i. Breathe in, breathe out,/ Tell me all of your doubts,/ and Everybody bleeds this way, / Just the same.

Her brother always tells the best stories.

He crawls into her bed when their foster parents are asleep, and he wipes the tears off her cheeks, and he promises her the nightmare is over. And she asks for a story, "please, Auggie." He smiles, and he tells her about a huntsmen with a kind heart, and he tells her about a boy who only wanted to be free like the crickets, and he tells her about a shepherd who fell in love with a fearless bandit.

She sucks her thumb, clings to her blankie, amazed, enthralled.

"And the best part is," he whispers, "it really happened." He always ends his stories like that.

She smiles, sleepy. August kisses her forehead. "Sleep, Emma."

But she shakes her head. "Not yet," she murmurs, stubborn even at five, "tell our story first."

He never refuses her. "Once upon a time," he says, "there was a little girl, and she was the prettiest girl in the whole wide world, and her parents loved her so much. But they couldn't look after her, so they left her with her older brother, who promised he would. And because he loved his sister more than anybody in the whole wide world, he kept his promise, and he looked after her forever."

"And they lived happily ever after," Emma says, "right, Auggie?"

"Yeah," August says. Emma falls asleep, absolutely positive at five years old that she is the luckiest girl in the whole world, never mind her terrible foster parents or the mean bullies at school.

It turns out that happily ever after isn't so simple, but that doesn't matter.

The first time her foster mother hits her is also the last, because August shoves the woman with all his might, and he throws a vase at her, and "don't you touch my little sister, you stupid, evil witch!"

August ends up with a black eye, and they have to talk to a lot of social workers, but it all works out. A few weeks later, Emma clings to August as they are taken to another home, a safer home, the social workers promise, a better home. And she isn't so sure about that, but August is with her.

He teaches her to tie her shoes, and he teaches her the multiplication tables, and he teachers her how to fight, "poke 'em in the eye, Princess," he says, because she always smiles when he calls her that. They are sent to a third foster home, and to a fourth, and August turns eighteen, and that's that.

They rent an apartment, and he bakes her a chocolate cake for her twelfth birthday. They eat it on the floor, because they don't really have any furniture, and he tells her about Snow White, the best princess, he says, the prettiest, the fiercest. "And the best part is," he finishes, "it really happened."

She is too old to believe that, but she smiles nonetheless, because "you're so stupid, Auggie."

"Yeah, I love you, too, Princess." He flicks chocolate icing at her, and she dissolves into laughter.

But the older she becomes, the more she doubts all his talk about happy endings.

They take her from him for a few years, because he can't pay the bills, because a kid can't look after a kid. She comes to hate school, and she almost fails out, and "I don't want to hear any stupid fairy tale stories, August," she snaps, irritated. She is almost sixteen years old, is almost always irritated.

Another year, and she is too pretty for her own good, August says, and she is too wild, and "you're bound for trouble," he shouts, losing his patience when he picks her up from the police station. "You should be bound for college, Princess!" She snarls that he never went to college, so why should she? He bruises his hand when he slams his fist into a wall. She doesn't care.

"And don't call me Princess," she adds. He makes sure to address her as Princess in every sentence he says for the next week, of course, until she wants to pull out all her hair. She screams at him to leave her alone, to let her make her own decisions, to treat her like an adult. "I'm almost eighteen!"

"You're barely seventeen," he counters, "and you smoke and drink and mess around with —"

"Oh, don't act like you didn't smoke and drink and mess around when you were my age!"

"You're right," he says, frustrated, always so frustrated with her, "I did, and it fucked up our lives. We lost the apartment, and the state took you from me. And I promised my father that I would —"

"Who the fuck cares what you promised the dad who didn't want us, August?" She storms out.

A few weeks later, and she is absolutely certain that happy endings don't really exist. August finds her in the bathroom, sitting in the bathtub fully dressed, hoping the water that rains down might freeze her to death. He shuts off the shower. "Okay, what's the matter, Princess?" he asks, wary.

And she starts to cry, but she manages to force the words out. "I'm pregnant," she confesses. He stares at her for a moment, stares until she buries her face in her hands. But he climbs into the tub beside her, and he ignores her soaked clothes when he pulls her against his chest. She is so furious at herself, furious that she let this happen, that she disappointed him. "I'm so, so sorry, Auggie."

"Me, too," he whispers.

She plans to have an abortion. But she can't do it. She can't keep the kid, though.

"Do you want to keep the kid?" August asks.

"I can't," she replies.

"That isn't what I asked."

"August, if you're about to say that you think I should keep this kid —"

"No, I'm just trying to —"

"— or tell me some story about a princess in a magical world who is pregnant and alone and weeps herself to sleep at night, but, oh, wait, suddenly a baboon poops out a magical purple fairy, and —"

"Really, Emma? C'mon. I'm being serious here."

The argument lasts them through the night, and through the week, and almost for an entire month.

But, in the end, Emma does what she wants, because she might not be able to count on Charlie, and she might not know how to be a mother, but she will learn, and she will have August to help her through it all. It takes her a week to pick a name, but she finally settles on Henry. She just likes it.

August smiles and tells her it fits. "Prince Henry," he says. "Sounds pretty good."

She rolls her eyes, and she hopes he doesn't catch her smile.

August bakes her a chocolate cake for her nineteenth birthday, and they eat it on the floor, because tradition is tradition. He tells her to make a wish when she blows out her candle, and she replies that if magic exists somewhere, she wishes she could have it, so that she could magically change dirty diapers and magically make Henry sleep all night and magically afford formula and doctor visits and a babysitter. August laughs, Henry snoozes in his bassinet, and Emma eats half the cake.

She starts to make enough money to support herself and her son, but she still counts on August. Her fatherless son couldn't possibly have a better uncle, and the world seems a little brighter when she hears August tell Henry stories about a shepherd who slayed a dragon and a dwarf who loved a fairy and a wooden boy who came to life. "And the best part is," he adds, "it really happened."

But, well, it upsets her a little, the thought that August might honestly believe his stories are real.

He is thirty-two years old, and he believes in magic and fairy tales and a silly curse. And she worries that it isn't healthy for Henry to cart around that stupid book that August made, because he might be a kid, but he can't believe in fairy tales forever. August is fired, or quits, but he isn't upset.

He wants to move Maine. "Are you kidding me, August?" she exclaims. "Oh, God, you've lost it."

And Henry pipes up that everybody is trapped in Maine, Jiminy Cricket and Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and everybody, "and you're the only person who can save them, Momma!"

Emma turns to August. "Emma," he starts.

"No."

A long, awful week follows before everything explodes when Henry is put to bed, teeth brushed, pajamas on, and he asks August for a story. "Tell me your story!" he says. Emma smiles, thinking it sweet that August tells that stupid little story to Henry, but, wait, no, that isn't what he means.

