He had a heart. Alice’s heart. But he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Regina and Gold were the only people in Storybrooke he knew could answer questions about the heart, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to ask either one of them. He asked Emma to keep it secret until he knew how to deal with it. Then he packed it up safely in his car and went to get Grace.
She was excited to see him standing out by the car when he came to get her. She rushed out to him, eager to hug him like they normally did after school each day. But she caught sight of all the dirt and grime and stopped short.
“What happened, Papa?” she asked. His smile fell. He’d forgotten how disgusting he probably looked, and he didn’t think he was ready to tell her just yet.
“Just doing some work out in the yard,” he explained as he opened the passenger side door so she could climb inside. “I didn’t want you to be alone all day.”
“Are you changing the roses white?” she asked as she got herself seated and turned for her seatbelt. He stood with the door still open.
“The roses in the yard. They used to be red.”
He hated the roses in the yard. They’d come over with the curse, apparently meant to mock him and cause him more pain. He never spent any time in the yard when Grace was gone, and now he only went out there when she wanted to have tea parties with her stuffed animals. But she couldn’t know that he had lied. So he just smiled and nodded.
“Right. I’m changing the roses white,” he said. Then he shut the door and came around the side to the driver’s seat. She didn’t miss the distant look on his face as he passed the front of the car. Or the way his eyes were set so deep in thought.
“I could have helped you,” she suggested, once he got the door opened and climbed in beside her. He sent her another smile and shook his head.
“There was no need. It’s dirty work, and you have homework to do,” he explained.
She watched him curiously as he got the car started. Every once in a while, he would ask her to go home with a friend, but he always spent the ride home eager to know about all the things she’d done or learned during the day. Now he was silent, lost in his own head. There were bandages wrapped around his fingers, and he had smudges of dirt on his face and debris in his hair. She didn’t think it was normal for someone to do yard work dressed the way he was. And he found it strange that he hadn’t cleaned up before coming to get her.
The scarf had come loose around his throat so that the pink scars were visible every time he turned the wheel and put the car in another direction. He was usually so careful about it. It never came undone for very long unless he was too distracted to notice.
“Papa?” she asked as the car finally made it to the hill just outside of Storybrook.
“Yes, Grace?” he replied. His attention seemed to refocus on the present, but then he was quickly lost again.
He wasn’t sure if he should tell her about Alice. Not now that he knew for certain she was still alive. How could he tell Grace that? They had spent their lives without Alice, building a home, moving on, trying to live without her. If Grace had ever mourned the mother she never knew, she had already done it. She believed she’d never know her mother and was just grateful to know her name. How would she react if Jefferson told her that Alice was still alive?
There was something to hope for now. A beating, pulsing, glowing heart. A heart that lived. Somewhere, most likely in Wonderland, Alice still lived. He would do whatever he could to bring her home to Grace. Grace may have already given up hope on having a mother, but now she had a chance. Alice had a chance to meet the daughter she’d never even held. They could be a family again. And he was surprised to discover just how scared he was. He was caught between complete elation and dread. He didn’t know what it would mean for them, or what price he would have to pay to bring Alice home. How heartbroken would Grace be if he told her Alice was alive and he’d abandoned her? Or that he could never bring her back?
“The scars on your neck,” Grace said after he lost himself in his own thoughts again. “You never told me what happened to you.” He swallowed against the lump in his throat. He never wanted to tell her that story. Even when he planned to tell her about Alice, he never wanted her to know about his scars.
“It’s nothing,” he said with a shake of his head.
“You didn’t have them before. When we lived in the forest.”
“It happened when we were apart.”
“When you went to work for the Queen?” She was too sharp. She remembered so much now. He didn’t know how to distract her. He’d already darkened her dreams with images of her mother’s bloody cloak. He couldn’t make it worse.
“It’s not a—nice story, Grace.”
“I didn’t think so. But I still want to know.”
He gripped the steering wheel with his swollen and blistered fingers. He knew he had to tell her the truth, even if he didn’t want to. He’d spent so much time trying to keep his past hidden from her. He had to find a way to tell her that her mother was still alive. He had to explain to her that he couldn’t possibly have known, and the only way he could do that is if he told her about the scars on his neck. She deserved to know what happened to Alice. She deserved to know everything.
