They say that things just cannot grow
Beneath the winter snow
Or so I have been told
They say we're buried far
Just like a distant star
I simply cannot hold
Is love alive?
Is love alive?
Is love alive?
It’s 11:00 PM and Lucy is still missing. Roni scrubs the counter again, then again, looking up to give a vague smile at anyone in the bar who might sense the tension emanating from its proprietor. This is long past bedtime on an ordinary night. On an ordinary night at 9:00, Jacinda stands and Lucy says already? and they head upstairs to the apartment Roni shares with them.
Tonight, it’s two hours later and Jacinda is driving through Storybrooke, calling every contact she has and frantically searching for her daughter. Roni turns, casually lifts her phone, and calls with her face even. “Any luck?”
“Nothing.” Jacinda is curt, her voice barely controlled. “I’ve combed every inch of this town and called in every favor I can and I’ve found nothing. The bus driver who’d stopped just outside Storybrooke is off duty until morning. We have nothing.”
“We’ll find her,” Roni says reassuringly. They've been roommates for as long as she can remember, though she can't quite recall how it had come to be or how young Lucy had been when Jacinda had arrived. She just knows that it's been years, and Lucy’s never done anything so reckless before.
And yes, Lucy’s always been a little more adventurous than Jacinda had liked, exploring every nook and cranny of town regardless of how dangerous it might be. She's fearless, staring down even Swan when she comes to the bar to collect the rent. And now, apparently, she's finally gone somewhere she won't return from.
Or maybe she will. The door to the bar opens, and Lucy walks in, eyes bright and surveying the bar as though she’s taking it all in differently. “She’s here,” Roni says, and Jacinda says, “ What? ”
“She just walked in.” The phone clicks off and Roni stares at the man who’d followed Lucy inside.
She knows him. That had been her first impression. She knows him, and she doesn't know how, because she's never seen him before in her life. She can feel the shiver run through her, the sudden warmth, and she swallows and stares and blinks back what feels like sudden tears. He's a stranger, but she feels such a last sense of loss around him that she can hardly breathe. He’s looking around the bar, perfectly in sync with Lucy, but his eyes are dark and confused.
“Lucy,” Roni says, and her voice is hoarse. The man looks at her, and he breathes in sharply and curls his fingers to his palm, his brow furrowing. Roni tears her eyes away from his with effort, feeling his gaze burning into her. “What do you think you're doing? Your mother’s been searching town all day.”
Lucy tucks her book under her arm. “I found my dad,” she says simply, and Roni turns back and gapes at the man.
“You're…” Maybe that's why he looks so familiar, why there's something about him that draws Roni in. But Lucy takes after her mother so acutely that it can’t, it doesn't–
The man is watching her, his brow creased and his eyes still so dark. “We’ve met before, haven't we?”
Lucy squints up at them. “I don't know,” she says. “Roni isn't in my book. Just you and Mom.”
“Roni,” the man repeats, shaking his head slightly as though something is wrong. “No…”
Roni swallows. There's a lump in her throat she can't seem to get rid of. “Yes,” she says, sticking out her hand. “Roni Meyers. And you are?”
“Henry Mills.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. Henry Mills. Maybe he’d been in the bar before. Storybrooke doesn't get many strangers, but if he'd been here with Jacinda, it might be why his name seems to reverberate through her and never find purchase. It doesn't explain the way his gaze settles into her retinas, burned there for eternity. “Look, I don't even know if I have a kid. She just showed up at my doorstep with that book and insisted that I was her dad. I don't want any trouble.”
The book. Roni sighs. “Lucy, what is this book?”
“Mrs. Blanchard gave it to me,” Lucy says, tugging it closer. “You won't understand. It's about my parents.” She looks back to Henry pleadingly. “You were fleeing the Dark One through the realms and you and my mom fell in love! It’s the truth! And then there was a curse and we were split up because you're the author-– you wrote the book–”
“I write novels, not picture book fairytales,” Henry says, looking baffled. “I don't think…” He glances up at Roni. “Look, I should just go.”
“No,” Roni says, perhaps too hastily, and Henry bites his lip– she has the sudden, absurd urge to say something ridiculous like keep that up and you'll leave a permanent mark. “No,” she says, forcing her voice to remain even. “If Lucy thinks something’s true, she isn't going to budge on it. She’ll be back...where are you from?”
“New York,” Henry says, looking a little sheepish. “It’s been a long drive back. She wouldn’t give me her number, or I’d have called.”
