Emma first sees the woman on a Wednesday morning in September. It’s a slow day, just after the morning rush, and Emma’s the only ticket operator working at this stop on the T. She usually is; she’s one of the only ones left, everyone else having been slowly replaced by automatic ticket machines. She’s there to cater to older people and tourists, mainly. She knows she only held on to her job because she’s too young yet for them to have to worry about paying her pension.
The woman is dressed in a thick green coat that matches her eyes and sets off her red hair, and she’s beautiful and tall and her mouth is a perfect painted red when she asks Emma for a ticket. Emma fumbles with the machine, and her fingers might shake a little as she slides the ticket through the plastic partition. If the woman notices, she doesn’t comment; merely smiling at Emma while she grabs the ticket, and winking at her before she turns away. Emma falls a little bit in love right then and there.
She sees her almost every morning from then on, except tuesdays and sundays, when Emma doesn’t work. The woman often smiles and sometimes looks right at her; Emma always starts, and stares, and maybe smiles back but can never muster up the courage to speak. Her coworkers all find it hilarious that brash, couldn’t-care-less Emma has been rendered juvenile by a crush. Emma still fails each morning to act in any way like an adult any time the woman comes by.
Emma isn’t stupid enough to believe in things like love at first sight, and her romantic history is horrendous, at best. But she’s also very lonely, and very alone, and it’s easier to indulge in romantic fantasies about a beautiful woman at the train station than it is to actually have to talk to one and have them find her lacking.
Besides, she thinks. Stranger things have happened. Or so the movies tell her.
It happens on Christmas Day.
Emma is stuck working, like she is every year, because she’s the only staff member who doesn’t have any family to spend it with. It’s so cold that Emma’s breath is making little clouds inside her booth, even with the presence of the space heater under the desk which is threatening to set fire to her legs. The woman comes by in the late afternoon. She’s dressed in green again, and she pauses for a moment at Emma’s booth; looks right at her and says, “Merry Christmas!”
Emma can’t speak. The woman collects her ticket and heads off down the platform. Emma curses herself. Out loud.
“Wow. Great job, Swan. Real smooth. Very cool. How about, ‘Merry Christmas to you too’! Or ‘happy holidays’? ‘Nice coat’? Any words would have been good!” She thumps her head down onto the counter, before realising how filthy the counter probably is and picking it back up again.
A yell from down the platform catches her attention, and Emma looks up. She watches as two guys approach the woman in green. They circle her, and she looks a little spooked. Emma’s just reaching for the door, thinking no, surely they couldn’t be thinking of robbing this woman in broad daylight, and then they’re grabbing at her big, designer purse and the woman is holding on to it, pulling back, and then she slips and the men let go and she’s falling backwards onto the tracks.
Emma flies out of her booth as the men scatter, pushing past her to get to the exit. She books it down the platform and skids to a stop above where the woman fell.
“Shit, shit shit, oh shit.” The woman is lying on the tracks and not moving, her red hair fanned out under her head and a one of her arms bent at a weird angle. Emma crouches down on the side of the platform.
“Um, hey. Hello? Can you hear me? Hey, lady, wake up.” There’s no response. Emma tries again “Lady, you have to wake up. Please wake up.”
Emma hears the shearing sound of wheels on metal from further up the tunnel, and realises the 9:42 express train is headed right for them.
“Oh, shit. Oh Jesus. Lady, come on, you have to move, you have to get up!”
The woman is still. If not for the slight rise and fall of her chest, Emma would be afraid she was dead.
The sound of the train gets closer, and Emma knows she only has thirty seconds or so, max, before this woman dies in front of her. She hisses ‘oh shit’ a couple more times before she’s jumping down onto the tracks. She grabs the woman’s arm, tugs hard, slaps her face a little bit (and feels bad about it), but she won’t stir.
The train flies out of the tunnel, and Emma takes a deep breath, and bodily rolls the woman on top of her then off the other side, crushing them both against the wall of the tracks, praying to a god she doesn’t believe in that the side wells of the platform are enough to stop them both from being killed.
The train passes. Emma opens her eyes but can’t unlock her muscles to make herself move.
Up on the platform, she can hear people shouting, footsteps coming towards them and calls for the police, an ambulance. Someone must get near them, because suddenly Emma hears a woman’s voice, quite close, call out, “Oh my god, they’re alive! They’re still down there!”
Years later, Emma still won’t remember the move from the tracks to the hospital. She hopes she was at least of some help.
When she comes back to herself fully, she’s being pushed back behind the glass doors of the emergency ward by an orderly with firm hands who tells her that no one but family is allowed beyond that point. Emma argues. It’s what she does best.
“That woman that just went through there, I need to go with her. I was there when it happened, I want to stay with her.”
The nurse is kind, but firm; “Are you a relative of Ms Mills’? Or her next of kin?” Emma is silent. The nurse gives her an apologetic smile. “Then you have to wait out here.”
Emma turns away, watching through the glass doors as the woman is wheeled away on a gurney.
She doesn’t know what to do, or say; and finds herself sighing, “But I was gonna marry her.”
Behind her, and unnoticed by Emma, another nurse who owns quite a large collection of ‘No H8’ apparel overhears her and puts her hand to her chest in pity.
A few hours pass, Emma taking up residence on a couch in the waiting area after being checked over by a doctor. She’s got some scratches and bruises, but other than that she’s fine. The other woman, one of the orderlies lets slip, hasn’t woken up yet.
Emma is just getting her bearings, trying to decide if she should leave or not, when the elevator dings and a clamour of noise bursts out of it. A group of people come rushing in to the waiting room, all talking over each other at once, rushing towards the desk. The poor nurse at reception looks a little afraid.
Finally, it’s a small boy who hushes the others, putting his hands on the desk and telling the receptionist in a very grown up voice; “We’re here for Zelena Mills.”
Emma stares. One member of the group, an older woman, stares back at her. Emma looks away.
Huh. She didn’t even know a person could be named ‘Zelena’. Maybe she’d misheard.
“You’re Zelena Mills’s family?” The nurse asks, and nope, that’s what she said. Emma has had a three and a half month long crush on a woman named ‘Zelena’.
“Yes,” the boy responds. “Well, technically, I’m her family, I mean, she’s my aunt. But these are our friends and they’re practically family, too. We live in a really small town. We’re kind of all family.” The rest of the group nod their agreement; the older woman who was eyeballing Emma before, a younger woman wearing really weather-inappropriate shorts, a kind looking guy with orangey hair and glasses, and a blonde woman standing behind the young boy.
The nurse looks a little bemused. “Okay. Does she have any other family here besides you, honey? An adult maybe?”
The kid shakes his head. “My mom and I are her only family. My mom’s on her way. She was at the big supermarket out of town because Pongo got in the kitchen and ate half the chicken so she had to go get another one and she didn’t hear her phone in her bag and the hospital called my house and we were there watching carols so we got here first. Is Aunt Zelena gonna be ok?”
“We don’t know yet, honey. Did your mom say how far away she was? When she thinks she’ll get here?”
“She said she was leaving right then, and that was like, half an hour ago, I guess.”
The nurse looks up at the clock on the wall, as if praying that the roads are miraculously clear.
“Honey, I’m afraid that I have some things that I need to talk to a grown up about before we can let anyone in to see your aunt. Things about what happened, and how she’s doing.”
The kid scrunches up his face. “I’m ten,” he says, as if this solves everything. Emma can tell that the nurse is fighting a smile.
“I’m afraid we need to talk to an adult. Someone who can make decisions on her behalf. She doesn’t have any other family? And she’s not married?”
The kid shakes his head again. From the other side of the reception station, a nurse who has apparently been eavesdropping pipes up. “Well, she is engaged, though.”
Five heads swivel in tandem to stare at her.
After a moment, short-shorts laughs. Then the blonde says, “Excuse me?” and the kid follows up with, “Auntie Zelena isn’t engaged.”
The nurse blinks. “Yes, she is.” She points, suddenly, over at Emma. “Her fiancé is right over there.”
Emma honestly doesn’t know who is more shocked; her, or the group of people now staring at her. She looks around, stupidly, trying to figure out if the nurse was pointing to someone behind her, but she’s sitting with her back against a wall. “What?” She tries to say, but is cut off the sudden outbursts of the group in front of her.
“That’s not her fiancé.”
“Who is that woman?”
“Auntie Zelena got enGAGED? And she didn’t tell us?”
The man with the glasses tries to calm the rest while Emma sputters. “Now, Henry, I’m sure there’s just been a bit of a misunderstanding.”
The loudmouth nurse shakes her head. “No, that’s Zelena Mills’s fiancé! She brought her in. She saved her life, you know!”
Short-shorts whirls on her. “You’re the one that jumped on the tracks to save her?”
Emma stutters. “Well, yeah, I pulled her off, but- ”
There’s a cry, and then suddenly Emma has a face-full of the older lady’s not unsubstantial bosom.
“Oh! Thank you!”
Emma tries not to suffocate.
“And you’re her fiance?” This from short-shorts, behind her. Emma can’t breathe in to respond. The nurse nods, and does it for her.
“Yeah! That’s what I said!”
The older woman finally releases her, and Emma tries to catch her breath, and hears, “That’s really romantic.” It’s the boy, who has come closer to her. Emma tries to explain.
“Oh, kid, thanks, but I’m not-”
She’s hit with another hug, this time with arms a lot smaller but still just as tight.
“Thanks for saving her life.” The kid whispers, right into her neck, and Emma wants to cry. When he pulls back, he smiles at her, and then adds, “I’m sure she’ll really want to marry you now!”
“Who is marrying what?”
The new voice comes from over near the elevators, and the kid - Henry, the guy with the glasses had called him - is off Emma in a second.
He launches himself at her and she wraps her arms around him. She looks ragged and red eyed and there’s this certain set to her jaw and Emma doesn’t doubt for a second that this is Zelena’s sister.
“Regina,” the blonde woman says softly, “We didn’t think we’d see you for another half hour or so, at least.”
Regina gives her a brittle smile, and loosens one arm around Henry so he can turn to stand beside her. “I got lucky with the traffic,” she says. “And I might not have followed many road rules on the way here.”
“Mom,” Henry chides. She pats his shoulder absently.
“Regina Mills?” The nurse behind the desk pipes up.
The nurse smiles, relieved to finally be able to get these people away from her desk.
“I can take you through to see your sister in a minute. She is stable for now, but the doctors will want to speak with you.”
Regina nods, then turns back to the group. She manages a small smile, hand still gripped in Henry’s shirt, before her eyes land on Emma.
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
The blonde answers first. “She’s the girl who saved Zelena’s life.”
Regina’s eyes widen.
Henry tugs on her arm. “Yeah, and she’s Auntie Zelena’s fiancé!”
Her mouth falls wide open. “She’s what?”
The girl with the short shorts chimes in from behind them. “Apparently, she’s her fiancé! Zelena’s sure been secretive about this one!”
Emma’s trying to speak up again, find words beyond, “Well, actually-” but Regina turns to her, eyes disbelieving but deadly, and Emma thinks it’s a look that could probably stop traffic. Pity she didn’t have that on hand earlier today.
Regina tilts her head and looks Emma slowly up and down - her ratty sweatshirt with a hole on one sleeve, her old jeans, which weren’t exactly quality before she rolled around on the subway tracks, her chipped, bitten nails - and drawls, rather venomously; “That’s ridiculous.”
Emma’s pride flares, white-hot, and instead of saying, ‘Actually, you’re right, this is all just a huge misunderstanding,’ what she says is: “Excuse me?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Regina repeats. “You are not my sister’s fiancé. You think she would have gotten engaged and not told me? She’s not even dating anyone right now. And she certainly wouldn’t be dating you. ”
Taking a leap from the way Henry and short-shorts were so willing to believe the whole scenario was possible, Emma snaps, “Well, it’s not like you’ve seen her much lately, is it?”
It’s the right thing to say, and Regina’s mouth snaps shut, wounded. She rallies a moment later. “It’s been a few weeks, but that doesn’t mean she could suddenly have gotten engaged. Besides,” she says, looking down at Emma with a sneer, “You’re not exactly her type.”
Emma tenses her jaw till she feels like she’s going to crack a tooth. “Yeah, well, maybe she was sick of her type.”
Regina gives her a cutting look, arches one perfect eyebrow. It says, ‘yeah, right’ without her ever having to open her mouth.
Emma’s never hated someone so intensely and so immediately.
“Listen, lady,” she says, digging in for a fight, “I don’t know what kind of nuclear bug is up your ass, but I’m here to see if Zelena is ok, not get involved in your messed up family dynamics. Sort it out when you’re not in a hospital waiting to see if your sister’s going to wake up.”
Regina’s eyes narrow and her face flushes and her mouth pulls into a vicious sneer and Emma’s suddenly pretty sure she is going to die today, after all.
Regina’s blood thrums in her veins like it hasn’t in years.
“How dare you,” she snarls, and gets right up in Emma’s face, but then there’s hands pushing between them and the kid is there.
“Mom, Emma, please, don’t fight.”
He sounds really distressed, and Emma realises that as cute and confident as he is, the kid must be having a really awful, scary day for someone who is probably too young to have faced the risk of losing someone he loves before. She watches as Regina’s face fills with guilt and she wraps an arm around Henry’s shoulders.
“Alright, dear. It’s alright.”
He turns and leans his face into his mother’s coat, and Regina shoots her a ‘this isn’t finished’ look that Emma rolls her eyes at.
The nurse reappears then, and leads Regina away to a private area to talk about her sister’s status. Emma doesn’t miss the way that Regina speeds up and makes the nurse match her pace, instead of the other way around; heels clicking authoritatively as if she were the one in charge.
Henry and Emma sit down quietly, and the rest of the strange group hover near them.
It’s the blonde woman who approaches Emma, finally. She hands her a cup of vending machine coffee and Emma smiles gratefully.
“Don’t worry about Regina,” she says softly. “She’ll come around. She’s just had a shock today, and she tends to react to fear by getting angry.”
Emma doesn’t know what to say, so she just nods.
“I don’t think she would have coped with losing her sister.” Blondie confides. “And Regina… Well, things get kind of scary when she’s not coping. When you saved Zelena’s life today, I think you kind of saved Regina’s, too. I guess you kind of saved the whole town’s.”
It’s entirely too much for Emma to deal with, and when the nurse comes back with a pale-faced Regina and tells them all that Zelena is in a coma but they can go in and see her, Emma makes a break for the elevators instead.
