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Behind the Mask

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Hidden in the shadows of a darkened alcove behind bloodred velvet drapes, Emma watches the lower level of the exclusive lounge slowly begin to fill with the masked elite singles of Storybrooke. Not for the first time, she wonders how she continuously finds herself in the middle of the wildest situations. She recalls a time when a dog escaping her grasp during bathtime at the doggy daycare she briefly worked at was the height of any given week. That life is so far away from where she now finds herself that she wouldn’t be able to see it with her best pair of binoculars. Gone are the days of puppy chases that left her soaked in sudsy water. Now, she chases criminals, cheats, and bail jumpers, none of which are anywhere near as cute as the dogs she left behind in her last town. 

 

But tonight, she is not out on a chase. She does not wait out of sight because she is spying on some lowlife idiot who has won the lottery of bad luck and made themselves her mark. No, tonight is nothing like her normal nights—not that she would call her nights all that normal in the first place. 

 

Tonight, Emma Swan is at a singles mixer. And not just any singles mixer. She is at a themed singles mixer, a masquerade, as though the lavishly dressed guests don’t already bring enough mystique on their own without the addition of extravagant masks that conceal their identities. 

 

From her secret room above, she watches without being seen while she shakes off her nerves and finds her confidence. She’s observing the guests as they round the bar and mingle around tables, a few already dancing in groups to the heavy beats of sultry music. Some are in colorful costumes that would earn them first place if there was a competition being held. Others have gone with a more modern take, gorgeous dresses instead of poofy ball gowns, sleek suits and tuxedos that don’t distract from their chosen face wear. Unaware that they are being watched so closely, they are unabashed, alive with intoxicating energy Emma soaks up. 

 

She has always been good at this: watching people, observing, getting a feel of the room before putting herself in the middle of it. It is necessary for her line of work. It is thrilling as a pastime. 

 

She supposes preexposure to the legendary private events and mixers that are known to take place here has prepared her for the night to some degree. Her very first job in the town had brought her here. Strictly a private investigator at the time, the job was not unusual. It was simple, her client a woman who suspected her husband was having an affair and wanted proof. Surprising absolutely nobody, Emma discovered he had been. He hadn’t even bothered going through much trouble to hide the evidence of his wrongdoings and lying. Finding proof had been easy once she charmed her way inside with some rich guy who easily fell for the dumb blonde shtik, but she had stuck around even after she had enough evidence to confidently consider her job finished. 

 

Expensive sheer fabric in soft creams and ivory suspended from the ceiling and pooled where they met the marbled floor that was dusted with silver and gold glitter that night. Women in nude bodysuits decorated with jewels to create the illusion of beaded lingerie on a naked body danced around the hanging fabric before climbing up and putting on a show that captured the attention of all, Emma included. 

 

Debauchery, some would call what happened behind the doors of the private lounge most nights. And had Emma not stayed and watched for herself, a glass of whiskey warming her veins, she might have believed them. One step above a sleazy strip club, it was rumored as, only with rich clientele and a strict guest list that kept most people out. But the eroticism was a form of art, the dancing a show of athleticism, and Emma thought the performers and other workers were classier than the judgemental people who looked down their noses at them.

 

Emma notes that the mood for this night is different than that which she is used to. She had found herself in a cloud of sexual energy her first visit. But that energy is nowhere near as strong tonight as the strangers gather for the purpose of getting to know one another rather than seeing a performance. Still, the room is no less enchanting than it had been before. 

 

Elegant crystals hang from the ceiling, twinkling and bouncing off the colored beams—periwinkle and magenta—that give the otherwise dark room an almost mystical light. Just like before, silver and gold glitter dusts surfaces. There are reds and golds and blacks, lace fabrics and velvet curtains, everything somehow both muted and intensely loud in the low lighting as it calls for attention, begs to be looked at and admired. It’s not really Emma’s taste, not how she would design or decorate any of it if it were up to her, the balance found between old Victorian and modern chic not one she could find with such ease. But it works.

 

Not only does it work, but Emma is sure it is also what draws in the guests who frequent the lounge. It’s dark and sensual, much like the owner of the establishment. The ambiance and style are what’s looked forward to. Just like the patrons know to be ready for something a little kooky, a little daring, and definitely, always, something over the top, the touch of sensuality is a given. It’s what one comes to expect from Cruella. But none of Emma’s preexisting knowledge changes that she is completely and undeniably out of her comfort zone. 

 

Sure, she looks the part. 

 

Before heading downstairs to give the room a final look over, Emma’s friend—and the reason she’s at the singles mixer in the first place—had worked her fingers through Emma’s blonde hair and added a braid that she then used with a few bobby pins to give Emma a ponytail. You’ve got a beautiful face, Em; show it, Ruby had said even though Emma’s wearing a mask that hides part of it away. She looks just a touch more put together like this, with her hair pulled back.

 

While Ruby fixed her hair, Emma had looked herself over in a mirror. Her athletic body isn’t on display like Ruby’s slim figure is in her black cocktail dress, but she’s in her most luxurious tux. It’s tailored perfectly and Emma has accessorized with a stylish bowtie and white gold jewelry that makes her look like she should be on the cover of GQ or whatever the magazine equivalent is for women who pull off tuxedos better than most men can even dream of doing. Despite her usual laid back approach to fashion, there’s no shortage of style where Emma is concerned. When necessary, she can put together a look that makes jaws drop. And this look, Emma knows, is one that does just that.

 

But looking the part doesn’t mean she actually belongs. It doesn’t make her one of them. She’s spent years learning how to pretend she fits in where she doesn’t quite belong. At first, it was because she never belonged anywhere, never had a place that was truly meant for her. And now, blending in so she doesn’t bring extra attention to herself is a requirement. She likens herself to a chameleon. She knows how and when to slip into a role, how to be the sweetheart in the cute dress, the crass biker, the quiet and unsuspecting stranger in the supermarket. She knows how to disappear in a crowd. It’s just what she does. It helps her get her job done.

 

But this isn’t about a job. She might be wearing a mask, but tonight she’s not playing a role. And that, that is why Emma is out of her comfort zone. It is far easier to be someone else, to be what someone wants, to play a part. Being completely herself, stripped of the false identities she relies on, too often only opens her up to hurt and disappointment. And who wants that? 

 

Taking a deep breath and stepping away from the curtains she hides behind, Emma decides it’s time to join the mixer. She sweeps the room one last time whilst leaning against the waist-high balustrade. Mostly, Emma is searching for Ruby, or even Cruella, any familiar face so she doesn’t feel completely out of place whilst finding her footing. But when she scans the bodies around the bar in the center of the room, her attention is pulled not toward the space Ruby is most likely to be but directly to the eyes of a woman who is looking up at her with a look so intense that it makes Emma shiver. 

 

Even from a distance, how breathtaking the masked stranger is is apparent. There is a timeless beauty about her that demands attention, a fierceness in her stare that dares Emma to stare back. And Emma is intrigued. God, is she ever. But before the icy shiver that tickles her spine has even faded, the woman breaks eye contact and disappears into the crowd. 

 

Emma feels like she’s been knocked down to her knees as she stares at the empty space, inexplicably gutted by the stranger's retreat.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

When Ruby told Emma about the singles mixer and said she could get her in, Emma had rolled her eyes and went back to eating her bowl of Apple Jacks. She had not wanted a perfectly good breakfast with her friends to be ruined by another one of those talks. 

 

Ruby and Mary Margaret mean well. Emma knows that. They want her to be happy, want her to have what they have with the people they are dating. And Emma loves them for that, for always thinking of her, for caring about her, for being there for her. Really, they are the closest she has ever had to a proper family, and she appreciates when they look out for her. But sometimes—well, sometimes they are just too much. Too involved. Too overbearing. Too concerned about everything.

 

Every time the opportunity to bring up that she’s been single for nearly a year presents itself, they take it. According to them, she’s not trying hard enough. They say she works too much, that she spends too much time at the gym. They complain when she skips out on all the dates they try setting up for her even after she makes it clear she’s not interested. 

 

But what they don’t get is she’s tired of trying so hard, tired of trying to make relationships work with people who want her to change who she is to be their ideal girlfriend. She’s tired of people who only pretend to be as committed to her as she is to them. Being single doesn’t bother her, so why does any of it matter? What is she missing out on? She has two housemates already, rarely eats a meal by herself, is finally comfortable with Mary Margaret’s weird mothering and need to take care of everybody when they’re sick, and she finds herself in a pile of bodies at least once a week when the trio binge-watch shows all day while eating take-out. 

 

So, this mixer? Emma doesn’t feel like she needs to be here. Emma’s life isn’t missing anything. But Ruby had poked out her bottom lip and bounced on the sofa with sad puppy dog eyes until Emma just couldn’t take it anymore, and Emma’s weak. She hates that Ruby knows it actually works on her and has no qualms about using the sad look against Emma, but Ruby likes to get her way and plays dirty when necessary. 

