A/N This has been a great story to write and thank you for coming along for the ride. It's been quite amazing to read your responses. So, with a tinge of sadness, here is the last chapter of With You Beside Me :) Bright side, the real thing's back on Sunday night!
The horse panted. Its hooves thundered across the ground.
Mulan looked to the sky, to where the sun was making its slow journey lower and lower into night.
Her thoughts alternated between blind determination and crushing regret.
But, not confidence.
The wind seemed to be outrunning her.
She urged her horse ever onward.
"Give me everything," she whispered to it.
It seemed to hear her and pushed harder.
"Your child, my lady."
She opened her arms and allowed the baby to be carefully placed there. She brought the tiny bundle close to her chest and pulled back the blanket to see inside.
To see her daughter.
To touch the smooth, soft skin that had never felt the sun. To feel the tiny fingers wrap around one of hers like a lifeline in the dark. To watch the sleeping face that had never known sorrow, never shed tears, never been crushed by the weight of too many burdens.
"You will find us again," she whispered. "One day, you will find us."
The baby opened her eyes and it seemed to Snow that her unfocused eyes looked right at her.
"Emma," her mother whispered. "Emma."
The fire flickered.
The sun was low.
Time continued to tick.
And her daughter's heart was still beating.
She was strong. So strong, grimly holding on to life, unable to let go. Snow wondered if Emma could feel her on the inside. Wherever she was. She had memorised every line on Emma's face, though she seemed to have far too many. She had run her hands over the skin of Emma's fingers, remembering how Emma's tiny, newborn fingers had curled around hers in their brief hour of meeting so long ago. She had run her hands through the golden hair over and over, remembering her own long raven hair.
Back in another life.
Snow stared at the sky, where the fluffy white clouds, tinged with gold, drifted slowly by. Her fingers absently stroked through Emma's hair yet again.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Her tears were gone. She had cried them all and then some. Her thoughts had gone in circles, assigning blame, regret and sorrow in equal measure. She had replayed every conversation with Emma she could ever remember having, taking comfort in the small ways Emma had opened up to her, cared about her, fought for their friendship. They had been close. It had almost been like the two of them against the world.
But, most of all, she thought of those moments.
Those two, indescribable moments.
I love you.
Who knew how powerful words could really be until they were spoken? Words from her daughter she had dreamed of since she had first pulled back the blanket to see her tiny face. Twenty-eight years ago.
It couldn't be the end of that already. Not when they were only at the beginning.
Snow let her hand rest on Emma's heart and closed her eyes.
Keep beating, she thought. Keep beating.
What would Charming say if he were here?
Don't give up.
Emma will live.
But, Charming wasn't here.
And nor was Mulan. It was her and Aurora.
So, Snow, sitting in the middle of the forest, with the last embers of hope dying out, recited the words to herself. And tried with all her heart to believe them.
Don't give up.
Emma will live.
Emma will live...
She started, opening her eyes and looking up at Aurora's frightened face.
Snow looked down at Emma, who had gone beyond pain, beyond hearing.
Beyond her reach.
And she would have sat there and let them come, but for Emma's request that she go on.
For their family.
"Did they trip the wire?" she asked, moving slowly but smoothly to lay Emma on the ground. She stood up, taking the bow that Aurora handed her.
The woman shook her head.
"There were footsteps... I couldn't just sit around here anymore, so I went walking. I heard them and came straight back here."
Snow nodded, taking a last glance down at Emma.
"Stay here. I don't want her to be alone."
She waited until Aurora nodded, before walking quickly in the direction Aurora was pointing. She notched an arrow in her bow and pulled it back. Ready. Her hooded eyes stared grimly, her mouth set in a thin line.
This time she would have no qualms about shooting someone in the back.
Aurora strained her ears to listen beyond the forest sounds. What could she possibly do if something happened to Snow? Then, it would just be her and...Emma.
And Emma was all but gone.
She laid her hand on the blade which had been near her at all times since she'd first picked it up to cut herbs. She could defend. She had already used it once. She could go down fighting. Make Mulan proud of her. And Philip.
A twig snapped to her left and she picked up the knife. She moved slightly to crouch beside a tree a few feet from Emma and swallowed hard, feeling her legs and arms tremble.
Don't think about it. Don't give them a chance.
The next moment had her frozen in disbelief.
"Aurora!" came a loud whisper. "Aurora!"
Aurora's eyes all but bulged out of her head.
She turned and craned her neck to see the warrior charge between the trees and into their camp, her cloak trailing behind her. Aurora stared at her, her mouth agape. It was what they had been waiting for for three nights, but suddenly it seemed so unexpected. Perhaps, secretly, she hadn't expected it at all.
