Actions

Work Header

Something That I Want

Chapter Text

-I-

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.

"Um… Large?"

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.

-II-

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.

-III-

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.

-IV-

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.

-V-

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.

"Hi you?"

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.

-VI-

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.

Chapter Text

-I-

Much to the disgruntlement of most of Winlock, there was no Round 2 of Regina vs. Emma. Everyone and their cousins came to Starbucks over the next few days, but found nothing but happy people and coffee. Regina smiled, Mulan smiled, everyone smiled. It was as if last week hadn't happened.

Regina made the trip all the way to Seattle to apologize personally to her district manager for Emma's irritations. The man seemed skeptical but dropped the issue. Regina's hackles rose when she realized that he didn't even care what happened in Winlock. On a corporate level, they didn't care if the branch survived or not.

Well, it would survive. It would do more than that. She stole a glance at the earnings chart in his office to see what her competition would be in the district. Her heart sank momentarily, but it wasn't impossible. Impossible was a word Regina only really used for her mother.

Regardless of Emma Swan, Regina's life was never without a demon to fight. Every morning, just after 6am, Cora Mills would arrive and have the same order: espresso doppio. "The only thing I can afford here," she always remarked, icily.

"I know, mother."

"Shouldn't you be in charge of employees who take the orders? I thought you were a manager."

"Winlock isn't big enough for more than two employees. It's more efficient this way."

"They're taking advantage of you. I made the school find a position for me, when I had you to raise. I made them increase my hours just so we could save for your college fund, which in hindsight was a waste. But I didn't let other people define my position for me."

"I can't exactly blackmail an international corporation, mother. Your drink is on the bar, please, you're holding up the line."

Every morning, nearly the same conversation. In public, that was as bad as it got. Bad enough, but nothing compared to the phone calls. And Regina could avoid every other one or so, but when she avoided two in a row Cora arrived at Starbucks and ranted for half an hour straight. With enough tears that probably half the customers were on her side by the end. Regina, of course, was a grown woman and her mother was not allowed to make her cry. Not since...not for many years.

The phone calls she did take were worse, but at least they weren't public. Growing up, humiliation was just another word for parenting. She was used to it. She could take it. It wouldn't last long. When Regina was no longer in Winlock, she could change her phone number and address and just pretend Cora was wiped off the face of the earth.

Until then, she had to hear every new biting remark. Yesterday it had been another iteration of "Do you realize this hippie woman arrives in town and everyone is talking about her, but I doubt your supervisors even remember your name until they check the payroll? Charisma, Regina. It's the only way to get ahead."

"Yes, you told me last week." Regina thrust the labeled coffee cup for Mulan to draw shots, and bit her tongue to keep from unloading years and years of criticism she was never allowed to say aloud. Never would be allowed to say.

Her mother had the nerve to smile. "No need to be snippy, daughter."

It wasn't until Cora had left the building that Regina realized that, yet again, she was being compared to Emma Swan. The woman hadn't shown herself for nearly a week and gossipers didn't dare mention her name within the building. Coffee would have been a peaceful business again, were it not for Cora. Would it never end?

There was no lull in customers, so she turned her growl into a hum and ran through numbers in her head. Advertising here, media coverage there, and of course a friendly atmosphere—percentages, calculations, feng shui, whatever it took to bring more magic to her Starbucks. Magic to get her out of here.

These days she felt grateful to Mulan for being on the same page, when it came to long-term goals. They worked fast and well together, despite personal differences large enough to drive a car through.

"Regina? We keep running out of donuts, and frankly people have been complaining about stale pastries."

"Yes, I've been propositioning bakeries for a while now." Regina tucked her hair back behind her headband. "Once I find one that will blow people's minds, I'll need you to start upselling more."

"Unless they start giving me that annoyed look."

"Yes, obviously. That was implied."

David's voice broke her out of her managerial reverie. "Good morning!"

"And good morning to you." Though she didn't like people manipulating her emotions, Regina did feel a sort of relief whenever David or Snow appeared with their unrelenting cheerfulness. Her professional smile creaked less around them. Especially David, since she did owe him for persuading her to adopt Quixote. "The usual?"

"Two of the usual." David's smile faltered, and Regina caught a glimpse of the woman behind him.

Emma shrank back, shoulders hunched.

Good. Be afraid. Regina maintained her demeanor, and spoke only to David. "It'll be ready in a few minutes."

"How is Quixote doing?" he asked. "A bunch of kittens just turned up on the shelter doorstep, and all I could think was how much he'd hate them."

Regina couldn't hide a more personal smile. "He would indeed." Quixote was as picky an animal as she had ever met, and she loved him probably more than she should. He judged everyone but her, so they made a perfect matched pair. "Though he's been escaping the house and hanging around strange places lately."

"Mid-life crisis?" David offered, laughing. Emma still stood behind him, brows drawn tightly together.

"Who knows." Regina let both of them leave the counter and sit in a corner booth.

Mulan mumbled as she walked by, "You're right, you destroyed her. Not even a word."

"I know." Regina felt a cool rush of pride. She adjusted her apron and nametag and murmured, "I don't regret it. If this place became an area of conflict, we'd lose business once the voyeurism became boring. Scaring her off was simply prudent."

Mulan blinked.

Realizing that she was defending herself unnecessarily, Regina's lip twitched. "Business is back, that's all that matters."

"I'm just glad you realized that continuing to be mean to her would lose a customer," Mulan said under her breath.

"That's because I'm not an idiot, dear." Regina grabbed a washcloth and whisked around coffee tables, picking up straw wrappers and crumpled sugar packets.

Over in the far corner, David and Emma looked deep in conversation. At first, all Regina could hear was a buzz, but they grew louder the longer she ignored them. For information's sake, she tarried a bit by that side of the coffeehouse and rearranged the bags of coffee beans. And listened.

"I need some kind of job soon, since I don't want to destroy my savings fund," Emma was relaying, using far too many hand gestures. "But no one here has any ads up."

"It's not a bustling hub of commerce, no." David sipped his caramel macchiato and sighed. "If you know where to look, though, it's not entirely dead either. Mr. Gold controls half the area, but the other half is self-supported. Granny's might have an opening if Red decides to quit, and I know Tom at the bar wants to retire soon."

Under her breath, clearly intended for Regina not to hear, Emma muttered behind her soy mocha, "I wanted to make a difference, you know. Not just...live here."

"You can do it in small ways, can't you? I mean, I get it. That's why I do what I do. It's not because it makes me a millionaire." David laughed.

Satisfied, Regina returned behind the counter as the doorbell rang and another customer arrived. It looked like one confrontation would be enough to keep Emma out of her hair forever.

-II-

After a few days of ordering coffee and nothing else, Emma's name started fading from people's minds. Mulan admitted that it was a little sad, though only after a little prompting from Aurora. Winlock was comfortably unchanging, and that comfort was its own kind of frustration, but if change meant drama then Mulan was glad to see it gone.

Once again, her thoughts returned to her dojo and her slowly-growing nest egg. Her parents had immigrated before she was born, so she barely knew of her father's career as a baguazhang teacher. A few stories and old photographs, that was it. He never talked about it much. Mother had often whispered, when he wasn't there, that his dismissal had been a source of shame and not to be mentioned.

Despite that, and despite his crutch, he had always been most vibrant when teaching her correct stance and strike. Even at four years old, he'd laughed and hugged her when she correctly located every improvisable weapon he'd hidden in the basement.

Her parents moved away because of work opportunities back when Mulan was in college, at a time when she couldn't leave. It still gave her heartache with every letter they sent back to her. They were proud of her for following her dreams and working hard—and all she could do was feel trapped and a failure. She wanted, so badly, to finally send that letter to her father that said she was passing on his legacy here, in America. People here might not realize that dojo was a Japanese word, and they would certainly expect "karate" lessons, but Mulan would teach them how it really was. Just as her father taught her. Just as all the great teachers, back to Dong Haichuan himself.

Aurora didn't understand, but Mulan was almost glad for that. She wanted this dream to come true so badly, it was...embarrassing. Mulan didn't do passion, at least not outside the bedroom. The intensity of her goals was a secret for now. Of course, Aurora not really understanding meant that, as usual, they were having a hard time saving money for any goal at all. In any other Starbucks, Mulan would have been promoted by now. Winlock's branch was just too small to justify the increased budget, not to mention that every year the town's economy kept dropping. Mulan took overtime after overtime, but it was getting old. She, like every other child of this tiny town, could find no easy way to get out.

Yet Friday night came around and she arrived home, feet aching and eyes sore, only to see Aurora in sexy jeans and a red silk top. Mulan groaned.

"We haven't been out in ages," Aurora purred, grabbing her hips and pulling her forward. "It was a good day, I'll cover all the drinks. You don't even have to dance. Just watch me."

She smelled intoxicating already, no alcohol required. Mulan nuzzled her ear and sighed.

Aurora slipped a hand under her shirt and caressed the small of her back. "We'll be back by midnight?"

"Alright." Mulan nipped her girlfriend's ear lobe and pulled back. A reluctant smile crept out. "I'll even dress up."

Aurora squealed happily and gestured to the bedroom. "Hurry, hurry!"

Mulan liked alcohol, in moderation. Even other people, also in moderation. But Winlock's sole bar was no more than a back closet with a faint musty smell drifting from its corners. The music was always too loud and the drinks were never quite right. Still, date night was more about the principle of the thing, and Aurora preferred dates that weren't of the TV kind adorned with takeout boxes.

Mulan wore the black dress her mother bought for her when she was 15, and decided that letting her hair down was as wild as she'd get with makeup. Aurora, sweet thing that she was, managed to maintain a high excitement level when she emerged from the bedroom.

The alley outside the bar thumped with the beat of music, lights flickering on the decades-old neon signs. Aurora squeezed her hand and stole a kiss before they walked in.

As usual, not much of a crowd. Mulan found a table and claimed a seat. While Aurora obtained drinks, she glanced around for familiar faces. Nope, no one she cared about. Ruby waved at her from the dance floor; Mulan waved back. "You should have a ready partner," she informed Aurora on her return, relieving her of the drinks and nodding in Ruby's direction.

Aurora laughed, took her drink back and finished it in one long sip. "Want me gone already, honeybun?"

"No point in you sitting here watching me drink when I could be watching you shake those hips." Mulan bit back a grin. "Have your fun. I'll be ready to join you by round two."

Smirking, Aurora shimmied and faux-sighed. "You always sound just like your boss by the end of the week. So...conservative."

Mulan gasped.

"Better change that if you want in these pants," she sung over her shoulder, halfway to the dance floor already.

Only mildly offended, Mulan sipped at her martini and relaxed.

Music and conversation throbbed in her ears while the drink slowly unwove the stress of work from her nerves. She watched Aurora smiling, swaying, twirling like a princess. Almost, she wanted to be up there and sharing the joy. But Mulan didn't dance—couldn't dance—until she was quite drunk.

"Are you sitting alone?" Snow's overloud surprise came in from the left. "This isn't right! Here, we'll join you."

Before Mulan could protest that she hardly minded sitting alone, the most gregarious woman in town sat next to her with a smile like sugar and sunshine. Emma sat down next, looking as awkward as Mulan felt.

"You looked so bored," Snow confided, loud enough to be heard over the music.

"I am, but don't tell Aurora," Mulan said, shrugging. "You two can go have fun."

"No, not when we can drink with you!" Snow beamed. "Emma, do you know Mulan?"

"I guess, but just by her face," Emma blurted, flushing at her cheekbones. "I mean..."

Mulan rolled her eyes and finished her drink. "No, I get it." People had been noticing how 'different' she was since she was six, it wasn't new. Small towns were like that, she'd been told by Tamara at school. She wasn't going to make tonight any more strained, though, so she changed the subject. "But I know more about you than you do about me. You like soy mochas and you prefer when I'm the one to take your order, obviously, and you make an effort to be perky around people but not when you think we're not paying attention."

Emma laughed a little nervously. "I'm not actually a coffee person. I felt like it was a language I needed to speak around here. But the soy mochas are nice."

"It's true," Snow said. "It's a Washington thing. You're fitting in pretty well now, Emma, don't you think?"

"Your goal is to fit in?" Mulan raised an eyebrow.

"No," Emma started, waving one hand. "I'm trying to fix the drama, though. Inconspicuous behavior all the way, right?"

Snow nodded. "I was just trying to tell her, people don't really care about politics. They'll forget any missteps, it's okay."

"Not to harsh your glow," Mulan said, "but that's not quite true. Not bar talk, though, so ignore me. You should get more drinks."

"Ooh, right!" Snow hopped to her feet. "You two make friends, I'll be back in a bit."

Emma fidgeted. People danced and chatted all around them while the music pumped away, vibrating the table with the low notes, and they sat still as statues.

Mulan groaned after half a minute. "God, I'm not going to bite. And we don't have to make friends."

"Sorry, I'm not good at this," Emma said, letting out a held breath and frowning. "This was all Snow's idea."

Mulan nodded knowingly. "It's hard to be anything but a people person around here, sadly. It's just easier for those of us who grew up here." It struck her, in a tipsy way, that Emma looked like a puppy. Which was funny, since she acted more like a penguin. The image amused her as she sipped the last few drops from her glass.

Before Snow could come back with more liquid social skills, Emma tapped her fingers on the table. "What do you mean, nobody cares about politics? People were biting my head off all over."

"That," Mulan said without thinking, "is because you think too big." She gestured around. "Politics are why this bar sucks. There's not enough money in this town. Everything's falling apart. People all plan to leave, and the ones who stay are usually the ones who can't make a difference. That's politics. That's Winlock. Whether we all eat meat or not is kind of...above people's pay grade."

"Oh." The blonde's brow scrunched together. "But the Starbucks is so...thriving."

"Corporations are good at that. Our mayor isn't. Let alone Tom the bartender/owner." Mulan was terrible at staying detached. She could feel the passion coming up, and knew she'd regret it.

Snow came back to plop three fruity drinks on the table. Emma sat back in serious thought. Mulan sipped at the sugary drink, then glanced around to see if her girlfriend felt abandoned. Judging by the crowd laughing with her, not so much. That was a plus of bar dates, before Mulan could drink enough to lose her social awkwardness.

"Snow, I could be a bartender, couldn't I?"

"Well, he's the owner too, you'd have to—"

"Buy the property, I know." Emma flushed a bit again. "I have a savings account that my parents set up for me, though, I can handle that. It's kind of the point."

Mulan and Snow paused then said together, "The point?"

Emma let out a long breath. "I… Never mind." She trailed off and took a big sip.

Snow, never one to leave a secret alone, put her hand on Emma's arm. "We won't judge, whatever it is. Come on, I'm sure it'll feel good to talk about it."

Emma raised an eyebrow, hesitated, and then gave in. "It's not anything juicy, though."

"I'm your friend, Emma, I want to know everything." Snow smiled encouragingly.

The woman was incorrigible, but there was no way for Mulan to warn Emma.

Emma finally sighed. "I'm only in this town to prove to my parents that I'm not a failure. Which sounds dumb, I know, but it's..." She waved a hand and focused intently on her drink.

"Aw Emma, I'm sure they wouldn't think that." Snow wrapped her arm around Emma's shoulders.

"No, actually they do." Emma laughed without humor. Judging from the flush of her skin, she'd gone beyond her tipsy limit of drinks; the words rolled out without awkward pauses this time. "I dropped out of college, I wasn't good at protesting, I haven't accomplished anything for The Cause, and they know I'm only 90% vegan." She took a deep breath. "Which would be fine except I'm adopted, so... I've got more to prove, you know."

Mulan blinked slowly. So much for the mystery. Apparently they'd all had enough drinks to be talking about childhoods? Mulan considered herself Snow's friend, and clearly Emma and Snow were friends, but Mulan was not at all sure she was at the BFF-confessional level of friendship with Emma. Then again, Snow could drag secrets from anyone. Maybe it was a superpower.

"You can turn the bar around, though, I know it." Snow patted Emma yet again, smiling. "If you offered vegan food, probably no one would even notice. You could be popular in town, I'm sure of it."

"Do you have any bartending experience?" Mulan finished her drink and popped the olive into her mouth.

"No." Emma bit her lower lip, tapping the table. "But here's the thing, I can learn. I can do this. I'm not good with classes and books, but I'm good at anything hands-on. Well, as long as it doesn't require super-precision."

Aurora came bouncing over, bringing new drinks and still giggling breathlessly from the dance floor. "Hi guys, I see you're dragging my girlfriend into the party."

"Someone has to!" Snow giggled back and scooted over so Aurora could join them. Emma looked rather squashed, but didn't protest aloud.

"You're all ridiculous," Mulan mumbled, grabbing the second martini. "And anyway, we were talking about Emma and the bar. Which I think is a much better idea than going after Regina."

"Oh yeah, that's just a lost cause," Aurora sighed. "You're going to get a job here?"

"Actually I might buy the place," Emma said, smiling slightly less awkwardly. "Though I couldn't run it full time on my own. I don't know how this Tom guy does it."

"I'm sure you could find someone to pitch in a few hours here and there," Aurora said, sending a knowing glance in Mulan's direction. Mulan ignored the hint.

"Exactly," Snow said. "And if you make it work here, who knows, you could do anything. None of us really wants to believe that Winlock is a lost cause. We just know its history too well."

"Thank you, all of you." Emma had already finished her second drink, cheeks slightly pink. "You guys are really nice and...I'm glad you're helping me out. I really didn't want to be on a solo crusade."

"You live here now, which makes you basically family." Snow lifted her drink in a toast. "You're one of us, Emma."

Mulan raised her drink. It was true, after all. Some grudges might last generations but all in all, small towns were welcoming to those with good hearts and intentions. Emma would be all right until the next big idea swept her into disaster.

-III-

After locating a bakery to partner with her café, Regina had no immediate concerns on her horizon. Slowly, steadily, she built up her presence in the town. Mr. Gold might own half of Winlock and Emma Swan might want to leave her mark everywhere at once, but Regina was an unstoppable glacier. And while Gold didn't come in for coffee, Emma did.

It was petty. Regina knew it, Mulan knew it, and probably Emma did as well. Yet day after day, she found a way to sneak in her triumph while Emma retrieved her coffee. One day it was a comment on being sold out of a certain new product. The next it was asking how the woman's "projects" were going, knowing that the answer would be paltry. The day after that, she didn't refill the stack of cups until Emma came to order her drink. "Oh dear, looks like we've overshot today's morning target already." Bright professional smile. "You'll hold on a second, won't you, while I grab some more cups."

Regina didn't like that she did it, but it drove away the frustrations and insecurities in one swift blow. Most of them.

To her hidden dismay (and Cora's disappointed ranting), Emma had been adopted by nearly all her peers in town. People liked her, and while they didn't stop liking Regina as well, they could have taken her side against Emma. Clearly (as Cora kept saying) Regina was just inadequate. Even if Emma never spoke a word to Regina for the rest of her life, she would still represent things that Regina could never be.

Worst of all, Quixote kept sneaking out and loitering around Emma's property. Regina found herself thinking of him as the Traitor every time Emma dragged him back with a sheepish glance that didn't quite meet Regina's eyes. "She calls you Quicksotty," Regina hissed at the unrepentant black cat. "Are your standards really that low?"

Then Emma stopped showing up for coffee.

Regina lived in dark suspicion until Mulan finally told her, "She bought the bar."

"Of course she has." The best way to wriggle her way into everyone's lives was to become indispensable. This was a play exactly from Regina's book. She could see exactly how it would go, too. Emma would serve weird healthy food. Maybe put up posters. She'd talk to everyone and charm them with her awkward-but-apparently-endearing smiles and passion. Sooner or later, Emma's dreams would become everyone's dreams. Or, more accurately, everyone's arguments.

Regina told herself that would be a good thing. Emma would obviously push too hard and make a mess in town, causing conflict and thereby forcing people to draw lines in the sand. But deep in her heart she felt an irrational fear that Emma would take Starbucks down with her. Or worse, succeed and give more ammunition to Cora's rants.

The suspicion rankled further when Mulan started picking up extra hours at the bar. Regardless of the increase in Starbucks customers—thanks to coffee being a hangover cure—Regina didn't approve. Emma was supposed to have been subdued. She wasn't supposed to learn, improve, and start winning. Regina had to win. She had been trained since birth to accept winning and nothing else, which she hated to her very core...but such training couldn't be shaken off.

Her plans to leave Winlock upon promotion would be less than satisfactory if she didn't leave in a blaze of glory. No, not unsatisfactory; unacceptable.

Regina tried harder than usual to seem personable. To find that energy that made people laugh and talk, not just smile in gratitude.

"Abigail, how's your day going?" Simple answer and smile.

"Are you determined to try every item on the menu, David? Is there a project I don't know about?" He laughed with her, but only asked about Quixote.

"That's a...nice jacket, Snow." Nothing but a bright 'thank you!'

"Good morning, Ruby. Anything exciting and new in your life?" A surprised blink, then a brief 'nope not really' was all she received in answer.

Mulan started looking at her strangely. Regina ground her teeth and returned to mere professional friendliness.

The next time Emma brought Quixote back, the woman tried to laugh it off as a weird coincidence. "I swear I only fed him the once, and I'm not even a cat person. He's just a creeper I guess."

Regina didn't even bother to smile coldly. She took the cat and shut the door hard enough to make the frame tremble. Watching out the window, she saw Emma walk back to her car with almost a spring in her step. Careless and carefree, as if she didn't have to work at anything.

"One day I'm going to tell her to keep you," Regina mumbled to her pet. "This infidelity is more than I can take."

An unexpected relief came three days later, however, in the form of not receiving a phone call from Cora as scheduled. Regina allowed herself a little relaxation. Then, like another blessing from on high, gossip floated through Starbucks that apparently Emma was setting her heights on running for office next year. Running for mayor.

"Really?" Regina couldn't help but smile.

She went home that night and scratched beneath Quixote's chin, smiling softly. "Sometimes I can be ridiculous, can't I. As if I have anything to worry about. I'll stand steady, and when all the other pieces are blown over, I'll be the reigning queen of this town. Then I'll get the hell out. The perfect Hollywood ending."

Quixote purred and Regina hoped.

-IV-

Today was one of those days, it seemed. Rainy, traffic lights down, woke up on the wrong side of bed, Aurora ate all the yogurt and didn't buy more. And then Mulan arrived at Starbucks to find nothing prepped and no Regina, only cold machines and unstocked shelves.

In the dark, empty café, she ran about flinging curses left and right. A coffee pot landed on her foot, bruising it. She had to find the instruction manual to remember how to get the register up and running. Regina didn't appear. Mulan grumbled, "What the fuck, Regina. What the fuck."

Regina did arrive to answer the unspoken question, but not until the café was seconds away from opening. For a second, Mulan wasn't sure if it was Regina. One of the buttons on her blouse was undone and her hair was practically uncombed. Mulan hadn't seen this sort of mess since her first week working here. She raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth, wondering if it could possibly be Emma's fault again—but Regina raised a finger, lips pursed until they turned bloodless, and walked stiffly past Mulan without meeting her gaze.

Mulan got the hint and didn't say a word. Why can't we just go back to peace and quiet? Why? Regina had always been a little tightly strung, thanks to her mother, but Emma seemed to have opened a can of worms that could not be closed. In the Era of Emma Swan, no peace could last long.

They worked in utter silence, outwardly professional. Mulan hid her disgruntlement behind a smile, and wondered what Regina was hiding behind the glassy determination in her eyes. Clearly nothing good. Even during a lull, Regina worked as if her life depended on it; out of the corner of her eye, Mulan thought she even saw trembling hands.

She started doubting that Emma caused this, especially when she caught Regina standing motionless for five minutes and just staring through the shelves of coffee. Mulan's spider senses tingled. Something was seriously wrong. Still not a word from her manager, nor any indication that speech would be welcome. Mulan put nose to the grindstone and prepared drink after drink.

She could swear, though, that by the end of the day Regina's hands quivered every time they weren't busy with a task.

Mulan reluctantly clocked off at 5:00pm when Regina told her to, leaving the other woman to close up.

Aurora came to give her a good luck kiss before her short shift at the bar. "You're frowning," she said, tapping Mulan's lips with one fingertip.

"I'm telling myself not to get involved." Mulan sighed. "Regina's not my friend. She's a grown woman, too, so she can probably handle things.

"Exactly." Aurora kissed her lightly. "You know Regina, she doesn't want anyone's help, whatever's going on."

She was right. Maybe. Dropping today's weirdness from her mind, she kissed Aurora back and headed to the bar.

Since the day Emma had purchased the lease from Tom, who'd let out a hallelujah and immediately retired, things had been slightly rough around the edges. Everyone turned up the first two days, of course, and Emma the brand spanking new bartender had massacred more than a few drinks. Mulan had witnessed one night, and then the next day received a demand from Aurora to offer her services to Emma.

She had. Emma gladly accepted. Three hours a day, Mulan worked the bar while Emma figured things out. Things began to come together. Tom had always been a bit grumpy and slow, and Mulan's barista skills made bartending a rough extension of her talents. Once the music wasn't so loud and the corners were scrubbed until they no longer smelled musty, people showed up for more than just to poke their nose into new developments. Emma took over in the evenings, of course, and until last call, but before then Mulan got to watch her learning how this business worked. It was almost...adorable.

Today, Emma's bar owner tasks including getting a food handler's license and sourcing vegan nacho cheese. Not the healthiest choice, but as Emma told Mulan, "It's a slippery slope, you know? Today nacho chips, tomorrow whole grain sourdough. Vegan food is good, mostly."

Mulan wiped down the counters and arranged shot glasses. "Honest question, Emma. You don't seem like a preachy person, so why are you so intent on this...hippie stuff?"

Emma chewed her lower lip, not answering for almost a minute. Being in Winlock seemed to have rubbed off on her, though. No one in this town kept even their own secrets well. "This was my big plan," she said after the long pause. "They mostly disowned me after I dropped out of the college that, you know, 'they paid for'. That is, my foster parents did—well, they adopted me but it was always a bit weird. The last argument we had, they accused me of being a bandwagoner. So this whole Winlock thing is me trying to get them talking to me again. I figure if I can greenify an entire town, on my own, that'd be big enough."

Big enough to earn their love, was the unspoken end of that sentence. Ouch. Emma might try to shrug it off, but Mulan could sense some open wounds just below that carefree veneer. "Well, it might work," she finally said, not knowing what else there was to say.

Emma sighed. "It's a long shot, but I figure if you have any chance at family then you need to take it." She tried to smile but it didn't work. Nodding once, focused again, she went back to her research.

The sun began to set and people trickled in in pairs and more. By the time 7:00pm rolled around, Mulan was chatting with Leroy and Frederick while three other orders danced in her head. By 8:00pm, not a table was fully empty. Mulan went on autopilot and waited for 9:00pm to roll around. She didn't particularly like this job, but the money would go straight to her savings.

"Hi, what can I get started for you?" she said, without thinking, to the person who'd just sat at the bar.

Regina Mills blinked at her, looking like she had the headache of a lifetime. "God, I didn't know you worked here," she mumbled and rested her forehead in the palm of her hand.

"I… didn't know you drank." Mulan stared, a bit in shock. Her other boss looked frazzled and worn. It was weird. Forebodingly weird.

Regina didn't look up from her hand, but her voice was steady. "I need something strong. Something with bourbon. Maybe straight bourbon."

"Oh...kay. Okay. Coming right up." Mulan told herself, again, that Regina could handle herself and worry was pointless. She focused on her work and tried not to stare.

