‘Where both deliberate, the love is slight: / Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?’
Christopher Marlowe, Hero and Leander
It’s hump day and Regina just wants the week to be over. The coffee she’s just picked up is still too hot to drink, and she knows she’s playing a dangerous game because her grip on it is reasonably weak and she’s trying to pick her way through a crowded sidewalk. The disaster strikes, ironically, just as she’s made her way out through the sea of people; she pulls out, glances behind her at the man who’d shoved into her, and ends up careening into someone else. The coffee goes flying, of course, and Regina can’t really do anything but sigh with resignation.
“Oh, shoot! I’m so sorry!”
Most of the liquid is currently adorning the slabs of concrete below their feet, already trickling into the drain, but some of it has made it onto Regina’s shirt, luckily one that she doesn’t necessarily love, but unluckily one she doesn’t hate, either. The perpetrator of what has essentially become an attack on Regina’s morning is already stammering through an apology, waving her hands around too much for Regina to really concentrate on much else.
“I just - I totally didn’t see you, and, oh God, I’ve ruined your shirt - hey, would you like me to buy you another one? Not a shirt, I mean, I would if I could, but, like a coffee, I should definitely buy you another coffee, I -”
“It’s fine,” Regina says shortly, checking her watch. She needs to be in her office in twenty minutes and she’s still half an hour away.
“No, really,” the girl in front of her insists. “At least in Starbucks you can get that coffee off your shirt. There’s a bathroom, I think.”
Regina looks at her then, really looks, and when they make eye contact recognition pricks sharply at her. It’s Emma Swan, damn it all. Suddenly, work is as far as from her mind as possible, the space in her head being filled instead by a blonde girl probably barely out of middle school, with limbs that seem too long for her and glasses slipping down her nose. Regina’s face softens of its own accord.
“Don’t worry about buying me coffee,” she says. “But thank you for the tip about the bathroom.” She glances down at her shirt, which is beginning to stick to her a little in the places where the coffee has soaked through. As her eyes go, they catch on a brief wince from Emma.
“No, no way,” she says. “Come on. The coffee I spilled was, like, full.” She’s already moving towards the road crossing and Regina feels helplessly compelled to follow, a moth to her flame.
“Still,” Regina maintains, having to move a little faster to catch up with her loping stride. “I’m not going to make a - a child pay for my drink.” A moment passes as they both reach the crossing and wait for the light to turn green; Regina blinks. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“No,” replies Emma easily, before crossing. Regina huffs and follows.
“So now I’m an excuse not to go to school,” she says. They reach Starbucks, overflowing with people on their way to work. Emma gives her a look, thoroughly unimpressed, and it socks Regina in the gut, the way some things never seems to change.
“I don’t know why you’re complaining. I’m buying you a coffee, Miss,” Emma tells her. Regina arches an eyebrow.
“After spilling my first coffee,” she retorts.
Emma shrugs. “A collision is, like, a two-way thing, right?”
Regina snorts. “Usually one object is more at fault than another,” she says. They move forward in the coffee queue, and she says, a little tentatively: “I’m Regina.”
“Emma,” says Emma.
I know, Regina wants to say in response. I always know. Instead, she says: “So, Emma. What are you doing out of school?”
Emma shrugs again, keeping her eyes fixed on the coffee menu. “Didn’t feel too great.”
“Oh, really? A case of lazy-itis?”
“More like I hate chemistry-itis,” Emma says, rolling her eyes.
“Well, it’s not like you’re going to get any better at it if you just skip the class.”
“Are you gonna turn me in or something?” Emma asks, suddenly eyeing her with a great deal of suspicion.
“No,” Regina replies mildly. “I’m not going to presume that I can tell you what to do. We’ve only just met.” If there’s one thing Emma Swan hates, it’s being told what to do. Regina isn’t going to spend their brief time together pushing her away.
“You’re one of those cool adults,” Emma says, her suspicion making way for a vague sort of appreciation that makes Regina embarrassingly pleased with herself.
“Thanks,” she says. “What would you like?”
“I said I’m buying for you!” Emma protests.
“You’re literally in middle school,” Regina says. “I’m not letting a middle schooler buy me coffee.”
