Manhattan in the spring is Henry’s favorite. Manhattan in the fall is Emma’s. They make it through both before Henry starts asking questions. Storybrooke is a distant memory again, one Emma tries to think of less and less. She doesn’t dream of Regina, nor does she dream of a house filled with laughter, she doesn’t dream of the baby sibling she could have had, and she doesn’t dream about a curse from a far off land.
“Do you ever talk to anyone from Storybrooke still?” Henry asks around a mouthful of bacon.
“No,” Emma shakes her head. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Why not?” he reaches for the syrup. “You seemed kind of close with everyone there.”
She shrugs, “I was once, but that was kind of another life.”
And that’s not a lie.
Mary Margaret keeps calling. And Emma is half panic half fuck the fuck off when she sees the caller ID screen. It’s January, a new year, another beginning, when she finally answers. It’s awkward and silent for too long, but it sounds like Mary Margaret might start to cry.
“Emma?” her voice comes out breathy and wobbly.
“Oh, we’ve been so worried.” It all comes out in a whoosh of air and a sigh of relief. It’s almost comforting to know someone cares.
They talk for an hour. Mostly about nothing. The weather, another curse, Henry, and it’s familiar and awful. It makes Emma’s skin crawl and it makes her stomach churn and twist. She doesn’t ask about Regina, won’t ask about Regina.
“How’s the baby?” she ventures, grips the phone with both hands just to steady herself. It’s cold out on the fire escape, and she shivers in her sweats and her favorite sweater. It smells like stale cigarettes and the wine she spilled earlier. But it’s home.
“Beautiful,” Mary whispers, a soft sigh full of wonder. “He’s beautiful.”
She sounds so happy that it almost doesn’t hurt.
The baby’s name is Leopold. Emma won’t ask how Regina feels about that, but David calls him Leo. M&M always calls him by his full name, it’s formal and strange, but it’s so Mary Margaret that Emma never comments on it. It’s right, that she and David should have this.
She sends pictures sometimes, and he really is beautiful. And so small. He’s so small and so sweet and late at night, Emma looks through the pictures on her phone. Sometimes she wishes she could be his sister like she’s supposed to be his sister, and sometimes, her skin feels too tight because what if she’d had an older sibling, two parents that dressed her up like a little tiny jack-o-lantern on Halloween.
Emma and Mary Margaret talk once a week. Only once a week. Sometimes it’s when Emma is walking to pick up Henry from school and sometimes it’s when Emma’s sitting out in the bug on a lonely spring night. Sometimes it’s when Henry’s gone to bed and Emma’s cleaning the kitchen.
She calls often, too much really, but Emma only answers once. It’s too much and not enough all at once. Because they were working toward something like a family when Emma and Henry drove across that town line, when Zelena’s curse ripped through Storybrooke, green and deadly.
It’s innocuous sometimes, some days Mary Margaret just wants to hear the sound of her voice. Just wants to hear Emma above the midtown traffic on Monday morning. And it’s nice. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.
It’s late June when Mary Margaret breaks the news. It’s been over a year since the curse, over a year since she and Henry left Storybrooke for the second time.
“Oh, Emma,” she sounds elated. “Regina’s getting married.”
She’s never asked. She’s never wanted to know. She knows Robin and Roland haven’t moved out, why would they, but she’s never asked. And Mary Margaret has never shared. She thinks of Regina every now and then, when she walks down Madison or when she sees a mother smiling at her son. It hurts less now than it did at first, but now, now Emma feels too much. She sits down on a bench, sits down in the warm summer air, and she watches the tourists shuffling down Central Park East.
“Yeah,” she curls forward, in on herself, and closes her eyes. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she takes a breath, looks up at the sky, cloudless and blue, before she stands on slow shaking legs. “I have to go, Mom. I have to -- I’ll call you later.”
She hangs up. She dials Regina and then thinks better of it. She shoves her phone into her pocket and keeps walking.
Regina calls. Once. On a smoggy Tuesday morning. She answers without thinking, without looking, and when she hears that sweet sad voice, everything stops. She stumbles into a staunch Wall Streeter in a suit, and she surges forward again, pushing through the crowd.
“I want a family.”
“Okay, you don’t need to justify yourself, you don’t need to make excuses, I just --” Emma swallows and walks faster down the crowded Midtown street. “Then have one.”
“Thank you,” she breathes, and the way it’s relief and sadness all at once makes Emma’s heart ache. “Thank you, Emma.”
“Are you happy?” Emma backs herself into the space between two shop windows and fumbles in her pockets for a smoke. “Are you still happy?”
Regina doesn’t pause, doesn’t falter when she says yes.
When she gets home that night, Henry is still awake. He’s sitting at the kitchen table with her laptop and a can of Sprite. He looks up expectantly and she slides into the seat across from him.
