Henry knows something has changed.
It’s not obvious at first. The differences comes to him later, as an afterthought to something else, like sitting in class or brushing his teeth, he will suddenly remember one of the small, shifting changes in his house. Like how his Mom has taken to locking her bedroom door. Or how, lately, he has been waking up to find Emma already there, her car parked in the garage and her shoes kicked off at the entryway like she’s been there for hours.
Or the way his Mom’s hand will slide off the table sometimes, to rest against Emma’s knee or take her hand below the table where she probably believes Henry cannot see her. Late at night, he can sometimes hear her laughter from below the stairs, so loud and carefree not even the closed doors can muffle it completely.
When he hears fumbled footsteps on the stairs one night, and all the giddy laughter and half-hearted hushing that comes with it, he knows enough not to go out and check on them.
After a few weeks, he starts expecting some announcement. Or even just a casual remark. But his moms keep up the smooth, friendly atmosphere, smiling only brief, dry, distracted smiles in public. Henry waits, and waits, and doesn’t ask.
When his grandparents start bugging for a family trip all together, for family bonding time, it becomes clear he’s not the only one growing impatient.
He can hear his grandmother on the phone. “Come on , Regina, I think it’s time for some fresh air and quality time with the family.” On the last step to the stairs, peering out into the living room, Henry can see his Mom pinch the bridge of her nose and sigh. “I’m serious. You and Emma need this.”
Henry can almost feel the way his Mom stiffens. It pushes her outward, lifts her chin and shoulders up. “What is that supposed to mean?” she asks, clearly and firmly, steamrolling over her question with a far more genuine demand, with the tone that asks for a lie . “Henry is also coming. The invite isn’t just Emma and me, is it?”
“No,” he can hear his grandmother sigh. “Of course not, I mean Henry, too.”
His mother makes a disgruntled sound. The cover up isn’t nearly convincing enough, but she won’t push for anything more. Henry steps down the last of the stairs and wanders into the living room.
“Well.” his Mom streams out a breath through her nose. “I will ask Emma.”
“Yes, ask Emma.” Snow says with victory in her voice. Henry smiles. He knows what will happen. Snow will ask Emma, and Emma will say yes, immediately, without thinking, and then ask his Mom if she wants to go; she will, of course, say yes, because she can’t say no to the sound of excitement in Emma’s voice.
It has happened so many times before, they might as well start packing now.
His Mom sighs wearily. Already, she is beginning to accept it. “Alright,” she says, “We will talk soon. Yes, love you, too. Bye.”
Henry waits for his Mom to toss the phone away and lean back, expelling out the last of the held-on air in her lungs. She always seems to have room for one last exasperated breath. When the room settles back into its quiet, the early morning stretching across the wall, he slowly steps in.
Walking closer, he rests his arms against the back of the couch. His elbows brush against his Mom’s shoulders, but she doesn’t jump or startle. She never seems surprised by anything he does.
“So, a family vacation, huh?” he teases, smiling. “When should we pack?”
His Mom lets out a soft snort and throws him a dry look over her shoulder. “Hold on, young man, we still have to ask Emma.”
“Right.” Henry smiles. “So, I’ll start packing now”
She just sighs again and drops her head against the couch.
But eventually, she says. “Yes, we probably should.”
That afternoon, Emma comes over to pack the Bug. She has just a small canvas suitcase that looks like it might only be holding a few jackets and jeans despite the long list of essentials that he knows his Mom sent her in text just a few hours ago. Either she has forgotten or she knows by now that Regina will just end up packing the rest of her wardrobe in her own suitcase.
“Hey kid,” she says, as she ambles up the porch. She has an eager excitement to her voice that makes her sound louder than she means to be. “You excited for our first big family vacation, huh?”
Henry grins down at her. “Sure am. Can’t wait.” He’d probably prefer hanging around the house for the weekend instead, but it means so much to Emma, and really, it is such a small thing to give. He hands over his suitcase. “I think Mom is waiting for you upstairs.”
Henry can see the way Emma glances up quickly, the flash of happiness that might have given her away in that moment alone had Henry not already known for months. Her face takes on a flush that could almost be from the cold.
“Oh okay, cool.” Emma says, and struggles to remain nonchalant, but as she pulls Henry’s suitcase up to the back of her trunk, he can see how the corner of her mouth wrestling back her happiness. When his suitcase finally slides in, she sweeps her curly blonde hair back behind her ear and clears her throat, her face performing some mask of casualty. “Well. I’d better go see what your Mom wants.”
“Okay,” he steps aside. He watches Emma slide into the door, jogging up the stairs with her light-feet, sliding only briefly on the top step (because she forgot to kick off the snow from her boots, but neither him nor his Mom will complain on a day where she is so openly excited).
He makes himself wait a few minutes, reluctantly doing some of the house chores his Mom had distractedly started and had intended to finish this morning. He tidies up the kitchen and hand-dries some of the plates, pushing them into place behind the glass cupboard.
It is then, amidst the clinking glass and delicate China, that he hears his mothers’ voices. Even in the distance, Henry can tell it is a fight, though the anger keeps their voices down.
Arguing is one of the many aspects from their friendship that seems to have been successfully carried over into what they are now. It relieved him in a way. His mothers seem to feel no need to change with each other or become unrecognizable. Falling in love for them must have seemed almost frighteningly easy when compared to the steps they took to become friends.
But still, an argument on a day like this is unusual. Sighing, Henry deposits the last of his plates and starts up on the stairs. Careful of the creaking floorboard, he moves silently to his mother’s closed door.
He hears Emma’s voice first. It is shorter, frustrated and beginning to sound wet with tears. “I just don’t understand -- you said we would come out soon, when everyone was all together. Isn’t this a perfect time?”
“I didn’t mean a weekend at a cabin in the middle of the woods, Emma.” His Mom’s voice comes through. It is sharper than Emma’s, but Henry can hear the struggle to keep it soft. She has heard the tears in Emma’s voice. “It’s a lot to take in. Too much, maybe, after only a few months of you and Hook being apart. People need time to process things like this. We can’t just load it on them when we are all going to be stuck together for an entire weekend.”