The story Henry wants to hear is a story about Pinocchio.

Henry is put to bed, and the fight starts. "This is insane, Auggie!" Emma hisses. "Listen to yourself! Those stories are sweet, but they are not real. I'm not a princess. You're not Pinocchio."

"Just because you don't want to believe it," August says, "that doesn't mean it isn't real —"

"Snow White is not my mother!" Emma says, fighting not to shout; she doesn't want to wake Henry. "And you are not a wooden puppet! I mean, just — just listen to yourself, August!"

It drags on, and on, and on, their worst fight since they were both still just stupid kids.

"Dammit, Emma!" he shouts at last, almost shaking with fury, with frustration. He takes a deep breath, running his hands over his hair, trying to reign in his temper. "I understand that this world is cold and cynical, and I understand that you have only ever know this world, but you cannot —"

"Only ever known this world," Emma repeats. "Again, August, do you not hear yourself?"

"But someday, Emma, you will have to believe in something —"

"I do!" Emma cries, exasperated, unable to hold it in, and it is enough to silence August. She stares at him for a moment, and he stares back, and they're both panting, so fed up with each other, and, just like that, her heart softens. "I do believe in something, Auggie," she says, "the only thing I've ever believed in." She starts to smile despite it all. "I believe in my big brother. I believe in you."

The kitchen is quiet.

"I don't have that — that smart, sweet, beautiful boy to call my own because of magic," she whispers. "I don't love my life because of — of fairy tales, or — anything like that. I'm not happy for any reason other than — than that for as long as I can remember, for my whole life, I've always had you to count on. Not magic. Not fairy tales. You. So that's what I believe in, Auggie. You."

He stares at her, and the smile tugs on his lips, even as tears bead in his eyes. "C'mere, Princess."

She laughs at the stupid nickname, but she walks into his open arms, hugs him.

A spectacular crash sounds from down the hall, and Emma can only manage to look towards the noise before, an instant later, Henry tumbles unharmed from his room. "Momma!" he exclaims. "The bed just broke!" His eyes are wide, his pajamas askew, his wooden sword still in his hand.

"All by itself?" August asks, his eyes on the sword, his amusement poorly disguised.

Henry nods, as serious as a seven-year-old can possibly be. "All by itself, Uncle Auggie."

"Careful, kid," Emma says. "I think I just saw your nose grow a little."

August chuckles. But he suggests they see how much damage the bed did to itself, and Henry nods, starts a story about how he was playing with his sword and was no where near the bed, and Emma watches them talk for a moment, her son and her brother, her boys, her family, her world.

She doesn't believe in magic or fairy tales or a silly curse.

But she thinks she just might believe in happy endings.

"Well, the bed isn't about to make a come back," August announces, and Henry starts to insist that it wasn't his fault, and please don't make him sleep on the floor. Emma bites back her laugher, but August doesn't bother as he looks down at Henry, ruffles his hair, and tells him not to worry. "I can take the couch, and you can sleep in mine. And I'm sure we can find you a new bed in Maine."

Henry smiles, and Emma shoots August the stink eye.

"We are not moving to Maine," she declares, teeth gritted, "and that's the end of this conversation."


ii. Breathe in, breathe out, / Move on and break down,/ If everyone goes away, I will stay.

The dwarves always warn her to be careful.

And she always laughs at the notion that danger could touch her in the forest, and Happy sighs, and Sneezy shakes his head, and she skips out into the woods, unafraid, because this is her forest.

Her mother makes her learn her letters, and arithmetic, and how to mend her own clothes, and her father tries to teach her about the twelve kingdoms that circle the enchanted forest, and she studies the maps he draws, and she recites the stories he tells her about history, but she is unconcerned with it all. Her life is not in the twelve kingdoms that circle the enchanted forest; she lives in the forest itself, in the deep, dark depths where those from the kingdoms would never dare step foot.

She doesn't need to know her letters, or arithmetic, or how to mend her own clothes.

She can climb any tree, track any animal, swim any river. And that is much more important.

The dwarves tell her that someday she will be a princess, will live in a castle, attend stupid balls.

But she snorts at the thought, and she uses her spoon to catapult her stew at Grumpy so that he will chase her out into the woods, because Grumpy is the only dwarf who runs fast enough to catch Emma, which means he is always the most fun, even if she needs to coax him into because he likes to pretend he doesn't want to play with her in the woods. It will always be like that. He will always be her best friend, and she will always live in the woods, and she will never be a castle princess.

She is a princess, yes. A forest princess. And she always will be. She is sure of it.

After all, she asks her father, and he laughs, pulls her into his lap, and tells her she is the prettiest, wildest forest princess in the world. And her father knows everything, so when he puts a flower crown on her head and declares her to be Princess Emma of the Enchanted Forest, she is certain.

She is a forest princess, and this is her forest, and she shall never leave it.

As a forest princess, she can do whatever she likes.

She can play hide and seek, or she can spend all day floating in the lake, or she can befriend the birds. She begs and begs her mother to take her on a hunt. She is told to wait until she is older. She begs and begs her father to teach her how to fight with a sword. She is told not to tell her mother.

As soon as Annie is old enough, Emma takes her little sister into the woods. The three-year-old, her dark eyes bright, her dark curls springing free from her braid, eagerly runs after Emma as fast as her chubby little legs can carry her, and Emma starts to teach her sister absolutely everything.

Or she teaches her the important stuff, at least.

She teaches her how to track a rabbit, and how to make a dandelion necklace, and how to climb a tree to the very highest branch, because if they are princesses, they need thrones, and Emma thinks the tall oak a few kilometers south from the house, right beside her favorite river, will work well.

And when Ophira is born, Emma promises the small, pink infant that she will teach her, too.

It isn't until Emma is eleven that she even thinks to question it.

They are behind the cottage, working beside the fire pit, and Emma watches her mother skin a buck with careful, learned hands. Emma can skin rabbits, and squirrels, too, but she wants to be able to skin something so big as a buck. But her mother says that Emma is too young. "I am eleven," she protests, and she can't help herself. "I bet when you were eleven, your mother let you skin bucks."

Her mother looks at her so sadly that Emma feels her petulance fade in an instant.

"No, sweetheart," her mother replies softly, "I didn't know how to skin a buck when I was eleven." She is quiet for a few minutes, so Emma is quiet as well. She hears her little sisters squeal with delight from inside the cottage, surely playing with their father. A hawk flies a little low overhead, probably a friend. "I lived in a castle," her mother finally continues. "And I loved it very much."

Emma frowns, scrunching her nose, and it makes her mother laugh.

"But so why did you come to live in the forest?" Emma asks.

She is old enough to become more curious when her mother hesitates, clearly uncomfortable.

