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the heart is just a muscle

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It’s eleven at night on Christmas Eve and Henry is breaking into his own house.


Well. Breaking in is maybe a little bit of an exaggeration when the back door isn’t even locked. But he doesn’t have his key—didn’t think to dig it out of his backpack when he snuck out of the apartment—so if the door weren’t unlocked he would be breaking in.


He’s not even really sure why he’s here. He went to bed willingly enough over an hour ago, smiling along to Emma and Gramps’s comments that if he didn’t sleep soon Santa wouldn’t be able to come (and not telling them that he’s eleven, he knows that there’s no Santa.)


But once he was in bed he couldn’t sleep. Not the usual “it’s Christmas Eve and he’s too excited for tomorrow” can’t-sleep, but a vague unsettled feeling that kept him tossing and turning and flinching away from every shadow.


Nothing felt right. And he just wanted to know if…if…he just wanted…


He just wants.


So he snuck out and came here, walked all the way even though it was starting to snow and he didn’t have a hat and now his ears are so cold he thinks they’re maybe going to fall off.


The house is dark when he lets himself in, smells musty and empty. Usually this time of year the house smells like a mix of pine tree and cinnamon, of fresh-baked gingerbread and woodsmoke from a crackling fire. His mom goes on holiday baking binges in December, sugar cookies and gingerbread men and cranberry muffins, more than the two of them could possibly eat, so the house smells like sugar all month long. Usually there’s a bowl of clove-studded oranges on the dining room table; he and his mom make them together the first weekend in December while watching Rudolph. Usually there are vanilla candles burning on the front hall table, strains of music drifting through the house. Usually even when everything else is dark, the Christmas tree is still lit up.


Usually everything is warm.


The Christmas tree is at least there when he wanders into the living room, but it’s bare, looks a little forlorn still untrimmed even though it’s late Christmas Eve. There’s a tangle of lights on the floor in front of it, and their two big tubs of ornaments stacked in the corner. One of them is open, but nothing seems to have been pulled out.


Well. Almost nothing. There’s one ornament sitting on the coffee table, a construction paper star with copious amounts of glitter hanging from a red yarn loop. It has a picture of him and his mom glued to the center, grinning with their faces pressed together, both wearing Santa hats. On the back of the star it says HENRY, AGE 5 in big wobbly letters, complete with backwards R.




Henry starts, dropping the paper star on the floor and spinning around to face his mom.


He hasn’t seen her in three weeks. Not since before everyone thought she killed Archie, since New York and his—Neal, since whatever happened in Rumplestiltskin’s shop that has Emma walking around the apartment with new grim lines at her mouth and eyes, Grams retreating to bed all hours of the day.


His mom looks different than the picture of her he had in his head, more tired and worn around the edges. She’s still in her work clothes but in home mode, loose sweater over her blouse and slacks, sleeves rolled up to her elbows and heavy socks on her feet instead of heels. (He gave her the socks for Christmas two years ago, giant and fuzzy with red apple pompoms at the heels; he worried maybe she would think they were stupid but when she opened them she gave him the brightest smile and said they were the best socks she had ever seen.)


“Henry?” she says again now. “What are you—what are you doing here?”


He shuffles his feet and shrugs, not meeting her eyes.


“Honey, it’s after eleven. Way past your bedtime. Is everything okay? Does Ms.—does Emma know where you are?”


His quick yes must be unconvincing because his mom just raises her eyebrows. “Okay,” he relents. “Maybe—maybe not exactly.”


She sighs, running a hand through her hair and looking down at him for a long moment.


“All right,” she says finally, and picks up her cell phone.


“You don’t have to—” he starts, but she holds up his hand to stop him. “It’s the middle of the night, and as far as she knows you’re missing,” she tells him, phone to her ear. “She’s probably worried sick.”


“It’s not the middle of the night,” he mutters, but doesn’t protest further.


Emma shows up barely five minutes later, looking disheveled and a little panicked, pulling Henry to her side in an awkward one-armed hug. “What the hell, kid,” she says. “You can’t just run off like that. I went in to check on you and you were just gone. You scared the crap out of me.”


“Sorry,” he mumbles. “I…” he stops, not sure how exactly to explain it, to explain the tossing and turning and feeling of wrong he wanted to get away from, when everything was supposed to be right. How to explain what felt an awful lot like loneliness, when his entire family was right downstairs.


He doesn’t end up having to say anything at all, because his stomach picks that moment of silence to growl, loud enough that both his mom and Emma look at him in some surprise.


“That’s what happens when you skip dinner,” Emma says, and Henry can feel himself flush with embarrassment.


