Emma’s mother is special.
Not like other mothers, who make latkes on Friday afternoons or cut carrots into funny shapes or can fold balloon animals—which are all undeniably awesome, special traits that Emma appreciates—but Emma’s mother is a different kind of special. She is beautiful and kind and her laugh makes other people laugh, but that isn’t why Emma’s mother is special, either.
Emma’s mother doesn’t get old. Emma’s mother glows green and purple and red, wisps along her skin, clinging to her fingers like the soft plastic that goes around a plate of cookies. Emma’s mother sings and birds sing back to her.
Emma’s mother is a witch.
“Your mother isn’t a witch,” says Hetty irritably.
“Yes, she is!” snaps Emma. She’s six, she knows what a witch is. Besides, she knows that there are good witches, just like there are bad ones, and her mother is definitely a good one. “She glows. Nobody else does.”
Sounding fairly disdainful from her perch on the back of the couch, Hetty points out, “You do. Are you suggesting you’re a witch as well?”
“No,” mumbles Emma, but then she gathers her courage and rallies. “Maybe I am! A junior witch.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” says Hetty. “Your mother’s human, as are you.” When Emma persists, Hetty stands up and uncurls her tail from around her feet. “I’m hungry,” she says, stretching out her back and kneading her claws into the sagging fabric of the couch.
Emma’s mother won’t be home for hours yet; she works in a big building with lots of books, where she puts things on shelves and tidies, just like she does at home. Mrs. Hanson, who watches Emma, never believes her when she says that Hetty is hungry. “The cupboard is too high for me to reach,” says Emma, still smarting from the reprimand.
“If you were a witch, you’d be able to get it open,” purrs Hetty. At Emma’s glare, she adds lazily, “Well, it’s true.”
As Emma grows, her mother teaches her how to bake. She teaches her how to cook, to polish shoes, to clean wooden floors, to sew. There are also lessons about how to be polite, to say please and thank you and how do you do and all the librarians think that Emma is the nicest little girl in town, inevitably.
With other children, Emma is too loud or too quiet. When she speaks she says the wrong thing; when she plays, she doesn’t know the right rules. At first, Emma tries harder, and then she stops trying all together.
Her first day at a new school in Pennsylvania, Emma trades her cheese and bologna sandwich for a peanut butter and jelly. The little boy that she trades with eats the sandwich in four bites and then he stands close to Emma for the rest of the day, jittery and over-loud. The next day, and the next, he talks to Emma all the time, even during silent reading and multiplication lessons, and every day when they trade sandwiches he consumes his in a short burst of energy that he maintains for the rest of the day.
He gets reprimanded, his parents are called, and then Emma’s mother is asked to come down to a private meeting with the principal. “She’s not a good influence,” his mother says about Emma, which makes Emma’s mother grit her teeth. Something must strike her about the situation, though, because she asks Emma during the drive home if she’d shared any of her lunch with him.
“Yeah,” says Emma, “we traded.”
“I’ll make you peanut butter and jelly if you want, sweet,” says her mom, hands tight on the steering wheel. She’s what Mrs. Paterson at the library’s main branch calls a nervous driver, but this is more than just nerves. “You can’t share with anyone else, though. Not any of the food that I make you. It’s special—just for you.” She smiles at Emma, but it’s brittle and tight.
Special is a big theme of Emma’s childhood.
Emma stops trading sandwiches and the little boy, after two days, abruptly stops trying to talk to her during recess and goes to make new friends. None of them like Emma, which is another big theme.
There is a fuzzy disconnect between what people expect from Emma and what she manages, and while she can fake it with teachers and her mother’s coworkers and shop owners, other children can always tell.
“Oh my god,” Emma yells, throwing her backpack onto the kitchen table and collapsing onto a chair. “I am going to stab Joey Larson in the face.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” says her mother, frowning at the cookbook open in front of her. She marks her place and closes it, then leans forward and props her chin on her hand. “What did he do today?”