“What are you doing up, Henry? It’s late.”
“I was just working on a project, and then I started working on a paper, and then I started thinking,” he rests his chin in his hand, his elbow at the edge of the table, and he sighs.
“Okay,” she reaches for his soda and frowns when it’s empty. “What’s up?”
“Why can’t I find anything on Storybrooke on the internet? It exists, we were there.”
“Kid,” Emma sighs, leans back in her chair, crosses her arms over her chest. “This is a conversation for another night.”
“I just want answers,” he looks so helpless, so confused, so like his other mother. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Regina says you spoke,” it’s David this time. It’s the first time they’ve spoken in a year. It’s too hard, too hard to talk to her father, with his eyes like hers and his heart truer than anyone’s has a right to be. Because he knows. He knows everything.
“If that’s what that was,” Emma is ducking into a cab home. It’s late, far too late for this conversation, and she sighs. “She wants a family.”
“Of course she does, it gets lonely, she gets lonely, I mean, not to say that she wasn’t okay, isn’t okay, isn’t happy. She’s happy. But you’re not.”
She can hear Leopold gurgling in the background. “I’m not unhappy either though, if that’s what you’re going to ask. I think,” she yawns, watches the city pass. “I think I’m just trying to figure it out. Figure out what makes me happy.”
“I know,” David’s voice is kind, quiet. “I know you are, baby.”
July in the city is Henry’s least favorite, Emma’s too. It’s too hot, even when the AC is cranked up at full blast, and everything smells. It’s then that she calls her mother, in a haze of dehydration and stickiness that makes everything feel so god damn oppressive.
“I want to meet the baby. I want to meet my brother.”
“Oh!” she sounds excited, elated. He’s one now. “Yes. Oh, Emma.”
“Can we meet you? Me and Henry. Somewhere other than Storybrooke? Please.”
“Anywhere,” she’s breathless and Emma forgets sometimes, how much her mother loves her. “We’ll meet you anywhere.”
Henry is excited, happy to get away from the city heat and the sticky air. He’s been looking out the window for the better part of two hours. And Emma decides it’s time. She won’t be able to hide it, not with her parents there, with her new baby brother.
“Can we talk?”
“Sure,” Henry turns, leans against the passenger side door. “What’s up?”
“You need to know. Who Mary Margaret and David are to me. To you. To us.”
She tells him. Calmly. Quietly. Like Regina would have done.
“Wow, so I have grandparents,” he’s excited, she can see it in his eyes, but he’s confused. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She’s almost prepared, almost ready, but she tells him anyway. She tells him, despite her anxiety, she does what she thinks a good parent would do. Because it’s time. Because there’s Leopold and Regina is getting married.
They’re stopped somewhere outside Bangor, looking out at the water, the Penobscot River, when she tells him about Regina.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he’s hurt and his eyes, his eyes are hers, but right now, they’re Regina’s.
“I was selfish, I was afraid.” The wind whips her hair across her face, but she doesn’t move to push it away. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what we were going to do. It’s all been so complicated that I just didn’t understand. I didn’t want to understand.”
“She’s my mom.”
They haven’t talked about Regina’s goodbye, the way she held him like she’s never been meant to do anything else, the way she sobbed as she ran back up to the house. There wasn’t a way to talk about it. There still isn’t.
Leopold is beautiful. Emma calls him Leo. Calls him Little Fire. Little Bro. Little Man. Little Dude. Because he is, he is all of those things. He reminds her of Henry when he yawns, but he’s one. He’s one and he’s big and tiny. She smiles and makes faces and kisses his sweet pudgy cheeks until Henry demands a turn.
She and her father sit on a park bench, shoulder to shoulder, while Mary Margaret walks with Henry and Leo. This is what they should have had, what they could have had.
“He’s beautiful,” Emma smiles, watches the way Henry reaches out to his tiny uncle.
“He is,” David smiles, but he only has eyes for her. “When I held him for the first time, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel. I was so happy, so calm, there wasn’t a curse and an evil queen looming over me, I wasn’t fighting anything, but I was. I was fighting because I thought having him, having a child, would be pushing you aside.”
Emma shakes her head, tries to stop him, “No, please --”
“Emma,” he’s forceful and tender all at once. “I don’t want you to think it didn’t bother me, that it doesn’t bother me. Because I’m so happy, but it’s so different. It’s so complicated. To think I have two children, and one is going to depend on me and need me, while the other doesn’t.”
They don’t talk like this, they don’t tell each other these things, they’ve never spoken about what kind of family they would become, could have become. Because David, when he looks at her, he sees the whole world. He sees the thing he loves most. There’s never a question. It’s always been unspoken. She wants to tell him, I do need you, I do. But the words get caught in her throat. They get stuck because they’re too big to say aloud, they can’t possibly pass through, they can’t.
