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Haven for this heart, shelter for this child

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The entire firm was been buzzing with the news of a new managing partner for weeks.

 

 Gold was being tight-lipped about the whole thing, but the new lawyer was bringing a seriously impressive roster of clients. Word was had ‘quite a reputation’, too, whatever that meant. Even Emma hadn’t been able to get a lot more than that, initially, from chatter in the firm. That, plus a name.

 

Regina Mills.

 

It was weird, because she was the sort of person who usually warranted talking about.

 

True, she wasn’t going as deep as she would have for a client. Emma had some sense, and it didn’t include getting an unfavourable impression. Still she would have like to know a little more. Even the photographs of the woman didn’t say much.

 

She could find out plenty about the people that surrounded her. That was interesting. She was daughter of the Republican vice-presidential candidate and current US Senator, Cora Mills. Ex-wife of disgraced Democratic governor, Leopold Blanchard. Ties to failed political movers and shakers.  More than connections to land a position as named partner right out of the gate at this firm. This, too, after only being a partner at her previous law firm for just a handful of years. 

 

Interesting, maybe, but it didn’t mean Emma wasn’t wary of that.

 

Politics was one thing she was all too happy to steer clear of. 

 

The mother had a pretty impressive internet presence, and seemed like a piece of work. Her policies were the height of Republican crazy, and given the interviews, if the woman had a heart, she didn't let it dictate her public policy. 

 

It was beyond frustrating. Emma got pissed off didn’t have information, and couldn’t put pieces together… Well, it didn’t exactly go well. She’d lost track of the number of cases she’d helped get acquittals and good settlements on, in the last two years at this firm. It all banked on the amount of digging she could do, and who she asked.

 

Half of her connections brought up dead ends or mutters of ‘ohh, Mills? Good luck with that one.”

 

She could find lots of fuzzy videos of press conferences back from 2003 when the campaign had gone down, when Leopold Blanchard was arrested on corruption charges. Regina Mills was a young and wan woman standing beside him, unreadable. Very young, and pretty. The temptation was to call her a trophy wife, maybe a pushover, except for what followed. Blanchard hadn’t been in jail for more than a day when the divorce had gone through. Whoever Regina Mills was, she worked fast.

 

She could find a couple years of nothing before the Mills name appeared again in court columns. Plenty more pictures of the woman at various legal events, with a great deal more confidence and a bit more eyeliner. More than enough of even more rumours about the unsavory political wrangling of the mother. Possibly something that hinted at a link between Cora Mills and Gold? That was fuzzier than the crap video feeds though.

 

Regina Mills herself was the bigger enigma, and that was the frustrating part.

 

Unfortunately, Emma misses the introductory meeting, her best shot at a proper first impression.

 

The elevator was empty as she returns to the office. Later than she hopes, but not a total loss of her morning. Nothing like discovering a pretty serious prescription drug abuse problem to discredit a witness.

 

The odd part walking out of the elevator to see someone setting up the new name-plates on the front-desk. Shiny silver-and-black lettering spelling out Mills, Gold, and Associates in a blocky font.

 

Emma surveys the change for a moment, tapping a heeled boot against the floor. A harried associate was rushing past, and stops. “You missed the meeting, Swan. Was there something wrong?”

 

Emma nods at the woman. Keegan Le Bleu, equity partner and head of divorce law. Rumoured to be a former nun. Emma had never checked, but she could believe it. Also, possibly one of the most spectacularly passive aggressive people Emma had ever met. 

 

“Yeah. I was busy.”

 

“You were lucky, Swan. Our new partner is…” A pert nose crinkles in disgust. Emma recalls how much the woman had been gunning for named partner for the past…  About as long as Emma had been working for the firm. Probably a bit before. “Well.” 

 

Emma rolls her eyes, but the woman’s already gliding past. Well, if Le Bleu didn’t like this Regina Mills… How bad could she be, right? She glances towards the corner office, and shrugs. Time to say hi.

 

There was been a perfectly reasonable thought process behind this plan. Something to do with making a good impression? Curiosity? Politeness? An intimidation tactic? Knowledge/power, all that stuff?

 

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However it had gone, she was standing in her new bosses office, surveying it. 

 

To her credit, the door was open. Not even Emma was going to break and enter in her place of employment. Not without a very compelling reason, anyway. She hadn’t totally ruled it out.

 

The interior decorators had certainly done a number on it. Gone was the stuffy armchair, the old-fashioned books. In their place was all sleek aluminium, an honest to god marble desk, three white walls. An ‘accent wall’, or whatever the term was, of wallpaper in a pattern black and white birch trees, cut by a single window.  

 

It was… She didn’t want to say cold, exactly, because that had all kinds of connotations, but it was… Imposing, in an interesting way. It said something about this Mills woman. 

There was some small items on the desk, at least, personal touches. Emma creeped forward, craning her head to take a look.  

 

“Can I help you?” Came a coolly sharp voice behind her, and Emma turned around, immediately feeling exposed.

 

The woman standing in front of her was a shorter than her, but she somehow managed to loom, anyway. Emma was tempted to blame the red-soled high heels, except she was equally sure that it was a question of sheer presence.

 

The new arrival had a startling amount of it.  Pure, calculated bearing. Nothing to do the heels, the perfect manicure, the careful hairstyle, the expensive black dress with a neckline that was just barely on the side of businesslike…. 

 

This is going to be interesting. Thought the same part of her brain that almost got into the bar fight last week while tailing a mobster.

 

“Who exactly are you?” The expression in those eyes matched the voice, too. All scrutiny, to the point where Emma felt like tugging her skirt down. Straightening up, or something. Though, that was perhaps an unusually apt choice of words, given the way Emma caught her own gaze settling, just for a second. 

 

It took all of her willpower just to keep casual, raise an eyebrow, and, in a moment of spectacular smoothness, say, “Umm… Emma.” 

 

Then proceeds to mentally kick herself for not doing it properly. It was the first meeting with her new boss, not a meeting between casual acquaintances. 

 

To her credit, the other woman looks almost amused by this, flickering her eyes. “Is that supposed to mean something to me? I’m Regina Mills.”

 

“Yeah, I know who you are.” Emma says, and yeah, her back was straighter. Damn it.

 

“Oh. Lovely. I suppose that saves me the trouble of introducing myself?”

 

“Missed the intro meeting. Thought I’d say hi. I’m the in-house?” Emma presses.

 

“In-house?” The woman smiles patronizingly, quirking a brow.

 

“Investigator. Emma Swan.” Emma moves away from the desk. “Just wanted to say, you know… Welcome to the firm, glad to have you with us, let me know if you have questions… That sort of thing?” She smiled, trying to be welcoming, even if the other woman was being a bit…. 

 

"Ah. I must confess I was a little... How shall I phrase this... You're a little... Unorthodox looking,  for a firm such as this one? What exactly are your qualifications, if I may be so curious?" Mills said, looking her over, skeptically.

 

That gets Emma's back up even more, and she takes a step forward, arms folded over her chest, jacket open and blouse… Okay, the blouse is a little low. Whoops.

 

Still… ‘unorthodox’?

 

"Sorry for not being the dumb ex-cop you were expecting... Problem with those types is, when you look like a cop? People tend to talk to like you're one. Trust me, this works better, lady. Ask Gold if you don't believe me, he's still the one that hired me, and he’s still the founding partner of this firm, thanks.”

 

Mills smirked. "Yes, I'm sure Mr Gold will have glowing recommendations. I'll pass on those, I think. I prefer to get a measure of someone myself, Miss… Swan, was it?”

 

"Fine. Guess you will." Emma snaps, then " How do you know Gold, anyway?"

 

"It's a long story."

 

"Right." Emma takes another step forward, intending to leave. Regina sidesteps neatly, like a partner in a dance. The doorway was directly behind her, now.  “Like I said, I think he’s capable of judging the abilities of the employees he hired.”

 

The lawyer stands her ground. Emma tried not think about how close the two of them were. Nor how Emma could smell the other woman's perfume, something bright and aldehydic. “I been a lawyer for twelve years, I think I’m capable of making such an assessment for myself.”

 

“Wow. I was sixteen.” Emma says, rolling her eyes, despite herself. Sixteen. Damn. She’d come a long way since then. 

 

“Charming. And you got your little certification, where exactly? The internet? Community college? However you learned it, let's make one thing perfectly clear. Kindly keep your snooping to billable hours, if you don’t mind, Miss Swan?”

 

“Snooping?” Emma chokes, breathing deep. Was it... No, not Chanel. Something else. "Look, lady, I was trying to be polite. You can go and..."

 

“Do you have a better definition of your job?” That smirk, all red with a flash of white teeth and cheekbones. "Well, now that we've gotten that lovely introduction over with, Miss Swan, may I suggest we both get back to..."

 

There was a cough from behind them, and Emma glances over. See Gold standing there.

 

There's a contrast between the two named partners. Gold is all old-world, old school charm, with a three piece suit of charcoal and pinstripes, shiny walking stick. Mills appears to belong to a differing class of lawyer, something a little newer, but no less sharp. Emma wonders how long before there's a clash, and decides its none of her business. 

 

She’s known the woman for all of three minutes, but her instincts scream that, if it came down to it, she’d put the money on Mills.

 

"Ah. I see the two of you have been introduced?" Gold says, and chuckles to himself. "How lovely. I'm sure you'll get along famously."

 

"Yeah, I was just leaving." Emma says, sidesteps Regina. "Welcome to the firm." 

 

She saunters out, trying to pretend that the woman hadn't affected her.

 

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Emma had just about convinced herself of this by their second encounter, two days later. It had been raining out, and Emma was feeling damp, bedraggled, and thoroughly frustrated. 

 

Regina Mills, in contrast, was perfectly dry in a gorgeous skirt-suit.

 

She's also sitting on the desk in Emma's tiny office, crossing mile-long legs in sheer pantyhose, and looks up. The only word that springs to mind is dangerous.

 

Alright. Damn might have been present too, in both sense of the word.

 

"Umm..." Emma says, pretty sure this was payback for destabilizing Mills on her first day. 

 

Mills holds out a file folder, mute.

 

Emma crosses her arms.

 

Mills stays where she was. Glances away. “Miss Swan.”

 

Emma has to cross the room to take it from her, the manicured nails scraping at her hand when she did. It tingles, and their hands stay in contact longer than she means them to, brushing.

 

“A witness for the Marina case just missed his last meeting with us. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue, if he hadn’t also just attempted to purchase an out of the country ticket. It makes sense, considering who our client is suing, that he would be wary of testifying, but it’s a problem for us. We can’t go to trial if he tries to run. Luckily the flight doesn’t leave until Thursday, so he should still be within the city, if that helps."

 

"It's a big city. How is ‘within the city’ even vaguely helpful as a starting point?” Emma says. Focus on her face, and not on the legs. Avoid the legs.

 

Regina slides off the desk, brushes past Emma, then turned around to whisper in her ear.

"You've got this room covered. Branch out."

 

Emma waited until she was gone, the door closed, before leaning back against the desk, drained. 

 

It's still warm.

 

Yup, she was screwed.

 

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“Am I supposed to be impressed that I’m forced to go down to the precinct and bail out an employee, during my first month on the job?” Regina says, staring through the bars. Her hands are tense.

 

Emma scrunches her eyes, sighing. “They couldn’t have gotten someone else?”

 

“Apparently not.” Mills (she's decided ‘Ms Mills’ feels weirdly school-marm-y, and 'Regina' is so far from an option) reaches up to as if play with one ear, and the gold & pearl stud attached to it. Lets her hand drop, folding them, and smiles.

 

It's a sharp sort of smile, that one.

 

“For the record? Hit that pole was because the drug dealer I was tailing tried to ram his car into mine. Not exactly reckless driving on my part. Got him into custody though, should be able to get him to testify on the case like you were hoping, so… Call that a win for me.” She's lying on the bed in the cell, and it digs into her side. She shifts, and the back of her shirt rides up as she stands.

 

“Yes, I’m aware. Which is why I had the charges dropped.”

 

Emma starts. “You did?”

 

Mills glares. “That, and it would be an embarrassment to the firm. Trust me, it’s largely the last one.”

 

“Well, at least I know I have the power to embarrass you.” Emma says, retaliatory. 

 

“I think my reputation has weathered worse.”

 

“Corruption scandal?” Emma suggests, and Mills freezes.

 

“Pardon?”

 

“What, you think I didn’t look you up? Your husband, right? Governor, going to be president... Somebody said something to the wrong person, opened up a big corruption scandal, then you divorce his ass, take pretty much everything he’s got in the settlement, and drop out of public eye until you pop back up here. ”

 

“Would you like me to go digging up your past? I’m sure I could find something interesting, Miss Swan. Your criminal record is spotless, miraculously enough. Well, plenty there, but not a single charge that's properly stuck."

 

"Called in favours." Emma spits, because it's true. 

 

"I'd speculate how that happened, but it's more interesting to think of what a juvenile record would kick up.”

 

Don’t you dare…” Emma said, her breath catching in her throat, as she presses her face up to the bars. She had been sitting down a moment earlier, but a threat like that…

 

Mills’s breath is hot on her face as she leans close. “Oh, I wouldn’t. I have that much in the way of manners. But thank you for confirming my suspicions on that particular front. The police officer will be along in a few minutes with your effects, I trust you can see your own way out of here.”

 

Emma steps back, and hates herself a little bit for it. “Who, the Graham guy?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Nice. I was planning on getting his number.”

 

Mills rolls her eyes.

 

“Seriously, are you judging me for that?”

 

“Only in your taste.”

 

“What’s wrong with him?”

 

“Nothing.” Regina purses her lips. 

 

“Ex-boyfriend?" Emma jokes, and the laughter dies, abruptly, at the panicked look in Regina's eyes.

 

“If he was, what possible business would it be of yours?”

 

“It's not.” Emma says, because honesty sometimes actually works.

 

“I'd rather not go into specifics. Suffice to say... It didn't end well."

 

“On your part, or his?” Emma says, because yeah, okay, she is a little nosy.

 

Mills looks away, clearing her throat, and Emma follows suit.

 

"That was out of line." She offers. 

 

When Regina speaks again, there's a slower tinge to it that fails to belie her discomfort. “Good day, Miss Swan. Try and avoid getting arrested on behalf of the firm in the future." Heel turn, and she's left.

 

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Three weeks later, and Emma gets a rumour there's "movement in the equity partners’ meeting for ‘reconsideration of employment status". It's odd, because last rumour, and there was a raise in the works. 

 

Then she puts the pieces together, and decides to take a bit of action.

 

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“What are you doing?”

 

It’s almost five months later when Emma looks up from her position in the mini kitchen, where she was pouring coffee into a travel thermos. “Um… Getting ready to leave?” She says, peering at the person coming down the loft stairs.

 

“No breakfast? Not even yogurt or something? I bought those little yogurt cups.” Ruby grumbles, half-way through buttoning her red shirt..

 

Emma rolls her eyes. “Yoghurt? Seriously? Since when are we either hippies or middle aged women? Besides, we're taking the car. It’s a Monday morning, people suck, and traffic is nuts.”

 

“You should just get up earlier, like a normal, sane human being. Then you would have time for breakfast.” Ruby points out, grinning. With a flourish, she shoved her crumb-filled plate into the dishwasher. Closing it, the dishwasher gurgled to life. There was a strange, unearthly rattling that the two of them thought best to ignore. 

 

It was an apartment that occasionally teetered on the edge between 'shabby chic' and frankly derelict. It smelled funny and the tenants below them were weird as heck, and the traffic was a constant presence when the fear of an imminent rat invasion wasn’t. 

 

It worked for the two of them, somehow, despite all of that. Emma liked the patina of the brickwork, the lofted ceilings, and with apartment prices the way they were, the two of them were lucky to afford it.

 

Emma ignored the pointed dish disposal, as she pulled on her red leather jacket and picked up the keys. “You seeing Victor tonight?”

 

Ruby nodded, distracted, and despite herself, Emma paused. “How’s he doing?”

 

“He’s okay, mostly. Look, I know you think he’s totally sleazy…”

 

“He spent like a month staring at your butt in uniform, and never even spoke to you, and suddenly I get you a proper job and he finally asks you out? Sorry, but guys like that bother me.”

 

“It’s a bit more than that. He was having a really bad day. Like… Really bad. I helped him out. He asked me out. And he bought me flowers, okay? We’ve been dating for three months. Let me have this!”

 

“Okay, but when Mr. Doctor Boy…”

 

“Oh, shut up! When was the last time you had an actual date? That had a chance of going anywhere?”

 

“Probably that one with that cop, Graham. The uh…“ Emma grimaces.

 

Ruby winced. “Oh. Where he…”

 

“Yeah, well, having the guy you were kinda into suddenly has a heart-attack, in the middle of you kissing him? That’s like, Downton Abbey level crappy.  Can you blame me?” 

 

Ruby winces. “Not really. But… Still.”

 

“It’s not like I have a lot time for it, not with Mills riding my ass all the time. Anyway, it’s a lot of work for not a lot of gain.”

 

Relationships aren’t exactly something she’s had a lot of success with. 

 

“Riding your ass? Is that how it is?” Ruby smirked, reaching for the coffee pot.

 

“How what i… Shut up.” Emma spluttered. “You know how many times she tried to get me fired, first few weeks? I only still have a job because she doesn’t have full control of the firm, and Mr. Gold, luckily, has my back. Kinda of. Still. No way would I go for that.”

 

“Hmm… No?” Ruby arched a brow. “True, the two of you have some serious antagonism going… Her Apple?”

 

Emma grins, crooked. ”Her laptop 'accidentally' gets trashed with a baseball bat, and this is somehow my fault, just because she was on the brink on moving for a vote to get me fired? Please.”

 

Ruby rolled her eyes. “You know you probably shouldn’t have left a note that said ‘your move’ on her desk. Kinda gave it away.”

 

“Please, like those files weren’t backed up anyway. She got my car towed the next day, because ‘technically I’m an independent contractor and not strictly entitled to a parking space,' remember? Oh, and moved me to an even crappier office when the partners voted against her. Trust me, we're even. How did she even find out how much I like that car, anyway?” Emma shakes her head, grinning again, despite herself.

 

"We could take the bus?” Ruby suggests.

 

"Like I'd give her the satisfaction. Come on. Let’s go answer phones and investigate things to acquit super shady rich people.”

 

Ruby was, as usual, right. Traffic had been hell trying to get in to the office. They’d hit gridlock several times, and cursed her dumb attachment to a terrible car. That, and a job that required her to drive a lot. 

 

By the time Emma gets in, she had sworn at several taxi-drivers and unusually idiotic pedestrians, narrowly avoided vehicular manslaughter of a bike messenger, and has low enough blood-sugar that she was beginning to regret skipping breakfast.