"Because when I was very young," her mother answers, biting her lip, "younger than you, I told a secret that I should not have told. I didn't understand the consequences. And it made someone hate me very much, so much that she wanted to make sure I would never, ever be happy." She stares at the buck for a moments, hands continuing the steady work as her mind is somewhere else. "I came to live in the forest," she finishes at last, "because she could not hurt my family in these woods."

Emma opens her mouth to ask more, but her mother beckons her suddenly, holding out the knife, and Emma realizes she is about to help her mother skin a buck, and she is too excited to care about a story that is all bare bones and no meat, a story that asks so many more questions than it answers.

She never finds out the rest, at least not from her mother.

It simply isn't something that really matters, a year passes, and her father shakes her awake, and she can barely see him through the smoke, but his hands bruise his arms as he whispers urgently to her that she must take her sisters and run. She is terrified, and she tries to speak but can only cough, and her father suddenly pulls her to his chest and holds her so tightly she can't really breathe, but she doesn't care, and she clutches him, and he whispers that he loves her so, so much.

"I will find you," he swears, and her sisters are shoved into her arms. "I promise, Emma."

She is almost thirteen years old, curly blonde hair falling all the way down her back, and she is strong and fast, and the forest is her kingdom. She hasn't ever feared anything in her whole life.

But, for the first time, as her six-year-old sister clings to her hand and her two-year-old sister sits on her hip, as she threads her way through the dark forest and tries not to feel the heat at her back, the heat from the fire that consumes the cottage, the only home she has ever know, Emma is afraid.

They don't stop until Annie cannot walk any further, and Emma is glad for the excuse to collapse on the ground, the sun high overhead, her heart even heavier than Ophira on her hip, too heavy, and she should've asked her father where she should run, and she should've asked him when he would find her, and she should've asked about her mother, about the dwarves. And most of all she should've asked why. Why was the cottage on fire? Why must they run? Why couldn't he run with them?

She wants to curl into a ball, to sob, to wait right in that spot for her father to find her.

But Annie tugs on her sleeve. "I'm hungry, Emmie," she whispers, and Ophira says she is as well, and Emma refuses to let herself cry. She catches a squirrel for her sisters, and she cooks it over a fire that smokes into a rotten tree so that no strangers can see, and she walks her sisters to a river.

They need to eat, and to drink, and to sleep. She finds a cave, and she throws a rock in it to scare away any possible rabid animals before she ushers her sisters inside, and she sings them to sleep.

It is the first day Princess Emma of the Enchanted Forest truly lives in the forest.

It is not the last.

Almost two weeks later, they find another cave. They are days and days and days from the cottage, surely far enough to be safe, and the cave is stocked with pots and pans, with pillows and blankets, with candles that still have wicks, with nets and ropes and hunting knives. They clean the cave, scrub all the pots and pans and wash all the pillows and blankets, and Emma teaches Annie how to start a fire, and she remembers the few lessons her father taught her in how to catch fish in a net. They eat like the princesses they are for that night, and Emma is hopeful.

A month passes, and hope becomes a dying thought, but Annie is more than happy to learn her letters and her arithmetic with a stick in the dirt, Emma for a teacher. Annie is better with a needle than Emma ever was, and she is more than happy, too, to let Emma teach her about the twelve kingdoms that circle the enchanted forest. Ophira listens, too, even if she doesn't understand. She sleeps curled against Emma, and her nightmares fade. Emma teachers the small girl to collect berries, and it keeps Ophira busy.

A month fades into two, and winter comes, and Emma needs her parents. He promised.

The coat she makes from a buck that freezes to death is shoddy, but it keeps Annie warm, and the meat lasts them weeks, probably keeps them alive, and Emma doesn't sleep for the three days that Ophira is sick, but she survives. They all survive, and winter melts into spring, and this is it.

This is their life.

Emma cuts off all her hair that summer; it is too burdensome. She teaches Ophira to swim that summer, too, just to hear her sister squeal in delight, and it is that summer that Annie finds a whistle hidden in the cave wall.

Emma steels herself to die the moment the wolves circle the cave, but the wolves do not attack, and Annie holds out her hand, says "hello, wolves," and the wolves fade back in the woods, just like that. The next afternoon, a wolf trots to the cave entrance. He drops a beaver in front, butts his head against Annie, and trots away, just like that. Emma is stunned, but the beaver is dinner for a week.

If her mother can befriend birds, surely Annie can befriend wolves.

They don't see the wolves for months, not until winter, not until Emma can count her ribs, and a buck appears outside the cave, fresh, his fur still warm. Another year, and the wolves are loyal friends, almost always near, delivering food when they deem the girls need it, letting Ophira cuddle with them to stay warm when the winter wind is at its worst, making Emma feel strangely safe.

A boy stumbles towards the cave on a particularly cold afternoon.

The wolves surround him in an instant.

Emma stares at the boy, who turns in a circle, his eyes wide, his breath shallow. He is too thin, his hair matted, his face dark with sweat and blood and dirt, and he is not a boy at all, she realizes; he is a man, surely older than her, and he is tall enough for it, but he is starved, and he is abandoned.

She recognizes it. She sees the same abandonment shine in her own eyes when she looks at her reflection in the river. She hops down from her tree, and the man spins to face her, and he takes a sharp, scared breath. Annie emerges from the cave and pets the nearest wolf. The man looks at her, and he seems to choke, and he looks at Emma. "I thought you were only a myth," he whispers.

"A myth?" Emma repeats.

"The wilding princesses of the Enchanted Forest," he breathes. And Emma starts to laugh, because she is not a silly, stupid child any longer, yet she really is Princess Emma of the Enchanted Forest.

"And who are you?" Annie asks, cocking her head.

"I — I am Charlie," he says. "Charlie Black."

"Yes," Emma says, "you are Charlie Black, and you are a terrible liar." She studies him. "But you look as if you could use something to eat, Charlie Black." He nods, and she decides to trust him, because the wolves will tear him to pieces if he betrays that trust. It might be nice to have a friend.

They only talk about their pasts once. She tells him that she lived in a cottage with her parents, and seven brothers lived only a kilometer to the west, and she lost them all, her whole family. She tells him about that night, and she stares at a tree when she tells him how her father broke his promise.

He touches her hand. "I understand," he says. "My father broke a promise to me, too." But at least they ended up together, Charlie says, and Emma smiles at that, because she thinks Charlie might be her best friend and, yes, maybe that is the light in all this darkness. At least they ended up together.

She kisses him for the first time when she is fifteen and he says she is still a child.

A few years later, when Emma sees a knight for the first time, she is pregnant.

