Regina capped her sharpie. Morning rush over by 9:00am, as usual, leaving a mayhem of dishes and half-spilled shots of coffee. Such was the price to pay for being the only Starbucks around, especially when equipment broke down at a quarter after six while her own mother stood waiting for her order. The frustration had led to seven destroyed sharpies, of course, but not a single customer waited longer than the average of 2.5 minutes. Her mother might not know that, but Regina did and maintained her pride.
"Aha!" Mulan poked her head up from behind the counter, a jerry-rigged device in her hand. "Stickers work. Electricity works, to the great regret of my hair. Now let me just connect it here… Yes. Yes. Temporary cup labeler." Mulan grinned. "No more sharpies and strange acronyms. There's more than one way to skin a cat."
Regina poked at the labeler, one eyebrow lifting a fraction of an inch when it didn't fall over. "Perfect timing for, oh, the next two hours of dismal traffic. So grateful. And that phrase, you know, is offensive to cat owners."
Mulan barely hid her smirk but ignored the jab. "Sorry, I forgot about your sensitivity when it comes to your son."
"Enough lip, young lady," Regina said deliberately. She set down an espresso cup with more force than required and added, "Besides, I've never called him that."
Clearly swallowing a laugh, Mulan nodded and grabbed a dishrag. "You're right, you're a totally normal cat lady and I know nothing to the contrary."
"Keep in mind your performance review," Regina muttered and started up the sink. Her sole barista, though quick-witted and quick-fingered, did not meekly submit to management. It was a burden she'd borne for the past five years as manager of Winlock's Starbucks, going through 27 different employees in those first three years alone. At least Mulan could make coffee, unlike her most recent predecessor Eric.
In a town of only 2000 people, Regina couldn't be too picky. Not yet. Not until she made it out of here. For now, Regina cared only that her world held stable. She came to work at 4:30am every day, prepped all the equipment by herself, and when Mulan arrived at 5:00am they created and served every drink with a smile. A perfect, friendly, efficient smile, fresh for each customer. Customers only. At the end of the day Regina would then go home, feed her cat, read more of her books, and eventually fall asleep on the couch only to be woken at 3:30am by the alarm clock.
It couldn't be too long, she thought while scrubbing the last table, before upper management recognized her potential. Routine mattered in business more than most qualities. She'd soon get out of Redneckville and to the big city, to corporate, to success.
The doorbell broke through her daydream and Aurora stumbled in, hair askew and across her face.
"What are you doing here?" Mulan demanded, half horrified. "You scheduled James' appointment at 8:00am, that was an hour ago!"
Aurora yawned and waved a hand. "I needed sleep. Can I have a tall chai?"
Now it was Regina's turn to bite back her smirk as she slipped behind the counter. "How lovely to see you this morning, Aurora," she charmed. Mulan smacked the makeshift cup-labeler until it printed a sticker for Aurora's cup. "I'm sure your clients will...understand."
Mulan's sleepy beauty might be too tired to see through the courteous veneer, but the barista herself sent a seething glare to Regina. It was a long-standing argument that came up when conversation veered into personal territory. Regina didn't admire anyone, but specifically Aurora—who happened to be Mulan's girlfriend. Their mismatch was simply mockworthy, at least whenever Mulan started getting presumptuous about the boss-employee relationship.
"Here you go, sweetie," Mulan said, handing the steaming cup to Aurora with the slightest of sighs. "But you'd better hurry. Customers won't wait forever." Her smile had admirable restraint.
Aurora walked out, tossing a happy little wave over her shoulder, but the door opened again before any comment could be added by those still in the coffeeshop. It was a stranger this time, a woman in a long brown skirt with half-braided blonde hair and thick rectangular glasses.
As the manager of the only Starbucks within a 10 mile radius, Regina was used to a handful of strangers trotting in from the freeway. She smiled as usual, ignoring the giant blue pendant on this one that screamed 'hippie'. "Hi, what can I get started for you?"
"Um." The blonde scrunched her nose, glancing up at the menu. "Do you have any vegan options?"
Regina blinked. "We have soy milk."
"And your coffee is fair trade organic, right?"
"No…" Regina felt her lip twitch, right where the childhood scar sat. "But we use only the highest quality ingredients, I can assure you."
The customer looked suspicious, but said only, "I'll have a soy latte with chocolate, then."
Behind her back, Regina could hear Mulan's sharp intake of breath and an almost inaudible 'Oh no'. Her smile began to fade. "So you want a soy mocha?"
