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so does this make us both the other woman?

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i. a conversation about love stories (that regina never wanted)

 

First they’re sitting at the table one evening after Henry’s vanished upstairs and Regina says, “So Hook finally wore you down.” It’s not an accusation (it can’t be an accusation when she’s in no position to accuse) but it sounds like one, and Emma gives her a dirty look and stares down at her pasta. Regina frowns and chooses her words with care. “I’m not criticizing your choices. Hook…has his appeal, but I’d have never thought you’d find true love with-“

And she can see from the way that Emma’s face darkens that she’s hit a nerve. “Why is it always true love with you people?” Emma demands, stabbing at her plate so violently that it tips to one side with a loud scrape against the table.

”So now there’s nothing between the first kiss and a lifelong commitment?” She glares up, defiant. “Hook makes sense, okay? I like him and Henry likes him and I think my dad has this weird boycrush on him and when I told my mom I was dating him, she nearly cried and talked about weddings for a half hour. They’re all happy. I’m happy.” A savage bite of baked ziti. “Why does it have to be more than that?”

"I merely thought-"

Emma sags, the fire dying within her as quickly as it had come. “We don’t all get fairy dust-mandated true loves, okay? Some of us just have to…figure things out. On our own. And yeah, with the guy who says he’s been in love with us for a year. It’s not like the Storybrooke dating pool has much to offer. It’s Hook or Leroy at this point.”

“I’m fairly certain Leroy is in love with one of the nuns.” She’s inordinately pleased when that gets a tired laugh from Emma. “You’re welcome to date whoever you want, Emma. Even if-” She frowns. “Did you say that Henry likes him? The pirate?” One year together and Emma’s introducing her son to all sorts of miscreants. She should have some say in that. (Though she’s the only one who seems to remember that Hook had once sent her off to be tortured, and now doesn’t seem the time to bring it up.)

Emma eyes her, suddenly wary at the scowl that settles over Regina’s face. “Yeah, I think so. They’d been hanging out a lot while we were fighting Zelena.” She sighs. “Henry likes him a lot. He’s been suggesting date plans with him and joining Mary Margaret in the wedding planning.”

She can feel her scowl deepen. “Yes, well, Henry likes me a lot, too. That doesn’t mean wedding bells are tolling for us, either.”

A smirk. “That’d solve a lot of problems right there. Shame you don’t like me.” Emma waggles her eyebrows and winks and Regina most certainly does not flush. It’s blatant avoidance of the topic at hand, but she takes the bait anyway. Because Emma thinks she doesn’t like her, and that’s–

“I don’t…not like you. If I did not like you, do you think you’d be sitting in my house for dinner now that Henry’s back home?” She busies herself with Henry’s empty plate and her own, yanking Emma’s plate away from where she’s playing with her pasta.

She still catches the knowing grin that spreads across Emma’s face and her cheeks are suddenly hot. “I like you too, Regina.”

“Oh, get over yourself,” she huffs, heading for the kitchen. And naturally, Emma follows, hitching herself up onto the counter next to the sink and grabbing a towel.

Regina washes the dishes with rough, businesslike swipes of a sponge, refusing to look at her. Emma takes the first plate from her after she’s spent five minutes on it, her eyes dancing with glee at her discomfort. “We’d make for a much better love story than Hook and me, too. The savior and the evil queen, three years in the making? Falling for each other in between shouts of ‘He’s my son!’” She whips the towel around with a flourish, and Regina’s never been happier to hear her front door open.

Robin pokes his head into the room to flash a smile at them both. “Ah, Emma’s still here.” She gets an odd, forced smile from him. Robin’s been typically affable to nearly everyone in Storybrooke except Emma, and Regina’s afraid to ask him why it is that he’s so wary around her.

Emma remains determinedly oblivious, though she’d caved once to ask Regina about it. (“Just a personality clash,” Regina had lied with a painfully forced smile of her own. “Imagine someone not getting along with you,” she’d added dryly, and Emma had stolen the last fry off her plate and rolled her eyes at her.) “Hey, Robin. Just hitting on your girlfriend.” The smile remains on his face, plastic and dropping dangerously toward a grimace, and Regina rubs furiously at a plate without looking at either of them. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, I promise.” Her grin falters when Robin’s fades away entirely.

“Yes, I’d heard you and Killian Jones are quite the item,” Robin says, and Regina glances up just in time to see Emma’s face drop. It’s a whole new level of queasiness that erupts within her at that.

Emma nods, slipping down from the counter and patting Regina on the arm. “Yeah, I guess. I’m gonna go say goodnight to Henry.” 

She vanishes from the kitchen and Robin repeats, “I have nothing to worry about?” It’s supposed to be lighthearted, but instead it emerges heavy and grim, and Regina murmurs, “It was only a joke,” which doesn’t answer anything at all.


 

ii. meditation over villainy (and coffee, in the late afternoon)

 

“It’s weird, isn’t it,” Emma says, sliding a coffee across Regina’s desk and sitting down. The name scrawled on the styrofoam cup is Her Majesty and she rolls her eyes and tries not to smile.

“What is, dear?”

“I got the villain and you got the white hat.” She shrugs, grinning at Regina’s scowl. “Yin and yang, right?”

“They’re both thieves,” Regina says dismissively, sipping at her hot cup. There’s too much milk in it, which means Emma has figured out how she actually likes her coffee instead of how she’s said that she likes it. Terrible. “Robin’s just a thief who’s also managed to steal a second outfit.”

“Oh, ha ha.” Emma makes a face. “Hook had, like, six of the same shirts but David tried teaching him how to use a washing machine and he accidentally shrank them all. I gave him some black tees but he refuses to wear them because…I don’t know, something about feeling the wind on his chest at sea. Is that a villain thing too? Evil cleavage?”

Regina purses her lips. “Absolutely not.”

She gets a dubious sidelong glance. “Really? Because Ruby says that you–“

“I suppose this means you’ve adjusted to your life with Hook, then?” Regina cuts her off, and she takes a little time to relish the way Emma’s face pales. She might be on Team Charming lately (or perhaps the Charmings are on Team Regina now) but there’s still lasting appeal to getting in a hit that Emma Swan can’t return.

“Don’t call it that.” Emma groans. “What is an Enchanted Forest bedding and is that what it sounds like and if it is then why the fuck does my mother keep talking about it?” She leans forward. “Did you…um, did you have one of these traditional weddings when you married…” She wrinkles her nose like she’s tasted something awful. “Mygrandfather?”

Regina ignores the way bile rises in her throat at the thought of it- of Emma and her grandfather and Emma’s grandfather– “Not quite. It was a simple ceremony. A ring, a few noblemen, a terrible dress. Snow’s birthday was several months later and her celebration was thrice the size.” Emma’s looking at her like she’s said something awful, and she tries to remember if she’d accidentally mentioned any murderous intentions toward Snow and comes up blank. “Might have been why my subjects never quite took to me.”

“That or the whole evil thing, right?”

“So, you and Hook, hm?”

She gets a sulky “Fine,” and spins the cup in her hands, noting that below the Her Majesty someone has doodled a stylized Regina in pen.

They finish their coffee in silence and Regina thinks about asking why Emma is here to begin with because they hadn’t scheduled any magic lessons and she’s supposed to be having dinner with Robin after work. But Emma is quiet and she looks at peace for the first time in ages so Regina keeps quiet and watches her instead.

There’s a little dimple threatening to break free on her cheek if she smiles, and she comes close to it when Regina finishes her coffee and Emma snatches it back to decorate her name some more. Her forehead wrinkles in little horizontal lines that curve pleasingly between arched eyebrows as she focuses and she licks her lips a little too often and–

“Did women ever marry women in the Enchanted Forest?” Emma asks, and Regina blinks.

“What?”

“Lesbian weddings. Yes, no, only in some realms?” The dimple makes its appearance and Regina falters. “You know, for our epic love story. I think you make a much more impressive villain for me to fall in love with.” She smirks. “Plus the whole family history. You ruin my life as a baby and then we move the moon three decades later? Henry’d need a new storybook for the length of this fairytale.”

“You’re ridiculous.” She stands up. It’s half past four, which is why these coffees make no sense and Emma’s presence here is even stranger. Robin’s probably waiting for her at Granny’s, and Emma’s going to insist on walking her, and then there’ll be stilted conversation and non-accusations and she’s just so tired of all of this. “Women wed women on occasion, yes. I haven’t heard of it in Snow’s family, though.”

“That’s another point you have on Hook, then. No wedding.” They make it outside and it’s close enough to winter that there’s a chill in the air and when she shivers, Emma pulls off her coat and offers it to her. And it’s the long peacoat and it smells like Emma’s shampoo and the Bug’s seats and not at all like pirate leather, so she pulls it around herself with no protest at all.

“Emma,” she says patiently when they’re in front of Granny’s. Robin is sitting at a table, Roland happily eating a cookie, and- of all people- Hook is standing next to him, all three watching the front window expectantly. “If you’re looking for reasons to date an evil queen instead of your boyfriend, it might be time to reevaluate the relationship.” 

There isn’t a part of that that doesn’t hurt her or Emma, but somehow it twists the knife even more when Emma sighs at her and says, “You’re not an evil queen anymore, no matter how ridiculous your embargo on the sheriff’s department has gotten.”

“Go ahead,” the other woman adds, squeezing her arm over the coat. “Robin’s waiting for you.” She flashes a smile as she walks on down the block. Inside, Hook frowns and makes a beeline for the door. “I’ll call you.”

She doesn’t retrieve her coat and Regina keeps it folded on her lap while she drinks black coffee and smiles at Robin and watches Hook catch up to Emma outside.


 

iii. dinner and a show (specifically, for the two men they don’t belong to)

 

“Hi.” Emma is giving her that ridiculous puppy-dog smile, the one she’d seen once the night they’d first met and more and more since Emma had come back to town, and Regina might have smiled back except that Hook is standing behind Emma on her porch with one hand on the small of Emma’s back.

“Absolutely not,” she says, and slams the door in Emma’s face.

Her phone rings a moment later and she snatches it up. “No, Miss Swan.”

“Come on, Regina, it’s my birthday. Hook wants to spend it with me and I want to spend it with Henry…and you,” she adds, and Regina shrugs off the warmth that spreads through her at Emma’s words. “So don’t send us to Granny’s, okay? You’re still stuck with us if you kick us out this time.”

She frowns, pulling the door open again. “Why in the world would you need me to come with you?”

A tilted head, an unimpressed face. “Oh, are we still pretending that we’re not friends? I’ve already planned our lives together. Mary Margaret might have gotten sick when I suggested that bedding thing at our wedding.” 

Hook laughs. Regina rolls her eyes. “I thought the lack of a wedding was my big draw.”

“Yeah, well,” Emma shrugs. “You didn’t get me a birthday present, right? So let me spend this time with everyone I want to.”

“Actually-“ She had gotten Emma a gift, a coat to replace the one that Emma has seen on her a dozen times since she’d loaned it to her and hasn’t asked for it back. It’s warm and classy and the color brings out the green in Emma’s eyes and she’d been planning on sending it with Henry when he slept over this weekend. Except now Emma wants to spend her birthday with Regina. And Hook. “I’ll call Robin,” she says finally. “If we’re making this a family dinner.”

She sees Emma’s wince and determinedly ignores it.

They have a barbecue in the backyard. The curse had given Regina a now-ancient charcoal grill that she’d never touched, but Emma pronounces it acceptable and Robin and Hook both eye it with the uncertainty of men accustomed to starting their own fires. Still, the food is good, Emma and Henry and Roland are happy, and Hook is working at the grill with Robin so she can pretend he isn’t there at all.

The awkwardness only sets in once Henry claims exhaustion and heads upstairs with Emma and Robin carries Roland up there, too, to set him up in the trundle bed under Henry’s. And then she’s alone with Hook, who holds out a flask and says, “Rum?” like they’re still reluctant allies and he isn’t dating a woman who’s so far beyond him that Regina had thrown things when she’d found out about it.

She gives him a cool glare and heads to the kitchen. “Do not sit on my couch wearing that filthy jacket.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he drawls, dropping the coat onto the couch and following her. “What is it I’ve done to you now?”

“What?”

He shrugs, batting his eyelashes at her like he’s a teenager and does that actually work on Emma? She turns away, disgusted. “We’ve both moved past some of the other’s worst. I’d thought. And now we have Emma and Henry in common.” He frowns. “I hope you don’t believe I’m trying to take up your time with your son. Emma’s said you have trouble sharing.”

“Emma says too much,” she mutters, glancing toward the stairs and noting with some relief that both their significant others are descending them, matching forced smiles on their faces as they look at her.

“How about some cider?” Emma suggests, and it’s still her birthday for another two hours and Regina remembers too damned well that it’s also the day that she had ruined Emma’s life three decades ago, so she might owe her just these final two interminable hours.

And so they drink, Emma on one side of her and Robin sitting stiffly on the other and Hook sprawled out across from the three of them with his flask of rum. Which, naturally, is enough to drive anyone to drink.

She’s too aware of Emma, casually leaning against her as she laughs and swallows and pours herself another glass of cider; and she’s too aware of Robin, drinking and drinking and getting progressively more affectionate with every glass. She doesn’t dare to do much more than nurse her first glass and stay silent as the other three trade off stories in good-natured one-upmanship.

“A dragon?” Robin snorts, an arm flung around Regina’s shoulders. It’s too heavy, too warm, and Emma’s hand has fallen accidentally on Regina’s thigh and it’s much too hot in this room, does anyone else notice? “How very noble of you.” His words are half-slurred. He’s drunk, Emma’s drunk, and only Hook seems sober enough even with all that rum.

“I was trying to save our son,” Emma says defensively. “Mine and Regina’s son. Regina was there, too, right?” She drinks again, not waiting for Regina’s response. “A lot went on here before you all came with your- your woodsmanning and your pirating.” She waves vaguely at both men, earning a quirked eyebrow from Hook and a scowl from Hood. “We fought, like, every day.” She beams at Regina and Regina bites back what is definitely not a smile. “You were evil.” Emma nods vigorously, squeezing her thigh. Definitely unconsciously. Or maybe she’s just handsy when she’s drunk.

“You had it coming,” Regina retorts, smiling in earnest now because Emma like this is…well. Adorable. “You ruined my life.” It’s a gross exaggeration, now that Henry is back home and she suddenly has allies and a lover and Emma is her– “Ruined it,” she repeats, and Emma nudges her knee with her own, sliding a foot against her leg. Definitely handsy. She flushes. Hook snickers.

“Shh.” Emma presses a finger to Regina’s lips and she falls silent, her lips parting automatically under Emma’s touch. Robin’s arm tightens around her. “I’m gonna sweep you off your feet someday, remember?”

She tenses, her shoulders stiff and her fingers gripping her glass. “Stop it.” Robin sighs low in his throat, and Hook is suddenly eyeing them with narrowed eyes. “You’re not nearly as amusing as you think you are when you’re drunk,” she says, but her voice wavers too much and now Hook’s eyes are on her and this is just a magnificent mess, isn’t it?

“Excuse you!” Emma says, indignant. “I happen to be a hilarious drunk. And I’m not even drunk. Your cider is just-“ She downs another glass. “It’s really good.”

Regina tries for some firmness in her voice. “I think you should go home now.” Robin relaxes. About a hair. She’d be annoyed at him if she didn’t understand completely. She hates how well she understands, and how helpless she’s been to change things.

There’s nothing to change, though, nothing she can wish away or that she’s willing to give up, not when the elephant in the room is precisely one-half the reason Regina’s become the person she is now. Her mother had been half right. It’s weakness and it’s also strength and she’s not willing to forgo the latter because the former looms over her every interaction with both Robin and Emma.

Emma frowns. “Are you kicking me out?” She squints at her. “I thought you didn’t not like me.”

“Emma…” She feels the hot spots high on her cheeks. And remembers, a moment too late, that Captain Hook is never to be trusted at the wheel of a car after that incident last month. “I’m going to give you a ride home. Sleep it off.”

And somehow they’re in her car a few minutes later, Robin watching them from the window and Hook wandering off on his own in search of more alcohol, and Emma’s hand is back on her thigh and she’s having more trouble concentrating on the road than on that touch. “Emma,” she sighs once, but she can’t say anything, can’t allow herself to acknowledge the hand or push it away, and it’s all harmless between friends who are both very much involved with other people and Emma isn’t interested in her so what’s the point, anyway?

“Why didn’t you invite your parents, too?” she asks instead. “To dinner tonight. Not that I’d want them to be there,” she inserts hastily, even though Emma’s grinning at her like she isn’t quite so inebriated anymore and knows exactly what she’s thinking. She doesn’t. Regina doesn’t like the Charmings, that’s never going to change, but they’ve become a necessary evil and they’re…tolerable now. For Henry’s sake, anyway. (For Emma’s, too.)

Emma shrugs. “I didn’t want it to be awkward and I wanted you there. I see them all the time.” She laughs suddenly.

“What?”

“I didn’t want it to be awkward and you brought Robin Hood!” She laughs again, too high and giddy for her to be sober, and Regina’s absolutely incapable of not laughing because Emma’s whole face lights up when she’s giggling like this, precious and magical in ways far beyond even Regina’s skills, and they’re both still laughing when she parks in front of the Charmings’ and they stumble out of the car together.

“I wish he liked me,” Emma confesses. “He’s important to you and he doesn’t like me and I don’t want you to not like me either. I don’t know why he doesn’t like me.” She frowns, pensive. “I don’t think I like him, either.”

"That’s all right," Regina says dryly. "I’m not exactly fond of Hook."

"I know you aren’t." Emma leans into her as they walk up the steps to her house, bracing herself on Regina’s arm. "I just…it’s so easy. And it’s nice to have someone who puts me first, right? Who loves me more than I love him.” She sighs, her words still sliding together a bit more than they should if she were sober. She’s saying more than she would if she were sober, too, and Regina should stop her but she can’t remember how to speak for a moment. “I know it’s selfish.”

She breaks away from Regina to lean against the doorframe and Regina can only stare at her, stricken. “You know…you know Henry loves you more than anything.” She wants to say more but it’s unwarranted and unwanted, meaningless words that will only create new walls between them. “You’ll always come first for him.”

“But he lives with you,” Emma says, and she must still be drunk, because they don’tever talk about that. They talk about scheduling and dinners and after-school plans, but they don’t talk about the night after Henry had gotten his memories back, when Emma had smiled at them both and said, Henry, do you want to go back to your mom’s? and Regina had gaped and Henry had nodded and months of depression had begun to fade away with those ten little words.

And now Emma’s swaying in the wind and she’s holding on to herself and she’s repeating, “He lives with you.”

“Why?” Regina whispers. It’s the one piece of Emma Swan she still hasn’t figured out, how Emma could just…surrender like that. How she can let Henry go when he’s everything to them both now. “Why did you even suggest it? You didn’t have to. I hadn’t thought you would.”

Emma shrugs, tilting her face to the stars overhead. The moon reflects off it, and it’s pale and wrought in shadows. “I wanted to give you two good memories, too.”

Regina’s stepping forward before she can stop herself, moving closer as though she has no choice, her hand reaching up to stroke Emma’s cheek and guide her back down to face her. They stand inches away from each other, Emma’s eyes dilated under half-open lids and her breath soft and even against Regina’s lips, and Regina’s about to ruin everything, destroy a friendship and a pixie dust guarantee and all the happiness she’s found for herself these past months when Emma whispers, “And now you also have Robin.”

She takes a step back but she can’t retract her hand, not when Emma’s skin is so hot beneath her palm and wisps of blonde hair are silky under the pads of her fingers. “And you love him, right?” Emma smiles, and it’s sharp and soft and painful all at once. “I’m happy you have him.”

“And you have the pirate,” Regina murmurs, and she doesn’t know what’s happening anymore except that Emma is pressing her own hand to Regina’s and removing it from her face to lace their fingers together.

“I do.” Emma squeezes her hand and smiles again, though it doesn’t reach her eyes. Regina holds on.

Emma opens the door and lets her hand go as she vanishes inside, and Regina stands silently on her doorstep and breathes.

Chapter Text

iv. exploration of communal motherhood (but it’s not awkward)

“I don’t know what to do.” The voice is curt, harried, and sounds more like Mary Margaret Blanchard than Snow’s been since the first curse had broken. “He’s crying and crying and I thought I was a patient person, I thought I could do this but–“ A long, shuddery gasp, the kind Regina’s been longing for from Snow for decades. “You have to help me, Regina, because otherwise I’m going to put him down and run out of this fucking house and–!” She squeaks at her own profanity. “ Please.

“Where’s Emma?” She’d given the other woman memories of raising Henry, and though those memories are fading now that reality has hit again, she should be more than equipped to help her mother without thoughts of homicide- so, well, one step up from Regina. 

Snow sighs. “Killian took her and Henry out on the Jolly Roger for the day. I don’t want to disturb her. They’re all so happy–“

Regina hangs up and gets her coat.

Snow is hovering by the door when she gets there, the baby still screaming in her arms, and Regina takes him from her, an old deja vu hitting as she does. “I don’t get it. I’ve tried everything, I’ve changed him, I’ve fed him, I’ve wrapped him and unwrapped him and put him in his swing and he just won’t stop! How do I know if he’s sick? What if I…” She stops, staring wildly at Regina. “What did you do?”

The baby coos up at her, and he’s got Emma’s eyes and Henry’s hair and thankfully looks nothing like his namesake. Regina curls her arms around him, holding him tighter to her chest. “You need to calm down,” she says, and she can’t quite remember a time when she’s spoken this softly to Snow White but the baby is gurgling at her and she doesn’t know how her mortal enemy has produced so many precious people. Maybe it’s David’s genes. He’d purportedly had a decent human being as a mother. “I had the same problem with Henry. He can sense that you’re stressed and it’s agitating him, too.”

Snow stares at her pleadingly and Regina can see dark circles under her eyes and the way her hands are still shaking. “How am I supposed to calm down when he’s crying all the time?”

She’s going to regret this. “How well have you been sleeping at night?”

Snow shakes her head, half-pointing at the baby. “I don’t know. A little?”

“Go take a nap,” Regina orders. “I’ll take him until Emma gets back.” She’s barely seen Emma since her birthday, just brief greetings in the street and the one dinner that Emma had come late to and left early from. It’s not awkward. It’s…busy. It’ll be good to see her.

That’s why she’s staying, not to do Snow a favor, so she puts on her best Evil Queen voice and says, “You can trust me to take care of Leopold.”

It’s enough to freeze Snow halfway to her bed, and she turns around, her eyes wide. Regina raises her eyebrows, rocking the baby in her arms and waiting for Snow to take the bait. Instead, the younger woman sags. “Okay, Regina. You do that.”

She must be exhausted. What a disappointment.

Leo snuffles a little and his eyes droop closed and Regina sinks down onto the couch, picking up a photo album and flipping through it. It’s all Mary Margaret and Emma at the start, then Henry and David, and some of the later photos even have her in them. She glares at one of her asleep on her own couch in her own home with Henry passed out against her. It’s unquestionably Emma’s fault. “I used to be an evil sorceress,” she informs Leo. “Whole villages would fall to their knees when I rode past. You’d do well to fear me.” His lips part in a little bubbly burp and she sighs. “You’re going to be just as bad as your sister, aren’t you?”

They sit in content silence until there’s the sound of voices outside and Regina peers out the window to watch her son and his companions make their way up to the house. Henry is running ahead, Emma shouting something after him, and Hook trails behind her. He says something and Emma shoves him a little, rolling her eyes and opening the door before Henry gets in. “You can stop talking about it, maybe?” she says, annoyed, and Regina’s mood brightens in an instant.

“It was only brief flirtation, I swear to you!” Hook protests. “It never amounted to anything. There’s no need for jealousy.” Regina can hear the leer in his voice and Henry makes a face as he slips past them, his eyes brightening when he sees her. He waves silently, glancing significantly back at the doorway where the couple is still arguing.

“I’m not jealous.” Emma sighs. “I don’t care about whatever you and Regina did way back before I was born.” There’s an edge to her voice that belies other feelings on the topic, but Hook doesn’t say anything and Regina tenses, unwilling to allow Hook’s idiotic big mouth to cause friction between her and Emma. 

Because there isn’t friction now. Not at all. It’s not awkward.

“I care,” Emma finishes, stepping into the house. “About you talking about it in front of her son.”

“As do I,” Regina adds coolly, and both Hook and Emma startle. “Refrain from discussing me at all in front of my son or his mother. Ever again.” She pastes a smile onto her face that isn’t entirely false. “Good day, Henry?”

“Yeah!” He grins, showing off sunburnt skin and faint freckles that match the ones on his other mother’s face. “Are we doing dinner here tonight?”

“No,” Regina says, just as Emma says, “Yes.” They stare at each other, smiling awkwardlyit’s not awkwardand Emma comes to sit next to her, sliding in between Regina and Henry to smooth down Leo’s little wisps of dark hair.

Hook says a goodbye and Emma says absently, “Yeah, thanks for today. I’ll see you later?” and Henry jumps up to walk him out.

“Henry really does like him a lot,” Emma murmurs, watching them go. 

She sounds almost regretful, and Regina turns to give her a searching glance. “He also likes your mother. There’s no accounting for his taste.” She’s hesitant when she plunges forward. “You sound like you’re reconsidering.”

“Reconsidering?” Emma shakes her head. Vigorously. “There’s nothing to reconsider. Things are good. He’s just an idiot.”

“I could have told you that a year ago and saved you all this trouble.” Leo stirs in her arms and she loosens her grip on his back, lowering him onto her lap. He yawns like Henry, too, his face scrunched up and his little limbs flailing out against her.

Emma presses her finger against his palm and he makes a fist around it. “Is it just me, or…” She leans against Regina, her chin on Regina’s shoulder, and stares down at the baby. “He looks just like Henry, doesn’t he?”

“He has your eyes,” Regina blurts out and turns too soon, coming face-to-face with said eyes as they regard her silently. She tries looking away and fails miserably. “But otherwise he’s quite adorable,” she tries, and Emma grins at her, unfazed.

“Sometimes I forget that my memories are a lie and I think about you and Henry and it feels like this.” She sucks in a breath, her chin still sharp against Regina’s shoulder. “Like we both raised him. Like we kind of did it together.”

Emma’s thumb is on Leo’s stomach now, stroking in little circles as he cycles his legs against her thigh. Regina doesn’t move. “It’s not real,” she whispers. “It wasn’t real.” Leo gurgles and kicks and he looks so much like little Henry and Emma’s so close and she says it again. “It isn’t real.”

“Hook kept suggesting a threesome,” Emma says suddenly, and Regina jerks away from her. 

What?”

Leo lets out an angry cry and Emma lifts him from her lap and bobs up and down with him until he’s soothed again. “That’s what he was being an idiot about. He insisted that he’d be ‘very interested’ and that I shouldn’t be afraid to broach the topic. Then he talked about your sexual chemistry for like ten minutes in front of Henry and I nearly threw him overboard.”

She doesn’t know how to react to that beyond delicately extricating herself from the couch and moving toward the kitchen, suddenly desperate to bake something. Maybe an apple turnover. “Why would he even say that? What is he trying to accomplish?”

But she knows, because she remembers the way he’d watched them on Emma’s birthday and she remembers what Emma and she haven’t talked about since. Robin copes by determinedly ignoring it and watching her a little too closely when she’s around Emma. Hook apparently copes by shooting off his mouth and making Emma uncomfortable.

Maybe Whale still has the rest of that apple turnover. Do cursed pastries rot?

“If we wanted to sleep together, we could do it just fine without him,” Emma says, and Regina whips around so quickly that she loses all her breath in an instant.

“It’s still not funny, Emma. Your son is right here.” She gestures to the door and discovers that it’s open and Henry’s standing just outside of it, staring at both of them with his face as screwed up as Leo’s had been when he’d yawned.

“You’re both so gross,” he says disgustedly, throwing up his hands and moving past her to the kitchen.

Emma smirks. “I’ve already planned the wedding!” she calls after him. “You’re the best man, you should be more supportive!”

Regina’s head is aching and Emma Swan is impossible and she should have appreciated these past few days only seeing her on the street. “I’m going home,” she informs them both. “Tell Snow to hire a babysitter if she can’t handle her son again.” She needs a long break from the Charmings and their hapless daughter, some peace and quiet and a place where she doesn’t need to think too hard about…things.

Emma shrugs, seemingly either unbothered or unaware of how flustered Regina is. “If you insist. We still on for dinner?”

long break. As long as she can last without Emma Swan in her life. At least two hours. “My house. You bring the wine.”


 

v. fairy dust and fairytales (that never felt like them)

“So how did it happen?” Emma’s leaning back against the bench, cocoa in hand. She’s wearing the coat Regina had gotten her and it does draw out the green in her eyes in entirely distracting ways. Regina isn’t staring. She’s…appraising her purchase. Right.

She sips at her own cocoa and produces a smile and a hand for Roland from where he’s dangling upside-down from the monkey bars and waving frantically. She’d been terrified the first time they’d gone to the park together and the way he’d ignored the steps and ladders in favor of shimmying up bars and swinging from structure to structure, but by now she’s used to it. Little boys raised in the woods, honestly. Her own son sits happily atop the bars, watchful eyes on the boy below him. “How did what happen?”

Emma motions with her cup to Roland. “Him. His dad. I mean, I thought we were pretty much around each other all the time when we were fighting Zelena. And I never saw you two together much but then suddenly he’s basically moving in with you and you’re true loves and…” She shrugs. “I just…didn’t know it was happening until I saw you two outside Granny’s on the night after we banished Zelena back to Oz.”

“Ah.” She frowns, remembering that day all too well. She’d been on her way into the building when she’d heard cheering and catcalling and then the three of them had walked inside and Emma had been kissing Hook, right in the middle of Granny’s. It hadn’t taken more than a month after that before Emma had finally conceded to date the pirate. “I’d thought you were…busy that night.”

“Yeah.” When she turns, Emma’s eyes are on her, her face too close and her lips pressed tightly together. “I guess I was.” 

There’s a new strain in the air, tension Regina doesn’t want to think about, and she wills herself to turn away from Emma before she gathers her thoughts again. “You know about the pixie dust. It was never a question for me that Robin was my soulmate.”

Emma’s brow furrows- with you, Regina, I always know when you’re lying- and she shakes her head disbelievingly. “That’s it? Some fairy dust tells you who to love and you love him? What if he was a homicidal maniac?” Blonde waves are cascading down her shoulders as she moves, her voice rising, and Regina takes a moment to process anything she’s saying. “Would pixie dust tell you that?”

“Emma,” she says patiently, dragging her eyes away from the hair tickling at Emma’s neck under her coat. “was a homicidal maniac, remember?” She untucks the hair from Emma’s coat without thinking in an unconscious, almost motherly (not motherly at all) motion. And retracts her hand as soon as she realizes what she’s doing. “Robin should have been the wary one.”

Emma scowls, and she blurts out, “I just thought you were smarter than that,” so quickly that Regina’s eyebrows shoot up and she’s startled instead of offended. Emma pales. “Wait. That came out…wrong. I just don’t get how you’d just–“

She smirks without much bite. “Jump into a relationship?” Her hand is back on Emma, this time gentle on the blonde’s gloved hands, and she can hear the exhalation as Emma relaxes. “Well, we talked about the Killian Jones method, but frankly I don’t have the patience to be wooed for years with off-color remarks. Robin would be a pile of ash by now.”

“Be nice.” Emma nudges her and her cocoa splashes up the sides of her cup. “He was just…persistent.”

“Yes, well, it seems to have paid off nicely. Good for him.” It’s coming out sharper than she intends. Old resentment is unspooling within her, bitterness she has no business feeling threatening to break free, and she ignores the way Emma won’t look at her anymore and thinks about Robin. Kind, safe, easy Robin, who’s a good man and loyal and loves her so much more than she’d ever dreamed anyone could. “I suppose…my, uh. My first love. Daniel.” 

It’s a bit like rolling on sandpaper to say his name here, in this place where light is shining and her son is playing and Emma Swan is sitting beside her with her hand below Regina’s fingers. “We were very much in love. It was simple and mundane and just like any other young love affair in the land. I’d never imagined that I’d be worth much more than that. I wasn’t a princess. I wasn’t the kind of girl who had magical legends written about her.” 

She’d been happy, though, happier than she’d ever thought she could be as a child. The threat of her mother had loomed over her, but she’d dreamed of a world with that same simplicity and never wanted more. “And magic, of course, when added to the equation of Daniel and me, left me alone and heartbroken and on a quest for vengeance against your mother.”

She gazes thoughtfully at the playground in front of them. Roland is perched on his shoulders now and Henry is bouncing in circles while the smaller boy hangs on and shrieks with glee. “I suppose there’s a part of me that had always longed for that magical tale, to be a princess who’d get that epic love story. I’m fortunate to get it with someone like Robin and not the imbecile your mother married,” she adds, just to get a rise out of her suddenly quiet companion. David may be a bit of an idiot, but he’s far too much like Emma for her to ever doubt why anyone would love him.

But Emma is absolutely silent, staring at her with undisguised distress in her eyes. “Emma?”

“You’d never imagined that you’d be worth more than that?” Emma echoes. “God, Regina, do you have any idea what–“ She stops, chewing on her lower lip with so much fury that Regina worries it might swell up. 

“That’s all you managed to get from that?” She’s half-joking, nudging at Emma so the other woman might calm down, and Emma ceases attacking her lip at last.

“Yeah,” she says flatly. “I get it. Your reasons for being with Robin are just as half-assed as mine with Hook.”

Well. That’s a little offensive. “Because I wanted true love? For once? Emma, I can’t walk around for years dreaming of things I can’t have.” Her eyes widen at her own words and now she’s biting her lip, staring desperately into her cocoa instead of at the woman next to her.

“You want a story,” Emma says, shaking her head. “You want some great legend so you force yourself to fall in love with a guy you just met because of some fucking tattoo? He didn’t know you when you were…well, before the curse broke. He didn’t know you after. He didn’t see you try and how much you love Henry and how much you’ve sacrificed to try to be worthy of him.” 

She’s so earnest that Regina’s heart is threatening to break free of her rib cage andburst, just like that, leaving her with nothing other than Emma’s face at this moment trapped within her for eternity. “He’s never seen how you love and how strong you can be and how much goodness you’ve managed to find in yourself even after all these years. He doesn’t know you like…like…”

Regina finishes the sentence with resignation, the words so automatic that her brain doesn’t filter them before they emerge. “Like you do.” She drops her hand from Emma’s the moment her mind catches up to her mouth, and now her heart’s pounding so hard that she can hear a steady pounding in her ears.

Emma’s lips are parted, her eyes burning with something that Regina can recognize as fear; and Regina wants to take it all back, because Emma’s jokes are just that– jokes, a product of her twisted sense of humor where she can pretend to plan a wedding with Regina and never think twice about it. And Regina can’t joke. Not like that. Not about that. 

With you, Regina, I always know when you’re lying

And now Emma’s terrified, and rightly so, because Regina has said much too much and she forces a laugh a moment too late and Emma just stares at her and then says, “I should go. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said– I– I should go.”

She’s not the one who just accidentally confessed feelings that have no place in their- is it even a friendship? Are they friends? Is that what this is?- relationship, and sheshouldn’t have to leave, but she’s rising from the bench and fleeing from Regina anyway, walking away at a rapid pace like she’s the one who should be embarrassed. It isn’t fair, not to Emma. Emma doesn’t need any more complications in her life, and she certainly doesn’t need to be burdened with Regina’s.

She breathes in long, shuddery gasps. Her eyes are hurting and the cocoa is scalding her throat and she should says something, call Emma, assure her that she’ll never bring this up again and that things can go back to normal. But instead she watches the little patch of dark green and blonde until it vanishes down the next block and Henry comes to sit next to her without her noticing until he speaks. “Everything okay?” he asks, frowning. “Emma didn’t even say goodbye.”

“It’s fine. We’re fine.” It comes out in a croak and her ever-perceptive son sighs and leans against her shoulder.

“I just want you guys to be happy. I’m happy.” He smiles up at her and her heart cracks a little more. She can’t do this to him, either, to create tension between his mothers and his whole convoluted family when they’re finally making things work. “I like how things are now.”

“I know you like Killian,” Regina allows. She might not like Hook very much- and it’s possible that’s a recent development- but Henry does, and Emma does, and it’s long past time she came to terms with it. Hanging on to these lingering…these lingering…

It’s not doing anyone any favors.

“Yeah, I guess.” Henry bumps her shoulder with his once before he gets up to join Roland again. He pauses a few feet away from her, turning back to eye her with an expression she can’t gauge. “I like you more, though,” he says, and bounds back over to Roland to play hide-and-seek.


vi. bad behavior (from two terrified women and an outlaw. the pirate’s okay today and the kid didn’t ask for any of this)

She’s trying. She really is. Whatever she may have let slip at the park, it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things because Emma is her friend and Henry is  their  son and she can’t begin to imagine life without either of those constants anymore.

So she dashes off a quick text the next day, Dinner tonight? Might as well bring the pirate, because she is perfectly all right with Emma having a boyfriend and she is determined to let her know that before everything they have falls apart.

Emma is too prone to avoiding her problems and Regina will not allow herself to become one of them.

When Hook leads the way with a bottle of whiskey and Emma trailing behind him, not meeting Regina’s eyes, she thinks it might be too late. “I’ve tried a new sweet ’n sour chicken recipe tonight,” she offers. The last one had been too dry and Henry had made faces while Emma had lied to her face about how delicious it was and cleaned her whole plate to prove it. 

She tamps down the fondness that threatens to spread across her face and Hook says, “Sounds scrumptious,” and Emma doesn’t say anything at all, just glowers at the floor and nods curtly.

Emma’s mood carries over to the meal itself, where Regina pastes smiles on her face and Hook is on his best behavior and Henry is delighted to have all three of them present. He’s taken to Hook faster than he’d taken to Robin, though Regina suspects that that’s more the resentment of a child accustomed to being the center of his mother’s world. He’s still firmly in place there, but he’s wary of Robin regardless. 

But even Henry is noticing the storm cloud hovering over Emma, the way she doesn’t talk but stares at Regina with a belligerence she hasn’t seen since the curse had broken, and his timid attempts to engage Emma in conversation are met with one-word responses before she shifts back to glare at Regina again. “How’s the chicken, Emma?” Regina tries.

“Fine.”

“I didn’t see you at Granny’s this morning.” A shrug. “What are you and Henry doing this weekend?”

“I’ll figure something out.”

And patience only goes so far. She has little of it for immaturity, and even less of it for sulking; and Emma is doing both in spades. Regina has far too much at stake this meal to watch Emma shut them all out and Henry’s face fall. She isn’t hosting the pirate tonight for Emma to act like a child.

So she says in her sweetest voice, “Emma, why don’t you help me with dessert?” and yanks at Emma’s arm so hard that the other woman twists in her seat to give her an irritated scowl. It’s the most eye contact she’s gotten all night, and Regina glares right back and pulls again, half dragging Emma toward the kitchen.

“What the hell, Regina?”

“Oh, don’t you ‘what the hell’ me!” she snaps. She’s a queen and she doesn’t shovepeople, but she looms closer and closer to Emma until the other woman is back up against the counter and she can jab a finger at her chest. Emma has the unique ability to drive her to extreme levels of both affection and irritation, and tonight all the affection has been eclipsed by a distinct desire to let her magic free and transform Emma into something a bit less frustrating. Maybe a toad, just so she can watch Hook’s hapless attempts to kiss Emma out of it. “If I’d wanted to cope with a moody child, then I’d have taken away Henry’s xbox. Do try to act your age, Miss Swan, and if there’s something that I’ve done to offend you, get that damned chip off your shoulder and talk.”

It’s the park, it has to be, and Emma’s seen right through her attempts to shrug it off. Emma has little patience for artifice and even less for games, and while Regina excels at playing them, she’s beginning to regret her maneuver tonight. She sighs. “Or…don’t. I don’t care. I just care that our son-“ She jabs a thumb toward the dining room. “-was expecting a family dinner and instead you’ve been–“

Emma snaps forward, jerking forward so rapidly that Regina takes a step back. “Me? I’m the problem?” She shakes her head, disbelieving. “I’m not the one who invited fucking Hook here!”

It’s the last complaint Regina had been expecting. “Hook? What happened to things going well?”

“They’re fine,” Emma growls. “What the hell are you playing at?”

She blinks. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“You! This!” Emma throws up her hands. “We have a…a thing here! And you’re trying to screw it up because I said some dumb stuff at the park?” Her eyes are glowing with embers of a fire Regina still can’t comprehend, and she’s inanely struck by how stunning Emma is like this, blonde hair framing furious eyes like a sun gone supernova. 

She swallows, forcing herself back to the moment and not the way that Emma’s lips press together when she’s angry. “You’re upset that I’m making an effort to include this…man…you’ve decided is worth your while. I fail to see the problem.”

Emma’s clenching her teeth, twitching from side to side with her fists squeezed shut, and Regina is still equal parts bewildered and infuriated. She’s trying. She’s doing everything she can to preserve their friendship, even tolerating that damned pirate at her dining room table, and instead of thanking her, Emma is lashing out and irrational and the dessert is burning and nothing is happening as she’d planned. “Calm down,” she orders. “I will not have-“

“Of course you won’t. Because this is all about you and what you want, even if it was good before and it could be good again without all your fucking meddling,” Emma grits out cryptically. “You know what? Fuck this.” She’s still aflame when she shoves past Regina, nearly toppling her back against the oven, and Regina’s regaining her balance and opening her mouth to call back to Emma when the front door slams shut and Henry says, “Mom?”

“What?” she barks out, striding out into the dining room. Henry shrinks back and she winces. “I’m sorry, Henry. I didn’t mean to–“

“What happened to Ma?” he interrupts her, and oh god, his eyes are accusing like they haven’t been since before Neverland. She shrivels under his gaze, becoming nothing at all, and he sees her face fall and softens. “Why was she yelling at you?” he clarifies. His anger is sharp on her behalf and the realization of that impossibility nearly chokes her.

“I don’t…I don’t really know,” she says honestly.

He frowns, exchanging a glance with Hook, who’s watching them both with enough of a pout that Regina knows that he’d heard Emma’s irrational bout of fury at his invite. “You should go after her,” Henry decides. “I’m sure you guys will work it out.” He chews on his lip. “You haven’t fought like this since you were evil.”

“I’m not going after her.” She manages not to flinch too hard when he calls her evil, or to make a point that his new best friend gladly worked with her mother and had tried to kill his grandfather on multiple occasions. Though Rumple, to be fair, had had it coming. “I won’t condone this…brattiness, even from Emma. If she wants to grow up and come back and apologize to you for ruining dinner, then she’ll have to do it on her own.”

Henry looks like he’s got more to say but she holds up a hand, staving off his protests. “Let’s have dessert,” she decides, and forces the smile from earlier back onto her face.

+

It’s become an alien feeling to be this irritated with Emma Swan and she copes with it by obsessively cleaning the whole dining room and kitchen after the meal. She scrubs the table until it shines and notes with annoyance the grubby fingerprints that Hook had left behind and with muted fondness the scuff marks on the inner leg of the table by Emma’s regular seat. And then, of course, sudden despair.

Emma being angry with her is nearly as crippling as Henry’s fury had once been for her. She nearly gets her coat twice, wondering if there’s something- anything- she can do to win Emma’s affection back, to erase this fight completely and start over knowing what has Emma so angry. But both times she doesn’t make it anywhere near the door before she reminds herself that it’s Emma who’s the problem, who had ruined dinner and shouted at her and hadn’t made sense at all.

She sits down with a book for the evening and turns pages and thinks only of Emma and burning eyes and the woman backed up against the counter close enough for them to breathe in sync, and her mind is wandering to places she normally refuses to visit when her phone rings. It’s Robin’s name on the screen and she starts guiltily, shifting her position as she answers. “Hello?”

The voice on the other end is slurred, half-unintelligible, and definitely not Robin’s. “See, I can be friends with your boyfriend too,” Emma mumbles triumphantly into the phone.

“Emma.” She closes her eyes, at once relieved and furious again. “Where are you? What are you doing with Robin’s phone?”

“Robin.” Her voice is scornful even through the haziness of much too much to drink. “What kind of person is named after a bird? Not even a patri-patriotic one like an eagle. Maybe he is a bird.”

“Oh, like Swan is much of an improvement?” Robin scoffs at the same volume from the other end. There’s a loud buzz of noise in the background and he sounds equally inebriated. Emma must have showed him how to put his phone on speaker because she hadn’t taught him much more than how to dial her number. “You’re neither tall nor graceful.” He laughs at himself and Emma groans with displeasure and Regina rolls her eyes through sudden panic.

“Wait. You two are drunk. Together?”

“Afraid of what I might say?” A mulish female voice. And no, Regina’s not afraid what Emma might say as much as what Robin knows and won’t discuss sober, what she can’t afford to have out there between the two of them. 

“Are you at the Rabbit Hole?” She waits for the dutiful acquiescence from them both before she slams her phone down and snatches up her car keys and runs out of the house as quickly as she can. 

She nearly runs over one of the dwarves- Happy, she thinks, as he shakes his fist after her and shouts out curses after her that he wouldn’t have dared say if he’d known who was driving- and makes it to the bar in record time, slamming on the brakes and double-parking in front of the entrance before she makes it inside.

Emma is slouched over a glass at the bar and Robin is slouched over in the same position beside her, matching with blond hair above green coats (She’d bought both of them, but Emma’s is bright and Robin’s is the muted color of forest) and when she peers through the crowd it looks as though they’re… (She leans forward, frowning) …holding hands?

No. She rolls her eyes, disgusted with them both, and hangs back. She has no desire to get in the middle of some drunken arm wrestling. Robin’s hand slams down on the bar and Emma laughs raucously. “Ha!” she crows, pulling her arm out of her coat and rolling up her sleeve to display it to their audience. “You can’t match these muscles.”

“That’s nothing,” Robin manages, his words all running together as he struggles to pull out his own bicep. “Look at these.” He flexes and preens and Regina cannotbelieve that she cares so much about these two idiots. And also that Emma’s upper arms seem to have gotten even more toned than they’d been in Neverland. 

“You shoot arrows,” Emma points out, squinting hard at him. “I have a gun.” She tries to pull it out but instead grabs her wallet and waves that around instead. She cocks her head as she eyes it, then nods sharply and extracts a bill. “Keep them coming,” she orders the bartender and Regina scowls. It’s time to make her presence known, before–

Robin lets loose a deep belly laugh like Regina’s never heard before. “I know how to handle sheriffs who try to steal my lady regardless of their weapon of choice,” he says, and Regina freezes.

Emma’s eyebrows jump up and down and she gulps down a glass of something golden brown and shudders. “This is your fault,” she announces. “Seducing Regina with your perfect little son and your perfect little pixie dust and your perfect little fairytale.” She swallows again, theatrical enough that Regina can see her throat shift with the movement. “Why don’t you like me?” It comes out in a whine, pitched just high enough to be unpleasant. “You’re gonna make Regina not like me again.”

“As though Regina would ever stop liking you,” Robin says gloomily, moving his glass so the liquid inside sloshes within it.

“She likes you more,” Emma says in the exact same tone. “I bet you’ve even been in her bedroom.”

Robin straightens and Regina grits her teeth, stepping forward. “Many times.” He’s nearly preening. She is never letting him drink again. Or letting him go anywhere near Emma Swan again. They seem to bring out the worst in each other. 

Emma slouches lower until her chin hits the bar. “I don’t even know what color her sheets are,” she mutters. Regina’s right behind them now, close enough that she thinks she can hear Emma but she must have been mistaken or Emma must be very, very drunk. “I don’t get it. Regina has standards, okay? She’d never date a guy in flannel.” She rests her head on the table, staring up at Robin with one flannel-sleeved arm propped up behind her. “Graham was way sexier than you and she didn’t even like him. I think she killed him,” she says, furrowing her brow.

Regina’s been eavesdropping for too long, and she can feel old discomfort creeping through her, struggling to make itself known. She hastily slips between them before Emma can say anything more and Emma slides her head to the side to regard her blearily. “Did you kill Graham?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Regina counters, suddenly weary.

Emma shakes her head with vigorous bobbing from side to side that sends her hair flying into her glass. Robin sniggers.

“I’m glad you both think that my past crimes are hilarious in this state.” She sighs. “But I’d rather just get you both home.”

“Are you gonna take him back to your bedroom?” Emma demands. “Is this a bedroom night? His hair isn’t even real blond, it’s dirty blond. I bet he dyes it.”

“Noted. Can you stand?” They both can, with varying degrees of success, and she doesn’t miss Emma’s triumphant gloating when Regina determines that Emma needs the most help walking and slides her arm around her waist as they make their way to the car. Drunk Emma is a mystery to her, more so than even sober Emma, and she doesn’t dare entertain hopes that sober Emma would never follow through on.

Robin gets dropped off outside of the path to the cabin in the woods that he and his men have commandeered and then she steers them back past main street toward Emma’s home in silence. She isn’t sure if she’s more furious or humiliated or flustered at this point at both of them, and she simmers in frenetic indecision as she drives.

Finally, she speaks, and it’s neither as angry nor as perplexed as she means it to be. “I’m not going to dislike you regardless of how Robin feels.” It’s not what she’d meant to say, either. That had been a lecture about her liver and her dinner behavior and apparently her inability to get through a meal with Hook without being driven to drink. But instead she’s talking about something else and Emma is a child who deserves no such reassurance except she does because Emma is everything.

“I don’t like him,” Emma says sleepily. Her head is resting against the front seat and she’s gazing at Regina through lidded eyes. “I don’t want to be friends with him.”

“No one is forcing you to.” She thinks about commenting on the irony that they’re ridiculously similar in nearly every way, except Robin is perceptively prudent and Emma has about the subtlety of a raging elephant and the same confrontational behavior as one, too.

Which is why it’s not a surprise when she says, “I don’t want you to be friends with Hook.”

What a tragedy. Really. “I’m beginning to understand that.” She glances back at Emma and sees that her eyes are already closed, her breathing evening out. “Why is that?”

Emma shrugs, her eyes still shut. “It makes it real. It makes him family.” She opens one eye to offer a Regina a baleful glare, as though demanding why haven’t you figured this out?. “He doesn’t get that.”

She can’t deny the way her heart sings at that, the way it shudders against her chest with indisputable relief. Good. Their family is theirs, hers and Emma’s and Henry’s alone, and Hook has no place in it. Even Robin has no place there, which is why he’s never even invited himself over on the nights she has Emma come. She winces, suddenly understanding Emma’s earlier moodiness for what it had been. Irrational, probably, and it galls at her even now that her overtures had been taken so badly. But not all unwarranted. Not entirely. “I see.”

Emma swallows noisily. “I said all that stuff at the park and I scared you, right?” She glares again, intent and sharp, and Regina shivers under her gaze. She should deny it, should point out that it had been Regina herself who’d gone too far and admitted things she shouldn’t have, but Emma’s eyes are flashing and Regina can’t argue with that fire, can only step back so she might not be scorched to ashes. 

“I’m not sorry,” Emma says, and Regina’s left wondering what exactly had happened at the park that Emma has to not apologize for. All of it, she supposes. Maybe running off when Regina had nearly said enough to sabotage their friendship. “I’m not.” 

She curls her hands into shaking fists and Regina says “Okay,” with no idea what she’s agreeing to.

 

Chapter Text

vii. four o’clock in the morning (and the sounds of whispers downstairs)

She hears the low thumping of footsteps downstairs and slips out of bed, checking briefly on Henry and Roland to be sure that they’re not the culprits before she spreads a hand and summons a fireball from it. “Show yourself!” she says sharply, stepping onto the ground floor and toward the living room.

She gets only a whining, “Too bright,” in response, and flickering light fades from her palm as she catches sight of Emma, stretched out on her couch with an arm flung over her eyes and her head on a throw pillow.

It’s three o’clock in the morning, she’s never given Emma the keys to her house, and Robin is asleep upstairs, but all she can think to say is, “Are you all right?”

“No. I’m an idiot.” Emma peers out from under her arm, and Regina flicks on one of the dim reading lamps and sits on the couch opposite her, tugging at her robe where it stops above her knees.

“If this revelation is keeping you up at night, I have to tell you–“

“I tried to end things with Hook.”

The elation that soars through her is by no means unexpected and is certainly useless, but the dismay that follows it has her leaning forward, her fingers tangling with each other on her lap. “Tried?”

Emma doesn’t shift, just groans and drops her hand to dangle on the floor. “I picked the lock here in…like, two minutes. You need a better security system. You know, if our son is sleeping in the house.”

“Really.” She lights another fireball in response, and Emma’s eyes shift to the space between her thighs that it illuminates with vague interest. Regina flushes and extinguishes it. “Tried, Emma?”

“It took half the night for me to convince him that I was serious, okay?” Emma says exasperatedly. “He kept insisting that he was going to keep fighting for my heart and that he was going to win it someday even if he took a step back and I had to tell him that I didn’t want him to try and win me over and I didn’t want him at all.” Her voice is agitated but her body barely moves, her chest rising and falling unevenly as she stares at the ceiling. “And so he said he was going to leave town. That it was too painful to be around me then.”

She hates to empathize with the pirate, but she understands the sentiment all too well, even if it agitates Emma this much. She’s far too attached to Emma herself. Losing their friendship alone would be enough to break her, though she can’t imagine giving up and going away when she still has that to cling to.

“And that’s a load of crap, right? He couldn’t possibly love me so much that he’d just give up on every relationship he’s formed here just because I dumped him? I mean, he has friends here! He has my dad and Tink and some of the Lost Boys and Henry idolizes him and I thought…” Her voice is small. “I thought we’d been friends before this. I care about him.”

Ah. “So you accepted his ultimatum.”

Emma frowns at her. “Don’t call it that. It wasn’t like he was manipulating me. I just…I’m not hinging everyone else’s happiness– my happiness, even if it isn’t what I– on trying to ruin…” Her voice wavers. “You’re so happy, Regina. I want you to be happy.” She smiles with only her eyes, shining out across the room, and Regina can’t move in the presence of them. “I never thought we’d get here, but I want you to be happy.”

It’s three o’clock in the morning and she’s searching for answers where she craves them instead of where Emma’s actually offering them. “I don’t understand,” she says finally. “If you and the pirate have settled things, then shouldn’t you be there now…minting your renewed relationship?” Her lips curls with distaste. It’s the closest she’s ever gotten to contemplating the two of them together, and she’d do just as well never doing so again. For Emma’s safety, I hope he removes that damned hook beforehand.

Emma’s face mirrors her own. “Ew, stop thinking about it.” Regina’s mouth twists and she gets a throw pillow hurled at her knees for it. “No, we didn’t do anything. Hook thinks we had a fight. Or I’m getting cold feet because I’m-“ She hooks her fingers into quotes. “‘feeling too much.’ Or something. He’s giving me space. And I…”

She props herself up for a minute, eyes very solemn as she catches Regina’s gaze and holds on to it. Regina’s wearing a robe wrapped tightly around herself but she’s never felt so exposed as she does under Emma’s gaze in this moment, bare and open in the shadows of the night. “I’ve never been pursued like this before. And having someone fight like this for me…I thought it was good for me. Mary Margaret says that I’m so closed off that I needed someone to break through my defenses.” Emma sighs. “Maybe she’s right. But now that it’s actually happening, I just feel like…”

She falls silent, lips pressing together until they’re thin and turning white, and Regina prompts, “Like…?”

“A trophy.”

Oh. Emma looks so downcast and startled at her admission that Regina suspects that it’s the first time that she’s admitted it even to herself. “I’m not unfamiliar with that feeling,” she says softly. 

A daughter. A wife. A stepmother. Part of why she’d loved Daniel so ardently from the start had been his absolute lack of expectations from her, the way he’d looked at her every time she’d kissed him as though he couldn’t believe that she was his. She’d fallen apart and been pieced together again with every moment they’d had.

She pushes aside the past, unwilling to dwell on anyone else when Emma’s coming apart in front of her. “Though I’ve never been pursued either,” she murmurs. “And I can imagine that a pirate would be more interested in buried treasure than in the equally precious one revealed before him.”

Emma sits up, furrowed brow casting shadows across her face. “Sorry, but…you’venever been pursued? You?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I moved quickly from hapless girl with a terrifying mother to equally terrifying queen and mayor.”

“Mayor MILF,” Emma mutters, and Regina does a double take.

“What was that?”

Emma falls back to the couch, her hand over her eyes again. “Nothing.” 

She sighs, and Regina suggests timidly, “Henry pursued you, too, didn’t he?” She’s gotten the impression that Emma had never intended to stay in town for Henry, even when he’d begged her, and her real impetus had been Regina provoking her. Which she can’t say she’s sorry about, in hindsight.

Emma laughs when she mentions it. “It’s not the same. But yeah, I think you had more to do with me staying than Henry himself at first.”

“Not that you weren’t just as quick to provoke me,” Regina feels obligated to point out.

“Oh, really?” Emma turns her head to eye Regina under her arm. “On a scale of harmless mom to evil queen, how threatening is showing up at my door with a basket of apples first thing in the morning?”