“Why are you acting like this is some huge, dark secret?”
“I am not , I just think this requires a bit of tact .” After a beat, his Mom sighs again. “Emma, honey, I know I said soon, but please, right now is not a good time.”
“We’ve been dating for weeks. ”
“That’s not very long.”
There is a breif, drowning silence.
“Whatever. I just don’t know why you wanna hide us so much.”
Henry shuffles at the raw thread of insecurity in Emma’s voice, the vulnerability too broad, too open for him to keep listening behind closed doors. Stepping back, his feet finds the stairs, moving him down a few steps before his foot blunders and lands solidly on a creaking floorboard.
His Mom’s gentle assurances stop at once and settle the entire house in silence. Henry’s heart seizes in panic, but by the time the door opens, he has managed to ease himself calmly against the stair railing with a smile.
His mom enters the hall with a stern frown, staring down at him suspiciously. Emma peeks out from behind his Mom, still hovering in the doorway, too embarrassed to step fully out with her damp eyes and red cheeks.
Henry smiles as innocently as he can. “You guys ready?”
“Yes...” His Mom tentatively drifts off, fiddling with an earring before glancing back to Emma. “But…I think your mother and I need to finish up a conversation.”
Emma sinks back a step. “No,” she quickly waves a hand out, trying to return to the cover of his Mom’s room. “Its fine, I get it.”
His Mom’s frown deepens. “Emma.”
There is a slight hesitant pause in the doorway. Henry can sense just how much Emma wants to please his Mom, to do exactly what is wanted, but she is already returning to her more stubborn and elusive self. The part of her that tries to hide how much she still needs from other people, how much love and patience she still craves.
“It’s fine.” she waves his Mom off again, smiling lightly. “We’ll talk about it later. It’s fine.”
His Mom’s mouth flattens into a harder line. But she knows as well as he does how far Emma can disappear inside herself if pushed. She knows when to step back.
“Very well,” his Mom grudgingly moves on, touching a nervous hand to her now short dark hair. “We should get going soon, anyway. Is the car all packed?”
“Just need your suitcase,” Henry reports back, smiling when his Mom grumpily retreats back into her room. Emma follows her back in to help, stiff and machine-like. The door never closes and they don’t return to their whispered argument.
As Henry waits by the stairs, he listens in, waiting, but the only thing that can be heard is the sound of his Mom’s worry, her bare feet moving idly around the room, her sighs longer than usual as she irritably pushes metal hangers across their railings.
When all is done, Emma carries her suitcase out to the car. Miraculously, it all fits, the heavy block of his Mom’s suitcase sliding effortlessly into the cool space beside Emma’s more slender case and his own duffle bag.
Slamming the trunk closed, Emma stomps up to the driver’s seat as his Mom slides in on the other side. In the back, Henry can see the way his Mom keeps looking at Emma, amidst all the motion, plugging in the GPS and buckling seatbelts. Like she wants to do something more, to reconnect them in some way, but isn’t entirely sure how.
After a while, as the view outside the car window gradually thickens with trees, when his Mom’s eyes sweep up to the rearview mirror, Henry quickly closes his eyes and feigns sleep. Through his eyelashes, he can see his Mom’s hand tentatively reach out into the middle divider where Emma’s hand rests.
Henry holds his breath, waiting. Though his eyes are partially closed, he can see his Mom touch Emma’s hand to her mouth, pressing soft, gentle kisses to her knuckles.
There is a soft sigh, and the release of tension between them. Emma squeezes his Mom’s hand and holds on to it for a long while after. Henry keeps his eyes closed, struggling to hide his smile against the car window.
The cabin is a modest size with steep tiled roofs and long rectangle windows. The porch sits squarely in front of the front door, glimmering faintly with the thin string of lights that someone had wrapped around the thick wooden railings.
Emma pulls the car up into the long drive way. His mom mutters a quiet line of questioning for only her to hear. “Whose car is that up there? That’s not your mothers, is it? Definitely not your father’s, he’d never own a Buick.” Emma just hums and frowns in accordance to his Mom, not sure how to answer.
Before any of them can open the car doors, Snow steps out, smiling. She walks out to the car with purpose, and after a beat of reluctance, his Mom sighs and rolls down the window.
The cold rushes in with Snow’s cheerful voice. “Hi guys, I’m so glad you could make it.” Snow deliberately ignores the quiet grumble of his Mom’s response, still smiling brightly. “Unfortunately, we’ve come up with a little bit of a rooming issue.”
“What?” his Mom asks.
“Well, since Lance and Guinevere are up here too, we –“
“Lance and Guinevere are up here, too?”
“Well, this is their cabin. Didn’t I tell you that?”
“You did not.”
“Well.” Snow offers only her pink, smiling face for compensation of her small failures. “This is their cabin, and they invited us up here. So they are here. And with us, and Neal wanting his own room, there are only two rooms left. So someone in here has to be willing to share a bed.”
An astonished silence settles in the car. Emma shifts a glance to Regina, the beginning of a hopeful smile on her face. His Mom doesn’t move, only stares blankly back at Snow.
Emma clears her throat. “Well, maybe…”
“No,” His Mom says. Her voice is sharp enough to dissuade any other response.
The elation of Henry’s first hopeful thought -- that his mothers could be convinced into professing their love for each other -- is erased by the cornered look on his Mom’s face.
Henry slides up into the space between his two moms. “I’ll share a room with Emma.” he offers, and just shrugs at his grandmother’s falling expression. He sympathizes with her efforts, but he’s not on her side. Hs Mom needs more than just Emma in her corner.
“Fine,” Snow sighs at last. She steps back, glances back at the trunk and then to the snowy stoop of the doorway. “Do you guys need help with the luggage?”
“We managed putting it in there on our own, didn’t we?” His Mom mutters. “I’m sure we can figure it out.”
It only takes one trip to reach the door with all their baggage. The warmth inside becomes an instant relief when they step in, lifting their moods. His Mom breathes in a big breath, and lets out all the left-over air. It’s as good as starting over.