“Because I have so many regrets,” David looks out at the rest of their little family. “I have so many regrets and I don’t want to. Because I have this family, this family I never thought I would have. Even if we thought we might not ever see you again, I just knew we were always going to be together somehow.”
Emma’s crying, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands. She can’t look at David again, won’t look at David again. But his arm around her now is solid and safe. It’s something like home. Something like yes instead of no.
“I want to go back to Storybrooke with them,” Henry announces. He’s sitting cross-legged in the middle of their hotel bed. He hasn’t said much since they left her parents after dinner. He’s been thinking, making a face that makes him look so much like Regina.
Emma pauses, toothbrush still dangling from her mouth. She nods slowly, heads back into the bathroom to spit. “Okay.”
“Can I do that? Is that okay?” He gets up to follow her. He watches for a minute, as she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “I think I want to see Regina too.”
Emma looks up at him in the mirror, still bent at the waist, and she nods slowly. She won’t deny him this, can’t deny him this, but she doesn’t know what to say. Henry leans against the doorframe and shoves his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants. “Does that bother you?”
“If Regina and I ever learned anything,” she starts, then stops. She thinks about family. About it felt like a promise and like a gift. “Yes. Yes, it’s okay. Of course it’s okay.”
Emma nods back toward the bed and moves to turn off the bathroom light. She grabs her glasses from the countertop and follows Henry back into their room.
“Will you come?” Henry looks up at her through the weird man-bangs he’s got going and he shuffles over to his side of the bed.
“No,” Emma shakes her head and flops down onto her side. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Because of Regina?” he reaches for the light.
“Yeah, kid, something like that.”
They decide on a week. Henry will stay a week in Storybrooke and Emma will pick him up. She’ll head back to Manhattan, where it’s safe, where the diamond glittering on Regina’s left hand won’t taunt her as she walks down Main. I mean, is there a diamond? It’s Regina, she can only assume. She thinks about rubies as red as apples and feels something like regret.
Henry calls every day. He calls to ask about the weather in Manhattan, about the funny smell down near the bodega, and Emma can hear his smiles through the phone. She asks about Leo and about how well Mary Margaret and David are feeding the two boys. She asks about Archie and Ruby and Henry is polite enough never to mention Regina. Until he does.
He’s cautious though, he brings it up after he tells Emma about the fight Leroy picked with Mother Superior in front of The Rabbit Hole. In broad daylight. So she’s still laughing when he says, “I hung out with Regina today. Just me and her.”
It was only a matter of time. Of course he’d want to talk about the mother he can’t remember.
“How did it go?” Something like dread has settled itself in the pit of Emma’s stomach. Something leaden and awful. Awful like it felt like a promise.
“It was good,” Henry is smiling, she can hear it in his voice. “We just kind of talked. About how she was the evil queen and about Neverland. And about how things were when I lived with her.”
“What did she tell you?”
“She told me about how I got angry, about how we were both sad, about how badly she wanted to make things right. But she was scared, because of the curse, because of you, because I was the one thing that she could never predict.” There’s rustling, muffled voices, “Oh, she wants to talk to you.”
“You’re with her now?” Dread has become panic, this was never ever supposed to happen.
“Yeah, I’m staying here for the night. It’s kind of hard with Leo crying at night and Roland and I are gonna watch some Pixar.” Fuck, shit, they’re already playing house.
“Have fun. Put her on the phone.”
There’s more rustling, a muffled thank you and then there’s Regina.
“You told him,” Regina is breathless and sweet, and Emma can almost smell irises and something sharp like grapefruit, but dark like orange and cloves.
“Yeah,” Emma sighs, and she doesn’t mean to sound so despondent and petulant. She just does. Because it all feels heavy and everything has dragged on for so long now. “I thought it was time.”
“Thank you,” she breathes and breathes, and she sounds so full, if someone can even sound full. “Thank you, Emma.”
Emma doesn’t know what to say, she’s sitting on the couch, a half-drunk warm beer on the coffee table in front of her. It’s been a hard week, a lonely week, and it’s not even over. “I’m scared he won’t want to leave on Friday.”
“What does that mean?” Regina snaps, and she is icy fire and the sort of weariness that Emma knows so well. “Will he be visiting often? Or will I be saying goodbye on Friday?” it only half sounds accusatory and she sighs, soft and longing. “I want to trust you Emma, I just, I don’t know.”
At least she’s honest.
“I don’t know, Regina,” Emma stretches out, tries to make herself as big as possible. “It’s not a conversation we’ve had yet. I’m trying. I’m trying to parent better, to be better for him.”
“I can tell,” there’s no bite. And it all seems so simple for a second. “He deserves that. You deserve that.”
