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after the trigger

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Henry likes to categorize his life as Before and After . Before had always meant before the book, when the world had been simpler and more confusing at the same time. After had always meant once he’d read the book and understood who his birth mother had been and what had gone so wrong with Storybrooke. Before, he’d been confused and alone, pushing Mom away and trying to understand his adoption. After, he’d basically saved the world .


And that’s that, except now he’s beginning to feel as though there should be another, new After. After the trigger , maybe. That had been the thing that had changed everything again, but in a much subtler way. Because Storybrooke is the quiet, sleepy town that it had always been Before, without villains or new attacks, but it’s different. 


Well. Grandma and Gramps are pretty much the same, and Emma is weird sometimes but still the Emma he’s always known. The town has settled back into normalcy, and Henry goes to school every day with his classmates, even though it’s a new school year and he’s never stayed with the same kids before. Granny’s is still his first stop in the morning and the station is still his same stop in the afternoon.


But Mom . Mom is like a person Henry has never known.


She sits by the window most days– Emma had moved a recliner there, after they’d realized that Mom couldn’t really sit upright on a chair, and Mom had refused outright to lie on a couch or in bed– and Henry can see her when he heads up the walk. He hadn’t known what to say at first when he’d come back home. It’s been weird and tense since Before with Mom, and even when they’d had supervised outings since, they’d always felt like two people playacting at being mom and son. Mom would look at him with this stare like she’d wanted way too much from him and Henry had been uncomfortable.


Now, she still looks at him like that and it’s okay , because Mom is sick and they all need to support her in whatever way they can. So Henry comes to the house in the afternoon after the station and he sits with Mom and does his homework on the floor next to her. Mom tests him on vocabulary words and helps him with math until he sees the telltale wince– the sign that it’s been too much, and it hurts to talk or listen– and then he stretches out on the couch and reads a book in silence until Emma comes over.


Officially, Emma comes to get him. Unofficially, she brings dinner, because Mom insists that she’s self-sufficient but no one really believes that right now. Mom moves slowly, like every step is straining at her muscles, and there’s no way that she’s cooking right now. She makes faces at Emma’s takeout but she eats when Henry coaxes her to, and that’s the most important job that Henry has ever had, except maybe for breaking the curse. 


The best days are the ones when Mom doesn’t wince– when his homework is short enough that they’re done before Mom hits her limit– and Mom tells him stories. He hadn’t asked for them at first. Gramps tells him stories about the Enchanted Forest all the time, but his stories are tall tales passed around taverns and campfires in the other land, not about himself . There is the one grand story of Gramps and Grandma and their battle against Mom, and the rest is all…well, sheep.


It had never occurred to him that the person who can tell him the best stories about the Enchanted Forest would be the queen who had taken control of it for so long. But Mom had sat there, after silence had fallen on an early afternoon, and said suddenly, “Did I ever tell you about the ogre who nearly wrecked the winter palace?” 


And then the stories had come, and Henry had been spellbound. He knows his mom: mayor, mother, fierce and powerful and a little bit frightening to everyone else. He knows the Evil Queen: a dangerous villain who’d stop at nothing to kill Snow White. But he hadn’t thought of the little girl growing up in an evil witch’s home, of the young queen who’d begun to learn magic in secret, or even the queen who had governed in between terrorizing the land. Mom has lived , and Henry is only beginning to grasp that.


It’s kind of cool, getting to know her. Mom pauses sometimes– hesitates, and Henry knows that the story isn’t going to make her out to be a hero. The first time that happens, Henry doesn’t push and Mom shifts to a new story. The second time, he says, “I know who you were. It’s okay.” It’s not okay– he’s supposed to be a hero, and he shouldn’t be so accepting of a bad guy– but Mom is sick, so maybe it’s all right to shrug that off while he lets her recover.


Besides, sometimes Mom’s villain stories are just a bit better than the heroic ones, but he isn’t going to tell anyone that .