 

They have to duck about six people with folders on their way in. One of them still looks askance at what she was wearing, decked out as he was in a three piece suit, oxfords, the works. The man pauses to adjust his cufflinks. As if anyone cared. 

 

Emma rolls her eyes. She was not a lawyer, and she sure as hell wasn’t planning on dressing like one. Her red leather jacket, boots, and tight skirts and jeans served her just fine. Street level fashion, thanks. In her line of work, looking like a suit wasn’t usually the best option, anyway. Try getting intel out of a suspect when you look that much like someone official. Wasn’t going to happen. She stopped for a moment, letting the eddies of people pass by, getting a grasp on the day.

 

“Emma!” A second year associate, Aurora, in a white blazer and pencil skirt. Emma turned, and smiled briefly, but they don’t know each other well enough to stop and talk properly.

 

Ruby pushes past her, settling in at her desk. Ruby, at least, has hair with red streaks in it still. Management hadn’t managed to force her into dyeing back to brown just yet. Another welcome change from the buttoned down semi-corporate hell of this place. Great as the pay was, and as much as she could get by on a careful blend of confidence and indispensability…. It sometimes got a little old.

 

Her reverie is broken by a vibration in her pocket. She checks her phone, to see a text that simply reads:

my office-

and groans, but makes her way there.

 

Mill’s office is empty, so she heads in the opposite direction, on a hunch.

 

It pulls off. Emma  figures out where the boss was from the angry voices emanating from the office she had been walking towards. “Hey, Belle.”

 

Belle Maurice, a first year associate at the firm, looks up from the book in her hand. She’s sitting in the small waiting area outside the office of one R. Gold, named partner, and Emma’s main boss. When she speaks, her voice was wry, and tinged faintly with an accent. “It would appear so. And you’re late, Ms. Swan. Don’t worry, I doubt they’ll notice. Sadly. It doesn’t exactly reflect well on the firm, but… Well. I’m sure they know what they’re doing. Well, probably.”

 

Emma raises an eyebrow, and gestures to one of the softer chairs. “Mind if I sit?”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

She took a seat, letting her folder of intel perch on her lap, briefcase directly beside her. They weren’t particularly friendly, but she didn’t mind Belle too much. At first appearances, she wasn't very intimidating, but Emma had also heard something about the Yaoguai case from Belle’s internship days that suggested otherwise, though. 

 

Either way, talking to her beats staring at the expensive and utterly incomprehensible modern art that hung on the walls. What was it meant to be, exactly? It looks like the contents of an exploded blender, and probably cost more than her salary.

 

“What book?” Emma asks, trying to peer at the cover, while keeping half an ear open.

 

“Hmm? Oh, assembled tales from Greek Mythology.”

 

“Nerd.”

 

“Proud of it. It’s interesting. Borrowed it from the boss, actually. He’s got a ridiculous number of books.”

 

Emma snorted, taking a sip of her coffee. “Really? Didn’t peg him for the fairy-tale type.” 

 

“It’s not fairytales. It’s mythology. Much more sophisticated. Or something. I don’t know. It’s a book, so I basically automatically love it.”  Belle retorts, closing the book. “So, girls night still happening on Friday?”

 

She’d just about forgotten. “Rabbit Hole again?  9 o’clock? I mean, Early start means less chance we have for Aurora to fall asleep at the table, but still….” Emma says, and remembers the awkward ‘Mulan, come pick up your passed-out girlfriend’ call she’d made last time. “It always just ends up with everyone bored before the bar even gets interesting.”

 

“True.” Belle says, and laughs. Emma sets the coffee aside, to go and stand closer to the door, trying to look nonchalant. She definitely wasn't eavesdropping.

 

“You do have a habit of underhanded, don’t you? You still owe me favours, don’t forget it, Regina. Your ex-husband was half-way my doing.” filters through the door. Gold.

 

Ex-husband? Had Gold helped with the divorce? Normally he didn’t do divorce law.

 

“We worked well as a team, didn't we? I’ll admit it’s what I liked about you, but only to a point…” It’s the same low voice. 

 

Two footsteps, and Emma is darting away from the door.

 

Mills strides out, practically hissing. “Maybe if you weren’t so busy attempting to sleep with your associates and play little games, you’d have more time to actually pay attention to what’s going on in this firm, you l…” 

 

She stops dead, and stares at Emma, appraisingly. 

 

Mr Gold waves from behind her. “Hello, Miss Swan. Having a good morning?”

 

Emma raises an eyebrow. Sometimes that man had no sense of appropriate comments for the situation. True, it worked well for destabilizing people in court. True, he’d unnerved numerous opponents into signing contracts they probably wouldn’t have otherwise. True, Emma was liked her job. It didn’t make him any less weird.

 

 He picks up his crocodile-leather briefcase from his desk, grabs his cane, and slips past them. “Would really love to stay and chitchat, but you know how it is. Court.”

 

Gold is lying, but what else exactly was new? There’s a moment of silence, as the man limps away, cane swinging, a muffled tap as it hits the ground.

 

Mills shakes her head. “I can’t believe I agreed to share a firm with that man.” She mutters.

 

“He’s definitely… Different?” Emma offers, shrugging. Okay, he was creepy. She wasn’t against saying that. Just…

 

Mills’ gaze is fixed back on her, and Emma abruptly feels the weight of the scrutiny, and sees scorn in it, remembers that she doesn’t like this woman, much. “I thought I said my office, Ms. Swan. I’d ask if you know where it is, but, well…”

 

Emma narrowly managed to resist rolling her eyes, and instead met Mills’ gaze directly, chin up. “Well, you weren’t there, so...”

 

“Come with me.” Mills snaps, and starts walking, thin heels clicking against the floor. “I need you to do a background check on the CFO of King Inc. Midas Industries is doing a merger, and I’m getting hints that, well… He doesn’t exactly seem like a stable employee. In a high profile positioning like that, it could affect stock pricing. ”

 

“Name?” Emma asks as they enter the other office. 

 

“James King.” 

 

Mills sits down at her desk, peeling off the suit jacket, to reveal a dress that was tight knit brocade, gold and jet and curling lines that hugged her. It suits her.

 

Emma blinks and swallows.  “James King? They related to the CEO, George King?”.

 

Great. Corporate law.  Hardly the most fun aspect of the job. If there was anybody who was slipperier and who hid things better than a businessman, Emma had yet to meet one. With the possible exception, perhaps of Mr. R. Gold, but that almost went without saying.

 

All this time she’d know him, and she still didn’t even know the guy’s first name. Emma maintained it was probably something at least faintly embarrassing, for all the secrecy. (Reginald? Raphael? Rueben?) But then again, maybe it was perfectly normal, like 'Robert' or some crap, and the guy was just weird. Really weird.

 

Still, it was hard to avoid that sort of business.… It was what kept the firm running, and that counted. Sort of. 

 

She still hated it.

 

“Son. He’s also engaged to Kathryn Midas, the daughter of the CEO of Midas Industries. A wonderful little bit of business politics, as far as I can tell. They don’t appear to have much regard for each other, from what I can make out. Pathetic, really, what people will do to secure a business merger.” Mills is already opening her laptop and beginning to type away.

 

Emma smiles at that, then quickly schooled her face back to seriousness when Regina looks up. 

 

“Define ‘less than stable’?”

 

“If I knew, I wouldn’t have called this meeting. There’s some financial issues that the accounting people are finding, but I suspect it may be covering up larger issues. Gambling, drugs, affairs, the usual mess of the nouveau riche. Those stupid enough to believe they are smart enough to get away with it. I want to know exactly what we’re dealing with. Midas Industries is our biggest client. If there are issues at play with King Inc, we need to know.”

 

“Sounds fun.” Emma said, and turned to leave, pulling the door open. “I’ll look into it.”

 

“See that you do. Please.”

 

Emma glances backwards. “Look, I said I would, didn’t I? Why else would I get the big bucks? Oh, wait. I don’t get the big bucks. That’s more your department. Still, I think the basic point…”

 

There was a sigh, and Mills picks up a polished pen, pulls a file out of the neat pile in front of her. “Miss Swan, I’m sorry, but as amusing as our banter and your ridiculous posturing is on a good day? I am just not in the mood, not after…” She trails off, but it’s obvious that she’s referring to her fight with Mr. Gold. The pen is set down in favour of rubbing at frown-furrowed temples. “So unless you have anything else that is  relevant to say, Miss Swan?”

 

Emma opens her mouth to say something.

 

That really was a nice dress.

 

The thought of that stops her, somehow, with just enough oppositional confusion as to where the hell it came from.  She takes a deep breath, and remembers that whole ‘take the higher ground’ tactic that she keeps meaning to implement, and always forgets about. 

 

“Can’t make any promises on Gold’s front, but pretty sure French is more interested in Gold’s personal library than anything else. If you were… Worried about that. ” Emma says quickly, before she shut the door face, and walks away,  even quicker.

 

That was not what she had wanted to say, and it worried her. She had been all ready to fire back with some kind of retort, something that calculated to get a rise out of her. As bluntly as Mills had put it, her comment about posturing was accurate, somehow. 

 

It makes Emma’s day more interesting, half the time, even if Mills was exactly the kind of woman that Emma typically found grating.

 

Don’t get her wrong. Mills is grating. She’s all polish and ice and nothing under the surface, brittle and…

 

Except she kept getting flashes under the surface. Something that suggests there was something a bit beyond that facade that she tried so hard to build. 

 

It tugs at her, that quiet vulnerability, so Emma had been helpful instead of rude. 

 

Thinking of first time she met Mills, it’s a wonder if she shouldn’t have seen this coming.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Emma looks at the girl in the waiting room of the firm. She's young, just out of her teens, by the look of it, wearing a dress that is nice, but also pretty clearly second-hand. Emma knows how to tell. Too small, besides, for how pregnant she is.

 

Emma wants to keep walking, wants to move on, shake off the deja-vu mirror-feeling. Except she turns her head, and all she can see is the silhouette. It's all blonde hair and belly and a lot of nervous fear and not a lot of hope.

 

So Emma sits down in an uncomfortable chair, and says “Hey."

 

The girl looks up, startled. "Do you have paperwork for me or something? Do I have to sign yet?"

 

"No, just seeing... You want some water or something? Need to use the bathroom? It's kinda hard to find in this place."

 

The girl looks around guiltily. "They said Mr. Gold would be back soon, I don't want to..."

 

"He's stuck in court. It'll be half an hour, minimum. "

 

"Oh. Crap. I have a shift in two hours. They told me today was just paperwork!

 

The curve of the girl's stomach is in the corner of Emma's eye. "You're working?"

 

"Two jobs till recently, now just the one. Don't have a lot of choice, there. It’s not so bad though. But, uh… You said something about a bathroom?”

 

"Come on, it's this way." Emma says, as the girl gets up, slowly. "What's your name?"

 

“Ashley. Ashley Boyd.”

 

"Emma."

 

She emerges a few minutes later, and they head to the break room, which is empty. Emma pulls out a chair, and grabs Ashley a cup of water.

 

"Thanks."

 

"For showing you the bathroom?" Emma’s skeptical.

 

“For showing me a tiny bit of respect, or at least being nice. Trust me, I'm not exactly getting that a lot right now.”

 

"How far along are you?"

 

"Almost eight months. But nobody thinks I'd be able to hack it. They're right, of course, but..."

 

"Screw them." Emma says, with a fierceness that surprises her. “How old are you?”

 

“Eighteen. Almost nineteen.”

 

Emma looks around. It's not something she tells people. Not ever, really. Again, she remembers the isolation, how utterly hopeless the whole thing had felt, and she thinks that maybe she needs to, this time. "I was seventeen.” 

 

“Really?” The girl says, shocked.

 

“Between you and me… And I mean that. Yeah."

 

They stand together, and Emma looks at the girl. "Are you in school?"

 

Ashley grimaces. "Sort of? Night school. It's all I can manage, but... Dental Hygiene."

 

"It's something." Emma presses. "Why you here today?"

 

"The baby's father... We broke up. Well, he switched colleges partway through the year, to a different city. We were supposed to stay in touch, but…" A small shrug follows. "His dad is helping me, though found me a good lawyer, Mr Gold... They're going to facilitate an adoption.”

 

“Is that what you want?” Emma asks, quietly.

 

The girl looks startled. “Of course it is.”

 

Emma shakes her head, and wonders if anyone ever bothered to ask, before. “I can tell when someone is lying, you know, and that? That was a lie.” 

 

“It doesn’t matter. I can’t do it.”

 

“Do you believe that because you think it, or because everyone else does? Trust me, there’s a difference. Don’t let anyone tell you that either choice is the easy one, because…” Emma lays a hand on her shoulder, pats it. “Just… Think about it.” 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“You lost us a client!” Mills says, cornering her again in the hallway.

 

"Which client?"

 

"The adoption case. You do realize that the father of the child is the son of our top clients? He's dropped us as a client."

 

"How is this my fault?"

 

"Because the paralegal went to get a pen and a copy of the contract, that's why! Then you wander off with the girl for ten minutes, come back, and she decides to keep the child."

 

Damn. That's... Emma swallows, hard. “I gave her advice. What she did with it is her choice, just like all of this should have been. If she wants to be a mother... ”

 

“Advice?  What makes you think a hotel maid would be any better circumstances than a proper family?” Mills spits as her. “What would someone like you know about being a mother, anyway?”

 

Emma steps backwards.

 

That comment hits her, and it hit her hard, far harder than she wanted it to. The rational, calm part of Emma tried to point out the fact that Mills had no idea the sort of myriads ways a comment like that would cut deep.

 

The irrational part was too pissed too care, and grabs Regina by the arm, pulls her into an empty conference room, and slams the door shut.

 

“Go ahead. What? You think I've haven't heard it all before? Yeah, I grew up in foster care, ran off at sixteen. I never had parents, and I’m sure as shit a terrible person to have any right to an opinion on parenting. But I also know when someone wants to try. Did you know she was taking night classes, that she’s working two jobs?"

 

That stops Regina in her tracks. "She never mentioned." 

 

Emma is still holding M’illss arm and drops it. "Maybe that’s not all that impressive to someone like you, but I know a little bit better about the kind of crap it takes. Oh, and you know what else I know about? I know what it’s like to get adopted but someone who claims that they want you, only for them to decide a year or two later that you’re too much trouble, so stop acting like that was some kind of guaranteed fucking happy ending!”

 

Mills looks startled, and no surprise there. It's a helluva thing to drop on a person. She recovers. Her beautiful face twisting in a sneer, with, “Not all adoptive parents are like that! You have absolutely no idea, you ignorant little…”

 

Emma looks at her, trying to make the woman understand, because she's never been in shoes like that. The kind that cut your feet for walking in them. Not this rich and successful and poised woman in front of her. It burns, the way Mills is so sure of her righteousness.

 

“No. But I know a helluva lot more than you do about having everyone treat you like trash because of where you came from, and who you are. Especially that you have no control over. I know what it’s like to fight for everything you have and still have nobody to be proud of you for it. What it’s like to want something when everyone tells you you’re an idiot for even thinking you could have it. So if your feelings are so damn hurt, why don’t you call up your senator of a mother and beg another favour like you so obviously did getting your position in this firm?”

 

Emma was expecting a slap, but instead Regina looks struck, herself.

 

“I haven’t spoken to my mother in a decade, Miss Swan. You think that my mother was a good mother? You think she cared? Maybe I'll tell you about the time I was seventeen years old? She caught me kissing one of the boys who worked at the stables I rode at. Her reaction was to have him deported. I’m sure that’s a real show of motherly love."

 

Emma is still too close to Regina. It would be rude to back away now.

 

"Or how I had a choice between leaving home and being completely cut off and having to pay my own way through school. Yes, I was too cowardly to make the right choice, at first. Maybe I should tell you about how I was so desperate to find a way away from her that I married the first man who came along. Or the kind of relationship that was, or...” 

 

Regina shuts her mouth, looking shocked at having said as much as she did.

 

Emma is shocked enough herself to back down, just a little. They stare at each other, breathing hard. “That was a low blow.” Emma says. "On both our parts. Regina, I shouldn't have, but..."

 

“No, you shouldn’t. Now, if you excuse me, I have work to do. Try doing the same, maybe.”

 

The door slams shut behind her, and Emma sits in the empty conference room. The angers doesn't quite fade, just gets… Tempered.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The next time the two of them see each other is under less than stellar circumstances.

 

Emma tries not to derive a certain amount of satisfaction from staring at her boss behind metal bars, but she can’t exactly avoid it. It’s a nice role reversal from last time, and, as angry as she still is…

 

Except, no. She doesn’t even feel a lot of joy behind it. It’s just… Faintly uncomfortable for her. From the slumped shoulders of Mills, the way that she grimaces as she paces the small cell.

 

The other woman hasn’t noticed her yet, so Emma stands in the doorway a minute longer, after the guard lets her in. Scrutinizing. Then she clears her throat, pointedly, leaning carelessly against the wall.

 

Mills looks up, and there’s a wildly unplaceable look in her eyes, half-embarrassed, half… 

 

Struck, Emma’s tempted to say.

 

It clears after a second, and is replaced by scorn, fast enough that Emma almost thinks it wasn’t there. It was, though. She wants to figure out why, and what exactly that meant.

 

Instead she just says, “Hey.”

 

The air is cool, down here. Emma taps a heeled shoe across the scuffed floor, and curses another pitiful attempt at communication. 

 

“They couldn’t have gotten anyone else?” Regina says, her posture straightening. “I suppose they thought, ‘former bondsperson’ and all, but really? None of the lawyers could make it to bail me out?”

 

A moment passes, inscrutable. “There was a meeting. Couldn’t spare anyone else. Which is a pain in the ass, really, because I was…”

 

“I see. Well, at least if they are going to completely disregard me, it does reflect equally badly on your position.”

 

“You’re the one in here for contempt of court. Very mature, by the way.”

 

“The judge was an idiot. Even I have my limits. Speaking of, what are you even wearing?” Mills says, running her eyes up Emma’s form and appearing to get stuck halfway.

 

Emma looks down, and grins at the fur, slinky black dress, killer heels. “Undercover.” 

 

If eyes could rip a dress into shreds, then there would be success on that front. “You look incredibly…” 

 

Silence. 

 

“Incredibly?” Emma prompts.

 

Something in the gaze shifts, Regina swallows, oddly, forcing her eyes back upwards. “Hm. Tacky. Impressively so, even given your usual attire. That's your idea of undercover? ”

 

Emma rolls eyes that are, yeah, wearing about eight pounds of makeup. “Yeah, well, did you want to know what James King is up to, or…”

 

Wait. That had been a lie. The bit about tackiness. Why would Regina lie about that?

 

“Either way, I’d appreciate you getting me out of here, first.”

