Emma Swan is nursing a bust lip and so done with Regina's bullshit. For a while there she almost thought things would be all right. Sure, Regina looked pissed at first, in the diner, when Emma brought Marian from the past. No, not pissed. Hurt. Really hurt. Betrayed in a way that, for some reason Emma hasn't figured out, Emma alone seems capable of. Because there it was again - that look on her face Regina gets when things between them have been going ok-ish - because let's face it things never really go well. Even when they're civil and co-operating and they're saving everyone's asses, there's an undercurrent of conflict; and then some villain with a god complex sticks a spoke in their spinning wheel and Emma fixes it by fucking up, so yet again it's fool's gold that gets spun out to mock Emma Swan for thinking she could ever get something as important as Regina Mills right anyway.
And just like the last time, when Emma falsely accused Regina of murder despite knowing deep down it was a load of crap, that betrayed look on Regina's face said I thought you were different...
Out loud she said, "You are just like your mother."
Then she said something about consequences and Emma being a fuck-up. At least that's how Emma remembers it. Then nothing. Regina just walked out of the diner.
Emma also remembers a moment not long before that, when they were all sitting in the diner together like a family that isn't dysfunctional, eating fries and telling jokes. Regina quipped that Granny's diner is a metaphor for purgatory. Everyone laughed, though Emma's pretty sure it sailed over their heads. It kind of went over hers, and she's damned sure her parents aren't any sharper than she is. Now Emma wonders if she finally gets it. Only maybe it's not just the diner that's the metaphor, maybe it's the whole town.
After Regina stalked off it felt like that for a couple of days at least: empty silence. Emma saw and heard nothing of Regina. She reckons Regina didn't step out of her mayoral palace for three days straight. Emma tried calling but Regina put the phone down with a curt "I'm busy." So Emma thought maybe she was just taking her time getting over it. The next time she caught a glimpse it was early morning. She spotted Regina striding from her Mercedes which she parked illegally on the busy street and heading into the grocery store. Emma figured Regina had run out of stuff and was running her errands before many people were about. Despite that she was wearing something deep red and very tight which Emma guessed was a Victoria Beckham and made her think haute couture supply run...
But Regina wouldn't acknowledge Emma's presence and that just wasn't good enough. This sort of thing needs talking over – and if even Emma thinks something needs talking about then it probably does. Besides, magic and time-travel notwithstanding there are always practical issues to sort out; like Henry has run out of clean pants, for starters. So Emma followed Regina inside, which at the time didn't feel stupid.
But Regina outright refused to engage with her, so Emma cornered her by the chillers at the back and forced it. Which, in hindsight, was probably very stupid. Or definitely very stupid. Emma remembers being vaguely aware of a few sparse customers in the dairy aisle putting discreet distance between themselves and the two feuding mothers - because apparently that's what they are again: feuding. Then it wasn't so discreet as their voices rose and their jaws set, and the store seemed to empty in six seconds flat and the skinny kid behind the desk decided he wasn't paid enough to risk it, because obviously magic... maybe fireballs, maybe earthquakes... and suddenly there were no witnesses. And Emma finally yelled at Regina.
"You were going to execute her! What the hell was I supposed to do? Let you hang her or set her on fire like you torched Snow White?"
Which was when Regina punched Emma in the mouth.
And Emma realised that Henry's pants and everything else should have waited.
It was a really solid punch, and Emma didn't see it coming. She was quite pissed at herself about that; so pissed she was tempted to pull out her cuffs and remind Regina that assaulting law enforcement is grounds for arrest.
It's happened before of course - Regina catching Emma with a physical blow she didn't anticipate. It shouldn't happen, because Emma is street-smart. Missing an incoming punch is not usually her weakness. Emma knows her own weaknesses. She's spent enough years being told how many she has by social workers and probation officers to spot a few true notes among all the bogus put-downs and insults. She's no strategist. She knows that. The likes of Regina and Gold leave her in the dust. But she also knows her strengths. She really knows tactics. That's why she was so good at her bail job. She had focus, and people never get the drop on Emma Swan because she never got distracted. Yet before the curse broke, before Emma knew who and what Regina really was, the tightly wound Madam Mayor clocked Emma close to her eye socket anyway.
At the time Emma didn't know, couldn't have known, how cruel her own words were in provoking that. Now a part of Emma shrivels with remorse when she remembers: "Why is everyone running away from you?" Because for a woman whose first young love was murdered, for a woman whose much-loved son thought she was corrupt, that must have hurt harder than a hundred split lips and black eyes.