“What do I deserve really though?” She pushes herself off the couch and heads into the kitchen. She’s going to need something stronger.
“You deserve everything, Emma. I didn’t always think so, but,” Regina pauses and Emma can hear Roland and Henry laughing in the other room. They’ll be brothers by the end of the year. “But things have changed. I want happiness for you.”
“I want to be angry,” Emma reaches for the bottle of Jameson above the fridge. “I want to hate you.”
“I won’t ever ask you to understand, I won’t ever ask you to be happy for me. But please, if you feel... If you feel the way you say you feel, please respect me enough to let me be.” Regina’s voice is hushed and she can hear Regina’s heels against the hardwood floors.
“Is it so easy?”
The silence stretches on. Emma almost wonders if Regina’s even there.
“Of course it isn’t. Of course it isn’t easy. But please. Let me be happy with them.”
It’s Wednesday when she and Regina talk again.
“Did you think about me? When we left?” Emma’s sitting on the couch, one hand clutching the phone, the other wrapped around an empty glass. The glass is clutched to her chest and there’s a bottle of Jim Beam on the couch next to her, but she makes no move for it. She’s fine for now. Everything is a little fuzzy and the Manhattan skyline blurs together. At least Regina gave them a view.
“Which time?” Regina’s voice is low, low, low, and Emma imagines she’s sitting in the study, cider in hand.
“Both, either, I don’t know.”
“Yes,” it’s breathless and god, it’s longing, and then she sighs. “Why do you insist on playing this game, Emma?”
“Because I want you to smile at me,” she closes her eyes and everything starts to tilt just a little bit. “Because I want you to be happy, but I want it to be with me. With me and with Henry.”
“Little girls who play with fire get burned,” she’s so quiet, it’s almost a whisper, and Emma doesn’t know if Regina is saying it to herself or to her. “I want you to be happy. For me. And for yourself. I want you to be happy without needing me to make you so.”
“I could make you happy,” Emma opens one eye, realizes she can’t distinguish the skyline from the lights above the TV, it’s one of those nights.
“This ends here,” Regina’s voice hardens and Emma can hear her sitting up and setting her glass on the table. “I’ve been patient, I’ve played your game, but I’m done. I wanted to play at first, I wanted to be tortured, to long for something I can’t have, but now, Emma, it stops now.”
“No. I need you to listen. I need to you sit up and listen to me. I am engaged, I am going to marry Robin. I don’t need to explain myself to you, I don’t need to justify my actions to you, but I’m going to tell you. I’m going to tell you because you need to hear it.”
“I don’t want to hear it. Regina, please, I’ll stop, I’ll leave it alone, I just, please don’t tell me.” Emma’s glass falls onto the cushions next to her and it clinks against the bottle.
“I love him, Emma. I do. I didn’t think I would, I didn’t think I could. How could I? I had nothing; I had a heart that was too full and too empty all at once, and blacker than the deepest darkest pit of Hell. I had lost everything, although not your mother, which is still a mystery to me. But it happened, we happened, and I have a family and my house feels like a home again. So don’t be selfish, don’t you dare be selfish, because this is more than just you, this is more than just me.”
“Why him,” she’s petulant and sulking and her speech is starting to slur. “What is so great about him?”
“I’m not going to fight with you about this right now. You’ve been drinking. We’ve both been drinking. I’m hanging up. I’ll speak to you when you’re sober.”
“Regina, wait -- ”
But it’s too late. Regina’s already hung up and Emma lets the phone drop into the couch cushions. She’ll find it in the morning. When she’s hungover enough to taste the acrid bile of regret just behind her tongue.
Emma rolls into Storybrooke on a Tuesday. A few days late, but Henry has been so happy. The door flies open before she can even knock, and she’s standing on the porch with a cold cup of gas station coffee in one hand and her keys in the other. David has Leo in one arm and a bottle in the other, he’s got a duckie burp cloth over his shoulder and he is grinning from ear to ear. “Just in time for dinner, Emma.”
And when Henry peeks out from around David to grin at her, she can’t say no.
Mary Margaret is in the kitchen, dishing out plates of pasta, and she wipes her hands on a dishtowel before pulling Emma in for a hug.
“Oh, Emma. We’ve missed you so this week.”
Emma smiles and manages to return the hug before Henry is handing her a glass of wine and shimmying between them for a hug of his own. The glass is a little too full and Emma wraps her free arm around him, “Did you pour this, kid?”
He nods proudly, and wraps both arms around her waist. “I thought you might want it,” he winks, too knowing and too cheeky for his own good. “How was the drive?”
“Fine,” she nods, still hearing the abrasive grating sounds of Nobody’s Daughter as she holds her son close. “Long. How was your week?”
He beams, all light and sweet Henry, “It was awesome.”
“Good,” and she means it. She does. “Tell me everything.”
