Fandom: Once Upon A Time
Characters: Emma Swan, Henry Mills, The Apprentice
Genre(s): General, Drama, Angst, Canon Divergence
Word Count: 7864
Story Summary: Henry gives Emma the quill so that she can bring back the happy endings. Emma's not sure she's up to the task.
Note: Thanks to Mrs-N-Uzumaki for the beta!
All the Happy Endings
For a moment, Granny's Diner seemed to fade away. All Emma could see was the quill in her son's outstretched hand as he walked toward her. It was hard to believe that such an innocuous-looking instrument held that much power. Sure, it looked a bit more unusual than a typical fountain pen—or even one of the sleek Montblancs that she'd seen one time in a store window on Madison Avenue. But there had to be millions of different pen styles and there was nothing, to Emma's mind, that made this model different from any other, at least, not at first blush. Still, she knew what it could do. And there was no way that she wanted to be within a ten-block radius of the thing. She wasn't even sure if it was a good idea for Henry to be holding it—even if he had already used it once to save them all. She took an involuntary step backwards as he approached.
Henry was smiling as he held it out to her, the tip facing away.
"Mom," he said, "it's your destiny. You've got to bring back the happy endings."
Emma shook her head, her eyes wide as she realized what he was expecting from her. "Oh, kid. I can't take this on. Breaking the curse was one thing, but this…? I'm no writer. I barely passed Grade 11 English. Besides, didn't you just do it yourself when you brought us all out of Heller's book?"
"No, I only put everything back the way it was," Henry explained, desperation giving his voice a wheedling tone. "For everyone. That means that my Mom and Mr. Gold still don't have a chance at getting their happy endings."
"The Apprentice said that you're the new Author," Emma pointed out. As soon as the words left her mouth, she winced. There was something wrong with trying to coax her thirteen-year-old son into doing what she was trying to back out of.
"That's why I can't do it," Henry replied patiently. "Authors aren't supposed to change things; they just write them down. That's why the Sorcerer and the Apprentice trapped Isaac in the book in the first place. But Mom, you're the Savior. You're the only one who can fix the story."
"It does make sense," Regina said slowly.
Emma turned to face her and realized that Regina wasn't the only one who had approached unnoticed. Her parents, Killian, Blue, the dwarves… even Lily and Maleficent were standing close by.
"I can't," Emma said flatly. "What am I supposed to do—just write 'And everyone lived happily ever after'? I mean, no offense, Regina, but if I were writing that twenty-eight years ago, your happy ending would have been," she looked at her parents, "my mother's death." She blinked. "Wait. That would be yours…" she said, looking back at Regina, "but yours," she turned again to her parents, "would have been getting married and ruling peacefully. So if you both got your happy endings…" she said frowning, "I don't think that's even possible; they cancel each other out. Or does one trump the other?" she asked, her eyes darting uncertainly at the others. "And who trumps who?"
"This is why," Blue said gently, "you can't just jot down a hasty phrase and consider the task complete. You must think, truly think about the outcomes you mean to achieve."
Emma closed her eyes. "You think I should do this, too?"
"I think," Blue replied, "that something needs to be done. You said it yourself. We aren't the same people we once were. If we change, shouldn't our fates be altered as well?"
"You're still the same insufferable, self-righteous, all-knowing prig you always were," Grumpy muttered.
"Grumpy!" Snow admonished, even as several of the other dwarves laughed quietly in the background.
From down the street, they heard the sound of running feet approaching and then the door practically burst open, and a dishevelled brunette burst in. "Belle!" Snow exclaimed. "What's—?"
"Rumple," Belle gasped, trying to catch her breath. "He… his heart. He says it's almost gone."
"Mom!" Henry urged, "Please." He pressed the quill into her hand. "He's still my grandfather."
Almost reflexively, her hand closed around it. "How do I…?" she asked.
"Just write what you want and the quill will make it happen."
Emma looked at the tip of the quill. Although the ink on the nib should have already dried, she was surprised to see that it still still glistened wet. She took a deep breath. "I'm going to need more ink than this."
"The rest of the bottle should be in Gold's shop," Regina said, while Mary Margaret drew Belle aside to explain what was happening.
"Okay. Meanwhile… Let me make sure I've got this right. You're saying that whatever I write with this comes to pass, right?"
Regina and Henry both nodded.
