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Growing Roots

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Face pressed against the car window, Emma takes in the houses they drive by as Foster Mother Number Twelve tells her about the new school she’ll be starting at with twice as much enthusiasm as what Emma believes to be necessary. She only hears every other sentence, the bare minimum all she can really force herself to absorb after the month she’s had. This is house number three in just as many weeks, the third time she’s starting as a new kid in the middle of the fifth grade. She used to think being stuck in the group home with no parents at all, nobody wanting to even give her a shot, was as bad as it could get. But three new houses in one month is worse. She preferred when nobody pretended they wanted her. At least there was honesty in being overlooked or immediately being considered "not the right fit" for a particular family. Now, families took her in and treated her like an ill-fitted pair of jeans they could just return after she showed the first sign of trouble.

 

Huffing and squeezing her eyes shut tightly, she promises herself she won’t get attached to this family. They’re not hers. They won’t keep her. She won’t be enough, and she knows it. It’ll hurt less in the end if she doesn’t fool herself into believing they’ll grow to love her. Detached. The key to survival, Emma has decided, is never opening her heart. It never ends well when she does, and a heart can only chip so many times before it shatters and breaks.

 

Suddenly, the car bounces over a speed bump and her forehead bangs the glass. The loud thump startles her more than the impact hurts, but she pulls in a sharp breath through her teeth all the same, eyes popping open wide and big. Before she truly processes any of this, though, a hand presses to her chest and holds her back, a bigger shock to her system that makes her whip her head around to face the woman in the driver’s seat who hasn’t even stopped talking but is still holding Emma in place. It shouldn’t make her feel like crying, but it does, and she wishes she didn’t understand why. But when was the last time a hand hurriedly reaching for her was meant to protect her and not hurt her? She can’t remember.

 

Still. Detached, she reminds herself, shifting subtly until the solid weight of the unfamiliar hand is no longer on her chest. She pulls her jean jacket and layered sweaters tighter around herself and turns away, not sure if she imagines the chill that zips down her spine and spreads across her skin but wanting it to disappear either way. She leans her head against the window once more. Her eyes slowly fall shut so maybe the stranger in the driver seat will stop talking to her in the chipper tone Emma is sure is all for show. (False security. They’re always nice at first; the yelling comes after they’ve tricked you into believing they’re sweet and loving. Emma is no stranger to the false advertisement; she knows what's written in the fine print.)

 

She doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but the next time she opens her eyes, the car is no longer in motion and they’re parked in a curved driveway that winds up to a house much bigger than any Emma’s ever lived in. It has wide windows and a shiny red door that still proudly showcases a Christmas wreath even though it’s closer to Valentine’s Day than it is Christmas. It reminds her of one of the movies they used to show in her old group home at the end of the month. The name of the movie escapes her, but it’s the type of house that you can tell a family lives in without ever seeing behind the closed doors. It's beautiful; the big yard is dusted with snow, and they probably build snowmen and make snow angels when the ground is properly covered with a thick, white blanket. She bets there’s at least two full bathrooms inside it, a rarity where Emma comes from. She has to blink several times to convince herself she’s not imagining it. She even pinches herself, just in case she’s dreaming. But nope!

 

“Why don’t you grab your bag and I’ll show you in,” Foster Mother Number Twelve says. She rubs Emma’s arm and smiles with teeth that are almost too white, which only makes the lipstick smudged on one of them stand out a bit more. Like her smile, her squinty brown eyes are kind, but Emma doesn’t trust them. She’s been fooled too many times by foster parents that smile like that. “Come on. Everybody’s inside. They’re excited to welcome you home.”

 

So, no, she’s not dreaming. But she’s also not home, she wants to say, because even if this is all real, it’ll never be her home.

 

When you’ve been “welcomed” into new houses eleven times already and you’re only ten, there’s not much excitement to it. Yeah, it’s nicer than anywhere she’s ever been. It’s cleaner, the distinct scent of cleaning products in the air—the nauseating mixture of lemon and bleach makes Emma a little dizzy at one point, but she doesn’t mention it aloud, doesn’t give them a reason to think she’s a complainer before she’s even had the chance to be properly introduced. And it’s certainly bigger, two floors with more bedrooms than there are people. But it’s all the same to her. It’s a house she won’t have time to get used to: switches she’ll get wrong when she goes to the bathroom and tries to turn on the light, drawers she’ll have to open at least twice before finding the right one, and proper places where things belong that she’ll forget about when she’s cleaning up. New houses mean learning all the things most people just know inside their home, and she’s been through this process enough times for it to feel more like an introduction to a challenge than a happy invitation.

 

This new house comes with three temporary siblings.

 

Julie is the oldest at thirteen. Foster Mother Number Twelve is full of praises when she puts her hands on the girl’s shoulders and pushes her reluctant daughter toward Emma. “Julie’s our little star, aren’t you, darling? She’s head of her class, captain of her volleyball team, and just about all her teacher’s favorite. Isn’t that right?”

 

Julie rolls her eyes heavenward and groans miserably, complaining, whining in a mousy tone, “Jesus, Mom. Don’t be so embarrassing.” She has that I’m too cool for this vibe that a bunch of the older kids Emma's had to live with in the past have had, but something about the way she carries herself makes Emma think about Piper, one of the girls she was friendly with who mostly kept to herself and read books about things not even the adults understood.

 

Emma hates her immediately, not because Foster Mother Number Twelve thinks she hangs the moon—well, maybe a little bit; she can't pretend she's not envious—but really it’s because Julie acts like the worst thing in the world is having a mother who’s proud enough of her accomplishments to show her off. Emma’s never even had an actual mother. Period. If she had one who was proud of her like that, she wouldn’t roll her eyes and shake them off and walk away because she has “more important things to do” that obviously don’t include her well-meaning mother.

 

So Emma hates Julie, and maybe she likes Foster Mother Number Twelve just a tiny bit more when she tries to hide the way her smile falls from her face, attempting to vanquish the pang of hurt Emma can see despite the mother’s quick blinking and toothy smile. For that brief moment, she’s more human, less sunshine and rainbows and smiles that look like they take up half of her face because they’re so big.

 

“Your bag's so small. Where’s the rest of your stuff?” the next child asks, squinty eyes just like his mother’s but with the pale coloring of his father staring at Emma’s one and only bag. He’s younger. Emma guesses he’s around six or seven, one of his teeth off to the side only halfway grown out. Emma stares at his mouth while he stares at her bag—or the space where more bags should be around her at the bottom of the staircase they’re in front of.

 

Emma doesn’t say anything. She’s sure they all think she doesn’t speak by this point. She hasn’t said a word since she walked in. She hasn’t said a word since Foster Mother Number Twelve was introduced to her by the social worker and she shook her hand with a tight, firm grip. She refused the hug attempt and wasn’t paying close enough attention to catch the woman’s name. But Foster Mother Number Twelve is just as good as anything else to Emma. It’s what she’ll write down in the back of her journal. (House #12: mother, father, two daughters, one son, and however long she ends up staying with them.)

 

“Tommy!”

 

Emma’s surprised to see embarrassment flit across the mother’s angular face, the freckled skin peeking free between the two sides of her collar attempting to turn the same shade of rosy red blush dusted across her high cheekbones. She sighs and shakes her head, looking from little Tommy to Emma, something like an apology in her eyes. Or maybe it’s pity, because Emma really doesn’t have much at all, just a tiny backpack with barely enough clothes to last her a week. Whatever the look is, it makes Emma’s own skin dare to burn just as hotly as the woman in front of her. She picks her bag up from the floor and holds it tightly to herself, staring down at her dirty boots that are too tight and suddenly look just as out of place as she feels in the pristine house.

 

“She’s poor, silly. She doesn’t have anything of value,” the third child says. And she says it like it shouldn’t make Emma sting all over like someone’s poking her with sewing needles. She’s all sweet and soft when she speaks, and she even smiles at Emma when Emma’s head shoots up to glare at her. “Don’t worry,” she continues, this time directly at Emma, “Mommy always helps out the poor. We know it’s not your fault you can’t have nice things. You can have some of my old clothes if you want. It’s time to do a donation anyway. Now I don’t have to pack them up.”

 

Emma hates her, too, more than Julie, more than anybody else, because she smiles and makes Emma feel small and reminds her she’s just another project, a charity case, a way to make this family feel like they’re doing something good and selfless. Her stomach churns and twists like there are mini tornadoes inside of her. The air is thick, too thick to swallow past the bile trying to rise in her throat. It’s too hot and stuffy; her scarf is trying to strangle her. She can't breathe.

 

Emma wants to scream at the girl, call her every dirty and mean word she can think of. Instead, not even listening to what Foster Mother Number Twelve is saying, she turns away from them all and runs right for the door that’s on the other side of the living room, heavy boots pounding against the shiny wood floor, blood rushing in her ears, vision blurry and distorted.

 

She fumbles with the unfamiliar locks and can feel the tears trying to rush out, burning at the corners of her eyes and along her lashlines. Her mouth trembles with the effort it takes to force herself to continue breathing without sobbing, without showing how embarrassingly sensitive she truly is. She wraps her hand around the knob and twists and twists and twists until the stupid thing finally gives and she stumbles backward, nearly falling flat on her butt but saving herself just in time.

 

The cold winter air violently smacks her in the face, but it doesn’t stop her from rushing down the brick stairs. Running running running. She has no idea where she’s going, no clue what is beyond the fancy white gate, but once she starts, she knows she can’t stop. She has to get away, away from all of it, especially the stupid rich kids with parents and pretty painted rooms and toys and books and expensive things like the shiny piano Emma was too afraid to even look at because she didn’t want to somehow break it.

 

She runs with her book bag and her jacket that’s too short at the arms and her colorful knitted scarf that’s almost as old as she is, all she owns but all she really needs, and she swears she’ll run so far away nobody will ever, ever find her again.

 

But really, she barely makes it to the end of the block before someone is grabbing her by her arm, and then around her waist, their grip so tight it feels like they’re trying to hook their fingers right through her clothes and skin. She screams and kicks as she’s picked up, the uninvited tears leaking down her face the only thing hotter than the burn in her throat.

 

“Let me go! Let me go!” Emma screams, wiggling in the strong arms, trying to elbow her way out of the hold the taller person has on her. She’s trapped, and trapped is never good, but it’s especially bad when there are arms and body weight and a person bigger than her that are doing the trapping. All the times she’s been trapped before flash through her mind like an eerie horror film—but worse, because it’s like she’s right back where she was before bad things happened and she couldn’t escape and everywhere hurt. “Get. Off. Of. Me.”

 

They don’t listen. The arm around her becomes two, looser but still tight enough to prevent Emma from wriggling her way free. “Shh. Shh. It’s okay.” It’s Foster Mother Number Twelve, surprisingly much stronger than Emma would have thought due to her willowy frame. She doesn’t move, doesn’t hit Emma, doesn’t yell at her, doesn’t do any of the things Emma is used to coming next. She just holds Emma tight and shushes her softly, “I’m sorry,” a hot whisper against Emma’s skin that Emma doesn’t know what to do with because she’s usually the one that has to apologize.

 

Emma tires herself out much sooner than expected. When she accepts Foster Mother Number Twelve won’t let her go—and that she won’t hurt her—she stops screaming, stops trying to escape. Her calmness is rewarded, her feet being allowed to properly touch the ground once more even though she’s still being held in a weird hug that comes from the side of her that she doesn’t return but also doesn’t pull away from. Instead of hugging, Emma squeezes her eyes shut and tries moving her arm from underneath the one wrapped around her so she can wipe her cold, wet face.

 

She’s sniffing back the snot that’s making it hard for her to breathe in the sharp winter air and the oddly satisfying scent of detergent and something earthy on the wool coat her face is nearly buried in when a hand starts stroking her hair. It makes her freeze. Her entire body tenses, shoulders locked and chapped lips pressed into a thin line.

 

“You can’t run out of the house like that, Emma.” She doesn’t sound mad—which is surprising. After all, running out of the house and away from her last foster mother had been the very reason Foster Mother Number Eleven had decided she was more trouble than she was worth. “Even when you’re upset, okay? What Abigail said...”

 

At the sound of a sigh, Emma forces herself to speak, unsure why she decides Foster Mother Number Twelve isn’t as bad as Foster Mothers Number One through Eleven were, but feeling like maybe she should be kinder to her. “I apologize,” she whispers, small voice cracking. “I— I—”

 

Gentle fingers comb through her blonde hair and rub her back. Emma forgets to quiet her sigh. “I understand it must be difficult moving into a strange home with people you don’t know, but I don’t want you to feel like it’s any less your home than it is everybody else’s. Understand? In the future, if you feel like you need to be alone, all you have do is ask if you can be excused so you can go to your room. Nobody will bother you in there if you need some time alone. It’s yours.”

 

Emma has always hated crying around other people, ever since she was little. She’d been teased, called a crybaby, a little girl, and so many mean things by other children—and even some adults—so many times that she did everything she could to never let anybody see her cry. But for the second time in the short amount of time she’s known the woman who is still comfortingly rubbing her back, she feels tears rolling down her cheeks and cannot do anything to stop them.

 

Her new foster mother doesn’t say anything about the tears, but she fishes a tissue from her pocket and squats down toward the ground in front of Emma and cleans her face. Emma avoids eye contact at first, worried about what she’ll see when she looks at her. But when gentle fingers turn Emma’s head by her chin, Emma looks into the same kind eyes that had looked at her with what Emma now believes was genuine warmth both in the car before they went to meet the family and back in the social worker's office when they were introduced to each other. It’s surprising. But it’s nice. It’s very nice.

 

///

 

There’s a knock on her bedroom door later in the day while she’s unpacking her bag, a task she was sent upstairs to do over an hour ago but hadn’t actually started until a few minutes before the knock. Her threadbare and stained hand-me-downs that are several sizes too small for her growing body are scattered around her on the bed. Self-consciously, she hurries to stuff everything back inside her bag, and then she shoves the bag underneath her pillow. Then, for good measure, she sits in front of the pillow, legs folded under her balled hands.

 

“Yes?” she asks. She sounds nervous, and guilty.

 

“It’s Pam, honey. May I come in?”

 

Emma’s brow furrows for two reasons. First, it takes her a moment longer than it probably should to realize that Pam is Foster Mother Number Twelve. Then, she isn’t sure why she’s being asked if her new foster mother can come into the room. Normally, if someone wants to come in, they just open the door—and that’s if she had even been allowed to close the door in the first place. A lot of the foster homes she had lived in had a rule about not closing the doors for some reason unknown to Emma.

 

Straightening up and tucking her hair behind her ears, Emma answers, “Sure,” and waits for the door to open.

 

Pam leads with a smile, Emma notices, always smiling before she does anything else. It’s weird—but not in a bad way, just in a way that is different from what Emma is used to. It’s a pretty smile, like she should be in a toothpaste commercial. Emma kinda likes it.

 

“I just wanted to check on you and see how you were doing up here,” she says from the opened door, hands in the soft-looking brown cardigan she wears over her buttoned shirt, looking very much like a Real Mom. She looks around the room that Emma hasn’t moved anything in, not even the ominous box on the foot of her bed, and then walks in farther. “Martin took the others out so you and I could talk some more if you want, get to know more about each other, or just—” she shrugs a little with another smile, almost shy, and sits down on the edge of Emma’s bed, pushing the unopened box toward Emma, “—maybe watch something together. I thought it might help you feel more comfortable on your first day if you weren’t bombarded with so many clashing personalities at once.” She laughs. “I know it can be a lot.”

 

Emma doesn’t say anything at first. She still isn’t used to this—talking, something so simple for most but annoyingly difficult for her when everything’s new and she doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. She's practiced being silent so much that sometimes she forgets how to be anything else. She catches her lower lip between her teeth and chews on it thoughtfully. She decides she doesn’t hate the idea of company. But she feels bad that she has already upset the natural order of things inside the house.

 

“You could have gone with them, too. You shouldn’t have to miss out because of me.”

 

Pam sends a tiny laugh her way and shakes her head, her light brown hair swinging in its high ponytail. “To tell you the truth, I’d much rather be home right now. It’s been a long day, and I could use some quiet time.”

 

“Oh. Well—”

 

Before Emma can get anything out, Pam continues. “I wasn’t sure what you would like.” The box is pushed toward Emma again, this time all the way to her legs so Emma can’t ignore it or pretend she hasn’t noticed it. “We can go shopping before the weekend is over and you can pick out what you like on your own, but I couldn’t bear the thought of giving you an empty room with no toys or fun things to play with. I know you’re not terribly young, but...”

 

Emma stops hearing what is being said to her, the sound of her heart in her ears louder than the cheery-voiced woman. She wants to politely say no thank you and push the box back across the bed, the same way she stopped accepting Christmas gifts that matched all the other girls in her age group at the group home she once lived in. But she doesn’t think there’s truly a polite way to refuse a gift that’s been picked out for her, not some generic doll that is an exact replica of the seven or eight other dolls that get unwrapped when she receives her gift. Even if she doesn’t like it, it’s meant just for her. She picked out whatever resides inside the box especially for Emma.

 

Her finger traces the lettering on the white box, her name written with glitter glue in pretty swirly letters. She’d seen it when she came in. Of course she had. But even while she was alone, she hadn’t allowed herself to get excited about discovering what had been left for her.

 

With Foster Mother Number Twelve— No! Pam. With Pam watching her, the uncomfortable fluttering in her belly is only stronger, a weight of expectation heavy as she forces herself to smile. Nobody’s ever done this before—any of it, honestly, not the little present, nor the single room just for her, and not even the smiles that feel too warm to be fake. She wants to make sure she expresses her appreciation. Because it means something. Maybe it doesn’t mean as much to Pam, Pam who has three kids and probably does this kind of stuff all the time. But it means so much to Emma, Emma who has never had a parental figure who truly cared about her for more than five minutes at a time. And Emma thinks, maybe, just maybe, she might have gotten lucky this once and found a mother who might grow to love her.

 

It’s scary because this isn’t the first time she’s thought this exact thought, and she’s never been right before. But she can feel herself forgetting that she’s meant to be detached and passive more and more each second.

 

Emma lifts her eyes from the box and glances at Pam quickly. The corners of her mouth slowly lift lift lift until she’s smiling big and full, and the way Pam smiles back at her with sunshine bright eyes makes Emma feel like she’s snuggled in the warmest blankets she’s ever felt.

 

After another moment passes, Emma lifts the lid from the white box and puts it off to the side. Inside, there’s pale yellow and pink tissue paper that gets pushed aside to reveal an assortment of books, puzzles, art supplies, and little toys like a squishy ball and, surprisingly, the type of toy cars the boys at the group home would get to play with. She lifts the packaged miniature cars up first, most excited about them, and receives an encouraging smile from Pam when she notices her interest.

 

“Are they all right? Tommy helped picked them out,” she admits with an easy laugh wrapping around her words. "He wouldn't let me get my first choices because they weren't cool enough, and he wanted you to have the best cars the store sold. When we went to pick them out, I thought he wanted them for himself, but he was so excited to get them for you. But, of course, if you don't like them, don't feel obligated to pretend that you do. You're still going to have the chance to make your own selections."

 

“It’s—it’s all right that I play with boy toys instead of the girly stuff? Foster Mother Number Seven—” she starts, then pauses, remembering that maybe she shouldn’t call her old foster mothers by their numbers instead of their names outside of her head, “—Miss Josephine, one of the mothers I used to live with for a little while, would have never allowed it. Dollies and house sets are for proper young ladies.” Emma laughs now as she says this with a high-pitched voice that mimics that of her old caretaker, but back when she hated dolls and just wanted to play with the rest of the kids in the house, all which had been boys, she had felt isolated and hated Miss Josephine with every fiber of her being because of it.

 

Pam frowns slightly and shuffles on the bed, pulling one of her legs up and tucking her right foot underneath the bend of her left knee. “Martin and I encourage our children to explore different things and find what makes them most happy. There are no boy toys or girl toys in this house, only toys.”

 

Emma’s eyebrows bunch together as she tilts her head to the side, regarding her new foster parent with interest. “That’s pretty cool. You’re not like any of the other families I’ve stayed with.”

 

“No?”

 

“Definitely not—which isn’t a bad thing,” Emma is quick to say when she can tell Pam isn’t sure how to take what Emma’s said. “Foster Mother Number Ten, I mean, um, Carol, Carol didn’t even let me play with any of the toys in the house because they weren’t for me. They were for her real kids. And I wasn’t hers, so I wasn’t allowed to touch them. She would always yell at me if I tried.” Quieter, she adds, “She really wasn’t a nice woman, but nobody believed me whenever I would tell them how mean she was. I’m glad she didn’t want me. I didn’t like it there.”

 

“That’s awful.”

 

Emma shrugs her shoulders, not looking up from where her fingernail is tracing the plastic glued to the cardboard enclosing her new toy car. “It’s just how things are. You learn that after a while. Temporary homes, temporary parents, temporary kids...” Her voice cracks, so she trails off and shrugs again, her shoulders heavy with a weight that’s too much for her to carry every day. “It’s all temporary, so it’s best if you learn that early on in life. It’s awful, yeah, but you never know if the next will be worse. So sometimes awful isn’t that bad.”

 

“Oh, honey,” whispers Pam whilst reaching across the bed to cover one of Emma’s hands with her own. Emma jumps slightly, surprised by the contact, but she doesn’t pull away. Pam squeezes gently and then moves closer on the bed until she can sit beside Emma and wrap an arm around her, tucking a slightly reluctant Emma into her side. “Essentially, you are right. It is all temporary. Life is made of ever-changing moments that will take you down new and unknown paths. That is true. But awful is still awful, Emma, and you were treated unfairly. Do you understand that? Nobody should ever treat you like you are less than—especially as she did, and especially not someone who is supposed to be providing love and care.”

 

It’s weird, how fierce and protective Pam seems when she doesn’t even really know Emma. But Emma guesses for every eleven crappy foster mothers out there, there’s one decent one, and she doesn’t challenge what Pam says because she can sense how much she means it.

 

Flipping the toy car around in her hand, she smiles a little and allows herself to properly relax in the little pocket of body heat that Pam has made for her. “Even if this is temporary, I think I might like it here,” she says quietly, shocking herself with her openness.

 

“I hope you do. I certainly plan on trying my very best to make sure you feel as welcomed and happy here as everybody else.”

 

Emma turns her head so she can look up into Pam’s face. Lies are sometimes hard to detect, covered up in careful words to trick and pretend. But Pam has the most honest look Emma’s ever seen. “I believe you,” she tells her before resting her head back down and accepting the motherly comfort Pam offers easily. 

 

///

 

Martin isn’t as open and warm as Pam is, but he’s also not mean. Emma decides right away that is enough for her. She’s had very few foster fathers, and none of them liked her. This one is kind enough. He doesn’t talk much, but Emma doesn’t talk much while everybody is around either. So far, Emma’s really only talked to Pam.

 

Abigail apologized to her because she was forced to, and then pushed Emma against the wall once they were alone and called her stupid. So Emma has also decided that she and Abby, despite being the same age and the likely pair to match up well, will never be friends. She doesn’t like her, and she’s not going to pretend she does. They share a bathroom and a house, but that is all.

 

Emma thinks Tommy might be her favorite child in the house. Once they were back from their day trip with their dad, Tommy had found her in the playroom where she had been reading one of her new books and gave her a bag of animal crackers he had saved for her. They ended up sharing them and putting together jigsaw puzzles, Tommy doing most of the talking, Emma happy she didn’t have to put in much effort to find something to talk about because he was full of exciting tales he wanted to share.

 

By the time dinner comes around, Emma has also decided that Julie isn’t as terrible as she originally believed. She’s a bit sarcastic and annoying like most teenagers are to Emma, but she has her mother’s sweetness and is actually nice to Emma. She doesn’t stick around long, but she’s inviting and doesn’t push Emma against walls like her sister does.

 

///

 

“He works a lot.”

 

The voice that suddenly pierces through the silence that Emma has been sitting in causes her to jump right out of the window seat she had curled herself up in once she had believed it was okay to venture into the living room. She turns to see that it's only Tommy, that she isn't in trouble for being in part of the house that could possibly be off-limits. His round face is pulled downward with a deep frown as he looks out the same window Emma had been staring out of. Emma turns back around and looks in the opposite direction she had been before, looking down, noticing for the first time the dark figure in the shadows that’s moving toward one of the two cars parked in the driveway. Martin, she presumes, getting ready to leave even though it’s about to be time for bed.

 

Tommy climbs up into the cushioned nook and looks at Emma expectantly until she joins him. She curls up with her back against one wall while he does the same on the opposite, his small body clad in green pajamas with surfing turtles on them. Emma hasn’t changed out of her outside clothes yet, but her worn jeans are comfortable, the denim no longer stiff.

 

The headlights flood the driveway with light. The spirited boy who had been full of so much energy that it had threatened to overwhelm Emma while they were playing together watches with a sadness that makes Emma’s heart ache. She wonders if their father leaves to go to work a lot at night, but she doesn’t ask. She doesn’t want to say anything that might make him sadder than he already is. Instead, she searches her brain for something else to talk about so that maybe he doesn’t have to be so sad anymore.

 

She decides to go with the toy cars.

 

“You think we can play together again tomorrow?” she asks him, pulling her knees to her chest so she can press her face to the tops of them. She doesn't like trying to get other kids to play with her; she's learned it is best to always be able to keep herself entertained without relying on others, even if she yearns for a playmate most days. But Emma is willing to put herself in a position to be rejected if there is a possibility she can pull Tommy out of his funk. No kid deserves to look as sad as he does, and especially not this one. “I liked the cars you picked out.”

 

It’s amazing how quickly he brightens up. Emma feels proud of herself when he grins at her. “Really? You wanna play with me? Me?" He jabs himself in the chest with his pointer finger. His eyes are as wide as saucers. "Not Abby but me!

 

Emma pulls a face at his sister’s name, but she laughs at his excitement and nods with enthusiasm that she’s surprised she genuinely feels. “Yeah, you.” She unburies her face from the safety of her knees. “You can show me your cars if you like, and we can race them around the playroom.”

 

He wiggles about, and Emma doesn’t think she’s ever seen someone get so happy over such a tiny gesture before. “Oh, boy! Did you know I also have a racetrack for them? Mommy can help us set it up and we can play all day.”

 

Emma laughs again. “Sounds fun. We’ll ask her after breakfast to make sure it’s okay.”

 

“Or right now,” he says, and before she can say anything in response, he’s grabbing her hand and pulling her from the window seat and onto her feet, running toward the stairs.

 

They almost bump right into Pam, who reaches for them both to steady them before they tumble down to the floor. “Why are we running? Where’s the fire?” They both apologize for running, and to Emma’s surprise, Pam doesn’t send them to their rooms or anything like that. “Don’t worry. Just be careful,” she says instead.

 

“Yes, Mommy,” Tommy agrees politely before rushing into a barrage of questions that spill out of him like water overflowing from a glass sitting under a faucet. “Can we play with the racetrack tomorrow? Emma wants to see my cars and play with me. Can we? And you, too. Will you help us? We can have a competition to see who can go the fastest. Won’t that be fun? Can we? Can we? Puh-lease say we can, Mommy. Puh-puh-puh-puh-please.”

 

Laughing, Pam looks between the two of them. Tommy’s bouncing on the balls of his feet and Emma’s trying not to laugh at his excitement. But with Pam laughing, and Tommy giving his mother the best puppy dog eyes Emma’s ever seen that weren’t on her own face, she can’t help but giggle a little beside him. Tommy gives Emma’s hand a sharp tug and gives her a meaningful look that Emma easily figures out means she needs to join him in the begging. So she matches his puppy dog eyes with her own and watches him light up when he sees that she’s following his lead.

 

“Please,” Emma asks, quieter than Tommy but not without a cute little pout that she hopes hasn’t lost its charm.

 

Pamela pinches both of their noses between her fingers, Tommy’s and then Emma’s, making the younger one laugh and Emma wiggle her nose and touch her face like she’s two and can still be convinced her nose has just been stolen. “How could I possibly say no to such cute faces? Of course we can.”

 

“Yes!” Tommy jumps up in the air with a victory dance.

 

“But—”

 

Tommy pauses mid-dance, pouting. “No buts, Mommy.”

 

“We have to run errands before we can play. You know the drill. Responsibilities before playtime, right?”

 

Tommy nods, and even though Pam isn’t looking at her, Emma nods as well and makes a mental note just in case that’s a phrase she needs to remember for the future.

 

“Groceries, animal shelter, and then we need to take Emma shopping—” Pam directly looks at Emma for the last bit, “—and then we’ll have the rest of the afternoon to play with the cars. Sound fair?”

 

“Sounds fair,” Emma and Tommy agree.

 

Pam steps aside and waves toward the stairs, laundry basket under her arm and resting on her hip. “Good! Now how about you both make sure your rooms are tidy and you’re ready for bed so I can go upstairs and say goodnight. Lights out in fifteen minutes.”

 

///

 

Emma’s room is the last one Pamela stops at, which gives Emma time to shower and wash away the stale scent from the social worker's office that she had been able to smell on her skin all day. Perhaps it’s something she imagines, but she feels lighter after the hot water has mercilessly pounded away against her and she’s breathed in the artificial fragrance of strawberries so deeply that she can’t smell anything but it. She doubts she will be able to fall asleep easily—as she has never been able to sleep peacefully in a new house at first—but she at least feels clean and comfortable.

 

Like Emma had heard her do with every other room, Pam steps in and shuts the door behind her enough to block out the bright light that attempts to pour into her dark bedroom from the hallway. “Did you find everything all right?”

 

Emma’s head, popping out of the top of her blanket burrito, nods gently. She’s so warm and toasty that she doesn’t dare to move any more than that. She doesn’t even turn to figure out what Pam is doing when she walks around to the other side of the bedroom, toward the window that is behind Emma’s back. But she hears the curtains being adjusted and follows the sounds of her light footfalls instead, creating images in her mind for what she cannot see with her eyes.

 

“Breakfast is at 7:30 during the weekends. If you want to shower in the morning, you can, but the kids usually come right down from bed in their pajamas. It’s up to you.” A loose floorboard creaks under Pam’s weight. “Just make your bed before you leave the room.”

 

“All right,” Emma says around a large yawn. “Anything else I need to know? Any other rules?”

 

Pam hums and comes around so Emma can see her. She places her hand on the crown of Emma’s head and strokes her hair softly. “Nothing more I can think of. Just try to sleep well and have sweet dreams, honey.”

 

Emma’s eyelids flutter and almost shut, but she forces herself to keep them open until she’s alone. She wishes Pam a good night and hums her acknowledgment when her foster mother tells her that if Emma needs her, she’s only two doors down. Then, once she’s alone, she closes her eyes and replays the long day in her head until she falls asleep.

 

///

 

Darkness. Plunged into the darkness, Emma is being tossed around in the middle of a circle of people, spinning and twisting as they shove her and make her stumble. She can hear them laughing and the sharp bite of taunts, but she can’t see anything with her face covered. She can’t get her footing correct, too many hands pushing her, turning her, making her feel dizzy and sick.

 

“Get away from me,” she wants to bark at them, but an embarrassing sob catches in her throat instead. Her words are broken and scratchy, cried out with desperation as she tries to break through the circle of people and escape.

 

Their cruel and maniacal laughter only grows in volume. “Crybaby, crybaby,” they tease, making wailing sounds like toddlers who’ve been ignored.

 

“Stop it,” Emma screams at them, angry and lashing out, throwing her fists at whatever she can reach. “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” She punches punches punches until someone grabs her arms and throws her down to the unforgiving asphalt, holding her in place.

 

She’s being shaken again, but it’s quieter now. The laughing dies down, but she can still hear her name being called out. She can still feel the weight of someone holding her arms down at her sides.

 

“Emma. Emma. Emma, wake up!”