Emma brings dinner. It’s a compromise, because she’d spent the first few days after the trigger parked outside Regina’s house at all hours of the day, and Snow had thought that it was excessive. And, if she’s honest, a little weird.


There are these brief moments when Emma is around Regina and Snow is left with the nagging suspicion that there’s an entire saga of interactions between them that she hasn’t been privy to. Sometimes Emma is fixated on Regina in ways that can’t be explained by a year of an adversarial relationship, determined to do right by her– which, well, how exactly do you do right by the woman who had ruined your life? And sometimes Regina stares at Emma with soft, uncertain eyes that shine in a way that Snow has never seen Regina’s eyes glow before.


But there are no secret interactions. Emma looks at her like she’s lost her mind when Snow asks, and she laughs uncomfortably and says. “You know Regina. She’s…complicated. I try not to question it when we’re getting along.”


They aren’t getting along now, but Regina’s slow recovery from torture has become Emma’s pet project. Snow has talked her out of patrolling exclusively on Mifflin Street, and has conceded to Emma’s nightly visits to Regina’s house. When Snow comes along, she watches them throw barbs at each other and glower at each other from across the table.


“I wouldn’t expect someone who eats exclusively fast food to have taste ,” Regina sniffs from behind her salmon. “But for Henry’s sake, please tell me that you’re feeding him something other than Granny’s on occasion.” 


“Granny’s isn’t fast food,” Emma protests. “She cooks it all. It’s exactly the same as him eating your food–” 


“But lower quality,” Regina cuts in. 


Emma scoffs. “ Please . I know you ordered pizza twice a week on late worknights,” she says triumphantly. Henry looks very sheepish. Regina looks livid. Emma grins at her, and Snow is left with the old memory of Regina ordering a guard beheaded for insolence. “At least Granny’s burgers have some protein in them.” 


“Cheese is protein,” Henry says helpfully. “There was a lot of cheese. We used to put a paper towel on the slices to drain some of the oil. It kind of worked.” He considers. “Also, there was pepperoni on the pizza. Does that count?” 


Emma grins, careless, and Regina glares at her. “Nope. Not at all. Face it: this is the healthiest food Henry’s had in ages.” Maybe she’d been joking. There is something light about Emma around Regina, when Regina is dark-eyed with irritation and Emma is smirking, smug in her ability to push every one of Regina’s buttons. 


But then– the dip in Regina’s chin, the shadow in her eyes, and it is clear that Emma has landed a hit. Emma sees it, too, because she is standing abruptly, lips set in a thin line, and she doesn’t know how to apologize and walk back what she’s said. Emma and Regina move in one direction only– forward, full steam ahead, with no time to look back or feel remorse– and Snow eats her burger and watches surreptitiously as Emma moves around the table, her hands moving uncertainly as she reaches out to Regina.


Emma says, “You’re having trouble sitting up again. You should go back to the window seat.” 


Regina stares straight ahead, says, “I’m fine ,” except that she isn’t fine. She hasn’t been fine from the moment that she’d gotten up and moved to the dining room table, and this is only Emma acknowledging what they try to politely ignore. When Emma puts her hand on Regina’s arm, Regina exhales a long sigh and then struggles to stand, Emma supporting her, and Emma murmurs something to Regina that Snow doesn’t hear.


Regina watches her, something pained in her gaze, and this is what Snow means when she says that there’s something that she’s being excluded from. Emma moves gently with Regina, inching back toward the living room with none of the clumsiness she has sometimes at home, and she puts a hand on Regina’s forehead to take her temperature. “Warm,” she declares. “I want to call Whale.” 


“Don’t call Whale,” Regina says tiredly. “You know I’ve been feverish for days. I don’t want a mad scientist with a bone to pick with me taking care of my recovery.” 


