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the rabbit hole

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After today, Emma’s never going to get rid of the cake leftovers. That’s all she can think when Tiana lights the 2 and 3 candles in the middle with a third round of “Happy Birthday,” because the cake is the biggest Emma’s ever seen.

“You’re ridiculous,” she says, staring at the white frosted vanilla cake lined with dark chocolate and littered with candied cherries and sliced strawberries.

“You’re my best friend and this is your birthday,” Tiana says cheerfully. “I can afford to be ridiculous. Make a wish.”

It’s nearly ten after eleven, and Emma’s had a long, hard day of dealing with kids who’d rather be playing Call of Duty over going to school, but she smiles fondly at her friend before she takes a deep breath. Then she closes her eyes, and forgets to make a wish on her exhale.

The candles go out quickly, but before either of them can reach for a knife to cut slices to enjoy with their mojitos, there comes a knock on the door. Eyebrows scrunching, Emma shoots a confused look to her friend. “Did you invite anyone?” she asks.

Frowning, Tiana says, “No. Maybe it’s a mistake?”

Before Emma can answer, the knock comes again, but each one closer together—insistent. For a moment, neither of them move, so Tiana sits with her hand hovering above the knife and Emma leans forward over the cake, before she pushes back in her seat. “I guess I better go answer it,” she says. Hoping that it is not her new, incredibly hot next door neighbor wearing nothing but an open bathrobe and asking for a cup of sugar for the third time this week, she places her hand on the doorknob and turns.

“Hi,” says the small grade school boy on her welcome mat. “Are you Emma Swan?”

There’s not much a person can politely say to a little boy with chubby cheeks and messy hair and a polo shirt so neatly pressed that the creases are still visible even when he reeks of public transport, so all she answers is, “Yeah? Who are you?”

The boy smiles brightly and, before she can comprehend what is happening, says, “My name is Henry Mills. I’m your son. Is that cake?” At this, she hears the distinctive sound of a glass shattering behind her, and sends a quick glance over her shoulder to see her friend sitting there with a gaping mouth.

Within seconds, the boy skitters around her and is over by the cake, telling both women that his adoptive mother never lets him eat sugar. “She only likes organic,” he says, like seven-year-olds should know what “organic” means.

Emma clears her throat. “Kid,” she says as she crosses her arms, “I don’t know what is going on here. But I am not your mother.”

Though Tiana doesn’t say anything, she does arch one eyebrow in warning. Ever since Emma was Henry’s age, she reacts negatively to surprise, and knows a bad reaction shouldn’t happen around a kid. Then her friend tells Henry to watch the glass, and stands to get the broom and dust pan, giving them space. Emma takes another deep breath, like she’s going to blow out a second round of candles, and tries to calm down.

“You’re Emma Swan,” the kid says, still eyeing the cake longingly. If it weren’t by glass, Emma suspects he likely already would have made a grab for her discarded fork. “That means you’re my mother. I made sure before I came here.” Then, he gives her a frown that looks a bit nervous. “You did give a baby up for adoption seven years ago, didn’t you? In Tallahassee, Florida?”

Dazed, she nods as Tiana enters the room and makes quick work of the glass. Emma uncrosses her arm, shifts her weight, and crosses them again. “So I’m your mother,” she says, accepting that it’s true. There are a whole range of emotions running through her now that she’s not sure how to deal with, so she doesn’t, and instead says, “And your adoptive mother thinks you’re where?”

Henry shrugs. “At my friend Paige’s. She never checks in when I’m there or anything.”

“Do you have a father?” Tiana says, glancing over as she shakes the glass into the trash, her expression skeptical. “In whatever town you came from?” She shoots Emma a look, then continues. “Where is that? By the way?”

“Storybrooke, Maine,” he says, too quickly and too evenly for it to be a lie, though Tiana’s face twists into brief amusement. After living in so many foster homes, Emma’s good at knowing when a person is lying, even when the truth sounds unbelievable. “It’s just me and my mom.”

