Chapter 1: NOW
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.
Chapter 2: BEFORE
Henry hasn’t spoken to her in twenty-four hours, as of five minutes ago. Not that Regina is keeping count, except she absolutely is, because this is misery at its finest and she’s always had a gift for cataloguing that. Henry had said a sleepy good morning to her yesterday, and then he hadn’t spoken to her once over the duration of the evening after school.
How was school? Grunt.
Did you make any new friends? Grunt.
Do you like your teacher? Grunt.
Is it better than Seattle? A final grunt, this one quieter than the rest, because of course it’s better than Seattle. A tent in the middle of nowhere would have been a better school than Seattle, and this is about as close as it gets to that. Well, not quite a tent . Henry had been bullied mercilessly in his last school, to the point that he’d come home crying more than once, and Regina had made the decision to move after the school’s incompetence at addressing it.
Henry had hugged her tightly after that, had been ecstatic to go and get a new start, had chattered about Storybrooke like it would be their town, the perfect new home.
Then Henry had found her papers in the rush when they’d been moving– had found the adoption papers, which she’d set aside for a time in the distant future when he’d be able to handle them– and all their careful plans had fallen apart.
Henry doesn’t talk to her anymore. They'd unpacked their boxes in grim silence, Henry ignoring her questions until Regina had been frustrated to near-tears, and he had stormed up to his new room then and refused to even explore the house or the town with her. He goes to school now, trudges home, and tells her he hates her when they manage to talk enough to fight.
Henry gets that from her– that he can hold a grudge for so long, so angrily. Regina hasn’t written a word in weeks, stares at her screen and produces nothing at all, because Henry is her world and it stops turning when he’s so upset.
Not that she’d get all that much done if he weren’t, she’s forced to concede. She’s on her third draft extension and her editor is beginning to lose patience with her. There is only so much goodwill she can foster with her fame when she’s this behind schedule, and she knows it.
But the problem remains, looming in front of her, that she doesn’t know how it ends. Ideas come to her, usually, fluttering in like moths to a streetlamp, building and building upon each other. Book Seven has had no such moths, no new concepts fluttering into her thoughts, nothing that fits on the page, and she writes mindlessly and feels dissatisfied, scraps draft after draft in defeat.
Nothing works . It’s been eleven years since she’d begun this saga, writing through heartache as she’d struggled to qualify as an adoptive parent and then to be matched with a baby. Henry had come to her just as she’d begun sending out the manuscript, and Once Upon a Time is irrevocably tied to him.
She had never expected it to become so much more than just their story; for it to become the world’s story, for them to have demands and for pieces of the narrative rejected outright and for her to, two books later, discover that what she wants to write will have to be woven around what satisfies the audience. And now, faced with her son’s silence and the world’s clamoring for an ending worthy of the series, Regina is at a loss.
Today has been one of the longest stretches without words, and Regina counts the days automatically, wants to cry with despair at how long Henry can continue this. Twenty-four hours and five minutes. Twenty-four hours and six minutes. Twenty-four hours and–
“That’s Emma Swan,” Henry says suddenly, and Regina jumps, startled at the sound.
Henry points at the cereal box in her hands. “Emma. She makes videos,” he says, and then he stares at the table again.
Regina peers at the box, searches for a dozen questions to ask him, can’t find the words to speak. Henry eats his cereal in silence, eyes glued to the box, and then, as always, his face settles into a scowl and he grabs his bag and leaves, walking to the bus stop on his own as Regina follows from a distance. He hates that she even follows him, and so she keeps back, standing down the block half-obscured by the neighbor’s begonias, struggling not to sob.
When she gets back inside, it’s with a glare at her unused laptop and another glance at the cereal box that had gotten Henry to speak. There’s an attractive woman on the back of the box in various ridiculous poses. She’s beaming in the center one, a bowl of cereal in front of her, and the caption reads, Breakfast done right with Th3UglyDuckling !
Regina sits down at her laptop, grimly determined to understand her son.
Th3UglyDuckling, Regina discovers, has become famous for the most absurd of reasons: videos of her eating . She watches one out of morbid curiosity, then another, then a third.
She doesn’t know why exactly she can’t stop watching. It certainly isn’t for the eating, which makes her cringe more than anything. But there’s something about the way that Emma Swan chats with the camera that is endearing, the way she shares so much so casually and doesn’t put on a show. She is easily provoked– often by herself– and laughs loudly and nervously when she shares a little too much. She has a dozen videos where she only talks about various shows she’s seen and Regina watches every one that day, spellbound.
By the time she looks up, it’s nearly time for Henry to return home and she hasn’t written a word, again . This time, though, she can’t quite regret the past day. She’s no closer to understanding Henry, but she’s beginning to grasp why it is that Th3UglyDuckling appeals to him. She’s goofy, yes, and has a terrible sense of humor that could only strike a chord with a ten-year-old. But she’s also painfully honest, shrugging off past experiences in the foster system and on the streets in between ridiculous pranks and attempted challenges. She lives with a dozen traumas and keeps them close, never repressing them as Regina and Henry do so well.
Henry still isn’t talking to her in the evening. She sits with him as he does his homework, watching his brow furrowing and venturing more than once, “Do you need a hand with that?” Henry glowers at the paper and grunts, which could mean anything.
She takes it as an invitation, emboldened by a day watching Emma Swan take on the world. She moves gingerly across the room to peer down at his math homework. “Decimals are hard,” she says, making a face. “But the important thing to remember is that when we’re talking about money, cents only go back two spaces. See?” She writes the numbers carefully, and Henry refuses to respond but she knows he’s listening.
He does his math and then retreats to his room, and Regina comes up at bedtime. Henry is already in pajamas, tucked into bed with a copy of Once Upon a Time wrapped in his arms like a teddy bear, his head on his pillow and his eyes closed as though he’s sleeping.
He isn’t, of course. Regina can hear his uneven breathing from the door, and she takes careful steps across the room, bending down to press a kiss to his temple. “I love you,” she whispers. “To the moon and back.” She sees the tears slipping out from beneath his eyelids, a tiny concession to the fact that they’re both suffering in silence. She kisses his temple again and then steps away, breathing raggedly.
She writes more that night than she’s written in weeks.
There is a magic to Th3UglyDuckling, and Regina is startled at how easily she gets caught up in it and in Emma Swan. She has Henry’s web history sent to her in a daily email and so she knows that Henry is watching her videos on his iPad, over and over again with almost singleminded focus. The surprise is that she keeps doing the same.
Oh, there are some that are understandable , at least. The workout ones are the ones that Henry rarely watches, mostly because they’re sheer fanservice. Regina watches those more than is perhaps reasonable. But the others– Emma talking about a foster home over a pie of pizza, Emma remembering a friendship-turned-young-love in a video that is just her dangling upside-down from her own couch, hair a golden halo around her and face flushed with blood– those are the ones Regina can’t stop watching.
Emma reviewing books is one of her favorite things to watch, as well. There’s an enthusiasm to her when she enjoys them that appeals to Regina in a very specific way. There is little Regina loves more than watching someone enjoy a good book. There is a magic to it, to uncovering a new world and immersing completely within it, and Emma does so with all the gusto that it deserves.
And, inevitably, it’s Regina’s books that Emma picks up eventually.
Henry still isn’t talking to her, but there’s a quiet anticipation in the house on the morning after Emma promises to read Once Upon a Time . Henry eats quickly, running to get his iPad and check Twitter over and over again. Regina bites her lip and watches in silence, offering him a tentative smile that he almost returns.
Once Upon a Time is his as much as it is hers, stories they’ve woven together over the years. She’d written the first when he’d been an infant, a year with a little boy as her protagonist, fighting to save his town from an evil queen. Henry had grown up on Once Upon a Time , perched on Regina’s lap while she’d read the stories to him, and they haven’t read any together in months but she likes to imagine that he still cares.
Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he knows what’s going to happen.
She’d come to terms a long time ago with the idea that she can’t please everyone. Yes, her novels had enjoyed widespread success, but with that comes doubt and jealousy and more focused criticism. More people read, struggling to understand the appeal, and the ones who don’t will tear apart her stories more readily. More people read, and others will reject her books simply because of that fact.
But Emma Swan has never struck Regina as the sort of person to dislike something only because it is beloved. Her book reviews are earnest and enthusiastic, even when she doesn’t love the book in question, and it’s startling and offputting how much sheer venom she puts into her tweets about Once Upon a Time .
The videos are even worse. Emma dissects every weak moment and turns some of her strongest scenes on their heads. “This is cheap, poorly-written drama for the sake of being drama,” she complains onscreen, making a face. “There’s no thought or creativity. And don’t even get me started on the crap characters.”
Regina is stung. The Internet is abuzz with this, a YouTube darling whose reviews of Once Upon a Time have made a laughingstock of it. All her mentions on her rarely-used Twitter account are from a gang of users who call themselves Uglies, posting mocking excerpts from her book and attacking characters and stories alike.
It’s an infuriating headache, one which Regina is far too proud to fight back against, because she’s a world-famous writer who does not need to sink to Th3UglyDuckling’s level. She refuses to acknowledge Emma at all. Instead, she writes a snide tweet, carefully phrased for maximum devastation.
Emma, apparently, has no such compunction. Her reply is swift and cutting.
The floodgates are opened and Emma proves to be tireless in her quest to drag Regina down with her. There are new tweets from @Th3UglyDuckling in her mentions daily, some aggressively critical and some just mocking.
Regina gives back as good as she gets, never one to take this kind of needling lying down. She’s absorbed in it, in defending her books and striking out at Emma without ever tweeting her directly, and she writes little in between her Twitter battles with Emma and her aptly named Uglies.
Emma follows her on Twitter and Regina refuses to return the favor, to make any notice of Emma’s existence that isn’t in snide tweets that enough people know are directed toward Emma. Acknowledging Emma means validating her reading experience, and Regina is far too angry to do that .
She’s also surprisingly hurt by it. There had been a part of her that had thought that her books could have been for Emma what Th3UglyDuckling had been for Regina. One of Regina’s main characters had been an orphan from the foster system, same as Emma, and she’d been foolish enough to hope that she might have struck a chord with Emma, that the character might have been someone Emma could love.
Instead, Emma’s wholesale rejection of her series burns, and she’s morose and infuriated in equal measure. The exchanges bring her to life as little has in recent times, lost as she’s been in Henry’s resentment and bitterness. She can feel fury thrumming through her and she clings to it, even as her mood dips lower and lower.
Emma crosses a line, at last, and Regina loses all control.
She launches into her direct messages with righteous fury, typing out a stilted comment that takes three tries before she can word it properly.
She blocks Emma, then unblocks her a day later for reasons she doesn’t contemplate. It’s easier to deal with the enemy when she can see her, she supposes. Emma follows her again so promptly after the unblock that she must be keeping an eye on Regina’s account at all times.
The direct messages continue from there, somehow. She doesn’t know why she’s so focused on Emma Swan, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore her. Her direct messages are a combination of more teasing and an awkward sort of conversation that has Regina more flummoxed with each exchange.
She refuses to answer Emma’s more intrusive questions, but Emma is back the next day, prodding at her like a mosquito too distant to swat. Regina fires back responses, ignores the questions that have her stymied, and makes at least a dozen references to Emma’s cereal video within twenty-four hours.
There is something addictive about fighting with Emma, something she could get used to. The months since Storybrooke have felt a lot like being asleep, in this quiet town where she has no friends and a son who has rejected her, and even her editor is giving her space. She hadn’t thought of herself as lonely until she finds herself craving Emma’s chatter, her arguments and her jibes, her messages that Regina shuts down as quickly as they come.
She must be truly desperate.
First of all, provoking R.M. Queen is fun .
No. That isn’t first of all . That’s one hundred percent all of it, the complete and full reason why Emma can’t help herself. R.M. Queen is absolutely withering in her criticism, but she also boasts a surprisingly fragile ego for someone who’s been subjected to critique since her first two books had soared into popularity. It’s like scratching a mosquito bite. She knows it’s a bad idea, but she can’t help herself.
She sends R.M. Queen a link to a porno she finds that’s been inspired by Once Upon a Time , just to watch her explode.
R.M. Queen watches it, and comes back with a list of characterization issues, including 3) Snow White is far too aggressively heterosexual to get involved in an orgy and 11) The Evil Queen doesn’t share, which are valid points and Emma really has no reason to spit out half her drink all over her screen.
When she’s done cleaning off her laptop, R.M. Queen is gone again, ignoring her messages, and Emma sends out some tweets with snappy wording about exactly how straight Snow White is. That gets R.M. Queen’s attention, and she retorts with a subtweet about how anyone who thinks that Snow White is a homophobe must simply be lacking basic reading comprehension .
She gets new DMs over that one, these defensive, but illuminating in a whole different way.
Because R.M. Queen had just solidly– had she really ? Did R.M. just say that she–?
Emma sits on this bombshell for nearly a day before she’s ready to burst, before she has a thousand questions for her rival, including so why don’t you watch my workout videos and were you flirting back when i was flirting with you . She settles instead on a far more neutral topic.
then why are all ur characters in toxic straight relationships? she demands, and she doesn’t get a response for a while.
When she does, it’s far less illuminating. The general public would disagree with you on that.
the general public loves toxic straight relationships , Emma retorts. you’re supposed to be better than that.
R.M. Queen doesn’t respond to that at all.
Maybe that’s a part of why the books rile her up so much. Because R.M. Queen, the more Emma speaks to her and the more she reads her Twitter and her interviews and pretty much anything about the reclusive writer that might shed some light onto her thought process, seems like someone who does share Emma’s perspective on a lot of this. And it’s an ongoing, consistent disappointment to see that someone like her can still wind up writing such garbage .
The first two books aren’t that bad, to be fair. They’re shaky at times, but the characters shine through, and the second one had made Emma fond of the Evil Queen when she’d been a committed savior fan. The third and fourth had had enough bits and pieces that had felt authentic to the initial spirit of the series that Emma had gotten through them easily.
