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The Path Is Steep

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They leave the hospital at seven. The sun is rising. She can smell the ground when they swing through the revolving doors--it’s the first thing she smells, the way the sun has thawed pieces of the earth. The smell of mud, hidden under layers of frost, layers of concrete, baking in the light. And then she can smell the sea: the salt, and the fish, the pine needles. The trash in the alley, pungent and rotten, and beyond that, the rolls she helped Granny twist last night, baking, and the azaleas she planted last fall.

“I’ll call you later,” Snow says, her voice catching in a yawn, Charming standing behind her like a protective rock. Emma is silent, her hands in her pockets, and Red notices, not for the first time, how much father and daughter look like each other. Tall. Blonde. Clearly uncomfortable, but moving on with this day, because what else can you do? It’s Snow who makes them move, Snow who never stops moving.

“After a nap,” Red agrees. “An eight-hour long nap.”

Snow smiles sleepily and her husband and daughter do this thing where the sides of their mouths curve up in an ‘we are acknowledging you’ smile, and Red does a little half wave thing and turns to walk down her street back to her grandmother’s silly quiet inn.

She can still smell him, the scent still fresh in her nose and throat. She’s good at tracking. That’s what she’s good at. She can find people. It’s a little piece of pride, jumping up and down in her gut, yelling to be noticed. Emma can find people across continents, but Red can find people across an asphalt city, with a thousand other smells sledgehammering her face.

It kind of makes her feel like a badass. It also kind of makes her feel like a dog.

It takes her about two minutes to realize that she’s not smelling Victor because of tracking him in the middle of the night, but because he is walking fifteen feet behind her. His gait is weird, sort of like a half-step shuffle. Red stops, and turns, and cocks her head, and just looks at him, and she’s just so tired that they sort of just stop there and stare at each other in the street for a minute.

She should probably be freaked out about someone sneaking up on her—that doesn’t happen—but she’s so tired and not really ready to let go of being scared yet, and now that she’s stopped bracing herself for terrible news she can feel exhaustion coloring every single bone in her body.

The staring contest gets to be a little long and she shakes herself awake. This isn’t a dream, it’s downtown Storybrooke, and he totally just did hours’ worth of surgery, she just sat in a waiting room and filled out crossword puzzles, and should he really be still wearing his lab coat?

“Uh,” she says.

“You’re right,” Victor stumbles over the words, shakes his arms and hands in front of him, half-turning to go back the way he came, clearly completely confused with himself. “I, uh, I—I mean you’re right, it’s probably kind of creepy me following you, right? Totally creepy, textbook weirdo. But, uh--” he tugs at his collar. “I just—really, really, really,” and he slows down the last word, “need some coffee.”

He looks like complete shit. She can still smell the booze on him. It’s like taking a shot of whiskey except in midair. He basically looks and smells like he got hit by a truck filled with hand sanitizer and Old Crow. His hair is pasted to his forehead and temples in places where he’s been sweating, and she can smell that sweat, too, sweet and terrified and also filled with liquor.

Red looks at his arm, the one that wasn’t there and now is totally there and fine. She looks at that, and then looks at his eyes, and he sees where she’s looking and looks down at it, too. So now they’re just two people standing in the middle of the street staring at his arm, which may or may not have been completely healed with magic.

Rumpelstiltskin. There’s seriously nothing that guy can’t fix. What a tremendous asswipe.

“Okay,” Red says, tearing her eyes away from Victor’s arm, and decides to look at his face, instead. That’s what normal people do when they talk to other normal people. Who may or may not have brought people back to life with lighting. “Let’s go get coffee.”

“Really?” He looks so surprised, it makes her want to laugh, and she’s so exhausted that she does laugh. He just looks at her, confused and surprised and probably way more tired than she is.

“Well, we’ve only got two kinds of roasts right now,” Red says, “an Italian one and I think one that has caramel in it, so you’re going to have to pick one of those.”

And she reaches out and takes his elbow (because it just feels right somehow, she just knows if she doesn’t do this right now he’s just going to stand in the street there like a gaping smelly fish) and pulls him for another half-block and through the door of Granny’s, gently but firmly takes his lab coat sleeve, and uses it to pull him into a sitting position in the booth by the bar. He slumps into the seat like a piece of silly putty.

“Okay, stay here,” Red says, and then laughs because he looks up at her with these dark circles under his eyes like, where am I going to go?