“On a scale of Mary Margaret Blanchard to Emma Swan, how unnecessarily aggressive is taking a power tool to the mayor’s tree on your first day in town?” She crosses her legs and leans back expectantly.

“You had me arrested!”

“You had it coming!” But they’re both grinning, the bite long gone from their conversations and replaced with this strange affection they’ve developed for each other. The savior and the evil queen, having a sleepover party in the living room while their son sleeps upstairs. “You didn’t believe me, that first day. When you had the audacity to question my love for Henry.”

Emma shakes her head. “Yeah, I don’t think audacity even covers it, knowing what I do now.” An automatic warning finger in her direction. “No hating on the superpower!”

A smirk. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Emma rubs her eyes, thoughtful. “But I…I think a part of me didn’t want to believe you even then. You can say that Henry was chasing me, but despite myself, I actuallywanted him to. I wanted to know him. I wanted to love him.”

And there’s the question that lingers, the one that Emma herself doesn’t seem to know the answer to. “And do you want to love Hook?”

“I should.” But that’s not an answer at all, and Emma knows it. “He’s so easy. And what kind of asshole am I if I don’t and I keep him around just because I don’t want him to go?” She inhales, breathes out with a sigh. “I could love him, if we keep this up. I don’t know if it’d be…what he wants, but…”

“You’ve never promised him anything more than what you’ve given him, Emma. You’ve been honest with him, and he’s chosen to be happy with it.”

“You’re so happy,” Emma whispers. “I want you to be happy.”

Something wrenches inside of her. “You’re so busy worrying about everyone else’s happiness that you don’t think about yourself,” she retorts. “Maybe it’s time you gave up what you think will make Hook or your parents or me happy and considered that.”

Emma shrugs, warding off her words with the movement of her shoulders. “I’m supposed to be ensuring happy endings. I’m supposed to be the savior.”

“Because Rumplestiltskin wrote it into a curse.” Because their lives have been built on that curse and around it and now that it’s over and been wrung dry of any meaning, they’re both without direction and left circling each other, as it had been foretold from the start. “He wrote me into it as an evil queen, and I’ve spent years working to cast off that title.” 

It’s almost four in the morning, and Emma’s eyes are suddenly glittering with unshed tears as Regina plows on. “Maybe it’s time you did the same. Maybe it’s time you stopped surrendering to Hook for putting you first and worked on putting yourself first instead.”

Emma laughs. It’s a wet, sharp sound, and Regina is suddenly longing to cross the distance between them, to take Emma into her arms and hold her like she does Henry after a bad dream. “Fuck, this is such a mess. I think I’m starting to miss the good old days when there were curses to break and magical hand…stuff and everything wassimple.” She perks up. “Hey, wanna cast a new curse together? That should keep things interesting. We can co-mayor the town and lock up anyone who tries to break it. Someone keeps stealing my parking spot on Mondays and I think the mayoral office should get involved.” She’s smiling, but there’s an odd kind of desperation to it, darkness lurking behind the humor.

Regina arches a brow, choosing to overlook it for now. “You want us to give up the thing we love most? Again?”

“Spoilsport,” Emma grumbles good-naturedly. 

She yawns, and Regina glances at the clock. “I have a guest bedroom upstairs, if you want. You don’t need to stay on the couch.”

“I like your couch. It smells like apples.”

“You mean the cider you spilled on it on your birthday.”

Emma doesn’t catch the halfhearted disapproval in her voice. Or chooses to ignore it. “Whatever.”

“You should go to sleep, Emma. You can figure this out in the morning.” She can feel tiredness catching up with her, too, only exacerbated by their conversation. “As much as it pains me to admit it, if Hook has the capacity to give you the love and happiness you want, maybe he’s worth it. But…” 

She chooses her words with care, acutely aware of Emma’s eyes on her. “You deserve so much more than settling for someone who will never be good enough for you,” she manages, and her heart clenches. Emma is brash and annoying and has a terrible hero complex and no concept of privacy or personal space or tact. 

And it’s impossible to conceive of anyone who could be good enough to touch her. 

It galls at her that the pirate had ever thought he’d had a chance, that he could ever be enough for Emma Swan, when she’s so beyond his level. Beyond any of their levels. It galls at her that Emma has ever contemplated loving him.

She grits her teeth together, a fury she can’t name directed inward, and Emma says again, softer than before, “You’re so happy, Regina.” 

It’s the third time she’s said it tonight, and Regina still doesn’t know what to make of it. “What do you want me to say, Emma?”

Emma yawns again, her eyes lidding closed. “You don’t want to know that.”

“I do.” She knits her fingers together, uncomprehending.

When she looks up, Emma is watching her, sleepy eyes open again. “I want you to lie to me.” She says it almost voicelessly, and Regina has to stop breathing to hear it. “I want you to tell me you aren’t happy. I want…I want so many selfish, miserable things.”

Is there still a part of Emma that hates her, that envies what she has now? She blinks back tears that spring up from exhaustion more than despair. She’d stopped believing that she still deserved any happiness sometime around the moment Pan’s curse had hit; and all the moments since then, every minute with Henry and Emma and those two idiots she definitely doesn’t care about, has felt like borrowed time stolen from those she’s hurt over the years. Emma’s called it a martyr complex and snapped at her about it during their fight with Zelena. As though remorse hadn’t been a long time coming. As though Emma with her savior complex is one to talk.

And Robin. Robin makes her happy, too, and loves her in ways she isn’t capable of giving back to him. Not as long as Emma Swan exists and has such bright eyes that see through her at four o’clock in the morning, and she chokes back her emotions and says, “All right.” Emma’s eyes are open again, fixed on her, her breathing ragged as she stares at Regina. “I’m not happy, Emma. Not truly.”

She watches as Emma’s breath evens out, as the other woman doesn’t shift her gaze from Regina’s, and she stares back as long as she can until Emma murmurs, “I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?“ But Emma’s eyes are closed now, the blonde-haloed figure on the couch surrendering to slumber at last, and Regina pulls herself up to stand and goes to find a light blanket in the closet.

She lays it across Emma’s body, daring to stroke her hair away from her face, and bends to brush a kiss across her cool forehead. “Good night,” she whispers, and Emma’s lips curl upwards unconsciously.


viii. the status quo (four people in her arms)

It’s Henry’s birthday today, the first she’s shared with him in two years, and she’s feeling inexplicably emotional about it. She remembers the two before that, even, the sullen little boy who’d wanted anyone but her with him, and when she wakes up in the morning she calls Emma and fumbles over what she wants.

Emma understands before she does and takes over the planning and now Regina’s walking with Robin and Roland to Granny’s, the pressure of the birthday fading, and she turns to smile down at Roland just as she spots Emma and Henry sitting opposite Hook at one of the tables and smirking at something he’d said. 

Three grins widen when they catch sight of each other and Henry hops out of his booth and makes a beeline for her. “Mom!” he says, beaming, and she’s unmade and rebuilt anew with his arms wrapped around her. “You came!”

“Of course I did.” She senses Emma’s eyes on her from across the room, warm and attentive, and she feels a corresponding warmth in her chest as Robin moves away to give her and Henry some space.

She remembers Henry’s second-to-last birthday, at the height of the tension post-Cora between the Charmings and her. She’d sat inside and fumed and wept and watched as around midday, a familiar yellow car had rounded her street, paused, and then driven on. I didn’t know how to deal with you, Emma had said in Neverland, in a frank moment they’d managed one night while their companions had slept around them. Sometimes I felt like the villain. Sometimes I felt like you’d brought this all on yourself. And I couldn’t risk Henry.

She’d scoffed then and she still scoffs at the thought of it now, because she’d have never harmed Henry and it still burns that Emma could have believed otherwise for so much of that first year post-curse. 

But really, what else could she have done?

She bites back recriminations that have no place at Henry’s party and makes her way to the counter where Robin is passing her cake to Granny and talking to Tink. Leo is in Granny’s arms and he’s briskly handed into hers as Granny takes the cake away. 

“Hello, Emma Junior,” she coos, rocking him. Anything’s better than calling him by his actual name. “Have you been keeping Snow up all night?” Henry gives her a lookfollowed by a well-learned Emma Swan eyeroll and she hums, “Destroying her happiness if it’s the last thing I do,” as Leo snuffles approvingly.

There are more adolescents than adults at this party, which makes it the most successful birthday party that Henry’s had since preschool, and Regina leans against the counter while everyone eats, rocking Leo in her arms and watching Henry interact with his friends. She does her best not to look at Emma and Hook, still together even after that night.

She’s…disappointed. She’d thought that Emma had been ready to get rid of the pirate for good, to put herself first and finally give up on letting others’ expectations define her. But now Emma’s sitting with him and laughing as though that night had never happened, as though she isn’t worth so much more, and-

“You’re brooding.” Emma snatches Leo from her arms and passes him back to Granny, bumping her shoulder against Regina’s as she joins her at the counter.

“I am not.”

Emma raises her eyebrows. “You’ve been glaring straight ahead for the past five minutes. Nick Zimmer has been too terrified to eat.” The boy is directly in her path, head ducked down and cheeks very pale. 

She forces a smile and turns away from him. “I was…thinking.”

“About Henry.” It’s not a question, and Regina doesn’t correct Emma. “You know, I used to light a candle on a cupcake for him every year, back before Storybrooke.” Emma shakes her head. “I didn’t let myself think about him the rest of the time, but on the day he was born…” A sad smile graces her face, and Regina reaches out to squeeze her hand before she remembers herself. Her hand hovers awkwardly, inches from Emma’s. “I’d light the candle, and then I’d blow it out and throw out the damn muffin. And then I’d go out and get so wasted that I wouldn’t be able to think about him again.” 

She laughs, and Regina allows herself a soft chuckle. “That does sound like you.” Her hand drops to its side, brushing against Emma’s as they shift in place. “I had no idea you had so many regrets when it came to Henry.”

“I didn’t. I did.” She sighs. “I wanted him to have his best chance. And I guess I wanted to be the one to give it to him, somewhere deep down. So for that one day…” Her voice trails off, and she catches Regina’s hand in hers. “I’m glad it was you he got in the end. Despite everything, I’m glad it was you.”

Regina turns as Emma does the same, and she drops Emma’s hand as she stares at her, possessed by a sudden urge to hug the other woman. They’ve never done thatbefore, never gotten closer than stray touches and sitting side-by-side, and she’s never felt more awkward as she lurches forward, her hands sliding around Emma’s waist.

Emma takes a deep breath that she can feel too and then there are strong arms tightening around her, pulling her closer. And oh, this was a mistake, a bad, bad mistake, because Emma smells just like she always does and feels warm and soft and the curve of her neck is just high enough for Regina to bury her face into skin and silky hair and Emma’s fingers are gentle against her back as Emma pulls her closer, close enough for them to melt into each other. Regina’s had her share of dalliances, but none of them have felt as intimate as this moment where Emma Swan has her in her arms and she’s so safe, so loved–

She feels the rush of panic hit her even as the steady rhythm of Emma’s breathing dulls it, and she knows she should pull away before this all gets even worse for her. But self-preservation is helpless against its ultimate foe, and she knows she’s been hugging Emma for far longer than propriety allows but she can feel the smoothness of Emma’s shoulder against her lips and Emma’s cheek is pressed to her own neck now and Emma murmurs her name once and she doesn’t know how to stop any of this.

A throat is cleared behind them and Regina starts, her head jerking up to meet Granny’s sympathetic eyes. The woman nods to the rest of the diner and Regina turns her head to see more than a few sets of eyes on them, faces inquisitive or satisfied or confused, and how long had that hug gone on for, anyway? 

“Emma!” she hisses, and the blonde lets her go reluctantly. She refuses to focus on the sense of loss when Emma releases her, refuses to focus on anything except the way that Henry’s grinning and Snow looks vaguely puzzled and Robin’s face is a mask. 

Except then she dares to look back at Emma, who’s still staring at her instead of the rest of the room, and Emma whispers, “Hi,” and Regina flees out the door.

The door opens behind her when she’s halfway out of the outdoor seating area and she turns, seeing blonde hair and a dark jacket before she processes that it isn’t Emma who’s followed her. “What are you doing?” Tink demands, sounding as though she’s verging on tears.

“Getting some fresh air?” She isn’t leaving, though she wants to. Not on Henry’s birthday. She just needs…time. Away from Emma and Robin and whatever people might have thought they’d seen in there.  

Tink shakes her head. “Not about that, Regina. I saw you! I saw how you were with Emma just now.” Wide eyes are angry and panicky, and Regina thinks, not for the first time, that it may have been a mistake to have a friend so invested in her romantic life. “Why are you so desperate to ruin everything good that happens to you?”

“I’m not ruining anything,” she says helplessly, because maybe Tink’s right this time. She oversteps and acts entitled and blames Regina for things that haven’t even gone wrong, but if she’d seen something more in the scene they’d both just left, then others might have, too. Robin certainly had, and she swallows new guilt at knowing that, knowing that he’s probably humiliated and uncomfortable and she’s done this to him.

“Don’t you think Robin deserves better than this? After all you’ve done to him by refusing to be happy in the past, you’re going to destroy his future right along with your own.” The righteous indignation is burning on Tink’s face and Regina wavers again.

She hadn’t ruined Robin’s life by not meeting him back when she’d been a queen. She doesn’t blame herself- she isn’t Emma, convinced that she’s the only one responsible for everyone’s happy endings. But now it’s harder to deny, in this new world where Robin loves her and she…

“I rather believe that’s up to me to decide,” says an accented voice behind Tink, and Regina looks up and sees Robin at the door, his face still and hard as he speaks. “And it’s between Regina and me, not you.”

Tink stares from Regina to Robin, frustration evident on her face. “You don’t understand,” she finally spits out, and storms inside with one last teary-eyed glare back at Regina.

She feels guilty again, equally frustrated, and she doesn’t shift when Robin moves to stand beside her, a hand resting on her back. It feels wrong there today, too heavy and large, but she doesn’t feel as though she has the right to move. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, because they don’t talk about this and that’s the closest they can get.

“I know you are.” They’re both somber now, silent as the sounds of Henry’s party emanate from the building in front of them.

It comes as a surprise when Robin says, “The other night. When Emma slept on your couch. I thought she’d ended things with the good Captain.” Emma had been belligerent and half-awake at breakfast and she and Robin had engaged in some unspoken juvenile race to finish their pancakes first, and Regina had kicked both of them out of her house in response and sent them to work while Henry and Roland had snickered over their breakfast. Regina had thought that it would be filed away with the rest of the Emma-related issues they don’t discuss.

“Yes. I mean no.” She’s flustered, caught off guard, and Robin watches her with an even gaze. “She was going to. But I suppose she decided not to. I think she just wanted to be happy.”

Robin’s hand stiffens against her. “Imagine that.”

“He’s probably not her…her first choice. But Emma’s lived so much of her life without having people, without love.” She knows her face has taken on a cast of tenderness at the thought of Emma and how she herself had helped to doom her to that life as an infant. She knows that Robin has shifted to watch her as she speaks. “She won’t give up on someone who can give her some happiness, not even to risk the idea that she could someday find what she wants most.”

She meets his eyes, suddenly unsure whom they’re talking about. “And she does care about him, very deeply. Even if it can’t be everything he craves from her,” she says softly. “I’m…I’m sure it eats at her. I’m sure she doesn’t know why he keeps trying when she can’t give him all he needs.”

Robin offers her an unsteady smile. “He is an outlaw, too,” he murmurs. “We’re accustomed to trying to take treasures that don’t belong to us and make them our own.”

She closes her eyes because she can’t bear to see the pain in his eyes anymore, and he pulls her closer and folds her into a hug. It’s stifling and they don’t fit right and it goes on far too long, and she opens her eyes and stares over his shoulder at the open door to Granny’s and Emma in one of the far booths, sitting with her parents and Hook and sneaking glances back at her. 


ix. an overture, unexpected (damn it all and damn them all)

“You’re wearing  that ?” Henry’s sitting on the couch, legs drawn up against his chin as he eyes her up and down.

She purses her lips at his tone. A year spent living with Emma has only exacerbated a certain irreverence in him that wavers between endearing and frustrating. Much like his other mother. “I’ve been wearing this all day.”

“Yeah, for being the mayor! Not for going out with Ma.” 

He shakes his head and she glances down, suddenly self-conscious. She’s wearing a fairly conservative suit jacket over a dress, grey and black and neat and expensive, and she’s worn it dozens of times before when she and Emma had gotten coffee together or done dinner. It’s nothing special. Because tonight is nothing special. 

“Henry, I think you have…expectations about tonight that just aren’t true,” she begins delicately. “Your mother’s been spending too much time with that pirate and now she’s one step away from alcohol poisoning. She needs a designated driver, and since I’d have to pick her up anyway, I’m just supervising her all night instead. Because she’s a child,” she adds, rolling her eyes. “A stellar role model, she insists.”

But Henry’s grinning, undeterred by her explanation. “So she asked you out. And you’re wearing work clothes.” He casts another disapproving look at her ensemble.

“She didn’t ask me out. We eat out together all the time.”

“Yeah, but that’s at work during the day or here at night. You never go out at night.” Henry ducks his chin down onto legs that have grown full inches in the past month. “It’s not like she’s inviting you because you’re the life of the party, Mom.”

She scowls at his smirk. Much too much time with Emma. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m fun. I once set fire to a…” He tilts his head interestedly and her voice trails off. “Anyway. That is not a conversation for now. I hope you’ll make better choices than both your mothers someday.”

She nods sharply and walks out of the house, Henry laughing behind her.

Emma’s yellow Bug is idling in the driveway, Emma leaning against it and scrolling through her phone as she waits. She brightens when the door slams and looks up. “Regina! You…um…you look really nice.”

“Are you critiquing my outfit too?” She’s flushing, which is ridiculous because this iscasual, just as she’d told Henry. Emma had been in her office this morning and had spent so much time venting about Hook that Regina had snidely suggested that she drink away her troubles again, and somehow she’d been roped into this designated driver duty. There’s no hidden meaning to this outing, and there doesn’t have to be, either. Can’t two co-parents go out for drinks without their son casting aspersions?

Emma offers her a bemused half-smile. “No, I just think you look good.” Her eyes drift downward to appraise Regina again, the smile still on her face, and it’s one of the most winsome things Regina has ever seen. She grits her teeth together as Emma grins. “Wanna head out? I thought we’d go to the Pridelands tonight.”

“Not your usual fare, is it? Don’t you prefer that squalor-ridden alcohol nest?”

Emma shrugs, reaching to pull the passenger door open for Regina. “I can afford the squalor-ridden alcohol nest. But you’re a little too classy for the Rabbit Hole.”

She stiffens, grabbing the door handle before Emma can get it. “You don’t need to do that,” she says quickly. “You shouldn’t…this isn’t…” And then she falls silent with a sigh. There’s nothing that she can say right now that won’t make this situation even more awkward, especially not while Emma watches her worriedly, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she glances from Regina’s eyes to her wavering lips. “Never mind,” she finally mutters, sliding into the seat and slamming the door behind her.

The Pridelands is the upper-class bar in town, the kind Emma really can’t afford, and Regina vows silently that she’ll pick up the tab for the night. Between friends, of course, no matter that Emma’s actually changed out of the jeans she’d been wearing when she’d dropped Henry off earlier and into a short skirt and leggings. The Pridelands has a strict dress code, and Emma’s just self-conscious enough to worry about that in advance.

And she appreciates Emma’s conscientiousness. So she does pause when they exit the car and murmurs, “You do too.”

“Huh?”

She nods at the dark burgundy blouse that’s definitely one of her own and the skirt below it. “Look good.” 

“Uh.” Emma’s pale enough that she can see the progression of the redness that begins at her neck and spreads outward, up to her ears and along her cheekbones until freckles are standing out beneath it. Regina watches, fascinated, and Emma’s cheeks get even darker. “Thanks. This shirt is yours, actually.”

“Oh, I know, Miss Swan,” Regina purrs, slinking past her and hearing a low gulp from Emma in response. She regrets it only once they’re in the bar and Emma is sitting opposite her in one of the booths, still flushed as though it’s too hot in here.

Which it is. Damn lions. She unbuttons her second button automatically, and Emma perks up. Damn lions.

The food here is exquisite, some of the best in town and certainly the best anyone could get at a bar, so she insists that Emma taste the salmon and Emma grimaces her way through it. “It’s not that bad!” she protests when she sees Regina’s death glare on her. “It’s just not my style.”

“Is ground beef and fries really a style?” Regina shoots back, wrinkling her nose. “I hardly think that anything with more grease than edible content is even considered food.”

Emma leans forward, smirking. “Oh please, like you don’t eat all my fries when I order them. You think I don’t notice that every time I look away you grab a couple?”

Those are communal fries, and it’s not like Emma doesn’t get cranky whenever she takes them. Her companion’s reaction is generally even more delicious than the fries, which is why she does it. Not because they’re…decent. “Is that your other superpower? Hoarding food?”

“Maybe.” Emma waggles her eyebrows. “My fries, my rules– hey!” She reaches for her fork but Regina’s already digging into the salmon, sectioning off a piece for herself and popping it into her mouth. “I was eating that!”

“You didn’t appreciate it enough,” Regina informs her, pulling the salmon off her fork with her teeth and licks at it once her mouth is closed, tasting the juices that flavor it. Her eyes flutter shut appreciatively. “Food hoarder.”

When she opens them again, Emma is staring at her, looking a bit dumbfounded. She swallows, a rush of self-consciousness overtaking her. “Shouldn’t you be drowning your sorrows in high-priced whiskey right about now?”

“You haven’t driven me to drink,” Emma says wanly, and then she mutters, “Yet,” under her breath, just loud enough for Regina to hear.

She narrows her eyes. “And the pirate?” She regrets mentioning him immediately, tainting what’s been a fairly bearable (okay, better than bearable) night thus far with mention of Emma’s damned shadow, but Emma’s already shrugging and looking distant and maybe that’s how this has to be, anyway.

Emma spears a piece of broccoli off Regina’s plate and eyes it suspiciously rather than answering. “You know that Henry’s been avoiding him since his birthday?”

“What do you mean? He’s been over at your house almost every day this week.” He’s been coming home earlier than usual, and more often in David’s truck than the Bug, but he also hasn’t mentioned any friction or discomfort there.

Emma shrugs. “I didn’t even notice at first, but he’s turned down two trips on the Jolly Roger to go riding and when Hook offered to come along to the stables, he flat-out refused. He never passes up time with Hook.” She frowns. “I don’t know if Hook said something to offend him or not, but if he did…”

“You’ll finally decide that he isn’t making everyone happy and give up on him?” Regina suggests, a little too interestedly.

She gets an elaborate eyeroll for it. “You know, I’m not that much of a pushover, Regina. I just care about our son’s happiness.” 

There’s hurt in Emma’s voice, the kind that they’d never been able to bring out in each other before recently, and maybe that’s why Regina doesn’t catch it until after she hears accusation instead. “Are you implying that I don’t? I’ve tolerated that insipid, obsessive man around him for far too long. For his sake!” And she surges forward, still stung, and sneers, “Certainly not for yours.”

Emma’s eyes darken, the hurt finally strong enough to register in Regina’s mind. “Okay,” she says slowly. “I’m gonna get some of that whiskey now.” She blinks twice, a disconsolate expression fleeting over her face before she replaces it with the patented Emma Swan mask of steel, and guilt bubbles up at once, overwhelming her in an instant.

“Emma, wait.” She’s reaching out to Emma without thinking about it, taking the blonde’s hand in hers over the plate of salmon. “I’m sorry. I just…I really don’t like Hook.”

Emma laughs, squeezing her hand gently until the tension fades from between them and Regina remembers how to breathe again. “I know you don’t. And I know you don’t understand why I didn’t end it when I could.”

“I do understand it,” she admits grudgingly. Emma deserves better than a shadow of happiness, but it’s what she’s chosen to cling to. “I just don’t like it.” She recalls Emma’s words from before and softens. “But you have the right to pursue your own happiness. And you…you should.”

“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” Emma says, and turns smoothly to the nearest waiter before Regina can say anything. “I think I’ll have that wine now.”

They drink red wine and talk about Henry and argue about Storybrooke bureaucracy and contemplate adding another magic lesson to their weekly schedule, since there have been three complaints about hauntings this month and that doesn’t bode well. Emma doesn’t drink more than a few glasses and Regina nurses the one, forcefully reminding herself that she’s only here to drive Emma home.

It’s close to midnight when Emma finally admits that the salmon hadn’t been awful and she’s getting a little more relaxed, if the way her foot is absentmindedly rubbing against Regina is any indication, and they make their way back to the car together. Emma plops down in the passenger seat without even an overture toward the door handle on the driver’s side, and Regina is relieved. Not disappointed. Relieved.

“I can get home on my own,” Emma says when she heads for the Charmings. “It’ll be easier if I take my car back tonight anyway. I didn’t really think ahead.” She shrugs and quirks her mouth into a smile. “I had a good time, though. We should do girls’ nights more often.”

“We should,” she’s agreeing before she can think it over, and then she remembers Emma opening the door for her and the slow glide of Emma’s toes against her calves and she hastily puts in, “Maybe next time you can invite some of your other friends, too.”

“Yeah.” The smile stiffens on Emma’s face. “Maybe.”

They pull over on Mifflin Street in front of Regina’s house and she exits the car with a brief goodnight, and she’s halfway down the pathway to her house when she hears Emma behind her, jogging to catch up to her.

“What are you doing?”

Emma stares at her, her eyes wide and uncertain. “Walking you…to your door?” It’s a gauntlet that Emma herself doesn’t seem to know why she’s extending, why they both freeze together at the porch and stare at each other and Regina rocks her head slowly from side to side.

Her heart twists in her chest and she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t know why this is happening right now when things are good and she’s been so, so careful tonight. “Why are you walking me to my door?”

“I–“ Emma’s eyes are as panicked as her own and she falls silent before she can say anything else, anything permanent.

And Regina wants to be quiet too, wants to write off tonight as nothing at all, but Emma’s walking her to her door and Robin is upstairs waiting up for her and this is not how it’s supposed to be. “What is this, Emma?” She leans against an ivory column and digs her thumbs into the thin pockets of her jacket. “What are we doing tonight?”

Emma looks down, those high spots of color on her cheeks again- or is it just the porch light? she can’t be sure, not until Emma’s head jerks up again and she whispers an answer so unsure that it’s a question instead. “It wasn’t a date.”

It’d be easy to take that at face value and agree, but the fact that it has to be clarified, that it wasn’t a date sounds a whole lot like it wasn’t a date?, is reason enough for her to keep staring at Emma, searching for words to respond. Robin is just behind the door, she knows, somewhere in her home. Her soulmate. Her lover. The man she’s meant to spend the rest of her life with.

Even if her hands are craving to break free from her pockets where she holds them rigidly and seize Emma instead.

Emma blinks hard. “I um…I know I’ve said that I always can tell when you’re lying. And I can. Usually. But I don’t think my superpower is all that reliable when it comes to you and me.” She gulps in a breath and Regina’s fingers tighten around her pockets. “I’ve been…I guess I see what I want to see. And it’s been giving me all kinds of mixed signals and I don’t know how to deal with that because I don’t want to make you uncomfortable and I know that you’re happy and…”

“Emma,” she says, because she’s impatient and terrified with this new place that they’re at and how quickly it’s going to self-destruct, and maybe she’s criticized Emma in the past for not knowing what she wants but now Regina just– she doesn’t know. She isn’t ready for this, not for the uncertainty that stops her throat as she dares to ask again, “What are you doing?”

Emma stops, the nervous tics fading away, and now there’s nothing but defiance in her eyes. “I’m pursuing my own happiness,” she echoes, and Regina laughs out a choked sob.

“This is your happiness?” She laughs again, and it’s cold as she feels her insides freezing over. “Emma, I destroyed your happiness. Again and again and I couldn’t even give you the happy ending you deserved last year. Why the hell are you here, when I’m worse than Hook, I’ve hurt you so much more than him–“ The words are pouring out of her, self-loathing she’s had pent up for a year now since she’d first accepted that villains don’t get happy endings. That whatever’s been given to her since is only a gift she’ll one day destroy as well.

“I don’t care anymore!” Emma’s not crying; she’s shaking with intensity, with new fury at their own ghosts. “Yes, you were evil and you ruined my life and you’ve been a pain in the ass since I got to Storybrooke, but you’re not that person anymore. You make me happy now. You’ve been making me happy for months.” Her eyes are fire, burning Regina to her icy core, and she trembles under Emma’s gaze. “You keep telling me I deserve happiness, I deserve love and someone I don’t just settle into. Can’t I choose who that is? Can’t I choose you?”

She shivers suddenly and Regina doesn’t dare move forward to touch her. “And I know you’re happy with Robin. I don’t know if I’m worth that. And I don’t know if this is me pushing you when you don’t want to be pursued and I can’t tell if you’re lying so just tell me now. Tell me to stop and I’ll stop.” 

Her eyes are shining in the dim light of the porch, her smile still soft as though she’s afraid to show any more of her face as she exposes her heart, even as Regina is still frozen in place. “Nothing changes, okay? I show up at your office tomorrow morning with a coffee for you and we can debate whether or not haunting is a punishable offense for the citizens of Storybrooke. I’m not going anywhere. I wouldn’t do that to you.” She waits, expectant, and sags a little more with every moment that Regina stands silently.

This is absurd. This isn’t what Emma wants, it isn’t fair to Emma and it’s something she’d never thought would matter. Emma must know how she feels. She’s never been able to hide it, not from Robin or Henry or even Hook, and Emma has to see it, faulty superpower or not.

And it’s doomed from the start. “Emma…” she manages at last, and Emma’s still watching her, her lips curved upward in something between a smile and a grimace. “Emma, I have a soulmate.” Emma straightens, all expression gone from her face. “I know you’re not a fan of magic and our past, but that’s not a negotiable thing in the Enchanted Forest. Fate has already written my story.”

Emma nods, thin-lipped and sharp. “Fate is the bullshit reason my parents gave for giving me up.”

“Fate and me,” Regina corrects her. This is new agony, stretching through her at the sight of Emma Swan reverting to a woman she hasn’t known in a long time. “And I won’t do it again. I won’t destroy your happiness anymore.” She crosses the porch in a swift step and folds into Emma’s arms as they reach out to catch her. And maybe it’s the last time that’ll happen, the second and their final contact like this, and there are tears leaking out of her eyes no matter how furiously she tries to hold them back.

“Tell me you want me to stop, then,” Emma whispers, tightening her arms around her. They still fit together, soft curves and sharp edges, and Regina almost wants to say it, to say the thing she hasn’t admitted even in her own mind. I love you. I’ve loved you for so long I can’t remember hating you anymore. 

But this is about Emma’s happiness, not love. Happiness can be friendship when fate is so stifling, so useless, and Regina’s love will only bring Emma pain. Destiny is a monolith, and she’s spent far too long swept up in it to do anything more than feel guilty about trying to resist it at the expense of others. “I want you to stop,” she breathes, and holds on so tightly that Emma has to struggle to step away before she lets go.

Emma fades away. It’s the only way she can describe it, the way the defiance and this determined, larger-than-life Emma who’s so much more honest than she can ever be just melts away and she’s left with a woman who wears her shirt and looks so small in it, even with their difference in height. “Okay,” she says. She seems to struggle to lift her lips into a smile but gives up. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

She gives a weak little wave and the lights on the porch blink out unexpectedly, leaving Regina in darkness as the Bug pulls away.

She’s numb. She pulls open the door and walks upstairs, placing one foot in front of the other and pulling herself ever upward. Ever onward. And Emma’s on her way back home and that hadn’t been a date, she hadn’t done anything wrong that wouldn’t destroy everything for everyone. She can keep going as she’d been until now.

Robin smiles at her from his spot on her bed. He’s been reading the classics lately, recalling which of the characters and stories he’d known personally as she’d enjoyed doing once too. He folds down the page in Ivanhoeand says, “How was your night?” with only the faintest trepidation.

This is her happiness. This is her future. She inhales slowly, gathering all of her reserves of strength and resiliency and there’s a little voice in her head that sounds like Tink demanding why can’t you let yourself be happy? and she speaks. “I think you should move to the guest room for a while.”

Chapter Text

x. hands and heart (chained as ever before)

“Regina! Regina!” She hears the breathless squealing before she sees Roland, running unsteadily down the sidewalk toward Henry and her. “Help!” Her heart stops when he steps onto grass, too close to the street, and she’s running to him and scooping him up as he hides his face in her neck.

“What’s–“ She stops, determining at last that the gasping sound from the boy is laughter, not tears, and recognizes the familiar voice around the corner.

“You can’t run forever! I’m gonna get you!” Emma speeds into view, nearly crashing into them both, and Roland howls with glee again. She grins at them. “Oh, so you think you can hide behind a witch? I’ve got magic too!” She grabs him with long fingers and immediately starts tickling Roland as he clings to Regina, the boy falling back and forth between them with every giggle. 

“This is familiar,” Henry observes wryly, watching the way Roland is snatched by Emma and then Regina and then Emma again. 

Regina gives him a dark look and he shrugs, smirking. That year with Emma. It’s always that year with Emma that turned him into a teenager.

“Hey, you go back to your dad, okay, kid?” Emma sets Roland down and rubs her palms against her jeans as he stumbles back around the corner, still laughing. “He’s pretty cute. I can see why you put up with his father.”

Emma.” But she’s feeling unaccountably shy again, the same anxiety she’s had around Emma for days now. 

Emma had walked her to her office from Granny’s every morning since they’d had that night out together- more, in fact, than they usually do in a week, as though they’re both aggressively attempting to pretend that nothing has changed. Nothing is different, really. The elephant in the room had been addressed but it’s all for naught and now Regina doesn’t know what to do with her hands when Emma’s around.

She settles for twisting her fingers together as Henry watches them both with sharp eyes. “I thought you only spent time with Robin when there was alcohol involved.”

“You think there’s always alcohol involved with me,” Emma retorts, rolling her eyes. “Maybe I was just hanging out with your boyfriend. Being nice. Polite. Whatever.”

“He’s not her boyfriend,” Henry mutters, and they are not talking about that and not to Emma.

“Huh?”

She steps on Henry’s foot and curls her lip. “I’m not sixteen and choosing a prom date, Miss Swan. I don’t use terms like that.”

“You call Hook that all the time!”

“Hook is a sixteen-year-old trawling for a prom date.” She scowls and Emma stares brazenly at her in response. There’s a long pause, green eyes swimming with frustration and defiance and it doesn’t have to be this way and Regina looks away, straight into an identical gaze- with a dash of irritation at what he doesn’t know- in Henry’s eyes.

Emma coughs uncomfortably and hooks her thumbs into her waistband. “Anyway. I was talking to Robin about the Lost Boys. Between them and the Merry Men, there’s been a rash of petty crimes to deal with lately and a whole lot of people camping in the woods, and I was thinking about some kind of mentorship program to keep them all out of trouble. Once they’re government funded, we can try to take care of everyone.”

She frowns. She doesn’t know if the hurt and the trepidation at Emma consulting with Robin before her is justified but it overwhelms her all the same, and it’s a struggle to keep her face blank. “That sounds like something you should be discussing with the mayor first.” 

Emma sees it anyway, and how can the blonde possibly believe that her lie detector doesn’t work on Regina when she seems to know her so well? “I was going to go to you next, of course.” A hand reaches for her arm with a timid touch and Emma is managing a small smile and Regina burns at both, touch and look setting her chest aflame. “I just wanted to check with Robin first to make sure I wasn’t wasting anyone’s time.”

They both wince and Regina struggles for something more to say. “That’s…very thoughtful of you,” she manages finally.

Emma shrugs, pulling her hand away with reluctance. “Well, I try.” 

“And it’s a very good idea.” She flushes at the beaming smile bestowed upon her for her praise. “The best I’ve heard to deal with those miscreants, actually. Henry wanted me to adopt them all.”

“We have a really big house, Mom.” He makes a face. “I was just screwing with you, anyway.”

“Henry!” That year with Emma. She’s going to kill her. Really. As soon as those identical hangdog expressions leave Henry’s and Emma’s faces.

“She’s blaming me for you again, isn’t she?” Emma mutters to Henry.

Henry bobs his head up and down. “It is your fault. I was much better behaved when I was with Mom.”

“Oh, please, you were terrible! You used to sneak around with me all the time. You ran away to Boston once.”

“That’s just the remarkable self-sufficiency I gave him coming into play,” Regina feels obligated to point out. The memories don’t burn as much anymore, now that Henry is home again of his own free will and Emma is…important to both of them. The two and a half years that had followed had been some of the worst of her life, but she finds she can’t regret them anymore now that they’ve led to who they all are now and this very moment, standing together on a street corner with bright eyes and hearts light with family.

“Yeah, yeah,” Emma’s grinning and rolling her eyes at the same time, and the shyness is back with a vengeance. Emma and Henry are probably the only people in the universe who can make her like this, peering out at them through her eyelashes and flushing and smiling at once as though she’s a dimwitted Charming instead of the scourge of multitudes that she once was.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.


Henry is staying at the Charmings’ late that night and she’s stalking around the house, collecting laundry and dusting when there’s no need to do either. She doesn’t like this, feeling uncomfortable in her own home, as though she needs to hide from the man upstairs or be brought into a conversation she doesn’t dare to have yet.

Still, though, it’s better than actually venturing up the stairs and facing him to say more than just a goodnight, to acknowledge that he’s in the next room instead of her own and she hasn’t admitted to him why. She isn’t certain she herself has figured it out, either, to be honest, and she’s not ready to think that through.

She turns from the washing machine, sighing to herself, and comes face-to-face with Robin. “What are you doing?” she demands, hackles raised at how close he is. “Why are you in here?”

He takes a step back, hands up, and his face crinkles in that way that reminds her so much of Emma when confused, eyes quizzical under–

No, she thinks, and Robin says, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have startled you.”

“That’s fine.” She pushes past him, face set. “I have work to get to in my study, if you’ll…”

“I can’t help thinking that I must have done something wrong, but I don’t know what it could have been,” Robin says, and she freezes. “I do wish you’d let me on it so I can properly apologize and make it up to you.”

She closes her eyes. There’s still an escape from this conversation, a curt and abrupt dismissal that she knows might be enough to test even Robin’s patience with her, but she can’t be that person anymore. She can’t keep putting herself first and hurting others who’ve only been kind to her. “You haven’t done anything wrong.” 

She makes her way upstairs and he follows, taking a seat opposite her on the couch. “I’m sorry,” she says finally. “I shouldn’t be treating you like this. I used to do this a lot, and you deserve more from me.” She’d acted like this before, hot and cold and silent toward the men who would look at her with desire, and she’d never thought twice about it with them. There had been Sidney and Graham and dozens of others when she’d been a queen and a mayor and she’d felt utterly…

Trapped.

“…not sure about things,” she finishes instead when she tells it to Robin. 

He watches her for a long moment. “You spent a night out with Emma and you came back unsure about things?”

Maybe she should be dating a Charming instead of this thief with sharp eyes who understands too much too quickly. She bites her lip. “It’s not about Emma.”

He leans back, a sigh escaping his own lips. “Of course not.”

“It isn’t,” she insists, and she’s already breathing too fast, coming into this with too many emotions left raw inside her. She thinks of Emma on her porch you make me happy now and her chest feels as though it might burst. “Don’t you ever have doubts? Don’t you wake up some mornings and look at me and wonder how you can possibly care about someone who’s done so much to hurt others? Who still walks freely in a town of people she’d stolen away to make miserable?”

She can see from his eyes that he doesn’t understand this, that he’s still seeing her through pixie dust-colored glasses. “You did none of that to me, Regina.” 

Does it matter? Does it change her, that he’d escaped her wrath? It shouldn’t. This isn’t the “fucking martyr complex” that Emma claims she’s had since Pan’s curse. This is her, surrounded by so many good people who can’t fathom the idea that she can’t be one of them, and her tone hits a pitch far out of her range. “I did it to everyone!” She lowers her voice, mindful of Roland asleep upstairs as it wavers. “I would have done it to you, too, if not for coincidence. I sent my guards to wipe out you and your men dozens of times. I would have killed you.”

“You didn’t.” His voice is quiet, insistent, earnestness in his eyes. God, he looks so much like Emma sometimes. Of course she’d ceded to the pixie dust so easily.

“I killed people you loved. I must have.” She gropes blindly for words, for something to explain to him how ridiculous his being here is. She can feel her chest heaving, hear words straining to break free and catch in her throat as they bubble up. “Haven’t you thought about this at all? My reign was one of terror. I might have hurt your cousins. Your men. Your wife.”

His eyes flash and she knows she’s awakened something within him, something she talks about so rarely for fear of coming up short. She continues unsteadily. “I’m sure if you trace it back far enough, you can find the moment where I brought on her death. Where I set items in motion to ruin you, too. And yet you sit in my house and claim to love me when–“

“I do love you!” he snaps out, and she can’t keep it in anymore, can’t hold back her frustrated tears when he’s looking at her with all that love shining in his eyes. “I know you aren’t that person anymore and I’m proud of you for it.” He shakes his head. “Why are you desperate for me to hate you?”

She’s sobbing freely, a hand pressed to the spot just above her mouth and covering it, and she can’t stop jerking in place with every breath she dares take as he speaks. He moves to stand, to walk to her, and she flings out, “Why would you do that to yourself? Why do any of you love me? Don’t you know who…” She chokes. “Who I am? Who I still am? My heart is black and you insist on wanting me, on imagining that I can be anything more.” She can feel the darkness still, strong in her veins and ever tempting, and no one understands, they don’t understand how close it still is, how she can still look back at her past and find murders she doesn’t regret. Find hatred she still holds strong. “Why can’t you hate me?”

She can look at Snow some days and love her, love her like she’d once loved the little princess she’d saved, and other days she’s glad for the misery and the pain inflicted and she’s glad Snow’s father is dead and she’s glad that she’d taken his kingdom and claimed it as her own. She can’t regret Emma’s life for an instant and it makes her feel so wrong, so unworthy and twisted and evil, all for selfish desires of my Henryand my Emma and how can they still love her when she’s still so dark, when she’s never going to be the hero they deserve. How can Robin say he loves her when she’s still so wrong?

She hangs on to the cushions on either side of her, nails digging in deep enough to permanently imprint them, and she weeps for her weaknesses and for the fools who keep dismissing them. “So this is about Emma,” Robin says softly, standing over her. He doesn’t try to touch her, and she’s grateful for that, at least. He’s in tune with her in ways that few others ever have been, even when she hasn’t even been able to touch him these past few days. Her soulmate. She swallows, feeling sick.

“No,” she whispers. “No, it’s not. It’s me. I shouldn’t matter to you. To her. To anyone.” She thinks of Henry right now, probably on Snow’s couch playing video games with Emma, and her throat closes up some more. “There are some things you can’t ever come back from, and the kind of darkness I was drowning in…I think that’s one of them.” She isn’t crying anymore, but her eyes are still wet and there’s a draft coming from the foyer that leaves tears cold on her cheeks. “I wish you’d all stop caring about me when I’m just going to hurt you.”

“You won’t hurt me.” He reaches for her and she flinches. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“No,” she agrees, raising her chin to meet his eyes. “You’re my soulmate. We’re together or alone, and we don’t have a choice in the matter.”

He drops to the floor then, crouched in front of her with his eyes wide and horrified. “You make it sound like…I’m not your prison sentence!”

“Aren’t you?” she murmurs, and her heart aches at the way he reels back, at how he closes his eyes as though she’d struck him in the face. “Aren’t we both?” Destiny had made that decision for both of them and now they’re trapped within it, saddled with each other or unhappiness for the rest of their lives. And Robin’s such a good man, so much better than she can be for him or for anyone else.

Emma’s so good, has believed in her and changed her and put aside so much suffering for her, and she dares to claim that Regina could be her happiness. Where has Regina found these fools who look at her and see someone more? How can Emma of all people try to choose her when she’s a step down from even the damnable Captain Hook?

Robin doesn’t move and she realizes that she’s crying again, shaking on the couch as he remains on his knees in front of her, and all she wants right now is to find Emma and talk to her about this. All she wants is the condemnation no one she loves will give her.

Her vision is blurred from tears and she doesn’t realize that Robin’s been replaced by someone else until she notices that the figure standing in front of her is smaller, shorter; and when Henry sits beside her and wraps his arms around her, she holds him tightly and allows herself this one selfishness that matters most of all.


xi. ship of fools (and the fool who loves them)

They’re standing together on the deck of the Jolly Roger, hands tight in each other’s as they gaze out into the waters that surround Storybrooke. Henry has been with her almost every moment since the night before, protective in a way she associates more with Emma or David than her son, but she’s warmed by his solicitousness. He’s the one who had only reluctantly accepted Hook’s invite for a family outing this Saturday on the condition that Regina join them, and his request is the only reason why she’s here on this ship to begin with. 

“I feel as though I owe you an explanation for last night,” she says finally, eyes still on the water. “You shouldn’t have seen that.”

Henry lifts his shoulders in a half shrug. “It’s okay. I don’t…I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything. Tell me anything,” he amends, and his eyes are serious like he’d heard too much of her tearful outburst at Robin. She doesn’t want that for him, to be saddled with the burden of who she is and what remains within her heart. 

She swallows and forces a smile and he manages to grin right back. “I’d rather you and Ma just…figure stuff out together first,” His hair is blowing away from his face in the wind, leaving him looking even older than his tender adolescence for a moment, and she’s glad that nature and nurture had sneaked some of hers and Rumple’s intuition through to him past all that Charming blood. “But maybe wait until sailing season is over for that, okay?” He beams up at her and stares significantly at Hook and his other mother and there’s that Charming subtlety. “The Jolly Roger is kind of awesome.”

She squeezes his gloved hand in her own. There’s another dose of non-Charming, wrapped up and hidden behind his good heart. He’s a treasure she’d never thought she could have. “You are a opportunistic little sneak, Henry Mills.”

He bobs his head smugly. “Aren’t you proud?”

She rolls her eyes, laughing into the wind before she remembers to set the record straight. “There’s nothing to figure out with Emma,” she says, too little too late. “We’re close friends, but we’re not going to–“ She stops. Saying anything more feels final, feels like a lie or a concession and she’s not willing to make either, no matter how impossible the former is. “We won’t be fighting over you anymore,” she says instead.

Skepticism mixes with amusement on Henry’s face. “Hey, remember when Ma introduced you to me after we came back to Storybrooke?”

She remembers moving in for a hug and getting a handshake instead, remembers agony and sorrow and a low voice murmuring How was that? Are you okay? like her only anchor in a raging storm. “I do.”

“That’s pretty much how she introduced Walsh to me.” He bounces on the balls of his feet and misses her sharp intake of breath within the sound of waves crashing around them. “I thought you were the reason she’d come to Storybrooke at first. And then I talked about Walsh to see how you reacted and you got so annoyed–“

“Because I had no interest in you picking up any more parents!”

“–I just assumed Ma was dating you for a while.” He smirks at her and she drops his hand, flustered. “Then Hook suddenly became my full-time babysitter and I figured that this was only a matter of time.” He lets steps away for the first time since they’d boarded the ship and saunters off toward where Roland is trying to push a pacifier into Leo’s mouth.

She takes a deep breath, cheeks flushed from the breeze, and is grateful that Robin had politely declined the invitation to join them today. I don’t think that would be wise. I’d like to give you the space you want, he’d said, and he’d run the back of his fingers along the curve of her jaw and she’d wished for a split second that Emma had never come back to Storybrooke.

She might have been content, if she’d never thought to want anything more than Robin. She might have settled down and loved him and never felt as bound as she does now, an invisible tether still connecting her to the man on the shore as her eyes drift to Emma, tying a knot near the sails under Hook’s watchful gaze.

“It’s a lot more fun on here when we’re not fighting or panicked over Henry,” a voice says from beside her, and she jerks in surprise. Snow had come to sit beside her while she’d been watching Emma and she hadn’t noticed at all, too caught up in her own thoughts to consider the world beyond Emma and her.

She hums in agreement. “Your husband seems to be enjoying himself.” He and Emma both are bounding around the ship as though they belong there, pirates-in-training who tackle every task eagerly and follow orders for probably the first time in their lives. Well, maybe not David, she amends, glancing over at the spouse who undoubtedly calls the shots.

Snow smiles back. “It’s hard to believe that no one’s threatening our lives right now. Storybrooke hasn’t been this calm since…”

“I cursed you all? Really, dear, I was doing you a favor. You’d been running from me for years, you needed a break.”

“My hero,” Snow says dryly, leaning back into the rail. Her eyes take a distant cast to them and Regina knows that she’s remembering their histories together, years of conflict written and rewritten and somehow weaving together into peace at last.

She presses her lips together and recalls the past, the bitterness that still burns within her and darkens her heart. She’ll never be like them, like the Charmings running free on this boat with her son and Robin’s. She’s too dark, too tainted by too many years of hatred. She’d ruined Emma Swan’s life and Emma still wants her, and she cringes at the indignity of the concept. Snow would weep if she knew.

Snow, whose smile is gone as she says suddenly, “Does she seem unhappy to you?”

“Emma?” Regina asks pointlessly. It’s always Emma. “What do you mean?”

Snow nods to Emma, who’s tugging at the sails to keep them steady, and Regina watches her. Her brow is furrowed with concentration, the curve of her lips tilting downward as she focuses, and it’s not that she’s not happy, it’s…

She looks like she had when she’d come back to town, cheated of the happy ending Regina had offered her and teetering under the weight of keeping Henry from the secrets of the town. She remembers an afternoon spent sitting together in the Charmings’ home, sipping tea as Emma admits, I want to take Henry back to New York after this, and Regina had stared at her and said nothing (what had there been to say, when she’d willingly given them up to move toward that happy ending? When she’s a stranger to Henry?) and Emma’s face had folded into itself and neither of them had spoken about it again.

She looks like that Emma again, caught in a situation she’d entered out of obligation rather than desire, and this time there’s no memory curse to break and remove the second option from the equation. But when she smiles, it doesn’t quite reach her eyes, even when Henry waves her over and she snatches up Leo from his carrier. “I don’t know,” Regina says finally.

“I thought Killian would complete her. Like David does me.” Snow wraps her arms around herself. “He’s so devoted to her, but sometimes I wonder if she feels the same way. She’s so closed off even now, afraid to open herself up to someone else,” Snow says, and Regina remembers Emma on her porch, Can’t I choose you? like the idiot she is. A Charming idiot who would decide for the first time in her life to chase her own happiness and pick an evil queen as her subject. “You’re her best friend,” Snow says, peering at Regina. “You must have some idea of how they’re doing.”

“Best friend?” Regina repeats. She laces the words with scorn but there’s enough of a tremor in her voice that Snow quirks an eyebrow knowingly and smiles at her. Maybe there is one Charming with enough intuition to pass on to Henry.

Or maybe not, she reflects just as quickly when Snow gazes at Emma twirling Leo through the air and says, “Do you think she’s thought about having any more?” 

Leo spits up on Emma’s cuff and Regina startles. “With Hook?”

Snow looks at her strangely. “Of course with Hook. They’ve been dating a while, and if she’s unhappy…” Her voice trails off, a little wistfully. “She’s great with kids.”

“I don’t think her happiness is dependent on how many baby pirates she can make. She isn’t you.” Her hackles are suddenly raised, irrational fury coming to the fore at the idea of Emma building a family with Hook. Maybe she does want more children. Maybe her family as it is now isn’t enough for her. “For god’s sake, don’t tell her that. She’s just desperate enough for your approval that she might actually start spawning mini-Hooks if you said the word.”

Snow laughs, apparently unaware of the way Regina’s face has tightened and her fingers have clamped onto her knees. “Come on, Regina, even you must be thinking about it now that you’ve settled down and Henry’s growing up.”

“Also not you,” she tosses at Snow, standing up abruptly enough that the boat rocks slightly. “I’m not looking to replace Henry with a newer model.” Which is low and Snow’s eyes widen and instantly fill with water, but she doesn’t care. Not when she’s suddenly inundated with the idea of tiny toddlers who look like Roland and Henry running around together, Regina and Emma sitting over them and watching them and nothing will have changed. They’d be friends who sit just a bit too close and go home to men at night and Regina would dream of what could have been instead of the life that had been destined for her. She imagines an existence still heavy with regrets, even within the joy, and she’s at once overwhelmingly queasy.

The boat rocks beneath her and she conjures a bucket just in time, emptying the contents of her stomach into it, and there are gentle hands drawing her hair back and Emma’s saying, “This is so gross,” into her ear as she vomits again and again into the bucket.

“That’s very sensitive of you,” she gasps out when she’s done and Emma fishes a water bottle out of Leo’s diaper bag for her. 

Emma smirks at her. “At least I stuck around. Mary Margaret looks like she’s going to faint.” She nods to where her mother is still sitting, the tears gone and replaced with something that looks suspiciously like delight, and Regina groans, piecing together the story as Snow sees it. 

“Your mother is going to think I’m pregnant,” she mutters. “I can’t even get seasick in peace without keeping it private from her.”

“Pregnant?” Emma frowns, looking a little green herself. Regina can empathize. “You’re not…?”

No.

“Oh.” The color returns to her cheeks and she flashes a daring glance Regina’s way. “Good.”

Which is presumptuous and uncalled for, as is the warmth that fills her at the comment. She dares to glance toward Snow again. Snow is smiling like a twelve-year-old with a secret. Which never bodes well for her. “Don’t tell her that. This could be fun.” She’s reformed, not declawed.

“You’re such an ass.” Emma nudges her with her knee. She fishes around in the diaper bag until she procures a pack of wet wipes and hands them over so Regina can wipe her mouth off. “She’s going to be so happy for you. You’re going to have to sit through weeks of pregnancy advice and talk about how your kids will–“ She rolls her eyes. “–break the cycle, or whatever, and it’ll devastate her when she finds out it was a lie.”

“I know.” She preens and Emma rolls her eyes and reaches out to dab at the corner of her lip with a wipe.

“You’re impossible.” They both fall silent as Emma’s finger traces her lip, and sheknows her mouth hadn’t even been dirty and the wet wipe comes back clean. Emma’s eyes are soft and Regina knows that her own gaze is probably giving too much away, but this is harmless, Emma in a crouch in front of her, hair whipping in the wind at Regina’s face as Emma’s touch lingers on her lips. Emma licks her own. “I…uh…”

It’s too much, even for the oblivious Charmings present, and this will only end in disaster, so she moves back and flicks her fingers, magically tying Emma’s hair back in a neat braid. “Don’t you know better than to run around on a boat with your hair down?” she says shakily. “You’re just clumsy enough to get it caught in the rigging and wind up tied to a sail somewhere.”

“Whoa.” Emma drops her hand, moving the other to touch the braid. Her eyes narrow. “Wait. So your hair isn’t naturally perfect. You roll out of bed with bedhead just like the rest of us and then just magic it to be perfectly sleek and bouncy.” She shakes her head in exaggerated indignation. “And in all our time practicing magic together, you never taught me to do the same! You really are trying to destroy my happiness.” Regina’s face pales and Emma bites her lip. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Of course you did.” She doesn’t resent her for it. Emma’s the only person in her life who brings up the past as easily as she talks about what to order at Granny’s, a constant awareness of who she was and what she’d done. And Emma cares about her regardless, and it’s clear every time she flippantly references evil and queens and Regina’s day all in the same breath. Emma challenges her and doesn’t forget any of it and still treats her like a friend. 

And claims Regina could make her happy. The smile returns and fades away, and she’s left gazing uncomfortably at Emma, that ridiculous idiot who believes in her too easily. “I…I don’t think you have the control for that,” she says finally. “I tried to teach you how to direct a bullet better and you exploded the gun.”

“That only happened once.” That’s definitely the start of a whine in Emma’s voice, and Regina relaxes, back in her comfort zone.

“You have the attention span of a five-year-old. Roland has better self-control than you do.” She shakes her head. “You can try. See what you can do with my hair- which, you may recall, was perfectly styled even before Storybrooke had magic.”

“It was much shorter then,” Emma points out before she squeezes her eyes shut and focuses.

Regina catches the telltale odor of smoke before all her hair goes up in flames and flicks Emma’s forehead until her eyes snap open. “Let’s try something easier.” She waves her hand and focuses, tracing the shape of Emma’s body with ease. It’s all business. Really. And Emma’s pants and turtleneck are replaced with black leather pants and a dark top that has a tight cape-skirt trailing down to her ankles. “Now you’re a pirate princess.”

“Whoa.” Emma stumbles back, staring down at herself. “How’d you– is this an illusion?”

“Of course not. You don’t have the stamina to maintain an illusion like this. This is transformation. You can’t conjure from thin air, you have to be able to build something from something else. Real conjuring only works with the elements, while you can transform or teleport items to make them appear out of nowhere.”

“Oh. Okay.” Emma stands, testing out her new boots. Hook is gaping at her from the other side of the deck and Regina scowls at him until he shrugs and turns away, tilting his head at them appreciatively. “So I can just…focus and I can change my clothes?”

“Think about your body, how it curves and how you want your clothes to move around it. Then picture your clothing changing, billowing out or tightening or changing color.” She leans forward, giving Emma another once-over for good measure. The leather does suit her, clinging in all the right places and open just above her chest to her neck, and for a moment she indulges, imagining a world where there’s no Hook and Emma’s the pirate come to town with her mother. That might have sped things along.