“He tried to convince Mr. Burtness that I cheated on last week’s bio exam.” Emma makes a face and continues, “Of course Mr. Burtness didn’t believe him, because who cheats on an exam and then gets an 84, but the point is that little weasel tried.”
Her mother’s frown deepens. “Do you want me to call the school?” As she asks, the light from the window over the stove throws her into relief, her hair a fuzzy halo of curls, her skin pale and luminous. Even with a frown, she’s the most beautiful thing Emma has ever seen, and Emma is 14 and has seen a lot.
“No, it’s okay. Mr. Burtness called Joey’s dad after class, though.” Mr. Larson owns the grocery store on Highland Street and he always gives Emma and her mom free apples—he calls Emma’s mom “the fairest of them all” when he does it, which makes Emma’s mom uncomfortable, although you wouldn’t be able to tell it from her face.
“Oh dear,” says Emma’s mother, faintly, which probably means that they’re going to have to move soon.
“Can we go to Maine this time?” she asks.
Emma’s mother, who is tapping her fingers against the front of the cookbook and staring into space, starts. “Sorry?” she says, and then, “Oh, hon, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” says Emma, because it is. She doesn’t like Mr. Larson and the way he looks at her mom, and she doesn’t like Joey Larson, and she especially doesn’t like the former Mrs. Larson—now Miss Wenceslas—who glares at Emma and her mom from behind her desk at the vet clinic when they bring in the parakeets, Peter and Michael, for their check-ups. “But I really, really want to go to Maine. I was reading this book about fishing villages.” While she tells her mom about lobsters, they make dinner and begin to pack up the living room.
They move to Massachusetts. It’s not Maine, but there’s a little island that needs a children’s librarian and after school, Emma rides her bike to the beach and does her homework on the sand, wrapped in a windbreaker and watching the coast, trying to spot the exact place where the state line melts one place into another.
The older Emma gets, the more people whisper about her mom, who can look, at a stretch and in very unforgiving light, thirty. The sea air is brisk and the wind puts color into her cheeks and when it snows she catches the flakes on her tongue, so there’s no chance that anyone on the island thinks Emma’s mom is older than twenty-five.
“Is she your real mom?” her lab partner asks.
“Duh,” says Emma, who has low tolerance for idiots. “What, do you think storks brought me?”
“No, it’s just—she’s really young, isn’t she?” Lara lowers her voice. “She would’ve had to have been, like, fifteen when she had you.”
“Wow, you’re gonna ace that pre-calc exam on Friday, aren’t you?” replies Emma, so deadpan that Lara jerks back. “Listen, she’s my mom, and how old she was when she had me is nobody’s business.”
When Emma was little—six or seven—she’d tried to explain to her first grade teacher why her mom was special. Mr. K had look concerned when Emma finished explaining about the colored wisps and the birds and the magic pies that made people happy. “Can you ask your mom to come in?” he’d asked.
Emma’s mom had yelled a lot, and Mr. K had turned purple and shouted back, and Emma learned her lesson, which was that normal people’s parents couldn’t talk to birds. Also, apparently they got old and wrinkly, like Mr. K. It sounded awful.
Ten years later, Emma doesn’t have tolerance for people asking questions. She just wants to make it through high school, at which point she will hopefully no longer be required to socialize with the same group of people for eight hours a day. More often than not she feels too big; when assigning herself a mental approximation of how much space she physically occupies, she always forgets that the spell isn’t visible to anyone else.
High school is torture.
And then it’s not, because Emma meets George. He’s twenty-two, just out of college, working at his father’s drug store while he waits to hear back from med schools. He says a few rote things about the island, mostly about how small and stifling it is. It isn’t quite the way that Emma feels, but it’s close enough.