There’s still that irritating thing about him, lingering at the edges of her consciousness, that makes her trust him implicitly. It’s short-sighted and naive, and she’s smarter than this, but she hesitates, and her heart still thumps too hard when she meets his eyes. “I have an extra apartment upstairs,” she says slowly. “I’ve been trying to rent it out for years, but my landlord is pretty focused on making my life miserable and that includes blocking me from making any extra income. Why don’t you stay here tonight?” Jacinda is going to kill her. “If I know Lucy, she’ll be right back at your place in the morning, demanding that you listen to her this time.”
Henry shrugs, glancing down at Lucy uncertainly and then back to Roni. There's a longing in his eyes, wistful but still confused, and Roni should be absolutely terrified of that. Instead, she hopes desperately that it'll be enough for him to stay. “I guess…my work is with me, anyway,” he says, jabbing a thumb out at his car. “I could stay.”
Jacinda is less than pleased when she finds out. “You invited this man to stay here?” she demands. “Some…sperm donor who got his hands on my kid? Are you insane ?”
The bar is closed for the night, and Henry Mills hasn’t emerged from the apartment since he’d headed up there. Roni keeps looking up instinctively, glancing at the stairs. Lucy is in bed at last, Jacinda locking the door to the apartment like they’d never before, and she still looks hollow-eyed and stressed.
This admission isn’t helping, that’s for sure. “I’m a bartender, Jacinda. I know people,” Roni reminds her. “And there’s something about this guy…he’s a good guy.”
“I’m a sheriff, Roni,” Jacinda mimics her. “I know people. And that man should be locked up for kidnapping my daughter.”
Roni passes her a drink, and Jacinda downs it, her shoulders dropping wearily. “Is he her father?” she finally ventures.
“I don’t know. You know that…everything’s a little fuzzy from back then. I wasn’t in a great place and I must have been on some kind of bender before I wound up here.” She chews on her lip. “But yeah, Lucy’s birth certificate says Henry Mills on it. So at some point, I did know enough about him to put that down.”
“She found her birth certificate?”
“She ordered a copy under my name.” Jacinda barks out a laugh. “Sometimes I’m pretty sure I’ve bitten off more than I can chew by trying to raise a kid like Lucy on my own. Well, not on my own.” She smiles for the first time tonight, a tentative peace offering between them. “I do trust your judgment. I don’t know if I trust Henry Mills.”
“That’s fair,” he says from the staircase that winds behind the bar, and Roni feels the melancholy return, the odd mix of joy and loss that accompanies Henry Mills. “I don’t think I’d trust me, either. But she’s a good kid. I didn’t mean to intrude.” He offers her a weary smile. “Is the bar closed?”
“Not for us,” Roni says briskly. “What’ll it be?” She mixes drinks for both of them, watching from the corner of her eye how they exchange wary glances that hold. Jacinda’s head tilts, and Henry’s lips curl into an unconscious almost-smile. Maybe there is something there– or had been, even if Jacinda can’t remember it. She’s still going with her initial instinct about Henry.
Henry, Henry … The name echoes through her mind again, and she sneaks another glance at him. She doesn’t know a Henry. She’s never known a Henry. But she knows this man, even if he’s a stranger.
She glances toward the window of the store in an attempt to give them some privacy as Henry says tentatively, “So, what’s the deal with Lucy’s book?”
“She has an overactive imagination,” Jacinda says wryly. “This isn’t the first time she’s gone missing and we’ve found her off on some secret mission. Though it is the first time she left town for it.” She runs a hand through her hair. “She’s grounded for the next decade.”
Henry laughs. “Does that work?”
“On Lucy? Not as well as it should.” Jacinda heaves a sigh. “So you’re a writer, you said?”
“Yeah. I’ve written a novel. Have A Heart. Small-town sheriff and mayor team up to investigate a serial killer.” He calls up the Amazon listing on his phone and passes it to them. “I’m in the middle of writing the sequel.”
“I’m a small-town sheriff,” Jacinda says thoughtfully, and Henry looks at her as though he’s seeing her for the first time.
“So you are,” he says, and Roni watches them with something tightening in her throat again.
She blinks and looks away, back to the window. The street outside the bar is well-lit, light filtering in upstairs when the curtains aren’t closed, and the figure who walks toward the door is all in black, silhouetted against the light. Their eyes meet through the glass, and Roni’s lips purse together in displeasure. “We have company,” she announces, just as the door slides open and Swan saunters in.
“Oh, look. A late-night party. What have I told you about selling alcohol after hours?”
Roni tilts her head. This she can do. This leaves her more grounded than any conversation with a familiar stranger will. “Nothing legal, that’s for sure. You can’t evict me for drinking.”