“He was fine the last time he came–”


“No,” Henry says, and they all look at him in surprise. He looks stubbornly at them, his little fists clenched. “Dr. Whale lied to Mom about Daniel to make her bad. Mom told me the story.” Regina has been telling Henry stories , which Snow had worried at first might be terribly skewed but instead seem to delve into matters that are, at times, a little heavy for an eleven-year-old to learn about his mother. “I want a better doctor.” 


Emma sets Regina down in her chair, hovers over her, and then jerks to the side to bring her the salmon. She paces the room, a bundle of nervous energy. “What about Doc?” 


“Not an expert in modern medicine,” Regina reminds her. “I’m on my own here.” She leans back, eyes shutting for a moment as she allows them, for an instant, to see exactly how she’s feeling. Her skin is an unnatural white, her hands shaking slightly, and her forehead vein is bulging with the pain of her headache. She looks deeply unwell, and Snow sees Henry’s eyes widen and his lip quiver.


“Not on your own,” Snow says gently, and she sees tears leak from the corners of Regina’s eyes. It feels almost exploitative, how easily she can set Regina off these days with just an expression of care, but she won’t stop herself. They are moving on from the past, and Snow is nothing if not demonstrative with her affection. “You know we’re here for you.” 


Regina says, a breath of pain, “Shut up.” 


“I’m going to bring someone in,” Emma decides. “Find some neuroscientist who’s willing to get a ride into a town that doesn’t exist and–” She seizes the side of the recliner. “Wait. No. I’m taking you out of town. You can leave, right? You left to get Henry.”


“No.” Regina opens her eyes. They’re red and raw, agonized and obstinate, and Snow tenses and prepares for a fight. 


Emma scoffs. “ Yes ,” she says. “We should have done this days ago. You need real medical attention, and you’re only going to get it out of Storybrooke.” She nods sharply. “Okay. We’ll make a road trip out of it,” she says. “You, me, Henry. Boston. We’ll see some doctors. Go on one of those dumb touristy duck tours. We can make it educational so Henry doesn’t miss school.”


And this is another one of those odd moments when Snow is sure that she’s walked into an alternate dimension, because in what universe is Emma planning a road trip with Regina? Emma had loathed her last year and had regarded her this year with a mixture of betrayal and pity. Maybe this is just compassion, except that Emma sounds excited about it and just a little pleading. There is something magnetic lurking between the two of them, drawing them impossibly together, and Snow can’t wrap her head around it.


“No,” Regina says again, unyielding. And it’s because Snow had already been staring at her that Snow sees the flicker of her eyes before she refuses, the way they go to Henry and then away, lightning-quick.


Snow clears her throat. “Henry,” she says. “Would you get Regina a glass of ice water?”


Henry bobs his head, his eyes moving from Emma to Regina before he scampers out of the room, back into the kitchen. Regina exhales. “Emma,” she says, and there is something about the way that she says Emma that puts a part of Snow on edge, makes her protective of someone who doesn’t need it. Emma , like there is a world of pain contained within it. “The only thing keeping me alive right now is my magic. I can’t leave town.”


Oh . “Oh,” Emma says, and she doesn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. She keeps lifting them, then dropping them, and she stares at them as Regina stares at her. 


Then– then , Snow sees it, and it astounds her and explains away a hundred questions in a single moment. Snow sees it, and she knows that this is what she’ll remember someday as the instant , the second when it all began to make sense. Snow sees it, and she breathes, because the world has abruptly become so much more complicated.


Regina lifts her hands and takes Emma’s in hers, the shake in her grasp ever more pronounced, and Emma closes her eyes and clutches onto Regina. And Regina watches her, eyes somber and longing, and Snow knows without a doubt what is passing between them.



Emma hadn’t set out to construct her entire post-trigger life around Regina. Not really. Regina’s fall from mayor and queen to outcast and victim has sucked for her, but she’s kind of deserved it, and Emma’s inclination to help out there is about Henry having some kind of positive relationship with his mom. Other mom. There are nights when Emma lies in bed, thinks about the fact that she’d basically commandeered a kid from his mother, and thinks that she’d royally screwed that up, but also. Said mom is also kind of a supervillain? 


