"Regina? What's wrong?"
Zelena's yawn crackles loudly over their poor cell reception. Regina keeps the phone pressed tight to her ear regardless, an umbrella clutched in her other hand as she holds it high above herself and the precious cargo she finds herself standing over.
"We have a problem."
"Thank you, that's very specific," Zelena sasses, snarky even when she's barely awake at an ungodly hour of the morning. "Elaborate."
Before Regina can reply, a high pitched whine starts up, audible even over the phone. Zelena makes a strange, confused sound.
"The bloody hell was that?"
"That," Regina murmurs, stooping down into a crouch as she makes a gentle shushing sound, "is a litter of newborn werewolf pups."
There's a thump and a muffled curse, signifying that Zelena has scrambled out of bed. She can hear a cacophony of sound as her half-sister rushes to get dressed.
" Werewolf pups? Are you sure? We haven't had werewolves out here in decades. Where are you?"
"The woods behind town hall, a few yards into the treeline." Regina clamps her phone down between her cheek and shoulder so she can reach out and gently stroke the head of one of the pups, grimacing at how cold and wet its fur is. They must have been out here in the rain for quite a while. The pouch they'd been wrapped up in—a knit blanket hastily tied at the corners—is nothing more than a lump of soaked fabric now. Scattered nearby, she can see the torn remains of what looked to be denim and plaid. Shredded clothing without blood is a pretty good indicator of a morphing werewolf, except this one seems to have left behind far more than just old clothes and a stray shoe.
The pup whines again—a pitiful little yipping sound that has Regina's heart twinging with sympathy—and tries to arch up blindly against her hand for warmth.
"Their eyes aren't even open yet, Zelena. How could anyone abandon their pups this young?"
"I'll bring a tracking potion. And blankets. And, uh... a dog crate?"
"A basket, Zelena. They're children, for god's sake."
"Right. On my way."
Hanging up, Regina puts her phone away and sighs, gently rubbing at the head of the light brown pup nudging her wrist. They all wriggle and whimper, no doubt hungry and scared, and Regina is already worrying about what to do with them. Storybrooke doesn't have werewolves, nor are any of its citizens equipped to raise a werewolf, nevertheless five of them.
"What am I to do with all of you?" she murmurs. The pup latches onto the tip of her finger with a little squeak, as if trying to suckle for milk, and Regina already knows she's doomed.
"Henry, honey, please get your shoes on. Hope, where's your—oh, Daniel, help your sister please. Elizabeth, for the last time, you look fine, please stop changing your outfit— Emmett Mills, get back into human form this instant!"
Motherhood isn't exactly what Regina signed up for six years ago, but she'd like to think she has this whole single-mother thing down relatively well. Thus far, no one in Storybrooke has been attacked by a temperamental werewolf child, anyway, so she'll call that a win. (That one time Graham got bitten doesn't count, because she'd warned him not to rile up the children while they'd been in wolf form, and it was hardly her fault he ended up with a stubborn pup's iron jaws clamped onto his forearm for a solid five minutes.)
"You all have five seconds to line up by the door. Five, four, three, two — "
The children stampede into place, Emmett still with golden-blonde fur receding around his face, Elizabeth huffing as she adjusts her coat, Daniel holding firmly onto Hope's hand to keep the easily-distracted girl in line, and Henry shuffling his feet at the very end.
It's a little chaotic, but the end results are what matter.
"What have I said about wolfing out?" Regina chides softly, pausing to smooth out Emmett's ruffled blonde hair. His fur has mostly disappeared, though she can still see a glimmer of gold in his green eyes.
"Not when we're about to go out in clothes?" He smiles sweetly, innocent. Regina straightens out his collar and clicks her tongue disapprovingly at where the topmost button has popped off, no doubt from him morphing while clothed. He's a mischievous little troublemaker and she doesn't believe his innocent smile in the slightest.
"If I have to mend your clothing one more time because of an irresponsible morph, I'm taking away your video game rights for a week," she warns. He makes a high pitched whining sound in the back of his throat, chastened, and she sighs and shakes her head before waving her fingers over the damage and magicking the button back where it belongs. Thank god for her magic or she'd have lost her mind a long time ago trying to wrangle five pups the old fashioned way.
"Everyone out. Let's go. You know the drill."
The children amble out, waiting restlessly while she locks the door, and then they're off in their usual marching order.
Emmett walks next to her, his blonde head constantly on a swivel and occasionally glancing back at his siblings, alert to everything around them. The children are all roughly the same age, give or take a few minutes, she assumes, but Emmett has always been the tallest of the litter, and she wouldn't be surprised if he shoots up like a tree once he hits puberty.
Just behind them, Daniel and Hope walk hand in hand. Quiet but friendly, Daniel is her most well behaved child, eager to please and quick to help her with his siblings. Hope practically lives with her head in the clouds, always distracted and daydreaming, though never complaining when her siblings have to drag her around lest she be left behind.
At the back, Elizabeth walks with Henry. Sharp as a whip but hotheaded and stubborn, Elizabeth is quick to roughhouse with all her siblings except Henry, of whom she is generally extra gentle with. Henry, bless his little heart, is the obvious runt of the litter, smaller than the others and scrawny as a toothpick. He's sweet, too, sensitive and painfully shy around strangers, and Regina worries about him every day, wondering if he can keep up with his quickly growing siblings. They're only six years old for now, and their wolf forms are thankfully still gangly little pups, but Regina knows how large adult werewolves can get, and she finds it hard to imagine an adult Henry holding his own within a proper werewolf pack.
She wishes she'd learned more, back when werewolves had lived in Storybrooke. But the citizens of Storybrooke were closed minded and judgemental, and Regina had only been a girl when the werewolf family was chased out of town, not with torches and pitchforks but with cruel gossip and racist aggression.
Not that things have changed much in thirty-some years, mind you, but no one's going to say a word about Regina adopting five werewolf pups when she's the Mayor. (It doesn't hurt that she's been known to throw fireballs when angry. Never mess with a sorceress.)
Her children are all rambling to each other, a cacophony of voices and giggles and laughter, and Regina automatically tunes it out while she thinks over everyone's schedules for the day— three meetings first thing, working lunch with Kathryn, budget meeting with Graham, groceries, pick the kids up from school— and then there's suddenly a snarl.
Her head whips to the side, eyes wide as she sees Emmett's bared teeth, his canines sharp and getting sharper.
"Emmett," she warns, alarmed, looking up to check what he's glaring at. Across the street ahead of them, she sees Michael Tilman walking with his twins Nicholas and Ava, and her stomach sinks.
Emmett and Nicholas have had a strong dislike of each other since day one, despite Nicholas being two years older and therefore in another grade entirely. Nicholas had made a stupid joke on the playground about whether the Mills children liked dog treats and Emmett had promptly punched him in the nose. The brat had it coming, really, and Emmett was just protecting his siblings, after all. But they'd had a long talk about using his words and not his fists, and Nicholas had been equally reprimanded for harassing a younger student, so they've mostly stayed far away from each other the rest of the year, to every parents' relief.
Now, however, the snarl rumbling from Emmett's little chest promises far worse than a fist to the face.
"Emmett, stop it," she says sharply, moving in front of him to block his view. He tries to lean around her, green eyes flashing gold, and she grabs him firmly by his shoulders to keep him in place. The other children clump together behind him, looking confused and wary, except Elizabeth who grabs at the back of his shirt and hisses out a warning of her own.
"Everything okay out here?" a voice calls out, from a man standing in the doorway of the diner they've stopped in front of. But it's not a question of concern. The man is staring suspiciously at the children, his eyes lingering on Emmett's tense form, and Regina wants to snap at him, he's a six year old child, what are you so afraid of? But his fear is bred from sheer ignorance and so she plasters on a cold smile instead and simply says, "We're fine."
He frowns but relents, disappearing back into the diner with a jangle of the bell. Looking back down at the boy in her grip, Regina finds troubled green eyes staring up at her now, Emmett's lower lip pinched between his teeth.
"I'm sorry," he mumbles, eyes round. There's something bewildered in his expression that stops Regina from scolding him then and there. Shaking her head, she smooths down his hair and grabs onto his hand instead, coaxing the children to continue their walk now that the Tilmans are much further up ahead.
"Would you like to explain what that was about?" she asks quietly, eyes ahead on the path so as not to pressure him. His fingers tighten around hers and he's quiet for a moment, shoulders hunched with embarrassment. Behind them, Regina can nearly feel the rest of her children leaning forward with ears perked.
"I don't know. I just saw him and got annoyed, and then I got really angry," Emmett mumbles, head lowered in submission. He's ashamed, which is a rare thing to see in Emmett. Rambunctious and impulsive as he is, he doesn't usually feel any guilt whenever he commits a faux pas. He'll flash that charmingly innocent grin of his knowing that he'll get away with nearly anything.
"It's okay, honey," she says after a long moment of deliberation, exuding calm control for her children's sake despite panicking on the inside. Something happened outside of Emmett's control, and not only does she need to figure out what it is, she's also worried it may happen to the others as well. "It's okay to feel whatever you feel, but remember that we must always control our actions, hm? You can be angry, but you mustn't show aggression. Humans don't know much about werewolves, and—"
"And they fear what they don't understand," Emmett recites softly, frowning. He finally lifts his head, offering up the most contrite puppy-dog look she's ever seen on his face. "I'm sorry, Mommy. I'll do better."
He's the only one in the litter who's switched to using "Mom" lately—which still tears Regina up on the inside—so the fact that he's reverted means he's feeling truly vulnerable at the moment. Stopping the group, Regina drops to a knee with a sigh and opens up her arms, unsurprised as he immediately tucks himself into her embrace. With her other arm, she gestures for the rest of her children and they eagerly join the group hug.
"I know you will, baby. Growing up different isn't easy and I know you're all trying your best. Never feel embarrassed to ask for help, okay? We Mills have to protect each other."
They end up arriving at the school a few minutes late, and Regina smiles to herself when Henry and Elizabeth each grab onto Emmett's hands, Daniel and Hope behind them, the little group walking close together as they head inside. She has no doubt they'll keep an eye on each other, a small mercy as she heads off to work with restless worry turning her stomach.
Her meetings drag on and the paperwork never seems to end, and it's a relief to finally hear a familiar knock on her door at exactly twelve o'clock on the dot. Kathryn enters without waiting for a response, smiling brightly as she holds up a large takeout bag and a tray of drinks.
"Ready for lunch?"
"Absolutely," Regina sighs, turning away from her laptop as her friend pulls up a seat on the other side of the desk. As she gratefully starts unpacking the food, Kathryn glances at what she can make of the laptop screen and quirks a brow.
It's asked out of genuine curiosity. Kathryn had been a great help when Regina had first brought home a litter of werewolf puppies with absolutely no idea what to do with them or how to raise them. Kathryn and Zelena had both clocked many long days and nights helping with wrangling teething pups, messy feedings, and eventually teaching the children how to go about their bathroom routines in human form. (Regina's just glad the boys have finally stopped trying to pee with one leg lifted over the toilet. Never again.)
They'd both also been incredibly supportive in assisting Regina with her search for the children's biological parents, despite their efforts never coming to fruition. Whoever had left the children in the woods of Storybrooke had disappeared like a ghost, and the dwindling population of werewolves in the world—never mind their understandably secretive and isolated nature—meant that getting real information about their species was nigh impossible. Regina had all but given up by the children's fifth birthday.
"I was hoping there might be some new information online in the past year or so," Regina murmurs, looking troubled as she opens up a container of pasta. "Emmett got angry when he saw Nicholas Tilman and nearly wolfed out in the middle of the street today while we were walking to school."
"And you think it's werewolf related?" Kathryn grimaces. "Like... puberty or something? He's only six."
"And they're all nearly twice as smart as human children their age. What if his sudden aggression is wolf related? Are there any other changes I need to worry about them going through in the years to come? God, Kathryn, can you imagine if they go through wolf puberty and human puberty?"
Regina pales at the thought, because they're all the same age so that's five wolf children all going through puberty at the same time, and Kathryn immediately winces in sympathy.
"Okay, well, there's no use panicking about it right now, huh? Maybe Emmett's just having a bad day. Even if this is wolf related, it's not the end of the world. We'll think up some contingency plans for every scenario. Zelena's always got ideas up her sleeve. And you two are sorceresses with enough magic to handle any situation, after all; how bad can it get?"
"Nothing good ever happens when someone asks 'how bad can it get,' Kathryn," Regina deadpans. Her friend smiles sheepishly.
