It’s the sharp, echoing sound of heels against bleachers that finds Emma curled up on the ground beneath them, blinking her eyes open against the sunlight.
“Shit,” she mumbles, groaning. The heels mean Tuesday morning, which means she’s slept her way through Monday night, which means having to lead a life as an awake person is fast approaching. Shit.
“Charming,” says the voice above her, and Emma’s not sure if it’s the state of her clothes, or the state of her hair, or the drool she catches in time to wipe away with the back of her sleeve. A wild guess says all of the above.
Emma’s only response is a groan. It’s really, really bright. When did 6:30 in the morning get so bright?
“You realize this campus will be full in less than an hour,” Regina comments, grabbing none too gently for Emma’s wrist and dragging her to her feet. Emma makes a noise of protest, stumbles uselessly, nearly topples over—
But what Regina lacks in gentleness, she certainly makes up for in balance; there’s a steadying arm around her waist, the other still firm on her wrist, and she only wobbles another half-second. “You have no soul,” Emma mumbles, rubbing her knuckles uselessly into her eyes.
“You have no self-awareness,” Regina replies, eyebrow raised. “Unless you don’t mind the administration discovering you’ve been throwing a sleepover for yourself on school grounds once a week.”
Emma folds her arms stubbornly across her chest, only stumbling for a moment once she pulls out of Regina’s grip. “Pass,” she mumbles, because even half-asleep she gets how stupid that would be. Not that “stupid” has ever provided much of a solid barrier between her and her life decisions, but—she’s not ready to hit the double digits on foster homes just yet.
“Good,” Regina says. “Here.” From her bag, she produces clothes folded way too immaculately to be human—although the one time Emma asked about a clothes-folding robot, Regina just laughed, like that was the absurd thing and not the fact that there were humans involved.
“I still hate you,” Emma says, taking them. Regina’s smirk dissolves into something a little more like a smile, like maybe she can read the I don’t know what I’d do without you, asshole buried in between.
Emma’s never more careful than she is on Tuesdays, when she’s dressed in clothes worth at least five times as much as everything she’s ever owned put together.
Regina finds Emma during fifth period, this time seated carefully beneath the bleachers, her own jacket underneath her—a barrier between the dirty ground and the clothes she couldn’t possibly repay.
“Tell me you brought them,” Regina says, and Emma pulls the pack of Marlboros from the front of her bag.
Regina curls her lip, but takes one anyway. “I do hope next time you’ll find someone with better taste.”
Emma ignores the way next time twists in the bottom her stomach (double digits double digits double digits), slides one out of the pack for herself and breathes a sigh. “I’m not really the one who does the finding,” Emma says. She watches Regina slide her hand into Emma’s—Regina’s—pocket, pull out the lighter she knows she’ll find, light both of their cigarettes with an absurd kind of grace that should probably be reserved for actual graceful things, like—like ballroom dancing or figure skating or whatever the hell those triple spin jumps are that happen on ice, of all places. “I just go where they tell me.”
She tries to leave the bitterness out of her voice. She’s seventeen, now, close enough to legal for none of it to matter. It doesn’t. (If the half-moon shapes she finds dug into her palms during sixth period tell a different story, well. Whoever her parents are, restraint isn’t really part of the gene pool she inherited.)
“Then they should really improve their background checks,” Regina says, her sigh vaguely exasperated, as if it’s a matter of semantics. But when she returns the lighter to Emma’s open palm, their fingers brush gently in a way that’s too soft to be confused for a mistake. Not when Regina is Regina—and not, perhaps, when Emma is Emma.
She notices, as Regina pulls back her hand, smoothly, that her nails are dark red today—Single Ladies, she remembers suddenly, having spent a Saturday afternoon digging through Regina’s fingernail polish drawer and snorting about all the names and leaving them woefully out of order.
(“Is nail polish naming a job?” she asked, then. The ragged disaster that had once been her own nails was hidden behind black polish of her own; a weekend of Welcome To My Life on deafening repeat could bring that out in a girl. “‘Cause I could totally kick ass at that.”
Regina’s eyebrow raise was way more skepticism than belonged in a single human body—and that coming from Emma, who had heard welcome to the family from nine sets of people.
“Mm,” Regina finally said, and Emma kind of envied the monosyllabic sarcasm, too. She usually had to say actual words before sarcasm really took.
“Like this,” Emma challenged, clutching a dark purple shade. “This one could be—I know, how about ‘Regina, Go Fuck Yourself’?”
“Terrible,” Regina said, rolling her eyes—but her smile was playful, and a little wider than she meant it, and anything that gave Regina reason to hide a smile had to be something right. “No ring to it at all. I’d fire you on the spot.”
“That’s probably your entire job,” Emma said, leaning back against the counter with a groan. “All you do is fire people. You’re, like, the person they call when they’re too chicken to do it themselves. You come in, figure out who sucks, tell ‘em to hit the road.”
“I’m not sure that’s what Mother meant when she said my full potential means aiming for the stars,” she said. Her smile lingered.)
Emma blinks back to the present, takes a drag and winces. Maybe Regina has a point. They’re not the richest family, by any means, but they’re not the poorest fools who have taken her in, and they’ve definitely got no excuses for a pack of cigs this god awful.
“What’s a criminal record next to shitty choices in smokes,” Emma says, but her face contorts like maybe she kind of means it. Or maybe it’s just the designer clothes—all this high and mighty judgment leaching into her skin, giving her a superiority complex. Osmosis, or something. Maybe the clothes are part of Regina’s Evil Plan to ensnare as many agreeable minions as possible.
(Nevermind the fact that a few well-placed glares is all Regina’s ever needed for a little ensnaring, or that she’s been elected to student council president two years running and thereby turned the entire population into her minions by default.
And definitely nevermind the fact that Regina’s clothes are only ever hers alone, except on Tuesdays, when they fleetingly belong to a girl who spends the rest of her weeks in secondhand, duct taped converse and jeans with almost as many holes as fabric between them.)
“One would hope those options aren’t mutually exclusive,” Regina points out, and Emma laughs.
“Yeah,” she says. “One would hope.”
“A straight line, Emma,” Regina demands. “You do realize that’s the purpose of the ones I’ve drawn with a ruler, right?” The really annoying thing is that not once in her chastisement does she glance up from her laptop.
“Not so I could ignore them?” Emma asks, and then, in protest: “You’re not even looking.”
Regina turns, slow and deliberate, and examines the work—and then Emma—with enough condescension to make Emma feel a little bit like her entire life is being forcibly stripped from her, piece by piece. All because of her talent (or not, which is kind of the point) with scissors.
Regina exhales a sigh so long-suffering Emma nearly asks if she’s secretly ninety-five. “Well,” she says. “Ignorance was bliss, anyway.”
Emma takes one of the pillows off of Regina’s bed and tosses it in her face, because it’s Saturday, and Saturdays are only ever theirs.
When Regina next looks at her, she’s smiling the smile of a girl who doesn’t plan said Saturdays around the click of her mother’s key in the door. Who doesn’t set an alarm for 5:15—a fallback; only once has she ever been distracted enough to need it—and walk Emma out the door well before the clock hits 5:45.
(Emma thought it was shame, at first. Didn’t blame Regina, really—how could a girl with dirty, secondhand converse and no idea what the hell a dessert fork was ever make a good first impression on a woman who drove a Bentley and drank wine that cost more than her foster parents (take nine) made in a week?
But then—it was a Saturday, and Regina had been mocking her penmanship, and it had devolved into some stupid war. Emma shoving, tackling, Regina pushing back, laughing the full, bright kind of laugh that made Emma want to be an idiot over and over and over again, if it could bring them here. She managed to shove Regina into her closet, still breathless and laughing, and lock the door behind her. It was supposed to be the funny kind of stupid—the kind where she’d unlock it maybe thirty seconds later, the kind that would leave Regina rolling her eyes but laughing the kind of laugh that was entirely in spite of herself, and—
Instead, she heard let me out in a voice that should have told her everything. But she fumbled, waited long enough to hear the shattered Emma—please— that followed.
Waited long enough to find a girl with a clenched jaw and trembling hands on the floor of her own closet, more seventeen than Emma had ever seen her, not looking at her like how dare you or get the fuck out of my house. Not looking at her at all.
I’m a fucking idiot, she said, and Regina didn’t look at her. I guess my penmanship matches my brain, she said, and Regina didn’t look at her.