Regardless . She’s had enough going on as it is, and there is no reasonable explanation for why she’s just…thrown herself into Regina’s recovery. Except that Neal had died, catapulted into a portal before Tamara had escaped, and Henry isn’t losing another parent– one he actually knows – so soon after. 


So of course she has to keep an eye on Regina. Of course she has to look after her. Regina has been bedridden– chair-ridden, actually, because she won’t sleep in her bed– for over two weeks now, and it’s what Henry would want. Mary Margaret frowns upon her parking in front of Regina’s house all day, looking out for enemies, so Emma drives her car to the station and walks over.


She’d gotten a neurologist to look at the CAT scans of Regina’s brain, but the doctor had been unhelpful over the phone. “There’s nothing wrong,” the doctor had said. “No sign of anything you’re describing.” But Regina is still helpless, can barely move without help, and there has to be something wrong. The alternative– that there’s nothing that they can do– is unthinkable.


Today, Regina is asleep in the recliner when Emma arrives, and Emma unlocks the door quietly and lays Regina’s blanket over her more securely before she goes to the fridge to find a yogurt. When she returns, Regina is seizing up, her body going stiff and then wracking violently, and Emma puts a cold hand on Regina’s neck for a moment to wake her.


Regina’s eyes shoot open, and she says thickly, “Emma?” 


“I’m here. You were having another attack.” Emma hands her the yogurt. It’s a brand made for kids, a long plastic tube meant to be sucked instead of spooned, but Regina has not had much luck with spoons lately. “Eat this and then we’ll see about going outside. It’s a nice day. Not even sweater weather.”


Regina sucks obediently at the yogurt for a moment, then hands it back. “Don’t you have a job?” she says rudely. “I’m fairly certain that my tax dollars are supposed to pay for you to actually protect this town. Not coddle its greatest villain.”


“Shut up,” Emma says, and she pushes the recliner down and notes with satisfaction that Regina is wearing something new. She’s started changing clothes on her own over the past few days, pulling herself out of the chair to get dressed, and Emma takes it as a good sign. Today, Regina is in red, her dress ridden up in the chair to display an ample length of thigh that makes Emma’s mouth very dry. “Uh. Nice dress.” 


“Wish I could say the same,” Regina says, reaching out to finger the space between two buttons of Emma’s shirt. “What is this, polyester?” 


The brief and inappropriate thought crosses Emma’s mind that if she shifts slightly, Regina’s finger would touch the skin of Emma’s abdomen. “Probably,” she says, and she does shift, and Regina’s finger does graze Emma’s skin for an instant before Regina yanks it back. “If you don’t like it, I could always steal one of your shirts again.” 


“You wouldn’t dare.” Regina glowers at her, the glare intensifying when Emma puts a hand under her elbow and tries to help her up. “Stop it. I can stand by myself. I’m not an invalid .” 


Emma raises her eyebrows at her. “You’re absolutely an invalid.” She stays close to Regina as Regina limps toward the kitchen, watching for any sign of instability. A few days ago, Regina had fallen on the steps out from the back door, and she’d scraped her knee. She’d healed it in an instant, one bruise that won’t linger, but Emma still feels a stab of fear when Regina eases the back door open and steps outside.


She makes it this time, stands in the middle of a perfectly manicured back lawn and shivers. Emma dips back inside, finds a cardigan hanging over a kitchen chair, and drapes it around Regina’s shoulders. “Let’s walk,” she urges her. The backyard is expansive, a swingset near the door but the rest large and empty, and Emma circles the lawn with Regina once before Regina sinks down into a lawn chair.


“I hate it out here,” Regina mutters, and Emma sits down in another lawn chair beside her. “It’s too open. Anyone could show up and–” She stops short, her torso quivering, and Emma eyes her with misgiving.


