A/N: Sorry for the wait... Again, another heavy chapter, so took a little thought and editing (That, and I'm currently working on some illustration requests as well. So far, I've completed 1, based off chapter 54 of this fic, for the lovely Stormybrowneyes. This is up on my deviant art- link on my profile on here- and more to come).
I know from comments, that some of you are strongly anti Neil, and perhaps might think I've been a little lenient in my portrayal in this chapter. I personally don't mind him, but I've tried to write him in this chapter- and the last- in a way that I think is still fairly true to character, but also works to benefit the story as a whole. This will be further explained in the next chapter, but I really hope this one reads well, as I believe it's quite important for the progression of this fic/ ship within this fic. Enjoy, and please comment!)
By the time they reach Neil's apartment, the blonde has stopped crying and follows along stiffly a step behind him. For a while she had allowed him to guide her with a gentle hand at her forearm, but only for so long as it had taken to pull herself back under control. Now, as he shakes out his keys and wrestles them into the large front door of the apartment complex, she simply waits silently with her arms wrapped tightly around her slender frame.
She supposes that part of the reason she has allowed herself to be brought here is nothing more than simple exhaustion. She can only remember feeling this drained in her adult life once before, and she wonders if the minimal space of recovery time between finding out the truth about the curse, and now following her young love into a dingy, ill-lit hallway might prove to have adverse affects on her health.
She smirks wryly at such a notion.
...And follows Neil into the elevator at the end of the hall.
They ascend in silence; Neil watching Emma, and Emma watching the orderly flashing of passing floors. When a shrill bell tolls to let them know that they have reached their destination, she moves awkwardly out of the way so that he may slip past her and lead them onwards. Stopping outside a nondescript whitewashed door, he looks over his shoulder at his unwilling guest while inserting his key into the slot, muttering a little sheepishly
"It's a bit of a mess... I wasn't really expecting company..."
She shrugs, but doesn't commit any further, and he turns swiftly back to the door so that she won't witness the way his face falls.
He had known today would be difficult, and had known that she would be angry with him... What he had been unprepared for is just how much grief she has been carrying around with her for over ten years now, and her breakdown at the loss of her child is something he has no clue how to fix. Back in the old days, he supposes he might have held her, though, all the way back then, she had always seemed strangely indestructible, and it had been he who had occasionally needed someone to turn to.
Opening the door, he stands aside to let the blonde in, holding his arm out for her coat, but finding no real surprise in the fact that she shakes her head and keeps red leather zipped up as high as the garment allows. Hanging his own windbreaker over a hook on the back of the door, he watches silently as her eyes dart about the room; cataloguing his things, his life, his possessions.
And he lets her; wondering what she might make of what she sees, but this new, grown-up version of his Emma is a closed book. It is only when her gaze falls upon something that hangs above his kitchen sink in the window that he catches a flicker of emotion behind cool, collected green, but still, she says nothing.
He doesn't miss the way she takes an involuntary step in that direction, however, and he offers her a gentle nod of encouragement; watching as she gives in to her curiousity and pads over to pluck down the dreamcatcher and examine it warily.
"To ward away nightmares... What a load of shit..."
She muses quietly as she turns the complex web over in her hands; fingering one of the beads thoughtfully.
"I didn't keep it for its mystical qualities..."
He offers softly from behind her, and she turns with the old keepsake in her hand to regard him with an unreadable expression.
"Well, perhaps that was a mistake..."
Sighing, he shakes his head, and beckons her wearily to follow him over to the small bedroom at the back of the apartment.
"No mistake, Emma... That dreamcatcher has hung in that window for the last three years- since I bought the place- just as it has hung in the countless places I've lived before this one..."
"I'm supposed to be impressed that you kept a novelty item swiped as a souvenir of a sly motel fuck?"
He grimaces- her words hurting him unexpectedly- as he remembers how much more had gone on in that dingy little room, and knows, deep down, that she does too.