He calls her Em and winds his fingers in the bottom of her braid when he kisses her, and he’s very polite to her mother. They watch movies together and go to the beach and drink beer with his friends and he doesn’t seem to mind that Emma has edges along places where other people don’t. He can’t see the spell, the physical reminder that chases Emma through her days; he can’t see it, and so it’s like it’s not even there.
One afternoon, as Emma lies on the beach, George traces designs on her stomach with wet sand. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, in a serious voice that he uses very rarely. “You’re going to be a knockout, Em.” He doesn’t say it the way that the guys at school talk about their girlfriends; there is a faint note of reverence in it. The spell fragments that he can’t see cling to his fingers greedily; they shimmer along the skin of her stomach, rippling under his touch. Stay, stay.
She makes George a pie, like her mother taught her. She rubs the butter between her fingers so that it falls in clumps, thick with flour and heavy with salt. She buys two small, round pumpkins from the market and carves them with a sharp blade, running her hands over their curves and roasting them with salt and butter. She adds cinnamon and ginger for spice, maple syrup for depth, bourbon for a kick.
George eats one, two, four slices of pie, and then he pulls her onto his narrow bed, kicking away the sheets, rubbing his fingers against her skin and she feels sticky and slick and full, heavy, and he kisses her skin so much that she smells like pumpkin for hours afterwards.
Emma comes home that night, washes the dishes, puts away the pie plate, and cries into her mother’s arms. “It was the pie,” she says, over and over, voice clogged. She aches, and her mother runs her a bath.
“Of course we have to be careful,” she says, pouring water over Emma’s head. “It doesn’t mean you can’t fall in love, sweet.”
It was love, that Emma put into her pie, and she sympathizes now with the men that she’d always hated, the ones that gave them treats and deals and discounts and dropped by the library just to see how they were getting on, stars in their eyes as they talked to her mother.
When Emma puts her arms under the water, it fuzzes out the colors that normally cling to her skin, until it looks like the bathtub itself is filled with the roiling, trembling power of the spell. “You should tell me,” she says, to the water, as her mom rubs the knots out of her shoulders. “About Dad. And the spell.”
They haven’t talked about it—it’s only referenced as The Spell, the reason why Emma’s mom doesn’t get older and they have funny cloud-lights that float around them and Maine pulls at Emma along a string tied to her heart. When Emma was younger, her mother had told her stories no one else knew, where Snow White was a rebel like Princess Leia and there were battles and assassins and kind wolves and an evil, evil queen.
“Once upon a time,” says her mother, her voice curious, frozen, tired, “there was a young girl, and she loved her father very much.”
Emma finds out she’s pregnant the day after college acceptances come back. She’s been accepted with a full ride to UConn and she spends all morning projectile vomiting, hating her life, wishing that the island wasn’t so cold in February.
“You aren’t projectile vomiting,” says her mother with zero sympathy. “You’ve just got a cold. Go lie down, I’ll call the school and tell them you’re not coming in.”
Emma goes back to bed and sleeps until three. All of her feels sore, even her toes, and she lies in bed and wriggles them, trying to stretch out the aches like she used to after track practice. She rubs her stomach and tries to wish into it good health and less vomiting, before rolling out of bed and turning on the electric kettle for some tea.
At four, as Emma is pouring herself a second cup of peppermint, her mom comes home from the library, loaded with some groceries and laughing, her braid looping around the side of her neck and down her shoulder. The island suits Emma’s mother like nowhere else they’ve ever lived. The people here trade on favors and are suspicious of computers and most of the women mend their own clothing; the cheerful friendliness of the inhabitants has relaxed the tenseness in the line of her shoulders.
As she unloads boxes of pasta and a bag of apples, she tells Emma, “I drank so much tea when I was pregnant with you that your father said I probably wasn’t pregnant at all, I’d just filled my belly with water.” She’s always liked telling Emma stories about her father, but they’ve gotten more prolific since the pie incident. She looks happier, and as a consequence, even younger.
