, only stark honesty, brutal and cutting. August blinks, almost like he doesn't believe her, so she presses forward. "You're a coward, August. This is your responsibility, and I cannot help you. You have everything, and it is your fault that you trusted Gold. Didn't I warn you?"

"Yes, but, I thought - "

"Thought what? That after countless mistakes you would somehow be forgiven? Do you think she will trust you? You said it yourself: you ruined her life."

Magic is the religion of the Forest. She can feel his prayers in the way his heart is wounded. He hasn't asked, but she can sense the unspoken prayer: Fix it. Fix me. Fix her. Forgive me. Make her forgive me.

"I'm sorry, August, but you've failed. There's nothing I can do for you now." She purses her lips, furrows her brow, sympathy and sorrow coloring her features as he looks at her. "In fact, you'd probably do more good if you weren't here at all. I don't know how I could tell your father what you've done." She shakes her head slowly once more. "I thought you could do this, but... clearly, you were not up to the task."

His heart beats a little more brokenly, and he steps back. She's never seen a wooden man cry, but she sees something wet and slick streak down his cheek, past the painted beard. "Why would you say that?"

"Oh, August..." She sighs, shrugging a little. "Because it's true."

She can't imagine what's going through his head as he turns and bolts to parts unknown.

Well, unknown to someone who doesn't know what the sound of a wooden heart is. As he disappears, she takes a deep breath and sheds the glamour, this careful replica of the Mother Superior, inside with the rest of her revolting fairies.

She walks up to the statue of Michael, rolling her shoulders as she unfurls her black parasol from the ether, opening it and setting it over her shoulder.

"I believe they call you the one who stands up for the children of your people." She smiles, and a dark chuckle escapes her red lips as she rests her hand on the foot of the statue. "I'm sure you understand, then. I'm only protecting my child."

Her footsteps leave the vicinity of the statue, and her smile grows as she hears the crumbling of the decade-old stone statue. As she passes the fountain in the center of the courtyard, Cora glances down into the water and sees her reflection confidently staring back at her.

Curious man, this August. She has had to learn much of this town, but he had been a mystery. Her daughter has mentioned his entanglements with Emma Swan in the past, but there was an impression he was gone, had left. Suddenly, it makes sense, as the rumored puppet son of the woodworker is suddenly walking around the town.

As the Queen of Hearts, much of what occurred in the Enchanted Forest while she was gone was unknown to her, but the fairies here. They gossip. They spew information to waiting ears, and it has been ridiculously easy to infiltrate them. And now, thanks to them, and thanks to the Blue Fairy's attachment to this wooden man, Cora can see the plan as it takes formation in her mind.

Magic is the religion of the forest.

And she enjoys the bleeding prayers of a broken wooden man.

The pain is palpable, a throbbing in his heart that radiates all the way back to the convent. He hopes Emma will forgive him, but he knows she won't.

And why would she? Who on earth could love such a liar?

Love is the ultimate weakness. This she knows all too well. And most of all, when you don't realize that's what you're feeling.

Chapter Text

Love is the ultimate weakness. This she knows all too well. And most of all, when you don't realize that's what you're feeling.

"You left me." Emma is almost 100% certain that this is what Cora meant when she shoved her hand into her chest and told her love was weakness. But, Emma tries to turn it to strength again. She has to. It's the only way she'll avoid screaming with rage. "And you let me go to prison... because Pinocchio told you to?"

She figures August has plenty to feel guilty about, given the way he'd unloaded on her that night in the woods, the way he'd been there for her, trying to help her whenever he could, even helping to break into Regina's garage. But, this. This.

It's a new low, and yet at the same time, as she stares at the drink in front of her after having spent a half hour trying to talk to the scumbag across the bar from her... Emma's words of disdain for Neal keep quietly reminding her that the exact reasons she thought Neal left her were exactly why August wanted him gone.

"I loved you." Emma snaps, staring at a man that she loved - in fact, it took her way too long to figure that out and put those feelings to bed, but with no resolution, they were never really going to go away.

Neal stutters and stumbles, and there's something about how he was trying to help her, and she knows she's snapping back at him, and then he's snapping back, but the words coming out of Emma's mouth aren't nearly as important to her as the fact that if there is one person who is proof to her that loving someone is a horrible idea, that they just leave and they're selfish, he's sitting right in front of her. He's spouting crap about how maybe they were always supposed to meet, because something about breaking the curse, and she holds her hands up.

"Okay, just stop it." Emma hisses, her anger not even remotely in check. She hasn't been this angry since August started laying this whole "Savior of the entire Kingdom" crap on her, and now she can't even be upset with him about this newest debacle because he's gone. "I can't even think of a word to tell you how screwed up this is, but 'Fate' is nowhere even near that list! This is crap!"

"What, you think I wanted this?" Neal's defensive note to his voice just pokes at Emma's ire even more, and she stands up, nervous energy, pain, and rage just bubbling up so much she can't stay still.

"I don't know what you wanted! You wanted to use me so you could get those watches!" Emma had told herself before walking in here that she was going to keep her temper in check. She certainly doesn't care to now. And why not? She's out of Storybrooke, in the middle of a city that makes it statistically impossible to find someone with as little information as Gold had, and yet, here is the man of the hour. "I'm not stupid, I have had ten damn years to sit here and analyze everything I went through with you. And you know what I noticed?" She shakes her head, disgust obvious in expression and tone. "You were planning to make me take the fall. You figured if I didn't get caught stealing them, I'd take the fall while you ran off with the money. So, really, I shouldn't be surprised that the man who lies like a rug was able to convince you to leave - "

"First of all," Neal snaps back, his spine apparently deciding to join the brewing argument. "You're right, I didn't need August to really make me do anything. So, do us both a favor and unless you're gonna go yell at him for telling me the truth about you, then drop him out of this conversation, because this isn't about you and me. Because, second of all, this is about my father." Neal pauses, and for a second, Emma sees that sympathetic puppy dog look that makes her blood boil right now, while at the same time, she knows it could easily sway her to calm down. If she was still 17. "I'm sorry, Emma, but, this wasn't about you. Okay? It just wasn't. There's not a ton about my father that I remember that doesn't suck."

That hangs in the air, and Emma finds herself swallowing down nausea. He doesn't deny that he wanted her to take the fall. His silence is as damning as anything else he's said.

She wants to leave, she just wants to get the hell out of this city and never come back. Of all the people to see again, to have to face again, she never wanted it to be Neal. In fact, if she can find some way to drag August out of whatever den of inequity he's apparently vanished to, she's more than willing to do that so she can rail at him about this first over dealing with Neal.

Because, right now? This is painful. This is every stupid childhood mistake leading up to Henry coming back to haunt her, and not only haunt her, but to tell her how justified all of it was.

"My dad," Neal's talking again, but Emma's only barely listening. "He used to tell me that there are no coincidences. Everything that happens, happens by design, and there's nothing we can do about it. Forces greater than us conspire to make it happen. Fate, destiny, whatever you want to call it. The point is… Maybe we met for a reason. Maybe something good came from us being together."

The look on her face must be absolutely priceless. She stares back at him, stunned, disgusted, and everything else in between. Something "good?" Aside from Henry, which, yes, he is more precious to Emma than she can even understand now, but there's no way in hell she's telling Neal that he has a kid. The life she would have had with him, even if for two seconds he actually had settled down... not a life for her son.

"No, Neal." She finally and decisively replies, hands at her sides more so that she doesn't reach over and smack him, which she could definitely do right about now. "I went to jail. That's all that came out of this. It doesn't matter how, it just is." The words start to sound easier, and Emma can feel that wall of hers holding strong. "I'm over it. And you." Just a bit more to cement that wall into place. Emma was 17 years old, and she knows now, and has for a long time, that some people are just bad for each other.

This isn't how this little jaunt was supposed to go with Gold. But Emma can't change that. She can't change that she's forced to face Henry's father, a man who took her youth for granted, hyped her imagination with stories of freedom and adventure. And she certainly can't change that he could have changed and helped her break the damn curse instead of just ditching her in jail.

"People grow up, Neal. I did." Emma spits. "How about you?"

Neal's eyes drop to the counter. "How come you still wear the keychain I got you?"

Her hand goes to the keychain around her neck, a weight she's grown accustomed to for quite some time. Emma knows she has a bit of a... memento attachment. Her blanket, newspaper clippings(which now flash her conversation with August at the lobster house in front of her), the keychain, Graham's badge. August's bracelet.

For someone who tries to keep people so closed off, she does an amazing job of keeping them close. Even when it hurts. Each one is a lesson. A lesson of how they hurt her, and how to never let that happen again.

So, why is she still wearing it? She knows the reason. It didn't matter, because she made the same mistake again and he's gone, he left. And frankly, she's just tired of the whole mess. Of trusting, of them leaving, of them lying. She had closed herself off. She needs to go back to that. She needs to forget about how scared she was when she saw August dying in his room, how instantly she'd forgiven him for his sins. Instead, she needs to remember that he lied, that he left her, and that is all he's ever done. But, it hurts, and so she took the bracelet off when the realization that he wasn't coming back hit her.

Same goes for Neal. She's considered taking the necklace off over the years, but, he is not the same kind of hurt as August.

He's here. She can resolve this.

Emma pulls the necklace off and sets it on the counter in front of them both.

"To remind myself to never trust anyone again." She picks up her scarf and finishes her drink, turning to face him. Already, the necklace is a loss she feels around her neck. That wall she keeps up is holding firm, but behind it, the wounds of Neal turning her over have been reopened, raw, tender, and bleeding. "C'mon. I made a deal with your father that I'd bring you to him." There's a strange sense of satisfaction mixed with fear and guilt when she says that. Emma isn't typically vindictive, she doesn't normally play the underhanded game, but she's playing to his sense of guilt, of shame. "It's about time you grew up." She adds as she pushes her chair in.

Neal is staring at her wide-eyed. "You made a deal with him?"

She feels her heart clench a little, but it's good. Necessary. She has to put this to bed. She has to face him and deal with this on her terms. Even if the damage is never going to heal. Emma is very aware that her taste in men is obscenely bad, but Neal, even knowing that August gave him an out and he ran from her as fast as he could... "Yeah." She tells him, sort of enjoying the look of dismay on his face. "And I'm upholding my end."

"No, Emma. You don't have to."

"I know that." She takes a step towards the door, expecting him to follow. She doesn't like Gold, she hardly trusts Gold on a good day, but this isn't her problem. RIght now, her bigger problem is trying to process through all of her emotions long enough to figure out what this means in the long run.

"Okay, so this should be really easy for you." The worry and fear in Neal's voice, the instant defensive tactic, gets her attention, even though she's not looking forward to it. "Tell him that you lost me. Tell him you can't find me. You do that, you'll never have to see me again."

The problem Emma has with closing herself off... is that she's very bad at it once someone's already gotten in once.

So, she takes the easy way out at first.

She lies.

It'll protect Henry, she tells herself as she talks to her mother on the phone.

It'll protect Henry, she tells herself as she justifiably sees the manic glint in Gold's eyes as she tells him she "lost his son" and he bullies his way up into the apartment building.

It'll protect Henry, she tells herself as she and Gold are shouting at each other, and she finds herself wondering if this quest is going to end with her having to actually defend herself against a man she's found untrustworthy, but not violent against her. At least, not until he pushes her.

And then it'll protect Henry, she tells herself, as she tries to steer the kid back out of the room when he walks in while Neal and his father - god, that still hasn't sunk in - argue.

And then Emma watches it unravel. Neal knows, Henry knows, and it's just chaos.

It's not until she's sitting there, begging for forgiveness from her son, that a thought hits her right out of left field. All at once, it douses her in icy realization. It trickles down her body until it settles in her stomach. Maybe that's why she walks back in and tells Neal that Henry wants to meet him. She doesn't fight it as hard as she could, and instead, she gives herself some distance.

She takes a seat, not bothering to speak to Gold, because she's too busy recognizing what she's done.

She gets it. August's choices... why it was so painful for him to tell her everything, even if she hated him, and he did it anyway.

This is what it feels like when you don't tell the truth.

 

Chapter Text

This is what it's like when you don't tell the truth.

His heart is pounding, his stomach is swimming in a nauseatingly guilty fashion as his wooden legs finally give out somewhere in the woods between the convent and the well, he's not sure where.

He collapses in a heap of kindling, rattling as loudly as his ears are ringing with the Blue Fairy's words.

You're a coward, August. This is your responsibility, and I cannot help you.

Even though he knows there's no actual blood running through his veins - might be sap, though, he has no desire to test that theory - there's a roaring of sound as shuddering pain wracks through him. He's curling up without thinking, loosely clutching at his own sides. He doesn't know if it's a pain borne completely of the body, or of the mind, but he knows it's unbearable and in this moment, he deserves it. His arm is throbbing, the sensation snaking up to his shoulder, then blossoming down through his entire chest in raw, scorching sensation. Exhaustion threatens to force his eyes closed, dragging him down into unconsciousness.

All the while, all he can see and all he can hear is the Blue Fairy telling him what he's always known about himself.

You said it yourself: you ruined her life.

Rolling onto his back, he's forced to stare at the gray, threatening sky and take account of his monumental failures. He thought he could do this, that he could reach Emma, apologize for everything and be honest about how he knows Neal and what he's done to her over all these years. Instead, he's given a part of himself to Rumpelstiltskin to be used whenever the Dark One wants. The shudder of genuine terror that rocks through him isn't lessened by the knowledge that Gold is gone, and that Emma is with him.

He wasn't sure before seeing the Fairy, but now? Now he just knows.

She's gone. And even when she comes back, if they've found Neal, he has most certainly lost any chance at reconciliation with her.

You have everything, and it is your fault that you trusted Gold.

The Blue Fairy is right. August is alive, he should have gone to Emma the moment she was back in Storybrooke. He has his family, and he could've made good on his promises to fix the mistakes of his past...

But, there's nothing to be done now. Chances blown, he's done. And really, what does he expect?

That after countless mistakes you would somehow be forgiven? Do you think she will trust you?

The guilt that swims around in his gut just confirms what he doesn't want to admit. He knows that's what he's been hoping for. Maybe... just maybe, she can forgive him.

Yeah. As if that's all that likely anymore.

Eventually, panic gives way to solid depression and melancholy, punctuated by a soft, throbbing pain that seems to leech out energy from him as well. He can tell it's centered on the gash in his arm, the marred loss that Rumplestiltskin now holds... somewhere. For a moment, August is reminded that Gold is gone, and it's very likely that after their argument he's taken the shaving with him.

August's face is a muted mask of concern. What happens if part of him leaves Storybrooke without the rest of him? He's pulling himself to a sitting position and trying to work his leather-clad figures under the hem of his black shirt underneath his jacket...

"I suppose the adage is true. If a tree falls in a forest and no one's there to hear it, it doesn't make much of a sound."

August freezes. He knows that voice. It's not a voice he's particularly fond of.

"Regina..." He mutters, forcing his eyes upwards to the former Mayor of Storybrooke, and the evil queen of his childhood. There's a woman beside her, all propriety and a ginger mane of ringlets piled upon her head. August feels like he should know her, but he's not sure why.

"Mister Booth, I have to say, this was not how I expected to see you resurface in town." Regina sounds so casual, but he can hear the cat eating the canary snark that she's barely keeping in check.

"That makes two of us..." August quips, grunting as he pulls himself to his feet. His bravado has kicked in, even though his heart is thudding from somewhere deep in his barrel chest. He's considering possibly trying to escape - if he was still whole, he'd even lie - but he knows there's nowhere for him to go. He's in the middle of the woods, for Pete's sake. "Believe me, Mayor Mills, I'd much rather not be the butt of every wood-based joke you can think of." All two of them, he thinks, but he barely manages to keep that one from flying. Magic has been brought to this world, it's working through his veins and his body.

It also means Regina has it, too.

"Curious creature you are." The older woman muses. Her voice slithers and trickles down August's neck, but his determination to stay as stoic as he can in the face of the Evil Queen keeps him neutral. He brushes his gloved hands free of dust, cautious and casual, even if he's very aware that this might be the last five minutes of his life. He's not too sure. "He was far more talkative when he thought I was that unseemly Blue Fairy." That relaxed barb makes August's stomach tighten as he's hit with the realization that what he's heard, the words he's taken to heart... weren't from the Blue Fairy. He's been duped. And he gave away the very secret he's been trying to keep...

Who the hell is she? August quips, hoping to find out. "Call me crazy, but it's not nice to pretend to be other people. Especially when I don't even know your name."

"I suggest you treat my mother with a little more respect, Pinocchio." The crisp click of his name on Regina's tongue feels like a slap to the face. That name is still so foreign to him, and he feels like it's already been weaponized against him. "Frankly, I'm not all that interested in how you feel, considering you've been lying since you came into town." Regina saunters forward, a tight smirk gracing lips that are deceptively beautiful, hiding the darkness beneath. Others might have sympathy for her, like Snow, but August has none. He knows her as one of the monsters of his youth, a phantom he dreamt of in the darkness between nightmares of the Dark One. To him, the two are hand in hand.

And this woman's Regina's mother? How evil was she?

"I shouldn't be surprised." Regina continues, moving in a slow circle around August. She gives him a wide berth, but it's not like he's in a position to act anyway. With Regina's mother in front of him, and the queen herself circling behind, August finds himself having to choose which one to follow. "Pinocchio, mother, in case you were unaware of the current bedtime story, is a marionette carved from an enchanted tree by the old man, Geppetto - "

"Ah, yes, the woodcarver who built the very wardrobe Snow White's daughter snuck through." She knows about the wardrobe. August can feel his heartbeat speed up a little more. "How quaint, it mimics concern."

"Right, because the pretending I'm not a real boy thing never got old," August grumbles, exasperated and offended. "If you have something to say, I think all of us would be much happier if you just said it."

Regina simply tightens her smile and continues as if she'd never been interrupted. "And this marionette is very naughty. He likes to tell lies, and has no real conscience to speak of. From my understanding, that's pretty close to how it actually happened. Only when Pinocchio was a boy, he saved his father in a storm and as a reward, the Blue Fairy turned him into a 'real boy.'" Perfectly manicured fingers actually mime air quotes. August can feel his molars grinding. "I believe there were a few stipulations to that particular magic, though, and well, the long and short of it is that as long as Pinocchio was a good boy, he'd be real forever." Regina has stopped, leaving him in the unenviable position of having to pivot, trying to keep both women at least in his peripheral vision. "What on earth did you do to suffer this fate, August?"

"Perhaps it was his father's gift of life outside of the curse, Regina. He's an adult, and you told me Pinocchio was a boy when you took the Enchanted Forest. Clearly, somethinghappened." August finds himself debating if he can, in fact, make a run for it. He doesn't trust these two as far as he can throw them, but more than that, they aren't even hiding that there's a sort of sinister edge to Regina's voice, and her mother is clearly not there to plant daisies. "Perhaps the lying runs in the family. Maybe the wardrobe could take more than one." August's heart jumps, thudding faster, and there's a new gleam in the woman's eyes. "I see. Yes, that's exactly what it is, isn't it? Your heart's racing even while it's trapped in that interesting shell. Your father lied and sent you along with Emma, didn't he?"

"Don't talk about my father." He hisses, failing miserably at keeping the tone casual. "This conversation is over. If you'll excuse me, ladies..."

His feet move, one step after another, to walk past them.

Until they won't.

All at once, his joints have locked. The magical propulsion that gives his wooden muscles their ability to contract and extend, the very act of breathing that he knows inherently he doesn't require, all of it suddenly has come to a screeching, terrifying halt. He can't even move his eyes.

Weightlessness and a sudden pressure have overcome him, halting his senses as he tries to ignore the very raw fear that has iced over him in addition to whatever is keeping him still.

"You were right." Regina breathes. "It works."

"Of course I'm right, my dear. I told you, there is so much you can learn, and this is just the beginning." He can't see the other woman, but he knows she's there, even as his body starts to throb with unnatural restraint. It feels like he's turning back to wood again, and once the thought passes through his head, he can't dislodge it.

Regina has noticed, and for a moment, he thinks her face flickers with pity. "He looks like he's in pain."

"Don't be absurd. He's a puppet, he can't feel anything. He is a product of magic, and as such, can be honed and wielded for a purpose." August can feel himself moving. At least his vision is slowly shifting towards the voice, until she's right in front of him, a glowing hand caressing his cheek. "If we sent him onto the other side of that town line you referred to, there would be nothing to keep him alive. He'd just cease to be."

The edges of his vision start to go black.

"So... he's a tool." Regina again.

"Exactly. And like any tool, we will put it away until we need it." There's a flourish of that hand that was once on his cheek, and August's vision is fading as he sees some sort of building manifest from dark smoke beyond the two women.

"And what do we need him for?"

"This young man made a very foolish deal with Rumpelstiltskin, and you said he was close to Emma. Really, the purpose is up to us. He's given us so many to choose from, and frankly..." August can feel himself giving in to the black, haunting words echoing. "They will never see him coming when he stabs them in the back."

Chapter Text

They will never see him coming when he stabs them in the back.

See him coming...

Stabs them in the back...

Stabs them...

See him coming...

Never see him...

The words hit him in fits and spurts as his chest throbs with the poison that blasted Killian Jones has laced through his veins. The words themselves are unbidden, but it's the fear that surges through him that catches him off-guard. Maybe it's because he is concerned for his own life, such as it is, but he knows that those words are where the fear truly blossoms.

The words aren't his. He swallows, his breath growing more uneven with each passing minute. He's been hearing that sentence rolling over and over in his mind, along with a name, one that he only vaguely recalls and can't figure out what relevance it could possibly have.

Johanna...

Somewhere in the mixture of Mr. Gold's mind and that of Rumpelstiltskin is the name of one of Snow White's staff, only notable because she was the servant to the queen before, one he'd seen many times.

Her name was Johanna.

Rumpelstiltskin shifts, trying to gather the strength to reposition and feel some modicum of comfort while Bae... his Bae, and Emma are talking about transportation out of Manhattan. A reminder of his son tosses aside these thoughts of betrayal and Snow White's serfs. He has to get back to Storybrooke. If Bae comes with him, if Gold can just heal this poison and have a chance to stay with his son in town for a little while, he can make him see. They can work things out...

He ignores another pang of that fear and shoves it aside as Emma comes closer. He tells himself it's because of the poison. That's why he's scared. Mortality would scare any man.

"Bad news, Gold." Miss Swan's voice is the last thing he wants to hear, but it's a necessary distraction.

He forces himself to smile, but it appears as much more of a toothy sneer. He catches the way Bae stiffens a little at the attempt, as if it's made him more defensive rather than at ease. The smile fades a bit more, and instead, acerbic sarcasm is all he can muster for Emma. "What, worse than incurable poison?"

The attempt at banter is volleyed right back with equal amounts of rancor from Miss Swan. "I dunno. You tell me. You got a dagger hidden somewhere in Storybrooke that's the source of all your power?"

Who's there? Come out from behind the bushes!

The voice is no one in the room, and his eyes unfocus just long enough for him to pinpoint where the foreign thought comes from. "Get to your point..." He grounds out, but his hand has moved to the inside lapel of his jacket, feeling the wooden shaving held closely to his breast. It's too important to have left in his shop. He knows Mister Booth has found it remarkably easy to find that which Gold wants to hide. Like the dagger.

"Cora's after it. The only way to stop her is to have David and Mary Margaret get to it first."

Cora. She truly is willing to turn on him the moment he leaves. He shouldn't be shocked. "Yeah, let Cora try." He hisses, more acerbic, spitting like a defensive cobra.

"You can't seriously be willing to risk this. Not with your son coming back with you to Storybrooke." Her words do reach him, but he knows what she wants.

"Miss Swan, that dagger has not left my possession for centuries. It's not about to now." She wants the dagger, it's what Booth wanted, and it's what everyone wants. Rumpelstiltskin shakes his head a little, his expression slipping from angry to calm as he forces the change. That's paranoid, coming from him. He knows why August had gone for the dagger, and his subsequent visits have shown that the carpenter's son is willing to make deals with those who wouldn't regularly trust him.

"Here's the thing." Emma sounds surprisingly patient, but he knows it's still impatient by average standards. "You're dying. And right now, we are your best hope. Time's come for you to start trusting someone. And, if I were you, I'd start with family."

Maybe he could tell Emma... he knows of August's fondness for her, and with his son's history with her, it would go a long way.

But, he isn't about to give away such precious information without ensuring he still has the upper hand. "Miss Swan, you're not the first person to pull the family card with me. Although, to your credit, as least you didn't lie like your boyfriend, Mister Booth." Emma's brow furrows in confusion and her shoulders stiffen in defense. He doesn't bother to hide the smug look on his face, although he mixes it with surprise. "Ah, I see, you didn't know that you weren't the only horse he was betting on to break the curse and fix him."

"He's not my boyfriend," Emma quickly counters with a furtive glance back at his son, but the denial is completely without substance, but Bae isn't look at her, he's focused on what Gold is saying.

"Hold up, you're saying you know August? You met him?" Bae is staring at him with a mixture of concern and antagonism. A surge of defiance from nowhere forces the next barb out of Gold's mouth, and he reaches up to grab for his coat, hand clutching and absently absorbing the bare outline of the shaving there.

"Oh, yes. Pinocchio and I are associates, even. Loosely."

"Bullshit." Emma snaps.

Gold levels his gaze on her, and he's not sure if it's the pain that makes him smirk, or if it's that sensation of defensiveness he keeps trying to clamp down. "Oh? Why else do you think I chose not to help you secure Henry from Regina before the curse broke? Because your friend August asked me to push you in his direction. I thought given how close the two of you were - "

"Would you knock it off?" Emma's exasperation is actually giving the old man far too much satisfaction to let up now, and he ignores the way his son fires him another look.

"That he could help you believe. And that was after he was a shining example of why he's in the unfortunate position he is now. He pretended to be you, Bae." Rumpelstiltskin's eyes turn to his son. "He's the reason I moved the dagger. The fork-tongued liar might be useful, but he's certainly not trustworthy."

