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starsandatoms ([personal profile] starsandatoms) wrote2012-01-06 08:27 pm
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Make A Little Birdhouse In Your Soul

Title: Make A Little Birdhouse In Your Soul
Fandom: Once Upon A Time
Rating: PG
Summary: Emma is still adjusting to life in Storybrooke, but Storybrooke is not making it easy.
Warnings/Notes: Written for Yuletide 2011; also available on AO3. Thanks to Ari for the beta!



i.



It's a combination of things, really – that Emma's not used to having a roommate, that Henry's planted this ridiculous Mary-Margaret-is-Snow-White-is-your-mother thing in her brain, or maybe she's just plain cracked under the insanity that is her current life in Storybrooke – but when Emma shuffles past Mary Margaret's room on the way to the bathroom one Saturday morning, she glances in and it looks like Mary Margaret's not breathing.



She's lying on her bed on her back, her arms curled over her chest, and in the dim too-early light, Mary Margaret looks paler than a live person can be. The whole effect makes her look like a corpse laid out for a funeral, and something in Emma's heart contracts in fear.



She watches for a minute, trying to watch the rise and fall of Mary Margaret's chest, but she doesn't see it. All she sees is stillness and how pale she looks and -



"Mary Margaret?" she says, and then again, louder, "Mary Margaret?"



She steps halfway into the room when Mary Margaret opens her eyes, awakening with a deep inhalation. She sits halfway up, and her eyes go straight to Emma, bleary with sleep. "Emma? What's wrong?"



Emma says the first dumbass excuse that comes to mind. "Your alarm didn't go off. I didn't – didn't want you to be late."



Mary Margaret squints at her. "Isn't it Saturday?"



"Oh," says Emma. "Right. I – sorry. Go back to sleep."



There are another couple seconds of squinting, and then Mary Margaret lays back down with a mumbled, "Okay."



Emma continues on to the bathroom, but can't shake the thought that Mary Margaret slept like there should be a glass coffin around her.



ii.



Being a sheriff's deputy in Storybrooke, Maine – which for both its population and its effect Emma is starting to think of as "Crazytown" – is pretty boring. The town's small enough that everyone knows each other and the sheriff's office is a last resort, really more of a formality than an institution. On top of that, when they do get a call, it becomes obvious that Emma's lacking the history and intricacies of the town population to do the disputes justice. She's heard Sheriff Graham say, "This situation's a little delicate, maybe you should just man the phones" so many times that she might make him a t-shirt that says it, or little notecards that he can hand her to save him the trouble. Maybe a coffee mug.



But this? This is just insulting.



The bright orange reflectors of the crossing guard's uniform clash horrifically with Emma's red leather jacket, and she keep thinking a litany of inappropriate places for Graham to shove it. While there's certainly enough pedestrian traffic headed for the Harvest Festival to justify a crossing guard, there's nobody driving, and the closest thing she's done this morning to managing traffic was when she made Ruby and her latest conquest stop necking in the front seat of her car. (She's pretty sure they just moved to the back seat, but she can't see them anymore so she doesn't care.)



She's considering stepping in front of traffic to get out of the rest of the day – a whole day of this, oh god – when she hears a voice behind her.



"What'd you do to piss off the mayor this time?"



Emma turns around to see Ruby, wearing her red scarf draped around her head like a hood and holding a picnic basket.



"Good morning to you, too, Ruby," says Emma. "And it was Sheriff Graham who gave me this job."



"Right," says Ruby, one eyebrow raised, "and I'm sure the mayor had nothing to do with it at all."



"Isn't there anything in this town to talk about that's more exciting than me and Regina?"



Ruby genuinely considers this for a moment. "Honestly? No."



Emma gives her a humorless smile. "Well, I'd say there was some excitement this morning. Just remember – next time you're making out with a guy, don't do it where everyone can see."



Ruby smirks. "I'll make sure to mention it to Eugene." A whole passel of kids run by, towards the Festival, and Ruby watches them go before turning back to Emma. "Do you get to go to the Festival, or do you just have to stand here all day directing traffic?"



Emma gestures around at the empty road. "Well, with all these cars, it's a real safety hazard."