Faintly, Emma is aware that she loosens her grip on the cup and it crashes onto the countertop, exploding into fragments of ceramic and hot liquid and shredded tealeaves. Her mother drops the groceries and runs forward, and Emma realizes she’s cut her hand, she’s dripping blood onto the counter, and all she can think is—oh god, oh god, a baby.
Later, her mother says firmly, “It’ll be okay. Emma, I mean it. It will be okay.”
“I can’t have a baby,” she whispers, staring at the wall opposite her bed, clinging to her mother’s hand. “I’m eighteen, Mom. I’m irresponsible and apparently in ten years I’m going to be the savior of an entire world. I cannot be a mother!”
It’s hard for her mother, who gave up everything and came to a new world and raised Emma on her own, to understand giving up a baby. Where Emma’s mother is from, they are war-ravaged and every child is precious. Emma’s mother lied and stole and faked her way into a world she doesn’t 100% understand in order to give Emma a life and a fighting chance.
She doesn’t shout or throw things or threaten, which is fine because Emma does enough of that for both of them. “Mom,” she yells, “what if this baby can’t come with us? What if we go and save everybody and something happens to us? This baby deserves a chance that doesn’t hinge on my defeating your evil-stepmother in hand-to-hand combat!”
“We can protect the baby,” says her mother, gently. “Emma, there’s always a choice. We’re a family.”
They’re half of a family. This is emphasized when George goes to medical school and doesn’t say a word to Emma; he never responds to the messages, increasingly hysterical, that she leaves on his voicemail.
Emma gives the baby up for adoption and moves out. She and her mother don’t speak for three years.
In Storrs, Emma cuts her hair, pierces her nose, picks up the guitar, then takes out the stud, drops the guitar, and punches the guy who cheats on her in the stomach. She doesn’t make a lot of friends, because it turns out she still doesn’t have the knack for it, but she makes do with a handful of people who can stand her.
She misses her mom. But more than she misses her mother, she misses a nebulous before—a state of not knowing about the spell, about Maine, about her father—fucking Prince Charming, Jesus—and about the things that she can do that other people can’t, because this isn’t her world.
When she was younger, they were a matched pair: Emma and her mother, up against the wall. They learned together, and they fought for everything they had, and when Emma’s mother got her first job as a librarian, they danced in the kitchen to the Ramones leaking through the walls from their neighbor’s apartment. They sat in bed their big double bed and read before sleep and everything around them was fuzzy and bright and colorful.
This far from her mother, the colors of the spell remnants around her begin to fade. After a near miss with her roommate and a half-cooked bowl of ramen, freshman year, Emma purposely avoids making food for other people. She volunteers at an animal shelter her sophomore year in a fit of idiocy and post-finals stress and then stops going because all the animals want to do is talk to her, and the first night she hears a puppy cry itself to sleep, she goes home and sits in the shower, scrubbing and sobbing and hating, hating everything.
It’s like moving again. After eighteen years of being a nomad, Emma is good at moving. She’s good at wedging out a space for herself with the sharp edge of her elbow and forcing people to give her the respect she deserves. All of her mother’s early lessons, about fitting in and being strong and paying attention, help Emma through her classes. She’s probably the most prepared of anyone in the entire state of Connecticut for the college experience, but she still sits in bed late at night her entire first year, waiting for the sound of her mother shuffling in the kitchen, making a pot of tea and absently flipping through the pages of a book.
Emma fights for her independence like she’s never had to fight before. It takes three years, but almost all of the color along her skin is gone by the summer she turns twenty-one. Emma can listen to a fairytale without flinching, and goes to see a free screening of Beauty and the Beast sponsored by the student government board.
She can’t see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but these things take time.
Then, her mother gets in a car accident.
Surprise! The spell only keeps her from aging. It does shit for actual injuries, of which her mother has a fucking ton.
“I’m looking for Mary Margaret Swan,” she tells the nurse at the reception desk.