“Hook is gone,” she reminds Regina. “He got the hell out of town before the trigger. Greg is in the asylum under twenty-four hour surveillance. And there’s no way Tamara could ever find her way back here. You’re safe.” 


Regina laughs, a burst of air that is somehow mocking and miserable at once. “Emma,” she says. Back before the curse had been broken, Regina had called her Miss Swan . Now, she lets Emma’s name sit on her tongue, like a caress that sends a shiver up Emma’s spine. “Every person in this town except for– perhaps – my son wants me dead. And I can barely stand upright. I’m never going to be safe again.” 


“You saved the town.” She feels obligated to add, “I mean, it was your trigger, but you didn’t set it off. You’d be surprised what nearly dying for Storybrooke does for public relations. And Mary Margaret doesn’t want you dead.” That’s got to mean something, considering their history. “I don’t want you dead.”


Regina shakes her head. “You don’t know what you want,” she says, and her voice is beginning to sound strained again. “You want to save me, because that’s what you do. But we both know that your life would be utterly improved without me in it.” Emma turns to stare sharply at her, dismayed. Regina blusters on. “You would actually be doing your job. No more babysitting me like this– tolerating someone you despise–” 


“Regina.” Emma sighs, and Regina stops, her jaw clenched. “That isn’t…” She takes a breath. There is no use in fighting Regina, not when it’s so clear that anything she will say will be twisted to serve Regina’s self-loathing. “Okay,” she says. “You’re never going to feel safe unless you see how Storybrooke looks at you now.” 


“No,” Regina says.


“We’re going to Granny’s,” Emma informs her. Mary Margaret is going to give her that long-suffering look when she finds out that Emma has been visiting Regina during the day again, but this is worth it. If she can get Regina to the diner, it’s the first step in…something. Not healing, when Regina is still trembling in the seat beside her, a grimace on her face. But existing, at least, and that is just as necessary.



David isn’t a fool. He’s Emma’s deputy, and he knows that she isn’t going on patrol by foot, in the direction of Regina’s house. He keeps quiet about it because he senses that there’s no benefit to telling Snow exactly what Emma’s doing, and because he’s in this strange limbo where he might actually care about Regina, kind of. It’s been quite a year.


But there are certain things he can’t pretend to ignore, so he says casually to Emma, “I saw that you brought Regina to Granny’s yesterday. Is she getting better?”


Emma looks trapped, then frustrated. “Not at all. She ordered food and then had a splitting headache and teleported back to her house. And then got pissed at me for even suggesting it. I don’t know why I bother.” She crumples a paper with a little too much force and hurls it into the trash can. “Whatever. Forget Regina.” 


“Right.” But Emma still disappears there with dinner that evening, and she returns home early with even more frustration on her face, an apologetic Henry in tow.


David, who had been sitting at the dinner table with Snow about to eat, lets them in without a word. Henry says, “She’s just crabby because she’s not feeling well. She didn’t mean–” 


“Oh, she meant it,” Emma says darkly, and she strides upstairs without a look back or a hello. Emma stomps when she’s angry, it reverberating through the apartment, and David tilts his head and turns to Henry.


Henry shrugs unhappily. “Mom was in a bad mood. She said some rude things to Emma. She didn’t mean it. She likes Emma. She doesn’t really think that Emma is…” His forehead scrunches up as he tries to remember the insults. “ Using her savior complex to force Mom into eternal simpering gratitude ?”


 “Sounds like Regina,” Snow says dryly. “I guess Emma didn’t take it well?”


Henry makes a face. “She said that Mom makes it really hard for anyone to like her and stormed out. Which isn’t wrong , really. I mean, I like Mom. But she’s a lot nicer to me.” His little brow knits in contemplation. “I just think that she doesn’t like having to count on anyone. I hope she apologizes to Emma. She needs her.”


