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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.

Chapter Text

“You know,” Al says as he leans back against the sticky cushions of the police car, “this is unnecessary. She and I, we weren’t doing anything illegal . Do you really want to drag us all the way downtown? Think of the paperwork.”

The blonde cop is new to the town, and though her posture is lax, she’s clutching the steering wheel so hard her fingers are white. Next to him, Lilac huddles against the window and the door handle, taking deep, even breaths, not noticing that their driver is about as nervous as she is. Officer Swan, as she calls herself, is “used to dealing with kids like them” and “understands” that they don’t want to be in school, but insists that they have to, of course, so here they are. Al thought truancy officers were a myth. Never in a million years did he think Sheriff Graham would go out and hire one, or that Storybrooke even had the money for that.

The officer glares at him through the rear view mirror and says, “Paperwork’s part of the job, kid. Try harder. I’m sure you’re parents will love to know about this little joyride you and your girlfriend were taking.”

“We’re not dating,” he and Lilac say, monotone and automatic, before he shakes his head and continues, “Oh, my dad’ll be in the cell next to me. Hers are never around. When’s the last time your parents were here, Nejem?”

Lilac shrugs, the ends of her black braid brushing against the seat. “I don’t know,” she says, “It’s been a while.” Her face twists with confusion as she tries to remember. It’s a cute little pout, he thinks, before she says, “About a month or two? They might have went home.”

Though her tone’s normal, she’s still shrunk into the corner like she’s expecting the worst. Fortunately, twenty-something cops are predictable, and the car jolts as Officer Swan hits the brakes too hard at the one stoplight at the cross street for 149th Street and Wonderland Ave. “Your parents have been gone for two months?”

Al jumps in before Lilac can answer. “My apartment’s just down the street. Why don’t you drop us off home, Officer?” Then he smiles his best smile to say, We promise it won’t happen again. It’s the same one he learned from Uncle Billy, who keeps giving it to the couple next door.

Impatiently, Officer Swan just tells them no, that isn’t happening, and turns left before pulling over near a fire hydrant and tapping on her phone screen, which looks like the ones on TV that no one ever sells in Storybrooke. In front of them is 149th Place, a one way street that heads in the opposite direction from Maldonia and Camelot. Al shoves his hands into his pockets and fingers the tootsie rolls he nicked from Mr. McGraw’s Novelty Map Shoppe, the store in front of Tapas & Mapas, and then brushes the tip of his middle finger against the edges of the map crumpled into a ball. Lilac rubs at her temples and glares at him from underneath her eyelashes. Clearly, the middle of the average school day was not the best time to show her around, but it was a risk he was willing to take—at fifteen, she still barely knows her own town.

Officer Swan futilely presses a button on her screen, which doesn’t seem to be doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and after a minute or two of all three of them staring at white, she throws the phone down on the seat next to her with a thump. “This is worse than Beacon Hill,” she says, clearly more to herself than to them, and presses her nose between her forefinger and thumb before turning around. “Why is every numbered street One Forty-Ninth?”

Al cannot say he’s ever noticed that particular detail of the town, at least, not enough to think too hard about it, but the frustration on her face causes him to smile, and then an idea to form. He shrugs and says, “I’m not sure, but if you’re having trouble finding your way around, we can help you with that.” He gestures to himself and Lilac as if Officer Swan had any other options. “For a price.”

There’s a long, quiet moment where her eyes dart between the two of them and her mouth twists into a line of internal angst. “Fine,” she says eventually, speaking through grit teeth. “But only within reason. What do you want?”

Al smirks and leans forward so that he is placed in between where the two front seats meet. He’s not close enough that he’s right on top of her, but he can smell the lingering scent of hot chocolate on her breath. “Just some time with the fresh air and milkshakes at Granny’s. Today. In about a half-hour, or so.”

With a shrill, uncomfortable giggle, Lilac says, “How about no? Just let us go and please, please, please, please don’t tell Mrs. Basil that I wasn’t actually home sick. She’ll give me that look.”

“Oh, yeah,” Al says, leaning back and nodding enthusiastically, going with Plan B: The School is Hell and We Are Doing the Sane Thing Here. “ That look. Like she’ll pull you into her office and eat your soul with a frozen yogurt spoon.”

The initial look of skepticism that Officer Swan shoots him makes him wonder if he’s gone too far in his altogether accurate assessment of Storybrooke’s Miss Trunchbull, but then she rolls her eyes and makes a sound of defeat.