Emma huffs. “Whatever. I totally could buy you coffee.”
“You totally could, I’m sure,” Regina concedes. “But not today. What would you like?”
“You really don’t have to -”
“It’s a coffee,” Regina says firmly, rolling her eyes. “I’ve already offered, don’t embarrass me.”
Emma smiles a little, then chews on her lip in thought. “Could I - could I get a hot chocolate, maybe?”
The suddenly hesitant tone makes her heart seize up briefly with sympathy; Regina notices for the first time the ratty trainers and too-big shirt with darned sleeves. She has to swallow down the familiar fury, the anger that comes upon each discovery of Emma Swan being down on her luck no matter what life she’s living.
“Just a small one,” Emma says quickly. “I mean, if you’re sure. You don’t have to, I -” They’re one person away from ordering now; the barista is making his way towards them. In the split second before he reaches her, Regina shoots Emma a quick look of assurance.
“Hi, can I get a small flat white and a large hot chocolate?”
“Would you like cream with that, Miss?”
“Oh, definitely,” Regina says with a sly grin at Emma, who seems caught halfway between protest and extreme gratitude. It’s more than Regina’s ever paid in a Starbucks shop in her life, probably, but the delight on Emma’s face when they sit down is worth it. The girl makes a grab for the cinnamon and sprinkles it liberally on her drink; Regina’s heart aches slightly with the familiarity of the gesture.
“You’re definitely a cool adult,” Emma informs her a few minutes into their drink consumption, whipped cream spread all over her top lip. Regina laughs, startling herself with the sound.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever called me cool before,” she says.
“Seriously? No one?” Emma inquires seriously. When Regina gives a noncommittal hum in response, she dips her finger into the whipped cream and asks, before sucking it off, “Are you missing work right now?”
Regina checks her watch; she’s now fifteen minutes late, and can’t even bring herself to care. “I might be,” she says.
“Ha! So that’s why you don’t wanna send me back to school. Because you’re skipping too.”
“Not the same,” Regina says. “Also, I was going straight there, until some pesky kid decided to spill my coffee all over me…”
“I said! A collision is a two-way thing!”
Emma huffs, and Regina is unable to take her seriously with whipped cream still lingering around her mouth. “I don’t even know you. You’re a complete stranger.”
“I am,” Regina agrees, because in this lifetime it’s true. “But I’m also a cool adult, and a stranger who’s bought you a hot chocolate.”
There’s a pause. Then Emma asks, “Are you planning to kidnap me?”, in much the same voice as one would inquire about the weather. Regina can’t hold back her smile.
“If I were, I probably would have already done it by now.”
“Sometimes kidnappers lure the kids in before they kidnap them.”
“Maybe, but I think you’d be pretty good at fighting me off.”
“I would be,” Emma confirms with pride. “I have pepper spray and a mean right hook.”
“And I don’t want to be on the receiving end of either of those things,” Regina says, taking a sip of her coffee. “So I think I’ll pass on the kidnapping.”
“I’d probably manage to run away, anyway,” Emma says nonchalantly, gulping down her hot chocolate before gasping slightly. “Yikes. Hot.”
“Oh?” Regina inquires. “And slow down, it’s not going anywhere.”
Emma’s face twists up a little in embarrassment. “Sorry,” she says, voice small. God, Regina thinks.
“Don’t be sorry,” she says a little hurriedly. “I just meant - you’ll end up with a burnt tongue.”
“Already done that,” Emma grins. “The hot chocolate is really good, though, totally worth it.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Are you ever gonna wash that off?” She points in the direction of the strains on Regina’s shirt, eliciting a sigh.
“I think it’s a lost cause by now,” she says, a little mournfully. “I have a spare shirt at the office, anyway.”
Emma makes a face that carries genuine guilt. “Sorry,” she says. “It’s, I mean, it’s a really nice shirt.”
“All my shirts are nice,” Regina tells her airily, trying desperately to ease her discomfort.
“I bet,” Emma says with a smile that seems loaded with yearning, before abruptly taking another drink from her mug, looking a little embarrassed. There’s a stretch of silence between them that Regina fills with wishing she could make things she can’t change just a little better.
“So why don’t you like chemistry?” she asks, hoping the change of subject will steer them from muddy waters.