"No... Not impressed... Three days after you started living in the car with me- before we started going together- we stopped off at a gas station just outside of Glenfair and you came with me around the back of the building to use the restrooms and have a smoke... There was a chain-link fence back there, and we'd shared the better part of a bottle of Wild Turkey since leaving Portland and driving round, and by then I had started crushing on you pretty hard... When we went to leave, I scaled the fence rather than walk around it, even though it was about eleven feet of close-cut wire, remember?... And you?... Well, you came clambering right along after me- dress and all- and then you stood there in the middle of the parking lot and pointed out the faults in my technique... I couldn't impress you then, Emma, and I'm not trying to impress you now... This has nothing to do with your feelings towards me..."
"... Then why are we in your apartment?"
She inquires a little shakily, trying to put a stop to the sepia-toned picture reel playing maddeningly in her head. She is beginning to think this is a bad idea; having long ago swept Neil- and what had happened to her because of him- beneath one of the dusty floorboards of her mind. He had been right in his wording back in the bar; she had indeed catalogued his influence to her past, and she had labelled the resulting mess 'private and confidential; Do not open'... Only, now that she's face with the man himself, there are good memories that come with the bad, and she doesn't quite know what to do with this discovery.
"We're here for you."
"Uh... How's that?... Because, I'm not sure if I haven't been making myself clear here, but I'd really rather be anywhere else right now... Like... 'Walking the plank over shark-infested water while being poked in the back with a stick' anywhere else..."
Neil pays this no mind, gesturing to his bed in a half-hearted request that she take a seat, before lowering himself down onto his knees to rummage around in the darkness cast beneath.
"We're here because you believe that I did what I did because I didn't love you or care about you... And, I need you to know that that isn't true... Not so that I can feel any better about this- it's too late for that, I know that- but because of the way you were made to feel like you didn't matter... And you did, Emma..."
He keeps his head down as he speaks; not wanting to meet her eyes. He knows that what he will find there will be cold and unforgiving, but he also knows that if he were to look up at her, he would find doubt... And- while the first two prospects hurt him in the same way that her fist had hurt him yesterday when making sharp contact with his face- the latter knowledge hurts his heart in the same way that lying awake last night and thinking on the fact that she had been just seventeen last time he'd seen her had hurt with such unexpected ferocity.
Pulling out a battered, unmarked cardboard box, he places it on the bed without a word, before moving back to sit against the wall and give her space.
"Open it, take a look..."
"It's not a trick, Emma. It's not... It's just... It's just something I want you to see..."
Narrowing her eyes and silently cursing the frantic beating of her heart hammering away inside her chest, she inches towards the bed slowly, before thinning her lips and perching on the very edge of the mattress in an oddly prim fashion.
"...You know, when you do that, it makes you sound like you're trying to establish authority..."
She murmurs quietly, and the brunet frowns in confusion.
"When I do what?"
"You keep saying my name..."
"I... Well I... I mean...I don't mean it like... Shit, I just haven't seen you in-"
"-It's alright, it's just kind of funny... Where I come from now there are only a handful of people that call me by my first name... My friends... And yet here you are throwing it into every other sentence..."
"...Well... Then tell me what you'd rather I call you..."
Neil answers in a low voice; thrown by her words. This new-found habit she speaks of is something he had been unaware he was doing, but to be called out on it is still decidedly unpleasant.
How did you ever get this way...?
But she has answered him this question already.
Ignoring his mumbled response, she runs a finger over the lid of the box and bites her lip, before gently removing the lid.
She is unsure what she had imagined would be inside, but the feeling as though she has been punched in the stomach leads her to believe that what she does find hadn't been it. Her fingers tremble as they hover over the box's contents, before she gingerly edges out one of the numerous sheets of paper that line its top.
She wants to laugh- after all, the idea of storing such a thing is hysterical- but no sound comes out. Plucking up several, similar time-yellowed sheets, she scans them slowly with watering eyes. Blocky, disorderly upper-case print, and messy scrawled cursive blemish the blank spaces available on the pages to create nonsense stories and sayings. A large number of the filled in suggestions are crass or alcohol related, but a fair few of them are also fantastical and would be entirely at home on the pages of Henry's book. Here and there the ink has smeared and the paper has been stained slightly with murky fingerprints, and she can almost smell the unhealthy burn produced by the bug's vents when the heat had been cranked up high, and she can almost hear their maniacal laughter while recanting one another with their idiot masterpieces, passing a bottle between them.