The wolves surround the knight, and his horse rears up in terror, but Emma feels her own fear start to rise for the first time in so long, because she is bloated and helpless and pregnant, and Annie is hidden in a tree, safe, but Ophira is not, and Charlie looks at Emma, and he is afraid, too, she can see it, and they are right to be afraid when more knights emerge from the trees, swords in hand.

They are too many for the wolves, who will surely be slaughtered in a fight —

But "Princess Emma of the Seventh Kingdom," a knight says, and he kneels, and all the other knights kneel as well. Emma is shocked. Charlie touches her back. Ophira clings to her leg. Annie looks down at her with wide eyes. "I am Sir Orion, and his majesty King James sent me to find you. He searched himself as soon as the war ended five Sundays past, but these woods are vast, and he could not find you without help, and —" And Emma understands. She tries not to cry.

It took six years, but her father kept his promise after all.


iii. We push and pull, / and I fall down sometimes, / I'm not letting go. / You hold the other line.

Her mother always smells like french fries.

Emma loves it. Her mother is the prettiest mother in the whole world, and the smartest, and she works at a diner, which is the best job in the whole world, because she can eat all the cheeseburgers and french fries and chocolate milkshakes that she wants, and that means Emma can, too.

And her mother is special. She isn't like other mothers, and Emma likes that.

Her mother makes all the dresses that Emma wears, and she teaches Emma how to waltz, and she tells Emma a story for every single constellation in the sky, and she is the best mother in the world.

She lets stray cats from the street come into the apartment and eat their food, and she keeps all the windows open for birds to fly in to find the seeds that are littered along the bookshelves and the fireplace mantle and the counter. Her friend Sarah spends the night on a Friday, and the next Monday she tells Emma that her father forbade her to play with Emma if all those wild cats and dirty birds are in her house, and Emma doesn't understand why Sarah's father would do that.

And, sighing, her mother tells her that "people are simply different in this world." That is what makes her mother so special, what makes Emma so special. They aren't from this world. They are from another world. At night, before bed, her mother tells her about this world, about the beautiful castles and the enchanted forest and the magical creatures, and she tells Emma all about her father.

Prince Charming.

He loves Emma so much, her mother explains, but he is lost. An evil witch wanted to hurt Emma, but her father wouldn't let anyone hurt Emma, even if it meant he himself were cursed. "But he is still alive," her mother says, cuddling with Emma in bed, "and he still loves you so much, Emma, and, someday, we will find him, and we will end the curse, and we will be together. A family."

Emma is six, and her mother is her best friend, and she cannot wait to find her father.

It takes her a few more years to realize that her mother might not be special. Her mother is just —

Different.

She can't drive a car like other mothers, and she doesn't understand how televisions work, and she refuses to put her money from the diner in a bank. Emma doesn't understand what the problem is, but they are forced to leave their apartment on a rainy Wednesday, because they are told it isn't their apartment any longer, and Emma is so scared when they spend the night at a homeless shelter.

She hides her face against her mother, and she doesn't sleep at all.

They spend the next night in the large, white house where Mr. Roberts lives. He owns the diner, and he has thick black hair, and he makes Emma milkshakes with extra chocolate. She likes him.

She asks her mother if they can live with Mr. Roberts forever. Her mother smiles sadly, and she says they will only live with him until they can find a new place all their own. A few weeks. But they don't. They stay with him two nights, because on the second night, Emma wakes up when her mother screams. They leave the house not even ten minutes later and return to the homeless shelter.

Her mother refuses to cry, not even with a broken nose. She is the bravest mother ever.

Emma hears her mother explain to the woman at the shelter what happened, and she doesn't really understand what she hears, but she remembers what she hears, and it makes sense when she is older. A lot makes more sense when she is older, when she realizes that Mr. Roberts came on to her mother, and he hit her when she said no, and he kicked her out, and she lost her job as well.

Her mother finds a job at a pet store, and she works at a grocery store, too, to make ends meet.

Emma is twelve when she realizes her mother might be sick.

Everything is harder for her mother. She can't seem to understand the world.

Other mothers can help their daughters on history tests, can use telephones, can talk to lawyers about sexual harassment. But her mother doesn't even understand what a lawyer is. Other mothers don't need someone to explain to them how to open a soda can. Other mothers trust doctors and take their children to dentists. Other mothers don't believe in fairy tales or magic or other worlds.

But her mother does. Her mother thinks she is Snow White.

She hears her mother talking to herself, or to someone called Charming, the man she thinks is Prince Charming, her lost love, and Emma wants to shake her mother, wants her to realize that her husband is an asshole who abandoned her. He is not charming, and he is certainly not a prince.

But when she hears her mother start to cry to herself in bed, Emma crawls into bed beside her mother, and she lets her fragile mother tell stories about her wonderful husband, and she silently promises herself that she will always look after her mother, her sweet, softhearted, sick mother.

"I miss him so much," her mother whispers tearfully.

"Me, too," Emma comforts, "but we'll find him someday, won't we?"

A few more years, and Emma forgets her promise. She wishes she could forget her mother, but the vice principle finds pot in her locker, and it is her mother who picks Emma up from the police station, her mother who convinces the school not to mark her records, who convinces the police not to press charges. Her mother walks her home, and her face is so sad, and Emma is so ashamed.

She needs to pull her act together. She won't drink, and she won't smoke, and she will finish high school, and she will look after her mother just like she once swore to herself she would. And when she finds out she is pregnant, she doesn't hesitate to make an appointment with the abortion clinic.

Her mother isn't supposed to find out, but she does, and she forbids Emma to do it.

"I am still your mother," she says, "and I will not let you kill the child inside you!"

The fight is their worst ever, and Emma says a lot she later regrets, and they both end up in tears.

"I can't take care of a kid, Mom!" Emma exclaims at last. "I can't! Look at me! I'm not even eighteen, and that stupid idiot won't help me, and — and I don't know how to be a mother! I don't!"

She swipes at her eyes, exhausted, and sinks to the kitchen floor, her back to the wall.

A moment later, her mother kneels down beside her. "Emma, sweetheart," she whispers, voice soft and sweet, "no one knows how to be a mother until she is one. That's just how it works. I was terrified when I first found out I was pregnant with you. My own mother died when I was young, and my stepmother hated me, and I thought I would be the absolute worst mother in the world."

She hesitates, but Emma waits. She hasn't ever heard her mother talk about this stuff.

Her mother smiles a little, sad. "And maybe I haven't been the best mother —"

"No," Emma interrupts, "you are the best mother. You are."

Her mother laughs, takes her hand. "I don't know about that," she says, "but I'm pretty proud of the daughter I raised. She is smart, and beautiful, and so kind. And she looks after me no matter what."

"Mom," Emma whispers, fresh tears welling.