Emma shrugs noncommittally. “It’s boring and my teacher’s kinda mean.”
“He’s like...I don’t know. You know those teachers who are only nice to you if you’re, like, good at their subject?”
Regina thinks of her mother, who two lives ago was the principal of a high school. “Yes,” she says.
“He’s like that.” Emma pauses self-consciously, then adds in a rush: “And, I don’t know, I don’t think teachers should be like that. It defeats the point of the whole teaching thing, kinda.”
Regina looks at her over the rim of her mug. It seems that no matter what life she’s in, Emma Swan has near-perfect hair, but her face is already too old for a someone so young; it’s as though she’s learned something difficult and is only now learning to accept it.
“I agree,” she says.
“So, yeah. I was tired this morning and I just wasn’t up for his sh - stuff, you know?”
“Why were you tired?” Regina asks.
“Why were you tired this morning?”
In an instant, Emma’s expression stiffens with mistrust and Regina realises her mistake. “I don’t know, I just didn’t get any sleep,” she says in a colder tone than before, bringing her mug closer to her as though by instinct. “What’s it to you, anyway?”
“I’m sorry,” Regina says, though she knows it’s already too late. “I didn’t mean to - pry.”
“Who are you?”
To Emma, Regina is either a kind stranger or a smaller piece of the big system that she’s constantly fearing and fighting at the same time; it doesn't matter that in reality she’s neither. But it’s been years, lifetimes, and she can’t lie; not to a thirteen year-old who has never known what kindness is but spilled her coffee on her today and offered to buy her a replacement.
“I’m...not someone you need to worry about,” she says carefully at last.
“That’s what they all say,” Emma replies, already pushing her chair back. “Who sent you? I don’t - I don’t need anything, I said I was fine with my family right now, they’re not - I’m not - you don’t need to send me back.”
“I…” This is the part where Regina says she has no idea what Emma is talking about, tries to fix damage that isn’t really her fault. But the words don’t come. Instead, she offers Emma an escape route.
“Listen,” she says, voice shaking with sincerity even as Emma’s expression remains distant and closed off, her hands curled into fists on the table in front of them. “We can - we can talk about this. I can listen. I’ll listen to whatever you want to tell me and I won’t do anything you don’t want me to, I promise.”
Indecision flickers over Emma’s face, and for the first time since they’ve met Regina could believe her youth, see the way it’s painted all over her posture and the creases around her eyes. But she can’t push. Pushing always makes Emma feel like she’s being shoved.
“How about I go to the bathroom,” Regina says smoothly. “Try and wash off this disaster. I’ve come to realise that this shirt really is quite nice after all.”
Emma doesn’t laugh, but the corner of her mouth turns up slightly. It injects Regina with a hint of treacherous hope. She gets up.
“When I’m back, we can talk, okay?” she says, starting make her exit before Emma can reply. She finds her way into the dim, dank bathroom and breathes, counts to one hundred and back down to one again, not even bothering with the shirt. When she emerges, only their mugs are still left at the table, one of the chairs drawn back, and the disappointment mixed with resignation is too strong to ignore, bubbling up through Regina’s mouth and nose until she can’t breathe. Even in this lifetime, in a brief twenty minutes, she’s pulled Emma so close that she’s ended up pushing her way.
There’s a sentence scrawled clumsily on one of the napkins, barely legible. Thank you for hot choc. Regina sighs, tucks the napkin into her blazer pocket, and leaves alone.
It’s almost Friday and Emma Swan is sitting at her desk, squinting at her copy of Mrs. Dalloway.
“It’s hard,” she announces into the empty classroom with all the callousness of a teenager. Regina snorts as she wipes down the whiteboard.
“Woolf isn’t meant to be easy,” she tells her.
“Yeah, but,” Emma pauses, chewing on her pen in a way Regina would find incredibly annoying if it wasn’t also reasonably endearing. “I seriously think this whole page is just one long sentence.”
Regina turns to face her, eyebrows raised. “Stream of consciousness. There are no full stops in the mind.”
“There are in mine,” Emma grumbles, pulling her pen out of her mouth and beginning to scrawl something on her notepad.
“I wasn’t aware there was anything in your mind, Miss Swan.”