Emma slid down to sit beside her, pulled the hem of her own shirt up past her abdomen. Three years and the sharp, thin line was all that remained. (Take seven.)
It could have been minutes, or hours, or years, but Regina’s ankle slid against Emma’s ankle, and their eyes met somewhere in the space between.
Stupid Emma. Stupid, stupid Emma, thinking all that mattered was the number of holes in her jeans.)
“You’re welcome, by the way,” Emma says. And then, when there’s no response, “You know, for offering to help with all five thousand and one of your campaign posters?” They look more like headshots in hi-def, which she’s already mentioned—repeatedly and fruitlessly. But also partly because no teenager should look like that in close up form. No person.
“Well, if you would have warned me about your inexperience,” Regina says, but the corners of her mouth are soft and the corners of her eyes are soft and—
“Bullshit,” Emma says, laughing. “Bullshit. You have a million student council friends who make posters for, like, a career.”
“I wouldn’t—friends is a bit strong,” Regina says, “for what they are.” She’s looking at Emma and then she’s not looking at Emma, and Emma swallows. They, she hears, thudding in her ears. They, she hears behind every breath. They, they, they.
“…so, minions?” she ventures, after a moment, although her voice sounds too low to be her voice.
Regina hits her with a pillow before she can blink, and Emma grins like it’s her who’s come out victorious.
Tuesday marks the second day of campaign season—that is, the second day of the administration granting Regina permission to post the giant pictures of her face on every corner.
Of course, Emma knows Regina would point out the flyers that accompany most of them, breakdowns and captions of her various platforms, the motions she’s pushed through.
And that’s the thing—although Emma’s only been here since junior year, she’s pretty sure the student council president isn’t supposed to actually be effective. Like, maybe add another option to a vending machine effective, not—whatever Regina is. A fucking tornado in Jimmy Choos.
“I’m gonna have nightmares,” says a voice from beside her, and Emma turns to find Ruby, eyes on the near-life size portrait before them. “Girl’s hot, I get it, but it’s like the end of the Haunted Mansion where all the eyes follow you on your way out, you know? They’re in the fucking bathrooms. I can’t even pee without her judging me from, like, five different angles.”
“Oh, so you’re not into voyeurism?” asks Belle, coming up behind them both and abruptly silencing them. Sighing, she adds, “What, I’m not allowed to know things about sex? I’ll have you know being a virgin and living under a rock aren’t actually the same thing.”
“Maybe not a rock,” Ruby says, “maybe just—a shade cloth. Or an umbrella.” At Belle’s look, she adds, “A really nice umbrella.”
“With you as my best friend,” Belle replies, skeptical and dry in a way Emma still isn’t used to expecting, though not without a smile curling at the corners of her mouth. “If there was ever an umbrella, I think you burned it down a long time ago.” A pause, and then, the teasing evident before the first word: “I just didn’t realize you were so vanilla.”
Ruby claps a scandalized hand over Belle’s mouth, shoves at Emma’s shoulder when she dissolves into laughter. “How dare you spread that kind of filth?” she demands, peering dramatically at the students milling around them. “My entire reputation is on the line here!”
Emma doesn’t know them well, really—but their easy banter makes a nice backdrop to a lunch that would otherwise be spent alone, and she finds they rarely push for more.
“Is this what politics has taught you?” Emma asks, as Regina settles down beside her. She reaches for the tupperwear Regina has balanced in one hand, pops the lid open, and dives immediately into apple pie too good not to have required some kind of animal sacrifice before adding, “Bribery will get you everywhere?”
“Well,” Regina says, offering her a pointed once over. “The masses are often—predictable.”
“Give me five minutes and I’ll be all offense and outrage for that,” Emma says. (If it’s a bit muffled around the dessert, it’s all the freakin’ pie’s fault.)
“Five?” Regina asks. “Another thirty seconds and we’ll be lucky to find crumbs.”
“So,” Emma says (after making sure to spend at least a minute on her final bite, in protest), “aren’t you gonna ask me who I’m voting for?”
Regina’s mouth twists upward into something startling in its sincerity. “Do you even know how?”
Emma’s brows knit. “Wasn’t that the whole point of you telling me the ballots get passed out in home room when I was over? So I’d actually show?”
“Hm,” Regina says, and Emma realizes, in a fit of clarity, that the answer is no. But what Regina says instead, entirely without segue, is: “My – my father made it. The pie. Mine came out a bit…dry.”
“What d’you know,” Emma says, “you’re a person after all.”
(She knew, though. Knows.)
“Okay,” Emma says, “hit me.”
She’s lying across Regina’s bed, head propped up on one of the pillows; Regina’s at the foot of it, cycling through a stack of notecards and jotting down notes every few seconds. (Without looking, Emma knows that Regina’s “jotting” is exponentially more legible than Emma’s “printing,” and it sort of makes her want to scribble all over each even letter until they look human. Except that, for one, they would never find her body, and, for another, Regina’s mumbling to herself and several strands of her hair are unraveling from her braid and mostly it makes Emma want to—
“With pleasure,” Regina says, finally looking up. “Will a fist do?”
Emma rolls her eyes. “Yeah, hilarious. C’mon, Fearless Leader, let’s hear the speech.”
“It isn’t finished,” Regina says, “and I’m not—yet.”
“Yeah, yet,” Emma says, “but you won the last two years, and if you stuck around you’d win the next twenty, Regina. Everybody knows that.”
“Mm,” Regina says, like she’s hiding a smile.
When she finishes, and Emma leaps onto her bed in order to imitate a screaming crowd, it’s a lot less hidden.
Next Tuesday means a mere week and a half left of campaign season; next Tuesday means waking up on concrete to a pile of folded clothes resting on her bag. The note she finds pinned to the top—the note she nearly doesn’t find, though that probably has to do with the fact that her eyes are maybe a fifth of the way open—reads:
At least bring a blanket next time, Emma.
On impulse, she turns the note over to scribble on the back—no pie today?—and settles the pack of Marlboros on top. Not like she has any idea if Regina will be back before Wednesday—to find her clothes between classes, folded but messy, the way she always does—given her current campaign schedule, but it’s not as if emptying her pockets of some shitty cigs is really any skin off her back.
Ruby did have a point about the campaign posters, she thinks, pulling a sweater too soft to ever be hers tighter around herself. (It’s only been a month and a half since their return to school, and already the wind is biting; at least the undoubtedly designer fabric can be put to some—careful—use.) Everywhere she turns, there Regina is, flashing her politician smile.
(It’s sharp, deliberate, and—though it takes Emma several long moments to fit a word to it—surprisingly alien. Surreal in a way that the buttons of a top probably sold as a blouse no longer are.)
It doesn’t occur to her that she’s still staring until the very non-alien sound of heels against linoleum nears; when she glances up, she discovers two figures approaching, arms linked: Regina a half-step ahead of Mal. They’re pausing every several paces to address peers—constituents, Emma thinks, because it’s what Regina’s written on all the flyers, and because Regina likes to pretend she’s part of some governmental organization that rules over people who aren’t in high school.
It’s sort of like watching a dance, she guesses; Regina’s careful hand flourishes, the choreography of every composed smile.
And Regina turns, and Emma is caught.
“I hope you’ll consider sparing a vote for continued positive impact in our school,” Regina says, suddenly standing in front of her, like it’s something she does, like it’s something they do, in the middle of crowded hallways. But, then—Regina’s probably spent an entire two weeks consorting with people she loathes, and one blonde girl she shares econ with begs no surprise.
Emma can’t resist shrugging. “I mean, the other guy gave me a twenty, so…”
“Bribery,” Regina says. “Charming.” (Says the girl with the trays of baked desserts, she almost replies, then figures she might be pushing her luck; she settles instead for raising her eyebrows.) “Well, if you ever regain some sense of priorities,” Regina adds, pressing a campaign button into her hand.
Regina’s palm brushes Emma’s knuckles. A tenth of a second. “I did hear a rumor you make some kickass turnovers,” Emma says.
She readjusts one of the buttons of her (definitely, definitely not her) probably-blouse, comes face to face with a girl in a single one of her classes, whose name she should mostly know by way of inescapable posters and maybe the trophies she’s won the debate team.