"Just trying to be the optimistic one here. Why don't Zelena and I join you guys for dinner tonight? We can discuss options, maybe see if the kids are feeling different or if they've noticed any changes."
"Or you just wanted an excuse to invite yourself to dinner," Regina snorts.
"Listen, Mills, not everyone can cook as well as you can, and Fred's out of town for business so I have no house-husband at home. Have some sympathy."
"Fine. We're having Carbonara tonight."
"You're my favourite," Kathryn teases, taking a happy bite out of her panini. After a moment of chewing, her eyes light up with news to share. "I nearly forgot! There's a new person in town."
"Oh?" Regina focuses on stabbing at her pasta, hardly moved by the news. Storybrooke is small and a bit out of the way, sure, but new people pass through every so often, and none have ever stayed for more than a gas station refill and a coffee break.
"Mm. Overhead her asking the waitress about the B&B. Sounds like she might stick around for a bit."
Not entirely unheard of. Still, Regina quirks a brow and doesn't pay it too much attention. "I'll ask Graham to suss her out and make sure she isn't here to cause trouble."
"Mmhmm." Kathryn takes another bite of her lunch, chewing absently. Regina braces herself for whatever her friend says next, because she just knows something is coming. "She's a gorgeous blonde. One hundred percent your type."
"Kathryn," Regina sighs, putting down her fork.
"You know I don't have time for dating. Especially now that I have the children to think about."
"It's been forever," Kathryn whines. "You deserve to be happy. And wouldn't it be nice to have a partner to help with the kids?"
"I am perfectly happy with my five wonderful children," Regina sniffs, narrowing her eyes as Kathryn holds up her hands in innocence. "And, frankly, the last time I had a partner meet the children, there was nearly a turf war in my own damn house."
"How was anyone supposed to know the kids would react poorly to a dragon?"
"Never again," Regina asserts, shaking her head. Unbeknownst to any of them at the time, werewolves and dragon-shifters instinctively hated each other, something that had caught even Mal unawares when she'd found herself chased out of the Mills mansion by a pack of hissing, spitting puppies. They'd been three years old and refused to see Mal as anything other than a threat, a fellow apex predator, and Mal—bless her heart, she'd tried for Regina's sake, but the children smelled like wet dogs to her sensitive nose and she was hardly attached to any of them enough for the effort to be worth it. In the end, Mal had apologized and Regina had amicably seen her to the door, and that had been that.
She'd simply resigned herself to the fact that she would remain single for as long as the children stayed with her. And if they stayed with her forever, well, that would be okay too.
"I'm just saying," Kathryn sighs after a long moment of silence, picking at her lunch. "The kids are wonderful, and I love them too, but don't close yourself off to the possibility of finding a partner, you know? They're getting older and so much smarter. They'll understand."
"Maybe one day. But I'm happy right now, Kathryn. I want to enjoy the time I have with them while they're still young. Emmett's started calling me 'Mom' instead of 'Mommy' now, did I tell you that?"
"Ouch. I knew he'd be the first one." Kathryn winces. "Well... look on the bright side. Henry will be a Momma's Boy forever."
It's kind of true, but Regina grimaces anyway. "I worry about him. From what little I've found on the internet, runts of werewolf litters always have it the hardest. Most rarely survive turf wars. Thank god there aren't any other werewolf packs in Storybrooke."
"Even if there were, you'd go all evil sorceress on their asses to make sure your kids are fine. How many werewolf packs can claim to have a sorceress on their team?" Kathryn points out, chuckling. There was a reason sorcerers were both valued and dreaded in equal measure; their interference tended to tip the scales. Most wisely remained neutral and unaligned in all things to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Regina did, too, up until the day she found herself a new mother to five werewolf children.
"True." She sighs, a wry smile tugging at her lips.
She really would do anything to protect her children.
"You really think they're here?"
"They have to be." Emma's tone is curt, drumming her fingers against the little white picket fence in agitation. On the other side, her packmate August leans against his motorcycle next to the sidewalk, his arms crossed as he tilts his head. The late afternoon sun casts a somber shadow across his rugged face and makes him look older than his age, dark stubble shifting along his jaw as his lips press into a grimace.
"It's been years, Em. What if—"
"No," she interrupts, frowning hard at him. "They have to be here."
The alternative isn't an option. It can't be.
August nods, puts his helmet back on, and climbs onto his motorcycle. Emma is rarely this aggressive, so he knows to keep his snark to himself for once and simply get to work.
"I'll start looking," he says, taking off once Emma waves him away. Left alone in front of the diner, Emma glances up at the building for a long moment, glaring at the lackluster Blue's sign where Granny's used to be.
"Fairies," she scoffs under her breath, as she remembers why she loathes them so.
Her memories had been coming back in bits and pieces throughout the years, like shattered shards of glass gluing themselves back into the wrong order—but being here again, standing in this isolated town and staring at the aged faces of people she vaguely knew as a child, the memories return quite suddenly like an incoming freight train, careening into her brain at lightning speed and bringing with it a migraine to end all migraines.
What she wouldn't do for a drink.
Taking in a deep breath and swallowing down her pride, she heads back into the old diner, retaking the seat at the counter she'd vacated just a few minutes ago when August had finally arrived in town. There are very few places to get food around here, and if she wants somewhere central to linger and eavesdrop on conversations, this is one of her only options.
At least the food hasn't gone to shit. Small mercies.
She finishes her meal quickly and grabs a newspaper to pretend to skim through, sipping at a lukewarm cup of coffee and listening to every other conversation in the diner with boredom. People come and go, most of them giving her curious glances, wondering about the stranger in town. No one recognizes her, which Emma should be grateful for, she supposes, though it doesn't stop the little ball of bitter anger festering in her chest.
Eventually, the remaining lunchtime rush dies out and she's mostly alone, sitting in silence as the waitresses flutter about, cleaning and prepping for the evening crowd. She debates wandering the town or perhaps trying her luck at the only bar in town, absently counting out bills and sliding them across the counter, when the bell over the door chimes and a woman enters.
She's beautiful. Emma would have to be blind for that to not be her first thought. Thick black hair falls shoulder-length and stylish around the woman's face, curling softly around her ears and brushing against a sharp jawline. Smokey but professional makeup around her eyes blends seamlessly against her warm golden skin, and piercing irises the color of red-brown mahogany land on Emma almost immediately, momentarily surprised and then—wary. Suspicious.
Emma's used to getting that look once people find out what she is, but it stings a little more coming from a beautiful woman.
"Just a coffee," the woman says to the waitress once she strides up to the counter, brisk and to the point as she digs out her wallet. Her scent drifts past Emma, a sweet and honeyed perfume that has the blonde breathing in deeper with great interest. Magic. The telltale scent of a sorceress. There's another scent underneath that, something familiar, maybe, but it's so faint and hidden beneath the perfume that she can't quite pick out what it is.
"Of course, Madame Mayor," the waitress replies politely, scurrying off and leaving the two women alone at the counter. To Emma's surprise, the Mayor proceeds to turn and greet her with a sharp politician's smile.
"I don't believe we've met. I'm Regina Mills."
A stiff hand is presented. Emma doesn't hesitate to shake it, relishing in the softness of Regina Mills' hand in her own slightly larger and more calloused one. The woman is sussing her out, and Emma is more than willing to play along. Sorcerers are so rare and this is the first time she's had any direct interaction with one.
"Emma Swan. You have a lovely town here, Madame Mayor."
Dark eyes give Emma a once over, down-and-back-up, fast enough that she might have missed it if she'd not been paying close attention. Wariness is replaced by—something she can't quite decipher. It's a mix of curiosity and... uncertainty? Confusion? It's gone as quickly as it had come, replaced by another professional smile that says nothing and gives nothing away.
"Thank you. Storybrooke is small but it certainly has its charm. Will you be staying a while?"
She knows. Her dark eyes, piercing and assessing, say as much. Emma had underestimated how quickly news spreads in small towns.
"For a while, yes," Emma replies, offering her most charming smile without saying anything more. Regina holds her gaze steadily, before the intense look is just as easily replaced with another politician's smile.
"Well. I hope you enjoy your time here, Miss Swan."
The waitress returns then with a takeout coffee, which the Mayor accepts with a curt nod before immediately turning to leave. Emma tilts her head, smiling lopsidedly when Regina ignores her gaze.
"I'm sure I will, Madam Mayor," she murmurs after her, letting her voice dip into a low husk. It feels a little bit like playing with fire, because she's here for an important reason and not to flirt with a beautiful sorceress, but the brunette's step falters very slightly before she hurries out of the diner, and Emma counts it as a harmless victory.
"I don't like her."
"You said that when you first met Mal, too."
Regina rolls her eyes, pointedly ignoring Zelena as she refills her wine glass. Her sister just cackles, picking at a plate of leftover dessert while Kathryn leans her elbows on the island counter. Dinner had been a relaxed affair, mostly. The children were agreeable and in good spirits, though Emmett and Henry were a little more clingy than usual, and none of them claimed to feel any different aside from Emmett's brief temper flare. Regina hopes—prays, even—that it had been a random occurrence, perhaps Emmett hadn't slept well the night before or was just having a rough day... but some part of her knows change is coming.
"She is attractive though, you have to admit that, right? Girl has guns." If straight-as-a-ruler Kathryn noticed the blonde's biceps, there was no way Regina hadn't. Sure enough, the brunette averts her eyes with a cough and Kathryn smirks.
"Who cares if you like her personality or not?" Zelena shrugs, sipping daintily at her wine as she cocks an eyebrow at her sister. "She's only here for a little while, it's not like you're signing up for a commitment. I say you climb that woman like a tree while you have the chance. Break that dry spell you've been stuck in."
"Some of us are fine being single," Regina insists, indignant. The flush of embarrassment on her face gives her away, though the second glass of wine certainly doesn't help matters.
"She's imagining climbing the new girl," Kathryn side-whispers.
"Oh, most certainly," Zelena stage-whispers back.
"I hate you both," Regina mutters, huffing in annoyance as her sister and her supposed best friend laugh at her. Their get-togethers usually devolve into dumb topics once they're into their second bottle of wine, but attractiveness aside, there is something off about Emma Swan that just doesn't rub Regina the right way, and she can't quite let it go. "There's just... something about her that's familiar. She's here for a reason, and I'm going to find out what it is."
"In a normal situation, this would be illegal."
Emma turns, squinting at August as he grins. He's just teasing her, trying to lighten the mood, though his humor is poorly timed. They're both standing in the shade of a tree just outside Storybrooke's elementary school, looking for all the world like a pair of creeps scoping out children. Which... is technically what they're doing, but when you're searching for your own long-lost children after having been unwillingly taken away from them, does it really count?
"You're not very funny."
"I'm hilarious. You just need to lighten up." He slings an arm around her shoulder, hugging her tightly for a moment when he feels how stiff she is. "Relax, Emma. One step at a time, yeah?"
"You're sure you scented werewolf kids here?"
"Mm. A whole litter of them. The only werewolves in Storybrooke. If it's them..."
"It has to be." Emma stares at the doors of the school, apprehension in her face as her fingers tap a restless rhythm against her elbow, arms tightly crossed. "They'd be the right age. I'd recognize them, right? I'd know the minute I saw them. I'd know."
He glances sideways at her, pursing his lips. He's never had any family of his own, not parents nor kids, so he doesn't know at all. "Yeah. You'd know," he lies, sparing her the unnecessary stress. It's a merciful lie and they both know it.
"Shit," Emma mutters, when they're both startled by the school bell ringing out across the yard. It signals the end of the school day, and within moments, the front double doors are bursting open and letting out a flood of children. Emma and August both go still, their eyes casting across the many little faces, searching for any child who looks familiar.
"I can't scent them yet," August says quietly, breathing in deep and wrinkling his nose at the stink of sweaty human children. And then, suddenly, it's there; the familiar smell of pine wood and fur and damp earth. Not his own or Emma's, but lighter, brighter. Werewolf pups. "Emma—"
"There," Emma whispers, her green eyes wide in recognition as a tight knit group enters her field of view. She looks like she can't decide if she wants to pass out or bolt off. August presses his hand to her back, steadying, even as he stares at the pups in awe. Knowing that they're Emma's, he can see the resemblance immediately; their dimpled chins and the stubborn set of their eyes. It's uncanny.
"What do you want to do?" he finally asks, turning to look at her again. It's a complicated situation and he supposes it would be bad to just go right up and talk to the children, but this is Emma's territory, and he'd rather defer to her.