“Ha ha,” Emma says, giving her an unimpressed look. “I’m pretty sure you’re meant to be encouraging me, here.”
“Maybe,” Regina concedes. “I think you would be more annoyed with me if I was constantly upbeat, though.”
She grimaces. “That’s true.” There’s a silence as she resumes writing and Regina retreats to her desk, organising which papers she needs to take home and grade for tomorrow and thinking about the glass of wine that’s waiting for her at home.
“I’m done,” Emma announces at last, holding her work out. Regina moves to take it and seats herself on the desk in front, wincing at the chicken scratch adorning the paper.
“Well, I’ll have plenty of fun trying to decipher this tonight,” she says. Emma pouts.
“I’m trying,” she whines. “Either you get pretty handwriting and bad answers, or gross handwriting and good answers.”
“And both is too much to ask for, is it?”
“Yeah.” Emma frowns in thought. “It’s not that bad.”
“Your handwriting? I’d beg to differ, dear.”
“Ah. Well, yes, most literary scholars would agree that it’s ‘not that bad’.” Regina pauses, notices the thoughtful expression on Emma’s face and feels her own soften slightly. “What changed your mind?”
“I dunno.” She looks embarrassed, almost. “I think - I think there are parts where...I don’t know, it’s kind of like it’s a bit of a stab, you know? It’s a bit like something’s hitting you and making you be like ‘that’s me’.” She stops, lets out a slight laugh. “That probably makes no sense.”
“I mean, you wouldn’t write it in an essay,” Regina says, leaning back the desk. “But it certainly makes sense. That’s what literature is. Good literature is human.”
Emma shifts. “Peter’s kinda slimy, though,” she says after a beat. Regina gives a slight smile.
“I can’t argue with that,” she says.
“Like when he follows that girl through town. That’s weird.”
“It is.” Regina hesitates, then says: “Virginia Woolf was bipolar, you know.”
Emma’s mouth moves slightly, as though unsure of what expression to convey on it. “I know,” she says eventually. “I do listen to you sometimes.”
“Sometimes, but not all the time,” Regina prods with a smirk, sitting up. “How do you think her mental health influenced her portrayal of Septimus?”
Emma groans. “Miss Mills,” she says, dragging out the syllables. “I literally just finished my paper.”
“Education never rests,” Regina says, but adds: “Pack up, then. It’s late.”
Emma sighs but obeys and Regina does the same, gathering her piles of work and pocketing her copy of Mrs. Dalloway for good measure. Emma’s mention of Peter Walsh has prompted her to consider a re-read of his section at the very least.
“Thanks,” Emma says into the silence once they’re both approaching the door. Her tone, sincere but slightly uncomfortable, makes Regina look up.
“For what?” she says.
“For -” she cuts herself off, waves her arms a little. “You do this thing where you - I don’t know, you always think I can do it.”
“Of course you can do it,” Regina says, rather firmly. “I wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t. You just need a push, sometimes.”
“Like, all the time,” Emma tells her, rubbing the back of her neck with self-conscious laugh. “Anyway. Just, like, thanks.”
“No need to thank me, Miss Swan,” she says. “I’m doing my job. There’s nothing worse than seeing a student with unfulfilled potential. And now we’re gearing up for college applications -”
“Right,” Emma says, rolling her eyes. “Like any college would take me.”
“Don’t be foolish, Emma, it doesn’t suit you,” Regina retorts, a little fiercely. Emma blinks in surprise at her tone and the use of her first name.
“Okay,” she says. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Regina sighs, running a hand through her hair. “I just - you are so much better than you think you are. And I’m your teacher, so if I have to keep telling you that until you’re sick of hearing it, then I will.”
Emma looks at her, surprise still lingering on her face. Regina thinks of two lifetimes ago and an angry thirteen year-old telling her about a chemistry teacher who didn’t care enough.
“Okay,” she says again, quiet.
“Okay,” Regina agrees, leading the way out of the classroom.
They walk out to the car park in a comfortable silence which Emma only breaks once Regina’s about to head off for the teacher spots.
“Who’s your favourite character in Mrs. Dalloway?”
Regina pauses, skims over all of them in turn. “Richard,” she says finally.