“Well,” Emma says, “I’m sure she’s worried half to death about you. Why don’t you give me her number and we’ll see about calling her?” She watches his expression for any sign of discomfort or fear, thinking that maybe the reason this kid’s so keen to find his birth mother is because his adoptive one is abusive, but his frown is more of a bratty pout. No. Definitely not fear or discomfort.

In a tone that’s nothing short of whining , he says, “But she’d ground me.”

Tiana, half laughing, says, “I don’t think that’s the thing you should worrying about, kid.”

“It’s Henry,” Henry says, and, turning his attention to the other woman in the room fully for the first time, adds, “Wait, who are you?”

This has gone on long enough, Emma decides, because it’s her birthday and she’s not ready to deal with this bullshit. “Her name’s Tiana,” she says. “What’s your mom’s number, Henry? She should really come and get you.”

Henry’s eyes grow impossibly wide at that. “But I just found you,” he says. “I can’t just leave now.

The lost little girl inside Emma, the one that recognizes the desire for family , aches at the boy’s pleading. Even though she gave him up to give him a better life, and hoped that he would grow up happy and loved, she couldn’t pretend that she never imagined this. Never thought about her son coming to find her one day. Usually, though, that picture had a more bitter cast to it, and her son was always older. Not this. Not so young and small and still a child, still being raised and formed into a person. A child—someone whose life she could be a part of.

She grits her teeth and tells him, “You rode on a bus here without telling your mom. I’m sure, if you really want to, that the three of us can work something out. Once she knows you’re safe.”

Without warning, he turns and grabs the unconnected landline off the kitchen wall. “Try to call my mom and I’ll call the police,” he says, which is much too clever and much too cheeky for a seven-year-old. “I’ll say you kidnapped me.”

Shocked, Emma looks at him aghast while Tiana sputters in the background. “Are you serious?” Emma says, and studies his face, searching for any hint of a lie. “You’re bluffing,” she tells him, confident that the child wouldn’t go so far.

Shaking his head, he says, “I’ll do it. I mean it.”

Though the phone doesn’t work, the idea’s proposed, and it probably won’t be hard for him to get his hands on her cell phone. If the kid’s anything like she is, or Neal was, which he seems to be, then he really does mean it. She sighs. “Fine,” she says. “What do you me to do? Your mom only thinks you’re at your friend’s for one night. It’s not like you can stay here.”

“I don’t want to,” he says. “I want you to bring me back.”

As odd of a request as that is, it’s not like Maine is that far away, she thinks, and it’s a Thursday night. She doesn’t need to worry about work for another few days. Tiana, who's been oddly quiet, chirps in. “Well,” she says, shooting a look to Emma, “I’m coming too. If it’s a town full of murderous hicks, I don’t want you there alone.”

“What?” Henry says, nose scrunching in confusion, so Emma shakes her head before her friend can let slip anything else.

“Well,” she says wearily, “go to the bathroom, kid, because it’s going to be a long drive.”

After Tiana points him in the direction of where the bathroom is, she says, “I’ll bring the cake.”

This morning, Emma woke up wondering about cocktails and cake. Now, as she watches Tiana package that same cake and pour those same cocktails down the sink to load the glasses in the dishwasher, she has a sudden, unnerving feeling that she’ll never see this place again.

 

 

At half past ten, Emma knocks at the door of a house larger than she’d ever lived in, Henry at her side and Tiana lurking by the car parked at the end of the ranch’s extraordinarily long driveway.

Before she knows it, the door swings open, and woman stands there, a few years older than Emma at most, with short brown hair and a relieved expression. “Henry,” she says in a surprisingly level tone for someone whose son just showed up at the door with two strange women in the middle of the night. “Who is this? I thought you were at Paige’s.”