She considered. Before she did anything, she needed time to think. And maybe one person to bounce ideas off—someone who had enough confidence in her not to make her constantly second-guess herself; someone who probably wanted this as badly as the people who needed it most. "All right," she said slowly. "I think I can buy Gold some time until I figure out what to write. And buy myself a little time, too. Because, no offense, but if I'm going to," she glanced at Henry, "do this… I don't think I'll be able to with everyone looking over my shoulder or giving me suggestions or popping in to see if I'm done yet." She mouthed the word 'sorry' and pressed the quill down on her napkin, as Regina's eyes narrowed.
"Wait. What are you going to write?" She was starting to walk over to see, when she froze in mid-step.
Henry blinked. It was as if he and Emma were surrounded by statues. "Mom?"
Wordlessly, Emma passed the napkin to him. In bold black ink, he read:
Everyone in Storybrooke except Emma and Henry was frozen in time.
Henry frowned. "Should it be 'was' or 'were'?" he asked.
Emma shrugged. "Beats me. It worked, didn't it? Come on; let's get that ink. Wait." She clapped Henry on the shoulder. "Grab your book first. I've got a feeling I should probably read it before I go around changing things."
Two hours later, Emma pushed the storybook away with a groan of frustration, as she laced her fingers together and stretched her arms over her head. "This is useless," she muttered. She was sitting on a stool in Gold's office, the book open on a table before her.
Henry, who was examining the contents of Gold's back shelves with interest, looked up. "What's the matter?"
Emma sighed. "I don't know what I'm doing anymore," she admitted. "I never really sat down and read the book through before now; I only skimmed. I thought that if I took a closer look, I might get a clearer idea of what everyone's happy ending ought to be."
"That makes sense," Henry nodded. "So?"
"So, did you notice that from the point where Graham—sorry, the Huntsman lets Snow White go free to the point where I go into the magic wardrobe is exactly 28 pages?" She shook her head. "…Which are really 14, because of the illustrations. That's not enough to go on."
"So, you use that as a starting place and go from there," Henry said patiently, as he walked over to the table. "You were right before. Everyone's changed since the time that the stories in the book happened. The Queen doesn't want to kill Snow White anymore. Red doesn't—"
Emma shook her head. "I know, I know. But I think there's another problem with this whole… thing. Something more basic. The more I think about it, the more I wonder…" Her voice trailed off.
Henry waited for her to continue, but when she'd been silent for several minutes, he gently prompted, "Mom?"
Emma picked up the quill absently and wove it over her thumb, under her index finger, and over her middle finger. "Okay. Let me bounce something off you, kid: What does 'happily ever after' mean?"
Henry blinked. "You know," he said. "No more troubles. Happy endings."
"Yeah," Emma said. "The happy endings I'm supposed to bring back. Only…"
"I can't bring back something nobody had in the first place. Snow White and Prince Charming found each other, took back the kingdom, and were happy—until they found out about the Curse. Regina was happy in Storybrooke with you—until I showed up. Rumpelstiltskin… you get the picture. I…" She closed her eyes. "I broke the curse and everyone was happy. Until they realized that they were still trapped here if they wanted to keep their memories. You know what I think the problem is? Happy endings are endings. Once they happen, that's it. Over, done, close the book and pick up another one. Kid, there's—" her eyes widened. "There's no such thing as a happy ending in life; not while you're living it. I'm not trying to be cynical here. I'm saying that life is made up of good times and bad times. Sometimes we're happy, sometimes we're miserable and… and I think that's probably the way it's supposed to be. Even when life is good, there are things that make us unhappy, like… not finding a parking spot and being late to work. Or being up all night with a colicky baby." Her face softened, "Or losing people we care about, because it's just… their time. Sure, you can have a life that's—on balance—happy, but without having a few things go wrong, without having challenges..."
"It's all the same," Henry nodded his understanding. "If every day is good, you don't notice it because you haven't got any bad days to compare them to. Every morning, you wake up knowing that nothing is going to go wrong, that there's no danger, no… suspense. Mom, I know what that's like. I lived that for ten years. I don't want to do it again."
Emma smiled. "Thanks. With all of the talk about happy endings in general, I was starting to wonder if it was just me thinking it almost sounded like another curse. Okay. So, let's agree that 'Happily ever after' isn't necessarily the best thing." Her smile faded, to be replaced by a scowl. "In theory, I have no problem with letting everyone in town catch a major break. Except that one person's happiness might come at the cost of someone else's."
"Mom wants to be with Robin; Zelena wants her to be unhappy," Henry said, snapping his fingers.