She swallows and looks up to find Emma raking her eyes over Regina’s body with determination, indulging  a moment too long at her hips; and she forgets herself for a minute before it occurs to her what Emma’s planning on doing. And she does not intend to be set on fire by a novice sorceress. “Wait a minute, Emma, I didn’t say you could–“

Blue smoke- harmless, thankfully- ripples around her and she’s abruptly in a dress.

And not a dress like the ones she’d worn as a queen or a mayor. No, this is a monstrosity of Snow White proportions, puffy and round with a petticoat under a mushrooming haze of pink lace like she’s a six-year-old at her first ball. The dress is so wide that it nearly reaches Emma herself, who has a hand in front of her mouth but can’t quite hide her laugh as it peals out over the deck.

“Oops,” she says, not sounding sincere at all. David and Hook are snickering behind her and Henry, the traitor, is smirking too as Roland furrows his eyebrows at her in confusion.

She grits her teeth, though it’s a struggle to be angry when Emma’s still grinning and the earlier stress has faded from her eyes. “Sheriff Swan.”

“Wow, you’re really in trouble,” Henry mutters, sidling further away from the two of them.

She shoots him a glare and turns back to Emma. “Turn it back. Now.”

“I thought you’d be proud,” Emma pouts, but it isn’t very convincing when the smile still curls up the corners of her lips. “Now you can be my high-ranking hostage. You seem harmless at first, just a beautiful noblewoman who can’t defend herself, but in the middle of the night, your magic comes out and you go all Carrie on our asses. Only the dashing pirate heroine proves to be a match–”

Emma.”

“Okay, okay.” She eyes Regina again, taking in her curves with perhaps a bit too much gusto, and this time the dress bursts into flame.

She puts it out and transforms their clothing back to normal over the sound of the blonde’s laughter, and only then does she turn away from Hook and David and Henry primly, her eyes instead shifting to the stern of the ship.

Snow is watching Emma with thoughtful eyes, and Regina follows her gaze back to her companion. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for at first, not until she catches how Emma’s brow is relaxed, the stress that had lined her face earlier faded, and the laughter sparkling in her eyes leaving her looking a good five years younger than before. She’s striking like this, happy and unguarded (and, yes, mocking Regina, but she’s used to it by now), and she doesn’t look unhappy at all.

Chapter Text

xii. visions of the future (breaking point)

Somehow she’s become the family co-parent. She doesn’t recall signing up for this family in the first place, but Snow is on the phone and talking to her as though this is somehow  her  responsibility. “She’s been vomiting and coughing and I know you have that spare guest room and Leo is still too young for the flu shot so I’m sending her over with Henry. She’s impossible when she’s sick. Have fun!”

She hangs up before Regina can object and Regina’s left staring at the phone with a frustrated huff. She and Robin had talked about going riding today and she’d hoped that maybe some quiet time without family around would help them…adjust. To whoever they’re going to be to each other from now on.

Trust Emma to find a way to unintentionally throw a wrench into any plans with Robin. 

“Who was that?” he asks curiously. 

They’d been eating breakfast together and struggling to keep things casual, so she puts on her best nothing is wrong face and answers, “Snow. Emma has the flu and she doesn’t want her around mini-Emma, so she asked if we’d have her.”

His smile turns wooden. “The Jolly Roger isn’t a nurturing enough environment for her?” He barks out a laugh like he’s trying to make it a joke, but it’s false to both their ears and they wince together.

“I can send her there if you want,” she suggests, swallowing. She knows this isn’t fair to Robin. Not Emma. Not here. Not when their future is so up in the air. (And she thinks again about the image Snow had gifted her on their outing on the Jolly Roger and about her and Emma, parents of children they don’t share, and dread still sinks into the pit of her stomach.)

He shakes his head. “I’m trying to be understanding, I truly am. I know that you’re going through enough without me making things difficult. But I feel as though this may be…”

“Asking too much. I know.” She sighs. “You’re right. Of course. I’ll drive her to the docks when she gets here.”

They sit in unhappy silence for the next few minutes, eating mechanically and listening to the sounds of Roland playing with Henry’s old remote-control car in the basement. When the doorbell rings, they both jump and Regina hurries to the door without making eye contact with Robin again.

Emma blows past her when she opens the door, a wave of red and blonde that surges toward the bathroom at top speed. Henry beams up at her like he has no idea what havoc Snow’s wreaking by sending Emma here. “She was trying to hold it in so she wouldn’t throw up on the porch. She’s been really gross today. I’m glad you’re going to take care of her instead of me having to do it.”

“Henry,” she half-scolds him, heading after Emma.

Emma’s still retching, bent over in the bathroom with the door open and making obnoxiously loud panting sounds between each series of vomits. Of course she can’t even throw up without making a public display of it. Robin is watching from the hallway, looking vaguely queasy, and Regina rolls her eyes and wets a paper towel to wipe at the sweat on Emma’s brow. “Get her a bottle of water,” she orders Robin. “Then I’ll talk to her.”

He doesn’t need to be asked twice. Emma finishes vomiting and sits back on the tiled floor up against the sink and forces a smile. “Hi.” She looks awful, pale and sweaty and glassy-eyed and shivering like it isn’t sixty-five degrees and sunny. It’s the most defeated she’s ever seen Storybrooke’s stalwart savior and she’d been there (well, orchestrated, really, but who’s keeping track?) for the great Sheriff Fails To Frame Mayor playground incident way back in ’12. “Mom saw me kissing the pirate under the bleachers during study hall and now I’m booted out of house and home.”

“You’re delirious.” She casts a critical eye on the shape of Emma’s pajamas. “I hope you didn’t drive here.”

“I’m hilarious,” Emma corrects her. She tries for a smirk but just looks constipated instead. “Thanks for putting me up. If you’re putting me up, I guess. I can always just get a room at Granny’s and have Henry hold a bucket for me.”

“I don’t want Emma Weekends anymore!” Henry bellows from the front hall.

They roll their eyes in tandem. “Emma, I don’t think it’s a good idea–“

“Water for the invalid,” Robin says, ducking into the room to pass her the bottle. Emma drinks and spits into the toilet, grey-faced as she nods her thanks. He studies her and Regina can see the moment he makes a reluctant decision. “I’ll heat up the soup from last night if you’ll get Emma set up on the couch,” he offers resignedly and she starts and offers him a tentative smile. He brushes his fingers against her shoulder and she doesn’t recoil. 

Emma has a brief coughing fit and swallows down some more water. “Thanks. Sorry.” She bites a raw chapped lip. “I didn’t mean to screw up your weekend.”

“Don’t be an idiot. Someone needs to take care of you and Snow thinks bedside manner involves singing Someday My Prince Will Come until the birds flutter in and make you breakfast. I won’t have you scarring Henry for life, either.” She allows herself one hand to Emma’s back to support her when they walk to the living room.

“Ha.” Emma laughs, a weak exhale that has her coughing again. “I knew you’d seen the movie. The Evil Queen was totally a babe.”

“Of course she was,” she sniffs, and she isn’t blushing. There had been a time when her ability to keep a straight face had been legendary in Storybrooke, she knows it. Or maybe that had just been a permanent scowl. Damn Savior. “Snow White was insipid. The audience needed someone to root for.” 

She gets Emma set up on the couch while Robin lingers in the kitchen, talking in low tones to Henry while he begins an in-depth description of a night spent with a sick Emma. It all sounds very dire, and she’s listening with half an ear while Emma watches her with sharp eyes. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” Emma shrugs weakly. “You just…you don’t look so great.” 

don’t look so great?” she echoes disbelievingly. “Have you seen you?”

“Not like that.” Fingers catch her cheek and tilt her face down to Emma’s gaze. “You look thirty seconds from a breakdown. Is it me here? Because I really can get that room at Granny’s. I know Robin hasn’t caved to my charms yet and I don’t think I’m gonna be very good at winning him over today.”

“You’re never going to be good at winning him over.” 

A loud fake gasp. “Rude.”

“Idiot.” She brushes her knuckles along Emma’s flannel-clad arm and thinks about this scene, years into a future where nothing is different at all. “Emma…where do you see yourself in five years from now?”

Emma sneezes into her lap and she snatches the tissues off the coffee table and shoves them at her patient, wrinkling her nose with distaste. “Is this a job interview? Because I would have worn my sexy pajamas.” 

“I’m serious.”

Emma shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t really think about that kind of thing. If you’d asked me five years ago where I saw myself now, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d be lying on the Evil Queen’s couch while Robin Hood makes me soup in the kitchen and my birth son pretends that he’s helping so he doesn’t have to deal with all this…phlegm.” She sneezes again. “I probably wouldn’t have predicted Robin making me soup five hours ago either. I’ve learned to take life as it comes. It keeps you from dwelling.”

She frowns. “I don’t dwell.”

Emma offers her a pointed look. “I’m Snow White’s daughter, Regina. I know what you spent twenty-eight years doing. And I don’t think you were doing much else before that, either. I just…move on when things are bad. It’s not my best trait, but I don’t think it’s my worst, either.”

She remembers Emma on her porch (Tell me to stop and I’ll stop)(I want you to stop) and she  wonders how easily Emma will move on from whatever they could have been. It flashes through her mind again, toddlers and sicknesses and Emma as a loyal friend and nothing more. Five years ago, she’d have imagined an entirely different present, and Emma Swan is the cog that had refused to fit into the machine. 

And now… She offers Emma a smile. “I can give you a list of your worst traits, if you want. It shouldn’t take me too many pages. Font ten. Single-spaced.”

“Mm. You’re the best.” Emma sneezes onto her lap again, and this time is undoubtedly no accident. “Go get my soup, woman.”

“Have you forgotten that I’m your boss?”

“Go get my soup, Mayor Mills?”

She laughs and rolls her eyes and Emma lies back, looking very pleased with herself. “I’ll rescue Robin from Henry. Your soup is on its way, Princess.”

She makes it into the kitchen just as Robin walks out, deftly balancing a bowl of soup, a spoon, and a charger plate along one arm as Henry applauds. A house of children, that’s what this has become. Henry’s the only one she can count on to act like an adult, and even that’s debatable.

Right now, he looks up guiltily from where he’s pouring half a bottle of homemade syrup onto his pancakes. “Uh, whoops. Hi, Mom!”

“Did Snow not manage to feed you this morning?”

He beams like he knows it’s her Achilles’ heel. “She didn’t manage to feed me blueberry pancakes? I don’t even think she tries cooking when I’m there anymore because Ma once told her about how you make shepherd’s pie better after Grams told us that it was her specialty.”

“Your mother has no tact.” But she’s already mentally calculating how many potatoes she has in the house if she’s going to make a shepherd’s pie Emma approves of for dinner. “And I will have a word with Snow about feeding you properly.” Henry’s growing again, shooting through a pant size in under a month, and he needs better food than a threatened former stepdaughter is feeding him. 

Henry spears a pancake and makes a halfhearted attempt at cutting it in half before he practically inhales it. “She just really likes you,” he says with a full mouth. At her glower, he swallows and says. “I mean. Your food.” He pours more syrup on the next pancake. “So did you tell her why she can’t have the guest room yet?”

She plucks the bottle of syrup from between his fingers. “It’s better that she’s down here if she’s bedridden, anyway. I don’t need to keep running upstairs to check on her this way.”

“Uh huh.” Henry seems unconvinced, but his pancakes are more tempting than another rehashing of this discussion, and he turns back to them when she doesn’t respond. 

She tastes the soup and considers adding more turmeric. “Henry, do you want to go riding with Robin and Roland today? Emma should get some quiet time to sleep off this flu.”

“Roland’s going to ride on his pony, not my horse, right?” But he nods his acquiescence and Regina returns to the living room to find out what’s taking Robin.

At first she thinks that he isn’t there at all, but then she hears his voice and realizes that he’s seated on the floor, leaning back against the couch while Emma talks. “…then I think it might work out.”

“You seem quite invested in these Lost Boys,” Robin observes. It’s strange, watching them get along, and Regina understands a little better what had provoked Emma all that time ago when she’d tried being friendly with Hook. She can handle this discomfort with more grace than Emma, at least.

“I promised them a home. Moms, even,” Emma says. Her words come out muffled by her sniffly nose but earnest nonetheless. “And then I vanished for a year a few days later. I’ve had people promise me a family and it turn out to be a load of crap. I didn’t want to do that to them.” 

“That’s quite admirable.” Robin sounds like he means it, and Regina can imagine Emma’s embarrassed smile from the other side of the couch. “To remember them after all you’ve been through. Regina must be very impressed.”

Regina tenses, and Emma says, “I didn’t do it to impress Regina. Not everything I do is about Regina.”

“But most things,” Robin presses on.

“Yeah,” Emma agrees, and Regina’s breath catches in her throat. “Most things.” She laughs suddenly, hard enough to start a coughing fit. “Sorry. I’m just…I don’t know how I got to this place. With Regina Mills, of all people. You guys seem pretty good together. I’m happy for her.”

Regina’s nails are digging crescents into her palm, but Robin says nothing and Emma keeps going. “She’s happy now. She smiles like… She never smiled like that except around Henry. Like no one’s trying to hurt her. She always thought I was trying to hurt her. Even when I didn’t mean to.” The couch creaks under her as she shifts. Regina doesn’t dare move. “I was taking her heart away without realizing that that was what I was doing every time I saw Henry. We hurt each other,” she amends. “You don’t hurt her.”

“No.” It’s strained, like Robin is holding back too much of himself with a single word, and Regina shivers, feeling the word sink deep within her.

“You’d better be worth it,” Emma warns him, somehow fierce under the runny nose and shivering. “You’d better be worth her. She’s come much too far to wind up with an inferior product.”

Robin starts to respond but Regina clears her throat before anymore is revealed and they both start. 

It’s only once Robin heads out with Henry and Roland that Emma finally says grudgingly, “Robin isn’t the worst person in the universe.”

“How wonderful that we’ve gotten to this point,” Regina says dryly, sitting beside Emma on the couch to press a hand to her forehead.

“I mean I’d have picked someone much better to be your soulmate. Hey, is Mufasa around in Storybrooke? There was always something about him. His kid isn’t as cute as Roland but still. Kitties.” She wiggles her eyebrows. “You can’t go wrong with kitties.”

“You want me to date a lion.”

“Robin’s a fox.” 

“I had no idea you were so attracted to him.” She earns a weak shove from Emma. “I don’t need another prescribed soulmate, thank you for offering.”

“Whoa.” Emma’s eyes light up with interest. “Hostility. Was that hostility?” 

“Only toward you.” She smiles. Is this the smile Emma thinks she doesn’t get from her? No matter how complicated their history might be, she can’t imagine that she’s ever been so restrained around Emma.

Emma sees what she wants to see.

They watch inane Sunday afternoon television and debate the merits of Sunday night television (“Nothing before nine,” Emma says, and Regina has to agree) and Regina is starting on that shepherd’s pie when Hook arrives at the door with a bottle in hand and a smirk on his lips. 

“Is that rum?” she asks accusingly. “You are not bringing rum into my home.” 

There’s a nasal yell from the next room. “I want rum! Bring the rum here!”

“You heard the lady,” Hook says sleekly, and he’s walking past her into her living room while she watches unhappily, hands on her hips and lips pursed with displeasure.

She follows him to Emma, taking a seat on the opposite couch with her legs crossed. She admits to some faint curiosity about Emma and Hook. They spend a lot of time together and Emma claims to enjoy his presence, so they can’t actually be as woefully mismatched as she likes to think. Hook had spent the bulk of their time in Neverland and fighting Zelena monologuing about his attraction to Emma and watching her with permanently brooding eyes. She likes to imagine that that’s still how it is.

Hook does run his hand over her forehead and free a blonde curl that’s plastered to the side of Emma’s face and Emma squirms and glances back at Regina and they both just look…uncomfortable. Regina watches them evenly and Hook murmurs something she can’t catch into Emma’s ear. Emma rolls her eyes– see what I put up with?– and Regina smirks– you did this to yourself– and they both snicker in happy agreement. 

And there are those famously brooding eyes from Hook again.

“Do you two…talk?” Regina asks when he leaves. Emma had had some of the rum and they’d watched TV in silence while Regina had busied herself in the kitchen preparing dinner. She’d overheard Emma explaining why the cartoon characters were yellow and something about the storyline, but then they’d fallen silent again and Hook had made his escape in under an hour. “Ever?”

“Shut up.” Emma covers her face with a pillow. “We talk. Just not when you’re sitting over us staring like we’re an unpleasant new species you’re studying.”

“Really.” She’s remembering suddenly that Emma brings Henry or David nearly every time they take the Jolly Roger; that Hook goes to the Charmings for dinner but Emma’s never mentioned many dinners alone with him; that she actually can’t recall a single date they’d had that Emma had ever brought up. She’d always assumed that it was Emma’s standard reticence when it comes to Hook-related topics, but now that the evidence is before her, she’s left wondering.

“I don’t know. Maybe? We’re not really much for talking. We spend a lot of time with Henry and my parents and…I don’t know, it was easier when everything was always…dire.” She shrugs and Regina raises an eyebrow. “Anyway–“ And there’s still enough color in her cheeks under the greyness of the flu for her to blush. “We don’t really…talk much…when we’re alone.”

The mental images come far too easily and Regina thinks she might be green when she looks back at Emma. “What?” Emma says defensively. “Just because you don’t want me, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone who does.”

“Emma.” She chooses her words carefully. “You know it was never that I didn’t–“ She breaks off. “Of course I want–“ Nothing feels right, none of this is productive, and she runs her fingers through Emma’s hair and finally murmurs, “You can do so much better than either of us.”

Emma doesn’t respond, just pulls away abruptly and announces, “I’m gonna go take a shower before Henry gets back.” She staggers to her feet, clumsily maneuvering around Regina to grab her bag and make her way to the stairs.

“Emma…” 

She turns back, a smile firmly fixed back on her face. “It’s okay. I said I’d drop it and I meant it. I just need a shower.”

She nods helplessly. “Go ahead.”

She’s off guard, left unsteady and longing for things that Emma Swan is just idiot enough to offer, and it’s because of thoughts of Emma that it doesn’t occur to her where the blonde is planning on changing for her shower until Emma is charging right back down the stairs, hair flying behind her and eyes wild with outrage. “What the fuck, Regina? What is going on?”

“I don’t know what you–“

“Were you ever even together? Is this some kind of massive pixie dust con that you’re running? What are you playing at?” 

The guest room, Regina remembers too late, and she takes an instinctive step back toward the arm of the couch, steadying herself. “No. It’s…we’re going through a rough patch,” she says finally. “We’re taking some time.” 

“And you didn’t tell me.”

“No, I didn’t tell you.” Regina’s eyes are narrowed, her heart thumping in her chest like it’s trying to break free, and she reminds herself that for all Emma’s fury, this isn’t about her. “You don’t get a free pass to my personal life just because you’re attracted to me.”

“Attracted to you,” Emma repeats. She shakes her head from side to side, disbelieving. “Attracted to you? That’s what you think this is about? I thought I was your friend, Regina! I thought we talked about…this stuff.” She waves her hands around helplessly. “I just admitted to you that I don’t even know how to talk to my boyfriend and yours is moving out? How long has this been going on?” she demands, and she looks so heartbroken that Regina’s stomach wrenches. “Why couldn’t you tell me the truth?”

Because you complicate things!” It tears out of her in a shriek like I loved him. I loved him! and What? It was meant for you! and she’s frozen for a moment, stunned at her own loss of control.

It’s just long enough for Emma to lift her bag and contemplate it with enough hopelessness that Regina almost reaches for her right then. But there’s a chasm yawning between them now, one Regina doesn’t quite know how to bridge without treading too far, and she wraps one hand around her waist and waits. “You know where I see us in five years from now?” Emma says. “Here. Like this. Wanting.”

She sweeps her hand forward to touch Regina’s arm with the tips of her fingers. “Unchanged.” She hugs her bag to her with the other hand. “That’s where we’re headed. Change doesn’t just happen, Regina. I know you know that.” She raises her eyes and Regina sees the abundance of understanding in them for a woman who’d lied and murdered and struggled to make amends. “I know you’ve spent your whole life railing against who you were told you were supposed to be.”

And then Emma’s in front of her in a flash, closer than she’s ever been without a fight to invite them into each other’s personal space. She ghosts her lips along the shell of Regina’s ear, near enough that Regina is quivering at the non-contact and the heat of Emma’s breath against her. “I wish you still thought you were worth fighting for,” she whispers, and Regina trembles.

There’s nothing she can say, not to Emma, who understands her all too well but still understands nothing at all, and she stands still, resisting the impossible urge Emma draws out in her to throw her against the nearest wall and…

There are two ways this can go.

She chooses neither. “I’m going to finish dinner,” she says, pulling away from Emma. “You should take that shower.”

She goes down to the cellar to find an appropriate bottle of wine, and when she returns, Emma is gone, the bedsheet she’d used folded sloppily on the couch.


 

xiii. hearts and an apple turnover (some poisoned, some not)

She wedges the Tupperware container under her arm and glances once at the missed calls from Emma still marked on her phone when she pushes open the door to the sheriff’s office. Emma hasn’t left any voicemails, but she’s been stubbornly calling several times a day and Regina has been ignoring her with equal stubbornness. 

Answering the phone would have meant forgiving her for storming out of the house like a child when she’d been sick and should have known better, and Regina hadn’t been prepared for that conversation (Never mind that it would lead to a discussion of the reasons why Emma had stormed out. Never mind that) for days. It doesn’t help that Emma’s so damned easy to forgive, and she’d wanted to hold onto her resentment for just a little longer.

And now she’s finally ready to talk on her own terms. She doesn’t know how this conversation might end, where they might be when it’s over. There’s too much left unsaid between them, too much that Emma doesn’t understand, and she’s determined to try to communicate it again.

“Emma, I wanted to–“ She stops, glowering at the sheriff’s desk with startled displeasure.

Hook tips his head in acknowledgement. “Afternoon, Majesty.”

Her lip curls unpleasantly. “What are you doing here? I don’t recall putting money in the town budget for a deputy who spends more time flat on his back on the ground than doing anything useful.”

“Always a charmer.” He puts a foot on the desk. She stares pointedly at it until he removes it again, grinning up at her like he thinks he’s endearing enough to get away with it. Her expression doesn’t change. He’s no Emma Swan. “I’m sorry to say that my lady is still quite incapacitated. She sent me here to rescue any cats that may need her assistance today.”

“She’s still sick? It’s been days!” she says, distracted from her disdain. She’s been halfway expecting Emma to charge into her office and demand that they talk, and she’s been nearly…disappointed that it hadn’t happened. If Emma’s still holed up in the Jolly Roger, that’d explain it, at least. “Where’s David? Shouldn’t he be standing in for her?”

“Alas, David’s been booted from the house as well. They’ve taken over my cabin and have Smee out on errands for them all day. He’s talking about leaving the ship.” He grimaces, and Regina’s almost grateful that Emma hadleft for a moment. “What’s in the container?”

She glances down at her Tupperware. “It’s an apple turnover.” She’d made it to add some levity to what was going to be a tense confrontation. And there’s the added bonus that she’s never seen Emma run off when there’s dessert to be had, of course. “No poison this time.” 

Hook looks blank. She sighs irritably. “Never mind. I’ll go deliver it to her.” 

She’s halfway out the door when Hook says, “You know, a man always knows when he has a rival for his lady’s heart.”

She stops, trepidation crawling down her shoulders to her chest. “How convenient for you.”

“There’s no shame in it, love.” He smiles genially and she wants to hurl a fireball directly into his smug unshaven face. “We may not agree on much, Regina, but I believe we both do have this one thing in common.”

Her arms are crossed when she turns, her teeth gritted together, and Killian Jones is the last person she wants to have this conversation with. Emma might be a close second-to-last, but at least it’s her business. Hook is just a bystander who happens to be Emma’s flavor of the week, nothing more. “And what is that, exactly?” she demands. “What are you implying?”

He quirks an eyebrow. “I don’t think I need to imply anything here. We both know that your heart belongs to my lady. You may be dallying with the outlaw for now, but your face betrays you time and again.” He’s still smiling and she feels unclean under it, exposed about something that should never have been his or anyone’s but hers or Emma’s. Her heart is none of his concern, and he should be focusing on worrying about Emma’s heart instead, she thinks savagely, so they wouldn’t have any problems at all. “Emma is…well, she is magnificent. I’m not surprised you love her.”

She finds herself nodding automatically and stops at once. “You know nothing about either of us,” she says tightly.

“I know that she’s courting you.” Hook leans back, settling his feet on the table again, and she barely glances down. “The Lady Sarabi once held court over all the pirates of the Seven Seas before she married her king. We’re well-acquainted, though I don’t believes she likes me very much,” he muses. 

“Shocking.”

He’s unfazed. “She tells me that you two had an intimate dinner together at her establishment.  And I did see her with you on my ship. Until then, I’d thought the attraction was merely one-sided.” 

Her fingers are knotting together over the apple turnover. For all her hatred of the pirate, she’d never meant for this to hurt Emma, and she’s suddenly afraid that she has.

Maybe there’d been a time when she’d have been glad to be rid of him by any means possible, and she could have told herself that it was for Emma’s sake. Now she remembers Emma desperate to keep him here, not in love but caring enough that she doesn’t want to lose a friend, and she presses forward at the way his expression hasn’t changed and the smile is still faint on his face. “And this doesn’t concern you.”

“Not exactly.” Hook folds his arms over his stomach, and for a moment she thinks she can see a flicker of concern under the calmness. “You see, I do consider myself a scholar in all things Emma Swan. Our Emma–“ He laughs, and she bristles just as much as she had the first time Emma had called Henryher son. Emma belongs to no one, least of all an incompetent pirate who’s never been good enough for her. “She tells us nothing and leaves us guessing. But I’ve come to understand her rather well, and I understand what she’s doing now.” 

“Upgrading to a better model?” Regina suggests, folding her arms and arching a brow at him. For all her doubts about her own relationship with Emma, she’s certain that Hook will never be even half as in touch with Emma’s feelings on him as she is. She’d fallen- not for him, but into him, retreating to the safest option that had existed for her. It’s nice to have someone who puts me first, she’d said once. 

Regina remembers that kind of obsession herself, remembers how intoxicating it had been for so long to know that Sidney would have done anything for her. She remembers how false it rings when she’d considered ever seeing him asmore, how she’d quickly discovered that it’s the idea of her that enchants him more than she ever could on her own.

But Emma seems to genuinely like Hook, and there’s the difference between them. Regina had been…desperate for affection, back then, alone in a kingdom and a town with no friends or family beyond a single child. And when it had been given too easily, she’d been cautious for the mere reason that she hadn’t believed it possible.

Emma might have been like that once, but now they’re both more isolated and less so, surrounded by people who call them family and still a beat away. Still not quite comfortable in that position, still wary of love and what it might demand from them. They’d moved to the logical choices, prescribed by pixie dust or simple loyalty, and never thought to dream of anything more.

No. Hook is not Robin. Robin is not Hook. But you gravitate toward him for the same crap reasons, says a voice in her head. It sounds like Emma, smug over a cup of coffee, eyes sparkling with the knowledge that she’d scored a hit.

“Running,” Hook says, and Emma’s face fades from her mind. “As she does.”

She laughs. “From what, her feelings for you?”

“Aye.” He looks so earnest about it that she laughs again, disbelieving, and he looks offended. “Is it so impossible to believe that Emma might care for me?” 

“Care for you, no,” she admits. “But enough to run? You’re a distraction.” It’s cruel, crueler than she’s allowed herself to be in a long time, but she takes a savage satisfaction in it now with Hook, who’d once heard her nearly beg and left her behind regardless. Who’d earned his hero card and Emma’s trust by nothing more than chauffeuring them around Neverland. “You’re not someone worth running from. Emma deserves so much more than you.”

“And yet.” He spreads his hands. “She’s still chosen me.”

“You chose her. She just surrendered to it eventually.”

“And now she’s afraid.” He drops his feet from the desk and leans in to take something off of it. It’s a spyglass, one she’s seen Emma play with a dozen times and never made the connection with Hook. Of course. A pirate’s life for her. Regina grimaces, and Hook goes on. “Did you know that she kissed me in Neverland?”

“Of course I did. You wouldn’t shut up about it.” She’d been far too preoccupied with finding her son to spend any time thinking about Emma in the woods in that damned tank top, kissing Hook hard enough to transfer his obsession straight from killing Rumplestiltskin to winning Emma’s heart. They’d all been working together and Emma had talked to her and trusted her and she’d… 

She looks away. Hook clears his throat. “I’ve since realized that it was never about me. She’d been running from her memories of Baelfire, still coping, and I suppose I was there. So she turned to me for comfort.”

Regina scoffs. “It was just a kiss,” she argues automatically, but he’s making sense and she’s listening despite herself, shifting in place and suddenly more uncomfortable than before.

He gives her a knowing look. “And now she’s running again. To you.”

Her insides freeze over with a word. “No.” 

“The most unavailable person she cares for,” he points out. “You have a true love.”

“A soulmate.” 

“Is that really so different?” He shakes his head, his smile all but gone. “She’s begun to feel more for me and it terrifies her, so she finds new infatuation with someone she believes won’t reciprocate. Did you know that she tried to end things with me just before your night together?”

“She wasn’t afraid,” Regina snaps. “Not every single thing Emma does is about her purported feelings for you. Sometimes a woman just gets tired of unwashed pirates and scurvy.” She remembers Emma on her couch, a pillow on her face, admitting that she’d only kept things going because she’d wanted Hook to stay. 

Hook thinks I’m getting cold feet because I’m feeling too much. She’d taken Emma’s denial at face value then but it’s impossible not to overthink it now that Hook is sitting opposite her, so confident, and who’s to say that the version she’d gotten is any more true than the one Emma had given Hook? “Did she tell you that?” he asks, and she stands in stony silence. A flash of pain crosses his face and he smirks it away. “She sees what she wants to, and feels otherwise.” 

“No,” she says again. Emma doesn’t love Hook. Emma doesn’t love her, either, but that’s irrelevant. She isn’t a distraction from the pirate. This entire conversation is a product of Hook’s delusions about his self-worth, nothing more. “A few afternoons on a boat with her father chaperoning doesn’t make you an expert in Emma’s feelings. Neither do five days together in Neverland.You’re seeing what you want to see.” 

“Am I? Or are you?” Hook counters, standing. His face softens. “I know that you love her, Regina. I’m certain she doesn’t or she wouldn’t be using you like this.”

She rolls her eyes, ignoring the way they water at the movement. “No oneuses me, much less a sheriff with such a pathetic grasp of politics that she once took a chainsaw to my tree. If this were some half-baked plan to distract her from you, she’d have told me by now.”

“I don’t know how aware she is of what she’s doing.” His voice is gentle, like he’s consoling some sad heartbroken victim. She is not a victim. “I’m telling you this to help you, Regina. Truly and sincerely. I feel as though I…” He clears his throat, looking uncomfortable again. “I owe you this.”

She remembers lying on a table, restrained and awaiting torture, and a cool metal hook running over her face before he’d walked out. They’d been villains, maybe, capable of atrocities and would have gladly sent each other to their deaths, but torture had been something else entirely. Personal and dehumanizing and disproportionate and Hook had put her on that table and didn’t have the stomach to stick around for the main event. Her voice is lower than it should be, thick with frustrated tears, and she snaps out, “You owe me a hell of a lot more.”

He fiddles with the spyglass in his hands, uncomfortable, and she turns on her heel and strides out of the sheriff’s office with her head held high.

She stumbles halfway to her car and presses a hand onto the nearest tree for support, gasping breaths tearing out of her with such force that her whole body is shaking and there’s a shiver skipping through beats of her heart. “No,” she whispers again, because Hook knows nothing. Because he’s a fool who’s infatuated with a woman he doesn’t understand. And if he could make himself believe that he could ever be enough for her, he could invent enough delusions as to why she’d want to move on. 

Except…

Emma doesn’t make overtures like she had that night. Emma doesn’t pursue people, and Emma doesn’t make choices that haven’t been made for her already. She isn’t so presumptuous to believe that Emma would step out of her comfort zone just because of a few conversations between the two of them. Not for her. Not for nothing.

And Emma is a mystery, closed off even at her most open, and maybe Hook’s right. Maybe Regina is only seeing what she wants to see.

She doesn’t know why this hurts so much. She has Robin. She’s tied to Robin for life, even if it makes her want to rail against the fairies and Robin and her own destiny. There’s no space in her life for Emma Swan, regardless of how she might feel about her, and it would be a thousand times simpler if Hook is right and this has never been about her and Emma.

But she’d wanted it, hadn’t she? She’s looking for excuses, too, a reason to reject lion tattoos and pixie dust and go after what she really wants. She’s been living in limbo for weeks, waiting for a reason to fight. Waiting for a way to regain control of her future, even if it means she’s doomed to be alone forever. And she’s been counting on Emma to do it for her, to push her forward as she and Henry have so many times before.

Emma isn’t going to do it this time. Emma might be just as confused as she is, hiding her own burgeoning emotions under advances that might or might not be genuine, running toward her or away from Hook. And for a moment, she really does hope that it’s Hook who’s right, that Emma loves him and Emma can be happy with him.

For all her distaste, at least he doesn’t have a past and a future that will only hurt Emma.

She’s breathing more easily now and it doesn’t take much to drag herself to her car and drive down to the docks. Apple turnover in hand, she ducks onto the Jolly Roger and climbs down to the captain’s quarters, where a second bed has been set up on the opposite wall and Emma and David are talking quietly.

They both look up when they see her, and Emma lurches to a sitting position, her smile so bright that it burns within Regina’s chest. “You’re here! Wait.” She frowns. “Are you here to yell at me? I’m sick.” She coughs dramatically, peeking up at Regina through her eyelashes. “Can’t yell at a sick woman.”

“What did you do now?” David demands. “Is this why we’re here instead of Regina’s house? Because I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t be punished forher.” He looks at her with the exact same gaze as his daughter, and she mutely lifts the Tupperware with the turnover inside again.

“Food!” Emma really does get up now, half tripping on blankets as she tries to stumble over to Regina.

“Food?” David repeats, brightening.

Emma snatches the container out of Regina’s arms. “My food. Get your own Regina, Dad.” She scowls at him like he’s the enemy and Regina feels so warm that she nearly forgets that Emma might be in love with a pirate.

That might be the part that galls her the most. Coming in second to Hook. She doesn’t think she’s anywhere near what Emma deserves, but she’d never doubted that she could give Emma more than Hook ever has.

Then again, being taken care of has never been Emma’s priority. Being who her family and friends want her to be, that’s what motivates her. Being what Hook would want her to be. She swallows.

David purses his lips. “I would, but mine seems to think that I deserve this.” He presses a hand to his forehead. “I was trying to save our town! I didn’t have time to get a flu shot.”

“Yeah!” 

They scowl together and Emma opens the container, her eyes widening when she sees its contents. “Oh, you are mad. An apple turnover?” She bites into it anyway, nearly inhaling half of it faster than a sleeping curse would have been capable of taking hold. “Ohh. Fuck. This is good. I can’t believe Henry took the last one from me.”

“It was poisoned.” But David is looking on jealously anyway, and he shouts, “Smee! Smee, I need you to go to Granny’s for me.” There’s no response, and he pulls himself out of bed and staggers toward the door. “Smee!”

His fingers brush along Regina’s back as he walks past her, affectionate in that subtle way that David seems to offer them all, and she finds her voice at last. “How are you feeling?” 

“How are you feeling?” Emma counters, frowning at her. “You seem kind of…shellshocked. What happened to you?” 

“Nothing.” She perches on the edge of Emma’s bed when the other woman pats it, twisting her fingers against each other nervously. “I was just worried about you.”

A hand settles over hers, stilling it. “I’m sorry,” Emma says. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say all week. It’s none of my business what’s going on with you and Robin.”

It’s all so soft, eyes and hands and hearts, and she can feel herself straining with a thousand uncertain feelings. They don’t talk about whatever had been admitted next. “You weren’t entirely wrong, though. We are friends, and I could have shared it with you.” 

Emma’s thumb draws circles on her wrist. “I wish you would have,” she murmurs, and Regina searches her face for any indication that this isn’t real, that this is Emma avoiding someone else. She sees only affection and hurt in Emma’s eyes, borne from anything from love to simple friendship.

She clears her throat. “I should…can I talk to you about something? As a friend.”

“A friend,” Emma repeats, and Regina’s only imagining the way her eyes darken at the word. “Sure.”

She thinks about Robin, about destiny, about soulmates and evil and searching for something more when she’s worthy of so much less. She thinks about Emma’s eyes, red and swollen from the flu but still so gentle when she looks at her. She thinks about being alone in her house again while Henry and Emma go off to the Jolly Roger and she thinks about Robin and Roland, alone in the woods without her. She thinks about Emma, still a mystery to her after all.

“Do you know where Tinkerbell’s been staying in town?” she says instead, and Emma stills beside her.

Chapter Text

xiv. breaking things (self-made rules and promises and emma swan)

She sits on a bench near the park, staring into the water as her reflection in it wavers and twists and distorts. It’s not entirely unlike what she sees in the mirror these days, this shifting person too slippery to decide where she belongs anymore. Somehow she’d thought that once Zelena was defeated, once Henry was back with her and she’d found Robin, this could be the simplicity she’d once dreamed of with Daniel. The happily-ever-after that had never been in the cards for her.

And now she’s questioning it all, and she can’t help but feel wary about that, like she’s tempting new pain by thinking about rejecting the good that she’s found. By searching for excuses and confirmations and…

She glances up and sees Emma making her way around the pond to her, wrapped in her coat and still a bit peaky, and the smile that springs to her face is entirely unconscious. Emma. They may never be together, but as long as she has Henry and Emma and their idiot family, she can’t imagine that she’ll be too unhappy.

But this isn’t just about her.

Emma offers her a bright smile of her own before she turns, and Regina finally notices her companions. Hook, of course, trailing behind her like the useless shadow he is, and beyond him… 

“You got my text. I found your fairy!” Emma announces, gesturing grandly at Tinkerbell. “It wasn’t easy. No one knew where she’d been and she doesn’t have a cell phone yet, so I wound up having to use all my bail bondsperson skills to research locations and cross-examine the nuns and then she showed up on the Jolly Roger looking for Hook. So…I found her.” 

She looks very pleased with herself, and Hook mumbles, “She’s done nothing but search for her for days. What could possibly be so important that you needed Tink so urgently?”

Emma shrugs. “Regina asked.” She says it like it’s reason enough, and Regina can’t stop her smile from widening. Emma ducks her head and grins back, the color back in her cheeks, and the resulting warmth in Regina’s chest feels like home.

She swallows, meeting Tink’s eyes at last, and the fairy offers her a small smile. They hadn’t left things on a positive note last time they’d spoken, and they’re both still on guard, waiting for the inevitable clash again. “Thank you, Emma,” she murmurs. “Do you mind…?”

“Oh! Sure.” Emma pulls on Hook’s hand and the pirate follows her. He’s still holding onto her hand but she doesn’t seem bothered by it, not even when she glances back at them. The smile has faded from her face and she looks oddly intent, and Regina wonders if Emma knows why she’s been searching for Tink.

“She’s happy with him, you know,” Tink says quietly, and there’s that tension in her voice again. “I don’t know what you want from me, but I won’t–”

She cuts her off before frustration at Emma and Hook and whatever Emma’s true feelings are bubbles up again. “I want to know that I’m not Robin’s happy ending.”

Tink blinks and sits down. “What?”

“I was in love before him. He was in love before me. And now I’m…I have feelings for someone else.” She’s fooling no one, but she inhales deeply and tries not to look at Emma and Hook, still walking along the side of the pond opposite from them. “What makes my relationship with Robin any different than the rest of those? Why is it the one we’re supposed to be saddled with all our lives?” 

Tink shakes her head. “A true love is different from a soulmate. Some fall immediately in love, yes, but more often true love springs up over time as affection grows. Your son is certainly your true love, but you might have another in someone else important to you- Snow White, perhaps?”

She must be trying to provoke Regina by now, and Regina flares up. “Excuseme?” 

The fairy holds up a hand. “What I mean is that true love isn’t as rare as some might say. But a soulmate…you only get one in your lifetime. And pixie dust is never wrong. Robin Hood is your soulmate.” 

“I know.” She does, she doesn’t deny it. She’s never let her walls down so easily before, never jumped into a relationship or connected with someone quite so quickly. Not since Daniel’s death. Emma- even Henry- had been an uphill struggle from the start, a combination of her own issues and their stubbornness. And they’ve been sorting out baggage for years now while Robin is baggage-free, blessed with the simplicity shared by most good people from the Enchanted Forest. “But you’ve said that Daniel was my soulmate, too.”

She gets a patronizing smile from Tink for that. “Oh, Regina, I had to let you believe that. I knew that you would never accept that you could have found someone more suited to you than him. But it was never him. It’s always been Robin.”

Any warmth she’d been feeling is gone in an instant, her chest caving in on itself like she’d been slammed in it with a sledgehammer. She tries to breath but air passes through her parted lips and never makes it to her throat, and she focuses on Emma again, blonde hair and dark green coat and a rock in her hand as she shows Hook how to skip them across the pond. Emma anchors her, brings her back to the present and out of a dark stable with a body in her arms. “You’re wrong,” she says hoarsely. “I loved Daniel. I would have spent my whole life with him and never wanted for more.”

“No. You wouldn’t have.” And Tink is following her line of sight now, staring at Emma with pursed lips. “You can’t fight destiny on this. You will always find each other,” she says with surety, and bile rises in Regina’s throat. “You two are meant to be together until the day you die, and you might love another now but now that you know Robin, any other love is doomed to failure.” She turns to face her. “Why push off the inevitable, Regina? Don’t you love Robin? Aren’t you tired of breaking things?” 

Her voice is pained, and Regina says, “Why do you care?” 

“I’m your friend.” Tink glares at her. “I was your friend before…before. I want your happiness.” She shakes her head, eyes wide and earnest and frustrated. “I gave up most of my life for it. My future, my place in this world. All for you and Robin.” 

“I didn’t ask you to do that,” Regina whispers. She thinks she should be angry at Tink, who’s so determinedly convinced that she knows what’s best for her, but instead she’s just sad. Tink has pinned all her self-worth on this relationship, stubbornly convinced that it will work because there’s no other option for her. Aren’t you tired of breaking things?

Tink doesn’t respond for a long moment, and when she finally speaks, it’s quiet and resigned. “You’re looking for someone to tell you that it’s all going to work out. That you can give up your soulmate and find love elsewhere.” 

“Yes. No,” she corrects herself. “I don’t…I don’t care about finding love. I have Henry. He’s all I need.” She plays with the edging on her coat, tracing its pattern along the sides of the fabric. “I don’t want Robin to be alone. I want Roland to have a mother.” She’s so tired of hurting the people who deserve it the least. 

She finds Emma, now perched on a rocky outcropping at the other end of the park, a hand mussing Hook’s hair as he tries to swat it away with his hook. And she remembers storming through a castle, determined to eliminate Snow White’s baby and discovering that she’s already gone. A place where the only happy ending will be mine. “I want to know that he can find someone to love again.”

“It’s not real.” Tink’s hand is suddenly covering hers, pressing down almost painfully. “Your infatuation with Emma…it’s not real. It can’t be real. I get it. You’re afraid and you’re trying to self-destruct again, but all you’re going to do is make yourself and Robin miserable.” Her hand is trembling but her voice is flat, and she stands up. “I can’t give you these assurances. If you want to risk your happiness and Robin’s, it’ll have to be your decision. There’s only so much you can screw up before I stop enabling you.” She doesn’t look back at Regina, doesn’t turn around at all, just holds her head high and stalks toward Emma and Hook.

Regina stares blankly at them, Tink’s reproach still loud in her mind. Aren’t you tired of breaking things? She’s been railing against her destiny for years now, resisting what she’s been told about who she can be since first the day Henry had looked at her like he was afraid, just after the curse had been broken. And there have been hiccups along the way, but this isn’t a hiccup at all. This is Robin’s life.

She’s prepared to spend her own life as alone as she’s been since she was nineteen, but she can’t do the same to two of the people in her life she cares about most.

And another person on that short list is approaching. She senses Emma’s presence before she even notices that Hook and Tink have walked off and Emma’s joining Regina on her bench. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she lies, and Emma rolls her eyes.

“Yeah, sure.” She flips Regina’s hand over to wind her fingers between the other woman’s. “I know Tink gets to be a handful when it comes to you and Robin.”

“Who says we were talking about Robin?”

Regina.”

She sighs. “I don’t know what to do, Emma,” she admits. Her throat is rough, her words hoarse. “He’s my soulmate.”

Emma offers her a faint, strained smile. “Does he make you happy?”

“I’ve answered that before.” She remembers a late night, leaning forward and telling Emma the truth, and Emma staring at her like she’s the mystery of the two of them. Like she doesn’t understand how Regina could feel otherwise.

Emma squeezes her hand. “I didn’t believe you. I still don’t understand why…” She clears her throat. “What do you want, Regina?” 

To be free, she thinks, and the face of a king flashes through her mind, far too close as she recoils, and it’s the walls of the mansion around them instead of the castle she’d been sold into. And then Robin, who looks at her like she’s his world, and little Roland running ahead of her to the playground, his hand pulling her along. “Does it matter?”

Emma stares at her like she’s the idiot of the two of them. “Of course it does. You’re not obligated to stay with Robin if you don’t want to.”

“He’s my family,” she says, and does her best to ignore the way Emma’s face tightens at the word family. “He’s happy with me and he loves me and I’m meant to be his happy ending. What right do I have to destroy someone else’s happiness? I’m supposed to be past that now.”

“You’re not supposed to be anything. Being one of the good guys doesn’t make you a saint.” Emma rolls her eyes. “I love my mother, but she was going to abandon all her responsibilities in Neverland and live in a treehouse with my dad. But she had me dumped in a wardrobe when I was a few hours old and hoped for the best.” She shrugs, seemingly unaware of the way her hand has gone stiff in Regina’s. “Sometimes the good guys really, really suck.” 

“How reassuring,” Regina says dryly, brushing her fingers against Emma’s palm until they bend back into her hand again. “Somehow I don’t think I’ll be using Snow White as my model for interpersonal relationships, though.” 

Emma sighs and bumps her shoulder against Regina’s. “Yeah. But you have to take care of yourself first. Or you’re going to start resenting Robin, and it’s going to bubble up more and more and more until you finally explode and–“

“Become the evil queen?” She thinks again of castle walls and loud voices in the garden and a girl who looks at her and sees nothing of the blood-red hatred lurking beneath the surface of her skin.

Emma coughs vigorously until she’s turning red and Regina is rubbing her back with long, soothing strokes. “I was going to say ‘until you finally wind up leaving him anyway.’”

“Oh.” She falls silent, flushing a little as Emma retrieves her hand. “I don’t have to resent him. None of this is his fault. I’m the one who rushed things along when I saw his tattoo, and maybe it was…maybe it was just too fast.”

“From what David tells me, you two spent the entire year away squabbling like a couple of four-year-olds with weaponry and magic.” She seems almost wistful for a moment, as though she wouldn’t have minded being with them for that year after all. “It sounded like fun.”

“We did do that.” She spares a smile at the memory, his smug face so much more endearing now that she’s learned to care about him. “I adored Roland from the start, though.”

“David also thinks you secretly liked him, too.” Emma’s eyebrows are raised, her eyes bright with mirth she doesn’t explain. “So you’re telling me that some blonde shows up in your castle and you spend a year fighting with him, but also loving his son?”

“What’s your point?” she asks, wary. 

She gets another look from Emma. “I’m just saying. Maybe if I’d played my cards right when I first got to Storybrooke…” 

Emma’s incorrigible and maybe not too far offand her throat is very dry. “Oh, shut up.” 

“What did you secretly like most about me?” Emma presses, grinning. “Was it my sign-destroying skills? That time I broke into your office? The chainsaw? These guns?” She flexes her bicep, and Regina’s close enough to her that she can feel it even through their coats. “It was the guns, wasn’t it?”

She could deny it all, pretend that there hadn’t been a single thing about Emma Swan that she hadn’t loathed, once upon a time, but what’s safer isn’t easier anymore. “It was you,” Regina admits. “All of you.”

Emma blinks, startled. “Huh?”

She swallows, the smile springing to her lips at the memory of Emma, eyes bright and alive and challenging and our son and mattering most of all. “I spent twenty-eight years asleep, Emma. That’s what it felt like most of the time. I had…I had Henry, but that was it. No one changed. Nothing was different. Henry was my lifeline, but when he wasn’t around, I didn’t feel…alive.” 

She’d needed challenges and fire and fight, and she’d been trapped in her own happy ending without them. “Not until the day you showed up in Storybrooke and wreaked havoc with everything I ruled over.” She’s contemplative, her fingers running lines along Emma’s wrist. “You were there to destroy me, and I think I loved it under all the hate, just a little.”

Emma’s smiling at her when she turns to meet her eyes. It isn’t a smirk or a grin or a beam, just something simple and quiet and warm. “What?” she demands.

Emma shrugs. “Just…glad to oblige.”

“Don’t oversell yourself,” she says, mustering up some haughtiness that fools no one. “You were just a distraction. And if things hadn’t worked out like…this…I’d probably still hate you.”

“Yeah, I hated you too.” 

Emma had been impossible, all over the place and unstoppable and spitting angry at Regina all the time. She’d wanted to kill her and kiss her and tie her up in her room and gag her and… She clears her throat. “We were different than Robin and I were. He saw me early on during that year in a very bad place. I didn’t want to be around him after that.”

“You always want to be around me,” Emma says, and it’s a joke except that it’s completely true and she sighs and murmurs, “Yes,” before she can catch herself.

Emma twitches beside her. “Regina,” she breathes, and there’s something about that sound and she can’t stop herself from bringing her hand up to the place where Emma’s jaw meets her neck, brushing up along it until she opens her palm and presses it against the space below Emma’s ear and cups her face. 

Emma leans into her hand, eyes fluttering shut for just a moment before she opens them again, intent on Regina. “This thing with Robin. Where you want to go away. It’s, um- it’s not about me, is it?”

She could laugh now, could be cruel and give her a version of the truth that isn’t all that distant from reality but simpler, but when met with Emma’s eyes, all she can think is to say, “Not completely.”

“Oh. Okay.” Emma turns slightly, enough to let her lips graze against Regina’s palm. “I don’t want you to resent me, either,” she murmurs. Her eyes are still penetrating, fixed on Regina’s face like it’s telling her a story neither of them are ready for, and she says again, “What do you want, Regina?” 

“I want to stop breaking things.” She thinks about Tink’s accusing eyes, about Robin and Roland and a little blonde girl who’d grown up without a family. She wonders about Emma, who runs and runs so much that she can’t imagine that she’d be running toward her to be hurt again.

Emma shakes her head, the motion small enough not to dislodge Regina’s hand. “You haven’t broken anything in a long time.”

“I could,” she whispers. “I still could, I know it. Not just Robin, Emma. Don’t you remember how we tried to break each other?” She remembers pictures of a seventeen-year-old girl who glares out at the world like she’s given up on it, remembers Henry running past her, I found my real mom!, and an apple red as blood.

“Yeah, we fucked that up,” Emma huffs out a little laugh, and Regina kisses her. 

It’s chaste and sweet and absolutely the worst idea she’s had in a very long time, and Emma leans forward and kisses her back, careful not to push any more than she has already. She shivers in the night air and doesn’t move her hand from Emma’s face or her lips from hers or from the way their noses bump against each other, her eyes drifting closed and her heart pounding in her chest like it’s finally been set free. 

Aren’t you tired of breaking things?

And they’re shattering now, every moment connected another moment where the world around them is going to have to pay for this. Where they’re running from where they belong and coming together, heedless of the pain that they’re about to inflict on others. No. This isn’t Emma’s problem, with her smug pirate convinced that she’ll find her way back to him. This is all Regina, breaking bonds and hurting the people she loves. Hurting Emma, all for a moment of weakness.

She pulls back abruptly. Emma is flushed and wide-eyed and her lipstick is smeared all over the blonde’s mouth and she can’t stop staring, can’t stopyearning, but Tink was right and this is all doomed to failure. This looks like everything she’s dreamed of. This looks like the start to a disastrous story that’ll break them all.

“I’m sorry,” she manages, meeting green eyes and biting down on the inside of her cheek with such force that she tastes blood. “This was a mistake.”

Emma stands up and swoops down, her lips crashing into Regina’s with so much power that her lips part and she grips Emma’s coat to yank her closer and this isn’t chaste at all. This isn’t careful at all. She’s gasping for breath and Emma refuses to give it to her, refuses to do anything but fuse their lips together again and again, but draw her tongue over Regina’s teeth and suck on her lower lip and bite and kiss and bite and kiss until Regina is dazed and her lips are swollen and she can’t remember how to move or talk or be good. 

“Fuck you,” Emma says, breathing hard, and she turns and storms toward the street. 

Chapter Text

xv. an abundance of testosterone (and the ones who weave between them, writing new stories in the void)

“Thanks for taking me here,” Henry says, leading her up the stairs to the Charmings’. “Don’t be too mad, okay?”

“I’m not angry with you for leaving your textbook here,” she says, puzzled. “It happens. Emma has so much trouble keeping track of your schedule that it’s a wonder that I’m the one who didn’t grow up with this schooling system.” It’s only Saturday afternoon, too, and Henry hasn’t thought about studying over the weekend since they instituted the weekends-with-Emma policy. He’s on his best behavior today, home early and not even scowling about the now-empty guest room anymore. 

The now-empty guest room is…best. For everyone involved. She doesn’t know why her heart quickens when Robin’s around now- not as it did once, out of the newness of something that still felt right, but with a rapid sort of thudding that feels very nearly like fear- but it’s just something she’ll have to get over.

There are no other options for either of them, and that could be so much worse than being with a man she cares about.

The thudding starts again and she blinks and turns back to her son. “That’s not why you’re going to be mad,” Henry admits, and he pushes open the door.

She blinks again. David is standing in the center of the room, bent over the table as he arranges a vase at the center of it, but it’s the little head popping up from behind him that captures her attention. Roland, struggling to climb up onto his shoulders.

Robin is standing in one corner with Hook, and he looks up to flash her a smile. He’s stirring a bowl of something dark and green, and Hook is predictably pouring glasses of whiskey for the both of them. And Snow stands in the kitchen, beaming at her over the counter while she balances Leo in one arm and a plate in the other. “Welcome to our very first family dinner!”

Regina looks to her side. Henry shrugs up at her. “I thought it would be fun. And we haven’t had dinner with Ma since before she got sick. You guys must miss each other.”

Henry.” So this is why he’s finally gotten over the Robin situation. She can’t have him playing matchmaker like this, expecting things from them both that will only break his heart in the end. But she also glances around once automatically, searching for blonde hair and the ready scowl she probably deserves after the night at the park. “Where is Emma?”

Leo starts to fuss at the sound of her voice, whining until Snow comes over and passes him to her. “I swear, both my children like you more than me,” she sighs good-naturedly. 

“Well, it’s understandable,” Regina observes, raising an eyebrow as she cradles him against her side and Snow rolls her eyes in response. “Where is the bigger model of this one, anyway? Did she hear about family dinner and disown you, and is that an option for me? Again?”

“Shh.” Snow pats Leo’s back. “Don’t listen to her stories, Leo. No, Emma did not disown us. She just had an emergency call from the station.”

“Really,” she says skeptically.

“Really.” Snow smiles, and for a moment Regina is reminded that this is the woman who’s managed to defeat her multiple times and might not be aperpetual idiot. “And I told her that she has twenty minutes to be back here from her fictional call, or we’re having family dinner again tomorrow night. Everybody wins!” She darts back to the kitchen area before Regina can respond, Henry right behind her.

“Absolutely not,” Regina says to no one at all, and Robin sidles over behind her to brush a kiss to the top of her head.

“My apologies for the deception. Snow is very persistent.” His lips feel dry when they scrape against her forehead, like meaningless kisses she’d long ago forced from her memory, and she breathes and smiles.

“Tell me about it. I’ve been trying to inflict pain and suffering on the woman for decades, and now she’s one-upped me in one night. Hasn’t she, Baby Emma?” she coos, lifting Leo to smile at him. His face splits into a smile of his own, gurgling happily in answer.

“It can’t be that bad.” 

Hook is here,” she points out, and the man in question looks up and catches her eye. She glowers at him. He raises his glass to her and drinks. “Disgusting.” 

“I promise you, no one is expecting you two to be friends,” Robin says, tilting her chin up to his, and he pecks her lips as she struggles to smile. I want everything to be like it was before, she’d said to him. I don’t want this to be strained again.

He’s as affectionate now as he’d been when this was all new, holding her and kissing her like she’s the most precious thing he’s ever had, and she wants nothing more than to be able to reciprocate and enjoy instead of listening to the beating of her heart in her ears, growing louder and louder until everything around them is drowned out and she’s looking at him like he’s a stranger.

She just needs to get used to it again. This…closeness. It’s what she wants, and she’s fortunate to have it.