 

So now Emma’s dressed up, brushing elbows with the rich, snobby, and entitled, and counting down the hours until the night is over and she gets to crawl into bed to sleep—alone.

 

“Nuh-uh,” Ruby is already saying before Emma has reached the standing bar, both hands expertly mixing two drinks above her shoulders in shakers. If not for the customers she’s serving, Emma’s sure the honey-sweet smile she’s wearing would be gone and the brunette would be growling at her. 

 

Emma ignores the warning Ruby shoots her way. She’s done just as Ruby said she should. She’s made her way around the entire room—twice—even talked to a few men who chatted her up halfheartedly once they realized she wasn’t all that into them. She took a shot that was glowing blue with a group of women who were giving each other pep talks in a corner far away from the majority of the minglers. And she even twirled an older woman around the room a few times, which was the only fun part of the night so far.

 

Now, Emma just wants to have a drink and hang out with Ruby while she works. She is officially over the mixer. Hell, she’d even get behind the bar and help out the bartenders if that means she doesn’t have to go back out there. That would be more fun than pretending she has anything in common with the rest of the single people who have come out tonight. 

 

Drinks poured and served, Ruby turns her stare to Emma and frowns. Emma grins. Her charm is after all her best trait. 

 

“I told you I didn’t want to see you back here until the night was over.” 

 

“No,” Emma says slowly, checking the surface of the bar for spills before leaning against it casually. “You said, and I quote, ‘don’t come back until you’re done,’ and I am. Didn’t you see me out there? I danced and flirted, Ruby. Danced and flirted.” 

 

The large mask that shields Ruby’s face does nothing to hide the disappointment in her green eyes, and Emma almost feels guilty for not trying a little harder—almost. 

 

“Look, I get why this is important to you—” 

 

“But do you? You think I’m just trying to get you laid, Emma.” Hurt. Now Ruby looks hurt, and that’s just as bad as disappointment. “Babe, I know I joke about how long it’s been—and really, Ems, it’s been a long time, like, seriously—” 

 

Emma groans uncomfortably and pushes her face into her hands, elbows on the bar. The heat rushing to her neck and ears and most likely her cheeks is going to clash horribly with the gold and black mask that’s pinching at her temples. “Ruby,” she breathes out with a huff that’s weighty with all the misery she feels. “Get to the point or shut it.” 

 

This is one of those moments where Ruby is too much. Emma regrets coming back to the bar. She should have stayed with the woman who just wanted to be twirled around the room. She didn’t want to talk about Emma’s non-existent sex life. 

 

“Okay, okay. Truce. Here,” the bartender offers, pulling Emma’s hands from her face and giving her shoulder a gentle nudge. A tumbler with amber liquor is pushed her way. “I’m worried about you. We’re worried about you, me and Mary Margaret. We know you love your job, and we love hanging out with you, but, Em, don’t you want more?”

 

“More,” Emma echoes. What does that even mean? 

 

“Don’t you, I don’t know, want someone to share all your happy moments with? Someone you can share your secrets with? Before Dorothy and I met, I thought I had it all, too. But then we found each other and everything changed. I didn’t know how much was missing, how much I still wanted, didn’t know any of that until I had it with her. Don’t you want that?”

 

It’s difficult looking at Ruby when she looks so hopeful. They get along so well and have so much fun together that sometimes Emma forgets how different they are. Ruby and Mary Margaret are both hopeless romantics down to their very core. The house suffered tremendously around Valentine’s Day because of it. There are still paper hearts and pink flowers in odd places months later. 

 

Okay, yes, Emma sometimes misses going out for a special night, misses how it feels to be adored in that unique way that comes with dating. But mostly, Emma doesn’t really care one way or the other about romance. Maybe it’s because every experience in the past turned sour in the end, or maybe it’s because it just doesn’t do enough for her to be important right now. Either way, she doesn’t feel the way her friends feel about dating. 

 

Emma is tired of explaining this to them, so she doesn’t bother trying now. She knows it’s pointless. They don’t understand, and there’s a strong possibility that the two women who mean the most to Emma will continue not fully understanding her until they stop trying to make her life a carbon copy of their own. It’s disheartening. Knowing they mean well doesn’t change that it still hurts when they imply there is something wrong with the way she chooses to live her life. She’s comfortable, happy, and she wishes they could see that. Maybe one day she’ll want to date, but right now, right now she’s satisfied. If it happens, it happens, but she wishes they didn’t keep pushing her.

 

Emma lifts her glass to her mouth and swallows down the remainder of her whiskey, prepared to turn away from the bar and make the best of the night. She doesn’t want to be in a foul mood. She might not be interested in the kind of relationship her friends are hoping she’ll find, but she doesn’t mind a good night out without the expectations of more than a little fun. 

 

But before she can tell Ruby she’s going to go back out there, Ruby’s wolf-whistling and whisper-shouting, “Oh my god, he’s coming this way.” 

 

“Who?” Emma questions—well, squeaks, because Ruby has grabbed her hand and her nails pinch Emma’s wrist. “And, ow!” she hisses and uncurls Ruby’s long fingers with her second hand so she can snatch the one that is trapped free. 

 

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but that guy—no, don’t look. What are you, an amateur? Could you be more obvious?” 

 

“Ruby,” sighs Emma.

 

“He’s been looking this way ever since you came over here, and now he’s about to...” The end of Ruby’s whispered words get lost in the sound of her taking Emma’s glass of melting ice away and leaving to see who else needs a drink along the side of the bar she’s taking care of. 

 

Emma doesn’t get the chance to make her own escape because, as Ruby said, a man joins her at the standing bar. Emma accidentally makes eye contact with him. And everybody knows slipping away after making eye contact is awkward, so Emma doesn’t rush to leave. Instead, she offers a small smile while looking at him out of the corner of her eye, more focused on the music that plays around them than him. It’s something catchy that has people shouting out lyrics somewhere behind her. She doesn’t know the song, but she likes it well enough.

 

“What are you drinking?” 

 

Emma can still taste the whiskey on her lips, feel the warmth swimming in her belly. But she shakes her head and turns so it’s her back that’s leaning against the bar. “I’m okay for right now,” she tells him politely. Ruby has her covered for the night, and Emma doesn’t allow men she doesn’t know to buy her drinks. She never knows if a drink comes with expectations, and she doesn’t have any intention of sleeping with anybody tonight—especially not someone who thinks buying her a drink will earn them a pass to get into her pants. 

 

He seems to accept that she doesn’t want a drink and lets it go, also turning to face the crowd as Emma has done. She briefly wishes he wasn’t wearing the Phantom of the Opera style mask that hides half of his face. Because he’s a good-looking man, strong jaw, deep eyes, great smile, and she wants a better look at him. But then he ruins it all when he opens his mouth and starts talking, and whatever small amount of interest she felt dissipates as rapidly as it appeared. 

 

“Bold choice of attire. We don’t see a lot of women daring enough to step out of the box, but you give off the impression that you are not one who cares about societal expectations and hang-ups.”

 

Emma narrows her eyes when she spares him a look. “Is that meant to be a compliment or an insult?”

 

“Take it as you will, but, rest assured, I didn’t mean it as more than an observation.” 

 

He smiles at her, and it really is an attractive smile. She bets he practices it in the mirror; the thought gives her a private, internal chuckle. She notices he’s checking her out, and so she also takes a moment to give him a full look over. His suit is expensive but plain, boring. She recognizes the designer, knows it’s horrendously overpriced for how basic it is. He’s definitely the showy kind, likes to wear his dollar signs on his sleeves. Emma loathes his type.

 

“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. You must be new,” he goes on, friendly enough.

 

Her answer is short. “Not really my scene.” She shrugs, not interested in saying more when something about him feels so off. If this were a job and he was her mark, she would move a little closer, smile with her whole face, pretend to be interested in what he has to say. But she doesn’t care for the forced and fake in her real life. If she’s not feeling somebody, she’s not going to pretend like she is. She’s polite, but the possibility that she might hurt a man’s fragile male ego has never been a concern of hers.

 

Movement in the distance catches her attention. Hanging from some unseen contraption, previously unnoticed by Emma, two metal rings that look like silver hula hoops appear to be hovering in the air. On each of the rings, upsidedown and with only the strength of their legs curled over the bottom of the rings to keep them from falling, acrobats spin. 

 

Emma hadn’t known there would be more than the mixer itself happening tonight, so the performance is an unexpected treat that she watches with her breath caught in her throat. The man and woman spin and spin before they curl upright and sit, the spinning hoop now more of a swing as the pair look at each other, moving closer closer closer and then farther away, reaching as though one might jump for the other.