"We should... we should wait and see who their, uh, parent is," Emma mutters, wringing her hands together in a moment of uncertainty. She isn't going to give herself false hope. They may have been adopted by a loving family for all she knows, even though she'd never technically given them up in the first place. It's not fair, but she wants to be reasonable. She wants to be in their lives. She wants— well, she wants a lot of things, but when has life ever been kind to her?
Life throws her another curveball when the children rush to swarm around Regina Mills, leaning up affectionately against the brunette like excited puppies craving attention.
The woman is shockingly beautiful when she smiles, warmth and happiness making her glow. She crouches to be level with the children, busy hands smoothing down their wild hair or briefly cupping their chins or curling around their small bodies in easily reciprocated hugs. A little girl all but shoves a piece of paper onto her face, showing off artwork she'd made in class, and Regina beams and coos over it, peppering kisses onto the girl's cheek until she's giggling and squirming away while her siblings laugh along.
They're all so beautiful and happy together, and Emma's heart aches as she drifts closer and closer still, yearning to be near them— and her attention is so utterly wrapped up in the smiling faces of the children that she doesn't notice a protective mother whirling to intercept her until it's too late.
A small but furious sorceress with eyes screaming murder.
"Get away from my children," Regina growls, radiating protective rage, and Emma's eyes boggle as she freezes in place, hands outstretched in some attempt at a gesture of peace.
"You're their mother," she mumbles aloud, still stunned by this turn of events. Somewhere behind her, August audibly whimpers at the sharp, burnt scent of magic looming threateningly over them.
Rule number one: Never piss off a sorceress.
Rule number one: Failed.
"Are they why you came to Storybrooke?" Regina's eyes flash, a flicker of crackling purple in those russet depths. Her fingers flex and Emma instinctively takes a step back. "Get out of my town."
"No, wait—" Emma's voice cracks and she clears her throat, nervously glancing around only to find that every other child has been herded away by their parents, rushing into their vehicles or speed-walking down the sidewalk. No one wants to be here when the sorceress lashes out, and she can't blame them. Only the pups remain, a tight gaggle clutching to each other somewhere behind Regina as they watch things unfold with wide, confused eyes.
"I can explain," Emma insists, hands up in the air as if she has a gun pointed at her. To be fair, by the way Regina's fingers are flexing, she is very much at risk of being shot in the face with a fireball. "I'm a werewolf. I'm related to them. Please, let me explain."
Regina's eyes widen only a fraction, her surprise barely noticeable before her attention is pulled away by a tiny hand tugging on her sleeve.
Hazel eyes peer up at them from beneath a mop of brown hair, and both women immediately give him their full attention.
"Mommy, she smells like us," the tiny boy whispers, blinking curiously between the two. Regina smooths a hand over his hair, her expression easily melting into one of loving tenderness, and Emma watches in awe as the sorceress goes into Soft Mommy mode at the flick of a switch, even her voice turning warm and soothing.
"Henry, baby, go wait in the car with the others, okay? I'll be there in a minute."
Henry. Emma's heart lurches upon hearing the name of one of her pups.
"Kay." With one final curious glance, Henry scampers back to the others, and the group obediently head to the black van parked by the sidewalk, piling in with hushed whispers and wide eyes. When Regina turns back to Emma, the softness is gone again, replaced with cold caution as she glances between Emma and the man lingering behind her.
"Who's he?" she demands with a tilt of her head.
"My brother and packmate, August," Emma says, when it becomes clear August isn't going to say anything. He's remaining a good few feet behind Emma, using her like a meat shield, practically a dog with his tail between his legs.
Regina's eyes flash with alarm. "Are there more of you?"
"No! No. It's just us two," Emma promises. "He's the only family I have."
"You said you're related to my children," the brunette points out, eyes narrowed. Emma swallows hard. This isn't the place for what she wants to say.
"There's... a lot for me to explain. Can we go somewhere...?"
Anywhere that's not standing in front of a school in the middle of town, being discreetly stared at by strangers in nearby windows, preferably. Regina sighs, nodding curtly as she straightens up and tugs self consciously at her blazer. It wouldn't do for the Mayor to be seen screaming at a tourist in broad daylight.
"My office at town hall tonight, eight o'clock," she says sharply. "Don't be late."
With that, she turns on her heels and strides away, ducking into her vehicle and driving off. Little faces pressed to the windows peer at Emma as they go, and Emma lets out the breath she didn't know she'd been holding, something aching deep in her chest as she watches them disappear down the street.
Her children. Her pups.
"You didn't tell me their parent was a sorceress," August hisses, still looking like a spooked cat. The burnt smell of aggressive magic lingers in the air and he sneezes to make a point.
"I didn't know she was the one who took them in," Emma mumbles, still in something of a daze. This certainly complicates matters. A wolf pack mothered by a sorceress?
"Am I coming with you?"
Emma turns, frowning at the way August shuffles next to her, his shoulders hunched and his brow furrowed. She understands why and can't blame him for it.
"No, it's okay. I'll talk to her alone."
The children are inhumanly perceptive when they want to be, smarter than human children their age and twice as sharp. Most times, Regina's proud of the fact, but sometimes she wishes they wouldn't be quite so observant. The onslaught of questions as soon as she'd gotten into the van with them hadn't stopped, lasting well through dinner and not even pausing for when their aunt Zelena showed up to babysit.
"You really think she's their birth mother?" Zelena had asked quietly, all sass gone and replaced with genuine concern. Regina had paused at the door, tension clear in the stiff slant of her shoulders and the vein making itself visible at her temple.
"They recognized her scent, Zelena. There's no other explanation. God, Emmett looks just like her. I can't believe I didn't see it sooner."
Zelena had squeezed her hand before returning to the children in the living room, and Regina ended up teleporting herself to town hall, feeling too jittery to drive. She was early, so she'd poured herself a drink to take the edge off and settled down at her desk to wait, listening to the clock in the corner quietly ticking away the minutes.
Eventually, it's disturbed by a hesitant knock on the Mayor's office door.
"Um, hello?" a voice calls, uncertain, as if she might be in the wrong place. Regina clears her throat, straightening up a little in her chair. It's eight o'clock exactly. At least the woman can be on time.
Emma Swan appears in the doorway, hands shoved deep into the pockets of her jeans, and shuffles in with an awkward smile. Regina takes in the change with a quirk of her brow. This isn't the same confident, coolheaded woman she'd met at the diner. Then again, if she really is the birth mother of her children, she supposes Emma has every reason to be so sheepish in her presence.
This isn't going to be a fun conversation.
"Have a seat," Regina says briskly, steepling her fingers over the desk as if this were nothing more than a business meeting. Her walls are up higher than they've ever been and she refuses to show any sign of weakness. Emma, for her part, lowers into the seat across from her with nothing but a polite nod of her head. "I take it you're the woman who abandoned my children in the woods."
Emma bristles slightly, her green eyes narrowing at the blatant insult. She looks so much like Emmett whenever he gets upset that Regina feels her defensiveness dropping with guilt.
"I'm sorry, that was— that was unnecessary and cruel," Regina admits stiffly, fingers tapping at her glass out of anxiousness. "I'm sure you had a... good reason."
"You're very confrontational, you know that?" Emma says, frowning.
"I'm a mayor and sorceress with werewolf children in a bigoted small town, it comes with the territory," Regina replies dryly. Emma's frown only deepens as she shifts uncomfortably in her seat.
"Do the kids get harassed here? For being werewolves?"
She seems genuinely concerned, hackles raised as if defensive of the children, and Regina finds some semblance of comfort in that.
"Most of the time? No, thankfully. A few stupid jokes or untoward comments here and there, but nothing serious so far. I think the worst of them hold their tongues for fear I'll set them on fire," she mutters. Emma snorts.
"Not much better than anywhere else, then. There's a reason most werewolves live isolated lives."
Regina nods along, lips pursed as she eyes Emma. The blonde seems subdued, feeling the impending conversation like a physical weight on her shoulders as she slouches in her seat and crosses her arms to stop her hands from fidgeting. There's a moment of awkward silence between them as neither wants to begin again, until eventually, Emma sighs in defeat and averts her eyes.
"Look, I'm sure you've spent the past six years thinking up all kinds of reasons why a mother might abandon her pups in the woods. I'm not gonna turn this into some drawn out sob story, so I'll give you the bullet points— I lived here briefly when I was very young, and when I ended up a single parent to five kids, I came back to ask an old friend for help, and instead got ambushed by a hunter. I left my pups in the woods and tried to lure him away but he got the best of me, and I ended up stuck in a werewolf fighting ring for a few years before August and I finally broke out and helped the feds end it. I, uh—"
She hesitates then, clearing her throat as her gaze turns unfocused, momentarily elsewhere. Regina's mind is already reeling at the blunt and surprisingly callous way that Emma's listing out her past, as if she were reading word-for-word from some mediocre crime drama written by a teenager instead of telling her real story. But the detached look in her eyes and the emotionless tone of her voice says that maybe it's because it's too real. That it's easier to tell the story if she acts like she's just reading out a list.
"I had head trauma, various injuries, and... August and I needed a lot of time to get past what happened. My memory was so bad that it took a long time for me to piece together most of my life again. I knew I had pups, but I struggled to remember where I'd gone, where I'd left them. I didn't... I didn't want to leave them."
Her voice goes tight, strained, and Emma clears her throat again, blinking away the telltale gleam of tears in her eyes, her expression remaining impressively detached. She certainly compartmentalizes very well, Regina thinks to herself. Not surprising, considering what the woman's been through these past six years. Regina wants to bypass this as much as Emma probably wants to.
"Do I need to worry about the father showing up too?" she says, changing course.
"The fath—?" Emma stares for a moment, confused, before immediately scrunching her nose, her face relaxing with a more genuine expression. "Oh. No, no. The idiot ran when I told him I was pregnant and he ended up getting himself killed in a stupid turf war in Boston weeks later. Didn't even stick around long enough to see me get huge. There's no father to worry about."
"Right... And what about August?" she asks after a moment, wondering where the man is if he isn't here. It's reasonable to deduce he's also a werewolf if he was trapped in the fighting ring alongside Emma, and considering his connection to Emma and the pups, one can't fault her for wanting to know his current whereabouts.
"Hiding at the B&B, probably," Emma says, grimacing. "His... handler was a sorcerer. The smell of magic still spooks him."
Regina nods. Understandable. She never knew the scent of a sorcerer was noticeable to werewolves.
"I'm... sorry, for what happened. I can't begin to imagine what you went through, as a werewolf and as a mother." Regina speaks slowly, carefully. It isn't fair what Emma went through, and she sympathizes, truly. "I love the children, more than anything. I'm sure you do too. But I need you to tell me what you're expecting from coming here, because I am still their mother and I am not letting anyone take them away from me."
"I didn't come here to take them away from you," Emma says immediately, straightening in her seat as her brow furrows. "I swear, I would never take them from you. I know you're their mother, and I— I'm grateful, truly, that you took them in and loved them like your own. Of all the things that could have happened to them, this was... this was good. You gave them their best chance. Thank you, really."
Regina nods, swallowing hard. She'd been prepared for the worst case scenario, so Emma's heartfelt gratitude is like a surprise punch to the gut, making it difficult to hate the woman who she'd thought had abandoned her children for so many years.
"I just... I want to be a part of their lives. August is the only other family I have and we don't have anywhere else to go. Nowhere to call home. I thought... I hoped you'd let me stay and be here for them."
Tentative hope glimmers in those green eyes, now large and round, afraid of rejection. Regina wishes this entire day had just been a fever dream; wishes everything could go back to the way it used to be. Easy. Uncomplicated. But that's selfish of her, she knows it, and this woman doesn't deserve to lose her children forever because of something that hadn't been her fault nor her choice. This woman is the reason Regina got to experience motherhood at all.
"I'm not going to stop you from staying," she finally says, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment as fear courses through her veins. What if they choose to leave her? What if they want to go back to their birth mother?
But that isn't her choice to make.
"Your presence in their life will be up to them," Regina adds firmly, swallowing down her fears and putting on her best poker face. "You will meet them on their terms, and I won't force any of them to spend time with you if they don't want to."
"Of course," Emma agrees immediately, her eyes brightening and her entire demeanor perking up. She looks like a puppy, almost, lighting up like she's been given the world. Regina imagines her in wolf form, all golden fur and wagging tail. It's somewhat disarming. "I won't push any of them. I just want to be here for them, in whatever way they'll let me. And, um, they'll probably need some help once they start getting older, with the whole werewolf pack thing, so I can help out with that."