The evening went on, and everyone else ignored Regina as well. Mulan couldn't help but keep track of her, though, since the woman sat alone at the bar and drank three bourbons on the rocks in less than an hour. She didn't move or talk, except to order, and kept staring into the drink as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world.

Mulan gave up and started worrying a bit. This was just...not Regina.

-V-

Emma squeezed her way through the crowd around the bar to relieve Mulan of duty, feeling a strong sense of pride. Everyone here was happy, vibrant, and they liked her. Moments like these made her feel like anything was possible.

Mulan's face, however, gave her pause. The woman saw Emma and swiftly pulled her to the side.

"What is it?" Emma asked.

"It might be nothing, but it probably isn't," Mulan said, just barely louder than the music. "Regina's drunk."

Emma blinked.

"I know." Mulan grimaced. "And she was acting all weird at work today, too. I have zero clue why. Anyway, she's been ordering a lot of drinks. I tried to offer cocktails but she's going straight for the heavy stuff. Just warning you."

"Okay, thanks." Emma blinked again. She should have expected something like this, but for some reason she'd been under the impression that she and Regina would avoid each other forever. It seemed the only way to not clash. Emma silently tossed a prayer to the universe begging for Regina to not be a mean drunk. Or hell, please not a horny one either. "Thanks for everything, Mulan. Did you get all your tips?"

"Yup." Mulan smiled and made her exit.

Emma took a deep breath and slipped behind the bar to take note of the tabs. Grim curiosity had her glancing to the right to see that, yes, Regina indeed sat on a barstool paying very close attention to the melting ice in her glass. Then, leaving the glass behind, she rose and stumbled off towards the bathroom.

Emma shrugged and carried on with the night.

Regina returned some time later—Emma wasn't keeping track of the clock—and made a sloppy but startled jump at the sight of her. "I forgot about you," she said, frowning. "Never mind. I want another bourbon."

Simultaneously spooked and amused, Emma served Regina. The woman immediately restarted her drinking and staring into nothingness. Other than the occasional flash of darkness across her face, she looked like she was on her way to ridiculous levels of intoxication.

Emma stayed on the job and chatted with Ruby, Belle, August and Abigail as they all came and went. Snow showed up with Ashley for about an hour, but then people started leaving. It was a worknight after all. Her playlist went from upbeat to slow-dance, quieting down as people left empty glasses and quite decent tips. Yet Regina had maintained a steady level of drinking so far, and an equally-steady ignoring of everything around her, neither of which seemed to be stopping.

By midnight, everyone but Leroy and Regina had left, and Emma felt a mostly unfounded dread in her gut. Leroy left at 12:30am and Regina called for another shot.

"Last call is in half an hour," Emma reminded her, a few seconds after sliding the shot glass across the bar. "I don't know how you're planning to get home, but if you keep—"

"I'm fine," Regina snapped, slurring but clearly trying to speak precisely. "I can walk."

Emma severely doubted that, but it wasn't her place to say. Nor was it her business why Regina drank so heavily, yet she couldn't help but wonder. The woman seemed disconnected with the world, and that was strange from a woman who could rival a bulldog with her determination. Emma frowned, left her alone, and started cleaning up.

Closing time arrived. "Bar's closed," Emma informed Regina as gently as she could.

"I know." Regina rose to her feet, swaying, skin deeply flushed. She appeared altogether a completely different woman from the one Emma saw every morning at Starbucks.

"Do you need me to call a cab?"

"No." Regina turned, angry. "I don't need your...help...or pity."

Emma had no answer to that. None that was appropriate for their relationship.

Cursing unintelligibly, Regina walked towards the door. Still in heels, Emma noticed, inwardly groaning. She made it up three steps before tripping and falling forwards, head cracking against the fourth step.

"Oh fuck." Emma, now worried about injury, ran forward.

Regina lay dazed, brow narrowing when she looked up at Emma.

"Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me." Emma pulled the woman to her feet with some effort and set her against the stairs. An angry pink line began to appear on Regina's forehead. "No blood, okay. How many fingers am I holding up?"

Regina looked at the three fingers, then made a disgusted grimace. "This bar is unsafe. I will...I will talk to someone about it. Tomorrow."

"Okay, or maybe you're just shitfaced?" Emma only vaguely recalled her first aid training. Concussions could be deadly, though, she remembered that. Dizziness was a big sign, and nausea, and sleepiness. And something with the eyes? All of which could also indicate having had over 10 drinks in the last few hours. "Fuck me," she muttered under her breath. "Come on, Ms. Mills, I'll help you home and make sure you're okay."

"I don't want your help," Regina spat, attempting to push Emma's arm away. But she didn't exactly have a choice—or the energy to keep speaking, apparently.

Wondering how the hell the night had turned to this, Emma half-carried Regina out of the bar and to her car. Thankfully the inevitable vomit happened on the sidewalk. Regina moaned. Emma told herself that it was probably all the drinking, not a concussion, but frowned with worry anyway and gently pushed Regina into the back seat of the car.

"Just for future reference," Emma said during the short car trip to Regina's house. "This is not how you drink to forget. Or whatever you were doing. You need to take it slower, and go home before you get this far."

"Shut up," Regina mumbled, though without any heat. "I don't do this often. It's not every day one's mother dies."

Emma nearly slammed on the brakes. She whipped her head around. "Say what?"

Regina had closed her eyes, jaw slackening.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck. Please don't have a concussion." She sped the last half mile to Regina's house, still not sure she'd heard what she heard, and hurried out and around the car. She pulled back one of the drunk woman's eyelids and then the other. Normal pupil size. Emma shook her, only half gently. "You can't sleep. You hit your head."

"That's not how it works," Regina objected, somehow managing to sound superior and annoyed.

Emma ignored it, supporting Regina on one side and digging for the woman's keys so they could get into the house. "Okay, here we are. Regina. Regina! You need to stay awake, just in case." Regina's house was sparse and neatly arranged, as Emma would have expected. She lowered the woman onto the couch, patting her cheek. "Awake, Regina. Talk to me."

"You are...the last person I want to talk to."

"Oh I know that, but this is not okay. You are not okay." Emma found an ice pack in the freezer and made Regina hold it to her forehead. Then she dropped to her knees in front of the couch, shaking her head. "What happened? What's wrong?"

It looked for a second like Regina would vomit again, but she only swallowed and blinked slowly, staring over Emma's shoulder at the mantlepiece. Her voice sounded unreal, far away. "My mother died in a car accident. Yesterday."

"God, I'm sorry," Emma breathed out, finding it no less a shock to hear the second time. "I didn't know."

"It was out of state." Regina adjusted herself into an upright position, rubbing at the front of her head and still not acknowledging Emma. "No one knows. I found out yesterday."

Emma had met Cora Mills once, and her reaction had mostly been summed up with 'yikes'. She could imagine, though, that loss was loss. Especially since Regina didn't have a father from what Emma had gathered. "I'm sorry," she said again.

Regina looked empty, then her entire face twisted into a strange bitter pain. "I don't know what to do anymore. I don't...know...who I am."

Despite their history, Emma felt the smallest twinge of worry. The woman might be her competition—nemesis—least favorite person? But this was surreal and Emma couldn't turn off her empathy. She sat next to Regina on the couch, checking the eyes once again to make sure that she was only acting drunk and not concussed. "It's okay, that's normal—" she started.

Regina laughed harshly. "No. No, it wasn't." She closed her eyes as if drifting off.

Emma shook her arm. "I'm really sorry but I can't let you sleep yet." Regina looked like she was about to cry. Emma felt helpless and blurted out, "Do you need to talk? Would that help?"

"I don't talk about it," Regina said, shakily, clenching her hands to fists and then staring down as they relaxed limply. "I don't like her. Didn't. I didn't. I hated her."

"I get that," Emma said softly. She had to keep the conversation going until...well, how long did it take to recover from a head bump? She wished she remembered. "Parents can be sucky."

Regina rolled her head towards Emma with disdain. Her breath smelled sour, words coming out slurred and choked. "My mother was evil. She...delighted in my misery. No, she just didn't care. She wanted me to produce results. By any means. Ever since I was four." She spat the number and stared at her hands for a few seconds.

Feeling completely unqualified for all this, Emma swallowed and said slowly, "That's..." Almost familiar, she could have said. Not that her adoptive parents were evil, just not...loving. Not really there when it mattered..

"I had to win for her. Everything." Regina gestured up at a line of trophies from elementary school up till college. Emma wondered why they were so prominent—then guessed that Regina might not have anything else from childhood. Her foster kid experience gave her a moment's pity.

Regina rambled on, "And she just worked and worked and then screamed at me when she came home and I wasn't being productive. Straight As in college. Still worthless, because I wasn't making connections like all the good kids were doing. And then when I quit and worked at Starbucks..." Regina seemed to have forgotten that Emma was there, laughing at herself until her eyes leaked tears. "I don't know why, but I just wanted to shove it in her face. Be successful. Get away. It was all I ever wanted and now she's dead and I...can't."

Emma wasn't sure who Regina's look of loathing was for—her mother or herself. She put a hand over Regina's and squeezed. This woman was unpleasant, sure, but human also. Hurt. No one deserved that.

"I don't talk about it," Regina snapped yet again, pulling her hand away and wiping the tears from her cheeks. "Especially not you. Do you know, my mother wanted me to be more like you." She laughed again, damply, words spilling out faster than tears. "Which just means that I could be everything and still never be just right for her. It's arbitrary. No, not anymore. She's dead. Why am I crying? I hate her. I hate her dying before I could prove her wrong. I hate..."

"Hey," Emma reached for Regina's hand again, feeling stubborn for no good reason that she could think of. "You aren't a failure, no matter what your mom thought."

Regina pulled away, wrapping arms around her knees. "Why are you even here?" she bit out. "To gloat? Get out of my house. I don't need you...or anyone... I don't know what I need. Leave me the hell alone."

Quixote appeared from the shadows to rub against his caretaker, mewing softly. Regina reached for him with a miserable, almost childish sound.

It was a mess. Emma said no more, merely sitting on the couch while Regina's eyes glazed over and she seemed lost to the world again. Emma didn't know grief personally, but her gut feeling told her that this sort of thing had to happen. It wouldn't kill her. Eventually, Regina lay down with Quixote pressed to her middle, eyes wet and weary. She slept. Emma let her, but watched to make sure she still breathed.

When enough time passed that she trusted Regina would survive, she looked at the clock. It was almost 4:00am. Time had flown. "You are definitely not making it to work today," Emma whispered. "I guess I should let Mulan know."

She locked the house behind her, got in the car, and let out a huge breath. "What is my life anymore," she asked her car. It didn't reply. She groaned and drove, begrudgingly, to Starbucks. Someone had to take care of Regina's broken pieces, and right now common decency had elected Emma.

-VI-

Mulan bolted upright at a quarter after four in the morning as her phone vibrated off the night stand. Prepared for the worst, she answered Emma's call. "Yes, this is Mulan?"

Emma's voice sounded slightly frantic. "Regina isn't coming in to work today."

Mulan blinked the sleep from her eyes. "Got it. I'm coming in ASAP."

"I'll meet you there."

All Mulan knew was that Regina hadn't died of alcohol poisoning. That wasn't nearly enough information. Hopping out of bed and nearly tripping over her shoes, she sped through her morning routine and sent only a flying kiss in the direction of her sleeping girlfriend. Then it was to work, where she could grab breakfast during a lull.

Emma sat on a bench outside Starbucks, feet tapping nervously. She'd changed from her jeans-and-tshirt bartender attire to her typical fashion, soft and flowy. Though in the short skirt and with a high ponytail, she looked like a child sent to the principal's office.

"Hey," Mulan said, taking out her key to open up the café. "Thanks for letting me know."

"I was already up," Emma said, following her in. "Regina didn't sleep until 4:00am."

Mulan whirled around, one eyebrow raised. A dozen shocking images swirled in her head. "You two were…?"

Emma flushed and waved her hands. "No. No! Oh god, no, last night was a disaster."

Mulan's brain settled gladly, with a sigh.

Emma followed her behind the counter. "Can I help?"

Shrugging, Mulan looked around. "You can restock the pastry counter. Everything's in the fridge in the back. Oh, and make sure there's enough milk gallons in the front fridges. Thanks."

For a few minutes they bustled around each other, the air full of tension. Emma chewed her lip and got lost in the back room, but managed to be helpful after a bit. Mulan had a million questions she wanted to ask, but wasn't used to this gossip thing and didn't know how to start. If this even was gossip.

Emma lugged out some 2% milk and then turned to Mulan. "You want to know what happened, right?"

"Yes," Mulan said, loading up the drip coffee machine with beans. "I'm dying over here."

"I am too. My mind is pretty nearly destroyed." Emma breathed out shakily, then grabbed a tray of pastries and started loading them into the display. "Regina's mom died."

Mulan nearly dropped the bag of coffee. Her stomach fell with a thud. "What?"

Emma turned around, eyes distressed. "She got the call yesterday, I guess. Car accident. I don't know the details but yeah…"

That explained everything, of course. More than everything. Her bubble of curiosity popped instantly. Mulan needed a moment to recover, simultaneously relieved to know the answer and yet devastated. No one liked Cora Mills, so it wasn't from grief. Maybe hurt, on Regina's behalf. Maybe all that was just a lie, her telling herself that Regina wasn't her friend. She said nothing, just stood still and breathed out slowly.

"She didn't even tell me until I was taking her home," Emma continued, still visibly upset. "I don't know if she totally realized who I was. She was so drunk and she hit her head. It was horrible. I stayed up with her to make sure she didn't have a concussion, and she started talking about her mother and crying and… I don't even know what to do with this information. Or what to do with her. I don't even know if I understand everything."

Poor Regina. That wasn't the sort of thing anyone, least of all Mulan, could say aloud without sounding sarcastic. But god, she didn't know what else to think. Still working, she said nothing for a minute, glancing once back at Emma.

Clearly the animosity was gone for the time-being. The woman was shaken, perhaps even worried, and that made sense all things considered. Considering the bomb that had exploded last night. Mulan couldn't quite believe that Cora was dead. This couldn't be real, except that Emma stood there instead of Regina. And after watching her drink last night, Mulan couldn't make herself believe that Regina was in any way doing fine. Cora had died. This was all real.

Emma finished the tasks set for her and stood waiting for instruction, face still crumpled in confusion.

In a move that Regina would not approve of at all, Mulan decided to make things easier for Emma Swan. Regina wasn't here and wouldn't have to know. "Do you want to stay and talk?" Mulan gestured to the bar. "I'll teach you how to work the register and we've got ten minutes before opening. There's some things you should know about Regina, so."

For once, Emma's half-smile didn't look awkward. "Thank you, yes. I know it's not my place but…"

"No, I totally get it."

By now, Mulan was pretty sure she'd got a handle on Emma. The woman faltered whenever faced with paperwork and rules, but had quick intuition. Mulan didn't try to explain the register, just did a few example orders and then had Emma practice until it was time to open. She even got to wear the apron.

As usual, no one showed up at 5:00am exactly. Mulan took a deep breath and met Emma's eyes. "Regina's not an easy person to understand. I know that. You know that. She's super secretive and last night's behavior was not the norm. It looks like you guys are doomed to be in each other's way, though, so I'm going to share what I know."

Emma nodded intently.

Mulan hesitated for a second on how to begin. "You know that Cora worked at the school, right? I guess you probably don't know the whole story, though. Cora's from a dirt poor family..."

The doorbell rang. Conversation went on hold.

For the next half hour, Mulan made drinks and, whenever they were alone, relayed the secondhand information she knew about Cora. She had no family and no one knew who knocked her up with Regina, but no one had dared ask. Cora had been dedicated to rising above poverty, and Regina was supposed to rise with her. Neither of them had been seen in public much, if Mulan's parents were to be believed.

Emma's eyes grew wide at that. "Do you think she...?"

"CPS showed up once and didn't do anything." Mulan shrugged. "Though Cora can play nice and probably blackmail people, so that means nothing. She and Mr. Gold were on good terms. Everyone always talked about 'poor little Regina' so it definitely wasn't a happy home. If it was a home at all, which personally I doubt. Cora was working all the time...and anyways not a warm person at all."

Another few customers showed up. Conversation halted again. Emma wasn't half bad at taking orders; it was Mulan who kept tripping up, losing track of orders while replaying relevant history in her brain. She knew there had to be something, one event, that could sum up Regina and Cora. It just escaped her grasp.

Emma turned to her on the next lull, brow furrowed. "So if Cora was that hard on her, how does that work with the whole Starbucks thing. Regina said that Cora didn't approve, but she works here anyway."

"Oh. Oh yeah. I need to tell you that." Mulan took a deep breath. "I only know what went around town, mind you, but everyone talked about it while I was in high school. Regina was supposed to go to a state college, but instead got enrolled in the nearest community college. Cora couldn't do anything about it since Regina was 18 and very quickly living in a dorm. Then she and this guy Daniel started dating. Very seriously. Cora was furious, obviously."

"Obviously?" Emma cocked her head.

Mulan waved a hand. "Cora's not exactly the poster child for putting love ahead of career, especially when there's a chance of getting knocked up."

"Oh."

"Yeah. But anyway, just when people were expecting a proposal, suddenly Daniel dropped out of college and left the state. And broke up with Regina by email. Or text message. I don't know the details. It was rough, though. Harsh stuff. Because of the breakup, Regina started failing all her classes and Cora swept in and brought her back home."

Emma looked even more confused.

"No, it's not what you think." Mulan sighed. "You can't tell Regina I told you this. She hates gossip and she hates everyone knowing her past."

"I kinda figured that, after last night." Emma bit her lip. "There was a lot of self-hate. Doesn't like being embarrassed, I'm guessing?"

"No." Mulan opened her mouth, then closed it quickly. Emma didn't need to know everything. She found her original train of thought. "Well, without a degree Regina's options were limited, but she got hired at Starbucks and was doing okay. Her and Cora fought a lot, but it had been worse before. Regina got promoted quickly, and was sort of known for perfectionism. Lots of people got fired for incompetence under her leadership. Then I got hired. That week, everything fell apart."

Emma nodded intently, moving closer and chewing the inside of her cheek.

"Daniel showed up in town again."

Emma flinched. Mulan mirrored it, then stopped for a moment, remembering Regina yesterday. Remembering two years ago. If it had been anyone but Emma, she would have guarded this pain with her life. No one needed their sorrows trotted out for voyeurism, especially not Regina.

This was different, though. This was healing just a tiny bit of the rift between these two desperate women. Emma didn't need to know per se, but she did need to understand. And this was all she was going to get, since Regina would never crack. It had been how many years, and she still hadn't criticized her mother to anyone? Shame was a good silencer, Mulan guessed, that and desperation.

She took a deep breath and told the rest of the story.

"Daniel came through town to visit his family, and of course he got coffee. It was a slow day, so no one but me and Regina were there. Regina froze up and looked like ice. Daniel, though, looked disgusted. A few passive aggressive hints and then there was a fight. Well, a breakdown. Turns out Cora turned Daniel into the college for a theft he didn't commit, and he got expelled, but he kept sending emails to Regina. Which Cora intercepted and replied to as Regina, lying through implication that Regina had only used him for sex, just like she had with everyone else in the school. Daniel didn't even give up then, but the last straw was a letter where she 'said she could never be with a retard'. He spat that in Regina's face, and then left before she put the pieces together and realized it was Cora who'd said all that."

Emma looked like someone had slapped her.

Mulan frowned. "Emma?"

"Sorry." She swallowed. "I got called that a lot in school. I was a slow learner. It's just..."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to... I shouldn't have repeated it." Mulan mentally slapped herself. "Cora's terrible, okay? And everyone knew Daniel had bad dyslexia, but Regina never would have—I mean, she didn't care about things like that. I know she didn't."

Emma nodded, swallowing again. "I get it. Daniel didn't know that and so it was...a dealbreaker."

Mulan nodded. "So he wrote the letter that Cora did let Regina see. Basically just lashing out at her. She hadn't handled it well back then, but once she knew it was Cora's fault... Well, my first week working here was a mess. Regina didn't talk even then. She threw a coffee cup through the front window after Daniel left angry and hurt, and then...she just tried to bottle it all up. She moved out of Cora's house and got her own place, but I don't think she ever talked to Cora about it. Not talk-talk, you know. I don't know for sure, but every time Cora shows up for coffee you can watch Regina clam up. I'm not sure if she's still scared—that doesn't really make sense to me, but what do I know. I do know she's been more determined than ever to rise to the top of the corporation and move to Seattle. And that's all she shows."

Emma shook her head slowly, leaning against the counter. "She said she wanted to prove Cora wrong. She was really upset about it." Emma bit her lip, then added, "Just speaking from experience, I don't think she wanted her gone as in dead-and-gone. You can't choose family or how you feel about them." She laughed awkwardly, not meeting Mulan's eyes. "It's messy."

"I know." Mulan sighed, long and low. "But now you know all that everyone else knows."

The other woman nodded. Mulan could almost hear the gears of her brain turning, and the emotion on her face was anything but the frustration of yesterday.

Another customer came in and they snapped back to Starbucks mode. Once the shop emptied, no one said a word for a few minutes.

"It's going to take her time to deal," Mulan advised at last. "Better stay away for a while."

"Got it."

But when Emma finally left, and Regina arrived an hour later acting as if nothing had happened, Mulan's gut told her that Emma wasn't going to take herself out of the situation 100%. Mulan couldn't even do that, and she was far less passionate than Emma Swan.

This time, at least, it wouldn't end in a raging battle of strong wills. Probably. Hopefully. For both their sakes.

Chapter Text

-I-

Ever since she'd faced the consequences of being 10 years old and hyperventilating herself sick in middle school over receiving a B+ instead of an A, Regina hated losing control of herself. Control was something she fought tooth and nail for, and any loss weighed heavily on her heart. Of course, she'd had to take many heavy losses. Losing Daniel twice had been ruinous, and every incident surrounding the loss she buried away with the deepest self-loathing she could muster. That had been the last, though, and she'd sworn to never again fall victim to her own chaotic emotions.

Then her mother had died, sucking Regina's entire world down into a black hole of meaninglessness.

It wasn't so much that she'd lost control of her emotions, but rather that she'd lost them altogether. She woke up late for work with a dry mouth and bile crusted on the corner of her mouth, barely remembering last night. It was a blur of pain and shame, no more and no less. She didn't feel the shame anymore; it was just there. She combed her hair over the bruise on her forehead and walked, feeling nothing, to work.

Stepping in the door and smelling the coffee, she was suddenly hit with a wave of hatred. It tied her stomach in knots that ached and burned like nausea. No reasoning, just raw hatred. The world seemed thick as cream with everything she despised. As always, though, she swallowed down everything and worked through it.

Reasons came eventually, one after another in a long line of hateable things. She hated the ache in her heart that shouldn't be there. She hated alcohol and the headache and nausea it had left behind. She hated Mulan for acting normal. She hated everyone for asking about the bruise. She hated everyone for not asking about everything else. She hated the sideways glances and worried expressions. She hated, hated, hated the smell of coffee and the ding of the register and the feel of each paper cup in her hands.

When 6pm came around, work autopilot ended and she waited for motivation to come. It didn't. She shut the door, turned off the machines and lights, and then sat among the tables and chairs that needed cleaning. If she hadn't remembered Quixote, she probably would have slept on the floor. As it was, she walked home and tried, desperately, not to hate the whiny-yet-affectionate little beast while she fed him his dinner

The hatred burned and twisted and groaned in her until she felt burnt to a crisp. Regina sat on the couch and looked up at the line of pictures of herself and Cora through the years—with trophies, of course, the only pictures ever were with trophies. She didn't notice the tears until they dripped on her hands.

Then the hatred was for herself only. She screamed at nothing, fists clenched, and took a shower until the hot water turned to ice and she shivered beneath it. Some things washed away, but hatred still remained.

Somehow she ended up asleep, and when her alarm went off at 3:30am she only stared at it. Why work now? Why bother? Autopilot alone dragged her from her bed and brought her to work.

For the next three days, she found herself questioning every move. Why do this? Why do that? Mother had been the point of everything. It was how she'd been raised, and she didn't know any other way to be.

As hard as she tried to maintain her professional appearance at work, traffic slowed to half its usual rate. Worse, people came and brought meals to her house. Food alone turned her stomach, but pity doubled the feeling. She threw everything into the trash. At least she didn't see or hear from Emma at all. That woman was the last thing she remembered, mingled with the cocktail of shock and horror and grief before everything went empty.

By the end of a week, Regina hated her own hatred. No one said a word, still, and she wanted to rip their heads off for it. Yet when they pitied her in actions instead of words, it wasn't any better. She ran out of hatred, and couldn't find any emotion to fill it. Sometimes her eyes would burn with tears, but each time she managed to swallow them away. They had no purpose.

Then again, nothing had a purpose that she could find. Nothing but routine. If it wasn't for Quixote depending on her, she might have stopped everything.

But one night, Quixote didn't come home. Regina waited, heart pounding, for Emma to bring him over as she'd done half a dozen times before. Midnight rolled around, and no Emma or Quixote. Regina walked around the house shouting for him until her voice turned hoarse. He didn't come.

She found herself calling Mulan, the only contact in her phone that wasn't Cora or her district manager. Her fingers shook. "Quixote's missing. I can't find him. I need to find him. Please."

Mulan said only, "I'm on my way."

By the time the other woman got there, Regina wasn't sure why she'd called her. Everything felt like a dream. A nightmare. She paced the front porch, hand over her heart, visions of him being eaten by coyotes or run over by a car uncontrollably racing through her head. He was her responsibility. He was her kitty. He was family.

"It's okay, we'll find him," Mulan assured, even taking her hand. It was strange but almost soothing.

"Quixote!" Regina kept calling as they drove around Winlock. Her voice rasped and hurt. "Quixote! Come to me!"

Mulan called too. Other people came out and joined them, and Regina didn't ask why. The night sky glistened above them with a thousand silver stars and the air was clear and cool. Nothing answered their cries.

Finally Regina sent everyone home and returned to hers. She gripped the railing on the porch, knuckles white, and waited. Quixote didn't come home. Saturday morning arrived with a bright cheerful sun and no sign of the cat.

Slowly, too slowly, she walked back into the house. Right over the threshold lay his favorite red blanket. Her breathing hitched and became too fast, and then it turned to hiccups, and then she sunk to her knees and clutched the blanket and refused to sob. "You have to come back," she whispered with as much force as she can manage. "I don't know how to be alone."

Somehow, she still managed to swallow back all her tears.

-II-

Emma had started to like living in Winlock. Regulars at the bar were waving to her on the street now, asking how she was doing, saying hi to her in shops, using her name with a comforting ease. Other than with a select few people, she was accepted. That on its own was new and fantastic, but to further her happiness there was the fact that her plan was working.

It was one of those ideas that normally she would have jumped on and run to the ground. In a town that didn't like change, some things could sneak their way in but others could not. Politically speaking. After more than a few spirited talks with Mulan, Emma realized that what this town needed before it could thrive was a good strong cup of coffee. Metaphorically speaking.

"Local government is skeevy," Mulan had said, rolling her eyes. "It's inbred and corrupt, and I'm pretty sure Mr. Gold has his hands in all the pies."

"Well, I live here and people like me," Emma said. "It's still a democracy, right? If I get enough voters to like me, I can run for mayor and win."

Mulan had laughed. Not cruelly, but a laugh just the same. That had been the first step.

