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goodnight, dear void.

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How do you come back from an argument that vicious? 

 

How do you come back from a texted confession that explicit? 

 

Emma is forced to come to terms with the reality that she’d imploded two of her closest relationships within the space of twenty minutes, which royally sucks . She shouldn’t have said anything to Virginia, shouldn’t have exposed so much and then left it hanging out there without any distraction. 

 

She debates sending a meme or a video or something to diffuse the tension, but stubbornness settles in her bones and stays her hand. Virginia will have to respond eventually, either to reject her or to reciprocate (a possibility that seems less and less possible with every passing moment). Emma will understand, at least, where they stand. 

 

She’s so tired of being in relationships in which she doesn’t know where they stand.

 

It’s Tuesday morning, and she goes to the station and tries not to think about where she won’t be at noon. Her apartment is finally ready, and she’d been…not excited , exactly, but looking forward to showing it to Regina this afternoon. It’s a nice apartment, truthfully much too nice for her budget, and she’d thought that Regina might have been satisfied with it.

 

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid for her to move to Maine and find a job she actually likes, only to let it all fall apart because of a woman. A woman who’d deduced that she’d been Emma’s consolation prize , an unfair characterization, and then lashed out until Emma had been just as furious. What had she been thinking? They aren’t friends. They aren’t even lovers , because that word implies some kind of love. They’ve been…fuck buddies. Not-friends with benefits. They’re two women who are attracted to each other and had acted on it. 

 

They don’t even know each other.

 

At that thought, Emma looks back at her burner phone wistfully, feeling the quiet heartbreak that comes with every glance at the silent phone. Even the person who knows her best doesn’t want her. Regina had been right , damn it. 

 

Regina had been–

 

Regina is standing in the doorway of the station, her posture stiff and her eyes averted, and Emma gapes at her. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she says. There’s no way Regina thinks that they’re still going to–

 

“I came to apologize,” Regina says. Her voice is distant, and she is still avoiding Emma’s eyes. “That’s all. I said some things yesterday that weren’t fair.”

 

“Okay.” Emma isn’t quite so ready to apologize back. It’s hard to look back at yesterday and blame herself first. “Thanks.” 

 

Regina nods jerkily. “I think it’s best if we just…stay far away from each other.” 

 

“I agree,” Emma says coolly, though it wrenches something in her chest to say it. 

 

“Right.” Regina nods again and retreats, and Emma waits, though she doesn’t know for what. 

 

I do. I know that Emma waits for Regina to whirl around and push through the door, to press her against the wall and kiss a dozen apologies to her lips. I know that Emma waits for Regina to say can we try this again? and for them to finally sit down and talk about who they are and what they might become together. I know that Emma waits for Regina to surprise her, because Regina has surprised her so many times before. 

 

And I know that Regina does none of those things. Regina goes back to her office and does what she’s done a dozen times in the past day: scrolls back through conversations that had been Virginia and Amy, and falls a little harder every time for a woman who had met the real Regina and despised her.

 

She doesn’t write to Emma as Virginia again. It feels like anything more would be sheer manipulation, cruelty beyond measure, and Regina is not cruel by nature. Not responding feels just as cruel, though, and Regina is trapped and uncertain. Whatever happens next, she determines, Emma can never find out that Virginia is Regina. Regina has sown her own defeat, exposed all of herself to a woman who hates her, and she will only reap sorrow if she tells Emma the truth.

 

But somehow, no matter how hard she tries to avoid Emma, Emma is there. On Tuesday afternoon, Regina is at Marco’s carpentry shop, picking up a newly constructed backboard and basketball hoop. Henry has shown a vague interest in sports lately, and Regina has jumped to accommodate. This is something that will help him fit in with the other kids when he tends to have his head in the clouds, and she’s newly outfitting the garage with various sports equipment.

 

She doesn’t notice Emma until she’s already paid. “I’ll be right with you,” Marco assures someone behind her, and Regina turns and there is Emma, watching her with stricken eyes. Regina jerks her head in what fails to be a casual nod, and they stare at each other, immobile. 

 

Emma ventures, “You play a lot of basketball?” 

 

Regina considers being offended at the note of disbelief in Emma’s voice. She opts not to. “It’s a gift.”

 

“Oh.” Emma’s fingers slide around the back of a chair, squeezing it hard. Good thing Marco’s carpentry is impeccable. “I was wondering if you had some very well-hidden layers.” She shakes her head as though to dismiss the idea.

 

Regina ventures, “I play a mean hand of tennis.” Emma laughs uncomfortably, of course you do , and Regina feels the need to add, to be unexpected and authentic, “And I was a forward on the women’s ice hockey team in college.” 

 

Emma lets out a little noise that might be a breath of laughter. “Really?” 

 

Regina twists her wrist. “Kind of,” she admits. “I played for a month before my mother found out that I was squandering my education on sports and had me removed from the team. I loved it.” She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear, holds the backboard tightly in her other hand. “I was embarrassingly aggressive. Like a tiny demon on the ice , the university newspaper dubbed me.”

 

Emma watches her, her eyes gleaming and still unreadable, and she says, “I can see it.” There’s a shadow of a smile on her face, a phantom that makes Regina warm, and Emma adds, “I played a lot of basketball in various foster homes. Broke a few fingers going up against kids twice my age. But I was pretty good.” She jabs a finger at the backboard. “Tell Roland that I’m up for a game anytime.” 

