At age fourteen, Emma Swan does not have many belongings. She has an old baby blanket, a cheap red leather jacket that she slipped off a metal rack and ran away in, and a few good memories. The rest has a price or is owned by someone else.
At age fourteen, in one of the worst moments of her life – the heavy thunder of her foster dad’s feet mounting the stairs behind her, two at a time, his hands grasping at just the edges of her red jacket – she darts into one of the small dark hiding spots she knows to be in the house and shuts the door. Tucking her arms around her knees, she closes her eyes and disappears.
When she opens them again, she is still in a small dark place, but the floors are not pounding with footsteps and the room outside is completely unfamiliar to her. The floor is full of light and the walls are a soft yellow. There are coats hanging around her, smelling normal like perfume and clean fabric.
A creaking floorboard pushes Emma to her hands and knees, to look for any danger through the crack in the door. But the shadows are all stretched thin and harmless across the floor. Not her foster father. Not a bigger, angry kid.
No, it is a woman. She wanders past the door, calling her name softly.
“Emma?” she calls, and Emma stills more from the smile in her voice than the name. “Come on, honey, where are you?”
The woman is turned away from her, face tilted too far away for her features to be distinguishable, but Emma can see the faint curve of her jaw and her shoulder blades and the short black hair that she vaguely remembers. Remembers like the small bed pushed in the corner - her bed. Like all the toys they bought for her, and kept when she left. For their new child.
Breathing in sharply, Emma’s heart tumbles like a suitcase down a long flight of stairs, beating loud and brash and disbelieving in her chest. But it can’t - it can’t.
“Come out, honey.” The woman cooed, her voice cozy and sweet as though they were only playing a game of hide and seek.
Emma knows this moment: knows the sound of her mother, (the first one that promised to keep her), knows the creaking floorboards, and this small dark place she used to hide in while waiting to be found again.
When Emma looks down, her hands are small and unrecognizable. The hands of a child. When her mother calls for her again, she feels reality close all around her.
It’s not real, it can’t be. She’s either dreaming or dead. But she can’t really be here.
Neither thought scares her very much. She can hear only the soft warm sound of her mother’s voice, the future that she never got to live unfurling in front of her like a closed room she is not afraid to walk into.
In that dark closet, smiling, Emma closes her eyes without really thinking about it, and slips away again.
When she opens her eyes again, she is returned to the place of pounding hands and a screaming red voice.
It is a memory she will never return to again. But at age fourteen, Emma learns there is something more between the choice of dreaming and dying.
At age seventeen, Emma still has only a few belongings. She has a red jacket and a baby blanket and a few good memories she can visit in the dark with her eyes closed. The rest are lessons.
She knows about the metal tumblers in a lock and how to move them around until a door pops opens. She knows how to push up from chained fences and barbed wire, how to brush off red stinging pain and keep on running. She knows now that the back of a car can feel safer than a foster home.
At age seventeen, when Neal wakes up groggily in the back of yet another stolen car, she learns one more lesson.
It takes her six months to learn it. But after all the long hours on the road with the sun in her hair and all those nights in the hotel rooms with the feeling of something large and warm filling her chest, she ends up alone in the back of a police car with handcuffs around her wrists.
There, in the dark, with her eyes still wet and her hands trembling, against her ribs her heart beats a lesson. Love gives you nothing.
She stays in the back of the car for only the amount of time it takes for the car to pass through a dark, unlit street. With only the faint glow of porch lights from distant, unknowable houses to shine into the car windows, Emma closes her eyes and disappears.
When she opens them, she is lying in the back seat of the Bug. The car is parked in an empty dirt road, the windows still dark with the early grey morning.
Emma only vaguely remembers where they are, but one glance across the empty sprawling farmland tells her that it is at least three weeks and a thousand miles between her and that police station.