Which might be the problem, when David thinks about it. Regina doesn’t strike him as a woman who likes needing anyone else. She’d prefer people helped her out of fear than affection. Her guards had loathed her, and the people of this town had given her a wide berth, and David is certain that she’s never experienced anything unconditional before. 


But Snow says, “She will,” with so much confidence that David looks at her in surprise. 


And, as always, Snow is right. Emma arrives in the station the next morning and sits grimly behind her desk, her mouth set in a thin, hurt line. She doesn’t make an excuse to leave at first, just fiddles with a pen and glances at her phone repeatedly. Then, in an abrupt movement, she says through her teeth, “I’m going to patrol,” and stalks out of the building, bypasses the patrol car and takes off on foot toward Mifflin Street.


Roughly three minutes later, David looks up at an odd sound of wind rushing through the station and sees violet smoke dissipating around Regina. She totters in place, nearly falls over from the force of the teleportation, and David hurries forward to guide her into a seat. “You just missed her,” he says. “She left for your house a few minutes ago.” 


“Fuck,” Regina says. She shuts her eyes and then cries out, clutching her temple, and she says through gritted teeth, “I can’t teleport again so soon. Magic is– it’s hard right now.” 


David holds up his phone. “Actually, in this lovely world that you cursed us into, we have other ways of communicating.” Regina glowers at him, and David sends a text.


Emma is back a few minutes later, breathing hard as she jogs into the station. “Regina,” she says, staring at Regina as though she’s seen a ghost. “You came out here?” 


“I’m sorry,” Regina says, and Emma clenches her jaw and says nothing. “I pushed too hard.” 


“You always push too hard,” Emma mutters. “I should know better than to take it personally by now.” Regina looks displeased at this answer, and Emma sighs. “What do you want from me, Regina?” she demands. “What is it that I can do without you finding a reason to…to criticize, or to use it against me, or yourself, or–” She stops, wringing her hands, and Regina stares at her with the gaze she usually reserves for Henry at his cruelest moments. “I just want you to get better. Is that a crime?” 


“I want to get better, too,” Regina says stiffly.


“I don’t think you do,” Emma says, and she wheels around. “You know that? I don’t actually think that you do. I think that you’re suffering because you’ve decided that you deserve it. There’s nothing wrong with your brain or your body. Nothing. Why the hell can’t you walk across a room without falling over? Why does any of it make sense?” she demands, and her voice is rising, growing more and more agitated. “What did they do to you?” 


“What do you care if I never heal?” Regina says, her voice like steel. “What does it matter to you?”


The words explode from Emma, as raw an admission as David’s ever seen from her. “You think I know?” she snaps, furious and lost. “You think I know why I– why I bother with–” She is red-faced and red-eyed, furious and heartbroken, and David senses that this is an argument that will not end well. 


“We all do it because Henry loves you,” he interjects, and both women stare at him as though he doesn’t know a thing. “Right?” 


“No,” Emma says, and her voice is muffled, as though there is something blocking the words from emerging properly. “I don’t think that is right.” But she turns away from him, and she reaches to Regina as though nothing had just occurred. “Let’s get you back home,” she says. “I bet you haven’t eaten today. And you’re still in yesterday’s clothes.” 


Regina looks defiant for a moment, petulant as a child resisting a parent, and then the fight seems to sag out of her. “I wasn’t expecting visitors,” she mutters, pulling Emma’s arm so she can stand. “I wasn’t planning on coming here, either.”


Emma snorts, holding an arm out for Regina to hold onto as they exit the station. “Don’t tell me you get dressed in the morning for me .” 


David can hear Regina’s scoff and denial before the station door swings closed. He watches them, thoughtful, as they begin the walk back to Regina’s house. Their backs are stiff, their faces still taut and unhappy, but Regina leans onto Emma’s arm and Emma’s gaze never leaves her face as they disappear down the block.



