This is for you. Yes, you. For your patience.
Oh god no.
Jefferson winces as Henry's tiny fist slams down against the marble. Again. And again. And again.
He can't bear to hear the boy scream like that, voice broken, sobs crashing over every syllable like waves on a rock. Every word is a pickaxe against his long-ago hardened heart, and it's only the stunned numbness he feels that keeps his hands from covering his ears and cowering away from it all.
The Queen stands to the side, hands limply held in front of her like she can't quite believe what just occurred. And for once, Jefferson actually believes this to be an outcome she never foresaw nor wanted.
"Mom!" And when that doesn't work, Henry switches to the other family member he's lost. "Gramps!"
And that's what breaks him; that's what has Jefferson doubling over to place his hands on his knees because they were so close. So damnclose. They got David back only to lose him once more.
He can't even look at Graham. Graham, who's been near catatonic since Emma disappeared through a hole in the floor. The sheriff is a shell of himself, standing to the side, broom held loosely in his grip. If Jefferson looks hard enough, he can see a tear track down the other man's cheek, but he's seen enough pain this day to last a lifetime. Watching Graham right now might break him irreparably.
Instead, Jefferson crosses the ten feet between himself and the broken boy pounding fruitlessly at the marble floor, because if there's anything he understands, it's fatherhood.
"Come back!" Henry screams, even as Jefferson picks him up off the floor and holds him tight to his chest. "Come back!"
He can feel every sob that rattles the boy's chest. Every breath that is interrupted for another cry for people who will not come.
"I've got you," he whispers, because what else can he say? "I've got you."
The words must do something because the sobs die down into hiccups as Jefferson slowly carries him across the room.
"Graham," he murmurs when he draws up next to the sheriff. And only then does the man actually stop staring at the checkered floor. At the hat that took Emma away and didn't even allow time for a goodbye.
"Graham," he repeats. "Let's go. He needs to go home."
He isn't sure what he expects – maybe an answering nod or a whispered word – but Graham snaps out of his robotic phase, takes four steps towards Regina and grabs her roughly by the arms.
"Where are they?"
She shows no fear at being manhandled so. In fact, she looks chagrined, if the Evil Queen is capable of such a feeling. "I have no idea," she answers monotonously.
"Are they dead?" is Graham's swift follow up and Jefferson can feel the boy in his arms stiffen.
"Graham," he tries, but the sheriff pays him no heed as he advances on the Queen. And the royal, for the first time, looks rightfully frightened.
"The curse – it destroyed the land – "
"Are they dead?"
"I don't know!"
"Graham!" His voice is sharp, cutting through the tension like David's sword through flesh, but it's enough to get the sheriff to stop yelling. His body still vibrates with tension and tears freely fall down his cheeks, but he's come back to himself – checked himself – and Jefferson breathes a sigh of relief as he shifts Henry in his arms. "It's time to go home."
Graham's answering nod is barely human, but it's there. The broom in his hand falls to the floor with a resounding clatter and he turns away from Regina and follows Jefferson like a man walking to the gallows.
Jefferson's never been the one to hold it together. He's never been the one people count on in a pinch. Not since… well, not since he lost those who deemed him worthy.
But here, now, with the weight of Henry in his arms, a catatonic sheriff at his side, and the jagged hole left in the wake of David and Emma's brutal departure, he thinks – for the first time in a very long while – he might be up to the task.
She doesn't register much beyond that, beyond a fierce stabbing in her side and an uncomfortable lump at her back. She groans as she rolls over, burying her face in what feels like grass as she continues the inventory of her body.
Two legs: good. Arms: okay. Ribs? Could be better. Head: fuzzy.
Her eyes slide open and promptly shut against the harsh glare of mid-morning light. Odd. She could have sworn it was evening when she went… wherever it is that she is. She tries squinting again and, after a moment of stunned disbelief, does she burst into tears at the sight next to her.
Stupid, noble, amazing David is lying sprawled on his side, fingers still gripping the cuff of her leather jacket, bleeding from a wound on his temple.