Neal is still asleep in the front seat, quietly snoring. His head is tucked against his arm, fogging up the window with his slow breathing. Her heart beats quicker, remembering the lost empty feeling she had felt with handcuffs around her wrist and her future plummeting into nothing.
And in just as little as three weeks, she will be back there again.
Three weeks from this warm, cozy morning where Neal will slowly wake up, stiff and bleary-eyed, and smile back at her; three weeks from coffee and a stolen road map spread out across the steering wheel.
Three weeks, and she will be directed to the back of a police car by a hard hand and a voice she's heard so many times before, firm and pitying, delivering yet another hungry-eyed kid to a cell.
Staring at the back of his dark head, she listens to his calm breathing and feels something wild and unruly buck inside of her. Something angry and vengeful. She could close her eyes and send herself all the way back to the beginning, duck out of the very moment she met him and cut herself out of the last few months out of his life.
But she starts gathering her belongings instead. To disappear would mean to be erased completely; to cease mattering at all. Not even as a vague memory.
Hurt as she is, she is not ready to be forgotten.
Scavenging the car for everything of value, she stuffs clothes, food, and money all into her brown pack. She takes his old jacket (it’s warmer than hers), but leaves the necklace he had given her weeks before. It hangs off the rearview mirror with all the other useless things they’ve stolen.
Before Neal wakes, she steps forward out into the cold windy morning and shivers. The sun glints off the long road behind her. It winds back for miles and miles through large weedy fields and distant struggling towns, but with nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go, she starts walking again.
Traffic roars in the distance. The cold air numbs her fingers. She shrugs the sliding backpack higher on her shoulders and keeps walking.
She slips into a bathroom at the nearest house in town, locking the door behind her and turning off all the lights. A loud, angry voice is slowly approaching her, so she closes her eyes and returns to the present with absolutely no idea where it will take her. What it will do to her (the thought doesn’t scare her very much).
When she opens her eyes, it is to the ceiling of another stolen car and three weeks of new memories. Neal is not in either of them and the certainty of his absence presses a difficult feeling up against her ribs. As she quietly rolls to her side and closes her eyes, she convinced herself it’s relief.
But her new memories whirl inside her head, spinning wordlessly like a vinyl without a needle, all her running, fighting, and scraping by blurring together. In the back of a strange, unfamiliar car, a terrible loneliness wells inside of her, trapping her breath at the back of her throat.
Turning away from the window she tucks her hard arms around her chest, seeking some kind of warmth in the back seats. She knows only the security of her own arms and her red jacket.
Emma gradually falls asleep to the thought of arms that are not her own. They wrap around her ribs and press her softly, gently against the warm thought of her future. A future with someone warm and kind and gentle, who will hold her until she falls asleep.
A month later she throws up in the bathroom of a bleak-looking diner.
She is still seventeen, but at this point has wised up to how her life works. When she pees on the stick and waits the three lonely minutes alone in a small stall, she isn’t surprised by the small pink plus sign flashing up at her. Her life is always moving up, and up to more difficult things.
Blinking back tears, she stares up at the white walls of the bathroom stall and goes through all of her possibilities. They hum like bees inside her head, moving around in noisy incomplete circles.
She could go to a clinic. She could go back to the first night in that hotel room; walk away and make all of this disappear. It would be as easy as closing her eyes.
But instead, she learns to steal better.
She learns to be quick and unsuspecting, to fight her way out of any trap that she falls into. And when she is caught, she closes her eyes and let's the world shift and flicker away, just a red shadow darting quickly across her eyelids.
She doesn’t let herself think about her life until the baby is born. And then not for quite some time after that; she lets all thoughts of her future leave her in one great breath as she stares up at the ceiling, aching and so young, (so much younger than she had ever felt before) as she listens to the whole room tremble with the red spasming screams of her newborn baby.
Her baby boy.
The doctor is patient and pitying. He tucks the child into a warm blanket and holds him out for her to take, but she lays there as cold and solid as stone, watching the small body wiggle towards her, eager for warmth.