 

When it finally does happen, when a spotlight focuses on their arms and they lock, Emma lets out a low whistle, impressed. He holds her up with their forearms pressed together, and it looks almost effortless as they spin on one hoop. “I take that back,” Emma says, still watching the show on the other side of the lounge. “This mixer isn’t really my scene, but that’s impressive,” she amends, mesmerized by the acrobatics being performed. She’s almost too caught up in the acrobats to notice what happens next right beside her, but the music isn’t loud enough to block out the sounds, and she’s trained herself to always be mindful of strangers surrounding her. 

 

Phantom of the Opera Mask guy gets Ruby’s attention, orders himself an old fashioned, and then goes, “Actually, hot stuff, make that two.” 

 

And Emma forgets all about the performers, forgets about being polite to strangers in a club she doesn’t even really want to be in. It’s like someone’s thrown a bucket of ice over her, every single drop of excitement she was feeling completely gone from her system. She knew there was a reason something just wasn’t sitting right inside her, and they didn’t even make it more than five minutes before the man beside her showed his ugly.

 

She can see that Ruby’s biting her tongue, because this is her job, and men are assholes all the time. Emma has heard all the gross things they say to and about her just because they think they can. But Emma doesn’t have to put up with misogynistic men who lack basic respect, and she’s not going to let the comment slide. She knows that small lack of respect he has shown will only be the beginning if she says nothing. Emma’s had enough experience with jerks to know their ways.

 

“Are you serious right now? Hot stuff?” Her jaw clenches uncomfortably as she takes a step closer, nearly pressing into him. “You want to try that again?” 

 

He looks surprised by the anger in her voice for a second, but then he chuckles a little in his throat and rolls his eyes. He takes a step back and attempts to placate her. “Relax, babe, she doesn’t mind. As long as you give them a good tip, they’ll let you call them whatever you like. Ain’t that right?” He winks in Ruby’s direction from behind his stupid mask, as if anything he’s just said is charming or cute, like he has no idea how gross they both find him when he speaks.

 

Emma feels hot in the face, around her collar, sick in her stomach. And before she even realizes what she’s doing, her fist is balled and she’s ready to punch the smarmy grin right off the asshole’s face. But someone stops her, grabs her arm before she can swing, and steps in front of Emma. 

 

“All right, that’s quite enough. It’s time for you to leave,” the new stranger says with authority, sharp and low, dangerous. And Emma’s surprised it’s another woman, and not just any woman, the same woman she had spotted earlier in the night from her hiding space upstairs. 

 

“I’m sorry, who are you?” Phantom asks, looking over the brunette. His grin falls away. Emma notices the way he straightens his spine, attempts to grow just a bit taller; facing the powerful force that is the woman who stepped into a situation that didn’t involve her, he looks as though he’s trying to seem bigger, dominant. “Do you know her?” 

 

Emma doesn’t, but she’s the only reason Emma’s fist hadn’t met his face, so Emma shrugs her shoulders and doesn’t give him more than that. She doesn’t even pay attention to the rest of what the other woman says to him. She looks over to Ruby instead, because she doesn’t care about how uncomfortable he’s looking right now. “You good?” Emma makes sure. That’s all that really matters to her. 

 

Ruby moves her head up and down in a quick double nod. “Yeah, I’m all good.” Her eyes drop to where the stranger is still holding Emma’s arm, jump back up to meet Emma’s gaze. The large grin that spreads from cheek to cheek washes away the last of Ruby’s visible discomfort, and that makes the knots in Emma’s stomach loosen, her anger mellowing out. “How about you, slugger? You good?” 

 

She is, and she says so, but she also realizes the reason for the stupid grin Ruby’s giving her and feels a little dizzy. She’s now painfully aware of the woman’s hand on her arm. She can feel her warmth, how soft her skin is, how sure her grip is, holding Emma’s wrist like she’s still trying to take a swing at the masked man who disappeared without Emma even noticing—good riddance—like Emma needs to be held back and it’s her responsibility despite them being complete strangers. Emma twists, gently pulls her arm away, forces her eyes from the sight of feminine fingers sliding across her skin. 

 

The brunette looks over her bared shoulder the exact moment Emma raises her eyes, and there’s no reason for it, but for the second time because of this woman, a shivery cold rush of air moves through her body and makes Emma visibly shudder. 

 

Emma clears her throat and scratches at the heat climbing the back of her neck. “Um. Thanks for—” she gestures to nothing in particular and attempts a grin that won’t be as awkward as she sounds, “—you know...” Her wrist still feels warm from where the woman had touched her. She subconsciously rubs her arm with her second hand.

 

For a moment there’s a hint of amusement in deep, hypnotic eyes outlined by the black lace mask the woman holds in front of her face. It’s quite a sight. Where other mingler’s masks distract from their facial features and hide them, hers attracts attention, highlights her expressive eyes while still adding that touch of mystery. The amusement settles and the brunette turns around to face the bar, her attention turning to Ruby even as she responds to Emma. 

 

“Trust me, I deal with my fair share of men like that every day.” 

 

“Assholes? Jerks? Scummy dirtbags?” 

 

Devilish red lips that match the gown the masked stranger is wearing tick up slowly into a small smirk. A glance Emma’s way, and then she hums throatily. “Yes, all of those,” she agrees, a chuckle tickling around the edges of her voice. “But Brandon—” 

 

“Phantom of the Opera dude?” 

 

She receives a nod as confirmation. “There is little more as unappealing—as disgusting—as the entitlement of a man who has always had whatever he wanted given to him.” 

 

“You know him?”

 

“Of him.” 

 

“He’s a regular,” Ruby supplies, “real piece of work. If I had recognized him, who he was, before he started talking to you, I would have warned you, not encouraged you to talk to him.” 

 

Both Emma and the other woman turn to face Ruby, and it’s obvious they had nearly forgotten she was standing there. Ruby grins big and wide with her perfect teeth on full display. Emma recognizes the gleaming of her green eyes and rolls her own, knowing exactly what Ruby is thinking as she looks between the stranger and Emma. The knowing looks are nothing new. She’s come to expect them whenever she so much as smiles more than a half-second in someone’s direction, honestly. Ruby is terribly predictable that way.

 

“Judging from the stories I’ve heard about him, ‘a piece of work’ is putting it lightly. He’s a pig, they all are, men like him, men who think they can get whatever they want just because of their status.” Emma can tell there’s a story there, maybe multiple stories. She’s practically spitting out her words like they’re venom on her tongue.

 

“Preach!” Ruby giggles and raises a shot glass into the air. It’s empty, but their masked stranger lifts her martini glass and takes a mouthful of her cocktail. “A woman unafraid of speaking her mind. I like you already. Don’t you, Ems?” 

 

Emma has no excuse for the flipping in her belly when they both turn to look at her, one with a wide, sly grin, the other with mirth in her smoky eyes. She hates Ruby just a tiny bit at this moment. She’s not used to being flustered around women, even ridiculously beautiful women like this one. But put on the spot, she feels like a mess of nerves and her first attempt to speak goes horribly, jumbled sounds that bump into each other when she’s trying to form words. 

 

It’s embarrassing. The stranger laughs in the back of her throat, the noise barely escaping. 

 

“I think I make her nervous,” she observes, sounds proud of it. 

 

“You know what? I think you do,” Ruby agrees, and she sounds smug. 

 

And Emma decides she likes neither of them—even if she doesn’t technically know the pretty woman who’s making her blush like she’s a teenager and not a fully grown woman who is usually very confident and able to outsmart the sneakiest and wittiest of criminals. 

 

“No, no you don’t. I’m not nervous!” Emma doesn’t believe her lie, so she knows they won’t either. But Emma will stubbornly ignore the obvious regardless. “And you, Rubes, are not cute. I know what you’re doing. Stop it.” 

 

Ruby pouts. “Spoilsport.” 

 

The third woman looks between them, eyeing them silently. This close up, the intensity of her stare is almost too much to bear. She’s contemplative, thoughtful, something Emma can easily read in her visible features; because Emma’s good at this, too, can read people pretty well. 

 

Throat clearing, the brunette runs her fingers over the curled ends of her shoulder-length hair and then moves a few locks behind her ear. She smiles at Emma, softer than before. “For the record, just to make it clear, the nervousness isn’t off-putting.” Deep and appreciative russet eyes slowly run over Emma’s body from head to toe, and Emma swears she can feel it like a physical brush of savoring hands. “If anything, my ability to make you visibly fluster adds to what I already consider a tantalizing package.”

 

“Oh,” Emma whispers, the single word a bubble of air that squeezes free from her constricted throat. It’s all she can say when Ruby’s watching on with far too much interest and the masked stranger is still raking her eyes up and down Emma’s body like she’s imagining what hides beneath the tuxedo.