“Fine,” she concedes. “But first you help me.” After she says this, he sees her eyebrows scrunch up and follows her line of sight to see the local stray cats, a family of four that includes a white kitten and a small black one, their mother, and their odd orange father who is prowling around in his signature dance-walk. The officer blinks, then shakes her head.

“Great,” he says, pleased, as Lilac sighs, shoulders snagging and fingers twisting into the hem of the short blue dress he’s pretty certain she wore because he mentioned they were doing this, even if they definitely aren’t dating. “Drive straight past One-Forty-Ninth Court and take a turn onto Du Broch Lane. Stay on it til you see the signs for the Toll Bridge, then turn right on Pirates Cove and left onto One-Forty-Ninth Boulevard. That’s the street with the back parking lot for the police building.”

Though he hopes that’s enough to get them released right here, she pulls away from the curb with a quick look at her mirrors and no “thank you.” Lilac mouths, “Give her your map, idiot,” but he ignores her. The idea of giving the woman his hard-earned prize—and not coincidentally a stolen prize—appalls him. Instead, he puts on his best “I’m totally innocent” voice and asks, “Are you dropping us off home, Officer? Because, if so, you’re going in the opposite direction.”

Again, Officer Swan tenses, fingers strangling her poor steering wheel. The woman needs a week long session with Dr. Archie if she’s this stressed. It can’t be good for her blood pressure, or the likelihood of her keeping the new job, which is a shame, because he already likes her better than the Sheriff, who throws Dad in jail like some adult version of a toddler’s time-out. At least Officer Swan listens to reason.

The drive takes nine minutes, according to the dark clock on the dashboard, but feels hours longer. Rather than go all the way to the parking lot, Emma pulls over on 149th Blvd, parallel parking between a beat up red Pt Cruiser he recognizes as the hot waitress’ from Granny’s and a white Mercedes in insultingly good condition. Turning around, she says, “Out, both of you. Mention this again and I’ll arrest you on—truancy.”

Al opens his mouth to ask if she can even do that, then closes it. Lilac is already giving him pleading glances and scrambling for the door handle. He wrestles with himself for a second or two, then asks Officer Swan for a pen. She gifts him with a suspicious look as she tosses a rather nice fountain pen at him, and then he pulls out his parchment booty. He quickly scrawls his full name and his number onto the top corner and, with a wink, tells her to call him as he slides over the seat and out the door.

 

 

It starts like this:

Emma’s with Tiana and Mary Margaret, their new roommate, at their new dining room table eating a dinner of homemade veggie burgers on whole wheat, ninety-nine cents a bag buns when she first notices the missing children. “Did you just leave half those assignments at school,” she asks, her half eaten burger in hand and one pale eyebrow raised as she watches Mary Margaret write in a grade on her roster for spelling tests Henry’s class turned in today, “or does half your class just not take tests?”

For a moment, Mary Margaret doesn’t answer, and Emma thinks the woman’s so focused she didn’t hear her. Then she looks up from Natalie Fox’s B+, blinking slowly. “What?” she says. Tiana glances at Emma, mirroring the brow quirk, because Natalie Fox is six down on the roster and three results are filled in. There are fifteen names that Emma can see, but only about ten tests. “Oh. No. My whole class took their test this morning.”

“Did those five move or something?” Tiana says, reaching over to get more salad. Supermarkets here are cheaper than Boston, and Emma knows her friend is loving the organic options she’s suddenly able to afford.

Clearly a little startled, her mouth tugging down into a frown, Mary Margaret says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. My class has only ever been ten students.” Then she glances down at the roster and says, like she’s noticing the other five for the first time, “Oh.”

There’s something wrong in the way she worded that other than her complete confusion at the five extra, unidentified names, because she can’t possibly have had ten students every year when Emma knows for a fact that the classroom next to her has thirteen students and her room seats twenty-two. And though Mary Margaret, with her short black pixie cut and smooth cheeks, is young , Emma knows that she’s been teaching more than a year. “You’re kidding,” Emma says, going to lean back and nearly falling back since she’s on a stool, of course. “Can I see that?” Maybe the names are repeats, she thinks.

