Chapter 1: Prologue: Henry
Hello!! This idea came to me about a week before the first author check-in date, when I saw the movie Gifted on a plane, instantly freaked out over the AU possibilities, and watched it 1.5 more times before we landed. The end result is...whatever this is.
Quick note about the TWs mentioned in the tags - there are brief mentions of a character's experience of mental illness, including a suicide attempt, more than 10 years ago, and a past relationship which involed an adult and a 17 year-old. Both are fairly brief and non-graphic.
A million thanks to Spark for indomitable beta-reading and all the maths details (all remaining mistakes are mine), Zohra for plotting and cheerleading, and Tess for getting me over the finish line wih energy drinks and hurried proofreading before the deadline.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For the fifth time that morning, there is a knock on Henry's bedroom door. “Henry…”
Henry folds his arms, facing the closed door and raising his voice. “I’m not going!”
“Oh, yes you are,” Regina calls through to him, sounding annoyed now. “Now come downstairs.”
“I don’t want to!”
The bedroom door rattles again, useless now that he’s wedged his desk chair underneath the handle. Smiling grimly, Henry glances at his alarm clock; it’s the Mickey Mouse one with the ears that light up, he got it when they went to Disney last summer, mom had promised him and Roland a present each – no, Regina had got him a stupid clock, and that stupid clock says its ten past seven already, and soon enough he’ll have missed the stupid school bus and this will all be over. Excellent.
“Henry, come on, I made your special breakfast!”
“I’m not hungry,” Henry says loudly, stamping his foot when his stomach gives a contradictory rumble. “I don’t want any stupid breakfast, I’m not going to any stupid school, and I look stupid!”
“I’m sure that’s not true…” Regina says, sounding like she’s about to laugh; hot tears roll don Henry's cheeks, and he brushes them away angrily.
“Yes it is,” he shouts, kicking the chair out of the way and throwing his bedroom door open.
His mom – Regina jumps back from where she’s been leaning against the door, giving him an upbeat smile and running a hand through her hair. “There,” she says, reaching out to fix his collar. “You look lovely.”
Henry brushes her hand away, messing up his collar again on purpose and glaring at his reflection in the hallway mirror. He looks stupid, he does, in this stupid white shirt and this stupid blue cardigan with stupid Storybrooke Elementary School’s stupid logo stitched over the pocket.
“I look like Harry Potter,” he mutters, avoiding catching her eye in the mirror and stomping downstairs so he doesn’t have to keep looking at her hurt face. So what if he’s being rude? She isn’t the one being packed off to school.
Once he gets down to the kitchen, though, Henry doesn’t know what to do next. Breakfast is set on the table, a stack of fluffy pancakes with a fruit face arranged on top, blueberry eyes, a strawberry nose and a banana smile decorated with chocolate chips for hair. It smells good, it smells like birthday breakfasts, and he can feel his stomach rumbling under the stupid shirt again.
“Harry Potter made his best friends on his first day,” she says, coming downstairs and catching Henry with his fork hovering over the pancakes. “And you are hungry!”
Henry jumps up, dropping the fork and snatching up his dragon mug instead. “I’m not,” he insists, taking a huge gulp of chocolate milk and glaring at her over the rim of the mug. “And I hate pancakes.”
She folds her arms, looking like she’s about to laugh again. “Since when?”
“Okay, well…” The chiming of the old bird clock in the hall makes them both jump; its seven fifteen. She pinches the bridge of her nose, and then smiles at him. “You have to eat something before your bus. How about some cereal?”
“How about I go back to bed, and you stop talking about stupid school?”
“Henry, we’ve discussed this plenty of times.”
“I don’t want to!”
“I know, sweetheart, but –“
“I don’t!” Henry slams his mug down again, chocolate milk spilling over the kitchen table. She raises her eyebrows at him, folding her arms, but he doesn’t do anything about it, just glares back at her. “And I don’t want any stinky pancakes, and I don’t want to get on any stinky school bus, and I don’t, I don’t want to go to school!”
She doesn’t say anything to that, just watches him stand there with hot cheeks and shaking hands, clenched into fists at his sides. She doesn’t even say anything when he edges past her out of the kitchen, stomping slowly and loudly down the hall towards the staircase. Henry makes it all the way to the bottom of the stairs before he stops, feeling small and stupid in the eerie quiet.
“One semester,” she says then, quietly enough that he has to turn around to face her. “Give it one semester, like you promised me and Marian and Roland.”
Henry presses his lips tightly together, furious that she’s bringing up their friends – baby Roland, who is going to start pre-school soon and wants a bus buddy, Marian said it would be a big help if Henry could show him how to take the school bus.
He doesn’t even know if that’s true, or if mom has made it up just to get him to agree to school – if Regina has told another lie, because she just wants him to be at school where she doesn’t have to bother with him all day.
Regina is still watching him with a hopeful, knowing little smile, and Henry shakes his head furiously. “Roland is a little kid, I don’t care about going on some stupid bus, I’m ten.”
“Don’t you want to get to know some of the other children?” she asks quickly, taking a few steps towards him; Henry folds his arms pointedly, and she stops halfway down the hall. “Make some friends your age?”
“No,” Henry tells her, and when she raises her eyebrows at him he looks away. “I don’t care.”
“Yes, you do,” she says, with a small smile that Henry feels against his cheek even though he still won’t really look at her. “You care so much, sweetheart, I know you do.”
“No you don’t,” Henry says angrily. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Enough, Henry,” Mom says then, sounding kind of mad for the first time, and Henry feels his shoulders hunch up. “You’re going to be on that bus with or without breakfast, now are you going to stand there for the next half hour or are you going to come and eat some pancakes?” Henry doesn’t look at her, and she shrugs. “Alright, guess I’ll throw them in the trash...”
Henry shrugs, even though he can feel his stomach twisting angrily at him, even though the whole hall still smells like pancakes and they smell really good, even though mom gives him a sad look before turning around and heading back towards the kitchen –
“Fine,” Henry says loudly, making her stop halfway back to the kitchen table and running after her to slide into his chair and grab his plate. “I’m still not going to school.”
“Give it a try,” his mom says quietly, sitting down opposite him and stealing a chocolate chip; when he glares up at her, she just smiles, like nothing’s wrong, and Henry feels his resolve crumble.
“What if they don’t like me?” he asks, stabbing at a piece of banana and staring hard down at his plate; he sounds stupid, he doesn’t even sound mad anymore when he is, he’s still the maddest he’s ever been and he’s never, ever going to forgive her –
But he has to ask, because it’s nearly seven thirty now, and somehow, Henry knows that he’s going to be on the school bus soon no matter what he says now. And he has to know, because now that he’s eaten something he feels sick and scared again, his stomach turning over and over, what if they don’t like him?
“Then they’re idiots,” his mom says firmly, and Henry smiles down at his fruit face pancakes. “I love you, and anyone who doesn’t – “
“No, you don’t,” Henry says, his insides turning cold in an instant. Regina falls silent, and for a horrible next few minutes there’s only the ticking of the bird clock, counting down the time to his first day of school.
He's ten!! It's hard.
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Chapter 2: Emma I/Regina I
Half an hour into the first day of Emma’s new life as Miss Swan, Real Adult With Real Responsibilities, things go...decidedly pear-shaped. She’s taken attendance, she's handed out schedules and workbooks, she's introduced herself and gotten everyone to share a fun fact about themselves, and is just getting into the swing of her first real subject lesson.
“Multiplication facts, guys,” she says, clapping her hands together. “Let’s start nice and small, stuff you remember from third grade -- I know, I know, forever ago, right? Three times two, anyone?”
Several hands go straight up in the air, and she points at random to an eager-looking girl with plaits. “Six!”
“Nicely remembered,” Emma beams. She’s getting good at this. “Now, three times three...yes?”
“Nine, amazing, I can see I’ve got a classroom full of geniuses here, you all are so good at this already… How about three times four?”
“It’s obviously twelve,” a small voice from the table furthest from her desk pipes up, and there is an immediate silence as twenty-seven heads swivel to take in the boy who’s just interrupted, and then swivel back to Miss Swan to see how she's going to react.
“Okay, so,” she says, eyes flicking down to the seating chart she’s already filled in and stuck to her desk. “Henry, yeah?”
“Yes,” the boy says, and she’ll give him that, he isn’t scared of holding eye contact with the teacher who’s about to tell him off.
“Okay, Henry, I don’t know how it worked back in third grade, and I know I’m new in town and all, but in this classroom we’re not gonna yell out answers without sticking our hands up, got it?”
“I wasn’t in third grade, and it was obviously twelve,” he shoots back, and Emma belatedly makes the connection between the name Henry and the note on her class list that told her there was a new student joining the school.
“What do you say we help each other out, then? As we’re both the new kids?” she asks; Henry just stares at her, and out of the corner of her eye Emma can see four or five of the other kids start to giggle. Right. She needs to establish authority, and fast, or she’s going to lose her kids before they even break for recess. “You want to come up to the front and teach for me?”
“No,” Henry says, sliding further down in his seat and still, slightly unnervingly, refusing to break eye contact. “You go ahead.”
More giggles this time, and louder ones. Emma rolls her shoulders back, sets both hands on her hips, and fixes Henry with the best impression of her mother’s “kind but firm” voice she can manage.
“Okay, kid, get up,” she says. “Come on, stand up! This question’s just for you, okay, seeing as how the three times tables weren’t up to standard.” Henry scowls, but stands. “Can you tell me what...seven times nine is?”
“Sixty-three,” he says quickly, rolling his eyes.
“Very good,” Emma says, smiling a little. Okay, so he's a bored kid. She can deal with bored kids, hell, she was a bored kid. “And nine times twelve?”
“A hundred and eight,” comes the equally fast reply, and now Emma’s just a little bit impressed. They’re still firmly in third-grade territory, but the speed and confidence are something else.
“What about….eighteen times twelve?”
“Two hundred and sixteen.”
“And twenty-six times seven?”
“A hundred and eighty-two,” and still his answers are coming at lightning speed, and now the class is dead silent again, their attention grabbed not by Miss Swan, Cool New Teacher!, but by this round-faced, brown-haired boy who still looks utterly bored.
“That’s pretty fast, Henry,” Emma says, and he rolls his eyes.
“Okay,” she says, squaring up to him, and yep, she's squaring up to a ten-year old student on her first day - “Fifty three times three hundred and sixty-four.”
The rest of the kids are still looking from Henry to Emma and back again, their heads swiveling in unison like they’re watching an invisible tennis match -- but as the pause drags on, Emma starts to feel a little bad. Henry is looking down, and frowning hard at his pencil case.
That was mean, Emma, a voice not unlike her mother’s tells her, and Emma feels her shoulders sag.
“Okay, hey, you know what?” she says, walking over and touching the boy lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, okay?” Henry doesn't reply, just keeps staring at his pencils and holding his shoulders rigid. Emma sighs, already deciding to keep a closer eye on Henry for the rest of the day, and turns back to the front of the classroom. “Okay, so, multiplication facts are the basic building blocks that we need for -”
“Nineteen thousand, two hundred and ninety-two.”
By the time the kids are let out for recess, Emma has a headache. she's gone through her prepared lesson slides, trying to get the kids thinking about different methods for multiplying bigger numbers – and every now and then, thrown a question at Henry, trying to get some kind of response out of him that isn’t a disinterested shrug. 56 times 254. 86 times 905. 123 times 354. Again and again, until her head is spinning, because every time the answer comes back faster than she can check it on her calculator, all delivered in his bored, a little self-consciously confident drawl.
“Fourteen thousand, two hundred and twenty-four… Seventy-seven thousand, eight hundred and thirty… Forty-three thousand, five hundred and forty-two, can I go now?”
“Okay, you know what,” Emma says, swiftly cutting off the giggles. “Henry, you want to get started on the worksheet?”
She hands him the set of question - all testing multiplication facts of the numbers up to 12 - that’s scheduled to take up the class’s time all the way up to recess, and tries to turn the rest of the room’s attention back to the whiteboard. “Okay, so - “
“If you’re done, you can read quietly, okay, Henry?” Emma says, without turning around. “Get out your reading book, or go choose one from the bookshelves, and read till recess.”
Silence, and then the sound of a book being drawn out of a backpack. “Okay…”
By the time Emma gets to handing out worksheets to the rest of the class, Henry is fully absorbed in what she's relieved to see isn’t an undergrad algebra textbook, but instead what looks like a collection of fairy-tales. She glances over a few times as she goes around the classroom, smiling at the intent focus in his eyes, at the way he absent-mindedly keeps playing with his lips with one hand, at the unconscious foot-tapping as he reaches what must be an exciting passage. When the bell goes, he's the last one out of his seat - Emma has to actually go over and lightly shake him by the shoulder.
“Henry?” He looks up, eyes bright with the world he's been so immersed in, and Emma feels something soft settle against her chest. “Time for recess, okay?”
He nods, scampering out of his seat and following the others out towards the playground. Emma watches him go, pensive; and she's still standing in the middle of the empty classroom when Ruby pokes her head around the door.
Emma looks up, startled, and smiles. “Hey, Rubes.”
“That’s Miss Lucas to you,” Ruby shoots back with practiced ease, and Emma has to smile. Really, her old roommate and best friend already working here makes this a lot easier; they’d gone through the same “convert your useless major into a teaching certificate” program the previous year, and connected mostly over being the only two students who didn’t look like walking Anthropologie catalogues. Now, Ruby is starting as a second grade teacher, effortlessly cool in overalls and a floral shirt, the whole image only slightly undermined by the finger-paints on her hands. “How are the fourth graders?”
Emma wrinkles her nose. “Good, I think?” she tries, shrugging. “I’ve got this weird kid.”
Ruby laughs. “I’ve got twenty-seven weird kids,” she says. “Welcome to Storybrooke.”
Emma is handing out materials for the second lesson of the day -individual whiteboards and dry erase pens, a chaotic undertaking with no clear rules or classroom helpers in place yet, but it’s in the name of working on spellings - when disaster strikes.
Her head snaps around to the door. Oh no.
Mary Margaret smiles at her, motioning slightly towards the back of the classroom. “All right if I sit in for a while?”
“Um, okay,” Emma nods, pasting on a smile, and Mary Margaret beams at her. “Okay, guys, we have got a special treat today! You all know Mrs. Blanchard, right?”
A few nods, and then - when she prompts them - a chorus of “Good morning, Mrs. Blanchard!” echoes through the classroom.
Mary Margaret smiles around at them, and Emma feels instinctively like she's passed some kind of test. “Good morning, fourth graders! How are we all doing?”
“Good,” the kids chorus back, and Emma has to bite her lip.
“Okay, so Mrs. Blanchard is gonna be watching us do our spellings this morning, but I want all eyes on me so that we can - yes, Henry?”
Henry has thrust his hand so high up in the air that he's half out of his seat. “Are you the boss around here?” he demands, fixing Mary Margaret with an unblinking stare.
Mary Margaret blinks at him, her smile slipping just slightly. “I’m the principal, yes,” she says.
“Okay, then I want you to get on your phone, or get your assistant on your phone, and call Regina right now,” he says, getting to his feet and already swinging his backpack over his shoulder. And then - before Mary Margaret or Emma can do anything but stare at him - he adds, voice rising as he gets into his speech, “And tell her to get me out of here.”
There follows a long silence, during which Emma can feel waves of reproach rolling off Mary Margaret’s clasped hands towards her.
“Henry Mills,” she says quietly, in what she hopes is a neutral but helpful tone of voice. “He’s new today!”
“Henry,” Mary Margaret says eventually, nodding rapidly. “Why don't you come with me?”
“Thank you,” Henry says, rolling his eyes and following Mary Margaret out of the room. Emma watches them go, sure of exactly one thing: whatever test she may have passed in getting her kids to chant a greeting in unison at her mother, this puts her right back at square one.
Emma checks in on Henry at lunchtime; he's kicking his heels on a plastic chair outside the principal’s office, and she's about to go over and talk to him - maybe figure out what level of punishment Mary Margaret has decided to dole out - when the office door opens and the hottest woman Emma has ever seen steps out.
“Henry,” she says, her voice rich and low. “Ready to go?”
Henry just shrugs, avoiding eye contact; Emma, leaning against the hallway wall, watches them with instinctive curiosity. The woman - the Regina he was yelling for earlier, she assumes - crouches down next to him in her heels and plum-colored dress, and says a few more words, too quiet for Emma to hear, stroking some of Henry’s hair out of his face. He softens almost instantly, leaning his cheek against her hand; and then seems to consciously draw back, sliding out of his chair and brushing past her on his way to the exit.
The woman sighs, her face hidden from Emma’s view by a curtain of shiny black hair - and then stands, smoothing her hands on her skirt and hurrying after the boy.
“Hey,” Emma says, her voice suddenly loud in the empty hallway, and the woman pauses. “Hey, um, wait up - “
She hurries over, feeling like an idiot in her classroom-friendly slacks and shirt, and holds out a hand. “Hi, Emma Swan, I teach the fourth grade here?”
The woman turns, raising one immaculate eyebrow. “You’re Henry's class teacher?”
“Hi,” Emma says, with a smile that she's not sure she intended to soften her voice quite that much. “You must be his mom.”
“Regina Mills,” the woman says, taking Emma’s hand briefly and dropping it just as quickly. “Sorry about this morning, Ms. Swan, Henry’s...still adjusting.”
“No, it’s okay, I’m sure Mary Margaret - Mrs. Blanchard already talked to you about that,” Emma says, tripping over her words as a fizz of excitement surges up her chest. “I just wanted to tell you that, I think your kid might be gifted.”
Regina - Ms. Mills - stares at her for a long moment, and then smiles, sleek and dangerous. “I don't think so.”
“No, I swear, he was doing these really advanced multiplications -”
“Jakow Trachtenberg, he developed a system for multiplying large numbers,” Regina explains. “I taught Henry this summer, it’s a nice trick, but that’s all. Now, I really should be going…”
“Right,” Emma says, brought up slightly short by the fact that Henry’s mother apparently has no interest in hearing how excited Emma is to have her son in her class. “Of course. Sorry.”
Ruby is waiting for her when she gets to the faculty office, face shining with excitement. "That's your weird kid's mom?" she asks, pointing out of the window towards the Mercedes pulling out of the parking lot, and Emma nods. "Oh, my god."
"What?" Emma frowns. "Nice car?"
"Nice mom," Ruby emphasizes, waggling both eyebrows. "You know her?"
"Met her just now," Emma shrugs, grimacing slightly as she catches sight of her reflection in the window and takes in the state of her marker pen-stained forearms. "Why?"
"I know her," Ruby grins widely. "I mean, we haven't talked, but I've seen her a ton of times..." she pauses, clearly reveling in holding Emma in suspense. ”Friday nights at the Rabbit Hole."
Emma laughs, shaking her head; when Ruby nods earnestly at her with a genuine kind of glee in her smile, she raises her eyebrows. "Seriously?"
Ruby's smile widens, eyes sparkling with wicked humor. "Seriously."
By the time Regina gets to the car, Henry is already curled up in the back seat, his feet tucked up under his knees and his forehead resting against the window.
He turns his head away, sharply, his shoulders hunched in on himself. Regina lets the question peter out before she even fully knows what to ask, and starts the engine.
They drive almost all the way home without either of them saying a word, Regina drumming her fingernails on the steering wheel in lieu of anything else to fill the silence. Finally - as they roll to a halt at a red light - she hears, mumbled sulkily against the windowpane of the backseat, “Does this mean no more school?”
“Henry…” Regina glances in the rear-view mirror, she sees that he's grinning, just a little. “You are in serious trouble, do you know that?”
“Serious enough to be grounded?” he asks, and when she nods, adds quickly, “Grounded from school?”
“Sweetheart, come on,” Regina says, lips twitching as she makes a superhuman effort not to break and smile; but it’s hard not to, when this is the first time he's smiled at her all day, when he's throwing jokes at her like he has done all his life, like things are good - “It wasn’t all terrible, was it? What about the other students?”
Henry shrugs. “I got to read my book when I was done with the dumb multiplications,” he tells her, voice lilting slightly over the word. “And this girl Paige who sits next to me showed me where to get my snack.”
“See?” Regina smiles encouragingly. “That sounds fun! I met your principal - “
Instantly, Henry scowls. “Mrs. Blanchard,” he says, drawling out the French-sounding vowel with such practiced contempt Regina does a double-take. “She asked me if I knew how to divide.”
Regina nods, focusing on the road - and on not smiling at Henry’s righteous outrage. “Yes,” she says, keeping her voice carefully even. “Well. I also spoke to your class teacher.”
“Ms. Swan is cool,” Henry says, his voice filled with something like grudging respect. Regina frowns; cool is probably not the word she would use for the woman who tripped over her feet three times in the space of one hallway, had what looked like marker pen stains all over both hands, and managed to string together one whole coherent sentence before starting to gabble at how Henry might be gifted.
“That’s...good?” she asks, glancing back at Henry and smiling when he nods at her. “And I told Mrs. Blanchard there will be absolutely no more yelling at the principal, alright?”
“I didn’t yell,” Henry mutters, grinning slightly guiltily when she raises an eyebrow at him.
“Well, regardless, I promised her you wouldn’t,” she says, pulling into the parking lot. “Do you understand?”
Henry frowns, peering out of the window at the parking lot and the neon signs. “We aren’t home.”
“Well observed,” Regina says drily, swinging herself out the car and motioning for Henry to follow. “But do you understand, Henry?”
“You promised,” Henry echoes, rolling his eyes just a little but leaning against Regina’s side when she helps him up; something inside her shifts, softens, and she brushes one hand against the top of his hair.
“I promised, and...?”
“A Mills promise is a promise to keep, no matter what,” Henry repeats back at her, and Regina smiles.
“So no more yelling, alright?”
Henry wrinkles his nose up at her. “But it’s not my promise -”
“Henry, I can turn this car around and we can go straight home…”
“Okay, okay, okay,” he says quickly, grabbing her hand and tugging her towards the ice cream parlor. “I promise I promise I promise, come on, Mom!”
Regina laughs, letting him pull her along by one hand like he's two years old and learning to walk, like he's four and showing her an interesting bug in the park, like he's six and teetering along on rollerblades - her sweet boy.
The next morning, every scrap of progress seems to have disappeared overnight. Henry sulks over breakfast, refusing to get dressed or even out of the bathroom until she threatens him with a bucket of cold water, and deliberately makes her run back up the driveway for his gym clothes while the bus is already driving down their road.
By the time he's ready, and she's kissing him goodbye, they’re both tense and frustrated, “No more showing off,” Regina says, reaching one hand out to tousle his hair and feeling her fingers clench over empty air as he jerks away. “Henry -”
But he's already gone, stumbling up onto the school bus and heading straight for an empty row without so much as a backwards glance. Regina just stands and watches as her little boy hurtles away from her down the empty street; keeps watching until the bus turns the corner and disappears from view, and then lets her expression slip as she feels the sting of rejection run through her. She doesn't know what’s done it this morning - whether he’d just woken up in a bad mood about going to school again, or whether she's done something wrong and reminded him of why he's mad at her - or whether this is just how it’s going to be now, his affection for her waxing and waning with his moods, and every day slipping just a little bit further out of reach -
Regina whirls around, ready to snap at the next person to interrupt her - and relaxes, seeing her best friend and neighbor walking towards her with an armful of grocery bags and a half-worried smile.
“Marian,” she says, breathing out slowly. “Morning. Sorry.”
“Tough morning?” Marian just asks, cocking her head towards her house. “Coffee?”
“Please,” Regina smiles, taking one bag and following Marian inside. Marian just grins, and lets Regina take her time unpacking the boxes and tins while she hunts down two clean mugs and starts the coffee machine. There’s an instinctiveness to their friendship that Regina’s never quite understood, but mostly puts down to Marian’s...warmth, her way of putting Regina at ease with a few relaxed smiles and a lot of space without questions. It’s something she hadn’t known she was missing, when Marian moved in across the street only a year after Regina and Henry; and she knows, now, how much she’d needed it in those first, lonely months.
Eventually, they’re settled on the back porch with their coffees, and for a few minutes Regina just lets her eyes wander over the garden; it's a wild, cluttered mess of a backyard, the trees and bush's growing so tall and so close together that it feels like a forest dropped into the middle of their suburban street. There are a few fruit-bearing trees - Regina herself had donated a cutting from her apple tree as a housewarming gift - and a few patches for vegetables, but mostly Marian has turned her tidy little square of nature into something wild, something alive.
“So,” she says now, fixing Regina with a characteristically shrewd look. “School.”
“School,” Regina sighs. “I...don't know.”
Marian nods, laughing a little; she's known Henry for years now, has heard all Regina’s worries about him - she knows how much this means. “How’s Henry taking it?”
“Well,” Regina snorts. “I had to go get him before lunch yesterday, after he yelled at the principal three minutes after meeting her.”
Marian wrinkles her nose. “Is it still that Mary Margaret woman?” When Regina nods, she rolls her eyes. “Honestly? I don't blame him.”
“That,” Regina says, trying hard not to laugh but struggling as she remembers yesterday’s meeting, Mrs. Blanchard’s anxious, empathetic voice as she told Regina how she understood the adjustment must be so difficult - “Is not the point.”
“Okay, but...still,” Marian says, her voice encouraging. “That was day one. Today could be different! He could love it!”
“He could - “ Regina swallows, staring hard at the mug of coffee still resting in her hands. “He could still hate me.”
Marian sighs, and says nothing; doesn't attempt to fill the silence with platitudes about how he’ll come around soon or he just needs time to adjust or what else were you expecting when he found out, Regina? -
She just sits, and lets Regina stare into her coffee, and for that, at least, Regina is grateful.
Shockingly, however, Marian turns out to be right. Henry comes home that afternoon brimming with excitement about show-and-tell, about the class project about the Ancient Romans, about the game of Robin-Hood-and-the-Merry-Men they had played all recess. He lets Regina ask him questions about his day, eats dinner with her without so much as a sarcastic quip, and flies through his social studies homework with passable enthusiasm before she lets him loose on the Introduction to Analysis book he's been working his way through.
And that, for the most part, becomes their new routine.
Regina keeps making his lunches, keeps waking him up for school in the mornings with breakfast on the table and his uniform already laid out, keeps walking him to the end of the road to watch him get on the school bus - even though it’s like a little ache against her chest each time, watching her son speed away from her.
She pins up his artwork in the kitchen, reads his short stories, listens to his rambling recounting of playground adventures and extra math work - “I'm not showing off, mom, Ms. Swan gave me the extra worksheets and it was all baby math, like in the first calculus book I had ages ago -” with growing unease; seems this Ms. Swan hadn't swallowed her quip about a party trick algorithm entirely.
Still, Henry’s back to calling her mom almost 9 times out of 10 now - the odd Regina still aimed like a poison dart when he’s upset or angry, and each one winds her like the first time all over again - they’re good, they’re on the way to being good with this new version of them.
And then one day, after Regina had spent the morning on a new book proposal, her editor has been breathing down her neck for weeks because she still hasn’t found the time to go to New York for a meeting - the phone rings.
“Good morning, may I speak with Henry’s mother?” a vaguely familiar-sounding voice asks, and Regina feels dread sinking through her legs like lead weights.
“Speaking,” she manages, sitting down hard on the bottom stair.
“Ms. Mills, this is Ashley Boyd, I’m the principal's PA here at Storybrooke Elementary -” immediately Regina places the voice, a petite, anxious-looking woman who had shown her into Mrs. Blanchard's office on Henry's first day of school - “Would you be able to come in to the school as soon as possible?”
Henry is back in the same plastic chair outside Mrs. Blanchard's office, wearing the same defiant sulk and giving Regina the same half-guilty look when he sees her hurry towards him. Her eyes go straight to the red on his crisp white shirt; to the scuff marks on his still-new shoes; to the bruised and scabbed knuckles on his left hand.
“Henry, sweetheart -” she sinks to her knees next to his chair, lifting the injured hand up to inspect it more closely. “Are you hurt?”
Henry just ducks his head, avoiding her eyes, and slowly Regina takes in the fact that his knuckles may be bruised, but the blood doesn't seem to be coming from anywhere else on his body. Right.
“What happened?” she asks, voice low; when Henry just twists his mouth, and doesn't say a word, she tips his chin up with two fingers, seeking out his eyes with hers. “Henry.”
At that moment, the door opens, and Mary Margaret Blanchard strides out, all compassion and concern and a pastel-shaded cardigan. “Ms. Mills,” she says, her voice managing to strike somewhere between pity and reprove. “Would you come in?”
Regina barely glances up, curtly says “In a moment,” and waits for Mrs. Blanchard to pointedly close the door again before focusing all her attention back on Henry. “Now, tell me what happened, in your words, before I go inside.”
In fits and starts, with a few pauses and a couple of blinked-back tears, the story comes out; how the first-graders had brought art projects to school on the bus, and how one of the smallest - Regina's seen him on the bus, he looks about four, a tiny ginger-haired boy called August - had been struggling under the weight of an incredibly-rendered wooden toy zoo he had clearly made himself -
“It was amazing, he had all these animals and they all looked so real, mom,” Henry says earnestly, his eyes flashing at hers, his enthusiasm for the boy’s project infectious. “And then -”
And then, disaster had struck in the form of a burly twelve-year old, and a foot stuck out at just the right angle for August to trip over, and for the entire zoo to go crashing to the ground. The rest - the shocked silence, the giggles, Henry standing up and yelling at the boy and getting nothing but derision in return until -
“I see,” Regina says stiffly, nodding as Henry's voice peters out from righteous fury into a quiet, shamefaced silence. “Well.” She stands up, and nods towards the still-closed door to the principal's office. “I suppose I had better go speak with Mrs. Blanchard.”
“Are -” Henry reaches up, as if to grab her hand, and then seems to think better of it; Regina pauses, one hand on the doorknob. “Are you mad at me?” he asks, his voice quietly miserable.
Regina sighs, softening just slightly. “We'll talk later, sweetheart,” she says, and opens the door.
“So let me get this straight,” she says, five minutes later, fixing Mrs. Blanchard with an icy stare. “A six year-old is victimized on a bus belonging to your school, under your staff’s supervision, and my son is the only one sitting outside your office?”
“James would be sitting right next to him,” Mrs. Blanchard insists, eyes wide. “But -”
“But no one saw him trip the first-grader?”
“No,” Mrs. Blanchard cuts her off, voice rising slightly. “But his nose is broken, Ms. Mills!”
Regina leans back in her seat, breathing heavily. “Right.”
Behind the principal, Ms. Swan - arms tightly folded, lips pressed tightly together, her whole face tense with what Regina assumes is judgement of her boy - nods quickly, doggedly attempting to make eye contact which Regina is doggedly avoiding.
“Right,” Mrs. Blanchard says. “Ms. Mills - this is serious, a child in my care is seriously hurt.”
“Two children,” Regina says swiftly; when the Mrs. Blanchard widens her eyes in confusion, she snaps, “A six year old was tripped over, his art project completely destroyed, or had you forgotten already?”
“Unprovoked violence -” Mrs. Blanchard begins, decidedly shrill now, and Regina draws herself up to full standing height, glaring down at the mousy woman behind the desk.
“My son stood up for a young boy being bullied,” she says, slower and far more calmly than she feels. “If you feel like that’s an imprisonable offense, Mrs. Blanchard, then by all means, set the court date.”
At that, Ms. Swan lets out an unmistakable - and entirely undignified - snort.
Mrs. Blanchard turns, eyes wide. “Emma,” she says, sounding stung; Emma - Ms. Swan, all pink-cheeked and mischievous eyes - ducks her head, chagrined.
“Sorry, mom,” she says, and Regina files away another complication in this already overly-complicated office.
Mrs. Blanchard sighs deeply, turning back to Regina. “No one is talking about imprisonment,” she says softly, as if she's talking to a toddler; Regina feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and she's pretty sure Emma just wrinkled her nose in an identical response. “Now, Emma tells me she's been giving Henry some advanced math work, and it honestly looks like he's working to a college-level in some of these…”
“All of them,” Emma throws in helpfully, and Regina rolls her eyes. “He’s incredible,” she adds, and Regina - feels herself smile, caught off-guard by the awe in Emma's voice.
“Yes,” Mrs. Blanchard says, tapping her fingers lightly on her desk and clearly trying to bring the conversation to wherever it is she's been planning on heading. “Ms. Mills, I understand you wanted to try out sending your son to school for a while, and it is admirable, but - do you really think a fourth-grade classroom is the right environment for him?”
Regina pauses, staring at Mrs. Blanchard and sitting down slowly. “What do you mean?”
“I'm in touch with the principal at the Arendelle Academy for gifted children -”
“She's always said that if I find that one student, that one in a million, I should pass them along -”
“No,” Regina says, louder; already, every protective instinct is rising in defense against this woman washing her hands of her son.
Mrs. Blanchard presses her hands together in what looks like prayer, and leans forward, fixing Regina with an unblinking, unwavering “Ms. Mills, we all want what's best for our children -” Something flickers across Emma’s face then, too fast for Regina to read before Mrs. Blanchard ploughs on. “And of course we all want what's best for Henry here.”
“What's best for Henry is the chance to go to school and make friends with other children his age,” Regina says firmly. “He's a ten-year old boy, Mrs. Blanchard, he's starting to settle in - “
“He broke a student's nose!” Mrs. Blanchard says, eyes widening dangerously when Regina scoffs. “If he could be in a classroom where he's really being challenged, if he was amongst his peers -”
“We live in Storybrooke,” Regina cuts her off. “The students at your - charming - school are his peers.”
“Let me at least schedule a visit,” Mrs. Blanchard says, almost begging now. “Ms. Mills - Regina - I think the Arendelle Academy is a wonderful school, incredibly nurturing and challenging to the best and the brightest -”
“No, Mrs. Blanchard, and that decision is final,” Regina says, standing up abruptly. “I assume Henry is excluded for the rest of the day?”
Mrs. Blanchard blinks at her, clearly not being used to such a summary dismissal. “Well, yes, and -”
“And Ms. Swan can inform him of any further punishments tomorrow,” Regina says curtly. “Good day.”
And with that, she stalks out of the office.
They make it almost all the way to the parking lot before Regina hears running footsteps behind them.
“Regina - Ms. Mills, wait - “
“Go on ahead, sweetheart,” she says quickly, giving Henry a nudge towards the car; Henry, clearly still relieved that she hasn't seemed more upset by the whole punching-a-student-on-the-bus situation, scampers off towards the car. Regina watches him go, smiling, then turns to face his breathless, slightly disheveled teacher. “Ms. Swan.”
“Emma,” Emma corrects her, smiling a little. “I just wanted to say -”
“I won't reconsider the Arendelle Academy,” Regina says quickly. “So don't bother.”
“Okay…” Emma says, raising one eyebrow; she's got both hands on her hips, the plaid shirt slightly tugged out of place by her sprint down the hallway, and Regina - snaps her eyes back up to meet Emma's entreating gaze. “Just. Why, though? It's a pretty tough place to get into.”
“It's a pretty tough place, period,” Regina says, voice rising to imitate Emma’s inflection with a slight smile. When Emma looks baffled, she sighs. “Our family… We have good reason to mistrust those academies. I know today was...difficult, but Henry -”
“Henry's a great kid!” Emma says quickly, looking horrified. “I love having him in my classroom, I mean, yeah, he's way too fast for me to keep up with math stuff for him, he's so smart, but -”
“But?” Regina raises an eyebrow, and Emma flushes.
“But actually,” she says, stumbling a little over her words. “He's really kind, like, to all the kids. Like defending little August on the bus today? That was awesome.”
Regina laughs, then, just a little; perhaps there's a little more to Henry's teacher than she'd first assumed. “Don't let your mother hear you say that.”
Chapter 3: Emma II/Regina II/Emma III
Emma spends the rest of the day playing over that morning's events in her mind, going over the way Regina had recoiled at the suggestion of even a visit to the Arendelle Academy; the way Mary Margaret seems a little too eager to have Henry off her hands; the stubborn tilt to Henry's jaw, when she brushed past him on her way into the principal's office; and the way his eyes had lit up when she’d squeezed his shoulder in silent camaraderie. Mostly, she thinks about the moment in the hallway; Regina laughing, low and warm; Regina brimming over with an affection so tangible it's almost aggressive; Regina looking back at Emma with something approaching respect.
It’s funny, how in a class of twenty-seven kids it's the one absence that makes the whole day feel strangely empty; every time she glances over at Henry's unoccupied seat, Emma feels the wrongness of him not being there, of Regina having to drive in and march him away with bruised knuckles but a hopefully-intact ego. She gets through the day, hands out homework assignments and reads out class notices like she would any other Thursday afternoon - but when the kids have filed out to their respective buses and cars, Emma feels more drained than she has any other day since starting her job here.
It’s for that reason - and that reason alone, no matter how many smirking emojis Ruby sends her while making plans for the evening - that Emma decides she needs a drink.
Nine o'clock rolls around, and Emma writes a comment in the last reading journal with a satisfied slam. She’s had dinner, she's dodged a few concerned voicemails from her parents, and she's ready to go.
Ruby is already waiting when she reaches the Rabbit Hole, teetering over Emma in bright red heels. She raises an eyebrow when she sees Emma, taking in the clean shirt, the dressier jeans, the freshly-showered and bouncy-looking curls. “Wow,” she says. “Who exactly are you and what have you done with Emma Swan?”
Emma just shoves her, rolling her eyes. “Let's go, Lucas.”
They grab beers, find a table, and settle in for a spirited discussion over which of their new colleagues are secretly sleeping together. The music is loud, the crowd - such as it is in the only gay bar in Storybrooke, on a Thursday night - spread out over the tables and booths, and pretty soon Emma’s on her third beer and has started craning her neck to peer around the bar.
“Okay,” Ruby says eventually, slamming her bottle down and pinning Emma with a shrewd look. “You are heading towards falling off your chair if you keep doing that, she's over by the jukebox, look.”
Emma turns in her seat so fast she hears the bones in her neck crick; and then hears Ruby burst into snorting laughter, which, fair.
Regina is sitting on the very last bar stool - directly next to the jukebox, in fact, although she mostly seems annoyed by the three kids gathered around it and loudly counting up their loose change - with her elbows propped up on the bar and a glass of wine sat in front of her.
“Oh, right,” Emma says, her voice loud and fake-sounding to her own ears. “That's one of my kid’s moms, Ms. Mills or something, wow, I wonder what she's doing here...”
“Oh my god.” Ruby already sounds bored. “I’m calling Rory, this is sad. Just go say hi, idiot.”
“I'm not an idiot,” Emma mumbled, face suddenly warm under the low lights, but Ruby just waves her away with a fond sort of eye roll.
If Ruby’s going to be like that - all smug and I-have-a-girlfriend superior - then Emma's not going to give her the satisfaction of sitting here any longer. Grabbing her half-empty beer, she stands up, shaking her hair decisively out of her face, and turns on her heel.
The sounds of Ruby quietly losing her shit on the phone to Dorothy follow Emma all the way to the bar, where she swings herself into the bar stool next to Regina with what she hopes is a practiced, confident sort of ease.
Regina looks up, narrowing her eyes. “Ms. Swan,” she says guardedly. “How can I help?”
“Uh,” Emma manages, blushing - a hundred and one cheesy and terrible responses to that question teetering on her tongue before she settles on. “Trachtenberg?”
At that, Regina looks genuinely taken aback. “I'm sorry?”
“Trachtenberg,” Emma repeats, more confidently. “On the first day of class, you told me you just showed Henry this...algorithm for big numbers.”
Regina nods, a faintly amused look playing around her eyes. “I see.”
“But it's not just that, right?” Emma says, fixing Regina with a stare that's only partly to do with the alcohol coursing through her system and the deep plum shade of Regina's lipstick. “I mean, the kid is doing calculus. Calculus,” she says, and when Regina doesn't say anything, she repeats, “Calculus. For fun.”
Regina laughs quietly into her wine at that, taking a large sip before replying. “It's very...kind of you to try and find him some more challenging work, but -”
“Don't tell me,” Emma says, rolling her eyes. “He's been doing calculus since he was eight.”
Regina laughs again, warm and sort of mellow. “Seven.”
“Holy shit,” Emma says, and then, panicking, “I mean, crap. I mean, I'm a responsible teacher. I mean, please don't tell my mom.”
“Alright,” Regina nods, tilting her head slightly to one side and regarding Emma with a curious look. “Now why don't you tell me what you really want to know?”
Emma considers, the question are you single? flashing in neon through her mind's eye before she swallows it back and settles on the more neutral, “Why now? I mean, why send Henry to school now?”
“Why not?” Regina throws back, a little too quickly; and then, when Emma keeps looking at her, she sighs. “Henry… A few months ago, things turned difficult. With home-schooling. And I thought - and people I went to for advice thought - that a few more friends his age would do him a lot of good. Learning how to socialize, how to be with people his age…”
“When to punch a kid in the nose…” Emma throws in, nudging Regina lightly in the arm; Regina tenses, and stares at her. Shit. “Hey, like I said already, I thought it was awesome,” she adds quickly, relieved when Regina's arm relaxes slightly against hers.
She doesn't move her arm away, and neither does Regina; they just sit there, each taking another sip of their drink in the silence, and Emma does her best to ignore the warmth now running up and down between her elbow and shoulder.
“What made it difficult?” she asks, turning her head to glance at Regina, and - and her face really is very close to Emma's right now, she can see the dusting of blusher against her cheekbone, can see the faint lines along her forehead as she considers the question -
“Henry found a reason not to trust me,” Regina says shortly, draining the remainder of her wine. “He was hurt, and - didn't want to be around me very much.”
In the silence that follows, Emma watches the rapid movement of Regina's eyes as she stares down at the grimy surface of the bar, watches the whites of her knuckles appear as she clenches one hand into a fist. She feels an instinctive, ridiculous urge to comfort this woman she hardly knows, this parent of a child in her class, and this is possibly crossing all kinds of professional lines, but -
“Shit,” Emma says, simply; Regina rolls her eyes, but smiles just a little. “I mean… You guys seem really close from what I've seen, but. That really sucks.”
“Yes,” Regina murmurs, with such a note of finality that Emma finds it easy not to say anything at all. “Yes, it does.”