Regina's head lifts sharply at that, getting a sympathetic "oh" from Emma as the blonde grimaces.
"Faster transformations, increased aggression, extreme defensiveness over people or property..." Regina nods along as Emma speaks. "It's all the excess energy as werewolves grow up. I, uh— I didn't really have help with it, since I ended up in a human orphanage shortly after I left Storybrooke, but I've heard from others that they usually start taking pups out on hunts when they reach that stage. Healthy pack bonding and all that."
"On... hunts?" Regina repeats, baffled. Emma blinks.
"Yeah. In wolf form. Chasing rabbits, deer, that kind of thing."
"Oh." Regina nods slowly, feeling foolish for not having realized it. It makes sense. And it's definitely something she'd never even considered. Something Emma could naturally help them with. "That... probably explains Emmett's outburst yesterday."
"Emmett," Emma repeats softly in awe. Even his name is like hers. Regina tries to remember why she'd named him that and can't recall a particular reason. The rest of her children's names had special meanings to her— but Emmett's had been a spur of the moment decision. She'd taken one look at the only golden-furred pup of the litter and the name had come to mind out of nowhere.
Sorceress's intuition, maybe. Or just the universe playing a joke on her.
"I'll speak to them tomorrow, after school," Regina says after clearing her throat again, not wanting to linger on Emmett's name or the soft look in Emma's eyes. "When they decide they want to meet you, we can set something up. You're staying at the Bed and Breakfast, right?"
"Oh, yeah. Um, of course." Emma blinks, then rushes to take out her cellphone, quickly sliding it across the desk like a hesitant offering. "It'd be easier for you to call me directly."
Plucking the phone up, Regina reluctantly adds her phone number to the blonde's contacts list, then texts her own number so that she has Emma's number in return. Handing it over, she proceeds to stand, tugging on the hem of her jacket and then thrusting out her hand for a stiff handshake. This isn't exactly an everyday meeting, but damned if she's not going to retain her professionalism in her own office.
"Well. I'd best be getting home now. Good evening, Miss Swan."
Thrown off kilter by the sudden dismissal, Emma rushes to stand as well and awkwardly shakes her hand. "Right. Thank you, Regina. Really."
Regina nods, resting her fingertips on the surface of the desk as she waits for Emma to exit first. Pausing at the door, the blonde turns back, momentarily chewing on her lower lip.
"Do you... do you remember a Ruby Lucas living in this town? Do you know what happened to her?"
Regina hesitates. It's a name she hasn't heard since she was a kid. "Ruby and her family were chased out of town a long time ago, Miss Swan. I'm sorry to say I have no idea where they are now."
Green eyes turn dull, broad shoulders drooping with defeat as Emma allows herself a moment of genuine sorrow for her childhood friend before taking in a deep breath and smiling sadly in Regina's direction.
"I figured as much. Goodnight, Regina."
She slips away, disappearing into the shadows like a slinking wolf, leaving Regina staring after her with a heavy heart.
The children are understandably curious the next morning. They know that Emma smells like a werewolf, and that she smells familiar somehow, but they haven't quite put the pieces together and Regina is reluctant to give them the talk. Zelena arrives shortly after they've wolfed down their breakfasts, walking with them on their way to school and then following Regina back to town hall despite her sister's grumble of annoyance. She loves the children too, after all, and any threat to their family's dynamic is just as much Zelena's problem.
"Just let me speak to her first."
"I said no, Zelena. The last thing I need is you setting their birthmother on fire before they've even gotten to say hello."
"I wasn't going to set her on fire," Zelena argues, pouting, which Regina assumes meant she had something else equally as unpleasant planned. Regina gets the bad rep for being the more aggressive sorceress in town for her admittedly life-threatening bluffs but no one talks about all the shit Zelena actually does—like turning leering men into toads or casting hair-loss hexes on women who piss her off. Really, Regina is the nicer one in comparison if you really think about it.
"It's still a no."
"Maybe I'll just go find her myself," the redhead grumbles, crossing her arms petulantly. Regina glares at her from where she's elbow deep in paperwork.
" Zelena. Do you honestly think I would let her near my children if she wasn't being completely honest with me?"
"Well you're not exactly immune to a good sob story, Gina. A werewolf fighting ring? Really? Who even comes up with that?" Zelena scoffs. Regina goes quiet, brows knitting together with guilt, and it takes a moment for Zelena to notice the about-turn in her mood. "No. Really?"
"I... I did look it up," Regina admits, feeling terrible about it now. She'd stayed up all night looking into the story, and after reading the many articles, FBI reports, and seeing the evidence photos , she wishes she hadn't. The scarlet stained stages where fights had taken place, the steel cages where starved werewolves had been trapped in, the subsequent mugshots of the wealthy bastards who had funded the ring and bet money on every fight from their lofty skyboxes and luxury seating.
And the dead. The underground dumping room the feds had discovered, full of mauled wolves—people, killed in their werewolf forms, their real identities never to be discovered.
Emma's name and photo were, thankfully, never circulated amongst the stories, most likely for her own protection, but there were mentions of two escaped werewolves who had helped in the investigation, and Regina knows that haunted look she'd seen briefly in Emma's eyes was very real. She has no intention of ever prying any further.
"I didn't think that kind of thing still happened," Zelena says quietly after a long, uncomfortable moment. She fidgets, uncharacteristic, and Regina sends her older sister a grim look.
"Just because we don't know about it doesn't mean it doesn't still happen." Zelena nods, silent and apologetic. "She never wanted to give them up, Zee. She was taken from them. Letting her back into their lives is the least I can do."
Zelena sighs, slowly sitting down in the seat across from Regina's desk. The sisters are quiet for a moment, Regina with her head down, trying too hard to focus on paperwork, and Zelena watching her with knowing eyes.
"I'll be there with you. Okay? I'll be on my best behavior, I promise."
And she is, surprisingly. She's helpful and supportive when Regina sits the children down that evening to talk, and despite all their fears, it's not as bad of a conversation as they'd feared. The kids have always known they were adopted, so knowing their birth mother is in town isn't that big of a jump from knowing they have a birth mother somewhere in the world. Henry curls up on Regina's lap, clingy for affection, but like his siblings he's curious and eager to know what Emma is like.
Everyone except Emmett.
" No, " he growls, his eyes already speckled with gold.
"Emmett, calm down," Zelena chides, frowning at the bristling boy. "You know better than to wolf out like this."
"She's not our mom and I don't want her here!" he protests, angry and defensive and sounding just a little bit panicked. He's always been the most reactive of the children, but neither woman had anticipated such a blatant refusal from him, nor the way he stomps his little foot in a childish display.
"I'm not forcing anyone to meet her," Regina says firmly, arching a brow in disapproval of his temper. "But as I said, she is welcome to stay in town, and she wants to be here for you all. It's your choice to meet her, but I promise you, nothing will change if you don't want it to. I am still your mother. You're allowed to have a second mother if you want her."
"Maybe she's nice," Daniel says softly, shrugging.
"Maybe she likes candy too," Hope grins. Elizabeth snorts but doesn't seem all that bothered, while Henry silently nods along in agreement. Emmett scowls at all of them in betrayal.
"She abandoned us!"
"Emmett Mills, do not raise your voice at me," Regina warns, sharp. The boy flares his nostrils but backs down, his little fists clenched with anger. "She did not abandon you. She was taken away by bad people for a very long time, and that was not her fault. You may not want to meet her, but that's no excuse to speak hurtful lies."
He trembles, his lower lip wobbling as he scrunches his face in frustration. He's still so young, so blind to a world that isn't as black and white as he thinks it is, and Regina doesn't know how else to get through to him when he is already so convinced that Emma is at fault and doesn't deserve to be let back in. And no, it's not fair, and it's not like Regina wants to share her children with some woman she's only just met, but the world isn't fair and Emma never asked for any of this either, and the least she can do is try to make this work for everyone.
If only her most stubborn child would listen.
"She's not a part of this family," Emmett mutters, stomping off with another rumbling growl. Zelena makes to stand up and go after him, but Regina shakes her head to stop her.
"He just needs time."
Zelena and Kathryn are both there by Regina's side when they take the children to meet Emma and August. Even Emmett is in attendance, though he insists he's there to protect his siblings from the 'interloper,' and really, Regina wonders where he managed to learn that word from. ("It's hardly my fault if he eavesdrops on my private conversations," Zelena grumbles, chastened.)
They meet at the agreed picnic bench in the middle of the park, trees on one side, a duck pond on the other, and the sun bright and shining cheerfully above them. Regina has Henry and Hope holding onto each hand, the others following closely behind. Emma and August are already there, seated on the bench with their knees bouncing with nervousness, though Emma turns into a statue once she sees them.
"Emma," Regina greets, polite but distant. She's guarded, understandably so, and Emma immediately stands and wipes her sweaty hands on her thighs with a hesitant smile and nod, trying not to stare too eagerly at the children.
"Hi. Um, you remember August," she offers, jerking a thumb back at where August hovers nervously behind her. Regina nods in silent greeting, mindful of her own magic aura as to not make him more uncomfortable. There's no hiding the scent of a sorcerer, but she can keep it subtle and reined in at the very least.
"This is my sister Zelena, and my friend Kathryn," Regina says with a tilt of her head, the two women assessing Emma with enough curiosity to make the blonde squirm. She doesn't introduce the children—the entire point of today is for the children to introduce themselves, if they want to. Kathryn sets a large cooler down next to the picnic table and starts to unload snacks and drinks, and that somehow does the trick as the adults jump in to help while the children swarm around with grabby hands.
"I want a juice box," Elizabeth says loudly, directed at any adult who is ready to serve her, and Emma quickly snatches one from the box of drinks and holds it out like a peace offering. She's like a giant puppy eager to please, and the rest of the women exchange a look because lord help Emma, Elizabeth is going to step all over her if she's given the chance.
"Is apple juice okay?" Emma asks, hesitant, her green eyes huge. Elizabeth nods and takes it with a hum, forgoing her manners in lieu of getting the juice box opened.
"I'm Elizabeth, you can also call me Ellie, but I don't like Lizzie," she says once she has successfully stabbed the juice box with her little plastic straw, peering up at Emma with the exact same shade of green eyes. Her hair is dark and a little wavy, just like the man who helped create her all those years ago, but it's cut stylishly and curls at her shoulders, making her look almost like a little Regina.
"Ellie," Emma echoes softly, blinking back the tears to avoid making this any more dramatic than it needs to be. Clearing her throat, she smiles and lowers to a knee with her hand outstretched, eagerly soaking up the sight of her daughter. "I'm very happy to finally meet you, Ellie. I'm Emma."
Clearly delighted at being treated like an adult, Elizabeth gives her hand a firm shake, then immediately goes off on a tangent about a cartoon she's been watching lately, giving Regina a moment to sit and check in with Henry and Hope, both of whom have clung tightly to her hands thus far. Settling onto the bench, Hope crawls into her lap while Henry plasters himself tightly to her side, giving twin head shakes when Regina asks if they'd like juice or a snack.
"Do you want to go say hi, too?" Regina asks softly. Henry hides his face against her side and Hope gets uncharacteristically shy, peering across the table at Emma from beneath her lashes.
Sweet and thoughtful Daniel has taken the initiative to introduce himself next, quietly asking Emma if she has any pets ("There used to be a stray cat that'd sneak in through my window?") and if she likes to read ("Y-Yeah! Totally! I read... What kind of books do you like?") Daniel looks the least like Emma, his nose more angular and his face too narrow, eyes and hair color opposingly dark, but he seems the most at ease in her presence, chatting quietly and seeming genuinely interested as she slides over and he makes himself comfortable on the bench next to her. His smile is open and easy when he glances over to make eye contact, and Regina softens a little to see him enjoying himself.
It takes her a moment to realize where Emmett is in all this excitement; perched on the end of the bench, most of his body hidden behind Zelena except where he peeks his head out to keep an eye on the rest of his siblings, eyes squinted in disapproval. At some point, August seems to take notice of him and tries to offer a little wave, only for Emmett to visibly bristle and bare his teeth in warning.
Regina resists the urge to hide her face behind her hands.
"Behave, poppet," Zelena murmurs, smoothing her hand over his wild hair. Emmett scowls and shakes her off without a word.
The next hour goes by relatively well. Emma somehow charms Hope into coming out of her shell, and they end up walking down to the duck pond to toss seeds to the ducks under Regina's sharp supervision. Daniel seems perfectly comfortable in Emma's presence, Elizabeth is already treating the woman like her own personal butler, and even Henry had smiled shyly and offered up a few soft answers when Emma asked him what his favorite snacks were and whether or not he liked dinosaurs.
