Their fourth meeting was so far from normal (compared to their previous ones, that is) that neither party could quite believe it. He had been shopping for groceries with Grace and ran straight into another cart as they turned the corner, and the lovely Sheriff had been quite literally knocked off her feet.
It's not often they go to collect groceries themselves, but with the increasing threat of Regina and Gold's war looming over their heads, Jefferson no longer trusts anyone to deliver their food. It's because of this mistrust they found themselves in the store in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, searching high and low for a bag of rice flour for a new recipe for Grace to attempt. She's become fascinated with traditional Japanese cooking (he has no idea where that particular impulse came from), and now has several recipes printed and gathered into a rather lopsided cookbook. The flour is for something called "mochi", and while Jefferson honestly thinks it sounds disgusting, Grace is entranced by the confection and so rice flour is added to their list.
"Are you sure they'll have it here, Papa?" Grace's voice is high with worry as she trails behind him, fingers twisting nervously in the fabric of her skirt. He gives her a smile to calm her fears, but the watery smile he gets in return tells him that it didn't work. "We don't have to get it, it's not really all that important. We can just go home..."
Jefferson straightens from his perusal of the lower shelves to study his daughter. She's biting her lower lip, her fingers almost wearing a hole through her skirt, and her eyes are worried. He told her the first night the curse broke, what had happened to him and he had been trapped in Wonderland. She held up remarkably for the rest of the evening, but when she slept she came undone. Her screams sent him running to her side, had him murmuring that she was safe, he was safe, that the Queen could not harm them anymore.
He stayed with her through the night, and in the morning took her to see the good Dr. Hopper, who congenially spoke to his daughter while Jefferson watched from the corner. Grace spoke of her fears of losing her father, losing him to the Queen's machinations or because of the war brewing over their heads. It was difficult for her to even leave the house, she admitted to the Conscience, but she was terrified that one day her Papa would leave and wouldn't come back to her.
Jefferson broke in then, taking his daughter's hands and telling her over and over that he wasn't leaving her again, and if he had to leave he would take her with him. That no matter what he would always get back to her, just like he did after the curse broke, and that he would have nothing to do with Regina ever again.
And thusly, he found himself squatting in a grocery store, searching for rice flour for his little girl; rice flour that she no longer desired because she was frightened of staying in the store any longer. Frightened of the Queen and frightened of Rumpelstiltskin, frightened her father would be taken away.
He shakes his head at the mess he's made, subjecting his daughter to the world's problems when all he wanted was to keep her safe. He smiles and holds out his hand, waiting for her to take it. "We'll ask the manager if they have it, and if they don't we'll put in a request," he promises her. She nods, and her much-abused skirt drops from her fingers as she takes his hand to follow him down the aisle. He doesn't look away from her, still smiling and reassuring-
Until the clanging of metal and the sensation of the handle of the cart driving into his stomach.
Wheezing, he straightens upright to lecture the clueless shopper-
Only to see a grinning Henry standing at the side of the cart, and hear muffled cursing floating up from the floor. Cautiously, Jefferson moves around the tangle of carts and children to peer over the edge at the spot of color on the grocery floor-
Emma had enough.
She couldn't stand being in the hospital for one more second, couldn't stand being so inactive when she's needed out in the real world-
(or the fairy tale world, she's not sure what qualifies as which anymore and she soundly blames Regina for that)
So carefully, she disengaged her IV (which fucking hurt), grabbed a blanket to wrap around her lower half (because god forbid the fairy-nuns give her pants), and hustled it down the back streets until she got to her apartment. It didn't occur to her until she arrived that she didn't have her keys, as they were in the pocket of her now ruined jacket, and as soon as Mary-Margaret-Snow or David-James-Charming found her she'd be back in that stupid cot but this time with posted guards-
She nearly cried in relief when she heard the sound of cartoons. Cartoons meant Henry, and Henry meant help. She knocked on the door until her son answered, and as soon as he had the door cracked open enough she forced her way in. Shouting in concern, he followed her back to her room, yelling about healing magic and spells while she looked for a pair of god-forsaken jeans and found some on the floor, and a pair of clean underwear in a pile on the bed.
It wasn't until she dropped the blanket that Henry stopped yelling to turn around and stare at the wall (she felt a little guilty, scarring the kid with the sight of her bare ass, but she wanted to put on some real actual clothes). It only took a few seconds for him to get his second wind though, and he started yelling at her again without actually looking at her, which she found endearing and annoying all in one (because it reminded her of Charming, for some reason).