"You've got the idea. Not that I'd give Zelena that kind of happiness. Let's go with something simple: Little Betty's fondest wish is to have a puppy. However, her parents are allergic to dogs and granting Betty's wish would make them miserable. Plus, Betty's house is filled with white carpeting, expensive furniture, and other things that the puppy would destroy. I can give the kid her happy ending, sure. But in the process…"
"And what if the parents came up to you and asked you change things? And then, the next day, the kid comes to you begging, and…"
Emma's face went pale. "That's something else to think about. You know the way we've gone running to Gold… to Rumpelstiltskin every time we needed a magical solution?" She plucked the quill out from between her fingers with her other hand and held it aloft. "With this... Once word gets out that I can just change reality whenever I feel like it, people will start wanting me to do it for little things, too." She pantomimed writing in the air. "And John Smith never again left the cap off the toothpaste. Mary Jones was always on time when it was her turn to drive carpool." Her hand was ice-cold around the quill. "Having this kind of power is worse than..."
Involuntarily, her eyes darted toward the entrance to the main shop area, where Gold lay unmoving on the floor. The Dark One's dagger compelled him. The quill in her hand could compel anyone.
"I know," Henry admitted. "I almost snapped it in half myself, but then, I thought about how bad Regina's been trying to get her happy ending and I thought maybe," he looked away. "Maybe you'd know how to do it without…"
Emma stood up, came around the table and gave her son a one-armed hug. "I want to," she said. "Regina deserves it." She looked again toward Gold's supine form, caught out of time like the rest of the town. "And even if Gold maybe doesn't, I…" She took a deep breath. "I think I get him," she admitted. "At least, a little." She closed her eyes. "When I was in the foster system, sooner or later someone would make assumptions about me. You bounce from home to home enough times and people start believing it must have been something you did." She slumped in her seat. "And then, if the kid who sits next to you in school loses something, they accuse you of stealing it. Bump into someone by accident and get accused of doing it on purpose. And before you know it, the school's calling your foster home. You try to explain that it wasn't you, but after it happens a few times, you don't bother anymore. You already know how it's going to go down: no matter what you say, it still ends up with you and your suitcase in the back of another social worker's car."
She shook her head slowly. "When everyone assumes the worst of you, it's easy to just say, 'the Hell with it' and do what they expect. And Gold's done a lot of bad stuff, I know. But he also gave up his life to save the town from Pan. And Belle told me that when Neal resurrected him and Zelena was waiting, he had to choose between holding onto his son and holding onto the dagger. He chose Neal."
"When you and Mary Margaret got pulled into the Enchanted Forest," Henry said, nodding, "I was having nightmares from the Sleeping Curse and Mr. Gold gave me a pendant to help me get them under control. Regina asked him what the price was and he said it was free. Because it was for me." He looked down. "We can't even say he just did it because we're family; it was before he ever knew I was his grandson."
Emma nodded. "You told me a long time ago that Good has to play by the rules and Evil doesn't. If playing by the rules gets you pushed around and squeezed out… Again, I'm not saying he hasn't done some terrible things, but when he did, he did them knowing that he was a villain and that villains don't get happy endings, no matter what…"
Henry nodded. "…It was a hopeless situation."
Emma's eyes grew wide. "Hopeless," she repeated. "That's it."
"You've got an idea?" Henry perked up.
"I think so. But just to be safe, do you think you could find me an ordinary pen and some paper? I'm going to need to do a couple of practice drafts first."
She wasn't writing drafts. She was drafting apology letters. To Regina. To Gold. To her parents. She had a pretty good idea of what she was actually going to write when she was ready to use the quill. She'd been thinking about it for nearly an hour as she doodled on a piece of scrap paper, not really paying attention to the tic-tac-toes and looping abstract designs made by her ballpoint pen. She supposed that she could have taken the coward's way out. If everything written with the magic quill would become reality, then there was nothing to stop her from wiping away everyone else's memories of what they'd wanted most. Nothing but her conscience. Nothing but the knowledge that doing so would be an evil act, even if it was committed for the best of reasons. I had the best intentions when I brought Marian back from the Enchanted Forest. We know how that turned out. I really need to think this through before I even bother dipping the quill in the ink. I can't mess this up. There won't be any taking it back this time.