 

“And, I must admit,” she goes on, turning into Emma and leaning in, breath warm on the blonde’s ear and jaw, voice a low husk just meant for Emma to hear, “the sight of you flushed is not only beautiful but pleasing in various other ways.”

 

Emma slowly turns her head, feels the softest hint of the other woman’s lips and nose on her cheek and bites her tongue to force herself not to react as pleasure shoots through her veins and swims wildly inside her. “Other ways,” she repeats, her brow lifted. Her heartbeat must double when a tongue briefly flicks out to lick just below a small scar that dips at the masked woman’s upper lip.”You’re not kidding about enjoying the sight of me blushing, huh,” Emma says, warm all over, aware that there’s no chance the flush of color undoubtedly crawling up from her neck will disappear anytime soon.

 

There’s no hiding the desire written plainly in the brunette’s eyes when she smirks and adds, “I have no reason to joke about what I find attractive, or arousing.” She leans in once again, this time with her body purposely touching Emma, a step or two closer. Emma encourages her by angling her own body to feel more of the gentle curves pressing against her. “And if I were given the opportunity to ever watch you blush all over, I would consider myself a rather lucky woman—especially if I was the reason the rest of your body was as heated as I’ve made you just now.”

 

Fingers curl into themselves to stop Emma from grabbing the woman and pulling her tighter to her. The images that assault her mind’s eye are vivid, bare skin sweaty and flushed, fingers and mouths everywhere. She nearly gasps at her own imaginings.

 

“Mmm. Now, I want you to keep that in mind while you’re pretending you’re even half as interested in whomever you talk to next once I’ve walked away,” she whispers. 

 

Away? “Ya...ya-you're leaving?” 

 

“Yes, dear. But I’ll see you around.” 

 

Emma swallows, hard, and doesn’t look away from the spot above Ruby’s shoulder while the woman in her lavish red dress slides a hand over the sleeve of Emma’s tuxedo jacket and leaves Emma with her parting words, the faint scent of her sweet perfume, and warmth in the pit of her belly. 

 

It’s a full thirty seconds before Ruby goes, “Holy shit!”

 

And Emma lets out a shaky breath, blinking owlishly. “Yeah,” she agrees, feeling dizzy. “Holy shit!” 

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Emma doesn’t know if she’s doing the avoiding or being avoided. It’s hard to tell when she turns away or slips behind a wall every time she sees a flash of red. Whenever she feels it’s safe to look without being seen, the woman she’s sure she had spotted is gone. 

 

She’s being ridiculous. She knows she’s being ridiculous. It’s not like the masked woman is the first one to come on to her. She’s not even the first to come on to Emma tonight. That’s not what this is about. But. But Emma’s never choked the way she did with her, never felt spinny and completely out of control of her own actions. Emma’s used to people flirting with her. She enjoys being flirted with when it’s not done creepily, especially when it’s a woman, likes the attention, likes feeling wanted. But this feels different. Emma feels messy and out of her element, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. She’s not sure what she’s supposed to say if she gets the chance to speak to the woman again. 

 

So, yes, she’s being ridiculous. But Emma is afraid she’ll do something stupid like fall over her own feet or spill a drink down the front of her crisp white shirt if she gets anywhere near the woman who more or less just told Emma she’s down to fuck without even an ounce of hesitation.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

“What is it you said you do again?” 

 

Emma’s eyes snap away from the red blur she’s been staring at during the better half of the conversation she’s supposed to be having with the woman seated across from her. She wants to talk to this woman. She wants to get to know her. But Emma just can’t stop thinking about the lady in the red dress from earlier. And it’s all her fault! It’s exactly what she wanted. She wanted to dominate Emma’s thoughts, wanted to be the only thing Emma could think of. But why? Why if she was going to avoid Emma all night afterward? 

 

Sighing regretfully, Emma decides this isn’t going to work. “Molly, I’m sorry—” 

 

“Penny,” the woman breathes out while rubbing her temple, and the last of her patience slips away. “Penny. That is the fourth time I’ve had to correct you.” Her aggravation is understood, and Emma knows she deserves the coldness. She’s been a jerk—unintentionally, but still. “For future references, if you’re going to stare at another woman the entire time you’re talking to someone, at least be subtle.”

 

“I wasn’t—” 

 

“Don’t.” 

 

Emma shuts her mouth and nods once, stays in her seat while Penny leaves the table and disappears into the slowly thinning crowd. Once she’s alone, Emma drops her head down to the table and gives it a few soft thunks.

 

“Get it together,” she mumbles to herself, feeling like an asshole for ignoring the woman she was supposed to be paying attention to—feeling like an idiot for wanting the attention of the woman who hit on her and then never showed up again to continue. 

 

Emma groans. She hates this mixer.

 

How had she started this night very much certain that she wouldn’t be genuinely interested in any of the singles but find herself like this, unable to concentrate on much of anything other than a woman whose name she doesn’t even know? 

 

And what is it about this woman? Why her? 

 

Emma doesn’t know why she’s so drawn to this stranger. But she is. Countless others have tried talking to Emma tonight, have tried connecting with her, but Emma doesn’t feel anything spark inside with any of them. And normally that wouldn’t phase Emma. She’s not a character in some poorly written love story. Things aren’t supposed to spark. But they did with the woman in the red. Their encounter had been brief, they had barely spoken to each other, but Emma felt something. What exactly she felt, she’s not sure. But that not knowing only makes her more interested in the stranger. 

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Emma lets a handsome man charm her onto the dancefloor later on. She’s not much of a dancer, but neither is he. He does the robot unironically and she laughs, forgets why she’s been so wound up and shows him up just enough to keep it fun and light. She might not be the best dancer, but she’s not that bad. She likes that he doesn’t care if everyone around them stops and stares, though, so she doesn’t care if his dancing skills are severely lacking. 

 

They dance through one song, a second, a third, and then a cute redhead joins them, running manning her way right between them. She hadn’t caught the man’s name, and after a few moments of the three of them dancing together, Emma realizes it doesn’t really matter. The two of them get lost in each other almost instantly, and Emma doesn’t really feel like she’s missing out when three becomes two again, only this time she’s left out and by herself. 

 

She’s about to leave to go get herself a drink of water, but when she turns around, her eyes land on the back of the woman she’s spent so much of the night simultaneously avoiding and searching for. Her palms feel uncomfortably warm instantly. She rubs them down her slim-cut pants and tries not to stare as a blonde woman who isn’t her leads the brunette around the room with her body only, hips and the mere suggestion of a touch guiding the woman in the red dress. It’s hypnotic the way they both move, but it’s the familiar stranger who has Emma’s attention, the curve from her narrow waist to her hip, the dip of her back, the swell lower... 

 

Emma feels heated and her pulse is rushing. She can feel it in about four different places without checking for it, can hear the rush of blood in her ears. 

 

“Don’t ignore the call of the siren all night, doll.” 

 

Emma’s voice is scratchy when she speaks. “Excuse me?” 

 

The older man beside her points his top hat in the direction of the women Emma had been watching dance, and then he puts it atop his head with a flourish that makes her unease fade a little. He’s dressed like he’s at a proper masquerade ball, and there’s something welcoming about him that stands out in a crowded room that reeks of arrogance and self-importance. “She knows you’re watching her.” 

 

Emma plays dumb. “Who?” But she knows she’s been obvious in her staring, hadn’t even tried slipping into the shadows somewhere. Why bother? The only person she might not want to notice that she’s staring has done nothing but avoid her all night, anyway. If she noticed Emma staring, she would probably disappear once more. 

 

He doesn’t answer, won’t pretend with her. He holds out one of his hands in an offering and sweeps the other through the air. “Shall we?” 

 

Since Emma doesn’t want to awkwardly stand there anymore, and he seems harmless enough, she accepts his hand and lets him lead her in an easy dance she can count off in her head while focusing on not stepping on his toes. They’re not doing the right kind of dancing for the music, but he spins her with confidence and reminds her of one of the few good foster fathers she had growing up. He used to dance her around the living room while his wife played the piano, and although she only stayed with them for a few weeks, she remembers them and those nights fondly. 

 

Emma almost forgets about the masked brunette—almost. But she soon realizes she’s being danced directly toward the two women. Before Emma can think about pulling away from the sneaky old man who smiles at her like some kind of overgrown cupid setting her up with the other woman, she’s looking straight into those breathtaking eyes that keep making her feel dizzy. They come close to colliding, but Emma freezes in place just in time to prevent the collision.

 

A breath rushes in surprise, and Emma’s not shocked to discover it isn’t her own. Emma can’t even find her breath for it to rush, suddenly feels as though she’s forgotten how to draw in air and breathe. 