Regina stews for the entire length of the hour’s drive back to Storybrooke. The doctors had assured her that her sister was in good hands, and that they weren’t worried yet that she hadn’t woken up. Head injuries worked in strange ways, they said, and the more time they gave her body to heal and rest, the better. They assured her that the scans and tests they’d spent all afternoon and evening performing had shown only an expected amount of swelling on her brain, and no permanent damage as far as they could tell. Regina feels sick, and terrified, and worried for her sister, so she channels it into something easier to deal with.
“I refuse to believe that that woman was Zelena’s fiancé. How ridiculous. She’s a liar.”
From the passenger seat, Henry hums, used to his mother’s venting. He switches the radio to a pop station, knowing she won’t notice right now.
“I mean, who does she think she is? How could she think we’d believe her? Zelena would have told me. She told me last month that she wasn’t seeing anyone. She would never have proposed and not told me.”
Henry starts singing along to Taylor Swift under his breath.
“I mean, maybe she wouldn’t have told me yet. She’s been busy. But that doesn’t mean that woman could possibly be her fiancé. That’s ridiculous.”
Henry turns to look at his Mom, finally. “I don’t know,” he offers. “She is really pretty? And Auntie Z always dates blondes.”
“Not blondes like that.” She shoots back.
Henry frowns. “That’s kind of mean.”
His mom looks a little chagrined, but doesn’t respond.
After a long moment of silence, except for the passing of other cars and I’ve got a blank space baby, Henry cautiously suggests; “I don’t know, Mom. Don’t you think we should at least be nice to her? Auntie Z would like that. I don’t want her to be mad when she wakes up. I miss her. Maybe she’d come around more if her fiancé liked us.”
His Mom turns to glare at him, a little wounded, and Henry sighs and gives up, turning his attention back out the window.
Across town, Emma lies awake in bed until 2am.
Her mind won’t shut off, thinking about how the hospital staff, she’s pretty sure, managed to get a contact number from her when she was still in shock, and how she’s going to have to change her phone number and maybe move to avoid ever having to tell that family that she was accidentally identified as their loved one’s fiancé. Then thinking about if Zelena was going to be alright. It feels really odd to have watched someone almost die and then not know if they’re going to be ok - not knowing if she’s woken up, or if the doctors think she’s not going to live. Maybe they’ve turned the life support off already. Emma has no idea how comas work. She might not even be alive. Or she might be awake and find and really confused about her family thinking she’s gotten engaged.
At 2:10, Emma can’t stand not knowing anymore. She puts her clothes back on and walks to the T.
There’s only a skeleton crew on in the hospital at this kind of night, and she’s able to sneak in to the ICU when the nurse at the admin desk turns around to fill up her coffee. The luminescent lights make everything feel surreal and suspended in time, like it could be the middle of the afternoon and you’d never be able to tell the difference.
Emma hovers in the doorway to Zelena’s room.
She’s still alive, at least.
Her eyes are closed, but her chest is rising and falling beneath the white sheets. There’s a heart monitor beeping steadily in the corner, and there’s no tubes or masks helping her to breathe, which Emma figures, from her limited medical knowledge picked up from binge-watching too much Grey’s Anatomy, is a good sign.
She slips into the room and takes a seat next to the bed.
Great, Emma thinks. Now she’s trying to start a conversation with a woman in a coma.
“I’m Emma. Emma Swan. I uh, I work at the T, where you fell.”
There’s a long period of silence, but Emma finally feels calmer, watching Zelena breathe and knowing she didn’t die after all.
“Uh, just so you know, your family thinks we’re engaged. Which is new for me. I… It was a whole misunderstanding. Don’t worry, I’m not a crazy person, I swear. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
Another long moment, and Emma whispers a promise she knows she’s probably not going to keep.
“I’ll fix it.”
Emma is woken in the early morning by the click of heels against linoleum. She realises with a start that she somehow managed to fall asleep at the hospital. She doesn’t have time to pull herself together before the door opens, so Emma faces Regina Mills for the second time with sleep-flattened hair and an imprint on one cheek from where her head had been resting against the waffled blanket on Zelena’s hospital bed.
Regina looks surprised to see her there. Emma mumbles “good morning” and pushes her hair behind her ears.
“You were here all night?” Regina asks, her voice quiet, like Zelena really is just sleeping.
“Um, yeah. I thought maybe… one of the nurses said sometimes people in comas can hear you, or something. I don’t know if I believe her, but I figured she shouldn’t be alone, either, so.”
She trails off, unsure. Regina looks at her with an expression Emma can’t place; not hostile, at least, but searching. It’s unsettling. Their eyes meet, and Regina holds Emma’s gaze for a long moment until Henry comes into the room behind her.
“Mom?” Regina smiles at him and gives him a gentle push forward towards the bed. He catches sight of Emma, and his whole face lights up. It makes her chest warm and her heart feel light and it’s a wholly inappropriate response to a kid she’s known for less than 48 hours.
She can’t help but smile. “Hi, Henry.”
He walks over to the bed and stands at a careful distance, putting his small hand over Zelena’s where it’s lying on top of the blankets.
Regina steps forward and runs a hand over Henry’s hair. “You can say hello, dear. I’m sure she’d want to hear your voice.”
Henry looks back at his mother for reassurance, and she nudges him again. He turns back to the bed and says, in a quiet, serious voice; “Hi, Auntie Z. It’s Henry. You’re still in the hospital. But that’s ok, they’re looking after you.” He pauses for a moment and looks around, and Emma tries to inch closer to the door but can’t get past without Regina seeing her. “Mom and Emma are here, too. I can’t believe you didn’t tell us about Emma! But that’s ok. She’s nice. Everyone likes her already. Mom pulled out her best evil b- uh…”
“Her best evil queen routine yesterday,” he rushes on, “and Emma totally didn’t even flinch. So Ruby says she’s a keeper.”
Regina’s cheeks flush and Emma’s stupid lizard brain registers that it’s a really good look on her.
“I hope you get better soon, Tía. Except try to wake up after twelve, okay? Mom’s making us go to the dumb church thing still and I don’t wanna miss it.”
Regina huffs out a tiny laugh, then looks at her watch. “Speaking of, Henry, we need to get going. We’ll be late.”
“I don’t get why we have to go,” He parries. “You don’t even believe in God.”
“It’s tradition. It’s only once a year. We’re still going.”
He heaves a dramatic sigh and that, finally, is a childhood memory Emma can relate to. Henry says his one-sided good byes and trudges to the door. Regina lingers, watching Zelena, and Emma mumbles “I’l just give you a minute” and ducks out the door.
Henry joins her a moment later, mimicking her position leaning against the opposite wall of the hallway. They watch as Regina says something to her sister, unnecessarily smoothing and readjusting the blankets on the bed. She bends over and kisses Zelena’s cheek, smoothing her hair away from her face, and Emma wonders for probably the millionth time in her life what it would be like to have family who loved her like that.
Emma takes a peek at her phone. The clock reads ten to seven. No wonder she feels like death. If Regina’s worried about them being late, they mustn’t live in the city.
“Do you guys live far away?” She asks Henry, mostly for something to say.
“Kind of.” he says. “I mean, it’s not that far. But we don’t come to the city that much. Mom and I live in Storybrooke. Do you know it?”
Emma shakes her head.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s really small, and everyone knows each other, but it’s fun still. My mom’s the mayor.”
“She’s pretty good at it, I think.”
Emma looks at Regina, now walking regally out of the room in her pressed suit and perfect, bouncy hair and says, “Yeah, I’ll bet she is.”
Henry turns to Emma suddenly. “Oh! I almost forgot! You have to come to Christmas, Emma!”
“We’re having Christmas tonight, because it was yesterday but then Auntie Zelena got hurt so we didn’t get to have Christmas dinner or open presents or anything. I mean, I opened my presents with Mom, but we have family and friends presents too and we’re only allowed to open them at dinner. Mom got me a DS and I think probably someone will give me games for it. So we’re having dinner tonight and you have to come!”
Emma blinks at him, startled. “Oh… um, I don’t know, kid.”
Regina reaches them, and Henry spins to her. “Mom! Emma has to come to Christmas dinner, right?”
Regina and Emma look at each other, and for a moment they both flounder. But then Regina glances back to Zelena, lying in that bed, and back at Henry who, at some point, has grabbed Emma’s sleeve, and something on her face changes, goes soft then decisive.
“Yes, Miss Swan. You should join us. If you’re free.”
When Regina and Henry leave a few minutes later, there’s a neatly folded piece of paper with their address on it tucked into Emma’s back pocket, and her waist feels warm from where Henry decided, out of nowhere, to hug her.
She doesn’t actually plan on going to Regina and Henry’s house for Christmas dinner.
It would be way too weird, and definitely awkward, and also she should absolutely not be doing anything to get herself more involved with this poor family when she’s meant to be figuring out a way of getting the hell out of this mess she’d gotten herself into. She’d just stay home, and if she saw them again and anyone asked, she’d say she already had plans.
Emma had wandered around the city for a while after she left the hospital, buying a few tins of food for her cat, getting a cup of coffee and mostly just using it as a hand warmer because she’d lost her gloves again. She’d grown up on the east coast, up and down and all over, really, but Boston was comfortingly large and familiar and she’d decided to try and put down roots there a few years ago, when she’d stopped running around the country any time she got scared. It had worked to varying degrees; she had a rent controlled apartment that was only two floors up, and big enough for her; she had a cat who had followed her home one night and stayed, who seemed happy enough to see her when she came home; and she had a job she knew she wasn’t going to get fired from until she was ready to leave, which was a pretty rare thing.
It wasn’t the most glamorous job, sure, but she didn’t have to talk to people that much beyond asking them where they were going, and she could drink all the coffee she wanted sitting in her booth, and the line she worked at had a direct train to Logan, and she could fantasise that she could ride to the airport and fly away any time she wanted.
It’s enough. Most of the time.
That night, she goes home to her cold, dark apartment. She feeds the cat, and tries to make it love her a little before it gets annoyed and goes to sit on the couch. She watches the blinking lights of her tiny, crappy Christmas tree and turns her busted old furnace to high, and is debating ordering Chinese food and suddenly she feels so alone that she can’t breathe.
The Mills’s address is still in her back pocket, and Emma thinks, fuck it. It’s not like she’s a good person anyway.
Storybrooke, as it turns out, is a tiny enough town that she has to take a cab from the closest T that ends up costing her nearly thirty bucks, and then no matter how much she’s panicking, standing outside the huge, white-pillared house, she can’t force herself to get back in the cab because that would be a ridiculous amount of money wasted. Emma watches as the cab drives away, letting the cold seep through her jeans.
Regina Mills’s house is ridiculous. It’s practically a mansion, set back off the street, and it’s covered in Christmas decorations that are beautiful and classy, but lopsided enough, in a couple of places, to look like she and Henry hung them themselves. She stands there staring for so long that her fingers start to go numb, asking herself what the hell she’s doing, if she’s lost her mind, considering checking herself in to a nuthouse. But then Henry must spot her from somewhere inside because the door is flung open and he’s running out to greet her, only wearing a thin sweater. He grabs her hand and tugs her towards the door and shouts, with a joy that no one has announced her presence with, maybe ever, “Guys! Emma’s here!!!
The hallway is warm, and smells incredible, like Christmas dinner and a wood fire and cinnamon. As Henry pulls the door closed behind them, it’s suddenly filled with people - some Emma recognises from the hospital, some she doesn’t know. She gets a little claustrophobic, and tugs off her scarf off to try and ease the pressure around her throat.
It’s Regina’s voice, low and inviting, that cuts through. “You came.”
Emma looks up at her, and smiles instinctively, though she really doesn’t know why. “Hey. Yeah. I hope that’s ok.”
Regina tilts her head. “I wouldn’t have given you the address if it wasn’t.”
Emma shuffles awkwardly, then remembers, “Oh. Here,” she pulls the bottle of wine she stopped and bought on the way out of her bag, hoping it’s nice enough to go unnoticed. “I brought this. I can’t really cook, so, I didn’t bring anything like that, but. I thought wine would be good.”
Regina takes it graciously. “That’s very considerate. Thank you.”
They stare at each other for a little longer, unsure how to proceed, and then the girl Emma remembers who was wearing the short shots at the hospital coughs and giggles a bit and the spell is broken.
“Right,” Regina says, avoiding Emma’s eyes. “Come through to the dining room, we were just about to eat.”
They all shuffle through and Henry makes everybody move seats so that Emma is sitting next to him. Shorts girl, she learns, is Ruby; she works at the town diner and has known Regina for forever. Regina used to babysit her. The older woman Emma also remembers from the hospital is Ruby’s grandmother; she used to babysit Regina. The blonde is Regina’s friend, Kathryn, and Henry’s unofficial aunt, and the athletic looking guy with her is her husband, Jim. Then there’s Archie, who’s a friend of the family, and a sweet, short haired woman named Mary Margaret who is Henry’s teacher, and who sits as far away from Regina as possible. Her husband, David, sits next to her, but chats with Henry in a loud, friendly voice across the table.
Emma notices that Regina seems to only tolerate the presence of all these people in her house because of Henry. She doesn’t really engage in conversation with anyone but Kathryn willingly, and she’s fairly cutting towards Mary Margaret, only stopping herself when Henry sends warning glances in her direction. At first Emma wonders why, but then, when Henry gets caught up talking to David, and Emma spends a while paying attention to the other conversations around her, she picks up on it. The way that none of them attempt to talk to Regina, either, except through Henry; the casual cruelty when Granny, noticing how silent Emma’s is, whispers not quietly enough; “Oh, don’t worry, hon. Regina’s not exactly the warm and welcoming type, but you’re fitting in just fine.”
Emma watches Regina freeze for just a second, halfway to spooning more beans onto her plate, and tense her jaw tight.
Emma frowns at Granny, gestures at the table.
“I don’t know,” she says, annoyed on Regina’s behalf. “This is pretty damn warm and welcoming.”
Granny chatters on, unaware, and when Emma looks back, Regina is looking right at her.
Dinner passes in a blur of food and wine and eggnog, and Emma’s incredibly grateful for Henry’s company, because his chatter means she doesn’t really have to talk to anyone else that much. It helps her avoid any more serious questions which would expose the ruse.
Emma’s never spent much time around kids as an adult, but Henry’s strangely easy to talk to. She finds herself genuinely interested in what he has to say.