“I wasn’t hungry then,” he says, even though he kind of had been. It’s not that Emma can’t cook at all, but she can’t really cook much, and Henry doesn’t want to say anything but also he’s getting a little sick of variations on bland pasta. Mary Mar—Grandma—is better, but these past few weeks she hasn’t been doing much of it, getting tired and stopping halfway through the rare times she tries. 


His stomach growls again. “Mom, you do you have any leftovers?” He heads into the kitchen before she can answer, tugging open the fridge door and then halting, confused.  Usually their fridge is stuffed with tupperware containers of lasagna and chicken noodle soup, of pieces of steak wrapped in tinfoil and extra chicken breasts in little bags. There’s always stacks of his favorite kinds of yogurt, an overflowing vegetable drawer, chocolate pudding cups and packets of cheese sticks.


But now…


“There’s no food,” he says, staring blankly into the fridge, empty save for a scattering of condiments and a bottle of pickles. “Where—where’s all your food?”


His mom’s face twists at the question, fingers worrying together so tightly her knuckles turn white. “I suppose I’m a little overdue for grocery shopping. I’m sorry, Henry, I’m sure I can dig around and put something together, let me just—”


Emma cuts her off with a hand on his mom’s arm that makes his mom startle and still. “Don’t worry about it,” Emma says. “I know this 24 hour diner not that far out of town. We can just go there.”


“On Christmas Eve?” his mom asks.


“Trust me, it’ll be open.”


Henry’s still watching his mom, so he sees the way her face freezes and then falls, that horrifying second where he thinks she might cry before her expression smoothes over and she is pasting on a smile.


“Of course,” she says. She walks swiftly to the door, folds one arm across her stomach while she holds it open and continues to smile that wrong wrong smile that makes his stomach hurt.


Emma just stares.


What?” his mom snaps, shoulders tensing and hand tightening on the edge of the door.


“Just…don’t you maybe want a coat?” Emma asks. Her eyes flick down his mom’s body, settling on her sock-clad feet. “And shoes?”


His mom blinks.


“You’re coming, right Mom?”


She swallows a couple times, glancing back and forth between him and Emma. “I didn’t…yes. Yes, of course. Two minutes.”



The diner Emma drives them to is really is open, just like Emma promised. It’s quiet but not empty, peppered mostly with a handful of truckers, and one couple having an intense whispered conversation towards the back. A waitress in a faded green dress leads them to a booth in by the window, handing them all sticky menus as they slide in, Henry and Emma on one side, his mom on the other.


He and Emma both go for the grilled cheese and fries, but his mom only orders a coffee, which makes Emma’s mouth tighten the way it did last month when he got a cold and a mild fever. None of them really seem to know what to do with themselves, the whole situation so unfamiliar and forced that they just sit in silence.  Emma’s staring at his mom, periodically opening her mouth like she’s going to say something before just shutting it again; his mom is steadfastly avoiding any kind of eye-contact altogether and fiddling with her spoon instead. It only takes a couple minutes for Henry decide he can’t take it anymore, and he scoots out of the booth to go to the bathroom.


He dawdles on his way back , stopping to hover in front of a fishtank where he can see and sort of hear Emma and his mom, but where they probably won’t notice him. The tank is kind of sad, too small for both the size and number of fish inside, and the fish all frantically crowd one corner of the tank, pushing and jostling at each other. Henry frowns at it, then glances over in the direction of their table, trying to keep it subtle.


“Are you okay?” he hears Emma ask his mom, voice low enough that he has to strain to listen.


His mom narrows her eyes. “Henry’s not here right now, Ms. Swan. No need to pretend you care.”


“Regina…” Emma reaches out like she’s going to touch his mom’s hand, but his mom pulls away, jerking back so quickly she almost knocks over her water glass, leaving it rattling on the diner table.


Don’t,” she growls, and Emma deflates.


His mom looks down at her cup of coffee, wraps both hands around it. “I was trying,” she says, and her voice sounds strained, like my mother will destroy everything I love, like but where will you go?. Like no matter what you think, I do love you. “I was, and I thought that you at least—but I was wrong.”


“I’m sorry,” Emma says. His mom shakes her head, hair falling in front of her face so Henry can’t see her expression.


“It doesn’t matter anymore anyway.” She stares out the window into the parking lot, and Henry sees the way Emma’s shoulders sag in response. He waits a little longer, but when he sees the waitress deliver their food, and it’s clear that neither of them is going to say anything else, he heads back to the table.