“Relation?” asks the nurse listlessly, clicking through her computer
“I’m her daughter,” says Emma, and the nurse perks up.
Looking at her mother’s file, the nurse echoes, “I’m sorry, her daughter?”
“Adopted,” snaps Emma, borderline hysterical. “I’m her emergency contact, I should be listed there—as her emergency contact, yeah?”
“Emma Swan?” asks the nurse, like Emma’s mother didn’t travel through a windshield and try to head-butt a tree.
“Yes,” half-shouts Emma, and she plants both palms on the desk to establish eye-contact with a woman who clearly shouldn’t be trusted to work with grieving relatives. “Where is my mother?”
The nurse directs her towards a waiting room and a surgeon who is impersonal behind scrubs as he explains the number of bones her mother has broken (seven) and the amount of internal bleeding she’s suffered (a lot) and the likelihood of her surviving surgery (middle to high). Emma paces in front of a vending machine, streamlining coffee, and she thinks, Dad should be here. Dad should be here for her.
He isn’t, though. He’s in fucking Maine, apparently.
She loses track of time and she starts to wonder what he looks like. He must be blond, because Emma had to have gotten her hair from somewhere, and tall, and maybe he told shitty jokes that made her mom snort wine through her nose the way she does now with Dr. Pepper. If he’s Prince Charming, he definitely rode a horse and fenced and had a big crown. Maybe he read poetry and brought her mom roses.
Emma goes down to the florist on the first floor of the hospital and wanders around, looking at sprays of condolence lilies and get well daisies and it’s a girl pansies and she finds orange roses and red roses and pink roses but they seem all out of white roses. Instead, she buys white carnations and a balloon with a silly-looking parrot on it, and then waits another three hours, holding the balloon between shaky fingers, for the surgeon to come back out.
Her mother cries over the carnations. Like, a lot.
“Jesus, Mom, they’re just flowers,” says Emma, awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other, hands shoved in the pockets of her jeans.
“Oh, hon,” says her mom, hiccupping, and then she’s crying again. The nurse gives Emma a dirty look over her clipboard and is about to usher her out when her mother opens her arms, weakly, in deference to the one that’s broken in three places, and Emma goes in for the hug that she’s missed. With thin arms pressing into her side, she realizes that she’d forgotten how small her mother is.
Muffling her face against the soft, familiar dark hair, she says, “I missed you, Mom,” and her mother hiccups into a small laugh.
“I missed you too,” murmurs her mother, stroking a curl of her hair. “You’re so bright, Emma-bear. You’ve made me so happy, and so proud.”
That’s when, of course, Emma starts crying, and then they’re just a self-defeating loop of relieved misery and the irritated nurse leaves, muttering under her breath about familial reconciliations and how fucking annoying they are.
When Emma graduates, with a double degree in sociology and criminal justice, her mom drags her back to the island so they can pack up the house. Considering that her mom has next to no money—she did turn up seven months pregnant on the side of an interstate in southern Maine without a single cent to her name—and they’ve only lived there for seven years, it’s filled to the brim with a surprisingly large amount of crap.
“Where are we going now?” asks Emma, carefully wrapping scarred wooden spoons and metal mixing bowls in newspaper. “I just want to put it out there that we’ve never been further south than Maryland and I, personally, could really go for some Georgia peaches.”
Her mother has stopped packing, and she’s looking at Emma. There might be tears glittering in her eyes, although it could be determination, or joy, or the million other things that Emma’s mother seems to feel in spades. “We’re going to Boston,” she says, finally.
Emma loves Boston. After four years in Connecticut with nothing but the walls and a couple cows for company, Emma soaks up the brightness that Boston has to offer, the impersonal crowds and the noise and the opportunities. Her mother seems to thrive; in their tiny apartment, she sits in the shower stall with a mirror propped against the toilet and cuts off all of her hair. She looks even smaller, and her features are still striking, but people have (for the most part) stopped staring at her on the street.