 

Tell Roland . It’s strange, to think that Emma knows a stupid little fact about her college days and doesn’t know that Regina’s entire life is defined by the existence of her son. Someday, that will have to change. There’s only so long one can live in Storybrooke without meeting Henry.

 

Regina should slip away before Marco says something, but he has busied himself with something behind the counter, looking absorbed in sanding wood as though to give them privacy. Instead, she says, “What are you looking for?” 

 

Emma shrugs. “I don’t know, exactly,” she admits. “Mulan and Ruby helped me set up my apartment, but they thought I needed some kind of chair in the corner. I was looking at recliners online, but I don’t have the budget for them and I figured I should support local businesses, right?” 

 

Regina is struck with a memory from not too long ago– and it feels like centuries, walking with Emma through that bakery and feeling irritated and flustered at the whole thing. Now, she is flustered but not irritated, and she finds herself setting the backboard down and crossing the shop to point out a rocking chair in the back. “Marco has a gift for gliders like this one,” she says, wrapping her hand around the back of the chair. “They’re comfortable and not too hard on the back.” She’d spent years on hers, rocking with baby Henry at night, and she still feels a strangely soothing sensation when she sees it. 

 

Emma sits down in the glider, and Regina can feel Emma’s head resting against her fingers. Her hair is soft, and she doesn’t flinch away from Regina’s fingers. Regina swallows and murmurs, “I could put myself to sleep on one of these.” 

 

Emma looks up at her. She is leaning back against the chair, and her gaze is still unreadable; but Regina meets it all the same. She is incapable of looking away.

 

Emma says, “I’ll take it, then,” and strides to the counter. Regina watches her– memorizes the wave of her hair as she walks, the red of her jacket, the little slouch she does as she moves– and she makes her getaway before she says or does something untoward. 

 

And so it continues into the next day. Regina keeps an eye on Emma from afar, keeps her distance and self-flagellates. Emma opens her burner phone a dozen times, starts typing, and then stops. There is a quiet heartbreak when she thinks about Virginia’s silence, and she mourns what could have been and yearns for what she’d once had.

 

She misses Tuesday dates and verbal sparring and she misses having someone to share every silly little thought with, someone who listens without judgment and is with her whenever she needs. She misses Virginia, and it doesn’t surprise her that it’s an ever-present ache in her heart, knowing that she’s driven Virginia away for good with her confession. 

 

Maybe she is just unlovable, which doesn’t surprise her, either.

 

What does surprise her is the relief she feels each time she sees Regina, as though she’s caught sight of an old friend for the first time in years. Which is ridiculous, because they hadn’t been friends before they’d exploded at each other and they aren’t friends now, either. But there is something about Regina lately– like her sharp edges have softened and smoothed, and she is someone else entirely beneath them.

 

Someone Emma has only glimpsed before, and has always wanted to see more.

 

On Wednesday evening, Emma catches a runaway cat and gets clawed up for her efforts, and she’s limping her way out of one of the massive backyards on Mifflin Street, cat carrier in tow, when she hears a sharp voice and a light is in her eyes. “What the hell do you think you’re doing on my property?” 

 

Emma squints. “Regina? Is that you?” Of course Regina lives in some palatial mansion on Mifflin. Emma had tripped over a kid’s bike on her way to the cat, so she’s pretty sure she’d accidentally emerged from the wrong end of the yard. “You live here?” 

 

Regina’s flashlight dips down. “What happened to your arm?” she demands. 

 

“Runaway cat. I got it.” Emma holds up the carrier. “I’ll be fine.” But she doesn’t move, incapable as she is of escaping Regina’s orbit when she gets caught in her gravitational pull. 

 

The cat squeals. Regina says, “Come sit on the porch.” She doesn’t invite Emma inside, which is…probably for the best, even if it leaves Emma irrationally forlorn. She knows where going inside would end, and they aren’t doing that anymore. 

 

She sits on the steps and, though she isn’t quite sure why she’d thought of it, she checks her burner phone. Nothing. 

 

Regina is standing behind her when she looks up, a first aid kit in hand and a little basin of water and a washcloth in her other arm. “That’s not your regular phone,” she notes.

 

She sounds curious, and Emma offers, “It’s the phone I used for…back when I used to find bail jumpers, I’d set up a lot of dates to get them where I needed them to be. I didn’t want them to be able to find me after. So I used a burner phone. I should probably get rid of it.” 

 

Regina takes Emma’s arm. The movement of the washcloth against her skin is gentle, as though Regina’s done this many times before. “Why don’t you?” 

 

Emma admits it before she can think it through. Maybe it’s Regina’s touch on her wrist that is muddling her thoughts, making her careless. “I have a friend who only texts me on this number,” she says, staring down at the phone, and then she blurts out, “She hasn’t answered me since Monday. I unloaded some heavy stuff on her and she just…stopped responding.” Regina rubs an antibiotic into a deep scratch, her eyes on Emma as she massages the cream in, and Emma says, fixated on those eyes, “I hope she’s okay.” 

 

“She sounds fine,” Regina says evenly. “Just inconsiderate.” There is an undercurrent of disdain in her voice, and Emma bristles at it.