It was then she hit upon the exercise of grocery shopping. She was fine, she kept repeating to Henry, and the people needed to see that she was up and about, especially after a stint with the fairies, and that she needed his support to help convince them she was fine.
"After all, if I can't handle a grocery trip, I can't handle swinging a sword or firing a gun," she joked as she grabbed her spare keys. Snow had apparently taken her other set, thinking it would prevent her from leaving the hospital- or so Henry claimed. Emma suspects her new family is keeping secrets from her, but didn't press the matter as she ushered her son out the door.
It isn't until Emma gets in her Beetle that she realizes the magnitude of the task before them. Her usual jackets are too heavy to wear over the burn; even bandaged, it's still tender to the touch. She debates wearing just her tank top and jeans, but Henry's watching her so closely that she knows the jacket has to come. It feels heavy as lead while she pulls it on; it burns like acid when it finally settles over her. She's gritting her teeth by the time they make it to her car, and then she's forcing herself behind the wheel. She can feel her son's eyes on her as she drives them the few blocks to the grocery store, and that's the only reason she manages to not scream in agony at every jolt in the uneven road.
She thanks every god she can think of when they finally arrive and she can get out of the car. It takes all her control to not bolt out of the seat like a frightened rabbit, but she can't prevent the sigh of relief from escaping as she climbs out and stretches as gently as she can. Henry pretends not to watch her out of the corner of his eye, but she isn't fooled by the docile behavior.
He's her kid, after all.
She grabs a cart at the entrance and makes her way inside, Henry following behind and listing off all the groceries they needed. How he managed to memorize every item the apartment was missing, she doesn't know, but nods anyway. She only stops once to tell him that no, they don't need cat food, she doesn't care if the tabby across the way was seen trotting around in boots, it's not coming into the house and that's final, and no, she wasn't going to ask Snow because if she said yes and the cat ate one of her bluebirds, there would be Hell to pay and Emma was not getting involved in that.
The longer she walks and stands upright, the less her back hurts until eventually, she can forgot the fact that she's been injured. Henry points out the various items they need as they pass by, and after about fifteen minutes of shopping (this is the quickest she's ever been in a grocery store, she reflects, and it only takes her ten-year-old son's maturity to rub in the lack of hers) to gather almost all the items they need. Since they managed to collect everything in such a short amount of time, Emma finds herself lingering as they walk down the aisles. She's never been the domestic type before, always preferring to buy her food or just microwave it, but she's finding a sort of peace in grocery shopping with her son.
She pauses at the end of an aisle to study the various types of broth available, as Charming has been complaining about the lack of decent food in the apartment, and she's been debating taking cooking lessons from Ruby. Soups and stews sound simple enough, and they've gathered enough vegetables and meat that she could probably attempt one and not screw it up too badly. Eventually she settles on chicken, beef and lamb; it's not until she bends down to gather the cans that she remembers her injury. Her jacket tightens over the burn and she bites down on her lip to stifle the cry. Henry was still watching her and she doesn't trust him not to whip out a phone and dial Snow immediately, so she kneels down and picks up a can.
"Henry, can you put these in the cart for me?" she asks as nonchalantly as she can. The weight of the can leaves her hand and she reaches for another. It's a good system, even if her jacket is pressing down repeatedly on her back. When she stands up, she nearly faints from the sudden pain, and grips onto the handle as tightly as possible.
"What's next?" she asks, and her tongue feels thick and heavy in her mouth.
"Ice cream, cocoa and cinnamon." her son announces brightly, and points to the next aisle over. Emma closes her eyes and exhales, wishing that this trip was over and done already, and starts to push the cart around the corner-
A clang of metal and she's caught unawares. The handlebar drives into her stomach and steals the breath from her lungs before she's on the floor, wheezing and gasping and glaring at the idiot who swung around corners without checking-
He curses when he realizes that it's Emma's cart, and that the still-recovering Savior is now glaring at him while Henry snickers behind his hand. Flustered, he immediately begins to apologize and offer to help her up, babbling and oblivious to the amusement of their children. She shrugs off his help with another glare and stands on her own, lips in a tight line as she straightens up. He sees her wince as her jacket presses down on her back and he remembers she should still be in the hospital, because that was a magical burn and those never heal without constant vigilance, and why was she out and here because he was going to visit her tonight-
She staggers then, just slightly, but he's still there and catches her around the waist. He's careful of her injury and meets her furious gaze with a determined expression, blue-grey eyes stormy and dark. "You shouldn't be out right now," he murmurs, concern lacing his voice. "You're not strong enough if a certain someone should attack, and we all need you, Emma. Some more than others."