He’s still kissing her and she kisses him back as well as she can until a strained voice says, “Excuse me,” from the doorway and she jumps back as though she’s been shoved.

Emma walks past them and straight to Hook, and she tilts her head as though she’s about to kiss him but hesitates midway through and pats his arm instead. Regina watches her, her face very tight, and Emma stares back silently.

Robin does the same light touch of his fingers to her arm. “I’d better return this…guacamole, was it…? to Snow.” And then she’s alone at the door, Leo still in her arms, and Emma has yet to look away from her. 

“How’d you like to hear the story about how the Dark One and the Evil Queen saved you from being raised in a tree?” she suggests to the baby. He keeps smiling, oblivious to the new tension in the room, and she makes her way toward the living room. “This is a perfectly valid Charming parenting style. It’s a wonder you’ve made it this far.” David makes a face and Roland looks vaguely intrigued by the concept, and she settles down in a chair and ignores them all.

She’s halfway through her retelling of their time in Neverland- five bumbling fools with ridiculous agendas and she, the heroic mother off to save her son- when Bumbling Fool Number Three (by far her favorite of the bunch, even today amidst the scowling and glaring) takes the seat opposite her and leans back against the couch, still watching them.

Regina eyes her warily. “What is this?”

“This,” Emma says, matching her tone, “Is us not panicking our son into thinking that I haven’t been around lately because I’m furious with you.”

“But you are.”

“Yeah.”

“Right.” She licks her lips, the memory of their last meeting still in vivid color in her mind, and Emma’s eyes sharpen on her. “Good point. That’s…very mature of you.”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I put up with you being an unholy bitch for nearly a year and didn’t try to kill you once.” There’s a faint tinge of humor in her voice, though her eyes don’t get any less hard. “What was your count? Three? Four?”

Well, that’s unfair. “Eternal sleep doesn’t count!” 

Emma holds up two fingers. “You definitely tried to have me drive off into the woods my first night here. And cut the brakes to my car once.”

“That was Sidney. I never wanted you dead.”

Emma folds her arms, disbelieving. Regina scowls. “I didn’t. Killing you would have broken the curse.”

“Oh! Well. That makes it all better.” Emma rolls her eyes upward. “I don’t know how I ever–“ She pauses, heaving a sigh.

The hope that bubbles up is entirely inappropriate. “You ever…?”

Emma sighs again. “Don’t.” It’s all she says, and they sit in awkward silence again, avoiding each other’s eyes and sneaking glances at each other whenever the other looks away.

It comes as a relief when Snow announces, “Dinner is served!” and they can make their way to the table, Regina choosing a seat as far from Emma as possible. She can feel her eyes on her anyway, boring holes into her as she cuts up chicken for Roland and Robin’s arm is casually flung across the back of her chair.

She glances up once to see Hook’s arm in the same place on Emma’s chair, and Emma hunched forward as much as she can, leaning against the table with both elbows propped against it. There’s a quick glance between them- uncertainty, maybe, with a healthy dose of hurt that Regina knows that she isn’t nearly as entitled to as Emma- and then she looks back at her plate.

Hook is regaling them all with a story about mermaids, and Henry’s discarded his recent hostility toward any men in his mothers’ lives to listen raptly from beside Emma. Snow is beaming at them all, pleased with her perfect family dinner, and Regina is sitting very straight in her chair, somewhere halfway between the back of it and the table.

The conversation turns to the cabins of the Jolly Roger, and David- the most recent escapee from flu season- is saying, “I can’t believe you live in there. No sunshine, constant rocking, and absolutely no space.”

“I can’t imagine,” Robin says with a shudder.

Snow nods with him, as accustomed to the open woods as he is. “Have you ever thought about getting a place in town, Killian? I know you’ve rented a room at Granny’s, but that’s not nearly as permanent or affordable as a rental.”

“Well, I don’t know if we’re quite ready for that.” Hook shifts his arm to rest directly on Emma’s shoulders. She stabs at her chicken with a fork, over and over until it’s a shredded mess on her plate. “You will let me know when that time comes, love? I know Henry’s been looking at apartments for you for months.” 

“Regina, it’s getting all yucky!” Roland says suddenly, and she looks down, frowning at the disaster she’s made of his food with her own fork. 

Snow glances at her and clears her throat, smiling uncomfortably. “Well, good luck with that.”

“Emma’s been talking about finding her own place since Leo was born, but I haven’t seen her so much as look at any of Henry’s suggestions.” David laughs. “Not quite ready to leave the nest yet, are you, sweetheart?”

Emma looks up at last, her lips pressed together into a tight smile. “I’m working on it. Give me a few weeks and we’ll be out of your hair.”

“We like you in our hair!” Snow says, but Emma is already turning back to her plate, shoveling chicken into her mouth, and there’s a weight to the air like a room full of gas, waiting for one spark to light and send them all to pieces. 

Leave it to her parents, and Emma will be moving in with Hook in a week. Regina grimaces to herself and speaks up before anything more is said. “This chicken isn’t bad. Is this a mustard-based sauce?”

Snow brightens and David interjects with explanations of what he’d done to help, and Regina nods mechanically and notices as Emma lifts her phone like she’s getting a call and slips away from the table.

Hook moves his chair back as though to follow and Regina wiggles her fingers, trapping him in his seat with magic. He struggles in place for a moment before he looks at her, an accusation on his lips, and she stares back evenly until he sighs and goes back to his chicken. Henry smirks under his hand.

“Just a minute,” Regina murmurs to Robin, sliding around him and heading toward the stairs up to where Emma had disappeared.

Emma’s lying across her bed, flat on her stomach with her face buried in a pillow, and the first thing she says when she sees Regina is, “Thank god you’re not Hook.”

“I say the same thing every time I look in the mirror.”

Emma grins as though she’s forgotten that she’s angry- and then frowns, her eyes dark again. “What are you doing here?”

“Not being Hook?” Regina suggests, and Emma sends an unamused scowl her way. She swallows, searching for a response, and finally settles on the simple truth. “You needed me.”

“I didn’t…” But Emma falters mid-assertion, turning on her side to look up at Regina. “They’re right, you know? I’ve been talking about moving out since Leo was born, and I haven’t done anything about it. It’s getting crowded, especially when Henry’s here, and I know that they’re not going to complain about it but I shouldn’t be here anymore.”

“You spent twenty-eight years without them,” Regina points out, feeling a bit queasy at the reminder. “You’re entitled to want a little more time with your family.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just tired of being…” She buries her face in the pillow again, half-muffling her last word and it all coming out very, very small. “Alone.” 

“You won’t be alone,” Regina murmurs, coming to sit down beside her. 

It’s probably a bad idea, sitting on Emma Swan’s bed when it’s likely she can still rhapsodize about the taste of her lip gloss, but Emma moves a little closer and turns back to her like this might be okay and she forgets that there should be distance between them. “You’ll have this idiot family no matter where they live. They’re just obnoxious enough to spend all their time in your new apartment once you move, anyway.”

“Maybe.” Emma smiles up at her, her anger subsiding for the time being. And then, because she’s Emma and doesn’t know how not to ruin a moment, she says, “I hear you have a free guest room now, huh?” 

Henry really needs to stop. “I do.” She tilts her head back, staring at the dim bulb above them. “It is what it has to be, Emma. I’m sorry.”

Emma stares up at her, eyes vulnerable under a carefully still mask. “You shouldn’t have kissed me.”

“I shouldn’t have,” she echoes, and watches Emma’s eyes close off, too. “For what it’s worth…” She hears footsteps padding their way up the stairs and says instead, “So do you think you will move in with Hook?”

“Eventually.” Emma glances toward the stairs. “I guess.” There’s a vague hopelessness to it, a sense of inevitability that Regina recognizes all too well.

But she, at least, has someone infinitely more suitable than Killian Jones. “You could do so much better.”

“I tried,” Emma murmurs, turning away from her. “It didn’t work out.”

“Yes, well, you have atrocious taste in wom-“ She halts. The footsteps have stopped and she can see the dark hair visible from her spot. “In people. It’s no reason to sell yourself short.”

“Do you even hear yourself right now?” Emma sits up, nearly banging into her as her eyes flash with new frustration. Regina stares down again, tracing woodgrain on the floor with her eyes. “Do you have any idea what you’re…?” She swings her legs around past Regina, so high over her head that Regina’s mouth is suddenly dry, and stalks back to the stairs. “I don’t have time for this.”

She pauses for a moment on the stairs to tickle a little shriek out of Leo, and then she’s climbing down the stairs and Snow is making her way up, holding the baby against her as she sits down beside Regina. “Hi.”

She nods curtly and Snow passes Leo to her automatically, pressing her palms down against the bed so she can lean back upon them. “I don’t want her to go. I wish she knew that. She was…she was my friend, before she was ever my daughter. And I don’t want to lose either.”

“She doesn’t want to lose you.” It’s almost painful to admit it, even after all this time. Cordial conversation with Snow always takes a few minutes before the sarcasm dies down. “You know if she moves somewhere else, she’ll–“

“Retreat.” Snow sighs. “I know Emma. She’s going to hide in her little hole and find new ways to believe the worst of herself and never think about how much we love her. I won’t let that happen.”

She doesn’t respond. There’s still outrage bottled up inside from dozens of times when Emma hadn’t felt like enough because of her parents, when she’d gotten so caught up in being the Savior because she’d felt like it had been her whole value to them, when she’d wandered into Regina’s house when Leo had still been a newborn because he’d been a constant reminder of what she couldn’t be. And she can’t help but blame Snow for the bulk of it. 

Snow and Regina herself most of all, for dooming Emma to a lifetime of isolation at birth. She swallows, and Snow says, “We were going to name him Daniel.”

She nearly chokes at the name. “What?”

“Leo.” She rubs the baby’s back and he curls in closer to Regina, wrapped tightly in her arms. “I wanted to name him Daniel. I thought it’d be a way to honor Daniel’s memory, and you’d be his godmother and he might’ve been the first thing we built up instead of breaking down.” She bites her lip. “We were a family last year, weren’t we?”

Regina can’t explain why she suddenly wants to cry, why Leo’s green-grey eyes are enough to have her breath catch in her throat and her words come out hoarse and low. “Why…why didn’t you?”

Snow is quiet for a moment. “You started seeing Robin, and I thought it might be an important name for you to have to use. And it seemed…presumptuous, somehow. Like I’d be trying to erase the past for the sake of the future. So we went with Leo instead.” 

She stares down at him, her fingers pausing against Regina’s. “I was a young princess for a long time before you drove me into the woods. I knew how men treated women, even royal women. Like objects to be sold off to the highest bidder, like queens who existed only to be theirs. My father was different, though.” She doesn’t see Regina’s flinch, or at least chooses not to acknowledge it. “He treasured my mother and me, and I adored him. I never imagined that he was just like all the others until I saw your face when we named Leo.”

It’s too much to listen to, even from Snow, and while she might’ve thought that she’d once wanted this acknowledgement, it makes her nauseous now. “I killed your father,” she reminds her.

“I know.” There’s no bitterness in Snow’s voice, and she remembers I want to apologize, Regina, for Cora, and feels even sicker. “I’m glad that you’re happy now, Regina. That you’re done hurting yourself and hurting others–“

It’s standard Snow White, so sincere that it reeks of patronizing condescension, but then Snow says, “And that you have someone like Robin now,” and her stomach twists so violently that she nearly gags and Leo is Leopold is Robin is Daniel, all flashing through her mind at once, and she can nearly feel the ties between her and Robin like a physical thing, pulled taut at every moment she questions it. 

She concentrates on her anchor, on the color of Leo’s eyes and the taste of lip gloss and the memory of Emma’s cheek against her neck, and it steadies her breathing enough for her to whisper, “Why are you telling me all this?”

Snow smiles at her, sad and knowing, and says, “I think Emma has feelings for you.”

Regina is silent, her heartbeat quickening even more, and Snow goes on. “It’s troubling.” 

Her hackles are raised in an instant, fear and claustrophobia gone and replaced with defensiveness. “Because I’m evil?” she spits out. “Because I’m unworthy of your precious child?”

Snow looks genuinely confused at the anger she’s directed inward and outward all at once. “Because you have a true love, Regina. I want more for Emma than something one-sided and painful.” She bites her lip. “I know you care about her and I don’t think you’d intentionally hurt her. I just…I don’t want her to be a casualty of us. I don’t want there to be any casualties on either side anymore.”

She thinks of Robin and Roland and Emma, of chains and castle walls and a lion tattoo, and she knows she’s lying when she murmurs, “There won’t be.”


xvi. hunting (exploring, seeing, being. none of the above)

Emma has two modes of coping with frustration. 

When she’s angry, she’s angry, hot and confrontational and unrestrained by silly little details like acceptable human behavior. Regina had secretly craved it more than she’d wanted Emma’s cooperation back when they’d been enemies warring for their son and the fate of Storybrooke. There’d been something to that reckless fire that had drawn her in like a moth to a flame, had given her an equal and a reason to fight.

But when Emma’s feeling vulnerable, she retreats, hiding away with noncommittal responses and a sudden attention to everything she ordinarily neglects in favor of charging through life fully determined to give everyone else in the world the care she doesn’t give herself. And now Regina’s hanging on to her phone like she never has before, waiting for calls and texts that never come and dashing off a few of her own.

Henry wants to show me the apartment you’ve picked out. Do you want to meet us there in an hour to let us in?

All she gets in response is an address and a four-number combination to the apartment, but she’s still tapping her heels outside the apartment building, glancing down the street for a glimpse of the unsightly yellow bug. 

“She’s not coming, Mom,” Henry says impatiently. “Whatever you did, she’s not getting over it so quickly.”

She scowls at him. “Why do you think I did something?”

He rolls his eyes and bounds for the side of the building. It’s further from the center of town than she’d like, in one of the dingier areas that aren’t all that occupied. Town beautification plans had taken care of all but the most unoccupied areas, and in stubborn Emma fashion, the sheriff had managed to find one of the least livable areas in town. 

She follows him, noting with displeasure the direct entrance from the outside. This isn’t safe at all. “Why do you think I did something?” she repeats, punching in the combination.

Henry shrugs. “Because when you’re angry with Ma, she just looks really sad and follows you around until you forgive her. You’re kind of a pushover, Mom.”

“I was a queen!” she says, outraged. “I subjugated whole kingdoms! I’m not a pushover!” 

Henry stumbles backward, his eyes wide, and her irritation fades. “Henry, I didn’t mean to-“ She catches on a moment before the smile creeps back onto his face. “This is your mother’s fault,” she grumbles.

“No way. I knew that long before she figured it out.” He pushes open the door. “She’s not mad at you, though. If she was mad, she’d have probably burned down the house by now.”

“It’s encouraging that we have so much faith in her,” Regina says, following him into the apartment and glancing around. “And for good reason. What is this place?”

It’s not that it’s not in perfectly decent condition, because she has made sure that the town ordinances don’t allow for low-quality rentals. This is a quaint Maine town, not the middle of a city. It’s just…decent. A small indentation in the wall for a couch, a battered table in the center of the room, a kitchen against the other wall. A tiny bathroom and two bedrooms that look just about the right size for a bed and a small dresser. It’s utilitarian, the bare basics, an apartment for a new adult just moving out from her parents’ house.

Except Emma is in her thirties now and has a teenaged son, and this is no home for them.

Henry smiles at her, determined as always to make the best of the situation. “I think it’s nice. I get my own room and everything. And no screaming baby downstairs.”

“It’s a hovel,” she says. Which may be an exaggeration, but she’s frowning at the idea of Emma and Henry living here, where the only windows are tiny little rectangles at the top of wall, looking out into tangled brush. Where there’s no light and no space and it’s stark and feels nothing like them, like two people who matter too much to be forgotten in this emptiness. “How much is rent here?” 

Henry shrugs. “I don’t know. We had a really nice apartment in New York, but Ma does say that you don’t pay her enough.”

“I pay her plenty. More than an elementary school teacher makes.” And Snow has a large, homey apartment across town. “Was this one of your choices? Maybe she thinks that this is what you want.”

“I like it,” Henry insists again. “But no, I looked at a lot of nicer places. I didn’t look at basements. It’s too wet here, right? Even this place smells a little like mildew. But Ma wants it and I think it’ll be cool to get to live with her again. Only on weekends,” he says hastily when her face falls. “But I’ve missed it being just the two of us. And us,” he adds, taking her hand, and his eyes are suddenly bright with what she thinks of now as his scheming face. The one that starts Operations and Stakeouts and all the things she’d done with him once until he’d found out that he was adopted and that first wedge had been driven into their relationship. “Maybe all three of us, too.”

“Henry.” She sits down gingerly on the couch, pulling him down to sit beside her. “You know that that isn’t going to happen.”

“She really isn’t angry,” he says. “She just seems…sad about you now. I asked her about it and she said it wasn’t your fault, but it is, isn’t it? You made her like this.” There’s no accusation in his voice, just the simple desire tounderstand, and she might’ve been defensive about it a year ago but now she just wraps an arm around his waist and listens silently when he talks. “I don’t understand why you both keep trying to fight it when you know that you’re going to be together in the end. Don’t you love her?”

“I care about her very much,” Regina says carefully. Henry despises lying with a fierce tempestuousness that could drive him away from her with just a few of the wrong words. But she can’t afford to give him hope for something he considers so inevitable. “But you know that I’m with Robin. And that’s how it’s always going to be. Emma is a…friend.” She raises an eyebrow. “Considering our relationship a couple of years ago, I would think that you’d take what you can get.”

He shrugs like a miniature Emma, moody and sulky and annoyed. “It’s so stupid, Mom. You don’t have to be with Robin. He’s great and I like him a lot, but…” He stares at her. “You don’t smile the same way around him.”

This is new. “What do you mean?”

Henry is still studying her face like she’s about to give away truths he isn’t ready for. “You smile at him like it’s easy. But you smile at Emma like it hurts. Like you look at me. Like it’s been so much harder to get here.”

It has been harder, and she’s reminded of her conversation with Tink, of the weight of her battles to get to this place with her son and his other mother. “Sometimes easy is good,” she counters. “Sometimes it’s a gift.”

His eyes narrow. “Sometimes easy doesn’t mean anything at all.” Her son is a reader, a writer, a storyteller of the highest caliber. And he sees everything around him through that lens, through fairytales and heroic journeys and epic romances; and for all his intelligence, he still doesn’t quite understand the simplicity of the mundane. 

To be fair, it might not help that he’s living within the stories themselves now, concepts like true love and good and evil come to life. She leans back against the lumpy couch, Henry tucking his head into her shoulder as she moves. “Henry, why is it so important that Emma and I are together? Isn’t this enough? Is it Robin? Hook? Roland?” 

“It’s none of them,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s you guys. You take care of Ma and she takes care of you. Like you take care of me.”

“We can do that without hurting other people.”

He stares earnestly at her. “But you’re hurting yourselves by pretending it’s not there.” 

He slouches against her and she frowns. “And what about Robin then? What about Roland? You know that this is all predestined, right? Just like Emma breaking the curse, or me casting it in the first place. Just like me finding you.” She presses her lips to the top of his head. “If I decided to try and fight it like I did the first time, it wouldn’t make a difference. Robin and I would end up together again. But first he’d be alone. Roland wouldn’t have a mother. I don’t want to do that to them.” 

She turns her head so she can meet Henry’s eyes, and he regards her silently. “What do you think is going to happen to Emma, Henry? If all this is going to happen no matter what? How can any of it end well?”

He doesn’t have a response, and she kisses him again, soft against his forehead, and sits up. “Come, Henry. Let’s go home.”

They get in the car and drive back toward Mifflin Street. Henry is still quiet, lost in his thoughts, and she takes the opportunity to contemplate the apartment again. She’s struck by Snow’s words- she’s going to hide in her little hole and find new ways to believe the worst of herself and never think about how much we love her- and she breathes, trying hard not to think of Emma alone in a basement five days a week, isolated from her family and friends and the people who miss her dearly.

It’s unacceptable. She parks outside the house and reaches for her phone, typing the curt words. Call me immediately.

Henry’s phone beeps as he opens the door, and he glances down at it as she watches unsurprised. “Is that Emma?”

He nods. “She’s just checking in.” Making sure that it’s nothing urgent other than Regina’s own whims that has her demanding to speak to her, more likely. But she’ll call in a few hours anyway, when curiosity wins out over stubbornness. Regina knows how Emma operates.

They walk to the front door together, and Henry pauses with his hand on the door handle. “I don’t think it’s a very good story if it doesn’t end with Ma,” he says finally. 

“Life isn’t a story, Henry.” She pulls open the door. “Not even ours.”

+

“How does the apartment look?” Robin asks later that night. They’re on the couch in her office together, Regina carefully seated just a hair far enough for there to still be distance between them without it being too apparent to Robin. She can feel a gulf erupt in the space between them, widening the couch even further, and she sips at her cider and doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “I’ve always liked Snow’s. It reminds me of some of the cabins we’d kept in the woods after Roland was born.”

“It’s…unacceptable,” she says dismissively. “I won’t have Henry and Emma living there.”

“I don’t think you have much of a say in what Emma does,” Robin notes, and she can feel herself tensing before he adds, “But Henry, of course, is your fair priority.”

“Yes.” If she looks at him in the flickering of the fireplace, she can seek out his eyes, warm and kind and loving. And then she looks beyond him and tasteful wallpaper is suddenly stone wall, the window a distant light that grows smaller and smaller with every moment she remains in this room. 

She breathes and sets down her cider and struggles to see just him. Just Robin, her second chance and her future and someone she’s lucky to have, even if he isn’t the one she’d chosen. She’s accepted this future, this wonderful man and his adorable son and the lion tattoo on his wrist, and it’s ludicrous to feel this helpless about the only shreds of her destiny that guarantee her happiness.

Another face is superimposed on Robin’s for a moment- uninterested eyes that look straight past her and are too close, always too close, and she can feel her body moving as though her fingers have invisible strings looped around them, tugging her forward–

She kisses Robin and feels him move over her to cover her and it’s not safe anymore. It’s not reassuring, not like being held. It feels like he’s suddenly enormous and she’s tiny beneath him, shrinking and shrinking into nothingness. Into Queen. Wife. Mother. Nothingnothingnothing and she closes her eyes and floats away in the wind as warm hands fumble at her clothes and her lips stay pressed to his.

Noise blasts into existence at once and she jerks, her eyes wide and her heart jumping, and only then does she recognize the music and the way that Robin-Robin, Robin, it was only Robin- sighs. “I suppose you need to get that,” he says, and the music keeps going, the loud and obnoxious ringtone that Emma had programmed to her name sounding out from the table next to her.

“I do.” She scrambles away and lifts the phone, still breathing heavily. “Hello?”

“Are you okay?” Emma says immediately.

“I’m- I’m fine.” She peeks up at Robin. He’s staring into the fire and his face is very still. There’d been a time when he’d still be wrapped around her while she spoke on the phone, darting kisses along her neck as goosebumps sprout along it, but not with Emma. Never with Emma.

She remembers the moment he’d understood, the moment she’d recognized the dawning on his face when he’d first really seen her around Emma. It had been in this very room. Emma had been trying some particularly complex magic and her face had been shining, glistening with sweat and focus and she’d been staggeringly beautiful in an instant. Regina had caught her breath, staring at her- you smile at Emma like it hurts- and Robin had seen the utter adoration in her eyes and in the curve on her lips.

After, he’d said So this is what you’ve been keeping from me and she’d said It doesn’t matter and they’d never talked about it again until everything changed. But he keeps his distance when Emma’s around now, doesn’t intrude in their relationship. She doesn’t know if it’s because he’s giving her space or because he’s afraid she’d push him away if he did. She thinks he’s probably right.

“You don’t sound okay.” She can nearly hear Emma’s frown on the other end of the phone line. “Do you want me to come over?” she asks, as though things aren’t strained between them anymore and she’s still supportive as ever.

“No. That’s quite all right.” She clears her throat. “I asked you to call me about your apartment options. Henry’s given me a list of the ones that he’d picked out in town and they all seem affordable on your salary, so I’d like you to go look at them this week.”

“Regina.”

She charges onward. “I want you to find something closer to the main part of town, so Henry can still walk to Granny’s in the mornings. Maybe near the sheriff’s station? There’s one on the list that’s actually the top level of a house, so you can have–“

Regina,” Emma repeats. “I picked out an apartment. I’m not you. I don’t need an estate, just a place to eat and sleep.”

“No,” she says.

“No?” Emma echoes. “You don’t get to tell me where I live!”

She presses her lips together with irritation. “Perhaps not, but I do get some say in where Henry lives. And I won’t have him in a place without sun for two days a week just because you’re afraid to find a home.”

“I’m not afraid to find anything,” Emma says disbelievingly. “I found a place. I’ve lived in much worse places than that apartment, trust me.”

Regina curls her feet up onto the couch and thinks again of Emma, hiding from the world in an apartment far from the people who love her. “You found an apartment. I want you to have a home, not a stay-by for until you decide you’ve been refusing Hook for too long and move onto the Jolly Roger.” She lowers her voice. It’s still hoarse, like she’s been screaming or crying or sick. “You deserve more than that for yourself.”

Emma’s voice is tight when she responds. “Yeah, well, you’re not my mother or my wife and you don’t get a say in what I do or don’t want for myself.”

She grits her teeth, irritation rising within her. “I may not be your mother, but I am Henry’s, and you’d do well to remember that.”

“Fine,” Emma growls, and the phone beeps off.

She stares at her phone, waiting patiently. Emma’s angry now, which means…

It rings in her hand. She swipes it on, lifting it to her ear. “Yes?”

“And you don’t get to talk about what I deserve, Regina!” Emma snarls. “You can’t tell me what I’m looking for when I’ve told you and you still keep talking about Hook like that’s something I want. I don’t want the fucking Jolly Roger, I want–“ 

“Robin,” she says loudly, and Emma stops mid-rant. “Do you mind if I take this outside?”

“Go ahead.” He’s still looking into the flames, his face troubled, and she hurries out through the building until she’s standing outside under her apple tree, breathing freely for the first time since they’d entered her office. 

She inhales the cool night air and feels her tension evaporate. “You’re right, Emma,” she admits into the phone.

She can hear the intake of breath on the other end. “You’re agreeing with me?” Emma says dubiously.

“I don’t have a right to talk about what you deserve.” She sighs and leans against the tree. “It doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to convince you anyway. And I don’t want you living in that place.”

“I’m getting that,” Emma says dryly.

She smiles. “I want you to see the sun, too, Emma. And I think you want to go there to be miserable. To be alone and lonely and push everyone away, and then feel vindicated when you’re finally out of your parents’ house and it kills you.”

Emma is very quiet, and then she finally breathes, “Oh.”

“Oh?”

“Just oh. That’s very presumptuous.” There’s a faint sound of shuffling on the other end, and then Emma sighs, “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I barely even looked at Henry’s choices.”

She rolls her eyes, relaxing again. “Yes, I’m sure all that open air and those spacious interiors didn’t compare to your little basement. You know, I’ve had constituents who used to be penniless peasants thank me for their highly upgraded socio-economic status here, and you’re a princess looking at the only place in town where even they won’t live.”

“No way anyone thanked you for cursing them,” Emma says.

“No,” she concedes. “But you’d think they would.”

“Yeah? All that pain and misery in exchange for some nice apartments?”

“Two words, Emma.” She smirks with triumph and enunciates, “Indoor. Plumbing.”

Emma laughs, sweet and unworried and musical in her ears. “A valid point. Mary Margaret never mentions that when she talks about the curse.”

“Ungrateful child.” Regina sniffs, and she glances up at her window and sees Robin staring out the window, his eyes settled on the smile on her face. “I have to go, Emma. We’ll talk later.”

“Yeah.” Emma sounds less than enthused. “I guess you should go back to Robin.”

“Emma…”

Emma hangs up unceremoniously, leaving her in silence. She stares at the town hall building and it wavers before her eyes into a castle again, tall and imposing and a prison sentence from which she’d never thought she could escape.

She blinks again and again until she’s willed away that mental image and heads back to the door.

Chapter Text

xvii. bedtime with regina (nothing but darkness with the evil queen)

“‘George,’ he went on, ‘You’ve made a terrible mess. But you also made our sad little Betsy happy again, and-‘“ Regina scowls at the page. “This book is deplorable. There’s no redemption story, no struggle to be a better person. The monkey just does something nice that doesn’t undo any of his harm and gets praised for it.”

Roland giggles and she tucks him back against her, sighing. “Same old story, Roland. Slap a pair of wings on him and he’d be Emma Swan’s perfect man.”

“Emma gave me this book,” Roland says, yawning. “She says she liked it when she was littler.”

“Of course she did.” Regina stares back at the page, offering Curious George her best death glare. He doesn’t seem to notice at all.

Robin grins at them both as he enters the room and sits down beside her, and she subtly inches away. He puts an arm around her waist and it weighs heavily against her frame, but she tries her best to lean into it anyway, trembling just a hair. “Off to bed, Roland.”

Roland pouts. “We didn’t finish! I wanna know how it ends.” 

“It’s a silly book, sweetheart,” she stands up, lifting him into her arms to give him her best smile. “We’ll read more in the morning, all right? You’re too sleepy for it now.”

“I wanna-“ he starts, but his head falls back against her shoulder and his eyes are fluttering shut already, and she hugs him closer and nods to Robin. 

“I’ll be right back.” He’s watching her again with an unreadable expression on his face, and she looks away first to walk to the stairs.

She hears her phone ringing when Roland’s safely in bed and hurries downstairs to get it, settling against the table in the foyer as she picks it up. “Sheriff Swan.”

“Madame Mayor.” Emma’s voice is light, the strain that’s accompanied their interactions for nearly weeks gone at last. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said.”

She smirks. “Are you sure that’s not dangerous for your health?”

“I’ve looked at some other places now,” Emma goes on, ignoring her. “And I’ve come to one conclusion.”

“Oh?” 

“I deserve a hefty raise.”

She laughs. “Do you?”

She can imagine Emma on the other line, sprawled out on her mother’s couch and grinning into the phone as Henry does his homework at the kitchen table and rolls his eyes at them both. “I thought I should approach the mayor directly since she’s the one who sent me down to New York last year. Where I got a pretty snazzy job that paid a hell of a lot better than small-town sheriff. I have needs now, you know?”

She sees herself in the mirror, her smile too bright for a simple phone call and her face still shining even when she forces the smile away. “You’re welcome to arrange a meeting to discuss your salary during office hours.”

“You sure? Because I think you’re gonna need to do some research first to understand why the sheriff needs to live in the apartment I found.” Emma lowers her voice conspiratorially. “And also intimidate the landlord a little bit, because when I asked him about a rent break, he laughed in my face and told me he’d require a lot more than a few drops of blood for it.”

Regina nearly chokes. “You offered Gold your blood for a cheaper apartment?”

“Child of true love, right?” She can nearly hear Emma biting her lip over the phone line, trying to keep her own smile under control. “I was just using everything I have. Which did not include a higher salary.”

“You idiot,” she sighs, her lips twitching again. “Where is this new apartment?”

Emma gives her the address, victory in her voice, and Regina’s about to be irritated with her when Emma says, “I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“I know.” It’s been Emma’s decision more than her own, and it’s left her…not lonely, exactly. She can’t be lonely when she’s always surrounded by others. Just…empty. Like she’s been missing a piece of herself, jagged and unpleasant and essential, and she can’t stop thinking about what she’s never had. “How have you been coping with the idea of moving out?”

Emma sighs. “It’s something I have to do, right? It’s better for Henry and it’s better for me. I’m fine.” 

Regina hears the hopelessness creeping into her voice, the assurance that Emma is certainly not fine, and she murmurs, “You don’t have to be.”

There’s a choked laugh from the other end of the phone. “Thanks, Regina. I really will be fine. I’ll see you soon.”

She clicks off the phone and pokes her head into the living room. “Emma’s looking at apartments now and wants my advice. And possibly a raise that she’s not getting. Do you mind if I run out now?”

“Quite a bit, yes. But do go on,” Robin says easily, and she’s getting her coat from the closet when his words sink in.

She hangs it back up and marches back into the living room, her brow furrowed and her fingers pressed into her palm. “What was that?”

“Go on,” Robin repeats, and there’s a challenge in his eyes that she hasn’t seen since their first year together, before they’d fallen into a relationship and back when things were still tense and adversarial. “Go to Emma.”

She grits her teeth and pulls out her phone, hitting the second name on her favorites list and jamming it to her ear. “Change of plans, Emma. I won’t be able to make it tonight,” she says, her gaze locked on Robin’s. “We’ll have to take a raincheck.”

“What? I just put on pants and everything!” Emma whines, but then her voice lowers and she murmurs, “Is everything okay?”

“Quite.” She hangs up the phone, her eyes still sharp against Robin’s. “What is this?” 

His jaw tightens. “It’s nothing. I don’t want to interfere with your plans.”

She sits carefully on the couch beside him, and for the first time in weeks, she looks at him and just sees him, no mask over his face, no memories flickering over him. He’s angry in a way that her husband had never been. She’d never mattered enough to make him angry, not like she does to Robin. “Emma and I haven’t even seen each other since Snow’s family dinner, Robin. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but we aren’t–“

“It’s not about Emma,” Robin says, shaking his head. “Perhaps it was before the worst of this, but I’ve come to realize that it isn’t Emma at all. Emma isn’t the reason why you’ve been jumping every time I walk into a room.” She tenses and he leans forward onto his knees. “Emma isn’t the reason why this happens.” He shifts toward her without warning and she flinches automatically, her throat dry and her heart racing. “What have I done to you, Regina?”

His eyes are wide, the hostility replaced with earnest concern, and it’s so wrong, he deserves more than this from her. She breathes away the darkness, forces herself to study his face- Robin’s, Robin who loves her and wants her and isn’t- and she says, “Nothing. You’ve done nothing,” and edges back across the couch, reaching for him.

She cups his face in her hands and shakes as she inches forward, her lips pressed together in anticipation of a kiss that makes her skin crawl to think of it. She’s just about to touch her lips to Robin’s when he whispers an echo of a long-ago conversation. “What do you see in me?”

She pauses, still too close, enough that his breath turns stale and vile against hers, that his face ages and his hair turns to grey. “Wrong question,” she murmurs against his lips.

“Who, then,” he tries, and she shivers. “Who do you see in me?” 

She sits back, pressing her lips together, and Robin says again, “Who is it? What are you seeing when you look at me that makes you so afraid?” 

He opens his mouth and she can see it, can see the way his lips are forming his first guess and she can’t stand to have Daniel’s name come from the face she’s seeing now, can’t bear to hear his name in this new nightmare, and she snaps out, “The king!” and shrinks back in a flash.

There’s a sharp intake of breath. “The king. The king who you were forced to marry? Snow’s father?” Robin’s staring at her with bewilderment and she can’t breathe again, can’t feel anything but ceilings too far away and dull grey dresses that scratch at her skin and a balcony where the gate falls from before her and pulls her with it. “What have I done to make you feel that way?”

“Nothing,” she says again, and she takes his hand and turns it and stares at the lion tattooed on his wrist. “None of this is because of you.”

And because he’s her soulmate, because he understands her so easily and grasps her doom as easily as he grasps hold of her, he says, “The pixie dust. Tinkerbell. I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you?” she demands. “Don’t you think about what it means that we’re bound together? That we can never find anyone else who’d be so right for ourselves?” She blinks back tears and throws her head back and laughs. “Don’t you ever feel as trapped as I do, locked up in a new castle where you can never escape?”

He shakes his own head. “Of course I do.”

Her breath catches in her throat and she stares at him. “You do?” She’d never imagined him  to be unhappy, not about anything other than her not being enough for him. She’d never thought he’d seen this as she does.

“No,” he says frustratedly. “Not about our being soulmates. Never that.” He closes his hand around the ends of her fingers. “I’m in love with a woman who loves someone else, living in her home with my son who adores her and all she wants to do is toescape.” He opens his hand again, and she doesn’t move her own from him, resting the tips of her fingers against his palm. “I would be happy to fold to your every whim, Regina. I’ve tried to, time and again. Moved into your room. Moved out of it. Pretended that things were all right when you wished them to be so. I love you. I would do anything for you.” 

She’s crying now, shaking her head as thin tears running silently down her face, and he brushes them aside with his free hand. “And yet it seems that you’re determined to make yourself unhappy with me. I don’t know how to help you, Regina. I fear if I left entirely you’d never find me again.”

“Would it be so terrible if I didn’t?” she whispers, and he slumps against the couch. “I’m…I’m making you just as miserable as I am everyone else.” She’d thought that he was happy, at least. That she’d been giving Robin what he wanted even if she’s still incapable of finding that same happiness with him. “I was trying to be who you wanted.”

“Yes, you were,” he says, his face unreadable again. “You’ve been trying to be someone for me. Someone for your son. Someone for Emma Swan and her family. When’s the last time you were yourself, Regina? How long have you been keeping herfrom coming out into the world?”

She stills in her seat, the tears drying up at once. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I?” He sits back up, his eyes knowing. “Where’s the Regina you keep telling me you once were? The one who hides nothing and puts herself first– for once. Why do you insist on keeping her locked away?” He leans forward, and she can see the danger glinting in his eyes, the awareness that he’s a thief and an outlaw who’s played with fire for too many years to turn back now. “Where is the woman who would never tolerate feeling so trapped? Where is the evil queen, Regina?” 

Her nails are sharp against her skin, biting into it with renewed force as she grits out, “You don’t want to see her, trust me.”

He shakes his head. “And this is where you’re so very wrong. I want to see all of you. I love you.”

“No.” She swallows bile. “No, you don’t. Not her. You don’t know what I’m capable of when I stop caring about being someone else. You don’t even know her.” 

“Does it truly matter?” he asks, and maybe he doesn’t see how her eyes are desperate, purple and black swimming through them with equal force as she struggles not to think of it, not to give the king- no. Robin. It’s only Robin- what he wants. Maybe he does, and that’s why he presses forward and says again, “I love you.”

“Stop it. Stop saying that.” She can feel the rage deep down, the fury that’s been left untapped for years now. 

She thinks of Henry, of Emma, of the people who’ve kept her the person she’s become, and then Robin says, “I love you,” again and they burn away like they’ve been eaten by acid.

“You’re playing with fire, Robin,” she growls, and her head is aching, the pit of her stomach burning and forcing darkness forward. “Don’t-“

He smiles at her again, cocky and idiotic, and the fondness at his recklessness is long gone. “I love you, Regina.”

Shut up!” she snaps, and he’s flying through the air in an instant, riding waves of magic from her hand and slamming against the opposite wall of the living room. She’s energized, standing and stalking forward, and vines snake out from the wall to wrap around him, locking him in place as he pants and struggles to move. “Stop talking!” 

Her voice is rich and dangerous, blood rising to her head and fuzzing in her mind and Leopold is chained in front of her, gasping for breath, and she allows herself a gleeful smile. “You wanted to see who I am, Your M- Robin? This is it. This is what I do. I hurt people who love me. I destroy them. And I’ll destroy you, too, if you allow it.”

He shakes his head. “No, Regina, I know you’d never-“

“What do you know? Pixie dust and promises made to a scared little queen.” Her eyes sharpen on him. “Scared little queen who found power and learned selfishness to survive. Who would gladly put anyone else first for her own survival. You fool.” She waves her hand and he drops to the floor, her rage screaming murder in her ears. “Don’t you understand why I would never put myself first again? Can’t you see what I’m capable of? Who you’ve chosen to love? Who you’ve been cursed to love?” 

He struggles to get to his feet and she stands over him and waits until he stops, staring up at her as though he’s never seen her before. “I saw you…I saw you that first day. When we were attacked by the flying monkey and you ran for Roland.” His breath is still coming out in pants, his eyes as determined as ever. “I saw how you saved him. How you have a mother’s instinct. That’s the woman I fell in love with, long before we ever even kissed. It doesn’t matter who she was and what horrors she might have committed in the past. It isn’t who you are anymore.”

She can feel the rage fading as she steps back, and she says, quieter than she’d ever meant to, “Roland isn’t the first.”

“Hm?” Robin’s stumbling to his feet now, stepping forward to her, and she takes a step back.

“Child I’ve saved,” she whispers. “Child with a father who saw me as a mother.”

His brow is wrinkling with confusion, and she doesn’t dare say any more.

They stand in silence together, Robin staring at her with clenched jaw as though he’s willing himself to just see her, see the Regina he knows who’s open and vulnerable and giving and doesn’t clothe herself with an armor made of thorns. And she stares back, giving him absolutely nothing in return and hating herself for it. For destroying him no matter how much she’s tried not to. For destroying all of them.

And then a little voice breaks through the silence, a sleepy, “Papa?” from the stairs.

Robin drops her gaze and walks from the room. Regina follows slowly. “Roland?” 

“I want some water,” he says, oblivious to what’s been going on downstairs, and when Regina watches him, he becomes another child before her eyes, an older girl with dark hair and skin as white as snow.

He shuffles past her and she flees for the door, eyes wide and heart on fire.


 

xviii. looking forward (with eyes shut tight)

Roland is stumbling ahead of her, weighed down by the giant stuffed giraffe he’d gaped at in a store window and the ice cream cone he keeps accidentally mashing into the giraffe’s fur. Maybe she’s overcompensating a little, but words keep catching in her throat and she wants to hold him tight, to protect him from whatever new horrors her mind might conjure. She  loves  him. 

(She’d loved Snow.)

And while Snow had wronged her so miserably just after she’d saved her life, Roland is an innocent. She’s drawing up false equivalencies now, imagining connections that should never exist, and she’s terrified- absolutely terrified- of resenting Roland anywhere close to how much she’d resented Snow. 

Is this what it had been like the first time, to feel so trapped that she’s afraid she might lash out at anyone? But while before it had been her mother and the king and Rumple and Snow, architects of the self-destruction to which she’d played a willing part, now it’s a father and a child who deserve none of this. 

She wants to hate someone for this. Emma, for giving her an option she’d have never dreamt of otherwise. Tink, for snatching it away as quickly as she’d admitted that she’d wanted it. Robin, simply for being so accommodating to every bump in the road. And while there had been a time when she’d find her own paltry reasons enough to hunt them all down and punish them and feel vindicated for doing so, she isn’t that person anymore. She turns her hate inwards and despises herself instead. As she should.

She calls to Roland and they climb the little stair into the drugstore together, Regina’s hand tight around his tiny one. He’s so little. He’s nothing like Snow. She thinks of herself crouched in front of little Snow, talking to her about conquering her fears, and she remembers proffering a stuffed monkey to Roland- See? Not so scary. Now you have a new toy. 

There’s a certain symmetry to it, that Snow would be the beginning of Daniel’s end and Roland would be the beginning to finding true love again. To finding happiness.

(Not to walking the streets of Storybrooke alone at night, watching the mansion until the light in the master bedroom turns off and she’s certain that her so-called true love is asleep before she reenters her own home. She’s doing it all wrong, so wrong, and she’s ruining everything for herself this time. There’s no one else to blame, not this time.)

She walks past the baby aisle and glances at the paraphernalia to see if there’s anything Leo might need. Her lip curls at the thought of the name and she tightens her grip on Roland, so hard that he whines, “Regina!” 

“Oh! I’m sorry.” She lets him go. He scampers for the matchbox cars in the next aisle over, and she’s about to follow when something catches her eye.

It’s a novelty pacifier, priced higher than any pacifier ever should be, and it sports the ridiculously tacky decoration of two enormous teeth and a false mouth on its back so a baby sucking would look like he has a second mouth over his own. It’s ugly and it’s not funny at all and it’s exactly the kind of idiotic thing that Emma Swan would buy and stick into a baby’s mouth; and as she stares at it, she’s horrified to feel her eyes well up at that realization.

She thinks about Snow, musing on Emma having babies with Hook, andYou know where I see us in five years from now? Here. Like this. Wanting, and it all strikes her with such abrupt pain that she’s shaking in the middle of the drugstore, her hand pressed to the pacifier. Thoughts are racing within her, the ones she hasn’t allowed to the forefront since she’d kissed Emma and realized that that way lies only heartbreak, since she’d decided to put someone else’s needs before her own and relinquish her destiny back to her soulmate. And she’s helpless to drive them away today, when she’s vulnerable and afraid and can dare imagine–

Emma curled up in her bed, golden mane spread across Regina’s lap as Regina leans back against her headboard and smooths it out. “Henry’s getting so old,” she says, pressing a kiss to the inside of Regina’s thigh, and Regina tingles but is too content to move. “I think we did a pretty okay job with him.” 

“Pretty okay?” Regina echoes. “Just pretty okay?” 

Emma shifts to smirk up at her. “I figure that we have to average out your ten years of consistent parenting with us fighting and the apple turnover and Neverland and we get pretty okay, yeah?” She buries her head against Regina’s stomach and kisses a trail up her torso until Regina is breathing hard and Emma is on her knees between Regina’s legs, her face very close to Regina’s, and she asks, “Have you ever thought about…about maybe having another one?” 

She squashes the self-indulgent daydream as quickly as it’s come, fresh tears springing to her eyes, and all she can think about is the old image, the one of Robin’s children running around with Hook’s and Emma and Regina in the same rut as ever before. If Tink is right, it’s how it should be, and it shouldn’t hurt quite this much.

She swallows and hears an amused voice behind her say, “That is one hideous pacifier. How much is it?”

Of course it’s Emma. It’s been weeks and the other woman has successfully managed to avoid her, even in this tiny town, but now she’s standing right behind her and eyeing her critically like they’re right back to where they used to be. “You look awful,” Emma says, her forehead creasing. “What happened to you?”

She catches a glimpse of herself in a carseat mirror on the other side of the aisle, sees a worn face and dark circles around her eyes and her lips turned almost perpetually down into a frown. She looks…she looks defeated, struck down in a way that even Zelena hadn’t managed, and she takes a step back from Emma and can only shake her head in response.

“You’ve been trying to help me all week.” Emma looks stricken. “But who’s been looking after you?”

She finds her voice. “I’m fine. I’m working through some…some complications.” She can hear Roland in the next aisle, having an animated conversation with what sounds like a talking doll, and she swallows again. “I’m fine,” she repeats.

Emma presses a hand to her forehead, years of false memories of being a mother kicking in, and runs it knuckles-bent down along the side of her cheek. “You’re so cold.” 

“So I’ve been told.” 

“Ha.” The blonde doesn’t smile, just brushes the tips of her fingers against the underside of Regina’s jaw. “Have you been sick?” Regina shakes her head. Emma frowns. “Is it Robin?” 

She shakes her head again, less convincingly this time, and when Emma’s eyes widen, she hurries to explain. “He hasn’t done anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve just been…” She stops talking, unwilling to find words to explain what’s happening to her. Which traps she’s been falling into.

Emma waits impatiently, her eyes growing stormier with every moment that Regina refuses to speak, and she finally sighs heavily and leans forward, reaching around Regina to the shelf behind her. “Formula,” she says awkwardly when Regina leans back, and she proffers the can, offering her a tentative smile. “Listen, if you still want to get together to look at that apartment–“ 

“I used magic on him last night and I think I would’ve hurt him if I hadn’t stopped myself in time,” Regina says in a single burst, and it feels freeing to admit her sins, to tell someone who won’t look up at her like none of it matters at all. Emma gapes at her, and she brushes past her toward the end of the aisle. “Anyway, we can look at it tomorrow after work, if you’d like–“ 

The hand that catches her upper arm and spins her back to face the other woman is by no means unexpected. “What the hell, Regina?” Emma demands, horrified. “You didn’t.” 

“I did.” Emma’s eyes are wild and flashing, hardness in the line of her jaw and uncertainty coloring all the outrage at the same time. And oddly enough, it’s a relief to see it all on Emma’s face, uncompromising in her assessment of what is Absolutely Not Okay. “It seems that I’ve been falling into old patterns lately.”

“You can’t do that!” Emma hisses. “Oh my god, is he okay? Are you…” She studies Regina’s face, sharp and worried. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. He’s fine. It was just…” She bites her lip. “He kept insisting that he wanted to see that part of me. And I was angry enough to show it to him.”

Emma’s face twists into a grimace. “Yeah, well, showing him who you were is one thing. But you can’t fall into violence just because you’re feeling boxed in, Regina. Falling into old patterns is a crap excuse, okay?” She runs her fingers through her hair, frustrated, and Regina remembers that Emma is as guilty of doing the same as she’s ever been. Regina lashes out, Emma runs away. 

They’re both products of years and years of neglect and abuse and something in between, and sometimes it feels like they’re ticking time bombs, counting down to the moment when they can’t repress all they’ve been anymore. And the aftermath of that explosion will be enough to destroy both themselves and the people they love. 

And then Emma says, “Is it safe to send Henry back tonight? Do you want me to keep him until you’re ready?” and her musings grind to a halt as her thoughts go black.

“You think I would hurt Henry?” she demands, her voice strident. Flashbacks to a darker time erupt in her mind. Emma smug in her certainty that Regina is a murderer again. Regina bewildered but furious, longing, desperate. 

She can’t do that again. She won’t hurt Emma anymore, no matter how unforgivable her assumptions might be. She clenches her fists, feeling dark magic surge up almost automatically, as though it had been given free reign after she’d let it out last night.

And Emma blinks and says, “No, Regina. Jeez, you don’t really believe I would think that now, do you?”

She twitches, feeling very foolish at the confusion on Emma’s face, and all she can manage is a noncommittal shrug. Emma shakes her head. “I mean that you can’t do anything like that again, right? I don’t want Henry to see it and stop trusting you again. You’ve finally managed to work things out.” 

Emma’s always been her greatest advocate in repairing her relationship with Henry, even when she’d been just as focused on keeping him away. “Oh,” she says finally, and she knows that reverting to the Evil Queen is not an option when Henry is around. “No, I won’t. Never around him. Not at all,” she amends, and it’s easier than ever to push away the shadows when Emma’s in front of her, eyes shining with simple belief in her.

“Good.” Emma flashes her a smile and pulls her into an impromptu half-hug, and she can feel her cheeks getting hot as she slips her arms under Emma’s and curls them around her waist. “Listen, if you ever feel like you’re going to hurt Robin, or even just like you’re losing control, you call me,” Emma murmurs into her ear. “I’ll yell at you until you’re annoyed enough to distract yourself.”

“Reassuring,” she says dryly, but her arms are wrapped around Emma, hanging on for dear life to her anchor in physical form, and she’s shaking again as Emma offers her- not blind faith, but support, simple and fierce and uncompromising. She’s missed this- Emma, so close again, the uncontainable woman somehow a steadying presence in her life. For the first time in weeks, she finally feels like she can get herself under control, like the old fears and dangers just don’t matter as much anymore.

And then Roland rounds the aisle, giraffe poking out ahead of him as he stares at them curiously, and it all crashes down onto her again. “I’d better go,” she says reluctantly, pulling away from Emma. Her fingers trace a path from Emma’s back along her waist to her front, and Emma straightens.

“Yeah.” She offers Regina another smile, this one almost shy, and leans forward to brush a kiss against her cheek. “Talk to Robin about this, okay? I might not like the guy, but I…I know he’s important to you. And it’s the right thing to do.”

She pulls away, her pale cheeks suddenly as red as Regina’s, and she tucks the can of formula under her arm and musses Roland’s hair as she walks past them to the counter. 

+

“I’m sorry,” she says without preamble when she walks in later. Roland makes a mad dash for the backyard and Robin watches him go before he turns back to her. “For last night. I was out of line.”

Robin shakes his head. “Regina, I asked you to be that person. To show me who you were. I’m glad you did.” He smiles at her, soft and understanding, and she suddenly wants to scream. To shake him until he has the same horror on his face that had been on Emma’s, to list her crimes and force him to understand just who she’d been in the Enchanted Forest. Just how far gone she’d been, angry and bitter with blood in her eyes for everyone around her.

She’s spent so long searching for redemption for the sake of her son, not out of remorse or regrets. And while now she’s found connections enough to the world to be consumed by that remorse, she isn’t so foolish to look at herself in the mirror and see what he does, this soft woman who loves deeply and has been burned in the past. She can’t reimagine the person she was anymore, no matter how much easier it is to make excuses when she does. 

“You shouldn’t be,” she says grimly.

“I love you.” Robin shakes his head, ever supportive, ever giving her what she wants. And against her better judgement, she thinks about Emma, who clashes with her as easily as she supports her. Who’s only ever seen her as Regina but challenges her regardless, who pushes back when she pushes too far and doesn’t give a damn what Regina wants when there’s more on the line than just her. Emma’s eyes wide and furious instead of gentle and searching for reasons to forgive.

Regina wonders what a fool she must be to crave that judgment over Robin’s simple acceptance. 

“You shouldn’t,” she repeats, and there’s low energy thrumming in the area around her, seeping out from within her in a slow crawl of magic. It’s closer to the surface than it’s been in a long time, threatening to be unleashed as it had last night, and she closes her eyes and pictures Henry’s face in her mind’s eye until it fades away.

Robin is watching her, his brow furrowed like he can’t conceive what it is that has her so tense, and she forces a smile and sits down beside him. “You don’t understand.” For all their compatibility, there’s this darker element to her that he doesn’t grasp. That she doesn’t know if he ever will.

She wonders if it would have been different, had she gone to him that night in the tavern. Had he loved her when she was still young, still with barely a taste of darkness. He’s a thief, but he’s also inherently good, and she…she doesn’t know who she is. She’d found Robin when she’d been without the love that had bolstered her until this point, and she’d been only a void without Henry and Emma. Motivated by a desire to destroy and protect and keep herself safe, and without the strongest parts of herself that she holds close. 

She’d first kissed him when Zelena had had her heart, and she doesn’t know what kind of beginning that can truly be.

He presses his lips to her cheek in exactly the same place Emma had kissed earlier and she flinches away. He sighs and falls to silence, and they both sit and stare at the wall opposite them until he ventures, “We’re falling apart, aren’t we?”

She doesn’t respond right away, and he says, “I’m trying. I really am. I don’t want to lose you.” 

“I’m trying, too,” she says miserably. “I want you to be happy. I want to be happy. This is our last chance.” Their only chance, if Tink is to be believed, and she fights back the images of Emma content in her arms again. It’s impossible, a temptation she’s been struggling to push aside for the good of her mandated relationship.

“I…” Robin clears his throat. “I feel as though you don’t truly believe that I am that chance. That what we have has become a burden for you.”

And he truly is her soulmate, because he’s hit the nail on the head with one simple sentence. A burden. She’s been given a gift and despite all her efforts to the contrary, she’s ripping it apart along with its wrapping, tearing it to shreds before she can fully accept it.

She can’t lose this, not when this is all they have left. Not when she has no choices beyond him, no matter who else she might love. So she clasps her hands over his cheeks and looks him in the eye and tries to see the man she had chosen, the one she’d have wanted even without pixie dust to guide her, and she says forcefully, “You will never be a burden to me. I love you.” She’s never said it before, and the words stick to her tongue and come out strangled and wrong.

But Robin’s eyes are wide and wondering and he leans forward to kiss her and she’s determined enough to kiss him back, pouring all of herself into their embrace as her cheek still burns from an earlier brush of thin pink lips.

This will all pass. She can do this. She will do this.

There are no other options if she can’t.


 

xix. a war is waged (a war is won, a war is lost. white flags are waved.)

She’s reclining on her chaise with a novel while Roland arranges himself on the floor with a pile of books, flipping through each one and stumbling through some of the more familiar words that he’s learning to read. Robin’s out for the afternoon, off on some trip deep in the woods to investigate those hauntings that Emma keeps talking about, and she’s enjoying the lack of pressure to do anything more than just…be.

She’s not unhappy. She’s not stifled. She’s just living with a specter hovering over her, a haunting there’s no need to exorcise, the demons of her past stronger than ever. The road to happiness isn’t supposed to be easy.

She hadn’t thought it would be quite this stressful either, though.

Her phone buzzes and she glances down at the photo that pops up on the screen, smirking to herself. It’s Emma, soaked in something brown and filthy-looking, her hair matted and covered in twigs and leaves. ghost got me! the next text reads. am i still invited for dinner?

She rolls her eyes and types back, Go take a shower, Sheriff. But her eyes are roaming down Emma’s wet tank top, watching the way it sticks to her chest and how the muddy grey dips down into a triangle along her chest. Emma’s eyes are sheepish but with laughter within them, a mirror of Henry at four with mud on his clothes and a beaming smile on his face. She doesn’t know how Emma can do this, can awaken sharp desire and overpowering affection all at once, but her heart soars all the same and she has to swallow back her own smile. 

The response comes from Snow’s cell phone. i tried teleporting myself home and left my phone behind. A pause, and then a second text. also all my clothes. mm keeps covering leo’s eyes. want another selfie? There’s an emoji following the message, a chick half-hatched in an egg, and after it another one that she has to squint at before she realizes that it’s a tub with a tiny person in it.

She smirks and types out, Go ahead, impress me. before she hastily deletes it and writes, If you send me photo evidence of Snow traumatized, you’re getting extra cheesecake tonight. It’s oddly domestic in the ways she’s not supposed to think about, talking about dinner plans and texting during the day, and she spends more time thinking about Emma in the shower than she does focusing on her novel for the next dozen pages.