"Okay, quit with the insults and the superiority complex." Bae snaps, and it reminds him that while he sees his son, there's a man called Neal who has lived his adult life without his father... even though he wants to turn back the clock. "Cause you know what? Good on him for tryin' to get you to man up and do something." Gold's eyes flicker, the acerbic wit fades in the face of a sudden feeling of foreboding. "But, we both knew it was one hell of a long shot when I told him about the damn thing. You wanna be mad at anyone? Be mad at me. I wanted a red herring, I told him if it kept him safe to pretend to be me. I knew he could handle you better than I could and I wanted no reason for you to come find me." Betrayal. Sudden, cold sorrow and stabbing pain hits him again, both physical and emotional. He's always wondered how August knew about the dagger, but he's written it off as his connection to the Blue Fairy. But... Bae told him.

"I suppose that explains his condition, then." Rumpelstiltskin hisses, wincing as the poison keeps working its way through his veins. "Willing to lie about being a man's son? He even knew where you were, wanted me to fix him, and yet he couldn't even tell me about you."

"Fix him?" Emma's voice has a uniquely haunted edge to it, one that has both men turning to face her. "What do you mean, fix him?"

It dawns on him that August has been truthful about one thing, and that one thing might be what Rumpelstiltskin can use to his advantage. "I see. So you haven't seen him." Emma's expression darkens, then hardens back into that mask that he's grown accustomed to. He knows he has the advantage he can press when he's ready now. He hasn't enjoyed being on the back end of a favor since he arrived. He prefers to keep all the pieces on his side of the board. "The dagger is in the clock tower. Behind the minute hand."

Baelfire gives his father a look that speaks of concern for Emma to some extent, but overall, is laced with a disappointment Gold knows all too well. Emma, on the other hand, seems to be torn between being thunderstruck and enraged.

"C'mon," Bae mutters and takes Emma's arm, tugging her away from him. "C'mon, let's go get the damn car and get to Hook's ship. Before he says anything else."

"No, I'm not leaving Henry - "

"Kid'll be fine. He's gonna sit in the kitchen and relax." Bae turns back to his son. "Right, champ?"

Gold hasn't forgotten how many requests he's asked and been denied from Emma. And the oracle's words continue to play through his mind, but he knows he's in no position to do anything about it. He can barely see the boy's mop of brown hair just for a second at the table.

"I'll be fine," He sounds more relaxed than anyone else.

"C'mon - "

"Are you freaking kidding me? Neal -"

"Just let's go."

Emma follows after, but her eyes are on the old man until she's out the door, and it shuts with a final thud.

No, let go of me! Pinocchio, what're you doing?!

The scream assaults his senses so fiercely that the room disappears around him all together. Darkness frames his view, but somewhere in all of that darkness he can barely make out hands grasping at a woman's shoulders.

It's me, Pinocchio! It's Johanna!

And then it's gone. The room is back in focus, and that crushing fear has given way to an overwhelming sense of... nothing. He swallows, and Gold's fingers scramble for the shaving, pulling it free just in time to see the fading amethyst glow over the stained and glossed wood.

He clutches the trinket in his hand as his eyes search the room, his mind racing, processing what he's seen. There's a touch of magic here, something he knows. It's familiar, it plays on his senses like an old perfume, nostalgia and nagging frustration all at once.

Someone has taken advantage of August's unique position. Someone who wants Snow White's old servant woman.

Gold draws a deep breath, one he knows he'll regret in a moment.

"Cora..."

Chapter Text

Cora. Her voice swirls around, tangling around his nerves, weaving into every synapse until he doesn't know where he ends and she begins. Time at once contracts and stretches beyond measure, and somewhere in the middle of all of it, he finds himself moving.

First, he's kept in the trailer. He doesn't know how long, but he remains there motionless, like a true puppet, forgotten in the corner. He doesn't know if time loses meaning because his thoughts are so disjointed and slow, or if it's because he's lost track of time with her voice in his head, telling him to be still. Then, one morning, he's up and stalking through the woods, limbs working as if nothing is different. The sensation is like sloshing through water, and brings the staggering fears of oceans and their blue, cold depths.

At first, he doesn't feel anything. It's so disorienting when he first finds himself moving, he doesn't even recognize that his movements aren't of his own volition. He stumbles, he plods, and his eyes are vacant. He can't see himself, but there's a difference, a true lack of life in his eyes now. There's an expressiveness that August brings to his own wooden body that no spell can truly mimic. And it's gone.

The fog of his vision and his senses is punctuated by a name. Johanna. It keeps rolling around his mind and compelling him forward.

It isn't until he finds himself walking towards the woman that he realizes something is wrong. He remembers her sneaking cookies from the kitchen of Snow's palace to give to him. He can hear her, but her voice muted. Again, that cloying terror of being dragged under the current strikes him as he realizes she sounds underwater. He isn't in control, but even if he was, the fear would make his throat close. As it is, he isn't replying. He can't reply to her voice.

She asks him who he is. She recognizes him, and he walks closer. A darkness tunnels his vision, and his mind is screaming that he needs to leave, to turn around.

The false calm cracks, shatters and with it, August's heart breaks. He can feel himself grappling, fingers clutching at Johanna's shoulders hard enough to bruise, but he can't stop. The sensations are disorienting, but he wants to scream at his hands to stop. He doesn't want to do this. He doesn't even know what this is! Don't make him do this!

"It's me, Pinocchio!" He hears his name, a name he knows wouldn't do this, but his fingers are holding tighter, a vice grip to secure this woman in his arms as he whirls her around. "It's Johanna!" He hears a sob, and somewhere inside, he feels a sharp pain, torment and remorse all rolled into one as his arm comes up and firmly braces against her neck. He holds tight, his mind screaming, telling himself to pull his hand away - he's killing her! - as she slowly goes limp in his arms.

She's still.

His arms pull her to her feet and sling her over his shoulder with a strength he's sure he doesn't have. But, he knows, he just knows he's killed her. Cold, sharp grief claws at his insides, but his feet still press on, back to the trailer.

Hours, maybe days later, wrapped in a blanket of guilt and desolation, he stands sentinel over Johanna as she eventually comes to. She stares at him with betrayal and terror etched in each wrinkle. There's a moment of relief knowing she's alive, but he still can't stop the compulsions, the way Cora's voice keeps blocking out every other noise, any other thought he might have. A constant barrage of needling minutiae to keep his mind more than occupied, even if there's a part of him screaming to let Johanna go. If Cora and Regina want her, it can't be good, but he just can't do anything. His body is not his own. He can't even scream a warning.

He just stands there. He is a puppet, caught in the very strings he thought had been cut in his youth.

When she suddenly vanishes from the trailer, he can't even express that he's surprised and terrified all at once.

Instead, he remains still, the world passing around him. Too many images and words unbidden from Cora have him so distracted he doesn't even know how much time passes.

August's eyes are forced to stare straight ahead into a blank, mold-colored wall and in between the emptiness and the cacophony, he wonders if he'll be this way forever. Time threatens to run away from him again. For much longer than he wants to admit, he thinks of Emma. She's probably forgotten him by now. His own father has probably forgotten him...

It's not like they need him anyway.

GO TO THE VAULT.

The thought is crystal and sonorous, Cora's voice filling every sense until he's forced upward and onward. The trailer disappears as he stampedes forward. He doesn't even know what this vault is that he's walking to. He strides through the woods like a behemoth twice the size he actually is, and that voice threatens to split his head apart from the sheer desperate volume.

GO TO THE VAULT.

KILL SNOW WHITE.

No.

August's heart clenches, and he immediately attempts to stop himself. He tries to pull his will power from every nerve ending, and every slight muscle contraction. He has to stop. He won't... he won't kill... Johanna first... now she wants him... to... to... He has to stop.

Find Snow White, Mister Booth.

Gold.

The new voice cuts through the dissonance, reedy and pained, but just as firm. August's leg stops mid-step, holding as he suddenly finds himself torn between one order and the other. For a moment, he wonders if he did it. If he's broken the control... but... he's still stuck. He can't move himself forward or back, and an ache begins to swell in his chest.

KILL SNOW WHITE. GO TO THE VAULT.

Find Snow White, Mister Booth.

The conflicting, yet similar orders bounce around in his mind, and his feet have stopped even as pain lashes through him. He doesn't know where it's coming from, if it's Cora's punishment for not responding, or if it's Rumpelstiltskin's intrusion, but he can't... he just... can't... obey...

Find Snow White, Mister Booth. She is where Cora keeps her heart.

That voice drowns out Cora's howling demands, and his feet begin to move again.

In moments, he's somewhere he doesn't recognize, and his stomach is twisting with fresh nausea. Instead of this dull fog, a prison of sloth and terror, every sensation is amplified to an extent he hasn't ever felt, even when he was human. It isn't possible, he doesn't have control of his body. He feels every step as if he's walking across coals, but he is aware of exactly what his body is doing.

A grunt escapes his wooden mouth as he sets his jaw and swings around the corner and is faced with a family crypt. He stops, looking it over, but he gets the distinct impression it's not for his benefit.

It's here. Find Snow White, Mister Booth.

It's dark, and the fear that seemed so muted before is forcing his chest to constrict so tightly he might pass out. But, his feet keep going, and with each step, his senses begin to dull once more.

GO TO THE VAULT.

Find Snow White.

Cora's voice begins to pound at his temples, and the fog begins to return. He cautiously makes his way deeper into the mausoleum, down the steps even though he doesn't know where he's going.

STOP SNOW WHITE.

August rounds the corner as the fog is truly settling over him again. Rumpelstiltskin's voice is fading, he's losing what little grip he has on something other than Cora.

He sees her. What she's doing there, he can't possibly understand, but he hasn't seen her in... in weeks, and hasn't spoken to her in months. That fear presses at him.

KILL. SNOW. WHITE.

No. August's feet move on their own. Not her. Please, not her. Not Snow. Not the Queen, the brave and benevolent angel of his childhood. Not Mary Margaret, the gentle, kind and fiercely loyal woman of his recent days. Not his friend. Not Emma's mother.

No! His mind screams, but he's still moving forward. He's a silent predator as her slender figure kneels on the ground, bent over a chest she's feverishly trying to open. Another step, and his fear consumes him, frustration boiling into rage as he tries desperately to stop. Stop, goddammit!

Kill Snow White. KILL SNOW WHITE.

His feet move once more, and he's just an arm's length away. No. No, if he gets any closer, if his body does what Cora wants it to. No, no, he can't!

He can feel something wet streaking down his wooden cheeks. He's pounding against those walls of his mind, screaming and raging. There's no room to be diplomatic, he has to stop his body!

Mary Margaret, GET OUT OF HERE! He's bellowing, even as his hands reach out for her throat, slowly leaning forward.

Kill Cora.

He pauses. The voice. Rumpelstiltskin. He's piercing through the veil as Cora keeps demanding.

Kill Snow White! Kill her now!

His hands shake as he hears the box unlatch. Cora's words roar in his ear, a thunderstorm in a symphony hall. Louder and louder, the veil trying to cloud over his senses, to just let his body move as she wants it. But, he's screaming, he knows he's screaming, he can't, he won't -

Kill Cora.

Again, his hands pause.

Kill Snow White!

Kill Cora!

August's hands clench into fists as pain wracks his body, assaulted by opposing forces of magic. He can see the heart below Snow White, thumping rapidly as she reaches for something in her pocket. A candle...

Kill Snow White! Do not let her touch my heart!

Kill Cora! Take the candle and kill her!

She lights it, and bends over towards the heart. August's arm quakes, drawing back. No! Don't let me kill her! DON'T!

Kill Snow White!

Cora!

Snow White!

August's hand flies in a spasm of free will, fist connecting with the back of Mary Margaret's head hard enough that he hears a dull thud. She falls to her side, knocked out. The magical backlash hits him with the force of a semi, and he folds like a cheap suit, driven to his knees in the very place she had been.

Kill Cora! Say her name! Light the candle! Do it, Booth!

Kill Snow White! Kill her!

You owe me! Kill Cora!

His fingers grasp at the lit candle as it rolls on the floor, and a ravaged scream rips from his lips as he forces his hand to move over the heart.

"C-Cora..." He whispers, his lips working in a raspy whisper, unable to manage much more. "Cora..." His limbs give instantly, and he crumples, gasping for air. Searing, brilliant, pain hits him again, lacing through his body as he suffers for trying to break the control.

He hears a groan beside him, and icy fear runs through him as he realizes that Mary Margaret is waking up. Agony tells him that he's still under Cora's control, but he can't let the spell do its work. He can't let Mary Margaret die at his hands...

It doesn't matter, the damage is done. He thinks...

August forces himself up to his feet, and staggers out of the mausoleum.

The voices keep battering at his skull, telling him back and forth to kill Cora, then Snow White, then Cora, but he just keeps running. Each step is fire, each breath is ice, but he just won't let himself stop.

When he reaches the trailer, there is a sudden spasm, a twisting in his chest, and he drops into the building, screaming for mercy...

And then it's gone. No voices. Not Rumpelstiltskin... not Cora. The control that's held him leaves him all at once, a sudden loss combined with clarity and he can breathe once more.

But, that loss mixes with guilt and shame... and a numbness settling over him...

He's done it. He killed her.

But... how? He doesn't even understand Rumpelstiltskin's orders, and that voice has left him just as Cora's.

What the hell has he done?

Chapter Text

What the hell has he done? What the hell has he been thinking?

He wakes up at 8:15 AM at the beach in Patong, head surprisingly clear from what he knows to be a night of fantastic highs. But his leg is radiating a kind of pain that he hasn't felt since he broke his elbow when he was fifteen, running from the cops and landing on sidewalk oddly.

He sits up and that's when his leg hits with a hollow thunk.

A hollow. Thunk.

There's nothing attractive or glamorous about his lifestyle in Phuket. There's nothing romantic or alluring about the shooting pain that's seared up his leg over the last 24 hours while suffering in his bed. The girl he's been using to forget about his waste of a life has left, and he's been busy poking and prodding his leg when he's not wracked with a sudden bout of withdrawal more powerful than he can ever recall.

It's still sinking in. His leg. Is wooden.

His  leg . Is  WOODEN.

Suddenly, all those childhood memories have come back with a vengeance. The fog of booze and drugs has lifted, leaving the ravaged fields of his responsibilities left in its wake.

Early morning, he finally sits up again and tries to pull himself together. He reaches for his phone on the nightstand. Her face is staring right back at him again. He's spent so long drug-addled and boozed up, the candid snapshot of his charge gets ignored more than he looks at it these days. But not today.

God, was she really 17 when he last saw her? She never even noticed him. To be fair, he doesn't even remember what he had been doing the night before he stumbled upon her screwed up situation with Neal.

One glance at her picture reminds him of everything he has screwed up and everything he's left behind. Everything he's pissed away in vice.

Well, he gets to pay for it now, right? That's how this works.

He tells himself he's going to die in Phuket. He needs to get a head start, and he opens another bottle.

August's body is throbbing as he somehow crawls into the trailer and collapses on the small sofa, staring at the ceiling. The intensity of the sensations have dulled again, back to the way he's grown used to since turning back to wood.

That isn't what hurts him, what's making him ache and writhe. He killed someone. He tells himself that he's made the only decision he could. He's taken that from Snow White so she doesn't have to live with this, this sharp, breathtaking pain and loss. But… how is he supposed to live with it?

A ragged breath leaves his lungs as he clutches at his chest, settling on the small sofa.

This is his life, isn't it? He just runs around, screwing up people's lives. But this time… he's killed.

He can still remember the way every synapse fired in protest as he muttered Cora's name, as he nearly wrapped his fingers around Snow's throat. Because he could be controlled.

What a disappointment he is. He's a goddamn murderer now. Is this why he dragged himself out of the gutter? August shudders in pain, self-loathing covering him like a blanket, suffocating him. What a waste. His father… he would hate him. And Emma...

The booze brings him no comfort. He gets absolutely hammered, but he doesn't have the cash on hand for a fix. Instead of the blissful high he's come to expect, he's left with regret and swirling anger in his fog of inebriation. Her picture taunts him every time he checks the phone, glaring through watery eyes at the date. It's been  ten years  since he's seen her. He let  a decade  go by, and he's done nothing.

He's gotten lost. He is a complete failure, and his leg is proof. He's… turning back. His sins have caught up with him.

It's not until he's staggering back to the part of Phuket town he calls home that he realizes something. Knowledge he's been burying with chemicals and guilt that presents itself back to the forefront.

Why  is his leg wooden? The curse doesn't just  break , and if it had, why is he still human at all?

It hits him like a ton of bricks. Emma got to Storybrooke. On her  own.  She's done it. His father… is in that town.

It makes him stagger and sober better than any cold shower.

If he's turning back to wood, then Rumpelstiltskin and the Queen could have magic.

He has to help her before it's too late.

Some guardian angel… some son… August holds his hand up idly to shield his eyes from the sun, which has begun to set in Storybrooke. Lacquer glints in the amber glow…

But he isn't Geppetto's son. He's not real. He's not sure why the realization hits him, and it brings him no comfort, but rather a strange, self-hating anger and loathing that makes his stomach turn. Not that there's anything in it for him to expel anyway, but it doesn't help.

He is a complete waste, isn't he? He can't do anything right. He can't save anyone, he can't look after people. His body rattles under the familiar leather and denim he's been sporting since he left Granny's, and for a moment, white hot pain races up his spine and blinds him. He gasps, trying to ride it out.

How long has he even been gone from Granny's now? It feels like it's been months, but that's not possible…

Then again, maybe it's long enough. He's killed Cora. He is his own worst nightmare. Maybe he really has been gone long enough to change into something he doesn't want to recognize.

He tells himself he just wanted freedom… to do something right. And for once, he could do something right.

He knows what it's like to have someone steering every movement. But he tells himself he had to. He tries to ignore how good it felt to free himself from Cora's control for just a moment.

Johnny lets him go way too easily.

August plays his best for a solid two weeks, and he wins enough for what would be his next fix and then some. He knows that's the only real debt Johnny has over his head now. At some point, he's paid off the original debt owed to Hạwhnā, and the smack is what keeps him in Patong. He doesn't even know why he's hooked on the stuff, but he knows that every step with that wooden leg reminds him why he can't give into his demons. Not this time. If there is ever one time that he tells himself no, this  has  to be it. He has a chance to fix things, to help Emma break the curse and give her the family she doesn't know she has, and bring him back to his papa.

He isn't going to make the mistake he did all those years ago. He is going to pay off his debt  first , then leave.

Of course, he expects a fight. When Johnny simply takes the money with a laugh, needling August for leaving over that ghost on his phone that everyone knows he tries to forget in women and vice…. August knows something is profoundly wrong with the situation.

He knows he isn't clean enough to make it to Bangkok's international airport. He has to leave Thailand and hope that he can book a flight in another country. The sooner he's away from Hạwhnā, the better.

But Johnny lets him go way too easily. So August doesn't tell him where he's going.

He knows that logically, he should head to Laos. With seven border crossings that are friendly to money and enjoy the tourism of any Westerner, he knows it will be easy to pass into Laos, and from there, make it to an airport.

Which is why he knows Johnny will look for him there.

He can't go to Myanmar. He would need a visa already, and he can't secure that at the border. They're not friendly to tourists, either.

Which leaves him with Cambodia. The border disputes between Thailand and Cambodia have fallen to a standstill since 2011, which means there are less troops guarding it. It's still dangerous, though.

But he has to hope that means Johnny won't be looking for him there.

He packs a knapsack of his few valuables, and takes one good look at Emma's photo in his phone. The candid shot, taken just before she was arrested, was meant to be a reminder of his responsibility. And it is. Now it's a reminder that his negligence has left her on her own. He tells himself she's fine. She  has  to be.

He turns his phone off to conserve battery life, and so her face doesn't haunt him while he has to take every bus and train he can to get to Cambodia.

The trailer suddenly shakes and rocks. The pain he's feeling is washed away as he scrambles to stand up and hold himself steady. For one long, threatening moment, the trailer pitches to the right and he's concerned it'll go over, but it finally comes back to the ground with a deafening thud of metal siding and cheap wooden slats.

Silence settles around him, and he swallows, another muted sensation to top off all the others. Whatever it is, maybe it's gone -

The door swings open wildly, and his chest spasms in pain as a gloved hand brandishes in his direction. The agony is hot and scorches through his core, driving him to his knees as heeled, suede boots click on those cheap slats, coming ever closer to him. Elegant legs wrapped in black leggings stride forward until they are just in arm's reach, not that he can do anything about it. His barrel chest threatens to burst as that gloved hand stops just before him, and he knows before she deigns to kneel before him that it's Regina.

"You useless little guttersnipe." Regina hisses, lethal intent, grief, and rage all boiling together in such simple, crisply enunciated words. Oh, god, she knows… His mind races, he shivers with honest, true, unabated, childish fear. The Queen is right there, and he cries out as that sharp pain turns molten hot. His marbled eyes flicker downwards, and horror strikes him as he sees that her hand is gone. No, not gone, but in his torso. Piercing, penetrating, he can't bring himself to move as he feels - oh god, he's actually feeling it - her fingers wrapping around his heart, threatening to tug it free.

His lips move wordlessly, trying to plead, willing to beg, even when he knows his life isn't worth it. At least, that's what he's been thinking all this time. But, suddenly confronted with it, that self-loathing which had comforted him has abandoned him. All he can think of is what his father would think, if he never came back. He never even told his father he was going for a walk… to see the Blue Fairy… and she'd told him he ruined Emma's life… And he can never make it up to Emma now…

"You had one task, kindling. One. You were to kill Snow White before she could reach my mother." Those fingers close tighter, but she hasn't pulled his heart from its cage. Instead, she is staring him down, those dark eyes boring into his. "And instead, you let her die! My mother is dead because of Snow White!" An undignified, strangled sob is pulled from his throat as she keeps twisting and tightening. "I would pull your little wooden heart out, I should, but I want to watch you burn." His lips move again, but he can't even tap a little bit of breath for a prayer of mercy.

He's going to die.

"But, I don't need to, do I?" Her whisper is laced with arsenic, soothing and yet deadly all the same. She pulls her hand back and his knees give out. He topples onto his back, coughing, dizzied and clutching at his chest while every grain screams in pain that he knows he shouldn't feel.

Regina's chuckle is mocking, bitter, and yet he can't bring himself to care. He's too busy trying to get the world above him to stop swimming, to make the spots behind his eyes go away. By the time he's able to shift enough to sit up a little, leaning against the couch as he wheezes, she's watching him like he's a bug on the bottom of her shoe. "You may have let my mother die, but she is making you pay for it, even after the fact." Through the haze of agony, a cold weight begins to settle on him as foreboding washes over him. "You're a puppet. Quite literally. But, in order to be as you are now… that requires something very precious. Something that fairy magic gave you, but in order to sustain it, well… there were rules. You broke them." She smirks and August can feel his stomach twist into knots. "I won't have to kill you." She purrs, regal and superior as she crouches down in front of him. There's a predatory way she says it, as if she is stalking prey. "The magic is bleeding out of you. You can feel it. You can tell you're dying."

"Please…" He finally breathes, but he doesn't even know what he's begging for. To not hear it? To not have to hear that he's dying all over again? That everything he's done his entire life has led him right back here in this cycle of failure and death?

"What's wrong? Don't like hearing that you're going to die?" She reaches over, tugging him closer, fingers clutching at the leather of his jacket. "You think my mother enjoyed…" Her voice catches as angry tears threaten to spill, but don't. Maybe they're just as terrified of displeasing her as he is. "Feeling her heart crumble and disintegrate? It's funny, but I don't give a damn how you feel. The only thing I want you to do is to sit there and listen, because I want Snow White to feel what I felt. I want her to see Emma bleeding and broken and fading away. And then when that's done, I will need her heart - "

"But she didn't kill Cora…" The plea escapes him before he even has a chance to comprehend what he's just done, the way he's thrown himself in the way of whatever danger Snow has coming her way. "I did." Regina's body goes stock still, and he uses the opportunity. He's put one foot over the edge of this cliff, he has to go all the way. "I knocked her out. I didn't let her use the candle. said Cora's name. Snow White didn't have anything to do with it, so you hurt me."

Regina's deceptively beautiful face falls, and he expects that this really is it. It was a good run, but now it's well and truly over. But, there's no blow. No shock of magic. She just tilts her head. "You did it?" Her touch vanishes, and she backs away, pacing, prowling. "Then that changes things…" She turns to him, and the sharp glint in her eyes makes him flinch. Nothing compares to the cold chill that sweeps the room at her smirk. The grief that seems to have been ruling her actions has subsided. In its place, calculation and an eerie calm. "I guess I need you. For now. But I am going to make sure everyone suffers for what they've done. You're the most important piece of that."

When he hears her boots hitting slats again, heading towards the door, he tries to get up, but his body throbs again, heavier than before, weighing him down as he groans. "What…" He pants, trying to force the words through his lips anyway. "What're… you going to do with me?"

Regina pauses, and he knows she must be relishing this as she steps down to the ground. "I need a battery."

The door shuts, and August's body gives out, slumping against the couch cushions.

He's still in the frontier town, waiting to book a tuk-tuk when it happens.

The troops might not be as plentiful as they have been in the past, but this frontier town in Aranyprathet still has a clear sense of finality. He knows not to buy his visa here in the town, rife with its scam artists. It's sort of funny; August knows all the tactics he could be exposed to, mainly because he knows he's used them himself over the years in Patong. Fake visa offices once you board your tuk-tuk? No different than private cabs driving wealthy tourists to one casino, telling them it's another, because the casino owner has greased all the right palms.

But, he considers turning back. August has learned to blend into crowds, but he feels like a sore thumb with his newly wooden leg and obvious anxiety. The Laotian border could be just as bad, though, so he thinks better of retreat and makes his way along one of the streets, looking for a free tuk-tuk he can take.