The woman looks more like Henry than Emma does. She shifts her weight, instinctively angling away from her son , and says, “I’m Emma Swan. His birth mother. He came and...found me in Boston.”

Boston? ” his mother says, looking from Emma to Henry. “Henry, when I said we could look for your birth mother, I didn’t mean you could go to Boston alone.”

Henry smiles, shrugs, and says, “Who was going to go with me? Paige’s mom and dad? Miss Blanchard? You know they can’t leave!” He looks sadly at his mother, then, smile fading. “They’re cursed, just like you.”

After four hours of listening to him jabbering on about curses and fairy tales, Emma isn’t ready to hear any more. The other woman sighs, shoulders slumping in her likely expensive, silk nightgown like she’s resigned to this kind of talk, and catches sight of Tiana. “Who’s this?” she says. “Your friend?” Her tone implies girlfriend , but it’s too late at night to bother answering a question that hasn’t been asked.

“My name’s Tiana Baxter,” Tiana says, stepping forward for the first time, clutching her Tupperware in a hug. “Uh. I brought cake?”

“Regina Mills,” Henry’s mother says, before she stands away from the door and gestures for them to come inside. “I’ll make some tea. And you,” she adds, attentioned returned fully to her son. “You, young man, are going to bed.”

“Mom—” Henry starts to protest, but Regina quickly cuts him off.

“No buts, young man,” she says. “If you don’t go now, I’ll make sure you don’t see Paige for a month.”

Henry grumbles in response, clutches his backpack, and then stomps past his mother up the stairs, but not before giving a look or two back to Emma. There’s something sad in watching his back retreat, so, knowing she’s going to leave before morning, she says, “Goodnight, Henry.”

At the top of the stairs, he turns, face barely visible from her place below the upstairs balcony, and smiles so his chubby cheeks dent in with dimples. “‘Night, Emma,” he says. “Night, Tiana. Mom, can we have pancakes in the morning?”

“No,” Regina says, disgruntled with her short brown hair sticking up on one side and her blue nightgown wrinkled. Henry sighs dramatically and disappears into their blindside.

They follow Regina into the kitchen. The ranch house is filled with pictures littering the wall, each of them documents to Henry’s life that Emma never experienced. She sees a picture of him as a baby no more than a year old with a mouth covered in something green, then another of him a few years older than that, holding onto a bike with a huge smile on his face. A mixture of sadness and relief at the fact that her son is clearly loved hits her, almost as heavily as the smell of apples that permeates the kitchen. There’s an apple crisp on the island only recently baked, sweetened with cinnamon and crusted with non-instant oatmeal. If Henry’s to be believed, then this must be what most of the desserts in this house are like.

At Regina’s directive, Tiana sets the Tupperware of cake down on the end of the table. “It’s Emma’s birthday today,” she says, like a traitor, because Emma isn’t here to sit down and chat. “That’s what the cake’s for.”

“Of course it’s Emma’s birthday,” Regina says. “Why else would Henry pick today of all days to go find her? I’m sorry about all that. I guess I never thought my seven-year-old would leave town on his own.”

“He’s precocious,” Emma says, only slightly sarcastic because it’s nice to see that her son takes after her. “I’d like to know how he did it, though.” Regina agrees with her, then rummages around in a drawer next to the sink, and a few seconds later she’s handing them utensils.  

With nothing more than a “thank you,” Tiana accepts the fork and the slice of apple crisp, and trades it with a piece of her own cake, citing sugar amounts and fat content that Emma really didn’t need to know after having it for dinner. Cake crumble and bits of icing frost her car seats, since she didn’t give anyone time to stop and eat before they left.

Regina accepts it with a wary expression, and as she picks up her fork, says casually, “And the father? What about him?”

