It was an idea only an idiot could come up with Regina had said, though she hadn’t disagreed with the plan, and half an hour into the drive Emma’s inclined to believe her. Regina sits stiffly in the passenger seat, handbag still perched on her lap and staring straight ahead, flinching every single time a car comes near them.
“Believe it or not, I’m actually an okay driver,” Emma says. It’s barely light out, the sun low in the sky and the omnipresent heat of summer not yet risen. There’ll be precious few hours where she doesn’t broil in the bug.
“Eyes on the road, dear,” Regina says in response. “And could we please change the music?”
“Driver picks the music,” Emma says as Taylor Swift sings “and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” – what Emma is picking as her unofficial theme song of the road trip. “Shotgun shuts…”
“Shuts what?” There’s a dangerous lilt to Regina’s voice.
“Shotgun gets to pick in another hour?” Emma suggests weakly.
“So I assumed,” Regina says and tilts her seat back infinitesimally, pulling on sunglasses and letting her lips curve into a smile. “Eyes on the road.” Emma feels a stab of pity for Henry, learning to drive from his mom, though at least he'd been able to learn in the Benz (which Regina crashed three days before the start of the road trip).
Henry’s at the University of Arizona, Tucson, doing this summer programme he applied for in Astronomy. It’s his latest thing. Emma thought most kids went through their astronaut phase younger than Henry, but whatever. It’s not like she knows much about kids and it’s not like Henry’s had a normal life. He applied. He was accepted. And now he’s spending the whole summer, including his seventeenth birthday, apart from his mothers.
Regina’s been pining. Emma’s pretty sure she’s studied Regina for long enough now to recognise the varying facets and moods of Regina Mills. The pining – all soft eyes and shutting people out and starting to call Emma ‘Ms Swan’ again – was one reason she suggested the road trip.
The second was that Regina’s never really had a holiday before and Emma thought she’d like to see some of the country to which she cursed herself and the citizens of the Enchanted Forest.
The third was that, well, Emma thinks they’re friends now and friends go on road trips, right? It’s what you do when you’re friends with someone. You drive and listen to music and laugh and visit ridiculous roadside sights and take selfies.
“We could have flown down,” Regina says. Her eyes are still shut and her hair, nearly at her elbows now and flowing loose and long over her right shoulder, flutters in the erratic breeze of the air-con in the bug.
“We could have,” Emma says. “But this is fun! Two buddies, on the road together.” She tries to think of an apt comparison but all she can come up with is ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and she doesn’t think Regina will appreciate the contrast. Perhaps ‘Thelma and Louise’? She suspects that will just lead to an argument over who gets to be Louise and she is so sure Regina is Thelma.
“I hated ‘On the Road’,” Regina says. When Emma darts a glance at her in surprise, she adds, “I had twenty-eight years in a stagnant town with terrible weather and a house that came pre-stocked with classic literature. I read everything. Jack Kerouac needed some lessons in treating women with respect. Also, in editing.”
“Never read it,” Emma says, shrugging. She had this English teacher at high school once who told the class that ‘On the Road’ would make even the most hardened homebody want to jump in their car and take off into the unknown. But then she’d moved families and she’d forgotten about the book rec until years later. “More of a Lee Child, Steven King kind of girl.”
“Of course you are,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. “So, buddy,” and Emma can practically hear the sarcastic air quotes around the word, “where will we stop tonight?”
“Wherever the road takes us,” Emma says cheerfully.
Regina actually raises her sunglasses to stare incredulously at Emma. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Of course,” Emma says, though honestly she’s kind of winging it. “I thought maybe Buffalo? It’s in New York.”
“I know where it is, Ms Swan,” Regina says and settles back in.
“Because darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” Emma croons along with her iPod.
“Taylor Swift is speaking to my very soul right now,” Regina mutters and Emma contemplates asking who of the pair of them is the nightmare dressed like a daydream but she’s not sure if she wants to know.
“Hey,” Emma says, pulling the car over, and nudging Regina awake. Her hair is pushed up at the side where she has been resting against the window. “We’re in Scarborough. I thought we’d stop and grab a coffee.”
Regina makes this ridiculous, snorting noise when she wakes up and her whole face scrunches. “Why did we leave so early?”
“Because I want to put some distance between Storybrooke and us,” Emma says. “The further we drive today, the sooner we get to Henry.”
“Ms Swan,” Regina says, as she gets out of the car. “Why are we at a candy store?”
“No reason,” Emma says, escorting Regina in, a hand on the small of her back. And there it is! “Just a life sized chocolate moose!”
“You’re ridiculous,” Regina says. She moves closer though, fascinated by the absurd sculpture in spite of herself.
“Say cheese,” Emma says, whipping out her phone and snapping a photo of Regina, who turns automatically and then glares. Her hair is a mess, sunglasses perched on the top of her head creating a sort of crown for her curls, and she’s wearing a full face of makeup and this ludicrous shift dress and heels combo, like they’re going to a business meeting instead of on a wildly informal road trip jaunt to Tucson.
“Delete that,” Regina says and there’s a treacherous quality to her voice, remnants of the Evil Queen, which Emma would be more frightened of if she didn’t know that it was just posturing.