Emma’s brow furrows. “Her husband? He has, like, one section.”
She shrugs, feeling oddly vulnerable. “But he struggles to put his feelings into words. That’s an experience we all go through, don’t you think?”
Emma is eyeing her carefully. “Yeah,” she says at last.
“At any rate,” Regina coughs. “Have a good evening, Miss Swan.”
“Thanks, Miss Mills,” Emma says with a smile that dimples her left cheek, already walking away, pushing her bag up higher on her shoulder. “You too.”
She remembers with perfect clarity a moment in a life many lifetimes ago with a different Emma Swan, where all she’d asked Regina to do was tell her to stay. Tell me to stay, she said, and I will. And Regina had opened her mouth and found herself unable to say the words. Now, she supposes, she is paying penance, meeting Emma Swan after Emma Swan who can’t stay even if she asks them to.
It’s the weekend and Regina’s on her bed with Emma Swan beneath her. They’re almost drunk but not quite, and Emma’s skin tastes like vodka lemonade and salt and warmth as Regina licks up her neck.
“Mm,” Emma lets out, bucking her hips. “God, that - that feels good.”
“Yeah?” Regina rumbles against the skin behind her ear.
“Yeah -” she gasps when Regina rubs her fingers against her underwear, arching into the touch, “Yeah, fuck -”
“Good, because it’s about to feel better,” Regina murmurs, hand still lingering on the fabric, slate blue lace that makes her want to lick the crease of Emma’s thighs and keep going. “Fuck, you’re so wet, already wet for me.”
Emma lets out a noise that could be of agreement and wraps her legs around Regina’s waist, ankles crossing behind her back as she runs her fingers up the side of her neck, nails digging into the veins. Regina groans and moves her hips with the action.
“You feel so good,” she tells her feverishly, hand moving to the curve of Emma’s breast. “So - want to be inside you so badly, God, make you come for me -” she cuts herself off and nips at Emma’s neck, unable to handle how nonsensical the other woman makes her. Emma moans again.
“You have - mm - a filthy mouth -”
“Just for you,” Regina lets out in a whisper. “What are you going to do about it?”
In answer, Emma tightens her legs around her and tugs on her hair, hard enough for a thrill to rush down Regina’s spine, then pulls her up to kiss her, tongue sweeping over her lips. Regina almost loses herself, too caught in the in-out heave of Emma’s breathing, the scrape of her nails down her back.
“God,” Emma says, pulling away, voice rough and pitched low enough to make Regina’s stomach roil. “God, we should not be doing this, I’m your boss -”
“Hasn’t stopped you from checking my ass out at closing time,” Regina mutters, moving to trail kisses across Emma’s jaw.
“You - oh - you noticed that?”
Regina pauses to look up and smirk. “Yes,” she says simply before going back to bite on Emma’s earlobe.
She pulls away this time, properly, though every bone in her body is protesting the movement. Regina needs this more than anything, needs to be over Emma and under her and wrapped up in all her limbs. It’s been so, so long, lives and lives piled up on top of each other, so long that when Emma had turned to her this evening at the bar, laughter in her eyes at a stupid joke she’d just made, Regina had given in to the urge to pull her in and kiss her and feel like she could breathe again.
“Do you want this?” she asks now into the musky darkness of her own bedroom, chest heaving. “Tell me to stop now and I will.”
Emma squeezes her eyes shut, lets her brow furrow and her face wrinkle with the thoughts she’s struggling with, and Regina remembers with a jolt that in this life Emma is the older one of the two of them. “Don’t stop,” Emma murmurs, bringing her hand up to Regina’s cheek and running it up through her hair. Regina closes her eyes at the contact, feels a breath leave her in a sigh and God , she’s so gone on her, so gone.
“Regina, I -” Emma cuts herself off, bites her lip, scratches slightly at Regina’s scalp. “Just tonight,” she says finally in a whisper. “I can’t - I can’t do any more. Not with the kid - with Henry, and -”
“Just tonight,” Regina agrees softly, barely audible over the sound of her own heart thundering in her ears. Maybe, she thinks, that’s the sound of it breaking.
It’s the rush hour on Saturday morning and Regina just knows that the day won’t end without Emma dropping something.
