"Momma," Henry rasped, "I can't breath."
Reluctantly, Emma loosened her grip. "Sorry honey. It's just... you're in kindergarten now... and you're not a little baby anymore." She had always thought the phrase "they grow up so fast" was ridiculous (from her perspective growing up took forever) until she had a kid herself. Hard to believe the tiny baby in the NICU incubator was already starting his first day of school. "Remember to let your teacher know about your condition, alright? I don't want you hurting your lungs."
"Yes Momma." he nodded obediently.
Emma gave him one more kiss on the cheek before sending him off on his way. Then came that familiar feeling of hollow sadness every time Henry hit a milestone, leaving Emma to wonder what it was like to have a parent standing next to you for them. Her first day of kindergarten was one of her first clear memories: her foster sisters had gotten her ready for school since their foster mother was too hungover to do so. She watched for a few more minutes as Henry's little brown head and royal blue uniform melted into the crowd in hyperactive kids.
It had rained earlier that morning, leaving the pavement slick and the air misty. She shoved her hands in her thin coat's pockets, breathing in the fresh, gentle scent of petrichor. Henry attended a private school in a nicer part of Boston, a sharp contrast to the grimy, graffiti-covered neighborhood her salary kept them in. Here, there was no overflowing trash, no giant rats scurrying about, no untrustworthy-looking men stalking around when she got off her shift at two in the morning.
What she wouldn't give to be able to offer her son a better life. Maybe she should have gone through with the adoption.
Her sunshine-yellow Volkswagen bug sat on the pavement, bright against the grey morning. Miraculously, the tough little thing still ran well and didn't need any repairs. And thank heavens for that; she already had Henry's medication and tuition draining her bank account. Emma noticed a small group of people standing around near her car, two men and one woman. She did her best to ignore them.
Halfway into the driver's seat, one of the men called out to her in a light, English-accented voice. "Excuse me miss, but my friends and I are in need of some directions."
Emma sighed deeply and looked over her shoulder. She stared straight at the darker-haired man, the one who had apparently spoken, his bright blue eyes meeting with hers for just a second. Her heart felt like someone had detonated several tons of TNT inside it. Emma let out a yelp of pain, kneeling over and clutching her chest. The pain vanished as quickly as it appeared. She raised her head.
"You're...you're..." The man was unable to get a coherent sentence out. He just stood there rubbing his chest, staring at her like she just descended from heaven on a golden throne. Behind him his two companions exchanged smiles.
Cringing, Emma slipped into her seat, slammed the door shut, hit the gas, and tried to ignore the shocked cry of "Wait! What are you doing?!"
She knew she probably couldn't avoid him forever; soulmates had a knack for finding each other. And given their lack of physical contact it would soon be clear to everyone that she had meet but hadn't touched her soulmate. Who thought up that system?
And it wasn't as though Henry needed another person coming into their lives. They were getting by fine, just the two of them.
Screw soulmates, she thought bitterly.
After a while Emma pulled into the employee parking lot of the office. On weekdays she worked as a receptionist in the headquarters of a fancy make-up company, which didn't pay her enough to afford their product; on weekends she waitressed at an all-night diner. As she stepped out of her car, a faint but noticeable red light pulsed from her chest, perfectly in tune with her heartbeat. She let out an irritated groan.
People would stare. People would ask questions. People would get that awkward look on their faces that said they wanted to stare or ask questions but didn't want seem nosy. Emma thought back to an urban legend she heard in middle school: a woman saw her soulmate just seconds before he was gunned down right in front of her, and since she never got to touch him, her heart glowed for the rest of her life. Could she deal with that? Could Henry?
Realizing that she was about to be late for work, Emma set her musings aside and went about her day usual. Well, apart from the fact that there was a strobe light emanating from her chest. And there were plenty of stares, questions, and awkward looks. A few clients offered congratulations, which Emma accepted with as much grace as she could. One co-worker gave her hearty slap on the shoulder and said he "couldn't wait to see what poor bastard got stuck with you."