"I was scared, Emma. I was scared when I left your father. I didn't think I could raise you without him. And I won't lie. I won't tell you it was easy, or that I don't — I don't wish it could've happened differently. I was so alone when I first — when you were born, and I was so scared —"

Emma has thought about it before, sure, but now she really wonders what actually happened when she was born, what made her mother retreat into fairy tales. It must've been terrible. But her mother survived, and she raised Emma, and she wasn't like other mothers, but that never really mattered.

Her mother always loved her. Emma has never doubted that. It was her strength that she doubted.

She shouldn't have. Her mother might be the strongest woman in this world. Emma never went without food. Her mother found ways to make Christmas special even when things were at their worst. Her mother never let anyone hurt her. Her mother worked and worked and worked, so that she could provide for Emma in a world that she didn't understand. And she always loved Emma.

Her mother is simply too good for this world.

"You won't be alone, Emma," her mother says. "If you keep the baby, you won't be alone."

Emma smiles. "Because I'll have you," she whispers, and her mother nods, squeezes her hands.

She keeps her baby, and she lets her mother pick the name. "Henry. A name fit for a king."

It takes work, and she fears for a little while that the state might take Henry, but she manages to earn her GED, and she finds a job as a forest ranger in a park outside Boston, and her mother looks after Henry while Emma works. A few years later, she moves her mother and her son to a nicer apartment, and it overlooks a local lake where her mother teaches Henry to swim.

Janet e-mails her, just once, to tell Emma that Charlie wants to talk to her, that he wouldn't leave Janet alone until she told Emma. He just wants to talk. Emma doesn't bother to respond at all.

She is perfectly happy without Charlie. So is Henry.

And the more time passes, the happier her mother becomes as well.

Emma thinks maybe it might be Henry. Maybe he helps heal whatever is broken inside her mother. Emma adopts a dog from the pound, and she isn't sure who is happier, her five-year-old son or her forty-six-year-old mother. Emma sees the tenet from two floors down flirt with her mother, and her mother doesn't seem to notice, because she never notices, but Emma thinks maybe that will change.

Her mother deserves to move on from the deadbeat who abandoned her when she was pregnant.

But her mother is still a little crazy. She announces on a Tuesday that she wants to see the world.

"What?" Emma asks, almost burning her omelet when she stares, puzzled, at her mother.

"Come on!" her mother exclaims. "It would be fun! Let's do it! Just take the car and do it!"

A road trip. Her mother wants to take a road trip. "I've only ever lived in Boston," her mother says, "and I want to see the world." And Emma, too indulgent, can't refuse her mother, not really, so she pulls out a map, and she asks her mother what, exactly, she wants to see. "Anything you want," her mother says, so pleased, and Emma resists the urge to sigh. She decides to let Henry pick a place.

He picks Canada, because he wants to see a moose. Emma laughs, and she says alight.

She turns twenty-eight on a Thursday, the same day they hit the road.

Her mother is impatient to reach Quebec, and Emma doesn't understand why, but she agrees to drive through the night as Henry sleeps in the backseat and her mother hums to herself in the passenger seat. It is almost two in the morning when the engine sputters and the car stops, dead.

She doesn't even know where they are. Some backwoods town in Maine.

Her cell phone doesn't even have service. Fantastic. Just her luck.

She tells her mother to wait in the car with Henry while she finds someone who might be able to help tow the truck and point them to a cheap motel. She doesn't walk far before she comes to a little convenience store, something right from a book, cheap lights buzzing over a single gas pump.

The store is open, thank God, and the man behind the counter doesn't look nearly as suspicious as Emma expected. He is probably only a few years older than her, and his smile is kind when, before she can say a word, he asks if she needs help with her car. "Am I that obvious?" Emma asks.

He chuckles. "We just don't have many visitors to Storybrooke. But what do you need? Gas?"

"I think the battery might be dead," she admits. "And my kid and my mom are in the car, and I —"

"I have jumper cables in my truck," he interrupts, smiling. "No worries. Come on."

He flips the open sign to closed as they walk out, and she follows him towards an old Ford truck, the lone car in the small, pathetic parking lot. "I really do appreciate this," she tells him, apologetic.

"Hey, seriously, it isn't a problem," he replies. "Happens to us all."

She climbs into the truck. "I'm Emma, by the way. And it's just, like, half a mile down the street."

He nods, buckles his seat belt, and the truck sputters to life. "Nice to meet you, Emma. I'm David."


iv. Hold on, hold tight, / From out of your sight,/ If everything keeps moving on, moving on, / Hold on hold tight,/ Make it through another night, / and every day there comes a song with the dawn.

Her nightmares are always the worst.

She screams herself awake from them, and her cries wake others as well.

It isn't on purpose. She doesn't mean to, honest. But her nightmares are so scary, curtains on fire, shadows on the walls, and she hears a woman scream, and a man is bloody, is dying on the floor, and Emma wakes up in the dark, terrified, trembling, and it isn't her fault. "Of course it isn't your fault, darling," her mother whispers, stroking her hair. "A nightmare is no reason to be ashamed."

And Emma nods, cuddling closer to her mother, safe and sound, loved.

At least her nightmares only haunt her at night. As long as the sun is in the sky, Emma is unafraid.

She is not allowed outside the castle, because the world is a dark, evil place, and people would try to steal her, to take her from her mother, to hurt her, so she must stay inside, always, no matter what. This is an unquestionable fact. She doesn't much mind, because the castle is endless, and it is hers to explore, and she discovers every cupboard, every hidden stairwell, every single corner.

She never wears shoes, because no one makes her, and she sings rather than talks, because her grandpa says she sings prettier than all the birds in all the world, and she makes all the castle knights teach her how to fight, because it is much more fun to play with a sword than with a doll.

Her favorite knight is Hunter.

She doesn't know what his real name is, but her mother says that he is a huntsman, so she calls him Hunter, and he doesn't talk too much, but she tells him that she can talk enough for two, so he needn't worry, and that makes him smile. She thinks he is the most handsome man in the world.

She turns five, and Grandpa surprises her with a kitten, and her mother makes the cook bake the biggest cake in the world, and Hunter presents Emma with a whistle. "But only use it if you really need it," he whispers, like it is a secret. Emma isn't ever told secrets. She wants to keep a secret.

She tucks the whistle into her pocket, and she kisses Hunter on the cheek.

She asks her mother that night if Hunter is her father, but her mother only replies coldly that he isn't. Her father died, she is told. But Grandpa pulls her into his lap, tickles her, asks her what she wants to name her cat, and she laughs when he lets her put her feet on his so they can dance. Her whole world is inside this castle, is her sweet grandpa, is her quiet Hunter, is her beautiful mother.

And she couldn't possibly want more.

Hunter suggests she call her cat Wolf, so that he will become a fierce, loyal cat, and she thinks it is funny to call a cat Wolf, so she does. And her mother smiles, and she kisses Emma on the nose.