 

“She’s never inconsiderate,” she says sharply. “If she hasn’t responded, she has a good reason for it.” Regina doesn’t answer, just slides her fingers over another scratch, and Emma shivers and tries to think about Virginia and heartbreak and not Regina’s fingers tracing a line up her arm. “She’s…” She swallows. “She’s thoughtful and funny and probably the most interesting person I’ve ever met– I’ve ever known,” she amends, grimacing to herself. “She isn’t ignoring me. She wouldn’t. Even if I did make her uncomfortable–” 

 

Too late, she remembers who she’s talking to. Her hand has been cleaned, and the scratches are bandaged where they’re deepest. Regina is still resting a hand on Emma’s arm, and her gaze is unreadable. 

 

Emma is left with a number of questions. Does Regina know that Emma is speaking about the woman who had caused the friction between them? Is Regina smug about the realization that Emma has lost them both? If Emma leans slightly forward, will Regina kiss her? “Thank you,” Emma says, the words rushing from her lips. “For this, I mean.” She holds out her arm. “I’d better go return this cat.” She takes the carrier, where the cat peacefully sleeps as though he had never hurt a single living thing in his life. 

 

Regina doesn’t answer, only sits on the porch with the first aid kit on her lap. She looks so small like this, a little figure on an elaborate porch, and Emma wonders how it is that Regina can live in such a large house by herself without being swallowed up by loneliness.

 

Not by herself, she reminds herself. Regina lives with her…father? She had said it so oddly that day, and Emma had chalked it up to some pretentious phrasing. Regina can’t help her pretension. It comes naturally to her, like restlessness comes to Emma.

 

And Emma has spent far too long thinking about Regina tonight when they’re over . She swallows her pride that night and writes a message to Virginia, sitting in the rocking chair that Regina had recommended for the corner of her living room. Sorry about all of that , she writes. We can pretend I never said it.

 

Still, silence. Emma types again. I miss you. Will you please stop ignoring me?

 

I assure you, Regina is doing anything other than ignoring Emma. She stares at the messages on her phone and feels silent dread, but she doesn’t dare respond. It feels deeply dishonest to be Virginia right now, and a level of exploitation that she knows they’d never come back from. Regina can only watch Emma’s messages come in, one after the other, and feel agony at Emma’s confusion.

 

It had crept up like a flood, this love she feels for Emma Swan. There had been little inklings that it had been coming: a desire to make her happy, a craving for her arms, like little waters lapping at her feet. And then, a tsunami of realization, before even uncovering the truth about Amy. Before Regina had known, before Emma had been her closest confidant, Emma had unknowingly taken Regina’s heart in her hands. And when she’d found out about Amy, she’d been in too deep to ever escape.

 

On Thursday morning, Regina bumps into Emma as she guides a lost older woman back to the station. “Your family has been looking for you,” she says to the woman, her words reassuring. “We’re going to get you back home to them.” 

 

The woman spots Regina and beams. “Hello, Mayor Mills! I like the new sheriff. Brains and beauty,” she says, her voice conspiratorial but her words high. She seems lucid now, and Emma offers Regina a helpless sort of smile. The woman says loudly, “She’s not seeing anyone,” and gives Regina an exaggerated wink. “I asked. You’re welcome.” She totters into the station, where her reproving granddaughter is waiting, and leaves Emma alone outside with Regina.

 

Emma says, “Good morning, Mayor Mills.” There’s a smile on her face, even though it doesn’t quite match her eyes. Regina yearns to take a step closer and kiss a real smile onto her face.

 

She does not. “Good morning, Deputy Swan,” she says, and she knows her own smile is wan. This is more than they’ve ever had before, but it will never be enough. 

 

Emma hesitates, then produces, as though out of nowhere, a brown bag. “I had Mulan pick some up,” she says. “She has a long weekend.” She holds them out, and Regina takes the bag. Inside are a half dozen mini quiches from the bakery in Boston, and Regina looks up again, confused. 

 

Emma lifts her shoulders helplessly. “I’m apologizing,” she says. “Just take them.” She turns abruptly and returns to the station, leaving Regina behind. 

 

Regina stands still as the elderly woman and her granddaughter leave the station, the younger woman scolding the older as they maneuver past Regina. She wonders, for a gripped moment, what might happen if she followed Emma in and tried, again, to talk to her. 

 

And then her phone buzzes. Amy, not Emma. At least look at this video , Emma has written, and she’s attached a ridiculous compilation of memes, each one featuring a chinchilla. Regina’s finger hovers over the text bar, as though she might type. But she doesn’t, because something else is becoming frighteningly clear. 

 

Emma is texting Virginia after encounters with Regina. Hadn’t she always? Hadn’t Regina left the B&B on most Tuesdays, only to receive immediate texts from Amy? She’d never thought much of it or looked at the time sent, assuming that the B&B had just had bad service. But, of course, Emma wouldn’t have been texting during

 

Virginia is the one Emma goes to after an interaction with Regina had turned sour. They’d slept together, but it’s Virginia with whom Emma can be intimate, can speak to as someone she cares about. And Regina doesn’t understand. She doesn’t , because she’d adored Amy but never forgotten that they had both been constructs, carefully curated versions of themselves. They see the best of each other via text and never the worst, never the parts that make Regina so unbearable. How can Emma not understand that Virginia isn’t real

 

She strides forward, at a loss, and finds herself pushing the door to the station open. Emma looks up from her spare phone, sending a text before she sets it down, and Regina sees it light up her own phone and tucks hers away hastily. “Did she respond yet?” Regina says, jerking her head toward the phone. 