She reached for the book again and flipped it open to Rumpelstiltskin's story. She read it slowly, speaking a sentence here and there under her breath. Yes. Gold would understand her reason for what she was about to do. That didn't mean he'd like it. Or that he wouldn't try to make her change her mind. She wasn't sure about Regina, but she knew that, when presented with the opportunity to have Isaac write her a new story, the formerly evil queen had turned away from the quick fix. She wasn't looking for an easy way out of her situation. That was a good thing, Emma realized. Her plan didn't involve one. As for the others… She bit her lip. She'd forgiven her parents for what they'd done to Maleficent, but it didn't change the fact that they had done something horribly wrong for the best of reasons. How different was that, really, from what Rumpelstiltskin had done to protect his own child?
She took a fresh sheet of paper, picked up the ballpoint pen, and began to write down her thoughts. She got a sentence down, and then scratched it out. She tried again and managed almost twenty words before she lowered the pen with an exasperated snarl. Maybe the problem was that she needed to explain herself to someone else. And for all that Henry was a great sounding board, he was already on her side. It would be too easy to convince him. No, she wanted to get her thoughts coherent enough that she could present a case to someone almost certain to oppose her. Again, her eyes flickered to the doorway leading to the shop floor.
Gold, she wrote. And suddenly, she knew how to start.
It's easy to tell the difference between Good and Evil in a child's storybook. Everything is laid out so clearly in black and white. And so, it's also easy to understand why Good is always rewarded and Evil punished. There's no real depth, not much nuance, we always know who we're supposed to be rooting for and who's going to win in the end. She frowned at the last sentence, wondering whether the last comma should have been a semi-colon. She decided she didn't care. The problem is, she continued, in the real world, it's not that easy. Lines blur. People change. It gets complicated. And suddenly, 'Good always wins; Evil always loses' doesn't seem as fair. Not when it turns out that Evil …She didn't like that word, she realized. She crossed it out and wrote 'Bad' in its place. …Bad can come from good—for the best of reasons—and sometimes, not the best. And Good, she chewed the top of her pen, thinking. "Good," she said aloud and resumed writing, can come from Bad, even for the worst of reasons—and sometimes, not the worst. I guess you can tell I've been thinking about this and I've figured something out. It would be easy for me to do what Henry did a couple of hours ago: use the quill to turn the clock back. Take everything back to when it all started going wrong. Write that you did go through the portal with Neal, and my mom didn't tell Cora about Regina and Daniel. Only, maybe it's selfish, but if things had gone that way, Henry and I wouldn't be here. And, no offense, Gold, but I just got back from one world where Evil got to win and I don't want to live in another one. So. I think I found a different solution. It's not perfect, but then, neither are any of us. And maybe there has to be a mix of good and bad in it. Just like there's a mix of good and bad in all of us. Or maybe I'm not as deep as I think and I'm trying to convince myself that I'm doing the right thing. Anyway, for good or for bad, it's done and I hope you understand. You're fond of reminding everyone that magic always comes with a price. I hope what I'm offering is enough to clear out the balance. If not… I guess I'll probably be back here before too long, asking for your help again.
She picked up the paper, debating whether she should actually give it to Gold or tear it up and dispose of it. Finally, she folded it in half and walked out onto the shop floor. Then she stooped down and placed the paper in Gold's slack hand. As she walked back to the office, it occurred to her that if she hadn't had the childhood she'd had, she probably wouldn't have been able to empathize with Gold's situation quite so keenly. Yet another example of good coming from bad.
No more stalling, she told herself firmly. Henry's right. This is your destiny.
She tried to stifle the still small voice in her head that laughed derisively and exclaimed, Yeah, right!
She actually thought she had it. She'd come up with something that could give everyone their happy ending. It wouldn't be a guarantee—if all magic came with a price, she didn't need anybody to tell her that using magic to guarantee an outcome would be more expensive than using magic to permit one. Regina's main gripe wasn't that villains didn't get happy endings; it was that a villain who changed for the better still didn't get one.
She looked at Henry's storybook once more. She could have just written her part of the story on a bit of scrap paper or the back of one of Gold's invoices; it was the ink that mattered, not the paper. Still, it felt right to append her contribution to those of the Authors who had come before her. And for the next few minutes—like it or not, want it or not—she was an Author.
She took a fresh piece of scrap paper, picked up her ballpoint, and jotted down three names: Regina, Gold, Lily. Then she crossed out 'Gold' and wrote 'Rumpelstiltskin'. Better get this right the first time, because she didn't mean to allow herself a second chance.
Her hands were sweating as she unstopped the bottle of ink. In her tenth-grade English class (at the school she'd attended from October to January), her teacher had hung a poster with a list of quotes about writing in a corner at the back of the classroom. Since her desk had been in that corner, she'd read them often; way more often than she'd read the poems and short stories that had actually been assigned. She remembered one of those quotes now: 'Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood.' Nietzsche didn't know the half of it. Well, technically speaking, it was Lily's blood, of course, but it was her darkness. Emma wondered what Nietzsche would have made of that!
