She wasn't a stone.
Of course not; she had emotions. She cried. She laughed. She got red-hazed pissed. She sometimes felt that lightness in her chest, the one where she could actually smile—wide, crinkly-eyed, and warm.
But there were those days when she could feel something, deep inside. Heavy but intangible. Existent but indefinable. Aching but missing.
Once upon a time, Neal fixed it. It was like…she was a puzzle, but she had a piece missing. Then he came along—scared the bejesus outta her when she stole the car he'd stolen, and filled in the empty space with his own lost piece. He was from a different puzzle set, but for some reason, he managed to fit with her. It shouldn't have worked, but it did.
They were thick as thieves—literally. He got her; she got him. He made her believe that even the lonely don't have to be alone forever. He'd be the closest to a happy ending she could wish for. They'd settle down in the sunshine state, and just like that, it'd be ice cream and rainbows for the rest of their lives—because they were together. They'd finally be able to settle down, to be home.
No more hotels, no more motels, no more stealing, no more running. "Lost" would no longer apply to them because they'd found each other.
But then he left.
And for the longest time, she didn't understand why. He was like her. He understood. He promised. They'd done so many jobs where he'd risked his own skin to keep her from getting caught, and she'd done the same. It was give and take. It was even. It was right.
So where had it all gone wrong?
She was furious and heartbroken, disappointed and relieved. Relieved because if there was at least one thing she could count on in her life, it was consistency. At least the cosmos made sure everything was right in her life. She didn't do relationships or trust or faith or hope. She did arrangements, business deals. The most personal she'd get was a friendship fostered and nurtured only by the burn of alcohol and some damn-good bacon cheeseburgers. God forbid she try to find the same golden x-factor boasted by happy movies and fairy tales. God forbid she try to find the one thing she'd been searching for years. God forbid she be wanted.
And the thing that hurt the most: the one single thing she wanted—the one thing that could have made her happy, that could have made her life a little more redeemable, that could have made it all worth it—was the one thing she was forced to walk away from herself.
Everyone else had left her. Her parents, her foster parents, her other foster parents, Neal…
Kids learn language by listening to their parents. They learn behavior by observing people.
So when a person is exposed to constant abandonment, it's only logical to assume that's all they'd know. That's all they knew how to do. Because it's a learned behavior.
But she didn't want to. Dear sweet Jesus Almighty in Heaven—she. Did. Not. Want. To. She could hear his cries, hear the doctor and nurse muttering, the shuffling of the cloth, her own heartbeat resonating throughout her body. The lights flickered and shorted out, like the whole world was crashing down, and it damn well felt like it was. And the heavy, indefinable ache in her chest ripped even wider. The hole that Neal had managed to fill was torn, ragged and unstable. The screams she held back as the doctor walked away with her son—her son—were so much more painful. It was physical, emotional, mental, and maybe even spiritual.
Because it all just hurt.
Everything—every pain she ever experienced, every betrayal, every time she saw a new couple come to the orphanage glaze over her and pick someone else, every time someone sent her back, every time she got that look, every time they walked away from her.
And she could only lie there and hate herself because she hated that. She'd become everything she hated. And she hated it even more when she realized that she couldn't have done anything different. She couldn't have… She couldn't have kept him. She couldn't have prevented him. She couldn't have…held him. But not doing it hurt so much that she figured the difference wouldn't have mattered anyway.
The worst thing about prison—the point of it—was that it was time-out on a larger scale. It made you sit in a little area, leaving you with only the thoughts of what you did that got you in there. It made you sit and ponder your godforsaken life.
The conclusion she came to was that because of everyone who'd left her, she would make it her job to find these people. She would find the motherfuckers who walked away from their responsibilities, from the decisions they made, thinking that "out of sight, out of mind" was a viable lifestyle choice. And it worked for her. She got out of jail, chockfull of more issues than she had walking in, and went on to become a bail bondsperson.
What she hadn't anticipated, though, was how well her own flesh and blood would be at finding people too. Her own flesh and blood, her son—her Henry.
And when he showed up on her doorstep, out of fucking nowhere, she needed to take a step back—and by that she meant hide in the bathroom for a few seconds—because holy shit.
He found her.