It had been the fifth that had broken her. She’d gone into it with high hopes for the characters she’d liked best, and she’d been crushed at where they’d gone. R.M. Queen had lost whatever spark there had been that had made the first books so good .
There are theories about it, articles and posts that her fans had linked her to while she’d been reading the fifth and sixth books. Some point to her dedications to the more recent books as a sign that there’s tension at home that have changed the books’ direction. Some say that she must be in some kind of terrible relationship now.
She holds her personal life so close to her chest that the public can’t help but speculate. Emma likes to do the opposite, to share so much that no one wonders about the gaps in between. Or maybe it’s only that she’s a product of twenty-eight years of never having anyone to listen to her, and those long-contained words are spilling out now.
She wonders if R.M. Queen has seen her videos. She wonders if R.M. Queen has ever read her tweets and thought about them, and seen them as something else other than sniping.
She only wonders these things in quiet, sappy moments, when her tweets are melancholy and she hasn’t verbally sparred with R.M. Queen in days. There are times even now when the weight of her loneliness feels too heavy, when Internet celebrity can’t disguise the fact that she’s on her own, just as she’s always been.
She regrets the tweet as soon as she sends it, and she deletes it at once. It’s too late, of course. Her followers will have it and pass it around, and she can already see the worried replies coming in through her quality filter. She makes a quick, light comment about how she’d just been roleplaying as an rm queen character and logs off, lying alone in her bed and staring at the ceiling.
The truth about Emma Swan, the one that doesn’t shine through except in those snide thinkpieces by Buzzfeed wannabes, is that for all her popularity online, she’s never even known what it means to matter . She’d been abandoned at the side of the road as a newborn, and had only survived because she’d been found in time. Sometimes she wonders if the world might have been a better place if she’d never been found at all.
She’s had a few bad relationships over the years, marked by betrayals and lies, and she’d had a few foster homes that hadn’t been completely awful. She’d spent a year in prison at seventeen and had become a bail bondsperson out of some gnawing desire to punish parents who’d abandoned their children. Instead, it’s a hard, often unsatisfying job where she’s forced to compromise herself or her job on a daily basis.
She thinks about quitting sometimes. She doesn’t need a job, not with the revenue from her videos and merchandise coming in. But without the occasional fanmeets– and she can’t do too many of those without looking truly pathetic– her job is the only reason she has to leave her apartment some days.
She isn’t supposed to think about any of this. She’d been reading Once Upon a Time Book One again, which always puts her in a crappy mood, and she knocks the book off her night table and onto the floor in a sudden bout of frustration.
A moment later, her phone pings.
It’s– of all people, it’s R.M. Queen. Your fans are abuzz about your last tweets , she says, and Emma rolls her eyes and ignores it, staring at her lockscreen blankly. Another one pops up. They seem to think that I must have done this to you. Emma stares until the messages are gone and her phone screen is black again.
Ten minutes later, R.M. Queen tries again. You know that they believe we’re in a secret relationship, don’t you?
Emma laughs aloud, jolted from her mood in startled delight. i know that , she writes back. didnt know u knew that. how have u not subtweeted them about it by now?
I won’t acknowledge their idiocy , R.M. responds primly. Your fans are trying to get a rise out of my fans.
plus they think it’s funny because……….well u know , Emma types leadingly.
R.M. answers only with a question mark, and Emma says, u wrote the most offensively straight books of all time?? She’s grinning now, she notices suddenly. There’s nothing like squabbling with R.M. Queen to cheer her up.
You keep saying this, but my eleven million followers say otherwise , R.M. retorts. Emma prepares to make some very apt comparisons about other things that eleven million people have been stupid enough to support, when another message comes in. And I assume they think it’s funny because of all the sexual tension between us .
Emma gapes at her phone for a moment. Did R.M. just… you’re rly trying to cheer me up, huh , she manages, which is nearly as startling as R.M. acknowledging any sexual tension to begin with.
R.M. is offended at that, somehow. I’m not joking. You’ve made it fairly obvious that you get off on instigating fights with me. Your fans are just picking up on that.
Okay, first of all, Emma doesn’t get off on them, and R.M. is a liar if she says she doesn’t–
She looks back at their last few public exchanges and winces.
So maybe they’ve been going a little overboard lately. They can have chatty, coherent conversations in DMs at times, but their tweets are charged, and it’s easy to read them as bitter or as something else entirely. Emma hasn’t exactly been subtle, and…
And yes , R.M. types suddenly.
Yes, I am trying to cheer you up. A reluctant pause, and then, I do know that feeling of being alone, even while you’re surrounded by millions online. I’m not a very social person. You might have deduced that on your own . Wry, self-effacing. It’s a gift from R.M., a little more revealed than ever before, and Emma holds her breath and waits while the little symbol on the screen indicates that R.M. is still typing.
But it’s only two final sentences that emerge after a few minutes of typing. I am surprised that you feel this way, though. You’ve always seemed much more sociable than me in your videos.
So R.M. has seen some of her videos. Emma toys with the idea of jumping on that, but it feels wrong in this conversation, where R.M. has opened up just a bit in response to Emma’s vulnerability. not sociable , she says wryly. i just have no filter.
It’s very endearing.
see this is why my fans think we’re in love.
She can almost imagine the scoff, even if she can’t picture the woman forming it. I’m only stating why it is that people would like you. You have a quality that draws them in. My son adores your videos because he sees you as honest in a way that he’s never seen me. It’s a grudging admission, and Emma looks askance at it.
When uncomfortable, she falls back on humor. u have a quality that draws people in too. bad-tempered rich milf is absolutely my speed.
Must you be so crass? Online, Emma can’t tell if R.M. is irritated or amused.
She goes with the former and stops, penitent. i’m sorry you’re having a hard time with ur son.
It’s a rough patch. It’ll pass. But she sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself of that, and Emma aches for her.
She changes tack, avoiding the topic of the son when R.M. offers no more detail. i think u underestimate the effect ur books have had on people. u have that quality too.
You can’t have it both ways, Ms. Swan , R.M. answers dryly. You can’t tell me how terrible my books are and in the same breath claim that they’re changing lives.
Emma wants to respond with some kind of admission, whether it’s I read the scene where the savior woke up her birth son with true love’s kiss before bed every night or the Evil Queen and the savior make me crave a relationship like that or even I don’t think I would hate your books nearly as much if Book Four hadn’t left me hoping for so much.
But they have a dynamic that relies on something else entirely, and it might come crashing down if she says that much for no reason at all. Maybe someday. Maybe that time will come, when they can be perfectly honest and it’ll be worth it.
For now, she shoots back with, i didn’t say that they were changing lives for the better , and she exhales and imagines R.M. laughing in response, a phantom without a face.
Henry is growing more morose, which Regina hadn’t even known was possible. He’s quieter than before, the grunting and sullenness all but gone, and in its place is something muted and dull.
She doesn’t dare ask him about it, not at first. Not when there’s so much still unspoken between them and when he’ll barely even let her love him if it isn’t under the cover of night. Night is the only time when he’ll let her come close, when she can give him a kiss and tell him that she loves him without his adoption coming between them again.
And at night is when she can see that he’s listless, that he barely even touches his iPad anymore. He curls up in bed without even Once Upon a Time in his arms, and Regina tries, tentative, “What’s wrong?”
It seems a ridiculous question to ask. She knows what’s wrong. It’s the same thing that’s been wrong for months, since a single folder full of documents had turned their lives upside down. But something has shifted even there, and Regina wonders–
–A part of her looks at Henry without his book in his arms and wonders if Emma’s tweets had ruined the one last thing they’d had together.
She sucks in a shuddering breath, refusing to crack just yet, and she whispers, “Is it Emma?”
Henry’s eyes fly up to meet hers in frightened confirmation, and he burrows deeper into his bed. His eyes are wet and red, and Regina steps forward, stricken by them. “Henry, please talk to me,” she pleads. “I know you’re angry with me, but–”
“She hates my books!” Henry bursts out, and then he’s crying, sobbing into her shirt as she rushes forward to hold him, her heart cracking at his hurt. A part of her had been certain that Henry had rejected her for Emma, that Henry had rejected Once Upon a Time for Emma, and it had hurt her more than she’d thought possible.
But no , Henry hasn’t rejected the books that are a part of them. He feels as though Emma– his idol, his anchor in a home where he’s been struggling– has rejected him , and Regina hugs him tightly, mumbling soothing whispers in his ears. “I’m sorry, baby,” she murmurs. “I’m so sorry.”
He clings to her as he hasn’t in so long, burying his face in her shirt. “I didn’t know– I didn’t even know you knew who she was until I saw you tweeting,” he whimpers. “I promise, she isn’t like that usually. I don’t know why she hates us, but–”
“Henry, no ,” Regina rushes to reassure him. “She doesn’t hate you. I’ve…I’ve seen a lot of her videos. She would love you if she knew you. She just has some hangups about the books. Not everyone is going to love everything I’ve written.”
“I do,” Henry says fiercely, and Regina holds him tightly, feeling as though a tiny breakthrough has finally come to them.
She reads to him from Once Upon a Time that night for the first time in months, Henry curled up beside her in her big bed. He falls asleep with his head on her shoulder, and Regina sends one furious DM before she drifts off, her heart broken and healing just a bit in a single night.
With one bafflingly bad-tempered message from R.M. Queen, Emma is left absolutely bewildered. She’d thought things had been going well– or as well as they can be when your nemesis is topping lists of Most Successful Writers of the Decade and your claim to fame is that time you ate a raw onion onscreen.
Still, Emma is kind of wildly attracted to unattainable women, so there’s that.
They’ve had a few more serious conversations since the last, but they feel fleeting, like one wrong word and they’ll fade away again in favor of the comfort of verbal battles. They’re usually playful, light and snide without ever crossing any lines, and Emma has been content with most of them.
But every now and then, R.M. manages to land a blow that hits hard, and her last message is one of her most cutting, somehow. The damage you’re doing is innumerable. I am done with you.
She’s lying about being done with Emma. That much Emma knows, because she says that three times a week and still returns to have the last word again each time. But there’s a genuine hurt to her message, a reminder of kids that Emma has somehow hurt with her fun, and Emma frowns.
She flips off the quality filter and glances through her notifications on Twitter. They’re a mess, of course. Half of them are about her latest video and half of them are about Once Upon a Time , as per usual. Her fans are egging her on, R.M. Queen’s fans are replying scathingly to her tweets, and aside from some near-hysteric replies that come close to threatening her for her dislike of the series, the most scarring she seems to be doing is from laughing replies from Uglies informing her that she’s ruining their childhoods.
Wait . She pauses, frowning at the next tweet she sees. It’s from earlier in the night, a plaintive comment from a fan.
She clicks on the fan’s name and reads through the tweets. They’re written by a kid, a little boy who has the presence of mind not to be a part of her fandom. Instead, he tweets to her, over and over again, each more desperate than the last.
He’s miserable, lost, and her heart hurts as she scrolls down. He’d been hit hard by her hatred of Once Upon a Time , and he refers to it more than once as his . He’s having some issues with his mother, too, and he’s–
– oh , he’s adopted and dealing with it, and she feels even worse now than she had at first.
Maybe R.M. Queen had been right. Maybe she’s been doing harm where she hadn’t realized. She thinks once of R.M. and her own turmoiled relationship with her son, and her guilt triples and quadruples, her heart clenching.
She reads the kid’s whole feed, an unpleasant pit in her stomach, and she drifts off to sleep with her phone still in her hand, feeling for the first time in a while as though she really is a failure.
In the morning, she comes up with a plan.
She’ll send the kid something nice and maybe tone down the Once Upon a Time hate on Twitter at least a little bit. She can keep it in her DMs, anyway, where it’s fun to fight R.M., anyway. The kid doesn’t need to see any of it.
He gives her an address in Maine, probably about five hours away, and she puts together a care package for him. A binder, a bag, a thermos that she tries signing and instead kind of scribbles all over. A list of her favorite books, just in case he wants to swap out the Once Upon a Time obsession. A few stickers and posters.
She doesn’t realize until she’s done that she’s got way too much to mail, and she inspects the pile of goodies again, contemplating what she can put away. She’s determined to do right by this kid, who seems heartbroken by her rejection of his favorite books. She’d dreamed, once, of being adopted like him, of having a family where she’d belonged. And it seems so wrong that he’d be unhappy even with that, enough that she can’t quite shake him from her heart.
She breathes in, remembers the address again. Storybrooke, Maine . There’s a bail jumper holed up in Maine whom she’s been pushing off pursuing because it’s so far , but maybe…
She’s in the car before she can think through her plans, driving up to Storybrooke with a car full of Th3UglyDuckling merchandise. This is probably her worst idea yet, but she can’t shake the thought of a boy she’s damaged with Th3UglyDuckling. R.M. had said that her own son had liked Emma because Emma had been honest, that she’d made a difference with him. She hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. She hadn’t meant to hurt a little boy who had been relying on her for comfort.
If she isn’t shot by what sounds like a very overprotective mom, maybe she can do some good today.
Today has been better. Henry had awakened in her bed with a sleepy smile on his face like old times, and he’d let her hug him and walk him to the bus stop. “I know you’re still angry with me,” Regina had said at the bus stop, bending to look him in the eye. “I know it’s hard to let go of that anger and I want to…I want you to let go of it when you’re ready. Not because I ask you to.” Henry watches her, very solemnly, and then nods with reluctance as the bus arrives.
He’s in a better mood in the afternoon when he returns from school. “Something cool happened this morning,” he says when they’re preparing for dinner, but refuses to elaborate on it. “You’ll be mad.”
“Henry,” Regina says, passing him the silverware to set out at the table. “There is very little you could do today that would make me mad.”
