The kid is her first clue, though she isn’t sure of what until he pokes his overly precocious face over the counter of the diner and says, “Can you put some cinnamon in this cocoa, please?”
Which isn’t a surprise. He’s maybe ten, eleven at most, and kids that age love Th3UglyDuckling as much as Ruby and her fandom of twenty-somethings do. Emma Swan had popularized the cinnamon-in-cocoa thing over a year ago, and even out in Storybrooke, Maine, aka The Middle Of Nowhere, aka Ruby’s Forever Home, people have heard of it.
So yeah, it’d be business as usual, and Ruby reserves a little smile for this kid, a we’re kind of in the same fandom except yours is probably a little less gay look, when she notices something very specific about the thermos from which he’s drinking his cocoa. Namely– she knows that thermos.
Here are six facts about Ruby:
- Trapped forever in Storybrooke, managing a diner with her grandmother
- Kind of a big deal on stan Twitter, namely Th3UglyDuckling Twitter, namely the hashtag-Uglies, Emma Swan’s following
- Known as Ruby Lucas in Storybrooke but RED_RIDINGHOOD where it matters
- Has seen every single Th3UglyDuckling video, stream, Telescope, Vine, and production multiple times
- Can immediately recognize any prop used in a Th3UglyDuckling video
- Even a random thermos Emma Swan had used months ago, in a video where she’d been talking to a little boy offscreen.
“That thermos–” she says aloud, and the boy’s nose wrinkles. “It’s cool.”
“Yeah,” he says. “My…friend gave it to me.” He pauses at the word friend , the uncertainty such that Ruby freezes and stares at him, because there’s no fucking way that he could mean Emma, except he must. It’s the same thermos, complete with the scuffed edge and the kind of ombre red-to-orange-to-yellow metallic coloring and the scribble across the front that looks like someone had scrawled in permanent marker on it.
Ruby stares at him, prepared to ask a very forward question, when a voice from the front of the diner calls, “Henry?”
The boy turns to offer an attractive woman in the booth by the window a grin. “Coming, Mom!” he says, and Ruby gives him the cinnamon automatically, watching as he retreats. She recognizes the woman– she comes from time to time, sits in the corner and works on her laptop. She’s kind of unpleasant, prone to glare at Ruby if Ruby attempts to start up conversation, and Ruby has learned not to inquire further on her. Storybrooke is a small town, but it’s easy not to be noticed if you don’t want to be.
Ruby doesn’t remember the boy– Henry– from the woman’s prior visits, but she hasn’t noticed the woman much, period. She watches them, eyes narrowed, and begins to piece this together as she can.
Because Henry, somehow, knows Th3UglyDuckling.
Emma Swan is from Boston, just close enough to Storybrooke that Ruby can imagine going to one of the fanmeets, just far enough that Ruby’s never actually going to get there. Which– okay . Ruby’s gotten noticed by Emma four times, and that means way more than being one of a crowd, no one memorable at all.
Four times noticed, three likes and one reply. The reply had been just three months ago, and Ruby still exults in it. It had been about, of all things, R.M. Queen.
R.M. Queen, world-famous author. She’d written the first Once Upon a Time book back when Ruby had been an adolescent, and Ruby had fallen immediately in love with the world of fairytales and fantasies, enchanted forests and werewolves and witches and small-town drama. The books had come out every few years for the past ten years, and by the third, it was clear that Once Upon a Time had become a global phenomenon.
Ruby hadn’t known much about the author when she’d been a teen. She’d dreamed of meeting her, of learning what she might have planned for the later novels. When said later novels had come out, she’d cooled on them a bit, though she can’t quite put her finger on why. The characters and the stories are still as compelling as always, and she’s never read a Once Upon a Time book without crying a little. But they’d shifted, bit by bit.
The media has been split on the later books. They’ve become more popular than ever, of course, and there are talks of an onscreen adaptation. But at the same time, there’s been a flurry of thinkpieces online critiquing the world that R.M. Queen had constructed and the favored relationships and romance that have sold millions of books. Ruby hasn’t thought much about them, but some of the enthusiasm for the series has been tempered in her circles.
Though that might just be about Emma and R.M. Queen now.
Before, R.M. Queen had kept a careful distance from the media, had never done convention panels or autographs, had never so much as shown her face to her fans, and Ruby had let that feed her fantasies about R.M. Queen. She’d imagined her a witch in her own right, sharing the true stories of her past, ready to whisk Ruby away into a fairytale land if Ruby would only find the right well or the portals hidden in the woods.