Henry wanders in and then wanders out. Roland has finished all his books and is peering through her drawers, trying on her bracelets and attempting to poke holes into his ears to get her earrings on. Emma texts back a photo of Snow with a very false look of horror on her face and promptly admits that she’d promised her mother some cheesecake if she recreated the scene. No deals with the devil, dear, she admonishes, and Emma writes back and Roland is standing on her chair with a shiny pin attached to his chest announcing, “I am Iron Man!” and today is a very, very good day.

She returns to her novel and skims the pages she hadn’t paid attention to, keeping an eye on Roland as he carefully puts back the pin and pulls out a covered box she keeps in the back of her drawer. “What’s this?” he asks, and she realizes a moment too late what’s about to happen.

Her heart stops and she says, “Roland, don’t–“ but he’s already pulling out a necklace- the one she’d hidden in the drawer just days before, after she’d finally decided to stop clinging to the past and push forward into the future- and looking curiously at the ring at the end of it.

“It’s pretty,” he says, and she can see him saying it- a little boy who just wants to pretend he’s Iron Man and knows nothing of the darkness that rushes to the forefront at the sight of him pulling the necklace over his head. And the image wavers and shifts and she chokes as an old image returns with a vengeance. 

“Daniel gave it to me. He was killed.” Reaching out and yanking on the chain, pulling closer and closer to Snow’s neck until the girl is screaming and she can hear Snow choking for breath, can feel the rage at being lost inside castle walls and never knowing anything more. Can feel her horror at the not-quite-displeasure that swims through her at the image

And Roland is Snow and Snow is Roland and he’s just a little boy with a necklace that beckons to her to pull, to take out her anger at the walls around her, and she gasps and stumbles back, sliding off the seat onto the floor. “Regina?” She hears a child’s voice, but it’s from a distance, her brain shutting down in the instant she correlates him with violence. She can’t hurt Roland. She can’t even think of hurting him, and she can feel her magic rushing around her, breaking free at her distress.

“Regina?” Roland says again, and his image is flickering in front of her and her heart is pounding faster than it has in decades, uneven and painful in her chest, and she shrinks back as he approaches, as Snow is close and frowning in her bratty, entitled way, and she grabs her phone in that instant and forces shaking fingers to click on her messages. To stare at the first photo she can see, at Snow White fully grown and making faces at the camera, and she gains enough control of herself to shout, “HENRY!” before the phone slips from her grip and to the ground.

She hears footsteps but her vision is blurring like a nineties television screen, staticky light passing in front of her eyes as she struggles to see, and everything is purplish and indistinct as unstable magic kept locked in for too long escapes in fiery whorls from her fingers. “Henry!” she cries out again and there’s a boy in front of her, crouched with wide eyes as he glances from her eyes to her fingers to the spasming in her throat. 

“I’m here, Mom. I’m here. What did you do?” 

The words are all jumbled in her mind and she’s vaguely aware that this is a panic attack, that she’s losing control of her magic and Henry is flickering into Snow, too, and then there’s Leopold behind him and her mother smirking in the distance and she can barely piece out Henry’s words for a minute.

She focuses on him as best as she can, reminds herself Henry. Your true love. The only one who matters, and then she says, as distinctly as she can manage, “Take Roland with you and go to the park. Go to your grandmother after. Don’t come home unless I call you.” 

“What’s happening?” He looks afraid- afraid of her, like he hasn’t since those first awful days after the curse- and she loses her grasp on the present in an instant. She’s back in the stables, her first love in her arms as her mother stands over them. She’s shivering at the front of a small crowd as the king moves forward to seal their union. She’s feeling magic seep through her, a counterpoint to her rage, bringing her to life for the first time since she’d first been locked up in the castle. She has the Huntsman’s heart in her hand, dark glee at the dominance stronger than ever before. She is child and wife and queen, victim and villain and murderer all at once, and the past is overwhelming her, passing before her eyes in a flash.

Something cool and thin is pressed into her hand and she sees Henry’s pale and worried face for a moment, surrounded by purple mist that he coughs on before he leans through it to kiss her cheek. “I love you,” he says, and she barely controls her shaking sobs until he leads Roland out of the room.

Magic is flowing through her and maybe Robin was right, maybe it’s been a mistake to keep this part of her so hidden when all it’s done is locked her up, is kept her trapped in a world where the past is destroying her present. Where she can’t seem to overcome any of it when these new triggers still exist in him and his son and thatfucking pixie dust. 

She bends over, gagging at tears that catch at her throat, and her magic envelops her. It heats her whole body like a blanket that wards away the panic and the terror. Instead she can feel fire, strong as it runs through her, and for a moment she believes that she can do anything. 

There’s still something in her hand, Henry’s parting gift, and she manages to look down at it and recognize her cell phone. She fumbles with it, struggling to click on the phone icon and hitting the second name on her favorites list on automatic. Emma. She clings to the thought of her, to the outrage on her face in the drugstore and her quick, embarrassed hug. It fades away into the image of a village before her, defiance on their faces, and she almost forgets what she’s doing until she hears the low, tinny voice. “I poofed back with my clothes this time!” Emma announces, sounding pleased. “Hi.”

“I need you,” Regina breathes.

There’s barely an instant of hesitation on the other end and then Emma’s voice comes through loud and clear. “I’m coming.”

She sighs out in relief and her breathing quickens again until her magic strengthens around her, stronger and more aggressive still. The sensations are more than they’d ever been back when she’d been new at magic and it had come out only in tiny spurts, and more uncontrolled than they’d been in all the time that she’d been most proficient at using it. This is poison when she can’t conquer it, dangerous to herself and those around her, and she’s scrabbling for control but it only makes her heart race faster, her throat stop up and the shaking get worse and worse.

“Talk to me,” Emma demands from the phone that she’s forgotten to hang up.

“What?” She can’t possibly think that–

“Tell me a story, I don’t know. Something happy. I can see what looks like a purple tornado coming from your side of town from way out here.” Emma’s car starts in the background and she urges her again, “Talk.” 

“Uh.” She struggles to think past the haze of darkness that swaddles her mind. “You…you know all my happy memories.”

“Not all of them. Come on, Regina, did anything good happen last year? Tell me something good.”

She says the first thing she can think of. “Hot springs.”

There’s a low laugh from Emma’s end. “That does sound good.” 

“Warm ones, really. Snow went. With me. It was good for pregnancy pains.” She lies down on her side beside the phone, her eyes still flashing and violet in the reflection of the plastic.

“You went to a fairytale land jacuzzi with my mom?” Emma sounds dubious.

She laughs with a little puff of air. Her magic moves into the space she’s freed up against her throat, strangling her as she tries to speak through it. “I was there to protect her,” she says hoarsely. “From Zelena. But it was good. We talked about…about you. And Henry. It was peaceful.” 

“Keep talking,” Emma coaxes her. “I swear I’m hitting every red light in this town. And there are, what, five streetlights total?”

“Okay.” She coughs again, thinking back to another happy memory Emma had never gotten, and the magic around her isn’t quite so constricting for a moment. Her heartbeat is still erratic and she isn’t breathing right, and she puts all her energy into focusing on the precious baby in her memories. “I…right after I got Henry I wanted to bring him back.”

She can imagine Emma nodding. “Right. I remember. Well, I took him to social services so they’d take him away from me, but same story.”

“Not same story,” she corrects her, curling into a ball around her phone. “I didn’t remember until…true love’s kiss with him. I made myself forget.” She breathes rapidly, inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth like she’s jogging. “I brought him because of you.”

There’s silence on the other end, and then she hears the door slam downstairs. “Me?” Emma repeats. “How me?” 

“The savior. I knew you were going to…you were going to be my downfall.” Saliva goes down her windpipe and she curls in closer, her magic dissipating just a bit where she touches the phone. “I loved him. I didn’t want to…I didn’t want to be afraid. To worry about you when I saw him. I made myself forget you,” she says again, and footsteps pound up the stairs. “I decided I would lose, if it meant I could keep my little prince.” It’s an overly sentimental truth she would never have shared if she hadn’t been so dazed by the faces and magic and dizziness around and within her, and she hears the gasp from the phone and behind her at once.

Emma appears, cutting through her magic like a sunbeam in the dark, and she crouches down beside Regina. “I am so, so glad that you were the one to find Henry,” she whispers, and her eyes are bright with tears and something that looks like fear. Fear of her? Fear for her? She doesn’t know anymore. “Regina, you have to calm down, okay? You’re hurting yourself.”

“I’m…” She blinks, confused, and Emma takes her hand to gently raise it to her face. It’s swollen purple, magic racing through her veins and dappling the skin with bruising like popped points of release, blood seeping through the places where she’s been scratching at herself and hasn’t noticed. “Oh.” It looks like it had once over a year ago, when she’d absorbed a death curse and spent a day sweating it out. It’s blotchy and ill-looking, enough to make her nauseous beyond just the pain in her head, and she gags at the sight of it.

“You have light magic now, too,” Emma persists. “Let it wash out all this dark stuff. Come on. Keep talking. You have to keep talking.”

“I don’t know what else to say.” But she talks about Daniel, about picnics far from her house and a stable boy who’d looked at her like he’d loved her. She talks about chasing Roland through the castle last year as he squeals with delight, about the camping trip they’d taken with Henry last month. 

She talks about Emma lying on the ground beside her in Neverland and the way her eyes are warm and cool at the same time and the shape of her lips and she can’t even remember who she’s talking to by the end of it, so when she hears a voice ask her, “What are you seeing?” she can only say honestly, “I don’t know.” Daniel, sitting beside her with her hands in his. Mother, squeezing her arms so tightly that she feels pins and needles. Henry and a kiss pressed to her cheek.

She remembers her anchor, remembers Emma’s ridiculous shower emoji and begging for cheesecake, and the magic that slides out of her is the kind she’s been honing since they’d fought Zelena, white-hot and a breath of fresh air, and her breath is coming in short pants now, fast but even.

A second surge of white magic comes from the hands that still hold hers and warm her, calming her breathing even more, and she can finally stop shaking. Everything is still blurry, still unfocused, and Emma says, “Come. Let’s get you into bed,” and she stumbles to her feet and makes her way across the room.

She lies down, staring with unseeing eyes at the purple energy that still hangs heavy above her, and Emma climbs up to sit next to her. “What happened to you?” she demands, her voice still pitched too high with her horror.

“Old patterns,” Regina reminds her, shifting until her face is pressed against Emma’s thigh and she can’t see anything else. “I don’t know why this keeps happening.” 

Emma brushes matted hair from her face. “Have a lot of magic-fueled panic attacks as the evil queen?”

“Some.” She remembers a few early on, when she’d had nothing else in her world but Snow White and her father. When even brief moments of freedom meant nothing because there’d been nowhere to go, no future beyond the emptiness of years as a queen without anything but that title. Her heart races again and she dry heaves onto the bed, hanging onto Emma’s leg for dear life as she shakes violently and the magic drifts back toward her and she can still feel the fear thrumming through her, the shadows of where she’s been- and who- still so close to the surface. 

She wants to cry with frustration that even this outburst hasn’t been enough to cleanse her. She just wants to move on, to be the person that she’s been trying so hard to become, and yet she’s still trembling at the thought of Roland coming back into the house, of the necklace he’d taken with him and of the way she still can’t escape these desperate, impossible thoughts.

“Let it out,” Emma murmurs, stroking her hair. “Come on. You’re so…is it obnoxious to say that I’m proud of you?”

“Yes,” she gasps, and dry heaves again. “But you can anyway.” 

“I’m proud of you,” Emma repeats, and Regina struggles to focus on her words, on what she’s saying instead of this nausea at her memories. “You’ve changed so much for Henry and you’ve never stopped trying and you’re so strong, Regina. You’ve been willing to die for people who hate you–“

“Not them,” she whispers. “Henry. You. Those dolts you call parents.” The people I love, she doesn’t say, but she’s blinking and blinking as darkness clarifies around her, as she can see Emma’s face with only a little blurriness in the way. “I haven’t changed all that much.”

“You’ve changed enough,” Emma says. “Okay? I don’t think you can ever make up for some of the stuff you did, but you’re working towards it, and that’s…that’s what’s important. That’s what matters.”

“Oh,” she sighs again, falling silent, and she can hear Emma’s pulse, quick and steady, in her leg against Regina’s ear. Her heart struggles to keep time with it, her eyes craving a chance to look up at Emma, but she sags down again, surrendering to this tiny stillness.

And then, just as quickly as Emma had come, she hears footsteps pounding up the stairs with the same urgency. “Regina! Regina!” Robin calls out. “Henry said that–“ He stops abruptly at the door to the room, and she thinks she can make out his face, flickering in and out of view. “Ah. Emma is here.”

“She called me,” Emma says, and it’s meant to sound apologetic but it comes out fierce and defensive instead, and Regina closes her eyes, unwilling to get in the middle of another pissing contest between them.

“She called…you.” Robin repeats it like he doesn’t quite know what to do with it, and she hears him clomping toward her in his boots, moving until he’s bent down beside her and she opens her eyes to stare at him. He looks like the king again now, old and oblivious and so, so despised, and he says, “Are you all right?” He glances up over her to Emma, who is still silent. “You can go, Emma. Thank you for looking after her.”

“I’m not going unless Regina tells me to go,” Emma says stubbornly, and her hand is still in Regina’s hair, still soft as her voice hardens. “Whatever’s been going on lately, it isn’t good for her. I don’t know if it’s your fault or hers or no one’s, but I’m not leaving her now. I don’t leave Regina.” She thinks about fires and angry mobs and a diamond in a cave and yes, Emma doesn’t leave her. Not ever. It’s what good people do.

Robin is still staring at her, and she can see tense brown eyes again, seeking some kind of decision right then. She can’t think about this, can’t focus on soulmates or this standoff or anything beyond the visions of the past and the image of her tugging a necklace back against Roland’s skin, and she answers in the quickest, most visceral of ways. “Please…I need you to go.”

Emma’s hand drops against her and Robin’s face darkens with something that she doesn’t recognize, and she hesitates and reaches out blindly for Emma again. “No. Not…” She breathes. “Robin. I need you to…it’s all wrong, Robin.” She sees it in a moment of shining clarity, in the instant she stops trying to pretend. “We’re all wrong.” She thinks of Roland again and sighs, “I’m so sorry.”

When she blinks, the shadow of Leopold is gone from Robin as though it had never been there at all, the weight of their relationship leaving the place where it’s stopped up her heart. And all she can see is Robin’s eyes, hurt and raw and, if she stares long enough, she can seek out the tiny bit of relief in his gaze, the freedom granted to both of them by that admission. 

They’ve been making this hell for each other without ever meaning to, forcing themselves into roles that haven’t suited them in a long time. She does love him, and this time she means it, now that she can dare feel for him without the pressure of in love. Of happy endings. Of soulmates. And she can feel the pounding in her head subside as he shakes his in disbelief, and she says quietly. “Can we talk about this tomorrow?” 

“Of course,” he says automatically, and there’s that vague sense of relief from him again, deep within the heartbreak written on his face, and she shrinks away from it all.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats, and he stares blankly at her and tries to smile like the idiotically good person that he is. How she finds so many of them, how they care for her…it’ll forever be a mystery, beyond the knowledge that they’re all foolish, foolish, lackbrains for ever giving her a chance to break them.

And speaking of…

She remembers the woman sitting beside her at once. Emma is silent, her fingers still weaving through Regina’s hair, and she thinks that this is inappropriate. That Emma shouldn’t be here at all. “This isn’t about you,” she says aloud, with enough force that Robin hears it from the door. It’s true, as much as it can be, anyway. As much as anything she does isn’t about Emma Swan.

“No,” Emma agrees, and there’s something indefinable on her face when she does, sliding away and making her expression smooth and distant. “But you need a friend right now. Can I be that for you?”

She doesn’t know if she murmurs Yes or just thinks it past the overwhelming relief that’s flooding her system now, but either way, Emma stays until Regina floats away in the wind, surrendering to slumber with an ease she hasn’t felt in years.

Chapter Text

xx. pillow talk with a child (and another. and another.)

She wakes up to a low buzzing near her abdomen. Emma is still there, curled up under her blanket beside her with an arm flung over her stomach and her breath warm against the space below Regina’s earlobe. She’s wrapped around her like a second skin, so close that Regina can feel every inhalation as it frees up a tiny sliver of space between them, and she feels… safe . Like stables and laughter and the scent of newborn, like Emma’s and Henry’s arms around her after Neverland, like Snow’s hand on hers and Robin’s on her back.

Robin. Her breathing quickens as she remembers her decision earlier in the night, the automatic choice of the person she needs. No. Yes. She doesn’t know. But the relief is back, the dread that’s recently accompanied his name gone with the acceptance that they’re all wrong. That she might not obligate herself to be with him anymore.

She exhales and shifts against Emma’s still form to find the source of the vibrating. It’s Emma’s phone, flat beneath her torso, and Regina sees Henry’s face on the screen and answers it without a second thought. “Sweetheart?”

“Mom!” Henry’s voice trembles. “Mom, you’re okay.”

“I do seem to be,” she says, glancing up at the ceiling. The haze of purple is just about gone, drifting away into the night, and her heart isn’t screaming in her chest anymore. “I’m sorry I had to send you away, but I didn’t…I didn’t know what I was going to do.” She holds one tenet close to her, the only rule of her life that matters, and the few times she’s broken it have been unforgivable. You don’t hurt Henry. And in the terror of the previous afternoon, she’d expanded that law to include Roland, to get them both away. From her. “I wanted you two safe.”

She thinks there might be accusations now, demands that she gives up magic again and the cautious suggestion that she’s been regressing. Henry is nothing if not staunch in his beliefs, and she’d proven herself unworthy yesterday in the most blatant of ways. 

But instead, she hears a catch in Henry’s voice as he says, “I was so…I was so…” He’s struggling to get out the final word, and she whispers it for him.

“Scared,” she says gently, and Henry’s breath hitches and he’s suddenly crying softly. For all his wonderful, wonderful determination, for all his fearlessness and devotion to the right thing, he’s just a little boy, a child who won’t let himself be afraid because it’s not what his heroes do. Because it’s easier to fight forward than to admit that he’s terrified.

“Something bad was happening! And Ma wouldn’t pick up her phone and Robin never came back and I didn’t know what happened, I didn’t know if you were okay or hurt or-or alive…” He’s sobbing into the phone, so young under those layers of maturity that Neverland and New York have given him, so vulnerable, and she longs to hold him tight like she has so many times before and protect him from truths he’s not ready to face.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t call you, Henry,” she murmurs. “There was a lot of bad magic in my system, and I wasn’t able to do much of anything until it drained out.”

“I hate magic,” he sniffles. “I don’t want it to hurt you anymore.”

“Oh, Henry, I don’t think it will. I’ll make sure of it,” she promises, and she thinks about Robin, who’d unintentionally been the catalyst for all of this. She can’t remain in that situation and hope to overcome it. For Henry’s sake. For Roland’s. “Emma was helping me with it all, that’s why she didn’t answer her phone.”

“Did Robin come too?”

“Later. But I…” She bites her lip and says diplomatically, “I asked him to go for now. He might have gotten hurt if I had used any of that magic that was inside of me then.” Before she tells Henry, before Roland hears about it, before anyone but Emma knows, she needs to talk to Robin. He deserves that at the very least.

Henry pauses, the low sobs fading away on the other line. “…Did you?” he asks, and it’s with a tentativeness that she knows well, the voice he has when he’s already ready to forgive.

But she doesn’t need forgiving, not for that, and the elation that soars through her is as unexpected as the realization that- for all that had happened- she’d made the right decisions without any thought to do otherwise. That it hadn’t even occurred to her to strike out at anyone. “No,” she breathes, and she feels warmer still, wrapped in a cocoon made of Emma’s arm and Henry’s voice and her own victory.

“I’m really glad, Mom,” Henry says, and she beams at the knowledge that she’s glad, too.

They wait in happy silence for a moment, comfortable with each other, and Henry finally ventures, “Did you…um…did you have sex with Ma?”

She’s aghast. “Henry!”

“Well, you picked up her phone! And she didn’t come back last night, and I think I should be informed if you guys are finally getting your act together,” he says primly, and it’s such a strange mix of her and Emma that she nearly laughs before she remembers to reprove him.

“You most certainly would not be informed of that! And no we didn’t!” she clarifies as he starts to speak again. “Emma is just here for…moral support.”

She can almost hear his smugness like a tangible thing. “Emma, not Robin.” 

“Henry, it’s–“ She squints at the screen of her phone. “It’s three in the morning. And on a school night! You need to sleep right now.”

He sighs dramatically, and her lips crack into a returning smirk despite herself. “Fine.” But he hesitates for another moment, and then he says, very quickly as though it’s embarrassing to admit when they aren’t in a life-or-death situation (and that’s some more of Emma in him, or maybe they’re both just teenagers, under- and overgrown), “I love you, Mom.”

“I love you, too, darling.” She presses her thumb to the end button, holding the phone tightly before she shifts under Emma’s arm to edge away. Emma still hasn’t moved, and she shouldn’t be surprised that Emma’s a deep sleeper, judging from how late she shows up at the station some mornings. Still, though, it’s for the best. She isn’t quite sure how Emma wound up sleeping in her bed, but she knows with burning certainty that Emma will wake up in a panic if she spends the night snuggled against Regina. For all her bold declarations, Emma Swan is still Emma Swan.

She reaches the edge of the bed and slides off carefully, managing to stand up before Emma’s fingers catch her wrist. “Come back. It’s cold.”

“Emma,” she says, startled. “Did I wake you?”

Wide-awake eyes contemplate her, glinting in the streetlight shining in through the windows. “I wasn’t asleep.”

“Have you slept at all?”

Emma shrugs and tugs at her wrist again. “I was thinking.”

She lets Emma pull her back down, her hand still loosely encircling Regina’s wrist as Regina faces her, their knees bumping together and their faces very close. “What were you thinking about?” 

There’s that face from last night again, the one that gives nothing away but seems oddly vulnerable at the same time, and Regina reaches out to tuck messy hair behind her ear and waits. 

Finally, Emma says instead, “What’s been going on with you and Robin?”

“It’s complicated,” she admits, her hand settling along the curve below Emma’s ear. “When I look back at it, I think I was mostly to blame.” Emma rolls her eyes. “What?”

“Contrary to popular belief, not everything in the universe is your fault. Maybe most things,” she amends, pressing her hand to Regina’s and offering her a winsome grin. “But relationships are a two-way street, and if you’re having issues, you’re both to blame. I’m sure Robin is somewhere in the woods right now going over all the things he fucked up. You’re both good people who love each other. You’ll work through this together.”

“Emma.” Regina shakes her head. “Emma, I don’t want to work through this anymore.”

Emma’s eyes flicker to hers. “What do you mean?”

She laughs. It’s wet and heavy, catching in her throat as it bubbles up. “I have been…so unhappy for so long. I was afraid to admit it even to myself, I think. Robin is a good man, better than I’ve ever deserved, and we belong together. We’re supposed to be it for each other.”

Emma watches her silently, her eyes giving nothing away, and Regina sighs, “I just wanted to be happy. I didn’t think I’d ever feel like this, like a bird in a cage all over again, not when I was with him. But lately, it’s been all I know.”

“What changed?” Emma whispers.

She laughs again, her fingers running along the shell of Emma’s ear. “You know what changed.” 

“No.” Emma stares at her, pulling back with abruptness. “No, I don’t.” Her eyes are glittering in the light and she shivers once, so violently that Regina notices for the first time that it’s chilly in the room and Emma’s only wearing a light tank top.

“Emma.” She tugs her back, wrapping her arm around her waist and pulling the blanket fully over them. “Talk to me.”

Emma shrugs, but her arms still snake out to pull Regina against her. Regina is tucked under her chin, lips brushing along her collarbone, and Emma holds her tight. “We never did go look at my new apartment,” she says instead. “Maybe if you’re up to it, we can go later today.”

“I’d like that.” She ponders it for a moment. “You know, if this is all over, you really can move into my guest room. Give Henry a stable environment, and someone has to pick up after you.” She smiles against Emma’s skin, half serious. Maybe even a bit more than that.

It fades as she feels Emma tense against her. “I…don’t think that’s a good idea.” 

“Probably not,” she sighs, irrationally a bit disappointed. “But it would make things easier.” 

“Maybe.” Emma relaxes again, her fingers dipping to where Regina’s blouse has ridden up and stroking the skin there. “Driving over here was a real bitch yesterday. I almost tried poofing again, but I thought you might have a double panic attack if I showed up naked.” She preens. “I’ve got really nice muscle tone.” 

“I think I’d have survived.” She pulls back from Emma’s neck to meet her gaze. “Thank you.”

“For coming with clothes on?”

“For coming.” Emma hadn’t even missed a beat when she’d asked for her, hadn’t questioned her at all. I don’t leave Regina. She’d run to her aid like she has a thousand times before, and there’s no way for her to explain exactly how grateful she is.

Still, though… Her eyes stray to Emma’s lips, and she’s free now, isn’t she? Free to love Emma, to talk about how she feels, to give her the one thing she can offer. She can feel her heart expand- no, bloom, come to life with the joyfulness of how close everything she’s ever wanted is, staring at her with lips faintly parted and longing in her eyes. She edges forward, reaching up to tilt Emma’s face down to hers, and brushes her lips very carefully against Emma’s–

Cheek. Emma shifts away at the last moment, biting on her lip in wholly distracting ways. “You’ve barely ended things with Robin,” she says. It’s reproachful and there’s an edge to it that makes Regina’s eyes narrow. “I don’t want you to do anything you’ll regret.”

Regina flushes, embarrassed and a little annoyed, and she rolls over away from Emma. “I just wanted to say thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” The voice is gentle and Emma’s arms are still around her, pulling her flush against her. “Come on, you should get back to sleep. You’ve got to talk to Robin tomorrow, and you’re gonna need to be awake for that.”

She feels a kiss brushed against the top of her head, gentle fingers playing against her waist as she wriggles back into Emma’s arms, and she whispers, “Tell me something happy.”

Emma smiles into her hair. “I can do that.” She talks about Henry last year, about the two of them alone and closer than ever, about an apartment in a city with plants and sunshine and love, so much love that it overflows from the story and wraps itself around Regina too, leaving her smiling as she drifts off to sleep again with her hands covering Emma’s at her waist.

+

In the morning, her bed is empty. Her comforter is drawn tightly over her and there’s the smell of fresh coffee downstairs.

It’s barely warm when she comes down to check on it, still wearing yesterday’s clothing and searching for Emma, and she sighs away her secret disappointment and heads back upstairs to shower.

+

It’s early afternoon when she makes her way through the front doors of Storybrooke’s only elementary school, ignoring wary glances from some of the teachers and students as she walks past with her container in hand. She has more to worry about than a few fools afraid to antagonize their queen, and she finds her way easily without their help. Nothing changes in Storybrooke, and there had been a time when she’d visited this very room every single day.

Snow glances up when she enters the classroom and nods to a seat in the back of the room before she continues her lesson. She’d started teaching again after Leo had been born, admitting that she’s more suited to it than ruling, and Regina had been forced to endure a number of sly insinuations that she’d really been committed to Snow’s happiness when she’d cast the curse.

Why they insist on trying to deflect what she’d done to them, she’ll never understand. She doesn’t understand Snow’s capacity to forgive at all. (But sometimes she sits with Snow and can’t quite hate her, even when she thinks of Daniel, and she knows it isn’t about forgiveness as much as it is something more.) But here she is, sitting impatiently in the back of Snow’s classroom while she waits for her to dismiss her class, and she knows that there’s no way Snow will accept what she has to say now.

The children file out for lunch and Snow comes to perch on a desk opposite her, raising her eyebrows at the cheesecake Regina has in the box on her lap. “You’re bringing me baked goods. Should I be concerned?”

“I’m in love with your daughter,” Regina says, and holds out the cheesecake without any further ado.

Snow’s eyebrows shoot up as she accepts it, opening it up and taking out the spoon to dig at the pastry. She takes two small bites and then says, “Does Robin know?”

“Robin always knew. This isn’t a new development.” She tries to sound haughty but it comes out flat instead, facts that she can’t deny and doesn’t want to anymore. 

“No, I didn’t think it was.” Snow cocks her head, thoughtful. “You always looked at Emma like…like she had all the answers to the questions you were afraid to ask. It makes an odd kind of sense.” She spoons out a little more cheesecake. “What are you going to do?”

Regina stares at her. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say about this?”

“Well, it’s not as though I haven’t been thinking about it until now,” Snow says matter-of-factly. “Emma’s been so distant with Killian and she does have feelings for you, and of course I’m just as invested in her happiness as I am yours. It’s all very incestuous, isn’t it?” she muses. “At the least, you were a stepmother to me. But I guess we’ve all been connected through Henry now, and–“ She frowns. “Regina?” 

Regina is standing without any memory of how she’d gotten there, her fists clenched at her sides and the child’s chair overturned behind her. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she demands, rage and confusion seeping into her with such force that she can feel her face darkening and her nails biting into her skin. “You’re invested in my happiness? How can you say that with a straight face? Have you completely blocked out every single time I tried to kill you? I cursed you. I killed your father. I’m in love with your daughter. And you’re just…” She gestures wildly at Snow, words muddling together in her mind. “You’re eating cheesecake!”

Snow stares blankly at her, and she’s had enough, enough of these fools who want to forget the past and pretend that she’s something she isn’t. She storms for the door, knocking over backpacks and chairs in her wake, and she has her hand on the doorknob when Snow murmurs, “I built my entire life around you, Regina.” 

She stops, her eyes fixed on the door, and Snow says, “Everything I was came from you. I learned to love from you. I learned kindness. I learned…all the silly things that every girl is afraid to ask from you. You might not have been my mother, but you were my sister, Regina. You were the person I loved most in the universe for so long.” 

She’s been reduced to tears far too often over the past week, and she leans her forehead against the door and wills them to go away. “I hated you,” she says, and her voice is still heavy with them. “Did you learn that?”

“In time.” Snow is still eating her cheesecake, calm behind her. “I knew that you’d fallen to great darkness and I…somehow I was sure that it was because of me. Of course, I only found out about Daniel at our parlay, but I saw how you started to look at me. I knew that you wanted me dead. But I’m not very good at keeping myself from loving. Just like you.”

“Just like me,” she echoes, and she thinks about Emma again, about glittery eyes that hide anything deeper from her.

She turns around and sees Snow still intent on her. “I spent so many years wishing that I could find you again, and…and maybe I wasn’t the one to find you in the end. Maybe it was a little boy and his mother who did after I’d lost faith. But you’re here now. You’re Regina and you’re here.”

The tears fall, hot and furious, and Regina whispers, “You can’t pretend that I was someone else before. I was always Regina.”

“You’ve changed,” Snow says simply. So stupid. So naive. 

“Change isn’t enough. I’m not a good person, Snow. I’m not like you or Emma. There’s darkness inside me even now, no matter who I love.” She thinks about attacking Robin, about a chain around Roland’s throat, about the moment when she’d opened her eyes and seen only violet. “It brings the people I care about to the ground.”

“There’s darkness in all of us.” Snow shakes her head. “For a long time after I killed Cora, I thought about what you’d shown me. About that dark spot in my heart appearing then. And then I remembered hundreds of times when I’d been selfish, when I’d been petty, when I’d been glad about something awful happening to someone else, and I don’t believe that our hearts turn black when we’re not good enough, Regina. I think it’s when we start to believe it.”

She’s still crying silently, her words shaky when she manages to get them out, and Snow says, “You’re a good mother to Henry. You’re a wonderful friend, even when you’re pretending that you hate us all.” A laugh escapes, scratching its way out of her throat and leaving a gaping tear behind. “You spend more time trying to be enough than anyone else I know,” Snow spoons out the last bit of cake. “Except for Emma.” She licks off the spoon and meets Regina’s eyes again. “You’re enough, Regina. You don’t need to keep trying to die for us to prove it. You’re both enough.” She rolls her eyes fondly. “You’re more than enough for each other, actually.”

“Are you afraid?” Regina asks.

Snow contemplates her. “Yes. You’re both so…charged, sometimes I think you might break each other’s hearts a dozen times before you ever repair them.”

Regina rubs her temples, suddenly very tired. “That’s not what I mean. My love is toxic, Snow. Everyone I love dies or leaves. I hold on too tightly and I…”

“You pour all of yourself into your love,” Snow corrects her. “I’ve told you before, you feel things so deeply. More than I can ever imagine.” Her face is bright with her faith in her onetime mother, and Regina wants to scream and wants to hurt and wants to sink into her arms. “Whoever you do wind up with- Robin or Emma or someone else entirely- they’ll be lucky to have you.” 

Her whole face is wet and it’s a waste of her drained magical energy to dry it efficiently, so she swipes at it with a tissue and stalks back over to Snow. “I don’t need your validation,” she says hoarsely. 

“You don’t,” Snow agrees. “But I’m here now, too. We’re both here,” she adds, “And we don’t have to lie anymore.” 

Regina seizes the cheesecake container and flees the room.

Chapter Text

xxi. like looking into a mirror (about to shatter with only a touch)

Roland is hanging upside down on the monkey bars while one of the older Lost Boys- the one whose heart she’d taken, actually, though she finds she doesn’t particularly care when he shoots her a nasty look- sits on top of them, holding onto his feet. The little boy sees Regina approaching and beams at her, and she smiles back as she sits down on the bench beside Robin.

“You’re not here to tell me you’ve reconsidered,” he says, leaning back.

She shakes her head and watches Roland as Robin fishes in his pocket. He extracts a necklace, her chain with Daniel’s ring at the end, and says, “I believe this belongs to you.”

“Thank you.” She takes it from him, the ring cool against her palm, and contemplates it. It’s always difficult to think too hard about the girl she’d once been- about the child, innocent and caged but so kind and loving. It leaves her straining for something out of reach, yearning for the simplicity of a youth when she’d been teeming with the goodness of fools. She prefers not to imagine what that girl would think of her now.

She shudders to think of Daniel seeing the Evil Queen at her prime.

“I owe you an apology,” Robin says slowly. “Several, perhaps.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“I knew,” he murmurs. “I knew before we came here that you loved another. I could see it in your eyes when you spoke of Henry, when you spoke of this land.” They’d had quiet moments together between jibes and insults, back in the Enchanted Forest. She’d been drawn to him from the start and hadn’t wanted to, had craved the misery and the loneliness that a life without Henry- without Emma- had offered her. And each time he’d gotten past her defenses she’d hated him a little more for it.

And then, without her memories of him, she’d seen his tattoo and made the connection and jumped headfirst into the relationship that had been fated to be hers.

Robin is still talking, and she focuses on him again. “And when I saw you with Emma, I knew again. But I kept pursuing you, remained with you even when I could see that you weren’t happy. I attributed it all to your love for her and forced myself to ignore the signs for as long as I could, persuading myself that I would win you over in time.” He sighs. “I should have tried to make you happy instead of attempting to make you love me.”

“I wanted to love you,” she tells him. “I think…” She remembers the lion tattoo again, remembers the hope surging in her chest that there would be someone who could love her. Even if Emma had had men hurling themselves at her from all sides, even if Henry couldn’t remember who she was. There had been the man with the lion tattoo, and he’d been her final chance. “I got so caught up in what we were supposed to be that I never thought about what we actually were.” 

“And what were we?”

“Rushing,” she admits. “Taking our cues from pixie dust and falling into a relationship that neither of us were ready for. There was so much about who I’d been that you’d never truly experienced, and I would never wish that upon you.”

“And you still haven’t come to terms with some of it yourself,” Robin says gently, a shadow crossing his face. “I would fight for you.”

She laughs, close to bitter. “Please don’t.” 

“I would,” he continues doggedly, “But I think back to last night and I know that you wanted Emma. That you’ll always go to Emma when you need that support. And I’m never going to be that person for you, am I?” 

There’s pain on his face, a silent plea still there, and she whispers, “I can’t apologize to you for loving Emma. I can’t.”

He’s quiet, and she tightens her grip on Daniel’s ring. “Loving Henry brought me back to life after I’d spent eighteen years asleep, drowning in my own bitterness. He forced me to find goodness in myself, to find those parts of me that I’d thought I’d locked away forever.”

“And loving Emma?” Robin asks tiredly, like he doesn’t want the answer at all. “How did that change you?”

“It didn’t,” she says, her lips curling into something between smile and grimace. “I wasn’t changed. I was the same woman who’d hated her and the same who’d worked with her anyway. The one who’d been trying to be Henry’s ideal, the one steeped in darkness. Bitter and angry and selfish and in love with a woman who listened to me when I spoke and believed in me, for all my faults. And I…” She closes her eyes, thinks about Snow’s earnest eyes and You’re enough, Regina and for a moment she can almost believe it. “I never want to lose hold of that part of myself, regardless of how many pirates Emma Swan dates. That part of the evil queen that can love.”

Robin watches her intently, like he’s about to suggest all the ways that he can do the same, and she shakes her head, almost imperceptibly. “Please don’t,” she repeats, barely audible.

“I suppose I’ll return to the building being converted for my Merry Men’s use,” he says instead. “Aurora and her child have been staying with Mulan while we continue to search for her husband and she’s offered to look after Roland while I’m working. At least I’ll be supervising the Lost Boys at night now.” He rolls his eyes. “Emma’s been suggesting that I’m not fully committed to my work if I don’t live with the rest of them. It’s all quite passive-aggressive.”

She smirks at the image, Emma and Robin tramping through the woods, muttering insults better suited to someone half their ages. Emma snippy and hostile toward Robin on her behalf. “Sounds like.” She grows serious. “I would still like to be a part of Roland’s life, if you’ll allow it.” She’s treated him as her own child these past few months, loved him without abandon in the way she reserves just for children and had warmed each time he’d accidentally called her mama.

“Of course.” Light eyes search her own for a moment, seeking out some inner thought that she refuses to speak aloud, and he says, “I think it would be best that we remained friends, then. For Roland’s sake.” 

She flushes and warms and feels another load roll off her shoulders as she agrees, “For Roland’s sake.”

He leans over to press his lips to her forehead, and she lays her head against his arm, grateful for this, at least. For Robin, who’s become important to her even if she’s certain that she would never again want him as anything more than that. “What does it mean, if we’re soulmates but not together?”

“It means we search for happy endings elsewhere,” Robin says simply. “I don’t put much stock into magic and pixie dust and instructions of who I might be.”

“I do. I did,” she corrects quickly, not entirely sure that the latter is true. She’s known too much of magic, too much of fate in the past to believe that straying from it is as easy as a breakup. She knows better than to shrug it off even now.

He smiles down at her. “Well, if we find that that happiness is impossible, you know where I’ll be.”

She sighs against him. I’d rather be alone, she thinks but doesn’t say. She’d rather be happy with Henry than trapped again in this prescribed future, imagining Leopold’s face on Robin’s and hating him for things done to her by another man.

He puts a hand against the center of her back, between her shoulders. “Do you think it could have been different? If there had been no pixie dust and you’d never known that I was your soulmate? Could you have stayed with me?”

He’s looking for comfort but all she can think about is Emma, whom she’d loved all along in a way that stops up her heart and throat and she can’t dream of anyone who could be more than her. And she doesn’t want to lie to him, so she remains silent and curls in closer.

He smiles, and it’s with more contained sorrow than he’s had all afternoon. “It’s only that…you never made yourself small around me before.” 

She hadn’t. She looms, she challenges, she stands with her head high as though surrounded by enemies at all times. She remains larger than life and unquestioned by force of habit, and she thinks for a moment of the comfort in being gathered in another’s embrace last night, of feeling warm and surrounded and tiny in Emma’s arms. Of willingly making herself small for a moment, of No wait, I’m sorry and Let me die as Regina and I’m talking about our magic. Of being just Regina instead of a queen so immense that no one can see beyond that. 

She closes her eyes and says, “I’m supposed to meet Henry at Granny’s after school. Why don’t you come along so we can talk to him about all this?”

+

Granny’s is at its height of business during the first hour after school lets out, when students stop in with their parents for an after-school dessert or in a gaggle of classmates, crowding in for some cocoa and settling in to study together. It’s not a surprise to see Emma there, leaning against the wall in the outdoor seating area like she’s waiting for Henry too, and Regina turns to Robin to excuse herself for a minute. She hasn’t seen Emma since the night before, and knowing Emma, if she doesn’t say something now she’ll be avoided for another week.

But Robin is staring at Emma with a furrowed brow and vague distaste, and when Regina turns back she sees what she’d missed. What she rarely notices until he makes himself known- Hook, leaning in to kiss Emma, all facial hair and lips and the smugness in his eyes that he has every time Emma Swan looks at him the right way.Fuck, she thinks uncharacteristically, and her heart abruptly stops beating.

She can’t tear her eyes away from them, even when Roland tugs at her hand and whines about ice cream, studying the way Emma tilts her head back and waits for the kiss. At the way that her hands remain at her side and her eyes are closed, unresponsive in any way but in the kiss itself. There’s something familiar about it, and she struggles through rage and confusion and hurt to try and pin it down but comes up short.

Is this how Emma had felt, her feelings for Regina clear and rejected and Regina’s attention on someone else? Unable to rightfully be angry at Regina because she doesn’t belong to her, because they’re nothing more than friends who’ve dared to have feelings one won’t express?

Roland pulls away to run inside and she’s still staring, her eyes boring holes into Hook’s back as he puts a hand on Emma’s arm, as Emma’s hands remain at her sides and she angles back to put more distance between them. And abruptly, Regina knows exactly what that kiss is, because she’d done the same dozens of times. She’d done it because Nothing Was Wrong, because she was exactly where she’d been trying to convince herself that she wanted to be. She’d kissed like she was dreading it, and Emma kisses the same way. 

And because Regina’s not Emma, because her impatience lies in far more selfish places than Emma’s and her hurt tends to supersede everything else she should be feeling, she says loudly, “There are children here,” and stalks past them. 

Emma jerks away from Hook, catching her eyes before she can fully make her way inside. Her cheeks are red and she bites her lip and says, very coolly, “Regina. Robin. And how is Storybrooke’s First Couple today?”

“Oh, don’t be obnoxious, dear,” Regina snaps, annoyed at the dismay on Emma’s face. As though she has a say in who can be hurt right now. “We’re explaining to Henry that Robin will be moving out. Not everyone sends their ex to jail after a relationship ends.”

Emma’s jaw clenches and Regina knows instantly that she’d gone too far, that in her hurt she’d crossed the line between playful and painful in their never-ending banter. “Emma,” she tries, stretching out a hand to grasp her arm. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” Emma looks down, biting her lip again like it hadn’t just been thoroughly debauched by Regina’s least favorite person in this town. “I know.” The anger is gone as quickly as it had come, replaced by a smile so false that it’s laughable on Emma Swan. “So what are you going to tell him? This is going to break his heart.”

She squints at Emma, relieved when her heart rate slows down to normal levels. “You think so?” 

Emma nods to Robin. “He worships you. Always talking about how badass you are, how you once stole a wand from the Dark One, how you took down ten of the queen’s guards once mid-bath.” She sounds sour about it, and Regina bites back a smile. Apparently, Henry’s gone for a more subtle maneuver in his attempts to win Emma over to his cause. Simple jealousy for a wholly simple woman. “I slayed a dragon for him.” 

“You do talk about that dragon quite a bit,” Robin notes. “Is that all you’ve ever done?” 

Emma gasps in outrage as they make their way over to the table Roland’s picked out for them, Emma sitting opposite Regina and beside Roland in his booth. “I’ve done plenty! Right, Regina?”

“Right,” Regina says indulgently, pushing thoughts of that kiss from her mind. If she dwells on it too much she can’t stop wanting to hurt them both for it, to lash out and say things she shouldn’t. And Hook’s words from weeks before ring through her mind.And now she’s running again. To you. The most unavailable person she cares for.

And now that she’s available, that they’d spent a night wrapped together and she’d bared so much of her soul to Emma, is this it? Has Emma stopped running and returned to the one she’d wanted all along?

She hates not knowing but she’s far too proud to demand answers, especially when they’re to questions that she’d already rejected outright. Nothing has changed, she reminds herself. She’s still a liability to Emma, someone bound to cause her more pain than good. She’s still the one destined for another, even if they’re apart forever, and Emma has her own destiny beyond Regina.

They stare at each other from across the table, hardness in their eyes as they offer false smiles, and Emma tears her gaze away first to say, “Actually, Robin, I wanted to talk to you.”

He raises his eyebrows at her. “Oh?”

“You’ve been working with me free of charge, but if you’re on your own now…I do have space in my new budget for a second deputy sheriff. It’s more of the same work, just now you get money for it.” She grins, and it’s nearly genuine. “How about it?”

Robin looks startled. “Me, a sheriff? I can’t say it’s much of a fit. I am an outlaw, after all.” His brow crinkles. “My greatest nemesis was a sheriff, actually.” 

“Yeah?”

“We were…” He blinks, looking suddenly discomfited. “We were romantic rivals as well.” 

“Imagine that,” Emma says, deadpan. She leans forward, elbows on the table and fingers tucked under her chin. “So who won?”

Regina purses her lips and ignores them both determinedly, even when Emma’s knees accidentally bump hers under the table. Robin raises his chin. “Well, I married her and we had a child together before her death.”

“Huh.” Emma’s face is still for a moment, and when Regina glances at her, there’s something dark and very young in her eyes, bare to the world. She tosses her hair to the side and her expression smoothes over. “Well, it’s legal now if you really want to take Hook down to town hall. But I think it might break my dad’s heart if he married someone else.”

Robin barks out a laugh and Regina decides that she’s had enough of this conversation. “I thought you were going to use that money I’d allotted to you for your raise?” she inquires. She’d set it aside for her before the weekend, acknowledging that, yes, the sheriff’s department does considerably more than it had under the curse, and they deserved more funding.

“Oh, I don’t need it!” Emma’s eyes light up. “Killian bartered some of Neal’s old stuff with Gold in exchange for a rent break, so I’ve got the apartment as of this morning. I’m moving in next weekend.”

Maybe it’s just the happy “Killian,” tossed out as though Emma’s finally fully embracing her relationship with Hook. Maybe it’s the fact that after all their discussion, she hadn’t even gotten to look at the apartment that Emma and Henry are planning on spending their lives in. Maybe it’s that she’d been the one who was going to help them with it, who’d wanted to give Emma this new happiness when her last happy ending had been cut short so abruptly. But she’s suddenly angry, eyes flashing and straightening in her seat, and she says, “You rented the apartment without checking with me?”

Emma frowns. “You knew I was looking at it. We’ve talked about this.” 

“I haven’t even seen it. How do I know that it’s suitable for y- for Henry? What sort of taste does a woman who’s been forcing my son to sleep on a mattress for months have? Does he even get his own room, or is there just one for you and your Killian?” she spits out. Her chest feels tight, like everything inside that’s been straining to break free is finally coming to the fore, and she knows she’s snapping again, being abrasive to someone who’s given her far too much, and she can’t stop. “Has he had any choice in the matter?”

Emma doesn’t look angry as much as she looks weary, exhaustion settling her eyes, and Regina remembers that she hadn’t slept all night and had spent far too much time taking care of her. “Okay,” she says slowly, standing up. “I’m gonna–“ She flees for the back of Granny’s in a flash of blonde and red, leaving Robin and Regina staring at each other.

“You really haven’t been secretly with her all this time, have you?” Robin says, shaking his head, and she gives him a dirty look and follows Emma. 

She’s standing in the back hall in front of the bathrooms, leaning back against the wall and breathing hard, and she doesn’t look up when Regina arrives. She doesn’t know how to apologize for something so petty, how to discuss this without the unfair jealousy that accompanies her frustration, and she doesn’t speak until Emma does. “I wanted to give you a break,” Emma says, staring up at the ceiling tiles above. “You’ve had so much going on and I didn’t think my apartment was so important to you.”

“It was,” Regina admits, wrapping her arms around her waist. “Helping you was.” Emma’s done so much for her, been so much for her that she finds that all she wants to do is give, is grant Emma every happiness in the world.

And it’s as simple in that moment, Emma’s head tilting down so her eyes meet Regina’s and Regina taking a step forward to reach for Emma’s hands. It’s as simple as the moment she’d looked into an infant’s eyes and determined that she would do everythingin her power to make sure that he’d be loved and safe and happy for the rest of his life. It’s the moment she decides that she can give Emma what she deserves, even if she’s selfish and unworthy. That she will love her, that this is worth pursuing even after all her doubts.

She takes another step forward and hears Emma’s breath hitch, feels hands reach up to grasp her elbows and Emma leans inward and then they’re kissing, Emma holding tightly to her and Regina’s eyes wide open as she catches sight of blonde hair and bright eyes and lips that pepper her face with more kisses as she moves closer still, pinning Emma against the wall as Emma tugs her against her torso, as tightly wrapped together as they’d been in her bed the night before.

And then it’s Emma who pulls her lips away from Regina as Regina lets out a muffled protest, and Emma who sighs and says, “I am so bad at impulse control,” into her shoulder.

Regina’s smile drops. “What the hell does that mean?”

They’re still holding onto each other, tight enough that it’s more than a hug and Regina can feel Emma as she pants against her, and her fingers splay out across the slight curve of Emma’s rear and Emma says, “We can’t be doing this. can’t be doing this. Not when…” She presses her face into Regina’s shoulder again instead of finishing the sentence.

This whole afternoon has become some warped torture for Regina, just desserts for the past few months between the two of them, and she doesn’t know if she wants to laugh or cry or demand more answers from Emma. She hadn’t thought about how difficult it might have been for Emma because she hadn’t owed Emma anything, had in fact been protecting her from the idiocy of ever wanting Regina. And now Emma owes her nothing but she’s seething with frustration and suddenly desperate to escape this hall, to be away from Emma before she hurts anymore. 

Instead she says, “You left this morning,” and Emma says, “I’ll need help moving in,” at the exact same time and they stare at each other with mutual helplessness and Regina can’t let go of Emma after all.

She says, “I want to help,” and Emma says, “I’m sorry,” and they hold each other tighter, arms wrapped around each other as though they’ll topple down to the ground if they separate.

And when Emma finally lowers her arms, Regina does in fact stumble back against the opposite wall, feeling hopelessly adrift and very, very lost.


 

xxii. an exercise in self-control (trust a charming to be this bad at it)

“You’re here!” David announces when he opens the door, relief on his face. “She’s here!” he calls out toward the stairs and Regina watches, bemused, as there’s a parade of feet down the stairs from Emma’s bedroom to the door of the loft. 

“Oh, thank god.” Snow balances Leo on her hip and takes Regina’s hand to tug her to the steps. “We’ve been- well, you’ll see.” 

What they’ve been doing is attempting to bring Emma’s bed downstairs in one piece, with typical Charming bullheaded impatience. And naturally now it’s on its side and threatening to slide down onto all of them while Henry and Hook and Emma stand below, pushing desperately at it.

She quirks a brow. “It’s been a half hour since you said you’d start moving Emma out, and you’ve already managed this disaster?” 

“Shh. I can handle this.” Emma’s eyes are closed, her focus on the bed, and it lurches forward toward Henry as he shrieks and nearly falls down the stairs.

“You will not manhandle our son!” Regina says sharply, raising her hand to lift the bed. It soars through the air, separating into frame and box spring and mattress, and lands neatly on its side next to her. 

Henry flashes her a grin while Emma pouts. “I was doing fine!” 

“You were one magically powered shove from breaking Henry’s leg!”

But Emma is smiling again, following Henry down the stairs to greet her. “Thanks for coming.” It’s almost shy, and then she swipes her tongue over her lips and Regina knows exactly what she’s thinking about.

She bites her own lip and Emma watches it for a moment before she tears her gaze away. “Yes, well, someone has to make sure you idiots don’t kill our son.” She’s been dragging her feet all morning, reluctant to come here and watch Emma with Killian all day. It had never hurt quite this much before, when Emma had been reluctant and Regina had been distracted, and now she finds herself scowling at every light touch of his against Emma’s arm, every time she tosses him a grin and every time he kisses her. It feels like…

It feels like Emma’s been lying to one of them all along, like she’s said things she’d never meant and reconsidered them all, and Regina loathes her a tiny bit for it. 

But then she’d thought about Emma lying facedown on her bed and her first choices for an apartment and how alone she’d feel after pushing her parents away, and she hadn’t been able to stay at home and let Emma go through that alone. 

It’s strange, caring more about Emma than about what Emma can do for her. She wonders if this is what it’s like to be a Charming, annoyingly simpering and always giving, giving, giving to the people they’d taken so much from in the past. If this is how she makes amends. You don’t need to keep trying to die for us to prove you’re enough. 

And maybe she has nothing to prove anymore to them, but Emma needs her.

She follows the other woman up the staircase to where there are three large boxes piled up in Emma’s now-bare room. “You’ve already moved everything else?”

Emma shakes her head. “Henry’s stuff is mostly at your place, anyway, so he only had a box. The rest of this is mine.”

“This is it?” Regina says, eyeing the two boxes marked with Emma’s name. 

Emma shrugs, suddenly self-conscious. “Mary Margaret folds things really well. And I don’t have much more than clothes. There are a few things from New York and my laptop but I travel light. The apartment is fully furnished aside from the second bed.”

It just seems sad, somehow, that this is all Emma has from years spent in this town, from shaking so many people’s lives to their roots and getting nothing in return. There should be at least a few keepsakes. Maybe a sword.

“A sword?” Emma echoes, and Regina realizes that she’d spoken that last thought aloud. “Well, if you have one…” 

“Maybe for your next birthday.”

In the end, the boxes are too bulky for Henry or Hook to balance well, and the rest of them file down the stairs to David’s pickup truck as Regina is treated to the rather delightful image of Leo teething on the pirate’s hooked hand. “Don’t say a word,” Snow whispers when she brushes past. “It calms Leo down and if we laugh he might stop doing it.”

Then they’re all piling into the back of the truck, Regina sitting delicately on one edge of it with legs crossed and magic keeping her balanced. “I’m fairly certain that this is illegal,” she says primly, and Emma rests her head against Regina’s knees and says, “Maybe the sheriff will arrest you.”

“Mm. She’s been trying for years.” Emma’s hair is flying to one side from the momentum of the truck, and Regina catches as much of it as she can, winding it between her fingers. “This might be her big chance.”

Moms,” Henry hisses from Emma’s other side, glancing significantly at Hook. Hook’s eyes are on Leo, the two of them sprawled out on the opposite side of the boxes and bed, but he’s smirking like he hears them and isn’t very threatened at all. 

Regina scowls and turns back to Emma. “And what would you do with me if you had me in your cell, Sheriff Swan?” she purrs, and Emma lets out a strangled choking sound while Henry wrinkles his nose and Hook glances up, eyebrows raised. 

“We’re here!” Emma says loudly, pointing in the general area of the next block over. “Right there. That’s my apartment. Let’s talk about that.” But her hand is sliding up the back of Regina’s legs, squeezing her calf warningly when she smirks and opens her mouth again. 

And then squeezing it again. And again, kneading her leg with such ease that Regina isn’t sure if Emma’s trying to catch her off guard or if she doesn’t even notice what she’s doing. It’s very, very nice, and Regina’s folding her legs together all the more tightly and swallowing hard.

“Emma,” she says finally, catching her arm.

“What? Oh.” Emma’s eyes widen and she snatches away her hand. “Oh.” She stumbles forward into the bed as the truck turns, sitting down on it and flushing bright red. “I warned you about my impulse control,” she mutters as Henry eyes them curiously. “Can we just…pretend this didn’t happen?” 

The truck jolts to a stop and Snow pops out of the front seat to poke her head over at them. “Regina, any chance you’ll magic that bed into the building?” 

“I’ll have to take a look at the apartment first and get an image of the surroundings or I might just crash the bed onto your new sofa.” She stands up, a little shaky, and Emma follows her from the pickup truck to the house in front of them. 

“It’s the top floor,” Emma says, pointing to a side door and taking the lead. “Come on, I’ll show you.” 

There are windows everywhere, and it’s bright and sunny and painted in light purples and beige. There’s a large main room with a low couch and a round table, a smaller kitchen to the right, and one small bedroom across from it with a master at the end of the hall. It’s oddly homey even without Emma’s and Henry’s possessions moved inside, and she’d be glad if she weren’t so off-kilter from the ride. 

“Do you like it?” Emma asks her, eyes bright and a little desperate, and she knows suddenly that it’s very important to Emma that she does. 

She answers truthfully, “It looks like home,” and Emma’s face crumples, just like that. “Emma…”

“Sorry. I’m- I’m sorry. I’m happy that it passes muster.” She bites her lip and walks quickly down the hall. 

Regina follows her into the master bedroom. It’s large and open and there’s a little loveseat against the wall next to the door that Emma sinks into, knees up against her chin and staring out the window beside her. She looks small, suddenly, a child without a home, and Regina sits  next to her and waits. 

“Did you know that I stayed with one family until I was three?” Emma says suddenly, tucking her knees even closer to her. “They were planning on adopting me, that’s how I found out what happened. I saw the paperwork years later and asked my social worker about it.”