 

The black mask with all its intricate lace designs and mystery falls from the woman’s hand and onto the floor, momentarily forgotten. “Emma,” she breathes out, although Emma’s certain she never told the woman her name. She certainly hadn’t heard it leave her mouth before this moment, knows she would have remembered the smooth way those two syllables slipped between reddened lips. 

 

Emma’s stuck between being confused and mesmerized as she takes in every detail of the no-longer-masked woman before her. She had thought it the first time she laid eyes on her, that the brunette was beautiful beyond words, but being this close to her, close enough to see the little creases at the edges of her eyes, the small crescent moon scar at her mouth, the flush of color deepening her skin tone beneath her light makeup... 

 

Gorgeous.

 

But. 

 

“You called me Emma,” she says, narrowing her eyes. Something doesn’t feel right. She’s not sure what’s going on, but she’s got a feeling that she’s missing something important here, and the woman in front of her somehow knowing her name when Emma is certain they’ve never met before gives her a funny feeling in her gut. 

 

Emma figures the woman hadn’t meant to let the name slip out when she looks surprised herself. She wrings her hands in front of her, looking away and toward the bar, a quick glance but one Emma notices easily. 

 

Emma turns that way as well. First, she spots nothing out of the ordinary and begins to focus on the unnamed woman who knows her name. But then Ruby looks their way with the beginning of a smile appearing right before she makes a quick spin and pretends to busy herself with bottles on the shelf behind her. And that, how odd it is, makes Emma suspicious.

 

“Ruby... You said my name. Did you speak to Ruby about me?” Emma wonders out loud as she tries to figure out what’s going on. She knows something is off. She’s got a feeling, and her gut feelings are seldom wrong. “Is that—” 

 

“Perhaps we should sit down somewhere less crowded,” the woman suggests with just a dash of urgent, nervous energy. She’s looking over Emma’s shoulder at the older man Emma’s just remembered is behind her. 

 

Emma narrows her eyes at him, too. The way he approached her and then danced her over to the dancing pair isn’t sitting right with her as the strange bits of the moment start adding up. “And you.” She points at him, nearly poking him square in the chest. “Something’s not right here. Who are you?” 

 

He folds easily, an apologetic smile. “Consider me a friend of a friend.” 

 

“Ruby,” Emma guesses, again. 

 

“She asked for a favor. I saw no harm when she only wanted me to get you over here to dance with this young lady.” 

 

“Seriously!”

 

Emma huffs out a breath and walks away without saying anything to either of them, throwing her hands up in the air. The uncomfortable tightness in her belly worsens the closer she gets to her friend. She should have known better than to agree to this singles mixer. Now that she knows Ruby is somehow involved in whatever the heck it is that’s going on, Emma can only imagine what her sneaky friend has gotten up to. There’s no telling how many people Ruby has sent her way tonight, how many people she’s talked Emma up to. It’s what Ruby does. How did Emma not see all the reasons letting herself be dragged to this mixer was a bad idea? 

 

Before Emma’s fully approached the bar, Ruby is already apologizing. “I can see that you’re upset, and I know you hate when I meddle, and I’m sorry, Ems, really—” 

 

“What did you do?” The ache at her temples is growing stronger, throbbing. She rips the mask off her face and throws it down on the bar in a fit of frustration, frustrated because of Ruby, frustrated because she’s at a stupid mask party she never really wanted to attend in the first place, and frustrated because she feels so off-balance now. “Ruby.” Her friend’s name leaves her mouth in a tired sigh. 

 

Ruby goes to speak, but then someone calls for her down the bar and the lean brunette smiles apologetically at Emma. She looks torn, but they both know she can’t stay to talk to Emma. “Don’t be mad at me, Emma, please. We’ll talk about this when the night is over and I can get out of here, but don’t be mad at me.” 

 

Emma has no answers, no real understanding of what’s going on, and absolutely no desire to stay at the lounge. But she and Ruby drove together, and she’s not going to leave without her, no matter how annoyed she is with her friend. So, knowing there’s only one place she will be able to go where she can be alone, she snatches her mask back and turns to make her way to the stairwell that will bring her up to the room she started her night in. 

 

Only, when she turns around, she’s once again looking into the face that is now uncomfortably familiar to her. 

 

“Look, I don’t know what she told you—” 

 

The brunette shakes her head and holds up her hand, speaking over Emma. “This wasn’t her idea. It was mine.” 

 

“What? What do you mean this was your idea? What was?” She’s tired. Emma is always uncomfortable when Ruby sets her up with people, which is why she never goes. But this? She isn’t even certain she understands what is really going on. 

 

Who is this woman? And how is she to blame? And what is she even claiming the blame for? Because Emma’s upset that Ruby has tricked her into something once more, and she’s not sure what this woman in front of her thinks she could have done that will clear Ruby’s name, but Emma is doubtful.

 

The other woman rolls her eyes and huffs out an annoyed breath, looking around them. She crosses her arms around her torso, no longer bothering with the mask she had held in front of her face throughout the event. She looks smaller when she stands like this, Emma notices, closed off. But Emma wonders if she does it to protect herself or just to keep others away—or if those two things are one and the same. 

 

Emma wants to understand what this woman is trying to tell her, if only because Emma can’t get answers from Ruby right now. It’s the closest she’ll get to feeling settled inside. 

 

She makes the decision without asking for input from the brunette and continues heading towards the stairs. She senses the hesitation from her companion, but after Emma checks over her shoulder to make sure she’s being followed, the unnamed woman joins her. They weave their way through dancing bodies and crowds of laughing people in expensive formal wear, pass a group playing a game that involves an indecent amount of physical contact, and leave the music-filled room. 

 

Emma holds all the doors they go through open and follows behind, the last one, the one that closes them in the alcove that looks over the mixer without being a part of it, Emma leans against while watching the silent woman look around the small space. There’s not much to see. Emma thinks it used to be a dressing room once upon a time, back before the wall was knocked out. There’s still a small vanity with an ornate mirror, a padded bench that has seen better days, and a more comfortable loveseat across the small room. 

 

The woman sits down on the loveseat, her hands in her lap and her back straight, looking about as comfortable as Emma feels. 

 

Emma stays at the door. She likes being as close to exits as possible when she doesn’t know when she’ll need to escape. 

 

“This is where you were when I first saw you.” 

 

Emma isn’t expecting her voice to be so quiet, hesitant. This is the same woman who blatantly flirted with her, the same woman who had looked at Emma like she wanted to throw her down onto the closest flat surface and make a meal out of her. 

 

Emma isn’t sure if there’s a point to the comment, so she keeps her response simple with a hum of acknowledgment. The less she gives, the more in control of what is happening she will be—or at least that is how she normally feels, how she deals with bail jumpers and criminals. This woman might be neither, but Emma feels more vulnerable than she finds acceptable. A little distance is a good idea. 

 

The seated woman clears her throat and nods to herself decisively, confidence that had slipped away slowly flowing back into her as Emma watches her entire demeanor slowly shift. She loosens her shoulders, not exactly looking more relaxed but certainly less like she’s a poorly behaved student in the principal’s office. She crosses one of her legs over the other and turns her body toward Emma, determination flitting across her unmasked face. 

 

Emma automatically straightens up in response, but her hands seek refuge in the pockets of her pants despite her attempt to match the level of self-assured the other woman makes look remarkably easy to achieve. But she’s still feeling confused and uncertain about everything that has taken place tonight, and, despite her efforts, Emma knows it shows. 

 

“I didn’t come here for the mixer, or, rather I should say that I did not come here to meet any of the people down there.” 

 

She makes direct eye contact, like she’s used to having all the attention on her when she speaks. Emma has to force herself not to shy away from the intensity. Only briefly do russet eyes flick to the opening in the wall that allows some of the noise from downstairs to spill into their hideaway. But they’re right back on Emma the moment she begins speaking once more.

 

“Truth be told, I almost chose not to make an appearance tonight altogether. This wouldn’t be my first choice of venue—or event type, for that matter—if the circumstances were different.” She leans in a little like she’s sharing a secret. “This isn’t how I envisioned I would dip my toes into the dating pool when I decided it was time.”

 

Emma can tell she’s leading up to something important—and hopefully relevant, because Emma’s wondering what any of this has to do with her and the small things she doesn’t understand from the night. So she doesn’t push the other woman to get to the point like she often does when her patience is tested. Instead, she encourages her to continue. “But you’re here.” 

 

Nodding, the seated woman says, “I am.”

 

“Because...?” Emma hopes to lead the conversation without needing to participate much herself. She’ll do whatever she can to prevent herself from feeling more exposed and vulnerable in front of this stranger than she already does. 

 

She lifts her brow and hums. “And here I was thinking I had made that part more than obvious by now.” With an unrushed sweep of dark eyes, she looks over Emma the same way she had when they stood beside each other at the bar earlier in the night. 

