Chapter 1: Running in Circles
A/N: This was meant as a companion piece to "This Year," but can stand alone. Could be AU, depending on what happens in the show. First, excerpts from "This Year," just to set the stage…
Some time in April…
"Okay, kid, whatever you think is best." Emma grinned, walking home with Henry in the pouring April rain. "Everyone in town knows your judgment is better than mine."
"Great parenting." Jefferson's voice drifted over from across the street. He was strolling outside without a raincoat or umbrella, just his hat. He waved Emma and Henry down and crossed the street to meet them.
"Excuse me, what did you just say about my parenting?"
Jefferson grinned. "Just that I really admire your approach. 'Your judgment is better than mine; do whatever you want and I'll go along with it.'" He winked. "Great. Are you going to keep that philosophy once he enters his teen years? Because I can really see that working out for you."
Emma glared. "You've got a little something… just there… oh, look, I can see the sarcasm dripping out of your mouth." She slapped Jefferson's arm. "Way to be subtle, douchebag."
"Is that any way to speak in front of your son?" Jefferson said, feigning shock.
"You need to go away," Emma said, grabbing Henry's hand and walking faster in hopes of shutting Jefferson out of their conversation. The relationship between the Sheriff and the Hatter had been a tenuous one ever since he, well, kidnapped her and forced her make him a hat. (Red, however, persisted that the two of them were merely repressing their intense attraction for one another. Emma begged to differ.)
"Come on, Emma," Jefferson said, lengthening his stride to keep up with Emma and Henry. "I know you and I kind of got off on the wrong foot, but you have to understand, desperate times called for desperate measures. You know what it's like, to be willing to go to any lengths for your kid."
"Sure, I understand," Emma said brusquely. She shot Jefferson a scathing look over her shoulder. "That doesn't mean I want to be your friend."
Jefferson only smirked. "Fair enough." They'd reached an intersection. he gestured down the road that led to his house. "This is me, so I suppose… I'll see you."
"Yeah, see you."
The Hatter parted ways with Emma with a tip of his hat. Emma was left standing there, mildly shell-shocked by her encounter with the local madman. Henry looked up at her from where he stood, clasping her hand and smiling slyly.
Seeing his smug look, Emma glared. "Oh, shut up."
Several months later…
"Emma! Emma Swan!"
Walking through town to the Sheriff station, Emma heard the Hatter calling to her from across the street. She looked over her shoulder and saw him waving her down, jogging across a crosswalk towards her. Emma's mind raced; she panicked. What was she going to do? Stay and act like this was totally normal? Hell no. Get a restraining order? Tempting, but probably not a good idea. Run?
Yup, that's the one.
Not giving her choice a second thought, Emma bolted.
The Sheriff station was still a ways off, so she made a detour. She burst into Granny's diner to find Belle, Snow, and Red all clustered around the counter chatting in hushed voices. Emma slid onto the stool beside her mother, tucking her hair behind her ear and leaning towards them.
"Quick, engage me in a conversation," she pleaded desperately. Red scrunched up her nose curiously.
Before Red could ask, Jefferson entered the diner, looking around. His face lit up when he spotted Emma, and he made his way towards them. Red, along with everyone else, realized what was going on. She grinned maliciously.
"Please don't please don't please don't please don't please don't," Emma begged under her breath. Red ignored Emma's pleas and waved Jefferson over.
"Jeff, hey, how are you?" She met Emma's death glare with a self-satisfied smirk. Red refused to abandon her crazy theory that Emma and Jefferson were repressing passionate feelings for one another, despite Emma's fervent and frequent assurances that this was not the case. "What brings you here this morning?"
Jefferson ignored Red, giving her no more than a tip of his hat in acknowledgement before turning instead to Emma. He was breathing heavily; Emma had led him on quite a chase. "Emma, hear me out, please," he implored. "Grace has been begging for weeks to have you and Henry over. She really wants her dad to at least be on good terms with her best friend's mother. And honestly, I was going to invite you to dinner. And you ran off like I was chasing you down with a chainsaw. How many times do I have to promise I'm not a psychopath before you believe me? Do you want me to get a note from the Cricket? Because if that's what it takes, I can do that."
Emma shook her head. "No, thanks," she said with a halfhearted attempt at a polite smile that came out as more of a grimace. "And thank you for the invitation, but Henry and I won't be going to dinner."
Jefferson took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. "Emma, our children are best friends. And yet you avoid me like I'm a carrier of viral plague."
So you're saying this is the sort of thing you do with all of Grace's friends' parents?" Emma asked, knowing full well that Jefferson could rarely be seen socializing with anyone apart from Rumplestiltskin and Whale, both of whom he knew from the old world. Mostly he stayed cooped up in his mansion doing whatever it was he did to pass the time when Grace was at school or with Henry.
"Grace doesn't have any other friends," Jefferson said matter-of-factly. Emma clamped her mouth shut. Henry didn't have any other friends either, at least not his age. Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea… for Henry, that is… "That's why this is so important," the Hatter continued. "I… I want her to be happy. And if this is what it takes, then I'm willing to endure an awkward meal or two with a woman I once kidnapped."
Emma glared, still withholding her final answer. She wasn't convinced. Jefferson made one final plea. "Just this one time," he said earnestly. "Then you can decide once and for all if I'm a crazy axe murderer, and I'll never bother you again."