He hasn't noticed Johnny's men peppered through the fray until he sees a knife glint in the vibrant orange sunset. His body stiffens as his adrenaline spikes, and his pupils dilate, nostrils flaring from the fright or flight he can't stop. He's not close enough to the border crossing, and he can't just barrel past a line of people and run 6 kilometers to the border. But, Johnny's men can't risk entering Cambodia and committing a crime, either. Hạwhnā doesn't have that kind of clout.

August needs to shake them. It's either risk roads he doesn't know and get lost, or turn around.

Split-second decision made, he takes the opportunity to slip around a small shop and hops a fence. He has to put more weight on his stomach than is comfortable, but his leg isn't helping right now, so he has to cope.

Scattered shouts and scuffling reach his ears as he lands with a thud on the other side of the fence. An old man with knobby knees and witch's knuckles shouts at him in Thai to get out, and August takes the opportunity to do exactly that.

His feet pound pavement as he cuts across the lot and ducks down an alley, ending up a couple of streets over from where he'd started. Panting, his leg throbs and catches his breath in his throat again, and he stumbles on his foot. He winds up halfway-hobbling halfway-pirouetting to narrowly avoid a car that honks at him, but when he ends up on the other side of the street, he doesn't see Johnny's men. He thinks he's lost them.

A bullet whizzes past his head and hits the concrete of the office building to his left, and August ducks, hands automatically up to cover his head - not that it'll do much. He glances up just long enough to see a handful of mooks, four in total, pouring out of that narrow alleyway he came from, as if roaches from waterlogged cracks in mortar.

He takes off running again, and this time, he doesn't stop until he's past the train station, past the rows of vendors. He keeps pushing himself, blocking out the sound of bullets as they're fired, and he tries not to think of what they plan on doing to him with those knives if they already have guns. He can hear people panicking and screaming, running out of the streets, but he doesn't stop.

He sees a railing, about 4 feet high, and he knows if he can get past it, he can loop back towards the thoroughfare and maybe lose them again. Now he knows he's cornered. His best bet will be to rent a tuk-tuk fast as possible and get  away  from the town and up to the border. If he can get into Cambodia, he's clear.

He tries to leap over the railing, and can't quite clear it with his damn leg locking up. August tumbles and goes rolling past the sidewalk, slamming into the brick of another small shop with a groan. Pain blossoms against his back and spreads across his shoulder blades, and for a moment, he seriously considers staying down. Plan didn't work… he's down…

He hears footsteps as Johnny's goons catch up, and he's prepared to hear nothing but the click of hammers and the pounding gunshots before darkness.

Instead, he hears one of the knives come unsheathed. Those fleeting nightmares of what they could do with knives suddenly comes right to the forefront of his mind.

Rough hands reach for him, grabbing at his shirt and hauling him to his feet, braced against the wall.

"You don't run from Hạwhnā," The leader snarls in Thai as he shoves his knife towards August. The blade is pressed against his chest length-wise, enough to threaten, but not an instant kill. August's adrenaline hits him again, pupils blown, ready to fight.

"So kill me." August snaps back, the Thai rolling off his tongue in long vowels and a hard k.

"We don't want to kill you." One of the others says, putting his gun in its holster. "We'll make you an example."

August's heart is pounding in his chest, memories of broken bones mixed with narcotics hitting him all too close to home.

"Yeah…" He breathes, taking stock of their positions. He knows what he has to do now, but he's not thinking about it. His body is seconds away from taking over with the decade of training he's acquired as shill, shark, and enforcer for Hạwhnā. "Not this time."

His body reacts. The hand with the blade at his chest, the three others who are armed but have their weapons holstered. Quick, decisive, instinctual. His fingers wrap around that wrist, and he pulls the mook off-balance, then knees him three, four times before the guy gasps for air and buckles. August sends another kick, this time right between the legs, and after he drop to his knees, August knees him right in the chin and throws him to the ground.

The others go for their guns, and he swings his dead leg in a powered roundhouse kick to one of them, socking him in the jaw and watching him knock right into one of his comrades. Two down, but his third assailant has his weapon drawn. August takes the risk, shuffling forward and grabbing for one mook's gun. He twists and wrenches the weapon out of his hands, fluid and practiced. He's spent the last ten years making sure that he can take care of himself, at least on the streets. He might be an addict, but he will  protect himself.

August backpedals, weapon drawn, pointed at the two conscious guards, chest heaving. "Stay there." He breathes. "Just…  stay there. Don't come after me. " August turns his backpedaling to as much of a run as he can, and he sprints for the thoroughfare, gun drawn until he reaches the first tuk-tuk he sees. He hops in without so much as a warning. He needs to get out. Now.

The gun barrel presses against the driver's back without August even realizing it. "Get me to the border.  Go! "

The motorized little rickshaw takes off down the street as fast as the understandably upset driver can manage. He doesn't even try to scam August by stopping at a fake visa office. He just keeps driving, all the while talking about how he has a wife and kids and August just wants him to shut up so he can focus on getting across the border. Why won't this guy shut up? He's not gonna hurt him -

August demands he pull over just out of sight of the border crossing and stumbles out, staring at the weapon in his hand. What is  wrong  with him? He threatened the driver, and when he held that gun out, aiming on those mooks, he would've fired. He knows that.

He shouts at the driver to leave, but he's sure the driver didn't need the prodding. He hears the tuk-tuk peel out again and putter down the street, and he's left… with this gun in his hand.

August stares at it as his adrenaline starts to wear off, and in its wake is a powerful bout of nausea. He was willing to  kill .

And here he is, trying to go back to his father. To help Emma. And he almost became a killer.

Disgust and shame wash over him, and he winds up, hurling the gun as far as he can into the forest before continuing on foot. The entire time, he keeps looking over his shoulder, waiting for one of Johnny's men to follow, but they never do.

When he reaches the border crossing, he is given a little extra scrutiny, but passes, and finds the first visa office, securing one.

He doesn't look back, and he doesn't let himself think of Phuket again until he's gasping for air in a forest in Maine, begging for the one person he's let down more than his own father to just  believe  him.

When she doesn't, he wonders why he didn't let Hạwhnā kill him after all.

Chapter Text

The arrow won't fly true, no matter how many of them she fires.

It should be easy. It's muscle memory, a honed skill borne of repetition and focus. She sets another, nocking it against her bowstring. She draws. Another deep breath.

Cora's heart pulsing flashes before her.

Her hand slips, fingers let loose a breath too early. The arrow sails wildly through the trees like a sparrow, but lands less than gracefully in the leaves off in the distance.

Snow's hands drop to her sides, bow heavy on her right side as she reaches for another arrow in her quiver. Her fingers brush nothing but air and the lip of the holder. Fingers that are shaking more and more with every second that passes.

Another deep breath. She clenches her fist, blocking out the world around her long enough to bring the shivering to a halt.

She can feel Cora's name in the back of her throat, ready to slip past her lips.

Snow shakes her head and sets off into the woods for her many arrows she's fired. Her footsteps are firm, unyielding, thrusting her into the wilderness so she can recover the few things in this life she has control over. Reaching up to comb her fingers through dark hair, she pulls her arrows from the tree she's been using as practice and sets them back in her quiver. She'll check the feathering later, but she already knows that the arrows are crafted the same as they always have been. That's not the problem. Her mind can't stay in one place long enough to do the craftsmanship justice.

If only Regina had been there when she came to call. It's little comfort, but it's enough that Snow catches hold of it and doesn't let go. For a few precious moments, she wallows in the notion that she can blame Regina not being there for why she has to suffer through this.

And then reality sinks back in, and disgust wells up inside her. She's going to blame Regina for her own decision to kill a woman? Regina's mother? What in the hell is wrong with her? Is she now truly as evil as the one she eliminated?

Eliminated. She thinks in terms of… homework assignments, instead of the weight of her decision.

It's no wonder she hates being alone with her thoughts as much as she hates being surrounded by everyone's piteous stares. It takes everything not to think about the kind of example she has now set for her family.

Instead, she measures each second of life as a murderer in the number of arrows she retrieves, making her way slowly, picking through trees and bramble.

It's not long before she is one arrow shy of her full quiver. Logically, she knows she should leave it, but the very idea that she can't even fill her quiver is just another mistake she can't afford to make. So small, but it means everything.

She decides to turn west to keep the sun at her back.

And instead of an immeasurable treeline, a trailer has blocked her view of the landscape. Ugly and completely foreign to the woods she's walked for the last 28 years.

"What on earth…" The words leave her lips before she realizes it, and her feet have already started walking towards it. Her curiosity gets the better of her as well, and before she can stop herself, she's heading towards the entrance. The door is latched shut, there's no movement in the dingy windows. In the tranquil forest, this monstrosity just begs to be investigated, and her hand reaches out to pull open the flimsy latch.

A step up, then another. Her heart twists painfully, her stomach sinks lower as an overwhelming sense of aggressive darkness hits her. She knows she shouldn't be here…

Snow's eyes settle on the sparse sink, the fact that the place seems more a tomb than a home. "Is anyone in here?"

There's a clunk from down the small porthole hallway, and a hissing sound. A distinctly human sound, though. She turns to face it. "Hey, I heard you. Come out where I can see you." The foreboding grows, and she reaches instinctively for her knife, even though she knows she hasn't carried it in ages. "Please don't make me come in there and find you."

A thunk. Then another, and another before she can hear honest footsteps in the bedroom. "Don't… please…" Her breath catches in her throat. Oh, no… "It's just me."

Snow's throat threatens to close as she is faced with something she knows can't be possible. "August?" His voice, one she'd heard so many times before the curse was broken. But it's coming from a barrel-chested wooden body that looks anything but healthy. His leather jacket is still hugging his body as if he'd just got off his bike. He's holding himself up against the wall, but it's his expression that really tugs at her heart. For someone with no flesh and blood, his eyes are broadcasting a pain so raw that she can't help but cross the room.

In seconds, she has her hands on his arms, helping to support and bolster him in his obvious agony. "August, what - what happened to you? Where have you been? We've been worried sick about you, all of us - " Inquiries tumble past her lips as she steers him over to the small sofa and help him down onto it. And then, just as quick, the questions stop. Instead, clarity sweeps over her. "You're wood. You're made of wood."

Snow stands up straight. There's a tilt of her head, conflicting emotions all trying to come to the surface as it sinks in. "August…." Her voice sounds so small, and she swallows, more confident as she finishes. "Are you… Pinocchio?" He can't look at her. Her vision clouds as warm relief mixed with sympathy and concern threaten to spill tears over her cheeks. "You are…" Her hand covers her mouth so tightly she's certain she's leaving nail marks, but she doesn't care. It's the only way to stop the tears, even as her shoulders shudder. "You survived the curse…" She whispers, and it's as if the distance between them never existed at all.

She drops beside him, pulling him into an embrace as she holds him close. Marco had been looking for him all this time, and no one wanted to tell him that his son probably hadn't survived the curse. And yet he's here, he's alive

A weak grip meets her own, but his head sinks against her shoulder, just like she remembers him doing when he was so young and small. "It's good to see you, Your Highness."

Finally, she pulls back so she can really take in his appearance, the fact that it really is him. "I don't understand… shouldn't you be - "

"Dead? Laying in my room at Granny's as a glorified paperweight?" He tries to finish.

"Young." The silence stretches, but he doesn't have an answer for her. The way his eyes drop down to examine his fingers, as if they will somehow hold the words she's asking for, tells her everything. "You didn't survive the curse." The pieces are slowly coming together as she realizes that there's only one way that August could have grown and then… "You drove into town. After Emma got here. August, you were never in Storybrooke, were you?"

The shake of his head is laden with guilt, but at the same time is just like times she'd catch him in the royal kitchens sneaking sweets. "No… but, it didn't matter. Once Emma got to Storybrooke, time started to move forward, the curse broke but there's no magic in this world. I was sick, turning to wood, and that's the whole reason I came back."

Her eyes flutter closed as every meeting, every conversation with August flickers through her mind. "Emma knows, doesn't she?" There's another nod, driving another revelation home. "She never told any of us." Their journey through the Enchanted Forest brings anger to the forefront. "I asked her if you were from the forest, when we were back home helping Aurora and Mulan. She said she thought you were dead, and I asked her to tell me who you were - "

"Don't blame Emma for my secrets, Mary Margaret." Her train of thought shudders to a halt. "They were mine to keep, and… last time she saw me, I was turning to wood before her eyes, so… for all intents and purposes, I was dead."

Emma had said his name over and over again in her dreams in the Forest. Snow has always known something was off, and she'd been able to pick up on the tension, the flirtation between the two of them before the curse broke. Just how close had they gotten? She brushes the thought aside, though. It's a question for later. "But, the curse. It's been broken. Shouldn't you be…" The word 'real' hangs in the air between them, but she can't bring herself to say it. It's too harsh, and it doesn't begin to describe how little that matters to her.

"I, uh…" He swallows, and Snow finds herself distracted by how his vibrant eyes are scanning the floor, guilt laced through his body language. "When the curse broken, I could move again. But I was like this." She catches him rubbing at a spot on his arm, but he continues before she can ask about it. "I wandered the town, but… I couldn't stand to let anyone see me. Then, I heard about what happened to you and Emma, but I'm… useless like this. I can't help anyone." Her heart sinks with each word. She knows how Charming had struggled during those weeks, but she's never given a thought to the idea that August could know.

"We're back now, though." She reaches a hand out and slips her fingers into his, holding tightly, wanting to give him whatever comfort she can. "August, come back to town with me. Everyone misses you, and so much has happened."

"No," He mutters, and the sound breaks her heart. For just a minute, her guilt over Cora has disappeared. In its place, her maternal instincts are thriving on a need to fix things for him. There might be questions, but she'll get answers later. For now, she needs to fix this little boy who used to play at everyone's feet and help build things with his father.

"Please, August. Emma needs you. So does your father - "

"How is he?" There's a heavy weight mixed with hopefulness at the way he asks the question. "I never even told Father… I mean…." He's stumbling, and Snow's brow furrows. "I mean, that I'm Pinocchio." There's a wince again, and he grunts, clearly wracked with pain. A heavy sigh escapes his lips. "And Emma won't want to see me. Pretty sure I've let her down enough."

"Stop that." She frowns. "She's missed you. I know she has. You were close to her, and she needs friends right now. We found Henry's father, and he's here - "

"Wait." The sour note in August's voice brings back a very vivid reminder of the moments when she was still just Mary Margaret, watching Kathryn reunite with David for the first time. Jealousy, heartbreak, and it's all just in one word. "Emma. And Neal? They're back together again?" Suddenly, Snow feels like she's just delivered news of his life ending. The question shakes her.

"Uh, no. No, actually, he's engaged to someone he met in New York."

The sigh that leaves him is raw, and it seems the relief she's suddenly brought might actually be what he needs. "I was hoping - " He catches himself, and it's the catch that forces her to look back directly at him once more. "See, that's my problem. Hoping. I keep hoping that things will work out. Hoping that I can…" He winces again, and this time, she watches as he reaches up to tug at the collar of his jacket. "Find redemption for all the mistakes that I made." He's restless, and there's another wince as his breath grows more labored. Snow's stomach now has a very cold weight settling at the bottom, and she just knows there is more wrong with him than just being wooden. "But maybe…. maybe some things you just don't come back from."

Cora's name on her lips flickers through her memory again. To think that August could possibly think he can't be forgiven for whatever he's done…. no. It can't be that way. Shaking her head, her voice is thick and quivers with emotion. "No. Whatever you've done, you deserve a second chance."

"It's not that simple." He bemoans as he turns to face her. There's a harder edge to his voice as he continues, one she recognizes as something she does as well. He's getting defensive. "It's easy for you to say, because you've never had to worry about those things. Forgiveness? Redemption? You'll always be able to have those, but it won't matter because you can't do anything like what I've done. You're innocent. You're not like me. There's no darkness in you."

She pulls her hand away, fingers curling until she's balled her hand into a fist, resting it against her stomach as she tries to keep her guilt and shame in check. For just a moment, she wonders if telling him will change his mind. Maybe if she shares the sins she has made… No, that's not what he needs. "August," She waves her hand in dismissal, as if she can wave away her own skeletons in her closet. "It's time to stop feeling sorry for yourself." She can hear the tone in her voice, one she's now given Emma plenty of times. "Come back to town with me. We'll find Marco - "

"I can't." The weakness in his voice is impossible to ignore. "I can't face him, not like this."

"Like what? Like his son?"

"If you knew what I'd done… if he knew… he'd know I was just this… woodpile of failure."

She balks. "Don't say that!"

"I've done things… not just before Storybrooke but… now, I've… I'm a…" His ramblings finally trail off, but not for long. This is not the boy she remembers, but this is exactly how he used to stammer and stutter when he was admitting his mistakes. Why can't he just tell her now? "You really want to help me?" Oh, thank god. "Then leave." His voice breaks as he looks her dead in the eye. "And don't tell anyone you saw me. Please."

"August, I can't - " She breathes, but he doesn't give her time to make a case.

"I'm being completely honest with you, Snow White. Because I respect you more than I can possibly express. And I am telling you that no good will come from knowing where I am. The further you are from me, the better." His hands are on her arms, and he's pulling her back to her feet as he forces himself up as well. "You have bigger things to worry about. You need to go. Now."

"August, don't do this - " She tries to stop him from walking her back towards the door, but for such a seemingly weak man, his grip is as strong as ever.

"I'm bad for Storybrooke. So go back into town, and stay safe." Just like that, Snow finds herself thrown out of the trailer, barely catching herself on her feet as he watches her, remorse etched on his face. He takes one long moment to make sure she's standing, facing him, and utters words she can't believe she's hearing. "And stay away from Regina. I'm sorry."

"Regina?" The door slams shut in front of her, but that doesn't stop her from rushing towards it, pounding on it urgently. "August? August! Don't do this! Tell me what you know! What do you know about Regina? Did she do something?"

She slams her shoulder against the door to no avail, pain blossoming across her arm, full-blown panic spreading. "August!"

Chapter Text


 

 August.

 Emma’s heart leaps to her throat as she walks through the door the moment she catches the familiar hunched shoulders and worn cap of Marco nestled in a bar seat at Granny’s diner. A mug of coffee clutched between his gloved hands, she knows the signs of worry on the old man. She’s been avoiding him, she knows that. 

 If you tell him, it might break his heart… That thought keeps looping through her head every time she considers opening a dialogue past the words ‘Good morning’. After speaking with him and borrowing Pongo that one time, she hasn’t been able to summon the courage to tell him what she knows.

It’s ridiculous, she knows better.

And yet, she finds herself pivoting and ready to walk back out the door to her mother’s apartment, where an entirely different world of confusion and pain awaits her. Between having to play nice for Henry in front of Neal and his fiancee - why any woman thinks she is capable of trusting or changing him is beyond her understanding - and struggling with her mother’s melancholy, her apartment is only barely a better option than speaking to -

“Sheriff Swan?” Goddammit. She flushes with embarrassment at Marco’s voice, then slowly turns towards him. He’s fully facing her on the bar stool at the counter, a shy smile gracing his worn features. “I haven’t seen you since your last visit. Come. Sit, have a drink with me.”

She knows she could make excuses, and in fact, she motions behind her idly, “I should really…” but she trails off as that smile begins to fade, tugging at her heart. She’s been so caught up in her own problems, she’s stopped paying attention to the other people in this town. And if August knew that his father was sitting here, worrying over him -

The pulse of heartache, followed by a twinge of anger over the fact that he’s gone, and he must have run like a coward, spurs Emma to slide onto the stool beside Marco. Before she can say anything, Ruby has a hot chocolate in front of her with whipped cream and she knows she needs to prepare herself for what could be a painful conversation.

 “How are you?” Marco asks, patting her arm with a smile before sipping his coffee. “Busy, I take it?” She opens her mouth to reply, but the truth is, she doesn’t even know how she is. She’s got her ex that left her because Marco’s son told him…. the truth. Man, Emma, you know how to pick ‘em. “Oh, forgive me, you’ve been away. In New York.” Marco stumbles over his words, taking her own mixed reaction as her being offended, and now she feels even worse. “I apologize - “

 “Woah, hey, no.” Emma chuckles, pulling some of that willpower keeping her in that seat into forcing a smile. “You don’t need to apologize. I’m just a little distracted. New York didn’t do me any favors, that’s for sure.” Without thinking, she reaches out and swipes a dollop of whipped cream and cinnamon from her hot cocoa, relishing the taste. Better than Prozac, she can feel herself calming slightly.

 “The rumors have been quite colorful since you brought these visitors into town. Rumors that he’s - “

 “Henry’s dad, Rumplestiltskin’s son, my ex-boyfriend?” She rattles off, exasperated. She’s not sure what ticks her off more: that she’s having these problems, or that she feels so much better just talking about them to someone who isn’t smack in the middle. “Yeah, they’re all true. What I can verify, anyway. Hooray for me.” She raises her mug and takes a measured sip, licking her lips as she finishes.

 Marco nods, glancing over at her, fidgeting again. “You sound less than excited at his presence.”

 “Well, I mean, how could I be?” She sets the mug down with a huff. “You know, he comes into my life, takes advantage of me when I was a kid and he was already apparently, like, a couple hundred years old - “

 “How -” Marco begins, but she’s on a roll now.

 “Neverland. Not the point. Anyway, he gets me knocked up and fills my head with all these tales about how we’re gonna go straight and settle in Tallahassee, but instead, the moment he finds out about this stupid curse, he bolts. And turns me into the damn cops. I wasn’t kidding when I told Mary Margaret that Henry’s dad was a bad guy. He took advantage of the fact that I was a stupid teenager that thought she knew better than everyone else. So I go to jail, I have to give my kid up, and when he comes back, all he can do is whine that Pinocchio… said that I had a… destiny...” Emma screeches to a halt, words stuttering like tires that can’t catch tread the moment she hears the name on her lips. “Um… Marco - “

 “August!” Mary Margaret blows into the diner through the front door like a force of nature, and both of them turn to face her. While she wants to believe her mother’s babbling about the month, she can tell just by the mixture of worry and elation that she’s not. “I found August.” She pants, looking between the two of them, silently begging for them to follow her as she’s already backpedaling towards the door.

“What? Where?” Emma stands, cocoa forgotten, still trying to process what she’s just heard. But, Granny said he’d cleaned out his things and his bike was gone -

“In a trailer out in the woods on the edge of town.” The words don’t really hit home. They get lost somewhere in the conflicting thoughts running through her mind. “He’s in bad shape, Emma.” She blinks, visibly stiffening as she looks up at her mother.

“What happened to my boy?” Marco’s voice shakes; he’s on his feet and past Emma as everything finally clicks.

 “He’s wooden. He’s completely wooden, and I think he might be dying. He won’t leave, no matter what I do.”

 “Then, please. You must take me to him!”

She steals a glance in Marco’s direction, but he’s already moving past her mother to the front door. The women follow and soon Snow overtakes them both, urging them forward. But, Emma can’t figure out what to say, how to put everything she’s feeling into words.

 It takes her until they’ve reached the woods before she can actually start at the beginning and try to unravel the mystery.

 “Marco…” Emma breathes as she catches up to him, grabbing his arm gently for his attention. “You know about August?” Her brow furrows as confusion continues to dominate her features. “How?”

 “Your boy, Henry.” Marco pants, the wind blowing through the trees as they keep walking. “He told me while you were in the forest.”

 “That… August was Pinocchio?” Mary Margaret turns to face him as they come to a stop. Emma glances around them: there’s no trailer in sight. And then she sees her mother’s face… oh, there’s a storm brewing there. “Henry knew?”

 “Your grandson is very clever, your Majesty. He told me that my boy was alive, that he was here. But, by the time I went to his room, he was gone. So…” He shrugs. “I packed his things, I moved his motorcycle to my home in the hopes he’d return.”

 Emma balks. “Hold up a second, are you telling me you knew August was somewhere in town and you never thought to tell me? So I could look for him? Marco, I’ve been back for weeks.”

 “He didn’t want to see you, piccola.” Marco blurts out, but it’s all sympathy and pain. She can see it in his eyes. He wears his heart on his sleeve, the poor, old man. “Not like this. He cares so much what you think of him. Sometimes more than me, I think.” 

 She can feel a hint of a smile on her lips, the thought that August might actually give a damn about her opinion of him is just… so like him. But, she’s spent so long being angry with him for leaving, and… Marco sounds like he’s just spoken with him. “That’s…” She reaches up to brush hair out of her eyes. “Very sweet, but that’s not an excuse. I thought he was dead, and he was… what, happy with me thinking that?”

 Marco’s gaze drops to the ground, and he tugs his cap off of his balding pate, playing with the stiff brim of the corderoy. “I am afraid I have… passed my sins onto him. It’s not his fault. I have taught him this.”

 “Marco, you can’t blame yourself for the actions of your children.” Mary Margaret chimes in as she steps closer. “It’s not August’s best moment, but I saw it when I spoke to him.” She turns to face Emma. “He practically lit up when I said your name.”

 Oh, this is not what she needs right now. She’s made her peace with how things fell out with August… but now everything’s tumbling upside-down. All the anger, the guilt, it’s all spiralling out of control without a central tether anymore.

 “My son has learned to run when he hurts people because that is what I taught him.” Marco sighs before looking up once more. “And he has learned to lie is easier than to accept the truth. Because, that is also what I taught him.”

 She can see where this is going. Even as she hears her mother ask him what on earth he’s talking about. Emma mouths ‘no’ and shakes her head, but the actual words won’t come out.

 “Your Majesty, when I built the wardrobe for you… the one that transported Emma to this world.” He swallows. “She did not go alone.”

 “Of course she did, there was only enough magic to transport one person.” Her mother brushes off, but, oh, she knows where this is going.

 “Marco - “ She starts, but he silences her with a raise of his hand.

 “No, that was a lie I made the Blue Fairy tell you.” Marco’s voice has begun to shake again, but he’s impassioned, determined. “It had enough magic to transport two. And it did. Your daughter… and my son.” His lip quivers as he continues. “It was not my decision to make. I am sorry, but I know that truly there is no apology that I can make that would make up for what I did.”

 Emma’s had time to hear all of this, but from August. It’s a tale about parents saving children, and while Emma knows she was an orphan, she knows Geppetto’s place was an untenable one. This is the last argument she wants to be in the middle of.