But no one had whisked Ruby away. Ruby had continued with her humdrum life in the diner, had graduated high school and followed Once Upon a Time with a bit more distance. It had become an obsession only in the back of her mind, a series of books to reread from time to time but to no longer dream about.
As it is, her two favorite things had collided.
She’d found Th3UglyDuckling years ago, before Emma Swan had gained the fame and notoriety that had come with millions of subscribers, and she had fallen quickly in love. Back then, Emma had only been making mukbang videos, silly videos of herself eating various ridiculous things. “I swear I have a job,” she’d said sheepishly, eating six burgers in ten minutes. “And a workout routine.” She’d stood at the end of one video and peeled up her shirt to show off her abdominals, and Ruby– on the cusp of her Gay Awakening– had officially Awakened.
There had been the video where Emma had filled a massive bowl full of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and eaten it happily, with more gusto than Ruby had ever seen anyone eat cereal. “We used to have Cinnamon Toast Crunch at one of my group homes,” Emma had told her subscribers, grinning that self-deprecating grin. “It was the best cereal, you know? But I was little and back then, you’d kind of have to scramble for the table first to get it. I got some once or twice, but I guess it’s still the Holy Grail of cereals for me now.”
She’d gotten an endorsement deal with General Mills after that had gone viral, had wound up smiling on the back of every Cinnamon Toast Crunch box for months and earned herself more and more subscribers on YouTube. Soon, she’d been making more videos, some mukbang, but others just chatting with her audience or showing off her workout routine or talking about movies she’d seen and books she’d read.
Before long, Th3UglyDuckling had become a phenomenon , and Ruby had been there to watch the whole thing unfold. She’d felt a connection with Emma Swan because of it, had been protective and proud as though she’d been a close friend instead of a fan.
When the clamor had finally been loud enough and Emma had tweeted, okay gang you all want me to check out these once upon a time books so i guess i will , Ruby had been ecstatic. Her worlds would collide in the best of ways, and she’d been certain that Emma would treasure the books of her childhood in all the ways that Ruby had. There is still one book to go, the seventh and final one, and R.M. Queen has been taking her time with it. Maybe– maybe , Th3UglyDuckling will be the one to light a fire under R.M. Queen’s ass.
Instead, Emma had skewered the books. She’d found them tolerable enough to read until the end, but her tweets and videos had been scornful and mocking, picking out every detail from the books that hadn’t worked, every moment that had required suspension of belief, every bit of the story that had been left to fanfiction to fix until now. THESE are the books that everyone’s going gaga about? she’d demanded on Twitter. i’ve never been so glad to have been too busy in my early twenties to read this garbage.
Ruby had been easily persuaded, because it had been Emma , and Emma is nothing if not convincing in her mockery. Plus, it had been kind of fun to see her tear apart the books. Buzzfeed had done a three-week feature highlighting all the best moments of Th3UglyDuckling’s Once Upon a Time takedown, and everyone had been laughing about it, until–
Somehow, it had reached @RMQueenWrites, sparse Twitter user who had rarely posted anything beyond retweets. And Ruby had learned one fact about her childhood hero: R.M. Queen absolutely, positively, can not take criticism.
R.M. Queen’s Twitter account had come alive with snide comments and asides about YouTubers, about children famous on the Internet for doing nothing at all . Emma, not to be outdone, had begun responding in kind, replying to R.M. Queen and quoting her tweets and generally mocking her as often as possible. R.M. Queen’s subtweets are often and vicious, and Emma is smug in response, quick responses that never fail to tear apart the books.
R.M. Queen’s rabid fans had followed her, launching into Th3UglyDuckling stan Twitter space with clumsy, fierce attacks on Emma. Ruby has been only too glad to set her thousands of followers– hashtag Uglies, Emma’s biggest and most devoted fans– after the Queenies, just as merciless as their favorite idol has been.
It’s been fun , and Emma’s been having fun, too. Ruby takes it as a personal mission, following Emma’s example and brawling with the anti-Uglies. It’s only fitting that her one reply had been about R.M. Queen, too.
And now, maybe , she’s going to have a chance to do much, much more than that. Henry With a Thermos is somehow connected to Emma, and Ruby is determined to figure out how.
Fortunately, she has an in when it comes to ten-year-olds in Storybrooke.
Mary Margaret says, “Ruby,” in that sigh that makes it clear that she’s worried. Mary Margaret’s always worried, in the way that friends who watched you grow up can get. She’s sure that Ruby is going to be catfished online, or be dragged into some kind of human trafficking ring, or something equally horrific. Mary Margaret has Instagram and Pinterest and she mostly just uses them to look at birdhouses.
But that sigh is answer enough. “So you do have a Henry in your class.”