The only problem, alas, is still Emmett.
"Come get ice cream with us," Elizabeth demands quite bluntly of her brother, pulling at his hand when Emma—with Regina's permission, of course—had offered to walk the kids over to the ice cream cart for a small treat. Kathryn, August, and Emma are standing with the rest of the children, ready to walk over, but Emmett yanks his hand from Elizabeth's grip with a low growl and clings to the bench where he hasn't left Zelena's side all day.
"I don't want ice cream," he snaps, ignoring the warning click of Zelena's tongue.
"You always want ice cream," Elizabeth retorts with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. "Stop being a butt and come with us. Emma is nice."
"No she's not. You're just a suck up," Emmett sneers. Elizabeth's eyes flash in irritation and she audibly growls, which has Regina jumping up from her seat at the same time Zelena grabs onto Emmett with one hand and puts out her other arm to hold Elizabeth back.
They're children, but they're still werewolves, and physical dominance has always been a part of their species' natural culture. They all understand that, but it doesn't mean they're going to let the children duke it out.
"Stop that," Regina says sharply, rounding the table and pulling Elizabeth back while Emmett tries, unsuccessfully, to wriggle out of Zelena's grip. Both children are still bristling, their irritable moods agitating the rest of the children, but before it can escalate further, Emma steps between them with a low, warning growl rumbling from deep within her chest.
Emmett and Elizabeth both freeze, eyes rounding and snapping up to meet hers, her green now mixed with bright gold.
"That's enough," Emma says quietly, something heavy and powerful in her voice despite its low, calm tone, and even Regina feels the strange desire to sit down and behave. Elizabeth immediately slumps back against Regina's legs, head lowered and lower lip pouting, while Emmett whimpers and hunches his shoulders, making himself as small as possible on the bench beneath Emma's disapproving gaze.
There's a long, tense moment of silence as Emma's attention flickers between Emmett and Elizabeth, both children staring up at her with wide, waiting eyes. And then Emma relaxes, gold melting back into spring green, and the heaviness around them seems to drop just as suddenly.
"You're a pack, that means being a team, not snapping at each other like bullies," Emma says with a frown, the children nodding obediently. Emma pulls out a few bills from her wallet and hands it to Zelena. "Would you mind going with them for ice cream? I think Regina and I need to discuss this."
"Sure," Zelena says slowly, taking the money and ushering Emmett and Elizabeth along with her, giving Regina a questioning parting glance. Once the others are a distance away, leaving just Emma and Regina at the picnic table, Emma clears her throat and rubs at the back of her neck.
"So, uh... all packs need a leader. An alpha. To keep the peace and establish a proper hierarchy. I wasn't really sure how it would happen with a pack that didn't have an adult werewolf around, but I guess that kind of answers that."
"You've never seen that happen before?" Regina asks, lowering down onto the bench across from her with a frown. Emma shakes her head.
"Human orphanage, remember? My folks died shortly after we left Storybrooke, and I'd only been a few years old. I didn't meet another werewolf again until I was almost an adult. August was the same. We never grew up around packs so it was never really an issue, and I don't think I've ever heard of a pack consisting solely of kids, either."
"So the children need an alpha," Regina murmurs, the word awkward and unfamiliar on her tongue. Emma nods.
"They're too young right now, but when they're older, one of them can step up and take that role. In the meantime, um... if you're okay with it... I think it would be best if I step into that role for them," Emma says, a note of hesitance in her voice. This is more than what they'd agreed on. Being the alpha of the pack means more time together, more access to the children. It's what they need, though. It's what's healthiest for their growth, and no matter Regina's personal feelings, she will always prioritize what's best for her children.
"Fine," Regina sighs, glancing across the park to where Zelena and Kathryn are currently handing out frozen treats to the children. Emmett and Elizabeth seem fine again, bouncing around with their siblings and enjoying their ice cream without issue. Were it any other day, they would still be sulking, stubbornly ignoring each other for the rest of the day until they forgot about their spat the next morning.
This will be good for them, she thinks to herself, glancing sideways. Emma is quiet, a soft but determined look on her face as she watches the children too. She'll be good for them.
Emma turns, then, meeting her eyes again. With her head tilted just so, the sun makes her hair shine and her face glow, highlighting the subtle golden flecks in her eyes. She nods and offers up a reassuring smile, a silent promise that she's here to help, that she'll support Regina— and Regina wonders if maybe, just maybe, Emma could be good for her too.
Emma and August are nothing short of an anomaly to the rest of Storybrooke. Two tall, athletic, good-looking strangers from the big city, moving into the B&B for the foreseeable future, and spending all their time with the town's resident sorceresses—more specifically, the Mayor —and her little pack of werewolf children. Subsequent gossip spreading like wildfire across the sleepy little town ranges from being surprisingly close to the truth, to being absolutely absurd.
Being a 'secret government spy sent to infiltrate the town and replace all its human residents with robot clones' has got to be Emma's favourite, and she still wants to know which town idiot managed to come up with that one.
They meet up with everyone for group outings every few days, whether it's a day out at the park or a simple dinner together, and Emma regularly joins them on their walk to school in the mornings, which—after a couple weeks—turns into Emma being the one to walk them to and from school every day, giving Regina more time to relax in the mornings and to finish up in the office in the afternoons. ("You got all the sleepless nights from the first six years of raising five babies, this is the least I can do! Sleep in! You deserve it!" Regina might have taken that to heart and slept for nearly eleven hours straight that first day, making up for all the years of exhaustion.)
Emmett still doesn't like Emma, refusing to speak to her except on the rare occasions that he gets into a tiff with his siblings and gets reprimanded for it—at which point he still defers to the alpha with a whimper and a quiet apology. The boy is nothing if not stubborn, and though it breaks Emma's heart to be repeatedly rebuffed by her own son, she remains patient, never pushing him to interact with her except when absolutely necessary.
The fondness and growing love the rest of the children give her is enough for now. Especially when Henry starts calling her 'Ma.'
"You're sure you're okay with it? I can talk to him. It doesn't have to be a thing right now—"
"Emma, I promise, it's fine." Regina chuckles, waving off the persistent blonde trailing after her as she moves around the kitchen. Emma had joined them for dinner tonight, and now with the children all off to bed, they've agreed on a nightcap together. It's become yet another part of their 'new normal,' easy and familiar as Emma's presence becomes an expected part of the pack. Grabbing a bottle of red from the wine rack, Regina pushes it into Emma's hands and shoos her off towards the study. "You're making this a bigger deal than it needs to be."
"Am not," Emma insists, pouting at the doorway as Regina retrieves two glasses from the cabinet. "You're their mother first and foremost. I don't want anything to happen that could make you feel disrespected or uncomfortable."
"And I appreciate that, dear," Regina says with a sigh and a soft smile, gently patting Emma's shoulder as she slinks past her. They move into the study, closing the door behind them to avoid disturbing the children's slumber, Regina reclining into her cushy armchair as Emma sprawls out on the loveseat next to the fireplace. "I know you and I trust you, you don't have to panic just because the children have started to see you as their second mother. We expected this."
"I— I know," Emma mumbles, filling both their glasses with a generous amount of red wine. "I just... Things are good right now, you know? Things are really good, and I don't want to mess it up."
"You're not going to mess anything up, Emma. Why are you so worried?" Regina claims her glass and leans back into her chair, taking a slow sip as Emma seems to mull the question over with an adorable crinkle between her expressive brows. Her lower lip is slightly jutted out into a pout, and Regina wonders for the millionth time how Emma manages to be so adorable at times, when she's aware of the woman's much darker, much more violent past.
Werewolves had died in that ring, after all. Yet Emma survived. Scarred, but alive and still physically strong. She'd done what she had to, to survive. Regina vividly remembers one evening in which Emma had dozed off during a nightcap and promptly jerked awake with her teeth bared and her eyes dark with guilt, still half-ensconced in a nightmare from her past.
And somehow, here she sits on Regina's couch, pouting adorably and melting the heart of a once guarded sorceress.
"You're an important part of this pack, Regina," Emma finally says, leaning forward with her elbows resting on her knees, a sincere look on her face as green eyes lock onto russet ones. "You're the first mother they've ever known, and they will always need you. Of course I want my children to see me as their mother too, I'm just— afraid to change the dynamic. I don't want to change the dynamic. I just... want to fit in with you all. To naturally find a place in the pack, with you and the kids. I'm, uh, I'm not making much sense..."
"I understand what you're trying to say," Regina says, offering a soft smile when Emma peers up at her in embarrassment. Emma has been nothing but thoughtful and hesitant all this time, so careful of the Mills family's boundaries, so respectful of Regina— significantly more than is needed, Regina admits, because while she wholeheartedly appreciates it, anyone could certainly argue that Emma could have demanded more if she'd wanted to, considering she'd essentially lost her children against her wishes. It's a complicated situation and strong arguments could be made for both sides if they'd wanted to fight for custody, yet Emma—powerful, dangerous, pack leader Emma—still defers to Regina with soft words and gentle looks.
Moving before she can really think it through, Regina takes a seat next to Emma, clasping onto the woman's forearm with a comforting squeeze as large green eyes blink at her, reflecting the low orange glow of the fireplace.
"You aren't changing things, Emma. You're just adding to this pack... to this family. A welcome addition. The children need us both, and I'm glad we can each give them what they need."
Emma lowers her head, glancing at where Regina's hand wraps gently around her forearm. They've become friends, good friends, and Emma is honored at the surprising amount of trust and loyalty they've built between them these past weeks... but they've never been touchy. A quick pat on the shoulder or a soft touch to the back, sure, but prolonged touch? Unheard of. Mainly because Emma, despite being naturally tactile as a werewolf, has made sure to respect Regina's personal space to an almost extreme degree. (That's not to say that Emma doesn't wish she could touch her more often, because she does have eyes and Regina is undoubtedly gorgeous. If anything, getting to know the real Regina beyond her curt and standoffish attitude has only made the woman more beautiful than humanly possible, and Emma finds it harder and harder to resist the urge to grab onto her hand or nuzzle into her hair. Focus, Swan. )
"I never expected to share my children with anyone. I never wanted to, to be honest," Regina admits after a moment, her thumb stroking absently against the back of Emma's forearm. Tiny blonde hairs stand on end, and Emma manages to hold back a pleasant shiver. "But... if I have to co-parent my children with another person, I'm glad it's you."
"High praise, your Majesty," Emma jokes softly, trying for humor despite the way her heart thumps nervously at Regina's closeness. Regina smiles, but her gaze is serious when she gives Emma's arm another squeeze.
"I'm being serious, Emma. I know how patient and gentle you are with them. I know you go out of your way to support me even when I don't expect you to. Even when you're supposed to be focusing on your new job—"
"You're not as sneaky as you think you are, Deputy," Regina deadpans, waving away Emma's blustered excuses about how it definitely wasn't her who mowed the lawn or cleaned the gutters while Regina was at the office and while she was supposed to be patrolling the town as a newly minted Deputy.
"Hush, dear. You're a terrible liar."
Emma pouts, her cheeks turning pink. Regina can't help but chuckle deeply, endeared.
"The point is; you're good for them. And we make a good team, as their mothers. Don't ever feel like you don't belong, Emma."
Emma is quiet for a moment, eyes suspiciously shiny as she ducks her head with a wobbly twist of her lips. As an orphaned werewolf who ended up trapped in a fighting ring, Regina imagines Emma has never felt like she belonged anywhere— which is cruel and terrible and unfair, so if opening up her heart and her home can help heal some of that hurt, she's more than happy to do so. For the woman who gave birth to her children, Regina can do that.
"Thanks, R'gina," Emma mumbles, her voice a little rough.
"Of course." Regina slides her thumb across Emma's skin again, feels the raising of goosebumps as Emma unconsciously leans closer. "We're a team."
Emma finally turns her head then, smiling up at Regina with a warm, melty softness in her eyes that makes Regina's stomach somersault and her heart flutter.
She's seen so many versions of Emma already. Firm and no-nonsense when the children fight. Patient and kind when Hope tries to braid her hair. Silly and goofy when she's coaxing Henry from his shell. Powerful and threatening when staring down a man twice her size after he'd muttered a slur at their family.
But this—warm, soft, her face relaxed and her eyes so gentle, so trusting—this is Regina's favorite version of Emma.