“Wait, wait,” Mary Margaret hands Henry two plates. “Let’s get dinner on the table.”
Henry does as he’s told and David takes his place, Leo still in his arms. It should be harder, Emma thinks, and eventually it will be, but for now, it’s easy, to sit down at the table with her parents and her baby sibling. To sit with them, and Henry, like a family. She takes her seat next to Leo’s highchair and watches as David pours a pile of peas onto the tray.
Henry doesn’t wait until Emma’s even lifted her fork to begin. He speaks so quickly that Emma isn’t even sure if he’s eating, but soon enough his entire plate is clean and he’s asking for seconds. He talks about how fun it’s been, how many new people he’s met, but how they all know him. He talks about changing his first diaper and how awful it was, and David just laughs.
Emma is on her second glass of wine when he tells her how much time he’s been spending with Regina. Emma is helping Leo put peas onto his little spoon because she feels like she might jump out of her own skin. She nods in all the right places, and it almost doesn’t bother her when Henry talks about how much he likes Roland.
It’s glass number three when Henry mentions the rock on Regina’s left hand. And the bits of wedding planning he was subjected to at dinner one night. Because Robin and Regina were discussing floral arrangements.
“She said October,” Mary Margaret chimes in, fork halfway to her mouth. “Invitations are going out this week.”
Emma nods, gulps down the rest of her merlot. “Well, that seems to be moving along quickly, don’t you think?”
Mary Margaret chews for a minute, looks over at David, “They’ve been engaged since just after Christmas.”
“Right,” Emma stabs half of a meatball with her fork. “Does an evil queen get married in white?”
It’s glass number four when she is cut off. By David. And is then forced to sleep on the couch for the night. She hadn’t intended to stay, not at all. She was going to get Henry, they were going to leave. They were going to go back to Manhattan. Away from all of this. Away from her parents and her baby sibling, away from Regina and her new family. It was supposed to be the two of them, she and Henry. A fresh start. Again.
Mary Margaret leaves a pile of blankets on the coffee table and goes to put Leo to bed. Emma sits for a long time. David joins her after a while, sitting down in the high-backed leather chair. “It’s okay to be upset.”
“I’m not upset,” Emma kicks off her boots and starts arranging the blankets on the couch. “I’m not.”
“The wine-stained teeth you’re lying through say otherwise.”
He’s not accusatory. He never is. He’s just David.
Emma finally flops herself onto the middle cushion, takes up some space. “I don’t know,” it comes out in a sigh. She reaches out with one hand, splays it flat against her pillow, steadies herself. “She’s happy. She’s so happy.”
David nods slowly, “She is.”
“I’m happy for her,” Emma stares at her chipping nail polish, deep red, so not her at all. “She has a family.”
“She’s always had a family in some way, whether or not she was happy to have it,” David rubs his chin in thought. “She was happy to spend time with Henry this week.”
“Is she replacing him, do you think?” Emma squints up at him.
“She’s not replacing him,” David shakes his head, speaks somberly, deeply. “She could never replace him.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s said as much, and Emma, I know you know, the way she looks at him --”
“It’s like the way you look at Leo.”
“And it’s the way I look at you, baby girl.”
Emma pauses, mouth half open around another thought, and he rises slowly.
“Get some rest, Emma. We can talk in the morning.” He stretches his arms above his head before he reaches for the blanket she tossed to the floor.
Emma stares up at him, glassy eyed and stormy, and he smiles. He smiles and holds up a floral quilt, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. She kicks her legs up onto the couch and flops onto her back.
“Night, Em,” he drapes the blanket over her and leans down to kiss her forehead.
No one calls her Em. No one kisses her forehead. But for David, for David she’ll allow it. So she closes her eyes and manages a small smile, “Night, Dad.”
Breakfast is waffles and bananas and Emma eats until she feels like she’s going to burst. Her waffles are alright, but Mary Margaret manages to make them crispy and soft all at once. They’re like eating a crunchy cloud. And she says as much around a mouthful of them.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Mary Margaret can’t help but smile. “The way you and Henry put away food, you’d think you barely ate in Manhattan.”
“We ate a lot,” Henry forks another waffle onto his plate. “Tons of pastrami.”
Emma pats her belly for good measure.
It shouldn’t be this easy. But it feels like coming home.
She’s not ready to see Regina. So she doesn’t. But a quick trip to Storybrooke to retrieve her pubescent son becomes a 48 hour thing. She’s curled up under her mother’s quilt when her phone rings.
“You’re in town?” Regina’s voice is unexpected and harsh and Emma cringes. Small town gossip makes big town news and she should have known.
“Yeah, I’m picking up Henry.” She tries to be casual, tries not to croak, tries not to show her belly to the beast.
“No,” Regina’s voice is pinched. “You were picking up Henry two days ago.”
