It all started with a proposal.
A lot of things do. They precede any big undertaking, after all. Business deals. Engagements. Murders for hire.
Or if you're Emma Swan, they might precede awkwardly comforting your crying ex-boyfriend in the parking lot behind an Italian restaurant after you've just broken his heart into little, itty bitty pieces.
Maybe if she'd been the type of girl who'd dreamt of her wedding day since she was a little girl, it all would have gone another way. Her friend, Mary Margaret, was like that. She'd had every single detail of her lavish but intimate ceremony planned out in her head a decade ahead of time, a stash of bridal magazines hidden underneath her mattress, like porn.
Maybe if Emma had been more like that, she would've scooped that ring right up off that dessert platter, and wept happy tears as her husband-to-be helped slide it onto her finger.
But she wasn't. So she didn't.
Sure, it wasn't all bad, with the nice dinners and surprise lunch dates. Respectful missionary sex and flowers on Valentine's Day. The goodnight texts and weekend trips away. But it wasn't… it wasn't it, for Emma. He wasn't it.
She was never going to be Mrs. Walsh Norman. There would be no happily ever after, no disappearing into the sunset in a rented convertible, built for two. It just wasn't on the cards.
And, oh yeah, they needed to break up. Like, yesterday.
To say things hadn't gone exactly how Walsh had been imagining was maybe the understatement of the year. Instead he sat there, blindsided, his platter of artisanal gelato melting into a forgotten puddle in front of him as he came to terms. And there was Emma, forced into the role of reluctant voyeur as he cycled through all five stages of grief.
Denial. "What do you mean, over? Emma, you can't mean that!"
Anger. "I thought you were happy. Or was that just a lie, too?"
Bargaining. "Emma, darling, we can work this out."
Depression. "My therapist told me I love too easily. It's true, isn't it?"
Acceptance. "Maybe you're right. Maybe we're just not compatible enough. I knew you were lying when you said you liked jazz."
It was about then that the crying started up, great heaving sobs that had other diners turning around in alarm, and the wait staff scurrying back into the kitchen to make sure no one had popped the champagne early. Crying which didn't seem to abate at all, even as Emma paid the bill and coaxed him outside, away from the peanut gallery.
It wasn't until she bundled him into a taxi that he seemed to calm down a little, enough to offer up a watery smile, a small kiss pressed to her cheek. "Take care of yourself, Emma."
And thus ended Emma Swan's longest relationship to date. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
She wanted to feel guilty. Okay, she felt a little guilty. There was no way an engagement ring with a rock that size had been cheap. And clearly, clearly, Walsh had been more invested in their relationship than she had ever been.
But mostly? Mostly she was relieved.
So relieved she tipped the cab driver double, and walked the rest of the way home, humming a tune under her breath she hadn't heard in months.
"So, uh, Walsh proposed last night."
It seemed like a good time as any. Sunday night dinner was in full effect, the sauvignon blanc just beginning to take hold. The whole gang was there. Mary Margaret and her fantasy dreamboat husband, David. Ruby and Victor, doing a poor imitation of two people who weren't screwing. August and Jefferson, arguing over revisions for August's newest book.
The tackle came from her left, almost knocking her from her chair. Ruby, of course, making a desperate grab for her left hand. Upon finding Emma's ring finger tellingly vacant, the brunette let out a jubilant whoop, leaning over to wrap her in a celebratory chokehold.
"Oh, thank god," David sighed from across the table, his face falling into his hands. There was a murmur of agreement from the other guys.
Not exactly the scenario she'd been roleplaying in the car on the ride over.
Emma blinked, stunned. "I uh.. Let me get this straight," she said, shaking herself free herself from Ruby's clutches. "None of you liked him? Like, at all?" Her words were met with nothing but suspicious silence, six sets of eyes determined to avoid her gaze.
"Mary Margaret?" she said, turning on her oldest friend. "What about that double date thing we did down in Portland? That was your idea!" Emma accused.