Sometimes, when she looks up, she catches Regina watching her with an odd look on her face. Emma has no idea what it means, so she focuses on Henry telling her about how his best friend at school, Nicholas Zimmer, accidentally set fire to the teachers’ lounge and almost got expelled.
After dinner, when Emma’s had enough wine that she’s a little numb to the awkwardness and internal panic and Henry’s bouncing off the walls from the sugary drinks he was allowed during the meal, everyone kind of gravitates to the living room and relaxes into the ridiculous amount of couches and chairs there. Emma perches on the arm of a chair and holds a cup of eggnog, sipping at it to give her something to do.
“Mom!” Henry chirps, when they’re all seated, like he’s been waiting for the second the last butt hits the couch, “Can we do presents now?”
Regina sighs, as if it’s a pain, and then grins at him. “Well, I suppose you’ve waited long enough.”
Henry whoops and leaps off the couch, dropping to his knees in front of the Christmas tree and beginning the task of handing out presents to everyone. It’s something very lovely, and intimate, and Emma’s heart feels too big and too small in her chest all at once and she has to look away from this thing she never had. She focuses on her hands. Picks at her nail polish, fingers gripping her mug a little too tight.
Suddenly, Henry’s right under her nose, holding a present wrapped in fancy brown paper and a bright red bow.
“This one’s for you, Emma.”
She looks up, startled, and he holds it out to her. She glances around the room, but everyone’s thankfully too engrossed in their own gifts to notice her floundering; Archie unwrapping a big, hand-knitted scarf, Ruby squealing over tickets to some band she wants to see in Boston.
She looks over and Regina’s watching her, very carefully, and Emma freezes. Regina nods her head towards Henry, the present, and the message is clear - take it.
She takes the present from Henry and puts it on her lap. “I’m - thank you. I’m sorry, I didn’t bring anything. I should have thought…”
Regina huffs, then stands to start collecting the excess wrapping paper Henry’s left strewn across the floor.
“Don’t be silly. We didn’t expect you to. It’s just a little something.”
She leaves the room with the paper she’s collected, and when Henry gets distracted by something David’s unwrapping on the other couch and leaves her, Emma slowly unties the bow on her present and tears the paper open.
It’s a sweater, the kind of nice, nondescript thing that was probably just a backup gift that could have been given to anyone. But it’s soft, and expensive, and it smells like Regina. Like she’d been keeping it in her closet, or hidden under a bed, with the rest of Henry’s presents, just in case.
Emma cradles it to her chest for the rest of the evening, watching Henry play with his new stuff and Regina smiling so, so brightly at him.
Emma wakes up the next morning on the couch, the sweater crushed a little under her body, to the sounds of Regina and Henry making breakfast. There’s something sizzling in a pan, and she can hear the tap running, and Henry’s voice talking and Regina’s softer, responding, and it’s so, unbearably domestic.
The tap shuts off, and she can hear their voices clearly, now.
“Do you think Emma liked her present?” Henry is asking, and Regina puts something down on the stove with a soft clang.
“I’m sure she did.”
“I’m glad you had a present for her.”
Regina just hums.
Then, Henry’s voice again; “I really like Emma, mom. She’s cool.”
“I’m glad you like her, dear.”
“I’m glad she’s gonna be family.”
In the living room, Emma Swan fucking panics.
She gets up as quietly as possible, stuffing her things into her bag and searching for her phone. She creeps out the front door and calls a cab. It’s freezing outside, snow falling lightly and sun just barely fighting its way out. She pulls her beanie down over her ears and jiggles her legs to keep warm.
It’s nearly ten minutes later when she hears the door open behind her and turns around in slow motion.
It’s Regina, looking at her with suspicion, one eyebrow arched.
“What on earth are you doing out here?”
Emma fumbles for an excuse - any excuse. “Hey. Sorry, um. I had to, uh - I have to go, I have to work. I didn’t mean to sleep so late, so. I have to, uh…” A taxi honks. “Go. I have to go. To work.”
She scurries off the front stoop and starts down the hedge-lined path, waving at the cab driver so he knows to wait. “Thanks so much, um, for the food, and the gift, and letting me stay. I’ll see you.”
She gets in the cab before Regina can so much as protest, if she was going to. As the car pulls away from the curb, she watches Regina watch her, arms crossed, eyes narrowed, until they turn a corner and she’s out of sight.
This, Emma thinks to herself, is a goddamn mess.
There is something suspicious about Emma Swan. Regina is sure of it; and it picks at the back of her mind throughout the morning, while the rest of her is distracted by Henry’s desire to watch some of the new movies he got, and beg her to come outside and build another snowman with him to add to his lopsided but rather skilfully formed Avengers snowman cast.
It’s late in the afternoon when she finds herself coming back to the thought of Emma. She’s suspicious of the way Emma just suddenly appeared in their lives. She’s suspicious of the way she avoided everyone’s questions with something more than just shyness. She’s also suspicious of the way Emma seems so taken with Henry; at least, that’s the name she gave to the tightness in her chest, watching them together.
So, while Henry is occupied with yet another superhero movie, Regina sits down in her study and opens a drawer, takes out the clear plastic bag that the hospital had given her with some things that they thought were Zelena’s. She’d taken out and carefully washed and folded her sister’’s clothing, her coat and scarf were hung in the hall closet, and her jewellery laid out on the bureau in the spare room that had always informally been Zelena’s. All that was left in the bag were a pair of ratty, grey woollen gloves; well below the quality of anything Zelena herself would wear, having sworn since she first signed an employment contract with her first law firm that she would never wear anything cheap again. Not like she had her whole childhood. Regina pushes away thoughts of that bone of contention between them.
She was fairly sure, then, that they had to be Emma’s. Which meant, more than likely, that they might actually have been a real couple, after all. Regina doesn’t know why she kept the gloves, considering she could have given them back to Emma not ten hours ago, when she was here in the house. (Except that that’s a lie; she kept them because she would never be able to shake her instinct to hold on to things, to hide them away, in case they could one day be used to her advantage.)
She decides she’ll do the helpful thing and take them over to Emma’s apartment.
And, maybe, sweet talk or bully her way inside, and find out what Emma is hiding.
Emma doesn’t mean to go back to the hospital. In fact, she means to leave the city altogether.
Running from her problems has always been Emma Swan’s specialty. She even tells her landlord she’s moving out, finding him in the weird basement apartment he calls an office. The guy, a slightly delusional weirdo who has, nonetheless, been a pretty good landlord, looks like he’s going to cry. She makes up an excuse about the city being too expensive, about looking to move somewhere a little smaller and less rent. He tells her that she’s welcome to move in with him, and halve the rent - she laughs until she realises he’s kind of being serious and then says, “Ew, Killian, no.”
She goes to work, and asks careful questions about transferring, and checks her bank account on her break and tries to calculate how much she’d have left if she just got on a train to New York, or Canada.
Yet, somehow, after nightfall, she finds herself back on the T, heading towards the hospital.
The nurses let her in with a smile, and Emma sits down next to Zelena’s bed and watches her.
“Hey,” she says, after a moment. “So, I know I said I wasn’t gonna be back, but I kind of don’t have anywhere else to go, so, I thought I’d come see how you were doing.” There’s nothing but the sound of the heart monitor, steadily beating. “I had dinner with your family last night. Sorry about that, when you wake up. I swear I’m not like, a psycho. And I'm not trying to single white female you. But Henry invited me and it was … I was really lonely, so I went.”
She looks around the room, and then at Zelena’s hair, which someone, probably Regina, has brushed and re-settled above her head.
“Have you ever been so alone that you crashed a complete stranger’s family’s Christmas dinner because they were nice to you?” She means it to be a joke, but as she’s saying it her throat chokes up, just a little, and it’s not really a joke at all. “I’m sorry about all this. I’m gonna leave town, I promise. I might leave them a note or something here. Is that inappropriate?”
She pauses to appreciate how ridiculous it is that now she’s considering what’s appropriate.
“Right. That’s stupid. But, anyway. I’m gonna leave you and your family alone. I just got a little caught up in having there be people who… I don’t know. Had to pretend they wanted me to be around, I guess.”
She sniffles, a little, and rolls her eyes. “As you can probably tell, I’m kind of a mess.”
She hears voices coming from down the hall and realises too late that one of them is Regina’s.
“Oh, crap.” Emma stands, and looks around rapidly, but there’s nowhere to hide. She sits back down again so at least she’s not just standing in the middle of the room like an idiot. The chatter cuts off as soon as they open the door and catch sight of her. Regina’s face goes dark, and it makes Emma nervous, even as Ruby and her Gran follow her in and grin at the sight of Emma.
“Emma!” Granny chimes. “We should have known you’d be here.”
“Hey, Granny, Ruby.” She swallows. “Regina.” Regina nods once in her direction, and Ruby and Granny come over to hug her. She doesn’t know if Regina keeps her distance because she’s decided she dislikes her again, or because she’s just not a hugger. Emma hugs Granny and Ruby back and tries to pretend she’s not ‘not a hugger’ too.
“How’s she doing?” Granny asks. “Any change?”
Emma shifts, a little awkward, and focuses her attention on Zelena. “No change. I mean, not yet.” She takes a breath, then lies through her teeth. “But I think she’s got more color today, don’t you?”
Ruby and Granny both lean over closer. Ruby looks doubtful, but then Granny cries, “Oh, you’re right! In her cheeks.”
Ruby scrunches her eyebrows. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, she never did have much color to start with.”
Granny laughs. “Paler than the dead, I used to tease her.”
The joke falls flat, considering the circumstances, and Regina breathes out in displeasure behind them. Granny shoots her an apologetic look.
“Anyway,” Emma says, to break the tension, “I should probably get going. I have uh… My cat is probably starving by now. I should get home.”
“Oh.” Ruby seems genuinely disappointed, and that’s a weird feeling for Emma, too.
Granny offers, “Well, do you need a ride? I could take you.”
“Oh, no, that’s fine. Thank you, though. I’m just gonna walk to the T, it’s quicker. You don’t wanna be heading downtown at this hour, anyway.”
“Ok, if you’re sure?”
“I’m sure. Thank you.”
“We’ll see you later, hon.”
Ruby catches her with another hug, and Emma turns to go then remembers a second too late that she should say goodbye to Zelena. She bends and holds her hand for a minute, mindful of her family watching and feeling even more of an asshole by the second. Then, she turns to wave to Regina, and finds her standing in the doorway with her coat.
“I’ll walk you to the T.”
“Oh, it’s fine, you don’t have to do that. It’s only like, two blocks.”
Regina inclines her head slightly, and her expression is eerily threatening.
“Still, I’ll walk you.”
At a loss, Emma looks at her for a moment before mumbling, “Okay” and getting her things.
The walk from Zelena’s room to the lobby is tense. Regina keeps a close eye on Emma, and it makes Emma nervous and unsettled. When they get outside, Regina pauses and waits for her to lead the way in the right direction for the T, and then falls into step beside her. Emma tries throwing her a smile, to ease the mood, and Regina stares right back at her, face cold. Emma falters.
“So,” Regina starts, nonchalant but so transparent, “Just how exactly did you and my sister meet?”
Emma gulps, and thinks quickly and carefully about her lies. Keep it simple, keep it true, only alter the facts that are necessary.
“Ah, at the T, actually. She came to buy a ticket and we started talking. And then I’d see her every day, on her way to work, and she’d always stop to talk, and then she asked me out for a coffee, and then… well, the rest is, you know.”
“Hmm.” Regina says. “And when was this?”
That, Emma doesn’t have to think about at all. “September seventeenth.”
Regina’s eyebrows go up. “Three months.”
“That’s rather quick for an engagement.”
Emma shrugs, and says, “Why wait if you know?” It’s the kind of bullshit line she’s absorbed from romcoms and girly roommates and can now just mimic, because if she’s in for a penny on this lie she may as well be in for the pound.
Regina sniffs like she thinks that’s as insipid as Emma actually does. “And you know? You think you know her well enough to marry her?”
“Sure,” Emma says, wincing when it comes out less certain and more flippant.
Regina gives a short laugh and it’s more effectively snide than most people can manage with a full sentence. “Truly,” she says. “Do you even know her favourite colour?”
“Green,” Emma answers immediately. “Because she knows how good it looks on her.”
Regina almost smiles, and thank god for Emma’s ability to read people because she definitely got that one right. But then Regina’s face is serious again.
“What about her favourite film? Her favourite city? What foods she likes?”
Emma’s always been pretty evenly weighted either way in terms of fight or flight. This time, she goes for fight.
She stops walking, and when Regina turns to her she launches into the defensive.
“What’s with the interrogation? What the hell is this all about, Regina?"
Regina steps closer and in an instant the cool facade is gone and she looks ready for a brawl.
“Why don’t you ask your boyfriend?” she snarls.
It stops Emma short. The fight goes out of her, and she stutters, “Wait, what?”
Regina’s eyes are furious and she’s suddenly so close that Emma has to lean back on her heels.
“Your boyfriend, Miss Swan. I met him when went to your apartment this afternoon because the hospital gave me some things that Zelena had with her that I assumed belonged to you.” She pulls a pair of gloves out of her pocket and throws them at Emma, forcing her to catch them ungracefully. Oh, Emma thinks. That’s where I left them.
“Tell me,” Regina hisses, “does my sister know that you’re a cheating rat?”
Emma is too baffled to even be insulted. “I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about, Regina. The last time I had a boyfriend was in the ninth grade.”
“Really?” Regina hisses. “That’s not what Mr Jones says. Just how long do you think you could keep up this charade?”
Regina looks genuinely startled when Emma starts to laugh.
“Mr Jones? Oh my god. You’re talking about Killian?”
“Yes.” Regina snips, confused but still angry. “Killian Jones. He says the two of you are quite serious, and have been for two years.”
Emma practically cackles. “Oh my god.” The relief hits her in a rush. “Yeah, right, in his dreams, maybe.” Emma feels almost woozy, from the terror of thinking she’s been caught out to this. “Regina, the guy is delusional! He thinks he’s a pirate. Like, an actual, honest to god pirate. He’s my landlord. He lives in the basement of my building. We are not dating. He’s just a nut who doesn’t understand the word ‘No’.”
Regina is starting to deflate, now, and Emma knows she must be thinking about the weird, old timey, threadbare coat that Killian wears every day and the fact that he always smells overpoweringly of rum.
“He was quite convinced…” She starts, then stops again.
Emma chuckles. “Yeah. Hence the label delusional. I mean, he’s harmless, and he’s actually not a terrible landlord. He’s pretty good at fixing things. Buthe is absolutely not my boyfriend.”