A long hallway on the right of them, light slanting out of the open doorways. His mom reviews each available room with one quick, critical look before carrying her heavy suitcase to the smaller room in the back. Emma follows after her by habit. When his Mom notices, she sighs and gently pushes her out again, directing her back to Henry.
Henry decides to spare them both the lame, fumbling excuses that will be sure to come if Emma senses any suspicion, so when she walks back, face scrunched up in embarrassment, Henry just smiles and opens the bedroom door for them both.
It is a small room with thick window panes and one tidy bed. On the bed, the sheets are folded neatly at the end, the mattress sleek and stiff-looking. When Emma plops her suitcase onto it, it barely moves at all, only emitting a rusty, stiff sound.
“That should be good for my back.” Emma mutters as she passes by, walking toward the window. She pops it open with a firm jerk of her hands, the brisk smell of frost rushing in.
“Oh,” Henry drops his bag. “Do you always sleep with the window open?”
Emma looks guiltily back at him. “Oh, yeah.” She lifts her hands again, already preparing to close the window. “But it’s not a problem, we can just close it again.”
He shrugs. “No, I don’t care.” He just can’t imagine his Mom ever putting up with that. She wears heels just to avoid the floors in their house during the winter and coats until the heat of summer. But there is probably a lot between them he doesn’t know about, all the small compromises and habits. He grins. “Just as long as you don’t mind my snoring.”
Emma laughs warmly, and opens up her suitcase. “No, I don’t.” she smiles fondly, unpacking her clothes, setting aside her socks. “If I can sleep through your mom’s snores, I think I can manage yours, kid.”
The back of Henry’s neck warms with embarrassment. It takes a moment for Emma to realize her mistake, but when she does, her entire body goes rigid. She looks up at him with a blank astonishment, unable to comprehend the hole she has just dug for herself.
In a spasm of sympathy, Henry offers a lame smile. “I’m guessing Snow makes you two sleep on the couch when the whole family stays over, huh?”
Emma grabs onto the lie gratefully. “Yeah,” she sighs in big rush of relief. “Yeah, it gets really crowded at their place.”
Henry just nods. His chest swells with love for his mom. She has lied for so long about her unhappiness, so well and so convincingly, it must trip her up to cover for the things that make her happy.
A silence passes. Weak winter light slants in through the window. Henry looks through the old, moth-eaten books stacked on the bookcase as Emma resumes unpacking, humming a half-remembered tune as she stuffs her clothes into the old-smelling oak wardrobe beside the bed. When she is done, she tugs at the band of Henry’s duffle bag and pulls it to her feet, unpacking his clothes too.
There is gentle conversation. “Your socks are on the top drawer with mine.” “Okay cool, thanks Ma.” “Did you happen to bring an extra phone charger?” “No, but if you forgot yours, Mom probably has it.”
After a beat, there is a knock on the door, only a brief warning before the door opens to his Mom’s expectant face. She smiles at them both, glad to be reunited.
“You’re all unpacked?” she asks.
“Yep, just finished.”
“Perfect.” she smiles and tentatively holds the door open as she steps out. “Well, let’s go see how everyone else is doing.”
The light hangs lightly in the rooms as though swept in like the cold. In the kitchen, Guinevere smiles at them with a cup of coffee held in both palms. She is located at a safe distance from the living room where Snow has engaged in the beginning of a bitter fight with her youngest child, struggling to cover his ears with one of her homemade beanies.
His Mom pilots herself immediately to the safety of the kitchen. Emma follows after her only a second too late, getting trapped in the net of her mother’s frustration only halfway to Regina’s side
“Emma, can you please help me with your brother?” Snow calls out.
“Oh...” Emma comes to a slow stop, looking from the yellow tiled kitchen where his Mom stands to her squirming little brother. Her face wavers in its softness, changing with a tougher, more complicated love. “I was -- uh, going to actually help Regina...with the dishes in the kitchen.”
Snow frowns. “Emma, we haven’t even used dishes yet.”
After that, Emma just turns her pleading eyes to Henry.
Really, what else is there to do. Henry just sighs. “I’ll help, Grams.”
Freed, Emma makes a quick line to the kitchen. She doesn't even get a scolding look from his Mom, not even a glare. Unbelievable.
Sighing, Henry squats down on his haunches beside his grandmother. She has a new motherly fear of mistakes, raising her second child now as if he is the first, her biggest fears now orbit him. She holds Neal still by his jacket and hums fretfully when he tries to wiggle out of her reach.
“Hey, buddy, stop squirming around so much,” Henry scoots a little closer and grabs the red beanie from Snow’s hand. Neal glares at him balefully. “Look, the sooner you put this on, the sooner you can go outside. Sound fair?”
Neal hesitates for a moment, but eventually goes still. He is still young enough to idolize Henry.
When he pulls the beanie over Neal’s head and folds it over his ear, he glances back to the kitchen where his moms are. Lance has joined them, and with him standing beside Guinevere with his pleasant smile, simply happy to be there, Henry can see how similar their happiness is to his moms’.
There is a sense of relief about it, as if this is what they had been striving towards all along, and by sheer dumb luck, they had managed to find it.
A good feeling opens up in his chest. It loosens him up so much that he doesn’t even care that he gets tied up in another chore -- to walk Neal to the lake and get him back before it gets too cold -- he just swoops Neal up and carries him out of the door.
There is a heavy pine smell in the air. A plane drones high above the clouds as Henry travels down into the crisp air, dead icy leaves crunching beneath his feet. He holds Neal’s gloved hand in his own.
The lake isn’t far from the cabin. It sits like a thin black disk amongst the snow, and as they walk towards it, hardy, thick-stemmed weeds wack against their legs with bristle. By the time they reach it, Henry is already in the mood to go back, but Neal is filled with the hardy, enthusiasm of a little kid, searching devoutly for differently colored stones he can show to his mom.
A few minutes later, a branch snaps suddenly behind them.
Startled, Henry whips back around.
But his fright dwindles when he sees Emma grinning at him.
“Don’t you worry kid, I’m harmless.” She shuffles forward, wearing heavy black boots and a scarf that belongs to his Mom, a pretty dark blue color. “In fact, I’ve been sent out to make sure you kids are still alive.”