"Oh, I didn't know that's what it was called." She had a lopsided smile, this customer, that was supposed to be disarming but came off like nails on a chalkboard.
"What size?" Regina held a finger poised over the register, ready to take the order and get this over with. Customers came and customers went.
This time Regina didn't ask but gave her a venti. "It'll be on the bar in a couple minutes. That will be $5.05."
"Really?" The woman stared, wallet in hand. "Wow. Well, just a second." She handed some crumpled ones to Regina, then pulled a yellow pamphlet from her voluminous purse. "I think you could actually save money if you found locally sourced organic beans, and it'd be better for the environment. Even fair trade organic would be—"
"Do I look like the person to talk to about corporate decisions?" Regina held up a hand, lips tight in what was turning from smile to sneer. She was used to ignorance, of course, but a small town like hers didn't usually hold host to this kind of shenanigans.
"Just think about it, that's all." The woman nodded firmly, leaving the pamphlet on the counter when Regina refused to touch it. "Oh, are the bagels vegan? They look amazing."
"No, I'm sure they're entirely animal products." Regina handed the woman her receipt.
The woman looked unsure whether that was a joke or not. Mulan handed her the coffee, maintaining her own poker face quite well.
The blonde shook it off. "Thank you," she said, then turned back to Regina. "If you reconsider about the coffee, let me know. I just moved in, so I'll be around. Just ask for Emma Swan at the post office." A flash of a smile and then the woman left the café.
Regina blinked for a good thirty seconds while birds sang outside, then pressed both palms against the register counter and despaired for her future sanity.
Saturday sunlight made hair clippings glow while they flew from Aurora's scissors to float, dancing, only slowly landing on the floor. The atmosphere was magical, Mulan had to admit, despite Aurora frequently losing track of time. Scissors clipped, small talk flew back and forth without a hitch, and Mulan dozed in a sunbeam. Regina ran Starbucks on her own on the weekends, leaving Mulan to hang around Aurora's salon and wait for a few precious moments with her girlfriend.
Today was fully booked, and she could have been at home doing something productive. Instead, allowing herself to be lazy, she hugged the back of one of the spinning chairs and let herself listen. Gossip in the salon had become interesting.
Emma Swan started it. Any newcomer to Winlock would have been met with interest—who would willingly move here—but Emma created more questions than she answered. Though she answered many. She arrived on Thursday, wasn't seen on Friday, and then Saturday morning showed up at the salon with a shrug. "Snow sent me here," she'd said after being offered a seat. "Something about how I wouldn't get far with my green projects if I looked out of place. Can you help?"
And so it had proceeded. Emma gave off awkward vibes as Aurora chatted about fashion and snip-snipped at the absurdly long golden locks on her new customer, and despite her ready smiles she held herself with restraint. Maybe it's just passion, Mulan thought, remembering how earnest she'd seemed in the coffee shop.
Emma left soon after, with only a single question about hair products and where Aurora sourced them. Mulan had known a couple of weird liberal types in her life. Emma, at least, wasn't chaining herself to the doors. It could be charming, if different.
To add more to the whole newcomer picture, Snow came in next to have her pixie cut trimmed. "I saw what you did for Emma," she gushed. "She looks so chic!"
Aurora beamed. "I did think it was an improvement. Nothing wrong with tousled hair—"
"But not if you're trying to look professional." Snow nodded.
"So you two are friends already?" Aurora bustled around, lip between her teeth. Mulan twirled the chair with a soft smile, only half-listening.
"Well, she came to the school to ask about our lunch program, and made some good points. I've been trying to get the junk food off the menu for years, though, and I told her that administration around here is a little stubborn. She's not giving up and I think I like that. This town could use a little shaking up."
Aurora shook her head. "I don't know… Better the devil you know, right? We can't exactly afford to change everything."
Snow shrugged. "Well, someone's got to have hope for change, even if it doesn't happen. Hope is the first step."
The conversation switched gears, and other customers came and went. Belle hadn't met Emma yet, but Granny had and knew where she lived. "She bought land, three whole acres, just out of the town limits." No more than that could be spread about until Abigail came in to have her nails done. She, somehow, knew more than anyone.
"She's here on a mission, actually," she informed Aurora once the curiosities began. Mulan looked up at that. "She's delivered pamphlets about going green to every business in town, and I even saw her talking to the mayor. Archie said they talked for a while, and it's 'something personal' for her. She bought all the seedlings that the nursery had, even threw Mr. Gold for a loop. I think we're about to be taken over by nature if this one has a say in things…"
Mulan snorted, suddenly picturing vines enveloping Starbucks while Regina kept trying to cut them back.