Not the last, though. The initial concept was ridiculous, but Emma had her sights set on first-hand political change even if it took a year before she could pull it off. For the present, she only had to ingratiate herself with the general populace. Since she came paired with alcohol and fun now, instead of pamphlet dealing and (admittedly) weird requests, people brushed over her slipshod people skills. She even had friends.

Of course, that didn't mean everything was, as Snow put it, hunky dory. Starbucks was still off limits. Mulan told her all she needed to know about the Regina situation: bad, bad, and then worse. Emma kept her distance, but deep down worried all the same. What she'd taken away most from Mulan's infodump about Regina was that Winlock had a longstanding habit of brushing her situation under the rug.

And that bugged Emma. Maybe it happened because Regina wasn't the most friendly of persons. Maybe it was because things got "crazy" around her and no one knew how to handle that. Even Archie the therapist, though, didn't say a word about her. Emma knew it wasn't her place to object—she didn't even like Regina—but she maintained a mild anger at nobody being there for their "beloved" coffee lady in her time of need. It was just wrong.

After Quixote went missing, Mulan started warning Emma that Regina was showing up at the bar again. Emma never saw her, though, for Regina always left by the time her shift started. "Shouldn't someone talk to her about all this?" Emma asked Mulan, not for the first time.

"I tried," the other woman admitted. "She just snapped at me. We're not there yet, I guess. You can't force someone to listen."

Emma knew that, and didn't blame Mulan—or anyone, really, specifically. But after holding back on activism so long, she felt a strange and undeniable urge to do something good.

When the opportunity fell in her lap, she set her jaw and braced herself for conflict and then took it.

"David, can I take one of the puppies for a walk?" she asked at the shelter. "I'm...thinking of finally adopting."

Her ever-optimistic friend lit up like a Christmas tree and let her interview every single dog. Emma was completely covered in dog spit before she finally found one with sweet, soulful eyes, but she only smiled and kissed the big wet nose of the hound. It was love at first sight, even if she only said so to herself.

"I can spend the day with him just to see if we bond, right?" she asked. David said yes and provided the leash.

The sun gleamed encouragingly bright as she walked down main street and then on the side road. The as-yet-unnamed puppy wagged his tail and trotted forth into the world, happy and absurdly cute. Just perfect.

Even so, her heart faltered a little when she walked up the driveway. She had to steel herself once again before knocking on the door.

Regina opened it as suspiciously as she always did.

It had been two weeks since Emma had seen the woman, so the changes since then caught her attention. Shadows lay beneath Regina's already-dark eyes, and there was something just off about the way she held herself. It was a well-practiced facade, but blurry at the edges.

"You left your nametag at the bar last night." Emma held out the small pin. "I know it's Sunday and you won't need it till tomorrow, but I thought I'd bring it myself."

"Thank you," Regina said crisply and without any sincerity.

A moment hung in the air in which nothing could have happened. Then the dog barked happily and ran up to Regina.

Here was the opportunity and Emma was taking it. "Oops. I guess he likes you. Aww boy, do you like Ms. Mills?"

Regina held still, staring down at the dog that now licked her hand.

"It's okay, he won't bite." Emma's extra cheerfulness felt forced to her, but she had gone too far to turn back.

Regina lifted her head, eyes narrowed even further. "What are you doing?"

Emma hadn't expected that question. "I'm...returning your nametag."

"Are you trying to cheer me up?" Regina snapped, withdrawing her hand from the happily-licking dog.

"I…" All Emma could think was: Oh fuck, didn't work. Of course it didn't. I didn't think it through. "I'm sorry. I—"

The apology seemed to set off an angry avalanche in the other woman, as if to cover up something—everything—else. "Are you serious? Really? You can't just leave me alone like everyone else now, you have to butt your nose in. I can't believe I thought you'd learned your lesson." She waved her hand, more and more agitated with every word. "Is this supposed to make me feel better because he's a pet, because I lost mine?"

"No, no!" Emma suddenly realized the implication and felt horrified. "I didn't—"

"This is selfish, even for you. You can't just waltz in and try to fix my life because… I don't even know why you would do this. To look good? No, I don't care." Regina stepped back, lips quivering with rage. "I don't care. This is sick. You can't just…not think."

"I swear, Regina, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like this." Emma had prepared to be rebuffed. She'd just hoped the puppy would make Regina smile for a moment. Only a moment. It was a start? Someone had to try, right? This, though…

Regina didn't let her have a say. The put-together facade had been dropped, and it was clear that Emma had inadvertently pressed every raw nerve this woman had. "I want you to get off my property, Ms. Swan, but before you do you need to listen to me."

Defenses were up, and she even managed to sound harsh and articulate, but watching Regina now was like watching a building after the foundation finally gave way. Emma stood knowing that at any moment everything would crumble to pieces. She prayed to nothing in particular, Oh please don't cry; don't make me responsible for this.

"Some things can't be replaced." Regina flung a hand towards the puppy who still sat by the door. "You can't buy a new one. They're just gone. They're a part of your life until they're not, and there's nothing you can do about it." She swallowed hard and Emma's heart sank. "You can't fix it. You can't forget about it. You can't move on to another one. You only get one in your life and if you destroy that, then you don't get another chance. You don't…" Regina ran out of words, face crumpling in a horrible mixture of anger and grief.

It wasn't about the puppy. It wasn't even about Quixote anymore. Emma felt as if she'd been dropped in the middle of a forest without a map. This was a situation for anyone but her—for someone who hadn't been a thorn in Regina's side. This was a situation for the trusted friend that Regina didn't have.

"None of us get second chances," Regina said, barely above a whisper, hand clenched tight as if to hold herself together.

Miserably unaware of how to mend this, Emma prepared to retreat. She'd already taken a half-step back down the driveway when all of a sudden the puppy rushed forward out of her grasp. Time slowed for a horrific second as the puppy reached up and pressed his paws to Regina's hips, then licked her hand again.

Regina stared, bewildered, and sucked in a hasty breath. She touched the dog's head—maybe to push him down, maybe to pet him, it wasn't clear. Then a twisted sob left her throat and she slumped against the door like someone had let the air out of a balloon.

Emma could only stand and watch as she sunk down, knees folding to her chest, and started to weep. The dog licked the tears from her cheek as Regina sobbed, fingers clenching and unclenching and then coming clasped to her chest.

It was too far. Emma had fucked up beyond belief. She pulled on the leash, flushing red with guilt.

Then, in a barely coherent voice, she heard Regina say, "Don't you dare take him away too."

Emma stopped. She swallowed the lump in her throat, let go of the leash, and sat on the porch steps.

In great gulping sobs that belied how small she looked, Regina cried and cried some more.

Emma couldn't have explained to anyone exactly how they'd ended up here. It didn't make sense, like most things since her first fateful day in Winlock. She couldn't figure it out with words, yet she knew she shouldn't walk away. Regina needed her, more than she needed the puppy whose collar she gripped tightly. Regina needed somebody to care and somebody to stay. Emma might not be qualified for much else, but this she could do.

Oddly enough, she didn't even begrudge the woman. She stayed, quiet and more than a little stubborn, to keep Regina from crying alone. And it felt right.

-III-

After everything, Emma had said slowly and softly, "I'm not good at having an enemy. I know I'm not doing great at anything other than that, but please let me try for now."

Regina had tried to send Emma away. Not very hard, but she had tried. The task proved impossible in the face of two facts: one, that Regina had already fallen apart and there was little more she could do to further embarrass herself, and two, that Emma stayed irritatingly sincere about the entire situation. The latter was suspicious, of course, but Regina couldn't summon up the energy to figure out why Emma cared. She just knew that Emma did.

Even so, there were boundaries. Regina didn't talk. Regina certainly didn't accept hugs. And as far as she could control, Regina would not cry or otherwise fall apart again.

She did allow Emma and the puppy to come into the house. Regina sat on the couch, the puppy hopping immediately up and claiming her lap. "I don't like dogs," Regina said without meaning it. Neither of her house guests seemed to care.

Emma attempted a sympathetic smile, but promptly straightened her face. "Would you like tea? I know you're a coffee person but I can't make coffee."

"Tea. Yes." Just the word was enough to unknot Regina's stomach in relief. Anything but coffee. Emma hurried to the kitchen, leaving her to close her eyes and breathe out. The clink of dishes in the kitchen and the sound of the kettle whistling soothed her raw nerves one by one. She was weak, so weak, and she should hate herself except this was everything she wanted.

Emma brought two cups of steaming tea, and for a while they sat together and sipped.

Regina broke her first rule, staring into the swirl of wonderful not-coffee. "Do people hate me, Ms. Swan?"

"What? No, of course not." Emma's answer came without hesitation. "Most people are...well, worried. It's not pity, I swear."

Regina looked up from the tea. "That's not worry, Ms. Swan. That's 'please don't act out and ruin our perfectly harmonious town'."

Emma grimaced, belying her previous answer. "Yeah, I'd noticed that too. But people are worried on top of that."

She almost pointed out that that didn't matter. Worry was self-gratifying. If it came attached to something more genuine, someone other than Emma would have showed up on her doorstep. Or perhaps not—perhaps all of them had known her too long, so that they didn't really see her anymore. They only saw what she wanted them to see. Regina shook her head. "I'll be fine. They can stop worrying."

She heard Emma take in a breath and then hold it too long.

Regina answered before Emma spoke. "No, I know I haven't been fine, but I will be." A hint of her old annoyance rose, then fell away. Regina twitched her lips. "I simply wasn't prepared for this."

"I think family is one of those things you can't protect yourself from, when they go away."

Regina felt herself about to break her third rule. She swallowed hard. "I'm going to get the wine."

"Regina don't—" Emma stood up, her face anxious. "I know you don't want to hear this, but you won't be fine if you keep doing..."

The woman was a goddamn bartender and apparently she couldn't say the word alcohol. Regina bristled, on the verge of fuming, but she ran out of steam and found herself sitting back down instead. "What am I supposed to do then, Dr. Swan?" She sipped at her tea, face taut.

"Oh I am not an expert." Emma almost laughed, then took a sip of her tea. Her next words came out astoundingly unflippant and unperky. "I just know things that don't work. Like pretending your emotions don't exist. Or compartmentalizing them. You can drown them out with drinking, but not for very long. Sober distractions work better, actually." She looked sheepish. "That's why I brought the puppy. I was going to adopt him anyway but...I'm sorry, it was a bad idea."

"Not your worst," Regina said. The puppy looked up as if knowing they were talking about him, with a dumb grin on his face.

"I always run away from my emotions, but I don't recommend that either. It's pretty self-defeating in the long run." Emma sighed. "But seriously, I'm not giving you advice. I'm not going to be that person."

Regina pressed her lips together, then murmured, "Thank you." She could feel the black hole tugging at her feet, waiting for her to be distracted by the chaos in her mind so that it could give one sharp tug and drag her to the abyss. Regina took a deep breath and kicked it away. For now, anyway. After a long silent minute, she said, "I'll be fine. You should take your dog and go."

Emma rose from the couch and reattached the leash to the puppy, looking like she'd turn towards the door instantly. Then suddenly she leaned down and gave Regina a quick squeeze. A hug that smelled like clove and sandalwood. Regina stiffened, remembering her second rule.

Pulling back, Emma offered only a tight little smile. "I know we don't have that kind of relationship, but I've been told that hugs are important. Sorry. I'll go now."

Regina waved her hand and couldn't manage to be angry. The woman and dog left, and she sat alone in her house finishing her tea. A tear leaked out unexpectedly, but only the one. She wiped it away and let the warmth of the tea unknot the rest of the fear in her belly. It was ridiculous to learn anything from that oblivious woman, so her only comfort was that Emma didn't know how she'd helped.

It would be Regina's secret: she wasn't afraid to grieve anymore. It was miserable and she hated it, and certainly didn't want anyone else to see it. But it wasn't a sign of her failure. "I will hate you and I will grieve you, mother," she said to the pictures on her mantelpiece.

That afternoon she sat out in the sun and thought of nothing. The warmth dissolved the last of her hatred, and for a second she had hope that things would get better.

When Quixote bounded up the stairs that night, scraggly and whiny but still whole, she nearly died of a heart attack. Then she nearly killed him with a squeeze that he loudly protested. No one ended up dead. Instead, Regina sniffled, smiled, and fed him until he couldn't move.

She shoved down the foolishness, the sense that she had never grown out of that terrified wild child her mother so berated. Cora wasn't allowed to matter anymore. Only Regina.

I will be fine.

-IV-

Monday morning arrived full of dread and anticipation. Mulan opened the door to Starbucks prepared to see a hungover Regina. Instead, busy with prep work, the Regina who'd shown up today looked...intimidating. Just like the old days.

Mulan was slightly suspicious. "Good morning." She set her bag behind the counter and grabbed her apron.

"Good morning," Regina responded. After a few seconds she turned around. "Quixote came home safe and sound."

"Oh!" It was the first good news she'd heard in days. Mulan smiled, relieved. "That's...wonderful!"

Even Regina nearly cracked a smile. "Yes, it is."

Things weren't dire anymore, clearly. Worries set aside, Mulan worked and only kept her usual watch on her manager. The woman was still tense, of course, and sleep deprived and grieving, but that was nothing compared to last week. Mulan felt silly for being surprised by it. This was Regina. She couldn't be so easily destroyed.

Breaking her two-week streak, Emma showed up two hours later at the counter, with a pleasant smile and a "Tall soy mocha no-whip please."

For the first time ever, Regina responded with nothing but courtesy. "It'll be ready in a minute. That's $3.89."

Emma handed over her card and then added, "Better tell Quixote to stay inside, by the way. Gumby keeps trying to run over to your house."

Regina blinked slowly. "You named it Gumby?"

Emma shrugged.

Mulan didn't understand what was happening, but knew that she probably should have snapped a picture of the moment for posterity. Regina and Emma being pleasant. What was next, Martians?

She took her lunch break with Aurora out in the sunshine and listened to her girlfriend talk about plans for their anniversary. None of which they could afford, of course. Mulan opened her mouth to mention finances, but as usual couldn't find the courage to let the words out.

"I'm glad Regina seems okay today," Aurora mentioned before their breaks ended. "Well, better. You know what I mean."

Mulan did, though she felt a bit of guilt for thinking of it in those terms. Regina was one of those things that Mulan would never try to fix, even though fixing broken things was her specialty. She felt protective of Regina, sure, but couldn't get involved. It just wouldn't work with their two personalities. So she found herself bracing for impact when Regina's phone rang loudly during work and the woman nearly jumped through the roof. It seemed to be a legal matter to do with Cora's death, and Regina handled the call with steady grace—only after it ended did she look near tears, just for a second. Mulan felt guilty for being relieved that nothing happened.

Still, Regina expected quite little from her, so Mulan didn't let herself feel too bad. Despite the existence of Emma, who couldn't fix anything to save her life and yet was trying with Regina of all people.

"She came over to visit," Emma informed Mulan while they worked at the bar, a few days after Quixote returned and Regina stopped spiraling downwards. "To visit Gumby specifically, but it was...different. Right before she left she gave me a summary of Cora, since she doesn't know you told me anything. To clear up any misconceptions about her grief, she said. Am I her friend now? I don't know."

"I doubt she knows either. This hasn't happened before, that I know of." Mulan watched Emma out of the corner of her eye, marveling at the level of caring that the woman put into everything she did. Like Regina, she supposed, but more haphazard and less fierce. No wonder the two hadn't stayed enemies.

Life in Winlock carried on. Mulan helped Emma with the bar, putting a little practicality into her dreams when needed. Mulan helped Regina in a different way, picking up any slack and glaring gossipers into submission.

As Regina's grief seemed to settle and fade over the weeks, Emma kept arriving at the bar every few days with a different story. While Regina never even mentioned Emma, Emma couldn't seem to stop talking about her. Mulan spent several weeks wondering if her eyebrow would end up frozen in a mildly-surprised position.

"Gumby chased Quixote all around the yard, and Quixote screamed loud enough to basically pop my eardrums. I thought Regina was going to kill me, but I guess she likes Gumby now."

"I figure me and Regina are friends now. She came by to say hi to Gumby again—though granted, that was because I implied last time that he would miss her if she didn't. Which is only half true… That doesn't make me a bad person, does it?"

"We're not friends. I accidentally mentioned it and her defenses went up like that. If we're not friends then what is she doing? Ugh."

"So, I brought Quixote back to Regina, and she asked me how I was doing. Which I'm guessing is Regina-speak for 'I'm sorry about last time'. Well, maybe not 'I'm sorry'. That's not really Regina. Especially since she thinks the idea of me running for office is ridiculous. I could almost smell the sarcasm after I mentioned my plans."

Finally, though, the stories stopped. Emma seemed happy, Regina calm, and Mulan felt grateful to no longer be in the middle of the two women. Winlock didn't feel like a war zone, and now that she wasn't the neutral party she could focus on her own issues.

-V-

Summer waned and Emma's garden finally produced fruit. Tomatoes, squash, beans, and even a couple melons, all hung plump from the vines. One morning she stood in the middle of it and breathed in deeply. No more of the wet potential of spring, this was sun-baked fertile earth. Emma smiled broadly, heart swelling with pride. This garden had been her first project on moving here, even before the Starbucks disaster, and her entire world had changed since then.

For all the stress her family had caused, because of them Emma really and truly loved nature. With Gumby barking at her side, she tended to her harvest, wondering how on earth she'd gone from planting a garden to running a bar. "None of my plans are working out exactly," she told the hound at her side as she lugged a basket of tomatoes up to the porch. "But I'm not great at planning, so I think that's alright. It's probably better this way."

Her head swirled with visions of the future. Election season peeked over the horizon, making her double down on her research for next year. Mayoral candidates wouldn't be announced until spring, probably, and Snow had informed her that the Egg Festival in June was the place to campaign. All that was months off, but Emma wasn't taking any chances. The bar might appear to most of Winlock as a way to pay the bills, but to Emma it was her biggest campaign strategy.

Though ever since she'd failed to find a palatable vegan nacho cheese, she'd given up on wooing people with food. Emma wasn't good at making friends, but she did have years of parental training in how to be friendly. Thankfully, so far, being friendly had led to actual friends. Emma wasn't sure how exactly that happened, but she guessed that friendship wasn't something to overthink. Having friends was really, really nice. So was not having a nemesis.

As if on cue, she looked up from her humming and squash-picking to see Regina standing in her front yard. A few weeks before, the sight would still have made Emma jump. Now it was just an irregular pattern, and Regina was welcome.

Gumby ran excitedly to his favorite person and wagged his entire body until she reached down to pet him.

"Hi," Emma called, putting the squash in the basket and wiping her palms on her garden apron. "More treats for Gumby?"

"For you, actually." Regina held up a brown paper bag, then glanced around the overflowing garden and raised one eyebrow. "How did I miss this before? It looks ready to gain sentience and destroy the town."

Emma grinned. "Ha. Nice humor there." Curious, she hopped over the garden border and took the bag from Regina. Inside were a dozen red apples. Emma glanced back up at Regina. "Are you sure these aren't meant for Snow?"

"Quite." Regina's smile never came easily, but Emma was getting used to noting the slight movements of her mouth. "I don't have anything as massive as this, but I have an apple tree. They are, you should know, the most delicious apples you will ever taste."

"Oh, well, thank you." Emma beamed and gestured to the porch. "I haven't cleaned or prepped anything yet, but if you want tomatoes or squash or anything, just grab some."

"It's a gift, Emma." Regina shifted her weight, fingers fidgeting before she clasped them. "You've been a good...friend...to me. You deserve it."

Emma felt her cheeks flush. "I… Well, I sort of had to, after making your life hell. Making amends for my dumbness."

Regina snorted. "You didn't have to. You just did. And if I recall correctly, I served back as much hell as I got from you."

"Yeah," Emma admitted. She wouldn't say it, for fear that Regina would cringe awkwardly, but it was weird to think how much she hated Regina then. Not that this wasn't also weird. Subdued Regina had at first been a relief, but now felt unsettling. "Do you want to stay for tea?"

"Yes." Regina cocked her head to the side. "I didn't know you were such a tea person."

Emma laughed as they walked inside, Gumby trotting along by Regina's side. "I don't know anything about coffee. We established that. I just wanted to take part in the community things, and that meant drinking coffee."

Regina sat at the kitchen table. "Ah, yes, I remember. Coffee used to be one of my favorite things, but these days tea serves me better."

"Must suck to have your job, then." Emma put on the kettle and grabbed two mugs.

"It does."

Emma glanced up from the brew. "Hmm?"

Regina shrugged. "Nothing."

Emma didn't let her do it. "You're tired of being the coffee lady?"

Regina tapped her fingers on the table in a slow rhythm before answering. "It's not a matter of tiring. But it's banal. There's no point to it."

Emma poured the tea and brought it to the table. "I thought you had all these plans for going corporate. Being a district manager and such."

The other woman looked grim. "And then what? My entire life is here. Everyone I know. Everything I know. All those plans were for escaping my mother. That was as far as I was shooting for."

"Oh." Emma exhaled slowly. Her theory had been that Regina was depressed, and would recover her passion and spark in time. But without a focus, passion could hardly ignite. Emma knew that from experience.

"This whole town keeps spinning around, going nowhere but into the dumps. And I can't even dream of getting out anymore." Regina's tone fell darkly, her fingers wrapping tightly around the tea mug.

"The town's not dead yet." Emma stirred a spoon of sugar into her tea. Anticipating Regina's skepticism, she cleared her throat. "I mean, I have hope. There are good people here, too, and I believe in the power of good people. I've seen groups accomplish amazing things. I've seen hope change lives."

Regina's fingers twitched. "And I've seen people roll over and submit in the face of any difficulty that they can't conquer in a single day. I've seen them avoid making choices that could complicate their lives."

"Well, isn't that the best part of my plan? I'm the one who does the most work."

"Which plan is this now?" Regina sipped her tea, still unconvinced.

"Running for mayor." Emma strove, in vain, to not to roll her eyes. "It's unlikely, I know, but I will work myself to the bone to make it happen."

Regina rubbed the bridge of her nose. "And Mr. Gold will do everything in his power to assure otherwise. Dear, who do you think has more power?"

Emma stared at her, wondering if she'd really just used the word dear. It wasn't dismissive this time, but it was a spark of old Regina. "If no one even tries to fight him, maybe he doesn't know how to handle it."

Regina eyed her as if she was Quixote run amok. "And let's just say that your campaign strategies are magical and full of organic vegetables and everyone loves them. Let's also assume that voter fraud doesn't exist, and that you aren't sabotaged before you even get to the finish line. After election, what are you even going to do? Running a bar is not like running a government. You'll be in charge of employees, responsible to the state, and you can't just change legalities until you understand the bureaucracy behind them. And of course there's corruption to uproot and suspect around every corner, and you must be ever vigilant."

Emma let out a short breath. "I know all that."

"Do you?"

Emma jutted her chin out. "I care about this, Regina. I'm not just waltzing my way on a hope and a dream. Well, I have hope. And a dream. But you know what I mean."

Regina said nothing and continued to tap fingers on her mug's handle.

Emma bit back a groan and realized that she was frustrated. And that, well, that meant that Regina was pushing back for the first time in weeks. The woman even held herself like before: self-assured, cynical, unmoved. No anger, though, and so Emma spoke with confidence. "Clearly you think there's some chance of success, or you wouldn't think I was doing it 'wrong'. So since you care, why not try helping?"

"What?" Regina lost her sarcasm for a second.

Emma gestured back and forth between them. "We can work together. I'll be in charge of optimism and sticking-to-it. You can point out areas where I'm naive."

The woman stared at Emma as if she were some rare form of butterfly that had just popped into existence. "No. It'd be a waste of time. Why would I want to do that?"

Resistance with Regina was always expected. Emma took a gamble and went for the heart. "Because it will drive you crazy if you don't try something new. You told me so."

Regina didn't back down. "I don't think you'd be a good mayor."

Emma wasn't even offended. "I'd be better than Mr. Douchebag. I wouldn't let Gold pull my strings, for one."

Regina sighed, exasperated. "Why? Why do this?"

Emma took a deep breath and let it out, wondering if she was going crazy. She had friends—Snow, David, Ruby, Aurora, even Mulan. No desperation here; Regina didn't have to be a part of this. But one look at the woman, and Emma just wanted to. It only took her half a second more to decide to place all cards on the table. "Because once I started to care about this town, I couldn't stop. That's got to matter."

Regina finally dropped her gaze, looking down at her own hands. The wheels seemed to be rolling, fueling an interior argument that she had to finish before she could speak. Emma waited. At last she looked up, the fire back in her eyes. "Fine. I'll temper your hope for a while. But no promises."

Emma nodded, then let the grin escape. She had, in the most roundabout way possible, accomplished her second project upon moving to Winlock: earning Regina Mills as an ally.

Chapter Text

-I-

Every morning at 3:30am, Regina's alarm went off. As she had for the last five years, she would turn it off and roll out of bed, ignoring Quixote's protesting groans. Shower, clothing, hair, makeup, breakfast—nothing had changed in her routine in those years. Her mother's death had only altered one thing, and that one thing had taken months to truly manifest.

Regina looked in the mirror and no longer felt the dread of walking out into the world. No more humiliating events at Starbucks. No more devastating phone calls every other night. No more lack of control. What had once been a desperate lie to herself now seemed nothing but a calm truth: "I am more than my mother's daughter."

Little by little, day after day, she began to distance herself from Starbucks. Not in performance—as always, she gave 110%—but in goals. Even when winter came, and Regina got to enjoy the increased traffic of chilled people ever-grateful for what she provided, she maintained a certain distance. Coffee wasn't worth her entire life anymore.

In the evenings, she had been wont to read through her business textbooks as preparation for the desired promotion to district manager. These days, she was more likely to be debating Emma Swan over campaign details. Spring was approaching and everything had to be perfect. Regina paid attention to gossip at the café, and even at the bar on certain nights when she came for a drink or two. People liked Emma but they didn't love her yet. This whole affair kept teetering on the border between unlikely and impossible.

Emma's idealism, however, kept dragging her back in. Regina would get tired, irritated, even despairing about all of it, but later that day or week she'd see Mr. Gold walk down the street with his smugness. That, always, had her back on Emma's side and determined to make that man fail. Now that she had no reason to move out of Winlock, everything he did became personal.

"You are a loyal Winlockian," Emma had said, half joking, when Regina ranted for five minutes about the number of small businesses on the verge of collapse because of his machinations.

Regina put her hands on the hips, breathing roughly through her nose. "Oh really. You need to be a loyal Winlockian to hate a slimy, worthless bag of meat?"

Emma conceded the point, but Regina silently conceded Emma's as well..

The two of them, with help from Emma's other friends, constructed their little world of hope for change until even Regina caught herself believing it. Deep down, she'd discovered, Emma wasn't the annoying hippie she'd presented herself as in the beginning. She was annoying, and she was a hippie, but that was something else altogether. She had good intentions and wasn't afraid of follow-through.

"I'm guessing you grew up on Disney movies and other such fare," Regina had said dryly, after Emma finished a speech that was practically peppered with references to capital-g Good and capital-e Evil.

"I wasn't allowed to watch movies." Emma paused for a second, a strange look in her eyes. "Or read fiction, actually. That was all part of my rebellious stage."

"Rebellious?" Considering that she was only here to prove a point to her parents, Regina hadn't pegged Emma as a wild child. Her only mental image of Mr. and Mrs. Swan was of older, more annoying versions of Emma herself.