 

Emma moves towards the door of the cell. “He’s deep in gambling debt at the Behemoth club, and having an affair with Jacqueline Bean.”

 

“The art thief?” Mills says, and smooths down her jacket. “Interesting.”

 

“Oh, and he’s definitely not using his trust-fund, because he blew through that years ago, which means he’s using company money, best guess. I would have found out more, but someone got a call and had to come here and…”

 

“Let me out? Yes. I gathered that. What exactly are you waiting for, with that?”

 

Emma rolled her eyes, and holds up the keys. “Oh, I already did that when you were distracted. You’re free to go.”

 

Mills experimentally pushed at the door, and huffs. 

 

“This is usually the part where someone says thank you.” Emma decides to point out, because she totally is savouring this moment. She thought she wasn’t even very angry about her fight, but…

 

“Thank you.” Mills says, through gritted teeth.

 

That was satisfying, but not quite enough. “Well, since you are no longer in need of my services….” Emma turns to go, because yeah, she’s still pissed.

 

“Wait!” Mills says, apologetic. “I…. My car was in a three hour parking zone. It was meant to only take an hour in court. ”

 

“And?”

 

“It’s been five. I don’t suppose…”

 

Emma groans. “Fine. I’ll drive you back to the office.”

 

“Really?” Mills says, her eyes wide and liquid dark.

 

“Do I have a choice?” Emma points out.

 

“I can have you fired.”

 

“Good luck trying that one again.”

 

Another surprise. Regina laughs, deep and throaty. “Your car, please, Miss Swan.”

 

They get through processing Regina’s release, paying the fine. The journey down to the parking garage is in silence, after that. It's an almost...Companionable silence, though. There's a hint of it, anyway. 

 

“I cannot possibly fathom your attachment to such a car.” Mills comments, standing as Emma desperately shovels the accumulated crap of life off the front seat.

 

Apparently the moment of comfort was just that. A moment. “Do you just have fun insulting people, or….” Emma glares. “Get in the damn Bug, or walk.”

 

Regina flushes, and gets in. 

 

Emma pointedly turns the radio up the minute the key is in the ignition. Better that than more arguing and insults, anyway. Mills reaches out a hand, brushing it against Emma’s, to turn the radio off again. 

 

She ignores the feeling in her hand, in favour of snapping. “What now?”

 

“I…. Thank you. You could have easily ignored the call and let me spend the night in lock-up. Or called a cab and been done with it.” Regina smiles, softly. “You infuriate me, Miss Swan, but still… Thank you.”

 

Emma splutters. “Seriously? Not going to, I dunno, chew me out again for losing that client, for example?”

 

“I was planning to apologize for that, actually. It was incredibly unprofessional.”

 

Emma is suddenly glad she hasn't pulled out of the parking spot yet, because she just about chokes. “Seriously?”

 

Mills smiles. “The client was one of the clients I brought with me to the firm. I was... Proprietary. Whatever you may have said to that girl, however it affected the client’s opinion of the firm… The adoption was her choice to make. If she was feeling pressured into such a thing, and that pressure was partially the firm’s doing… Well. Damn the client.”

 

Emma goggles.

 

“Mr. Gold, to put it bluntly, is a snake. He has a gift for talking anyone into anything. Normally that serves us well. We’re lawyers, we can’t be too picky about morals. But sometimes… Well. Sometimes I get tired of it. This Ashley girl? I wish her well.”

 

The car starts, the steering wheel under her fingertips to to ground her. “Wow. So you do have a heart. Pretty sure the running wager was on you keeping it in a locked safe somewhere underground.”

 

That, too, draws a laugh. Emma decides then and there that she likes the sound of it. Probably too much. 

 

“I’m sure that would simplify matters… Not quite, no. The point is…. I shouldn’t have been so rude to you. Nor should I have mentioned so much about… I am under stress from a million different fronts, and you… You always manage to get me off guard, somehow, Miss Swan. Why is that?”

 

Emma looks away, because staring at this woman right now feels oddly dangerous in close quarters. She sort of gets the feeling that the question is rhetorical, anyway.

 

She turns the radio back on, and drives.

 

When they get to the law firm, Regina thanks her quietly, and leaves. Emma stays in the car to watch her go. The parking garage echoes with unsaids.

 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Few weeks of moderately more pleasant interactions pass since the awkward bail-out. They haven’t worked together much, but when they pass in the hallway, there’s a different cast to their interactions. Not much of one, just… Something.

 

Today is a Thursday, her out-of-the-office day, more often than not.. Emma’s in a recycling dumpster, sifting through mounds of material to try and find the bit that got thrown out by the witness an hour ago. A piece of paper jumps out at her, half buried under an empty, coffee stained folder. 

 

“Four paper cuts. This better be worth it.” 

 

It’s not strictly the most kosher, evidence wise, but with a bit of arguing, they ought to be able to get accepted. Emma takes a minute of staring blearily to make sure it’s the right rental agreement, grins. 

 

Not a minute later, she's heading for the court-house. If she was lucky, she could make it before the day was over.

 

If she's even luckier, it'll blow the opposition's case wide open.

 

Today, traffic was almost too heavy to even consider the car. She sits in silence, the radio turned to status, and thinks.

 

Regina hadn't been joking about the stress part. The firm had a big murder trial and more high-profile lawsuits than was strictly sane, all in court that week. That, on top of the usual sorts of cases. Le Bleu and Gold (god, what was it with pretentious colours and these people, anyway?) were at each other's throats even more than Regina was at both of their throats. 

 

There were murmurs of splits, mergers, firings, downsizing, and ever bit of paranoia alive, all coming out of the woodwork. It was crazy season. 

 

Into the courthouse, past security, and into the courtroom, Emma makes her way past the mostly empty row of witness seats. Regina was in the middle of a speech, and didn’t break stride at all. Emma leaned in, and passed the paper to French, who was apparently second chair. Huh. Emma'd mostly been dealing with Regina on this one, didn't need know French was working on it. 

 

French looks puzzled, but a quick scan of the page didn’t appear to help. Emma mouthed ‘bottom right’, to her, and watched the recognition dawn.

 

Meanwhile, Regina was continuing to, well… Prowl, if the word could be forgiven, but really there wasn’t a better way to describe it. 

 

“Your honour, the prosecution is clearly…” Regina began, only to be cut off with a harsh objection from the other lawyer, a tall, blowsy woman with masses of permed curls.

 

“What? What am I clearly trying to do, exactly? Oh, Regina, alwaysso obvious. Really, give our history, you would think you wouldn't...” The woman grimaced, trailing off. The judge did not seem impressed.

 

“If the defence has an objection to make, will the prosecution kindly allow them to finish it?” 

 

Regina fired back with an objection, and French stands up, passes the document. Regina half-turns, and Emma gives her an ironic salute. “Your honour, a new piece of evidence has come forth, that we request is admitted to the record.”

 

The other lawyer immediately begins to complain, and they continued in their volley, Regina appearing to forget about Emma’s presence. 

 

The other woman is good, no mistake there. But Regina was slowly gaining ground, both with witness, prosecution, and jury members alike.

 

The funny part was? Emma knows the client was guilty. That part she’d figured out. Nature of defence law, of course. Not everybody gets to be the noble defender of the innocent, and Emma makes no illusions about what the firm did.

 

Emma sits there, for the better part of an hour, just to listen to the rest of it. 

 

She walked in handing a piece of paper to Belle that would help the case. It would help because it painted the victim in a bad light, not because it was any kind of proof of innocence. Yet a little by little, she finds herself being swayed. Not all the way, just… Cracks of doubt, seeping through.  

 

Emma thought she was kind of bored with the whole legal process, but this? 

 

This was Regina Mills in her element. 

 

The way that she fixed the witness with a stare. The way she paced and spun words and twisted meanings, rebutted objections… The way that dress was all metallic knit in a way that Regina wore it like armour. 

 

Her battlefield, with magic in the way she wove the words together, and the rest of the courtroom didn’t stand a chance.

 

This was something else.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

“Haven't seen you in action, before. It was impressive.” Emma says, waiting outside the courtroom as Regina emerges.

 

The woman blinks, twice. It's as if she finds it difficult to reconcile Emma’s presence in the space. “Thank you, Miss Swan. I’m sure your opinion is very educated on the subject.”

 

“What, like I’ve never seen a court case?”

 

“I sure you have.” Regina rolls her eyes.

 

“Look, do you just actively try and….” Emma shoves a hand in her pocket. “Would you prefer a more pedestrian compliment? Am I allowed to say nice dress, this time?”

 

Shit. That should not have slipped out. 

 

Regina glares. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

 

“Not so much.”

 

“So, you have nothing better to do with your time at the present moment?”

 

“The divorce thing, the sketchy witness, the environmental case, yeah, yeah. All covered. Going home, resting up, and relishing the fact that it's Friday night tomorrow.”

 

“So pleased to hear as your employer that the time you most joyously await is when you aren’t in fact, doing any work. Much like you were just doing, now, in fact.”

 

 “I’m off the clock. Didn’t even bill the time it took for me to get to the court-house. You needed the information, I gave it to you. Alright?”

 

“Yes. I appreciate the evidence. I’m not inquiring into your personal life, if that’s what you are thinking. Merely... Curious, shall we say? Why you decided to stay.”

 

“Please. Like you’d find out anything about my life I didn’t already want you to know.”

 

“What would you have hidden that haven't yet found out? Or that you've told me. Was that some sort of a challenge?”

 

This was venturing into almost dangerous territory. Emma gulps. “Law firm ladies night.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“My plans. Tomorrow night. Not that you care, you never come.” Emma snarks, despite herself.

 

For someone who seemed so self-assured, so… obnoxiously poised, all the time… Regina didn’t exactly seem the type who made friends easily. Or really had any, for that matter. 

 

No matter how many weeks the women of the law firm got together on Friday nights, Regina had always been a no-show. 

 

Emma had always meant to ask someone about it. In the early days, she had been a little bit too relieved to care, and more recently she just… Hadn’t gotten around to it, she supposed.

 

When had she gotten so comfortable thinking of the woman as Regina, anyway? Even in the space of her own head. She needed to break the habit, or it might slip out sometime.

 

This law firm?” Regina repeats, quietly.

 

Emma’s first instinct was still sarcasm. “No, the one on the moon….” Emma trailed off, noticing the softly open mouth, the look of quiet sadness in the other woman. It's a feeling, but somehow it speaks to her. Abruptly, and louder than any of the bustle of the courthouse.  “You’ve never been invited.” 

 

It isn't a question.

 

Mills’ face closes off again. “I’m certain it’s nothing personal.”

 

Emma runs a finger through her hair. “You know, if you were a little less difficult to approach, more people might want to do it. Or at least make an effort.”

 

Regina’s eyes tightened. “What makes you think that’s something I care about?”

 

“Because you make a point of letting everyone know how little you care about it? Seriously, classic deflection. Also, I can tell when people are lying. You should know that. It’s why I’m so good at my job. You’re just more transparent than most.”

 

They always stand too close too each other. Emma hasn't been able to figure out the whys of that. “Do you have anything useful to say, Miss Swan, or are we going to keep psychoanalyzing me and discussing my life choices and dropping inappropriate compliments on my attire, and…”

 

Inappropriate? How was 'nice dress'...

 

“Seven thirty. Bar called the White Rabbit. You know it?” Emma blurts out. 

 

“I’m familiar with the establishment.” Regina said, measured.

 

“Right. Well, then… Consider yourself invited.” Emma says, without entirely knowing why.

 

“Consider myself attending.” Regina retorts, stepping even closer, then past, in the opposite direction. 

 

Emma smiles, quick, and heads home.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

“Where’s the chocolate?” Ruby yells from Emma’s kitchen, as Emma stares fruitlessly at her closet, late in the evening the next day.

 

“I ate it!” Emma pulls out a dress, scowling as she holds it against her robe-clad body.

 

“ALL OF IT? Tell me there is ibuprofen, at least?”

 

“Oh. Time of the month. Crappy. Um, I think there’s a bar in the drawer below the cutlery, maybe?” Emma says. “Ibuprofen in the cupboard.”

 

Her closet was a disorganized disaster, and nothing looked appealing. That button up? Too formal. That dress... Oh dear god, why did she still have that one? Regina was right, even if it had been a bizarre sort of lie. It was hideously tacky. Also, far too revealing. Ew.

 

“YES!” Comes an excited squeal from the kitchen, and Emma mentally rejects another dress.

 

“YOU ARE THE BEST. Not just because you like, were willing to room with me when I was totally this close to getting on a bus to nowhere, or got me a job….. Chocolate. Emma, you rock.”

 

Emma grins, and scuffs a bare heel against the heather-grey carpeting. Ruby was excitable, sometimes a little flaky, and had some serious grouchy moments, and a whole mess of her own shit… 

 

But she was a good friend. 

 

Emma still wasn’t sure how used to having one of those she was. Friends. It's a nice thought, though.

 

She liked this city, Emma realizes, standing beside her mirror, still scrutinizing clothes. 

 

There was a pace of life that energized her, pulled at the loneliness in her and stretched it thin with all the people she met. She had places she liked to go, routines that carved out a life in the hustle and bustle of everything. She went to a specific cafe once a week for a deli-lunch. Sometimes on Tuesday evenings she'd go to the art galleries, the ones that opened late, or lose herself dancing in a club on an off-night, without interacting with anyone there.

 

It was a life. It was... Good.

 

She’d moved here a few years ago, when she was still in the bail-bonds business. She’d found Granny’s diner her first month here, roiling in the lights and noise and bustle. 

 

By the ninth month, she’d landed the job at the law firm. By the eleventh, she’d found Ruby having an anxiety attack at a bus stop. Offered to split her too-big apartment that she’d just kicked the second roommate in a row out of. 

 

It all trickled slowly, the ways she built up a life, but it was working for her. She liked it, mostly.

 

Yeah, there were still ghosts, regrets she hadn’t let go of, things she wasn’t going to forget or forgive herself for any time soon. But who didn’t have that kind of thing?

 

She was lacking in the romance department, that was true, too. She was still grouchy and kind of a loner, and sometimes she missed the solitude, the self-reliance that she’d been going on for most of her life. 

 

Other times she wondered how the last ten-odd years might have gone if… No. She was not following that particular train of thought to its inevitable and angsty station.

 

“What dress?” Emma yelled.

 

“That black one, maybe, why?”

 

Emma grimaces. “Isn’t it… Not very flattering?”

 

“It’s your favourite dress.”

 

Favourite? No. Definitely not. “Eh.” 

 

“It’s not like you are really trying to impress anyone, are you?”

 

“Definitely not. Just… Maybe I felt like it.”

 

There’s somehow-audible pause. “Define felt like it.”

 

“Nothing.” Emma shakes her head, and opened the door for a clearer conversation.

 

“ So who’s coming, anyway?” Ruby asked, three squares into the chocolate bar.

 

“Umm… Belle, Aurora, Aurora’s girlfriend, Le Bleu, um… Nora, Ariel the intern, intern with the crazy long hair, forget her name…” Emma very visibly trailed off. “Regina?”

 

“Wait, Mills is coming? Bothering to show her face amongst the common legal aids and secretaries and first years and everyone?” Ruby’s mouth is full, the words mush.

 

“Yeah, so… Apparently she’s never come, because…. No one actually invited her. ”

 

Ruby looks startled. “Oh. I didn’t…”

 

“Yeah. Neither did I. The whole thing has been running longer than either of us have been at the firm, I just assumed they invited all the newcomers? So. Uh. Ikinda did, myself. Invite her, that is”

 

Ruby gasps. “You invited her?”

 

“Yeah. Moment of insanity, I'm just gonna go with?”

 

“What happened to you two hating each other?”

 

Hate Regina? Does she?

 

An answer springs to mind, and it's definitely… Not a 'yes'. 

 

Maybe the first month. Maybe the first few months. Maybe at first sight. Or maybe not. 

 

Half the firm hated Regina. There was reportedly an attempt at a vote almost every equity meeting to kick her out, held off narrowly thanks to the uneasy alliance with Gold. That makes Emma wonder, suddenly, how much of that attempt by Regina to fire her, had, in fact, been her fault. 

 

Maybe Emma had never hated Regina Mills, but the nobody had ever given her a chance to think about it.

 

“I don’t know. Maybe we should give her a chance. Sometimes people can be, like… I dunno, different than what you see on the surface." Emma gives up on the outfit part. Her tube of mascara is on the dresser, and she reaches for it. Needing something to fill her hands, something to do to stop the thoughts swirling.

 

 "Yeah, well, sometimes there's a second, even deeper layer, the same as the first top layer. And then the pie filling is poisoned." 

 

"You do not get to butcher a Dr. Horrible quote to prove a point to me, Ruby. That's not allowed. Didn't you cry when they killed off Penny?"

 

Ha. Points for Emma. 

 

"Maybe. But that was sad. Also, unfair. Evil isn't supposed to triumph."

 

“We work for a law firm. Sadly, helping evil triumph? That's kind of in our job description." It's an attempt to deflect the subject, with humour but it doesn't work too well. 

 

“So Regina is definitely coming?"

 

“She had the evening free, apparently. I don’t know.”

 

Ruby barges into the room, ignoring Emma's squawk of protest, and looks skeptical. “This has nothing to do with needing a good dress tonight?”

 

The ties on her robe are secured, but Emma tugs them tighter, anyway, feeling expose. “Nothing.”

 

“So she’s actually showing up?”

 

“Look, I’m not…”

 

Just then, there was a phone ringing from the other room. Ruby dives for it. “Shit, it’s Victor.”

 

Emma shrugs, closed the door, and starts looking for panty-hose. There was silence for a few minutes on Emma’s end, and a muffled conversation on Ruby’s end. 

 

The door opens, and Ruby looks worried. “I need to go, okay? Victor, he…. He told me he was going to be okay, but he’s having a bad night. He lost a patient, and it’s dredging up stuff, and think I… need to be there.”

 

“Dredging up stuff?”

 

“His brother died a while back. It’s kind of a complicated. And he’s a little depressed. Okay, maybe a lot. Look, it’s complicated okay? Just… Trust me. He’s a really nice guy. He’s just a bit fragile right now, and… I promise…” Ruby says, looking so apologetic that Emma can’t help but forgive her, just a little bit.”

 

Emma hugs Ruby, fiercely, and immediately feels guilty for trashing the guy. “Yikes. Okay. See what happens when I judge people? Apparently they have all kinds of crap to deal with. Alright, go be a supportive girlfriend. You’re okay though, right? I mean… Just remember to keep your own stress levels down, and….” Emma trails off.

 

Ruby’s mouth twists. “Not let his depression trigger my anxiety? Yeah. Real pair we are. Bunch of screwups.” 

 

Emma stares her down. “Not in the slightest, Red. Just make sure he's not taking more out of you than you can give, okay?”