Another sigh. “Henry Mills. He’s a good boy. Moved in last summer. Had a rough year, but he’s finally starting to adjust to Storybrooke.”
Ruby counts the details in her mind, pieces them together, comes up with squat. “Does he ever talk about Emma?” she finally tries, out of ways to skirt around it.
Mary Margaret says, “Emma who?” with her voice high-pitched enough that Ruby knows , right away. “Oh, David just walked in,” she says suddenly. “I should go. Talk to you later, Emma– I mean, Ruby–”
“Mary Margaret!” But she’s already gone, and Ruby glares at the phone for a moment in sheer frustration.
When the frustration fades, she’s left with certainty. Henry Mills is in fact connected to Th3UglyDuckling. And Mary Margaret might not be much help, but she’d given Ruby enough. A name .
Ruby does some frantic Googling and finds out that Henry Mills has no social media under his own name, nor does anyone who is posting about him. She can’t imagine that the woman from the diner would be the sort to spread his name across the Internet. There are a few other Henry Millses out there, but none of them match the boy whom Ruby had seen–
Wait . She clicks on one of the photos on Google Images, squinting down at the faces in it. It’s a picture of a kids’ soccer team based in Seattle, and she can’t quite tell if Henry’s in it, but she has a lead at last.
Henry might just play soccer. And Ruby knows from the big cork board at the front of the diner that the Storybrooke Knights Junior Soccer League is looking for volunteer assistant coaches.
She knows how to play soccer. Kick the ball, knock it into the goal, right? She’s good with kids. She’s made for this position, and if Henry Mills happens to be on the soccer team…well, she can ask him a few friendly questions, can’t she?
She gets several dozen likes on that tweet, which is encouragement enough to go forward. Ruby is good at online sleuthing, at seeing a face or location in a selfie and pinning it down within minutes, at reverse image searching and digging up tweets from years ago to prove points. She hasn’t done much offline sleuthing before, but it seems about the same. But with more walking.
The Junior Soccer League meets on the Storybrooke Middle School fields every afternoon at three pm, and Ruby finds a pair of ancient sneakers in her closet and tugs them on. She ties back her hair until she looks vaguely sporty, and then she heads out to the school.
There are a crowd of kids there, gathered around a pretty dark-haired Asian girl around Ruby’s age who calls out to them. “Okay, we’re going to kick our balls around the cones now. Everyone ready?”
They all bob their heads. Ruby squints at them, searching for Henry Mills. She’s too far away to see, and so she moseys around to the other side of the fence, where the entrance is, and slips inside. The pretty coach hasn’t seen her yet, too absorbed in the kids.
She lines up six of them opposite her and says, “Let me see your best kicks.” Ruby edges forward, eyes zeroing in on one of the boys, his face screwed up as he concentrates, and the coach says, “Go!”
A soccer ball slams into Ruby’s stomach, knocking her back with enough force that she crashes into the fence. “Sorry!” the boy calls at her, chagrined. “What were you doing, standing there?”
His ball reads Henry Mills , and Ruby holds onto it as she groans, peering up at the very long legs that have appeared in front of her. They don’t belong to a ten-year-old.
No, the pretty coach is glaring down at her, arms folded. “What are you doing here?” she demands.
“I wanted to volunteer,” Ruby says weakly. She’s even prettier up close, which means that Ruby is going to make a fool of herself, as per her usual mode around pretty girls. “I like soccer.”
The girl snorts, unfriendly. “You are not coaching this team,” she says darkly, turning away.
“Hey!” Ruby protests, offended despite herself. “At least interview me or…or something.”
“I know who you are,” the girl says, glaring at her. “I know why you’re here, and you’re not going anywhere near Henry Mills.”
“Whoa.” Ruby stares at her, even more bewildered than before. “Why…why would you think–” A sudden, impossible thought crosses her mind. “How do you know who I am?” she demands, Mary Margaret’s thousand warnings about catfishes flying through her mind.
The girl stares at her, hostile and wary as though Ruby’s done anything to deserve it. “You’re the number one name on every block list in the Once fandom, Red Riding Hood,” she says, narrowing her eyes at Ruby. Ruby gapes at her. “And I’m not letting you anywhere near that boy. Who knows what you people are capable of.”
“What?” Ruby echoes, baffled. “You think I’m– this is real life , lady! And why would I do anything to the kid! I just want to know how he knows Emma!”
“Emma?” the girl echoes, her brow furrowing. “He has nothing to do with TheUglyDuckling. And if his mom–” She stops suddenly, snapping her mouth closed as though she’s said too much.