“Let’s just get dinner going. Let me get cleaned up first. Then we’ll talk about it, okay? How does pizza sound?” She lit up just like he knew she would. Her dark eyes went wide, and she grinned a smile just like his. She loved pizza. It was the one food from this land that they’d miss the most if they ever had to go home.
“I love pizza,” she said dramatically. He laughed.
“I know you do.” And that was precisely why he said it.
She was distracted. She seemed to forget all about the scars once they got home. He parked the car out front, and she ran into the house to put her things away and change out of her uniform. He went to his room to shower and find clean clothes while they waited for the pizza to arrive, and by the time they were both sitting at the dining room table enjoying their meal, he hoped she’d forgotten completely.
“The scars, Papa?” she reminded him.
He looked up at her from over a slice of pizza and then sighed. He seemed so tired to her now. He was having a harder time masking his feelings behind silly jokes and smiles. She could see the redness in his eyes and the way his attention kept drifting. He set the pizza down on a plate and crossed his arms over the table.
“That job—years ago,” he said, his voice went low and gravely again. “The Queen—Regina—Sent me into Wonderland to obtain something. Something the Queen of Hearts stole from her. Something she was desperate to get back.”
“What was it?” Grace asked, her dark eyes full of wonder.
“Her father.” Grace shook her head, now apparently confused. “The hat—had rules—If someone goes through the portal, the same amount of people have to come back. Regina and I went in—she and her father went back.”
“She left you there?”
“I never wanted to go back. But I was," he paused, "a fool. She tricked me. Made the ground stick to my feet so I couldn't fight back. Left me there. Left you alone.”
“And what happened?” He ran his hands over his face and then crossed his arms again.
“The Queen of Hearts. Her guards found me and took me to her.” He reached up to unwrap the scarf from around his neck. He let it drop into his lap, knowing that she was staring at the marks and beginning to piece things together. “Off with his head,” he said.
She was silent for a long moment, and he was afraid that his story was going to give her nightmares. She was too young and innocent to be exposed to something so awful. She couldn’t understand, and her wide dark eyes looked equally sad and scared all at once. Then she shook her head.
“But how?” she asked. He ran his fingers over the scars. He felt exposed and vulnerable without the scarf to cover them now. Grace’s eyes were on the darkness of his past, and he didn’t know how to shield her without lying to her.
“I don’t know how it works,” he admitted. “I thought I was going to die. If I had known—if I knew that I would survive—I never would have left her there.”
Then her eyebrows furrowed. She looked confused again. Too young to have to deal with something so dark. But he thought of what Alice would have done in this situation, and she would have encouraged Jefferson to be honest with Grace. He wanted to protect her until he had more tangible proof that Alice was still alive, or until he could bring her home. But Grace deserved to feel the same hope he was feeling, even if it brought despair along with it. Alice never would have wanted him to lie to their child, and he could imagine the look on her face when she found out he had. He wouldn’t mind if she were angry with him. Just as long as she got to come home.
“The Queen of Hearts,” he explained, “wanted your mother’s head. She got it. I watched it happen. I spent—all this time—believing that it meant she was dead. And when it happened to me—my only focus was to get back to you. I didn’t think about what it might mean until I had you again. Our goal was always to put you first.”
“You think—that she’s…” She didn’t finish her sentence, but he nodded to answer her anyway.
“She’s alive, Grace.”
“How do you know?”
“The Queen of Hearts got her name for a reason. She’s from our world. She collected hearts. It’s—magic—something she does to enchant them so that the person can live without it. She can control them and make them do anything for her. I wasn’t—I wasn’t doing yard work today, Grace. I don’t know what you mean about turning the roses white. I was digging. I found a heart. I found her heart.”
“But how do you know she’s still alive?”
“Because the heart is still beating. Alice—your mother—my Alice. She’s alive. I can feel it. And I’ll do whatever I can to bring her home to you.”