Regina is quiet for a minute, and then says, “Oh.”
“God.” Emma sighs. “I can’t believe you thought I was dating Killian. I mean, I might not be as classy as you, but I have some standards.”
Regina clears her throat, looking very awkward. Emma forgets to be mad. “Well. Good, then,” Regina says. Emma laughs at her. Regina glares back, but the corner of her mouth is twitching.
After a moment, they start to wander in the direction of the T again, feet crunching in the snow on paths that have been half-heartedly shovelled at best.
Regina wraps her scarf tighter around her neck, the thick, soft wool partially covering her chin. Emma wraps her arms around herself and shivers a little. In a totally tough way, she tells herself.
“You must be freezing.” Regina offers, and it’s as much an apology as she’s going to give.
Emma jiggles her legs a little. “Nah, I’m fine. It’s just cold.”
She can see Regina judging her out of the corner of her eye. “That jacket is not a sufficient enough barrier against snow, Miss Swan.”
“Hey, don’t diss my jacket. I love this jacket.” There’s a moment of defensive silence, and then she admits, “Just, usually I remember to bring a coat or a scarf something, too.”
They walk for another half block, and then Regina sighs and slows down. Emma turns around and suddenly Regina’s looping her scarf around Emma’s neck.
“Woah, hey, no,” Emma objects. “You’ll be cold.”
Regina pushes her hands away from where Emma’s trying to pull the scarf back off and gestures to her coat. “This is double lined imported Italian wool. I’ll be fine.” She keeps walking.
It’s an oddly caring thing to do, considering it’s coming from someone who was just calling her a rat, and Emma feels like having emotional whiplash around Regina might be becoming a common theme.
After a moment, Emma shuffles to catch up, burying her chin and nose in the scarf. It’s warm from Regina’s body. She breathes in, and it’s the second time in as many days that she’s taken note of what Regina smells like. Emma knows she should be panicking; she can feel it there, just under the surface, but it’s rendered mute by the way that Regina looks in the glow of snow and street lights.
Instead, Emma finds herself opening her mouth.
“This jacket is the first thing I bought with my first proper pay check when I was 18.” Regina turns to watch her, focused and listening, so Emma continues. “It’s real leather, and the lining was so soft it was like, the nicest thing I’d ever tried on. And it was all stiff and thick, and it felt like putting on armour.” She grins, lopsidedly, a little embarrassed at her younger self. At her current self. But Regina is smiling. “It was on sale, of course, but it was still like, almost my entire pay. I had to eat sandwiches and tinned beans for the next week.”
Regina shakes her head. “You’re an idiot,” she says. It’s the first time it’s ever not sounded like an insult.
“Yeah. It was worth it, though.”
They shuffle along in silence for a moment, both smiling at the ground.
“I might concede that I should probably get it re-lined or something, soon.”
Regina laughs, her breath hanging in a little cloud in front of her. She hesitates for a moment, then says, “I could probably do it for you.”
Emma looks sideways at her. “You can sew?”
Regina shrugs. “Passably.” At Emma’s incredulous look, she laughs again. “My mother thought it was an important skill for her daughter to have. She was a little… traditionalist. And we didn’t have a television or a radio in the house, so I spent a lot of time sewing as a child.” She shakes her head as if to shake loose the memory, then says; “Anyway, Henry’s always growing. And falling over and tearing holes in clothes I’ve just bought him. I had to pick up the skill again pretty fast just to keep him clothed.”
There’s a certain kind of peace that comes over Regina’s face when she’s talking about her son. Her eyes go soft and the corners of her mouth lift up and Emma’s never seen someone so happily and wholly in love.
“You’re a great mom,” Emma tells her.
Regina tilts her head with a smile. “I’m not sure if Henry would agree with that some of the time, but thank you.”
“Henry’s never had to deal with anything less, though. He doesn’t know how good he’s got it.”
Regina looks at her, eyes too sharp, and Emma mumbles, “I mean, not that he should, I’m just saying.”
Regina nods, still peering at her. Finally she offers, “My mother was less than ideal, too.”
Emma steals a glance at her. “Mothers.”
Emma keeps her eyes on the ground, toes digging into the snow. “I grew up in foster care. Lots of ‘mothers’,” she says, making the air quotes with her fingers. “None of them really worth much.”
She can feel Regina looking at her, but she doesn’t look over. It’s not something she really talks about, and she doesn’t know why she has now.
Regina’s voice, then, is quiet. “Henry spent three weeks in foster care before I got him.”
Emma snaps her head up so quickly that she’s surprised she doesn’t twist her neck.
Regina nods, looks up at her. “Zelena didn’t tell you?” Emma shakes her head. For a moment, something like suspicion crosses Regina’s face again, but the ever-present desire to talk about her son wins out.
“He was given up at birth.” She says. “I never knew where he came from. But we’d been on the list for two years, and they couldn’t place him with a decent temporary carer because he was a screamer.” She smiles, a little ruefully, remembering his piercing, heart-wrenching wailing. Remembering not sleeping for what felt like months. “The day we went to meet him, you could hear him from halfway down the block. The social worker was worried we’d change our minds, but the minute they put him in my arms he was mine.”
Emma’s barely breathing for fear of interrupting. She can’t stop looking at her.
“A few weeks later we got to take him home, and he cried the whole way, in the car, and all the way up the driveway. And then the moment we stepped inside, he just stopped.” She’s smiling brightly, now, and Emma’s never seen anything more beautiful. “Daniel - that was my husband - he was a romantic. He always said that Henry stopped crying because he knew he was home safe.” She laughs. “I think he’d just finally worn himself out, cause he started up again in a few hours, but I like to think he knew, too.”
Emma smiles, and pretends her eyes aren’t wet, feeling that familiar ache of family. “He’s very lucky. You’re… You’re pretty special.”
Regina flushes a little and shrugs, hands in her coat pockets.
They near the entrance to the station, and the rumble of a train passes beneath them. Regina looks up. “Do you need to run?”
“Nah,” Emma lies smoothly, “That one doesn’t go to my stop. I’ll get the next one.”
Regina nods, accepting. Emma wonders if she’s ever caught a train in her life, and then wonders why that amuses her instead of making her angry.
“Anyway,” she says, trying to keep the conversation light, “so you’ve always lived in Storybrooke?”
Regina’s eyes are soft again. “Yes. I’d be quite alone anywhere else, except for Henry. And his whole world is there.” Emma hums in agreement. Regina digs a heel into the snow in between them. Then asks, “Have you always lived in Boston?” as if this is just a normal, small talk kind of conversation.
Emma shrugs. “And around. Spent a couple of years in New York, and in Maine. I’m gonna travel, though. One day. I just have to save a bit.”
“Where would you go?”
Emma speaks before she can think, the answer rising out of her, open and honest. “Florida.”
Regina blinks at her. “Florida?”
Emma flushes. “Uh. Yeah. And other places, I mean. I’ve just always wanted to go there.”
Regina is looking at her like she’s a little insane, but it’s just bemused, not unkind, so Emma rolls her eyes and thinks, what the hell. It’s not like she hasn’t already over-shared, tonight. “There uh. There was this kid in one of my group homes who was from there. He’d wound up in Massachusetts cause his birth mother had moved them there before she took off, or something. Anyway, it was winter, and it was snowing, and we were freezing our asses off, and he would talk about Florida, and how it was always warm, and so humid your hair would curl. And how it never snowed, and it was almost always sunny, and even when it rained the rain was so warm it was like bathwater.”
Regina is watching her, with soft, kind eyes, and Emma thinks that no one has ever paid so much attention to her so closely.
“Anyway,” she rushes, “It just sounded really nice, you know? To a Boston kid. I always wanted to go there.”
Regina smiles, so gentle, and Emma wonders where the woman went who nearly threw down with her in the middle of a hospital.
“That sounds very nice. I’m sure you’ll get to go there one day.”
Emma shrugs, embarrassed now, and avoids her eyes. “Yeah, definitely. And like, London and Paris and stuff, too. I wanna do a world trip, someday.”
Regina nods, her smile a little too knowing. “That sounds nice.”
The sound of the next train approaching reaches them, and Emma realises that her feet are going numb. She tilts her head toward the station. “I should probably get that one.”
Regina nods, and their quiet little bubble is gone. “Yes, of course.” She takes a step back, then remembers; “Oh, Henry wanted me to invite you to dinner tomorrow night. I think he’s taken with you.”
“Oh,” Emma responds. Regina waits. “Oh, um, that’s great of him, but you don’t have to do that.”
“I don’t have to do anything. I would like for you to come over for dinner. You can think of it as an apology dinner.”
Regina rolls her eyes. “Considering I just accused you of cheating on my sister with a man who, in hindsight, is definitely a little mentally unhinged, yes, Miss Swan. I think I owe you at least a dinner in apology.”
Emma grins. “Uh, okay. Yeah.”
“I’ll see you at six thirty?”
The train comes to a stop with a slow screech, and Regina inclines her head towards the entrance to the T. “Get home safe, Emma.”
Emma jogs down the steps to the T as Regina begins the walk back to the hospital. It’s only when she’s home in bed, the cat curled up near her feet and her body starting to thaw, that she realises it’s the first time Regina’s called her by her name.
Emma misjudges the trains and the length of the cab ride out to Storybrooke the next night, and winds up arriving at Regina’s half an hour too early. She considers waiting outside, but she’s already freezing and the (less expensive) bottle of red she brought with her is probably beginning to ice over, so she scrunches up her face and rings the doorbell.
From inside the house, she hears the run then thud of socked feet coming down the stairs, and then Regina’s voice shouting, “Henry! No running on the stairs!” and Henry yelling back “Sorry!” with no sincerity at all, and by the time he opens the door Emma is already smiling.
He yanks her inside and helps her take off her coat and beanie, leading her through to the kitchen where Regina is making something that smells insanely good.
Regina, wearing slacks and a silk blouse with one too many buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up, says, “Oh. You’re early.”
Emma cringes. “Sorry, yeah. There’s not that many trains, so, it was either early or late.” She reaches out and puts the bottle of wine down on the kitchen counter. “Um, thanks for having me, again.”
Regina wipes her hands on a tea towel. “It’s not a problem, again. Although, dinner won’t be ready for half an hour or so, if you want to have a glass of wine-“ she looks at the bottle that Emma brought, whose quality was compromised for the cab fare here, and says, “Or a glass of cider. I guarantee it’ll be the best you’ve ever tasted.”
Emma smiles somewhat sheepishly. “Yeah, cider would be great.”
Henry pops up beside Emma and it makes her jump. Regina looks like she’s holding back a laugh at her expense.
“Mom,” he says, drawn out in that way that all kids have when they want something, “since dinner isn’t ready yet, can I show Emma around outside? Just for ten minutes?”
Emma has barely begun to thaw yet, but Regina seems to have no capacity to deny Henry anything, and apparently neither does Emma, because when Regina tells him, “Well, alright, if Emma wants to,” Emma says, “Okay.”
Emma goes to put her coat back on again, and Regina steps away from the stove to wrap Henry in about two too many layers of clothing before he grumbles and says “Mom” and pushes her hands away.
They step outside into the cold, and trudge through the snow toward the main street of town. Henry gives her a running commentary on anything they pass that he deems significant, and Emma figures that he probably hasn’t had many chances to show an outsider around his hometown. The town itself is so small that they’re on Main Street in a couple of minutes, Henry kicking up snow as they walk and seeming to enjoy having someone to talk at.
They pass Archie, out for a walk with an exuberant Dalmatian, and the warm yellow glow of the diner, where Ruby waves to them from behind the counter. The town is so sweet, and pretty, and homey, and Emma entertains the idea for the first time of leaving the city and settling somewhere quieter. Somewhere like this.
After a couple more minutes, there’s a beep from somewhere on Henry’s person, and he digs out a cell phone with stiff, gloved hands.
“It’s my mom,” he says, reading the text. “She says to come back before we freeze to death.”
Emma chuckles and they turn around, back toward Mifflin Street.
“Do all the kids your age have cellphones now? Aren’t you a little young?” Emma doesn’t want to be presumptuous, but she also knows rich kids, and Henry’s probably no stranger to being spoiled if the size of his mother’s house and the quality of the cute little coat he’s wearing are any indication.
“A few kids in my class have them, but we’re not allowed to take them to school.” Henry tells her. “I’m only allowed to use it for emergencies, or to text my mom. She’s trying to be better about letting me go places by myself without worrying that something’s gonna happen to me. Archie suggested the phone. Which is pretty cool, cause it has games on it and stuff, too.”
“Oh,” Emma says. She tries to process the amount of personal information, so casually offered. “That’s cool.” They walk for a little longer, but Emma can’t keep herself from probing. “Your mom worries about you a lot, huh?”
Henry sighs. “Yeah. But she’s trying not to so much. She was kind of really controlling, but then we started fighting a lot, and then we started talking to Archie, and now it’s not so bad anymore.”
“Wow,” Emma says. Thinking about how much Regina must worry, every single day, that enough of it was slipping through her carefully held nets and reaching her son. “Your mom must really care about you a lot, you know that?”
At that, Henry smiles. “Yeah. I know.” They round the corner onto the walkway up to the house, lit up and inviting.
“There you are,” Regina calls from the porch, opening the door wide to let them in, and Emma has a sudden flash of feeling the father in an old sitcom being welcomed home.
Henry trots past them inside, stripping off his coat and scarf and gloves and shoving them at the coat rack, then rearranging them neatly after a pointed throat-clear from his mother. Emma shuffles in after him and follows his lead under Regina’s watchful eye. She takes off her boots because Henry does too, and leaves them neatly against the wall next to his. Her socks are a little damp from the slush that had seeped through her boots, but the wooden floors in the house are warm.
“Is dinner ready yet?” Henry calls from the top of the little set of stairs that lead out of the foyer, and Regina turns her attention to him, letting Emma trail behind her.
“It is if you wash your hands and go set the table.”
He heads to the dining room to do so, and Regina tilts her head toward the kitchen door and beckons Emma to follow.
They walk through the kitchen door and Regina goes to the fridge, pulling out a pitcher of something clear and amber-coloured and pouring two glasses of it. She presses one into Emma’s hands then gets a glass of juice for Henry. The cider is sharp and refreshing and warms Emma from the throat down, and she’s taken several gulps before she remembers her manners.
“This is really good.”
Regina’s voice is proud. “It’s homemade. With apples from my own tree.”