Emma, though, let out a long breath. "My parents wanted me to be an academic. To have credentials. I think they'd been planning how to raise the perfect child since before I was born, and I got fostered with them when I was 10. They were intense about it. So even though high school sucked and I barely graduated, they sent me to college. I was terrible at it but when I told them that, they just kept encouraging me to work harder. I burned out, dropped out, and had a couple years of doing everything I wasn't supposed to do." She paused, cheeks a little red. "I did a lot of stupid things. But I also devoured all the pop culture they didn't let me have as a kid. That's not why I care about this stuff, though. I think they meant well, when they taught me about making a difference."

"You're more forgiving than I," Regina said after a moment, with more feeling than she intended. "I don't care if people 'mean well'."

"That's a lie, or else you would still hate me," Emma pointed out.

Regina only rolled her eyes. She and Emma clashed on several personality points, but they were more alike than Regina had ever cared to admit before. They could talk about things and they could also listen.

The optimism only lasted so long, however.

One blustery March evening, Regina suffered through delivery pizza at Emma's house so that they could finalize the paperwork needed for Emma to get her name on the ballot. Gumby sprawled on his blanket in front of the TV, the only one watching the talking heads on the news, and Regina sorted documents into file folders. Emma ate pizza and frowned at her laptop screen, trying for the fifth time to understand the legalese of election procedure.

Then a voice emanated from the TV set that made Regina's skin crawl. Both women looked up to see him being interviewed with his hair pulled back out of his face for once—it didn't make him look any more respectable, but Regina was no fool. He had influence beyond financial.

The interview appeared to be political, talking about chances in the new year and what might happen at the Egg Festival. Then, as if by magic, the topic became uncomfortably close to home. "You seem pretty confident in Mayor Thicke's tenure," the interviewer began, "but there's talk around town that maybe he's held the position too long."

Gold scoffed, gently, as if it was the least interesting thing he'd heard in a while. "Mayor Thicke isn't a perfect man—none of us are—but he's proven his capability for the past twelve years. If he hadn't, why would we have re-elected him twice? People will always talk the talk, but our mayor has walked the walk. If you're referring to Emma Swan and her none-too-subtle hints at running for his position, well, I think maybe you're paying too much attention to hype. Winlock doesn't need the person at the top to be a young lesbian with no sense of the political reality here. Everyone will figure that out before election season, I assure you."

The camera cut away, but Emma still stared at the screen.

Regina cocked her head, unsure of what she'd just heard. Something seemed off, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

"Motherfucker," Emma breathed out, voice shaky. "Mother. Fucker."

"We expected something like this," Regina said, trying to sound reassuring. "We'll just—"

"No, I didn't. I didn't expect this." Emma whirled towards her. "Did you? Did you know I was gay?"

Oh. That was what she'd missed. How, she wasn't sure, but that part of the speech had gone right over her head. "No, I didn't." But it obviously wasn't much of a surprise either.

Emma slammed her laptop shut, lips pressed tight together until they went bloodless.

Of all the conversations Regina expected to have, this had never appeared on the list. Brow furrowed, she grasped at words. There were none. What to say, how to say it, she just didn't know.

Emma broke the silence finally, sounding almost on the verge of tears. "No one was supposed to know. I didn't want to deal with that. I know how small towns are. I know that people here are kind of old-fashioned. It's one thing for Mulan and Aurora, it's another for...mayor." She flailed her hands about, still not looking at Regina. "I might be able to charm people, but I can't kill this kind of prejudice. Not in six months. And he knew it. I don't know how he found out, but I should have guessed. You told me he was ruthless." With a despairing sound, she covered her face with both hands.

Regina's anger burned. "It's inappropriate is what it is. We can fight it on that point." The words sounded idiotic as soon as they left her mouth. Emma was right. This wasn't something you could spin, not in a town like Winlock. The campaign had been on shaky ground already, what with Emma's newness in town, newness to politics, and of course her youth. This was a shattering blow, however unfair it was. "I'm sorry, Emma."

Emma bristled, voice half choked. "You know, I don't need pity from the straight girl right now."

Regina sat upright, stung. "I'm not—" While a reasonable assumption, it hurt like it had always hurt to receive it. More than it hurt that Emma was lashing out at her. "I'm not offering you my pity, I'm just sorry." Then, because it was Emma, she bit out, "And I'm not straight. I'm bisexual."

For a moment, Emma stayed silent. Then, wiping one eye, she looked across at Regina. "I didn't…know."

"No, nobody ever asks." Regina tried to swallow her bitterness. "But the point is, I didn't want this to happen to you. I'm not skilled with words all the time; I was just trying to show sympathy. It's what friends do."

Emma wiped her other eye and exhaled, looking miserable enough that Regina's irritation faded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be bitchy at you, you're just the only one here to be bitchy at. Except for Gumby."

Regina waved a hand. "Apology accepted." She pursed her lips together. "I really am sorry."

"Yeah." Emma flopped her hands over her knees in defeat. "All my chances are shot now. You were right."

"I know it doesn't help, but I take no satisfaction in this." Regina felt her mouth twist. "I didn't want to be right." Though this hurt most for Emma, Regina also felt the blow to her own heart and clenched one hand into a fist. Of the few things that made her happy, this had been primary for the past few weeks. Now it slipped away like sand through fingers.

"It does help a little." Emma ran her fingers through her hair. "I'm sorry for calling you straight. It was dumb."

Regina snorted. "You're the first person to know otherwise. It shouldn't have bothered me so much."

Emma looked at her, a little stubbornness returning to her blue-green eyes. "Uh-uh. It's totally reasonable to be upset. Even if you're closeted. It's part of who you are. It matters."

She shrugged. It had been years since she had even thought about things like this. Singleness was more than what Cora had demanded, it was what felt normal. Regina had carefully made herself forget what it had been like with Daniel. How smoothly they'd gone from her helping him with essays to him helping her out of her clothes. It had hurt too badly. And she'd watched dozens of more breakups in the years since, enough to know that she didn't want one ever again. Sexuality was something she'd given up on.

Which seemed to be something she and Emma shared in common, since the woman hadn't even considered being outed. But she was right. It did matter, a little.

With no more to say, Emma started gathering up all the paperwork on the table. Regina, feeling a knife-twisting regret for all their grand plans, joined in. It all felt cruel. So much work, so little result, for so little reason. Right now Mr. Gold could challenge Cora in Regina's heart for most-hated-individual.

Finally, with everything gathered into boxes, Emma sighed. "I need to go to work in half an hour but all I want to do is get drunk."

"I gather I'm supposed to give you permission, but no, you're not allowed to get drunk."

Emma glared at her half-heartedly. "Terrible friend."

Regina smiled, but knew it didn't reach her eyes.

On her way home, after Emma departed for the bar, it hit Regina that this meant back to the drawing board of life goals. Emma had made this so easy, so happy, like nothing had been for years and years. It felt right—so of course it had to fall apart. The prospect of starting over seemed grim.

When she opened her door, Quixote rubbed all over her legs and made a soft mew that was both "I'm glad you're home" and "I'm hungry". Regina let out a sigh. "I could always become a bitter cat lady. You would like that."

Quixote neither confirmed nor denied that.

She poured herself a glass of wine and thought about nothing for some time, only snapping from her reverie when her phone rang. The number wasn't in her phone book and so her heart leapt in her throat for a second. She answered. "This is Regina Mills, to whom am I speaking?"

"Seriously?" Emma's voice came in half muffled by the noise on her end. "You don't have my number in your contacts?"

Regina ground her teeth, only relieved that it wasn't the emergency department again. "I didn't think it necessary. Why are you calling?"

"I was thinking," Emma started.

"Dangerous," Regina retorted, wondering why the woman sounded so much less defeated. It had been all of two hours since her one dream had been crushed. Quixote hopped up on the counter, trying to rub against the phone.

"Haha. So. My chances at mayor are shot, I know that." Emma paused, and Regina could hear the clink of glasses over the phone, as well as the steady beat of bar music. "But here's the thing, I was never the best candidate. Of either of us, it should be you running for mayor."

Regina glanced to Quixote, and wondered if he, too, couldn't believe his ears. "Excuse me?"

"You've lived here your whole life. People know you and they value you. You're not nearly as controversial as me. And you even look like mayor material."

Regina blinked several times. "Have you lost your mind? Gold can bring me down with homophobia just like you."

"Not unless you lied to me about not telling anyone." Emma sounded more certain the longer she spoke. "I don't have a long dating history, but it's there. Probably if you just google my name. I just hoped no one would go looking for it specifically. But you…"

"This is nonsense, Emma." Regina shook her head, even though the other woman wasn't there to see it. "I can't. I have no experience. I didn't even graduate college." Cora's searing lectures range in her ears once again. There had been dozens of them about her reckless, foolish behavior, dropping out just because of heartbreak. Without a degree, what chance did she have? If not for Starbucks, no chance at all. Hard-earned reputation didn't look impressive enough on resume.

"Neither did I, but we both thought there was a chance for me. Please, Regina. I don't want all our hard work to go to waste, and this is perfect. I don't know why I didn't see it before. You'd be a better mayor than me, by far."

It was too ludicrous, too dangerous, for Regina to even consider it. She wasn't impulsive like Emma and after tonight's disaster… "Emma, no. This is your dream, not mine. I don't care enough. I can't risk myself like this."

"Just think about it. Please." Emma sounded pleading.

"Fine. I'll think about it again. If it makes you feel better."

Emma hung up and Regina poured herself another glass of wine. The answer was no. Emma might have to hear it half a dozen times to believe it, but Regina knew she would always say no. She'd find another goal, or no goal at all. Anything less vulnerable than this.

-II-

No one mentioned Mr. Gold or his interview to Emma. Whether that was because none of her friends had seen it, or because they didn't know how to handle it, Emma couldn't be sure. Though considering that she had yet to tell anyone about dropping from the election, Emma didn't blame anyone for their cowardice.

The situation sucked. She endeavored to handle things with hope for the future, running as always far from any failure. This, though, was the straw that broke the camel's back. She only lasted two days before she ended up sobbing over a cocktail glass. She bawled her eyes out, though, and then shoved it behind her. Failure might suck but dwelling on it sucked more. Emma, stubbornly, told herself she was happy and then waited for it to happen. It had worked in her life so far, surely it would work once again.

The bar alone didn't make her happy, but it surrounded her with happy people. And, occasionally, Regina as well. She didn't drink much, so Emma knew why she was there. It felt weird to not hang out anymore even if the election dream was dead, so there was the bar instead.

Emma had three drink orders in her mind, one night, when Aurora came up and called, "Emmmmmma, do you want to come over to our house for a party? Saturday evening. You can open a bit late that night, right?"

"Uh." Emma paused, caught off guard. "I guess, sure?"

"Great!" Aurora grinned, then noticed Regina to her left. "Oh! And Regina, you're invited too. It'll be fun, you guys!"

"Did she just invite me to a party?" Regina asked once Aurora left, one perfectly-maintained eyebrow raised.

"Does that not happen to you?" Emma asked back, half in jest. "I think we should go."

"I don't do parties," Regina said and sipped her bourbon.

Emma wasn't sure why, but Regina's answer disappointed her. She put on her plaintive tone of voice. "Aww, come on. Aurora wants you there, I want you there. Quixote needs a free night to get into mischief on his own."

Regina tipped her head left and then right again. "I'll go, I'll go. Where did you learn how to do that, a six year old?"

Emma laughed and ignored her. The prospect of Regina going, even if not enthusiastically, made the party twice as exciting. Emma liked her friends, but social events were tiring; having Regina for backup would be a relief. Besides, they hadn't spent time together since Gold's preemptive strike. Emma missed it. Around Regina, she didn't feel so unhappy.

Saturday afternoon, Emma dug through her closet and let out half a dozen frustrated groans. Between romantic flowy dresses and bar tops and jeans, she couldn't find anything appropriate for party attire. With one last "Ugh!" she flopped on the bed. Gumby climbed on top of her and licked her face soothingly. Emma frowned, even as the slobber started dripping down her cheek, and reevaluated her wardrobe.

In the end, she went with blood-red leggings and a black spaghetti-strap dress she hadn't worn since college. The look was darker than her usual, especially when she tucked her hair up in a bun. She looked in the mirror and sighed, bemoaning how classy she didn't look. Simply not in her genetic makeup, she decided. Still, she looked nice, and it gave her the confidence boost she needed to not bite her lip awkwardly.

Aurora oohed and aahed when Emma arrived on their doorstep, guiding her inside and pointing her to everyone already gathered. It wasn't a large party, but enough that the apartment felt cozily packed. Since everyone else was talking, Emma headed straight towards the food table. She had a cracker in her hand when she saw Regina wave from across the room, looking almost cute in her knee-length blue dress and curled hair. Emma waved back, ate the cracker, and made her way over.

"Hey there." Emma let out a deep breath, noting that even in heels Regina couldn't look tall.

"Just warning you, they've been talking politics." Regina surreptitiously waved her punch glass towards where Snow, David, and Aurora were conversing animatedly.

Emma sighed. "Great. Just what I need." She'd forgotten until now how parties usually meant talking, not drinking, once everyone was well out of college.

Regina nodded slowly, then shifted from neutral to an odd expression.

"What?" Emma frowned. "Something on my face?"

Regina tapped her fingers on the side of her punch glass and said quietly, "I did some thinking, like I told you I would."

For a second Emma didn't understand. Once she did, her stomach lurched a bit. Happy. I'm happy. It's okay. "Oh really?"

Regina nodded, then let out a short breath. "I thought I didn't care, but I can't get it out of my head. Not just the corruption, the economic collapse, all that. The fact that the current mayor answers to Mr. Gold...that's just unacceptable to me. Especially after what he did to you." Her nostrils flared a bit. "He can't out me like he did you. Probably wouldn't even think to try."

Emma shifted a little closer. "Regina, are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"I'm done with being cautious." Regina had the hint of a smile on her lips, fire in her eyes. "I want to burn Mr. Gold and his legacy to the ground—but legally. I'm going to run for mayor, and I'm going to win, and then I'm going to drive him out of town."

Emma felt herself grin and impulsively reached for Regina's hand, squeezing it. "That's it, that's the spirit!"

The other woman shook her head. "You're a bad influence, Emma Swan."

"I accept that accusation." Emma couldn't help but laugh, hope soaring back through her like magic. She hadn't even felt this happy when they were campaigning for her. Regina could do this. Regina would do this.

Snow broke away from the other group and walked over. "What's so exciting? Anything new on the political front, Emma?"

"Well…" Emma glanced at Regina, waiting for the other woman's signal. Regina nodded.

"You know we're all still rooting for you, right?" Snow added, concerned affection on her face.

Emma smiled. "And I really appreciate it, I do, but there's something I—we—have decided on."

Snow stared.

Emma glanced back at Regina. Even dressed up for a party, this woman didn't look like a barista. She didn't even look like a district manager. No, Regina was meant for something greater. Emma felt a rush of pride, and gestured for both Regina and Snow to walk over so the others could hear.

"Emma has something to say about the campaign," Snow explained, hushing all other conversation. Then all eyes were on Emma.

Taking a deep breath, Emma nodded. "I'm not running for office anymore. And, before you say anything, it's not all for the reasons you think." She swallowed the tiny lump in her throat, telling herself it didn't hurt. "I'm smart enough to know when I'm out of my depth. And as much as I think I could do good in this town, I think it'd be a mistake to continue going after this election. Especially when there's another option."

Everyone was watching her, even Regina. Confused, disappointed, waiting for more. Emma let out a breath and gestured weakly with her hands. "I'm not running anymore. But the campaign isn't over. Regina's running in my place."

There was a slight gasp from Snow, then silence all around. Aurora's mouth dropped but everyone else seemed too stunned to respond.

Regina looked ready to grimace. "Well, don't all fall over yourselves with joy."

David lost the wide-eyed surprise first. "No, Regina, it's not that. Just...wow."

"Yeah," Snow said. "We had no idea."

"But it works," Aurora said with a cheery uptone. "I can see it really well, actually."

Mulan looked at Regina with near-awe. "Oh yeah. I can see it."

A little smile touched Regina's lips.

"See, see?" Emma laughed a little. "She'll be much better at it than me."

"No offense, Emma, but you're right." Mulan offered, amused.

"It'll be nice to see some new blood in the government," Snow said, putting a hand on Regina's shoulder. "Especially someone we all know and trust."

Regina raised an eyebrow at Emma, but looked pleased nonetheless. "I'm grateful for the support. This won't be an easy campaign, considering who our opposition is."

"Well, we're still on board." David nodded.

"To the very end," Emma confirmed. Hope was back. This time, she would do anything not to lose it.

-III-

Spring arrived and made everything verdant and blooming. Perfectly cheery until the backlash in April of one rainstorm after another. Mud made everyone grumble...and then Main Street flooded. Starbucks was on high enough ground to stay dry, but no one without boots came in.

Yet for once, Regina didn't seem to care. Mulan caught her staring out the window, toes tapping a steady rhythm. "Do you want more responsibility here?" the manager-turned-mayoral-candidate looked around suddenly to say.

Mulan thought for a second. "I'd...have to get Emma to hire someone else at the bar, but yes."

Regina nodded slowly. "I'll need to lower my hours so I can do campaign work during the day. And I'll see if I can get you officially promoted to Shift Manager, so you get the raise as well."

"Thank you." Mulan was flabbergasted, but in the best way.

Regina gave her a pointed look. "That is, if you swear to keep my store running perfectly."

"Cross my heart and hope to die," Mulan said in her most serious tone.

The deal was struck. Mulan's feelings of gratitude nearly overwhelmed her. She went to call Aurora, intending to tell her the good news, but her hand stopped before it could dial. This raise meant more money, therefore more savings. It meant hope for the dojo in the next couple years. But not if Aurora knew about it. That woman and money was like putting water in a leaky bucket. She never meant to spend, but she always did. At heart she was a princess. Mulan's princess, but still.

It would be better for them both if she didn't know. Mulan let out a long sigh, then shook it off. Things had to be this way.

She let herself imagine what it would be like to finally have her dream in her hands. How bright the sun would shine as she left Starbucks for the last time, never to be barista again. It was so easy to picture her students, her lesson plan, the look on her father's face when he came to visit. Winlock be damned, she'd achieve her dreams.

With so few customers, the store was sparkling clean by mid-afternoon when the flooding finally dissipated. Emma showed up lugging her laptop bag and a box of file folders and wearing ridiculous red rubber boots, which Regina did take the time to stare disdainfully at.

"Put the judgment away, Regina. It has no effect on me today." Emma flashed her lopsided grin and plopped herself down at a table. "I splashed in all the puddles here and I don't give a fuck. But I would like my usual, please."

"And you call yourself an adult," Regina said while ringing up the register.

"I do, but isn't this why you're running for mayor now and not me? To give me freedom to—"

"Splash in rain puddles? No, that's not why I'm running for mayor." Regina rolled her eyes so hard, Mulan could almost hear it.

Despite schedules that completely clashed, the two spearheaders of the campaign always seemed to find time to discuss and plan. Mulan stopped being surprised several weeks ago. Now she just watched the banter and marveled at Regina being so...Regina. No more the raging volcano, no more the shattered window, now things had gone full circle and it was like last year all over again. And with Emma, of all people.

It was hard not to watch the two of them together. The majority in Winlock were elderly, and everyone who'd grown up in the town had a sort of sleepy ease about them. Even great people—hell, even people like Mulan herself. Getting excited was a rare occasion and it didn't last long. Except for these two. Emma shone like a star, bright and appealing—Regina was more like the embers of a fire, less flashy but with a heat that made you sweat. Together, sparks flew, slowly igniting Winlock in their path.

And maybe igniting more than that, Mulan couldn't help but think some days. Once Regina joined Emma at her table, they seemed to shift closer and closer together. The passion might nominally be for restoring Winlock to glory, but Mulan's radar pinged louder as the weeks passed. No touching yet, perhaps, but Mulan wouldn't be surprised to start seeing longing looks and eyefucking.

"Don't be silly," Aurora told her, once hearing the suspicion. "Emma's too smart to go after a straight girl."

Mulan shrugged. "It doesn't always work out that nicely. Besides, it's Regina I'm getting vibes from too."

Aurora shook her head. "She dated Daniel, remember? There's no way he was just a beard. She's not gay."

Mulan poked her in the arm. "Excuse me, bisexuals exist."

"I just don't believe it," Aurora said. "They're friends, no more."

Then again, Aurora was the sort of person who called her previous partner Philip her "straight phase", no matter how many times Mulan tried to explain things. Mulan could not put her suspicions to rest. Regina and Emma—she couldn't quite see it yet, but that spark. There was most definitely a spark.

Though with two women so focused on something as impersonal as politics, who was she kidding? These two would be oblivious forever.

-IV-

"Emma." Regina walked out the door, already frazzled, phone pinched between chin and shoulder. "We forgot eggs."

"Oh fuck."

"Brainstorm. Now." Regina ground her teeth, opening the car door and counting all the boxes. Everything else was in place for the Egg Festival. Except, funnily, not even an egg shaped paper weight.

"I have no idea why you people even have an egg festival, how am I supposed to help?"

"We possess the world's largest egg," Regina said, shutting the door of her car harder than required. "How could we not have an egg festival?" She sighed. "Maybe an egg shaped candy bowl? Can you pick that up on your way over?"

"Wow, that sounds a lot better than what I was trying to concoct. Let's just say my idea tried to blend eggs and coffee."

"You are a walking disaster sometimes," Regina said dryly.

"Aww, you too. I'll be there ASAP."

This wasn't the first public outing since Regina turned in the election paperwork. All the speech and debate classes from high school provided her enough material to fill a campaign party with inspiring words. She'd even purchased a slate-gray "power suit", as Emma called such things. But today was an all-day affair and, as the political newcomer, the burden would be precisely on her shoulders. And if she couldn't answer every interrogation on the spot, all day?

No, she wouldn't even contemplate that. She had studied her notes. She would win. Regina parked at the tiny fairgrounds and sent a follow-up text to Emma: Buy lots of candy.

Regina exited the car, loaded all her booth supplies on a small dolly, and smoothed down her skirt. Despite the lumpy grass, she'd worn her smartest heels and gritted her teeth now in preparation for the trek. A group of children wearing pastel egg costumes ran giggling past her, almost making her stumble. She took a deep breath, put her shoulders back and walked, mostly gracefully, to the front desk.

"Regina Mills?" the lady questioned, scanning down her list. "I have your badge, here, but your name isn't on the list of approved booths."

"Check again," Regina said, smiling tightly.

The lady checked a second and then third time. "I'm sorry, there's no record."

Regina placed her hand on the counter and bent in close, holding back her irritation. "I am one of only two candidates for mayor, as I'm sure you well know. I paid for my booth months ago. You will point me in its direction now, and find the relevant paperwork on your own time. I have a busy schedule today."

After a moment, the lady gulped and flipped through her papers. "Let me see here..."

Regina got her booth and her badge and a map of the festival, and walked off with a bit more swagger in her step. Even outside of Starbucks, she could get things done. It was a kind of charisma that had to be doled out in small doses—but it worked when applied.

By the time Emma showed up with an egg bowl and ten pounds of mini-lollipops and Jolly Ranchers, Regina had everything else set up. Emma set everything down and gave the thumbs up sign. "Very smart, Regina. Gray is a great color."

"Yes, I'm aware." Regina appreciated the compliment anyway. "And what is it you're wearing?"

Emma glanced down at her dark jeans and floral top. "I thought you said 'no hippie clothes'."

The woman looked...nice and certainly more political than usual. Regina waved her hand, commenting just for the sake of honest critique. "I expected something business casual."

Emma rolled her eyes. "It's a festival and it's not like I'm your trophy wife on display, I'm not even really connected to you. It's fun!" She stuck her thumbs through her waistband loops.

Regina waved her hand again. "In any case, I need you to be out talking to people. Pamphleting as well, don't forget. People need to know that I'm here in person."

Emma grinned. "Yes'm. I'll do what I can. By the way, though, you should sit down."

Regina frowned. "Why?"

"You're more impressive when you're not displaying just how short you are. In heels." Emma shrugged. "Unless you go for the scary route, in which case height doesn't matter."

Regina scoffed.

Emma lightly touched her elbow. "Also, it might help you relax. Focus on your breathing or something. You're all twitchy."

"My breathing is fine." Regina felt her fingers go all tense, though, and inwardly groaned. "I'm just cautious. Gold hasn't made a move yet, which only means that one is coming."

"Yeah, well, just don't let him sabotage you by making you too nervous to perform." Emma smiled a little, nose scrunching. "You will be amazing. Oh, and offer candy to little kids. It's a good PR move even if they can't vote."

Regina breathed out and put on her professional face. Jitters aside, she had faith in her skills. She was more than worthy of this position. All she had to do was prove it to the average Winlockian, whose standards would be well below her mother's and, well, achievable in general.

Emma offered her hand. Regina shook it, and smiled just as firmly.

"Good luck," Emma said.

Regina nodded. The festival began.

-V-

Today was one of those vegan compromise days. In general, Emma didn't approve of animal treatment in slaughterhouses and the like—she might fail at making the right choice, but her worldview felt much more consistent when she avoided meat and dairy. Even if sometimes it was just long-established parental guilt.

But this was Winlock, home of the World's Largest Chicken Egg, and this was Egg Day. She may have declined last year to even attend, but things had changed. For the sake of the town, Emma would eat eggs served every which way. Especially if there was a deep fried battered option. How could anyone pass that up?

The entire town trickled in as the morning went on. Kids ran around in costumes and face paint, going on egg hunts and partaking in egg tosses and doing that weird race thing with the egg on the spoon. Emma set aside her mission for a few minutes and just enjoyed herself. Her childhood in San Francisco had taught her how to avoid people. City people were always late, grumpy, selfish. She'd developed a hard exterior after being hurt too many times to count, and found that if she pretended she didn't exist then everyone else obliged as well.

Not that Emma didn't want to like other people. Quite the opposite. But foster children learned quickly not to depend on anyone but themselves. Even after her adoption, Emma was kept isolated from 'mainstream' kids, though she still felt embarrassed every time her parents took her to rallies. School difficulties were just the cherry on top. Emma didn't know how to deal with people on a friendly level—not till moving to Winlock.

What had once seemed awkward now felt glorious. Emma liked being liked, and she liked the people who liked her. This town might be backwards and stagnant, for now, but nothing moved too quickly and frowning was a rarity, not the norm.

Emma wasn't sure she ever wanted to leave.

When she stopped by Regina's table a couple hours later, her partner in political crime looked pleased. "How's traffic?" Emma asked.

"I've spoken with over a dozen," Regina said, nearly preening with pride. "Handed out four campaign buttons as well."

"Shook hands? Kissed babies?"

"In a nutshell." Regina had a glow to her that had Emma wondering if she'd just imagined the tension and nerves from this morning.

"I brought you an egg salad sandwich, if you're hungry." Emma held out a plate.

Regina eyed the sandwich. "Egg salad? That's hardly the impression I want to be giving to constituents. Quiche, though, I would appreciate."

"Sounds good." Emma sat down in the extra chair. "I'll have this for my lunch, then. Find quiche later."

They sat together for a while as the crowds grew and grew, filling the small fairground with buzz. Regina glanced over after a moment. "You are overly happy about this scheme, you know."

Caught off guard, Emma spoke through a mouthful of sandwich. "I am?"

"I haven't forgotten what you told me." Regina gestured vaguely. "You wanted to reform Winlock as a demonstration to your parents of...your skill at political change, I believe?"