“Emma,” she says with a sigh, just managing to catch the plate wobbling out of Emma’s hand and coming up behind her. “Maybe you should swap with Ruby today.”
“No! Nope, I’m fine!” Emma says, even as she almost careens into the counter. Regina squints at her and sighs.
“You know, you really don’t have to wear the roller skates. They’re just to, I don’t know, add some fun to it.”
“I am having fun!” Emma insists, before promptly falling backwards. Regina has to rush to catch her by the arms and pull her back up.
“I think you would have more fun without the risk of dropping every order,” she says, unable to keep the amusement from her tone.
“I can do it! I can!”
Emma is twenty and running from something. She rolled into town a few months ago, the time’s ticking until she leaves again, and sometimes when someone comes up behind her without her realising she’ll tense, ready to run. But she smiles big sunshine smiles and wears glasses that are too big for her face and is horrifically earnest, meaning every word she says, and it’s taken Regina an embarrassingly short length of time to come to love her so much that it hurts.
“Maybe not when it’s peak time,” she says in as appeasing a tone as she can manage. “Besides, if I let you break a leg, Henry would never forgive me.”
Emma’s face brightens like it always does with the mention of Henry. “How is the kid?”
“Very well,” Regina says, unable to stop the smile that always spreads onto her own face whenever her son is mentioned. “Coping admirably with the trials and tribulations of kindergarten.”
Emma beams. “I bet he’s loving every second.”
Henry does. Unlike Emma, he doesn’t always surface in her life at some point, and sometimes when he does it’s too odd for her to comprehend (seven lives ago he’d been in one of her creative writing classes at college, and she could barely stand it - not just them both being in college, but the way he was so grown and smart and fine without her). But whenever he does, if he does, everything he touches seems to be a little brighter, his presence addictive. Regina loves him in every life but selfishly in this one; she loves the way he still demands a story at bedtime, loves the way he climbs into her bed in the morning to wake her up. Sometimes she’ll be hit by a wave of sorrow as she remembers the inevitable; Henry will grow up and away, away, away. It's the same sadness every mother feels, she supposes, but then again having already lived through the process countless times before adds a little punch to it.
“Whether he is or isn’t,” Regina says, realising belatedly that her hands are still on Emma’s arms, and removing them as delicately as possible. “Please don’t permanently damage yourself for the sake of this establishment’s stupid tradition of rollerskating waitresses.”
“You’re so cynical,” Emma says with a snort, pushing her glasses up her nose. “You’re the chef of this ‘ establishment’.”
“It’s not like I manage it. The roller skates were definitely not my idea.”
“Whatever,” she says, shaking her head with a grin. Regina delights in her openness, in an Emma who isn’t old enough to be jaded, who still wants to see the good in everyone even if it rarely materialises. “Shouldn’t you be round the back flipping pancakes or something?”
“It’s Granny’s shift,” Regina murmurs, caught abruptly out of her presence of mind by the gleam of Emma’s eyes and the curve of her chin. Emma smirks, reaches to rub her thumb up Regina’s wrist.
“See something you like?” she asks a little throatily. Regina allows the contact to seep into her skin, slow her heartbeat a little with its easy delicacy.
“Perhaps,” she says with an amused smile but no little amount of sincerity, leading Emma away from the customers. Regina’s different in this life too, somehow capable of saying what she feels with only a hint of fear tinging the action. It’s too easy and it makes her wonder when the other shoe will drop. Emma’s running and Regina can’t afford to drop everything to chase after her and they both know it, even as she pulls Emma in and kisses her like she can, like she should, like no matter how many lives they fall into they’ll keep making sense.
They’re not quite the same in this life, are more like polished versions of themselves; candid, fearless with each other, blissfully happy. It’s all Regina has ever wanted and it terrifies her, the content feeling in her that lies heavy in her stomach and the way she knows it’s already got an expiration date on it. But now, with the murmur of the diner behind them, Emma backed up against the wall behind the toilets, Regina’s thumb skimming the skin of her hip just where her jeans have slipped a little; she doesn’t think of it. Emma fills up all the spaces in her head until there are none left.