“So,” she pauses, makes a sweeping gesture with her arm, “So, I’m visiting my parents.”
It’s quiet on the other end and Emma looks at the clock. It’s past nine and she’s already got a headache. “Anything else?”
“No, no, I think that’s quite it,” Emma can practically hear Regina rolling her eyes.
“Well, it must not be if you called,” Emma sits up. Either the wine or the time away has made her brave. And maybe stupid. Probably stupid. Always stupid. “You knew I was here.”
“Are you coming back?” Regina sighs and Emma can hear running water in the background.
“I don’t know, no. Yes? I don’t know. Does that throw a wrench in your plans?”
“No, not really. I’m just wondering if we’re going to be working out visitation. Or were you planning on keeping my son from me another year before you decide to let guilt run its course?”
“That’s not fair, Regina.”
“Isn’t it?” It’s nearly a hiss and Emma can’t help but imagine Robin a room away, Roland asleep down the hall, and suddenly she’s angry. It doesn’t burn in her chest like it used to, it doesn’t squeeze her ribs, but she can feel it settling into her bones, like an old friend.
“I’m going to bed.”
Regina hangs up first and Emma drops her phone onto the coffee table with a thunk. She flops back down onto the couch and throws the blankets over her head. She’s thirty now, and she’s sleeping on her parents’ couch and Regina is the worst. This is the worst.
She sees Regina on Sunday. It makes Emma’s skin tighten and she just barely manages to keep herself from grinding her fucking molars. It’s Sunday afternoon, it’s sunny and too god damn hot, but it’s July. So of course. Of course.
Emma is sitting in the corner booth with Henry. He’d insisted on spending time somewhere air conditioned, so here they sit. Just the two of them. The bell above the door announces Regina’s arrival, Roland at her side. They’re hand in hand and he’s skipping alongside her with a lollipop. He looks like he could be hers, and that’s maybe the thing that pinches the most and makes something ache low and deep.
Henry waves and Regina smiles back as she leads Roland to another booth. “Hello Henry.”
“Hi Regina!” Henry still can’t quite manage mom (Emma is secretly pleased) but he grins wide and bright. “Hi Roland!”
“Hi Henry!” Roland crawls into the booth all sticky sugar smiles and an octopus t-shirt proclaiming him tenta-cool. “Hi Emma!”
“Hey Roland,” Emma waves and she can’t help but smile at the tiny little thing.
Regina manages a terse smile at Emma as she slides into the booth beside him. “Miss Swan.”
“Regina.” She nods her greeting before Robin swaggers into the diner. He smiles at the two Swans and slips into the booth across from Regina and Roland. Regina’s smiles are easy, they’re easy and light and frequent. And Emma stares.
“Why are you being weird?” Henry pokes Emma in the side and she squirms.
“I’m not being weird,” she shrugs him off and stabs a green bean with her fork.
“What’s up with you and the mayor?” he picks through his remaining french fries with mild interest. “I mean, I know you guys didn’t really get along, but I thought things were sort of different now.”
“We had a disagreement last night, it’s not a big deal.”
“Right,” Henry watches her for a minute before he pushes his plate forward. “Ice cream?”
Somehow a box of Emma’s clothes makes it to Storybrooke. And somehow a quick child pickup becomes a monthlong stay.
She’s still sleeping on her parents’ couch. Which is half comfort and half humiliating. She thinks about getting a room at Granny’s. But then she’s committing to a longer stay, maybe even a lifetime. But a night without Leo’s crying sounds like heaven.
She runs into Robin at the Rabbit Hole one muggy August night and he waves her over. He’s with a few of the Merry Men but he smiles at her and gestures to the open seat to his right. “The Men were just leaving, I could use some company.”
“Sure,” Emma hitches herself up onto the stool and orders a drink. Whiskey, neat.
They haven’t spent time together, haven’t really spoken, and Emma feels her stomach clenching in anticipation. He’s certainly not stupid, but he doesn’t seem the sort to call her out either. That’s Regina’s specialty.
Robin claps each one of the Merry Men on the back and it’s only half gross. It would be totally gross except for the fact that it’s so god damn genuine. Emma watches as the few file out and she turns to Robin. “I suppose congratulations are in order,” she raises her drink and takes a long slow swallow.
Robin nods and orders another drink. “October,” he scrubs a hand down his face and nods. “Will you be here?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how long we’re staying.”
“Ah,” Robin presses his lips together. He waits until she’s nearly half done with her drink before he speaks again. “She likes having him around, Henry, I mean. Even if you do go, I’d hope you’d allow him to visit with more frequency.”
She hates him. Hates that he bothers to think about these things, hates that he cares. So she nods and sips her drink. She doesn’t trust herself, not with him, not with Regina, so she sips and sips. “I don’t want to keep them apart.”