That time Emma punched Regina back, and would have done a lot more if someone hadn't pulled her off. When she's honest with herself she admits she could have done something she'd regret, but she's not always honest with herself. Sometimes the thing she would've regretted is smacking Regina around until the woman couldn't see straight. Sometimes it's something almost as rough but rather more rewarding in the moment, which Emma dare not think about... Besides, it also means admitting that something about Regina Mills had her distracted in the first place - enough to make her throw the woman into a wall and get right up in her smug, pretty face - until someone yanked her back and Emma walked away and lied through her teeth:
"... not worth it."
Because of course Regina would be worth it. Every time.
This time, in the grocery store, Emma didn't hit Regina back, and now she doesn't know whether that was a mistake, because keeping her own fists in check didn't really help. What came out of her mouth wound up being so much harsher for it.
"Are you fucking serious, Regina? You blame me for saving someone's life?"
"You had no right to bring her back!"
"No right? If this is about rights, how about her right to live? How about Marian's right to be with her son and see him grow up? Does that ring any bells with you? Or does your sexual frustration come first?"
Well, not so much harsh as hitting the nail squarely on the head, Emma thinks. If the reaction it kicked off in Regina hadn't been so damned intolerable, then so downright malicious, Emma might have found time to be proud of herself.
"You brat." Regina spat the words in her face. "It's all so carnal for you, isn't it? Love is just a one night stand after another, right? Screw, get knocked up, toss the baby, screw the next. So why would you care when you ruin someone else's chance? You're too shallow to appreciate how precious love is."
At that point Emma didn't think it could get any worse. She thought she understood what she'd done, and why Regina was upset, and that it would only take time to push through it rather than serious effort. Now she knows how clueless she was. Now she realises it wasn't so much the chance Regina lost but that Emma cost her it; and Regina wasn't finished.
Regina moved in close so that Emma could feel her warm breath on her face. Her vicious words were whispers that caressed Emma's skin like a lover's touch.
"Was that last fuck still inside you when his heart gave out? Did he collapse mid-thrust?" Regina smiled then, and there was pure poison on her lips. "Did I crush his heart to ash before he could get you off?"
Emma can still feel the cold that ran through her veins in that moment, and during the quiet minutes she stood alone in the aisle after Regina left. That kind of cold is constant and pervasive, like the low hum of the store's chillers. It's corrosive on the senses, like the smear of rancid milk from a spill in one of the cabinets. The skinny kid should have cleaned that up, she thinks. You should always clear stuff up.
Because she's suspected what really happened for a while, of course. She's pondered it now and then, ever since she threw Regina around inside that supply closet and made her confess about magic. She's believed since she learned about hearts being torn out and enchanted and crushed. But every time she might dwell on it there was something more urgent and immediate to deal with, and the longer she took to process it the less relevant it felt, until she no longer thought about it and didn't want to think about it; because accepting that Regina was the Evil Queen who killed people in the Enchanted Forest is hard enough. Dealing with the Regina who commits murder on a whim in Storybrooke is something Emma might not get past, and probably shouldn't.
So yeah, Emma Swan is really done with all Regina's bullshit. Her tongue passes gingerly over her swollen lower lip while her fists clench the steering wheel, her grip rigid, her knuckles pale. She floors the gas and doesn't notice the sign by the road which signals they are leaving the town's limits, but she feels it when they cross the line. She senses the loss of magic - a brief tingling in her fingertips as the power flares for a moment then flickers out. She's not felt it dissipate like this before because it was never awake, but now its loss is pronounced and makes her a little nauseous.
She smiles grimly as the nausea wanes, because now that they've crossed the town line and lost their magic it won't matter if Regina wakes up in the trunk.
Then there's the thin, dried trickle of blood at the side of her forehead, tugging at her bruised skin where a strand of hair has stuck. It was the first thing she was aware of as she came to in the dark, and the last thing she remembers - carrying in the groceries, going upstairs to change her clothes, coming down again to glimpse a flash of red leather which was Emma swinging at her just once... she wishes she could touch the aching spot where Emma pistol-whipped her unconscious.
It pisses her off that Emma broke in without tripping the alarm, because that means Regina forgot to set it. She must be so distracted by this unadulterated shambles.