Soon the sun set and she and Aurora went home to their takeout dinner. Aurora snuggled close on the couch while they watched late-night television, neither one paying much attention to it. "You should talk to this Emma," she said out of the blue. "She's from out of town, she might have connections for you and your dojo."
Mulan sighed a little and nuzzled Aurora's hair. "I'm ok, don't worry." Aurora didn't need to know that her spending spree last weekend had used up three months of Mulan's savings...and baristas weren't paid that well to begin with. Her dream of owning a dojo was many, many years off, even if Aurora suddenly discovered frugality. "And anyway, Regina would probably fire me if we became friends."
"She doesn't like Emma?" Aurora seemed shocked.
Mulan could only chuckle. "Sweetie, if you knew Regina, you'd understand." There were old fogies in this town who had hated every change since the 70s. And then there was Regina. It had taken only 30 seconds, but Emma had made a permanent first impression on stalwart Ms. Mills.
It could be worse, though. At least this would get Regina to forget about Aurora. No one was allowed to criticize Mulan's sweetie except for Mulan, so Emma could be the scapegoat and Mulan wouldn't protest. It would suck for Emma, but Mulan agreed with Snow; the woman could probably handle anything, even that.
It was her favorite time in the morning, when she and the stars shared privacy before everyone else woke. Her cat might disagree, wailing and grumbling and throwing himself at her feet before she left her house, but Quixote was selfish and a sleepaholic. Regina liked her lonely mornings. She liked walking to work, hearing and seeing nothing but streetlights. She liked the sounds of machines revving up in the coffeeshop, purring at her touch, while the golden lights shone out against the darkness. She liked the smell of fresh brewing coffee before all the other scents fouled it up, and the rush of caffeine as she sipped a careful brew from her well-worn mug.
Once the doors opened, she opened herself up to the world. It wasn't a bad thing, necessarily. Regina appreciated being at the center of the town, even if she couldn't name anyone of her townsfolk as a particular friend. She provided coffee. She was important. She smiled and knew names and no one hated her. This purpose gave her drive that no one, no one else, in this town could match or understand.
Of course, this Emma threatened to invade her purpose and her world. Only two days in town and yet people talked about different things in her café, and gathered into slightly more varied groups. Some didn't show up at all for the first time in nearly a year. Regina knew she was paranoid, but she also knew that paranoia didn't mean Emma wasn't out to get her. She'd said so directly; she wanted to change this town. Regina's town. Regina's purpose in life. Why she couldn't have focused her pot-stirring on anyone else, Regina couldn't understand. Too late for such questions, though. She could feel the effects of Emma's presence churning in the town like indigestion. This Monday morning, there was a taste of foreboding bile in the back of her throat that even coffee couldn't wash out.
Once she finished her coffee, she told herself to forget Emma. She was new, doomed to failure in the end, and therefore not worthy of this worry. The store needed a clear head running it.
10 seconds later, the register crashed and hummed brokenly. Regina bit her lip and frowned. When the espresso machine, too, only sputtered when asked to steam milk, she glared it down. By the time she got the dark roast coffee brewing and had her arm splashed with boiling water, she demanded loudly, "Are all of you cursed?" The machines all seemed too cowardly to answer.
Regina brushed her hair back, breathed in and out, and restarted each appliance. This time, she found cooperation. "I have kept you clean for five years," she mumbled to the espresso machine while wiping it down. "You will not dare take this new woman's side. Her organic coffee would clog your precious filters up, mark my words."
The door clinked open. "Someone looks chipper," Mulan remarked flatly, dropping her bag behind the counter and straightening her nametag.
"Restock the refrigerated section." Regina flicked the washrag into the sink, then added. "No, I'm not chipper. My weekend was particularly trying and I don't want you mentioning it." It was more than she planned to say, but the words were out before she could edit them. She and Mulan had a mild relationship, somewhat pleasant, but Regina knew today was not one for any personal crap.
The other woman's silence felt loaded, and Regina could feel the side-eye from those brown eyes all the way across the coffee bar. It felt like being poked in the side. Despite her better judgment she said, "Oh stop that. This is just passive aggressive."
Mulan blinked. "What? Because I notice your moods?"
"Because you expect me to comment on them."
"No, I don't." The other woman shrugged, then let out a long breath. "If you have a type for conversation, I'm pretty sure I'm not it. I just don't want you to be defensive. You know, when I tease you it's supposed to be fun. I wouldn't do it for anything serious."
