Grace’s resemblance to Alice was usually never surprising to Jefferson. She looked more and more like her as she grew, but Jefferson had become accustomed to it. He liked that there was still some reminder of Alice that existed in Storybrooke, to prove that he hadn’t imagined her at all. But Grace had taken most of his mannerisms. She spoke like him and mimicked him in the way she swung her hands around when she spoke or the silly way she smiled.
It was when Alice’s mannerisms shined through that he had to take a moment to reflect. She sat at the kitchen table swinging her legs back and forth. She leaned on her hand as she scribbled in a worksheet that had been sent home with her homework. She was humming a song and that’s what reminded him of Alice. The way she hummed when she read books or hummed while she cooked in the little cottage they had shared so briefly before Wonderland took her away.
Jefferson cast a glance at his daughter and swore he saw a small Alice sitting in the kitchen humming as she worked. Grace never could have known about Alice’s habits. Grace had only known her mother long enough to have grown in her womb, and not a moment longer. Grace never heard her mother sing above her cradle. Never heard her hum as she foraged for mushrooms or held her close. And Jefferson was confident that he had never told her that Alice liked to hum the songs of her world.
He returned to the counter and leaned against it to rub his eyes. He took a deep breath and waited for the memories to pass. Grace continued to hum behind him, but she didn’t sound anything like Alice. She sounded like Grace, and he took comfort in that.
He hadn’t stopped thinking about Alice since Grace brought it up the night before. He never wanted to talk about her or tell Grace what actually happened. He knew that someday she would grow curious, another trait she had taken from her mother, and he would be forced to relive the memories he tried to stuff away. So much time had passed since Alice was taken from them. Almost thirty years had passed since he’d woken up in that house in a strange land without magic and had been forced to live a life alone, watching his daughter from afar. Repeating the same days over and over until he thought he’d snap.
Grace was the one good thing he had done in his life. The one good choice he had made. Of course he didn’t regret meeting Alice or the moments they shared and the life they would have had. But he regretted their youthful ignorance, the mistakes they made, the choices they made that led to this moment. He was too young to be raising a child alone, and they could have avoided all of that. If they had just stayed out of Wonderland. If Grace had just been born anywhere other than Wonderland.
He heard the humming halt and silence filled the large kitchen. They were the only two people in the massive house, and there weren’t many other houses nearby. Regina had wanted him alone and isolated, with nothing but a view of the town. The silence had overwhelmed him, and he tried to avoid it whenever Grace was home from school. He cleared his throat and went back to work making their dinner.
“Is everything okay, Papa?” she asked from the table. She was always so concerned about him. Just like Alice.
“Everything is fine,” he assured her.
He sent her a smile over his shoulder but she cocked her head to the side, apparently not believing it. He turned back around and made himself busy setting out the ingredients of their meal. He hardly cooked at all in the twenty-eight years that Grace was kept from him, but now that she was there again he cooked every night. They were always trying new things, testing the flavors of the new world. The only thing they agreed they never wanted to eat again, was mushrooms.
“I was just thinking,” he told her.
“About what?” she asked.
“About the questions you’ve been asking me. About your mother.”
“Oh.” Her voice sounded so faded and distant. As if she sensed that she was causing him pain with her curiosity. “I know it hurts, Papa.” He took a deep breath. She watched his shoulders rise and fall, but he kept his back to her so that he didn’t have to put on a mask and pretend he was okay.
“I just don’t want you to think I’m keeping things from you. It’s just—it’s not easy to talk about. It’s going to break your heart in the end.” He heard the chair slide against the tile floor as she pushed away from the table. She appeared at his side a moment later. He felt her small hand on his elbow and he knelt down to her level and touched his thumb to her nose. It never failed to make her smile.
“We’ll work through it together,” she promised him as she reached out and squeezed his hand. His expression went gloomy again, but he tried to mask it with a smile of his own.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve you,” he said. She could tell that he was speaking the truth. He really didn’t know what he had done to deserve her or all the things they had finally achieved. She just didn’t know how to tell him that she thought he deserved so much more. She knew he wasn’t happy. At least not as happy as he could be.
“I just…” she started. “I feel like it will help the both of us if we talk about her. We never have before. I didn’t even know her name until yesterday.”
“I know,” he replied. He looked guilty and she put her palm against his cheek. “I didn’t mean to keep it from you. It’s just never been easy to talk about.”
“You loved her.” His eyes went red again, he bit his lip. She knew the answer before he spoke it.
“I love her,” he confirmed. His voice cracked and she felt her throat ache and her eyes water even though she’d never met the woman.
“I want to love her too,” she pleaded. Her voice sounded so soft and sad that he pinched his eyes shut. “I want to miss her like you do.”