Henry flushes, a smile stealing onto his face, and Regina kisses the top of his head and gives him a tight halfway hug. At last, things are beginning to look up.
They eat peacefully, the tension between them less stretched, less stiff. Henry offers two details about his day– I built a birdhouse and Nick wants to hang out sometime – and Regina is giddy with it, with a hurdle overcome and a first crack of light in the grey that has surrounded them for months. She offers a detail of her own day– I got some writing done!– and indulges in Henry’s beaming grin for a moment before they’re rudely interrupted by the doorbell.
“Who’s that ?” Henry asks, frowning. No one comes to their door here. They’ve lived in solitude since they’d arrived, greeted by neighbors once or twice before Regina had been standoffish enough that they’d stopped pushing.
Regina rises. “Let’s see,” she says. “Maybe our mail wound up next door again–” She pulls open the door.
Emma Swan smiles sheepishly at her. “Hi,” she says.
Emma Swan is standing in her doorway, shifting from foot to foot uncertainly as Regina stares. For a moment, Regina is certain that Emma has somehow tracked her down– that this is a twisted attempt to…she doesn’t know what –
They’ve had an odd relationship lately, the kind where it almost feels, at times, like they might be friends. Regina doesn’t do friends, doesn’t meet people who don’t dislike her at once, and she certainly doesn’t expect it from the woman who had made it her business to tear Regina’s life’s work apart.
But Emma has been different lately. They still fight, still tear each other to shreds on Twitter, but the messages have gotten increasingly more personal, the discussions quiet and without the veneer of dislike. Regina enjoys it almost as much as she does their fights, and she is frozen in shock, remembering that Emma has mentioned that it’s her job to track down bail jumpers, that Emma could certainly track down one high-profile woman on Twitter–
But then Henry says, “Holy crap ,” from behind her in pure awe, and then, “You came!” with more energy than he’s said anything in months. He barrels past Regina to Emma, wrapping her into a viselike embrace.
Emma kneels in his embrace, hugging him back tightly before Regina says, “ What is going on,” and they both look up at her with equally shamefaced expressions.
“It was just–”
“I wanted to–”
They’re stumbling over each other to explain, and Regina is horrified at the surge of fondness she feels toward Emma Swan, longtime mortal enemy, at this reaction. Henry and Emma exchange a worried glance, already thick as thieves, and Regina clears her throat and says, “Henry, is this the cool thing that happened this morning?” Henry bobs his head, puppy face firmly in place.
“I was just going to send some merch,” Emma says, apologetic. “I just had so much and I wanted to…it seemed like Henry was going through a rough patch, you know? And I saw his tweets and I wanted to do something. When I realized you were so close–”
“We’re five hours away from Boston,” Regina says, unimpressed. Emma’s eyebrows shoot up, and maybe Regina’s said too much and known a little too much about Emma. Regina clears her throat. “This is highly inappropriate.”
Emma grimaces. “I know. I know. I just…I wanted to help,” she says weakly, offering Henry another nervous smile, and Regina blinks at her and wonders if she had taken Regina’s last DM to her to heart.
It’s disconcerting, standing opposite Emma without Emma knowing who she is, but Emma has proven today to be perfectly willing to invade anyone’s privacy, and is therefore not trustworthy. “You’ve been on the road for a while,” Regina says finally, and Henry’s bright eyes tell her she’s made the right choice. “Why don’t you come on inside?”
So now they have a twenty-eight-year-old woman with boundary issues in their house, visiting her ten-year-old son. Emma sits nervously in the study, an enormous bag of paraphernalia at her feet, and Henry sits beside Regina on the opposite couch. “I saw you were having a rough time with…with the adoption, and with Once Upon a Time , and I thought…” Emma swallows, glancing at Regina again. Regina suspects that she’d probably feel more at home if there weren’t another adult in the room. “I don’t know. I was almost adopted once, you know?”
Henry’s brow furrowed. “You never talked about that.”
“It wasn’t funny,” Emma says wryly, darting another glance at Regina. “I talk about funny stuff. I was fostered by the same family until I was three. Then they had their own kid and sent me back.” She shrugs. “It’s whatever. I just…” She crouches in her seat, eye height to Henry. “It’s pretty cool that someone chose you, yeah? I don’t know if that helps– I just wanted to say it.”
Henry considers her thoughtfully. Regina keeps a hand on his shoulder, squeezing tightly, and Henry says, “Yeah. Maybe.”
Emma rocks back in her seat, exhaling as though she’d done what she’d come for, as though she’d driven five hours to tell a ten-year-old boy that someone had chosen him. Regina feels a twinge in her chest at the thought of it. “Okay. Cool.”
Henry says abruptly, “Why don’t you like Once Upon a Time ?” His arms are crossed, and Regina knows that there would be a book held within them if he’d had his handy. There are a dozen on the shelf behind them, but Regina doesn’t dare turn around to look at them, lest Emma catch on to exactly who they are.
Emma bites her lip, looking to Regina, and she falters at the look in Regina’s eyes. Regina doesn’t know what she’s seen there. Maybe just an equal determination to understand what it is that Emma hates about the books they’ve created together. “It’s…I don’t hate it,” she says finally. “Everyone has different tastes. I just–” Henry’s face is crumpling, and Emma freezes.
Regina says, afraid at once that Emma will stammer out a secret love for a series she very publicly and loudly despises, “Tell him the truth. He doesn’t like lies.” Emma’s eyes shoot to her at that, look at her with a sudden expression that Regina can’t name. Regina keeps her face grim, and Emma squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head.
“It’s not what you think. The main character– the savior– she’s–” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “She’s a lot like me, you know? Minus the secret kid at seventeen or whatever. We have similar pasts and I guess I– I don’t know, I imprinted onto her.” Regina’s heart pounds. Emma makes a face. “Don’t get me wrong. The writing is still bland and the characters inconsistent–” Regina’s lips tighten. “–But I got really attached to the savior in that first book.”
Henry leans forward. “She’s great!” he says eagerly, warming to Emma again. “And she has that epic love story–”
Emma’s face twists. “Yeah, that,” she says, scowling. “All of it, really. You can tell that at some point, R.M. Queen stopped writing for her characters and started writing for her readers or her editor or someone . Whatever they wanted, they got. Every now and then, there are bits that feel like she might care about them, but then they’re gone as soon as the next book starts. And it’s…I don’t know. It hurts, reading something like that when you’re in so deep.” She takes a deep breath, her eyes on Henry, and her eyes flicker over and away from Regina’s stricken look. “I guess that isn’t really an excuse for how I’ve been trashing the series, but–”
“It’s okay,” Henry says, and he’s looking at Emma with new compassion, wise beyond his age when it comes to these matters. “You’re like…in savior fandom. People always get weird when they’re in fandoms.”
Emma laughs hard, a little wetly. “That’s definitely true,” she agrees, and they smile at each other, a little timidly, before Emma straightens. “I’d…I’d better get going,” she says. “It’s been a whole day since I last fought with R.M. Queen. She’s probably missing me.” She gives Henry a wink when he laughs, oblivious to why it is he’s laughing.
“I don’t think so,” Henry says thoughtfully, darting a sly glance at Regina.
Emma blinks at him, brow furrowing, then laughs, though it sounds a little odd. “Yeah, you’re right. She’s probably happy for the break.” She rises. “Thank you for your hospitality,” she says graciously to Henry, and then turns to Regina, who still hasn’t moved. “And not calling the cops. It was…it was great to meet you both.” She looks up at Regina, the same unreadable expression on her face, and she opens her mouth as though to say something more and then closes it. Regina can’t speak.
Henry cuts in carefully, “Thanks, Emma. Your videos are…your videos make me really happy.” He says it shyly, and Emma looks at him as though he’s handed over the entire world to her.
He walks her from the room, out into the foyer, and Regina is gripped with a surge of urgency, of the knowledge that she has to do something or this is it –
She’s racing past Henry at the door, down the path to the hideous yellow Volkswagon Beetle parked in front of their house, and she stops at the sidewalk and blurts out, “That’s it ? That’s your issue with the books?”
Emma, standing at her car, looks bewildered and taken aback at it. “I…what?”
“You don’t like the savior’s treatment?” Regina sputters, outraged. “You take issue with every single little nitpick you can! You critique every character! And you’re going to claim it boils down to– to caring too much ?”
Emma is still staring blankly at her. “I mean, yeah, a lot of the books’ charm is in how terrible every cliche is and how they still manage to pack an emotional punch. I’d probably forgive a lot more of it if not for the savior– and the queen, too, actually, because she deserves a much better story than Robin Hood –”
“So…what? You’d like the books if not for some silly crowd-pleasing love stories?” Regina demands, incredulous.
“Yes!” Emma says, thumping the side of the car. “Yes, I would, because that’s where the story is broken . Don’t you see it? Fairytales and…and all that garbage matters because it speaks to us. And the books are trying to speak to everyone and I get that! I do! But they try so hard that they don’t speak to anyone anymore. They lost their soul.”
Regina tries to scoff, but it comes out strangled in the face of Emma’s sincerity, and she can feel herself close to tears. “The readers seem content with how it’s gone,” she says, swallowing hard. Her eyes are glassy in the light reflecting off of them from the road, her heart in her throat, and she shakes her head again and feels the tears slipping down her cheeks. “They wouldn’t…they wouldn’t take well to whatever nonsense soul the writer puts into it. That isn’t what they’re looking for.”
Emma watches her for a long moment, and she murmurs, “They might surprise you.”
“Me?” Regina echoes, and she doesn’t know when she’s shown her hand but she’s certain that she has, from the stillness of Emma’s face, from the way she’s being watched. “I’m not…”
“You didn’t give me your name,” Emma says, and she takes a daring step forward, reaches out to touch Regina’s cheek gently with the tips of her fingers. “You know everything about me, and I don’t even know your name.”
“Regina. Regina Mills,” Regina says numbly. It’s impossible to dismiss Emma, to reject her quiet inquiries, the questions to which she already seems to know the answer.
“R.M.,” Emma murmurs, and now her fingers have become her hand, have become a caress across Regina’s cheek. “With a son who loves my videos and Once Upon a Time .”
“Emma–” Regina says, her voice strained.
Emma says, her eyes bright, her lips curled into a wry smile, “You know, I really have terrible game. But somehow– I think I might have known this one from the start. I know you.” Her hand runs along Regina’s cheekbone, to her jaw, then up to brush her tears away. “Tell me, Regina Mills,” she breathes, and she’s standing so close that it’s barely an exhale. “What do you do for a living?”
Her lips are close, her eyes wide open and fixed on Regina’s. Regina is helpless within her grasp. “I’m a writer,” she murmurs, and Emma closes the distance between them at last.
Chapter 3: NOW
R.M. Queen and Th3UglyDuckling are together. R.M. Queen and Th3UglyDuckling are together.
It’s like a shipper’s fantasy. It’s like a ridiculous romance novel, the kind that was clearly adapted off fanfiction, because– what the fuck . And somehow, it’s real.
Ruby writes a dozen tweets and deletes each one before she can send them. She isn’t exactly known for her filter, but this, she knows, is off-limits. She has better gossip than anything on stan Twitter since one of the biggest Queenies had switched sides, the biggest buzz since the autograph table Swan Queen fic had first begun posting, and she has to keep it to herself, which is wholly unfair.
She sighs to herself and returns to filling the dishwasher. Eventually, this will come out. Everything always does, and Emma and Regina had seemed pretty serious. They can’t keep that a secret forever, can they? And Ruby can be smugly unsurprised, please, I saw them months ago , and she’ll just have to cling to that as her lifeline if she’s going to protect Emma’s privacy.
By morning, she’s resigned to the fact that she’s sitting on the greatest secret to ever grace Uglies fandom and she can’t tell a soul. This is her karmic punishment for picking too many fights with Queenies, probably. She snickers to herself for a moment, delighted with the mental image of the uptight Queenies who like to insist that Swan Queen shippers are toxic having to deal with the reality of it.
At least she has the truth. She rubs her eyes, yawning into her coffee, and brightens when one of the subjects on her mind strides into the diner. Emma has the ponytail again, though she’s eschewed the sunglasses for today. Maybe she’d decided that there are no Uglies in town. Henry certainly hadn’t given Ruby away, because Emma smiles at her tiredly and says, “Hey, Henry’s friend.”
“Yep,” Ruby says, pouring her some coffee. “That’s what everyone calls me.” Emma looks sheepishly at her. “Ruby,” Ruby clarifies, offering her a smile that she hopes is more breezy than starstruck.
“Sorry,” Emma says, taking her coffee and pulling up a seat at the counter. “That’s pretty much how I see everyone in town– however they know Henry and Regina.” She takes a swallow of the coffee and then exhales as though she’s found heaven. “This is amazing. You’re dating Henry’s soccer coach, right? Small world.”
Ruby chokes on her coffee. “Nooo,” she says, dragging out the word. Is she flushing? Dammit. “Definitely not. I mean, not that she isn’t cute–” Because Ruby is just that much of a useless bisexual that she can’t play it cool, even in front of a stranger . “But no. We’re just friends.” Her cheeks are flaming, and Emma grins at her, which only makes it worse.
“You’d make a cute couple,” she says.
Ruby sighs, increasingly useless. “I know, right?” she says, snorting at her own reaction. Mulan is completely different than Emma, on whom she’s had a crush for far too long, and she’s a Queenie and sporty and all the worst things in the world, but also…cute. Really cute. She downs some more coffee, which she probably should have spiked just a little. “You in town long?” she says in a clumsy attempt to change the subject.
Emma sees right through her attempt, smirks, but doesn’t comment on it. “As long as I can get away with. I’m a bail bondsperson,” she explains, and Ruby’s eyebrows shoot up. Emma’s never mentioned a second job during her videos. “It can be soul-sucking at times.” Emma sounds weary again, tired at the thought of it. “Sometimes you just want to…go to the middle of nowhere and disappear. No offense,” she says, grinning at Ruby.