She opens her mouth to say something (probably sarcastic and cutting, characteristic of the old Emma), but something stops her. Lips slightly parted, she studies his face, her eyes searching until she gives an almost imperceptible nod (he sees it, though, because he's spent so long studying things that what was imperceptible to most was clear as day to him, a side effect of the Hatter lurking in his brain) and pushes gently on his arms.
"Thank you," she mutters, and the tips of her ears flush pink as she slowly steps away. "Next time, though, do me a favor and check before you turn the corner. I might not survive it next time."
"Oh, Princess," he flashes her a smile that makes her knees buckle, just a bit, "next time I make you... fall, there won't be carts- or spectators."
She stares at him in shock, completely undone by the innuendo and he's so delighted by the look on her face that he misses the incoming danger.
The voice is off, wooden and hollow and reverberating and muffled all in one, like someone shouting from inside a closet, but familiar. Very familiar.
"August?" Emma spun around, eyes searching for a sign of the man she knew-
But it's not August who is making his way down the aisle to them, it's Pinocchio, all grown up and wooden and moving towards them at a rather alarming speed and an odd 'thunking' noise that makes her think of wooden poles rather than feet.
He comes closer, eyes painted bright blue in his wooden face, and she fights the urge to pull away in disgust. This is not how she remembers August, with his eyes full of laughter and secrets and pain. This is not the man she watched petrify in a hotel bed- this is something new and foreign and strange, and for a moment she wishes she had her sword at her side.
"Aug- Pinocchio," she greets the puppet-man cautiously. "I thought you died!"
"Nope, still here, thanks to you." he grins, and the effect is horrible. She fights the urge to retch and sees Grace bury her face in Henry's back- when had he moved in front of her?- and turns her attention back to the puppet-man in time to see him descend upon her in a hug.
She thinks that it's going to be light and easy, something that she could break free from because surely he's aware of how hard it's going to be (pun not intended) to hug a piece of living wood. She thinks that she'll be alright to greet an old... friend, if she could call him that, and that she can handle one little hug. Beside her, she sees Jefferson tense before she's enveloped in wooden arms and it's all she can do not to scream.
When the puppet-man comes into view, Jefferson sees Grace pull away from the corner of his eye. He worries for his daughter, as she's not seen the horrors of the world yet, but something keeps him by Emma's side, ready and waiting and aware. He barely listens to him talk, instead watching Emma's son and his daughter as best he can. He sees Henry step in front of Grace as Pinocchio passes, as if to protect her from a threat, and for a wild moment he pictures himself doing the same for Emma, protecting her against this gross perversity of magic and nature-
(but she would probably push him out of the way and start waving a weapon and shouting, he thinks, because that's just what the Valkyrja would do, and his Swan is anything but a simpering, cowering female)
And then the puppet-man smiles and Grace nearly cries, and Jefferson has to bite back the growl that's threatening to escape. Grace is terrified, Henry is wary when by all means he should be ecstatic at the return of the writer, and Emma-
Emma is wrapped in his embrace before he can blink. She's tense and her face is white, and he realizes that the puppet-man doesn't know his own strength and is crushing her, crushing her and aggravating her wound and all he can see is red red red-
"Get away from my mom!"
A can of peas comes hurtling out of nowhere and hits August-Pinocchio in his back; startled, he turns to face his assailant, Emma still encased in his arms. His eyes widen comically at the sight of Henry, one hand raised over his head with another can clutched in his fist. Behind him, Grace reaches into the cart to hand him another and Jefferson has never been so proud of his little girl before.
"Get away from her!" he yells again, and throws the can- this time chicken and stars- at his head. "Let her go!"
Jefferson moves then, sliding in between the children and their supply of ammunition, eyes calculating and cold. "Let her go."
"Who are you?" The puppet tightens his grip and Emma spasms in his arms from pain; Jefferson realizes he can't feel her tremors, doesn't know what he's doing to their Savior. "What do you want with her?"