Expression unnervingly blank, Mary Margaret passes over the roster and begins the next spelling test. Tiana leans across the corner to read it, too, eyes scanning down the page. By now, two weeks after they’ve moved to Storybrooke, they’ve heard a number of these names—Henry and Paige, inevitably, but also Natalie Fox, Joe Charles, and Suzanne Dawson. They aren’t repeats.

Slowly, uncomfortably, Emma slides the roster over again so Mary Margaret can fill out Henry’s grade. Clearing her throat, she says, “So you don’t recognize the names at all?”

Mary Margaret doesn’t look up. “No,” she says, placing her elbow on the table and pillowing her cheek with her hand while Tiana’s brilliant veggie burger grows cold beside her, only half eaten. “I guess I don’t.”

That’s Tuesday. A day later, after several agonizing hours in the station trying and failing to find record of the missing names and discovering nothing, Emma goes to Regina’s before they meet Henry at the diner. After only a couple of weeks, she doesn’t feel comfortable discussing problems of the town with a boss who’s lived here his whole life—inexplicably, given the accent—when she’s just a newbie, so the adopted mother of her biological son is the only person she knows to trust.

“Oh,” Regina says mildly when Emma’s done with her rushed explanation in the safety of the black and white, oversized, impersonally decorated living room that belongs in a mayor’s house rather than a ranch. “Maybe you should take a seat.”

“What?” Emma hadn’t known what to expect, but it was more than that, so when Regina politely repeats herself, she listens and takes a seat on a plush, black leather sofa undented by years of human contact. Vaguely, she wonders how recently the woman purchased it, and how much it cost.

Crossing her arms, Regina takes a deep breath and says, “It’s going to be a lot to take in. I hadn’t expected you to notice anything this quickly.”

Dumbfounded, Emma says again, “What?” Now that Regina mentions noticing , Emma notices for the first time that in every picture on the mantle and on the walls, Henry’s aging but his mother isn’t. Even her hair is the same. “What am I expected to noticed?”

“Look,” Regina says, and then pauses briefly, pressing her lips together, before continuing, “Henry is a creative boy prone to games, but the Enchanted Forest isn’t imaginary.”

She doesn’t elaborate, and lets the resulting silence sit. After a moment, Emma breathes deep, runs her fingers through her messy, unstyled, cut-every-six-months hair, and says, “That’s crazy.”

According to Regina, it’s not. She says the Enchanted Forest’s proper name is Misthaven, if one wants to be technical, and that her memory is still patchwork, but whoever cast the Dark Curse must like her well enough because her station in life here is nice enough and she was allowed to keep her name. “I suspect my mother, wherever she is,” she says, sighing as Emma sits too numb to speak, unmoving. “It would be some petty revenge against Snow and Charming for, I don’t know— ruining me is how she put it. As if I wouldn’t befriend a girl eight years younger than me instead of her father.”

That’s more than Henry knew, or claimed. She goes on to say that Mayor Gold is something worse than a wizard, but her mother liked him well enough, so it’s only expected she’d afford him a form of power if she wanted to stay in the shadows. Everyone else is collateral damage. “Why do you think ‘Mary Margaret’ is so miserable?” she says. “Struggling to pay rent. Teaching the same class year after year. No family to support her. She’s had that ad for a roommate in the classifieds for, well, twenty-three years. And the name Mary Margaret is punishment enough.

“Everyone’s about the same. You know Serena Fisher, the girl who works under the fishmonger? She never wears dresses because she has scars on her legs and can’t remember where she got them. Derek, the one who works with Jack and can’t stand the sight of water without having a panic attack—they were the next in line to rule a seaside kingdom. She was a mermaid.”

By now, Emma’s barely breathing, and Regina doesn’t seem close to finishing, delivering her speech in the same matter afact manner that a physics professor might when explaining a syllabus on the first day of class. As she begins on the logistics of the story book, and why she had to allow Henry out alone, Emma finally says, “Regina, how much have you had to drink?”

Regina stops, midway through saying that the unnumbered street names are country names. “I know it’s unbelievable, Emma,” she says, like Emma’s Henry refusing to listen, “but you came to me about missing children. Snow—Mary Margaret—doesn’t realize because the Curse has a safety precaution built in that keeps people from remembering.”

“No,” Emma says, standing, feeling her car keys scrape against her side through her jean pocket and thinking for the first time since she arrived of running, despite losing Henry and the security of a job with a high enough salary to pay off her considerable student loans. “This is crazy. You’re not supposed to believe in your eight-year-old son’s makebelieve.”