Regina smirks, then hands her the juice she’s poured for Henry and points through to the dining room. “Take that in and I’ll bring the food in in a minute.”
Emma does. Henry’s already sitting at the table, settings hastily set, playing his new DS.
When Regina comes into the room a few minutes later, Emma has dragged a chair behind Henry’s and playing some game on the screen, Emma directing him one way and Henry going another and them laughing at each other and jostling each other in their seats. Henry’s so animated, and Emma is actually ear-to-ear grinning for the first time that Regina’s ever seen, and Regina feels this rush of this is what it should be like before she tamps the thought down and ignores it.
Still full of smiles, Henry turns his DS off without complaint, and Emma moves her chair back into place as Regina puts down some sort of amazing, rich-smelling meat and rice and vegetable dish in the middle of the table and puts a hand out for Henry’s plate. He holds it out and she doles out a generous serving, doing the same for Emma and giving her even more.
“Thanks,” Emma says, looking down at her plate. “This is amazing.”
Regina smirks again, putting food on her own plate and sitting down. “You haven’t tried it yet.”
Then Emma does, and she can’t actually formulate words for long enough that she’s glad she got them in preemptively.
“Oh, my god,” she finally says, after a couple of minutes of silence and eating like she’s twelve again and stuck in that home that barely fed them. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
Regina looks amused and a little proud again. She chews and swallows. “I’m glad you like it.”
Emma eats another mouthful and groans. “This isn’t ‘like’ kind of food. This is, like, top chef, feed to the queen kind of food. Where did you learn to cook like this?”
Regina blushes faintly, but her smile is a little smug. If someone can look sweet and smug at the same time, Emma thinks, that’s Regina.
“I picked it up over the years, I suppose. I’ve always loved cooking.”
“God,” Emma sighs, pausing to drink more cider to combat the chilli kick in the food. “Well, if you ever want to quit your day job and just cook for me, I’ll be waiting.”
Regina arches an eyebrow. “Somehow, dear, I don’t think you could afford me.”
Emma grins lopsidedly and concedes to that. “Fair. It’d have to be a charity thing.”
Regina laughs, and lifts her glass to her mouth to cover it. Unsuccessfully.
Somewhere between Emma’s second helping of dinner and the dessert, Regina opens a bottle of wine, and by the time she’s finished the apple turnover and her second glass of wine she’s feeling warm and full and very relaxed. Regina finds herself amused by it, and a little enchanted by it. No one is so relaxed in her company. To shake the thought, she comments that Emma sits like a lumberjack on a lunch break. Emma spreads her legs and slumps further into her chair.
Henry laughs and Regina rolls her eyes but she can’t pretend she’s not smiling, and it all feels entirely too comfortable and light. She can’t seem to make herself pick up her guard again.
After desert, the three of them stand in unspoken unison and carry the employ plates and glasses into the kitchen. Henry deposits his plate and glass on the table, and when he notices that Emma’s carrying a lot more than he could - a holdover skill from years of waitressing - he turns to his mother.
“If Emma’s helping clear, can I go watch TV?”
Regina narrows her eyes at him and Henry grins back, like he’s trying to be as cute as possible to get away with it, and it seems like such a common exchange that Emma is amused just watching them. Regina eyes her son, then nods toward the dining room.
“Finish clearing and put the placemats in the laundry and then you can.”
Henry does a little fist pump and jogs back out of the room. A minute later, a door to what Emma assumes is the laundry slams, and then Henry’s footfalls hurry into the living room and the sound of the TV comes on. Regina sighs in a ‘what can you do’ kind of way, but she’s smiling, and Emma feels struck dumb at the love, the familiarity.
For something to do, she picks up the rest of the plates and goes to put them in the dishwasher.
“What are you doing?” Regina says. “You have to rinse them first.”
Emma stops with one plate halfway into the dishwasher.
Regina gives her a look like she might be a little slow.
“You have to rinse the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher.”
Emma frowns. “Isn’t that what the dishwasher is for?”
“The dishwasher is to clean the dishes. It can’t do that if the dishes still have food all over them.”
“… that makes no sense,” Emma argues, but then Regina’s snatching the dish out of her hands and putting it in the sink. She turns the tap on hot and holds out a brush to Emma.
Emma moves to the sink, mutters, “Christ, you’re bossy.”
Regina glares. “And you’re sloppy. I don’t comment. Just rinse the dishes.”
Emma’s eyebrows leap up. “Excuse me? All you do is comment. You probably couldn’t refrain from commenting if your life depended on it.”
She has no idea how they jumped from relaxed to combative faster so fast, but Regina’s eyes are alight and alive and Emma wonders if maybe she enjoys it.
“Well, this is my house,” she says. “I’ll comment if I want.”
They finish clearing and cleaning the dishes in silence, but it’s somehow playful instead of tense and Emma keeps catching herself smiling in the corners of her mouth and glancing sideways at Regina to see that she is, too.
Finally, with everything stacked neatly in the dishwasher - and that, too, has it’s own set of rules, and Emma puts things out of place just to rile Regina up - they get down to the last of the washing up. Regina runs the water hot and fills the dish she used for the meat with hot soapy water. She reaches for a dish cloth, and Emma picks it up first, determined to help. Regina snatches it back from her and lets slip a laugh.
“Stop it,” she chides. “You’re underfoot. Go sit down.”
Emma feels a blush of embarrassment, years of bad memories, but the way that Regina says it, honest and without weight, takes the sting out.
“Jeez,” she decides to respond, dramatically, “Ok. See if I try to help you again.”
Regina’s smiling when Emma leaves the room, and something about it feels so much like a victory.
She wanders through to the lounge room, and Henry’s sitting on the couch watching something on TV. She stands next to him for a few minutes, sipping at her wine and wondering when Regina refilled it, before she can’t resist the urge to look around.
It’s a nosey habit picked up from too many years of living in strangers’ houses, but she’s never kicked it. The lounge room, like the kitchen, is full of a warmth and clutter that is absent in the rest of the lower level of the house. There’s a fireplace, and two enormous bookshelves standing along the walls beside it - filled with everything from kids books that obviously used to be Henry’s, to faded-spine copies of Austen and Allende that must be Regina’s. There are picture frames holding pride of place between different sections of the bookshelf, and even more hanging on the walls. Emma glances behind her to make sure Regina’s still in the kitchen before she looks closer.
There’s half a dozen of Henry on this side of the room alone; pictures of him as a tiny, swaddled baby, of him in his pyjamas as a toddler, wearing an oversized backpack on what must have been his first day of school. There’s a few photos of Regina and an older man Emma assumes is her father, but only one of the both of them with a woman she knows, immediately, must be Regina’s mother.
Regina and Zelena don’t really look that much like each other, but as Emma looks at the picture of their mother, she realises they somehow both look so much like her. It’s something in the eyes and their mouths, and the straightness of their spines and the angle of their chins. She wonders what it must be like, to look at someone and be looking at a mouth that’s just like yours, or a nose that belongs to your mother.
There’s only three photos of Regina and Zelena together; one of them as children, posed together but half a foot apart in front of a festive fireplace; one of the two of them in their late teens or early twenties, arm in arm and grinning in the snow next to a plaque for Oxford University; and one recent one, of Henry and Regina and Zelena all together in the house. They look really happy, and comfortable with each other, and Emma wonders why they apparently haven’t seen each other that much in months.
“I always loved that one.” Regina says suddenly from behind her, and Emma startles. She pulls her hand back and realises it was still on the photo of the two sisters, smiling in the snow. Regina adjusts it slightly on the shelf, brushing against Emma’s shoulder. “I made her show me around half the country before I had to come home. I still don’t know how I achieved any of the ‘study’ portion of study abroad.”
Another piece of their complex family history falls into place, and Emma remembers the accent she was half-sure she’d been imagining that one day Zelena actually said two words to her.
Curious, and always letting it win over caution like the idiot she is, Emma hedges, “I forget, sometimes, that you guys didn’t really grow up together. With the way she talks about you.”
Regina smiles, pleased and longing all at once, and says, “Well. Good.” Her eyes move to the photo next to it - the one of she and Zelena and Henry together, and she smiles brighter. “She used to joke that I only adopted Henry to lure her back to the States permanently,” Regina confides.
“Well, she’s crazy about him. I doubt she put up too much of a fight.” Emma’s pretty certain it’s not a lie. She couldn’t see how anyone wouldn’t be crazy about Henry. “He’s a really great kid.”
Regina smiles, warm and sweet. Emma can’t look away.
“He is,” Regina agrees.
They both watch him, for a long moment, watching some PG action show on TV with the rapt attention of a ten year old boy.
“He certainly has taken to you,” Regina murmurs. The idea of it makes Emma swell. “I worry sometimes that he’s a little lonely. He seems to spend more time with adults than with children his own age.”
Emma has no idea what to say.
“You, um… You raised him by yourself, right?” She asks, after a while, thinking about the one picture of Regina and an infant Henry and the man with the kind face and happy smile, and the fact that he isn’t in a single other.
“Yes. My husband, Daniel died a few weeks after we brought Henry home. Car accident.”
“God.” Emma says. She doesn’t say ‘I’m sorry’ because she knows how stupid and empty it sounds. Knows people have said it to her her whole life and meant nothing.
Regina just nods. For some reason - the warmth of the room, the second glass of wine, the way they’re still standing a little too close - she keeps talking. “The adoption nearly fell through. Suddenly I was a single mother who didn’t have a job and had no prior experience with children.”
Emma’s chest hurts with imagining it - Regina being young and grieving and all alone, and the government trying to take her son away.
“How did you keep him?”
Regina smiles, then says, “The town.” Emma tilts her head in confusion and Regina elaborates. “Half the town came forward to give testimonials, proof that I had a support system, the means to care for him, all that. The local council promised in writing that I’d have my job back as soon as Henry was old enough for daycare. Granny signed an affidavit saying that she would be on call 24/7, and that she’d raised two generations of her own family and she was eager to try her hand at helping raise a boy.” Regina kept smiling, so fondly. “Archie signed on to watch over Henry’s psychological heath and development - he’s the town psychologist - and Kathryn and Jim signed on as babysitters if ever they were needed, as did about twenty other people, and I think in the end they were just overwhelmed with all the noise that they agreed to let me keep him.” She breaths out, a little baffled, even all these years later. “I had no idea any of them even cared enough to do something like that. I grew up rather isolated. I never really bonded with the townspeople, you know. I was actually pretty mean, to most of them.”
Emma chuckles, like, ‘you don’t say’, and Regina shoots a joking glare in her direction.
“They may not always be polite, or particularly nice, but all those people banded together to help me. To help us. It was… I’ll never understand it, but I’ll never not be more grateful than I can say. There were check ins and home visits and so much paperwork, of course, but they finally let me adopt Henry officially just before his second birthday.”
Emma can’t really breathe, overwhelmed at this woman, who loved a kid who wasn’t even hers so much that she fought tooth and nail to keep him before he was even old enough to say thank you.
“God,” she says again, eloquently. Regina turns to her, as if embarrassed she’d been talking for so long.
“You were never…?” She trails off, but the question is clear. Emma shakes her head, draws her arms back in to her sides.
“Nah. Never got that lucky. I was almost adopted, once, when I was a kid. I was with my first family for three years. But then they got pregnant and wanted to have their own baby, so. They gave me back.”
When she gathers the courage to look up, Regina looks devastated and furious. Emma knows it must seem incomprehensible, to someone like her, that those people could have her and act like they loved her for three years, then just send her away once they got a kid who was really theirs. She wonders anew if Henry has any idea how lucky he is.
“How could they?” Regina says, finally. Emma shrugs.
“Some people suck.”
Regina exhales, says, “Yes, they do.”
Emma shifts and tries to shake off the mood. “Hey, at least people in your town don’t suck.”
It gets Regina to smile. “Well”, she says, “Some of them suck. But I got the good parts.”
There’s so much warmth to Regina’s face - the angle of her smile, the light and depth in her eyes, and Emma wonders how she ever perceived this woman as cold.
In the background, the lead in for the news starts playing, and as Henry quickly changes the channel Emma realises that it must be the ten o’clock news.
“Oh. It got late.” Regina says.
“Yeah,” Emma sighs. “I should probably get going.”
“I’ll call you a cab.”
Emma starts to protest, but Regina’s already moving, turning off the TV and ignoring Henry’s complaints.
Emma watches quietly as Regina nudges her son through his nightly routine - cell phone left to charge downstairs, in a convenient way to make sure he doesn’t use it at night, teeth brushed and pyjamas donned, then back to the lounge room collect the book he wants to read in bed. They’re so easy with each other, and Emma can’t help but be awed by it. Awed by Regina the mother.
Emma’s phone beeps as Henry’s deliberately delaying the choice of a book from the shelves, while Regina runs her ringers absently through the ends of his hair. It’s an automated message telling her her cab is almost there. Regina must have given the cab company Emma’s number when she booked. Emma didn’t know that Regina even had her cell number.
“My cab’s close,” she says, looking up at twin sets of dark eyes watching her.
“Aww,” Henry says, and Regina smiles and nudges him forward.
“Say good night, Henry. I’m sure we can convince Emma to come over again sometime soon.”
Emma scoffs. “If you’re cooking, I’ll be here any time. Any day. Honestly, just summon me and I’ll probably appear.”
Regina smirks. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They walk Emma to the foyer, and she starts the long process of piling back on all the layers she took off when she entered the warm house. Regina steps in to hand her her beanie, shaking it so that it’s right side out again.
Suddenly, Henry looks up, and gasps.
“Mom, look! Mistletoe!”
Emma and Regina both look up. Sure enough, there’s a sprig of the plant stuck to the ceiling above them with a big piece of blu-tack.
“Ruby.” Regina grouches, and Emma has no trouble seeing the younger woman putting it there for fun.
“You have to kiss!” Henry crows with excitement. “It’s tradition!”
Regina rolls her eyes at Henry, and Emma thinks she and Regina are both about to brush it off, when suddenly Regina’s leaning in and pressing her mouth to Emma’s. It’s over in a second, just a single kiss, firm and dry, and Regina’s lips are very warm, and Emma’s heart leaps up into her throat.
“Oh,” Emma says.
Regina purses her lips to stop herself from smiling and then ushers her out the door to the waiting cab.
Emma stands on the front doorstep until the cold gets right through to her bones. Jesus, fuck. She’s falling in love with her fake almost sister in law.