She's holding her breath in one moment, and in the next she feels the softness of Emma's nose and mouth against her own, the puff of air before she's sealing her lips against pale pink ones and closing her eyes to savor the moment, mind blissfully blank and empty except for the vague thought that Emma tastes faintly like wine. Warm, calloused hands bracket her face, holds her like something precious and fragile, and Regina parts her lips like an invitation, moaning ever so quietly as a tongue licks into her mouth. She reaches up blindly, curls her fingers into the fabric of Emma's shirt to pull her closer, and gods, she wants this, wants to feel vulnerable and safe in the arms of a competent partner, an equal, someone who's powerful enough to make even a sorceress feel protected—
A thump and a muffled squawk of protest from upstairs has the two women stiffening, their kiss breaking off as they simply cling to each other and stare, wide eyed and red faced.
The children. The sound of Elizabeth and Hope bickering. Emmett's irritable growl.
Their foreheads touch, resting together, and Regina breathes out a little shakily as Emma's thumbs stroke her cheekbones. The children still struggle to be a cohesive pack, and Emmett still treats Emma like an outsider, a homewrecker. How can she think to introduce yet another big change to their family when the kids are still adapting?
"I'm sorry," Regina whispers, swallowing thickly as disappointment roils through her. "I shouldn't have... This isn't the right time."
"It's okay." There's hurt in Emma's eyes, but she smiles softly nonetheless, understanding. They had both given in to a moment of weakness. "It's getting late. I should go."
Regina clings on for a moment longer, reluctant, wanting. Emma kisses the corner of her mouth in silent apology, and then she's gone, slipping from the study and then the mansion, neither looking back to see the other's yearning stare.
It isn't awkward or uncomfortable. It very well could have been, too. Except Emma keeps smiling at her like she hung the moon and the stars, still brightens at the sight of her and happily spends as much time with her and the children as possible, and Regina wonders how she ever deserved someone who can adore her so freely even when their priorities keep them at a polite distance.
"I wish you would give her a chance, darling," she sighs, when she finds herself alone with Emmett on a picnic blanket one weekend afternoon.
Down by the pond, Emma and the rest of the children are feeding the ducks, the blonde carrying a giant bag of birdseed and offering it up every time one of the kids scurries to her for another handful. They're laughing and squealing, Daniel giving a squeak of alarm when a duck tries to grab his pant leg, only for Elizabeth to shoo it away by flinging her handful of seeds as a distraction. Hope is busy tossing seeds one-by-one at the ducks still swimming in the pond, and Henry is all but glued to Emma's side, holding onto the hem of her shirt as he happily follows her around, just enjoying the fresh air.
" You're my mom. We don't need anyone else," Emmett mutters, sour and unhappy as he watches his siblings play. He is still wildly protective of them, doing his best to act like an older brother even though they're all technically the same age, but their easy acceptance of Emma has caused a rift in their relationship and only serves to start more arguments between the children as of late. Regina can't help but worry that despite Emma's best efforts, Emmett will be the one to outcast himself in the pack.
"Of course I'm your mother, Emmett. That will never change. She's not replacing me, so what's so bad about having a second parent?"
She runs a hand through his hair as he slouches next to her. It's bright and golden in the sunlight, so much like Emma's. It's ironic that the child that looks the most like Emma is also the only one who refuses to accept her.
"I don't want a second parent," he grumbles, knees curled up to his chest so that he can cross his arms over them and bury his face into his forearms. It's so sulky and childlike, and sometimes she forgets that despite the children being naturally stronger and smarter than humans their age, they're still very much just children at the end of the day.
"What if I had been married when I first adopted you?" Regina ventures, gently running her hand up and down his back. "You would have grown up with two parents. What then?"
"That's different," Emmett argues, his head popping up off his arms so he can turn to frown at her.
"How is that different?"
"Because... because..." He scrunches his face, thinking hard for a good excuse. An argument. Something, anything that could justify why Emma is an exception. "Because they would be someone you loved! They'd make you happy. They wouldn't be a stranger who just wanted to show up and be our mom and not take care of you, too."
He nods, satisfied with his answer. Regina almost wants to laugh. Love, well— they may not be quite there, yet. But she does have feelings for Emma, and the blonde has spent every single day since arriving here doing her very best to support Regina, to take care of her family, and, whether she knows it or not, adding to Regina's happiness.
"She takes care of all of us, Emmett," she says softly, smiling as he gives her a befuddled look. "I like her, and she makes me happy, too. I know it's not quite the same, but... We could get there one day, couldn't we?"
She glances over to the pond again, instinctively checking in on the rest of her children as per usual. Emma turns this time as if sensing her stare, and their eyes meet for a long moment, the blonde's smile lopsided and a little goofy as she lifts a hand to wave, only to nearly drop the bag of birdseed with a yelp. Elizabeth just cackles, Hope giggling next to her as Daniel and Henry try to help scoop fallen birdseed back into the bag, foiled when the ducks swarm at their feet to gobble everything up.
When Regina glances back down, Emmett has his chin on his arms in silence again, a crinkle between his brows, the way Emma gets a little crinkle when she's confused or deep in thought. Gently rubbing at his back, Regina turns her face up towards the sun and sighs.
It's nearly autumn when Emma finally suggests doing a full moon run.
"Isn't it too soon?" Regina is understandably reluctant. In human form, the children are tiny and fragile looking, nothing about their short, scrawny limbs giving away the fact that they're still strong enough to break down a door if they really wanted to. Despite never really having been around a proper pack, however, Emma knows the children are more than ready. They're young werewolves, and they need to expend their energy in healthy ways.
"It'll be fine, Regina. Trust me."
Her face is open and genuine, and her hands are warm where they're gently gripping Regina's arms to stop the brunette from pacing around her office, their half-eaten lunches forgotten on the Mayor's desk.
"Of course I trust you," Regina sighs, wilting a little in place. "It's the children I'm concerned about. Hope never pays attention to instructions, Elizabeth will run off at the sight of a squirrel, and Emmett is more likely to do the opposite of what you ask of him."
"We'll also all be in wolf form, and wolf instincts usually come out on top during a pack hunt. I'm still their alpha right now. They'll be fine."
Emma spreads her arms, smiling wryly, and Regina grudgingly sinks into her embrace with the smallest of huffs, ignoring the way Emma's chest shakes with silent laughter.
"When will this happen?" she sighs, enjoying the extended hug while it lasts. Emma rubs at her back, holding her for as long as she remains there.
"Friday night. The full moon will be at its highest. We can drive out to the fields by the old mill, the woods there are flat and easy to traverse. Should be an easy first night out for the pack. They're still young, so we won't be out very long anyway. Maybe a couple hours at the most. You and the girls could bring some camping chairs and sip hot toddies while you wait if you'd like. Catch up on gossiping about me and all."
Finally pulling back, Regina sports an affronted scowl that Emma immediately grins at. "We do not gossip about you... anymore."
Emma just laughs.
"You're sure they won't be cold?" Regina frets, still antsy as the children spill out onto the field, dancing under the moonlight with laughter and excited giggles. August is busy checking his bag, while Zelena and Kathryn start setting up camping chairs and blankets next to the van. Emma is already removing her coat and boots, creating a neat little pile in the grass for her things.
"I'm sure, Regina," Emma promises with a fond little roll of her eyes. "That's what our fur is for, remember?"
"Oh. Right. I'm just... I'm just nervous, that's all. They've never been out of my sight like this. Out in the woods at night without me—"
"August and I will keep a close eye on them, I promise. Hey, kids! Leave your stuff here before you— oh."
Regina follows her gaze, sighing when she sees the little brown wolf pup tangled up in human clothes. Emma has already scooped Henry up, pulling him free and then holding the little boy-wolf up at eye-level.
"Remember what we said about not transforming in our clothes?"
Henry whines. Emma squints her eyes and sets the pup back down on the grass with a chuckle and a shake of her head. Nearby, the rest of the children have already dumped their clothes in messy piles and transformed into their wolf forms, all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Despite his misgivings, even Emmett seems excited for his first foray into the woods.
"Are you sure you—" Regina stops, nearly choking on her own words when she turns back to see Emma entirely topless and unzipping her jeans, lean with muscle and her golden hair shining under the moonlight. She's used to casual nudity—her children are werewolves, after all, prone to stripping naked and turning wolf whenever and wherever they want—but to see Emma with abs for days suddenly standing naked before her—
"My eyes are up here," Emma teases, smirking when Regina catches herself staring and immediately turns beet red with embarrassment.
"You surprised me, that's all," she blurts out, whipping around to cover her face even as Kathryn laughs at her and Zelena wolf-whistles. There's a soft thump behind her, and when she looks again, a large, golden-furred wolf blinks up at her, head tilted and tongue lolled out innocently. She's cute, somehow, despite being a massive apex predator, and Regina tentatively reaches out a hand, in awe when Emma allows her to stroke the side of her face.
"Take care of my— of our children," Regina murmurs. Emma touches her cold nose to Regina's wrist, gentle, green eyes speckled with gold and so full of affection— and then she turns and bolts off into the woods, the pups immediately racing after her with excited yips and yelps, August trailing protectively behind them.
"They'll be fine, Gina," Zelena calls, already swaddled up in blankets and seated in a camping chair, a large thermos cradled on her lap. Kathryn is similarly equipped, gesturing to where a third camping chair has been set up next to theirs, a large quilt and a thermos on the seat. "Come sit down."
"Emma and August are so protective of them. You know they're in good hands," Kathryn offers. Regina sighs, wrapping herself up in the quilt and then taking a seat, checking the thermos to find that Kathryn has prepared hot cocoa for them. A small, tentative sip reveals that it's been spiked with something strong.
"To keep you extra warm," Kathryn adds with a wink when she notices Regina scrunching her nose. They sit in silence for a little while, just staring off into the woods and listening carefully. A small flock of birds shoot out from the tree line in the distance with angry squawks, no doubt startled from their midnight perches by a pack of wolves. Kathryn leans back in her seat, lazily examining the starry sky above, and Zelena pulls out her phone.
"This is going to be our new normal, I guess," Regina says eventually, still mildly surprised at how much has changed in just a few months. If someone had told her she'd be allowing two strangers from out of town to take her children into the woods in the middle of the night, she'd have set them on fire for their audacity.
Now, however, she trusts Emma, more than she thought she ever would.
"Well, I imagine we won't have to sit out here waiting for them every month once they're older," Zelena sniffs. "Not that I'm not enjoying our impromptu little girls' night here, but I much prefer us being at the mansion, warm and comfy, with wine and cheese..."
"Spoiled," Regina chides as Kathryn snorts.
"I'm just saying. They could easily head out into the woods behind the mansion. Just leave the back door unlocked."
"Emma said that area is too rocky for the children right now."
"Oh, we're agreeing with everything Emma says now, are we?" Zelena teases, smirking. Even with only the moon for lighting, they can see Regina's cheeks flush.
"She's a werewolf, she knows what's best for them," is the brunette's diplomatic answer. Zelena and Kathryn laugh.
"Come on, Gina, anyone with eyes can see how ridiculously enamored you two are with each other," Zelena points out, amused. "I ask again, just like I've asked since this whole thing started: why haven't you climbed her like a tree yet?"
"And don't say you don't want to," Kathryn adds, holding up a finger in warning. "We all just saw her. Woman's a Greek goddess carved out of marble."
"Are you sure you're straight?" Zelena leers at the blonde, teasing. Kathryn leans out of her blanket cocoon to slap at Zelena's shoulder.
"I have eyes, witch."
Regina sighs, rolling her eyes as her sister and her best friend bicker like a pair of old biddies. She knows they do it out of love, wanting to see her happy, but she and Emma have already agreed that the children are their first priority. "It's just not a good time. I don't want to confuse or stress the children by starting a new relationship right now. Emmett is struggling enough as is."
"Emmett needs to get some sense spanked into him," Zelena mutters.
"He's six," Regina snaps, at the same time Kathryn says, "That seems a little extreme."
"I don't mean literally. Bloody hell," Zelena scoffs. "Come on, Gina. They're already more mature than human kids that age. You can't keep babying Emmett and letting him dictate things or he'll grow up thinking he can always have things his way by throwing a temper tantrum."
Regina winces at the thought of an adult Emmett snarling and baring his sharp teeth as a threat. An annoyance at best when he's a tiny child, yes, but Zelena's not wrong. If she doesn't curb this behavior now, when does it end?