Logically Emma knew he was joking, but it still sent a shiver down her spine. She hadn't been enough for her birth parents or for her many foster parents or for Neal; she wasn't even enough for her son, no matter how much he adored her. All she could picture was how crushed her soulmate would be when he realized how used and broken she was. The thought made her want to vomit.
She worked her shift robotically, pausing only for a flavorless lunch that felt like swamp goo in her mouth. Never had she been so aware of her own heartbeat, nor so aware of her own inadequacies. She could almost hear his voice tinged with disgust, "Oh, the universe thinks I should be with you? A foster kid, petty criminal, single mother that nobody ever wanted?"
Her shift ended two and a half hours later, giving her enough time to pick Henry up from his first day. When Emma reached the school parking lot, she found him waiting for her.
"Hi." The man greeted cautiously as she got out of the car and walked up to him. "I'm Killian."
"What are you doing here?" Emma demanded.
Killian glanced at the school, "Given the circumstances of our meeting, I figured you had a child and would be picking them up..." He grimaced, "Alright, that sounds a bit creepy when you say it out loud."
Emma bristled at the way he was looking at her; confused, nervous, hopeful, and longingly all at the same time. She had never elicited so much emotion from a person before. Of course it wasn't really her making him feel that way, but the idea of a perfect person out there who'd make him happy. Like hell that person was her.
"Just cut to the chase." she snapped. His look of hurt made her stomach twist with guilt. She was treating him like crap and the poor guy had done nothing to deserve it. Nervously, she tucked a strand of hair behind her left ear. "Sorry... um... I'm not really good at this."
"What's your name?"
"Emma." She shifted her weight to one foot.
Killian ran a hand through his jet black hair, "I'll admit this isn't how I imagined it would go."
"Momma!" Henry cried as he ran through the gates of the school, waving a piece of paper in his hand. He threw his arms around her legs and grinned up at her. "Hi Momma. Why is your chest all glowy?"
Emma swallowed. She glanced up at Killian for a second, noting the small smile he was holding back, and answered, "Um, I just met my soulmate."
Henry turned around and examined Killian. "You're Momma's soulmate?"
"Aye lad, that I am." Killian replied. "Killian Jones, at your service."
"My name's not Lad." her son giggled, "It's Henry."
Killian laughed along with him, "Well my apologizes Henry."
And of course he was good with kids. Wonderful.
Henry tilted his head with an innocent, wide-eyed smile on his face. "So, does that mean you're gonna be my daddy now?"
Shit. Shit. Emma felt her knee buckle. Here it came, the moment when he cut and ran. Sure, he had figured out that she was a mother, but actually seeing her with her kid must been something different. Stiffly, Emma looked up at Killian. Instead of looking for the nearest exit, his eyes were wide with some emotion she couldn't make out. Who was this guy?
"Um...I mean..." Killian stuttered. He glanced up at Emma for a clue what to say.
"It's too soon to say." Emma told Henry. "Hey, why don't you wait in the car? I need to talk to Killian alone."
"'kay." Henry waved at Killian. "Bye bye."
Killian waved back. "It was nice to meet you." He looked to Emma, obviously waiting for her to lead the conversation.
"So, we're soulmates, but honestly I've never really believed in that stuff." Emma exhaled sharply. Just rip it off, like a bandage. "Relationships aren't my thing and I'm not going to try to live up to any expectations you might have. I've got my own sh-" Can't swear; there are kids here. "My own problems to deal with."
To his credit, Killian simply nodded. Instinctively Emma knew she'd cut him deeply, but giving him the hard truth was better than making him hope for something she couldn't give him. "I see. Can I at least give you my contact information, in case you change your mind? Whatever we become, that's entirely up to you."
She figured she could at least give him that. "Sure." Emma took her phone out of her purse and held it out to him. Killian hesitated for just a second before taking it from her. His skin brushed against hers softly. The pulsing lights stilled and slowly faded. Emma stood there with her hands in her pockets, feeling crappier by the second. It's better this way, she reminded herself.
When he finished, Emma slipped her phone back in her pocket. For half a heartbeat, she wanted to kiss his cheek, but she fought against it. "Bye." she whispered. Then she turned and walked back to her car, giving him one more apologetic look over her shoulder.