His mom– Ruby stares at her, the gears still whirring in her brain as she inserts this new almost-fact into the puzzle that is Henry Mills. “Is that…” She takes a breath, because there’s no way, because the hot lady with a bad attitude writing in the corner of their diner can’t possibly be– “Is that R.M. Queen’s son ?”
R.M. Queen has a son. Everyone knows it, because she dedicates every book to him. In the first, her dedication had been quiet and heartfelt, to the baby boy who is my fairytale ; by the time the sixth one had come out, it had been heavier, weighty with unspoken words. To my son , and nothing more. There had been whole Tumblr screeds written about those dedications and R.M. Queen’s relationship with her son.
Ruby had never thought much about him until Mulan Hua is dragging her into the soccer shed after practice, eyes burning into her. “You can’t tell anyone ,” Mulan says furiously. She hasn’t actually given Ruby her name. Ruby had seen it on her clipboard and filed it away, then Googled it very quickly while Mulan had been distracted by parents. She doesn’t have a Twitter under her own name, as far as Ruby can tell, and when she Googles Once Upon a Time Mulan she just finds the Disney character.
“Do you really think I’m going to expose R.M. Queen to the world?” Ruby demands, incredulous. “I don’t know what you’ve seen on Twitter, but I’m not like that. I just wanted to talk to the kid and find out how he knows Emma Swan.”
Mulan shakes her head, equally incredulous. “He doesn’t know Emma Swan! Have you seen his mother?”
Ruby lifts her chin, smug. “Guess you don’t know everything, then, Hua, because that kid definitely knows Emma Swan.” The thermos is proof , and she outlines it quickly, complete with video evidence.
Mulan watches it very skeptically. “It’s just a thermos. He could have gotten it anywhere. If he’s seen her videos, then he might’ve specifically looked for one like hers or scribbled something on it.”
“ Or he’s friends with Emma, somehow,” Ruby shoots back. “I know you want to go all Scully on me, but sometimes the obvious answer is true.”
“The obvious answer is that Regina Mills has a son who’s secretly hanging out with Emma Swan?” Mulan echoes skeptically. “How is that obvious? They hate each other.”
The gears keep turning, her thoughts still flying all over the place, and the obvious answer suddenly seems like a whole lot more than any of this. “I’m not sure,” Ruby says, licking her lips in contemplation. Mulan’s eyes drift to said lips, and Ruby feels suddenly warm in this dim, small shed. “But I think I’m going to figure it out.”
She leaves with Mulan’s number punched into her phone, which already seems like a win, and drops to the ground on the other side of the fence to do some more old-fashioned online searching. She searches Twitter for their names, real and fake, for any references to Storybrooke that she can find through all of Twitter.
It’s a single tweet from last year, one that had somehow never made it to fandom. An old locked account that had since been unlocked, Look at the ugly duckling I found in little old Storybrooke! . Emma is grinning in the picture, crouched beside Archie Hopper as she pets Pongo. And– in the reflection of the storefront beside them, Ruby can see who’d taken the picture.
The woman from the diner. Henry’s mom. R.M. Fucking Queen. Ruby stares at it, openmouthed, zooms in to try to catch her expression and can’t read it. She screencaps the whole tweet and sends it to Mulan.
That proves nothing.
Look at the storefront , Ruby types back, smug, and she leans against the fence and waits until Mulan is jogging back in her direction, out of breath and wide-eyed as she comes to a halt in front of Ruby.
“What does it mean?” Mulan says, panting. “What does…”
“Obvious answer,” Ruby reminds her, and Mulan stares, her head shaking slightly. “What’s the obvious answer here?”
But neither of them has an answer.
Mary Margaret continues to give Ruby nothing , which is just rude. Some friend she is. Over a decade together and she just shrugs and refuses to discuss Henry, Emma, or R.M. Queen, whose real name is apparently Regina Mills and who is sitting in the booth across the diner right now. Ruby is doing her best not to stare.
Emma, meanwhile, is needling her from Twitter. The notifications pop up, one by one.
Ruby snorts at the last one and then glances up again, peeking at Regina Mills. Regina has let out a snort, too, at almost the exact same moment, and Ruby wonders–
It can’t be–
But then she’s typing busily, and she sits back, satisfied, as another tweet vibrates Ruby’s phone because yeah , of course she has R.M. Queen on notifications, too. R.M. is the queen of subtweets. She’s never once acknowledged Emma on Twitter, but she’s never failed to respond to a provocation at once, either. And she doesn’t even follow her.
“Sick burn,” she mutters mockingly at her phone, typing exactly that.
Regina Mills says, “Excuse me?” She’s standing at the counter, eyeing Ruby as though Ruby’s the one who doesn’t belong here, in this diner where she has grown up, and she holds up her mug. “I was looking for a refill,” she says.