She turns seven, and her perfect world starts to splinter. They are at dinner, and she laughs at something that Grandpa says, and she looks at her mother, only to discover that her mother is absolutely disgusted, her lip curled, her eyes dark. "What is it, Mother?" Emma asks, worried.

Her mother looks at Grandpa. "Do something about her hair," she says. "I can't stand to look at it."

"Regina," Grandpa murmurs, frowning, his eyes flickering to Emma for an instant.

"Those stupid curls," her mother hisses, "that face. I can't stand it." She throws down her napkin, shoves back her chair, and stalks from the room, and Emma tries her hardest not to cry. She touches a hand to her hair and touches a hand to her cheek, but she doesn't understand, not at all.

She looks at Grandpa, and his face is so tired, so sad. "Emma, sweetheart," he starts.

But she runs from the room. She runs, and runs, and runs, until she reaches her room, and she looks in the mirror. Her mother is tall, thin, dark, but Emma is small, chubby, light. Her yellow curls are so much different from the sleek black hair that her mother possesses, and her cheeks are too pink, too round. She looks nothing like her beautiful mother. She looks hideous. She stares in the mirror, and she is hideous. She understands why her mother was so upset. She understands.

She steals a knife from the kitchens, and she chops off all her hair.

Her mother doesn't say anything at all when she sees it. She doesn't care.

But, that night, when the nightmares come, Emma wakes when her mother touches her cheek, and her mother smiles. "It was only a nightmare, darling," she whispers, "and it is over now." And Emma clutches her mother, holds her as tightly as she can, and she lets herself feel safe and sound.

She lets herself feel loved. She is loved.

It becomes harder, though, when spring melts into summer and summer fades into fall and fall freezes into winter, and Emma turns eight, and another year passes, and she is nine, and her mother can barely stand to look at her. She no longer bothers to comfort Emma after a terrible nightmare.

She tries not to care, but the castle is not as large as it once was, and Grandpa is older, sicker, and Hunter whispers that he misses her pretty curly blonde hair, but Emma is desperate to save what little love her mother might still feel, so she keeps her hair as short as she can, shorn at her ears.

And she tries to avoid the mirrors, but all over the castle, everywhere she turns, there are mirrors.

She finally finds a chamber without mirrors, a room her mother never visits, a place so different from everywhere else in the castle, with colorful and plush furniture, with cheerful, bright window hangings, with bookshelves that reach to the ceiling, filled with more books than she can count.

She starts to read, and she discovers a different world.

She is not allowed outside the castle, but there is no rule that says she cannot read a book, is there?

And when she reads, she fights bandits in the enchanted forest, and she befriends a mermaid as she sails across the southern sea. She rides a dragon, and she fights a war, and she marries a prince. She travels across the western mountains with her three very best friends, and she raises a bear cub, and she climbs trees and catches fish with her bare hands and sleeps under the stars at night.

The more she reads, the more she realizes what she is. Lonely. Trapped. Unloved.

Her only friend is Wolf, and he is a loyal companion, but she wants a real friend.

She turns thirteen, and she is not desperate for her mother to love her. She is desperate to escape this awful castle and find someone else to love her. But she cannot abandon Grandpa or Hunter, can she? They still love her, after all. Her mother pretends that she does not exist, so Emma decides that she will pretend her mother does not exist. She asks to sword fight with the knights for practice, just like when she was little, but this is different. This is serious. They refuse her, though.

Her mother. She knows it.

Hunter volunteers to teach her how to fight. "Just keep it a secret," he says, voice low.

She nods, and she remembers a wooden whistle hidden away upstairs, and she can keep a secret.

Her hair is her hair, her cheeks are her cheeks, and she doesn't need her mother. She starts to read the larger books, the history tomes, the books about the kingdoms, and she studies the atlases, tries to figure out where the castle is, where she is, how close she might be to the places in her books.

She turns fifteen, and her hair falls past her shoulders now, and she never ties it up; she lets it fall around her shoulders, yellow and curly and proudly hers, and her mother is forced to acknowledge Emma when she snaps at her to "do something with that tangled mane on your head!" But Emma doesn't plan to touch her hair. She likes it. She likes her hair, and her round cheeks, and that's that.

Grandpa is sick, sicker than ever before, and he can barely even talk.

Emma digs out the whistle from Hunter, buried under old clothes in her wardrobe, and she ties it on twine that she finds in the kitchens, and she wears it around her neck, hidden under her dress.

She might need it at some point, after all.

She expects it, yet somehow her heart still breaks when it happens, when Grandpa dies.

She is beside him in bed, singing softly to him, and he murmurs something she can't understand, and his hand touches her hair, and his shallow breathing suddenly stops. He is dead. Just like that.

She starts to sob, and her mother is suddenly beside her, and they cry together, and Emma clutches her mother, and the night passes like that. But she wakes up from a restless sleep to find that her mother left her on the floor, and she is alone in an empty bedroom, Grandpa no longer on the bed.

It is Hunter who tells her.

"Emma, this is it. Regina took her best knights with her to bury her father, and this is your —"

"She went to bury him without me?" Emma exclaims, outraged.

"Emma, listen to me!" Hunter snaps, his hands on her shoulders. "This is your chance to escape, and it may be your last. You didn't want to abandon Henry, I understand that, but he is dead, Emma, and you might not have another opportunity like this to leave when your mother and her knights are not around to stop you. This is it. She will be even worse now that her father is dead."

"I — I can't just run now," Emma says, "right after he died — what if she — what if she needs me now more than ever?" Her mind is on last night, on the way they held each other, on the hope in her heart that she never wanted to acknowledge, the hope that maybe her mother does still love her.

"Emma," Hunter says, "I cannot escape, but you can. And — and you have no reason to say, not with Henry dead, because he loved you regardless, but your mother — your mother is not yours."

Emma frowns. "What? I hate your stupid riddles, Hunter, you know that. Just tell me what —"

"Regina is not your mother, Emma."

She thinks her heart might stop. She stares at him.

"I should've said something earlier, but she forbade me, and — and her magic is weak at this moment, weak with her pain, which means this is my only chance to explain to you, Emma, that you are not her daughter. She took you from your real parents when your were a toddler."

"No," Emma whispers. "That is impossible. No."

"Think about your nightmares, Emma. Think about how vivid they are. Think about what they are. A burning building. A woman screaming. A man dying." He pauses. "I do not have the time to tell you the whole story, Emma, but I will tell you this — Regina hated your mother, you real mother, and she wanted to make your mother suffer, wanted to steal what your mother loved most, wanted to steal — to steal her happy ending. And that — that was you, Emma. So she did. She stole you."

Emma thinks she might be sick.