"I know that." She felt a bit peeved to be told something so obvious, but then sighed and rubbed her eyelids. "This isn't serious. I don't need to talk about it. The end."
"Fine. Though, if today ends up like my first week—"
"It won't." Regina shook off the mood and plastered an in-control smile on her face. She wouldn't allow any reminders of that time. "We have work to do, not chit-chat."
"Yes, ma'am." Mulan half-smiled.
Then the doors opened and Regina's world, as always, became coffee and smiles and superficial chatter with her customers. The town hadn't changed that much, she supposed. No one mentioned Emma; Regina vowed to forget about her for one whole day.
To no avail, however, for the woman herself appeared on the doorstep only three hours later. Hair shorter, less wispy, actually combed smooth—but smile just as awkward. "Hi again. So… it's a soy mocha I like, right?"
Regina had heard every kind of non-apology in the book from her mother, and found this sort of niceness no more pleasing than the naive stubbornness of their last encounter. Her morning mood descended with a vengeance. Emma would get no 'do-over' here, no 'sorry we started off on a bad foot'. She drummed her fingers on the register and responded with bare icy courtesy. "It's not my job to tell you what you like, dear."
Almost surprisingly, Emma's face crushed like a soda can beneath a heavy boot. Two seconds of uncomfortable silence reigned, then she mumbled, "Tall soy mocha, please."
"Very well." While her coworker prepared the drink, Regina let out a breath and felt her smile curve into something more real. She wouldn't call herself sadistic, but Emma needed squelching before she ruined things. It had felt quite nice.
Emma drank her coffee in the corner with a dark, wounded expression on her face, pausing between sips to look through a pile of loose papers. Regina didn't know what she was up to and couldn't care less, continuing to work with less-feigned lightheartedness than before. Even Mulan seemed detached from the situation.
The day went on. Regina had a strong sense that this irritating story was at its close, and she would never again be bothered by liberal requests.
"It's so strange to have someone new in town," Snow said when she returned mid-afternoon for another drink.
"Not in the least," Regina said, with a smile she felt to her bones. This was just a slight bump on the steady road Regina traveled.
Black soil crusted beneath her nails and in the creases of her knuckles. She could breathe in deeply and smell worms, decomposing pine chips, leaves, and just a whiff of manure. Emma didn't realize she was smiling until a ladybug landed on her wrist and she heard her own laugh.
This was every fantasy of home she'd ever had. This was intoxicating, though instead of making her forget it made every treasured, limited happy memory replay itself in high-definition.
Emma deposited the ladybug on a petunia leaf, just like her foster mother would have done.
Impulsively, just a few weeks ago, she'd chosen Winlock because the for-sale ad's picture of a giant egg and rolling farmland. Back to the earth, back to nature, that's what it had made her think of. Two weeks after purchase she'd left San Francisco behind, bringing only herself to this town. It was supposed to be the start of her redemption.
She'd only been there for three days before she realized that this was not a paradise waiting to be cultivated. Or rather, it was, but no one was willing to cultivate. Aside from her little plot of land and happiness, Winlock was sleepy, curmudgeonly, and standoffish in a way that usually she appreciated. People like Archie and Snow made her a bit uneasy with their relentless optimism, but at least she could get through to them. No one else had budged an inch.
She'd made a strategic retreat to her land, indulging in the planting of all twenty saplings she'd lugged from the general store.
"Hey there neighbor!" Across the grass, a man stopped walking and waved. His four large dogs also stopped, and Emma could have sworn that all five of them had the same expression of openness and glee.
"Hey," she called back, waving back before realizing how filthy her hand was. She wiped it on her khaki gardening apron.
The man walked over towards her, a lean dalmatian ahead of him straining at the leash. Within a few strides the dog was bounding up to her chest and giving her a slobbery kiss and a look of love. Emma yelped, but her mouth twisted in a smile.
"You're Emma, I guess." Her neighbor laughed. "I'm David, hi, and Pongo is the one attacking your face. The others are better behaved."
She scrunched her nose as Pongo's tongue nearly went up it, and gently pushed him back down. "Hi back. It's okay, I'm a dog person too."
"I never would have guessed." David couldn't keep a straight face. He tugged back a little on the leash, but all the dogs were sniffing around her boots. "Do you want him? I run the animal shelter, so these are all available for adoption."
"Sorry...I can't, not yet."
"No problem." He let out a breath and looked around. "Wow, you really did clean out the nursery."