“Sure. Uh…Henry’s mom, right?” Regina stares at her, unfriendly, and it takes every ounce of self-control in Ruby’s body for her not to dig further, to overstep and ask questions about R.M. Queen and Emma Swan and what the hell is going on . “I’ll get you that refill,” Ruby says hastily, and she busies herself with the coffee pot instead as Regina watches her, an eyebrow arched.
The thirteen-year-old inside of her wants to ask Regina other questions, wants to talk about how much Once Upon a Time had once meant to her. She quashes that urge, too, and smiles brightly at Regina instead as her phone buzzes again.
She snatches it up before Regina can read the quoted tweet from Emma.
She watches Regina carefully as she returns to her seat, expecting another snort or an irritable sigh. Instead, she gets a very different kind of sigh. Regina has softened, her smile affectionate, and Ruby nearly drops the coffee pot at the look on her face.
Maybe she hasn’t checked Twitter yet. That must be it.
But no response on @RMQueenWrites is forthcoming, though Regina is typing furiously on her laptop. Ruby ponders it for a long, frustrated moment. “It makes no sense,” she mutters. “It makes no sense .”
The Queenies are out in full force today, jumping on Emma as though she’d personally murdered their puppies instead of sending out a few snappy tweets. Ruby dips into the fray, imagine thinking that the fight scenes in neverland were more dramatic than that time emma did the #ripvine retrospective , and she tussles with three particularly angry and pretentious Queenies before Mulan is storming into the diner.
“You need to stop,” she bites out, tossing one worried glance at Regina before she lowers her voice. “That tweet–”
Ruby stares at her. “How do you know where I work? And what’s your Twitter?”
Mulan glares at her, ignoring her questions. “You can’t tweet about them!” she hisses.
Ruby scoffs. “They’re all I tweet about!” she shoots back. “It’s suspicious if I don’t tweet about them!” She glances at Regina, who is ignoring them both and typing busily. She smiles at her screen for an unconscious moment before she rolls her eyes and types again swiftly. “What’s she doing, anyway? I thought she’d for sure reply to Emma.”
Mulan shakes her head. “She never does,” she says loftily.
“Oh, please. She subtweets Emma daily ,” Ruby says, scowling. “Don’t act like she’s the bigger person. She’s just too much of an asshole to keep it to DMs.”
“Isn’t that what she’s doing now, though?” Mulan says pointedly, glancing back at the woman in the corner. She hasn’t noticed them talking. She’s far too absorbed in her typing, another smile creeping onto her face.
Ruby freezes, her head whipping back around to Mulan. “You think she’s–”
Mulan raises her eyebrows. Ruby says, “No way .”
Regina’s phone buzzes on the table, vibrating loudly, and Ruby stares at it for one frozen moment before Mulan is ducking around the counter and yanking her toward her. “Do not look at her,” Mulan says warningly, her hands tight on Ruby’s. They’re kind of warm, and her skin is calloused and smooth, just like Ruby had imagined it. “We are not going to invade her privacy just to solve this thing.”
“Also, if she sees us watching then she might go outside,” Ruby says. Mulan flushes, which is confirmation enough. Ruby grins. “You’re just as invested in this as I am, aren’t you?”
“Shh,” is all Mulan says, turning around to pretend to busy herself with the coffee pot. Ruby admires her backside for a solid minute before she tunes into Regina’s conversation.
“...You’re impossible,” Regina is saying, her tone warm. “If you would stop antagonizing me–” She pauses, listening to the voice on the other end, and then she sighs and says, “If Henry insists.” But she’s smiling again when Ruby peeks back, and it can’t be –
Henry is back at Granny’s the next day, this time without his mother. “I’m meeting my mom here,” he informs Ruby, then squints at her. “You’re not playing soccer anymore, are you?”
No, thankfully. “I’ll leave that to Mulan,” she says, trying to sound graceful in front of a ten-year-old with more connections than she’ll probably have in a lifetime.
Henry says, “Good. You really sucked.” He makes a face. “Sorry, that was rude. You make good cocoa.”
“Thanks, kid.” Mulan is going to kill her for this, and she hesitates for a split second and then says, “So you like your cocoa the Ugly Duckling way, huh?”
Henry lights up. “Yeah! You know about Th3UglyDuckling?”
“Sure do,” Ruby says, pouring in the cinnamon. “I’ve been a fan since way back before she was on cereal boxes. You a fan?”