Against her ribs, her heart beats that lesson: Love gives you nothing.
And love is all she has.
She tells herself to say “No” and feels the words clip the bottom of her teeth on their way out, every part of her body freezing up when the doctor only nods and turns away from her again.
It is this memory she revisits the most. Staring up at the ceiling, wracked with pain and hands fisted, she imagines saying something else. She imagines holding him at least once.
But each time she does, even as time goes by, when she slips back into that aching, seventeen year old body, the same words press up against the fabric of her skin. Love gives you nothing.
So she watches her baby disappear behind that door again and again and again.
At age twenty three, Emma Swan has only a stolen car, her red jacket, and whatever small job she picks up on the road. She has given up any form of direction past a solid bed and a few crumbled dollars in her waist pocket. Her ears still ring with the red high screaming of her baby boy.
She doesn’t expect much more to her life than this.
So in a small town in Illinois, picking up tips as a waitress, Emma comes to a tumbling stop as she spots a six year old boy running past her feet on her way to pouring coffee.
Caught off guard, she bangs her hip against the counter and burns her hands with coffee.
But her eyes are following the boy, even as her hands set down the cups and find a towel to wipe up the spilled coffee, she doesn't look away as the boy clambers up onto a seat. He is small and thin-boned, his eyes a little too large for his face; they flash out across the room with bright curiosity.
When they find her the world spins for a quick, impossible moment. She stares back with a hammering heart, those high, spasming cries echoing in her ears again.
“Henry,” a voice calls. “What have I told you about running ahead of me?”
A woman stalks past her, cutting a sharp shape amongst all the yellow wallpaper and drooping, sleepy eyed customers.
She comes to a sudden stop in front of the boy, folding her arms hard over her chest as she bends to speak to him in a low and measured voice.
It’s a mother’s voice - the kind of voice Emma remembers hearing fly out to other children at playgrounds or in school yards, places where mothers who loved their children seemed to exist.
She can’t hear what the woman says, but when the boy nods, she taps two fingers against his bony chin and presses a quick kiss to the side of his forehead before sliding into the small space beside him. Watching them, Emma’s heart flutters like a bird trapped in her chest.
“Emma,” her boss snaps. “Get back to work.”
“Okay,” she calls back idly, and then nearly bumps into the counter again when the woman’s dark eyes find hers. Hastily, Emma looks away and busies herself with her delayed coffee orders, her cheeks warm and red.
But as she moves through the diner, pocketing her pen and pad, carrying plates and menus, she finds her attention slowly drifting back to the woman in the back. And that little boy.
There are just these small details. A familiar chin; those brown eyes; the shape of his forehead. He has a face with all the softened features that she believed were too sharp and severe in her own face.
Thoughtlessly, she grabs a coffee pot and walks over.
The woman is flipping through something in her purse when Emma arrives at the table. “Can I get you more coffee?” Emma asks, hands trembling.
The woman looks up at her briefly and though it’s just a flash of movement, Emma feels suddenly aware of the crumbled, coffee stained apron she is wearing and the long hair she just threw up in a messy ponytail. It floods her cheeks with warmth.
“Very well,” the woman answers and primly holds the cup up for her. “And put a rush on our orders. We’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“Oh. Sure thing.” Emma pours the coffee, catches a touch of dark lipstick on the rim of the cup. “Anything else?”
“Momma, can I have hot chocolate?” The boy asks, wiggling in his seat.
His mother frowns. “I thought you wanted the hot cider, dear?”
“I changed my mind.”
“We don't have much time, we need to check with the car repair soon.” She sighs and glances down at the silver face of the watch on her wrist, but when she looks up at him again, she immediately softens. “Oh, alright. A hot chocolate for the monster over here. But get the rest of the food out already, it’s not like it's busy.”
Before Emma can even say anything more, the boy looks at her with eyes she feels she has seen a thousand times. “Cinnamon on top, please.”
