AN: This is actually a companion piece, of sorts to my Hook-centric oneshot "Time and Tides". They do not have to be read together, but there are some fun parallels between the stories, I think.

This is a leeeeeetle bit Captain Swannish, if you've got your shipping goggles on, though Hook himself does not feature in the story.


Tallahassee

Two months after she gives her son up for adoption, Emma Swan steps out of prison with nothing more than a hundred dollars in her pocket, some ill-fitting clothes, a messenger bag full of junk, and a keyring with a single car key on it.

She is 18 years old.

There was a note in the envelope that the car key had come in, with an address on it. The note was typed on a typewriter, the handwriting on the envelope wasn't his, and there were more foreign stamps on it than she's ever seen in her life. She doesn't even know where Phuket is. Still, she knows it was somehow from him.

She takes a taxi to the address and tries not to get her hopes up.

A familiar yellow Volkswagen beetle sits in an overgrown driveway. The house beyond is vacant and has been for some time. There aren't any neighbors. Dust has made a fuzzy yellowish blanket over the windshield. Emma chokes back the sob that rises in her throat at the sight.

She'd let herself hope, just a little, but her hopes have proven as empty as the abandoned house beyond.

When she slips behind the wheel and breathes in, she can barely smell him beneath the scent of hot leather and metal. She opens the windows to let the heat out and whatever ghost of him remains. Inside of her there is something cracked and broken, and hotter than the leather dashboard that has been baking for the last few months in the Phoenix sun.

The key turns. After a couple of tries, the engine catches. There is a full tank of gas.

Emma drives away from the empty house and never looks back.

xxx

Emma stays in Phoenix until her probation is up. Her officer helps her get a job working as a clerk in a gas station convenience store. She works the night shift, and doesn't think it's funny at all that her job now is to watch out for people trying to rip her off.

She's really, really good at that part of her job.

She hates it here, though. She hates the dry, dusty heat and the baking sun and the scrubby grass that is all crackly and brown where it manages to grow without the benefit of lawn irrigation.

As soon as her probation is up, she leaves. She quits her job, takes what money she's managed to save, packs up a cardboard box containing her few belongings, stuffs them in the trunk of the yellow bug, and leaves.

Emma gets on I-10 East and just drives. She wants to be as far from Portland, Oregon, as far from Canada, as far from Phuket (wherever that is) as it's possible to be.

I-10 takes her through New Mexico and Texas, along long stretches of highway where there's nothing to see at all except lonely and fading billboards. Eventually she hits Louisiana, where she can almost smell the sea with the car windows down. She stays for a week in New Orleans, loving the smell of the ocean, and the French Quarter's charm. Eventually the tourists are what drive her away.

She gets back in the bug and moves on, always east. Mississippi blinks by, Alabama is gone in just a few hours. Then she crosses the border into Florida.

She stops for a snack and a pee break at the Florida welcome center. There is a map of the state, all the highways outlined in bright colors. Glossy brochures nearby advertise Disney World and Universal Studios and Busch Gardens theme parks. Tourist attractions as far as the eye can see, she thinks. But her eyes are on the map and the road that she's on—has been on for days now—and it leads straight through the state capital: Tallahassee.

When she gets back on the road it is just after noon. The sun overhead is hot and storm clouds are building low on the horizon. She leaves the windows down and cranks the radio up.

xxx

Four and a half hours later, she sees the first exit sign for Tallahassee.

She has debated with herself fiercely over the last few hours—whenever the radio station signal would give out and she was stuck with static—whether or not to stop. There is practically no chance that he would be there. Why would he be, after everything?

And yet… this was where her finger had landed. This was where they were going to make their home. Maybe it would have been a nightmare, or maybe it would have been a fairy tale come true. It takes her two more exits before she guides the bug off of an exit ramp and lets the traffic urge her into the left lane. She turns south, heading toward the state capital.

Tallahassee is not near a beach. She'd realized that back at the welcome center. The beach is probably about thirty minutes more drive south or so. But there is something about this place that strikes a chord in her.

She was in jail for just a little less than a year. Long enough for her entire life to change it seems. The last few months in Phoenix passed in a blur. Here, however, it's obvious that spring has arrived.

Tallahassee wears springtime well. Her initial impression is of trees everywhere. More trees than she's been used to seeing for a long time. Flowers bloom all along the roadsides. A random turn off takes her down several tiny side streets clustered with old fashioned looking homes, canopied by ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Trees full of bright green leaves and heavily laden with wide white blooms burst like light through the dense green. Ivy vines climb over everything, broken by splashes of purple and pink and white azaleas. Red and fuchsia and baby pink camellia blossoms litter the ground in softly yellowing drifts like snow.

The late afternoon light filters down through the dense canopy overhead, casting lacy shadows over everything.

Emma pulls the bug over on a side street, stares at this riot of flowers, and feels herself start to cry. It's like something out of a fairy tale.

It's the closest she's ever felt to wanting to call a place home.

xxx

She stays her first night at the Holiday Inn near the mall. The room is dingy, but feels familiar. She pays for the room. That's not as familiar.