“Should I be, like, preparing?” Emma asks one day, as she’s eating a bowl of cereal and watching her mom cut out coupons.
“For what?” asks her mom. She points to a deal on grapefruits and raises an eyebrow. Emma makes a gagging noise and a slash across her throat.
“You know, the end battle,” continues Emma a moment later, after another spoonful of Fruit Loops. “It’s only like four years away.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” says Emma’s mom primly, flipping to the next page. “Besides, I don’t think it will be what you’re thinking of—not an assault on her castle, arms blazing. It won’t be a magical shoot-out, either. The spell she used, it wants us.” She gestures to the colors that have flared again along Emma’s skin; the little fuckers are happy to be back in her mother’s company. “It’s not complete without you.”
“Oh, great,” says Emma. “My soulmate is a spell with a bitch complex.”
“The spell isn’t your soulmate,” says her mother, tapping her scissors against her bottom lip. She looks up, slightly over Emma’s left shoulder, and says, thoughtfully, “My stepmother made a lock, but the lock couldn’t exist without a key. It needs a key; it has a hole nothing else can fill. When it’s time, it will come to find you.”
Not that waiting for Maine and the end of days isn’t great and life fulfilling or anything, but Emma gets a job. She starts out doing legwork for a PI, and then she breaks a few kneecaps and gets interviewed for a position as a bail bondsman.
It keeps her in shape, on her game, and lean. Emma has been missing something for a long time, and as a result she’s good at finding. She fights dirty—not that she tells her mother—and there’s nothing she likes better than finding a mark and bringing him back, cuffed, unconscious, or otherwise.
She can tell when they’re lying. She’s always been able to tell, but now she gets really good. Practice makes—you know.
“As long as you’re happy,” is what her mother says, which is exactly the sort of passively aggressive judgmental thing a girl in her mid-twenties should expect from her mother. They have to live as sisters, now, because Emma looks like the older one now that she occasionally gets kicked in the face, and the ‘mom’ thing had been freaking people out ever since Emma turned twenty.
“I can’t call you Mary Margaret,” she protests over Chinese take-out. “Mom, seriously, it feels disrespectful.”
“It isn’t,” her mother assures her. “It’s my name, Emma.”
It’s not, though.
Emma’s mother never dates. Never. It would be shocking, considering that she’s been alone for twenty-seven years and looks like she should be wearing a garland of flowers and frolicking around meadows, but Emma hears her talk about him. Dad. Prince Charming.
When she was little, the entire experience was much more exciting. Stories with Snow White and Prince Charming never ended at the glass coffin and the kiss; they made it all the way through the wedding to finding out that the Prince and Snow White were going to have a little girl. They finished the same way. I love you, the Prince would say, as he pushed Snow White into the magic chest. Find me. “And that counts for you, too, Emma-bear. He loves you so much.”
When George leaves, her mother tells her a different story, about a potion and forgetting and awfulness of a broken heart.
It’s the baby being born and the three years of radio silence that help Emma see that her father was more than it for her mom: He was everything. End of story; Emma’s mother is a strong woman, but she can’t let go of him. Sometimes, Emma comes home and finds her mother talking to him, quietly, casually telling him about her work in the library and their new cat (Triana—total bitch, Emma should’ve realized it when the thing had said her name was Triana, for fuck’s sake) and what Emma’s been doing.
The colors flare when she does that; the magentas and the teals fade but the violet spikes, thickens until all the light in the kitchen is dim and filtered into lavender. Her skin glows. Emma knows, intellectually, that her mother is Snow White and therefore by definition the fairest of them all, but it’s easy to forget when she’s making breakfast.
“Mom,” Emma whispers, and her mother cuts off the stream of words abruptly, the color sucked back inside her skin, the ambient light harshening back to the room’s usual fluorescent.