It's the nausea that really wakes her up; but it's not the nausea of a concussion, or of lying on her side with her arms pinned behind her in the trunk of a car that's moving too fast. It's the brief, distinct sickness that wells up on crossing the town line since Emma broke the first curse. It's that moment of disorientation when her connection to Storybrooke's pocket of magic severs, and it means she's already helpless.
A minute later the ride gets more brutal as the wheels spin off the tarmac. They thud along an uneven track and that's worse than the dull headache. They've left the road, which means Emma must be driving them into the woods. Regina winces as her cheek scrapes back and forth against the abrasive carpet. The trunk feels airless. It smells of dried mud and stale spilled beer.
The woods can mean only one thing, of course. She's going to get a bullet in the back of her head. Because why else would Emma drive her out of town like this to some place secluded? Why else would she be blindfolded? It's not as if she can see anyway, locked inside a trunk. They blindfold you when they're going to execute you. It's for their benefit. They don't want your eyes accusing them when they snuff you out.
Regina wonders how Emma will explain her disappearance to the others afterwards. Will she just fake ignorance? She wonders whether they will send people out to look for her, and how long they'll maintain the search. Will Emma just bury her in a shallow grave where Henry might one day discover her remains and weep, years from now, when he's a grown man? Or will Emma dump her body in a deep ravine where no one will find her except the wildlife?
It hurts. She can't pretend it doesn't. She was making so much progress, even with Snow. They'd made a sort of peace. Snow is going to be so upset. Snow is going to cry by the bucketful.
Regina rolls forward when the car comes to a sudden halt, then back. Stones rattle under the wheels and there's a small skid when the tyres find loose mud. She takes in a lungful of stale air through her nose, keeping her lips pressed together tight. She doesn't know whether the bitterness on her tongue is her own bile or the trunk's ugly taste, but either way she won't make it worse by opening her mouth.
The engine cuts and she senses Emma stepping out of the car, hears the driver's door click shut. Not long now. Seconds later the lock pops and hinges groan, and the sudden influx of clean air is a welcome relief. Regina sucks in the fresh oxygen she needs to clear her head, but she barely has time to exhale again before rough hands force between her arms and ribs to grasp beneath her sternum and haul her up. She twists and tries to lift her legs in time as Emma drags her out, but one shin catches on the rim and she hears the fabric of her pants rip.
Then her feet hit the ground and she loses her balance, but strong fingers seize her upper arms in a bruising grip and keep her upright. Her wrists hurt where the unyielding metal bites but she won't cry out. The lid slams shut behind her and she's pushed forward, forced to walk. The ground feels treacherous under her slip-on flats and she can't see the stones and fallen twigs that threaten to trip her with every step, but Emma won't let her fall. Not yet.
Regina thinks about dropping to the ground and forcing Emma to lift and carry her wherever she wants to go, but remembers that Emma would have no trouble taking her weight so what's the point? It would only look petulant, and Regina has always faced death with her dignity intact.
She tries to remember when it was that she started to think of her imminent death as merely a setback. Was it when they chained her to a post and covered her eyes and shot arrows at her heart? Was it when Snow and Emma were about to die at the well so she absorbed the death curse to save them? Was it when she was strapped down in a reeking basement and an ugly peasant tortured her mercilessly until she passed out? Or when she was ready to die in a dark mine to save everyone and the whole town from self-destruction?
It was probably the first one, she decides. A public execution is hard to beat. And at least Snow and Charming had the honesty to execute her in public. Regina feels she should speak up now and point that out. Emma is such a deceitful coward for shooting her in secret out here.
But Regina doesn't speak. She's not going to say a word. Nor does it seem as if Emma intends to say anything.
Then Regina feels warmth on her face, and they must have reached a small clearing because she realises it's the midday sun peeping through the canopy. She can hear a rustle of wind in the leaves high above her head, and somewhere off to the left the faint sound of water running quickly over rocks. As she tries to get her bearings the hands on her arms move to her shoulders and push down hard. She falls to her knees.
Well then. This is it.
There are worse places to die, she considers. This is no grim tunnel or cold factory basement. Maybe she should be grateful she can hear a stream bubbling and feel the sunshine on her skin. Small birds chirrup in distant branches and there's a soft breeze on her face. Nature has always been kind to her, she thinks, as though trying to make up for the fact that her friends and loved ones aren't.
