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Tea with the Dead

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Emma woke up screaming.

She cringed as the light came on, wanting to hide, to run, knowing it was already too late. . . .

But, it was Mary Margaret with her hand on the switch.  “Emma, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” Emma said, trying to ignore the way her heart hammered at her chest.

“This isn’t nothing, Emma.  You need—”

“It’s nothing,” Emma repeated.

“You have nightmares every night.  Ever since—”

Ever since Killian died.

“It’s all right,” Emma said.

Her mother came over to her bed and sat down, putting a hand on Emma’s shoulder.  “There was nothing you could do, Emma.  Hook—Killian died saving you.”

Emma nodded, not meeting her eyes.  “I know.  I. . . .” she struggled for something else to say.  “I know what Killian did.”

“Maybe if you spoke to Archie. . . ?” Mary Margaret said.

“Yeah,” Emma said.  “Maybe.  Just . . . just let me go back to sleep.”

“Emma. . . .”

“Please,” Emma still didn’t meet her eyes.  “I just need to rest.”

Her mother didn’t need magic to know she was lying but she didn’t argue.  She got up and started to walk out.  She hesitated when she got to the light.  Hand resting on the switch, Mary Margaret turned around and looked at her.  “Emma, if there had been anything we could do to save him—”

Emma shuddered but she tried to smile.  “You’d have done it,” she said.  The smile fell away. “I know.”

Mary Margaret nodded, not knowing what else to say, and turned off the light.

Emma lay back in her bed, staring into the darkness, terrified of closing her eyes.

X

Not far away, Rumplestiltskin stood on a street corner in the shadows.  He’d seen the light shining behind Miss Swan’s curtains and seen as it went out.  He frowned, his hand tightening on his cane. 

She was still having nightmares, then.  He could guess how bad some of them were and he knew—knew—how bad the others were.

But, there was nothing he could do.

X

Emma had gotten them going before Killian had been dead a whole day.  She didn’t know much about magic—especially this kind of magic—but that had to make a difference, didn’t it?

She was standing the near the ferryman as they headed out.  He’d struck her as the silent, skeletal type.  To be honest, if she’d thought of him at all, it was as a bit of stage dressing, the spooky figure guiding the boat into the Underworld.  But, as the shore behind them vanished into the white mist, the ferryman turned slightly towards Gold.  Or Emma thought he did.  It was hard to tell with his face (assuming he had one—or that he was a he. He was so muffled up, Emma couldn’t be sure, assuming living rules about that kind of stuff had anything to do with this) hidden beneath his hood.

“Rumplestiltskin,” he said.  His voice sounded harsh and gravelly but, somehow, at the same time, so faint and soft Emma wasn’t sure he had spoken at all.  It was as if Emma had imagined the words. “I didn’t expect to be seeing you here again.”

“I have business.”

The ferryman laughed.  “Don’t we all?  I don’t often take the living across.”

Emma hadn’t thought, when she’d made this deal with Gold, about how they’d get in the Underworld.  Oh, she’d seen the boat before.  She just hadn’t thought of the grim steersman having opinions about taking them.  She certainly hadn’t imagined Rumplestiltskin getting all buddy-buddy with the transportation.  “You took a whole boatload of dead people back to the living world,” she snapped. “I don’t suppose you usually do that, either.”

The ferryman turned his attention towards her.  She had the strange feeling he was amused by her, as if she were a toddler trying to pick a fight.  He said, “That was a long-standing agreement with the Cursed Ones.  If the conditions were met, they could return.  Took them long enough to manage it.  But, why are you complaining?  You knew the pirate would do it, didn’t you?  You’re the one who gave him the means.  And, now, you’re doing it yourself.”

“I’m not—”

He gave his gravelly, silent laugh.  “You opened the door the first time with your unpaid debt.  This time, you used the Dark One’s own blood.  Don’t pretend you didn’t.  Lying doesn’t work too well over here.”

“I’m setting things right,” Emma said.  “Killian shouldn’t have died for nothing.”

“Killian?” the ferryman asked Rumplestiltskin.

“The Dark One who died,” Emma said. “The one who sent the others back.” How could he not know Killian’s name?  He knew everything else about him.

“The pirate,” Rumplestiltskin said.

“Oh,” the ferryman focused on Emma again. “You didn’t want him doing that?”