Comes face to face with a girl who knows her measurements, knows her favorite meals, knows that she falls asleep curled up on her right side but rarely wakes any way but on her stomach. (Emma never sleeps over, exactly, but sometimes Regina suggests they move their studies to the bed, and sometimes Emma lays her head on Regina’s too soft pillows just for a second until seconds become minutes become hours.)
Comes face to face with a girl who can read the circles under her eyes and the heaviness in her shoulders, who suggests studying on her bed because it is the only way for Emma to sleep without conceding something.
“Well,” Regina says at last, drawing herself up a little, her winning smile melting at the corners into something too real for a blonde stranger and almost real enough for a girl dressed entirely in her wardrobe. “You heard right.”
It is only after she leaves with Mal that Emma opens her hand. Against her palm is exactly what she expected—a button with Regina’s face on it—and exactly what she didn’t: a small piece of paper, folded neatly into a square.
It’s absurd, how she glances up and down the hallway like she’s a particularly obvious FBI agent in a particularly obvious Hollywood movie, before she opens it. Why? it reads, a response to the message Emma didn’t realize she would find. I already know I have your vote.
Emma’s own laugh catches her off-guard, and she shakes her head and thinks: yes.
Emma actually decides to spend next week attending sixth period, because English isn’t the worst of her classes, and because Ms. Rêve actually sounds like she means it when she delivers the we missed you in class yesterday, Emma line. And—sure, she smiles so wide sometimes that there’s nothing else left of her face, and she forgets to print out at least half of their exams, and she trips over the leg of her desk when she stands from her chair about as many times as she doesn’t, but Emma likes her anyway. Or maybe for it. Emma hasn’t decided yet, even though she also insists they call her Astrid, which Emma rolled her eyes about, at first—as if that was the thing that was going to, like, connect them, prove that she was on their side. But now she thinks it might have to do with the way authority always seems to fit her a little awkwardly, like it’s a size too big.
Today, her smile brightens as soon as Emma walks into the room. “I’m so glad you could join us today, Emma!” she says. From anyone else, it would come dark with sarcasm; from Ms—from Astrid, it spills over with sincere delight.
“Uh, sure,” Emma says, lifting a shoulder and slumping into one of the desks near the back of the room—and only realizing a minute too late her mouth is being pulled in a general upward direction.
Ugh. Maybe she should start asking for some face control tips from Regina—though she could only imagine the commentary Regina would see fit to add to that exchange. (And, anyway, Regina’s not always as freakin’ inscrutable as she thinks; there’s a tic in her jaw, a sharpening and softening at the corners of her eyes, a tremor in her fingertips. She has tells, like every ordinary seventeen year old she pretends she isn’t, and Emma always, always knows when she’s lying.)
Whatever, though. Astrid’s still beaming at her like Emma just told her she won a five month vacation to some island paradise and out of this hellhole—except Astrid actually seems like this is the only place she wants to be, which is so absurd and unbelievable that it might actually be true—and maybe Emma can spare her a little joy. Even if she takes everything way farther than it needs to go.
Jesus, she thinks, when Astrid very nearly claps about the kid two seats ahead of her delivering an almost-coherent answer to one of her questions, someone needs to buy her a hamster or something.
“Or maybe something a little more—relaxing,” Regina says, two hours after the final bell has rung and they’re back under the bleachers. Emma’s surprised she’s found time, but Regina hasn’t explained and Emma hasn’t asked.
Instead, she just blinks at her for several moments, caught off-guard. “Are you—uh, Regina, did you seriously just imply someone should get my teacher a prostitute?”
“Well, I was going to say masseuse,” Regina says, her tone flat but the carefully raised eyebrow aimed at Emma enough to make her flush. (Regina has always taken some kind of vindictive pleasure in reducing everyone around her to thirteen years old.) “But I suppose prostitute has its own merits.”
“You were the one who put that weird emphasis on it,” Emma protests, though she’s groaning into her hands about the vaguely traumatizing images she’s accidentally summoned.
“I see there’s no question where your head is, darling,” Regina says, her smirk transforming into something far too delighted to be anything but wicked.
But, Emma figures, once she’s recovered enough to shove at Regina’s shoulder and tell her how much she sucks, her life wouldn’t be the same without Regina making her want to crawl into a hole and die at least a couple times every Tuesday.
“You’re the worst friend ever,” she says, and Regina’s eyes widen a little, the way they always do, and she takes a quiet breath, the way she always does.
And then she says, “I might be offended if I didn’t already know how abysmal your taste is,” like the steadying dismissal that always follows.
Maybe that’s why the word doesn’t get lodged in Emma’s throat anymore; maybe that’s why her world doesn’t narrow to a girl with dark, desperate eyes and dark hair spun into a loose braid and a shaky, starkly certain when you’re around, things are brighter.
Maybe because her ears are ringing with a noise that sounds a lot like I already know I have your vote, in a voice that never spoke it aloud.
Maybe because Regina has something to swallow down, too, and the weight might not be quite enough to crush them both.
It’s Wednesday. It’s Wednesday, and she’s under the bleachers, and her foster brother’s a jackass, and he’s got the black eye to show for it.
But she’s the one with the sharp ringing in her ears, the echoing this is two strikes, Emma, you know we can’t have this kind of behavior in our house, the chest that tightens around all the things she didn’t say. (I guess that only applies to your fake kid, huh?)
It’s Wednesday, and the last thing she expects is heels against bleachers, a face drawn taught and furrowed brows and the kind of ferocious desperation behind, “Tell me you brought them.”
Emma hands the pack over. Regina’s hands shake. It’s three times before the lighter catches.
“You really all that worked up about voting?” Emma asks, too, too sharp, around the smoke she breathes out. “’Cause no way in hell are you not winning over a dude who ends all his campaign speeches with ‘arr’.”
“Well, I don’t see what you have to be stressed about,” Regina says, lip curling, and suddenly she’s a stranger in a hallway and a stranger on a poster and alien in ways Emma only barely remembers. “At least you already know your foster parents don’t want you. It’s not like it’ll be a surprise when they throw you away.”
“Fuck you,” Emma says, pushing off from the ground. Two strikes, she hears. You know, she hears. “Fuck you, Regina.”
Emma doesn’t look back, and Regina never says a word.
The next time she shows up for class is Friday, and she keeps as much distance from the bleachers as she can. Which isn’t fucking fair, because it was hers, but the thought makes her throat tighten and her eyes itch and she hates that even more.
“Hey, Swan Lake,” Ruby calls, when Emma walks into gov a step ahead of the bell. She gestures to the empty seat beside her. “Get over here.”
As soon as Emma slides behind the desk, Ruby’s leaning over it, whispering conspiratorially, “Okay, number of bird-related tangents you think Neal can send Mrs. Blanchard on today. You don’t think he can beat ten, do you?”
“They’re taking bets,” Belle says, from Ruby’s other side, without looking up from her notes. (There’s a girl somewhere writing in neat, practiced cursive, delivering caustic commentary without turning. Emma’s not thinking about that.)
“He brought in research,” Ruby says, insistent. “There’re, like, five pages about blue jay nesting patterns.”
“She means he clicked print on Wikipedia,” Belle says.
“Yeah,” Ruby says. “Research.”
Emma groans, drops her head into her hands. “What is wrong with this school?”
(Neal spends ninety percent of the class trying to segue into questions about birds, and Ruby has never in her life expressed so much interest in congressional reform. They’re probably the most ridiculous people she’s ever met—and for an hour and a half, Emma doesn’t think about anything else.
She doesn’t say thank you, but she does throw in a question about filibusters, and Ruby looks at her like she’s happy she’s alive, and that’s something.)
It’s 8 a.m., and it’s Saturday, and she’s staring up at the ceiling because she doesn’t know what any of that amounts to.
Mostly, she wants to go to sleep. But her brain’s in direct competition with her body, which doesn’t seem to realize that this is a different kind of Saturday, that 7:15 on Saturday mornings isn’t necessary anymore, that staring up at her ceiling might be the most stimulating activity she manages today.
She groans, and buries her face in the pillows, and regrets it immediately. There’s a girl on a stage and a practiced smile and a voice that sounds like triumph. Thank you, it says. I’m delighted you’ve entrusted me with another year in office. Today we take a step into an even brighter future.
“You’re class president of a fucking high school, Obama,” she mumbles around her pillow, suddenly bright with fury. “You can’t do shit. That’s the whole point.” She slams her fist into her headboard so hard that the black-purple-blue takes a week to fade. It’s maybe the only thing that makes sense.