Emma shrugged, sheepish. "Everything was really bare here. I didn't know that was the only selection they had, I just wanted to make it greener. I always planted things with my fost—with my mom, when I was younger. Today I feel 13 again." A grin escaped her control.
"And you look it," he quipped, in the same weirdly sweet way that Archie and Snow had talked to her. "I've heard a lot about your want to make things greener, actually. I don't exactly have resources myself, but it sounds real nice." Despite her latent suspicion, though, Emma saw no mockery behind his small smile. "I don't know if anyone's invited you, but a lot of the town gathers at Starbucks for Trivia Tuesdays, if you're into that thing. It's about as exciting as things get until the Egg Festival in June.
Emma shifted on her feet, lips pressed together. She had been raised to be an activist, despite how poorly social skills came to her. And had, indeed, prepared herself for struggles in this new place. Struggles she'd found, but also crankiness. Mr. Gold had called her a girl, and laughed at her suggestions point blank. The miners simply ignored her—literally, they stopped paying attention after the first few sentences, and went back to work. And Regina. Oh god, Regina.
Because it seemed a hub for the town, since no one liked the mayor or other (basically impotent) government employees, Emma had tried to make a place for herself at the town's Starbucks. Going straight to government officials would always be a last straw. Grassroots. That was how you made a difference. But Regina wouldn't have any of it, and was frankly mean about it. Emma had told herself it hadn't hurt, but there was a seed of bitterness growing in her heart about That Woman. Emma didn't know coffee, yes, and she always forgot that other people used cow milk regularly. She apologized for all that, if it seemed like someone was frustrated. What she didn't apologize for was caring, and trying to make a difference. That made her contemptible to Regina, it seemed, and every other interaction in Winlock more or less mirrored Regina's after the first rejection.
She forgot David was standing there until he waved his free hand. "No, it's okay, I forgot."
"Forgot what?" Emma blinked.
"Everyone knows everything here. I know you and Regina… Well, she's got a bug up her rear about you, since you're into organic stuff." He smiled apologetically. "Her moods do tend to spread around town, but it's not a permanent thing. I bet you can still make progress. And anyway, the rumor about her banning you is pretty unfounded."
"Banning me?" Emma's hands went to her hips, then one waved helplessly. No one had told her that small towns hated change and overreacted to hints of it. "Is that even possible? I don't even… I don't…"
"No, no, I'm 99% sure that's just people talking." David switched the leash to his other hand. "Regina's not a bad person. You just gotta take things slow here. We've got thick blood. We take our time. Especially her."
"I'm getting that," Emma said, unsure whether it was resignation or frustration making her palms hang heavy at her sides. Then, only half serious, she asked, "She doesn't run a mafia or anything, right? It's just like a hivemind or something?" She could have bitten her tongue off for letting the last words out, but David didn't seem offended.
"Regina? Mafia? She's not a people person, so that'd be a first." He laughed. "She's just the coffee lady. I mean, you probably don't even have to go through her to get something changed. Don't fret over her." He smiled again. "Anyway, even if you don't come to Trivia Tuesdays, maybe I'll see you around town?"
"Yeah." Emma tried to smile. "Nice to meet you, David."
He left her standing, still covered in dirt, caught on a moving train of thought that he had presented. She wanted to change the town, he was right about that, but it wasn't like Regina owned Starbucks. She had to have a boss. Perhaps one she would listen to.
Emma only needed this one little town to change, but if that meant going through a district manager then so be it.
Mulan kept flicking hair from her eyes, lips held in a tight smile as she bustled about with paper cups in each hand. Regina had stepped out for a call while the line of customers reached to the front door and beyond, so she was doing double duty with orders and drink preparation. Brain awash in absurdly complicated combinations of espresso shots, foam and flavorings, her only consolation was the clink of coins into the tip jar. People in this town did love their coffee.
"How's it going?" Ruby smirked and handed over her card for Mulan to swipe.
"Great," she answered, slightly breathless. "David changed his mind four times, so I got a little behind. Otherwise...great."
Ruby laughed. "The wait's not that bad. Me and Snow and Ashley planned a girls' night out while in line. Do you and Aurora want to join, or have you forgotten how to be single?"
Mulan shook her head. "No, I can't join but it's—more complicated than that."
She served up Ruby's iced tea, and the next three customers after that. Regina still hadn't returned from the back of the shop.
The manager's foul mood had started sloughing off onto Mulan lately, making the workplace sullen and tense. Aurora said she'd gotten 'scowly'. She suspected Regina's mood had something to do with Cora Mills and that one comment about charisma yesterday, but honestly she was getting tired of it. Between Aurora and Regina, her life was a constant struggle in avoiding drama. Winlock used to be calm… While she could sympathize with Regina's restlessness to succeed and get out of this town, there was a sick feeling in the back of her head that maybe the universe wanted her to stay.