 

“She will,” Emma says, and she sounds so ridiculously confident. “She wouldn’t– she wouldn’t leave me in the lurch like this. I just wish I knew she was okay.” 

 

Regina wants to demand answers right now, to slam her phone down and say she would leave you in the lurch, she’s every bit as terrible as you don’t realize, she’s someone you despise – Instead, she says, “Why don’t you just call her? Or ask a friend in Boston?” 

 

Emma ducks her face, avoiding Regina’s eyes. “We’re kind of just…texting friends. She lives in the area, but she isn’t from Boston.” 

 

“You’ve never met her.” It comes out with too much certainty, but Emma doesn’t seem to notice. “How do you know anything she says is real?” 

 

Emma gives her a dark look, as though certain she’s being mocked. Regina holds her gaze, and Emma drops hers. “I know her,” she says simply. “It’s different when you can’t see each other.” She shrugs, looking away from Regina. “You wind up digging much deeper, much faster. We might never have spoken in person, but I know that she’s…she’s been through more in her childhood than a lot of people endure in a lifetime. She’s fought through it all because she’s determined as hell and demands nothing less than absolute success from herself.” She smiles to herself, a quick and fond smile that stops Regina in her tracks. “She’s sure that she’s an asshole but I think she’s just bad at people, sometimes. And she’s a mom who would be happy even if every bit of her world collapsed as long as her son were still there. Being a mom is…is who she is.” She exhales, the warmth in her eyes scorching without even having to try. 

 

Reader, I think Regina might have underestimated her own relationship with Amy just a tiny bit. And confronted with the truth of that– with a woman who knows her from only words in the wind– she’s immobile, yearning and resentful at once of a woman who is herself.

 

“But you don’t,” Regina says weakly, and she gathers up her argument from the ground and tries to put it back together. “You don’t know all the things that will annoy you about each other. You don’t know what personality quirks she might have that wind up being toxic. You’re in love with this illusion ,” she points out, because she sees no point in pretending that she doesn’t know that Virginia is the one Emma had admitted to having feelings for. “That’s why we don’t start with all the dark secrets and unvarnished truth and first figure out if we can stand the other person.” 

 

Emma raises her eyebrows at Regina. “Yeah, well, I tried doing that with someone and she spent the next ten minutes telling me I was loveless and friendless, so…” 

 

Her tone is guarded, but not hostile. Regina imagines, for a moment, that there is still something to salvage. “It sounds like she’s really bad at people, too,” she murmurs, an olive branch. 

 

Is Regina entirely sure of what she’s doing, debating Virginia’s merits and daring to echo Emma’s earlier words like this? Well, is Regina ever sure of what she’s doing around Emma? Maybe only when they’re kissing.

 

But a ghost of a smile appears on Emma’s face. It’s a strong possibility that Emma might not mind that, after all. “Yeah,” she agrees. “I don’t know what I see in her.” 

 

“Saw,” Regina amends for her.

 

Emma looks at her, her fingers gripping her phone. “Right,” she says.

 


 

You must think that Regina is playing games with Emma by now, that this entire relationship is unfair. You must think that Regina has no right to keep this secret from Emma for three days and counting, especially when Virginia’s silence is hurting Emma with every day that passes. 

 

But you must understand, as well, just how terrifying it is for Regina to admit the truth. She didn’t choose this, only found herself trapped in it with no way out. Heartbreak, she reasons, will happen either way. Better to let Emma deconstruct her own feelings for Virginia. Better to let Emma see Virginia for who she really is, and to hate her as she rightfully must hate Regina.

 

It is a luxury we have, being able to dip curiously into Emma’s thoughts as well. Because we know that within Emma’s rising bewilderment and guilt at alienating Virginia, it’s another emotion that is confounding her right now. Yearning. And it isn’t directed at Virginia. It opens up a yawning darkness in her heart, an ache that longs to be assuaged, whenever Regina is nearby. 

 

They have had their first chance, and their second and their third. Every time they’ve tried, it has ended badly. But Emma craves something more, to dig beneath that frenetic surface that is conflict and loathing and excavate the tenderness within. Regina is careful around her now, guarded, and she withholds more of herself than ever before. But Emma sees past it, too, as clearly as though Regina has revealed more and more each time.

 

She sees it when Regina stumbles into her as Emma emerges from the station on Thursday afternoon, her eyes startled and then, for an instant, warm. They film over and become unreadable after that, but Regina’s hand is on Emma’s, steadying it, and she doesn’t let go. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I just wanted to see if you had some of the old sheriff’s documents about the fire on Main Street last year.” 

 

“Sure.” Emma turns, and Regina’s hand falls from her arm. She can feel Regina watching her. Regina has always watched her, but it had once been unconcealed hunger in her eyes. Now, there is a soft sadness, one that Emma longs to somehow make better. She digs out the paperwork from a file cabinet and hands it to Regina.

 

Their fingers brush, and a jolt of electricity sparks through Emma’s body. 

 

On Thursday night, Emma kisses Regina.

 

She doesn’t mean to, exactly. She’d found an excuse to patrol down Mifflin, to pass the big white house that is Regina’s late at night, and she’d stopped when she’d seen Regina standing on her porch. Regina is in a sweater over satin pajamas, shivering in the cold, and Emma calls out to her, wandering up the walkway, “You aren’t locked out, are you?” 

