Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognize from our beloved fairy tale show.
A/N: Written as a post-ep for last week's episode 1x17. Which, by the way, was awesome and inspiring. Spoilers for that, but if you haven't seen it...what are you reading fanfiction for?
Much thanks to Pandorama for stepping up as a surrogate beta.
Emma parks her car in the mostly empty school parking lot. School ended almost two hours ago, but she knows the building will still be open since the one janitor who works there always falls asleep on the job. At any rate, she has a key, so it doesn't much matter if the doors are still open or not. She sighs, tired after another long and trying day of looking for evidence to help Mary Margaret. She's coming here as a favor, to collect some of Mary Margaret's things; the school, no doubt motivated (or forced) by Regina, ordered her desk cleared out immediately. Emma shakes her head at the senselessness of it all.
As she steps out of her car, she surveys the brick façade of the building. She catches sight of a lone figure seated on the edge of the concrete banister next to the stairs going up to the entrance. As Emma steps closer, she recognizes the young girl staring off into space and her heart nearly stops.
Instantly the memories come flooding back. Looking at Paige is almost as painful as seeing Henry leave with Regina. Even though Paige is not hers, she knows to whom Paige truly belongs, and she knows how much he is suffering without her. She wants to believe she understands the depth of his pain, but if she's being honest, she'll admit that Henry wasn't hers until he found her. He wasn't hers until she knew, ten years after he was born, that he wanted her. It makes her feel guilty because she has something she never even knew she wanted, whereas he cannot have the one thing he has only ever wanted.
As she continues to the school building, she decides she's not going to say anything. She doesn't know what she would say anyway; she has never met Paige in person. Henry had greeted her the other day, but she, Emma, had not been introduced, which would make saying hello now awkward, to say the least. She keeps her eyes straight ahead, focusing only on the door, and looking anywhere than out of the corner of her eye, from which Paige's figure is still just visible.
Emma turns on her heel to see who spoke, though she already knows. There is no one else around. "Hi," she responds, unsure what else to say. She almost adds Paige's name, but stops herself just in time.
"You're Henry's mom, aren't you?" Paige asks, turning toward her.
"Yes," she answers slowly, thrown by the question. She has no idea anyone outside of herself, Mary Margaret, and Regina knew about their relation. But of course Henry would talk. She finds she doesn't actually mind that he talks about her, and this realization is accompanied by a fresh twinge of guilt. "How did you know that?"
"Henry told me," Paige says. "He talks about you a lot."
"Oh," is all Emma can say.
"I'm Paige, by the way."
"I know," Paige answers. "You're also the sheriff."
"I am," Emma says, now genuinely surprised by how much Paige knows. But then she reminds herself that she can probably read, and of course the election was all over the newspapers. She realizes she should say something. "Are you – you're here by yourself a little late, aren't you?"
Paige shrugs. "I guess. My parents had to work. They always work this late, I just used to have art class after school so that kept me busy."
"Well…" Emma casts her mind around for something to say. "Do you want me to wait with you?"
Paige shakes her head. "You don't have to." But there is no mistaking the slight note of hope in her voice.
"I don't mind," she assures her, and she means it. She finds herself drawn to Paige, as painful as it is, to know what she does and what she is unable to tell her. Realizing Paige might find her silence suspicious, Emma throws out the first question that comes to mind. "Why don't you have art class today?"
"The art teacher doesn't work here anymore," Paige replies.
Emma almost asks who the art teacher is, but stops herself just in time. She knows who it is; it's Mary Margaret, of course it is. Strangely enough, her absence has actually caused the circumstances that brought Emma and Paige together.
Emma turns to her. "Sorry," she apologizes. "Did you say something?"
"I asked why you came here. I mean, school's over and Henry isn't here, so why are you…?"
"Oh," Emma says. "I told Mar – Miss Blanchard I would pick some things up for her from her classroom. She's-" Emma suddenly hesitates, realizing it's probably not the best idea to talk about how a teacher has been arrested for murder. "She's too busy to come get them herself."
"You don't have to do that," Paige replies simply. "Say she's busy, I mean. I know why she's not here."
Unsure how to reply, Emma asks instead, "Do you need a ride? My car is right here."
"No," Paige says. "My parents told me not to accept rides from strangers."
Emma smiles, though for some inexplicable reason she finds herself wishing Paige didn't think of her as a stranger. "That's really good advice."
There's been silence for almost a minute before Paige begins tentatively, "What's it like living with her - Miss Blanchard?"
Emma frowns. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing," Paige responds quickly, as though afraid she's offended her. "Just that – well, Henry said that you were good friends."
Like family, Emma thinks.
"And I was wondering what it would be like to live with your best friend."
There is a tone of longing in Paige's voice that resonates with her, and she realizes it's because Paige seems lonely. Despite the loving family, she is still in need of something more. It's not that the family mistreats her – she's simply alone a lot of the time.
It pains her to know someone who would give everything and then some to spend the rest of his life with her.
"It's great," Emma finally replies. "It's really great. Before I lived with her, I was on my own, and I had been on my own for a long time."
"I'm on my own a lot, too," Paige offers.
"You must have friends," Emma tells her. "Everyone has at least one." Well, she adds as qualification, at some point in their life. She can't remember having any friends at Paige's age.
"I do," Paige assures her. "I just don't see them out of school a lot – oh!" She looks up at the sound of a car horn honking. Emma watches as a silver car pulls up to the front of the school. She recognizes Paige's mother from the telescope. She doesn't leave the car, but waves at Paige and Emma. Paige jumps off the ledge and picks up her backpack.
"Thanks for waiting with me," she says, flashing Emma a smile. "It was nice meeting you, Emma."
"It was nice meeting you, too," Emma says, smiling back. She watches as Paige opens the car door and slides into the front seat. Her mother greets her with a hug. She suddenly feels a deep longing for someone to hug her hello like that.
Emma acknowledges Paige's mother with a wave and nod before the car drives away. She wraps her arms around herself, suddenly aware of the change in temperature signaling that it's almost dark. She looks at the school building, feels the key in her pocket, and then decides against going in. She can always come back the next day; it's not like Mary Margaret's things are going anywhere. And even if they did, they'd just end up at the sheriff's office anyway.
As she slides back into her car, Emma realizes that Paige is the first person she's met whom she truly believes is someone else. The thought scares her, if only because it means that everything else Henry has ever told her is true. She wants so badly to believe, but her feet are firmly planted in this world. How could what had been her reality for twenty-eight years not be real? Could it really be that another world exists out there, a magical world no less? No, she wants to insist, but her heart is screaming yes.
This may be her reality, but the existence of another world in which a kind and loving father cares for a daughter named Grace seems just as real as the conversation she just had with Paige.
It's enough to drive anyone mad.
A/N: Please review if you feel so inclined; I would love to know what you thought! For any interested party, I am continuing Family Portrait with more Emma and Mary Margaret vignettes, so stay tuned!