 

With a sharp breath, Emma jerks awake and makes the mistake of opening her eyes. The bright light from overhead causes her to hiss as it burns. Quickly, she rolls away from the hands on her face so she can hide her sensitive eyes from the brightness. She’s embarrassed to discover her pillow is wet from the same tears she had been crying in her sleep. She wonders if she’d been screaming inside the bedroom just like she had in her dream, and her face burns hot at the possibility.

 

“I’m sorry,” she whimpers into the pillow, reaching for her blankets to pull them over her head. “I—I had a bad dream. I didn’t mean to be so loud.”

 

“Shh. Don’t worry about it.”

 

Emma tenses when she realizes that it’s not Pam who’s crouched down beside her bed. It’s Julie, the thirteen-year-old who doesn’t sound annoyed like Emma would expect her to be. She’s rubbing Emma’s back just like Pam had done outside when Emma had run out of the house, the same soft touch that is unbelievably calming when Emma thinks it should make her uncomfortable to have someone touching her for so long.

 

“I was going to the bathroom and heard you when I was walking by. You weren’t really that loud.”

 

Emma doesn’t say anything because she’s too embarrassed. Julie doesn’t seem to mind. She continues rubbing Emma’s back for a little while longer in the silence, not stopping until Emma’s breathing has evened out and there are no more of the tiny whimpers escaping without Emma’s permission.

 

“I used to get nightmares a lot when I was younger, too. Mom used to encourage me to talk about them—or draw them.” Chuckling, she adds, “You’ll learn that’s a big thing here, the drawing. I guess that’s sorta a thing when your mom illustrates books for a living, you know? But we all suck at it. None of us picked up that talent. But it helps if you don’t like talking all the time.”

 

Emma slowly turns around so she’s facing Julie, squinting and only peeking out of one eye to look at her. The older girl gives her a small smile and tucks her frizzy hair behind her ear. Emma doesn’t have it in her to return the smile, but she tentatively reaches her hand out from beneath the blanket and goes to squeeze the one that had been rubbing her back. She’s quickly learning how the family communicates with touch, and she wants to be able to do that as well, wants to show Julie she appreciates the kindness she’s shown her when she didn’t have to—when Emma knows so many others wouldn’t have.

 

When her hand lays atop of Julie’s warmer one, the teen turns it around so she can squeeze back.

 

“Wanna talk about it?”

 

Emma shakes her head in the negative.

 

“Midnight drawing session, then?” She smirks and waggles her eyebrows, making Emma laugh just a tiny bit before she shakes her head again. “Yeah, didn’t think so.”

 

Emma lets out a long breath and looks around the room before clearing her throat. “Won’t you get in trouble for being out of bed this late?”

 

“Of course not. I’m doing the big sister thing. Mom wouldn’t be mad about that.”

 

Emma accepts her answer and shifts in bed so she can turn her pillow over to the dry side. Julie brushes her hair away from her face once Emma’s settled again, so much like her mother that Emma has a hard time figuring out how Abigail can be so mean to her for no reason. It’s obviously not how Pam raised her to be.

 

“You think you can sleep some more? I’ll hang out with you for a bit until you’re sleeping. I don’t mind.”

 

She opens her mouth to decline the offer because she shouldn’t need someone to sit with her until she can sleep. She’s ten, not five. But even though she likes having her own room with all the space and the door and the clean sheets that smell like flower fields, it’s more than a little scary being in a new place. She doesn’t think she’ll be able to fall asleep easily after the bad dream she woke up from.

 

“Maybe for a little while,” Emma whispers, “but only if you really don’t mind.”

 

Julie grins at her. “Not even a little bit. Let me just go grab a few things from my room and then we can shut this light off. ‘Kay?”

 

“‘Kay,” Emma repeats.

 

Once she’s alone, Emma turns onto her stomach and presses her face into the pillow to release a quiet scream that she wants to let roar out of her. She feels conflicted, bouncing between wanting to let herself be cared about and feeling like it’ll be smarter to keep everybody at a distance. She hasn’t even made it a day and she already doesn’t know how she’s supposed to let this family go when it comes time to say goodbye to them. They’re too good to be true, Emma thinks, because if she overlooks the fact that Abigail is a brat and doesn’t like Emma, the family is pretty close to being perfect. She’s gotten lucky here and there with new families—a cute dog that liked her best at House Number Eight, a foster brother who taught her how to play chess at House Number Six, and even a foster mother who doted on her in the beginning before she suddenly seemed to lose interest in Emma. But she’s never been this lucky before. She’s only heard stories about kids who got this lucky.

 

Maybe she should tell Julie she’s changed her mind. Maybe she should figure out how to push her so far away that she’ll never even think about spending time with Emma again, never try to comfort her, never show Emma what it’s like having a caring big sister ever again. Maybe she should—  

 

“You fall asleep while I was gone?” Julie whispers.

 

Emma hadn’t heard her come back into the room, so her heart jumps inside her chest and her head raises from her pillow and whips around too quickly. Julie stifles a laugh and walks into the room with a blanket full of things tossed over her shoulder, her messy curls in a braid and no longer falling down her shoulders. She looks younger somehow.

 

“What’s all that?” Emma questions curiously, all thoughts of pushing Julie away being forgotten. She doesn’t even know why she’s bothering trying to pretend she doesn’t want to be smothered by every bit of affection anybody will give her, honestly.

 

“I brought friends,” Julie says with a girlish laugh as she lets her blanket unravel on the floor. Inside, there’s a pillow and about six different stuffed animals. Emma’s eyes go wide. Julie pulls something out of the pocket of her hoodie—a nightlight—and then walks over to the closest outlet so she can plug it in. Emma doesn’t tell Julie she’s not afraid of the dark; she actually thinks the purple glow of the light against the wall is pretty once the main light is off and the bedroom door is closed. “Don’t be shy. Introduce yourself to them. They don’t bite.”

 

Emma laughs from the bed. She almost asks if Julie is serious. Almost. The way Julie smiles encouragingly while plopping down on the floor is enough for Emma to know that not only is she serious, she probably doesn’t think she herself is too old to play with stuffed animals. It’s a surprise when even at Emma’s age, most of the girls she has known have been rather adamant about stuffed animals being for babies and tinies, not big kids. Emma doesn’t really care what any of them think, though.

 

Throat cleared, Emma awkwardly addresses the closest stuffie. It’s a grey bunny that might have been white at one point, obviously quite old, probably the oldest of the bunch. “Uh... Hi there. I’m Emma, Emma Swan.”

 

Julie helps the bunny shake Emma’s hand—well, one of her small fingers because it isn’t the biggest of bunnies and one of Emma’s fingers is enough. “What a lovely name,” the bunny says in an accent that Emma can’t place but finds hilarious. “Oh, you must be complimented all the time with a name like that.”

 

“Thank you,” Emma mumbles against her pillow, and then, “what’s yours?”

 

“Well, I’m Miss Tulip. You see here, these flowers on my dress? Pretty, right? We share a name.”

 

Emma leans closer to make out the floral print on the dress and smiles when Julie moves the bunny closer so she can see. “Ooh, yes, those are pretty.”

 

“Mm-hmm. And they also match my earrings.”

 

They do!  

 

“Would you like to meet everybody else? I bet Mister Bear would love to meet you.”

 

Emma looks around the blanket for the bear, but she doesn’t see one. She knits her eyebrows, looking over to Julie, who must notice her confusion because she’s biting back a laugh, barely holding it in.

 

“Bears are kinda scary,” Emma says, which makes Julie’s laughter escape her throat. It’s a soft chime of laughter, quiet but full of glee.

 

“Don’t be silly, darling. Mister Bear isn’t a bear. Oh, no. Mister Bear is a mouse.” Julie picks up the smallest of all the stuffed animals and Emma laughs this time whilst Julie makes the mouse kiss Emma’s nose. “And he’s a friendly one, too. Just don’t try to steal his peanut butter.”

 

Emma laughs some more, and before she knows it, she’s been introduced to all the animals and she’s so sleepy that she doesn’t even remember to warn Julie that she’s about to fall asleep. One moment she’s listening to the animals tell her about themselves, and then the next, she’s asleep. When she wakes in the morning, Julie is gone, but Mister Bear is on the pillow beside her.

 

///

 

Monday morning, Emma wakes up sick with nerves and doesn’t want to leave her new bedroom. Finding her place inside the house has been surprisingly easy, only a few bumps here and there. One might even say she fits in with the family like she’s always been a part of it and not like a broken puzzle piece they have to reshape to fit into the empty space they’re putting her in. She helped with grocery shopping and Pam took her to buy some new clothes. As promised, they played racing cars and, for a few minutes, Abigail even joined in before she got mad they wouldn’t put the cars away and play her game instead. And as a Sunday tradition during the winter months, they had cocoa in the middle of the day and watched a movie together, all of them finding a cozy spot in the family room, even Martin. But Monday means going to a new school, and Emma’s not ready for that. She hates hates hates new schools.

 

Staring blankly at her own reflection, Emma wishes there was a way she could relive the weekend over and over instead of having to go to school.

 

She moves on auto-pilot as she unbraids her blonde hair and the loose curls fall over her shoulders. She’s dressed in the school uniform, a white top beneath a soft blue vest, shirt tucked into the plaid skirt. She doesn’t look like herself. She misses her boots, even if they’re too small and hurt her feet. And she wishes she could wear her denim jacket instead of the sweater with the school’s name on it. None of it feels right. Emma Swan is missing, replaced by an impersonator.

 

“Five minutes,” Pam calls up the stairs from the first floor, reminding Emma that whether she likes it or not, she has to leave and go to school and be introduced to a new set of students for the third time this month.

 

She sighs tiredly. It’s exhausting moving around all the time, and even more so because they don’t even try to put her in another house in the same school district as the previous one so she can at least continue out the year at the same place she started it. As if being the new girl isn’t hard enough once or twice, she’s already been to five different schools for this one grade. Being new in school is just as bad as being new to a house, or probably even worse. No. Definitely worse. There are way more people, and rooms, and stairwells, and sometimes she’s too far ahead, but then other times she’s behind everyone, and never, never ever, does she mesh well with any of the other kids because they all have friends they’ve known most of their life at this point. The longest Emma has even had a friend was less than a year, and she barely counts that as a proper friendship because they only saw each other once a month when the group home the girl lived in would go out on the same monthly trips as Emma’s group home.

 

“Come on, Emma,” Tommy says from the opened door, head topped with frizzy curls poking into her room. "It's time to go."

 

Emma looks over at him, dressed in the same uniform as her. She wishes they were in the same grade instead of three years apart. She likes Tommy. He’s funny and makes her laugh and is always the most excited about everything—even more excited than Pam, which says a lot. He would make school better for her, even if they weren’t in the same class. But chances are, the only time they’ll see each other is during drop-offs and when they get picked up at the end of the day.

 

“Is everybody downstairs already?” she asks him, brushing her hair. They had all eaten a quick breakfast before coming back upstairs to finish getting ready, and that had been about fifteen minutes ago.

 

“Julie’s being a slowpoke,” he says loud enough for his big sister to hear him. Something comes flying down the hall and almost hits him, but he only laughs, picks it up, and throws it back. “She’s always the last one to make it downstairs.”

 

“Am not,” Julie denies, passing Emma’s door and sending a wave her way but not stopping. “Bet I’ll beat you both downstairs.”

 

“Cheater. You got a head start,” Tommy calls after her, running away from Emma’s door without another word to Emma, backpack bouncing on his back as he rushes off to the stairs.

 

Emma doesn’t follow them. She feels too sick to even think about running. She takes her time getting her bag, not the new one Pamela bought but her same faded black bag with the lanyards tied to the zippers she's been using the last two years. She needs something that’s hers, something that belongs to Emma Swan and not Emma the imposter who lives with the Robertsons. She looks at herself in the mirror, frowning at her reflection. She still doesn't look like herself, but, she decides as she fixes her slanted glasses on her small nose, there's nothing else she can do to change that.

 

When she does get downstairs, everybody is waiting for her and she feels all of their eyes on her at once. She swears she’s going to puke her breakfast up right there at the bottom of the stairs, but somehow she manages to keep it together and they make it to the car without incident.

 

They all pile inside the minivan, Julie up front with Pam, Tommy and Abigail in the middle seats, and Emma in the back by herself, and everything is calm and easy at first. The only voice is the one on the radio, some boring radio show that Emma tunes out. Everybody appears to be equally as tired as Emma feels. But then, just when Emma starts thinking that maybe her nerves can settle and she can stop worrying about every little thing for once, they pull over in front of what is definitely not the school and Pam blows her horn.

 

It makes Emma jump.

 

“Move your bag,” Abigail hisses at her, reaching for it herself like she might knock it to the floor from the seat.

 

Emma moves faster than the other girl and grabs it. She holds it to her chest and glares at Abby. She wants to ask her what her deal is, why she doesn’t like Emma, but she doesn’t. Emma doesn’t like her either, so she shouldn’t care if Abigail likes her. But she would still like it if maybe she was a little more mature and didn’t think it was amusing to be a jerk just for the sake of it.

 

Besides, Emma’s attention is immediately stolen when the door slides open and a girl about her age climbs inside.

 

“Sorry we’re running a little late,” Pam is saying to the girl, but the girl is frozen in place, mouth hanging open as she looks at Emma.

 

Emma knows it’s rude to stare, but she just can’t help herself. The other girl looks like a pretty doll with shiny dark brown hair that falls down in waves and beautiful skin that is darker and clearer than her own, baring none of the tiny freckles that Emma has. Emma can’t not look at her, even if it’s embarrassing how difficult it is for her to look away or think or breathe.

 

“You’re in her seat,” Abigail says with an audible eye roll, like she’s reached her daily limit of how much patience she has for all the things Emma just doesn’t know.

 

“Oh!” Emma flushes hot in her face and reaches to unbuckle herself so she can slide over at the same time the dark-haired girl snaps her mouth shut and finally takes the empty seat behind Tommy. “I didn’t know.”

 

“It doesn’t matter. This one is just fine,” the girl says as she makes herself comfortable and adjusts her bag on her lap, hands neatly folded on top of it. She faces forward, but Emma can see her curiously looking out the corner of her eye at her.

 

“Goodness me! I’m sorry, Emma, I forgot to mention that we pick up one of Abby’s friends on the way to the school in the morning.” She pulls away from the curb as she introduces them to each other. “Regina, this is Emma. She just moved in this weekend. Today we’re going to finish up her enrollment process and she will be, if I remember correctly, joining your class. So, you two will probably be seeing a lot of each other.”

 

Great, Emma thinks with a sigh. She had been glad when she found out she wouldn’t be in the same class as Abigail, but now she’s going to be in the same class as one of her friends who will probably report back with every little embarrassing thing Emma does. Fantastic!

 

Regina doesn’t spare her another look or say anything to her for the entire car ride, so Emma decides the silent game is how she’ll make it through school for the entire day.

 

Only, the universe decides that the silent game is stupid and not allowed and sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong and makes sure she and Regina not only have to sit beside each other in class but also have to work with each other on a class assignment where everybody is paired up with the person next to them.

 

“I’m not going to do all the work by myself,” Regina tells her as soon as the papers are handed out.

 

Emma scoffs and snatches the paper they’re sharing from Regina’s desk so she can read the instructions. “Who says I even trust you to do any of it? I plan on actually getting a good grade.”

 

Regina snatches the paper back and moves her seat as far away from Emma as she possibly can without making it noticeable to the teacher that she’s moving the desk. “I’m the smartest student in our class—our entire grade—so please tell me why you wouldn’t trust me of all people. I should be worried about you bringing down my class participation points. That’s more likely.”

 

Emma rolls her eyes. “You don’t even know me.”

 

“That didn’t stop you from insinuating I was stupid, did it?”

 

“I didn’t!”

 

“I plan on actually getting a good grade,” Regina mocks in a voice that sounds absolutely nothing like Emma’s.

 

“I only said that because you made it seem like I planned on just sitting here while you worked. You started it.”

 

“What are you? Five? I didn’t start anything. I simply didn’t want you to think that I would let you get away with not pulling your fair share.”

 

Emma reaches over and slides the paper to the edge of Regina’s desk so she can see it—so they can both see it. “Maybe you’re used to people trying to get away with not helping out on group work, but I’m not like that. Next time give me a chance to prove myself before you make assumptions.”

 

Regina deflates a little, turning her head to look directly at Emma. Emma doesn’t look away from the paper, though, even though she’s not really reading it. She’s afraid if she looks at Regina, all her bravado will fade and she’ll be the sensitive little girl who pouts and whines when things don’t go her way. She wants to be able to stand up for herself and not hold back, but she can only do that if she can get away with not actually having to look at Regina while doing so.

 

“You can start reading aloud,” Regina says, and it’s softer, kind of like an apology that isn’t an apology, and Emma smiles and feels like maybe she did a good job with her first proper interaction with one of her classmates.

 

///

 

When lunchtime comes around, they’re seated at tables that match their class numbers. Abigail’s table is two behind Emma’s, and even though Emma knows Abigail sees her walk by, Abby doesn’t even acknowledge her presence. It shouldn’t matter. It’s not like she expects her to suddenly be nice to her or want to introduce Emma to her friends. It’s just, Emma knows exactly two people in her entire grade, and Abby is one of them. It would be nice if half of the people she knows didn’t ignore her.

 

The other half, the half that possibly thinks Emma is lazy and only tolerated her presence because she had to, sits down at the very end of the lunch table. She's as far as she can possibly get from all the other students who have already found seats next to their friends. Emma watches as she pulls out her lunch bag and a book, placing them both down in front of her. Emma thinks she’s...odd. She’s super smart and the prettiest girl in their class, but for some reason, nobody seems to like her, and Regina seems to like it that way. And Emma finds that weird.

 

Regina looks up while in the process of unzipping her lunch bag and stares directly at Emma, eyes narrowed.  

 

Emma gets hot all over and looks away, not really sure where to sit and wishing she could disappear. There aren’t many open spots at the table. There are exactly three spots left—one big one between Regina and the boy next to her, a smaller one between two girls who are talking to each other and making it clear they don’t want Emma sitting between them, and one directly in front of Regina.

 

“Why do I see students out of their seats? This class must not want to get up to get their lunch.”

 

Half the table turns to look at Emma, and Emma just knows she’s about as red as a tomato. She scrambles across the floor and quickly plops down in front of Regina, facing the wall with her back to everybody. The only person she can still see looking at her is Regina, and she thinks that might be the worst of them all—or, maybe if she didn’t notice the slight signs of humor that peek behind Regina’s curtain of indifference, she would think Regina’s stare is the worst. As it is, she can tell Regina’s not completely annoyed with her. And that’s got to be a good thing.

 

When most of the students get up from the table to get their lunch trays, Emma lets out a loud breath and turns in her seat properly. Pamela packed them all lunches before they left, so Emma starts unpacking hers while the rest of the students are away from the table. There’s a sandwich—turkey and cheese with too many vegetables that Emma will eat despite the fact that she does not like them—an orange, a little container with pretzels, and both a bottle of water and a juice. It’s a huge step up from the PB&Js Foster Mother Number Eight used to allow her to make on the rare occasion she was allowed to bring her own lunch.

 

“There should be a note.”

 

Emma looks up at Regina, but the other girl isn’t looking at her. “Huh?”

 

Regina feigns disinterest with a shrug of her shoulders, but she had clearly been paying more attention to Emma than the book that’s opened in front of her. “Mrs Robertson always puts a note somewhere in her packed lunches. Abby has been getting them since we started school here, and she even put them in my lunch the few times I stayed over at the house when I was younger.”

 

Emma has more questions than she knows what to do with. She wonders how long Regina and Abigail have been friends. She wonders why Pam takes Regina to school. She wonders what the notes say. She wonders if Regina kept them or threw them away.

 

She wonders if Pam even gave Emma a note, because it would be embarrassing for her to go looking for one now and not find one when she knows Regina is watching her.

 

“I’ll read it later,” she says, just so she doesn’t have to look for it while Regina is looking.

 

Regina doesn’t say anything in response. She doesn’t speak much at all for most of the lunch period, not until it’s almost over and she’s cleaned up her mess and put her book away. Emma’s still slowly eating her pretzels, not completely comfortable in their silence but not uncomfortable either. It has been decent.

 

“You should bring a book with you to lunch tomorrow if you plan on sitting with me again.”

 

Emma’s startled by her voice after not hearing it for so long. She jumps a bit in her seat, but Regina doesn’t laugh at the way she almost spills her bowl of pretzels. She does, however, tilt her head with a bit of what might be amusement, but that quickly fades.

 

“I wasn’t sitting with you.” Emma regrets what she’s said as soon as she closes her mouth and notices the way Regina straightens up in her seat. Sighing, Emma tries again. “I mean, I only sat here because there was nowhere else to sit. It was either beside you or in front of you, and you already made it clear you don’t like sitting next to me.”

 

And Emma knows she didn’t make it sound any better, but she remembers that Regina hadn’t been all that nice to her in the first place, so why did she need to worry about preserving her feelings?

 

“Next time, get here earlier and pick another seat, then. If you don’t walk so slowly across the cafeteria, you can sit as far away from me as possible,” Regina tells her, snippy and harsh.

 

“Maybe I will,” Emma snaps back. She loses her appetite and closes her pretzels so she can return them to the bag.

 

It’s when she’s putting the last container away that she spots the green note card tucked into the side of the bag and she pulls it free.

 

Take a smile, give a smile! Here’s one for you.

 

There’s a smiley face drawn underneath the swirly words and a heart next to where Pam signed her name.

 

The note makes her smile.

 

She looks across the table and sighs. “I’ll bring a book.”

 

Regina doesn’t look at Emma, but the corner of her mouth twitches ever so slightly.

 

Emma smiles shyly, looking down at her note from Pam.

Chapter Text

Eleven days—that’s how long it takes for the first sign of trouble to make an appearance and make Emma nervous about her place at the house she truly loves more than she’s ever loved any other house in her entire life.

 

It wasn’t her fault, though! Not really.

 

Across from her in the nurse’s office, a boy from one of the other fifth grade classes sits with an ice pack on his face and a bloody tissue to his nose. She would say she doesn’t feel proud of herself for how she messed up his face, but she would be lying. It’s not like he didn’t deserve it. She would have done a lot worse if given the chance. And she’s not sorry about it.

 

The only part Emma is sorry about is the disappointment in Pam’s eyes when she finds out that Emma punched the kid in the face—which she had done three times. Not even once has she seen that look on her new foster mother's face, and it hurts Emma, hurts more than her bruised hand, more than her side from where she got kicked, and hurts more than where Regina dug into her arm when she pulled Emma off of the other kid. If Pam’s smiles are sunshine, then her disappointment is the gloomiest sky before a rainstorm.

 

The principal talks to Pam in private, back in his office while Emma waits with the nurse, and Emma wishes she could be there to explain what had happened herself because she knows it looks bad, but she had her reasons. She didn’t just pounce and push him down to the floor like an animal—even if that’s how it had looked from the outside. He deserved what he got! He was not innocent of any wrongdoing. 

 

Forced to sit and wait, Emma starts making a list of what things she can fit into her bag and what she’ll leave behind. Most of it will stay. But Pam made her donate her old clothes that didn’t fit her growing body anymore, so she’ll have to take some of what they bought her first weekend at the house. And she wants to keep the sketchbook Pam put in her welcome package, and her toy cars so she can remember Tommy, and Mister Bear so she doesn't forget that she’s never too old for things she likes just because other people think so—and she wants to remember the girl who taught her that.

 

The longer she sits, the more she thinks about leaving, having to go back to the social worker's office and never being placed in another good home again. Most parents see Emma as a troubled child, and she’s not doing anything to prove them wrong. With her luck, Emma will end up being shoved into an overcrowded apartment that's too small for the number of foster children already packed inside of it. She probably won't get a second chance at having a foster parent who makes homemade waffles and creates smiley faces with blueberries on them. She'll be sent to another House Number Four that'll come with an angry boyfriend who yells and throws things when he's mad, or maybe she'll get stuck with a foster parent who makes her scrub the floors on her hands and knees until they're spotless just so she can pour tomato soup on the floor and tell Emma she's missed a spot. (Foster Mother Number Eight was cruel, and Emma had almost let herself forget how good she had it with Pamela.) So not only will she be leaving the best house she’s ever lived in, she’ll probably end up somewhere horrible and hate it there.

 

And she won’t see Pam or Julie or Tommy ever again.

 

Or Regina.

 

Her heart aches like something awful when she thinks of Regina, the girl who isn’t even really her friend but is still the closest thing she has to one. They may only sit together in class because they have assigned seats, and they may never say more than a sentence or two during lunch even though they always sit together, but Emma really likes her. She’s quiet most of the time, but she’s smart and nice when she wants to be, and she gives Emma her fruit cups whenever Emma has an apple to trade her for it.

 

Why are you so stupid?

 

She had something good. Why did she have to mess it up?

 

But she knows why, and she can’t be sorry about it.

 

It feels like hours have passed before Emma is told she can walk down to the office. There’s a heavy weight in her stomach that only multiples in size as she drags her feet there. The walk is usually a short one, but she stretches it out as much she possibly can, not ready to see Pam’s thunderstorm disappointment face.

 

Pam steps out of the principal’s office and into the main part of the school office at the same moment Emma enters, and she looks no less disappointed in Emma. Emma hangs her head, ashamed—but still not sorry. She opens her mouth to speak, but Pam beats her to it.

 

“We’ll talk about this at home. Put on your coat and grab your bookbag.”

 

The quiet of her voice is scarier than any yelling Emma’s ever been on the receiving end of. Yelling she knows how to respond to, knows what to expect. The vacant near-whisper of Pamela’s voice is foreign to her, and Emma doesn’t like it. But there’s nothing for Emma to do but pull on the coat someone brought to the office from the classroom, put on her bag, and follow Pam out of the office and toward the door.

 

They drive in silence.

 

Pam lets them into the house, where there’s more silence.

 

And Emma stands awkwardly in front of the door once it’s closed, still silent.

 

Pam’s already removed her coat and gone to the kitchen to put on the kettle for tea before she realizes Emma’s still standing at the door.

 

“What are you doing?” she asks Emma with a slight frown. She’s not as quiet as before, but she’s not her normal self either.

 

Emma fidgets at the door, unsure what she’s meant to be doing. “I didn’t know if you wanted me to go upstairs for my things or not, and I was too afraid to ask.”

 

“Your things?” Pam repeats with obvious confusion.

 

Emma’s stomach is still heavy from when she was in school, still a mess of tangled nerves and steel that’s weighing her down. She still feels like she might be sick from it all. She looks over to the stairs as she answers Pam’s question, blinking rapidly when her lashlines start to burn like tears might start forming.

 

“My clothes and stuff,” she elaborates. “I didn’t know if I should go pack so you could—so I could...go.”

 

Pam’s inhalation is loud enough to be heard across the space that separates them. “You’re home. I won’t be sending you anywhere.”

 

Emma slowly turns her head to look at Pam, home home home being repeated in her head in Pam’s soft voice. “You won’t? Aren’t you mad?”

 

Her foster mother lets out a slow breath and shakes her head from side to side. “No, honey, I’m not mad at you. Upset with your choices, perhaps, but not mad at you. We’ll have to talk about this and decide what an adequate punishment looks like, but that will be all.”

 

Of course she had not been holding her breath the entire time, not literally, but it feels likes she had been when she lets out her next one. The power of the release makes her entire body sag. She doesn’t have to leave, not her new bedroom, or Tommy, or Julie, or Pam, or even Martin and Abigail. She doesn’t have to leave yet another school. And she doesn’t have to leave Regina.

 

She doesn’t know what comes over her, but her feet are moving her in the direction of the kitchen and her body is throwing itself into Pam’s before she can think better of it. “I’m so so so so sorry for making you have to go to the school for me. I will take any punishment you see fit without complaint. Promise.” She squeezes her arms tightly around Pam, awash with relief.

 

Pam’s shuddering breath is followed by Emma’s name, and Emma quickly takes a step backward. She shoves her hands into her winter coat and squeezes them into small fists. It takes everything in her not to thank her foster mother profusely for not making her pack up her things, for not making her sit downstairs at the table and wait until it’s time for her to leave and say goodbye to House Number Twelve. She’d known she was nervous, known she was scared about what would come next. But it isn’t until she knows she’s safe, that she’s not going anywhere, that it really hits her how much she doesn’t want to have to go. Ever.

 

The kettle makes a noise and they both jump at the sound. Pam looks from it to Emma, and then she turns her attention to the stairs for a moment. “Go upstairs and get out of your uniform. Wash up and come downstairs for some tea so we can talk. Ten minutes, okay?”

 

Emma starts unzipping her coat as she nods her head. Then, remembering her manners, she quietly says, “Yes, ma’am,” and turns away.

 

She hurries through what she has to do and moves to her small desk before she heads back down, grabbing her sketchbook and pencil case with her colored pencils and crayons. She tucks them under her arm and quietly enters the kitchen, watching her foster mother thoughtfully stir her tea at the table. Frowning with worried lines creasing her forehead is not a look on Pam that Emma is used to seeing. She’s seen small flashes where her smile has faded and bits of sadness would take its place, some moments where her stare was blank or tired. But this is new. When she first met Pam, she thought her smile was too fake, too forced, a trap. But she had quickly learned that Pam’s smile was warm and genuine, open and loving, something that was oddly natural to her most of the time. Not seeing her smile is strange. Emma’s upset with herself for making it disappear.

 

“You have thirty-three seconds. Don’t spend them all standing in the shadows watching me,” Pam says without turning away from whatever she’s staring at.

 

Emma leaves her little corner and properly enters the kitchen. She places her book and pouch on the table, gaining Pam’s full attention. A tiny smile that can only hope to blossom into a proper Pam Smile appears on her foster mother’s thin mouth. Emma wants to smile back. But she doesn’t think she deserves to smile just yet. So she sits down and unzips her pencil case instead, letting the pencils slowly roll out of the bag between them.

 

Ever since Julie told Emma about how Pam encourages them to draw the things they don’t want to talk about, Emma’s been bringing her new sketchbook and pencils with her whenever she wanted to talk to Pam. Most of the time, what she talks about and draws don’t relate, honestly, but it’s nice having something to do with her hands. She’s always been a little fidgety, always too anxious; it helps having something to minimize that. And Pam draws with her most of the time, and that is Emma’s favorite part.

 

Today, Pam opens up the sketchbook for Emma, but she doesn’t take a page for herself. Emma leaves the book between them and decides to only use half the page just in case Pam changes her mind.

 

It takes a few minutes of silent drawing and tea sipping for Emma to open up, but she knows Pam is patiently waiting and will give her the time she needs to be ready to speak without pushing her. She always does. It’s one of the things Emma likes most about her. She doesn’t force Emma to talk about anything, even when she’s done something wrong. She gives her the space to speak, gives Emma her time, and she waits with the understanding that Emma will say something, she just doesn’t always know how to get the words out.

 

“I know letting my anger get the worst of me is unacceptable,” Emma starts. She’s been forced into enough therapy sessions to know this. She’s had enough headshrinkers sit her down and tell her all the ways she was wrong and misbehaved and a problem for her to understand why she shouldn’t do certain things. She doesn’t believe half of what they tell her, but she honestly has learned a thing or two from her mandatory therapy sessions. “I know better. I know—I know it’s wrong to hit people, and that it doesn’t really solve anything. I mean, I’m not so mad anymore. So it helped in that way,” she admits, daring to lift her eyes from the paper to catch Pam’s reaction.

 

Pam is watching her, but she doesn’t change her expression any. Emma turns back to the hibiscus she’s drawing, a favorite of hers from a calendar that used to hang in one of her old foster houses.

 

“But that kid is still going to be a jerk, and I’m still going to be...” She frowns and pauses long enough for Pam to reach over and give her arm a squeeze. Emma puffs out a breath. “What he said. I’m still going to be that. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a truth. But the way he said it, it hurt, and he knew it would. He was being mean to make me feel small, and I let him. I gave him exactly what he wanted.”