She turned to one of the blank pages at the end of the book. Her heart was thudding in her chest. She was surprised that Henry couldn't hear it. She took a deep breath and plunged the quill into the inkwell.
Today is a fresh start, she wrote. Today there are no heroes and there are no villains. Today we as individuals choose how we will act, and our fates will be determined by those choices that we make going forward.
She stopped for a moment and reread. It was a bit pompous and it didn't sound much like her. But it did say what she wanted it to. She didn't want to live in a world where Good wouldn't win, after all. At the same time, she didn't think it was fair that those people who had been cast as villains didn't seem able to change their fates, even if they had made every effort to reform. Somehow, she had a feeling that resetting the board would command a lower price than resetting the rules. She nodded to herself. That should take care of Regina's issue. She moved on.
The next part… well, she was tempted to change her mind about what she'd already decided. It would make things so much easier. And it would be an abuse of this power and probably make me the first villain under the new game rules. I can't use the quill to rip away Rumpelstiltskin's power. And I don't know what kind of price I'll have to pay if I just 'write away' the Dark One. It would probably mean losing an equal amount of good. There has to be a balance. She thought about the kindnesses that Gold had done for them all, sometimes unbidden, sometimes when least expected, always despite having the Dark One eating away at him. If he would only keep to that path… I could write that he would only use his magic for good, but I won't. I can't try to control him, not even for the best of reasons. When it comes right down to it, that's what Mom and Dad were trying to do to me when they sent my darkness into Lily. Worse. That's what Zelena did: use magic to compel him to do what she wanted. I'm supposed to be the Hero, here. She dipped her quill once more.
Rumpelstiltskin can control the Darkness inside him if he chooses. Each time he makes that choice, it gets easier. She wasn't sure whether she actually needed to write the last sentence. It seemed obvious to her, but maybe it was best not to make assumptions. She was about to go on to the next paragraph, when she remembered what Belle had told everyone in Granny's about his condition. When time started up again, she didn't want it to mean that he'd still be minutes away from death. "Clean slate for you, too, Gold," she said softly. Rumpelstiltskin's heart is now as good as new. And if he chose evil all over again, it would be his decision, freely made, and she'd worry about it when the time came.
Lily was next. The right thing to do would be to reclaim the darkness from her—at least the darkness that would have been her own, had her parents not transferred it to Lily. But maybe there was a better way. "When one candle lights another," Emma said, thinking out loud, "it doesn't lose any of its own light. I hope the same thing holds true in this case." There was probably a better way to write it, something that would sound deep or flowery or poetic, but in the end, she opted for simplicity.The debt that my family owes to Lily must be paid. Half of my Light is transferred to her. Maybe that would be enough to balance the Darkness.
For a moment, she thought about holding off on the last thing she meant to write—at least, long enough to ask Regina if there was anything else that needed be added. You start making excuses and you'll never do it, she told herself firmly. Then aloud, she added, "and, at least this way, even if Isaac escapes the book, he won't be able to manipulate things again."
That last thought decided her. She dipped her quill back into the ink one final time.
When Emma set the quill down, time began moving again for the people of Storybrooke. The quill became an ordinary writing instrument. The ink lost its power to alter reality. And from that point forward, no Savior's blood would ever be able to give any ink—or any other substance—that power.
There. That should keep the new rules in place. Not to mention protect her from anyone attempting to force her to write them a different outcome. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She heard soft footsteps padding on the floor, coming to stand at her shoulder. Henry. She opened her eyes and waited for him to read what she'd written. Once he had, he looked at her with a relieved smile. "It's great. Only," his expression grew worried, "won't that ruin things for the next Author?"
"I thought about that," Emma admitted, "and in my opinion, it won't. If all the Author's supposed to do is write down what happens, they can just use a normal pen. Why even give them the power to influence the story?" Henry smiled. And Emma solemnly laid down the quill.
A point of bright light appeared at the point of nib. It quickly rippled outwards, spreading across the table, through the room and out into the rest of the shop and the town beyond.
"Well done!" a voice behind them proclaimed, startling them. As one, mother and son turned to behold the Apprentice seated on a high stool in the corner. There was no normal way that he could have entered without their seeing him. Emma half-rose from her chair, even as the old man flexed his palms and extended them at chest-level in a placating gesture. "Don't you want to hear the answer to your question?" he asked with a smile.