Not wanting to think about Neal anymore than she already has tonight, Emma stabs her fork into her slice of apple crisp. “There was one,” she says simply, with a shrug. Tiana shoots her a concerned look, lips pressed together and brows turned in, while Regina nods with acceptance. The suspicious part of Emma thinks that this woman is too good to be true, bringing in Henry’s birth mother for tea and apple crisp and not even a hint of fuss. Her lie detector, the one that never fails, isn’t sensing any falsehoods, but still, there’s something going on here.

All Emma wanted for tonight was to get drunk with her friend and enjoy her inevitable hang over the following morning, when she didn’t have to deal with children skipping school. Uncomfortable, she says, “Thank you for everything, but we really should get going.”

For a moment, Regina looks worried, but then it’s gone with a smile. “It’s late,” she says. “Why don’t you stay for the night? Surely there’s no hurry back to Boston.”

There’s not, of course, and Emma would rather spend a night in a bed than driving another four hours, but she’s already said goodbye. When she hesitates a moment too long, shooting a pleading look to her friend, who offers no support, Regina says, “If you’re not comfortable with that, there’s an inn not that far from here. But now that you’re here, if you have an extra day, I don’t mind and I doubt Henry would mind if you came around again tomorrow.”

Every second she stays Emma can feel the wall she’s built around her heart since giving her baby up chipping away. She fears the longer she stays, the worse it will be when she leaves, but this woman is so friendly . It’s unlike any other situation Emma’s ever heard of when a child seeks out their birth mother, and so she finds herself thinking that maybe an extra day might not hurt that much.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Tiana smile when she gives tentative “maybe,” and trades phone numbers on paper napkins with the woman who spent the past seven years watching Emma’s son grow. “Uh, thanks,” she says before she leaves. Somewhere outside, a horse whinnies, and the whole area smells like freshly cut grass. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Regina hugs her unexpectedly, shakes Tiana’s hand, and with a warning about the pothole at the entrance to the inn’s lot, sends them on their way.

 

 

It’s a half hour past the last bar call when the clock tower chimes for the first time in Storybrooke’s recent memory. Anya Boyd is right at the end of her shift, standing under the library’s wooden awning to avoid the chilly October breeze as her boyfriend arrives from around the corner, just on time to walk her home.

Looking up to the clock tower, she says to Jack, “I thought it was past midnight.” She distinctly remembers looking at her Nokia when closing up The Rabbit Hole for the night and noting the time, yet the clock’s hands are pointing to fifteen minutes to nine.

He’s got his hands in his pockets, but he shoots a quick, curious look to the clock tower, before he reaches into her pocket to pull out her phone, because, like the rest of the adults in their apartment complex, they only have one cell between the two of them. Then he shrugs and says, “Must be broken.”

“No,” she says, too tired for broken clock towers chiming for the first time just a half hour past her shift when just a week earlier, on this currently deserted street, Leroy, the local plumber, got himself robbed by someone other than the thieves next door. “It’s fixed.”

Jack shrugs again. “If you say so.” He takes her hand after putting her cell away in his jean pocket, and they head back to their two bedroom apartment, where the hot water nevers works and the smell of rotten garbage wafts up from the alley below. “Robb tells me that Paige is painting Bobby’s nails green this time.”

On the nights when Anya works late, which is almost always, their daughter stays next door. She sleeps heavier than either of her parents, and never wakes when Jack rolls her into his arms to bring her back to her own bed. Sighing, Anya, runs her fingers through her long blonde hair, trying and failing to shake out the hair bump caused by hours of keeping it back for work (her boss doesn’t like even the thought of even her bangs loose, and if sex appeal didn’t sell, Anya thinks she’d be in a hair net). Five nights a week, she works as a bartender at the town’s one dive, and works her sixth shift from noon to eight, if she’s lucky to leave on time. In the past four years or so, she’s only made it to three of her daughter’s recitals. Jack, who does retail for C-Mart, barely has more time than Anya does; Regina Mills, Henry’s mother, attends everything for them.

Sometimes it’s pretty hard not to feel like they’re failing at this whole parenting thing, and like Mom was right.