"Oh that." Emma swallowed, nodding slightly. The thought hadn't escaped her mind, but it was something she had yet to put into words. "I guess… I don't want Winlock to just be an experiment. This is a good place. You and Snow and Mulan and everybody...I want you guys to succeed." She laughed, but it didn't come out as carefree as she had planned. "I'll have to deal with my parent issues in some other way. This is just about Winlock." And you, she almost said, but that would just sound corny. Regina wasn't the kind of friend to appreciate corny comments.

"Well, that I can get behind." Regina nodded slowly, as if thinking about it.

Emma took another bite of her sandwich, then felt a lump rising in her throat. She tried to swallow it back down, but it wouldn't disappear. As a last resort she talked over it, blurting the words out. "And anyway, I'm never going to be as extreme as my parents. I care a lot, but not the same way they do. So probably nothing I do is ever going to make them proud of me. Maybe they'll start talking to me again, but that's the best I'll get. It's okay, though. I'm proud of me. This is a good thing we're doing."

"I agree." Regina almost smiled, or maybe it was a trick of the light in her dark eyes.

Emma swallowed again, and the lump went away. Resolving to not think about her parents again today, she finished the sandwich and carried on with her duties as Regina's ambassador at the festival.

At first, it felt awkward. She stuck to people she already sort of knew, like Ruby and Archie. The words came more naturally after a few tries, though, and she found a nice solid rhythm. Friendly, but not shy. Passionate, but not flighty. Solid, but not stubborn. Mulan came up behind her after she sent her seventh person along with a pamphlet to Regina's booth.

The barista-bartender gave her a mildly surprised eyebrow raise. "If you'd come into Starbucks like this, way back when, you might have succeeded."

"Against Regina? I still doubt that." Emma carried on, but the words stuck with her a few more steps.

She'd learned a lot, even if most had been trial by fire. Her naivete had been a blind spot only just last year, and now she not only knew of its existence but didn't constantly berate herself for it.

Just as her pride was booming, however, everything started tripping up. The first time, she didn't really notice. The second time seemed like coincidence. The third and fourth hit closer and closer to home. By the fifth, this mother not even whispering as she pulled her children out of Emma's way, she felt tired and wanted to go home.

Even throughout most of college, when she'd slept with nearly every gay girl she could find, Emma had never been quite 'out and proud'. She didn't flaunt her business. After college had been a years-long dry spell and that made passing as straight even easier. So did the more hippie look that she'd adopted once the ache in her heart for her family had reached its peak. She just didn't fit the stereotype, so no one gave her a second look.

This treatment, even if it didn't come from people she particularly cared about, made her feel like she was 8 again and being mocked for her grades on the playground. It fueled her hate for Mr. Gold and his underhanded manipulation, but mostly it just hurt.

It wasn't from everyone, to be sure. As Snow had reassured her days ago, the tide was turning even in places like Winlock. Emma smiled and talked to people, and most smiled and talked back as they always had.

Just not everyone.

She was on her way back to report to Regina, and maybe take a break to regain her pep, when she saw Mulan leave the booth and a white-haired lady scoot closer. Emma walked up slowly, but could hear the old woman's words. "You're a sweetheart, dear, and I have to say it'd be nice to see a woman in office after all these years of idiot men. But you hang out with women of...poor character. It doesn't present the best picture to society, you know."

Regina's smile had frozen into place, but she didn't say anything other than, "I see."

The woman left. Emma sat down next to Regina and refused to say a word. She closed her eyes but couldn't close the world out.

"She's not the first, but she's been the first to say it out loud." Regina's words sounded venomous.

Emma rubbed at her eyes. "Maybe she's right. Maybe Mulan and I are just going to hold you down." The sound of the crowd wasn't as exciting anymore.

"I won't accept that." Regina snapped. "That's going too far."

Emma let out a long breath. "Thanks for that."

"Just because I'm staying in the closet doesn't mean it's not my fight," Regina muttered under her breath. "I know the town won't change in a day, but it's infuriating."

Emma opened her eyes and glanced over, surprised to see that Regina looked more worried than angry. Normally, this was the time for Emma to inject a little optimism back into things. Now, though, she wondered if they weren't taking Gold seriously enough. If he ruined Regina's chances too, there was no going back. And it wasn't as though gayness was the only way to bring someone down.

"A few minutes ago," Regina added, lip twitching, "an Egg Day official came by to tell me that I was at the wrong booth."

"Because they fucked up with the booths," Emma defended.

"Yes, and I managed to intimidate him away." Regina's fingers tensed and untensed in her lap, even as she pulled off a smile and a wave at a family walking by. "But not before half a dozen people saw. This isn't going as well as I hoped."

"It's not going terribly either," Emma tried to say with conviction. "Half the lollipops got taken. That's a lot of people who got to see you all decked out as possible-mayor. The stress is only for today."

"And every month from now until November," Regina added.

She was right, Emma knew. But nothing major fell apart during the rest of the afternoon, and they finished the day sipping egg nog and packing up all the campaign supplies. "We did good today," Emma said.

"Only time will tell," Regina corrected.

Emma would not be so easily swayed. By the time she got home and received more than the usual love from Gumby, she had bounced back to her original mood. A little conflict along the way was to be expected. There would be no backing down until Regina sat in that office. Emma wasn't giving up.

Chapter Text

-I-

Despite not working at the bar anymore, for a while Mulan saw Emma just as much as she did before. Her suspicions about their gayness for each other might be put to rest, since neither one of them had made a move even when gifted with ample opportunity, but they were thick as thieves at Starbucks. Regina had only cut back some of her hours, at first.

Then the first election poll plastered the pages of the Daily Mirror.

Regina brooded and paced. Emma waved her hands around and threw out every idea that came into her head. "It's 35%, it's not a death knell!" she kept saying. Regina continued to brood, and then began dropping hours left and right.

Starbucks lost its campaign team presence, but Mulan gained a new part-time coworker. "The library hasn't been doing so great," Belle admitted after Regina introduced her. "We're losing our funding."

Mulan had been hearing stories like that her whole life. In that regard, she was rather touched by Regina and Emma's work. Politics might motivate them, but not in a bad way. The campaign went from think tank to community service, from what she could see. Soon enough, people were more likely to see Regina helping outside of Starbucks than within it. Even without the election, that made the town a better place. Just one-year prior, Mulan never would have guessed that Regina cared—she still had to keep pinching herself. Emma seemed to have awoken in her a sense of justice long crushed by Winlock and Cora. It was fascinating, even from a distance.

Not that it would necessarily win her any election. The town had too many inhabitants for the majority to be moved by mere sentiment, and in an economic downturn there were suspicious cranky faces around every corner. It wasn't Mulan's business, but she wondered if Regina was taking seriously the rumors from the opposition. "Regina Mills is no knight in shining armor," Mulan heard someone say, but the words were clearly Gold's in origin. "She's a pawn of Starbucks Corporation, no more and no less."

Given that, it was a good move for Regina to spend all her campaigning time elsewhere.

Mulan, in the meantime, found herself working 60 hours a week on average. The money was good—great, even—but she could feel herself falling into the pit of quicksand that was Duty. She started selling coffee even in her dreams.

So when Aurora sent her a cryptic text about "needing to talk", Mulan had a pretty good guess for what they had to talk about. The guilt hit even harder when she could barely remember when she'd last seen her girlfriend.

She came home, a heartfelt apology already on her lips, and couldn't find Aurora anywhere. "Sweetie? Are you home?"

"In the bedroom," came the familiar voice.

Mulan walked down the hall and stopped in the door frame. "Hey. You said we should talk."

Aurora sat on the bed, but turned to face Mulan. Her look was dark, her small hands loosely clenched into fists. "I talked to Regina today."

"Okay." Mulan came in and sat opposite her. She told herself not to jump the gun.

"I wanted to ask, on your behalf, if she could give you a pay raise to compensate for the long hours that are basically a service to her." Aurora's voice sounded like a whip drawn back, ready to strike.

Mulan felt her stomach sink to the floor. Before she found words to say aloud, the silence had hung too long in the air. "And Regina said?"

"That you'd been promoted weeks ago." Aurora's voice quivered. "And that got me thinking, you know? How you've been working so many extra hours, but your paycheck looks exactly the same. I'm not an idiot, Mulan. It didn't take me long to figure out that you were lying to me. On purpose."

Mulan swallowed hard, shame filling the pit in her stomach. She hadn't thought about this. It had just been impulse. Maybe because she knew that if it came to this, it wouldn't be worth it. The betrayal in Aurora's eyes made her want to fall on her knees and beg forgiveness. Yet she didn't, out of some desperate sense of pride. "I didn't want it to be a temptation—"

"How old do you think I am, twelve?" Aurora burst out before she finished. "You didn't even talk to me before going behind my back."

"Talking never worked before," Mulan said under her breath, even as she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. There was no defense for what she'd done, not really, it had just felt like the only option. She hadn't evaluated the decision. It wasn't calculated like that.

"What did you say?" Aurora rose from the bed and stepped further away from her. "Is that how you see me? Unreasonable and frivolous? Is that all I am to you?"

Years of frustration boiled to a single point, every argument they'd never had because Mulan hated conflict. Even her own shame for this couldn't silence Mulan. "I have dreams, Aurora. I've had them for so long, and all you've done is hold them back." The words caught in her throat, far harsher than they had any right to be. "Not on purpose, and I love you anyway, but—"

"No. Stop." Aurora's lip quivered, her hand held palm outstretched. "I don't want your justifications. This hurts, Mulan. I didn't know. You didn't tell me. You didn't respect me enough." She took a deep breath. "I'm going to the bar and I don't want you to follow me. When I get home, I don't want you to be in our bed."

Mulan nodded. She could barely breathe past the lump in her throat.

"We're not breaking up yet but I don't want to see you for a while," Aurora said, and then she left Mulan in the empty room.

When the front door finally closed, Mulan sunk down to the bed and squeezed her eyes shut. A world of disappointment and judgment fell around her, all surrounding a single question she couldn't answer satisfactorily. Why had she risked it?

-II-

Regina had never felt more alive than while hard at work on a project. Her own project, mind, and not her mother's. Even this one, though it involved more than she usually liked in terms of social interaction. (God only knew how much she felt indifference for most individuals in this town.) Yet as a whole, she wanted justice for them, for herself, for the town as a symbol.

Not that they deserved such a sentiment. Two months of community service passed, and gave her only a 5 point bump in the polls. Even after she demanded (privately) to have the data made public, she scoured over the numbers and found no fraud in the report. People simply didn't trust her yet.

It could be Emma, she kept whispering darkly to herself. I am riding on her coat tails with this campaign and everyone knows it. I might be the face, but they know she shares half the brains behind it. On that point, however, nothing could be done. She needed Emma—wanted Emma—and even if she adopted the most ruthless tactics, November was too soon to make people forget.

Though November couldn't come fast enough. Mr. Gold had resisted all confrontations, ignoring altogether the public commentary on his inordinate influence over Winlock, to the point where Regina knew she couldn't step further without being labeled either aggressive or libelous. As a man she might have managed it, but Regina knew all too well how soft and friendly she had to appear, while still portraying a core of strength. It was a bitter balance, but especially necessary in a town that had known no female leadership in its entire sordid history. So despite everything, she could not hit hard enough against Mr. Gold to feel secure. He came across gently dismissive in his silence, for now, as did his puppet Mayor Thicke, and that was enough to give them a 60% approval rating.

And try as hard as she might, Regina still hadn't been able to pin certain rumors as coming from him. Most specifically the one about Starbucks being a huge campaign donor. It was absurd, given the tiny funds they worked with, but some people didn't think twice. Regina distanced herself from Starbucks and bore down on what really mattered: making average voters like her.

Regina wasn't a people person, but she could smile and shake hands and kiss fat babies until her lips became calloused. She could even make it all seem genuine, if she worked at it. What she couldn't manage was earning love effortlessly. People like David had the gift. Emma had a half version of it. Regina only envied, and the longer her campaign days went, the stronger her envy grew.

In the afternoons, she made a habit of stopping by Starbucks for ice water and peace. Mulan and Belle ran an admirable shift that allowed her to sit and get all her brooding out of the way.

The last time she'd allowed something to mean everything to her, it had been yanked from under her feet and she'd crashed. The time before that as well. When Emma had been the one running, Regina managed to keep a part of herself safe from dangerous investment—now it was her project, and she saw disaster coming every time she realized that it, too, meant everything to her. Not just politics, not just power, this meant making her own legacy. Changing her fate, as ridiculous as that sounded. Regina took an hour every day to give weight to the dread.

Then, restored by the cheery productivity of her Starbucks, she'd put the dread to work in more impassioned campaigning.

Not even that lasted. It started as a tickling up her spine, a sense more than a feeling. The next day it felt like a prickle in the air. By the third day, brow furrowed, Regina recognized it. Tension. Belle looked strained and Mulan projected ill humor to the entire store. Regina's happy place was gone and without hope of return, once she saw the weekly report.

She could see it now, the next headline in the Daily Mirror: "Campaign Leading Starbucks Manager To Abandon Duties". There was no time to hire or fire. There was no time for her to run it all on her own again. But this could mean losing her job, her first and only job. Rationality flew out the window when she marched bright and early to the store.

"You," Regina snapped, finding Mulan prepping with a sour expression. "We had a deal."

Mulan looked at her, jaw set at a sharp angle. "I think I've been doing quite well, Regina."

Not one for subtlety, Regina all but shoved the sheet of paper in Mulan's face. "A 30% drop in a single week? No flooding to account for it this time. No lack of staffing. You're driving away customers!"

Mulan said nothing, only stared sullenly. It wasn't like her.

Regina, realizing that perhaps she'd placed her trust in a woman she didn't really know, ranted. "I promoted you based on past experience and an understanding that you could manage basic customer service skills. I did not give you free rein to act like a child!"

For a moment, Mulan looked like she would take it. A moment only. Guilt warred with anger in her eyes. "I'm sorry that I can't control my personal life. It's a little distracting, something I thought you would understand."

"Don't even go there," Regina spat, tension rolling in her gut. Sympathy, if she had any, was buried somewhere beneath everything else. "This is my livelihood and I worked myself to the bone to maintain a certain appearance."

"Ha!" Mulan gestured at Regina. "No, are you serious? Your life has affected Starbucks since day one, Regina! It's practically legendary. And what do you think is going to change when you get elected? Nothing. Life affects work. It's not pretty but it happens. I'm dealing with my shit and it'll be over soon, but maybe you need to deal with the fact that you can't be a good mayor and a good manager."

Regina couldn't quite find the words.

Mulan let out a short breath. "I'm sorry about my performance," she said shortly. "I'm dealing with it. Give me some freaking space, Regina."

And she did. Leaving Mulan to finish the store prep, Regina walked out of the shop into the crisp fall morning. Dawn had yet to break and a few twinkling stars hung in the corners of the sky. She used to walk like this every morning to Starbucks, full of hope. Only then it had not been wearing a power suit and heels, and it had been vain hope in the end. Maybe that's what this was too. Maybe this was a sign.

Her morning schedule involved helping David with the animal shelter, and then a trip to the elementary school to speak on such matters. Regina suffered through both, a part of her cringing every time she walked by her mother's old office in the school. No one seemed to notice her strained mood. No one seemed to notice her.

That, in the end, gave her fear. People weren't responding well enough. Their enthusiasm was dim. If she couldn't turn it around shortly, the bubble would burst and they'd turn on her. And in that amount of time, Starbucks might be lost to her as well.

She wouldn't do it to herself. She wouldn't gamble away her own pride and find herself with nothing. Mother was right about that. It's not worth it.

When Emma called her at noon, she didn't pick up the phone but instead walked to the woman's house.

"Hey," Emma said as brightly as ever. "I just called, but this works. Come on in."

"I don't know if I should." The very thought of giving up filled her with disgust, but alternative was despair. "Starbucks is important to me, Emma."

Emma rested her hand on the doorframe. "What?"

Regina couldn't, wouldn't, do this on the front porch. She shook her head and pushed past Emma into the house. Inside was minimalist chaos and far, far too much green. She shook her head and turned around to face Emma. "I don't think you understand how much of my life is on the line for this."

"Your life? Oh, do they execute losing candidates in Winlock?" Emma crossed her arms, chin lifting. "Because I think you're exaggerating a bit."

Regina glared, frustration boiling, fingers clenching and unclenching. She regretted speaking up at all. What was the point of expressing her misgivings if Emma would just run roughshod over them? Did the woman even understand the delicacy of the situation? Grit and optimism were valuable characteristics until they turned into naiveté.

Emma closed her eyes for a second, then opened and narrowed her gaze. "Wait… Are you thinking of giving up?"

No, Regina told herself, but wished she could say yes. The weariness was back, the kind that would take hold every morning just before 6:25 and Cora. She said nothing aloud.

Emma took the silence as something more drastic. Her arms started to flail, eyes widening. "You can't do this, Regina. You can't quit now. Are we talking about lives on the line, is that it? Because I've spent the past six months under the impression that we were a team. This is my life. You can’t make decisions for both of us. And win or lose, I want to try my hardest."

Regina wanted to tear her hair out. "Without 100% of my attention, Starbucks could go under. Or, hardly a better option, it could be used against me in the election."

"We can get through that," Emma insisted.

"And if we can't, you still have the bar and your fucking family to earn back, and what do I have?" Regina snapped, temples suddenly throbbing. She rubbed at them, refusing to look at Emma until, for once, Emma didn't answer.

She looked up. Emma hadn't moved, her cheeks drained of color. A moment of satisfaction washed over Regina, a moment that said 'Good, stop dismissing everything I feel', but it was quickly bowled over by guilt.

"Fine," Emma said almost voicelessly, her hands hanging loosely at her sides. She looked young for a moment, absurdly young.

"I didn't…" Regina didn't do apologies well. She struggled for words, desperate. "I'm sorry."

Emma gave a short quick nod that seemed to accept it, shook off the hurt expression, and sat on the couch with the sort of gesture that asked Regina to sit by her. "I know we don't have this thing in the bag yet. Just don't panic, okay? We aren't done yet."

She could hardly keep talking about uncertainties now. Regina swallowed them, one by one, until her mind was clear enough to think positively. Giving up wasn't really an option. She would just have to fake confidence and march straight to her potential downfall.

At least she wasn't alone. More than her reputation and the fate of Starbucks, Regina wasn't sure she could imagine life without Emma. Her only—maybe even her first—friend.

Though even in the end, Emma couldn't fully allay Regina's fears.

-III-

For once, Mulan woke up before her alarm. She lay in bed, eyes shut, but everything felt out of place. This was day 7 of the fight and day 7 of sleeping alone.

She had been prepared to apologize by day 3. Obviously she'd betrayed Aurora's trust, and that was unaccountable. It went against everything she valued. It was a mistake. But what stopped her short was that Aurora hadn't demanded it. She'd demanded to not see Mulan.

Having never seen parents or even friends fight and make up, Mulan was lost. She would respect Aurora's space, but how did that work? Aurora still maintained a schedule where Mulan couldn't even hope to run into her, and that had to be on purpose. But was it still mindless anger or was she hurt by the lack of apology?

Mulan lay awake, unable to make a move. All she knew for sure was that she had screwed up one of the few good things in her life. Without Aurora, her dreams tasted stale. They'd grown so comfortable together, Mulan had forgotten to put effort into the relationship. Now, it might even be too late.

Angry at herself, she decided to do what Regina would have. It wasn't the greatest example but it was what she had. She got up, showered, dressed, and headed into Starbucks.

The world had more shit to dump on her. Mulan unlocked the front door only to jolt backwards. A figure moved in the back of the dark shop—an old familiar one. "You scared the shit out of me," she breathed. "What are you doing here."

"I prepped for you." Regina shrugged.

Mulan side eyed her. "It's not even 4:00am...and that's my job now."

"I had time to kill." Regina still sat, a mug in front of her. Her apron looked almost as out of place on her now as the simple blouse and dress pants. Once this had been all anyone ever saw of Regina. That felt like a lifetime ago.

"Well, now I have nothing to do." Mulan grumped out of principle, grabbed a mug, prepared herself a tea, then sat across from her boss. Better than being alone.

Regina said nothing, only traced unreadable words with her fingertips on the side of the mug. The resignation in her pose was almost serene—almost too sad.

"Why here?" Mulan finally asked, warming her palms against the mug of tea.

"It is, in case you forgot, my place of employment." Regina's dry tone hadn't changed since Mulan first met her, at an interview that Mulan mostly pretended hadn't happened. "I assume you're here to escape relationship troubles." Regina gave Mulan a look that was not quite as mocking as it used to be.

Mulan let out a half laugh. "Indeed." Then, on a whim, she cocked her head. "You too?"

Regina blinked. "I'm not in a—"

"There are all kinds of relationships, Regina." Mulan had a hunch, still, but Regina didn't need to know all the odd speculation behind it. "You’ve been running to her with all your other problems, so if you’re here then I assume it's problems with Emma."

The woman's face twisted in an attempt at a smile. The serenity was gone, if it had ever been there in the first place. "I don't...talk about things."

"Me either." Mulan grimaced, thinking of Aurora and the pain in her eyes. "It's not a great habit."

Regina flicked her fingertips skyward and took a long sip of coffee. "Talking wouldn't fix my problem."

"I can imagine that," Mulan murmured. "Mine...well, talking might help, might hurt. Talking to you would do nothing."

Regina nodded slowly, lost in thought. Then, just as Mulan prepared for silence: "I have spent my entire life—26 years now—in fear. To live any other way, I imagine, will take time and practice. Which I don't have. If I fail at this election...then what?”

Mulan swallowed. Failure. Such a shameful word. "People fail elections all the time, Regina. They move on."

"And people fail relationships all the time and then move on," Regina answered, barbs on every word. "Does that make it any more tolerable?"

"Touché." Mulan paused. "But if we don't take chances, we're doomed to be a failure."

That thought made Regina look sick and she had no snappy response.

Mulan finished her tea. Having Regina there, judging, not quite caring, made her rethink her own feelings. Finally, as 5:00am rolled around, she rose to her feet and took her mug behind the counter. "I'm not going to kill my relationship with cowardice. I already damaged it. No more." It was easier to say when someone else could hear. It was almost accountability.

Regina straightened her apron and joined her behind the counter. Just like old days. Regina’s voice sounded certain as iron. "Neither will I let my legacy, in life or campaign, be as a coward."

She started the coffee and added, almost as an afterthought. "Besides, worry never won an election. Emma’s right about that."

And just like that they slipped back into their old ways. No talk, just work. Yet Mulan knew they’d taken the first step and now the two of them had to take the next...and the next, and the next, and the next. She expected pain, at least on her path. Courage always did seem to go hand and hand with it.

-IV-

"So how's your day going?" Aurora asked as Emma sat in the salon chair.

"Badly." Emma guessed, judging from Aurora's lack of usual pep, that she wasn't alone in that mood. "I keep meeting brick walls."

"I know the feeling," Aurora sighed, scissors dancing around Emma's head.

Last night at the bar, Emma had ruined no less than four drinks. Her mind, usually as focused as it ever was, kept running through the election stats. She thought, pondered, and overthought, and still couldn't get a grip around what Regina was so afraid of. If she could just do that, maybe sympathy could overcome hurt. This wasn't the first time Regina had her in the crossfire when she lashed out, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Emma still had all the highest hopes for Regina. All the worries, as well, but the hopes outweighed them for now.

The salon door opened and Snow bounced in like an embodiment of the fall sunshine. "Hey you two!"

Emma wondered why, for a second, she hoped it was Regina coming through the door. That was dumb. That didn't even make sense.

"Did something happen and I missed it?" Snow glanced between Emma and Aurora, concern wrinkling her brow. She grabbed a seat, head cocked.

"Same as yesterday," Aurora said cryptically, trimming Emma's bangs with a harsh flourish.

Emma said nothing. Her frown weighed heavily on her face but she was something less than an oversharer.

"So she hasn't even…?" Snow made a noise of pity-pain.

Aurora shrugged. "It's not like her, you know. This whole thing. I want to blame Regina. I don't know how, but I also don't know anyone else with influence in her life."

Still lost but now intrigued by the pieces she could put together, Emma tried to glance up but only got hair bits in her eyes. "Wait, what?"

Aurora sighed. "Mulan."

"Is Regina a problem? Did I miss something?" Emma shoved down the little twist in her stomach when she said the woman's name.

Snow nodded to Aurora, who spun Emma's chair and gave a half laugh. "I suppose it's mean of me to only think of Regina in these terms. I just don't know why Mulan would have done something so disrespectful. She's not that kind of person. Regina, though, isn't exactly…"

"Respectful." Emma bit her lip. "No." She bit harder, closing one hand into a fist.

"I thought you two…" Snow said quietly, gently probing for information.

"She almost backed out on me. Without warning." Emma didn't know it would feel good to say the words until they came flying out of her mouth.

"Oh hon, that’s not good." Snow reached over, lightly brushing Emma's arm.

Emma exhaled slowly, but didn't unfist her hand. Some days, it felt like she and Regina had grown a lifetime together. Today, though, it felt like square one again. Regina hadn't let go of her past—and neither had Emma, so she shouldn't judge, but she did. Regina was like a porcupine. As long as she had the quills, one day she'd use them. The only way to avoid getting hurt was to just stay away. Which was probably some kind of enlightening metaphor for Regina's life, but Emma didn't want to think about it.

Once her haircut was achieved, Emma wandered Main St. and wondered what she could possibly do to alleviate this situation. The election could be doing better and Regina needed a big win, before she freaked out for good and Emma (again) caught all the slack. She didn’t want to feel resentful about it, but maybe Regina’s stress was wearing off onto her.

Just as she passed Starbucks, Regina came out with a drink in her hand. It reminded her of all those months ago when she’d looked like a terror from the depths of hell. Now, Emma only saw hard beauty, even if fragility threatened to destroy her from within.

Regina held out the drink. “Soy mocha?” Apology hid in the corners of her forced smile.

Emma took the drink and apology both. “Thanks.” Her smile made Regina’s soften a little, and as usual Emma set aside bad feelings. They were still a team.

“I think it’s time for us to be more proactive,” Regina said after a moment, with more conviction than Emma had seen in weeks. “Weakness will not get us anywhere.”

Emma tipped her head. “Proactive how?”

“Gold.” Regina’s lips curled just saying the name. “Everyone ‘knows’ he’s corrupt but no one knows it, and that keeps them from being properly horrified at how he manipulates the mayor. If we can actually tie evidence together, we might paint a picture they can’t ignore.”

Hope trickled back into Emma’s heart, a warmth that only grew with every second. It was so easy to love this, when Regina was on board. “That makes sense, but what sort of evidence can we find that doesn’t require a criminal investigation?”

Regina nodded slightly. “That is, of course, the trick. But two years ago the mayor lobbied hard for an ordinance that limited leases on town premises. Leaving the legalese aside, the result has been that several businesses in prime real estate locations have been pushed out of business due to lack of large resources. Family owned businesses that were doing fine—up until this bill. And the properties are not listed for sale, but nor are they being utilized at this point. Most people believe that Gold bought them out and is holding them in his back pocket, but have no proof of it.”

Emma felt her brow furrow and took a long sip of her mocha. “Okay so we can’t track down property records without a warrant, but if we’re thorough we might find more circumstantial evidence. Enough to make a case in our campaign. It’s dirty, but the kind that people tolerate during election season.”

Regina’s eyes flashed a little. “Exactly. Only problem is, I’m too high profile and Gold knows all my methods. I won’t be able to track this down myself.” A little smile escaped, almost soft and sweet.