“She wanted to stop him letting the others loose,” Gold said. “She just didn’t want him to die making it happen.”

“I wanted the darkness gone,” Emma said. She glared at Gold. “You stopped that from happening.”

“So, what’s your plan, now?” the ferryman said. “Get rid of the darkness by dumping Rumplestiltskin on the other side?”

Gold chuckled. “Probably.”

“Kids today,” the ferryman said. “Selfish.  And dumb.  Doesn’t she know you already tried that?  Why should that work any better than last time?”

“She’s an optimist.”

“I’m not planning on killing anyone,” Emma said.  “I’m getting Killian back.”

The ferryman laughed.  And laughed. 

Gold smiled tightly. “I told you she was an optimist.”

“Killian didn’t deserve to die!”

“Who does?” the ferryman said. “Why should he be any different?  Hey,” he said, nodding towards something ahead of them.  “Look, we’re almost there.”

The something began to loom at them out of the mist.  It was just a dark shadow at first.  Then, it looked like a giant, hulking figure looking down at them with a single, dark eye.

A tower, Emma realized.  They were sailing towards a tower.

Beside her, Gold stiffened.  “That’s not right—”

“It is,” the ferryman said. “For you guys.  You’re alive, Rumplestiltskin.  Crazy Optimist-Girl and her friends, even you, you’re alive.  I can take you to the Borderland but no farther.  Anything else, I’m not the one you need to talk to.”

“The agreement—”

“The agreement stands for Dark Ones only—dead Dark Ones.  Her orders.”  They were approaching what looked like a narrow dock.  “It could be worse.  You’re being let in, aren’t you?  And nobody’s locking the door behind you.”  The hidden face turned towards Emma.  “Hadn’t thought about that, had you, Optimist-Girl?  You dump him in the Underworld, how you planning on getting out again?” 

“What do you mean?”

Again, he laughed at her.  “You knew he was the key to getting in.  Didn’t you know he was the key to getting out?” He pulled up alongside the dock.  “Kids these days.”

The Ferryman was still mumbling to himself as they got out of the boat, though he didn’t say anything to Emma or seem to expect her to say anything back.  She and the others went up the dock ended to a small path that led to the tower.  As they got closer, Emma could see walls stretching out on either side of it, like dark wings, disappearing into the mist. 

“What were you and Gold talking about?” Mary Margaret said as they headed up the path.  “We couldn’t hear you.”

“What? You were standing right next to us.”

“I know.  But, you couldn’t hear us when we talked to you.”

“It’s true, Mom,” Henry said.  “We tried, but you just ignored us.  What were you saying?”

“We were talking to the ferryman.  He doesn’t think we can do this.”

“Ferryman?”

“The guy steering the boat.  The ferryman or whatever you call him.  If he was a him.  He sounded like a him.”

“Emma,” Mary Margaret said. “There wasn’t anyone steering the boat.  It was just us.”

“What do you mean?  He was right there.  Bony guy with a hood.  Him—” Emma turned around, meaning to point at him at the dock, but there was no sign of the boat or the man who guided it.  “Figures,” she muttered. “Gold, what’s the deal with your friend?  Why could I see him and they couldn’t?”

Gold, walking ahead of them, paused, looking back.  “I’ve no idea, Miss Swan.  I suppose he wanted to talk to you.”

“This is going to be one of those bad things, isn’t it?”

“Miss Swan, you were the only one here besides me who could see our guide to the Underworld.  I met him in the . . . more traditional way.  That might be why I could see him.  Or not.  I don’t know why you could.  But, you’re correct, it’s likely not a good thing.”

Mary Margaret looked at her daughter.  Emma saw the same fear in her eyes she’d seen after Zelena had stolen her little brother.  “Emma, maybe we should go back.  It’s too dangerous.”

“We can’t just abandon Killian!”

“We can’t go back, even if we wanted to,” Gold said.  He nodded towards the tower ahead of them.  “We’re expected.  It would be rude not to stop in and pay our respects.  Also, rather pointless.  Unless you were planning to swim home?”

“He said you’d still be able to leave.”

“Because this place has rules.  And one of the people who enforces those rules wants to see us.”

David looked up at the tower, his face turning pale.  “I know this place,” he said. “I’ve been here before.”