Ruby grins back. “None taken,” she says with a rueful sigh. “I know we’re in the middle of nowhere. This town is boring as fuck .” She likes Emma. Back when she thought she’d never actually meet her, she’d wondered if Emma would be the kind of YouTuber who wound up being a dick in real life. It’s been a nice surprise that she doesn’t despise her.
It’s been even more surprising that she feels downright fond of R.M. Queen now that she’s met her and Henry. And seeing her in a liplock with Emma had definitely helped. She says slyly, “No idea why you’d want to come out here. There are probably closer middles of nowhere.”
Emma takes the bait, guileless. “To be dramatically ignored by the most irritating woman I know, mostly.” She heaves a sigh, lost in her own world, and Ruby blinks. She hadn’t expected that response.
Emma seems to catch herself. “Sorry,” she says, chewing on her lip. “Didn’t mean to throw my business all over you.”
“Come on,” Ruby says, attempting to sound a whole lot less invested than she is. It’s hard , and she feels a flash of guilt that she tamps down. Yeah, maybe she knows more than she lets on, but she’s also here to help . Anyone would do the same. “I’m your waitress,” she wheedles. “That’s basically a daytime bartender.” Emma laughs, and Ruby leans forward, snatching a rag from under the counter to mop the counter dramatically. “Tell me all your woes.”
Emma laughs again, then sighs, still as much of an open book here as she is online. “You know when you reach that point in a relationship where you don’t even know if you’re still in the relationship or if you’re just there because her son likes you?”
A very specific situation. Ruby says, very honestly, “Not really. Middle of nowhere, remember? Not much of a dating pool here. I’ve dated one girl. It was online and she wound up being in this weird relationship with an older man.” Belle had been really sweet up until then– after then, too, and even extricating herself from that mess had been hard for Ruby.
Emma laughs wryly. “I met my girlfriend online, too.” Ruby studies the counter determinedly, afraid of what her eyes might give away. The lack of eye contact seems only to embolden Emma. “Mostly I was a pain in her ass until she gave me the time of day.” She sounds soft now, wistful, the very opposite of how Ruby would have imagined that dynamic to be. “I don’t know how I got her.”
Ruby is smiling despite herself, and wow , she’d never expected to feel like this over Swan Queen, the elusive kind-of-joke ship where fanfiction has always been more reliable than actual interactions. “You two sound…” Emma looks up, searching, a hint of desperation in her eyes. “Really nice,” Ruby finishes, and Emma slumps in her seat.
“We were,” she says. “We are. I don’t know.” There’s nothing but defeat in her eyes, and Ruby is already shaking her head before Emma says, “I think she’s done with me.”
“No,” Ruby says immediately, because she’d seen the way that Regina had looked at Emma last night, the way she’d held onto her when they’d kissed.
Emma shrugs, helpless. “She was working on this tight deadline for a while, and I thought that that was why she was running so…hot and cold all the time, but the deadline is over and done with and she’s still so…” She stares at the counter. “So distant.”
“She didn’t seem distant last night,” Ruby offers, and Emma blinks at her, suddenly wary. “At the table,” Ruby clarifies swiftly. “I saw you three there for a while. You looked pretty cozy.”
Emma shakes her head. “When Henry isn’t there– it’s changed . I don’t know.” She’s moody, playing with her mug, and she looks up in sudden chagrin. “I’ve really said too much,” she says, wincing. “I’m so sorry. I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Wait,” Ruby protests, seized with a sudden guilt and a need to make things better, but Emma is already headed for the door.
She hadn’t asked , exactly. She hadn’t taken advantage of Emma’s mood to dig into her relationship, and she tells herself that over and over again. This is a strange new line to navigate, knowing someone’s secret identity and more about their relationship than they know you know, and she doesn’t know how she’s doing at it except that she’s found out much too much.
Emma puts out a video that afternoon, and she’s cheerful in it, in the center of a grassy area that must be Henry’s backyard as she does stretches. “I know this is all fanservice, anyway,” she says, winking at the camera. “But you really should be doing these stretches before workouts.” She looks beyond the camera for a moment, to something that her audience can’t see, and her eyes soften.
It’s hardly noticeable if you aren’t looking for it. Ruby wonders who she’d been looking at, Henry or Regina, and concludes a moment later that it must have been Regina when Emma says, “Wow, look at the time! Gotta go!” and jumps up, nearly tripping as she charges toward the camera to shut it off.
So maybe they’ve worked out their problems. Twitter is abuzz at the video, certain that Emma has, in fact, been getting laid. She has a girlfriend?? is the prevailing outrage of three million viewers who had, somehow, believed themselves entitled to Emma’s life. Please , someone else says. She’s getting laid in the middle of the woods. That isn’t a gf, that’s just paradise .
Ruby bites her lip, embarrassed at the thought of it, of Emma Swan and Regina Mills wrapped in each other’s arms in Henry’s backyard. It had been more fun to imagine when they’d been a distant thought, an abstraction. Now it’s a little too close.
She glances sparingly at her phone for the next half hour or so, struggling to keep her distance. Stan Twitter is feeling feisty today, and Ruby can’t figure out her role within it anymore. It’s a relief when she sees Mulan approaching the diner, the one person out there who might actually understand why she’s so torn.
But as Mulan charges in, it becomes very clear that she isn’t angling toward understanding today. “What the hell, Ruby? What the hell?” she demands, clearing the counter with an impressive jump and those impressively long legs and landing on Ruby’s side. She looks agitated, furious, and Ruby is overwhelmed with guilt again. “I thought– against all evidence, I really thought I could trust you.” Mulan whirls around, pacing behind the counter. “I was so stupid .”
Ruby swallows, meek in the face of Mulan’s rage. “Look,” she says, taking a step back. “I didn’t mean to…to betray anyone’s trust or to pry. It just kind of happened.”
Mulan’s eyes burn into her. “How does something like this just happen ?” she says furiously. She looks hurt, betrayed, and Ruby throws up her hands and feels a desperate need to make things right.
“I don’t know! Talk to Emma!” she says, frustrated. “She’s the one who decided to overshare–”
“So you broadcasted her personal business all over the Internet?” Mulan bites out, shaking with rage.
Ruby blinks, suddenly confused. “What?” Come to think of it, there’s no way Mulan would know about the conversation she’d had with Emma. Which means that this is something else entirely. “I think we’re talking about two very different–”
Mulan thrusts her phone at Ruby. “Explain this .” Ruby takes the phone. It’s open to a Twitter account called @swansightings , one of the many gossip Twitters dedicated to Th3UglyDuckling. The tweets are all in emoji, and Ruby scans a few of them, brow furrowing.
“Story. Brook,” Mulan says, on the verge of losing it again. “And the one before it. From last night.”
Ruby blinks at it, at the emoji of a boy and a crown and the duckling beside it. The emoji are too specific not to be saying exactly what it seems like they’re saying, and Ruby swallows. “This is…”
This is exposure , someone doing exactly what Ruby had been so careful not to do. Someone knows the truth, and is using it to out Emma and Regina’s relationship for all their fandoms to see.
“I didn’t do this!” Ruby sputters finally, horrified.
Mulan scoffs, her fists tight and her head shaking slowly back and forth. “The worst part is that I knew you were an Ugly,” she says, and she looks close to tears now. Ruby watches her, at a loss. “I knew exactly what kind of Ugly you were. And I still decided for some idiotic reason that you were genuine and that you really did care about–” Her voice shudders and she swallows again. “–About Henry and about–”
“Mulan,” Ruby says desperately, “I do . I swear, I didn’t make that account. You have to believe me.”
But for all their inroads, for all the progress they’ve made, Mulan doesn’t yield. “There’s no one else who could have,” she spits out, her voice still shaky and hoarse.
And Ruby can feel the stirrings of anger, of the same betrayal that Mulan would accuse her of so easily. “Well, someone did,” she shoots back, and she’s hurt, genuinely hurt that Mulan would think this of her. She wants to lash out, to hurt Mulan like Mulan had hurt her. “How am I supposed to believe that it wasn’t you ?”
Mulan’s face twists, the shaky almost-tears gone in a moment. “How dare you,” she bites out.
“You won’t even tell me your username,” Ruby points out, teeth gritted, and no , she doesn’t believe that Mulan is guilty, but how dare Mulan act as though Ruby would ever– “You’re so secretive about it. And this account goes way back before I knew anything. How am I supposed to believe that you haven’t been–”
“Go to hell,” Mulan says, yanking her phone from Ruby’s hand, and she storms out of the diner.
And wow , that sucks more than…than most things, really. She has friends– she’s never had a shortage of people in the neighborhood, between Mary Margaret and David and Victor and Peter and all the random girls Mary Margaret meets and drags into their friendship. But Mulan had been different, and she’s pretty sure that Mulan is done with her.
When the anger fades, she’s left with the uncomfortable knowledge that Mulan does know her reputation online, and Ruby doesn’t have the best of those. It had been a shitty thing to do, to accuse Ruby of being a mole, but they’re still getting to know each other, and Mulan had seemed more upset about Ruby betraying her than she had about Emma and Regina’s relationship being exposed.
Ruby stresses about the latter. The gossip blog updates daily, each with new updates that are vaguely readable when you know the context. Stan Twitter, which has no idea of context, comes up with new takes on the emoji that become increasingly worse and worse. There are whole fics being written about them, fics that Ruby refuses to read on principle. It’s a good thing that the autograph table fic writer seems to find all of this as distasteful as Ruby does, or she might’ve had to compromise– no. No, no, no way, no how.
Mulan does not return her texts. Ruby is angry again each time Mulan ignores her, and she’s also pining, just a little. Not that they’d been dating , but there are…maybe some feelings. Just a few.
But that isn’t why she goes to Henry’s soccer game. He invites her, on a morning when he arrives in uniform and cleats at the diner, Regina beside him and Emma trailing behind. “We made it to the championship ,” Henry says, oblivious to the tension between his mother and Emma. “Are you gonna come watch Mulan?”
“Uh,” Ruby says, trapped. Emma catches her eye. She looks defeated still, uncertain about her place behind mother and son, and Ruby can’t say no to either of them. “I guess so?” she says uncertainly.
And so she puts herself on break and leaves Granny running the diner that morning while she finds a spot on the bleachers. Half the town is present, regardless of whether or not they have kids on the team, and Ruby sees Mary Margaret with Leroy and Meg waving wildly to her from the other end of the field. She waves back halfheartedly, slipping into a crowded spot where Mulan might not see her.
Storybrooke hasn’t had much success in sports, so this championship thing is a big deal. Ruby’s heard more than a few people talking about it in the diner, enthusiastic about Mulan and the team she’s put together, and she crouches in her seat and watches as Mulan high-fives each kid before they run onto the field.
They’re doing pretty well, too. The Storybrooke kids are four points ahead, and their audience is raucous, shouting cheers and hooting for individual kids. Regina, normally distant and polite, has been shouting herself hoarse at the referee every time Henry has been in play. Henry gets the ball and Regina leaps up, suddenly silent, and then erupts in a cheer with the rest of the audience as Henry kicks it into the goal.
Mulan whoops, high-fiving Henry again, and he beams and throws his arms around her before he races back into the field.
“She’s good with them, isn’t she?” says a voice from behind her, and Ruby shifts over to give Emma some space. Emma squeezes in, eyes on the field. “Why are you all the way in the back? You in the doghouse, too?”
“Little bit,” Ruby admits with a grimace. Righteous fury swells up, and she says, “Not that I’m not mad at her. She’s the one who–” She cuts herself off. It’s a little too easy to talk to Emma, sometimes. “Still having issues with your lady?”
Emma sighs. “I tried talking it out with her. She wasn’t impressed.” Regina is sitting three rows ahead of them, staring fixedly ahead as though she’s very aware of who’s sitting behind her. “I don’t know what I’ve done . She insists that I haven’t done anything, but she gets mad at me for asking, so…”
“Maybe she found out about the Twitter stalker,” Ruby says without thinking. The kids score the final goal of the game and Emma jumps up, shouting Henry’s name in jubilation as he waves wildly at them in the bleachers.
“Yes!” Emma calls out, pumping her fist. “Yes! Did you see him? Did you see him?” she’s demanding of no one in particular, and she misses Regina turning at last, gazing at Emma with so much adoration on her face that Ruby doesn’t know how Emma can doubt it. “Did you see him?” Emma demands, turning to Ruby. “The kid kicked ass!”
They’re caught in the swell of a cheer, Mulan surrounded by bouncing ten-year-olds and glowing in their enthusiasm, and Emma is beaming with pride. Regina, her eyes still bright, climbs up the bleachers to them in her sensible pantsuit, tugging Emma forward by her hands to kiss her soundly on the lips in the middle of the crowd.
No one notices, short of Ruby herself, who’s grinning like an idiot. Emma says breathlessly, “Regina–” And then stops. “Twitter stalker?” she says, twisting to stare at Ruby, and Ruby gulps.
Thankfully, there’s no time for Emma to interrogate Ruby then. Henry bounds off to his mother and Emma a few moments later, and Ruby makes a swift escape, hurrying back to the diner and taking the busy post-game shift before Emma can question her more about it.
She doesn’t have time to check Twitter during the shift. She’s weaving between tables, serving as quickly as she can, and she takes the register once Ashley arrives late for her own shift. It’s busier than usual, the diner packed with kids and proud parents and grandparents, and Ruby scrambles, moving as quickly as she can.
“And you’ll have–?” she begins, and stops when she sees who’s at the register. Mulan looks nervous, her fingers twisting around her phone, and Ruby’s lips tighten as she says, “Did you want to order something?”
“I wanted to apologize,” Mulan says, and she glances at the line behind her and seems to reconsider. “Do you need some help behind the counter?”