"David?" she cups his cheek, but he continues to breathe smoothly. "David, wake up." She shakes his shoulder once firmly before letting her palm run down his sleeve. "Dad?"
The magic word doesn't work either and she swallows hard as she watches the blood carefully drip down along his jawline before she wipes it away with her sleeve. He must have hit his head on impact.
"David, please wake up." Her voice cracks as she glances around at the surrounding pine trees towering over them and making her feel infinitely small. She'd think she was still in Maine if not for the mountains in the distance.
The portal worked. The goddamn portal worked.
"Shit," she breathes, dropping back down and staring at the sky.
The ground is hard beneath her, but David's arm is still secure around her back, pillowing her head against the sticks and rocks that litter the dirt around them.
She's not sure where they are, but she can guess. And if the feeling of familiarity in the pit of her stomach is anything to go by, she has an inkling that, after 28 years, she's finally come home.
The Enchanted Forest.
She only gets a moment to marvel at the holy shit of it all before a branch cracks to her right and she immediately sits up, all senses on overdrive.
"Who the hell are you?" a gruff voice asks from the shadows of the trees and Emma scoots a bit to her left to hide David's unconscious form.
"Um," is all she gets out before their rescuers (captors?) step into the clearing, covered in a hodgepodge of wool and chainmail, looking like extras that just wandered off the set of Braveheart. Emma automatically reaches for David's hand behind her.
"On your feet," the gruff voice says again and Emma is quick to comply, yet she still places herself between them and David, as if she alone could shield him from the harms of the world. "And who's this?"
Emma swallows hard, allowing herself to savor this incredible moment – a moment where she gets to admit for the first time just what this man is to her.
"He's my father."
The part of Graham's brain that's still working registers that Jefferson is carrying a still crying Henry as they make their way slowly from the town hall, and a piece of his heart is chipped away with every muffled sob that racks the boy's body.
He should be the one carrying him and yet he knows his arms wouldn't bear the weight. Not at the moment. He can barely even grip the leather satchel that holds the hat hanging loosely at his side.
Emma and David are gone. The two people he loves most in this world apart from Henry have left him and gone to a place where he cannot follow. And it's positively killing him.
About ten minutes into the walk, he realizes they're heading not to Graham's apartment or Jefferson's house, but to David's. To the home Henry knows best. It makes sense, and Graham wonders if he would have had enough foresight to lead them there; to do what was best for Henry in this, a moment of crisis.
He utters a disconsolate sound because he knows the answer. He can't even pull himself together enough to say two words of comfort to the boy. His ability to fake it has taken a mortal blow.
"Almost there," he hears Jefferson murmur, and Graham takes a moment to study him through a watery gaze. Remarkably, the most lackadaisical and least likely to lead has stepped up in their king's absence, and Graham reminds himself (as he must every so often) that of all of the members in their makeshift little family, Jefferson had the most experience with children.
And Graham is more grateful for him that the hatter could ever know.
Henry shifts and manages a glance over Jefferson's shoulder, catching Graham's eye, and something inside of the sheriff breaks. He immediately steps forward and runs his fingers through the boy's hair, silently thanking Jefferson for slowing so he can bury his nose against the boy's temple.
"I'll get them back," he murmurs, conviction fierce and he feels Henry nod.
"I know," comes the garbled reply.
He places a kiss on the boy's head and pats Jefferson on the back, but the hatter suddenly comes up short and, after a moment, Graham realizes why.
They're outside 216 Hollyhock, the house both Emma and Henry grew up in, but they're not alone. Gold sits on the porch in the rocking chair, hands leaning on his cane and looking like he's aged a decade since that afternoon.
Ah, he knows.
"You son of a bitch," Jefferson spits. "You dare show your face around here?"
"Jefferson, take Henry inside," Graham orders and the hatter complies, hiking Henry further up into arms and fixing Gold with a look that would make most men wither.
Gold at least as the decency to look mildly chagrined.
"This isn't what I wanted."
"You have a habit of saying that. You didn't want David to fall over the town line. You didn't want Emma taken when she was six. Things are always what you didn't intend," he growls as he takes the porch steps slowly and Gold stands, backing away.