“ Ma,” He groans. “ It’s only been ten minutes.”
“That’s plenty of time to get into trouble.” Emma says. And then, right at that moment, as she is stepping over a log, her boot knocks clumsily over a deadened branch and sends her tumbling towards the slick icy dirt. She might have fallen completely had she not caught onto a low-hanging branch at the right time.
“Nice,” Henry snorts. “So when is Mom gonna come out to make sure you're alive?”
Emma’s cheeks flush pink. “Don’t be a brat” she grumbles, but she can’t quite hide her small smile, her pleasure in being cared for.
A moment later, Neal sees his big sister. With a yelp of delight, he comes rushing out, all gangly arms and bright, happy eyes. Grinning, Emma steps clear of the ice and swoops Neal up into her arms. Without Snow, Emma can love her little brother easily, without hesitation.
Henry watches Emma swing Neal onto her back as she walks out towards the icy black water. She is firm-footed and careful, holding Neal tightly around her neck, but as if the world personally alerted his Mom to every possibility of danger, he finds her making her way to the small clearing only a few minutes later, stern and disapproving in purpose.
Bundled in her coat, his Mom huffs beside him. “Why doesn’t she have gloves on?” she asks, and watches on like a hawk, sharp with her own personal knowledge of all the ways danger can still take what she has away.
“Everyone’s okay, Mom.” Henry reassures.
“Oh, I know that,” she says, but Henry can see that his assurance has only skimmed across his Mom’s worry like a rock on water. She manages to look away from Emma enough to smile at him. “I just wanted to see what you three were up to. Are you having fun?”
“Sure,” He says lightly. His face is stiff from the cold and his hands are turning numb inside his coat pockets, but as Emma laughs and swings Neal around again, he feels oddly content. He steps closer to his Mom’s warmth, still watching Emma. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so happy to freeze their butt off.”
His Mom smiles with fond exasperation. “For some reason I will never understand, your mother likes the cold. She’d probably try to swim out in that lake if she didn’t have us around to stop her.”
Henry grins. He watches Emma slush around in the snow, her brother throwing small fist-fulls of snow at her with a huge smile on his face. “I guess I'm gonna have to sleep the whole night with her cold hands and feet. And an open window.”
His Mom hesitates. She seems to have arrived, suddenly, to the realization that Emma will not be with her tonight; and for a moment, in the tentative silence, as a soft longing creeps into her face, he thinks his Mom might break her own word, secrets be damned, just to have Emma with her again.
But instead she just hums and says, “We will warm her up by then.”
At that moment, Emma barks out a loud, sudden laugh. It is loud enough to startle birds out from their hiding places in the trees. When him and his mom turn to look, Emma is sitting on her butt in the snow, laughing up into the open air, her face flushed pink from her little brother’s hand-full of snow.
Henry can’t quite help his own laugh. It bubbles out of him as he watches Emma stand up again elaborate and goofy and overwhelmingly Emma .
“How’d we even end up with her?” he asks, laughing.
His Mother just smiles. She watches Emma chase after her little brother in the snow, her movements light and clumsy, scattering all over the place. Her laughter is a loud, tumbling sound in the cold, open air.
“Sheer dumb luck.” his Mom says. And yeah, it’s a pretty good feeling.
That evening, after dinner is finished and the kitchen tidied, everyone settles into their respective spaces. Charming stands in the corner of the kitchen, stooped over Snow’s shoulder to look at whatever she wants to show him on her phone. Henry hesitates only briefly in their space before going out to find something more interesting.
Henry catches his Mom and Guinevere out on the porch together. The heating lamps touch a warm yellow against the window panes, blurring everything outside to only dark shapes and a cold blue sky.
When he opens the sliding glass door, he catches the end of his Mom’s laugh. “Oh, god. Don’t tell me he asked.” By the loose-open sound of her voice, he knows his Mom has had a few drinks.
“He did. Dropped on his knee right there ,” Guinevere says, and shakes her head fondly. “What an idiot .”
“Well. I hope he wasn't too disappointed.”
“Oh, he was at first,” Guinevere hums. “For him, marriage was always about loving someone forever. He thought maybe I felt less for him than he did for me. But when I explained it to him, why I couldn't marry him, he understood. He's good at that.”
Henry closes the door firmly behind him, loud enough to be heard. Both his Mom and Guinevere straighten up and seem to return to where they are, on a porch in a cabin where guests are just inside. Both glance back at him.
“Hi sweetie.” His Mom smiles. When he walks to her side, she pushes back the hair on his forehead. The gin and tonic in her hand rings softly with ice. “Are you having fun?”
“Yeah,” He says easily.
“Good.” she says, and touches her hand against his cheek. She is soft and affectionate after one or two drinks. When he smiles, her thumb gently presses against the crease, which must abruptly remind her of Emma, because soon after she asks. “Where's your mother?”
“I actually don't know.”
“She is probably with Lance,” Guinevere nods up to where the top of the house reaches its peak. A small window up there reflects the last of the evening. “He’s got a pool table set up in the attic. He always ends up pulling someone up there whenever we have people over. He always needs to disappear for a bit with parties like these.”
“Well, then no doubt Emma has joined him.”
A comfortable silence passes. He catches his Mom glancing up to the attic window a few times, as if to catch a peek of Emma. But the glass is clouded with the darkening sky above them.
When the window turns black, like the sky, his Mom straightens up again. “Well,” she says, and even glances unnecessarily at the watch on her wrist. “I should probably go save Emma. She has likely remembered by now how awful she is at pool.”
“Okay,” Guinevere smiles, a knowing, closed-mouth smile that, had his Mom been more sober, might have made her pause for second or two, to second guess. But as she is now, she just waves them a soft goodbye and steps inside.
When the door closes, Henry sighs. “She really thinks she’s being sly.”
Guinevere laughs. “Oh, let her believe it. I’m sure she’ll warm up to people knowing, eventually. When she’s ready.”
Henry nods, but the topic makes his heart beat a little faster. He has only ever been able to come up with two possible ways for how his mothers’ relationship to go. One version is that everything comes to the surface, his Moms no longer feel the need to hide in public, kiss behind doors, or hold hands only when nobody's looking.