She comes around the counter without waiting for a response, filling orders with quick precision as Ruby takes the register. It only takes another ten minutes before the line is gone, the diner full and the patrons satisfied, and Ruby reluctantly nods to Mulan and leads her to the quiet upstairs inn part of the diner. “Congrats on your game,” she says grudgingly.
“I saw you there,” Mulan says, and she smiles, small and tentative. “I’m sorry I’ve been so awful for the past week. I just…” She looks down. “I guess I was looking for reasons why you wouldn’t be too good to be true, and I…when I saw that gossip Twitter…” Her lips twist in embarrassment. “I choked.”
Ruby stares at her, certain that she must have misunderstood. “Too good to be true?” she echoes, and Mulan looks at her with eyes that seem so much warmer than before. Ruby leans forward, thoroughly overwhelmed at Mulan’s gaze, and Mulan’s hands go to Ruby’s shoulders as Ruby kisses her.
It’s nice. It’s really nice, and Ruby’s pretty sure that she wants to do that for a long, long time, preferably on the couch in the apartment with some mood lighting and Granny out for the night. There is a lot more kissing in the hallway instead, backed against a wall as she fervently thanks any deities out there that Mulan is strong enough to lift her, like some kind of fantasy, and then, finally, there’s a voice from the stairwell. “Ruby?” Ashley calls up. “I just a call from the school. Alex isn’t feeling well.”
Ruby groans, displeased, and Mulan laughs and walks away without another word or another kiss. Which is– so what is happening here, exactly, and how–?
“Wait,” Ruby remembers, a little too late, as they hurry down the stairs. “What convinced you that I wasn’t the stalker Twitter?”
Mulan opens her mouth to answer, then snaps it shut as they emerge. Emma is standing by the stairs, her phone in hand, and she says, “This, I would assume,” and hands it over to Ruby.
Ruby’s stomach plummets. @swansightings has upgraded, it seems, from vague emoji to an actual photo . It’s blurry and barely visible, as though taken from a distance and zoomed into, but the scene is unmistakable to Ruby. It’s Emma and Regina, kissing in the bleachers, Ruby standing behind them and grinning.
The emoji captioning it are, very simply, the duckling and the crown.
A few eagle-eyed friends speculating on the picture have recognized a Ruby-lookalike , or so they’re calling her, and others have made a meme of her wide smile. Most of the speculation revolves around the two women in the picture, and whether or not the blonde could possibly be Emma.
the other one could be anyone, idk why y’all are convinced it’s rmq just because some gossip blogger says so , says the first tweet in Ruby’s timeline, and Ruby closes Twitter, feeling sick.
Emma is watching her warily. “So you’re an Ugly,” she says. They’re sitting in one of the booths now, the last stragglers from lunch finally filtering out, and Emma has been very quiet as Mulan and Ruby have panicked. “Are both of you Uglies?”
“No,” Ruby says hastily, protective. “She hates you. I mean, not you , your fandom. Or stan Twitter in general. It’s hard to tell with Mulan. She won’t even give me her @,” she says, a little glumly, and a smirk is definitely curling up Mulan’s lips at that.
Emma doesn’t smile. “Fuck,” she says. “I had no idea– I didn’t think anyone in this town had ever heard of me, and I was spilling all my secrets to a fan ? Regina’s going to kill me.” She buries her face in her hands. “I never should have come here. I’m in such deep shit . And I still don’t even know if she wants–” She stops, looking horrified at herself.
“Emma, I swear, I’ve never shared anything you’ve said with anyone. In fandom or out,” Ruby says hastily. “I know that’s…that’s hard to believe, since fandom apparently sucks –” She jerks a hand at the picture. “But I’m on your side. I want you to be happy.” She tries for a smile, one that Emma doesn’t return.
“This is a disaster,” Emma murmurs, head still in her hands. “Oh, god.”
“It is not.” Mulan’s the one who speaks now, firm when they’re both at a loss. “We can fix this, and we will. Twitter Support will be no help, but there must be some way to discredit it.”
Emma bobs her head. “Right. I’ll tweet about it, get in front of it.”
“No, you won’t!” Ruby and Mulan say together, equally horrified. Ruby clears her throat as Emma looks at them, wounded. “Acknowledging it is basically saying it’s true . Do you…do you have any recent pictures at home? Everyone thinks you’re on some kind of sexy outdoor retreat right now.” Emma blinks at her. Ruby flushes.
Emma bobs her head, disregarding it. “Yeah. I can find something to post.” She scrolls through her pictures, and they settle on one of her in the Boston Public library earlier that month, posing at a Once Upon a Time display with a look of sheer disgust on her face.
Twitter calms a little after that, doubt settling in as they try to conclude which of the pictures is misleading. Ruby looks at the picture, then back at Emma, and she says, “I’ve gotta ask. Are you…?”
“Secretly a fan?” Emma finishes knowingly, and then snorts. “No. There are some compromises I won’t make even for Regina. There are parts I do like,” she says quickly, apologetic. “But I haven’t been impressed with the past few books. Regina promises that this one is going to be different.”
Mulan holds up a hand. “No spoilers!” she protests.
Emma rolls her eyes. “Trust me, I couldn’t give you those if I wanted to. Regina is even more closed-lipped about that than she is our relationship, which by the way is imploding, thank you very much.”
Ruby’s brow furrows. “You looked pretty tight before,” she says. She can’t imagine that Regina, who had looked at Emma like she’d been her entire world, would consider any of this imploding .
“For a second . Then Regina went back to whatever faraway land she’s been hiding in whenever I try to talk to her. She’s just getting ready to break up with me.” Emma sinks back in her chair, morose. “This is going to be the last straw.”
“We’ll fix it,” Mulan says firmly. “Before she ever knows.” She pulls out her own phone, and they sit in silence for a minute, scrolling through @swansightings. “Here,” she says. “What’s this one?”
Emma peers at it. “February…that’s when we went out for Regina’s birthday. Three days driving through New England, amusement park and aquarium and this great restaurant near my place…” She’s misty-eyed as she remembers it. “We went out for a walk once Henry was asleep, down to the water, and we just sat and talked. You know, you take the sitting and talking for granted until you have a long-distance relationship. It isn’t the same when it’s in DMs.”
“I would kill to see your DMs,” Ruby mutters. Mulan nudges her. Ruby clears her throat. “Okay, so that explains the emoji. Ferris wheel, roller coaster, shark, handholding girls. Who could possibly have known about all of that?”
Mulan examines the account again, and then frowns. “Wait,” she says. “Look at this. The one before it is just a car emoji and a three and the two women and a boy emoji. Five days before the next.”
Emma stares at it. “The day before the trip,” she says. “Then the second tweet is after. Someone knew we were going, but not where, not until after.”
Ruby considers it, her brain working furiously. “Is there anyone you talk to about Regina and Henry? Someone you would have told that you were going and only given them details until later?”
Emma shakes her head. “I don’t really have…” She shrugs, self-conscious suddenly, just an ordinary woman not much older than them. “I don’t really have friends,” she admits. “My job doesn’t really have fixed hours, either. No one there would have known that I was gone.”
Mulan’s brow furrows. “Maybe the leak isn’t on your end, then. That picture was taken in Storybrooke.”
Ruby scrolls back more, glancing through emoji that grow increasingly more cryptic. Her group chat, meanwhile, is going wild in the next tab. What if it’s an old picture? Merida asks, only to be shut down by Aurora. no way it’s old. sometimes a picture is just a picture! some random blonde isn’t emma. Merida retorts, quick and sly, Ruby has yet to come back and tell us if that’s HER . Jasmine says, eloquently, jfjfdskfjdfsdf .
Ruby shudders and closes the chat, eyeing the gossip account instead. Its earliest posts are in November, and Emma says, frowning, “That’s the day after I first came to Storybrooke.” The emoji are simple, just a boy and a crown and the duckling with the story and brook. “So this is someone who only knew once I was here. But I only came for one night. I didn’t come back for weeks after, until Regina invited me back.”
There are tweets within days of the first, various cryptic emoji, and Ruby says slowly, suspicion growing, “Did you keep in touch with Henry during that time?”
Emma nods. “Yeah. We talked on the phone a little and I sent him a few old videos that I’d never posted. That’s what this…um, the poop emoji here is,” she says, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I am not proud of what I’ve done to win Henry over.”
Mulan muffles a laugh behind her palm. Ruby is too focused to laugh. “Then Henry is your leak,” she says. “There’s no way Regina goes around talking about…about whatever video spawned a poop emoji .”
“It was informative,” Emma says defensively. “The people had questions after the baked beans mukbang.”
“We are all so very glad that you chose not to answer them in a public forum,” Mulan says, bemused.
Ruby nudges them, impatient. “Henry isn’t exactly subtle,” she says, remembering some very careful subtext in their conversations. “With your identity or with Regina’s.”
“He’s eleven,” Emma says, shaking her head. “This was…this was too much secrecy to put on an eleven-year-old.” She looks defeated again, her words bleak, and she stares at her phone hopelessly. “Regina has avoided being found out for a decade . I can’t be the one to expose her.”
“You won’t be. And this isn’t your fault. Or Henry’s. We’ll figure it out,” Ruby promises, but Emma looks at her with little hope.
Ruby considers herself the inside man of this operation. For one thing, she’s the only one who seems to have any knowledge of the inner workings of fandom. She’d known Mulan had been a lost cause when she’d asked what a Curious Cat was, but she’d thought, for some ridiculous reason, that Emma might actually be Twitter-savvy.
“You have three million followers, Emma! How do you not understand how they work?”
Emma shrugs helplessly. “I just post things and people say things. I try to look through my replies once a day to see if anything’s going on.”
Ruby stares at her. “Is this why you didn’t say anything after the ableist video?”
Emma looks baffled. “Ableist…?”
“Where that guy with one hand hit on you and you stuck a hanger on your hand like a hook and did a five-minute parody of him?” There had been an outcry then, spurred on mostly by vindictive Queenies, but even Ruby had joined in. She’d been sure that Emma would listen , but instead, Emma had ignored them all. “Wait…what about those times you posted selfies with that YouTuber who has all the allegations–”
Emma blinks, brow furrowing. “Who?”
Ruby tells her the name. Emma says, again, “Who?”
“How do you not know any of this?” Ruby demands. “Do you know how many tweets we sent you?” It had been a humiliating experience, being a fan of Emma’s during that episode. She’d blindly defended her until it hadn’t even sounded convincing to her, and Emma, meanwhile, had had no clue .
Emma shakes her head. “I get so many tweets a day, Ruby. Did Henry– does Henry know all of this?” She looks very troubled at the thought of it. “How long ago was this? I’m going to tweet–”
Ruby grabs her arm. “ No ,” she says. “It’s been nearly a year since some of these dramas. You can’t bring them up now. It’ll sound fake.”
“Exactly how many are there?” Emma demands. “Has Henry seen them? I don’t– I don’t want Henry to think that I’m–”
“Henry loves you,” Ruby reminds her. “And he has no idea about any of this. He isn’t on stan Twitter. You’ll be more careful next time, that’s all. There isn’t anything else you can do.” But that conversation had been a reminder that Ruby’s completely on her own in this.
She jokes about @swansightings and endures some nasty subtweets from people she’d thought were her friends until now. There are rumors spreading, conspiracy theories about Emma and R.M. Queen that drag Ruby into them, too, and it’s like fighting the sea with a single oar.
Fandom is fracturing, falling onto two sides, each convinced that they’re right about the picture and the rumors. Emma, meanwhile, grows more and more morose. Her next video is a book review, but it lacks all of her usual energy, and her fans leap onto it as some kind of sign.
One of Ruby’s friends, disgusted at the drama, begins a new hashtag determined to cheer Emma up, and those make it through Emma’s quality filter. Emma looks through them after some appreciative tweets, perched in a booth in the diner where she’s been spending more and more time lately. “I really do love my fandom,” she says, gloomy. “I’m glad I’ll have them after Regina finds out about this and…”
“Stop it,” Ruby says, bopping her on the head with the pastry she’d just brought her. Emma has been getting food on the house, too, but she leaves very nice tips and Granny hasn’t complained yet. “You and Regina are going to be fine.”
But Emma looks unconvinced, and Ruby gets a visit from Henry the next morning.
“I’m worried about Emma,” he says, shaking extra cinnamon into his cocoa. “She’s been hanging around here a lot lately, right?”
Ruby nods, cagey about it. “I guess,” she says. “She likes our food.”
“She likes Mom’s food, too, but she isn’t eating that anymore. She keeps making excuses to get out of the house.” He looks suddenly anxious. “I think she’s tired of us.”
Ruby is aghast. “Henry, no . She’s just…sometimes people go through things,” she finishes feebly. “It has nothing to do with you. She loves you so much.” It’s true. Emma might be certain she’s losing Regina, but she is never quiet about how important Henry is to her.
Henry bites on his lip. “I don’t understand ,” he says. “She seemed so happy when she got here.” He looks suddenly worried. “Do you think my mom did something? She’s been weird, too.”
This is helpful information. “Weird how?” Ruby says, keeping her voice a studied casual. Maybe it isn’t in Emma’s head, after all. It’s easy to get caught up in the secret Twitter feud-turned-relationship part of it and forget the fact that in life, not every good story becomes a happily ever after.
Regina Mills is kind of terrifying, most of the time, but Ruby’s pretty sure that she’d fight her if Regina ever hurts Emma. “Did she say something to you?”
Henry shakes his head. “No. She’s just…weird. Quieter than usual. Sometimes when I talk, I don’t even know if she’s listening.” He sinks to the counter, chin pressed against it moodily. “She always listens, usually. Even when we were fighting. And she’s always running to her study to fight with people on the phone. Yesterday, we tried having a little dinner just for us and Mom left in the middle because her phone rang. And we have a no-phone rule at the dinner table!” His little face is screwed up in outraged disbelief.