He pulled away from her and leaned against the counter as he dropped to the floor. Then he rested his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. Grace sniffed as she took the place beside him. She was surprised at how quickly the sorrow had come for her. She’d never known her mother, and had lived her entire life without her. How could you love or miss something you’d never known? But the conversation had turned disconsolate, and she felt the grief deep within her heart. She hated hurting her father, but it was a loss the both of them were sharing. Even though Grace hadn’t known Alice long enough to grieve her.
Jefferson heard her sniff and reached out a hand to grasp hers. He held it on his knee as he covered his face with his other hand. Grace watched him as he finally moved and turned his red eyes on the kitchen window where the sun was going down and had turned the sky a dark shade of orange. His eyes were glassy and she knew that even though so much time had passed, and he should have had plenty of time to grieve and move on, he never would.
It was true love, she realized. The same kind of love that could always find a way. It could save lives. And no matter how much time had passed, a person could never recover from losing that love. She had no doubt that Alice had been his.
He sniffed a few times before stretching his arm out over his knee. He squeezed his fingers and focused his attention on them, though he didn’t release her hand.
“My first memory of her,” he said, “was her laugh.” Then he smiled, before looking at Grace with those glassy red eyes. “She had a playful laugh. She was always playful. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be serious when she had to be, but she’d come from a place where she was never allowed to laugh. So she liked to play games. She liked being free. Sometimes she was very sneaky. Like you.” Grace smiled and rested her head on her father’s knee as he spoke. Dinner was long forgotten on the counter.
He still seemed jittery and nervous as he twisted his fingers and bounced his other knee. He couldn’t look at her for very long before turning away again.
“I had a job. Something I could only get from Wonderland. Something with some kind of magic. I never found out exactly what it did, just that my employer wanted it and was willing to pay a lot of money for it. She got it first. Wanted me to race her for it.”
“Did you?” she asked. He nodded quickly.
“I tried. She was fast. And clever. And in my own defense, she had a head start. But she stuck it into the pocket of her cloak and ran for her portal. I got the cloak, but when I reached into the pockets—nothing was there.”
“Did you ever get it?” His eyebrows furrowed as he twisted his fingers.
“The very next day.”
“I went back to Wonderland to find out more about her. I wanted to know who she was and who she worked for. She found me first.”
“Did she make you race again?” He laughed and shook his head.
“No, she was kind. I told her that I needed the money and without it I was sleeping in the woods. As soon as I told her I had gone hungry, she handed it right over. She always liked taking care of other people. Gave things up sometimes so that others could have them. Her life—for instance.” His voice had gone dark. Not the gentle way he usually spoke to her. But as if he was just thinking out loud now. As if he was angry at Alice for being so kind to him. For giving up her life so that they could live.
“How did you fall in love?” Grace prodded. She didn’t want his words to fade away. Even though she was hungry, she didn’t want him to stop talking about Alice. He smiled again as he looked down at his twisting fingers. His eyes had gone soft even though she could still see the sheen of moisture in them.
“Wonderland has a way of making everything seem more magical and wonderful than it really is. The senses are amplified. Everything smells amazing. The food tastes better. The colors are bright and vivid. It was difficult not to fall in love with her in a place like that.” She didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded as if he was blaming Wonderland for how he felt. But she knew that couldn’t be true. Not if he still felt her loss so sharply.
“Wonderland couldn’t have made you love her so much,” she retorted.
He looked back at the window and shook his head. She could see that he wasn’t really seeing anything out of the window anyway. He was in another time and place, thinking of another sky in a different world. The scarf tucked into his vest had come loose around his throat. Violent pink scars were visible on his skin. She was always curious about them, since she couldn’t remember him having them before coming to Storybrooke. But she could never bring herself to ask him what happened in the time they were apart. And he never brought anything up if she didn’t ask first.
“No,” he agreed, but his voice sounded faraway again. “Wonderland just made it happen so much faster. Everything happens faster in Wonderland. It made me love her so quickly—then it took her away. That’s what Wonderland does. It gives—and then it takes. I got you—but I lost her.”
He looked back at her, making sure that she didn’t carry any of the guilt that he still felt. He was happy to have Grace. The price had been steep, but the moment they knew about her, they had made a promise to pay whatever price they could so that she could live. Jefferson expected to give his own life for them and the regret he felt for Alice’s choice would haunt him forever.
“She loved you,” he assured her. “She didn’t know you for very long, but she loved you. Remember that.”
She didn’t know what to say so she looked back at the tiles on the floor and thought about how he’d never actually said her name. Not once. He’d confirmed she was Alice when Grace voiced it, and he’d started to say her name once, but couldn’t finish the word. Even then, when he sat on the floor talking about her, he hadn’t said her name. Grace wanted to hear him say it. Maybe saying it would bring them one step closer to healing. Or to connect to the woman who had apparently loved her.
“Can you say her name?” she asked as she turned her eyes back on him. He squeezed her hand.
“Her name was Alice,” he told her. “My Alice.”