Swan scoffs. “Don’t try me, Meyers. I could evict you over far less.” She never turns to the other people at the bar, Jacinda sighing into her drink and Henry watching her with a creased brow. It’s always like this with them. Swan’s personal vendetta against Roni stretches only to Roni herself, and she’s barely ever looked twice at Jacinda or Lucy. “I heard you lost the kid this afternoon.”
And now, it seems, that may change.
“We found her,” Jacinda says coolly. Swan doesn’t spare her a glance. “Roni didn’t lose her.”
Swan’s lip twists. “Of course not. Roni would never lose a child.” She glares at Roni with sudden intensity. Roni’s never understood why it is that Swan hates her so terribly– why Swan seems to go out of her way to pick fights with her and does everything in her power to make Roni miserable– but there are times when Roni fights back, when adrenaline courses through her veins and she feels stronger, suddenly. Powerful and alive, as though only the battle sustains her. Life in Storybrooke feels like going through the motions, day in and day out, and Swan is…the only one who ever seems to change. Roni is drawn to that change like a moth to a flame.
“Children don’t run away from me, Ms. Swan,” Roni shoots back, and Swan’s glare loses some of its heat. She looks oddly lost for a moment, drifting in nothingness, but Roni doesn’t back down. “It’s a strange little quirk of being a decent human being instead of a…whatever you are.” She gestures vaguely at Swan, watching as her face darkens.
“ Whatever I am is the woman who owns this bar,” Swan says coldly. “And you’d best keep a better eye on that little girl you’re so attached to. If I find her digging through the back of my pawn shop again, you won’t enjoy the consequences.”
Digging through the back of the pawn shop . Lucy’s been at it again, it seems, and crossing Swan is more dangerous even than running to New York. Roni straightens, her eyes flashing. “Was that a threat?”
There are lines even Swan won't cross, and threatening a child is one of them. Roni had thought, anyway. Swan had arrived at the bar on the day that Jacinda had moved in (when had that been? How many years? Months?) and demanded answers about her and Lucy, but she’d never once contested the sublease.
But today, Swan is in a mood, and she doesn't answer the question, just offers a cruel smirk. Jacinda clutches her glass, white-knuckled. Henry looks disoriented, eyes flickering to Roni and Jacinda and then back at Swan in marked disappointment. Roni shakes her head, disgust beating out the adrenaline, and says, “How the hell did you get like this?”
Swan’s face darkens and she storms out the door.
Henry Mills stays. They keep the new tenant quiet, off the books where Swan can't take issue with him. Jacinda sighs when Roni asks her about it. “I don't know. If it keeps Lucy from starting up with Swan, maybe it's worth it.” But she smiles more around Henry and Henry is thoroughly charmed by her, and Roni notes with amusement that she’s watching young love, after all.
Lucy is ecstatic. “They're going to break the curse with true love’s kiss,” she says, skipping beside Roni as they head back from the grocery. Roni does drinks, not food, but Jacinda is always willing to make dinner if Roni does the shopping. “So Mama is Cinderella, right?”
“So you've told me,” Roni says dryly. “Cinderella runs away from a dreadful prince, finds an author named Henry in the woods and tries to get him to rewrite her story. You really think a Disney princess can grow up to be the badass detective your mom is?”
Lucy grins at her. “They're much better when they're feminist. Mama taught me that.”
“Where’d you get this book, anyway? I asked Mrs. Nolan,” Roni says, raising her eyebrows at Lucy. “She says she never planned any class book club for advanced readers, but she thinks it's a great idea. She was making new plans as we spoke.”
Lucy’s eyes flicker away from hers guiltily. “Lacey gave it to me,” she tries, and Roni tilts her head and waits. “Okay, I found it in the pawn shop. I was just looking around! I thought Ms. Swan might be up to something and I was right!” she says triumphantly. “She's the Dark One , Roni. She took all the happy endings away.”
Roni laughs. “That does sound like Ms. Swan,” she concedes. “But Lucy, you can't do things like that. You know Ms. Swan owns the bar, and she's always looking for an excuse to screw things up for me– which means for your mom.”
Lucy looks down. As bright as she is– as uncontrollable as she can be– she does love her mother more than anything. “You’ve got to be more careful,” Roni says gently. “Get to know your dad. Join Mrs. Nolan’s book club. Find things to do that aren't…Dark Ones and curses. Stay away from Ms. Swan.”
Speak of the devil herself. Swan is striding down the block, her eyes distant, and she looks– less angry than usual, at least. More perturbed in a way that Roni can’t quite describe. She’d mastered the many faces of Swan long ago, before she can remember, and this one feels dangerously close to the almost wistful one that Roni sees sometimes at night.