It’s Sunday and she hates Sundays, the way they shift and shimmer out of her grasp, leave her empty and blank as the sun sets slowly and too quickly all at once. Regina sits alone in her mayoral mansion and fills out form after form and ignores echoes of a Henry Mills too grown up to need her any more and an Emma Swan that she hasn’t found yet. She remembers a past life, a warm diner and easy kisses that disappeared one night into the dark without a word, and wonders if it hadn’t all been orchestrated to contribute to the exquisite pain of this moment, sat in her study with the sun grazing the whitewashed walls and her heart shredding itself up from the inside out.
It’s Monday evening and Regina reaches to ring the doorbell then steps back immediately, stations herself behind Henry with her hand on his shoulder. He shoots her look that she’s become well-versed in recently: really, Mom?
Only a few beats stood outside before the door swings open. Emma’s face tenses, relaxes, then tenses again, like she can’t decide how she feels. She’s in a tank top and low-slung sweats, face scrubbed clean of make-up, framed by the warmth of the house that radiates from inside, and Regina feels a stab of want arrest her so acutely that she forgets to speak for a brief moment.
“Hey, Mom,” Henry says for her. Emma affords him a smile that isn’t forced - never forced for Henry, never - but is a little muted. Regina steps back as she reaches for him, slides an arm across his shoulder and pulls him in.
“Hey, kid,” she says. “Hey, Regina. Good week with your mom?”
“Yep,” Henry says. He’s already distracted by something inside. “Is that steak?”
Emma and Regina roll their eyes in sync and then halt immediately as they see the other mirroring them, making eye contact a little awkwardly. Emma coughs. “Sure is, kid. Go set the plates on the table?”
He obeys with little fuss, and the two of them are left standing on the porch. Regina wants to run away and dive inside after him and take Emma into her arms all at the same time.
“Everything okay this week?” Emma asks after a beat.
“Just fine, thank you,” Regina says stiffly. “I think you’ll find that I’m actually rather capable of taking care of Henry.”
“Regina, that wasn’t what I meant and you know it.”
“Well, I don’t know what you did mean by it,” Regina says, the words crashing out of her mouth harshly, jaw already tensing. Emma looks for a second as though she’ll rise to the bait, and her guts lurch a little in anticipation, her bitter heart desperate for conflict, desperate to drag Emma down with her until they’re both drowning. But it doesn’t happen. The moment fizzles out between them; the porch light flickers disappointedly.
“Haven’t we fought enough?” Emma says tiredly.
“I am not fighting with you, M...” Regina trails off into silence. The words Miss Swan are caught in her throat, wrong, wrong, wrong, an archaic relic from their lives before they intersected and collided irretrievably. Emma is not Regina’s any longer. She is Miss Swan and she has slipped through her fingers.
“Regina,” Emma lets out, taking a shaky step towards her, and Regina thinks all the times she’s said it, all the times she will. She remembers their lives beyond this one. She wants to go inside and eat steak with Henry and watch him and Emma play video games and kiss him goodnight and tuck him in and kiss Emma breathless and take her upstairs and love her, love her, love her. She wants the things that she’s pushed out of her own reach. What a human she is, wanting endlessly.
Emma has reached her now, and the proximity is intoxicating. Regina takes a sharp breath as Emma’s fingers trail up her arm, come to rest in the crook of her elbow, and the exhale comes out more like a sob than anything else.
“I’ve missed you,” Emma murmurs softly, lips close enough to brush her cheek. “I miss you.”
“Emma,” she says, breathing through her nose. Emma smells of steak and too much detergent and she wants all over again. “We can’t. Not - not again.”
She pulls away to look at Regina. “Why not?” she whispers.
“Mom?” a voice calls from inside. “I set the table! Are you still out there?”
Regina tugs away but not quick enough, like an old creaky ship being sent on its last voyage from the harbour. “Go,” she forces out. “I’ll - I’ll pick him up the same time next week.”
There’s a hardened sheen to Emma’s eyes, the side-effect of having bared herself only to be rejected. “Same time next week,” she says as she steps back inside, a brittle reprise of the words. The door slams shut.