While that brought on an entire clusterfuck of shitstorms, one right after the other, she wouldn't give it up for the world. Because she had him back. She got her son back. Even though his adoptive mother was a sociopath, his long-lost maternal grandparents were constantly losing and finding each other. Even though his paternal side was even more difficult to explain than the maternal. Even though fucking everything. She was going to keep him, and he held onto her just as tightly.
Her family—something that had been completely nonexistent some two years ago—had swelled to ridiculously complicated proportions. She suddenly had a mother, a father, a step-grandmother, seven uncles, a godmother, a great-godmother (self-appointed since Granny tends to do away with standard titles and their entailments anyway), and a strange assortment of non-blood-relative "cousins" and god-siblings.
And yet everything still felt off.
You can't erase twenty-eight years of loneliness. Can't get rid of twenty-eight years' worth of emotional and mental issues. Can't go from one extreme to the other without having some sort of breakdown.
The closest she'd managed to come to a breakdown was in Neverland—when she sat on that log, a blank sheet of paper between her and Snow White, and told her mother that she was still an orphan. And as much of a relief as it was to let that out, to shed a burden or whatever, it didn't feel good. It didn't feel right. It didn't take away the fact that she had her parents right in front of her; it only made her feel like she was ungrateful—as if even if she got everything she wanted, she was pretty much hardwired to have the mentality that she was alone. Because even if she got her family, her happy ending, she was going to lose it.
She was always going to lose it.
And because she was destined to be the damn savior, it was gonna be on her shoulders to find everything. Again. Over and over and over.
Like a goddamn loop. Like Groundhog's Day. She was constantly going to lose something so she could get it back, and she got it, all right? She understood that there are things worth fighting for, that there are things worth dying for.
But… Would she always have to do this? For the rest of her life? Was this her consolation prize of a happy ending? Having her family and then constantly seeing them in jeopardy?
Was it worth it?
And then she'd hate herself for that thought because…Henry. Henry was worth it. Henry was worth traveling a thousand different realms, living through centuries, and feeling every pain known to mankind.
Henry was worth every moment of crippling, existential doubt because she already had to give up her son once, she was never going to do it again. This was her family for God's sake. This was everything she'd ever dreamed of, everything she'd ever wished for, prayed for, did a goddamn rain dance for. She had her father—a father who made breakfast and sent her encouraging smiles, and was generally the one she relied on to back her up. She had her mother, who would be so sickeningly positive that she just wanted to roll her eyes, but the mother to whom she knew she could turn when things got too hard to bear, who'd fix her a cup of hot chocolate sprinkled with cinnamon and be so heart-wrenchingly confident that she would get through this.
Her mom and dad.
And then she felt even worse for her doubts because even if they'd been her friends first, and for every moment they've spent together, she began to care more and more about them until she could stand there and freely admit to herself that she loved them. She loves her mother and father, her son, her family.
And no matter how many times someone would…get sucked into portals, be kidnapped, lose their memories, be cursed, what-the-fuck-ever, she would go after them.
Because she got stuck in the loop. Because she loves them.
And no matter her doubts and breakdowns, the thing is…she had no regrets. As much as she hated being a pawn in some grand plan, she knew she would not have found her son and her parents without it.
But then he swaggered his way into her life and…changed things.
And it was just this shitstorm of occurrences in which they were all thrown together, and the most disturbing part of it was that he wasn't the primary cause of aforementioned shitstorms. He didn't make everything so much more complicated, he made it so glaringly uncomplicated that it actually annoyed her. It wasn't because she liked the curveball-complications life enjoyed pelting her with. It wasn't because she wanted to spice up her life.
It's because sometimes the simplest, most clear-cut aspects of life are hardest to swallow.
He was a three-hundred-plus year old pirate with a hook for a hand, dressed in a black leather duster, brocaded vests, and eyeliner. He was a fairytale character come to life. He was a pirate captain. Captain Killian "Hook" Jones stood out like a Disney World cast member escapee. In spite of everything that would've made him the outlier, the misfit, the anomaly…he fit. He fit her world in such a way that was simultaneously deeply relieving and painfully disconcerting.