"I only came to return something to you," he replies. "And to apologize for any grief the repercussions of my actions might have caused the boy."
Graham allows himself a scoff before grabbing Gold by the lapels and removing him bodily from the porch.
"If you're not here to help us get them back, then leave. And do not return."
Gold nods and adjusts his coat, finally looking up and daring to meet the other man's gaze. "I'll look into an alternative means of transporting them back."
Graham clenches his jaw. "See that you do." He remains on the porch until the pawnbroker has turned the corner and is out of sight, and only then does he exhale the breath he had been holding. It's a miracle his whole body doesn't sink with it.
"I only came to return something to you."
What the hell was Gold talking about?
"Graham?" Jefferson cracks the door open and gestures inside with a tilt of his head, and Graham thinks that whatever it is, he's about to find out.
The foyer is just as they left it: Henry's sneakers kicked off to the side, next to David's boots and Emma's blue leather jacket, which takes a backseat to her beloved red. The red that David got her ages before she was old enough to wear it. Graham spares a glance for these things, the things that make up 'home' before heading for the living room and stopping dead on the threshold.
August is sitting on the couch. Stiff and wooden, but there. Alive. And he gingerly pats Henry's arms that are currently wrapped around his neck, but his eyes are haunted. He's clearly heard what's happened.
"How...?" Graham's question trails off as he stares, falling back to lean against the wall as his knees finally give out on him.
"I knew you'd come back," Henry says, squeezing August's neck that much harder.
"Partially," August murmurs, resting his hard head against Henry's. "Always listen to your parents, kid. If they tell you to be selfless, brave and true, pay attention." He winks in Jefferson's direction and the hatter shakes his head in happy disbelief.
"I've got good role models," is Henry's reply and every man in the room knows he's talking about more than just Emma and David.
Graham exhales as he closes his eyes and tilts his head back against the wall.
They needed his. This one sliver of good news. It was so desperately, desperately needed.
"Are you like this forever?" Jefferson asks. "Not that it's not a good look."
August chuckles and it's a hollow, yet mirthful sound. "I don't know. I didn't even know this," he gestures at himself up and down, "was a possibility."
"No more burgers at Granny's for you," Henry says and August's jaw drops in horror.
"I hadn't thought of that."
Graham still doesn't trust his voice, so he pushes away from the wall and plops down on he couch next to August, leaning against the man who's now all sharp edges and hard lines.
"Don't do that to us again," he says after a moment and he feels August inhale breath he doesn't need.
Henry untangles his arms from around the puppet's heck and climbs behind him and into Graham's lap. And Graham holds onto him so tightly, not even a curse from the Dark One could pull them apart.
"I'm sorry, Henry." And dammit, he does not mean for his voice to crack.
But Henry pulls away just enough to glare in Graham's face. "Why are you sorry? You didn't do anything"
"That's precisely it, Henry. I didn't do anything. I could have – "
"What?" Jefferson interrupts. "Gone yourself? We'd still be sitting here mourning someone."
"We're not mourning," August says fiercely. "They're not dead."
But Graham dares not say anything because he doesn't know. No one can say whether or not their land exists or what state it's in after Regina's curse. No one can tell him whether or not Emma and David are safe. And, frankly, he needs to know. He can't… live not knowing.
"What now?" Henry's quiet voice asks and Graham buries his nose in the boy's hair once more.
"We get them back," he says, pouring all of his insecurities and fears and doubts into something that actually resembles hope. Because that's what David always had: hope.
And David can't be here so it's Graham's turn to harbor it for him. For all of them.
Emma curses every tug of the ropes against her wrists as the twine digs deeper and deeper into her skin.
David is still unconscious, slung over the back of the horse that pulls her along the muddy path behind it. The cut on his temple has finally stopped bleeding, the blood having dried to a rusty brown tattoo along the side of his face.
The land is hilly and treacherous for anyone unused to its grooves and contours, and Emma stumbles every few feet over wayward rocks and branches for her eyes never leave the horse carrying her father.
"David?" she tries again, for the third time in ten minutes and she gets a shove from the man at her back for her efforts.
"Quiet. Keep moving."