For the first time in a week, she shows up for econ.
Not once does she look two seats over and one up. For forty-five minutes, she squares her jaw and lifts her chin and stares at the whiteboard and doesn’t look. (So maybe her fingers are so tight around her pencil that it breaks clean in half thirty minutes in, and maybe she doesn’t write down a single letter, but—she doesn’t look, which is the point.)
She’s still not looking when Mr. Spencer asks, forty-five minutes in, if someone could—something about a graph? Supply and demand? Whatever, the point is she’s not looking, and when he says Regina? she’s still not looking, and it isn’t until there’s a three second beat of nothing that she turns, just a little, just barely, just enough, and—
And Regina, eyes wide and open and bright with something Emma doesn’t have a name for, is staring right at her.
It’s the Regina that Emma wakes up to at three p.m., the Regina who lets Emma spend four hours sleeping on her bed, the Regina who tells her she snores with a quiet, gentle smile and fingers that touch the very ends of Emma’s hair.
“Regina?” says a voice, and Regina startles, and Emma startles, and Mr. Spencer watches with expectant eyes and folded arms.
“Oh,” Regina says, and she blinks once, twice, and Emma is looking, and looking, and looking. “I—I’m sorry, Mr. Spencer, would you repeat the question?”
As far as Emma can tell, it takes a hell of a lot to catch Mr. Spencer off-guard, but Regina Mills not having an immediate answer prepared is definitely an exception. He’s too surprised to do anything but repeat the question, to reprimand her the way he might anyone else. Making an example of her doesn’t even seem to cross his mind.
Given a second chance, Regina manages the right answer, obviously. It comes out measured, and certain, but her hand is tight around her wrist and she takes the kind of steadying breath that means she’s trying to do anything but scream, or maybe set something on fire.
Emma wakes to the sound of echoing voices, rising higher and higher and higher. Shattering glass.
But it isn’t Monday night. It’s Tuesday night, and there are footsteps heavy in the hallway, and her heart slams violently against her ribcage, and—
On instinct, she grabs the bag she keeps by the bed—it’s an old duffle, worn and frayed and definitely not the color it came in, but it holds everything that matters. Enough pairs of clothes to get by, a couple of protein bars she’s snuck in out of habit—food has been a question more than an absolute too often for her to leave anything to chance—and, buried at the bottom, somewhere between precious treasure and dark secret, the only tremulous link to the people who decided to leave her behind.
She curls her fingers around it, traces without looking the letters of her name, wonders fleetingly what of hers is theirs. Her hair? The color of her eyes? Her overwhelming instinct to punch obstacles she doesn’t like in the face?
The running may not be genetics, she thinks, but it’s the one thing she knows is theirs. The one thing they’ve left her with. No roots, no promise of tomorrow, nothing but a lifetime of houses that will never be homes. (At least the days she spends on the streets don’t lie to her, don’t pretend four walls and family dinners and superhero band-aids. At least there she always knows where she stands.)
She shoves the few clothes strewn around the bed into the bag, zips it up and slings it over her shoulder, waiting. The voices have quieted, again, but she knows from experience that doesn’t always mean done. Sometimes, that means worse.
She turns to the open window, hesitates.
If she can’t make this work, nothing will. She’ll turn eighteen in a group home, surrounded by kids still young enough for hope, or she’ll turn eighteen on the side of the road, halfway through a snickers she’s taken from some gas station. (Or maybe, if she’s lucky, inside a stolen car just wide enough for her to lay out in the back, toasting adulthood.)
She slides out the window.
It takes struggling against every instinct she has to leave her bag behind.
(Instincts embedded in foreign DNA, the instincts of a baby at the mercy of an errant truck, a little bit of both?)
She regrets leaving her bag almost immediately. The wind is biting, and the rain spatters cold against her mostly-bare arms—merely a warning of what’s to come, if the darkening clouds above are any indication. Shit, she thinks, settling down beneath the bleachers because it’s the only place she knows to go that isn’t away.
She doesn’t have a phone—hasn’t since take seven—but even if she did, there are no numbers to call.
There’s still a sweater and too-soft pair of jeans at the bottom of her bag, the Wednesday she would’ve given them back having collapsed around her; they’re probably too designer to even be called jeans, and they’re definitely too designer to be buried underneath a half a burrito and notes that were in much better condition before Belle let her borrow them.
(But her bag is also the sturdiest thing she’s ever owned—a product of no shows of parental benevolence, of no bribery won at the mere (vicious, overwhelming) cost of silence, but of a little sleight of hand and a bright ten year old smile.
Gifts always come with a price, but no price is ever quite the same. But theft—theft is a man tracking her with suspicion in his eyes, a few missteps and blaring sirens. Theft is smiling the kind of smile a girl who can say things like home and family and love without aching to punch someone in the face would have.
It’s not a game. It’s not a game, and that’s what she likes most about it.)
The truth is, however waterproof her bag is guaranteed to be (though she has a feeling the whole money-back thing falls a little short if there’s no money exchanged to begin with), even she’s not inclined to test that theory in the middle of a storm.
So she’s somewhere between making a break for the library—her lockpicking skills have been a little out of use, recently, but she’s heard rocks do miracles on windows—and wondering if crafting an umbrella out of forty pages of notes is a possibility (and how much Belle would murder her, and probably not with fists, which is ten thousand times worse) when she hears a voice.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Emma turns, sharply, but even through the rain she knows. Of course she knows. “What the hellare you doing here?”
“Me? I’m—” She gestures uselessly with her hands, cuts herself off sharply. “What are you doing here?”
Regina’s close enough for Emma to catch her eyeroll, now, closer still when she reaches for Emma’s wrist. Emma jerks back sharply, crosses her arms over her chest.
“You really do have a death wish, don’t you?” Regina asks, like Emma’s seven and needs someone else to make her decisions. “What are you planning on doing, sleeping underneath the bleachers in the middle of a thunderstorm? Celebrating your senior year with hypothermia?”
Emma shrugs, because if Regina wants seven years old, then she can damn well have it. “Maybe.”
Regina looks at her like it’s not the answer she was expecting, which doesn’t really make any sense. “But it’s—Tuesday night.”
“Yeah,” Emma says. “I know.”
For a half-second, for a furious, desperate half-second, she wishes Regina didn’t know. Didn’t know take nine dad never works Mondays, didn’t know his only hobby is tequila and tequila and beer and tequila, didn’t know that Tuesday nights are supposed to be—something like bearable.
“Come with me,” Regina says, hard at the corners to make up for the quiet request Emma can’t quite miss somewhere in the middle.
Emma thinks she might say no. Emma sets her jaw like no is the only conceivable answer. “Emma,” Regina says, and she almost doesn’t hear it over the rain. “At least to the car.”
Emma thinks about four walls and a roof (and Regina’s dark, soft eyes that Emma stares past) and her stubbornness crumbles around her. When Regina turns, Emma falls into step beside her. But it isn’t until they reach Regina’s car, and the heat blasting through the vents in Regina’s car, that Emma realizes she’s shaking uncontrollably, that her lips have paled into something nearing blue, that Regina’s favorite method for burying concern is condescension.
“Okay, yeah,” Emma says, reaching to turn the temperature up several degrees and knowing how awful she must look when Regina makes no move to swat her away. “More of that.”
“I’m…I’m sorry,” Regina says, turning suddenly to face Emma. And Emma’s hands are still shaking, and her teeth are still chattering, and Regina’s eyes are so dark and so open and so unsure that Emma almost says she’s sorry, too. “I shouldn’t have—what I said, before, when we were—it was completely out of line.”
“You think?” Emma manages, instead, tightening her jaw. Throw you away, she thinks. It won’t be a surprise.
“I wanted to hurt you, and I was…I was wrong, and I’m—Emma, I’m sorry.”
“Why?” Emma demands, flaring up like instinct (hers? An asshole’s who thought a blanket would be enough?). “What the hell did I do?”
“No—no. Nothing. You didn’t…” She takes a breath, long and slow. “Mother set up a dinner for me. Networking, mostly, for my future at university. One man in particular with whom she suggested I might benefit from—establishing a connection.”
“Regina,” Emma says.
“There were no promises made,” Regina insists, but she’s looking straight ahead now, out the window and into the rain.