“What?”  Emma looked at the tower staring down silently at them.  “How’s that even possible?” This place was the Underworld.  It was Death.  How could her father have ever been here?  And what did it mean if he had?

For the first time, Emma began to feel uneasy.  She looked from David to Gold.  “What does it mean?” And how much danger was he in?

But, Gold only looked thoughtful.  “We’re in the Borderlands,” he told them. “This is the place between life and death, among other things.  There are other ways to it from our own world.  Charming must have come through one of those doors.”

“Really?” Regina said. “Then why did we have to take the scenic route instead of using one of them?”

“Because not all the doors that lead in lead out,” Rumplestiltskin said.  “What happened?” he asked David.  “Why did you come here?”

“I was looking for a magic plant,” David said. “One that was supposed to let you face your fears.  Instead, I met a princess, Rapunzel. . . .”  He told them the story—not the one Emma had grown up with—about the princess in the tower, trapped by her own fears.  “But, maybe it’s not the same,” David said uncertainly.  “There wasn’t any wall when I came here.  Besides, it wasn’t here.  It was in the Enchanted Forest.”

“I told you, this place is on the Border.  It has doors wherever it needs to.  If there wasn’t a wall, then it let you in.  You found the night root because you were supposed to.  The . . . person this tower belongs to wanted you to find it.”

“Zelena had night root,” David said. “She snuck it into my tea, remember?  Are you saying this person gave it to her?”

“No,” Gold said. “Zelena stole the night root after it was given to me.”

“To you?” Emma said.  “Why?”

Gold shrugged. “I don’t know.  Ask her.”

X

He shouldn’t have brought them here, Rumplestiltskin thought.  It had seemed right at the time.  When Emma came in, full of anger and accusations, when she’d accused him of betraying Belle—again—he’d felt he’d deserved it.  They would go to the Underworld, and he would face . . . well, what had to be faced.

He hadn’t expected her to take an interest.  He should have known better. 

Rumplestiltskin led them up to the tower door.  It was the same as the last one he remembered, whatever that meant.  David said there hadn’t been any door at all when he came, just stone.  The large, ornate knocker made of black iron was new.  He half expected it to make a deep, funeral knell.  It would fit her sense of humor.  Instead, it only gave the sort of sound you would expect from a metal knocker, no louder and no deeper—or not much deeper—than usual.

The door opened.  The young woman who had told him to call her Cory stood on the other side, her large dog (Spot) beside her. 

She looked young.  That was the first thing that had struck him about her when they met all those years ago and he had come to bargain for herbs from her garden.  She did not always wear the same face for everyone who met her, and her choices were generally deliberate.  To him, she almost always looked like a girl of fifteen or sixteen, one just a little older than Bae had been when he lost him through that portal many years ago—the sort of girl Bae might have been trying to find the courage to speak to at a fair or festival in a few years if it hadn’t been for that fatal night, a reminder of the future Rumplestiltskin had let die when he let go of his son.

Oh, yes, she had a sense of humor all right.

Her skin was a rich, reddish-brown.  Her hair fell in thick waves of onyx.  Her clothes looked like clothes he knew had been worn in the Land Without Magic a century or so ago, in the southwest.  She wore a divided riding skirt of burgundy that came down to a few inches above her ankles and a matching vest over a long sleeved blouse of grayish-red.  On her feet, instead of the riding boots that would have completed the outfit, she wore slightly scuffed slippers, also of burgundy.  He suspected she’d been working in her garden.

He wondered what the rest of them saw.  Emma seemed perplexed.  She kept looking at Cory as if she were trying to make sense of her.

Spot was a very large dog, the gray color clay.  His head was more or less like a German shepherd’s.  His tale was long and limber as a snake’s.  When he moved, his gray fur shifted in patches, now blacker, now lighter, like a serpent’s scales shimmering in the light. The name suited him.

Emma barely glanced at the dog, concentrating on Cory.  Her puzzlement was already changing to impatience.  Whatever she saw, she was obviously dismissing it as a distraction, not worth the effort of understanding.

He shouldn’t have brought her.  No matter what his reasons, he shouldn’t have done it.  Emma was angry and lashing out.  She saw Cory as just another delay in her self-appointed mission.  Impatience and anger could be . . . well, not lethal.  Nothing here was.  They were well beyond lethal. 