The next day, Emma is at work, passing the time by furiously not thinking about Regina. It’s New Year’s Eve, the busiest day of the year for public transport, so for once they’ve actually put someone else in the ticket booths with her. August is Emma’s oldest (and probably only) friend, and his easy conversation helps pass the time. She even gets invited to a party he’s throwing the next day, when they’re both off. She’s just agreed, because why not, it’s better than spending the first day of the new year by herself, when suddenly Henry’s happy little face appears in front of her booth.
“Henry! Hey, what are you doing here?”
“Hi Emma!” He gestures behind him where Ruby, in her sky-high heels, has just made it to the bottom of the stairs into the station. “Ruby and I are going downtown to go shopping. I wanted to take the T so we could say hi!”
His enthusiasm is infections, and she finds herself grinning back at him. “That’s great! Hey, do you wanna come back here?”
His face lights up. “We can?”
“Yeah, sure!” She hits the button that releases the door and lets him into the booth behind her. Ruby catches up with him a moment later, as he’s peering curiously at the screens in front of Emma’s work station.
Behind them, August coughs, unsubtly.
“Oh, uh August, this is Henry, and Ruby. They’re uh… um, family friends. Guys, this is August.”
August scrunches his face in confusion. “Emma, you don’t have any family.”
Emma opens her mouth to try and find some sort of vague lie, but Henry is too quick.
“Emma’s marrying my Auntie!”
August’s mouth drops open as Emma cringes, then smooths out her expression and hopes no one noticed.
“You got engaged?”
“Oh, well, we haven't really made it official yet, so. That’s why I didn’t … tell anyone.”
The rumble of the incoming train saves her. She turns to Henry and Ruby and releases the door again. “Oh, hey, train. You guys should get going!”
Henry hugs her quickly and Ruby waves and then they’re rushing out the door again to get the train. Behind her, August fairly shouts, “You’re getting married?? You were single, like, a month ago! What did you do, tell her you wouldn’t put out till marriage?”
Emma rolls her eyes as she turns back to her side of the booth. “Yes, August. I’m a Mormon. No sex before marriage.”
August laughs, but just outside the door, where he’s stopped to readjust his shoe, Henry balks.
Then the train’s doors open and Ruby shouts for him to hurry up, and then they’re gone.
Inside the booth, Emma waves her hand in vague non-explanation while the lies roll off her tongue. “It’s a whole… thing. It just happened really fast, but we’re not gonna get married right away. If we do at all. I think it was kind of an impulse thing. But whatever.”
August’s eyebrows are practically receding into his hairline, but then there’s a customer on Emma’s side of the glass and she turns around and ignores him for most of the rest of their shift.
That afternoon, Henry bursts through the front doors of his house, waves goodbye to Ruby outside, and runs into the kitchen without even taking off his coat. His mother is there, chopping up crudites to serve at the New Years Eve ‘party’ they’re having in the town square.
“Mom! You’ll never believe it. I know why Zelena proposed to Emma.”
Regina stands up straight to look at him. “What? Oh, Henry, take of your shoes before leaving the foyer, please.”
With a dramatic sigh Regina wishes she could blame on anyone but herself, Henry drops to the floor and starts unlacing his boots.
“But Mom, I figured it out. The whole engagement, and how it happened so sudden and why Tía didn’t tell us. Emma’s a Mormon.”
Regina drops the knife she’s been holding. It bounces across the counter and scatters a pile of carrot sticks she’d been chopping.
Boots off but abandoned, Henry jumps up again. “She’s a Mormon!!!”
His mom opens her mouth, then closes it again. Henry takes one of the carrot sticks that’s landed on his side of the bench and pops it in his mouth. Finally, she gets out, “Henry, that’s probably not true.”
He chews and swallows. “It is too! I heard her say it!”
“When Ruby and I went to the city today. We went on the T because Ruby’s car is dead again, and we went to Emma’s stop to say hi, and as we were leaving the other ticket guy was asking how she’d got engaged so quick, and Emma said that she told Auntie Z that she had to, you know, wait, till she was married, ‘cause she was a Mormon!”
Regina stares at him. “You’re sure that’s what she said?”
“Yeah. Like, verbatim.”
His mom is quiet for a long moment, then says, “Huh.”
She turns back to the bench and starts picking up the carrots. Henry waits to see if she’s going to give any more of a reaction, then gives up and goes to put his shoes by the front door where they’re supposed to be. From the kitchen, he hears his mom mutter, “Anything to get laid, my sister.”
Emma watches the fireworks on TV and gets exactly one happy new year text. It’s from Regina, and says, ‘Happy New Year from Regina and Henry’. It’s the first time Emma has rung in the new year with a smile in a very long time.
New Year’s Day sees Regina and Henry both sleeping in for once, unused to being up after midnight. Henry had had a sugar crash nap at around ten pm but was then, unfortunately, wide awake until well after the excitement of the tiny fireworks show their town put on, when Regina herded him home and into bed.
In the afternoon, Regina leaves a still-tired Henry in front of the TV with Ruby, who is woefully hungover, and drives into the city.
She has plenty of time on the drive to think of what she’s going to say to Emma, but when she parks outside her apartment she still has nothing, beyond “you’re an idiot if you marry my sister”.
She doesn’t even know why she feels it so urgent to talk to Emma. Part of her says it’s because she has to do the right thing and protect the girl from making a huge mistake. Part of her knows that she’s always been a little too good at finding reasonable justifications for protecting her own selfish interests.
And honestly, who is she to judge? Regina married the first boy who looked at her twice, and she was never happier. Maybe this was ‘true love’ kind of impulsive, not just a ‘Zelena and her libido’ kind of impulsive. But there had always been something about Zelena that blinded innocent and savvy women alike to the mistake they were making - until Zelena broke their hearts.
She’s still arguing with herself when a flash of blonde hair catches her eye, and she looks up to realise that Emma is leaving her building. Regina gets out of the car. The world is a little too bright for the amount of wine she drank last night, but the way the afternoon sun glints off Emma’s hair is not entirely unpleasant.
Emma smiles when she catches sight of her.
“Regina! Hey. Happy New Year. What are you doing here?”
Regina forces a smile back.
“Happy New Year, Emma. I, uh, I wanted to talk-” she takes notice of Emma’s nicer then usual appearance, the heeled boots and the fact that she’s wearing lipstick, and realises, “Oh, you’re going somewhere.”
Emma looks down at herself. “Oh, yeah. My friend August is having a party. Kind of a ‘welcome to the new year” kind of thing.”
“Oh. Well, here, I’ll drive you.”
“Oh, no, that’s fine. It’s not far.”
Regina rolls her eyes and sniffs, “Honestly, Miss Swan, do you have some special investment in making everything harder on itself than it needs to be? Is the city of Boston paying you to advocate walking its streets in the middle of winter? My car is right here.”
For a moment, Emma can’t tell if she’s amused or annoyed. She settles on a little of both.
“Oookay, but it’s really not that far.”
“Just get in the car, Emma.”
Emma gets in the car.
After a moment of tense silence, as Regina pulls away from the curb and starts driving down the street, Emma jokes, “You’re not gonna drive me out to the middle of nowhere and murder me, are you?”
Regina’s lack of response beyond another sigh doesn’t really ease Emma’s mind.
After a few minutes of silence, beyond Emma’s directions, she’s brave (or stupid) enough to say, “You’re being weird.”
Regina looks affronted. “I am not being weird.”
Emma snorts. “You’re being really weird. Is something wrong? Wait, is this you hungover?”
Regina rolls her eyes again and Emma wants to tell her they’ll get stuck like that if she’s not careful. She’s smart enough not to say it out loud.
“I am not hungover.”
Emma nods, and goes back to looking out the window, but the silence is stifling. “So… did you have a good new years?”
Finally, Regina relaxes. “I did. The town puts on a fireworks display in the square every year. Henry loves it.”
Emma smiles. “That sounds nice. I bet he had fun.”
Regina hums. “He did. A little too much fun, actually. He was awake till 2:30. I don't normally let him have that much sugar.”
“Aaah, so this is you sleep deprived, then.”
Regina laughs, for a second, but doesn’t argue it. When they pull up to August’s house a moment later, Regina puts the car in park and turns it off, but doesn’t move to get out. She turns to Emma and means to have the talk she came here for. But August spots Emma from the front door, where he’s just letting someone else in, and starts waving.
“Um,” Emma says, waving back but not moving. “Did you want to come in?”
Regina has obviously lost her mind, because a minute later they’re both standing at the front door and August is grinning in delight.
“Hey, everybody!” He shouts, keeping eye contact while yelling back into the house, “Emma and her fiancé are here!”
The door shuts behind them and Regina’s eyes go wide and Emma bolts forward and grabs August’s arm, shooting Regina a look that she hopes communicates ‘it’s fine, I’ll talk to him, let’s stay calm’ before dragging him into the kitchen.
“Wow, Emma. That’s the fiancé? I can see why you didn’t introduce her to anyone sooner. I mean, I love you, but I absolutely would have hit on her.”
Emma smacks August none too lightly in the chest. “That’s not the fiancé. That’s her sister.” She pauses for a moment to let that sink in, then adds, “And you stay away from her. I mean it, August.”
He holds his hands up in mock surrender, then asks, “Wait, so why is the sister here?”
“She kind of followed me here. It’s… She wanted to talk but she didn’t know I was heading out, so she gave me a ride, and then it felt kind of rude to not invite her in. Hey, do you have any decent wine? Like, more than ten dollars a bottle kind of wine? Or gin? She likes gin.”
August stares at her for a long moment, then says, “Emma, are you cheating on your new fiancé with her sister?”
“Wha!” Emma sputters, feels a pang in her chest but ignores it. “What? No! I am not doing anything with her sister. I told you, she just gave me a ride.”
August narrows his eyes at her, then says, “Right,” in a way that makes it clear he doesn’t believe her at all. There’s a long pause, and then he sighs, exasperated but affectionate, and turns to the fridge. He pulls out a bottle of tonic water before steering her towards the drinks table.
“Decent gin,” he says, pointing, “A bunch of ice, a slice of lemon, then fill it up with tonic. Don’t keep your lady waiting.”
“Not my lady,” Emma grumbles, but is a little overcome with affection for August all the same. She leans in to give him a hug, two armed instead of one, which he’s probably only received from her two or three times in all the years they’ve known each other. He leans in and hugs back, a little surprised, and Emma pulls away after a few seconds with a huff.
“Thanks, August.” He smiles and bumps her shoulder with his and goes back to his guests.
Emma makes Regina’s drink as he instructed, downing a shot for herself and gasping because she forgot that gin by itself tastes like paint thinner. She takes the drink and a beer for herself and winds her way through the party goers back to the front door.
She finds Regina still standing pretty much where she left her, stuck on the receiving end of what appears to be a very one-sided conversation with one of August’s deadbeat neighbors.
“Hey,” she calls, announcing herself a bit louder than necessary, to shake the neighbor’s attention. She presents Regina with the drink. “Gin and tonic, right?”
Regina takes it, visibly relieved, and Emma moves closer to her to block the neighbour out of the conversation. Someone’s messing with August’s iPod in the other room, and music starts booming through his speaker system. Regina takes a long sip of her drink and Emma glares at the neighbour until he turns away to look at his phone.
“You’re pretty close with this August, yes?” Regina says over the music, nodding toward the kitchen where she has a clear line of sight to where Emma and August had been standing.
Emma smiles. “Yeah. He’s like, my oldest friend. We used to drink together, when I was barely legal, and he got me the job at the T. He’s like an older brother to me. Well, at least he likes to think he is. I say more of a trouble-making older cousin, but you know.”
Regina nods, and sips at her drink again, and Emma realises there’s an air of false calm about her that Emma is wary of.
“Hmm. He didn’t look very brotherly, over there.”
Emma cocks her head. “Huh?”
“Well,” Regina says, a little bit too calculated, “that hug didn’t look too brotherly.”
Emma screws her face up in confusion. “What? It was a hug, Regina.”
“It wasn’t just a hug, though. There was leaning.”
Emma stares at her, completely lost. “I’m sorry, what?”
The lines around Regina’s mouth are tight. She’s aware sounds a little too bitter, but at the same time, there was no denying the sick hot rush of jealousy she felt when she saw Emma leaning into August’s body.
On Zelena’s behalf, of course.
“There was leaning. Into the hug. The kind of leaning you do when you’re sleeping with someone.”
Emma’s mouth drops open. “I’m sorry, so, now you’re accusing me of sleeping with August? That’s disgusting, firstly, and secondly, how many men are you going to accuse me of cheating with this week? I thought we went over this already.”
“And I apologised, for the misunderstanding with Mr Jones. But this is not Mr Jones. And this involved leaning.”
“You’re being ridiculous. What the hell kind of measure of infidelity is leaning, Regina? What are you even talking about? It was just a hug!”
Beside them, the neighbor who is still lingering too close snickers, and Emma’s aware that it sounds like they’re a bickering couple. She goes to tell him to fuck off, but then Regina’s stepping in closer to her, eyes sharp and cold and mouth curled up in a seductive smile.
“Leaning, Miss Swan, is different from hugging.”
She puts her drink to the side and crowds Emma, so that Emma has to press back against the opposite wall.
“Hugging is friendly.” She intones, voice husky. “Hugging is arms, and maybe chests, and your legs staying where they are. Leaning is your whole body, tilting towards theirs.” Her voice has gotten low, and enticing, and she’s inching closer to Emma. Emma’s heart starts to race in her chest. “Leaning means whole bodies touching.” She’s so close that Emma can feel her breath as she speaks, smell perfume and clean sheets and gin. Her eyes fall to Regina’s mouth. “Leaning requires wanting.”
They stay like that for so long that Emma can feel that she should step away, but can’t. She licks her lips and Regina looks down at them and Emma swears that she stares for far longer than is reasonable for anyone who isn’t thinking about kissing her.
Then someone rings the doorbell. It’s a stupid, loud, novelty bell, and it startles them so much they they jump apart and Emma tips beer onto her own shoes. “Shit,” she says, and Regina snorts. Emma looks up in delight because it’s probably the least dignified sound she’s ever heard Regina make, and they’re smiling at each other like idiots when the doorbell rings again and Emma rolls her eyes and goes to open it.
A group of August’s dude bro buddies file past them, and the noise in the house increases even further.
“Well,” she tells Regina, “Whatever leaning is, August and I were not leaning.”
She goes to take a swig of beer and is stopped by Regina’s hand on her wrist.