"Ouch." Ruby pulls a muffin out of her picnic basket. "This should help, anyway."



Emma takes it, frowning. "From the diner?"



"Granny always takes the Festival as an excuse to give away food," says Ruby, straightening her scarf. "Have fun."



"Thanks," says Emma, but at least the muffin is tasty.



Mary Margaret doesn't come to the Festival until noon, and she puts her hand to her mouth to stop a laugh when she sees Emma.



"Did Regina set you to this?" she asks.



"Not to my knowledge, but given how many people have asked me that today, I'm starting to think so after all," says Emma. "But I guess if it were her doing, I wouldn't be wearing a vest. She'd just dress me in black, put me in an intersection, and hope for the worst."



"That's not very kind," says Mary Margaret, but Emma can see the laughter in her eyes.



"What's the deal with this Harvest Festival, anyway?" asks Emma. "Is it like Oktoberfest?"



"Considerably less drinking," says Mary Margaret, as Leroy stumbles by, holding an honest-to-god tankard. Mary Margaret reconsiders. "Well. For the most part."



Emma takes a step closer to Mary Margaret and lowers her voice. "Henry's convinced Leroy's one of the seven dwarves. Grumpy."



"It's fitting," admits Mary Margaret.



"I've had to bring him in for D-and-D a couple times, and I don't think 'Grumpy' really suits him," says Emma. "Far as I can tell, he'd have two better names, depending on the time of day – 'Drunk' or 'Hungover'."



Mary Margaret laughs outright at that, before her attention is caught by something over Emma's shoulder. Before Emma can turn and look, Mary Margaret raises a hand, and a bluebird comes to perch on her finger.



"Why, hello," coos Mary Margaret.



Emma just stares. "Did that actually just happen?"



Mary Margaret strokes the down on the bluebird's chest. "I do very well with animals," she says. "And this one's gorgeous, aren't you?" She holds the bird out to Emma. "Do you want to hold it?"



Emma considers the relative merits of bird shit on the crossing guard's vest, but settles on sanity instead. "Uh, no thanks."



Mary Margaret shrugs, and the bird flies off. "I should get going to the Festival," she says. "My kids and I got a booth, right next to the bobbing for apples."



"Let me guess – the mayor?" says Emma, and Mary Margaret nods.



"Apples from her tree and everything."



Emma hesitates, just for a moment, and then says, "You know, I've never been a bobbing-for-apples girl."



"Me neither," says Mary Margaret. "Honestly, it just doesn't seem safe. All the different mouths in the water," she adds, at Emma's look.



"Right," says Emma. "Right – of course."



Mary Margaret frowns. "What did you think I meant?"



"Nothing," lies Emma. "You should probably go, if your kids are waiting for you."



Mary Margaret gives her a look. "I'll see you back at the apartment, then," she says.



"Yep," says Emma. "See you there."



iii.



Luckily, Crazytown has a shrink, and the shrink is in on Operation Cobra.



Maybe thoughts like that are the reason she needs to talk to Archie in the first place.



"You went to Harvard?" asks Emma, looking at the diplomas on Archie's wall.



"Ah, yes," says Archie, from his chair. "Undergraduate as well as graduate school."



"You went to Harvard and now you're a therapist in a small town in Maine and not making hundreds of thousands of dollars by being anywhere else?" says Emma, turning around to look at him. "Now that's what I call a fairytale."



Archie smiles at that, one of his fleeting, indulgent ones. "What can I say, I think I'm just more suited to a small-town way of life. Henry told me you were in Boston when he found you?"



"For better or for worse," says Emma. She wonders if Archie's still sitting to make a statement. Probably – psychologists care about that kind of thing. Then she remembers what Henry told her in those early days, about how nobody had a solid past. "Which House were you in?"



"Adams," says Archie, not missing a beat.



"Did you ever go to that pizza place that was always full of Harvard students?"



Archie smiles again, but there's a curl of a frown to it. "Pinocchio's, yes. I can't help but notice, Emma, that we're talking about me and not about you." Emma doesn't say anything at first, and Archie adds, "Of course, I also have to admit that I'm surprised you came to speak to me at all. You don't strike me as the talking cure type."