“Man?” Emma asks, wary.
“Well—twenty-seven. Put-together, and—certainly a better option than his father.”
“His father? She would—would she—what the fuck, Regina, would she do that?”
Regina’s laugh burns like acid in her throat, crushes her ribcage. “Oh, Emma,” she says. “Never underestimate my mother.”
Before Emma can say anything, fathom up an answer, Regina turns to meet her eyes, pins her there, like there are a million things she needs her to understand, before she loses the chance or the nerve or the moment, and all Emma can do is look and look and look. “Daniel was my first love. We were fifteen—too young to know what forever meant and too young to do anything but promise it to each other. His father worked in politics, and knew mine, but the—restrictions he placed on Daniel were minimal. He told him he could be…anything he wanted.” Her voice cracks, just for a breath, and Emma settles fingertips against the back of her hand. “At the time, he wanted to be a musician. His father told him he could. His father told him he didn’t need—degrees. That his future was something to be forged by his own hand.”
She takes a quiet breath. “It wasn’t just—he wasn’t only my first boyfriend. We’d been best friends since we were young, and my mother hardly tolerated it then. I didn’t—I didn’t realize quite what that meant, why her smile looked different when he was in the room. I didn’t realize until she discovered—until she was told that we were together, and then—
“She ruined his father. Destroyed his political career. Ruined his marriage. One day, they were there, and the next—they were nowhere.”
The pause is long enough that Emma nearly says something, does something, and then— “It took me six months to realize she’d had them deported.” Her eyes flash with something promising, something burning, and then it’s gone. All of it. “Daniel was one when they’d moved here. He didn’t even—he never knew anything else.” She draws a careful breath. “They were good people, Emma.”
Family, for Emma, has always been this: a baby blanket and an empty road, a space carved out in the middle of her chest.
Family, for Regina, is maybe this: a mother whose idea of love has shattered the only things Regina has ever let herself want.
“Tell me what you want,” Emma says.
“I’ve—what?” Regina furrows her brows, blinking away the moment. “What do you—”
“Not your mom, not her dinner guests, not your teachers. What do you want, Regina? What do you want to do?”
Regina watches her, searching, for several long moments, like maybe she’s not sure if Emma’s ready. She turns her hand over, slides their fingers together, waits and waits and waits. And then, in a voice softer than anything Emma’s heard, in a voice so soft Emma wonders if it took all that time just for Regina to drag the words out of herself, to pull and pull and pull and pull from the darkest parts of her insides, hidden away behind locked doors and unbreakable safes.
“To be free,” she breathes, like she’s still gluing the corners of the vowels back together. “I want to be free.”
And Emma, who has never been anything but free, who has run across town lines and city lines and state lines, who has spent nights in cars and barns and department stores, who has worn freedom like armor and buckled beneath the weight of it—Emma tightens her hand around Regina’s and holds on like all the promises that weigh too much to say aloud.
The first thing Emma realizes is that she’s stiff in probably at least twelve places. The second is that she’s definitely not in a bed, but whatever is under her is also definitely not concrete.
The third is that the even breathing, warm against her neck, is definitely not her own.
The fourth is that Regina’s hair is as messy as she’s ever seen it, disheveled pieces covering her eyes and covering Emma’s eyes and sticking to the corners of Regina’s barely-open mouth.
It’s the first time since she was thirteen that she’s woken up to a feeling that burns like maybe in the pit of her stomach, like tomorrow. Is this what greed is, she wonders, something clawing at the inside of her ribcage, stuttering her heart into motion? Or is that hope—ferocious and terrifying and terrified?
It’s not like she’s ever been very good at putting names to emotions that aren’t anger. Living inside rage—slammed doors and broken noses and fragmented toasters—has kept her alive for seventeen years.
She wonders if the Swans would have taught her about them, if they would have pointed to pictures with names like happy and sad and afraid. She wonders if her brain could have kept them apart, then; if cordoning them off inside boxes, labels helpfully printed beneath, would have made them distinct. What happy might feel like unsaturated by afraid.
The Swans, who decided three years was temporary enough. That permanence could only ever be bought with blood.
She thinks wistfully of the blender at the take eight house, thinks about smashing it against the countertop and the satisfying noise of scattering pieces. She thinks if it was within range, she’d try it again, now—but her range is occupied by four doors and a girl with dark messy hair and even breathing and an arm tight around her waist.
It’s only then that Emma hears the insistent buzzing against the console, reaches with a start for the offending object, finds a phone that doesn’t belong to her. Mother, it reads. 28 missed calls.
“Shit,” Emma breathes, glancing at the girl stirring beside her. A half-second’s hesitation, and then, “Regina. Regina, wake up.”
There’s a noise she makes, pulled out of her somewhere between asleep and awake, low and full of almost enough protest to be petulant, and Emma wants—
“Regina,” she says, instead.
“Emma?” Regina murmurs, blinking fully awake. She thinks that if Regina had another second, she might blame Emma for this particular sleeping situation, might suggest Emma’s lifestyle choices were becoming not unlike a contagion, might hide a smile behind the kind of airy condescension never sharpened for blood. But it’s only half a second, and Regina’s eyes are warm, until: “What—?”
Emma presses the phone into her hand, doesn’t quite meet her eyes, follows a stray strand of her hair from behind her ear to just below her chin.
“Oh,” Regina says, gripping the phone until her knuckles turn white.
The call goes something like this: Mother—no, of course—I didn’t—no, no, I’m sorry, I—Mal and I fell asleep studying—it won’t, I promise—of course—yes, immediately. I will. Goodbye.
When Emma meets Regina’s eyes again, there’s something violent there, something dark and furious and loathing. It takes a beat for Emma to realize her gaze is fixed on the rear view mirror.
“Fuck her,” Emma says, forceful and angry, because she knows how to be that. “Fuck her.”
The look Regina gives her is some shattering mix of exhausted and grateful.
(Emma remembers how she grabbed the superglue from the workbench in the garage, tried desperately to stick all the pieces of the blender back together, couldn’t separate her thumb and forefinger for ten minutes. How nothing she did would turn the power back on. How she tore the power button off and flung it into the wall and lost another not-home.)
Five days. Five days and nothing.
And then, on day six: something.
It’s Tuesday morning when Emma wakes up to a pile of clothes—too neat, probably, for “pile” to really cover it—and a small notecard set on top.
Emma, Keep the coat. God knows how that thing you pass off as a jacket has gotten you this far.
It’s at the bottom—dark green and warm and soft and whole—and it feels a little like Right now, this is all I have. Maybe like, I’m trying.
“So,” Ruby says, hopping up on the ledge beside her. “Prom.”
“You asking for a definition, or are we doing word association?”
“She’s asking if you have plans to go,” Belle says, from Emma’s other side. “And if you’d like to go with us.”
“Belle,” Ruby whines, “you’re ruining the big moment.”
“You decided to start out a big moment with ‘prom’?” Emma asks, skeptically, and Belle snorts beside her.
“You’d think with the number of romcoms she cries over she’d be a little better at this,” Belle agrees.
“Okay, first of all,” Ruby says, “Titanic does not count as a romcom. There’s nothing com about it. And Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movies are obviously cheating. “
Emma exchanges a look with Belle, and Ruby huffs out a sigh. “Whatever. Are you coming or what?”
“Uh, prom’s not really—my thing. Big poofy dresses, slow dancing, you know?” She pauses, reconsiders. “Any kind of dancing.”
“Who said anything about poofy?” Ruby asks, making a face, before looking past Emma. “Except—uh, Belle, obviously, who can wear whatever she wants and look amazing in it.”
“Mhm,” Belle says, her smile bright. “Impressive save.” She turns to Emma, adds, “Honestly, we’d love to have you there.”
“Besides, we can pregame so much we won’t remember any of it anyway,” Ruby adds, cheerfully.
And, well—a little forgetting never hurt anybody.
It’s another two weeks before Emma comes face to face with Regina.
The clothes show up every Tuesday, the way they always have, without the human alarm clock to accompany them. When she gets a chance, she leaves part of foster dad’s packs in their wake—always gone before Emma returns.
And Emma gets it. Gets that precaution is a matter of survival. She does. Knows it’s different than before.
It doesn’t mean there isn’t something aching between her lungs, something stinging like bitterness at the back of her throat. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t stare up at the ceiling on Saturday nights and wonder.