Mulan looked around, took in the situation and immediately walked to where Aurora crouched near Emma. She put a hand on Emma's head.
"Where's Snow?" she asked, anxiously looking over Emma's condition. The blonde woman was clearly unconscious.
Close to death.
"I'm right here," Snow replied, striding into the camp and dropping to her knees beside them. She gripped Mulan's arm in relief. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you."
Mulan looked at Snow. Her eyes were red and raw and anguished beyond anything Mulan had ever seen.
"I don't know," Snow replied. "She has a heartbeat." She bit her lip and nodded. "She has a heartbeat." It was everything she was clinging to right now.
Mulan held up a small bottle containing the precious antidote. Snow stared at it for a moment, then reached out and took it from her, uncapping it. She took a deep breath, looked at both her companions, and pulled Emma into her arms as she had so many times. She tilted Emma's head back and poured a little of the liquid into her mouth, keeping her head back so it would run down her throat in the absence of swallowing.
"Just a sip," Mulan directed. "Every hour until morning. By then," she looked from one to the other, "we'll know."
Snow recapped the bottle and leaned back, still holding Emma's head in her lap, though at a lesser angle now. All three women looked at each other in silence. Somewhere far away, a lonely wolf howled. The shadows once again crept through the wilderness.
Another endless night.
More vigilant hours.
But, now they were three.
There was nothing to do now but wait until morning.
That's all she could describe it as.
Reaching up for something. To a voice she could hear just beyond her awareness, like a friend long lost, but whose name was still on the edge of memory.
She felt like she needed to hear that voice.
Whoever it was, they were persistent. It was a voice she recognised, though it seemed to be floating in her mind like a wave about to glide onto the seashore.
She felt like smiling, but there was too much heaviness everywhere. She opened her mouth, just barely.
"M..." It hardly sounded more than a whimper.
A hand, touching her face...
Snow held her hand to Emma's face, hardly daring to breathe.
"Open your eyes, Emma," she whispered. She watched Emma frown and wince and felt so anxious she wanted to scream.
Please open your eyes. Please come back to me.
She was trying. If only they weren't stuck fast. Emma felt like she could almost reach up and rub them. Almost.
She opened her mouth and breathed in, the best lungful of air she'd had in days. She felt her lungs expand, felt the oxygen just about down to her toes. It was like an icy breeze. It felt wonderful.
"I think it's working quickly," came a voice.
That wasn't Mary Margaret.
And it didn't sound like Aurora either.
Could it be possible she had returned? Was she going to make it after all?
This time, Emma forced her eyes open. It was dim and cold, but for the fire. She felt the fresh, crisp air of early morning. And, as her eyes adjusted to the light, shapes became clearer. She saw the fire. She saw the trees stretching away to the sky. She saw the three figures huddled around her, looking haggard. Mulan looked intense and determined, but she half-smiled when Emma's eyes met hers. Aurora's eyes filled with tears and an expression of great relief passed over her face. She reached forward and grabbed Emma's hand, giving it a squeeze.
It was then Emma realised her other hand already lay in someone else's.
Emma let her eyes drift away from Aurora and across the space in between. The first thing she saw were the shadows. Mary Margaret looked so tired. But, her eyes...Emma remembered words she had heard...Had it been a dream? Or perhaps part of the delirium.
I loved you from the moment I thought you could even exist.
You are everything I could ever have wished you to be.
Had that been real? Emma looked into her mother's eyes. They seemed bottomless, infinite. After a moment of silent staring, one corner of Mary Margaret's mouth turned up slightly and her eyes lit up in...wonder.
Yes. It had been real.
There was no mistake.
Emma closed her eyes again. But her hand squeezed Mary Margaret's as tight as her strength would allow.
When Emma woke again, the sun had risen higher in the sky and the air was warmer, filled with the fragrance of the forest. She became aware of a dull pulse inside her head and groaned, raising her arm to shield her eyes from the light.
It felt like a bad hangover. She'd had plenty of those in her time.
At least she could move freely again.
Boy, she was thirsty. She licked her dry, cracked lips and coughed. She heard rustling coming from somewhere above her head and she opened her eyes to see Mary Margaret leaning over her, a canteen in her hand.
"Wh...at ha..." she said hoarsely, knowing her mother couldn't decipher that.
Mary Margaret placed a hand under her head, but this time Emma could help her lift. The water was like silk down her throat.
"Hey," Mary Margaret said, as she pulled the canteen away and rested Emma's head down again. Her eyes still had black shadows under them and Emma smiled crookedly.
