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The Smoke Rises at Different Speeds

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Love me, because love doesn't exist, and I have tried everything that does.” 
― 
Jonathan Safran Foer


Everything is Illuminated

That morning--that foggy, damp morning right before her fifth birthday--is when Regina learns the limit on the power of words.


"But Mama," Regina pleads, her eyes still heavy from sleep and her feet cold on the bare stone of the floor. There isn't enough wood to light a fire except for when it's time to heat the stew each day.


"Go back to bed, Gina," Mama says, stuffing her one good dress into an empty potato sack and tying the neck. "Daddy will be back from market in a little while."


"Please don't go," Regina says, the words getting stuck on the lip that's wobbling with the effort not to cry. Baby Deanna takes it up instead, howling from her corner of the room.


But Mama doesn't hear Regina, or she doesn't want to listen. The door slams, and Regina lets the tears come.

*


When Mama doesn't come back--and Regina didn't ever really think that she would--Daddy drinks as much as Regina cries. The baby fusses on her pile of blankets, and Regina tries her best to fetch enough goat's milk to stop her going hungry.


The goat dies three weeks after Mama leaves. Deanna a week after that.


*


Regina's thirteen when she realizes that Daddy isn't going to stop without her help. He's almost died twice now, and though he rarely does more than grunt at her from where he's passed out by the fire, she won't lose him; not yet.


"Daddy," she warns, dragging him by his mud-crusted boots across the hard stone floor (and maybe she doesn't care if he bangs his head just a little bit). "This has to stop, Daddy."


"'Gina," he mumbles, still struggling to open his eyes.


She dumps the bucket of water over his head without hesitation, and watches for signs of the man she loves through the splutters and indignation.


When he can stand, he backhands her across the cheek, hard enough to draw tears from Regina's eyes. And in some strange way, the tears are sort of happy, because maybe she doesn't have to be the only grown-up now.


*


Daddy learns to keep his hands to himself shortly after that, because Regina is not a child and she knows how to hit back in ways that don't require strength.


They don't keep mead in the house anymore, and Daddy brings a boy in from the village to get the mill back in order; it's not long before the sacks of flour are being carted off to market again, and Regina can stop spending every daylight hour at her spinning wheel.


Her eyes are grateful for the rest, she's been aware each time she looks in the sliver of glass in the barn that she's been squinting like an old woman. With the rest, with the time to walk in the sun and even smile a little more, Regina's dark eyes look young again, but she begins to check the glass at least twice a day just in case.


Daddy comes to find her at the wheel some evenings, bringing fresh bread with stews and soups that he's traded for in the village. Regina feels her body begin to slope and curve like a grown woman's, no longer malnourished and aching from overwork. The boys look at her now, calling out to her when as she walks along the dusty roads, and Regina holds her head high, enjoying the compliments while ignoring them all. Her mother named her as a queen, and she's always longed to feel like one.


When Daddy watches her spin he seems peaceful, almost happy. Those quiet moments, with only the noise of the carefully oiled wheel whirring, banish the ghosts that haunt their modest little home. It's only when Regina begins to show off for him, grabbing straw instead of coarse wool, and performing the little tricks that seem to be getting stronger and stronger of late, that things begin to go wrong again.


Regina drapes the strands of false gold over her father's shoulders with affection, pleased with the illusion that's brought such a smile to his face. He suggests that they use this gold to impress the King; he doesn't listen every time Regina tells him that the gold isn't real.


*


Her father leaves her there, at court, while the King’s courtiers pull her around like a new toy. She’s a woman now, and her patience for these brats and their wonder at a poor girl scrubbed up to a shine is a test on her patience almost right away. Only the princess is kind to Regina, in her childish way. As entitled teenagers go, Regina has encountered far worse.


Whether it’s her elevated status as the King’s new wife, or perhaps the relief of not working every daylit minute, Regina’s tentative powers become so much stronger within the walls of her palace. She watches sparks fly from her fingertips, replacing the calluses of all those years of spinning and cooking and cleaning. She checks her reflection with an almost religious devotion, five times a day (and more, should someone make a careless remark).


Her husband builds her luxurious quarters, high atop the castle’s tallest tower, and calls it a gift. Regina runs her hands over black furs and blood-red velvet, watching the gold and silver of every adornment glint in the firelight. Her husband asks if the rooms please her, and she says yes without even needing to think.


It’s only later, when he leaves her panting and frustrated in the heavy silk sheets, that Regina realizes the truth of his gift. Leopold slips out past her guard, wrapped in his cloak, and Regina listens to his footsteps on the stairs. She cries--silently--because it turns out that symbolic steps can hurt every bit as much as real ones.