“I’ve seen all her videos,” Henry says importantly. “And look–” He digs his binder out of his bag to show her the words across the front. An old Emma quote: MAYBE I DON’T NEED ANSWERS. MAYBE I JUST NEED TO PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE. “Mom hates it,” he says, grinning. “But I got it from–” He stops suddenly, remembering himself. “I got it from a friend,” he stumbles. “So she couldn’t make me take it back.”
“Your mom isn’t an Emma Swan fan?” Ruby asks innocently.
Henry shrugs, suddenly cagey. “I don’t know,” he says. “She says they’re a waste of time but I’ve seen her watching them. Mostly the workout ones. She says they’re very educational.” He considers that. Ruby, who has seen those workout videos far too many times for someone who can’t do a sit up, nods in perfect agreement with that assessment.
“Workout videos are very popular with some women,” she says seriously.
Henry nods as though he understands, contemplating his mug when she slides it across the counter. “I think Emma Swan is pretty cool,” Ruby says, conspiratorially.
Henry laughs. “She wishes ,” he says, and Ruby can easily imagine him, for a moment, as R.M. Queen’s son. “She’s such a dork. But I like her.” He sits back, satisfied and lost in thought, and Ruby watches him and doesn’t quite understand any of this, but for the creeping suspicion still at the back of her mind.
“I like her, too,” Ruby says, and Henry shares a happy smile with her. There’s something almost secretive to this kind of bonding, that knowledge that someone else out there has the same fandom as you. Ruby likes this kid, even if he is R.M. Queen’s little guy, and she’s short enough on friends in real life who care about Emma Swan that she’ll count Henry as one of them.
“Hey,” Henry says suddenly. “Maybe if– maybe she comes here sometimes, you know?” He’s looking at her, eyes shifty, as though he isn’t quite sure that he can trust her. “Maybe she’d come here to the diner sometime really soon. I don’t know.”
Ruby tilts her head. She doesn’t need to force her laugh. “Henry, are you saying that Emma Swan would come all the way out here to Storybrooke, Maine, to eat at Granny’s Diner?”
Henry nods solemnly. “Your cocoa is really good,” he says. “Even my mom likes your food, and she’s really picky. She said she really likes the ambulance.”
“Ambu–” Ruby catches it. “The ambiance is pretty great,” she agrees, and straightens. Regina Mills is rushing in through the front door of the diner, looking as though she’s running ten minutes late and knows it, and Mulan is standing at the window and glaring at Ruby. “And here’s your mom.”
“Henry!” Regina flies across the room, wrapping Henry in her arms. “I’m so late! I’m sorry! There was traffic getting home, and a fallen tree on the road–” She holds on tightly to him and he squirms out of her arms, looking embarrassed.
“It’s fine, Mom. Ruby watched me while I was waiting for you. She likes Emma, too.” He beams at her. Regina eyes her with deep distrust.
Ruby manages a tight smile. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m one of her Uglies.” If she hadn’t already known who Regina was, she might have figured it out right then, in the wary way her eyes flicker over Ruby. Ruby stares back, struggling to keep her gaze innocuous, and Regina turns away at last, putting a hand to Henry’s shoulder as they go.
Mulan walks in a few minutes later, still frowning at her, and Ruby groans. “Stop. I didn’t say anything. I was talking to the kid about Emma and then his mom eyeballed me like that. I’m an innocent .”
Mulan snorts. “You’re far from innocent,” she says, but she sits at the counter, still eyeing Ruby supiciously.
Ruby pours her some cocoa, too, and sprinkles in a little cinnamon. “He said Emma might come to visit sometime really soon,” she says. “This diner, in Storybrooke. You think…?”
“I don’t know what I think,” Mulan says. “I know what you think.” It’s pronounced with some bemusement instead of her usual disdain, and somehow that’s even worse. “I’ve seen your tweets.”
“You are going to tell me your Twitter one of these days,” Ruby says, scrunching up her face. “And yeah, of course I think that, Scully . It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Mulan rolls her eyes. “Okay, Mulder ,” she shoots back. “Because there’s no other reasonable explanation for Emma Swan knowing Henry Mills. Just…that.”
“You can say it, you know,” Ruby says, lowering her voice. “It’s not a dirty word. Swan Queen .”
Mulan sighs into her cocoa. “It’s a joke. Not even a good one.”
“Emma is metaphorically pulling R.M. Queen’s pigtails every time they’re online,” Ruby argues. “Obviously she has a crush . And if they’re also hanging out in real life, then that must mean that–”
Mulan sips at her cocoa, a little bit of the milk left behind on her upper lip. “We’re hanging out in real life,” she points out. “And we’re not secretly dating, so–” Ruby can feel her own cheeks flush just as Mulan’s do. “They hate each other,” she says. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The thing about Swan Queen is that it is mostly a joke, invented by Uglies to piss off the Queenies. Sort of. Basically, like, every Ugly out there likes women, aside from the younger subset which they don’t mix with unless said younger subset appears in their diner requesting cinnamon with cocoa. And Emma herself likes women, so it’s really only natural that they’d take a discerning eye to every interaction she has with women online.
