Fic: Cages and Keys
Part 3 of my Mad Swan series ‘Skeptics and True Believers’, featuring Mr Gold and ice cream. Unfortunately not in the same scene, but still. Follows on from ‘Patchwork Sanctuary’
(full chapter listing at my master list)
Cages and Keys
She has to go and pick up Henry.
Regina calls her – that’s the weirdest thing all on its own – and says that Henry’s sick and she can’t collect him, and while it’s killing her to ask this, she needs her help.
As Sheriff, she occasionally has to ferry sick kids home from school: it’s never been her own kid before. The idea of picking him up from school, of having some actual time with him without Regina’s watchful, judgmental eyes, brings a new brightness to her smile, a spring to her step.
But there’s one massive, psychotic, top-hatted problem with this. Paige is in Henry’s class, and Emma refuses to bring Jefferson into contact with the innocent child he believes to be his daughter.
So she gets off the phone, and looks to Jefferson where he’s lying in his customary position on the couch. He’s reading, distracted: he’s shown a liking for historical books, non-fiction, nothing with any reference to magic. She doesn’t question it. “Hey, Jefferson, could you throw me my handcuffs?”
He looks at her, grins, and she smiles back.
She likes his smile when he’s like this: when he’s relaxed, and not insane. His crazy comes in fits and starts, and when he’s almost normal, almost stable, he’s hard not to like.
When he’s not waking in the night and smashing mirrors, or running through town randomly trampling on roses, or staring, blindly, at a familiar little girl crossing the road. When he’s Jefferson, a man with dark eyes and a massive smile, and not the Mad Hatter, who desperately needs help.
He jumps to his feet and grabs her cuffs from the desk, throwing them to her.
Then she has his face pressed into the sofa, and his hands cuffed behind his back, and she’s throwing his ass into the cell next to Mary Margaret’s.
They’ve known each other two weeks now, and the court case is being postponed and postponed, and while Emma doesn’t want to leave Mary Margaret locked up next to a man she fears, it’s better than exposing an innocent and unknowing child to a man who obsesses over her.
She can’t take him to the school. That just has Bad Idea written all over it.
So she leaves him in the cell, and takes the key with her, and padlocks it just to be safe. He watches her with that calm, dead-eyed blankness she’s come to dread, that look that means someone has just lived up to his worst expectations.
“I’m sorry,” she says, although they both know he deserves far worse, “I’ll be back in an hour and a half, tops. But you can’t come with me.”
“And you don’t trust me not to break into the castle and shatter the crockery.” He hisses back, and in a blink of an eye he’s not Jefferson anymore. Emma is staring into the manic-eyed stare of the Hatter, and she’s glad he’s behind bars.
“I’ll keep an eye on them, if you wish, Sheriff.” A voice, cool and calm and solicitous comes from behind her, and she turns to see Mr Gold smiling at her.
Of all the people in the room, the two she trusts the most are the ones behind bars. She’d let Mary Margaret keep an eye on Hatter and Gold for hours, knows she’d do her duty and barely even blink.
But Mary Margaret’s asleep – she’s exhausted, battered and bruised, and Emma can’t blame her for taking this time in judicial limbo to shut down. If the woman wants to sleep in the middle of the day, curled into a tiny foetal position under the blanket, then Emma won’t deny her that comfort.
She’s not sure that Regina’s not keeping them all waiting forever on purpose. The suspense has given new lines to Mary Margaret’s face, new shadows formed under her eyes.
She won’t wake her, and so she leaves her possibly homicidal madman in the care of the most morally ambiguous, ominous, creepy loan shark she’s ever met.
She’s certain that, after allowing Jefferson to stay with her, this is the worst mistake she’s ever made.
But Henry needs her, and this is the best solution she has.
“I have this room memorised. If anything has changed between now and when I get back, I’m holding you both responsible.”
Hatter is eyeing Gold warily, sizing him up. Gold, for his part, just nods to Emma, ignoring the prisoners altogether, “Of course, dear. There’s some paperwork that needs doing, anyway, so I shan’t be a bother.”
“Hm.” Emma leaves, the knot in her stomach tight and fierce and painful, but there’s no more she can do.
Jefferson feels the madness recede slowly, feels the Curse re-exert itself. He’s started to appreciate the pull it has on his mind, the way it drags him into something resembling stability. This Curse will not abide instabilities; will not cope well with disruptions in the order of things.
A madman, running around Regina’s pretty little town raving about magic hats and lost children would certainly cause some issues there. The Curse’s solution is simply to correct the problem: to make him not mad.
It’s only Wonderland, its tendrils wrapped like vines around his mind, thorns digging into sensitive spots, that keeps his memory intact.
But he’s Jefferson again, and Hatter – the madman he despises, the creature born of desperation, the monster who allowed his family to be torn from him, one by one – crawls back to the dark corners of his mind.
That doesn’t stop the fact that he’s trapped in an iron cage, locked and bolted by his one potential ally in this whole town, with Rumplestiltskin grinning at him from the other side.
“Well, this is unexpected.” Rumplestiltskin leans on his cane, his face too human, too normal, voice measured and sane.
“I take it, then, that the hat was a failure.”
“I’m still here, so, yeah, I’d say so.” Jefferson hates this man: this man who causes needless suffering for his own gain, who tears apart families and rends children from their parents.