For the next two weeks, nothing happens. Henry goes back to school, makes a stilted apology to the rest of the classroom that ends in “So you don't have to be scared of me, okay,” and a stubborn defensiveness, and that's the end of that.
Regina doesn't see Emma again after their conversation at the Rabbit Hole - but that's hardly at the top of the list right now, with Henry still switching between hot and cold at a heart-breaking, whiplash-inducing speed, and her own book proposal now seriously overdue - she's too busy to spend time thinking about what Ms. Swan is doing or why Ms. Swan was at the Rabbit Hole, or when Ms. Swan is going to show up there again.
Way too busy.
And then - two weeks on from the bus-punching-incident - disaster strikes.
“Mom,” Henry says, voice high and clear, as Regina maneuvers the car into its parking spot and tries not to upset the boxes of take-out resting precariously on the front seat next to her. “There's a lady standing on our porch.”
Regina frowns, half-listening. “What lady, sweetheart?”
“I don't know,” Henry says, his eye-roll audible. “She looks fancy.”
The car finally parked, Regina looks up - and feels the blood drain from her cheeks. “That, Henry,” she says quietly. “Would be your grandmother.”
Henry just wrinkles his nose, still peering out of the window while Regina steps out of the car. “Mom?”
“Stay in the car, Henry,” Regina says, closing the door behind her with a quiet snap and starting the walk up the driveway to where her mother is standing under the porch.
“Regina, dear,” Cora smiles, lips stretching into a thin smile. “Lovely to see you.”
“I have to say, when I first lost track of you…” Cora raises an eyebrow. “Storybrooke, Maine, was hardly the first place I would have thought to look.”
“That,” Regina says, smiling just a little. “Was kind of the idea.”
“Now, Regina,” Cora says firmly. “Let’s not start off like that, dear. Won't you reintroduce me to my grandson?”
Something hot and acrid has started working its way up Regina's throat at the idea of her mother and Henry, but there doesn't seem to be much she can do other than purse her lips, turn back towards the car, and wave Henry over.
He comes, dragging his feet just a little, giving Cora a cautious look from under his eyelashes. “Hi.”
“You must be Henry,” Cora beams. “What a grown-up young man you are!”
“I’m ten,” Henry says flatly, and Regina feels pride swelling her chest.
“Yes,” Cora says quickly. “Well, it's been….what, Regina, six years?”
“Five and a half,” Regina says, turning her back to unlock the front door. “But please, come in, mother.”
Cora has already swept past her, pulling along the carry-on suitcase Regina hadn't noticed until now and heading straight towards the hallway. “Thank you.”
Henry pauses, looking up at Regina questioningly; he clearly doesn't quite know how to navigate this barbed tension between his mom and the new face, but there's an open excitement in his eyes too, and curiosity to meet another Mills. “It’s all right,” Regina says quietly, brushing the top of his head with one hand. “Go on, talk to her.”
Half an hour later, Regina is regretting so much as stopping the car when she first saw her mother standing on the porch.
Cora has installed herself in the living room, dropping down onto the couch and leaving Regina to put away her coat and gloves while she unpacks a gift for Henry -
“Now, Henry, how would you like your very own laptop?” she asks, handing over the slim package with a smile that dares Regina to contradict her as Henry starts practically glowing with excitement. “If you look in the books folder, I went ahead and uploaded some texts I think you might enjoy…”
“Oh, cool, Advanced Methods in Algebra,” Henry says, eyes already skimming down the list.
Cora pauses, eyes widening slightly. “You've read it?”
“A year ago,” Henry shrugs, and Regina - standing in the doorway and feeling like an intruder in her own home - just barely resists the urge to slam her head against the wall.
“Well,” Cora says, her smile growing wider and hungrier as she watches Henry focus on the lit-up screen. “You should find a few interesting problems on there, until I can get you some properly advanced things that you haven't seen before.”
“Cool,” Henry nods, his voice already sounding far-off; Regina recognizes his I'm doing math voice, recognizes the frown line that appears at the top of his nose, and knows that he's already lost to an interesting problem or three and won't reappear unprompted for the next few hours.
“That's very generous of you, mother,” she says, raising her voice slightly to force Cora to make eye contact. “Say thank you to your grandmother, Henry.”
“Thank you grandmother,” he says, without looking up.
“But for now, it's a school night,” Regina says, making a decision quickly and crossing the room to close the laptop before Henry can even begin to protest. “And you've got homework to do and a bath to have before dinner, and then we can see about playing some more with your new toy.”
That gets a rise out of Cora, as Regina had known it would. “It's not a toy, Regina -”
“Well, either way,” Regina smoothly cuts her off. “Time to play with your very generous not-a-toy after dinner, Henry, now go, homework time.”
“After dinner,” she repeats, soothing her voice just a little and giving Henry a reassuring smile. “Okay?”
He tilts his head to one side, starting the long walk through the living room and up the stairs as slowly as he can. “Oh-kay…”
Regina watches him go, smiling, and waits until she hears his bedroom door swing shut before rounding on her mother.
“Regina,” Cora says quickly, raising both hands to ward off whatever stream of words Regina had been about to unleash. “Can we talk about this rationally, please?”
“What are you doing here, mother?” Regina asks, folding her arms.
“Regina, I've been looking for you for almost six years, won't you at least pretend to be happy to see me?”
Regina ignores the question, taking a small step back and fixing Cora with a hard stare. “How did you find us?”
“Henry’s principal,” Cora says, smiling a little when she sees Regina rear back in surprise. “A charming woman, she was very concerned about the fighting, the talking-back, your refusal to consider Henry might do better in a more appropriate environment - “
“So she dug through his records,” Regina says, dread sinking into her stomach like lead. “And found my previous address, and -”
“Found me,” Cora says, smiling openly now. “Yes. Never underestimate the hurt feelings of a do-gooder rejected, Regina.”
“Okay,” Regina says dully. “So you found us, you gave Henry a laptop, thank you, mother, goodbye - “
“Regina.” Cora sounds pained. “Is this really where you plan to bring that boy up? A town with a community college, and the nearest University of Maine campus a half-hours drive away?”
“We’re happy here,” Regina tells her. “Henry is happy here.”
“Henry is ten years old,” Cora says scornfully. “And you're being naive if you think giving him whatever he wants is any way to raise a child. This child.”
Regina can feel her shoulders tensing as she stares Cora down; it's been half a decade, but the fight feels as familiar and as well-worn now as it did then. “So, what, mother?” she asks. “I pack him off to the Arendelle Academy? I let you fill his life with tutors and think-tanks until he's grown up and hardly knows how to talk to kids his age?”
“You let me help him,” Cora says quietly. “You let me give that boy his best chance.”
“That boy has a name, mother -”
“I know his name!” Cora cuts her off, suddenly loud; Regina feels the instinct to shrink back, but it's overridden with a protective, ferocious anger that keeps her spine straight and her chin held high.
“You should go.”
Cora stares at her. “What did you just say to me?”
“I said, mother,” Regina says, a lot calmer now that Cora seems on the back-foot for the first time. “You should go.”
“You're happy just burying him under a rock, then?” Cora says, sounding scornful again; but Regina just stares her down, unwavering.
“I'm happy with Henry happy,” she says, so decisively that it makes Cora snap together her suitcase and stand up from the couch. “And I am sorry you can't understand that, mother, but it's not a total surprise.”
“Oh, please,” Cora sniffs, brushing past her to pull on her coat. “I’m leaving, Regina, you really don't have to play the guilt card now, it doesn't suit you.”
Regina just hands Cora her gloves, pulling the pull-along suitcase to the front door for her and opening the door. “Have a safe trip.”
“You know this isn’t the end, don't you?” Cora says, turning around on the porch; her eyes are glittering with something Regina doesn't quite know how to place, and for the first time she feels a flicker of foreboding.
“We can talk about the Christmas break,” she says, more confidently than she feels. “But until then -”
“Until then,” Cora says smoothly. “I suggest you find a lawyer, Regina.”
It takes Regina a few seconds to process what she'd just heard, and then the flicker of fear leaps up into a white-hot flame. “A -” she steadies herself on the doorway, knees suddenly weak. “A lawyer?”
Cora smiles, satisfied. “Henry will be raised in a suitable environment,” she says, slowly and clearly; it's a tone of voice that sends Regina reeling back to eight years old and terrified. “One way or the other.”
“Okay, good morning, everyone!” Emma calls, clapping her hands together to bring the group of ten-year olds to attention. The morning chatter subsides, bags are dropped on the floor, and there is a dutiful chorus of “Good morning Miss Swan,” that still almost makes her laugh every time she hears it.
Twenty-seven faces are turned towards her - no, twenty-six, Henry Mills is slouched over his pencil-case with folded arms and a dour expression. Emma bites her lip, and heads over.
“Hey,” she says quietly, waiting for him to look up. “Good morning.”
Henry, rolling his eyes, drones “Good mor-ning Miss Swa-an,” in a mocking monotone, and Emma, again, has to fight the urge to laugh.
“Okay,” she says quickly, giving him a brief smile. “Good morning.”
And the day carries on; math first, and Henry has zipped through the pages photocopied from a college-level Algebra course book she'd borrowed from Ruby before she's even finished explain long division to the rest of the class.
“You done, Henry?” Emma calls over. “Do you have anything you want me to go over with you?”
“No,” Henry says, folding his arms again with a long-suffering sigh as if to let her know just how easy that whole problem sheet was; but when Emma glances over a few seconds later, he gives her a small, private smile that makes something warm and fragile take hold in her chest.
“You want to read?” she asks Henry a while later, heading over to his table while the rest of the class get started on some small-group work; the four kids sharing a table with Henry have put their heads together and are loudly debating whether 243 should be divisible by three or not.
“No,” Henry says, looking up at her with big eyes. “But can I get out my laptop?”
“Laptop?” Emma asks, bemused. “Okay, fancy pants, that’s new.”
“Yeah,” Henry says quickly, already scrambling for his backpack; Emma, sensing his eagerness to show her, crouches down and watches as he boots up a shiny, expensive-looking MacBook that could probably pay Emma’s rent until Christmas. “My grandmother got it for me.”
“Mom’s mom,” Henry says, eyes focusing in on the laptop as he clicks open a program marked problems in progress!!!!
“Right,” Emma nods, with a small smile; it’s a good day, then, a Mom day and not a Regina day. “Woah, that looks cool.”
“It’s not cool,” Henry tells her, rolling his eyes at her phrase, and Emma has to bite her lip. “It’s called a matrix.”
“No way! Dude, I’ve seen that movie, like, ten times,” Emma says, with a wide grin, and when Henry looks up at her, betrayed, she has to laugh. “Gotcha! I do know what a matrix is, kid.”
“Glad you’re having fun,” Emma smiles, touching his shoulder lightly before standing back up and turning her attention back to the rest of the classroom; Paige has her hand in the air, and Ava is embroiled in a fight over the mechanical sharpener with her twin brother, but other than that the group work seems to be progressing peacefully enough. Still, she’s a little guilty as she starts making her way around the room, resolving to give every other group at least as much time as she’s just given Henry’s laptop.
She keeps glancing over though, checking to see what Henry’s up to; and every time, he's focusing intently on his work, his round face lit up by the screen, his little fingers working at superhuman speed on the adult-sized keyboard. It’s the most animated she's seen him so far during a math lesson, and Emma has to remind herself that it's not a bad thing just because it didn't come from her - still, she feels a little, ridiculously, like she's failed in her role as an educator. Surely there has to be something she can do?
A week later, after several long dinner-time conversations with Ruby, Emma has found a solution.
“Okay, Henry, laptop away - no arguing, come on,” she says, right at the start of the lesson; and Henry, who by now has grown used to just getting out his laptop and sitting quietly for the first hour of the school day, gives her an almost comically injured look before sliding the laptop back into his backpack. “Okay, class, listen up! Small-groups time, I'm moving you around to some new tables, everyone please go around the room and find your name-tag…”
The resulting, inevitable, cacophony takes at least five minutes to subside; but eventually, the whole class has settled into their new groups, groups of four or five around the tables. There's some giggling and whispering as newly-united friends clump together, and others wave across the room with earnest promises of sitting together at recess, but mostly, the kids seem happy enough.
Emma takes a few minutes to explain the exercise - a continuation of the long division methods they'd made a start on next week - and then lets them get to work.
Henry, torn away from his backpack and his laptop, has moved his table slightly away from the three kids sharing his new table; his shoulders are hunched up, and his arms are folded in clear protest at being expected to listen to their chatter.
“Hey, guys,” Emma says, making a bee-line for their table. “How's it going?”
“Good,” Paige pipes up, tucking her hair behind her ears and looking up to give Emma a gap-toothed grin. Emma smiles.
“Glad to hear it. Nicholas? Eric?”
The two boys - both easily-distracted, both easily-wound-up, both near the bottom of the class in math - just look up at her, giving her near-identical defiant stares.
“Okay,” Emma says quickly. “I get it, this is still new… Paige, what do you reckon, you want some of this explaining again?”
Paige wrinkles her nose, clearly reluctant - but then gives Emma a small nod. “Yeah.”
“Hey, Henry?” Emma says, startling him out of whatever interior daydream he's been concocting while the other three took up her attention. “Want to give me a hand?”
Henry looks up at her suspiciously. “What?”
“Long division,” Emma says, showing him the worksheet with an entreating smile. “Chunking methods. Want to show us how it's done?”
“Um, okay,” Henry says, taking the offered marker pen with a slightly dazed-looking nod; Emma smiles to herself privately; clearly, the catch-him-unawares tactic has paid off.
“Awesome, thanks, kid,” she says casually, already turning away. “I’ll leave you to it, guys, have fun!” With that, she hurries away, heading straight for a table in the opposite corner of the room from where she can keep a covert eye on what happens next.
And what happens next is, at first, a slight shambles. Henry whizzes through his explanations too fast for any of the others to keep up with, and then sits back with a faintly bored expression to watch Eric, Paige, and Nick squabble over who gets to write down the answer to the first question. When Eric, winning the fight over the marker pen, writes down an apparently-wrong answer, Paige opens her mouth to correct him; but Henry, swooping in with a frustrated sigh, just grabs the pen back and writes down a few corrections. Eric’s lip starts wobbling, Nick has leant far back enough in his seat to start wobbling the table behind him, and Paige just looks faintly intimidated while Henry, rolling his eyes, explains the whole thing again to her in a loud, carrying voice.
Emma, still just glancing over every now and then while she moves around the classroom, winces slightly. Okay, so maybe throwing Henry in at the deep end and expecting him to turn into a picture-perfect peer tutor instantaneously was a bit too much to ask. Remembering the plan she made last night with Ruby over a bottle of wine, though, she resolves to make him stick it out for the remainder of the lesson, and resolutely turns her back on his table.
Forty-five minutes of small-group work and gentle corrections - and not a small amount of behavior management, Emma has to resort to moving Ava’s peg down to the red zone when she decides to grab the marker pen and scribble all over Isabella's arms - a small miracle has occurred at what Emma has decided to call Henry's Table.
“Hey, kid,” Emma says, heading over. “You look tired.”
“I am,” Henry says, looking up at her with an incredulous expression. “Explaining stuff is hard.”
“Why d’you think I drink so much coffee?” Emma grins, poking him in the shoulder and eliciting a small smile. “You guys all doing okay?”
Nick and Paige barely glance up from where they’re absorbed in the last problem on the worksheet, chorusing a quick “Yeah, Miss Swan,” before turning their attention back to the problem, heads bent close together. Across from them, Eric watches with a faintly jealous expression; when Emma raises her eyebrows at Henry, he gets the message immediately.
“Eric, you did really good on question nine,” he says, with a wide, infectious grin that catches hold of that something warm in Emma’s chest, pulling it that little bit further out into the open. Eric looks up at him, chest practically swelling with pride.
“Yeah, you got it super-fast!” Henry tells him, beaming. “You all did,” he adds, when Nick and Paige look up. “Are you done with question ten?”
“Let’s see,” Emma says quickly, leaning over Nick and Paige’s shoulders with a pencil and flicking through the worksheet. Four faces watch her, all of them on tenterhooks, until she straightens up with a smile. “And...Yes, ten out of ten.”
Eric grins at Henry, Paige gives Emma another gap-toothed smile, and Nicholas ducks his head to smirk at his shoes; but Henry, after taking a few seconds to notice Emma looking directly at him, breaks into the widest smile Emma’s seen on him so far.
“Wow,” he says quietly, and Emma has to laugh.
“Yeah, kid,” she nods, ruffling his hair. “Nice work.”
She doesn't run into Regina again for another few weeks, by which time Henry has grown so much into his role as small-group tutor that Emma suspects him of trying to sneak in his own lesson plans on top of her assigned work. It’s Emma's very first parents’ night, and she's changed her shirt three times already today in preparation - it's like she starts sweating again every time Mary Margaret tells her to “Just have fun meeting them!” Still, the first few appointments don't go nearly as badly as she'd feared - Eric's dad is quick and to-the-point, asks a few questions about the curriculum, and leaves without even listening to her whole speech about behavior management; two of Briar Roses aunts show up, which is slightly confusing at first, but Emma quickly warms to their smiling, squabbling brand of caring; and Nala's mother takes up her whole ten minutes asking questions about standardized testing that Emma mostly has to promise to research and find answers for. It’s exhausting, especially after a full day of classes, but kind of fun - Emma finds herself gushing about students she hadn't realized she even knew that much about, and it's strangely rewarding just seeing how much what she says matters to her kids’ parents.
An hour in, Regina Mills slides into the seat opposite Emma, her red, neatly-applied lipstick nearly as distracting as the gold buttons on the military coat that she looks almost poured-into.
“Regina -” Out of the corner of her eye, Emma can see Mary Margaret fielding some of the more persistent parents’ questions, and something about having her mother/boss in the room with her makes her trip over her tongue. “Ms. Mills, thank you for coming in. How are you?”
“Fine,” Regina says, reaching into her handbag to draw out a leather-bound notebook and flicking through it quickly until she reaches a blank page. She stops, frowning. “Oh…”
“Here,” Emma says quickly, tipping over her jar of pens in her haste to lean over the desk and hand Regina a spare. “Oh, shit - sorry - “
Regina just watches her with barely-disguised amusement, waiting until Emma has picked up every last pen - making an incredibly undignified scramble under the desk for a few of them, upsetting the third-grade teacher and parent next to her and mumbling a red-faced “Sorry” - and sat back in her seat.
“Right,” Emma says, slightly breathless. “Where - where were we?”
Regina raises an eyebrow. “You tell me.”
“Right, so, Henry,” Emma manages, fumbling for words under Regina's direct, amused gaze. “He's been...settling in really well, I think. Handing in all homework assignments on time, so thank you for being so on top of that. And I haven't heard of him coming to any more kids’ defense with a right-hook, so. Good.”
“Good,” Regina repeats, eyes glittering. “I'm glad you think so.”
She's enjoying this, Emma realizes, slightly resentfully; shaking herself as subtly as she can, she pulls out Henry's most recently-completed project. “Yeah, I was really impressed with this piece of creative writing Henry did on Monday, he's really taking to the English classes and it's obvious he's got real creative energy…” She trails off, watching Regina helplessly. “Did. Did you have any questions?”
Regina considers her for a moment, and then, abruptly, asks, “Is he making any friends?”
Emma stops, brought up short. “Oh.”
She knows instantly that this was the wrong reaction; it's like shutters have come down over Regina's eyes, and she’s already closing the notebook - the page filled with a few lines of slanted, elegant handwriting - and doing up the clasps on her handbag. “That's all, then.”
“No!” Emma says quickly, her voice rising to a noticeable pitch in the noisy school hall - there's a brief lull, as a couple dozen parents and teachers swivel around to locate the source of the sound. “I think he is,” Emma says, quieter, her cheeks reddening as Regina stares at her. “Making friends, I mean. Has he talked to you about math?”
Regina breaks into a dry, sardonic smile. “Has he talked to me about math?”
“Right, stupid question,” Emma grins. “I meant math class, though.”
“He's taking his new laptop to school, I know that,” Regina nods. “It's good of you to let him work independently.”
“That's the thing, though,” Emma says, leaning forward in her seat; she can't help it, it's an instinctive urge to share, to tell Regina what her son has been doing so brilliantly - “He hasn't been.”
Regina stares at her. “What?”
“He's been helping out some of the other kids,” Emma grins. “During math class, I call it Henry’s Table, and anyone who wants a bit more help with whatever they're working on can go over there and have it explained to them again.”
“You mean he's being singled out?” Regina asks, her suspicion palpable. “The other students, they… You're encouraging them to think of him as different.”
“No!” Emma shakes her head, curls flying over both shoulders with the force of it. “No, that wasn't what I meant at all, Ms. Mills - Regina.”
Regina stares at her. “Then what?”
“I mean…” Emma sighs. “I mean, him sitting there with his laptop was always gonna draw some attention, too, right? The other kids aren't blind, we can all see we’ve got a really, really smart kid in our classroom - but he's….a part of math class, now.”
“Right,” Regina says slowly. “Well.”
“It's something he's good at - obviously, I mean, really, really good at,” Emma corrects herself, with a small grin that Regina, just barely, returns; taking the silence as encouragement to carry on, she adds, “And he gets to share it with the rest of the class - with his peers. His friends. I mean, Nicholas - one of my kids, he's kind of moody, he takes a while to get to grips with new concepts - he's basically imprinted on the kid, follows him around at recess, won't shut up about some trick Henry showed him for adding up a bunch of big numbers -”
“Nicholas,” Regina repeat, nodding. “I think Henry mentioned...the boy has a twin sister?”
“Ava,” Emma grins. “Yeah. Look, Regina - this is my first year teaching, and I can't say I was totally prepared for having a kid like Henry in my first unsupervised math class ever, but -”
“But you think he's settling in?” Regina asks. “Making friends?”
“I think he's made some friends,” Emma tells her, voice softening with a smile. “He's a great kid, okay? I think he's gonna do fine.”
For a few seconds, Regina just stares at her, eyes filled with something tremulous and hopeful. Emma looks back, willing her to believe her - willing Regina to know just how much she's rooting for Henry -
“I see,” Regina says, her voice low and warm. “Thank you, Emma, that's...good to hear.”
Emma smiles at her, watching as Regina stands up and gathers her things together. “Good,” she says, and then, because Regina still hasn't stopped looking at her and because she thinks maybe she hasn't screwed up completely with Henry, she adds, “Nice to see you again.”
“I - “ For a moment or two, Regina looks distracted, like she's just remembering where and when exactly they last saw each other - “Yes. You - you too, Ms. Swan.” And with that, she's pulled her coat closed tighter around herself, and swept from the hall.
“So tell me, Emma,” Mary Margaret says, bustling from kitchen to dining table with a tray full of roast potatoes. “How’s Henry Mills doing?”
Across the table from Emma, David winks at her. “What happened to no school talk?”
“I know, but, David -”
“Just this once,” he smiles, standing up and pressing a kiss to his wife's cheek. “I'm gonna go check on Ruth anyway.”
Emma watches him go, hearing the nursery door open and the one-year old Ruth's answering gurgles with something faintly acrid stinging the back of her throat. Pulling herself forcibly back to the dining table, she looks up; Mary Margaret is still watching her, waiting for an answer. Henry. Right.
“Henry’s doing great, mom,” she says, smiling as convincingly as she can manage. “He's going to the Zimmer twins birthday party, I heard them talking about it on Friday.”
“That’s wonderful,” Mary Margaret smiles. “I'm so proud of you for handling such a difficult situation in your first semester teaching, Emma.”
Emma frowns. “Henry’s not a difficult situation, mom.”
“Well, no, of course not,” Mary Margaret concedes, somehow managing to still look faintly injured as she corrects herself; Emma feels instantly a little bad. “But he's unusual, isn’t he? Needs some specialized attention?”
“I guess,” Emma shrugs. “He mostly wants to make friends and catch up to where everyone else is at, I think.”
“Catch up?” Mary Margaret asks, raising her eyebrows. “Really?”
“I mean, obviously he's a genius,” Emma laughs. “But he's still got to get used to having all these different subject lessons, all the attainment levels the kids are used to working towards, handling multiple choice quizzes and timed tests…” She trails off, slightly unsure of herself; to her relief, her mother smiles.
“Of course,” she says, standing up with an encouraging nod. “And he hasn't got into any more fights, has he?”
“He wasn't -” Emma breaks off, frustrated, and waits for Mary Margaret to return with a stack of plates and silverware. “He wasn't getting in fights, mom.”
Mary Margaret just gives her a look, setting out the plates while Emma deals with knives and forks. It’s an easy routine, one they fell into quickly once Emma moved in and one they haven't shaken ever since she's started sharing a two-bed apartment with Ruby and coming over for weekly Saturday lunches, but Emma still feels a little teenage, being handed silverware while her mother serves up.
“He did break a student's nose, Emma,” Mary Margaret says gently, sitting down and holding out one hand for Emma's plate. “Potatoes?” When Emma nods, she continues. “I know you see the best in him, and I think that’s wonderful! I only meant to say that he hasn't landed outside my office again since.”
Emma nods, taking her now-filled plate silently. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Mary Margaret smiles. “I'm glad.”
“Yeah,” Emma says, returning her mother's smile cautiously; ten years on, it's still something of a novelty, sitting here with Mary Margaret smiling at her, with her mother proud of her - “Thanks, mom.”
Lunch is over by the time the topic of Henry Mills comes up again; Emma is curled up on the couch, comfortably full and sleepy after two courses and a glass of white wine, baby Ruth balanced on her knees and gurgling happily every time Emma rocks her up and down.
David is busying himself with the record player, putting on some folky vinyl before turning around and catching Emma's eye with an easy smile that she returns readily. It's almost too easy, in moments like this, to forget that this hasn't always been the status quo - that Emma hasn't grown up with weekend lunches and record players and mom and dad and a baby sister - and at the same time, it's still just a little bit of a novelty, just a little bit addictive.
“Suits you,” David remarks, nodding a little at Ruth, who's falling asleep with her head against Emma's collarbone; Emma smiles, inhaling the clean-fresh smell of the baby's hair, and doesn't say anything. She knows what David's getting at, of course - neither he nor Mary Margaret are half as subtle as they think they are - but pretends not to process the hint, just closes her eyes and cuddles Ruth a little closer and waits for him to change the subject. “You are so good with your kids at school, as well,” David continues then, and okay, so no change of subject seems imminent. “Your mom’s been really impressed.”
“Always the tone of surprise,” Emma says drily; but she catches David's eye, and grins quickly. “Thanks, dad.”
The hint doesn't disappear though, hanging in the room like a lingering scent of a half-forgotten perfume - even though her dad doesn't press her on it, and even though she's grateful for that, Emma can't ignore the happy-sad, half-hopeful look that comes into both parents eyes when they watch her with Ruth. She doesn't know how to explain - how to begin to explain, really - so the subject just lingers on, never quite broached by either of them but the vastness of what they don't talk about almost palpable against Emma's skin.
“Coffee,” Mary Margaret calls out from the kitchen then, jerking Emma back firmly into the present day; she gets up, shifting Ruth's weight onto one hip, and goes through to collect the tray of mugs and a plate of cookies.
“Smells great, mom,” she says, swiping a cookie and stuffing it into her mouth before Mary Margaret can do anything about it and quickly rolling her eyes in bliss. “Tastes great, too, Ruthi, our mom’s a pretty awesome baker.”
“Thank you,” Mary Margaret says, shaking her head fondly. “Now set them out, we've got plenty of time!”
“Actually,” Emma says, brought up short.
Mary Margaret looks at her curiously. “Actually?”
“Yeah,” Emma nods; she feels suddenly awkward in the narrow space of the kitchen, loaded down with the baby and the tray, aware of the cookie crumbs left around her mouth and on her tongue, drying out her throat. “I should go soon.”
“Oh.” Mary Margaret doesn’t say anything else, doesn't ask any questions - but Emma can feel the waves of reproach rolling from her, and feels a familiar sinking in her stomach.
“It’s just I've got some reading to do for school,” she says quickly. “Henry’s got this new book of some really advanced math, and I want to at least try and understand it -”
“Oh,” Mary Margaret says, instantly brighter. “Oh, good.” She sounds satisfied, almost pleased with herself, and when Emma raises an inquiring eyebrow, she's only too happy to elaborate. “His grandmother, she said she would try and find him something more appropriate - “
“His -” Emma blinks, closing her mouth and swallowing down the immediate sense of outrage before trying again. “You talked to Henry's grandma?”
Mary Margaret nods, smiling widely. “She was so glad to hear from me, I think Henry's mom maybe hadn't been in touch for a while?”
“So you got in touch for her,” Emma says, her mind going a little blank; she thinks back, carefully, trying to remember anything Regina had said about her mother, or maybe Henry -
“She missed her,” Mary Margaret says, with real feeling. “I can...empathize.”
“Right,” Emma nods rapidly, her mind definitely going blank, her mother's words hitting some deep, scarred-over place she hasn't cared to look at in years now - “Yeah, okay. Here - “ she shoves the tray back down on the counter, shifting a slightly-grizzling Ruthi over to her other hip and fishing out her phone from her back pocket - “Sh - shoot, it's later than I thought, I better get going, mom, Ruby's having friends over for dinner and I want to get this reading done before then - “
She turns quickly, heading back to the living room and shoving Ruth at her father. “See you, dad,” she says, swallowing back the lump of something that's hovering somewhere near her solar plexus and forcing a smile. “I’ll text you about bringing the kids to the animal shelter, yeah? Great idea, thanks so much -”
“Okay,” David says, nodding slightly confusedly and bouncing Ruth on her hip as Emma grabs her jacket from the back of the couch. “Everything alright?”
“Course,” Emma nods, looking up at him and making sure her smile is wide and real. “Just lost track of time, you know. Bye, mom!” she calls towards the kitchen, waiting for Mary Margaret to appear in the doorway. “Thanks for lunch, it was awesome.”
“Of course,” Mary Margaret nods, her face creased slightly with puzzled injury. “Emma, are you sure you're okay?”
“More than sure,” Emma grins, taking a deep breath; and then, hating herself slightly for it but knowing it'll get her parents off her back like nothing else will, she adds, “Rubes wants to introduce me to someone tonight, so, gotta get ready…”
Mary Margaret's face clears instantly, her eyes dancing with barely-disguised hope. “Of course!”
“Say no more,” David grins, waving Ruth's pudgy fist at her. “Wish your sister luck, Ruthi!”
“She says good luck,” he smiles. “See you, kiddo.”
Emma smiles, her hand already on the door. “See you,” she says, pulling the door open and hurrying outside with her jacket still shrugged over one shoulder; she makes it all the way down to the street and out into the fresh air before she exhales.
Chapter 4: Regina III
The papers arrive a few days after Halloween. Regina had almost forgotten about Cora's parting words - I suggest you get a lawyer - and in the meantime, they've had almost a full month of peace. Henry has gone to the Zimmer twins’ birthday party and come back on a cake-and-ice-cream high, his face slightly sticky and his smile wide and infectious. They've gone apple picking on the weekend, Regina has had her weekly nights to herself while Henry watches DVDs with Marian, and he’s three chapters into his new book of problems. It's been...good.
Regina hasn't seen Emma again - has, in fact, avoided the Rabbit Hole entirely, choosing instead to spend her Friday evenings at another bar on the other side of town, ignoring the men who try to catch her eye and occupying a solitary table near the back of the room.
But it's still...good, really. The rhythm they'd had for six years - the universe of Regina-and-Henry, revolving around each other on the tightest orbits - has been replaced by a new one, one in which Henry goes trick-or-treating with kids his age instead of with his mom and his three-year old neighbor, one in which Regina has finally started making headway on the new book, sending off outlines and sample chapters at an unprecedented rate, one in which they still return to each other for weeknight dinners and weekend excursions. Henry has even - Regina thinks, Regina hopes - started to forget the shock of his discovery, brought on by a carelessly-worded school registration document that she hadn't read closely enough before letting him fill in his “All About Me” section.
And then the papers. A cold and crisp Thursday morning, Henry off at school, Regina making coffee in a warm sweater and socks. The knock at the door, the blank-faced delivery guy, the stiff brown envelope.
Your presence is required in family court.
A date, two weeks from now.
Please inform your legal representation of the requirements in calling witnesses and preparing evidence. Hoping you are well.
Regina blinks, with a feeling of emerging from a deep underwater tank - and sees Marian, pausing at the end of the driveway, dressed for a run with a knitted hat pulled over her black curls.
“Hi,” she says, too quietly for Marian to hear; doesn't offer any more, until the other woman has made the decision for her and jogged up the driveway. “Here.”
“What?” Marian wrinkles her forehead, eyes flying over the letter, and then exhales shakily. “Oh. Shit.”
“Shit,” Regina agrees, turning on her heels and heading for the kitchen; Marian follows, still reading, still with that deep line etched into her forehead.
“Okay,” she says eventually, looking up to find Regina pacing around her kitchen, pulling out mugs, plates and bowls at random, her hands moving too quickly for there to be much order to it - “Okay, slow down.”
“I’m busy,” Regina says, hearing the way her voice is shaking and doing her best to ignore it. “I have to - I need - “
“Regina,” Marian says, catching Regina by the arm and pulling her to a stop. “What? What do you need?”
To that, Regina doesn't quite have an answer; still, she jerks her arm free, shrugging her shoulders defensively. “I need to get on with…” She waves her hand around the kitchen, the countertops now disappearing under haphazard piles of crockery. “Cleaning these. And then… Vacuuming. And the curtains, and finding a fucking lawyer to go up against my mother, and -” She breaks off, drawing in a gasping breath. Her mother.
“Okay,” Marian says slowly, meeting Regina's eyes with a careful, searching look. “Okay, Regina, look, this is just a preliminary hearing to decide whether there should even be a case - “
Regina just shakes her head with a hollow laugh. “There will be,” she says dully. ”It's my mother. She's going to take him away from me, just when -” she blinks, hard, forcing back the tears she knows are waiting to spill. “Just when he's starting to be mine again, just like she has to take everything that's mine -”
“Then we'll fight her,” Marian says sharply, cutting off Regina's rush of words with a soft, careful hand placed firmly on her cheek. “Okay, Regina? Henry’s not going anywhere.”
“You don't know her, Marian,” Regina says bitterly; and then the rest of Marian's words seem to sink in. “We?”
Marian nods, rolling her eyes just a little at her friend. “You think you had to ask?” she asks gently. “So I don't think you count as legal aid exactly, but… I can take my own cases in my own time.”
“But,” Regina blinks again, confused, overwhelmed. “But you do criminal law. You hate private cases.”
“I don't hate you, Regina,” Marian says, smiling slightly. “I mean, if you want someone more specialized -”
Regina shakes her head quickly - now that Marian's offer has sunk in, now that the meaning of it has penetrated the fog that seems to have settled over her with the arrival of that hateful brown envelope, she already knows she can't bear to let anyone else into her confidence. “No,” she says firmly. “No strangers, not if… You're sure?”
“Regina,” Marian says, almost impatient again. “You think you're the only one who doesn't want Henry going?”
“Alright,” Regina says then, her cheeks warming a little with the force of affection that's rolling off of Marian towards her - towards Henry, of course, towards the life they've built here together. Maybe - just maybe - she's not as alone in this as she thinks she is.
Still, she feels pretty alone two weeks later, sitting next to Marian at a too-low desk, casting sideways glances across the courtroom to where Cora sits, her back regally straight, surrounded by a small kingdom of suited lawyers, all conferring in quiet, clipped tones.
“Ignore them,” Marian whispers, leaning across to take Regina's hand. “Just let me handle this, okay?”
Regina can only nod, not trusting herself to speak with the angry wasps’ nest of nerves buzzing around her chest.
All too soon, the judge - an elegantly-turned out woman in her forties, with her hair tied back into a strict bun and her slim frame emphasized by her blue skirt suit - is hitting her gavel on the pulpit, and the room falls silent.
“Next case,” she says, her clipped, sharp voice ringing out clearly in the room. “Custody for Henry Daniel Mills. Cora Mills, grandmother, versus Regina Mills, mother -” she blinks, her surprise palpable through the formalities, and looks between Cora and Regina. “Ladies, are you sure you don't want to simply step outside and discuss this between yourselves?”
Neither Cora nor Regina bother to grace the insipid question with a response; Regina just straightens her shoulders, folds her hands on the desk before her, and stares straight ahead. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees her mother do almost exactly the same thing, and the knowledge of how closely she's mirroring her is enough to send a shiver running down Regina's spine.
“Very well,” the judge sighs. “Opening statements, please.”
Across the aisle, the most energetic-looking man next to Cora jumps to his feet, approaching the bench slightly and starting to speak with a smooth, confident voice that Regina's sure comes off as meant only for the judge. “Your honor,” he says, and here, already, is the first shock - a British accent in this Storybrooke courthouse, an edge of sophistication that Regina knows her mother has planned as an advantage.
“Close to six years ago, my client woke one Saturday morning to find both her daughter and the then-four year old child living under both their care had disappeared from the home owned by my client. Ever since then, Ms. Mills has prohibited all contact between the child and my client, choosing to raise him in a town over state lines from his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, deliberately cut off from his de facto second guardian - his adopted grandmother, my client, Mrs. Mills.
“My client believes that the current home environment offered by Ms. Mills does not make adequate provisions for the child's welfare - at age four, he was working at middle-school mathematics level, and scored over 170 in a child's IQ test, placing him firmly in the genius range. My client was in the process of arranging an interview at a school for gifted children, as well as home tuition from professors at Harvard University in Boston.
“For the past six years, he has been home-schooled by Ms. Mills herself, and although she has recently enrolled him in elementary school, he has been placed in the fourth grade, with no formalized support at his intellectual level. Until my client tracked down Ms. Mills recently and brought a gift for the child, he did not have access to his own laptop, your honor.”
“Thank you,” the judge nods, blinking a little rapidly and looking already overwhelmed by the lawyer’s onslaught of accusations. “Ms. Alvarez?”
Regina swallows sharply, gripping her hands tightly together; Marian nudges her shoulder against hers before rising to her feet, shaking her hair back over her shoulders, and starting to speak.
“Your honor, my client is this child’s mother. She has soothed every scraped knee, sat over every fever, celebrated every success and commiserated every disappointment with him, from the day of his adoption aged less than two months old. My client made the decision, close to six years ago now, to move house with her son, to settle down in Mifflin Street here in Storybrooke - in a house in which she has been the sole tenant for all six years, and for which she has made every single rent payment on-time.” Here, Marian pauses, glances down at her notes before looking up at the judge and taking a few steps towards her.
“Your honor,” she says carefully, a smile softening her face and her hands slightly raised. “Regina - my client, Regina Mills - is this boy's sole guardian. As such, she has the same rights as any other parent to move with her child, to take her child to another town for her child's well-being. Henry is...a very unusual child, of course, but he isn't an unhappy boy. He’s grown up here in Storybrooke and he has, after a settling-in period, just started making friends his own age here at Storybrooke Elementary. Mrs. Mills’ claim that this is somehow bad for him is….unsubstantiated at best, and a direct attempt at retribution against her own daughter at worst. And that's all.”
A lull follows Marian’s words, during which she maintains direct eye contact with the judge and blanks out her opponents grim-faced looks from the other desks. Regina waits, on tenterhooks, until -
“Well,” the judge sighs, looking torn. “Thank you, both. We’ll have to make inspections of the child's home - thank you,” she says, nodding as the secretary makes a note.
“Is that it?” Regina asks, turning to Marian as she returns to take her place beside her.
“For now,” Marian whispers back. “They’ll want to assess your place before anything else.”
Regina bristles, knuckles whitening against the light wooden desk top. “My home is fine-”
“Just a formality,” Marian cuts her off, not unkindly. “So Judge Ghorm has a full picture.”
“Court will reconvene at a later date!” The judge's voice rings out clearly above the low level of whispered conversations. The hubbub dies down for a few seconds, as everyone scrapes back their plastic chairs and gathers up their things, and then re-starts at a louder, angrier pitch. Across the aisle, Regina can see her mother, standing upright and regal, seething at the center of her swarm of lawyers.
“Let’s go,” Marian says quietly, taking Regina's arm. “I don't want any scenes…”
“Scenes?” Regina asks, waspish, but following. “I'm not causing any scenes -”
“Alvarez,” one of the lawyers - the one who'd spoken, Regina thinks, though already they've all blended into a suited-white-men blur - calls out, his voice low and drawling. “We've got to stop meeting like this, people will talk.”
If Marian falters as she falls into step beside Regina, it's hardly noticeable; the two women head, resolutely, for the hallway outside the courtroom, for the big double doors out to the outside steps and the beckoning sunshine -
“Slow down,” the lawyer laughs, and Regina can hear him take a few jogging steps until he's fallen into step on Marians side. “Well! Isn't this a turn-up for the books, eh, Alvarez?”
Marian draws to an unwilling halt, dropping Regina's arm and closing her eyes briefly, clearly inhaling sharply to quell some rash impulse. “Killian,” she says finally, unsmiling. “How are you.”
“All the better for seeing you,” the lawyer - Killian, Regina thinks dimly, that fits the English accent, she supposes - grins.
Marian rolls her eyes. “Sorry,” she says, her voice breezy; only the slightest tension in her shoulders betraying any other emotion. “Wish I could say the same.”
The lawyer smiles, delighted. “Do you?”
Marian laughs then, flat and humorless. “No,” she says shortly. “Bye, Killian.”
“Now, then -” he steps in front of them, blocking their path to the exit. “Is that any way to talk to an old friend?”
“We aren't friends,” Marian says. She's leaning slightly into Regina now - leaning away from this Killian who's standing in her way - and Regina runs a soothing knuckle over her back. Marian swallows, drawing herself up into her full height and fixing the man with what Regina has long learned is her lawyer stare. “I suppose I'll be seeing you at the next hearing, Mr. Jones.”
“That you will,” Jones grins, languid and slow. “Although you don't have to lower yourself to private cases just to see me, Marian, you could always just ask me out…”
Marian snorts. “In your dreams,” she says, finally managing to dodge around Jones and grabbing onto Regina's elbow to pull her towards the exit. “Come on, Regina.”