"I know they're your world, but your happiness matters too, Regina," Zelena says after a moment, noting the troubled look on her sister's face. "Sex jokes aside, we can all see how much you and Emma care about each other. The kids will understand that if you just talk to them. Emmett will understand if you can just get him to see reason."
Easier said than done, considering her hard-headed son likes to hold onto his stubborn views. But he loves her, that much is clear by the way he clings to her and insists she is his only mother, and he'd seemed contemplative after their last outing together, so perhaps there is hope after all.
Emma catches the scent of a rabbit pretty early on, and after pointing her children in the right direction, she and August end up taking the rear, letting the pups lead the way with their twitching noses. They're tiny, quick and agile and occasionally clumsy when they slip over a large stone or stumble over fallen branches in their hyperactive excitement. It's like watching a litter of puppies scrambling around after a toy, and Emma and August continue to exchange amused looks as they follow, rarely stepping in except to get them back on track when they lose the scent trail or get distracted by some other small wildlife.
They find the rabbit, eventually, and the pups give chase with excited yips that scare off every critter in the vicinity. They have no real chance of catching it, not when it's healthy and quick, and the children are clumsy and inexperienced. Still, the chase is the best part of the hunt, and the pack spends the better part of an hour chasing the poor rabbit until it finally outmaneuvers them and disappears into the darkness, its scent lost in the midst of the chaos. Emma and August's keen senses can tell the rabbit has found a deep burrow and is safely hidden away below ground now, but they merely watch in amusement as the pups sniff around for another five minutes before giving up with huffs of disappointment.
After some whining and yipping, the children are led to another scent trail, bolting off in excitement at a new smell— a fox. Not too much of a danger to a werewolf pup, nevertheless an entire pack of them. Any sane fox would see the pack and run, anyway, but Emma and August are there to intervene if they do get into a scuffle.
With Elizabeth eagerly leading the way, they all head deeper into the woods, moving as a more cohesive group as the scent trail grows stronger. Sure of her tracking skills, Elizabeth jumps out into a small clearing with a victorious little howl, her siblings hot on her tail— only to yip in fright when she realizes they've come face to face with a full grown elk, an intimidatingly large rack of antlers on its head.
It shrieks—an awful high-pitched squealing-trumpet noise—and as massive hooves hit the ground in its sudden scramble, the pups scatter backwards with yelps, leaping away from the massive beast. Emmett, in his brave but thoughtless attempt to protect his siblings, jumps between it and his pack, baring his teeth with a growl that only serves to alarm the elk even more. It kicks out its front hooves, stomping the ground in an attempt to scare off the pups, and as it lowers its head to charge Emmett, a massive werewolf bursts out of the trees to lunge in the way.
Before Emmett knows what's even happened, jaws clamp down around his neck and lift him bodily from the ground, swinging him to the side away from the elk. Emma has picked him up, and she attempts to jump out of the way, but her loss of momentum from having to grab her pup means she's a half a second too late, feeling the painful catch of sharp antlers raking into her side as she stumbles away, her jump somewhat launched sideways by the strike. She drops Emmett to the ground and whirls around with a murderous snarl, a mouthful of sharp teeth on display as August skids to a stop next to her, the two massive wolves putting up a united front against the startled elk.
Sensing mortal danger faced off against two adult werewolves, the elk grunts and scrambles away, immediately turning and bolting off into the darkness.
The danger is over as quickly as it had come, but adrenaline still runs like fire through her veins, and Emma is panting hard as she spins around to quickly do a headcount of her children, finding all five pups present and accounted for. She hardly feels the wounds on her side, too busy chuffing at her pups in comfort and making sure they're alright, and only flinches when August pads over to lick at her flank with a worried grunt.
The wounds are painful, but not fatal. She'd jumped quickly enough that she'd been raked but not punctured, so it's quite literally just a flesh wound, albeit a scary looking one. Emmett looks panicked, whining as he scurries around her legs with his tail tucked, staring at her bloodied flank with wide eyes. Emma nudges his entire body with her muzzle, licking at his face comfortingly until he settles and leans up against her with a quiet whimper. It's okay, she conveys to him, wagging her tail as the pups all swarm her.
Emmett wiggles in place, his tail lifting back up with a wag as he licks at her muzzle with his tiny tongue and unleashes a myriad of little squeaks and yips of gratitude. The pups are all wiggling, staring up adoringly at her as they await her leadership, and Emma forgets all about the pain in her flank as the feeling of true acceptance finally warms and settles within her chest.
It's nearly 1am when they finally reemerge from the woods, the kids exhausted but content. From afar, Regina can already see the pups bouncing around the large golden wolf. Even Emmett in his mini golden pup body is leaning up against Emma's forelegs, seemingly chipper in her presence.
"Huh. Maybe you don't need to have that talk with Emmett after all," Kathryn murmurs, surprised. She, Regina, and Zelena all jump up from their seats to eagerly greet them, bleary eyed but excited to hear how it went. They're already plucking up discarded clothes from the ground to help the children redress as soon as they transform back, but Regina abandons the task altogether when she realizes the golden wolf limping towards her is wounded.
"Emma!" she cries out, rushing over in a panic as her eyes take in the dark red blood staining most of the wolf's flank. There are three jagged gouges raking across her side, and they don't improve much in appearance even when Emma starts to morph back, her face twisted in pain as she remains crouched on the ground, in no hurry to stand back up.
"It's not as bad as it looks," she mutters through a mouthful of sharp teeth, silvery-blonde fur receding into her skin. Regina drops to the ground by her side, fretting over her regardless. Her healing magic doesn't work on werewolves, something she'd learned very early on as a new mother when she'd cried in frustration at not being able to sooth Daniel's papercut or Hope's skinned knee with anything more than a colorful Band-Aid and kisses. A Band-Aid and a kiss, however, are most certainly not going to help in a situation like this.
"What happened? How did you get hurt? Do you need to go to the hospital? I can take you there immediately—"
"Regina," Emma laughs, a little breathlessly as she reaches over to touch the brunette's wrist. "I'm fine, I promise. This'll heal over in a few days, tops."
Regina doesn't look like she believes her, bracketing Emma's face between her hands to check her over for more injuries, maybe even a head injury. Instead all she gets is a pair of soft green eyes, flecked with gold and staring at her with so much teasing affection that she feels her stomach somersaulting all over again.
"Best cover it up for the kids, anyway," August says, breaking through their impromptu staring contest as he pushes Emma's jeans and T-shirt into her hands. It's a black shirt, thankfully, so when Emma pulls it on, the blood seeps right through but remains invisible. She winces slightly as the fabric touches her wounds but otherwise acts fine, standing and smiling warmly as the children—now in human form and dressed once more—swarm her with excited chatter.
"Mom!" Emmett yells, nearly plastering himself to Regina's hip when he barrels into her. "Mom, you shoulda seen the elk Emma fought off, it was huge! "
Well, that explains what tried to skewer the blonde. Emmett's excitement while talking about Emma is still mind blowing, but Regina tries not to draw too much attention to it and instead casually runs her hand through his messy hair with an encouraging smile.
"That sounds very dangerous and very exciting," she offers, wrapping her free arm snugly around Henry as the boy snuggles up to her other side. "Did you have fun?"
"Yeah! Emma jumped in like a superhero and scared the elk off with this big roar, and it was awesome!"
She's going to need to have a talk with Emma about never taking their children near dangerous wildlife ever again, because she's pretty sure she's breathing through a miniature heart attack right now, but Emmett gawking up at Emma like she's a superhero makes her think that maybe, just this once, it was worth it.
"Well," Zelena interrupts the chaos with a loud clap of her hands, clearly done with being out in the cold in the middle of the night. "As much fun as all this excitement has been, I think it's well past time we all get to bed, hmm?"
"Absolutely," Emma agrees, glad for the escape. She's grinning tiredly, Elizabeth and Hope leaning against each hip and Daniel hovering contentedly nearby, but she also looks ready to collapse onto any soft surface and hibernate for the next twenty four hours.
"Everyone say goodnight to your Ma and uncle August and get in the car," Zelena prompts, already packing away their camping chairs in the trunk. Kathryn helps her, giving the kids their moment as they all chirp their goodnights, wriggling happily at the hair-ruffles Emma hands out. Emmett even leans up against her side for a moment, murmuring a soft 'thank you' before scurrying off, and then it's just Emma and Regina, exchanging quiet glances as August moves away to help load up the kids.
"Emmett seems to be in good spirits," Regina points out, relieved.
"Yeah. Guess we just needed a bit of excitement in our bonding sessions." Emma laughs, then winces, exhaling. "He seemed like he had a lot on his mind even before the run, honestly. I'm just glad it looks like we've gotten past the worst of it. We'll see how he feels about me tomorrow when the adrenaline's worn off."
The joke is half hearted, but Regina shakes her head, not worried in the least. Emmett's always been a straight shooter. Whatever changed his mind about Emma isn't what matters; now that she's in his good books, she'll be there to stay.
"I think things are looking up from here," she murmurs, smiling. Emma looks at her with so much softness in that moment, so much gentleness, that for a second she thinks the blonde might kiss her— but then Emma pulls back with a reluctant little smile and a droop of her shoulders and gestures to the waiting car.
"I'll let you guys get going. The kids'll probably be out cold the minute their heads touch their pillows."
"Are you sure you'll be okay?" Regina asks one last time, still concerned. She hates that they're parting ways. Wishes that she could take care of Emma the way Emma had protected their children tonight.
"I'm sure," Emma murmurs, looking tired but flattered by her concern. "I might sleep in for most of tomorrow, if that's okay."
"Of course, Emma. Rest as much as you need. Please call me if you need anything at all."
A nod or a platonic hug feels too casual, too informal of a way to say goodbye after everything. Regina wonders if it would be weird if she kissed her on the cheek. Emma beats her to it, reaching out to take her wrist in a gentle, intimate grasp, her thumb stroking over her pulse point for a moment before she smiles softly and slips away with a low "Goodnight, Regina," limping after August towards his motorcycle.
Regina watches her go, reluctantly returning to the van when her children whine for her attention.
Regina doesn't hear from Emma the next day. Not all morning, when the kids are chattering happily and seeming to be in much more relaxed states when she drops them off with Zelena, and not all through lunch, when Regina assumes her office will be invaded by a grinning blonde werewolf with takeout bags and instead ends up waiting the entire hour without food. Hungry and admittedly concerned, she finally bites the bullet and leaves the office early, picking up lunch at the diner and then heading through to the B&B to knock on Emma's door.
It takes a solid minute for the blonde to answer, looking exhausted when she finally pulls open the door.
"Regina?" Emma squints in the hallway's harsh lighting, gripping the doorframe with her free hand as if holding herself upright is an endeavor. The room behind her is dark, the curtains pulled tight over the windows, and Regina wonders if Emma has really been asleep this whole time.
"Emma," she breathes out softly, automatically stepping closer to check her over, well beyond trying to subdue her feelings for the other woman at this point. Emma basically got herself stabbed by a buck's antlers to protect their children. If that isn't reason enough for Regina to give up this silly facade about it not being the right time for them to be together, she doesn't know what is. "Are you alright?"
"Oh, m' fine. Just need a lot of rest," Emma murmurs, even her voice dripping with exhaustion. Ever the wolf, however, she sniffs the air and her eyes zero in on the bag clutched in Regina's hand. "Is that a bacon cheeseburger?"
"You never called or came by. I thought you might be hungry," Regina admits, flushing slightly as Emma's lips quirk up into a grin.
"I never turn down a good burger," the blonde says, stepping back into the room and leaving the door open. Regina enters and closes the door behind her while Emma pulls open the curtains, letting the late afternoon sun light up the room. The bed is rumpled and a large first aid kit is still open on the table, wads of bloody cotton balls and old bandage wraps sitting in an abandoned pile. Regina turns an accusing eye on Emma, who glances at the mess and then back to her with a sheepish smile.
"Did you dress your own wounds?" Regina asks with a frown, setting the takeout bag down on the dresser. Emma shakes her head, perching gingerly on the edge of the bed as she sucks in a quiet breath between her teeth.
"August did it last night."
"So the bandages need changing."
"He'll be back later to do it," Emma says with a shake of her head, waving the idea off. Regina crosses her arms and pins her with a look.
"Absolutely not. Your wounds need to be cleaned and redressed, Emma. Take your shirt off."
Emma sucks on her teeth for a moment, looking like she has a flirty comeback before deciding not to say it. With a grudging sigh—followed by a wince and a grunt when she has to lift her arms up—she manages to wriggle out of her loose T-shirt and turn sideways, exposing her injured side to Regina. The brunette pulls up a chair and quickly gets to work, making a concerted effort not to stare at Emma's bare torso as she helps remove her bloodied bandages.