Ruby watches him, the stirrings of anger beginning in her stomach. She’d thought Regina might be all right, that R.M. Queen might be obnoxious on Twitter but good to Emma and Henry in reality. But Regina is instead confirming all her worst tweets about her. How dare she make them feel this way, as though they aren’t important to her. How dare she hurt Emma and Henry until they’re both subdued, shadows of their former selves.
Regina has stopped coming to the diner to write, which is probably the only thing keeping Ruby from charging over there now to give her a piece of her mind. Instead, she takes to Twitter to jump on Regina with uncharacteristic viciousness.
“You need to stop,” Mulan says when she arrives at the diner that evening. She hasn’t kissed Ruby again, nor have they discussed whatever that was, which is a source of never-ending frustration for Ruby as well. “You’re starting rumors. Too many people still see you as associated with that picture for you to pick fights with R.M. Queen.”
“How do you know this?” Ruby demands. “Do you have me on notifications? What’s your @?”
Mulan ignores the question. “I know Emma is upset, but she wouldn’t like it, either. No matter how close you feel to her right now, her relationship isn’t our business. You’re only going to make things worse.”
“I don’t get it,” Ruby says, and she’s fuming just a little. “I don’t know how you have someone like Emma Swan and then you just…throw her away like this! Who the fuck has the right to treat her like this? Who–”
“Ruby,” Mulan says, and she sounds tired. “That’s Emma’s question to ask. You work on your own relationships, okay? Let her work on hers.” And then of course Ruby kisses her again, because that’s working on her own relationship, right? Mulan definitely kisses back, though she doesn’t talk about that, either, and they’re still kissing over the counter when someone lets out a whistle.
“Is that hygienic?” Regina Mills asks, and Ruby jumps away from Mulan, flushing wildly. Regina had not been the one to whistle. Emma is standing behind her, glowing a little less faintly than is her usual, and she’s grinning at them. Henry looks mildly ill, but manages a thumbs up.
“Very hygienic,” Ruby says, scrubbing the counter and looking down. Okay, no , she’s actually much too terrified of Regina Mills in real life to ever fight her. Instead, she puts on a wide smile and says through her teeth, “Family dinner?”
“Yeah!” Henry says, beaming at her. “I want a burger. And fries. And a milkshake.”
Regina gives him a sharp look. He says, a little meekly, “And some cucumber salad.”
Emma laughs. She’s still more muted than Emma Swan should ever be, but she’s happy like this, standing with Regina and Henry with only the lightest tensions simmering between them. “Me, too,” she says to Ruby, winking. “Hold the cucumber sal–” Regina turns her glare on Emma. “I mean ,” Emma says. “Of course I eat vegetables.”
“You’re going to get scurvy ,” Regina says, her lips twisted in disgust. “Do you know what that does to your gums?” She lowers her voice, murmuring something into Emma’s ear, and Emma’s eyes widen.
“Actually,” she says, clearing her throat. “Forget that order. I’m having orange juice. And some fresh fruit. And, uh…broccoli.” Regina looks very satisfied. Emma says swiftly, “And a burger and fries!” and flees toward their booth while Regina puts her hands on her hips and sighs, long-suffering.
Ruby is thawing to her, maybe just a little. She thaws even more when Regina orders a milkshake for herself, too, looking very smug about it, and when Emma steals it from her the moment that Ruby serves her meal. “Scurvy,” she says sleekly, smirking at Regina. “I’ve heard it can do terrible things to your mouth.”
“Something you have in common,” Regina mutters, and Ruby nearly drops her tray. Emma cackles, loud and exuberant while Henry looks bewildered, and they’re just an ordinary family again, unmarred by the tension that had crackled around them until now.
But something changes as the meal continues, as Regina glances at her phone more and more and as her smiles become more artificial. Emma’s voice lowers, her eyes flickering to Regina’s again and again, and she looks increasingly miserable as Regina disengages from the meal. Henry’s brow furrows and he sucks very defiantly at his milkshake, then at his mother’s, glaring at both women.
By the end of the meal, Regina has stood abruptly and is making a beeline for the hallway to the bathroom as she picks up her phone. Ruby can hear her from her spot at the counter, irritable and distracted. “ No , I didn’t say that. I don’t give a damn what they think– I know. I’m prepared for that.” A pause, then “Excuse me? ” hard enough to shatter stone.
At the table, Emma and Henry are sitting in awkward silence, their eyes drifting, again and again, to the hallway where Regina had disappeared.
It doesn’t get better after that. Regina is cool when she returns, perturbed and snappish toward Emma and distracted around Henry, and Ruby seethes quietly from afar. Mulan has already slipped out, still with no clarification about whatever this kissing is, and Ruby is ready for wallowing by the time Emma wanders in, a little after eleven.
It’s become a habit, the two of them together at the diner while they pore over @swansightings in search of clues, while they do damage control together. Doing damage control for Emma should be a dream come true, if not for the extenuating circumstances. “You tweeted Regina three times earlier,” Ruby notes, glancing over the tweets. All three are mocking one of the characters from Once Upon a Time , a love interest for the Evil Queen who had died in Book Five. “And she didn’t subtweet you back.”
Emma groans. “Don’t remind me. She always subtweets me unless she’s pissed. I don’t even know what I did .” She glances at her phone, which is still open to @swansightings. “Well, aside from dragging my fanbase into her personal life, but–”
“That isn’t your fault.”
“She’s going to see it like it is,” Emma says wearily. She leans back in her seat. “You know she’s always been…kind of intensely personal. She does it for Henry, but she’s also not…she’s never been comfortable with all the attention on the books, I think.” She smiles, suddenly wistful. “She hates the fact that she has all these fans on Twitter who want to talk to her. Early on, she tried using the platform a little bit, but people got angrier and angrier with her with every tweet. She isn’t a people pleaser–”
Ruby snorts. “I’ll say.”
Emma gives her a look. “But she cares about what people think of her more than she’d ever admit. And putting yourself out there is…is basically opening yourself up to all that criticism and resentment, you know?” She cracks a smile. “Unless you never flick off your quality filter on Twitter, I guess.”
Ruby watches her for a moment, attempts to hold her tongue and fails. “You two are polar opposites, aren’t you?” Emma has opened herself up to the world, freely and simply, in every video and every picture and every tweet. Regina holds herself distant, removed, keeping even her name a close-kept secret.
Emma smiles wistfully. “Not as much as we’d like to think, honestly. We’re both kind of stubborn, kind of obnoxious…” She bites her lip, lost in another world. “We both want people to care. I guess…” She shrugs, self-conscious. “I want them to care about me. She doesn’t think they’d care about her at all, so she just wants them to care about what she does instead.”
She has a cast to her eyes, the fondness of a perfect memory. “After the first time we kissed, I was sure she was never going to talk to me again. I had already left town, but I tried to be…respectful, I guess. To give her space. I didn’t DM or pick any fights with her on the timeline.” She laughs suddenly. “So she subtweeted me the next night out of nowhere . That was when I knew that we really could have something worth keeping.”
She sighs, the sadness returning. Emma offscreen is more muted, calmer and less of an open book. There’s a spark to her that seems to emerge only around Regina and Henry, even when she’s only speaking about them, and it’s quashed just as easily with the reminder of the tension between them. “We have to fix this gossip,” she says. “We have to make it stop. Regina doesn’t deserve this.”
“Neither do you,” Ruby says, and Emma looks at her, startled, as though she’d forgotten that Ruby had been there. Ruby offers her a smile. “You two are pretty cute, you know? I don’t think Regina is giving up on you anytime soon.”
Emma chooses not to respond to the latter half of that sentence. “You know who’s pretty cute? You and Mulan. How’s that going?”
Ruby heaves a sigh of her own. “You know. Sometimes we kiss, and then she leaves. I have no idea if she likes me like that–“
Emma laughs. “You have no idea …just ask her out, Ruby,” she says, shaking her head.
“Just ask her out?” Ruby echoes, disbelieving. “Do I look straight? I don’t ask people out. I have awkward kisses and then gay panic about them.”
Emma tilts her head, suddenly rueful. “Okay, fair. Me, too.” They sit in happy agreement that turns melancholy far too soon. “You should really ask her out,” Emma says.
“You should really talk to Regina,” Ruby shoots back.
Emma gives her a long, incredulous stare. “Look, the only reason why she hasn’t ended things already is because I’m staying at her house right now. The minute I start packing to head back to Boston, this is over.” She massages her temples. “I’m not ready for it to be over.”
Their phones buzz in tandem. It’s an R.M. Queen tweet, lighting up both their screens. Stay tuned! The #OUAT final book’s release date will be revealed on Twitter this Friday at noon EST .
Emma stares at the tweet, desolate. “I didn’t even know. Why wouldn’t I know that?”
Ruby has no answer for her beyond, again, “ Talk to her.”
For all the absolute distaste that the Uglies profess for the book series, there’s a ripple of excitement at the idea of Once Upon a Time Book Seven. They’d all grown up on the stories, on the characters and on the themes of true love and second chances and soap opera twists that had captivated the world. It’s easy to critique and mock and send nasty tweets to R.M. Queen, but in the end, they’re all invested in the story of the savior and the Evil Queen and the others.
Ruby had had a crush on the Evil Queen before she’d even known that she’d been bi, and the savior had been the woman of her fantasies, a badass blonde who’d been everything that Ruby had wanted to be. There’s a kind of bittersweet excitement to the final book, even if she hadn’t liked the last few. The savior has been diminished more and more as her romance had grown in popularity, and Ruby thinks less of her as a hero now and more as a cautionary tale. But this is the final opportunity for that to change , and Ruby can’t help but wonder if it might–
Not that she’s counting on Regina to make things better. Not that she wants to count on Regina for anything. It’s bad enough that Regina is around, still making Emma miserable and Henry uncertain. Regina, who is intimidating and distant and doesn’t give people who deserve so much love any of hers, and Ruby dislikes her more and more as she thinks more and more about what Regina has done to Emma.
Emma should be cherished . Ruby knows this as one of Emma’s fans, as someone who’s committed every one of the facts about Emma’s life to memory, as someone who might kind of be a friend, too. Emma deserves the world, and if Regina isn’t going to give it to her, then she doesn’t deserve Regina.
“You don’t know anything about their relationship,” Mulan reminds her. It’s the next night, and they’re both sitting on the counter, doing shots. Granny would have Ruby’s head for it if she weren’t busy upstairs. “Whenever I saw them at soccer practice, they looked like a happy family.” She grins suddenly. “They’d hold hands when they thought no one was watching. It was cute.”
Cute reminds Ruby again that Mulan is, in fact, very cute, and that Emma had once said that they’d make a cute couple. “You know what else is cute?” she says leadingly, and Mulan turns, eyes bright with anticipation, and leans in.
When she’s just centimeters away, Ruby has a bout of panic and says, “Exchanging Twitter usernames.”
Mulan snorts, pulling away, and Ruby pouts in disappointment. “I don’t think we’re at that stage of our relationship,” Mulan says solemnly.
“Relationship?” Ruby pounces on the word. “What relationship is that– what exactly is–” She flails and falls again, head dropping. “What are you hiding on your Twitter?” she demands. “Are you one of those people who sends long tweets to R.M. Queen about how the pirate changed your life or something?” Mulan blinks at her. “Are you one of those hashtag-no-hate people who have me blocked? What’s your secret ? Why won’t you let me follow you?”
Mulan tilts her head, amusement in her eyes. “Who’s to say that you don’t already?”
“ Mulan! ” She’s closing in on the truth, she can feel it. All she has to do is push a little harder and she’ll–
The door to the diner opens, and Ruby groans internally, foiled again. She’d been so close –
But all her regrets fly from her thoughts as Emma enters the diner, pale and worn, her eyes red and her face grim. “What happened?” Ruby demands, sliding off the counter to rush to her. “What did she–”
Emma looks up at her, her face a mask that shatters at the first strained word. “Do you have any rooms open for tonight?”
“Yeah, of course.” Ruby hurries to the counter again, pulling out the book where they keep the inn information. “Oh…no, actually. This is the early summer season. Even Storybrooke gets tourists– why don’t you camp out on my couch?” She puts an arm on Emma’s, and Mulan comes up beside her, protective on Emma’s other side.
“Still think they’re a happy family?” Ruby mutters into her ear, and Mulan gives her a withering stare and puts a hand on Emma’s back.
Emma doesn’t talk about what happened. She leans heavily against them, her face still that brittle mask that is pieced together by broken shards, her movements slow and uncertain as though she’s a child taking her first steps. She looks absolutely heartbroken, and Ruby thinks of a dozen nasty things to do to Regina Mills for what she’s wrought of Emma Swan.
Instead, she guides Emma down the hall and into the apartment she shares with Granny. Granny is snoozing on the rocking chair, her knitting on her lap as she snores lightly, and Ruby lays a blanket over her before she leads Emma to the kitchen. “Let me get you a drink,” she says.
“I liked what you two were having down there,” Emma says, a wry smile twisting her face like a grimace.
Mulan shakes her head. “You’re not making any drunk videos,” she says, stern but kind, and Emma looks up at her, leaning against her shoulder. Mulan speaks to Emma, quiet and gentle, and when Ruby emerges from the kitchen, they’re both looking at the calendar that Ruby keeps on the wall in the next room.
“I think this one is pretty nice,” Emma says, touching June’s photo. “Really shows off my abdominals.”
“Uh,” Ruby says, fingers skittering over the glass side of the cup of water. “That’s the–”
“Thirst calendar,” Emma says, and she offers Ruby a wet grin. “I saw it circulating through fandom. I would have liked a copy, too. Might keep me from eating so much chocolate.”