And she interacts with no one more than R.M. Queen.
Queenies hate the fact that their vaunted Serious Author’s biggest claim to fame in the years since Book Six is a Twitter squabble that has captivated half the world. Queenies particularly hate the fact that Uglies have decided that the squabbling women are doing it out of sheer sexual tension.
And yeah, that antagonistic relationship is totally Ruby’s jam. She’s read more than a few fanfics about them, where R.M. Queen gets all hot and bothered by Emma’s tweets and storms onto the set of one of her videos, where their tweets devolve into passionate sexting via DMs, and she’s been avidly following that big hit fic where Emma goes to R.M. Queen’s autograph session and they begin a long and angsty affair. It’s been fun to speculate about something that would never happen, that should happen in a perfect world, but there’s no chance–
Except that maybe there is, and maybe they’ve been wrong about this all along. Mulan is skeptical, but she keeps coming back each afternoon between jobs to contest it. “They’d be hiding it,” she says. “Henry wouldn’t be running around talking about Emma to every stranger he sees.”
“Everyone talks to their waitress,” Ruby says, miffed at that. “I’m fun and approachable . Just because you’ve got a stick up your ass, Queenie –” Mulan rolls her eyes, drinks her cocoa, and continues to not tell Ruby what her Twitter is.
She’s back the next day with a new argument. “I just don’t see it. R.M. Queen doesn’t even follow Emma, and she doesn’t allow anyone but her mutual followers to message her. Which means that all their interactions are the ones we’ve seen. None of that is leading toward romance.”
Ruby pours her another cocoa, on the house. Mulan has been getting a lot of things on the house, for some reason. Ruby can’t help herself. “We don’t know how famous people hang out. Maybe they have mutual friends.” Mulan scoffs. “Maybe they were both on some list of the greatest influencers of the year and met at a reception.” Mulan scoffs harder.
The next time she comes, it’s with a new argument. “Emma is too much of a–” She stops short.
Henry blinks up at her from his seat at the counter. “Hey, Coach! Are you an Ugly, too?” he asks excitedly, and Mulan stares at him with a positively hilarious look of aghast denial on her face. Ruby watches, grinning.
“I…” Mulan recovers, frowns in vague comprehension. “Is that the YouTube lady Ruby’s always talking about?” she says, her confusion impressive as fuck . The art of pretending to be fandom-ignorant is a delicate one that Ruby has never mastered. With Mulan, she nearly believes it.
Henry eyeballs her, suddenly distrustful. “You wouldn’t understand,” he says, chin jutting up in adolescent superiority. “Ruby gets it.”
“Yeah, Mulan,” Ruby says smugly. “This is way more intense than you could handle.”
Mulan rolls her eyes. “I’m leaving,” she announces, turning around.
Ruby tries her best not to look disappointed. Henry grins at her, then pouts up at Mulan. “Stay for cocoa,” he says, throwing an exaggerated wink at Ruby.
Ruby winks back as Mulan turns, reluctant. “Yeah, Mulan, stay for cocoa,” she pouts, and Mulan seems temporarily without words to respond. Ruby grins, pouring her the cocoa and shaking in a little bit of cinnamon. “The Ugly Duckling way,” she says, tossing another wink at Henry.
Henry beams at Mulan. “Try it,” he says. “Everyone likes it. Then you should watch Emma’s videos! She has workout routines and all that kind of stuff that you like. I could show you the best ones!”
Mulan blinks down at him, at a loss, and Ruby leans back against the coffee machine, thoroughly enjoying this exchange. Mulan is so cute when she’s flustered. Henry is wingmanning like a pro. “Have you ever seen any of them?” he asks Mulan, persistent.
The diner door opens, and Ruby looks away from them for a moment, distracted. A woman has walked into the diner, sunglasses perched on her nose and a casual baseball cap over her blonde ponytail. Ruby’s heart stops for just a moment. “Mulan,” she says, her voice strangled.
The woman is coming toward them, and Henry turns around to see where they’re staring and brightens. “You’re here!”
“Hey, kid,” the woman says, scooping Henry up under her arm and ruffling his hair. “Your mom thought I’d find you here. Says you have a crush on the waitress.”
