Julia Gordon hates her job.
She's been a social worker for the past five years and it hasn't gotten any easier, attempting to find a home for children who've never had a proper one. She always wonders if the driveway she's pulling into belongs to the good sort or the bad sort. She likes to think she has a sixth sense about these things, but she's been proven wrong before. The loveliest of foster parents upon first meeting can turn out to be the most ruthless the minute the door is shut behind her.
She glances in the rearview mirror, observing the little girl in the backseat as she stares at the passing scenery.
"Almost there," she says, just to fill the silence.
The little girl doesn't respond; just continues to stare at the woods beyond the window.
In her almost six short years, the child has seen more than her fair share of the bad sort. More than any child should. Five years on the job and Julia has handled her case for three of them. She thought that surely the last couple would be the couple, but two months later and the little girl was back in her office with bruises up and down her arms.
She truly thought she had exhausted the rather lengthy list of potentials when it came to this case, but lo and behold, another file made its way across her desk.
"It's near the water. You can feed the ducks."
Blue eyes meet hers in the rearview mirror, but still, the girl remains silent.
Julia pushes her glasses further up on her nose and squints as she passes another road sign. Ten more miles.
She listens as the little feet tap out a rhythm on the back of the passenger side seat and she can't help the smile that spreads across her face. She's going to miss the girl. But for her own sake, Julia hopes her file doesn't come across her desk again.
Emma Swan deserves her happy ending. Perhaps more than any child she's ever worked with.
Julia holds her breath as she finally passes the town line, praying to any god listening that the girl with the blue eyes and blonde curls will find peace here.
Light rain begins to patter the windshield as she turns onto Main St. and Julia glances at the piece of paper in her lap, reading the directions off once more.
The town is cute, if a little run down. She doesn't see many children, but perhaps they're in school. It is a Tuesday, after all.
She makes a left and then a right, pausing at a stop sign to glance at the large homes lining either side of the street. The houses get smaller the further they drive, but finally…
"Ah, 216. We're here," she announces as she pulls the car into the driveway of a decently sized two-story home. It's white with blue trim and the lawn is freshly mowed, so at least they know how to take care of some things.
"Come on, Emma, grab your blanket."
"Yes, Miss Gordon," the girl mumbles as she unstraps her seatbelt and hugs the white wool close to her chest.
They've been through his too many times. Julia knows it and, if the way the girl is looking up at the house with trepidation is any clue, Emma knows it too.
Julia grabs the small bag from the trunk, the entirety of Emma's possessions, and holds out her hand for the little girl to take.
"Miss Gordon," Emma tugs her to a stop in the middle of the walkway. "If they don't want me – "
"Sweetheart, they want you. They asked for you."
"But if they don't, can I… can I come live with you?"
It takes all of a moment for Julia's heart to split in two, as she bends down eye-level with the child, taking both of her hands in hers.
"You can't, Emma. I'm sorry, but you know I'm not allowed." The thought had certainly crossed her mind before – somewhere between the third and fourth time Emma ended up in the hospital and her foster fathers ended up in court. But she cannot be a social worker and a foster parent at the same time. Her boss had told her so on more than one occasion when she came to plead Emma's case.
The brief flicker of hope fades from the girl's face and Julia taps her chin, gently making her gaze meet hers.
"You have my number. Keep it safe. And if anything happens, anything at all, you call me and I'll drop everything and come get you."
Emma nods and Julia takes her hand once more, leading them up the steps to the porch. She rings the bell, its noise shrill yet short, and heavy footballs echo in the hall a moment before the door swings open.
"Hi," the young man says, smiling wide at Julia first and Emma second. His gaze lingers on the child, his expression soft, and if Julia's gut reaction is anything to go by (and it usually is), she's leaving the girl in capable hands.
"David, please," he responds, holding out his hand to shake. "And you must be Emma."
Emma slowly nods her head, her eyes fixated on her shoes.
"She's a little shy," Julia offers and David nods.
"Completely understandable. Come on in – Let me get that." He takes the small bag from her hand and places it by the staircase, before ushering them into the pale yellow living room.
"Will Mrs. Nolan be joining us?"
His expression goes tight and immediately Julia's hackles are up.