"You...look...awful," she said and her mother smiled wryly.
"Well, that makes two of us," she said and sat down against a tree near Emma's head. She looked down. "How are you feeling?"
Emma gathered her strength and rolled excruciatingly slowly onto her side. That was a stupid idea. Now she couldn't see her mother's face. Maybe if she sat up...
"Woah!" Mary Margaret said, reaching over and placing her hands on Emma's shoulders to push her back down. "You may be on the mend, but let's not get too excited." She helped Emma onto her back again and knelt beside her. "What's your hurry?"
Emma ran a hand over her face and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Do I stink?" she asked.
Mary Margaret looked surprised.
"Uh, I hadn't noticed."
Emma looked sceptical.
"I need a shower. Or a bath. Or the river."
Mary Margaret huffed a laugh.
"We all do sweetheart."
A pindrop could have been heard in the terrifying silence that followed.
They both froze.
Emma didn't dare look at her mother. My darling. My love. Sweetheart. She remembered very well the moments when Mary Margaret had called her those names. It had been ok then, while she was sick and needed someone to strengthen her, care for her. Love her.
Was it ok now? Was it ok to be called such affectionate, familiar names? When she had been helpless and dying, such intimacies had been normal, welcomed even. But, she was getting better. She was more herself again. Suddenly, all of those things she had said...
I love you.
I don't want to leave you.
She had thought she would be gone forever. It had been the only thing she could do for her mother before she left. Now, she wasn't leaving and those things she had said couldn't be unsaid.
What should she say? She couldn't take them back. She...didn't want to take them back. But, looking her mother in the eye and seeing all that love...it was frightening.
Emma Swan didn't find love.
She lost it. Or never had it in the first place.
Snow slowly stood up and gestured toward the fire.
"I'll go get some more firewood," she said and backed away before Emma could say anything. She walked until she was out of sight of the camp and rested her hand on a tree trunk, running her fingers over the rough bark.
It had just slipped out and she had known it was a mistake as soon as it had left her lips. The entire forest had seemed to hold its breath. It had been easy when Emma was only half aware of what was happening and seemed responsive to her maternal side. No, she had been responsive. But, Snow had known her daughter long enough to recognise when those walls shot up. When that guarded look returned to her eye.
She felt her hopes slowly crumble into dust.
Would her daughter ever really be hers?
There was nowhere to go.
Nowhere to hide.
Nowhere to run.
She would have to get up every day next to her.
She would have to walk for hours next to her.
Find a way back to Storybrooke.
Next to her.
Emma, breathing hard, pushed herself the last few inches to the tree and collapsed against it, satisfied that she had pulled herself to a sitting position. She considered the landscape before her.
The world had changed and she couldn't deny she had changed with it. She had gone down into the proverbial pit and had needed someone more than she'd ever needed anyone. Her whole life, she'd hated needing people and she hated when people needed her.
But, it had happened. And she'd survived. Dare she say it...thrived?
Henry had needed her. And she had hated it. Until she loved it.
Storybrooke had needed a sheriff. And she had done it reluctantly. Until she couldn't imagine doing anything else.
Mary Margaret had needed her to find the truth about Kathryn Nolan. And she would have moved mountains to do it.
And now. It was all in reverse.
She had needed someone to love her enough to keep her alive. She had dreamed of it when she was a kid. A rescue by her parents from a life of indifference and neglect. Being saved. Being loved just because she was Emma.
When did such dreams die? When had she truly realised that noone was coming?
Her mother had said never to give up. That she came from people who didn't know how to give up. Emma had needed that. And now she had it. She had everything she had ever wanted.
She couldn't pretend it hadn't happened. She had said she loved Mary Margaret. Cried for her. Been lost in her arms. At the end, it had been as if they were the only two people left in the universe. And it had felt so right. She didn't want to give that up. She wanted it so badly.
And she wouldn't give it up.
Morning turned to afternoon turned to evening. Emma felt stronger with every hour that passed. She could stand by herself and walk around a little. Take a trip to the river to clean off the grime of poison and dirt and blood.
But she also felt more awkward. Her mother continued to attend to her patiently and lovingly, but Emma could see, now, that she was holding back. It wasn't like before, when she had been sick, and the words and looks they had exchanged had come easily, naturally. And Emma knew it was for her benefit that Mary Margaret was holding back, not because she wanted to. It hurt to know that she was hurting her mother.
Emma tried to speak a thousand times.
And a thousand times she closed her mouth.