"She intended to kill you, Emma," he continues, speaking so urgently, "but she — she decided that it would be better to keep the happy ending for herself, to keep you, to raise you as her own —"

"So she never loved me?" Emma asks, choking on the words.

"I don't know," he admits. "I think maybe she tried, but — listen, after this, after losing her father, and you were the one at his bedside, the last person with whom he spoke — you need to escape, Emma. Here. Take this map. It will lead you to the enchanted forest, to the seventh kingdom —"

"I can't —" Emma whispers, because all her courage is lost, and she can't. Her world is shattered.

It wasn't ever even her world to start.

"Emma," Hunter says, "your real mother is still alive. Her name is Snow White. And she is alive."

Those are the right words.

Emma turns sixteen while she rides horseback through a dark, dense forest. She is unsteady on the horse, never having ridden before, and she is scared and confused, and Wolf squirms in her arms, and she is afraid to look over her shoulder, afraid that the woman who isn't her mother will appear.

She follows the map. Her food runs out. She tries and fails to hunt. Her horse throws her off, and she breaks her wrist. She walks, Wolf weaving around her feet, her oldest friend, her only friend, still as loyal as his name would make him, and she starts to follow a river, because she needs the constant water source, and she is finally able to catch a small fish, her first food in nearly a week.

The rivers ends. A day later, the forest does as well. She is in a field, a large, endless, barren field. She walks, and walks, and walks, and she can feel the sun burn her skin, and her lips are chapped, torn, bloody, and it stays in her mouth, the taste, blood. She no longer feels the pain in her wrist.

The field narrows into another forest. It is different. Greener. She finds another river, and dandelions dot its bank, and she drinks the water and eats the weeds until her stomach hurts. A character in her books ate dandelions. She looks around the forest, and her heart beats faster.

This is the enchanted forest, isn't it?

She walks on, through the forest, into the world.

The first person she sees in days, weeks, forever, is a peasant woman, who drops her basket, spilling all her berries. Emma must look awful. She tries to speak, but she cannot find her voice.

She manages at last. "I need to see Snow White," she croaks.

The next day is a haze, and she is brought to a house, and put in a carriage, and ends up at a castle.

She clutches Wolf to her chest, awed at the entrance hall alone, and she sees herself in a mirror.

Her blonde hair is matted with mud, her cheeks hollow, her eyes sunken in her face. Her clothes are torn, filthy, too large for her starved frame; her wrist is swollen and black. She looks terrifying.

A woman gasps. Emma spins around.

And it is as if she looks into another mirror.

She is a small woman, her cheeks pink and round, her hair thick, dark, and curly, so curly, and Emma starts to understand a lot. Her eyes travel to the man who stands beside the woman with round cheeks and curly hair, a man with familiar blonde hair, and they stare, speechless, tearful.

"I'm Emma," she says.

It seems like a good place to start.


v. Look left look right, / To the moon in the night./ And everything under the stars is in your arms./ 'Cause there is a light, in your eyes, in your eyes.

Her father always tucks her into bed.

She can't sleep if she isn't tucked in, and she is particular about it, too. Her father says she must've soaked it up from her mother, because she loves to be tucked in, too. That's what her parents say. Emma is adopted, it isn't a secret, but her parents love her so much that they say she soaks up their mannerisms, habits, personalities, "and that's how you know you really are ours," her mother says.

They live in a violet house, and Emma loves it, because she doesn't know anyone else who lives in a violet house. All the other houses on the street are brown or blue or white. And they have a huge yard, too, and she spends her springs playing backyard baseball, and she spends her summers running through the sprinkler, and she spends her winters having the most epic snowball fights.

She isn't ever denied anything, because she is what her parents always wanted most.

She wants the deluxe Barbie castle when she is six, and she receives it. She wants a puppy when she is eight, and she names him Wolf. She wants to play field hockey when she is eleven, and her parents are the loudest people in the stands at every game, and she wants to quit field hockey after a few months, and her parents take her to see a movie during the first practice after she quits.

Her life falls apart before she even realizes that something might not be right.

But she is fourteen, and she is not a little kid, and she swears never to forgive her mother.

Her father is the best man in this world, and they were married for almost twenty years, and her mother cheated on him for some stupid asshole who works at the bank. How could she do that?

And when her mother moves out, she asks Emma to come with her. Emma storms upstairs to her bedroom, and she slams the door, locking it, and refuses to acknowledge when her mother knocks softly on the door. She blasts her radio, and her mother leaves at last. Emma can't believe her mother would even ask that after what she did. Emma never even wants to speak to that woman.

"Don't talk about her like that," her father says sadly. "She is still your mother."

"No," Emma says, stubborn. "She isn't. I don't have a mother. Just a father. The best father."

He smiles, and he covers her hand with his at the kitchen table. "I love you so much, Emma, and I understand how angry you must be, but I — I don't want to see you cut your mother out of your life. And I don't say that for her. I say it for you, Pumpkin. You don't deserve to lose your mother."

Emma shakes her head. "I don't want a mother who would do that to my father."

"Hey, maybe it was for the best," he says. "Maybe I'll find myself somebody else, right? Do you think all the pretty girls will mind if your old dad is a little thin on top?" He pats his balding head.

"Mmm," she says, pretending to consider. "I'll buy you a hat."

He laughs, and she hugs him as tightly as she can, and she vows never to forgive her mother.

But a few months later, her father does. He forgives her.

Emma arrives home from school to find her parents in the living room, talking, and they stand when Emma walks into the room, dumbfounded. "What do you want?" she snarls, and her mother looks like she might cry, and her father sighs. Her mother starts to apologize to Emma.

She doesn't want to hear it. But her father forces her to listen later that night. And he tells her that her mother wants to move back in, and they never finalized the divorce, and they want a fresh start.

Emma is furious. How can he do that? Yes, her mother made a mistake. "But just because you call it a mistake," she tells her father, "it doesn't mean you have to forgive her when she says sorry. She doesn't deserve to be forgiven, Dad! She doesn't deserve to live with us. She doesn't deserve you."

Her father doesn't listen to her, and her mother moves back in.

She finds every possible way to avoid her parents. She spends as many nights as she can with friends. She holes up in her room when she is at home, and she waits until they are finished with their dinner before she comes downstairs to fix something for herself. She finds a job at the ice cream store in the mall as soon as she is old enough. She ignores her parents at all costs.

Her mother is a bitch, and her father is a doormat, and she can't stand them.

She first meets Charlie at the park. He is tall, dark, and handsome, and his smile makes her melt.

He is older than her, so much older, and he offers her a cigarette. She hasn't ever smoked, but she shrugs and accepts, acts cool. But he isn't stupid, and he laughs a little before he shows her how to smoke properly. Her father hates Charlie, but Emma can't possibly care less. She adores him.

It isn't until her father threatens to report Charlie for statutory rape that everything turns sour.