Why must they always take from her? They took her choices, her freedom, her love; and she had so much love to give them. They tell her who she can't love. They tell her who she should love. They take her autonomy. They take her future. They take her son. Then they take the only things she has left to offer - her resilience, her blood, her readiness to die for them; and when she has the temerity to survive they forget and turn on her. Emma is the only one who ever saw Regina for herself; and now Emma Swan will take her life. That irony is crippling.
But Regina won't cry for any of that. She swallows the painful lump that forms in her throat. She won't cry just because betrayal hurts most when it comes from someone you love. And she sure as hell won't bow her head. No, she'll lift her chin and stare down the darkness, like she did the last time they bound her for death.
Behind her she hears Emma's boots retreat a pace, then the sound of a holster snap. Regina wills her shoulders to relax. She listens to the stream, the birds, the leaves in the wind, waits for the click of the safety catch...
A chill crawls up into her knees as the woodland's damp seeps into her pants. Regina thinks it's unreasonably cruel of Emma to make her wait. It's not as if either of them wants to make a speech. Regina's been there and done that, and Emma has never been one for grandstanding. There should at least be that.
Perhaps Emma forgot to load her damned gun.
Perhaps Emma forgot how the fucking thing works.
Eventually, after a time which is much too long for Regina to be waiting on her knees for Emma to give her a swift and brutal death, she hears not the sound of the safety's release but a choked sob instead. It's anguished and at first Regina thinks the wretched sound must have come from her own throat, but soon she realises it didn't. It came from Emma.
Then there's the sound of the holster snapping shut again, and Emma's hands are on her arms once more, pulling her to her feet and guiding her forward. Only this time the grip is less harsh and Emma seems to take more care that she doesn't trip. Regina is confused and doesn't understand what Emma is doing, but she doesn't resist when Emma turns her gently around and encourages her to sit. She finds herself deposited on something smooth and soft, and from the familiar scent and bodily warmth she guesses that she's resting on the lining of Emma's jacket. One of the handcuffs releases and Regina's arms are lifted up and behind a sapling at her back, which is marginally more comfortable only because it's a change of position. Regina's hands are locked in place, but this time the steel is not as cruelly tight. Regina surmises that she isn't going anywhere anytime soon, but for some reason Emma has seen to it that she won't catch a chill or lose all circulation in her fingers.
Then Regina hears Emma's footsteps move away and fade until she's left with only the woodland sounds and her own steady breathing for company, and it takes Regina a few moments to grasp the fact that Emma is gone and wonder - is Emma such a coward that she can't bring herself to do the deed, so she's left Regina alone like this to die? No, she isn't...
An hour passes. It could be an hour. Perhaps it's less. Alone and still and deprived of her sight, Regina's remaining senses grow acute. She detects the tiny hum of hovering insects. She smells moss and wild flowers, and the rich scent of damp wood from a nearby tree stump. Perhaps this forest clearing was opened up by the fall of a great tree whose life had run its course. That would explain the new growth she can sense all around her, and the smooth bark of the young sapling she's leaning against. Death comes to us all, she thinks... but perhaps not mine today.
After a while she hears something which isn't quite part of the forest: soft splashes in the stream which is now somewhere off to her right. The noises aren't natural - too regular to be an aquatic creature, then intermittent before regular again. They are the sound of small pebbles being tossed into shallow water, and Regina realises that Emma hasn't gone far after all. She's just very quiet over there.
Eventually the splashes cease and Emma comes back. A cool rim touches Regina's lips and she accepts some water from the flask that's offered. Emma must be crouching down next to her because her voice is close to Regina's right ear.
"Do your arms ache?"
Regina swallows and nods once.
Hands touch her hips, gentle but firm, and ease her away from the tree.
Regina finds herself lying on her back. Her hands are still trapped behind the narrow trunk but her arms can rest on the ground now. She exhales loudly in relief and feels her head lifted briefly as something soft slides underneath. It's Emma's thin sweater, folded to make a pillow. Regina settles into the new position and is surprised by how comfortable it feels. The sun warms the length of her body.
"You changed your mind," says Regina.
"My mind was never made up."
"It felt like it was."
"You're a thug."
"I'm a thug."
"Release me, Emma."
"At least take this blindfold off."
"I can't bear for you to look at me."
Regina sighs. There's no point in arguing for now. She hears gentle scuffing beside her and senses that Emma is sitting down now, close to her.
