Emma woke beneath the sharp-slanted eaves of the majestic, sprawling attic bedchamber, the rich red curtains lashed to the posts and weak sunlight laying tracks across the magnificent Persian carpet. The logs in the hearth were still burning low, then and odd flaring an ember; they had not gotten to sleep until very late, nearly dawn, due to the racket of fireworks set off to herald the turn of the century, Anno Domini 1900. Emma remembered reaching it once before, in another reality. One where the curtains were black, the floor was bare, where she slept alone and had for decades, where she was Jafar's remorseless assassin and Henry and Killian were nothing more than long-dead ghosts. She had wondered what would happen as this real moment approached. Almost dreaded that this had just been another dream the entire time, another false reality that Jafar had crafted and sprung on her somehow, and that now it would have to end. It had on this same day before, after all. But when she had voiced her fear last night, feeling faintly ridiculous for doing so, Killian had pulled her into his side and nuzzled her hair. "It's no dream, love," he said. "This is our life. It's real."
Emma had smiled, kissed him on the cheek, and told him that in which case, they could merely consider the fireworks a special anniversary celebration. As of today, they had been wed for forty-eight years; they were married on New Year's 1852, twelve days after she had saved him, in a small and private ceremony at Applewood Hall. Forty-eight eventful, exciting, not always easy, but on the whole deeply wonderful years, helping to rebuild the Night Market, continuing to resist the Royal Society, slowly repairing relations with her family, and starting their own. Their five children were in London for the holidays: Henry, their sons Charles and William, and their daughters Eva and Elizabeth. Each of the Swan-Jones offspring had pursued an adventurous career, some on righter sides of the law than others (then again, Killian had remarked, it would be a shame if at least one son of his didn't end up a pirate). In this ambition Charles had deeply gratified him, while to the communal befuddlement William became an investment banker, a choice which would have been deplored by one of his namesakes, a young thief, but much approved by the other, a Royal Navy captain. Eva had decided to travel the world in her own airship and had flown in from Zanzibar or some other far-off place, while Elizabeth had moved to America and joined the suffragettes. As for Henry, he and his wife Violet lived in Applewood Hall, where he wrote books of fairytales.
Emma smiled at the thought of the children and grandchildren arriving later today for tea, doubtless full of stories of all the excitement in the streets, everything there was to be seen, everything that seemed so hopeful in a shining new twentieth century. She hoped, however, that her grandsons would get far away from Europe, and soon. She knew there was a great war coming in fourteen years, what would happen to all the young men then, and sometimes despaired of how on earth humanity could make it through to the future that she and Killian had visited, the modern mechanical one. Sometimes she hoped that it could still be changed, that it might not come to pass entirely as it was. That there would be, even then, a drop of magic yet remaining in the world.
She rolled over to look at her husband. Forty-eight years of waking up together in the morning, for they had rarely spent a night apart since their marriage, and she did not take it for granted. He would turn eighty-one this August, but he was still the handsomest man she had ever seen, hair a rich silver and blue eyes well creased in laugh lines, the grey beard becoming him just as well as had the dark one. He remained fairly spry considering his age, but after two bad falls he couldn't get around very well without his rolling chair, which he loved to give the grandchildren rides on at speeds which uniformly horrified their mothers. And while Killian Jones as a young man had flown across the globe, fought and swashbuckled and swaggered in a dark and dashing drama, Killian Jones as an old one most often preferred to sit out in the garden with his wife and drink rum, the one part of his pirate life he saw no need to give up. He had lived his time, done his deeds, and could rest secure in the knowledge that Charles was vigorously keeping up his father's generally antagonistic relationship with political authority.
Emma smiled at him, peacefully asleep in their great bed, and stroked a lock of hair lightly out of his face. At nearly seventy-seven she was hardly a spring chicken herself, and the holiday and their summer visit to Norway had been exhausting for her. But they still went every year. Elsa had died in 1881 at the age of only fifty-seven, unmarried and childless, and Princess Anna had become queen, a role which she had conscientiously embodied for the past two decades; the Kongeriger loved its stout, motherly monarch and even its reindeer-smelling prince consort, as well as their large family (which was rumored to contain a troll or two). Emma thought that Elsa had not been able to bring herself to marry any of the eminently suitable European princes paraded in front of her, to content herself with a union of convenience when even briefly, something else was possible, and she had to fight the guilt, the pain that dimmed and could be forgotten for even years at a time, but never went away entirely. Yet Elsa had never once said a cruel word of it to her. She and Will gave up their happy ending for mine.