 

See, this is why Emma doesn't do relationships. They are messy, and destructive, and just too much work. She doesn't want to get burned again. 

 

Ruby hugs back. “No, no, I’m good. I just…. I gotta go. Sorry I’m leaving you to deal with the Queen on her own?” 

 

Emma frowns and whispers. “Don’t call her that.”

 

Ruby calls over her shoulder as she looks for a coat. “Wear the pink one.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Emma walks into the bar, feeling ridiculous. She over-did it on the heels, and she feels like she’s showing off for exactly no one.

 

It’s not to say that she doesn’t have fun, for the first little while or so, chatting with everyone in the firm. Except, normally Ruby is there, as a bit of a buffer, and that’s enough to make her feel a little more included. Half of these evening is mingling, lawyers jostling for position, talking work. Emma doesn't play those sorts of games.

 

 It’s a feeling that she’s more than used to, so she swallows it down with the first beer. Belle is nice enough, she likes Aurora, some of the others are okay, it’s just… She’s five seconds away from getting up, begging air, when there’s a sudden hush, the door to the bar swinging closed as all heads swing towards it.

 

Regina Mills stands in the doorway, smiling apologetically. “Sorry I’m late, I got held up.” She says. There’s sometimes…. Oddly genuine about the way she looks, right there. It’s destabilizing, the way the woman always is. But in an utterly different way.

 

She’s still dressed well, but less harshly, a soft, purple top that falls in loose folds, a blazer that is far less severe than usual. 

 

Emma has the bizarre subversion of feeling tragically over-dressed in comparison to the woman. It’s not as bad a feeling as it could be. 

 

Regina looks comfortable in her own skin in a way that all of her careful walls and projections of confidence never let through before, except in quick glimpses, little flashes here and there. She seems so wildly approachable that Emma is halfway standing before she realizes and forces her way back into her seat.

 

“What are you doing…” Le Blue says, her face pinched, and Regina’s face manages to simultaneously fall and freeze. 

 

Emma sees the masks falling back into place, and hates it. “I invited her.” Emma says, quickly, before things get too awkward., and, “Thanks for coming,” she says, and means it.

 

Several heads swivel, and one mutters, ‘but she…’ 

 

Regina’s makes eye contact with Emma, and there’s a moment of gratefulness before the shields slam shut again. 

 

“She wasn’t invited before?” Aurora pipes up, looking perplexed.

 

Le Bleu shifts in her seat, nervously. “Must have been a… Miscommunication.”

 

Bullshit, Emma calls, immediately, and it’s not even a lying thing, just obvious.

 

Regina smiles, hollowly. “I’m sure it was. I’ll be back in a moment.” There's a nod for the people on the tables, once, sharply then she heads for the bar. 

 

Emma sighs, and takes another pull of her beer before she realizes the attention has slipped to her, now. She swallows. “What?” 

 

“I’m just surprised you invited her, is all. You've never invited anyone before. ” Le Bleu says, primly, swirling her cosmopolitan around in her glass. Of all the cliche beverages for a big career woman, that one takes the cake. As if she didn't already dislike the woman.

 

Emma glances over at Regina, who is accepting a glass of something pale gold from the bartender. Beer? “I’m more surprised you didn’t.”

 

Le Bleu grimaces, and a lady that Emma barely knows says, “Well, isn’t it more an employee of the firm, thing?”

 

"To be fair, half the point of this is to vent about work. If she's..." French says, trying to be placating. “I mean, it’s nothing personal or anything…”

 

“But she is sort of a 'witch with a different letter in the front.’, if you know what I mean.” Nora says, over her Manhattan. 

 

“Don’t you fight with her more than anyone else?” Ariel, the cheerfully ditzy intern, asked. "Did she try and get you fired? And half the rest of the firm, I might add. Well, not fired, but at least a salary cut. The infighting about it has been going on for months.” 

 

“Isn’t that because the firm wasn’t doing very well when she came on?” Someone from accounting mumbles. “I mean, I don’t know the full story, but I heard rumours… Something about re-stabilizing, we’re over-stretched, blah, blah?”

 

"Ridiculous." Le Bleu snaps, tossing back the rest of her drink. Lie.

 

Huh. So the firm is in trouble, and Regina was trying to fix it? 

 

Emma doesn’t even know why she’s so stuck on this.  She is just entirely done with politics and backstabbing and the entire… 

 

Regina walking back to their cluster of tables, and they all hush.

 

Regina pauses beside Emma for a moment, glass in hand, to notice Emma rubbing at her forehead in frustration.

 

“Are you alright?” Regina asks, quiet.

 

“What?” Emma snaps, then groaned. “Sorry. Long day…”

 

“Yet remarkably unproductive.” Regina says. 

 

Emma grins. “Regina, you might be my boss, but you do not get to bully me about productivity on a Friday.”

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she can’t help but notice someone mouthing “Regina?” skeptically.

 

Eyes crinkle, and there’s a wry twist of the mouth. “The comment was at my expense, not yours.” 

 

That’s the last thing she says before moving towards the only unoccupied seat, at a empty table beside them. Regina’s close enough that she can overhear them, but not particularly that she is likely to actually feel included in the discussion. 

 

Someone dropped a bag on the other, closer unoccupied chair, just as she came in. Emma bites her tongue, resisting the urge to roll her eyes at how terrifyingly middle school this all is. Having said that, she doesn’t really want to rile them up further, so she takes the coward’s out. Time for a change of subject. 

 

Aurora is drinking a soda.

 

“No fancy cocktails tonight, Aurora?” She asks, skeptically, wondering where the usual six word titled drink was.

 

Aurora flushes. “Ohh, um….” Then breaks out into a grin. 

 

Someone else pipes up. “What?”

 

“Mulan and I… We got a donor, finally. We’re having a baby!”

 

The bar clamours with congratulations. Mulan reappears from the washroom, only to grin and talk about the ‘ruined surprise’, and elbow Emma, good naturedly. If a little bit too hard. She’s former US Marine, and doesn’t always exactly know her own strength. 

 

Still, there’s a reason she’s the only non-law-firm employee allowed in on the ladies’ nights. Damn good company, and she can drink any of them far under the table.

 

Emma grins, back, but it’s a little bit forced. Babies. Woo. 

 

She stays where she is, though. It’s not that she doesn’t want to talk to Regina. But there are four seats between them, the bar is loud, and it’s a bit awkward to try and move, hemmed in as she is. Perhaps in a bit. There’s excited chatter, a flood of questions and answers and excitement that Emma tries to tune out, swirling the last of her beer around in the glass. 

 

It’s distracting enough that she forgets to look back for Regina for a while, as she tries to smile and be polite and listen to the barrage of questions.

 

The bar is playing some song by an old guy with a gravely voice that Emma’s barely listening to, something about not wanting to fall in love. There’s some mention of the singer having another beer in the lyrics. That trickles through the background noise, and it makes her look up, considering it. 

 

Then there’s movement out of the corner of her eyes, and Emma looks back to see a half-empty glass with a ten dollar bill folded underneath it. She looks again, and sees an empty booth, the door swinging shut.

 

Emma swears under her breath, and stands. Pushes past the people in chairs blocking her way.

 

Runs out the door, after.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Cold air blasts her the second that she steps towards the door. Her coat is back at the table. She ought to regret that. All Emma sees is Regina’s hunched back, walking away from her, the sheen of the rain-dark pavement and the black of the woman’s hair.

 

“You never finished your drink.” 

 

Regina turns, slowly. Emma decides immediately that she can’t possibly regret the soft look of startlement in Regina’s eyes. “Pardon?

 

“Your drink. You never finished it. You know, the whole point of going to a bar is to actually, you know... Drink? Talk to people. Not even going to stay long enough to do that?” Emma asks.

 

There are lights strung up around them, part of the illumination for the patio portion of the bar. It casts a soft glow over everything. The smell of exhaust and cityscape from the street beyond somehow dims. 

 

“I’m alright. Really. Thank you.” Regina says, quiet, and bites her lip.

 

She’s given up on even trying with the ‘Mills’ thing. Emma is halfway towards something, but she hesitates. Short nod, then “Okay”, and she turns back, about to head into the bar. 

 

She wobbles a little. Damn these heels. She feels like an idiot.

 

Thank you!” Regina says, louder.

 

Emma twirls back around, squints. “You just said that.”

 

Regina smiles, and Emma leans in to it, from far away. “Yes, I know. But thank you. Really. For inviting me. I know not everyone there was entirely comfortable with my presence but…”

 

“Well, I wanted to invite you.” Emma blurts out. “And… It’s okay to admit it. You know, if you aren’t. Because I’m pretty good at telling when people are lying through their teeth. It’s kind of a thing.”

 

“I’ve heard. But really, it’s alright. You should go back inside, you look cold.”

 

Emma snorts. “I look overdressed is what I look.”

 

“If you will permit… How did you phrase it, a ‘more pedestrian compliment’ regarding your looks-” Regina’s jaw shifts. “It’s a good colour. ”

 

They stare at each other. 

 

That dark hair flies out as she shakes her head, catches a bit of the streetlight up in it. “Perhaps today was just… Or maybe not. It’s hard to say. It’s not precisely my typical Friday night, and I’m not always free to…”

 

Emma frowns. “Right. No, I get it. Sorry it wasn’t more… You know.”

 

“It’s just… It’s frustrating. It’s difficult to meet people in this city, and being a named partner… There’s a certain amount of disconnect, ‘getting to know’ people at the firm. I meant what I said, earlier, about most of them hating me. It doesn’t help that I appear to have alienated most of them, in some way or another. A feat I’m still not sure how I accomplished. I suppose I’m my own enemy, in that way. Perhaps I shouldn’t.”

 

“Maybe another time. Seriously. They should give you a chance.”

 

Emma can tell Regina appreciates the effort, but she is equally sure that it’s not really something she believe. ”No, I think perhaps next time I won’t. You should go back in, though. Don’t waste your evening on my account.”

 

Emma glances back at the bar. “Not exactly a great evening. Seriously, they’re all so busy cooing over Aurora to bother with anything else."

 

"Ah, Miss Noches. The pregnancy..”

 

“You knew about that beforehand?”

 

"I do actually help run this firm, you realize? We have to receive requests for maternity leave."

 

"Oh. Right. Hell if I know anything about… Just… Kids are hardly my thing.”

 

Regina’s face falls when Emma says that, in a way she can’t quite figure out. She shakes it off, though. Glances back at the bar, makes a decision.

 

 “Give me five minutes.”

 

“Pardon?” Regina says.

 

Five minutes.” Emma pleads, then stalks back inside, letting the door of the bar slam shut behind her. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Several heads raise, and more eyebrows, but she’s past the point where she gives a shit. 

 

“Well, this has been fun.” She says, and pulls her jacket off the back of the chair, grapples for her purse.

 

Le Bleu sniffs. “You’re leaving?”

 

“Yes. Because, you know what I do when I don’t like someone? I tell them. I deal with it. Which is exactly what I’m doing, right now. All of you think you’re better than me, and basically everyone else. And frankly? I just don’t have time for your crap.”

 

“You haven’t paid for your drink.” French points out, an apologetic smile on her lips. “Just…so you know.”

 

Emma rolls her eyes, and digs in her wallet. Well, that ruined her dramatic exit. She throws a twenty down on the table. “The bartender deserves a tip for dealing with all of your bullshit.”

 

It’s not her best parting remark, but she’ll take it.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Thankfully, Regina is still standing outside the bar. Emma ignores the look of mild confusion, in favour of getting straight to the point. 

 

“There’s a better bar about two blocks away. Okay, it’s a terrible bar, to my mind. All fancy and crap. But you’d probably like it.”

 

“And?” Regina says, her brow furrowing.

 

“And? You never finished your drink. And? This bar sucks. So…. Different bar. Not complicated. You just won a case, didn’t you? Law firm thing. Win a case, do a tequila shot. It’s totally legitimate.” Emma cajoles.

 

It’s not entirely a lie. First law firm lady's night at the firm, and a new associate had won their first case, and had taken the ‘one tequila shot’ joke someone had thrown around a little… Loosely. Such had been the atmosphere. so that it wasn’t so much just the one lawyer, as most of them that had ended up doing shots, too. It had been a fun night, but a terrible hangover.

 

There was precedent, was the point. 

 

Besides, a part of Emma has decided that she's a little tired of watching Regina Mills walk away from her. 

 

Not tonight.

 

“That is definitely not a thing.” Regina shakes her head. 

 

“It definitely is.”

 

There’s a grimace, there, and Regina's back is up. “If this is a strangely deluded attempt at either showing pity or currying favour, please. I’d prefer you didn’t try.”

 

Emma sighs. “Everything and everyone has an agenda behind it with you people, doesn’t it?”

 

“You people?

 

“Lawyers.”

 

“Ah. In that case, to my best experience? Yes.”

 

“Well, good thing I’m not a lawyer. “

 

Regina pauses. “Just to be clear… You are asking me for a drink, Miss Swan?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“Why?”

 

Emma stares back at the busy bar, and the brightness of it blinds her momentarily. She turns her head back, and squints until the night comes into better focus. “Because I’m a hypocrite? Because sometimes I’m wrong about people. Okay. Often. I tend to think people are great when they’re pretty much not. So, if the pattern holds, if I initially thought you sucked…. Maybe you don’t.”

 

“Well, at least I know that I am worthy of such a truly ringing endorsement, Miss Swan.”

 

“Emma.” She presses. 

 

Emma.” Regina says, in a way that somehow seems like she is savouring every letter of it.

 

Her jacket is still in her arms, but it’s not as cold as it was. Wind dying down, most likely. She shrugs it on, and jerks her head. “Come on.”

 

Regina follows, this time.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They walk in silence, and only slide back into conversation when they reach the bar.

 

The bar itself is all silvered lights and brushed metal and surprisingly empty, given the time of night. 

 

So. I never asked… Who was that prosecution lady, yesterday?” Emma asked, dropping the coat and motioning for the bartender.

 

Regina, though looking right at her, seems distracted for a moment. “Mellie Vincent-Fitz? Prosecution attorney. Why?”

 

“Nothing. Just got a weird vibe. You two, like, old rivals or something?”

 

“No. And also yes. We were… involved. Briefly. A… A few years ago. That’s about the end of it.”

 

Well, that wasn’t exactly something that Emma had been expecting.

 

Alright, maybe their rivalry went a little bit weird sometimes. Maybe Emma snuck a little too closely into the realm of flirting like hell. Maybe some of the ‘power’ plays that Regina tended to go for had a certain kind of undercurrent to it.

 

Still, in so many other ways, the woman was so… Uptight, usually. Emma was starting to see that as mostly facade, but it was enough of a first impressions sticking. 

 

She supposed it wasn’t so much the fact that she dated women, but the fact that Regina used her sexuality as anything but a weapon. It… Called for consideration. 

 

Consideration that didn’t let her think about the fact that she was probably already far gone. 

 

Emma had some pride. 

 

“Fair enough. She was hot, I’ll give you that one.”

 

“You’re?” Regina blinked. 

 

Oh. Apparently Regina was going through the same thought process? Shit.  “I’m… Private. Mostly. ” Emma said, the moment suddenly passing. Maybe. “It’s complicated. ”

 

“Good. So am I, largely.”

 

“Complicated?”

 

The side of her mouth twitches, rueful. “That too. But I meant… How did you phrase it? Private, that is. Though I suppose ‘bisexual’ works well enough.” Regina replies, and Emma laughs. “What’s so funny?”

 

“Considering you introduced yourself to me and one of the first things you said was ‘keep your snooping to billable hours…’ I kinda figured that much." 

 

Okay, that came out wrong. 

 

"The private part, I mean.”

 

That was even worse, and Emma feels her face growing hot, as Regina doesn't even appear to notice the vastly awkward innuendo. 

 

“Not my best first impression, admittedly.”

 

“Your second impression was interesting.”

 

“I believe I was trying to be intimidating. Not my best move. Still, did it work?”

 

Oh no, she is not going to answer that one properly. “It made an impression, let’s just leave it at that.”

 

They slide into stools at the bar. Regina’s leg bumps hers, and leaves warmth behind. Emma flicks out fingers to the bartender. “Tequila. Two. Salt, limes, please.”

 

“Absolutely not.”

 

“Absolutely. You said you would.”

 

“I did no such thing.”

 

“ Come on, live a little. What were you planning on drinking?”

 

The bar-tender, a young guy with a moustache and a waistcoat, wavers, looking back and forth between the two of them. 

 

“Cider. It’s delicious.”

 

Emma snorts, and waves the bartender away, smiling. “Hey, if you want to drink grandma booze, go right ahead. But don’t expect me to join you.”

 

“Fine.”

 

The shots arrive in record speed. The bar is shockingly empty for this time of night, but Emma appreciates the solitude.

 

The first goes down with a bright burn, and it's exactly what Emma has been craving. 

 

They sit again, and the silence once again stretches forth. It's a nice silence. 

 

Regina chuckles at nothing, then pauses. “Why exactly does everyone in the firm appear to hate me?”

 

“Do they?” Emma notices a trace of salt Regina left behind on her hand. “I don’t.”

 

“No, I suppose you don’t. “ Regina says, staring at her. “Why is that?”

 

There's soft jazz playing in the background, the kind that's not quite up-tempo enough to dance to, properly. Emma isn't sure if that isn't a pity. “Not a lot to hate, once you come down to it. You’re not exactly a villain. Even if you tried to get me fired.”

 

“I tried to get you fired?” Regina argues, spinning the empty shot glass. No, it was a question. What?

 

“You backed off on that, didn’t you? Hell, I was pretty sure you hated me, but apparently…”

 

Regina is shaking her head. “I never tried to get you fired.”

 

Emma stares. “No, but the firm was downsizing, there was debate, just after you got here, I almost…”

 

Startlement, then recognition. “I did push for restructuring, and firings, but when the list was drawn up… I didn’t put your name on it. Le Bleu did. ”

 

Emma is desperately rethinking all of their interactions in this new light, and trying to… Oh. 

 

Oh.

 

“Shit.” Emma said. 

 

Regina frowns again, then smiles. “That’s what the computer incident was about?”

 

Wince. ”Maybe? Wait… Why did you think I did it?” 

 

“I simply assumed you decided to hate me arbitrarily. It’s not uncommon for people to hate their employers, especially between women. I’ve lost track trying to understand, but… Well. Suffice to say I’m rather accustomed to assuming that no one is even slightly on my side. Given your connections to Mr. Gold…”

 

“Look, he got me the job. Beyond that, I don’t owe him anything. If I’m still at the firm, it’s because I’m good at my job. Sure as heck isn’t any kind of connections of got, any of that…. I suck at politics.”