In the morning she wakes up to the sounds of birds calling. She showers and gets dressed, looks at her bag full of dirty clothes and decides to go in search of a Laundromat.

While she waits for her clothes to dry, she calls her probation officer to check in and let her know where she is.

"I think," Emma says hesitantly, "I think I might stay here for a while."

"You'll need a job," says Linda, who is tough as nails but has been very fair in all their dealings. Emma thinks Linda pities her, and she sort of hates that.

"I know," Emma says, trying not to sound like a sullen teenager, even if she technically still is one.

"I know a guy who runs a place in town there. Off Pensacola street. He does bail bonds. He owes me a favor. Let me see if he's got anything for you. At least until you can find something you like better."

Emma doesn't argue. She doesn't point out that the only thing she knows about bail bonds is that no one ever posted one for her, because the only person who would have was the one who sent her to jail in the first place. Instead she takes down the address on a scrap of paper and promises to swing by the place the next day.

When she's done with her laundry she drives back to a park she'd passed the day before. She leaves the car under the shade of a massive oak tree that's twisted and gnarled with age. There's a lake, with a fountain geysering up in the middle. A path leads out to a gazebo, perched on a tiny peninsula in the middle of the lake, like a miniature castle surrounded by a moat.

Emma strolls through the afternoon crowd of joggers and dog walkers and people taking their lunch breaks to enjoy the warm spring sun. There's a trio of musicians by the water playing Irish folk music that makes her want to tap her feet and do a jig. A girl plays the fiddle, her bow a blur over the strings. A pair of ugly ducks waddles across the path, trailed by even uglier ducklings. Their heads are bulbous, covered in bright red warty flesh and their feathers look like they've been stained with ink. Still they stroll, proud as you please, through the crowd, ignoring even the small dogs that strain at their leashes as they pass them by. Emma smiles at them, liking how they stick together, wishing she could fall in at the end of their line.

There's a bench circling the inside of the gazebo and she sits down on it, avoiding the bird droppings. The wind off the lake is cool, and every so often the spray from the fountain brushes over her face. If she closes her eyes, she can almost imagine that she's on the deck of a ship, and it's the sea spray catching in her hair.

She digs a bottle of water and a granola bar out of her bag and munches on it, letting her mind drift. This place is nice, she thinks. She wonders if Ne—if he would have liked it.

"You look sad," says a voice.

There's a little boy standing in front of her. He's maybe seven years old. He has dark hair and blue eyes, and glasses, and he's wearing a slightly grungy green t-shirt and a pair of jeans, with a backpack slung over one shoulder.

For a moment, Emma can't speak. She remembers a different pair of blue eyes, a shock of dark hair, and a tiny face barely glimpsed for a moment before it was taken away. A lump rises up in her throat and she nearly chokes on the bite of granola she'd just taken.

"You okay?" the kid asks, looking dubious as hell.

Emma manages a nod, then a swallow of water from her bottle. "Yeah," she croaks. "You just … startled me. That's all."

He looks skeptical.

"And I'm not sad," she says, feeling herself start to bristle.

"You looked it," says the boy, with the honesty and tactlessness only a seven-year-old can manage.

"So what?" Emma says.

The kid shrugs. Then he climbs up on the bench beside her and digs through his bag. "Here," he says, and hands her a book.

She takes it, warily. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

"I don't know," the kid says. "Read it, maybe? I read it, sometimes, when I'm sad."

Emma flips the book over and looks at the tattered cover. "Peter Pan, huh? Pretty big book for a kid."

"I'm advanced," the boy says with a shrug, as if he's used to saying it. "It's got adventures in it. Mermaids and pirates and stuff. You can borrow it, if you want."

Something tugs at Emma's memory. Like where, Neverland?

When she glances back up, the kid is scrambling down. "My mom's calling me. I gotta go," he says.

"Wait!" Emma thrusts the book out in his direction. "What about your book?"

"You borrow it!" he says, and grabs his backpack and runs off before she can even think about getting up to give chase.

She sits there a little longer, with the cool wind in her hair and the scent of water and tropical flowers drifting over the lake. Then she opens the book up to the first page and reads.

All children, except one, grow up…

And for awhile she loses herself in a story with flying children and fairies and adventures. When she goes back to her hotel room that evening, she reads it some more while she eats sweet and sour chicken out of a cardboard container. She dreams that night of pirate ships and sword fights, and a gleaming silver hook flashing under the starlight.

xxx

Jerry, who runs the bail bonds place, grew up in Miami and still carries it with him wherever he goes. He's only an eighth Cuban, but he's got the accent and a gold chain and a fistfull of chunky rings and he thinks that makes him the shit. Emma likes him so she doesn't disabuse him of this notion, even though he's about as Hispanic as she is. He puts her to work filing. She doesn't mind.