"I was being supportive," Mary Margaret responded in a small voice, shrinking under the weight of Emma's scrutiny. "More potatoes anyone?" she asked the room at large, before rising from her seat and disappearing into the kitchen with unusual haste.
Emma caught Jefferson's eye across the table. "You invited him to your daughter's christening!"
He shrugged sheepishly. "I wanted to make it an even number."
"Seriously? I've been seeing the guy for eight months, and now you all tell me you don't like him? What if I'd said yes?"
"Then we would have kept our mo-" But whatever else Victor had been about to say came to a premature end after someone, most likely David, kicked him under the table.
Emma turned on Ruby next. "You're the one who said I should go out with him in the first place!"
"Yeah," Ruby admitted. "So you could get laid. I didn't think you'd keep him! He's so…" She trailed off, the right word temporarily escaping her.
Decent. Stable. Reliable. All those adjectives that had practically been a revelation to Emma in the beginning. It's why they'd stayed together as long as they had. It's why Emma could admit to a flicker of temptation when she first glimpsed that solitaire diamond twinkling under the electric chandelier. It would have been a nice life. A contented life. No fireworks, but something solid. Something to rely on. If only Emma could have settled for it.
"Normal," Emma supplied glumly, taking a long sip of wine. "Unlike me."
"Oh, honey, no!" Emma wasn't sure exactly when Mary Margaret had come skulking back into the room, but now it was apparently her turn to come up and squeeze the life out of Emma, boa-constrictor style. "There's nothing wrong with you!"
"Oh, sure," Emma coughed, trying to get some air back into her lungs. She could feel the tears starting to well up, unbidden, as Mary Margaret pulled away. "Only I had a great guy offer me this fancy ring and instead of saying yes, like a normal person, I dumped him."
"Emma-" But whatever words of consolation Mary Margaret were about to offer up quickly fell away when Ruby stood up.
"Prosaic!" she shouted, looking pleased with herself.
David's head dropped back down into his hands. Mary Margaret glared.
"What?" Ruby asked. "What did I say?"
Emma hadn't had a cigarette in two years, but somehow she still found herself out on the back porch after dessert, feeling around inside the bird feeder for David's secret stash. Paydirt. One crumpled half pack of Camels and a BIC lighter. She drew the lighter out and gave it an experimental flick, but no flame was forthcoming, just a shower of useless sparks.
"You made the right call." The words came from just behind her, and Emma wheeled around in alarm, dropping the lighter into a potted geranium in the process.
August, of course. He delighted in skulking around unnoticed. It was his thing. He said it made him a better writer, being able to observe others without their realizing. Emma might have said it was textbook creeper behavior, but August rarely asked.
"Shit, August," she said, slapping him on the shoulder. "I thought you were Mary Margaret come to bust me!"
He shrugged, leaning down into the pot to retrieve the lighter. Of course, when he flicked it, it worked first time. Figured.
She shook a cigarette loose and placed it between her teeth, leaning close so he could light it.
"You think Mary Margaret knows about David's enduring nicotine addiction?" Emma asked, handing the pack over.
"I think we all underestimate that woman," August offered, cryptically. "You made the right call," he repeated. "With Walsh."
Emma let out a soft chuckle. "You sure about that? You didn't have much to say about it over dinner."
He tilted his head meaningfully, as he inhaled his first lungful.
"Maybe," Emma mused. "It felt right at the time. Good, even. Like I'd dodged a bullet. Now I just feel like maybe I made a huge mistake. Like I'm waiting around for some magical thing that's never going to happen, and I missed my shot at something real."
"Fuck that," he said, with more ferocity than she'd expected.
"Fuck that, and fuck normal. Emma, you were right not to marry the guy. Just because he's not a certified lunatic, or some abusive asshole, doesn't mean he's the right guy for you."
"Were you even in love with him?"
So it was going to be one of those conversations, apparently. The kind where Emma just had to dangle helplessly at the end of the line, and hope to god someone had the decency to cut her free.