*


And as for Snow... well, Regina can’t even think about that without feeling a sharp pain in her heart. She wonders, for a fleeting moment, if this is the pain that Graham and all the others felt when she shattered their hearts, before deciding that she can’t take the time to care.


*


At least with Graham, Regina is already an expert at reading the signs. Emma Swan is just a distraction for him, the tickling sensation before a hastily suppressed sneeze, and while Regina has become lazy about enjoying his presence beside her in bed once a week, she won’t risk her security on what he may or may not remember.


*


It’s Henry who hurts her most, in the end. Even as an infant he had a way of squirming in his blankets like he wanted out of her embrace. Regina knows it’s too much to expect one tiny, squalling baby to fill the void of a father and the son she lost already, but she can’t help the hope that swells in her chest as she watches Henry in a peaceful sleep.


His suspicion of her probably feeds on her own awkwardness about how to be a mother, but there’s no excuse for the rejection of running off to Boston and finding the one person in this world or any other that Regina can consider a true threat. If Gold wanted to, he would have taken Regina out by now, and his insistence on forming a bond with Emma simply affirms what Regina’s suspected since the blonde with her tacky red jacket showed up in Regina’s front yard.


*


Emma Swan poses a unique problem in Regina’s less-than-charmed existence: no matter how hard Regina tries, she simply cannot drive the woman away. Enemies fall on the road between them, and despite the horror on her face, Emma barely flinches. She keeps coming back for more, with her determination and her courage and her mouth that turns down in such a delightful way when she disapproves.


Which is--Regina has to concede--unfortunate. In seeking to insulate herself from another disappointment, another ache where a working heart used to be, Regina had forgotten the possibility of someone acting against her in anything but anger. Although Emma starts out angry, and Regina gives her plenty of cause, somewhere along the line that antipathy turns into something oddly like caring. Emma asks if Regina is okay, not just Henry, and worse than that Regina finds herself responding to the quiet moments of compassion. It’s like offering breath mints to a starving woman, and she’s disgusted with herself for grabbing at them so gratefully.


“You’re gonna leave me, aren’t you?” Regina asks at the worst possible moment, as the smoke attacks her lungs and the heat of the fire threatens her skin.


And somehow, Emma becomes the first person not to answer that question. While Regina sees her worst fears confirmed when Emma leaps into the flames (to safety, leaving Regina behind), she isn’t prepared for how it will feel when Emma comes back, having made it safe enough to get them both out.


Of course, this is while Emma is still angry, and while Regina has no choice but to resist this intrusion into her otherwise peaceful life, but it becomes clear that it’s a crack in the ice between them. Like that first defiant snowdrop that pushes through after a harsh winter to herald the spring, something between them changes that night, and Regina finds herself exhaling fully for what might be the first time in decades.


She tells Emma this, eventually. They’re naked, but tangled in the sheets of Regina’s bed, and Emma is still struggling to form words after Regina decided to demonstrate just how 
pointed
 her tongue could be. With the prospect of a captive audience, Regina lets the words fall from her lips almost without regret.


“Everyone leaves me,” Regina confesses, her words no more than a whisper against the bare skin of Emma’s shoulder. “But not you. For the first time in my life, I actually think you’re the someone who might stay.”


“I’m not good at staying,” Emma replies, her breath almost recovered and the warning in her words painfully clear. Regina sits up, ready to retrieve her robe and kick Emma out into the night. She won’t stand for another humiliation, not here in this safe life that she’s created for herself.


“Hey,” Emma soothes, grabbing Regina’s arm and pulling her back down onto the mattress. “But I think you might be right; for the first time I feel like maybe I have something worth staying for.”


“I’m not an easy person to love, dear,” Regina reminds Emma, like this isn’t the plainest fact about either of them.


“Easy is for wimps,” Emma says with a smile. “And I think even when you hated me, you knew I wasn’t a wimp.”


“You’re very brave,” Regina murmurs, letting herself get lost for a moment in the casual way that Emma’s thumb is stroking across Regina’s collarbone.


“And I do,” Emma says, with a kiss. “Love you, I mean. God help me, but I really do.”


Regina just kisses her, because it’s way more effective than words could ever be.


And if Emma gets out of bed a little later to go fetch some water, Regina might hold her breath for a long moment or two, just until she hears the creak of Emma coming back upstairs with a fresh bottle. It’s not perfect, because this is not one of Henry’s fairytales, but it is a hell of a lot better than Regina has any right to expect. She looks at her dark reflection in the mirror of her dressing table, and wonders when she stopped looking quite so much.


When she wakes in the morning, Regina can see the mist through the gap in the curtains, and the empty plastic bottle on the nightstand. When she turns over, though, she sees the best thing possible: Emma Swan, who sleeps like she’s been shot (and steals all the sheets), but who most importantly of all?


Didn’t leave.