Emma raised an eyebrow and tilted her head.
"I thought as much," the Apprentice said. "However, I believe we'd best repair to someplace more secluded as, within a very short time, I expect a number of people will be arriving, hoping to find out what it is you've written. In fact," he beamed, "why not leave the book here for them?"
Emma and Henry exchanged a quick glance. Cautiously, both nodded.
"Excellent," the Apprentice said, pulling a wand out of his pocket.
A moment later, the room was empty.
They were in the Sorcerer's house, sitting at the red table in the library of blank storybooks, Emma and Henry on one side of the table; the Apprentice on the other.
"Well," the Apprentice said slowly. "Well…"
Emma waited for what felt like too long, before she said, "Well, what?"
"Are you going to explain about the quill?" Henry asked excitedly.
"I am," the Apprentice nodded. "The first thing that you need to understand is that nobody writes anything without a reason. Some reasons are better than others, of course. For example, exploring a great truth ranks rather higher than filling up a word count on a school paper." His lips curved upwards in a small smile. "I believe that Pinocchio told you that that book of yours has existed for a long time and had many Authors. Each one charged with recording the greatest stories of all time."
"Yes," Emma breathed.
"Tell me something," the Apprentice said. "When you used the quill just now, I realize that you didn't transcribe any new tale, but I imagine that even when you wrote down those few sentences, there must have been other ideas that you considered and rejected for whatever reason. No," he said, when Emma opened her mouth to speak. "I don't need to know what else occurred to you; only that something did. And that, for one reason or another, you chose to leave it out of your finished product."
"Yes," Emma said with a slight nod.
"As is the case with every Author," the Apprentice smiled. "Or, indeed, every person who ever set words on a page. In the case of the Author, however, deciding what to include and what to reject can have somewhat… profound consequences."
"Um… okay," Emma said, when the Apprentice seemed to be waiting for her to comment.
"What kinds of consequences?" Henry demanded eagerly.
"Every Author has been a product of their time. In the stories that they were privileged to record, they saw tropes and themes from the literature—or, in some cases, the oral traditions—of the times and cultures to which they were born. Many of the stories that you called 'fairy tales' while you were growing up were recorded by Authors who sought to convey… well, let's call them lessons of morality. In your letter to Rumpelstiltskin, you lamented the lack of nuance."
Emma started in her seat. Just how long had this man been watching her?
If he'd noticed her movement, he ignored it and continued talking. "That was intentional on the part of the Author. He—and in at least two instances, she—wanted to impress upon their audience that good deeds are rewarded and bad, punished. In some cases, they included a jab at the nobility; the simple, good-hearted country youth proving to be a worthier suitor than the haughty prince, for example. There's nothing wrong with that per se. There is a time-honored tradition of teaching matters of morality through stories and ballads. And a story in which a person is able to change their destiny… well," he smiled. "I needn't explain to you about the power of hope, need I?"
Emma shook her head. "No."
"However," the Apprentice continued, "in too many stories, the Author decided that, in order to make it clear that… well, that everyone gets what they deserve—at least in stories, those stories needed to be recorded in such a way that heroism and villainy were sharply defined. Their audience was meant to identify with and emulate the Heroes. And so, the story of a heroic—but immature—little girl whose loose tongue caused the death of the suitor of the woman who would one day become her stepmother was left out of most versions. Too murky. If the girl is a hero, it would only confuse the audience," here, the Apprentice rolled his eyes, "were she to make a mistake with such far-reaching consequences. And as for the grieving stepmother… if she's to be cast as an 'evil queen', then far better to give her a motive such as… oh, let's say vanity. With a bit of envy thrown in for good measure. Now, there's no confusion over who to root for. And if the audience comes away with the notion that setting too great store by physical beauty is both foolish and dangerous, so much the better."
The Apprentice frowned, weighing his words carefully. "By now, I'm sure you've become aware of the power of belief." He didn't wait for a response. "You've experienced first-hand how what others believed about you became, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy. For those who inhabit the Realms of Storytelling, the ties between belief and reality are far stronger."
"Realms of Storytelling?" Emma raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Call them the realms from which literary archetypes spring if you like. I've always found it a bit pretentious to refer to them as such, though. But suffice it to say that you made some very insightful observations earlier, owing in part to your own life experience. What is believed about us can become what we believe ourselves. When the Sorcerer made the decision to appoint the Authors who would record the stories, he did not anticipate that complication. He has been trying," the Apprentice paused, "we have been trying to reset the board for some time."