“You’re saying… I could have gone with her?” Snow breathes.

 “I won’t ask you to forgive me. Only that you understand why my son has made so many mistakes - ” He’s suddenly cut off as Mary Margaret’s hand lashes across his face.

 “Mary Margaret!” Emma reaches up to take her hand, forcing them to take a step back. “What the hell are you doing? He was apologizing!”

 “No, no….” Marco stammers, but she can see the tears brimming in his eyes. “I deserve that.”

“I’m…” The look in her mother’s eyes worries her. It’s not normal, it’s not the Mary Margaret she knows. It’s clouded and dark, but it’s gone when she blinks away the anger and finds herself staring down at her hands. “I don’t… know where that came from…”

“Look, if I was in the same boat with Henry, I would’ve done the same thing.” Emma loosens her grip as Mary Margaret’s breathing evens out.

 “I know…” She mutters, although she sounds so far away Emma can’t be sure she’s even getting through. “And… I mean, that’s what we did with you. We still made the decision to send you through alone. It was still the best chance…”

 “No, I burdened my son with a weight no child should bear. I told him to look after your daughter or that he would not see me again. I guilted him in my desperation and I called that love.”

 Emma straightens at the mention of August’s misguided attempts. “I might not have liked his methods, Marco, but… I can see where he was going with his efforts. Not that he and I are done talking about it, but… you need to learn to forgive yourself, too.” For a moment, seeing Henry hooked up to IVs and fighting for his life reminds her of exactly the kinds of mistakes she’s made. “We all make mistakes…”

 Marco sends a forlorn, not-quite-smile in her direction. “Thank you, but… you are too generous. The one who has heard these things and needed to hear them is my son. Yet, he is hiding out in the woods, so clearly, I need to tell him again until he believes it. He is ashamed of how he looks, of what he is.”

 “Oh, you have to be kidding me…” Emma’s eyes roll so far back, she’s pretty sure she sees the inside of her skull. He doesn’t need a soft touch. August needs a swift kick and to man up. More importantly, he needs to own up to the fact that he ran away from her. Someone she saw as one of her only friends and he ditched.  “Where’s the trailer?”  Her lips are pursed, her tone clipped and clearly upset.

 “Um…” Mary Margaret shakes her head again, to clear cobwebs away, and points up the hill. “Follow the path around the corner.”

 “Okay…” Her mother’s expression doesn’t bode well for what Emma wants to do, but she’ll be damned if someone else gets to talk to August before she does. Since, apparently, everyone has. “Mary Margaret, stay here and take a minute to cool off. Marco, I’m going to go talk to your son.” The finality and weight of that statement isn’t lost on the old man, as he opens his mouth to protest and she cuts him off with a quick shake of her head. “Nope, it’s my turn now.”

 Her confidence and gumption get her to the trailer’s door before she falters at the bottom step, wondering what exactly she’s going to find in there. And if she wants to find him at all…

 She can’t turn back. She doesn’t want to, she wants to talk to him. But, she finds herself experiencing some serious doubt that he ever gave a damn about her…

 “Only one way to find out, then.” She mutters to herself and yanks the trailer door open, tromping up the stairs as the flimsy aluminum slams to a shut behind her. “August!” She calls, turning to face the length of the makeshift home. “Where the hell are you?”

 And there he is.

 All that time she’s had to tell herself she’s over it, that he’s just a coward who can’t face his own mistakes… that he’s dead to her because she doesn’t want to think of how easily it must have been for him to walk away… For a long moment, it takes a back seat as her gaze drinks in his appearance. There’s ornate grain in the wooden sculpture that she sees in front of her, a dark varnish, and his eyes are still that vibrant blue that she stills thinks about on the occasion, when it storms badly and she finds herself at Granny’s in the evening, surrounded by candlelight.

 “Emma…” He breathes her name and it takes her right back to watching the life go out of those eyes. Except he doesn’t look hopeful now. There’s a weight, a pain there that doesn't have any of that blind faith he used to tout. Clothed, it doesn’t matter that he’s wooden, she knows he’s still in there.  “You’re not supposed to be here.” He’s not happy to see her.

 Did you expect him to be? That little voice whispers, doubt creeping in over all the romanticism her mother and Geppetto have been piling onto her. It shatters the illusion that she’s just going to forgive him and tell him they’ll ‘figure things out’, that she just needs an explanation. Instead, her stomach knots up and she can feel her cheeks flush with anger as she takes a menacing step towards him.

 “I’m not supposed to be here? That’s how you want to start this conversation?”  August opens his mouth to reply, but oh no, that is not how this is gonna go. He’s had plenty of time to speak. He’s had weeks to track her down to explain why he just up and left, so this is her turn. “How about how you’re not supposed to be here, because the last time I saw you, you died in front of me.” Emma’s voice is remarkably steady, fueled by the anger and confusion she’s kept pent up all this time. “How about when I go to see you after I get back from the Forest, I’m expecting to find out that you’re still some terrifying, nightmare-inducing wooden shell of yourself laying on your bed at Granny’s. Still.” The words come faster, rolling off her tongue as she lets loose, watching him squirm in all his leather and varnish. “Instead, I find out you’ve just ditched and I think you’ve flat out left Storybrooke because somehow, it’s easier for you to just make me think you couldn’t be bothered than to even leave a damn ‘Went to Lunch’ sign!”

 Silence mingles with the tension between them; thick, heavy and suffocating. For a moment, Emma’s not sure what she still has to say. It just feels so good to unload on him. He tries to take a breath, it comes in a shudder, and it just reminds her of how lost she felt when he was dying in front of her. The guilt, knowing she was promising to help him after she’d abandoned him. If she’d believed him, Henry would have been safe, and to think he’s here, magically alive, and he couldn’t even tell her -

 “That’s not what - “

 “Do you have any idea what that felt like?” Emma snarls, cutting him off before he can finish his feeble protest. “I spent all that time in the wilderness with just my mother, trying to figure out how I was gonna get home, get back to Henry, get back to you. Not because I was naive enough to think you were alive, but because I knew it was my job to bury you and tell your family, because I let you down. I kept your goddamn secret for you! I lied to my mom’s face for you! I didn’t believe you and I had to watch the light go out of your eyes….” An unexpected lump stops her throat, and she forces herself to breathe and swallow it down. “I blamed myself. Every second.” She reaches up to brush her hair out of her eyes, tells herself the warmth in her eyes isn’t because she’s crying, but because she’s rageful. “I kept telling myself that if I had just believed you, that I could’ve broken the curse sooner and you would be you. You needed me and I couldn’t help you, I just couldn’t.”

 “No, I’m the one - “ August is trying to force his voice into the conversation, but now the faucet is open, the words pouring forth, unstoppable.

“And then you were just gone! Like everyone else in my life, and not for the first time, I might add, you left .” There it is. She can see him sinking against the flimsy little counter in the kitchenette, but she can’t stop. “So you tell me again why I’m not supposed to be here. I would love to hear it before I get to walk away for a change.”

 They both know there is no “right” response, not even a pacifying, sorta-kinda response that August can give. He’s pretty much screwed and she’s going to relish in that for a moment. But, damn, it feels good to watch him squirm.

 She’s expecting something defensive, maybe even some sort of smooth lie that she knows he’s capable of, because hey, after all, he’d lied about who he was for months. Lie of omission, but… who’s looking at details?

 “You’re pissed off at me and I deserve every second of it.” Emma rolls her eyes, but August keeps talking. It’s not the desperate plea she’s built up his rasping death knells to be, and it’s not that ridiculously casual and flirtatious way he has with the truth she remembers from the woods. This reminds her more of watching him on the ground, resigned, knowing he’d failed her. “By the time I got out of bed and realized I was alive, you were already gone. I… I tried to help, but…” He swallows. There’s a hesitation that feeds her anger, but also nags at the back of her mind. She can’t figure out why. “I screwed up. I’m good at that.” He scoffs a little, self-deprecating, no true amusement in the humorless little laugh that follows. “I’m sorry. I just… didn’t want you to see me. Not like this.”

 Marco’s words come to her then. About how much he cares about what she thinks. The sensation that makes her stomach flip isn’t one she wants to really think too much about, but it’s hard to ignore when he’s right there. Even like this, it just reminds her that she was willing to forgive him about lying. She practically had, and then he had to make it worse. “Yeah, your dad mentioned that. Care to tell me why?”

 August’s demeanor changes, immediately defensive, nervous. He ignores her question, instead looking out the window over the kitchen sink. “Is he here?” She opens her mouth, confusion coloring her features, but he turns to face her again. “Emma.” And then before she knows it, he’s in front of her. She’s not entirely sure it is a graceful move, as it seems more like he stumbled her way, but his hands are on her arms. Her gaze flickers down to his gloved hands as she tenses, but, he’s gentle… no… weak.  Her eyes slide back up to meet his. “Tell me you didn’t bring him here. Please, he can’t be here.”

 Suspicion has start to set in. She’s been so angry, she’d almost forgotten why Mary Margaret found them in the first place. “August, what the hell is going on?”

 “Mary Margaret told you I was here, didn’t she?” He lets her go, stumbles past her. It’s a true stumble now, and her anger dissipates. He isn’t moving well. One of his legs doesn’t seem to want to bend at all.

 “She said you were dying…” Emma’s not sure who she’s repeating that for: herself or August. Her tone is haunted, her eyes locked on watching him awkwardly try to draw the couple of curtains closed. “Have you seen the Blue Fairy? You don’t look so good.” He’s still ignoring her, focused on whatever meaningless attempt to hide his presence he can. The anger has died completely now. It’s out now, he knows why she was so upset with him.

 “I did…” August pauses, his gaze is somewhere across the room and nowhere near looking at her or those windows. “She said I did this to myself and she couldn’t help me.” He finally pivots towards her again, leaning against the flimsy wall with one splayed hand. “Which is why you need to go. You and my father shouldn’t be here.”

 “Why the hell not?! What kind of bullcrap fairy tale logic is that?” God, she hates this whole magic  thing. It screws people up, it doesn’t help them.

 “I don’t want you in the middle of this. It’s too dangerous.” Woah. Emma’s brain slams on the brakes, and she strides over, grabbing him by his leather jacket to make him face her.

 “I need you to tell me what’s going on and fast. You are in a bad way, and I want to help you. I can be pissed at you later, but not if you actually do die.” The weight of what she’s saying starts to sink in. “C’mon, August, if you’re dying now, I don’t even know what magic can do to help.”

 “It can’t.” The word hits her harder than it should. Emma feels a chill run through her at the dead but firm way he says it. She glances up at him, disbelieving. “I never wanted you here because…” His hand reaches for hers, gently pulling it from the leather. “When I said you could save everyone… I wasn’t really counting myself on that list.” He’s forcing a smile, she can tell. It’s not his normal witty, flirtatious grin that meets his eyes. “You only get one second chance, and when you blow that one, well…” He shrugged a little, voice raspy. “I’m bleeding magic, Emma. I didn’t want you to see that. And I certainly didn’t want my father to.”

 There’s a level of revulsion that comes along with her denial, and she wants to pull away. Maybe deck him. But she can’t. Her fingers are locked in his grip as she tries to formulate something. A plan? Hell, no. But she’s the Savior. “No, I have to be able to do something.” She whispers.

 “Not for me.” He shakes his head, squeezing her hand. “You owe me absolutely nothing. If anything, I owe you.” August turns her towards the door, but she can tell what he’s doing.

 She stands her ground, grits her teeth. “You don’t get off that easily. Just because you’ve given up doesn’t mean I have to.”

 He heaves a heavy sigh. “I’m not asking you to. I’m asking you to take care of my father.”

 “No.” Emma presses. “This is bull, come home and do it your own damn self.”

 “I can’t, it’s too dangerous - “

 “Why?” She finally tugs her hand from his grip. “So you’re bleeding magic? Fine. You don’t think he deserves to take the risk of seeing you? It’s your father. You asshole, you only get parents the one go around.”

 “And no parent should have to bury his kid, I know, but the least I can do is make sure he’s nowhere near me when it happens. It would break his heart.”

 “And so no one else gets a say? August, you were someone I trusted.” Emma swallows back fear that’s beginning to creep in. She has to keep the anger at the forefront. “I was beginning to let you in and then even after you dumped everything on me, I still was ready to let you in.” Maybe I still am…

 “I tried to be someone I wasn’t for you - “

 “What, my friend?”

“I tried to control your life, and look where that got us both.” The pink elephant with Neal’s name is in the middle of the room now, but she doesn’t want to go there. Not now.

 “I was a stupid kid - “

 “I sure as hell wasn’t your guardian angel, Emma. That’s what I thought I was. You found your way to Henry without me. If anything, I made it worse-”

 “Are you nuts?” She doesn’t need this right now. She’s losing patience, and quickly. “I would’ve lost him eventually-”

 “But not because of me.” August’s eyes can’t meet hers anymore. His gaze drops to the floor. “I should’ve just stayed in Phuket. Would’ve been the same result. I just… wouldn’t have met you.”

 “Wow.” Unbelievable. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

 “When I got here, I told myself I didn’t care about anything but making sure you broke the curse. I didn’t expect to… care about you.”

 Maybe it’s knowing he’s just… resigned himself to die. Maybe it’s knowing that he’s been willing to make all these choices to “save everyone else” pain but, that doesn’t stop him from hurting anyone anyway. Maybe… maybe it’s because she’s not ready to say goodbye. Not this time. This time would be final, because it’s on his terms and there’s no second burst of magic ready to come out of nowhere. Maybe it’s because she’s willing to forgive him, stupid as it sounds, because she just wants him there. Maybe it’s because he understands, more than anyone, even Neal could.

 But, she says something she regrets the moment it leaves her lips. “You’re a goddamned coward, August.”

 She doesn’t even get the pleasure of an indignant denial. Instead, he just shrugs and slumps onto the little sofa. “I know.”

 And that’s that.

 August won’t look at her.

 “Don’t you dare leave again.” She hisses, and it’s pretty much the only thing she can conjure from her racing mind. The whole thing is sitting badly with her. It feels wrong, everything feels wrong. This doesn’t seem like him. Sure, he runs away but, this… no, this just doesn’t feel right.  “This is not over. By a long shot.”

Before he can send another clever writer’s barb her way, or worse, just sigh and agree, she steps out of the trailer, slamming the flimsy door behind her and stalking over towards Marco and Mary Margaret. She can hear her mother asking what’s happened, but all she can manage is a “Not now!”

It’s not until she’s halfway through the woods that it registers that she told them to leave August alone. And it’s not until she’s walking Marco back to his house that she realizes she’s doing what August asked.

 And that’s when it hits her. Why everything didn’t feel right when he was talking. She knows that feeling, she just didn’t want to think about it at the time.

 He was lying.

 He is not gonna get off that easy.

 She has to find a way to save him. Just this once.

Chapter Text

Just this once.

He tells himself that just this once, this is the one lie he's made for a good reason. It's not like the other times. No, this time it's for the best.

August tries to ignore the fact that his entire body wavers between throbbing in pain and a numbness that frightens him, reminds him all too clearly of how he got this way in the first place. That's not nearly as bad as the way his heart seems to ache, his stomach has twisted itself into knots and he can't even enjoy the fact that that was a wonderful pun.

He's staring at the door, still slumped in that sofa. Her perfume is still lingering, her voice is still ringing in his ears. He never wanted this for her.

No, you just wanted to save your own skin and boom, you fell for her. Hard. Jackass.

The thought crosses his mind so easily, laced between pain and paralysis, that the veracity of his own emotions almost doesn't sink in.

And then it does.

He's always sort of known. Ever since he woke up, just this caricature of himself, he's had plenty of time to think and not think about why Emma's opinion of him means so much. Why he's panicked every time someone mentioned going to see her, how she needed to know he was alive. It was a small comfort to think that she had been worried about him, but then he'd just think about how disappointed she'd be.

After all, he knows exactly why he's made of wood. He's made too many mistakes to fix at this point. Only seems cosmically sound that he should have to die to pay for them.

So why does he feel worse about how his death might affect her emotionally than the fact that he's dying?

He's spent so much of his life being selfish. Selfishness was what brought him to Phuket, and cowardice kept him. Fear that he'd ruined Emma's life so badly when he wasn't there to help her out of prison. Fear that he'd ruined Emma's life by letting her go to prison in the first place. Sure, he wanted to scare her straight, but now? If he could take it back ,he would. In a heartbeat.

And then he lies. He's a liar, it's all he ever does.

He tries to block out the tears streaking down her face, face flushed with anger, as he just keeps telling her to leave.

But, he can't tell her the truth. He can't tell her that… that he's a killer. That he almost killed her mother. That Cora's blood is on his hands. And he couldn't tell Snow that his father sent him through the wardrobe. Lie after lie, they keep piling up, and yet he has to cling to this feeble hope that this one lie will be worth all the others.

They can't know what Regina's doing to him. He just has to make sure she goes after him. As long as she keeps her focus on him, August has to believe that Emma will be safe. She's smart enough that he knows there's a strong chance she'll figure this all out, what he's trying to do, and stop Regina. She can curse your ghost then, and you'll be even.

The door smacks open again and startles him right out of his train of thought. His chest throbs, nearly crippling him with pain. The numbness follows again, and he can barely inhale. It's getting worse. He was having a hard time standing to talk to Emma, and now he has no idea how he's supposed to move off of this couch.

"Get out here, now."

This feels nothing like the finesse of Cora's touch, the strings she'd used to tug his limbs all the way to nearly killing Snow White. Razor wire tugs him to his feet, and before he knows what's hit him, August has stumbled his way out of the trailer and collapses to his hands and knees in the dirt. A startled, exhausted groan passes through his stiff lips, and his eyes search endlessly for the source of his torment.

"I hope you enjoyed seeing Sheriff Swan one last time, because you've just moved my time table up considerably." Regina. The queen. The primal, childhood fear threatens to overwhelm him again. The burning, molten pain he remembers all too well from their last meeting returns, and he sinks to his elbows, unable to hold himself up more. "I had planned to let you live long enough to see the fruits of your betrayal."

"Betrayal?" He breathes, almost drunk with sensation. "You didn't exactly ask - "

"Maybe I should have sucked all the magic out of your mouth first." She hisses, and August suddenly feels as though he's been suckerpunched. His head snaps back and the razor wire touch of her control forces him to his feet. "I wanted to bleed you dry. I need the darkness in your heart." As the queen saunters forward, he can see a manic gleam in her eye. He knows that look. He's sure that Rumpelstiltskin had seen the same look in his eyes when he demanded that he somehow fix him. Demanded that he help Emma…

Desperation.

"What's changed?" He breathes, not sure where the strength to stand up to her comes from. He can't shake Emma's face, the way she told him that him leaving had truly affected her. He can't see her hurt like that again. And maybe, it's because he knows that anything Regina is planning, even if he doesn't know what it is, will be a direct play against Emma. He can't let that happened.

"You opened your mouth." Regina snaps, each word carefully chosen as her dark gaze tries to disintegrate him on the spot.

"I didn't tell them anything."

"Oh, now he tells the truth?" She laughs, reaching out to run her finger along his jaw. The touch is scorching with a purple hue he recognizes. "Cowardly, selfish, liar." She sneers. "Murderer."

Something changes. It's so fast - or maybe he's so run down and slow - he doesn't know where her hand disappears to until his chest is suddenly on fire and the pain cripples him. His knees buckle, but the queen's hold on him keeps him upright. An undignified, strangled gulp of pain escapes him as he realizes that Regina's hand has gripped his heart, squeezing tightly.

"You have so many sins on your conscience that I could have used you for years to fuel the magic I needed to get my son back." August's eyes go wide. Not the kid… "But, if Emma knows anything, then I can't take any chances. I need the darkness in your heart, and when I am done extracting it," Regina chuckles. "I think I'll dump you on Emma's doorstep as a winter gift to help light her and Mary Margaret's fireplace."

"Killing me…" August gasps again as she twists her grip. He's never felt pain like this, even in the worst throes of withdrawal. "Won't make him love you…" He really doesn't know where this is coming from. He doesn't know why he's so damn convinced to make sure he pisses her off before he goes, and he knows there isn't a brave bone in his body.

The ugly expression on Regina's face, a twisted scowl that suddenly reminds him up close and personal why he was so terrified of her as a child. "After I've killed you, I'm going to kill her in front of her mother. I can't wait to watch the light go out of her eyes. And then they'll all know exactly what I've lost. What I've had to sacrifice to get here."

Emma. At the end of the day, she's the face of every regret he's ever had. Even his failings as a son have been because of how he failed in his role to protect Emma.

And he can't stop Regina. He's failed. Again.

Regina rips his heart from his chest with a quick tug.

He's not sure what he expected, but it's not what he's feeling. Pain? Not there. Rage? Not there, either.

He feels truly empty. For the first time in his life…. nothing matters. Apathy is the only prevailing sensation.

"I always wondered if your heart was wooden as well…" Regina muses, holding the organ to eye level. The grain that has run through his body and colored what used to be skin is just as bright and lacquered on the beating heart. Illuminated by something beneath, it has a faint red glow, as if it had once been flesh and blood. "Beautiful craftsmanship. If I wasn't planning to torture the old man for daring to build a loophole to the curse in the first place, I'd consider hiring him to build me a cabinet."

If August could still feel, he's sure he'd have something to say. But, instead, he stands there motionless, staring blankly at the heart she holds in his hand.

"Wait…" Regina turns the item in her hand around, examining it, then glances back up at him. "This isn't the heart of a murderer. There are other sins, different darkness, but you never killed."

The gravity of what she's said hits him, but he can't figure out what she means.

"No, I killed Cora…" He mutters, perplexed. He can feel his body sinking as he tries to recover from the abuse his body is suffering, but the exhaustion is even worse. He barely even feels like he's in his body any longer. He's running out of time.

"You didn't." Regina insists, and when he manages to look up at her, she looks thunderstruck. He can see the wheels turning as she reevaluates everything she's based her plan upon. "There really is no end to exactly the tales you'll tell. But, surprisingly, you didn't try to save your skin with this one. You did it for Snow White." The way Regina sneers the name should send a shiver down his spine, but he remains in place, a statue with its last remnants beginning to float free into the ether. The world around him has begun to feel distanced, as if he's a spectator. "You have ruined everything. I hope you enjoyed trying to protect your precious little blonde, Booth, because that will be the last thing you do."

August can't even muster the appropriate fear as he watches Regina bring his heart closer to her chest, her grip tightening. This is it…. he knows the stories. This is how he's going to die, right? No second or third chances -

"What the hell?" He can hear the way her fingers are dragging against the lacquered wood. She's squeezing with all her strength, and yet it won't buckle. There's a part of him that wants to fall on his knees in front of his father and thank him for being such an expert woodworker; but, the sensation feels so far away that he would rather she end it now. "Unbelievable. You are just…" She glances up at him, running her tongue along her teeth. Is she sizing him up for a meal? Maybe she plans to keep draining him of magic. "There's not enough life in your heart for me to even crush it."

And all the while, he'll have to sit there and think of all the ways he's failed Emma. And Henry. And his father.

"You don't have enough magic left in you to power a light bulb." She remarks, and sensation floods back to him in molten heat. He knows she must have shoved his heart back into his body, but he can't see anything but white spots as the pain rushes through him. He's vaguely aware of hearing his own voice echoing in his ears, but he has no time to really take that in. Instead, there's that sensation of razor wire coursing through every synapse, forcing him to stay upright.

Eventually, her face comes back into view as his vision swims, and her voice does a more effective job of gripping his heart than anything else she could do. "I can't have you warning the Sheriff, or anyone else for that matter. So, if I can't kill you, I will simply let you… expire."

August's mouth works, but it's an empty attempt. He's gaping, but his throat feels like it's on fire. He's never known how much pain his body could stand until these last few weeks. And now he just wishes it would end. Cowardly… again…

The Queen chuckles, dark and elegant in such a way that he almost respects her callousness. She's so far gone she has everyone fooled, and she knows it. "Cute. You look just like the puppet you are. So, kindling, do us all a favor."

August feels his leg compelled forward, and he is only able to obey as he's marched around the corner.

He feels a touch against his back, deceptively sweet and kind as she rubs his back. "There is a car just at the edge of the wood on the side of the road. You're going to take the car and then drive across the town line."

No! His mind screams, but just like before, the control has taken hold of him.

He starts walking. Regina's laughter echoes, truly thrilled with her own cunning, but he keeps going.

The car isn't far, but each step is another towards his death. By the time he finds himself in the driver's seat, stiffly turning the key to the ignition and driving down the road way faster than is safe, he can feel his willpower fading.

The world grows more numb, further and further from him as he focuses on the asphalt ahead. The town line isn't far. He knows it will take him maybe five minutes at current speed.

Five minutes to settle his debts.

August W. Booth resolves himself a failure at 3:15 PM and considers no longer fighting.

As he sits there and contemplates what it will feel like, to suddenly stop existing again, his mind wanders, even through the pulses of heat and searing agony.

You can see it now. You believe.

Yeah. I-I do, but… H-how do I stop this?

Break the curse.

I'll try – I promise. But I got to save Henry first, and I need your help.

No, you don't.

I should have told her I needed hers way before I did. He thinks. Maybe he could have spared himself this.

But, truthfully, he can die if it means she's safe. For a moment, he lets himself sink into the first time this happened. He thinks about how much faith he had in her and how she's more than exceeded his hopes for her.

I can't do it, August. I can't. No normal person can.

Remember, Pinocchio. Be brave, truthful, and unselfish. So long as you do that, you will always remain a real boy.

But you kept your promise. You realized your mistake, and you tried to fix it. That's important. If I had a son, that would be enough for me.

His father's voice seems to ring clear above everything else. August's eyes widen, and his fingers suddenly grip the steering wheel so hard he can hear his leather gloves creaking.

He can't do this. He can't give up.

Emma is in danger. Henry's in danger.

And they have no idea what's coming.