"There's been a slight change in plan…" he begins and Julia's heart drops into her stomach.
Please no. Please don't do this to her now.
"My wife… she's… well." He spares a glance towards Emma, but the girl seems thoroughly preoccupied with picking lint off of her blanket. "We're separating."
The air leaves Julia's lungs in a whoosh and David must note the panicked look on her face because he immediately steps forward, arms raised in what he probably hopes is reassurance.
"I still want her."
And it's those four words that bring Emma's gaze to the man standing before them. It's those four words that make her cock her head and study him, as if really seeing him for the first time.
"I'm not sure how this works – I don't know if you allow single foster parents, but if she'll have me, I want her." He stuffs his hands into his pockets, gaze darting from social worker to child.
"You want me?" comes the quiet voice, blue eyes wide with long lost hope.
"I do. More than anything," he replies. "If you'll have me."
And suddenly, Julia finds two pairs of blue eyes silently pleading for her to say 'yes,' and something inside her, that sometimes-faulty gut reaction is telling her that these two belong together. They even look alike, with their blonde hair and stubborn expressions.
"Can I stay, Miss Gordon?"
She sighs heavily and raises an eyebrow at the child, before turning to David and finding him already smiling.
"You'll need to redo a few forms. Take your wife's name off of them."
"I'll fill out as many forms as you need me to."
She wants to be annoyed – he could have called – but Emma is actually smiling and the sight of happiness on that child's face makes any extra paperwork insignificant. She pulls a folder and a pen from her briefcase and hands them to David Nolan with what she hopes is a threatening glance.
And he smiles a charming smile that seems to reply, I know you're not happy, but I will prove you wrong.
He fills it out at the kitchen table, just after he offers Emma some juice and animal crackers. He offers them to Julia as well, but she politely declines with an amused smile.
With forms signed and sealed, and sugary elephants all consumed, David leads them upstairs under the pretext of putting Emma's suitcase in her room, but really allowing Julia time to examine the place. Her boss had interviewed the Nolans and told her of the charming home, but Julia wanted proof herself, which David was more than willing to provide.
"Just in here…" he says as he bumps a door open revealing a bedroom with pale green wallpaper and a single bed pressed up against the wall. The bed has two sets of bedding on top of it, along with a couple of stuffed animals and a small bedside light.
Julia nearly gasps at the preparation. At the thought that went into Emma's arrival.
"I wasn't sure if you'd want pink or purple, so I got both and we can return whichever one you don't want," he explains as Emma wanders into the room, as if in a trance.
She glances at the choices and Julia sees tears pooling in the girl's eyes. But before she can even ask if she's okay, David is kneeling down in front of her and gently placing his hands on her shoulders.
"Hey, hey. If you don't like either, we can easily remedy that. It's okay."
Emma remains silent, continuing to stare at the bedding and David glances up at Julia, thoroughly confused. Julia clears her throat and gestures to the room.
"She's not used to this."
"Generosity," is the word she settles on and David's forehead immediately creases in understanding. He looks pained as he stares at the child, who now refuses to meet his gaze.
"Tell you what. How about you and I go to the store tomorrow, and you can pick out whichever color you want. Sound good?"
Emma slowly brings her gaze from his boots to his eyes, a question lingering on the tongue that peeks out in between her lips. "Is blue okay?"
David laughs. "Blue's perfect."
"It's not girly, though."
He places a hand on her head, brushing her curls away from her face. "Any girl who likes blue is my kinda girl."
They finish the tour; the house is clean save for the pile of clothes on the chair in his bedroom, which is pretty impressive for a recently separated man. They shake hands again, and she offers him her card. It's the same card that Emma has hidden away in her backpack in case of emergencies, but Julia knows it probably won't get much use.
The little girl's arms wrap around her waist and Julia breaks all sorts of protocol as she bends down and places a kiss on her head.
"Be good for Mr. Nolan."
"I will," she replies, pulling away with a smile.
The girl's smiled more in the last five minutes than she has in the last three years. It makes Julia both elated and a little bit sad.
And as she drives away, she actually looks in the rearview mirror because, for the first time in a long time, she has a feeling she won't be back.