“Okay.” Emma manages, and turns back with a heart beating too fast.
It's stupid. It's absolutely stupid. She has no way of knowing if that boy is actually the one she had six years ago, and no reason to find out. She wasn't a mother when she was seventeen and she's not one now.
But it hums loudly in her mind. In her lonely apartment with the old christmas lights from a few months ago still hanging over her window, tinkling in the haze of the streetlights, she finds herself dressing up for the cold and for the dark. Her heart clatters like her feet on the stairs. She knows this is stupid.
There is only one hotel in town. It has parchment colored wallpaper and a slow-dying air to it that breathes in every business out here in the middle of nowhere. She finds the room number on the computer and works a pin from her hair into the lock, pushing the door open only a few seconds later.
It swings inward to a dark, empty room. Emma enters cautiously, feeling blindly for a switch until the room floods with a dim, wane light. It is a small and tidy room with one bed and two suitcases.
Both suitcases are bulky things with zippers and hugely overstuffed compartments. One has only clothes, makeup and money, but the other is like opening the door to a house and walking in. It is full of photos and books and large folders bound shut with paper clips.
With numb fingers, Emma works on one of the paper clips. And then another, and another, moving quickly through all the alien-looking documents and unfamiliar reports until, finally, almost clumsily, she comes across a birth certificate.
She finds Henry's name. And then his mother’s. Regina Mills.
Her eyes blur with the rest, uncertain of where to look. But eventually she finds the hospital name and location and that date that has rolled over her head six times now and still sends her tumbling back to that cold white hospital room with those loud shaking screams echoing in her ear.
She stands there, heart beating so loudly in her ears that she doesn’t hear the door open behind her until it slams shut.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” When Emma turns around, Regina is staring at her with black furious eyes, paralyzing her like one of those blue-tipped pins her last foster father used to use to keep bugs in glass display cases on his wall.
He would pin them swiftly, (painlessly, he would add dryly, exasperated) and watch their legs scuttle with the last of their life, dwindling in the seconds before they curled up into themselves.
Emma feels that frantic, last second life flashing in her heart as she watches Regina step closer, holding her son protectively behind her back.
Disappear, disappear, she thinks fretfully, but she can’t stop watching Regina as she slowly approaches, her expression becoming something smooth and dangerous when she notices the birth certificate in her hand.
“What are you doing with that?” she asks. Her voice sounds calm, but there is something hard and metalic about it - a threat.
Emma drops it clumsily.
“I wasn’t doing anything.” It’s a dumb impulse of an argument; it is exactly what she used to argue to her foster parents after a fight at school, still bruised and bleeding. It never worked then, either.
Regina raises a dark eyebrow. They are playing a dangerous game of bull shit, and Emma has a record of losing. But still, she can’t make herself move for the safety of a darker room.
With a quick squeeze of her hand, Regina sends Henry over to hide in the bathroom. Emma watches him go uneasily. When she looks back, Regina is close enough to skim her hand over the black canvas suitcase that carries all her clothes and money. It’s still unzipped.
“You’ve already looked through the one with all the money in it.” Regina sneers, tossing back the lid of the suitcase. All her clothes sit exposed to the dim light, neat and folded. Money sits in a folded leather pouch, untouched. Regina’s eyes narrow at her. “But you’re not looking for money, are you?”
“I didn't mean to be in here.” Emma swallows softly and steps back.
Regina smiles coldly. “Oh, you didn't mean to be in here? Which part alerted you to that - was it when you broke into my room, or when you got caught looking through all of this incredibly valuable paperwork?”
Emma can only watch, helpless, as Regina walks closer. The floorboards creak, the dim lights from the streetlights outside filling her face full of something harsh and cold.
“My mother sent you, didn’t she?” she utters.
“What?” Emma blanks, reeling. “No?”