The bartender slides Robin’s drink down the bar and Robin catches it easily. “I know.”
“You don’t know anything about it,” Emma snaps, slams her glass onto the bar top.
“That’s half true,” Robin nods his agreement (why is he so fucking agreeable) and raises his glass to her. “To families we know so little about.”
Their glasses clink and they both take a swallow. The whiskey leaves a bitter taste in her mouth, or maybe that’s just Robin, and she looks at him. Really looks at him. And for the first time she tries to understand. “You’re happy?”
She takes in the ease of his posture, the way he holds himself up as if he has reason to. As if he’s never had to question his reasons, himself. She remembers how simple it all seemed, how domestic, between he and Regina all those months ago. They were in sync in that kitchen, together, and it all seemed so easy for him. Despite Regina’s obvious discomfort and the way Emma couldn’t bring herself to really look at either of them for too long. It’s not jealousy that she feels deep in her gut now, it’s regret.
“Can I ask you something?” she props an elbow up on the bar, rests her cheek in her hand. She doesn’t wait for his response before she asks, “When you said it wasn’t always easy, last year, what did you mean?” She can’t stop the words from tumbling out, she has to know, she’s been wondering, been thinking, because it all seems so easy for Regina.
“You know Regina, quite well I’d imagine,” he gives a half sigh and sips his drink.
“I don’t know if I’d say that, but go ahead.”
“You understand how guarded she is, how much she fights to protect herself, how afraid she can be.” He pauses, like he’s searching for words. “But when she’s with children, she opens up and there’s such warmth and she’s so gentle and so at peace. Even when she starts to feel that inevitable unease, she’s still so in awe, wonderment really, of children.”
Emma knows. She’s seen. It’s what hurt the most.
“So it was Roland, naturally, that brought her some sort of peace. It was Roland that she warmed to first. The two of them bonded quite quickly really and despite what I knew of her, despite what I disliked about the way she treated me for so long, it gave me hope.” He’s smiling now, looking into his glass with reverence as if Regina’s resting in the bottom of it.
“Hope for what?”
“Hope for my son, hope for something more than this strange life we’d been living here in Storybrooke. After Tink, after all the fairy dust, and all these things that had been put in her head by destiny and true love and soulmates, she wasn’t willing to open up. We didn’t know all of that at first, but it kept her so guarded, so far away, you see, so she didn’t want to be, couldn’t be, to me what I had hoped she would be.”
“Which was what?”
“I had seen the way she interacts with Roland, the way she was so willing to love him, and the way her heart opened up to his, it’s beautiful. When we first met her here, I didn’t believe I could ever be interested in being with someone, not after my wife. But I saw her, and knew there was something special about her. She’s not the type you easily forget.” There’s something dreamy in his eyes. Emma wants to be sick.
“No, no she’s not.”
“She’s not easily trusting like so many of the people I’ve encountered in my life. But I wanted to earn hers, it felt so important, and so I tried. I wanted to earn her trust like Roland had, I wanted to see her smile like that without hesitation, without fear. And she fought it, she fought me.”
“Did you ever think maybe that meant it wasn’t right? You know, with all the fighting.” Emma squints at him and she wants to look away. But she wants to make sure she sees everything in his eyes, wants to make sure he’s telling the god damn truth.
“Yes, of course. I didn’t think it was mine for the taking or that I deserved it in any way. I wouldn’t want to take from Regina, I only want to give.”
Emma tosses back the rest of her drink and orders another. Because he’s telling the truth and it’s making her sick.
August turns into September and Manhattan feels so far away.
After that night with Robin, Emma has kept her distance. Because there was a moment, four drinks in, in which she’d almost confessed, almost let him see just how far she’s fallen. He’s good for Regina, so good, and Emma knows now, she can’t be safety, not yet. She can’t be safe and warm and forgiving.
So it’s almost a shock when Regina calls. They haven’t spoken, not really, and small talk in the diner on Sunday mornings doesn’t count.
“He needs to be in school, Miss Swan,” Regina’s voice is sharp and loud at nine in the morning. “You’ve been here for months now. Make a decision. If not for you, at least make a choice for him. This is getting ridiculous.”
Emma groans into the phone, rolls over onto her back and stares up at the ceiling. “Damn it, Regina.”
“No,” she’s precise and clear when she speaks. “This not about you, this is not about me, this is about Henry. He doesn’t deserve to be completely at your heartbroken whim.”
Emma thinks maybe Robin saw it in her eyes. He’s not stupid.
“You have gotta be fucking kidding me,” Emma’s voice is low and she sits up cross-legged.
“Not in the least.”
“You’ve got some fuckin’ nerve, lady,” Emma’s eyes narrow and her shoulders set forward.