Swallowing thickly, she shuffles through a series of smaller slips and cards; each of them baring no semblance to any of the others save for being marked in a hand she instantly recognises as her own.
Messages scrawled onto the back of flyers: 'Wake me up when you get back', 'Have gone for a walk', 'Neil's gay for Springsteen'... Illegible names and phone numbers scratched into the flimsy wad of a napkin. A dirty limerick illustrated, dated, signed, and marked with a slightly wonky copyright symbol on the inside of a matchbook cover.
Beneath the litter of paper, her fingers brush over something soft, and she spreads the cards and leaflets out carefully over the nondescript throws she perches on to uncover a swatch of worn, navy cotton. Pulling it out with a hitched breath, she unfolds a small, faded t-shirt with a scruffily unravelled hem. It is a nondescript garment, save for the fact that she remembers wearing it favourably and often back in the days of 'Neil and the Car.'
"It was on the backseat after you... When you were gone... You can have it back if you like..."
Neil speaks up quietly from his position on the floor, and she glances up; distracted.
"... You kept all of this?... For all this time?"
"Everything... To my own detriment, sometimes."
"Well, it's a funny thing, but most women tend not to take too kindly to the fact that their partner keeps- what my ex-fiancé dubbed- a 'shrine to past love'..."
"...You were engaged?"
"Briefly... There were a number of reasons why our relationship was flawed from the start... But that box- and, more importantly, what it represented- was perhaps one of the ones we mentioned least but thought on most... But that's my issue, not yours... My father played a role in my failure to play the regular, loving husband, as did simple personal faults which I suppose could be true of anyone... And Nancy had her own hang-ups that didn't help..."
"Right... Do you have a box under there for her, too?"
The blonde snipes, but there is no real malice in her tone, and Neil simply offers a small smile and shake of his head.
"No... Nope, you're the only girl I've ever boxed up... I have pictures of her- of Nancy- and some of my other long-term girlfriends... They're knocking about in albums or on my computer, because- break-ups aside- they were a part of my life... I never had any pictures of you, did you know that? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, as neither of us ever bought a camera- not even one of those little disposable ones- but it's strange all the same... If I had had any though, they would have gone in there with the rest of your things... Because, despite wanting to keep everything, I also didn't want to be ambushed by it... By you... Guilt was a big part of that, but it was also this kind of mourning that never received any closure... I understand that you've had personal experiences that made what happened... Horrible... But, whether you want to admit it- or believe it- or not, part of the reason it hurt so much is because of how much you'd cared for me, and that part was mutual... You were a good lover, Emma, uh, more than good... But you were also my friend, and I needed one of those more than I think you might have known."
He shrugs, and casts his gaze down to the floor.
"Anyway... It might mean nothing now after all this time... But I wanted you to show you anyway..."
Studying the brunet pensively, Emma bites her lip, before leaning slightly to one side to retrieve her wallet from the back pocket of her jeans. Opening it up, she hesitates for a second, before carefully slipping free a painstakingly trimmed photo she'd printed to fit inside the small plastic sleeve meant for her ID. Leaning forwards, she offers it to Neil cautiously.
"...This is Henry."
Her voice is low, and her fingers shake slightly when the brunet leans forward to take the image from her, as though she isn't quite sure that she wants to give it up. Sitting back and placing her hands delicately in her lap, she waits, worrying the backs of her teeth with her tongue nervously.
They sit in silence for a long time- Neil looking down at the picture in his hand- before he speaks rustily.
"... I see he's inherited his mother's weakness for ice-cream..."
She smiles a little bashfully and shrugs.
"Who doesn't like ice-cream? I-"
"-Emma... I... I don't understand. You said-"
"-He found me."
"He 'found' you?"
"On my birthday... It was apparently a part of the curse that it should be at that point... I was living in Boston, and the kid showed up at my door and introduced himself as my son... As far as birthday surprises go, I think that may be one of the more extreme sorts... He said he needed help, and that I needed to be the one to give it to him..."
"... A kid showed up on your doorstep asking for help and you just went with it?!"