Emma crosses her arms, but stays standing. "What's that supposed to mean?"



"Well," says Archie, "you strike me as a woman who has little time or regard for self-reflection. You play your emotions close to the vest and you never look back, and both of those are fairly essential to therapy."



"Maybe I'm just here to talk as a friend."



Archie inclines his head slightly. "Maybe. But then you would've suggested we meet at Granny's, not scheduled an actual session. But instead you want privacy, but not urgently enough to just come right over."



Emma gives up and walks to the sofa. "You're good at this."



"I will take that compliment in the spirit it was intended and ignore the incredulity with which it was said," says Archie. "Now, why are you here?"



"You really did go to Harvard," mutters Emma. Louder, she says, "How much has Henry told you about...about Operation Cobra?"



Archie shifts back in his chair. "Are you asking Archie, or Doctor Hopper?"



Emma stares at him. "Please tell me you're not having a mental breakdown, because this town has enough problems as is."



He laughs. "You misunderstand me. Are you asking me as Archie, Henry's friend and part of Operation Cobra, or Doctor Hopper, his psychologist? Unfortunately, there's a distinction to be made, since Henry is a client and there's confidentiality to consider."



Emma rolls her eyes. "Look, I'm just asking if he's told you what he thinks I am in terms of the fairy tale."



"Oh!" says Archie. "Yes, Snow White and Prince Charming's daughter. Yes." He peers at her from behind his glasses. "And now you're living with Mary Margaret. How is that going?"



"Fine," says Emma. Then, "Weird. A little weird. Maybe."



"I see," says Archie. "And how weird, precisely, are we talking?"



"You know how sometimes you see something and then you can't not see it?"



Archie's pen hovers over the paper uncertainly. "Do you mean literally seeing something, or..."



"This is going to sound stupid," says Emma, "but the other day I saw Mary Margaret asleep and she looked like – I swear to God, she looked like Snow White."



Archie doesn't react to that, which is almost more concerning than if he had. "I see."



"Is this the part where you tell me I'm crazy?"



"Crazy isn't a word that I like," says Archie, and Emma hears, yep, you're nuts. "Have you spoken to Henry recently?"



Emma shakes her head. "Not - I mean, I don't want to discourage him, but I don't want to encourage him, either. So not about this."



"I see," says Archie again. "When you say she looked like Snow White, do you mean that she reminded you of Snow White, or that you thought that she was Snow White?"



Emma leans back in the couch, to better cross her arms. "I guess...I could see why Henry thought it was her. I mean, if she was going to be anyone from a fairytale, I could see why it was Snow White."



"But did you think she was Snow White?"



"No," says Emma, quickly.



Archie raises his eyebrows. "But...?"



"Have you seen her do the thing with the bird? I mean, a bird landed on her finger. What's up with that? That's insane."



Archie winces. "I think you mean 'unlikely' - I can't help but notice that you use quite a bit of vernacular shorthand for mental illness – well, that's neither here nor there." He readjusts his glasses. "I suppose there are two ways that we could see...recent events. On one hand, we have the fact that you've been bonding more with Henry, and he does put a lot of focus on his fairytale theory. It could be that you're spending so much time with him that you've begun thinking in similar ways – in this case, in terms of a fairytale framework. This is not at all uncommon, although it might be a sign that both you and Henry could benefit from taking a break from, ah, Operation Cobra."



"Or...?" prompts Emma.



"Or this is another effect known as the folie à deux, and you truly are beginning to believe Henry's theory about the curse."



Emma doesn't say anything at first, and Archie waits for a response.



"It's...just weird," says Emma, finally. "This whole town is weird."



"Every town has its oddities."



"There are a lot of coincidences," says Emma.



"Like Mary Margaret's fondness for birds?" asks Archie.



"Like that, like John Doe waking up after Mary Margaret read to him..." Emma looks right at Archie. "Like the fact that I lived in Boston for over a year and I never knew a single person, let alone Harvard student, call Noch's 'Pinocchio's'."



That gets Archie's attention. "What are you implying?"



Emma leans forward, uncrossing her arms. "Where was your favorite place to study?" she asks.



"In my dorm," says Archie. "I kept to myself - "



"What was your freshman year roommate's name?"