Everything goes on as normal in that one.
The other...is not that. He doesn’t want to think about how that one goes.
When it gets too cold to stay outside, they both trail back into the warmth of the cabin. Lance is walking down to the landing on the stairs by the time Guinevere enters the room, and as if swept by the same thought, they both glance up, smile, and retreat together to the small love seat in the corner of the room.
Something warm and content settles inside the house. His Gramps is half-dozing on the couch next to his fast-asleep son. The fire is glowing warm in the fireplace, popping quietly every once in awhile when a log tumbles into ash. The furnace rumbles from deep within the house. Snow is knitting something beside her sleeping child and husband. His mothers...well, they are somewhere.
Flopping down on the couch beside Snow, he lets out a deep happy sigh. He puts his socked feet up on the coffee table, stretches, and yawns. His Grams hums pleasantly beside him.
“I was thinking we’d watch a movie.” she suggests after a moment, glancing at him. “How does that sound?”
“Sure,” Henry shrugs, yawning again. Already, resting against the soft couch cushions and Neal’s sleeping body, he can feel his own eyes growing heavy.
“Can you ask if your Moms want to see a movie?”
Henry blinks and frowns blearily. “I think they’re playing pool or something.” He doesn’t much want to think about what they might actually doing. He just knows his moms would definitely prefer to stay up there with each other then engage with the bickering, half-hearted interest that goes into picking a movie an entire family can watch.
“Well, just ask.”
Snow gives him a look, like she won’t be pushed on the matter, and Henry gives in with a sigh.
He goes upstairs. The staircase that leads to the attic is narrow enough for his elbows to bump against the walls as he jogs up, turning a corner into a small dark space, becoming so secluded from the rest of house it starts to take on a different smell. Like worn oak and dust.
So maybe his mind starts to drift, maybe instead of worrying over his Moms, he is wondering about how Lance managed to fit an entire whole pool table up these stairs and through the door. Did he carry it in parts? How did he put it all back together?
And so maybe he walks into the room without really thinking.
He pauses in the entry way.
It’s not like he walks into anything. No, there’s just some music. A soft, crackling song that sounds old, like it is coming from some record that has sat on a shelf for years. A woman’s voice trembles richly through the high notes of the song, fills the small, warm space.
And his moms are dancing.
Or swaying, he guesses. There is really no motion to it. His Mom has a hand resting on Emma’s hip and the other wrapped loosely around her neck, playing with the ends of her hair. She is smiling at whatever Emma has just said, her own response almost inaudible beneath the soft laugh she breathes out.
It is a small moment, but his moms are utterly lost in it. And so, watching it, he feels a little lost in it too. He forgets this isn’t something he is supposed to see -- a small, quiet moment, and his two moms, simply and completely in love.
He looks on fondly until his Mom notices him.
Her face goes rigid. Immediately, she steps out of Emma’s arms. “Henry,” she musters up a stern, motherly voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I ...uh. Grams wanted me to ask if you wanted to see a movie.”
For a faltering beat, the only thing between them is the song continuing to play in the background, the woman’s voice soaring in its quiet, tenuous melancholy. Slowly, his Mom draws in a breath and idly fiddles with her earring, a nervous, absentminded gesture.
“Well. That sounds...fun,” she finishes lamely. “We should go down, then.”
Emma glances uneasily at his Mom. “You wanna watch it?” she asks.
“Sure,” she says. “Sure, why not. We were done up here, anyway.”
Henry can sense Emma’s own worry, more silent then his Mom’s. It's in her eyes as she searches his Mom’s face.
After a beat, Emma turns to Henry. “Hey -- can you give us a moment, kid? We’ll be down in a second.”
“No, that's really quite unnecessary...” his Mom starts to say, but Henry is already whirling around, dashing for the door. He bounds onto the first step of the stairway, hidden in the small dark corner, squatting close enough to still hear his Mom’s slow, drawn out sigh.
Henry can’t see more than the long dark wooden door and the stretch of his moms’ shadows across the floor, but he can hear the sound of his moms’ voices.
Emma’s voice is different now with him gone. It carries like something caught in the wind, swept up in worry. “Why are you freaking out about this?” She asks. “We were just dancing, it's not a big deal.”
“I know.” His Mom says, her voice hard. “I’m not freaking out, I’d just like to go back downstairs before anyone notices how long we've been up here.”
“Are you gonna go downstairs and avoid me for the rest of the night?”
“What? Why would you ask that ? ”
“Because that’s what you do whenever you get nervous about us,” Emma huffs. “Look, I get that you want to be...quiet about us, but please don’t push me away, alright? We’ve been friends for a while, Regina. We hung out, we talked, we've even danced with each other. I’m sure we can still have these moments without looking too suspicious.”
“We never danced like that back then.”
“Okay? Do you seriously think Henry would be upset if he found out about us?”
“No, of course I don’t,” His Mom huffs in frustration. “That’s not the point , Emma.”
“What do you mean that’s not the point? What are you talking about? I thought we were hiding because people needed more time ?”
A silence passes.
When Emma can speak, she asks. “Am I missing something?” Her voice is soft, turned thin by strain. “Why are we hiding? I thought...I mean, you told me we shouldn’t do it here because it wasn’t the right place. I figured that meant maybe a little bit later . But I don't even think you're worried about what people think -- you know Henry wouldn’t be bothered by us, and you probably know that about my parents, too. So... it’s gotta be something else, then, right?”
There is a breathless quiet that follows, and as Henry waits, his heart beats harder and harder against his bones, until it is the only sound he can hear.
“Emma, honey, please,” his Mom whispers. “Let’s talk about this later. People are waiting for us.”
“What does later mean to you?” Emma asks, voice wet and breathy. “I mean, I thought that we were...planning to come out eventually. We still are, right? ...Regina?”
Henry can feel a skittery attentiveness take hold of him again, the one he felt on the stairs of his own home, when he was listening in to another sore argument between his mothers’, something raw and unresolved. It’s not something he should be listening in to.
Standing up slowly, as quietly as he can, Henry makes his way down to the first floor again, walking carefully to the couch where his grandparents still sit.