 

Regina shakes her head. “Door’s unlocked. And I have someone inside,” she says, and Emma asks, “Who?” 

 

She’d thought of Regina’s father, but no– she’d been moved in for five days before she’d bumped into Marian and heard a mention of Regina’s father’s funeral a few years before. Ruby does not know Regina well, much like almost everyone in town, Emma is discovering. Regina doesn’t live with her father.

 

Then she has someone else inside, and she has moved on as handily as she’d accused Emma of– “Who?” Emma repeats, her heart clenching into a tight pain in her chest.

 

Regina shakes her head. “It isn’t what you think it is,” she murmurs, and she looks so tired that Emma believes her. “I wish I could explain, but I– I can’t. Not yet.” She leans back against one of the pillars that holds up her porch, and Emma takes another step forward. “I need some time.” 

 

Emma does her best to shrug. “It’s not like we were ever together,” she says, her voice too loud to her ears, too high. “It’s not my business if you’re dating someone. Or sleeping with someone. Whatever.” 

 

Regina shakes her head. “There’s no one,” she whispers. “No one else. Just you.” 

 

Emma is kissing her before she can think it through, climbing the steps to the porch and cupping Regina’s cheeks in her hands and kissing her thoroughly. It’s only that Regina had looked so desperately like she had needed to be kissed. It’s only the way that Regina had said just you and looked at her with unguarded eyes.

 

And it takes a moment for Emma to realize that Regina is no longer kissing her back. She takes a step back and nearly falls off the porch. Regina holds her arm, steadies her. “You won’t want to do that,” Regina says, and her eyes are somber.

 

Won’t , she says, not don’t . Emma doesn’t know what holds Regina back, but she doesn’t leave her porch embarrassed as much as she is mystified and determined.

 

Determined, because Emma is done with this endless dance that they’ve been doing. The more she gets to know Regina, the more she thinks that all their loathing and sniping had just been a smokescreen. She likes Regina, much more than she would have expected. In a strange way, she kind of reminds Emma of Virginia. Her life would be so much simpler if there had just been one of them all along: a woman she’d spent time with and a woman she’d confided in. But there hadn’t been, and Emma is left with strange regrets. 

 

Regrets like what if Regina and I had spoken like Virginia and I had? Regrets like why did I invest so much of myself in a crush when I could have had Regina all along? Yes, Regina hadn’t exactly helped encourage Emma, but Emma wishes she’d been more aggressive, or patient, or just pushed a little more to know the woman in her bed. She wishes she’d just said yes, it is , when Regina had said this isn’t a date .

 

She wishes…

 

She wishes she had Regina , whoever Regina is, and she only wants to hold her in her arms again.

 

Regina is having some very similar regrets as she heads in for the night, and she stares at her phone. It is silent this time. Emma hasn’t texted Virginia since this morning. Regina doesn’t know what to read into that.

 

She falls into an exhausting sleep that does little to refresh her, and in the morning, she barely rolls out of bed in time for Henry. “I’m sorry,” she says, yawning. “Why don’t we go to Granny’s for breakfast?”

 

“I’m never gonna say no to that, Mom,” Henry says, grinning at her.

 

She pretends to be offended. “You don’t like my pancakes?” 

 

“I love your pancakes,” Henry says, and he slips his hand into hers, as trusting and loving as he’d been when he’d been a small child. “I also love the little sugar shaker that Ruby puts on our table. It’s fifty/fifty for me.” He beams at her, and she grins back, eternally grateful that her son has forgiven her. 

 

“Extra sugar on school days is officially your teacher’s problem, not mine,” Regina decides as they sit down at the table. “And while I’d normally consider the teacher’s feelings on this–” 

 

“You hate Ms. Blanchard and want her to suffer?” Henry guesses. “You know it wasn’t her family tree project, right? They do it every year.” 

 

“Not the family tree,” Regina objects. “It’s those birdhouses. They’re terrifying. Why does she have birdhouses all over your classroom?” 

 

Ruby sets down their pancakes. “She thinks they’re charming,” she offers. “I told her that the mayor was going to have her house searched for dead bodies if she decorated the room like that this year. She was sure you’d be impressed at her decorating skills.”

 

Henry laughs. Regina winces. “I just think–” Her phone buzzes, and she glances over at it offhand. It’s Emma, texting as Amy, and Regina freezes. I just wanted to let you know that my contract is up with this phone. It’s a spare, and I really only kept it to talk to you. I wish you’d felt comfortable enough to reply to me all week. I guess I get it. Anyway, I wanted to give you my regular number, if you ever want to reach me. I won’t put it in my phone. I don’t want to bother you when you clearly don’t want to be reached.

 

This is it. Emma can say goodbye to Virginia and Regina can shake off the whole thing for good, can even see if there’s something worth salvaging between them. There are no more secrets to keep. All Regina has to do is ignore one last message.

 

“Henry?” she says, and she picks up her phone. “I’m just going to run to the restroom for a minute.” She does, and then she stands in the hallway outside the bathroom and types a message to Emma at last. It takes all her strength just to muster up the courage to press the send button, but she does. I have to tell you something , she rereads on the screen, her first message to Emma in days, and she leans her head against the wall and breathes, looking up as she does.

 

Emma is standing at the door to Granny’s, her eyes fixed on Regina’s table. “Hen– Henry?” she says, her voice uncertain, and Regina remembers that no, there is still one last secret, and it has just slipped out of her grasp. 