She's thankful he's yet to lay a hand upon the gun tucked into the back of her jeans.
"Fruitless, luv. Lost cause, he is," the man on the other horse gruffly responds and she ignores the panic that seizes her chest. "This land does things to people. Funny things."
"Where are we going?" She trips again, but manages to right herself before she hits the ground.
"None of your concern," the man behind her grumbles, seemingly miffed that an unconscious man has taken his place on his horse, as the man beside her chuckles.
"Now, now, don't be like that." They shuffle along in their not-so-merry party before Chuckles pipes up again. "Oi, Gwinn. Didja notice the man looks just like the King? The old king, I mean. Before he disappeared."
The man, Gwinn, leans around her, taking a good look at David, and Emma's heart is absolutely pounding. Oh god, no. No, no, no. She needs him to wake up and tell her what to do, how to navigate these unchartered waters, because she didn't sign up for this.
"Naw, Tom," Gwinn replies. "Not the right build. Too young, too. He'd be pushing sixty, and this boy doesn't look a day over thirty."
"We should all be pushing some age." Tom shrugs, as if wrapping his brain around the eccentricities of the curse that demolished their land is above his pay grade, and Emma exhales, avoiding the searching gaze Gwinn sends in her direction.
They trudge on, though, mindful of the more mountainous regions, as the sun begins to set behind the trees. And just as she's about to petulantly ask if they plan on walking all night – in her defense, it has been a hell of a day – before Tom pulls on the reins of his horse, slowing him to a stop.
"We'll camp here for the night. Gotta be quiet, though. Don't want to draw the ogres. Won't have to worry about this one," he chuckles, pulling David none too gently from the horse and letting him flop to the ground. She should go to him, but her mind has stalled on his previous sentence.
"Ogres?" she squeaks as she's untied. "Like fi-fi-fo-fum?"
"Those are giants. Not that I've ever laid me eye on one," Tom nudges Gwinn who rolls his eyes and focuses on fixing a fire.
"Like Shrek?" she tries and receives two blank stares in reply.
"What the hell's a shrek?" Gwinn asks and she mutters a "Nevermind" as she heads over to her father's prone body.
David's face is red from being upside down for so long, and she pushes his hair away from his forehead, finally appreciating where her blonde tresses came from. "I need you to wake up," she whispers as Gwinn heads over to her holding another rope. "Please."
"We'll give your wrists a break, girly. Hold out your ankle."
She does as she's told, figuring there's no escape to be made while the man whom she'll never leave remains a leaden weight beside her.
"Ogres are no trifling matter. Legend has it that when they kill you, the last thing you see is yourself dying in the reflection in their eyes."
"Lovely," she murmurs, pulling David as close to the fire as she can. "Where are you taking us?"
"Home. Or what's left of it," Gwinn mutters as he stands and heads into the trees.
"Don't mind him. He's grumpy, is all," Tom shrugs and Emma attempts a smile. "I'm gonna help him forage, but don't try runnin' off. Them's one of Gwinn's knots and they ain't easily undone."
"Right." Emma watches as the last of her captors wanders into the woods after his wayward counterpart and she waits a beat before pulling the gun from the back of her jeans.
Graham was right, David did teach her how to use it, but here in this forest with all sorts of unknown things around them, she feels infinitely small, the gun in her hand giving no manner of comfort.
She stands for a moment, checking to make sure David is still breathing easily, before testing to see how far the rope will let her travel. It's a decent distance; far enough to make her uneasy about being so separated from David, and yet as she beats a hasty return to his side, it seems that in typical Emma fashion, fate has another idea.
Her foot catches on a branch, sending her sprawling for a slow moment as her hand squeezes the trigger in her palm. A gunshot breaks the silence and Emma only has time to register an oh shit before a roar in the distance rattles the earth with a deep-seeded rumble.
"What did you do?" Gwinn screams as he breaks into the clearing, arms full of firewood and the answering roar is enough to stop the gruff man and make him drop his cargo.
There's an almighty cracking sound behind her and she turns just in time to see what can only be an ogre (because he sure as hell doesn't look like Shrek) come crashing through the tree line, pushing them aside like curtains on a window.