Trauma . That’s the ruling from Archie, who reproves Regina for not seeing him immediately after the trigger. “Last time I saw you, you violated my confidentiality and I was framed for your death,” Regina points out, and Archie looks marginally less superior at that.


“I thought I was helping,” he says, and he shakes his head. “What I see is that you’ve been through an incredible amount of trauma in just a few weeks, between your mother’s abuse, her death, and then the torture you’d undergone. When our bodies heal after an incident like that one, it’s slow and comes with emotional healing, as well. You were healed physically, but your body is rebelling because it just hasn’t had time to process what you went through.”


“Great. I hired you to make it better,” Regina says, in no mood for psychobabble from a cricket. “So make it better.” 


She isn’t doing this for herself. She’s doing it because she is tired. Tired of lashing out, of not being able to be there for Henry. Tired of having to lean on Emma for everything when Emma must see her as a burden. If Emma says that nothing is wrong , then Regina will be better. She has to be.


But Archie only has advice for her, no solutions, and Regina limps to the front door to help him out of the house and then shuts it behind him, at a loss. 


Her magic thrums beneath the surface, keeping her upright, and she wonders– if this is the source of the pain, if it’s magic that’s hurting her instead of trauma . If she is slowly eating away at her own life force without realizing it. 


She closes off the magic, bit by bit, like pressing it down into nothingness in each limb. In her stomach, in her throat, in her heart, until there is nothing left to keep her upright and she sinks to the floor, her magic suppressed and her heart throbbing, and she realizes that she isn’t breathing. “Oh,” she says dimly, and the world begins to go black.


When she blinks again, it has been a while, and Emma is framed between her eyelids, her own eyes wide with panic and fear. “Archie told me that I should come here,” she says, and Regina inhales and lets her magic flood back through her. “What did you do?” 


“Tried turning off my magic. Archie is worse than Snow ,” Regina spits out, disgusted. “Isn’t this covered under HIPAA?” 


“Storybrooke is a lawless land without you,” Emma says, relaxing a hair before she’s furious again. “What the hell, Regina? You nearly killed yourself.”


Like you care, Regina nearly says, but she can’t. Not when Emma is staring at her with so much agony on her face, when she looks angry and hurt and afraid at once, and it hits Regina, very suddenly, that Emma might actually be very invested in her existence. “Would it matter if I did?” she says instead, and it emerges smaller than she’d meant, as a genuine question instead of a challenge.


Emma sinks down beside her, on the floor of Regina’s foyer, a hand reaching out to touch Regina’s cheek. “Yeah, it really would,” she says, and she sounds helpless. “Don’t ask me why. It just would.” 


Regina stays very still and stares at Emma. There is a tic in Emma’s jaw, a discomfort that she can’t hide, but there is also her gentle hand stroking Regina’s cheek and her eyes like pits of beautiful caring. She is so good , so reluctantly a hero, and Regina has no idea what to do in a world where someone like Emma is sitting beside her like this.


She says, “Archie told me to talk about it . My…trauma. He thinks it’ll cure me, which is the most idiotic plan yet, and you wanted me examined by a creature who was hatched in an egg.” Emma smirks, but her eyes are still shining, and Regina looks away from her, at the ceiling. She hasn’t liked looking at the ceiling lately– hasn’t liked the idea of stretching out on a couch or a bed to sleep. There is something poisonous about that position now, something that makes her want to thrash and scream. 


“I killed Greg’s father. Back when Greg was Owen. Did you know that? I had Graham kill him, just like I used to have him kill anyone who was disloyal to me. Because I wanted a son.” Regina feels the strain when she laughs. “I don’t think you grasp what a monster I am.”


“I think you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Emma says evenly, her hand still on Regina’s cheek. “I know what you’ve done. I know who you hurt.” She shakes her head. “It’s not who you are anymore.” 