To his surprise, she chuckles, and he looks swiftly down at his hands as she is suddenly far too familiar to him.
"Hell no!... No, sorry, it's just that if you knew how crazy the last year has been, you'd find it funny too... I went with him... I did just about everything in my power to not go with it..."
"You went with him?"
"He'd run away... See... That's another thing I'd probably laugh about if you'd told me the specifics a year back, as the coincidence is just too crazy to comprehend!... But then I know now that your dad fabricated the whole thing and-"
"-Slow down, you're losing me... What coincidence?"
"He's Regina's kid."
"The... The Evil Queen adopted your baby...?"
"She's not... It's... It's complicated... Regina adopted Henry, but Gold- your dad, sorry- was the key part in it... At the time, Henry wanted help as he believed his mother- that mother- to be evil... But, I mean, that's just because of what it said in the book... Though, I guess she could be pretty intense..."
"... You're defensive of her... Regina... You like this woman..."
"I do... She just made doing so a little challenging at first... Like... 'Drugged-me-and-got-me-incarcerated' challenging... Just for the night, mind."
"... She sounds delightful..."
Emma answers simply, and Neil shakes his head, trying to process all that she has told him. Eventually cluing in on the fact that he has left her waiting in silence, he looks up and offers a slow smile and continues softly.
"You're happy though, I can tell... You like the people in that town- Storybrooke- don't you?"
"Hmm, not all of them... My neighbour I could do without, and of course there's your dad..."
"-But, before the shit hit the fan, I guess even he was tolerable... I'm not sure how things are going to be now that the curse has broken, it was much too early to tell when we left... But, I am happy there, yes."
"... And you get to see the boy..."
"...From the looks of that photograph, he's inherited his mother's grin too... Things are good between you two?"
"...Better than I perhaps deserve."
"Don't say that... After everything you've told me... That's not a fair way to look at it... It's not your fault..."
"I know... I know that now... But it's still asking a lot of a kid to forgive that fact..."
"You understand him better than most on that account though..."
"Yes and no... My own situation is... unique... But even before understanding what in the hell that situation was, there was a big difference... One I haven't addressed with the woman to thank, and probably should... Henry has been loved since he was three weeks old, regardless of the curse and what he believed to be pretence... He's learnt to be a much bigger person than I am..."
"... You are still at odds with your parents?"
"... I'm not ready to discuss that yet, and when I am, it's not going to be with you..."
She replies evenly, her tone free from any spite that could easily lace those words, but firm. He nods slowly, trying to sort out his head. It is a confusing thing to have someone he was once so close to come back into his life without warning, only to be held warily away at arm's length. In theory, he can understand- more than he'd like to following their conversation back in the bar- but in practice, it's a little harder, when slipping so close to amiable conversation, to not simply fall back into old habits.
"No... That's fair."
She nods in response and takes back her photo print, slipping it carefully back into her wallet as Neil watches her thoughtfully. When he speaks again, he does so with a hint of curiosity; suddenly aware that they have yet to really consider something quite extraordinary.
"... You did it, though..."
"I did what?"
"... You really were the Savior... You freed all of those people... You broke the curse..."
"I... I guess... Yeah."
"Emma, don't you understand how big a deal that is!? It was prophesied! You-"
"- I'm just me, Neil. I didn't do anything particularly out if the ordinary... Regina and Gold are the ones with power... I just... I just did what needed to be done, I guess."
"... I doubt that..."
"Then that's your problem."
Neil laughs quietly at this, recalling being told much the same whenever he had questioned her tales when they were younger.
"... How did you do it? How did it work?"
"Breaking the curse? The way all fairytales seem to work, no? True love's kiss."
"True love's... Seriously?"
"Seriously... Your dad; magic and evil, but not all that inventive..."
"I... No, I guess not..."
"All in all, not a terrible price to pay..."
"No, but you're sweeping the magnitude of it under the carpet!"
Neil offers with a frown, telling himself that the strange feeling creeping into the pit of his stomach isn't jealousy. Surely not... But he knows that- in a way- it is. Not in a logical sense, as Emma is his past, but then none of this is logical. It's simply strange to discuss the matter of love with a girl he had once assumed he'd end up with, even if just in a platonic sense in this case.