 

“And what did he call you?” Pam asks as she picks up a pink colored pencil and begins coloring Emma’s flower with a soft pressure that is much lighter than what Emma now realizes she’s using.

 

Emma loosens her grip on her pencil and begins drawing another flower, deciding to fill the page with them. “Didn’t they tell you what happened already?” Pam had to have known. She had been in the office with the principal forever. How could she not know at least that much?

 

“I want to hear the story from you. There are usually several sides to every story. Right now, it’s your perspective I’m interested in.”

 

Emma chews on the inside of her cheek and doesn’t respond for a moment, feeling a little dizzy in her seat. She feels like once she tells Pam what happened, she’s going to think Emma had an overreaction and she’ll be upset with her even more. But Emma doesn’t want that, and she doesn’t feel like she overreacted.

 

Exhaling a loud breath, Emma asks, “When you were young—younger—were there any words that just made you angry?” Pam’s colored pencil stops moving, but Emma doesn’t look up to meet her eyes. “Not just angry, but... Maybe angry isn’t the word. Because these words make me angry, but they also hurt. And it’s like, I don’t know, it’s always the first attack someone reaches for once they know I don’t have any parents.”

 

She can hear his voice in her head, hear him yelling down at her, feel the spittle that left his mouth and fell on her face. She doesn’t even know him. Until he pushed her when passing where she was sitting in the lunch room, she probably hadn’t even seen his face before. But for whatever reason, he had decided to approach her. He decided to make her feel bad. He decided to tease her.

 

He decided.

 

He decided.

 

And Emma is tired of other people deciding that she deserves to feel worthless about something that was out of her control.

 

“Reject baby,” Emma whispers with a sharpness that could slice deeper than the sharpest blade. Even hearing it in her own voice instead of his hurts. “Reject baby,” she repeats, louder, feeling the words burn her all over, stinging her skin. Her eyes lift from the drawing, neither of their colored pencils moving anymore, Emma’s heart pounding pounding pounding as she meets Pam’s eyes and repeats the words slowly. “Re. Ject. Baby.”

 

Pam’s breath shakes, and Emma doesn’t realize that she’s crying until Pam is around the table and trying to hold Emma to offer her comfort. But it’s too much. Emma feels like she’s suffocating, and she doesn’t want to be touched, or held, or for Pam to even look at her. She wants to scream and punch something—but not Pam! And maybe not even the stupid boy who kept shouting at her that she wasn’t wanted, a reminder that she doesn’t need to hear to know. She knows it. She’s reminded every time she looks in her journal, foster homes and group homes counted on the back of a page, like tally marks etched into a wound deeper and deeper every time a new person determines she’s unworthy.

 

Pam reaches for her again, but Emma shrinks in her chair and folds her arms around herself. “Please don’t touch me.” Her voice sounds broken. She feels broken. She’s full of anger, but she’s also weak and sad and afraid she’ll truly crumble if Pam gets any closer to her.

 

Thankfully, Pam doesn’t try again to reach out for Emma. She steps away, but she doesn’t leave Emma completely alone. She pulls out the seat next to her and sits there instead of across the table from Emma. Emma tries not to turn away from Pam because she knows she’s just trying to be there for Emma like she always is, but Emma feels too vulnerable to allow it.

 

She sniffles and wipes her face with the sleeve of her sweater, dirtying it with snot and tears and ignoring the tissue that appears in front of her on the table.

 

“May I speak?” Pam asks in a soft voice. “Are you listening to me?”

 

Emma shakes her head from side to side because she doesn’t want to listen. She doesn’t want to talk anymore. She’ll take her punishment for hitting the kid, but she doesn’t want to have this discussion anymore. She hears Pam let out a slow breath, but Pam doesn’t seem upset with her. Emma feels like maybe she should be.

 

“Okay,” her foster mother says, and that’s it. They continue to sit in silence. 

 

///

 

Julie gets dropped off by her usual ride home just before Pam has to leave to pick up the other two children from school. Emma’s still sitting in the kitchen with the sketchbook on the table, but she hasn’t touched it or moved or said a thing since she told Pam what the boy said to her. Pam hadn’t left her side, either. Emma doesn’t think she was waiting for her to say anything. She thinks, maybe, Pam just didn’t want her to be alone. And even if Emma doesn’t know how to accept her comfort just yet, she appreciates Pam staying with her. She can now admit, if only to herself, that she doesn’t want to be alone.

 

Julie disappears upstairs for a little while, and Pam leaves. Emma remains still, memories playing in her head of faceless people who have teased and bullied her, foster parents who were meant to care for her who instead made her feel just as worthless as the bratty kids. With her eyes closed, she can feel hands that grabbed and hit her. She can smell the alcohol on one of her old foster mother’s angry boyfriend’s breath that she knows she’ll never forget.

 

She has memories that haunt her whether she’s awake or asleep. She tries to remind herself that they’re only memories, the past, but her past is still part of her. She still feels the same pain like she lives it every day. She still hurts like each lashing, both verbal and physical, is fresh.

 

She’s deep deep deep in a particularly violent memory when she feels a hand on her shoulder and she screams, her arm swinging out, startled into the present where Julie’s staring at her with wild, wide eyes.

 

“Woah!” Julie holds up both her hands and takes a step back. “It’s me, Julie,” she says, breathing harshly, “just me.”

 

Emma’s face crumbles and she covers it before she starts to cry. She doesn’t want to do that again.

 

“Yeah, I heard it’s been a rough day for you.”  

 

“Pam told you? Everything?”

 

“No, nothing really.” And then, as if she understands how much Emma would hate it if Pam told Julie or the other kids, or anybody, what she tells her during their private conversations, she adds, “Mom wouldn’t do that. Whatever you talk about with Mom is between you and her. She just said some stuff went down at school and you’re having a rough day.”

 

Emma nods in agreement and acknowledgment. “I got suspended for the rest of the week.”

 

Julie whistles without saying anything else at first. Emma can hear her moving around the kitchen, opening cabinets and rummaging through things. Once she returns to the table, she offers, “Cookie?” and takes one for herself to munch on.

 

Emma pulls her hands away from her face and looks at the Chips Ahoy! package. She smiles a little and takes two. “Thanks.”

 

They eat cookies in silence until Julie asks, straightforward, “So, what happened?”

 

Emma shrugs her shoulders, looking down at her hand. It still hurts, and it’s a little swollen. But it’s not that bad in comparison when she remembers the blood that leaked out of the other kid’s nose. “I punched someone.”

 

Julie hums thoughtfully. “Did he deserve it?”

 

Emma’s automatic answer is that he did, but the way Julie asks her, like she wants Emma to really think about her answer and be honest, makes her take a little longer to respond. But still, she says, “Yes.” But she’s less confident, so she adds, “I think so. Maybe.”

 

“And what about you? Did you deserve what he did to you?”

 

Anger flares up inside of Emma. “No,” she says sharply, wondering how Julie can even ask her that. But then she remembers Julie doesn’t even know what happened, so she shouldn’t be mad at her. Emma sighs. “He pushed me for no reason. I wasn’t even in his way or anything. He walked up to me and pushed me into the table. And he called me names. I tried ignoring him, I swear.”

 

Julie holds out the cookies for Emma. Once Emma takes another cookie, Julie asks another question. “So how’d you get from ignoring him to punching him?”

 

Emma pauses with the cookie almost to her mouth, eyes narrowing as she looks at Julie. “Did Pam ask you to find out the whole story for her?”

 

Julie looks mildly offended. “No. I don’t do Mom’s dirty work for her.”

 

Emma tilts her head and looks at her a little closer, trying to decide if she believes her. When Julie doesn’t back down, Emma decides she trusts her to be truthful. “It was just stupid stuff at first, generic name-calling and little kid stuff. He was just an annoyance, really. But then he called me a reject baby and kept going on about how I was this and that and no wonder my parents didn’t want me and, and...” Emma’s cookie crumbles in her hand, shocking her as the pieces fall from her fist.

 

“Asshole,” Julie declares, making Emma’s eyes go wide because she’s never heard the other girl say a curse word before. Julie gives her a half smile, and Emma returns it.

 

“He was a jerk,” Emma says with a definite nod. She agrees he was an asshole, too, but she doesn’t say the word aloud.

 

Julie gets up and wipes Emma’s cookie crumbs into her hand and brings them to the trash. “But you know what?” she asks conversationally. Emma hums. “He’s wrong.”

 

Emma shakes her head. “No, he’s not. He’s right. My parents didn’t want me.”

 

Julie shakes her had as well. “Maybe the ones who gave you life had reasons for not keeping you. I don’t know what they are, or if that’s really important right now. But I can tell you that you are wanted here. Mom adores you, and, well, our father has a weird way of showing he cares, but he does as well.”

 

Emma doesn’t really feel it, but she mumbles, “Thanks.”

 

“And if it makes you feel any better,” she continues, “I already think of you as my little sister, so you’ve got my love.”

 

Emma’s heart doesn’t know how to beat properly when she looks up with eyes full of hope she wishes she could get under control but knows she can’t. “Really?”

 

Julie smiles at her with a big, toothy grin that reminds Emma of Pam. “Duh!”

 

Emma laughs and is glad she didn’t let her first impression of Julie keep her from finding out how great she is. Even though her talk with Pam had helped her get the words out, talking to Julie is what has made her feel better after the altercation. She feels more like her normal self.

 

“You’ve got my love, too,” Emma says, and she means it.

 

“A true treasure,” Julie says with a laugh before she rounds the table and bends over a bit so she can hug Emma.

 

Emma allows the hug, her small arms reaching up to circle Julie’s waist and hold her tight. She doesn’t feel like she’s suffocating anymore. She breathes out softly, and it feels easy.

 

That’s how they’re found when the side door opens, whatever conversation that had been happening coming to a stop as Pam and the others start walking into the house and freeze at the doorway. Emma tenses slightly and pulls away, but it’s only because she’s never really liked having everybody’s attention on her. It makes her terribly uncomfortable, no matter what the reason is.

 

“You’re feeling better,” Pam says with hope and a dash of uncertainty, taking another step inside, and then another, careful as she raises her brow questioningly.

 

“Yeah, I think—” she starts saying, but she stumbles over her words when she notices there’s an extra pair of eyes looking at her from the entrance. Too quickly, nearly making herself fall flat on her face, she stands up from her chair and brushes the cookie crumbs off her sweatshirt. She reaches for her glasses from the table and puts them on, hoping they hide a bit of the redness of her eyes and the signs that she’s been crying. “Regina! What are you—what are you doing here?”

 

Regina doesn't shrink back. Instead, jaw set with building determination, she moves from behind Abby and walks over to the table, coming right up to Emma. She walks like she’s on an important mission and she's not going to let anything get in her way, and it makes Emma’s heart beat harder than it’s ever beat before. She worries she might choke on it.

 

“I was worried sick about you.” Regina has this way of whispering her words while somehow making it sound like she’s also yelling, and Emma feels like a very small child being reprimanded whenever she speaks to her with that particular tone. It’s scarier than Emma will ever admit to Regina’s face.

 

Emma pulls uncomfortably at the sleeves of her sweatshirt and looks down at her bare feet, not sure she knows what to say. “I’m sorry?” she tries, unsure.

 

“Don’t be sorry. Tell me you’re okay,” Regina says—or demands, really.

 

“I’m okay,” she answers immediately, obediently. “Promise.”

 

“Don’t do that again. He could have hurt you.”

 

Emma scoffs, finally looking away from the floor and at Regina. She ignores everybody else who’s just watching them from the other side of the kitchen like there’s nowhere else they could go. “I can handle myself. He barely touched me once I knocked him down.”

 

Regina looks like she wants to shake her. Emma thinks she might actually do it. “What would have happened if I wasn’t there to pull you off? Hmm? What if he got you down on the floor and punched you instead? Did you even think before you went swinging?”

 

Emma folds her arms across her chest, refusing to even entertain the idea. “Ugh. I’m fine. Why are you even here?” She doesn’t mean for it to sound as harsh as it does, but she’s getting defensive, and somehow Regina’s really good at making her feel that way.

 

Thankfully, Regina also seems to be really good at figuring out when she’s pushed a button and Emma’s just responding the best way she knows how, which is with deflection or by pushing the other person away. It doesn’t seem to work with Regina, probably because Regina’s the same way sometimes.

 

“I brought you your homework, that’s why. You might want to be an idiot, but I’m not going to let you be an uneducated one, too. You missed half a day of classes, so you’ve got a lot of work to do.”

 

“You can’t be serious,” Emma whines, pouting.

 

Regina drops her bag down on the table. “I never joke about education, Emma. You should know that by now. Go get your bookbag. I only have a few hours before Pam has to get me home, and we don’t have a minute to waste.”

 

Emma turns to Pam, wondering if this is for real, and Pam gives her a single nod of her head and signals toward the stairs. “She’s leaving after dinner, so hurry.”

 

Emma groans. Tommy laughs at her. And Regina clears a spot for them at the table.

 

///

 

Regina and Emma move to the living room after the table becomes too crowded with all of the kids working around it. It’s Pam’s suggestion, one Emma quickly takes to get away from the sound of Julie clicking her pen repeatedly if nothing else. While it helps her concentrate, it makes Emma antsy. And she can’t focus on what she’s working on when all she can think about is how much she wishes Julie would write with pencils instead.

 

They’re working on math, Emma’s least favorite subject, and one of Regina’s favorites, when Emma groans miserably and lets her head fall down against the coffee table their legs are underneath. “Kill me now!”

 

“With pleasure,” Regina says without missing a beat, pressing her lead pencil to Emma’s neck. 

 

Emma twists right into the sharp point out of shock, and then turns even farther with wide eyes to look at Regina. She swats Regina and her pencil away. “Ow! Not literally.” 

 

Regina’s not even looking at her. She’s still reading her math problem. The geek!

 

“That actually hurt,” she complains, rubbing the spot that, okay, doesn't really hurt, but does feel warm from the pressure pressed against it. 

 

The smallest of smiles plays with Regina's mouth, making the corner nearest Emma subtly twitch upward. “Next time specify that you want a painless death, then.”

 

Emma grumbles and picks up her pencil, going back to her math work so Regina doesn’t leave her too far behind. She wants to be able to keep up with her, or pass her, enjoys when Regina gets just a little too serious about her schoolwork and gets competitive about silly things like which one of them will raise their hand first with a finished assignment in class.

 

She peeks over to see what number Regina’s on—twenty-four—and then looks down at her page with a frown because she’s barely finished working on her thirteenth question. So maybe she won’t be catching up with math, but they still need to work on the science homework after they’ve finished this assignment.

 

She peeks over again a few minutes later, only to find Regina covering her page with her hand this time. Emma rolls her eyes. “I’m not cheating.”

 

“I feel you looking, Emma. You know I’ll help if you ask, but I’m not giving you any answers.”

 

“You’d think by now you know I don’t copy your answers. It’s like you don’t even know me, I swear.”

 

Regina chuckles quietly and turns a bit, putting her pencil down and pulling her long ponytail of silky hair over her shoulder. “You don’t really believe that,” she says with certainty. She’s always so certain of everything, and Emma finds it strangely appealing.

 

Using Regina’s pause in her workflow to her advantage, Emma doesn’t stop working on her math problems as they talk. It makes the math a little harder, yeah, but she likes when Regina just talks to her about things, so she doesn’t care. They don't talk enough, and after imagining what it would be like if she never got to see Regina again earlier, she realizes she wants them to have more substantial conversations. “Tell me what you know about me,” Emma encourages.

 

“Just off the top of my head?”

 

“What, you need me to give you a list of questions?”

 

“That would be ideal.” There’s a small pause, then Regina’s voice holds a touch of amusement when she speaks. “But you like making things difficult for me. Don’t you?”

 

Emma shrugs, but she’s grinning. “You like a challenge, and I like being challenging. I think it’s a win-win. That’s why this friendship works so well.”

 

“You think that’s why this friendship works?” Regina sounds offended by the very thought, so of course she’s going to tell Emma exactly how she’s wrong. Because she wouldn't be Regina if she didn’t, honestly, and Emma wouldn’t really want it any other way. She’s used to their back and forth, even if it's rare, enjoys it. Regina makes everything a little more exciting. “Look at what you’re doing right now.”

 

Emma’s brow furrows as she looks over herself. She’s just sitting on the floor with Regina, nothing else. “What am I doing?”

 

“Your homework,” Regina says, and she doesn’t have to add the obviously for Emma to hear it. “This friendship works because I’m not going to let you get away with slacking, no matter how much you complain about not wanting to do your work. I don’t let all that potential go to waste like half of the other kids in our class would. They wouldn’t care if you copied their work or didn’t even bother turning in assignments. But I do.”

 

“So what do you get out of this friendship then? Out of curiosity.”

 

Regina shifts on the floor enough for it to catch Emma’s attention, making her turn her head so she’s looking at the other girl. Regina is looking straight ahead out of the window, like she’s thinking really hard about what Emma doesn’t think should be a terribly difficult question.

 

“Nothing?”

 

Regina rolls her eyes and pushes Emma’s shoulder with her own and shushes her. “I’m thinking. Be patient.”

 

Emma throws her head back so it leans against the sofa cushion and groans for three seconds straight. “You think any longer, you’re going to bruise my sensitive ego.” She’s joking when she says it aloud, but there’s a small part of her that means it.

 

“As big as your inflated ego is, I’m having a hard time believing that.”

 

Emma laughs loudly, feels it all the way in her belly. “You’re one to talk. I swear the first words out of your mouth when we met were: ‘I’m smarter than you and every other living, breathing thing in existence.’”

 

“There is a difference between being self-aware and having an inflated ego,” Regina says, completely serious, face perfectly straight and everything.

 

“Yeah, there is, but you don’t seem to know which applies to you for some reason.”

 

Regina knocks her knee against Emma’s beneath the coffee table. “Oh, shut up. I’m not that bad.”

 

Emma knocks her knee back against Regina’s, and Regina does it again, and then again because Emma keeps on going. And soon they’re giggling and not doing their math homework like they’re meant to be doing.

 

“Girls,” Pam calls out, a warning.

 

Regina sobers quickly, sliding away from Emma a little. “Math, Emma. No more distractions.”

 

Emma groans, but she does her math, and her science, and they even finish before it’s time for dinner. Regina helps Emma bring her stuff up to her bedroom after they pack up Regina’s bag, and even though Regina’s only supposed to be there for homework help, Pam allows them to stay upstairs until dinner is finished. It’s the first time Emma’s had a friend over, ever, and she’s not really sure what they’re supposed to do.

 

Regina puts her stack of books down on Emma’s desk and looks around, not as awkward as Emma but not her usual confident self either. Emma looks around the room just like Regina does, as though it’s unfamiliar territory to her as well.

 

“Do you wanna read?” Emma asks since that’s always been something they do together, ever since Emma’s second day. They read together at lunch every day, even though everybody around them talks and plays games during lunch. But Emma likes that they’re not like everybody else. Everybody else kinda sucks.

 

Regina, to Emma’s surprise, declines the offer. “Not really.”

 

Emma, not for the first time, realizes their entire friendship is reading and doing classwork. So maybe that’s why Regina still hasn’t told Emma what she gets out of a friendship with Emma. Maybe, all she really likes about Emma is that she’s smart enough to bounce ideas off of when they’re working on projects together.

 

That’s a little disheartening. Regina’s the only proper friend she has, but she’s not even sure they have a real friendship.

 

“Do you like me?” Emma asks suddenly, making Regina turn to face her just as quickly.

 

“What?” Regina croaks. The question appears to be half-caught in her throat. 

 

Emma drops down on her mattress, sitting on the edge and then falling backward so she’s laying down with her legs swinging a little off the edge. “You didn’t even have an answer when I asked what you got out of being my friend,” she reminds the other girl. “Is it because you don’t really like me that much?”

 

“You’re serious right now, aren’t you? You’re seriously asking me if I like you after I just spent two hours going over class notes with you just because I didn’t want you to fall behind.”

 

Emma can hear her exasperation and cringes a bit. “Okay, you like my brain. But a girl needs more than that, you know,” she says, going for humor and hoping it works. She turns her head and sees Regina’s not laughing, not smiling, not even doing that amused head tilt thing that she sometimes does. Emma sighs. “Do you understand the need for constant reassurance?” Emma asks next. It's something Emma learned about in therapy. 

 

Regina grabs onto this with more enthusiasm, as Emma figured she might. She joins Emma on the bed, sitting on the corner with her back against the wall. “Of course I do. Are you telling me you need me to reassure you that I enjoy your company? Do you typically need people to reassure you often?”

 

Emma shrugs a bit and rolls over so she’s on her stomach and doesn’t have to tilt her head back to look at the other girl. She likes being able to look at Regina when they talk. Most of the time, they’re sitting side-by-side and the angles are all wrong. They’re rarely face to face, which is unfair because Emma’s always thought Regina’s had a really pretty face and she wants to be able to see it.

 

“Sometimes I do,” she admits after realizing since she brought up the topic, she has to actually answer the question. “How are we supposed to know how people feel about us if they don’t let us know? Just because you think I’m okay to hang around on Monday, doesn’t mean you still want to be my friend by Friday. People change their mind about things like that.”

 

Regina looks down at Emma thoughtfully before nodding her head in agreement. “You’re right. I haven’t though. Changed my mind, I mean. I still want to be your friend.”

 

Emma grins at her. “Well of course you do. I’m amazing. Why wouldn’t you want to be my friend?”

 

A small smile works its way onto Regina’s mouth. “You are, truly. No joking. I think you’re amazing.”

 

Emma’s heart jumps up to her throat and she feels that hot all over dizzying sensation that makes her feel like she might be sick. She doesn’t know what to say that won’t be stupid, so she doesn’t say anything at all. Instead, she gets up from the bed and decides they need something to do before her cheeks hurt from smiling at Regina.

 

“Let me show you the book Pam bought me about the solar system. I think you’ll like it.”

 

///

 

It’s another Monday, another first day, this one the first after her suspension, and Emma is actually excited to be going back to school. Being home with extra chores hadn't been too bad; it was a light punishment, and Emma enjoyed helping Pam with her errands and the cleaning when she wasn't working on schoolwork. But now she's looking forward to getting back to her regular routine. Even though she’s seen Regina every day she’s been out, and they got to hang out at her house when Regina came to do homework and share her notes, Emma has missed class projects and the little secret competitive games they play. She’s going to miss having Regina over, but they have more time together when Emma actually goes to school—even if they won’t get to have any of their little talks about things that aren’t strictly school related. (Emma hopes they might, though.)

 

Emma’s the first one ready to go on Monday, ready before Pam has even issued the five minute warning. She’s downstairs at the kitchen table, impatiently drumming her fingers to a song from the radio. Pam eyes her a few times with a curious look about her before she leans with her hip pressed to the table and smiles at Emma.

 

“This is new,” she says with a little laugh.

 

Emma looks over herself, wearing the same winter coat and uniform she wears every day. Confused, she questions, “What is?”

 

Pam gestures to Emma with a wave of her hand across the full length of her. “First one down for school, excited to leave... I didn’t think you’d miss it that much.”

 

“Oh,” Emma says, feeling her cheeks grow warmer. “I guess I’ve missed parts of it, yeah.”

 

Pam merely hums in response, asking for no deeper explanation. She just seems pleased that Emma’s excited.

 

It takes seven minutes for everybody to come downstairs, and four more minutes for everybody to get situated in the minivan. Emma feels like she’s eaten an entire bottle of maple syrup; she can hardly sit still in the back seat as they drive toward Regina’s house. She has to continuously remind herself to relax, but even with her constant reminders, she squirms about anxiously. It’s the longest five minutes of her life getting to Regina house, and then she has to wait for Regina to come out, and Emma’s just about ready to burst by the time the door slides open and Regina steps inside.

 

She squeaks when she sees her—loudly—and covers her mouth with both hands, too late to hold in the embarrassing sound that makes Regina pause before sliding into her seat, the same way she paused and looked at Emma the very first time they saw each other. At least Emma doesn’t stare this time like a total goober.

 

Regina buckles herself in, says good morning to everybody, and then turns just to face Emma and says it again, this time just for Emma. “Morning, squeaky.”

 

Emma flushes hot red and groans behind her hands, damning her stupid throat and the weird noises it makes. Regina gives her that half-grin of hers and settles into her seat, obviously pleased with the effect she has on Emma. Emma swears then and there that she will never, ever, ever squeak another squeak.

 

Of course, Emma deciding she won't squeak ever again does not change that she had. It doesn't change that Emma's squeak had amused Regina. And so, the nickname sticks. It sticks for way too long. Three months. For three months, Regina calls her squeaky and does it loudly enough for other people to hear. Emma’s just glad nobody picks up the nickname, because Emma would murder anybody else if they even thought to call her that. Regina is the only person allowed to give her stupid nicknames and actually use them. She makes that a general rule in life, deciding that, just like she won't be a squeaker ever again, she will never, ever, ever accept anybody else calling her silly things.

 

Regina is the only one, Emma’s one exception.

 

This remains true for so many things that it becomes obvious to Emma—and everybody in Emma’s life—that Regina is different and special and Emma can’t compare others to her because nobody will ever come close to being as fascinating and amazing as Regina.

 

The entire summer between fifth grade and the beginning of middle school, when Regina goes away to some fancy school in Europe and Emma goes to camp with Tommy and Abigail, all Emma thinks about is school starting again so she can see Regina. She doesn’t make any new friends at camp, and she hates it. She knows she would have loved it if she had truly given it a chance, but she’s always moody and none of the other kids care about planets or horses or mystery books or anything with the same passion Regina does. So, Emma doesn’t see the point of trying to enjoy herself. She spends the summer counting down until she can see Regina again.

 

And even once she’s back home, it’s all she does: six days, five days, four days, three days, two days, one day...

 

///

 

Pam is standing outside of Emma’s bedroom, looking in. “Are you coming with me to pick Regina up?”

 

Emma hasn’t moved from the middle of her bedroom floor since she rolled off the bed close to twenty minutes ago. She’s in too much pain. Her belly hurts, and so does her back, and her head, and—she’s not sure there’s a part of her body that doesn’t hurt. If it doesn’t hurt somewhere at first, it feels like all she needs to do is think about it, and then there’s a new hot, twisting pain that threatens to break her into pieces.

 

“I’m dying,” Emma whines, in a fetal position because it’s the most comfortable way to lie down right now. “I can’t believe my body has chosen to betray me this way.”

 

Pam snickers, but one glare from Emma and she quiets, smiling gently at her. “Oh, honey, you’re not dying. I know it might feel like it—”

 

“Bleeding this much is not natural. And the pain! Pamela, make it stop.”

 

“Baby, I would if I could. Do you want to cancel your sleepover?”

 

“No!” Emma shrieks.

 

She’s waited too long to see Regina. She misses her. She’s not going to let her body ruin this for her. Besides, as Pam told her, she’s going to have to go through this—her period, the stupid thing—every month for several decades most likely. She can’t exactly cancel all her plans every month for the rest of her life. She’s just going to have to suck it up and put on a brave face.

 

“I don’t think I’m up for the drive, or moving from the floor, but I still want Regina to come over. We can just tell her I have a stomachache—which is true because it aches a lot right now.”

 

Pam looks unsure as she looks in on Emma, like maybe she’s going to have to pull the Mom Card on this one and decide that Emma’s really not up for company and needs to rest. But Emma thinks she might just die if she doesn’t get to see Regina after counting down all summer. She’s put too much hope into this. She needs it like she needs air. And maybe she’s being a little dramatic, but she thinks she’s allowed it right now. It’s not every day that you wake up to discover your body has decided to fall apart and it’s supposedly completely normal.

 

“Please, Pam.” She gives her the puppy dog eyes and a pout, throwing out all the cute she can manage. “I miss her.”

 

One beat, then another. “Okay,” Pam agrees, making Emma smile, “I’ll go pick her up. But you have to get off the floor at some point, honey. No matter how much pain you’re in, there’s no food allowed upstairs, and you’re not missing dinner. Understood?”

 

Emma nods immediately. “Understood.”

 

Once Pam leaves the spot in front of her bedroom, Emma shuts her eyes and wraps her arm around herself to squeeze tightly. She’s not really sure if the pressure helps or if she’s tricking herself into believing the tighter she squeezes, the less pain she feels. Either way, she feels less of the hot searing pain when she feels compact and tight, folded into herself. So, she stays that way while she mentally replans her first sleepover with Regina. Her original plans include more activity than Emma thinks she can handle, and she hopes Regina is okay with her change of plans.

 

If they go downstairs, they can watch movies after dinner and not be bothered in the family room. They have a few new films she hasn’t seen yet, and even a few favorites she has been wanting to share with Regina.

 

Or, they can have an arts and crafts session. Emma can do that from the floor, and she doesn’t think Regina spends enough time being artsy and creative. Emma knows she enjoys it, but her books and studies always come first for Regina. Emma thinks it might be fun to do something crafty together. They can even begin an ongoing project together, she considers, liking the idea more and more as she thinks about it.

 

Forcing herself to get up from the floor, Emma walks on her knees toward her chair and then pulls herself into it. It takes more energy than she expects, so instead of searching for one of her empty books, she lays her head down and closes her eyes. She lets out a loud breath and decides she can stay that way until Regina arrives.

 

She doesn’t mean to fall asleep. She was only meant to rest her eyes. But when she opens them to check the time, there’s a human-shaped figure sitting at her window, and that human-shaped figure is reading a book while the sun shines through the opened curtains. Perhaps if her energy level was up a few more notches, she might have jumped up and threw her arms around Regina and made them both fall down to the floor. But Regina probably wouldn’t have appreciated that, and Emma doesn’t feel like moving, let alone jumping up from her chair.

 

Instead, Emma observes Regina silently, not even letting her know she’s awake. It’s been so long since she last saw her, almost two full months, that it feels like simply looking at Regina is the most important thing for her to do. She doesn’t look any different, maybe a little darker from the sun, but everything else is still the same as it was before they separated for their summer activities. Regina still wears her hair in long waves. Her nose still bunches up between her eyes when she’s reading. Her clothes are still too perfect, like she irons them and they magically never wrinkle even though she’s a kid and her clothes should be messier. Regina is still Regina. And that’s the best thing ever.

 

Emma smiles to herself, happy to have her back. She doesn’t know when worrying about not having a family turned into worrying about losing her best friend, but she hasn’t been wondering if Pam and Martin have changed their minds about keeping her. However, she’s definitely worried about Regina coming back and not wanting anything to do with Emma after a summer with cultured, intelligent kids.

 

“What are you reading?” she asks quietly, not sure if a quiet voice would startle Regina less than her normal volume.

 

Regina doesn’t startle at all, thankfully. “I’m rereading Black Beauty. I actually brought this here for you.”

 

Emma sits up in her chair. “For me?”

 

Regina pulls her legs down from the window ledge and turns around so she’s facing Emma. She takes a moment to look at her, with the same leisure sweep of eyes that Emma had used when looking over Regina, like she’s reacquainting herself with the look of Emma. She smiles a little when she’s finished and stands up, stretching her back and arms. Emma briefly wonders how long she’s been sitting up there and why Regina didn’t just wake her up.

 

Padding across the room on bare feet, Regina tells her, “I got a new copy, so now I have two. I wasn’t sure if I should give you the old one or the new one. I didn’t want you to think I was giving you this one just because I had a better version now.”

 

Emma reaches out and accepts the worn copy with the folded corners and little papers sticking out of it. “No, I love this. It has more to offer. There’s more than just the story in this copy. Your notes and everything are in it.”

 

Regina smiles bashfully and folds her hands in front of herself, her hair falling to cover the side of her face. “I should have known you would understand my choice without needing to explain.”