“Are they coming back down?” Snow asks when he sinks down onto a couch cushion. Henry just shrugs. His heart has quieted, but it still beats too fast, continuing its soft thrum against his ribs.
When his mothers come down again, it is just as the movie is starting. A green light fills the room, the entering note of the title screen almost overwhelmingly loud with Lance and Guinevere's sound system.
But still, it feels like the only thing people are paying attention to is the way his moms walk in, settling on different sides of the room. His Mom sits next to him while Emma plops down on a chair in the corner, pulling her feet up; she sits inwardly, hugging her own shoulders as if she is cold, despite the furnace being on.
Snow pauses the movie. The silence tenses, preparing to be filled with questions and worries, but after a moment, Emma’s voice comes up from the dark, sounding flat and tired. “Please, just turn on the movie.”
And so Snow does.
By the time he wakes up in the morning, Emma is already out of bed. It makes his heart lift hopefully, but it only sinks again when he walks into the kitchen only to find his moms in different rooms again.
His Mom is scrubbing a pan, her mouth a flat, unhappy line. When he walks up, she glances up quickly. He can tell by the flash in her eyes that she had been hoping for Emma.
“Hey Mom,” he murmurs.
His Mom sighs. “Hi sweetie. How was your sleep?”
“Cold. Turns out Ma just has naturally cold feet,” he tries to bring up the lightness from the day before, the good, sheer dumb luck feeling, but his Mom’s mouth twists sharply like she might cry and he stumbles over himself. “Um. Anyway, what’s for breakfast?”
“Eggs,” his Mom manages, stealing in a steadying breath. “But we don’t have much else, so Emma is going to quickly go to the store with Lance.”
After a beat, his Mom returns to scrubbing the pan. “Did your mother sleep well?” She asks, frowning at the running water and her pink fingers as she cleans.
“Mom,” he groans.
“What?” his Mom snaps irritably. “It’s a simple question, Henry.”
“Why don’t you go ask her?”
His Mom just grumbles and returns to scrubbing. “Go set the table, Henry.”
By the time he is done folding all of the napkins, setting out the forks and knives, setting out coffee cups, the door opens again. Sounds filter in, conversation carrying in over the heavier stomping noise of Lance and Emma’s boots along the floor.
Through the sliding glass door, he can see Emma’s awkward maneuvering in the kitchen, stepping around his Mom as she lifts up the heavy grocery bags onto the counter. His Mom is facing the stove, making breakfast, her back pronounced with the stiffness of her shoulders.
Sighing, Henry trails back in. He catches the end of his Moms’ stiff conversation, just an exchange of questions and answers (Was there any traffic? No. Did you get the bacon? Yeah. How much was it all?)
It ends with a grumbled, “Would you like me to just give you the receipt?” They fall into an angry silence, and don’t talk again until the eggs are scraped up with a spatula and put on plates, handed out with bacon and biscuits. Everyone picks up their plates, walking out into the cool morning air.
His Mom walks out last, making her way to Emma before realizing that the seat next to her is already taken by Lance.
“Oh,” she says, before she can stop herself.
Luckily Guinevere clears her throat and brings his Mom’s attention to her and the empty seat on her other side. It’s a small relief. His Mom joins Guinivere with a smile, the awkwardness sliding away for a little while. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last very l9ng.
Only a few minutes later, his Grams sits up, starting up a conversation that Henry can already feel is going to be disastrous.
“So Emma,” she says lightly as she butters her biscuit with jam. “Do you plan on moving any time soon?”
Emma blinks and glances up. Her fork hovers halfway to her face. “Um. Sorry, what?”
“Well, you have that mansion all to yourself. And now that you and Hook have broken it off, it just seems that is such a large place for just one person,” His Grams continues deliberately. Apprehension plods down onto Henry’s stomach all at once like an avalanche of snow. “I’m wondering if you plan on moving out soon.”
The silence settles awkwardly. His Mom quietly brings her fork to her mouth, not looking up. They all know Emma hasn’t been sleeping at her house for weeks now.
Emma reaches for her coffee with a small grimace. “Yeah, I probably should.” she takes a small sip, doesn’t look at his Mom. “I mean. I’m apparently single now, might as well start looking for something a little more reasonable.”
His Mom’s fork slides noisily against her plate. The following silence is numb and almost unbearably heavy. Someone clears their throat awkwardly and shifts in their chair.
Snow’s mouth crease. “Well,” she says, and presses her napkin lightly to her mouth, proceeding a little more carefully. “Where would you want to live, honey?”
Henry is struggling to keep his eyes on both his moms. One second, he is watching his Mom pinch the crumbs together on her plate and in the next, Emma is leaning back in her chair, irritably sighing as she pushes a strand of her hair back behind her ear.
“I don’t know Mom.” she looks out over the wooden railing with a sigh. The sun glints cooly off the snowy top of the tree branches. She must lose herself in the reality of the conversation because she is silent for a second too long, getting lost in the possibility of maybe actually needing an apartment. “I don’t know. Maybe somewhere out by the beach. A small one or two bedroom place.”
Snow blinks, and seems unable to resist glancing at his Mom. His Mom doesn’t notice, her eyes focused only on Emma.
“That sounds...nice.” his Grams continues, transparently worried. “A little lonely, maybe.”
“Well. I don’t know what to tell you Mom,” Emma’s shoulders push closer together, getting uncomfortable with the attention from all sides of the table. She glares into her coffee cup. “It’s not exactly my dream scenario, either.”
“Well what is your dream--”
“Snow,” his Mom cuts in. “That’s enough.”
“It’s a fair question, Regina.”
“Well, then don’t ask it now, ” his Mom hisses.
An uncomfortable silence wavers between everyone. Snow purses her lips and returns to her plate. Guinevere takes a sip of coffee, and then, after a beat, gently leans in to whisper into Lance’s ear, clearing the confusion on his face.
The morning is quiet and cool. When Emma speaks again, it is softer than Henry has ever heard it before. “I don’t care where I live, really” she says, and doesn’t look up from her coffee. She turns the cup worriedly between her palms. “I would live in a shoebox if that's where my family wanted to live.”