Does this suck for you, too? she asks into the 2 a.m. darkness, sometimes, because that’s the only time it doesn’t feel completely, desperately stupid. Do you ever miss—telling me what a dumbass I am?
And once, just once: have you ever wanted—do you ever want—
But Emma turns a corner and there she is. There she is, like she always is in econ (two over, one up, only Regina never, ever looks), like she always is behind the student assembly podium. Except that she’s alone. Except that she’s definitely looking, now.
Emma’s not alone. Belle has an arm through hers, and Ruby’s on Belle’s other side, and it isn’t until they offer her baffled looks that she realizes she’s almost stopped walking entirely.
“Emma—Swan, right?” Regina says, striding toward them, and it’s definitely not nervousness that sets her off balance, because that’d be—really, really stupid. Which she isn’t. “You submitted a proposal to student council, didn’t you?”
“What?” Ruby says, laughing. “Wait, you did what?”
For a tempting half-second, Emma thinks about saying no. It passes. “Uh, yeah,” she says. “Yeah, about the…yeah.”
Regina rolls her eyes like she can’t help herself and, fuck. Like Emma would have ever said no. “Well, I have a moment now, so—maybe we could discuss, if you’re…” She glances toward Belle and Ruby. “Free.”
Ruby’s looking between them like aliens have just landed on earth and offered to cook her dinner. “Uh, sure,” Emma says, and Regina grabs ahold of her wrist and Emma doesn’t look back.
It isn’t until they’re alone inside a nearby classroom that Emma glances down at Regina’s hand. “Uh, you don’t think this is a little suspicious?” she asks. “You strong-arming me into the nearest empty classroom?”
Regina pulls her hand back, but Emma’s pretty sure the reluctance isn’t a product of her imagination. Pretty sure. “I just thought—” Regina starts, stops. It’s the first time Emma’s thought to worry.
“Hey, wait, is everything okay?” Emma asks, taking two steps forward. One more half-step and she’d be standing on Regina’s boots. “’Cause I didn’t mean—are you okay?”
“Of course,” Regina says, with the kind of airiness that worries Emma more than if she’d answered no. Whether Regina’s lying isn’t a question, and maybe it’s Emma’s skepticism that returns Regina’s gaze to hers, that demands rephrasing: “It’s not—that isn’t why…” She pauses, takes a breath, laughs that self-effacing laugh the world hardly knows. “Anyway, shouldn’t I be asking you? I do hope you’re eating, occasionally.”
“I never needed you to feed me,” Emma protests. But Regina’s watching her with something that almost feels like hesitancy, and so Emma admits, “But now that you mention it, my diet’s been seriously lacking in desserts.”
“God forbid,” Regina says, but her smile is slow and bright and sure. After a moment, she sighs, turns toward the door. “Well, I suppose I should—”
“I miss you,” Emma’s mouth blurts out, urgently, before her brain can reel it back in. It sits there between them like a smashed blender and a fist-shaped hole in the wall beside her bed.
Emma takes a frantic step backward, all the instincts of a girl whose life has only ever been a series of houses and no’s screaming get out get out get out, but misjudges; her back ends up pressed against the wall, and something like terror curls at the bottoms of her feet, and Regina’s taking one step toward her, and then another—
When she stops, both her boots are between both of Emma’s chucks, and her eyes are dark in a way that Emma feels all the way down her spine. Her fingertips brush aside a few loose strands of Emma’s hair, and her thumb slides along Emma’s cheek, and when Emma fists a hand in a top that probably costs Regina more in drycleaning than take nine parents see in a year, Regina doesn’t protest.
And Emma wants—
Oh, Emma wants.
The deafening ring of the warning bell comes so unexpectedly that they both jump. It kickstarts Emma’s brain, which is yelling so much and so loudly (that Emma’s so close to Regina she can hardly see anything but her eyes and her nose and her mouth, that she’s a fucking idiot if she thinks she could ever—) that it’s all Emma can do to stumble to the right, backwards, out the door and directly into a flow of students that do little but toss her a handful of dirty looks.
She doesn’t even consider spending the rest of the afternoon in class.
The clothes still appear every Tuesday morning.
The notes don’t.
She’s really, really not planning on prom.
After—well, after everything, it seems like a really stupid idea, and she’s trying to keep the stupid ideas in her life to a minimum. Besides, dancing? Still not her thing.
So the call finds her lying face-down on her bed, making no attempt to fall asleep but every attempt to stop her brain from thinking; Emma! calls foster dad from the living room, and it’s so unexpected that she actually shuffles down the hall.
He’s already hanging up the phone when she appears, but he turns to her and says, “That was—a Belle, she said? Said something about needing you for help with a…some kinda gem, I think.”
“Ruby,” Emma says, slumping against the doorframe. She isn’t sure how Belle ended up with this phone number. She isn’t sure what it means to be on the receiving end of a call like this. Seventeen years and being a solution is as alien to her as permanence.
“Uh, okay,” she says, because foster dad is staring her down, arms folded across his chest. “I’ll be back later.”
The walk to school is short enough, especially if she runs. It doesn’t stop her from wondering what it would feel like to be offered a ride.
But she doesn’t ask, and he doesn’t offer, and it’s only another split second before she’s hurrying out the door.
She expects to find Ruby trashed out of her mind, expects to find Belle worrying and protective and making every effort to nudge her out the door.
What she finds instead is this: Belle standing near the door, alone, looking more apologetic than Emma’s ever seen her. “Emma,” she says, wincing as she approaches. “I didn’t realize she’d—I didn’t know—”
“What?” Emma asks. “What’s going on?”
“I guess Ruby called your house. She’s—well, she’s Ruby, so she was long past sober before she even got here, and she got in her mind that you had to be here, and I didn’t expect her to actually…”
“Oh,” Emma says. “Okay, uh, then I’ll just—”
“Emma!” yells a voice from somewhere to her right, and before she has a chance to react there’s a body launched into her side. She nearly topples over, stumbles and manages to keep upright at the last minute. “You’re here!”
“Yeah, ‘cause you’re full of shit, Ruby,” she says, pointedly.
“Sorry!” Ruby says into her ear, grin wide when she pulls back.
“Right,” Emma says. “I can tell.”
It’s only then that Emma really has a chance to see what’s become of the gym: flashing lights and brightly colored streamers and, wow, how’d Regina get outvoted enough that they ended up with a disco ball?
“Okay!” Ruby grabs one of Emma’s hands and one of Belle’s hands in each of hers. “Time to dance!”
“Wait, I’m not—“ She gestures down hopelessly at her outfit—a gray band T-shirt that probably belonged to someone who actually liked the band, a pair of skinny jeans with a hole down the left thigh and another across the right ankle, a pair of chucks that probably used to be white, years before Emma ever wore them—and adds, “Besides, I already told you I’m not a…dancing person.”
“Who the hell said prom needed a dress code?” Ruby demands. “And after this, you’re totally gonna be a dancing person.”
Which is how Emma ends up in the middle of a few hundred high school students, moving like she has any idea what she’s doing, watching Ruby spin and dance and sing with everyone who steps inside a ten foot radius and always, always return to center. Back to the three of them, back to exaggerated ballroom steps with Belle and uncontrollable laughter when Emma nearly knocks one of the couples over (to her credit, they’re the ones making out way too much to have any idea where they’re going, so they can get the hell over those sneers).
Seventeen years haven’t built her for anything like prom. But maybe this—drinking from the flask Ruby has concealed impossibly beneath her dress, feeling it burn the whole way down her throat, laughing at the world like for a night she has a chance—isn’t something she needs the genes for.
It’s at least another forty minutes before she sees her.
It’s not that she’s looking. Because she’s not. Because her eyes are plenty fixed on her own feet, on Ruby’s dangerous swaying, on the dude who’s definitely too old to be in high school who drops in and starts touching Belle’s hair and almost gets a fist straight to the nose.
Visiting the refreshments table needs no excuses. Staring out into the crowd after trying approximately three of everything is kind of the only option—like, how long can a girl spend staring up at the streamers?
There’s a light blue dress with a single shoulder strap and dark hair curled up into a design probably too fancy to not have a name. There’s a smile that’s too far away for Emma to read, directed toward a boy in a suit with his hands around her waist.
And Emma—like instinct, like the letters of a name that’s been hers for longer than she’s been alive, like a thousand and one no’s—kind of hates him on impact.