 

Emma smiles back at her, even though Regina’s still looking at her feet and not at Emma. “I get you. You don’t need to explain things like that to me.” She strokes her hand over the cover and puts it down on her desk, leaving it out so she can sit down with it as soon as Regina leaves tomorrow afternoon. “Thank you.”

 

“We’ll talk about it after you finish it. It was one of my favorites—is still one of my favorites.”

 

“Then I can’t wait to read it.”

 

///

 

Hours later, they're settled in Emma's bedroom for the night after having their dinner and showers. Regina’s rolled up sleeping bag is behind her as she sits on the floor, elbows propped up on it. Emma’s laying on the floor in a fetal position again; her level of comfort has increased exponentially as the evening stretched into the late hours, but she still feels a slight pressure in her belly. They were supposed to be painting, but after a while, Emma gave up on trying to concentrate and Regina decided that listening to the radio was more than enough entertainment for her.

 

“I’m sorry for making our first sleepover so awful,” Emma mumbles into her arm. She had really high hopes for this night; she had been so sure everything would be perfect. 

 

Regina’s smiling at her, amused, soft, the purple glow of the nightlight on her skin. “I’m having a good time. This isn’t awful.”

 

Emma doesn’t believe her. “We didn’t even do anything. I had so many plans for us. I was going to make sure nobody ever invited you to a better sleepover than this one.”

 

“I’m surprised you think I would want to have a sleepover with anyone else in the first place.”

 

“Why wouldn’t you? Didn’t you used to have sleepovers with Abigail?”

 

Emma remembers vague mentions of the times Regina had slept at the house before, but she's never spoken about it in detail. Regina’s smile falters, and Emma wishes she didn’t bring the other girl up. She knows they’re not friends anymore, even if she doesn’t know why—and it isn't as though Emma wants them to be. Emma doesn’t want to have to share the time she gets with Regina, especially not with Abigail. Maybe that's greedy of her, to want Regina all to herself, but Regina is her best friend, and Emma already feels like she never has enough time with Regina as it is.

 

Huffing, Regina gets up from the floor and walks over to the door. For a moment, Emma thinks she’s going to leave and begins to panic. But Regina only cracks the door open enough to look outside of it. When she comes back, instead of going back to her spot against the wall, she lies on the floor with Emma. She looks funny, like she’s nervous about something, which makes Emma nervous, and her stomach really can't handle nerves on top of the cramping.

 

“Regina?” she whispers, concerned because she’s not used to this particular brand of quiet on Regina.

 

It takes a few long breaths, but Regina responds to her concerned whisper with her own soft voice. “I never told anybody about this. So if I tell you, you have to promise you won’t tell anybody.”

 

Emma nods automatically. “Promise.”

 

Regina lets out another, longer, breath against Emma’s face. She looks so nervous that Emma’s worried about what she might say, so worried that as soon as Regina opens her mouth to speak, Emma covers it with her hand. She stops her from letting out her secret.

 

“Wait!” Emma slides her hand away and wipes Regina’s spit off of it on her shorts.

 

Regina’s eyes are wider than they normally are, and her breathing is so loud Emma can hear it over the sound of her blood rushing in her ears like it always does whenever she gets nervous. “Why’d you do that?”

 

“I wasn’t ready.”

 

You weren’t ready! I’m the one telling you a secret.”

 

“I know, but I have to be ready to hear the secret.” Regina narrows her eyes and begins to move away, but Emma stops her, pulling on her arm. “No, don’t leave. I just wanted to be ready. You made my heart feel like it was going to explode. I’m sorry.”

 

Regina sighs and lets Emma pull her back close. “I don’t think I can say it anymore. You made me more nervous.”

 

“I didn’t mean to, honest.”

 

Regina goes quiet again, so Emma doesn’t try to make her talk about anything, not secrets or sleepovers or even books. She decides maybe they’ve done enough of a whole lot of nothing and should go to sleep instead. So, Emma gets up from the floor and pulls her blanket and the rest of her bedding down. She brings the radio closer and turns it down, deciding to leave it on for the night but keep it low enough not to disturb anybody else in the house. She knows Pam won’t mind, so she puts it on her little nightstand and then gets in the bed. Without even thinking twice about it, she shifts over as far as she can go to one side and pats the bed.

 

“Get in,” she tells Regina, pulling the covers up over herself.

 

Regina doesn’t join her right away, but she eventually gets up from the floor and climbs in next to Emma. Inky and scrutinizing, Regina's eyes feel like they're looking right through Emma as her friend studies her face, not yet laying her head down on the pillow. It's hard not to fidget when Regina's looking at her so closely and not saying anything, but Emma tries her best to just stay still and wait for the moment to pass. It's unclear what Regina is searching for, but Emma knows Regina's weighing her options, contemplating, considering something. She's seen this look enough times to know what it means—but usually, Regina's looking at word puzzles and books like this, not Emma. 

 

Without a word, Regina comes to her private conclusion and settles on her back and pulls the covers all the way above their heads. It’s dark and Emma can’t see anything, so she thinks maybe Regina might want to try again. She thinks it’s easier to talk in the dark somehow. Maybe it’s because you don’t have to look at the other person, or you’re not worried about what your face is doing. She doesn’t really know. She just knows it’s less scary this way.

 

“You wanna tell me now?” Emma whispers.

 

Regina shuffles and rolls over onto her side. Emma can feel the warmth of her breathing again. “Here? Like this?”

 

Emma shrugs even though Regina can’t see. “Yeah. Why not?”

 

“Because this is weird.”

 

Emma wonders if she means her secret or them being all the way under the covers. Emma almost asks, but Regina keeps talking, and Emma gets her answer and then some before she’s properly prepared herself for what Regina says.

 

“Your sister tried to kiss me the last time I slept here,” Regina whispers, even quieter than her previous whisper.

 

Emma’s eyes go wide, and maybe she doesn’t focus on the right part of the secret, but she can’t help but say, “She’s not my sister. Ew.”

 

“Ew,” Regina repeats, nervously, and Emma realizes that she really needs to work on how she responds to things with Regina if she doesn’t plan on offending her with every chance she gets.

 

“No, not ew you, ew her. Ew her being my sister part, I mean. I don’t even like her. I wouldn’t—”

 

“Emma,” Regina hisses impatiently, making Emma shut her mouth tightly. “Focus.”

 

Emma doesn’t know what she should be focusing on, if she’s being honest. Is she focusing on the part where Abigail wanted to kiss Regina, or the part where Regina said she tried to but didn’t say she did? Or, is she supposed to be focusing on something else entirely? Should she focus on the way it makes her angry that Abigail tried to kiss Emma’s best friend, even if they weren’t best friends at the time and it shouldn’t matter even if they were?

 

Emma groans and puts her hand under her shirt to hold her stomach. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

 

Regina pulls the covers off of them and sits up. It’s still dark, but not dark enough to hide the way Regina’s chest is rising and falling too quickly for her to be breathing at a normal rate. Emma reaches out and does what Pam and Julie do for her when she needs to calm down. She puts her hand on the middle of Regina’s back and rubs circles, finding the slow movement surprisingly calming for herself as well.

 

“Tell me you don’t think I’m disgusting,” Regina whispers. Emma's never heard her voice sound so tiny.

 

Emma’s hand pauses on the middle of Regina’s small back. “Why would I think you’re disgusting? I would never think anything like that.”

 

Regina looks over her shoulder, looking absolutely terrified. “Even if I said I would have been a little okay with it?”

 

Emma’s stomach muscles tighten uncomfortably and she wants to roll into a ball and cry, but she’s never seen Regina look so scared before, so she can’t focus on the discomfort of her own body. She pulls the blanket up a little more and gestures with her head toward the pillow. “Can we go back under, please?”

 

Regina hesitates and stays perfectly still, but after a long moment passes, she lies down and closes her eyes. Emma pulls the covers over them and, even though it’s completely dark, shuts her eyes as well. Emma knows Regina was the last one to say something, that she should be answering Regina’s question, but it’s a lot to process and she’s not really sure she knows how to respond. Of course she would never think Regina is disgusting. Of course not. But she’s not entirely sure why Regina would even think Emma would think that. People kiss people all the time. Maybe Abigail is a bit of a brat and a liar who does mean things to people for no reason, but Emma wouldn’t care if someone kissed her. She just thinks Regina could do way better if she wants to kiss someone.

 

“Emma,” Regina pleads with only the one word.

 

Emma reaches her hand out and searches for Regina, patting the bed, Regina’s stomach, her arm, and then finally her hand. She gives it a squeeze to assure her that everything is okay—only, Emma realizes she’s never taught Regina her hand holding language and Regina won’t understand what it means.

 

“You are still the bestest person I know. Okay? I don’t think you’re disgusting. And if anyone ever says you are, I’ll punch them right in the face for thinking that’s okay. Got it?” Regina’s hold on Emma’s hand is so tight Emma swears she’s going to make Emma’s fingers snap right off, but Emma doesn’t complain. “Okay?”

 

Regina sniffles and whispers a tearful, “Okay.”

 

It feels like someone’s squeezing her heart and won’t let it go. She’s never heard Regina cry before, not even once in the six months they’ve been friends. It’s the most awful sound, and she can’t bear to hear it; not because it hurts her ears, but because it hurts her soul.

 

“Why are there tears?” Emma asks as she reaches over and wipes Regina’s face with the hand that isn’t still being held by Regina. “Please stop crying. I can’t catch the tears quick enough.”

 

Regina laughs and her entire body shakes. “Don’t make me laugh, silly. I’m already feeling too many emotions.”

 

Emma smiles and wipes Regina’s cheek, lets her fingers brush over her friend’s warm skin, collecting tears. “Can I ask you something?”

 

Regina’s laughter stops, but she doesn’t sound nervous anymore, which is good enough to keep Emma from feeling all twisty inside. “Sure.”

 

“Why didn’t you?”

 

“Why didn’t I?”

 

Emma nods her head. “Kiss her, or let her kiss you. If you might have liked it...”

 

Silence in the dark seems to stretch on and on and on, and Regina stays silent for a long time. “She didn’t want to kiss me because she liked me. She...”

 

Emma squeezes her fingers around Regina’s and tries to encourage her to continue. “She...”

 

“It was all a trick. I don’t even know if she even liked me as a friend anymore, but she definitely didn’t like me the way you should like someone you kiss. She was going to tell everybody at school about it, or at least that’s what she said she was going to do. I don’t know what her goal truly was. But after I stopped her from kissing me because I didn’t like her that way, I tried to make her feel better because I thought I had hurt her feelings.

 

“And she said I was being stupid, that she had only been playing and she wasn’t like me. She said it was disgusting.”

 

“Like you,” Emma says out loud, even though she doesn’t mean to let her thoughts escape her. She’s beginning to understand exactly why Regina had believed Emma might react badly to her wanting to kiss Abigail. It changes nothing about what she’s said, of course, but things make a little more sense to her now. “She thinks kissing girls is disgusting,” Emma guesses.

 

“Yes.”

 

Emma doesn’t really need another reason to not like Abigail, but she keeps finding new ones. But she doesn’t focus on Abigail, decides that they’re not going to talk about her anymore. Instead, curious, Emma asks more about Regina. She’s discovering there are so many things she doesn’t know about her, and she wants to know every single detail now.

 

“I don't agree," she tells Regina again, just in case she needs to be reassured. "Anybody would be lucky to kiss you."

 

Regina's fingers squeeze tightly around Emma's hand again, but she sounds more like her normal self when she whispers, "You think so?"

 

"Duh. Have you never looked at yourself in the mirror or something?" Emma giggles, feeling warm in her face as she adds, "You're the prettiest girl I know—and the smartest—and you have the best taste in books. That sounds like the total package to me. If other people disagree, they're either intimidated by how brilliant that beautiful brain of yours is, or they're just stupid." 

 

Regina's silence makes Emma nervous, but then there's laughter in her ear as Regina moves closer and slides an arm around Emma's middle. "I know you're just saying all of that to make me feel better, but it worked. Thank you." 

 

Emma forgets to breathe for a moment—and then when she does, all she can smell is Regina's hair, and that makes her feel strangely dizzy. She squeezes her eyes shut almost as tight as she squeezes Regina, hugging her back. She wants to tell Regina that she means every word she just said—especially the part about her brain being beautiful, because Emma is fascinated every time Regina teaches her something new or they have one of their discussions after reading an interesting book and Regina points out things Emma missed or interpreted completely different. But she doesn't think she should. She's said it already, and Regina had thought she was joking. She's not going to repeat it.

 

When Regina scoots over a little, Emma decides she still wants to know so many more things about Regina, so she asks, "Can I ask another question?”

 

Regina hums thoughtfully. “Do you plan on asking me questions all night, Emma?”

 

“Would you mind if I did?” Emma hopes she doesn’t, because Emma’s suddenly no longer sleepy and she wants to spend the rest of the night learning about Regina.

 

“A secret for a secret.”

 

Emma doesn’t think she has many secrets, but she agrees. “Okay. So can I ask my question now?”

 

Regina laughs a little. “No,” she tells her seriously. “You have to tell me one first. I already told you my biggest one.”

 

“Fine. Go on, you first. But if I forget my question, we’re not going to sleep until I remember it.”

 

“Deal.”

 

///

 

Emma outgrew her brain-to-mouth filter several months ago and never replaced it. Pam isn’t like previous foster parents who required it; she encourages inquisitions and curiosities. Because of her lack of filtering, questions and random statements burst out of Emma without much thought given to where they are and who else surrounds them. This is why there are now little captured suns spilled out on the squeaky floor of the supermarket between Emma’s feet and those belonging to the balding man Emma hadn’t noticed until she heard the sound of eggs being dropped beside her.

 

Emma doesn’t understand why Pamela’s the one apologizing and guiding them away like they were the ones being careless with the fragile eggs, but she hurries them down the aisle—down the aisle they already went through—and doesn’t even answer Emma’s question. Emma gets a strange feeling in her gut when she notices the deepened color on her foster mother’s high cheekbones, and she wonders if maybe she shouldn’t ask questions like, “Have you ever kissed a girl before?” even when she’s talking to Pam. Perhaps there is a limit to how many unfiltered comments she’s allowed.

 

“Let’s find the frozen peas and get on the line to check out,” Pam says, certainly not an answer to Emma’s question.

 

Emma sags with disappointment, understanding the dismissal of the topic for what it is. “I’ll grab them,” she tells her foster mother just so she can rush ahead and Pam doesn’t see how much it hurts Emma that she won’t answer her question.

 

Normally, trips to the grocery stores are Emma’s favorite errands to run with Pamela. She volunteers to go along with her every time—even when it’s one of the other kids turn to help out. But the car ride is unusually silent on the way home—there’s no singing along to songs on the radio, no fun conversations where Pamela talks to Emma without treating her like she’s a little kid who doesn’t understand anything in life like most adults do. And Emma doesn’t like the awkwardness of the silence, doesn’t know how to sit still when she wants to escape the car and be anywhere else in the world. Pam’s not said or done anything to make Emma believe she’s done something wrong—but that doesn’t stop Emma from worrying that she might have.

 

The entire ride is uncomfortable, and things don’t get any better as they bring in the groceries and everybody comes into the kitchen to help put them away. So, when Pamela calls out Emma’s name just when she’s about to go upstairs to her bedroom once everything is done, Emma is prepared for the worst—well, not prepared but expecting; her stomach feels like it’s knotted itself all up into a ball that might never come undone again.

 

Emma forces a smile onto her face and hopes it doesn’t look as fake as it truly is. “Do you need me to do something else?”

 

Pam purses her lips and regards Emma with a thoughtful look that unnerves the girl. When Emma squirms despite her attempt to stand still, Pam’s deeply furrowed brow relaxes and she warmly smiles. “Grab a treat for yourself and join me outside.” Pam opens up the fridge and takes out the pitcher of fresh lemonade she’s made. “Summer will be over before we know it. We should be soaking up as much of its warmth as we can. In a couple of months, we’ll be mourning the loss of it.”

 

Pam doesn’t wait to see if Emma is following her when she leaves with her glass of lemonade and heads out through the sliding door that leads to the backyard. The pitcher remains on the counter with an empty cup, but Emma puts it away and goes into the freezer for something colder.

 

With her Popsicle unwrapped and the cherry sweetness on her tongue, Emma feels a buzz of sugar-induced glee slowly melt away the uncomfortable feeling she’s had since they were in the supermarket. It’s as artificial as the flavoring of her chosen treat, but it is enough to give Emma the push to head outside to where Pam waits for her on the swing set in the corner of the big yard. Before leaving the patio, she toes off her shoes and leaves them next to the brown flats that Pam had been wearing.

 

It tickles, the grass between her toes; the earth is heated from the sun, dirt and tiny rocks and the soft brush of the grass. She wriggles her toes. She slurps the melting juice from her Popsicle loudly, catching it with her tongue before it can drip down her hand and stain her skin red like it is surely doing to her mouth. Pam watches Emma with an inviting smile but doesn’t rush her to come over to where she relaxes on the old swing set. So Emma takes her time getting there; she tips her head back and squeezes her eyes tightly to shield them from the bright sun while she allows its heat to wash over her skin. Pamela’s right; she’s going to miss this once winter comes around.

 

Winter, here, at House Number Twelve... She realizes she’s already been through three seasons living in this house, more than half a year already gone. Outside of living in her group home before they shut down and all the children were moved into foster homes, their doors permanently closed, Emma’s never lived anywhere for more than six months—until now. The realization makes her stomach dip low into her belly, a sickening feeling that makes her Popsicle suddenly unappealing.

 

She opens her eyes and looks over to Pamela and wonders if she’s about to tell Emma it’s time for her to go. Is that why Pamela wants to talk to her? Not because of what Emma asked her in the store about kissing girls but this, Emma’s time being up. How had Emma not even noticed that she’d been there so long? She’s not prepared for this, to say goodbye, to hear that Pamela doesn’t want her anymore. She had forgotten to remember how quickly she could find herself needing to stuff all her belongings into one bag and be moved to a new house. Why had she let herself forget that?

 

Pam becomes a blur in the distance as the air thickens and Emma struggles to breathe. Her lungs tighten, desperate for oxygen; but Emma doesn’t remember how to inhale or exhale anymore, doesn’t remember if there’s a special way to do it and if that’s why she suddenly feels like her head is going to explode from all the pressure building up inside it.

 

Emma gets dizzy and too hot, and then she doesn’t know what happens, but it’s like time skips ahead because she blinks and finds herself back on the patio with Pam hovering above her. She goes to sit up, but Pam, with worry-filled eyes, gently pushes her head back down to the cushion. Pamela’s saying something, but Emma’s ears feel strange; they’re buzzing with static and it’s like someone’s left the radio on between two stations and nothing is clear.

 

Emma shuts her eyes and, thankfully with more ease than before, takes several deep breaths in and out. It helps her find her proper station, sound crashing into her like the waves of the ocean slamming into rocks. The sweet sound of summer replaces the buzz with the songs of the bugs and birds, a familiar melody that blends peacefully with Pam’s quiet hum.

 

“I’m okay,” Emma weakly mumbles as Pamela strokes her hair. She makes another attempt to sit up on the wicker seat, but, again, gentle hands push her back down so she doesn’t move.

 

“Lie still, Emma. You fainted.” A cold drip drip drip falls onto her face and Pam questions, “Are you too hot?”

 

Emma sighs when a cloth strokes her neck, cold against the heat of her. But she isn’t overheated, not really, just normally hot. So, she shakes her head. “I’m fine,” she insists, but Pamela doesn’t stop cooling down her skin with unhurried strokes up and down her neck and face, and then her arms once she’s finished there.

 

It’s several minutes later when Emma is allowed to sit up properly. She’s no longer sticky from where her Popsicle must have fallen on her, and her chest doesn’t ache. Well, it doesn’t ache until she starts remembering why it had been hurting her in the first place. In the chaos and rush of the world spinning off its axis, Emma had forgotten that her entire life was about to be turned upside down again.

 

Emma brings her eyes down to look at Pam, Pam who has been more of a true mother to Emma than any other of her previous foster mothers—and way more of a mother than the one who birthed her and probably hadn’t even held Emma long enough to know if Emma would make a good daughter. Sitting on the ground with the washcloth and Emma’s glasses (which are thankfully not broken because this is not the time to be needing new glasses), Pamela isn’t cold and mean, isn’t unapproachable, nor distant, and she certainly isn’t uncaring. She’s made Emma feel welcomed just like she said she would, made Emma feel at home. Emma wonders if that’s worse than what Foster Mothers One through Eleven did. At least when it came time to leave all her previous houses, Emma had been, for the most part, ready to go. She hadn’t felt wanted at any of her previous houses, so she didn’t care too much that they finally made the last move and sent her away.

 

But Emma doesn’t want to leave this time.

 

She pulls in a shaky breath and shuts her eyes tightly, forcing herself to be strong. It’ll be all right. It’s always all right.

 

“Are you feeling dizzy again?” Pam asks in a soft voice as she rubs Emma’s arm. “Do you want to go inside?”

 

Emma shakes her head. She wishes Pamela wasn’t so nice to her, especially right now. She wants to melt underneath her touch, the comfort Pamela offers her like nothing anybody else has ever given her, and probably something she will spend years seeking in the future.

 

“What’s the matter, then, honey?”

 

Emma shuffles away from Pamela, as far as she can get on the seat made for two. She draws her legs up and drops her head down to her knees, barely able to see the woman in front of her over the tops of her bare knees. “My head hurts from thinking,” she mumbles.

 

Seeming unbothered by Emma’s attempt to put space between them, Pam smiles a little and doesn’t reach out to touch Emma again. “There’s a lot going on in there. I can tell, you know. You’ve been very quiet.” Her squinty eyes pinch with fine lines at the corners when she laughs a little. “I was almost worried I brought home the wrong Emma from the grocery store.”

 

Despite herself, Emma feels her smile growing and her nerves settling just enough for it to not be so painfully tight and heavy in her belly. When Pam notices her smile, the one on Pam’s face stretches wider.

 

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with what you asked me in the store, would it?”

 

Emma had forgotten about that, but now that Pam has reminded her, she has two nerve-wracking topics spinning around in her head. What was that she had just thought about her nerves settling? She buries her face deeper and groans quietly.

 

There’s a stretch of agonizing silence, and then Pam starts speaking in a quiet voice that’s hardly loud enough for Emma to hear. “You’re by far my most curious child, Emma.” She chuckles faintly. “I thought I’d heard it all. I assumed there weren’t any new topics that you could show an interest in that would surprise me. But here we are.”

 

It’s sudden and harsh, the way her head jerks—the way Emma jerks—when Pam calls Emma her child. Has Pam done that before? Emma can’t remember. Surely, Emma would have noticed Pamela claiming Emma as one of her own. Right? Pam doesn’t even seem to think it’s a big deal, doesn’t correct herself or anything. Can she not tell that Emma’s heart is beating double time because of her chosen phrasing?

 

Part of what Pamela has said will forever remain unknown to Emma, Emma whose internal commentary is higher in volume than her foster mother’s voice. She can’t bring herself to ask Pam to repeat what she’s missed, but Emma does force herself to tune back in and listen. She finds, the more she listens, the quieter her worries become, dissipating in the breeze of Pam’s unintentional yet much-needed reassurance. She sometimes forgets how quickly she grabs onto little, unimportant moments and spins them into something awful, creating a mess of her own emotions when there’s really nothing wrong. She’s reminded of this as she gets out of her own head and just listens to what Pamela says to her.

 

“...but even mothers don’t always have the right thing to say. We don’t always have the right answers.” Smiling, Pam looks up at Emma. “I don’t want my hesitation earlier to be the reason you decide not to come to me when you’re curious about something in the future, and I hope you don’t regret coming to me this time. You should always feel like you can come to me about anything—and Martin—even the hard things. Especially the hard things,” Pam says with a very serious look about her, eyes boring into Emma until Emma nods slightly.

 

An air of relief bursts through Emma’s lips. She doesn’t ask Pam about whether or not she’s about to tell her she needs to get ready to leave. She doesn’t need to, not when Pam makes it so obvious that she thinks of Emma as hers and the thought of Emma going anywhere isn’t even conceivable. Emma knows the signs of foster parents getting ready to send her packing, and none of them are present. Emma sees that now that she’s thinking more clearly, rationally, seeing everything with True Vision instead of her panicky, afraid of being pushed away one.

 

She feels ridiculous for entertaining the thought, for once again being so paranoid that she has caused herself to actually faint from her anxiety.

 

Emma realizes she hasn’t said much of anything since Pam invited her to come outside, that Pam isn’t even really aware of why Emma was struggling to breathe before. But she doesn’t try to change any of that. She doesn’t want to. Instead of talking about how quickly she had started worrying about her future, Emma unravels herself and slinks down to the ground with Pam so she can sit close to her. She lays her head down with her cheek pressing into the hollow of Pam’s collarbone; the warm and soft skin that she shamelessly buries her face in are both comforting.  

 

Releasing a tired sigh, Emma snakes an arm around Pamela, squeezing her so very tight to make it undeniably clear just how awful she finds the idea of ever having to let go. Strong arms squeeze back just as fiercely and a rumble of a hum vibrates next to Emma’s ear. Emma feels loved and wanted and she breathes with so much ease as they just sit there for a while.

 

Emma doesn’t reposition herself until the scratchy, rough ground becomes unbearable on her skin and it begins hurting more than she can bear. She gingerly crawls over outstretched legs and then, with less grace, tumbles down onto her back and lies with half of her body in the shade, the other warming under the sun, foot stretched out to touch the grass. Looking down at Emma, Pam laughs a little and playfully pokes her side. It makes Emma grin.

 

Now that she no longer feels weighed down by uncertainties, it’s easier to just talk to Pam like she normally does. She bites on the inside of her cheek as she decides how to broach the topic that’s been on her mind a lot since Regina slept over, but, just as they had in the grocery store, words tumble out of her mouth without going through a filtering system of any sort. This time, Pam doesn’t appear to be surprised or weirdly tight-lipped.

 

“I don’t get what the big deal is—with kissing, I mean. Like, why does it matter to other people who you wanna kiss? It shouldn’t matter.”

 

Squinty eyes get even squintier when Pam looks at Emma curiously. It’s not unnerving or anything, just constant. She silently stares until the corner of her mouth quirks and she hums a bit in her throat. “Are you thinking about kissing someone, Emma?”

 

If Emma were to be drinking something, it would shoot out of her mouth and nose like in a cartoon. But since she’s only laying down on her back with her face turned away from the shine of the bright sun, she can only widen her eyes extra wide and look at Pam like she’s just asked her the silliest of all possible question. “Absolutely not,” she proclaims incredulously. “I don’t want to kiss anybody. I just have a lot of, um, well, thoughts about the topic in general.”

 

“I’ve noticed.”

 

Emma twists her lips together, wondering if Pam’s plain tone is indicative of anything that should send up red flags for Emma. But when Pam says no more and gives Emma one of her little smiles, she decides Pam is probably just waiting for Emma to elaborate. So she does. “Some people think girls shouldn’t kiss girls because it’s disgusting. I used to think anybody kissing was disgusting, so I want to say I get it. But this feels different. I mean, I just thought it was nasty that people wanted to put their mouths on other people’s mouth and share their spit. Because why would anybody want to do that? But this isn’t like that.”

 

Pam clears her throat and looks surprised here and there as Emma speaks, but she doesn’t seem uncomfortable, and that’s how Emma can usually tell she’s said something wrong. Pam does take longer than Emma would like to respond, but when she does, she doesn’t do that thing where adults like to make it sound like they know best about everything and shut down conversations before they’ve really begun. Emma loves that about Pam, loves how Pam pretty much always encourages her to have her own thoughts and opinions and respects them.

 

“I think it is fair to say those are distinctively different sentiments,” Pam agrees with an affirmative head nod. She hesitates before continuing, “People who believe something is wrong with someone kissing another person because of who they are—in this case, because they are both girls—are usually close-minded individuals. If it doesn’t match what they deem as proper behavior, then they find reasons for why it’s wrong. But there isn’t anything wrong with the girls who want to kiss other girls, or the boys who want to kiss boys.”

 

“There’s something wrong with the prejudice and mean people,” Emma adds with a frown, remembering the way Regina had been so worried Emma would find her disgusting. Emma wants to tell Pam about Abigail and what she said to Regina, but she can’t. She would be betraying Regina’s trust. But that doesn’t stop Emma from sharing: “I don’t like people with small minds, or people who are cruel for no reason.”

 

Pam brushes Emma’s hair away from her face and smiles down at her. There’s a little sadness in her eyes that she slowly blinks away after a moment. “It’s unfortunate that some people choose to remain ignorant. It's worse that some people aren’t naturally aware that there are other ways to be because all they’ve known or seen growing up is the cruelties that are normalized. It’s unfair that people continue to spread their poisonous beliefs and views and new generations learn the same hateful ways from our pasts.

 

“But remember that every time you are kind and you open yourself up to see someone else’s perspective, no matter how small or insignificant it might feel at the time, you’re making a change that will have an impact. Maybe it will only impact that one person, but even that is special and important.”

 

"It's tough to be kind to some people sometimes," she admits. "Some people are just the worst and honestly don't deserve kindness. Well, no. Not that they don't deserve kindness. I don't want to say that because then I'm no better than the jerks of the world who are awful to people. But some people just..." Emma groans with an eye roll, throwing her hands up in the air above her. "Some people need a good shake and a talking to, then kindness." 

 

"A good shake, huh?" 

 

Emma nods and shrugs the best she can while laying down. "Just a little one to get some common sense into their heads, you know?" 

 

"Or," Pam says slowly, halfway to a smile, "maybe just a good talking to instead." 

 

"Or that. Sure. Just, you know, something." 

 

Emma thinks of Miss Dee from the group home she used to live in. Until Pam, Miss Dee had been the nicest person Emma had ever known. She had been so different from all of the other adults at the home. She read books at night during the weekends and gave out treats for especially good behavior. Emma loved her, but a lot of the kids would make jokes about her because she was old and they said she smelt weird. When Miss Dee stopped working at the group home, she took away what little light touched their dingy walls and left them in a gloomy state that made Emma feel empty. She wonders if everybody had just been a little nicer, if they had shown how much they appreciated the extra things Miss Dee did for them, if maybe they could have kept the only genuine kindness they had had in their life a little longer.

 

Sighing sadly, Emma turns onto her side and cradles her head in her hand. “Can I ask you something?”

 

“Is it the same question you asked me earlier?”

 

“Um, no, not exactly. But...” Curiosity makes her wonder why Pamela never did answer her. “You can answer that one, too.”

 

The corner of Pam’s mouth twitches with the hint of a smile. “What’s your new question?”

 

“I know you said it’s not wrong for girls to kiss girls, but...” Emma’s not sure how to ask what she wants to ask, how to make the jumble inside her head coherent. She chews thoughtfully on her lip and mindlessly scratches her fingers over the hem of her shorts. “Well, you know how you asked me if I was thinking of kissing someone before?”

 

“I do.”

 

“Is it weird that I don’t? I mean, a lot of the kids my age talk about kissing and having crushes so much that I feel like I should be at that stage by now. But I don’t think I am.” She doesn’t tell Pam that she technically has already had her first kiss because it’s not really important. However, she does add, “I’ve been waiting for the day I start wanting to kiss boys to happen, and now that I’m thinking about girls getting to kiss girls...”

 

Pamela looks uncertain for the briefest moment, barely a second, something Emma only notices because she’s staring at her with nervous and impatient eyes. But Pam reaches over and gives Emma’s hand one of those squeezes that are meant to reassure and soothe Emma’s nerves, and Emma knows that Pam is just processing what Emma’s said.

 

“You aren’t weird for not feeling the same way other people feel about anything, ever. Just because one person experiences something one way, doesn’t mean you will experience it the same way. Do you understand what I mean?”

 

Emma nods. “Yeah, I think so.”