She doesn’t look up for so long, Henry almost doesn’t catch her brief, upward glance to Regina before she hastily looks away again.
David frowns with misunderstanding. “Well, if you need to be with family, kiddo, you’re welcome to just move back in with us.”
His Mom makes a sharp sound of dissent, but before she can even respond, his Grams answers absentmindedly. “Actually, honey, remember? We gave Emma’s room to Neal.” It seems to take a second for the silence to absorb the words, for things to settle in, but when it does, his Grams cringes. “Obviously, that’s not to say you’re not still welcome to stay there.”
Emma just stares at her Mom, blank-eyed. “You gave my room to Neal?” She asks. There is a vague, blank quality to her voice, as if she is only a recording, reporting back only what has been said to her.
“Well. Yes.” Snow frowns, and quietly clears her throat. “Neal is getting older. But, of course that doesn’t mean you can’t stay if you need to. I just meant...in terms of space...”
“Yeah, I get it. I don’t exactly fit,” Emma abruptly stands up, her voice wobbling. “Seems like that’s happening a lot lately.” She is teary-eyed and miserable, scooting her chair back to leave, the wood screeching clumsily against the floor.
His Mom stands up too, tossing her napkin aside. “Fuck,” she sighs, and struggles after Emma, maneuvering around both Lance and Guinevere's chairs before running out through the half-closed glass sliding door. From outside, Henry can hear his Mom’s voice calling after Emma, moving farther and farther away.
Henry glances around the table. Snow is covering her face with a weary hand and Gramps still looks confused. Guinevere and Lance appear to be taking their family’s entanglement with more patience and understanding than Henry thinks is probably deserved at this point.
“Um,” he stands up. “Sorry about all this.”
“Oh, it’s okay, sweetheart,” Guinevere says, smiling.
“I’m gonna go after my Moms.” He says, and then turns on his heel.
He is about to run through all the rooms in the cabin when he sees that the front door is still open. Pushing boots onto his feet, he clambers out onto the snow to find his Mom on the icy driveway, barefoot and unsure, staring out at the white frosted asphalt.
He jogs up to his Mom. She is still strong-jawed, firm, and sensible, but her chest is moving in a sharp, shaky motion, beginning to sound wet with tears.
“What is it?” he breathes, staring at her. “Mom, what’s wrong?”
“She’s gone,” His Mom shudders, her face grieved, furious, and disbelieving all at once. “I just - I walked out, and she was gone.”
Henry hesitates. The road is long and empty on either side, both turning into different directions. The street eventually becomes impossible to see past the thick, snowy trees.
After a moment, Henry just sighs and slides his arm around his Mom’s shoulders. “It’s okay Mom.” He assures, rubbing a rough palm up and down her arm. “Ma does this, sometimes. You know that. She’ll be back soon, like she always is. Guilty and upset as hell, but she’ll be back.”
His Mom lets out a long, shuddering breath. “But she didn’t even take a jacket.”
Henry smiles, despite himself. If his Mom ever had a wish, she would probably waste it on the hope that her family be completely safe, every minute of every day, and then, knowing just how impossible it is, she’d worry anyway.
Gently, he turns to press a soft kiss to her forehead. “She’s gonna be fine.”
Against his ribs, he feels his Mom shake again. After a long, shuddering breath, she whispers. “I never meant to make her feel like she didn’t belong with us.” She speaks so quietly, had Henry not been so close, she might have been inaudible.
He sighs. “Come on, Mom.” he says and gently pulls her towards the house. She resists for a moment, but after another long stare down the road, she sighs and gives in to his pull. As they walk to the open doorway again, he gently squeezes her arm. “We should probably talk, too.”
His Mom gives him a look, and then sighs. “Yes, I suppose we should.”
When they reenter the house, neither of them speaks. Henry stomps off the snow on his boots, frowns disapprovingly at his Mom’s red, freezing feet, and snags a blanket on the walk up to the attic.
It really is a small space, tidy and slanted on either side. The air is slightly warmer than the rest of the house. It circulates the smell of pine and snow.
Henry sits back in one of the old rocking chairs, and then tosses the blanket on his Mom’s lap when she sits down beside him. She rarely ever seems small to him except in these rare moments when she is too tired to be the stern, sensible mom -- the one who knows all the answers, who pretends like she has never been a frightened child.
Looking at her now, she just seems tired. She holds a hand beneath her chin, fingers tucked close to her palm.
“I know about you and Emma.”
His Mom glances up. Slowly, her eyes crinkle with her smile. “I kind of figured, sweetheart.”
“Oh,” Henry says. He’s not sure if he is surprised or not. “Um. How about Grams and Gramps? Because pretty much everyone knows.”
A short breath streams out of her nose. “Well, if I didn’t know that today, I definitely do after that --” His Mom waves a hand flippantly by the fingers. “Mess. Your grandmother really needs to learn to hold her tongue if it keeps hurting Emma like this.”
Henry nods, though guiltily, he had not been all that aware of the previous hurts between Emma and her Mom. He had watched Emma stiffen, or slide away after family moments before, but he had attributed it to a past of some kind. Grams’ potential for harm had turned into a kind of harmless comedy to him since his Mom started rolling her eyes to every callous thing she says.
He had not thought to look at Emma.
But his Mom had. She seems to know every bruise, and its cause. “So, why,” he finds himself asking thoughtlessly, just to complete his thoughts, but when the danger of the topic occurs to him, he comes to a slow, awkward stops. His Mom waits for him, resting her chin on her hand. He sighs. “Why are you and Ma hiding your relationship?”
She doesn’t seem surprised, but she still leans back from the question, weary and tired. “It’s complicated.” She sighs and looks out to the gray, cloudy sky outside. The cold is starting to fog up the window. “I guess the short answer is just that I’m still the Evil Queen.”
“What?” Henry blanches and sits up in alarm. “Mom -- come on --”
“No, no --” she sighs, and waves an exhausted hand, “I’m not saying I'm a danger to Emma, or anything silly like that. I know I have changed. I know I am....semi-redeemable,” She sighs and gently rubs her temple. “But everything I have done, everything I let myself become is still a part of who I am. And that baggage -- or that karma, whatever you want to call it -- is still a part of my life. It will try to take everything away from me, like it has before.”