“Actually, yeah, a bit,” Jones calls after her, sounding delighted to have landed one final point as Marian flinches and wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Might be seeing you in my dreams tonight, Alvarez.”
“Fuck off,” Marian exhales, as soon as they've pushed open the courtroom doors and emerged, blinking, into the late afternoon sunshine. She hurries down the steps, running one hand through her hair and walking so quickly that Regina has to practically run after her.
“Marian -” she calls, picking up the pace and following Marian around the corner to the side-street where she'd parked her car. “Marian,” she repeats, coming to a stop next to her and raising her eyebrows slightly at the wild, livid look in her friend's eyes.
Marian sighs, exhaling slowly as her shoulders slump and some of the tension seems to leave her body. “Sorry,” she says slowly. “It's just...Killian Jones.” She spits the words out with what would be uncharacteristic venom - had Regina not just met the man in question.
“Law school?” she asks, having already filled in a few of the blanks, and Marian nods. “God, Marian, I'm sorry for dragging you into this -”
“You didn't drag me into anything,” Marian says swiftly, shaking her head. “He's a fast talker, okay, your mom sure knows what she's doing, but…” she rolls her shoulders back, tossing her head with a familiar glint in her eyes. “I'm a better lawyer, and you're right, Regina, and we are going to win this.”
And she sounds so sure - so filled with conviction - that Regina can't quite bring herself to point out that she's the only one being subjected to home visits or children’s’ psychiatrist meetings before they even go to court for real. “All right,” she says, smiling - laughing a little as Marian pulls her into a swinging circle, the two women laughing in the wintry sunshine, Marian's hair flying out behind her and Regina's boots kicking up arcs of rainbows from the puddles at her feet.
“All right,” she repeats, warmer, coming to a breathless halt and letting her forehead rest against the shoulders of Marian’s suit jacket. It's like the brief moment of exhilaration has unlocked something, and all of a sudden Regina is so overwhelmed with the stakes and the speeches and Henry, Henry, Henry that she can barely breathe - “I….Marian, thank you, I - “
“I know,” Marian says simply, wrapping Regina in a warm hug and letting her draw a few, shaky breaths. “I know.”
It's wrong of Regina to let herself be lulled into a false sense of security, she knows it is, but the weeks up to Thanksgiving pass in such an uneventful blur that she almost can't help it. Every day passes much the same as the last - and every day is just a little bit different, made unique by Henry bringing back an art project, or filling dinnertime conversation with new topic they're studying in science, or nagging Regina for six days straight until she relents and buys him a cell phone that he uses mostly to swap “funny internet pictures, no, it’d take too long to explain, mom, go away” with a few of the boys in his class.
They spend Thanksgiving with Marian and Roland, like they have every year since moving to Mifflin Street; like every year, neither of them feeling much like subscribing to the whole turkey and pilgrims thing, Marian and Regina plan to order in pizza and let the boys watch as many cartoons as they want while they work their way through a few expensive bottles of wine. This year, though, Henry has brought home a paper chain of turkeys they'd made in art class, and is full of stories gleaned from classmates about cranberry sauce and stuffing - and so, grinding their teeth just slightly, Regina goes turkey-shopping and baked two pies while Marian bulk-buys the potatoes and sets Roland to mixing up the marshmallow topping with three-year-old gusto.
It turns into an extravagant affair, neither Regina or Marian quite knowing how to stop once they start bookmarking recipes, and all four of them spend a full two days immersed in cooking and baking. Marian snaps a picture of one particular moment, on the afternoon of the first day, when it's just Regina and Henry in their own kitchen, his little head bent close next to hers as they measure out ingredients for an apple pie, a cherry pie, and the required pumpkin pie, that Regina makes her desktop background a few days later. Every time she starts up her computer, the image of the two of them fills her with such a feeling of longing - longing for everything to stay the same as it is, right now, longing for this moment to last both their lifetimes.
And then, a few days later, it's back to school and work and extracurricular activities. Henry is auditioning for the junior wind bands January intake, practicing the recorder with something approaching religious fervor; Marian tells Regina to buy ear plugs. The home inspection takes place while Henry's at school - Regina spends all morning cleaning, and then takes the two court officials around the whole house, showing them Henry's bedroom, Henry’s bookshelves, the kitchen stocked with healthy snacks, the back yard, the tennis racquets dug out from a dusty “summer activities” box in the basement and given a quick polish before being placed in artful disarray in one corner -
The officials just take their notes, asking a few questions and saying very little; when they leave, Regina is left feeling strangely wrong-footed, like she's just failed a test after studying all month, and resolutely decides to put the whole day from her mind until she hears back from the courts.
Which she does, a week before Henry's due to finish up at school for winter break. It’s a Saturday, and they've just finished a breakfast of pancakes and bananas; Henry's washing up, and Regina has slipped into her winter boots to hurry through the newly-fallen snow to the letter box and back. Making a mental note that maybe they could clear the front yard this afternoon, and then build a snowman, she almost doesn't place the letter until she's already back in the house and heading back for the kitchen.
“What?” Henry asks, looking up from the sink and seeing his mother frozen in her tracks in the doorway. “Mom?”
Regina doesn't reply; just stares at the letter in her hand, the other bills and postcards falling to her feet - and then tears open the envelope in one fluid motion, her nails catching on the thick cream paper as she pulls out a single sheet of paper -
Her eyes fly over the words, taking in their meaning all-too-quickly but refusing to process it until she's reached the very last sentence.
“Mom,” Henry says again, more forcefully; she looks up, eyes wide and slightly disoriented in the bright morning light.
“Henry,” she says blankly; then, her fingers curling into fists around the paper in her hand, she stretches her lips into a reassuring smile. “How would you like to spend New Year's with your grandmother?”
Henry frowns, a crease appearing at the top of his nose. “Grandmother who came to see us?”
“Yes, in Boston,” Regina nods quickly, putting the letter down and forcing her hands to remain calm. “She's...invited you to spend a week with her.”
“Just me?” Henry asks, and Regina has to press her lips tightly together to stop them from shaking.
“Just you,” she nods, swallowing harshly. “She wants to get to know you a little better, sweetheart. Show you Boston, you can't remember it that well.”
“It’s...snowy?” Henry offers uncertainly, with half a glance at the swirling white flakes piling up outside the kitchen window, and Regina has to laugh.
“Very,” she nods, crossing the kitchen and lightly touching her hand to the back of his head. “And full of history, and nice places to go and eat, and…” Ghosts. “I’m sure you’ll have a good time.”
Chapter 5: Emma IV
Looking back, Emma doesn't know how she makes it through her entire first semester of teaching in one piece; what with field trips to the science museum, a round of standardized testing that makes the kids a little anxious for a week but seems to cause some of their parents to break out in hives, and the ever-present pressure of is Henry Mills doing okay, she doesn't really...switch off, ever.
“Which is the whole problem,” Ruby is saying confidently, legs swinging from where she’s perched on their rickety kitchen table, watching Emma try to rescue the remnants of a Christmas ham. It's the leftovers sent by Mary Margaret, a whole spare cut from the Blanchard-Nolan family dinner which had been....warm, and a little painful, like holding frost-bitten fingers too close to the flame for a few hours on Christmas Day - “Like, when did you last go out?”
“Three days ago!” Emma protests, her cheeks pink in the glow of the oven's warmth.
Ruby fixes her with a disbelieving stare. “Wine and cheese with the PTA moms at your parents’ loft,” she says. “Does not count.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “Fine,” she admits. “So I've been busy.”
“Way busy,” Ruby emphasizes. “What happened to going to the Rabbit Hole with me every Friday?”
“It's not like you go every week,” Emma protests weakly. “Anyway, the Rabbit Hole is so…” she pauses, shrugging vaguely. “So…”
“So Regina Mills, MILF of the Year-infested?” Ruby asks, a wicked smile curving across her lips, shrieking a little when Emma throws a dishcloth at her. “Just quoting you, Ems!”
“I did not say that,” Emma says flatly, and before Ruby can remind her of the mixed-drinks-and-a-crate-of-beer-for-Halloween evening, adds, “I didn't mean to, anyhow.”
Ruby nods, unimpressed. “Relax,” she says, grinning a little at the studied show of indifference Emma is trying to make while she stirs the potatoes on the stovetop. “Ms. Mills hasn't graced the bar in months, I don't think I even saw her once since…” she pauses, wincing.
“Since when?” Emma demands, rounding on her.
“Since you got talking that time,” Ruby admits, face twisting with sympathy as Emma's shoulders slump. “Em! I’m sure it’s got...nothing to do with…”
“Sure,” Emma say, forcing a smile and resolutely turning her attention back to the stove. As she stirs - water splashing up the sides of the pot, scalding her hands without her noticing - she counts slowly to ten, reminds herself again of her boundaries and not being interested anyway -
But Ruby said she used to come every single week -
And Emma had just gone up to her and acted like a complete idiot -
The rejection may only be hinted at; might even be mostly imaginary, what does she know of Regina Mills’ inner life, who's to say one slightly moronic fourth grade teacher even registers as a blip on her radar; but it still stings, and Emma still has to blink back a wetness that she can't quite blame on steam as she starts serving up her and Ruby's makeshift dinner.
And so, a plan is formed, partly because Ruby won't stop bringing it up, and partly because if Emma is at least safe at the bar then at least she can go and drown her injured pride in something toxic: New Year's Eve, the Rabbit Hole.
Ruby spends all evening alternating between the bathroom and the kitchen, primping and pre-gaming in equal measures, bringing Emma up to speed on the latest first date horror stories and badly-timed hook-ups that have all led her to the decision to finally do something about the hot, silent chick who she's spoken to all of three times in the last couple months but shared some pretty intense eye contact with over a game of foosball which Ruby knows she let her win.
Emma, for her part, gets through a few cheery Facetime calls from her parents - both of them clearly enjoying the excuse for day drinking that the Christmas break has offered, red-cheeked and giggling against each other’s shoulders, holding Ruthi up to the phone and instructing her in loud voices to say hello to her sister. Emma smiles; waves back; promises to be careful and to always keep a friend with her when she goes out (Ruby, tiptoeing to the fridge for a refill of white wine with her hair up in a towel, waggles her eyebrows suggestively); promises to join them the following day for their annual New Year's hike with the neighbors. Frostbite, open flame.
Finally, eight o'clock rolls around, and Ruby - who has spent the past couple hours in disorganized, vaguely languid activity - suddenly springs into motion. She hurries Emma into her bedroom, orders her to get ready, “Quickly, Emma –“ and by the time Emma emerges three minute later with a different shirt and her hair freshly-brushed, the living room has been cleared of all valuables, bowls with chips and popcorn litter all available counters, and a huge bucket of ice has been dragged in from the balcony and filled with bottles of beer.
Emma blinks, slightly lost. “I thought they were just coming here and picking us up?”
“Don't be stupid,” Ruby says impatiently, applying fresh lipstick in her reflection in the toaster. “We don't wanna get there at eight fifteen.”
Emma opens her mouth - and then thinks better of it, knowing there's no arguing with Ruby once she’s got a plan in her head. “Sure, Rubes.”
The buzzer goes a few minutes later, and Ruby's college friends, a shambolic group of three girls and two guys, all more or less on their way to being drunk already, spill inside. Someone finds the iPod speakers, and soon enough the apartment is filled with loud music, the heavy bassline pulsing up Emma’s feet through the carpet. Emma is introduced, or re-introduced, to the gang - Ruby seeming to forget that Emma has already met at least four of them last summer at her birthday - and is quickly drawn into a quickly-assembled game of blackjack on the living room floor that seems designed specifically to involve as much drinking by as many players in as short a time as possible.
Nine o'clock comes and goes, and Emma finds herself cornered on the couch, with one of the guys - a round-faced guy called Baljit, an early childhood education seventh-year senior with an untidy shock of black hair and a permanently-red nose - talking earnestly and very loudly into her ear about his boyfriends successes on the cross-country running team. She tries, more than once, to catch Ruby’s eye; but her roommate is now lying on the kitchen counter with her top pulled up over her chest and letting her ex-something who Emma swore was straight do body shots off her navel, and isn't paying attention to much else. Finally, Baljit - call-me-Bal - is drawn away to dance by who Emma has now assumed is his boyfriend, all smooth skin and lithe limbs and an incongruously stony expression, and she's free to stand up on the couch - just a little unsteady - and raise her voice.
“Okay, guys, I've called an Uber, can someone else get one so we can all fit?”
The noise - how can seven people make quite that much noise? - dies down a little. Ruby has sat up too quickly on the counter, her carefully-curled hair already loosening into slightly sweaty waves down her back. “Okay, mom,” she giggles, hopping down and hooking an unsteady arm around her friend. “C’mon, Ror, help me find my shoes...”
“I've got them,” Emma says swiftly, giving Rory a none-too-friendly smile and pulling Ruby to her side. “You can ride with me.”
“Sexy,” Ruby snorts, and then, leaning in to whisper in Emma's ear, adds, “I think me and Ror wanted to stay for a while, join you later…”
“Yeah, I know,” Emma grins, handing Ruby her jacket and pulling her out towards the hopefully-reviving night air. “And you're welcome.”
By the time they get to the Rabbit Hole, Ruby has remembered her original plans for the night - plans which absolutely do not involve “Another Ror shit-show,” - and had a brief nap with her face pressed against Emma's shoulder. The two of them, along with Bal and the boyfriend whose name Emma swears can't be Bag but that’s what everyone’s calling him, head inside, hand over their jackets at the door, and manage to grab a tiny table near the bar. Bal grabs a round of beers, and they settle in to take in their surroundings.
“I feel emasculated,” Bal says sadly, looking around. “Where’s all the hot guys?”
“At the lesbian bar?” Emma asks, grinning around her beer bottle when The Boyfriend (she will not call him Bag, just in case she misheard) places a possessive hand on Bal's knee with a long-suffering eye roll.
“Oh my god,” Ruby says, her voice ringing out high and clear in the noisy room. “Emma, look!”
Emma looks - and makes direct eye contact with Regina Mills, occupying a corner booth and nursing what looks like the largest glass of wine on the menu. For a few seconds, nothing happens - and then Regina smiles just a little, raising her glass in unmistakable acknowledgement.
“Rubes,” Emma whines, cheeks flaming red. “Indoor voices!”
“Yes, Miss Swan,”” Ruby rolls her eyes. “Go talk to her, idiot.”
“Don't call me an idiot,” Emma shoots back, nettled. “Miss Body-shots.”
“I can do what I want with my body and so can you,” Ruby fires back at her, smirking when Emma rolls her eyes. “Just go and say hi, she just cheersed you.”
Emma goes, crossing the room in far too short a time, blood rushing against her ears and making everything else seem kind of muted.
“Hi,” she says, arriving at Regina's booth and feeling instantly, mortifyingly ridiculous. “Didn't think I’d see you here.”
Instantly, she wants to die, the words landing flatly and inanely in the space between them - I didn't think I'd see you here? God -
“I haven't abandoned Henry on New Year’s, if that's what you mean, Ms. Swan,” Regina says, somewhat stiffly. “I'm not that unfit a parent, no matter what…”
“No, hey,” Emma cuts her off, alarmed. “I didn't mean - I just meant - Rubes said you hadn't been -” Oh, fuck. “It's good to see you,” she finishes lamely.
Regina raises an eyebrow disbelievingly. “It is?”
“I, sure, it's always nice to see…” Emma blinks, cutting herself off and managing to add, “Parents.”
“Parents,” Regina repeats. “And do you run into a lot of parents at the Rabbit Hole?”
Emma ducks her head, grinning into her hair; they're back on slightly safer ground now, and the booze has made her just a little bit looser in her smiles. “I guess not,” she concedes. “So this is a special occasion, right?”
“Well, as it’s a special occasion,” Regina replies, voice dripping with irony. “I suppose you'd better sit down.”
“I suppose I had,” Emma smiles, stomach fizzing pleasantly as she takes the seat opposite Regina and slams her bottle of beer down with what she hopes is a cool and confident swagger. “Hi.”
“Hello,” Regina replies drily, and for a few seconds neither of them say anything; Regina is tapping her dark red fingernails against the slightly-sticky table top, and Emma is mostly distracted by what she's wearing, a deep red dress with a plunging neckline that’s secured with a slim leather belt around her waist, and when she glances down to check the relative cleanliness of her own sneakers she sees stockings and her mouth runs dry.
“So,” she says, mostly in an attempt to force herself back into the present. “New Year’s at the Rabbit Hole?”
Regina rolls her eyes. “”Marian said I should get drunk.”
“My neighbor,” Regina says, and then adds, “Friend, good friend, and she's taken her son to a cabin for the holidays, they're going to...hike, or go sledding, or something.”
“Right,” Emma nods, grinning. “The outdoorsy type?”
“You have no idea,” Regina tells her, with a long-suffering drawl to her voice. “For Henry's eighth birthday she took us camping. Camping. In August.”
Emma snorts, her mind immediately filled with images of Regina glowering and applying another layer of bug spray while Henry splashes into a deep blue lake -
“So you're here while Marian is communing with the wild,” she grins. “And Henry?”
Regina face goes instantly, frighteningly, blank. “He’s spending the week with his grandmother in Boston,” she tells Emma, her voice clipped, and Emma feels her stomach sink. “As I'm sure you know.”
“No,” she says quickly, reaching across the table on impulse to touch two fingers to Regina's clenched knuckles. “No, what?”
Regina laughs, the sound hollow and devoid of pleasure. “Your mother didn't tell you?”
“My mother?” Emma blinks, feeling the conversation spiraling out of her control rapidly. “You mean Mrs. Blanchard?”
“Mary Margaret Blanchard, yes,” Regina says with gritted teeth. “My mother...Henry's grandmother has called court proceedings for custody.”
“Shit,” Emma says, the word falling from her lips before she can even fully take in Regina's words, and then winces. “Sorry.”
Regina shakes her head, dismissing the apology; she runs one hand through her hair in a fluid, agitated motion, but - Emma swallows - hasn't moved her other hand out from underneath Emma's fingers. Her skin is warm to the touch, soft.
“The judge has ordered a week of visitation, over the winter break,” Regina says lowly. “Before the…court resumes.”
“Shit,” Emma repeats feelingly. “God, Regina, I’m...I’m sorry.”
Regina shrugs, her eyes fixed firmly on the glass of wine but an agitated flush visible in the apples of her cheeks and spreading across the exposed inches of skin below her collarbone. “Yes, well,” she says. “Marian told me to get drunk.”
Emma raises her eyebrows at the solitary glass of wine, still mostly-untouched. “And you're trying to do it on that?”
Twenty minutes later, there are eight shot glasses lined up between them - four for each of them, and one each already emptied. Regina has just had her second shot, her lips still slightly stained by the sticky-sweet purple alcohol.
“You drink like a child,” she gasps, pulling a face, and Emma laughs.
“I'm not gonna pretend to like the taste of straight vodka,” she grins. “This tastes like grapes!”
“Something that might have been a grape in a prior life,” Regina concedes, still grimacing, and pushes the empty glass back into its place on the table. “Now, back to you.”
“Hit me,” Emma says, squaring her shoulders and fixing Regina with her best competitive stare.
“Who's the worst child in your class?”
“Oh, no, I love them all equally,” Emma says quickly - barely getting the words out before dissolving into giggles - “They're all wonderful, I don't have favorites -”
Regina doesn't even bother gracing the answer with a disbelieving question; just stares at Emma and says, “Take a shot, Ms. Swan.”
“No, no, okay,” Emma says, slightly breathless; she reaches up to tuck her increasingly-sweaty hair behind her ears, and thinks for a minute. “Ella Anders.”
“She sounds like a bitch,” Regina nods, smirking; Emma's cheeks flood with color, and she shakes her head as violently as she can.
“No, I mean, I'm sure she's wonderful, all children are wonderful, it's just…” She thinks of Ella’s simpering niceties, her perfect complexion and perfect French braids, that always-slightly-injured air that reminds Emma so unavoidably of her mother - “She's got a demon, way down deep in her soul.”
“Impressive,” Regina half-laughs. “Alright, that’ll do.”
“My turn,” Emma sings out, already thinking of what she could possibly ask, wracking her brains until - “What's your biggest fear?”
Regina raises both eyebrows at her. “There's a change of tone.”
“Yeah, well,” Emma replies breezily, not wanting to tell Regina that she's mostly stealing from a page of questions to get to know your crush in one of the magazines she used to read at her last group home - “I'm a really deep person.”
“I'm sure,” Regina half-snorts, already reaching for her third shot and tipping it back before Emma has time to protest. “God, what is that, strawberry? Why isn't it red?”
“Blue raspberry,” Emma admits. “You didn't have to, I can think of something else - “
“That I’m going to ruin Henry's life,” Regina says quickly, not looking away even when Emma's eyes start to burn from the closeness of her, the naked vulnerability in her expression.
“Regina,” Emma says softly, emotion rising up thickly in her throat. “You won't. You couldn't.”
“Ask my mother about that,” Regina says, reaching automatically for the last shot glass and tipping it back. “Peach?”
“Peach,” Emma confirms in a small voice, heart hammering sickly against her ribs. “Regina, you - you're doing such a good job with Henry, anyone can see that -”
“Thank you,” Regina says thickly, her tongue clearly still cloyed from the four shots in quick succession. “Ms...Swan, that's very nice.”
“I'm a very nice person,” Emma grins, tipping back a second shot herself, the rudimentary game of questions-and-answers already forgotten.
“Yes,” Regina says suddenly, making direct, searing eye contact, a previously-untapped kind of heat entering her voice. “You are.”
Emma stares back, feeling herself sway slightly towards Regina across the wooden table, her mind fogged over and her limbs slow to react as Regina reaches out to twist a curl of blonde hair around two of her fingers.
“You are...entirely surprising,” she murmurs, sounding half-distracted as her eyes skim over Emma's face. “Emma Swan.”
“I –“Emma swallows hard, snapping her mind back firmly to her students, to the school, to her mother. “Okay, I should just say that this can't, like -”
Regina drops the strand of hair, settling back in her seat and nodding dismissively. “Of course,” she says quickly. “I wasn't suggesting anything-”
“No, right, of course,” Emma agrees, all the warmth already dissipating from the air around them and the business-like expression on Regina's face almost making her doubt the heat from only seconds earlier. “Because, like, I teach your kid, and it'd be kind of professionally stupid, I just wanted to say, so we...so we’re on the same page.”
“Absolutely,” Regina says smoothly, helping herself to one of Emma’s neon-colored shots and flipping her hair back over one shoulder. “Now, I think it's my round.”
“More shots,” Emma calls after her, voice strangely jovial-sounding to her own ears, watching as Regina picks a way through to the bar.
“My round,” Regina replies, turning around at the bar with a glinting smile. “My rules.”
Emma laughs quietly, settling back into her seat and taking a few seconds to breathe while Regina orders in whatever inevitably-expensive, probably-sparkling drinks they're going to drink next.
By eleven thirty, they've worked their way through a bottle of champagne, swapping stories and memories, neither of them bringing up that strange, spirit-clouded moment of heat again and both of them (Emma hopes, Emma tells herself) putting it down entirely to the effect of the fruity shots she'd made them take. Regina has filled her in - with more detail than Emma really feels she has a right to ask for, but all too voluntarily given, Emma gets the feeling she just needs to tell someone - on the court case, on Cora's accusations of hiding Henry under a rock, on the home inspection and the slimy lawyers. There's a fierceness to how she spits out the worst details, an overflowing, all-encompassing love that burns so brightly in its possessiveness that Emma almost finds it hard to look directly at Regina while she speaks.
“Why did you leave?” she asks quietly, when Regina pauses at the end of her story. “Boston, I mean. Your mom’s place.”
“She was calling tutors,” Regina says flatly. “Making arrangements to tour special schools, I...knew where that led.”
Something in Emma is telling her not to push it any further, but - “How?”
Regina sighs, running her thumb around the edge of her champagne glass and watching the droplets collect against her skin. “I knew,” she says slowly. “Because I had been there. Until I was seventeen years old, I was in training to become a world-class concert pianist.”
She says the words so simply, so utterly devoid of any pride, that what could sound preposterous just sounds deeply sad to Emma; she bites her lip, and quietly asks, “What happened?”
“What do you think happened?” Regina counters bitterly. “What happens to any child prodigy before they get good enough? I cracked.”
Cracked. The word sends shockwaves through Emma's hands, the air against her skin shattering and splintering as she takes in the implications.
“Mother was let down, of course,” Regina says quietly. “But she let me stay with her, she supported me - financially - while I transferred a few of my performance credits into something more educational, she understood why I wanted to look into adoption when I did, she offered her home to Henry…”
“Wait,” Emma says slowly, the top of her nose creasing in confusion as she takes in Regina's words. “Adoption? Henry?”
“Yes, Henry,” Regina nods patiently, rolling her eyes slightly. “Surely your mother told you? She's the reason he - well. Regardless.”
“He found out,” Emma nods, head spinning with this new, altered image of Regina and Henry that's forming itself out of this information. “That's why he was hurting, back in September.”
Regina stares at her. “Was?”
“Well,” Emma shrugs, half-shaken by the intensity of Regina's stare. “He seems way more settled, you know? And he loves you so much, that was obvious from day one…” she trails off, shifting in her seat under Regina's gaze. “Sorry.”
“No,” Regina says quickly, feelingly. “No, don't apologize, that’s... It wasn't always so obvious from my point of view.”
“Oh,” Emma breathes, reaching out unthinkingly again and pressing her hand to Regina's forearm. “Regina…” And then her surroundings seem to shift back into focus, her garbled speech about boundaries and professionalism swimming to the forefront of her mind, and she snatches her hand back before Regina can do more than half-close her eyes, head tilting slightly towards Emma under her touch.
“Thank you,” Regina nods, after a slight pause; both of them, Emma’s sure, feeling the silence heavy with brushed-aside intent. “But I shouldn't go on so long about Henry - I'm sure you'd rather not talk about your students during your break - “
“I don't mind,” Emma protests smilingly, but Regina has already ploughed ahead, fixing Emma with a curious stare.
“Tell me,” she says, her rich voice drawing out the two syllables as she considers her next question. “Swan, not Blanchard? Or Nolan?”
Emma blinks, thrown. “Right.”
“Sorry,” Regina says quickly, with a quiet laugh. “If it’s something you'd rather not discuss, of course…”
“No, no,” Emma shakes her head, waving off Regina's concern. ”It’s a fair question, just...wasn't expecting it.” She rolls her shoulders back, thinking hard. The dramatic history of Emma Swan, told in four acts - it's a story she's condensed into bitesize-form many times over, but somehow the task doesn't get any easier.
“I grew up in the system,” she settles on eventually, keeping her voice low and her eyes fixed on the crisscross of scratches on the table top. “Group homes, foster parents, orphanages, you name it, I've been there… Hit the road when I was 16, feeling so cool but definitely getting in way over my head, um, long story short is I turned 18 while I was in jail for this stupid stolen watch thing, and they said I had the right to look up my birth certificate. And I did, and I wrote to Mary Margaret and David - turns out they're still together 18 years later, and they're super happy to hear from me, and… Three weeks later I'm on a bus to Storybrooke. Went to college here, Mary Margaret - my mom - encouraged me to think about teaching, and… That's it.”
A long silence follows Emma’s words, and she can feel her insides curl up with regret the longer Regina just looks at her, still and thoughtful.
“I was let out for good behaviour,” she offers weakly, trying to make light of the fact that Regina has just found out her son is being taught by an ex-convict - ”Clean slate.”
Regina rolls her eyes. “Please, Emma, you think that's what's given me pause?”
“Well, I don't know!” Emma half-laughs, relief coursing through her that at least Regina is still talking to her, at least they're still on a first-name basis -
“I was just thinking about your parents,” Regina says, her voice still strangely thoughtful. “You were a little vague on how you were placed into the care system in the first place. But they were already...married, dating?”
“Engaged,” Emma nods, wincing when Regina's eyebrows shoot up. “I know. I used to think, my mom and dad, they could only have given me up if they wanted me to have my best chance, if...whatever was going on was gonna be worse for their kid than group homes -” She blinks, not surprised but still vaguely angry to find tears, hot and thick, burning against her cheeks. “I mean, they had plans, my mom had college, I was… They weren't planning to have a baby then.”
Regina looks away, playing with her handbag on the seat beside her and giving Emma time to grab a serviette and wipe at her eyes. “Seems strange to me,” she says quietly, still not looking up. “But I'm glad you found each other in the end.”
“Yeah,” Emma nods quietly, aware of the thickness in her voice but somehow not quite minding, not with the warmth that's radiating off Regina's careful words. “I'm good, really. Thanks,” she adds, smiling helplessly across the booth as Regina looks up. “Thanks.”
Regina carries on looking at her - half-opening her mouth to say something, maybe to lean across the table and -
There's a loud ringing from the bar, one of the bartenders shaking their last-orders bell wildly while someone turns the lighting in the crowded room up from dim to practically-blinding, and a general cheers goes up as a countdown flickers into life on the TV screens, ticking down from five minutes.
Right. New Year’s Eve. Emma blinks, shaking her head slightly to clear the disorientation - she's aware of the people around her again in a way she hasn't been for over an hour, talking and talking with Regina, hidden away in their corner booth. Now, looking around, Emma can see Ruby waving furiously at her from the door to the street, her hair a mess and lipstick already irreparably smudged, swaying slightly where she stands but hand linked firmly around who Emma can only assume is the hot silent chick, silent no longer, laughing loudly into Ruby’s ear and already tugging her outside.
“You should join your friends,” Regina says, following Emma’s gaze and frowning. “Is that Miss Lucas?”
Emma grins, cheeks pink under the suddenly-harsh light, and ducks her head. “Come see in the New Year,” she says suddenly, standing up. When Regina just stares up at her, she sticks out a hand, wheedling, “Come on, there's usually a decent view of the town fireworks, you don't want to be inside at midnight…”
“Well,” Regina says slowly, reaching up and placing a warm, elegant hand in hers - pianist's fingers, Emma thinks, and then immediately wishes she hadn't, stumbling slightly against Regina as she stands up - “Alright, Ms. Swan, lead the way.”
“Right,” Emma says dumbly, her mind still terrifyingly blank. “Uh. This way, then.”
They head outside, the cold air hitting Emma's burning cheeks with a welcome shock, the noise of just minutes before dispersing into a background hum as the crowd peels away in pairs and groups to find a spot on the sidewalk. Emma leads the way to where Ruby and the others are standing in a circle, stamping their feet in the cold, and comes to a stop with Regina close beside her.
“Hey, stranger,” Ruby smiles across at her, managing to fit both affectionate and leering into her look across at Emma. “Em, guess what? Guess who Moo also dated?”
“Moo?” Emma repeats, uncomprehending - Bag was bad enough -
“Mulan,” the girl holding hands with Ruby fills in, blushing when Emma grins, and says,
““Silent hot chick’s got a name, got it.”
“Shhhh!”” Ruby shakes her head wildly, her hair flicking across Mulan's face, who just smiles and loops a hand around her waist. “Em-ma!”
“Nice to meet you, Mulan,” Emma grins, sticking out her free hand for Mulan to shake; dimly, she's aware of Regina's light pressure on her other. “I’m Emma, Ruby's roommate, this is Regina - “
“Hey, Ms. Mills, “ Ruby grins, waggling her fingers at Regina with an overt wink at Emma. “Fancy seeing you tonight.”
Emma feels herself blush, whispering a pained, “Ignore her, please,” at Regina but not quite being able to hide her smile.
“Miss Lucas, isn't it?” Regina asks, arching an eyebrow. “Nice to meet you.”
Ruby nods, already half-distracted again, swaying across the loosely-formed circle to stare directly at Emma. “Anyway,” she emphasizes, widening her eyes at her. “Guess who Moo dated?”
Emma wrinkles her nose, and shrugs. “The guy from the corner store you had a crush on?”
“No, dumbass, and gross, I did not “ Ruby shakes her head, impatient. “No, Ror! She knows Ror!”
A slow smile spreads across Emma's face. “Right...“ Well, she supposes it's as good a point of connection as any.
“I wouldn't say dated,” Mulan offers, over the top of Ruby’s head, and Emma nods wearily.
“Yeah, I know Rory,” she grins. “Got away unscathed, though?”
Mulan smiles, dimples appearing in the corners of her mouth as she glances at Ruby, unconsciously pulling her closer and settling a hand more securely around her middle. “I guess so.”
The countdown has started around them, crowds of people chanting down from thirty -
“You know, I've never got that, why do they have to start so early?” Emma asks. “Like, wait for the ten like everyone else.”
Regina laughs next to her, low and rich. “Not everyone has the attention span of a four year-old.”
“Fourth grader, thank you,” Emma shoots back, stomach fizzing pleasantly in the exchange, and this is good, this is a great New Year’s Eve, she doesn't need anything other than this teasing back-and-forth and Regina's hand, warm in hers -
“Zero!” Ruby shout, at least three seconds early, grabbing Emma’s face in both her hands and planting a messy, laughing kiss to her lips. “Happy New Year!”
“Happy New Year, Rubes,” Emma grins, nudging her slightly back to a distinctly disgruntled-looking Mulan. Ruby takes the hint enthusiastically enough, curling both arms into the front of Mulan's shirt and kissing her long and slow, the two of them instantly lost to their surroundings. Emma laughs quietly, looking down at her sneakers, scuffing them in the small flurries of slushing snow left on the sidewalk. Out of the corner of her eye, she's aware of a few bursts of colors - the fireworks show has started, a few streets over in the town park.
Regina's hand is still in hers.
By the time Emma looks up, dragging her eyes over the wine-colored dress and the full, rich smile and the frost-flushed nose up to Regina's eyes, something has shifted in her chest, come loose.
“Happy -” Regina starts, her voice thick with something sweet and intent. New Year, she might have said next, but Emma is already closing the gap between them, her feet stuttering towards Regina's until they are toe-to-toe, their hips coming flush up against each other and Regina's hand tightening its grip on Emma’s.
“Happy,” Emma murmurs, curving her head down towards Regina’s. New Year, she might have said, if she had any air left to speak at all, if Regina wasn't already raising her face to hers, if her lips weren't already sliding over Emma's as the world shifts in red-green-blue-yellow explosions behind them.
“Tell me there’s no way,” Emma gasps against Regina's neck, hot and needy, her hands working overtime as she tries to shell out of jacket, shirt and t-shirt all at once, disorientated in the unfamiliar bedroom.
“Henry is in - yes -” Regina hisses, throwing her head back suddenly as Emma’s teeth and tongue find a sensitive point above her collarbone. “Boston - for New Years -“
Emma nods, too preoccupied with her stupid number of layers to pay much attention to specifics, until finally she's down to her bra and can toe off her sneakers, all the way stepping forward as Regina steps back, leading her to a huge, expanse of sheets and pillows until the backs of her knees hit the bed frame.
There, Regina stops, looking up at Emma with her lips slightly parted; Emma, her skin exposed in the dim light, feels a sudden burst of shyness and half-consciously crosses her arms over her chest.
“No,” Regina said, softly taking hold of each of Emma’s hands and drawing them back down to her sides.
Her eyes rake up Emma’s sides, over the now-scuffed hems of her jeans and over the beat-up leather belt she once stole from a thrift store and has worn pretty much every day since, up the lines of her stomach and over the plain black bra and the exposed curve of her shoulder, her hair already a mess of fly-away curls and strands stuck with snow or sweat to the sides of her neck.
Emma shivers, the intensity of Regina's gaze only fully hitting her once Regina reaches her face, once Regina reaches up with one hand to run the tip of her finger over Emma's lips; Emma closes her eyes at her touch, her mouth falling open just enough to let Regina's finger dip against her lower lip.
Regina pauses there, eyes heavy with intent; and when Emma closes her lips around her finger, drawing it a fraction of an inch further into her mouth, she hisses in a long, shaking breath that only resolves into an exhale once Emma lets her mouth fall open again, Regina's hand slowly falling back down to her sides..
“God, Regina,” Emma laughs, the sound somehow softening the tension in the air between them enough for her to cross the narrow strip of carpet in her bare feet, raising both hands to cup Regina's face and draw her hair back behind her eyes. “God.”
“What?” Regina asks quietly, her eyes forming a question that seems answered as soon as Emma's hands drift down to her shoulders, fingers slipping under the neckline of her dress and slipping it down over first one shoulder and then the other. She works quietly, methodically, inching each sleeve further down until Regina can pull her arms free in one fluid motion, the dress pooling around her hips and leaving her chest and stomach completely bare under Emma's eyes, her hands, roving over the exposed skin with a hungry, barely-contained kind of wonder until -
Her hands find the curve of Regina's waist, one leg working its way between Regina's, and the sudden forward motion sends them both back onto the bed, Regina's back hitting the mattress and Emma's weight coming to settle onto the dips and swells of her hips, drawing a surprised hiss from her teeth.
Emma pauses, flattening her hands onto the mattress and raising her hips up just enough to take her full weight off the bed.
“Is this okay?” She asks, voice dropping with shaking nerves -
In place of an answer, Regina links her hands behind Emma's neck, rolling them both over with graceful ease until Emma is flat on her back and staring up at her, her legs spread over Emma’s waist and her eyes filled with heat, pure and unmistakable, as she runs her hands up Emma’s sides.
“Tell me again,” Emma murmurs, looking up at her from behind half-closed eyes. “Tell me again there's no way -”
“Ms. Swan,” Regina cuts her off, hands tightening almost imperceptibly against Emma's shoulders. “Be quiet.”
Emma smiles, letting her head settle more comfortably against the cushion that's wedged itself behind her neck; and is only too happy to comply, to let Regina's hands, sure and smooth, lead her into a silence thick with desire.
Emma wakes suddenly, moving from deep oblivion to blinding, aching awareness in what feels like a single second; her eyes open, taking in the bright, frosty sunshine, and immediately close again.
Slowly, carefully, she takes stock of her surroundings. A soft blanket, draped over her hips and pulled up to her chest; one striped sock, ludicrously, the only item of clothing that's survived the night; a dull, pounding headache starting to take shape at the base of her skull; and Regina, asleep and somehow managing to look utterly perfect even with a sheen of sweat sticking her hair mostly across her face, fluttering with every exhale.
Emma smiles, reaching out and brushing a few strands out of Regina's eyes, letting her fingertips graze along her cheekbones and the curve of her ear. She lies there for a few minutes longer, watching the morning light play across Regina's features; god, she’s in trouble.
Slowly, though, Emma is more and more aware of the uncomfortable dryness in her throat, and then of the need to find a bathroom first and a glass of water second. Pressing a self-indulgent kiss to the curve of Regina's shoulder, she tugs the blanket around herself for warmth in the wintery morning, and pads slowly to the door.
The very first thing she sees when she reaches the landing is a ten year-old boy, a knitted bobble-hat still pulled over his hair and a packed suitcase sitting next to his coat, flicking through a pile of mail and opening each Christmas card addressed to him. Emma shrieks, pulling the blanket tighter around herself, instantly, mortifyingly aware of how little it really covers -
Henry glances up, and stares at her.
For a long, painful moment, neither of them says anything. And then a slow smile spreads across his face, transforming the shock into pure mischief. “Good mor-ning, Miss Swa-an,” he intones in a quiet sing-song, grinning from ear to ear at the sight of Emma gaping at him helplessly.
Emma swallows, and manages a weak, “Good morning,” before turning for what she thinks is the bathroom and hastily barricading herself inside.
Chapter 6: Regina IV
The first of January is a hungover, embarrassed ordeal that Regina gets through on about ten cups of coffee and the Henry-distracting powers of a new Planet Earth box set on TV all afternoon while she suffers in abject misery, mixed in with a healthy dose of self-loathing.
Emma, of course, had left just as soon as she possibly could, tugging on her clothes and avoiding Regina’s eyes even when shed followed her out to the waiting cab -
“Please, I need to be...several thousand degrees less hungover to be having this conversation,” she’d said with a tired smile, and that had been that.
Henry, of course, had been all wide-eyed innocence when Regina had rounded on him with all the frustrated fury she could muster. “Grandma put me on an early flight!” he had said, immediately launching into a long-winded explanation involving a research trip invitation to Canada and a promise from grandma - she’s grandma now, not grandmother - to make it up to him by a trip in Business Class and another visit to Harvard planned in the spring when more of the professors who are all really excited to meet him will be around, and ending with a smirking, “Anyway, why should I care if you like Emma? I like Emma!”
Any and all attempts by Regina to get him to revert to Ms. Swan, of course, prove utterly futile. By the time he goes back to school, at least, she's recovered sufficiently to have a serious conversation about not making Emma feel awkward in the classroom and not being a smart-ass just because you know a secret, and Regina thinks - Regina hopes - that's the end of that.
Until, of course, Emma is called into the witness box.
“Now then, Miss Swan,” Jones - back in Storybrooke despite both Regina and Marian’s fervent, half-serious hopes of him being involved in some mysterious boating accident over the last couple of weeks - drawls, pacing up and down in the stuffy, overheated courtroom.
Emma, standing in her fenced-in spot next to the judge, has been making studious eye contact with her own shoelaces, but now looks up and shoots Jones a wary smile. “Yeah - yes?”
“You’re Henry Mills’ class teacher, correct?”
“Correct,” Emma nods quickly, eyes brightening with focus as she gets the first question right - next to Regina, Marian places a brief, warning hand on her shoulder, and Regina settles her instantly responsive smile into something slightly more business-like.
“So you've been teaching him for...four months now, more or less?” Jones asks.
Emma nods again before seeming to remember the rules of the courtroom, and leans forward to say, “Yes, since the start of the fall semester,” into the microphone.
“And in that time, has Henry been a cause for concern in any way?” When Emma, resolutely, shakes her head, Jones smiles indulgently, and adds, “Introducing a home-schooled boy into a busy classroom at the age of ten has to be difficult, how on earth did you manage?”