“Oh, Emma,” she says brightly as she turns, rubbing at her eyes and smiling. “You’re home, good, I’ve made chicken and potatoes for dinner.”
Emma can’t imagine being pregnant, being pushed into a magic chest, crying good-bye and I love you and I will find you. She can’t really fathom waiting twenty-eight years to see if he’s still alive; the father of your child, your one true love. It sounds like a fairytale. One of the awful ones, where the prince is an asshole and the girl dies at the end and lots of people serve as cannon fodder.
On her twenty-eighth birthday, Emma nails a scuzzy businessman trying to bail on his wife and hobbles out of her car at nine-twelve, officially twelve minutes late to her own birthday celebration.
“Mom!” she yells as she kicks the door shut behind her. “Sorry, sorry, the guy was a complete nightmare and tried to run! Let me change and we can eat.”
“Emma,” says her mom in a strange voice, “you should come in here.”
There’s a boy sitting on the living room couch, drinking cocoa and kicking his heels against the side of the furniture. “Hi,” he says, his upper lip ringed by foam. “I’m Henry.” He glows with spell remnants; bronze, emerald, sapphire, more brilliant shades than Emma has ever seen.
“He’s your son,” says her mother. Her gaze is glassy, as it moves from the small boy to Emma, framed in the doorway with one of her heels unhooked. “He says he’s from Storybrooke. It’s in Maine.”
“Fuck,” says Emma.
“So you’re Snow White!” says the boy (Henry, her son, oh my God) as he vibrates from excitement in the backseat. “That’s really cool, I wondered where you were! I’ve figured out lots of them, but I could never really tell who was Snow White. I thought it might’ve been Mrs. Ingram, my teacher, but she’s a redhead and she’s really flakey.”
He looks like George, Emma thinks, hands clutched at ten and two on the steering wheel. He looks so much like George, the fucker.
“Be nice, Henry,” says her mother absently. “You say—they can’t remember who they are?”
“No,” replies Henry. “I tried super hard, with Dr. Hopper—he’s Jiminy Cricket—but he just thinks I have an overactive imagination.”
“Is he lying?” asks her mother in an undertone. “He could be—well. Pinocchio was always a bit of a brat.”
Emma takes a moment to watch him in her rearview mirror. “No, he believes it,” she finally says. Henry is peering out the window at the trees that line the interstate, humming something under his breath. He looks incredibly happy. Her son.
Even before they get to Storybrooke, Emma sees it. “Jesus,” she says. “No wonder people don’t come or go—look at that.”
The air around Storybooke is thick with spell remnants—or the spell itself, really—and it looks like the air inside is difficult to breathe. The little wisps that have clung to Emma and her mother for their entire lives strengthen and pulse and then begin to peel away, sucked towards the mass hovering over the town. As they pass a small sign that says ‘Welcome to Storybrook,’ the last thin thread detaches, the spell cloud vanishes from view (Emma knows better than to hope that it’s gone completely), and Emma’s ears pop.
She stares at her hands. They’re pale, freckled, and a dusky sort of white.
“Oh,” says her mother, Snow White. “Oh.”
“Right?!” pipes up Henry from the backseat. “I’m glad you guys are here, because I was starting to think that I was crazy.”
Emma leaves her mother in the car when she drops Henry off at the mayor’s house. “But why?” Henry whines, clinging to her hand as they cross the street and begin to walk up the block. “You’re here and you’ve got Snow White. You don’t need to put me back with her! She doesn’t love me.”
“She’s your mom,” says Emma, reluctantly, and fighting to keep down her frustration. She gave him up; she chose to give him a better future, and it turns out she did it all for nothing. He’s just as involved as he would have been if she’d kept him.
“She doesn’t love me,” Henry repeats stubbornly. “Ask her, do your superpower thing.” His grip on her hand is almost painful. He looks scared, but determined to hide it.