Ruby winces. “That, surprisingly, doesn’t actually work.” She scratches the side of her neck, deeply uncomfortable. “Anyway…”
Emma rescues her, gracious in her brokenness. “Thank you for having me here,” she says, reaching around the glass of water to give Ruby a tight hug. “I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow. I just…” She swallows, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. “I want to talk to Henry before I…”
She can’t finish. She gulps down the water and then sits on the couch, and Ruby shoots Mulan a helpless look. I have to go back down , she mouths, and Mulan nods quickly, sitting down beside Emma and giving Ruby a look of her own. It’s the kind that makes Ruby flush, that makes her almost bold enough to ask for a date, and Ruby ducks her head and slips back downstairs.
She isn’t supposed to leave the diner unattended at night, particularly when they have visitors at the bed and breakfast. The overnight attendant isn’t coming for another hour, and so she resigns herself to sitting alone with Twitter in the diner, waiting for stragglers to return to their rooms.
Instead, she emerges in the diner and finds a woman standing in the middle of the room, her hands clasped together over a little parcel. “You,” Ruby says, staring at her. For all her plans about how she’s going to punish Regina for hurting Emma, she finds herself quailing at the sight of her.
Regina stands, looking very frail. She has the same red eyes that Emma had had, but there is no shattered mask– instead, she looks as though she’d put up a mask and then grown too weary to keep it there anymore, too weary to hide behind anything but stark truth. She looks destroyed, even more so than Emma has, heartbroken and small and fragile. “Hello,” she says. “Is Emma here?”
Ruby hesitates, wary of the woman in front of her. Regina smiles with no humor. “I know she sneaks off here at night,” she says. “Almost every night. Were she someone else, I might have suspected she was having an affair.”
“Oh, no,” Ruby hurries to say, wringing her hands. “No, it’s not like that at all.”
“I know,” Regina says, eyeing her with the calmness of someone who’s already lost everything. “Emma wouldn’t lead a fan on. I know who you are,” she says, and Ruby blinks at her in surprise. Even Emma hasn’t asked her for her fandom details. “Red Riding Hood. You have your face as your avatar.”
“You…you’ve seen me?” Ruby says, very flustered. “You read your notifications?” Regina doesn’t answer, just watches her coolly. Ruby can think of about a hundred comments she wants to take back immediately, cringing.
Regina says, again, “Is Emma here?”
Ruby remembers to be defensive, to glare at the woman who’d broken Emma’s heart and now has the temerity to follow her here and hurt her more. “You dumped her,” she says fiercely. “You don’t get to come here and ask to see her.”
Regina laughs. Ruby looks at her askance, startled at her sheer heartlessness, and she notices at last the tears slipping down Regina’s face past the laughter, the hopeless ring to it. “I dumped her?” she echoes. “ Emma left me .” She looks down, as though humiliated to say it. “And here I am, chasing after her to try to fix whatever it is that I’ve broken, after weeks of her avoiding me and hiding out here.”
That startles Ruby. She gapes at Regina in disbelief, in absolute bewilderment. “No,” she says finally. “No, Emma said…” But she hadn’t said anything, this time, and Ruby remembers Emma’s certainty that Regina would break up with Emma as soon as their vacation would end, that Regina would end things if she’d known about @swansightings.
Regina steps forward, tucking her parcel under her arm, and her eyes are pleading, her hands slipping into Ruby’s. “Please,” she says. “Let me speak to her. Let me bring her back home.”
And under that magnetic gaze, under the force of Regina’s love for Emma, shining through at last, Ruby bobs her head and leads her upstairs.
Emma jumps up when she sees Regina at the door, lurking behind Ruby. “Oh,” Emma murmurs, and they cross the room at once, drawn to each other by an undeniable pull. They stop when they’re just a foot apart, close enough to reach out and hold onto each other.
But they don’t reach out. Regina lays her parcel down on the coffee table and says, “You just left,” and Emma ducks her head, her lips pressing together so tightly that she looks like she might cry. “I wanted to talk about this, and you just…you…”
Emma heaves her shoulders into a shrug, tight and afraid. “I thought you wanted me gone,” she says. “I thought– there’s this thing going on online, and I thought– when you found out– I was trying to save you the trouble of pushing me away.”
“Emma,” Regina exhales, and her eyes are wet and glowing, stricken and loving at once. It’s a private moment, and Ruby slips past them, to the kitchen, tugging Mulan with her when she reaches the couch. They exchange glances at the doorway and then wait, peeking out at Emma and Regina from their vantage point. “Emma, I don’t give a damn if some terrible fan Twitter is posting blurry photos of us.” Emma looks at her in surprise. Ruby does, too, until she realizes.
Of course . If Regina is reading her notifications, it’d be impossible for her to miss the references to the picture and to @swansightings. Regina had known all along, while they’d been scrambling, and she doesn’t seem fazed by it. “I don’t care if gossip blogs are talking about us. I care about you , and I care that you didn’t talk to me about it.” She’s stroking Emma’s hair while she speaks, cupping her jaw as her hands run over it, and she looks so very, very hurt.
Emma stares at her, blinking tears away. “I didn’t want you to worry,” she says. “You’ve been…you’ve been so distracted lately. You didn’t seem to want me around. I thought– I thought it might be the last straw.”
“Emma, no ,” Regina says, and she drops her hands and looks as though she might be the one to fold now. “I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. I’ve been…I’ve been trying to…” Her voice cracks, and Emma reaches for her, holds her so tightly that Regina buries her face in Emma’s neck and clings to her with all she is. “You thought I’d end things over a Twitter account ?” Regina whispers, barely audible from Ruby’s spot in the kitchen.
“I’ve been…” Emma wipes her eyes. “I know you love your privacy.”
“I love you ,” Regina says, and she straightens, clasps her hands against the sides of Emma’s face and presses a kiss to her skin. “And you kept going away.”
Emma hangs her head. “I was with Ruby,” she says, looking up as though she’s just remembered that Ruby exists, and they’re standing in the middle of her living room while her grandmother snores a few feet away. Ruby grins briefly, guiltily, and Emma blinks away tears and smiles back. “We’ve been trying to track down the gossip.” She tugs her phone out of her jeans, showing Regina the notes they’ve jotted down about the account.
Regina glances through it, peering through the notes and then back at the phone for a moment. She says, suddenly, “You didn’t notice the times.”
“What?” Emma says, frowning, and Ruby frowns, too, looking down at her own phone to check the times that the tweets had been sent. There’s an odd one or two at night, but overwhelmingly, they’re sent in the afternoon. Noon. 11:40. 3:10. 12:08. 12:35. 3:06. “Mulan,” she says slowly. “You coach at the school, right?”
“None of the kids have ever talked about Emma,” Mulan says immediately. “Even Henry, and he talked about Regina all the time.”
“No,” Ruby says, and she glances at the times again. Always at noon or at three pm, right when school ends, as though whoever it is can’t wait to send their tweets about Emma. “When do the teachers take their breaks?”
“Mary Margaret! Mary Margaret! ” Ruby shouts, banging on her door. “Open up right now , you liar –”
Mary Margaret opens the door, “Ruby? It’s eleven at night! What’s–” She stops, abruptly, her eyes wide as she takes in Emma, Mulan hovering beside her. “Oh,” she says, smiling uncertainly. “Hello. Henry’s told me so much about both of you.”
“I’m sure he has,” Ruby bites out, pushing past her into the room. “What were you thinking ?” she demands, whirling around. “Outing them all like this?”
She expects Mary Margaret to be defensive. Instead, Mary Margaret just puts her face in her hands. “I went too far,” she says. “I know. There were just…there were so many copycat accounts, and when I saw you at the game, I just…I guess I got carried away,” she says, turning beseechingly to Emma. “It was just a fun little thing at first. I knew all these secrets , and I made the account just to let them out somewhere where no one would understand.”
“And then you started tweeting for stan Twitter?” Ruby says incredulously. “That was your outlet?”
Mary Margaret shrugs helplessly. “I knew all about it from you. I didn’t mean for it to get so big. But then I thought…” She gestures at Emma, who’s still standing rigidly, staring at her with her eyes wide and her lips parted. “It’s so inspirational , the way Henry tells it. There’s so much hate in the world, especially somewhere like Twitter– I just thought the world could use a love story like yours.”
She sounds almost defiant now. “So I wanted to share it. Why does it matter? Everything else about your personal life is online already. It was only a matter of time before this was, too.”
Emma finally seems to find her voice. “I choose what I want to share,” she says, and her eyes grow hard as steel. “And Regina chooses what she does. We could have you fired for this. We should . You took the things a little boy told you and you gave them out to the world.”
Mary Margaret quails at this. “It was for a good reason,” she says, but her shoulders are dropping and she’s pursing her lips together, that anxious tell when she knows that she’s done something wrong. Ruby looks from Mulan’s stone face to Emma’s and feels desperately uncomfortable.
“It was wrong,” she says. “You know it, too, Mary Margaret. It was wrong. And you have to fix it.”
Mary Margaret looks at her, beseeching. “How?”
“I don’t know.” A thought occurs to her. “Wait. Do you have any more pictures from that day?”
They sit down at Mary Margaret’s laptop, Ruby opening Photoshop and squinting at the blurry, distant pictures that Mary Margaret had taken. “I used to manip you onto all kinds of things,” Ruby says, to which Emma raises an eyebrow. Ruby amends, her face hot, “Dogs, mostly. And wolves. You liked one of my tweets.”
“I remember that,” Emma says, smiling in sudden recognition. “I should have recognized your face. You’re in my mentions all the time. Wolf girl.”
“Wolf girl,” Mulan repeats, and it sounds very much like she’s trying her best not to laugh.
That had better be because she finds it cute . “ Anyway ,” Ruby says, staring at the pictures Mary Margaret had taken. One of them is before the kiss, Emma’s profile clearly visible, and she expands that one and then peers around the crowd. It’s easy enough to move a different woman’s face onto the picture, equally blurry but unmistakably Not Emma. “There,” Ruby says in deep satisfaction. “Post this. Kill your credibility.”
“Right,” Mary Margaret says solemnly. “I will.”
“Then give me your account,” Ruby says. She knows stan Twitter better than any of them, most of all Mary Margaret, and she turns to find Emma’s grim face. “I’ll defend the pictures as legitimately Emma and R.M. Queen.”
“How does that help?” Mary Margaret asks.
Ruby grins, very proud of herself. “Because I’m going to keep doing it until I sound like a tinhat who just made a few good guesses. No one anyone believes will buy it by the time I’m done.”
“You’re unbelievable,” Mulan says, but she’s smiling, and Mary Margaret sinks onto the couch in relief.
Emma exhales, a sigh of relief, and Mary Margaret says, “The world should know,” again, this time quieter. “You both…you have so many people who look up to you. This could change lives.”
She’s still so stubborn about this that Ruby wants to shake her best friend, to jerk her back into reality where she might pretend to be penitent. But Emma regards her with quiet thoughtfulness. “Maybe,” she says, and she doesn’t sound angry anymore. “Maybe someday it will.” And then, a long moment. “Henry really likes you,” Emma murmurs. “He says you’re the best teacher he’s ever had. He never finds out about this. Understood?”
Mary Margaret bobs her head. “Of course not. I would never–” She catches herself, as though she’s just realized how empty that sounds from her. “He won’t,” she says, and she offers Emma a timid smile. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” Emma says. “Just…stop.”
She shoves her hands into her jeans and heads for the door, Mulan and Ruby trailing behind her.
They had left Regina manning the diner, which had been a decision borne of the moment when Ruby had realized exactly who’d sent out those tweets and Regina had made a very calm, very well thought out and graphic threat to Mary Margaret that had had all three of them staring at her in astonishment and some fear. She’s sitting in her usual booth when they return, the parcel she’d brought on the table beside her and her face set and dangerous.
“Just a phone call to the school board,” Regina says when she sees them. “ One . Henry will never know. Henry will understand,” she says in the next breath. “I can put her out of a job, put her in prison–”
Emma climbs into the booth, on her knees, and tilts Regina’s face up so she can kiss her. “No,” she says after. “She’s just…she did it out of stupid, idealistic reasons. She’s learned her lesson. And she’s been good for Henry this year, especially when he was having a rough time of it.”
Regina’s fists bunch up. “She exploited him!”
“I know,” Emma says soothingly. “I know, babe.” Regina, who is the least babe person that Ruby’s ever met, arches an eyebrow. “But I…I don’t know. I’m tired.” She pulls back, scrubs at her eyes for a moment as the enormity of the past few hours sets in. “I’m so tired of feeling like…like everything is about to crash down.”
Regina looks stricken again. “I made you… Emma ,” she says, and she turns in the booth, pulls up her knees onto the seat so she can face Emma. “No. I told you, none of this matters. And not anymore.” Finally, at last, she pushes the parcel to Emma. “I’m sorry I’ve been so busy,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry it’s seemed like…like I was putting something else ahead of you. I was only trying…I wanted you to still be here for this,” she says.
Emma blinks at the parcel, then back at Regina. Beside Ruby, Mulan gasps. “Is that…?”
Emma unwraps the parcel, pulls the book out of its packaging. “Regina,” she says, and she shakes her head. “This is…is this your book?”
“Book Seven,” Regina says, and she offers Emma a tremulous smile. “ A Second Chance . You told me that the books were broken, remember? I tried to fix them.” She sighs. “My editor didn’t agree that there was anything to fix. It’s been a rough few weeks. I nearly lost my contract. But here it is.” She looks anxious, as sick with trepidation as she is flushed with triumph. “A little piece of my soul.”
Emma says, her fingers tracing the binding, “The savior…”
“Come home,” Regina whispers. “Read it with me.” But Emma is already opening the book, turning past the title page as Ruby cranes her neck to see, because fuck it, this is only the most anticipated book in ever and Ruby’s only human–
There are tears streaming down Emma’s face as she stares at the words on the page, and she twists suddenly, wraps her arms around Regina and kisses her soundly. Regina laughs softly into the kiss, pulls Emma closer to her, and they’re lost in each other in moments, heads together and dotting kisses against the other’s skin.