Cory’s face lit up when she saw him, just as if she hadn’t known he was coming.  “Rumplestiltskin!” She grabbed him in a bear hug.  “It’s so good to see you!” She looked over his shoulder, as if just noticing the merry band of adventurers.  “And, are these your friends?”  She shot him a sly, mocking look, just long enough to make sure he heard the irony.

Are these your friends?

The sly look vanished.  Cory waved everyone into her tower.  “Please, come in, come in! Sit down and rest a while!” She ushered them into a small sitting room he remembered.  That was one of the things about the tower.  Rumplestiltskin didn’t know the rules, but the rooms had a way of coming and going—and changing—on a whim.  Rumplestiltskin was not sure the whims were always Cory’s.

Today, the tower gave him a room he would recognize, one he’d seen here before and would feel comfortable in.  It had a sort of Victorian feel, over-cluttered with soft-cushioned chairs and two sofas, all decorated in red and gold.  Not his style, but something both the imp and the pawnbroker could appreciate. 

He was being treated as if he belonged here, he thought.  The others were being treated as outsiders. 

An insider in the land of the dead.  Not a comforting thought.

There was a tea service set up on the coffee table and two three tiered service trays at either end.  Fruit was on the top tray, sandwiches in the middle, and assorted pastries on the bottom. 

No pomegranates, he noted, looking over the fruit.  No apples either. 

“Please, sit down,” Cory said, taking a seat and handing out cups of tea.  She didn’t have to ask how anyone liked theirs. “Have something to eat,” she said, indicating the trays of food. “Don’t worry.  As Rumplestiltskin can tell you, this is a between place.  Assume the worst in the rest of Underworld, but the food here is safe.”

“That’s not my experience,” David said.

“You mean my night root?” Cory asked. “You found what you came for.  You recognized your fear and the cost of letting it master you.  What more did you want?”

“A warning?”

“Oh.  In that case, you should know that all magic comes with a price.  So do most things in life.  To learn courage, you must face your fears.  It’s as simple—and complicated—as that. The cost of shortcuts is always steep.”  She turned her attention to Emma.  “Which brings us back to you.  Tell me, what would you have done about Killian Jones being dead if the dark power had stayed with him?”

“What do you mean?” The question confused Emma.  She didn’t see what Cory was getting at.  Rumplestiltskin did and winced.

“You were the Dark One yourself for a time, weren’t you?” Cory said.  “And I believe you know Rumplestiltskin’s story, how he returned from the dead?  You could bring Killian back the same way, trading one life for his.  Unfortunately, as I expect you also know, that only works for the most recent Dark One.  Once the power has passed, you have to resort to little tricks—like the one Mr. Jones used to bring back the rest of your predecessors.  But, tell me, if he’d been the last, who were you planning on sacrificing to bring him back?”

“I wasn’t—”

“You weren’t?  Really?  The thought never crossed your mind?  You never even felt the temptation of it niggling at you?” Her eyes strayed over to Rumplestiltskin.  “You hadn’t even thought about who wouldn’t be missed?”

“No!”

“No?  Truly?  Then, what’s this about?  Why are you going after him?”

“Killian didn’t deserve to die!”

“Who does?  Did your son’s father deserve to die?  Did the wolfling, Graham?  Every day, more souls than you can count pour through into death.  Precious few of them deserved to die.  What makes Killian special?  Why should he be let back?”

Emma shot Rumplestiltskin a nasty look.  “Killian tried to end the curse.  That’s what he died doing.  But, Rumplestiltskin took that away from him!”

“He did?  I thought your pirate died because he didn’t have the stomach to send you to the Underworld, though he was ready enough to finish off the rest of your friends and family.  I take it saving them, even if he was the one who put them in danger in the first place, didn’t score too many points with you?  That wasn’t the big, grand gesture you felt he deserved to make his death meaningful.  I suppose, eventually, after he’d sent your loved ones to the Underworld and unleashed Hell on Earth, you expected he’d say he was sorry he’d gotten so upset—or were you planning on telling him you were sorry you’d made him so upset?—and you’d kiss and make up and put the past behind you.”

“Stop twisting things,” Emma said. “He shouldn’t have—He sacrificed himself—Gold took that away—It’s not fair.