"What do you mean?"
"Well.. I mean that for your love to have broken the curse is a big deal! As far as the intricacies of my father's magic, I have no clue in this case, but I know how things worked in that other world, and the sanctity of the idea... And I know how you work... You don't love easy, Emma..."
"That's ironic, coming from you..."
"Don't... Don't belittle what we had..."
"... I'm not. I can't do that without deeming everything I've told you to be weakness on my part... But I did love you too easy..."
"No... You were a kid... And it was the way it was meant to be... I suppose this is different in a way, anyway, as there's no romantic side to complicate things."
"You were able to comprehend a love for your son. That's an amazing-"
"-I do love Henry... But it wasn't our kiss that did this..."
"... You kissed Regina...?"
Her answer is baited, and terse, but he also catches a slight tremble to her words, and he recognises the defiant angle of her jaw. She wants him to lose his top over the answer she has provided him, but he's too stunned to give her the satisfaction.
Too stunned... But also too deeply affected by what she has told him today, to give her the satisfaction.
He nods slowly, before offering a wary smile that catches her off guard and has her frowning at him as though waiting for an ill-meaning punchline. Stretching his legs out in front of him, he bumps his head back softly against the wall, before regarding the blonde levelly.
"... You're in love with her?... The brunette that's with you and my father?"
She raises an eyebrow at him comically, and he laughs wearily.
"Don't take that with any offence... I'm just... Well, I'm trying to tell myself that I should be glad..."
"... You're trying to... Huh?"
"It's a bombshell, Emma, to sit here and discuss 'true love' with you, having only had you back in my life for a little over twenty-four hours... Don't get me wrong; I've dated, had the odd one night stand, and hell, even got engaged... And I'm sure you have too... But I do still... How do I put this?... Sitting here with you now, there is still an attraction, if you understand me... Because it's you... Maybe attraction isn't the best word... What I mean is-"
"-Stop... I get it."
"Good... I missed you... But I missed you because I liked you... I'm glad you're in love... And, from what I've seen, I'm glad it's with her..."
He chuckles at the look this last sentiment garners him and elaborates
"When you were hitting me in the alleyway, this random woman seemed to show up out of the blue and pulled you aside... I thought at first she was trying to help me, as, let's face it... You're a decent punch... But then she was all up in my face, springing to your defence... She didn't know me- not the Neil part of me- and for all she knew you could have been lashing out at me because I hurt you first... I could have had a knife! Or a gun!... But, she still wasn't having any of it when she was worried I might harm you, despite you being more than capable of flooring her, I'm sure..."
"... She has magic-"
"-Which she knows full well she can't go using in the middle of the street... It had nothing to do with power, Emma, it had to do with protection... And when you left, she as good as told both my father and I that she would have the hide of either one of us if we tried to hurt you... And that time she was talking about her magic... I'd be lying if I claimed to be ecstatic at the idea of you being romantically involved with anyone... But she cares for you... So... I'm happy for you... I guess it also makes perfect sense..."
Again, that guarded tone, and this time he laughs a little more freely; meeting her challenging glower kindly.
"I imagine there are several contexts to that question?!... I was referring to the fact that you- Emma Swan- have found your true love in a woman fabled to be the Evil Queen, and, as I understand it, your family's nemesis... It just suits you is all that I meant... You are- without a doubt- the most contrary, stubborn person I have ever met... It's almost poetic-"
"-And I imagine there are a few amusing stories the two of you might have to share... As for the 'other thing'... I'll bet that stirred up quite a shock with some of those that hailed from the Enchanted Forest... It wasn't that it was 'frowned upon'- not in my time, anyway- but more that it just didn't happen; it didn't fit the stories, I guess you could say..."
"...It never got so far as being common knowledge..."
"Then you will see over time... Me, though... Am I shocked?... No. You are- were- a free spirit... When we met, you were still hanging around with that girl from the casino, and, come on, let's not forget what happened in Vegas... You 'liked who you liked' back then, and I imagine you feel much the same now...?"