Mr Gold may be the shell he wears, but Jefferson is still Hatter enough to know a fairy tale villain when he sees one.
“You told me she had magic.”
“And she does, more than she knows. Perhaps it’s just not the right kind.”
“That’s bullshit!” he’s railing against the bars of his cage, screaming in Rumplestiltskin’s impassive, genial face.
“Calm yourself, dearie.” A little of his old self, a remnant of the past, creeps into the man’s voice. This small act of recognition calms Jefferson, puts Hatter back into his cage.
They’d only met once, in the other world. It was Rumplestiltskin who have Jefferson his first hat.
“We had a deal, I was supposed to be home by now!”
“I believe you misinterpreted our agreement,” Rumplestiltskin leans on his cane, smiling as if they’re taking afternoon tea in the Queen of Hearts’ garden, “All I did was send you Emma. If you couldn’t get what you wanted from there on, then that’s not my problem.”
“I kidnapped Snow White for you,” Jefferson’s voice is flat, as he tries to keep from shaking, “And I’m still stuck here!”
In the cell next to his, Snow stirs. Mary Margaret is shifting, and for a moment it seems to all like she will wake up, like she’s heard every word. But then she settles back down, curls further in on herself, and stills.
Jefferson breathes a sigh of relief; he likes these women, in his own way, Snow White and her daughter, and he doesn’t want them to have any more cause to hate him. Still he keeps his voice low as he says, “She escaped, anyway. They both did. And now I’m called back to their home night after night, and Grace is still-” he cuts himself off; he’s said too much.
Dragons hear everything, and they store your secrets on their tongues.
Rumplestiltskin’s expression hadn’t changed, but Jefferson was still compelled to curl in the corner of his cell, like Mary Margaret, and hide from his eyes.
He’d just traded away his daughter’s name, and gained nothing in return.
Rumplestiltskin approaches the cell, leans in close, lowers his voice to barely above a whisper, and says, “The world we left behind is empty and quiet. Everyone and everything is here.” he leans back, “There’s more here than meets the eye: stick around for a little while.”
He smiles at his own joke, and Jefferson grimaces.
Emma buys him ice cream on the way home, as an apology.
It’s weird, buying the forgiveness of a man who held her at gunpoint, who forced her to bind and gag her best friend and sew together a purple top hat. But he’s a friend, of sorts, and she just locked him in a room with Mr Gold.
She’d by Regina ice cream as an apology for that.
“Did you and Gold have fun?” she asks, as they sit in the ice cream parlour. They face each other over the table, and it’s almost easy, almost fun.
“Oh yes, the man’s just a barrel of laughs.” He frowns into his raspberry ripple; “We’re going out for pizza and beer this weekend. I think it’s getting serious.”
She can’t help it, she laughs. He watches her for a moment, like he’s never heard laughter before, his face creased in puzzlement. Then it clears, and he’s laughing too, and he looks like a completely different person.
For some reason, she finds herself more comfortable around Jefferson than she does around August. Even though August is a nice guy, who takes her out for drinks and doesn’t point guns at her head, and Jefferson is psychotic and convinced he’s the Mad Hatter.
But Jefferson, at least, is honest. Not since the moment she came home and found him on her sofa, confused as hell and trying not to show it, has he said one word to her that wasn’t the absolute truth.
And that counts for a lot in Emma’s world.
“That wasn’t nice of you, you know. Locking me up like that.” He tries not to accuse, as they walk home, but the words are burning on his tongue and much as he’d like to accept her tacit apology, he can’t help it.
“I couldn’t take you to school with me. I’m not setting the best example here as it is, Henry doesn’t need encouragement.”
“And you don’t trust me around children.”
She stops, insulted by the annoyance, the exasperation in his voice, “You watched a ten year-old girl through a telescope, convinced she was your daughter, for God knows how long. She’s in Henry’s class.”
Jefferson swallows, and nods. He understands the urge to protect a child; he even admires her for doing what he couldn’t, for looking out for Grace’s best interests as well as her own child’s, as much as her own child’s. She’s looking up at him, and the anger is gone from her face, but she’s still so sad, so much older than she should be.
For just a moment, he sees Alice.
But his wife is long gone, long lost and dead. He buried her himself, saved her bones from the Queen’s treasure chest, buried them beneath the white roses at the bottom of their garden.
Emma is breathing, flesh and blood. And she isn’t Alice: she’s so much harder, scarred by experience, baptised in the centre of a volcano. Emma’s softness, her curiosity and innocence, is locked away far beneath everything else. She’s no ghost of the past, no frail and faded shadow of a love from long ago.
She’s more like a phoenix: a scorched and burning hero born from Alice’s ashes. They are spiritual twins.
He reaches out his arms, and wraps them around her, so lightly that he knows she could break away without even trying. He’s barely touching her, and she’s shaking, but she doesn’t pull away.
Slowly, she brings her arms up and hugs him back. It’s a brief thing, a small comfort, but she smells like cinnamon and vanilla, and she’s so warm, so alive, and it’s been thirty years since he’s embraced another living soul. He wonders how long it’s been for her.
They cling to each other like children, for just a moment. Then they pull apart, and she searches his face for just a moment before her hard, warrior’s mask slides back into place. And they keep walking, like nothing ever happened.
Except that her hand is clasped around his, cold and thin, and it feels like she’ll never let go.
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