“Death isn’t, Miss Swan.  Life isn’t fair, and death doesn’t change that.  But, never mind.  You still haven’t told me.  How were you going to bring him back?  I see you left Dr. Whale out of your expedition, so I’m assuming lightning bolts aren’t part of your answer.  What, then, is the plan?”

Bae.  Graham.  Whale.  Cory knew all the details of life in Storybrooke.  And Emma didn’t even notice.  He didn’t know if it was her own hard-headedness or if Cory was confusing her, but this wasn’t good.

“My heart,” Emma said.  “I can give him half of my heart.”

Cory bit back on a laugh.  Or tried to.  She put her hand over her mouth, trying to smother it without much success.  “Half your heart?  Really?  And why, pray tell, did you think that would work?”

“It worked for my parents!”

Cory looked at pater and mater familias of Clan Charming.  If anything, she seemed even more amused.  “Oh, yes, I see.  You foolish child, do you have any idea how difficult that is?  Do you have any idea what your parents have been through to bind their souls that closely together?  Do you know what it would cost you if you failed?”

“I’m willing to take the chance.”

“Obviously, or you wouldn’t be here.  All right, then.  I’ll help you.”

Emma’s face lit up.  “You’ll let us through?”

“No, I said I’d help you.  Right now, you’re on a suicide mission.  The half a heart you mean to give away would die in Mr. Jones—”

“Captain,” Emma said. “He’s a captain.

“What?  Oh, no.  He was never more than a lieutenant, and that was rescinded centuries ago.  Something about piracy—and desertion—and murder—and treason on the high seas.  I’ve spoken to a good number of people Mr. Jones killed.  They tend to be rather adamant about that.”

“He’s changed.”

“Well, his vital status certainly has.  Oh, don’t look at me like that.  If anyone’s allowed to joke about death, I certainly am.  Besides, didn’t I say I was going to help you?”  She smiled in a way Rumplestiltskin knew meant no good.

“Cory—”

“Hush, Rumplestiltskin.  This is between Miss Swan and myself.  Well, Miss Swan?  For your plan to work, your heart must be like Killian Jones’.  You must feel what he feels, see the world as he sees it.  You must be one in heart, and mind, and purpose.  You must understand him in ways you don’t, not yet.

“I’m going to give you a gift, the gift of understanding.  It won’t be easy,” she warned. “There are things you must experience, things that will help you understand who Killian Jones is.  Once you’ve done that, then you can come back to me.”

“Come back?  I can’t wait—”

Cory folded her arms across her chest.  “This is not a negotiation, Miss Swan.  You get no farther in to these lands than I allow.  I’ve told you my price.  You can take it or leave it.  I don’t really care which.”

“Fine, I—”

“Miss Swan, no,” Rumplestiltskin said.  “You don’t understand what she’s offering.  You can’t—”

Emma turned on him.  “Do you see another way?  Is she telling the truth about Killian?  Will he die if I don’t do this?”

“He’ll stay dead.”

“And me?  If I give him my heart and he dies, what happens to me?”

Cory was watching him with her serpent’s smile.  She wouldn’t let him get away with less than the truth—the whole truth.  “If you give him half your heart and he dies, you’ll die, too.  But, that doesn’t mean—”

“Then, I don’t really have a choice, do I?”

“There’s always a choice.  Don’t—”

“No, I’ll do whatever it takes to save him.”  She turned back to Cory.  “It’s a deal.”

“Shake on it?” Cory said, offering her hand.  Emma took it.  Cory placed her other hand over Emma’s.  Rumplestiltskin felt the waves of magic flowing from Cory.  So did Emma, now it was too late.  She struggled to pull her hand free but couldn’t.

Cory smiled.  “Take my curse, Miss Swan.  Or my blessing, if it seems that to you.  Your dark gift from the Queen of the Dead.  Sleep is the little death.  When you enter it, you touch my kingdom.  From now on, when you close your eyes at night, you shall dream.  By these dreams, you shall come to know the man you claim to love.  His soul shall be made clear to you.  When you have learned what you need to learn, you may ask Rumplestiltskin to bring you back to me.  We will discuss then whatever we need to discuss.”  She stood up.  “Now, go.  My ferryman will be waiting to take you across.  Rumplestiltskin, a moment?  I have something else to say to you.”