“I won’t call you the Savior, Emma,” Regina says, hands on her hips now, tone blunt, “but you have a better chance of helping than anyone else, and whether you get people back to Misthaven or just restore their memories, it’ll be better than this.”

“That—”

Entirely too firmly, she says, “Emma. You’re being unreasonable.”

Emma’s heart jumps, half indignant, half offended. “ I’m being unreasonable? You’re talking about fairy tales.”

“If you can’t believe me on my word,” Regina says, looking Emma in the eye with a look so demanding it keeps her frozen in the spot, “then look at the evidence right in front of you.”

Against her better judgement, Emma’s gaze wanders to the photos on the mantle before she snaps back to Regina. “What do you mean?”

“Oh,” she says, “just find the missing parts.”

 

 

The sun is setting in a flash of deep red and bright orange when Emma pulls into the driveway of the ranch house on Friday night. Turning off the ignition, she roots past empty styrofoam cups of coffee piled on the front seat and searches for her cell phone. After a few seconds, her fingers grasp around it, eyes quickly taking in the lack of service still , and then she is out of her car with a scowl. As she makes her way up the walkway, she catches sight of long hair out of the corner of her eye and waves to Flynn Rider, Regina’s hired help, as he leaves for the night.

Regina’s car is conspicuously absent from the drive, but that’s not shocking. The woman often runs to the store, especially when she knows Flynn, or Emma now, will be around to keep an eye on Henry. Things have been strained between the two of them since the other day, but that doesn't mean Emma’s just going to stop coming to visit her son.

There is a succulent smell of cheese and sauce wafting through the hallway as she enters with the key Regina provided, which causes her stomach to growl so loudly Emma wonders if the horses in the stables can hear it. She carefully keeps her eyes averted from the photos that line the walls, her mind clear and full of focus as she enters the kitchen. Henry’s got a pile of textbooks next to him on his left, math and science and social studies, and on his right is a battered copy of Peter Pan . The left corner of the cover page is torn off, and there is a black scrawl from a previous owner on the faded page visible underneath. As she moves around to face him, tossing her red leather jacket onto the back of the chair, she sees that her son has his pen in his mouth and is concentrating on writing in his three-subject notebook.

She smirks at the title on the paper. “In Defense of Captain Hook, huh?” she says, sliding into the chair across from him and nicking a kale chip from a plate in front of him. Bitterness on her tongue makes her regret that choice in life, before she continues, “Who’s next? Darth Vader?”

“No,” Henry says with a frown. “I won't have a film class until high school, at least.”

Emma laughs. “So, why Captain Hook then?” As far as she can remember, he’s the bad guy in the movie. Then again, most boys—and some girls, herself included—go through a pirate phase. Though he loves fairy tales and happy endings, should it really surprise her that her son—that Neal’s son—likes a bit of danger?

“Because he’s lost,” her son replies with an unusually serious look on his face. Uncomfortable, she glances away for a second, looking at the moon that’s risen in the sky, a streak of white light in the dark. Her son continues in a low voice. “Pan takes kids from their families and they forget their lives. They’re frozen, unable to live or be themselves or grow old and have families of their own. Forever the same.” As she looks to him again, she sees a look of deep pain contort his childish face. It’s the kind that Emma never wants to see on Henry's face again, and she reaches over to squeeze his hand. “But Hook—he remembers. He knows and he sees. Sees Neverland and Pan for what it really is. A curse.”

There is a moment or two of tense silence. Barn owls hoot in the night, breaking through the sound of wind rushing through the leaves and branches of the woods surrounding the ranch. Emma bits her lip, dragging her teeth over chapped skin, and holds his hand tighter. His skin is soft. Innocent . He’s only eight years old and he’s speaking as if—as if he were a man grown. She's helpless in the face of her son’s sadness, adrift and ill-equipped when it comes to the sort of instincts, the sort of practice, a mother should have.

Awkwardly, she clears her throat and says, “Disney getting it wrong then, kid?”

Henry shrugs, first, then tears his hand out of hers to reach under the pile of textbooks. With little to no struggle, though a lot of precarious moments where it appears that paper and homework is about to fly onto the wooden floor, he pulls out the book on the bottom of the stack. It’s the storybook, of course.