 

Henry looks up. His eyes brighten in pleased surprise and the warmth that he always gets when he talks about… “Amy! What are you doing here?” 

 

“I moved in a couple of weeks ago. I’m the new deputy sheriff.” Emma looks bemused. “You live here?” 

 

“Duh,” Henry says, and his eyes flicker to Regina in the hallway. Regina shakes her head, her heart sinking, and Henry turns away quickly and beams up at Emma. “I can’t believe you’re here.” 

 

I don’t have to tell you that Emma isn’t an idiot. Well, not about this sort of thing, at least. Her brain is churning furiously, and she settles on the same possibility, over and over again. It can’t be, she decides. That would be too neat. Too easy. It can’t be.

 

“Good to see you,” she manages, mussing his hair, and she heads to the counter, her thoughts miles away. 

 

Ruby looks at her at the counter. “You know whose kid that is, right?” Okay, Mulan had maybe told one person, but only a few little bits of the story. Ruby still isn’t clear on most of it, though she’ll know soon enough.

 

“Yeah,” Emma lies. 

 

Ruby looks hard at her. “Just checking,” she says, and she pours Emma some coffee and turns around. 

 

Emma takes it automatically, turning again to stare at Henry. He’s watching her, grinning, and she manages a wan smile back. It can’t be , she reminds herself, because there are coincidences and then there’s fate, and Emma just doesn’t believe in fate. 

 

She takes a breath and starts forward to Henry, to just bite the bullet and ask, when Ruby yelps, “Henry! Your bus!” as a school bus drives past the storefront and stops at the corner. Henry peels out of his seat, grabbing his knapsack, and charges from the diner to the corner. Emma sags back against the counter.

 

When she looks up again, Regina is at the door, quietly exiting the diner. Her eyes are guarded, and she gives Emma a short nod of acknowledgement. Her phone is clutched in her hand. Emma thinks of taking a step forward, of demanding answers that Regina might not even have–

 

She glances down for the first time since she’d walked into the diner and spotted Henry, and she sees a new message on her phone. Okay. If Virginia is responding again, then maybe that’s…maybe this really is some wild coincidence. Why would she answer now, if she were–

 

I have to tell you something , Virginia’s message says, and Emma swallows and writes, her heart pounding, Go ahead.

 

She waits. Virginia is typing. Whatever she’s saying is taking a long time, longer than Emma would have imagined, and her heart sinks when she thinks about it. “More coffee,” she says to Ruby, who is watching her with sharp eyes. “Please.”

 

And I can tell you that Emma is terrified of what might come in that message. She’s afraid of who might be behind the keyboard, and even more afraid of who might not be. She’s even afraid of what might happen if Virginia reciprocates her feelings if she isn’t who Emma thinks she might be. A thousand doubts whirl through her mind as she waits, her throat clogged and her heart pounding.

 

And then, at last, the message appears on her screen. Emma pays and ducks out of the diner, leaning against the window outside while she reads. I let someone go recently, and it was the worst mistake I’ve ever made. 

 

Shall we go cinematic? Split the screen, and take a look at each of our heroes as Virginia’s message unfolds before us? 

 

I’m sorry that I haven’t written in days. I saw your messages and they made some things very clear to me. I didn’t know what I could say that wouldn’t be unfair to you.

 

Regina stands in place, her hand clamped around the phone. She had thought that she’d had at least another few minutes to write that message, at least enough time to be the one to explain. But that time is gone, the benefit of the doubt has faded, and this message is her last chance to try to make things right. To try, one last time, to tell Emma…

 

I’m not an easy person to care about. To like, even. And I’ve been saying that for so long that I think it’s become an excuse for me. That it would be fine if I could never find anyone who might want to be around me because this was just who I was. Harsh and demanding and uncompromising.

 

Emma is walking. She doesn’t know when she’d started moving, but her feet are carrying her down the block faster and faster, her eyes glued so firmly to her phone that she almost bangs into a telephone pole. Virginia’s message continues.

 

I thought that I could tell you anything because you weren’t real. Just a name and a number and nothing else. It didn’t matter that I could be a better person like that because you would have hated me in reality, because you would have met me and understood who I was.

 

Regina is nauseous with tension, rereading every word of the message she’d written over and over.

 

And then I met someone I absolutely loathed in the real world. I don’t know when I fell in love. I only know that, at some point, I realized that I didn’t want to be the person she hated anymore. I was terrified, but I wanted her to know me like you did. To be able to tell her everything. To show her who I was. 

 

Emma stops short at the end of the block, taking a shaky breath, and she remembers. She remembers exactly how detailed her description of her last fight with Regina had been, how Virginia had gone silent and Regina had gone stiff and uncertain after it, and she remembers Regina’s murmur of you won’t want to do that after Emma had kissed her last night. She remembers the day after Henry had come to Boston, when Regina had canceled their plans. She remembers the child’s voice on the other end when she’d come to Storybrooke on a Saturday, and she remembers that big, big house on Mifflin that had seemed to dwarf even Regina.

 

I wanted to tell her about my family. I wanted to tell her about my sordid past and my day-to-day life and to be the one to send her the occasional meme and take her by surprise. I wanted to be a person she could care about. I wanted her to know my son. We’d started off on the wrong foot and gotten caught up in it, and I just wanted to undo it all. No, not undo. I wouldn’t give up an instant that I’ve already had with her.