 

“I can tell.” Regina say, and smiles faintly. Emma is briefly struck that she could get used to seeing the smile, more.  “Besides, I couldn’t have gotten you fired, even if I had particularly wanted to. I may be a named partner, there are plenty of other partners that Gold has under his thumb, and others that hate him. It split votes, more often than not. " 

 

Emma shrugs, and calls for two more shots. 

 

"I’m starting to wonder if I might be better off with my own firm. Not that anyone would come with me.”

 

“I would.” Emma says, with a speed that confuses her. “Ruby too, I think. Definitely Glass, would, maybe Aurora. A few others, definitely, are getting a little tired of Mr. Gold. Trust me, he was actually much less of an asshole before last year.”

 

“What happened last year?” Regina said, picking up the salt shaker.

 

Things fuzz a little around the edges, the rest of it crystal clear and sharp as Emma watches. The slow, precise lick of the tongue in the webbing of one smooth hand. Salt pouring slowly down, a few grains bouncing onto the counter.

 

Spilled salt. 

 

Bad luck, Emma recalled. She's not superstitious, though. 

 

The thought falls out of her head as Regina licks again at her hand and raises the shot glass in one fluid motion. 

 

There’s still the after burn in her own throat from the first shot. Emma swears it flares up stronger, watching the bite of lime. Listening to the sigh as the shot glass clinks again the counter.

 

Emma hurries to do her own shot, with far less grace, more distraction, and the shot burns, pleasant and sharp. 

 

There’s still Regina’s question to answer, though.

 

“Yeah, he kinda took nasty turn after his wife dumped him for the guy-liner wearing lead singer of an Irish pirate-themed metal band.” Emma says with a straight face.

 

Regina stares at Emma. It’s clear she thinks Emma is making it up.

 

“I'm not joking." 

 

There's that laughter again, bright and warming in a way that is even better than the tequila, and somehow Emma is joining her. “I did not know that, and I am now very, very glad I did.”

 

The two women sit beside each other in an empty bar, and it doesn't feel lonely. 

 

Emma is vaguely conscious that time is passing. Even more conscious of the effects of the tequila, beginning to take hold. 

 

The mirror of the bar fractures their reflections, bottles of liquor running interference. She can see them, though. Dark hair and red and neat-casual, and Emma herself in her bright dress and masses of blonde curls. There's contrast there, but she can work with that..

 

“I do have a former colleague of sort at another firm who is thinking of making a change. Violet Green?”

 

Emma looks to the side, trying to recall. “Short, pixie-cut?”

 

Regina hums. "She keeps bugging me for a change. I don't know if I'd like to  work with her any more than... But I've thought about it."

 

"How badly off is the firm doing?" Emma asks. "Are we in trouble?"

 

"Gold brought me in, hoping the influx of new clients would fix things. It helped a bit, but... He's not in control. Le Bleu is an idiot. I don't know."

 

Well, that's spectacular news. "Here's to job security, then."

 

"I'm sure plenty of people would hire you, if the firm…”

 

Emma snorts. "Seriously?"

 

"You're more than capable. I was wrong to think you weren't. Biased, even. Like just recently. The King case. I gave you a few days to find out information before a deadline, and you helped the firm avoid a merger with the potential to bring down our biggest client. You get results, Miss Swan."

 

"Well, I've seen you work, too. I know if this firm went under you could have your pick of firms."

 

"It's not that easy." Regina demurrs. "Trust me. It's harder than you might think, given..."

 

"Look, end of the day? You went to law school. I got a GED in prison.” Emma says. Whoops. Did she mean to say that? Not so much.  “Shit.”

 

“Shit?” Regina parrots.

 

Emma flaps a hand. “‘'Shit’, as in ‘that’s a chapter of my life I don’t talk about.’ To anyone. Look, I kinda… Didn’t mean to bring that up. And I am not even slightly drunk enough to tell you the rest of that story.”

 

“Fair enough.”

 

“Besides, no one like you wants to hear my crap.”

 

“Not that it's a contest, but... You think I’ve had a perfect life? I have plenty of 'crap', as you put it, of my own. "

 

“You’ve said enough that I can kinda guess it wasn’t.”

 

“It hasn’t been entirely perfect. Far from it. Still, there are bright spots. Of course.”

 

Emma definitely isn't drunk enough for this discussion. "What band do you like?"

 

Regina shakes her head. "What band? I... I have no idea. Why?"

 

Okay. Fair point. Why had she asked that? It was the sort of thing you ask a person on a d... Oh, hell no. That was not what this was.

 

This was coworkers. Having a drink. Or three. Because the rest of their coworkers were dumb. Yup. That was it. Nothing else. 

 

They are close together, in the mirror. Emma gets up. "Back in a moment."

 

She snags a glass of water on her way to the washroom, chugs it, and it steadies her. In the washroom, there's a sickly scent of air-freshener, something fake and labelled with 'orchard blossom'. Emma washes her hands.  The paper towel dispenser is empty. Emma shakes her hands, briskly. Gives up on her attempt at a distraction, returning to her seat.

 

Regina looks up as if surprised that Emma came back. “Fine. Different question. Why defence law. Protecting the innocent?”

 

“If I was worried about that, I’d be a broke public defender. Or a prosecutor. The saviour thing was never entirely my cup of tea."

 

Emma can relate. She's not a hero. Just a person. They both are. Just two women, in a bar on a friday night, and... 

 

"I had no real doubts about the kind of work that I would be doing, going into the field. Still, my reasons were enough. And besides, sometimes I think…. Much as we like to pretend the things we’ve been through will make saints of us, or heroes…. Oftentimes they merely function to make us jaded.”

 

Would another tequila shot be a bad idea? They've been here for... How long had they been there for? 

 

"What exactly made you come to work for Gold? I checked your employment records. You weren't a legal investigator before this." Regina asks.

 

"Not much of a story, really. Used to be a bail-bonds agent in the city. There was a guy who was running out on his bail for insider trading. I tracked him. What I didn't know was that Gold was interested in him as witness for another case. The firm sent their own investigator after him. Some chick called Tamara, I think? Total hardass, but not exactly subtle. Things went sideways, I nearly got killed, so I show up at Gold's office to chew him out for screwing up my case."

 

“He offered you a job after that?”

 

"Basically. Told me 'If you do the job so much better, dearie, then take it.'" Emma shrugs. "He's a deeply odd man, but I did appreciate that much. Flew through training, and..."

 

"Do you enjoy it?" Something in the tone suggests that Regina actually wants an answer.

 

Emma isn't sure what the answer is, that's the only problem. "It's a job."  

 

“Another shot?”

 

Hey, if Regina had the same idea, how bad could it be? That's only three. Plus a beer, hours ago. Hardly a gratuitous amount. “Why not?”

 

“So, your ex-husband. What’s the deal there?” Emma asked, after knocking back the shot.

 

Regina winces. "I told you."

 

“Oh, come on, how bad could it be?”

 

“I married him when I was 23 and just out of law school. I had student loans that my mother wouldn’t pay for because I got her angry, and I was… I felt powerless.  He was ten years older than me. I didn’t even like him that much, I just thought… It was stupid, but I’d spent so long under my mother’s thumb, I didn’t know any other way of getting out. We dated for a month, and the whole time I tried to convince myself it was love."

 

Emma nods. That much, she can understand.

 

"Then I realized I was even more stuck. He wanted someone to look good for photo-ops, and he was… Well. Politicians are good at putting up facades. That's all I'll say on the matter.” 

 

There's a twitch to her face that answers questions about that, one Emma isn't sure she ever wanted to ask. She keeps prompting, though, because, hell, why not. “But then the corruption scandal happened, and you figured out a way out?”

 

Regina laughs. “It’s not something I talk about.”

 

“I’m listening, though. Does that make a difference?”

 

Her dark eyes are rich with complications. “I’m not sure.”

 

"Sharing circle. I could tell about being in foster care? Well. Okay. Adopted once, but they sent me back, so… Wait, I told you that. Why did I tell you that. Anyway. I was on the street by sixteen. You do the math.”

 

“The corruption scandal was my way out." Regina blurts. "Found a reporter who I could manipulate, fed him just enough hints that he’d go looking in the right places, and got Mr Gold to handle the rest. That's how we met. I needed another lawyer to make sure the case was enough.”

 

“You?” Emma says. "You brought down an entire administration?"

 

“Me.”

 

“Was it justified?”

 

“Entirely. All of the evidence was real, of course. He was guilty. I just provided a... Push, shall we say.” Regina stares off into the distance, as if in memory. "I got to deal with months of fall-out, a brutal divorce, and a toxic name, but otherwise? Never looked back.”

 

Just when Emma thinks she has Regina Mills figured, she realizes how entirely she doesn't.  It's good. She likes a challenge, and hates obvious people. More to the point… Wow. Emma tries not to think about the feeling below her gut, that says that she is very impressed by this news. 

 

Women with power, what can she say?

 

"But enough about me. What else don't I know about you, Emma?" Regina turns.

 

Emma thinks about telling her. But where Regina's secrets put the woman in a place of strength... Hers don't quite.

 

"Lots." Is all she says. Regina accepts it with an eyebrow, and they return to silence, for a very long and interesting time. Emma half-way starts a conversation a few times, but it fades out in a way that doesn’t bother either of them.

 

Suddenly, abruptly, without any consciousness of the passage of time, the bartender is standing over them, smilingly apologetic. “Last call, ladies. Can I call the two of you a cab?”

 

Regina frowns at him. Looks down at how close Emma and her have drifted. She shuffles slightly. Their legs are no longer touching, and Emma misses it, feels the loss tangibly.

 

Two cabs, thank you.” She mutters, and doesn’t look at Emma. 

 

Emma rolls her eyes. If the bar-tender was going to make assumptions, then he could make assumptions. It didn’t mean that…. Emma stares down at where their legs had been so close, looks at the clock. Early for a last call. She thinks, and tries to avoid thinking about anything else. Neither had even acknowledged the fact.

 

Emma nudges Regina, to get her attention. Tries not to grin as she almost falls off the stool. The glare was worth it though. “Where you heading?”

 

Regina names the street. Emma is surprised, expecting a bit of a nicer neighbourhood, given her salary. Just goes to show that everything about the other woman isn’t precisely in accordance to her expectations.

 

“We live pretty close. Share a cab?”

 

There’s a hesitation, then a quiet, “If you insist.”

 

“One cab, then, thanks.”

 

The bartender shoots Emma a knowing look, that she also tries not to think about. “Sure thing.”

 

Regina pulls out her credit card, insists on paying for all of the drinks. “It may have been your idea, Emma, but I have no objection to paying, really. Thank you. This was… Enjoyable.”

 

“Thanks. Or, you’re welcome. Either or.” Emma says. “I’ll pay a bigger share of the cab fare, then.”

 

“If you must.”

 

Emma gets up, far too quickly. Regina is getting up at the same time. They fall against each other, and somehow they are laughing again, leaning.

 

They walk out together. Wait for the cab together. Get in together, but sit apart. Emma gives her address first to the cab driver, and they go there, mostly in silence. 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

There’s a sudden awkwardness that wasn’t there before. Emma isn’t entirely certain what caused it. The comment from the bartender? The fact that they’d just spent so long in each other’s company, and now they were… What?

 

Emma looks over at Regina, as she does up the seatbelt. Regina looks back. Somehow neither of them quite look away, until they roll up to Emma’s apartment, and she fumbles for her money. 

 

Damn it. She was so distracted thinking, she hadn’t… Emma gets close enough to the right amount, and gets out, flustered. She hears the door slam shut as she kicks it closed. Another door slams, at almost the exact same moment.

 

It isn’t until the cab has driven away that she realizes Regina has gotten out of the cab, too.

 

“Oh.” Regina blinks. “I’m not sure why I did that. I was supposed to stay in the cab.”

 

“Multiple tequila shots?” Emma offers, swaying a little.

 

“Probably.” Regina shrugs. “I’m not intoxicated enough that my judgement is severely impaired. Merely… I was distracted. It’s not a problem. Not far. I can walk it.”

 

“At this time of night, in your condition? No way. You can sleep with me.” Emma says, and her mouth goes dry at the look in Regina’s eyes.

 

“At my apartment.” Emma quickly covers, cursing her choice of words. “I have a couch. A nice couch. Blankets. Ruby’s out. You know. Crash.”

 

“Really, I don’t want to intrude.” Regina mutters, turning away for the second time that night. Emma doesn’t want to see her go, so she reaches out a hand, lets it brush along Regina’s arm.

 

“Learn when to stop being stubborn.”

 

“Wouldn’t that be an interesting day.” Regina says.

 

Emma doesn’t look at Regina while they are in the elevator. She isn’t sure why, it just… Feels like a bad idea. Or, not bad, just….

 

They get to her apartment, and Emma kicks off her shoes, with a relieved groan. When she looks up, Regina is staring, but they both look away. 

 

“Give me a minute?” Emma says, and goes to her bedroom, riffles through her pyjamas, and pulls out a pair. They are silk and lovely, but they are closest in fit to Regina, she figures.

 

“Really?” Regina says, staring at them, while sipping on her glass of water. Emma hadn't given it to her, which meant she must have gone through their cupboards. 

 

“Hey, it’s that or flannel. Take your pick.”

 

“I can always sleep in my clothes.”

 

“Do you want to be comfortable, or not?” Emma says, and tossing onto the couch.

 

She changes out of her own dress into similar pyjamas, and tries not to remember that Regina is naked in the other room. Doesn't think about the other woman slipping out of clothes, as Emma unzips her own dress. Stray thoughts. 

 

Regina steps out of the bathroom, smoothing down the blue fabric of them. “They fit better than I expected.”

 

Yeah.” Emma says, and they do.

 

“Well. I suppose…” Regina pauses, looks at her, and it's a glance with soft hooks in it, the kind that reel in and question. 

 

Then Emma says to hell with it, steps forward. Kisses her.

 

Regina is softer than she expected. They fall together in a way that should be messy, should be awkward, even, but it isn’t, couldn’t possibly be. 

 

Regina’s face when she pulls away is so staggeringly beautiful to Emma.  She feels as if something is unsticking in her chest. As if something has hollowed them both out and replaced it with that which is wholly new. 

 

It’s only one kiss.

 

Just one that turns into two, as Regina’s arm slips down, curls around her, and she wonders how she ever thought of the woman as cold, how she had thought that of her. The silky fabric bunches a little as they move. It reminds her of the circumstances of the kiss. Somehow the fact that Regina is wearing her pyjamas makes the entire thing gain an entirely new dimension.

 

Then Emma’s breath runs out, and she pushes away, and suddenly the moment falls. “Regina, I…”

 

“We should sleep.” Regina says, breathless, her pupils blown-dark, all crowded up against the edge of the sofa.

 

“Yeah. We should.” Emma says, and reaches out, because she can’t quite bear not to. Just enough to brush a wayward curl off the other woman’s forehead, and there’s a kind of magic to the way the hair clings to her fingers.

 

Regina moves a hand to catch at the fingers, and it turns into a caress. Emma lets her, lets the hand move up her arm, brush against Emma’s breast, and she gasps, closes the distance again.

 

It’s a moment that becomes an eternity, as Regina pulls them around, and tilts backwards.

 

Emma's back hits the couch, and there’s lips on her throat, gentle nuzzles that turn heated. Emma turns her head, and her own lips collide with an ear. The moan that draws jolts her, and sanity returns, briefly.. ”What are we doing?” She whispers. 

 

Regina pulls away. “I could ask you the same question. Yet somehow I don’t even mind.  I’m not entirely clear on it, but I wouldn’t mind having you, despite how utterly destabilizing as you are.”

 

The other woman is flushed, lipstick smeared, hair in a disarray, and Emma lets herself savour that, just for a moment.

 

“We shouldn’t.” Emma whispers, and wracks her brain for reasons why.

 

She remembers the shots they had, though. She remembers the fact that they work together, how horribly this could all fall apart, how horribly this sort of thing always fall apart, and tells herself it’s better to stop while they can.  

 

Emma slides out from under the other woman, because she can’t. It’s the tequila talking, anyway, she tells herself. They’d regret it.

 

Maybe they wouldn’t. 

 

Emma can’t think like that, either. Takes steps backwards, her eyes fixed on the woman in Emma’s pyjamas, in her living room, with a look that’s heartbreakingly readable. 

 

“Good night.” She whispers.

 

Traces of taste linger on her lips, tequila and something she can’t put words onto. Emma closes the door, falls into bed with the suspicions that things in her life have just shifted in a deeply irrevocable way.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The feeling lasts until the next morning, carried through into dreams she doesn’t quite recall.

 

It lasts Emma awakes to an empty apartment.  Lasts until she stumbles out of bed and into the living room, to see nothing but the blanket and pyjamas, folded neatly on top of the couch. It lasts until Emma sits in a silence that has a weight to it, alone, and wonders why she expected anything different.

 

Ruby comes in late in the morning eyeliner smeared and hair bedraggled,  to find Emma sitting on the couch, nursing a wicked hangover and a cup of coffee. The pyjamas have been thrown in the laundry, and the blanket joined it. 

 

“Hey.” Emma said. “Victor okay?”

 

“Yeah. He’s fine. I mean…. He had stuff to work out, but… I think we’re good. Maybe. We watched a dumb movie, talked… He’s nice, Emma. I like him, and he’s…. Surprising.” ” Ruby says, dropping her bag and flopping down on the couch. The springs give a little, pulling the whole thing down under the weight of her friend.

 

Surprising. That’s a word for it.

 

She’s still half-way certain there’s still traces of Regina’s perfume in the air.

 

 Emma pulls herself into a standing position, finally broken out of her reverie. “Well, I’m making breakfast. I did laundry already. And I tried to fix the toilet. It didn’t work.” She’s babbling. 

 

Ruby cranes her neck. “Um, thanks? Wow, how are you, though? No offence, but you look terrible.”

 

“It’s a long story.” Emma says, curtly, but she isn’t surprised. Eggs. They have eggs, don’t they? A quick check of the fridge contents reveals that they do not, in fact, have eggs. Wonderful.

 

“Define long story?” Ruby asks. 

 

“I pissed off half the people I work with, ditched ladies night, did tequila shots with my boss, took her back here, and we made out on the sofa.” Emma says, and bumps her head on the fridge. Ow.

 

Do they have frozen waffles? Emma thinks, then, Oh god, oh shit, what have I done with my life, as the silence stretches out.

 

There’s silence, then a snort. “If you don’t want to tell me what happened, that’s fine.”

 

They have frozen waffles. These get added to the toaster, before Emma realizes that they don’t have syrup. Even better. This has been a spectacularly excellent morning.

 

The silence keeps dragging on, as Ruby shuffles into the kitchen-area, and takes one look at the expression on Emma’s face. Her eyes get wide. “You aren’t joking, are you?”