"Run!" Tom yells, but Gwinn's already hightailing it in the other direction, leaving Emma tied with an unconscious David and little in the way of defense.
She points the gun at the beast and he bats it away like a fly. "Seriously?"
He takes another step and the ground shakes as he bends closer, his stench making her gag as she attempts to crawl away from the fierce heat of his breath.
Oh god. Oh god. This is how she dies. In a field, alone, without anyone she loves.
"Hey!" a voice yells, cracking through the night like thunder. "Stay the hell away from my daughter!"
And Emma turns to find David standing behind her, bow and arrow drawn at the ready.
"Now," he growls as he pulls the string taut.
The ogre takes another step towards her and that's all the incentive David needs to let the arrow fly. It strikes the ogre in the eye with a sickening sound and Emma rolls out of the way just in time for the beast to collapse in the spot she formerly occupied.
She lays panting on the grass for a moment longer, trying to reconcile what exactly just happened with what she knows of fairytales, before shakily getting to her feet and turning to face the man she's been watching over for the better part of a day. It seems only right, considering he's been watching over her for the better part of a decade.
Their eyes connect and hold, and all of a sudden, Emma has no idea what to do.
"You, um, you have to hit it in the eye." David shrugs and slings the bow over his shoulder, shoving his hands into his pockets and staring at her like she's the 8th wonder of the world.
There are so many things she wants to say – so many things she needs to do – but "Where'd you learn to do that?" is the question that eventually tumbles from her lips and he smiles. It's soft and a bit sad.
"Your mother taught me."
And only then does it seem to sink in for her, that the man standing in front of her is her father, her David, and if going by the teary-eyed wonder on his face – yes, he knows exactly who she is.
Henry's potion worked.
"Emma," he breathes.
"Oh god, David." She stumbles the remaining few steps and practically collapses in his arms, and he scoops her up as if she was the baby he held all those years ago. "You're okay, you're okay," she says over and over as he squeezes her to his chest, and only when she finally pulls back enough to grab his face and look into his eyes does she laugh. "You're you."
"Yeah," he says through his tears. "Sorry I went away for a bit."
"I don't care." She crashes her face into his chest once more and grips him tightly around the waist as he breathes into her hair. "Just don't do it again."
"Promise," he whispers. "Come on, before they come back."
She reluctantly releases her hold on him, but he responds by taking her hand and leading her over to the pile of supplies Gwinn and Tom left in their haste to get away from certain death. He finds a knife and bends to cut the rope around her ankle, running his thumb across the red skin in a way she's seen him do to Henry's cuts and scrapes all his life.
He picks the wayward gun up next and tucks it in the back of his jeans, offering her a mock glare. "You didn't have the safety on. I taught you better than that, squirt."
She practically beams at the long forgotten nickname and all of a sudden finds it remarkably hard to swallow. "I had a plan."
"I hadn't gotten that far yet."
He chuckles and places a kiss to the side of her head, as if he had been doing it her whole life. And come to think of it, he practically had.
"Where to now?" she asks as she clears her throat and he nods to something in the distance.
In the fading light, she realizes that what she thought was a mountain is actually a pile of rubble. A pile of rubble that still hints at the grandeur that once was.
"What is that place?"
David smiles sadly, never relinquishing her hand, and a thousand things flicker across his face.
The sword is the last thing he pulls from the pile of junk and, true to form, it's nothing compared to the weapon she's seen – the weapon she's used – that had been encased in a bed of red velvet. This one is dented and a bit rusty, but on his hip, he looks every bit the king she knows him to be.
And only then does she identify the unfamiliar feeling she's felt in her chest ever since she allowed herself to believe the truth about her parentage.
David is the hero who found her, the legend who protected her, the father who loved her. And as she remembers ducks and toy swords and spaghetti nights and Lamaze classes, as she realizes the unbelievable amount of sacrifices the man before her has made, all for her benefit, she truly wonders if she'll ever deserve him.
"Ready?" he asks.
"Lead on," she murmurs, and he does.
Because that's what kings and fathers do.