Emma grins. “No.” She attaches the photo to a text message and sends it to Snow. She would have sent it to Henry, but he doesn’t know they’re coming, Regina wanting to keep their trip a surprise. The response is swift. I will miss you, darling daughter, when Regina kills you. Emma laughs, pocketing her phone and continues. “I will, however, buy you lots of chocolate if you go down the road to Starbucks and get us coffee.” Regina leaves, though not before attempting to snatch Emma’s phone from her, and she peruses the shelves, picking out as many ridiculously expensive chocolates in flavours she thinks Regina might like and taking them up to the counter.
She’s in the car, scoffing nougat, when Regina returns with coffee, handing Emma a cinnamon dolce Frappuccino. She takes a sip and groans and Regina looks over at her, face scrunched up in either confusion or distaste.
“Shall I keep driving?” Emma asks and Regina nods, buckling her seatbelt and turning to stare out the window. Her lipstick has made a red stain at the lip of the takeaway lid.
Regina drinks coffee in silence, hands clasped around the cup, as they drive to the border of Maine and then promptly falls asleep. Emma turns down the music, quashing an absurd desire to stroke Regina’s hair flat where’s it has bunched on one side, tucked between her back and the seat at an awkward angle. “Eyes on the road, Swan,” Regina murmurs, the suggestion of a smile in her voice, though her eyes are still closed.
“Course,” Emma says, rolling her own eyes and returning focus to the road, singing along to Tracy Chapman – Regina’s pleasantly surprising choice of music. “Is it fast enough so we can fly away?”
Just outside of Boston, Emma stops for gas. “You didn’t want to detour at Boston?” Regina asks, eyeing the road signs. She has got out of the car to stretch her legs and is surveying the selection of snacks at the gas station with a critical eye. “I would have thought you had friends there.”
“No,” Emma says and she doesn’t expand on it.
They keep driving, stopping in a grassy spot on the side of the road for lunch. Regina packed a cooler with sandwiches and a bag of Emma’s favourite oatmeal raisin cookies that she bakes for Henry but she slaps Emma’s hand away when she reaches for one. “Sandwiches first,” she says.
“Yes, Mom,” she replies, rolling her eyes, but she bites into a sandwich, which is outstanding and she’s pretty sure Regina baked the bread herself.
“So, why no Boston?” Regina asks, taking a delicate bite from a chicken salad sandwich. “I would have liked to visit it.”
“We’ll never get to Tucson if we stop everywhere,” Emma says, taking a draught of apple juice, home-pressed as far as she can tell, and it’s the combination of home-made cookies, home-pressed apple juice and freshly baked bread that tells her Regina’s so much more of a competent mother than she is – particularly since the most motherly of her skills were given to her courtesy of the year of false memories.
“That’s not a real answer,” Regina says. She’s leaning back, her legs long and sun-bronzed and she’s kicked off her heels and Emma’s trying really hard not to stare at the expanse of uncovered thigh between knee and the hem of her dress because friends don’t admire their friends’ legs.
“I know,” Emma says, shrugging. “I don’t exactly have emotional ties to the city. I was only there a year as an adult.”
“I remember,” Regina says and unspoken between them is the fact that all those years ago Regina looked up where Emma had lived over the years and for how long to assure herself that Emma wouldn’t stay in Storybrooke for any period of time. She toys with the crusts of her sandwich. “What about New York City? You were happy there.”
“Perhaps on the way back?” Emma suggests. “We could spend a few days, hit up the museums, see a play. I could show you our neighbourhood, where Henry went to school, all that crap.”
“I’d like that,” Regina says, and she smiles, one of her genuine ones, the ones reserved for Henry – and sometimes Emma. Emma smiles herself at the way the grin lights up Regina’s face.
She can feel the sun start to beat down on her skin, probably burning. “Should we get going?” she asks and Regina nods, packing up the leftovers and throwing the cooler into the backseat.
Emma keeps driving.
“You up for Niagara Falls?” Emma asks. They’ve made it to Buffalo and it’s just gone five, the sun still high in the sky. She has found a two-storey roadside motel that Regina deems ‘acceptable’ after inspecting her room, running her finger over surfaces, checking the bathrooms and the sheets, and Emma has taken the adjoining room. “It’s only a half hour drive.”
Regina shrugs. For someone who agreed to the road trip, she’s been remarkably non-committal about making any plans for it – or at least any that she’ll divulge to Emma. “What’s another half hour in your death trap in the grand scheme of things?”
“I haven’t killed anyone in my car yet,” Emma protests.
“You do not inspire confidence, dear,” Regina says, though her expression has softened and she looks almost fond. She sits down on the edge of her bed, the mustard-coloured bedspread crinkling beneath her, and puts her shoes back on, wincing.
“Maybe you shouldn’t wear heels,” Emma says, rubbing the back of her neck and trying to ease out the crick. “Surely you brought some flats with you.”
“They don’t go with this dress,” Regina says as though that should be obvious. “I’ll be fine.” She stands and strides out of the room, leaving Emma to lock up after her.