“What did she eat for dinner?” Anya asks, hoping it wasn’t microwaved dinosaur chicken nuggets for the fourth time this week.

The wind ruffles Jack’s already messy brown hair as they walk past the inn. “We stopped at Granny’s before my appointment with Archie,” he tells her. Usually, Paige finds herself drawing silly rainbows on scrap paper and doing homework in the waiting room of Storybrooke’s one therapist while Jack goes through yet another session that doesn’t seem to be helping. Anya tries not to find herself frustrated, but whenever she manages to unsuccessfully avoid her mother in town, she still remembers their last bitter, parting words.

“That’s good,” Anya says, or starts to say, but stops when a woman’s loud, unfamiliar, entirely sober laugh pierces the chilly nighttime air.

From around the corner where Main meets Arendell, two strangers emerge, one frowning and the other still caught at the end of her laugh. The smaller woman with the long dark curls and the bright yellow dress holds a plastic container in one hand and a wallet in the other, focused too intently on the other woman to notice the other two on the road. In the same moment Anya and Jack halt mid-step from the shock of seeing two unknown faces, the blonde woman in red catches sight of them, and the frown evens into a line to match her narrowing eyes.

“What’s wrong with you?” she says, tugging the other woman at the shoulder. “We’re not doing anything.”

After a moment, Anya collects herself and says, “Small town.” An excuse to her, but identical looks of confusion cross over both women’s faces. “We know everyone. Not used to seeing out-of-towners.”

To make up for her startled lack of politeness, Jack introduces them and then asks, “And you are?”

The blonde woman relaxes her shoulders just enough to be noticeable. “I’m Emma,” she says. “This is Tiana. Is there a bar around here?”

Anya smirks. “Afraid you’re too late, darlings,” she says with a shrug. “Last call for the only bar in town was about an hour ago.”

“What?” Tiana says, and sighs. There’s an accent in her voice that Anya only vaguely recognizes from the TV—southern, but no state distinctly. “Fucking Maine, Emma. All I wanted to do was pawn off this cake. Do you want a cake? It’s only a little eaten and delicious. I made it myself.”

Jack, whose blood is probably made of ninety-percent sugar at this point, steps forward to take the cake, but Anya stops him. “No,” she says, “Paige already had a cavity filled last week. We don’t need that in our apartment.”

“You could always put it somewhere up high,” says Tiana unhelpfully. Anya’s best withering look goes unheeded as the girl continues, “But seriously. It’s like twelve-thirty and the one bar in town is closed?”

“I told you it would be like this,” Emma says, half turned to her friend but focus still on Anya and Jack like she thinks they’re going to attack. For as seedy as their apartment is, they’re not that type and certainly don’t look it. Her suspicion is unwarranted and offensive. “Small towns aren’t exactly New Orleans or Boston. Anyway, good meeting you. You sure you don’t want cake?”

Jack opens his mouth, but Anya, as always, beats him to the punch. “We’re sure.” Though she’s been more than a bit short with the two women, she smells like cheap beer and peach schnapps, and hasn’t eaten anything more than olives and dried hibiscus leaves in hours. The deep desire to kiss her daughter goodnight and crawl into bed is hitting her hard with every passing minute.

Before Anya can say goodbye and be on her way, Tiana says, “Hey, just out of curiosity, Paige wouldn’t happen to be Henry Mills’ friend Paige, would she?”

Again, Anya frowns. Jack raises a brow. As they shoot each other a look, he says, “Yeah? Why?”

Without any attempt at subtlety, Emma steps on her friend’s foot. “We know his mom,” she says. “Bye. Nice meeting you.”

After they’ve finally disappeared from view, the blonde woman almost dragging her friend by the arm, Jack shakes his head. “Strange people,” he says.