He thought the others would protest Cory’s dismissal, but she didn’t give them a chance.  He stood alone with her in a dark, empty room.  It reminded him of the cell he had once given Belle except there were no windows.  Cory’s humor was like that.

“What did you do to her?”

“I gave her what she needed.  Just as I did her father.”

“And what was it she needed?”

“Understanding.”  She gave him a whimsical smile, one that might have belonged to the girl she seemed to be.  “I know what it is to love the darkness, Rumplestiltskin.  None better.  I know the red fruit that grows in its shadows.  No trickery was needed to make me eat it.  Unlike that girl.  I also know what it is to be unable to turn your back on the light.  Miss Swan needs to learn.  That’s all.”

“But, what did you do to her?

Cory shrugged.  “What I promised.  She believes she’s seen the light in her paramour.  Very well.  Now, she’ll see the darkness.  The pain and death he has caused, she will experience it.  In her dreams, she will feel their lives as if they were her own.”  She gave him a warm, kindly smile.  “And you.  The pirate has tried to murder you and those you loved time and again.  She will learn to know you, too.”

He felt the blood drain from his face.  “Cory—”

“She’s seen your darkness.  Or claims she has.  Let her see the rest.  She will dream herself trapped, tortured, enslaved.  Every grief, every pain, yours, theirs, she will live through them all.  Until she learns to think twice about rescuing her pirate or until her heart is as dark and as empty as his.  Either way, when the time comes, bring her back to me.  I will deal with her then.”

“And what?  What will you do to her?”

“Who knows what death brings?  Wait and see. 

“Oh, and don’t worry about the rest of them.  I see no reason why they should remember how to return here.  For them, this journey will just be a dream, one they’ll be only too willing to forget.”

“She wouldn’t have murdered me,” Rumplestiltskin said.  “Miss Swan is reckless to the point of madness but, if they only way to get the pirate back had been to trade my life at the Dark One’s vault, she wouldn’t have done it.”

Cory smiled again.  “I’m glad you believe that, Rumplestiltskin.  Perhaps, it’s even true.  You know as well as I do, not all the futures we see come to pass.  Now, go.  Watch over your little princess.  Return her to me when the time is right.”

“And how am I supposed to know when that is?”

“When the time comes for her to return, she’ll ask you.  Until then, wait.  Be well.”

He hadn’t realized she was bidding him farewell before he was back at the dock.  The others were already standing beside Charon in his ferry.  Rumplestiltskin looked back at the tower of Persephone, the goddess known as Koré, the maiden.  Her dog, Cerberus, the Spotted One, watched, his serpent’s tail wagging.  His shadow on the ground showed three heads.

X

Rumplestiltskin stood outside Miss Swan’s home, wondering what she was dreaming.  In her nightmares, was she killed by pirates?  Was she a child sold to Pan? 

Or was it his own nightmares that haunted her?  Was she beaten by soldiers as she tried to protect her son from war?  Did she watch him die in a cold, bleak wood?

Should a man trust death?  She had told him to wait for Miss Swan to come to him.  He knew Miss Swan had asked the others what they remembered of their journey into the Underworld.  She’d tried to tell them the truth.  They had listened gravely, eyes troubled, then walked away, forgetting what she had said.

So far, she hadn’t asked him.

Was she afraid he had also forgotten?  Or was she afraid he would remember?

Cory could be cruelly just or strangely merciful.  She grew flowers in the dark and gave lost souls moments of peace.  The little mercy he’d known in the Underworld had come from her.  She had said to wait.

Rumplestiltskin had seen the haunted look in Emma’s eyes and how exhaustion was eating away at her.  He had seen the fear and desperation in his grandson as he saw what was happening to his mother.  The boy hadn’t asked him yet if he could help her but he would soon—and Rumplestiltskin still had no idea what to say.  The goddess of the Underworld was letting Henry’s mother relive life after life and death after death.  Even the Dark One didn’t know how to put an end to that.

Except the one she’d told him.

Ask me, Miss Swan, he said silently.  Stop thinking of me as a monster, an enemy, a Dark One.  You don’t have to trust me.  You don’t have to think I’ll raise a hand for anyone but myself if there isn’t something in it for me.  Just believe for a moment I might know the answer and might agree to share it with you.

Please, Emma, just ask.

He stood on the dark street and waited.