Henry looks horrified. “ Ew ,” he says. Ruby is still staring at the woman, her mouth hanging open. Mulan puts her fingers below Ruby’s chin and closes said mouth for her. “Come on!” Henry says, promptly forgetting Ruby and Mulan. “I told you, they make the best bear claws here. You have to try one!”
“Right.” The woman smiles briefly at Ruby, and Ruby nearly falls over. “Any chance we can get two of these famous bear claws?”
“Sure. I can– I have bears. Claws. Bear claws,” Ruby stammers, and the woman gives her an odd smile. “On the house.” She has to stop giving away free stuff. Granny’s going to kick her ass. She doesn’t think she’d trust herself to handle any change right now, though.
The woman takes the bear claws, smiling at her absentmindedly but with eyes only for Henry. Henry is chattering, prior promises forgotten in favor of telling the woman about his last soccer game and a project he’s doing at school, and they settle down in Regina’s booth, elbows on the table as they tear into their bear claws.
“That was…that was Emma, right?” Mulan says, staring at the booth. “That was definitely Emma. Don’t you…want an autograph or something?”
“Shh,” Ruby hisses, finding her voice at last. “This is more important than that.”
Mulan squints at her as though she’s wondering if the sugar in Granny’s pastries have done a number on her. “What is?”
“The truth ,” Ruby says, and she stares determinedly at the counter, avoiding Emma’s curious glances.
It works. Emma talks to Henry until she seems to have forgotten Ruby’s behavior altogether, and she comes up to purchase another bear claw and an apple tart. “Long trip coming in,” she says, conversational, and Ruby nods and smiles.
“You from out of town?” she says as though she doesn’t know .
“Boston. Hey, you know Henry, right? How’s he settling in?” She sounds worried, protective of him, and Ruby reminds herself that she absolutely can not tweet about this, no matter how fondly it makes her feel toward Emma.
“He’s doing well, I think. Mulan says he’s one of the team by now,” Ruby says, keeping her voice steady. It’s getting easier by the moment. Emma is so plainspoken, as natural in real life as she is online, and it isn’t hard to see her as person instead of celebrity . “And he talks about friends and–”
“What about his mom?” Emma persists, and Ruby blinks at her, back to wordless.
“They…they seem close,” she manages at last. “They spend a lot of time at the diner together.” It’s what Emma wants to hear, apparently, because she gives Ruby a warm smile that has her flushed and stammering and she wanders back to Henry’s booth.
Mulan lingers behind the counter, bumping against Ruby as she takes orders for her. The diner is getting busier as the evening crowd filters in, and Emma and Henry stay in their little booth together, thick as thieves, ordering more food than any two people could possibly eat.
It’s only after the evening crowd is settled that the door opens and Regina Mills finally enters. Mulan is the one to notice first, and she seizes Ruby’s arm and squeezes. “Look,” she hisses.
Regina takes a seat at the table, next to Henry. Ruby can’t see Emma’s face when she looks at Regina’s, but she sees Regina’s smile, the curved, affectionate one that she saves for Henry.
They sit for a while together, all three engrossed in conversation, and Ruby sneaks glances at them as she winds around the diner, giving out orders. Emma is loud and animated, Henry full of energy, and Regina is muted, listening more than she speaks up. When she does speak, both of her companions have such looks of sheer fondness on their faces that Ruby craves to understand.
They finish up, and Henry departs from their booth to go to the bathroom as Regina and Emma pack up their leftovers. “You eat like a child,” Regina murmurs, wrinkling her nose as they wait for Ruby to bag it all up.
Emma nudges her. “It’s one of my best qualities,” she says, and she leans comfortably against Regina’s shoulder for a moment. Ruby busies herself with their bags, swallowing hard.
The crowd is beginning to disperse, and Ruby decides that Granny has everything under control when Emma and Regina wander outside the diner to wait for Henry. The front eating area is empty, lit with little bulbs and streetlamps, and they’re standing in the middle of the section as they murmur to each other. Ruby slips out the side door, Mulan on her heels.
“No concept of privacy,” Mulan murmurs into her ear as they round the diner.
“And yet, here you are with me,” Ruby shoots back, and they peer together around the corner, into the outdoor seating area.
Emma is leaning against the half wall at the sidewalk, tugging Regina closer as she presses a kiss to her lips. Ruby can’t make out their faces or hear what they’re whispering to each other, but she can see so much–
- The way they almost sway as they kiss, movement like dancing.
- Every breathy sigh loud as a dozen whispers.
- Regina’s hand splayed out on Emma’s cheek, cradling it.
- The way they part after the kiss, silhouetted in the moonlight with their foreheads pressed together.
- Th3UglyDuckling and R.M. Queen, in an embrace once more as though they can’t get enough of each other.