How can he tell himself that they'll be fine? For once in your worthless life, August, be braveHis mind screams, and somehow, he fights through the bleeding, piercing torture coursing through him.

The tires squeal as he manages to slam on the brakes and swings the car around. He barely pauses before his foot slams into the gas pedal again and he's taking off back into town.

Each movement, each bend in the road, feels as if he's been doused in fire. But, he can't - he won't stop - until he's found Emma. He has to warn her. Snow is in danger, his father is in danger and Regina wants them all dead. And who knows what she'll do to Henry in her twisted concept of love. The only people in his life he has ever cared about besides his father and Jiminy, and they think whatever it is Regina has wanted them to think for weeks.

He has no time for games with Rumplestiltskin. He has no time to ask for help. There's no saving him.

But he can save them.

Because, for once, my name is not going to be a curse on someone's lips when they can't be bothered to do the right thing.

The car screeches to a halt outside the sheriff's station. He's not even sure how he pulled it off, but now that he's here, it's easier to move. The pain seems less acute. He doesn't know if that's because the Queen's influence has begun to fade or if maybe he's running out of time. He suspects both.

Barreling through the doors, nothing but fear floods his senses as he realizes it's empty.

"Emma!" He hoarsely calls, voice raw but thankfully there. "Emma! Hello, is anyone here?" He tries again, louder. When there's no answer, he stumbles towards her desk and manages to punch her cell number into the desk phone.

She picks up in almost no time.

"Hello, Emma Swan?"

"Emma, it's August." He wants to be relieved, but it takes everything he has to speak. "Listen to me, keep Henry and your mother close. They're in danger - " He hears the line disconnect and stops. No. Please tell me she heard me.

"End of the road, Booth." Regina's voice is slick like oil, but he somehow manages to turn and face her. She sets down the pair of scissors she used to cut the telephone line at the wall. "I thought I told you to go be one with the non-magical trees. I guess there really is nothing in that head of yours but wood."

"I couldn't give you the satisfaction." He manages, and the fact that he sounds like the kind of guy who went a few rounds with Hawnha impresses him. It gives him more of that courage he so desperately needs right now.

"You're dying, August. I expected you to just take the easy way out." Regina isn't really meeting his gaze. She's examining her nails, as if she's chipped them during the day's activity. "It's what you've always done."

"Maybe that's what I'm trying to do." He says, swallowing thickly. "I've lived a life of selfishness, cowardice and dishonesty." Regina flicks her gaze towards him, but he presses on. He finds it easier to keep speaking with each word, drawing upon some inner strength he can't remember earning. For once, he'd like to think he's living for more than himself. "Only I can cure that. Not magic, not science. Just me. And if I die, I won't redeem myself. I won't earn anything."

"That's not going to change, you know." She reaches her hand out, as if to control him again, but he stands his ground. She holds position, not engaging. Yet.

"I care about the people in this town." He knows that being in the very place that he associates with Emma's strength and conviction is helping him. "And I have warned them. Good luck getting close to Mary Margaret or your son ever again. You blew that chance when you didn't watch me go over the line yourself."

"Well…" The queen's nonchalance was starting to unnerve him. And he can feel it, he can feel something in the air telling him to leave. To run. But, he won't. "I am nothing if not thorough. What little you have left is mine..."

And then time stretches. The world slows, and he feels exhaustion sweep over him as that razor wire returns, then flushes him with fire.

I thought I could protect them… He thinks as he staggers towards the door, only by sheer luck.

And I failed. Emma...


August…

There have been very few times in Emma's life that she remembers this kind of dread. The sinking feeling that something is terribly wrong, that intuition has given just enough notice to panic and not enough notice to change it.

As her feet pound the pavement, her father, her mother, Marco, and Henry in tow, she's sure this is probably the worst. She can see the Mother Superior walking up the street to meet them. It's no surprise. Marco's been a mess since they left the trailer.

Before August had managed to dial her phone, she had figured he wouldn't stay in one spot. But, he hasn't left town. Instead, he's throwing her cryptic messages from the Sheriff's station.

But, the line's been dead since he was cut off mid-sentence. Something's very wrong.

"Well, if August is still at the station, he's not picking up." Her father says from behind her, but she's too focused on walking as fast as she can back to the station. She spares him an annoyed glance back in his direction, prepared to tell him off. But, his face falls in a way she can't remember seeing.

As a group, they all falter as Emma turns to look back at the station.

Her heart plunges into her stomach, chilled as she sees August stagger out of the station, only to collapse in a mess on the sidewalk.

"August!" The desperation in her voice doesn't do her heart justice. Her feet have to make up the work, and she bolts for him. She and Marco reach him at roughly the same time. "August, what's wrong? Talk to me." She pants, rolling him over onto his back. She wants to tell him how much of a moron he's been for going dark on her, but, nothing seems to be happening. Her voice has left her, and Marco has suddenly pulled August into his arms, cradling his boy as if the years of distance mean nothing.

"My boy, oh, my boy… What happened to you?"

August's eyes seem so dull, and he's barely moving. "I'm so sorry, father…" Emma feels a stab of dread so acute, she swallows to physically force it back down. He's… he's dying. She knows it, she can just… tell. And there's nothing she can do. You can't break down. Don't break down. Henry's here. They're all seeing this, you have to be strong.

"No." Marco says, his voice thick. They all know what's happening, even if they can't say it. Emma glances at the older man, only to wish she hadn't. "There is nothing to apologize for. Everything is gonna be all right."

For a long moment that seems to stretch into hours, no one else speaks or dares to move. Emma can feel herself shutting down, compartmentalizing, but nearly failing. It's happening all over again. First she had to watch him turn to wood before her eyes, and now she's watching the very life bleed out of him. At least, that's what it seems like. He can barely move, barely speak. You keep saying you were supposed to protect me. Stop leaving, then.

"Emma…" Her name is like a prayer on his lips. It's so… so raw that it nearly pulls a smallest of sobs from her throat, but she swallows and turns to face him again.

"August…"

His hand reaches up, gripping her arm, but barely. It's a feather touch, something so weak that she wants to buckle under his touch. This isn't how things are supposed to go. She's the Savior, she's supposed to save people.

"Emma… she…" His words barely reach her ears, and she has to lean closer, heart pounding in her ears and threatening to drown him out entirely. "She's…"

His breath brushes her ear.

And then he doesn't inhale. There's nothing.

August is gone. No.

Emma stares ahead, but doesn't really see. Oh no, no no...

August is gone. Again.

And she has no idea what demons had been chasing him.

She can hear people breathing. She can hear Marco echoing the same thoughts she has.

It's her mother who brings everyone back to some semblance of focus. "No… it's not supposed to end this way." The look of utter disgust and sorrow on her mother's face mirrors what Emma's feeling, but she just… she feels so hollow. And yet there's a storm inside her. Somewhere. "He was supposed to get his second chance."

"August?" Neal's footsteps catch her completely off-guard, and Emma starts as she glances up at him. "What happened?'

"Someone killed him to stop him. Stop him from telling us something…" Her mother's voice is so focused on facts, on the injustice of it, that it's what Emma needs right now. Because if she lets her walls down… that storm will rage forth and she doesn't know what that will do.

"But, what?" Neal urges. No one has an answer, so no one even tries to offer one.

"My boy was so brave…" Marco mutters beside them, hugging his son's body close. "He was in such pain, and I could not save him…"

"Brave…" Henry's voice is so faint, Emma doesn't quite hear it. "Truthful… and unselfish." She swallows, trying very hard to look anywhere but August and his cold, blue eyes… "That's what Pinocchio's supposed to be. That's what he did, right? If he was trying to warn us, the Blue Fairy can help him!" Her son turns to the Mother Superior, and Emma doesn't have the heart to stop him, or to tell him that things can't work that way. Maybe it's because she just… hopes they can. "Can't you? There's still hope. There's always hope."

The Mother Superior swallows, glancing to Emma, then to her parents and finally back to Marco. "You're right. If his actions were indeed brave, truthful and unselfish, then you're right. There's a chance I can do it again. Only…"

"Only what?" Emma realizes she's the one who's talking, but it doesn't sound anything like how she feels. So calm… so distant.

"Only… while he's been this way, he… he hasn't been the same. Not the way he was when he was boy. I'm not entirely sure it will work."

"But you have to try." Henry urges. From the tone in his voice, it's very obvious that he's grown as attached to August as she has, although in different ways. And he's so desperate, this is all he has to hang onto.

"Please. I beg of you." Marco whispers. "Try."

Emma pulls herself to her feet, although she isn't sure why. She just knows that her stomach is rolling and the Mother Superior has a big blue wand that is somehow supposed to save August. August. Who she needs. And she needs to tell him that again and again until he gets it through his thick skull.

There's a shimmer of blue that springs forth from the wand, and surrounds August. She can't breathe, focused entirely on that one sliver of hope that keeps telling her he's going to be okay. I need a chance to work this out with you. On equal footing. She prays, watching him as his body glows brighter and brighter.

And then it's over.

And that's… not… August.

"Father?" A ginger boy sits up where once had been August W. Booth. Emma blinks, shaken - no, thunderstruck. Disbelieving. That's not August. That can't be…

"PInocchio?" There's a level of hope in Marco's voice, but it seems tinged with something else. Confusion.

With wide, frightened eyes, Emma glances over at the Mother Superior, who is staring at Pinocchio with a mixed expression. This doesn't make any sense, and her head is beginning to spin.

What the hell? This isn't the deal; August is supposed to be back. She isn't supposed to change him into a boy.

And everyone seems… fine with it. Neal, her father, Marco… even Henry seems to be somewhat okay with it. Why is everyone smiling while this kid talks about being a real boy when the man who was sitting there a second ago is gone?

She takes a step back, unable to breathe.

It isn't until she feels her mother's hand on her back that she can look up and realize her vision is blurred. "What the hell?" She whispers, lower lip trembling as her mother matches her utter disgust she's feeling. "Mom… M-mom, that's not him… That's not him…" She keeps whispering.

"I know. But, you can't do this, not in front of Henry. Not right now." Her mother's hands move to her arms, stroking gently, trying to comfort the storm inside her.

She has to think of Henry. She knows that's the only damn thing in this world she can control… and whatever August was trying to warn them about… maybe he knows.

"Aug…" Emma stops herself from finished the word. She takes a deep breath, burying all that pain and conflict deep, as deep as she can. She feels that empty hole in her heart, and tries desperately to focus on that. That and the present. "Pinocchio?" She turns to face the boy, who by now is smiling and carefree. Nothing like August… "I need you to think real hard, okay? Before you were turned into a little boy…" She pauses. The words stick in her mouth like dry cotton. "You were trying to tell us something very important. Do you remember? You were trying to warn us about something."

Emma doesn't know what she hopes to get out of this. Answers, at least? She hasn't even considered what this means… what it all means in the long-term. The short-term, even…

"I don't remember." Such an innocent little voice, but it seems to have the ability to rip at Emma's heart like a wild animal. She swallows again, but the boy continues. "If I did, I would be truthful. I promise."

And just like that, Marco has steered the boy away. Emma stands straight, clenching her hands into fists. Her expression must be haunted, because she has no idea what to do. Is she supposed to be happy? This is supposed to be okay?

"Mom, can you take Henry back home, please?" Emma asks, even though she doesn't know why she expects her voice to be anything other than harsh. Thankfully, her parents don't fight her. They grab Henry and steer him away as well. Oh god, August is younger than her son now. Oh god, oh god, oh godthis is sick.

"You okay?" Neal sound concerned, but it takes Emma to realize that he's not talking to her. He's talking to the Mother Superior, who is staring at her wand. What vestiges of happiness or relief she'd had is gone now. "You saved him, right?"

"Oh, you have to be kidding me." Emma snaps, her voice shaking. Neal glances up at her, and she knows he meant nothing by it. But, she needs to lash out. She has all this anger boiling under. "Are we supposed to be grateful? Happy? I'm sorry, did everyone else miss the part where August was a man? A fully grown man with memories and experiences and a life and he's a ten year old now?!" Emma stalks towards the Mother Superior, who, to her credit, remains where she is. "In what universe is that even remotely okay?!"

"Emma, I'm sorry. That was not the outcome I wanted." The Mother Superior's voice is far more pained than she expects, and that stops her for a moment.

"What?"

"I tried to restore August. But, there was something very wrong with him. Something… missing. But, I don't know what. I just… I couldn't restore it. I couldn't bring all the pieces together. I'm so sorry, Emma, but I did try. Pinocchio is August."

"No." Emma snarls, even as her stomach threatens to revolt. "That is not August. August was that boy. You don't just get to scoop out the insides, repackage him and tell me he's the same person. Because he's not. I knew August. I cared about August. I…" The rage escapes her as quickly as it has come, and she's just exhausted. Hot tears finally begin to streak down her cheeks. "I lost him. That boy is not August. August was Pinocchio, but Pinocchio is never going to be August. Your stupid rules killed him."

Emma gets to her desk at the station and locks herself in. And try as she might, a single tear doesn't fall.

Somehow, she escapes the tears and the raging. She falls asleep at her desk.

She's not ready to grieve.

Chapter Text

She's not ready to grieve.

That's what he keeps telling himself. That's what he says like a silent prayer every single time he goes over to Snow White's - no, wait, what'd she call herself? Mary Margaret - house. She'll get there eventually, and when she does… he's not so sure he wants to be there for that. That's kinda cruddy of him, he knows. But, Neal's still trying to build a relationship with his son. Something tells him comforting his ex would not sit well with Tam. At all.

Ever since arriving in Storybrooke, Neal has spent every morning looking out at the cove, just to be sure that the Jolly Roger doesn't just set its broad ass down in the water as she pleases. That one close call with Hook was plenty, and he's not sorry that since arriving back in Storybrooke, the pirate has done little more than get drunk off his ass and leave people alone. He keeps catching him lurking around his dad's shop occasionally, but, they don't speak. Not really. And the Jolly Roger? The Evil Queen's mom (Christ, this place) killed the crew and sank that beauty.

Neal just wishes every problem fixed itself so easily.

But, that ship was a beauty.

Emma has been impossible to read in the days since August's… uh… well… de-aging? Not-death? Facelift?

Konami-code reset?

He's gonna go with the last one. It's like he's been restored to factory settings.

It's callous to think of it that way, too, and he's aware, but it's how he copes. If he just thinks of it as this lighthearted "Easy button", he doesn't have to think about the guy who chased him down and set his and Emma's on a better track, even if it was a hard one.

Considering the choices he's made in his life, one of them being a pirate, he can't be angry at August. He's sad he never got to know the guy that Emma did. At some point, August must have been a little genuine. He has a hard time believing that Emma, after everything she's had to endure alone, wouldn't be able to see through if August was completely full of it.

But, the guy's gone whether he wants to know him or not.

After over a week of this, though, he's just about fed up. Henry's birthday had gone off pretty well, aside from the bizarre navigation around Henry's parentage, and today he'd spent a good part of the day playing with August. Well, Pinocchio.

When he knocks on the door and Emma lets him in, they chat idly about Henry, and it isn't until he says something about August that he watches her expression change.

"Yeah, that's… gonna take some getting used to." Well, at least Emma's acknowledging that Pinocchio is August. This is a step in the right direction. And she seems sad, but the storm he's seen in her eyes doesn't seem to be there today.

"Y'know, August is actually way cooler as a kid." He grins, resting against the counter. "He steals a lot less of my money." He figures a quick joke will help break the ice.

He figures wrong.

Emma glances up at him as if he's just insulted her. And to her credit, she doesn't shout, but the ice in her tone is tangible. "The August we knew is dead and you're making fun of him? What the hell's the matter with you?"

Ow. His mouth works for a second, but he can't manage to make anything intelligent come out. "I… what's your problem?" Oh, that was bad. You know better, man.

"My problem? Oh, get the hell out of here. Screw you! You blamed him for your decisions and now you want me to just kick back and laugh all over his memory? Get out, Neal."

He's not entirely sure when his attempt to just be friendly with the mother of his child suddenly turned into him getting ushered out the door, but he's out and the door's latched before he can manage to squeak "I was just trying to lighten…" He huffs. "The mood."

Heaving a sigh, he gave up and made his way back onto the streets. Whatever. To be fair, he owed Emma nothing except the duty to be a good father to his kid. And he's moved on, truly. He loves Tam. And it isn't that whole hot-and-heavy, can't-get-enough-of-each-other, let's-burn-the-world kind of love. It's stable, I-want-to-build-a-life-and-I've-planned-for-it love. The kind you build families on and buy houses. He wants to raise his son, but he knows it's not the ideal way for the kid to grow up.

She must have been thinking about him, because his phone starts ringing no sooner than he's made his way toward the main street.

"Hey, babe." He picks up the pace as he picks up the call.

"Hey. How was it? Did you and Henry have a good time?" It's been tough on Tamara. She didn't exactly sign up for a full grown kid when they met. She's been a trooper, but… he's not sure they can really make it through this. But, he's hopeful. He's gonna try.

"Yeah, it was fine. Course, I put my foot in my mouth soon as I saw Emma, but, I kinda figured it would be par for the course."

"Oh, no, what did you do now?"

"Nothing! I just…" His feet come to a halt on the pavement as he debates where to turn next. "I made a stupid joke. About August. So, justifiably, she bit my head off."

"Smooth move."

"Not my finest moment. Look, can we not talk about how dumb I am?" He groans, wiping his hand down his face. "Clearly, she got a helluva lot closer to the guy than I did. I just didn't think it was gonna be this constant walking on eggshells. This whole place has me walking on eggshells."

"Neal, I'm not gonna pretend to understand exactly what Storybrooke is, or what you've told me about your life, but… if you have family, it's important to take advantage of that while you can. Everything you do to spend time with Henry is worth it. Don't… don't waste it." She doesn't have to say who is on her mind. The picture of her grandmother still sits on her mantle in her apartment. She had been lucky to have her for as long as she did, but the woman had had the most powerful senility the doctors could recall. She'd declined quickly and tried to fill Tamara's head with stories about a magic cure. Neal knows she's just trying to help.

"I will. I just… my dad's not exactly the best of guys. I can't avoid him the entire time I'm here."

"You know," He can hear Tamara moving around, and he has a feeling she's about to start - "I'm about to start dinner, so either way, you don't have to talk to anyone else once that happens." He chuckles, and can already feel himself giving in. "But, my mom always said that the best way to honor someone in their death was to do something they'd be proud of in life. So, think of something August would want you to do and then head back here. I'll pop open a bottle of wine and let tomorrow's problems be tomorrow's."

"Yeah…" he sighs. "You're probably right." He knows what he should do. He knows exactly what August would say, considering the last time they spoke about his dad. But, he's not so much angry at his dad anymore as much as he's completely weary of discussion after discussion being exactly the same. But, still... "Look, I'll see you soon. Looking forward to whatever you make."

"I can guarantee it won't be pizza. Again."

Neal laughs. "Right." He pauses for a moment, then finishes his thought. "Love you."

Hanging up, he's not sure why the words don't exactly sound right, but he's pretty sure he's just exhausted. He's tired of all of this. He doesn't want to be stuck in this little town. He wants to go back to the City, raise Henry and show him the sights. But that's sure as hell not gonna happen if you keep pissing off Emma. He reminds himself.

But… if he's stuck here for the time being, Tamara's right. He needs to settle some scores.

His footsteps take him to his father's shop for what feels like the millionth time. It's so strange, seeing him in this town. He looks like his father, he sounds like his father, and the guy won't shut up about wanting to reconcile. But he knows the Dark One is sitting there, just under the surface. He doesn't want to trust him, and he has no plans to.

August, though, he was a sucker for his dad. He mentioned him enough times. If he's gonna make up for talking crap about him before, maybe he needs to try to mend a fence August wanted to.

He doesn't really hesitate to walk through the door, but he doesn't march in there happy as can be, either.

"I don't care if it's flotsam, you sonuvabitch, you owe me for my ship. If it's magic, and I'm willin' to pay, then give it." Well, this is definitely a different sight than he expects. Hook is barely propping himself up on the counter, and beside him, Smee is attempting to pull him away. "I saw it when I walked in here. If you're willing to keep it so close to your chest, then I want it."

"You have nothing to trade, and you're hardly a captain anymore, Captain. So get out of my shop, or I'll have Bae throw you out." Smooth, Dad. He hasn't been in the room more than two seconds and he's already getting put in the middle of this mess.

"Oh, no, I don't think so." Neal throws his hands up with an easy smile, but he's already feeling his patience wear thin from Rumplestiltskin's antics. "I'm just a customer, don't put me in the middle of it. Whatever business you have with the good captain, I'll let you finish."

As his father turns to face him, he just barely see a hint of something in the lapel of his jacket before he buttons it and grabs his cane. "Our business is concluded. Now, please escort your beloved captain out. And don't make me ask again."

"Of course, sir. Beggin' your pardon, sir, we'll be going." Neal has to fight a smile as he watches Smee practically pour Hook back out the door. It's kind of nice to know that as far as threats go, if Hook's the worst one, Storybrooke is doing fine. He's still not sure he necessarily believes that the Queen - Mayor - whatever - is on the up and up, but she's blamed the mayhem on her mother. And Cora was nuts.

"Bae…" The warmth in his father's voice should be a comfort, but all it does is make the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

"What did the good captain want?"

Rumplestiltskin frowns, glancing back at the door. "Cora's parting gift for his loyalty to her was to stick his entire ship in a glass bottle. He thinks I have a bit of magic wood to… regrow the ship."

"And? Do you?"

A very guilty silence hangs between them before his father finally turns to face him. "It's good to see you. To what do I owe the honor?" Neal doesn't turn to face him until he's nearly hugged, but he manages to take another step back before that can happen.

He tries to ignore his father's crushed expression before remembering why he's here. "This is… actually…. an olive branch." The words are forced out of his mouth with way more effort than he would have liked, but at least he has said it now.

His father blinks, raising an eyebrow. "I don't understand."

"Look…" Clearing his throat, Neal stuffs his hands in his pockets and stares at the floor. "What happened to August… it's made me think. About what things would be like… if we'd had a relationship like he and his dad did. If we had that kind of time..." He wonders if they'd had a chance here, in this place without magic - the chance he'd wished for - if it would have changed anything.

Apparently, that is not what his father thinks. "We can do that. That can happen, my boy."

"Wait, what?" Neal's face scrunches up as he tries to reason out what he's saying. He's pretty sure he doesn't want to know, but he's hoping he's about to be proven wrong.

"I could turn you back into a boy, just like August is now. We could have the chance to be father and son again."

Suddenly, Neal finds himself sympathizing with Emma's pain a lot more. It takes him such a long moment to reply, but when he does, it's an explosion of just utter disbelief and disgust. "Are you freakin' nuts?! Why the hell would I want that? Being a kid sucked enough the first freaking time around! Why would I ever want to repeat it?"

"I wouldn't make the mistakes the Blue Fairy did. You could keep your memories, if you wanted, I suppose."

Neal reaches up, threatening to tug his own hair out. "Are you even hearing yourself? It's not about the memories! I'm not so freakishly obsessed with my mortality that I think I have to rewind the clock like that! It's sick what happened to August! Don't you think that guy would want to just… be himself instead of having to be a kid all over again?" He can't help but laugh. It's bitter and disappointing, but he just can't get over the absurdity of the situation. He had honestly thought that coming here to speak to his father was going to end well. And here they are with the only thing on his dad's mind being the idea that Neal should go back to being that kid he remembers. Unbelievable. "Oh my god, what am I doing here? You're not interested in me, you're interested in someone I haven't been for decades!"

"You misunderstand my intentions - "

"No, I get it. Believe me, I get it." Neal growls. He doesn't have the words he needs to truly express how sick he is of all this, and he can't help but wish that had stayed in the city instead of following Emma and Henry back here. This is not the kind of world he wants to be in. He hates magic, and it doesn't solve anything. "No wonder Emma's pissed off at everyone! Man, she had every right to snap at me. I've been sittin' here acting like August's better off, but thank you. Thank you, Dad, for putting me right in his shoes and helping me see how truly screwed up that is. But, he's got one thing I don't, and that's a father who actually gives a damn about him!" His dad knows how to play the sympathy card. Neal tells himself that his dad's devastated expression is him doing just that. "You scare the hell outta me. Forget it. The next time I walk back through this door, I can guarantee you it won't be to make nice. So, stay away."

Neal's out the door before he can take any of it back. It's not that he wants to; he's just so used to thinking that's the best way to stay out of his dad's path. But, he doesn't care. He doesn't want to have anything to do with the guy.

When he finally makes it to the small apartment he and Tamara are renting a few doors down from Archie Hopper, he doesn't want to talk.

Dinner is quiet, but Neal can't muster up the effort for conversation.

What's the point in talking if no one's really listening?

Chapter Text

What's the point in talking if no one's really listening?

The days have kept moving forward, even though she's desperately replayed every single moment of her life since she left August laying on that hotel bed. She's replayed every what if, she's focused on her failures and her actions. She could have questioned Marco more, she could have taken out Maleficent then immediately went to check on him when the curse broke. She could've…

She didn't. She can't.

And she isn't sure if it's because she's already lost him once, but she hasn't been able to cry. She's been angry - oh yeah, anger has been her strong suit in the last two weeks - but she hasn't let herself think about anything other than how unfair it is. August did his penance, he suffered enough for leaving her and she was more than willing to make him regain her trust, but… this is how the world repays him.

That feeling that the world has let her down, even in this fantasy of magic and true love, carries her through every single day. She's aired her grievances with the Blue Fairy, she's told off Neal more than once.

But, the first time she snaps at Henry for talking about how cool it will be to grow up with Pinocchio, and maybe when they're both old enough, he can teach him how to ride a motorcycle… that's when Emma knows that things can't continue the way they are. The kid doesn't know any better. He's just doing what she's - well, her and Neal - have taught him. He's just supposed to act like this is the better life and move on.

Of course, she has absolutely no idea how she's supposed to do that herself. The lesson seems so hollow. Nothing feels like it's over. She knows what closure is supposed to feel like and this isn't it. Everything's normal, no one seems to care. No one is mourning August!