Archie opens his mouth, but doesn't say anything. He closes it again, looking puzzled. After a moment, he says, "It was a long time ago," but he sounds uncertain.



"Did you get along?" Emma pushes. "Did he – leave wet towels on the floor, or walk around naked, or eat your food? You must've lived with him for a whole year – how do you not remember anything about him?"



Archie shakes himself slightly. "Once again, Emma," he says, the strength returning to his voice, "we're not talking about you."



"I know," says Emma, standing up. "But I think I got the answers I was looking for."



Now if only she could figure out what they meant.



iv.



Like most of the times Emma visits Ashley, Alexandra is crying. Loudly.



"It's okay," says Ashley, ushering Emma through the doorway, "Sean's getting her."



"She's loud," says Emma, for a lack of anything else to say.



Ashley rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. "She's always loud," she says. "I think she just likes attention, and she's figured out that crying is what gets her some."



"Can't say I'm sorry to have missed this part of having a kid," says Emma, following Ashley to the small kitchen table. They're in Granny's bed-and-breakfast, where Ashley and Sean have been staying until they can find another place.



"It's better than being pregnant," says Ashley, shrugging. "God, it feels like the pregnancy lasted forever - at least now time's flying by."



Emma thinks of the clock in the town square. "Right," she says, faintly.



"Can I get you some coffee or something?" says Ashley. "Cocoa? Word is you like cocoa with cinnamon."



"Word spreads fast around here," says Emma.



"Small town, nothing better to do than gossip," says Ashley. Her face twists unhappily, just for a moment. "And judge."



"Hey," says Emma, reaching out and putting her hand on Ashley's. "Screw them, right?"



Ashley smiles again, and it lights up her whole face with pride. "I think that's exactly what I'm doing." Emma smiles back at her, and Ashley continues, "So how goes the deputizing?"



"It's going, I guess," says Emma. "Storybrooke's been pretty quiet lately."



"No more cold wars with the mayor?"



Emma smirks. "Not lately, but give it a day or two, I'm sure something will come up. How's Sean?"



Ashley glances towards the door to the bathroom, the source of Alexandra's cries. "He's trying," she says, her voice somewhat quieter. "He's...used to having his dad around, you know? To doing what his dad says, to getting bailed out by him."



"I take it his dad wasn't pleased with his decision?"



Ashley shakes her head. "Sean's just got to learn to be his own person." She glances at Emma, a smile dancing at the corners of her mouth. "I've been thinking of asking you to have a talk with him. One of your no-nonsense pep talks."



"Pep talks?" repeats Emma.



"Maybe 'pep' isn't the right word," says Ashley. She looks a bit closer at Emma. "You look like you've got something on your mind."



Emma takes a breath. "I've been – wondering," she says. "When everything with Alexandra and Mr. Gold and everything was happening, where was your family? Ruby said you have a stepmom and stepsisters?"



Ashley wrinkles her nose. "We're not in contact," she says. "Not since my dad died, and honestly, not a whole lot before that, either."



"I know," says Emma, "but – what did he do before he died? Professionally?"



Ashley frowns. "I don't know. I was just a kid, and I honestly didn't pay that much attention. A salesman, maybe, or a businessman? We weren't – we had money. At least until Tremaine came."



"Your stepmother?"



Ashley nods. "I don't mind talking about it, but – why are you asking?"



Emma would probably have a better answer if she knew herself. "I'm still trying to get a sense of how this town works," she says. "I mean, how'd you end up moving out of your stepmother's place?"



"It was mutual," says Ashley, her lips pursing. "She hated me as much as I hated her, so even working as a maid here at Granny's seemed like a better option."



"About that – when I checked in here at Granny's, she said nobody'd ever stayed before." Emma shakes her head. "So why'd she need a maid, if nobody stays here?"



"Someone could stay," says Ashley.



"And if nobody ever stayed before, how'd it stay in business?" continues Emma.



"Everyone eats at Granny's - I think the diner pays for the bed-and-breakfast," says Ashley. "What's this really about?"



Emma hesitates for a moment, and then says, "Like I said, I'm just trying to figure Storybrooke out."