"I will be eighteen in two months," Emma hisses.

"But you are seventeen now," her father says, voice shaking, "and you will not see him anymore!"

Fine. She can't see Charlie for two months. He is cool with it, too. He understands that her dad is a pain in the ass. And he says she is welcome to move in with him as soon as she turns eighteen.

Her perfect plan is shattered when she pees on a stick and a tiny pink plus sign appears on it.

She cries herself to sleep, and she wakes up with itchy eyes and a sore head. She remembers why, and she is sick in the toilet. She sobs against the bathroom wall. She skips school. Her father knocks on her bedroom door, a sigh in his voice as he asks why he received a call from the school.

She ignores him. She calls her friend Janet, and she spills her secret.

Janet promises to drive Emma to the free clinic. "Have you told Charlie yet?" Janet asks.

Emma decides to tell Charlie in person. She drives to his apartment, uses the key under the mat, and finds him in bed with someone else. She tells him. She is pregnant, but she plans to have an abortion, and she never wants to see him again. She can't stop her tears when she arrives home.

Her father starts to ask her if she was with Charlie, but he never finishes the question.

"What is it, Pumpkin?" he asks, so worried. And she confesses everything. She needs him. "And you have me," he tells her, rubbing her back as she cries into his sweater. "You've always had me. We will figure this out. If you want to have an abortion, that's okay. If you want to bless someone else with a child, you can do that, too. Or if you want to keep the baby, Emma, you can. We can."

Charlie comes over to talk to her, and she hears her father tell him that he can have his entire law firm see Charlie behind bars for the rest of his life if Charlie doesn't stay far, far away from Emma.

A largely empty threat, she thinks, but it does the trick.

She wants to name her son after her father, but, well, his name is Bart, and she can't do that to the kid. His middle name, though, is Henry, and that isn't so bad. She likes it, in fact. Her father cries when she announces the name, kissing her forehead, so happy, and she looks down at her tiny boy, pink and squirming, and she hopes he soaks up as much of her father as he possibly can.

It involves night classes and so much help from her parents, but she manages to graduate college.

Henry is four when Charlie tries to contact Emma. She ignores all his attempts for a while.

But she watches her mother on the floor, playing with Henry, who laughs when her mother tickles him, and she can't be selfish. Maybe she should hear Charlie out. See if he might be the father that Henry deserves. She is reluctant, but her father encourages her, and she asks Charlie to the house.

They sit across from one another in the living room, and she sees him stare at the playpen in the corner, and she stares at his hands, and they don't shake, and something tugs at her heart. "Say what it is you need to say, Charlie," she says, and she is proud that she keeps her voice so steady.

He nods, and he starts to talk about how sorry he is.

But she can see her father outside the room, hovering. "We're fine, Daddy," she tells him.

His head pops into the room. "Oh! I just wanted to ask if you wanted something to drink!" He steps into the room. "An iced tea? Orange Juice? I think Judy bought some diet coke." He smiles.

"That's okay, Daddy. We really are fine."

He nods. "Okay. I'll just — I'll just go into the kitchen and — I'll just be right in the kitchen, Emma, so if you — if you need me, just holler, and I'll —" She nods, tells him she understands.

He leaves, and she looks at Charlie.

"I messed up, Emma," he says. "I messed up a lot. And that isn't news, but I need you to know that I understand. Everything that happened is my fault. I understand." He swallows thickly. "My mom died when I was little, and my dad walked out on me, and — and that isn't an excuse, but for so long I told myself it was. Drinking, shooting up, all that shit. I was stupid kid, and it cost me you."

She stares at him for a long moment, and he looks so desperate, but it isn't enough.

"When we met, Charlie," she says, "I was a kid. You weren't. You were nearly thirty years old."

"Yeah, well," he says, bitter, "it turns out you can still be a stupid kid when you're thirty. And this totally sounds like a line, Em, I know it does, but when you told me you were gonna have an abortion, and you never wanted to me see again — it changed everything. I mean, I always said I was so fucked up 'cause of what my old man did, but here I was just as bad as him, losing the woman I loved and hurting my kid 'cause I was a selfish bastard." His jaw is locked, his eyes red.

She doesn't know what to say.

"So I cleaned up my act. I went into one of those programs. And I have a sponsor and everything. I'm ten months clean, Emma. I didn't wanna contact you before I was sure that I — I had it all together, but I do. I swear. I have a job. I, um, my sponsor runs this thing for inner city kids, and I work for them. I help kids with school, and I coach basketball, and I — I'm actually not bad at it."

He talks a lot more, nearly brings her to tears, but she won't cry. She won't.

"I'm not asking you to marry me, Em," he says. "I don't deserve that. Not yet. I want it. I want it bad. But it's too much to ask, I get it. All I am asking for is — is for the chance to be a dad to our kid, and — and maybe, if you can somehow forgive me, a chance to be your friend. A fresh start."

A part of her, an angry, hurt part, wants to tell him no. Tell him never. Be stronger than to forgive.

But she can hear her father in the kitchen, making an inordinate amount of noise just to remind Emma that he is there, nearby, ready to help her. And she remembers how much her mother hurt her father, how she broke his heart, but she regretted it, and she apologized for it, and her father, her sweet, sweet father, took her mother back, "because you can't love a person in pieces, Emma."

And that means sometimes you have to forgive a person when he make mistakes.

She takes a deep breath. "You know, I think I could use a friend." Charlie smiles.

He is ten month sober when he becomes her friend. He is three years sober when he proposes at the park where they first met, "because it was an inauspicious start, but it was ours." She says yes.

They drink chocolate milkshakes at Denny's to celebrate, and she is ready to order a second when he tells her. "If we're gonna marry, I should probably tell you my real name." She freezes, but his smile is wide. "It isn't really Charlie. I just tell people it is, 'cause my real name is kinda stupid."

"Are you — are you kidding me right now?" she asks.

"Nope," he says. "Not even a little bit. There's a lot, um, a lot about me that you don't know."

"So what is it?" she demands, amused. She isn't sure she even believes him. "What's your name?"

"Promise not to laugh?"

"No," she says, "I don't." She bites her lip, and he shakes his head, sighing, and he says it.

"It's Baelfire."

She laughs until she cries.

fin.

a/n: in case they weren't all clear, the AU were as follows - one, August doesn't abandon Emma; two, Baelfire never leaves the fairytale world, there is no curse, and Emma grows up a fugitive in the woods with her parents; three, Snow White is able to go through the enchanted tree with Emma; four, Regina can't kill her father and enact the curse, so she kidnaps Emma instead; and five, Emma is adopted rather than sent from foster home to foster home. I hope it wasn't too hard to follow!

Title and lyrics from Mat Kearney's Breathe in, Breathe out. :)