Regina’s face seems to close off from her, but her eyes are wide and dark like the room all around them, full of a sharp, edgy anger.
Slowly - so slowly that Emma nearly doesn't see it - Regina’s hand slides into one of the smaller compartments that Emma had overlooked. Her fingers are hesitant at first as they touch the small black handle of a gun before they grip it tight. A warning.
Emma raises her hands instinctively, palms flat up. “I really don’t know your mother,” she hears herself saying, but the danger of the situation seems to exist somewhere else, in some remote place that doesn’t quite touch her, because her heart is not beating from the fear of the gun.
Instead, it opens with the fear in Regina’s eyes, with all those slamming doors and pounding footsteps - an aching, bottomless thing that circles and circles and never ends. The fear of a child, the constant loss and losing.
“Then why this suitcase?” She snaps, baring her teeth, but her hand trembles around the gun.
“I was looking for something,” Emma breathes, unable to look away. “But I don't work for your mother. I promise - I don't know her.”
The gun flicks restlessly against her hip. “But you could be lying,” she says, and seems to accept the full weight of that thought all at once, letting out a shaky breath. “How would I know? She could have sent you. She warned me of that, at least - how easy it would be to find me. And she did, didn’t she? She sent you - you are here for him.”
Regina's voice is almost completely breathless now and her hand is shaking, and though Emma knows she should disappear, she can't. She could close her eyes and make this whole memory collapse and flatten into nothing.
But she knows the fear in those eyes. It is something alike to her own. She has sheltered it in her own heart, made iron out of her bones.
“I’m sorry,” Emma finds herself saying. She means for the words to somehow reach the girl already long gone, hidden in the years behind them, but she can only travel through her own memories, so the words fall flat in the cool space between them.
Regina takes it as an admission of guilt. The fear in her unfolds like some grey, tumbling ocean, reaching so far and wide from inside that it blurs all lines of an existing shore.
“She can’t have him,” she snarls viciously, haggardly and lifts the gun on a shaky, dangerous impulse.
Emma steps back, closes her eyes and disappears.
She reappears in her apartment, to the evening light creeping through her rusty window and the last few minutes replaying in her head, again and again.
And though that birth certificate makes her heart beat hard like a hammer against cloth, what she can’t stop thinking about are those dark, haunted eyes and that cornered, run-away look.
The next morning, Emma finds Regina and Henry walking in the diner again; she delivers two steaming hot plates to their tables and ignores the burning red of her fingers so that she can be quick enough to grab two menus before any of the other waitresses do.
She comes up to them smiling, “Hey guys, welcome back!”
Regina is busy finger-combing the slight curl from the back of her son’s hair but at the sound of her voice her eyes flutter up with surprise. Her disapproval deepens the lines in her face.
Emma cringes, steps back. “I’ll- uh, just show you to two to your seats now.”
As Emma sets down forks and napkins, Henry and Regina shuffle in, side by side, shoulder to shoulder.
“How has your day been so far?” She manages quietly, glancing at them.
A long sigh slowly unwinds from Regina as she slides a napkin into Henry’s waiting palm. “Well, we’re going to be stuck in this hell hole for another four days, so it can’t get much worse.”
Even as Emma tries for a sympathetic frown, her thoughts flutter with the chance of more time. “Car trouble, huh?”
“Apparently,” She sighs. For a moment, she looks exhausted, her brow folding into hard lines that isn't eased by the weary touch of her fingers, hiding the strain. But by the time Henry looks back up at her she has smoothed out her face and straightened her shoulders, airily flicking back her hair with the tips of fingers. “Tell the waitress what you want to eat, dear.”
Henry nods and ducks behind the menu, but Emma doesn't look away from Regina.
Emma might not have many people in her life and no one who would chase her out across the country, but she has traveled up flights of stairs and through her own memories to escape the havoc that comes within the hands of some of the parents she has known.
Regina has known it, too. Emma can see it in her eyes as they flash up to her.