"I don't know about axe murderer, but the kidnapping thing is pretty irrefutable," Emma said drily. 'So is the "crazy" thing,' she thought. Jefferson didn't argue, just looked at her with hopeful eyes and a pleading smile. Emma hesitated before heaving a melodramatic sigh.
"Fine," she agreed. "One dinner. Henry and I will be there at six. But any creepy… weirdness and I'm finding a reason to lock you up at the station."
"Deal." Jefferson looked pleased with himself. "I can't wait to tell Grace. She's going to be so excited."
"Yeah, okay, get out," Emma said bluntly. She'd had enough of this; she was only going to spend time with Jefferson for Henry's sake, and Henry wasn't here right now, so Jefferson could go dive off a cliff for all she cared.
Having gotten what he came for, Jefferson left. Three pairs of eyes – Snow's, Red's, and Belle's – were focused on Emma, unblinking. She turned to them and jammed a finger in Red's direction.
"Not. One. Word."
That same day, at lunchtime…
With the dinner with Jefferson hanging over her head all day, Emma couldn't focus on anything. She really didn't want to go through with it, but she'd already told Henry and to back out now would majorly let him down.
She approached him that afternoon when he returned from having lunch with Regina. He usually ate dinner with Regina on Saturdays, but with this change in plans, Regina had instead agreed to take him for lunch as well as Sunday dinner. Emma had actually been surprised with how flexible the Mayor had been when she'd requested they change their Henry schedule.
"Henry, about dinner tonight…" she began. He looked up at her, already distraught.
"You're not canceling, are you?" he said worriedly. Emma shook her head.
"No, Henry, no," she assured him. "I just…" She hesitated. "I don't know how to do this. I want to keep an open mind at all, you know I do, but…"
"You don't know if you can," Henry finished for her, understanding. "I think I might actually have an idea.
"What?" Emma asked. Loath as she was to admit it, Henry's ideas were actually usually pretty good.
"You need to talk to Belle," he said matter-of-factly. Emma raised an eyebrow.
"Rumplestiltskin kidnapped her, right?" Henry reasoned. "But look at them now. They worked it out. Ask her how."
That… actually might be helpful, Emma realized. She nodded and pulled out her phone. "I guess it can't hurt," she said. She paused, turned to Henry again. "I don't have Belle's number."
Once she'd gotten the number from Henry, Emma dialed it and waited for Belle to pick up.
"'Lo?" came Belle's voice from the other end. She sounded scratchy and groggy, like she'd just woken up from a nap or something. Emma didn't want to know.
"Hey Belle, it's Emma."
"Emma?" Belle sounded confused. Probably rightfully so; Emma and Belle weren't exactly close.
"I got your number from Henry," Emma explained briefly. "Listen, I need your advice on something."
"What is it?" Belle asked.
"So Henry's told me bits and pieces of you and Gold's story," the Sheriff prefaced, a bit uneasily, "And I was wondering if you could tell me… How did you and him manage to get past the whole thing where he kidnapped you? I mean, I look at you now and you've got a pretty healthy relationship. What I want to know is, how? With all he's done, I mean… and to you…" She trailed off, not quite sure what else to say.
"He didn't exactly kidnap me," Belle clarified. "It wasn't against my will. I agreed to go with him. But I do understand what you're getting at. How did I look past that, you're wondering?"
"Yes, exactly," Emma said, glad that Belle understood even if she herself didn't.
"And this is about Jefferson?" Belle asked. Emma blanched. How could Belle possibly know that? She scoffed into the phone, hoping to sound convincing.
"Jefferson? Why would it be about Jefferson?"
"Well aren't you going to his place for dinner?" Belle asked. Something about her tone made Emma feel a little more at ease. Belle wouldn't judge her; that much she knew. "I understand the two of you have a complicated history."
"Oh." Emma paused. At least Belle hadn't gotten on board Red's annoying "Jeff and Emma" bandwagon. "Then, yeah, it's about Jefferson. It's just, I can tell this dinner is really important to Henry. He wants Jefferson and me to get along. And if it's something he really wants, then I'm willing to give it a shot. But I feel like I need to give it my best shot, and that's where I need your help."
"Just get to know him as a person," Belle advised. "When I got to know Rumplestiltskin, I knew what he'd done and what he was known for, but in time I saw who he could be, and what he could be to me, and I found myself falling in love with him."
"Any advice on how to avoid the whole 'falling in love' part?" Emma tried. Belle chuckled.
"If I could choose who I fell in love with, my life would've been a lot easier," Belle said. "I hate to say it, but some things are just meant to be."
Emma sighed. She'd suspected as much. "I thought you might say that," she said. "Thanks, though, Belle. Really."
"Anytime," Belle said cheerily. "And hey, if anything happens, you send me a text. I'll call and fake an emergency."
"Like what kind of emergency?" Emma asked dubiously. Nothing too extreme, she hoped.
"Oh, I don't know. Rumplestiltskin did some terrible thing to some innocent person and I need you to put a stop to it?"
That was certainly believable enough. "Good plan. Thanks again. I owe you one." Emma paused, realizing that might not be the best choice of words. "But don't you dare tell Gold."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
Satisfied, Emma hung up. Henry was looking up at her expectantly. "So?" he prompted. Emma gave a half-smile and rumpled his hair.
"I think I can handle this dinner thing," she said optimistically. Henry beamed.