Jefferson can see her face, see the pain and all he wants to do is rip her away and burn the ugly puppet-man-thing to dust, burn it until she's safe and warm and secure and back in her hospital bed, even if he has to tie her there until she's all healed. Inside his head, Hatter is screaming and howling at the site of their Valkyrie, their Swan, held by another's arms, and he almost takes a step forward to pry at wooden limbs. Instead, he forces his gaze away from her and stares into the painted wood with a grimace of distaste.
"Did termites rot your brain?" he demands, voice cracking from the strain of holding the Hatter back. The puppet-man stiffens further and Jefferson bites back a curse. "You're hurting her. She just got out of the hospital and you're crushing her. Let. Her. Go."
Hatter slips his leash on the last word and just a bit of his insanity comes with. He can see the surprise on the wooden features, followed by suspicion and a wary knowledge of who he is, but none of that matters because Emma is still not free and in his arms and it shows on his face. Behind him, he hears Henry speaking quickly and urgently to someone but he doesn't turn, doesn't look away, not even when two small bodies press against him on either side and his arms slide around their shoulders. He almost smiles at the picture they must make, the Mad Hatter with a furious Prince and a terrified but stubborn girl standing against the Puppet-monster that's stolen away their Princess-
The puppet doesn't believe him, doesn't let her go, and looks at Emma's face as if to see that she'll defend him from the accusations. It's then that he realizes what he's done, realizes she hasn't spoken and can't, because her mind is locked down under the pain of his embrace and she can't come back as long as he's holding her. August-Pinocchio releases her with an achingly hollow cry, stumbling back as if to erase what he's done, and Emma tumbles to the ground. Jefferson is by her side almost instantly, Henry and Grace only millimeters behind.
"Emma!" Henry cries out and reaches for her hand, gripping it as tightly as he can. "Emma, are you okay?"
"Grace." Jefferson uses a tone of voice she has only heard once before, a tone that brooks no argument. "Get Henry back and call Snow White. She's needed here." Wordlessly she takes Henry's hand and pulls him away to give Jefferson more room with the injured Sheriff, unable to say or do anything to comfort her friend, other than grip his hand as tightly as she can as he calls his grandmother for help.
"Please be okay!" he begs, and Jefferson flinches as the desperation in the boy's voice. "Please, mom, please!"
"Henry, it will be alright. She'll be alright," Jefferson gives him a half-hearted smile before turning his attention back to the trembling woman in front of him. He doesn't say what he's thinking, doesn't give voice to his fears- magic always comes with a price, and the price to heal an already unstable magic being (because she was magic, whether she believes it or not) was so, so high.
Instead, he cups her face in his hands and whispers to her instead, attempts to bring her back to them with his voice alone. "Emma, Emma," he cajoles, trying to catch her gaze. Her eyes, wide and glassy from pain, can't seem to focus and her skin is clammy and pale. "Emma, please, look at me."
She can't respond, won't respond-
(the Hatter screams this is unacceptable, this is not how she should be. She is Valkyrja, she is battle-born, this is not how she's supposed to die-)
-and he hates himself more in that minute than he ever has before, because he knows what he has to do. He forces her to her feet, drapes one of her arms around his shoulders and slips his arm around her waist. He marches her to the doors, past the sobbing wood-man and the startled shoppers-turned-onlookers and out into the blustery spring air. The children follow immediately, sneakers scuffing as they leap over dented cans and split bags of rice.
Reul Ghorm's magic is fading quickly, the malevolence of the ifrit's magic over-taking the healing spell with ease. He can feel the heat spreading from her back, feel her tremors lessen until she's almost completely limp and senseless in his arms. By the time they've reached the doors, she's barely moving, but he keeps her going, whispering encouragement into her ear as he steers her towards the parked cars.
He's managed to make her sit on the hood of a station wagon when Snow arrives, eyes wide and hands twisted into fists when she sees the Hatter holding her daughter. As soon as she opens her mouth to shriek at him, Jefferson cuts her off as effectively as he can.
"She's burning up. That idiot puppet crushed her back and aggravated the wound. The fairy's magic was used up to combat the worst of it, but the ifrit's magic is burning through the rest. Help me get her jacket off."
Snow does not trust the Hatter, even after he swears fealty to her daughter. When Henry calls to tell her he's with Emma and the Hatter and that her daughter needs help, Snow wastes no time. She's fairly certain she's never run that fast in her life, but Emma is in danger and hell help any fool who gets in her way. She races down the street, a crème-and-pastel colored blur that doesn't even stop to grab Leroy or Ruby or even Charming because Emma needs her.