Maybe it was loyalty—maybe it was familiarity—but she felt at once frustrated and concerned whenever thinking of Regina. That woman was a wounded animal, even if no one else knew her well enough to see it, and an active volcano that had yet to fully erupt. Mulan was used to fixing broken things, so even though she didn't want to feel responsible, her heart didn't give her much of a choice. It didn't make sense, especially since Regina didn't exactly return the caring.
Mulan blinked twice before recognizing Aurora. "Oh. Sorry sweetie. Distracted."
"I just want the usual." Aurora smiled a little. "Do you need help?"
"Yes, actually, but I think someone has personal business to attend to," Mulan said and sighed.
Just then, the back door slammed open and Regina swept by. Aurora's eyes went wide as she looked past Mulan's shoulder. Mulan handed her the receipt and silently continued with work.
The café buzzed, and with the two of them working the line of customers shortened swiftly. Mulan caught sight of Regina's face, however, and felt a shiver run up her spine. Fury was new. New and unwelcome. Mulan hoped, desperately, she wouldn't have to hear how it got there. Regina's anger had a habit of spilling over onto whomever was nearest.
Emma's hijinks around Winlock had given Mulan a break from Regina's sarcasm and advice, but honestly the rivalry seemed overblown. It was just politics, but the two women acted like it was something that really mattered. And nearly half the town had a bet about how the first gloves-off confrontation would go, most of them gleefully predicting black eyes and chunks of hair being ripped out. None of them cared why the two women hated each other, they just knew that it was entertaining. Mulan found it all childish, aside from the obvious pointlessness.
Coffee sizzled and splashed onto Regina's apron, though she didn't seem to notice. Mulan begrudgingly murmured as they both stood at the milk steamer, "Anything I need to worry about?"
Regina's half smile would have been more appropriate in a horror movie than Starbucks. "No, you're doing excellent work." She swept past to deliver more drinks.
Across the café, Aurora cocked her head curiously. Mulan, befuddled, shrugged and gave the thumbs up sign. She couldn't control Regina's anger, just keep watch and make an escape plan for when the woman finally erupted. Which wouldn't be for a few minutes at least, judging by how tightly she was trying to contain herself.
Eye on Regina, smiling as ever, she kept making coffee. This is unreal. I want my dojo, that's it. I didn't sign up for this.
Like a cat catching the whiff of a helpless sparrow, Regina suddenly turned towards the door with flames in her eyes.
Outside the shop, Emma Swan had just stopped to chat, nonchalant and tempting. Regina swept by the customers and Mulan's smile faltered. It was fourth grade all over again. Frick-frack frickety fuck. Mulan saw in an instant how it would go down, and knew with despair that there was no escape.
"Miss Swan!" Regina's voice stopped every conversation both in and outside. "Don't you dare walk away."
A collective gasp spread through Starbucks, the earthquake before the volcano burst. And there beneath the awning stood Emma pitted against the diminutive woman, looking almost curious. Clueless, clueless Emma Swan. Mulan actually felt sorry for her this time.
Half a dozen cellphones raised in eager hands, video recording, as Regina snapped. "It's bad enough that you personally pester me and my townspeople, but you stepped over the line this time. You called my district manager?"
Every observer sucked in a breath, started moving closer to the action. Mulan grimaced.
"Yeah, since you weren't being helpful."
"I don't have to be helpful! Who the hell do you think you are? You waltz in like a stray dog and poke your nose everywhere it doesn't belong. You're a public nuisance!" Regina's venom made half the audience flinch. "And furthermore you're interfering with my business. My life."
Emma appeared flustered now, though her jaw had quickly set. Regina balled her hands into fists while the crowd inside the Starbucks murmured, entranced.
The blonde finally shot back, hands waving. "What is wrong with you, Regina? I just want to do good here! This is ridiculous."
"Good?" Regina spat at Emma's feet, to an audience of shocked silence. "You plan on destroying what little we have in Winlock, for nothing more than childish dreams. You're an idiot and you don't belong here! God help me, Miss Swan, if you don't stop your clumsy crusade then I will do everything in my power to run you out of town on a turnip cart."
Mulan bit her lip, watching Emma tremble in rage and more. The woman stared Regina straight in the eye for three agonizing seconds, then said barely audibly, "Fuck you," and walked away.