"Really?" Henry perked up.
"Oh, yes. We've known for a while that—how can I put this—the deck was unfairly weighted in favor of certain players. And that, perhaps, the audience for these stories isn't as likely to be confused by nuance as some of the earlier Authors imagined." The Apprentice sighed.
"I'm afraid I'll need to take the responsibility for the next part," he continued. "If you don't mind my asking, Miss Swan, what was your first exposure to the story of Snow White?"
Emma frowned. "I must have been about four or five. I was at the library for story time. The librarian read it out loud to us."
"And you didn't take issue with the ways in which the characters were portrayed."
Emma shrugged. "It was just a story." She flinched. "Then," she added hastily.
The Apprentice, though, was nodding sagely. "And that, in a nutshell, was where the problem lay. To most of our Authors, the characters in the stories simply weren't real. They were tropes… archetypes… playing pieces, if you will. Almost every culture has its own version of Cinderella, you know. Most of our Authors were removed enough from the stories that they never bothered to confirm whether the people who resided in the Enchanted Forest truly behaved as their literary counterparts. It was my suggestion," the Apprentice admitted, "to grant our last Author the power to walk the Realms, as opposed to merely observing them. I thought that if he met those about whom he was to write, he might come to see them as people, rather than characters.
"Before Isaac, most Authors were gifted writers or, at the very least, gifted imaginers. They didn't need to be physically present in the worlds about which they wrote. Or, to put it a different way, Neverland isn't the only realm accessible to dreamers. Still, these people frequently saw what they wanted to see, and wrote what they imagined their audience wanted to read. I thought that we might do better to find someone who was a… less gifted writer. Someone who would record his observations without embellishment, because he would lack the creativity to embellish." He sighed. "I'm afraid I misjudged Isaac Heller on that point. Among others." He sighed again. "I could blame prophecy, I suppose. A seer once told me that only someone who was both a part of and apart from the story would be able to affect its outcome. I took it to mean that the Author would need access to the Realms as something other than a mere observer." He looked embarrassed for a moment. "My master told me that I shouldn't be so quick with my assumptions. He was right."
"Wait," Emma said. "You mean, you wanted Isaac—"
"To paint the entire picture. To show that people can change—for good or ill—and how they might be motivated to do so. To recognize that Evil is almost always made, not born. It was my hope that he would show that Heroes and Villains have more in common than they think and that change, hope, redemption… all of these are possible."
"Obviously," Emma drawled, "it didn't work out that way."
"No. Isaac found himself unable to avoid the temptation of literally bringing his story ideas to life."
"Yeah," Emma said, "that quill was a big temptation. Or did you not think of that?"
"That quill," the Apprentice said, "was created for one purpose and one purpose only: to alter the parameters of the story so that change and growth would be possible. Writing is at its strongest when it springs from belief and conviction, as opposed to simply parroting back what one is told. He smiled. "On the whole, it's not so dissimilar to magic. It was my hope that, when Isaac met the people whose lives he was to chronicle, he would choose to portray them somewhat… unconventionally. Giving him a writing instrument that could alter reality was giving him… well, permission, if you like… to go against the conventional perception of reality and believe that his changes would stick."
"So, what went wrong?"
The Apprentice's face took on a sour expression. "Simply put, even though Isaac saw the mix of good and evil in each player, he still chose to paint some as heroes and some as villains. While he did include some points that didn't quite fit the narrative, he mitigated them—downplayed them, if you will."
"That doesn't fit with the way he acted when he got here, though," Emma pointed out. "Any idea why he might have changed?"
"Every realm has its own rules. Suffice it to say that 'Good always wins' is less an aphorism than a law in the Enchanted Forest. But since everyone is a mix of good and evil, calling more attention to unexpected acts of kindness or heroism or dark villainy might have allowed for some destinies to change, even in that realm." He smiled again. "In this one, the rules are far less rigid. More malleable. You found a way to alter them, injecting a bit of mercy without tossing away the concept of justice altogether. Again, Ms Swan, I say to you: Well done."
"Go, Mom," Henry whispered.
Emma's mouth dropped open as she paled. "I didn't know what to… I mean, so much could have gone wrong. I had no clue what to—"
"No more than you did when you broke the first Curse," the Apprentice pointed out. "This was your destiny. Once you accepted it, you were able to find the knowledge within yourself. The balance has been restored."
He smiled at Henry. "And now, everything is in order and ready for the new Author to take over."
Henry hesitated. "But I don't have a quill."
"But you do have stories."