 

“Maybe when you’re older, you’ll have inclinations similar to what some of your peers are currently feeling. But, maybe you won’t. It doesn’t mean you’re weird, my sweet girl. The only thing it means is that you don’t want to kiss boys, which is perfectly fine.” Whispering with a playful glint in her eyes, Pam adds, “Who wants to put their mouth on someone else’s mouth and share their spit anyway, right?”

 

Emma grins broadly. “It is pretty gross if you think about it.”

 

“Sometimes,” Pam tells her, and Emma thinks she seriously means it. “But sometimes it isn’t.”

 

"I think it might be less gross with a girl. They're cleaner."

 

Pamela lets out a full laugh. "I wouldn't know, but... Maybe one day you'll find out." Emma hums, considering the possibility. Lifting herself up from the ground with a groan, Pam moves to the chair and checks her watch for the time. “It’ll soon be time to start dinner prep.”

 

“Already?” Emma says with a pout. “Can’t we just skip prep and stay out here and talk?”

 

Humming, Pam shakes her head from side to side regretfully. "Unfortunately our responsibilities don't disappear just because we are having a good time doing something else. However, if you like, we can continue this conversation inside. You're on dishes duty tonight, correct? If you help with dinner prep, you can leave the dishes and I'll do them." 

 

Emma doesn't even have to think about her answer. She answers with an immediate, "I'd love to help with dinner prep. But you don't have to do the dishes yourself. I can still do those. I like getting to clean up after dinner." 

 

Pam laughs and holds up a hand to help Emma up once she herself is standing. "Tell you what," Pam says, pulling Emma to her feet, "we can do both together and we can talk as much as you like." 

 

Emma makes an excited noise and practically bounces into Pam's body to give her a quick hug. "You've got yourself a deal!" 

 

Pam's chuckle grows in volume. "If only all of you were this enthusiastic about helping out around the house." 

 

"Their loss. More Emma and Pam time." Hearing the sound of running footsteps coming through the door, she peeks into the kitchen and sees Tommy getting out the lemonade. "And maybe Tommy time, too. He likes helping out with dinner as well." 

 

Pam gathers both of their shoes and is about to lead them inside when she suddenly stops, pausing to look at Emma. Emma pauses as well, raising both her eyebrows curiously. Pam opens her mouth, closes it, twists her lips together, and then gives Emma a small smile. 

 

"What is it?" 

 

Pam shakes her head and says, "Nothing. I was remembering a conversation I had with my mother before Julie was born. This talk reminded me of something I said to her." 

 

Emma knows that Pam and her mother aren't close, so she's curious. In all the time Emma has lived with the family, Pam's mother has come to the house once. Emma can still remember Pam's foul mood and feel the animosity and tension that filled the air whenever they were in the same room. It was the longest weekend of Emma's life. "What did you say?" Emma wonders. 

 

There's no hesitation when Pam honestly answers, "That I wouldn't be anything like her. We would have never had a discussion like the one you and I just had when I was growing up. My mother was unbearably close-minded, and still is. I didn't want Julie to ever feel like she couldn't talk to me. I told my mother that she, in the most roundabout possible way, taught me how to be a good mother and I was thankful for that much." 

 

"Julie's lucky to have a mom like you. All of them are," Emma tells Pam sincerely. She doesn't say that she feels lucky as well, but she hopes Pam knows she feels lucky to have her. Emma has never opened up with any of her other foster parents like this before, has never felt like she was safe to do so, like it was okay to talk about basically anything with a foster parent. 

 

Pam gives her shoulder a squeeze and walks them into the house. "I'm lucky to be the mother to four amazing children," she says, pressing a kiss to the top of Emma's head before turning to close the door. 

 

Emma's heart glows with warmth and she doesn't stop smiling for so long her cheeks hurt the rest night. 

Chapter Text

Two years—that’s how long it takes for the first sign of trouble to make an appearance and make Emma nervous about her place in Regina’s life.

 

Trouble’s name is Daniel, and Emma doesn’t understand any of what she thought she did anymore.

 

It’s a week before the first day of eighth grade, two months before Emma’s thirteenth birthday, two years after the first time they had their very first end of the summer sleepover, and Emma is having an identity crisis—and she thinks Regina might be, too.

 

She wants to talk to someone, but the first person Emma thinks of going to is the reason she’s having the crisis in the first place. She can’t exactly call Regina up and tell her, “Hey, guess what. I think I’m a lesbian and in love with you,” when Regina won’t stop talking about a boy named Daniel. Hadn’t they been sharing the very bed that Emma is now hiding in when Regina said she liked girls? Girls! Girls, not boys named Daniel who like horses and probably smell like hay. Did Emma make up that whole night? Or did Regina forget she likes girls? Is that a thing? Because Emma really wouldn’t mind forgetting that she thinks she likes Regina right about now.

 

Somewhere along the way of Foster Mother Number Twelve turning into Pam, who was sometimes Pamela, and now almost always Mom, Emma’s sure she outright denied that she liked Regina that way when Pamela carefully asked her about it. If she goes to her with this now, Pam will think Emma lied to her—which Emma didn’t. Emma hadn’t liked Regina, or at least she hadn’t believed she did. But it’s been two years and six months of thinking Regina’s the prettiest person on the planet, and maybe sometimes she thinks about kissing her, and other times she thinks of doing more, and maybe she doesn’t really know for sure what that more is, because Emma just isn't sure about all the possibilities and if she'll truly enjoy them, but she is sure she shouldn’t want to do any of it with someone she only likes as a friend. But she can’t tell Pam any of that.

 

And even though Julie’s never stopped being there for her whenever she needs to have a talk Emma can’t exactly have with a mom, she doesn’t think she can talk about this with Julie either. At least with Pam, Emma already knows she doesn’t think it’s wrong or gross for girls to like girls. She doesn’t know how Julie feels about it, and she’s a little scared to find out. She doesn’t want to lose her big sister after all this time.

 

And Emma’s never been able to talk to Martin, Martin who is never really home in the first place.

 

So, unless Tommy grows up in the next minute, she’s going to continue having her identity crisis by herself while her entire life changes without her even getting a say in the matter.

 

She’s supposed to be getting her room ready for her sleepover with Regina, but instead of tidying up like Pam told her to do, Emma’s made a mess of her bed with memories and art supplies. Pam might be proud of her for this one, maybe. She’s being creative, turning her frustration and lack of understanding into art just like Pamela always encourages. Perhaps she’s doing it with more glue than she should use while sitting in the middle of her bed, but at least she’s trying.

 

Emma didn’t realize how much she kept in her box of Regina related keepsakes until she poured it all out on her bed. It was only supposed to be the most important items, little things that were special and significant. But there’s so much that Emma deemed significant that she can’t be sure there’s anything she hasn’t kept. She’s not sure if that says more about how important Regina is to her or how afraid Emma has been from the start about losing Regina. But it means something. Emma knows she has kept all of what she has so she never has to truly lose their friendship, even if she has to one day lose Regina.

 

Her fingers brush over the scattered items: folded notes, random rocks, cute bookmarks, birthday and holiday cards, keychains, buttons... There’s more, things that wouldn’t fit in the box. She has a jacket in her closet that had once been Regina’s that Emma borrowed so many times that Regina just never asked for it back, and books on her shelves. There are little gifts that were all random, never on Christmas or her birthday; Regina only gives her cards for those days, likes giving gifts on Wednesdays and Saturdays just because instead. Emma’s kept it all.

 

She finds the first note they passed in class and unfolds it. Emma had caught Regina looking at her paper, so Emma had thought it would be funny to do to her what Regina always did to Emma. The note just says: Eyes on your own paper. And Regina had responded: You got the third one wrong. (She had number three correct!)

 

Emma smiles as she folds the note. What if Regina never passes her another note in class? What if she only wants to pass notes to Daniel? Emma doesn’t even know if Daniel will be in their school, or their class, but the what-ifs make her chest feel tight and uncomfortable. Regina is supposed to be Emma’s best friend. Daniel doesn’t deserve Regina’s passed notes. What if he doesn’t appreciate Regina’s nerdiness the way Emma does? What if he doesn’t think she’s just as funny as she is smart even if it’s hard understanding her humor sometimes?

 

None of this feels right.

 

What did Daniel even have to offer that Emma didn’t already bring to the table? Emma can love horses, too, if that's what makes him so freaking fantastic.

 

“You’re pathetic,” Emma tells herself aloud, falling back against her pillows and letting the scrapbook she’s working on slide off her lap.

 

Her heart is tired of everything she’s putting it through lately. She can’t eat, or sleep, or even breathe the correct way anymore. Everything is Regina Regina Regina, and if this is what it feels like to love someone, she doesn’t know why people do it. It’s exhausting. When does it get to the good part? When will her stomach stop aching whenever someone brings up Regina? When will she be able to look at her again without feeling like her heart is going to beat right out of her chest like in the cartoons? When will she be able to think about something other than how much she just wants to hold her best friend’s hand and have it mean something?

 

When?

 

///

 

The drive to Regina’s house is too short for this to be a good idea, but when Pam asks, “Are you okay?” while they’re driving to pick Regina up, Emma forgets she’s supposed to say that she is.

 

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” Emma says instead, completely serious, breathing out a loud puff air.

 

Pam looks at the reflection of Emma in the rearview mirror and lifts her brow. Emma knows it means she wants an explanation, but Emma doesn’t know how to explain without sounding like she’s losing her marbles. “You look like my Emma from where I’m sitting.”

 

It’s been two years and six months, and Pam still smiles like sunshine, and Emma still feels warm inside because of it.

 

“I am your Emma,” she agrees, leaning her head against the glass and watching the cars that drive by, “but I’m also several other Emmas sometimes.”

 

Pam snorts and turns the radio down. “Okay, I’m going to need more information to follow this conversation. What’s going on?”

 

Emma wonders exactly how much information she’s willing to give Pam. But all she needs to do is look up to the rearview mirror and catch Pam’s patient eyes for the briefest moment to know she’s willing to tell her basically everything. If Emma’s learned anything since the first day she sat in Pam’s car and the woman who was then a stranger to her put her hand out to protect Emma when they drove over the speed bump, and she thinks she’s learned plenty, it’s that Pam genuinely cares. Daughter or not, Pam would care about her.

 

“I feel like I’m being replaced. But I feel like my position as friend is what’s being taken by another, only they will probably be called boyfriend and not friend, which makes me wonder why my title was never girlfriend. And maybe I never really knew that was a title I wanted, but now I think part of me does. And that part of me is also very confused.”

 

Once the jumble of words is out of her head, out of her mouth, she feels like she should feel lighter. But she doesn’t. Once she realizes that putting the words out there means someone else now knows her secret, she gets dizzy and nervous and hot everywhere.

 

“Why are you confused?” Pam asks, and Emma can’t tell if she’s chosen that part of everything Emma’s said because she doesn’t want to discuss the other stuff or because she finds this particular bit of information most important, but she wishes Pam had asked a different question.

 

Emma knows they’re about three blocks away from Regina’s house and that there really isn't any time for this talk, so she blurts out the part that’s most important because it will eat her up inside if she has to wait until Regina is gone before she can say anything. She’ll spend the entire time wondering what Pam thinks if she doesn’t go ahead and find out.

 

“I think I love Regina,” rushes out of her, each word bumping into the one before it as they tumble out.

 

Much to Emma’s surprise, Pam’s response is a small smile. “All right. Now tell me what you’re confused about.”

 

“That’s not the right question," Emma bemoans. "You’re supposed to ask me why I love Regina, or how I love Regina.”

 

“Is that what you need me to ask for you to be able to say what you want to share with me, honey?”

 

Emma doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what she needs to say. She doesn’t know how to say it. She doesn’t know how Pam is so calm about any of this while Emma is freaking out.

 

She exhales, and they pull up to Regina’s house. Emma looks out the car window and says, sure of only one thing, “I don’t know if I love love her, but I know my life would be incomplete without her. And maybe that’s love, or maybe I’ve read too many sappy books, but I don’t want to be replaced.”

 

Pam twists in her seat and puts her hand on Emma’s knee, waiting for Emma to give her her attention before squeezing gently. “Tell her that.” When Emma’s eyes go wide, Pam smiles at her. “Perhaps not the confusing love parts, but the part about not wanting to be replaced. Honey, you're barely thirteen. You still have time to figure out who you love, how you love them, and what love even means to you. It's all very confusing sometimes," she tells Emma with another squeeze to her knee, "even when you're older. But right now you know that she’s important to you. That's what matters. Make sure she knows it as well. Do you think you can do that?”

 

Emma thinks she can do that, or she can at least try. She has to. If she doesn’t, that’s like deciding that being replaced is okay, and Emma would hate nothing more.

 

“Okay,” she decides, “I’ll talk to her about it.”

 

///

 

Before leaving to go pick Regina up from her house, Emma had gone downstairs to the playroom to play a video game with Tommy. She had planned on going upstairs to clean off her bed before leaving, but she forgot and everything is still scattered across the midnight blue comforter. It isn’t until she’s about to walk in the room with Regina’s bag over her shoulder that she remembers that she’s spilled two and half years worth of memories out for anyone who enters her room to see.

 

She comes to a sudden stop, both in speech and with her steps, not sure she wants Regina to see everything she’s collected. Regina doesn’t notice quick enough that Emma’s no longer moving and walks right into her with a soft oomf and a hand reaching out to grab Emma’s arm.

 

“What’s wrong?” Regina asks, pressing closer and looking over Emma’s shoulder. Her chin digs into skin that is slightly sunburnt from the family’s trip to the lake on Thursday, and it makes Emma wiggle away a little.

 

“My room’s a mess. You should wait here and let me, uh, clean up a bit first.”

 

Regina pokes Emma in her back with her fingers and pushes her into the room a little. “Don’t be silly. I’ve seen your room when it’s messy. This is fine.”

 

Emma whines in her throat and pushes back against Regina with all her weight so Regina can’t make her enter the bedroom. “Regina,” she protests.

 

“Em-ma,” Regina sing-songs in Emma’s ear with a low chuckle, tickling Emma’s sides—which she knows is not allowed because Emma’s her most ticklish below her ribs.

 

It makes her shriek and squeal and laugh uncontrollably as she squirms to get away. “Oh my God, no, no, no!” Regina’s fingers tickle up and down her sides and around her belly, and it’s like every bit of Emma’s body is being attacked at once. Regina is relentless. Emma wails, jumping, unable to keep her grip on the doorjamb. She can't manage to stand still, not when Regina’s making her giggle so hard she can't even breathe.

 

They fall into the room—quite literally and loudly. Emma goes first, her knee connecting with the hardwood floor with a loud bang. Regina tumbles in after her with a surprised yelp, falling on top of Emma. Regina’s still laughing when she starts getting off of Emma, no longer tickling her, but Emma is quick to change that with an easy turn and flip that switches their positions and pushes Regina down to the floor so Emma can get her revenge.

 

Regina knows what’s coming immediately and tries to get away, pleading, “No, Emma, I’m sorry. Don’t tickle me.” But tickle attacks are always followed by revenge tickle attacks. Regina should know better by now.

 

Overnight bag and sleeping bag both forgotten, Emma crawls on top of Regina and goes straight for the space between Regina’s shoulder and neck. She's worms her fingers in between the tight space as Regina tries to tuck her face into her shoulder and stop her, but Emma wiggles her fingers and then goes for the other side of Regina's neck with her second hand, making it impossible for Regina to protect both sides of her neck. Regina’s face flushes red and her eyes water, her laughter loud in Emma’s ear. Emma’s not expecting her to go back in for more tickles on Emma, though, so Regina’s fingers creeping up her side makes her shriek loudly and throw her off-balance.

 

They’re a tangled mess of limbs and tickling fingers rolling around the floor, laughing and bumping into the bed and wall, when Pam calls out, “Girls!” and they both stop, out of breath and grinning at each other.

 

“Sorry,” Emma and Regina yell out, and then they giggle and Emma sits up on her knees so she’s looking down at Regina.

 

Regina lets her laughter fade slowly before she pulls in a deep breath and lets it out with a loud huff. “I’ve missed you,” she says like she’s just realizing it for the first time at that very moment.

 

Emma’s still out of breath, and a little too aware of how easy it would be to lean down and kiss Regina, so she doesn’t say anything. She’s afraid of what might come out of her mouth if she opens it. She’s afraid what stupid thing she’ll do if she moves even an inch.

 

She might tell Regina she’s missed her ten times more than Regina could ever miss her. But Regina would just laugh and think she’s being silly. Regina wouldn’t remember how all the letters she sent to Emma during the summer mentioned a boy and didn’t even ask if Emma had enjoyed her very first road trip. But Emma remembers.

 

Emma’s face falls and a sudden wave of sadness threatens to sweep her far far away. Regina still has laughter in her golden brown eyes, but Emma doesn’t feel like laughing anymore. “I missed you, too,” she finally decides to say, throwing her leg over Regina’s body so she can roll over and lie down on her back beside her. “It’s not the same around here when I don’t get to see you.”

 

The way Regina smiles at her makes Emma’s stomach hurt. “Next time you should come with me. I bet if you ask Pam, she would sign you up for lessons. You would have liked it there, I think. And with the bunk beds, it’s like a sleepover that lasts for six weeks. Imagine that.”

 

“Come with you to horse camp? I don’t know, Regina. I’ve never even seen a real horse before. I would probably fall flat on my face if I tried to ride one.”

 

A little laugh forms in Regina’s throat and she shrugs her shoulders and chooses to sit up. Her hair is longer than the last time Emma saw her, in a braid that had been neat when she got in the car but is now coming undone and becoming a little frizzy. It shouldn't make her cuter than she already is, but it does.

 

“You probably would, but I’d promise to only laugh for a little while before I helped you up.”

 

Emma swats Regina’s leg and they both laugh. “What kind of best friend are you? You’re not supposed to laugh if I fall. I’d be so embarrassed, falling in front of everybody.”

 

“Hey, I said I would help you up. And I wouldn’t let anyone laugh at you, only me.”

 

Emma knows she means it. When they had to climb ropes in gym class and Emma wanted to show off after getting to the top faster than every other student but she ended up almost falling off and getting tangled in the rope, Regina yelled at the group of girls that laughed at her, and Emma had never seen her yell at anybody before that. Regina was protective of her, the same way Emma was of Regina. So Emma believes her.

 

“Maybe I’ll go. Or maybe you can just come here next summer.”

 

“And make this our camp cabin?” Regina smiles at her and looks around the bedroom with wonderment like she’s imagining it for real.

 

Emma crawls across the floor to sit beside Regina, their backs against the bed. “There aren't any horses, but the lake is fun and we have a bunch of arts and crafts projects we haven’t finished. There are also board games, and Tommy and I learned how to skateboard with one of the kids next door. We could teach you.”

 

“We’re going to have to work on your pitching skills one of these days.”

 

“Softball?”

 

Regina laughs and shakes her head before leaning it on Emma’s shoulder. “No, silly. I mean..." Regina starts speaking with her hands, and Emma has to force herself to actually pay attention and not get distracted by how pretty Regina makes the purple polish she wears look. She has to ignore how much she wants to cover Regina's wildly gesticulating hands with her own and just hold them. "Mother, she used to have meetings where she had to basically sell her ideas to a group of people to make them want to do the things she wanted to do for the company. She called it her pitch. I can teach you how to do that. Then, next time you'll remember you need to know your audience and how to make them see your ideas and make them love them so much that they agree with whatever you say. Skateboarding isn’t a good selling point if you want me to agree.”

 

Emma is fascinated by Regina’s brain sometimes, and all she can really do is smile. Throat clearing, Emma adds, “And did I forget, you get to spend all of your time with your amazing best friend? Because that is the best part.”

 

Regina laughs a little. “There you go. Sold!”

 

Emma pats herself on the back. “Well done, Emma. Well done.”

 

“You silly dork,” Regina whispers fondly, knocking her knee against Emma’s gently.

 

“The silliest,” Emma proclaims proudly.

 

“My favorite.”

 

“Your only, I hope.”

 

“Obviously.”

 

“Obviously,” Emma agrees, grinning so widely her cheeks hurt.

 

A few minutes pass before Regina turns her head and looks over her shoulder at the bed. “Should I ask about all of this?”

 

Emma had known they would eventually have to turn around and Regina would see it, but she didn’t think Regina would actually ask her about it. She lifts her head from Regina’s shoulder and turns as well. “I’m scrapbooking,” she shares, honest but choosing to be withholding about the reason. She doesn’t tell Regina she’s scrapbooking for her, that she’s decided that she’s turning their memories into art and giving them to Regina. She hadn’t even decided that part until she had already started on the scrapbook. “I’m going to use some of those things, and then the rest I’ll put back to keep safe.”

 

Regina hums and reaches for something. “Your Valentine’s Day heart.”

 

Emma can hear the smile in her voice and doesn’t have to turn around to see it. But she wants to see it, even if it makes her feel like she’s spinning on a carousel and it’s going ten times too fast. “My Not Valentine’s Day heart, you mean.”

 

Regina’s smile grows wide and bright on her face. “Right! Don’t let the red heart fool you. It was not for Valentine’s Day because—”

 

“Capitalism,” Emma says, matching Regina’s smile and taking the heart from Regina’s hand so she can trace the shape of it with her fingers. “Forever is a long time, you know. Regina and Emma forever. That’s lifetimes. You and me for the rest of ever.”

 

“Too long for you?”

 

Emma rolls her eyes. “Now who’s being silly? I would spend all my days with you by my side if I could.”

 

Regina looks Emma in the eye real serious like, that narrow-eyed way she does when she thinks Emma’s lying to her. So Emma narrows her eyes just as seriously, unwavering. Regina closes one eye, as though that would make her be able to see better, and Emma giggles because Regina looks ridiculous.

 

“Honest,” Emma swears.

 

Regina doesn’t hold her serious face much longer. Giggles attack her from within and she lets them out, turning around on her knees so she can go through more of the items on Emma’s bed. “We’ll need a bigger bed than this one day. And our own house, too.”

 

Emma almost chokes on the air she breathes in. “You wanna sleep with me forever, too?”

 

Regina gives Emma a weird look, but she doesn’t stop smiling. “Only if you want to, of course. I won’t make you sleep with me if you want your own bed.”

 

Emma turns around as well, picking up a bracelet made out of paper clips and playing with it so she has something to do with her hands. “Is that why you still bring a sleeping bag?” Emma wonders. She’s always wondered. Regina’s never slept in it, but she always brings it. It never made sense to Emma, especially when Pam knows they share the bed.

 

Regina shrugs a bit. “My mother would question it if I didn’t.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“It’s easier this way. Besides, if I need to kick you out of bed, you can sleep in it,” she says seriously. It makes Emma laugh. “Now, back to our future...”

 

Emma’s stomach growls and interrupts them. “I think our future should include lunch. Maybe we can work out all the other details after that?”

 

“Lunch, then we’ll decide how we’ll rule the world?”

 

“Yeah... Or maybe what kind of pets we should get.”

 

Regina shakes her head. “You’re thinking too small. World domination is more rewarding.”

 

They both laugh all the way down to the kitchen.

 

///

 

They’ve watched three movies with Tommy before Pam makes them turn off the television. He’s already asleep, hugging one of the throw pillows. Pam doesn’t look like she wants to wake him up, like she much rather watch him sleep for the rest of the night because she thinks he looks precious. If Emma didn’t agree, she might think their mother was a bit ridiculous. But the truth is, Tommy is adorable. He hasn’t reached that stage where Emma’s sure he’s going to annoy her like crazy, so he still feels like the little kid who liked to race cars with her and would steal marshmallows out of her cereal with his bare hands while she was trying to eat them.

 

“You’re all growing up too fast,” Pam whispers as she crouches down and runs her hand over his wild curls.

 

Emma remembers when watching mothers do little things like that made her envious and angry, angry because Emma had never had anyone touch her with such love and care and adoration and she wanted it so badly. But she hasn’t felt that in so long. It’s mystifying how time seems to fly while simultaneously dragging along, small moments stretching and stretching and stretching on forever.

 

“He’ll be starting middle school soon enough,” Emma realizes.

 

“And you and Abby will be going to high school. My babies.” Pam turns to look at Emma with a slight pout, reaching out her hand to brush her cheek.

 

Emma can see Regina watching and it makes her grow hot in the face and neck, but she doesn’t pull away from Pam’s hand. She couldn’t even if she was truly embarrassed. She cherishes every touch given to her. “There’s still plenty of time,” Emma reminds her. “You even have two months left before I’m officially a teenager.”

 

“Three teenagers under one roof at once. No wonder she wants you all to stay young.”

 

That makes Pam laugh, which is the absolute peak of all things glorious: Pam laughing at Regina’s comment, and Regina making Pam laugh.

 

They talk for a little longer before Pam marches them up the stairs and into their bedrooms, saying her goodnights to Regina and Emma first and then bringing Tommy to his room. Before she goes, she pauses at the door and catches Emma’s attention, and Emma wonders what she’s thinking, but she only smiles at her and softly shuts the door.

 

Regina is turning on the radio and moving it to the nightstand like she does every time she spends the night. “There was no music at night at camp. That would be another selling point you could use,” Regina tells her, almost absentmindedly, focusing on getting the dial at the perfect spot to pick up the station she likes.

 

Emma looks at her in her purple pajamas, her sun-kissed skin looking warm and dewy in the low light. Emma feels like all of the air is seeping out of the room through the cracks around the door. She bets her cheeks are blotchy because her face is hot and she’s getting that dizzy feeling again.

 

Regina turns around once she’s finished and tilts her head to the side, looking at Emma strangely. “What?” Regina pats herself down and pulls at her pajama top, looking at it like she’s searching for something.

 

“What?” Emma echoes.

 

Regina’s face scrunches up, and it’s terribly cute. “You’re looking at me.”

 

“Oh,” Emma whispers as she spins around, squeezing her eyes shut. She’s definitely blushing now, she knows it. “Now I’m not.”

 

Regina laughs, and she’s right in Emma’s ear. “No, now you’re being silly. Turn around and look at me.”

 

When Emma turns around, she narrows her eyes. “You can’t give me weird looks for looking at you and then tell me to look at you once I stop. You’ll confuse me.”

 

“You confuse yourself enough on your own, Emma.”

 

“Well don’t add to my confusion. Where’s your compassion?”

 

Regina rolls her eyes with that false annoyance of hers. Emma grins at her and leaves her standing at the front of the room so she can dive under the covers, sitting up with the blankets blocking out all the light, their signal that they wanna talk about something important. It’s been this way since the very first night Regina slept over.

 

Emma scoots back until her back is against the wall and folds her legs in front of her. She doesn’t like the waiting part, the holding her breath and counting to see how long it takes for Regina to join her. Sometimes it takes Regina so long Emma’s head feels like it’ll pop like a balloon because of how badly she needs to let out the air she holds in her mouth. Today is not one of those days. Regina gets in the bed in under fifteen seconds, probably a new record.

 

In the darkness, Emma reaches her hand forward to figure out how Regina is sitting so she can easily picture Regina in front of her. She waves through the air carefully, pointing her fingertips outward carefully so she doesn't accidentally press her entire hand right into Regina’s face. She’s aiming for a cheek, or even her neck, somewhere soft.

 

Regina noticeably jumps and laughs quietly. Emma finds her nose. “There you are.”

 

“Here I am," Regina breathes out, quieting as Emma begins touching her.

 

Emma carefully brings her other hand to Regina’s face and touches both of her round cheeks, smiling when she feels them move beneath her hands. Regina lets Emma touch her face and hair and shoulders without saying a word, and Emma can’t help but wonder if Regina would let Emma kiss her, too. She doesn’t think she can ask that even in the dark, though. Just thinking about it makes Emma’s blood rush, so she doesn’t think she can put words to her thoughts.

 

She lets out a slow breath and lets her hands slide down Regina’s arms until she can find her hands. Regina squeezes them three times, so Emma squeezes back twice. It’s Regina asking her if she’s okay, and Emma telling her that she is. She keeps Regina’s hands in hers and feels even better than okay.

 

“Regina?” Emma whispers as quietly as she can.

 

“Emma,” she whispers back, just as quiet.

 

Emma has to swallow two mouthfuls of air before she can speak again, desperate for oxygen. “If you liked someone, really liked someone, you would tell me, right?”

 

“Yeah, of course I would.”

 

“Promise?” Regina hesitates, and the weight of her silence slams down in Emma’s stomach. “Regina.”

 

“I—yes, I promise,” she says, gripping Emma’s hand tighter. “And you?”

 

“Do I promise?”

 

She can feel the blanket shifting and figures Regina is nodding. “If you liked someone, you’d tell me.”

 

Emma doesn’t know if she can answer, not honestly. Answering honestly would mean telling Regina she doesn’t think she could tell her, and saying that would make Regina question why Emma won’t tell her. And Emma doesn’t want Regina to think she doesn’t trust Regina with all her secrets—because she does—but she also doesn’t know if this particular secret is one Regina wants to hear.

 

Emma doesn’t answer the question, and one second turns into a minute, and that minute seems to stretch on forever as silence in their darkness tends to do.

 

Instead of answering, Emma asks another question. “Did you like Daniel?”

 

Regina is quick to answer with a, “What? No,” and Emma doesn’t believe her. But Regina just promised to be honest, and Regina’s never lied to her before, so Emma immediately feels bad for her lack of trust. “Emma, what’s going on?”

 

Emma doesn’t know. She really doesn’t. “I’m having an identity crisis,” she tells Regina in the most serious tone she can.

 

“An identity crisis,” Regina repeats slowly. Regina unlinks their hands and pulls the blanket from above them.

 

Emma squeezes her eyes shut even though the lights are off and it’s still dark. She pulls the blanket back over them. “I can’t say this out there!”

 

Regina sighs, but she lets Emma fix the blanket so they’re properly covered again. “Emma...”

 

“You’re going to think I’m being silly. You always do.”

 

“Not for real, only when you’re playing around—which is most of the time, yes, but I know when you’re being serious.”

 

Emma chews on her cheek for a moment, contemplating, weighing pros and cons. “Do you still like girls? You told me before, remember, that you like girls, and I’ve been thinking about it—a lot. I’ve been thinking about girls, um, girls liking girls.” Emma can feel Regina’s leg shaking against her knee, so she reaches out and puts her hand on top of it. She means for the touch to be calming, but Regina takes in a sharp breath and Emma thinks she’s scared her. “Sorry,” Emma whispers, snatching her hand back.

 

“No, um... You can do that. I just wasn’t expecting it,” Regina tells her quietly as she finds Emma’s hand and puts it back below her knee. It’s not shaking anymore, but Emma still rubs small circles with her hand. Regina lets out a quieter breath this time, two of them. “I didn’t know if you remembered that. We only ever spoke about it that one time.”

 

“I remember everything you’ve ever told me.” Emma wonders if her heart is really beating as loudly as it sounds, or if she’s imagining it. She wonders if Regina can hear it, too.

 

“That’s—”

 

“If you say silly...”

 

Regina lets out a nervous-sounding breathy laugh. “I think it’s sweet. And I do.”

 

“You do?”

 

A warm palm covers the hand Emma has on Regina’s knee, stilling it. “Like girls. I don’t think that’s something that will change for me, ever. I’ll always like girls.”

 

“You don’t know how relieved I am to hear that. I thought...” Emma leans her head back against the wall and groans. “I have been so scared that you wanted to replace me with a boy because you liked them, or him, more than me.”

 

“You were worried I wanted to replace you, so that’s why you wanted to know if I like girls still?” Regina asks with obvious confusion. It doesn’t escape Emma’s notice that Regina slides her hand away from Emma’s, nor does she miss the way her leg begins to subtly bounce again.

 

Emma’s doing it again, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. She knows why Regina thought she had asked. And it isn’t like Regina’s assumption is incorrect. There are multiple reasons why Emma wanted to make sure Regina still likes girls, but she truly was more worried about Regina wanting to replace her than whether Regina might like her or not. She doesn’t need Regina to like her in a girlfriend kind of way. But she can’t even bear the thought of not having her as a friend.