It could be five minutes she stands there, wishing she had a half-decent reason for wanting to a punch a stranger in the face (stupid, stupid, stupid), or maybe hours. But they step left, turn, and suddenly she’s in Regina’s line of sight.
Against every stupid gene in every stupid part of her stupid DNA, she moves forward, not back, registers Regina’s surprise in the sharp twist of her stomach. “Um,” she says, and Regina raises a single eyebrow, and suit boy watches her with open confusion. “So—you know, that thing that I—the thing that I submitted.”
“Yeah. That. I kinda need to talk to you about it.”
“Right now?” Regina asks, dryly.
“Yeah, it’s—sort of an emergency.” Regina’s eyes search hers for several moments before she nods, apparently satisfied. Or too curious not to oblige. (Or, alternatively, the better to murder Emma for being an asshole, dear.)
Emma leads her to the bleachers before she’s even fully considered it, like muscle memory. This time, they stay on top—Emma pacing, Regina settling back into one and drumming her fingers against it.
“I wanted to—I mean, I thought maybe we should talk about—you know, the—”
“Yeah. Well, I mean—what happened before. Maybe we should…”
“Emma,” Regina says, her gaze sharp. “If you can’t even name it, do you really think this is a conversation you’re prepared to have?”
“The kiss,” Emma says, forcefully, dropping onto the bleacher to face Regina, a leg on each side. “The not-kiss. Whatever.”
“That,” Regina says, like she doesn’t already know. “I hope you haven’t been obsessing over that particular near-miss.”
Her voice is distant in a way that Emma knows Regina isn’t, and that—being sure, at least, of one thing—is a little scary and a lot enough. “I’m really, really good at running,” she says, quietly, rubbing her hands along the denim of her jeans. “I don’t—I don’t think I know how to stop.” It’s the only sure bet I’ve ever had, she doesn’t say. Lifetime money-back guarantee. She thinks Regina knows.
And Regina, with that sharpness at the corners of her eyes, with her lips pressed carefully together, looks and looks and looks at Emma. Watches her like she’s pulling something out of her, like she’s digging inside of Emma’s chest and gluing together all her darkest pieces. A little boy with a vanishing chocolate bar, a shattering window, a boy with red hair and earnest eyes whispering where will you go, a girl on the bench of a bus stop, frantic, hopeless, pleading it’s like my whole life is darkness.
“It may be,” Regina says, and Emma almost jumps, like whole lifetimes have come and gone since she stood in the center of a dance floor, “that I don’t know how to start.”
“Do you want to?” Emma asks. “Run?”
And Regina laughs, sharp but not insincere. “Yes,” she says, after a moment. “Oh, yes.”
Emma can’t help herself; she slides forward, and Regina turns, and there’s too little space left for erasing it not to be the easy choice. When they kiss for the first time, it’s soft and a little searching, like there’s another shoe, like there’s a no buried beneath the yes.
When they kiss for the second time, it’s Regina’s hand curling in her hair and Emma’s hand pressed to Regina’s cheek and Emma’s pretty sure the noise she makes into Regina’s mouth is hers, only she’s never heard it before, so there’s no way to be sure.
“Okay,” Emma says, between shaky breaths, feeling altogether reduced to thirteen. “Wow.”
Regina’s smirk might be unsettling if it wasn’t for the size of her pupils, the warmth of her cheeks. “Your eloquence has always been your most charming feature,” she says, but her eyes are soft, so soft, and Emma kisses her again because it seems like the only right answer. Maybe the only right answer to anything that ever happens in her life again. Just a theory.
“I thought it was the outfit,” Emma says, finally, when it occurs to her to have a thought process again.
“Mm,” Regina says, trailing two fingers from Emma’s knee to the skin bared by the hole in the thigh (lightly, lightly, always searching). It’s high—definitely higher than Emma thought about until Regina slides her fingers just far enough beneath the denim to trace circles along her inner thigh. And—yeah, she’s not really thinking about anything else, now. “I’ve seen you in worse.”
Her fingertips are distracting, and her mouth is distracting, and her voice is distracting, and her hair is distracting, and when they kiss again, Emma can feel the bite of her fingernails against her thigh, and that’s definitely, definitely distracting.
“I guess we should…” Emma starts, mostly because she’s warm everywhere and—can you get heat stroke in the middle of a below fifty night? She pauses, says, “Who was that guy, anyway?”
Regina laughs, loud and full. “Vice president of our grade. You did vote, did you not?”
“Well, yeah,” Emma says, “for one category.”
Regina kisses her soundly, and Emma thinks she can handle a little bit of dying.
“You do realize you need to actually pass all your classes to graduate, right?”
It’s Saturday, and there are textbooks spread across the length of Regina’s bed, and Regina’s definitely stolen all the skepticism from the rest of the world to direct it into the look she’s giving Emma.
But she’s also still dressed in her riding clothes—boots excepted—and she’s lying on her side, head propped in her hand, hair tied into a single loose braid, and—well, Emma’s been more scared before. (Not that Regina couldn’t move mountains looking any way, but letting Emma see her this way tells a tale that doesn’t end in bloodshed. At least, if Emma doesn’t screw it up too badly.)
“I am,” Emma insists. And then: “Most of them.”
Which—was true. Not exactly with flying colors, because regular attendance was, apparently, considered an important part of high school, but—enough.
“You could be doing better,” Regina insists, scanning her most recent assignment. “Most of these are minor errors.” A pause. “And you’re failing econ.”
“But I have class with this really hot girl who’s…totally willing to tutor me?”
“Not totally,” Regina answers, pulling her econ textbook out from under several crumpled assignments that definitely aren’t Regina’s. “Begrudgingly, perhaps. I refuse to date someone who won’t graduate just because she wasn’t in the mood to show up for class.”
“That works,” Emma says, brightly. “I can work with that.”
(Because it’s Regina, things are actually accomplished, and only a handful involve full body contact.
Also, Emma only throws in, like, two jokes about riding. You’re welcome.)
Emma stares up through the pitch black at her ceiling, restlessness curling her hands into fists around the comforter.
A week until finals, and then graduation, and that’s it. That’s forever. “I’m leaving on a jet plane,” she half-hums under her breath. “Or—on some really shitty public transportation, maybe.”
But she’s never not been the only part of her equation. She’s always been both pieces; all she’s ever had to do is take a trip across the equals sign—bail out a window, show up in another county—and there she was, standing on the other side.
But now there are—factors. For one: couple girls who seem to want her in their life in a way that’s both scary and not.
And there’s the solve for x part of the equation, who kisses her like maybe it’s the thing she wants to be doing most, who was accepted to every university she applied for, who’s promised Yale her fall attendance, who says things like oh, yes.
Math, she thinks, was a lot easier before they started inserting goddamn letters.
It’s the final debate of the year, and Emma’s technically supposed to be waiting for it to start in the auditorium. With other members of the audience. Which Regina’s reminded her of at least four times since she first walked into her prep room.
But Regina delivers her the opening lines anyway, and Emma offers absurd counterarguments and Regina says things like it’s clear from my opponent’s rebuttals she could not be more ill-informed about the subject, but I will gladly respond to each baseless point and, like—
Here’s the thing: she’s also wearing a charcoal blazer and her hair’s knotted into something Emma assumes is supposed to be no-nonsense and she’s in heels that have to be at least four inches tall and she has this dark red lipstick on, and, well. Jesus, you know?
Emma kind of showed up so maybe she could have a chance to ask about—things. Like: did you mean the thing about running? Like: are you planning on Yale? Like: please, please, please give me an answer key for freakin’ x.
Instead, Emma kisses her the way she’s been thinking about kissing her for every single second of the fifteen minutes she’s been inside this stupid room, and then Regina’s pressed flush against her, and Emma’s grabbing the ends of Regina’s blazer—not aggressively enough to tear, or anything, she’s not a total dumbass—and they’re kissing, and kissing, and kissing.
When Emma presses open-mouthed kisses down the side of Regina’s neck, Regina makes a low, eager noise that’s probably the answer to, like, every question every asked about the cosmos. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Why did we take away Pluto’s status as a planet?
“At least when I help you study,” Regina says, but it’s breathless and she’s got one hand tightening in Emma’s hair, “I actually help you study.”
“And now,” Emma says, dragging her teeth along Regina’s collarbone; she feels Regina’s nails curl into her scalp, feels her press closer, “I’m studying.”