It was a relief when Mulan suggested they try walking a bit the next day, just to get Emma started again. They would find a new campsite and regroup, make a new strategy to combat Cora. It would be good to have something else to focus on rather than her emotional inadequacies.
Emma watched as Mary Margaret stoked the fire, before turning and settling down beside her. Emma stared at her, words springing to her lips, then dying away.
Just say something! she shouted at herself. Surely it couldn't be more painful than this. Not even the poison had been as painful.
Mary Margaret turned to look at her.
"Are you ok?" she asked quietly, concern and anxiety in her expression. She put a hand on Emma's arm.
Emma bit the inside of her cheek. And nodded.
"I'm fine," she replied, wanting to kick herself.
They left the camp behind mid-morning of the next day. It felt good to be moving again, albeit slower than before. This time, it was her bringing up the rear and not Aurora.
She could feel it building as she walked along. Some kind of explosion. It felt like words were constantly, frustratingly on the tip of her tongue. Emma rubbed her forehead, though if she'd been alone, she probably would have smacked it instead.
It happened after lunch. It burst out just like that moment in the nursery.
"I can't call you Mom," she blurted.
Mulan and Aurora exchanged a glance and wisely kept walking.
Snow slowed to a stop, looking more thoughtful than hurt.
She's been waiting for me to say something, Emma realised. Though saying she couldn't call her Mom was probably not what her mother had been hoping for. Her mother seemed to be able to wait forever. It was as if Emma couldn't get to the bottom of the love, she just found new depths.
"I understand," Snow said quietly.
Emma shook her head and put a hand to her brow.
"That's not what I meant. I mean, it is what I meant, but not so..."
Snow approached her and, hesitantly, reached out and took hold of her hands. She smiled in understanding and squeezed Emma's hands.
"Just breathe. I know you're trying to tell me something. I'm listening."
Emma screwed up her face, as if in pain.
"How do you do that?" she asked.
Her mother cocked her head to the side.
Emma shook her head.
"Just...be so patient when I'm screwing up. Understand me so well. Nobody does that."
Snow smiled again.
"Nobody did that," she corrected. "You're going to have to get used to it. I haven't even begun to know you yet."
"Yeah, and that's what's so scary," she retorted. She swallowed, feeling surprised at herself. It had suddenly been so easy to admit that. "Uh..."
"You don't think I'm scared?" her mother asked. "You're a tough nut to crack, Emma Swan."
Emma frowned and looked down to where their hands were joined.
"I don't mean to be," she replied. "Well, I do. But not with you. At least...I don't want to be that way with you." It was coming out all wrong. Since when couldn't she construct sentences like a normal person? She sighed and stepped back, but her mother tightened her grip.
"That's where you start," she said gently. She pulled Emma back toward her. "Instead of taking a step back, take a step forward."
Emma shrugged, trying to be nonchalant.
"Yeah, but then I'll be..."
"Right here?" Snow said, smiling and pulling her again so they were toe to toe. She raised their hands and turned her wrists so Emma's hands were held tight against her chest. "Then I'll have you exactly where I want you. Right beside me."
Emma somehow knew the worst of the battle was over. A battle she had been fighting for so long. It had been over since the arrow had entered her. And, for the first time, that felt ok. She nodded.
"Can I have my hands back please?"
Snow smirked and let go.
"Maybe one day, I can call you...that...again," Emma said quickly, not wanting to lose her nerve. "It just might take some time. And I...don't mind the names you called me..." she flushed and stared at her feet.
It was so hard, this family business.
This getting close.
This loving someone when it felt like falling off a cliff.
Snow nodded slowly, a secret smile passing over her face.
Her hopes stirred from the dust.
"I understand," she said, turning and starting to walk again. She knew how to do it now. Slow steps. Tiny steps. But, forward steps nonetheless.
Emma felt exasperated, though she didn't know why. She turned and followed her mother, adrenalin surging through her. She didn't see the tree root until her foot got caught in it and she went sprawling. She lay there in the dirt for a moment, before slowly rising to her knees.
"Emma? Are you ok?"
She looked at Snow, who stood in front of her looking anxious.
"Peachy. Just my big feet."
Snow's expression cleared and she tilted her head to look critically at Emma's feet.
"Oh. Well, our feet are about the same size. You must have got the clumsiness from your father." She smiled disarmingly and reached out a hand.
Emma raised her eyebrows, feeling warm from the gentle ribbing. She grabbed onto her mother's hand and felt herself being hauled to her feet. Snow held onto her hand a moment longer and squeezed.
"You're pretty strong, you know," Emma remarked as they began walking along.
Snow looked sideways at her.
"Oh, my darling. You have no idea."