“Well -” Emma shifts slightly in her seat, chest practically swelling at the praise. “Obviously he's super gifted, in Math especially, he scored a perfect 800 on an old SAT test I let him sit, which -” she turns half-apologetically to the judge - “Sorry, that's the standardized test at the end of high school, so he's easily eight or nine grade levels over his age group - anyway… Yeah, since then I've mostly let him work on his own math books, I know his mom gives him stuff, and he just got a laptop, and sometimes he helps out the other kids.”
“He's been given a role with responsibility over other children?” Jones asks; Marian winces, and Regina is uncomprehending until, when Emma nods, he adds, almost casually, “When he could be learning?”
“That's not –“ Emma, flushing angrily, takes a second to collect her thoughts. “Peer-led learning, Mr. Jones,” she continues, voice stronger now. “Is really important for everyone, and it fosters important social links between all of my students - who I all have an equal responsibility of care and education over, including Henry.”
“Of course, no one's denying that you're doing your best, Miss Swan,” Jones smiles, and again Marian has to place another warning hand on Regina's arm as she tenses in her seat - “Let’s move on for now, can you tell us about the incident on the school bus?”
Emma stares at him, eyes suddenly fearful. “There was some teasing going on, some bullying, really,” she says quietly. “A couple of sixth-graders were hounding August, this tiny six year-old, and they trashed his art project, and Henry...went to his defense.”
“He broke a boy's nose, didn't he?” Jones asks, his tone light and conversational; Emma rolls her eyes at him, and Regina feels a sudden bolt of pride running up her spine.
“He acted way out of line, yeah,” she admits. “But the principal spoke to his mom, and he served his time in lunchtime detention, and gave a really nice apology when he came back to class the next day - and nothing like that has happened since.”
“Nothing?” Jones asks, and when Emma shakes her head, he presses, “Nothing at all?”
“Nothing,” Emma insists - catching Regina's eyes for the briefest second - “I swear.”
“What about the day after his return from winter break?” Jones asks, and Emma closes her eyes. “Spent a week with his grandmother in Boston, didn't he? Flights and all expenses paid, an amazing experience for any ten year-old lad, I'm sure…” When Emma just nods, her face assuming a pale and drawn kind of look, he presses on. “And then he starts a fight in the playground on the first day back.”
“I wouldn't have said he started a fight,” Emma protests, slightly weakly. “It was a scuffle at recess, nothing serious, no one hurt, and they were...going at each other kind of evenly from what the teacher who saw it said, and Phillip didn't say Henry just attacked him out of nowhere or anything.”
“No,” Jones agrees, with a sideways nod as if conceding a point to Emma, before moving on to his next attack. “But the other boy - also in your class, yes? This Phillip? - did say Henry, and I quote, ’took a stupid joke out of context’ and that's how it started. With a stupid joke that a boy in your class made about Henry’s mother, that Henry took out of context.”
A silence follows Jones’s words, clearly calculated to cause as much shock as possible; the judge is leaning forward in her seat, resting her chin on both hands, her fingers steepled together as she gives Emma’s questioning her fullest attention.
“Ms. Swan?” she asks, when Emma doesn't say anything for a full thirty seconds.
“Objection,” Marian calls, half-raising out of her seat. “If my colleague has a question for his witness, he should ask it now -”
“Alright, alright,” Jones grins, raising his hands in mock defeat. “I’ll come to my point, Miss Swan; do you really think Henry Mills’ presence in your classroom could be called a stable one, seeing as how he’s apparently gotten into so many little scuffles that you - or your principal, maybe protecting her daughter’s first teaching experience from too much scrutiny - don’t even bother informing his parents, excuse me, his mother?”
“Yes,” Emma says, her voice taking on a sulking note; and Regina doesn't even need to gauge Marian’s reaction to know that the way the judge’s eyebrows have shot upwards is not a good sign. “Yeah, I do.”
Jones smiles, raising his hands slightly and giving Cora - regal and silent across the aisle from Regina - a rueful smile. “Well, then,” he says, taking a deep breath and clearly deciding - or making a show of deciding - to switch tack for now. “Let’s move on a little, or move back, rather... Maybe you can answer me this, Miss Swan.” He pauses, taking a few calculated steps towards Emma; Regina can see her straightening her shoulders, squaring up to him as best she can, hemmed in by decorum and the witness box as she is. “Do you recall where you were on the 16th of August, 2001?”
The effect on Emma is instantaneous and bewildering; the color seems to drain from her face, and she visibly sways in her seat. “I was serving time for a misdemeanor,” she manages, with an apologetic grimace towards Regina's desk. “In a juvenile correctional place in Massachusetts. Why?” she adds, a word directed purely at Regina, her eyes wide and fearful -
“Can we stop?” Regina whispers to Marian, but Marian just shakes her head, lips pursed.
“Let me listen.”
“But,” Regina tries again, tugging at Marians arm - “But it’s -”
“Surely you can be more specific than that, Miss Swan?” Jones asks, stalking towards the witness box with cold precision. “The 16th of August. Do you remember?”
Emma just nods her head once, a jerky motion that seems almost forced from her spine without her doing -
“I’ll need you to speak up a little, Miss Swan,” Jones says loudly, eyes glinting with the held anticipation of whatever ludicrous reveal he’s about to make -
“I gave birth in jail,” Emma says, her voice dropping to barely more than a whisper, and Regina feels the world drop out from under her.
“You gave birth in jail,” Jones repeats, satisfaction etching every syllable. “And, seventeen years old, a few more weeks of jail time left, you decided the best thing to do would be to give it up for adoption. Let someone else take care of your mess.”
There's a roaring sound pulsing through Regina's ears; dimly, she's aware of a hush that falls as she scrapes back her chair and makes to stand up -
“No,” Marian hisses, pulling her back down. “Let me, just wait -”
“Miss Swan,” Jones is saying, filling Emma's terrified silence with an oily, satisfied smile. “Do you happen to know Henry Mills’ date of birth?” When Emma shakes her head mutely, he’s only too happy to fill in the silence some more. “It’s the 16th of August, 2001. He was adopted from a private organization a few days later - by one Regina Mills, who signed a completely closed adoption, and was at the time a resident of Boston, Massachusetts.”
A long, drawn-out silence follows his speech, during which Marian curses under her breath and Regina just stares at Emma, at this woman who, a few days ago, she might have said was responsible for an unexpected, unquantified amount of sudden joy - and now, if she’s to believe the words of her mother’s lawyer, Emma Swan is the very same woman who’s going to take it all away from her.
“Henry…” Emma says then, instantly drawing every eye in the room back to her. “Henry is…” she draws in a shaking breath, her lips remaining slightly parted and her eyes shining with - is that wonder? - “Henry came from me?”
“Your flesh and blood,” Jones nods, approaching the bench and holding out a piece of ornately-stamped paper. “And we have the birth certificate here to prove it, your honor. Now, Miss Swan, I’ll give you a moment to think about this one, but I’ll ask you again.” Jones casts a sweeping hand across the courtroom, lingering over Regina and Marian, before landing back on Emma in the witness stand.
“Knowing that Ms. Mills took your son away from Boston, a home where his grandmother had valuable connections to MIT and the Harvard mathematics professors - a home where his talents would be properly fostered and grown - and hid him away here in Storybrooke, away from all professional help until after his tenth birthday…” he starts, walking up and down with the air of a man who knows he is holding the entire room in the palm of his hand.
“Do you really think your son has had the most stable, or the most nurturing, home environment to this date? The kind of upbringing he would have kept on being subjected to if he hadn't landed in your classroom and immediately raised some alarm bells with educators… I seem to remember the principal needing to call Ms. Mills in on the first day of school?”
“He wanted to go home,” Emma mumbled, clearly seizing on the first thing in Jones’s speech that actually sounds like a tangible sentence. “It was all totally new for him.”
“Quite,” Jones nods, again sounding only too happy to concede a point to Emma - to let her feel, for a few seconds at a time, like they’re on even footing before his next chance to pull the rug out from under her. “But, you can be honest now, what is your first reaction in finding out that your son is a genius - the kind of boy who could overtake Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick in his sleep someday - and that he’s being sent to a fourth grade classroom here in Storybrooke, a town with a community college and the nearest University of Maine building half an hour’s drive away?”
Regina can hear his mother’s influence in the lawyer’s words - wonders, fleetingly, how long she’s been sitting on his bombshell and how much further she’s going to spin the rack before giving Regina even a moment of respite - but when she glances across at Cora, she sees barely any change beyond the faintest tinge of color to her mother’s cheeks, the faintest rigidity to her spine as she listens to her lawyer continue his line of attack.
“My reaction?” Emma's voice sounds hollow, as if she’s speaking from a great distance; and, whatever furious emotion is being pulled to the surface in this courtroom, Regina knows in that briefest of pauses that Emma didn't know, that Emma is as devastated, as shocked, as she is - “I’ve....already told you what I think about Henry’s home life, Mr. Jones. As Henry’s class teacher.”
“Oh, I like her,” Marian whispers, seeming to exhale for the first time in minutes; Regina, biting her lip carefully to hide her instant smile, quietly nods her agreement before turning her full attention back to what is being said in the courtroom.
“Yes,” Jones is saying a little impatiently. “But as Henry’s birth mother, surely you feel -”
“Objection, your honor, leading the witness -” Marian starts, but Jones just waves her off.
“I’m simply asking Miss Swan how she feels, your honor. Finding out that her son, a certified genius by any scale, is being hidden away under a rock by the woman who adopted him.”
“I already told you,” Emma repeats blankly, her shoulders straightening out as she retreats behind whatever armor she’s decided will best see her through the next couple of minutes. “As Henry’s class teacher, I’ve always held Ms. Mills in the...highest regard.” Here, she glances down, and Regina thinks she can see the reason why in the pink flush spreading above the neckline of her printed blouse, surely borrowed from Mary Margaret for the court appearance - “In a ton of ways Henry seems like any other kid who's been sent to elementary school kind of late in the game...He's a bored kid, and bored kids need some specialized attention, sure.”
“Tutoring? Smaller class sizes?” Jones asks, pouncing on Emma's silence as she gathers her thoughts, but she just gives him a wary look before carrying on:
“You can't get any smaller class size than one-on-one, and that's what Regina - what Henry's mom is already giving him, by letting him study at his own pace with math worksheets and problems following a graduate-level textbook in advanced algebra.”
“A book introduced to him by my client, Mrs. Mills,” Jones throws in, with an indulgent, superior smile meant mostly for the judge; who, Regina is rattled to see, is still following his questions with the same intent, narrowed focus in her eyes. “You say before that, Ms. Mills was sending Henry to school without any additional work ready at all?”
“I think Ms. Mills wanted Henry to take a few weeks to get to know his classmates and catch up to our other subjects, social studies and languages and stuff,” Emma throws back, her voice stronger now, eyes skittering to meet Regina's before darting away again but an unmistakable fight straightening her spine as she stares down the lawyer still relentlessly throwing question after question at her.
“As his class teacher, I have to say I fully support that choice - Henry had time to settle in, get used to group learning, before starting off his own independent work in the classroom context… But,” she adds, drawing breath for emphasis, and curling both hands into fists against the wooden barrier in front of her, “He used to talk about all the stuff he was learning, all the new math he was hearing about at home, from his mom after school and on the weekends… She’s dedicated her whole life to him, to making sure he’s happy, making sure he’s growing up right - I think it’s kind of obvious to any educator how loved that kid is.”
Emma swallows, looks up - and directly at Regina. “How much his mom is acting in his best interest,” she says quietly. “And...If I’d known? I would have been so psyched to hear about that kid getting a home like that. A mom like that. Anyone trying to take Henry away from right where is, right now, doesn’t really know what the hell they’re talking about.”
A long, to Regina’s ears somewhat breathless, silence follows Emma’s words, until the judge clears her throat and looks inquiringly down towards Jones, and Cora’s whole half of the courtroom. “Mr. Jones, any further questions?”
Jones, lips pressed tightly together with displeasure, shakes his head briefly. “No further questions, your honor,” he says curtly, turning on his heel and stalking off to flounce into an empty seat behind Cora in silence.
“Then…” the judge turns, with a clear and concerted effort at impartiality, towards Regina and Marian. “Ms. Mills, in light of...recent evidence, I’m granting a stay in the case, to allow you to inform Ms. Alvarez best of how you wish your case to proceed.”
Regina nods stiffly, not saying a word until Marian digs her lightly in the line. “Thank you, your honor,” she manages. ”We appreciate it.”
“Ms. Swan -” Here, Judge Ghorm turns in her seat, speaking directly towards Emma. “In custody cases such as this one, the State of Maine does ordinarily give credence to the natural parents’ recommendations -”
“Regina,” Emma says immediately, cutting her off. “Henry stays with Regina.”
“Yes, I had a feeling you might say that,” the judge nods, allowing herself a tiny smile that sends the faintest embers of hope flickering up dangerously high in Regina’s chest. “However, when you consider the complexities, and your involvement as the child in question’s class teacher…” she pauses, her voice rising slightly to address the whole room. “The court will adjourn for the time being. Safe drives home, everyone.”
A bang of the gavel, and the day is done
The week that follows is one of the longest in Regina’s life. Marian - who knows everything, because she always knows everything - has a long phone call with Emma Swan and then refuses to tell Regina anything more than, “She’s on our side, you don’t need to worry about her,” and telling her not to make contact. Regina - fuming, frightened - doesn’t feel much like seeing Emma anyway, and nods.
Henry, however, is a different story.
“I had to move class,” he tells Regina, coming home from school the next Monday burning with outrage. “To Miss French’s classroom.”
“I see,” Regina says, briefly turning her back and fiddling around with the apples in a fruit bowl on her kitchen counter. “Are you hungry, sweetheart? Can I get you a snack?”
“I miss Emma,” Henry says, swinging himself into a chair at the table and sinking his chin into both of his hands. After a brief pause, during which Regina’s mind is still completely blank, he mumbled, “And can I have a cookie?”
Regina smiles, nods. “I think we can do one better than a cookie,” she says, pulling out the measuring cups and starts assembling the ingredients for a batch of muffins. “Want to help?”
Henry gives her a shrewd look. “This is gonna be a talk.”
“This is going to be apple and cinnamon muffins,” Regina says, smiling blandly; when Henry just raises his eyebrows at her, she relents. “And we can talk about what’s been going on.”
“I thought so,” Henry nods, sounding somehow both so much older than his ten years old and so much like the precocious toddler he’d been what feels like just a few weeks ago, hopping off his chair and going to wash his hands.
Regina keeps quiet for the first few steps in the process, letting Henry take the lead on measuring out flour and sugar and waiting for him to break the easy, companionable silence that’s settled around them in the afternoon’s wintry sunshine. She doesn’t really know what’s done it, this change in Henry over the last few weeks and months - thinks that maybe, she has one Ms. Swan to thank for it, but pushes the thought away before she can probe it too closely - but she lets her hand catch his hair as she passes him in the kitchen, and he leans into her touch instinctively, and Regina feels warmth spreading through her veins.
The muffins are almost ready to go in the oven when Henry says, very casually, his eyes fixed firmly on the apple he’s grating into a bowl, “Did Emma say she didn’t want me in class anymore?”
“No, Henry, no - “ Regina is out of her chair and at his side before he’s even quite finished his question, wrapping her hands around his shoulders and fixing her eyes on his. “Never, I promise, that’s not what happened.”
Henry stares at her. “Something did happen,” he decides, a note of mistrust entering his voice. “Something you know about.”
Regina winces, and nods. “Yes.” At the admission, Henry's shoulders hunch over, and he gives her a jerky, stilted kind of nod before turning back to the apple. Regina bites her lip. “Henry…”
“Is it about math?” Henry asks, his voice rising slightly even as she can hear him fight to keep it steady. “Do I have to go to a different school?”
“No,” Regina says firmly, and then pauses. “Well, it’s a little about math, but you’re not going anywhere different, I promise.”
He looks up at that, eyes wide and unblinking. “You promise?”
“Yes,” Regina nods, matching his solemn tone. “I promise, Henry.”
It’s another mark of this new-found trust between them that Henry nods at her words, his shoulders relaxing and a brightness shining off his eyes as he starts spooning out the muffin mix into baking trays. It’s almost like his old, instinctive love, but - different, like a house that’s being rebuilt from the foundations up into a stronger, more mature version of itself. Regina watches him, a faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, broadening to a real grin when he looks up and beams proudly at her as soon as the muffins are in the oven.
“Now I get to clean the bowl,” he says authoritatively, and all thoughts of maturity fly from the room as she watches him march over to the table and sit himself down, bowl in hand and a bit of dough already smeared onto his nose. There’s nothing childish about his voice, though, when he asks, “Is that why grandma invited me to Boston?”
Regina stares at him, unnerved. “What?”
Henry shrugs, apparently unconcerned with his attention solely focused on the bowl-cleaning task at hand. “It’s the only thing that’s different,” he says. “Grandma showing up.”
Right. No talking around this one. “Your grandmother…” Regina says slowly, reaching for the right words and shaping them into a sentence her brave, frowning little boy might understand. “She thinks maybe you should come live with her in Boston and talk to more mathematicians at the universities there, maybe get some teachers all to yourself.”
Henry pauses in his bowl-licking, looking up at her with a strangely guarded look. “Like Professor Gold?”
“Maybe,” Regina nods, frowning at the unfamiliar name. “Who’s he?”
“Grandmas friend at the Harvard place,” Henry shrugs. “He gave me an equation to solve, but he left out a negative at the start and it...went downhill from there. When I told grandma after she made me go all the way back to the sixth floor and solve it.”
Regina bites back a laugh, the image of Henry rolling his eyes and explaining some professor’s mistakes to him - some professor who, in her mind’s eye, bears an uncanny resemblance to her old piano teacher, grey-haired and British and with something hungry about every correction, every word of praise - rising up irresistibly at Henry's words. “I’m sure she did.”
“Professor Gold said I got it right that time, and asked me why I didn’t do anything about the missing negative and stuff right away,” Henry tells her, his voice rising to meet her laughter.
“And what did you say?”
“I wasn’t supposed to correct older people’s mistakes,” Henry says, parroting back old phrases of hers he must have last heard when he was five or six, and Regina has to raise a hand to her mouth to stop from laughing out loud and cutting off his moment. “And there’s no point being smart if you’re gonna be impolite about it.”
“Exactly,” Regina smiles. “I’m proud of you, though.”
Henry frowns at her. “For solving the equation? It was really easy.”
“For handling my mother’s friend,” Regina says, winking when Henry gapes at her. “I would have wished for half your tact when I was at least twice your age.”
Henry preens, returning to the bowl-licking with renewed vigor, and Regina allows him a slight pause before tentatively broaching the topic again. “But that’s not quite what I meant earlier, about….grandma wanting you to go live with her.”
“I don’t wanna go,” Henry says immediately, that same frown line appearing at the top of his nose and instantly, inescapably, reminding Regina of Emma; she has to swallow down hard to keep the lump low down in her throat, and reaches across the table to take one of Henry's hands in both of hers.
“I promised, Henry,” she repeats, knowing as she does so that she must be breaking some kind of parenting rule - but knowing, just as deeply, that she means it, that she isn’t letting him go anywhere - “But because your grandma and I, we don’t…See eye to eye on that, we’ve got to go to court and talk things over. Do you know what that means?”
Henry just gives her a slightly pitying look. “Yes, mom, I know what a courtroom is.”
“Of course you do,” Regina smiles. “Well, Ms. Swan came in a few days ago to tell the judge about your schoolwork, about how you’re liking it in the fourth grade.”
Henry brightens up at that, immediately looking more relaxed than he has done since bringing up Cora. “Did she say I love it? And about Nick and Ava?”
“She said you were making friends,” Regina nods, her heart now thumping tightly in her chest at the thought of shattering his new-found confidence so soon with the next, most uncompromising of reveals –
“I bet she said she liked you more than grandma,” Henry says thoughtfully; then, correctly interpreting Regina’s slightly strained silence, his mouth twitches into a small grin. “I know she likes you more than grandma.”
“She talked a lot about it being good for you here,” Regina says quickly, wanting to stop the thread of conversation dead in its tracks before it spins even further out of her control. “Marian – you know she’s a lawyer? She’s helping me out with this – Marian said Ms. Swan was a really good witness to have on our side.”
Henry looks at Regina like she’s missing something completely obvious. “Duh,” he says, simply enough that Regina can read the full, unguarded verity of his words as they play out across his face. “Emma’s a superhero, she can handle grandma any day.”
Silently, Regina agrees with him; out loud, though, she can only squeeze his hand tightly in both of hers, and say, “Anyway, because of how she might have to go and talk to the judge some more, I suppose the principal decided it would be better if Ms. Swan wasn’t so involved with you at school for now.”
Henry considers this for a moment, and then nods, disappointed but seeming resigned to the logic behind Mrs. Blanchard’s actions. “Just because of that?” he asks, and Regina’s heart starts thumping painfully again – “Emma didn’t want me out of her way or anything, did she? Maybe she didn’t like having to go and talk to a judge and now she’s mad -”
“I know that’s not what it is,” Regina interrupts him quickly. “Em - Ms. Swan said she was really happy to come and talk, she clearly loves having you in her class. I’m sure it’s just temporary, sweetheart, alright?”
He twists his lips, angling his head to one side to peer up at her with an unnervingly unreadable look in his eyes. “Do you promise that’s it?” he asks, and its uncanny, this ability of his, to know exactly when she isn’t telling him everything –
“Emma wants you to stay right where you’ve been this whole time,” Regina says, swallowing back a bitter taste that rises up her throat at this half-truth. “She would never have asked for you to move classroom, I promise.”
Henry considers this for a long, silent pause – a pause in which Regina is aware of several things at once, like the warmth of his little fingers, curled into her hands, and the smell of the slowly-baking muffins filling the kitchen with warmth and spice, and the rigidity of her spine as she leans forward in her seat, reminding her uncomfortably of the wooden chairs at the courtroom.
Regina decides then, watching Henry mulling over their conversation and watching him wrestle with the complexities, seeing the agitation fly across his features. She can’t tell him about Emma, not now, not when his whole life seems under threat and his whole routine has been shifted out of balance – not when his beloved teacher might be more important to him, right now, as a kind of still point in the storm, than any half-understood confusion about his birth parentage –
“Henry,” she says in a low voice, blinking once to push back any hint of doubt cloying her tongue. “Sweetheart, you know I won’t let anyone take you away, don’t you?”
“I know,” Henry says, nodding slowly like he’s still trying to sort his thoughts out into a comprehensible shape – and then, a new idea blooming across his expression like the first, sudden burst of spring – “Can I tell the judge that I want to stay?”
The force of his conviction – the force of his suggestion, Henry volunteering to tell someone else where he knows he belongs – hits Regina like a dart, sinking deep and true into a space between two ribs. But –
“You’re too young,” she starts, lips twitching into a smile when she sees Henry’s instantly murderous reaction. “The court won’t call up children under 14 unless it’s an extreme situation, and I hope…I really do hope we can get this settled long before it comes to that.”
Chapter 7: Emma V
Emma’s classroom is too quiet.
There are still twenty-six ten year-olds to deal with, obviously; it’s not like she really has time to notice Henry's absence, or miss his high, bright voice as he corrects one of her sets of fraction problems on the whiteboard. Emma is too busy soothing anxious tempers, handing out homework assignments, navigating endless PTA board meetings –
But in the silences, in the moments between each and every one of a myriad of everyday obligations – she feels his absence in the classroom, feels the absence of his presence in her peripheral vision, Henry Daniel Mills, ten years old last August 16th.
He’s called Henry.
It’s like a bubble of something fizzing, something explosive, that rises up in her chest every time she starts to let that thought in – a bubble that gets stuck somewhere around her throat, constricting her speech and making her tongue heavy with emotions that Emma isn’t sure she even has a word for. Even if she meant what she said to Regina’s mom's lawyer – about being glad to hear where Henry ended up, about believing in his and Regina’s family being the absolutely, the only right choice – and she did, she meant every word –
There’s a chord that strikes deep against her spine, sending reverberations of something undefined, something that wants along every bone in her body.
Emma wants, and she doesn’t know what to do with this nameless, soundless emotion, with Henry banished to the classroom across the hall and Regina… Regina answering none of her calls, even after Emma had tracked down Henry's file and gotten hold of his emergency contact number.
It’s an entirely unfamiliar feeling, couched in the well-rehearsed motions of unreturned calls and painfully casual “How’s your week going?” texts, and Emma doesn’t know what to do with this restless, frustrated energy that resolves itself in pangs of ill-defined emotion at the worst of times; a mom tying her kids shoelaces outside the grocery store, a couple swinging their toddler between them at the park, a round-faced baby smiling at her from his pram on the bus…
It’s not like this is entirely unfamiliar territory – Emma is used to these pangs, used to their resurgence every August and used to pushing them far out of her mind’s eye every time they surface. This time, though, she has a face – two faces, really – to put to the images, and it’s this...specificity that has her clenching and unclenching her fists in public, breathing rapidly and feeling the heat rise to her cheeks at the onslaught of the might have beens and the maybes.
It’s not until she sees Henry in the flesh, assigned recess duty for a week to cover for another mismanaged maternity leave, that Emma has a chance to release some of the half-happy, half-terrified jumble of energy crowding her synapses; she strolls over, hands stuck into her pockets in a determined attempt at casual walking, and sits herself down on the bench next to him.
The effect is instant, and absurdly gratifying; a smile blooms across Henry's round face before he’s even looked all the way up to meet her eye, all attention diverted away from the textbook open in his lap. “Emma!”
Emma raises one eyebrow. “School property, Henry, even at recess…”
“Ms. Swan, then,” he says hastily, snapping his book shut and shoving it into the backpack resting at his feet. “I miss you!”
Emma’s heart gives a painful squeeze, and she has to blink, hard, to stop her smile from turning watery. “I miss you, Henry,” she says, nudging him lightly with her arm. “But it’s just for a while.”
Henry nods, his mouth twisting into a familiar, resigned line. “That’s what mom says.”
“Your mom's usually right,” Emma reassures him, laughing a little when he gives her a sudden, mischievous look. “What?”
“I can tell her you said that,” Henry says, voice rising with the excitement of a new idea. “I can give her a message from you!”
For a moment, Emma just blinks at him. “Why would you need to -” Unbidden, thoughts of January 1st rise to the forefront of her mind, Henry's sly grin up at her in the hallway, Regina stumbling down after her after she’s already called a cab and pulled on her clothes – suddenly, Emma feels warm. “Why, has she said something to you? To tell me?”
“No…” Henry gives her a look that Emma can only classifying as pitying, and instantly the warmth drains away; maybe something shows, because Henry's nose creases with something like worry, and he quickly says, “But I bet she wants to talk to you, too! It’s just the court rule that says I have to be in Miss French’s class right now!”
Raw, unfiltered want races up Emma’s spine and into her mouth, and she barely knows what it is when it reaches her tongue, only knows how important it is that they know she misses them too – “Henry, I –“ she starts, and then stops abruptly; she has no idea what Henry knows, about anything, about the case, about her – “If you want to talk about it, you know…”
Henry half-rolls his eyes. “I know,” he says, the sigh sounding so world-weary that it’s almost absurd, coming from this ten year-old’s frame. “I can talk to a grown-up and tell them how I’m feeling.”
Emma winces, hearing the words of well-meaning, patronizing advice echo through the years from group home counsellors and over-worked social workers right up to the present day, to her on this bench with her role utterly reversed. “Or not,” she says quickly, shooting Henry and conciliatory smile. “You can tell me about what you got up to on the weekend, if you want. Anything fun?”
Henry shrugs with one shoulder, and says, “Math.”
“Math, duh,” Emma grins. “Still working on that book you showed me?”
“I’m on chapter seven now,” Henry tells her, his chest puffing out slightly with pride. “If I get the book done by spring break, then grandma – “ But at that, his face falls, his thoughts clearly arrested by the reminder and sticking fast on all the implications that a vacation to see grandma shouldn’t have -
“Nick misses you in class,” Emma says, changing the topic as swiftly as she can. “You guys still playing basketball?”
“Not this week,” Henry mumbled, directing his words at his backpack and hunching his shoulders slightly; Emma winces, sensing the sore point and feeling her heart constrict with the responding desire to do something, to fix it -
“What about your new classmates?” she asks, her voice sounding weird to her own ears, kind of cheery and hollow, like she’s just reciting teaching tips without really knowing how they apply to this situation, to Henry – “Your classmates for now, obviously, it’s not forever.”
“Yeah,” Henry shrugs again. “”Mom says so, too. I dunno. They’re okay.”
“You told them all about your multiplying cheat?” Emma asks, nudging Henry again and slowly, clumsily feeling her way back to something like a real connection. “Set up Henry’s Table in math class?”
Henry shakes his head, staring out at the school yard – the crowds of kids, the cacophony of recess, shouts and whoops from a game of tag intermingling with individual conversations, the bustle of constant movement an onslaught on the eyes from every direction. Emma follows his eyes, breathing in slowly as she takes in the chaos from their safe harbor on the bench, feeling the strangeness of sitting still amongst so much movement, the isolation in the hunch of Henry's shoulders and the weight of the textbook now stowed safely away in his backpack. She should have talked to Belle, Emma thinks suddenly; should have made sure he would be welcomed, that he would have a way in to the social morays of 4C as well as a place to sit and do his worksheets.
The buzzer rings, then, tearing both of them out of their silent, frustrated thoughts; Emma shakes herself awake, and then stands up to give a semblance of authoritative presence as the students slowly drift back in to their respective buildings and classrooms. Henry is still sitting on the bench, playing reluctantly with the straps on his backpack, and Emma pauses to brush a hand over his hair, feeling a rush of – of something – when he leans his head against her palm. She wants to hold him, she realizes, wants to hold him and tell him that he’s okay, that he’s perfect -
“Come on, kid,” she says instead, taking a measured step back and sticking both hands into her pockets again. “Go kick some 4C ass -” he grins up at her, pulled out of his glum stare as she stumbles over her words and ducks her head guiltily. “I mean, 4C butt, don’t tell Principal Blanchard I said that.”
Slowly, well aware that they’re the last ones left in the yard and that she has a class of twenty-six kids waiting for her to start them off on their reading work, Emma starts leading him back across the suddenly-silent tarmac.
“Emma?” Henry asks suddenly, stopping before the doors to the school building and tugging lightly on her sleeve; Emma feels her heart lurch against her ribs with the wonder of it, of having this miracle of a boy tugging on her sleeve with such open, trusting confidence.
“If you wanted to hang out after school that’d be okay, and not against any of Judge Ghorm’s rules,” Henry says in a rush, half-daring to look up at her and half-glancing away with the pressure of it. “Marian takes me and Roland to the adventure playground every Thursday, you know, by the water, and, and there’s this castle that I hang out in, and then you can come, and I can show you the problems that I was doing today in Miss French’s class, and – we could talk some more if you…want.”
His voice has run out to a whisper by the end, and Emma – turning away slightly as she pushes open the double doors, careful to hide her face from Henry until she’s sure she isn’t going to start crying – can hear in his petering out just how long he’s been sitting on that suggestion.
“Henry,” she starts, her voice oddly loud and echoing in the empty hallway; and she doesn’t even have to look to know that Henry’s face has already fallen with disappointment.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” he says quietly, his short footsteps speeding up as he draws slightly away from her. God. There’s no rulebook for this, Emma thinks wildly – nothing in four years of education and pedagogy on how to deal with your biological son who isn’t even in your classroom anymore and who you’re pretty sure has no idea who you are – “I have to go to class now.”
“Hey –“ Emma stops outside her classroom, calling ahead to Henry and waiting until he stops and turns around. “I might check out that adventure castle,” she says, giving Henry a small, careful smile; watching in something like fascination at the way it’s mirrored, projected ten thousand fold, in the beam that lights up his face in response. “By the water, yeah?”
Henry just nods, and for a moment it looks like he’s trembling on the edge of another speech; but then he just nods again, and turns away to run off to his new – his temporary, Emma promises herself – classroom, leaving her to face her next block of teaching hours with a heart both lighter and heavier than she knows how to deal with.
The week ticks on, three days passing Emma by in a row of mind-numbing sameness. She’s on recess duty all week, and sees Henry every now and then – mostly on a bench, mostly with his head stuck in a book – but beyond the odd wave or passing hello in the hallways, he stays out of her way. When he does say hi to her, though, Emma is sure she isn’t imagining the significant look that accompanies the greeting, or the way his shoulders square up in determination as he glances to the left and right before giving her a quick, furtive wave. She isn’t quite sure what he’s doing, what secret game she’s somehow started playing without knowing it; it’s more a feeling that Henry isn’t quite so forlorn, quite so lonely in the brief moments that Emma is able to observe.
Her suspicions are confirmed on Thursday afternoon, when – palms itching with excitement, and a shoulder bag stuffed full of snacks appropriate for a castle as a meeting point – Emma sidles in to the adventure playground on the edge of Storybrooke’s little harbor. There’s a familiar-looking, tall woman with light brown skin and a pile of curly hair spilling from a white knitted hat who Emma, after a moment of confusion, matches up with the name Marian and also the lawyer that Judge Ghorm called Ms. Alvarez. She’s pushing a kid with cherubic curls and a wide, open smile who Emma assumes must be Roland on the swing-set; she considers saying hello, introducing herself, but then checks herself, realizing suddenly that she has no idea who Henry told about this invitation, or whether he might actually be going directly against Regina’s orders. Shit.
She’s half made up her mind to turn back, and apologies to Henry the next day at school, when there’s a loud and unmistakable noise from the wooden castle with red turrets. “Psst!”
Already smiling, and already knowing there’s no way she can just leave, Emma turns, catching sight of a round face and a wide grin shining towards her from the little bridge. “Henry!”
Henry shakes his head urgently, widening his eyes at the loudness of Emma’s voice, and just cocks his head sideways in what Emma assumes must be a gesture for her to come join him. Grinning, she shoulders her backpack, and heads over.
“Hey, kid,” she says, swinging herself up onto the bridge and settling down with her back leaning against the wooden fence next to Henry’s perch. It seems surprisingly sturdy, smelling only a tiny bit of damp or anything worse, and hides them completely from view from the rest of the playground; Emma can see why it’s his favorite spot.
“You made it,” Henry says, his smile still just as wide, just as surprised; Emma reaches over to ruffle his hair.
“I couldn’t miss out on seeing this awesome castle, could I? You’ve got a great place here.”
Henry nods, with the confidence of someone taking in praise they know is rightfully earned. “I know,” he says, and then fixes her with a serious, determined look. “But you can’t shout my name or anything, this is top secret.”
“Uh huh,” Emma grins, thinking back to all the covert waves and significant looks Henry's been shooting her for the past three days. “Are we super-secret spies now?”
Henry just gives her a withering look, and tells her, with all the lofty condescension his ten year-old voice can muster, “That’s baby stuff, I mean this is for real, we have to keep this top secret just for you and me, cos there’s an evil lady trying to take me away.”
“Your grandma,” Emma guesses, and sighs when Henry just nods, his face taking on a pinched, worried look. “Henry, I know this is all kind of confusing to you, but -”
“I’m not confused,” Henry says quickly, fixing her with another one of his trademark, unblinking stares. “Can you tell the judge that? Tell her that I wanna stay with my mom, and not go live in stupid Boston with the mean old witch?”
“The mean old witch?” Emma asks, smiling faintly. “Not sure your grandma would appreciate the title.”
“That’s my codename for her,” Henry says, and Emma nods in earnest understanding.
“For the mission?”
“It’s not a mission,” Henry says, folding his arms around his legs and hugging his knees tight to his chest. “It’s an operation, the most important operation ever, and it needs codenames. There’s the mean old witch, and…” he squints for a moment, deliberating.
“Your mom?” Emma prompts, watching him closely. “She get a codename too?”
“My mom doesn’t need a codename,” Henry says impatiently. “Mom’s just mom. I was trying to think of one for you.”
Emma raises an eyebrow, pushing down the pang that Mom’s just mom has sent running down her spine. “Me?”
“You’re my ally,” Henry says, smiling a little shyly down at his feet now that he’s got her full attention. “My partner.”
“Partner, I like it,” Emma laughs. “Howdy, partner.”
Henry looks up at her, eyes bright. “That’s it! You can be the Sherriff!”
“Sherriff Swan…” Emma says, rolling the sound around in her mouth for effect. “Not bad.”
Henry grins when she knocks her knee against his, and then – intently studying his sneakers, moving so slowly as if that’ll stop her from noticing – casually leans sideways until his head is resting against the sleeve of her jacket, his hair tickling her skin when she tucks her chin over the top of his head.
“Sherriff Swan,” he murmurs; Emma can feel his smile against her sleeve, and her heart feels like it’s grown three sizes too big for her ribcage, and she should stop this before it gets any more….this, she should distract Henry with a joke about her classroom’s disastrous last math quiz, or start unloading her backpack full of adventuring snacks, she should...
Emma should do anything, really, other than sit here with Henry tucked up snugly against her side, the two of them sheltered from the outside world by a wooden fence and each other’s convictions. But she doesn’t; she just sits, her pulse jumping unsteadily in her neck, and takes in the solid, warm shape of Henry curled up into the spaces around her like they’re clay, like they’re molded for this -
“Do you think you’re gonna talk to the court again?” Henry asks after a while, his voice small and scared-sounding in the wind-sheltered silence.
“I don’t know,” Emma says at first, drawing away by a fraction of an inch and giving herself a sharp, internal shake to snap out of this sudden, overwhelming feeling and back to something approaching reality. “I mean, maybe. Probably. I don’t know.”
Henry nods, shifting to look up at her, his eyes suspiciously bright but his gaze clear and focused. “If they ask you about mom, can you tell them it’s okay?”
“Okay?” Emma frowns. “That what’s okay?”
“That she lied,” Henry says, shrugging off the weight of the word – lied – in what looks like a deliberate attempt to minimize its effect.
“Lied,” Emma echoes, feeling all at once completely out-of-step with the conversation. “About…”
“Adopting me,” Henry says quickly, pressing his lips together into a thin, unhappy line that Emma knows only too well, that she recognizes as the line drawn to ward off what’s perceived as inevitable, to ward off the coming rejection. “I got really mad, but I don’t... She wasn’t supposed to lie, but she’s a really good mom, I think, way better than any old academy, or the mean old witch.”
Emma has to bite her lip, smiling at the strength of his conviction, the heart of what Henry's saying only undermined the tiniest bit by the codename that she already knows she’s going to struggle to shake, next time she appears in court and looks the “mean old witch” in the eye. “You think so?” she asks eventually.
“I know,” Henry says passionately, eyes blazing suddenly with a rush of protective energy. “She’s really, really good, and she’s loved me ever since I was a baby, and....” he frowns, searching for the right words.
“You’re glad you got adopted?” Emma asks hesitantly, knowing and not knowing what compels her to do it, what answer she fears or wants to hear.
Henry shakes his head slowly. “No…” He stops, and shrugs. “I guess I don’t want any different mom that’s not mom, and I don’t want to go with the mean old witch, even if she has a fancy house and Harvard and a big piano.”
Emma smiles, hearing him rattle off the things Cora must have thrust at him over his visit, the prized features of his imagined future with her in Boston that mean less than nothing to this boy compared to mom, compared to the life he has here with Regina. Still, there’s something about the absolute conviction, the black-and-white sureness of his words that worries Emma, that doesn’t sit right with her.
“Henry, I think the mean old – your grandma,” she stumbles, and Henry grins. “I know she cares about you, you know? I think she really wants what’s best for you, same as your mom does, and… I think this whole court situation really got started because your mom and her can’t figure out a way to agree on that.”
“She’s still a witch,” he mumbled eventually, though some of the venom has gone out of his words; Emma sighs, and loops an arm around his side to let him lean his head against her shoulder again. “And she just showed up out of nowhere.”
There it is, there’s the reason Emma had instinctively rankled to hear Henry so fixed against this imaginary, benign figure she’s half-conjured up, someone else who might want to stake a claim on Regina’s perfect, wonderful boy -
Emma feels sick with shame, with the way a few minutes spent with Henry can overturn every conviction she’d made not to put a single toe over the line Regina has drawn in the sand between her son and his teacher.
“Emma?” Henry asks, maybe sensing some shift in the way her shoulder feels against his cheek, looking up with a worried line creasing the top of his nose.
Emma swallows, forces back the pit of guilt that’s yawning open in her stomach, and forces a smile. “Yeah?”
“If the judge asks you why I should stay with mom, can you tell her something?”
“I – “ Powerless against the intensity of that bright, blue stare, Emma is helpless to do anything but nod. “Okay.”
“Can you tell her – “Henry hesitates, and Emma, curious herself to hear this last, most potent defense of Regina, the one Emma can guess Henry has been waiting to tell her until now – “Mom wanted me before I was smart.”
The naked vulnerability in his words is staggering enough; the insight, though, Henry's sharp instinct for the exact moment when Regina Mills picked up an infant boy and called him her son without any conditions on that love, is what sends a rush of emotion shooting up Emma’s chest, constricting her chest and making it hard to speak, making it simplest just to wind her arm tighter around Henry's side and hug him to her, hiding her face and her smiling, teary expression in his hair. Henry stiffens at first, clearly not quite sure what he’s said to bring on this latest display of affection, but settles soon enough, burrowing his nose against her jacket sleeve and pressing his shape closer against hers.
They’re still frozen in that position when Marian sticks her head over the wooden fence to the castle bridge, what feels like hours later; all it takes is a quiet clearing of her throat, though, and Emma jumps up as if scalded. Henry blinks, slower to react; when he sees Marian, eyes skating over her careful, watchful expression, he relaxes. “Marian! It’s okay,” he says, turning reassuringly to Emma. “Marian’s in the operation too, she’s Robin Hood.”
“Right, Maid Marian,” Emma nods, slightly dazed. “Clever.”
“Henry,” Marian says, interrupting their half-started conversation with an unsmiling tone that broaches no arguments. “Can you go see if Roland’s okay in the den?”
Henry's face twists into a disappointed grimace, clearly let down by Marian’s unwillingness to engage with the operation. “Marian…”
“Now, Henry, please,” Marian says, holding out a hand for him to take as he clambers off the bridge and jumps to the ground. “Go on.”