Everyone quickly tucked their cellphones away before Regina put her shaking rage back where it usually dwelt and returned into the café. Mulan saw money being exchanged beneath coffee tables, though, and knew that a hundred new bets were being made.
"Please, back to work," Regina said with a fake smile. "I needed to get that over with."
Over with. Only in Regina's dreams. Mulan braced herself for a long day in hell.
She wanted to run, but she didn't. Stomp, yes, kick stray pebbles, yes. No running. Not even after Winlock was behind her and no one was there to see. She grit her teeth and clenched her fists and refused to run from Regina.
Growing up, Emma had become accustomed to disappointed sighs and barbed comments, even being ignored. She grew used to passive aggression and words never meaning what they were supposed to mean. She fought for honesty—and thought she could take it.
Apparently she couldn't. Today had felt like being thrown into a bonfire.
The walk to her property took too much time, even with her long strides, boots raising up a dust-cloud. She needed to be home where she could scream into a pillow, pack her things and leave this fucked up town behind her. Her fingers trembled with anger. What she would do without a home, Emma couldn't say, but she wouldn't stay here. She wouldn't just take this. When at last her house appeared, she ran up the path, wanting to be out of public view.
An unseen bag of potting soil caught her foot and she fell, hands scraping against the concrete. Emma gasped, pain spreading through her arms, gingerly turning over her palms to see the rash-like scrapes.
Involuntary tears blurred her eyes and she mumbled every curse she knew, pulling herself up to sit on her knees and hugging her hands to her chest. She hissed, almost whimpered, wondering what she had done to deserve such a day as this. Regina's vitriolic words still rang in her ears, especially 'idiot'. To her dismay, Emma felt more tears well up in her chest. No, no, no, no. This wasn't supposed to happen.
Her life crashed down around her shoulders as she hugged her knees, hands stinging from the fall. She was only supposed to be fighting her foster parents. That was it."You called my district manager?" I fucked up. She didn't know what she was doing—she never had. No plans, not really. Just hopes and dreams. All this had been by the seat of her pants and in hindsight, how dumb was that? She'd fucked up. If it hadn't been Regina, it would have been someone else. She was always overstepping, always fucking up, always apologizing, never learning. "What am I doing, what am I doing, why did I think this was a good idea?" she mumbled into her arms.
Emma felt alone, a little guilty, and hurt in spite of the guilt. She might fuck up but she wouldn't take being ripped apart for it. She was tired of it, despite all her childhood conditioning that told her not to hurt back. Emma wanted to snap and rage. This once, she gave in. She rose to her feet, picked up the entire bag of potting soil, and threw it at her wheelbarrow with a bitter yell. It exploded like a muddy firework. Emma breathed out and realized she felt a little better.
"Fuck this town!" She picked up a brick, breathing shaky, and threw it as far as she could down the hill. "Fuck Regina Mills!" Another brick went sailing, breaking apart the sod as it landed. Her misery, for the moment, became only anger. "Fuck my fucking family!" The bricks were gone so she crossed the yard and picked up clods of potting soil and hurled them left and right. Breathing hard, she gave up on words and just threw dirt, imagining as her targets standing there foster mother, father, the mayor, Mr. Gold, and especially Regina Mills.
All the anger in her lifetime came bubbling up, irrevocably tangled with shoved-down desperation. By the fifth dirt clod, though, it felt like she could throw it all away.
A piercing yelp broke through her haze of catharsis. Eyes wide, she saw a fat black cat limping away, one shoulder covered with dirt. "Oh no, oh no, oh no." The guilt was back. "No, no, what have I done." She ran, stumbling, after the cat.
The animal tried to limp faster and escape, but with no success. Emma caught up and picked it up, scrabbling until she got a good hold. The cat mewed and swiped, leaving four red stripes on her bicep, but Emma pinned its paws, ignored the pain, and rushed it inside. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
The cat wailed, struggled, then went as floppy as a scarf. "I'll make it better," she promised. Lower lip between her teeth, she set the animal down on the couch. It lay still, favoring the leg that had been hit and glaring at her. "I should call David," Emma said, mostly to herself. "He knows animals...but oh no, oh no I can't." This morning had been humiliation enough, she didn't need to let anyone know that she'd hit a cat. Even accidental, this was horrible.
Laughing to keep herself from crying again, Emma hurried to the kitchen and got a towel and a long bandage. She was halfway back to the living-room when a twinge of guilt sent her dashing back to grab leftover chicken from last night's dinner. The cat yowled, though more dramatically than with actual pain now. That was something.