This time he slides into the booth on his mom’s side, and he can easily read the surprise written all over her face when she turns to look at him. Her surprise hurts, pressing at that ache he felt at the bare Christmas tree and his too-dark too-quiet house, and he tries not to think about it as he tugs his plate of food across the table to his new seat.


He shoves it a little to his left, so that it’s sitting between him and his mom. “You can share my fries if you want,” he offers.  His mom smiles, and the ache lessens.



It comes back when they drop her off on the way home, when he watches her head up the walkway to their house alone, head bent and shoulders hunched against the cold and wind, hands buried deep in her pockets. Emma waits until his mom is inside with the front door shut before pulling away from the curb, and Henry looks back to watch his house until they turn off his street and he can’t see it anymore.


“My mom seemed sad.” Henry plays with the zipper of his sweatshirt while he talks, looking down at it instead of over at Emma in the driver’s seat. Outside the car the snow is starting to come down in earnest, falling against the windshield in thick clumps while the wipers beat furiously back and forth.


“I know, kid.” Emma sounds sad too, and Henry’s not really sure what to think about that.


“Do you think she’s okay?”


“Oh, Henry, I’m sure she’ll be fine, she just—she’s just had a lot going on lately.”


Henry bites his lip. “Like what happened with her mom.”


“Yeah.” Emma nods, glancing over at him before focusing on the road again. “Yeah, like that.”


“And,” he swallows a couple times, trying to find the words he is looking for, “like me…me leaving.”


“Henry, no, that’s not—this is not your fault.”


“She’s alone! And she’s sad. And she’s still—she’s still my mom. Right? She’s still my…”


Henry doesn’t realize he’s crying until Emma pulls the car over and leans across the emergency brake to try and hug him. Somehow this just makes him cry harder, fast panicked jerky sobs that steal his breath and make his whole body shake.


“Henry?” Emma’s starting to look a little alarmed, resting her hand on his shoulder and trying to get him to meet her eyes. while he gasps and gasps. “Henry, I need for you to calm down a little and try and breathe for me, okay? Can you do that?”


Henry doesn’t answer. Can’t answer, can’t even nod or shake his head, just cries and cries and cries, feels like he is coming apart at the seams.


“Okay,” Emma says, squeezing his shoulder and turning the car back on. It takes two tries for the engine to catch, and then the car is rumbling down the street, faster now than Emma had been going before. “Okay kid, it’s okay, just…hold on, all right? It’s going to be okay.”


He’s crying too hard to really notice where they’re going, but suddenly they’re pulling to a stop and Emma’s hustling him out of the car and into the snow, up the walk and to the front door of his—his house?


Emma pounds at the door, hard and frantic, until his mom finally swings it open. “Ms. Swan, did you for—Henry?”


Henry barrels into her, almost knocking her over as he throws his arms around his mom’s waist.


“Henry,” she soothes, dropping to her knees and hugging him, rubbing her hand up and down his back. “Henry, what—are you hurt? Sick? Honey, what’s wrong?”


He still can’t talk, just buries his face in her neck and holds on tighter.


“Emma?” his mom asks, voice pitched high with worry, but Emma doesn’t have an answer for her either. In the end his mom helps him stand with a slight grunt, guiding him to the couch while he clings to her.


“It’s okay,” she murmurs, resting her chin on top of his head and holding him close. “Shhh, honey, it’s okay, it’s okay…”


Slowly his breathing starts to even out, and Henry gulps gratefully at the glass of water Emma brings him. “Easy,” his mom says when he lets out a little hiccup. “There you go. Do you think you’re ready to talk about it now?”


He shakes his head hard, feeling his breathing start to pick back up, and his mom immediately resumes rubbing circles on his back. “Okay. That’s all right, you don’t have to.”


“I don’t—” he starts, hiccuping again as he tries to talk, “I don’t—” he shudders, and his mom just nods, kissing the top of his head. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.” She eases him down so that he’s lying across the couch with his head in her lap, and his eyes start to drift closed while she absent-mindedly runs one hand through his hair. He feels heavy and dazed and so, so tired, eyes almost glued shut while his mom murmurs soothingly, thumb tracing patterns on his shoulder.


He hears the flutter of Emma shaking out a blanket, feels her drape it down over him.


“What happened?” his mom whispers. “Do you know?”


“Um,” Emma says. “Not really?” She sounds shifty even to him, and Henry can imagine the way his mom is probably narrowing her eyes to focus more fully on Emma.


“You do know something,” she says. “I can tell. Emma, if you know what’s wrong—”


“I don’t know everything,” Emma interrupts. The couch dips, and Henry feels her lift his feet and resettle them in her lap. “Just…he noticed how sad you seemed earlier. And he was worried about it. About you.”