Emma’s heart fluttered unexpectedly. She ignored it, but grinned. “I wasn’t raised by follow-the-rules activists. I know a bit about subterfuge, don’t you worry.”

“Good.” Regina let out a short breath. “Better hurry, though. We need to strike first so it doesn’t seem defensive.”

Emma nodded.

Regina left, whether for Starbucks or other campaign tasks Emma didn’t know. She stood until her drink went lukewarm, brainstorming. Her first thought was to casually interrogate Gold’s associates and employees for anything they may have overheard. Secondhand information was better than nothing—and probably all Regina wanted for now. That thought didn’t last long enough.

Regina needed something big. Something that Emma seriously doubted could be obtained 100% legally. Had their campaign been more solid, and Regina more confident, Emma would have played everything according to the book. Now, though, the risks might be worth the reward. And Regina wouldn’t even have to be an accomplice.

Gold was, officially, only the manager and owner of the general store. While surely his personal office would be full of more shady business, Emma doubted that he kept the store office sparkly clean. Especially given store security. What would be his downfall was that Emma wasn’t cowed by security cameras. Those, she could bypass. It wasn’t a foolproof plan, but no plan was.

There was no time to waste. Emma downed the last of her drink and hurried home. Gumby followed her around the house, curiously poking his nose into everything while she tried to track down her sneakiest attire. The thrill was undeniable as she compared her faux-leather to leggings. Faux-leather would give a noir spy feel, but practicality called for the flexibility and quiet of the leggings and yoga top. The store cameras were sure to have nightvision, but nondescript was her safest choice.

She pulled her hair into a ponytail and tucked it under a hat, adding gloves to avoid fingerprints. Once satisfied with her appearance, she tucked hat and gloves into the pockets of a red dress to wear on top of everything. Emma hadn’t done this since the animal research clinic in ’09. Her lockpicking skills would be rusty, but she doubted that Gold expected something like this. She would have time.

All she had to do was get in the store, find a place to hide, and then after closing dispose of the dress and spy away. Without fingerprints or any stolen objects, Gold wouldn’t be able to track her. If asked, she could say the information came from anonymous but knowledgeable informants.

Regina wouldn’t like it, but Regina didn’t have to know. Perhaps especially because Emma was doing this for her.

Before tomorrow, they would have everything they needed. Emma just knew it.

-V-

The chill October breeze blew hair in her face as she walked up towards the animal shelter. Another adoption day with David and then never again. Quixote avoided her every time she came back smelling of dog, and Regina didn't need that. A gust of wind nearly blew her off her feet. Grumbling, she ducked into Starbucks to wait a few more seconds.

The café was warm, windless, and smelled of pumpkin spice. Belle and Mulan were taking advantage of the lull to restock, both of them looking cheerful. Regina swept past them both to the back where she could rearrange her hair and look her best. She had to be impeccable. The current campaign strategy still relied on her looking confident and competent, and definitely not a 'slobby college dropout' as one rumor had it. It was the same strategy they'd run for months, but despite Emma's successful mission, they couldn't yet use the damning information she'd gathered. Too soon would be too suspicious. Besides, a smear campaign against one's opponent had to be properly timed. If it looked defensive or desperate, people would get a bad taste in their mouths.

With her mind on the campaign, Regina barely noticed Mulan ducking in the back room until she spoke.

"You look great, Regina, don't worry about it."

Regina glanced over her shoulder, mildly surprised to see a smile on her employee's face. "A compliment from you? I feel I should inspect it for sarcasm."

"No, I mean it." Mulan shrugged a bit. "That thing last week? Dealt with. As I promised."

Regina raised an eyebrow. "I'm judging from your expression that things did not end in disaster?"

Mulan appeared to not have expected a follow-up question. She took a second to gather her words. "Yes. We didn't break up. We talked, actually talked, and we're doing better. And you?"

Now it was Regina's turn to not have expected the question. "And me what?" A second later it dawned on her. "Oh, well, nothing's for certain until November."

Mulan nodded, but smiled a bit as she headed out the door. "We all wish you good luck, you know."

Regina let out a breath, hoping that it was truth and not blind encouragement. Another poll was due on Friday and she didn't have objective expectations. The town felt in flux. Her and Gold's campaigns were tectonic plates pressed up against each other, the tension ever-growing. The earthquake would happen, but which would end up on top?

She almost sympathized with her mother and the use of blackmail. Uncertainty would eat her alive, despite all the support.

David, oddly enough, soothed her worries for a couple hours. He'd come on the campaign because of Emma but you couldn't tell that anymore. He had a pretty face, a genuine smile, and a heart that Regina suspected was entirely composed of Care Bears and Captain America comics. She could find no duplicity in his friendly behavior, whether to her or to the animals and their potential adopters. It was practically endearing, which was just what her campaign needed.

People came to the event. David and Regina tried to sell them on the lovable dogs and cats, a task that always resulted in dog slobber and cat hair ending up everywhere. Regina got tackled by one excitable dalmatian, flushed, and hustled back to her feet. People laughed, but she couldn't tell if they were laughing with or at her. It unnerved her for a second even as she laughed back. The dog got adopted and the day went on. Despite her skirt and jacket being ruined, Regina smiled and charmed and hoped to win a few more hearts. Some animals went home with new owners, at least, which was enough for David to hug and thank her by the end of the event.

She went home to clean up. Quixote glared; she won him over with lunch. Then it was working a few more hours on managerial duties at Starbucks, and finally home. She prepared dinner for herself and contemplated inviting Emma Swan over to share it—until remembering that the woman didn't eat dairy, and so probably would not appreciate mozzarella and parmesan baked ziti.

So Regina sat on her couch and ate alone. She flicked on the TV set for distraction, staring through the commercials and the nightly news. 43% approval, give or take a few points. That wasn't too bad. That could be fixed in a month.

Out of nowhere, Regina then heard her own name on the TV set. She sat up straight, frowning, as a commercial began. The voice sounded intimidating and this certainly wasn't from her campaign. No, no it couldn't be at all.

A picture of her and Daniel in Starbucks crossed the screen. Had it not been metal, Regina would have broken her fork with the sudden squeeze of her fist.

The dread in her stomach came up to her throat, choking her. She didn't hear the entire pitch—just enough. 'college dropout', 'unstable personality', 'alcoholic'. Pictures flashed by of all her worst moments, the ones she'd stuffed in a box in the back of her head to never remember again. Then there was a picture she'd never seen, of Emma dragging her out of the bar. She knew what night that had been. Her hands shook.

The phone rang and she knew it was Emma. She didn't pick up. It felt like every organ in her body had been ripped out and displayed for the whole world to see. The commercial ended with a disingenuous 'this ad has not been paid for by Jeremy Thicke for Mayor' and she switched off the TV with a ragged, gulping sound. The phone still rang.

Regina threw it across the couch and wrapped her arms around her knees. Her breathing was too fast, too harsh. She told herself she was no longer ten years old, she was no longer vulnerable to what people knew or thought they knew about her life. Her mother was dead, what was there to hide anymore? She wasn't shaken, she wasn't hurt, she wasn't violated. This was just a dirty move. Worse than anything she would have done. She wasn't upset she was just...angry.

Regina rose from the couch, knuckles white, and told herself that this sick feeling was anger. And maybe, just maybe, a little confusion.

The phone stopped ringing for a second before she heard the knock at the door.

Regina knew it was Emma and she knew Emma was furious too. Yes. They were both furious. But she couldn't vent at Emma, not after this. The images and the events they went with rushed through her head, almost dizzyingly personal. Again, she told herself she felt hatred. She grabbed her jacket and shoes and walked stiffly to the door.

"Regina I don't—" Emma started as soon as the door opened.

"Not now," Regina said, throat in a vice, and walked past her. She marched straight to her car, slammed the door, and drove to Gold's house.

It was the only thing to do and so she did it, knuckles tight around the steering wheel. Gold's mansion loomed over a wide property that he'd bought out before Regina had been born. The gate was closed, so she exited the car and walked up to the front door, each step like the beat of a drum. Every muscle tensed and she rapped, perhaps too loudly, on the door.

He opened it with a smile. "Yes?"

"You crossed a line," she accused, voice just a bit too shaky. "No one will stand for it, but it doesn't take away that you crossed a line, Gold." His name tasted sour on her tongue.

The man didn't even flinch, nor did his cold smile falter. "Your side crossed it first, dearie. I was content to watch your little ship sink on its own until then. Consider this...a shot across the bows."

Regina blinked, lost to his meaning. "What are you talking about? My campaign has barely even mentioned you."

"Yet." Gold's smile lingered another second, then faded away. His eyes were chips of ice, sharp and unrelenting. "If my opponent intends to use a weapon, then it is my duty to not only use mine first, but in such a way that they cannot recover. It's just a game. And at least all my information can be found publically. Legally. Your outrage is quite well done, Ms. Mills, but you do not have the high ground here."

He shut the door in her face.

Regina stood, bewildered, fists unclenching at her side. His words were nonsense, something to say to anyone but her. They didn't make sense. Slowly, still confused, still gutted, she decided that she knew of no other course but to talk to Emma.

-VI-

Regina had left the door open as she stormed off, so Emma had taken it upon herself to dart inside and keep Quixote from escaping. He whined and scratched at the door, but Emma continued to bat him away. "You have a bad habit of causing more stress for her," Emma rebuked, as sternly as she could manage. "Stay here and stay quiet."

The cat didn't listen. The cat, predictably, continued to whine and drag his claws down Regina's doorframe. Cats be damned.

Emma just couldn't get Regina's face out of her head. Every shot from that fucking commercial was a woman Emma didn't know—a woman that didn't really exist, except as a straw man. Did Regina have her whole life together? No, no one did. But she was anything but an over-emotional wreck. Starbucks' success alone should have proved that. This was a mindgame, meant to sway the ignorant and to get under Regina's skin. The latter, at least, it already accomplished. Emma couldn't get that last face out of her head. The one Regina wore as she ran past Emma to the car, full of pain and anger.

She would be back. She wouldn't handle this on her own, not after all they'd been through. Emma paced, chewing her lower lip, not sure what to do with her hands.

"What do I say?" she asked Quixote when she dragged him yet again from the front door. "This is rough, this is so rough." They'd expected Gold to make a move but this?

Sooner than expected, the door creaked open and Regina walked in. She moved as if out of place, as if the world could at any moment lurch beneath her feet.

Emma almost asked 'are you okay', but cut herself short just in time. "Hey," she said instead, awkwardly.

"I went to Gold's," Regina said, each syllable deliberate. When her eyes gazed straight at Emma, Emma flinched. They were the eyes of a woman who was weary beyond words, but still had something to do. Her next words came taut as a drum. "You told me that you got all your information from employees with loose lips, didn't you?"

Every puzzle piece clicked into place. Emma swallowed hard. "Yes, I did."

"Clearly you lied." Regina didn't move, every emotion swirling beneath a forced neutral expression.

Of all the things that Emma thought they'd have to talk about, this hadn't made the list. She scrambled for a coherent explanation for what had seemed like small potatoes at the time. "I thought it gave you deniability if you didn't know. I didn't steal anything, I just broke into the office and looked around. We needed that list to—"

"You went behind my back," Regina said with a voice that quivered. She took a step forward and gripped the back of her couch, ignoring Quixote as he wove between her legs. "On my own campaign."

It wasn't fair. This was such a small thing, it shouldn't have amounted to this. Tonight had been an overreaction from Gold, so why was Emma to blame? Seeing Regina gutted and looking at her with only betrayal hurt like nothing ever had before. "I didn't mean for this to happen…" Emma said, the only words she could manage.

"As if that matters?" Regina's voice sounded thick, her eyes shiny with more than just anger. "You could have asked or even just informed me of your plans. I would have been swift to tell you that you don't go up against Gold like this unless you want to be burned and destroyed. This was an ignorant move! You asked for this, Emma!" Regina laughed, despairingly. "And you didn't bring it down on yourself, no, of course not. Just on me."

Emma knew that there were implications to Gold's move beyond tonight and beyond this house, but all she could feel was the personal. The bond they'd built being stretched to its limit, and at any minute about to snap. She wanted desperately to cross the breach between them and hug Regina until the pain dissipated, until they could talk about how to fix the situation. They'd done it before and they could do it again. Together. Only together.

Regina had all her defenses up and it would hurt, god how it would hurt. But Emma didn't care about the hurt if she could fix this. "I'm sorry, Regina, I didn't think it through." She swallowed. "And I know it seems like the end of the world, but—"

The other woman snapped upright, rigid as a board. "Don't you try, Emma Swan," she warned, heat in her voice.

Emma flinched, hands clenching defensively. She wanted to beg Regina to wait and listen, she wasn't good with words but she got there eventually. But nothing came out.

"You have no idea what you've done." Regina let go of the couch and walked a few steps closer, rigid, as if it took strength just to stand tall. "I can't go back anymore. I have to take this. Even if people don't believe everything, do you really think they've all forgotten what happened when my mother died? What happened when she was still alive, which you know nothing about? I spent years trying to bury those memories. I became 'the Starbucks lady'. I was almost there...but now it's out again, worse than ever, thanks to you. I can't go back to Starbucks unscathed by this. I'll always be the mayoral candidate who crashed and burned because of her own reputation. This will follow me forever. I will never be free." Her voice choked with more agony than rage.

Emma felt her eyes bristle with tears.

"And I can't believe I thought I could trust you with this." Regina's voice cracked and she shook her head. "I can't believe I thought you had noble intentions."

"Regina, I—" Emma started to panic. This was the lashing out she'd expected, but she couldn't bear it.

She stepped forward, but too close, it seemed. Regina slapped her. It rung in her ears and made her fall back a pace, words caught in her throat.

"You've done everything towards your own ends," Regina said with bitter venom. "This entire campaign. You took advantage of me when I was vulnerable and you've just been using me to get the political power you failed at. And despite destroying my life on the side, leaving me with nothing, you keep trying to reel me in with optimism." She laughed, tears wet in her eyes. "I'm not a fool, Emma, not after this."

It was wrong, all of it, but Emma felt like a knife had been stabbed through her ribs all the same. Rationality was a word that had no meaning right now. "I was trying to help," she choked out. This was a scene she'd lived through a dozen times, with a dozen different people. Emma's understanding didn't mitigate the stabbingly painful realization that, at her core, Regina didn't seem to believe a word Emma had said. She struggled to defend herself. It was never her strong suit. "I didn't know it would end up like this. I was willing to do anything to help you win. I made the wrong choice, but it was for you."

"Because the win would help you," Regina shot back. Every word made her tremble further, ready to explode again.

Emma just wanted it to stop. She wanted to turn back time. She wanted this—Regina—them to be different. "No," she said, too loud and too firm. "Maybe at the beginning, but that was a lifetime ago, Regina. I made this mistake because to the bottom of my heart I believe in you. Because I love you."

It wasn't the word she'd meant to say, merely the word that gave sense to every feeling that warred inside her. There was nothing more to add, and, for the first time, she didn't want to take her words back. Even if it was like laying her heart out in the open, naked, heartbeat paused while she waited for Regina to reply.

Regina stood as a statue, eyes unblinking. The anger had been wiped away, replaced for a moment with nothingness. Then there was shock. Then fear. Regina said nothing with words, but her face said everything.

Emma's heart fell apart at the seams. It was the last defeat she would accept, love or not. "I quit," she said, barely more than a whisper.

Every step stiff with humiliation and hurt, she left the house, barely holding her pieces together. She didn't look back. Regina didn't follow.

Regina didn't follow, and so at last Emma closed her own door behind her and let all the pieces drop. This foolish experiment was over. "I quit," she whispered to Gumby as he tried to lick the tears from her face. She had no stubbornness left. "I give up, I quit, I quit."

Chapter Text

-I-

The sun shone brightly, belying the chill that hung in every corner of Winlock. Winter had begun its yearly creep to the heart of everything. Regina wanted it to be cold and hard. The sun only mocked her. Used to opposition, however, even from nature itself, she set out according to schedule. The second-to-last poll was scheduled for tomorrow and the last debate was tonight.

Regina, for all that she felt cornered, would not go down without a show. To that purpose, emotions were shoved away in the darkest closet she had. Fakery would carry her from here—and most likely to the end of her once-hopeful run for mayor. Despair made her hard; betrayal broke the hold that worry had over her mind.

Emma and Gold and Cora weren't allowed in her head. Not even their names. She couldn't afford anger...or regret.

Nobody laughed at her when she walked down Main Street in suit and tights and heels. Nobody smiled either. Behind the charming smile she pasted on, she wondered if they were worth it. If she actually cared for more than winning.

No answer came, but she didn't wait too long for one. Instead, she had a meet and greet at Granny's to fulfill. The cantankerous woman met her at the door, and offered a hand to shake. Regina tried to be pleasant about it.

Granny leaned close and muttered, "That Gold played foul, and that's not welcome in this town."

Regina tried to smile, but her "thank you" had to suffice. She doubted that those with integrity in this town came even close to outnumbering the gossipers, the rubberneckers, the cynical, the judgmental, and of course the uncaring. The commercial would do its work.

A few dozen people showed up to the diner and asked their questions. Regina talked about taxes and zoning and licensing until the words sounded unreal. Each handshake was firm, as if she meant it. When it was over, though, she had to face the most important question: how much of a campaign team did she have?

The question lay uncomfortably in her brain. Emma wasn't petty, she told herself, but what of the others? Had Emma told them the story? Did they blame her? Did they even care, if Emma wasn't spearheading the campaign?

Emma... The name echoed through her mind, dragging her back to things that didn't matter now. Standing outside Granny's in the October sun, a mug of hot chocolate still in her hand, Regina found herself bitterly pondering if Emma had only done all of this out of some overbearing infatuation. The woman had been ridiculous. After all the worry over her own outing, she turned right around and begged for... Well, Regina didn't know what. In the moment it had looked like obsession, come straight out of nowhere and too close to home.

Emma's face flashed before her eyes. Regina felt her throat tighten, heart lurch. A niggling thought told her that it might have been a little true. Even in the moment, her fear had been of something more than betrayal. Fear of falling, fear of being bare. There had been something in Emma's eyes, something in Regina's heart.

But the timing had been wrong, so wrong, and it still was. Regina shoved the thought from her mind. The deed was done. Second guessing and giving into irrational sentiment would drag her down. She had to be brutal about this. Practical. It was safer to assume that Emma was just like the rest. People didn't love her, they loved an idea of her. Regina was used to that and she would take it.

Surely it was absurd to assume that this whole relationship had been anything but a farce. It was absurd to let herself hope, after all this hurt, that anyone could be trusted.

She finished her hot chocolate just in time for Abigail to walk up to her, a half-smile on her lips. "Hello."

"Hello to you too." Regina nodded, barely tightening her grip on the hot chocolate.

Abigail kept the half-smile. "David is a good friend of mine, and told me to offer my services after last night. Not that he really needed to. I'm a supporter—I already had thought of it."

Regina cocked her head. "Why would I need a lawyer?"

"Gold."

Regina felt herself go cold, and saw Abigail nod slightly in response.

"What's done cannot be undone, but there's a clear case if you want to sue for slander." Abigail grimaced. "I can't promise that you'll win, given the resources he can probably call on, but we won't know until after the election. In the meantime, you make a statement with the lawsuit. Without making a literal statement that might give weight to the accusations."

Regina took a deep breath, taking a moment to find rational words. Her stomach knotted regardless. "It wasn't doctored. The photos were untouched."

Abigail let a smirk touch the corner of her mouth. "The statements accompanying them were most certainly doctored. In any fair court, you'd win damages. We have a case, Regina, I promise. You just need to give me permission."

Regina let out her breath. This wasn't something she had the energy to doubt. "Yes. Do it. Thank you."

"No problem." Abigail smiled and shook Regina's free hand. "I'm looking forward to your leadership, actually. You should win against that rotten pustule."

Regina attempted a laugh, and then watched the other woman leave. Gratitude tried to push its way to her barricaded heart. Her phone beeped distractingly with a text from Snow: Need any help for the debate tonight? :)

Regina reread it three times. Then, relieved, she let down one small defense of the many she'd put up in the morning. Her team was still there. Inexplicably, they were on her side. She took a deep breath again, and texted back: I've had my notes ready since last week. I'm confident.

The last part was a lie, but all politics was a lie. Regina would fake her way through this, and if she failed then she would fake the rest of her life as if it didn't matter

Emma had mattered, but Regina wouldn't think of that.

-II-

For nearly two days, Emma held the hope that maybe Regina would come after her. The woman was capable of apology. She was capable of...so much more. And Emma would forgive her; Regina had to know that.

Like a rollercoaster, her mind took her through every option. "I'm so sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. I love you too." For nearly an hour Emma got stuck on that one, half-ashamed of herself for imagining how soft Regina's lips would be against hers. Warm breath. Lipstick smearing. She buried her face in her hands and groaned in pain, wondering how she could have missed her own feelings for so long. In any case, more likely the conversation would start with, "I'm sorry, I love you too but not in that way." Or "I'm sorry, I don't love you, and it'll be too awkward to ever see you again." Or "I know you didn't cause this, but I just don't trust you and I never can."

The ache in her heart demanded that Emma hope for something, anything. Another, deeper ache took its place when hope failed and Regina didn't come around.

"I hate her," Emma mumbled at Gumby, after wiping away a stinging tear. Rejection was new. It something that people who wanted relationships had to deal with. Up till now, Emma didn't give it a second thought.

Of course, it hadn't just been rejection. That would have been simple and not Regina. She had to dig the knife in, instead, and make sure everyone hurt. Even if no one deserved it. Emma hated that she'd ever convinced herself that Regina liked her, and therefore wouldn't hurt her. The woman so easily thought the worst of her. How fucked was that.

"I don't love her. I can't. I have to hate her." Emma scrubbed at her nose, refused to sniffle, and furrowed her brow. Gumby tipped his head, confused, and Emma fluffed his ears.

Intending to forget all about this messy affair, Emma drove to the bar early. A dozen campaign posters with Regina's face all over them stared at her from every wall. She poured herself a drink and closed her eyes. It wasn't fair. Regina not loving her would have been fine, but this was more than anyone should handle. And apparently she wasn't getting an apology, not even by text message.

By the time work started, she was tipsy and angry. The TV kept playing discussion of the election and the results of the latest polls, so Emma turned up the DJ playlist to drown it out. The thumping beat matched the throb of her anger. A couple people complained but she ignored them.

Snow arrived as she always did Friday nights, laughter on her lips until she saw Emma. She grabbed a bar stool and called across the bar, "Hey, what's wrong? You weren't at the debate last night, I noticed."

Emma regretted the alcohol now, as the words came out before she could edit them. "I didn't want to see Regina." A second passed and she sighed. "Well, not until she made the first move."

"What?" Snow asked, chewing the inside of her lip.

"Nothing," Emma said, carrying on with her work. Snow, though, looked like the embodiment of the question 'what do you mean by nothing?' Emma gestured vaguely and said, reluctantly, so that they could carry on to another topic, "I said something and she didn't say anything back. I just hoped she'd change her mind."

Snow, it seemed, was shrewder than she looked. Her eyes widened. "Emma!" she leaned in close and whispered. "Did you propose to her?"

Of course the love-obsessed one would jump to that conclusion. "Not marriage!" Emma could have smacked herself for not choosing better words. "No."

"But it was something like that, oh my god." Snow pressed her fingers to her lips. "Oh my god, Emma. I didn't know you and her…"

Despite being surrounded by dozens of people, Emma felt like she and Snow were the only ones there, like this was some girls' night run-through of deepest darkest secrets. "It's not what you think," she said, barely audible among the chaos. It hadn't been a proposal, not at all. It was a stupid, desperate declaration. Regina hadn't even answered her. But would it have been better to see that? To see Regina grow awkward, disgusted, trying to find words to make Emma and the unwanted attraction go away? The thought made Emma shiver, and for the first time in her life, she wanted to cry on someone's shoulder. She shook her head. "I didn't know either. I mean, I was telling myself I didn't. Probably because my subconscious knew this would have happened one way or another."

Snow reached out and squeezed Emma's arm. "Oh honey it's okay. You just expressed your feelings, there's nothing wrong with that."

Emma shook her head, blinking until the teary sensation went away. "If you say so." She had a half dozen drinks to make, and didn't really want to think about Regina.

Two daquiris, an old fashioned, and three jello shots later, Snow was still waiting. The woman was sympathy incarnate—something Emma craved and found uncomfortable all at once. Comfort was not really her parents' thing. That had been "the pain is just in your head, sweetheart, you have to overcome it". Snow was more normal, and Emma didn't quite know what to think about normal.

Drinks served, she headed back to wash some more glasses.

Snow grabbed her hand again as she swept past. "Emma, maybe you just need to give Regina time. Maybe she needs time to realize her own feelings."

Emma groaned and shook her head. "No, no. We weren't even really friends. That requires trust, and she...well, didn't trust me as much as I thought she did. So how can you build a relationship on that?" She swallowed, pausing, then waved a hand. "I know it could just be her prickliness, but I don't really care. It's fucking sad that she can't let anyone in, but I'm not going to stick around and try to fix her. That's not a good idea. Besides, she doesn't love me, or she'd be here. It's been two days. So being around her would be awkward and I just can't."

Snow finally nodded, then hopped around the bar to give Emma a hug. She smelled of lavender and happiness. Emma squeezed her back and breathed it in, telling herself she didn't miss Regina's orange blossom perfume.

"Come over for game night next week," Snow said with a cheery smile, pulling back from the hug after a few seconds. "It's just me, David, Abigail and Frederick. And I promise we won't play only four player games."

Emma took a second to think about her schedule. Nope, everything had been for the campaign. For Regina. Her calendar now stood empty. "I'll be there. Thanks."

-III-

Between speeches, visits to every business in Winlock, and brief interviews countering every snide statement made by Mayor Thicke (or, really, Mr. Gold), Regina wondered if winning this election might be worse than losing it. Her charm felt like a rubber band used too many times, sagging and ready to snap. She had help, of course, and made sure to thank those who provided it—but felt too often like a lone wolf howling at the moon. The howls might terrify those on earth, but the moon would forever be untouched. It simply wasn't enjoyable anymore.

The polls reported that she dropped two points that Friday, and she refused to read the article analyzing it. That Saturday, Abigail came into Starbucks with her briefcase and a focused smile to pull her aside.

They sat at a table and Abigail laid her hands over the briefcase. "As I said when we last talked, this case against Gold won't be finished for months, one way or another. However, everything you do bears some relevance on it. And specifically for this, we're suing him for defamation of character. You are not emotionally unstable, nor incompetent. While the competence is easiest to prove through talking with your district manager, etc., the other point is a little touchier."

Regina felt her hackles rise, but nodded sharply. Abigail was a professional; she and Regina could relate on that level at least. "Explain touchy."

Abigail splayed her fingers and let out a held breath. "Your behavior under stress. I understand that this election is not an easy time for you, but it's not presenting a good image. Right now, the evidence could easily be twisted to say that you're uptight and about to break down. Which is unfair and I'm assuming untrue, but it's a case the opposition will certainly make."

Regina felt sarcasm gather thickly in her throat. "So do you suggest I merely...take deep breaths? Meditate? Eat more chocolate?"

Abigail gave her a half glare. "No. But if you do want to win this election, and have any hope with this case, you might want to tailor your image. People believe that you're professional. They believe that you have the knowledge—the debate was proof of that. Congratulations, by the way, you wiped the floor with them in my opinion. But the smear campaign focused on personality. You need to find a way to appear friendly, emotionally available, and at least outwardly at ease." Abigail laughed a little. "Well, I say 'need' but obviously it's up to you. Just my professional advice as someone who's got a strategist's heart."