Not even she is.

Emma knows why.

If she mourns him, it's because she has to admit that he is well and truly gone. That the things she wanted to tell him, the forgiveness she wanted to be free to impart, it's all going to fall on deaf ears. Even if she says it, it's just going to disappear in the wind and she will never have the chance to see him smile. Not at her. Not the way he used to.

Give or take five years, he'll be going to the prom alongside Henry and Grace.

Emma stands. She needs to get out of the house, she needs to think. She needs to be anywhere but here.

Trying to forget about how she's taken out her grief on her own kid - just an inkling of the storm she's kept tightly locked inside - she grabs her keys off of the kitchen counter and leaves in a rush. She has no plan, no idea of where she needs to be.

Just somewhere other than here.

Some place where she can think of him and not see failure.

How about you stop trying to control everything and take a leap of faith?

His voice echoes, but it just doesn't seem right. She can't just tell him to repeat it. It's the only thing she has to hold onto. Where she once could savor the chance to give in and ask for a ride on his bike again, gripping his waist tightly as he leisurely took them through the back roads… she only has empty hands…

Somehow, she finds herself in the woods, bug parked a few yards away. The great, sprawling tree still shelters the well. She thinks, maybe this will be the place. Maybe this is where she can finally talk to him… somehow. Heal...

That lake has magical properties…

No. There's no way. Even with everything she's seen, she knows that miracles just don't happen that often…

I'm a writer. I have to have an open mind

For a moment, the completely irrational hope that somehow the well could cure him envelops her, and Emma makes a mad rush for the well. She grabs for the bucket, but the pulley has rusted more since the last time they were here. She remembers how effortlessly August had drawn water up. He made everything seem like a carefully orchestrated play: no missed lines, all the blocking was perfect.

If you drink the water from the well, something lost will be returned to you.

She pulls harder, not even sure what she hopes to accomplish. She can't help but just think about how unfair this is, how angry she is, and if she could just have two seconds with him she'd tell him that she was falling -

Emma hears the rope snap about the same time she hears the sob tear from her throat.

"Dammit!" The broken, furious noise escapes her as she hears the bucket plunk into the water below. She stumbles back, her hand to her mouth as she tries to muffle the tears that have begun. The sobs that have started to claw their way to the surface as much as she fights them. "This isn't fair!" She screams at nothing - birds, maybe. Magic. Everything. "He had lived his life! Why the hell did you have to erase him!"

Still stumbling back, she lets her body's momentum carry her. She doesn't have the heart to fight it anymore. She can feel herself falling, and she wants nothing more than to just let it happen.

The arms that catch her are clad in leather, but they belong to the one person Emma hasn't allowed herself to break down around. She sees her father's face just as he rights her.

"Hey, Emma, honey, are you okay?" David is clearly concerned, but she has no idea what he's heard, or when he arrived. She doesn't know how to explain any of this to him. It's only slightly easier with Mary Margaret… "Emma?" As he says her name again, his face begins to blur as the tears keep falling.

All Emma can do is choke out another sob before her dad's arms are around her, and he's holding her tightly.

And she lets it go. She cries and cries, big wailing sobs she hasn't let out since Graham died. And that seems so long ago now. She had bonded with August so much faster, but she also kept him at a distance, and this all just seems so much more raw. He was here, she had touched him, and now it's all gone. Why him?

"I don't know, honey…" Her father's answer makes her realize that she's been babbling half of this through the tears. Knowing he has no solutions, no answers, only makes her sob more, and she holds him even tighter.

"Then why is it okay for everyone to forget him?" She screams somewhere amidst the sobbing.

And that's when the fear hits home. That's what she's been afraid of. Not just mourning him, but somehow forgetting him. Forgetting this very place. The conversation they shared. Forgetting that he was the little boy in the newspaper, forgetting that she had told him she believed. All of it.

And now she's crying harder, goddammit it all.

"Hey, hey, hey…" Her father's voice is soft, more comforting than she knows it should be but she can't bring herself to care. She can feel his hands rubbing her back before he moves them up to her shoulders. He cups her face gently, forcing her to stand straight, to meet his gaze, and it's only then that she realizes his eyes are misty, too. It can't be because of August. He barely knew him. "No one is going to forget him, Emma. No one has forgotten who August was or what he meant to you."

For some reason, that doesn't sit well with her, and she pulls away, shaking her head. "What he meant to me? I didn't matter! What about his father? What about Henry?" All thoughts of snapping at her son have faded. Instead, she's reliving conversations she's had with herself for weeks. "What am I teaching him? That when evil wins, you're just supposed to make your best effort, and if someone gets reset in the process - 'oh, well, that's magic!'" She turns away from him, staring ahead as she tries to wipe her eyes. "That's crap. I will not do that. I am not gonna teach Henry that somehow it's better that August's already aging father now has a child to take care of."

"The Blue Fairy said that she would have tried to fix him, but something went wrong. Emma, no one's perfect -"

"Oh, screw the Blue Fairy!" Emma finally shouts, whirling to face him. "It doesn't matter that she didn't mean to, that's what she did! And August is gone! So, you never have to worry about decking him for leaving me, and Neal can finally talk all the crap about him he wants!" She laughs, completely humorless, but enraged. "Everyone can finally make him the laughing stock, since apparently that's what you all must think."

"I never said that about him, and I don't think that. He was a kid, Emma. Like he is now." David's jaw sets. "I know it wasn't what you wanted, sweetheart - "

"Stop it!" She doesn't know why he keeps pushing how she feels about all of this, but that's the last thing she wants to think about. She doesn't want to forget August. But, she doesn't want to think about why every memory of him is so precious. Why it feels like her chest closes up every time she touches his bracelet on her wrist - a bracelet she only replaced when she knew he was gone. "This isn't about me!"

"Emma, it's as much about you as it is Geppetto." David's own voice is thick with emotion, and for a moment, she realizes that his own pain is because of her. He can't stand to see it any more than she can think of Henry having to mourn August. And that's why she's gone along with pushing it.

She shakes her head furiously, as if they can forego the conversation. "No, no, it's not. I'm in no position to say I'm hurting more than he is. He has to walk around with his son, knowing that he lived a whole different life that the old man has to keep locked in a garage." Emma chokes up, and has to stop. She takes a breath, trying to keep it together. She tries to somehow alleviate her pain with comparing it to someone else's. "That typewriter. His bike. We don't even know if he'll grow up to like those things." She shakes her head. "The guy he grows up to be could be completely different. He will. And I can't do anything about that."

"But, you wish you could." He reasons.

"Of course I do! No one deserves to have a son that they might see go to college." She swallows. "If I could fix this, I would. Oh, god, if I could just fix this. What is the good of all this magic crap if i can't even use it when I need to?!"

"Emma, you need to be honest with yourself."

"I am -"

"No, you're not." He insists, and she finds herself torn between telling him off and actually hearing what he's telling her. She has no idea how to handle it. "Please, Emma. I don't mean about the situation. I mean…" He takes a deep breath. "You need to be honest about him. If you don't do it now, you are going to be miserable the rest of your life." The plea is so plaintive, so honest, that she doesn't know how to respond. The tears have stopped for the moment, threatening to fall but not quite ready to do so.

She sniffs, looking anywhere but the well. Anywhere but her father. She chooses to wipe her eyes again instead. "I am being honest. I'm pissed off and I hate that this is how everyone's chosen to handle this."

"That's not what I mean." David says no more, no less. The statement hangs in the air.

She can take the bait, take the opportunity to well and truly unload. Or she can back away.

Emma, if you need evidence for everything, you're going to be stuck in one place for a very long time.

How much longer can she do this? How much more can she spin her wheels until she has to admit what she knows? How much evidence does she need?

Emma's face crumbles as everything rushes to her. The flirting, the near-misses, the way he supported her through every single crisis she had. How he constantly felt the need to atone, and how she had already well and truly forgiven him. How he had told Geppetto how much her opinion meant to him. How many nightmares she had when she was in the forest.

"Oh, god, I think I loved him." She blurts out, the information rushing out of her mouth sounding as much of a surprise as a terrible admission. "I never told him." Her breath hitches but she stays upright, trying desperately to stay in control. "I was s-so angry with him for lying about who he was, but he was right. And I don't blame him for what happened to me. But, h-he was always trying to fix things." The tears start again, and she can't hold it back anymore. The words rush forth in a pained sob. "And I was going to let him…. I was going to let him fix this, fix us… I was ready to let him in…"

Emma's knees go weak. She can't keep holding back, and the honesty weighs her down until she's sunk to the ground, curled up and sobbing. Her face is in her hands, but she can't help but just shake and cry. It's undignified, it's not the woman she shows everyone. But, she's so sick of having to be strong and just act like this is for the better.

He's gone and he would never know how she felt.

Every time they spoke, every time she could have just said "Yes" to him instead of having to dance around his offers… every time he tried to make her believe. It all seems to useless and she feels as though she's spitting on his memory every time she tries to think about how she feels. She knows she ignored how he must have felt, just so she didn't have to think about it. He always look at her as if she was the answer to every problem in his life.

Suddenly, she recalls speaking with Mulan, hearing her talk about protecting the ones she loved, and she realizes now what she had buried then: August had put himself in every situation to break the curse without her actively knowing, and he screwed it up every time. But, somewhere along the way, he loved her. That was love.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and she'll never have the chance to tell him that he can stop trying to pave that road so hard. They could figure it out together.

Except they can't.

Her father is at her side again, holding her tight as she cries, but she refuses to sit up. So, he just stays there with her, kissing her hair and telling her that it's okay. Somehow, it'll all be okay.

"I know he loved you, Emma. Geppetto knew. You have to grieve, sweetheart."

David forces her back to sitting up, but the tears keep screaming, and she's hitching her breath, unable to stop the spasms.

"I just wish I could see him one more time. Just once, Dad."

David reaches up, brushing her tears away, even as new ones fall. "I know…"

"What the hell do I do now?" She breathes, lost beyond measure.

The smile he gives her is sad, but it's all the comfort he can give. "Remember him. Remember August W. Booth. Because no one else can the way you do."

"August…" She breathes his name like a prayer, leaning into her dad. She knows that soon, she'll have to stop crying. She'll have to put all this away and never let it get to her again. But for now, she can just hold onto her dad and cry softly, whispering to the wind… wishing it could somehow reach him.

"Come back…"

Chapter Text

"Come back, my boy!"

Oh, Pinocchio will exhaust him. He is sure of it.

"Pinocchio!" The old man calls again as his son disappears into the garage in the newest ploy to win this game of tag. Groaning in fatigue, Marco slows down from his half-jog to a leisurely walk across the asphalt. "Oh, my boy, I am not so young that I can chase you around this down," He grouses, although still good-natured, before making his way to open garage; all the while, he's wondering what his boy is up to. Again.

Even though there is a smile on his face, these last few weeks have tasked the carpenter. If not for the burning of his lungs, then the mixed ache in his chest every time he sees his son's face. He knows his heart should be bursting with happiness, and it does quite often. But, there is no escaping the fact that in his garage, a typewriter sits atop a high shelf, untouched. The motorcycle is hidden by cardboard boxes, but the helmet his son rode in with still hangs from a handlebar. He sees his young son's face, and yet longs to know the man he had become - faults and all.

Marco knows it must be selfish to miss the man; this broken and yet still strong man whose conviction and love took a profoundly selfish quest to end the curse into a profoundly selfless one. But… in order to have the young boy back, everything that was August is now gone. Marco must mourn him, as if he had two different children. And he has begun to do so.

He tells himself he has a chance to help this boy, to fix the mistakes wrought by having his father abandon him to a cruel, cold world. He tells himself that if he does this, he will live to see that face again, smiling and happy. The only gift any parent wishes for their child.

But, the way his lungs burn remind him that there are no guarantees that this gift will be given to a man as old as he is.

Huffing, he pushes away the stark reality of that thought. He knows he cannot truly know how much time he has left. The doubt still lingers: Can he even raise a child before his clock finally stops?

"Pinocchio, what are you doing?" Marco realizes that the room is silent. He assumes the boy may have turned this into hide and seek, but when he rounds the corner, he finds his son starting at the cuckoo clock, still on the work table.

"Father, do you think we could give this to Henry when it's fixed?" The boy's hands are already toying with the spindle again. Marco swallows as he recalls the very same repair, months ago now. He'd had no idea that it had been his son to reach out to him. This world is cruel. He fails to see its beauty in moments like this. No matter how many times they cross this clock, they will never be able to marry all those memories together.

He pulls his cap off and worries the bill as Pinocchio keeps tinkering, oblivious. The emotion, the loss, it rushes over Marco in an acute ache that pushes everything else from his view. How weak, he chides himself. He has his son, but all he wishes is to truly heal the broken, yet unbelievably strong man he was.

Marco has asked for magic to turn back the clock for Pinocchio before, yes, but he's old now. His weeks hiding and caring for August, worrying over his fading health, drilled home that he was prepared to parent an adult now. He is scared that this boy won't have his father by the time he wants to be married, or have a career. And what if he wishes to leave Storybrooke? If he leaves, there is no way for Marco to warn him if his health fails. His own parents were taken from him so young… how could he wish that upon his boy? Marco knows this boy will never be August, and that this boy is a stranger in many ways. Marco mourns, nevertheless. He mourns for the past, and he fears the future.

"Father?" Pinocchio presses again.

"Maybe, my boy, but I have to speak to Mr. Gold first. This came from his shop." He looks up from his cap, expecting to see a pout. Instead, he sees Pinocchio reaching down to pull his shirt sleeve up. The young boy's bright eyes seem to fade as he stares blankly at a red, angry scar down the inside of his arm. His little fingers reach up to itch at the scar, and there's a notable change in his expression. It reminds him of August… but Marco knows that's impossible.

And then, it's gone again. Pinocchio's at his side again, hitting him gently and giggling before running out the door. "Tag! You're it!"

A week later, the same seems to happen.

They play tag and for some reason, Pinocchio goes to the garage.

But, this time, Marco finds him asking about the typewriter. Just… not the way he expects it.

"Father, where's my typewriter?" It's such an abrupt question that Marco answers without thinking.

"Up there." He points to the shelf, and it's only then that he realizes he's never told Pinocchio about the typewriter. How could he know…?

"Why's it so high up? It should really be in my box…" The boy trails off and his hand starts to rub at that spot on his arm again. "I want to write. I miss writing. You know, that might be the best way to get Emma to come around, if I write to her. Very classic, very Cyrano, what do you think?"

Marco's jaw has gone slack. What has possessed his boy? He has no idea.

And then it's gone. Again. Before Marco can formulate an answer, Pinocchio has shouted tag and run off again. But this time… he has a difficult time chasing after him.

When it happens again the next week, Marco has begun to dread when Pinocchio disappears into the garage. He's even considered locking it up; but, he simply can't bring himself to do that.

Marco rounds the corner, expecting Pinocchio to have found something else of his former self to fixate on. But, this time, he's staring at his reflection. And his breathing is quick. "Pinocchio? Are you all right?"

It takes a long moment, but finally the boy whirls towards him.

"Father?" Pinocchio breathes. His eyes are wild, but now his hands are to his throat. "Wh- what happened to me? Why do I sound like this?" He looks down at his own hands and gasps, backpedaling until he bumps into the boxes that so carefully hide the motorcycle. He spins, and Marco can only look on, frozen with shock and confusion, as Pinocchio reaches out to grab for his bike. "My bike… I don't understand… I don't understand what's happening…" And then the little boy starts babbling in a language Marco can't recognize at all. The syllables are quick and staccato, enhancing that sense of panic.

That truly frightens him, and he finds himself at Pinocchio's side, crouching down next to the boy. He puts his hands on his shoulders and steers his son to face him. "Pinocchio! Look at me!"

The young boy's eyes meet Marco's, confused and easily terrified to the bone. It's a look he's never seen before, except for…. The boy blinks, and instantly, the look is gone. He doesn't even look distressed. For some reason, that chills the old man. "What's the matter, father?"

"I…" Marco doesn't know what he wants to say, but he holds his child fast, trying to reason out what he's just seen. "Pinocchio, why were you so scared?"

"I wasn't." The boy tilts his head, perplexed. "Father, I was just asking about the clock, but it's okay if we can't give it to Hen - " Pinocchio's mouth freezes in the middle of the name. "Hen - " He tries again. "Hen - Hen - Hen - " The name is stuck like a scratched record, and he each time he repeats it, Marco finds himself fearing for his son.

"Pinocchio!" Marco tries to shout over the child's stuttering. "My boy, answer me!"

"The boy!" Pinocchio echoes, snapping out of that strange spell. But, that wild look is back, and this time, it's Pinocchio who puts his hands on his father's shoulders. "Father, we have to find Henry! We have to find him now! And Emma! I have to tell her, I have to tell her everything - " The young boy - but is it? - squirms free and tries to make his way over to the garage door. His footsteps falter again, and he turns around to face him.

"Tell the sheriff what?" Marco asks, against his better judgment.

"Father…" The voice of his son has returned to the childlike innocence, but now it's tinged with fear. Having heard this strange spell once more, Marco is beginning to hear the difference. One voice is clear as a bell, mature and urgent. This one… this is the boy he has spent weeks with. "How did I get over here?"

"You walked." He answers without thinking, but he's back to his feet again, trying to stop the boy from going anywhere else. He has a weight in his stomach, a cold one. He thinks he knows, in broad strokes, what is happening, and he has no idea what to do. "What did you want to tell Emma?" He's afraid to utter the next word, but there was such desperation, and he doesn't know how else to solve this. "August? What did you need to tell Emma?"

Pinocchio looks to him again and he can see it, plain as day in his eyes. Inside that little boy, August W. Booth is screaming to be freed. "Henry's in danger. Emma's in danger. She's going to - " He groans, and his hands clutch at the sides of his head. "Oh god, my head's pounding. The curse, I need to stop the curse - no, no, the curse is over, I need to - help Emma - Emma, Emma - Emma, I'm sorry- I was supposed to be there for you and I wasn't and I was hoping - that's my problem, hoping - " The words are tumbling out of his mouth, each one more desperate than that last as the little boy struggles with the mind that's warring for control.

"August, you're hurting yourself, stop it!" Marco doesn't know how this has happened; but, he can't lose his boy again. Right now, he's afraid he's losing both past and present. "I will get you help, my boy!"

"I wanted to help - I'm so stupid - I can't fix this - I can't - I can't - I can't - " A trickle of scarlet starts to make its way down from his nose, and Marco scoops his son up in the space of a heartbeat.

"Pinocchio! August!" Marco holds the boy tightly, but his vision has grown cloudy. It takes a moment before he realizes that he's blinking back tears. The boy has begun to shake in his arms, twisting every way in an effort to escape whatever torment has consumed him. "You will be okay, I promise you. You must be strong, my boy!"

"I have to warn them - " The little boy chokes out in between sobs. His face is streaked with tears and the blood won't stop trickling. "I have to - I have to - to - to - " The boy begins to stall and stutter again.

Marco holds him tighter, but he can't make the pain stop for him. He turns, intending to walk the boy to his car, when the body in his arms goes taut, like a wire ready to snap, and he's shivering. "No, no, no! Pinocchio!"

That name rings through his ears, each scream more raw and desperate than the last as Marco somehow manages to sprint from his home to the hospital. His heart is pounding, and he is gripped by the ungodly fear that his child is slipping away from him. In his arms. Not again. Is this how fate repays them?

"Help me!" Marco finally sobs as he reaches the doors to the hospital, shoving them open with his shoulder. "My boy!" His voice shakes as he hoists the now limp body in his arms.

"Marco?" He hears the familiar voice, but he doesn't have time to register it. Instead, his hands are trembling as he finally looks down at this son for the first time since he began to run. The boy is pale, blood crusted and smeared against his lip. Marco can feel his legs threatening to give way.

"Someone please HELP HIM!" He cries desperately, at a complete loss.

"Get me a bed! Now!" He hears the voice, and strong hands are trying to pull the boy from his arms. "Marco, you have to let go of him!"

"You have to, you have to help him - " He keeps repeating, weaker now, but still unable to let go. What if this is the last he sees of him? What if the next time - no -

"Marco, let him go." That voice again. He finally looks towards it, only to see the one person that his son would want there above anyone else.

"Emma…" He chokes out.

"Let Dr. Whale have him, let him help. You came here for help, so let him do that." She urges, and somehow, Marco's grip slackens enough that Whale takes the boy from him, and he can only watch helplessly as they run the boy off to one of the rooms.

He can feel his knees threatening to give, and he reaches out to Emma, holding onto her to steady himself. "I - I do not know what happened to him, piccola…. He's…. he started to remember and then he started to - I don't - O Dio - "

"Breathe, Marco, they're gonna help him now." Emma's hands on his arms steady him, and he lets her steer him to one of the seats. He collapses beside her, watching the bustle behind the doors to the emergency area, even though he wishes he could fly back there and do something. Emma must sense this, because she tries to engage with him again. "Marco, what do you mean, he started to remember?"

Marco finally swallows and turns his attention to Emma once more. Oh, this poor girl. To her son, she was the sun, moon and stars. How can he tell her? How can she know? But, he must.

"He remembered that he was August. Emma, I think that it is killing him. My son's last life is destroying this one."

Chapter Text

His past life is destroying his current one.

The words sit in Emma’s stomach like a cold, metal weight. She hasn’t moved, hasn’t been able to bring herself to leave Marco as he worries the bill of his cap and desperately tries to keep his emotions in check. The only reason she isn’t in the hospital room with the old man now is because Whale insisted - family only. Emma tries not to take the man’s head off as the realization strikes her that he’s right.

Her phone is in her hand, all but forgotten after she called her parents. But, she doesn’t know what to do. Whale hasn’t returned and she wants to stomp back there, ripping doors off of hinges if she can; but… she doesn’t. The last time she had been in a similar situation, her son was dying and she’d moved heaven and earth to get to him.

So, why isn’t she doing the same here?

Maybe it’s because for all the damn good she is, how much of a Savior she’s supposed to be, her powers can’t do anything to help August.  

“You’re worried about him.” The voice that breaks her thoughts is remarkably sympathetic, considering he’s done nothing but handle anything involving August with poor humor.

Glancing up at Neal, Emma shifts a bit so that he can sit in the chair on her other side. “I don’t think worry begins to cover it anymore.” She mutters, letting her gaze drop to the way her fingers keep twisting a tissue into a tight cord. She’s been sitting there, hoping against hope that the staff will have a different diagnosis, but so far, they’ve been silent. And her fingers have gone to idly play with the black simple band around her wrist again. Taking a deep breath, Emma leans back some and looks up at the ceiling, trying to form some sort of coherent thought. “I saw him die in front of me… twice. And in between that, we kept missing each other until everything built up and then we’d just blow up at each other. First it was the Savior crap, then it was about him running off after the curse broke and… and then there just…” She trails off, feeling her throat close up as grief and worry threaten to overwhelm her.

“There just… wasn’t time to clear the air.” Neal finishes the thought for her, and she can’t help but feel a bit thunderstruck. It doesn’t matter that her jacket’s wrapped firmly around her, she feels exposed. She’s been terrible to Neal, ever since August was… morphed or whatever the Blue Fairy tells herself to sleep at night. And yet, he still knows her. He sees through her. He reaches out and covers her hand with his own, ceasing her fidgeting. “You really got close to him, didn’t you? Before everything went sideways and the curse broke.”

Clearing her throat, she brushes tears away and tries to keep her voice steady. She knows that if Henry leaves Pinocchio’s room and sees her a mess like this, he won’t handle it in the slightest. “Guess you paid more attention than I thought.”

“You kind of bit my head off a few times, so I made it my job to pay attention.” Neal chuckles and shakes his head, running a hand through his hair. “Not sure why you’re so torn up about the guy, he was a total shyster when I met him.”

Emma’s mind wanders back to the day August rolled into town, all leather and motorcycle oil, refusing to give his name. He had been the epitome of the mysterious stranger and he played that hand as long as he could. “We were toying with each other…” She tries not to think about the well, about how many times she’s replayed that “date” and wished she’d believed him then. “I think - if you asked him - he would have said he was trying to awaken my inner child. He was playful, mischievous, at first. But… at some point, it changed. I realized I could trust him, and I… didn’t trust anyone. Not after you.”

The heavy sigh beside her tells her that Neal knows his own part in her past and doesn't need to be reminded.

“He tried so hard to make me believe, Neal.” Emma continues on, turning to face the other man with a level of conviction she’s probably not shown in weeks. “And I did everything I could to push him away, to hate him for his part in my life. But… then I believed. And I saw what had been happening to him and I couldn’t save him. The Savior. And I didn’t do anything . And what’s worse… I still forgave him for his part in what the two of you did, even after hiding from me. I wanted to apologize, I wanted him to know that I...”

Neal squeezes her hand. “Stop. You don’t have to say it. I get it.”  

Emma inhales, a deep shuddering breath. “This is so messed up... “

New footsteps enter the lobby, and the two of them fall silent as the Mother Superior walks over to them. “Emma, Neal. I heard about Pinocchio.”

Emma stands without thinking, the moment of vulnerability she’d shared with Neal giving her fuel for her anger. “ August . His name is August and he is fighting to get out so hard it is killing him.” Every word bites as she takes another step closer. “Your arbitrary rules about magic have caused this. You did this. August is in there, clawing and screaming, trying to be heard, because he’s still in there!”

The Mother Superior almost loses her stalwart yet sympathetic mask, and Emma at least begins to feel some small satisfaction. “They aren’t my rules, Emma. They are the rules of the magic. All magic comes…”

“Comes with a price.” Neal finishes beside them, waving her off. “Spare us, we’ve both heard it. Thanks for reminding me why I’m glad I left.”

“August paid that price!” Emma rails, ignoring Neal’s disgust. “You made him real once, and then the second time you made him like this . That’s not how this was supposed to be. He was supposed to be August. Not Pinocchio.” She draws herself up to her full height and takes another step closer to the Mother Superior. “So, you fix him or you tell me what you need to do it, but I am not leaving him in  there to die.”