The knock at the door is enough to startle Emma backwards; Regina, on the other hand, rearranges her blazer, slides a hand through her hair.
“Em, you in here?” says the voice, and Emma’s sigh is immediate. “They’re starting soon, and I’ve got a feeling—”
Emma pulls the door open and Ruby glances past her before focusing on Emma’s face, smile wide. “Uh-huh. Thought maybe you could use a little heads-up.”
“Alright, be right there,” she says, shoving at her when she hovers an extra minute in the doorway. “And that smile makes you look like you’re planning on murdering children,” she shouts down the hallway after her. Ruby flips her off without turning around.
“Ready to kick some ass?” Emma asks, turning back to the classroom.
Regina just looks at her, challenging.
“Although, uh,” Emma says, “you might want to…do a little reapplying first.” She reaches out to drag her thumb across some of the stray lipstick, offering a look she hopes is apologetic. (She’s really, really, really not.)
“You could use a little time in front of the mirror as well,” Regina says, “foreign concept though that may be.”
Emma tells her to fuck off, and Regina combs her fingers through Emma’s hair, and none of it’s an answer to x.
But, God—she’s seventeen, and she’s stupid, and she’s selfish, and so what if pretending is all she has?
On the second to last Tuesday of the year, there’s a single note.
Belle and Ruby walk her home on Thursday like they think it’s something she needs. (Like maybe it is, and maybe they’re the kind of people who know, and something between gratitude and dread presses heavy against her chest.)
When she finally manages to wave them off—fifteen minutes of Ruby spontaneously uncovering new topics of conversation and Belle engaging all of them with impossible enthusiasm later—and unlock the door, what she finds is nothing that she expected.
It’s something she should probably be used to—unpleasant surprises waiting to be unveiled just beyond the threshold of every house-not-home—but perhaps no amount of preparation could have qualified her for a woman she has only ever seen in picture frames. (Only ever seen in tightened jaws and trembling fingers, in the uncharacteristic panic of a 5:30 deadline, in the desperation of a breaking voice around the terrifying weight of free.)
She does not cut a particularly imposing figure, physically, but she sits at take nine’s kitchen table with a perfectly straight back and a too-wide smile and a gaze so imperious Emma feels as if she might be the one intruding. (But, then—she always has been.)
“Emma, isn’t it?” she asks, two syllables twisted into something alien. Smiling all the while. “Your…father was kind enough to let me in.”
“What do you want?” she says, more a statement than a question. She crosses her arms, straightens, burns and burns and burns with the kind of anger she knows how to feel.
“Impatience really is a scourge among your kind,” Cora says, sighing. Emma thinks about asking her what the hell planet she fucking came from, but she’s already talking again: “I only came to pass along a message.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“Regina no longer has an interest in maintaining contact. I realize her priorities have been a bit—confused, recently, but she understands her future comes first. If you respect her at all, that shouldn’t be difficult for you to understand, either.”
“You’re lying,” Emma says, her hand reflexively curling at her side.
“Dear girl,” Cora says, standing at last, “look at yourself. You never honestly believed you could be enough for her, did you?”
Emma feels the chill all the way down her spine. “And she couldn’t tell me herself?”
Cora sighs and Emma is four years old and useless in a way that only smashing a few kitchen appliances will repair. “We agreed it would be unwise to give you the opportunity to exercise whatever…influence it is you have over my daughter.” The implication of her once-over makes no attempt at subtlety. “There’s no need to prolong the inevitable.”
“This isn’t what she wants,” Emma manages through gritted teeth, because the chill is spreading to the tips of her fingers. “This is what you want.”
“I want my daughter to be everything she can be,” Cora says. “Your own family couldn’t bear to keep you, so I don’t expect you to understand that. But let me put it to you plainly: my daughter could attend any university of her choosing. Programs across the country will be competing for her attention. And you—well, you will be lucky to graduate, and no doubt you will leave within the week, as seems to be the only recurring theme in your life.
“Now,” Cora says, voice so exaggeratedly pitying Emma thinks she might drown in it, “don’t you think it’s about time you gave Regina the chance to be the best version of herself?”
(Emma doesn’t sleep that night. Emma has never hated anyone more. And Emma knows—furiously, violently, hopelessly—that she isn’t wrong.)
Improbably, she passes all her finals. (She doesn’t remember any of them.)
Improbably, there’s a high school diploma waiting for her after graduation. (She’ll only remember that later, when she finds it at the bottom of her bag.)
Regina delivers her speech—valedictorian, of course; who else would they let speak to the entire student body?—without once looking Emma’s way.
Belle squeezes her hand the entire time, and Ruby delivers her sympathetic looks from Belle’s other side, and Astrid smiles so bright and sincere when she offers her congratulations that, for a single heartbeat, she lets it be enough. Something to remember.
When it’s over—when all the speeches are over and all two hundred and twenty-one hands are shaken—Ruby tells her, “You better get yourself a phone, asshole. I don’t care if you have to steal it. You’re getting one, and you’re calling me, and you’re reminding me how lucky you are to know me.” She scribbles her number in huge print all the way down Emma’s arm (“so it’ll take at least a week of showers to get rid of it”).
“I—I am,” Emma admits, hands shoved into her pockets. “Knowing both of you. I don’t know what—I mean, I am.”
They both fling their arms around her; Ruby presses a wet kiss to her cheek and Belle tells her they miss her already and Emma breathes them in, stupidly, like somehow having them means she cheated fate. Like the universe had to realign somewhere, but at least—at least—
“I’m serious, Emma,” Ruby says as she pulls away, like she senses it. “You’ve got seven days.”
“You know Ruby,” Belle says. “She will find you.” Her smile is gentle when she adds, “And so will I.”
The spot under the bleachers is the only place Emma has left.
Goodbyes don’t come naturally to her, and she thinks maybe it’s better, like this. She digs around in her pocket until her fingers close around the pack, lights up for bullshit sentimental reasons she doesn’t believe in. This way, if her throat tightens and her eyes blur, at least there’s no one around to give her away.
And it’s easy. It’s gotta be easy, right? She’s finally the whole equation again.
“Tell me you brought more,” says a voice from beside her, and Emma startles back into focus.
“Jesus,” she says. And then, “I didn’t expect company.” But Regina doesn’t protest when Emma hands her the only one she has, even offers it back after a couple drags.
“You know what I want,” Regina says, and Emma doesn’t expect her look of surprise.
“Is it?” Emma asks, quiet. “This? I mean, really?”
There’s only a half-second pause, before: “What did she say to you?
Emma glances toward Regina, finds her eyes dark, burning. “Well—it’s just, she had a point, about—”
“No. My mother doesn’t have points. My mother has agendas.” A pause. “Would you rather I pursued my mother’s version of success than make my own decisions as well, then?”
“No—no, Regina, obviously not, but—”
“Then,” Regina says, “fuck her.” It’s only then that she takes a shaky breath, meets Emma’s eyes. Says, quiet but certain: “Fuck her.”
Emma reaches for her hand, doesn’t ask where is she or what did she say or what did you say or is she planning to set me on fire. Just holds on tight like maybe it’ll be enough to keep them above water.
The dregs of the graduation crowd are still loitering in the parking lot when Regina presses Emma against her car and kisses her breathless, kisses her stupid. Leaves hot kisses along the outline of her jaw and just behind her ear until she’s been reduced to dumb, incoherent noises she’s pretty sure she meant at one time to come out as words.
Emma thinks Regina might be making a point. Or maybe just a show. It’s hard for her take issue with it. (It’s hard for her to do most things.)
It isn’t until Regina presses her thigh between Emma’s legs that Emma manages a startled Regina so low in her throat that startled might not be the first adjective that comes to Regina’s mind.
“Emma,” Regina whispers, and it doesn’t sound like four letters sewn into a blanket on the shoulder of a highway. But fuck if it doesn’t feel like being unraveled, piece by piece by piece.
(When Regina asks what she wants, Emma thinks she knows.)
Sometimes—Regina checks the rearview mirror with a quiet exhale that trembles like nerves and uncertainty and maybe not regret.
Sometimes—Emma grabs the strap of her bag like tumbling through open windows and just in case.
But there’s a new number in Regina’s phone, and two delighted voices answering it by the second ring, and when Emma wakes up, it’s still tomorrow.