He goes, dragging his feet towards a den on the other side of the playground, where Emma can just make out a small, toddler-shaped figure through an opening in the branches. Henry turns before leaving the castle completely, giving Emma a wide-eyed, significant look that she can only interpret as “Don’t panic!” behind Marians back.
A long, uncomfortable silence follows his departure.
“I don’t think we were introduced face-to-face,” Emma says a little feebly. “I’m Henry’s teacher -”
“Yes, Ms. Swan,” Marian says patiently, but with the air of someone whose patience is being tested. “I know that.”
“Right,” Emma nods quickly. “Sorry.”
Marian sighs, looking around the mostly-deserted playground before returning her gaze to Emma, still ludicrously hunched over in the child-size castle. “Look, Ms. Swan -”
“Emma,” Emma says, standing up and clambering awkwardly over the parapet to stand next to Marian on the carpet of wood-chipping surrounding the castle. “Call me Emma.”
“Emma,” Marian amends, voice softening just a little. “I guess Henry convinced you out here to talk about his operation outside of school?” When Emma nods, shamefaced, she continues. “I know he misses being in your classroom, and I know how...persuasive he can be if he sets his mind to it, so....”
“It’s still no excuse,” Emma says quickly, her tongue feeling strangely numb with the whiplash of voices, with the sudden pressure to talk like teacher Emma, to take responsibility and try to explain why she’s here. “I get that, I’m sorry.”
Marian smiles faintly, waiting for Emma to peter out into silence before continuing. “I also understand,” she says, gently. “That it can’t be easy, adjusting to suddenly having your biological child back in your life.”
“I’m not trying anything,” Emma says quickly, almost tripping over her feet in her eagerness to take a step closer to Marian and fix her with a determined, beseeching look. “Please, you can tell Regina, I’m not trying anything like that -”
“I know,” Marian cuts her off, and Emma falls silent. “That’s not the issue, though.”
Emma frowns at her, lost. “The issue?”
“The issue,” Marian says, voice taking on an edge of steel that Emma hasn’t heard before but suddenly makes her appreciate how effective that voice must be in a court of law. “Is not giving those slime bags from Boston any more ammunition against Regina. She’s my best friend, and she’s my defendant, and I’m not going to let your emotional….bonding thing take precedence over winning this case for her, and for Henry.”
A short pause follows Marian’s speech, during which she folds her arms and fixes Emma with an expectant, unflinching stare. Emma stares back, mouth dry, trying to think of something clever to say and eventually landing on asking “Emotional bonding thing?”
Marian tosses her head, impatient. “Whatever, your and Henry’s really cute castle date, that’s not the point,” she says, mouth curving up a fraction of an inch and eyes softening when she sees Emma smile in return. “You understand?”
“I -” Emma blinks, thinking back to the lawyer who had drawn answer after answer from her in court, Jones something, while Cora had sat with her hands folded and her eyes glinting with steely determination. She thinks of what they might do with the information that Emma has been seeing Henry unsupervised, that he’s been forming relationships with adults outside of Regina’s sphere of influence – and feels instantly, shudderingly stupid. “I understand. God. Sorry.”
“Good,” Marian says shortly, nodding once; and then seems to relent, pressing a gloved hand to Emma’s elbow and giving her a brief, real smile. “Thanks, and...Sorry, and I know this is exactly what I told Henry, but it’s not forever, okay?”
Emma grins, ducking her head at the reassuring tone, even if it should probably rankle her slightly that she’s being treated to the same kinds of hope speeches as the ten year-old. “Okay.”
Marian nods, drawing away her hand and turning on her heel to head back towards the den, towards Roland and Henry. Emma, feeling herself dismissed, grabs her backpack – still stuffed with snacks that she already knows she’s going to stuff herself with until she’s sick tonight on her couch – and starts to head for the parking lot, and the warmth of her car.
“We should get drinks,” Marian calls, stopping Emma in her tracks when she’s almost at the car; she turns, frowning.
“When this mess of a court case is over, you, me and Regina should get drinks,” Marian says, voice carrying easily in the quiet air “How about it?”
Emma blinks, feeling strangely like she’s just been dropped into an altogether different play with altogether different rules. “O...kay?” she tries, shrugging with an effort at nonchalance.
“Okay,” Marian grins, eyes glinting with something other than lawyerly steel now. “Regina’s idea. I’ll tell her you’re in.”
“Wait -” Emma starts back towards her, feeling utterly wrong-footed and worryingly on display in this very public place – “What?”
But Marian has already ducked inside the den, her warm voice and the boys’ high-pitched chatter carrying faintly on the wind towards Emma.
Bemused, and more than a little thrown, Emma is left to retreat back to her car, feeling strangely like she’s come away from what should have been the confrontation to end her teaching career having somehow, without her knowing entirely how, made a friend instead. The inside of her car is warm, and she sits for a while staring out of the rapidly-condensing windows at the choppy water beating against the harbor walls, the playground, the den and the castle all glinting in the corner of her eye – and the phrase Regina’s idea reverberating around her thoughts with the warmth of a promise.
The next day, Friday, brings with it a sudden burst of crisp sunshine, carrying a hint of coming spring as Emma gets her class ready to go home for the weekend. It’s the same Friday routine of homework folders, class newsletters, permission slips for an upcoming field trip to the Science Center in Portland – and, with it, a sting when Emma thinks about how much she would have loved to have Henry with her group on the trip. Swallowing back the newly-familiar tug against her ribcage, she sets up her nominally-educational YouTube playlist on the smartboard, and clicks through that afternoon’s staff emails on her laptop. Nothing that immediately catches her eye, a few reminders about the Valentine’s bake sale, and...
“Okay, guys, listen up…” Emma calls, pausing the video and clapping her hands together a few times to call the class to attention. The noise dies off slowly, twenty-six outraged-looking faces turning towards her as they take in the sudden lack of dancing bears. “Mr. G can’t make the pick-up today, so everyone on the number 23 bus….Tiana, Nick and Ava, Briar… Anyone else take Mr. G’s bus? You guys are gonna hang out here until another bus is done, or your moms and dads can pick you up.”
Immediately, and inevitably, a chorus of questions rises up from the kids:
“Miss Swan, can I wait with Nick, because I’m meant to go to his house for doing our Minecraft house-”
“Yes, Eric, if you were gonna go on the 23 bus today you can wait -”
“Has my mom been told already? You can try her cell if she’s not near her work phone -”
“I’m sure the guys in the office have got it covered, Tiana -”
“Miss, its Briar Rose, you called me just Briar again – “
“Miss Swan, I go on Mr. G’s bus as well -”
“Okay, Sofia, you can wait too -”
“Miss Swan -”
“Okay!” Emma calls, raising one hand to her forehead and waving vaguely with the other in the direction of the classroom. “Can everyone sit their butts down and have a think about whether your question is important enough to call out without raising your hand.”
Silence, and then, grudgingly, the sound of chairs being scraped back, the sound of backpacks being filled with homework and pencil cases.
“Thank you,” Emma says wearily, flopping down in her desk chair and glancing at the clock. Three fifteen, time for the first round of dismissal. “Bus kids – not the 23 bus kids, and yes, Eric, that means you too – line up by the door and remember to collect your coats from the pegs…”
Slowly, the general end-of-day routine takes over, and eventually Emma is left with only a handful of kids in her classroom. After a brief discussion about which movie they want to watch – Tiana takes the votes, marking each choice down on the clipboard she seems to have magically conjured up out of nowhere – Emma puts the Hercules DVD in, tells Sofia that of course she’s allowed to read if she wants to, and sinks into a corner of the room with a pile of worksheets to grade.
She gets about three worksheets done before there’s a knock at the door, and a sheepish-looking Belle opens the door. “Hi, Miss Swan… Can I drop my 23 bus kids with you? I have to get over to pre-school and grab my boy before they give me another tardy mark.”
Emma laughs, nodding. “Sure. Hey, guys, come on in! Say hi to Miss French and 4C, class.”
“Good afternoon, Miss French, goo afternoon, 4C,” her kids chorus, led by Tiana, and Emma grins.
“Thank you,” Belle whispers, pushing her handful of kids inside and quickly taking off down the empty hallway.
“Sit down,” Emma offers, standing up and trying to give the kids – four of them; she thinks vaguely that one of them, a freckly girl with her red hair up in two long braids, is called Jessie – a reassuring smile. “We’ve just put a movie on, you haven’t missed much.”
Briar Rose waves frantically at a girl with choppy brown hair, patting the space next to her on the comfy rug; Tiana shifts and makes room for Jessie and a dopey-looking boy who seems to follow her around like some kind of shadow; and then Emma spots the fourth kid, hanging back somewhat warily by the door. Of course.
“Hi, Henry,” Nick beams, elbowing Ava to make space on their banana-shaped cushion; Ava just gives him a withering look, and shoots Henry a guarded – but not entirely unfriendly – smile.
“Hi, Ava,” Henry mumbles, looking awkwardly at his old – his real – classroom. “Hi Nick, hi Sofia.”
There’s a brief pause as he settles himself down on the now severely-crowded banana next to the Zimmer twins. “Don’t I get a hello?” Emma calls over, grinning a little when Henry ducks his head. “Hey, kid.”
“Hi,” Henry says, clearly teetering on Emma before settling on the safe, “Miss Swan.” He gives her a smile, though, real and bright, before Sofia tugs on his sleeve and involves him in a drawn-out conversation about the creative writing project they’d been working on before his move to 4C. Emma leaves them to it, all-too-aware that this is neither the time nor the place for a continuation of their talk at the playground, and tries to focus on grading worksheets again.
The afternoon ticks by, with first Tiana, then Jessie and her shadow, and eventually Nick, Ava, and Eric, being picked up by their parents while the others wait for an available bus. Emma finishes her first pile of worksheets, and then – after shooting one too many wistful glances over at the kids crowded together on the carpet – decides to call it a day, and join them.
“Shove over, kid,” she says, dropping down on the banana cushion next to Henry and nudging him lightly. There’s not too many kids left now – only Sofia curled up with a story book, Briar Rose and her friend, and Henry next to her, his head warm against her shoulder, sending a kind of deep, contented peace sinking through her limbs.
All too soon, the door opens again; Emma, half-asleep with Henry leaning against her, yawns, glances up to see which kid she gets to dismiss next -
And looks straight up at Regina, leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded and her eyes fixed on Emma and Henry. Regina, who she hasn’t seen since appearing in court and having the world pulled out from under her by the slimy lawyer who seemed to hold all the cards; who she hasn’t spoken to since New Year’s, since -
“Hi,” Emma manages, in the interminable pause; Regina ignores this entirely, not that Emma can blame her.
“Henry, get your things, please.”
Henry looks between his mom and Emma, eyes wide and brow furrowed slightly as he tries to get a read on this sudden, inexplicable shift in the air. Emma forces a smile, nudging him lightly. “Go on, kid, your mom’s here.”
Henry sighs, mumbling a dejected “Okay…” before scrambling to his feet and grabbing the backpack and coat he’d dropped in an empty chair next to Sofia’s things. “Bye.”
There’s a chorus of “See you, Henry!” from the carpet, and Henry gives Emma a very dejected-looking wave before going to join Regina at the door.
“See you,” Emma smiles, getting to her feet and waving back stupidly at the two of them. “Thanks for coming by, Ms. Mills.”
“No problem,” Regina says smoothly, tucking an arm around Henry's side and smiling slightly when he curls in to her waist. “Come on, sweetheart.”
They’ve already turned and are half-way down the hallway by the time Emma has swallowed back the awkwardness cloying her tongue and made up her mind. “Hey, wait -”
Regina stops in the empty hallway, turning back around and raising an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Henry,” Emma says slightly numbly, lost for something, anything, to say now that she’s insisted on starting this conversation. “Can you go and check if there’s a bus yet? Go ask Ashley in administration for me.”
Regina and Henry both stare at her, giving her identical, unimpressed looks; Emma looks back, stubbornly keeping a vague smile fixed in place, until Henry shrugs, says “Okay,” and slouches off in direction of the school office.
“You do realise,” Regina says, after an excruciating pause during which Emma has time to regret every single decision that has led her to this hallway. “Henry saw right through that, don’t you?”
“Maybe,” Emma admits, wincing; when she dares to make eye contact, though, Regina is smiling drily, and she thinks maybe she got away with it. “How are you?”
“Busy,” Regina says shortly, looking away; Emma, taking in the defensive tilt to her shoulders, the way she’s studiously avoiding eye contact, hears what she thinks is an apology in the silence.
“Me too,” she says, smiling a little when she sees some of the tension drop from Regina’s shoulders. “Maybe, when things are a bit less crazy, we could -”
“We could,” Regina nods, and Emma’s smile widens, her pulse jumping in her wrists as she watches a careful, measured smile steal across Regina’s lips.
“That’d be great,” she says, taking a few quick, unconscious steps towards Regina, feeling her skin prickle with her proximity the closer she gets. “Marian said something about drinks? But –”
She doesn’t get as far as I was thinking something like dinner, just you and me, before Regina cuts her off with a confused, “Marian?”
“Yesterday,” Emma says, grinning at Regina’s frown. “She said that, um, you said we should get drinks…”
She cringes slightly, aware of how teenage she sounds, and apparently Regina is aware of the same thing, rolling her eyes and muttering “I’m going to kill her,” under her breath; but then she stops, frowning again. “When did you see Marian?”
“Yesterday,” Emma admits, mouth running dry; so Marian hasn’t told Regina, so Regina hasn’t heard about her talk with Henry at the castle. Right. “I sort of...ran into them at the adventure playground?”
“Them,” Regina repeats. “Marian, Roland and…” A frighteningly sudden closed-off expression drops over her face. “Henry.”
“Henry,” Emma confirms, cheeks heating up under the abruptness of Regina’s stare. “He – we talked, and Marian...was there…” she trails off, heart lurching against her lungs as Regina angles herself away, arms folded and shaking with suppressed fury. “Sorry.”
“Sorry,” Regina echoes, face still scarily blank, eyes empty of the emotion that’s shaking through her limps. “You know, after your performance in court I was almost convinced this wouldn’t happen.”
Emma winces. “Performance?”
“I’m so glad Henry ended up where he did,” Regina mimics, her voice taking on a cruel, hard edge. “In your classroom, I suppose.”
“I – what? No, Regina – “ Emma stumbles; there’s a kind of roaring in her ears, and she’s only now starting to fully appreciate how badly she fucked up the day before – “I meant with you, I meant he’s great with you, I’d never -”
“You would never,” Regina cuts her off, laughing humorlessly. “You would just make plans to see him without my knowing, without my consent, after he was specifically removed from your care.”
“Sorry,” Emma mumbles, voice dropping even as Regina’s rises, horribly aware of how feeble it sounds in the echoing hallway. “I just…miss him.”
“Henry,” Regina says sharply, raising her chin and fixing Emma with a heated, unforgiving stare. “Isn’t yours to miss, you made that decision ten years ago, Ms. Swan.”
“I’m his teacher,” Emma protests weakly, but Regina just scoffs.
“So you see all your students after school? Make social calls to all of them?” she asks, waiting for Emma to shake her head before laughing impatiently. “Just Henry, just my son.”
“He asked me to!” Emma bursts out, before she can stop herself. “He wanted to talk about what’s been going on, Jesus, Regina, what do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to respect his mother’s boundaries,” Regina says flatly, and suddenly it’s too much, suddenly the sheer effort of not rising to the challenge breaks the damn of all of Emma’s half-formed resolutions.
“Henry came to me,” she says stubbornly, folding her arms. “Maybe if you talked to him instead of just going behind his back and moving him away from all his friends -” Instantly, she knows it was the wrong thing to say; hurt flashes across Regina’s expression, too quick for Emma to catch and too quickly replaced by cold, calculated fury. “I just meant,” Emma tries again, grimacing. “I just meant he seemed kind of upset about having to move -“
“I know exactly what you meant,” Regina says coolly. “You’ve made yourself perfectly clear, Ms. Swan, thank you for that.”
“Regina, come on.” Emma rolls her eyes. “I’m not the enemy here, you know that, okay? We both want what’s best for Henry.”
“That remains to be seen,” Regina cuts her off, lip curling. “Mrs. Blanchard assured my lawyer that you wouldn’t be a problem, but…”
“But what?” Emma counters, raising her eyebrows; anger is coursing through her veins now, made sharper and more urgent by Regina bringing up her mother, by the implication that she can’t handle this without adult supervision – maybe she’s being unfair, fine, but then so is Regina – “But you’re worried about Henry liking me? That’s not my problem, Regina, that sounds like a problem for you, if Henry likes someone else more than – “
“I could have you fired,” Regina hisses, eyes flashing. “I could ring up Mrs. Blanchard this evening and tell her you’ve been stalking my son outside of school – “
Both of them wheel around; Henry is standing at the end of the hallway, his eyes very round as he stares at the two of them. There is a long, awful silence, during which Emma thinks she can see Regina press a hand to her mouth out of the corner of her eye –
“Henry,” Emma says eventually, shoving her still-shaking hands into her back pockets and trying futilely to re-gain control of her voice. “Didn’t see you there.”
Henry's eyes swivel to her, and he looks slightly reassured when he sees that she’s at least trying to smile; at that, Regina seems to snap out of her frozen position, and takes three quick steps in his direction to take a hold of Henry's hand. “Come on, Henry.”
“Mom,” Henry whines, looking over his shoulder as she starts walking him quickly – too quickly, Emma catches the way she almost stumbles over one of the steps – towards the exit. “Emma!”
Regina doesn’t turn around; doesn’t answer him; doesn’t even pause, just marches towards the doors and pushes them open in one decisive motion. Henry is still twisting around, still trying to make eye contact – searing, hurt, confused eye contact – with Emma as the doors swing shut again. Emma is left standing alone in the hallway, dimly aware of one of the songs from Hercules drifting towards her from her classroom, blinking hard to stop the tears from even starting to fall before she can go back inside and face the rest of her students.
Chapter 8: Regina V
“Mom!” Henry says, for the third time, his hand hot in Regina’s as she strides across the yard. “Mom, stop!”
“We’re going home, Henry,” Regina says briskly, keeping her eyes fixed on her car in the now-deserted parking lot and forcing her voice to remain clipped and even. “No arguments.”
“I wanna see Emma,” Henry says stubbornly, dragging his heels into the tarmac and pulling so hard on Regina’s arm that she can feel the strain on her shoulder. “I wanna see Emma -”
“We’re going home,” Regina repeats, reluctantly coming to a stop and turning to face Henry without letting go of his hand. “Henry, you aren’t to see Ms. Swan again, do you hear me?”
“Emma’s my friend,” Henry says furiously, glaring up at Regina with such blazing resentment that she feels it almost like a physical blow. “She’ll come to my castle again and I’m gonna see her at school anyway, you can’t stop me.”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” Regina tells him, swallowing hard against the lump in her throat that’s formed from the force of Henry's speech. “We’ll talk about your insubordination later, do you know what insubordination means?”
Henry shrugs, his chin jutting out with resentful anger; unbidden, a memory echoes past the red haze of Regina’s fear, cold and sharp. I’m disappointed in you, Regina, but we’ll talk about this later, now go upstairs and think about your priorities –
“It means you’re grounded,” Regina says, cutting off the rush of adrenalin that’s rushing through her veins, chasing the echo of her mother’s voice from her head. She digs in the pocket of her coat, pulling out the keys and pointing them once to unlock the waiting Mercedes. “Now get in the car.”
“I want to see Emma,” Henry says again, his voice taking on a petulant whine, and Regina just shakes her head, pulling on his hand again, turning away so he won’t see the hurt clouding her vision – “Mom, you’re hurting me!”
Regina drops his hand as if scalded, wheeling around to stare at him – to find Henry staring up at her with an unfamiliar, alien look in his eyes – like he’s scared – like he’s scared of her -
“Sweetheart,” she breathes, stepping closer to him and closing her eyes when he flinches back – flinches away from her – “Henry, I’m so sorry – “
Henry just folds his arms in on himself, and walks in a wide circle around her to the car. In silence, he pulls open the back door, climbs in, and buckles his seatbelt; in silence, he leans his head against the window facing away from her, and waits with his shoulders set in an anxious, tensed-up hunch.
In silence, Regina is left alone in the empty school yard, the car keys clenched in her white-knuckled fist, the blood rushing against her ears beating out the sound of mother, mother, mother.
“Regina? Regina – “
Marian pulls on Regina’s elbow, her voice rising sharply in the muted courtroom; the conversation dips around them, and Regina is suddenly, uncomfortably, aware of what feels like dozens of eyes on her. Cheeks hot, she nods stiffly, and makes a concerted effort to fix her gaze directly on Marian next to her. “Yes?”
“Everything okay?” Marian asks her, her voice low; Regina just laughs, the sound flat and hollow, overwhelmed by the impossibility of that question, the vast, yawning chasm of hurt that’s opened up in her family in the last three days hours, the fear in Henry's eyes -
“No,” she says, voice shaking. “No, everything isn’t.”
Marian opens her mouth to ask another question – maybe sensing something of the magnitude of the situation in the line of Regina’s shoulders – but already, Judge Ghorm is hitting her gavel; already, conversations around them are drawing to a close and chairs are being scraped back as the collection of lawyers and experts take their seats. Marian settles for placing a hand on Regina’s balled-up fist, her touch light and cool; in a low whisper, she promises, “We’ll talk later,” and Regina feels the warmth of her friends support radiating out from where their shoulders are touching. Forcing herself to breathe out slowly, she focuses her eyes on the judge’s desk, and waits for the mornings proceedings to take their shape.
“Mr. Cassidy,” Jones is saying, his voice infuriatingly smooth and his eyes infuriatingly sharp, like he couldn’t be better-rested or more confident in his approach. “Could you tell us what brings you here today?”
Regina frowns, taking in the man slouched in the witness stand; he’s her age, maybe a little older, with a mop of brown hair and an untidy amount of stubble shadowing his chin. He’s wearing a suit that looks uncomfortable on him, and he’s tapping his hands nervously against the wooden stand, but other than his name – Cassidy – Regina has absolutely no idea what he’s doing here. That fact alone is disconcerting enough; but neither, judging from her clear gaze and deep frown next to Regina, does Marian.
“I’m Neal Cassidy,” the man says, his voice ringing out with the unmistakable sound of something rehearsed, something prepared; Regina can hear it in the way he measures each syllable, guess at it in the way his eyes keep flitting over to Cora for reassurance. “And, I think… Henry's father.”
Marian takes in a sharp breath; Regina turns to stare at her mother so fast she can hear her neck click. No, surely not – surely they can’t have -
“You think?” Jones asks, crooking one eyebrow.
“I was pretty sure,” Cassidy nods, his eyes darting between Cora and the lawyer again. “When I heard about Emma’s kid… And then after you got me that paternity test, I suppose I know for sure.”
Jones smiles, slow and dangerous, clearly not able to resist turning towards Regina’s bench and giving Marian a cocky nod before focusing his attention back on Neal Cassidy. “And what brings you here today, specifically?”
“I heard about the case,” Cassidy says slowly, clearly feeling his way into the main meat of his planned speech. “And when I heard about all the opportunities Henry was missing out on, stuck here in Storybrooke – no offense, your honor, I just meant the way he’s been stuck in elementary school without any tutors or anything…” From her bench, Cora gives a small cough, and Cassidy quickly cuts off the rambling justification. “Cora has told me all about her plans, and her history with Henry when he was a little kid, and… I’m here to endorse her claim for full custody of Henry.”
“And no one’s paying you to say that?” Jones asks, with a conciliatory kind of nod in Marian’s direction that cuts off her furious scribbling on a pad of paper for a few seconds.
“No,” Cassidy says, shaking his head. “No, nothing like that.”
“You’re simply here to give your opinion as Henry's natural parent?”
Cassidy nods. “Yeah.”
Jones nods, satisfied, and steps back. “No further questions, your honor.”
Judge Ghorm nods slowly, looking between Cassidy and Jones for a long few seconds before turning her attention to Regina and Marian’s desk. “Thank you, Mr. Jones. Ms. Alvarez?”
Marian nods heavily, getting to her feet and giving Regina a light squeeze to the shoulder before approaching the bench. Regina follows every step with her eyes, feeling the hopelessness of this case, feeling the world twist out of shape and out of her grasp – Judge Ghorm has already said she’d like to follow the wishes of a natural parent, but Emma is too biased, too wrapped up in Henry's life to make a real assessment –
“Mr. Cassidy,” Marian says, her voice ringing out clearly in the courtroom and pulling Regina back slightly from the edge of a dark, bottomless cliff-face; she shifts in her seat slightly, and forces her attention back to the present, to the people in front of her. “How lucky you could join us.”
Cassidy smiles uneasily. “Yeah.”
“You must be very proud of Henry,” Marian says casually, taking a couple more steps towards the witness stand; Regina, watching closely, sees Cassidy inch back in his seat just a few inches, and smiles inwardly. “Finding out you have a ten-year old genius for a son.”
“Yeah,” Cassidy nods quickly. “That’s why I want him to have the best chance he’s got, with Mrs. Mills in Boston.”
“Must be a shock, though,” Marian says, with an almost conversational smile at Cassidy’s now distinctly-uncomfortable expression. “Finding out you have a son at all, after all these years. Isn’t it?”
Cassidy swallows visibly, and then dips his head slightly. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Ms. Swan gave birth to the baby later called Henry Mills in August 2001,” Marian says sharply, half-turning to the judge now as she starts laying out her point. “She was at the time serving a twelve-month sentence in a correctional facility for young women in Massachusetts, following her arrest on December 24th of the previous year. Mr. Cassidy, excuse me if my math isn’t too fast, I’m no Henry Mills, but...39 weeks back from August 16th brings us to...some time pretty close to Christmas Eve, doesn’t it?”
“Sure,” Cassidy nods, his eyes narrowing slightly as he tries to glance past Marian at Cora and the lawyers on the other side of the courtroom –
“Mr. Cassidy,” Marian says with a friendly smile, placing herself squarely back in his field of vision and cutting off whatever wordless communication Cora is trying to send over. “Did you even know of Henry's existence before being contacted by Mr. Jones?”
“I -” Cassidy cuts himself off, sitting bolt upright in his seat now and looking between the judge and Marian with wide, unsure eyes; behind Marian, Regina sees Jones give him a small, sharp shake of the head, and he relaxes slightly. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand…”
“Emma Swan wrote you letters,” Marian says, her voice taking on a hard edge as she rounds on Cassidy. “Seventeen years old, locked up for a crime committed while on the run from a foster home and in a relationship with – eleven years ago, you were, what, twenty-nine, Mr. Cassidy?”
A stir goes around the courtroom; Judge Ghorm has fixed Cassidy with a cold look, now, entirely unrecognizable from the distant but respectful attention shed given him just minutes earlier. “Ms. Alvarez asked you a question, Mr. Cassidy,” she says crisply, raising her eyebrows when Cassidy stares up at her. “I suggest you answer it.”
“Twenty-nine is right,” Cassidy says slowly, looking between Marian and the judge with unmistakable fear in his eyes. “But I’m just here to talk about Henry, Emma and me, we were done by then…”
“Don’t panic, Mr. Cassidy,” Marian half-scoffs, and for the first time all morning, Regina thinks she can see a tantalizing glimmer of winning the day up ahead, thinks that Marian’s confident tone might not just be posturing – she’s got Cassidy backed into the tightest of corners now, and he knows it. “I’m not here to press charges on behalf of anyone, I’m just here, like we all are, to talk about what’s best for Henry Mills.”
“Cora,” Cassidy says immediately, clearly relieved to be back on firmer ground. “I nominate Cora Mills.”
“Yes, you’ve said,” Marian says icily. “But Mr. Cassidy, help me out here...ten years ago, when Emma Swan was writing you letters telling you that she was going to have a baby, that she wanted to know if you would be around, that she was scared to do it all on her own and didn’t know how she was going to feed her baby…”
Regina swallows, the dissonance between Emma, then – seventeen, seventeen years old and desperate for a chance for her baby, and Emma Swan as she was yesterday, dangerous and volatile and an unwanted intruder on Regina’s life with Henry – making something sharp and acrid rise up in her throat, somewhere between cloying fear and raw, unwilling empathy.
“You never answered, Mr. Cassidy,” Marian says, her voice cutting through the terse silence. “She wrote to you several times throughout the course of her pregnancy, and you never answered. The last letter was sent on August 15th, I assume while young Emma Swan was already in labor and aware of how little time she had left -”
At that moment, Jones springs into action, jumping to his feet and cutting Marian off loudly. “Objection, your honor, if Ms. Alvarez wants to enter any correspondence into the evidence then I need to be made aware of its contents –”
“I have the documentation here,” Marian says smoothly, crossing back to Regina’s desk and giving her a small, reassuring smile as she digs out a slim yellow file that she takes with her back up to Judge Ghorm. “Emma Swan’s supervising warden made a record of every letter that was sent, on which date and to which address – there are over a dozen letters addressed to one Neal Baelfire.” Here Marian pauses, giving a sweating Cassidy her slowest, driest smile. “I won’t ask you why you weren’t going by Cassidy at the time, Mr. Cassidy, but the letters were sent out over the course of nearly seven months up until August 15th.”
Jones tuts impatiently, stepping forwards and knocking Marian slightly with his shoulder in his haste to reach the judges bench. “Your honor, if Ms. Alvarez has a question for my witness, she should ask it, but I think she’ll find it very hard to prove that my witness was ever reliably informed of Swan's pregnancy – “
“I don’t think it needs to come to that,” Marian snaps, for the first time seeming to lose her patience. “And fine, Mr. Cassidy, here’s my question: did you or did you not receive word from Emma Swan in 2001? Did you or did you not decide to leave her to wait out her time in jail while you ignored her letters? And finally, Mr. Cassidy, and I remind you that you are under oath, did you or did you not know for the last decade of Henry's existence, and decide only now to bother having an opinion about what’s best for him?”
A long silence follows Marian’s words; she’s breathing heavily, chest rising and falling rapidly as she stares Neal Cassidy down, eyes burning into his as he shifts wordlessly in his seat, making silent, entreating eye contact with the lawyer who dragged him to this courtroom. Regina, feeling the burning anger radiating from the back of Marians head, almost feels sorry for him.
“Mr. Cassidy?” Judge Ghorm prompts, and Cassidy jerks up to stare at her with a new, stubborn look in his eyes.
“I don’t think it’s relevant,” he says sullenly, and no, Regina doesn’t feel sorry for him in the slightest. “I’m here to say I think Cora should have custody, not Ms. Mills.”
The judge’s eyebrows are raised so high they’re almost disappearing into her hairline; Cassidy’s bravado seems to wilt under the force of her incredulity, but after a moment’s pause it’s Marian who comes to his rescue, with a contemptuous smile. “No further questions, your honor,” she says scathingly. “I think we’re done here.”
She turns on her heel and strides back to take her seat next to Regina; in the silence that follows, Cassidy seems to shrink even further back into his seat, clicking his teeth together and looking for all the world like he just wants to leave the courtroom, leave Storybrooke, chalk the whole day up to experience and thank his stars he got away in one piece.
“Well, Mr. Jones, you’ve found both natural parents and managed to drag them up here one by one,” the judge says eventually, her tone noticeably cool as she fixes Jones with a sharp stare. “I suggest you think of a new line while we take recess for a few days. Ms. Alvarez, let the court know of any witnesses you plan on calling next week… You may go, Mr. Cassidy,” she adds, somewhat pityingly, and Cassidy is out of his seat before she’s even finished her sentence.
Regina watches him leave, disgust and curiosity mixing strangely in the pit of her stomach; and then Henry’s father is gone, the door swinging shut behind him as he walks out of Storybrooke and out of her world.
“Regina?” Marian asks, touching Regina lightly on the shoulder and laughing a little when she jumps. “You can relax, it’s over for today… You want to get something to eat?”
“Henry,” Regina says automatically, shaking her head slightly. “Henry will be home in a while, I have to... “ And just like that, the hope that’s welled up as a result of Marian’s dismissal of Cassidy evaporates, leaving Regina feeling cold and helpless. “We fought over the weekend, I have to…”
“Okay,” Marian says quickly, taking Regina by the shoulder and steering her towards the exit with a careful look back at a suddenly-watchful Jones, lingering to overhead their conversation. “Tell me about it later.”
“Right,” Regina nods, dazed and blinking in the sunshine that hits her as they hurry don the courthouse steps. “Marian, I can’t thank you enough, really -”
“I know,” Marian says, with a small smile. “Now go home, okay? Talk to Henry. You’ll be fine.”
“Talk,” Regina repeats, nodding blankly and thinking of the way Henry had ducked past her on the way to the school bus this morning with a sudden, sharp sting of loss. “You think that’s all?”
“I think it can’t hurt,” Marian says evenly. “I know Henry, Regina, I know how much he idolizes you… He just wants you to let him in a little, okay? Trust him with some of this, it’s not like he’s blind to what’s going on with you.”
“You think I should tell him about today?” Regina asks, brow creasing slightly as she takes the suggestion in, the idea that maybe she can’t shield or protect Henry from all of it – that maybe she doesn’t need to – it’s an alien thought, but strikes a strange chord somehow, not entirely unwelcome.
“I think…” Marian hesitates. “I think he’s stronger than you think, obviously you’re his mom and you want to protect him, but – especially if he ends up having to come and talk to me in court – I think he can deal with a little more from you first.”
Regina blanches. “You think that’s likely? That he’s going to -”
“I don’t know, Regina, your mom and Jones have thrown two curve-balls at us in as many hearings,” Marian says, sounding about as frustrated as Regina feels, and Regina nods grudgingly.
“So if Judge Ghorm decides she wants to hear from Henry himself…”
“It can’t hurt if you’ve already told him what’s been going on,” Marian nods. “Yeah.”
Telling Henry what’s been going on, however, sounds a lot easier in theory than it winds up being, with his suspicious face watching Regina’s every move as she flits around the kitchen getting dinner ready.
“Why are we having special dinner?” Henry asks as soon as she sets out his favorite plate and bowl. “It’s a weeknight, we never have special dinner on a weeknight that isn’t a birthday.”
“I felt like cooking,” Regina smiles, reaching out unthinkingly to touch her hand to the back of his head as she passes him; Henry flinches forward, Regina pulls her hand back as if scalded, and she finishes setting the table in silence, her hand burning from an absence of contact, her face cold with sweat.
“You’re not making it better,” Henry tells her bluntly, still watching with the same guarded look on his face as she sets down the salad bowl and the jug of orange juice.
Regina presses her lips together, and forces her voice to remain even as she asks, “What do you mean, dear?”
“Not letting me see Emma,” Henry says quietly, staring down at his plate without moving an inch as Regina serves up a large helping of his favorite tomato salad. “I know you got mad because she came to my castle, I know it, and she’s only trying to help the operation -”
Regina sits down, hard, in her chair, and stares over at Henry. “Operation?”
Henry shrugs, his face drawn. “The operation to make the mean old witch go back to stupid Boston,” he says, daring a look up at her with the tiniest of smiles flitting across his face before he seems to remember how mad he is at her and scowls back down at his salad. “Emma was only gonna help, and you yelled at her.”
“Henry…” Regina breathes, her voice trembling on the sudden revelation that all this time, yes, he’s been plotting with Emma, but to stay – “Sweetheart – “
Henry shrugs, picking at his salad with his fork, avoiding eye contact even as Regina beams at him. “You yelled at her.”
“I’m sorry,” Regina concedes, nodding slightly when Henry whips up his head to stare at her. “Really, Henry, it wasn’t about...the operation, it was…”
“Because you had a fight?” Henry asks, his voice taking on a curiously light tone, and Regina frowns. “When I came back from Boston, you…” He looks studiously down at his plate again, stabbing at a tomato with determined vigor. “You had a fight?”
“No,” Regina laughs, shaking her head fondly, watching Henry attack his salad with pink ears and a half-smile. “No, sweetheart, it’s nothing like…” she trails off, watching Henry for a while longer before abruptly getting up to take the lasagna out of the oven.
“Mom?” Henry asks quietly, watching her.
Regina keeps her eyes trained on the hot dish held between two dishcloths in her hands, lifting it carefully up and out of the oven and onto a waiting tray. The steam and the smells hit her all at once, rich and warm, taking her back to countless special dinners, countless cozy Regina-and-Henry evenings, the familiarity and the comfort all wrapped up in a sudden burst of smells – “Yes, Henry?”
“You can tell me,” Henry says quietly behind her. “I’m ten now, I’m gonna be eleven this year, and… You can tell me stuff.”
“Stuff,” Regina repeats, keeping her eyes carefully fixed on the tray as she carries it over and sets it down. Stuff, so eerily similar to the equally vague instructions from Marian – “Well, alright, what do you want to know?”
Henry doesn’t even wait for her to finish serving up. “Why are you mad at Emma?”
“Ms. Swan –“ Regina hesitates, helping herself to a plate of lasagna before settling back in her chair and fixing Henry with a careful stare. Where to start? The truth, ideally, but which version of the truth is the one that will be most palatable to her ten year-old? “Emma is involved in the case, sweetheart, the one about whether your grandma or I should be the ones to look after you.”
Henry rolls his eyes slightly, digging into his lasagna for a few seconds before thinking of a reply. “You already said that,” he says, talking around such a full mouthful that Regina has to smile, red sauce running down his chin, staining his face and making his voice almost too thick to understand. “Why did you get mad on Friday?”
“Because she came and spent time with you,” Regina says truthfully, closing her eyes for a moment to silently apologize for the almost-lie she’s about to construct. Forgive me, Henry – “She’s not your teacher anymore, and Marian and I – you remember I told you Marian is helping me with the case? – Marian thinks it’s better if Ms. Swan doesn’t cross any lines, in case... “
“In case of grandma,” Henry says slowly, helpfully filling in the gaps with the easiest, the simplest assumptions. Regina just nods, grateful that, for the moment, Henry doesn’t seem to have any more questions about Emma Swan, and watches him clear his plate while she picks at a single forkful of lasagna.
“You had a court day today,” Henry says eventually, looking up as Regina stands to clear the dishes away; he snatches up his still-full glass of orange juice before she can take it away, draining it in one long sip before slamming it back down on the table.
“Don’t slam,” Regina says automatically, turning around from the kitchen counter to pick up the glass; Henry has already picked up the dishcloth and mopped up the faint outline of juice left on the table, grinning when she softens and adds, “Thank you. And…yes, I did.”
“What happened?” Henry asks, his voice taking on a challenging note as he sits back down and fixes her with his clear, direct gaze. Regina stares back for a moment, weighing up the question in her mind, Marians advice still ringing loud and true in her mind even as she considers the idea that in recounting today, she won’t even really have to encroach on the difficult territory around Emma Swan –
“Your grandmother found an interesting witness,” she says finally. “Who came and told the judge that he thought she should take care of you.”
Henry wrinkles his nose in automatic dislike. “Who’s that?” he asks, voice dripping with disdain, and Regina laughs, heart swelling with possessive pride.
“Don’t worry,” she tells Henry, grabbing the tin of cookies she keeps on top of the tallest cabinet and setting it down on the table before taking her seat again. “Marian handled him easily enough.”
“”Of course she did,” Henry scoffs, helping himself to a cookie with a world-wise air. “Marian can do anything, she’s Robin Hood.”
For a moment, Regina stares at him, mystified – Robin Hood? – and then the connection clicks into place, the old book of fairy tales he started carting around everywhere just before Christmas. “Marian, as in Maid Marian, I see…”
“It’s her codename,” Henry shrugs, spraying cookie crumbs as he talks; for a moment, Regina is tempted to ask if she gets a codename – but then she remembers the flinching away, the wariness in his eyes, the still-recent weeks and months when he’d called her Regina, and decides shed rather not know. “Who was the guy?” Henry asks again, focused on the matter at hand, and she’s pulled out of her thoughts.
“He was…” she pauses, pulls the cookie tin just out of reach, and reaches across the table to place a careful hand on Henry's arm. “Your birth father, Henry.”
For a long, long moment, Henry just stares at her. Regina winces, regret and pain blooming against her ribcage, feeling the fragile moment of closeness evaporate and be replaced with Henry’s wide-eyed, fearful stare. Finally, he asks, his voice high, trembling on an even tone, “My dad?”
“Biologically, yes,” Regina nods, wrapping her fingers around Henry's palm, feeling her stomach turn at the way his hand is suddenly limp in hers. “But Henry, this man was just some trick that mother – that your grandmother dug up – he only showed up because they found him, he never even had any dealings with the adoption people who brought you into my life when you were a baby – “ Henry's hand flinches against her fingers, and Regina falls silent.
“Thanks for telling me,” he says finally, staring hard at the remaining crumbs of chocolate chip cookie scattered on the table, slowly pulling his hand out of hers and scraping his chair back. “May I be excused?”
It isn’t a question so much as defeat summed up in five syllables, his shoulders hunched and his head bent low to avoid even the threat of eye contact as he walks slowly past her and heads for the hallway – Regina feels nausea rise up in her throat, feels the world tilt out of shape again as her son slinks past her rather than look at her and give away what he’s feeling –
“I’m sorry, Henry,” she says, too late, the words numb on her tongue. “I shouldn’t have -”
Henry pauses at the door, but doesn’t quite turn around to look at her. “No,” he says quietly, his voice still awful and even, barely rising above a steady kind of whisper. “I wanted you to tell me the truth, I guess.”
“Henry – “ Regina pushes her chair back as she stands up, the sound sudden and loud in the deathly quiet of the kitchen. “Henry, sweetheart, it’s alright to be upset – “
At her sudden movement towards him, Henry jerks away, wrenching the kitchen door open and rushing towards the stars; Regina, still standing in the kitchen, hears his steps thudding up the staircase, hears him slamming open the door to his bedroom –
“Henry!” she calls again, hurrying after him to stand at the foot of the stairs -
His bedroom door slams shut, too late for Regina not to catch the choked sob echoing down the staircase towards her.
Chapter 9: Emma VI
When her work phone rings after 8 pm on a Tuesday, Emma is half-tempted to just let it ring to voicemail; it'll just be her mom again, ridiculously insistent on making all school-related calls on Emma’s school-related phone, like toeing the policy line is all that any situation needs to resolve itself. She’d rather not face Mary Margaret right now, has been determinedly working her way through a crate of beers for the last five evenings, and there’s a true-crime special just about to start on TV. Whatever mistake she’s bound to have made while filling in report cards can wait for morning, Emma decides, rolling over onto her stomach and resolutely waiting for Mary Margaret to go to voicemail.