The Mother Superior’s hands clutch together in front of her. Emma can see she’s gotten through, as the woman’s demeanor has changed to one more uncertain. “I don’t exactly know what happened, Emma. I wish I did.” 

“So, tell us what you do know.” Neal remarks beside her. “Because no one deserves what this guy’s going through.”

The woman takes a long moment to collect herself before she finally dares to meet Emma’s gaze. But, when she does, it’s plaintive. Almost tortured. “The magic of the forest requires wholeness. If you give a gift, or you pay a price, you must pay it in full. You have to willing to give all of yourself to the magic. When Pinocchio was a child, he did that. He committed an act of selflessness that was so profound, the debt was paid in full.” Emma is ready to fire off a remark, but the Mother Superior holds her hand up to silence her. “Please, let me finish. August came to me when he woke up. After the curse broke. I know he wanted to help find you, and he was willing to do anything. He was determined to go to your father.“ She nods towards Neal. “I warned him against it, and I thought he took the advice. But, when I saw him again at Marco’s, there was something changed in him. He was no longer whole. And I tried to explain that to him, but I fear he took the wrong lesson.”

Emma holds a hand up, trying to process the new information, but her temper doesn’t want to let her. “Hang on. When exactly did you see him? How long are we talking about?” The guilty look on her face says it all, and Emma shakes her head, glancing to the sky. “Who didn’t know he was here? Just me?”

“Hang on, Hang on,” Neal’s voice is - surprisingly - a welcome breath of reason before she can lose her temper. “You said he went to my father, but my dad likes to bargain. What on earth could August have given to him that would…” Neal trails off, and a quick glance his way gives Emma some idea of what’s going through his mind. He’s had some revelation, some bit of information has clicked into place. “That sick sonuva… Emma, c’mon.”

Before she can protest, Neal has a hand on her elbow and his guiding her out the door. “Neal, where are we -”

“You wanna save August, I think I know how.” He sounds determined and angry. For a moment, Emma realizes she’s not the only one who changed over the years. Neal may have run from her, might have run from his dad, but he’s finally recognized that he doesn’t want to be that person anymore.

It doesn’t take long before the two of them are barrelling into Gold’s shop. Emma’s out of breath and her head’s spinning a little, but it’s more because of what Neal’s told her on their way.

If he’s right… if Gold had something to do with this…

Emma’s not sure if she’ll lose her lunch or throw Gold through his own display cases. Maybe both.

Gold doesn’t seem to even notice her. He’s too busy looking at Neal with a mixture of relief and hope. “Bae… I thought you said you wouldn’t be coming back here. And yet, here you are. With Miss Swan, no less.”

“No, I said I wouldn’t be coming back here for a friendly visit. This isn’t friendly.” Neal crosses the small shop in a few strides, and Emma’s right on his heels. Seeing the way Gold bristles at his son’s angry tone gives her the fuel she needs to keep going.

“August is dying.” She starts. She hopes to appeal to some iota of him that holds any sympathy, but his expression doesn’t budge. “Ok, let me try again: August is dying and we know you have something to do it.”

It’s not the reaction she wants, but Gold chuckles and slips into that slimy and comfortable salesman role. “I can assure you, Sheriff Swan, that Mr. Booth excels at getting himself into messes he can’t get out of. But, I was under the impression he had gotten a new lease on life.”

“Not exactly.” Neal steps in and rests his hands on the display case in front of him. “See, here’s the problem. The Blue Fairy tried to help August and turned him into a kid. But August is still up in the kid’s head whirling around. And that’s your fault.”

Gold chuckles and levels his son with a disbelieving gaze. “How do you figure?”

“Hook.” The single word doesn’t seem to make much sense. Emma’s not even sure where Neal’s going with it. “He came in here the day I tried to make things right with you begging for some magical piece of wood that could give him back his ship. You told me to ignore him. But, he was right. You have something.”

Emma feels her temper surge, and she makes a move to step around the counter to cut off Gold before he can escape. “What did you do? What the hell did you do to him? Magic curse or not, if you hurt him, I will still arrest you.”

“Anything I might have from the young man was freely given.”

“Bull!” Neal snaps, smacking his hand on the counter. “You have never been honest with me for a single moment in my entire life! You ever want to see my face again? You start coming clean. Now!

Silence hangs between them. Emma doesn’t want to be the first to blink or to breathe.

Gold finally speaks, still the model of civility. “He wanted to help bring our royal family back from the forest. And was willing to provide a part of himself to do that.” When Emma doesn’t reflect surprise or whatever emotion Gold is hoping for, he elaborates further. “He’s made from a tree from the forest. So, he offered a shaving of that wood.”

Emma shouldn’t be surprised that they’re both exploding at Gold.

“You sick, twisted bastard, you took a shaving off of him - “

“You’re the reason he’s dying! You’ve had months to give it back to him! You knew this whole time - “

Gold reaches into his lapel, and the arguments die in the duo’s throats. Neither of them wants to stop him, but Emma’s not sure if she wants to see what he’s about to reveal.

A slender shaving of wood, a solid piece of that same deep lacquer she’s come to associate with August, is held delicately between his fingers. “I had every intention of using this as Mr. Booth requested: by bringing you and your mother back from the Enhanced Forest with something as powerful as the magic of the wardrobe. But, it turned out you didn’t need it.”

“So why didn’t you give it back to him?” Emma snaps, reaching for it. Gold - as expected - pulls it just out of reach and wags a chastising finger at her.

“It turned out I needed him. If I hadn’t had possession of this when your mother went after Cora’s heart, you’d be mourning her, not your wayward friend.” A gold weight settles in Emma’s stomach as Gold keeps talking, and she grips the counter in front of her. “He’s a puppet. A magically enchanted thing . I was able to control him just as Cora did, to stop him from killing Snow White.”

Neal shakes his head beside her, seething. “Every time I think you can’t sink lower - “

Emma grabs Neal’s arm, effectively shutting him up as  the puzzle pieces click into place. Clues she hasn’t been seeing, although August effectively gave them to her, like he always does. One part mystery, one part enigma, and one part misguided sacrifice. “You said ‘ just as Cora did .’ What are you talking about?”

Gold smirks, relishing that he has information they don’t. “How do you think Regina and her mother took Johanna? It’s not as if they could just walk up to her. They picked someone whose… altered appearance would be immediately recognizable to someone who worked on the queen’s staff. And then she sent August to kill your mother. I made sure that didn’t happen.”

Emma recalls every time August tried to warn everyone away from him in those last few weeks. Her mother, his father… Emma herself. Everyone. He said it was dangerous and she’d never figured out why. “Was he even dying from this?” She points to the shaving. “Or because people like you were using him?”

“I suppose it’s a little of both.” Gold makes a move to put the shaving back in his jacket. “But, the way I see it, the only one who can bargain for this would be your mother, since I saved her life - “

Neal has whipped forward before Emma has a chance to react, and for the first time in her life, she sees something she’s never really seen in him before: righteous fury. Something’s snapped. Maybe it’s that he’s seen his father will never change, or maybe it’s that the reality of the situation is too much for even his morally grey conscious to stand, but either way, he’s snatched Gold’s jacket so tightly, he practically yanks him back over the counter. “We are done playing games! You are done playing games! This is exactly why I left, don’t you get it? You haven’t changed a bit, and I am not going to stand by while other people die because it’s more important for you to boost your ego! Give her the shaving right this second or so help me I’ll throw you over the town line myself. Geppetto is watching his son die. What if it was me in that position?”

If she thought Gold deserved it, Emma would feel a bit of pity for the hurt plainly written on his face. But, he doesn’t deserve anything but what he keeps causing to himself. And he seems to finally get that. Slowly, Gold holds out the shaving to Emma, his eyes still on his son until the very last moment. “I’m… I’m sorry, Sheriff… here…”

Emma takes the shaving from him and cradles it more closely than any precious jewel. “You better hope it’s not too late….” She says, the threat quite obvious behind the words.

Neal shoves Gold back before letting go. The older man crashes into a stack of knick knacks, but Neal has already turned and taken Emma by the elbow. “Time to find out. Let’s go.”

Emma hears Gold calling for Neal, but the two of them leave without another glance back.

It’s not until they’re halfway to the hospital that Emma can bring herself to look at Neal, and she wonders what he’s thinking.  For so many years, he’s escaped his father. And this time, he’s chosen to walk away.


How much pain can one person take?

Chapter Text

How much pain can one person take?

At first, Henry tries to look at it like a puzzle to be solved, or a technical, hypothetical question. Like those kids in YouTube videos who do stupid things. They crack their heads, they fall and hit concrete, and they just get back up and everyone's laughing. Seems simple enough.

But August doesn't.

Sitting in one of the armchairs in the observation room, Henry feels a little turn in his stomach as he pulls his jacket tighter. He knows he's supposed to call the kid Pinocchio, and to his face, that's what he says. But, he knows that's not really who it is. Somewhere in there, he always knew August had to be in there.

No one listens to the kids, but Henry knows. He's always known that August was supposed to have his happy ending, that the Blue Fairy should have been able to fix him. Instead, there's Pinocchio, and while Henry knows that August was Pinocchio, this kid doesn't act like August. There's no awesome stories about faraway places, and August was always so smart, he knew what everyone needed all the time.

Instead, Henry can't help but wonder if Marco's okay with August being a kid again. Henry knows his mom wishes she could have been there for all those years when he was younger, but she says she wasn't ready.

The whole thing makes his head hurt, and so he sits there numbly, watching the ginger boy in bed across from him take one breath, then another. They're so shallow, he thinks. The blood's been cleaned up from his nose and mouth - Dr. Whale wouldn't let Henry see him until then - but he listens. He hears what everyone's saying about him.

He hears his mom shouting at the Blue Fairy that somehow - August is still in there and he can't stay Pinocchio. It's not right.

"Henry, you shouldn't be in here." Regina's voice makes Henry jump a mile, and he quickly turns to look back at the doorway. He doesn't want to see her, he knows she's done terrible things, but... but, she looks upset, too. He's just not sure if he can trust her anymore. He's been told to stay away from her by everyone, even when they've tried to be nice to her.

"I wanted to be here when he wakes up." Henry finally manages after a moment, searching for an excuse that doesn't get him in trouble. "Someone needs to look out for him, because everyone else is busy out there arguing about whether or not he's August or Pinocchio."

Regina's face shifts to one of sympathy, the kind of look he's associated most of his life with broken toys or tough homework assignments. Now, he's not sure if he can trust those anymore. She walks over towards him, but when Henry shifts away from her, she stops. If it fazes her, he can't tell. "I don't think it matters one way or the other, Henry. He's your friend and I know you want to be there for him, to help him... but I don't think he can be helped."

Henry swallows, searches her face for if she's trying to trick him. But, she sounds pretty convinced. He's not. "Well, then I guess it's a good thing you're not a doctor." He says, probably a bit more harsh than he intends. But, it feels good to remind her that she doesn't know what she's talking about. "He's going to get better. Mom will figure it out. Even Neal's trying to help."

"Not everything can be fixed simply by wishing it could be." She crouches down to be level with him in the chair. "All magic comes with a price, and maybe this time, the price was too high. The Blue Fairy did everything she could and it just didn't work out - "

"No!" Henry stands up and moves to the other side of the room. "You don't know everything! You think you do, but you didn't know that your mom was trying to kill Rumplestiltskin, or that August was still in town! And you say you want to be good, but you're giving up on him! Good people can make good things happen. If you want to help, then fix him!"

She doesn't answer him, she just stands there with her arms crossed. She doesn't even care! It takes him a few seconds to realize that he's huffing and he's let his anger get the best of him. But, he doesn't know what else to do.

"Do you feel better?" Regina asks quietly, and for a second, he hears the woman he used to think of as his mom. "Have you been able to talk to anyone about this?"

Henry looks at the floor, not sure how to answer. He knows he's been keeping all this to himself, and while he could talk to his mom, or maybe even Neal, he can't. His mom keeps a smile on her face every time she sees him, and it's a fake one, but he doesn't want to ruin it. And Neal just crack jokes and says everything will be fine.

"I'm sorry, Henry. Clearly, being here waiting for Pinocchio -"

"He's August, too - "

Regina sighs. "August, then. Waiting for him to wake up is taking a toll on you. Why don't you go take a walk with me? We can go down to Granny's, get you some ice cream, just like old times."

Henry rolls his eyes. He knows this game and he doesn't want anything to do with it. "You're just trying to get me to leave with you. You don't care about August at all."

"It's true that August and I have never been friends, but I do care about you, Henry. You're still my son and I love you. I don't want to see you like this." The way she says that makes his skin crawl, but also somehow makes him want to believe her.

Henry shakes his head and looks over at the young boy in the medical bed. “I don’t want ice cream. I want August. Not Pinocchio, either. I want August back.” Until he says it out loud, Henry hasn’t really let himself think that. He keeps telling himself that he really just wants what would make August happiest.  But, he knows the truth. “It’s not fair. I liked August. August trusted me, and he never lied to me. And I believed him, I tried to help him when he was turning to wood. He never pretended that he knew better than me. Like all of the other adults always do!”

Regina takes a long time before she speaks again, and  Henry wishes she’d leave with every second that passes. He just wants mom to come in and tell them that she’s figured everything out. Or for the Blue Fairy to come inside and say “This is all a terrible mistake! I’ll fix it now!” And instead, it’s just quiet.

“Henry, you need to accept that August might be gone forever. And he wasn’t the spic and span friend you thought he was. He was a very broken person who made terrible choices and he couldn’t atone for them.”

Henry doesn’t hesitate to turn around and level a glower at the woman he’d once thought of as his mother. “So what’s that say for you? You’re the Evil Queen. You’ve done far worse than he ever did. So why are you here instead of him?”

For a fraction of a second, he feels a twinge of guilt for what he’s said, like any kid mouthing off to a parent. It’s that moment when he would expect to be grounded. But, then he remembers that Regina doesn’t have power over him anymore.

“Because I am your mother, Henry, and one day, you will understand that everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you.”

There’s something about the way she says that, her eyes glance back at the boy in the bed, and Henry feels his stomach drop unpleasantly. “Everything you’ve done? Like what?” He looks back at Pinocchio, then back at Regina, and the flicker in her expression just makes his stomach twist more. “Did you do this? Did you hurt him?”

Regina shakes her head, utterly shocked by the suggestion. “Henry, no. Pinocchio’s a boy, I’d never try to hurt him.”

“You know I meant August! Did you do something to August?”

“Everything all right in here?” He hears Mary Margaret before he sees her, but the moment he can see her in the doorway to the hospital room, he knows he has to warn someone.

“No! Regina did something to August! She’s responsible for this!”

The two women face off, as he can sense his grandmother go immediately on the offensive, but Regina’s already starting to deny it. “Mary Margaret, that is ridiculous. I haven’t seen August in months. How could I hurt the man if I didn’t know where he was?”

Mary Margaret narrows her eyes. “Hold on a minute. Your mother tried to kill us, and almost succeeded.”

Regina’s jaw sets. Henry feels more like a spectator than a participant in the argument that’s brewing. “Yes, I remember. And I also remember that someone killed her before she could get the chance. Any chance you know anything about that? Or is your memory still foggy on that subject?”

Mary Margaret’s hand clenches at her side. “Oh, no, I know exactly what I did. And I don’t regret it.” There’s a darkness in his grandmother’s voice, and Henry debates going to get his mom. “She deserved what she got.”

“That’s a different tune than the one you were singing before.” Regina takes a step closer, sizing the other woman up. “You’re admitting that you did it, then?”

“Mary Margaret, maybe you should go get mom - “ Henry starts, trying to stop the fight that he’s now inadvertently started. He wants to help August, but there’s something really wrong with his grandmother. He can feel it. And even though everyone acts like Henry’s just a kid and doesn’t know anything, he’s seen the way she argues with his mom, and how she’s been so upset since August turned back into Pinocchio.

“No, Henry, I’ll handle this.” Mary Margaret continues on undaunted. “August warned me to stay away from you, just before he died. Why would he do that?”

Regina scoffs. “How would I know what that paperweight wanted? Probably some demented rambling of a puppet losing his magic.”

“How do you know he was wooden again, Regina? You said you never even saw him.” Mary Margaret turns to Henry. “Go get your mom, now.”

“Henry, don’t you move!” Regina shouts, and the door to the hospital room suddenly slams shut behind Mary Margaret.

It all happens so fast, he’s not even sure when or how Regina’s hand is suddenly in Mary Margaret’s chest. Henry can hear the terrified shout that he knows is coming from him, but it sounds like it’s someone else. He tries to rush forward, but with a wave of her free hand, Regina keeps him in place. Quickly, she tugs and Mary Margaret’s heart comes free, pulsing in the other woman’s hand as a spider web of black seems to wrap around the otherwise red gem.

“Look at how the darkness has grown…” Regina mutters, and Henry is so horrified he can’t move even if he wants to. He tries to scream, but his mouth won’t work. Is it the magic, or is it the fear? For a half a second, he wonders if this is why Neal ran so far from his dad. “This is exactly what I need to fix things.” Regina turns to look at Henry, an odd mix of desperation and sympathy - towards who - on her face. “I didn’t want you to see this, Henry. But it’s for the best. I’ll show you.”

No matter how Henry wants to scream, all he can do is stare with hot tears streaking down his  cheeks as Regina comes closer. Her hand closes around his wrist and Mary Margaret collapses on the ground with a slight squeeze to her heart.

“When we’re alone, I promise to tell you everything.”

Chapter Text

When we’re alone, I promise to tell you everything.

Emma has been repeating the thought to herself like a mantra, clutching the shaving of wood in her gloved hands the whole way back to the hospital. She has to hold onto the thought so that she doesn’t spin off into her righteous fury she has for Regina. The woman tried to gain their trust, she’s been claiming her mother forced her into this life of evil, and all this time, she’s known about August. She’s controlled him. Like he was an object, not a person with a soul.

A tortured soul. A broken spirit, plagued by expectations no one should ever have placed upon them. He’d tried. He’d tried so hard, and Emma just didn’t want to believe at the time.

I believe him now. She reminds herself as the two of them make their way back to the main entrance to the ER. And I promise I will tell him everything. The anger she’s been holding onto over the months has truly vanished after losing him. At the very thought that he might come back, that she could fix things with him…

“Emma, you wanna slow down?” Neal calls out to her, but she’s busy pushing through the doors. Hearing his voice just reminds her that she’d been just as blind about Gold. She doesn’t want to think about how long August had been suffering because Gold was toying with him. She will bring him down, but she also knows that he’s lost any chance at a relationship with his son. Maybe that’s enough for now.

She spots Marco, asleep in one of the chairs, but otherwise it’s empty. She expects that, he’s tired. Something else seems out of place, but she’s in too much of a rush to place it. Maybe it’s the empty nurses station, but it doesn’t process.

She doesn’t expect to see the door to the hospital room wide open.

And the shock of seeing her mother prone on the floor next to the hospital bed completely derails her plans.

Mom!” She gasps, kneeling down to take hold of the woman. It doesn’t even register that the woman is her age, that she’s been fighting the urge to accept her as a parent all this time. All she sees is the woman’s eyes blankly staring ahead as she rolls her over.

Neal skids to a halt in the door frame. “What the hell happened?”

Emma spends a frantic moment checking for a pulse, but finds none. Only, her body is still warm. And she’s breathing. The realization sweeps over her like a trickle of icy water, slipping down her back until it pools in her stomach. “Regina… Her heart…” She  tears her gaze away from the blank stare ahead of her, then looks to Neal. “Regina has her heart.”

Neal’s hands go to his head, tangling in his hair as he takes that in. “Oh, shit.”

Emma manages to scoop her mother up into a chair, her foot kicking something nearly across the room as she does so. That fear transforms in her stomach with every passing moment to coals of rage as she catches the TRON logo across the lunchbox.

“Get my dad. Now! We have to find her!” When Neal doesn’t move, Emma points to the lunchbox. Desperation tears through her voice even more harshly than she means. “Dammit, Neal, she has Henry!”

When Neal has a second to process, the profanity that escaped his mouth matches how she’s feeling, and then he’s out the door. She has to hope that David’s not far, but she can’t seem to get a handle on what she does from here.

Once she has her mother settled in the chair, she tries to shake her, but already knows it has no chance of working. She needs to find Regina, she needs to find Henry.

“Henry… oh, god, what did she do with you?”

For a moment, she can feel her hands shaking and the tears threaten to fall. All she can think of is watching Henry languish in a hospital bed, then watching August turn to wood in front of her. It’s happening all over again and she can’t seem to stop it.

The machines checking the boy’s vitals start to chirp unpleasantly and while she doesn’t have time to parse out what exactly the lines on the machine mean, she knows it can’t be good. “August…” She breathes, heading to the boy’s bedside.

“You do not get to die on my watch. Not again.” Emma states as she gingerly reaches for the arm with its jagged scar. Cautiously, she brings the shaving closer to him, not entirely sure what will happen. She doesn’t honestly know and she’s not sure she cares, as long as it saves him.

The monitors start to wail, flatlined.

A bright flash of light puts spots in her eyes, and Emma blinks frantically as she tries to clear her vision. When she can finally see straight, her heart twists painfully, even as she tries to tell herself it might be a good thing.

The boy is gone. In his place lay the very wooden and very still figure of August W. Booth. His eyes are frozen, staring ahead, just as she remembers. The monitors keep squealing until she reaches over and frantically shuts them off.

“August…” His name sounds somewhere between a plea and a prayer. Saying it even calms her nerves for just a moment, and she reaches down to run her hand along the lacquered cheek. “I’m so sorry, I know I have no right to ask for you to come back. But, your father needs you. Not the boy, he needs you. And Henry needs you.” She takes a deep breath as she realizes that her face has grown damp. A teardrop slides down his cheek before she can wipe them from her face. “I need you, August. I can’t do this without you. And I know you’d tell me that’s nonsense, that I absolutely can. Not this time. I should have listened. I should have fought harder to get you back. I should have saved you from Regina and Gold. I don’t know where Henry is. So, if you’re not going to do it for me, do it for him.” Her other hand goes to his shoulder, holding tight. “August.”

Emma doesn’t know what she expects to happen, but whatever outcome she’s hoping for doesn’t come. Instead, she’s crying over the same prone figure as before. She leans closer, not ready to give up, but not sure she can say what she needs to. It’s almost like breathing. She thinks it constantly, she hasn’t been able to let it go. And if anything works, if any force will bring him back to her, she knows what she has to say.

“August, I believe in you.” She stops shy of saying what she feels in her heart. For a dreadful moment, she wonders if not saying it means it's not enough. So, she kisses his cheek and breathes. “I love you. Please wake up.”

There is no flash of light this time. There isn’t fanfare or swells of magic.

It doesn’t matter. He’s gone. There’s nothing to bring back.

Emma can feel her heart clench as she realizes there’s no fixing this. All the fight, all the desperate attempts to get back that part of him she didn’t even know had been missing, and there’s just no bringing him back.

Pulling to her full height, Emma covers her mouth with one hand, trying to stifling the coming torrent of helplessness and loss.

The sound starts out soft. It’s so soft she almost misses it entirely. It’s wood cracking, splitting and it’s accompanied by a pained gasp. Emma looks towards the sound and watches as the brown varnish turns to warm skin and stubble. Those blue eyes blink, and August W. Booth goes from puppet to the man she remembers. He sits up, coughing as if he hasn’t breathed in months - and maybe he really hasn’t - before he turns to look at her.

“Emma. You did it.” He breathes with this expression that makes her flush a little. He looks at her with nothing less than awe. While she spent so long ignoring those looks, trying to pretend they weren’t for her, now she doesn't want to. She realizes now that she can’t stand the idea of never seeing those bright eyes again. Eyes that darken the moment the reality of the situation sinks in, and August’s brow furrows. “Henry.”

At the reminder of her son’s very present danger, any relief she has that he’s back in flesh and blood disappears. “Regina has him.”

“I know.” August pulls himself out of bed, tugging his black shirt back down where it should be as he steps closer to her. “I heard Regina talking to him. I heard what happened to Mary Margaret.”

Emma’s mouth works wordlessly for a moment, before she manages “H-How - “

“Just because the boy didn’t remember being me doesn’t mean I don’t remember being the boy. I could hear the conversation, I just couldn’t speak or move.” August is so close to her, she almost can’t breathe. It’s been months since they’d even shared the same room in conversation, and now they’re in close quarters talking about her son. Her head’s threatening to spin.

“Then what did she say? Did you hear anything?”

August nods, takes her arm and leads her out of the room. “She wanted to speak to him alone. She said that once they were out of Storybrooke, it would all make sense.”

Emma stops in her tracks, making him face her. “What do you mean ‘out of Storybrooke?’ That would mean they’re headed - “ Clarity strikes her, and she locks eyes with him as they both blurt:

“The Town line.”

Digging into her pocket, she pulls her keys to the bug and starts immediately for the door. August is hot on her heels, even though he sounds exhausted.

“I’m coming with you-”

I did not miss his damn stubborn streak. She turns to face him and keeps walking back towards the door. “August, you just got back and I am not putting you in danger again. Not around Regina. Stay here.”

“That’s not gonna happen - “ She can hear the swagger, the bravado, and she wonders if she’s going to have to forcibly sit him down before he’ll listen.

Marco provides a necessary distraction for them both, as he’s stood up and is staring at August with tears in his eyes.

Emma knows that it’s a cheap shot, but when August and his father embrace for the first time in probably months, she dashes out through the hospital doors and gets in her car. She feels a bit of relief that she doesn’t see him in the rear view mirror, but the guilt that follows her all the way on the road out of Storybrooke just won’t let up.

“Sorry, August.” She mutters as she zips past the road sign. She tries not to listen to the little voice in her head reminding her that she asked him for help. What did she think would happen? She practically begs for him to help her, but when it comes down to it, she just wants him alive and whole. And out of danger. She doesn’t know what she’ll find when she reaches Regina and Henry.

There’s a deep growl of an engine behind her, and a quick glance behind her in the rear view mirror sends Emma’s heart in her throat. August is behind her, catching up very quickly with his much more maneuverable motorcycle.