Arriving to see the Hatter hold Emma close as he tried to remove her jacket was jarring, to say the least. When she hears why, however, she springs into action, furious at Gepeto and Pinocchio because this is that goddamn wardrobe all over again, and now her daughter is hurt and being manhandled by a madman (although she does admit that he's probably the least crazy out of all the crazy people in town) because of that stupid puppet.
"Charming's on his way. Tell me what happened." she commands as she steps next to her daughter. He rolls his eyes at her voice but mercifully acts with civility and answers her.
"My daughter and I were shopping when I turned the corner and ran into her cart. She was knocked down by the force of it-" he stops explaining to whisper soothingly in Emma's ear as she trembles from his attempts to remove her jacket. "Shh, valkryja, shhh. It's alright, you'll be alright."
Snow shakes her head in exasperation. "Hold her up, I'll get her jacket. What happened after you knocked her down?"
The Hatter snorts in derision, but does as she commands. "She refused my help up and nearly fainted from the exertion, of course. Stubbornness seems to run in your family tree."
"It was right about then the walking lumber pile showed up," he continues to speak, ignoring Snow's fuming as she gently frees her daughter from the confines of the jacket. "He was happy to see her, but seemed to forget he wasn't human anymore. My attention was on my daughter, and when I looked back to Emma that thing had caught her in a... hug, for lack of a better term, and didn't realize he was hurting her." The Hatter shrugs and cups Emma's face in his hand. "She's going into shock; she needs to get back to the hospital. What was she even doing out?"
His question is innocently directly and, as far as Snow can tell, completely devoid of insult; it still makes her grit her teeth in annoyance. "She snuck out." Snow spits out the words like rotten meat. "She was supposed to be in for another few days at least, but she was more resourceful than we gave her credit and now she's hurt again."
The Hatter doesn't say anything, merely nods as Snow begins to study the burn on her daughter's back. He merely holds Emma's hands as she leans against him, exhausted and barely awake. Henry and Paige- Grace, she mentally corrects herself over the name of her former student- are whispering behind them, and try as she might she can't quite hear what they're saying. Silence reigns until the arrival of the calvary- Charming in his truck with the Reul Ghorm and Ruby the wolf-girl crammed together in the passenger seat, and Leroy the grumpy Dwarf driving an ambulance full of fairy-nuns behind him.
Snow watches as he whispers softly to Emma, tucking a bit of hair behind her daughter's ear before she's taken away by the fairies. She sends Charming a look and a nod, telling him without words to stay while she goes with their daughter. He sends her a nod and a look back, accepting what she wants him to do- because someone here is responsible for hurting their little girl, and there's no one better for finding them and making them pay.
Jefferson is not surprised when Charming approaches him with one hand on his hilt. He is surprised, however, when Henry rushes forward and throws himself on the Prince, babbling a mile a minute about how it wasn't Jefferson, it was August, please don't hurt him anymore, please-
"Is that true?" Charming raises a brow in his direction, and Jefferson can only nod, his attention still focused on the ambulance screeching away with his Valkyrie in the back.
"Mainly true. I did knock her down, but that was a purely innocent accident and I apologized to her when it happened. She refused my help up, though, so it's not like she's completely innocent in her injuries either."
Charming doesn't reply, instead he grips Jefferson's bicep in an iron hold and raises his voice to be heard by the wolf-girl. "Ruby, watch over the kids. He's coming with me."
"Why am I coming with you, exactly? The last time we spoke wasn't so friendly." Jefferson reminds him, hoping the Prince will release his arm. The grin Charming sends him in reply, however, is both chilling and heartening.
"We're going hunting, of course."
Gold reflects later that allowing Belle to make friends with the wolf-girl and the Charmings was a mix of blessing and curse, as she now has a penchant for town gossip that never plagued her before. It's through this gossip, however, that he hears of how the Prince and the Hatter dragged a very subdued and shackled Pinocchio through town, and how Geppeto had received such a severe scolding by the Blue Fairy that his ears almost blistered- which backfired on her in turn, as the Royal Family had several choice words for Reul Ghorm that would have made her wings crisp, had she still had them.
He's almost tempted to offer them one favor, free of charge, for seeing the blue idiot put in her place. The idea of seeing her humbled sits very nicely with him.