“What happened?” She hates thinking about Emma’s childhood almost as much as she hates thinking about her younger self. There are too many terrible things she can’t regret, and the pain she’s inflicted on Emma tops the list. Because of Henry. Because Emma spent eighteen years suffering so that Henry could be hers. Even for Emma, she can’t compromise that, and she knows that Emma would feel the same.

“They had a baby,” Emma says, and turns her face back to Regina. Her eyes are red-rimmed and there are shadows beneath them that Regina hadn’t seen under the false smile and forced excitement. “They had a baby and they wanted her so they sent me away.” 

Regina reaches out a hand and Emma moves to sink into her embrace without a word, knees still up and her head resting on Regina’s thigh. “Your parents don’t want to send you away,” she murmurs, her fingers stroking the side of Emma’s neck. “As irritating as they can be, I’ve never doubted how much they love you. They would keep you in their house forever if they could.” 

“And yet.” Emma curls closer to her. “Here I am.” 

“By your own choice.”

She shrugs like it isn’t, like she’s been acting on others’ expectations again, and Regina’s heart tightens in her chest, compacting and compacting until there’s only a dense little ball of pain at the center of her. “I’m so tired of being everyone’s second choice, Regina. I’m so tired of never being enough for anyone.”

And there it is, the same answer that she should have anticipated all along. It’s not Emma running back to Hook, the one she’s always wanted. It’s not Emma retreating because Regina had never been more than a game to her. It’s been about Regina all this time, about Emma and Regina and never enough. “Except for Hook,”  Regina whispers. She thinks about the night of Emma’s last birthday, of standing outside as Emma admits, It’s nice to have someone who puts me first, right? like it’s her most shameful secret.

“Except for Hook,” Emma agrees. She laughs bitterly. “I thought you might have…I thought you might have felt like me, back then. Like maybe all those dumb cues I kept reading from you were real.”

Regina traces a path from Emma’s neck to circle her lips. “They were real,” she admits. “It was all real. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“You say that.” Emma purses her lips against Regina’s finger. “But it took a panic attack for you to even consider leaving Robin. And now suddenly you’re flirting with me and we’re making out like you’ve always wanted me.” 

She doesn’t know how long she’s been in love with Emma. It’s never been a real awareness as much as something tugging at the seams of her consciousness, reminding her that Emma is different than the others. That Emma she can trust, Emma she can respect, Emma she’d care about if she were gone. And then she’d held her hand in hers and said goodbye and wanted so desperately to give her happiness, to give her all she has to offer, and she’d stood between the curse and a little yellow car and loved Emma Swan with all her heart.

“I have,” she says slowly, touching her finger to the tip of Emma’s nose. “I always have. If I hadn’t believed that there was no other option than Robin–“ 

Emma cuts her off. “No, you wanted to believe that. You wanted to believe in a happy ending with him because it was easy and guaranteed and he seems like an okay guy, and I was…what? A distraction? Someone to talk about boys to?” 

She can only shake her head. “You said you didn’t want to be the reason Robin and I ended things.” 

“Yeah, well, I lied.” Emma stares straight ahead, her head pressed to Regina’s thigh. “Of course I wanted it to be for me. I wanted to be…” She blinks twice and when she looks back up at Regina, her eyes are watery and tired. “I wanted to be your first choice. God, Regina, do you have any idea what you mean to me?”

“I love you,” she blurts out, and it’s not nearly as collected as she’d been with Snow, not nearly as designed for a response. It’s nothing but her heart growing in her chest, expanding until her ribs can’t hold it and her lungs can’t breathe and she feels as though she might explode.

Emma stares at her, her eyes very wide as Regina speaks. “I love you like I’ve never loved anyone. Not since Daniel. Maybe not even him. It’s different. I don’t know.” She’s babbling now, uncomfortable and baring far too much of herself, and Emma hasn’t said a word. “I didn’t think you’d be happy with me. I thought I’d destroy you. I didn’t want to hurt you,” she says again.

Emma takes in a shuddery breath, rising and falling against her lap, and she bobs her head from side to side. “You don’t get to make decisions for me,” she says softly. “And now… regardless of what you might feel…I can’t do this now. I can’t be with you and know that you picked someone else. That I’m just your rebound. Your second choice. Every second I spend with you is just gonna be a reminder of that and I don’t want to hurt all the time, Regina. I don’t want to hurt when I’m around you.” She’s crying now, and Regina doesn’t think she’s ever seen her like this, red-faced and scrunched up and miserable.

Snow walks into the room and Regina notices suddenly the sound of voices nearby, of Henry talking about his room and Hook responding and Snow’s mouth is open like she’s about to say something, too. Regina glares sharply at her and she gets a sad smile in return as her former stepdaughter backs out of the room and closes the door. 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Regina agrees, and that tense little ball within her is tightening again, twisting and wrenching at Emma’s tears. “I never did.” 

Emma sits up, her eyes still bright with fresh tears. “So what am I supposed to do? Does it really matter how I feel about Hook, as long as he makes me feel wanted? As long as he tries to make me happy?” 

She kisses Emma again, this time fierce and uncompromising, twisting to climb onto her knees, pressing her back into the soft cushion of the loveseat and pressing her hands to her cheeks. Holding her tight, kissing her until Emma’s mouth opens and she can explore it with a questing tongue, until Emma’s hands touch the hem of her dress and creep under it, until Emma is lying on her back across the couch and Regina is on top of her, her lips still on Emma’s with determination.

“Let me make you happy,” she whispers against Emma’s mouth. “Let me love you.” It doesn’t matter that she isn’t good enough for Emma anymore. It doesn’t matter that her heart is black and her love is too dangerous. All that matters is Emma in her arms, saltwater on her lips and a wandering touch that seeks more and more of her legs.

It’s selfish. It’s so much less than Emma deserves. And yet she thinks of Snow in that instant, of You’re enough and it doesn’t matter that Snow is an idiot because maybe she can be enough for Emma. Maybe she isn’t who Emma deserves, but she can love her like she should be loved. Can treasure her the way she should always be treasured. 

Emma sits up, their lips barely coming apart for an instant before she latches onto her again, shoving her back and kissing her just as hard. “I don’t want you to love me,” she sighs, their teeth smashing together and coming apart. “It feels like a lie. Like pretty words you’re giving me to make reality not matter.”

“It’s not a lie,” she insists, sliding her hands up Emma’s arms to squeeze her upper arms.

“I know. I know when you’re lying.” Emma tears her mouth away, pressing one last kiss to Regina’s lips before she falls back, leaning against the opposite arm of the sofa. “I know you believe it, but does it change anything?” She puts her hands to her side helplessly and blinks up at Regina. “They all say they love me, but somehow I’m still alone until it’s good for you.”

And there’s nothing she can respond to that, nothing to disprove it when here she is, finally free of any attachments and ready to fight for her love. When Emma’s right and there’s no way to spin this into anything else for her, to explain again about pixie dust and soulmates and the rut she’s been in since. 

Emma doesn’t believe in fairytales.

She says nothing and Emma slides off the couch, ducking into the bathroom to wash off her face. “I’d better go help them unload. You should supervise Henry or he’ll stuff his drawers with comics and dump his clothes on the closet floor.” 

“He would.” They smile at each other, hesitant and pained, and Emma darts forward and kisses her again. 

“Really terrible impulse control,” she breathes against Regina’s lips, and then she escapes the room as quickly as she can. 

Regina sits in silence, hearing the sounds of what is, in fact, comic books being organized into drawers in the next room. (And no, her son doesn’t stuff them into drawers, he neatly arranges them by title and issue in alphabetical and numerical order.) She wants to get up and help, to prepare Henry’s new room for him and to transport his bed inside already, but she can’t quite move yet, can’t shift from this couch and from the realities revealed on it.

Every time she kisses Emma, it feels like a gift, like all she’s ever needed. Like she could starve for a month and live only on Emma, only on this treasure she’s been able to hold for only a minute (never possess, no one can possess Emma. She’s a force of nature, a whirlwind who blows through all their lives and saves them and demands nothing in return. You can’t possess the sun). And she’s still stunned at the memory of it and she’s afraid to talk, to move her lips and lose the last impression of Emma’s against hers.

No. Enough.

She rises, pressing her lips together and removing the final sensations of Emma’s kiss, the smear of her own lipstick on her face. Her eyes narrow and she walks into the hallway, light magic dancing from the tips of her fingers. 

She’s had enough of being told what to do, being told how to react and what choices she can make. She could sit back and accept them when they’d been about her soulmate and her future and she’d just been hopeful that she’d had one.

But she’s Regina Mills, and she’s tired of following paths set by other people when happiness is so close within her grasp. She’s tired of being held back because she’s glad to get anything more than she deserves. 

Her eyes dart to the end of the hall, where Emma is leaning into David’s side, shamefacedly murmuring words Regina can’t make out. Regina refuses to languish in misery anymore, to build new walls of her making and struggle within them to be content. She’s had enough of being trapped by her own decisions, and she’s positive that she doesn’t want the same for Emma.

If Emma’s going to settle into a relationship, then she’s sure as hell going to get a choice in the matter. And Regina won’t let her feel like she’s unwanted anymore.

Emma frowns curiously at her from the living room and she smirks, long and slow, a resolute queen with a new battle to fight. With a new long-term goal in mind and a new target in her sights who’s already halfway hers.

And she’s nothing if not very, very persistent.

Chapter Text

xxiii. a dozen starts (nothing finished, nothing gone. except the meatloaf)

Emma’s eyes are slightly glazed over, her lips parted and she’s nearly panting in wholly embarrassing ways, and Henry says, “Should we leave you two alone for a while?” 

“You’re trying to seduce me,” she finally manages, gesturing toward Regina with a vigorous shake of her head. “You’re actually pulling out all the stops and trying to seduce me into letting you in.”

Henry wrinkles his nose and Regina smiles obliquely and offers, “Is it working?”

“Get inside. Now.” Emma skitters backward, her eyes still glued to a spot just around Regina’s midsection, and Regina reseals the pan of meatloaf as she watches, feeling very satisfied with herself. 

Never underestimate Emma Swan’s appetite.

“So what is this, family dinner again? Or are you just here to make fun of my New York china?” Emma calls out as she leads the way up the stairs. Henry immediately heads for his new room, barely pausing to set the pan he’d been carrying on the counter in the kitchen before he runs off.

“Oh, no.” Regina sets down her own pan and turns to smile at Emma. She can feel the way her lips split into something predatory and hungry, eyes dark and inviting, closer to the queen she’d once been than the mayor Emma knows. It’s a comfort zone she hasn’t entirely given up, and from the audible gulp she hears from Emma’s general vicinity, she’s still got it. “I thought I made it clear with the food. I am trying to seduce you.”

Emma licks her lips. “Regina…” 

“I considered going about it differently.” She stalks across the room toward Emma, a hand stretching out to clamp onto the sink behind Emma as she stands, a breath apart from her. “Insinuating myself into every single crevice of your life until you couldn’t conceive of a moment without me.” Fingers splay across her abdomen, holding her back in the most intimate of ways, and she leans in to murmur in Emma’s ear, “I hear that that works well, anyway.” 

Emma shoves her lightly, pushing her back toward the fridge. She’s smirking and rolling her eyes, seemingly unimpressed, but there’s a low shudder passing through her shoulders that intimates otherwise. As does the way she waits, expectant, for Regina to keep going. 

Regina cocks her head, lips pursing speculatively. “But I don’t think that’s what you want, is it?”

“What do I want?” Emma asks, slightly breathless. Her forehead is creasing and she’s still glancing at the meatloaf on the counter like she hasn’t eaten anything all day, but for the most part, her eyes are fixed on Regina. Like Regina’s going to make this all right. Like she wants Regina to find the right answers to make her close the gap between them again and give them what they’re straining for. 

Those answers are never going to be so simple, though, not when they’re coming from such starkly different value systems that what’s I’ve always wanted you to one of them is I didn’t want you enough to the other. So Regina’s eyes narrow invitingly and she hums, “We’ll see soon enough,” as she turns to open the cabinet behind her. 

She finds cheaply made china inside it, and begins searching for forks and knives when Emma says suddenly, “You have to stop me from kissing you.”

“Do I?” 

“Yeah.” Emma pulls the drawer next to the sink open, retrieving the silverware Regina’s been hunting for, and she ducks her head in a sheepish little flush and mutters, “I don’t want to lose my head around you again. So if you want to…I don’t know, whatever you’re planning on doing…I need to not wind up yanking off that dress- which is much too short and obscenely tight for a casual dinner, by the way, so Henry’s definitely onto you–“

“Oh, you noticed the dress behind the meatloaf, did you?” But she curbs her smirk and follows Emma as she sets the table in the open dining room area near the door. “Henry’s been onto us for a long time.”

“What? No, he hasn’t.”

“Yes, I have!” Henry calls from down the hall. “A little too much now, thanks, Moms.” He wrinkles his nose as he returns from his room, a handheld game Emma had bought for him in hand. “Can we eat now?”

Emma is halfway through her first helping before she speaks again, and Regina raises an eyebrow. “Is there anything in your fridge at all, or are you planning on feeding our son takeout every weekend?”

“What? You’re not sending over leftovers?” Emma whines, but she swallows and admits, “Yeah, I haven’t gone shopping yet. I’m getting to it.” She rolls her eyes. “Ihave lived on my own for most of my life, and I have twelve years- at least some of them real- of raising a kid under my belt. I do know how to cook and stock up on groceries and normal thirty-year-old things to do.” 

“She does,” Henry agrees, flashing Emma a thumbs up. “She’s just not into measuring things out. All her quiches taste like baking soda.” 

“My quiches are amazing!” Emma protests, hunching over her meatloaf.

“Yes, they are, Ma. I love the flavor.” But he mouths dis-gus-ting at Regina while Emma’s looking at her plate, and Regina bites back a smirk and cuts her own food into delicate bites. 

“My mom came over after work to ‘teach me how to bake cookies’,” Emma tells them, sighing. “As though I’m totally incompetent.” 

Henry speaks up before Regina can think of a proper insult. “She just misses you. And she doesn’t want you to be alone again. None of us do.” It’s insight that doesn’t surprise Regina from Henry, but Emma’s eyes are soft when she hears it and she pokes Henry’s shoulder with her forefinger in an affectionate gesture that Regina doesn’t often see from Emma. “Hey!” he protests, but now he’s grinning at her, still earnest but pleased. “I’m eating!”

Emma’s looking uncomfortable again under Henry’s hundred-watt smile, and Regina says, “So, where are these cookies? Haven’t you at least had some of those?” in an attempt to spare her.

Instead Emma’s cheeks flush a lovely rosy hue and she mutters, “I misread teaspoon as tablespoon and they all tasted like salt. But that was a onetime thing! I’m a good baker!”

“Mmhm.” 

“At least I never poisoned anyone with my food,” she fires out darkly, eyes glinting in challenge. 

There’s no hostility there, not even from Henry, and Regina shoots back, “High blood pressure can kill you. At least eternal sleep keeps you healthy.” 

Henry covers his eyes. “I want a new family.” 

“You’d give up this meatloaf?” Emma asks dubiously.

“Mom can stay on as my cook. Also do my laundry. You dyed my soccer uniform pinklast year.” He narrows his eyes at Emma as Regina blinks, startled. She hadn’t known that Henry had played soccer last year. He hasn’t mentioned it, hasn’t talked about starting on the team this school year at all.

She doesn’t bring it up again until the meatloaf is gone and Henry has vanished back into his room with his backpack. “He’d like to sleep over tonight, if you allow it,” Regina says. “He’s excited about his new room and he hasn’t had any time with you in the past week.” Henry’s spent the weekend at the mansion- officially because of the move, but Regina has her own suspicions why Emma had suggested it.

And in fact, Emma frowns and says, “I don’t want you to be home without anyone tonight.” 

“I don’t want you to, either,” Regina retorts. “And I’m fine.” She is. It’s not as though every image of the past has vanished entirely with Robin’s departure, but she’s breathing more easily now, coping with old nightmares as she always had before and taking comfort in bright days spent with Henry and Emma or with Roland or Snow and Leo. 

She’s only seen Robin briefly and their exchanges have been polite and awkward, affection and hurt mingling and leaving their interactions stilted, but Roland is as happy as ever, adapting to his new living conditions with dozens of older playmates with preschooler aplomb. She’s relieved, if not a tiny bit taken aback when he’s around her at how easily he’s moved on.

Sometimes she wonders if she overestimates her effect on the people she cares about, and she ventures, “So…Henry played soccer in New York?”

Emma spares her an understanding smile. “It was just a stage. His friends all joined the team, and he joined with them.” She lowers her voice so it won’t travel down the hall. “He was terrible. I’m pretty sure he didn’t tell you about it because he was afraid you’d encourage him to play here, too.” 

“I see.” She thinks about it for a moment, imagines herself with Emma cheering Henry on from the sidelines. She’d be stubbornly convinced that he could do his best while Emma’d pat her back and reassure her with something crass like At least he’s funnyand she’d probably wind up magically propelling the ball through the air toward him enough that all the other parents would be glaring suspiciously at Henry’s mothers.

“Are you thinking about magical soccer moms too?” Emma says, brightening. “Because Robin claims that you can catch an arrow in midair and I bet we can train Henry to use magic for good, too. I still have those pink uniforms.” 

There’s a loud long-suffering sigh from down the hall and then Henry’s door slams to punctuate it. “There will be no slamming doors in my house, young man!” Emma yells gleefully, turning back to Regina. “Just like New York. Those were the days.” She sighs, a little wistful, but then she’s gathering the plates and stacking them- of courseEmma Swan stacks plates- and she says, “He’s happier here, though. I don’t think he’d have ever been this happy with his memories if he were away from Storybrooke.” 

“Are you? Happier here, that is.” She knows that there had been a time when Emma had considered leaving town and going back to New York, freeing herself of the pain and obligations and saviorhood that Storybrooke comes with. She still hurts with the knowledge that a part of Emma will always remain in the happy ending that Regina had granted her without the people here with her.

Emma disappears into the kitchen, her voice floating back to the dining room. “Just as long as you keep bringing me food.” She pops back out for a minute to nod to the living room beside them. “Sit down. Don’t sit on the couch, you’ll hate it.” 

She eyes the couch, which slants downward and back at such an angle that she’d be in a forced slouch on it, and she’s forced to agree. “Where am I supposed to sit? David didn’t really give you an Iron Throne replica as a housewarming gift, did he?” 

“Nah, he’s all talk. He gave me this weird goat hide hanging that I put in Henry’s room. Try the rug!” That particular monstrosity lies at the foot of the couch, neon green and thick with thousands of waving strands, and she curls her lip and slinks back into the kitchen to help with the dishes instead.

Emma hands her a wet dish, snickering at the distaste on her face. “It was a present from Ruby. She swears it’s the comfiest rug she’s ever sat on. I promise you, it’s worth it.” 

“Maybe later.” They wash and dry in companionable silence, listening to the sound of electronic music from Henry’s room where he’s clearly not doing his homework. “How’s your apartment?” Regina ventures.

“Quiet.” Emma makes a face. “I never thought I’d miss Leo’s dulcet screams in the morning, but somehow last night and this afternoon after Mary Margaret left have been so much worse than I’d thought. I guess peace and quiet are going to take some getting used to.” 

“They do miss you.” She hasn’t seen Snow and David since they’d all had dinner together at Granny’s the night before, after they’d finished moving Emma in, but she says it with absolute certainty anyway. Emma’s parents love her deeply, even when they’re too self-absorbed to show it properly, and she can imagine the void that her absence would leave in their home. 

Emma shrugs. “Yeah, I guess they do.” Sometimes she’s nearly a teenager, sullen and distant and sad, and Regina wants to wrap her arms around her and assure her that she’s loved. That she’ll always be loved, even after so many years without knowing it.

Guilt bubbles up again, as it does whenever she thinks too long about Emma, and she dries the last dish and announces, “All right. I’ll try out Ruby’s rug.”

It is comfortable, deep and soft and as thick as a sleeping pad, and she sits back against the sofa and closes her eyes. It might be worth the color, she’ll concede that. And she doesn’t miss the opportunity to let her dress ride up even more, to run her fingers along sleek legs. There might be rules in place, but she hasn’t given up playing to her strengths altogether.

Emma gives her the stink-eye like she knows what she’s up to, but she doesn’t stop glancing at her like that knowledge changes nothing. “Some people actually gave menice housewarming gifts.” 

“You didn’t like my present?” Regina asks innocently, glancing at the copy of Disney’sPeter Pan on the TV in front of them. “I thought, in case you were ever alone and missed your boyfriend…” 

“You’re such an asshole. And it’s not like the other one makes you look any better.” She’d also given her a copy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, pleased that the Disney version makes Snow out to be the insipid fool she is.

“Really? That’s all you gleaned from it?” She narrows her eyes at Emma with displeasure. Disney had done a fair imitation of her at her peak, though she can’t say much for the queen’s motives. Or her failures. Actually, the thing she likes best about Disney’s queen is how attractive she is. Hm. Maybe vanity really is one of her failings.

Emma tilts her head back, considering. “It did seem unfair that the queen never even got a name,” she says, and Regina is momentarily speechless, mouth open and heart thumping in her chest at the look in Emma’s eyes.

The doorbell rings and Emma jumps up to get it, leaving Regina silent on the rug, watching her go with the same amazement that she can’t quite tamp down.

Emma pauses by the stairs and smirks, “Of course, doesn’t Regina just mean queen? So maybe it wasn’t Disney’s fault after all.” The spell is broken, and Regina jolts and barely manages to toss a glare at Emma’s back before she’s vanishing down the stairs.

She’d never even noticed that she’d gone without a name in the film, but it would be Emma who’d see it, who’d recognize the dehumanization that comes along with being a two-dimensional villain. Who would seek out something more for even an evil queen and think little of it.

She can see her reflection on the television screen, a light smile on her face like she’s a lovesick child, and she scowls at herself in annoyance- a scowl that only deepens when she hears the voice downstairs.

“Hey.” Emma doesn’t sound all that enthused, and she takes comfort in that. “What’s up?” 

There’s a low sound, a filthy little chuckle, and Regina can imagine Hook angling himself closer as he speaks. “I thought we could break in your new bed tonight,” he suggests, and Regina swallows back bile. “Must be lonely here with no one around, eh, love?” 

“Oh.” Emma doesn’t say anything for a minute, and Regina worries her lip as she waits for her response. “Well, Henry’s sleeping here tonight and Regina’s over for dinner, so…”

“Regina,” Hook drawls out. “Say no more. You ladies have fun.” 

He lowers his voice so Regina can’t hear him even when she strains to make out his murmuring, but Emma lets out an exasperated breath in response and says, “Goodnight, Killian,” as she slams the door shut.

She clomps back up the stairs, kicking off her boots at the top of them. “I’m gonna go get us some drinks.” She returns a moment later, sheepish, with a bottle of orange juice and two goblets. “I forgot about the shopping issue. Mary Margaret brought this over for the cookies.”

“I don’t mind,” Regina says graciously. It’s probably best that they don’t drink tonight, anyway. The no-kissing rule is still in effect, but it won’t be for long if Emma’s as handsy as she tends to be when intoxicated. “I’ll bring you some cider when I’m over next.” 

“I don’t think I can handle your cider.” But Emma pours out the juice and they clink their cups together, sipping at it like it’s wine. “Sorry about Hook.” 

“Well, you are seeing him. There’s no need to apologize for it.” 

Emma swallows down her juice. “Not that.” She scowls. “He keeps implying that I’m sleeping with you. That this is some kind of…distraction I need to get out of my system.” 

“Ah.” She’s familiar with Hook’s take on this, one that she still isn’t entirely sure that she doesn’t believe. There’s only one person who can confirm or deny it, and she turns to watch Emma as she says, “He thinks you’re avoiding your feelings for him by pursuing me.”

Emma’s face darkens, and Regina feels quiet relief at the way Emma mumbles, “He’s a bastard. I swear, if he implies that we make this relationship a threefer one more time–“ Her voice trails off but her hand snakes out to grasp Regina’s knee, squeezing it with tension that has nothing to do with them. “Wait. You spoke to him about this?”

“He spoke to me,” Regina corrects her.

“And you and Henry talked about this.” Emma shakes her head. “Does everyone in Storybrooke know about…us?”

Her eyes are wide with distress, the idea of her business being everyone’s as always anathema to her, and Regina rubs her back consolingly. “Your father doesn’t seem aware.”

I’ve talked to him about it!” Emma says, frustrated. “I can’t talk to Mary Margaret about this, she’d freak.”

“Oh, no. She knows, and she’s…irrationally supportive.”

Which may have been the wrong thing to say, because Emma’s voice hits a higher register and she chokes out, “Mary Margaret knows? Oh my god, she’s been talking about me finding my happy ending in unexpected places for weeks now. I thought she was encouraging me to move onto the Jolly Roger with Hook.” She stares at Regina accusingly. “Are you talking to the whole town about us?” 

“No. No.” She massages her temples. “It seems that everyone who loves you has an opinion on the matter, and they all feel obligated to inform me of it.” Emma is still shaking her head wildly and Regina murmurs, “You have a lot of people who want to protect you, Emma. A lot of people worried about your happiness.” 

Emma breathes out. “And they don’t hate that…that it’s you. That we have this…thing.” 

Which is a little offensive- if understandably so- but Regina shakes her head anyway. “Not as far as I know.” 

“David thinks that Hook is better for me, but I think he’s just really invested in Hook in general.” Emma laughs. “He keeps asking me if I might just think of you as a grandmother. Or a sister. Are my parents parenting you now, too? Were you their replacement kid last year before Leo was born?” 

“Certainly not.” 

“Oh god, you were!” Emma jabs an accusing finger at her. “You all lived in that castle and you and Snow braided each other’s hair and talked about boys and fought the bad guys together. This is how you and Mom worked things out?”

She zeroes in on one word in that despicable series of suggestions that did nothappen. Most of them, anyway. Well. She had never braided Snow’s hair. Not last year, anyway. “You called Snow Mom.”

“Did I?” Emma looks startled, her brow furrowing. “Must have been a holdover from that cookie-baking session earlier. She was extra mom-like today.” She snatches the remote from the couch, idly hitting buttons. “So if you ever do win me over, are you gonna call her Mom, too?” 

“I would rather die,” Regina says easily. Emma lays her head down on her shoulder, turning on the TV and flipping channels. She doesn’t manage to stay on one for more than a minute and when she runs through all that satellite has to offer, she’s flipping back through them, Regina content to watch the flashes as they go by and feel the weight of Emma’s head on her shoulders.

This is how it could be all the time, though she thinks she’d be more impatient with Emma’s inability to stick with one channel if they’d do this every night. It’s so comfortable, so simple, so Emma that she doesn’t know how she can possibly be experiencing this even once when it’s beyond anything she’s ever deserved. She hasn’t been this content in years, sitting on a hideous carpet with her son down the hall and Emma beside her, and it terrifies her to know how little she deserves it.

“What are you thinking about?” Emma murmurs, snuggling closer.

That I can’t give this up, she thinks, but she doesn’t say that to Emma. Not when it hasn’t been granted to her in the first place. Instead, she says hesitantly, “Yesterday. You asked me if I knew what I meant to you.” 

“Oh.” Emma squirms away from her, dropping the remote in the middle of a National Geographic special on lions. They stalk around the screen, tossing their heads and growling, and Emma says, “Yeah, I guess so.” 

“I don’t.” This isn’t part of the plan to win Emma over, though she’d wondered about it all evening and today.

Emma stares at her, frowning. “Really?” She inclines her head, raising her eyebrows, and Emma sighs. “I’m not good at this stuff. But you…you’re the only person who’s ever given me…you.” She stares at the TV as the lionesses pounce on each other. “You didn’t just give me happy memories, you gave me yours. You gave me Henry, and he is everything,” she echoes words flung out at her over a year and a half ago, Regina in pain and only Emma acknowledging the singularness of it. “You gave me memories that turned you from a Disney villain without a name to a mom.”

It’s too much, offering her credit for things beyond her control. “I gave you what I had to. Not willingly.”

“You didn’t have to make me happy.” Emma touches her cheek, tracing it down to her lips. “You could have kept what was rightfully yours and let the curse fill in the blanks. But you didn’t. I’ve never had someone put me before themselves like that.” 

“I don’t want you to care about me out of gratitude.” It makes her uneasy, makes her want to scratch at her own skin and peel it off until Emma can see her for who she is. For the evil beneath the surface, the terrifying scourge she’d been who’d inadvertently made Emma all she is. (She loves this Emma and she can’t regret knowing her, even with all the pain inflicted upon her. Emma will never understand.) “I’m not your fairy godmother, offering you wishes and happily ever afters.” 

Emma looks at her like she’s the idiot. “Yes, I know that, Regina. But your memories…I think back to them all the time. I think about kissing away scraped knees and reading bedtime stories and the way it felt the first time Henry got really sick and it’s you. I’m you and I know you and I…I feel who you are.” She clears her throat. Her cheeks are hot and her face is pointed at the neon green below them. “And everything that’s happened since then…you’re always watching me. You always know when I’m…” Her voice trails off. “And you don’t pretend.” 

“Our entire first year together was built on me pretending. All our animosity–” 

Emma’s finger pauses on her lips and Regina falls silent. “Not anymore. You don’t act like you’re something else. You’re exactly who you say you are, and you don’t let me lie to you. And we…” She retracts her hand, pressing it to her side. “We’re family now, aren’t we?” 

“Breakfast,” Regina blurts out in response, and she pales and snaps her mouth shut at what she’s revealed.

Emma gives her an odd look. “Well, we’ve got the orange juice, but it’s still a little early to call it morning.” 

“No, I–“ She exhales, irritated with herself for revealing it. “It’s how I started thinking about you as…as family.” Neverland. She hadn’t thought of it as love then, hadn’t realized how deep her feelings had run, but she’d known then that Emma had been someone so much more dangerous for her than she’d have ever imagined. “I’d been thinking about Henry, about bringing him home. About all the silly, mundane things that we were going to do once he was back. I knew he’d be going home with you, but when I thought about it…I didn’t think about that.”

The lionesses on the television screen are following a zebra through the brush, silent and powerful. “And I started thinking about breakfast. And suddenly, you were there.” The zebra runs and the lions give chase. “You’d stumble down while I was frying bacon and your hair would be wet from a shower and you’d be wearing my bathrobe. And I’d give Henry his bacon and you yours and I’d kiss you both on the top of your heads and you’d probably mumble something at me about coffee and I’d make you ask properly before I gave it to you. And we’d be…” Happy. Together. She clamps her mouth shut, embarrassed at her own delusions of a domestic idyll, and she can’t quite look up at Emma’s face.

But there’s a hand on her thigh again, fingers skimming along it, and when she finally glances up, Emma is gaping at her, eyes wide with something that- if she dares believe it- looks a lot like the wistfulness when Emma had spoken about New York earlier. That yearns for something more than they’d ever believed they could have. “I loved you then,” Regina whispers. “I didn’t know it, but I loved you then.”

Emma’s lips curve and fall again and again, trembling like there’s more she doesn’t dare say. “I still…I can’t believe that someone like you would love me,” she says, and her voice is heavy with emotions that Regina can’t place. 

“Someone like me. Someone evil?” Regina guesses. “I hate to tell you, dear, but no matter how much Hook acts as though he’s–“

“Someone who loves like you,” Emma says. “I know that Hook has traded one obsession with another.” She shrugs, rolling her eyes even as they crinkle into something soft and distant. “Killing Gold, winning my hahrt.” She pronounces it in an atrocious imitation of Hook’s voice and they both wince. “It’s who he is. I don’t try to imagine it’s anything more. And my parents and Henry…they love so easily. They give out their love to everyone and expect nothing in return.”

“And how do you see me?” Her voice is rough with unshed tears, with fear at what Emma might say. “How do I love?” 

Emma smiles, her eyes shining as the lionesses disembowel a zebra in front of them. “Sparingly,” she says. “And when you do, it’s with everything you are. It’s how you define yourself, even when it hurts so much to let someone in.” She’s speaking as though she’s removed from this, as though it’s about Regina but not just Regina, and her hand slides higher up Regina’s thigh to where her dress has slid. “Loving hurts so much because without it, we’re nothing. And with it, we’re so immense, so huge…” She coughs uncomfortably. “You can be brought to your knees in an instant by the ones who make you so tall. And the people you choose to love are the ones you build yourself around, no matter how painful it is to begin that.”

“Bruised hearts,” Regina says softly, because it’s in Emma’s heart, too. It’s who they both are, scrabbling for purchase in their deep, lonely holes in the ground, galvanized only by the faces they see at the top. Their family, rocky as the path has been to that. Rocky as the path still might be.

And there’s an odd kind of reassurance in the fact that her face might someday be among those at the top of Emma’s pit, as promising as Emma casually accepting the fact that Regina might just win her over or as Emma keeping her in her home and waiting for a reason to change her mind. To allow Regina a place to hurt her a little less even as they both feel it so acutely.

Emma’s fingers settle against her abdomen, creeping a path up to press her palm to Regina’s chest above. “Still beating,” she counters.

It might break the rules, but Regina takes her hand and raises it to her own lips, brushing a kiss to Emma’s wrist as the other woman settles against her side again. “Still beating,” Regina agrees, and they drink their orange juice and watch the lionesses as they run back to their pack.

 


 


xxiv. an ever-revolving door (inside, the room is quiet)

Henry dangles the glittery little apple pendant from its chain and Leo’s eyes zero in on it with surprising intensity. “It’s just shiny,” Snow murmurs again, leaning forward and chewing on her upper lip. “That’s why he likes it. Don’t get any ideas, Regina.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Regina says innocently, and Emma darts a look her way, one that might have suggested that her gift had been poorly received if Emma hadn’t also been holding back her smirk, and she says, “When will he be old enough to eat my cooking?”

Snow shoots her another unamused glare and Henry says suddenly, “Look! He’s doing it!” 

They all turn back to the floor, where Leo has his hands in front of him as he sits forward and is carefully pulling himself closer to the necklace, slipping forward a few steps before chubby little hands grasp it and shove it into his mouth. Henry beams triumphantly, Emma claps, and Snow looks like she might cry. “I need to call David,” she announces, grabbing her phone and ducking out of the room.

“Does it really count as crawling if he’s just scooting on his ass?” Emma asks, eyeing her little brother dubiously. “It’s kind of doofy.”

“So is Snow.”  

“That’s helpful.” But Emma slides in closer to her, a hand flung carelessly across the back of the couch where Regina is perched, and tosses her a half-smile that she returns. “Thanks for inviting her tonight. She’s barely ever away from David anymore and it’s been stressing her out all day. I never want to be that codependent with anyone.” 

Regina’s eyebrows slant at her, amused. “You’ve spent every evening with me for over a week.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “That’s different.” Her phone rings and she glances at it and clicks it off for what must have been the fourth time tonight.

Regina squints at the screen, but Emma slides it away before she can see who’s calling. “How so?”

“My codependency is with your dinners. It doesn’t count if it’s inanimate.” She wiggles her own eyebrows at Regina. “How much longer do you plan on seducing me? Do I need a backup plan in case you ever decide to go camping with the boys?”

Henry covers his ears and stars humming The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, and Leo squeals and falls forward onto his stomach, legs still splayed out in front of him. Regina retrieves him and taps Henry’s shoulder. 

He glowers at them. “Mom, stop her. I’m going to be traumatized for life.”

“Emma’s not easy to control,” Regina says, frowning in an unconvincing apology. “I’ve been trying for years and have yet to keep her from doing anything she wants to.”

“Because she’s the only one flirting,” Henry mumbles, but he looks just as outraged as Emma had when she’d presented her with her ‘new housewarming gift’ and slipped the apple pendant around her neck. Which is to say, not at all.

Regina rubs his shoulder. “You have a strong background dealing with these idiots. I have faith in your ability to cope with her. Are you all packed up?”

“Pretty much,” he says, his lips twitching downward, which in Henryspeak means I’m thinking about starting.

She narrows her eyes at him. “Robin will be here any minute to pick you up. Go. Pack.” This overnight forest retreat had been an idea from the sheriff’s department, an organized camping trip for the Lost Boys and any other children who’d wanted to come along, and while she has her reservations- foremost among them the fact that Henry had lived this camping trip for an agonizing week once that had left him almost dead- most of Henry’s class is going and she trusts Robin to look after him.

“David could have taken him,” Emma says when Henry scampers upstairs. “I don’t know why you insisted that Robin–“ 

“Robin wanted to do this with him. He’d nearly been his stepfather, if you recall.” She holds Leo up so wobbly legs can support him on her lap. “And some of David’s shining examples at looking after Henry include giving him the driver’s seat to his truck, allowing him to run off and try to stop some very volatile magic–“ 

“Are you talking about the time he stopped you from killing me and Mary Margaret?”

“–And losing him to two sociopaths who kidnapped him. So forgive me if I’d rather he had a more reliable father figure in his life,” she finishes, glaring at Emma.

Emma cocks her head. “Are you still mad that David thinks Hook is better for me than you?”

She sits back against the couch with a sulky huff. “I don’t care what he thinks. Regardless of what I’ve done for him- I saved his life half a year ago. I let him live in my castle! I didn’t even kill him any of the dozens of times that I could have- he’s entitled to his opinions.”

“Okay, Regina.” Emma’s arm drops from the back of the couch to rest on her shoulders. “You know he does like you, right? He’s just having trouble with the whole woman-who-made-my-wife’s-life-hell-wants-to-defile-my-daughter thing. Reasonable.” 

She leans her head against Emma’s shoulder, tracing a path up her sweater to the bottom of the v-neck. Emma’s skin is hot against her knuckle, her breathing suddenly more irregular, as easy to set off as always. “Does he know about the defiling part, then?” she hums, dragging her fingers along the edge of the neckline.

Emma inhales. “My mom is a room away, Regina. And…and…we’re not doing this, right? Though…I guess if it’s not…” She closes her eyes, struggling to get the words out, and the doorbell rings.

Regina’s fingers still, half-tucked under Emma’s sweater. “That’ll be Robin. I should–“ 

“I really fucking hate that guy,” Emma mumbles, slumping against the back of the couch and just out of Regina’s reach.

She stands up with one last longing glance at the expanse of skin between Emma’s neck and sweater and for a minute there, she kind of hates him, too. Not that this would have been a good idea at all. Snow would return, Emma would panic, and they’d be three steps back again. But she’s a master at teasing, at leaving her target wanting more, and with Emma she barely needs to try.

Somehow, the trouble with Emma is that she’s left wanting more, that she just wants to stalk back into her living room and get back to what they’d been doing, and she has to stare at herself in the foyer mirror until she’s satisfied that her smile has settled into something a bit less obvious when she opens the door.

“Regina!” A little voice shouts, and Roland is hurling himself through the doorway and attaching himself to her legs. He beams up at her. “C’you read me a story?” 

She crouches down to his level, balancing Leo against her and tipping his chin up so he’s looking at her. “I would love to, but I think you’re on your way to a big sleepover party with lots of friends, yes?” 

He bobs his head. “And Henry!”

“That’s right.” She gestures to the stairs. “Would you like to go get him?” 

Robin smiles after him, and she nods to him, jerky and contained. “Can I get you something to drink? Would you like to come inside?” 

“Ah, I…I don’t think that’s necessary,” he says, smiling so genially that it comes over as as false as it probably is. “Emma mentioned that she’d be here this evening.”

“Snow’s here too,” she says hastily. “It’s not just…” She shifts from side to side, her voice trailing off. “We’re not…”

“Regina.” A hand is laid on her arm. “You don’t owe excuses to me. I’m glad you’re pursuing your own happiness now.” He looks more genuine now, light eyes gentle and earnest, and she flushes. “Even if it isn’t with me.” 

His face falls just a hair and she starts guiltily. “There’s nothing keeping you from doing the same. I wouldn’t begrudge you it if you wanted to move on.” There’s still a spark of jealousy that lights up when she thinks about it, a faint resentment. They’re still soulmates, still bound to each other, and a tiny selfish part of her still doesn’t want him, but doesn’t want to share, either.

It’s irrational and she pushes it aside, clearing her throat and smiling awkwardly. “Have you ever spoken to Ruby Lucas from the diner? I think you two have some common ground. And she’s–“ 

“Please.” Robin squeezes the arm that isn’t holding Leo. “I have no interest in finding someone new. I’d never dreamed I would love again after my wife passed, and then…you were magnificent. Utterly so.” He offers her a sad smile. She flushes and looks away. “I’m content with my men and my son now. I have no need for diversions.”

“I’m sorry,” she says. She thinks she’s said it every time she’s seen him since they’d ended things, and it’s getting old. But what else is there to respond? “Sometimes it’s only…opening our hearts to love that changes us. That makes us more.” She remembers Daniel, a pained voice gasping Then love again as his final gift. She’d never allowed herself to think any more of it, not until a year spent ruminating on what he’d meant by that. Not until she’d thought of Emma and her heart had hurt like she’d lost so much more than just Henry and Emma apart.

“Sometimes all we need is our children to love,” Robin murmurs, and they both turn to watch Henry and Roland descend the stairs, a backpack slung over Henry’s shoulder and one of his old stuffed animals in Roland’s fist.

“Yes,” she agrees, and they share another set of half smiles as Henry ducks under Robin’s arm and shouts, “Bye, Ma! Bye, Grams!” She gets a quick hug and Robin leads them to his car and she settles against the doorpost, watching them drive off.

You were magnificent, Robin says, and he doesn’t say it as so many had addressed her as queen in the past. He isn’t talking about magic or presence or sheer power, and the idea of someone looking at her and seeing magnificence in the person she is now- just a woman, no longer larger than life- is enough to make her quake. 

And there are two people in her house right now who see the same woman and haven’t found her wanting, have managed to look past the person she still is deep down and accept her as their family. It’s jarring to imagine it and truly internalize it, and she holds Leo tight and stares out into the distance, frowning.

Her frown deepens into a glower when she sees the figure swaggering toward her house, black leather blotting out the setting sun as he approaches. “The Rabbit Hole is down that way,” she drawls, sweeping a hand somewhere in the direction of the center of town. “Have you gotten confused?” 

Hook smirks at her. “I’m here to see Emma. I presume she’s inside?” He makes to walk past her and hits an instant magical barrier in the doorway, sending sparks flying and stumbling half off the porch.

“I don’t recall inviting you in,” Regina says smoothly.

“Got it, Majesty.” He rubs the back of his neck, unfazed. “So…then, why don’t you go summon Emma here?” 

“She isn’t here,” Regina snaps out, and Hook’s left eyebrow hovers somewhere millimeters away from his hairline. She falters but firms her lips and offers him a cold stare, and he leers at her as though he knows exactly what she’s up to.

“You’ve been spending every night with her since she moved. Funny coincidence, that.” He sways back, careful of the doorway, but moves closer to her. She can smell rum on his breath, not enough for him to be inebriated, but enough for him to think nothing of picking a fight with a powerful witch. Apparently. “One might think you’re trying to keep my lady from me.” 

She shifts Leo to the other arm, further from Hook. “Emma can do whatever she wants to. Have you tried calling her? Meeting her at home? Has she been looking for you?” He stares at her with sudden consternation and she understands very clearly that Emma hasn’t, that he’s the one Emma’s been rejecting calls from. That he’s the one ringing the doorbell at Emma’s apartment when Emma tells her to ignore it.

She’d almost feel sorry for him if not for the dozens of reasons not to. It’s not as though he hasn’t seen this coming. And she has no respect for those who underestimate and undermine her as he’s done time and again. He has no right to Emma, no right to barge into her home to demand her company, and he’s been reduced in her mind only to obstacle.

She smiles, coldly civil. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have company.”

He holds up a hand. “Wait. Are you two…have you truly…” His voice trails off and he looks so befuddled, so taken aback, that she does pity him. He’s thrown himself into a relationship where he professes to know Emma, where he’s been so convinced that she’d love him back if he were only persistent enough, and instead she’s only recognized him for who he is. An obsessed pirate, seeking treasure that no longer wants to be pursued.

“There’s nothing,” she says. It’s mild even if her eyes still glint with challenge. “Not yet. Talk to her.” He looks at her as though she’s suddenly his accomplice, a new partner in crime, and her lip curls. Time to reset her boundaries. “Go do…whatever it is you do with your time, Captain. Take a bath with some toy boats and pretend you’re looting far-off vessels.” She turns to close the door and stops midway to flash Hook a chilly smile. “Or perhaps a cold shower.”

The door clicks closed on Hook’s scowl, and she leans against it to hold Leo a little higher when she hears her name from the next room.

She moves closer, fiddling with the mail on the foyer table and setting Leo down on the floor where he can scrape little fingers against the leather of her boots as she listens. “…talking with Killian,” Snow is saying. “I wonder what he’s doing here.”

She can practically hear Emma’s shrug. “Looking for me, probably. Regina’s been monopolizing all my time lately so I don’t see him.” Regina stands stiff, startled, as Emma snickers. “She’s been acting like it’s all about dinner, but you know Regina on the warpath. All the subtlety of a sledgehammer hitting a butterfly.”

Snow chuckles and Regina can’t quite keep her own lips from slanting upward. Well, then. She shouldn’t be surprised that Emma’s onto her, but it does beg the question-

“And you’re just…playing along?” Snow echoes Regina’s question. “Don’t you want to see Killian?” 

If Regina peers into her foyer mirror at just the right angle, she can see half of Emma’s shoulder, lifted in a second, uncertain shrug. “I don’t know what I want to do right now. And I don’t think being around Hook when I’m figuring stuff out is a good idea.”

Snow persists. “But you will be around Regina. Emma, you’ve been talking about this camping trip for weeks. This was your brainchild. And you skipped it to…what, drink wine with Regina and watch your brother?”

“I like wine more than I like mosquitos,” Emma protests, but it sounds forced to Regina’s ears. A persuasion that isn’t working on anyone, much less herself. Emma sighs. “Look, Regina says that you have…some idea that…”

“That you have feelings for her. And that she’s in love with you,” Snow says knowingly. Regina purses her lips, irritated at the easy revelation of what she’d told the other woman. Trust Snow White to be so quick to give away something that precious. At least she’d told Emma beforehand.

Emma, whose eyes are still on her mother as Regina watches them. “Yeah. That’s what she says.” Her feet are tapping against the floor, drumming a beat that Regina can feel from the next room. “I can’t believe you’re so okay with this. That you don’t care that…” She swallows.

“That she’s a woman?” Snow exhales a short breath, a puff of laughter within it. “Emma, I’m not surprised that you’re interested in women. I’ve seen your footwear.”

Hilarious, Mo-“ Emma chokes on the word and manages a strained, “Mary Margaret,” instead. “I meant that she’s Regina. You guys used to hate each other.”

“Not in the conventional ways.” Regina can imagine Snow’s eyes glinting with amusement. “To be honest, after I realized what I was seeing, I ran out to the woods with my bow for hours. Getting rid of all that excess stress from knowing that.” Regina’s brow raises. This sounds more like the Snow she knows than the supportive one she’d spoken to before. Angry, out for blood, visualizing her face on the tree trunks. “And once I’d finally come to terms with your feelings, I’d thought that she loved Robin so much that you’d be hurt in the end.”

Her voice takes on a note of wonder. “And then she left him for you.”

“No, she didn’t,” Emma mumbles, but Snow doesn’t respond to it. 

“It might not have been my first choice for you- for either of you- but maybe it’s the best one. Maybe you’re both what the other needs. You’ve taken such good care of each other.”

There’s a sharp intake of breath, and when Regina dares glance in the mirror again, Emma is staring away from her at Snow, her eyes as wide as they’d been when Regina had told her she’d loved her. “I thought you’d be disappointed in me,” she whispers, the hushed sound carrying through the house.

Regina turns around, foregoing the mirror to look into the room and watch as Snow takes Emma’s hands in hers, her face shining with sincerity. “Oh, Emma, I could never be disappointed in you for following your heart. Wherever it leads you.”

Emma bursts into tears, ragged and harsh and shuddery, and Regina would have run into the room right then if Snow hadn’t looked up at that moment and held up a warning hand. “Emma,” she croons, gathering the other woman onto her lap. Even without the age difference, they’ve never looked more like mother and child, Snow’s chin tucked over Emma’s bowed head as she pulls her closer to her. “I worry sometimes that you’re thinking more about what others want from you than about what you want for yourself.”

Emma’s still crying, shaking in her mother’s arms like a child, and she pulls away to stare at her mother. “I didn’t- I didn’t think-“

“We love you, Emma.” Snow is close to tears too, her eyes damp as she presses her lips to Emma’s forehead. “We’re always going to love you. No matter where you live. Or who’s in your life. Or whoever else we might love.” She glances toward Leo, wrapped around Regina’s leg in the doorway, and Emma hastily rubs at her eyes when she meets Regina’s gaze. “When I was pregnant with you…I’d only dreamed that you could become the person you are. Beautiful, kind, and so, so giving. Always giving. Always fighting for everyone else.”

“Indeed,” Regina says softly, her eyes still on Emma.

Emma flushes furiously and swipes at her face again. “You’ve both called me selfish dozens of times. And you were right. I’m not the hero you keep telling me I am. I’m not some savior. It’s just a name.”

“And yet you always put us first,” Snow says, an arm still lingering around Emma. “You always try so hard to be who you think we want you to be. But all we’ve ever wanted is you.”

Emma’s twitching, one more tearful admission away from fleeing the room, and Regina says dryly, “Though you’ve been known to be insufferable when it comes to Henry.” Her eyebrow quirks and Emma squints at her through wet eyes. “I can’t say that I’ve been much better, though. He brings out the worst in us.”

“And the best.” Emma’s voice is small, but her eyes are so warm that Regina shudders beneath them.

She lifts Leo and makes her way back to the couches, sitting opposite Emma and her mother. “That he does.”

“You’re both insufferable,” Snow agrees moments too late, as though she isn’t by far the most impossible woman in the room. They both direct startled glares at her, the tension in the room ratcheting back down to zero, and she returns with an enigmatic smile as she lets Emma go and stands. “Why don’t I get the wine?”

Emma’s phone rings again, and she glances at it and straightens, her face taut and tense at what she sees on the screen. “I actually…I really should get this.” She does duck out of the room then, heading for the front porch with phone in hand.

Chapter Text

xxv. a series of dates (and excessive nudity, but no one’s complaining)

“Emma, why am I-“ She stops short as she enters the bedroom. “-here, exactly?” she finishes, a moment too late. 

“Oh, good.” Emma turns and Regina gapes at her, blinks down and can’t quite pull her eyes back up. “You can help me pick something to wear.” She wraps one arm around her middle just below her chest and Regina tears her eyes from somewhere south of there and manages one long, slow once-over while Emma squirms under her gaze. 

Her very appreciative gaze. “I think this will do quite nicely.” 

Emma rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I’m going to The Rabbit Hole in my underwear. I’ll be the most popular girl there.”

 

Once, the day after they’d first met, Regina had filled up a basket of apples and taken them to Granny’s as a thinly veiled threat. And then Emma had opened her door in a tank top and panties and she’d promptly forgotten exactly what she’d been there for. She’d gone on and on about apples until she’d found her bearings again, forcing herself not to look down or think any more about the woman she’d desperately wanted gone.

Today she has no such compunctions, not when all her cards are on the table and she never has been all that skilled at subtlety, and her eyes rove again to the soft swell of Emma’s breasts peeking out under dark lace, to a well-defined abdomen and the curve of her hips and a surprising preponderance of freckles dotting-

-A full-body blush that only gets deeper the longer that Regina rakes her eyes along the curves of Emma’s skin. “You want us to go out for drinks when we can stay in? Like this?”

She takes a step forward, stalking closer to Emma as though magnetically drawn, and Emma scoots backward. “Uh. Actually…I kind of agreed to go out tonight with Hook, I guess. Someone told him to ask me out.” She glares at Regina.

Regina’s eyes darken, and it’s easier now to look away and glare right back at Emma. “I did not!” 

“He seems to think you implied it. And I felt bad, okay? You and Mary Margaret kept talking about how noble and selfless I am and I’ve been avoiding the poor guy for a week and…we’re  dating, right?” 

“Are you asking me for a confirmation of your relationship status?” She wants to be furious, to seethe at Emma’s insensitivity in asking her over for this, but she’s truthfully too befuddled by the decision in the first place to start raging in full. “Did you invite me here to vet your clothing choices for Hook?”

“No!” Emma shakes her head. “I…I wanted…” She sighs. “I don’t know.” 

Regina peers through the closet behind Emma, wrinkling her nose at some of Emma’s more…creative clothing choices. Are those plaid pants on the shelf? “Here,” she says curtly. She retrieves the loosest long-sleeved turtleneck she can find and a pair of loose pants. “Wear these.”

“And here I thought you wanted me in my underwear.” But Emma pulls them on anyway, staring at her reflection in the mirror. “I’m sorry. I’m not being as obnoxious as this sounds. Or maybe I am.”

“You are,” Regina confirms archly, turning to leave the room. The irritation is swelling, frustration with Emma and her indecision and being involved in it like this rising, and she doesn’t want to be here, getting angrier with her with every moment.

“I just…wanted to give you a fighting chance.” Regina turns. Emma stands in the doorway, fingers slanted against the doorposts and lips pressed together as she ducks her head. She looks so young like this, tentative and uncomfortable with her own audacity. “You know, if you wanted it.” She manages a smirk that emerges more like a grimace. “Aren’t you supposed to be seducing me?” 

And that might have been a whole new level of obnoxiousness if not for the uncertainty on her face, the eyes that don’t quite meet Regina’s that she’s come to recognize as Emma unsure if she’s worth it, after all. Emma embarrassed to ever acknowledge her effect on the people who love her. 

Emma looking for reasons to escape this night.

“Yes,” she says, her face softening as she pauses just outside the kitchen. “I’m seducing you.”

Unmistakable relief floods Emma’s face and she retorts, “Well, you’re not doing a very good job of it if you’re going to let me get drinks with some guy.”

“Emma.” She steps gingerly forward, eyes still locked on Emma’s as though the other woman might break away and flee any second now. There’s still tension wearing at her face, pulling at her features as she stares at Regina, and this feels like another crossroads for them, a point where they can move forward again. Where Emma can choose for herself. “Do you want to go out with Hook tonight?”

And something firms on Emma’s face, the eyes staring out at Regina suddenly uncertain no more. They’re strong and rueful, and Emma drops her hands to twist together in front of her and admits, “Not particularly, no.”

“Then don’t.” There are two glasses drying next to the sink, left out after their last night here, and Regina moves to retrieve them. Emma follows, padding behind her in socked feet. “We’ll stay here and drink wine and we could sit on Ruby’s rug and it’d still be an upgrade from the Rabbit Hole.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Emma slumps against the counter, knocking her head against the cabinets above it. “I just feel so bad about it. You guys kept talking about how great I am and meanwhile I’m ignoring calls from my boyfriend because I don’t really want to spend time with him when I can do dinner with you and Henry every night. And then I started making promises to him that I can’t…” She bangs her head against the counter again. “I’m trying to do this right. I’m trying to give him what he deserves.”

“I’ve found that that word doesn’t hold much water when you’re talking about murderers and villains,” Regina murmurs. He deserves just as little as she does, nothing but years drowning in the misery they’ve inflicted on others. And if Emma Swan might deign to be with one of them, it’ll be stunningly beyond what they’d ever deserve.

But Emma is shaking her head. “That is bullcrap.” She says it with the fierceness of the good, and she’s never looked more like her mother than she does tonight. “You don’t get written off because you’ve done terrible things in the past. You don’t automatically get dragged through the dirt and rejected and forced to be alone. Maybe redemption is also bull, I don’t know. But who you are now matters a hell of a lot more than who you were.”

“And you think those people should ever be happy? After all the pain they’ve caused?”

Emma pulls away from the counter to lean against the fridge opposite her. “Do you think I was always one of the good guys? I’ve done some…really crappy things. I came out of prison angry and hurting and I spent years lashing out at the people around me because of it. I had some seriously questionable relationships.” She shrugs. “And then I came here and found people who loved me and if I start second-guessing whether or not anyone deserves common decency from anyone else, I’d have to start with myself.” Regina can’t seem to look away, and Emma says self-consciously, “What?”

She replies with as much honesty as she can manage. “I’d really like to kiss you right now.” It’s so Emma, unwilling to deny the past but uncompromising on accepting the present. It’s irrational and it’s more than she’d offer herself, but Emma has always given her more.

Emma still gives her more, and the blonde lurches forward across the kitchen in one swift move, taking her hands and letting them swing together with hers where they’re joined. She leans forward as Regina does, pressing their foreheads together. “I wish you would,” she whispers. “I wish I didn’t still feel like…like…” She squeezes Regina’s hand. “You know.”

The doorbell rings before she can respond, and Emma’s hands tighten on hers. “Can you go down there for me?”

“Are you serious?” Because she would. She’d storm down there and fend Hook off and spend the rest of the night basking in her victory. But this isn’t a battle between her and Hook, and this isn’t a competition with a winner and loser. This is Emma’s life, Emma’s decisions, and she has as little a part in them as Emma had gotten in Regina’s.

“Nah, I think I need to talk to him.” Emma sighs. “He’s done so much for me. I owe him a conversation about where this is going, at least. And I can’t avoid him forever.”  She drops Regina’s hands with reluctance, dragging her feet as she heads for the stairs, and Regina doesn’t move from her spot, idly examining the glasses she’d left on the counter as she listens.