At night, when the bar is still open and Swan saunters past it, pausing at the window, Roni can feel her eyes on her, like a gaze burning into her with its intensity. She’s careful never to look up and catch her gaze, lest Swan storm in and start a fight in front of the customers, but she peers in the reflection of the window while she cleans a glass and watches Swan’s eyes, distant and longing and sad.
Roni isn’t naive enough to believe that every nasty piece of work out there is troubled, but she wonders despite herself about Swan sometimes.
Lucy, oblivious to the approaching menace, walks side-by-side with Roni, swinging her bag back and forth as she moves. Roni tears her eyes from Swan to watch Lucy instead. As far as she knows, Swan and Lucy have never actually spoken. Roni is determined to keep it that way. “I wish I knew who you were,” Lucy says thoughtfully. “You’d have to be someone super good. Maybe you were my mom’s mother before Dr. Tremaine–”
Her swinging bag slams into Swan’s leg, and something inside it shatters. Lucy gasps as red liquid seeps from the bag and down Swan’s leg, looking up in horror. Instinctively, Roni pulls her back, out of range of Swan’s anger. “I’m sorry!” Lucy says, frantic. “I’m sorry! Please don’t cast a curse on me!”
“ Lucy! ” Swan stares at them. Roni’s sure she’s imagining that she looks just as frightened as Lucy is, stumbling back with tomato sauce dripping down black leather to her shoe. “Sorry, Ms. Swan,” Roni says, crouching easily and tearing open the package of napkins they’d bought. They’re colorful and say congratulations! on them, and Roni dabs at Swan’s leg until Swan pulls away, looking sickened at her touch.
“Get up,” she orders, backing away. “Just– just stay away from me.”
Lucy shrinks back and Roni steps in front of her, napkins still crumpled in her hand. “It was an accident,” she says tersely.
Swan turns her eyes onto Lucy and Roni’s eyes narrow, remembering Swan’s last threat. Swan reaches for Lucy and Roni clears her throat, ready to start a fight in the middle of Main Street, and then Swan says, “You’ll need a new bag.” Her voice is…not quite kind, but subdued. Lucy stares at her, wide-eyed. Swan tilts her head. “Because yours is full of glass?” she prods. Her voice gets a touch sharper. “Your mom’s girlfriend might be useless, but I don’t think you should be walking around with a bag that could cut you.”
Roni scoffs. “Don’t act like you’re suddenly human,” she says darkly. Swan gives her a tight, false smile.
Lucy says, “I’ll ask Granny for a bag!” quickly, making a beeline for the diner they’d just passed. Her bag remains on the floor by Roni’s foot, and Swan’s face returns to a familiar sneer.
“Jacinda isn’t my girlfriend,” Roni says. She doesn’t know why she does– why it matters at all that Swan knows that. Maybe that had been the only reasoning why Swan hadn’t started up with her for getting a roommate in the first place, and she’s just making things worse for them. “She’s a kid.”
Swan barks out a laugh. “Right. So you just…find some random woman and child and decide to build a new family with them out of nowhere? For no particular reason? Bullshit.”
“New family?” Roni echoes, bewildered. “What the hell are you talking about?” Swan just glares at her, and Roni says again, “She’s a kid. A single mom with a kid of her own. Jacinda needed a place, and I needed the spare cash to afford my place after you jacked up the prices. That’s all.”
Swan stares at her, lips pressed together thinly. “So you took her in for the money?” Realization dawns over her face. “No, you took her in because she was a single mom with a kid. For fuck’s sake.” She whirls around, apparently infuriated, and then whirls back. “And what was the kid talking about, I’d put a curse on her? What are any of you talking about?” Roni shrugs, still caught for a loop at the many changing moods of Swan. Swan clenches her fists. “I don’t want to know. I’m– I don’t want to know.”
She stalks down the street, this time sidestepping Lucy as she steps out of the diner. She pauses as Lucy says something to her, and she says something back before she walks on, fists still clenched.
“What was that?” Roni says, eyeing Swan warily as Lucy joins her again.
Lucy shrugs. “I said sorry again. She told me to call her Emma. She’s a lot nicer than than I thought,” she says thoughtfully. “I wonder if she’s trying to lure me in to get closer to my parents.”
“I don’t think it does any of us any good to try to figure out what Swan’s up to,” Roni says, rolling her eyes as they head back to the bar, but she turns back once, just before they turn to cross the street, anyway.
Swan is still walking down Main Street, far past the pawn shop or anywhere where she might have any business, her arms still stiff at her side as she fades into the distance.