Then, in the way of children, enthusiastic and resilient, Henry nods, excitement beginning to grow. “Duh,” he says, “they don't have the book. They miss all the awesome bits! Like you.”

“Me?” Emma repeats dully. She hopes that this isn’t going to turn into another fairy tale fantasy where she 's a mythical savior who slays crocodiles with her corset or something.

As if it is a normal, everyday statement concerning fictional characters, Henry says, “He’s your true love.”

A burst of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter bubbles up out of her throat. Out of all the things she’s heard in the last few days, from Regina being Snow White’s stepmother to the surly looking brunette that smells like fish being Prince Eric of the freaking Little Mermaid , this is the kicker. After everything—the missing children that turn up only dead ends and Aleve-immune headaches, the fact that Regina believes her eight-year-old son over reason and logic, and the way Mary Margaret’s alarm sounds like a barge— this , this lunacy, sends Emma into such a fit that she feels she’s really gone and entered the nuthouse.

Her son is smiling indulgently when she finally comes down from her ribs busting and the lump in her throat disappears.

“My true love is a man with a perm and a mustache that belongs in a wax museum?” she asks her son with both laughter and disbelief.

Henry’s smile stretches into a grin, all teeth and guile. “Oh no,” he says, “He’s nicer looking than that.” She shoots him a skeptical look and, for a second, hopes the Hook in her son’s imagination looks like Jack Sparrow. Henry picks up his pen. “You’ll see,” he continues. “I’ll show you.”

He shushes her before she can ask what he means, telling her that he needs to concentrate. After Regina comes back from the corner store and the three dig in to plates of delicious lasagna and bland, non-fairy tale related smalltalk, Emma leaves, but not before Henry makes her promise to swing by in the morning. She glances to Regina, but the older woman does not seem the least bit perturbed. The next morning, the sky is clear and bright blue, and she wonders where they are heading as she listens to Henry direct her, the young boy being remarkably tight-lipped. As they stop at a light near Granny’s, she spots a group of dalmatian dogs running around near the library and thinks that someone needs to do something about the strays in Storybrooke.

The ride is pleasant, not long but down unfamiliar streets that she’s not had the opportunity to explore yet, and Henry entertains her by reading out snippets of his paper. By the time they pull up to the small hospital , he’s halfway finished, and flees out of the car in a hurry before she can interrogate him, nearly yelling out the rest of his assignment.

Clever, she thinks with a smirk as she follows him. Her son is good at dodging questions, though not quite good enough that she can’t stop him and demand answers. She follows him anyway, hoping that he doesn’t want to do a mother-and-son volunteer gig. The hospital smells of antiseptic and chemical cleaners in the same way all hospitals do, and there are a few nurses and patients milling about. They pass the children’s ward, and then they are going through large doors down to a dark, somber looking wing. There is a young nurse behind the desk with a magazine in front of her, and her son stands on the tips of his toes to smile at the girl as he asks for the room with the John Doe.

“Five G,” she answers, popping her gum and not even looking away from her magazine. One fake-nailed finger comes up to switch the pages.

Emma’s brow furrows as Henry grabs her hand, leading her to the room. “Hey,” she says, planting her feet on the tile, effectively halting movement. “John Doe? Kid, you can’t just bring me to a room with a John Doe. How did you even find out about this?” Before she did, she doesn’t ask. Sheriff Graham’s skills at recording and filing might not be up to par, but he’s given her the rundown on every little crime and misdemeanor that happens in this sleepy town everyday since she’d taken the job.

Henry waves his hand dismissively. “He’s not a John Doe.” The boy sighs dramatically. “He’s Captain Hook! I said I’d show you.” He slips his hand out of hers, moving three doors down and bolting into the room before she can gather her bearings.

With a growl that reminds her of a bear, she follows him. “Henry!” she yells, entering the small, impersonal white room. There are no portraits or flowers. The curtains on the window are drab and gray and look moth-eaten, there is no TV in the corner, and there are beeps coming from the corner. “You can’t just enter someone’s hospital room,” she chastises her son, coming to stand beside him next to the bed.

“Look,” he says, ignoring her words. His backpack is on the bed, and he pulls out the book. “It’s him.”

Emma studies the man on the bed. He’s rather good looking, face still and smooth in the way only a comatose human can pull off. He’s hooked up to all the beeping machines, his breathing steady. He’s got dark hair, pale skin and, distinctly, two hands. Emma shakes her head as Henry grabs her hand, motioning between a drawing of a blonde woman and a dark-haired man dancing in the storybook, and the John Doe.