After everything she'd been through, the thought of putting on yet another performance for these wretched people made Regina taste bile. In years past, she'd viewed everyone with a sort of benevolent condescension. Betrayal, though, had made any sentiment repulsive. The cocktail of stress and suspicion made her somewhat less than happy, and others' happiness got on her last nerves.

Abigail was right, though. It was bad for her campaign, bad for her reputation, and a part of her knew it was just bad all around. If she lost, she would never be able to live happily in this town—not if she burned any more bridges. As much as she hated the notion, she had to be nice again.

"I have an idea or two," she said after a long pause, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.

"Good!" Abigail clasped her hands together, then offered one to shake with Regina. "Good luck, yet again."

"Thank you." Regina stood and watched Abigail leave, then walked again behind the coffee counter.

Belle, who was quiet and an unexpectedly hard worker, gave her a little smile. "Everything going well?"

"Make sure you tell Mulan that I'll be running Trivia Tuesday this week." Regina half-smiled.

The rest of the weekend held nothing special. The past was too messy to even remember, she told herself. It was better if it didn't exist. There was to be no thinking of Gold, Cora, Emma, or any pains she'd endured in relation to them. Regina couldn't afford it. Her focus on the present state of the election became her obsession. And when that failed her, and her thoughts again threatened to wander, she instead found herself baking and frosting six dozen cupcakes on Monday night.

Quixote attempted to escape the cupcake frenzy, but got stuck in the gap between door and doorframe. Regina tugged him back inside, stern glare in full play. "You, young man, have been absolutely terrible for the past four weeks. For absolutely no reason. Scratching, whining, trying to escape? What is this?"

The cat mewed softly. Regina's stomach clenched as she realized the answer to her own question. Fiercely shoving all emotion and thought away, she snapped at Quixote, "You're my cat, you will just have to get used to not trespassing on her property anymore."

Quixote remained quiet for the rest of the evening and Regina finished the cupcakes even though her eyes stung.

Tuesday night at the café had been Trivia Tuesday ever since Regina had become manager. It was her community event, a way to foster bonding and good memories about coffeeshop. Good feelings almost always translated into higher sales. So for years now, Regina had compiled questions and kept score for the self-elected teams who arrived to eat pastries, drink coffee, and blurt out both right and ridiculous answers until everyone was laughing.

Not that Regina had ever ended up laughing. A few proud smiles, yes, and a general feeling of success had been all she ever expected to get out of the event. She didn't play games—she didn't really know how. It hadn't been something Cora had ever done, nor Daniel. The whole idea seemed foreign.

Mulan had covered her position for the last few months, due to campaign commitments. Tonight would be a return to tradition. And something a little more.

Right at 7:00pm, Regina stood ready with Belle near the front door to welcome everyone in. "There are cupcakes on the tables," Regina announced, smiling. "Homemade french vanilla and double chocolate."

The oohs and aahs came as expected. They sounded good and Regina felt slightly more sociable.

"What are the team names tonight?" Ashley called. A half dozen people echoed the question.

"Well, that's up to the teams," Regina announced. "Although I'm going to put in a strong bid for calling mine Team Grumpy Cat."

"Ooooooooh." Ruby laughed. "Regina's gonna play?"

"I know what team I'm going to be on," Archie pronounced, raising a hand and grinning.

"Nah, we don't know if she's any good," Leroy said, but winked as he passed by to grab two cupcakes.

"Isn't it cheating if you picked all the questions?" Granny asked.

"That," Regina said, her smile more easy now, "is why my lovely assistant is here."

Belle waved. "That's me. I collated all the questions and I'll be reading them, after everyone gets the drinks they want. And there will be two additional coffee breaks, one after each round."

Regina's apron hung on a hook on the far side of the café. In her black skirt and deep-plum top, she could have still looked professional with the right posture and attitude. Instead, she grabbed a chair with the rest of them, waiting for instructions. Waiting for it to feel fun.

Team leaders were picked by rock, paper, scissors. Ashley and David won, and Ashley declared loudly, "I choose all the girls on my team."

Several men groaned, but Regina let a smile escape as Ashley and Snow dragged her into the group. Ruby, Granny and a couple others rounded out the group, with everyone else being male or an observer only.

"I say we call ourselves Team HBIC," suggested Ruby. "Especially since we have Regina."

"Oh totally," said Ashley.

Maybe this wouldn't be too bad.

"Eighth president of the United States," Belle called out, and the game began.

It was wild, fast, and far less foolish when it was Us vs. Them and David looked just too smug.

By the third question, Regina didn't even think before standing to her feet and declaring loudly, "His name is James Kirk, actually, of the U.S.S. Enterprise."

"Correct," Belle announced.

David bowed his head in defeat, then looked back up, incredulous. "You? A geek? Et tu Regina."

"Saw reruns in college." Regina sat with a flourish. "Score is now 2 to 1, boys."

Ruby chortled and the game continued. Regina wasn't the best, but she was good. There was no suspense here, no high stakes, and she forgot that this was a political move. Commentary drowned out questions sometimes, but no one cared. The cheers and high-fives of her team, and the encouragement from the non-participating crowd, drove all the awkwardness away. After her third cupcake, she nearly succumbed to the urge to victory dance when she beat Archie to the answer "Mary Tyler Moore and her capri pants!"

Team HBIC won the first round, lost the second, but won the third. 9:00pm rolled around and Regina was almost reluctant for it to end. "Good game," she said, half laughing and with minimal smugness while shaking the hands of the opposite team.

"If it wasn't for that flub in round 2, I'd almost suspect you of cheating," August informed her. "But I suppose I have to submit to my own inferiority, compared to women who do know their 90s pop music history."

The doors finally closed and Regina and Belle set to cleaning up cupcake wrappers and coffee spills. The night was over. Tomorrow was another work day.

Sighing, Regina felt the buzz fade away. Tonight had been nice. A little overwhelming, but she hadn't felt so happy in...almost a lifetime. It was embarrassing, really. These people accepted her for the evening but they wouldn't be there in time of crisis—they hadn't and they wouldn't. They shouldn't provoke such a reaction in her.

Now, she was locking up shop and going home to loneliness and more work. Loneliness?

She paused, rebuking her own thoughts. I'm not lonely. I've managed fine all these years. I don't need people. It couldn't be loneliness because, if so, it had been normal for the past two decades.

Most of those years. Daniel had made her feel alive, safe, part of a world that was hopeful and happy. Until Emma, that had been it. Alone was normal, not loneliness. All she really needed was Quixote.

But if so, why did it feel so much like loneliness now? Why did she suddenly feel like her life was empty? Except, of course, that the answer was too obvious.

Regina tried to stave it off, even pouring herself a wine and focusing on the simple joy of playing trivia with people who liked her. In the end, though, regret hit hard.

Emma. The woman who provided Regina with a purpose and a connection, and something that she took for granted until the very end. Emma had filled a hole in her heart—the hole whose existence Regina had stoutly denied—right up to the moment when Regina had let fear make her destroy them.

She drank half the bottle of wine, but couldn't unknow what she knew. The realization was there to stay, to haunt her forever with self-loathing.

Even winning the election, unlikely as that now seemed, couldn't fix this.

-IV-

When Mulan took more hours at Starbucks and was unable to cover shifts at the bar, Emma had quickly trained and then hired the most likely candidate to replace her. The man's name was Lancelot, though he handled the jokes about it well, and that was most of what Emma knew about him.

Emma had been free, then, to have the occasional evening off. As the only bar in town, hers did quite well. Emma didn't have any worries—and that bugged her. The bar's powers of distraction were too weak to keep her from thoughts of Regina.

Game night with Snow came as a relief. She arrived without nervousness, dressing again in her old style. No need to look professional anymore. She brought vegan cookies (purchased not baked) as a gift, and within minutes got hugs from Snow and David both.

Emma cocked her head when David took the treats to the kitchen, speaking without filtering her thoughts, "I never asked before, but are you two...together, exes, something?"

Snow's eyes went big. "Oh no. He's my cousin. We're close but no."

Emma flushed. "Sorry."

"It's fine." Snow laughed and directed her to the dining room. David and Frederick leaned against kitchen counters and talked about marathons. Snow clapped her hands together. "So, Abigail's running late with office work. Emma, do you wanna play a game of scrabble with the four of us?"

Spelling and other such wordplay were not Emma's strong suits. She made a face but shrugged her shoulders. "Sure."

Aside from her tendency to only think of three letter words whose spellings were rock solid in her brain, Emma didn't do too badly. Snow was a teacher and predictably knocked everyone's scores down to basically nothing with "quizzer" and "japery" two turns in a row.

Emma got a few sympathy groans from David and Frederick after she just stared at Snow's words for half a minute too long. "Uh, this is all I got?" She placed a V, E and an R above the Y in japery. "Oh wait! Triple letter score for the V. Sweet." She grinned.

All in all, though, the company was nice but it was a relief when Abigail arrived and they pulled out Monopoly. Emma could play a cutthroat game of that, surprising them all. An hour later she seemed to own half the board.

"Someone's becoming Mr. Gold," Frederick said with fake grumpiness after he had to fork over another $200 fee to Emma's ever-growing money pile.

Everyone chuckled, but it prompted Abigail to say, "It drives me crazy to know that he's going to win in two weeks. I mean, not him-him but...you know."

"What?" Emma failed at following her only rule of ignoring any and all political discussion.

Snow tried to give Abigail a warning look, but it went unnoticed.

"Regina's numbers aren't dropping anymore, but they haven't grown in over a month." Abigail shrugged. "And you can't win with only 45% of the vote when there are only two candidates. Any win for Thicke is just a win for Gold. Sometimes I even forget it's not Gold up for re-election."

"Oh." Emma swallowed awkwardly, and Abigail seemed to get the hint and fall silent on the subject.

They continued playing, but Emma lost track of the conversation. It was inevitable, of course. She couldn't avoid thinking about Regina forever, especially with the election. It came as a surprise, though, to realize that she didn't relish the idea of Regina losing. Hatred for the woman had only lasted shortly—Emma had cared too much to even let hurt ruin it all. Anger, though, was supposed to have lasted longer. She wasn't supposed to think about her losing the election, and have her only feeling be of acute sadness.

Maybe, Emma thought, I suck at relationships. This is my first love, so what do I know about letting people go.

It hurt that Regina hadn't come after her, not even to apologize for the accusations. It hurt that Regina didn't love her. It hurt that she lost the person who best made her feel valued and needed. But it also hurt that the one hope Winlock had seemed about to lose the election to Winlock's everlasting nightmare.

Emma didn't know if the political and the personal could be separated, but when she gave herself the liberty to think about it, she felt that Regina losing would be a tragedy. An unacceptable one. She let the feeling roll around for a little while until she felt comfortable with it, then steeled her jaw.

Game night finished with fun all around, and Emma stopped at the doorway to talk to Snow in private. "Hey. I know this is a crazy idea, but… I want to do something for the election. For Regina."

Snow blinked. "Okay? Are you sure?"

Emma laughed nervously, hands flailing a bit. "Pretty much. The thing is, she'd be a really good mayor. Maybe the best. And I thought that before I cared about her personally and before she rejected me, so I think it's a pretty unbiased opinion."

Snow let out a relieved breath. "Me too. I didn't want to talk about it in front of you, but me and David have been helping her a lot."

"I know." Emma made herself smile. "But I think maybe we need to take a more underground approach, now that it's getting desperate. I have an idea and I think it's the best shot Regina has. Just...she can't know about it." She swallowed. "I'll need your help to stay anonymous. I don't want to take the chance in case it backfires again and also, you know, it'd be really awkward even if it works."

Snow nodded. "I get it."

Emma took a deep breath. "So you'll help me?"

Snow reached out and clasped her hands. "Always, Emma. I'm your friend—and I believe in Regina too."

Emma found herself smiling, a little sadly. It was hard not to believe in Regina. And maybe, if enough of them did, Regina would start believing in herself. It was too much to hope she'd believe in Emma, but maybe she'd give herself a chance. She deserved that much.

-V-

Nothing changed. Nothing ever really changed. Regina worked herself until even her bones felt tired, and her mouth ached from so many smiles. It didn't matter, her poll numbers stayed steady and there was only one week left.

Starbucks, yet again, became her refuge. Frost tipped the leaves at 4:00am as she came early to help Mulan, allowing Belle to take the favored mid-afternoon shift. It wasn't kindness; Regina liked the morning rush. She liked being competent again.

As they worked, drinks almost flying from her hands with how fast she prepared them, she could feel Mulan's eyes on her. Not judging, thankfully, but full of quiet concern. It was almost the same look Snow gave her. David too. Even Quixote. They cared, Regina told herself. Not deeply, but they cared. It should make her feel better to realize the fact.

It only reminded her of Emma. The words she'd said. The slap. I'm not good enough to the people who I care about. I'm not good enough to make this election work. I'm just not good enough. It was her mother talking, and Regina hated how much she could see her mother in every mistake she'd made. How could I possibly be good enough at things that matter? I learned from the worst. She'd never hated her mother quite as much as she did now that she couldn't seem to escape her. Cora had found a way into her very soul, leaving a black spot and a weakness that hurt things that were good. Regina wanted to be better, but didn't trust herself to make it there.

Work helped keep her busy and feeling productive. It just couldn't hide the hole in her heart. That was there, empty and aching, no matter how she hated thinking of it. It had been filled for a little while, until she hurt the person who'd filled it. She missed how it had felt to be with Emma, sharing everything, so close and without fear. Even memories of Daniel didn't hurt quite as much as this. Cora had destroyed Daniel; Regina had destroyed Emma.

Mulan caught her lost in self-loathing on a lunch break, and gently shook her from her reverie. "You okay?"

She kept staring out at the cold, remembering last year and how Emma's breath clouded up in the outdoors whenever Regina had come to visit Gumby. Then, swallowing, she turned back to the coffeeshop. "Maybe Gold's right. Maybe I am an unstable mess."

Mulan wasn't supposed to answer, but she had always been a bit of a rebel. Regina shouldn't have been surprised. "We're all a bit unstable under stress. At least, those of us who aren't heartless."

Regina grit her teeth but couldn't protest.

"I wouldn't use the word unstable, though." Mulan seemed cautious about continuing, but after a second she added, "You care about things. A lot. It's a good quality, Regina."

"I don't always care about the right things," Regina said, her voice coming out dry as a bone. For a second she forgot Mulan was there, that it wasn't Emma, the person she learned how to speak freely to. "I'm starting to wonder if she was right, and I care too much about business. When it comes to people...I suppose I just don't know how to care right."

Mulan's hand briefly touched her shoulder, but Regina shook it off and pulled herself together.

They worked in silence and Regina didn't lose herself again. Not until work was over and she went home. It was the middle of the day and she should be campaigning, but she'd lost the fervor for it. Nothing could make a difference anymore, surely.

One thought just wouldn't leave her alone, so she pulled the boxes from her closet and brushed the dust away. Daniel's boxes. Everything she had of him. The pictures still looked as crisp as if they'd been taken yesterday, and he looked so young and so loving. Regina tried to smile, but it trembled at the corners and her vision became blurry with tears.

"I think maybe I deserved someone like you, all those years ago," she whispered.

Daniel didn't answer. She ran the tip of her forefinger over his face. Regina glanced up at the ceiling, blinking the tears away, and then put the picture back in the box and stowed it in the closet once more.

Looking at Daniel, it had all fallen into place. She'd been more of an oblivious fool than Emma ever had been. Grief had gotten in the way, and fear of being outed, but Regina knew more than anything she'd just denied it to herself. And now, the love hurt worse than anything, like it would eat her heart and leave her with nothing. "Of all the times to fall in love," she said to nothing but the room. "It had to be now."

Failure wasn't horrifying anymore when it stared you straight in the face. First Emma, now the election. Regina wasn't afraid of failure. It was, she decided, just the seeds she'd sown come to harvest. Next year, she vowed to sow better.

Chapter Text

-I-

Mulan had spent most of her life hating the level of gossip in Winlock, and telling herself that she would never. So once she and Aurora had patched up and put salve on their relationships's wounds, she had to find justification for her renewed interest in things that were none of her business.

"It's only because it affects my work," she rationalized to Aurora on lunch break. "I'm 99% sure that Emma and Regina had a thing, and that's where the fallout came from. It's just confusing not knowing the details."

"You can't say that," whispered Aurora, a slight glare in her eyes. "She's not out and obviously this isn't public."

"I'm not going to talk to Regina about it." Mulan sighed. "I'm not stupid. She just about confessed on her own, though. 'I don't know how to care right'? Regina would say 'care' instead of 'love'."

Aurora pursed her lips. "So what are you going to do? As much as I'd love to know everything, I really doubt this will end well for you."

Mulan reminded herself that it wasn't like Regina and Emma were strangers. They were both her employers, sometimes friends, definitely confidants. She had been happy for Regina when things had been going well. It was a relief to see her heal, even slightly, from the damage that seemed to always be just below the surface. The election going south, plus this separation from Emma, didn't exactly help. Mulan worried; it was more than idle curiosity.

Though strange election rumors had her more curious than worried. It might not make it to Regina's radar, being grassroots and low-key, but Mulan saw. There was only one person who could be behind this.

"I'm going to talk to Emma," she told Aurora.

Despite it being Taco Thursday, the bar hummed along without much excitement. Mulan ordered a couple drinks while waiting for Emma to come in, and glanced around at the posters. Sure enough, they were different from the ones Regina had officially made. These ones, with a picture taken from last year's Starbucks photoshoot, looked positively cheery. Regina looked good that way, that was for sure.

After 10:00pm, things continued to settle down. Mulan hated noise and crowds, but this was actually pleasant. After two drinks she chatted amiably with Lancelot, forgetting her mission until Emma came by to replace him.

"Hey!" Mulan hadn't intended to drink, but didn't mind the effects. "Long time no see."

"Yeah," Emma smiled, barely awkward. "I occasionally send Snow to get me coffee but...yeah."

Mulan nodded. "I'm guessing that you and Regina had some kind of lover's spat."

Emma snorted. "No, nothing like that." Then she blinked. "How did you know I love her?"

"I have eyes. We worked together, I do sort of know you." Mulan finished her drink and grinned a little, though she decided not to talk about Regina and her potential feelings. "And speaking of which, I see that you're still helping with the election. Not sabotaging it, I hope."

A little color came to Emma's cheeks, but thankfully no one else sat at the bar. Emma tried to laugh but it didn't work, so she groaned instead. "I kind of had to help."

"Why?"

Emma gestured vaguely. "I love her. It's not exactly my smartest choice, given what happened between us, but I do. And you don't let someone you love crash and burn, if you can help it. That's just decent behavior." She sighed. "But I'm trying to stay out of her way at the same time, just so it doesn't get weird."

Mulan nodded slowly, trying to make sense of the light in Emma's eyes when she talked about Regina. Regina herself seemed alternately frustrated, tormented, and regretful about the subject. Mulan had, therefore, assumed some kind of nasty breakup. Regina's fault, she also assumed, hence the tormented guilt. It wasn't like she and Emma had a perfect history to begin with.

"Why?" she asked again, after Emma served her another drink. While here, she might as well partake.

"Hmm?"

"Why do you love her?" Mulan waved her fingers, trying to find words. "You're being...way too nice about it. Regina doesn't really inspire that in people."

Emma let out a long breath, pausing and closing her eyes for a long second. "You know, no one ever asked me that. I got all the sympathy, of course, but everyone seemed to assume it was a tragedy from the start. That I was just waiting for an excuse to get out."

"Mmhmm." Mulan nodded, curiosity peaked more than ever.

"I still love her though. I thought I hated her, but I don't. I can't." Emma put the clean glasses away, turning around for a second before continuing. "She's like a fire, you know. Just barely contained, just waiting to get out. She has so much passion, so much potential for greatness, and for a while she'd just look at me like… Like I was worthy of sharing that passion with. Under all that sarcasm, I felt like she respected me. Which is something no one's ever done, not even my parents."

Emma let out another long breath. "And then, of course, something would go wrong and she did sort of turn into my parents. Or maybe her own. Probably her own. Judgment, disappointment, sudden lack of trust. I won't take that, you know. I don't let people make me feel that way. Not anymore."

Mulan's brow furrowed, and she nodded a few times. All this made sense. Except for the part where Emma still loved her. "I'm not trying to be nosy, I'm really not, but isn't that a dealbreaker?"

"Well, you don't see me throwing myself at her feet and begging for her love," Emma pointed out. Then a sad smile touched her mouth. "I don't know how to stop caring, though, once I've started. I know all these little details about her, about her life, about how she thinks. I know she locks herself behind a wall of spikes whenever she feels threatened. I know that she probably didn't know I cared about her because I never thought to actually tell her. I know she regrets when she lashes out, because it's what her mother always did. It's all a little fucked up, and definitely messy, but...I can dislike all that without hating her for it. I'm stubborn, I guess."

Mulan nodded. "I get that. She's difficult, but not impossible."

"Yeah." Emma smiled a bit more. "And anyway, no matter our personal relationship, I want her to succeed. It's the activist in me, I guess. Someone like her can accomplish everything I wanted...or, well, what I want now. Maybe not so much what I wanted when I first got here."

"Mm, I'll drink to that." Mulan lifted her glass in a toast. For a moment she wondered if Emma would be better off knowing that Regina regretted a lot more than the dissolution of their friendship. But no, it didn't seem right. It really, really wasn't her business, especially with the election only 5 days away and with Regina still in the closet.

She'd gotten Emma to talk. That was as far as she could go. These two tragic lovebirds would have to figure it out on their own. Maybe in ten years or so, given their temperaments.

"So...need any help with this super secret campaign?" she asked.

-II-

Regina refused to turn on the news by the time Friday rolled around. Nor on Saturday, nor even Sunday. Resigning oneself to failure didn't come easily, so she avoided any information about polls or speculations.

Thankfully, work remained a neutral place. Mulan and Belle worked hard and gave her space, and customers had grown quite less talkative. Regina still smiled and asked about people's days, but no one so much as said 'good luck' in response. It was as if the election wasn't happening.

It only hit her on Monday that she'd have to give a concession speech. She couldn't quietly fade away for four years, no, she'd have to grit her teeth and speak to the camera. She'd have to pretend that the loss wasn't because of fear, bigotry, or perhaps even fraud. And Emma would be watching. So would Gold. She wasn't sure which unnerved her more at this point.

Abigail told her to simply be gracious. Regina had never found that to be a simple task.

That night she went home to write it out, pacing back and forth in her living room when the words didn't come. Emma used to be good at this. Emma was the one with the experience, who phrased everything so it sounded political. Emma helped Regina calm down, too, and feel like she could conquer the world. "This is pointless!" she growled out to the room. "I need to stop thinking about it."

Thinking about failure, though, only led to thinking about speaking of her failure. She gripped the back of her couch, breathing unsteadily, realizing too late that she was staring at the mantlepiece. There, of course, were a dozen pictures of a woman who had never let Regina fail. "Unless it was something you didn't want me doing," Regina murmured, smiling tightly. Some days it felt like Cora would never fully leave.

It was too easy to blame Cora for everything wrong. Too easy, and yet so often it fit. "You never did love me," Regina said, not looking at the pictures this time. "So how was I supposed to believe anyone else did? I should have known better… I should have seen how she…" She swallowed hard, but the lump in her throat stayed.

Cora's smile was ever cold, ever fixed, in every single picture.

Regina's gaze narrowed. Regret and longing fell to the side, a moment of clarity taking their place. She drew herself up tall, falling into her manager voice. "You're gone."

Two words she'd said before, but never quite meant. In spite of everything, she'd clung to her mother as the only constant in her life. But the truth was that Cora didn't matter anymore. Regina, if she was strong enough, could cut out the part of her heart that Cora had made. The fear of failure, the fear of other people, the desperate loneliness of a child with no other options. She would cut it out.

And she would start with the pictures. Regina strode swiftly to the mantelpiece. She refused to hesitate. One by one, she took the pictures down and threw them into a pile on the floor. Some broke. She didn't care.

The bare mantlepiece gave her life. She almost laughed aloud. Then, glancing down, she saw traces of Cora in the fireplace that had never been lit. "I don't care about the soot," she said, finding matches and working until the logs burst into flame. "This is my house, and I like fire."

She threw the pictures into the fire. The business textbooks that Cora had purchased for her—they, as well as the trophies, went straight into the trash bin.

Tears threatened to fall but she laughed instead. November cleaning. It wouldn't wait until spring.

Putting the matches away reminded her of Cora's angry rants about clean kitchens. Every counter stood bare and Regina didn't even know why, since Cora wasn't ever allowed to visit. Now, even her influence had to go. Regina took the bread from the refrigerator and put it in a covered dish, and then set it firmly in the middle of the kitchen island. She grabbed candles and a decorative cat statue from the living room, and found them homes as well on the formerly-empty counters.

It felt like freedom. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, and breathed. There was one last thing to do before the election.

In the corner of her closet stood three boxes of pictures marked "college". She pulled them out and sat by the fire, once again letting herself think of Daniel. "Cora ruined our love," she whispered, and the sadness didn't hurt so much this time. "And I ruined what I had with Emma, because of that."

No more. Tomorrow Regina would walk through the demeaning fire of defeat. She would come out the other side, still a person hastily composed of oft-broken pieces. But no more. She was better than this. She was better than her broken life. "I need to leave the past in the past," she whispered to every old, once-happy memory. Her voice choked. "I need to let you go. Both of you."

Her heart ached as she burned every picture, watching the flames take away the rawness of grief. She was tired, so tired. And it was time to move on.

The memories of Emma didn't all burn. It was a miserable irony that she had brought Regina to this decision, in a backwards kind of way. And I can't even thank her. I ruined everything.

One day, maybe, she wouldn't miss her as much. One day maybe even that regret would heal.

Regina slept soundly by the embers of her fire, and refused to think about Election Day.

-III-

Belle had an important day at the library, and Regina was only too willing to step in and take her shift. Election Day without something to do would have been torture, and campaigning seemed useless at this point. 4:30 arrived as always with starless skies, a breeze to chill the bone, and Quixote whining when she got out of bed. Regina didn't care, if only because no one stared at her as she walked to Starbucks. She might like positive attention, but solitude always remained her preference over pitying or mocking stares.

The store smelled predictably like pumpkin and gingerbread. If for no other reason, Regina would be glad for the holidays to be over. She sighed, tied on her apron, and got to work.

"Hey there." Mulan smiled, and didn't seem to be faking it. She had been oddly pleasant the last few days. Regina could hardly remember the time before Emma's arrival anymore, but she did remember grinding her teeth over her willful employee. Strange, how priorities shifted. Now, Mulan was simply a dependable resource.

As if today was just a normal day, Regina prepped the brewers and dusted counters and shelves. She missed the feel of her power suit, but the apron was an old companion.

"It's nice to have you here today," Mulan said, passing her the key to the register.

"Well, I might as well prepare for the rest of my life." Regina smiled back, stiffly. Nothing had happened yet; it was easy to say it aloud. "This campaign was a pleasant break, but the results are pretty clear by now. I'm not going to tear my hair over it."

Mulan's eyes spoke of curiosity, but she said only, "Glad to hear it. There's no point worrying over what we can't control."

Regina rolled her eyes, Mulan snorted, and the workday began.