They arrive at the falls a little before six and once Emma’s found a carpark (no small task) they get out. “Go for a walk?” Emma asks and Regina nods, throwing her handbag over her shoulder. Emma grabs her wallet and phone from the glove compartment and shoves them in the back pocket of her shorts.
“This is less of a rampant tourist trap than I anticipated,” Regina remarks as they stroll along.
“I think the Canadian side might be worse,” Emma says. She’s never been before but she’s been told stories. Neal had visited the casino on the Canadian side of the falls once, long before she’d met him, and he’d told her a few stories, though less about the scenery and more about conning idiot tourists at the blackjack table.
“Good,” Regina says. Emma notices she’s limping.
“Sit down,” she says, leading her over to a park bench. “I’ll find us some dinner.” Regina doesn’t put up much of a protest; her feet obviously hurt more than she was letting on.
Emma finds a Chinese restaurant that does takeout and orders lo mein, lemon chicken and a dozen wontons, giving Henry a call while she waits. “Hey kid,” she says, when he answers. “How’s it going in Tucson?”
“Pretty good,” Henry says, voice muffled at the end of the line. There’s noise at his end, people talking and laughing and it makes Emma’s heart sing because, aside from the year in New York City, he’s always been such a loner. “I’m heading to a lecture soon! It’s this professor, really famous… Have you fallen asleep yet?” Emma can hear him grin down the line and she’s filled with a sudden ache of longing that is hard to quantify.
“Anything you say is interesting,” she says, protesting, and Henry laughs.
“Order for Swan!”
“Sorry, kid, take-out’s here.” Emma stands, phone held to her ear, and nods her thanks at the waiter as she grabs the plastic bag and leaves, walking back to where she left Regina.
“Are you looking out for Mom?” Henry asks, his tone serious.
“Yeah,” Emma says and her throat is dry. “The take-out’s for both of us.”
“Good,” Henry says. “She says she’s fine, but I’m worried she’s not.” Someone in the background calls out Henry’s name and he yells back, “just finishing up with my ma. Sorry, Ma. Gotta go. Love you and Mom.”
“We love you too, kid,” Emma says and hangs up, sliding her phone into her pocket. She finds Regina sitting in the same place. She’s slipped her shoes off and is staring out at the falls, eyes unfocused. There’s a cool breeze that blows her hair askew and Emma suspects Regina would be horrified if she knew how casual her hair has looked all day. “Just talked to Henry,” Emma says, placing the food beside Regina and sitting at the other end of the bench.
“How is he?” Regina asks, finding her lo mein and breaking apart the chopsticks. She scoops up noodles and there’s something hilarious about watching Regina Mills try and eat noodles tidily.
“He’s good,” Emma says, pouring excess sauce from her lemon chicken into the rice. “He was heading out to a lecture, the little nerd.”
Regina pokes her with the wide of end of her chopsticks. “Don’t call our son a nerd,” she says.
“Poor boy can’t help it,” Emma replies, dipping a wonton into the mystery sauce that accompanies it. “With a mother like you…”
Regina throws a wonton at her. It misses her and falls on the ground and if Emma was alone, she’d probably dust it off and eat it because what a waste of good food (and even now, twenty years later at least, she feels her heart beat faster and her palms sweat when there’s no food around or food’s being wasted) but she still feels this need to impress Regina – or at least not outright disgust her. “I’m not a nerd,” Regina says, petulance laced into her tone.
“Okay,” Emma says, swallowing her mouthful. “But all that classic literature? And I’ve seen you making potions, all excited like a little kid with a chemistry set.”
“Oh, shut up,” Regina says, spearing another mouthful of noodles. After a moment’s quiet – only the rush of the falls to disturb them – Regina ventures, “but, Henry, he sounded happy?”
“He sounded like he’s having the time of his life,” Emma says. “Call him tomorrow.”
When they’ve thoroughly gorged on greasy Chinese food, Emma pulls out the fortune cookies. “You have to add ‘in bed’ to the end,” she says. “It makes it funny.”
Regina eyes her dubiously, but cracks hers. “The funny thing about common sense is it isn’t all that common,” she says. “In bed.” She smirks, lip turning up at one corner and eyebrow raising. “Well, that’s true.”
Emma grins and breaks her cookie. “Pursue your wishes aggressively,” she reads. “In bed.” And she is rewarded with hearing Regina laugh, deep and throaty and intoxicating. She eats the cookie, the sweet, thin batter dissolving on her tongue, and she hopes.
Regina piles the takeaway containers into the plastic bag, tying a knot with the handles, and throws it in the trash. She’s slipped her feet back into the shoes and if she’s still in pain, well, she’s doing her level best not to show it. She walks across to the barrier to the falls and Emma follows, standing beside her, close enough to touch, but leaving the barest half inch between their bodies. The rush of the falls is loud – water crashing against rocks in an explosion of sound.
“You know,” Regina says, almost yelling to be heard above the water. She’s staring across at Canada, at the lights glowing as the sky dims, a faint, velvety purple now. “It’s kind of beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Emma says but she doesn’t look at the falls. Instead, she looks across at Regina, whose face is shrouded in the dying light bleeding across the sky and whose hair is blowing back in the wind. “It is.”