“See?” Henry says excitedly. “Captain Hook.”

Emma pinches the bridge of her nose between her middle and index finger, not really bothering to inspect the book. “Henry,” she says with a sigh, “this man is not Captain Hook.” She would, however, like to know who he is. From what she’s gathered about Storybrooke, except when it concerns the missing children, everyone knows everyone here. It’s freaky, the type of down-home Southern town that she’s only heard about from tall-tales and black-and-white movies. If he’s a John Doe, that either means he’s from out of town or he’s been here so long—

Maybe he’d been a missing child? She shakes off the flight of fancy as soon as it hits her. Though he’s young, not older than thirty from what she can see, and probably younger than that, she’s no clue how long he’s been here. Might have been only a day or two. More than likely, he is an out-of-towner just passing through.

“And why is that?” Henry asks, and crosses his arms in front of his chest with a hint of stubborn belligerance.

In answer, Emma looks pointedly at the man’s hands.

Henry brushes it off. “The curse. It restored his hand.”

Without thinking about how it sounds, almost as if she believes him, Emma replies sarcastically, “How generous of it.”

Just as Henry opens his mouth to protest, or entreat, or come up with something unbelievable, another nurse, younger than the one in the hall, comes in the room. She seems a bit startled to see them , though not alarmed at the presence of someone in the room, so she quickly recovers, moving to the bed to check the man’s vitals.

Emma unconsciously holds her son close as the nurse asks, “Are you taking over for Mary Margaret?”

Confused, Emma blinks. “I’m sorry,” she says, wondering what her roommate has to do with the man in the bed and why nothing can be simple in this town. “Take over with what?”

The nurse smooths professional hands over the wrinkles in the bedspread from Henry’s meddling. “She reads to him,” the nurse answers, gesturing to the man. “I think she feels bad that he has no visitors. No one that knows where he is or what’s happened to him. Sometimes she brings by a student or two.”

That explains how Henry knows the man exists, Emma thinks. His teacher must have brought him here before. Mary Margaret’s a compassionate woman; no doubt she thought reading to a patient a good lesson in character building for children.

“No,” Emma replies, “I’m not.” Henry is looking up at her with some sort of meaning she’s not quite sure she wants to interpret. “How long has he been here?” She tries her best to sound distant, merely polite. There’s still a note of curiosity in her voice, though. “No one’s come for him? No one at all?” Emma asks, and she can’t help but glance at the comatose man with concern. “No one knows who he is?”.

The nurse’s mouth twists with sympathy. “No,” she replies, “but he's been here as long as anyone—”

“—can remember,” Emma finishes saying for her. The phrase has come to be a weird quirk of the town, a dialectal aspect almost that only the town's folk can understand. Translated, though, she’s come to find out, it means “I don’t know.”

As they leave the hospital a few minutes later, Henry a bit downtrodden and Emma brimming with more questions and confusion than before, she finds that she is getting really, really tired of everyone’s “I don’t knows.” She drops him off back at the ranch with a waved off offer of ice cream, and then she leaves, driving past Anya Boyd and Jack Silas dragging an intoxicated Billy Greene out of the Rabbit Hole on her way to the police station.

 

 

It’s fifteen minutes to closing when the new waitress gives Freya her latte, but Leroy spent the past half hour hassling her, so it’s a miracle she made it to the front counter at all. “I’m sorry,” the girl says, wiping down the spotless, Formica surface with a wet rag. “I’m new.”

Freya gives her a kind smile and says, “I know.” It’s rare that anyone new comes to Storybrooke, and this girl with the deep accent and Southern charm stands out like a Yankees fan in Boston. “Don’t worry about it. Even Ruby can’t give him the runaround when he’s in that state.”

“I’ve dealt with worse,” the girl says. Behind her, the coffee machine wheezes. Though she’s not wearing a nametag, Freya knows—and everyone knows—that her name is Tiana Baxter, and she’s friends with Regina Mills. “You sure you don’t want anything else? The last thing I have is a takeout order, and the cook’s setting that up now.”

Truthfully, Freya is desperately craving a crab cake sandwich with pickles and arugula, but the chef at Granny’s, whose fondness for showtunes forces him to leave the kitchen and serenade his patrons, has kept crab forbidden from entering the premises as long as she can remember. “No thank you,” she says politely, rather than speak badly of Miss Baxter’s new coworkers already. “Just the coffee today.”