Knowing that, Emma had done her utmost to respect the time she had been given. After many fits and starts and backslides, she and Regina had built a cordial coexistence for Henry's sake, one that eventually deepened into familiarity and genuine friendship, helped along by their work in the Night Market together. Once she joined it, Regina had never really left, and of course, she would never be far from Robin. The two of them had soon married as well, but since Robin had died a few years ago, Emma had seen to it that the widowed Regina was included in the family Christmas celebrations. We are old, all of us. It was still an odd thought to wrap her head around, that she should be living out her days in happiness with her extended and eccentric family, but was reaching now the twilight of those years, that more had gone by for them than remained. After all the strange things she had seen with time, all the mysteries and implausibilities she had experienced, all the journeys and twists and turns to both past and future, this simple, inescapable one remained the strangest.
Though, she could have chosen differently. She could have chosen to return to Misthaven with her parents, become a crown princess and then a queen, live her life in ease and comfort with every whim catered for and no more need to struggle – and a life that, thanks to the faerie magic that sustained it, was liable to go on for hundreds or even several hundreds of years. The prospect was, of course, deeply tempting. But after everything, after all the choices she had made and the way her life had unfolded, after what she had learned about who Emma Swan truly was, she couldn't see herself in that life. She did not want the static, the removed, the immutable, ineffable, perfect, the realm that existed as a legend, insulated from the turbulent currents of a flawed human world, that place that was so unearthly beautiful but like a dream you could not wake from. She needed Earth and its filth and chaos and reality, its uncertainty and adventure and excitement. As ever, Killian had told her that the decision was hers to make, that he would live as a prince consort in Misthaven or as an occasionally former pirate in London (or Paris, or Prague, or Monaco), whichever would make her happiest. And when it came down to it, there was ultimately almost no question at all.
Emma still saw her parents, and visited through the Night Market, but not as much as she used to. They had rebuilt their devastated realm, had another child, her brother James, and would certainly go down in the annals of the fae as two of their greatest rulers ever. Yet as she grew older, became a mother and a grandmother and a well-respected figure in magical and mundane society alike, a patroness of homes for orphans and broken women and other causes dear to her heart, as her life moved on, Emma felt less and less comfortable there, this world of the immortal and perfect and young. The fae folk did die, but as noted, not for a long time, and she had considered the prospect that her parents might very well be the ones to bury her, as they still looked younger than she did. Sometimes she still wished more than anything that they had been the ones to raise her, that they had been as close as they were always supposed to be, that she knew how to let them in once and for all. But that future was gone, and she herself had made the choice not to change things, when they had the opportunity of stopping the Dark Curse before it was ever cast. When she herself had decided to be who she was. James was that child now, that boy who would rule Misthaven in his turn. That child Snow and Charming had never lost. At least one of them would get to have it, what might have been. And for that, and for what she had, the mortal life she had chosen, Emma could not regret a thing.
She was still lying there, looking fondly at the sleeping Killian, when to her surprise, she heard a firm knock on the front door, echoing up through the house. It was too early for any of the family to be arriving, and she didn't suppose the milk or the paper was being delivered today. She thought automatically that one of the staff would get it; she and Killian were uncomfortable having any servants at all, but as they got older, some help about the household had become a necessity. Then she remembered that she'd given them the holidays off, and with that, there seemed no other option but to answer this disreputably early caller herself.
Emma crawled out of bed with a muffled oof, draped her shawl around her shoulders, and took hold of her cane; she too was not as steady on her feet as she used to be. Muttering imprecations quite unsuited for a wealthy grandmother and society matron, she crossed the room, opened the door, and descended the stairs. It was three flights down from their bedroom, and given Killian's wheeling chair and her cane, it might be more convenient to move to a lower floor, but both of them were too attached to their eagle's eyrie and refused with combined stubbornness to be parted from it just yet. The house was still and grand and quiet. Picturesque, the decorated tree in the parlor as now was firmly the fashion, the supper in the icebox waiting to be cooked in the new gas stove, the white cloth spread on the dining room table. Everything ready.
The knock came again.
Emma reached the bottom of the steps and hobbled across the splendid foyer carpet to the door, undoing the bolt-chain and twisting the great brass key. She pulled it open just a crack; the weather had been ghastly cold recently, winds blowing down from snowbound Scotland, and even through the small opening, she could feel the chill. "Good morning, yes, I'm quite sure we're not interested in whatever rubbish you're peddling, so be off with – "
"Good morning, ma'am." The young man on the doorstep doffed his knitted cap and smiled crookedly at her. "And happy holidays to you too."
For an endless moment, Emma felt as if all the breath and blood had been drained from her, as if she had been rendered an ice statue herself on the instant, with no room for anything but something equal parts shock, disbelief, joy, and apprehension. "You?"