Emma tried to coo, wiping the dirt from its fur. It took two seconds of fiddling to realize the bandage wouldn't work at all. The cat glared. Emma settled for covering it with a blanket and gently patting its head. The cat glared, then turned its head and inhaled the bit of chicken she'd put on the couch.
She wiped the tear streaks from her face and sat next to the cat, exhausted from the emotion. "I'm really sorry," she mumbled, finding the cat's nametag on its collar. "Quicksotty? Is that your name? Okay. I'm really sorry, buddy, this was a bad day. I don't even know what you were doing in my yard." Sighing, she gave the cat another piece of chicken. He made an almost happy growl and devoured it.
Closing her eyes, Emma rested her head on the back of the couch. It was all predictable, really. The one time she let herself be angry, someone got hurt. No matter where she went, her foster mother still found a way to say 'I told you so'. No more tears, no more anger. Emma was just tired.
She didn't realize she'd fallen asleep until she woke up with insistent meowing in her ear. She jumped half a foot, then remembered the injured tomcat. "Are you hurt? Hungry?" Emma had no idea what to do with cats, but knew that food usually helped with humans and probably couldn't hurt. She walked to the kitchen with the cat limping along behind her. "I gave you all the chicken, sorry. I'm not supposed to eat meat." She opened the fridge and then looked doubtfully at her guest. "Is soy milk something cats eat?"
The cat said nothing. Emma poured a bowl for him, which he not only rejected but then flipped over. As a proper penance, Emma didn't say a word and toweled up the milky mess. "I guess I should return you to your owner." She hoped and hoped and hoped that it'd be Snow, but the nametag was the last nail in the coffin of this miserable day.
Emma groaned and dropped her head to her chest. The cat—Regina Mills' cat—nudged her arm and meowed his frustration.
Setting her jaw in its most stoic position, Emma lined a laundry basket with her fluffiest blanket and placed the cat inside it. Thankfully, he stayed quiet for the entire car ride, while she repeated her mantra I will not provoke her again, I will not provoke her again, I will not provoke her again. Regina's house looked dark, and for a second Emma wondered if she could just leave the cat basket on her doorstep, knock loudly, and run. No. She had to own up to her mistakes.
Breathing deeply, she lifted the cat and carried him wrapped in the blanket up to the front door. She knocked and waited.
The door opened to a Regina who, for a split second, didn't look terrifying. The woman looked almost normal, dressed casually and with her hair hanging loose, until she realized just who stood at her door. Then she became the personification of a dark storm and Emma wished she was anywhere but here. She managed, "Is this your cat?" and proffered the blanket-wrapped pet.
Momentarily shocked, the woman looked down and then back up to Emma. "Yes, yes he is." She snatched the cat from Emma's arms. "Quixote! How did you get so far away? He's not allowed to leave the house—did you steal him?"
Emma puffed out her chest, offended. "Do you really think that I would?"
Regina quirked her mouth to one side, eyes narrowed. "No. Perhaps not. But I wouldn't have been greatly surprised either."
"Maybe I am an idiot like you say, but I'm not mean. He just showed up and…" Emma felt her glare falter, then disappear. "I accidentally hit him with dirt."
"What?" Regina looked more confused than angry. Still intimidating.
Emma shifted her weight. "I was throwing things. I didn't see him. I'm really sorry, but nothing's broken, I made sure. And I fed him some chicken as an apology."
Regina's brow furrowed as Quixote rubbed his cheek against her arm. "I see." She looked about to rant, but bit it down and only said, dryly, "I thought you were a vegan."
She felt her cheeks flush. "Well, it's none of your business. I'm just here to say sorry and return your cat. And also for ruining your day. I wasn't trying to."
"Miss Swan, I honestly don't care what your intentions are." Regina let out a short weary breath, then stepped back inside. "Thank you for bringing Quixote back. Now leave me alone." And she slammed the door.
It could have been worse, Emma told herself as she walked back to the car and drove home.
Yet as she cleaned up the mess she'd made outside, a dangerous thought followed on from the first one. Maybe this means there's still hope. Then a little smile crossed her lips, even as she knew it shouldn't. Maybe not with Regina, but maybe...maybe somewhere else. Going after Starbucks had been foolish, yes, and now Emma knew that. Knowledge was power, wasn't it? She would use the critique. She would be smarter. She wouldn't leave with her tail between her legs, nor on a turnip cart.
She and Regina had gotten the anger out, dissipated it, run out of it. Now all Emma really had to do was change things while staying out of That Woman's way.