Three stools down, Sylvie Lewis sits bent over her own latte with her hands pressed against her forehead. She’s fifteen minutes early for her order, as usual, an oddity for a girl that carries pocket watches around with her everywhere. Suddenly, the bell above the fountain drink dispenser jingles, the sound ringing throughout the small diner loud enough to rattle Freya’s head without the ambient noise of other customers to downplay it. With an apologetic smile, Miss Baxter disappears into the kitchen, her checkered blue-and-white dress swaying around her knees. In the mirror plating above the back counter, Freya watches Leroy stand, throw down more singles on the table than he ever leaves for Ruby, and leave through the backdoor rather than the front.

After a moment, Miss Baxter reemerges, three white, plastic Granny’s! bags in her hands. “Do you have someone picking you up?” she says as she places them down on the counter in front of Sylvie. “These are kind of heavy.”

Shaking her head, Sylvie says, “No. I’ll be okay.” She’s tall, but a waifish thing, with her long brown hair piled in a bun in the style Mrs. Boyd prefers. After years of coming here after early Sunday closing, Freya is used to seeing the Boyd’s maid coming for the family’s takeout, and leaving with more bags than she can rightfully carry.

Though Freya should, she’s never offered to help. There’s something about Sylvie Lewis that reminds her too much of Margareta, and the less time she thinks on that, the better.

“Nothing you have is hot,” Miss Baxter says as Sylvie insists, again, that she’s all right, and that three salads and ahi tuna aren’t heavy. “No, seriously. I’ve got a car with me. Give me like fifteen minutes to disassemble everything and clear off that drunk guy’s table, and we’re set. You can hang out and finish your coffee, Freya. I’m not kicking you out.”

Usually, Ruby has her out within two minutes of receiving her coffee, so Freya’s a bit grateful to the new girl, since it’s all of forty-three degrees outside today, and she hates when it's below fifty. It makes working in an ice cream parlour interesting, to say the least. Being around the coolers and freezers, having to scoop the chocolates and vanillas into waffle cones coated with ganache and sprinkles, and keeping the air inside cool enough to prevent melting is a daily struggle for her. Even so, the shop does well—better than most businesses around here, though the temperature control is always on the fritz and the weather rarely ever right. She doesn’t understand how, when she isn’t terribly good at customer service. Even the floor associates at the C-Mart are friendlier than she is.

Freya turns on her stool and watches Miss Baxter scrub at a particularly stubborn smudge on the ‘50s metallic surface, a rather adorable nose scrunch on her face. Sylvie stands, the bags on the counter, and watches, too, a bit awkwardly. Conversing with a stranger should be easy, with so many stories to tell, but Freya finds herself at a loss when it comes to words. She looks to the maid, but she also seems tongue-tied, so it’s up to Miss Baxter to make small talk.

“I heard you own an ice cream parlour?” the woman says. She looks to Freya. “Henry and Paige rave about it.”

Freya shakes her head and corrects the woman. “I don’t own it,” she says, and rubs her fingers over the white ceramic of her coffee cup, “I just make the sundaes.” And pay the bills, wash the floors, concoct the new flavors—all while sending missives that remain unanswered to the actual owner of Ice It Off, but she doesn’t reveal this to Miss Baxter.

“Really?” Sylvie says, startled, as she leans back against the counter. “But you’re the only person who’s in there.”

A few years ago, Freya considered placing a Help Wanted sign in the window, but Granny’s was advertising for employment at the time, and that was going nowhere. Now she knows she doesn’t have the budget. Every year the Mayor raises the rent, though from what she manages to gather, that isn’t commonplace among the other businesses in the area. If the owner ever answered, maybe she’d understand why, but for now, it’s just one mystery of many surrounding the shop. Freya, uncomfortable under Sylvie and Miss Baxter’s scrutiny, shifts her weight and tugs her long braid over her shoulder.

After a moment of struggling to think of how to explain that the only out-of-towner she’s ever “known” personally is a woman she’s never met, she gives up, and says instead, “The owner is very reclusive. Hans helps when he can, but sculpting can be tedious.” She also neglects mentioning that much of their spare time involves searching for answers. Though most of Storybrooke thinks of them as a couple, Margareta is and always will be the woman he loves.