Anya agrees, but she feels like there’s more to the story than the two women are letting on. Abruptly, she remembers finding Henry and Paige on the computer in the library about two weeks ago, unsuccessfully trying to pretend like they’d been playing Spider Solitaire the entire time, but two kids not even ten failed at erasing browser histories. Ancestry.com isn’t exactly something Paige needs, given that Jack’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Silas, have been gone for as long as she can remember and her own mother is like a vulture in the town, dressed in fashionable peatcoats.

She turns to Jack. “I think that might be his birth mother.”

“Probably,” he says as they head again in the direction of home. “Regina’s been helping Henry look.”

“What?”

“I heard them talking.”

Anya can’t help but wonder why Regina, a woman who prides herself on being the best mother she can be to Henry, would want to put herself through the wringer finding her son’s birth mother . She mentions this to Jack.

“Guess she just wants to make the kid happy,” her boyfriend answers, but there’s something in the way he says it that leaves Anya feeling like she’s out of the loop. They approach their apartment in silence, and Jack fumbles with the keys to get in through the lobby door, before they make their tired way up the stairs.

 

 

“How long’s that ‘help wanted’ sign been there?” Tiana asks the day after Henry returns and Regina brings his birth mother and her friend to the town’s one lonely diner. It smells like it usually does; full of grease for frying mixed with the bitter, acrid scent of coffee. “It looks like it’s been up forever.”

There’s no real way to explain that the same sign has been taped on that same window for twenty-three years, so Regina settles with half a lie. “Unemployment in this town is lower than you’d expect,” she says. “Surprising, I know, but it’s hard to find a waitress.”

As soon as she finishes speaking, Ruby, the owner’s granddaughter, walks past them in a short skirt and a top that plunges lower than Regina thinks is ever appropriate. The brunette rolls her eyes at the three of them as she moves to go take the order of Hans Weaselton, a young man in a reindeer sweater who stares dejectedly at his afternoon coffee, and his friend Freya, the local girl who works at the ice cream parlour. She is the only face Regina ever sees when she takes Henry and Paige there as a treat once a month, though rumors are that someone owns the shop.

This town has a lot of missing parts.

Emma is staring at Freya when Regina looks to her. “Why is that woman’s hair white? Did she have a battle with hair dye and lose?” Emma asks.

Though Freya’s shoulder twitches like she heard, she doesn’t turn around. Regina, wanting off the subject before anyone embarrasses themselves, simply shrugs. “Henry leaves school in about forty-five minutes,” she says instead. “The bus doesn’t go out as far as our house, so I pick him up here.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Emma says, leaning back against the poorly cushioned booth seat. Tiana’s eyes follow Ruby, who stops in front of Leroy at the counter to deliver his daily afternoon burger, though he came in after they did. Regina feels like she’s never waited so long for two hot chocolates and a cup of tea in her life. “I’ve lived in small towns before, and there’s always been a bus route to take kids in the outskirts to at least walking distance.

Her answer isn’t quite a lie, but not really the truth either. “The mayor just hasn’t gotten around to tackling the issue yet.”

“Well, he needs to get on it,” Tiana says, folding her arms across the table, “and the diner really needs another waitress. No wonder she’s taking forever.” Currently, Ruby’s packaging Belle’s take-out order, placing styrofoam containers into a plastic bag for her to bring back to the library for lunch. “I hope her tips are worth it.”

Knowing this town, Ruby’s tips are half of what she deserves. Regina tucks her hair behind her ear, and says, “I wouldn’t know,” as the door opens, the small bell chimes, and David walks in with Graham, talking about potential police dogs.

“I just don’t know if this town is big enough to warrant them,” Graham tells David as they make their way over to the bar. He’s got an accent that Regina recognizes from the television as Irish, and remembers from home as belonging to the Kingdom of Florin.