She puts down her mittens, walks behind the bar, waves her arm to Granny at the cash register, who gives her a look that very clearly says we are going to have a long conversation later, grabs the Italian roast, pours the two biggest mugs she can find all the way full. There are a couple people here, mostly regulars absorbed in their newspapers and cell phones. She comes back to the table, plunks down in front of Victor in the booth, and pushes one mug all the way over to his (possibly magic) arm.

“Take your medicine, Doctor,” she coos, and he stares at her for a minute before sort of half-chuckling and glaring at the same time. And she laughs again. Here they are, two regular people in their regular world in a regular restaurant drinking regular coffee.

He takes a long sip like it’s the greatest elixir he’s ever tasted. She breathes in the scent of her coffee first: all the little pieces it that make it a cup of coffee, black and simple and good. She could probably live on coffee. Coffee and red meat.

He’s watching her now. She actually takes a sip, self-conscious, puts her mug down nervously, half-smiles. “What?”

“I should be dead,” he states matter-of-factly, sipping his coffee like that’s just a completely normal thing to say. Bam, just laying the facts out on the table. She guesses that’s what he’s supposed to do all day at work, just lay out the facts. Your son is going to die. I totally fixed this guy’s heart. “I jumped. You caught me. Which was amazing, by the way.”

“Wolf legs.”

“Doesn’t make it any less amazing.” He smiles. It’s bitter, but not at her: she knows enough to realize that it’s self-inflicted. “You’re strong.”

“Yeah, well,” she shrugs. “I also can’t eat non-organic foods without throwing up, so.”

“I feel like this is where Gold would say that everything comes with a price.”

“Fuck Gold,” Red growls, and he almost drops his coffee. She blinks, surprised at herself, but then realizes that yeah, she totally meant that. “Just—just fuck that guy. With something pointy. Maybe something on fire.”

Victor inclines his head sideways, rolls his eyes upward and pauses, like he’s actually seriously considering that. “We could probably come up with something.”

“It has to be pointy,” she notes out into her mug, taking sweet slow sips.

“Oh, of course.”

“On fire.”

“Red hot.”

She smiles into her cup, and he smiles back, a real smile this time, and then swings back the rest of his coffee, chugging it like a slow-moving machine. She gets up, grabs the coffee pot, and just takes the whole thing back to the table, where he just keeps talking like he’d never stopped. “Someone probably would have found my body by now,” he goes on, like this is a totally normal train of conversation, “probably even you, maybe.”

Red rests her cheek in her hand. She wonders why this isn’t freaking her out. It’s probably the tired. “Probably.”

“And that man would be dead.” He pours the coffee into the mug, watches it swirl around its sides. “And no one would care about me.”

“That’s not true,” she says, instantly, sharply. “People would care.”

He studies her face, and then looks down into his cup. “That’s the funny thing about monsters. People tend to be glad when they go away.”

It takes him a minute to realize that that category includes her, too, and looks up quickly, all the blood draining out of his face. “I mean—”

“No,” she says, quietly. “You’re right. Or, well, I used to think the same thing.”

The street lamps have switched off now that the sun is brighter, and she can smell the remains of the flowers outside that bloomed this summer, light and fresh and dried like tiny little bottles of fragrance. She watches a cloud come up behind Archie’s apartment like a fluffy blanket.

She thinks about the weather on the day she found out about the wolf. Clear, cold, blue, red. And she thinks about pulling her claws out of her mother’s body, the thick smell of blood covering the underside of every fingernail.

He looks at her so tired, like all he wants to do is go to sleep and never wake up, and she knows that feeling so well, knows feeling pain so badly in every tiny bone that the idea of keeping going is exhausting, horribly exhausting, like a mountain you could never ever climb.

“People care,” Red says, finally. “Even about us. Even when they shouldn’t. They just do.”

She reaches her hand across the table, closes her fingers around his, tight around his white mug. He jumps about a foot, and stares at their hands, and then at her face. She looks into his eyes without blinking, knowing that her irises are marked with gold, and wonders when was the last time someone touched him. “We’re both monsters, but we’re also both people. And we can start over.”

“Are you sure?” His voice is so quiet. No one else would be able to hear him. He says it like a faltering breath, trying so hard not to hope. Punishing himself, like she used to. Like she still does sometimes.

She thinks about Snow. Thinks about her grandmother. Thinks about the piece of her cloak she has in her back pocket, and about Charming reaching out to her with one hand stretched out like a bridge.

“Yeah,” Red smiles. “I’m sure.”

He looks at her hand on his, swallows, and says, “Okay.”

And then he smiles back at her. And right now they’re just two people sitting in a restaurant smiling at each other, drinking their coffee, talking about the crazy night they just had.

It doesn’t really surprise her to find out that she wouldn’t have it any other way.