"There's not a lot to figure out," says Ashley, sounding uncertain. "I mean, we're just a town."



A town that doesn't make sense, thinks Emma. "You know, I should probably get going. More deputizing to do."



"Right," says Ashley, standing up. "And, Emma – thank you. For checking in." She gives a smile that seems small and bare, like a candle's flame. "For the pep talk."



"Well, if you need another, I'm working on one about the importance of taking shit from nobody," says Emma, and Ashley laughs.



v.



In the end, there's not just one last clue that slips everything perfectly into place. Instead, the camel's back breaks under the sheer weight of the tiny details. The mayor's apples, the thing with the birds, the fact that Mary Margaret looks like a corpse every time she goes to sleep, the sheer frequency with which the phrase "as long as I can remember" is spoken in this freaking town – any one of them would be fine, but taken together, it's just too much.



Henry always seems to know when she's having breakfast at the diner. Mary Margaret is generous beyond belief and her pancakes are pretty much the best thing on earth, but Emma feels almost like she's taking advantage of her. She's paying rent now – she insisted – but the most Mary Margaret will let her do otherwise is put the cinnamon on her own cocoa. Which was still made by Mary Margaret. It's no wonder that she's an elementary school teacher, because there's something unfailingly maternal about her.



And, Emma learned after Back to School Night, pretty snarky, but only sometimes.



But Emma's never been one for charity, and while she can see the clear joy it brings Mary Margaret to have someone appreciate her cooking, sometimes Emma just needs to order her own cocoa and pay for it.



And when she does, Henry is there.



This morning, he plops the book down on the table right in front of her before he sits down.



"I think I found the prince from the Prince and the Raven," he says.



"What?" says Emma.



"The Prince and the Raven," says Henry, and when Emma shakes her head, he sighs. "Nobody's ever heard of it."



Great. Now her kid's a hipster.



"So," says Emma, "I've been doing some asking around."



"About?"



"Operation Cobra."



Henry's eyes widen. "It's a secret!"



"I haven't been asking people about it, obviously," says Emma, and has a moment of realization that she's defending herself to a ten-year-old. "I've just been...investigating."



Henry's beginning to get excited. "And?"



"I'm not saying that I believe that Snow White is my mother," Emma begins, because seriously, she and Mary Margaret are almost the same age, and there's Gilmore Girls and then there's whatever the hell this would be. Other than creepy. That goes without saying.



Henry nods, encouragingly.



"...but I'm willing to conceded that there are things about this town that just don't make sense," Emma says.



Henry legitimately pulls a double-handed fist-pump, throwing up both of his arms with a triumphant "yes!"



Emma stares at him. "Okay, maybe not if you're going to be obnoxious about it."



"I gotta go tell Archie, he has to believe us now!" says Henry, and hops off his seat.



"Kid, wait - "



But Henry's long gone.



Emma sits back in her chair and groans. She'd been aiming for low-key.



Mary Margaret is gone when she gets back to the apartment that evening after her shift, and despite having had a jam-filled popover for breakfast and a bear claw for lunch (and who, she wonders, makes the donuts around here? What fairy-tale creature got stuck with that job, the Keebler elves?), she starts making cocoa.



It's not an addiction. There's just something about Mary Margaret's apartment that, to Emma, is inexplicably linked with hot cocoa with cinnamon.



She makes enough for two, and sure enough, Mary Margaret returns just as Emma's pouring.



"Oh, good," says Mary Margaret when she comes in. "It was either that or the Scotch."



"Who says it can't be both?" says Emma, passing over a mug. "Long day?"



"One day, Billy is going to have to learn how to clean up his own accidents," says Mary Margaret.



Emma winces. "Or stop having them."



"Or that," agrees Mary Margaret. "Although it's the former I'm more concerned about." She takes a sip of cocoa, and lets out a breath. "What about you? Henry was in a very good mood today...."



Emma thinks fast. "I think he's happy that we're spending more time together."



"I don't think Regina is," says Mary Margaret frowning.



Emma has a special smile, one she usually uses on people she's about to cuff. She uses it now. "She's going to have to deal with it," she says, and sips her cocoa. "I'm here for the long haul."