Regina looks confused. Emma, still holding her beer, is also confused. She gives Regina a questioning look, and Regina leans closer and fairly shouts, to be heard over the noise, “I didn’t think Mormons were allowed to drink alcohol.”
Of course, in the way of the spectacularly bad luck of Emma’s life, someone knocks the iPod dock and the music cuts off just before Regina speaks, which means that everyone in the room is suddenly looking at them.
Emma nearly chokes, and wonders why she spends so much of her time around this woman at a loss for words.
“Um,” she says, “I don’t think they are.” Regina looks at her for a long second, as if saying, ‘Well, and?’ and Emma’s brain tries to process the non sequitur and comes up with; “Wait, do you think I’m a Mormon?” For once, at least, Regina looks as lost as Emma feels. “What… Why the hell would you think I was a Mormon? Are we in Utah all of a sudden? What?”
Emma looks at her like she’s lost her mind. “Your ten year old son thought I was a Mormon? And you believed him?”
Regina looks offended. “Why would he lie about that?”
Emma scoffs. “Well, I don't know, but he did.”
“He said he heard you say it. The other day, at the T, when he and Ruby went to visit you. He said he heard you talking about how it was why Zelena proposed so quickly. Because you can’t have sex before marriage.”
Emma’s mouth falls open, and Regina is perceptive enough to know that she’s wounded her. Emma turns and grabs her coat off the rack, dumps her beer on a side table, and winds her scarf back around her neck. “Right,” she says, yanking open the door and stomping out into the cold, Regina following right behind her. “Because the only way someone like your sister would possibly want to marry someone like me is for sex.”
“Emma, wait,” Regina calls at the back of her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I only meant- when Henry said what he’d heard you say, it just made sense, and I thought…”
Emma whirls on her, and shouts, “How could me being a frikkin' Mormon be the explanation that makes sense to you?”
“It’s ridiculous, I know, but it’s exactly the kind of ridiculousness that would happen in Zelena’s life.”
“Yeah, thanks, I got it. We’ve already established how ridiculous it would be for Zelena to propose to me.”
“It’s not, though, that’s the thing.” She sounds so exasperated that Emma slows down. “I didn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it, because I didn’t want to believe that she wouldn’t tell me about it. About you. But you were right, we haven’t really seen each other properly in months. Not since after the last girl she blew off, because I’m too judgemental and she was sick of having me comment on her love life. But the proposal itself makes total sense.” She laughs, without humour. “Zelena’s preferred method of seduction has always been the grand romantic gesture.”
It’s the most honest Regina’s ever been in front of her; not nice or polished but laid open. Emma finds herself swayed without meaning to be. “So, what,” she asks, rough and hurt, “you came over today to accuse me of withholding sex to get her to marry me?”
Regina huffs and her eyes are shiny and sad and she says, “No, I came here to tell you not to marry her.”
It steals Emma’s breath, and for a moment she thinks that maybe they’re finally going to talk about the way that the air feels like electricity between them, the way that Regina sometimes looks at Emma like she can see right into her and might still want her, but then she’s saying, “I just don’t want to see you get your heart broken.”
Emma takes a half a step back, like she’s been pushed. “Oh.”
“Just wait a while, when she wakes up. Give it a few months, at least, to make sure she’s sure. You’re a good person, Emma. And I love my sister, but she’s not the marrying type. She’s more the ‘have a whirlwind romance then leave the poor girl completely heartbroken’ type. You’re… you matter, Emma. I don’t want her to make you feel like you don’t.”
She looks at Emma, beseeching, and Emma feels elated and sad and a little sick.
Regina keeps on. “Wouldn’t it be better to wait a few months, or six, and just … make sure that she’s not rushing into something that’s only going to fall apart?”
Emma stares at her feet for a long while before she looks up at Regina again.
“You know, maybe you’re right,” she says quietly. “But you have no idea what it’s like to be alone.”
She turns and starts walking in the direction of her apartment.
“Emma,” Regina calls out.
“Good night, Regina.” Emma calls back.
Regina doesn’t follow her.
The thing is, Regina does know what it’s like to be alone. And worse, to be surrounded by people and still have no one. She’d had nearly half a life of desperately needing help, but having nobody see her. Not while her mother looked right through her and her father looked the other way. Not while the townspeople decided she just wasn’t worth getting involved for. Not until Daniel saw her, and Zelena learned to. And Emma seemed to, without even trying.
Regina spends the whole day brooding, snaps at her secretary four times and takes a little too much pleasure in denying two different applications to alter property lines for construction which would interfere with the parklands in the town that she’s so very proud of.
Henry is staying at a friend’s that night for a birthday party, and she makes it till six in the evening until her anger finally gives way to the embarrassment and guilt it actually is and she calls Emma to apologise.
She almost hangs up as the phone is ringing, because she does not ever apologize, not to anyone except Henry, and she’s losing her mind if this woman - her sister’s fiancé, for christ’s sake - has somehow had this much of an effect on her.
Emma picks up before she can hang up the phone.
Her voice is wary, and Regina feels a rush of regret.
The silence stretches out before Emma, blessedly, gives in.
“What’s up?” she sighs.
“I, uh,” Regina takes a seat on the edge of the sofa, uncomfortable and out of her depth. “I wanted to apologize.”
There’s a moment of quiet on the other end, and then Emma says, “Oh.”
There’s another long moment of nothing, from the other end of the line, and then Regina can practically hear the smile slip back into Emma’s voice.
“You mean, for when you accused me of lying to everybody? Or when you accused me of sleeping with Killian, and then August? Or when you thought I was a Mormon and withholding sex till Zelena married me?”
Regina frowns. “Yes. All of that.”
“You’ve had a really busy week, this week.” Regina doesn’t respond. She can hear Emma laugh, just a tiny bit, over the line. “You really have a gift for the dramatic, you know that?”
Regina huffs. “I’ve been told.”
Emma laughs again, clearer now, and Regina breathes properly for the first time all day. The relief clouds her judgement and she says, “Come over for dinner.”
“Really?” Emma sounds surprised. “I wouldn’t want to impose. You’re probably sick of feeding me by now.”
Regina gets up and walks into the kitchen, looking in the fridge and already planning what she can make.
“It’s fine, really. Besides, who knows what you would eat if left to your own devices. I’m imagining that your cupboards are full of ramen noodles and Easy Mac, am I wrong?”
Emma laughs, then says, “Hah, hah. I am capable of taking care of myself. I’d at least add some vegetables to the ramen.”
Regina rolls her eyes. “Well, that makes it completely healthy, then.”
“Yeah, yeah. We can’t all be Michelin chefs, your majesty.”
“I’m surprised you even know what that is.”
“Oh, bite me.”
Regina laughs at that, really laughs, and then wonders how she’s managed to become so fond of a woman who insults her at every step.
“Just get over here,” she instructs, refusing to think of the ramifications of how she feels about Emma. “I’m going to out on a limb and guess that you’ll be happy with pasta?”
Emma groans. “God, yes. Are you trying to fatten me up?”
Regina huffs a laugh, thinks of making a joke about fattening Emma up so that Zelena won’t want her and then realises it hits too close. “Just be here at seven-ish.”
Emma says, “Fine, bossy.”
Regina hangs up on her.
So Emma goes over, and they have dinner at the kitchen counter, this time, as if Regina’s saying, look, I can be relaxed and informal. The gesture is somewhat lost because there are still place settings set and the wine they’re drinking tastes like it costs more than Emma makes in a whole shift, but it makes her smile to think that Regina tried. The pasta is amazing, as is everything Regina cooks, and even without Henry in the house, everything is warm and easy.
They sit site by side once they’ve finished eating, until Regina clears her throat lightly and looks down at her plate.
“I meant what I said earlier, on the phone. I am sorry.”
Emma looks at her, but Regina won’t look up. “Apology accepted,” she offers. Regina lifts her eyes to Emma’s and Emma offers her a lopsided smile. “I mean,” Emma jokes, “among all the accusations and the threats, you’ve actually been… a really good friend to me. So, thank you, for that.”
Regina’s eyes are dark and unreadable and her face voice is small and surprised.
“You thought we were friends?”
Emma is caught offside. “I… are we not friends?”
“No, I just…” Regina clears her throat again, then confesses, “I haven’t really made a friend in a long time.”
Emma smiles at her, again, and it’s so bright and sweet and happy that Regina’s chest feels weightless. “Yeah. Me either.”
“Well,” Regina says. “Friends, then.”
She lifts her glass, feels dorky, and Emma clinks hers against it, takes a sip and smiles against the rim of the glass.
“Friends is good, I suppose.” Regina says after a minute. “It will make being sisters in law easy.” She says it out loud mostly to force herself to remember it. To remember what she’s doing. The fire she’s flirting with. Emma’s face falls.
“Oh, yeah.” She takes another sip of wine, then can’t help but jab, “Although, according to you, we’d never make it to the wedding anyway, right? Because the idea of someone actually wanting me for real is just too absurd.”
It’s meant to be a dig at Regina, but instead it comes out self-deprecating in the worst way, because Regina doesn’t know that Emma knows it’s true. No one ever wants her.
“Don’t be silly,” Regina says, quietly. “You’re very want-able.”
Emma blinks at her, eyes wide and hopeful and devastated. The air in the room suddenly feels heavier, and they’ve fallen into a conversation that’s much more serious than they’re ready for.
“Don’t say that,” Emma whispers. “Don’t say that if you’re not going to tell me you want me.”
Regina does want her; so, so much, and she didn’t realise until this moment, but at the same time it’s been coming since the moment they met.
But it’s unfair, and Emma isn’t available, Regina’s trying so hard not to be that person that wants to take other peoples’ happiness for her own.
So, easy as breathing, drawing her hurt around her, Regina lies.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I just got caught up in the idea of having a partner for myself, I suppose. How nice it would be to have someone other than Henry and myself in the house.”
“Don’t be cruel,” Emma hisses. “That’s not it and you know it.” But she says it with damp eyes like she doubts it herself, and it’s that more than anything that has Regina folding and saying everything she just promised she wouldn’t.
“No, it’s not just that. I’m… I have feelings for you, Emma.”
Emma can’t breathe. “What if I like you too?” she asks, in a small voice, so afraid to say it out loud and have Regina take it back.
“Well, that would be even more unfortunate,” Regina says. “Because I don’t think I could ever have feelings for someone who was unfaithful to my sister.”
“And if I wasn’t with her?”
Regina shakes her head, falls silent for a moment. Speaks haltingly. “When we were children, our mother used to make us vie for her attention. And affection. It created this… competitive relationship between us. We’re better at it now, mostly, but…”
Emma’s voice is quiet, and hurt. “So that’s what this is? You only want me because she has me?”
Regina’s face caves and she looks so sweet, and so sorry. “No. But that’s what everyone will think it is. It’s what she’ll think it is.”
The lump in Emma’s throat loosens, but it’s still hard to speak. “And what everyone else will think is more important than… than you wanting me?”
”It has to be, Emma.” Her voice is low and resigned, like it wounds her. “I’m a Mayor, and a mother, and I can’t get involved in scandals like… stealing my comatose half-sister’s fiancé.”
And all of a sudden, it finally comes out.
“I’m not her fiancé.”
Regina is standing there, in shock, and Emma can’t believe she’s finally said it. And now everything is going to come crashing down around her, and she has about thirty seconds to beg Regina to hear her out before it’s all over. She maybe starts to cry, just a little.
“I’m not her fiancé. I never was. I’d never really met her until that day on the tracks. She was just a woman who came to my booth every day, and I had a crush on her, and there was a nurse who heard the wrong thing and told everyone we were engaged and I couldn’t get a word in to say that it wasn’t true, and then I couldn’t say it, because Henry was so excited, and then… then I couldn’t, because I wanted it to be true. You took me into your home, and I wanted it to be true so badly, Regina. I fell in love, with you and Henry, and this town, and I feel like I’m home here, and that’s something I’ve never, ever had. Not ever. And I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, Regina, please…”
Regina doesn’t speak, for a long moment. When she does, her voice is ice-cold and deadly.
Emma whimpers, just a bit. “Regina, please-”
“Get out. Get out now before I call the police.”
Emma grabs her red jacket and runs, and pretends she can’t hear Regina break something as she leaves.
Over the next few weeks, Emma sends Regina:
- three voicemails, hoping that if she can hear how sorry she is, she might forgive her;
- seven text messages, thinking that maybe the voicemails were too intrusive;
- and, finally, one personal plea delivered via Henry, who comes to see her at the T of his own accord while Ruby’s getting her hair done down the street and, blessedly, lets her explain how sorry she is to him.
“You really messed up, Emma,” Henry says, sounding very sage as he sips on his hot chocolate in the diner down the road from Emma’s work. She thunks her head on the counter and doesn’t bother lifting it again when she replies.
“I know, kid. I know.”
Emma sighs. Henry slurps at a marshmallow.
“Is your mom still pretty mad at me?”
He pauses for way too long, trying to figure out how to put it diplomatically, and it’s such a Regina move that Emma feels her heart curl in on itself.
“She’s pretty mad. I think she needs a little longer to calm down.” He pauses, significantly, then says, “She misses you, though.”
Emma huffs, and a piece of her hair tickles her nose. She puts an arm up on the counter to push it aside.
“I think that’s wishful thinking, kid. She barely knew me.” She doesn’t think about how it feel like Regina knew her, so, so well. “I don’t think she’ll ever talk to me again.”
Henry sighs, despondency feeding off Emma’s. When the waitress comes back over, she laughs at them, mirror images, leaning on the counter and moping.
Henry’s phone beeps, then. “It’s Ruby,” he says, jumping down off his stool and collecting his backpack. “She’s finished at the salon. I should go back so she doesn’t come looking for me.”
He hugs her goodbye, and she watches him hurry down the street, Iron Man backpack bouncing as he walks, and then puts her head back on the counter and stays there for a very long time.
Zelena finally wakes up.
She’s already sitting and sipping slowly at a cup of water when Regina flies into the room, an hour later, having sped the whole way there. The doctors are thrilled with her recovery, and check her out a few days later once she’s strong enough to use the wheel chair they’ve provided. She is very surprised at how much time has passed, doesn’t remember anything about the accident, and is rendered completely speechless by the revelation that the woman who saved her life had then pretended to be her fiancé and fooled her family for weeks.
“Well,” she jokes, as Regina pushes her in her chair down the corridor to the waiting car, “even in a coma, I’m irresistible.”
It doesn’t make Regina laugh like it should, and Zelena wonders what happened while she was sleeping.