 

“Do you remember how I said you were the best best friend I’ve ever had?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Well, you’re also the only best friend I’ve ever had. I’ve never had a real friend before, not one that meant something to me like you do. So of course I was worried you wanted to replace me. That would be devastating.”

 

Regina leans forward and pulls Emma toward her. “You silly girl, you’re irreplaceable.”

 

Emma laughs into the crook of Regina’s neck, feeling another wave of relief as Regina hugs her. “You said you wouldn’t call me silly.”

 

“That was before I knew you were going to be silly,” Regina mumbles into Emma’s hair, holding her so tight it almost hurts. “In case you’ve been sleepwalking the last two and half years, I don’t like anybody nearly half as much as I like you.”

 

Emma just can't help herself, she's so overwhelmed. She pulls Regina closer until she’s sitting on Emma's lap, allowing Regina the space to sit down properly again while Emma gets to continue holding onto her. She curls her arm around Regina’s waist and lets her hand rest on Regina’s belly, the heat of their skin meeting through the fabric of a nightshirt. Regina leans her head down on top of Emma’s, and they both settle easily.

 

The weight of her is not entirely foreign, but they’ve never sat like this before, not for longer than a few seconds while playing around. Emma wonders if Regina’s thinking about the other reason Emma asked her if she still likes girls, if she already knows that Emma likes her. If not for the contentment in Regina's calming breaths, Emma might be freaking out about how close they are, wondering about what Regina's thinking. But Regina is holding onto Emma like she doesn't want to ever let go, and Emma is only hoping that Regina never does.

 

“My first kiss was with a boy,” Emma says. She knows where this is going to lead before she even says the words out loud—or at least she knows where she hopes it leads. But she’s a little nervous and knows Regina can hear it in her voice. “My only kiss,” she corrects. “We were six.”

 

Regina surprises Emma with a laugh right against her ear that makes Emma’s eyes slam shut and her blood rush in that dizzying way. “Who kissed who?”

 

Emma has to think about it for a moment before she shrugs her shoulders. “You know, I don’t actually remember. I just remember that he smelled like pasta sauce.”

 

Regina’s body shakes with her quiet laughter. “You would remember a detail like that.”

 

“It was a very strong smell,” she says defensively.

 

Humming, Regina brushes her nose against Emma’s neck and sends liquid heat down Emma's spine. “You smell like soap," whispers Regina shyly, tucked into the curve of Emma's neck.

 

Emma’s heart skips. She turns her head until she can feel Regina’s breath against her face. She almost wants to pull the blanket away so she can see Regina, but she's scared that the moment will end if they're no longer protected by the safety of the darkness. Instead, she breathes Regina in and happily lets the scent of her fill her up. “You smell like flowers, and kind of like—” she inhales deeper, “—the sun, like summer, warmth, and—”

 

With an urgency that makes them both gasp, Regina presses her mouth to Emma's and cuts Emma off. Eager, she makes their teeth clash almost painfully. She sucks in a sharp breath and presses her forehead against Emma’s when Emma giggles.

 

"Come back," Emma encourages, ghosting her lips over Regina's, breathing a shaky breath out. She goes in for another kiss, softer than Regina, lips pressed together as she holds them to Regina’s mouth. And warmth doesn’t even begin to describe Regina. She is gentle softness that Emma doesn’t think she can ever pull herself away from, not just her mouth but her hand when Regina takes Emma’s into her own and holds it, and her hair when Emma plays with the short ones at the nape of her neck while greedily turning that one kiss into two more.

 

It's nothing like her first kiss, not the shy peck between two small children who were just playing around. Regina doesn't just press her mouth to hers; she hums and licks and so obviously wants to take Emma apart with her mouth only. Emma completely loses her mind and almost forgets she needs to breathe.

 

They kiss there like that until Regina gets off of Emma’s lap and lies down with her head on the pillow, breath ragged.

 

It takes Emma a moment to process the reason all of the heat is leaking out of her body, but once she realizes that Regina's laying down and is gone, she follows. She's not sure if they should say something now that they’ve kissed, or maybe do something, or what. She’s not sure if anything needs to follow. So she lies there and wonders what Regina’s thinking, and if she’s freaking out, and if maybe kissing was a bad idea.

 

But Emma's buzzing with so much life and excitement that it couldn't have been a bad thing.

 

///

 

Emma sometimes wakes up when Regina stays over and finds herself alone in bed, so she isn’t surprised to look over the side of the mattress and find Regina sitting next to the nightlight that they still plug in despite neither of them truly needing it. What does surprise her is this night’s reading material, not one of Regina’s usual books but one of their old sleepover arts and crafts projects they never finished. It’s one of their stories, a collaboration, most of the writing done by Regina and the art by Emma. Until Emma had gone looking through her collection of Regina keepsakes, she had forgotten the stories existed.

 

Finding it calming to watch Regina read, Emma rests her head on her pillow and enjoys the quiet hum of the radio and the way the dim red light washes Regina’s face with its glow.

 

Regina glances her way after a few minutes have passed without her acknowledging Emma or showing any signs that she had been aware that Emma was watching her. She holds Emma’s gaze and closes the homemade book around her fingers. There’s uncertainty in her eyes that Emma doesn’t expect, but then she remembers that they kissed before falling asleep and, even though Emma knows Regina likes to categorize every single thing in her life, she didn’t give Regina anything to work with to understand what the kissing meant.

 

Emma’s afraid to find out, though. She’s afraid what it could mean, and just as terrified of the things it could not mean. She still doesn’t know if she’s like Regina, if she likes girls. She knows she likes a girl, singular, but what about girls in general? Does she have to like them all just because she really, really enjoyed kissing Regina? And if Emma tells Regina that she doesn’t think she’s a lesbian, will that mean Regina doesn’t want to ever kiss her again? Because Emma knows without a doubt that she would hate that.

 

Before Emma can think of something she can say, Regina looks away and goes back to the book she’s reading. Emma sighs and rolls over onto her back, staring up at the ceiling, not sure if she’ll be able to fall asleep again now that she’s put all her earlier worries back in her head.

 

She waits and waits and waits for sleep, but lying still takes more effort than it’s worth when being still isn’t helping her fall asleep, so she rolls back over onto her side and traces the shape of Regina’s body with her tired eyes. “Why did we stop writing stories together?” Her croaky voice pierces the silence, bringing Regina’s attention to Emma instantly.

 

“Creative differences.”

 

“That sounds like some bogus answer you say during an interview,” Emma says with a snort. “For real. I used to love when we put our skills together.”

 

Regina smiles fondly and gives her shoulders a slight bounce of a shrug. “You wanted to give the princess a dragon for protection, Emma, and I told you no. It was definitely creative differences that ended our partnership.”

 

“First, I would have drawn the best dragon. Second, what princess doesn’t want a dragon?”

 

“The point of the story was that the princess didn’t need anyone to save her, and then you wanted to give her a dragon. She was supposed to be self-sufficient.”

 

“She didn’t need a prince to come rescue her. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t also be a smart princess who knows that a fire-breathing dragon might come in handy while you’re out there on your own in the middle of a dangerous forest. That’s just common sense.”

 

“And the knight? What about him? What reasoning do you have for adding a knight to our story about our princess who was supposed to be saving herself?”

 

“The knight was a girl,” Emma points out. “I thought you knew that. I was the knight, because you were the princess, and wherever you go, I go. Duh!”

 

Regina almost smiles at her. Emma can see her lip trying to curl upward into one of those pretty smiles where her face slowly lights up. But Regina shakes her head and doesn’t allow it. “It didn’t make sense.”

 

“You didn’t make sense!”

 

“I make perfect sense.”

 

Emma pulls her pillow from under head and wraps her arms around it instead, snuggled up close. “The knight isn’t there to fight the princess’ battles for her. The knight fights beside her because they are a team. She’s loyal and strong, and she thinks the world of her princess. She'd do anything and everything to make sure she’s safe. If ever there were a time that her princess could not protect herself from those who seek to hurt her, the knight would do everything within her power to keep harm as far away from the princess as possible. She would give her life trying, because that’s how much she loves her.

 

“And the princess would do the very same, or at least the knight believes she would.”

 

Regina doesn’t blink or speak or say anything.

 

Emma gives up her soft, cuddly pillow so she can throw it at Regina. “Did I break you?”

 

Regina deflects the pillow, glowering. “No, you didn’t break me. I just didn’t know you—the knight—felt so strongly.”

 

“Does the princess not feel that strongly?”

 

Regina looks down at their unfinished project and smiles a little. “Do you remember the story, how it went?”

 

“Only vaguely,” she admits. “It’s been almost two years since we worked on it.”

 

“You should read it. It’s not as awful as I thought it would be.”

 

Emma scoots backward on the bed and pats the space that’s warm from where her body had been. “Come tell it to me?”

 

Regina puts their book down on the floor and grabs Emma’s pillow. She crawls under the light blanket and lies on her side, facing Emma. Taking Emma's hand and making the blonde smile, they both shut their eyes and Regina begins, “Once upon a time...”

Chapter Text

 

Fifteen years—that’s how long it takes for Emma to hear the name Regina Mills after the very last time she thought she ever would.

 

Her cell phone buzzes, and buzzes, and buzzes on her desk, and it has been buzzing all morning. But she’s busy, and whoever it is should learn to just leave a damn text message like any sensible person would do after calling nonstop and being ignored. Her paperwork isn’t going to fill itself out, and if she’s ever going to be able to leave the desk she feels like she’s been chained to more than usual lately, she needs to get on top of things.

 

She ignores the phone for the next five minutes or so and is about to send up a silent thanks to whatever gods may or may not be up in the ceiling when her office phone begins it’s obnoxious buuhh-riiiiing ringing. “Kill me now!”

 

She snatches up the phone and has to dig real deep to find the customer service voice she learned many moons ago that she needs to pull out from time to time. “Sheriff's Department, Deputy Swan.”

 

“Thank God you finally answered.”

 

Emma pulls the handset from her face and makes a tiny yell in her throat, nearly bashing the phone against the desk three times. She must look like she’s finally lost the last of her marbles to whoever is looking at her, but she does not care. “This phone line is for e-mer-gen-cies and emergencies only, so you better be in a back alley dying right now, Abigail, or I swear to God...”

 

“I would be nicer to me if I were you. I have something you want,” Abigail says, and even on the phone she’s still just as annoying as she was the day Emma met her eighteen years ago. Some things really don’t ever change.

 

Emma tucks the phone between her ear and shoulder so she can pick up her pen and continue working. She has two hours left before she’s off for the day, and she’s not spending a minute more than she needs to at her desk. “Well it obviously isn’t a muzzle to put on you, so what is it?”

 

Abigail’s faux surprised gasp is irritating, but Emma still smiles a bit with satisfaction because she knows she truly is getting her a bit miffed. That’s how their relationship works, always has been, always will be. They more or less tolerate each other most of the time. Maybe once or twice a year, they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

 

“I’m regretting calling.”

 

“I already regret answering, so we’re even. Are you going to get to the point, or should I hang up?”

 

Her mother’s other daughter—who is not her sister—grumbles before she gives in. “Guess what I’m holding a copy of.”

 

“Abigail,” Emma groans.

 

“I’ll give you a hint.” She clears her throat. “For teaching me that being self-sufficient did not mean having to always be self-reliant. You were always the most noble of the knights.”

 

“Abigail, I really don’t have time for riddles or games.”

 

“You really do take the fun out of everything. It wasn’t a riddle. It’s part of the acknowledgements of what I’m holding, and it has your name in it. So I thought you would want to know, but obviously you finally moved on for real this time.”

 

“Acknowledgements? Moved on... Wait. What?” Emma puts her pen down and pushes her chair away from her desk, needing to be on her feet. She’s getting antsy. “What are you talking about?”

 

“I’ll be there in two minutes. I’ll just show you in person.”

 

“What? No, Abi—” The background noise that had been behind Abby’s voice instantly fades and Emma shuts her mouth, knowing Abigail has hung up on her. “Freaking brat.”

 

“Sister?”

 

Emma shoots a dirty look at Lily, Lily who should be at work and not hanging out in the Sheriff’s Department looking for trouble. “She’s not my sister.”

 

“You two grew up together, you bicker about everything, and you fight over who has to go visit your father when everybody wants to spend the holidays with Pam. I’m pretty sure that’s your sister.”

 

“You weren’t there when we were younger. She was a total asshole, and not just to me, to everybody. She wasn’t even nice to the people she supposedly liked. I refuse to claim her.”

 

“Hey, some of us would kill to have a sister, even one who was mean. Don’t be a bitch.”

 

Emma surrenders with her hands up, not fighting Lily about it. Emma got out of the group home they met at and found a good home with a loving family, and Lily never really got that. Occasionally, Emma forgets how much she has that she sometimes takes for granted that other people still crave.

 

Lily pushes the sleeves of her oversized army jacket up to her elbows and hops down from the desk she’s been camped out on for the last hour. “I hear her coming in, so I’m going to head out. Don’t forget we’re meeting at Granny’s after your shift ends. Your treat.”

 

“You’re unbelievable. You can’t just invite yourself out to dinner with me and offer for me to pay.”

 

“I stopped listening after you called me unbelievable. Just don’t be late.”

 

“Whatever,” Emma mutters under her breath, rolling her eyes to herself and waiting for the footsteps that are getting closer to click inside the office. She hopes Abigail doesn’t plan on staying long, because the pile of forms on her desk doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. “Why isn’t it the weekend already?” she groans to herself.

 

“This place is a dump,” Abigail says in lieu of a proper greeting like any other civilized human being would offer.

 

“Nice to see you, too.”

 

Abigail holds out a cup from one of the expensive shops she favors over Granny’s, and if Emma wasn’t desperate for caffeine, she just might decline. Everybody knows Granny makes the best coffee in town. A fancy name slapped on the cup doesn’t make the coffee shop’s coffee taste any better.

 

“Thanks,” Emma mumbles, inhaling like she hasn’t smelled coffee in years and the scent of it alone is going to bring life back into her dying body. “So, are you going to show me?”

 

“No foreplay first? No wonder your dating life sucks.”

 

“Eww. Don’t be gross. Just show me.”

 

“All right. Straight to the point.” Abigail lets one handle of her large bag slide down her arm and reaches in. “Here,” she says, fishing out a book and handing it to Emma with the backcover showing. “Keep it. Mom bought five copies. That one can be yours.”

 

“Five copies—” Emma is starting to ask, confused, as Abigail continues, “I swear, she’s always been more of a mom to her than Cora’s mean ass,” and Emma turns the book over and sees the name written in big letters on the bottom of it.

 

The book falls out of her hand, and it’s only Abigail’s quick reflexes that keeps the coffee from joining it.

 

“I knew this was something I needed to do in person. That reaction? Priceless. I should have been recording it.”

 

Emma stares down at the book, at the white lines and curves that make letters, letters that spell a name, her name.

 

“Mills,” Emma whispers, frozen in place, completely shocked.

 

“Yes siree!” Abigail pulls out Emma’s chair and seats herself in it, sipping on her coffee and placing Emma’s cup on the desk. “And if the acknowledgment is anything to go by, she hasn’t forgotten about you either. So maybe Mom can work her networking magic and find out a way to get in contact with her.”

 

Emma only halfway hears what Abigail’s saying. She’s still staring at the cover of The Princess and the Knight, a proper book, a published book. Emma still has the unfinished book they worked on when they were kids, her mediocre artwork and Regina’s unrefined storytelling. She still reads it, maybe once a year, not that often, but often enough to never forget it—to never forget her. And now Regina’s written an actual book, that has been purchased at least five times thanks to her mother.

 

Shaking herself out of her daze, she bends over and picks up the novel, surprised by its heft now that she’s aware of what it is that she’s holding. Their story never even made it to be more than a dozen pages with illustrations included. She wonders how much of what they thought of together can be found woven into Regina’s tale, how much of Emma Regina held onto and kept in her mind while writing. She’s almost afraid to read it, too worried that she’ll be disappointed when she discovers that Regina kept the name of their story but nothing else.

 

She chews on her bottom lip and opens to the acknowledgments, reading for herself what Abigail had read to her on the phone. It’s so surreal seeing her name printed on the page.

 

“I never stopped thinking about her,” she admits aloud, looking up from the page and at Abigail. “After her mother moved, I was sure that was it. Boarding school, I could handle. It was just going to be for high school, then we were going to go to college in Massachusetts together. We had it all planned out,” Emma shares with a laugh, sharing with Abigail what she’s only ever told Pam. “But when they sold the house, Regina had no reason to come back. She had nowhere to go. This place didn’t have anything for her.”

 

Abigail surprises her when she gently says, “She had you.”

 

Emma stopped being mad at Abigail for telling Pam about Regina and her a long time ago. There hadn’t been anything to tell, really, just a few kisses whenever Regina slept over, and Pam had probably already guessed it on her own after Emma had told her that she thought she was in love with Regina. And it wasn’t like Pam had told Cora what happened, and neither had Abigail. Regina had been the one to tell her mother, and Emma blames herself for that. Regina had only told her because Emma wanted to spend their summer before high school together and Regina had thought it would be best to be upfront instead of having her mother find out from someone else. Emma had always wished she hadn’t been so greedy, that she had enjoyed what they had instead of pushing for more. Maybe things would have gone differently.

 

Emma puts the book on her desk and pulls the elastic from her hair. “Thanks. I um... I appreciate you bringing that to me.”

 

Abigail accepts the dismissal for what it is and collects her purse and gives Emma her chair back. “Give Mom a call, okay? I was serious about her helping you get in touch with her. You know she’d do it.”

 

Emma nods. “I’ll think about it.”

 

When she’s alone again, she sighs and drops herself into her chair. Fifteen years. She hasn’t seen Regina since the summer after they graduated middle school, something that feels like just months ago and entire lifetimes ago at the same time. As soon as Regina had come out to her mother, Cora had shipped her off to keep them apart. They had barely even said goodbye to each other.

 

Emma lets her swivel chair slowly turn toward her desk drawer, which she opens and peers inside of without sitting up from her slouched position. She has to move a few receipts and candy wrappers aside, but she easily finds the bracelet she had put inside the drawer only the day before. The chain had broken while she was out on patrol, so when she got back into the office, she put it in her drawer so she could have it fixed.

 

She lifts it up and lets it dangle in front of her now, the blue half-heart twirling around in front of her. It connects to the bracelet Emma had put on Regina’s wrist when they were eleven, the very first gift Emma had bought for Regina. It was the day she told Regina she was her bestest best friend, and Emma hasn’t gotten rid of her own bracelet even after all these years. She adores the memory of the girl who made those three years of her childhood worth remembering. Regina had been her very first best friend, her first love, and the hardest thing she had ever had to say goodbye to—and Emma had had to say goodbye to a lot in her twenty-eight years of life.

 

Carefully, she places the bracelet next to the book and looks at them both. When she woke up this morning, she had expected a long and boring day catching up on paperwork and filing before her weekend finally arrived. She did not expect she would be thinking about Regina Mills and the possibility of maybe seeing her again.

 

But Emma Swan’s life rarely goes how she expects. She should know that by now.

 

///

 

Lily swipes a few fries from Emma’s plate and dunks them in the honey mustard for her chicken tenders. “So, this Regina chick, you gonna tell me ‘bout her or what?”

 

Emma reaches for her beer and wraps her hand around the long neck of the cold glass. She doesn’t drink it, but she uses it as an anchor to keep her there in the present, at the table in the diner instead of off somewhere in the past. She’s been absent from the present world more than what she deems acceptable ever since Abigail called her, and she needs to make it at least another thirty minutes in the here and now before she can go home to her apartment and not worry about how distracting slipping into deep thoughts is.

 

“What you wanna know? I don’t think there’s much to tell.”

 

Lily scoffs. “You think I just met you yesterday, Swan? She’s the one, isn’t she—your ghost? When you ran away in high school, that was why. She break your heart or something?”

 

Emma shakes her head in the negative. “No, nothing like that. Regina mended my heart—with the help of my family, of course, but she definitely didn’t break it. She loved me in ways, even now, I don’t think I’ve ever been loved by anyone else. We were so young, but... Sometimes you just fit with someone. Regina and I fit together.”

 

“Like puzzle pieces?” Lily smirks at her. “Who knew you were such a sap! Color me surprised.”

 

Emma picks up a fry and throws it at the other woman. “I’ll color you black and blue if you make fun of me about this.”

 

“I’m just messing with you. I’ve always known you were a sensitive bean. It’s cute.”

 

Emma kicks Lily under the table. “Cut it out.” She looks over to the book sitting on the seat beside her and sighs. “We were friends in school. She was the first friend I made when I moved here—and the only one that really counted. We were close. Maybe not at first, but eventually we were inseparable. Well, we were until her mom moved her out of the country to go to some stupid boarding school to keep us apart.

 

“God, you have no idea how much I hated that woman. I hated her for taking Regina away from everything and everyone she knew. I hated her for the reasons why she did it. I hated her for trying to pretend she loved Regina and was just ‘doing what was best’ when she obviously didn’t even think about how damaging it could be making Regina feel isolated. I hated her because I knew she hated me and she didn’t even really know me. I loved Regina, and that scared her so much that she took her away.”

 

Lily nods along as she listens. “So you left to get away from her mom?”

 

“This town. Everything just reminded me of Regina, and it hurt so much that I didn’t think I would survive it. I felt broken.”

 

“I remember. I was there.”

 

Emma gives her a small smile. Finding Lily had been a happy accident, one she’s even more grateful for now that they’re back in each other’s lives, living in the same town—even if Lily comes over and drinks all her beer and invites herself out for dinner that Emma pays for.

 

“Why’d you come back if you hated it here so much? You could have gone anywhere. The world’s a big place.”

 

Emma’s answer is simple, one she says with ease that her ten-year-old self would have not believed. “This is my home. It’s where I belong.”

 

///

 

There is something remarkably satisfying about taking off her jeans at the end of the day. The freeing feeling of undressing once she is alone in her apartment only continues as she moves through her nightly routine. She puts on the music so it plays from the speakers and floods the loft with whatever best goes with her mood. (Tonight, there’s a little bit of rock and little bit of roll pulsing in the air.) The shower is turned on and the bathroom filled with steam while she, if she plans on having it like she does tonight, gets out what she’ll need for a cup of hot chocolate.

 

Clothes get tossed as she strips them away, stretching and rubbing the indents left on her skin from undergarments. She washes away the dirt and sweat clinging to her body, scrubs herself clean and washes her hair with lavender shampoo that makes her feel relaxed. By the time she steps out of the shower, she feels fresh and like she’s been wiped clean, whatever she doesn’t want to hold onto being forced away.

 

Contacts get traded in for her glasses to give her itchy eyes a break. Moisturizer gets applied as she absently hums along to a guitar solo. She makes her hot chocolate, body and hair both wrapped in a towel. And when she’s finished, she brings the hot mug to where the book she plans on spending her night with awaits her arrival.

 

She hasn’t opened it again since she was at work, hasn’t touched it more than necessary. She’s tried her best to wait until she was alone so she could properly immerse herself in the story without worrying about distractions or interruptions. For the next however many hours it takes, it’s just Emma, this book, and the memories she knows it will bring up of her youth. She’s not sure she’s quite ready, but she trades her towel for a comfy shirt and boyshorts and settles in anyway.

 

At first, she finds herself beginning each new page with her breath held all the way down in her chest like she’s expecting something in the story to go awfully wrong, or like she might find the writing so terrible she can’t even force herself to read it. But after she’s made it through half of the first chapter, she’s completely drawn in and can’t get to the next line fast enough. The characters are so fleshed out that Emma feels like she knows them, really knows them—and at times, she’s sure she does, can see hints of the girl she once knew, little quirks that she misses. The story is different, layered where their childhood tale hadn’t been, but Emma knows it’s still their story, their branchild that inspired Regina’s masterpiece.

 

The princess saves herself, her tower not where she’s held captive but where she takes refuge after escaping danger. She is untrusting at first, her isolation and fortress physical protection as much as an emotional one, and Emma finds her character relatable, more human and three-dimensional than a typical fairy tale character.

 

The knight, unbeknownst to the princess in the beginning, has been exiled from her own land after it has been discovered she has been training under false pretenses and impersonating a young man. She’s stripped of her title, shamed, and sent away with no more than the clothes on her back.

 

It is by chance that their paths cross, and both are wary of the other when they meet at the drawbridge that separates the ravaged land the princess has claimed as her own and the village the once-knight has been shunned from. They’re both expecting an attack. The princess—who has been on the run since she escaped the clutches of her wicked mother—knows she can only remain hidden so long before she is found and is always on high alert. The shunned once-knight no longer trusts anyone after having everyone she has known her whole life turn their backs on her just because she wanted the same opportunities the men were given from birth, and she too is always looking over her shoulder. An attack never comes from either in the end, and though their paths drift apart with no reason to believe they will cross again, they meet several times more.

 

Emma reads and reads and reads, enjoying the way their stories unfold and two stories become three—the parts of them that are separate and that which they slowly weave together. Silent curiosity grows into a tentative friendship; the knight teaches the princess how to fight and the princess proves that she’s more than what meets the eye and teaches the knight how to survive out on her own.

 

When the dragon is introduced, Emma drops her book and cries. She doesn’t know what comes over her, but she can’t read anymore after that. She just lies there on her back, tears leaking into her ears, feeling overwhelmed.

 

///

 

It’s late Sunday afternoon when Emma next sees the outside of her apartment, and it’s been a long weekend.

 

The Princess and the Knight has been read from cover to cover, favorite pages have been marked so she can return to them the next time she picks up the book, and now it sits on a shelf next to the tattered copy of Black Beauty that Regina had given to her as a gift all those years ago. She hasn't done much more than read since she arrived home the Friday night, that and stalked the hell out of Regina Mills on the internet. She won’t be mentioning the last part to anybody, but she hadn’t been able to resist finding out what she looked like after fifteen years. It isn’t like Regina had gone through an awkward phase back when they were friends, but she isn’t the fourteen year old girl that Emma last saw, and she definitely isn’t the kid whose nose was perpetually stuck in a book before Emma came along. She’s grown up, obviously, but even from pictures alone, it’s obvious how confident and sure of herself she has become, more than she had been as a kid—which is staggering when Regina basically introduced herself with her IQ score when they met.

 

Sundays are still family day even though Tommy moved out of the house during the winter and Pam’s on her own—or maybe it’s because of that. She’s always saying the house is too quiet and she misses having all of them there with her. So instead of their movie and hot chocolate afternoons that they had when they were little, everybody comes over for dinner and they let their mother do what she loves best: nurture.

 

After making sure she looks like she did more than throw on a pair of jeans and a flannel, like she actually put in a little effort, she knocks on the kitchen door and lets herself in. Every time she comes into the house, she’s sure it’s the last time the home sensation will flood her system. But she feels it every time. There’s no disbelief anymore, no waiting for the day home is no longer home. She just feels a sense of belonging. She’s left and disappeared from her family and come back, and she was welcomed through the door like she had never left, fixed a plate of dinner, and hugged so many times she still felt the warmth of Pam’s arms around her the next day.

 

“Hey, you, Mom’s upstairs,” Julie says, sticking her head into the kitchen as Emma shuts the door behind her. “She says not to get too comfortable because she wants you to go with her to the farmers’ market.”

 

“I went last time. Isn’t it Abigail’s turn? What’s the point of cycles if we don’t follow them?”

 

“Forgive me for wanting extra time with you,” Pam says as she brushes past Julie and into the kitchen, adding the last pin into her elaborate updo. “Next time I’ll be sure to check your schedule to make sure you can spare some time for your mother.”

 

Shaking her head with faux disbelief, Emma hops up onto the kitchen counter. “And I’m the one with a flair for the dramatics somehow. Unbelievable.”

 

Pamela smiles widely at Emma, a smile that only fades when she swats her thigh with a kitchen towel a moment later. “Get down from there and hug me. I haven’t seen you all week, not even a quick stop in at the animal shelter while you were out on patrol.”

 

Guilt twists her insides and she frowns apologetically. “You know I do my best to come over whenever I can. I’ve just been busier than normal. I’m trying to stay on top of everything so people can see I’m doing good for the town. It'll be time for elections in only a little over a year and I wanna move up. Sherrif's not running, so I think I could have a good shot.” She hops down and lets Pam wrap her up in a hug. “But you’ve got a point. I gotta ‘member to check in with my number one fan more, 'specially if I'm counting on her support.” She winks. The laugh she earns makes the guilt fade a little.

 

“I’m so proud of you, you know? Don’t worry about me. I just wonder how you’re doing when you don’t stop by, is all. Are you good? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you eating all right?”

 

“When is Emma not eating? That should be the least of your concerns.”

 

Emma shoots an annoyed glare at her brother as he enters the kitchen, wine bottles in both of his hands. “Don’t even try to go there with me, Mister. I’m not the one who ate an entire half of the casserole last week by themselves.”

 

“Be nice,” Pam chastises lightly, accepting the offerings of the wine and the kiss to her cheek that her youngest gives. “Try to remember for a few hours you’re adults, not children.”

 

Emma scoffs. “Tommy’s barely twenty-five. He’s still got at least a decade more of maturing before he earns the right to be considered an adult.”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“Make me,” Emma fires back, sticking her tongue out at him as she dodges his attack, laughing when he runs into the counter instead. It's like they're children again, chasing each other around the house and play fighting; he'd always been Emma's favorite, not that she'd ever tell him that. Julie was the easiest to talk to, but Tommy climbed trees with her and was a big part of making her childhood fun.  

 

“What did I just say?” Pam exclaims exasperatedly, throwing her hands up in the air. But she’s smiling and the kitchen is full of that happy energy that almost always makes everything feel like it’s going to be all right no matter what’s going on outside the room.

 

Once Abigail arrives and Julie comes back to the kitchen, Pam gives them instructions so they can watch the cooking dinner and set the table while she and Emma go to pick up a few last minute items. Emma drives them down to Pam’s favorite farmers’ market, talking about this and that even though Emma can tell there’s something specific her mother wants to bring up that she’s not sure how to address. She gets weird when she wants to say something but she doesn’t know how, and Emma never really figured out how Pam does that warm I’m here when you’re ready thing she’s so good at, so Emma just fills the silence with randomness until Pam figures out how to say what she wants.

 

She isn’t expecting for her to decide while they’re in the middle of buying scallions next to two old men that she’s ready to talk, especially when she hears what Pam has been wanting to say, but that’s what happens.

 

“Are you sleeping with Lily?”

 

She asks so casually that Emma can almost persuade herself into believing she misheard or misunderstood the question. But it’s Pam, and Pam has always been surprisingly open about almost everything with Emma, encouraging Emma to feel comfortable talking about the things Emma’s not even comfortable saying out loud by herself sometimes. Besides, she’s not finished; there’s more to her question. Because, again, it’s Pam.

 

“She’s a good girl—usually. Sometimes she does get herself into more trouble than I wish she would, but generally, she’s a good girl. And she respects you and I know you care about each other.” She says all of this while checking the quality of a bunch of scallions and bringing them to her nose for a smell. She seems pleased enough. She shrugs one shoulder and goes for her wallet, not even noticing that Emma’s staring blankly at her with reddened cheeks. “So, if you two are sleeping together, then great for you both. But I might have done something that will make things a little awkward for you, and I thought it would be best if I got my facts straight before walking you into an uncomfortable situation.”

 

Emma has several questions pop into her head at one.

 

WHAT DID YOU DO? she thinks first. Then, she wonders why Pam thinks the farmers’ market is a good place to talk about Emma’s sex life—which leads to her wanting to know when Pam will stop wanting to talk about Emma’s sex life (which is nonexistent at the moment).

 

But Emma can’t work her mouth around words when it’s hanging open. So, she stands there with her hands shoved into the back pockets of her skinny jeans and waits for her mother to turn around and see how mortified she is so maybe she’ll laugh off her curiosity and never ask another question about who Emma’s sleeping with again.