When he does help with the shop, though, he makes lovely looking sundaes. After reading a book on German desserts from the library, he managed to replicate their vanilla spaghetti and strawberry sauce perfectly.

“Do you want a ride, too, Freya?” Miss Baxter asks suddenly. The change of subject relaxes her, but Freya shakes her head.

“I’m meeting Hans for dinner at Tapas and Mapas,” she replies, with full knowledge that meeting him at Storybrooke’s Number One Date Spot does nothing to dispel the dating rumors. But the restaurant serves crab and delicious empanadas, so Freya makes the sacrifice every other week.

Miss Baxter’s back goes rigid, and she leans across Leroy’s booth to the tray holding the condiments. With a frown, Sylvie says, “The place on One Forty-Ninth and Turtle, right? I keep trying to tell—well, hint—that Miss Boyd should order from there, but she just really likes salad.”

Though Freya’s known Sylvie for a while, they’ve never spoken more than a few pleasantries together, and she’s mildly surprised at how bitter the other woman sounds. “It’s not terribly expensive,” Freya says, the illusion of Sylvie’s similarity to her sister fading. Margareta was always cheerful and optimistic, and rarely ever allowed herself to stay settled in an uncomfortable situation long enough to hate it. “You can always go on your off days.”

Sylvie snorts, as if to suggest she gets no off days, and then says, “Mrs. Boyd doesn’t even spare any expense on her granddaughter’s Christmas presents, so I know she won’t spend two extra dollars on rice and beans.” Then the girl shakes her head, her mouth twists downward, and she plays with the fringes on the bottom of her white blouse. “Besides, she doesn’t pay much. I can’t afford to eat out on my own.”

“Um, I know we just met,” Miss Baxter says, back still too them as she hits the ketchup bottle against her hand, making it look full without refilling it, “but that sounds like indentured servitude. I’m so taking you out for dinner. What does it serve anyway? Spanish food?”

“Yes,” Freya says, and goes to take a sip of her cooling latte, only to find it empty. “But it serves other food, too. I think Miss Tilton called it speakeasy style? You enter through a map shop. In the back is the restaurant. Its specials come from around the world.” Supposedly they throw a dart at a map each night, but she isn’t certain she believes that.

Miss Baxter turns and nods, though her lips are thin. “Sounds fun.” She says this with a begrudging tone, as if the rivalry between Granny’s and Tapas & Mapas is already high on her priority list. Given that Storybrooke has three prominent eating places, and one of them is actually a dive bar with lo mein specials, the loud fights between Granny and Juan Plata at town meetings garners bets between the residents (Granny might be formidable, but personally, Freya thinks Juan Plata is still the best). After a moment, Miss Baxter adds, “Actually, that sounds like Brooklyn. Are they from Williamsburg?”

Juan’s got an accent, and so does Ellie Tilton, but far as Freya can remember, they’ve both been here their entire lives. “No,” she answers. “They’re Storybrookers.”

“So, what?” Miss Baxter says, glancing between Freya and Sylvia as she takes their empty coffee mugs away. “You all went to high school together or something? Because I’ve heard the cook’s about twenty. Hold that thought. I need to put these away.”

Though Freya goes to explain she was two grades ahead of Juan, and Sylvie in the same year as he was, and perhaps think of an anecdote to tell, the words freeze on her tongue. They went to Storybrooke High School together. She graduated in 2012, and he and Sylvie in 2014. Objectively, she knows this, but suddenly, she can’t remember how she met Sylvie, or Juan, or when she learned he spoke five languages, though he’d never stepped outside the town lines and the school didn’t even offer Spanish classes. The only languages it offered were Danish and French.

She isn’t aware she can’t breathe until Sylvie says, “Hey, are you okay?” and touches her arm. “Whoa, sorry,” she says when Freya jumps, knocking her elbow against the counter. “What’s wrong?”

“Something’s wrong?” Miss Baxter says, emerging from the plastic flaps covering the kitchen. “What’s up? And Sebastian gave me permission to leave, so let’s get out of here.”

With a deep breath, Freya says, “Thank you for letting me stay, Miss Baxter. It was nice not to rush. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”

After they tell her goodbye, Freya rushes out the door, her recent upset making her lose good manners, and she starts to walk towards Tapas & Mapas with plans to order the strongest drink on the menu, a Fucking British, and forget about most of the night.