The phone just keeps ringing, loud and insistent, going straight into a repeat call after a too-short pause for the voicemail setting to be picked up and ignored.
This carries on for another three separate calls, until Ruby, busy making dinner in the kitchen and familiar with the work phone’s ring tone, loses her patience and slams down her wooden spoon. “Okay, stop ignoring your mom,” she says, rolling her eyes when Emma sits up on the couch with a wounded expression. “Or turn your cell to silent, or something.”
“Ruby…” Emma whines, fixing her friend with an entreating stare. “Can you talk to her? I can’t right now.”
“Yeah, you look super busy,” Ruby snorts. “Sorry, Mrs. Blanchard, Emma can’t come to the phone right now, she’s busy feeling sorry for herself because Henry's mommy won’t call her back - “
“Whatever,” Emma cuts her off, rolling off the couch and stomping over to the offending phone, still ringing and ringing at least five minutes later - “What, mom?”
A pause, and then:
Emma nearly drops the phone. From across the room, Ruby raises her eyebrows, confused; Emma just shakes her head numbly, fully aware of how pale she must be, and turns away to stare uselessly at the wall while she tries to summon up a response.
“Ms. Swan, I don’t have time for –” Regina says then, her voice clipped and terse; she cuts herself off, sighs loudly into the phone, and starts again. “I need you to come to Mifflin Street.”
At that, Emma finally finds her voice again, a squeaked “What?” slipping out, barely more than a whisper, and she clears her throat loudly before trying again. “Regina, what’s – going on?”
“I need you to come over,” Regina snaps, the words making no more sense than they did the first time around – Emma rubs hard at her eyes with her free hand, half-sure she’s hearing things – “Now.”
Hi, Regina, nice to speak to you too, Emma thinks fleetingly, the conversation already so far out of her control that all she actually settles on is, “Why?”
“Henry,” Regina says simply, and Emma is already reaching for her car keys. “He won’t talk to me, he wants…” There’s a pause, and Emma can hear how much it’s costing Regina to form the next words. “He says he’ll talk to you.”
“I’m on my way,” Emma says, looking for her sneakers under the couch and ignoring Ruby’s confused stare. “Regina, what happened?”
But Regina has already rung off, leaving Emma with the dialing tone sounding against her ear and a thousand nervous questions bursting like bubbles in her throat.
“Booty call?” Ruby calls over cheerfully, watching with barely-disguised glee as Emma pulls on her sneakers and hurries into her jacket.
“It’s Henry,” she says, giving Ruby a helpless shrug. “She said he wants to see me, I don’t – I can’t not go –”
“Obviously not,” Ruby agrees, waving Emma towards the door. “Go, fill me in later.”
Emma nods shakily, heading for the door. He says he'll talk to you. If Henry is this upset, if Regina is lost enough to resort to calling the last person on Earth she could possibly want around her son right now –
“This is bad,” she says slowly, throat constricted with sudden fear. “Regina wouldn’t call if it wasn’t really bad.”
“Go,” Ruby repeats sternly, pointing towards the door. “Find out what’s going on.”
“Right,” Emma says, exhaling shakily and nodding twice to firm up her resolution before opening the door. “Right.”
Fifteen minutes later, after what should have been a half-hour drive, she pulls up outside Regina’s house. Most of the lights are still on, and as she heads up the path towards the front door it’s pulled open as if someone has been waiting for her arrival; which, Emma realizes as Regina beckons her inside, hair a disarray and grey dress unhappily rumpled, she probably was.
“Hey,” she says, voice automatically softening into something soothing, something careful, as Regina hurries towards her. “Hey, Regina, what –”
“Henry’s in his room,” Regina says, cutting off her question and closing one hand around Emma’s wrist. “This way, quickly.”
“Okay,” Emma says, feet tripping in the slight piles of snow around the porch steps and feeling her pulse jump against Regina’s fingers. “I – “ she swallows, ducking her head to shoot a glance at Regina as they hit the warmth and light of the hallway and immediately make for the staircase. “I’m sorry, about…”
“Not now,” Regina says curtly, already taking the stairs in quick, hurried steps, her feet bare except for sheer stockings; Emma trips after her, feeling her scuffed sneakers hitting each carpeted stair and wincing at the thought of how much dirt she’s tracking inside. “Henry’s room,” Regina says, arriving at the top of the stairs and pointing at the first door on her left.
“Okay,” Emma says again, slower this time, as Regina drops her hand and she begins to orientate herself, slightly dizzy from the speed in which she’s gone from being horizontal and morose on her couch to here, in the hallway outside Regina’s bedroom, with Regina breathing heavily and her wrist still burning with the familiarity of her touch – “Okay, Regina, you’ve got to give me something to go on, here.”
“Henry is upset,” Regina snaps, looking away. “He needs an adult to talk to him, and he won’t...open the door.”
Emma winces, catching the tightness in Regina’s words, her hand going out automatically to rub her forearm. “Regina...”
“I don’t need your pity, Ms. Swan,” Regina snaps, pulling her arm away too quickly; Emma’s hands close on empty air, and she feels her stomach sinking with acrid, bubbling fear. “I need you to get through to my son, and then I need you to leave us alone.”
“Right,” Emma nods, hesitating slightly – if Regina is aware of the contradictions piling up between them, she doesn’t let on, just folds her arms tightly around herself and nods jerkily for Emma to approach Henry's closed bedroom door. “Do you… Did he say why he got mad?”
“The case,” Regina answers shortly, and Emma exhales. Right. “And he’s not mad, he’s upset, now are you going to keep on wasting time, or - “
“Okay!” Emma says quickly, raising both hands in surrender; clearly, she’s going to have to go directly to Henry for any more details. “Okay, sorry.”
Regina nods, eyes still fixed on the wall across from Emma, cheeks flushed and shoulders pulled up into a tight, strained line; Emma gives her one last searching look, and then approaches Henry's room.
“Henry?” she calls softly, rapping twice on the clean white lines of the bedroom door. “You in there?”
Through the silence, Emma can hear Regina’s uneven breathing behind her, and – when she leans her head against the cool wood - the muffled sounds of what might be a whimpered sob, pressed against a pillowcase. Her heart squeezing against her ribcage, Emma tries again. “Come on, kid, let me in.”
Henry doesn’t reply; but Emma can feel something shifting just on the other side of the door, and there’s the sound of something heavy – maybe a bookcase – being pushed out of the way. When she tries the door handle again, it moves smoothly under her touch.
After a quick glance back at Regina - she’s still standing by the staircase, hugging her arms to herself and staring at the crack of light now spilling from Henry's bedroom door with such raw, unfiltered longing that Emma feels the heat of it against her skin - Emma swallows back the lump in her throat, and pushes the door gently open.
Henry is lying on his bed, curled around a huge stuffed horse toy, his face pressed into its mane; looking around the door, Emma can see the chest of drawers shoved hastily back into its place next to door, the pile of pillows and comforters Henry has pulled from his bed, leaving the mattress bare. He looks frighteningly small against the expanse of material, his hair a ruffled mess and his cheeks bright pink; his shoulders are still shaking a little, but he’s almost completely silent as he lies there, turned towards the wall.
Pulse jumping unevenly in her throat, Emma crosses the small, clean room, and sits down on the bed next to him. “Hi, Henry.”
He doesn’t respond, beyond a slight shudder that runs down his spine, a familiar-enough motion that hides a pushed-back sob or cry – Emma’s reaches out, carefully, and strokes along one of his bony little shoulders. “Henry,” she says softly, waiting for him to relax slightly against her touch before continuing. “You want to tell me about what happened today?”
Henry shakes his head jerkily, still not looking up, and Emma sighs, settling into the mattress next to him and leaving her hand where it is, curled around his shoulder; she stays like that for a long time, just breathing, letting Henry adjust to her presence, until finally Henry mumbles something, rushed and indistinct against the toy horse's fur.
Emma frowns, but no matter how hard she strains she can’t quite make it out - something about knew the address - and then, his energy for words apparently exhausted, Henry flops back into his silent, miserable state.
“Yeah,” she says slowly, her hand stroking small circles against the small of Henry's back, gently encouraging him to say something more substantial, “I knew the address, kid, your mom told me.”
At that, Henry looks up, his eyes wet and red as they bore into hers. “Not you.”
Emma stops, confused. “Sorry, I didn’t -” she frowns. “Who knew the address?”
”He could have asked somebody,” Henry says, his face screwed into a picture of misery. “They could have told him.”
“Asked who?”” Emma asks blankly, mind working quickly to try and catch up. “Told who? Where you live?”
Behind her, there’s a light creak of the floorboards; she assumes Regina is standing in the doorway, but for now Emma keeps her eyes level with Henry's, waiting for him to explain. For a long moment, he just looks at her, and she has time to take in his bright cheeks and hectic eyes; he looks like he’s minutes away from passing out from sheer exhaustion. Softening slightly, she touches her fingers to his cheek, feeling the heat radiating from his skin.
“He didn’t even have to ask for directions,” Henry says then, cutting her off in a great rush. “He could have just – he could have followed mom from the courthouse –“ and then his words seem to fail him, and he just pitches forward, arms going tightly around her middle and his face pressed into the crook of her shoulder. Emma hugs him back automatically, resting her cheek against the top of his spiky hair and feeling the sobs as they shudder out against her skin; utterly lost, she looks up to find Regina staring at them.
Who, is all Emma needs to mouth for Regina to understand; she sits down heavily on Henry's desk chair, folding her hands tightly together in her lap, and says, “Neal Cassidy gave a testimony for my mother in court today.”
For a moment, Emma’s vision goes a little blurry - Neal - no, it can’t be, not here, not in Storybrooke -
“I believe he was going by a different surname,” Regina says quietly, misreading the blank, lost confusion clouding Emma’s eyes. “Something like fire?”
“Baelfire,” Emma mumbled, throat constricting with the heaviness of the word. “He said he was called Neal Baelfire.”
Something shifts then; Henry goes stiff against her, and looks to meet Emma’s eyes with a frown. “Why do you know his name?”
Emma freezes, panicking, turns her head swiftly to find Regina just as pale, just as stuck –
“Marian told me about who was coming in,” she says, forcing back every wavering instinct. “Guess the name was memorable.”
Dimly, Emma is aware of Regina slumping behind her, but she forces herself to keep eye contact with Henry, watching as he tilts his head slightly to one side as he stares up at her.
“So your...birth dad,” Emma says, her voice carefully neutral. “You didn’t meet him?”
Henry shakes his head, letting his face rest against Emma’s jacket again, and she tightens her arms around him.
“My mother’s lawyer brought him in,” Regina says then in a low voice, filling in the gaps in response to Emma’s unspoken need for more information. ”Said he had read about the case and was in support of her claim, but… Marian sent him on his way.”
Emma smiles involuntarily – she’s only met Marian twice, and spoken to her once on the phone, but it’s still a surprisingly vivid image, Neal cringing away from her scathing tone, avoiding eye contact, avoiding an explanation. He’s good at that –
”He’s gone?” she asks, her voice wavering just a little; she presses her face into the top of Henry's hair again, flinching a little when she feels a hand curl gently around her hunched shoulder.
“He’s gone,” Regina confirms, her fingers warm through the material of Emma’s jacket. ”Henry…”
Emma sucks in a deep, calming breath, ordering the sudden whirlwind of thoughts and emotions into something she thinks she can work with, and then nods briskly.
”Okay, kid, listen up,” she says firmly, waiting for Henry to look up at meet her gaze with red-rimmed eyes. “Wanna take a trip with me? Your mom’s coming too.”
Henry wrinkles his nose, confused. ”A trip?” he asks, his voice high and suspicious, and Emma nods. “Where?”
“Surprise,” Emma grins, getting to her feet and pulling Henry up with her; he sways against her side, head tucking snugly against her chest. “Regina? You in?”
“A trip?” Regina repeats, sounding for a second so like Henry that Emma has to bite back a smile. “What do you mean, Ms. Swan?”
“I mean, a trip,” Emma says, looking up and giving Regina her clearest, most entreating look. “Trust me?” she adds quietly, as Regina stares at her over the top of Henry's head, eyes boring into hers with layers and layers of apprehensive, guarded suspicion.
“Mom?” Henry asks quietly, looking up to; and in that split second, watching Regina’s expression soften almost thoughtlessly, Emma knows she’s been convinced.
“Alright, sweetheart,” she murmurs, holding out one hand with such clear, guileless trepidation that even Henry must be able to see – Emma sucks in a breath, willing him forwards –
“Okay,” he says abruptly, walking right past Regina and thumping down the stairs with quick, bare-foot stomps. “I’ll get my shoes.”
For a moment, Regina seems to sway on the spot; then, seeing Emma watching her, she pulls her spine straight, and exhales sharply. ”You’d better know what you’re doing,” she says simply, eyes burning into Emma’s, before she turns on her heel and follows Henry downstairs.
Emma watches her go, mouth suddenly dry; for a moment, she just stands there, in Henry’s suddenly-empty bedroom, letting her thoughts bend and stretch around the thought of Neal, here, in Maine, talking to Henry’s grandma, talking to Regina -
But he’s gone, of course; whether or not anyone actually told him that she was in town, Emma doesn’t know. Not that it matters, she reminds herself sharply, mind reeling back over a decade to the months of waiting, the letters, the sheer, unfiltered hurt that she hadn’t known, then, how to deal with - that she hardly knows how to process now, let alone at seventeen -
“Emma?” There’s a clatter of boots on the stairs, and Henry appears in the hallway, decked out in a raincoat and a woolen hat, his eyes still bright, his cheeks flushed with anticipation now, at least, rather than crushed disappointment. “Emma, mom says if we’re going we have to go now, and it’s already after my bedtime.”
“Right,” Emma nods, exhaling shakily and following him back out towards the staircase. “Let’s go, kid,” she says, touching a hand to his hair as she passes him in the hallway, feeling him lean into her touch for a moment before he’s rushed ahead again, waiting at the front door with his eyes wide and eager, watching the way Regina - wrapped up in a scarf and a dark winter coat, now, her eyes still slightly bright but her mouth set in a determined line - nods up at Emma, her expression brittle.
“Let’s go, Ms. Swan,” she says, in response to Emma’s careful smile, sweeping past the two of them towards her Mercedes.
“I’m off-duty,” Emma says, more for something to say than anything else. “Emma is fine.”
Henry giggles at that, face breaking into a smile as he climbs into the car; and at the sound, high and bright, Emma thinks she sees something soften in Regina’s eyes as she nods for Emma to slide into the driver’s seat.
They drive, the night air inky black against the streetlights zipping past outside; Emma glances every so often towards the passenger seat, but Regina - after sliding in a CD and turning the stereo on - has curled herself up into her coat, her forehead resting against the window, and isn’t saying a word.
Classical music fills the car, a piano sonata, soft and lyrical, and when Emma glances in the rear-view mirror she can see Henry tapping out a gentle rhythm on his knees. She smiles.
Twenty minutes after they leave Storybrooke, Henry starts to fidget, bored of looking out at the unchanging highway view. “Are we nearly there yet?” he asks, his voice ringing out with a clear, tired whine in the confined space.
“Not really,” Emma says, grinning when he slumps back against his seat. “Wanna play eye spy?”
He just gives her a withering look. “I’m ten.”
“Have it your way,” Emma agrees peaceably, keeping her eyes on the road and grinning to herself as Henry slumps back in his seat. “Wanna find a cheesy radio station and sing along?”
The immediate and cutting chorus of “No!” comes at Emma from two sides, and she glances over at Regina.
“Not a chance,” Regina confirms, so icily and so readily that Emma is already half-forming a suspicion of a really excellent Bonnie Tyler rendition hiding under her composed expression; but Regina has already turned her attention back to the tree-lined roadside zipping past, and Emma decides not to push it.
“Are we nearly there yet now?” Henry asks, exactly three minutes later, and Emma laughs.
“Why don’t you have a guess?”
“That’s a no…” Henry whines, leaning his head against the window and plucking randomly at one of the tassels of Regina’s scarf that’s hanging over the back of her seat.
“See, this is why they call you the smart one,” Emma grins, risking a glance over at Regina; a tiny smile is curling the sides of her mouth now, but she’s still keeping her eyes turned studiously towards the window. Emma exhales, and relaxes into the drive.
Ten minutes later, Regina glances behind her seat; Henry is fast asleep with his head leaning against the window and his knees tucked up to his chin, looking somehow even younger than in the day, even smaller and more vulnerable.
“Asleep?” Emma asks, keeping her eyes fixed on the road but casting a quick glance through the rear-view mirror at Regina’s expression. She’s watching Henry sleep with something uncommonly soft in her eyes, something somehow private - Emma flicks her eyes away, and swallows back an unfamiliar lump.
“Asleep,” Regina replies quietly, sitting back up and letting her eyes rest on the horizon. For a minute or two, they just drive, the CD of piano sonatas filling the car, until Regina clears her throat and asks, “Are we actually driving anywhere in particular?”
“What?” Emma asks, nose creasing. “Think I just wanted to take a drive?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Regina snaps. “You just showed up and clicked your fingers and said let’s take a trip, Henry, and Henry looked happier and he stopped crying and I suppose that’s all your doing, so I suppose you want me to thank you or something.”
“It would be nice,” Emma says, lips twitching into a smile. “But I didn’t just show up to be thanked, Regina, you asked me to -”
“I know I did,” Regina says, almost sulkily, before drawing breath and saying, “And Henry followed you out and let you drive him off into the middle of New Brunswick, for all I know, and now he’s asleep, which I suppose I should thank you for as well.”
“If you like,” Emma nods, laughing when Regina’s nostrils flare. “Relax, Regina, I’m not taking either of you to Canada.”
Regina blinks, startled, seeming to remember for the first time that she’s let Emma drive off with her as well as Henry. “Right,” she says slowly, shooting a careful glance towards Emma’s smiling expression. “Good.”
“Either way, though,” Emma says, after a short pause. “Sometimes you just have to take them out and drive around till they forgot they were hurt long enough to fall asleep, right?”
“I suppose so,” Regina says, turning around to glance at Henry again. “Thank you for coming, I… He wouldn’t stop crying, he was getting himself so worked up and he wouldn’t let me in - “
“I know,” Emma says quietly, taking one hand off the steering wheel to clasp Regina’s wrist for a moment; Regina’s breath stutters, and she stares across the car at her, and they drive on like that for a few, spellbound seconds until Emma has someone trying to overtake her and she puts the hand back on the wheel. “This always worked when I was a kid, so.”
Emma shakes her head. “Being driven around by someone.” Regina frowns at that, and Emma knows she’s doing the math, knows she’s trying to match up the fondness in the word someone with the history of group homes and foster parents, and not getting the numbers to add up.
“The Swans,” Emma says, after a long enough silence that she knows Regina is waiting for her to fill in the blanks. “I lived with them for three years, and Liz, she loved to drive, and whenever I was too upset to even function she’d put me in the back of her car and just go, music on, no questions asked, nothing to talk about… I could sit there in silence or I could cry my eyes out until I passed out, or whatever, and by the time we got back to the house it was dark and she would pick me up and carry me to bed and bring me a hot cocoa. With cinnamon,” she adds, and Regina lets out a quiet laugh. “Then Liz and her husband figured out she could get pregnant after all, and the adoption papers went in the trash, and I went to the next group place. And that was the end of the driving around, I guess, but when I got to Storybrooke the first thing I did was get my permit.”
Emma’s mouth has suddenly run dry. The music is still playing softly on the stereo, but all of a sudden the hum of the engine is unbearably loud, the noise pressing against her ears almost oppressively - she hadn’t meant for it all to come spilling out, memory after tender memory, with Regina’s eyes reflecting the rain now dropping against the windows as they drive through what could be an interminable stretch of road –
“Henry likes cinnamon on his cocoa too,” Regina offers quietly, and Emma manages a shaky laugh.
“Henry,” Emma whispers, leaning through the open door and nudging Henry gently awake. “Henry, kid, wake up.”
Henry blinks sleepily up at her, scrubbing a fist over his face before focusing his eyes on her. “Mom?”
“Here, Henry,” Regina says quickly, voice trembling with relief as she steps around Emma and picks Henry up, his arms going up around her neck, monkey-like and instinctive as he clings to her.
“Are we there yet?” Henry mumbled, voice thick with sleep, as Regina carries him gently out of the rain and under the wooden porch.
“I think so, sweetheart,” Regina says, turning her head back to raise an eyebrow at Emma. “Emma?”
“Yeah,” Emma says, blinking quickly to brush away the ache that’s forming every time she watches them, every time she sees Henry sway against Regina with ten years of practice. “Yeah, uh, welcome! You hungry?”
Henry frowns, watching as she walks past them up the porch steps and pushes open the doors, a wall of light and warmth and noise hitting the three of them immediately. Henry looks up, his cheek imprinted with Regina’s woolen coat and eyes wide as he takes in their surroundings. Emma gives him a reassuring smile, breathing in the warm smells of fried food and coffee, swinging her arms slightly and letting her shoulders roll back as she steps back into familiar ground.
“A diner,” Regina says flatly, bringing Emma back out of her sudden bear claw-heavy reminiscence. “We drove for two hours to come to a diner?”
“The best diner,” Emma corrects her, leading the way purposefully to a table in the corner, where Henry immediately curls up against the flaking red booth and Regina gingerly sits down next to him.
Regina stares across the table as Emma slides into her seat, clearly struggling to make sense of this nonsensical field trip, or to interpret the wistful, contented look that Emma knows has entered her eyes. “Ms. Swan, there had better be a reason for driving out here after eleven at night, you can’t expect me to –”
“Coffee?” Emma cuts her off, smiling swiftly up at the waitress hovering nearby with a pot. “Thanks, well grab some milk and sugars too, please. Henry, you want cocoa?”
Henry nods, eyes suddenly alert at the thought of chocolate, and Emma chuckles. Regina is still staring at her, hands pressed together under her chin, and Emma feels suddenly foolish.
“Later,” she promises, with a sidelong glance at Henry. “Let’s order something, okay? You ever have breakfast at midnight, kid?”
“At New Year’s,” Henry shrugs, endearingly nonchalant. “Mom makes waffles and we wait for the silver ball to drop.” Regina smiles next to him, both their face lit up for a moment with the shared memory before both faces fall with identical, troubled frowns. “Except for when I went to Boston,” Henry adds, looking down at the Formica-topped table and folding his arms.
“Waffles at midnight,” Emma says into the sudden silence, nudging her foot against Regina’s under the table and waiting for her to look up. “Got it.”
Henry beams at her, and Regina, sitting next to him on the wooden bench and letting her hands curve around a cup of coffee, gives Emma a careful, slow smile that sinks like warm butter into her chest.
They get through a plate of waffles each, as well as the side order of scrambled eggs that Henry had insisted on and the bear claw that had been calling Emma’s name, in relative silence. No one feels much like talking, and this new kind of unity between them all still feels too fragile to test under anything like a real conversation. Henry digs into his food with ten-year-old vigor, hand balled into a fist around his fork and hair still spiked from the long car ride, and Regina finds moments to send another slow smile across the table at Emma, the toes of her boot nudging against Emma’s sneakers every time Emma finds herself just watching Henry, lost in thought.
Finally, all three of them moving slightly slower now with contented smiles and warm, full stomachs, their plates are cleared and Emma gives Henry a light nudge with her foot. “Look up,” she says, nodding towards the wall behind his head; Henry and Regina both turn, and both quickly fix their eyes on the old, framed newspaper clipping hanging between a Warhol print and an old London street sign.
Regina gets there first - Emma watches her eyes move from left to right as she scans the headline and the by-line, sees the way she frowns to make out some of the details and catches the way her eyes grow wide as she makes the connection. Henry is still squinting at the clipping, lips moving soundlessly as he reads, and eventually he says, “Baby girl found by Maine truck driver?”
“Just down the road,” Emma says, pointing out of the dinner window to the woods on the side of the highway, rustling in the night air. “It wasn’t always an all-night dinner, they used to have to get deliveries in the mornings, there was a dairy truck heading up here at five in the morning… He heard a weird noise round back, went a couple of yards into the woods and nearly tripped over this baby, crying and crying.”
Henry stares at her, eyes very round. “Someone lost their baby?” he asks, breathless at the potential for adventure. “Did they find her again, when they saw it in the papers? Did someone kidnap them, and leave the baby, or -”
“Henry…” Regina murmurs, reaching over and wrapping her hand around his; Emma shakes her head, smiling a little to reassure Regina she isn’t about to take offense.
“Someone left the baby there, Henry,” she says slowly, trying hard to find words that don’t sting but not knowing how to say this anything other than bluntly. “They wrapped her in her blanket, and they left her… Somewhere where they knew she would be found, round the back of a diner that always had a load of people coming by early in the morning.”
Henry sucks in a breath. “Oh,” he says, his voice very small. “Did she get home anyway? Was she okay? What happened?”
Three questions, with three very different answers - Emma blinks slowly, and turns her attention to the last of the three. “The police department have people who look after babies,” she says, an upbeat tone rising to the words as she slips into the familiar, by-rote portion of the story. “If parents get sick, or something happens, or...they don’t know where the parents are. And then those people got the baby into the social system, and she was fostered.”
“Fostered?” Henry asks, nose creasing as he looks around at Regina. “What’s fostered?”
“A foster family looks after children that need a home,” Regina says gently, her eyes flitting away from Emma’s. “It’s sort of like adopting, but -”
“Less permanent,” Emma jumps in, sensing the hesitation in Regina’s voice. “Some kids get lucky and stay with one foster family till they’re big, and sometimes foster parents only take kids for a short while, or you get kids who go into group homes for a while –“
“Emma?” Henry asks, voice faltering as she falls silent and looks at him.
“What happened to the baby?” he asks, and Emma feels her heart squeeze tight against her lungs as she reaches across the table to curl her fingers gently around his open palm. His fingers close on hers, his other hand automatically squeezing Regina’s hand tighter too, and Emma glances across to find Regina already watching her, already nodding slightly.
“She’s right here, kid,” Emma says, smiling as Henry's eyes grow even rounder. “The blanket had a name stitched on it.”
“Emma,” Henry says, testing the word out and gasping when Emma nods. “But you’re –you’ve got a mom, you’ve got Mrs. Blanchard!”
Emma keeps smiling, knowing that her eyes must be wet with unshed tears but not willing to let go of Henry’s hand, not yet, not when he’s just jumped to the exact same inconsistency as Regina had on New Year’s Eve, his cheeks bright with outrage. “That’s a...long story,” she says carefully, giving Henry's hand a light squeeze to let him know she’s not mad at him for asking. “I guess my parents found me in the end, you know? But I wasn’t so little by then.”
Henry takes this in slowly, nodding thoughtfully after a while and not looking up until he says, quietly, “You didn’t have your mom when you were a kid?”
Emma can see Regina’s hand tighten around his. “No,” she says quietly, shaking her head and staring down at the table to blink twice and will the tears to disappear against her cheek. “No, I didn’t, not until I was eighteen.”
There’s a long silence, during which Emma can feel the toe of Regina’s boot, rubbing tiny concentric circles into her ankle; it’s probably meant to be a soothing gesture, and it is soothing, but it’s also... She shifts slightly on her seat, distracted for a moment from the swell of history that she’s just dredged back up, and it occurs to her that maybe Regina knows exactly what she’s doing.
“That’s old,” Henry says suddenly, and it’s such a completely normal, pre-teen response to any age older than twelve, that both Regina and Emma burst out laughing.
Pretty soon after that, they decide to head back towards Storybrooke; or rather, Regina decides that it’s time they all head back towards Storybrooke, and Emma and Henry have to leave their game of battleships unfinished on the paper serviettes.
“You drive, this time,” Emma says, pressing the keys into Regina’s hand. “Seriously, I’m so scared of scratching that thing.”
“You didn’t seem so concerned on the way out,” Regina notes drily, but she takes the keys and waves off Emma’s laughing, half-serious defense without another word. “Henry, coat on, please, it’s raining pretty hard still…”
“The car’s right there,” Henry whines, and Emma uses the moment - both of them squaring up for a squabble about raincoats, neither of their attention on her - to slip away and find the bathrooms.
When she comes back, Henry is leaning against Regina’s side on the porch, her head bent low to be closer to his, two heads of dark hair merging together as she whispers something low and gentle in his ear.
“I’m sorry,” Henry says, his whisper more carrying, less guarded; Emma catches her breath, and decides to hang back a little. “Mom, I’m really sorry, I’m really, really, really -” Henry's voice rising with every fierce repetition of the word, half-muffled as he presses his face into her coat - Emma strains to understand, but all she catches are a few indistinguishable syllables and then,“...you’re my mom.”
Regina pulls him into a tight hug, then, her face still hidden and her voice too low for Emma to make out; they cling to each other, framed in the open doorway, and Emma swears if she could, she would move into this moment and stay there, Regina and Henry and the warm food smells filling the diner with a sense of comfort, of home.
When Regina looks up, catching her eye and giving her a radiant, teary-eyed thank you over the top of Henry’s head, Emma decides she has had officially too much caffeine after midnight to be dealing with the painful lurching in her chest.
“Come on,” she says quickly, striding forward and nudging past Henry with a gentle dig of her elbow. “Let’s go home, okay?”
Chapter 10: Regina VI
Regina wakes up the next morning with a crick in her neck, and feet so cold they feel like blocks of ice. The room is still dark, grey morning light just starting to seep in through the curtains, and somewhere in the house there’s some kind of beeping noise, a familiar beeping noise, the kind of beep that usually means -
“Shit,” Regina groans, sitting bolt upright and taking in the living room couch; so this is as far as they got last night, apparently, and now her alarm is ringing in her empty bedroom and she’s slept all night with her feet sticking out from underneath a throw from the back of the couch, and she has to get Henry ready for school. “Shit.”
Next to her, Henry sits up just as quickly, hair sticking up in all directly and eyes foggy with sleep. “Mom, you cursed,” he mumbled, before flopping back down onto the couch and tugging the throw out from under her arm to pull it right up over his head for warmth.
“Henry, darling,” Regina says quietly, groaning a little as she runs her hands over her face and her fingers come away eyeliner-black. “Time to get up.”
“I don’t wanna,” Henry's replies, voice muffled by several layers of cushions and blankets. “Cold.”
“Nice try,” Regina says, pulling the throw away and ignoring Henry wordless whine of protest. “Come on, up, we overslept, you need to clean your teeth and find some clean uniform – ” Briefly, she thinks back, tries to remember if she had put any laundry in the dryer before dinner last night – “Find some uniform, and have breakfast.”
Henry heads upstairs, grumbling all the way until he reaches the top of stairs and Regina hears him disappear into the bathroom. Rolling her shoulders back and reaching for her woolen coat – it’ll have to do until she gets a chance to find something warm – she stands up, and starts the day.
By the time Henry is finally ready for school, tempers are frayed and approaching breaking point. Nothing seems to be where it should be this morning, from Henry's school clothes to his favorite purple pen that he needs for story-writing in class today to the box of cereal Regina swears she doesn’t remember throwing out yet but is found, empty, in the trash after ten minutes of discussion about breakfast. Toast it is, then, and by the time Regina has found some peanut butter for Henry, he’s managed to spill his orange juice, one tired elbow slip being all it takes to ruin his only clean pair of uniform pants. He refuses point blank to just let her dry them with her hair-dryer (well, it was worth a shot), but after taking Henry back upstairs and digging out yesterday’s pants with an apologetic grimace when he stares at her accusingly, and then marching him back downstairs to finally have his breakfast…
“The bus is going in five minutes,” Henry announces, pushing his half-eaten piece of toast away and standing up. “Mom, I have to go!”
“Right,” Regina nods, distractedly running a comb through her hair and throwing Henry's lunch bag at him in passing. “Okay, shoes, coat, hat, go.”
“Four minutes,” Henry yells, racing up the stairs for his hat and thundering back down the stairs with his gym clothes, found at the last minute and quickly shoved into his backpack – “Two minutes!”
Regina presses a hand to her forehead, standing by the front door – still in yesterday’s clothes and her winter coat, her feet now stuck into a pair of rain boots that will, at least, see her to the corner of her street and back. “Okay, got everything?”
“Yeah,” Henry nods, backpack slung over one shoulder, coat buttoned up the wrong way, hat shoved over his ears and shoelaces horribly tangled; but he’s standing by the front door, and he’s had some breakfast, and he’s ready to go in time (just) for the bus. Today, Regina will take that achievement. “No!”
Of course not. “What is it, Henry?”
Regina exhales heavily, shaking her head and squinting at the time on the kitchen clock. “Just leave the laptop -” But Henry has already thundered off upstairs, digging around for the laptop, charging cable, and carry-case, and Regina is left to uselessly say, “One minute,” into the empty hallway. “Thirty seconds...twenty seconds…”
“Let’s go!” Henry yells, back downstairs and streaking past her, pulling open the door and running off towards the sidewalk -
“Don’t fall, please,” Regina calls, heart lurching up into her throat as she watches him scamper over the icy pavement. She follows him more slowly, waiting until they’re standing at the corner to re-button his coat and adjust his hat. “See, you look perfect, and we’re on time…”
“No,” Henry says miserably, looking around and stating the obvious. “No, Auggie and Sofia get on the bus here, and they’re not here.”
“Maybe they’re late?” Regina suggests weakly; Henry shakes his head.
“Auggie’s never been late once.”
“Maybe…” Regina casts around for a better explanation, shivering slightly and pulling her coat tighter around herself. “It might be a snow day, we forgot to check.”
Henry just wrinkles his nose, tasting the – incriminatingly mild – air before shaking his head. “Nope,” he says, adding, “The obvious answer is probably the right one.”
“Obvious?” Regina asks, smiling a little at the assuredness of his voice, the compelling logic formed in ten-year old terms.
“The bus went already,” Henry tells her, shoulders slumped. “The clock in the kitchen was a few minutes behind, and I missed the bus.”
Regina laughs, tucking an arm around Henry's side and steering him back towards the house. “You’re probably right,” she agrees, reaching into the pocket of her coat for the car keys. “Come on, I can drive you.”
They make it to school in record time, and by the time Regina has pulled up into the parking lot and found a spot to park, Henry has found his energy, telling her all about the latest chapter in his textbook at a mile a minute, barely pausing to breathe let alone make sure Regina is keeping up. Regina just nods along, listening hard and resolving to look up the vague outlines of the chapter when she gets home, only interrupting him when she’s parked the car and is waiting for him to notice.
“Henry, were here.”
Henry looks around at the school buildings, visibly disappointed as he says, “Oh, okay,” and picks up his backpack. “Thanks for driving me, mom.”
Regina laughs, tousling his hair lightly. “Any time, sweetheart,” she says, and she’s about to suggest that he show her what he’s working on after school tonight when Henry's attention is diverted entirely away from her by the yellow monstrosity pulling up next to their car.
“Of course,” Regina says quietly, smiling to herself as Emma gets out and greets them with a wave.
“Come on, mom,” Henry says impatiently, swinging open his door and skipping out to fling his arms around Emma as if he hadn’t last seen her about eight hours ago. “Hi Emma, mom drove me because we slept on the couch and then I missed my bus, and my pants got juice on them, and -”
“Henry,” Emma laughs, meeting Regina’s eyes over the top of his head. “Slow down, I can’t breathe.”
“Oh,” Henry winces, stepping back a little and grinning up at her, if possible, even wider. “Sorry!”
“Good to see you,” Emma says, mussing up his hair and smiling across at Regina. “And I’m seeing you later today, I’m taking 4C for social studies while my class have music.”
Henry beams at her, all dimples and bright eyes, and then catches sight of Nick and Ava heading towards the building from their dads car. “Hey, Nick! Ava! Bye, mom!” And he’s gone in a flurry of a hug, fierce and warm, scampering off across the parking lot to greet the two others with a rush of private, laughing conversation as they disappear around a corner.
Regina watches him go, hands warm from the back of his coat, a small smile playing out across her face as she watches her boy disappear off into school with his friends.
“Hey,” Emma says, bringing Regina out of her half-focused stare. “You good? Mad morning?”
Regina shrugs stiffly, all at once just a little uncomfortable; she doesn’t know how to do this without Henry here between them, without a reason not to bring up the insults and accusations they’d hurled at each other less than a week ago –
“I’m wearing rain boots and a business dress,” she says finally. “And it’s the least disorganized thing that’s happened this morning.”
Emma laughs, dimples forming in her cheeks, and Regina can feel just a little of the tension leave her shoulders. “Ruby had to wake me up and bring me coffee from across the street,” she admits, ducking her head before adding. “Totally worth it for those waffles though, right?”
“The waffles,” Regina repeats drily. “Of course, that was the whole point of the excursion, the waffles.”
“They’re good waffles!” Emma shoots back, laughing too hard to make the act really convincing; for a moment, it’s like the last few moments of the night before swim into focus between them, Henry asleep in Emma’s arms as they make their way into the quiet house on Mifflin Street, Regina turning on just a few of the lights and watching as Emma lays Henry down on the couch, brushing the hair out of his eyes and pressing a soft kiss to his forehead before straightening up and giving Regina a tentative, shining-eyed smile -
“Thank you,” Regina says abruptly. “For doing that for Henry, I think...hearing your story was really good for him, I appreciate you coming over last night.”
“Of course,” Emma nods, smiling; and if she can hear the omissions in Regina’s words, if she can read the silences and fill them with the moment where Regina had swayed towards her in the hallway and changed her mind at the last second to press a rushed, warm kiss to a dimple in her cheek, the exact dimple that’s appearing here, now, in this parking lot as Emma smiles at her – “I’m glad I could help. Henry.”
The emphasis, light and teasing, is a little too obvious for Regina to ignore entirely; she just snorts slightly, reaching forwards in a single, fluid motion to press her hand to Emma’s elbow and then pulling it away again, “Thank you,” she repeats, and then, “I have to go.”
“Okay,” Emma nods quickly – her hair is pulled up into what Regina suspects is the no-shower ponytail, swinging in time with her nods. “I have to get to class, too, so…”
“So you should go, too,” Regina fills in, after Emma trails off; when Emma sighs a little, she raises an eyebrow. “What?”
“Maybe, if you came and collected Henry later -” Emma cuts herself off, already wincing with anticipated embarrassment. “I mean, you know where to find me if you want me. I mean – “
“I know,” Regina fills in, biting back a laugh at the instant blush that’s blooming across Emma’s cheeks, at the agonized look in her eyes as she stumbles her way into silence. “And…” Regina hesitates, softening her voice a little as she looks at Emma, really looks, trying hard to see the malice and the jealousy she had seen in her expression less than a week ago and finding none of it. “I could make arrangements to come by after school, if you let Henry know not to take the bus?”
Emma’s face breaks into a relieved smile, and she raises her arms before appearing to think better of it and shoving both hands deep into her jacket pockets. “Okay,” she says instead, soft and genuine, her eyes sparkling as Regina returns the smile. “Okay, cool, I’ll see you later.”
Regina just nods, giving Emma a jerky wave – a wave? – before hurrying back around to the driver’s side of the car. “See you later,” she manages, the words brittle and awkward on her tongue – Emma is still smiling at her – she wrenches the car door open, hitting her ankle and letting out a sharp hiss of pain.
“Regina?” Emma’s voice rises in pitch, brow creasing with concern -
Cheeks warm and eyes watering slightly, Regina slides into the car and pulls the door shut behind her. “Have a good day, Ms. Swan,” she calls, through the window, and has pulled away before she can say anything more insipid or Emma can do any more smiling.
Regina makes it all the way around the block of the school before she pulls over, wincing as she rubs her hand over her ankle, resting her head back against the car seat and waiting for her cheeks to cool down and her pulse to stop jumping against her neck, helplessly, infuriatingly teenage in its stuttering.
By the time Regina makes it back home, Marian is waiting for her on the front porch, two giant coffees and a box of muffins in hand, Roland stomping in a snowdrift a few feet away. She watches Regina pull up, raising the pastry box up and waving it with an impatient air, and Regina winces.
“Sorry I’m late,” she calls, hurrying out and pulling her coat tighter over the flimsy grey dress of last night. “We overslept, I had to drive Henry… Been waiting long?”
Marian gives her a tight smile. “Not long.”
“Hours and hours,” Roland sings happily, accompanying each word with a stomp of his snow-booted feet. “And hours and hours and hours.”
“I’m sorry, Roland,” Regina smiles, holding out a hand for him to join her at the door while Marian balances the coffees and muffins. “How about some cocoa to make up for it?”
Roland shakes his head imperiously, rushing inside ahead of her and sitting down on the bottom step of the staircase, waiting for Regina to hurry after him and untie his shoelaces. “Chocolate milk,” he informs her gravely. “No cocoa.”
“No cocoa,” Regina laughs, glancing up and grinning at Marian. “Whatever you say, sweet pea.”
“Kitchen?” Marian asks, waving the muffins again, and when Regina nods she goes ahead and pulls out a plate. Regina sets Roland up on the rug in the living room with some crayons and construction paper, hurries back over with a tall glass of chocolate milk and half a muffin, and then – finally – settles down at the kitchen table opposite Marian and takes her first sip of coffee of the day.
“So,” Marian says, prompting Regina out of her caffeine-induced trance after a few seconds. “Change of plan, Judge Ghorm has an opening in her schedule so she’s moving your case up to tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Regina blinks, thrown. So far, the custody case for Henry is clearly so far down the courthouses list of priorities that they’ve been lucky to get two hearings in two consecutive weeks, not that Regina minds; privately, she’s convinced that any judge seriously considering removing Henry from his home environment would be a lot faster about it, so maybe all the delays have been a good sign. Moving a hearing forwards, though, only two days after Marian threw Cassidy out on his ear – “Why?”
“Just how the schedule worked out,” Marian says, frowning a little. “I hope. Jones has already confirmed he can make it, along with your mom – she’s got a rental in Storybrooke, right? – and I had to confirm for you yesterday when your phone was off, but…”
Regina ducks her head, taking the faint reprove for what it is, and says, “Sorry, I know you said you had to be able to reach me, it was just – Henry had a meltdown when I told him about Cassidy, and...”