If Emma and her mother were normal, this would be open and shut—Emma gave up the right to know Henry with her closed adoption, and Regina Mills adopted him and gave him a home.
But Emma is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She can talk to animals and see things other people can’t. Nothing about her life is normal, and Henry Mills is her son.
“I will,” Emma promises.
The next morning, Emma and Snow are eating breakfast in Granny’s as a preface to a war meeting of sorts when the doorbell jangles. Snow glances up and then drops her spoon into her bowl of oatmeal, splattering blueberries and oats all over the table. Frowning, Emma turns and sees that it’s a guy, late twenties or early thirties, blond, in plaid and a pair of work boots. He’s saying something angrily into a cell phone (and Jesus—1999 called, they wanted their flip phone back), but when he sees her and her mother his expression changes.
“Sydney,” he says into the phone, “I have to call you back,” and he hangs up.
After a few indeterminate seconds he walks over to their booth and stands there, awkwardly, hands clenching and unclenching by his sides. Henry had said, None of them remember. “Do I—know you?” he asks Snow. “Please tell me I’m not crazy.”
“You’re not crazy,” says Snow in a slightly hysterical voice.
“Did we meet—at school?” As he asks this, he reaches for hair that isn’t long anymore, for the curve of her cheek. He doesn’t seem very aware of what he’s doing.
“No,” Snow says, almost in a whisper, but she blossoms against his hand, her skin pinking. Emma can’t do anything except stare, because—this is her father. He is blond, and tall, and a little scruffy. Snow reaches up and cups his hand with hers, so her wedding ring rests against his skin. “No, James, we didn’t. I hit you in the face with a rock.”
“My name is David,” he says, but he doesn’t sound sure about it. His eyes say that he’s been waiting, he’s been lonely, he is tired. Something in them strengthens the longer he touches her. “You found me,” he murmurs, tracing the line of her nose and the curve of her brow with his eyes. “Is that right? You found me.”
Emma’s mother bursts into hysterical sobs. “James, James,” she says, and he bends over and cups her chin in his hands and kisses her, there, right in the middle of some fucking diner, and Emma immediately reroutes her line of sight to the clock over the counter, which is tick tick tocking its way towards quarter of eight.
The four other people in the diner aren’t even trying to disguise their interested stares. For all that Emma knows, one of them is working for her evil step-grandmother, but they mostly just seem charmed by the couple that is kissing and crying and doing some Hollywood-grade desperate clinging.
In the booth behind her, the fifth spectator in the diner quietly remarks, “How touching.” Emma turns and locks eyes with a small, dark-haired man, who is smiling in a condescending way over the top of his newspaper. “Mr. Nolan’s been a widower for as long as town memory can recall,” he tells her, his accent unfamiliar and lilting. “It’s nice that he’s found someone.”
Coming from him, it sounds as nice as a pit of vipers. “Thanks,” says Emma, just as insincerely, and she turns back to find that they’ve stopped kissing, thank the lord, and her mother’s tears have mostly dried.
“Emma,” says her father, grinning at her with an expression so familiar it aches against her chest. The string to her heart, stretched for so many years to snapping point, eases and loosens. “Emma, look at you.”
“Hey, Dad,” she says, and, great, now she’s crying too, awesome.
Someone pays and they leave and then they’re outside the diner, hugging each other and still mostly sniffling and laughing a lot. “This isn’t conspicuous or anything,” says Emma, swiping at her eyes and casually checking over her shoulder for any passers-by that look likely to zap them with magic spells.
“I think if you were going to go with subtlety, the chance has long since passed,” says Emma’s mother, tucked into James’ side. She looks so beautiful that Emma wants to kill her, a little bit. “Come here, Emma-bear,” one of them says, and she is folded into her parents’ arms as the clock overlooking the square grinds to eight o’clock and its bell begins to chime.
“We found you,” Snow whispers. James kisses her hair, and then Emma’s. “I told you we would.”