She rests up in her room in Regina’s house, waited on hand and foot by a sister who is alternately caring and snappy and won’t tell her what she’s being penitent about, and a nephew who is happy to have her home, even if she doesn’t have a cool new fiancé, after all.
It takes a few days before she can walk again, without the help of the chair, and by the time Henry goes back to school and Regina returns to the office full time, Zelena has surrendered to spending her days reading and laying around and eating all of Regina’s food.
She misses work, but she doesn’t really miss the city. She takes slow walks around the town she used to only see on holidays, when her drunkard father would send her off to her mother until boarding school started back again. She remembers spending whole summers hating Regina, watching her with her kind, quiet father, how they would speak to each other in Spanish and Zelena couldn’t understand them. She also remembers, with cruel hindsight, the sick, dark tension, and their mother’s discipline leaving Regina bedridden, and getting to go home to England while Regina stayed, suffocating in that house.
The house is much changed, now - Regina having stripped and remodelled and thoroughly redecorated as soon as their mother died. Storybrooke itself has stayed very much the same, but Zelena is old enough now that she can appreciate that it’s a lovely, normal town, and enjoy it rather than being spiteful and hating it, as an extension of everything that Regina had.
Zelena takes a seat in Granny’s diner, calls Ruby over, and settles in for another gossip session.
She’s been gathering information from the local townspeople about her impostor fiancé. Much to her sister’s chagrin, after the initial anger and panic, Zelena had grown to find the idea very intriguing and amusing.
At first, she was convinced that the girl had to be a con artist, or a crazy person, but she wasn’t missing any money and her apartment in the city was exactly the way she’d left it, no one having been there since her accident. Ruby swore up and down that Emma didn’t give off any crazy vibes - and Archie, after lecturing Ruby on the negative impact of the word ‘crazy’, agreed that Emma hadn’t seemed it, either.
When she asks Regina about it, she tells her to stop asking. Henry tells her that she thinks his mom and Emma were really friends, and that she’s upset that Emma was lying. Zelena hasn’t known Regina to ever have a friend, besides the people she grew up with who were forced into friendliness mostly by way of proximity and town loyalty.
So, the day she’s given the all clear from the doctors, Zelena drags her sister to the town’s only half-decent bar, sits her down, and pours booze down her throat until Regina is drunk and pliable enough to talk about it.
It takes five glasses of expensive whisky before Regina tells her everything. From the hospital, to the fight at her house; how Emma was irritating, and attractive, and kind, and funny. How she wanted her and was ashamed that she had, because she’d thought she was Zelena’s fiancé.
It’s absolutely not what Zelena expected.
When Regina finishes the tale, Zelena reaches over and puts a hand over Regina’s, baffled and aiming for comforting. Regina manages a smile, then looks down at their hands and scrunches up her face again, miserable.
“I’m sorry. I swear, I wasn’t trying to steal her. I wouldn't have.”
“Well, considering she was only my fake fiancé, I think we can let that one slide, sis.”
Regina’s face turns angry, and this is why Zelena loves getting her drunk - alcohol strips back the dozens of layers that are usually on top of Regina’s emotions, holding them and changing them and masking them and only showing what she wants to be shown, and lets them come to the surface naturally, instead.
“I can’t believe that she played us. I can't believe I let her play me.”
“Well, she must have been pretty good.”
Regina shakes her head, dark hair falling across her face. “She wasn’t even, though. She was a mess. I should have known something was off. I did, but then I let myself be convinced, because she was just so… I don’t know.”
Zelena shrugs. “She was nice?”
Regina twitches one corner of her mouth but it doesn’t make it to a smile. “She wasn’t really. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say she’s nice.”
"Well,” Zelena says, more curious than ever now that this unexpected telenovela level romance plot was unfolding, “What would you say she’s like?”
Regina stares down into her drink for a long moment, then starts tracing a long, painted fingernail through the condensation the glass has left on the table.
“I’d say… I’d say, she gets under your skin. The moment you meet her. And she drives you crazy, and you don’t know whether to strangle her or… kiss her.”
“Hmm,” Zelena says, trying not to let Regina know she’s amused.
“And she’s… I don’t know. She’s an idiot, but she’s not really. And she’s sweet, and guarded, and generous, and she made me feel alive, and… and she made me laugh,” Regina whines, and Zelena is still angry at her but can’t not feel overwhelmed with pity. “She argued with me, all the time, but she made me laugh.”
A breath in, then; “And Henry adored her,” Regina continues, on a roll now. “He took to her so fast. Like she was family already. He loves her. And I thought…”
Zelena is torn between being furious with this Emma Swan, and wanting to run and find her and bring her back so Regina stopped being so unhappy. They’re long past the years where seeing Regina upset would have made Zelena happy, and now she just hurts because her sister is hurting.
“I was stupid.” Regina says.
Zelena grips her hand tighter. “You weren’t stupid. You had a crush.”
Regina scowls at that, back to the sister she knows and loves, slams back the rest of her drink and waves her arm at the bar for another. Zelena figures they’re done with talking for the night.
It’s a Sunday, and Emma’s propping her head up with one hand in her booth, staring absently at the glass while she waits for customers and ignores the administrative crap she’s supposed to do in her down time. She hasn’t left the city, because now that everything’s blown up in her face anyway, there’s kind of no need to run. The mess already hit her.
She has put in an application to transfer to another station, but nothing’s been said about it yet. So, she sits in the same booth that she has for the past four years, and wallows to pass the time.
Still, her brain takes a second to process it when a familiar green coat and mass of red curls suddenly take up her field of vision behind the glass.
“So,” Zelena says. “You’re the woman who saved my life, then pretended to be my fiancé while I was lying in a coma. Nice to meet you, I suppose.”
Emma nearly falls out of her chair.
When she’s pulled herself semi together again, Emma calls August and begs him to come in early, and within twenty minutes of she and Zelena staring tersely at each other through the glass, he’s jogging down the stairs to the station, looking like he’s just woke up.
“You so owe me for this, Swan,” he says, unwrapping his scarf and swapping places with her in the booth. He catches sight of Zelena, and adds, “A payback shift and an explanation.”
Emma grimaces. “Yeah. I swear. Thanks August.”
She walks over to where Zelena has been standing, staring her down, for the last twenty minutes, and gestures awkwardly away from the booth. Zelena doesn't seem to want to go anywhere else, so they end up sitting on a bench further down the platform, near where Zelena fell, that day when everything began. Emma appreciates the full circle.
“So,” Emma says awkwardly, after a few minutes. “I guess you want an explanation, huh?”
Zelena glares at her, and Emma gulps.
So she tells Zelena about the accident, about the hospital, about the nurse who majorly misheard and Emma being swamped by their pseudo family, and Henry being so excited and Regina riling her up. And Emma being so lonely that she went to Christmas dinner, and then not being able to tell the truth even though she knew she was in such deep shit.
“And let’s not forget that you were quite ready to cheat on your poor comatose fake fiancé once you realised that Regina might be interested in you,” Zelena finishes for her.
Emma blanches. “Regina told you about that?”
“Ah, yes. I used an old sibling trick,” Zelena says, leaning in with a glint in her eye. “I got her very, very drunk and she spilled everything.”
Zelena has a sharp, wicked smile, and it comes so easily, and Emma realises that she really does like this woman - just not like she likes her sister.
“That’s something I’d want to see.”
Zelena waves a hand. “Ugh, no. Morbid drunk, my sister. But she told me all about you, regardless. At first it was all, “that horrible woman”, and “if I see her again, I’ll kill her”, but then it devolved into talking about your eyes and how you smiled at her and how you made her feel like someone in the world finally understood her.”
Emma’s heart and stomach seem to be arguing over which can feel the most awful.
“I think I did understand her.” she says, quietly. “I’m… I care about her.”
“Really? Because, no offence - actually, yes, offence, you pretended to be my fiancé and infiltrated my family while I was in a damn coma, definitely take offence - you don’t seem to be particularly trustworthy in these kinds of things.”
Emma frowns. “I’m trustworthy. I can be trustworthy. I was just… rendered temporarily insane by loneliness, I guess.”
Zelena gives her a look like maybe she’s actually a certified crazy person, and it’s so Regina that she feels a pang in her chest.
“I really care about her,” Emma settles on offering, after a moment. “And I know I screwed this up, like, so badly, like Jerry Springer bad, but I like her, and I want to be around her, and I want her to know how sorry I am.”
“You’re sure?” Zelena asks. “Regina is rather unusually difficult.”
Emma smiles. “I like difficult.”
Zelena gives her an exasperated look, and waves a hand. “Well, more power to you, then. You’ll have plenty of difficult if you’re going to be stuck with her for the rest of your life.”
Emma gapes, a little confused at the turn the conversation has taken.
“I’m… huh? She won’t even talk to me.”
“Eh, she’ll come around,” Zelena says, assuredly. “I’ll make her.”
It’s baffling, and Emma says, against her better judgement, “Aren’t you mad?”
Zelena arches an eyebrow. “At you, yes. Absolutely. Don’t think I’m ever not going to be mad over the fact that you invaded my privacy and my family.” Her face softens. “But at Regina? No. To be honest, this probably just puts us a little more even. She’s my sister, and my only family in the world, and I love her. More than I show it. So, if you want her, and you think you could handle her, I’ll give my blessing, or whatever.”
“Don’t say that.” It’s the first time Emma’s really honestly reacted without trying to be penitent and polite for the whole conversation, but she can’t let it slide. “Don’t say handled. Don’t talk like she has to be tolerated. Anyone would be so lucky.”
Zelena looks at her like she’s looking right into her, serious for the first time since they sat down.
“Well, then.” She says. “We’d best work on getting you back in her good graces.”
It’s a week later and Emma’s at work again, pretending she’s bored when really she’s despondent, taking money and printing tickets without bothering to look at customers, when something that’s not money lands in the cash tray under her ticket window.
Emma stares at it, uncomprehending, before her mind concentrates properly on the image and she realises it’s a keyring. It’s one of those touristy ones they sell at the newsstand down the street; colourful and rubbery, the shape of the state of Florida.
She looks up. Regina is standing there.
For a moment, Emma thinks it must be some sort of trap - throwing her stupid story back in her face, maybe, and Regina is here to tell her that she has called the cops after all, that she’ll never forgive Emma - but Regina, larger than life, fierce, Madam Mayor Regina, looks shy and hesitant as she looks at Emma through the glass.
Emma fumbles for the button that opens the door to her booth. She motions to it, unable to speak, and Regina walks around and pulls the door open.
“Hi,” Regina says.
Emma’s throat won’t work. She blinks at her, several times, then manages to respond.
Regina smiles, a little, with one side of her mouth, and Emma plays with the keyring, tangling it around her fingers.
“I got all your messages,” Regina says, finally. She’s wearing a grey dress, soft and fitted, and Emma thinks it might be the same one she wore to the hospital the day they first met.
“Oh,” Emma, says, nods once. Struggles for the connection. “Is that why you’re here?”
Regina looks at her feet, then at the wall behind Emma’s head.
“In a way,” she says.
It’s too much for Emma to hope for, but she hopes, anyway. (God, how she hopes.)
“Does this mean you forgive me?” She asks, faking casual but voice tight.
Regina looks up at her. Her eyes are dark and deep, and Emma thinks of poetry.
“I might,” she says. “Eventually.”
Emma’s heart starts beating double time against her ribs.
“I am so sorry,” she says in a rush, hoping that if she can say it enough times to Regina’s face she’ll believe her. “I never meant things to get so crazy. I know it was all my fault. But I didn’t mean to hurt you. I wasn’t faking with you. I promise.”
Regina nods, slowly, like she really wants to believe her.
“Yes,” she says. “Your very many messages after the fact convinced me of such.”
“Sorry,” Emma says, with a half-formed laugh dying in the back of her throat.
“It’s alright,” Regina replies, smiling a tiny bit more than before. She gives a short laugh, then adds, “If nothing else, they provided Zelena with a lot of entertainment when she got hold of my phone while I was out.”
“Oh, God.” Emma covers her face with one hand.
“She thought it was all very amusing. She’s been relentless. She’s really enjoying me being the one in the disaster zone, for once.”
Emma smirks, thinking of funny but haughty Zelena that day at the station. “I’ll bet.”
“But she’s also been relentless in convincing me that…” Regina clears her throat, awkward as Emma’s ever seen her. “That what I feel for you is probably something that should be given a shot.”
Emma’s eyes are shining, and she stares at Regina, and for a panicky moment she wonders if this is really happening.
Regina gestures to the keychain in Emma’s white-knuckled grasp.
“I should have bought a better peace offering.”
Emma finds her voice.
“No,” she says, getting to her feet. “It’s perfect.”
Regina gives her a look. “You have very low standards.”
“Shut up,” Emma laughs. “I have pretty high standards if I’m aiming for you.”
Regina purses her lips, and Emma wonders if she’ll ever get sick of the way that Regina seems somehow smug and completely disbelieving when complimented.
“Well. It’s working out for you, I suppose.”
Emma tilts her head.
“So, you’d really give me a second chance?”
“I would. I will, if you want it.”
It’s something so weighty and Emma feels humbled, being presented with the opportunity to earn Regina’s trust back.
“Even though you kind of want to kill me?” She asks, only partially in jest.
Regina huffs and rolls her eyes skyward. “I don’t want to kill you.”
She says it as if it’s some great annoyance, but her eyes are smiling and Emma grins back.
“Well,” Emma says, “That’s a start.”
Regina reaches out and tucks two fingers around Emma’s. It’s the first time they’ve touched since admitting how they feel, and Emma feels the contact spark, electric.
“It’s not exactly a fairytale,” Regina warns softly, close to Emma, now.
Emma smiles at her, loops an arm around Regina’s waist, and thinks that no fairytale could make her happier.
“Who says happy endings have to be clear and simple?”
Regina kisses her then, really kisses her, and it’s better than Emma could ever have imagined. Regina’s kisses make sense, hot and firm and gentle then not, sharp teeth and a little dirty but her hand stroking soothing, calming strokes along Emma’s shoulder the whole time.
They kiss door to the tiny booth opens behind them, and they’re startled apart by the girl who replaces Emma for the evening shift.
“Wow, hey. Sorry.”
“Oh,” Emma says. “My shift’s finished.”
Regina pulls back and watches her for a moment, eyes so dark and warm and full of love that Emma doesn’t even know how she’s real. “Good,” she says. “I thought you might want to come home with me.”
Emma smiles, bright as the sun.
“Yeah. I do.”