“Seriously?” She remarks towards the rear view mirror, as if he can hear her. When it becomes clear he has no intention of stopping, the bug screeches to a halt on the side of the road. She can hear the gravel kick up and ping against the paint job, but ignores it.  She swings the door open and is already walking back to meet him as he comes to a halt behind her.

“I have to give you credit. You slipped out before I had a chance to even hug my father.” August pulls off his helmet after the bike rumbles and chokes out, but she can tell he’s giving her the same kind of tone that suggests he doesn’t appreciate the runaround. He sets the helmet on his bike handle and swings off of the seat, making his way to her. “But, I’m not letting you confront Regina alone.”

“This isn’t your decision.” She fires back, hands on her hips. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. You’ve died twice on my watch. Why are you so hip to make it a third time?”

“This isn’t about me, Emma, it’s about Henry. And the only reason Regina could get to him was because he was worrying about me.” He takes a step closer, invading her personal space and catching her off-guard. “Let me help fix this. Regina has your mother’s heart, you need all the help you can get.”

The wind whips around them, and she can feel the chill all the way to her bones. At least, she tells herself it’s the wind and not the way his words strike her to her core, that her son is somewhere in the woods and she has no allies except the man in front of her - a man she keeps trying to push away and pull back all at once.

Let go of me!” The voice seems to be carried in the next gust of wind, striking both of them with such force that Emma finds herself gripping at August’s arm as they whisper one shared word:

“Henry.”

No more arguments.

Emma is running as fast as her legs will carry her, August keeping up right alongside her as the two of them dive into the woods. The light even fails them as it begins to pull back, the sun setting in the horizon.

For one heart-pounding moment, Emma is sure she’s too late. They won’t find him, and her mother will be gone forever and her son will be in Regina’s hands forever.

And then they break from the treeline just as Henry manages to grab onto a fallen trunk, forcing Regina to stop in her tracks. One hand is gripped tightly around Henry’s arm, and in the other, her mother’s still beating heart. Only, Emma knows what a heart should look like… and her mother’s is mottled in blacks and reds. She has no idea how to get either of them back from Regina, either.

“Regina…” Emma’s voice shakes, her eyes have threatened to cloud in tears and her hands are out in the universal gesture to calm down. She can’t afford to spook the woman, but so much of this is still hard to grasp, and she really never thought she’d see Regina holding someone’s heart. “You need to just… take it easy. Let Henry go. Give me, uh… give me the heart and we can talk about this back at the station.”

As Regina looks from Henry back to his mother, it finally occurs to Emma that she’s never seen the true Regina until now.  She’s played sympathy for Henry, remorse, guilt, feigned victimhood over her mother’s actions. And every time, Emma’s wanted to just give her the benefit of the doubt. She wants to play by the rules of a world without magic.

But Regina’s expression is something far beyond one she’s seen before. From the way August’s hand clenches at his side, she gets the impression he knows the look, too.

“Sheriff Swan….” Regina glances over to August and a bitter little laugh escapes her lips. “Mister Booth. Back from the dead again. Doesn’t seem like I can kill you, can I?”

August’s voice has lost his normal playfulness, even in the face of danger. It’s strangely neutral, serious to a fault. “No. I told you before I wouldn’t let you hurt the people I cared about. I guess you just keep trying, so I feel the need to screw things up.”

Regina’s hand clenches around the heart a bit tighter, and Emma immediately tries to step forward.

“Woah, woah, just hang on a sec, no one has to get hurt. You don’t have to make things any worse than they already are.” Emma tries to meet the woman’s dark gaze, but she seems a million miles away.

“Mom, she won’t listen to you.” Henry tries to twist his way out of the woman’s grip, but to no avail. “She wants to take us across the town line!”

Regina tightens her grip on Henry’s arm. “I’m taking Henry and we’re leaving Storybrooke. With our memories and my magic. Your mother’s heart will be the magic we need to break the barrier.”

“You’re going to take Henry away from his mother, his family?” August asks, almost like the plan doesn’t make sense. They both know exactly why she wants to do it, though.

“He’s my son. He doesn’t need the Charmings, he needs me.” Regina laughs. “We’re right here. The line is right here.” She turns and motions to a point a few feet away, where the air seems to hang like a fluttering curtain. “You can’t stop me. I am going to have my happy ending, I deserve it. After your mother killed my mother, my only chance at happiness with her father - “

Emma’s temper flares. “Henry has nothing to do with any of that, and he deserves to be with the people he loves! You are taking him! That’s not love, Regina, you’re obsessed!”

Regina scoffs. “Henry will be happy with me.”

“Then ask him.” August says. When Regina turns her gaze to him, August motions to Henry beside her. Emma can tell that he’s not looking at the woman, but at the boy. “Ask Henry what he wants. If he loves you enough to leave. If you can do that and hear him out, then you love him.” Emma opens her mouth to protest, but August rests his hand on her arm. “You don’t have to prove it to us. You need to prove it to him.”

Emma hasn’t been in the habit of relying on people. She’s spent the better part of the last year trying to learn how to rely on her mother, her father…. And August. It took a long time, but as Emma stands here with her son’s life in Regina’s hands, she can’t help but feel a strange comfort with August right there. She can’t just throw a sword at the problem, or chop down a tree. It’s all about what needs to be said.

And August seems to have the right words.

“Henry, I’m sure you have something to say, right?” August isn’t looking at Regina anymore. He’s got his eyes on Henry. Never wavering.

It seems to strike Regina by surprise. It’s as if she’s never considered that this might not be what Henry wants, even though he’d been trying to get away from him. But, August’s suggestion has done what it needs to. Emma is clenching her fist so tightly, she’s forgotten that August has his hand on her arm until that hand drifts lower, to brush the back of her fist.  She doesn’t bear take her eyes off of her son, but she can almost sense that the man beside her is telling her It’s going to be okay. Henry’s a clever kid. He’s going to be okay.

“Mom…” Henry is careful as he calls Regina his mom. He hasn’t done it in months, and it twists Emma’s stomach for a moment before that cold ice block of fear replaces it again. Regina has turned to face Henry, her posture has changed.

Emma finally realizes where she recognizes this behavior. She’s seen it before. In bounties she’s collected. Men and women who have gotten so desperate that they can’t see the way out except whatever convoluted plan they’ve crafted for themselves. The “Evil Queen” can’t come back to Storybrooke. Even if Emma were to forgive her, to make a public show of it, the town would never accept her. And if she gets away from this alive, it’ll only be because Emma is too worried to reach for same firearm that the town licensed to her.

“Mom, look at me.” Henry pleads again. He reaches up and rests his hand on his mother’s cheek as she crouches down to be on his level. “I don’t want to leave Storybrooke. I have friends here. I have family here. And I know you love me in… in your own way. But, that’s not a kind of love that is good for you.”

Regina swallows, stricken. “Henry, you want to be with me. I’m your mother and I’ll take care of you. We just need to start over.”

“I don’t need to start over.” Henry says, taking a deep breath. His bottom lip is shaking in a way Emma hasn’t seen in awhile. “But, I think you do.”

Henry’s foot shifts in the grass as he lets go of the tree. Emma can hear her voice, screaming his name, and she can hear August echoing the same as the two of them bolt forward.

But, there’s really nothing they can do. It’s over before it’s begun.

Henry grabs Mary Margaret’s heart from Regina and shoves away from her with all his might. As he collapses on his side, the sudden shift in balance does much the same.

It takes Regina through the glossy barrier between Storybrooke and the world. It takes the Evil Queen out of Regina Mills.

It takes her across the town line.

Chapter Text

It takes her across the town line.

August has spent more time than he wants to admit dreaming of all the ways that the Evil Queen would receive her just desserts. He’s had dreams and nightmares, daydreams and errant half-formed stories that die on his typewriter somewhere between the beginning and THE END.

But, he’s never actually considered that this is how it would be.

And it all happens so fast. He sees Henry’s eyes dart past Regina to the glossy town line. August takes a step forward, then another, but Henry is already pulling free and pivoting with a strength and determination that belongs to a young prince in the making, not a frightened little boy. In one hand, he scoops up the darkened, flickering heart in Regina’s hands, much like a football. Then he pivots to face them both, Emma and August, before his shoulder makes contact with Regina’s waist and sends her off-balance.

Henry doesn’t quite stop there. He backpedals just a bit more before he tries to stop. The momentum sends him to the ground, clutching the heart to his chest. Behind him, Regina falls. August can see the way Henry’s eyes widen - he’s committing the moment to memory. He’s memorizing the sound of the leaves and twigs crunching, the way the barrier shimmers and sends a wind chime melody through the air.

And then it’s done.

The forest is oddly still. The last of the light has fallen and night surrounds them.

August is the first to slowly close the distance between them, and he makes his way over to Henry without a word. He kneels down beside the boy. He finds himself thinking of the last time he did this, halfway to a dead man. His limbs had started to turn to wood, and it hurt to walk and to breathe. But, he’d been nothing but honest with the kid.

August knows he can’t do anything less for Henry now. If he’s ever thought he could be a father, if he ever thought for what he’d do with the blessing…. He knows he wouldn’t repeat the mistakes he’s made his entire life. And he’s never lied to Henry. He’s… colored things, he’s alluded and danced around them, but never lied.  And from the haunted eyes that stare back at him, he doesn’t intend to start now.

“This isn’t your fault, Henry…” He mutters, gently rubbing the boy’s shoulder as he helps him stand. “It’s okay, you did… “ He doesn’t want to say the right thing, because he’s not sure he knows what that is anymore. “You did what you had to.”

Henry sniffs, and that moment of courage he’d exhibited has left him. In its place is adrenaline and nerves. His breaths are coming in ragged leaps as he tries to calm down. “I just couldn’t let her hurt anyone else.”

Emma is justifiably itching to take her son in her arms. When Henry glances over at her, holding the heart out as if it could shatter in his hands, August suddenly finds himself in a hug as well. She’s holding them both tightly, kissing Henry’s hair and telling him that he’s okay, that everything’s fine.

The reunion is a bittersweet one.

The embrace doesn’t last much longer before there’s a groan, and the trio turns.

Regina is sitting up, holding her head as if she’s nursing a headache. She looks around, even looks straight at August, but that’s when he realizes… she’s looking through him. She doesn’t see him. She doesn’t see any of them.

“Hello? Is anyone out there?” Regina stands, dusting herself off even as she’s a bit unsteady on her feet. August can feel Henry tremble beside him, and he rests his hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing gently. None of them speak.  Without saying, August is sure all of them are afraid if they even breathe too loudly, Regina will see them, come back across the town line.

Regina stumbles around for a moment, then looks in her pockets. When she finds a cell phone, she starts to wander off through the woods. He can hear her voice disappear as she finally dials a number. “Hi, I seem to be lost… And I think I might have hit my head, I don’t remember much of anything…”

Emma finally releases the breath she’s been holding and stands, turning Henry to face her.

Her son immediately asks the question that no one wants to answer. “What’s going to happen to her? I mean… she’s lost her memory. Will someone find her? Help her?”

Emma runs her hand through his hair, forcing a wan smile. “I’ll talk to Neal. Regina didn’t really know him or Tamara well enough to recognize them, so they can make sure she gets to safety.”

August glances from mother to son, and he can tell that the conversation isn’t really over. Not for Henry. But, he’s not sure if Henry has more questions or answers at this point.

Footsteps from behind them, vaguely from the direction where vehicles are parked, break the group up further as they look that way. Neal and David have arrived. All at once, the reality of the situation hits August like a ton of bricks, and he stands. He makes a move to step away from Henry - he doesn’t want to crowd or overstep - as the boy’s father makes his way over to check on his son.

It’s a bit of a blur, to be honest. Now that the immediate threat has ceased, it’s all sinking in. He’s alive. He’s flesh and blood, he’s… himself. And the Evil Queen is gone. He has a chance to be with his father again, to truly make up for his mistakes to him. To Emma…

August steals a guilty look back at Emma, watching the way her blonde hair spills over her shoulder as she hugs her father, then hands him the pulsing heart in hand. David takes it with care, and kisses his daughter on the forehead before he takes back off. The man exchanges a look with August, then holds up the heart for a moment as if to say Thank you before he disappears into the woods.

It’s just as well, August thinks. I don’t really know what to say to him or Mary Margaret that hasn’t already been said. I’ll be apologizing for a long time for what i’ve done to Emma.

It honestly stuns him how much his heart clenches when he even thinks of her. Another glance back at her reminds him how out of place he feels. It’s not that there’s anything about the way Neal speaks to Emma, necessarily. It’s just that he doesn’t belong there. Emma and Henry deserve a chance to get to know who Neal is now.

August can feel the way his heart wants to retreat, to let his guilt rule his actions and steer his footsteps away. But, he doesn’t have much opportunity to do so. He catches the motion as Emma points in Regina’s direction. Neal has his phone out, and August is vaguely aware that he can hear him calling for Tamara as he starts through the woods and past the town line. Regina… he’s going to find Regina.

Well, good for him. He’s clearly a better man than his father. In many ways, better than August. He can’t say he cares what happens to her one way or another. And that might be selfish, but… he feels like he’s owed this one.

“Hey…” Emma’s voice catches him off-guard, and he finds it hard to look her in the eye.

“Emma…” He breathes her name with more affection than he knows he deserves. But, he knows he can’t help it. She has been all that’s kept him going, and when he thought he was dying, he was happy to do it if he could protect her. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t stay a child. Maybe some part of him always knew Regina was out there, and he had to find her. And here she is: in front of him and safe. Regina will never try to hurt her family again.

And yet…

“How’s Henry?” The words are out of his mouth before he has time to recognize or acknowledge what he’s deflecting his internal monologue away from. He knows he wants to talk to her, to try to explain the mess he’s made of his own life, but he doesn’t know what he would say. He wants to go back to the discussion they had in that shabby trailer. He wants to know why she cares so much that he vanished. He knows why it would devastate him to leave her, but he knows he deserves nothing of the same in return. 

Emma glances back at her son, and the spell her eyes have on August is broken. He knows he’ll get lost in them again if he keeps looking, so he also turns his attention to Henry. He’s sitting on a fallen trunk, staring out at the barrier. “I don’t know, he won’t really talk to me.” She sounds so lost and he can understand why. She’s barely forged her relationship with him, and now he’s shutting her out.

“He might not know what to say.” August offers, then reaches out to touch her shoulder. “Why don’t you go back and check on your mom? I’ll bring Henry back. I promise.”

“I can’t ask you to -”

“You’re not asking, Emma. I’m offering. Let me do this.” For you. He doesn’t say it, but the implication doesn’t seem to be missed by the blonde.

She nods and her hand slips up to touch his, fingers brushing his skin in a way that he can’t remember feeling. It’s been so long since he’s been flesh, he’s almost forgotten what it feels like. “When you get back, you and I need to talk.”

That’s all she says. It seems like she wants to say more, but whatever it is doesn’t bubble to the surface. Instead, she just squeezes his hand for just a second and heads back through the woods towards her car.

Henry doesn’t seem to notice. August can only imagine what’s going through the kid’s head that he’s so distracted. The older man knows what it means to make decisions that follow him. He tries to put the face of that tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia out of his head as he makes his way over to the younger boy. No… he has to stop thinking about him like that. Henry just stopped being a little kid. Safe to say he just moved to young man, or young prince.

August’s footfalls crunch over dead leaves, just loud enough to alert Henry to his approach. He doesn’t want to spook him. When he finally comes to a stop, he looks out at the town line in solidarity with him, hands in the pockets of his jacket. This time - for the first time in a long time - they’re in his pockets because of the cold, not to hide his shame.

August likes to tell stories, but something tells him that’s not what Henry needs. Not yet. He needs someone to listen. So, he waits.

And waits.

Eventually, Henry breaks the silence. And he begins about where August expects.

“Is mom mad at me?” Henry is playing with the hem of his sleeve, but his eyes are still trained on the town line. The glossy, liquid haze has disappeared. There’s no sign that something or someone disturbed it.

August glances down at him. “No. Of course not. She’s worried about you. That’s what parents do. Even when we don’t want it.”

“Like Geppetto?” Henry finally looks up at August, then pulls himself to his feet so he can stand. Almost on instinct, August fills the space on the trunk. He doesn’t want to tower over him. The conversation needs to be on equal footing. “He dropped everything when I told him that you were Pinocchio. He was worried about you.”

August’s lips quirk upward before he nods. “Yes. Like my father. And I spent years trying to avoid my guilt over leaving him, over failing him. And it didn’t matter. He was never angry with me in the first place.” August sighs, looking down at the ground this time. “Not even for failing your mom.”

“You didn’t fail my mom. You helped her believe. And you tried to help her, tried to help all of us.” Henry’s voice seems to have lost its boyishness for the moment. It’s almost a command. August’s bright blue eyes meet Henry’s, but he doesn’t have a chance to reply to this kid in all his wonder and optimism. Even in the face of such a heavy weight to bear. Henry’s still talking. “That’s why I had to do it.”

August tilts his head. “Hang on, kid. What are you saying?”

Henry huffs. He turns away and paces (albeit aimlessly). August recognizes the frustration, he’s just not sure what it means. “I figured out why everything keeps going wrong.”

He can’t help himself. He smiles. “I always knew you were a smart kid.”

“I’m being serious.” August holds his hands up, motioning for him to continue. “Every time someone tried to stop the Evil Queen or Rumpelstiltskin, everything went horribly wrong. Even when mom stopped Malificent, you had already turned into a puppet. And when you were turned into Pinocchio, no one listened to me! I said it was wrong!”

“Well, I’m here now.” He reaches out to pat the kid’s arm. He knows he can’t fix his emotions for him, but he wishes he could. “So, tell me why everything went wrong.”

“I was wrong. Mom is the Savior, but she can’t do everything. She could break the curse, but she can’t get rid of the Evil Queen forever, because the Evil Queen is in the book. But, I’m not. So, I can change stuff.” August’s eyes go wide. Does Henry realize what he’s saying? “I’m not in the book, so I can take the Evil Queen out of it, but you can’t. And mom can’t. That’s why I had to do it. And I’m not sorry. I want Regina to start over. I don’t want her to be the Evil Queen.” The tears that start to cloud the boy’s vision nearly break his heart. “She thought she was my mom, but she can’t be… She was never going to stop…”

August’s jaw goes a little slack. He doesn’t know what he can do to make this better, but it must be the look on his face because he doesn’t have to do anything. Before he knows it, he has his arms full as Henry wraps his arms around his neck and hugs tight.

“I just wanted everyone to be safe…” The boy whispers. August’s grip tightens around him, and he holds the kid tight.

“Hey, you did good…” August mutters, holding him tight. “And your mom will be proud of you, I promise. I know I am.” Henry pulls back, wiping his eyes. The older man smiles. “Seriously. What you just told me. I don’t know any other kids that could have made that decision. I mean, I didn’t. I ran away. And that takes a lot of courage to stand up and do something like that.” August knows he probably shouldn’t be making all of this better, but Henry understands so much more than he thought he would. So, it’s the only way August can think to make it right. “Believe me, doing the easy thing and doing the right thing aren’t often the same.”

Knees creaking in a decidedly non-wooden way, August stands and motions for Henry to follow him back to the bike. “What you did is something an Author does. You wrote your own ending.”

“You mean like the guy who wrote the book?”

August smiles a bit and rests his hand on Henry’s back, steering him back to the road. “That’s just it. It wasn’t just one person. Anyone can be the Author.” He hands Henry the helmet and smiles.

“I didn’t know it would be you.”

Chapter Text

“I didn’t know it would be you.”

Emma’s first words upon having two seconds alone with August are met with confusion. She doesn’t blame him for it. She’s not even sure what she’s trying to say. She knows that there’s so much bundled up inside her and she doesn’t really know where to start. Henry is asleep - or at least in bed - and her dad is staying with her mom at the hospitals for the night. The loft is silent and she’s made hot cocoa that’s still sitting on the counter untouched. Her nerves haven’t let her do anything but watch August like a hawk since he walked in. 

August has finally unzipped his jacket and draped it over a chair before he looks at her, still perplexed. But, he doesn’t have that playfulness he normally does. Right now, he’s acting like a kicked puppy, somber and slumped. “What was me?”

She inhales, and it sounds profoundly more vulnerable than she wants it to. She knows she needs to tell him every stupid jumbled thought she’s been holding back, but… how? Where? Is it even the right thing to say right now?

“This…” Emma begins, reminding herself that the only way out is through. “When I came to Storybrooke, I only did it to get Henry back to the person I thought was his mother. And that kid did not want to let me go. So, I held onto him and found myself starting to… to feel like I had a family. But, I still had my walls., especially after Graham.” Emma leans against the bar counter, bracing her hands against it behind her as if it can ground her. Make this confession easier somehow… “And then you showed up. And you were mysterious and troublesome - “


August chuckles, his hands in his pockets as he stares at the floor. She wonders what he’s thinking. Is he also thinking about the diner? The hell he wanted to raise by ordering a donut? Does it stick in his mind like hers?

“And you wouldn’t let up. And I liked it. But, I hated that I liked it, so I pushed you away.” Emma’s expression falls a bit, and if August looks at her, she can’t tell. She feels like his eyes are on her, but she’s looking down at the floor now, too. As if the tiles have any answer. “We worked well together. But, it just reminded me that no one sticks around. Neal, then Graham, and I knew it would be just a matter of time before you left. What I didn’t know was…” Emma takes a deep breath. She can feel her resolve buckling. It’s very easy to steer the conversation away from this point. She knows that, she’s done it countless times with other people.

“Emma, what happened to me was not your fault.” August mutters. His voice is so low, but so close. She’s somehow missed that he’s walked to her, closed the distance between them both. “I made my own bed. I made those mistakes, no one else.”

“But, I promised to save you.” The admission is so desperate and she clenches the counter so hard she can feel it digging into her palms. Her eyes are squeezed just as tightly shut and she can feel the warmth of tears threatening to spill if she looks at him. “I needed you and that terrified me, because I never needed anyone. And then you were gone, and ever since then I’ve felt rudderless. It was like a part of me just disappeared and every thought I had was somewhere between ‘How the hell do I get through this’ and ‘What obnoxiously pithy thing would August say?’ And I thought you were dead. I thought I had gotten you killed before I could even say thank you. For making me care, for telling me that I was fighting for Henry, because I didn’t want to admit any of that and you forced me to see it.” Her throat has closed up, and she swallows thickly so try to clear it. It’s enough to make the tears fall down her cheeks as she expected. She reaches up and wipes them away, but the words won’t stop. “And I couldn’t even believe you. I thought you were deranged and you were the only person who saw things the way they really were.” She finally manages to meet his gaze. He looks thunderstruck. She’s not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but at least he knows now. “And I love you. Because of all that, in spite of it, I don’t know, but… I fell in love with you somewhere along the way and I never thought I’d get to tell you that.” Her chuckle is bitter. “And now I have and it sounds ridiculou -  

Emma doesn’t get to finish her thought. August’s hands are at her cheeks, thumbs wiping away the tears as his lips meet hers. It’s both gentle and desperate. She feels like she’s suffocating and drowning all at the same time, but she doesn’t care. She promised to tell him everything, and she finally has. They can figure all this out going forward, but at least he knows. He knows what he means to her.

When he finally pulls away, the air between them is thick and he’s panting as if he’s never breathed before. But, he doesn’t let go. His hands are still at her cheeks, thumbs caressing her skin as those bright blue eyes peer back at her.

“I’ve loved you since the moment I came to Storybrooke.” August finally mutters. It’s a rush of warm breath against her lips. “I thought I was just trying to protect you and we both know I’m terrible at it.”  The chuckle they share feels like a surprise for them both. “But, you didn’t need to be protected. You had everything under control and I knew that if I did one thing, it would be to help you believe. But, I never expected you to feel anything for me, Emma. I…” August’s expression drifts from mischief to that same guilt-ridden expression she’s seen countless times. Slowly, he pulls back until his hands leave her skin. The sensation of the cold air between them leaves a physical ache. It makes her actually take a step forward to prevent him, but he’s gone a little too far. “I don’t deserve you.”

Emma’s brow furrows. “I’m not perfect, August. I’m not…”

“You’re a princess. And I’m the son of a woodworker.” August says without thinking. There’s a cynicism she’s come to recognize in his voice. “If we were in your parents’ kingdom, we probably wouldn’t have known each other more than to say hello. And I’ve done so many foolish, cowardly things in my life. You deserve someone who appreciates you.”

“What, like Neal?” Emma isn’t sure what that comes from, but she knows about the postcard. It’s as good a time to point it out as any. “You were the reason he left me to take the wrap with the cops. And then you sent him that postcard. Did you really think I wanted to be with someone who was going to lead me into a life of crime I couldn’t escape? What you did wasn’t really your right, but I understand your reasons. But, I’m not a kid anymore. Neither are you.” She reaches out and takes his wrist, pulling him closer. “I don’t want perfect. I don’t want to be worshiped like royalty. I want to solve crimes and drink hot cocoa and read your next book. I want to be with August W. Booth. Middle initial and all.” 

“Emma…” August breathes her name like a prayer. It makes her heart flutter a little. She might not want to be worshipped, but… he does make it sound appealing when he does that 

“August. I can’t lose you again.” She reaches up to run her hand along his cheek, enjoying the way the beard scratches the pads of her fingers. “So, before tomorrow throws some new adventure at us… how about we just agree to deal with it together?”

He gently rests his hand on hers, then turns so he can kiss her palm. The way he breathes in feels as though he’s still holding back. She just doesn’t think it’s something words can convey. The heavy look in his eyes tells her what he’s thinking. “Together.” He agrees.

August brings them closer again, and his lips meet hers once more. This time, Emma doesn’t have to worry about him pulling away. If anything, the two of them can’t get close enough.

The world outside doesn’t matter because at least for now, Emma has August. August has Emma.

And somewhere in bed, upstairs and under the covers, Henry makes a note on the story book as he yawns to ask August about the Author some time.

Then, the book closes for the night.

THE END