“You’re a vision today, my lady,” Hook is saying. “Though your footwear leaves something to be desired.” 

“Oh.” There’s a pause from downstairs, a faint metallic twang like a hand settling on the bannister, and Emma says, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. I don’t think I can make it tonight.”

“I see.” Another pause, then that accented voice bellows out, “Regina! I know you’re up there!” As though he’s calling a dog. Or a dolphin. Whatever it is pirates shout about. She’s a queen, and she stands stiffly in the kitchen, refusing to respond to it.

Emma sounds annoyed when she speaks again. “Stop it. Yeah, she’s upstairs. It’s not what you think.”

“And what what is it that I think?” His tone is somewhere between mocking and demanding, grand exasperation to match Emma’s, and Regina scowls at her reflection in the glass.

“I don’t know, that I’m carrying on some secret affair with Regina? I’m not.” 

“So you’re denying that there are feelings.”

“No,” Emma says, and Regina calmly places the glass down and wraps her fingers around the edge of the sink so tightly that the metal folds inward under her magic-powered hands. “We’re friends. Yeah, there are…there are feelings. But we’re not sleeping together.”

“That’s even worse, aye.” Hook sounds dismayed. “After all this time, you’ve fallen for another?” 

“Killian…” There’s some shifting going on down there, stairs creaking as they move, and Regina lets go of the sink to step out into the main room. She can see them out under the landing at the bottom of the steps, Emma perched two steps higher than Hook as she looks down at him. “I can’t go on a date with you and pretend that I have feelings I don’t, and I respect both of us too much to try. I’m not great at being someone I’m not.” Her voice is soft, her words quietly beseeching. It’s Emma’s gentlest tone, one Regina isn’t all that familiar with. She suspects that it’s pity, not compassion, that drives it, and she’s glad not to know it.

Hook is unmoved by it. “That’s it? I’d never thought you’d give up so easily.” The words are biting, a challenge for Emma to take, and Regina can see the way she recoils at them.

Emma leans back against the wall, glancing up once at Regina. Regina offers her a wan smile and she takes a deep breath. “Killian, my whole life has been built around the fact that I have this…this obligation. That I’m the savior. That it defines me and it’s something I can never escape. And I don’t ever want to feel so obligated into loving someone.” She touches his hand, still gentle in her rejection but firm all the same, and he slumps against the rail.

Regina’s torn somewhere between feeling as though this isn’t her conversation to eavesdrop on and utter distaste at the idea of listening to Emma profess her enduring affection for Hook, and as Emma begins, “I will always care about you,” she heads for Henry’s bedroom, far enough from the door that she won’t have to hear their conversation.

She leafs through the books he has packed on the shelves. Most are from his time in New York, his life there moved to weekends here, while his old favorites are still at home in the mansion. There are a surprising amount of mysteries, of adventure novels, even a few classics tucked behind a battered copy of Holes.

No Harry Potter or Narnia or Pullman. She kneels on the floor, eyes on the bookcase, and she wonders what it had been in Henry’s real childhood that had made him believe in the fantastic- and what in the memories she’d given him had had him stop longing for fairytales.

The only book that he keeps here that isn’t from that year is the one that matters, the heavy book titled Once Upon a Time sitting on top of the bookcase. He doesn’t carry it around anymore, not now that they’ve found peace within their little town, but it’s still displayed in a position of prominence, half leaning against the wall behind it. 

There’s solace in that book, lambasted as she’d been within it, and in the reassurance that they’re all only stories sometimes, one-sided and two-dimensional as those tales are. She smiles faintly at the book like they’re sharing a secret together- only stories, and what they do when they’re real is what matters- and carefully opens it.

Flat against the first page is a loose photo, one from only a few months ago on Emma’s birthday. They’d had that barbecue with Robin and Hook and forced themselves to ignore the other’s significant other and Regina had almost kissed Emma on the steps outside Snow’s apartment building. 

But this picture is before that, during the barbecue itself when Henry had been wandering around with a phone new enough that he’d still been eager to photograph every event. She can see Roland in the background, peering up at the barbecue, and Hook and Robin both bent over it. And she and Emma are sitting on the glider on the patio, turned to each other and talking.

It’s easy to see how Henry had come to the conclusions he had from this photo. She’s leaning forward in it, her face suffused with the light of the sun setting to her left, and every last bit of her is shining with affection for Emma. You smile at Emma like it hurts, Henry had said once, and her forehead is creased in the photo, her eyes round and lidded like she’s pained but grateful all the same.

And Emma is lit up with the same sunbeams, talking animatedly and frozen in time, one hand gesticulating and the other on Regina’s arm. She can feel it burning into her skin even now, a warm weight against her wrist, and she stares at Emma’s face, at the way her eyes crinkle at their edges and there’s a little dimple on her cheek and she looks so happy, like it’s so simple in that moment and they’re only Emma and Regina, captured in a moment where there’s nothing stopping them from being. Just being.

“I had Henry print a copy of that picture for me,” Emma says from the doorway.

Regina turns. Emma looks worn out, pale and drawn and small again, and she manages a smile and murmurs, “I just broke up with Hook.”

“Good,” Regina says immediately, and then remembers that she has other duties as a friend. “I’m sorry, that was a bit too…honest.”

But Emma’s smiling at her and holding out her hand. “Thanks, Regina.”

“I didn’t do anything.” She takes the hand and stands, replacing the photo in the book and propping it back up where it belongs. “What do you want to do now?”

Emma bumps against her as they exit the room, her hand is still grasping Regina’s as she leads her into the kitchen. “I want to eat ice cream with you and talk until we pass out on the couch.” 

“That I can do.” 

Emma’s ice cream is, of all the improbable flavors, chocolate marshmallow ripple and obscenely heavy. Well. She’d agreed that Emma would eat ice cream, not that she would.

The seat of the couch behind Ruby’s rug slants downward, and she follows Emma to it. There’s no way she’s going to be able to sit properly on it, and instead she perches awkwardly at the edge of it until Emma says, “Come on, Regina,” and she’s tugged into the dip of it, curling her legs under her like Emma has and leaning against the cushioned back as they face each other.

“He told me that no one was going to love me like he does,” Emma says abruptly. “That he’d give up everything he has to ‘gain my favor’.”

“Love like that is dangerous, dear.” She pokes at the ice cream with her spoon, wrinkling her nose at the white marshmallow running through it. “Love isn’t sacrifice, trading away all you are for the expectation of reciprocation.”

“What is it, then?” Emma snatches the spoon from her and lifts it to Regina’s lips, eyes glazing over as Regina licks the spoon. Which she may have swirled her tongue around a few extra times. It’s about seducing Emma. Not because the ice cream is any good. 

She licks her lips and retrieves her spoon, digging in again. “I don’t know. Hope, I suppose. Shared hope in a better future.”

“You make it sound so grim.” 

She spares a smile for Emma, eyes softening at the thought of the love she’s known. Henry. Daniel. Emma herself. “It doesn’t have to be.”

“Doesn’t it?” Emma carves circles in the ice cream, winding them tighter and tighter until there’s a narrow little tornado driven into the tub. “You got your fairytale romance. I got a guy who decided that he was redeemed with my kiss and quit his villainy. We got the same cliche romances that every heroine does in the stories. And now we’re alone anyway.”

“Please.” Regina scoffs. “You’re better off without that pirate. He was never meant to be your story.”

Emma looks at her from under too-long-to-be-real eyelashes. “You really hate him, don’t you?” 

“He’s a lecherous fool. Of course I hate him.” But Emma only tilts her head, regarding her silently, and she admits reluctantly, “I didn’t always hate him.”

“What happened?” Emma digs out the center of her tornado and licks it clean. “Come on, I’m post-breakup now. I’m pretty sure you’re obligated to tell me what an asshole Hook is.” 

“Mm. Is that why you’ve been calling Robin names for weeks?”

Emma looks sheepish. “No, I just have some…residual resentment. We get along fine as long as we’re bickering while we work together.” There’s something possessive within her that goes dark at the thought of it, at no one bickers with Emma but me, and she rolls her eyes at her own absurdity and moves forward.

“Hook took advantage of me.” Emma’s eyes go wide and Regina shoves at her knee. “Not like that. He used my mother’s name to win me to his side when I was grieving.” She remembers being desperate to believe that someone out there had felt any affection for her mother. That all she’d wanted back then was to cling to Mother’s final words and love her as she had for so long- untainted and without the doubt that accompanies her memories of Cora now. 

“And then he set me down to be tortured and walked out when they asked him to flick the switch.” She drops her spoon into the tub, feeling too sick to keep eating. “I didn’t trust him. I didn’t expect him to have honor.” She hadn’t been surprised when he’d left, only resigned to being alone to die without any rescuer. And she’d been stunned then when Snow had brought her back, when Henry had hugged her, when Emma had refused to let her die. There had been people who’d cared about her still, regardless of a thousand mistakes made, and they’d been good in ways she can’t compare to.

In ways Hook can’t compare to. “And a day later he’s part of the gang,” she finishes bitterly.

“Oh, Regina.” Emma is staring at her with so much compassion and sorrow that she wants to push her away, to force her to stop looking when all its doing is making words scratch at her throat, struggling to claw their way out. 

“You drank to him!” she snarls out, and frustrated tears spring to her eyes. “He did one good thing and you drank to him and you kissed him and you never doubted him again.” The tears are spilling out of her eyes, hot and quick and much too much, and she isn’t even crying. She doesn’t feel it in her throat or her chest or anywhere but her eyes, blurry and raw from tears. “I absorbed a death curse for you and barely days later you called me murderer!” 

She’s done a hell of a lot more to Snow’s family than Hook ever had and she’s had her regressions and rationally she knows all of that. But she isn’t rational right now, she’s bitter and tired and love isn’t sacrifice but she’d spent so much time sacrificing all she is to be a part of this damned family. To gain back love that she’d lost long before. And Hook had done one unselfish act and gotten it all in the blink of an eye.

She nearly expects Emma to point out all the flaws in her argument, to remind her of how much she’d done to them before she’d started saving their lives. Before she’d given up all she had because it had been the right thing to do. And she sits in silence, tears running down her cheeks and awaiting judgement, and Emma Swan- good, kind Emma, who’s stronger than any of the heroes of Henry’s book- reaches for her instead and gathers her in her arms. “Oh, Regina,” she whispers again, stroking her hair like she’s a child. 

She’s never been held like this before, gentle and undemanding. And Emma’s clumsy enough in it that Regina knows that she’s never done this kind of holding before either. But she clings to Regina, holding her to her and refusing to let go, and Regina has never felt warmer. “I think about Archie all the time,” she murmurs. “If I’d gone with my gut, if I’d trusted you…we might not have lost you to Cora.”

“You didn’t lose me to my mother,” she admits blankly, resting her head against Emma’s heart. “I was going to go show you that- to tell you about her. To let you know that I’d been framed. And when I finally made it to Snow’s apartment, you’d left with Henry and…” She pulls her knees up over Emma’s sprawled legs, hugging herself closer. Emma’s hands tighten around her. “I didn’t have anyone left to fight for.” 

Emma doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t apologize and she doesn’t shoot accusations at her, she doesn’t have excuses and she doesn’t have a laundry list of Regina’s atrocities on hand. But her fingers slide across Regina’s back and her lips press to Regina’s forehead and nothing more needs to be spoken, anyway. 

“I’m sorry,” Regina finally mutters. “We were supposed to be discussing your breakup.” 

Emma traces tornadoes on her back, winding them ever more tightly. “I’m feeling a lot better about it now, actually. Turns out my boyfriend was kind of a dick to the mother of my child.”

“Well, I wasn’t perfect to him.”

“Really?” 

She smiles at the memory. “I pushed him into a pit to fight Maleficent.” 

“Yeah, but you do that to all the cute ladies in town.”

“Mm.” She hums in approval, one hand of Emma’s still stroking her back while the second darts back into the ice cream. “Fair point. But he wasn’t nearly as cute as the last lady I’d sent off dragon-slaying.” 

“Damn straight.”

“He told me that he’d been plotting with Owen all along, and he’d considered switching sides before I pushed him in. As though it was my fault he didn’t redeem himself.”

“Huh.” Emma sucks thoughtfully on her spoon. “He did the same thing to me, actually.”

She blinks up at her in surprise. “No.” 

“Yes!” Emma rolls her eyes. “I left him behind up this beanstalk- it’s a long story- and he went back to Cora and locked me up and insisted that it was all on me.”

“Rude.” And there’s a part of her that’s still irritable at the thought that Hook had stillbeen reintegrated into the group. “I don’t know what you ever saw in him.” 

Emma shrugs. “He’s been good to me since then, most of the time. He’s still the closest friend I’ve ever had.” She sounds a little wistful about it. “It felt good to be so wanted. What?” She frowns at Regina, stiff in her arms and pulling away.

“The closest friend you’ve ever had?” she repeats, her eyes narrowing.

Emma sighs dramatically. “God, Regina, you’re so touchy. You’re not my friend, you’re…trying to seduce me. It’s different. Though I guess he was doing that too, so maybe it does count, but-“ She bites her lip, suddenly unsure. “How are you seducing me, by the way? Has the non-food portion of it started yet? Is this what this necklace was for?” She fiddles with the apple pendant, running her fingers over its sparkling little jewels.

“Idiot,” Regina says, not without affection. “I haven’t been bribing you into dating me. I’m working on the tried-and-true method instead.”

“Tried how? Tried by who?” 

She tilts her head, and she doesn’t even try to hold back a brilliant smile. “By you, you idiot. I’ve been doing what you’ve done for me.”

“And what exactly is that?” Emma squints suspiciously at her. “You’re not planning on taking a chainsaw to my apartment, are you?”

She chooses to ignore the last bit. “Supporting you,” she says simply. “Unconditionally so.” She doesn’t doubt Emma’s attraction to her, but that’s not what she’s after in the long run. Attraction isn’t enough to sustain what she wants from Emma. And she loves her too much to lose her by forcing a move on her end. “Being…present, whenever you need me. As right now.”

Emma’s lips part and she stares at her for a long moment, breathing lightly and her face frozen in an expression Regina doesn’t recognize on her. “That is kind of sexy,” she murmurs, reaching out to press a light palm to Regina’s cheek.

Longing. That’s what the look on Emma’s face is. Potent desire, made all the more stronger by the emotions behind it. “I keep waiting for you to say the right thing,” she admits, and Regina’s heart skips a beat. “To make me feel like I wasn’t second-best to Robin and to make me believe that you aren’t settling for me.” She stares down at her lap for a moment. “I think…part of me knew that I was just keeping Hook on the back burner while I waited for you, and it wasn’t fair to him. And now he’s gone and I’m still waiting.”

“I don’t think there is something,” Regina says honestly. “I can’t change the past, Emma. I can’t undo my decisions and I don’t think I would.” 

Emma blinks up at her, wide-eyed and confused at the denial. “That’s real helpful,” she says dryly, and Regina can see the hurt thudding at her heart like a physical thing.

Regina catches her hand before she can pull it away. “You know I grew up in a different world than you.” 

“Yeah.” But Emma’s eyes are defiant again, glaring out at her like there isn’t a word she says that’ll change any of it. “I know.”

She can feel her voice thickening, can speak through new wetness, and suddenly this all feels very urgent to explain. To share, to make Emma understand why she can’t understand. “I didn’t have choices, Emma. I didn’t have freedom to pick what I wanted to be. I was backed against wall after wall until I finally lashed out, and then I was constrained to a whole new prison I’d built for myself. It’s never even occurred to me to fight something as blatant as destiny.”

Emma is listening now, eyes still narrowed but silent. Regina lifts her shoulders in a tiny inhale and then lets them slump. “I ran from Robin the first time I saw him and then spent so long without love that I’d known that he was all I’d be able to have. That I had no choice but to be with him in the end. And I don’t think I ever would have believed otherwise- I still don’t know if I do,” she confesses. “Even if I’d tried to be with you instead. And I know that none of that is enough to make you feel like you were always my first choice, because I’d never dared to believe in a choice to begin with.” 

Emma doesn’t say anything, and Regina stands, brushing sofa residue off her clothes. “I should go home,” she says reluctantly. “Robin is due to bring Henry back in the morning.” 

“Yeah.” Emma climbs off the couch, trailing behind her as she makes her way to the door. “Thanks for coming.” She looks worn again, as wan as she’d been after breaking up with Hook, newly burdened with the impossibility of what she wants from Regina. She doesn’t smile and her face is tense with contemplation, though Regina doesn’t know of what.

Regina’s got her hand on the railing when she hesitates, one last assurance for Emma that won’t mean very much. “Still, though, if I’d ever thought I had a choice, it would have been you,” she whispers.

Emma stands still behind her, and when Regina glances at her, she’s still contemplating, still unreadable. She exhales a long breath and then she finally starts, “Regina, I–“ 

Regina turns and Emma catches her hand, pulling her to her, and this kiss is different than the others they’d shared. This kiss is slow and tentative and feels like it could go on forever, backed against the railing of Emma’s apartment and drinking her in, capturing every sensation she can. The taste of sticky chocolate on Emma’s lips, the light scent of conditioner, the softness of her turtleneck. The way her lips are tugging hard on Regina’s tongue, the feel of fingers dipping up to cup her chin, the leg thrust between hers with gentle, insistent force.

It’s like she’s suspended in midair, nothing but empty space above the place where the railing hits her waist, and she holds onto Emma like she’s her lifeline, like the way their lips are dancing to the same song is all she might have left to her. She feels curiously weightless like this, pressed to Emma- on Emma- as the other woman doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t let go of her for a moment. 

Heat is rising from a pit in her belly, the thigh pressed between her legs thoroughly unhelpful, and Emma gasps out, “Come. Let’s…” She fumbles with Regina’s blouse, unbuttoning each button and pulling away from Regina’s lips to press kisses down on the skin revealed until she’s dropping to her knees, yanking the shirt off Regina and hurling it down to the bottom of the stairs.

That shirt costs more than Emma’s monthly salary but somehow she can’t bring herself to care, not when Emma is kneeling in front of her and tugging her slacks down to the ground. She braces herself against the railing and manages weakly, “You said…rules…”

“No more rules,” Emma says fervently, her tongue swiping a line across the center between Regina’s hips. She pulls herself back up for a moment, standing at just Regina’s height in her socks, and Regina kisses her again, traces her lips and pulls at them with her teeth and elicits a long groan from the blonde. “I figured it out, okay? This. This is what I want.”

“Good.” It’s all teeth and tongues and lips now, fusing together and coming apart and crashing together again. It’s Emma wrapped in her arms and she can hardly believe that this is real, that after all they’ve endured this might last. That there might be no more running. She presses her lips to Emma’s again and she thinks she’s crying, heaving heavy sobs into Emma’s kisses and incapable of closing her eyes to lose even a moment of this new eternity where she might have everything she’s ever wanted.

And Emma pulls away to breathe, “What do you want, Regina?” and then she’s falling to her knees again, peeling off satin and burying herself between Regina’s legs as Regina writhes above her, hanging onto the rail for dear life and choking out new sobs that might be moans and have Emma pressing harder into her.

She comes undone again and again and again and then she’s grasping at Emma and they’re sinking, sinking, moving the moon together again until they’re tangled together in a bed and still rising and falling and all she can see is blue-green eyes, glittering with need and desire and something she once might have dared have the presumption to call love

Chapter Text

xxvi. that ship has sailed (and good riddance to it)

She remembers waking up on that first morning in Storybrooke, awareness filtering through her as she sits up that she’d  changed  something, that she’d gotten what she’d wanted. Back then, before she’d understood the empty nature of a curse built on the misery of others, she’d awakened with a low excitement and satisfaction, with the knowledge that anything was possible.

(That had been the day that Emma Swan had been discovered wrapped in a blanket on the side of the road, her mind taunts her. There aren’t many memories she can think back to now without that dark reminder ever-present in her awareness. She can’t regret, but she can overflow with remorse, can ache with the knowledge of what she’d taken from Emma. And now…)

And today, she wakes up smiling.

 

This bed smells unmistakably like Emma and salty sweat and other…messiness from the night before (and there’s the distinct scent of chocolate marshmallow ripple and a stickiness between her thighs that doesn’t feel quite so natural). She feels light and unburdened in a way she hasn’t in a while and her skin is thrumming with the need tomove, to go for a run or exhaust all her magic (what had they done with their combined magic last night and how is the house still standing?) or write a dozen ordinances on the spot.

She rolls over, her eyes flickering open, and her breath catches in her throat.

It shouldn’t surprise her that the spot beside her is empty and cold, that the door to the bathroom is wide open and there’s no one making noise down the hall, but somehow it does anyway. She’d actually believed that Emma might stay today.

They hadn’t talked much the night before, not after Emma had draped herself half on top of Regina and they’d both drifted off. And before that they’d been too distracted to get through a full conversation without one of them breaking off midway for more enjoyable pursuits. 

There had been laughter, so much of it that she thinks she must be dreaming some of it up. Lovemaking- in whatever form it had been in, less the love most often- had been terrifying or dutiful or angry or ever-so-serious for her until now, even when she’d wanted it, but last night had had bickering and nervous giggling and a minute straight when Emma had folded onto her side and laughed madly at Regina’s huffy-dazed face after Emma had made her come with magic alone. Which is her skill, not Emma’s, and Emma had stolen her idea without any permission and–

She’s beaming again, and it fades just as quickly when she takes in the empty room once more. She’d thought that this was going to last this time, no more reasons to back away. Had Emma woken up and realized what- who- she’d done and bolted?

She’s determined to find a reason for this that isn’t the latter, and she climbs out of bed, wandering naked through the apartment and half-hoping that she’ll find Emma passed out in a corner somewhere. Instead, she discovers a frying pan and a mixing bowl on the counter, both clean and unused.

It’s easy to piece together what had happened. Emma had gotten up and started preparing breakfast when the domestic reality of it all had hit and she’d bolted. When Regina’s honest with herself, it isn’t as unexpected as it had been at first. Emma is impulsive to an extreme, and in a vulnerable mood after a breakup, she’d sought out the woman who loves her. When regret had set in, she’d run from her own house and is probably telling David all her woes now and listening to his encouragement to go get her man

She feels suddenly nauseous, tense again and all her energy seeping away, and she closes her eyes and teleports directly into her shower at home.

She scrubs between her legs until they’re red and raw and watches as water runs over the red marks dotting her breasts (Emma had sucked so hard the first time that she’d called her Miss Swan that there’s a noticeable purple mark darker than the rest there) and she waits until she’s breathing easily before she exits the shower.

This is a setback, that’s all. She doesn’t doubt that Emma’s attracted to her, and as long as those feelings that Emma had mentioned to Hook are real, there’s still a chance that they can sort through this. Even if Emma has run back to Hook. Even if they’re going to have to do this all over again.

She dresses swiftly, glancing at the clock as she does. Robin and Henry are due back from camping in an hour or two, and she doesn’t have time to start chasing Emma around town- nor does she think that she could tolerate being ignored if she calls her. Later. Emma is scheduled for dinner tonight anyway so Henry will get to see some of her this weekend and she won’t skip out on that.

Presumably.

She’s still oddly giddy by the time the doorbell rings and Henry comes dashing in with only a spared curious look at the light on her face, the night before providing a high that even the morning after can’t eradicate, and Robin looks at her and his eyes crinkle at the edges. “You’re radiant, Regina.” 

He says it knowingly, and she can feel hot spots rising in her cheeks. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He grins, and it’s endearing again. There’s still an awkwardness to it, a not-quite-right to how they interact, but she thinks they could settle into a friendship now that might be as fierce and lasting as none of her friendships (with people not of her son’s family, anyway) had ever been before. “I’m surprised you’re not down at the docks with Emma.” 

Her heart freezes over. “At the docks?” 

“Didn’t she tell you? She texted Henry half an hour ago. He opted to skip it, but I thought you’d want to be there.”

“I…I don’t have my phone right now.” It’s still on the table in Emma’s house, along with her wallet and car keys. “I should go.”

“Of course.” There’s only a touch of resentment in his voice. “Henry spent the entire ride back claiming that no one can top Emma’s high score on Rainbow Road. As though her reflexes are any better than an archer’s.” He scoffs and heads past her inside, calling for Henry as soon as he makes it into the foyer.

She vanishes and reappears a block away from the docks, unwilling to walk all the way there today. 

Her worst fears have been realized, and as determined as she’d been when it had only been a suspicion, she can feel herself faltering now, wondering if it’s really worth it to push Emma anymore. She doesn’t go down without a fight (hadn’t last night, either, and her mind helpfully supplies an image of Emma sitting smugly over her, knees on either side of her waist and taunting her as she’d struggled to flip their positions) but if Emma has been so quick to return to Hook, this may cross the line from assertive to demanding something Emma doesn’t want.

She sees her as she approaches, sitting cross-legged on a bench- alone, thankfully, while the Jolly Roger is docked in front of her- and her choice of clothing gives Regina pause. “That’s my shirt,” she blurts out, her brow furrowing. 

It’s not even the first time Emma’s worn that particular blouse of hers. She remembers her arriving at her house the night after she’d gotten Henry out of the mines, blouse on a hanger from the local cleaners and so much defiance on her face that she’d nearly been daring Regina to find something wrong with it. She hadn’t- she’d been too shaken by nearly losing Henry and the debt she’d owed to Emma to be anything more than standoffish- but she hadn’t touched the shirt again.

Not until Emma had fallen into that portal instead of her after the curse had been broken and she’d woken up the next morning thinking of it, for reasons she hadn’t dwelled upon then and won’t now.

Emma turns so quickly that she bangs her knee on the back of the bench. “Yeah, I remember that from that time I tore it off of you.” Her tone is even, her face expressionless, but there’s enough challenge in her voice that Regina takes the gauntlet and steps forward, sitting stiffly beside her. “Where’s Henry?”

“He decided to stay home and play MarioKart with Robin.”

“Ha.” Emma scoffs. “As if he can break my score on Rainbow Road. He’s way too cautious to ever beat me.”

“Is this what you two do at work? Fight over cartoon turtles?” She leans back, settling her features into a more comfortable expression of distaste. “Why do I pay you?” 

Emma leans back, the lines of her face uncoiling into something far less hostile. “I won an election, remember? By the people.” 

“You set Town Hall on fire!”

“I saved your ass from that fire!”

She crosses her arms huffily. “For a photo op, maybe.” Emma is somewhere between angry and amused, and she finds herself probing for more of that anger. “Why are we here, anyway? Are you off to grovel to Hook until he takes you back?” 

Emma’s face darkens and she looks away again, back toward the docked Jolly Roger. “No, apparently Hook couldn’t wait a day before getting out of town. He called me an hour ago and I came to say goodbye.”

“Oh.” She looks at Emma again, at the tension on her face and the way she’s sitting, hands tight on the board of wood beneath her and stiff again like she’s erecting walls around herself, higher and thicker with every minute they sit and watch Hook shouting orders to his crew. “I’m sorry he’s doing this.” 

Emma shrugs moodily. “He has every right to, I guess. He’s saying it like it’s so painful to be near me now. And…I don’t know.” 

She doesn’t know where she stands with Emma right now, but she touches a tentative hand to her back and Emma’s shoulders drop. “He was rather attached to you.” 

“He was attached to me falling in love with him. Apparently I’m not worth being around if I’m not.” Emma straightens again, still not looking at Regina. “So much for his eternal love.”

It sounds pointed, accusatory, and Regina’s hackles are raised immediately. “What are you implying, Emma?” 

“I’m not implying anything,” Emma retorts, but her eyes are smoldering when she meets Regina’s, angry again at something that Regina doesn’t understand. “I get it, okay, Regina? I waited too long to make a move and you lost interest in me. It happens. Clearly,” she says, jabbing a finger at the Jolly Roger. “You didn’t have toleave, though. We could have talked about it.” 

Regina is taken aback. “What?” she frowns at her, and something like the first stirrings of hope are returning. “You’re the one who left!” She’d searched the apartment for some sign of Emma, some clue that she’d still been there, and she’d gotten nothing. Emma hadn’t been there, she knows that, and short of them being catapulted into parallel universes that night, there’d been no way that Emma had stayed.

“No, I’m pretty sure that was you.” Emma grits her teeth together as the Jolly Roger begins to leave port. Hook is fixing Emma with a hurt-puppy glare that could rival Emma’s own, and- Regina squints, startled- Tink stands behind him, arms crossed and a reddish coat on her shoulders as though she’s an Emma stand-in who’s all too aware of it. She nods to Regina, curt with resignation, and Regina nods back silently as Emma goes on, her voice still tight. “You just disappeared. I thought you wanted this.”

Insecurity flares up, but she drives past it as puzzlement reigns supreme and she clarifies, “I did. I woke up and you were gone.” 

Emma smacks her arm. It’s not hard enough to hurt her, but it’s surprise enough that she stumbles backward. “Ow.”

“You moron!” Emma glares at her. “I went out for milk!” 

“What?” 

“I was making you pancakes! And I told you all of this and you told me to shut up and let you sleep-“ 

“No, I didn’t!” 

“-or you’d make me wish I’d never been born.” 

“That does sound like me,” she admits grudgingly. “But–“

Emma’s shaking her head rapidly, dark eyes lightening just a hair. “And I taped a note to the inside of the front door so you’d see it if you didn’t remember. I didn’t want you to think I’d gone off and left you alone.” 

Sweet, sweet relief floods her, and she reacts in the only possible way. “Well, it’s clear you inherited your father’s brains. I have magic, remember? I didn’t want to mirror your walk of shame out your own door.”

“Are you calling my mom smart?”

“Emma, I’ve never done this before,” she says, because that sensation- waking up in someone else’s bed, sticky and sated, is an alien one to her and she’s been afraid that she’d never do it again after last night. “I’ve never slept over somewhere like that. I don’t know about the etiquette of it.” 

“Never?” Emma repeats, new indecision flickering over her face, and she bends forward and kisses her sweetly. And just like that, the helpless frustration and outrage ebbs away into nothing. She leans into the kiss and when they pull apart, they’re both staring at each other. “Hi,” Emma whispers.

“Hi,” she echoes, and she can feel her lips split in an idiotic grin but can’t seem to care enough to stop it. “So you didn’t leave.” 

Emma shakes her head, and there’s hesitance when she speaks next, asking almost disbelievingly, “And you…?”

“I. Yes.” She flushes, her fingers twining and untwining nervously. “If you want to-“ 

“Yeah!” Emma’s voice is so high that Regina barely recognizes it, and the other woman turns beet red. “Yeah,” she tries again, making a face.

It’s so Emma that Regina’s struck by the urge to smooth it out with a brush of her lips, and a satisfied smile crosses her face at the knowledge that she can. No more distance, no more wondering or yearning, just a kiss pressed to Emma’s cheek and she can feel the skin under her lips curving out and upward.

She pulls away and Emma hooks twitchy fingers onto her jeans. “So…uh, are we dating now?” 

“Is that what you want?” They’ve been speaking in half sentences and nervous smiles and she’s never been more grateful for Emma’s bluntness now. For all she knows, she’s just admitted to a secret desire to double the sheriff’s budget and dress in Emma’s clothes for a week. 

She shudders as Emma exhales, shrugging it away like it doesn’t matter at all. “We’re not really the dating type, are we?”

“I suppose not.” She’s never actually been on a date in the traditional sense. There’ve been stables and walks through the woods and late nights in her office, but the closest she’s ever had to a formal night out had been that night at the Pridelands with Emma herself. 

She thinks she could become the dating type easily with Emma. And Emma is looking away again, watching the Jolly Roger descend into a whirlpool with one of Anton’s new beans as her fingers turn white as they grip the bench once more like it’s her only anchor right now. Like her walls are rising higher and she’s retreating within them to shut Regina out.

Emma runs so no one can run from her first, and she’s preparing an exit strategy for Regina already. And this Regina can combat, can find the words that may yet work. “But I wouldn’t mind it if we were,” she says carefully, watching Emma for signs of new panic.

“Right.” Emma scratches at her wrist, eyes fixed on the ground now. “I mean, we could still do more of…last night. Daily, preferably. Not nightly though because we do have to get to work in the morning and I’m already kind of sore from what you did with that–“ She clears her throat. “Anyway. If you want.” 

“And dinners together,” Regina says quickly. “I don’t trust you with a stove and no supervision.”

“That’s fair,” Emma agrees. “You shouldn’t do all the work, though. I should cook some of the time.” 

“Mmhm.” 

The blonde rocks back against the bench. “And maybe sometimes we’ll both get a break. Go to Granny’s. Or maybe something more classy. Maybe.” 

“Perhaps.”

“Or just…go out in general,” Emma offers, softening more. “That wouldn’t be terrible.”

She arches a brow. “Flattering.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “You know what I mean.” She turns back to the water, her hands falling apart, and Regina takes a leap and slides her hand into Emma’s. She gets a ducked half-smile in response and Emma says, “Is girlfriend also a term for sixteen-year-olds trawling for prom dates?”

She pauses, mock-considering. “I suppose it’ll do for you. I prefer Your Majesty.”

“It’s girlfriend or snookums, Your Majesty. Your choice.” The half-smile transforms into a grin, taunting and smug and Emma Swan is at her best again.

Emma’s eyes are dancing now and they’re still holding hands and Regina wants to hang onto this moment forever. “Don’t do this, Miss Swan.” 

“You got it, snookums.” Her hand sparks magic in response and Emma yelps but doesn’t let go. “Evil,” she mumbles, squeezing tighter.

“I love you,” Regina murmurs in response. It’s like a reflex now, this ability to share what’s on her mind without consequence, without a dozen reasons holding them both back. This is a new level of freedom, and she’s spent so long keeping love bottled up tightly inside that she’s dumbfounded every time it’s allowed to escape.

It’s the moment the curse had broken all over again, the first time she’d looked at Henry and hadn’t been quite so terrified to be open with him. She has nothing to lose again, and all her cards are turned over on the table and Emma Swan is still holding her hand and gazing at her with uncertainty. “Do you really?” she whispers, and she’s vulnerable again, raw like an open wound that can burn with the barest of touches. 

Regina brushes hair from Emma’s shoulder and watches her, memorizes the exact shape of her eyes in this moment, traces her parted lips with her eyes and the upturn of her chin as she gazes right back. The fear that swells through her is caught halfway to rising within her heart, the old dread of you can’t be this happy at her most joyful moments that she fights fiercely but never quite overcomes.

The moment her mother had granted approval to her relationship with Daniel, just before yanking out his heart. Being told that the king was dead and then looking out her window the next day to see the kingdom weeping for him. Holding Henry for the first time, only to discover that his birth mother would be a part of her impending doom. Henry sitting up in a hospital bed and saying The curse. I think you broke it to Emma. 

She’s accustomed to being disappointed, to losing and losing and never gaining back what she desires most, and it’s in these moments where everything is so right that she’s most afraid. “What is it?” Emma asks, and her answer catches in her throat.

Emma kisses her anyway, tentative but firm, and she tangles the fingers of her free hand in Emma’s hair and refuses to think anymore about the inevitable destruction of this all that she’s come to expect. “Yes,” she says finally, still sitting with so little distance between them that she could close the gap between them and kiss Emma again with no effort at all. “I really do love you.”

“And if I don’t love you?” Emma pulls back to regard her solemnly, eyes narrowed and preparing for an offensive. The waters are still disturbed from the magic bean that had parted them and they roil as violently as the green in Emma’s eyes does from the man who’d thrown it. “If I never love you?”

The response to that- a sob caught in her throat, an awareness of old patterns revisited- feels a lot like despair, but it’s not one that she’s unused to. And she says, as calmly as she can manage, “Then you wouldn’t be the first person I loved who didn’t love me back.”

The specter of Cora looms over her, demands and damage couched in specious assurances of what she’d do out of love. Her father, who’d loved her but never enough, not enough to change anything. Snow, whose love had been about the nice older girl with the pretty hair and had been the source of her destruction because of it. And most prominent in her thoughts is Henry, always Henry, who’d looked at her and seen evil and corruption in her love for so long.

And as she had dozens of times during that last year before the curse had broken, she puts on her best politician’s smile and offers it to Emma.

Emma gives her a pained look in response, so empathetic that Regina almost does weep, and she clutches Emma’s hand and they say nothing, two women who might still be only girls. Two girls accustomed to never being enough. 

And it’s Snow’s wry voice she thinks of then, and You’re more than enough for each other.

Maybe. Maybe someday. Maybe never.

“This is enough,” she says, watching the last few waves lick up against the sides of the docks. “Us. Like this. This is enough for me.”

“Okay.” Emma’s head drops down to her shoulder, and they sit opposite the water for a long moment before Emma ventures, “I’m really gonna miss that boat.” 

“There are better boats out there. Ones with motors, even. Far more reliable. We can get one next summer.” She says it without thinking, the assumption of a we all the way next summer enough to leave her frozen and anxious, sneaking a glance at Emma.

Emma pops her head up, her gaze warm. “Yeah, we can do that. Henry can drive the ship for us, right?”

“Not like he drives his video games,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. “Speaking of, we should go rescue Robin from him. Robin’s really not very good with a console for an archer.”

“Ha!” Emma crows, pumping her fist. “I knew it.” 

“Your mother is equally terrible. Their reflexes are much more about precision than destruction. From what I’ve observed,” she adds hastily, because no one, not even Emma, needs to know about the day that Snow had dropped by with Henry’s backpack and they’d both gotten roped into some zombie game by her son. There had been no enjoyment quite like repeatedly shooting her own teammate in the back while Snow had tossed her dirty looks and struggled to run. Kind of nice, like the good old days.

“Uh huh.” Their hands finally fall apart when they stand, clammy from sweat, and Emma says, “Of course, maybe Hook will be back by next year.” 

“You do know how to cheer me up.” She stalks ahead, Emma right behind her.

Emma pokes her arm. “I mean for our Enchanted Forest lesbian wedding you promised me.” 

“I promised…?” 

“Hook can officiate!” she says brightly, and Regina quickens her pace, rolling her eyes upward in exasperation. “My dad will give me away, but I don’t know about you. My mom, maybe?” 

“Do shut up, Miss Swan.” It’s mind-boggling how easily they can shift from somber to carefree in just a few moments, her own mercurial moods balanced and guided by Emma’s unflappability, and she wonders at how she can smile so quickly now, hurrying far ahead of Emma. 

“Robin can give you away!” Emma calls after her, delighted at her own impropriety, and her footsteps pound heavily on the wood of the docks as she breaks into a jog.

She waits at the sidewalk and catches Emma by the hand, swinging her close enough to kiss; and then she swings her away just as their lips meet, smirking at the outrage on Emma’s face as they head hand-in-hand to the yellow bug parked down the road.

Chapter Text

xxvii. like a date (maybe not quite. maybe exactly)

“This is casual,” Emma says, bumping against her as they walk. There’s space between them. Maybe…inches, at least. “Just…a casual outing. To Granny’s. For dinner. Like a date.”

“That is what we’re doing.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to go somewhere nicer? Less public? Where Ruby won’t tell my parents that we’re…?”

She reaches out to take Emma’s hand and squeeze it for a moment before letting go. “We’ve gone to Granny’s together dozens of times over the past year. Nothing has changed. I don’t want you to panic.” 

 

“I’m not panicking!” Emma hisses. They pause outside the diner, Emma shifting even closer to her. “I just…I don’t want my mother to find out about us from someone else. I don’t want Henry to hear before we tell him. I…”

“They know that this is coming, Emma,” Regina says patiently. It’s been nearly a week since Hook had gone, and she’s been enduring sly glances from her son since, pointed suggestions that maybe she should go see how Emma’s doing and maybe Emma should come for dinner tonight. Snow has visited more in the past week than she has ever before, and she’s alternated between disappointment when Emma isn’t present and expectation when she is. It’s been exhausting, and at the end of the day she wants nothing more than to sit back on the couch with Emma and forget the prying eyes. “They all want you to be happy.” 

“They say that, but it’s one thing when I’m just talking about feelings, and it’s another when I’m- when we’re-“ She shrugs helplessly. “I want this to be good, Regina.”

Her hand slides into Emma’s again. “It’s going to be good.” 

“Promise?” They alternate like this now, each of them taking stock of what they’ve become and panicking, second-guessing, demanding reassurance of the other. They’re still fragile, still hanging by a thread, and too accustomed to loss to learn a new way of living now.

But then there are moments like this, the ones Regina still can’t quite believe are real, where Emma is holding onto her and her face is so bright- too bright to possibly be looking at Regina, all tentative hope and glimmers of happiness and warmth. The constant incredulity that they can have this, that this is too much to last.

No one has ever looked at Regina like that. Daniel had loved her, but it been different, less strained and hard-won, and he’d looked at her like she was a queen before she’d ever been thought of as one. Emma’s a mosaic of fears and doubts and wonder, multicolored and brilliant in its battered complexity. 

“I promise,” she whispers, and Emma’s smile is radiant. 

They’re barely stepping through the door of the diner when someone calls out their names. “Emma! Regina! I didn’t know you’d be here!” Snow is beaming, Henry turning from the bench opposite her with the same exact look on his face.

Emma freezes, deer-in-headlights. Regina raises her eyebrows. “And I didn’t know that when Henry asked to go over to you for dinner, you wouldn’t be feeding him something nutritious.” 

“There’s a whole slice of tomato on this burger!” Henry protests, pointing to his plate, where said slice of tomato has been detached from the sandwich. Leo is poking at it from his vantage point in a high chair, mesmerized by the way it folds when he pushes it.

“Inspiring. Go pick out a salad.” Henry sighs heavily and departs for the front counter. “Everything about this is your fault,” Regina mutters to Emma. “He had healthy eating habits before you.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “I’ve seen you deep-fry your chicken. You can’t pin this one on me.” 

“It’s gourmet!” she says, indignant. “Not processed garbage. And I always– what?” she barks out at Snow. Her onetime stepdaughter is gazing at them both, eyes shining like she’s holding back a secret. 

Three, two, one… 

“We know you’re seeing each other!” she announces, and Emma stiffens beside her, back ramrod-straight and fingers coming together into a fist.

Grandma!” Henry is back, looking mortified. “I told you not to tell them that. They’re gonna be weird about it.” 

Snow shrugs him off. “If I didn’t say something, no one was going to. Definitely not these two.” She frowns at them. “Why didn’t you tell me? I was being supportive.” 

Emma twitches next to Regina, annoyance coming off of her in waves. It’s better than fear, at least, creeping through her and bringing her close to fleeing the room. Regina can work with annoyance. “We were adjusting.” Emma turns to Henry. “How long have you known?” 

“Since you started making dumb excuses about why you were over at Mom’s instead of just showing up?” Henry rolls his eyes. “Last night, you told me that you had to file an expense report. For a bearclaw.” 

Regina holds up a hand. “She did file that report, actually. I set it on fire.” 

“She sets everything on fire. Last week, I tried to bring the menu for a pizza place to the kitchen and she gave me this.” Emma’s half-whining, half-teasing as she proffers the faintly whitish scar on her finger to Regina.

“You’re fine.” But she takes Emma’s hand in hers anyway, smoothing down the skin at the pucker of the healing burn. Snow perks up, looking like she’s two minutes from planning their now-legendary Enchanted Forest wedding. She drops Emma’s hand.

“We should head out now,” Emma murmurs, shifting uncomfortably. “Tiana owes me. We can get into her place without a reservation.”

Snow shakes her head determinedly. “Absolutely not. You two had plans, and we’re not going to interfere with them. Go ahead, find a seat. We won’t bother you.”

This isn’t how she’d imagined her first date with Emma, with an audience including her son and former mortal enemy. Then again, knowing this family, maybe she should have. Uncomfortably close, that’s the best term she has for it. They’ve done nothing but make up for lost years since Emma had arrived into their lives, and she supposes that she’s at least partially to blame for that. She’s fortunate Emma’s even moved out.

“We really can go to Tiana’s,” Emma says again when they sit down, sliding into a private booth on the opposite side of the diner. She’s darting just as many glances at Snow’s table as Snow and David are at them, twisting her napkin into shreds before they even get their food. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.” 

“I’m not uncomfortable.” She is uncomfortable, but she’s not nearly as bad as Emma, who looks as though any more contact with her parents might be enough to end their relationship. “But we don’t have to do this if you can’t handle this.” 

She knows Emma well enough to be sure that there’s only one thing that can get Emma to overcome her doubts, and that’s sheer stubbornness. Emma breathes, her lips thinning into a grim line. “I can handle anything. I’m going to go see what’s taking our food so long.”

She stands straight, rolling her neck as she does, and she glances once more at her parents before she says, “I know what you’re doing, by the way.” 

“Is it working?” 

Emma licks her lips and then presses them to Regina’s, swift and sweet, and Regina pulls her down by the edges of her coat and deepens the kiss, teasing at Emma’s tongue with her own, sucking hard on Emma’s lower lip until Emma hums in contentment and pulls away. “I can handle this,” she says again, stalking toward the counter. 

Regina spares a glance back at Snow’s booth. Only Leo remains there, happily mashing his spoon into Henry’s tomato. Snow is making a beeline for Emma, and David is…

Is…

Well, this might be fun. She puts on her falsest smile, directing it at David as he approaches. “I’m sorry, were you expecting Killian?” 

He offers her a lazy grin, unintimidated and vaguely amused. “Emma told you, did she.”

“That you’d rather she be with a hairy man-beast who took six months to figure out a washing machine? She may have mentioned it.” She primly folds one knee over the other and watches as he slides into Emma’s seat. “Is this the part where you act as though your daughter isn’t your age and perfectly capable of taking care of herself?” 

He rests an elbow on the table, leaning back against the booth. “No, this is the part where I remember that your life’s goal was once to cause untold misery to Emma’s mother.” He isn’t smiling anymore, though he doesn’t look quite so hostile. “My wife loves you, Regina. She wants to believe the best in you and she thinks highly enough of you that she can see you with Emma and overlook the past. And…” He sighs. “It’s not that I’m not glad that we’ve all made peace. You’re a part of that now, too,” he murmurs, and she looks away. “But you’ve taken so much away from our family.” 

She’s startled, jerking back to glare at him, and she retorts automatically, “I’ve given you back plenty, too.” For all her remorse, she doesn’t take well to Charmings pity parties. There’s still a part of her that can’t forget, a dark little spot that demands Why can’t I be angry? that waylays any indulgence of their accusations.

She can’t be angry. She knows that. For Henry’s sake, for Emma’s, for the happy peace they’ve built together since Neverland, she can’t resent Snow anymore. Not for the past, not for Daniel, not for the years she’d lost because a girl not much younger than her had wanted a shiny new mother. 

When she’d been angry, it had been vicious and cruel and glorious, and it had caused them all nothing but pain. And now they’re a family, they’ve found love in each other and in what they’ve built for each other, and anger will only get in the way of their happiness. 

But her throat hurts and she can feel the unfairness of it, that she’s the reformed one and that she’s had to fight so hard to be accepted while the injustices done to her are ignored because Snow is good and she is evil, and she grits her teeth and forces the anger back down. She can’t afford to lose herself again, can’t afford to break the peace because she hasn’t gotten the closure she still craves.

And David is oblivious to the way her stomach is churning and she’s waging an inner battle, but he still cocks his head and says, “That’s fair. But it doesn’t erase the past, does it?” 

On that they can agree. “No.”

He leans forward, eyes still gentle. “I was there, remember? After Emma and Snow had fallen into the portal. I remember you talking to Henry before you sent him with me. You said…you said you didn’t know how to love very well.” 

She doesn’t know where this is going, if one of the watershed moments of her life is about to be flung against her like a barbed weapon she’s helpless to resist, and she braces herself against the table and waits. “I did.”

“Killian gave her everything he has. He was completely devoted to her.” He looks so solemn now, so pleased and focused that she wants to light him on fire. (Maybe she is developing a fire problem. Prolonged exposure to Emma is to blame, probably.) “But love can’t be bought. It can’t be fought for when there’s only one person willing to fight.” 

“I don’t think hovering over her and giving her sad eyes and all his earthly possessions over the course of the relationship really counts as fighting,” Regina drawls. “Guilt-mongering, maybe. Emma doesn’t respond well to guilt trips.” 

She smirks, and it’s easier to muster up the old disdain when it’s David sitting opposite her instead of Snow, but it’s getting harder and harder every day. When she can stare at his chest and remember taking out his heart, remember putting in half of a new one. When she thinks of him gripping her arms as she fights him and begs to see Daniel. When she can still feel his hand light on her back as she cradles Leo. 

And somehow her sharpness lacks the bite she intends in the face of David’s earnestness as he regards her. “Have you figured it out yet?” 

“Figured what out?”

He grins boyishly, but his eyes are intent on her. “How to love very well?”

It’s been years since that day, years of fighting for Henry. Of accepting that his desires don’t always intersect with her own and that she doesn’t have to resist that all the time. Of struggling to save him and struggling to let him go and struggling to find him again. Of struggling to be worthy, always struggling, and she still doesn’t know if she’s ever found the place that she’d wanted to reach for him. 

But now he’s with her and he’s hers and he’s Emma’s and it must have worked out, somehow. She looks up at David, head tilted, face contemplative, and she asks him, “What do you think?” 

She doesn’t know the answer herself, but David must, because he stands up and puts an affectionate hand on her shoulder. “Don’t take anything else away from her,” he warns her, and departs for Snow and Emma at the counter.

She watches him go, feeling oddly deflated by the exchange.

+

They leave the diner anyway, their food packed into bags as they head back out into the center of town. Somehow- Emma’s idea, and there isn’t much romance in it, but Regina would rather be alone with Emma than surrounded by gawking passersby- they wind up taking out the patrol car and parking it out near the beach. 

They’re sitting in the long backseat with their dinners, Emma cross-legged at one end and Regina perched at the other where she can pick at her salad and still reach Emma’s fries, when Emma finally asks, “What did David say to you?”

She slices an olive in half. “He’s worried that now that Hook’s out of town, no one’s going to teach your little brother how to properly apply eyeliner. I agreed to help as long as he didn’t give me some idiotic speech about taking care of his little girl.”

“Sure.” Emma lays her head against the back of the seat to smile at her, lips closed and cheeks dimpling. “It’s kind of okay, right? Having a dad to threaten my girlfriend into treating me well. Like I’m fifteen again and actually have a dad.”

“He didn’t actually threaten me,” Regina feels obligated to point out. She does have her pride, even if she can endure a conversation in which she has to prove her worth to David Nolan. “I wouldn’t have put up with that.” 

Emma’s still smiling, still watching her with her head tilted to the side and her gaze warm. “Yeah, I didn’t think you would.” Her fingers skitter along her knees for a moment, settling down on top of them. “Still, though, it’s nice to know that they’re okay with it. Both of them. Mary Margaret really was excited for us.” 

“It’s good that you have them.” She steals a fry, dips it in ketchup, and avoids Emma’s eyes. “After I took them away from you for so long.”

Emma’s smile fades away. “Don’t do that.”

“What?”

“Make me feel guilty for wanting to be with you.” She sits up straight again, stealing a curled noodle from Regina’s salad.

She sighs, head bent and dark eyes rising to make contact with Emma. “You should–“ 

“No.” Emma narrows her eyes at her. “You stole away love from me, Regina. Your curse made sure that I grew up without my family. Without people to care about me and put me first and want me.” 

Every word is like another nail in the coffin that will be their relationship when Emma thinks about this, when Emma understands what she’s saying and stops being too stubborn to accept it. “That’s right,” she whispers. Then why the hell do you want me here? she doesn’t, because she’s just selfish enough to not push this even further.

Emma snatches their plastic containers from the space between them, shoving them behind her and planting herself down in the gap where they’d been. Regina watches warily, turning herself so she can watch Emma properly, and Emma demands, “So why are you trying to do it again now?”

She frowns. “I’m not–“ Emma directs a significant glare at her, and Regina can feel her eyes widening. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

She pulls Emma closer, twisting in place so she’s sitting flat against the car door, her feet up on the seat and Emma on top of her, lips at Regina’s neck as she presses her fingers to Emma’s waist, nearly tight enough to bruise. It’s impossible to contemplate, the way Emma frames this, as Regina giving her something she’s needed all her life. As Regina somehow making amends for all she’s done to her with only her love.

It’s a series of mental gymnastics that Emma’s chosen to go with to justify her presence in her life, and she should point it out but instead she’s sliding her fingers under Emma’s jeans, pushing them down until they’re at her ankles and Regina’s on her back and Emma’s hovering over her, her hands flat against the car door, sighing as Regina maneuvers her into place and takes up a guiding rhythm.

For a few minutes, she’s completely in control, Emma above her but content to give her the lead today, and she’s determined to give Emma what she wants. To be loved. To be wanted. To come first

And first Emma comes, as wild and unfettered as she rarely allows herself to be, slamming back and then forward again and grabbing onto something behind Regina for purchase as she chokes out her name.

And then she falls forward again and the something she’d grabbed onto becomes clear when the door they’d been leaning against is thrown open and they’re toppling out together, falling into thankfully soft sand. “Emma!” 

“Oh, crap.” Emma lies spread-eagled in the sand beside her, an arm trapped under Regina and completely naked from the waist down. “Good thing we didn’t stay outside of Granny’s, right?” 

“Emma.” She’s lost a shoe and banged her head somewhere along the way while they fell, and it’s pounding now, arousal gone and replaced with something still light and content under the headache.

“Sand,” Emma groans. “Sand everywhere. This is going to be a bitch to get out of my–“ 

Emma.” Emma finally turns to her and Regina kisses her again, tasting sand on her tongue and not caring a whit.

Emma kisses her back fervently, fingers sliding across Regina’s cheek while the arm beneath Regina shifts to pull her closer. “I want you,” she whispers. “As long as you want me. Let me have you. Stop thinking that I can’t.” 

“How do you know that I’m thinking about that?”  

“I know you.” Emma’s hair is all over the place, flung across her face to pool just under her chin. There are wisps of it flying free and she looks like a child now, haloed in blonde and so free of lines across her face, of the pain of growing up.

And that’s a lie she can’t bear to see. “I wouldn’t undo it,” she admits, turning so she’s staring into the distance instead of at the woman holding her. ”Did you know that? I wouldn’t undo the curse.”

“I did know that.” Emma stretches out behind her, a possessive arm still around her waist. “I wouldn’t, either. For Henry.” 

“And for you.” She shifts again, feeling Emma go rigid behind her. “I don’t know who you’d be without the curse, but I love you. This you, not some pampered princess. And this is the root of my selfishness, Emma. This is who I am. I’d wish twenty-eight years of loneliness on you so you could be the woman I love.”

She turns, determined to meet Emma’s eyes, to let her see the weight of her confession on her. Emma watches her, silent and still.

“Please say something,” she whispers finally, voice hoarse and thick.

“What do you want me to say?” Emma murmurs. “That that’s selfish? Of course it is. You created a curse to make my mother suffer and I wound up getting the shittiest end of the deal. I could have been that pampered princess if not for you.” 

Regina flinches, but Emma isn’t done. “But I don’t know her. Whoever she is. That Emma. And maybe…maybe my parents would rather see her-“ She chews hard on her lip and Regina shakes her head, but Emma talks quickly before she can offer any assurances. “But she’s not me. I don’t want to think about her.”

She lets her lip slip from between her teeth. “And you love me.” Her mouth splits into an incandescent smile. “Me.” She still says it wonderingly, as though she can’t quite believe it, and Regina strokes her thigh in response, running her knuckles over a smooth, toned leg. “And…I don’t think you’d be you without the curse, either.”

“Without Henry,” Regina agrees. “Without love. I was dark and bitter and angry, Emma. I would have killed you in a heartbeat.”

“Oh.” Emma squirms against her as though she’s reached her limit on serious conversation. “I meant because you’d be, what, sixty? Seventy?” 

Her eyes narrow. “Bite your tongue, Miss Swan.”

“I could have broken your hip falling out of the car! We would have had to explain that to Doctor Whale, that slimy little fucker.” Emma shudders. “I would go through my childhood all over again to avoid ever having to see the face I’m picturing right now.”

“I’m glad my curse is so easily recovered from,” Regina says dryly.

“It wasn’t that great a curse, anyway. People recast it all the time now, and no one else seems to object to it anymore.” 

“Oh, people object. They just won’t object to Storybrooke’s royal family. I saw Kathryn at the store last week and she mentioned that she’d retaken her father’s castle and had been living there peacefully until we’d sent her back here. She didn’t seem very pleased.” 

Emma props herself up on an elbow, gazing down at her. “Did you tell her that my parents were the one to cast this one?” 

“Of course not,” she says, half-indignant. “I have a reputation to keep up!” She doesn’t mention that Kathryn had seemed to know anyway, and hadn’t been nearly as hostile toward her as she might have expected. A couple of years must heal the worst-inflicted wounds for all of them. 

She recalls sitting in an interrogation room next to Emma Swan, listening to Mary Margaret Blanchard’s tearful denials of guilt and smug with her impending victory. Smug at Emma’s furious glares and Mary Margaret’s helplessness and the thought that she might yet emerge victorious from the curse’s final battle.