 

Regina leans back, and she understands for the first time what it means to be as vulnerable as Emma had been that night in the parking lot. She is small, exposed, and she can feel the rising sadness and surrender that comes with every moment she stands there alone. She shuts her eyes, takes a breath, and refuses to think about what might come after this. She doesn’t want to imagine it.

 

I want to try again, though I know that she might be done with me. And I dearly hope that you might want the same. If you want to ignore this message and go back to how things were, I will understand. I’ll accept it and never broach the topic again. 

 

Emma swallows, her finger moving to scroll to the next line, and she peers tentatively at it.

 

But if you would like for us to meet– again, anew, like we’ve never met before– I’ll be waiting at the apple tree outside Town Hall. You’ll know me when you see me. 

 

Emma breaks into a run, weaving past women with strollers and delinquent teens. The air whips at her face, her boots hit the ground hard with every stride, and she ignores it all, every sensation as she hurtles toward Town Hall. 

 

And there– there , in the grass to the right of the building, Regina stands beneath the apple tree. Her eyes are downcast as she squeezes her phone, and Emma calls, “Regina?”

 

Regina’s gaze lifts and a smile blooms onto her face, unrestrained and disbelieving. Emma exhales, suffused with relief, and she doesn’t stop moving until she’s careening into Regina’s arms, kissing her soundly as Regina’s arms wrap tightly around her. Emma, Emma , Regina is whispering against her lips. Emma

 

Emma pulls away for a moment, and she’s laughing, she’s laughing and she’s crying a little bit and she’s piecing it all together all at once. “I wanted it to be you,” Emma says breathlessly, and she presses a hand to Regina’s cheek, gazes at her with wonder. “I wanted it to be you so badly.” 

 

“I can’t imagine why ,” Regina says, and there’s dry wit under her wet voice, under that endless store of self-loathing that she holds within her. Emma holds her tighter, buries her head in Regina’s shoulder, and thinks again about how impossible and perfect this all is. 

 

“Every moment with Virginia,” Emma whispers, because it is so important for Regina to understand this. “Every time I was with you. You were both under my skin. And it was killing me that I was texting the perfect woman and then with you , because you were so… imperfect –” Regina laughs wetly. “And all I wanted was you. I mean, I wanted to know you as well as I knew her–” 

 

Regina kisses her again, and it’s a mess of tears and laughter and lips that Emma’s known for so long and never really knew at all– again, anew, like we’ve never met before – and Emma cries a little, too, because she still doesn’t believe in fate but how can she doubt this, being held under this apple tree with someone she loves, loves, loves–

 

Oh, I’m sorry. Is this a bad time?

 

I just thought we might want to fade to black as we await the happily ever after.

 


 

“I can’t believe this,” Marian says, leaning back on her palms in the grass. “All this time?” 

 

“It is a pretty crazy story,” Emma calls down from where she’s hanging onto a tree for dear life. Henry and Roland have both scrambled ahead of her, and Roland is throwing little clods of mud down that he’s scraped from a branch. “Trust me, I’m having just as much trouble believing I went through it.” 

 

Marian shakes her head. “No, forget that,” she says, shaking her head. “I’ve been getting threatening calls and texts for years . They never seemed quite sure who I was, so I ignored them and assumed it was just Zelena pranking me, but it was you ? Have we always had such similar numbers?” 

 

Mulan puts up a hand. “I would like to point out that I have mentioned this. At least a few times.” 

 

They’re at the Storybrooke Park, a big green space with biking paths and lots of trees, and it’s a Tuesday afternoon. It isn’t the Tuesday immediately after that Friday, but a few weeks after, because that’s exactly how long it’s taken before Regina has been willing to admit the bulk of the story to her best friend. 

 

“None of it paints me in a positive light,” she’d pointed out when Emma had gently suggested that Marian might deserve the truth. “I don’t want her to see me like that.” 

 

Emma had slipped an arm around Regina’s back and pressed a kiss to her shoulder. “I don’t think it’s nearly as damning as you think it is.”

 

They continue to disagree on some basic things: when paperwork should be completed, if Cheetos are considered food, Regina’s inherent belief that she is irredeemable and Emma’s that she is unlovable. But they’re working on it. 

 

Do they fight? Well, yes. Some habits are hard to break. But it’s different now, when they understand each other better than they’d ever imagined that they might. When there are quiet moments that make it so clear just how much they each care

 

Moments like Regina hovering beneath the tree at the park, her eyes widening each time Emma slips on a branch. “Get down ,” she orders. “You’re going to break your necks.” 

 

Henry says, “I’m fine! Look how secure this is!” He demonstrates by waving both hands in the air, perfectly ensconced in the branches. 

 

Emma just ignores Regina altogether. “Who’s Zelena?” she asks curiously. 

 

“Marian’s bad taste in partners acting up again,” Regina says, wrinkling her nose.

 

Marian snorts. “My ex,” she offers. “Who, for all her foibles, is also the reason why I met Regina, so Regina should watch what she says about her favorite sister.” 

 

Only sister,” Regina corrects.

 

Emma says, “ What? ” and loses her grasp on her branch. She tumbles from the tree, grabbing onto branches to slow her fall, and lands in a heap in front of Regina. 

 

“What did I tell you?” Regina drops to the ground beside her, examining her hands for splinters and cuts. She looks up once and orders, “ Down ,” to Henry and Roland, who clamber down sheepishly. 