 

Emma shakes her head, dumbly, then groans, and covers her face. “I’m an idiot.

 

Ruby throws an arm around Emma’s shoulder. “Okay, I’ll bite. Tell me what happened. Spare no details.”

 

It all comes out, in a flood and a rush, and the waffles grow cold in the toaster as they stand there, and Emma gets no more answers than she had before.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The diner is fairly busy when Emma drags herself in, late in the afternoon. She’s been running errands all weekend with a kind of calculated busyness that had absolutely everything to do with distracting herself. New boots, bills paid, some actual groceries stocked up on, driver’s license renewed, laundry. That, and what felt like a million other little things. 

 

Emma pauses, her handle of the door to the diner, shivering in the cold. 

 

She was kidding herself, and not very well. 

 

Stuck behind a fat, smelly old man in the line at DMV, and her mind had kept flashing to the strangest little things. That seemingly misplaced decimal point in one of the contracts she’d been looking over. The score for a football game that she’d caught a glimpse of, flipping channels last week. The web of skin between Regina’s thumb and forefinger, shiny from salt licked off. The look in Regina’s eye when…

 

Shaking her head didn’t clear it away then, and it isn’t working now. It’s a depressing realization that, if anything, trying to fill her weekend up had been counter-productive. Doing some of the dullest tasks imaginable left far too much room for contemplating. 

 

“Screw this. Hot chocolate.” Emma says, and steps inside, revelling in the blast of warmth and food smells.

 

Granny’s Diner was hardly high cuisine, but it was cheap, and good. It had a sort of nostalgic, small town feel to it, despite the locale. It was the sort of place that felt more at home in a small town where everyone knew each other, than a city like this one. She liked that about it, though. The counter was modern enough, all shiny metal, as were the stools, with the addition of bright pleather. The walls, however, had a soft sort of forest print to the wallpaper. A wildly different effect from the sort in Regina's office, though... It was oddly calming.  Add in the jars of little cookies, and a meatloaf that somehow managed to be edible? Emma had been sold on the place ever since she'd moved around the corner.

 

She drops down onto one of the stools, and grins tiredly at Granny. “Hot chocolate and pancakes?”

 

Granny isn't impressed. “Pancakes? It’s three in the afternoon.”

 

She did already eat lunch. “Fine. Cookie? And hot chocolate.”

 

“Healthy choice.” Granny says, eyebrows still raised.

 

“Aren’t grannies big on giving people cookies?” Emma cajoles, laughing, and her mood lifts a little.

 

“I’m your roommate’s grandma, not yours. You poached my best employee for that firm of yours, don't you forget."

 

It's a empty threat, and Emma knows it. Gives her best pleading face.

 

"One hot chocolate and cookie coming up.”

 

It's enough to relax her, and she stares down at the counter. This one is formica. There's something missing, amongst the sugar and salt and napkins and sundry things. “Cinnamon shaker?”

 

“Kid in the corner booth.” Granny remarks, turning to another customer.

 

Emma walks over to the ten year old kid in the booth seat facing towards her. He’s got a flop of brown hair, and grey and red scarf, cute little pea-coat, and a tiny backpack sitting beside him. There’s someone in the other side of the booth, but she can’t see them. 

 

Just hears the boy saying ‘thanks, Ma!”, and a murmur of an answer in a voice that’s weirdly familiar. A hand reaches, ruffles at the kid’s hair.

 

A few steps more, and the other occupant comes into view. 

 

Emma stops dead, staring, and wondering if she had just misheard, or mis-saw, something.

 

But no, that’s Regina, sitting there in the booth seat opposite the kid, smiling at him. Emma blinks, and the pit of her stomach drops out, her lungs freezing over.

 

Well, that’s a surprise. Cold, tough as nails Regina Mills, terror of the courtroom with at least two failed relationships Emma knows of, has a kid? She’s not sure whether to be impressed or terrified. A son, too, says the treacherous and shitty part of her brain.

 

She looks beautiful. Says the equally treacherous part of her brain, and, casual sunday attire or not, it’s true. Emma is conscious of her own lack of makeup and sweatpants, and gulps.

 

He’s pulling a large storybook out of his backpack in one hand, as he draws back, grinning. “Ms. Blanchard lent me this book of fairy-tales to read, because I told her she looked like Snow White. But we have to be really careful with it, because it’s a class-room book, not a regular school library book.”

 

Regina laughs. “Did you, now? Well, better let me hang on to that, alright.”

 

“Yeah, she’s really pale and all dark haired. Plus, the classroom pet this year is a budgie. Definitely the Bluebird of Happiness. And, I mean, Paige said that it’s not cool to like Disney stuff anymore, because Transformers could kick their butt anyway? But really, I kind of doubt that…. Oh! Can I help you?” The kid asks, brightly, noticing the stare.

 

“Umm…” Emma says, as Regina’s gaze swivels to follow the kid’s.

 

Their eyes meet, and there’s a terrifying moment where Emma is too busy trying to keep from freaking out to stop and notice any other reaction.

 

“You have a kid?” Is the first thing that pops into Emma's head long enough for it to come out of her mouth. Her heart clamps shut, squeezing. 

 

“His photograph has been on my desk for the entirety of past year. He comes to the firm every Thursday afternoon for us to go for dinner. ” Regina says, her eyes bright with confusion, and maybe something else.

 

 “I don’t actually come into the firm to work on Thursday afternoons, most days? That’s time is cleared for extra out-of-office related activities like tracking suspects, evidence gathering... Witness questioning?” Why does she babble so much? Damn it.

 

“Who’s this?” 

 

Regina smiles, a lot more tightly this time, and says, “This is... Miss Swan. She works for the firm.”

 

“A lawyer?” Henry says, squinting at her, but seeming almost bored by the news.

 

“Actually, I’m the firm’s investigator.” Emma corrected, shuffles over so she can look at them both.

 

The kid brightened, his eyes widening. “Investigator? Is that like a detective?”

 

“Kinda, yeah.”

 

“Cool! Like Encyclopedia Brown? I read those back in… Grade  4, I think? I’m kinda too old for them now. Grade 6.” 

 

Emma’s only recollection of the series had something to do with a mystery being figured out after a guy who pretended there was power outage... But then got bored and made toast? Not exactly complex detective work. But hey, she’d read them a great many years ago and had since lost any copies she might have. Changing foster homes, probably.

 

He’s got a very earnest expression on his face, like he’s embarrassed to be caught making an immature reference. “Or Sherlock Holmes?”

 

But she nods anyway, and says, “Yeah, Something like that,” and Regina glares. 

 

Oops. Investigator a cooler job description than lawyer, was it? Ha. Score one for her, then.

 

“Cool.” The kid proclaims, sticking out a hand. “I’m Henry. Nice to meet you.”

 

Emma looks at Regina, testing the waters, then shrugs, and takes the small hand. 

 

“You may be an investigator, Miss Swan, and you couldn’t even figure out that I had a son.” Regina replies, stirring her coffee. “Truly, I’m beginning to question your skills. ” 

 

She opens her mouth to say something she’ll regret, something along the lines of well if you hadn’t been bitching at me every time I was in your office I’d have more time to pay attention to other things. Or maybe, I was too busy trying to figure you out to noticing it. Or I didn’t want to know that because I liked you too much. Hell, just a simple fuck you too, because Regina’s little disappearing act of yesterday morning and sudden chilliness… Can’t help but sting a little bit, in wildly contradictory ways.

 

“Oh, so it’s back to Miss Swan, is it, Mills?” Emma bites. “Besides, I am actually capable of respecting people’s privacy when they ask me to.”

 

Henry snorts, and there’s a twinkle in the Regina’s eyes that Emma missed, a sideways quirk to the mouth, and a laugh. “That was a joke. Much as I disapprove of your unorthodox methods, you are effective at your job.”

 

“I, uh… Oh.” Is all that comes out, because Regina laughed again, and she can do is remember that kiss, and the electrical… 

 

“Did you have a reason for coming over here, or was it just to say hello?” There's a tinge of suspicion to the question, one that interrupts that particular train of thought. Maybe suspicion isn't even the right word.

 

“Cinnamon.” Emma said, dumbly.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing, just… The cinnamon shaker? I wanted to borrow it.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Hot chocolate?”

 

“That’s what Henry was using it for.” Regina puts down her knife and fork.

 

Huh. Weird. Is that normal for kids? Aren’t kids that age supposed to be picky eaters? Or maybe they aren’t. How old is he? Eleven? Grade six, that’s… Is that ten? Ten? Regina can't have a kid that's ten, it's too...

 

Eleven. She remembers, and breathes a little easier. Not a lot, just… Enough.

 

“Hey Mom?” Henry interrupts, eyes flickering back and forth between the two of them, speculatively, “Is it okay if I go say hi to Grace over there? She’s eating with her dad.”

 

Regina nods, and Henry flaps a hand at Emma as he squeezes past her, pressing the cinnamon shaker into her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

 

This whole conversation has felt weird to her. Technically, she ought to be leaving at this point, but hey. She continues in the same vein of weirdness, and sits down in the booth, opposite.

 

“You match the booths. Apple red.” Regina remarks, glancing down at Emma’s jacket, and the vinyl creaks under her. 

 

A blink.

 

“You’re staring, Miss Swan.”

 

 “Trying to figure out the kid thing, how that reconciles with…" Emma puts the shaker down. "You know what, nevermind.”

 

“Nevermind?” Regina snaps, clearly deciding that the politeness was apparently once again a temporary state of affairs.

 

“Why are you angry?” Emma snaps, back, because she wants to push back.

 

“I’m not angry.”

 

“If anything I should be. You’re the one who left, Regina. Snuck out the door like…” Emma hissed.

 

“Forgive me for needing to go home and change so I wasn’t wearing yesterday’s clothing when I went to pick my son up from a sleepover. How thoughtless.”

 

Emma winced. Okay, admittedly that was a good excuse. Right. The kid thing. Damn it. “You couldn’t have left a note?”

 

“A note that said, what, exactly? Thank you for your hospitality, I apologize for drunkenly kissing you?

 

Her nose close to the cinnamon shaker, Emma breaths deeper in shock. It’s a struggle, fighting a sneeze. “Excuse me? I definitely kissed first.”

 

“I think I remember…”

 

"Which time?" Emma whispers. 

 

“Are we really discussing this here, Miss Swan?”

 

“There’s nobody actually around within earshot. And what happened to ‘Emma’?”

 

“It’s the principle of the thing, Miss… Fine. Emma.”

 

“Are you sorry?” It’s blurted out, and totally insane, but it’s been said, and can’t be taken back any more than the kiss can be.  There’s a long, long wait. Emma looks up, sees.

 

 “I can’t say that I am.” Regina says, with an expression that says that her answer may have just surprised her. 

 

“Oh.” A cup of hot chocolate slides in front of her, and a cookie. Emma glances up, and catches an odd look from Granny, before the older woman stalks away. She busies herself adding the cinnamon, stirring carefully, before she looks back up again.

 

“So what happens now?” Regina asks, waits. 

 

The stir-stick is digging into her finger. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

 

“Forgive me for saying but… There’s something here, Emma. Something that both of us have tried not to acknowledge. It may have started antagonistic. There may be parts of it that still are. But I’m not certain that’s all that there is.“ Regina is methodically shredding her paper napkin into neat squares. Careful, precise, destructive.

 

 “So…”

 

“Dinner?” Regina suggests. “Between you and I? ”

 

Emma gulps at her hot chocolate. It’s bitter and sweet, burning fierce as it goes down her throat. Too hot. “I don’t know how to answer that.” 

 

The bell on the door of the diner rings, and Emma looks up. It’s nobody she knows. 

 

When she glances back, Regina’s eyes are fixed on her upper lip, and the hot chocolate clinging above it. Reflexively, Emma licks, and tries to ignore the answering clench of Regina's smooth throat.

 

She wants to say yes. Part of her does. The rest of her is scared, maybe. Worried. Dumb. Lonely. A million other things that all add up to a 'no' that is just barely louder.

 

“Why?" It's one word, it shouldn't cut like that, but Emma has to be honest, has to....

 

“I won’t lie. I like you, Regina. I didn’t think I would, but I do. And we have ridiculous chemistry, and more in common that I maybe thought of initially. But…” She grasps for straws, and draws a short one, but she’ll use it anyway. “We work together, for one. You’re my boss.”

 

Regina laughed. “Technically you are an independent contractor working for the firm, not an official employee as such. Therefore, those sorts of restriction don’t really apply.”

 

There’s an awkward pause.

 

A thousand responses cling to her tongue, and she voices exactly none of them.

“I checked.”

 

That gets an eyebrow. “When was this?”

 

If it was anyone else, Emma would describe the expression as sheepish. “I’d rather not answer that one.”

 

“But like I said. Dinner.” 

 

“Okay. Well… I’m going to be honest. That?” She gestured at Henry, who glanced up and waved, cheerily, before going back to his own conversation. “That complicates matters.”

 

“… ‘That’ is my son.” Her voice sounds like it does in the court-room, all ice and careful control. 

 

“Yeah. I know. And I’m sure he’s a good kid, just… I have one rule, and it’s a good one. I’ve screwed up a lot of rules I’ve tried to keep to, trust me, but… Kids. It just…” 

 

The tablecloth has a stain on it. Just a little one, in the far corner. It looks like ketchup, maybe. 

 

“Complicates matters.” Regina says, sadly, as if it’s not the first time she’s heard such a thing. “I understand.” 

 

“It’s nothing personal.” Emma says. "It's just... It wouldn't be dinner, would it? Dinner when you have to, I dunno, get home early because you've got a babysitter, and all these questions I've got, like seriously we barely know each other properly and what if your kid thinks its weird and thinks I'm trying to replace his dad or be a better more something or worse what if he likes me and it doesn't work out and we don't even know each other, properly, we don't have anything in... I can’t….”

 

Emma runs out of breath, and leans forward, breaks it off. "It would be a terrible idea."

 

"Henry never had a father." Regina interjects. “Leopold wasn’t… I divorced him, then adopted Henry.”

 

Emma pauses. "What?"

 

"You wouldn't be replacing his father. He's adopted, he never had one." 

 

"He's adopted?" Emma whispers, breathless, and if that isn't jut another laundry list of thing to add to the pile of baggage. An even bigger can of worms.

 

It explained why Regina was so vehement about the adoption case, thing, though. Emma thinks about explaining properly, but she's opened up enough. It's hard enough to do this, already, which is strange, because she hadn't been expecting anything. Try any more, though and her heart might just fall out of her chest.

 

"I didn't want a husband, but I wanted a son, so..." 

It's so matter-of-fact, the way she says it, admits so quietly to having raised a son on her own. Like that wasn't a miracle. 

 

Regina looks over at him, and her eyes shine. "There isn't a single decision I've regretted less, in my whole life."

 

"Really?" Emma said, stepping backwards, trying not to let sadness slip through, any hint of the bitter.

 

"Beyond a doubt. But that's besides the point. Emma. If things go well between us, but our son would be an obstacle to that... I would chose him. Before we become... Anything... That much you need to know."

 

"You'd give anything for your son to be happy." Emma says, thinking of choices.She gathers up the shreds of napkin, folding them into a slender hand. “If you won’t even give my son a chance, then we never stood much of one, ourselves. If you want Friday to be as far we take things in that direction, I’ll respect that, but I must admit I will be… Disappointed.”

 

Emma isn’t sure that she’s isn’t either.

 

“Good day, Emma.” Regina says, then gets up, and walks away.

 

She’d be lying if she didn’t watch them leave, watch as the napkin fragment fluttered into the waste bin, like snow. The bell chimes as the door swings shut, and Emma tries to shake off the feeling that she’s made a mistake.

 

She finishes her hot chocolate in silence, crumbles half the cookie into frustrated dust. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

She avoids Regina the entire next week, gives things to her secretary or a second-chair, reschedules a meeting with Regina to one with Gold. That gets a reaction from Gold, an eyebrow and a 'anything the matter?' that Emma stumbles over, stubbornly. Le Bleu sees her in the corridor and mumbles something accusatory about Emma’s reputation under her breath that takes all of Emma's strength not to react to. It doesn't matter. There wasn't ever going to be anything to defend. 

 

Except it's Thursday, again, and she'd gotten something on her shirt. It was a shorter drive to the office than home, so she'd come here for a spare, to change. The coffee machine at her house is broken.While she's there, she figures a trip to the break-room wouldn't hurt.

 

“Hey. Emma, right?”

 

There, sitting on the counter of the break room, short legs swinging, is Henry Mills. He's nursing a cup of what is probably hot chocolate. There’s a lawyer sipping a cup of something in one corner, all neat suit and confidence. 

 

The electric kettle goes off beside him, but the lawyer doesn’t get up.  

 

Emma is tempted to swear off beverages for life, considering the amount of Mills-related drama she seems to get with every cup or shot-glass.

 

The break room has several of the horrible modern chairs that dot the firm, all faintly scuffed dark leather and pointy metal edges.  Emma sits, gingerly, folding legs under her skirt. “Yeah. And you’re… Henry?”

 

“Yup.” The kid says, brown eyes rueful, and looks down to play with his scarf, which turns out to match a private school uniform. There’s a tiny little backpack at his feet, the same one that had been with him the other day.

 

Emma was going to get a cup of coffee. She gets up again, abruptly. 

 

“Mom said work here too, right? How come I’ve never seen you around?”

 

“I don’t work on Thursdays, mostly. Your mom know you’re here?” Emma says, warily, picking up the coffee pot. It’s empty.  

 

The kid… Henry, Emma remembers, nods, shuffling over to give her more room. “Yup. Took a cab over from school. I come in for our regular dinner thing on Thursdays. ”

 

“You know she’s in a meeting, right??”

 

Henry nods. 

 

There’s that funny ache in her chest, flaring up again. She always tries to ignore it, but it’s still there. The swirling what-ifs and almost regrets that she gets around kids, sometimes. The fact that this kid is a boy, and all too close to that particular age, and a million things that make her wonder if what she had felt at seeing Regina in the diner with him… 

 

If it hadn’t been something a little closer to jealousy than disappointment.

 

But that’s dangerous ground to be thinking about. Emma looks around for a conversation topic, and lands on a glass jar sitting beside the coffee. “Umm… Cinnamon hearts? Apparently you like cinnamon? Mr Gold keeps them. I think he thinks giving people candy makes him more approachable?”

 

“Kinda just makes him seem like one of those people we get warned about with ‘stranger danger’.”

 

Emma has to laugh at that, and the ache feels a little lighter. The lid is a little sticky under her fingers, but she gets it undone eventually, and holds them out. 

 

Henry grabs the jar, and scrutinizes the label of it, carefully.

 

“Checking for poison?” Emma quips, continuing the joke, as Henry, apparently satisfied, sticks his hand in the jar, and pulls out a handful.