The doors open at 5:00am, and for the first time in five years someone showed up straight away. Belle wandered in, rubbing her eyes and blinking twice when she saw Regina. "Oh. Right. The library bill."

"Need coffee?" Regina was almost amused.

Belle sighed. "Clearly."

She drank and left, and so it went. Just a normal day. Morning rush came by 5:30am and didn't give a lull until 9:00am. Regina appreciated it. Too busy to think, too busy to care about anything but coffee. Latte, Cappucino, Non Fat, Breve, Frappucino, Macchiato, Doppio, Blonde Roast. She knew too much about this one drink for any normal person and it was a blessing today. She didn't listen to gossip. She didn't listen to anything but the common pleasantries.

David and Snow came in together, once early and once at nearly 11:00am, and both times ordered a dozen hot chocolates. "Event at the park today," Snow said, face flushed pink with the cold. "Oh, and can we have a dozen dark roasts as well?"

Regina paid no mind. She did, however, note that traffic hadn't been this high since last year. Pity votes, maybe? Now wasn't the time to care. They were running out of supplies and she had to keep things going.

Even by 1:00pm, there was a line halfway to the door, and she'd filled half a dozen orders of more than a couple drinks. Outside, the sun shone with winter intensity, and people kept talking about "the event at the park". Regina had a vague recollection of a library funds bill, but doubted that people cared that much.

An order of twenty mochas at 3:00pm, also for the park event, changed her mind. Outside she could hear noises as if there were speeches in the street. Rallies, maybe—riots, she added cynically to herself. It became a hum of activity just outside the café doors, but Regina didn't even get a five minute break to ponder.

First she ran out of caramel syrup. Then apple cider. Then half-and-half. The trash bin in the back room overflowed with empty cartons in what was definitely against code. Frazzled, laughing inwardly, Regina scrambled together what they did have. "I don't care if you have to get it from Gold's, I need caramel syrup," she muttered to Mulan. "Everyone and their mother is ordering caramel macchiatos." Mulan nodded and darted through the line of waiting customers. Regina fixed her hair, took a deep breath, and kept making coffee.

It was 5:00pm. There should not have been this many orders. Regina hadn't eaten all day, had barely managed a few sips of water, and if not for the parades or wars or whatever was going on outside she would have forgotten the election altogether. That's what she told herself.

At 6:00pm, just as there was a lull she could have taken advantage of, an entire stack of tumblers fell over. She laughed as she walked around the counter to begin restacking, wondering if she was losing her mind. Voting was ended. Somehow she knew that, even though she told herself that work was a distraction. She could feel tension churning in her stomach that wasn't just from the busy day, and she wondered where Emma was. If she felt the same, but because of dread that Regina might win. Regina laughed, but the tightness of it made her throat hurt.

Mulan agreed to stay until 7:00pm to keep the store open, and then thankfully agreed to spend yet another hour after that cleaning up from the day. Aurora showed up looking for her girlfriend, and Regina grudgingly accepted her help as well.

Every trash bin was full, every table and floor-stone stained with sugar and milk and splashes of coffee. "I don't know what got into everyone today," Regina sighed aloud as she mopped. Mulan glanced over at her, then to Aurora, and the two of them had strange expressions. Regina made herself not think about it.

8:00pm hit and Regina prepared to hang up her apron, store once again spotless. Tomorrow would be another day—hopefully more normal. She glanced out into the dark only to see a crowd swarming to the coffeeshop.

David opened the door and dozens of people spilled in, full of excited chatter. "Turn on the TV, turn on the TV!" he exclaimed, beaming like the summer sun. "Results are on in a minute!"

Regina's heart stalled and she froze, but Aurora rushed past her to turn on the TV herself. The library bill must have passed. That's it. She swallowed hard, confused, almost hurt that they didn't even consider how she might feel hearing about her loss. Not that she begrudged the library, but…

The tinny newscaster voice rang out of the hanging TV set. "...Referendum 359 concerning additional funds for the town library passed with a clear majority, but the most astonishing results of the evening has to be the mayor's race. Contrary to every poll over the last six months, Regina Mills beat incumbent Mayor Jeremy Thicke with an astonishing 54% of the vote. This win is credited to an all-day rally to encourage voters for Ms. Mills, and here to speak on that we have campaign leader Snow White."

Snow appeared on screen, practically glowing. Regina stared in disbelief, hearing and seeing nothing but the insanity playing out on the TV. "Oh, I'm not the one who came up with this," Snow said. "The idea actually comes from Emma Swan. You might know her? She runs the bar and used to be the campaign manager for Regina. She had this idea and we ran with it, you know. The idea that this is a small town and maybe we need someone who knows what that means. Regina knows everybody's name, if they've ever come through her café. She's dependable, consistent, hard-working, and you can always trust her to be honest. In times of crisis, isn't that the kind of person you want as a mayor? Not someone who can act like a politician, even though that might work for bigger cities, but someone who you can count on to get things done. And when Emma said it like that, I just knew we had to change the campaign strategy and make this happen. Regina's an amazing person and she 100% deserves the chance to make this town better."

The camera flipped back to the reporter who smiled and continued, "This election beat Winlock's previous voter turnout record, and has perhaps shown that people do want things to change in Winlock."

Regina didn't hear it. She didn't hear any of it. The world seemed to have gone fuzzy, with cheers and congratulations and TV news all blurring into one great haze. She felt like she was drowning.

"Regina? Regina, you're not having a heart attack, are you?" Mulan shook her shoulder, a grin stretching her face.

She won? She won because of Emma? Emma? "This doesn't make sense," Regina muttered. Confusion, she felt, was moments away from becoming panic. Was this an elaborate cruel joke?

"No, it does." Mulan squeezed Regina's shoulder. "You made us believe in you, but Emma believed first. She made us all see. She's got charisma, you can't deny, and she used it."

The world had turned upside down. Regina was elected mayor now. Failure had been delayed just a little longer. But Emma, why Emma, how Emma, Emma? It was everything she wanted, but everything that could only exist in a world where she was somehow a better person.

It was too good to be true. She felt like her heart would break from all the strain, and there was only one thing to do. "I need to..." she breathed to Mulan, looking for the nearest exit. "I'll be right back."

Regina avoided all the cheering people. She got out of Starbucks and ran.

-IV-

Emma hadn't truly slept for almost 36 hours, and ordinary words and colors started looking surreal. She felt giddy.

She'd worked as usual Monday night, but Tuesday was The Day. She dozed a few hours after closing, then called David and Snow about the rallies. Not that they'd needed the reminder. When they arrived with trays of coffee for volunteers and guests, she didn't even bother asking if it was soy milk. Five coffees later, she could have described how politics would taste if it was a food. It worked. Who needed sleep?

At first it had been simple, just telling people to go to Starbucks and see for themselves how Regina handled pressure. Snow had already confirmed that she was in fine form, and what better campaigning was that? Well, obviously better, that's why Emma had the whole day planned out. The posters hung surreptitiously for weeks, casual conversations, and other low-key campaigning had all been leading towards this. Everyone on the campaign team had a speech, and all of them could be summarized quite nicely by: "Vote for Regina because she gets things done right".

People scoffed at the beginning of the day, citing a dozen different rumors, but Emma was just as well-versed in the rumors. Between her and other friendly volunteers, they made the whole town buzz with the controversy. And then controversy, like magic, began turning into enthusiasm. People weren't tired, or cynical—they laughed and cheered and proudly displayed their "I voted" buttons. The free coffees helped, and not just as a metaphor.

Emma wasn't fool enough to think that any lasting change had happened. No, this was just the fervor of a crowd. But if that was enough to get Regina into office—and in a town this small, it wasn't improbable—then so be it.

By the end of the day, caffeine wasn't really working anymore for Emma, but she'd crossed the milestone of 24 hours without sleep and that gave her manic focus. She was at the bar before voting closed, and heard the conversation continue even once votes were being counted. A task force had been set up to watchdog the results and leave no stone unturned when looking for fraudulence. All she had to do was make drinks and wait.

When the results finally aired, she punched the air and hugged Lancelot. He looked weirded out, but she didn't care. She high fived every single person at the bar and shouted out that everyone could have a free round.

So long ago, when she'd first walked into this town, Emma's dream was to make a difference. Sleep-deprivation might make everything look like a dream, but this truly was dream becoming reality. Maybe her parents wouldn't understand, but Emma knew that this was a success.

And if her heart ached, she told herself it would fade. She would make the feelings fade. Emma made drinks and told herself she was perfectly happy.

Amidst all the celebration and drinks, she didn't notice the danger until it was right in front of her. Regina stood there, on the other side of the bar, still wearing her Starbucks apron. Emma nearly dropped the shot glass in her hand. The world had seemed full of colors, but now it fell back in shades of grey around the color that was Regina.

Emma's hand clenched as she told herself not to touch the woman, not even offering a handshake. She told herself it was the fault of lack of sleep and a long absence. This was just the last bit of intoxication. Emma would fight through it and be not-awkward if it killed her. "Hey, congratulations, Mayor Mills."

"Can we talk?" Regina asked, with a steadiness that was clearly hard-won. Her fingers entwined nervously and her eyes looked like storms. "Away from this."

Emma swallowed her heart back down her throat with a loud clearing sound. "Sure, yeah."

She made it to the end of the bar and then Regina grabbed her hand, pulling her into an empty corner. No one else seemed to notice. The music was quiet here, the lighting low, and Emma could almost smell Regina's perfume. God help me. She told herself not to tremble, not to do anything stupid. This love was going to kill her. Why, why, why couldn't she just let it go? "What is it?" she said, with what she hoped was a convincing level of chillness.

Regina took a deep breath and met Emma's eyes, her voice thick and steady. "I'm not good at apologizing. Clearly. I should have been here weeks ago, but I'm a coward. I've run so often. I've protected myself at any cost. At the cost of…" Her lips twitched, a rueful smile touching them. "I'm sorry."

Emma felt her throat tighten and started to shake her head. She wasn't prepared for this.

Regina put up a hand as if to say 'stop', her lips pressed together. "I need to do this. I'm sorry for saying those things. I'm sorry for hurting you, and for purposely ruining our friendship. I'm sorry that I couldn't let you in. You deserved my trust. I'm sorry." The regret strained every word and her lips quivered.

Emma swallowed and heard herself whisper, "It's okay, Regina. It's over, I get it now, you don't need to beat yourself—"

"Stop, Emma, please." Regina almost begged, and Emma shut her mouth. "I do need to do this, Emma. What you did for me…" She laughed, and it cracked halfway through, but she didn't drop Emma's gaze. "No one's ever done anything like that for me. After everything I've done, you give me this gift and… It means everything to me. You don't know how much."

Emma rubbed the back of her hand to her eyes, swallowing three times before the lump went down. It wasn't fair, it just wasn't fair. To be this close and yet so far. To see Regina standing before her with her heart bare and broken, not a single defense up. She looked so small, even on the day when she was winning and on top of the world. As much as the apology soothed, as much as her heart hurt so much less to know that Regina regretted everything, as much as Emma was grateful for all this…

She couldn't be satisfied. She should have been, but within her was still that seed of hope, and it was sprouting again, whispering to her forgive. Emma cared too much for her own good. She didn't want to see Regina lost and guilty; she wanted to see her proud, happy, no longer afraid of her own inadequacy.

It hadn't made sense until just now, as Emma realized for the first time why she had kept coming back to that one little coffeeshop. I needed you to challenge me, and then I needed you to believe I could be smarter and more successful, and then I needed you to be proud of me even when I wasn't my best. It wasn't perfect, but for a while it was everything I needed. It wasn't perfect but it could have been. If we'd been better people, it could have been.

Regina still stood there, looking unsure if her apology had been accepted. Her fingers twisted together.

Emma let out a short breath and shrugged. "I couldn't let all that planning go to waste. You'll be great at this job." Love, maybe, was a lost cause. Too broken for repair. But friendship...maybe that was still within their reach. She gave a little smile, as awkward as it felt.

Regina didn't look any happier but she laughed, softly. "You know, I'm starting to agree with you."

For a moment they stood and held their gaze, until Emma feared Regina could see straight into her soul and find all the embarrassing mess of feelings. She shifted her gaze to the side for a second.

Regina pulled herself up straighter, a little mask shifting in place over her features. "I should go thank everyone for voting. I'll have to make a speech, too, and I only planned a concession one. And I need to talk to my district manager about promoting Mulan, once I'm officially in office…"

"Yeah." Emma nodded.

Regina shifted her weight as if ready to pivot and walk away, but something caught her. She glanced down, then up at Emma. "But before that."

Emma tipped her head. "Yeah?"

Regina's smile turned pained. "Thank you. I do...wish...we could have done this together. Like we planned."

She told herself that she should smile, repeat it back, anything normal. Instead Emma's throat seemed too tight for words and yet again, she just wasn't prepared.

Regina's voice dropped lower. "I know it's pointless to say now. I just… I do wish it. I wish I hadn't ruined us. I need to stop doing that." She laughed, but it didn't drive the pain from her eyes. Her shoulders dropped a little, as if she lost her strength for a second. "I missed you."

The words hung in the air for a second too long, a second in which Regina didn't look full of guilt or pride or anything like that. A second in which Regina looked like her heart ached.

She seemed to realize it too, speaking swiftly then and with a half-smile, "I hope you achieve whatever goal you go after next, Emma. You deserve that, and not just because you helped me when you had no reason to. If you need anything at all, any help, especially what I can do now as Mayor, I'll always—"

Emma refused to live in the past. She crossed the distance between them and stopped Regina's mouth with a sudden kiss. She tasted the gasp, then the desperation, then against all hope Regina kissed back.

The world stopped its turning for one second in which nothing was broken or messy and everything made sense. It was so much better than caffeine.

When they broke away, Emma rested her arms around Regina's waist and mumbled, "We don't have to be ruined if you don't want."

Regina looked at her, eyes swirling in a dozen emotions, but made a sound that was halfway between laugh and sob and kissed her again.

Emma thought she could hear angels singing in chorus, but it was probably just sleep deprivation. She laughed into the kiss. Regina's arms slipped around her and clutched her tightly until love electrified every cell in her body. Until she felt like they could do anything.

It took more than a few seconds to realize that the flashing lights weren't fireworks but reporters' cameras, and every journalist in town was here to pester the newest mayor.

It took another split second for Emma to realize, in horror, what everyone in the bar was seeing. She jerked back, throat choking. "Oh fuck. Oh fuck, you're not out."

Regina should have pulled back in shame, but she didn't. The cacophony of questions and cameras surrounded them, enough to terrify anyone. Anyone but Regina, it seemed. One eyebrow rose slowly, her gaze sliding sideways to all the shouting reporters and then back to Emma. "Too late now." Her eyes sparkled with a hint of dark amusement. "They can't unelect me now. Not for another four years."

Emma bit back a laugh, guilt fading in the rush of warmth. "You make an excellent point."

Regina grabbed her hand and turned to the reporters, back straight, looking taller than she had any right to appear. Her voice came out loud and crisp. "I suppose you all have questions, but all you really need to know is this. I intend to change this town for the better, in every single way. Whether you voted for me or not, this town is for all of us. We all deserve to succeed and be happy. I intend to make that happen for every citizen in Winlock, if I can do so. I might as well start by embracing my own happiness, and that comes in the form of this unimaginably stubborn woman who now, as you can probably guess, is my girlfriend. Thank you, but you will get a full interview tomorrow. No more questions tonight."

With a smirk that could charm the entire world, in Emma's opinion, Regina turned around and deftly handed her Starbucks apron to Emma. She flashed her most professional smile to all the reporters and concluded, "Ladies and gentlemen, if you'll please step aside, let's all leave this fine establishment so that I may make my victory speech in a more appropriate venue."

They fell aside, and Mayor Mills walked proudly from the bar.

Emma grinned and felt like she would never stop.

Chapter Text

-I-

No election had caused so much controversy as far back as Mulan remembered. Between the corrupt claiming voting fraud (and being disproven), Gold facing charges of slander, and of course the gay scandal, Winlock remained buzzing for weeks.

Mulan had planned to stay out of it; Regina had other plans.

"I'm leaving the choice up to you," Regina had told her in their first private meeting since the election. Gone was all Starbucks attire; Regina had, it seemed, acquired a new wardrobe of well-fitted suits and dresses. "As the most senior employee, my recommendation will be all you need to attain promotion to manager. You can keep Belle on as an employee or hire someone else full time. I don't suggest Eric, though, if he ever comes calling. He always smells of fish and yet denies it. Bad for business."

Mulan had nodded slowly. "You mentioned a choice. There's a catch?"

Regina's lips twisted in a small smile. "I spoke to the school principal and then Frederick at the gym. Both are open to seeing a display from you. If you can impress either one, they have the funds to offer you a teaching position."

Mulan furrowed her brow. "I'm not a teacher…"

"Well of course, these would be bagazhuang classes you'd be teaching." Regina's smile widened.

Mulan had never felt more floored.

"You might, of course, be able to be both manager and teach bagazhuang in your spare time. Or I could recommend to my district manager that he hire a new manager so long as he keeps you on at least part time, and you could focus more on classes. There hasn't been any sort of martial arts instruction in years and people are interested. Their kids are interested. If you want to gain experience and money, this is your chance." Regina shrugged. "But of course it's up to you."

For the first time in her life, Mulan hugged someone who was not family or girlfriend. She smirked after letting the surprised Regina go. "I think Emma's a good influence on you. You're so much nicer."

Regina's eyes darkened for a second. "Oh please. It improves the economy and community of the town, it has nothing to do with your dreams."

"You keep telling yourself that." Mulan laughed. It was, of course, unlikely that Regina would have found out about her dreams if she didn't care a little about Mulan. But she wouldn't push the point. It was nice to know even if it wouldn't be said aloud. "They can find someone else to be manager. I'll take the second offer. Thank you."

"My pleasure." Regina smiled again, with a surprising amount of grace.

Regina was full of pleasant surprises these days. It seemed to Mulan and all of Winlock that she had blossomed almost overnight. Everyone had gotten used to the old Regina, long before all the chaos had happened. In hindsight, though, there had always been family drama hanging around. This Regina was remarkably...free.

Not that her troubles were gone. The very instant that pictures of her and Emma passionately kissing made it onto the news, an outcry from the conservative elderly all but drowned out the celebration. Vile insults and rage flew around town for a few days, before settling into a grumpy resignation. Regina, for her part, pulled off annoyed-but-professional as well as she ever did.

Then again, not everyone was quite so hateful with their bigotry. It was a strange thing to be grateful for, but...well, it was almost heartening in a town that sometimes felt nostalgic for the Dark Ages.

Two weeks went by before, one Saturday, Mulan sat in the salon and overheard the whispered conversation of two white-haired Christian ladies waiting their turn.

"It's not that I approve of such things—"

"They're not even married, for one."

"Yes, exactly. But it's not like they're wearing rainbow and glitter. They're not those kind of homosexuals."

"Yes, yes, I know what you mean. Like the nice hair lady. They're our homosexuals."

"I'm going to talk about sending some people to Ms. Mills' house, and see if she'll come to church. We might as well try."

Mulan rolled her eyes, yet took it as a step forward all the same. The world would change and even places like Winlock couldn't hold that change back forever. Scandals would be scandals, but people would stop caring in time. Most of them. The others...well, who would dare go after the popularly-elected mayor?

-II-

Regina, lit with the fire of justice and the law being on her side, didn't wait for January to arrive before making her first move. Corruption, after all, hardly sat around and waited for discovery. After a half dozen interviews about her quote-unquote gayness, which got excruciatingly frustrating the more they refused to use the word 'bisexual', she consulted with Abigail and then the police force.

Winlock's cops weren't Washington's finest, but they did find her intimidating. With Abigail's help and a tiny sprinkling of exaggeration and false implication, she arranged for mayoral records to be seized and held. Regina wouldn't be sworn in for weeks, but she didn't want to arrive and find everything scrubbed clean.

Gold might fume and Thicke might bluster, but they ran like cockroaches once Regina showed that she had a light to shine.

The success nearly distracted her from more personal happiness. Only nearly.

"There's one problem with us," Emma said with a furrowed brow, two weeks after election as they lay tangled in Regina's bed.

Despite everything, including the unfamiliar but pleasant weakness in her limbs, Regina felt herself tense up. "Oh?"

"Gumby and Quixote will never approve of this union." Emma nodded gravely.

Regina snorted and rested her head on Emma's shoulders. "I've yet to ask Quixote's opinion on anything. But if all else fails, I'm sure you can bribe him with chicken."

"I'm more worried about Gumby, since he can hardly bribe your monster."

"Gumby's a good boy," Regina mumbled, waving one hand vaguely. She was too relaxed, too blissful, to care about pets. "And if not, we can lock them in a shed and let nature play out."

Emma gasped. "Gumby would die! No, Regina, absolutely not."

Regina turned her gaze up to her only-half-horrified girlfriend, tapping a finger to Emma's lower lip. "If we can get past our differences, so can they. It will just take time."

Emma tipped her head to the side. "And since when are you the peace-believing optimist?"

Regina raised one eyebrow. "I will be anything if it gets you to stop thinking about animals when I'm naked and in your bed, Ms. Swan."

Emma laughed and kissed her. Regina hummed pleasantly and kissed back. Moments like these, happiness felt obscenely wonderful.

Of course, there were still arguments. They were in love but they were also still grumbling, still pissy, still defensive. Politics interfered, and defense mechanisms couldn't be set aside by willpower alone. Regina wanted to make lists of things they shouldn't talk about, ever, and Emma thought the opposite, that talking would be therapeutic and result in greater intimacy. Regina rolled her eyes. Emma huffed off. A few hours of annoyed silence, and then they tried apology and compromise.

"I'm not good at this," Regina said through gritted teeth.

"Well, I've never even had a relationship, so we're in the same boat there." Emma sighed. "But I believe in us."

"Yes, of course you do." Regina paused. "As do I."

Emma grinned. "And you're saying it out loud, now, which is a bonus."

Regina groaned. "Your obsession with me being sentimental is nauseating sometimes."

"And?" Emma tipped her head, waiting.

Regina rolled her tongue about her mouth, but ended up muttering, "And I love you for it. Sometimes."

Emma smiled.

Every day, Regina felt herself falling more and more in love with that smile. There was a thrill, though, a primal and heart-racing terror. Like throwing oneself off a cliff and hoping to be caught before crashing into the rocks. That, Emma said, was what love was supposed to feel like. Mulan and Aurora agreed, though Regina was loth to consider them quite experts. But she was starting to understand that nothing good in life came without risk.

And so, every day, Regina let herself fall further and further. She wouldn't think about the rocks at the bottom, if she could help it. She would only think about the thrill of flight through the air, and the promise that she and Emma would catch each other.

One day, she hoped, the healing and the happiness would drown out fear altogether.

Then she was sworn into office, and no longer had the luxury of overthinking things like love. When you looked at the details, Winlock needed more help than even Regina had prepared for. The office was wasteful, old-fashioned, and easily confirmed to be in corporate pockets. It wasn't even just Mr. Gold.

Regina stared at the paperwork for nights on end, piecing together a map of the dangers to Winlock's future. The sticky spiderweb spread beyond the town and had strands in nearly every family or business she knew. Abigail provided her with resources and consultants and she started up the steep learning curve of politics.

Still at the office? Emma would text.

Unless that's a major crime, yes. And that's not a sarcastic comment.

Uh huh, sure it isn't. Please don't make this an every night thing. But also, I would just like to remind you that you thought you wouldn't be into politics.

Don't say I told you so.

Emma sent back a winky emoticon and Regina just rolled her eyes. It became somewhat of a pattern.

Eventually, Emma started showing up at the office instead of just texting.

"Don't you have a bar to run?" Regina asked once from behind the overly-opulent desk and stacks of folders and documents. Truth be told, office work still felt foreign. The room felt far above her station, a woman who hadn't finished college, born in poverty. She swaggered for the press, but hadn't 100% convinced herself that she belonged here. Soon, maybe.

"I've been taking the early shift and weekends. Eric does 9-2." Emma walked to the window and drew the curtains closed.

Regina glanced up from her work. "Eric? Really?"

"He wears cologne, don't worry." Emma grinned and sat on the edge of Regina's desk, her broomstick skirt splaying over a handful of folders. "So what's up today?"

"Trying to find the magic ratio of allocated resources to respark people's investment in Winlock." Regina tapped pen to paper, missing her far-simpler managerial budgeting at Starbucks. "I can only do so much from this end. Winlock itself needs to rise up and believe in the potential for growth and change, and not just on election day. It's possible, but...work is needed."

When Emma leaned over, the shirt that had appeared so innocent while she stood suddenly betrayed sinful cleavage. Regina gave her a Look.

"I believe, you know, that I told you about Winlock's potential a long time ago and you didn't believe me."

"We've only dated for two months and already you're rehashing our very first squabble?" Regina murmured, one eyebrow raised.

"Still." Emma shrugged her shoulders in what was surely a purposeful move to show more cleavage. Regina tried, and failed, to keep her eyes above shoulder level. "It feels really nice to know that we came so far. That I finally got you here."

"Just as, I assure you, it's gratifying to know that I stepped in with practical aspects and a sense of moderation to temper your ideals." Regina couldn't help a small smirk. "Which was something I said you desperately needed, back during that first squabble, if you remember."

"I do." Emma laughed a little, then slid further towards Regina, moving a few folders of paperwork out of the way. Mischief danced in her blue-green eyes. "Now, Madame Mayor, since we've established that only together can we accomplish anything, I have a very serious political question."

It was late and Regina allowed herself to be distracted, even laying her favorite pen down on the desk for a moment. "Mm, I am prepared to answer any question."

Emma leaned back slightly, supporting herself on the palms of her hands with an expression that was a dorky attempt at sobriety. "Does your sense of...practical aspects and moderation allow for kisses in the mayoral office? Or would that be unprofessional?"

The question needed pondering. Regina cocked her head slightly, tapping her fingertips on Emma's knees as they hung off the edge of the desk. "Excellent question, Ms. Swan."

Emma waited. Regina pondered. Emma looked slightly doubtful. "Well?"

Certain moments called for certain actions, especially when one was only human. Regina slid her chair back and stood up, straightening her blouse. "It would be…"

The moment hung in the air. Then, swiftly, Regina stepped forward between Emma's legs and pushed her further back on the desk, a dozen papers sliding haphazardly out of the way beneath her startled girlfriend. Emma squeaked. Regina slid the skirt up to Emma's hips, feeling a predatory smile escape as she leaned in over her. "Kisses alone would be unprofessional," she breathed, once her lips were half an inch from Emma's. "What I have planned would be termed...wickedly unprofessional."

"Good god, Regina," Emma chuckled low in her throat, fingers dancing up Regina's sides. "I'm glad I drew the curtains."

"Yes." Regina flicked the tip of her tongue against Emma's upper lip, giving in to amusement, love, lust, and follow-through on the promise that people mattered more than work. "There are some things that are simply not meant to be political statements."

Emma leaned up, giving her a heated kiss that could burn the entire mayor's office down if let loose. Regina caught and claimed it, and let the fire burn her down instead.

Each time it felt better. Each time she rose from her own ashes, cleaner and brighter and just one step closer to what she wanted to be. She could see it in Emma's eyes too. They might have a thousand steps to take before they were whole again, every scar burnt away, every fear forgotten, but the first step had been the hardest. They were past that. They were onto something else, and something that, for all their professional passion, mattered more than politics.

Regina loved and was loved in return. Nothing else could hold a candle to that.

The End