The ugly open wound from getting raked by an angry buck's antlers, she was prepared for. The many old, silvery scars lining Emma's body, however, are unexpected.
"Oh, Emma," she breathes out, eyes wide as she takes them all in, too many to count. She hadn't had time to notice them last night when Emma had been bathed in moonlight, but now they're painfully obvious in the sun. Emma shifts with wary discomfort, feeling the most naked she's ever been under Regina's too-soft gaze.
"It's not that bad. Werewolves heal fast, this'll be closed up in a few days," Emma mumbles, averting her eyes. It's not what Regina meant and she knows it. Still, Regina says nothing and simply goes about cleaning the wound and reapplying fresh bandages, as gentle as she can afford to be despite Emma refusing to show any signs of pain. When the task is done, Emma reaches for her shirt again, only to hesitate when a warm fingertip traces a scar across the back of her shoulder. It's slightly raised and sensitive to touch, and Emma visibly shivers under Regina's hand.
"How did you get this one?" Regina asks quietly. It's almost a whisper. Emma swallows and looks down at her lap, calloused hands resting loosely on her thighs.
"A werewolf's claw caught my shoulder during a fight."
Regina's hand fully settles on her shoulder, warm palm sliding down her arm until fingers circle a small, round scar on Emma's forearm, amidst a million tiny little blonde hairs standing on end from the light, intimate touch.
"Cigarette burn from an old foster home."
Regina smoothes her fingers over it in apology, then continues down, her hand gently cupping over Emma's slightly larger one, fingertips tracing the rough scars across Emma's knuckles.
"Split my knuckles on the face of my handler, the day August and I escaped." Emma puffs out a breath, almost like a laugh but without any humor. She turns her hand over and Regina is the one to entwine their fingers, her thumb rubbing soothingly along the side of Emma's palm. "Why did you come over here, Regina?"
The question is soft, almost breathless. So full of hope. Regina feels her heart lurch and tries to calm its nervous flutter.
"The children love you." There was never any doubt there. Not after last night, when even Emmett finally looked at Emma like she was the sun. Every excuse and concern about whether the children would fully accept Emma into their lives is null and void now, gone with the wind as soon as Regina had seen them together as a real pack. A family.
"I should hope so. I got stabbed for them," Emma jokes, smiling lopsidedly. She turns her head, and only then does Regina realize how close they are now, faces mere inches apart. She takes in a breath, and when she speaks it's a soft whisper, as if afraid to interrupt this delicate moment.
"I... I think I'm starting to fall in love with you, too."
She holds her breath, waiting. Green eyes widen for a moment in surprise, then—
"You think, or you know?" Emma teases, lips curling up into a grin. Regina lets loose a growl that could almost put a real werewolf to shame, and before Emma can further laugh at her, she closes the distance and kisses her hard. Their teeth almost knock together before Emma's cradling her face with her hands and returning the kiss properly, immediately licking into Regina's mouth and drawing a deep moan from the other woman. She only jerks back with a grunt when Regina tries to pull her closer and accidentally slides her hand across her tender side, at which point the brunette murmurs apologies and peppers kisses across her face to make it up to her.
"Easy, tiger. I'm wounded," Emma chuckles, her voice low and thick with amusement as Regina fusses over her. The happy grin on her face fades as she tilts her head, taking in the embarrassed flush dusting Regina's cheeks. "Hey... are you sure?"
Despite her casual tone, there is nervousness there. The fear of rejection. Regina cups her face, russet brown peering into green without hesitation this time.
"I'm sure," Regina murmurs, soft and warm and assured. "I want you in my life, Emma. Stay. Be a part of our family."
Shifting forward until their foreheads rest together, Emma puffs out a faint laugh, gently taking hold of Regina's wrists and stroking her thumbs against her pulse point. The brunette's heartbeat pulses steadily beneath the fragile skin there, skipping a beat when Emma kisses her again, in awe of the soft, welcoming mouth sliding against her own.
"I'd really like that."
The full moon shines extra bright tonight, the air crackling with a kind of excited energy only the supernatural can create. With golden fur on end and her ears perked and listening, Emma waits atop a large rock, her body crouched low to the stone. The woods are quiet, unnaturally so, the local wildlife aware that apex predators are on the hunt. There's the softest crackle of a dry leaf underfoot that makes her tail twitch, and the male deer she's been staring at in the distance goes still, head swiveling in alarm.
In another second, five wolves race past her, a blur of gold and brown and black. Launching from the rock, Emma follows the pack at a slightly slower pace, remaining near the back as she watches them spread out into their normal formations. The deer bolts and a cacophony of growls and snapping teeth burst from them as they pick up speed, large paws thudding against the ground like a mini stampede. The chase is on as their target for the night leaps over fallen logs and small streams, frantic to escape its pursuers. Emma idly wonders if this is the same deer they'd chased and lost during last month's run, and thinks that if it had a voice, it'd probably be cursing them to the moon and back by now. The thought makes her bark out a laugh.
There's an ungraceful splash as a black wolf slides on wet stone and goes tumbling into the stream with a yelp. The rest of the pack continues, determined, but Emma skids to a stop, waiting as Hope drags herself from the stream with a whine of annoyance. Even in wolf form, she manages a toothy grin as her daughter shakes herself off and purposefully shoulder-checks her before rushing to catch up to the others.
Gold and brown seem to be in the lead, the gold clearly Emmett, but from this distance Emma isn't sure if the other is Daniel or Henry, as Henry had grown quite a lot in recent years and matches Daniel for size. They're nearly snapping at the heels of the deer, who takes a hard right and tries to outmaneuver them around a copse of trees. Hope and Emma manage to get behind the pack in time to see a blur of roan-red leap high between the trees—Elizabeth, quick and nimble as can be—just narrowly brushing the bark with her fur before landing in the lead ahead of the boys, a delighted little yipping sound escaping her maw.
The pack is competitive—aside from Hope, who's really just here for the family bonding—and a healthy amount of shoulder checking and playful nips are exchanged as they all drift in and out of first place, intent on proving themselves the fastest sibling. Emma allows them their mischievous fun, following the pack from the rear for a few hours before eventually she can see everyone's energy waning. They've tracked the deer through the entirety of the woods surrounding all of Storybrooke nearly three times over, and sunrise isn't too far off. She gives a low bark of warning, and the pack immediately picks up speed again, this time without the play-fighting. Emma follows them closer and catches sight of Henry and Emmett spreading into a tight pincer movement, each lunging forward in time to clamp their powerful jaws around the deer's hind legs.
It stumbles, giving a futile kick to try shaking off its attackers, and in another moment the others have rushed up next to it in its slowed state and have latched on as well, dragging it to the ground in a tangle of kicking limbs. Emma jumps forward to quickly put the beast out of its misery with a quick and decisive snap of her jaws, and as soon as it goes limp, the pack lets go to lift their heads and howl.
It's long and victorious and beautiful, echoed by a pair of howls somewhere in the distance, and eventually the hulking figure of a gray wolf and his slender red-brown companion join them, padding into view as the moon illuminates their fur. The gray has a rucksack clutched in his teeth that he immediately sets down in time for the young wolves to rush him, yipping and prancing around him in circles, like excited teenagers showing off their accomplishments. Emma greets them fondly, bumping her head against theirs, and after the expected show of approval and comradery, the pack begins their transformation back.
The gray wolf is first, morphing back into August who promptly digs loose T-shirts and shorts from the satchel he'd brought along, tossing them out to each wolf as everyone sheds their furred forms. Excited yips turn into the loud and rambunctious chatter of teenagers as they dress and stretch, tired but happy with their successful hunt. August passes around a water bottle for them to splash their faces and rinse out their mouths, and then he's settling his hands on his hips as he looks upon the slain deer.
"Not bad at all," he nods, kneeling next to it. Emma joins him, and a moment later, Ruby Lucas kneels on his other side, the three of them grabbing rope from the satchel to tie its legs together for transport.
"So, what'll you do with this rack?" Emma asks, smiling at Ruby as she taps the impressive set of antlers on the deer's head. Ruby comes from a long line of werewolves with old traditions, and she's learned all the tricks of the trade in terms of finding ways to use up every part of a kill to honor the animal's sacrifice. Whatever she doesn't use she can pass along to her grandmother, who had moved back into town with her recently after getting a surprising letter from the current mayor of Storybrooke.
"Oh, I have a few ideas," Ruby grins, standing and bumping shoulders with Emma as they step back to give August room. The man gives a loud grunt as he hefts the beast up, and soon he's standing tall with the animal carried over his shoulders, his wolf-strength putting any human man to shame. "So many ideas," Ruby adds under her breath, openly ogling August. Emma gives her old friend an amused look but leaves the pestering for later.
"Alright, let's go home," Emma says to the pack, beaming as her children rally to her side.
"Did you see us, Ma?" Henry leans against her shoulder, beaming, nearly as tall as Emmett but lean and slender compared to his brother's bulkier form. His surprising growth spurt has given him the strength and confidence he'd lacked before, and Emma slings an arm around his shoulders, proud beyond belief.
"I sure did, kid. You were all fantastic. Excellent teamwork."
He grins, ducking away soon after to engage his siblings in their usual banter and playful nudging. For all of Emmett's bulk compared to his more lean siblings, he's calmed in recent years, more thoughtful and less reactive, deferring to Henry often when it comes to group decisions. Henry's quiet intelligence and level head has made him a natural leader as time goes on, and Emma thinks he might just have it in him to become the pack's leader one day when she steps down.
The sun is barely peeking over the horizon when they finally get back to the mansion, Henry holding open the back gate to let everyone in as August and Ruby deposit the deer by the shed, where it will quickly be field-dressed and separated for everyone. (August only really cares about barbequing the venison, and Ruby takes just about every other part, but sometimes Emma likes to keep a bone or two for the dog Graham had adopted as their new sheriff station's mascot. It's a half-husky-half-wolf hybrid named Dogmeat, which Graham claims is a video game reference and thinks is absolutely hilarious. Emma is less amused, but she gets along perfectly well with the little beast, so she can't complain too much.)
"Can I stay and learn from Ruby?" Elizabeth asks, pointing to where Ruby and August are already getting started on the deer. It would normally be a shocking request—Elizabeth is a lady after all, who would never get her hands dirty with something so messy—but Emma is pretty sure her little prude of a daughter has a teeny, tiny, incredibly unfortunate crush on Ruby, so instead of showing her surprise, she merely shrugs and says, "Sure, kid."
Elizabeth gleefully hurries over to Ruby's side, and Emma shakes her head and follows the rest of her children towards the back porch of the mansion. Nope, not dealing with that, she thinks humorously, running a hand through her tangled hair. She'd leave that talk for her wife.
Her soft, beautiful, effortlessly adorable wife with sleep-mused hair and tired eyes, who is currently sitting on the bench wrapped up in a quilt blanket like a human burrito, a cup of hot coffee cradled in her hands to ward off the early morning chill. Emma tells her every month that she needn't wait up all night, that she and August and Ruby would make sure the kids stayed safe on their full moon runs, but Regina always defies her regardless, always there to greet them the morning after with sleepy smiles and a low, gravely 'welcome home.'
"Morning, Mom!" the teens chirp, each pausing to lean against her shoulder or peck her cheek with a greeting kiss. Henry wraps his arms around her in a firm squeeze and she just chuckles, running her fingers through his mop of hair before gently shooing him off.
"Go shower, my darlings. I'll get started on breakfast in a minute."
There's a cheer of delight, and then Henry and Emmett are racing each other into the house while Daniel and Hope follow at a more lazy pace, chattering on about some sort of video game they've been playing lately. Emma finally steps up onto the porch, smiling softly as russet eyes meet green.
"Good morning, beautiful," Emma husks, the energy and excitement of the hunt still trickling through her veins. Regina's eyes wander for a moment, appreciating the form of her lean and powerful wife before she finally closes the distance and curls up into Emma's warm and waiting arms, humming in contentment as a gentle kiss is placed on the tip of her nose.
"Good morning, my love," she murmurs, her heart thrumming a steady, peaceful rhythm. Under her splayed palm on Emma's chest, she can feel her wife's heart beating in tandem, skipping a beat like it always does when she leans up to kiss her properly.
Motherhood isn't exactly what Regina signed up for sixteen years ago, but she'd like to think she has this whole wife-and-mother thing down relatively well.
It's pretty perfect, really.