 

Emma says, “You have a sister? You never mentioned–” 

 

“Ugh,” Regina says, scowling. “She was never very relevant to any conversation.” 

 

“They fight like cats and dogs,” Marian offers. “But, like, if the dog in question were a chihuahua.”

 

“Zelena is very shrill,” Ruby agrees.

 

Mulan holds up a hand at Emma’s glare. “I didn’t know about her, either,” she offers.

 

Later, once Roland and Henry have wandered off to a group of boys playing soccer on the other side of the park, Emma tugs Regina up and they circle the pond together. It’s a quiet, sunny day, a little breeze cooling the air, and their hands tangle together as they enjoy the weather. “A sister,” Emma repeats. “I had no idea.” 

 

“I’m sorry,” Regina murmurs. “She comes back to town every now and then, spoils Henry rotten and gets me drunk, and then she vanishes again in a whirlwind.” She rolls her eyes. “Like a chaotic hurricane. We barely speak the rest of the time. I just hadn’t thought to mention her.” 

 

“It’s fine!” Emma says, and she means it. “It’s just…” She squeezes Regina’s hand. “I was thinking about how it’s good that we still can surprise each other sometimes. It’s kind of nice to hear it instead of reading it.” She bumps her shoulder against Regina’s and then ventures, “Have you…Does she know that you’re dating someone?” 

 

“Mm. Kind of,” Regina says, and she smiles suddenly. “She was with Marian that night when I got drunk and agreed to go out with Marian’s bounty hunter friend. And then texted the wrong number accidentally.” 

 

“Wow. Seems like a bunch of dumb moves on your part,” Emma says, grinning. “How embarrassing.” There had been a time when Regina might have taken Emma’s smugness as mockery, as a hostile observer taking pleasure in her faults, and would lash out accordingly. Not now. Not anymore, when every word is awash in fondness.

 

Now, Regina raises her eyebrows playfully. “A series of disasters,” she says. “Appalling, really. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Emma drawls. “You must be overflowing with regrets.”

 

And they’re joking, light and easy, but there are some things that Regina will not joke about. “Never,” she says wholeheartedly, and Emma sighs and pulls her close by the lapels of her jacket, kissing her happily by the pond.

 

In that moment, they have only each other and the quiet certainty that this will last. But they can’t know, of course. There is no certainty in the present except for a love that they are sure can withstand anything. They don’t know, but they believe in it.

 

But I know. I know that this is, in fact, it for them. I know that they’re going to stumble a few times, especially early on, and the fights are going to get bad. There will be times when Emma goes to her apartment and doesn’t return for days, and they have tense conversations as Henry flits between them, unwilling to give Emma up for a fight. There will be times when there are hushed apologies and quiet overtures and– yes! even, at last, the occasional scheduled meeting with Dr. Hopper for each of them.

 

I know that when the dust clears, there is only eternity ahead of them. I know that they learn how to talk through conflict and kiss it better. I know that they learn to build each other up until they’re both strong, they’re both happy, and they no longer live in fear of losing each other. I know that their nights have grown no less passionate over time, and they play at hating each other only when they’re in the bedroom, when they both pretend. 

 

I know that Emma stays in Storybrooke for longer than she’s ever stayed anywhere before, and on the day that she crosses that threshold, Regina bakes a little cupcake for her with a ring in the center. I know that Emma bites the stone on the ring too hard and breaks the setting and they don’t get to the yes, yes, you ridiculous human until after a frankly terrifying (or so the jeweler insists) visit to a local jeweler. 

 

I know that Regina wears a suit to her wedding and Emma wears a dress, that they dance together and forget the rest of the world for a long time. I know that Henry is adopted for a second time, this time when he’s already fifteen and has two parents at last, and he pastes Emma’s picture into the family tree that still hangs in Regina’s study. I know that he starts calling her Mom years before, but it’s the first time he says my moms after that paperwork is signed that makes them all dissolve into happy tears. 

 

I know that Regina and Emma foster more children in the years that follow, give them a home and all the love that they can offer. I know that Emma fiercely advocates for the more troubled children of Storybrooke, that she never stops fighting the systems that had once been the only ones she could see. I know that Regina and Emma adopt two more children, a teenaged boy and a baby girl, and that their house is rarely quiet and just the right size for the crowds of children who come and go.

 

I know that Henry graduates and drops out of college to travel the country and write a book, and I know that Emma has to hold Regina back when they discover this. I know that Henry gets married to a wonderful woman and gives them a perfect granddaughter to hold in their arms, and Regina stops protesting. I know that this is the age of sudden backaches and silvering hair and the realization, when looking in the mirror, that they are not as young as they once were.

 

I know that they grow old together, and I know that they wake up each morning beside each other for the rest of their lives. I know that they love without reservation, and that they look back at their first meetings with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia instead of shame. 

 

I know that once a year, Regina goes to the bar that has replaced the bar that had replaced Aesop’s Tables, and she sits at the bar and waits until a woman who remains beautiful to her to this day arrives behind her. I know that they squabble good-naturedly and then slip out to the alleyway beside the bar for a single, chaste kiss before they go home. 

 

I know all this, even if Regina and Emma can’t see it yet. But as they kiss outside the pond in Storybrooke Park on that sunny afternoon, I know that they feel it as surely as I do.