“There’s a fair amount of drug activity, though,” David points out. He’s got a leather jacket on, his blonde hair looks like it hasn’t seen a brush in days, and the dark circles under his eyes are deeper than the last time she saw him. “I know you’re fond of that kid—Albert?—and he seems alright for a pothead, but the others? Robb should really keep that stuff away from his children.” There’s a note of disappointed disgust in the man’s tone as he mentions the four thieves who are more at home in a jail cell than next door to Jack and Anya.

Finally, Ruby brings three hot chocolates, topped with whip cream and cinnamon the way Henry likes and somehow made Regina like, too. It’s the wrong, order, of course, but the girl deals with enough bad tempers that she won’t make her day any worse by sending the drink back.

Emma watches David and Graham’s backs, blatantly eavesdropping as they argue over whether or not Paige’s neighbors participate in recreational drug use. “Is there a big substance abuse problem?” Emma says, reminding Regina abruptly that the other woman’s a police officer.

Maybe there’s a way to keep Miss Swan here after all.

“To a certain degree,” she says, “but not the four who they’re talking about. Robb would never do anything to hurt his son.” Though the man with the lion tattoo has no problem nicking things for the local shops, she knows that little Bobby means the world to him. Though she’s not sure where Albert’s from, she doesn’t need to speak more than polite greetings and small chat when dropping off Paige to know that Robb is deeply protective over him, too. “Besides,” she adds, “I would never let an addict around my son and Flynn Ryder is my stablehand.”

“All Billy does is drink—” Charming says, but cuts himself off with a frustrated sigh and tells Ruby yes, he wants french toast and please remember the extra syrup and yes, he wants a chicken caesar salad, both to go.

“And the only people he bothers are Anya and Jack,” Graham answers with a shrug. “And they’re not bothered by it.”

Emma shakes her head as if bewildered and returns her attention to Regina and Tiana. “Please tell me there’s more than one officer here,” she says. “They’re only saying ‘I’ and ‘you.’”

When Regina says there’s only the sheriff, though he’s trying to find someone qualified to join him, Tiana looks from her to her friend and back again. The Savior wasn’t meant to come with a Plus One, but she’s all right enough. “You have one waitress,” she says, “all of one school bus, one sheriff, one bar,  and one inn, owned by the woman who owns the one diner. What’s next? A one room school?”

The school is one building that houses all the grades, but the teachers, all twelve of them, are most definitely not usual. She wonders whether she should mention this or not. “I know we’re a small town,” she says, with mild offense, “but we still aren’t Little House on the Prairie.

“Thanks, Ruby,” David says, taking his off-white Granny’s bag off the counter, supporting it from underneath rather than the handles. The fluorescent lightings on the ceiling washes everyone out, but he looks paler and more wan than everyone else in the diner. “Guess I better be getting back to my father. Just drop by if you change your mind.”

As Graham turns to say goodbye to his friend, he finally catches sight of Regina and the others. “Hey, Regina,” he says, swiping his coffee off the table and walking over. Both girls instantly sit up straighter. “Who’re you two? We don’t get strangers around here.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “So we’ve heard. A million times today.”

When they walked into the diner fifteen minutes earlier, everyone made a fuss about it. Hans and Freya missed the show by a matter of seconds. Tiana, who Regina’s learning has more poise than her friend, says, “We know the Mills. I’m Tiana Baxter. This is Emma Swan.”

In the smooth, yet awkward, way that only Sheriff Graham possesses, he slides into the booth next to Regina and swipes a bit of whipped cream off of her hot chocolate as he introduces himself. “Neither of you girls would happen to know someone looking for job in law enforcement?” he says casually, and does her job for her.

“That depends,” Emma says after a long moment. “How much would it pay?”

Graham smiles at her. “Given that it’s just me, myself, and I,” he says, “the budget can afford around thirty-five thousand a year.”

“Well,” Emma starts to say, but stops when Tiana asks if they could please excuse them both, because she needs to speak with her friend.