“About me? He…” his mom’s voice breaks a little, and she squeezes his shoulder. “How do I keep hurting him?” she whispers. She sounds like she’s trying not to cry, and Henry’s own breath hitches again in response.


The couch bounces again as Emma shifts. “Regina, no. That’s not—that’s not what I meant.”


“Our son had a meltdown because of my behavior,” his mom hisses. “What else could you mean?”


“He loves you,” Emma says. Henry feels the weight of her hand join his mom’s on his shoulder. “And misses you, and I think I—I don’t think I’ve been doing a very good job letting him know that’s okay. So this isn’t on you.”




“Earlier in the car he asked if you were still his mom, like he thought that I was going to take you away from him, or tell him that he wasn’t allowed to love you anymore. And god Regina, the look on his face…”


His mom sighs, long and heavy. “Well,” she says. “I suppose we both have things to apologize for.”


“Do you want help carrying him up to bed?”


His mom’s hand stills in his hair. “You’re not taking him back to the loft?”


“I think it’s pretty clear where he needs to be right now.”


He can feel the shaky breath that his mom draws in and out, and when she resumes stroking his hair it’s with fingers that tremble.




“Maybe in a bit,” his mom whispers. “I think we’re good here for now. If that’s all right.”


“Yeah,” Emma agrees. “Yeah, this is good.”




At some point he must have fallen completely asleep, because when Henry opens his eyes again he’s tucked into his bed upstairs, morning sun warm on his face. It’s still snowing, but no longer quite so hard, fat flakes drifting lazily past his window and sticking to the glass.


He thinks it should maybe be disorienting, waking up here after so many months somewhere else. The first few weeks in the apartment, he never knew where he was when he woke up in the middle of the night, surrounded by unfamiliar shapes and shadows. He never told anyone, and eventually the vague unsettled feeling he woke with each night faded away, the loft room shifting from strange to his new normal.


He thinks there should be a reverse adjustment now. But somehow it’s not weird, it’s still just his room, his home, and as Henry sits up and pushes back his coves it takes him a minute to realize what he’s feeling is relief. He grabs his bathrobe off the back of his door (a little short in the arms now, and tight across the shoulders), and pads downstairs. He hears voices in the kitchen, so that’s where he goes first, still rubbing sleep from his eyes.


His mom is bent over in front of the stove, pulling a pan of monkey bread out of the oven. She bumps the oven door closed with her hip, sliding the pan onto the counter and dropping her oven mitts down next to them. When she’s done she turns to Emma, accepts the mug of coffee Emma passes her, their fingers brushing and lingering. His mom’s eyes crinkle when she smiles, and as he listens to her hum along to Jingle Bells while sipping her coffee, kitchen warm and smelling of cinnamon and sugar, the feeling of Christmas that he’s been missing all month hits him all at once.


“Hi,” he says, a little awkwardly, and they both spin to look at him.


“Henry,” his mom says, her entire face lighting up. She comes over to rest a hand on his shoulder and kiss the top of his head. “Merry Christmas, honey. How are you feeling?”


“Better,” he says. “Good. Merry Christmas.” He looks past her to Emma, who grins at him. “Merry Christmas, Emma.”


“Merry Christmas, kid. You’re just in time. You want to grab us some plates?”


He nods and starts to set the kitchen table, but his mom stops him with a hand on his shoulder.


“By the tree,” she says. It’s what they do every Christmas, pick at shared platter of monkey bread in front of the Christmas tree while tearing open presents. When the frenzy is over, his mom always cooks a full proper breakfast, eggs and bacon and french toast. Henry’s not sure it will be quite the same this year, without any of the lights or decorations, but he doesn’t want to hurt his mom’s feelings so he just nods and picks the stack of plates back up. He’s bracing for the same feeling of wrong he noticed last night as he trails his mom and Emma into the living room, but when he rounds the corner it’s to find the tree lit up and sparkling, presents piled everywhere and his stocking hanging in front of the fireplace.


“You decorated it,” he says.


His mom’s smile turns a little hesitant. “Emma helped, after you fell asleep,” she says. “We thought about waking you but you seemed so tired…”


He puts the plates down on the coffee table and gives her a quick hug, tight enough that she lets out an audible oof. “It looks great,” he says. “I’m glad you did it. It felt…” he trails off and his mom cups his cheek with her palm.


“I know,” she says softly.


They all sit on the floor by tree, Henry in the middle and noticing how often his moms’ fingers seemed to brush as they reached for pieces of monkey bread, the way they would then linger. The pink flush spread across Emma’s cheeks when he looks up at her, the way his mom ducks her head and smiles when tucking hair back behind her ear.