“You told him about his dad?” Marian asks, voice suddenly sharp; when Regina winces, hurt, she softens slightly. “Bio dad, sorry, but, why, Regina?”
“You said to talk to him,” Regina says defensively, and Marian sighs.
“So you pick the kid’s bio dad showing up out of nowhere and taking off straight after the court case,” she says, and Regina grimaces at how clearly misjudged a conversation it had been. “You pick that as the first real thing you’ve told Henry about this whole case, the first real thing you’ve told him since he even found out about being adopted, and you didn’t expect him to have a meltdown?”
Regina shrugs, shredding a muffin into tiny pieces on the table and avoiding Marian’s eyes. “It was...possibly foolish,” she mutters, cheeks red. “Ms. Swan – “
“You brought Emma into this,” Marian says flatly, leaning back in her chair and staring at Regina almost pityingly. “Of course you did.”
“She’s his teacher,” Regina snaps, bristling slightly at the insinuation. “And he was asking for her, and I thought she could get through to him, and she...did.”
“And you overslept this morning,” Marian observes, eyebrow arching as she takes in Regina’s wrinkled dress, two laddered stockings now emerging incongruously from bright green rain boots.
“Not -” Regina flushes, scattering muffin crumbs with an involuntarily hand movement. “Emma drove us to the diner where she was found as a baby, and Henry had waffles and cocoa, and then he fell asleep in the car, and she dropped us home and left, alright, so stop smirking at me and tell me about this hearing.”
“Woah,” Marian says quickly, raising both hands in surrender at Regina’s outburst, her clenched fists on the table and her chest rising and falling rapidly. “Okay, that is... a lot of information, and we can talk about that later, but right now the important thing is that Jones is calling you to the stand tomorrow.”
Regina blanches. “Me?”
“Apparently they get to do that in family law,” Marian shrugs, looking pensive. “I should have gotten your mom up there on the first day, the whole case would have been dead in the water after the judge heard all her lines about potential – “
“Tomorrow, then,” Regina cuts her off swiftly, smiling at Marians suddenly-murderous expression. “You’ll be there?”
Marian nods quickly, focusing her attention back to the task at hand as she takes another sip of coffee. “Of course I will, and I can ask you stuff as well, make sure you get all points to your story across…”
“Then we’ll be fine,” Regina says firmly, standing up and crossing over to the cabinet where she left her file of legal documents the day before. “I trust you, Marian, I know you know what you’re doing…”
“I hope so,” Marian mutters, fingers steepled together under her chin and staring off into the middle distance. “I just wish I knew what Jones was playing at, first Emma and now Neal...He’s on a losing streak, why bring you in now? He knows the parent is their own strongest defense in a case like this -”
“Jones is an unpredictable moron,” Regina cuts her off, rolling her eyes and suppressing a light shudder; the thought of facing him tomorrow, penned in by the witness stand and beholden by law to answer any question he puts to her is… Uncomfortable, but she won’t back down from a challenge now, not when the stakes are this high. “I can take him,” she says firmly, setting her shoulders and fixing Marian with a steely look.
Marian laughs, and exhales. “If anyone can, it’s you,” she says, reaching behind her chair for the folder of notes she’s brought with her. “Okay. So practice questions for tomorrow? And then we can take Ro for a burger, and you have got to tell me more about this midnight waffles date.”
By the time they head out for lunch, Regina’s head is filled with all the questions Jones is likely to throw at her tomorrow, all the sample answers she and Marian have plotted out, and all the other tips that Marian had been able to think of, rattling off key terms and phrases as Regina scribbled them all down. Lunch is a noisy affair – Roland insists on his favorite place, an indoor-play area and burger bar horror-scape of primary colors and shrieking infants – and Regina spends most of it dodging Marian’s questions about Emma.
She just gives the bare-bones account of the night before and the drive out to the diner, and doggedly returns the conversation back to Henry every time Marian tries to dig deeper. Eventually, declaring Regina too stubborn to deal with right now, Marian swans off to take Roland to swim class, and Regina heads home, determined to sit down with her notes and memorize every last scrap of information that might come in handy.
Three hours later, Henry is standing over her on the couch, his round face pinched with concern. “Mom?”
“Henry,” Regina says numbly, blinking hard and sitting up. “What…time is it?”
“After four,” Henry says matter-of-factly, and Regina groans. Great. “I used my emergencies keychain, and then I wanted a grilled cheese but you said I can’t without adult supervision, so I had to wake you. You can have one too,” he adds after a short pause.
“Right,” Regina nods, bleary-eyed as she gets to her feet and yawns widely. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Henry, lets…” She yawns again, heading for the kitchen as Henry trails her. “Go make grilled cheeses.”
After a snack, and after Henry has dragged his math textbook out of his backpack and slowly, painstakingly explained every problem he’s been working on to her, his voice going all kind and benign as he slips into tutoring mode, and after a democratic decision to call out for pizza tonight and after Regina has opened a bottle of wine while Henry flicks through Netflix… Going over her notes for the hearing tomorrow becomes a thing of the past.
She doesn’t need to study up on defending this, Regina thinks absent-mindedly, pressing a kiss to the top of Henry's hair as he laughs at something on TV with his mouth full of pizza. There’s no way she can be any better prepared than she is right now, with her son curled up next to her in their home.
“Hey,” Marian whispers the next morning, leaning across their now-familiar desk in the courtroom to tap Regina lightly on the knuckles. “You okay?”
“Fine,” Regina says quickly, forcing a smile; she’s running on fumes after a second too-short night, and her head feels thick and clouded with nerves.
“You’ll do great,” Marian murmurs, shifting in her seat as the judge bangs her gavel on the bench and the muted conversations filling the courtroom die out into silence.
“Alright, court in session, Mills v Mills…” she glances through her notes, raising an eyebrow when she looks up and locates Killian Jones. “Ah, Mr. Jones, your witness, I believe?”
“Yes, your honor,” Jones nods lazily, rising to his feet with languid confidence and striding forwards. “I’d like to call Regina Mills to the stand.”
The judge nods, Regina gets to her feet with shaking knees, and Marian squeezes her hand tightly before nudging her towards the stand. It’s a narrow box, with an uncomfortably rickety stool that she decides to forgo entirely, staying on her feet and holding onto the wooden railings for support. Her knuckles are standing out white against her skin, hands pressed against the waist of the red dress she’d thrown on this morning but now regrets, as Jones’s eyes flicker to the exposed triangle of skin below her collarbones; Regina feels goosebumps crawl up her arms, bare and vulnerable. Her mouth feels dry.
A bible is brought out, Regina swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – her mind reeling back helplessly to the diner two days ago, to Emma’s soft smile under the streetlights – and then Jones is facing her, his smile pleasantly malicious. “Good morning, Regina.”
Regina nods stiffly, and then – seeing Marian raising her eyebrows emphatically behind Jones's head – clears her throat. “Good morning.”
“Now, remind me again, Regina, how long have you been living in Storybrooke?”
“Six years this spring.”
“And before that, you were…?”
“Living in Boston with my son in my mother’s home,” Regina says, adding drily. “Your client.”
Jones laughs humorlessly, dipping his head lightly as if to acknowledge the jibe. “And where did you work, in Boston?”
Regina can feel herself tensing, can feel her shoulders rising up slightly – cool, calm, to the point, she thinks, and says, “Harvard University. Their music department.”
“Harvard,” Jones says, nodding in an exaggerated show of awe. “Impressive, very impressive. And what was your job role, exactly?”
“Post-doctoral research into Baroque theory and practice. And some teaching.”
“So a steady job, then?”
Regina arches an eyebrow, smiling a little. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a post-doc describe their job as steady, Mr. Jones.”
“But teaching at Harvard,” Jones says doggedly, shaking off her dig and fixing his cold blue eyes directly on hers. “A brilliant start to an academic career, wouldn’t you say, your honor?” Judge Ghorm inclines her head slightly, but Jones hasn’t taken his eyes off Regina. “Did you ever find yourself out of work after finishing your studies? Before leaving Boston?” Regina shakes her head, and Jones smiles. “No, of course not. And while you were there, fixed contract, pension scheme, health insurance..?”
“Yes to all,” Regina says impatiently. “I paid mother rent, if that’s where you’re going with this.”
Behind Jones, Marian winces, and Regina feels something icy settle in the pit of her stomach as her interrogators smile grows calmer and colder. “It wasn’t, actually,” he says, still sounding infuriatingly nonchalant as he paces slowly back and forth. “But thanks for providing that information anyway… No, I just wanted to establish some background, Regina, try and understand what you were leaving behind when you brought Henry here, to Storybrooke…”
Unwillingly, Regina’s eyes flicker to her mother – her mother, who she hasn’t heard so much as speak in the last few sessions but is watching her now, dark eyes glinting with resolution, back straight and hands folded tightly on her desk. Jones’s smile broadens.
“My client, I presume? I’d gathered as much... “ He shrugs, as if some complicated mother-daughter fight was simply too petty to warrant his attention or his time in the courtroom. “Regina, what do you work in now?”
“I -” Regina hesitates. This isn’t a question they had rehearsed an answer for, an omission that now strikes her as incredibly stupid to make, but Marian had focused all her time on the Boston side of the story, on Cora, and – dimly, Regina can see Marian looking at her with wide, apologetic eyes. “I write books for children learning the piano. Arrangements of popular classical music, exercises to practice certain skills, that kind of thing.”
“So you’re self-employed, then,” Jones says, after a short pause, and Regina rolls her eyes.
“Freelance, of course.”
“So no health insurance,” he shoots back, so quickly that Regina almost misses the attack.
“And there's no health insurance for Henry, either?”
Regina closes her eyes, breathing out slowly. “No.”
“Think back to Boston, Regina, to when you were teaching at Harvard and Henry was a young boy, three or four years old – did he ever have chicken pox? The flu?”
“He was vaccinated, I suppose? You got him his injections?”
By now, Regina’s voice is little more than a whisper. “Yes.”
“And who paid for those treatments?”
“My insurance at Harvard,” Regina whispers, staring hard at the stand, at her fingers clinging to the wooden rail; she can just make out Jones’s shoes, shiny black against the carpeted floor, as he stalks towards her.
“Could you speak up, please, Regina? Who paid for your son to get vaccinated?”
“My insurance at Harvard,” Regina snaps, voice rising to an angry pitch in the suddenly too-small room. “They covered children and spouses.”
“Of course they did,” Jones nods, satisfied as he steps back and claps his hands together. “They’re Harvard!”
A ripple of laughter goes around the courtroom, and Regina feels herself sway against the stand. Marian has her eyes fixed on her, warm and reassuring and willing her to get through this, but for a few moments all Regina can focus on is the small smile curving her mother’s lips upwards, the way she is leaning back slightly in her chair as if she’s already heard every possible defense Regina could possibly make.
Judge Ghorm is watching Jones, her hands folded together under her chin, and after a short pause he nods, and continues. “What do you do when Henry gets sick, Regina?”
“I take him to the doctor’s,” Regina snaps, voice shaking with fury at the idea – the insinuation that she is somehow not taking care of Henry properly – “It’s what’s generally recommended when someone is ill, Mr. Jones.”
Behind his fixed smile, Regina sees Marian discreetly punching the air, and smiles.
“Healthcare without health insurance can be pricey -” he grins as Regina scoffs. “Obvious, I know. How on earth does writing a few piano books cover it all?”
“We’re fine,” Regina says sharply. “I had an inheritance when I was quite young, and some of it I’ve kept in stocks and bonds...The interest alone has more than covered a few colds and one sprained wrist over the past six years.”
“Very admirable,” Jones nods, giving Regina a mocking solute that makes her stomach churn. “What about psychiatric residential care?”
A ringing silence follows the question, a silence that Regina knows she’s expected to fill, but she feels all at once like she’s standing at the top of a pitch-black flight of stairs, one foot outstretched with no clear sense of where the next step she’s supposed to take might lead her -
“Ms. Mills?” The judge is looking down at her with a concerned expression, and Regina knows she must look odd, standing there in complete silence, staring blankly back at Jones as she sways slightly on the spot. “Ms. Mills, did you hear the question?”
“I heard,” Regina manages, gasping as she takes a great rush of air. “And I don’t know, hypothetically....any complex care might eat into the savings, but I can assure you Henry has never missed out on anything -”
“I wasn’t talking about Henry, as I think you know, Regina,” Jones cuts her off bluntly. “I was talking about you.”
“I haven’t needed any complex care here in Storybrooke either, Mr. Jones,” Regina says, gritting her teeth into a snarl.
“No,” Jones nods, stilling in his pacing and fixing her with a cool, dismissive stare. “But you were taken into an institution for psychiatric cases when you were 17, and you did receive complex care, paid for by my client’s health insurance through her job, funnily enough, at the university you decided you were too good for.”
“Objection -” Marian can hardly get the word out, but she’s on her feet, shoving past Jones to stare up at the judge. “Your honor, if my colleague has a question, he should ask it, not start monologuing with the clear intention of causing my client distress -”
“Marian,” Judge Ghorm says gently, and Regina knows this is bad, knows there is no impulse other than pity that would move the tightly-wound family court judge to address a lawyer by their first name in court. “Let Mr. Jones finish his questioning, and then you can have your say.”
Marian falls back, breathing heavily; Regina just shakes her head at her, numb, her fingers somehow cold in the overheated courtroom.
“Regina,” Mr. Jones says slowly, raising both hands in what she assumes is meant to be a calming gesture. “Take it slow, I’ve only got...three questions left, alright? Stay with me for three questions?”
She nods, swallowing fiercely and clearing her throat to make sure she doesn’t wobble on her next answer. Jones watches her with an unmistakable air of amusement cutting through the faux empathy; he's utterly composed as he waits for her next move, free to pace up and down, free to just watch as Regina suffers, penned in and isolated in the witness stand. Maybe it’s not so hard to see why someone like Jones becomes a private lawyer.
“First question, Regina,” he says quietly, voice dropping into a strange pastiche of kindness. “Who looked after you after you were discharged from the psychiatric ward?”
“My mother,” Regina says, closing her eyes to avoid seeing Cora across the courtroom.
Jones nods, seizing on the pause without giving Regina a chance to so much as draw breath. “Who testified on your behalf during the adoption process, testifying that you had been stable for years under her care?”
“My mother,” she says again, her fists balled into tight fists against the railing, nails digging into her palms.
“Last question, Regina, and I think you’ll agree it’s an easy one,” Jones says, hitting the balance between confidence and condescension with razor-sharp precision. “Aside from all the wonderful opportunities my client is offering to provide for the boy – opportunities which you, perhaps understandably seeing your own history, have mistrusted to the point of isolating him completely -”
Marian takes a few hurried steps forward, but Jones waves her aside, his voice carrying over her started interruption until she falls silent, fuming, waiting for him to finish. “Apart from all that, do you honestly think that a single-parent household, several hours drive away from all other relatives, when that parent has a history of mental breakdowns – “ Jones pauses, glancing up at the judges bench with an oily smile that sends waves of revulsion rolling through Regina’s stomach. ”Is that an environment you think Judge Ghorm here should allow to continue?”
A long pause follows his speech; Marian is clearly bursting to jump in, but Regina holds her back with a look. She has to answer the question, she has to answer him somehow and find a way to wipe the enjoyment right off his face -
“Regina,” the judge prompts quietly, eyes soft and sympathetic and utterly insufferable. “A yes or no will do, and then Ms. Alvarez can…”
“I don’t think that’s the question you should be asking,” Regina says quietly, speaking down at her own hands until her voice is strong enough that she trusts herself to look up. The room is watching her, and she can feel the buzz of attention, the power of holding all eyes on her, it’s something not unlike a complicated solo in a hushed, crowded auditorium – she rolls her shoulders back. As ever, her performance is intended for exactly one pair of ears. Cora meets her direct eye contact with something like startled recognition – hello mother, fancy seeing you here -
“I think you should be asking yourself, Mr. Jones, who put me in the psychiatric ward in the first place. You have harassed me into silence, you have spoken far more than I have when what you’re meant to be doing is asking me questions about my home and my life with my son Henry. And I think if you have any questions left for me, they can wait until my lawyer has had a chance to speak with your client.”
There is a long silence, during which Regina can feel the force of her mother’s gaze almost like a physical thing, a tightrope hooked into her ribcage, pulling on her resolve. Cora hasn’t outwardly reacted to her speech, except for possibly a tightness around her mouth, a pallor to her cheeks; but it’s enough for Regina to know that she’s going to pick up the gauntlet. For a moment, fear threatens to crowd into her mind – who is she to think she can take on Cora like this? – but then her eyes flick to Marian, to the proud beam threatening to burst out from her professional smile. Regina exhales, all the energy draining out of her as quickly as it had flared up as she looks up towards the judges bench and waits for a sign.
Judge Ghorm is still sitting quite still, her hands steepled together and her eyes flickering between Jones, Regina, and Cora. “Mr. Jones?” she asks finally, when it becomes clear that all eyes have gradually turned to her. “Do you have any more questions more Ms. Mills?”
For a moment, Jones looks like he’s about to launch into another attack, and Regina steels herself internally, half-wondering what ace card he could possibly have left that trumps the psychiatric care – and then he shakes his head with a scoff, and turns abruptly away.
Judge Ghorm watches him go with an unimpressed look, eyebrows arching as he flounces into a seat next to Cora. “Very well,” she says neutrally, turning to Regina. “Ms. Alvarez?”
Marian glances at Regina, an unspoken question in her eyes, and Regina shakes her head. No more. Not now, not with the vacuum left by the sudden burst of energy still making her head feel heavy and her limbs feel stretched. “I’d like to call Mrs. Mills to the stand, your honor,” Marian says, understanding immediately. “And perhaps bring my client back up at a later time.”
The judge nods, says, “You may stand down, then, Ms. Mills,” and Regina almost collapses as she pushes herself away from the witness stand railings and walks back to her desk on shaking legs. The next few minutes are a blur; Cora is sworn in after a last hurried conversation with Jones, and Marian gives Regina’s hands a tight squeeze, whispering, “You’re doing great,” into her ear before standing up and approaching the bench.
“Mrs. Mills,” she says, foregoing any pleasantries and diving straight in. “You’re here to claim custody of Henry Mills, your grandson by adoption. We’ve heard a lot from people who agree with you over the past couple weeks, but can you tell me in your own words why?”
Cora waits a while to answer, settling herself into the narrow wooden chair in the witness stand and folding her hands in her lap. When she looks up at Marian, she’s utterly composed, though Regina thinks she can see a certain brightness to her cheeks, a flashing in her eyes that betrays her composure. “I love my grandson,” she says, voice clipped and even and injected with a calculated amount of warmth as she holds the courtroom under her sway. “I want him to have the very best opportunities that he can have to grow.”
Marian nods thoughtfully, pacing a few steps up and down. “And tell me, Mrs. Mills,” she says. “Would you say that that’s characteristic of your parenting style? The very best opportunities?”
To her credit, Cora doesn’t so much as blink. “Absolutely.”
“Tell me about raising Regina,” Marian says smoothly, coming to a stop directly in front of Cora in the witness stand.
Cora raises an eyebrow. “What do you want me to tell you?”
“Was she a happy child? Shy? Boisterous?” Marians lips twitch slightly, and Regina gets the impression that she’s studiously avoiding looking over at her. “Mild-tempered, hot-headed?”
“Regina was…” Cora pauses. “Always headstrong.”
“You had a lot of fights?”
“I wouldn’t say they were fights,” Cora says, shaking her head slightly. “She worked hard, just as I worked hard to give her the best chances in everything she did, and I know she appreciated that.”
“Everything she did,” Marian repeats slowly. “Music? The piano?”
“Yes, of course the piano,” Cora says, nose flaring impatiently, and Regina feels her hands curl together in her lap. “She took private lessons from the age of four, she attended a music and performing arts school from the age of twelve, I bought her a Steinway for her thirteenth birthday, for goodness sake. She was – is – exceptionally talented.”
Cora doesn’t flinch from the question, but Regina thinks she can see her shoulders tense infinitesimally. “What do you mean, what else?”
“What else did Regina do, growing up?” Marian asks patiently. “Was she on the basketball team? Run cross-country? Play polo?”
“Regina was never interested in athletics,” Cora says smoothly, and Marian nods.
“Student council? Yearbook committee?” When Cora shakes her head, Marian continues. “Well, she was into music, did she ever try out for the school musical? Show choir? Band?”
Cora’s lip curls. “How many pianists did you have in your marching band, Ms. Alvarez?”
Jones laughs loudly; Regina glares at him, and he winks at her. Across from Cora, though, Marian is smiling calmly, and Regina forces herself to breathe evenly as she continues. “What about friends?”
“Regina was always focused on the piano,” Cora says, but Marian shakes her head before she’s even finished speaking.
“That’s not what I asked, Mrs. Mills.”
“She knew what was important,” Cora snaps. “She was friendly with a number of children at her school, but everyone was just as driven, no one had time for endless playdates.”
Regina swallows, looks down at her lap; what her mother’s saying isn’t technically untrue, her classmates had always seemed busy with their own projects and clubs and schedules, but… Loneliness had still clung to her fingers, dancing over the keys night after solitary night while mother corrected every mistake.
Marian nods thoughtfully, taking in a deep breath before fixing Cora with another unflinching stare. “Who took Regina to junior prom, Mrs. Mills?”
“Regina didn’t attend her prom,” Cora says, smiling thinly. “But you can’t twist that into somehow being my fault, Ms. Alvarez, so don’t even try. Regina was never interested in school dances, or moronic teenage rituals.”
“Or dating?” Marian asks, raising an eyebrow, and Cora nods.
“So she never had a relationship in high school?” Marian asks. “Went on a date?”
“Never,” Cora says, folding her arms. “She was never very interested in boys.”
“Well.” Marian turns away for a second, meeting Regina’s eye and visibly struggling to keep a straight face. “That’s as may be, but – Mrs. Mills can you remember the name Daniel Colter?”
Cora scoffs impatiently. “Our gardener, for a while,” she says, and then, seeming to preempt Marians next question, and sending a cold shudder running down Regina’s spine, “It was a summer fling, it was never anything serious.”
“Really,” Marian says, stone-faced as she stares Cora down. “Would they have said the same, Mrs. Mills?”
“Teenagers aren’t exactly known for being level-headed,” Cora snaps, and for the first time Regina thinks she sees a crack in her composure. “Regina understood, in the end, that to focus on her music -”
“They ran away together,” Marian cuts her off. “And you called the police and told them your daughter had been kidnapped.”
“She was underage.”
“Seventeen, and Daniel was eighteen,” Marian says, smiling thinly. “The police, when they tracked them down, found them working on a ranch upstate. He took her horse-riding. Does that sound like kidnap to you?”
“He took advantage of her at a vulnerable age,” Cora says, swallowing harshly and pressing her lips tightly together. “I would hardly call it true love, he disappeared off to college in the fall and I was left to deal with Regina’s tantrums. – “
“Tantrums,” Marian says, so coldly that even Regina almost flinches. “Is that what you called them, Mrs. Mills, when your daughter made a suicide attempt?”
A ringing silence follows her words; the judge, staring down at Cora and Marian with barely-disguised horror, has her pen raised in mid-air; Regina feels her heart squeeze painfully against her chest.
“A poorly-handled cry for attention, much like getting involved with that boy against my wishes,” Cora says, unyielding under Marians glare. “By the time she had gotten some rest and some time to think, the psychiatrists agreed it was hardly a serious issue, and Regina herself agreed with me that coming home and focusing on her studies would be best. In the end she lacked the drive to fulfil her potential and I came to accept that, but ask yourself, ask any parent, if they could watch their daughter throw her own sons life away just as she ruined her own and do nothing. You can encourage her to waste away Henry's youth and wring your hands all you like, Regina could have been something spectacular if she had understood a little more of the responsibility she had to sacrifice a few things for her talents, but all this time she’s been blaming mommy for not just buying her a pony whenever she asked.”
A choked sound wrenches its way past Regina’s lips before she can press a hand to her mouth, and Cora’s eyes flicker to her; fingers shaking, eyes wet, Regina stares up at her. There may have been a time when her mother’s words had the power to slice through every resolution, every ounce of determination in her heart, but now, looking up at Cora standing in the witness box, looking past her to see the expression on Judge Ghorm’s face, Regina feels strangely detached.
“Thank you, your honor,” Marian says quietly, giving Cora a contemptuous look. “No further questions.”
She turns on her heel, crosses the room in a few quick steps, and is pulling Regina into a tight hug before Regina can even register that the questions have finished.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s over,” Marian is whispering into her shoulder, and Regina nods silently, pressing her face against Marian’s blazer, curling her fingers into fists against her waist. “It’s over, Regina, we can go.”
“Yes,” Regina says slowly, pulling away and looking over Marians shoulder to where Cora and Jones are staring at her; Jones looks positively sulky, but her mother – her mother is wounded, and despite it all Regina has to swallow down the instant impulse to make it better – “Lets go home, Henry will be waiting.”
The crisp air hits Regina with biting force, wind pulling at her grateful fingertips and reddening her cheeks. Marian, next to her, laughs as she watches Regina open her hands, exposing her palms to the cold, turning them over and over as sensation starts to return to her limbs.
“You’re okay,” Marian says. “You’re okay, Regina, we did it.”
Regina shakes her head. “You did it.” She smiles thinly, feeling her pulse still beating uncomfortably fast in her throat. “I can’t thank you enough, for...all of this, for handling my mother like that.”
“That was nothing,” Marian says dismissively. “She did all the damage to herself, I just helped.”
Regina laughs, breathless; Cora’s retreat somehow seems so much more inevitable, more tangible now, that for the first time since before Henry visited Boston she lets herself imagine a future where he stays with her. Grows up, goes to college. Comes home for the holidays. It’s a picture so perfect it almost hurts, and Marian seems to sense some of the sudden lump welling in her throat, gently bumping her knuckles against Regina’s.
Marian pauses, her hand freezing next to Regina’s. “What,” she says, without turning around, and Regina hears Jones laugh as he saunters down the courthouse steps towards them
“Easy, Marian, just want a word.” He glances at Regina. “Alone.”
“I don’t feel like a chat, Jones,” Marian says, jerking her arm out of his reach, “So if you don’t mind -”
“This will only take a minute,” Jones insists. “You’ll want to hear it, I swear.”
Marian scoffs. “Make an appointment.”
Regina smiles inwardly, nudging Marian as they start to walk away from the courthouse, leaving Jones standing on the bottom step and breathing heavily –
Regina freezes. “Mother,” she says flatly, turning on the spot to see Cora standing a few steps above Jones, still pale but looking more composed now that she’s out of the witness stand. “I don’t think now is the best time.”
“Tell your lawyer that if she can spare five minutes to talk to Killian,” Cora starts, eyes flashing as she glares down at the two of them. “We can stop this awful charade much faster.”
Marian raises an eyebrow. “A deal?” she asks, her voice carefully even but not quite disguising her curiosity, and Jones smiles.
The next hour passes more slowly than any other in Regina’s life. She sits in a nearby coffee shop, tearing a fudge brownie to shreds, and jolts every time the door opens; by the time Marian finally arrives, looking exhausted, the brownie has been reduced to a pile of crumbs.
“Well?” Regina asks, the word tripping over her lips before Marian has so much as unwound the scarf from around her neck, and Marian smiles tiredly.
“They want to settle,” she confirms, sinking into the armchair across from Regina. “Cora gets visitation rights, Henry starts at the Arendelle Academy – weekday boarding – but –” she raises her hand, and Regina halts the angry swell of denial rising up in her throat. “But he lives with you over the weekends, and holidays are majority yours.”
Regina stares at her plate of crumbs. There’s something like a pattern visible, reminiscent of a dog, or maybe a sheep, and she wonders abstractly if the brownie is trying to tell her something.
Marian coughs gently. “Regina?”
“They think they’re going to lose,” Regina says quietly, flicking her eyes up to meet her friends gaze, and Marian nods. “You think we're going to lose.”
“I think –” Marian hesitates. “I think Judge Ghorm goes with what’s traditional, and...Your mom and Jones have been scarily good at finding shit out so far, and if they dig any deeper into you and Emma…“
Regina nods abruptly, clenching her left hand into a fist around her paper serviette. “Of course.”
Of course, she’d been naive to think New Year’s would never follow her into the courtroom – stupidly optimistic to hope that somehow, impossibly, whatever this growing softness between her and Emma is might be safe from her mother’s grasping hands –
“Do you like this deal?” she asks, blinking hard to pull her thoughts away from the way Emma’s arms had gone around Henry's middle, the way her cheek had fit against the top of his hair as she smiled at her.
Marian hesitates, helping herself to a handful of deconstructed brownie before admitting, “I love this deal.” When Regina stares at her, she sighs. “Henry stays in your care, he stays in Maine… Cora gets visitation, but she’s going to get that anyway, and boarding four nights a week is still a world away from the full-time homeschooling with Harvard professors your mom wanted in the first place.”
She’s right, Regina knows she’s right, but –
“What if he hates it?” she asks quietly. “Henry. What if he starts at Arendelle, and hates it?”
“Then we get him home,” Marian says firmly. “And we take it back to the judge, and ask her if she really wants to leave a kid in a school he hates.”
“You’ll help me?” Regina asks, and Marian barely lets her finish before she’s reaching across the table to wrap her hand in both of hers.
“Regina,” she says, tilting her head slightly and giving Regina a wry smile. “You even have to ask?”
Regina smiles shakily. “Thank you,” she says, breathing deeply and turning over Marian’s proposal in her mind. Henry gone every Monday to Friday; the house echoing emptily around her all week; but she’s thinking, too, about how quickly he made friends when he started school – how quickly, even, he has gotten to know his new classmates ever since transferring out of Emma’s class.
“I want to talk to Henry,” she says quietly, fixing her eyes on her lap. “I want to tell him about the deal, and I won’t say yes without asking him first.”
You’re not going anywhere, Henry, I promise –
She swallows hard, forcing the memory back. “He’s not going anywhere he doesn’t want to.”
Marian nods slowly. “Okay,” she says. “Okay. But...Regina, tell him everything, okay?”
“Everything?” Regina frowns. “What do you mean?”
“Invite Emma,” Marian says simply, smiling a little when Regina’s hand tenses in hers. “Regina. He’s smart, he is so smart, and if you’re going to ask him what he wants then he deserves to have...all the facts.”
“All the facts,” Regina repeats dumbly. Emma. “You really think so? After the disaster with Cassidy?”
“Cassidy left,” Marian points out reasonably. “Emma – come on, you know it's different. Henry will know it's different.”
Regina nods distractedly; almost unwillingly, her mind is reeling to a future of Emma-and-Henry weekends, of Emma no longer Henry's teacher but still there, uncomplicatedly and perfectly there – by the time she looks up, and meets Marians eye, she’s made her decision.
Chapter 11: Emma VII
Emma is standing under the small porch attached to the school building, watching her kids skip, splash and race their way through puddles and wind-blown raindrops to their buses and cars. It’s cold, she can feel the rainwater chill seep through her leather jacket, and her hands are buried deep in her casual-Friday-jeans pockets.
Another week, over; pretty soon she'll have crossed the halfway mark of her first year as a teacher. It makes her want to laugh, sometimes, the thought that she’s a person with a career, a career that’s set out for her from here until retirement - but at the same time, there’s something strange and scary about the thought, and it’s not completely the rain's fault when she shivers.
Emma blinks herself out of her thoughts; she’s been staring off into the middle distance, but there, materializing out of the rain in a cream overcoat and with her hair loose over both shoulders, misted with droplets of water that the matching umbrella hadn’t been able to protect her from, is Regina.
“Hi,” Emma manages, cheeks warming under Regina’s direct stare. “Regina, Ms. Mills, how are you?”
“You’ll come over for dinner tonight,” Regina tells her, without the slightest hint of a question mark. “At seven.”
Emma stares at her, lips quirking helplessly into a smile. “Will I?”
She probably deserves the eye-roll. “I need you to talk to Henry,” Regina says curtly, eyes flickering away and jaw tightening almost imperceptibly as she strays closer to the real reason behind her impatience. “Tell him everything.”
The world falls out from under Emma’s rain-soaked sneakers. Everything. “Everything?”
“Yes, it’s time,” Regina nods, hesitating a little before adding, “Jones...my mother’s lawyer has offered Marian a settlement deal that I want to discuss with Henry.”
Emma nods slowly; she still feels like she must be swaying, still can’t quite feel her face, but she forces her lips to move and ask, “And you want to tell him about - me?”
“No.” Regina shakes her head. “I want you to tell him about you.”
“That’s -” Emma folds her arms, blinking quickly. “That’s not fair, Regina, I can’t get involved just so he gets mad at someone else, you can’t just - just call me over every time you don’t want him to take it out on you -”
“Emma,” Regina says, eyes widening. She looks genuinely surprised, and Emma just about manages to press her lips tightly together and wait for her to speak. “That’s not why I want you there.”
“Then why?” Emma asks. “What do you want with me, Regina?”
Regina stares at her for a long, painful moment; Emma stares back, heart thumping painfully in her chest. She’s crossed some sort of line now, she knows, has pulled something unspoken and fragile out into the open - New Years at the Rabbit Hole, the long drive to the diner, smiles shared over the top of Henry's head -
“Henry should have you there when he finds out,” Regina says finally. “Whatever happens with the settlement, he deserves to choose whether to have you in his life. And I don’t want him choosing something he just thinks will hurt me less.”
Emma blinks, feeling suddenly foolish. “Sorry,” she says quietly, not quite managing to lift her eyes from her toes. “That’s really...big of you, Regina.”
“It’s what Henry deserves,” Regina repeats simply, and as Emma risks glancing up at her she’s already pulling her coat tighter around her shoulders; her gaze softens slightly. “I don’t think there’s any keeping you away, now, do you? Even if that was something I was still interested in.”
Emma is smiling before her brain has fully registered the words; but Regina’s cheeks have already flushed angrily, and Emma can feel her chest beginning to glow with something warm and hopeful. “You’re not?” she asks, the smile dimpling her cheeks as Regina stubbornly avoids eye contact. “Interested in keeping me away?”
“Dinner, Ms. Swan,” Regina snaps, and Emma can’t help the bubble of laughter that skips up her throat as Regina stalks away through several ankle-height puddles. “Don’t be late.”
“Shit, shit, shit…“ Emma is late. Cursing under her breath as she feels the yellow bug scrape against the sidewalk, she shoves the gearstick into park and gives herself a cursory glance in the mirror. Her hair is all over the place - an inevitable side effect of her driving on the best day - and her cheeks are flushed with nerves, but her mascara seems to have survived the adrenaline rush relatively intact, and her shirt hasn’t spontaneously wrinkled. Yet.
Her pulse beating loudly in her ears, Emma swings herself out of her car and heads up the path to Regina and Henry's front door.
There’s a muffled shriek of “She’s here!” before Emma has even raised her hand to knock - glancing at the upstairs bedroom window, she can just make out a brown-haired figure darting away from the window. Henry. Warmth spreads through her, mingling with a cold, clear pulse of nerves about what she’s here to tell him.
The door swings open, revealing Regina, in a grey silk shirt and dark slacks, hair curled and lips painted a deep, dangerous shade of red.
“You’re late,” she says, and Emma - mouth running suddenly dry - can only shrug apologetically. “Come in, I’m ready to serve up in the kitchen… You don’t mind? We never bother with the formal dining table unless it’s a big party.”
“Kitchen,” Emma repeats blankly, shucking her shoes off and following Regina down the hallway. “I mean, the kitchen sounds great.”
Regina smiles, reaching up for a pair of wine glasses and turning back to Emma with an enquiring look. “Red?”
“Sure,” Emma manages, and she’s half-wondering how it is that she’s here, making awful, stilted pre-date conversation in Regina Mills’ kitchen, when Henry comes barreling down the stairs and throws his arms around her.
“Hey, kid,” Emma smiles, pressing him tightly to her and feeling some of the tension leave her shoulders. This, this is why she’s here, Henry's solid weight in her arms, his fine hair tickling her chin; and maybe a little because of Regina’s small smile as she turns back to stir a pan on the stovetop, eyes soft as she watches them, mirroring the same uncertainty, terrifying and exciting and paradoxically familiar, that sings through Emma’s veins as she hugs Henry closer.
“Mom's made spaghetti,” Henry says, voice bright as he pulls away to grab a carton of orange juice from the fridge. “I helped chop the mushrooms for the sauce, and I picked out dessert -”
“Coaster, Henry,” Regina says absentmindedly, not even having to turn around to know that Henry is setting his glass of juice, precariously overfilled, onto the kitchen table; Emma grins at him.
“Dessert?” she asks casually, smile widening when Henry nods. Dessert means Regina isn’t planning on kicking her out straightaway.
“Do you like chocolate cake?”
“Love it,” Emma tells Henry, grinning into the wineglass that Regina hands her and sinking comfortably into one of the kitchen chairs as Henry props his elbows on the table next to her and starts gabbling about finding a mistake on his latest science quiz.
By the time she’s helping Henry load the dishwasher, Emma has had three glasses of wine, her jeans feel uncomfortably tight around her waist, and she’s sure she’s missed some of the tomato sauce around her mouth.
“Henry?” Regina calls, from the fridge; Henry hands Emma his stack of plates, and skips over. “Can you fetch my phone, sweetheart? It’s on my nightstand, Marian said she might call.”
“No phones at the table!” Henry protests, but Regina is already pushing him gently out into the hallway.
“You could already be back by now,” she says firmly. “Now go, Henry, and then we’ll have cake.”
Henry rolls his eyes, but scampers back upstairs without another complaint; the second he’s out of sight, Regina turns to face Emma. Her eyes are filled with an urgent kind of panic, and Emma can feel goosebumps erupting along her arms as she straightens up to meet her eyes.
“Is now a good time?” she asks, nodding her chin up at the ceiling to indicate Henry, and Regina nods.
“As good as any,” she says, hugging her arms to herself and staring at the huge chocolate cake waiting for them on the table. “Do you want to - take the lead?”
Emma shakes her head quickly. “Start with the court case,” she suggests, sliding the dishwasher shut and crossing to rub a hand soothingly over Regina’s tense shoulder. “I’ll...jump in whenever you want, but you’ve got this, Regina.”
Regina exhales slowly, leaning her head against Emma’s wrist. “Thank you,” she says quietly, and that’s all they have time for before Henry comes thudding downstairs again and thrusts Regina’s phone into her hands.
“No missed calls,” he says triumphantly, sitting down and pulling his plate towards him before pausing to eye the two of them with a canny look of suspicion. “What were you two talking about?”
“Chocolate cake,” Emma says quickly, withdrawing her hand from Regina’s shoulder and retaking her seat. “Excellent dessert choice, kid.”
For two or three minutes, no one says anything; Henry digs into his slice of cake, Regina picks at hers with her knuckles shining white against her fork, and Emma drains he last of her wine and wonders idly how she’s going to drive home.
“Henry,” Regina starts eventually, her voice shaking with nerves; Emma catches her eye, and nods encouragingly. “We wanted to talk to you, about…”
“It’s okay,” Henry says quickly. “I can keep a secret, I won’t tell anybody.”
Regina pauses, clearly confused. “What secret?”
“That you’re dating,” Henry says, sounding just as baffled, looking from Regina to Emma and back again. “Because Emma’s my teacher.”
Regina laughs abruptly; Emma has to stare hard at her plate to avoid making eye contact. “Not quite,” Regina says, clearly deciding to completely skate over the moment; she lays her fork down, reaching across the table to take Henry's hand in hers. “It’s about the court case, sweetheart.”
Henry's shoulders slump. “Oh,” he says, audibly disappointed, and starts to take another forkful of cake with his free hand. “Okay.”
“Your grandma and I-” Regina hesitates. “We might have figured out a compromise, do you know what a compromise is?” Henry shakes his head. “It means we agree halfway, so no one is a hundred percent right or wrong.”
“Halfway?” Henry asks, frowning. “You said Marian was gonna win, you promised -” his voice is already rising, his cheek already bright with emotion, and Regina’s hand tightens around his.
“I know, sweetheart. That’s why I wanted to talk to you, so that -” Regina swallows, looking up at Emma for guidance and taking a deep breath before continuing. “So that you get a say, so we can discuss what happens next.”
“I don’t wanna live with grandma,” Henry says immediately. “I told you already.”
Emma bites her lip, eyes flicking between the two of them - so similar in the intensity of their stares, Henry's chin lifted stubbornly while Regina ducks her head to bring her eyes level with his.
“You promised,” Henry says again, and Regina closes her eyes for a second, forehead creasing with pain. “You promised I could stay!”
“Hey,” Emma says quickly, diverting Henry's eyes towards her and giving Regina a few moments to wipe at her eyes. “Your mom wants you to have all the facts now, Henry, okay? This is a really, really huge decision, but you’ve got to take in all this new information before you get mad, does that sound fair to you?”
“I already know all the facts,” Henry spits. “I know my mom promised I could stay, and I guess she was lying, like she lied about -” he stands up quickly, knocking his chair backwards and wrenching his hand out of Regina’s. “You lied about being my mom!” he shouts, voice cracking and hot, angry tears spilling over his round cheeks, and Regina crumbles.
“Henry,” Emma says quickly, feeling the situation spiraling horribly out of control but knowing instinctively, desperately, where she somehow needs to steer it back to. “Henry, hey, listen. Listen to me.”
Henry glares at her, breathing rapidly; Emma sense he’s a little embarrassed, already, at his sudden outburst, and waits for him to pull his chair back upright and slump back down into it.
“Your mom hasn’t lied to you,” Emma says quietly. “She’s been keeping someone else’s secret, and sometimes when we keep a secret for someone else we have to hide things from our people, you know?”
Henry frowns at her, clearly not fully buying her point yet but not contradicting her yet, either; Emma takes a deep breath, and continues.
“We found out some things during the court case,” she says, glancing across at Regina and widening her eyes slightly; Regina seems to understand her silent question - if she wants her to stop now, she still can - and nods. “And they might make a difference to what the judge thinks is best for you.”