Emma shrugged, cigarette smoke wafting between them. "I don't know. Maybe?"
"Maybe?" August parroted scornfully. "Trust me, Em. If you really love someone, you know. You made the right call."
Emma scrutinized the man in front of her, with his hipster beard and too earnest eyes. "Since when are you the expert?"
"I've been around," he shrugged vaguely, searching around for somewhere to collect the cigarette ash.
"I know you think it's cute when you're all mysterious and shit, but actually, it just makes me want to punch you. Repeatedly. In your stupid, mysterious face."
He gave her an enigmatic smile, and the desire to punch him grew exponentially. "Another reason you and Walsh would never work. Guy's a born pacifist if I ever saw one. Whereas you, on the other hand…" he trailed off meaningfully.
"Shut up," Emma said, itching to give him a shove but too stubborn to prove him right. She settled instead for grinding her cigarette under her heel with more force than was strictly necessary. "How's the book coming, anyway? You sold it, right?"
"Yep. A few revisions and it should be out by July. Then a few signings and festivals. Maybe even in Europe."
"And I thought I hated you before," Emma laughed, leaning over to pick up the cigarette butt, making sure it was extinguished before dropping it into the pocket of her jacket.
"You could come," August offered.
"Yeah, sure," Emma scoffed, with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I don't even have a passport."
"So? Get one. If you really want to see Europe, what's stopping you? Certainly not your long-term boyfriend."
Emma gave him a hard stare. "And my job? I'm not like you. I can't just jet off to places unknown with a credit card and a laptop, and emerge grinning six months later with a finished novel and a secret tattoo."
August's eyes narrowed at the tattoo mention, but he was not easily deterred. "They have colleges in Europe, Em. A lot of them. And they'd be lucky to have you teach."
"And screw up my chance at getting tenure?" Emma reasoned. "I have a mountain of student loans! There's no way I'll ever pay them back if I don't chase that brass ring."
"Suit yourself," August said. "But there are other ways to make money, you know."
Emma rolled her eyes. "Spare me the lecture, Mr Two Book Deal. We don't all have special talents. Some of us just have to work with the cards we were dealt."
August opened his mouth, but his rebuttal was quickly interrupted by the tell-tale screech of the sliding door. There was a shared look of panic, after which Emma reached over and plucked the cigarette from his lips, stepping on the evidence just as Mary Margaret came into view, looking between them with a frown.
"Everything okay?" she asked, warily.
"Fine!" Emma said in a strangled voice, holding her hand up to halt her friend's progress towards them, and the tell-tale stench of cigarette smoke that might give them away. She tried screwing her face up into something that seemed almost pained. "Just Walsh stuff, you know. We'll be there in a minute."
Mary Margaret looked doubtful, but nodded all the same. "Alright, well Jefferson brought some brandy. When you're ready..." Then with one last glance in their direction, she backed into the house slowly, the glass door squealing shut behind her.
"You think she suspects?" Emma asked, retrieving the second cigarette butt, searching around in vain for some fragrant bloom that might help mask their scent.
"Yes," August supplied, unhelpfully. "But if you really want to sell it, I'd turn on the waterworks. She's far too nice to interrogate a crying woman."
"Yeah, that's not happening," Emma said dismissively, starting back towards the sliding door. "Mary Margaret knows I don't get emotional over guys."
"Yet!" August called from behind her. Emma contented herself with flipping him off as she stepped back inside.
They say bad things come in threes. Emma had no idea who they were, exactly, or who had decided that they were the authorities on all things crappy. But, as usual, they were right.
Failed relationship? Check. Disastrous dinner party? Check. What did that leave left to ruin, but Emma's fledgling academic career?
The knock at her office door came late on Monday afternoon, whilst Emma sat at her desk stuffing her face with Funions she'd liberated from the vending machine downstairs. Because what better look could there be, when the department head came a-calling?