It’s the worst day of the week and her and Emma are sat behind the bleachers where the kids who think they’re cool smoke cigarettes. Emma pretends she doesn’t smoke but Regina knows she does; only when she’s alone, never in front of her. She doesn’t know how to tell her that it makes no difference to her, that they all have their vices and as they go nicotine isn’t the worst one to pick. The silence is sitting between them like a third friend.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Regina asks after continuous agonising moments of watching Emma pick grass off the ground and shred it up.
“No,” Emma says.
“Are you sure?” Regina asks.
“Yes,” Emma says.
Regina waits, and waits, and waits.
“Graduation’s soon,” Emma blurts out finally. It’s not what’s got her upset, Regina knows, but Emma talks and talks around a subject until it fades from consciousness, and Regina isn’t a friend good enough to call her out on it.
“Yes,” she says softly.
“It’ll be your big day,” Emma says, the colour returning a little to her tone, stronger than before. “Valedictorian.”
Regina eyes the ground beneath their feet, skims across their shoes, lets a wry smile slip onto her face. “You don’t need to make it sound like an insult, Swan. Because I can assure you that isn’t how it’s meant to sound.”
Emma scoffs, opens her mouth, closes it, scoffs again. Regina smirks, and she scowls in response.
“I’m not even gonna miss you when you’re gone,” she declares, and it’s so bold that it has to be a lie. Regina rolls her eyes and feels her mouth quirk up slightly with something of a sardonic mirth.
“Sure you won’t,” she drawls. Emma shoves into her a little but otherwise doesn’t respond. There’s a brief interval of silence between them, and it allows Regina’s mind to wander to however many lifetimes ago, teaching an Emma of the same age Mrs. Dalloway in an empty classroom. It’s different, now. It’s always different.
“You’re not that far, you know,” Emma tells her. “From me. From here, I mean. It’s like, four hours on the freeway.”
Regina’s heart pangs for her, her foolish wonderful best friend. “It is,” she says. “And you have a car.”
Emma grins widely with the pride of a new mother at the mention of her secondhand Bug, a hideous shade of yellow that Regina pretends to hate in every lifetime but can never quite begrudge her. “I totally do.”
“So,” Regina says. “Problem solved.”
“You going to college isn’t a problem,” Emma says with an eye-roll and mocking grin of her own.
But Regina knows it is. She knows the ease of a forgotten text and a missed call. She knows how four hours can stretch along a freeway into a distance that’s suddenly to large to bridge. She knows because Emma is Emma and she is Regina and she doesn’t even want anything more than they have now. All she wants is this, uncomplicated and familiar, sniping at each other behind the bleachers and Emma texting her stupid dog photos at ungodly hours of the morning, carefully wrapped birthday presents and stealing each other’s fries when they think they’ll go unnoticed. She doesn’t want anything but the steady pump of these actions that underlies their friendship. But it’s too much to ask.
“I know it’s not a problem,” she tells Emma. “In fact, I’m quite looking forward to finding some friends who aren’t as vapid as the current company I keep.”
“You? Friends? Yeah, in another life, maybe,” Emma says, words sharp with humour and the accompanying elbow that digs into Regina’s ribs sharper. She’s wrong. Friends evade Regina no matter what life she’s in.
Wednesday afternoon; Henry is showering and the lasagne is in the oven and Regina is leaning against the kitchen counter and watching the leaves drift off the apple tree outside. The doorbell rings and she goes to open the door even though she’s not expecting anyone.
Emma Swan is standing outside.
“Regina Mills,” she says with perfect clarity before Regina can say a word, and Emma hasn’t met her before.
She feels the air clog up her throat in its haste to get in and out of her body, tries desperately to put the pieces together. “You’re here,” is all she manages. You know, she wants to add. You found me. You’re here.
“Yeah,” says Emma, then: “We should do it properly this time.”
“It?” She doesn’t know which Emma this is. All of them, maybe.
“Our life,” Emma tells her. “We should do it properly.”
Regina thinks to say that it’s not that easy, that she’s been trying to do it properly life after life after life and she always manages to ruin it, somehow. That even if it turns out right, it’s only one life, one matchstick in an infinite box that’s already burning itself out. But Emma found her, she thinks. Emma knows and she found her and she’s here.
“How would you like a glass of the best apple cider you’ve ever tasted?” Regina asks. And Emma smiles.