“I’ve got some nerve?” Regina laughs then, barks a hollow sound from somewhere in her chest. “That’s unbelievably rich. Stop playing this game and stop dragging him into it. I’ve been as patient as one can be, Emma. I’ve let you drag all of us through your swamp for longer than appropriate.” There’s a muffled sound on Regina’s end and Regina snaps something about seating arrangements and caterers away from the phone. “You’ve been dragging us through your mud and slime for years and it’s all a game to you. I am sick of it.”
Emma lets out a tense breath through her nose, rubs her temples with her free hand, “If you’re so sick of whatever it is you’re sick of, then stop playing.”
Regina laughs again, hollow and so so sad, “Oh, Miss Swan, if only it were so simple.”
Henry is enrolled at Storybrooke High by Monday.
Emma wants to punch Regina in all her smug superiority. She’s awful. And the fucking rock on her left hand blinds Emma when it catches the sun. Henry can’t handle his excitement, he’s thrilled to be in academia again. He loves English and he’s learning to love chemistry, but trigonometry makes him crazy. He’s got his nose in Angels In America when she comes home from the bar on Friday night.
“So, we’re sort of staying here?” he looks up and sets his book down on the coffee table.
“Yeah, I think so. Is that cool?”
“It’s super cool,” he’s nodding vigorously and smiling and god, she would give anything for that smile. “I like it here. I’m being challenged here.”
Emma nods and sits down on the couch next to him, “I wanna do right by you, kid. I always do, sometimes it’s just not all that easy.”
“I know,” Henry leans back against the armrest and drapes his legs over her lap. “I think it’ll be good to be with family for a while too. I like being able to be with you and I like being able to get to know Regina.”
“I’m glad you can,” Emma rests her hands over his shins. He’s wearing a pair of old flannel pajama pants that are nearly up past his ankles, he grows faster than she can keep up with now. “Maybe we should get our own place here, huh?”
“Yeah. I like being here and all, and Mary Margaret makes great pancakes, but it’s kind of crowded and you sleep on the couch.”
“We’ll start looking this weekend. Not that there’s a whole lot to look at. But we’ll find something,” Emma yawns and slouches back against the worn leather.
“Cool,” Henry grins and reaches for his book.
They sit like that for a while, Emma swiping through apps on her phone and Henry reading, and it’s almost like New York. Almost.
“Can we talk?” Emma reaches out for Regina’s elbow.
“I suppose,” Regina reaches for her coffee and follows Emma to the corner booth.
“We’re staying,” Emma says before they even sit down. “I don’t know how long, I don’t know why, but we’re staying. Henry’s in school. I’ll do something useful maybe, but can we not argue all the time, please.”
Regina slips into her side of the booth and wraps her hands around her mug. “I should be thanking you for this, I’m sure.”
Emma sighs and sits down as well, tosses her keys onto the table. “Henry likes being around you. He likes it here. He’s a sophomore and he’s reading Tony Kushner. He’s happy.”
“He should be happy. Henry should always be happy,” Regina looks up at her and it’s he’ll always be my world and it felt like a promise and for a minute Emma is breathless. She thinks of the slow rocking of the Jolly Roger nearing the shores of Neverland. The dark dark cabin and Regina’s eyes.
She takes a deep breath and fiddles with her keys, drops her hands to her lap, “He is. So, can we please, at least for his sake, just cool it with all the bullshit?”
Regina’s jaw tightens and she brings her cup to her lips. She pauses and sets it down again without a sip. “I could ask you to do much more of the same. I could ask you to, as you put it, cool it with the bullshit, on all fronts.” Her ring catches the light and Emma grimaces. “This isn’t some fleeting thing, it’s not a phase, it’s the way things are. I know that might be shocking and confusing, what with your experiences, but my patience is wearing thin.”
Emma’s hands clench into fists beneath the table, “I get it.”
Emma nods and tries, really tries, to look somber and solid. “I get it.”
“Then we understand each other.”
“Something like that.” Emma reaches for her keys and slides out of the booth. “You’ll make a beautiful October bride.”
They find a place, over in Nightingale Village. A two bedroom, third floor walk-up, and they’re moved in by the end of the month. She buys Henry a new bike as a sort of apology and they settle in.
Mary Margaret brings spare pots and pans, oddities she finds laying around the house, but she doesn’t decorate. She gives Emma her space and leaves the Ikea homepage up on Emma’s laptop as a reminder.
“Not quite Manhattan, but I think it’ll do,” Emma slides a six pack into the fridge and turns to face Henry.
“Yeah, I like it. It’s ours. Like, actually ours. Like we picked it and we know how we got here ours.”
His smile is so wide that Emma can’t help but mirror it. “All ours, kid.”
Henry nods and hops up onto the counter. “What is it you always say though?” He swings his legs and pretends to think. “Something like home.”