After they disappear together into the woman’s restroom behind the jukebox, Regina says, “She’s Henry’s birth mother. That’s why she’s here. But she’s a truancy officer in Boston that doesn’t seem to happy with her job.”

“I thought it was a closed adoption?” Graham says with some confusion, but then he perks up. “But that’s great! What are the chances she’ll cave? Because I was three seconds from offering the position to Billy Greene. Desperation drives a man to scary solutions.”

The thought of Billy Greene, who’s nice enough even when drunk but sober so rarely that commenting on his personality is nearly pointless, as a member of the Storybrooke police force is terrifying. “Well, then you’re in luck,” she says. “I think her friend is convincing her to stay rather than leave.”

Regina desperately needs them to stay. Ever since Henry first showed her the storybook and she’d begun having flashes of another life, her life , she’s had this instinctive pull to break the curse. And if her seven-year-old son is right and Miss Swan is the key to breaking it, then she really can’t let the woman leave.

A moment later, the two young women emerge, Emma heading back to the table and Tiana to the counter. “I’ll need to give my job two week’s notice,” she says, “so I have to go back to Boston first. Maybe. My boss might turn quitting into firing and tell me not to come back.”

As Graham tells her that she won’t be unemployed for long, Regina finds herself hoping that Emma’s boss really is that much of a dick. “You can stay with me and Henry,” she tells Emma. “We have plenty of room.”

“Thanks for the offer,” the other woman says as Tiana fills out the application at the counter, “but I’m going to have my friend with me and she’s, uh, allergic to horses. We’re going to find an apartment if we can.”

Though the excuse is transparent, Regina doesn’t press the issue. “I might know someone looking for a roommate,” she says, remembering that Snow—Mary Margaret, Henry’s teacher, wanted to put an ad in the paper. A teacher’s salary isn’t spectacular, and she needs to pay the bills.

Graham gives Emma a napkin with his landline, cell number, and the sheriff's direct extension. “If I don’t pick up your first try,” he says, “then I’ll pick up another one. You can always drop by the station. It’s on the corner of Maldonia and Camelot, about a five minute walk west of downtown Main.”

Emma nods a bit stiffly, and then with an exaggerated bow, Graham leaves with a hop to his step. Tiana comes over a few seconds later after filling out the application, frowning down at the small, sleek looking cell phone in her hand. Regina feels a brief surge of envy towards it. Looking up, Emma’s friend says, “I’ve got the job. But I can’t get enough of a signal to email my boss. The wifi here sucks.”

“That’s because nowhere gets wifi,” Emma says. “The woman at the inn looked at me like I was nuts when I asked. But yeah, Verizon’s signal isn’t that great either.”

“There’s a computer in the library,” Regina tells them. Henry’s still not here yet, but she feels more assured now that she knows the two women are staying. “You can use the internet there, or wait until dinner.”

“We’ll wait for dinner,” Emma says, and turns to look out the glass entrance towards the sidewalk. “Or I’ll drive out near the town line. Our reception over there was pretty good.”

“Yeah,” Tiana says. “It’s probably better to call than email anyway. Sorry, I think I’m needed.”

Granny’s at the counter, beckoning Tiana over and already mispronouncing her name, saying something about paperwork. As she passes the door, it opens with a jingle, and Armel Sinclair, the local composer of all retail store earworms, knocks directly into her.

“Oh, Bless Patsy ,” she says, scrambling to pick her dropped phone up from off the dirty tiled floor. “It’s cracked.”

As Mr. Sinclair apologizes, pulling his headphones from his head, and Granny calls Tiana over again, Emma says, “Is that a walkman? Oh my god. What did I agree to?”

Before Regina can answer that not everyone is so lucky to be living in a city where time flows at a normal rate, the school bus pulls up to the curb and Henry and Paige file out after a troop of younger children. She watches as they both start to run toward the diner, her son clutching his storybook under his arm, and feels a small, sad smile form as the little boy’s eyes light up to see Emma.