The Apprentice's smile widened. "Then write them. Share them. Make them as real to the audience as they are to you. That's a magic within you and you don't need a quill to unlock it. Do you, Boy?" he asked sharply.
Henry grinned. "No, sir."
Emma rose to her feet, her face still several shades lighter than normal. "Thanks for clearing that up. And now," she sighed, "if we're done here, I guess it's time for me to go face the music." She glanced at Henry. "Coming, kid?"
Henry glanced to the Apprentice, who shrugged. "There are things we'll need to discuss," he said, "but if you'd prefer to go with your mother now, they can keep."
Henry pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. "Later, then."
It was with more than a little trepidation that Emma—with Henry in tow—turned the handle and pushed open the door to Gold's pawnshop. The first thing she registered was Gold sitting up on the floor and Belle kneeling next to him. They were locked in a tight embrace.
"She's here!" Lily cried, grabbing her by the arm and yanking her into the shop. Emma barely had time to take hold of Henry's sleeve and pull him in with her. And then, her parents and Killian were standing in front of her and pulling her into a hug of her own.
For a moment, Emma relaxed and let their love and acceptance wash over her. Then, gently, she pulled away, resting a reassuring hand on her mother's sleeve, as she looked past them to Lily. "Are you…?" she whispered.
"I don't know," Lily admitted. "I guess I'll just have to wait and see how things go. But things just feel… right for the first time in as far back as I can remember."
Emma smiled. "I'm glad." She felt a tentative hand on her shoulder and turned to face Regina. She took an involuntary step back; Storybrooke's mayor wasn't much given to physical gestures.
"Emma," Regina said, her expression unreadable.
"Is it okay?" Emma asked. "I messed things up for you once. I didn't want to do it again, but as long as I was trying to fix things, I didn't want to leave you out either—"
"No, it's fine," Regina said, breaking into a reassuring smile. "I told Isaac I already had everything I needed and I was right. But, just in case I was wrong about my being the only thing standing in the way of my own happiness… thank you."
"Ms Swan." Although Gold's voice was soft, it cut through the buzz of conversation like a knife. Emma looked automatically in his direction. He was attempting to rise to his feet, with Belle and Henry assisting on either side of him.
As Emma stepped forward, the others who surrounded her moved, allowing her a clear path. "Gold."
He smiled then, and lowered his eyes in seeming embarrassment. "Prophecies are notoriously difficult to understand until they've come to pass," he remarked. "It would appear that, at long last, your son was my undoing," he gave Henry's arm a quick squeeze. "Undoing the reality I dictated to the last Author and restoring me to the…" his smile grew pained, "unfortunate state I was in, prior. It would have been useful to have been able to see the events that were to transpire, say… an hour or so later?"
"You're not upset?"
"What? That you saved my life?" Gold snorted. "Indeed not. Although…" his face grew troubled.
Emma frowned. "Although…?"
He shook his head. "I dislike being indebted to anyone, Ms Swan."
"You're not," Emma replied. "Not when you start adding up all the little things you've done over the years."
"To be able to have others in my debt."
"And yet, you didn't always call those debts in."
"The right opportunity didn't always present itself."
"Maybe," Emma conceded. "Or maybe that was something you told yourself so that you could convince that force you had inside you, whispering at you, to leave you alone and let you do something decent every once in a while." At his stunned expression, she smiled. "Guess you never read the stuff Henry's book said about you, huh?"
Gold flashed her a quick smile. "The stories that have come into this world which attempt to tell our histories are distorted to the point that I find them painful to read. I didn't realize until," he looked fondly at the youth at his side, "a conversation we had in New York that his book appeared to have the right of it. And then…" He sighed. "Hook. Cora. Pan. Zelena. The Hat. I suppose the opportunity never presented itself."
"Oh." Emma was quiet for a moment, thinking. "Look, as far as I'm concerned, you don't owe me anything. But if you don't see it that way…" Her voice trailed off.
Emma took a deep breath. "I loved your son, Mr. Gold. But I didn't know him for very long. Or very well. And Henry was just starting to. Maybe, if you wouldn't mind… sharing what you remember? Only if you want to," she added hastily. "And just until you think we're even."
Gold pressed his lips together firmly and managed a jerky nod. "I," he pressed his lips together once more. Belle rested a hand on his shoulder and he reached up and squeezed it. "I think that's a fair arrangement," he said, sounding almost as though he were choking. "You have a deal." He screwed his eyes tightly shut, but not before Emma saw them glisten with unshed tears.