If he concentrates he can still smell the freshly packed dirt, hear the absence of mourners and the ringing in the air that ensues, feel early spring morning chill sting his cheeks. The cemetery hadn't been touched before then in twenty-eight years; vines had grown and looped around rusted gates that once shined bronze. Weeds had overgrown over tall grey stones, the grass brown and uncut. Of course except for one plot, separated from all the rest. Magic had restored the green, (at Emma's request, or maybe it was even Snow's). If he concentrates he can feel the dirt on his hands, that earthy smell as he and Emma started the roots of a brand new tree: apples. Red, lush, never to be picked. For no one ever came or ever will come to that particular plot in that particular cemetery. Haunted ground, they said. One said fearfully they could hear her laughter in the wind at night, one said they saw a ring of brush fire that seemed to come out of no where. Rumors, hushed whispers. No wistful looks, remembered stories without any spot of fear.
He can still see Emma standing up, admiring their work. She smiled at him although it never quite reached her eyes. Her eyes hold shadows, full of memories of time wasted and time spent and a remembrance of a severed magic so strong it could have made the grass turn even greener. Maybe. He remembers how her eyes used to look before it happened.
She cleared her throat then. Nice work, kid.
He nodded, once. Twice. She asked if he wants to go inside and he shook his head furiously and she understood. She left him with the chill, with the newly plotted grave. He was left without words as they suddenly blocked up in his throat. He only blinked when the chill became too much and they stung, harsh. He looked a deer caught in the headlights He stood there for hours, contemplating, numb until he left as silent as a winters night. And she remained with her apple tree.
Now he stands in the same position, taller, cheeks still stinging. He's dashing they tell him, standing tall in a royal's clothes: reds, golds, a dagger strapped to his waist. He is a living embodiment of the book he cherished so much, and he reminds himself of that every day. He was good, a prince, he was loved and revered. She was evil, vile, she had done horrible, horrible things to all of them. Pulled out hearts, ripped away families. She deserved it. However, the past he only saw through the black and white and stilled paintings of his book didn't overwrite ten years of love and care, however misguided it may have been. I don't know how to love very well. And that was the truth. The bitter truth carved into his every day life; she loved, but didn't know how, and he didn't believe her enough to save her. Or maybe allow her to save herself. Shouldn't everyone be allowed to do that? That thought came into his head between sleep and morning and he snapped up in bed and felt a pit growing in his stomach. She was wicked, she hurt too many to be saved. A mantra he started, made himself believe. He remembers a song. She used to sing to him, once a upon a time a go. Hum, mostly. He was comforted in her arms, the safest place in the world back then. Hearing her heat beat against his ear, thump, thump thump.
When his thoughts become too much he sits down against the apple tree, growing strong and tall and smelling like the garden of eden: pure and sweet. Emma doesn't come down here anymore, said it was making her go gray too early. She said it in that purely Emma way that hid what she truly felt. This place is a ghost to her, a place of confusion and heart ache. She became a ghost too, flitting through the hallways, paying visit to her parent's subjects with apathy and false politeness. At the end of the day she'd be back in her jeans and red jacket, jabbing a tree with a sword and listening to music on her magic-powered mp3 player. They were close, but he thinks they could have been closer. She doesn't blame him, she says.
He looks up, sees the small bits of white sunlight filtering through the leaves and branches and splotches of red. Snow would be calling for him out the window soon. Her face is more open than Emma's; he can see the regret in the contours of her mouth, in the furrow of her brow. The decision had been taken out of her hands, hers and Emma's and Charming's, and the people wanted retribution. They had gotten their weight in gold, but he thinks maybe they - Emma, Snow, even Charming - had been left penniless. Too many words unsaid, too many things left undone. A fate sealed by tightened rope and by cheers of the townspeople. He hadn't known they would be so vengeful, he thought she would just be captured. Cat and mouse over, sides wouldn't have to be picked. But anyone can give in to vengeance, to hate.
Emma says she had smiled, almost, at her as the lever was pulled. He himself hadn't been allowed to watch. He'd remained awake all night, until the first cheers were heard from his bedroom window. It was only then that a few tears slipped down his cheeks. When he saw Emma she was a controlled mess, her eyes red, her chin wobbly. She closed the door nearly in his face when she tried to follow him. She doesn't blame him, she says.
Or her parents too for that matter. She adores Snow, adores Charming, indulges them by letting them have their lost daughter back. But at family dinners away from prying eyes there will always be that elephant in the room. That memory that would forever isolate each of them. No one blames each other, there is nothing to blame. She had it coming.
But was it worth it, was the question. Was it worth it to lose her, his mother? For what, goodness? What was goodness if she was never given that chance for it? Even when she told him, looked him right in the eyes and promised him with her own that she would change? Even then, was it right to condemn her? The questions were stuck to his soul, much like that guilt he knows will never change. It wasn't his fault, not directly. He was to remember that.
He pulls out his dagger. It's a longer one. He's almost ready for a sword Gramps says, next year. It gleams as he sharpens it absentmindedly. Almost just as absentmindedly he turns his head towards the headstone, empty. He'll write something on it one day, that he can promise. Because her humming was still in his ears, and she taught him to walk, and there had been a chance there for a family: however dysfunctional and oddly shaped.