 

The vendor hands back the change owed, and then Pam spins around to look at Emma. Immediately, she chuckles a little and knocks her finger underneath Emma’s chin to shut her mouth. “What? Don’t give me that look. I was tactful, wasn’t I?”

 

Emma waits until they’re walking away and back toward the car before answering. “There’s no tactful way to ask about that. I think the moment you decide we’re going to discuss it, then you’ve already made the decision to leave tact behind.”

 

“Oh, honey. How old are we? I think you can say the word sex aloud, and talk about sex with me. I know you know the proper words,” she teases. “I made sure to teach them to you during your first safe sex talk, didn’t I?”

 

“You mean the talk that scarred me for life?” Emma mumbles, still warm in the face. “I can say sex. I just—you’re my mother. You’re supposed to want me to be virginal the rest of my life or something like that, aren’t you?”

 

A hearty laugh fills the air. “Goodness me! Emma, darling. My sweet girl. As long as you are being safe and smart, what you do in private is just that. As I’ve always told all of you, I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to guide you when you need it, to talk to if I can help, and whatever you might need from your mother. But judging you? That’s not my parenting style, and neither is expecting you to be something you aren’t.”

 

“Yeah, I know. I know.” Emma walks them towards the flowers and reaches into her pocket for the twenty she shoved in there earlier. “And I love you for that. Honest. I just can’t talk about some stuff. And it’s not really you. It’s just that it’s awkward with almost anyone to have those kinds of conversations in broad daylight.”

 

Pam hums and nods her understanding, bending down to smell a bouquet that’s a mix of purples and oranges and yellows that also catch Emma’s eye. “I won’t push, but I still have my reasons for asking about Lily.”

 

Emma sighs and reaches for the flowers that Pam likes, turning to the vendor with a smile. She pays for them and thanks the lady, and then she holds them out for her mother. “Give me the scallions and you take these.” She’s already pulling the reusable grocery bag from her hand. “And, no, I’m not sleeping with Lily. She’s more like an annoying sister to me at this point.”

 

“What are these for?” Pam asks with a soft smile when she accepts the flowers and brings them to her nose again.

 

Emma shrugs. “Just because. I know you like fresh flowers, that’s all.” 

 

Pam wraps an arm around Emma from the side as they walk and gives her a squeeze. “Thank you. They’re lovely.”

 

Emma chooses to wait until they’ve made it back to her car before she even considers issuing any of her own questions. She still has several after what Pam had said about making some sort of decision that could make things uncomfortable for Emma. Unanswered questions make her feel uneasy, and these are making her feel a tad more anxious than Emma can bear.

 

Pam must notice the signs of her discomfort—the lip chewing, the fists too tight around the steering wheel even though Emma hasn’t put the car into drive yet. She puts her veiny hand atop Emma’s and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Talk to me,” she encourages, turning in her seat so she’s not only looking at Emma but she’s fully facing her. Her body language is open and inviting, as it always is, as Emma knows Pam consciously chooses to make it whenever she’s sitting someone down for a talk.

 

Emma is comforted a little by the familiar, but now that they’re away from most of the noise of the crowded market, her concerns can be heard as they whisper inside her head. She takes a deep breath, counts to three, and then lets it slowly escape her, hoping it helps her stay grounded, focused.

 

“You didn’t tell me what you did. You said you did something that might make me uncomfortable, and now I’m trying to figure out what you might have done, and I’m probably coming up with all sorts of things that are worse than what you actually did, so maybe you should go ahead and tell me before I, you know, overreact or whatever.” It’s like she says her mouthful with only one breath. She feels winded and no less wound up.

 

There’s a noticeable shift beside her, and for a moment, Pam’s eyes fill with worry. She blinks it away and gives Emma’s hand another squeeze before pulling her own away. She cradles it in her lap, picking at her cuticles whilst clearing her throat. “I’m afraid this won’t be an easy discussion to have, Emma.”

 

Emma’s stomach tumbles. “For me?”

 

“For neither of us—but it’s one we must have, and perhaps one we should have had a lot sooner.”

 

Not knowing what to say, Emma turns the key in the ignition and decides she needs to drive. She can feel her anxiety climbing inside of her, itching her skin, making her want to get away from the conversation while simultaneously making her want to pull every detail out of Pam so she can stop imagining the worst. Driving helps, an outside focus that requires just the right amount of attention for her to remain present in the conversation while giving her space to escape a little. The tick tick tick boom of her heart doesn’t altogether stop, but it does calm considerably.

 

“You’re going to want to get upset, but I implore you to listen to what I have to say—everything I have to say,” Pam stresses. “Can you do that?”

 

Emma looks out the corner of her eye at the woman who has always, even when Emma didn’t agree with her choices, done right by her. It takes her a moment to nod her head, but she does, unsure but agreeing. “Yeah. Okay. I’m listening.”

 

Once she’s agreed, Pam begins speaking. She doesn’t draw anything out to uncomfortable lengths, something Emma has always appreciated. She can’t help that her anxiety still doesn’t deal well with conversations full of so many unknowns, though.

 

“I invited Regina to the house for dinner tonight,” she says, nothing like anything Emma had been expecting or imagining. It throws her for a loop.

 

“How?” Emma asks before anything else, and then, “When?” and then, because she’s confused and not sure what to do with this bit of information, she repeats, “How?”

 

“Over the phone, sometime during the beginning of the week.”

 

The car swerves as Emma’s head jerks to the side. “The beginning of the week!”

 

Pam quickly reaches over to the steering wheel and holds it steady. “Emma, the road. If you can’t have this conversation and drive at the same time—”

 

“No, I can. I’m just...” Emma huffs out a breath. She’s not sure if this is the part where Pam thinks she’ll be upset, because she’s not. She’s just confused, so very confused, because there are clearly details she’s not yet received and she doesn’t even know where to begin with asking the right questions. “How?” she asks again, the only word that makes sense to say.

 

Slightly unsteady, Pam sighs, “It’s a long story.”

 

Emma worries her bottom lip, thumbnail absently scratching a fine line into her gear shift. “Is she coming?” She realizes that she is full of questions, but this one is the one she wants an answer to most. She’s nervous, but she figures Pam wouldn’t be telling her about it if Regina hadn’t agreed to show up. But that also makes her nervous, seeing the woman her best friend grew up to be. “Did she want to see me?” she wonders.

 

She doesn’t need to ask if Regina remembers her, if she’s ever thought about Emma after being forced to move away. Regina thanked Emma in her acknowledgments of the book that she wrote, a book the story they created together had clearly inspired. But that doesn’t mean she actually wants to meet the older version of the person she once loved. People change, and maybe Regina appreciated the role Emma played in her life once upon a time but has no actual desire to reacquaint herself with Emma. It’s possible.

 

But Pam quickly erases most of Emma’s mounting doubts. “Oh, honey, of course she wants to see you.” She says it like it’s completely foolish that Emma might think otherwise. “Goodness, the two of you are one heck of a pair, I’ll tell you that. She was worried that you wouldn’t want to see her.”

 

“She said that, that she didn’t think I would want to see her?”


“Well, she didn’t actually say so. But a mother knows these things,” she says in that way that all mothers do, never mind that Regina’s not one of her daughters. But Emma doesn’t disagree with her because the honest truth is: Pam had always been more supportive and loving toward Regina than the woman who birthed her. “I could hear it in her voice. And, sadly, I believe I am the one to blame for some of the insecurities she was trying to hide.”

 

They approach the house, but Emma keeps on driving down the street so they can finish their conversation in private. “How can you be responsible?”

 

There’s a pause that stretches for a moment too long where Emma can feel Pamela looking at her. Emma glances her way quickly and sees that the older woman is rubbing the back of her neck while regarding her. She’s about to ask if she’s okay, knowing Pam has been getting a lot of tension headaches recently. But before Emma can ask, her mother begins speaking.

 

“While you were in Boston, Regina came to the house hoping to see you.” A shorter pause, and then she continues on with a heavy breath. “It was probably a year after you had run away, so I hadn’t known where you were at the time. I had no way of contacting you for myself, let alone on her behalf. She did come back a few times after her first visit, but I think she eventually stopped expecting you to be there when she came. The visits stopped, she went back to college, and then I no longer had a way to get in touch with her either."

 

“She was here?” Emma feels a weight drop heavily into the pit of her belly.

 

Only a year after Emma had runaway means if she had just stayed, if she hadn’t listened to the voice that told her she needed to get away from the town and all the people she was forced to see every time she went to school that wasn’t the one person she wanted to be spending her days with, maybe things could have been different. Maybe she would have stopped being so angry at the world so much sooner.

 

“She came back, and you didn’t even tell me.”  

 

“By the time you had reached out to me, Emma, I had no way of knowing where Regina was. We’re the closest thing she has to family here. So, if anyone would have known how to reach out to her, it would have been one of us.”

 

“So you kept that from me this whole time? I’ve been back for two years.”

 

“After being gone for nine without even a word from you,” Pam nearly shouts, her voice thickened with layers of emotions that Emma has heard many times since her return, “not even to let me know you were okay.”

 

“I was an adult, Pam,” Emma reasons. She knows it’s pointless, a weak excuse, knows it makes no difference to Pam if she was the ten year old she first brought to her home or the young adult in her twenties who was just trying to figure out how to move on from her past. “Adults move out and live on their own all the time without talking to their families, you know. It’s normal.”

 

“You were seventeen when you left, Emma. You were still a child—my child, and I was worried about you every single day until I knew you were safe. And I continued worrying about you even when I knew where you were. You have to understand that. A mother’s worry doesn’t fade just because her child thinks they’re ready to be on their own.”

 

It aches, Emma admits, hearing how much Pam had hurt because of Emma’s actions. It had never been her intention. Of course, she had known it would happen. Pam loved her too much for it not to hurt. But Emma hadn’t known how to live here in this town anymore. Three years had gone by and she still felt like Regina had been ripped out of her arms like it had only been the day before. It hadn’t been healthy how stuck she felt, and maybe she had gone about it the wrong way, but she knew she needed to work on letting go. She was angry all the time, and sad, and she was tired of being both of those things.

 

Deciding she can’t drive anymore, she makes the next right turn onto their street and drives them home. The driveway will have to be private enough. She feels too much to focus on the cars around them and the people crossing streets, doesn’t trust herself to drive safely while her thoughts are racing to keep up with the new information she’s being given.

 

The engine dies down to an empty silence that sits uncomfortably in the air. Emma lets her head fall heavily onto the steering wheel after she’s unbuckled her seatbelt. She is unsurprised when a hand rubs over her shoulder and the back of her neck. She sighs.

 

Pam echoes her sigh. “When you came back home, you have to understand how worried I still was about you. You hadn’t been taking proper care of yourself, honey.”

 

“I did the best I could,” Emma responds weakly, defensive. She’s never shared the details about how she survived out on her own with Pam, too ashamed of herself, too scared of what her mother would think if she knew Emma had relied on petty thievery a few times instead of sucking up her pride and coming back home when she knew she needed help supporting herself. For her own conscious, she had made sure to right her debts once she had a (somewhat) steady income, but she knew it didn’t change what she had done in the very beginning. 

 

The hand on her right shoulder slides over to her left, spreading warmth across her back that is a comfort when Pam reaches over the console and presses her head against Emma’s and squeezes tightly. “I know, honey. I just wish you would have let me be your mother and take care of you. I don’t care how old you are, you’re always going to be my baby.”

 

Emma lets out a strangled mix of a breath and laugh. “I was never a baby.”

 

“Shh. What did I just say? No matter how old...”

 

Emma nods without removing her head from the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t have left again if you told me, you know. If that’s what you think would have happened.”

 

Pam settles back in her seat properly. “We can’t be certain of that, can we? But telling you wouldn’t have done you any good regardless—especially when, at the time, I still hadn’t known where she was.”

 

The phrasing is enough for Emma to know that however she managed to get in contact with Regina earlier in the week, it’s not her first time since she last saw Regina before Emma came back home. She’s almost afraid to ask, but she wants to know everything, so she doesn’t stop herself from wondering aloud, “How long have you known where she was?”

 

“I don’t,” Pam tells her without hesitation. “She gave me a call six or seven months ago, the first time since the Christmas before you came back. It was brief. I think she just wanted to share the news about the book with someone. She didn’t say where she was staying, but she sounded... She sounded happy at the time. We’ve only spoken a few times after that. She mentioned moving closer, but she never said for sure if she would, and if she did, I’m not sure where.”

 

“Six months. Mom... You could have told me. You could have... I don’t know.”

 

Pam sighs. “And I could have told her you were back. I know, honey. I’m not sure how much of a difference six months would have made, but I still look at you now and see the little girl who shut down almost completely when Regina left, and maybe I’m still worried about that happening again.”

 

“I’m not a teenager anymore. You should have let me decide what I can handle and what I can’t.”

 

“Perhaps.”

 

Emma frowns, not knowing what else she should say. “I’m not upset with you,” she tells her mother. “You don’t have to worry about me being upset with you, because I’m not. I’m not sure how I feel, really, but I’m not upset. I’m a little hurt for the version of me that was still in love with that girl who ended up coming back to find out that I had left—and I’m a little mad at myself for not being strong enough to pull myself out of my funk and stay here like I should have.

 

“But I don’t really know Regina anymore, not like I knew her back then. I don’t even know if we’ll connect as adults like we did as kids. I want to find out, yeah, but...” Emma exhales loudly and sits up so she can look directly at Pam as she speaks. “I get why you didn’t tell me when I came back. I do. I wasn’t stable when I left, so you needed time to see for yourself that I was doing better. I wish you would have talked to me about this. I’m not going to deny that. But I’m not upset.”

 

With both of her hands, Pam works Emma’s hair away from her face and tucks it behind her ears. She smiles at her, softly at first, the deep crevices around her mouth appearing, the fine lines around her squinty eyes pinching, her mouth stretching until her smile is wide and bright. She cradles Emma’s face in her hands and just looks at her, and it’s like her eyes produce their own warmth like the sun because Emma feels her skin warming pleasantly.

 

They inhale and exhale together. It’s cleansing.

 

“Come here.”

 

Emma gets pulled into a hug. It’s one of those long, tight embraces where she can feel Pam trying to pour every ounce of love into Emma’s body that there’s room for. It’s for her heart, her soul, like she is a plant that Pam is watering and soaking in sunshine. It’s a mother’s hug, her mother’s hug, and Emma holds on for as long as she can.

 

///

 

Over the years, Emma’s bedroom has changed very little—as was true for most of the house. The walls had been painted a couple of times: a soft blue, and then a warm yellow. The bed had been replaced: an upgrade to a full that takes up most of the space where she used to enjoy laying out on the floor with her art supplies. As she had matured, so had her taste, and it shows in small details like the posters on her wall that had replaced the butterflies she had drawn and cut out on cardboard during an arts and crafts afternoon with Pam and Regina one of their many sleepovers.

 

Pam opens the windows to let fresh air in, keeps the room from smelling like it’s stuck in the past even though it looks like it is. Emma thinks she should clean it out and use the space for something, but, just as all three of the other bedrooms that no longer get used more than once or twice every few months when they sleepover after a family dinner for whatever reason, Emma’s room goes unchanged. She wonders how long it’ll be before Pam finally lets go and downgrades to something more practical for a single woman living on her own. But with the way Pam preserves everything, holds on to it all so tightly, she wouldn’t be surprised if Pam never left.

 

Pulling open her closet door, she reveals the same stacked crates and woven storage bins that had always been inside. The only things missing are the clothes and shoes she outgrew long ago. A few scarves and old coats remain, however.

 

Her fingers brush over the items briefly, but she’s gone up to the bedroom for one specific box, knowing it would be exactly where she left it. Tucked away in the corner, buried beneath enough yarn to make an entire town of senior citizens very happy, she finds the collection of gifts and saved notes and all the little things that had been important and small enough to fit inside a box. It’s heavier than she remembers it being, stuffed full. She hefts the canvas storage box in her hands and brings it over to the bed, letting it fall before she tumbles in along with it, bouncing against the mattress.

 

Downstairs, everybody’s cooking and getting ready for their guests—Lily, their neighbor next door who Pam has been developing an odd but interesting relationship with since they both became empty nesters, and Regina. But Emma had needed space, time to process on her own everything her mother had said to her. Sometimes, a little time by herself is all she needs to get back to feeling like her normal self. She figures it’s better upstairs in her old bedroom full of memories than back at her own loft completely by herself. Pam would just think she’s isolating herself and beginning a pattern she had watched happen years ago without knowing how to stop.

 

Before she moved into the house, Emma didn’t keep much. It wasn’t practical to hold on to things when she had to be able to carry all of her belongings in one bag whenever she was moved out of one house and sent to another. She had gone to her first house after leaving the group home with a half-full garbage bag and that was it. When she refused to carry her bag when she was about seven years old, the foster mother who had been ill-tempered and an uncaring bitch the entire time Emma lived with her threw the bag right into the trashcan and told her that if she wouldn’t put it into the car so they could leave, it would just go straight into the trash. Emma learned how little she meant to people then, how they barely even thought of her as more than the fine print at the bottom of the check they eagerly accepted once they opened their doors to her.

 

It wasn’t until House Number Twelve that Emma started saving things.

 

So, maybe she went a little overboard sometimes and deemed everything important enough to keep. Perhaps she didn’t need to save the hairbow Regina let her use when they took class pictures one year and they wanted to match. (She didn’t even like bows, but Regina did, and Emma had liked Regina.) Maybe she could have thrown away the sugar packet from the first time Pam took them all out for breakfast and Emma secretly put the little packets in Regina’s sweater pockets so she would find them later—and then throw them at her and call her silly.

 

She probably didn’t need to keep half the stuff in the box, honestly. But she had finally been able to save things, and she’s glad that she did.

 

Falling down onto her back, Emma lets out a long breath. It’s been a long weekend full of more trips down memory lane than she’s taken in a long time. It’s exhausting, but she thinks she’s glad that she has.

 

Just when Emma’s eyes start feeling heavy and she’s decided she’s going to allow herself a short nap before joining the rest of the family, there’s a knock on the door. Her head jerks toward the door at the sound. “Unless dinner’s done, I’m not ready to go downstairs,” she says with a groan. Despite her words, she chooses to sit up. A yawn escapes her and she lets it loudly fill the air. When there’s no response, she forces herself up and out of the bed, practically dragging her feet to the door. But just before she goes to turn the knob, movement on the other side catches her attention.

 

She freezes.

 

It’s as though every single nerve in her body know what’s about to happen before Emma’s even stepped forward and pressed her ear to the door. The hair on the back of her neck stands on end and goosebumps scatter across her skin despite the rising heat coming from the packed kitchen. Her insides twist like someone’s wringing them out, tight tight tight and painful.

 

A throat clears, and she’s no longer in her own body, it would seem, because she isn’t aware at first that it’s her own throat being cleared. She doesn’t process the words that are spoken in a hushed tone against the door. It’s like she’s watching everything happen, an uninvited voyeur to the reunion that is about to take place. She has no say in what happens. It just happens.

 

“Knock again.”

 

The silence that follows Emma’s voice isn’t quiet. It’s loud with anticipation, its booming echoing in her chest, ticking in her ears like the countdown before the explosion of a bomb. But Emma waits. Because somehow she just knows that it’s Regina. New Regina who is a stranger but still her Regina is right there on the other side of the door, and Emma is certain of it.

 

She can wait. Deafening silence, breath caught in throat, and dizzying anxiety are nothing after everything she’s experienced in the last fifteen years.

 

So, she waits.

 

And waits.

 

And then, after so long that Emma had almost started to think maybe she had imagined the noise on the other side of the door, there’s a knock. It’s a single knock, as unsure as a knock can be. But it’s a knock nonetheless.

 

Her next breath is more of a gasp. “I almost don’t want to open this door,” she admits out loud. Her chuckle is awkward. She is awkward.

 

There’s a hum, long and throaty, deeper than Emma would have expected.

 

Emma pulls her lower lip into her mouth and worries it between her teeth, chewing on the tender flesh anxiously. She doesn’t know why she’s so nervous. Regina’s not the first person she’s had to face after years of not seeing them. She had had to go through a similar process with her entire family, with other friends she had left behind in school, and even with strangers who knew her better than she knew them. It shouldn’t be too different. But god is she nervous.

 

“Should I go back downstairs and we can try this again when you’re ready?”

 

Emma nearly shouts, “No!” She sucks in a breath and reaches for the knob, twists it. “Are you not nervous right now? Because I’m freaking out on the inside, let me tell you.” Unable to make the final move, she lets the knob go and steps away. “Once this door is opened, it’s for real, like for real for real. You’re more than just a name on a book, more than just a picture on the internet.”

 

“The internet?” Regina repeats. Is that amusement in her voice?

 

Emma doesn’t know why she let that slip out. “We’re going to pretend I didn’t just say that,” she says to the door as she facepalms her rapidly warming face.

 

“No, you should tell me more,” comes from the other side of the door. And, yes, there’s definitely amusement in the rich tones of her voice. How someone was able to mix the perfect amount of tupelo honey with the smokiness of a whiskey is a wonder. All that delicious, encompassing warmth in one voice, smooth even through the barrier...

 

It's dizzying. Emma has to press her back flush to the wall just to remain stable. Of all the things she knew could do her in, Emma had never guessed it would be hearing Regina speak. She tries to be smart, to remind herself of several things. She doesn’t know this woman, not really, not in the ways that truly matter. She isn’t the type of person to get swept away by a few alluring qualities. Regina is just another person. But then, then—  

 

“Emma...”

 

But then Regina says her name, and Emma’s forgetting everything she was supposed to be remembering. Because god does it sound good to hear her name coming out of Regina’s mouth, and Emma doesn’t care if she knows this version of Regina or not. That’s what getting to know people is for. People always start out as strangers. And they’re not exactly strangers, right? They just haven’t updated their mental fact lists for each other in a long time.

 

Yes. That’s it.

 

Emma forces herself away from the wall and back to the door. She’s being ridiculous, and that’s stopping right this moment. She’s going to open that door. She’s going to get through what might be the most awkward hello ever. And then... And then...

 

Deflating, Emma’s bottom lip juts out. She pulls it back to her mouth with her teeth and chews on it. And then what? What comes next?

 

A long sigh catches her attention and her head turns to the door. Right! She’s supposed to be opening that.

 

“This was a bad idea, wasn’t it?” Regina questions, all of her amusement vanishing beneath the heaviness of something Emma believes might be regret.

 

And that’s all it takes for Emma to gather enough courage to rip off the band-aid and yank the door open. She does this with more force than strictly necessary. The surprise of the door suddenly opening makes Regina do a double-step away from the entrance whilst raising a hand to her throat.

 

Emma smiles sheepishly and rubs the back of her neck. “Memorable first impression, take two?” she says, determined to turn her awkwardness into charm with a lopsided grin. “I remember gawking at you the first time we met for real, so I’m thinking this has been an improvement.”

 

“I usually prefer being startled half to death. Thank you,” Regina says with a tightness to her voice that makes Emma worry that they’ve really gotten off on the wrong foot. But then Regina gives up her hold on the thin chain around her neck so she can neaten her demure (but clearly perfectly tailored to accentuate her subtle yet pleasing curves) dress, and the hint of a smile shows on Regina’s mouth.

 

Ah! So she’s still sarcastic. Emma is inordinately pleased to discover this.  

 

It occurs to Emma that Regina might be just as unsure about how they should greet each other when she notices the brunette is taking much longer than necessary to straighten out the clinging fabric that couldn’t possibly have nearly as many wrinkles in it as Regina’s attention to the dress might lead one to believe.

 

“Soooo...” Emma rocks back onto her heels and shoves her hands into her pockets, looking up and down the sun-soaked hallway. It’s nearing sunset and the light that seeps in through the wide window at the end of the hall is bright. Emma, awkward Emma, nearly brings up how nice the weather has been as they slip into autumn, but she’s saved by Regina before the words get the chance to leave her mouth.

 

“I would have waited until you came downstairs to say hello, but Pam insisted.”

 

The corner of Emma’s mouth ticks upward. “Of course she did. She probably figured we’d want privacy for our reunion—for hugging and, uh, the emotional impact of it all, I guess.” She shrugs.

 

Regina lifts her brow and relaxes her jaws, tension noticeably leaving her facial features. “Hugging,” she says with just a dash of incredulity that can almost hide what Emma’s sure is hope.

 

Encouraged by that tiny sliver of hope, Emma leans against the doorjamb with a stance meant to look casual despite how hard she thinks about her every move. “Unless you’re not keen on hugging, then I think that’s part of how this should go? I mean, I have heard it’s pretty common for humans to do that sort of thing when seeing each other.” Nonchalantly, she shrugs. “We could give it a try if you wanna.”

 

There are little things Regina hasn’t grown out of, and Emma is taking note of every single one of them as she observes them. The head tilting with the hint of amusement in her eyes is one of them—and one that makes Emma grin. The way her face gets all scrunchy around her nose and eyes sometimes is another, and somehow it’s even more endearing now.

 

The breath of a laugh surprises her with its throatiness and slight rumble that echoes and vibrates all the way inside of Emma, against her bones and low in her belly. “Perhaps we’ll get to a hug after you tell me more about your adventures with the internet, those which pertain to me. I’m... curious. You mentioned pictures...” Regina comes a step closer as she speaks. There’s an air of sensuality about her that is just subtle enough to make Emma wonder if it’s intentional or not.

 

Either way, Emma isn’t immune to it. She’s always had a thing for dark eyes; the depth and what can be hidden within them draws her in in the most intoxicating ways. So Regina only needs to look at Emma to make her feel like she’s spent too long on a merry-go-wrong.

 

She swallows and tries to remain composed, forces herself not to take the instinctive step back that would normally occur when someone pushes themself into her personal space. She doesn’t quite mind Regina being close—she doesn’t remember a time when she ever had. “I might have been curious as well,” Emma responds, biting into her cheek while watching the way intrigue flits across Regina’s face. “You don’t have to worry about me being a crazy stalker or anything, if you’re worried about that.” She laughs a little, bringing a hand from her pocket to curl around the back of her neck.

 

Regina’s smile softens her entire face. “You would be a terrible one if you were. If the information I’ve been given is correct, you would have had multiple chances to approach me the last few months alone. My whereabouts haven’t been obscure.”

 

Averting her eyes, Emma tries to pretend Regina’s words don’t cause a slight sting right to her heart. It’s not like she has been actively thinking about Regina lately, no more than the occasional thought here and there. But that doesn’t seem to matter when she thinks about how many times they could have reconnected before now if she had only tried harder to find her.

 

A hand touches her arm rather briefly, a ghost of a touch all Emma is left with by the time she has processed the pressure of Regina against her. “I didn’t mean anything by that,” she tells Emma sincerely.

 

Emma offers her a slight smile and nods her head. She looks over her shoulder to the inside of her bedroom, and then over to the stairs. She wonders how much longer it’ll be until dinner. They should probably go downstairs with everybody else. But Emma turns to look at Regina and invites her into the room instead of suggesting they go see how dinner is coming along and if she can help any. After all, Pam had sent Regina upstairs in the first place when she could have called Emma to come down.

 

“You wanna sit?” Emma moves over to the bed, not bothering to hide that she had been looking through her box of things she had collected when they were younger.

 

Regina follows her into the room with an open interest, looking around like she wants to learn every new detail that hadn’t been there when she last saw it—and maybe reacquaint herself with what has never changed. Emma doesn’t wait for Regina to answer her. She sits down and observes Regina, looking over Regina with the same interest Regina has for the bedroom. Emma wants to familiarize herself with every aspect of Regina.

 

“I remember it being bigger.”

 

Emma hums quietly. “You were smaller.”

 

Regina’s head tilts and her eyes meet Emma’s. The corner of her mouth curls upward into half of a smile. “No, it’s the bed.” She reaches out and lets her hand brush over the edges of the carved headboard. “You still had a twin the last time we...” She falters, pausing with her fingers hovering for a moment before she swallows the rest of her sentence and rewords what she had planned on saying. “This is definitely new to me.”

 

Emma lets her eyes fall away from Regina and to the bed. She scoots back until she’s against the wall and folds her legs in front of her. She picks at the duvet until she can decide what to say next. “I didn’t know you came back.” The words are whispered, and maybe not the ones she should have chosen. But once they’re out, she finds she can’t stop talking. “I feel like shit for not being here back then. If I had known you would come looking for me, I wouldn’t have left. I didn’t think it was a possibility, to be honest. I thought... I thought...

 

“Four years is a long time. You had probably made new friends and forgotten about me, and I just felt like I was stuck in this place of feeling lost and broken. But if I had known—”

 

"Emma." The bed dips under the weight of Regina joining her. “Can I be honest with you? I didn’t know that I was going to come back until I was already here, Emma. For a long time, I didn’t think I ever would. And it wasn’t because I had forgotten about you, trust me. It had nothing to do with you, in fact.”

 

Emma looks up to search Regina’s face, but Regina’s staring at the floor instead of looking toward her. “Why, then?”

 

There’s a harshness to her voice when Regina says, “My mother,” sharp even in its quietness. “At eighteen I thought I was comfortable being myself. Even after the years of my mother wanting to 'fix' me like there was something wrong with me, I thought I had accepted myself enough to not care what anyone else thought of me, especially her. But I hadn’t. I can especially see that now that I have, not that I can say with unwavering conviction that I am proud of who I am. I couldn't have done that when I was younger. 

 

“My sudden disappearance from the town was sure to have been noticed, and I didn’t know how my mother explained where I had gone or why I was no longer there. I didn’t know if everybody knew the truth about me...” A shuddery breath makes Regina’s posture loosen. “I couldn’t decide if having everybody know I was queer was worse or better than coming back to find out she had done what she always did and packaged everything up with a pretty little bow and kept that tidbit to herself.”

 

“But you came back anyway.”

 

Regina hmms and nods more to herself than Emma. “I didn’t come back knowing I would try to see you. I meant what I said,” she tells Emma, turning so that her torso is facing Emma and they can properly look at each other. “I hadn’t stopped thinking of you. But I believe there was a part of me—no, there was certainly a part of me that was convinced that I didn’t deserve to have you in my life and it would be selfish of me to come back with all my baggage.”

 

“No offense, but that part of you was crazy,” Emma tells her with a frown. Emma of any age would gladly welcome Regina with all her baggage back into her life—especially then.

 

A breath of a laugh catches in Regina’s throat. “Then, I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t let that part of me stop me from coming here.”

 

“If only I had actually been here—”

 

“No, I think it’s best that you weren’t,” Regina says, and it surprises Emma so much that she physically reacts, head jerking and eyes widening ever so slightly with a mix of disbelief and a little hurt. Regina is quick to reach out and put her hand on Emma’s thigh, squeezing it, lingering unlike the first time she had touched Emma. “Don’t take that to mean I wouldn’t have been glad to see you.”

 

“Then how should I take it? Because it kinda sounds like that’s what you’re saying.”

 

“What I'm saying is that I don’t think that was the right time for us to do this.” She gestures between the two of them with a sweep of her hand. It doesn’t escape Emma’s notice that she immediately places it back on Emma's thigh, the warmth of her touch not even given the chance to fully slip away before Regina is filling Emma up with it again. “I can only speak for myself, but having time to grow into who I am now has done me a great deal of good. I wouldn’t have been able to sit down and just talk to you about any of this when I was eighteen. In all honesty, it’s unlikely that I would have made it very far before all thoughts that didn’t include pushing you up against a flat surface and getting my hands underneath your clothes vanquished.”

 

Emma chokes on the air, and Regina smirks at her, giving Emma’s thigh a squeeze that shoots heat straight to her core. “Well,” is all that she can manage with her heart caught in her throat.

 

Mirth in her eyes, Regina continues. “Do you remember how we used to have the conversations that were hard for us to naturally bring up?”