"Aye." Will Scarlet smiled again, faintly sad. He looked not a day older than when he had sacrificed himself almost fifty years ago, jumped down the doorway into death and vanished into nothing, and as he looked her over from head to toe, Emma could see him taking in just how long it had been, how much had changed. "Thought this was the right address, anyway. Didn't want to go round bangin' on doors on New Year's, they'd likely chuck things at me or light my arse on fire to see if I'd pop off and sparkle. Anyway, so, this was the right one, so – "
"What are you doing here?" Emma interrupted. "Are you – you worked it out? How to. . . to make it back?"
"Well, see." Will's big brown eyes flickered to hers. "Turns out, gettin' back wasn't the hard part. Since I went for someone else, I could leave whenever I wanted. Coulda strolled out the next day if I took a mind to it. But I. . . well, if I left, Killian woulda had to come back, and I wasn't going to do that. Make it all a bit pointless, really. How long has it been?"
"Forty-eight years," Emma said, throat suddenly dry. "It's New Year's Day. 1900."
"Ah." Will paused. "I would have stayed longer," he said softly. "I'd have given you those full fifty years, if I could. Sixty, even. But they – well, he, I may have spent most of these past five decades annoyin' the fellow who runs the dead people world, entirely through no fault of me own – made me go. Said it was time. Said it was enough."
"Will. . ." Emma's throat had closed. She didn't know what to say, how to take in the revelation that he had stayed of his own volition to be sure that she and Killian had their lives together, or how to face the fact that now that he had returned, it must be almost time for Killian to go again, at last and for good. She wasn't ready for that, couldn't stand it any more than she had the first time, and he reached out concernedly, but she flinched back. "Do you know. . ." She struggled to get her tongue around the word, hot and heavy as an anvil. "When?"
"No bloody clue," Will said frankly. "Could be hours. Could be days. Could be another few months – bloody hell, even a year, or more. Nobody's stayed that long of their own choice before, on behalf of someone else, so that makes the timing wonky. Not so simple as me reappearin' and Killian leavin'. I've stretched things out, twisted 'em around, made a right mess." He grinned. "And now, well. . . now I'm back here. With a new century before me, and the world changed, and time to learn how to live again. Could be worse. Could be."
Emma nodded wordlessly. She felt suddenly very old indeed, leaning on her cane, in front of his preternatural youth, his return from the grave. She didn't think she could stand it if he asked about Elsa, and then considered that he might well already know. Might have been waiting for Elsa when she came down there nineteen years ago. Perhaps in some way, they had had time together, a reunion, a – no, it could not be called a life, seeing as it had perforce happened in death, but that they had not been apart forever after all.
"So," Will said, after a moment. "I just. . . I thought you had a right to know. You don't have to see me again, if you don't want. Can't imagine it's very comfortable. But so there. It's done. It's come full circle." He paused. "Killian, he's. . . he's been happy? This time? With you?"
Emma nodded again, then made herself speak. "More than anything."
A shy, sweet grin flitted across Will's face, almost ashamed of itself. He nodded firmly. "That's good," he said, and crammed his hat back onto his head, prominent ears bright pink with the cold. "That's good, ma'am. Happy New Year."
With that, he jumped off the stoop, landing with a crunch in the fresh-fallen snow, and strode off. Emma watched him to the end of the block, half-expecting that he would disappear like an itinerant spirit, but he left footsteps the entire way, real and present, there. Her breath steamed silver, the wind tugged at her shawl. At last she came to herself, stepped back inside, shut the door, worked the locks, and then a small spell, glowing gold. Turned, and started the slow ascent back up the stairs to the bedroom.
Killian was awake when she opened the door, and grinned drowsily at her. "There you are, love. What were you doing? Who the bloody hell was that?"
Emma hesitated, then shucked the shawl, put down the cane, and got back into bed, pulling up the heavy quilts and rolling into Killian's warmth, even as he uttered a small sound of protest at the touch of her freezing extremities. "Nobody," she said. "Hold me."
As always, he did, putting his arms around her and snuggling her close, as she nestled her head onto his chest to listen to the reassuring deep, solid thump of his heart beneath her ear. She closed her eyes tightly, losing herself in him, in his presence, in his life. Not yet. It would not be just yet. Eventually, of course, he would have to go. All men must die. But it would not be today, it would not be now. She still had him for a little while, and would treasure every instant of it more than ever. For their future was still to come, and now, as the sun came up full, as it spilled onto their bed in golden glow, as it burned richer than any aether and the new century began, as the world spun on – here in each other's arms, in this sanctuary, it would be forever.