Emma replies; utterly stunned at Neil's response. It serves to remind her of why she had agreed to go steady with him in the first place, but this time... Well, this time that memory is a little less painful... They have both grown up, it would seem, and she offers him a shy, knowing smile, which he reciprocates, gladly.
"She's a lucky woman..."
"As am I."
"I'm sure... Not too rough on the eyes, either..."
This finally earns him a genuine grin, and a delicate blush for accompaniment.
"...She is beautiful, isn't she?"
"As are you."
He offers simply, waving his hand at her irritably when she wrinkles her nose and adopts a stoic expression once more.
"I'm speaking platonically... You were a good-looking girl when we met, and you've grown up and into your face and body to be an even better-looking young woman..."
"...And you've grown up into a slighter hairier, bulkier old man."
She responds primly, but he grins, not missing the small tug to the side of her mouth.
"Well... I was speaking platonically, so..."
"Hmmm... As witty as ever, I see..."
He smiles, shaking his head.
"... I'm glad you agreed to speak with me, Emma..."
"Yes... The rest of it- my father, the curse, the fact that magic exists in this land now- that's all a mess... And it will take time for me to come to terms with it... In reality and in my head... There is a lot of hurt that exists between my father and myself, and, as for 'what next', I don't know... But in regards to your part in all this... I am grateful you came here and to the bar today... And... I won't lie to you... It isn't easy for me to finally let you go now... But it's necessary... I've told you a bunch of times today that I loved you... But what I should be saying is that I love you... I do, and probably always will... And I hope you'll understand what I mean by that... I was worried earlier, back in the bar, that I'd broken you... But- as awkward as it is for me to think on it- I can tell by your face the few times we've mentioned Regina that someone's there to pick up the pieces... And I'm okay with that... I think, if you were willing to stay around for longer, and spend more time with me, I'd find it harder to feel that way, but-"
"-But it just isn't meant to be."
"...I'm glad I came here too... And I hope that you will understand that I'm not saying this to be mean... But... I think I finally understand what it is that I have now... For years, its been like... Like there was this chunk of, I don't know, ice or something, in the back of my head... I think it was in my heart too, if that makes any sense, only that part melted and disappeared when the curse broke... But it's like machinery... I didn't want to come here so you could explain, because I was adamant that you couldn't, and, there's parts of me that still hurt and are still mad, but that's okay! Because it wasn't something wrong with me!... I've heard that a bunch of times now, but it's like.. That final part thawed, and now all the parts are working properly, and I've figured out what to do and how I feel! I... I wish you well with your father, Neil... And whatever else you might wish for..."
"... Thank you..."
She smiles shyly and gets up to leave; both of them understanding that there is little more to say. Following her out and to the door, Neil speaks cautiously.
"You're leaving, aren't you?"
"Well... I've been her a while now, and-"
"-And you know perfectly well that that's not what I mean... You're leaving- you and Regina- to go back to Storybrooke... When? Tonight?"
"... Maybe. Maybe tomorrow... I haven't checked travel times but-"
"-But I won't see you again."
"... No... Probably not."
"... I don't know... That depends on what you and Gold decide to do..."
"I'm not going back with him."
"... Are you going to tell the kid... Are you going to tell him about me?"
"... I'd need to speak with his mother before answering that..."
"... But, he's a good kid?"
"And you're happy?"
"... More than I could- and have- said..."
"So this is... I mean this is..."
He nods, and she is suddenly astounded to catch a faint glimmer at his lashes... And even more astounded to find her own eyes prickling. Raising her jaw and regarding him levelly, her voice is soft but firm when she continues.
"It is... What happens with you and Gold is your own business, but... Well... He has my number, as you know... That said, I'd rather you not use it... But... He has a postal address also... If you ever decided that you wanted to use it, you can... But only the mailbox... I have too much going on in the present to focus on the past now... But... I won't strive to forget it either... So, I guess... All that being said... Goodbye..."
She holds out her hand awkwardly, and he takes it- shaking it gingerly- before swiftly moving to engulf her into his arms in a fierce embrace. She stiffens, but then relaxes and squeezes him back.
After all... They each deserve this one last shot at a farewell as it should have been.
"Goodbye, Neil... And good luck."
"Good luck to you too."
"I've already got it... I just need to tell her that."