“Did you get that, dear?” She asks with a cold tilt of her head. Emma blinks and glances down at her empty pad of paper until Regina sighs, “Apple pancakes with whip cream.”
Emma musters up a smile. “Nice. And for you?”
A chargin look crosses her face, flushing her cheeks. “No, that is for me.”
“Right,” Emma hides the beginning of a smile with the pad of paper and nods. “And what about you, buddy?”
“French toast!” He grins.
“Awesome,” she manages, and turns around before Regina’s glare can turn her into ashes.
She is back at the table only a few minutes later, though. She can’t seem to stay too far away, even when the coffee cups are full and the food served, the irritation of her other customers glaring at her from behind their flat mouths.
She keeps coming back to two strangers who can’t possibly become anything more to her.
She is there to watch Regina dab at something on Henry’s cheek, watch the way Henry eats daintily with both a knife and a fork, and how Regina’s mouth flickers up faintly with pleasure after she takes a bite into her pancakes.
When she comes back around again, Regina hands her a credit card with a faint smile as though she is aware of Emma's clumsy attention, so it’s not until Emma is at the counter again, thumbing over the long numbers on the card that her mind flashes back to those dark, runaway eyes and that trembling hand over the handle of a gun.
Staring down at the credit card, Emma feels a worry ticking inside of her like the inside of a clock, whirring loudly with gears and other sharp clicking things. Because credit cards can be tracked and people can be found so easily.
Had she used the credit card yesterday too?
Edging her teeth along the bottom of her lip, Emma tips her head back to look through the window.
Regina is still waiting with her hands on either side of a coffee cup, face turned towards the window where the light falls evenly across the table and her shining dark hair. Her thumbs are hooked over the rim, but Emma knows it won’t be long before she starts tapping her fingers and looking around again.
Groaning softly, Emma ducks into the back of the diner where her boss’s dark office sits. It smells dull and dusty when she closes her eyes and again when she opens them, but stepping out, she can see Regina and Henry at a different table and in different clothes.
In her hand, the same credit card.
Pulling in a deep, exasperated breath, Emma makes a decision right then.
She is going to save Regina Mills’ ass.
It’s not all that difficult - she snatches a different card from one of the other tables (some gross guy with a mustache and heavy eyebrows) and makes them pay a little extra for that one day. When she flashes back to the present, some dull dude with a bad accent erases a part of Regina Mills’ trail too.
But by the time she is returning to their table, she is worried about Regina Mills again.
She’s not going to get away with this. Not if her mom does send some tracker after her. Not if she keeps using her credit card. She’ll need more help than just this.
“What if I showed you around town a little bit after my shift?” Emma says in one big nervous breath once she reaches the table again.
Startled dark eyes jump up to her. “What?” Regina asks, setting down her coffee cup.
“Yeah, you know - since you’re going to be staying here for a little while? If you need to go grocery shopping or something, I could show you around.” Emma’s fingers nervously comb through the stray wisps of blonde hair swaying beside her ear. “Anyway, my shift is going to be done in just fifteen minutes, if you want to wait.”
Emma, at this point in her life, is familiar with a closing door. She can see it in Regina's expression, in the slight narrowing of her eyes and the way her wrist rolls in an agitated flick before she checks the time on her wrist watch.
But Henry interrupts. “Do you know where a park is?”
And because she nods and Henry grins, Regina softens. “Very well,” she sighs. “We will wait.”
Emma leaves then, stepping out of the scene. But her chest is full of the awe that comes with the balancing act some mothers do, working tirelessly for the continuation of their child’s happiness.
It is something Emma has never experienced - her childhood too quick and vague and violent for any sort of love to ever take hold of her -but Regina and Henry seem destined to play out parts of her life she has never even known.
In that moment Emma makes a decision. She is going to make sure Regina and Henry leave here safe; that Regina Mills escapes her mother.