“Tell me,” Henry says instantly, eyes clear and bright, fixed on Emma’s face; Emma feels her heart squeeze tightly in her chest, all the courage she’d found when Regina had needed someone to step in now evaporating under his gaze.
“We found out - no one knew, Henry, it’s really important you know that –“ Emma blinks rapidly, feeling the wetness against her eyelids. Shit. Under the table, Regina’s ankle nudges against hers, warm and steady, and she takes a moment to breathe with her eyes shut tight before opening them again to find Henry still staring at her. “Henry… You remember how your grandma found this guy Neal, who was your - birth dad?”
Henry nods, eyes flashing suspiciously between his mom's face and Emma’s as he tries to piece their fraught expressions together. “I don’t want to live with him either.”
“No,” Emma laughs helplessly, remembering weeks and months spent in dingy motels and the backs of stolen cars. “No, I don’t blame you.”
“They found your biological mother, too,” Regina says quietly, and Henry whips his head around to stare at her.
“My mom?” he asks, his face suddenly so open, so young, that Emma can feel her heart squeeze painfully; under the table, Regina’s foot slips and kicks out, the only outward reaction she allows herself to the mom. “Did she not wanna see me either?”
“She did,” Regina says quickly, shaking her head. Her voice is a little rough, and Emma can see the effort in the clear, direct gaze she’s giving Henry even as he hunches his shoulders up and glares back at her. “She wants to be in your life, Henry, she was so happy when she heard about you.”
“I don’t want -” Henry shakes his head quickly, eyes wide and fearful. “I don’t wanna go live with any other mom, I didn’t mean it, mom -”
Regina’s face cracks, and when she opens her arms slightly Henry slides out of his chair and has run around to her side of the table in an instant. He clings to Regina, monkey-like in her arms as she lifts him to her lap and rocks him slightly, her chin tucking over his hair and her eyes screwed shut. “Shh, sweetheart, I know, I know,” she murmurs, and slowly Henry's tensed shoulders start to relax.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpers, and Regina presses a kiss to his hair.
“I’m sorry,” she counters, her voice so intensely low and private that Emma feels as if she’s watching them from behind some kind of veil, that she should avert her eyes and leave them wrapped in each other; and then Regina opens her eyes to look across at her, lips forming a silent ready?
Emma nods. She is, she realizes with a start; she’s ready to -
“Henry,” she says quietly, sliding from her chair and kneeling next to him and Regina; he barely reacts at first, so blindly single-minded in his fear of being torn from his mom, and Emma waits for a moment before placing a hand on his arm. “Henry?”
He opens his eyes to blink at her, head leaning against Regina’s chest and hands curled up into fists against her shirt. “Emma?”
“Henry…” Emma smiles helplessly, eyes filling with tears as they both look back at her. “Wow. Look at you.”
Henry lifts his head slightly then, sitting up straight in Regina’s lap to stare down at her with the beginnings of confusion starting to crease the bridge of his nose. “Emma, why are you crying?”
“You’re so perfect,” Emma breathes, thumb stroking automatically over his shirtsleeve. “You were always so perfect.”
Henry is staring at her with fully-fledged confusion now, spine straightening as he tries to take stock of the apparently-bizarre turn the conversation has taken; Regina’s hands tighten around his middle, but she doesn’t interrupt, keeping her eyes fixed on Emma’s over the top of his head.
“I told you my parents, they-” Emma’s voice cracks. “Wanted me to have my best chance.” Henry nods. “They didn’t think that was with them.”
“Oh.” Henry nods heavily, lips twisting into a grimace. “You think she...wanted me to have my best chance, too?”
“Yes,” Regina says suddenly, startling both Emma and Henry. “Yes, I think she did. I think she does.”
“But - “ Henry frowns, craning his neck up to stare at Regina before turning back to meet Emma’s increasingly-blurry gaze. “But why - “
Emma’s hand tightens around the hem of his sleeve, fingertips clutching at the material with an instinctive, wordless need to hold on to him, to anchor herself to him before he rears away; because he will, he has to, Emma has tried to call enough people family to know that they always, always take a step back -
Henry's head falls back against Regina’s chest, eyes wide with wonder. “Oh,” he says quietly, his voice so small that Emma feels it like another tangible crack across her heart, another inevitable pulling away.
“I’m sorry,” she says numbly, blinking and feeling the tears spill over her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Henry, I couldn’t keep you, I wanted to so badly - “ Emma presses her lips shut, pulling her hand away from Henry's wrist and rocking back on her heels. “I’m sorry,” she says again, her voice small and useless.
There’s a long, echoing silence, and Emma doesn’t know how long it is that she stares down at the kitchen tiles, but she can feel the tears starting to dry against her skin by the time that Henry speaks again.
“So…” he says uncertainly, and Emma squeezes her eyes shut. “So can you tell the judge that I want to stay here with mom?”
Emma whips her head up, eyes opening so quickly that for a second her vision goes black; when it clears, Henry is still staring down at her, his head still leaning against Regina’s chest, but there’s a small, careful smile quirking his lips upwards. “And you,” he adds, rubbing his hair against Regina’s chin and smiling wider when she laughs, the sound rich and low and impossibly relieved.
Emma leaves not long after, Regina insisting on calling her a cab and promising to keep an eye on the car until she can drop by to pick it up over the weekend.
“I’m not letting you drive home like this,” Regina says firmly, wiping her hands dry on her slacks and reaching for her phone. “Just wait a few minutes.”
“Thanks,” Emma mumbled, hiding her face in Henry's hair from her kitchen chair; he curls tighter into her, fingers resuming their intricate combing-through of the ends of her hair, eyes drooping shut but clearly unwilling to move from her lap. They’ve been sitting like this for the last few minutes, watching Regina clear up around them - Emma offering weakly to help and Henry clinging, limpet-like, to her - Regina had shaken her head, smiling strangely, and told her not to move.
“Bed soon, Henry,” Regina says now, finished with her phone call and coming over to run a soothing hand over the top of his hair. Henry just nods, burrowing his face into Emma’s shirt, and Regina’s hand slides over the back of his head to brush over Emma’s shoulder. Distracted, Emma leans her head against Regina’s hand, and hears Regina’s breath catch.
What feels like moments later, Regina’s phone buzzes, and Emma hears the distant hum of a car pulling up on the street outside.
“Henry,” she says softly, nudging him half-awake. “Kid, my ride's here.”
“No…” Henry whines, eyes bleary with tiredness and cheeks bright in the kitchen light.
Emma laughs, hugging him closer for another moment before gently standing up and letting Regina lift his sleep-heavy weight from her; he goes uncomplainingly, pliant in his mom's arms, eyes already blinking half-shut again.
“See you on Monday, okay?” Emma asks, and he nods, yawning widely; over the top of his head, Regina nods too, and Emma swallows thickly. Monday. Another school week, one of a finite number now that they’ve discussed Cora’s proposition with Henry and reached another compromise; finishing out the year at Storybrooke Elementary, and trying out Arendelle in the fall, with Regina allowing for a little private tuition over the summer to sweeten the deal.
Regina’s phone buzzes again, and Emma shakes herself alert, pressing a kiss to the top of Henry's head and whispering “Night, kid,” before wrenching herself away and going to find her shoes and jacket. Regina follows, carrying Henry with her and leaning with him against the hallway wall, both of them watching as Emma fumbles for the front door.
“Bye,” she smiles awkwardly, pausing as she catches Regina’s eye; both of them blush, and Emma can feel the missed opportunity to kiss her hanging in the air between them - and it’s such a new, suddenly possible idea, leaning over the top of their sleeping boy’s head to kiss Regina goodnight, that Emma can feel it do something impossibly soft and warm to her expression.
“Sleep well,” Regina says, her voice soft, mirroring the raw and exposed feeling that’s taken hold somewhere behind Emma’s ribcage; Emma nods, laughing quietly at how staggering, simple, vast the phrase sounds, and heads outside to the waiting cab.
“Knock, knock,” Mary Margaret calls brightly, rapping three times against the classrooms open doorway and jerking Emma out of a moody staring contest with her pencil sharpener. “Emma?”
“Hi,” Emma smiles, rubbing a tired hand over her eyes and nodding to her mother to come in. “Sorry, hi.”
“We missed you at lunch yesterday,” Mary Margaret says, heading straight for Emma’s desk and pulling up a chair. “Feeling better?”
Emma winces; after collecting her car on Saturday evening, standing for a few minutes outside the brightly-lit Mills house before quickly driving away and resolving to give Regina all the space she wants for now, she hasn’t left her apartment until Ruby had yelled at her that she was going to be late for school.
“Must have had a 24-hour bug,” she mumbles, breathing a silent sigh of relief when Mary Margaret hums sympathetically. “Sorry not to make it.”
“Next weekend,” Mary Margaret says, smiling at her. “David’s trying a new roast lamb.”
“Cool,” Emma nods. “Yeah, I definitely want to try that.”
Without any further questions from her mom, Emma slides back into her silence, glaring at the pencil sharpener as if it might be able to tell her why Regina hasn’t called her yet.
“Emma?” Mary Margaret asks eventually, breaking Emma’s concentration with her gentle concern. “Is everything all right?”
“You seem distracted,” Mary Margaret says - observant as ever - and Emma has to bite back a laugh. “You know,” she adds then, a touch of hurt tingeing her words and sending an immediate wave of guilt rolling down Emma’s spine. “You can talk to me if you ever want to.”
“Sorry,” Emma mumbled, pulling herself into a slightly more upright position in her desk chair and forcing herself to make eye contact. “It’s nothing, just school stuff.”
Instantly, she knows it’s the wrong thing to say; Mary Margaret visibly perks up, beaming at Emma and folding her hands together in her lap. “School stuff,” she says confidently. “Is my specialty.”
“Right,” Emma laughs hollowly. “Principal Blanchard, duh.”
“Is it the state tests?” Mary Margaret asks, edging a little closer, her whole body almost vibrating with the promise of giving some helpful advice. “I wouldn’t worry about them, Emma, you’re a first-year teacher and everyone takes a while to -”
“No,” Emma says, a little alarmed at the idea that she must have something actually school-related to worry about, and instantly wanting to stop her mom before she can reel off a long list of guessed or imagined teaching faults. “No, it’s - well, it’s - Henry Mills.”
Mary Margaret’s shoulders slump a little. “Oh,” she says, her voice noticeably less bright. “What about him?”
“Just –“ Emma hesitates. “Wondering how he’s doing in Belle’s class. I....heard that the court case would be ending in a couple days, so he should be good to move back -”
“Of course,” Mary Margaret smiles. “Well, when he gets back we can definitely discuss that -“
Emma cuts her off, a note of fear striking somewhere deep in her mind before she can fully process why. “Back?”
“He isn’t in school,” her mom says, the note of fear growing into a terrible, terrifying chord in Emma’s ears. “But as I said, when he’s back - “
“Excuse me,” Emma mutters, pushing herself upright and half-sprinting over to the closet where she hangs her jacket; Mary Margaret stares at her, clearly confused, but Emma just ignores her and rifles through her jacket pockets for her phone.
No missed calls, no texts, no voicemail she could have possibly missed -
“I just remembered I have to make a call,” Emma says automatically, letting her face slide into neutral, pleasant, apologetic. “I need to schedule a doctor’s appointment, and I’ve only got a few minutes before recess is over -”
Mary Margaret nods slowly, disappointment and confusion shining in her eyes as she stands up. “Come have lunch in my office,” she says, giving Emma her slightly-hurt smile. “We can catch up then.”
“Thanks,” Emma grimaces, waiting until her mom has pulled the classroom door closed behind her - she doesn’t even slam the door a little to let Emma know she’s pissed off, which is somehow worse - to lift the phone to her ear.
Regina picks up on the third ring. “Emma? What is it, what’s -”
“Regina, what the fuck,” Emma says, cutting her off; Regina falls silent. “You said he could finish out the year.”
“Henry?” Regina asks, and Emma slams her forehead against the nearest closet door.
“Yes, Henry,” she spits, hearing her voice crack and start to break already. “Three days ago, Regina, you promised.” She knows she sounds petulant, childish even, but Emma can’t bring it in herself to care; it’s too familiar a sinking feeling, the shining, fragile maybe of something like family held out in front of her and then snatched away, leaving her to trip and fall into nothing -
“I remember what I said,” Regina says then, sounding perfectly, composedly impatient; Emma kicks at the wall, tears springing to her eyes when she misjudges her strength and pain shoots up her ankle. The noise is loud enough to make it through her cellphone, and she hears Regina suck in a concerned breath. “Emma, what’s going on?”
“You tell me,” Emma says, breathing harshly. Stupid, stupid, stupid. “You tell me why Henry isn’t here when you said he would finish out the school year - “
“Emma...” Regina cuts her off, her voice so suddenly and eerily quiet that Emma falls silent. “What do you mean, Henry isn’t in school?”
Chapter 12: Regina VII
Emma is waiting outside the school gates by the time Regina pulls up, scraping against the curb and barely bothering to park before she’s throwing the passenger-side door open. “Get in.”
“Sure about this?” Emma asks, swinging herself into the seat as she speaks; she looks pale, her beanie pulled messily over her hair and her jacket hanging half off one shoulder. Regina nods.
“Marian is waiting at home,” she says curtly, already pulling away from the sidewalk again as soon as Emma has buckled herself in. “In case Henry -” she cuts herself off, knuckles white around the steering wheel. “In case he comes there.”
“And he didn’t say anything?” Emma asks, frowning. “This morning, you saw him get on the school bus?”
Regina winces, shaking her head. “I saw him leave the front door.”
“Shit,” Emma breathes, and Regina nods. “Okay.”
They drive in silence for a few minutes, Regina taking turns at random and keeping her eyes fixed on the sidewalks on either side for Henry's brown hair, for his familiar navy coat or a flash of striped scarf. There’s a faint whine in the back of her head, stopping her from thinking clearly, getting louder with every screeching turn onto another empty street.
“Well?” she asks eventually, slowing reluctantly at a red light.
Emma raises her eyebrows. “Well?”
“I assume you didn’t just get out of school to keep me company,” Regina huffs impatiently. “I thought you were going to help.”
“Right,” Emma nods. “Okay, okay, let me just…” she pauses, frowning into the middle distance. “His castle?”
Regina turns to stare at her. “His castle?” The whine is getting sharper, more precise in the back of her mind; she can feel the fear of it, the sheer panic clouding out every rational thought - “What castle?”
“At the adventure playground,” Emma says quietly. “He said he liked it there, I thought, maybe with his whole mean old witch thing, something from a fairytale…”
“Yes.” Regina says quickly, cutting her off and pulling the car around in the direction of the harbor. “Good idea.”
They drive there in silence, Regina needlingly, infuriatingly aware all the while of the sidelong, worried glances Emma keeps shooting her way.
Sure enough, before they’re even in sight of the water, Emma is clearing her throat haltingly. “Regina -”
“What, Emma?” Regina snaps, keeping her eyes fixed on the road ahead. “I said it was a good idea, did you want a gold star for your input?”
“He only told me about the castle because he didn’t want to talk at school,” Emma says simply, cutting through the stiffness in Regina’s expression to the raw, vulnerable fear clutching at her lungs. “It’s not some big conspiracy he let me in on - “
“No,” Regina says, swallowing against the lump in her throat before continuing. “Not a conspiracy, a - what did Henry call it? An operation?”
Emma winces, closing her eyes for a second before replying. “The operation.”
“Robin Hood and the plucky Sherriff against the mean old witch,” Regina says bitterly, pulling the car into the parking lot next to the adventure playground and staring resolutely ahead out of the rain-spattered windshield. “I suppose that makes me the wicked stepmother?”
“No,” Emma says, sounding surprised; when Regina doesn’t respond, she lays a hand carefully against Regina’s sleeve. “No, he said you didn’t need a codename - “
“Makes sense,” Regina cuts her off, needing more than anything to stop Emma from looking at her with so much feeling it looks a lot like pity; she wrenches the door open, and is out of her seat before Emma can say anything else.
“Regina - “ Emma sounds frustrated; stalking towards the desolate playground, Regina can hear Emma stumbling after her. “Regina - Regina, wait!”
Regina ignores her, pulling her coat tighter around herself and casting a sweeping glance over the playground. It looks utterly deserted, but there are a few wind-sheltered spots, perfect for a ten year-old hiding from the world. Fixing her eyes on the wooden castle, Regina heads through the rickety gate.
“Henry?” The wind throws her words back towards her, whipping her hair around her cheeks and bringing stinging tears to her eyes. “Henry!”
Silence, in the echoing wind.
Regina ducks into the den first, seeing at once that it's empty; she hits her head on the low beam over the doorway, and sways for a moment in the cold air.
“Regina - “ Emma is at her side, of course she is, there’s no getting away from her - gripping Regina’s arm with a warm hand, keeping her upright, looking at her with wide, concerned eyes. “Okay?”
Regina purses her lips tightly together, pulling her arm away. “Henry!”
There’s still no response. Henry isn’t waiting for her under the slide, or behind the benches; he isn’t waiting for her, hunched over in his old yellow rain boots, hands pressed over his eyes and giggles giving away his hiding spot long before she’s finished counting to ten - he isn’t anywhere and finally Regina fixes her eyes on the castle with its flaking red turrets and its weathered wooden walls.
“Henry,” she calls again, louder, striding quickly towards the castle, half-convinced that if she’s just quick enough she'll find him - the whine in her ears growing to an urgent, panicked screeching - “Henry - “
He isn’t there, and her voice dies away.
“Regina,” Emma calls quickly, hurrying to her side and peering over the rickety wall into the deserted castle. “What - oh.”
“Nothing to see here, Sherriff,” Regina intones numbly, sinking to the floor and letting her back rest against the wooden drawbridge. “We can go.”
Emma sighs, frowning into the castle for a moment longer before squatting down next to Regina and fixing her with a clear, steady gaze. “Regina, it was just one idea,” she says quietly.
“The only idea worth following so far,” Regina says, blinking hard at the mud-spattered toes of her boots. “I would still be driving in useless circles - “
“You don’t need a codename because you’re just mom,” Emma interrupts, and Regina’s breath catches in her throat. “His words.”
Regina hears Emma's words dimly, as if through a thick layer of fear, but somehow they pierce through the fog, bouncing and echoing through her panic-scrambled thoughts. Just mom, his words -
“Oh,” she breathes, relaxing instinctively against Emma’s side and feeling a smile curve across her frost-cracked lips when Emma curls an arm around her waist.
“He doesn’t have a codename either, you know?” Emma says softly. “I think being half of the Mills is just fine by him.”
Regina nods mutely, letting Emma’s presence wash over her - earnestly, stubbornly comforting, even when Regina has just stormed off across the playground as if they’re stuck in some schoolyard enmity - and letting the wind blow the color back into her cheeks.
An hour later, though, Regina’s cheeks feel cold and clammy; the rain has been lashing down against the Mercedes’ windows ever since they left the adventure playground, and she’s starting to feel claustrophobic in the driver’s seat.
“We should head back to your house,” Emma says wearily. “He’s not in the library, he’s not at the ice cream place or your burger bar, mom just texted to say he definitely hasn’t showed up at school yet…”
Regina shakes her head. “No.”
“No, Emma,” Regina says, her voice clipped and curt. There has to be somewhere else they can look, there has to be some other hiding place they haven’t thought of yet - the house on Mifflin Street looms large in her mind, empty and echoing, and she recoils in her seat. “I’m not going home without Henry.”
Emma nods, looking less than surprised. “Okay,” she says quietly, propping her chin on her hands and frowning in concentration. “Okay, um… Anywhere he’s not allowed to play? Anywhere you’ve told him is off-limits?”
“Why?” Regina asks, stomach turning at the suggestion that Henry might have - “Why would he deliberately go somewhere dangerous?”
“I didn’t mean dangerous,” Emma says quickly. “Just, you know. Out of bounds.”
“Regina.” Emma’s voice is gentle. “I ran away enough times to know, okay? He might think anywhere out of bounds you won’t think to look, anywhere you’ve never gone together…”
“The mine,” Regina says, feeling her heart plummet into the pit of her stomach. “The old mines.”
Understanding flashes inn Emma’s eyes, mingling with fear as her thoughts jump ahead to join Regina’s: the flaking paint on the keep out signs, irresistibly tantalizing; the loose stones and moss-covered rocks; the mineshafts, some barely visible under the undergrowth and rotting, abandoned structures -
“I could be wrong,” Emma says, eyes wide with alarm as Regina pulls the car into a right turn with a squeal of the brakes. “Henry's smart, he’s not gonna go exploring any old place - “
“Hess ten years old,” Regina says tersely. “And he’s already run away from school today.”
The streets and houses blur together as she drives, hands clenched around the steering wheel and eyes wrenched wide open to keep out the images crowding her thoughts, Henry lost, Henry trapped, Henry's broken body at the bottom of a caved-in pit -
“Regina - Regina? “ Dimly, Regina can hear Emma’s repeated questions, merging with the rhythmic scrape of the windshield wipers and the steady rainfall and something else, some kind of buzzing, too loud to be outside the car. “Regina - “
Feeling an effortful ache from the movement, as if she’s drowning in thick mud, Regina blinks, and turns her head to frown at Emma. “What?”
“Your phone,” Emma says, loud and breathless, and Regina feels an instinctive urge to brush away the intrusion, the idea that her phone could be more important than getting to Henry, right now -
“My phone,” she says instead, pulling herself back into focus and nodding. “Where - “ Emma points at the charging dock between their seats, lips turning into a concerned question mark that Regina resolutely ignores as she pulls over and lifts the still-vibrating phone towards her. “Hello?”
“He’s fine,” Marian says quickly, two syllables filtering into Regina’s ear and filling her body with electric, numbing relief. “I have to go get him, but he’s fine, Regina -”
Regina cuts her off. “Get him?” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Emma raise an eyebrow, and quickly slides the phone into speakerphone.
“From the courthouse.” Marian sounds baffled, her voice mirroring the expression flickering across Emma’s pale face. “Judge Ghorm wants to see me before I can take him home...”
“Judge Ghorm,” Regina repeats, shaking her head slightly when Emma frowns at her, clearly just as lost. “Why is Henry with the judge?”
“I just got a call from some intern,” Marian says. “I don’t know, he just said I was wanted and that Henry was here - “
Regina opens her mouth, coughing away the lump in her throat loudly enough to interrupt Marians half-satisfying explanation; her pulse is beating too quickly in her neck, and she almost turns the car straight towards the courthouse without bothering to even ask Marian any of the dozens of questions crowding to the tip of her tongue.
“We’ll see you guys at Regina’s house, then,” Emma says quickly, laying a calming hand over Regina’s wrist. “Thanks, Marian.”
There’s a slight pause, and then a wry, “Hi, Emma.”
Emma’s cheeks are tinged with pink, and she ducks her head before answering. “Hey.”
“Bring her home in one piece, okay?” Marian is definitely amused now, Regina can hear the laugh she’s holding back; Emma smiles at her.
“See you soon,” Regina says, rolling her eyes and reaching out to end the call.
Marians cheery “Have fun!” is cut off mid-giggle, and Regina studiously avoids Emma’s eyes as she starts the car up again and turns towards Mifflin Street.
The old mines are near the town limits on the far side of Storybrooke, and they run into several slow-moving patches around roadworks and school buses, but somehow Regina still beats Marian back to their street. Her driveway is empty, the front door locked and bolted, and standing in the still-heavy rain with Emma standing behind her and breathing just as heavily as she is, Regina has a moment of panicked anger before she remembers why her keychain isn’t in her coat pocket.
“Marian has my keys,” she says slowly, turning on the spot as if a dry bench will materialize on her porch if she glares hard enough, and Emma groans.
“Figures. Guess we’ll wait in the car?”
Regina nods, rubbing a wearing hand over the back of her neck. “Fine.”
They head back to the car, all the restless energy of the drive home seeming to dissipate in the endless rain and the silence of the deserted street. There’s a knot of frustrated impatience in the pit of Regina’s stomach, and if she doesn’t see Henry standing in front of her, soon, she’s going to scream; but the anti-climax of the locked door has drained some of the tension out of her shoulders, and she’s starting to become aware of just how exhausting the last few hours (the last few weeks) have been.
Regina whips her head around, heart leaping into her throat. Marians red mini is speeding towards them, a round-faced, brown-haired head leaning out of the passenger side - “Henry -”
Henry is waving wildly, beaming at them both, and Regina hears Emma give a quiet, half-disbelieving laugh next to her as they run to the end of the driveway and watch Marian pull up to the sidewalk. She looks exhausted, and somehow shocked, but she’s smiling at them from the driver’s seat, and Regina doesn’t have the time to worry about what that smile might mean, not when Henry is throwing open the car door and jumping into the wet grass, not when she can reach out and folding him into her arms, Emma beside her, Emma’s hand resting on her sleeve behind Henry's back, the two of them gathering him close and breathing him in -
“Mom,” Henry laughs, his voice muffled against Emma’s scarf. “Emma, I just saw you both.”
“No,” Emma says, echoing Regina’s thoughts. “No, Henry, when you weren’t in school we thought -” She stops abruptly, making a soft choking noise and pressing her face into Henry's hair; Regina finds her hand behind his back, and laces her fingers tightly through hers.
“I’m sorry,” Henry says quietly. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to scare anyone. “
“Wave already had the never do that again talk,” Marian says, drawing Emma and Regina’s eyes up towards her and smiling tiredly at them both. “But we have...a lot to talk about and I really need a drink, Regina, can we go inside?”
Regina nods, squeezing Emma’s fingers lightly before getting to her feet and wrapping her free hand around Henry's shoulder. “Come on,” she says. “Hot chocolate, and some dry socks, and then you tell us everything.”
“Can I have cinnamon?” Henry asks hopefully, just as Marian whispers, “Got anything stronger than chocolate?” to Emma; and Regina, leading them all inside, lets a bubble of ridiculous, relieved laughter spill over her tongue.
“So,” Emma says ten minutes later, sitting forward on the edge of the couch as soon as Regina has handed out three hard ciders and one hot chocolate. “Talk, kid.”
Henry grimaces, and blows distractedly across the surface of his hot chocolate; for a few seconds, there is near-silence as all three women watch him pout and grimace as he takes a hasty sip. “Hot,” he mutters, blushing, and Emma bumps her knee against his.
“I went to the courthouse…” Henry pauses, looking up at Regina with a wince. “Am I grounded again?”
Marian laughs, muttering “I doubt it,” and winks when Regina stares at her. “Let him talk!”
Regina rolls her eyes, but nods, prompting, “You went to the courthouse.”
“I wanted to tell the judge what I want,” Henry says, ears red as he stares hard into the mug cradled in both his hands. “You said they let kids talk in - “ He pauses, top of his nose crinkling as he tries to remember her phrase, “In extreme situations, and I extremely wanted to talk to someone in charge about my situation.”
Emma laughs, seemingly helplessly; Regina raises an eyebrow, nodding at Henry's tensed shoulders, and she nods quickly. “And so you went and found Judge Ghorm, kid?”
“It was easy,” Henry grins, looking up at her with undisguised pride in his eyes. “I asked in reception and said my name was Mills, and she phoned the judge, and then the judge said to send me up.”
“Mills,” Emma nods, eyes lighting up with a tinge of respect. “Not Henry. Smart.”
Henry grins at her. “I know.”
Feeling a faint pressure building behind her forehead, Regina takes a sip of her cider; Marian looks utterly relaxed next to her, sinking back into the cushions and watching Emma and Henry with a warm, proud look in her eyes. Regina still feels distinctly like she’s missing something; when Henry looks up at her, and grins smugly, that feeling only grows.
“What did you talk about?” she asks, her voice horribly hollow-sounding to her own ears; Henry's smile fades slightly at her tone, but he nods quickly.
“I told her I knew all about everything, and Emma, and my… Mr. Cassidy, and grandma, and - “ he draws a deep breath. “About the lawyer telling Marian the idea about me going away to special school, and that I don’t want to.”
“Henry…” Regina breathes, feeling his words land like individual blows against her ribs. “Henry, sweetheart, you said you wanted to try it in the fall - “
Henry shakes his head stubbornly. “You wanted me to say yes so I wouldn’t have to talk to the lawyers and grandma about you being my mom,” he says bluntly, and for what must be the thousandth time in 24 hours Regina is reminded all over again of how precociously, wondrously perceptive her boy is. “So I went and I talked to her by myself, and I told her that you’re my mom and I’m staying here, and if they make me go stay with grandma I’ll run away, and if she doesn’t believe me then she’d better think about me running away from the school bus just to see her, and I can run away from Boston, too. There’s a bus.”
In the pause that follows Henry's speech, Regina can only stare at him, eyes filling with tears; Henry, clearly exhausted, slumps back against Emma’s shoulder.
“Did…” Emma clears her throat, voice thick with tears as she makes eye contact with Regina over the top of his head. “Did Judge Ghorm say anything to that?”
“She said it was complicated,” he mumbles, rolling his eyes, and Regina feels a peal of laughter well up in her throat. “I know that.” Marian snorts, nudging her shoulder companionably against Regina’s and giving Henry an encouraging nod.
“She mentioned you,” she says to Emma. “Asked Henry how he felt about you being...around.”
“I said mom likes you more than she likes grandma,” Henry interrupts, with such a teenage smirk that Regina feels her cheeks heat up; avoiding Emma’s eye, she presses her lips tightly together. “And so do I.”
“And then?” Emma asks, her voice high-pitched, strained with the same effort not to scream or laugh or both that Regina is trying to suppress; she clears her throat, and fixes Henry with a neutral, slightly fixed smile.
“She called Marian,” Henry says, with a long-suffering scowl. “And said I had to make a witnessed statement and that she would show it to Jones and if he didn’t like it I would have to say it all again in court.”
“Which is when I called you guys,” Marian adds; there’s a kind of roaring in Regina’s ears that only grows in shape and volume the longer she stares at Marians confident, relaxed smile and the longer she allows herself to guess at what it means. “And drove over, and listened to Henry do the whole speech, he was incredible.”
Regina nods, too quickly; her head feels too light on her neck, it’s as though all her joints have been stretched and loosened slightly, she’s a marionette cue free of its strings, and Henry is tugging on all the loose ends with his proud, round-cheeked smile.
“Jones,” Regina says quickly, forcing herself back a few steps from the sparkling, shining cliff’s edge; it feels so close now she can almost reach out and feel the soaring wind pull at her fingertips, but she has to be sure -
“Already called,” Marian jumps in. “Henry made us sit in the lobby and wait till I heard, in case he had to go in and yell at Ghorm some more.”
“I wasn’t yelling,” Henry says solidly. “I didn’t want to make the trip for nothing, I just wanted to be sure - “
“Marian,” Emma interrupts him, leaning forwards with the same fearful, hopeful urgency that’s dancing through Regina’s veins, “Marian, please - “
“Cora’s withdrawing her claim,” Marian tells them both, and Regina feels fireworks explode behind her rib. “I guess you really scared them off, Henry.”
“Just like that?” Emma breathes; Regina laughs shakily, knowing she won’t really believe it until her mother is calling her from Boston and delivering her judgement in her own words, but Henry and Emma are beaming identical beams at her from their shared couch, and she can feel her resistance crumbling away into overpowering, overwhelming relief.
“Just like that,” Marian is saying, with a small laugh. “Henry’s leaving out the part where he told Ghorm about the mean old witch, and some creep called Gold who made him solve dud equations over the holidays.”
“She really didn’t like that,” Henry says, with an almost evil grin. “Said it was shockingly inappropriate.”
Emma laughs, wrapping an arm around Henry's side and pulling him close to lean her cheek against his head. “Smart kid.”
“Genius kid,” Marians says, shaking her head in wonder. “Want my job, Henry?”
Henry shakes his head firmly. “I want to go to school,” he says, twisting his torso to peer up at Emma. “I want to finish fourth grade.”
“Did –“ Regina clears her throat, raspy from disuse. “Did you tell the judge that too?”
“Yeah,” Henry nods, grinning across at her. “And I said I want to be back in Emma’s class, and she said that was at the principal’s discretion…” But, he adds, brightening slightly, “I guess Mrs. Blanchard is my grandma, so I bet I can talk her round.”
At that, Emma buries her face in his hair, shoulders shaking with helpless laughter, and Regina feels a crack in her heart open up to a beam of blindingly bright sunlight, filling her chest with light and heat. Perhaps seeing something of the tidal wave of emotion threatening to wash over Regina’s expression, Marian nudges her lightly, and nods towards the opposite couch. “Go on,” she whispers. “Details can wait, okay?”
Regina nods shakily, swallowing back the dozen more questions she’s sure Marian has already anticipated and prepared solutions for. Knees giving way slightly, she slides off the couch; Emma’s hand shoots out to catch her, fingers lacing around Regina’s wrist and pulling her towards them; Henry smiles at her, wide and proud, and Regina doesn’t know what to do with this much relief, thrumming through her veins, making her vision blur and her lips shake.
“Mom,” Henry says simply, reaching out and sliding to the floor to wrap his arms around her neck, body curving instinctively into hers. “Mom.”
“I love you,” Regina whispers, pressing her face into his hair and feeling hot tears rolling down her cheeks. He’s warm in her arms, wriggling closer and giggling when she presses a kiss to the top of his ear. “I love you so much, sweetheart.”
“I love you too,” he mumbles, voice muffled against her chest, and Regina feels the joy singing through her veins as she looks up, looks up at Emma –
Emma, watching the two of them with raw, unguarded longing in her eyes, smiling shakily at Regina as she catches her eye.
“Emma,” Regina says carefully, shifting Henry's weight in her arms slightly so that she has one hand free, reaching up to lace her fingers through Emma’s.
“Hi,” Emma breathes, sinking slowly off the couch to kneel beside the two of them leaning in to rest her cheek against Henry's shoulder.
“Are you sure?” Henry asks, hiding his face against Regina’s shoulder but sounding suddenly like he’s trying not to laugh; Regina raises her eyebrows at Emma, but Emma just shakes her head, equally bemused. “Marian?”
“Marian?” Regina twists her head around, staring up at Marian, hugging her knees on the couch and looking more than a little teary-eyed herself.
“Pretty sure,” she grins, and Henry giggles against Regina’s collarbone.
“Henry…” Regina says slowly, losing all sense of authority as Henry keeps laughing, light and happy as he looks up and meets her eyes with a mischievous grin.
“Are you sure you’re not dating Emma?”
“Cos I asked Marian, and she said she didn’t know either,” Henry interrupts her, laughing openly as Regina falls silent, feeling the blood rush to her cheeks. “Emma?”
Emma, laughing slightly grudgingly, wraps a hand around Henry's shoulder and pulls him towards her. “You are way too smart, kid,” she says wryly, giving Henry a shake as he leans back against her chest.
“That’s not an answer,” he says challengingly, raising his eyebrows at Regina. “Is it, mom?”
“I –“ Regina, unable to tear her eyes away from Emma’s helpless, smiling face, shakes her head. “No, I suppose it isn’t.”
Emma laughs then, shaking her head in disbelief, and Regina raises an eyebrow, nodding slightly for Henry to ask again. He grins, and repeats, “Emma?”
“Kid…” Emma sighs, burying her face in the top of his hair for a minute but still blushing just as fiercely when she looks up and winks at Regina. “Give me time, okay?”
“What does that mean?” Henry demands, sounding suddenly impatient, and Regina presses a hand to her lips.
“It means not yet,” she says quietly, feeling the tension drain out of her as Emma and Henry smile across at her; and Regina smiles back at them both, feeling the last missing unknown of her life in Storybrooke slot into place, solving for home.
Chapter 13: Epilogue: Henry
Treading very carefully, Henry inches past his mom’s bedroom and starts sneaking downstairs, taking care to skip the creaky stair and landing with a soft thump on the rug next to the old bird clock. Glancing up, he sees that it’s almost seven. Time to get going.
Humming quietly under his breath, Henry tiptoes into the kitchen and goes straight to the fridge to dig out a carton of eggs and the chocolate chips and blueberries. Pancake mixture he finds in the cabinet, along with a bowl and the electric mixer; lifting it up onto the kitchen counter, he almost drops it, and one of the cables clatters to the floor.
Freezing in the silent kitchen, Henry counts to ten very slowly, listening hard for any sounds from upstairs; it’s all quiet, though, and he can’t hide a smug grin as he plugs in the mixer, tips in the entire packet of pancake mix, and cracks in three eggs. The mixer is loud, too, and he’s sure he’s going to get caught any second now, but… Still no movement upstairs.
“High five, Henry,” Henry whispers to himself as he clambers up onto a chair to find a frying pan.
More confident now that the loudest part is over, Henry turns on the stove, sprays oil into the frying pan, and waits for a few seconds before pouring in the first plate-sized serving of pancake mixture. It sizzles angrily at him, and he frowns, trying to remember – right, mom turns down the heat as soon as she starts cooking the first pancake. Dialing the heat down, Henry rolls up his sleeves and turns to survey the kitchen critically.
The counters are a little messy – he missed the bowl with one of the eggs, and there are some pancake splashes on some of the tiles from where he forgot to put the top on the mixer before mixing – but there’s no time to do that now, he has to set the table. Forks, knives, two plates… Henry pauses, seeing the red jacket hanging off one of the kitchen chairs – three plates. Cups, for juice, and his dragon mug for chocolate milk.
He’s just flipping the last pancake – a stack of them already keeping warm in the oven under the stove – when the bird clock chimes seven fifteen, quickly followed by the faint beeping of mom’s alarm upstairs.
“Oh, no, no…” Henry shoves the last pancake into the oven, and rushes over to the fruit bowl. Bananas, three strawberries, he needs a cutting knife, quickly, quickly –
Three banana smiles and three strawberry noses are cut to size in the work of a moment; tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth, Henry carries the stack of pancakes over to the kitchen table and divides them into three even piles. Blueberry eyes, chocolate chip hair, he’s done, and he even has time to pour himself some chocolate milk. Perfect.
He’s sitting at the table, elbows propped up and hands curled around his dragon mug, when Emma stumbles in, her ankles sticking out of a pair of mom’s pajama pants.
“Henry!” She stops, blinking. “You’re up.”
“Good mor-ning, Miss Swan,” Henry giggles, dodging as she reaches out to ruffle his hair. “I made special breakfast!”
“I can see that,” Emma says weakly, pulling her big sweater up from where it’s slipped down over one of her shoulders. “What’s the occasion?”
Henry shrugs. “No occasion, just special breakfast.”
“Uh huh,” Emma says, yawning too widely to notice Henry crossing his fingers tightly together behind his chair. “Well, your mom’s on her way down –“
“Already here,” Regina calls, swinging the kitchen door open and stopping dead when she sees the table. “Emma!”
“Not guilty,” Emma protests, shaking her head so fast that all her hair goes flying over both her shoulders, and Henry has to stuff his hand into his mouth to stop from laughing when mom slowly turns to him, mouth open in surprise.
“Henry?” she asks, and Henry nods, grinning around his hand and giggling when mom shakes her head, looking all overwhelmed. “You made pancakes? For me?” Henry nods. “Without an adult?”
“I know what to do!” Henry protests quickly, stomach clenching anxiously until he sees mom smiling, smiling like she only does when she’s not mad at all, and he breathes out.
“Sweet boy,” she says quietly, reaching out with one hand to smooth over his hair, and Henry leans into her touch, feeling the weight roll off his shoulders as another operation goes off without a hitch. “Thank you.”
“Love you,” Henry mumbles sleepily, and mom’s fingers still in his hair.
“Love you too.”
Henry stays like that for a few more seconds, his eyes closing as mom strokes over his hair, but then he twists around to look up at her again. “Can we eat now?” he asks, laughing when he sees Emma nodding next to mom. “My bus is soon.”
“I can drive you,” Emma says lightly, pulling out her chair and sitting down opposite Henry. “But we should get a move on anyway, I should probably shower...”
Mom coughs lightly, sitting down between Emma and Henry, and her cheeks are red in the way that means they think they’re being sneaky. “Didn’t you shower last night?”
“Yep,” Emma nods, reaching out to nudge Henry's foot under the table. “I did.”
Henry rolls his eyes. “That was my foot,” he tells Emma, and mom chokes on a sip of orange juice. “Are you coming over tonight too?”
“I don’t know, kid,” Emma says, raising an eyebrow. “What’s up, do you want a ride back after school?”
“No, I’ve got college, remember?” Henry jerks his head over at the timetable pinned to the fridge with his Science Center magnet. “New schedule. Mom’s picking me up after lunch.”
Emma nods, smiling lightly. “I guess we can hang out after, you want to go get ice cream?”
Mom clears her throat, raising her eyebrows at Henry and shaking her head slightly. “No, that’s okay,” he says quickly. “I think I’m busy.”
“Busy? Busy with –“ Emma stops, looking from Henry to the pancakes to mom and back to the pancakes. “Oh shit.”
“Emma!” Henry giggles, but suddenly it’s like he isn’t even in the room; Emma is staring over at mom, and mom is looking back at her, looking kind of annoyed in that soft way that isn’t annoyed at all.
“You could have said something,” Emma is saying, reaching out with one hand to hold on to mom's. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, you weren’t to know –“
“That’s why you should have said –“
“I didn’t want you to feel obligated, it’s the first week back at school –“
“Regina,” Emma says, her voice louder now, and mom presses her lips together, trying not to smile. Henry grins down at his fruity face, waiting for them to stop pretending to be mad at each other and get back to telling him how good the pancakes are. “I didn’t even get you a card, what kind of girlfriend…”
It goes very quiet in the kitchen; when Henry looks up, Emma is staring down at her plate with bright red cheeks, and mom is staring at her with her fork hanging kind of stupidly in mid-air.
“Girlfriend?” she asks, and Henry pulls a face at his plate. No way they’re gonna remember about the pancakes any time soon.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he announces, scraping his chair back loudly and standing up without asking if he can be excused; mom doesn’t even look up, and Henry rolls his eyes as he heads down the hall and up the stairs.
He might as well read ahead for the new topology class he’s starting at college later today; maybe by the time he’s finished his chapter and come back downstairs, they’ll be done kissing.