“Mom.” he sighs. “You don’t know that.”
“I’m afraid I do,” she answers. She follows a finger along the wooden chair, the big black whorls and knots in the pine revealing its secret patterns beneath her touch. “Every single moment where I have felt like...I might actually get to have this, and just be happy, the world changes its rules again. It switches on me, in the most impossible way, just to take it all back.”
His Mom sighs. It’s an old, slightly archaic sigh, and it is filled with such a knowing wariness, he's not sure how to set his argument against it. She has lived a life harder than his will ever be, at any given time.
“I had searched for my happiness so violently...” his Mom continues quietly, unprompted this time. “So loudly. I demanded it. And than when I knew it was impossible for me, I ripped it from others. And now, fate wants to do the same to me.” she tips her head up, trying to contain the way her lungs shake, the way tears wobble and blur her vision. “But I can’t lose Emma. I just...I can’t.”
“So what was your plan?”
“I thought, maybe...” she sighs. “If I could just love her quietly enough...if people didn’t know I was happy, then I would be able to keep her. I could have this -- our life together, our family -- even if it was only in secret.”
“Mom...” He starts, but everything feels beyond his reach, outside of his knowledge.“You know, if you told Emma this, she’d understand.” It’s the only thing he feels he can actually say, something he knows for certain.
She twists her mouth around. “She probably would” she says, and pinching the flint off her pants, gathering it together. “I just...I don’t know how to tell her that we might never come out. She want us public so badly. And I do too, I really, really do. But...” she drifts off and slides her hand up across her face, resting against her forehead..
“I don’t think she really cares about that,” Henry says carefully, and though an old rug between them makes it difficult to scoot his chair any closer, he still closes the distance, reaching for her hand. “Honestly, Mom. I think she’s just scared you might love her less than she loves you.”
The thought carries such an agony into his Mom’s face, he nearly regrets saying it at all, but as she covers her eyes with a hand, unable to completely cry in front of her son, she says between gasps: “I love her so much, honey. I’ve loved her for so long.”
“Mom.” Henry smiles, unable to help it. His chest heaves with love for them both. “I don’t mean to sound like an idiotic Charming, but don’t you think maybe that’s what makes you and Ma different? I think this happiness is the one you’re supposed to have.”
“What?” his Mom asks, voice still wet from tears. She looks at him with dark, shining eyes, for once willing to be the one that doesn’t know. She looks at him with hope that she can learn something better than all the lessons the world has taught her.
“I think you're right, the world is a little bit messed up. It’s skewed,” Henry says, and gently squeezes her hand, feeling the bones press up against his palm. “But honestly? I think what you two got is bigger than fate. I’d say love Ma as loud as you want, and show the world you’re not going down without a fight.”
His Mom stares at him for a while. Her hand sits silently beneath his own, as still as a sitting dove. After a beat or two, she finally smiles. Her eyes shine with tears.
Gently, she lifts her hand up to his face. “How’d you get to be so good?’” she whispers, and brushes the back of her knuckles up and down his soft cheek.
Henry just smiles and holds her hand there, cupped against his face. He hopes she knows the answer to that already.
Emma returns less than an hour later. She comes into the house red and teary-eyed, creeping quietly into the kitchen area, unnoticed, as everyone sits tensely in the living room. Henry catches her as he walks out of his room, book still in hand. In the dim warm light, he can see that Emma’s face has already assumed the guilt that comes to her when she is impulsive.
The next person who notices her is his Mom. She glances to the door first, frowning resentfully at it as if it was an impassive guard to her own prison cell before finding Emma only incidentally as she casts her eyes absentmindedly over the kitchen. Emma’s face freezes when she is caught, and his Mom laughs at her in a spasm of relief and surprise.
“You idiot,” His Mom sighs, smiling. She stands up from her chair and makes her way to Emma. “Do you have any idea how worried I was? It’s below freezing out there and you don’t even have a jacket.”
“I know,” Emma whispers, and shuffles closer a step. She is pulled in by his Mom’s fears and concerns; she needs them in ways Henry will never know. “I didn’t really mean to run. It’s just...once I stepped out the door, I felt like I couldn’t turn back.”
“Well,” his Mom steps closer, her worry already turning soft and warm. “Thank you for coming back within the hour.”
Everyone waits. The air feels full of everyone’s expectations, and Henry can’t help but be one of them. Silently, he sinks onto the couch closest to his Grandmother, sitting with the best view of his moms.
Emma’s face turns red when she notices their stares. She grows hesitant. “Um,” she clears her throat and steps back behind the kitchen counter. “Have you all just been waiting for me?”
“Yes,” His Mom says and continues walking toward her.
Henry can see how Emma’s face changes with every step. The light is more warm inside the kitchen, bright and full, almost sourceless. As his Mom turns around the marble counter, Henry can see how fearful hope can look, how urgent. It can clutch at the bones.
“Um,” she whispers, glancing out across the living room. “What...what are you doing?”
His Mom sighs, resting a flat palm against the counter. “I have come to the decision,” she says, as she walks forward. “That I would rather spend the rest of my life fighting for you than play it safe and have you think, ever, even for a second, that I might love you less than I really do.”
Emma takes only one breath in the time it takes his Mom to reach her, so by the time his Mom holds her jaw, there’s no more air left. No room for worry or second-guessing. Emma follows the soft touch all the way down to her mouth. It is a soft, steady kiss.
His Grams gasps tearfully beside him and clutches her hands together. Lance whistles, making Emma laugh, teary-eyed and smiling against his Mom.
It’s a good feeling, warm and honestly an unimaginable relief, but still, when the kissing goes on a bit longer, and Emma turns her head for a deeper kiss, Henry still grabs a pillow to chuck at her face, because he’s still their kid , for godsake.
The pillow bounces off his Mom’s head instead, and thankfully, before his Mom’s startled eyes can find him, Emma breaths out a laugh against her neck, distracting her enough for the incident to slide beneath the waters. So, okay, maybe there’s a plus side to this kissing thing, too.