“Go ahead,” his mom says when she catches him studying her for the third time. She nods towards the pile of presents piled under and around the tree. “Open something.”


Henry hesitates, biting his lip and staying on his knees by the coffee table.


“Henry?” his mom says, at the same time as Emma questions, “Kid?”


“I don’t have anything for you,” Henry mumbles, looking down at the floor instead of at his mom. Usually he makes her something—a pop-up card with cut-out snowflakes, a clay-bead bracelet, a hand-painted vase from art class—to go with whatever he buys her while she dutifully hands him $20 or her credit card and waits outside the store.


But this year he didn’t do that. Made something for Emma and Gramps and Grandma, but nothing for his mom, didn’t even buy her a stupid drugstore card, and sitting here now he feels flushed with shame and guilt.


“Oh honey,” his mom says, reaching over to cover his hand with her own. “That’s okay. You being here is the best present I could have asked for.”


Emma snorts, and his mom glares at her, but Henry can’t help but notice it’s lacking any of the coldness or venom it would have held even just yesterday, tinged instead with something closer to amused exasperation.


“Something to add?” his mom asks, one eyebrow raised, but Emma just shakes her head.


“Sorry,” Emma says. “That’s just the most mom thing you could have possibly said. Like straight out of a mom handbook.” She’s teasing, Henry knows, but there’s a wistful note in her voice and expression, a suspicious brightness to her eyes that looks something like longing, and maybe that’s what makes his mom tease back instead of bristling like he might have expected.


“Phrase book,” she says, patting Emma’s hand. “I keep it by my bed.” She turns back to Henry, shifting a little on the floor. “Really, Henry. It’s Christmas. Open your presents.”


So he does. He saves the biggest for last, a package almost as large as he is leaning against the wall next to the tree. Henry takes his time peeling away the paper, even though he already knows what it is, appreciates Emma’s low whistle when he finishes and steps aside.


“Damn,” she says. “That is one nice sled.”


Henry just nods. “It’s our tradition.” He runs his hand along the slatted wooden seat and shining black metal runners. “Every year I get a new sled. After lunch we take a few of them out to see which one is fastest.”


This sled is admittedly fancier than past years’ offerings, mostly a collection of plastic flyers or metal saucers. His favorites were always the ones he and his mom could both fit on, their combined weight making the sleds shoot down the hill at speeds that took his breath away. He remembers one time when he was six, leaning back into his mom’s body while she kept one arm wrapped tight around his waist and used the other to steer. The edges of her hair tickled his cheek as he pressed his face against her shoulder, and they went so fast it felt like they were flying. At the end of their run they hit a bump, toppling over into the fresh powdery snow in a tangle of limbs. His mom helped him up, laughing, snow in her hair and eyelashes, and asked if he wanted to go again.


He said yes, of course. He always said yes.


“Maybe this year Emma would like to join us,” his mom says, pulling him back to the present. “Or of course you can take it back with you, if that’s what you—”


“I want all of us,” he says, and she smiles, slow and warm. Henry licks his lips. “Mom…” he starts, and hesitates. She just waits for him to continue, head tilted and watching him steadily, face familiar and full of so much love he doesn’t know how he ever doubted it. He takes a breath, meets her eyes and tries again.


“Mom, I want—I want to come home. Is that okay? Can I come home?”


His mom’s next breath seems to catch in her throat, eyes big and wet and full, and the smile she gives him is trembling but also bright, so bright.


Yes,” she says, more air than sound.  She tucks her hand under his chin, smoothes her thumb over his jawline. “Oh Henry. Yes. Always.” She pulls him in for a hug, and Henry’s eyes find Emma over his mom’s shoulder. She’s still by the couch, looking a little awkward and uncomfortable.


“I’m sorry,” he tells her, and she smiles at him, a little sad maybe, and smaller than usual, but still genuine.


“Don’t ever apologize for having a home, kid.”


He’s not quite sure what to make of that, but when he looks back up at his mom, there’s a soft glow of understanding on her face, in the sympathetic curve of her lips and the gentle glint of her eyes.


“Family dinners,” she says abruptly, and both Henry and Emma stare at her, confused. “The three of us,” she elaborates. “We’ll do family dinners. At least a few nights a week, or more often, if…” she smoothes Henry’s hair down. “You don’t have to choose anymore,” she tells him, and Henry feels his chest expand.


“Yeah?” Emma says, a tremble in her voice.


“Yeah,” his mom responds, and the smile from before is even wider now, warmth and love and happiness written in every line.


Emma smiles back, tentative and flushed, and Henry breathes.