"There's something I need to know," says Emma. "I need to know the truth about why you killed him." Emma pauses, but Regina senses that it's not because Emma doesn't know what to say, but because she's choosing her own words to be as truthful as possible. "I took his loyalty to you because I could. I took it to take an ally from you. So I need to know - did you kill him because of what I did? Was I responsible for his death?"
Regina is careful not to answer too quickly. She doesn't want to say too much, but she doesn't want to say too little. Emma has to believe that she was not to blame. Playing a part in a sequence of events is not the same as being responsible.
"The huntsman's death was only ever in abeyance," she says. "I almost killed him in the Enchanted Forest. He broke a deal with me but tried to cheat me out of payment, and I should have executed him for that. You're not why he died. You can clear your conscience, Emma. The heart he presented me was fresh and bloody. It just wasn't Snow's."
Emma is very quiet for a while, and Regina wonders if she accepts what Regina has told her, or even understands. The discourse for justice Emma has grown up with in this world is so different from that of the other world. Eventually Emma responds, simply.
Ok then. It's done. They can leave that one behind.
"I didn't mean what I said earlier," says Regina.
"About me being a thug?"
"Not that. You are a thug, and your grammar is poor. But you're not a brat and you're not shallow. I spoke in anger; not because you did something wrong when you saved an innocent life. You didn't. I said it to hurt you, because you couldn't see how much you hurt me. And I'm sorry."
"Ok," Emma says again.
"Ok," Regina repeats, and thinks maybe they are.
Then she gasps softly when something touches the edge of her forehead, drawing attention to the small dried cut there but soothing the fading ache away. It's something so delicate it can only be a butterfly, or Emma's lips brushing her skin. Regina steadies her breathing.
"That's not... very thuggish," she says.
Emma doesn't answer. Her lips flutter over Regina's ear and across her cheek. Before Regina can absorb what's happening they are on her mouth, their touch so light they feel like gossamer. A tiny whimper rises unbidden from Regina's throat, and she is sure she can feel Emma smile.
The delicate touch evolves into a kiss then. It's still gentle, but now Regina can feel her whole body begin to open up in response to this one point of contact. She's aware of Emma's increasing warmth beside her and her pulse quickens. Is that fear?
"Uncuff me," she says.
"No. I'll stop if you want. But you have to tell me to stop. And I won't uncuff you. If I do that you'll just run away."
Regina doesn't refute it. She knows she would flee. So she says nothing, and Emma seems to take this as a signal to go on, because Regina feels the firm length of Emma's body pressing against her own and a smooth tongue caressing her lips, seeking permission to come inside. Regina thinks she should refuse but her own lips betray her, parting for Emma as easily as a woodland flower gives up its nectar.
Emma's breath is sweet mingling with hers. The slow dance her tongue plays is more elegant than Regina would expect from an alpha like Emma. In this regard, Regina thinks she might have spent a long time underestimating Emma Swan.
"I hate you more than anyone," Regina says during the briefest pause for air.
"I know. Almost as much as you love me, right?"
"Yes. You're arrogant too."
"An arrogant thug," says Emma, kissing her some more.
Then, too soon, because the feel of Emma toying with the tip of her tongue is so exquisite Regina doesn't think she would give it up for anything, Emma's mouth moves down to her neck and plants more kisses there. Regina squirms a little at the loss and moans with the new sensations. Fingertips flutter up her sides and tug discreetly at her clothes. Regina pleads again.
"Uncuff me. I want to touch you."
"No. I haven't earned that."
So Regina has to surrender to Emma's expert attention and it goes on forever. She begins to lose track of where Emma's hands are and where Emma's mouth goes. She only knows that her silk shirt parts over her breasts and tailored linen slips down her thighs. More of her skin feels the sun's rays... then Emma's lips and Emma's fingers, which are so precise and then so languid and then so precise again. Emma teases with touches that are almost too tender and soon Regina is like a tightly drawn wire. Every stroke of a fingertip or twirl of a tongue makes her body sing for more. When Regina unravels she does so almost silently, her abandon punctuated by short gasps and little cries as her body seizes the air it needs to ride so many waves.
But now Emma is too honest not to fear that she'll inflict more suffering on Regina one day, despite her best intentions. She won't mean to, but it could happen, and she must be more vigilant from now on. Because Emma knows how lucky she was to learn to respect Regina Mills, and how lucky she is to learn to love her, and how lucky she'll be if she can learn to cherish her too.
And if she ever does manage to get that right, Emma Swan will be happy to be so undone.