Ruby turns away, feeling as though she’s not supposed to be here, and meets Mulan’s gaze instead. “Kind of feel like we should go upstairs or something,” Ruby mutters.
Mulan’s eyes are bright with sudden mischief. “You grab the book, I’ll get the door.” She laughs silently, and Ruby looks at her with muted longing, because she’s one thousand percent the perfect woman and they’re swiftly running out of reasons to interact. Maybe it’d be worth it to risk Regina’s wrath for this not-relationship, and–
“Mulan,” Ruby says suddenly, and Mulan blinks at her, startled. “Do you– would you want to–” Words fail her again, and she falters. “Uh.” Her phone buzzes, and she says, “I should…read that,” and turns away from Mulan as quickly as she can.
It’s a notification from her group chat, which she’s been ignoring all evening, and she clicks away from it and finds something to be absorbed in on Twitter instead. Her cheeks are flaming, and she’s useless , absolutely useless , and this is never going to happen –
Another notification pops up at the bottom of the screen, this one from the author of that autograph table fic. Ruby clicks on it absentmindedly, and then stares.
She looks up. Mulan is holding her phone, eyebrows raised, tapping her foot against the floor. “You’re…” Ruby says unintelligently. She tries again. “You!”
Mulan nods, looking at her as though she might have lost her mind. Ruby stabs a finger at her. “You said you were a Queenie!”
“I never said that. I like the books,” Mulan says. “Haven’t you read the alternate universe story I wrote that takes place in the series?” Then, a little smugly, “I know you have. You leave paragraph reviews. It’s one of my favorite things about you.”
Ruby blinks at her. “But you’re an Ugly! You’ve been an Ugly all along– did you say one of your favorite things about me?” she says suddenly, focusing on the important part of this revelation. “What are the rest?”
“Mulan,” Emma says from the booth. She’s leaning against Regina’s shoulder, Regina’s hand resting over Emma’s hand on her arm. “Would you please do a solid for the entire LGBT community and ask Ruby out?”
“Only because your workout videos are amazing ,” Mulan says, and she grins, turning back to Ruby. “Go out with me tomorrow night,” she says, and Ruby bobs her head, still absolutely baffled at everything that’s just happened.
“A writer and a Twitter troll,” Regina muses, humor in her eyes. “Sounds familiar.” Emma nudges her. Regina tilts her head. “So what kind of fanfiction do you write, Mulan?”
Mulan freezes, deer in headlights. “I…” she stammers, and this is definitely the most flustered Mulan has ever been. It’s kind of endearing. Most things about Mulan are, to be fair. “It’s…”
“She writes literary fiction,” Ruby says swiftly. “Small stuff. You’ve probably never heard of it. Fanfiction is so limiting .”
She grabs Mulan’s hand and tugs her with her, out of the diner and into the night, before Regina can ask any more questions. They stumble out together, laughing a little breathlessly, a little chagrined.
In the window of the diner, Ruby can see Regina turn back to Emma, speak a few wry words, and then lean in for another kiss. Emma clutches the book to her chest, holding it like it’s something precious, and Ruby wonders.
Chapter 4: AFTER
It’s months before she finds out what’s written inside, until the much-publicized day when the book finally comes out. There are whispers about this book, about a twist that has reviewers in a tizzy, and not all of them have positive things to say about it. Others speak of it as though it’s changed everything, and Ruby remembers a little piece of my soul and hopes desperately that it’s exactly what they had needed it to be.
She doesn’t know what that is.
What she does know:
- Emma Swan has disappointed all of her fans by not capitalizing on the release of the very first book since she first read Once Upon a Time and turning it into a laughingstock in advance.
- Emma has, however, continued to needle and provoke R.M. Queen daily, earning more and more subtweets from the writer that have captured more attention than usual in this media blitz.
- Ruby is relieved at every non-interaction between R.M. Queen and Th3UglyDuckling on Twitter, and takes each as a sign that they’re doing well.
- Mulan has stopped writing Swan Queen fanfiction altogether, which is probably the worst thing about all of this, though she is working hard on turning that epic autograph table story into an original novel.
- Henry is in sixth grade now and has learned the importance of not spreading every detail of his life, which is especially unfortunate now that Ruby would really like to know what that big twist in A Second Chance is.
At least she’d ordered her copy in advance, and it’s waiting at the local bookstore for the midnight release party. With quiet permission, she’s hosting four of her online friends for the weekend, though they’re planning more reading than partying, and she brings them along on the night of the Second Chance release.
“I still don’t know why we decided to fly out to Storybrooke, Maine, for this release party,” Aurora is complaining as they head down Main Street at ten pm. “I was all in for the New Orleans release that Tiana is hosting. Or Merida on Prince Edward Island! Where are we?”
Ruby claps her back. “Trust me on this one,” she says. “You won’t want to miss it.” She leads them down the road, side-by-side with Mulan, and pushes open the door for their modest midnight release.
The bookstore had done the best that it could without much funding for any kind of big party. It’s mostly kids present, though there are a number of twenty-somethings shivering in the cold December night, wearing the savior’s iconic red leather jacket or dressed with a hook on one hand. There are bowls of apples everywhere, cardboard cutouts of the characters from the movies, and the party is spilling out into the street.
“This is pretty happening for Storybrooke,” Ruby assures her friends, and she notices, leaning against one of the telephone poles outside, a brunette who offers her a nod and a terse smile. She’s wringing her hands unconsciously, staring into the bookstore as though she’s terrified of what might happen tonight, and Ruby offers her a quick thumbs up.
Jasmine watches her with interest. “Who was that?”
“A patron from the diner,” Ruby says. “She comes pretty often. Mulan and I are pretty tight with her son.”
Inside, there’s a quiz going on that increases in difficulty with each question asked about the series. A boy she knows is crowded in near the front, shouting out the answers, and he goes head-to-head with a blonde woman who makes it nearly as far as he does. The boy is close to winning when the blonde shakes her head, and he meekly steps away from the crowd, leaving the last girl remaining to reign victorious.
Aurora stares at the woman, agape. “If you’d told me you had Emma lookalikes in your town, I might’ve come earlier,” she says, a little too loudly, and the blonde turns and laughs, heading over to them.
“So these are the friends you’ve been telling me about,” she says, grinning at them. “Ruby said she’d wanted all of you to come in. How about this book, huh?”
All four of them: Belle, Aurora, Jasmine, Merida: in silence, shell-shocked. Mulan says, “Are you happy with it?”
“Yeah,” Emma says, and she’s been glowing for months now, every time she’s in town and stops by the diner, but it’s rarely quite this bright. “Regina’s hiding out somewhere in front. We’re going to have to drag her in at some point. My girlfriend,” she explains to the others, who are still staring at her in shock.
It’s Belle who puts it together first, stabbing a finger at Ruby. “That was you in that picture!” she accuses. “You’ve been holding out on us!”
“It wasn’t my secret to tell!” Ruby protests. “I brought you here now, didn’t I?”
Aurora shakes her head in disbelief. “What other secrets are you hiding? Do you have a gym class in with Beyonce? Does Meryl Streep hang out at your diner? Is R.M. Queen in this bookstore right now?”
Mulan says, “Don’t be ridiculous, Aurora. Of course R.M. Queen isn’t in this bookstore right now.” She glances very briefly at the door.
“So was that a yes on Beyonce?” Jasmine wants to know.
Merida, meanwhile, is still gaping at Emma. “Is that…are you actually…?”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Emma says, and she twists her phone around. “Come on, let’s take a release party selfie.” They all crowd in around her, a big cardboard cutout of the Evil Queen behind them, and Emma snaps the photo, uploading it to Twitter right away.
Belle wants to know, “Have you changed your mind on the series?”
“Yeah,” Jasmine says, “What happened to not reading another book by R.M. Queen if she paid you?” Mulan lets out a very quiet choked sound.
Aurora says, reaching out to boldly stroke Emma’s arm, “How committed are you to your girlfriend?”
It’s Emma who chokes now, pulling her arm away quickly. “This one is worth it,” she says to the others, finding her smile again. “It’s…it does a lot of what I wished the others would do. I think you’ll all be satisfied.” She glances toward the door, and a smile spreads across her face. “Excuse me,” she says suddenly, and she breaks away from them to hurry to the door, meeting Regina there with a kiss and a long hug.
Aurora watches with uncontained envy. “That should be me,” she says, scowling. “Ruby, why haven’t you snatched up Emma while you had the chance?”
“I’m with Mulan!” Ruby says in outrage. “Emma and I are just friends!”
Mulan says, head tilted fondly toward Emma and Regina while she slips her hand into Ruby’s, “She never had the chance. Look at them.” Henry has squeezed in between them, and the family stand in a huddle, watching the release party shenanigans from a corner.
“I can’t believe Emma never told us about a girlfriend ,” Jasmine says, shaking her head. “A serious girlfriend. I thought she told us everything.”
“I thought Ruby told us everything,” Belle says, shooting a sidelong glance at her. Ruby shrugs, attempting to look as innocent as possible. “I can’t believe we’re on Emma’s Twitter. I can’t believe Emma got an advance copy of A Second Chance .”
“She’s a celeb,” Jasmine says reasonably. “She probably knows someone in publishing who got it to her.”
“I wonder why she hasn’t torn it apart,” Belle muses, and not even Ruby has an answer to that. “It must be really good.”
They won’t find that out for another hour and a half, and so they join the celebrations, play games and win merchandise and chat together with a group where they make guesses about what might happen in the book. Henry joins the conversations, enthusiastic and nearly bouncing as they near midnight, but Emma and Regina hang back. They’re on the floor in one of the corners together, and Emma is getting drowsy, drifting off on Regina’s shoulder as Regina stares blankly into the night.
Around midnight, they all line up to get their copies of the book and then disperse, clearing the way for the rest of the crowd. Ruby hesitates before she steps out, flipping past the title page to see what comes next.
It’s a dedication page, longer than R.M. Queen’s usual.
To my son– my true love, my heart, who makes every single day worth living.
And to E– my soul is better for knowing you.
I love you both with all I am.
Regina is in the corner, still, Henry propped up against her side as he reads and Emma curled around her in slumber. Ruby watches them for a moment, and she can see Regina typing out the words in that moment, can see Emma’s tears when she’d read them.
She’s feeling oddly emotional by the time she makes it home, and she curls up on the sofa of the room her friends are sharing at the bed and breakfast and reads, Mulan absorbed in her own copy. She’s a quick reader, too impatient to linger on the words like Mulan does, and she fully intends to read until it’s done, until no one can spoil the big twist for her.
Book Six had ended with what could have been the end altogether, a happy resolution where everyone had been exactly where they’d wanted to be. Emma had complained about that, back when she’d complained about the books. what’s the point in dragging these books out any longer. they’re OVER. i hate consumerism . Ruby had privately agreed.
But Book Seven begins in somewhere else entirely, the small town gone and replaced with an enclave in Seattle. Everyone is cursed, even the Evil Queen, the savior is missing, and there are no explanations for a long few chapters. Ruby reads, enthralled. This book feels different, feels more focused, pandering less to the usual audience.
And then the savior arrives in Seattle, uncursed and determined to piece together what had happened. Her son is all grown up, and the Evil Queen doesn’t know her, but she works with them, fights demons they don’t know exist, and sinks into weary despair when no one is around to see it.
Then, abruptly, the book breaks into flashback, unpeeling the layers of the story where they’d only been hinted at before. The savior and the queen’s shared son leaves to another realm, off to write the stories he never has before. Soon after, there’s an attack on the town that changes everything. The savior and the queen fight together, struggle to get through the battle to find their son, and the new threats follow them to another realm.
There’s another curse to cast, because there always is, and the queen is forced to cast it to save their son. She sends the savior away in a rushed argument, a realization that only the savior can save them all, and they fight about it as the curse closes in on them until the queen–
–oh my god, the queen–
–the queen presses a kiss to the savior’s lips, a promise that they’ll meet again, and they have a tearful farewell as dark clouds rise around them.
Ruby sets the book down, closes it with a bang, and Mulan jerks up. “You’re done already?” she asks disbelievingly, and then, “Are you…are you okay?” She touches Ruby’s cheeks, brushes away tears, and Ruby blinks hard and squeezes the book in her hands as though it might be reassurance enough that she isn’t dreaming.
“No,” she says, and then, “No, I mean, I’m not done.” Mulan is a hundred pages behind her now, far from the reveal that has Ruby still crying, still disbelieving.
Because yes , that had been the story that had been missing for all this time. This is the part that makes the rest of the books make sense, that brings together all the broken pieces of who the characters had become. The savior and the evil queen are in love, and nothing has ever felt more right.
Ruby can’t be in the room anymore, can’t hold onto this secret that feels too immense to hold back anymore, and she hurries down to the diner instead. Their night shift watchman is sitting in one of the booths, reading his own copy of the book, and Ruby goes outside instead and whoops at the top of her lungs, the tears falling fast and joyful beneath the lightening dawn sky.
The rest of the book returns to the present, and it’s the harrowing story of how the savior and the queen and their son come back together. The curse ends with a true love’s kiss, the savior and the queen together at last, and their happily ever after finally within their reach. Ruby is crying again when it’s over, feeling as though the world has been shaken at its roots, as though she’s been changed forever by the book that Regina Mills had given them.
She hardly notices when her phone pings with a notification, a new video at the crack of dawn from Emma. No , she realizes as she clicks it. Not a new video, though perhaps they’re meant to believe that it is. Ruby recognizes the shirt Emma’s wearing as the one she’d worn on the day when Emma and Regina had first reconciled. “I guess you’re all wondering what I thought of that book,” Emma says, and there are tears spilling down her face, which only makes Ruby cry more. “Why don’t I tell you over a crock pot full of pasta and ground beef?”
Th3UglyDuckling sits shakily, her smile tremulous as she begins the review, and Ruby settles in to watch.