 

The effect she has on Emma’s body remains the same as well. She’s all gooseflesh and full-body shivers. An undignified “Me?” croaks in Emma’s throat. She feels like there must be some sort of misunderstanding as she points a finger into her chest. She doesn’t even bother attempting to blunt the disbelief in her voice.

 

The dark-haired woman chuckles quietly, leaning with her arm against the arm of the loveseat. “Yes, you,” she responds in a tone that’s heavy with amusement.

 

“But why? I mean, I don’t think I understand. I’m more confused now than I was downstairs,” she admits, folding her arms across her chest, not enjoying being the one who’s clueless one bit. She sucks her cheeks between her teeth and absentmindedly chews while attempting to wrap her head around it all. “I thought—well. I thought Ruby had pushed you into talking to me or something. That’s exactly the kind of thing she would do, and everything else would make sense if that’s what happened.” 

 

“Trust me, I required no persuasion once I saw you.” 

 

Emma could so easily see herself melting into a puddle like a fallen popsicle on the hottest day of summer with the way this woman looks at her, but there are too many unknowns between them for Emma to focus on that. She still doesn’t understand how this woman knows her, or if anything from their first encounter had been genuine. Emma might not have all the facts, but she knows there’s something strange happening, and she needs to know what it all means. She won’t be able to rid herself of the unease that’s thick and twisty inside of her until she knows all the truths.

 

“Okay, then... Hmph. You’re gonna have to make it make sense. Because if you’re saying I’m the reason you’re here, then I really have no idea what the hell is going on here.”

 

The smile Emma receives looks sympathetic. “Can I be honest with you for a moment?” 

 

Emma’s eyes narrow because, “What have you been this whole time?”

 

To Emma’s surprise, one corner of the other woman’s mouth twitches and she smirks at Emma. “Let me rephrase that. Would it be all right for me to be honest to the point that it might be considered slightly inappropriate?” 

 

Swallowing, Emma nods. “I’m listening.” 

 

“I’d like to preface what I am about to say by explaining what seems to be confusing you,” she begins, pausing to allow a short but audible breath out. Her fingers flex outward and then curl into the arm of the powder pink loveseat. “You and I were supposed to be meeting tonight—which I’m aware was not something you were told.” 

 

“I wasn’t,” Emma confirms unnecessarily. She receives a nod.

 

“Well, the only reason I knew who you were when I first saw you from downstairs, when we first saw each other, was because your friend informed me you were up here. I was having second thoughts—about meeting you—and I believe Ruby was afraid I would leave.” She pauses. She shuts her eyes and traces her ear with a thumb while breathing out a slow breath again. “I haven’t had the time for dating the last few years, and there was a moment after I first arrived where I wondered, I wondered if this was something I really wanted to do—if it was something I was ready to do. Because part of me thought this plan was a disaster waiting to happen.

 

“And maybe I was right.” She frowns, and Emma tries not to find it cute—especially while they’re having this conversation and Emma’s not sure how she’s meant to feel about this near-stranger. “It had been my idea to meet here, as I said downstairs. I thought it might take off some of the pressure if neither of us felt forced into an uncomfortable dinner date. But there was still that moment where I thought maybe I was being foolish and should turn back and head home.” 

 

“Wait. You think that is more comfortable than dinner with one person?” Emma has to laugh a little. It helps lighten the heaviness in her gut. “So instead of a date with one stranger, you thought, ‘Hey, why not date a whole room?’ Please tell me you're kidding.” 

 

The brunette’s eyes roll slowly, and even without knowing her, Emma can tell it’s something she does often. She looks like she’s easy to piss off, and Emma doesn’t worry about why that excites her just a little. “I don’t make a habit of joking during serious conversations, Emma.” 

 

Emma’s breath rushes out when her name leaves the other woman’s mouth for the second time this night. 

 

“When I made the suggestion, I thought you might actually prefer it this way.” She huffs a little, and Emma can tell she’s upset her somehow—even if she only allows herself a moment to be bothered. “I wasn’t told much about you beforehand, if you’re wondering. I did speak to Ruby about you, yes, but not tonight, as I believe you’re assuming is the case. Dorothy, whom I work with and had over for dinner, introduced me to her the same night they told me there was a woman they wanted to set me up with on a blind date. A friend of theirs: you.

 

“Despite how adamant Ruby was that we would make a good match, she wouldn’t tell me much about you. It took half the night for her to bring up the idea, and then nearly that same amount of time for me to agree to consider it.” She glances down to the bar and the skin around her eyes pinch and crease with fine lines. Emma almost misses what she says next because she’s cataloging these minute details, tracing them with her eyes and etching them into her memory. “Trying to get that friend of yours to give me more than the bare minimum about you was nearly impossible. However, Ruby did say that you weren’t completely on-board.”

 

“I don’t date,” Emma says plainly, clearing her throat and forcing herself to stop admiring all the little things that she hadn’t been able to see before that only add to the beauty Emma had earlier declared breathtakingly stunning from a distance. 

 

“I know.” She sounds unbothered, her voice light. “But, for some reason, knowing that did not stop me from deciding I would take a chance on you, on this night with you.” 

 

“So, let me get this straight. Ruby and Dorothy wanted to set us up on a date? And then you, what, decided that we have it here?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“Without me even knowing?” 

 

“That was not my decision. That was decided before the plan reached me, and it was one of the reasons I almost didn’t come tonight. A blind date where we would both be unaware of who the other was is one thing. One of us not being aware they’re meant to be on a date is—” 

 

“Unfair for the one who is tricked into a date.”

 

“I won’t argue against that. I agree—which is why I decided that I wouldn’t treat this like a date. You were meant to be just another person I would be meeting tonight.” 

 

“So you aren’t into me?” She knows she does a terrible job hiding the disappointment, but she was just starting to finally feel as though she understood what had been going on all night. She thought, even if it was another one of Ruby’s setups, this woman at least genuinely liked her well enough.

 

“What part of tonight gave you the impression that I’m not interested? I meant every word of what I said to you.” 

 

Her hand slides down her neck, fingertips tracing the column of it. Emma watches her swallow, feels her own throat go dry when the brunette hums. Those fingers travel up into dark brown hair and sink in, something Emma suddenly finds herself desperate to do herself. And there’s no doubt in her mind that her every thought is written plainly on her face. She just can’t help herself, and it’s difficult finding a reason to look away when the other woman appears to enjoy the attention of Emma’s eyes on her just as much as Emma’s enjoying looking at her. 

 

The entire display lasts no more than ten seconds, but it feels like they’re suspended in the moment for an endless amount of time before Emma hears her continue with what she had been saying, her voice lower, thicker with something hot that Emma feels all the way in the pit of her belly. “I should be ashamed to admit the very first thought I had when I first saw you tonight—when you first looked at me and it felt like you couldn’t, wouldn’t, take your eyes off of me—was that I wanted you. My physical attraction to you was immediate—and strong.” She clears her throat, and this time it’s she who blushes ever so slightly. But she holds Emma’s gaze the entire time she speaks. “I decided to put the ball in your court when we met properly, so to speak. But from the way my body reacted when I first saw you, I knew what I wanted.

 

“Or, I had an idea of what I might enjoy. You’re an incredibly sexy woman, Emma. And, even if you showed no interest in ever seeing me again after today, I knew I would enjoy being in your company for as long as you allowed tonight. I was intrigued, and I wanted you—as much of you as you would give me, and I knew enough about you from what Ruby did share with me to understand that might not be much.” 

 

Emma’s head is spinning with all the information she’s taking in, her pulse heavy. She licks her lips, bites into the corner of one while considering her next words. “But what you said...” 

 

“What about what I said?” 

 

Emma pushes herself away from the door and walks over to the vanity set, drops down heavily onto the cushioned bench. She leans over her lap and rests her forearms above her knees, waiting for the brunette’s full attention before she speaks. She’s not feeling the same unbalanced feeling from downstairs, but she still has questions. There’s still more she wants to know. 

 

“What do you want from me? Plain and simple, honest truth, just tell me.” 

 

“Plain and simple,” the brunette repeats, a throaty chuckle weaving through her voice. “What makes you think any of what I want would be plain and simple?” 

 

Emma nearly hesitates, but there's a challenge in the eyes watching her closely, and Emma isn’t going to back down from it. “I know you want to sleep with me. That’s pretty fucking simple—and obvious after, well, everything you’ve said.” She’s still feeling the heat from the previous moment, can spot the lust in dark eyes; she’s not unsure about any of this, any of the sexual chemistry between them. That’s not what she’s questioning, but she hasn’t had much of a chance to acknowledge it herself, at least not aloud, so she continues on. “Even if you hadn’t told me any of what you just said, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out you’ve already imagined what fucking me would be like. It’s written all over you.”