She gets a cheap apartment on the west side of town, wedged between Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College and near enough to work that she can get there in less than five minutes if the stop lights cooperate. There's a balcony the size of a postage stamp, and a massive oak tree that grows beside it. She buys a plastic lawn chair at a yard sale and spends her free time sitting out there, watching the sunlight filter through the leaves.

On her lunch breaks, sometimes, she drives over to the park and sits in the gazebo for a while. She never runs into the little boy again, even though she carries his book in her bag with her, every time.

Tallahassee is a college town, more than anything else, she discovers. Half the people who live there work for the government, and the other half seem to either work for one of the three major colleges or they're attending them. On the weekends she can't go to the grocery store without running into three dozen people wearing maroon and gold Seminoles T-shirts. It seems like everyone her age that she meets is studying something.

She decides that she might as well finish her GED.

Jerry helps. He's taken a shine to her and he lets her study in the backroom on her lunch breaks. He's pretty good at math and he teaches her some tricks with numbers that she'd never learned in her brief high school tenure. Emma discovers she's good at book keeping and money, but what she's really good at is people. She's always been able to tell when people are lying, and eventually Jerry starts letting her poke her head in when he's meeting with clients so she can get a read on them. She saves him a few grand this way. By the time she's done with her GED, Jerry is already training her to follow in his footsteps.

She turns nineteen, then twenty, then twenty-one.

xxx

For a long time she doesn't acknowledge that she's looking for him. She meets a lot of crooks in her line of business now, sees a lot of paperwork slide across her desk. She has access to files and records. If, every so often, she cruises through the 'C's just randomly, it's not really a big deal.

She remembers the kinds of places he liked to hang out: the dive bars and pubs that were all neon lights and no-questions-asked about the cute blonde with the probably fake ID. Emma doesn't need the fake ID anymore, and nowadays she's switched to stronger stuff than beer when she wants to drink. If people look at her funny for sitting in a bar on her own, with a glassful of rum, her eyes slipping to every dark haired guy with a gravel voice that walks in, she ignores them.

It takes her a long time to admit that she's looking for him. It takes her a lot longer to admit that he's never coming.

She wonders, sometimes, when she catches some crook in a half-assed lie, how she missed his. She wonders why he did it. Why he set her up to take the fall. She wonders how long he'd been planning it, how long he'd been conning her.

Sometimes she wonders about the baby and whether he would have looked more like her or like his father. He'd be three now, walking and talking probably; Emma doesn't know a heck of a lot about babies, but she figures he'd be doing that, at least. She wonders what his name is.

Then she thinks it's better this way. She's doing okay now, but the first year or two after she'd gotten out—there's no way she'd have been able to support an infant. She'd barely been able to support herself.

All things considered, things were better this way.

One morning she wakes up and stares at the ceiling. Coward, she thinks. Bastard.

And then she decides not to think about him anymore. He's ruined enough of her life already.

So she starts dating, though it's never serious. There's Jack and John and Jason and when she's tired of J names she moves on to Danny and Dylan and Bob (who majors in computer science and wears glasses thirteen years out of date). Most of them turn out to be slimeballs pretty quick, except for Bob, who is boring, and so she moves on.

One day she wakes up and watches the petals drifting off the dogwood trees and decides that it's time to move a little further on. She wants to be closer to the ocean, and for some weird reason, she wants to see snow.

xxx

Two days after her twenty-third birthday, Emma finishes packing up her possessions, which now fill three cardboard boxes. She loads them into the trunk of the yellow bug, then goes back in to do a final clean sweep of the place she's lived in for the last four years.

Just as she goes to lock the door behind her, the swan charm pops off her keychain. She picks it up off the concrete stoop and stares at it for a long time.

Emma stops at the gas station on her way out of town and buys a bottle of water, a cheap silver necklace with a Seminoles pendant on it and a new keyring. She tosses the FSU pendant in the trash on her way out the door, and threads the swan charm onto the necklace. She clasps it around her neck and thinks that if she ever finds Neal again, she's going to make him eat it.

She takes a minute after she gets in the car to thread her key onto the new keyring, watching the little star charm dance under the light. She likes stars. They make her think of wishes and magic, even though she knows such things aren't real. Then she starts the engine, takes a swig from her Starbucks travel mug, and gets out onto the road.

She takes I-10 all the way to the east coast before she turns north onto 95.

The little silver charm on her key ring dances in the salt-wind.

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.


Author's Notes:

Tallahassee in spring, is possibly even greener and more flowery than I've described. I left out the pollen because it's evil.

Lake Ella Park is the one described in the fic. It really does have a tiny gazebo on a spit of land sticking out into the lake. There are indeed flocks of really hideous ducks who make their home around the lake. The Irish band trio (sometimes a quartet) likes to practice out there on sunny afternoons, sitting on a park bench under the cypress trees.

You really can take I-10 from Phoenix (where August said that Emma was incarcerated) all the way to Tallahassee. I have never been to Phoenix. But I really love the idea that Neal's Emma sort of "died" in prison there, and was reborn stronger. Much like the firebird. (Clever, OUAT writers. Very, very clever.)