 

“I’ve got food allergies.”

 

Emma nods, sympathetic. “That sucks.”

 

Henry shrugs again. “I just have to be careful. Carry an epi-pen and stuff. It’s cool you like cinnamon on hot chocolate, too. Best way to drink it. I think it’s a Mexican thing? Mom used to do it, and I liked it.”

 

“I thought Regina was Puer….”

 

He shrugs.” Huh? No. I was born in the Southern States, yeah, but…” He shrugs. “Dunno.”

 

Southern States? She didn’t know Regina had lived there.

 

Arizona. Flashes through her head.

 

Coffee. She’s just here for coffee. She drops the candy, starts filling the pot. The lawyer in the corner gets up, brushes past them as he leaves, eyes fixed on his smartphone.

 

 “So, Emma. What are your intentions toward my mom?” The kid actually asks, switching his now-empty mug to the other hand, and placing it on the counter beside him. 

 

Emma blinked, recalibrating, and attempted to focus back on the burbling coffee pot. It didn’t work.

 

 “My intentions?” She parroted. “I… I don’t have any.” 

 

Flashes of Regina’s eyes spin through her head, the feel of lips, the few moments of vulnerability she’s seen from the woman.

 

“Yeah. I mean. I might be a kid, but I’m not stupid. Did you guys go on a date on Friday? I know she dressed up nice and picked me up from the sleepover late. I’m not dumb, and then when she saw you at the diner…. I can tell when my Mom likes someone.”

 

Emma freezes. “It wasn’t a date.”

 

Henry frowns. “Oh.”

 

The air is steadily filling with the richness of coffee. God, she’s tired. 

 

“Do you want to date her? Because I think she maybe wants to date you.”

 

Damn, this kid is more perceptive than she was counting on. “Would that bother you?”

 

“I don’t think so. Depends.  My mom’s dated people before. Some of them were alright. Mellie was kinda… A witch. I think she tried going out with a cop, but it didn’t work out.”

 

“Oh god, I’d forgotten your Mom dated Graham.” Emma said, 

 

”It was okay. I don’t get the feeling that she really liked him much, anyway.”

 

“That’s… a bit cold, isn’t it?”

 

Henry thinks for a minute. “Nope. Not really. Actually, she doesn’t really like a lot of people. I get the feeling she has reasons for that. She doesn’t talk about it a lot, but I know before she got me…. Anyway. I get the feeling that she likes you. A lot. She might have been kinda mad about it at first, but… I think she’s working that out. Which bring us back to your intentions.”

 

“How do you know I have any?” Emma asked, her throat squeezing weirdly. 

 

He shrugs again. “Well, if you do, I should let you know. I take fencing lessons, and I totally read spy novels. ”

 

Emma laughs again. “You’re terrifying, kid.”

 

“Not really. I just want her to be happy.”

 

“You’re not looking in the right place.” Emma adds sugar to the cup. She doesn’t usually take sugar. “Look, kid... You want the truth?

 

"Usually the best option."

 

"Maybe not always. But anyway... Me? I'm not the greatest person in the world. Least of all at keeping a relationship going. I'm great at the love 'em and leave 'em type of thing. But sometimes that sucks, you know?”

 

She expects Henry to say something, but there’s nothing but the drip of the coffee pot.

 

“Long and the short of it, kid, is... I couldn’t answer that, even if I wanted to. Much as fairytales tell you different, sometimes it's hard to even figure out what you feel about someone, I think, let alone where you want things to go. Or if you want them to go anywhere.”

 

"Do I make it harder? For my mom to find someone, I mean." There’s an earnest sadness to his face that makes Emma question more than she was planning to.

 

“I think if someone thinks you make it harder… Then that’s not your fault. ”

 

He frowns at that, and hops off the counter. “So that’s a yes?”

 

“No…. I don’t think it is.” Emma says, and wonders at the answer.

 

”Well, thanks for the candy.” 

 

She skips Ladies Night this week, and stays at home. Definitely doesn’t watch any romantic movies, because that would be wildly cliche. 

 

It was just the one.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Monday the next week, and Emma is down at a children's playground. The object of her search is sitting on a bench, a nanny she needs to talk to for a divorce case, something for Le Bleu’s branch. 

 

The nanny provides shockingly little information before Emma gets made as an investigator, and hurries off with her charges. 

 

“Damn it!’ Emma complains, and sits down on the bench to stew. 

 

It’s cool and calm here, in some ways, the wall and big overhanging trees giving a bit of a sense of peace that belies its location at an intersection. Cars rumble past as she purposefully under under the tree-dappled light. 

 

It's easy to ignore the kids playing around her, until a woman with dark hair walks past, chasing a little toddler. The woman looks nothing like... 

 

Emma has been stewing for more than a week, and she knows it, and it's pathetic. Decisions should be made. 

 

She dials a number.

 

“Gold-Mills and Associates, how can I direct your call?” Ruby chirps through the line.

 

“Am I crazy?” Emma asks.

 

“Emma?”

 

“No, the Wicked Witch of the West.”

 

“Are you crazy? Probably.” Is the answer, then a crackling pause. “Is this about the Regina thing?”

 

“Maybe. Just… What if I screw it up?”

 

“Are you asking me what happens if you screw it up… Or what happens if you don’t?”

 

“Both.”

 

“Good answer.” The line goes dead.

 

Well, that had been spectacularly helpful. Except…. Maybe it had been. 

 

Perhaps there was an answer in that. Or in the way her couch had looked empty, all this week, the way she had shoved those pyjamas into the back of her drawer the minute they had come out of her washing machine. Perhaps she was tired of drifting. Or maybe she was sick of letting the ways in which she’d let decisions made a long time ago affect the ones she was making right now.

 

An overweight pug dragged by a six year old girl with blonde pigtails careened into her leg, and yelped, and started slobbering on her boot. 

 

Emma decided that was her cue to stop being introspective, and got up from the bench. Decision half-way made, one way or another.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Emma skips right over filing her paperwork or getting the recording of the fruitless interview to the relevant lawyer.

 

Marches straight to Regina’s office. She knocks, once. 

 

“Yes?”

 

She pulls the door-knob, lets the door slam closed behind her. 

 

Regina is at the desk, late afternoon sun streaming through the window, lighting the back of her head all sliding gold. 

 

Her blazer is soft metallic grey, all careful folds, with a gold brooch under one shoulder. There’s a pile of depositions on the desk, but Emma appears to have caught Regina at a quiet moment, because they are all closed. 

 

“You’ve been avoiding me.” Regina says, after a moment. "I wish you didn't feel that was necessary."

 

Emma leans back against the door, shrugs. Regina opens up a deposition file, but keeps one eye looking up. 

 

“What you said, earlier. About… The possibility of there being something here?” She starts. 

 

The file flutters. “You made it perfectly clear that there wasn’t. Your position was quite clear, Miss Swan, especially where my son was concerned.”

 

Emma gulps and suddenly she isn't sure if she say it, not right now…

 

“What if it was... Less clear. ” No, apparently she could. Both eyes are looking up, now, and Emma’s caught in the gaze. “If I wanted to try, anyway. Because... I don't know. Just because.”

 

The file flutters closed. “Then my offer would stand.”

 

Her brain blanks out. “Offer?”

 

“Dinner.”

 

“Right. Fine.”

 

“Fine?” Regina says, surprised.

 

"Fine. I… I think I can do dinner. Maybe. Can I think about it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

The door closes behind her.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Five minutes of pacing that one empty conference room, another phone call and Emma is back in Regina’s office.  “Dinner, right? Just dinner.”

 

Regina's eyes crinkle, and Emma is lost. “Yes.”

 

“What do you say to Evening Star?”

 

“The avant-garde Creole restaurant with a waiting-list stretching several months?”

 

“I did the owner a favour. Tiana and I go pretty far back.”

 

“If nothing else, Emma, you are a surprise.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Regina picks Emma up, this time. Looks almost nervous, despite the sleekness of the dress, the perfect hair and general poise that Emma will never be able to replicate in a million years. “Hello.”

 

“Hey.” Emma replies, once again floored by the woman standing in front of her.

 

“Shall we?” Regina says.

 

“Oh. Sure.” Emma says, fumbling for her bag. "Um, yeah. Okay."

 

They walk down to Regina's car. It's shocking how conscious she is of the other woman, of the precise amount of space she occupies, the distance between them.

 

Emma cracks a bad joke, and the silence softens again, then turns into conversation. Emma asks Regina what her favourite band is, again, and gets an answer.

 

The dinner itself is... A bit more stilted. 

 

Partway into the fourth course, and about ten tries at the right fork, Regina grabs her hand, stilling it.

 

“You're nervous.” Regina says. "Don't be."

 

Tingles spread through the hand, and Emma quiets. "Oh god, I'm trying too hard, aren't I?"

 

Regina studies her, fingers moving in cautious circles along Emma's pulse point. 

 

"This isn’t really... Me."

 

"Lesbianism?" Regina quips, wry.

 

"Fancy restaurants."

 

Regina laughs, and that's it, she's panicking.

 

Because even after everything, Emma looks at Regina and sees the fancy clothes, the degree, the BM-freaking-W, the successful mother, the...

 

Emma remembers what kinds of cars her foster parents drove, and how little attention they paid to her.. She remembers the crap car she still drives, because part of her hasn't moved past what it means to her. She remembers running away from foster care, running from... 

"I’m kind of a burgers and lasagna kinda girl, and this is so… I just keep feeling like we’re two completely different kinds of person, and I don’t know if…. I like you, Regina. I really, really do. I just don’t get what you see in someone like me, or if we would ever...”

 

“Initially? Nothing. You were rude, crass, a loose cannon with zero proper credentials and even fewer manners. Your fashion sense was horrid and your behaviour even worse.”

 

Emma tries to pull her hand away, shocked. That stung. “Seriously? Well, I thought you were a frigid…”

 

The effort to pull her hand away don't work. “I’m not done, Emma.” 

 

“Oh.” It's quiet.

 

“What I was able to learn, however, is that you are kind, surprisingly intelligent, compassionate, brave…. Someone who has overcome a great deal to get to where you are. You have potential that you don’t always utilize, and that frustrates me, but otherwise...” Regina shakes her head.

 

Enough running. “You are way nicer than you want anybody to believe, aren’t you?”

 

Regina laughs. “That’s a new one, for me.” 

 

Emma lets their fingers entwine. 

 

"Now, which fork do I use on this thing, anyway?"

 

"Truly? I have no idea. I picked one at random." Regina admits, sheepish. "Next time you can come over and I'll make lasagna."

 

"Lasagna?" Emma repeats, squeezing, letting the feeling wash over her.

 

"With red pepper flakes. Gives it kick. "

 

Emma has to tear her eyes away from the twinkle of Regina's, to look down at the weird foamy-stuff on her plate, and thinks she's falling in the best way possible. "Henry likes that?"

 

That feels awkward, until it doesn't. At the loss of tension in Regina's shoulders, she realizes that it's the big elephant that has been crowding out the air in the room.

 

"He does."

 

Emma takes a deep breath, and follows through. “He’s important to you. Tell me about him.”

 

Regina does, and…

 

Okay. Fine. The dinner is perfect. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

They take a long route back, driving through town, until they are at a street-light just before Emma's apartment. “Are you going to be late?”

 

Regina turns in the seat, and her smile has an entirely different cast to it. "The sitter is booked until twelve." 

 

Emma looks at the clock on the dash. 9:19, and smiles, slow and long. 

 

"Emma..." Regina breathes a warning, and Emma shifts closer.

 

The cars behind them honk a few times before they keep driving, but neither of them particularly care. They make it to the parking garage of Emma's apartment building in one piece. That was what mattered. 

 

The minute the key is out of the ignition, and Regina is surging forward again. It's not the easiest, in close quarters, and Emma is pretty sure that the stick shift is poking into her ribs... 

 

Regina grapples to undo Emma's seatbelt, brushing a hand all down her side, and Emma has lost any interest in objections.

 

It's a good few minutes, before they break apart, gasping, except this time Emma has no real intention of stopping.

 

"I should take you on my next stakeout. Be less boring."

 

Regina pushes hair out of her eyes, and smirks. "You're meant to pay attention on stakeouts, Emma."

 

"Minor detail. Seriously, though, let's stop making out like teenagers in your car." Emma reaches to take her hand. "Twelve o'clock, right?"

 

Regina hesitates. "I..."

 

Emma lets go. "What's wrong?"

 

"Nothing, I just..." Regina wrinkles her nose, laughing. "I said just dinner, and I really did mean to keep to that. This was... Nice, though."

 

Ouch. Emma winces. That felt like a rejection. 

 

Regina straightens her shirt, redoing the top four buttons. Wait, four? Wow.

 

"That wasn't a no. It was a 'how does Monday work?'." 

 

"Monday works."

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

It's Monday, now, and Emma had woken on Saturday to a text from Regina that said merely 'Hello, Emma.’

 

It's clearly a sign that things went well, and Emma smiled at it, rolling over in bed to text back.

 

They'd talked by texting for half the weekend, silly observations and random comments, and Emma thinks she could get used to this. Regina has a wicked sense of humour, and there's also the occasional text that makes Emma's mouth go dry with the suggestiveness of it, ones that she responds to more cautiously. Surely that wasn't the kind of innuedo Regina meant with that comment about fruit.

 

Emma blushes hard enough that Ruby, midway through lunch, gives her a deeply suspicious glance.

 

But now it's Monday, and Emma is doing a witness prep with Regina, and she feels a warm leg pressing up against hers, under the table. 

 

“I….” Emma trails off, her fingers clenching involuntarily around the barrel of her ball-point pen. She stares at Regina, incredulous. The woman is stroking her own pen in a completely different way.

 

The witness stares blankly, unobservant. “Did you have a question for me?”

 

Emma blinks, as Regina shifts in her seat. Did she? Right. 

 

It’s an interminable hour before Regina dismisses the witness, and turns to Emma with a innocent look. “Was I distracting you?”

 

The pen hits the wall, half an inch from where Regina’s head had been a moment before. “Yeah, like you don’t know the answer to that one. Seriously? We are working.

 

“Are we? It’s lunch hour, and the conference room…” 

 

Emma is already shaking her head. “If you tried to kiss me, and I’m not planning on stopping you, this time.”

 

Regina gets out of her seat in one smooth and steady motion, bending to pick up the pen. “There’s still dinner tonight, is there not? Let’s take off early. It’s a Monday, the firm can spare us for a little while. Come over early. We’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll make dinner. Is that alright? It’s not… It’s not too soon, is it? It’s just… You’ve already met, and he mentioned you spoke earlier, and I wanted to…”

 

Breathe. “It’s fine. Call it… Four?”

 

“Four works.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Emma knocks on the door after a quick stop at home. Henry opens the door, and grins with an expression that she can only describe as ‘triumphant’. 

 

“Ha!” He says, then coughs, inviting her in. “I mean… Uh, hi, Emma. How’s it going?”

 

Regina is in the other room, but Emma can see her moving, and feels suddenly awkward, like she’s intruding on a different life. 

 

It’s a nice apartment. Really nice. Too nice. It’s the kind of place Emma goes to in order to interview clients, the kind of place where the parents of kids of the schools she never had a chance of going to lived. Hell, she’s done B&E’s in places like this. It’s not…

 

Regina comes around the corner smiling, with a smudge of sauce on her cheek, and Emma wants to hate how quickly that makes her doubts evaporate. 

 

So instead she holds up the bottle of wine. “Hi.”

 

“You made it.”

 

Emma sniffs the air. “And you made lasagna?”

 

Damn, this is an incredible woman, kid or not.

 

“Just put it in the oven when you got here. It’ll bake for an hour, then cooling time. It’ll be an early dinner. There’s a park next door, if you wanted to walk?”

 

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“So, Henry seems to like you.” Regina comments, their knees pressed together on the bench, watching the kid, doing cartwheels on the lawn of the park.

 

“Weird.” Emma says, blinking slowly in the mid-afternoon sunshine, leaning back. It’s still cool enough that she’s glad of the knit hat and the jacket, glad Regina brought along her coat

 

It was true, though. He’d started talking the minute they had started walking, and had only just split off from the two of them. 

 

“Not really.”

 

Her throat tightens up again, that old feeling in her chest. “Trust me, it’s weird.”

 

“Whatever you say, Emma.”

 

“You aren’t… Jealous, are you?” Emma says, wondering at a flicker in Regina’s face, and wondering if that’s just misplaced emotion. “Because you’re his mother.”

 

“Of course not. Just… Wary. You expressed doubt, and it’s only the second proper date… I’m not used to this, not really. Are we moving too quickly?”

 

It’s a fair point, or at least it should be. “We’ve known each other for months.”

 

“And miscommunicated spectacularly.” 

 

“Hey, that’s mostly on me.” Emma argues. 

 

“Is that meant to be reassuring?” Regina is rueful, but it’s clear she doesn’t really mean it.

 

“No idea. Look, Regina, I… I’ve got baggage. But this might be a journey worth lugging it on.” Emma says, and grimaces. “Oh god. How cheesy rom-com was that?”

 

Regina leans over on the bench, and kisses her. It’s a different sort from their previous kisses. Slow, sweeter, and full of promise.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The next morning Emma wakes to an alarm clock that isn’t her own, and a warm arm around her waist, and hair tickling at her nose.

 

The next morning Emma wakes to Regina Mills nuzzling her neck, and a borrowed grey silk shirt, and toast in the company of a bemused kid and a fascinating woman and a table set for three, and she wonders if it’s not something she could very easily get used to.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

 

 

“I must say, Ms Mills, it’s an unexpected choice.”

Emma hears from Regina’s office, her hand on the doorknob, about to come in.

“What is?” Regina’s voice sounds, crystalline and dangerous. 

“Your little… dalliance, with our investigator. Truly, not a great deal of things surprise me, but that managed to.”

 

Shit. Shit.

 

It’s been a month, and things have been so good, but they haven’t told people at work. Technically not in violation of contract is a different thing from ’acceptable to everyone at the firm’, so they’ve been so careful, Emma doesn’t understand how…

 

“Say who it’s a ‘dalliance’?” Regina snarls, and Emma feels warm.

 

They haven’t said it, but Regina is right. This isn’t even close to a dalliance, what they have. Not when Emma has spent three nights that week at Regina’s apartment, when they’ve walked together, or watched stupid movies with Henry and made fun of them…

 

It’s terrifying how much it means to Emma, already.

 

There’s a laugh. “Says my knowledge of human nature, dearie.”