 

If she’s surprised by what Emma’s said, by the cockiness of her tone, she shows no sign of it. In fact, she smirks and almost looks impressed. “More than half the room, men and women, would have sex with you if given the chance. It’s not uncommon to be attracted to a beautiful woman who carries herself with confidence. I would know.”

 

“I don’t care what any of them want from me, though. I don’t want to have sex with any of them.” 

 

An eyebrow raises with intrigue. “Are you implying you want to—” 

 

Emma rolls her eyes and cuts her off before she can finish the question Emma decides right away is ridiculous in its unnecessariness. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if I didn’t. And I don’t think you would have said any of what you said to me if you didn’t already believe I wanted you like that as well.” She might not know this woman, but she truly believes none of what had been said downstairs in her ear would have been said if Emma hadn’t been as obvious as she was with her reciprocated attraction.

 

“Or, perhaps, in the spirit of this mixer’s theme, I decided the anonymity was enough for me to be bold and let you know exactly what was on my mind.” 

 

She shrugs as if it doesn’t matter either way, and Emma decides it doesn’t. 

 

“But you want more than that, don’t you?” She wants to sound confident and sure—always know the answer before you ask the question—but there will always be a part of Emma that’s desperate to be wanted, to be chosen, and that part of her squirms uncomfortably and is full of too much longing. That same part of Emma is the part that’s used to rejection and not being enough. 

 

They both seem to lose a touch of their confidence with this question. It’s noticeable when her companion slides one of her arms around her middle and holds herself, similar to the way Emma had noticed her doing downstairs. Something shifts in the air between them, all of the sexual tension draining from the room like the plug had been pulled from the bottom of a full bathtub.

 

“You don’t date,” she says, and it’s simple just like Emma requested but not at all what she wants to hear. 

 

“But if I did?” 

 

“You don’t, so it’s of no consequence.” 

 

Emma huffs. “But what if I did?”

 

Suddenly, the other woman’s features darken, her lips pressed together tightly. She stands from her seat and narrows her eyes as she looks down at Emma. “I’m done having this conversation.” 

 

And Emma is confused again, and when she gets confused, Emma gets upset. She also rises to her feet, narrows her eyes in return. “You’re the one who started this whole thing. I’m just trying to play catch up. Why are you the one who’s getting upset?” 

 

“Catch up? That’s what you’re calling this? Because it’s beginning to feel like an amateur attempt at an interrogation. I’ve been nothing but honest with you this entire conversation, more revealing than I normally would be, but you can’t expect to continuously take without giving. That isn’t how this works. If you want to know what I want, first you need to figure out what you want from me.” 

 

“Answers! I want answers.” She knows that’s not what the other woman means, but it’s the truth. “You flirted with me and then avoided me all night.” 

 

“I avoided you?” The words burst free with a guffaw, the brunette laughing mirthlessly. “That’s rich coming from the woman I watched nearly dive headfirst under a table to avoid me.” 

 

Flushing with embarrassment and a touch of shame, Emma looks away and toward the floor, crossing her arms. “Maybe you scare me a little, okay?”

 

Emma doesn’t like this part, the part where she has to open herself up to someone. It’s always a risk, allowing herself to be vulnerable, to be seen by someone. She likes to pretend she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. But in moments like this, where she chooses to let her truth be known, let someone see how she feels, she realizes she cares a great deal.

 

“I didn’t expect to like anybody here tonight, nobody, and then you, you... You happened, and you, well, you really know how to make a lasting impression.” Emma puffs out a rough breath and reaches up to rub a shaky hand across the back of her neck where it’s uncomfortably warm. “You ruined every attempt I made after you. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t seriously considering seeing any of them after tonight. I was still trying to make the best of this crappy mixer. But all I could think of was you. And, god, do you know how frustrating it is to be so desperate for one person’s attention, someone you barely even know, and then see them having a good time with everybody but you? Because it sucks.

 

“Is that honest enough for you?” 

 

It’s too quiet, too still. Emma carefully lifts her chin and forces herself to meet the other woman’s gaze when the fire inside her dies. She’s always thought she was good at reading people, considers it one of her strengths. But this woman has kaleidoscope eyes full of emotions, and there’s so much there to be seen that Emma can’t figure out where to begin. 

 

Thankfully, she doesn’t keep Emma guessing what she’s thinking for too long. After a few moments have passed with them silently looking at one another, the air charged with electric tension, she smiles, tentative and small, with what Emma can easily recognize as hope. 

 

“It might have escaped your notice while you were playing your game of hide ‘n’ seek, but you weren’t the only one who spent tonight wanting something they believed unattainable.” Emma can hear when she swallows thickly. She watches fingers curl into themselves as the woman in front of her goes on. “I was aware of what I was getting myself into when I agreed to tonight. I knew the odds weren’t in my favor. And while I am normally not one to bet on something so uncertain, I—” she breathes heavily and pinches the webbing between her thumb and forefinger, “—I felt that perhaps there could be something worth exploring.” 

 

Emma can’t help but ask, “Then why not actually talk to me? You came on to me—” 

 

“I wouldn’t have cared if you turned down my sexual advances.” She says it like it’s obvious. She might not roll her eyes at Emma again, but Emma can sense her desire to do just that. “I didn’t have anything to lose by coming on to you as strongly as I did. Sexual desire is far less complex with most people, and I know how to tell when a woman is interested. You’re not very subtle, dear.”

 

“Neither are you,” Emma huffs out, feeling defensive. 

 

Her pretty mouth forms a smile that spreads a beautiful glow across her face, brightening her warm brown eyes. “By choice. You liked the attention, didn’t you?”

 

Emma doesn’t know what to say, how to push words out of her mouth when they jumble up messily. She flusters instead. 

 

A dark little chuckle floats between them. “As I thought,” the brunette says with the confidence of a woman who knows how attractive she is and takes pleasure in witnessing the effect she has on people. But she gentles after a few moments and says, “I would have enjoyed getting to know you tonight. My attraction to you might have started out as purely sexual, but my curiosities and intrigue only grew as the night went on.” She looks like she wants to touch Emma, goes as far as reaching her hand out so it hovers in the space between them for a couple of heartbeats before falling to hang limply.

 

Emma isn’t surprised by the “I would have liked that, too,” that she responds with almost too quietly. Because it’s true. She’s been thinking about this woman all night long, unable to get her out of her thoughts, wanting to know about her, obviously attracted. She’s not surprised by her answer, but the other woman is. 

 

“Really?” It’s undeniable, the hope that flickers in her eyes. It’s also undeniable that she’s attempting to keep herself from hoping, that there is disbelief weaving its way into the holes and gaps of her hope. Nevertheless, Emma doesn’t think she’s ever been looked at with such a tender look before, never seen someone go so impossibly soft when looking at her. It’s even better than the look of wanting from before. 

 

Emma feels dizzy from it and warm all over, and god, how does this woman she’s just met make her feel like this? She doesn’t want the softness to fade, doesn’t want those warm brown eyes to ever lose their golden light. She doesn’t want this to be the last time she gets to look at this woman and feel stupidly giddy. 

 

So Emma nods. She nods three, four, maybe five times. Hard. “Yeah, really. Maybe we could try this again?” Emma’s heart beats beats and beats with harsh thumps. “Maybe grab a coffee or lunch or something, just the two of us this time, no crazy setups or mixers?” 

 

“You want to—” She clears the raspy surprise from her throat. “Are you asking me out on a date? Is that what you’re doing right now?” 

 

“Well. I thought...” Emma scrunches up her face, uncertainty creeping its way in like the unwanted guest it is. Her head tilts as she looks at the other woman, trying to figure out if she’s been reading all the signs wrong, misinterpreting everything she’s said somehow. She shuffles awkwardly and feels like she needs to do something with her hands. Hadn’t the woman just said she was interested in more than just sleeping with her? Isn’t this what she meant? Isn’t it? “Isn’t that what you want? I thought...” Hmm. Her stomach feels heavy and uncomfortable. 

 

But just as quickly as her anxiety appeared, ready to make her physically ill with her doubts, the warmth of that smile that brightens up the entirety of the brunette’s face is back. And Emma exhales loudly with relief that makes her feel physically lighter. 

 

“I didn’t believe you would ask, but, yes, that sounds marvelous. I would love to give this another try.” 

 

“So we’re really gonna do this thing, huh? A date,” Emma says, and the word doesn’t feel uncomfortable leaving her mouth. She thinks she actually likes it.

 

“A date,” the other woman says with soft laughter pillowing the words as they fall from her mouth with ease.