At first, she'd thought it was just him playing around as any other player would these days—flirt a little, just for kicks. And then she would pick up on the way David would be glaring at something, only to see that he was glaring at Hook, who was apparently constantly casting these looks at her. That had told her his "playing around" had graduated into something a little more serious.
It turned definitively serious in the Echo Cave.
And then the game changed completely when he crossed realms and outran curses for her, and it was just…
He'd dug a hole and invited her in, and she'd hopped in with her own shovel. Now, there'd be no getting out—regardless of whether or not either of them wanted to. Unfortunately, just because they were stuck in this self-made hole together didn't mean their problems were immune from falling in the depths with them. Some of their armor remained, many of the walls still intact.
For a long time, she thought he'd tap on them, on her walls. She thought he'd study them and formulate some devious strategy to bring them down involving witticisms and at least three elaborate innuendoes. She thought he'd hammer at her will until she caved, but that…little shit didn't follow protocol.
He talked to her, listened to her, understood her—right from the beginning. Infuriating as it was, the fact that he could see almost straight through her gave her a modicum of relief—that here was another kindred spirit. But she'd learned her lesson the first time; she wasn't going to make the same mistake again.
Then he turned out to be nothing like Neal. He had every opportunity to turn his back on her, and after he rectified the first time he left her, he never did leave her again. And when he made his promise—that not a day would go by that he didn't think of her—the modicum of relief that had been steadily gaining strength bloomed into something that scared her, something that warmed and calmed her, that grounded her.
And for a time, it was torn away, and she couldn't even remember to mourn. The old, creaky house had gotten a new paint job and a couple of renovations, and for the longest time, everything was fine. She and Henry picked up their lives and acclimated to a new reality, one that was genuinely pleasing. He got along well with the kids at his school. He was a normal boy whose only problems were getting to the next level on his video game and getting enough pie in his daily diet. He didn't have to worry about monsters, evil curses, and the most convoluted family tree since Oedipus. And she was good, she was happy. She had a job, she had a permanent home, she had her son—hell, she even had a guy. Everything was the best it could be, considering the circumstances.
Then a man from the forgotten past came a-knockin' on the renovated house, and shit just started falling apart. The faucet stuttered and leaked, the floorboards rotted, the stairs squeaked like kittens being trampled, and soon enough, the ceiling caved under the weight of a goddamn winged monkey. It was time to return to Storybrooke, to her family, to her past, and to a new set of problems.
And there he was.
Standing in front of her.
In full pirate regalia.
In New York City.
As their story progressed, the more she began to realize that he was constantly right there, standing in front of her in whatever crazy, new situation they found themselves in. He was always there. He stood there and talked to her, listened to her, was simply with her. He crossed worlds, curses, and time itself to be with her. His constant presence was enough to make things brighter, easier to handle.
He didn't tap, knock, or hammer on her walls. He didn't strategize his way over them or find a weak spot. He didn't bring down her infamous walls.
She did it herself.
She sat at that table, the air cool and breezy but the atmosphere warm and comfortable, and stared him in the eye, asking how he managed to get his hands on a magic bean. The moment he told her that he gave up his beloved ship, the famous Jolly Roger, her heart sounded the trumpets and the walls, somehow so much weaker than she thought, came tumbling down.
The aching hole in her chest, shoddily blocked by the stones of the fortress she'd built around herself, was well on its way of being filled. She'd found the missing piece to her puzzle—the perfect fit, not just an anomalous piece from another set that somehow managed to maneuver itself into place.
Killian had brought her home—in every sense. He had brought her from New York City, back to Storybrooke, but he had also brought her the home that she'd been needing for her entire life. He'd held it out in his hand and heart, an offering of love and honesty, no shadows and no secrets.
Emma Swan may have been released from the Phoenix penitentiary years ago, but she'd never released herself from her own prison. Others had reached through her bars, offering her lock-picking kits, but only one man reached between the bars, took her hand, and showed her she had the keys all along.
Scars would remain, of course. Battles and wars must always leave their marks, but slowly she was letting go. The scars would still carry the memories, but they'd no longer carry the phantom pain that haunted her. She let go of the bitterness and sadness. She'd hold on tight to her son, her parents, her friends, to Killian. Whatever walls that may come up would most likely be literal in order to prevent any other crazy-ass magic from hurting the people she loved.