 

“Well, I’m sure you’ve been wrong before. ”

 

“Hmm… Not usually. Oh well, as long as it’s not interfering with anything…”

 

“Which it doesn’t. What I do in my personal time with people who are not fully fledged employees of the firm is my business, Mr Gold. Don’t think I’m not capable of bringing to the attention of the other managing partner’s the sort of behaviour you’re up to right under their noses. I have no particular loyalty to this firm. It provides stability while I establish myself in this city with a differing client base. Trust me, if this firm falls, I wouldn’t lose a minute of sleep. If you asked me to give this up… Don’t even try. ”

 

Emma ducks around the corner, as the door opens, and there’s the tap, tap, tap of Gold’s cane. She waits a long minute, then turns back.

 

Gold is waiting, and he gives her an long, odd look. 

 

“What?” She says.

 

Gold smirks. “It’s just unexpected, that’s all. Look at the two of you. How quick she is to defend you.”

Emma thinks. “I’d defend her too. I believe in her.” 

 

He gives her a look that says he hasn’t an ounce of faith in that, but Emma doesn’t let it unsettle her.

 

She doesn’t go to Regina’s office, though. She needs to think a little more.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Emma shows up on Regina’s doorstep that night, with a bouquet of flowers, a bag of takeout, and a DVD of the West Wing, which Regina apparently likes. It’s a bit wordy for Emma, but she doesn’t mind too much. “Hey.”

 

“Hello?” Regina says, back, and Emma leans in close, kisses her, softly, leads inside. Henry is in his bedroom, video games blasting, and jazz is on the radio. 

 

“So, sounded like you had a rough day?”

 

Regina’s brow furrows as they enter the kitchen. “Pardon?”

 

“I was sort of… Outside your door, when Mr Gold came around.”

 

Regina spins around, a vase for the flowers in her hand. “You heard… That?”

 

There are scissors in the side drawer. She reaches for them, trims the bottoms of the flowers to prepare them. 

 

“Yeah. I did, and then I told Mr Gold to screw himself. Metaphorically. It’s not a mental image I like, much, but… You know.” Emma grins. “What, did you think I would be mad? You said exactly the right thing.”

 

Regina’s eyes are full with hope. “I told him it wasn’t a dalliance.”

 

“You meant that it was more than one, didn’t you?”

 

The question hangs in the air.

 

Regina holds out a hand, and takes the flowers, arranges them in the vase. “Yes.” She whispers.

 

It’s a faster tune on the radio, the kind that, this time, is perfect for dancing. Emma puts down the scissors, fumbles for the knob to turn up the volume. 

 

Holds her hand out again. “Then, let’s dance. I’m crap at it, but…” She shrugs. “Let’s dance anyway.”

 

Regina takes the hand, and they dance in her kitchen to the sound of jazz and the scent of lilies.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

“You are coming to Henry’s birthday party, aren’t you? On Saturday?” Regina says, reaching past Emma to grab another section of the paper.

 

They are eating breakfast together before work, again. The days she stays over, anyway, which, honestly, is getting weirdly close to a lot. Emma isn’t sure entirely what that means, but the coffee is hot, the toast is, well, toasty, she supposes. It beats waking up alone, Regina having left the night before to go home, or Emma leaving at night. 

 

She’s still leaving with Ruby, of course, but there are clothes of hers in Regina’s drawer, too, and a toothbrush, and she isn’t sure what that means. They’ve slid together in a way that Emma has never really had with other relationships, after only… What was it, four months? Almost five, and nothing had ever felt like this. Not even when she was seventeen, because that had been half-adrenaline and hope and vulnerability rather than anything real. Nothing that might last, not the way that this just… It wasn’t even that she knew it was love, not the way she had then. But it felt like it might be. 

 

It still terrifies her, half the time, but Regina is so steadying that it doesn’t scare her as much as she thinks it might. They talk a lot, and that’s what matters. They haven’t talked about everything, but there would be time for that, time to work out unsureties and… 

 

This, though? This, she’s even less sure about. Emma pauses, mid-bite, swallowing the apricot butter and whole wheat, then coughs. A crumb sticks in her throat, oddly. “Should I? Would that be too big a step? I mean, we only just started, I…” 

 

Regina reaches out, cautiously, to put a hand on Emma’s. They rest there on the table, and the warmth of it, the quiet… It calms Emma more than she ought to let it. She wonders, just then, how she fell so hard, and at the same time knows the answer.

 

“Emma… It’s alright.” Regina says, her mouth twisting. “If you are busy, or… I just want to thank you. You’ve insinuated that… But Henry likes you. I know, it’s selfish, it’s just…. It’s not easy, being a mother and trying to…”

 

She wouldn’t know. Emma hates thinking like that, hates the little surges of jealous she gets at Regina Emma leans backwards, abruptly, and thinks about going to Henry’s birthday party, five days before the day that she hates more than any other damn day of the year. The constant shitty commentary in her head reminds her. She stares straight ahead, at the wall, and bites her lip, until the moment passes. 

 

“He’s turning twelve, right?” Emma says, and puts down her toast.

 

Regina frowns. “Twelve? No.”

 

No?

 

“But he’s in grade 6?” She protests. 

 

Reigna relaxes. “Oh. Accelerated program, actually. He’s a very bright child, and the teachers suggested…”

 

“He’s turning eleven?” Emma said, quietly.

 

“Next thursday, yes. It’s an early birthday party.”

 

There are five crumbs on her plate, a licked clean butter knife. A tiny dot of jam. What jam was she just eating. Did that matter. 

 

Emma pulls her hand away, shaking her head, “Thursday? Thursday, and he’s turning eleven? He was born May 30, 2003?”

 

It’s gotten oddly quiet in her head, something weird and far removed.

 

 Emma stands, and there’s a sensation of vertigo that has nothing to do with the movement.

 

“Yes?” Regina says, and she is still sitting, but there’s a look of confusion on her face, and Emma hates this, hates that…

 

May. The thirtieth of May. Eleven years ago. ” Emma says, and her stomach drops out. 

 

“I don’t understand the question?” Regina asks, pulling her robe on. 

 

“How did you do the adoption?” It’s numb, everything is numb, it’s nothing, it’s just an odd coincidence, there had to be some explanation that wasn’t…

 

“Through the state. He was six weeks old when I brought him home.”

 

Emma lunges forward, grabbing Regina’s arm, wildly. “Which state?”

 

Emma’s mouth is dry, the world-off-kilter, as part of her thinks not possible. The other part sees the first time she saw Henry, that little grin on his face as he put cinnamon in his hot cocoa. Something about his face.

 

“Arizona.” Regina said, shaking her head. “Emma, I don’t understand, what’s going on?”

 

Emma let go, and stared at the floor, looking for her jacket. She didn’t see it. Why didn’t she see it. Was she even talking about the jacket?

 

She’s gives up on the jacket, turns to Regina.

 

“It was a closed adoption, wasn’t it? You never found out anything about the mother?”

 

“Yes. Henry has asked a few times for me to try and look into it, but I want him to w…. H ow did you know that?”

 

Emma laughs, and it’s high and terrified. “How? How? Regina, I never told you. I never knew how, and I didn’t think it mattered, I thought you’d look at me all differently, but…” She takes a breath, deep and strong and it feels like she can’t get in a single scrap of oxygen, everything is wrong. 

 

I know because I gave birth to a son, on May 30, 2003, at the Arizona state penitentiary. A son I gave up for adoption.”

 

Regina drops her mug. “You’re…”

 

“Don’t say it. Please. Don’t, I can’t…”

 

Emma is backing away, stumbling, until she hits the corner.

 

“Emma!” Regina shouts, and Emma bumps into Henry.

 

The sound brought Henry into the room, his hands full.. “Hey Emma, are you okay?” He asked, earnestly, rushing over to help her up.

 

She shook him off with trembling hands, turning towards him even when all of her instincts screamed not to, and looked at him, really looked. There was something of Neal in him, she could see, now that she looked hard enough.

 

And something of her, too.

 

Her mouth worked, she tried to come up with something to say, but she couldn’t. SHe had to look away, couldn’t allow herself to see him as he was, for what he was.

 

“Emma? What’s wrong?” He said stubbornly, watching her grab her jacket off the floor, stumble towards the door.

 

Just one last look. She’d allow herself that, and did, flinching as their too damn similar eyes met. You’re my kid. She thinks and runs.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Ruby let herself into the apartment, hours later, calling out “Emma?” before she stopped in her tracks, seeing the toaster sitting on the floor in several pieces. There was a faint sniffle, and she dropped her bag. Emma was curled up on the sofa.. “You killed the toaster.” 

 

Ruby observed, her face softening, and she leaned down to sit on the couch beside her.

 

“It’s a terrible toaster.” Emma says, blankly, staring at the ceiling. “I took it apart with the screwdriver. I don’t actually know why I did that. It felt like a thing I ought to do.”

 

Ruby frowns. “Are you drunk?”

 

“No. All we had was tequila. I’m not drinking that right now.”

 

“What happened?”

 

“A lot.”

 

Ruby frowns. “Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“I don’t know.” Emma said, and honestly doesn’t. “It’s complicated.” 

 

Her phone buzzes again.

 

“Are you going to get that?”

 

“I can’t.” Emma says, and it’s true, she can’t talk to… She’s late for work, and she doesn’t even care. 

 

“Remember that thing I told you that one time that I made you swear to never tell anyone?”

 

“Oh…” Ruby, squinting. “Does this have to do with Regina? And Henry?”

 

“I couldn’t be a mom. Not then. I made the right choice. I couldn’t have… It ended up…” Emma says, trying to make it sound like it isn’t something she’s been telling herself for hours.

 

“On May 30, 2003. In a prison hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, when I was eighteen years old, I gave birth to a son. And I was scared, and I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have anyone… So I gave that kid up.”

 

“And that’s coming up again, and you feel weird, because of the Henry thing, and Regina?” Ruby prompts.

 

She’s hysterical, maybe. It’s the only reason that a laugh could bubble out at a moment like that. “It’s ‘weird’ because Henry Mills was born May 30, 2003, in Phoenix, Arizona, and his birth mother gave him up for a closed adoption. You do the math, and tell me what you come up with. ”

 

It takes a second for Ruby to process. Okay, half a minute.

 

“Henry is…”

 

The toilet is still broken, Emma realizes, by the sound of it. Why is she noticing that?

 

“My kid. Yeah. Regina…. I just can’t. I can’t lose him, and I can’t look at him, and Regina’s his mother, she’s the mother of my kid, and I’m the mother of her kid, and it’s too much. And I never thought I’d see him again, and I shouldn’t get a second chance like that. The world doesn’t work that way, and I… I don’t know if I can do it. What if I can’t? I thought I knew the stakes on this one, Rubes, but I didn’t, and I screwed up.”

 

Ruby pats Emma’s shoulder. 

 

“That’s… Kinda soap opera.”

 

Yup. Definitely hysterics.

 

“Do you love her?” Ruby asks, after a minute.

 

Emma stares. 

 

 “Maybe I do. I wasn’t… I wasn’t letting myself ask that question. Or what Henry meant to me. And now? What if he hates me? What if she hates me? What if I…”

 

“Did I ever tell you why I was so messed up, day we met?” Ruby says, flatly.

 

That’s a surprise. It shouldn’t be, but it is. “You never told me.”

 

Ruby shrugs. “There were a lot of reasons. I was fighting with Granny, I didn’t know what else I wanted to do with my life. I wanted adventures but I was too scared to go. My last boyfriend… I was going through a lot. Anxiety stuff, trying to figure out my life, and I cared about him… But I broke up with him. I did it because it was serious, I loved him, and I wasn’t ready to be with him, I was a mess…”

 

“You aren’t a mess, Ruby.” 

 

Emma feels like a mess, feels like years of buried feelings have just been bulldozed open, like a water main broke, like…

 

She doesn’t know what she feels like. 

 

“I was, though. I panicked, and I let him walk away, told him it was okay, when it wasn’t. It wasn’t okay. Maybe we could have been okay, but I never talked to him about what I was going through, and I didn’t ask enough, either. Give/take…” She shrugs. “Or maybe we wouldn’t have been. I’m okay with it, though. I needed time to figure things out. I was a mess, Emma. I am, still, but less of a mess. I’m okay with that. But I’m a lot less of a mess, now. I needed the time. And look at me now. I’ve got a job. I’ve got a place to live that isn’t with my grandma, I’ve got a new boyfriend…”

 

“Victor?”

 

Ruby nods. “Victor. He’s a mess, too and I got scared that I was just going to drag him down. He thought he was going to be bad for me, I thought I was going to be bad for him… But we’re both messes, and that suits.”

 

There’s a loose thread on the couch. “Oh.” Emma says. “Is that what… I don’t get it.”

 

A hand slaps her upside the head. “That’s because you’re an idiot. Point is… I let something good get away, last time, because I wasn’t ready for that. Because I needed to be a different person. And I am now… And it works.”

 

Emma thinks. “I couldn’t be a mom, before. I looked at that kid, and I was… I just couldn’t. I gave him away. And Regina took him, and she raised him better than I…. I gave him up. I shouldn’t get a second chance. That’s not how these things work, is it?”

 

Except now Emma thinks about break room conversations, of walks in the park and watching movies and dinners and breakfasts, that time Henry got sick at school a few weeks ago, and Regina had called Emma to drive him home because she was stuck in court. How much Emma had fussed and worried, and the look in his eyes that morning, worry and confusion…

 

And Regina, who is beautiful and sad and happy and funny and rude and everything that Emma…

 

“You couldn’t be what he needed, then. What about now?” Ruby asks, and Emma thinks she might have an answer.

 

“Thanks.” She whispers to Ruby, and reaches for her phone to send a text.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They meet on that same bench in the park, where they’d had their second date.

 

Regina looks up as Emma approaches. There’s a flash of red in the woman’s lap… Her leather jacket. She’d brought it along, it seemed, after Emma had left. 

 

The park is bright with spring flowers, grass and sunshine and laughter. 

 

Emma can’t read what’s contained in Regina’s expression, doesn’t know if she wants to.

 

Sit down anyway, at the bench beside her, silently.  Their shoulders bump. 

 

Regina speaks first. “You’re Henry’s birth mother?”

 

Emma turns. “Hi.” 

 

“Hello.” Regina says back, and smiles in an odd sort of way. “You…”

 

 “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” Emma blurts out.

 

“What wasn’t?”

 

“You, me, him… Any of it. I mean, seriously, the chances of me, and you, and him… All of us intersecting like this. ”

 

It’s ridiculous, it’s impossible, it’s crazy, it’s… Emma doesn’t know what it is.

 

Regina’s eyes are distant. “Does it change things?”

 

“Does it… Regina, you don’t just fall in love with the adoptive mother of your kid and have everything work out, happy fairytale ever after! Life doesn’t…”

 

“You love me?” Regina says, her eyes narrowing back into focus, almost more incredulous than they had been this morning.

 

Emma flicks her fingernails, picking at the paint on the bench, and can’t look at Regina again. “I think so.”

 

“Okay.” Regina says. 

 

Don’t.”Emma pleads, even if she wants to hear it.

 

Another long minute stretches forth. “Can I at least have the story?”

 

It’s easy to chip the paint away, once she gets started. Emma has to stop herself, clench the fingers into a fist.

 

“It’s alright if you don’t wish to tell me.”

 

She has to tell it, though. Properly, this time. “His name was Neal. Neal Cassidy. That’s what he told me, anyway. Probably that part wasn’t even real. I was a dumb seventeen year old who had just spent the past year bouncing between coaches and being on the street. This was after I said ‘fuck this’ to foster care. He was… Older. By a lot. Never asked how much.”

 

Regina’s mouth tightens. Emma continues. “I tried to steal his car. Turns out he’d stolen it in the first place. For a few months we were together. I told myself I was happy. Maybe I even was. Didn’t exactly have a great rubric for it at the time. We wandered, did petty theft so we felt like… I don’t know. Bonnie and Clyde? He was nice, and charming, and we were going to run away together, he said. Start fresh somewhere, once we got a bunch of money stored up. So we upped our game. Decided to steal some watches. Only, I went to fence them, and it was a set-up. Got caught, and wound up serving time in juvie. I was two weeks into my sentence when I realized I was pregnant.”

 

She might be imagining it, but she thinks Regina’s shoulder is leaning closer. “And he never came back?”

 

“He sent an envelope with a post-card from Canada and the keys to our car. He never knew I was pregnant. I never tried to find him. It didn’t matter. What matter was I was seventeen years old, and pregnant, and completely goddamn alone. I had no marketable skills that could get ticked off on the job help sheets they waved in my face as part of our program. I didn’t have anywhere to live when I got out, no family…”

 

“You wanted to give him the best chance you could.”

 

Emma nods.

 

"I left my husband for a lot of reasons. And when I left him, I felt… Adrift. I wanted something that was mine. Perhaps that’s unhealthy, in a way, but… I wanted to be a mother. A better one. To…” Regina shakes her head. “I don’t know. I panicked, the first week. Thought I couldn’t go through with it. But I did, and he’s…”

 

“Wonderful.” Emma finishes. “He’s a great kid.”

 

That doesn’t feel like saying enough, but she isn’t sure how else to put it. Regina seems to understand.

 

"I didn't want Henry to meet his birth mother." Regina confesses. "I was afraid of it. I thought he would hate me. I thought he'd love her more. I was terrified of losing him, and I never let him look. But then I found you anyway. Of all the ironies."

 

Regina stands. Holds out the jacket.

 

“I’m leaving the firm.”

 

“What?”

“The firm. Remember when I told you I’d thought about starting my own firm? New office space opened up, and Violet Green was just laid off from her firm. I was going to ask you to come with me, but… The point is, I’m leaving the firm. If that’s what you want, you can stay at Mr. Gold’s firm, and not worry about having me around, or Henry. You gave him up. It was a closed adoption. I’ll hate to give you up, but it’s not my choice to make. I haven’t told him yet. I’ll respect that much.”

 

“You’d do that for me?” Emma stands, too, and reaches to take the jacket, pauses.

 

This is it. It’s her way out. If she isn’t ready, if she can’t handle it… She can walk away from this, leave it all behind, let it fade into…

 

Except Regina is still speaking, and Emma has to listen, has to give her this much.

 

“But there’s another option. I love you too, Emma. And I know it’s a lot to ask, but… Things like this, what we have… I’m not asking for it to be a happily ever after. This is real life. It’s messy, and it’s complicated, and if you want to leave, and never look back… I won’t force you to stay. I’ll wish it, maybe, but that’s not my call. Just know that… I want you to consider it.”

 

Emma looks at Regina, really looks. “I don’t know how we’ll do this. It’s crazy and impossible and I don’t even know what to think, but hey…. Maybe it’s something. I mean, I look around me, one thing I’ve worked out is that happy endings aren’t ever what we think they’re gonna be. So maybe it’s worth trying for.”

 

Regina smiles, and it’s the most beautiful thing Emma has ever seen. “I was hoping you said that.”