 

“It’s a date!” Emma grins and wonders if this is what Ruby meant when she said she would know something had been missing once she found it. She can’t be sure about that yet, doesn’t want to rush into anything, but. But Emma does feel like this is right, that she wants this. She wants to give this a try. “You know,” Emma says when she realizes something, “I’m all in with us doing this again, doing it the right way, but—” 

 

“But?” A perfect eyebrow arches carefully.

 

“But, I don’t know how this thing usually works for you, but I probably should know your name if we’re really going to make this happen.”

 

“Oh! My name.” 

 

“You do have one, don’t you?” she teases.

 

The no-longer-masked woman in the lavish red dress with the breathtaking eyes shakes her head but fondly curls her devilish red lips into a soft smile. “Regina,” she says, holding her hand out, trying not to laugh when Emma leans down and kisses over her knuckles instead of giving her a handshake. She breathes out, and it’s with contentment and a lightness that makes Emma smile against Regina’s hand. “My name is Regina.” 

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

When the night is over and the masks are gone, identities that had been left at the door are collected with coats and scarves. Emma does what she does best and watches from a distance as an ominous full face mask the color of crushed blackberries is removed to reveal the face of a judge she knows, a horned mask replaced with a beanie, strangers becoming familiar faces she’s seen around town. 

 

Behind every mask, there is a truth that can easily be hidden. Watching as she waits for Ruby to bring the car around to the front of the building, Emma thinks about how she herself chooses to hide behind masks all the time. Her masks aren’t physical like the one she wore tonight, but she knows she wears them, considers them protection from the outside world and the pain it holds. It is not her identity she leaves behind, that she chooses to hide, but her feelings, her vulnerabilities, the parts of her she worries someone might poke at until they make her bleed. 

 

But tonight, surrounded by masked strangers, Emma took off her mask, left all the roles she often plays behind, and embraced a part of herself she rarely lets see the light. 

 

She’s been saying she doesn’t want to date for so long that she forgot that it’s not true, that “I don’t date” has always been an excuse used to keep herself from feeling the same betrayal and hurt that came with her last relationship. It is true she hasn’t met anyone she was interested in in a long time, but even if she had, she would have dismissed the feelings immediately—she knows it. But tonight she didn’t. Tonight, unmasked, Emma decided maybe she doesn’t need to hide so much of herself away.

 

The night ends the same way it began: Emma watching the elite singles of Storybrooke. Only this time when her searching gaze lands on the dark-haired beauty whose eyes find hers and smile makes her shiver, the woman isn’t another stranger in a crowd. This time, the woman heads toward her instead of disappearing, the glow of the lounge like a halo behind her as she slips into the dark where Emma waits for Ruby. 

 

“In the shadows again, I see,” Regina notes with a hint of amusement. She slides up beside Emma and doesn’t hesitate when she briefly brushes the backs of her knuckles across Emma’s cheek in a gentle caress. 

 

If Emma hadn’t spent most of the night swooning—okay, the part where she wasn’t hiding and then doubting everything... If she hadn’t already been putty in this woman’s hands, she would be now. The touch of fingers on her skin, warmth so carefully spread across her face, makes her melt inside. 

 

Emma reaches up and captures Regina’s hand with her own before she can tuck it into the pocket of her opened pea coat. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with it once she’s holding it, hovering in the air, but she knows she doesn’t want to lose the physical connection between them just yet. 

 

“Are you sure we can’t give you a ride home?” Emma asks for what might be the dozenth time since they left their private hideaway and relocated, choosing to spend the rest of the night talking about a whole lot of nothing at the standing bar. 

 

Regina covers their joint hands with her second and squeezes, stepping into Emma’s personal space like the bubble surrounding her is meant for them both. Emma doesn’t mind, just as she hadn’t when Regina had done it all the other times during the night. She welcomes her, steps closer herself. It makes Regina hum one of those long throat noises, and Emma is really enjoying those. 

 

Regina brushes her thumb along the side of Emma’s hand as she whispers, “Continue offering to take me home and I might get the wrong impression.” When she lifts her eyes from their hands, she pauses at Emma’s mouth and bites the corner of her lower lip. “And I have spent far too much of the night wondering what you might taste like on my lips to pretend I wouldn’t invite you in if you came anywhere near my front door.” 

 

“Jesus,” Emma breathes out roughly, and Regina looks up with a devilish smirk and so much heat in her eyes that Emma swears she can feel the fire that burns in them. Emboldened, she tucks her fingers underneath Regina’s chin and leans forward until her nose brushes Regina’s. “You won’t stop until you unravel me completely, will you?” 

 

The wall behind Emma is hard and solid and the only thing holding her up when Regina mumbles, “Not a chance,” like a promise right against her lips and pushes their bodies together. 

 

Emma slides her hand around the back of Regina’s neck and urges her closer, slips into her hair, scraping nails along Regina’s scalp and threading her fingers through silky smooth strands she’s tempted to pull on just to see if it’ll make the brunette moan. But Emma already feels shaky and breathless after what can only be three or four seconds of having Regina’s lips wrapped around hers, pressing and then softly sucking when Emma parts her lips a little. She doesn’t think she would survive having Regina moaning in her mouth, doesn’t think she would know how to stop herself from wanting more more more after that. She’s already so weak.

 

But she gets it anyway, feels Regina’s hand at her waist and the wet warmth of her mouth sliding along her jaw. Regina kisses to Emma’s ear and nips; Emma’s breath jumps out of her opened mouth and into the crisp air. It’s a hum first, the sound that meets her ear, but then Regina’s squeezing one hand around Emma’s fingers and the other around her hip, and her mouth is at Emma’s neck, hot breath and deep moan, needy and so damn sexy and and and— 

 

Emma’s going to be hearing that sound all night! 

 

“Fuck.” 

 

Regina begins to tremble a little, and Emma realizes she’s laughing into the crook of Emma’s neck. “Eloquent.” 

 

Emma reaches down to Regina’s side and squeezes, making the brunette wiggle a bit. “Shush it. You should take it as a compliment. Do you know how many people wish they could get me to shut up as easily as you do?” 

 

“Hmm.” Regina leans back so they can look at each other, her lipstick slightly faded and her eyes alight. “I’m quite fond of the noises you make. That isn’t to say that making you speechless or reducing you to obscenities don’t have their own appeal.” 

 

Emma can only shake her head with amusement and wrap Regina up in her arm to pull her back into her body. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m so glad Ruby made me come here tonight.” 

 

“I knew it!” Both Regina and Emma jump at the sudden outburst, turning to face the smug brunette that’s grinning at the two of them. “See! See! I told you, Emma. I told you tonight was going to be a good night. You didn’t believe me, but now look at you. You’re wearing Regina’s lipstick on your cheek—which isn’t a good color on you at all, by the way.” 

 

Emma groans and shuts her eyes, letting her head fall against the brick wall behind her. “I hate you.” 

 

Regina and Ruby both laugh, Regina’s quieter and near her ear as she wipes her fingers over the smeared lipstick on Emma’s face. 

 

“Whatever. I’ve heard it a million times before, and you’ll say it a million times again. I know you love me.” 

 

Emma pokes her tongue out at Ruby, and Regina pinches her side, whispering, “Behave,” in Emma’s ear quietly. It makes Emma shiver and squirm away so she doesn’t end up putting on an inappropriate show in front of her best friend. Regina’s already too good at hitting all the right spots. Unphased, Regina turns and smiles at Ruby. 

 

Ruby looks between them and then behind her where the car waits. “So, I’m going to give you two a few minutes to say goodbye, but I will come back over here if you keep me waiting all night, Emma.” 

 

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll be right behind you. Go.”

 

Regina’s hand presses to the small of Emma’s back as she says, “If I keep my sister waiting any longer, she will certainly come looking for me as well.” 

 

“Zelena’s here?” Ruby asks, perking up, reminding Emma that while Regina is new to her life, they already overlap in many ways. 

 

Regina merely points to a car not too far away, one Ruby rushes off to without another word. Regina watches for a moment before turning to Emma. “I’ll walk you to your car.” 

 

They walk in silence, just the two of them and the moonlight, all of their surroundings faded in the background. Emma thinks of how she should say goodnight, if she should kiss Regina again, if she should tell her that she can’t wait to see her again. But when they reach the car, it’s Regina that makes the decision for her. 

 

“I wasn’t sure what to expect from this night, or from you, but—” Regina brushes her lips across Emma’s mouth, “—thank you for making tonight memorable. I had a wonderful time.” 

 

Emma’s grinning stupidly and on the verge of saying something just as stupid like "Right back at ya." So instead of trying to put her thoughts into words, she squeezes her hands around Regina’s and kisses her again until she finally finds the words she wants to say, simple and easy. 

 

“I will never get used to doing that.” 

 

“Good thing I won't let you." Regina smiles and kisses her again, ending their first night with hope for much more.