 

“Of course I do,” Emma says almost too quietly. “There isn’t much I don’t remember.”

 

There’s a soft hum in the air before Regina finally moves her hand away. Ducking her head, she attempts to hide the way her smile melts away the sharper edges of her, a warmth washing over Regina’s face and turning it into a breathtakingly beautiful picture of serenity. “We used to crawl under the covers together and it was just the two of us and darkness. I remember... The nights we didn’t have anything serious to talk about, I would try making topics up just so I could pull the covers over us.”

 

Emma laughs quietly, remembering clearly the very nights Regina’s talking about. “God, you were obvious, too. We had so many ridiculous talks in that bed. We debated sundae toppings, of all things, with way more passion than anyone should ever debate sundae toppings. Remember that?”

 

"I do." Regina brushes her hair away from her face and tucks it behind her ear, giving Emma a smile. “I just wanted to be close to you,” she admits. “It felt like it was our own little world under those blankets. I didn’t think about my mother’s expectations. I wasn’t worried about schoolwork or whatever other things I prioritized the other days of the month. Once I was here, and we were under the covers together, it was just us.”

 

“I remember,” Emma tells her with a small hum.

 

Regina hmms and runs the tip of her tongue over the edge of her teeth. “Now, imagine two hormonal teenagers trying to have a proper conversation when all they would be able to think about is how they’re in bed together and there’s nothing stopping them from getting as close to each other as humanly possible after all that time of wishing they could be together.”

 

Emma sees her point about not being able to have had any sort of proper conversation when they were eighteen. She knows she had been a mess at that age, and Regina showing up would have changed a lot, but she would have just been caught up in Regina and everything she had felt for her, not completely unlike she had been at the time.

 

“We needed this time to mature. And I needed time to figure out what I wanted out of life because I had lost track of that while I was at that school. I let my anger with my mother get in the way of my studies in the beginning, and that wasn’t me. I wanted to get back on track. In a completely different way, I think I would have gotten off track again if you and I had picked up where we had left off.”

 

“You’re probably right.” Emma agrees that, yeah, she would have wanted more than anything to have Regina back in her life when she was younger, but it wasn’t the right time. “But, for the record, just so you know, if I had known you were looking for me, I would have come back. We all come with baggage, so don’t think that would have meant anything to me. That closet is surprisingly big.”

 

Shaking her head as unveiled amusement dances in her eyes, Regina reaches over and runs her hand over Emma’s folded leg and curls her fingers downward to squeeze. “You’re still a little ridiculous sometimes, aren’t you?”

 

Emma shrugs her shoulders a bit, too distracted by the hand on her—the hand that is touching her again. She has no clue if Regina’s just naturally touchy; she hadn’t been when they were younger, but she had always been comfortable with Emma, holding her hand, touching her hair, gently knocking their limbs together, and even laying against Emma’s shoulder even before they had slept together in Emma’s bed the first time. But that was only with Emma, and sometimes Pam.

 

So, Emma wonders if that has changed. Does Regina touch everybody this much? Or is she still comfortable with Emma even though they haven’t seen each other since they were kids?

 

Regina must have some inkling of where Emma’s mind has gone because she squeezes Emma’s thigh and pulls her hand away, bringing it to her own lap. “Should we go downstairs?”

 

Emma nods, but before moving to get up, she puts her hand on Regina’s shoulder and returns the squeeze that had been given to her. “I’m glad you came today. It’s been good seeing you.”

 

“I am, too.”

 

Sliding her hand down Regina’s arm, Emma scoots forward to the edge of the bed. “You know, most people skip over the acknowledgments, right?”

 

There’s a flash of confusion in Regina’s eyes as she stands and waits for Emma to join her, but understanding quickly follows. She smirks. “I remember you telling me that once before. I think you said something like, ‘people don’t care about all that personal junk. They just wanna get to the story they signed up for,’ or something like that.”

 

Emma chuckles and nods, leading the way out of her old bedroom. “It’s true. Most people don’t care.”

 

Regina brushes against Emma, saying, “But I also remember that you always did, Emma. You’ve always cared more than you wanted people to think you did.”

 

Emma inhales sharply when Regina’s breath tickles her neck. She pauses, pulling in the scent of Regina, something layered and hard to distinguish, floral and earthy but smooth and warm. She looks over her shoulder where Regina has also stopped, wondering if she’s imagining it or if Regina’s eyes really do sparkle like the night sky when she’s this close.

 

Dampening her lips, Emma forces herself not to look down toward Regina’s mouth. But it isn’t like the rest of her isn’t just as mesmerizing, isn’t just as magnetic. She didn’t expect she would be so undeniably drawn to Regina after all this time, but god. Standing this close to her, all Emma can think about is what it would be like to kiss her pretty mouth and find out if her lips are as soft as they look.

 

Regina hums as though she’s responding to something Emma doesn’t remember saying, low and deep in her chest. "Save that thought for another time,” she whispers, bringing a hand to Emma’s side. Her fingers slide over Emma’s stomach and make the muscles beneath quiver. “Let’s see how the rest of the evening goes first. Deal?”

 

Emma blushes with embarrassment. She swallows hard and takes a step forward, heart suddenly pounding away in her chest. “Oh, god. I’m not that obvious, am I?”

 

Regina appears to be amused as she shakes her head, neither of them walking toward the stairs just yet. “No, you’re...” She searches Emma’s face with her head tilted, her lips pursed for a moment. Decidedly, she hums. “You’re easy to read. You don’t hide your interest—not that you should think of that as a bad thing.”

 

Emma rolls her eyes. “That’s the same thing. I swear, I’m not usually so...” She gestures with wide waves of her hands, but even Emma doesn’t know what she’s trying to say, so she doubts Regina will be able to comprehend. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—”

 

Regina cuts her off with a serious, “Don’t apologize for being interested, Emma.” Softer, she adds, “And don’t mistake me wanting to get to know you better for disinterest.”

 

She nods, rubbing the back of her neck and looking away so she can settle the nerves in her belly that are jumping and twisting. The noise from the kitchen reminds Emma that they were about to head down to dinner before they stopped and Emma forgot for the smallest moment that there was more to life than kissing Regina—or, rather, wanting to kiss Regina. She clears her throat. “Let’s...”

 

“We probably should,” Regina says, but she reaches out for Emma before they reach the stairs. She takes Emma’s hand into her own and they both look down at it. “Before we go downstairs, can I—I want you to know that I didn’t come with the intention of rekindling the relationship from our adolescence.”

 

Emma fights the urge to pull her hand free from Regina’s grip. She feels like she’s getting mixed signals and nothing is making sense to her. “Umm,” is all she can say, awkward, shifting, looking down at Regina’s hand holding hers, Regina’s thumb tracing the side of her finger.

 

“You still fidget when you’re nervous,” Regina breathes quietly, smiling when Emma glances up at her. She shakes her head like she’s making the fond thoughts that are playing in her mind’s eye disappear. “Perhaps I should have phrased that differently. What I meant—what I should have said is that while I look back at our friendship, our relationship, and I can see how much of it shaped the person I’ve become, I’m not that young girl. We’re not two kids learning about ourselves together anymore. We’re different and older.”

 

“We grew up,” Emma agrees, not sure where Regina’s going but calming under the gentle stroking of her fingers regardless. Some things have not changed, and how calming Emma finds the slow brush of fingers on her skin is one of them. She’s surprised Regina has remembered.

 

Regina nods and hmms in response. “We did. We grew up, and no matter how much we cared for each other back then, that doesn’t change that we are different people now. So, I didn’t come here to pick up where we left off. That chapter of our lives is finished.”

 

Emma can’t help but grin a little. “Writer’s humor? Are you telling me you’re ready to see how we fare in the next chapter?”

 

Regina bites the corner of her lip, tamping down a smile. “I think I am, yes. Our history is exactly that: history. It is part of us. It will remain important to both of us, I believe. But I would like to learn more about you of the present and see what that might lead to. No comparisons, or expectations, or—”

 

“I get it,” Emma tells her, tightening her fingers around those still holding on to her. “Fresh start. We’ll see how it goes, where life takes us. It doesn’t have to be anything like it was before. You don’t even have to kiss me if you don’t want to,” she says with a laugh to lighten the mood.

 

Regina only hums and licks her lips, giving Emma’s hand one more squeeze before letting go.

 

“It’s only day one of our second chapter,” Emma says with a crooked grin. “I can wait to find out how the story plays out.”

 

She earns herself a laugh and a shake of Regina’s head. “You’re ridiculous.”

 

“You didn’t spend years calling me silly without reason.”

 

“I’m glad to see it hasn’t changed.”

 

Emma feels her face get warm all over and says, just before leading them down to dinner with the family, “Well, I’m glad it still makes you smile, and not just because you still have the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen. Although, you definitely do.”

 

///

 

Nearly three hours are spent between the kitchen and patio before the family slowly starts making their way out of the front door to end the night after dinner. Emma’s cleaning up in the kitchen with Lily, waiting for Regina to finish the conversation she’s having with Joanne, Pam’s friend, so they can walk out together.

 

Lily hops up onto the counter after she finishes drying it off and gives Emma a crooked grin. “You’re really into her, aren’t you?”

 

Emma shrugs her shoulders with faux nonchalance. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

 

“Maybe,” Lily repeats with an eye roll that’s as loud as the scoff that follows. “Tell that to your face, then. You almost ruined dessert for me because your googly eyes were making me sick.” She points two of her fingers into her opened mouth and gags loudly.

 

The towel Emma had been using to dry the wet pans gets thrown across the kitchen. “Fuck off,” Emma demands with a hmph. “I don’t make googly eyes at anyone, not even Regina.”

 

Clapping her hands together and folding her fingers down like a child about to pray before bed, Lily gives an exaggerated pout and flutters her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. “Oh, Regina, please, tell us more about the importance of the Oxford comma,” Lily mock begs with dramatics so poor that people would pay her to get off the stage if she were a performer. “Yes, yes! I totally agree that we need to be inspiring more young girls to follow their true passions and not let society tell them who and what they can be.

 

“What’s that you say? The sky is green. Can’t believe I’ve gone my whole life thinking it was blue. But now that you’ve said it was green, I can see it with new eyes. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Lily goes on and on, working herself up into a rumble of a laugh that makes her thin shoulders shake.

 

Emma is completely unamused, her arms folded as she watches the scene play out in front of her. She hadn’t been that bad, not even close. Maybe she had encouraged Regina to elaborate on every point she brought up during the discussions had throughout the night, but it wasn’t like Emma was the only one.

 

Julie and Regina had spent most of their time at the dinner table talking about racism and injustices in the criminal justice system, something they both felt very strongly about and could obviously deliver full-length speeches about. (Which, Emma finds out is something Regina actually does. And it’s not just at the dinner table with the people she had once thought of as a second family but on stages and in front of loud crowds, marching in protests and talking to local politicians. Emma is not surprised by how passionate Regina is about any of it, but it’s a bit wild seeing how the quiet girl she once knew has grown into this outspoken force to be reckoned with.)

 

“All right, all right, laugh it up. Ha ha ha. Real funny.”

 

Lily gives Emma her crooked grin once she’s sobered, hunched over with her elbows digging into her knees. “You know I’m gonna rib on you about this until you stop looking at her like she hangs the goddamn stars in the sky, right?”

 

“I don’t expect anything less from you, assshole,” Emma says without malice. Lily might enjoy teasing her whenever she thinks Emma’s even a tiny bit attracted to someone, but Emma’s used to it. It’s part of what makes Lily, well, Lily. Honestly, she wouldn’t have her any other way.

 

“Good!” Thoughtfully, Lily looks out the sliding kitchen doors to where Regina is still with Pam and Joanne. “All jokes aside, don’t forget that you’ve got just as much to bring to the table as she does.” Serious eyes focus on Emma and hold her stare for a long stretch of silence. “You’re responsible for just as many of those stars up there. Got it?”

 

Emma silently basks in the warmth that floods her chest. “Got it,” she repeats strongly, not looking away from Lily until the other woman hops down from the counter and announces she’s going to head home.

 

That is what makes Lily so special to Emma; after all they’ve been through the last decade together, she always knows Lily’s on her side, that she’s rooting for her. Even when Lily’s teasing her about nonsense things, she is one of Emma’s biggest supporters in all things she does. Emma doesn’t need big declarations or anything from her. It’s always the little things like this that remind her.

 

Emma gets lost in her thoughts, memories of what it had been like during the years she spent away from the town she calls home. She recalls one too many bar fights with a half-grin plastered on her face. Sometimes, that pissed off version of herself who spoke without thinking at the wrong times and ended up paying for it feels like a stranger to her. She still speaks without thinking now—that’s never going to change—but Emma’s not hotheaded like she was back then. She’s mellowed out. And, strangely enough, she thanks Lily, who is still very much quick to anger, for helping her find peace inside herself again. Without Lily, Emma’s not sure she would have ever reached out to Pam when she had, and she might have never known she could come back to the home she had left behind.

 

Fingers trace the smooth edge of the slate grey island across from Emma, and she looks up from where she had been staring. “You’re still here,” Regina says with a hint of surprise but a pleased smile.

 

“What? You thought I’d leave without saying goodbye? I didn’t even find a way to sneak my number into your pocket or anything yet.”

 

Emma notices the way Regina sucks in her cheeks a little like she’s trying to stop herself from smiling. But Regina’s attempt not to smile thrills Emma with the same intensity her smile does. “If you want my number, why don’t you just ask me for it? I didn’t take you for the shy type.”

 

There’s a dare in Regina’s eyes, and Emma accepts it without pause. “You’re missing out on my quality flirting skills, FYI. But, all right, I can be straightforward and just ask for what I want.” Reaching into her pocket for her phone while stepping forward, Emma asks, simple but softly spoken into the minute space she leaves between them, “Can I have your number so we can talk about seeing each other again?”

 

An approving hum vibrates in Regina’s throat. She nods. “I won't be available in the morning during this next week, but you can text me at any time.”

 

As Emma unlocks the phone and Regina takes it from Emma so she can add the number herself, Regina removes another foot of space between them. Once she’s input her phone number and saved it, she hands the phone back, pressing it down to Emma’s palm and covering it, holding both Emma’s hand and the phone whilst leaning forward. Her breath blows against the stray strands of hair touching Emma’s ear and creates a tickling sensation that makes the blonde shiver.  

 

“In the future, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of just telling me what you want,” Regina says in that deliciously low timbre that makes Emma feel slightly dizzy. Regina reaches up and traces the edge of Emma’s ear with her thumb. She tilts her head so she can look at Emma as she adds, “Too many people are afraid to be direct. But, I prefer a direct approach.”

 

Emma shudders when Regina’s breath tickles her ear again, her eyes squeezing shut for a brief moment and her face burning hot. She reaches out desperately for her composure, but it escapes her when Regina’s cheek brushes against her own. It’s no more than a second of contact, but the feel of soft skin on her own, the warmth of it, the very heat of Regina, is unthinkably satisfying.

 

Regina leaves Emma’s personal bubble before she can even think to outwardly react. She looks so smug, like she already knows that Emma has decided that she’s all right with jumping into the deep end and submerging herself in all that is Regina. She fluffs her shoulder-length hair and glances over her shoulder to the doorway. Her throat clears. “So, are you ready to leave, or will you be staying longer?”

 

Emma hears the words Regina says, but they don’t make any sense to her. Her cheek still burns from where Regina’s touched her, and every ounce of her attention is focused on that. She blinks owlishly, then feels ridiculous for being so affected by something so minimal.

 

Rubbing her face and groaning quietly against her palms, she forces herself to get a grip and remember she’s not some lovesick idiot. The words sink in, understanding following. She shakes her head and responds. “I’m ready to go. I was waiting for you—thought I could walk you out.”

 

“Is that chivalry I'm detecting?”

 

“Not completely dead after all,” Emma says with a lopsided grin, feeling more her normal, confident self. She can do this!

 

“No, it would seem that it is not.”

 

A few hugs and farewells and two promises to make sure Pam is texted when they arrive at their destinations safely, and then Emma and Regina are gone from the house. Emma’s the last car in the driveway, so she walks Regina out to where she’s parked on the street in front of the house. Despite the late hour, the air still holds the warmth of the day and it’s tempting to ask Regina if she’d like to go for a walk somewhere with her. But she knows Regina’s drive to the hotel she’s staying at for the workshops she was in town for isn’t a short one, so she leaves the idea for another time. When that time will come is a mystery, but they'll figure it out.

 

“Let me ask you something,” Emma says as they approach the driver’s side of Regina’s car. Regina gets her keys out from her purse while she waits. “It’s about the book.”

 

Regina doesn’t seem surprised. Everybody else had asked questions about The Princess and the Knight throughout the night, but Emma has only made vague mentions so far. “I’m listening...”

 

“Okay, so, I loved it, by the way. I mean, if it wouldn’t make me the hugest dork right now, I could probably spend all night talking about all my favorite parts.” She doesn’t reveal exactly how many notes she’s made on Regina’s book, just like they had always done when reading books together when they were kids so they could talk about them, only this time Regina had written the book. “But I gotta know. Did you do it on purpose?

 

“You wrote what was so clearly a powerful story about learning to trust again after having people you’ve trusted in the past take for granted what you’ve given them. They grew to trust each other in such an organic way, and, like, it was honestly like nothing I’ve read before. It wasn’t really a fairy tale—a lot of times, it wasn’t even romance—but it was a love story. You know? Every battle, every time they defended the other, every bout of anger and frustration... They loved each other.

 

“But they never said it. Why did they never say it when it was so obvious they loved each other?”

 

Regina starts out slightly wary like she isn’t sure what to expect, what Emma might have to say about her book. But by the time Emma’s let out her final puff of air and she’s left just waiting for any bit of commentary she can get from Regina, the brunette is looking at her with a gentle smile that makes her face look all soft.

 

“I think you’ve already answered your question for yourself, Emma.”

 

Emma’s brow furrows with her confusion, her words replaying in her head. She doesn’t see how she’s answered her question at all. She doesn’t understand why Regina would spend an entire book building up to something and then not even write it. She wasn’t disappointed when she reached the end, wasn’t left unsatisfied, but she had definitely noticed that neither of the main characters had ever said that they loved the other.

 

“You said it was obvious they loved each other,” Regina begins, most likely realizing Emma’s not getting anywhere on her own. “That was the idea from the start. I had three goals when I began writing out the story that I wanted to tell, and never relying on the word ‘love’ to express how they felt was the first one. I could have easily added an ‘I love you’ to the story—of course I could; it’s three words. But, if you could see the love between them without me explicitly having one of them—or both of them—say it, then why is it necessary?”

 

“Because,” Emma starts with a rush of fiery passion that dies before it has taken more than its first breath. She snaps her mouth shut and ponders Regina’s explanation, really thinks about what she’s said. She comes up with no reasoning for the importance of the spoken declaration that she can’t easily tear apart; Regina would have a rebuttal within seconds. The best she has is, “Okay, but maybe they just need to hear it. Maybe for the reader it’s not needed for it to be known—expected, yeah, but not needed. But what about the characters?”

 

Regina seems equally confused and intrigued. “You don’t think they knew?”

 

“I—I don’t know,” she answers truthfully. Seeing their story play out as an outsider, it was obvious to Emma. All the signs were there. But they weren’t reading their own stories. They were living it. They had only their own perspectives, only their own thoughts. Humans miss details in their lives that writers can explore and explain. A character isn’t all-seeing like the writer is, and they miss most of those details. “Don’t you think they would always wonder how much they really meant to the other if they never said it aloud?”

 

Regina hums thoughtfully before she says, “Not including it in the book doesn’t mean they never said it aloud. The book tells part of their story, not the whole thing. The book ended, but their story continues.”

 

Emma thinks that’s all she’s going to say, but she gives Emma a more direct answer to the question she’s asked.

 

“I think in life we all wonder how much we mean to someone—even if we’re told by them constantly—but we have to trust what we see and feel sometimes. What our loved ones choose to show us weighs more in the end than what is said. And, perhaps that’s the reason why it’s not the words that are important. Even with them, there are doubts and insecurities. There are people who say they love us and treat us badly, and there are those who never say it but love us wholeheartedly. So we can’t rely on words alone. That was the point I wanted to make.”

 

Emma has more questions, more thoughts, and maybe one day they’ll sit down and talk about the book. But Emma decides she’s satisfied for the time being.

 

“Point made, message heard loud and clear.”

 

Regina looks at Emma thoughtfully for a moment before she unlocks the car door. She doesn’t get in right away, chooses instead to put her purse inside and turn to look at Emma again. “When I started writing the book, it wasn’t something I planned on trying to get published. Despite my love for literature, becoming a published author has never been a part of any of my five-year plans. It was meant to be closure, something personal—and it was.”

 

Emma can feel there’s more, so she encourages Regina to continue with a raise of her brow. “But then...?”

 

A hint of a laugh tickles Regina’s throat. “The dragon. I don’t know if you remember the night you explained the reason why you were so adamant about the princess having a dragon—”

 

“Of course I remember. That was the night of our first kiss. How could I forget anything from that night?”

 

Regina almost laughs again. “It was also the first time somebody had made me think about what it meant to be a strong woman. That dragon represented a weakness and incapability before you gave me your view and flipped my perspective. All I could see was how you thought she couldn’t take care of herself, but that was never the reason you wanted to include the dragon. For you, the dragon was an ally, an equal, and you made me think about what it meant to be strong and independent but accepting of others’ help.

 

“Not everybody is going to be lucky enough to have an Emma Swan in their life, but I wanted to share that message. We should all learn at some point that self-sufficient doesn’t mean you have to always be self-reliant, and you taught me that."

 

Emma floods with an overwhelming warmth as Regina repeats what she had written in her acknowledgment, as she shares the reason she decided to publish the story and how Emma had impacted her life at even that young age. She doesn’t think twice about it when she wraps her arms around Regina and pulls her in close, needing to express how much what Regina’s just shared means to her. But she does ask, perhaps a few seconds later than she should, “Can I hug you now?”

 

And Regina’s breath shakes against Emma’s ear as she circles Emma’s waist and pulls her all the more tighter, answering, “Yes, it’s long overdue.”

 

And as Emma holds Regina to her, feeling like she’s being invited home once again while also being welcomed to somewhere completely new with promise, Emma agrees. “It’s been way too long.”

 

She doesn’t think she’ll ever let go this time—not that Regina’s tight hold on her is giving her a chance.

 

Right then and there, Emma decides that the start of new chapters are her favorite thing. Their last chapter has ended, but their story goes on. This is just another beginning for them, and Emma can’t wait to find out what comes next.

Chapter Text

How long has it been? Emma can’t quite say. But it’s been a long time since she last felt like she would never have a home.

 

And now here she is, in Home Number Three, laying on the bare floor of her new living room with nothing but the moonlight spilling in through the windows to light the room with its faint glow.

 

Home Number Three!

 

She wonders what the little girl who had kept track of the houses she was placed in would think if she saw what would one day be hers. Would she even believe it to be true? Would she think she was dreaming, trapped in another false reality that she would wake up to find did not truly exist? Too used to how easily she was looked over in search for something better, pushed away as soon as she proved to be too much, never the one, Emma knows that little girl would have never believed this would one day be her home. She would not believe she would be starting a family, expanding the one she has already had for two decades of her life now. But this isn’t a dream; she doesn’t need to pinch herself to wake up. This is hers.

 

It’s been so many years since Pamela shook her small hand in the social worker’s office, so many years since she promised Emma that she would do everything within her power to make sure Emma felt at home and like part of the family. Emma doesn’t know what her life would have been like if Foster Mother Number Twelve had never turned into Mom, but she knows meeting Pam was one of the best things to happen to her.

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get quite this excited about wood floors before.”

 

Emma smiles at the sound of Regina’s voice. In the empty room, it echoes slightly, bouncing off the walls they spent their weekend painting warm but neutral tones that invite the sunlight in the daytime. They will hang photographs and proudly display captured memories on these walls as they combine their two apartments, their two lives, and fill their home. Their home! She can’t get over it, absolutely none of it. She can’t believe where she’s at in life, or that she’s here with Regina, her very best friend, the soul that best complements her own.

 

She raises up onto her elbows and easily locates the dark figure in the shadows of the entryway. She can’t wait to find out what Regina looks like bathed in the golden light of a fire crackling and burning in their fireplace, can’t wait to walk into their furnished living room and find Regina relaxing on one of their new sofas at the end of a long day at the office, can't wait... Emma honestly just can’t wait until they’re living together in a house that equally belongs to each of them, until she gets to come home to Regina every day, wake up with her every morning. The amount of joy the thought of just living with Regina in their new house fills her with is unbelievable.

 

Her eyes sweep around the room, traverse from one end of the tray ceiling to the other, dip down to follow the shape of the mantle and the white brick fireplace. The window is where she stops, the bay window that overlooks the garden; it had been one of Emma’s few must-haves, a reading nook, a space big enough for them both to curl up in. “These windows are pretty amazing, too,” Emma breathes out with a laugh that is almost embarrassing in its giddiness. They’re just windows, but they’re the windows in her house with Regina and maybe, just maybe, Emma’s getting emotional and can’t help how much it’s showing. But she’s waited so long for this. She can see their future here, and it’s overwhelming in its perfection.

 

Regina doesn’t seem to think she’s ridiculous—not even in the joking way she often does. She hums softly and agrees, “The windows are rather nice.”

 

“That’s because they’re our windows.”

 

Regina does laugh this time, a rich sound that easily fills the quiet living room. She wants a lifetime hearing Regina’s laughter in this house, is so ready for every single room to be full of life. “Are you finished declaring your unending love to the house yet, hmm? If you want to make it to the pier before it gets crowded, we should get going.”

 

With one last look around the room for the night, Emma gets up from where she had lain while waiting for Regina to finish the phone call she had stepped away to take. They’ll be back tomorrow with a moving truck full of their combined belongings. They’ll pile boxes in corners of the rooms and Emma will put together exactly zero pieces of furniture because Regina has already forbidden it after discovering that Emma’s skillful hands just aren’t made for putting things together. (Emma still swears Regina bought a cursed table when she moved into her apartment. Nobody could have put that thing together. It wasn’t Emma’s fault.) But tonight they have plans for a late night walk during one of the last firework shows for the summer, and all of this will be here tomorrow.

 

Wrapping her arms around Regina, she expels a lengthy but contented sigh into the special warm space that has been collecting her soft breaths for years now. It makes Regina hum and offer more of her neck to Emma, and Emma buries a few gentle kisses there for safekeeping. “You know, we always said we would do this. The house. The shared bed. The family and growing old together. We had no idea what life would have in store for us, but we had always been so certain that we would end up here, that we would face it together.”

 

“I never doubted we would,” Regina whispers. Her smile is in her voice, light in the breathiness of her admission.

 

“Never?”

 

Regina tilts her head back and lets Emma see the honesty in her eyes. “Not even when it felt like an impossibility. You wanted it, and I wanted you. I knew that that would always be enough.”

 

It always has been.

 

They could have never found each other again after the years they spent living separate lives. They could have given up on trying to build a bridge to connect those separate lives after they realized how difficult it was when there were hundreds of literal miles between them. They could have let the first fight be the last, the last time they argued and the last time they tried to make it work.

 

But here they are together, in their home, preparing for the life they had always known they wanted to have.

 

If Emma closes her eyes, she can hear the footfalls of kids and the barking of a dog, Regina telling them all to be careful and take the noise outside while Emma chases after them like the biggest child of the bunch. She can see herself in the kitchen with a little one beside her on a Wednesday morning making Regina a special breakfast (because every day should be about reminding people they’re special, not just holidays on a calandar, they’ll teach their children). She can hear sneezes and coughs and mumbles of I’m all right when Regina will force her to stay in bed so she can get better even though Emma will protest.

 

If she closes her eyes, Emma can see her future with Regina.

 

But Emma doesn’t close her eyes.

 

Emma slides her fingers through Regina’s and soaks up the warmth and love that Regina pours straight into Emma’s body when she presses her mouth to Emma’s. Because the future is in front of them and they’re on the road to get there, but god does Emma love what she has right now in life. Her present, her current, here right here, right now, is beautiful and full of all the things she once believed she would never experience for herself. And she’s not going to waste a second of it.

 

///

 

Chapter one had been their beginning, an introduction to each other, themselves, love, and life.

 

Chapter two has been their fresh start, a rediscovery, trials and tribulations, and is coming to an end as they take the final steps to bring their lives together.

 

Chapter three...

 

A burst of color brightens the dark sky above the river, the fireworks booming loud in her ears. But Emma’s not watching the fireworks. Because the thing is, once you’ve seen one spectacular fireworks show, you’ve basically seen them all. There isn’t anything special about the buzz in the night air, nothing magnificent about the spray of color. But the way Regina’s eyes light up with the reflection of the gold and purple in the sky, her face illuminated? No matter how many times Emma witnesses the way Regina’s cheeks lift into a smile, the way her eyes scrunch up and her nose wrinkles at the bridge, Emma feels herself fall a little more in love each time. Regina has and always will be breathtaking.

 

Chapter three will be the chapter of love, not discovering it, not learning how to do it again, but simply loving.

 

She’s found her home and her roots are buried deep, messy and tangled and permanent. But now it’s time to live in it.

 

“How cliche would it be if I kissed you right now?” Emma whispers into Regina’s ear after a particularly loud boom makes the crowd gasp with excited wonderment.

 

Regina’s body shakes against the front of Emma where she’s been comfortably leaning the entire time they’ve been on the pier. “To say you see fireworks when we kiss,” Regina guesses in a low voice when she turns her head back with a raised eyebrow. The amusement that flecks her eyes is almost as bright as the burst of silver that is fizzling out in front of them.

 

Grinning, Emma shrugs but nods her head. “I mean, clearly you already do because, come on, it’s me, but yeah.” Regina shakes her head and bites back her laughter. Emma squeezes her hands around Regina’s hips and tickles her sides until Regina’s breath startles out and she can’t help but laugh. Her nose brushes Regina’s cheek, as does the warm caress of Emma’s breath as she whispers. “No holding back laughs. Don’t hide those.”

 

The air feels warmer when Regina hums and turns around to face Emma, leaning back and then pulling Emma closer to her until their bodies are pressed as closely as they can possibly be while standing in a group of people on the pier. Smoothing her hands over Emma’s back, she tilts her head and quickly moistens her lips, eyes focused on Emma and Emma only. Emma loves how Regina looks at her like she’s the only person around even when the exact opposite is the truth. It makes her feel seen in a way that would make her feel uncomfortably vulnerable if not for how much adoration floods Regina’s face.

 

They’re smiling when they both lean in for the kiss, and then laughing under their breaths, Regina with a smirk and Emma with a lopsided grin, when they notice the boom and sizzle of the next burst of colors that illuminate the sky. “Perfect timing,” Regina murmurs right against Emma’s mouth, the whisper of her breath the only thing softer than the passing of her lips over Emma’s. 

 

When they kiss, slow and deep despite their surroundings, Emma doesn’t see fireworks.

 

Her eyes are closed and the warm pressure of Regina’s mouth makes Emma dizzy and everything a little fuzzy. She grows warm from head to toe from the liquid heat that slips down her spine and spreads throughout her. 

 

But Emma still doesn’t see fireworks.

 

Because Emma sees every smile, every touch, every time Regina’s held her hand and it meant something like she always wanted for it to mean something. She sees them studying and running around as kids, acting out the stories they would later turn into art projects. She sees them sharing kisses in secret and making plans to be together forever. She sees them flirting through texts and on the phone late at night as adults, tentative but wanting. She sees them falling into each other again and again, holding each other, always wanting to be closer closer closer.

 

Emma doesn’t see fireworks. Because fireworks are gone almost as soon as they appear, a moment of beauty that doesn’t last.

 

What Emma sees is permanent. She sees Regina, and Regina is everything.

 

Emma doesn't see fireworks. Emma sees everything.