“I killed his father,” Regina repeats. “And he wanted me to suffer. All three of them, but him most of all. It was personal. I’ve never…” She chokes on it. “I’ve never felt so helpless. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t use my magic. I couldn’t do anything but lie there and scream. It was like–” 


Like the king, like Mother, like Rumple, like every time in her life that she’s been helpless and afraid and restrained. She hates being restrained, hates the sensation of terror that comes with it. She’s been trained never to beg or plead for compassion, to take her punishments with pride and disdain and give no satisfaction to her enemies. “Archie says that he thinks that this is all learned behavior from trauma. That you were right and I’m fine.” 


“I didn’t say you were fine,” Emma says softly, and Regina wonders what it might be like, to lie flat on her back next to Emma and feel nothing holding her down. It’s an odd comfort, knowing that there are still good people in the world. That Henry, no matter what happens to her, will be cared for and cherished.


It is too late for her, but not too late for Henry. 


She sits up, feels the ache in her bones and in her head as she straightens. There is always the phantom sensation of electrodes taped to her skull, of the faint pain that had shot through them, unrelenting. “I don’t think I’ll ever recover from this,” she says. “If nothing is wrong with me, nothing is right, either. This is what I deserve.” 


“I don’t think so,” Emma murmurs, and she touches Regina’s cheek, her eyes still so warm that Regina feels it in her bones. 


And it remains a mystery, this care that Emma feels for her. “Why not?” Regina demands. “Why are you so determined to–” 


I don’t know ,” Emma says helplessly, and she leans forward and kisses Regina. It’s tender, gentle, like a touch that Regina is dreaming instead of something real. But there she is, enfolding Regina within her as though it isn’t too late for Regina at all.


There she is.


Regina keeps her eyes open, feels starbursts of pain behind forehead, but she refuses to blink even when her eyes are watering up and reddening. “Emma,” she whispers, and Emma pulls back, stares at Regina in quiet, bewildered despair. “Emma,” she murmurs again, and she tries to find the right words to explain why this is a bad idea. Why this isn’t where they’re supposed to end. Emma is supposed to watch her die, the final closure to the story of the Evil Queen. Not kiss a broken woman on the floor. 


Regina laughs at the sudden absurdity of it, and Emma looks hurt. “No,” Regina says hastily. “No, I just–” She moves forward, and she’s amazed at how smooth it feels, the ache gone for a brief moment as she kisses Emma back. Emma puts a hand on her thigh this time, strokes it with the fervor that it’s been asking for since Regina had started dressing up for Emma, and Regina sighs into her mouth. “Don’t you think you could do better?”


Emma says, “Shut up,” and she pulls back abruptly and stands, sticking a hand out to Regina. Regina pulls herself up, her joints aching with her head, and she wants to make a snide comment but can’t find the words. “Come with me,” Emma says quietly. “Outside.”


They walk around the backyard as they do in the afternoons sometimes, and Regina walks until the pain is too much and she has to sit. It isn’t going away. It aches in her head like a constant reminder that she should be dead, and Regina leans back in the chair and says, “Don’t you have a patrol to get to?” 


“I think the pets of Storybrooke will handle another day without me,” Emma says dryly. She is silent for a moment, and Regina watches her, aches for her like she’s never ached for anyone before. And then, abruptly, Emma says, “I want you to stop thinking about what you deserve. You did horrible things, and you’ve suffered for it. But maybe it’s time to…to focus instead on what the people who care about you deserve. Henry and Mary Margaret and…” She gestures helplessly. “And me. Let yourself see what good you can do instead of flagellating yourself for the past. Okay?”


It sounds so simple from Emma’s lips, except that small okay? that emerges like an uncertain breath instead of a firm request. Regina can feel it all– the pain and the wanting and the glimmer of hope that follows them both. And she can’t say yes, but she can’t say no, either.


She puts a hand on Emma’s, watches it shake, and thinks, stop . And the pain is still there, lurking and burning beneath the surface, but her hand stops trembling.


It’s a start.