Finding Alice

“Every time I close my eyes
It’s like a dark paradise
No one compares to you
But there’s no you,
Except in my dreams tonight.”
-Lana Del Rey

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21. Chapter Twenty-One

Jefferson had Alice’s heart, but he wasn’t sure what he should do with it. Regina and Gold were the only people in Storybrooke who could answer questions about the heart, as far as he knew. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to ask either of them. He asked Emma to keep it secret until he knew for sure 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 when he pulled up out front of her friend’s house. She rushed over to him, eager to hug him like they did every afternoon. But she caught sight of all the dirt and sweat on his clothes and stopped short on the sidewalk.

“What happened, Papa?” she asked. His smile fell. He didn’t even think of how he must look after what he’d been doing all day.

“Just doing some work out in the yard,” he explained as he opened the passenger door so she could climb in. “I didn’t want you to be alone all day.”

“Are you changing the roses?” she asked, getting settled in her seat. He stood with the door still open.

“What?”

“The roses in the yard. They used to be red.”

He hated the roses in the backyard. They’d been there since the first day of the curse. An apparent gift from Regina, meant to mock him and cause more pain. He never spent any time at all in the yard when Grace was gone. And now he only set foot out there when she wanted to have tea parties in the garden. He never cared for the roses. And come to think of it; he never had to. But he couldn’t admit that he’d lied. Not yet. So he just smiled and nodded.

“Right. The roses,” he agreed. Then he shut the door and came around the front of the car. She didn’t miss the way his eyes seemed lost in thought.

“I could have helped you,” she suggested, once he’d climbed in beside her. He sent her another smile and shook his head.

“There was no need. It’s dirty work, and you had homework,” he explained.

She watched him as he got the car started. Every once in a while he would ask her to go home with a friend, but he’d always spend the ride back home enthusiastically listening to all her stories about her day. Now he was silent, lost in his own head. There were bandages wrapped around his fingers and dirt smudged and streaked on his face. People usually didn’t do yard work in their regular clothes. It was odd that he hadn’t cleaned up before coming to get her.

The scarf around his neck had come loose so that she could see the pink scars every time he turned. 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 reached the hill that would take them home.

“Yes?” he replied. His attention seemed to refocus on the present but was quickly lost again.

He wasn’t sure if he should tell her about the heart. Now that he knew for sure Alice was still alive, how could he possibly tell Grace? They’d spent their lives without her, building a home, moving on, trying to live without her. If Grace ever mourned the mother she never knew, she’d already done it. She believed she’d never know her and was just grateful to know her name. How would she react if Jefferson told her there was a chance he’d left her mother behind? That she’d lived all that time without them?

There was something to hope for now. A beating, pulsing, glowing heart. Somewhere, Wonderland perhaps, Alice still lived. He would do whatever he could to bring her home to Grace. Grace may have already given up hope of having a mother, but now she had a chance. Alice had a chance to meet the daughter she’d never even got to hold. They could be a family again. And he was caught somewhere between elated and afraid. He didn’t know what price he’d have to pay to bring Alice home. How heartbroken would Grace be if he told her Alice was alive and he’d abandoned her to Wonderland? What if he couldn’t get her home again?

“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 through the lump in his throat. That was a story he never wanted to tell. Even when he planned to tell her about Alice, he never intended to tell her about his own time trapped in Wonderland.

“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 I was in Wonderland.”

“When you went to work for the Queen?” She remembered so much now. He didn’t know what to say 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 blistered fingers. He would have to tell her the truth. He’d spent so much time trying to keep his past hidden from her, but now he had to find a way to tell her Alice was alive. He had to explain that he couldn’t have known. But he’d have to tell her why he thought she was dead. He’d have to tell her how he came to suspect that she wasn’t.

“Let me get dinner going and clean up. 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. Pizza was the one food from this land they’d miss the most if they ever got to go home.

“I love pizza,” she said dramatically. He laughed.

“I know you do.” And that was precisely why he’d suggested it.

She was distracted now. She forgot all about the scars by the time they got home. He parked 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. By the time they were both seated at the dining room table, he had hoped she’d long forgotten.

She hadn’t.

“The scars, Papa?” she gently reminded him. He looked up at her and sighed. He was always tired now, and he was having a harder time masking his feelings behind silly jokes and smiles. The exhaustion seemed to weigh heavy on his features. He set his pizza down on a plate and crossed his arms over the table.

“That job—years ago,” he said, his voice low and rough again. “The Queen—Regina—sent me back to Wonderland to obtain something. Something the Queen of Hearts stole from her. She was desperate to get it back, and she did everything she could to get me to comply. She—got into my head. Made me believe I wouldn’t be able to provide for you if I didn’t help her get it.”

“What was it?” Grace asked, her eyes full of wonder.

“Her father.” Grace shook her head, now confused. “The hat—had rules. If someone went through, the same amount of people had to come back. Regina and I went in. She and her father went out.”

“She left you there?”

“I never would have gone if I’d known she was after a person. I didn’t want to go at all, but she promised—that I’d be able to care for you. We’d never need anything ever again. My specialty was magical artifacts. It comes with being a portal jumper. You can feel magic. I thought that’s what she was after. But she only needed me to get in. And she needed a body to trade. I was stupid.”

“And what happened when you were trapped there?” He ran his hands over his face and then crossed his arms again.

“The Queen of Hearts. I’d stolen from her before. It was what—made us lose your mother. I was told not to return. And then I’d come back and stolen from her again.” 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 starting to piece things together. “Off with his head,” he said.

She was silent for a long moment, and he was afraid the story would give her nightmares. She was too young and innocent to be exposed to something so awful. Alice had been even younger the first time the Red Queen threatened to take her head, and it had haunted her all her life. Grace’s eyes looked sad and scared all at once. Then she shook her head.

“But how are you still alive?” she asked. He touched the scars. He felt exposed and vulnerable without the scarf to cover them. Grace’s eyes were on the darkness of his past now, 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 you could survive—I never would have left her there.”

Then her eyebrows furrowed. She was confused again. Too young to have to deal with thoughts like these. But he tried to think of what Alice would do in this situation. She would have wanted him to be honest. He wanted to protect Grace for as long as he could, and keep the beating heart a secret until he had more proof or could bring Alice home. But Grace deserved to feel the same hope that was now engulfing his heart, even if it brought despair along with it.

Alice never would have wanted him to lie to their daughter, protect her, but not lie. And he could picture the exact face she’d make if she ever found out he had. He wouldn’t mind if Alice was angry at him for that choice. It was one of many choices she would be angry about. He didn’t care as long as she could come home.

“The Queen of Hearts,” he explained, “wanted your mother’s head. And she got it. I watched it happen. I spent—all this time—believing it meant she was dead. And when it happened to me—my only focus then was to get back to you. I didn’t think about what it meant until I’d completed that goal. We always wanted to put you first.”

“You think—that she’s….” She didn’t finish her sentence, but he nodded to answer anyway.

“She is, Grace.”

“How do you know?”

“The Queen of Hearts got her name for a reason. She’s from our world. She collected them. It’s magic—an enchantment. She can remove the heart without killing the person. But it makes them cold. Unable to love. And whoever has the heart—has control over that person. They can make them do whatever they want. I wasn’t doing yard work today, Grace. I don’t know what you meant about changing the roses. I was digging. I found it. Her heart.”

“But how do you know she’s still alive?”

“Because the heart was beating. Alice—your mother—she’s alive. I can feel it. And I’ll do whatever I can to bring her home to you.”

Grace turned her eyes to the scars on her father’s neck, her own heart suddenly filled with dread.

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