His name was Archie, and as far as bosses went, he was on the less intimidating end of the spectrum. Soft spoken, with outdated glasses and unruly rust-coloured curls, Professor Hopper was the nerd in every 80s sitcom, all grown up. How he'd ever managed to beat out the more assertive members of the faculty for the job as department chair had always remained a bit of a mystery. Emma suspected nepotism. He didn't seem the type for blackmail.
Even so, Emma straightened up at once, stuffing the bag of chips into her desk drawer.
"Do you have a moment, Emma?"
"Sure," she said, trying to casually brush the crumbs from the front of her sweater, as the man folded himself into the only other available chair, pulling it up close to her desk.
"I'm sorry to just barge in like this, Emma. But I thought you deserved to hear it from me, personally."
Emma could feel that all-too-familiar sinking feeling settle uneasily in her stomach. "Hear… what?"
"I'm not quite sure how to put this…" the man fumbled, his face flushing slightly as his eyes were drawn deliberately to the college calendar tacked up behind Emma's desk. "Enrolments are down across the board for next year. So, in their divine wisdom, the board of governors have decided to gut the social sciences budget, to keep the business school afloat."
The back of Emma's throat felt scratchy, as she fumbled for the right response. "How bad?"
"We've already lost five in administration. They're hoping to lose another three teaching staff, if they can. They're offering voluntary redundancy. A tidy severance."
There was a meaningful silence, as the intent behind his words became clear.
"You want me to take it," Emma said, filling in the blanks.
The man looked almost pained. "I'm asking you to consider it. You're still the youngest member of the department. No family to think about. It might even be a good opportunity for you."
"A good opportunity," Emma repeated, flatly.
But if Professor Hopper noticed her lack of enthusiasm, he didn't let on. "Of course!" he said. "Isn't there something you've always wanted to do? Somewhere you've always wanted to go? Why not take that money and do something worthwhile? You finished your PhD at, what? 25? You're still so young, and there's so much more to life than academia!"
To Emma's ears, it sounded a whole lot like they'd already drafted up her resignation letter.
"I'll… uh… think about it," she managed.
Encouraged, the man brightened, rising from his chair to reach over for a handshake.
"Excellent," he said, in an annoyingly chipper tone. "I'll just let you… mull things over. In your own time, of course. Though if you could let me know by the end of the week…"
Emma may have slammed the door on him at that point. It was a small victory, but hell, she needed one. What could they do about it? Fire her?
Job hunting under the influence was par for the course. What did it matter if she had a class at 8am the next morning? They were expecting her gone by the end of the week anyway.
It started off small. Nearby colleges. A decent commute. But after an hour or so she found herself extending her search ever outwards, down into Massachusetts. Fuck it. Why not? It's not like she had anything keeping her specifically in Storybrooke. Her relationship with Walsh was over. Her career was over. Sure, she had her friends, but they all had their own shit going on. Getting married. Getting laid. Getting published.
What did Emma have? Nothing. Just a fat lot of nothing. A crapload of debt and a shabby little studio apartment with a short-term lease. Yeah, great.
It was nearing 2am, after she'd opened her second bottle of wine, that things really started getting a little ridiculous. She thought back to what August had said, about colleges in Europe. 'Lucky to have her,' he'd said.
He'd been lying, obviously. Not even her small-town liberal arts college had wanted her, but the wine had made her bold. Or stupid. Or both.
She couldn't speak French, obviously. Or German, or Spanish or any other of the myriad of languages she would need to get a job on the Continent. So that narrowed things down a bit. Ireland. The UK.
She'd taken a number of classes on British History as an undergrad, and there had been no shortage of material. The Battle of Hastings. The War of the Roses. Waterloo. Oliver Fucking Cromwell. At one point she'd been tempted to write her PhD about the Highland clearances, and the resulting Scottish diaspora, but she'd chickened out and settled for something a little closer to home. The good ol' American Revolution.
And that's when she saw it. Buried three pages back in her search. The University of Edinburgh needed a lecturer in American History for the next academic year.
Well, Emma thought, knocking back the rest of her glass, why the fuck not?