And now she strokes blonde locks between her fingers and Emma leans down to brush a kiss against her knuckles and yes. She had never truly been at risk of losing at all, though she hadn’t known what it all had been for a long, long time.


 

xxviii. absolutely necessary (mayor, mother, friend)

There had been a time when work had been all she’d done, when she’d buried herself in it for years and years and thought of little more. Since then, of course, she’s found new priorities beyond city ordinances and flipping through paperwork, but work is still a refuge, a last mundanity in a life that’s become far more engaging than it once had been, and she’s surprised to discover how much she still enjoys it.

Emma is deep in the mines today, investigating reports of experimental witchcraft, and a lunch break is a lonely affair without her. It’s been so long since Emma hasn’t arrived in her office with a coffee in each hand that she pushes off her break until the late afternoon and hesitates at her desk, struggling to remember what it is that she’d done without Emma around.

Her cell phone rings and she snatches it up, grateful for a distraction. And then frowns, mildly surprised by the name on the screen. “Hello?”

“Regina.” Belle’s voice is calm, but there’s a faint touch of panic lacing through it that puts Regina on edge. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m at the hospital with Mulan and Aurora and…”

“Roland,” she breathes, her heart racing. Aurora is Roland’s after-school sitter now, keeping an eye on him at the Merry Men’s complex, and there’s no other reason why she’d be called. “I’m on my way.” 

She’s never been more grateful that all the major buildings in this town are so close to each other, that she can hurry out the door and stride down a couple of blocks to the hospital without wasting magic on it. Roland. Roland, who, a month ago, would have been sitting right in front of her in her office when she’d gotten that call. She’s been keeping some faint distance between them since she’d ended things with Robin, too aware that someday Roland might in fact have a new mother who won’t be her.

It had been Emma who’d pointed it out to her, a week before they’d first fallen into bed together. You can’t make him dependent on you if you’re not going to be with Robin,she’d said, sparing a wary glance toward Regina as though she hadn’t been entirely sure that Regina was indeed finished with Robin. He deserves to know where he stands with you.

Determined to be a favorite aunt instead, she’d suggested that she stop picking him up after school and Robin had agreed. And now that foolish girl who watches him has put him in the hospital. 

She channels her guilt into anger and determination, marching into the parking lot outside the emergency room’s waiting area and stopping a train of cars in their tracks with only a scowl. The doors shoot open of their own accord, her magic forcing out her will unconsciously, and she pauses when she walks inside to calm herself.

She sees Belle almost immediately, pacing in the waiting room beside the emergency room doors. Aurora is sitting stiffly on a corner couch, Mulan just as stiff beside her, and Belle is bouncing the baby in her arms as she hurries over to Regina. 

More fury rises through her at the sight of the princess on the couch, and she brushes past Belle to stalk toward Aurora. “What happened to him?” 

Mulan’s eyes narrow. “You will not speak to her that–“ 

“What. Happened.” Her eyes are flashing and furious and Aurora stares up at her, chin lifted in regal defiance. She’d met the girl several times in the Enchanted Forest, yet another of Snow’s princess friends, and she’d been struck by her fierce energy even through her prissiness, like the pampered princess Emma Swan would never have been. Aurora had been the kind of princess who wouldn’t go down without a fight, and today she looks just as ready for conflict.

But the words that emerge are strained, tense, as she admits, “Belle was over. We were in the sitting room and I thought that Roland was playing in the next room, but I hadn’t realized that the window was open. He climbed onto that…the ladder on the side of the building…”

“The fire escape,” Belle murmurs.

“Yes. He was playing on it and he fell from the lowest level to the ground. Because I wasn’t watching him properly.” Now Regina can see the misery beneath her poise, like Aurora’s been dwelling in her own regret all afternoon. Good. Regina doesn’t want to look at her again, to see her face and have compassion, not when Roland is hurt and she’s responsible. 

“Dr. Whale says it’s just a broken leg and a few scratches,” Belle puts in, “Superficial. Nothing that can’t be mended.” 

Regina stares at her incredulously. “Is that supposed to make it okay?” 

Belle ignores her. “Roland won’t talk to any of us. I don’t think he’s ever seen a hospital like this, and between all the tests they’ve done on him and his cast, he’s scared to death. He told Mulan that he wanted you or Robin or to be alone and hasn’t said anything else since. And we can’t reach Robin.” 

“He must be down in the mines with Emma.” She’s already striding to the double doors, the three idiots who’d gotten Roland hurt gone from her very focused tunnel vision. She can hear Belle behind her, calling out her name again, but all it does is spur her on even more. “Whale!” she barks out, pushing the emergency room doors open. No one else has the gall to try to stop her. “Where is he? Roland!” 

Then a tiny voice, breaking through beeping machines and chattering nurses and the low hum of the central ventilation system. “Regina?” It reverberates in her mind, thundering as if Roland had shouted it, and she snaps her head to the side to track the voice.

It’s coming from behind the open door and clear walls of the second triage room from the entrance, stark and green and small, and Roland looks tiny on the bed, dark eyes tired and face drawn and the swaths of plaster around his leg as large as he is. “Regina,” he says, and he holds out little arms to her. 

Her heart stops at the way he reaches for her, trusting as always. And regardless of whether or not she can still think of him as her son, it hurts nearly as much as it would have if she did. She can’t help but feel as though she’s betrayed him, as though this is her fault for pushing his care into someone else’s arms, and she drops to sit on the bed beside him, hugging him close and kissing his forehead so he can’t see the regret in her eyes. “I hear you had quite the day.” 

“I fell,” he says solemnly. “Mulan held my hand and I went in a big truck.” All the important things that a going-on-six-year-old cares about. He pulls at his shirt. “I got a big cut on my tummy.” It’s long and jagged, probably from the pavement outside the Merry Men’s building, and she vows silently to put in a garden there. Not again. Never again.

She strokes his cheek. “Yes, sweetheart. You can’t climb on places that are so high up. Especially not when your Papa isn’t around to watch you.” 

“When is Papa coming?” He thrusts out a quivering lip and she feels her chest ache at it. “I want to go home.”

“I’m going to go speak to him right now.” She kisses him again and he smiles up at her, eyes closing and opening as exhaustion begins to take its toll. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

“I like Mulan.” His eyes flutter and then close. “And Aurora. She reads me books.”

He doesn’t seem all that traumatized, the fight gone from him and nothing more, and she spares another grudging glance over at Aurora as she returns to the waiting room. The princess is still sitting in the exact same position, and Belle is speaking quietly to Mulan. She reaches out to Aurora for a moment, the baby stretching out her arms to her mother, and Aurora says, loud and strident, “I can’t. I can’t…I can’t do this.”

There’s something familiar in her fear, but Regina refuses to dwell on it. They’renothing alike. Aurora is a careless child who’d gotten Roland hurt, and she’d been more than cautious with Henry all the time. 

Almost. 

She is not thinking about this.

It’s Mulan who retrieves the little girl instead, eyes fathomless and intent on Aurora, and Belle rejoins Regina. “How is he?” 

“He’ll live. I need to talk to Robin.”

Belle glances down at the cell phone in her hand, open to her call list. “He still isn’t answering.” 

“Yes, well, I have a more reliable method of communicating than that.” She reaches into her purse and fishes around until she finds her compact. “Just after the curse was broken and my mother was proven a potential threat, I had assorted enchanted mirrors planted in locations around town where she might have frequented. Most are still working.”

“Oh.” Belle nods, her lips quirking into a grimace. “That’s…rather frightening.”

“Oh, get off your high horse, you’re in a relationship with the Dark One,” Regina says impatiently, flipping the compact open and focusing on opening a channel to the reflective stone she’d left near the edge of town underground. “Here we go.” 

She can see only the edges of patterns in the dark at first, the mirror grimy with dirt and dust, and she can only hear voices in the distance, getting farther away from her mirror with every moment she waits. Impatient, she flicks her hand and a half-dozen stalactites come crashing down a few feet from her mirror. 

The voices change direction, heading back to her, and she taps her foot against the hospital floor while Belle peers into her compact. Emma is speaking, and her words begin to filter back toward them. “…Yeah, but no matter what the king did to her, she’s still twisted. She victimizes just as often as she’s a victim.” 

Regina frowns at the mirror, unease that has nothing to do with Roland stirring in her stomach, and Robin responds. “A victim of her times, perhaps. That son of hers is a bastard, though.” 

They’re laughing now, two moving figures in the distance, and Regina’s hand tightens on the compact. Belle looks up at her with something approaching pity- isn’t she afraid of anything?- and Regina snarls at the screen and taps her feet even louder. Whatever they’re talking about, it can’t be her. Neither of them would ever speak about Henry that way. 

Unless she’s severely missed their measure. “Yeah, I’m still holding out for her, even if she isn’t a good person.” Emma sounds wistful and Regina is nauseous again. “But I wouldn’t mind seeing him go the way of everyone else on that show.” She snickers and Regina breathes, relief washing over her in an instant. Game of Thrones. They’re talking about goddamned Game of Thrones. Emma had tried to expense an HBO GO account in her official paperwork, too, claiming that it was a necessary way to build “team solidarity” and keep her from not-so-accidentally shooting Robin if he rubs her the wrong way one day. They’d put in a valiant effort and even David had signed their petition (with Leroy’s name scribbled below his, and Roland’s in crayon below that), but she’d thrown it out right in front of Emma’s crestfallen face like the evil queen she can be.

Robin snorts and she blinks, focusing at the screen again and squinting at their approaching figures. “How very brutal of you.”

"We’re not all finesse and arrows. Some of us are pretty great at the brute force bit.” Emma pauses, not too far away, and Regina can imagine her preening, thumbs hooked in her pants and palm pressed over her holster. “I’m the one you want on your side during the zombie apocalypse.”

“There’s an impending apocalypse?” Robin asks, confused, and they’re close enough now that she can see their faces through the grime, pale dots above colored clothing.

She clears her throat. “Emma!”

Emma twists around. “Regina?” 

“Over here. No, to your right. There.” Emma brushes off the surface of the mirror, bending to blink into it. “Emma.” She feels a surge of energy at just seeing Emma’s face properly, grinning down at Regina as though there’s nothing wrong that they can’t fix together. 

Except this is more than both of them, and she lowers her eyes to where Robin is peering past Emma and says, “Roland’s been hurt. Nothing too bad,” she adds hastily. “A broken leg, some scratches. He needs you.” 

But Robin is already gone, running from sight as she speaks, and Emma nods briefly at her and follows him out.

“Thank you,” Belle murmurs. 

Regina’s eyes are still on the compact, the mines dark and empty again. “I didn’t do it for you.” She’d reached an impasse with Belle- a double one, if you count the missing year they hadn’t remembered when Regina had offered her a second apology- but she’s still on the offensive around her, waiting for her past injustices to be brought up each time they interact. There’s no need for undue credit from the other woman. “Robin’s a friend.” 

“Mine, too.” Belle stares at the compact, standing too close to Regina, and she can’t quite find the energy to shove her aside right now. “For what it’s worth, Aurora checked in on Roland more than once when he was in the other room. I don’t know her well- I’d actually come over to see Mulan- but she’s good with Roland.”

“Not good enough,” Regina says, but it sounds flat and tired even to her ears. Aurora remains on the couch, sneaking pained glances at her daughter, and Mulan cradles the child as she drifts off. 

She stands in place, frozen in front of the waiting room doors as Belle waits beside her, and it’s less than ten minutes before Robin blows through the door, eyes wild and desperate. “Where is he? Where’s my son?”

She points wordlessly to the inner doors and he rushes through them, gone as quickly as he’d come. She breathes, remembering running up stairs, Emma leading the way, and the looming knowledge of Henry’s doom. She hadn’t even been able to walk into that room, knowing that she’d held full responsibility for his condition, and she’d been rooted in her spot, Emma approaching Henry as she’d looked on with rising grief.

Her life had been absolutely over in that moment, and though a broken leg isn’t comparable, she understands both Robin and Aurora so well that it’s painful to contemplate and she sways in place, feeling suddenly dizzy.

And then an arm is at her back, calming and firm, and she leans into Emma gratefully. “We should go after him,” Emma murmurs, brushing a kiss to the edge of her cheek.

“Us?” she repeats dumbly. “We’re not…we haven’t…”

“You’re trying to be friends, right? He needs friends right now.” Regina turns to stare at her and Emma shrugs self-consciously, as though embarrassed to admit that she falls under that umbrella now too. “Come on.” 

Robin is crouched by Roland’s bed, his hand wrapped around the little boy’s as he speaks to him in low tones, and Regina hesitates outside the door. “Give him a minute.” 

“Yeah.” Emma’s hand is light at her back, alternating between hovering and touching her palm to it, and they watch the room silently. They can’t hear Robin through the glass, can’t make out what they’re talking about, but after a long minute, Roland returns to sleep and Robin hunches down beside him, his face in his hands.

He doesn’t speak when they come in, Emma guiding him to his feet and pulling up a chair so he can sit beside Roland, not until Regina sits on the arm of the chair and puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m leaving the sheriff’s department,” he says dully.

“Bullshit,” Emma says immediately. It’s as insensitive as they come, but it’s…well…Emma. “You can’t give up your life to watch your son just because of one accident. That’s not how parenting works.”

Robin turns to stare at her, eyes narrowed and cold. Regina knows that face, has seen it on herself too often. Trapped and scared and ready to lash out at anyone who pooh-poohs that. “And what do you know about parenting?”

Direct hit. Emma’s fists clench and unclench and she grits out, “Some of us–“ She stops, glancing at Roland again and reconsidering, and stalks out of the room. Regina can see her standing outside the room, her back to them, shoulders rising and falling unevenly.

Robin sighs heavily and says nothing, his eyes back on his sleeping son. Regina hesitates. “She’s right, you know,” she says finally. “Roland will get hurt sometimes, regardless of whether or not you’re around. He’s going to be all right.” She wants to say more, to defend Emma even though she’s said the exact same things before, to point out to Robin that she’s done far worse to Henry unintentionally and that he’s all right now. 

But he says, “I know,” and sags forward and all she can do is squeeze his hand, offering silent support to him as she sneaks a glance back out to where Emma is. Emma’s watching them now, her face drooping, and she turns dejectedly to leave the emergency room.

Regina drops Robin’s hand, wincing. “I have to…” She’s feeling harried, stretched too thin, caught up in a dozen threads all at once. So many people needing her, more than she’s ever had before, and there’s a part of her that’s amazed as much as stressed by this realization.

Robin’s jaw twitches but he manages to nod. “Of course,” he says neutrally, and she slides an arm around his shoulder in an awkward half-hug and hurries after Emma.

She catches her as she’s about to open the doors to the waiting room. “Emma, wait.”

Emma spins around and they’re suddenly flying into a supply closet beside the doors, an odd deja vu overtaking her as they fall into the room, Emma pushing her up against the shelving- though it’s gentler than it had been the first time they’d done this- and kissing her feverishly, pressing her lips to her mouth and her cheeks and her neck, fingers around her arms tight enough to bruise. “Emma,” she breathes, catching her face between her hands. “What are you–“

“You’re mine,” Emma says fiercely. “You and Henry. You’re mine.” Her hands move down to Regina’s waist and tug her back to her, kissing her again and again. “I got you back.” She looks so lost, so desperate that Regina peppers her face with kisses, dotting the tips of her eyes and lips until the wildness in Emma’s eyes fades away. 

“You did,” she murmurs. “You got us back.” There are times when she’d be infuriated at that presumption from Emma, that neediness to have Henry when she’d given him up, but Emma is trembling in her arms and she’s as tiny as Roland in that moment, unguarded and vulnerable, and Regina loves her too much to find that bitterness now.

Emma manages a wan smile and kisses her one last time. “Yeah.” She takes a deep breath, staring at Regina as though she hasn’t seen her until now. “How…how are you holding up? With Roland and everything?” 

“I’m fine. Roland’s fine,” she recites, but Emma’s watching her with undisguised concern. “I am,” she insists. Her guilt is misplaced, her anger faded, and Aurora is still in the waiting room, afraid to touch her own child while she waits.

She lets Emma go, walking with sure steps back out the door (and several nurses stare down at their desks, red-faced with half-grins on their faces when the despised evil queen comes out of the closet with their vaunted savior) and through the double doors back to where Aurora is. Her baby is still perched on Mulan’s lap, chubby fingers tangled in her hair, and Belle is sitting opposite her, speaking to them in low tones.

She sits down beside Belle, getting a warning glare from the other woman in response, and says, “Roland’s not easily contained.” Aurora watches her silently. “He gets into things, he climbs into places he doesn’t belong, and he doesn’t listen when he’s told not to. You should have been more careful with him.” 

She swallows, empathy driving her forward. “But there were plenty of times when I was careful with Henry and he got hurt anyway. When he was three, he’d gotten tall enough to yank down a pot from the sink when I was on the other side of the room. It had just a splash of boiling water in it, but it was enough to burn his shoulder.” She remembers screaming, remembers shouting out orders and demands in this very room and knowing in the end, none of it will matter to Henry’s safety. “You’re going to make mistakes. Don’t repeat them. Don’t push away a child because of them.” 

She reaches for the child in Mulan’s arms and Mulan’s eyebrows shoot up as she pulls the baby back away from her. Well then. “Aurora. You can’t sit here and pity yourself all day. Go home. Lock that window. Learn to trust yourself again.” 

Mulan is still glaring at her but Aurora nods slowly, pulling her baby into her arms and standing. “Thank you.” The baby coos, tiny face split into a smile, and she even manages a halfhearted one in response. “I should speak with Robin.” 

“I’ll do it,” Mulan says immediately. “Belle, would you walk Aurora back to the compound?” 

“Of course.” And Belle spares a smile for Regina as she stands, quick and grateful and rooting Regina in place. Even Mulan offers her a grudging nod before she walks to the front of the room and through the doors. 

She stares at the vacated couch in front of her, forehead furrowed with an inability to process what had just happened. “I don’t understand.” 

Emma speaks from the seat beside her and she jolts. She hadn’t realized that Emma had been sitting next to her, hadn’t thought of anything more than urging Aurora forward. “You did a good thing. They were grateful.” 

“That’s not…I don’t…” She’s stymied, taken aback at Belle’s smile and Aurora’s thanks and Mulan’s nod.

Thankfully, Emma understands her perfectly. “Mulan and Aurora never suffered through the curse or any of what you’d done while ruling your kingdom. So they don’t have the same grudges to get past. And Belle’s…I don’t really understand Belle.” She laughs wryly. “Still, though, it’s exhausting to be angry all the time. Especially when you’re giving them exactly what they need and they know it.” 

Regina leans back in her chair, pursing her lips and struggling unsuccessfully to force down the warmth that Emma’s words bring. And for a moment, she can believe it, can plow through months and months of remorse and self-hatred and see something lighter beyond it. See a place where she can understand what Emma and Robin and Snow and all the people in this town need. And where she can be that person with no second-guessing, and genuinely like that person.

She voices the sentiment to Emma, and Emma lays her head down on Regina’s shoulder, looking troubled. “And the person who came before?” She has no answer, and Emma sighs. “You may not like her, but you should love her. She’s you. She’s always been you. And you’re…” Her voice trails off and she doesn’t finish the sentence, curling her fingers around each other and leaving Regina silent and waiting.

When she does say something, it’s very distant. “I don’t remember that time Henry was burned.” 

Regina shrugs her free shoulder. “There were no good memories about that day. I was miserable and alone and frantic and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” She takes Emma’s hand in hers, stroking her thumb against it. “I don’t think I’d ever felt more like a mother in that moment, knowing that I was all that Henry had and that I couldn’t fall apart. He was so frightened and in such pain, and I had to keep smiling for him. It was a nightmare.”

“Yeah.” Emma pulls away from her, sitting up and retrieving her hand. “It sounds like it was.” They sit in silence, lost in worlds they haven’t quite breached yet, and their hands creep together and fall apart a dozen times before Robin emerges from the emergency room, pushing a grinning Roland out in a wheelchair ahead of him.

Chapter Text

xxix. one last time (and the walls come tumbling down)

She turns the lights on and walks across the room, catches her reflection in the mirror, and squeezes her fingers until a lightbulb pops above her in a flash of purple sparks and the room darkens again. She doesn’t want to see her face right now. Not with furious words still rocking through her, bouncing against her stomach until she’s ill and tired. 

She doesn’t quite understand how the day had gone downhill so quickly, from awakening to sleepy kisses and unexpected pancakes to this emptiness, and every time she dares remember the past few hours, she feels sicker still. 

This is what they do. They tug and tug and tug at the leashes they’ve clamped onto themselves, keeping the peace and keeping themselves intact, and then one day it snaps and they tear into each other like a pair of wild dogs, ripping at every weakness until they’re left bleeding on the ground.

She waits silently in the dark- for what, she doesn’t know- yet nobody comes to her door. 

+

There had been a call at her office in the late afternoon, an urgent message that she’s needed at home. And it’s long before Henry’s due back for the day, which means, more likely, that a certain sheriff is playing hooky instead of doing her job. And as mayor of the town, it’s naturally Regina’s task to chastise her.

She’s rolling her eyes as she pulls up to the mansion, unlocking the door and going straight for the stairs to her bedroom. “Emma, am I going to have to issue a formal reprimand to the sheriff’s–“ 

Her words catch in her throat as she pushes open the door and takes in Emma, sprawled across the bed in a pose that would be seductive if Emma wasn’t smirking too widely to be anything but natural. And she’s wearing a leather corset laced tightly at her chest, a well-made leather coat that falls over her legs, and absolutely nothing else. “I’m practicing my magic. I’m conscientious,” Emma drawls out, grinning. “Meet the Dread Pirate Swan.”

Regina’s suddenly in front of the bed, yanking her forward without further ado and clamping her teeth around Emma’s lower lip, hands moving lower and twisting rapidly while Emma groans against her mouth, “I knew it.” 

“Hm?” She curls her fingers and Emma jolts, legs twining around hers until they both topple back onto the bed.

“You do have a thing for pirates.” Emma lies back, cocky and smug- she always is, afterward, and Regina’s torn between pride and exasperation- and fiddles with the strained third button on her blouse.

have a thing for pirates? You’re clearly so obsessed with the idea of it that you dated that greasy fish-chaser.” She scowls at Emma, which is a feat when Emma’s nuzzling her breasts and sliding fingers under her skirt.

Emma pokes her head up again. “I saw the way you looked at me when you turned me into a pirate queen on The Jolly Roger that once. No wonder you wanted me to end things with Hook. You wanted him all to yourself.” 

“I might vomit,” she grimaces, and Emma laughs into her stomach. “I don’t have athing for pirates. I have a thing for you.”

Emma’s eyes widen innocently. “So do you want me to take this–“

Don’t you dare.”

It’s only after they’ve both been sated more than once and Emma has flopped down across her legs that she remembers. “We’re supposed to be at work!”

“Whoops,” Emma traces twirling lines along her thigh, unbothered. 

Regina’s eyes narrow. “No, I think I’d better get back. I’ve heard some dereliction of duty rumors about the sheriff, and I think she’s due for…” She breathes out the rest in a throaty voice, nearly purring the words as her smile spreads. “Some punishment.”

Emma stops fidgeting. “Really. What did you have in mind?” 

She slides out from under Emma, twisting to prowl up beside her as Emma’s eyes glaze over, her breath tickling at Emma’s ear as she murmurs, “Two words. Unpaid. Overtime.”

Emma’s shoulders droop. “You’re evil.” 

“So I’ve been told.”

She gets a kiss for that, deep and lingering, and Emma lies back on the bed, as prone to dramatics as always, and whines, “Please don’t make me go back there. David’s been the worst today. Leo apparently said Dada this morning?” 

“What?” Regina says, outraged. “Before Regina?”

Emma squints at her. “Before Ma. Which was two of us. If I’m going to have a little brother thirty years younger and named after my girlfriend’s ex-husband, you’d better believe he’s gonna say my name first.” She sighs loudly. “And he’s so insufferable about it, he has a video that he’s been playing over and over on his phone. Actually, it’s Mom’s phone, but he couldn’t figure out how to transfer it so they switched phones for the day. Over and over, Regina. I’m staying here until Henry gets back and packed up.” 

She could comment on the fact that Leo will not apparently be the first Charming spawn to call Snow mom, as of today, but she’s distracted by the end of the tirade. “Packed up? For what?” 

“It’s Friday?” Emma raises her knees to a bend and taps at them. “I get Henry for the weekend, right?”

“Oh.” Her stomach churns, and there’s nothing wrong with the point as much as there’s something off in the way that Emma looks away, that there’s something else weighing down Emma’s words. “I thought you’d just…stay here. Both of you. When was the last time you were home?” Emma’s been coming over for dinner and never leaving, shamelessly wearing her clothes and not even having the decency to look sheepish when Robin notices, and a fresh toothbrush lies to the side of Regina’s sink (she thinks about putting it in its proper place every time she enters the room, but she knows better than to bait Emma like that). 

It’s been nearly three weeks of this ease, of waiting for something to give and this comfort to be proven false, and unease is beginning to stir within her as Emma shrugs. “We should probably go home. I didn’t rent out an apartment to forget it exists.” 

“I see.” And she’s too fiercely proud to ask anything else, to risk any more rejection than she’s already gotten, so she says nothing more, clamping her teeth together and forcing her mouth shut.

It’s Emma who pushes on- always pushing, always pressing forward with no pause for subtlety. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She stares straight ahead, unwilling to play games with her. “Nothing. Have fun with Henry.”

“Wha- I don’t want you to stay here!” Emma exclaims, exasperated, and Regina’s face tightens, fearful of presumptions. This is Emma who she loves, Emma who she’s always wanted, Emma who wants her.

Emma who’s made a point of telling her, in a moment of vulnerability for both of them, just how much she doesn’t love her. Emma who stops midway through anything real they ever discuss until Regina’s walking on eggshells around her, too paralyzed by the fear that pushing too hard will shatter them. She’s playing a game now, however unconsciously, and Regina has no idea which reaction is the one that will pass this level.

Freezing up proves to be the incorrect response. Emma is staring at her, jaw clenching. “So we can’t be together unless it’s on your terms? I’m not your fuckingRobin.”

She finds her voice. “I didn’t say that,” she retorts, irritation surging through her. “I just don’t see why we need to go anywhere. If Henry doesn’t care–“ He hadn’t last week, when Emma had happily spent the bulk of the weekend with them and Henry hadn’t even thought to go back to the apartment.

But perhaps that happiness had only been a farce, because Emma is pulling herself off the bed, grabbing her clothes from where she’d left them on the dresser. “I care. Can’t I care?” She sounds helpless again, distant and needy at the same time, and Regina finds her own clothing pooled at the foot of the bed and begins dressing herself. “Do Henry’s wants always come first?” 

The question is timid, only half-expressed, but it’s enough to give Regina pause. “Yes,” she says flatly. “You know he does.” Emma leans against the dresser, hands twisted so they’re palms-forward on the edge of it. “That doesn’t mean that you aren’t right there with him,” she reminds her. “What do you want, Emma?”

Emma massages her forehead. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I want to go back to my damn apartment with our son and I want you to come too.” Her face falls into her hand and her hair swings forward to block it from view and Regina feels adrift in a sea she can’t navigate.

“All right,” she says, standing as she buttons her blouse. “We’ll do that.”

Blonde hair falls back and when she glances at it, Emma is staring at her disbelievingly. “That’s it? You agree?” 

“What’s wrong now?” she demands, frustrated. “What have I done?”

“Nothing!” 

“Then what’s the problem?” She can feel her agitation growing again, like everything she says isn’t enough and she’s slipping into the sea again.

Emma is glaring at her now with equal emotional upheaval, both of them caught up in something they haven’t yet figured out. Something that’s scraping away at them without ever showing its face. “Why are you so fucking agreeable all the time? Why are you being so patient with me?” she bursts out, and Regina recoils at the unexpectedness of it. “What are you so afraid of?”

She looks so angry and confused at the same time, in pain and caught up in outrage and Regina doesn’t know what she’s done to spur this. “I am trying to make this work,” she manages, grinding her teeth together. “I don’t know why you’re trying to—”

"Because that’s not what you’re doing," Emma counters, eyes flashing. "I know when you’re lying, remember? What are you so afraid of?" She doesn’t respond and Emma’s jaw sets. "Tell me."

Anger bubbles up, useless and undirected. “I’m not—”

Tell me!”

"I don’t trust you!" she snaps out, and her mouth falls open at it. Because she hadn’t been thinking about that at all, hadn’t even entertained the possibility that she doesn’t trust Emma. Not when they’ve shared so much of what defines her, every secret pain she doesn’t dare share with anyone else.

And yet her heart is racing and her hands are fisting into her comforter and she’s waiting, waiting for something she can’t bear to contemplate. Waiting to experience new hurt and betrayal from this child of the last little girl she’d loved, waiting for it all to come crashing down if she stops playing the game for even a moment. 

And yes, maybe she trusts Emma with her heart, but she doesn’t trust Emma with the heart locked deep within the blonde herself, the one Emma would push away and hide from any contact at all. 

Emma’s mouth is open, eyes a light blue today that’s almost as clear as glass, and Regina is afraid to look too deeply within them and see her own reflection. “I’m afraid of you, Emma,” she whispers. “I don’t know what I’m going to do that will send you running. But I know you will and I know it’ll break us.”

"You don’t." Emma presses a protective arm to her abdomen. "You don’t have any idea of what I’m feeling."

"Then tell me,” Regina pleads. “Stop holding back.” Emma’s incapable of anything else, she knows, and that- more than Regina herself, more than anything else- is what had hindered her last relationship. For all her talk about being a human lie detector, she seems happily oblivious to her own untruths, unexpressed as they are. “I don’t want to push you away.”

Predictably, Emma has no such compunctions. “I’m not that fragile,” she growls, light eyes darkening to a stormy green, frothy as the ocean. “You’re treating me like I’m…like I’m a child. Like I don’t know where I stand.”

"You may not be a child, but you have one. And I’m thinking of him, too." There’s a secret place within her- the part of her that’s still so selfish that thinking too much of it makes her want to climb out of her own skin and hide- that mocks her in that moment, that tells her you’re not thinking of anyone but yourself no matter how reasonable she sounds aloud. “You can’t do this. You can’t give him this and then wake up one day and decide that you’re in too deep and it’s time to run.”

She’s hit a nerve, one that she hadn’t known had been there to begin with, and Emma’s face is sharpening, turning into sloping angles and rigid points and steel. “Don’t lecture me on how to raise Henry.”

"You never raised Henry!" Regina snaps out. She clings to that truth, to lashing out and brutal honesty, and she’s vaguely aware that it’s guilt that’s powering it. That she’s been selfish and using her son to strike blows against Emma and now that she can feel them both slipping away from her she’s desperate to reaffirm that he’s hers, that she somehow can deserve him. “You’re here- in this town, in this life- because he wants it. Because I allowed it. You got a free pass to motherhood and you’ve been coasting on it since.”

Her words are biting, meant to latch teeth into Emma and tear, but Emma’s skin is slick and hard and she can’t see the bruises she’s inflicted. “Yes, I know. I’m justplaying at this. You’re the star mom.” Emma glares at her as though daring her to say more, to contradict that, and Regina remains stubbornly silent. Hurt takes hold of Emma’s eyes, masked as cold fury. “Except that part where he hated you.” 

She is fire, surging flames and untouchable, and anything hurled at her dissolves into ash. She won’t let Emma get to her, won’t give her the satisfaction of seeing any more than charred embers at her feet, and she glowers like pure flame and snarls, “Get out of my house.”

Emma yanks her jacket on with a savage move and storms from the room. 

Her hands are itching, power borne by her anger present and potent, and she raises them to stare at them. Thinking of Emma as an anchor won’t work this time, thinking of Henry only agitates her more, and she sinks deep within herself, struggling to find a calm isolated from the people she continues to build herself around. 

She thinks instead of her dark heart, pulsing with all that love and family that make it light again and distinguishing none of it for any individual. It’s who she is, more than anger had ever defined her, and she finds calm in that knowledge, enough to dissipate the magic tempting her with its freedom. 

She combs out her hair and touches up her makeup and when Henry comes home, she can greet him with a strained smile. “Time to pack up for Emma’s.”

"What? Why are we going there?" He frowns. "Where’s Emma?"

"She’s going to come by for you later tonight." She’d sent a curt text message to Emma and had gotten a time in response. It’s later than she would have liked, but she’s loath to complain, guilt at her jabs at Emma’s parenthood finally filtering back through her. 

Is this what they’re going to do every time they fight? Find the other’s greatest weaknesses and prod at them until something collapses? Neither of them knows how to go at things halfway. Even when the “things” in question are all about hurting each other. 

You’re both so charged, sometimes I think you might break each other’s hearts a dozen times before you ever repair them, Snow had said, and Regina’s beginning to think that she’d been right. 

It’s a terrible idea to contemplate, this much pain growing out of this much love, and she musters up a smile for Henry and seeks to explain to him what she hadn’t bothered considering earlier. “Emma’s finally found a home here, one that’s all yours. And that’s…that’s very important to her.”

She’d been so caught up in worries about what it had meant to their relationship that she hadn’t stopped to think about what it had meant to Emma, who’d spent months avoiding the subject and agonized over possible apartments when forced to. This is Emma’s first permanent home, the place she’d meant to last in, and she isn’t going to let it go- shouldn’t, really- even for Regina’s luxurious mansion. 

"I know," Henry nods. "It’s important to me, too." And there’s the truth they’d both known, even if Regina refuses to dwell on it. Legal rights to Henry, maternal rights to him— none if it matters in the end, because what Henry wants is Emma and Regina can’t change that. (Won’t, not anymore, not when they need each other just as she needs them.)

But then Henry says, “I just like it here more. With all three of us.” He shrugs. “It could be Emma’s home, too.” 

"Maybe someday," she promises, pasting another smile on her face and not daring to let his comment take purchase in her heart. "But Henry, you can’t expect that to happen. Emma and I aren’t guaranteed to work out. We’re very different, and there’s a lot of baggage, and…"

"Mom. She practically moved in the day you guys started dating. That’s even faster than Robin, and you thought Robin was your soulmate." Henry scrunches up his nose like he still doesn’t understand it. "Don’t you love her?"

"Of course I love her." But her voice is shaky, her heart pounding, and Henry is watching her carefully in that way he used to when he’d thought of her as the enemy. Figuring her out, step by step, until he’s unraveled the game plan that she hasn’t even come to the end of yet. 

His brow furrows, seeing ever more. “And she loves you, right?” 

She’s hoarse, her throat dry and her eyes tired. “Henry, can we please talk about something else?” This renewed closeness between them is too much right now, when he wants to know everything and she can’t lie to him anymore. When he understands her as he never had as a young child, when he knows all she is and seeks to know even more.

But he nods, sharp eyes still regarding her curiously, and she endures his quiet curiosity all through dinner as he talks about his day and a history test and not about Emma at all. 

Afterward, he vanishes into his room to finish up his homework before Emma comes, and she enters her room in the dark. 

It’s not that Emma’s words are anything she hadn’t heard before- from Henry himself, from Snow, even from her mother. It’s not that has her shaking at the edge of her chaise, hands pressed to her eyes until she can see blood vessels popping behind her eyelids. Henry loves her now, as much as a child can ever love his mother.

It’s that old pain being used against her as a weapon by someone she loves that has her so weary, because she’d thought they were past it. She knows she’s partially to blame, but it’s Emma who’d kept pushing, who presses and presses until she gets the answers she doesn’t want and storms off. And she’s tired of it, tired of chasing Emma and waiting for her to change things when she won’t. That’s not Emma’s way, and she’s becoming resigned to it.

She perches at the edge of her chaise and listens to the silence as a tangible thing, dark and heavy and absent of whispers and laughter and all the sounds that this house has had for weeks, until the door creaks open downstairs and booted feet clomp up the staircase. “Hey,” she hears Emma saying in the hall. 

"You and Mom had a fight," Henry says back, his voice accusing. Of course. Nothing gets past Henry.

Emma sounds surprised. “She told you that?”

"No. I’m not dumb," Henry scoffs. "What are you gonna do? Am I really going to you tonight?"

There’s no response from Emma, nothing but more silence filtering in from the hall, and Regina opens her hand and closes it, a tiny flame lighting and extinguishing in her palm each time she does. It illuminates the room, casting long shadows across the walls, and when she follows one to the door, Emma is standing at its end. 

She doesn’t move from her spot, her hands clasped together and her peacoat on, even though spring is just beginning to rear its warm head. “You’re right, Regina. I have been holding back. I think- I think you’ve given so much of yourself to me, and I just don’t know how to do that.”

She shrugs helplessly, her head bowed, and Regina can hear the hitch in her voice as she speaks. “You have every right not to trust me. I don’t even— I don’t know what I might do. I’m tired of running all the time.”

"Good," Regina whispers, and Emma offers her a self-deprecating grin. 

"Everyone I’ve ever loved has given me up." Her eyes are gleaming with wetness visible from halfway across the room. "For my best chance. For their best chance. I don’t know. Except Henry. Henry I gave up. And you."

The tears are starting to slide down Emma’s face, and Regina can only gape at her, can feel her skin humming with disbelief and hope. Everyone I’ve ever loved. Loved.And you. ”What?”

Emma smiles tremulously through a sheen of tears. “I love you, Regina.” She ducks her head but won’t quite look away, her eyes shining under her eyelashes. She’s shivering, pulling the coat closer to her as though the nonexistent cold is what has her shaking. “Is that okay?” 

And Regina’s heart bursts to life in an instant, overpowering her faculties of speech and sight and hearing and all she can see is Emma and all she can hear is her heart, thumping beats within her. It had died in a stable once, had shriveled away into nothing, and she has never experienced a love like it since. 

She’d never expected to, not after her heart had remained dead for so long after and even when revived, it’s felt like she’s a zombie in the dark, brought back to a shambling half-life where she can only see the ones who keep it standing. And now Emma is standing in front of her with her heart on the line and the world explodes, blooms into a glorious world where light is everywhere and colors are so bright and Regina’s heart is alive and renewed with only the deepest scars still intact.

"Emma," she breathes, reaching out with one trembling hand, and Emma steps across the room in three swift steps, falling to her knees before Regina. "Emma, I love you."

Emma looks up at her, eyes bright and still somewhere between smiling and crying. “I know. I knew…I think I loved you for a long time. Since I first thought I could.”

She tilts her head up and Regina dips down, lips meeting halfway between them both. “A part of me was afraid that if I accepted that I’d lose you, just like everyone else.”

"You’re an idiot," Regina murmurs, pressing her lips to Emma’s forehead. 

The responding laugh is still distinctly watery. “Yeah, I kind of am. Come here.” She’s pulled forward abruptly, Emma shifting so they’re both rising to their feet together. 

The hug is gentle, the two of them swaying together like a slow-dance, and Emma says haltingly, ”You gave me good memories and nothing else in my entire life has meant as much to me.”

Their fingers link at Regina’s waist. “But when you told me the other day about Henry and that burn…I don’t have that. I don’t have bad moments where I suddenly felt like a mother, even when it wasn’t real. I had a baby and never really touched him until he was ten and I’m afraid I’ll never feel like a mom as much as a big sister.”

Emma is giving her the one thing she holds back most. Honesty, raw and uncomfortable and undemanded, and Regina finds that she isn’t afraid that Emma will stop speaking even if she does cut in. “You’re more than that, Emma.”

Emma’s fingers tighten. “That was what the apartment was for, I guess. To let me be Henry’s mom without any fake memories or reason for him to be away from you.” She breathes out a little laugh, more like a sigh. “I think I didn’t want it to be nice, didn’t want it to exist at all, because that meant I’d have excuses when I failed.”

She hesitates for a moment, and Regina finds her voice again. “You’re the mother Henry always wanted, Emma. You don’t need to prove anything to him.”

"I was the mother he thought he’d wanted." Emma gives her a pained smile. "He never hated you. He was just angry and hurt and when that faded away, he finally remembered how much he loved you. I was never more than his backup plan."

They can argue about this all day, can offer each other reassurances neither of them will believe, and Regina instead leans her head against Emma’s shoulder and admits, “He needs both of us. We balance each other.”

"We balance each other," Emma echoes, her breath warm against Regina’s ear. "And him. We’re…that’s who we are, right? We need each other."

And it’s that simple when they cut away the drama and the fairytales and the thirty years between them all. Three lost children who’ve found their kindred spirits and held on for dear life and finally managed to work that out, Regina and Emma and Henry who all love each other and will always need each other, each intersecting in wholly different ways. “Yes.”

Emma curls her fingers around the waistband of Regina’s dress. “What’s going to happen the next time we fight like that?”

They’ll tear each other to shreds, maybe. Hurt and scar and the world won’t seem so bright until they’re together again. Or maybe they’ll learn new ways, claw at the other less and less and all that will be left is… “This, I hope,” Regina murmurs, swiping at Emma’s neck with her tongue.

Emma laughs, a little puff of air that seems all the more light when Regina’s in her arms. “I can live with that.”

They rock in place, each the other’s only support as their fingers twine together again and lock.

 

Chapter Text

xxx. snow drifts (there's no place like home)

 

“Hey, Regina.” Emma sidles into the room, arms wrapping around her waist as she kisses her neck. “Guess what I got today.” 

 

“Mm.” She cranes her own neck to kiss Emma properly before she turns back to the onions she’s sautéing on Emma's stove. It’s Friday afternoon, and she’s taken to spending the weekends at Emma’s apartment with her, a guest in a second home that’s slowly beginning to feel like her own. “A heart attack from the donuts you brought in for the station this morning?” 

 

“Those were for everyone!” Emma protests. “And Roland came by after school and had my second one, so I barely ate anything today. Except lunch.” She sniffs at the sauce simmering on the next flame over. “And Roland’s class made cookies, so a few of those. What’s for dinner?” She shifts to fling her right arm over Regina’s shoulder, and Regina blinks at the markings on it.

 

“You got another tattoo?” She pulls away, flipping Emma’s wrist to examine it. “This is pen.” It’s fading already in some places, smeared in others, and Emma looks much too self-satisfied about it for a doodle. “It’s…a cactus.” 

 

“What? No, it’s not. Don’t you recognize it?” Emma thrusts it in her face again. “Come on, Regina.”

 

Henry wanders into the room, drawn over by Emma’s barely contained smugness. “Let me see.” He traces the lines of it, stopping where they meet Emma’s actual flower tattoo below it. “A cloud?” 

 

Emma looks annoyed. “No, it’s not a cloud. I wouldn’t have spent a whole afternoon drawing a  cloud.” 

 

“Our tax dollars hard at work. I still think it’s a plant of some sort.” 

 

“Maybe it’s a really weird potato? Or an alien! Is it an alien?” 

 

“It’s Robin’s lion tattoo!” Emma bursts out, glaring at them. “See the head? The claws?” 

 

Regina blinks at it. “It still looks like a cactus to me,” she observes, and Henry bobs his head in agreement.

 

Emma scowls at them. “I had to keep getting Robin to show it to me. Then he figured out that I wasn’t actually drawing it on Roland’s cast and refused to let me see it anymore. This was hard work, okay?” 

 

“What’s the point, though? Are you guys starting a club or something?” Henry’s eyes light up. “Can I join?”

 

“Absolutely not,” Regina says. Emma is looking more put out by the moment, her lips pursing into a pout as she stretches out her wrist toward them, and she takes pity on her and presses a kiss to her cheek. “Emma, I don’t need you to be my soulmate to love you.”

 

“Wait, this is about the soulmate thing?” Henry narrows his eyes. “Because Mom and I had a true love’s kiss, so I think that makes me the best candidate for her soulmate if she’s picking a substitute.”

 

“Yeah? You want to fight for it? Because I’ve got the tattoo.” Emma holds her fists up challengingly. Henry turns on the sink and wipes his hands off on the tattoo, smudging it even more. “Hey!” 

 

He smirks and ducks under her arm, and she catches him and swings him around, wrapping him into a headlock. He’s growing now, nearly as tall as Regina without her heels, but Emma still has a few inches on him and he can’t escape her no matter how much he struggles. “Okay! Okay!” he gasps, finally wriggling free. “If Mom is so attached to Robin, we can be soulmates.” Regina sees the warmth in Emma’s cheeks at that even though Henry misses it, the longing she doesn’t quite shut away when she sees Regina’s knowing gaze. One day at a time. They’re learning to trust, and to be trusted in turn. “I’ll get a lion tattoo too. Ava thinks they’re cool anyway.”

 

“Ava? Since when do you care what Ava thinks?” Emma squints at him. “Are you growing up? Becoming a man? Because lemme tell you, the only girls you ever need to worry about are your moms. You will never meet anyone as beautiful as this woman right here-“ She cups Regina’s chin, displaying her like a pageant queen. “-Or as badass as me.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Henry leans over to sniff the sauce, same as Emma, a matching flush on his face. “Ava can do backflips. She’s going to be a cheerleader next year.” 

 

Emma makes a face. “Fine. Be her soulmate. I’m taking your mom back.”

 

Regina adds the meat to her saucepan, listening to them bickering with only half an ear as they head out to the living room to continue their debate. (“That’s not a backflip, that’s a somersault!” Henry says scornfully.) It sounds like family, like everything’s finally complete and there’s warmth in her chest and her stomach at the sound of it.

 

When Emma returns to the room, the smile is still lingering on her lips, even when she catches sight of the purpling mark at the corner of Emma’s forehead. “What happened to you?” she demands, probing it with her fingers.

 

“Ow! Ow. I’m fine,” Emma says, rubbing her palm against it. “And I did a backflip. Kind of. I banged my head. I hope I don’t have a concussion, I have something to show you later.” 

 

She sighs heavily, halfway between amused and concerned. She settles on concern with her lips still curling upward. “Come here. Let me see what you’ve done to yourself.” 

 

She finds a bag of peas in the freezer (they’d gone shopping two weeks ago with Snow and Emma had made a production of finding them and putting them in her bag for dinner tonight and Snow had rolled her eyes and let her keep up the fiction) and presses Emma’s hand to her head with it while Regina examines the pen marks on her wrist, pushed hard enough into the skin in some places to bruise. “Why did you do this to yourself?”

 

Emma shrugs. “I was bored.” But she says it sulkily, a hair too much frustration in her voice for it to be so simple, and Regina cocks her head and watches as the lines on Emma’s face thin and sharpen. “It was just a joke.” 

 

“Emma.” She leans forward and Emma’s eyes flutter closed, but instead of kissing her lips she presses kisses against her eyelids, tracing her lips across the curve of them as long lashes tickle at her chin. “I don’t want you to be my soulmate. I don’t want to be tied to you by any choice but my own.” She strokes Emma’s wrist, tracing the pen marks where they’re still clear and sharp. “And yours.”

 

“Me too.” But Emma’s hand sneaks under the back of her shirt when they stand up, her fingers cool against Regina’s skin all dinner like she won't ever let go. Henry talks about swimming in the afternoons now that spring is here in earnest, and Regina suspects that this is another sudden girl-related hobby and squeezes her fingers to her knees under the table. Emma’s fingers move slower, stilling until her palm is pressed against Regina’s back and her thumb is dipping into the waist of her skirt and Henry says, “Gross, Ma. You’re not my soulmate anymore.”

 

Emma makes a noise of mock horror and Henry grins at Regina, who says, “I don’t blame you. She seems like she’d be a handful.”

 

“Are you two teaming up against me now?” They turn to her with matching raised eyebrows, Henry’s almost identical to Regina’s, and grin with smug mischief in unison at her pout. 

 

Emma jabs a finger at Henry when he leaves the table, heading for his room. “He’s getting too powerful. We can’t let him turn us against each other.” 

 

“You mean like the first two years we knew each other?” 

 

“We need to show him we’re a team.” Emma nods sagely. “That he can’t manipulate us like this. We have to really, really scar him for life.” 

 

Regina purses her lips. “Why do I feel as though this is going to end with us in the backseat of my Benz?” 

 

“In front of his school! In front of Ava.” There’s a heavy sigh from somewhere in the general area of Henry’s room, and Emma wiggles her eyebrows suggestively. “It doesn’t have to be the backseat.”

 

“Absolutely not.”

 

“Is this like the time you said that when we were picking Henry up last week? Because then you saw my mom and I so got–“ She’s cut off by the sound of music, blaring from Henry’s room, and smiles, satisfied. “I am so good at this.”

 

“You are terrible. You’re going to scar him for life.”

 

“This more than Neverland? Than that apple? Than Zelena?”

 

Yes.” But she’s grinning, too, their smiles in tandem, and when Emma pulls her onto her lap, she kisses her happily until the music gets even louder and Henry starts singing along- a little desperate- like the teenager he’s about to become. 

 

“Mm.” Emma disentangles from her, and they’re all limbs and lips and bodies that don’t quite remember how they’re supposed to be apart. “I forgot. We have to go somewhere tonight.”

 

“Do we?” She quirks an eyebrow. “Where?”

 

“Somewhere in the woods. We'll see, I guess.” Emma waves a hand vaguely in the direction of the town line. “I’m going to go change.” She has a splash of sauce on her sweater, thankfully not one of the ones she’d commandeered from Regina’s closet. The worst part of dating Emma is how poorly the other woman understands dry cleaning.

 

Emma vanishes into their room and Regina knocks on Henry’s door and waits until the music stops before she pushes it open. “Will you be all right if Emma and I run out for a bit?”

 

He’s lying on his bed, propped up by his pillow and Emma’s laptop resting on his stomach, his eyes intent on the screen like a miniature Emma with his furrowed brow and hunched shoulders. “You’re not going to Ava’s house, are you?”

 

She laughs and his lips curl into a smile. “I won’t let her.” 

 

“You’ve never been very good at stopping her.” He glances at the screen of the computer for a moment, and she moves to see what he’s staring at. It’s the computer wallpaper, a photo of the three of them at Granny’s. Emma’s on one side, Regina on the other, and Henry’s face is squashed to hers as Emma leans in to kiss her cheek. They look like a family, happy as though they’d always been one, and Henry says, “I’m glad. That you two are together. Even if Ma is obnoxious when she’s in love.”

 

She smirks in agreement. “Just Ma?” 

 

“Yeah. You get kind of weird and sappy all the time and you never stop watching her when she’s around. It’s gross, but not as gross as Ma.” He shrugs. “It’s good you finally listened to me, or you’d have both been miserable for years.” 

 

She narrows her eyes at him playfully. “Oh, really? Now you're taking credit for our relationship?”

 

“Well, it’s not like you were very good at it.” He leans back, grinning, and says, “You go with Ma. Don’t be out past curfew.” 

 

She blinks at him, lip curling with a mixture of outrage and confusion, and he’s still laughing at her expression when they hurry down the stairs to the street.

 

+

 

It’s damp outside from spring warmth coupled with the ocean nearby, not cold enough for a sweater but not hot without one, and there are fireflies lighting up their path as they walk toward the woods. “What exactly is this place?” 

 

“I’m not sure.” Emma squints at her phone. “Robin sent me GPS coordinates and told me I might want to check it out. Apparently, we’ll know it when we see it.”

 

“You two really have become good friends.” She isn’t jealous, just amused. She and Robin have been defining and redefining their relationship for so long now that it’s a surprise how quickly he and Emma have managed to bond. She remembers an early rendezvous between the two, Emma defiant, See? I can be friends with your boyfriend too, and how she can look back now and see jealousy barely concealed under the posturing. They’d always been a little too alike to get along, but also too alike to hate each other properly.

 

“What? No, we haven’t.” Emma shakes her head vigorously. “I don’t even like the asshole.” 

 

“You gave him a job.” 

 

“Because you were about to kick a little kid out of house and home!” Into a government-funded apartment building where his pseudo-family had been comfortably living. “I have to get along with him or the mayor gets huffy and tells me that I’m sleeping on the couch that night. Even in my own house.”

 

“You’re the one who decided on that ridiculous, impractical secondhand couch. You deserve to sleep on it once in a while and muse on your choices. And I’ve had to collect you two from the Rabbit Hole after work twice in the past month.” 

 

“That’s team-building. For morale and stuff. I feel sorry for him.” Emma seizes onto that as though it’s a revelation. “Yes! He’s all alone and unloved. While you love me.” She beams, and Regina understands why Henry calls Emma obnoxious in love, but she can’t seem to find it in herself to care. (And it’s not as though Emma’s ever been anything but, when you think about it.)

 

“Do you tell him that often?” She can imagine it, the two of them sniping at each other about her like they had back when she’d been seeing Robin, not quite goodnatured but not quite mean-spirited, either. But at this point, it’d be bordering on cruel. There’s no triangle, not even a convoluted rhombus between them, and they all know that now, no matter how many lunch dates Regina has with both of them at the sheriff’s station as the air between them begins to settle.

 

“Nah, he’s been talking about his wife a lot lately. Moving on…backward, I guess. Good for him.” Emma sounds pensive, like she’s moments away from coming up with an idea that will inevitably be terrible. And sure enough, she brightens. “Hey, remember that time portal Zelena was trying to open? Maybe we could–“

 

Regina elbows her in the ribs. A wheezing sound escapes Emma’s throat and she nearly doubles over in pain. “Don’t even say it.”

 

“I’m just saying, it’d solve a lot of- oh! Wow.” Regina tears her eyes away from Emma’s face to follow her gaze. “What is that?”

 

“I don’t know.” She steps forward, Emma at her heels, and reaches out to touch the closest tree. It’s coated with a thin sheen of ice, pale and oblique. All the trees in this clearing are, and when she walks into the center of it, she can feel a chill that permeates her, right down to her bones. There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground, the trees are white with ice, and none of this makes sense when spring is finally here.

 

“Magic?” Emma asks, taking her hands between hers and blowing warm air onto them.

 

“Magic,” she breathes, and it’s like she’s suddenly remembered that this is only a fairytale, that these months of peace have been just a small reprieve until the next threat rears its head. 

 

The fireflies still venture into the clearing, too tiny and unaware to understand the sudden change in climate until they’re within it, and they’re sparking green and yellow and red against the silent whiteness that surrounds them. Regina can feel the energy of the clearing, the sheer power that emanates from it that has her shivering from more than the cold, and she pulls Emma close by their joined grasps, shutting it all out for just a moment more.

 

Emma still tastes like dinner and she doesn’t mind, as imperfect as it is, because it’s who Emma is. Imperfect, unexpected; and improbably, the one she fits against best. The one who’s still holding Regina's hands in her own, kissing her silently, lips moving as tongues wander and teeth nip and they don’t budge even as the cold creeps deeper and deeper within them. 

 

Emma is the first to pull away, eyes somber. “This isn’t kids playing with spellbooks, is it? Or fairies mixing up their pixie dust? We’ve got another threat to Storybrooke on our hands.” 

 

She nods regretfully. “So it appears.” The snow doesn’t stop at the clearing. Rather, it seems to stretch beyond it, all the way down through the woods to the town line, icing over trees and underbrush in its path. She thinks of the legend of the Snow Queen, only a fairytale even in her own land, and she shivers again.

 

Emma plays with her hands, fingers rubbing against fingers as a firefly buzzes right through the distance between them. “I liked the quiet,” she says softly, and there’s a tiny gleam of something else in her eyes, something eager to fight.

 

“As did I.” There’s a part of her that craves battle, just as she knows that Emma does, a chance to prove to others and themselves where they find their greatest worth. To save, to redeem, to be more than whom they’ve been in the past. But just as strong is the piece of her that longs for the simplicity they’d had just moments before, where meaning is as simple as teasing Henry at the dinner table.

 

When she’d been a girl, all she’d longed for was to be free, and it had taken over four decades to find that freedom. She’s been trading cage for cage for cage for far too long, and now this remains her final cage. A curse, by her hand or another’s. To never be at peace, to never find a world where she can settle down with her love and her family and forget magic and pain and suffering.

 

But she could do far worse than her hands wrapped in Emma Swan’s like they’re anchoring each other, than her heart light even with the knowledge of this new threat. Than our best chance is together and you may not be strong enough but maybe we are. Than I love you. Is that okay? and Emma’s eyes gleaming translucent cobalt in the reflection of the snow around them.

 

She’s terrified of what’s to come, of how they may yet be tested. She can feel darkness still within her and she thinks she may have to unleash it, to defeat this new threat to her family by any means possible and to return to the quiet once more.

 

Emma’s watching her silently, seeing words in her eyes that she can’t quite vocalize, because they’re not there yet. They’re not in a place where they can say everything, where all their thoughts escape in a river winding straight down to the other. 

 

But it’s all right. Emma is watching her and she sees her, who she is, what she’s afraid of, and Regina dares to murmur, “I’m going to hurt you.” She can’t. She won’t. And she blinks back thoughts of betraying herself, of never being enough for the ones who love her, of sinking into a darkness that feels less like home than Emma and Henry.

 

Emma’s eyes glitter in challenge. “Yeah? I can take you.” But she squeezes Regina’s hands in hers, pressing cool lips to them before she rises again, an uncertain smile turned confident at Regina’s soft exhale. Two women, flitting around each other with dozens of insecurities they’re only yet beginning to recognize. Learning to say the right things, at last, day by day.

 

They stand in place with their hands locked, the wind picking up around them until it’s whipping powdery white crystals at their knees, and the fireflies burn bright and fall dark around them as the snow around them glows silver in the moonlight.